Jason had been escorting Risa for four days and they were almost to the Temple, her shortcut was incredible, it had shaved at least five days off the trip. They would arrive soon. By evening. He was ready to be home for a day or two. Before leaving on this mission his father had for him and Shamira. He still didn’t know what it was, but his father didn’t do anything without a reason.
The entrance to the temple was on the side of a cliff, up at least three-hundred meters from the surrounding area. There was a hidden passage that allowed them to come down from the top of the mountainside and enter the main entrance without being seen. There was another exit near the ground but it could only be opened from the inside. You couldn’t see it from the ground, it was so well fitted that it looked like the rest of the cliff. They brought Risa and her pack train into the Temple Common Area, and Yoran was there to meet them. He wanted to see Risa as much as she wanted to see him. Lara and Whitlaw arrived shortly after and Lantana came in from the other side of the complex.
It was decided that they would share a meal together this evening and would take the time to talk about their adventures since last seeing each other. Risa took her leave to go and store her supplies, and Yoran followed after her. It caused Lara to smile, she was so small, and Yoran was a giant next to her, at least twice her height. She often thought that if it had been possible for them, they would have become Life-Mates.
Jason went with Whitlaw to the Seers Room and was amazed by all he saw. He hadn’t expected to be able to see into space, or even see who the Seers were communicating with. Whitlaw asked Lantana to bring the Southern Continent into focus, when she did, he told Jason that he, Shamira, Jama, and Jana were going to tow a boat with the captured Marn in it to the continent. They were to let them exit the boat and tow it back or sink it. Preferably tow it back but if they didn’t have a choice, they were to sink it. The Marn would be given supplies, and would each be given a dagger. No spears, and no swords. Jason and the others were not to land on the continent for any reason. They were to tow the boat, and return, it should only take a few days.
Jason wanted to know what they were going to do once they returned, Whitlaw said that would be decided when they got back. He wanted them ready to leave the next day at dawn, and they were to try and keep low enough that the Marn sweeps wouldn’t pick them up. They didn’t know that the Marn scanners couldn’t detect the Skree, and with all the faron and tanzite in their armor, they probably wouldn’t be able to be seen either, but they didn’t have a confirmation on that. He told his father that he had something to tell him and would tell all of them at dinner that night. His father looked at him, as if to ask what, but Jason left it hanging in the air.
When they all came to Whitlaw and Lara’s quarters, there were five Skree, and seven people, it was a full house. Once they were all seated and ready to eat, Risa had come and helped Lara prepare the meal and made her famous berry tarts, Jason said he had an announcement, they all looked at him, he rose and facing them with a beaming smile said “Shamira and I are Life-Mates, Shandarro and Knala mated while we were in the field but not until we had decided to be together.” They were all stunned, except of course for Risa, she had guessed it the first night that they had been with her in camp.
Lara was the first to speak, “I guess we have a new family member then, welcome Shamira, to our family.” Shamira blushed and said “I’m honored to be considered part of your house.” With that they began to talk and enjoy each other’s company, and to feel like they were home. Even if it was only for one night. Jason and Shamira were the first to leave. They had several hard day’s work in front of them and when his father said to be ready to depart at dawn, it didn’t mean arrive and prepare, they would need all the sleep they could get, they would have to sleep in the saddles until they returned, and they would be on cold rations as well. This would be the hardest assignment any of them had ever had. Even Jama and Jana hadn’t spent four days in the saddle before, this would take them to the limits of their endurance.
When they were prepared to leave, Yoran came to Jason and gave him a chart. He showed them that on the chart was a small chain of islands about a hundred kilometers off the coast. It was far enough away that the Marn wouldn’t be able to swim there, and he suggested that once they delivered the Marn to the continent, to make their way there, they could burn the boat on the island, and take a day to rest and get some hot food into them before heading back. He told them that they should be able to make the return trip in a day if they went to the island and rested. That plan made sense to Jason and that was what they planned to do.
Jama and Jana joined them at the shore, the Marn were already on the boat and it was out to sea already. The fishing fleet towed the boat out and was holding the lines, they had been off shore since before daybreak and were far enough away from shore to prevent the Marn from jumping overboard and trying to swim back. They arrived at the boats, secured the lines to their saddles and headed south. They were going to make as much time as they could. They knew how soon the Main force would be there and they wanted to be back before they got there.
The trip to the continent was mostly uneventful, occasionally a wave came over the side of the boat, and once the Marn had tried to cut the lines but swift action by Jana and Shamira had halted that and the Marn just sat in the bottom of the boat and waited, most of them were seasick. They reach the continent mid-afternoon of the second day, they had flown non-stop. They had switched lines from one to another every few hours to take the strain off the Skree as much as possible, but they could see why Yoran had given them the chart. They needed the rest.
They burned the boat for fuel for the fire to cook their food, and the island they landed on was large enough to support a small population of the large birds that they sometimes ate. The four Skree ate three birds, and brought one to them to cook. The fresh meat and hot meal with kaba had restored them quite well. A good night’s sleep and they would be back to the temple by mid-day. They were ready to do something else.
The flight back was uneventful, Lantana did tell Jason to make it back as quickly as possible, the Marn were massing for an attack and they would be needed. Jason and the others flew as fast as they could to get back, they had a strong headwind that slowed them down for a while, and the wind changed directions and they picked up speed. They caught a thermal about halfway back and that eased the strain on the Skree, they floated at wind speed and made up some lost time. The thermal let the Skree rest for quite some time. When they sighted landfall it was midday, and they were at the Temple within two hours. They were glad to be back.
They went directly to Whitlaw’s work room and Yoran was already there. They were questioned about the trip, Jason reported that it was fairly uneventful except for the Marn attempting to cut the tow ropes. When the knives they carried couldn’t damage the ropes, and Shamira and Jana came within a few meters of the boat, they stopped trying to cut the ropes and rode out the trip. Yoran wanted to know what they saw of the continent when they released the Marn. Jana told them it was a veritable jungle with a river that emptied into the sea. They hadn’t seen any wildlife, but they didn’t land, and they didn’t explore. There was ample food though, they had seen several recognizable fruit and nut trees, and had seen evidence of some growths of tubers, and kaba.
Jason told them about the island they spent the night on, that it was a pleasant place with ample wildlife and a variety of different plants. He thought it would make a nice place for a getaway, if they weren’t on the brink of this Marn invasion. Whitlaw smiled. He had felt the same way about Lara, but duty and responsibility had not allowed them much time for getaways. They had made several trips to the Bonding Cave over the years, but it was usually only for a day or two.
Lantana came in and alerted them, the Marn fleet had made orbit, and it looked like they were studying the planet to land troops. Whitlaw immediately dismissed the group, took Yoran with him and told Jason and the others to eat, and then rest, they would be back in the field soon, and a good soldier took care of the needs of his body whenever he had opportunity. With that he left and went to see what the Marn were doing. He still wanted to make certain that heavy cruiser couldn’t launch some kind of weapon from orbit other than torpedoes.
He had a crazy but brilliant idea that if they could capture on of the Marn ships, they could use the ship to attack the heavy cruiser. That all changed when he saw that the scout ships were preparing to enter the atmosphere, and put them on high alert, everyone was poised for battle. It was starting.
The first ship entered the atmosphere and started a sweep of the edge of the glacial field. They had learned not to land on the ice. He dispatched Rangers to the area and had four ballistae ready to fire on the ship when it came into range. The ship began a low pass and one of the ballista took the ship out in mid-air. The main hull hit the ground and the other engine hull exploded on impact. The Marn survivors swarmed out of the crashed ship and were met with a hail of crossbow bolts, arrows, and finally swords. It was a pitched battle, and they took some casualties, and two Guardians and their Skree were killed. All of the Marn were killed.
Out on the western fringes, another ship started a low run, close enough to the ground to prevent the ballistae from getting a good shot. The ship landed and the Guardians were on the field first. The Marn exited their ship firing their pulse rifles and the Guardians had to withdraw they were too close to the ship and there were twenty wounded, and one was probably going to die from his injuries. The Marn established a perimeter and set up camp. They were digging in and it would take some planning to rout them.
Whitlaw wanted to be in the pitch of the battle, but Yoran told him he needed to command. He was the only one with enough experience in this kind of battle to devise a strategy to take out the ship. He also told him to trust his commanders and to figure out how to turn the tide of this battle. Other ships would be descending from orbit soon, and he needed to be here to coordinate the battles. He was struggling about staying until Yoran asked him “When you were a space marine, how did you handle a battle with an armada of ships?” he thought about it, then he said “I would have been on the bridge of my command ship, I would have directed ships to engage the enemy, sent out fighters, and brought the main batteries to bear on the main ship of the armada.” Yoran told him this was no different, just a different approach. Whitlaw accepted that, and the Seers Room became his bridge, and the Seers the communications array.
He told the Seers to get him Jamar, and to get him the Ranger commander in the area of the ship. Time to take this on as a battle, not a guerilla war. He was going to take the fight to them. The strategy was to engage the camp on three sides, draw all the forces away from the rear. Then they were to focus ballistae on the ship from the rear. He wanted them to move into place at night, and prepare to engage the next day. Once he had given the instructions, he then asked Lantana to send for Jason, Shamira, and Jama and Jana. He had a special assignment for them. They were the best scouts he had, and we wanted them at the battle.
When they arrived, he laid out the plan. “I want you to make your way to the landing site. I need you to get there under full cover of night. I want you to get close enough to damage that ship with your crossbows. Remember, make sure you have plenty of cover, if you hit the engines, the ship will blow and I don’t want you to risk your lives to do what I’m sending you to do. I want that ship taken if possible, destroyed if not.”
That was a big order especially with several ballistae in place when they arrive. Jason wasn’t sure if they could take the ship. Lantana said she had counted one hundred and twenty Marn in the ship. Jason devised a plan on the way. He realized to take the ship, they would need to take out the Marn, and not damage the ship. What Whitlaw wanted with the ship he wasn’t sure, he was the only one who could fly it, and none of them could help except for Yoran possibly.
Whitlaw didn’t want to fly the ship, there was no way that the ship could damage the heavy cruiser enough to put it out of commission, what he wanted was to get inside the ship, find out its total defenses, and find out what kind of fuel source it used that made it so volatile. He wanted a way to take out the ships and find out their weakest points. He also wanted to know if the ships carried shields. If they had shield generators that were operable in the atmosphere, they would be in trouble. He waited in anticipation, he needed that intel, and he hoped that he hadn’t just sentenced his son and best friend to get it. Only time would tell.
Jason and Jama had arrived on the battle front in the middle of the night. Once all the positions were in place, they waited for the signal from Whitlaw to begin the attack. They didn’t have long to wait. He ordered the attack, and the battle was hot. The Marn weren’t expecting to get hit during the night. They weren’t familiar enough with Skree abilities to realize that the Skree could see in the dark as though it was daylight. They took out half the Marn in the first volley. They had already learned that to take them down, and get them out of the fight, they had shoot them through the head or take their heads off. They were tough, resilient, and a wound to the arm or leg, or in the body wouldn’t stop them, it only slowed them down.
The ballistae couldn’t be used during the night, they needed to clearly see the target, this was the time for them to take the ship, they needed this to be decisive and they needed to take all the Marn out. Whitlaw had said no prisoners were to be taken. He wanted that ship, and the crew out of the battle. They fought for three hours, and just as the sun rose, they took the ship. Jason told his father that they had the ship, and all the Marn had been killed. Whitlaw got prepared to leave, he needed to see that ship, and find out the defenses. He would be the only one who could make heads or tails of the ships controls.
He arrived by midday, and when he entered the ship, the air was fouled with the smell of dead bodies. He entered the ships control room and after making a careful inspection of the all the controls, the weapons on board, and the transmitter, he went to the engineering section and inspected the engines, and the hyper-drive. He was surprised, the technology was fairly simple, and the hyper-drive was ancient, even for Earth standards, and they had only had hyper-drive capabilities for three hundred years. When he inspected the fuel cells, he found why they were so volatile, they used a fuel that was held in two cylinders, the mixing of the fuels provided combustion, and they had a control valve assembly and direction nozzle. Very simple. They carried rudimentary torpedoes, and they only had shields that worked in space.
He left the ship, ordered all the Guardians back to a safe distance, and ordered the ballistae to target the outer hulls. When they had piled the bodies near the ship, and left the area, he ordered them to fire on the ship. They launched the ballistae and four bolts struck the hulls, and the ship exploded.
He ordered the troops to collect the wounded and the dead, to retrieve any bolts that had survived the explosion and sent all the Guardians back to where they had been before the battle. He now knew exactly how to target the ships.
Whitlaw knew that this was going to be a tough battle, there were still nineteen scout ships and a heavy cruiser to contend with. He didn’t know how they were going to take out the cruiser unless it came down to land. With a ship that size, he was fairly certain the ballistae wouldn’t penetrate the hull, when that ship came down, they would have to contend with at least three hundred Marn soldiers armed with pulse rifles and phase pistols. The thoughts of that battle were enough to make him feel sick inside, he needed to worry about that ship when it came out of orbit, until then, the Guardians had to take out the scout ships to force a battle with the cruiser and Skagos.
Lantana alerted them to two more ships descending towards the planet, he followed his battle plan, split his forces and sent Jama with one group, and Jason with the other, they needed to be in the area and take those ships out as quickly as possible. The glacier and snow fields had forced the Marn to select areas to land that worked in the Guardians favor. It took the Marn ships an hour to descend and land, and with his forces already in the field, they had the upper hand unless the Marn deployed all their ships at once, which, no good commander would do. It’s better to lose a few ships and gain some victories, as opposed to possibly losing your whole fleet. Skagos didn’t know how many ballistae they had and they were portable.
They met the two ships, one they destroyed in the air, the other landed near Jason’s forces and the battle was hot and heavy for nearly three hours, before a ballistae shot ruptured one of the fuel hulls. Jason’s forces were far enough away to not get caught in the blast, but they had lost men. He counted his wounded and dead, he had thirty-nine men injured, and ten dead. The Marn had one group of soldiers dug in and they were hard pressed to rout them out. Whitlaw suggested that a Guardian drop on their site two hours after dark, and Jason decided that he was the one to do it.
Jason and Shandarro were aloft an hour after dark, circling, when they got the word, they dropped like a falcon diving for a grouse, and landed in the middle of the Marn. Before they could turn and train their weapons on them, Jason had dispatched all but two, Shandarro had one pinned to the ground, and Jason dispatched the other. It was a victory, but it was hollow for Jason, he discovered that he didn’t enjoy killing them, it was something necessary.
His father had explained that some soldiers get caught up in blood lust, and even though they could accomplish great things, a good soldier kept his head and used his brain to fight, being aware of your surroundings would keep you alive longer than being drawn into the lust of the battle and going berserk. He had seen the value of that in the ambush on the Marn. Keeping his head, had saved his life.
The battles had been going on for weeks, the Marn had started sending only one ship at a time. The Guardians were exhausted; they had destroyed all the Marn fleet with the exception of the heavy cruiser, and three scout ships. They knew that the Marn Commander, Skagos, was getting frustrated. They had destroyed his armada. Whitlaw told them that he was going to make a fatal mistake sooner or later, with only four ships left out of thirty, his forces were demoralized, and he was surprised that they hadn’t withdrawn, or sent for reinforcements.
They had no idea how many forces the Marn had. They knew they had conquered and enslaved many worlds, and that they were cruel beyond description. But Embrellon was a thorn in their side. They had done everything possible to subdue the planet, and still they were losing troops, equipment, and spending enormous amounts of resources to conquer this one world.
They had a lull in the fighting, that worried Whitlaw, when an enemy withdrew with at least six hundred troops still able to fight, it usually meant that they were waiting for reinforcements, or were planning something desperate. He decided it was the latter. Skagos didn’t strike him as one who would send for reinforcements. He had too much pride. He was going to try and make a decisive strike that would end the Guardians. Figuring out your enemies next move had been his strong point as a strategist, he had an understanding beyond most and had been able to read his opponents better than they could read him.
He called his commanders together, he wanted them prepared for what he thought Skagos was going to attempt. He had figured he was going to launch a three prong attack and in the middle of the attack, he was going to land his battle cruiser and try and crush the Guardian forces once and for all.
Whitlaw anticipating Skagos’ battle strategy, gave him the edge, he pulled eight of the ballistae and got them way back. The Marn forces had been landing in the same general area, he wanted the sixteen ballistae to be trained on the sky in that area. He had all the Rangers grouped into platoons of one hundred and twenty, he had six platoons on the ground in the same general area. The beauty of troops that could go airborne, was they didn’t need to be under the ship to get into place, just needed to be in the general area.
They were as prepared as they could be, and now came the hardest part, staying alert and waiting. The Seers were watching everything, the Marn ships, the Guardians in the field, the Rangers, and the Scouts. They were almost at the point of exhaustion. The round the clock watching was taking its toll on them. They hadn’t had a break in several days, every time they would change groups, and start to sleep, something else had brought them all back. Kaba only went so far, it was a great refresher, and could give them the energy to go for hours, but they still needed sleep. Lantana told four of the Seers, to go to the couches along the wall, and sleep. She told their Bond-Mates to help them to sleep. When they had slept for a few hours, she woke them and four more took a turn at sleeping. They did this until all had slept but her, and she collapsed from exhaustion. They laid her on a couch, and Braela stood guard while she slept. The other’s kept a watch on everything and continued the sleep rotations until everyone was rested, then they woke Lantana, gave her some kaba and some food, and they were all refreshed just in time for the last invasion.
Just as Whitlaw had thought, the three scout ships descended and as they were almost within range, the heavy cruiser started its descent. Whitlaw had them hold their fire until the heavy cruiser was committed to landing. If they came down just a little further, they would have to land to relaunch to space. The three scout ships landed, and just as the heavy cruiser reached the point of no return, they opened fire on the scout ships, two immediately exploded, the third, was unharmed and the Marn forces came out of the ship. Skagos was a better tactician than Whitlaw had given him credit for. Two of the ships were on remote, all of the crews were in one ship. Almost four hundred Marn soldiers poured out of the last ship, and it was a hard pitched battle, the heavy cruiser was going to land and they hadn’t overcome the forces on the ground. He signaled all the ballistae to focus their firing on the heavy cruiser, they opened fire, and kept firing. They damaged the ship, but they didn’t know how bad. When the ship landed another four hundred Marn exited the heavy cruiser. Whitlaw knew they had to get the upper hand and do it quick or they would be in serious trouble. He was angry with himself, he had underestimated Skagos, he was a good tactician and had correctly determined what Whitlaw would do, he sacrificed two ships, but landed with close to eight hundred Marn, a force almost equal to all his men, they had to do something and quick.
One of the ballista finally scored a solid hit on the Scout ship, when it exploded it killed half the Marn force it had carried and at least one hundred Guardians. It was a devastating blow. The other Guardians concentrated their fire on the remaining Marn, but less than four kilometers to the east, was another force of four hundred and they were on their way to reinforce these Marn. The battle wasn’t going well for the Guardians. Whitlaw commanded all the Guardians to withdraw, the ballistae were far enough out that he had his men regroup at the ballistae, and wait for instructions. The last thing he wanted was to give Skagos an opportunity to unite his forces, Skagos had left a contingent of troops with the heavy cruiser, he would need to leave the planet and his forces needed a ship.
Yoran had been watching the battle through the Seers, he had realized that targeting the center hull was pointless, the way to destroy the ship was to hit one of the two outer hulls and the ship would explode due to the volatile reaction between the two chemicals they used for fuel. He had the Seers forward the information to Whitlaw, to Yoran, it seemed that the destruction of the ships had been accidental. They had launched enough bolts from the ballistae to puncture one of the outer hulls. Hitting the central hull didn’t destroy the ship.
Whitlaw commanded the ballistae to focus all their fire on the outer hulls, they needed to destroy the heavy cruiser, it they could, it would demoralize Skagos’ men to the point of surrender. While the Rangers refocused the ballistae, he divided his troops. He sent part of them to get behind the remainder of the troops from the scout ship, he sent one platoon to follow the main force that Skagos commanded, and the rest he sent to the center. He didn’t want to have his troops caught in a pincer movement by Skagos and he needed time for the ballistae to hit that ship. They had all seen the explosive force of the engines. He didn’t want to kill his own troops just to wipe out Skagos and the Marn. He wanted them to leave the planet and warn the Marn to stay away from Embrellon. To believe that it was too costly to try and subdue the planet.
His strategy was to sustain heavy fire on the ship, cause Skagos to stay and try and protect the ship, after all, they came here to capture Skree and take women as captives, if they destroyed them, they wouldn’t have their prizes. It was a costly battle. The attack the Guardians had commenced had the Marn pinned down. They dug in, fortified their positions, and fought. This was the decisive battle that Whitlaw needed. The outcome could do two things. Destroy the Marn force and possibly face continued invasions for as long as there were Skree and women, or hurt them so badly and allow them to leave to carry the message back to Marn that Embrellon was a place they needed to stay away from.
Skagos’ hatred for the Skree was beyond reason. He wanted to wipe out all the Skree, and remove the protectors of Embrellon. He had realized that what protected Marn from invasion was the Skree, without them, there would be no Guardians. They formed their relationship with the humanoids as a means to protect the planet. It wasn’t the people he needed to kill, just the Skree and he would kill them, or die trying. Someone with that kind of resolve was a hard enemy to defeat.
Yoran had been watching this battle intently, he found no fault in Whitlaw’s tactics, but he realized they needed to tip the scales in their favor. He realized that to do that, they needed to stop Skagos and he looked at Lantana and told her to touch Skagos mind and get his attention. Lantana was unsure, but Yoran insisted. She gathered all the Seers, and with a combined push, touched Skagos mind. They were shocked and appalled. All of his hatred focused on the Skree for maiming him when he was younger came through, they saw it between the orbs, the attack by the Skree that maimed him, his rise to power, his galvanizing the Marn to renew their attacks on Embrellon and to destroy the Skree. It was almost too much to bear for the Seers, but Yoran pushed them through.
Once Yoran knew why Skagos hated the Skree so much, he contacted Whitlaw, it was time to change tactics. He needed to capture Skagos, not kill him. They needed to bring the Marn leader to the Seers. When he told this to Whitlaw and showed him why, Whitlaw had his troops focus on capturing Skagos. It made the battle different, they were no longer trying to wipe out the Marn invaders, they needed to capture them to capture Skagos.
Whitlaw had the rangers cease firing the ballistae, he didn’t want the ship destroyed. He wanted Skagos to leave Marn carrying a message back to the Marn, leave Embrellon alone, never to return, or face the Guardians and have their forces wiped out. Yoran had the Seers touch Skagos’ mind, and speak to him. He was startled to hear them in his head, he didn’t know what to think of it. He heard their voices and saw their faces as they spoke to him. It infuriated him to have someone in his head, talking to him. There was more to these Guardians than he had known. There were no Marn capable of reaching into someone’s mind.
The Guardians had brought the number of Marn down to less than two hundred, they had almost destroyed the entire force, and had destroyed all their ships but one, Skagos could see that they were going to be defeated and his dreams of wiping out those accursed beasts was going up in smoke. He called for a cease fire. Whitlaw obliged. He wanted to parlay with Whitlaw and discuss a withdrawal. It took all he had not to kill Skagos, Yoran pressed him to bring him to the Seers.
Whitlaw took the Marn and disarmed them, he was down to disarming Skagos, and Jama came up to Skagos to take his weapons and Skagos shot him through the heart. He hit the ground dead. Before anyone could stop him, Skelon attacked Skagos and took off his right hand, the one holding the phase pistol. After he had been subdued, Skelon dropped to the ground dead. If a Skree Bond-Mate was killed or died, the bond was so strong the Skree would die as well. Occasionally, a Skree would die and their Bond-Mate would survive, but they always seemed to be half a person and usually didn’t live long afterwards.
Whitlaw was enraged, this was his closest friend next to Yoran, and Skagos had just killed him, out of malice. With his hand missing, he was no longer a threat, but the rage was almost more than he could contain. Yoran speaking to him through the Seers, once again made him keep control and to bring Skagos to the Seers. They needed to make a point to him, and losing a hand wasn’t what they needed to do, but they were going to use it.
They took the Marn prisoners and Skagos to the Temple. The Seers were waiting for them. They didn’t need the room to do what was needed. They were there with their staves in hand, ready to make the impression on Skagos that Yoran had directed them to make. They showed Skagos the destruction of all his men and his ship, they also made him see that if they came back, the Guardians would be ready, prepared, and would fight them to the last man. Skagos said “I’ll leave your worthless ball of dirt and not return, on one condition, you face me with swords.” It shocked Whitlaw, most men who had just lost a hand, wouldn’t have the strength to duel. Skagos had his men cauterize the stump of his hand, bandage it and then signaled to Whitlaw he was ready.
Whitlaw was the best swordsman on Embrellon, he had taught them how to use their swords, and he had been an exceptional fencer when he was in the academy. This was different, they weren’t fencing, this was a duel, and he knew it was Skagos intent to kill him, demoralizing the Guardians, taking their leader, and then the planet. This duel would determine the outcome for the whole world. All Skagos had on the line was his life. He had already lost the war. He would be fighting for revenge for losing his men and his hand.
Whitlaw circled warily, Skagos only had one hand, but was undaunted, he seemed to be fine with just one hand. They circled each other, occasionally offering a sword thrust, a parry, testing each other’s skills and defenses. Whitlaw knew that Skagos was a skilled swordsman, even with only one hand, he was deadly with a blade. They had given him one of their blades. The odds seemed even, he needed to make an example of Skagos, and Skagos needed to kill him. It would be intense. Skagos went on the offense to test Whitlaw’s skill with a blade. After a maddening minute of sword thrusts, different attack techniques, he realized he was facing an experience swordsman. One who could just as easily take his life as not. He wasn’t dismayed, he had as much of a chance as Whitlaw, he had that much confidence in his skills with a blade.
Whitlaw obliged him with the same type of attack, he let him think he was at the end of his knowledge of the blade, good, but not great. He wanted Skagos to make a mistake, give him overconfidence, and he would make a fatal mistake. They came in close almost face to face, swords crossed at the hilts, and Whitlaw felt Skagos strength. For someone who had lost a hand, his vitality didn’t seem diminished. He shoved Whitlaw back and tried to follow with a sword thrust, Whitlaw back peddled and parried. Skagos was surprised at his ability to parry while going backwards. They continued circling, thrust, parry, slash, parry, over and over, Whitlaw was trying to tire Skagos. He was injured, he was as tired as Whitlaw, and he was still coming. He had no quit in him, and that was something that Whitlaw could admire.
The fight wore on, both of them had tried to end the fight quickly, and they were just too good of swordsmen for that to happen. That meant forcing the other to make a mistake, and so far, neither had. Whitlaw had a couple of scratches from a close blade and was bleeding. Skagos stump had started weeping and was blood soaked. He had sustained a couple of scratches himself and was bleeding from those as well. Whitlaw still knew he was the better swordsman, he just had to wait for the opening he wanted to end the fight. He had developed a warrior’s respect for Skagos, he was probably the best swordsman Whitlaw had ever faced, and on any other field, they might have become allies; but Skagos had attacked his home, he was the aggressor and that meant sending him back to Marn as a message.
Skagos was as aware as Whitlaw that this fight needed to end, he was at the limits of his endurance. He pressed the fight and was shocked at the flurry of moves Whitlaw used. He was a blur of movement, going so fast that his defense was impenetrable, then seemingly out of nowhere, he vaulted into the air, somersaulted over the head of Skagos, landed behind him crouched in position for a sweeping sword thrust, Skagos was turning to face him with his arm raised and in that instant, Whitlaw severed his arm between the elbow and shoulder.
Skagos fell to the ground clutching his severed arm with the stump of his right hand, his men came forward and helped him to his feet. They cauterized the stump, bandaged it, and faced Whitlaw and the Guardians. Skagos bowed to Whitlaw, he was the better swordsman. Then one of the Marn stepped forward and presenting the sword back to Whitlaw, expected him to finish Skagos as was their custom on Marn.
Skagos kneeled and showing no fear of any kind, waited for the swing of the sword that would remove his head, and end his life. The sword never fell. Whitlaw waited for it to sink in on Skagos that he wasn’t going to kill him, he was sending him back maimed. Skagos screeched in horror, it was a shame to send a Marn home maimed, he didn’t die in battle, or in single combat, and he couldn’t return to Marn, they would feed him to the meera, and his name and accomplishments would be forever struck from any records, it was the worst dishonor Whitlaw could give him.
Skagos looked at Whitlaw and said “Don’t take my legacy and send me back to Marn in disgrace. They will feed me to the maga and take my family out and execute the men, and force the women into pleasure service.” Whitlaw looked at him and with disgust in his voice said “Why should I spare your family the very fate you would have condemned every woman on Embrellon too, my wife, my daughter, and any other woman you could take?” he took a deep breath and continued “I am sending you back to Marn to live the life you would have forced on all Brellons and Skree alike. To fight to the death for your pleasure, with their wings taken, and using our women for your play toys, until they were old and worn out. I don’t think your fate should be any less.” With that, he turned and walked away, leaving the Rangers to take them back to their ship and make sure they departed.
The fight was gone out of them, they had trudged back slowly, not wanting the fate they would face, because Skagos fate would be their fate as well. They would all die a horrible death, being fed to a carnivorous plant that ate whatever came within its grasp, none of them could escape the fate of a Marn who failed in conquest. It was better to die, than to return home defeated.
Whitlaw had disarmed their weapons and destroyed their torpedo controls, they were doomed to return to space, and then return home. There was no way around it. They silently boarded their ship, and once they were aboard, the engines hummed to life, the Marn lifted off the surface and when they were almost in orbit, their ship exploded in a blast of light. Whitlaw figured they had a self-destruct on their ship, and used it. They were gone for now, but he knew that the Marn aggression was far from over. Until they developed some sort of overpowering weapon to use against the Marn, they would keep coming back. He figured that they would be at peace for a while. Without a ship returning, they would assume that Skagos failed, and would take some time before they had a new leader come forward and start another invasion. Until then they had defenses to build, and other things that needed done, most importantly, a funeral for Jama.
It was a sad, sad, day for all the Guardians, they had planned a state funeral for all the fallen and had decided to prepare a special dedication for Jama. He had sent for the stone mason Master Craftsman, he wanted a statue erected in honor of Jama and Skelon, the first Guardians to be killed face to face. In Whitlaw’s eyes his death had been senseless and Skagos was dead now as well. Jama and Skelon would be remembered as long as there were Guardians.
After all the funeral pyres had been lit, they moved the statue into the main hall of the Temple, he wanted everyone who entered the halls and went to the Council Chambers or to see the Seers, to pass the statue. They had placed his armor and weapons on the statue. The Craft Master had carved the Statue in two separate pieces, they had placed the saddle and armor on Skelon, then put the armor on the statue of Jama and placed him in the saddle, as though he were about to take off and fly. His swords were in their scabbards, his bow and arrows, and crossbow slung on the statue. It was a fitting tribute to the Velan who had become the first Guardian.
There would be others, of that he was sure, and he figured he and Regulus would one day be there as well, he hoped that it was a long time before they needed to place a statue on the other side to balance out the hall. Jama would be missed. He had been a part of his life just as Yoran, Lara, and his children, he really didn’t want to live long enough to see any of their statues in the hall.
Risa when she saw the statue in the hall, broke down and sobbed, Yoran lifted her up in his arms, let her cry into his shoulder and carried her to Whitlaw’s quarters. It would be a somber night, and it would take time to ease the pain they all felt at the loss of Jama. Even Jamar and Tarmand who were usually so full of life and energy seemed dull and grey. It was a huge loss for him. He had always seen his father as a man who couldn’t be defeated, and in a sword duel, he was no slouch. He had seen Jama take out many Marn since becoming a Guardian, and he had taught him to sword fight from the time he was eight. The only better swordsman on the planet was Whitlaw, or possibly Jason, depending on how much experience he had gained.
Lantana came into the room, she was dressed in her Seers robe, had her staff, amulet and diadem, and when she came in Jamar looked at her and in his heart knew he wanted her as his Life-Mate. “Jama, ask her father and then ask her. She feels the same way about you as you do her.” Jamar was surprised at Tarmand, he was apparently desirous of being mated to Rhela, as much as he desired Lantana. With no more urging needed, he faced Whitlaw, he was trembling, he had watched the duel with Skagos, and was shocked at some of Whitlaw’s sword techniques. He had never seen a sword move so fast, not even his father could have moved a sword that fast and Whitlaw was nearing sixty, and had no grey hair and he seemed as vital as when he had seen him the first time, twenty-five years earlier.
He gathered his courage and he let out a slow, long breath, he said “Commander, I would like to ask your permission to take Lantana as my Life-Mate, and for you to bless the union and we, Tarmand and I promise to protect her and Braela for as long as there is breath in our bodies.” With that he let out his breath, Whitlaw looked at him surprised, and then said “That is Lantana’s decision. If she desires you, and Rhela desires Tarmand, then who are we to object. Of course I will give you my blessing, but you need Lantana and Braela’s blessing more than you need mine.”
Jamar turned to Lantana, and as always, she took his breath away, she had a smile in her eyes, and he started “Lantana, it is our desire, Tarmand and mine, to be your and Braela’s Life-Mates. Will you accept us and become our Life-Mates?” He waited holding his breath, Jason was sitting on the other side of the table, he and Shamira were extremely happy and he wanted his sister to have the same in his life, just as their parents had. She looked up at Jamar, her blue eyes shining with tears of happiness, even on such a sad day, she whispered “Yes Jamar, I will be your Life-Mate. Braela and I would consider it an honor to be with you and Tarmand,” with that all the Whitlaw’s cheered and Risa cried, and Yoran clapped Jamar on the shoulder so hard it almost knocked him from his chair. He laughed. He had a new family. His mother had gone on several years before his father, and Jana his aunt, was with her own Life-Mate, he was no longer alone.
As they were finishing dinner and sipping hot kaba, Yoran said “I have an announcement to make, one I hope you all approve of. Even though I can’t be bound to a bond-mate and share what all of you have, because I am a null, I want you to know that Risa and I have decided to be Life-Mates after your manner. She and I are greatly fond of each other, and even though I seriously doubt it’s possible for us to have children, we have each other, and I wanted all of you to know first.” Whitlaw howled, he had been trying to get Yoran to do something like this since he first noticed Risa twenty-five years earlier, now he had actually done it, he had no reason to leave anymore. They would be able to work together as they always had, building new and inventive ways to defend their home, and continue to build the Guardians and make them stronger.
Jama’s sacrifice had made them stronger, not weaker, they were now more determined to protect Embrellon than ever, and with the people that surrounded them, they would prosper. The Twins would grow and when the time came, Jason would take his place, just as Lantana was now the leader of the Seers, Jason someday would be the leader of the Guardians. Life had been good to him, and he had travelled halfway across the galaxy to find the place where he belonged.