The Search

By Noailiat

 

Chapter One

 

Torrents of rain lashed the stone houses and lanes of the old fishing town of Nalipal. It was early nighttime, and Nalipal was deep in the throes of a summer rainstorm. Amidst the town’s atmospheric cobbled footpaths barely a Nali was to be seen, with most of the townspeople warmly ensconced behind the lighted windows of the thirty-odd houses, and the oil lanterns that dangled from the buildings’ walls swaying under the force of the heavy raindrops.

Amidst this deserted scene was one sign of life. Coloured lanterns flickered jauntily behind the round windows of the large tavern that faced onto the harbour square at the centre of town, the babble of several voices engaged in cheerful conversation emanating from within – and on a bench in the tavern’s sheltered porch, two young Nali were sitting side-by-side in comfortable silence in the light of a flickering flame.

“It’s pretty damp out there,” Luca said to his friend, who nodded, staring around at the sodden harbour square with its stacks of crates, pallets and lobster pots. It wasn’t cold, but the rain was spectacular.

“I think it’s the heaviest we’ve had yet,” she said.

Luca was thirteen years old, his friend Halil a little older. The two youngsters were close friends, and had been for many years; they were also troublemakers, known for such pranks as the one immortal time they had stolen plump restauranteur Putanuuri’s white chef’s hat and tied it to the steeple of the Nalipal church, where it had fluttered like a white flag in full view of almost the whole town. But about a year ago, Luca and Halil’s sense of adventure had led to a joyride that had gone horribly wrong. Rowing out to the remote bluff of Shokkar, a cliffy island out to sea from Nalipal harbour, they had come upon a space ship abandoned there by the Skaarj, the bestial lizard-like race that had once occupied the Nali planet for many a year until a resistance movement that had erupted from the normally pacifistic Nali race drove them away from the planet. Misguided by their urge to explore, Luca and Halil had piloted the ship inland, but the voyage ended in tragedy as they crashed and killed a much-loved elderly resident of Nalipal. For a while Luca and Halil had been ostracised by the town, but when between them they used the ship to decimate a fresh wave of Skaarj who had arrived to re-colonise the planet, their crimes were forgiven by the townspeople. Luca and Halil came out of this experience with greater wisdom and a sense of readiness for the return of the planet’s former Skaarj overlords – but in the year since, the reptilian monsters had not put in a second appearance.

Luca glanced at Halil’s empty flagon of deunaberry cordial and stuck his hand into a pocket of his leather jerkin, withdrawing a few silver and bronze coins, which he inspected, and then nodded.

“Want another?” he asked his friend.

“Oh – no, thanks.” Halil replied with a smile, “Seeing all this water around, I don’t feel that thirsty.”

Thunder rumbled overhead. Luca grinned, and then replaced the coins in his pocket, before looking up as a Nali whom he didn’t recognise emerged from the tavern’s double doors. To Luca’s estimation, the Nali was about twenty years of age.

“Evening, kids,” said the stranger with a nod as he saw Luca and Halil sitting on the bench.

“Hi.” Halil replied. Luca nodded abruptly back at the stranger, feeling slightly irked at being called a ‘kid’.

“Isn’t it a bit wet for you two to be sitting out here?” said the stranger.

“We’re okay. It’s dry under the porch.” Luca replied. He was hoping to end the conversation as quickly as possible, but Halil seemed more interested in pursuing it.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” she said. The stranger shook his head and smiled.

“No, I’m just visiting a friend,” he replied. “I’ve been staying at the inn.”

“What’s your name, sir?” Halil asked.

“Mittari,” the stranger replied. “Yours?”

“Halil.”

“And you, friend?” Mittari continued, turning to Luca.

“Luca,” he replied.

“Then I’m pleased to meet you, Halil and Luca,” said Mittari. He turned and lent on the railing opposite Luca and Halil, looking through the rain in the direction of the town hall. Lightning flashed somewhere, and thunder rumbled from somewhere out to sea, closer now.

“Quite a storm you’re having here.” Mittari said, still facing in the other direction. Luca exchanged glances with Halil.

“Yeah, it’s the heaviest we’ve had this summer.” Halil replied.

Mittari looked over his shoulder. “It was fine when I arrived this morning. Is it likely to stay this way tomorrow?”

“No,” Luca replied. “The suns keep the rain at bay during the day.”

Mittari nodded. “Good – I’d like to take a look around town. Perhaps we might even bump into one another again.”

Halil nodded and smiled politely. “Maybe.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice,” said Luca, with a forced grin on his face and not meaning it at all.

Mittari turned back to face the town hall and fell silent. Luca made a face and looked at Halil, who regarded Luca with a puzzled frown. Then she shrugged, and glanced off into the square.

 

A sea breeze had kicked up, and was blowing raindrops in through the side of the porch. Luca and Halil leant forwards to stop it spattering on their necks. Halil grimaced.

“Maybe we should go inside,” she said to Luca. Luca lifted his jerkin to cover the back of his head, which was starting to get quite wet in the strengthening wind.

“Maybe…” he began, but was interrupted as a terrific blast of thunder let rip from right overhead with a terrific crack. The three Nali whipped around to look as a bolt of lightning streaked down somewhere to the left. As the glare subsided in his eyes, Luca was able to see that the wooden crucifix atop the church tower at the southern end of town was ablaze.

“Woah!” he exclaimed. Astonished, he ran out into the drenched dirt square, closely followed by Halil, who stood gaping at the burning church tower.

“We should tell someone!” Halil said, but both were distracted again as another thunderclap exploded from inland. This time, Luca could tell that something wasn’t right: amid the fading sound of the thunder was a different sound – a kind of rumbling slither that ended in a whump. Halil turned to look at Luca, apparently oblivious of the rain that was drenching her smock.

“What was that?” she said. Luca shook his head.

“I don’t know.”

There were distant shouts from the western side of town, where a canyon containing the main road out of town led inland. Luca and Halil stood watching in that direction as two Nali with flaming torches sprinted into the square. They were clearly in a state of some panic.

“What happened?” Luca called as the two Nali approached.

“The main road tunnel!” one of them panted, “It collapsed! Two of our comrades were trapped in the fall.”

Luca’s eyes widened. Then he turned to Mittari and called, “Tunnel collapse! Get help!” Mittari nodded, and then disappeared rapidly into the inn.

Luca and Halil exchanged glances. The main road tunnel was a natural cave that led through the cliffs a short way out of town. If it had collapsed completely, Luca realised, Nalipal was as good as cut off to all road transport. But before he had time to think about the implications of this, a flood of Nali emerged from the double doors of the tavern, led by the innkeeper Tari and a Nali who had befriended Luca and Halil the year before by the name of Motanisha. At the same time, the town chieftain Lo’juura emerged from the town hall building across the square and sprinted across to join the rapidly amassing horde of Nali.

“What happened?” he asked.

“The main road tunnel collapsed, sir,” Halil said, “two Nali are trapped.”

Lo’juura nodded, and took a torch from one of the travellers. “We must help them.”

“What about the church, sir?” Luca asked, pointing to the burning tower at the southern end of town. Lo’juura’s brow creased, but then he seemed to reach a decision, and he gestured to four of the amassed Nali.

“Motanisha, take these three Nali to deal with the church fire,” he said. At this, Motanisha nodded and led the others up the nearest lane. “The rest of you,” Lo’juura continued, “follow me to the main road tunnel. Netarani - fetch tools from the boathouse. We may need levers.”

The Nali he had spoken to nodded and set off for the boathouse across the square. As he departed, Lo’juura addressed the two travellers. “Go to the inn and get some shelter. We’ll bring your friends back to you.”

Lo’juura led the others in the direction of the main road out of town. Luca and Halil exchanged glances again, shrugged, and then set off in pursuit of the crowd of townspeople.

 

After a short stretch along the canyon, the party of Nali rounded the gentle northward curve of the valley towards the site of the main road tunnel. Luca, who had managed to weave his way between the adults with Halil following nearby, had reached the front of the crowd and was one of the first to see how events must have unfolded when the lightning had struck the cliff top.

The cliff had crumbled under the percussive force of the lightning and the weight of the rain, cracks spreading out through the rock, which must already have been weak. Without warning, Luca supposed, the roof of the cave had collapsed on the travellers as they emerged from the tunnel. Their open cart lay at an angle, partly buried in the wall of boulders that spilled out where the cave mouth had been, and the two Nali cows that had been towing it, still tethered to the capsized vehicle, were gnawing nonchalantly on a few tufts of grass that grew at the roadside. Meanwhile, two of the travellers were still trapped amidst the wreckage; one of them was pinned by his chest under the cart itself, while the other’s torso was protruding from the fallen rocks, his legs buried somewhere amidst the boulders. Both appeared to be conscious.

“Coming through,” said a voice from behind. The crowd parted, allowing a well-laden Netarani to make his way forwards with a coil of rope and several thick wooden planks under his arms. He deposited the planks on the ground, and immediately several of the Nali took hold of the implements and approached the rock fall. Others, meanwhile, set to work freeing the Nali trapped under the cart. Luca and Halil stepped forward to help.

Lo’juura was directing the lifting operation. He and two other volunteers took the pinned Nali under the arms. The remaining Nali crouched and put their shoulders underneath the cart, waiting for the instruction as Luca and Halil joined them on the outer end.

“All right,” Lo’juura said, once everybody was in position. “Lift!”

Blinking the continued rain out of his eyes, Luca threw his strength into lifting the cart, and felt the rest of the line of Nali do the same. With a groan, the free end of the cart eased off the ground, freeing the trapped Nali’s legs. The Nali gave Lo’juura and his two volunteers a grateful look as they slid him out from underneath the cart, and the line of Nali gently lowered the heavy cart back to ground level with a sigh. At once, the group of Nali turned to help the others at the rock fall. Luca and Halil followed to help, but were called off by Lo’juura.

“Luca, Halil – take a break. You’ve done enough already.”

They turned back, and knelt down beside the freed traveller, who was being helped into a sitting position by Lo’juura.

“Check his bones,” said Lo’juura, who was supporting the Nali by the shoulders. Luca and Halil began to check the traveller’s legs for breaks.

“Thank you,” the traveller panted, addressing Lo’juura.

“We are glad to help, friend,” Lo’juura replied, “but tell me – why were you travelling in this storm?”

“Our encampment was attacked by a group of Krall,” the traveller said weakly. “We escaped, but we just wanted to put as much distance between us and them as possible.”

Luca looked up sharply from his examination of the traveller’s right leg.

“Krall?” he said. The reptilian Krall race were known to be followers of the Skaarj.

“It was probably just a rogue band left over from the occupation,” Lo’juura replied. “Our people have encountered them before.”

“But don’t you think it could mean –“ Halil began.

Lo’juura shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. If the Skaarj are planning another invasion, we’ll know soon enough.”

They were distracted then as voices from the right indicated the successful extraction of the other traveller from the rockfall. Lo’juura stood and approached the Nali, leaving Luca and Halil with the traveller, who was craning his neck at the site, obviously keen to see what state the other Nali was in.

“I don’t think your bones are broken,” Luca said. The traveller gave them a grateful nod.

“Could you help me? I want to check on my friend,” he said.

Luca and Halil nodded and took the Nali under his arms, helping him to stand up.

 

Luca and Halil split off from the returning procession of Nali as it entered the harbour square. The Nali Luca and Halil had helped to rescue was walking slowly, aided by Netarani and the innkeeper Tari. The other Nali had not fared so well, and had broken his legs when he was pinned by the rockfall, but his rescuers had improvised splints for his legs with the planks and rope, and he was now being carried by three willing volunteers. Luca stood in the rain watching the procession re-enter the inn, before glancing across at the church tower, where several Nali could be seen on the church roof attempting to control the flames.

“Crazy night,” he said to Halil, eyebrows raised. “I’m exhausted.”

Halil was standing quite close beside him, rubbing her hands together.

“Me too. And I’m soaked.”

“Maybe we’d better get home,” Luca suggested with a bit of a smile, shaking his jerkin. “Mum will go crazy when she sees me like this.”

“Yeah,” Halil smiled. “See you tomorrow, Luca.”

She patted him once on the arm and departed in the direction of the boathouse.

“See you!” Luca called after her, then he turned and headed past the inn, where quayside steps would lead him up to his waterfront home.

 

Chapter Two

 

The next morning dawned cool and bright, as it so often did following a night of summer rainstorms in Nalipal. To Luca this was the best part of the day, before the full heat of the twin suns set in, and so it was in a good frame of mind that he set out along the lane from his house to the harbour square, where he normally met up with Halil in the mornings.

Putanuuri’s waterfront restaurant was only a short distance down the lane, and so it was not long before he ran into the plump chef himself, who was setting out the tables on the vine-sheltered terrace outside his establishment. The restauranteur hailed him as he passed.

“Good morning, Luca!” he called.

“Morning sir,” Luca replied politely. On most days the conversation would have ended at this point, but today the chef bustled over towards him. Luca leant on the wall that separated them and waited expectantly for Putanuuri to speak.

“Bad business with the tunnel last night, wasn’t it?” he said. Luca nodded.

“Yeah. It was a mess.”

“Oh, you were there?” Putanuuri asked.

“Me and Halil helped to rescue one of the travellers,” Luca replied. Putanuuri shook his head sadly.

“I spoke to Lo’juura. He said that the collapse was very severe, and that to repair the tunnel might not be possible.”

“Really?”

“There’s a team of volunteers trying to clear out and shore up the tunnel mouth, but every time they clear a few rocks several more come down,” Putanuuri continued. “Even if they can fix it, it’ll take a long time.”

Putanuuri glanced around at his newly set out tables.

“Bad for business?” Luca ventured, noticing this.

Putanuuri looked up again. “Very perceptive, young fellow,” he replied. “But I shan’t keep you. No doubt you have places to be.”

Luca nodded. “Yeah. But don’t worry about the tunnel, sir, your business knows how to find you.”

Putanuuri looked less despondent at this, and smiled slightly. “Well, I thank you for your confidence in me,” he said. “Good day to you, Luca.”

“See you later,” Luca replied as the chef returned to his tables. At a wave from the chef, he turned and continued on his way.

 

Beyond Putanuuri’s place, Luca descended the flight of steps that led down to the quay beside the inn. The hard-packed dirt floor of the harbour square was still damp but drying rapidly in the early morning sun, and Luca crossed it with ease as he saw Halil sitting on the quayside near the harbour’s single pier, tossing pebbles into the water.

“Hey,” he said, stopping beside her and sticking out his hand. She looked up and smiled.

“Hi Luca,” she said. She took the proffered hand and swivelled her legs onto solid ground, then allowed herself to be helped into a standing position. “How was your mum last night?”

“Oh… she was okay,” Luca replied. In fact, his mother Matharil had fussed over him for the better part of an hour, preparing a steaming bowl of soup that she insisted he drink before removing his sodden jerkin and hanging it up to dry – but he wasn’t going to tell Halil that, so he settled instead for a nonchalant look. “How about your dad?”

“Oh, he was all right. Just gave me a towel and sent me to bed,” Halil replied, shrugging.

Luca nodded. “So what do you want to do today?”

“Oh, I don’t know…” Halil began, but she was interrupted as they were hailed from behind.

“Hey, Luca! Halil!”

Luca looked around. Mittari was standing by the entrance to the inn, waving. Halil grinned and waved back. Luca, meanwhile, stuffed his four hands in the side pockets of his jerkin and looked sullenly at the ground. He didn’t want to deal with Mittari this morning.

“Good morning to you both,” said Mittari as he joined them by the quayside.

“Hi Mittari,” Halil replied brightly. Luca, meanwhile, muttered an incoherent “Hi” and remained staring at the ground.

“I was wondering if I might take you up on that offer of a tour,” Mittari said. “It seems that I might be staying here a little longer than I had planned.”

Luca mouthed the word ‘No’ emphatically to Halil, but she ignored him. “Because of the tunnel?” she asked.

“Yes,” Mittari replied, nodding. “I have too much baggage to carry on foot, or I’d be leaving by the upper valley.”

“Well, we can show you around, can’t we, Luca?” Halil said.

Luca looked despairingly at her before rolling his eyes and nodding.

“Sure,” he said.

“Excellent!” Mittari replied, apparently oblivious to Luca’s reluctance. “What better than an insider’s view?”

Halil led them towards the large stone-clad market building, where the movements of several Nali carrying wicker baskets laden with glistening fish indicated that the day’s first catches had already come in. Mittari asked many questions, which Halil answered cheerfully while Luca dragged his feet behind. As they wove between the stalls of the market, Luca began to tune out Mittari’s babble and concentrated on inspecting the meats, vegetables and crafts on sale.

“Who’s your friend?” spoke a voice. Luca looked up and realised that he had reached the fish stall of Netarani, the Nali who had fetched the levers and rope from the boathouse the night before. Netarani was gesturing towards Mittari and Halil, who Luca saw were holding an animated conversation a couple of stalls away.

“Don’t ask,” Luca sighed. The fisherman gave him a sympathetic look.

“Three’s a crowd?” he said.

Luca nodded. “That’s the truth.”

“Can I interest you in a devilfish?” Netarani asked, indicating a basket of oily black fish on his stall. “A fresh catch came in this morning; they should grill up nicely with a bit of butter.”

Luca observed the sharp-toothed creatures, and was reminded of how he had rescued Halil from a close encounter with such a creature the year before. Things had been so much simpler back then.

Luca looked up. “Maybe later,” he said.

“Very well,” the fisherman replied. Looking to his left, Luca realised that Halil and Mittari were exiting the market through the rear entrance. Feeling a little disgruntled to be left behind and tipping Netarani a wave, Luca hurried off to join them.

 

Luca rejoined the others on the cobbled lane behind the market and followed them at a distance as they climbed towards the church square. As they rounded the corner into the open space and the small church came into view, Luca was able to see the extent of the damage the previous night’s fire had caused.

The timbers of the belfry windows were blackened and charred, and the stained glass itself was completely gone. An acrid after-odour of smoke hung in the air, and the stone surrounding the skeletal windows was marked with carbon from the flames. The front doors of the church were open and most of the interior seemed undamaged, but several Nali could be seen entering the building with fresh timbers from a stack outside and disappearing through the small doorway that led to the tower steps. As Luca watched, a Nali appeared in the belfry and began knocking out the ruined window frames. Across the square, Luca saw Motanisha observing the work from the open door of his home. He exchanged waves with the Nali before catching up with Halil and Mittari, who were looking up at the tower from the centre of the square.

“How big’s the congregation?” Mittari was asking.

“Oh – about fifty,” Halil replied.

“Gosh!” Mittari replied, “That is small. In Avenati we have several churches, and all of them have congregations of at least a hundred.”

Halil smiled. “Nalipal is quite a lot smaller than Avenati, Mittari.”

Mittari chuckled. “Yes, I suppose it is.”

Luca gritted his teeth as Mittari excused himself to Halil and went to talk to one of the workers outside the church.

“Well, that should have been pretty obvious,” Luca muttered. To his surprise, Halil rounded on him angrily.

“Why are you being so rude to him?” she hissed.

“He’s a twerp, Halil!” Luca replied.

“No he’s not!” Halil replied, “He’s a really nice person!”

Luca shook his head despairingly. “He’s a patronising idiot. Why can’t you see it, Halil? Do you fancy him or something?”

Halil looked hurt. “Of course I don’t,” she said angrily. “I’m just trying to be nice. If you can’t manage it, then – just go home.”

Luca scowled. “Fine,” he replied, “I hope you enjoy spending all day with your prat of a boyfriend.”

With that, Luca turned and stormed off in the direction of the road to the harbour square.

 

Luca returned to his small house in a state of high dudgeon. He shut the front door behind himself with rather more vigour than was usual, causing his mother to emerge from the kitchen. Matharil stood in the living area looking concerned, with a dishcloth in one hand and an apron on over her smock.

“Luca?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” Luca lied.

“Aren’t you with Halil today?” she pursued.

“No,” Luca replied. “I’ll be in my room if you need me.”

“Okay,” Matharil said, still frowning in consternation as Luca turned to open his bedroom door, which was located just inside the entrance. Once he was inside, Luca shut the door behind him and flopped gloomily down on his bed.

 

Luca spent the rest of the morning reading, but stirred when Matharil called to him that lunch was ready. He marked his place in “Memoirs of Kew the Elder” with a leather bookmark and discarded the book, then went out into the living area to join his mother for lunch.

Matharil didn’t mention his unexpected return as they ate their meal of vegetable soup, and Luca was grateful for this. Instead, they discussed the weather, the damage to the church and the collapse of the tunnel. Luca skipped over the details of how he and Halil had worked together the night before to help the trapped traveller, as it caused him some discomfort to think about Halil right now.

Following their meal, Luca helped Matharil clear away the lunch things, and then left the house, telling her that he was going to visit Philona. Philona was an elderly fisherman who was a good friend of Luca and Halil, and right now Luca felt in need of a chat, so he set out across Nalipal in the direction of the church area. As he passed through the harbour square, he saw Halil and Mittari sitting outside the inn, but carried on without making eye contact. Leaving the inn behind him, he wound his way around the southern end of town until he reached Philona’s modest home. Once there, he knocked once on the wooden door and awaited a response.

“C’min,” an elderly voice croaked at length. Luca pushed the door open and stepped inside.

“Luca!” Philona grinned as the youngster closed the door behind him. “It’s good to see yeh.”

Luca managed a smile. “Hi, Philona.”

“Not got Halil with yeh today?” the elderly Nali said. “You two are normally joined at the hip.”

Luca shook his head. “She’s out on the town with her new friend Mittari.”

Philona raised an eyebrow. “Mittari? Yeh, met him at the inn last night. Seemed a very friendly feller.”

“He’s a twerp,” Luca replied, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Well, yeh,” Philona said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “I did kinda get that impression meself.”

Luca laughed genuinely for the first time since he and Halil had met Mittari the night before. “Yeah,” he said with a grin.

“I tek it Mittari’s the reason yer not with Halil today, then?” Philona asked, a wise gleam in his beady eyes.

“Yeah,” Luca said again, but without the grin.

“You two have a row?” Philona asked. Luca nodded glumly, looking at the floorboards.

“Well,” Philona said, “yer won’t find anythin’ but understandin’ from me about how daft some people can be.”

“Thanks,” Luca replied. Philona nodded levelly.

“…but,” the elderly Nali continued, “you and Halil have too good a bond to throw away over some silly li’l jealousy thing.”

Luca looked up suddenly. “Jealousy?” he said, bewildered.

Philona’s eyes twinkled. “Yeh’ll understand me in time,” he said. “In the mean time, my suggestion is that yeh patch things up with Halil as soon as yeh can, before things get any worse.”

Luca nodded humbly. “I will. Thanks, Philona.”

“Any time, young sir,” the elderly Nali replied. “Now if yeh’ll excuse me, I have to write a letter to a friend o’ mine who supplies me with me fishin’ nets.”

“Okay,” Luca said, turning for the door, “see you later.”

Philona waved Luca off as the young Nali closed the fisherman’s front door behind him.

 

Luca didn’t go to see Halil that evening, but decided that he would visit her first thing the following morning. And so, the next day, he left his house after an early breakfast and followed the lane that wound around the northern cliff and past the vine orchards to Halil’s house.

After a short pause, Luca’s knock was answered by Halil’s father Latana, who looked at him questioningly.

“Yes?” Latana asked.

“Hi,” Luca said, “is Halil around?

“I’m sorry,” Latana replied, “but Halil already left. Her friend Mittari called round earlier to pick her up, said something about needing her help.”

Luca sighed. “Okay, thanks.”

Latana nodded and closed the door as Luca looked down the lane towards the harbour square and pondered what to do. After a pause, he set off towards the steps that led into town.

Before long, Luca had arrived at the harbour. Once there, he headed towards the inn. The innkeeper, he thought, might know Mittari and Halil’s whereabouts.

Tari was already working at the bar as Luca entered, wiping it down with a leather cloth following the previous night’s business. He looked up as Luca approached him.

“Good morning, young master Luca,” the innkeeper said. Luca had come to know Tari quite well over the last year, since he and Halil had taken to buying flagons of cordial of an evening.

“Hi Tari,” Luca replied. “Have you seen Mittari today?”

Tari paused in his wiping and slung the cloth over his shoulder.

“I was hoping to talk to you about Mittari, actually,” he said.

Tari had Luca’s full attention now. Luca pulled up a bar stool; if Mittari was doing something wrong, he wanted to hear about it.

“What is it?” Luca asked.

“He checked out this morning,” the innkeeper replied.

“Checked out?” Luca replied in puzzlement. “Has the tunnel been cleared yet? Mittari told me he had too much luggage to carry on foot.”

Tari shook his head. “Not to my knowledge. He told me the same thing yesterday. Exactly why I thought it odd that he should be wanting to leave.”

Luca frowned.

 “He had no luggage when I saw him,” Tari continued. “He did have your friend Halil with him, though. She didn’t look too happy.”

Luca looked up. “What do you mean?”

“He had her held by a shoulder,” Tari replied. “He was chatting to her amicably enough as they came in, but she wasn’t saying much.”

“Did he say where they were going?” Luca asked.

“He said something about them taking a trip,” Tari replied.

Luca frowned. What Tari was saying didn’t add up; Latana had said Mittari had just wanted Halil’s help with something.

“And there was something else…” Tari said, “you’ll probably think I’m daft for saying this.”

Luca looked at the innkeeper questioningly.

“He was hiding something under his jacket,” Tari said. “As they left, it looked like he prodded Halil in the back with it. It was probably nothing, but I know what it looked like.”

“What was it?” Luca asked. This didn’t sound right at all.

“It looked almost like a weapon.”

Luca’s heart lurched. Suddenly, Mittari’s “patronising oaf” act seemed just too perfect.

“He took her by force?” Luca asked tensely.

Tari shrugged, the cloth on his shoulder shifting with the moment. “It hardly seems likely, does it?”

“I don’t know…” Luca replied, “but I’ll look into it. Thanks.”

Excusing himself hurriedly to the innkeeper, Luca slipped out of the inn and set off in the direction of his home.

 

By the time he had reached his room, Luca, with a knot of anger and anxiety building within his chest, had decided what he was going to do. He would set out along the one path out of town that was still passable, the narrow valley that led up to the local blacksmith Kuri’s small village. Once there, he would make enquiries and see if he could find out where Mittari and Halil were headed. But first, he needed some equipment. Kneeling by his bed after checking that his mother was not in the building, he slid a large wooden chest out from beneath the frame.

Luca blew the dust off the chest and undid the catches. As well as a few knick-knacks that he and Halil had found over the years, this chest contained several items that had been left behind by his father when he had set off to join the resistance three years ago. Lit’harani had been a devoted father, and when Luca had seen him last, on the day he had set off on the mission from which he had never returned, Lit’harani had presented Luca with a sturdy knife which nowadays never left Luca’s belt. Now, Luca swung the lid of the chest open and considered what additional of his father’s possessions he had better take with him.

Rummaging around, Luca found the universal translator that he and Halil had discovered on the Skaarj ship the year before. This he slipped around his neck and secured under the chest ties of his jerkin. Next was a parchment map of the Shokkar coastline, which stretched inland as far as Avenati town. Placing this item on his bed, Luca dug deeper into the chest and pulled out the largest item within; a tubular, metallic weapon of alien design. Lit’harani had never taken the weapon with him – either he had simply forgotten it, or he had left it behind deliberately in case it should ever be needed. The weapon had remained in the chest ever since, but now Luca lifted it out and placed it on the bed next to the parchment map. Looking at the dispersion pistol, Luca wondered bitterly if Mittari had used such a device to coerce Halil into leaving Nalipal with him.

Once Luca had assembled all the items he wanted to take, including the weapon, the map, a snack and some medical supplies, he slipped his backpack off the peg on the inside of his bedroom door and stuffed the items inside. The weapon he placed in last, making sure it was on top for easy access. When he had secured the contents, he slung the backpack onto his shoulder and entered the living area to leave a note for his mother.

Completing the letter, Luca discarded the parchment and quill, and headed for the front door where he paused to reflect for a moment, and a moment of clarity passed over him, lending an uncharacteristic, clouded look to his normally open face.

If Mittari hurts Halil, he thought, I’ll kill him.

 

Chapter Three

 

Before long, Luca was climbing the soft grassy slope of the upper valley, which began as a narrow cleft in the rock that split from the main road a little before the collapsed tunnel entrance. The early morning air was cool and moist, and the light sea breeze that followed him up the sunny valley didn’t bother Luca in the slightest – living as he did in Nalipal, he was well accustomed to the elements.

Instead, he thought about where Halil might be now. Somewhere on the road ahead of him, he hoped, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he had spoken to Kuri.

Kuri lived in a small village at Mein’Haar Falls, where the River Mein’Haar cascaded from an underground waterway into a narrow canyon that led out to Lake Shokkar some way north of Nalipal. The rocky canyon it flowed down was known to be treacherous with its rapids and narrow sides, and it had been many years ago now that the first users of the main road tunnel had built a strong wooden bridge at the point where the tunnel broke through the canyon wall. Beyond the Mein’Haar Bridge, the tunnel continued briefly northwards before opening out into a valley that led to Shahari bay, then uphill and inland to the town of Avenati.

That was the road taken by most travellers, but today Luca was climbing away from that well-travelled route and towards the village at the cascade itself, where the blacksmith used the waters of the cascade to cool his newly worked ironware. The grass scrunched between his toes as he climbed, and the feeling of the morning dew upon his feet was soothing. Gradually, the knot of anxiety that had been clutching at his chest ever since his conversation with Tari began to recede a bit, and he was able to think more rationally.

Mittari can’t be too far ahead, he thought to himself. I just need to look for clues.

The climb up the valley wasn’t much further than a mile and a half, and before too long Luca was emerging into the familiar clearing of Mein’Haar Falls. At Luca’s end of the plateau, a few simple houses were positioned around a well, beyond which lay the great waterfall itself, which cascaded down into a narrow, shaly chasm at the clearing’s centre. Across this chasm hung the familiar wide rope bridge he had crossed many a time before when visiting Avenati town on foot.

Luca shifted his backpack on his shoulders and strolled across the clearing towards the waterfall. There was no sign of life in the hamlet; the shutters on the small houses were closed and the village was silent, save for the sound of the hens in a pen behind one of the houses, which were making scuffling and chirruping noises in their cage, and the distant wind and tumultuous rushing of the watery cascade.

Luca walked out onto the rope bridge, which creaked slightly but remained as solid as it always had done, then leant on the hand rail and looked down at the base of the waterfall. There, a small wooden jetty emerged from the falling cascade, supported by two stout uprights at the water’s edge, off one of which hung an old miner’s lantern. A Nali was leaning over the end of the jetty, holding onto the uprights with two hands for support, and using the other two hands and a pair of tongs to immerse a piece of fresh ironwork in the cascading waters.

“Hey! Kuri!” Luca said loudly, but the blacksmith, surrounded by the rushing sound of the waterfall, didn’t notice.

“Kuri! Hey!” Luca shouted. The blacksmith looked up, pulling the freshly cooled candelabra out of the water as he did so. Kuri smiled and waved, then gestured for Luca to join him. Luca signalled his understanding, and then stepped off the bridge again to approach the tunnel mouth behind the blacksmith’s house.

The tunnel was dark, but Luca navigated his way down it by holding a hand to the damp, rocky wall. At length, it opened out into the large cave where Kuri worked his metal. A lot of the light in the cave came from the daylight streaming in through the waterfall, but there was also a warm orange glow emanating from the forge at the centre of the cave.

Before long, the blacksmith emerged from the curtain of falling water, the newly made candelabra clutched in one hand. This he placed on the forge to temper it, before turning to the young Nali.

“How can I help you, young master Luca?” he said. “Are you in need of some ironwork?”

“No,” Luca replied.

“Then maybe an apprenticeship?” said Kuri.

This gave Luca some pause for thought, but then he said, “No.”

“It’s just that I know you’ll soon come of age, and I could do with an apprentice…” Kuri added.

Luca shook his head. “It’s very kind of you, but I’m actually here to ask you about my friend Halil.”

“Ah, yes!“ Kuri said. “She passed through here earlier this morning with her new friend Mittari whilst I was drawing water from the well to feed my cow. I must confess I was somewhat surprised not to see you with her,” he added thoughtfully.

Luca’s heart picked up a pace.

“Did he say where they were going?” he asked quickly.

“I don’t know exactly where their destination was,” Kuri stroked his chin, “but he said they were headed for Avenati town.”

“Okay. Thanks,” Luca said, nodding his head vigorously. Then, before Kuri could reply, he had turned tail and was running back up the tunnel to the surface, ignoring the rocks that dug into the soles of his feet in the dark.

 

Luca ran for quite a while, and had got quite some way down the valley that led out of the clearing before he realised that he was just wasting energy, and slowed to a walk. Out of breath, he sat down on a rock and kicked the air.

Mittari doesn’t have that much of a lead on me, I can slow down, he rationalised – but the moment of calm that thought offered him was soon fractured by a more paranoid part of Luca’s mind that seemed to taunt him from afar.

What if they got on a cow cart at Avenati? They could be anywhere by now.

And what does Mittari want with Halil anyway?

That train of thought took Luca to a dark place that he didn’t much like, so he tried to shut his brain up and slung his pack off his back. Rummaging inside, he pulled out a canteen of fresh water and some of the cured rabbit meat he had borrowed from the pantry at home. Munching on the snack, he considered what he might do upon reaching Avenati.

He would easily reach the town by the afternoon, he decided. The market would be on today, so he could ask around there to see if anyone had seen or heard about Mittari and Halil passing through the town. He would have to stay in Avenati until he had a clue as to where the two Nali had gone, but once he knew where to go he would waste no time in setting out on that path.

 

Midday came and went as Luca travelled towards Avenati. Gradually, the twisting valley descended and widened, and the numbers of palm trees and tropical plants increased. He saw Nali rabbits grazing in his path, and they scattered as he made his way through them, but soon returned to nibbling the tufty foliage. Occasionally a bird called overhead, and once he passed a Nali trader who was struggling the other way laden with baskets of vegetables – the trader had business in Nalipal, and informed Luca that since the collapse of the main road tunnel was now common knowledge, everyone with urgent business was travelling on foot – but on the whole, the hours passed without distraction.

By the mid afternoon, Luca was entering Avenati town via the arch of the southeast road. The wide, paved street stretched ahead of him between houses of plaster, wood and stone. The towers and spires of the town’s many small churches peeped over the roofs around him, and between the cottages and houses many small, enticing lanes led between the ivy-covered walls to hidden gardens and places unknown. Luca’s business, however, was in the centre of town, and so he followed the road ahead towards the distant bustle that was Avenati’s market square. The number of the Nali townspeople Luca passed increased as he neared the centre of town, and soon a plantation of trees heralded his arrival at the border of the large market area.

The market square was a big cobbled space, full of market stalls and Nali traders and townspeople doing their business and dickering over prices. At the centre of the square, an imposing water fountain dominated an island of plants and benches, atop of which stood proud a stone statue of a Nali with his four arms outstretched. The statue, Luca remembered his father once saying, was said to be of Glathriel, one of the great champions who had helped the Gods of the Good Lore achieve peace for the people of the world after centuries of war under Velora’s reign.

Luca weaved his way between the market stalls and lantern-adorned trees as he wondered whom to ask about Mittari and Halil. The bustle of the daily market trade was all around him, and nobody stopped to look at the young boy who wandered in their midst, backpack slung over one shoulder. Amidst this hubbub, Luca wondered, how could he expect anyone to have noticed the odd couple he was searching for?

“Can I interest you in some fresh Litha roots?” one trader was saying to a customer as Luca passed a stall laden with fruit and vegetables.

“Slith tails, available for one day only!” read a sign on an adjoining stall, where several slimy-looking green objects sat alongside the more familiar meats of Nali rabbit, cow and Ancathope. Luca wrinkled his nose in disgust and set off in the direction of a different stall, where a trader was selling Nali Healing Fruit plants in hand-decorated pots.

Passing a sign that read “Get your candles and tallow here”, Luca approached a quiet stall where a trader was selling a selection of colourful rugs. “Finest Na’thalian drapery, only five gold coins a piece,” said the board above the trader’s head.

“Good afternoon,” the trader said to Luca.

“Hi,” Luca replied.

“Are you in search of my decorative fabrics?” the trader asked.

“Not exactly,” said Luca.

 “I didn’t think so,” the trader said with a wry smile. “So how can I help you, my young friend?”

“I’m actually looking for a couple of Nali who passed through Avenati this morning,” Luca replied. “Did you see them, or do you know if they are still in town?”

The trader furrowed his brow thoughtfully. “Understand that Avenati Market’s a busy place, and I couldn’t possibly remember everyone I’ve seen, but if they stood out I might recall them. What would they have looked like?”

“A Nali of about twenty,” Luca replied, “and a girl about my age. She might have looked unhappy?”

The trader frowned, but after a short pause his brow cleared. “Yes, I do recall such a couple,” he said. “They paused at the greengrocer’s across the way to pick up some supplies.”

Luca nodded gratefully. “Thanks.”

“Any time,” the trader replied. “Good luck in your search.”

 

The greengrocer was busy, but Luca joined the queue and was soon purchasing three Litha roots and a bag of Thanilayan apples. As Luca handed over a handful of bronze coins, he asked the greengrocer about Mittari and Halil.

“Yes, I remember those two,” the Nali responded. “They were headed northwards. The older Nali asked if I could recommend any quiet bars where he and his companion could pause for a drink.”

Luca’s heart picked up a pace once more. “And where did you send them?”

“The Cow’s Head Inn at the north end of town,” the greengrocer replied. “It’s in a quiet square at the far end of the main road. You can’t miss it.”

Luca thanked the greengrocer and hurried on his way, pausing at the water fountain in the centre of the square to have a drink and top up his canteen. With that, he weaved his way through the crowd and headed towards the northward road. Every step brought him closer to finding Halil – he just hoped that the trail wouldn’t run dry before he could find her.

 

There was no smoke emerging from the chimney of The Cow’s Head as Luca reached the tavern, but lights were twinkling behind the frosted windows as Luca passed the pub’s longer side, so he approached the entrance with confidence. It was quiet at this furthermost end of town, and the cliff loomed above him, with a shaly path climbing the rock face in the general direction of the Na Lati foothills. A tree planted in the centre of the square gave a dappled shade to the four benches below it and the cobbled street surface. A small church stood beyond the gabled end of the public house.

The pub door creaked as Luca opened it, and he was soon enveloped in a cosy gloom. The tavern was a long, low-ceilinged chamber with several tables nestled below pillars and in wall alcoves. A wooden bar crossed one corner at the far end of the room, with a flight of walled wooden steps on the opposite side. There was no fire in the hearth between them, but there was no need for it in the summer weather, and ample light came from the frosted windows and coloured lanterns hanging from the ceiling.

Luca made his way across the stone-flagged floor towards the bar. The tavern was empty except for the barman and a stocky Nali who sat on one of the bar stools, nursing a flagon of ale.

“Hello,” Luca ventured.

“Good morning,” the barman replied. He seemed friendly enough.

The stocky Nali turned in his seat and looked appraisingly at Luca.

“Ah! A youngster, eh?” he said. He gestured at the bar stool next to his. “Please, join us.”

“Thanks,” Luca replied. He un-shouldered his backpack and placed it on the bar, then hoiked himself up onto the barstool.

“Arthuri, get an ale for our young friend here,” said the stocky Nali.

“Thas’jiis,” the barman gave the stocky Nali a warning glance.

Luca looked uncertainly at the flagon the stocky Nali was holding. “Um, it’s okay…” he said, “I really only came in here for information.”

“Please, don’t insult me,” the stocky Nali replied. “If you want to chat with us, at least let me buy you a drink. Arthuri!”

“All right, all right,” the barman replied. “One ale, coming up.”

Luca watched as the barman fished a second clay flagon out from under the bar and tapped it from a nearby barrel.

“Thanks,” Luca said uncomfortably as the barman placed the drink down in front of him.

Thas’jiis grinned. “Think nothing of it,” he said. “Now, drink up.”

Luca wound his fingers around the handle of the cool beaker and raised it to his lips, taking a large swig of the amber fluid. He grimaced as he swallowed it; it was full of gas, and left a bitter aftertaste. The barman looked on in silence.

“Good?” the stocky Nali asked.

“Yes,” Luca lied.

“Excellent,” Thas’jiis responded. “Now, you wanted to talk?”

“Yes,” Luca replied. Thas’jiis gestured for Luca to take another drink of the ale, so he did so between sentences, grimacing as the bitter fluid fizzed down his throat again. “I’m looking for a couple of Nali who might have passed through here this morning?”

“Really? What did they look like?” Thas’jiis asked. “Arthuri!” he added jovially, “top this young master’s drink up.”

Luca glanced down at the flagon of ale. It was almost empty. Had he really managed to drink that much already?

“Really, I’m fine…” Luca tried to say, but Thas’jiis interrupted him.

“I asked you not to insult me,” he repeated. “Arthuri – fill it up.”

The barman took the flagon from the counter. Luca looked on dumbly as Arthuri refilled the flagon with the bitter brown fluid and placed it back under his nose. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he almost saw a smile behind the barman’s impassive expression.

“It was an adult and a girl,” Luca said, reluctantly picking the flagon up once more. “The adult about twenty, the girl about my age.”

Thas’jiis and the barman exchanged glances, and then nodded slowly. Luca took another slurp from his beaker, to keep Thas’jiis happy as much as anything else.

“Yes, I remember such a pair,” the barman said. “They were planning to leave via the northeast road.”

“Did you buy them ale as well?” Luca asked Thas’jiis. His brain didn’t seem to be working very efficiently.

“Now why would I want to do that?” the stocky Nali said – then both he and the barman laughed. Not really understanding why, Luca tipped the flagon back and swallowed the remaining contents.

“Then I’d better be going,” he said. “Thanks for the ale.”

Luca stood up and staggered, clutching a hand to his head. He felt dizzy and unsteady on his feet.

“You’re welcome,” said Thas’jiis, “any time.”

Without any further comment, Luca shouldered his backpack and began making his way across the bar towards the exit. It seemed a long distance to the door, and Luca navigated it slowly, holding onto chairs for support. Before long, he had emerged into the square, squinting in the sunlight that was suddenly very bright. Luca headed towards the church on the east side, with his head pounding and bright, confusing images swimming before his eyes, towards a reassuringly shadowy and narrow earthen lane that led off between the buildings to either side.

“I’ll save you, Halil!” he shouted, and suddenly burst out into an uncontrolled fit of the giggles, which shook him and left him feeling nauseous. Reaching the narrow lane, he clutched the wall of the house on the right for support and made his way slowly along it.

 

Chapter Four

 

The sides of the houses to either side sheltered Luca from the afternoon sun somewhat, and after wandering down the winding lane for a few minutes, still leaning on the ivy-covered walls for support, the pounding in Luca’s head began to subside.

Venturing to take his hand off the rough plaster wall, Luca walked slowly down the centre of the path and blinked at a house ahead, where a mop and an empty pail stood by the closed front door. The owner must have been doing some cleaning, he supposed. He walked on, but as he did so he felt a horrible clenching, heaving sensation in his stomach and he doubled up, fell to his knees and, clutching the sides of the wooden bucket, vomited copiously into it. Having purged Thas’jiis’ ale from his stomach, Luca panted where he was for a few seconds, before wiping his mouth guiltily and standing up. He felt better, but now an unpleasant empty feeling was gnawing at his gut. Swinging his backpack off his shoulder as he walked, he rummaged in it and, setting aside the bag of sweet Thanilayan apples – they didn’t seem all that appealing right now – grabbed one of the Litha roots and began to eat it raw. It was crunchy and plain, and Luca immediately began to feel better for it. He finished the root, then took out his canteen of water and had a slurp from that, too.

Feeling refreshed, if still a little woozy, Luca looked round at the attractively untidy cottages and walled gardens that rolled past him to either side as he walked. Avenati town had character, Luca thought, but right now he would have given anything to be back in Nalipal, enjoying a relaxing afternoon with Halil on the waterfront. A dim hatred for Mittari began to glimmer again in the pit of Luca’s stomach, but he tried to cast it off and concentrated again on following the line of the northern cliff.

 

The northeast road was quite a bit smaller than the southeast road had been, and the cobbles that Luca had found himself on when he reached the road soon subsided to dirt as Avenati town receded behind him. The road followed the course of a high-sided canyon that was sufficiently narrow that no direct sunlight reached the ground. Despite this, a fringe of grass grew outside the low fences that bordered the road, along with the occasional larger plant. Lanterns on solid-looking wooden poles lined the path at occasional intervals, lit even at this hour to break up to the shadows cast by the cliffs above.

Luca supposed that, since the path was lit, civilisation couldn’t be too far away; and, sure enough, after a few minutes’ walk the canyon opened out into a wider clearing where three long, low-roofed huts bordered a central grassy space, at the centre of which a small bonfire crackled. A rough washing line was suspended between the two huts on the left, and a plump, red-faced Nali housewife was hanging some damp-looking clothes out to dry.

Luca walked over to the Nali and cleared his throat.

“Excuse me,” he ventured.

“Yes, dear?” the housewife replied, turning and fixing him with a distracted smile, which Luca returned.

“I’m looking for a couple of Nali,” Luca explained. “One an adult, and the other a girl of about my age?”

The housewife scratched her head thoughtfully. “A nice young man? Well-spoken?” she said.

“Um – yeah, I suppose so,” Luca nodded.

The housewife smiled vaguely as if reliving some pleasant memory. Luca began to wonder what Mittari’s strange power over females was – first Halil, and now this middle-aged stranger seemed to have succumbed to his feigned, bumbling charms.

“Yes, they passed through this way,” the housewife said, bringing Luca back to reality. “He seemed very worried about his sister’s safety, though. Asked if the road ahead was at all dangerous…”

“His sister?” Luca asked, frowning.

“Yes, the girl he had with him,” the housewife replied, distractedly again. “Now – you must excuse me, dear; it’s been lovely to meet you, but I’m a little busy.”

“Okay, thanks,” Luca said, hands in pockets, as the housewife bustled around her laundry basket once more. He wasn’t going to learn anything more here, so he turned and walked on through the small village towards the road, which continued to the north.

 

Luca trekked along the canyon as the afternoon rolled on and turned into evening. He continued to see signs of civilisation: the lanterns lining the path had ended at the first village, but here and there a hut stood where the canyon widened out, often with a small vegetable patch or a pen containing a few rabbits or cows. He didn’t meet many Nali though; this wasn’t, apparently, a very heavily travelled route.

As dusk drew in around the youngster, Luca began looking for somewhere to camp for the night, for he was tired, and Thas’jiis’ ale had left him feeling foggy in the head. Luca gathered dry wood and pebbles as he went, and eventually set them down when he reached a small grassy clearing where the canyon widened momentarily before becoming even narrower to the north. From this clearing, a roughly hewn flight of stone steps wound up a narrow cleft in the cliffs to the left. A wooden sign at the foot of this footpath read “Commune dei Fiori” in carefully etched letters.

Shrugging at the odd name, Luca knelt on the ground and began arranging the pebbles in a circle. He placed the twigs in the centre of the ring of stones and struck two further pebbles together until he got a spark. The kindling took light, and before long a small fire was crackling before him. Luca rummaged in his pack and, using a piece of green wood as a skewer, began to roast a second of his three Litha roots in the flames. When the root was cooked, he ate it with the remainder of his cured rabbit meat and drank some more water from his canteen, and by the time he had finished eating, it was dark. Packing away his remaining Litha root, Luca lay down by the fire, resting his head on his backpack. The clearing was quiet but for the crackle of the flames, a distant, indistinct rumble of thunder, and the chirruping of the crickets. Before long, he was asleep.

 

“Luca! Help me, Luca!”

Luca was creeping down a dark metallic corridor, his dispersion pistol raised. He was breathing in short, rapid movements. From somewhere in the distance he heard a quiet, guttural laugh, and then Halil’s voice reached his ears again.

“Please, Luca! I need you! Help me!”

“I’m coming, Halil!” he whispered.

Ahead of him, Halil screamed …

 

Luca awoke with a start, breathing almost as rapidly as he had been in his dream. It took him a moment to remember where he was, but then he remembered the previous day’s journey, and how he had settled down to camp in this clearing… but something was wrong…

Luca was not resting on his backpack any more; it had been removed, and several items from it were strewn around him… and there was something moving beyond the fire!

Whatever it was didn’t seem to have noticed him waking up, as its back was turned. Luca lowered a hand slowly to his belt, where it closed around the handle of his father’s knife. He crept, crouching, around the low flames and then pounced. In a flash, Luca pulled the creature round and pushed it onto its back, holding the point of his father’s knife at its throat. The creature gave a high-pitched yelp as it hit the grass and then lay there, whimpering. Luca drew back, astonished, as he saw what the creature was.

It was a juvenile Krall. Luca was no expert, but it looked no more than ten years old. It had none of the tribal tattoos normally worn by Krall, and it was unarmed. In one hand was Luca’s bag of Thanilayan apples, and it was wearing a scruffy loincloth around its waist.

“Please…” the juvenile gulped in a faltering attempt at the Nali tongue, “no hurt Skrill!”

“What?” said Luca.

“No hurt Skrill,” the child repeated, tears rolling down its face. “Skrill no want to hurt Nali.”

Guardedly, Luca pulled back his knife, and the Krallopian sat nervously up, supporting itself with its skinny arms.

“What do you want with me?” Luca shot at the creature, resting the tip of the knife on the grass. The Krall shook its head, eyes wide.

“Skrill wants nothing with Nali. Skrill is only hungry, Skrill just wants food.”

“How old are you?” Luca asked, returning his knife to his belt.

“Skrill is only nine,” the child replied.

“And Skrill is your name?” Luca said. The creature nodded vigorously.

“Skrill is alone. Skrill is seeing fire and hopes for food. Skrill takes food from Nali’s bag, Skrill is only hungry.”

The Krallopian looked dejectedly at the ground. Luca supposed this was meant to be an apology.

“It’s okay,” Luca said.

“Nali not hurt Skrill?” the creature said hopefully, raising its head.

Luca shook his head reassuringly. “No, I won’t hurt you.”

 “Skrill is grateful,” the juvenile said in a rush, tears rolling down its face, “Nali is very kind to Skrill. Skrill has been driven away by many Nali before. What is Nali called?”

“Luca,” he replied.

“Skrill is happy to meet Luca,” said the Krall. “Skrill is sorry for stealing Luca’s apples.”

“No problem, have another one,” said Luca, handing him the bag of fruit. Skrill took one, looking at it reverently.

“Skrill has never been offered food by a Nali,” he croaked.

 

The Nali and Krall shared the apples as Luca asked Skrill where he had come from.

“Skrill was born on this planet,” the Krallopian explained as he munched on his second apple. “Skrill was living with Krall who served the Skaarj, but Krall is all killed.”

“By whom?” Luca asked.

“Many Nali,” Skrill replied. “Many Nali attacked the clan when Skrill was smaller. They is all killed, and Skrill is left alone.”

“When was this, Skrill?” Luca pressed.

“Is three years ago,” Skrill replied.

“Three years…” Luca murmured. It was just over two years ago that Luca’s father had died in battle. Briefly, Luca wondered if Luca’s father Lit’harani had been among the band of Nali that had killed Skrill’s family; that thought left him feeling a little depressed.

“How did you survive?” Luca asked.

“Skrill foraged, and Skrill stole from Nali. Skrill managed,” the Krall replied simply.

Luca felt a pang of sympathy for the Krall: a mere child, orphaned and left to fend for himself in the often-hostile environs of the Nali world for three whole years. Vaguely, he wondered how Skrill had managed to survive through the harsh winters with which Luca was so familiar.

From overhead came a rumble of thunder. Skrill croaked despondently and moved closer to Luca.

“Skrill hates the rain,” the Krall whimpered hoarsely, looking up at the night sky. Luca followed suit; the stars and the two moons had disappeared behind a malevolent-looking bank of cloud. Luca didn’t like the look of the looming mass at all.

Big, heavy raindrops began to fall from the sky and the fire sputtered. Skrill gripped Luca around the waist and buried his head under the Nali’s left shoulder for comfort.

“We need shelter,” said Luca, looking around the clearing. The raindrops were coming more rapidly, and knowing the vigour of the summer rainstorms that were common in Nalipal, Luca didn’t want to be caught out. His roving eyes settled on the wooden sign at the base of the steps – Commune dei Fiori.

“Let’s go,” Luca said, disengaging the reluctant Krall from his waist and gathering the belongings that Skrill had strewn around the fire. After a moment’s pause, Skrill helped Luca stuff the items into his backpack.

“Where we go?” Skrill asked fervently as he stuffed the last of the Thanilayan apples into Luca’s backpack. Luca shouldered the backpack and put a hand around Skrill’s arm, helping the Krall to stand up and looking towards the stairway.

“I don’t know how far it is, and I don’t know who we’ll meet there, but they’ll have shelter,” Luca said, gesturing towards the wooden sign. “If we stay out here, we’ll catch our deaths.”

Luca set off in the direction of the stone steps, still tugging the Krall as he went. The wooden sign creaked on its hinges in a breeze that had struck up as the rain began to fall.

The rain began to fall in earnest as the Nali and Krall began to climb the gloomy staircase towards the top of the cliffs. Before long the rain was coming down in sheets, and Luca and Skrill broke into a run.

The path became lined with bright lanterns on ornate wooden columns as they emerged from the staircase and arrived on top of a plateau. Luca and Skrill found themselves running beneath a wooden framework laden with vines, on which bunches of Thirumban grapes glimmered wetly in the lantern light. As they ran, flickering lights began to emerge from behind the blankets of falling rain, and then the shape of a great, red sandstone castle with many roofs and turrets, bright lights twinkling in its many windows. The path ended at a pair of huge wooden doors, which the Nali and Krall hammered on, desperate to escape from the drenching rainstorm.

For a moment there was silence but for the heavy rush of the rainstorm, but then Luca and Skrill retreated as they heard the sound of bolts being drawn back inside the gateway. The doors were thrown open, revealing a brightly lit hallway lined with a multitude of leafy plants growing from tubs on the floor, draped out of on the wall and even hanging from the ceiling below a series of darkened skylights, and Luca stared, open-mouthed, at the bizarre sight that greeted him. Standing in the doorway was a tall, plump Nali in flowing robes of a hundred bright colours, with a long, grey beard hanging down his chest. He fixed Luca and Skrill with a welcoming grin and then said in a booming voice, “Welcome, my friends, to the Commune dei Fiori!”

 

Chapter Five

 

“Well, come in!” the robed Nali exclaimed. “You must be drenched.”

Luca crossed the threshold, one hand held protectively on Skrill’s shoulder, still staring at the bearded Nali. To see a grown male Nali clothed at all, let alone in such garish colours as the reds, yellows, greens, blues, purples and even pinks that he wore, was totally alien to Luca.

“And who are you, my young friends?” the large Nali continued.

“My name’s Luca,” he replied, finding his voice at last, “and this is Skrill.”

“Well, welcome, welcome, Skrill and Luca,” the robed Nali said. “I am Father Orgio, head of this order. Tintsaea!”

A female Nali dressed in a similarly colourful robe swept up the hallway from the left as Father Orgio pulled the great wooden doors closed and shot the bolts home. Luca sized her up as she approached; the Nali looked to be in her early thirties. Her robes were also extravagantly designed, but not so much so as those belonging to Father Orgio.

“Yes, Father?” the female Nali responded. Luca shivered in his sodden jerkin, dripping rainwater onto the heavy grey flagstones lining the floor of the red sandstone hallway, which was lit warmly by torches mounted in elaborately carved sconces.

“Get some dry robes for our young friends here,” Orgio instructed the Nali, “the poor things are soaked. This is Luca, and this here is Skrill.”

“Of course, Father,” the Nali replied. She looked at Luca and Skrill and smiled. Father Orgio turned to the two youngsters.

“Sister Tintsaea here will make sure you have somewhere comfortable to sleep. After that, you must join us for our feast in the banquet hall. No doubt you could both do with a hot meal.”

“Food?” Skrill asked hopefully, nodding vigorously. Father Orgio chuckled.

“Most definitely,” he replied.

“This way, my young friends,” Sister Tintsaea said to Luca and Skrill, leading them back down the hallway to the left as Father Orgio swept majestically off in the other direction. Still dripping, Luca followed the female Nali obediently, with Skrill following behind.

Sister Tintsaea led them on a winding course through the warmly lit, heavily planted corridors of the fortress. The castle was quiet, but Luca supposed that the rest of the order, however many there were, must already be at the banquet. At length, they arrived in front of two much smaller wooden doors. Sister Tintsaea gestured for Skrill to open one; the young Krall looked questioningly at Luca, who nodded, then disappeared into his room, leaving Luca in the hallway with the female Nali, who pushed the second door open and gestured for Luca to enter.

“These will be your quarters for tonight,” Sister Tintsaea said with a smile. “Please do make yourself at home while I fetch you some fresh robes.”

“Thank you,” Luca said to the Nali, then he stepped through the door, which Sister Tintsaea pulled closed behind him, and his mouth fell open once more.

He had entered a massive, torch lit room with a vaulted ceiling of the same warm red sandstone as the rest of the castle. A grand four-poster bed stood against the left hand wall, draped in a plush blue duvet. A long, polished dressing table with a mirror stood against the far wall next to another door out of the room, and a large wooden wardrobe stood to the left, beyond the bed. In front of him a shallow spa pool occupied a large part of the floor, complete with a lily plant floating on it. On Luca’s side of the bed was a bookcase full of old leather-bound volumes, a work desk with a chair, and a neat stack of fresh parchment, ink and quills. Lit candles were dotted around the room on top of the heavy wooden furniture, offsetting the flickering torchlight with an additional comfortable glow. Two darkened skylights occupied the ceiling, and over the crackling of the torches Luca could hear the rain hammering on the glass, but it seemed a world away in this warm and friendly place.

There was a knock at the door, and Sister Tintsaea appeared carrying a set of robes with a mottled pattern of blue and yellow triangles.

“Fresh clothes for you,” she said, depositing the robes on the bedspread. She looked at Luca, still standing in his soaked jerkin and thigh coverings, and smiled once again.

“You should get out of those clothes,” she said, “you’ll catch a chill.”

Luca nodded. “I will, thank you.”

Sister Tintsaea looked Luca up and down. “You might want to take a bath, too,” she suggested, gesturing at the spa pool and at a dry towel that was next to the fresh robes, “it’ll get rid of that travelling grime.”

“I will,” Luca nodded politely again, waiting for the Nali to leave.

“Very well,” Sister Tintsaea replied. “I’ll be back in a while to take you to the feast. Drop your clothes outside your door when you’re done, I’ll have them washed and dried for you… and be sure to let me know if you need anything.”

“Thank you,” said Luca. Sister Tintsaea nodded and, with one last glance at Luca, left for the corridor and closed the door behind her.

 

Once the female Nali had departed, Luca undid the chest ties on his leather jerkin, slid it off his shoulders, and let it drop to the floor. He stepped forwards and dipped a toe into the spa pool – it was pleasantly warm.

Satisfied, Luca undid his belt and dropped it on the bedspread, his father’s knife still firmly attached to the leather strap. Having done that, Luca slid his sodden thigh coverings off his legs and lowered himself into the spa pool.

The water was soothing and slightly effervescent; Luca lay back in the pool and relaxed for a few minutes, then sat up and began washing the dirt and grime off his arms, legs and feet with a pumice from a tray beside the pool. When he was satisfied, Luca clambered out of the water and dried himself with the soft towel, feeling invigorated, energised and, best of all, hungry. The prospect of a lavish banquet suddenly became very appealing.

Drying the last of the water off his person with the towel, he dropped it on the floor next to his soggy clothes, and reached for the fresh robes on the bedspread. He pulled them on, sliding his arms into the generously proportioned sleeves, and securing the robes around his stomach with a careful knot of the waist cord. He stood and looked at himself in the mirror on the dressing table, looking at how the blue and yellow robes hung off his figure.

Not bad… he thought, although it felt very strange to be standing there in such a billowy, colourful garment.

 

Before long, there was a knock at the door, and Luca answered it to find Sister Tintsaea standing with Skrill in tow. The Krall was wearing similar robes of a red and green pattern, but from the grubby look of his face, Sister Tintsaea hadn’t managed to convince him to take a bath as Luca had.

“Are you ready to go?” asked Sister Tintsaea nodded.

“Yes,” Luca replied, dropping his damp clothes and towel on the floor in the hallway and standing with his hands behind his back. Sister Tintsaea grinned.

“Very handsome,” she said. “Let’s get you fed.”

 

Sister Tintsaea led Luca and Skrill through the winding halls of the commune once more. Luca recognised the route for part of the way, but then they took a left turn down a hallway Luca didn’t realise and he quickly lost his bearings, although they seemed to be heading towards the middle of the fortress. At one point they passed through a grand, marble-floored atrium with a sparkling fountain at the centre – and like the rest of the castle, torches crackled energetically in their sconces and plant life festooned every part of the wall that didn’t sport a door, a torch or a colourful stained glass window. The rain could be heard hammering on an immense, clear glass dome that dominated the ceiling of the atrium, but no water made its way inside and the creepers below the roof were dry.

Sister Tintsaea led the youngsters down a broad side hall that ended in a pair of solid-looking double doors. A muffled hubbub of conversation could be heard as they approached the doors, and as they arrived she pulled open to reveal a raucous and colourful scene.

The banquet hall was a large square room with a low, vaulted ceiling of the now familiar red sandstone colour. Several wooden chandeliers hung from ornate roof carvings, each sporting four bright torches and casting a warm, flickering glow over the four long wooden tables that occupied the floor.

Two hundred or more robed Nali of all shapes and sizes occupied benches alongside the heavily polished tables, dressed in a myriad of differently coloured robes, conversing and laughing loudly as they tucked into a gargantuan feast of assorted meats, vegetables, bread and wines. Mouth hanging open, Luca looked around at the ebullient crowd of Nali.

At one table, an extremely fat Nali in yellow and brown robes held the rapt attention of three young females as he told enthusiastically of some past misdeed or exploit, waving a flagon of red wine around and slopping the contents down his robes as he spoke. Two elderly Nali in magenta and blue robes were speaking quietly to each other in sombre tones. Looking around, Luca observed several female Nali clutching colourful bundles that had to be babies, and Luca was also surprised to see a group of children of various ages, also wearing colourful robes, chatting and giggling at the far end of the table on the other side of the room.

Father Orgio sat at a fifth table placed crosswise at the head of the room, deep in conversation with a couple of senior-looking order members sitting to either side of him. Sister Tintsaea sat Luca and Skrill down at the end of nearest table, and then set off to join Father Orgio at the top of the room. As Luca watched, Father Orgio broke off his conversation and laughed heartily, then turned to Sister Tintsaea and ushered her to join him at the head table.

“What d’you think?” Luca asked Skrill, who was sitting opposite him. “Pretty amazing, huh?”

Skrill nodded vigorously. “Skrill is impressed. Skrill is hungry.”

Luca laughed, and reached for a bowl of root vegetables, which he passed to the Krall. “You’re always hungry,” he said, “help yourself.”

Skrill spooned vegetables enthusiastically onto his plate, and then reached for a plate of rabbit legs and took one. He offered the plate to Luca.

“Luca wants one?” asked Skrill.

“Thanks,” Luca said, taking the plate, then, “err… Skrill?”

The Krall looked up from his plate, where he had begun shovelling food into his mouth with his bare hands, and gave a querying grunt.

Luca pointed to the knife and fork to either side of the plate.

“You’re meant to use these.”

“Nonsense!” said a hearty voice to Luca’s right. Luca looked up to see a Nali in a blue and gold robe looking at him.

“If the lad wants to eat with his bare hands, let him,” the Nali continued as he poured red wine into a pair of silver goblets he had produced, seemingly from nowhere. “Here at the Commune dei Fiori we don’t have any such things as conventions or rules when it comes to eating.”

“Thanks, err…” Luca replied as the Nali passed the goblets to he and Skrill.

“Brother Onthio,” the Nali replied with a kindly smile. “I can see you’re new here, but don’t worry, it won’t take you long to learn our ways.”

Luca frowned. Surely the Nali of the commune weren’t expecting he and Skrill to stay…? But before he could dwell on it any further, there was the repeated chinking noise of a spoon on a goblet from the top of the room, and the assorted Nali fell silent as Father Orgio stood up and cleared his throat to speak.

“Brothers and sisters,” Father Orgio announced, spreading his arms expansively, “it gives me great pleasure to welcome two new initiates to our midst tonight.”

There was a murmur among the crowd. Luca exchanged a glance with Skrill and whispered, “initiates?

“Yes indeed,” Father Orgio continued, “little did young Luca and Skrill know when they sought shelter from the rain tonight that they would soon be welcomed with open arms as the latest members of our magnificent community.”

There was widespread applause from the masses as Father Orgio raised his glass and sat down again, and soon the babble of conversation had returned and the banquet hall was back to normal.

“Initiates?” Luca hissed to Skrill once Brother Onthio had struck up a conversation with two of the robed Nali sitting nearby, “do they think we’re here to stay or something?”

“Maybes,” Skrill shrugged, “why not?”

“I can’t stay here,” Luca said.

“But they feeds us well,” Skrill replied, bashing his fists delightedly on the table, “and we has nice beds. Why would Luca not want to stay?”

“Halil,” Luca replied miserably, eyes downcast.

The Krall stopped bashing his fists on the table and looked curiously at Luca. “Skrill does not understand…”

“Halil – she’s the reason I was out there tonight. I have to find her.”

Luca downed his wine in one go as Skrill scratched his head and replied, “Halil is a friend of Luca? Why does Luca seek her? She is missing?”

“She was taken,” said Luca, bringing his wine goblet down on the table rather harder than he had intended. His hand fell into a fist beside it. “She was taken,” he repeated, his voice shaking, “by Mittari. That traitor. That ANCATHOPE!

Anger had welled up in Luca and burst like an overfilled barrel. The silver goblet hit the floor with a clatter where his clenched first had sent it flying, and Brother Onthio and several nearby Nali looked up in surprise. Luca was silent for a moment, his chest rising and falling rapidly; the other Nali, seeing nothing serious amiss, resumed their conversations, but Skrill’s eyes were wide.

“Luca must miss this Halil a great deal,” the Krall said quietly. “Does Luca miss her?”

“Yes,” Luca replied, still shakily, “I miss her.”

“Does Luca love her?”

Luca blinked. The anger in him dissolved in an instant.

“Love her?” he repeated blankly, “I…”

The Krall looked at Luca expectantly. Luca hesitated, confused.

“…I suppose I’ve never really thought about it,” he ended lamely.

 There was a moment’s silence. Luca retrieved his empty wine goblet from the floor and set it back on the table.

“So how am I going to get out of here?” Luca said quietly to Skrill. The Krall shrugged again, apparently completely unconcerned.

“Luca will tell the Nali and that he wants to leave, and they will let him go,” Skrill replied. It was so simple that Luca laughed and broke into a grin.

“Yeah, why not?” he said.

 

Chapter Six

 

The rest of the evening passed in a blur of food and merriment. Afterwards, Luca could never remember it with clarity. Much wine was consumed by all, and at some point there was music and dancing. Luca also had a vague recollection of staggering back to his quarters, guided by a smiling Sister Tintsaea, who had an arm round his shoulder to keep him upright. After that, the next thing he remembered was waking up late the next morning.

It was warm, and the summer sun was streaming in through the skylights. Luca opened his eyes woozily and watched the shimmering light that reflected off his spa pool playing against the walls, where the torches that had been burning the night before sat darkly in their sconces.

Luca slid himself out from under his sheets, yawned, and walked slowly across the room towards the dressing table, where his colourful robes were slung over the back of a chair. Pausing half way across the floor, Luca blushed as he looked down and realised that he was naked.

The previous night’s festivities had left Luca feeling dopey and thickheaded. He put his robes on and thought of his mother Matharil back in Nalipal. Amused, he tried to imagine what she would say if she could see him now, but then felt guilty, as he realised that she must be worried.

Still, Luca knew that he wouldn’t be returning to Nalipal until he had found Halil, and cast such uncomfortable thoughts aside. Today, Luca decided, he would find Sister Tintsaea or Father Orgio and explain that, while he was very grateful for the shelter they had provided the night before, he would not be staying at the commune.

After taking a moment to wash his hands and feet in the spa bath, Luca left his quarters and travelled towards the banquet hall in search of breakfast. The castle looked quite different by day; several of the plants in the corridors bore colourful flowers that reached for the sunbeams pouring in through the skylights, and the marble-floored atrium gleamed a brilliant white from the sunlight that streamed in through the glass dome and reflected off the sparkling fountain. Several of the robed Nali were gathered in the atrium, talking and laughing animatedly in small groups.

The banquet hall was quiet, but Luca saw Skrill sitting alone on one of the long tables, munching his way through a large dish of buttered rolls.

“Hey,” said Luca.

“Hi,” the young Krall mumbled, his mouth still full of bread.

“I’m going to do what we said,” Luca told the Krall. “I’m going to find Sister Tintsaea or Father Orgio and tell them I want to be on my way.”

Skrill nodded and swallowed his mouthful of bread with a ‘gulp’.

“Luca rescues Halil,” the Krall replied.

“Yes,” Luca agreed. “But what about you? What are you going to do?”

“Skrill stays here with Nali,” the Krall replied. “Skrill is sorry to leave Luca. Luca is kind to Skrill. But here, Skrill can get good food and not be turned away.”

 “It’s okay,” Luca nodded, “I understand.”

Skrill grinned. “Luca is good friend to Skrill.”

“Thanks, Skrill,” Luca replied, also grinning.

“But first, Luca eats breakfast,” the Krall said, his mouth full again.

“Definitely!” Luca agreed, sliding onto a bench and helping himself to porridge.

 

Luca ate a good breakfast before setting off around the castle in search of Father Orgio and Sister Tintsaea. The castle was large, and Luca got lost several times, and had to ask the way. A number of the Nali he spoke to seemed genuinely interested in how Luca had come to the commune, and on a number of occasions detained him for some considerable time with a barrage of questions that left Luca itching to move on.

By lunchtime, Luca had discovered an open courtyard inside the castle, an enormous library, the kitchens, the grain stores and the animal pens, but there was no sign of Father Orgio or Sister Tintsaea.

Luca returned to the banquet hall for lunch, where he helped himself to a tasty soup of cow stock and vegetables, but his mind was on Halil and where Mittari might have taken her. Luca hoped fervently that Halil hadn’t been harmed, and that the trail wouldn’t have gone cold by the time he’d managed to make his excuses and leave the commune.

The afternoon passed similarly fruitlessly, and by dinnertime Luca was beginning to feel desperate. A whole day had gone by and he had been stuck in one place. Tomorrow, he decided, he would be leaving whether or not he had managed to express his thanks to Father Orgio and Sister Tintsaea.

So, that night, having bid farewell to Skrill at the evening meal, Luca prepared his backpack for the following day. He stuffed all his belongings into it, except for his normal clothes, which hadn’t yet returned from being washed and dried, and went to bed hopeful for a quick departure tomorrow.

 

Luca awoke the following morning to the sound of voices in the corridor outside his room. It was sunny again, and the light shone brightly in through the skylights, illuminating the room in the same cheerful glow as before. Luca hopped out of bed and slipped into his robes – they weren’t ideal for travelling in, but if he had to, he would.

No sooner had he done this than there was a knock at the door, and Sister Tintsaea arrived carrying his cleaned and neatly folded clothes. Luca’s mood brightened considerably and he smiled – now was the perfect time to make his excuses.

“Good morning, handsome,” Sister Tintsaea grinned.

“Hi,” Luca replied.

“I’ve had these laundered for you,” Sister Tintsaea continued. “Not that you’ll be needing them here, of course, but they are yours…”

“Thanks,” said Luca, taking the jerkin and thigh coverings as she passed them to him and placing them in the top of his backpack, which was resting against the wardrobe.

“Sister Tintsaea –“ Luca began as he straightened up again, but he stopped. Sister Tintsaea had put a hand around the front of his robes. She tugged him gently forwards.

“What are you doing?” Luca said uncertainly, flustered.

“I like you, Luca,” she said, beginning to prise the top of his robes apart. Luca’s hastily knotted waist cord began to loosen. “I like you a lot.”

“W–What?” Luca stammered, disengaging from the female Nali and backing off towards the bed. His heart was beating a rapid tattoo against his ribcage.

“You’re a very attractive young Nali,” she smiled, advancing on Luca and sliding her hands under the flap of his robes; her fingers brushed against his skin and Luca looked downwards, horrified.

“But –“

“Here at the Commune dei Fiori,” Sister Tintsaea continued softly, “we believe in participating in free love as soon as the body is… capable…”

Luca hastily tightened his waist cord and began to babble incoherently as Sister Tintsaea’s hands rested on his chest.

“Really… I mean… It’s very nice of you… but I’m not even of age yet, and…”

“We don’t have such conventions here,” sister Tintsaea laughed.

“Yes, but… I really have to go… I mean… bye!

Luca darted hurriedly away, as Sister Tintsaea’s hands had started to move again. He his backpack up from beside the wardrobe and ran for the other door. Bursting through it into the hallway, pulled it shut and turned the key in the lock, then leant on it, panting. He sagged to the floor in relief and began laughing in shrill, nervous shrieks. Sister Tintsaea had just made moves on him, Luca, of all people!

His crazy thoughts were interrupted by a high-pitched cry of terror from somewhere off to the right. He looked up, all traces of mirth gone, as the voice cried out again, and the small robed figure of Skrill came running down the hallway, his eyes wide with terror and his grubby face wet with tears. The Krall tripped and fell forwards, but Luca caught him, horrified.

“Skrill, what is it?” he gasped.

“Nali!” Skrill cried, pounding the floor with his fists, “Nali try to make Skrill take a bath!”

Luca fell back to the floor and started laughing again, ditching Skrill, who landed on the palms of his hands, still crying.

“Skrill wants to leave this place, Luca!” the Krall whimpered, “Skrill wants to leave, now!”

“Okay,” Luca replied with a grin, grabbing Skrill by the hand and helping the Krall to stand up. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

Before long, Luca and Skrill were running down the footpath beneath the vines, with the ruddy walls of the Commune dei Fiori receding behind them. Having spent two nights trapped in the castle, Luca felt liberated and elated to be free once again: the morning air smelled fresh, and the grapes still glistened with moisture from the night’s rainfall. The young Nali, still dressed in his yellow and blue robes, enjoyed the breeze for as long as he could; for although the day would soon warm up in the bright summer sunshine, the air still had that crisp early-morning edge to it that Luca had once learned to love on his mornings at home on the terrace, staring out to sea.

But that had been over a year ago, when Halil had been by his side and things were simple, and everything was right with the world. Back then, Kew the Elder had still been alive, and Luca and Halil had been innocent and free…

Luca and Skrill slowed to a walk as they left the shelter of the vines and trekked towards the top of the stone stairway that led down into the canyon. There was silence for a while, but then Skrill spoke up.

“Where will Luca look for Halil now?” asked the Krall. The Nali glanced at him.

“I’ll keep heading northwards, I suppose,” Luca replied. “That’s the way Mittari and Halil were heading, last I heard.”

“Skrill will help Luca search for Halil,” the Krall announced. Luca blinked.

“Why?” he asked.

“Luca is kind to Skrill,” the Krall replied nonchalantly. “Skrill is Luca’s friend.”

Luca smiled. “Well, thanks, Skrill… Chizra knows I’d be glad of the company.”

They were heading down the stairway now. Skrill grinned toothily at Luca, and the two youngsters walked in silence as they descended the damp stone steps – but as they reached the bottom, Luca stopped abruptly, putting a hand out to halt Skrill and pulling them both back against the cliff wall. A Nali was emerging from the canyon to the north, setting out alone across the clearing: a male Nali of about twenty years of age.

“What?” Skrill whispered.

“It’s Mittari!” Luca hissed. He un-shouldered his backpack and handed it to the Krall, pulling out the dispersion pistol and creeping along the cliff wall towards the Nali.

Mittari was ambling gently across the grass, looking to all intents and purposes as if he didn’t have a care in the world – and certainly not, Luca noticed, as if he’d recently been involved in abducting a young girl and dragging her off to an uncertain fate. Crouching behind a large rock, Luca waited for the right moment, and then pounced.

Mittari had enough time to glance around in surprise before Luca hit him like a cannonball in Nali form. Mittari was knocked to the ground, where he lifted himself on to one arm and looked up as Skrill came scurrying out from the side canyon, carrying the backpack. Luca raised his dispersion pistol, pointing it at the traitorous Nali’s chest.

“Luca!” Mittari exclaimed, “how nice to see you again!”

“Where’s Halil?” Luca asked, in a cool voice that was quite unlike his usual one. The Nali on the floor grinned.

“Nice robes you’ve got there, Luca,” he replied. “I don’t know how you came to be wearing them, but I’m sure it would be a fascinating story.”

“Where’s Halil?” Luca repeated.

Mittari shrugged. “I haven’t got a clue.”

“I know you took her,” Luca replied, “and I want to know where she is. What did you do to her?”

Mittari acted as though he hadn’t heard the question, and craned his neck to get a better view of Skrill, who was standing just behind Luca. “Who’s your friend?” he said.

“Skrill,” the Krallopian replied defiantly.

“Sweet of you,” Mittari said to Luca, “making friends with a Krall. I’ve always liked to see Nali reaching out to other races.”

Anger was brewing in Luca’s stomach once more. When he spoke again, the cool edge was gone and his voice was uneven.

“What did you do to Halil?” he repeated.

“I took her to see some friends of mine,” Mittari replied casually. “They were very keen to speak to her, actually.”

“Who?” Luca said, brandishing the weapon angrily.

“Krall,” said Mittari, glancing at Skrill, who shifted uncomfortably behind Luca. “There’s a group of them who’ve set up camp on a beach not far from here. You could get there in less than a day if you wanted to; no doubt you’ll be wanting to rescue her.”

Mittari smirked as if he found this thought amusing. Luca glared at him.

“Why? Why did you do it?” he said.

“To be on the winning team,” Mittari replied. “The Skaarj are coming, you know… You and your Nali friends may be in denial, you may think you’ve kept them at bay, but the attack last year was only the beginning. They’re coming back, and this time it’s for good.”

“Halil and I aren’t denial,” Luca retorted. “But we can fight the Skaarj. We’ve done it before.”

Mittari laughed derisively.

“The Nali resistance will fail. The Skaarj aren’t going to make the same mistake again. They’ll flatten anyone who stands in their way, and when that time comes, I’m going to make sure I’m on the right side!”

“But why Halil? What can she offer the Krall?” said Luca.

“The Skaarj aren’t stupid,” Mittari replied. “They know where the ship that destroyed their attack force came from, and they want to know how big a resistance force they’re facing in Nalipal, so that they can crush it. The Nali I spoke to at your tavern were very helpful, they knew just who I should talk to… you two are quite the local heroes, apparently, considering how young you are.”

“There is no resistance force in Nalipal!” Luca shouted. “It was just me and Halil flying a dumb Skaarj ship!”

“And I’m sure the Skaarj will be delighted to hear that when Halil tells them everything,” Mittari replied with an unpleasant smile.

“What makes you think she’ll talk?”

Mittari’s smile widened. “Oh, she’ll talk…”

Luca uttered a curse and delivered a savage kick to Mittari’s stomach. The Nali doubled up, wheezing.

You son of an Ancathope!” Luca yelled, moving his dispersion pistol to point to Mittari’s head. “You’ll pay for this!”

“You’re going to kill me, are you?” Mittari panted, between heavy breaths.

“It’d be what you deserve,” Luca replied, placing a finger on the trigger.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it, my young friend,” Mittari said with a smile, recovering his composure, “but you won’t kill another Nali. You don’t have it in you.”

Luca aimed the weapon, fury coursing in his veins, but when he tried to squeeze the trigger, nothing happened. He stood frozen for a few seconds, his eyes boring into Mittari’s unconcerned face, but then faltered. Feeling defeated, he lowered his weapon.

Skrill moved closer to Luca and grabbed his hand as Mittari scrambled to his feet, that hateful smirk back on his face.

“Be seeing you,” he leered, before turning and walking towards the main road back to Avenati. Luca turned, weapon dangling loosely from his hand, and watched as Mittari turned for one last parting shot.

“You chose the wrong side, Luca, remember that… and when we meet again, I won’t be alone. The Skaarj will crush your precious Nalipal, and all who inhabit it!”

And with that he disappeared, setting off out of the clearing at a run.

“Luca did not kill Mittari,” Skrill whispered. Luca shook his head and relieved Skrill of his backpack.

“Before long I may wish I had killed him,” he replied, returning the weapon to the bag and swinging it back over his shoulder. “Come on, we’ve got a friend to rescue.”

And he turned north and walked out of the clearing, with Skrill in tow.

 

Chapter Seven

 

The morning rolled on as Luca and Skrill travelled steadily northwards. They stopped for lunch in a clearing where the narrow canyon crossed a wider one that led from west to east. They shared Luca’s remaining Litha root and Thanilayan apples, sitting on a rock below a wooden signpost that stood at the crossroads. “Na Lati Town” was signed to the east, “Avenati Town” to the south, and “Minatha Bay” to the north. The western route, Luca supposed, would eventually lead to the great grasslands of the Na Lati plains beyond the foothills.

After finishing their meal and sharing a drink from Luca’s canteen of water, which he had refilled at the commune, the Nali and Krall stood once more and continued up the northern canyon. The canyon wound gradually to the northeast as they travelled, and as the afternoon rolled on the passage became a gradual downhill slope. As the canyon widened out the grass became scrubbier and the ground became shaly.

“Luca, we is nearing the beach,” Skrill said, pointing. They had rounded a bend in the canyon at the top of a steep slope, and sure enough, a strip of greyish sand and blue sea had sprung into view over the top of the descending cliffs, with the northern mountains, shrouded in wispy cloud, looming above the coast in the distance.

“Let’s rest here for a second,” Luca suggested. “I have to change.”

While Skrill sat on a boulder and stared out to sea, Luca un-shouldered his backpack and fished out his neatly folded clothes. He undid his robes and slid them off his shoulders, then bent down and pulled on his thigh-coverings, fastening them with his leather belt. His father’s knife, still in its holster, rested reassuringly against his hip as he did so. Luca folded the robes and put them in his backpack, retrieving the dispersion pistol, then put on his familiar leather jerkin and fastened the ties across his chest. Shouldering his backpack once more and carrying the energy weapon in a right hand, he turned to Skrill and said, “Let’s go.”

The two youngsters made their way gradually down the uneven, shaly slope, holding the cliff wall for support. Before long, they had reached the bottom, and turned a corner in the canyon to find Minatha Bay laid out before them.

 

The evening was upon them now, and Minatha Bay stretched away in the low sunlight, with its large boulders casting shadows over seaweed-laden rock pools. The beach must be at least a mile long, possibly two, Luca thought; the coarse, greyish sand stretched off for as far as the eye could see, and the water stretched away with it, with small, white waves lapping quietly against sands, breaking over the litter of pebbles and seaweed that lay on the tide line. To the right and closer to the water, a wider canyon containing a dirt road headed to the southwards; presumably back to Na Lati town.

What really caught Luca’s eye, though, was the ugly structure that had appeared on the shingly sand towards the water line: a sprawling complex of low-roofed, drab metal buildings connected by a mixture of glass tunnels and open causeways, constructed on increasingly tall metal stilts towards the water, keeping it level against the gradual slope of the beach. A further causeway stretched out from the improvised outpost to a position over the water, beyond which a large, streamlined metal launch rose and fell gently on the swell of the waves. Krall could be seen patrolling the open causeways and glass tunnels, emerging first from one building and then disappearing into the next.

“Wow…” Luca whispered, taking shelter behind a rocky outcrop just beyond the canyon mouth and watching the patrolling Krall. “How are we going to get Halil out of this place?”

Luca watched as a pair of lights came on to either side of the nearest entrance and a Krall emerged from the base, stopping on the threshold and looking from left to right, holding its concussion staff loosely in one hand and resting it on the ground.

“More importantly, how are we going to get in to start with?” Luca muttered.

The juvenile Krall scratched his head. “Skrill has an idea,” he piped up.

“What is it?” Luca replied.

Skrill leant forwards and whispered his plan into Luca’s ear. When he was done, Luca nodded his agreement.

“That might work. You’d better give me your robe first, though, or he’ll get suspicious.”

Skrill nodded feverishly and unfastened his red and green commune robes, handing them to Luca. As Luca stuffed the robes into his backpack, he saw that Skrill was now wearing the same loincloth he had been wearing when they first met but, like Luca’s clothes, it had been thoroughly cleaned.

“Skrill is ready,” the young Krall said determinedly.

“Okay,” Luca replied, clapping an encouraging hand on the Krall’s arm. “Good luck…”

Luca watched as Skrill scampered over towards the base, where the guard was looking out to sea. The guard looked round as Skrill waylaid him, to all casual observers in a state of grievous distress, crying openly and gesticulating wildly towards the road to Na Lati.

Luca grinned and broke his cover, moving quietly with his dispersion pistol raised towards the guard, who was speaking rapidly in the guttural Krall language to Skrill, who was responding in kind. As Luca approached quietly, his toes sinking in the sand, the universal translator he was wearing kicked in and he began to understand what they were saying.

“You are being followed?” the adult Krall croaked, scouring the beach with his eyes. “By whom?”

“A Nali, with a weapon!” Skrill was crying. “He wants to kill me because I stole fruit from his crops!”

Luca had reached the door and turned, training his dispersion pistol on the Krall guard’s head and hoping that his aim would be true.

“Stay here,” the guard instructed Skrill, “I will get help.”

The guard turned for the door just as Luca fired. The Krall had just enough time to register Luca’s presence and to look startled before Luca’s shot hit it on the forehead and it fell to the ground, stunned.

“Nice one…” Luca said quickly to Skrill, extending an arm. “Let’s go.”

With the shortest of pauses to look at the prone form of the guard lying on the sand, Skrill grabbed the proffered hand, and they ran forwards and entered the outpost.

 

They halted in a strangely familiar metal corridor just inside the doorway. To the right it led into one of the covered glass walkways with a view of the beach, but to the left it led on for a while and then disappeared around a corner. With a jolt, Luca realised that it was very similar to the metal corridor he had seen in his dream on the night he had met Skrill, but it wasn’t as dark. Electric lights hummed in the ceiling at regular intervals, bathing the stencilled metal walls and floor in a bright, blue-tinged glow, and several computer banks lined the hallway.

“Come on,” Luca said, starting up the hallway with Skrill, “we don’t have much time. In a minute, someone’s going to see the Krall we left unconscious outside, or he’s going to wake up… either way, they’ll raise the alarm, and then we’ll really be in trouble.”

“But Luca can fight,” Skrill replied, speaking in Nali once again. Luca shook his head and glanced at the dispersion pistol he was holding.

“I don’t think this is a very powerful weapon. I might be able to take on one Krall, but if I have to fight two at once, or something worse…” Luca shook his head again. “We’d never make it.”

They rounded the corner to the right and passed an open doorway. Luca glanced inside looking for signs of trouble, but it appeared only to be some kind mess hall, and it was empty.

They continued down the corridor and emerged into another of the glass walkways. Luca looked to the right and saw a Krall running between two of the outpost modules further down the beach – this left Luca feeling very uneasy as he and Skrill closed the distance to the next module down the tunnel.

There was the screech of a claxon from the centre of the base, and suddenly the tunnel was alight with flashing red lights as the sound of sirens spread across the base. Luca pulled Skrill through the door into the next module, which was a storage room full of metal crates and barrels, and they dived behind a stack of these as the sound of running footsteps filled the corridor behind them.

Luca peered out from between the crates as a Krall emerged from the tunnel they had just come down, met in the other direction by a tough-looking Krall with blue body tattoos.

“Ka’thar! What has happened?” the blue Krall demanded. Its subordinate began to gabble rapidly in the Krall language.

“Grok K’hranna, there has been an attack! Mar’thak has been struck down outside the south entrance!”

“Guard the prisoner!” Grok K’hranna ordered. “It may be a rescue party!”

“At once!” the Krall called Ka’thar saluted. Grok K’hranna disappeared back the way Ka’thar had come, and Ka’thar ran off on down the hallway.

“Come on!” Luca hissed to Skrill, jumping out from behind the crate and following the retreating back of the Krall.

Skrill leapt up and followed Luca down the hallway as he pelted after Ka’thar, who was already at the far end of the next glass tunnel.

As Luca and Skrill entered the next module of the base, Luca had just enough time to realise that the corridor they had entered was now very familiar, before he rounded a corner and saw Ka’thar standing at the ready and, chained to the wall beside him but limp and motionless, Halil.

Ka’thar readied his concussion staff, but Luca leapt on him with a high-pitched roar, bringing his weapon hard down on the side of the Krall’s head. Ka’thar reeled under a barrage of blows from Luca and knocked the young Nali down, but then cried out in pain as Skrill leapt into the fray with a cry of “You no hurt Luca!” and sank his teeth deep into Ka’thar’s leg. Luca leapt up, plunged the dispersion pistol into the Ka’thar’s chest and fired once: the Krall fell to the floor, with a massive scorch mark on its chest, and lay motionless.

“Is Luca okay?” Skrill said, disengaging his teeth from Ka’thar’s leg.

“Yeah, thanks to you,” Luca said, “but we’ve got to get Halil out of here.”

Skrill jumped forwards and wrestled with the chains attaching Halil to the wall, but Luca pulled him back and pointed his weapon at the bracket. He aimed and fired, and the chains fell away; Halil flopped forwards, unsupported, but Luca was ready and caught her under the arm. Luca saw with immense relief that she was still breathing, albeit shallowly.

“Help me with her,” he panted to Skrill, trying to stand up with Halil hanging by a shoulder. Skrill hopped nimbly to Halil’s other side and grabbed her under the lower arm, and between them he and Luca managed to lift the unconscious Halil into a standing position.

Pulling Halil along with them, Luca and Skrill ran back through the base, traversing the glass hallways and metal corridors at speed. They reached the open entrance without opposition, but Luca paused on the threshold and turned. Still supporting Halil’s other side, Skrill halted.

“What you do, Luca?” the young Krall yelped over the sound of the claxon. “We must run from here!”

“Giving them something to remember me by!” Luca yelled back. He turned to face the nearest computer console and raised his dispersion pistol. He depressed a button on the handle of the gun and squeezing the trigger; the weapon hummed up and began to shake with power, and then a massive blue energy bolt shot out towards the computer console, which exploded in a shower of sparks. Luca, and Skrill were blown off their feet by the blast, landing on the sandy beach next to the prone form of the guard Mar’thak. The Nali and Krall scrambled up into a sitting position with Halil held between them, and Luca was pleased to see a fire rapidly engulfing the computer console and spreading onto nearby equipment.

“Okay, now we get out of here,” Luca panted. He and Skrill lifted Halil up and began to retreat; as they turned to go, Luca caught site of several Krall running along the glass tunnels and open causeways connecting the various modules of the base, while smoke billowed from the open entrance.

Luca and Skrill ran across the beach as fast as the subsiding sand would allow them, and then laid Halil down on the ground as they reached a large rock near the larger of the two canyons. No sooner had they done this, that Luca and Skrill were blasted off their feet as the module they had just left exploded, followed by two others. Winded and gasping for air, Luca looked round in time to see metal girders and Krall flying through the air in equal measure.

“Wow…” he panted, watching the burning base. The movement of Krall between the outpost modules had become less ordered and they had begun flocking in a panic towards the eastern end of the base. In a moment, the doors onto the docking causeway burst open and a horde of Krall descended upon the bobbing launch, fighting to be the first to climb on board.

Another module of the base went up in a flash of light and a ripping explosion, but Luca was distracted as a large green figure sauntered out onto the docking causeway. Luca recognised at once the glowing green eyes and scaly dreadlocks of a Skaarj Warrior. The Skaarj paused at the boat and looked around – for a moment, Luca was sure it locked eyes with him – but then it turned and clambered onto the boat with the Krall.

Dimly, Luca became aware that Skrill was on his feet.

“What is it?” he said. Skrill was looking out at the launch, which Krall were still clambering onto in large numbers. Skrill glanced round to look at Luca.

“Skrill belongs with his people,” the young Krall replied. Luca’s eyes widened and he lifted himself up into a sitting position.

“Are you sure?” Luca said. Skrill nodded.

“Skrill is sorry to leave Luca, but Skrill must learn the ways of the Krall. Maybe Skrill and Luca will meet again some day.”

Luca nodded and then stood up, gripping the young Krall’s hand.

“Count on it,” he said. “Take care, Skrill. And thanks for helping me tonight. You’re a good friend.”

The young Krall grinned at Luca, and then turned and ran off across the beach towards the launch. Luca watched as the youngster climbed the framework supporting the causeway, and was soon joining the tide of Krall fleeing the burning base. As the last of the Krall scrambled onto the vessel, a hydraulic hatch descended and the launch was on its way, moving off from the docking causeway and powering out to sea.

 

As the vessel became a speck on the horizon and disappeared beyond the Northern Mountains, Luca turned to Halil, who lay breathing slowly, her eyes closed. Anxiously, his heart beating rapidly, Luca pulled Skrill’s robes out of his backpack and splashed them with fresh water from his canteen, dabbing her forehead with the damp fabric.

Gradually, Halil’s breathing returned to normal, and after a couple of minutes her eyes fluttered open, and she stared at the sky.

“Where am I?” she said quietly; then, she sat up slowly and looked forwards. “Luca?” she wavered uncertainly.

“Hi,” Luca smiled.

Oh!” Halil cried. Tears in her eyes, she leapt forwards and embraced Luca tightly. Luca gripped her in return and, feeling three whole days’ worth of anxiety, stress and exhaustion begin to unravel inside him, found himself beginning to sob, too.

“Thank Chizra you’re all right,” he gulped, rocking them both back and forth.

“I knew you’d rescue me,” Halil replied. “Through all the horrible things they did to me, that’s what kept me going.”

Luca could feel Halil’s heart beating steadily next to his. It felt good to be holding her, and he didn’t want to let her go. But Halil dropped her hands, and Luca reluctantly released her.

“Thirsty?” he asked.

“Very,” Halil replied. Luca handed her the canteen of water, and she drank gratefully. As he watched her, Luca thought back to something Skrill had said on their first night at the Commune dei Fiori. Then he thought of Philona, the elderly fisherman back at Nalipal… You and Halil have too good a bond to throw away over some silly li’l jealousy thing…

“Halil, I…” Luca began. Halil stopped drinking and looked up as he continued. “I think I…”

He broke off, and grabbed a handful of sand distractedly, glancing out to sea. Halil put a hand on his shoulder and looked steadily into his eyes.

“What, Luca?” she said quietly.

“Nothing,” Luca replied, looking down and letting his handful of sand drizzle slowly back onto the beach.

 

The journey to Na Lati Town was slow, as Halil was weak from her ordeal, and it was dark before long. He and Halil camped for the night in the empty cowshed of an unattended house, where Luca built a small fire and cooked a rabbit that he captured with the aid of his father’s knife. The two exhausted Nali slumbered together until daybreak, and then they set off once more along the valley in the direction of Na Lati town. After stopping in Na Lati for breakfast, Luca and Halil hitched a ride on an outbound cow cart and were rolling into Avenati Town by lunchtime. A visit to the market bought them some fresh Litha roots and a flask of deunaberry cordial, which they shared as they set off along the southeast road and headed for the upper valley.

It was early evening by the time they had descended onto the main road into Nalipal. Looking to the left, Luca saw that the collapsed tunnel was a hive of activity, with several sturdy fishermen levering rocks out of the tunnel mouth and shoring the structure up with stout wooden struts. As they walked into the harbour square, the youngsters saw Luca’s mother Matharil and Halil’s father Latana conversing anxiously with the town chieftain Lo’juura outside the town hall. Matharil looked up and cried out, and then Luca and Halil were descended upon by Matharil and Latana as each parent inundated their respective child with hugs and kisses. However, despite their parents’ attempts to take them home to rest, Luca and Halil refused to be separated, and walked off together towards the south end of town, where they planned to go to on their favourite bench underneath a palm tree and rest together.

As they climbed the narrow flight of steps that led the back way up to the small church square, Luca gripped Halil’s hand in his own, and she gripped back in silence. Luca knew that the Skaarj weren’t defeated, and that they would soon return; but he had Halil by his side once more, and right now, he thought, he could face anything.

 

 

 

 

All text herein is © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce. All characters, events, place names and creatures, barring those previously appearing in the work of and priorly © to Epic Games, Digital Extremes and associated authors, are also © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce unless otherwise stated. The text herein may NOT be reproduced for any form of distribution without the prior written consent of the author.