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Silent Thunder (Repost & finished!)


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A while ago (read: before TIF fubar'ed) I posted the first couple of sections of this as an experiment in first person writing.




Now, I've finished it.








(I'll still separate them into "chapters" for easy reading. If you want the full text, it's also on deviantART. That version isn't censored.)

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Phase One: West-11








The platoon sergeant was a hard-[wagon] named Aldred Molte. I'd met his type before: humourless, dedicated, a lifer. I knew how to deal with those people. My problem was the officious runt that High Command had seconded to me to act as my adjutant, a sharp-faced little weasel called Chenski. I'd spent the past week travelling down from Velind in his company, and I didn't care to be around him for much longer. The blank stares that greeted us when we stepped into the chilly briefing theatre told me that not many of the men in our new unit were too thrilled about having a new CO. At the time, I'd attributed that to Chenski's innate ability to inspire dislike from sober people.




While Chenski set up a battered projector unit, Molte approached me. He was an imposing man, tall and heavily muscled. His one good eye glared at me with unmasked contempt.




'You're the new lieutenant,' he said. It wasn't even a question. There was no salute. No formal introduction. Just his eye, looking down the length of his battered nose at me. I returned his stare as best I could. I did not come several hundred miles across the Empire's heartland to be intimidated by a non-com.




'I am,' I said, while Chenski banged his fist enthusiastically on the side of the projector. It stuttered to life, the slide carriage whirring and clicking as it waited for the briefing plates. 'Lieutenant Godwin Valzand,' I introduced myself, raising my voice so that the men towards the back of the room could hear me. I imagined that some of them chuckled quietly, enjoying the sight of this jumped-up young aristocrat trying to look calm under Molte's glare. I let it slip. I wasn't about to come across as an uptight disciplinarian. I had Chenski to play the part of the protocol-obsessed officer for me, which, sadly, was just about all the use I could see for him. I still wasn't sure exactly why the powers that be had sent him along.




But just as I didn't want to make a poor impression by disciplining a trooper in my first few minutes with the platoon, I wasn't going to let Molte have the upper hand. 'Take a seat, sergeant,' I said with all the calmness I could muster, which, believe me, was a great feat when in front of Aldred Molte. To my relief, he took the order without so much as a sneer.




Chenski had loaded the plates into the projector, and a sepia topographical map was flickering on the display screen.




I would deal with Molte later.




I took them through several glass slides. Maps, timetables, hazard recognition guides. I felt like I was wasting my time. The men only paid enough attention to see what was on the next plate. They had done this before.








Truth be told, neither Molte nor Chenski were the biggest problems I faced in my new unit. They were simply the most visible. The real problem, the one that Command glossed over and which worried me to no end, was represented by the empty seats in that briefing theatre. It was a standard pattern room, like thousands of its kind across the Empire. The platoon should have had no problem filling it up. Instead, they barely occupied half of it.




Seventy per cent casualties. Legio VI's attached Pathfinder unit had sustained seventy per cent casualties in their last action.




It baffled Imperial analysts. Until that disaster, casualties among Pathfinder units had never gone above ten per cent in any single deployment. There had been inquiries as to how Colonel Valke had managed to squander such a precious resource. The 6th's Pathfinders had lost their command element. Molte, for all his bluster, had only had command of the platoon for a month. He was the only line sergeant who had survived. Command thought that the casualties were the only problem with 6th's Pathfinders, which is why they'd sent me in as their new CO. Even before I'd left Velind, they were already preparing to reallocate Pathfinders from other regiments into the 6th's complement, as well as fresh recruits. It was sloppy pen-pushing, without a care for the issues that arise from traumatic situations like these.




The real problem was morale. With Command anxious to make some use of the Pathfinders regardless, grossly under strength as they were, that was going to be a serious issue.




And, of course, Command left me to worry about that on my own.








I found Molte in the lee of the theatre, puffing on a cheap smoke-stick while the mist-like rain swirled around him. The rest of the platoon had dispersed, and I'd left Chenski inside to clear up. Like me, Molte had a dark green greatcoat over his shoulders. He spared me a glance before returning his attention to the distance, sucking on his narcotic tube like he had a grudge against it. I followed his gaze to a fenced-off landing field, where a laden Condor flyer was bucking into the air, its four engines aimed downwards at full power to provide it with lift. We could hear their shrill whining from a mile away.




'The men aren't happy,' I said, after a few moments of watching the lumbering cargo lifter.




'Yeah,' Molte said, as though I'd just said the stupidest thing in the world.




'What happened, sergeant?' I asked. The Condor had enough altitude; now the rear engines were swinging into position, and it was powering away to the north-east. Molte half-turned so he could glare at me.




'Frag off,' he barked back. 'Why do you care? Sir,' he added as an afterthought, like he wasn't used to saying it. I let it go. Pathfinders were used to operating outside of normal command structures. I wouldn't make things worse for myself by punishing every little disciplinary lapse. Still, I thought I should leave the issue for the moment. Molte was evidently not going to be forthcoming, especially so soon.




'Someone has to, sergeant,' I said as I walked away.








I used the brisk walk from the briefing theatre to the Pathfinder barracks where I was to be billeted to examine the surroundings. I hadn't had the time to do it earlier; as soon as Chenski and I arrived, we'd been bundled into a rattling old hover-coach and taken directly to the briefing theatre.




Camp West-11, as its impersonal, soulless name was in the Imperial records, was a field operating base situated along the heartland's western border, just south of the arc-woods that marched down from the foothills of the mountains. It was one of four held by Legio VI, one of the oldest and proudest of Dramaskus' illustrious armies. It was a dreary, rain-soaked place, its earthworks and wire-mesh fencing as colourless as its name. Shapeless concrete buildings huddled around a central parade ground, their windows dull and square and lifeless. Glowlamps buzzed faintly in the rain, illuminating the main thoroughfares. In the half-light of a machine shop, I saw a work team servicing a field gun.




Until the next rotation, the men of the 6th's second company would call this depressing place home.








Ordinarily, the Pathfinders of Legio VI occupied all of a single barrack hall, the troopers filling the bunks at platoon strength, while the two officers had their own, albeit small, rooms. Now, the eight remaining troopers Molte had yet to return crowded into the fraction of the building towards the door. They sat in a small group, talking quietly as I walked in, shrugging off my rain-soaked greatcoat. It was as though they were cautious of making too much noise; certainly, my booted footsteps echoed around the disconcertingly empty hall.




'As you were,' I said, as some of the troopers started to rise. I was inspecting the officers' quarters. One, which showed signs of habitation despite its spartan cleanliness, was evidently Molte's. The other, which I took to be the one I would have, was devoid of any human touch in its sterile appearance.




'Sir?' one of the troopers said behind me, and I turned. I tried to recall his name from the personnel files I'd been provided.




'Tyrg,' I said after barely a moment's hesitation, which I hoped the act of taking my hat off had masked. 'What is it?'




'Are we all gonna die, sir?' he asked me with what struck me as unusual frankness. There was no sign of fear in any of the troopers' eyes, just blank, dispirited expressions. 'Patrol into the arc-woods, sir. Nobody does that without at least a platoon. One squad'll never make it out. Are they trying to finish us off?'




'I have complete confidence in your abilities, Tyrg,' I said, though I found his last remark particularly disturbing. I put it to the back of my mind, to mull over later. He appeared to be somewhat mollified, though, and the other troopers' expressions softened a little. 'We're only checking out a battery that hasn't reported for a few days. We'll figure out what's wrong, and we'll have their relief force in there and be back for breakfast the next day.'




'Speaking plainly, sir,' said another trooper. Zydanne, the one surviving marksman, I recalled. 'That battery's dead. You get posted to the arc-woods, you report every day. Two is stretching it. You don't report for three days, then you're dead. If it's not a discharge, then it's arc-fauna, or it's mutes. You don't frag with the arc-woods, sir.'




'I know, Zydanne,' I said, with sincere confidence, 'but we're Pathfinders. There won't be any problems.'




Of course, I turned out to be horribly wrong.








In the morning, I took Molte aside, while the Pathfinders went for their morning run. It was easy, particularly in that lonely barrack room, to forget that no matter how few were left, they were still among the very best fighting men the Empire could produce, rivaled only by the Palace Guard in their effectiveness. Now, they were giving the other troopers of Legio VI pause as they ran lap after lap of the compound, long after other men would have collapsed from exhaustion. But my attention was not on them; it was on the one-eyed sergeant that stood before me in the rain, his arms crossed over his barrel chest.




'I expect your cooperation, sergeant,' I said as a platoon of regular troopers filed past, giving voice to a rousing anthem. 'I will tolerate your insubordination within reasonable limits, as long as you keep it well away from where the fighting is.'




Molte stared at me for a few moments before saying, 'I know how a command structure works, lieutenant.' He placed a great deal of stress on my rank, as though it were something he'd found in a latrine. 'And you can give all the orders you want, but frag me if the men will follow them if I don't say they should. I know my men a damn sight better than you do.'




'I don't want to make this hard for you, Molte. Don't make me.'




'Then frag off,' he said. 'We don't need you.'




The boldness of his words wrong-footed me for a moment. Just a moment. 'You do, sergeant. More than you would care to admit, you need someone who knows how authority works. You think you're all right, because you've handled the platoon on your own for a month. That's piss, Molte. You've only been in charge of a squad. That's all that's left. When Command brings in fresh bodies, you need someone who can handle them. That's me. Like it or not, you're going to have to get used to having me in charge, because that's what's going to happen.'




'You don't -'




'Shut up, Molte,' I said. I still had a trump card, but I would not use it now. If I had my way, I never would. Instead, I decided to appeal to his loyalties. 'Lose the attitude. When you joined up, you made an oath to love the Emperor and uphold the Imperial order. I am part of that order, and that order says that I am supposed to tell you what to do. I didn't ask to be here, sergeant. I am here because I swore the same oath you did in front of the same god damn flag. I do what the Empire tells me to do. Do you understand what that means, Molte?'




The Pathfinders were coming back. One by one, they were halting near where we stood talking, drenched in sweat and rainwater. Whatever either I or Molte said next, they would hear. I fervently hoped that Molte would say what I wanted him to say without my having to force him, for the sake of the men's spirits. Having an obvious division between their leaders would do nothing for morale.




'I do what I do in the name of the Emperor, lieutenant,' he said finally, grudgingly, if I was any judge. 'If that means I have to do as you say, then so be it.'




I almost breathed a sigh of relief, though I knew that Molte did not like nor respect me any more for saying what he did. I could work on that. What mattered was that the men heard what he said. They looked at me curiously, as though wondering what I had done to sway the tough old sergeant to my side.




Before I could say anything else, Chenski came up, his boots covered in mud from having run across the parade ground from the communications building. I returned his crisp salute resignedly.




'Our transport is being prepared for launch, sir,' he said breathlessly, his voice a nasal whine that accentuated his rat-like appearance. 'It should be ready in two hours.'




'Grab your kit,' I told the men once I'd dismissed Chenski. 'Let's do this.'

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Phase Two: Scouting








The Falcon transport flyer that was going to take us into our mission area squatted lazily on the landing field, its four lift engines idling in the rain. Chenski was waving his arms, his whining voice competing with the stationary craft in its annoying pitch. He was trying to form up the Pathfinders to get them into the Falcon's passenger hold in an orderly fashion. They ignored him, instead opting to embark in whatever order suited them. Chenski was only succeeding in making them irritated enough to want to be inside and away from his voice.




I ducked into the low-ceilinged cabin last, just after Chenski and Molte. The two pilots, dressed in black and grey bodysuits, their faces hidden behind the black visors of their flight helmets, were making final checks in the cockpit.




I stood at the starboard hatch, holding onto an overhead rail. The Pathfinders had buckled themselves into the seats that lined each wall of the passenger cabin, their kit bags bundled under them, except for a muscle-bound trooper named Belkin, who sat just inside the port hatch. He had a huge, non-standard issue repeater cannon in his lap. He grinned at me when he noticed me looking.




'Never know when we need to land hot,' he said, patting his weapon. It looked for all the world like he'd salvaged it from a flyer's weapon pod and jury-rigged it to be man-portable; I later learned that, against regulations and common sense, that was exactly what he had done.




'What's the matter with him?' I asked Molte, nodding towards Zydanne, who was muttering something under his breath, his long marksman's rifle held tightly against his chest.




'Does it all the time,' the sergeant said, still in his characteristically unfriendly manner.




'Fragger's scared of flying,' Tyrg put in as the Falcon's engines rose to full power. He said something else that I couldn't hear over the noise of the flyer lifting off.




'LZ in one hour,' the co-pilot said over the cabin's intercom.








I love flying. I enjoy moments like these, standing at the open hatch of a Falcon, looking down on the world below and seeing what looks like all of creation set before me. I revel in the sensation of the wind on my face, and the sense of freedom that comes with hurtling through the open sky.




Of the Pathfinders, only Belkin seemed to share my enthusiasm. The muscular trooper sat at the port hatch, looking out towards the approaching shadows of the arc-woods with something approaching rapture on his broad face, his repeater cannon cradled in his arms like a beloved child.




Everyone else was looking anywhere but out of the open hatches. Molte was glaring at something on the cabin wall opposite him. Tyrg and a lean trooper called Jurin were passing a note pad and a pencil back and forth, playing rings and stars. Zydanne was hugging his rifle, his hands clasped around a steel pendant as he prayed to the First Emperors. Troopers Rorn, Talgus and Goznev were cleaning their carbines. Corporal Yenkov was sharpening his long combat knife. Chenski was busy trying not to throw up.




The arc-woods were drawing closer. I could see the jagged canopy ahead, just a growing smear of bluish shadow in the distance. Occasionally, a burst of purple energy would discharge from somewhere deep in the tainted forest, where ancient arcane residue seeped out, pooled, and erupted into the sky. Each time one of the pillars of crazed light ripped up out of the canopy, I recoiled in disgust. Places like these arc-woods were stark reminders of the terrible price the Empire had paid in the past to maintain its dominion.




Centuries ago, when Dramaskus' legions still used swords and magic like its backward enemies, the heartland's western forests became a theatre of unbridled savagery. Terrible powers were wielded for decades without restraint. By the time the war had moved on, the woods were tainted beyond repair, vast arcane energies having become embedded into the land itself. Over the years, we had felt the repercussions of that ruthless war: aberrant beasts, arc-storms, mutants.




But the Empire still maintained outposts in the arc-woods. Denying them as an avenue for future invasion was deemed worth the risk of posting soldiers in their hellish depths. I always intended to point out that the woods did a fair enough job of making themselves inaccessible without us wasting manpower to ensure it, but somehow, I didn't think that Command would ever listen.




Rain was beginning to fall again. Droplets fluttered in through the hatch, stinging my face. It was fast becoming bitterly cold, and I drew my greatcoat around myself, buttoning it up the front, for all the good that it would do.




Suddenly, there was a deep, staccato roar as Belkin's repeater cannon opened up. I whipped around in time to see a huge, green avian, almost half the size of the Falcon, with a gaping maw filled with teeth. It was shrieking as it swooped towards us, beating at the air with four wings, its barbed tail lashing. Just one of many examples of fauna warped by the arc-woods. Belkin's cannon churned out large-calibre shells, and the thing came apart in a puff of pink mist.




We had not even reached our destination, and already, the arc-woods were fighting us.








The light drizzle had become a torrential downpour by the time we arrived. The downblast of the engines blew the treetops aside, rainwater gusting away in arcs as it was shaken off the swaying branches. Our LZ was a small, rocky clearing about a quarter of a mile away from the battery we were to inspect. The Falcon's spotlamps swept the immediate area, casting shadows that danced and leapt between the trees as they swung from side to side. The rain was coming down in sheets, limiting our visibility despite the flyer's lights.




The arc-woods were quiet save for the howling wind and the hiss of the rain, but I could feel the tension in the Pathfinders as we descended. They all held their weapons at the ready: revolver carbines for the troopers, except for Belkin and Zydanne, who had their own specialist arms. Molte's hand rested on the hilt of a heavy sabre, a large-calibre revolver already drawn. Chenski had only his service eight-shooter.




I unholstered my own weapon, a newly made Bazden revolver. Single action, six shots, .44 calibre. Like Molte, my hand was on the hilt of my officer's sabre, though I hoped that I would not have to use it.




Rorn was first off the Falcon, jumping out of the port-side hatch before the flyer had even touched down, sweeping the area with the barrel of his carbine, his eyes looking through the green glow of his darksight goggles. Tyrg was down a heartbeat later, from the starboard hatch. The rest of us followed shortly, our boots squelching in the mud and scattering loose stones. Chenski stumbled, but Talgus caught him.




'We'll power down and wait here,' the pilot shouted over the scream of the engines. 'You grounders scout ahead.'




'That's what we do,' I called back as I waved the Pathfinders forward.








I must confess that, for all the confidence that I showed the troopers in the first few minutes of our landing, I was deeply unsettled by our surroundings. Only a consideration for morale and a keen sense of preserving my credibility and image kept me from externalising my fear.




Like many of the sons of Dramaskus' nobility, I had spent my youth in the cities. Before entering Velind's prestigious Academy, my idea of enjoying the great outdoors was a day spent hunting in the quiet forests of the heartland's south with my family and our many servants and associates. My training had since familiarised me with rougher conditions, but nothing quite prepared me for the primeval enormity of the arc-woods. The trees twisted and towered above us, dripping fat droplets of rain, their boles yards across and more. The rocks were ancient, weathered and worn. There was a cloying scent in the air, underlying that of damp soil and decaying plant matter, that spoke of the aeons that the land here had endured. I found myself watching every shadow nervously, and though the Pathfinders moved with a practised ease through the undergrowth, I could tell that they, too, were uneasy.




It was not just the scale of our surroundings, though they certainly played no small part in contributing to our discomfort. The arc-woods played on that other, distinctly Dramaskan mistrust of the supernatural. The mages who studied the Art in the capital were on the edge of being pariahs and outcasts, tolerated only for those of their continuing contributions that we could not yet replicate with technology. We openly persecuted the sorcerers who were born with magic in their veins, who did not study the mysteries of the arcane like the mages, and could not develop their disciplined approach to such power. We distrusted telepaths and their ilk, who used their minds to perform feats that were quite apart from the reality-bending of arcanists. To be surrounded by a twisted land born from the excesses of the arcane shook us to the core of our very being. It was so profoundly unnatural.




But courage, as they say, is not to know no fear, but rather to look terror in the eyes, and keep going regardless.








The trek towards the battery was uneventful, but we still moved in expectation of trouble. Weapons ready, our short march was far more fatiguing that it should have been. It is easy in retrospect to see our error, but at the time, we fully expected danger to fall upon us at any moment. The arc-beast that Belkin shot down earlier was still fresh in my memory, and I had no wish to encounter anything like it without the protection offered by the Falcon.




Once, a discharge went off perilously close, and we had to take cover until it dissipated. Only Goznev's warning shout had alerted us; I learned later that he had had some instruction in the arcane, and knew enough to notice when its deadly energies collected. But for his alertness, we could all have been roasted where we stood. The bark of the trees somehow protected them from the wild burst of power, but the burn on Tyrg's arm was a stark reminder of the weakness of human flesh, even though he had been exposed for only the briefest instant.




There were patches of glowing fungus on the trail, and occasionally, we saw twisted little animals scurrying through the undergrowth, or along branches. There were rodents with long pairs of swishing tails, and huge, hairy spiders the size of a man's head, with translucent wings sprouting from their backs. One of the arachnids fluttered past us to land on a rock, and gave Chenski such a start that he plastered it with a pair of sharp shots from his revolver. I reprimanded him for his lack of discipline, and Molte hissed curses at him for breaking our stealthy approach.




Not that anyone further away than a hundred feet would have heard anything over the rain and the background noise of the forest, but Molte, like the rest of us, was unnerved by the unnatural surroundings.








I had Molte split the squad into two teams when we reached the battery. There were no sentries, and that spoke ill of what had become of the outpost. Either they had somehow been overrun, or discipline was gravely lax. Both alternatives would require us to enter as a hostile force. Such disregard for correct procedure would not be tolerated, especially when it endangered the lives of the Empire's troops.




Chenski went with the other team, under Corporal Yenkov. In a few moments, only he was visible, the others having blended smoothly into the shadows and rain, the tell-tale glow of their darksight goggles hidden under raised camo-hoods.




I was with Molte, Rorn, Goznev and Belkin. We headed off towards the southern end of the camp, passing the humming pillars of arc-nullifiers along the outpost's perimeter. Rising up out of the camp's low, shadowy concrete bunkers, we could see the huge barrels of the artillery pieces that provided for this part of the arc-woods' security. Those guns were the only reason we still maintained an outpost here: built many decades ago, too large to move, too precious to abandon. It is a sad fact, in my opinion, that we risk the lives of our soldiery for the sake of these machines, but such wondrous devices were the way of the future, and as citizens of the Empire, we have a duty to keep them safe, though we might not always entirely understand their workings.




Occasionally, a huge spark of energy would erupt from the air between the arc-nullifiers, as raw magical energy built up and discharged along their protective field. These devices were the camp's security against the bizarre threats of the arc-woods, blanking out magical power within their field of influence, and making beasts and mutants distressed enough from the lack of arcane energy to stay well away.




We still had yet to see any of the outpost's inhabitants.




Then Belkin, peering closely at one of the arc-nullifiers, gave a shout, and we hurried over to him. He was looking at a panel in the side of the complicated device, examining data read-outs and other mysterious minutiae that I had no idea what to make of.




'Look,' he said, pointing at a curious blip on the glowing glass panel as he fiddled with some brass levers and knobs, 'that's not standard.'




'You know what you're doing, trooper?' I asked, sceptical of his handling of the mysterious technology.




'Trooper Belkin likes machines,' Molte grunted. 'More than he likes people. I'd listen to him.'




'So what does that mean, Belkin?' I asked again.




'This has been tampered with,' he said. 'That means there's a break in the arc-null line here. If someone's messed around with the others as well, we've got a serious breach.'




There was a sharp crack from the other side of the camp, followed shortly by an inhuman scream and more gunshots.




'Frag,' Molte cursed. 'Looks like he's right.'




Readying our weapons, we rushed toward the sounds of the fighting.

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Phase Three: Discovery








Rorn saw the enemy first, silhouetted against the swirling gloom by the crackling, purple fury of an arc-discharge overhead. Carbine against his shoulder, he pumped two shots into the hunched, humanoid shape, which was blown off its feet. I remember shouting something as more emerged from the stark shadows of the concrete bunkers. They were wretched things, men and women who had, one way or another, lost themselves in the arc-woods sometime in the past, and had been warped by the forest even as they continued to breed. There was one with a vestigial tail, another with forward-swept horns sprouting from her head, and another with scything claws in place of his arms. I could not feel pity for their misshapen, random forms only disgust as my revolver barked and put an end to the unnatural existence of one arc-mutant after another.




But they were tough, I'll give them that. The same arcane force that drove them mad and twisted their bodies into their horrific shapes gave them inhuman strength and endurance. A bicephalic man with a rusted wood-axe in his hands bounded out of the shadows at us. I heard Molte shouting something from behind me. I couldn't make out the words over the sound of gunfire and rain. The mutant was mere yards away: I could see the red madness in its eyes, and thick ropes of drool in its mouths. It reeled as I put a large-calibre bullet into its chest, staggering backwards in the mud. Then, to my horror, it continued to lurch towards me, recovering from a wound that would have dropped a normal man. I exploded one of its heads with another shot, and it kept on coming. A flurry of carbine fire from somewhere to my right shredded its upper body, and it fell. I backed away from it regardless.




Reloading my weapon, I began to run towards where I judged Corporal Yenkov's team to be, waving the others to follow me as Belkin gunned down the last two mutants. Flashes of discharging energy lit up the raised barrels of the artillery pieces at the centre of the camp, and cracks of gunfire echoed through the rain and around the concrete bunkers. I glanced into one as another bolt of purple lightning cracked overhead, and saw what had become of the camp's former inhabitants.




I remember hoping, for the sake of morale, that none of the others had seen it.




'Chief?' It was Belkin. Everyone had stopped moving, and was staring at me. I realised I was shaking.




'Keep going,' I said, trying to sound as confident as possible. 'I'm just getting a bit too old for this weather. Go on, Yenkov needs help.'




I could tell that Molte didn't buy it. He narrowed his one eye at me contemptuously, then barked at the others to get moving. I trotted after them, shaking my head to clear it.




It was a short jog across the camp, and we found Yenkov's team pinned hard against one of the bunkers on the other side of the clearing where the guns stood. A quick count of muzzle flashes told me that at least two of them were down. We had arrived just in time. Disciplined fire from Rorn and Goznev tore apart some mutants, relieving the pressure on Yenkov and his men enough to allow them to wipe out the rest. There was a whoop of victory from their position; from Tyrg, I think.




We jogged up to meet them, stepping lightly over mangled mutant bodies. The amount of deviation from the original form was startling. These must have been at least the fourth generation of their kind spawned in the forest.




'Situation?' I asked, trying to keep my voice from wavering. If it did, the rain would have covered it up.




'Tyrg found a dead sentry,' Yenkov said, 'and we had a look around. Then we found a couple of mutes in a bunker, chowing on some more of our boys. Your man Chenski freaked, opened fire, and brought the whole lot of them down on us. Talgus is wounded; Jurin's patching him up.' His eyes were still surveying the area instead of focusing on me. He kept his hands on his carbine, rather than saluting. In his case, it wasn't insubordination. He just wanted to stay alive. I could sympathise.




'Where's Chenski?' I asked him, seeing Molte cross his arms angrily out of the corner of my eye.




'Over there somewhere,' Yenkov waved in the vague direction of one of the bunkers. 'Dunno. He got separated when we came under attack.'




I found him slumped against the outside of a bunker, one hand still holding his revolver in a white-knuckled grip. He was glassy-eyed and shaking. The left sleeve of his greatcoat was shredded, but otherwise, he looked fine. I almost felt sorry for him.




'Get up,' I said. 'We can't have anyone wandering off on their own.'




'Sorry, lieutenant.' His voice was hoarse, and when he breathed, it was in shallow, shuddering gasps. He didn't stand up. 'I don't know what happened.'




'We'll sort it out when we get back,' I said, looking over my shoulder. The men were clearing out one of the bunkers and taking Talgus inside. The spines of a communications array rose above the one they'd chosen, but without a telepath, they couldn't have made any use out of it if they tried. 'Come on,' I said.




'It wasn't my fault, sir,' he whispered. 'I didn't mean to shoot.'




'I'm sure you didn't,' I said. I was getting a little impatient.




'They were eating him, sir,' he continued in his nasal whine. 'If they hadn't turned around, they looked just like normal people. I was just scared, sir.'




'Yeah, Chenski. Don't worry. Come on, get up.'




'Sorry, sir,' he said. He still didn't stand up. I had to drag him to his feet and half-carry him to the bunker that the others had taken. Nobody wanted to look at him when I brought him in. I couldn't blame them. Here was an outsider, only a day with the unit, and he'd already gotten someone hurt. No doubt they all thought the threat could have been dealt with without even having to shoot anything ourselves had Chenski not opened fire.




I certainly did.








Trooper Jurin had stabilised Talgus as best he could, and was now leaning up against the firing slit of the bunker, looking out into the forest, his carbine resting on the cracked concrete. Zydanne sat beside him, cleaning his rifle's scope. The others were doing their best to stay warm while Molte and I took stock of what we had to work with.




'Compromised perimeter,' the one-eyed sergeant was saying, 'unknown number of hostiles, and we don't have much ammunition left. I think we should leave.'




'Our orders are to secure the area,' I told him, 'and I don't think we've done that, sergeant. I am not leaving until we have.'




'I've got a man down, and another one unfit to fight,' he snarled, casting a glare at Chenski. 'We don't know how many of these mutes are left. I say we pull out as quietly as we can and let the regular army sort this out.'




'We could send a message through the comms,' Belkin suggested as he expertly cleaned out some dirt from his weapon's firing mechanism. 'We'll be able to reach West-11 that way.'




'See a brainjob, trooper?' Molte snapped at him, and he shook his head resignedly.




'Even if we could send a psychic signal,' I said, 'doing that is going to attract the attention of whatever the hell lives in these woods, and I don't want that to happen while the perimeter is breached. We could just secure the camp and cover the breach while two men head back to the flyer and have the crew extract us. We'll both get what we want,' I pointed out to Molte.




'We'll have to tell them to go back to West-11 to call in reinforcements,' Tyrg said gloomily. 'Colonel's looking for any excuse. He'll have us shot if we try to extract without orders.' He went silent when Molte gave him a hard glare.




'Why would he do that?' I asked, remembering what the trooper said back at barracks. 'Do you really think he wants this unit dead? Molte? Something you want to tell me?'




'No,' he said blankly. I was taken aback by the quickness of his response. 'Well,' he conceded, 'yeah, sure, maybe. Long fragging story.'




'We found something,' Tyrg began, but Molte cut him off.




'Shut the frag up, trooper. He doesn't need to know.'




'I think I do, Molte,' I said, as calmly as I could. 'If it's going to get me killed in a piss-hole like this, I'd prefer to find out sooner rather than later.'




'Long fragging story, I told you,' Molte grunted as he stalked off to where he'd left his kit.




'We've got time,' I pointed out.




'Frag,' Zydanne called from the firing slit, hurriedly cocking his rifle and sighting through the scope, 'no we don't.'




We were all rushing to pick up weapons by the time he'd fired, the boom of his weapon almost deafening in the enclosed space, but nowhere near loud enough to mask the inhuman scream of whatever he'd shot.








At first there was only the one mute, stumbling towards the bunker with a sizeable hole in its chest, its massive fists thumping the ground every time it had to stop itself from falling over. Zydanne shot it again, this time ripping off half of its head. It kept on coming, brains and spitting arcane energy leaking out of its ruined skull. Another shot finally dropped it as it came perilously close to our position.




By then, there were more of them, leaping down from atop bunkers and scurrying across the muddy ground, some of them bounding along on all fours like the animals they were. Zydanne put another one down with an expertly placed shot, but there were too many for his rifle alone.




'Come on,' I said to the others, 'I don't want to be trapped in here when we shoot enough to block up the door.' There was a chorus of assent, and, to my relief, no argument from Molte.




'What's the plan, sir?' Tyrg asked.




'We push out and try to get to the breach. We'll hole up in a bunker there and hopefully clean up this crowd on the way.'




'What about Talgus?' Rorn asked, cocking his carbine. 'He can't walk on his own.'




I cursed. I hadn't thought about that. 'Chenski can carry him,' I said after a moment, and the others nodded their agreement. 'He's not fit to fight himself. Let's move. Belkin, take point.'




The muscular trooper hurried out of the bunker, his repeater cannon roaring in defiance against the arc-mutants. Twisted bodies came apart under the pelting storm of hot steel that hosed out of the big trooper's weapon. Seconds later, its drumming noise was joined by the sharper cracks of the Pathfinders' carbines, and Molte's revolver. I helped Chenski lift Talgus up on his feet, and hurried them both outside. The sound of gunfire was steadily receding into the rain, and I took that to be a promising sign.




Alone in the bunker, I looked at the communications unit. Without the luxury of sending back to West-11 for reinforcements, it seemed like the only option for contacting the rest of the regiment. I certainly couldn't send anyone away, not with every man being needed here to secure the camp. I didn't know how valid Tyrg's fears about Colonel Valke were, and at any rate, I would not have extracted and left the battery unattended with such a clear breach of security already present. It was simply not in my nature to shirk my duties to the Empire like that.




So I did what I had to do. I forced my barely trained mind into the machine, and sent a pulse of mental power out, my meagre ability magnified a thousandfold by the specialised device.




I remember hoping that I hadn't just damned us all.








I helped Chenski carry Talgus all the way back to the breach. The Pathfinders had stationed themselves in one of the bunkers there, and they'd piled the corpses of dead soldiers and mutants outside. Someone had put up a pike with a mutant's head on the end. I was strangely reassured by that. At least someone was in good enough spirits to have a bit of dark humour in this mess.




The inside of the bunker had a particularly foul stench, and I quickly put it out of my mind. I did not want to dwell on it. I felt tired, though Talgus wasn't even that heavy. I knew what was causing the fatigue, and I hoped that nobody else would notice. I was having enough trouble with Molte's insubordination without having to deal with the stigma of a telepath as well, no matter how untrained and paltry my ability was.




The Pathfinders were sitting around some boxes of ammunition that someone had scrounged up. Some of them were honing their knife blades, but nobody was talking. We were all cold under our sodden cloaks and greatcoats.




'I can get back to the Falcon on my own,' Goznev said after a while, breaking the silence. 'If you want. I'll play messenger.'




'No, trooper,' Molte said, glancing at me with what I suspected was a smirk. 'The lieutenant won't fragging like that, will he?'




'I would rather have him here to help in case the mutants decide to come again, yes,' I said, taking the bait. Let Molte play his game, I thought.




'You're a [censored],' the sergeant snarled. 'You don't give a frag about what happens here, do you? Secure the area, frag, that's just some excuse for you to get us all killed, isn't it? We could send for help, but you say we won't until you're sure this place is clear of mutes. Frag, you want to do that and keep any more mutes from coming in, we're going to run out of bullets before they run out of bodies. Should've known. You're just here to finish the job.'




'I don't know what you're talking about, Molte,' I said, calmly.




'The frag you don't,' he said, pulling out his revolver and thumbing the hammer.




'Sarge!' Tyrg leapt up from the box he'd been sitting on, trying to restrain the bigger man, and Corporal Yenkov rushed to help him. 'Ease the frag up!'




'Like frag I will,' Molte growled, pulling himself free from their grips. Murder shone in his one eye. 'This fragger's just another one of the Colonel's. We're not losing anything important.'




I had to think fast. The barrel of Molte's sidearm was pointed at my chest, and I did not exactly want to test the viability of the steel breastplate I wore under my greatcoat against a large-calibre firearm at point blank. 'Trooper Goznev,' I said over Molte's shoulder, pretending to ignore the threat of the sergeant's revolver. I must admit that it took more courage than I can honestly say I had at the time. 'Would you mind taking word back to regimental command? It'll take two hours or so. You'd best get going.'




'Sit down, sarge,' Yenkov said, taking Molte's revolver away from him. 'The lieutenant just needed a moment to think.'




Fuming, Molte returned to his seat on an upturned ammunition box, snatching his revolver back from Yenkov. 'What're you waiting for, trooper?' he snapped at Goznev, who made a show of giving his carbine one last look-over before hurrying out of the bunker and into the flickering darkness.




'What now?' Rorn asked, raising his darksight goggles to rub at the bridge of his nose.




'We clean up,' I said, 'then we wait.'

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Phase Four: The Breach








Securing the battery took little over an hour. With Belkin, Zydanne and Yenkov watching the breach, and Talgus and Chenski resting in the bunker, the rest of us swept the camp for any survivors, hostile or otherwise.




The majority of the bunkers we'd missed earlier were much the same as the others. There were corpses of the original garrison in varying stages of consumption, and some scattered ammunition boxes and discarded weapons. The mutants had apparently been enjoying their meals when we came and disturbed them, and it seemed as though we had killed all those in the camp already.




Once, however, we were surprised as a pair of mutants leapt out of the darkness at us. We had to empty our firearms into one to bringing it down, and the other had to be killed with cold steel as there was no time to reload. We had some cuts and bruising, and Tyrg had a mild concussion, but there were no serious injuries.




When we returned to the breach, I was beginning to wonder if we'd already finished dealing with the mutant threat.








Unfortunately, we hadn't. In our absence, a mutant had wandered through the breach. Corporal Yenkov had stolen out, so Belkin told us, and cut it to pieces with his long knife rather than let them gun it down. Belkin said all this quietly, while Zydanne peered through the scope of his long rifle into the gloom.




'More mutes,' the marksman whispered. 'I think the one we got was either a scout or one that got a little lost. They look hungry.'




'They'll miss him in a minute,' Yenkov said, still trying to hone a burr out of his blade.




'We're looking at maybe forty, fifty in this tribe,' Zydanne said, looking up from his scope. 'I think they call groups of them tribes, right?'




'Herds?' Belkin suggested.




'They're not livestock, frag-head,' Zydanne snapped. We all chuckled. We welcomed anything to relieve the tension then.




'The breach is what, fifty, sixty feet wide?' Yenkov said, and Belkin nodded. 'That's too much ground for the repeater cannon to cover if they come in a big group. We'll have to let them into the battery and pick them apart in smaller groups. We're not geared up for a frontal engagement,' he said to me.




'We can't,' I told him. 'We'd have to leave Talgus and Chenski here.' His glance over at the two non-combatants told me that he was fine with leaving my adjutant. Talgus, on the other hand, swayed him, and he said nothing.




'We'll end up dead,' Molte said, his voice still contemptuous. 'Yenkov's right, we're not fragging made to hold ground. We're scouts and skirmish elements, and that's what we should do. Pathfinders don't sit in bunkers and wait to get butchered.'




'If we scatter, we'll lose these men,' I repeated. 'Chenski might be able to move, but Talgus isn't going anywhere. You want to leave him, Molte?' The others looked at him, waiting for his response. No, he wouldn't leave a man behind, least of all one of his, not with the platoon as small as it was already.




'Well, what do you fragging think we should do?' he growled. That was the closest he was going to get to admitting he was wrong, I thought.




'I've got an idea.'








Every Pathfinder unit is equipped with a number of 'Emissary' hand-bombs. In older times, this would be a simple drystar core equipped with a primer and detonator, surrounded by a fragmenting shell of iron or steel. One of those would turn a twenty to thirty foot section of terrain into a blistering whirlwind of flying metal shards and scalding air. Plate armour would protect you from the shrapnel, until a piece embeds itself in a joint or tears a limb clean off, or the blistering vapour the bomb released cooked you alive. I have seen the aftermath of one of these hand-bombs in a secessionist bunker, and would be quite happy not to see its like again.




But of course, the average Dramaskan technician possesses a mind of such imagination and unwitting cruelty that the first models of the hand-bombs were nowhere near efficient enough, and the engineers have since outdone themselves time and time again with the novelty and brutality of their creations.




The modern Emissary still has the same core, primer and detonator mechanism, but has now replaced its deadly metal fragments with an environmentally-sealed shell of drystar crystal. It wouldn't quite slash off limbs or rip through thin walls like its predecessors but its victims, I dare say, would much rather die the old-fashioned way.




The MK VII Emissary would send shards of volatile, moisture devouring drystar into the surrounding area. If a victim was lucky, they would lose a goodly amount of flesh to flying crystal shards and suffer serious burns from the blast of fire-hot steam that comes with the eruption of the drystar core. Those less fortunate would find shards of the ravening stone buried in their bodies for the brief moments that it required to leech the water from the surrounding flesh and organs. The shard would expand as its thirst was sated, until its structure could no longer maintain its integrity, and then it would explode in a blast of pressurised vapour and sharp, inert fragments. Believe me when I say that the results are more horrifying than simple words like these can convey.




For operational reasons, we had only a few of these hand-bombs. Command did not expect us to meet heavy opposition. Not that they would have seen much use, anyway. In practice, Pathfinders always found an excuse to avoid using them, perhaps in recognition of the fact that their victims were as human as they themselves were.




However and I cannot stress this enough these mutants had discarded their humanity a long time ago.








I had Rorn and Jurin prepare the breach, with Belkin to provide covering fire and give them instructions on how to best lay the trap. They performed their task quickly and efficiently, rigging up the few bombs we had to maximise their effect. Belkin, I'd been told, had spent a lot of time taking bombs apart, among other things like his repeater cannon. Strictly against regulations, of course, but he had developed a working knowledge of the mechanisms of a huge range of devices, and I was willing to turn a blind eye if it was going to save my life.




Molte took Zydanne and Tyrg with him across the breach, to another bunker, at my direction. Part of it was because I wanted them to provide fire from that flank in case an assault did make it past the traps, but the rest was simply me not wanting the hot-tempered sergeant near me when the bullets started flying. They took a few minutes to clean a few corpses out of the bunker, then settled down quickly after that. I could only see where they were when arc-discharges overhead flashed against the muzzle of Zydanne's weapon, which protruded from the bunker's firing slit like a viper.




I leaned against the concrete hole which made up our bunker's doorway. Chenski was inside, still shaking, and Talgus was still unconscious, though his breathing had steadied somewhat. That, at least, was a comfort. His death wouldn't have helped my wearied mind. Yenkov was resting against the firing slit, eyes closed, but I knew that the good corporal was ready to explode into action in an instant.




The men outside took twenty minutes to set the trap. I knew they were done when Rorn returned, soaked and with his belts void of explosives, Jurin right behind him and Belkin bringing up the rear. 'That's as good as it's going to get, sir,' the big trooper said as he dropped down beside Yenkov, settling his repeater cannon against the parapet.




I nodded. 'Go to the other bunker,' I said to Rorn, who picked up his kit without breaking stride. 'They'll need another man over there.'




He was halfway across the muddy ground when something some extra sense imparted by my talent, no doubt warned me of imminent danger. I gave such a start that Yenkov snapped to full alertness, his carbine slamming down against the parapet as he looked for targets that had yet to come within sight.




I tried to call out to Rorn, but my voice was drowned out by the roaring downpour.




Five steps away from the other bunker, Rorn stopped in his tracks and dropped his gear. His carbine came up in his hands as an arc-discharge lit up a hunched figure on top of the low roof. The weapon was up at his shoulder in an instant, but it was an instant too late. With a ululating cry that reverberated through the stormy night, the thing leapt down, driving Rorn into the mud. One huge talon drew a spurt of gore that I could see jet upwards into the rain. The other tore off a section of flesh that was unidentifiable from my distance. Rorn was screaming, but I only heard it for a moment before it was abruptly cut off. It all happened in the space of time it took for me to bring my revolver up and fire the first shot.




The bullet ripped into the mute's shoulder, and it stumbled backwards, away from the downed trooper. A flashing discharge overhead reflected off a length of steel that was embedded in its chest: Rorn's combat blade, I assumed. I fired another shot which went wild, before the men in the other bunker finished it off.




I could hear Tyrg's first outburst of profanity as he rushed out of the bunker to tend to Rorn. I did not need to hear his second to know that the trooper was dead.




He was still trying to drag Rorn inside when Zydanne's rifle flashed into life behind him.




A boom of sublimating drystar, and the rasping, mechanical sound of a bolt being drawn back for a second shot. A warbling howl in the distance. Rorn's attacker had evidently made enough noise to bring the rest of its twisted ilk down on us.








The first mute illuminated by an arc-discharge above us went down in a spray of glowing gore as a white-hot round pelted out of the other bunker, straight into its neck. I didn't need the booming report of the long rifle to know Zydanne had made the shot. Two sharp cracks followed that noise through the rain carbines firing into a crowd that was fast approaching. Thunder rumbled overhead, before being drowned out by the sound of Belkin's cannon opening up. The noise of it reverberated through the bunker, sending powerful vibrations through my chest. From the doorway, I took aim, and sent two ineffectual shots into a charging mutant. They were taking an inordinate amount of firepower to bring down.




'Frag, there's more than we thought,' Yenkov cursed as he broke open his weapon to reload. I could only hear him because Belkin had paused to attach a fresh belt to his cannon. 'We're going to be in deep frag if Goznev didn't make it.'




'Just keep firing, corporal,' I said. I knew a message had gotten through to Command, one way or another. Yenkov, on the other hand, didn't, and much as I wanted to reassure them all, I couldn't risk it. 'I trust you to do your job properly, just as I trust Goznev to have done his.'




Whatever reply he might have made was lost in the renewed drumming of the repeater cannon.




I looked out of the doorway, revolver braced. We'd kept up as sustained a rate of fire as we could for the past minute or so, but I could only see five or six fallen bodies. A fair number of the mutants looked injured in one way or another, but at this rate, even if our trap worked, we were going to have to deal with at least two dozen mutants.




I dismissed the thought. I did not come all this way to be killed by arc-mutes in some anonymous battle in the middle of nowhere. I was going to survive, and I gripped the instrument of that survival in a two-handed brace. Three more shots slowed down a mute long enough for the others to bring it down just before it entered the trapped breach.




The ten or so behind it were not so lucky.




I remember diving for cover as the night erupted with white light and razor shards. The ground trembled as sunken explosives were triggered. I glimpsed rapidly expanding clouds of steam as raindrops vapourised in mid-air. Mutants were torn to pieces by flying slivers of drystar. Those who were unfortunate enough to survive the initial blasts found themselves split open from within by crystal fragments, expanding, exploding. The stormy night was rent by inhuman shrieks and the horribly wet, ripping sound of secondary detonations.




Belkin's cannon only stopped firing for the barrel to cool, before he sent fresh streams of hot lead into the misshapen crowd. No more than thirty feet away from us, the beasts were coming apart in sprays of vile gore. Jurin's carbine lay discarded on the floor beside him as he fought to feed Belkin's bucking cannon. The big trooper's muscles were visibly straining with the effort of keeping the unruly weapon steadied for so long.




Then, as I shook out empty shell casings from my revolver, I saw the mutant. It was unlike any of the others I'd seen before, and the sight of it rising from the mud, amid the fallen bodies of its ilk, sent an involuntary shiver down my spine. Green lightning crackled along its exposed, exaggerated vertebrae, and dripped out of its slack mouth. In one horrific instant, I saw the light increase in intensity.




'Get down!' I shouted to the others, an instant before the world around me exploded.








There was light. White, with flecks of red here and there. In the distance, thunder rumbled. It took a long time to stop. There was a sound like a sack of vegetables hitting the ground. I felt that more than actually heard it. A shrill whine in the distance. I couldn't see.




The light was dimming. I could feel wetness on my face. I was shaking. Someone was slapping me, calling my name, closer this time.




'Lieutenant!' Yenkov was yelling as I fought to regain consciousness. I shook him off and struggled to pull myself up against the doorway. I couldn't hold myself up. I sank back down to the concrete floor, grabbing for my revolver. I reloaded it clinically, and searched for targets, then lowered it when I saw what had happened.




The entire front of the bunker, where the firing slit had been, was now a ragged hole several yards across. Belkin was slumped against the rubble of it, bleeding heavily, his cannon choking out the last few rounds of his only remaining ammunition belt. Yenkov's carbine cracked out two more shots before being discarded. The corporal had his long knife in hand before the weapon hit the ground. There were a few dead mutants where the bunker wall used to be. I couldn't see Jurin.




I coughed up blood, and blacked out for a moment. When I came to, there was a mutant charging right for us. Time seemed to slow. The rain was deafening. Belkin's last few rounds knocked it over with a splash of mud and gore, but it regained its feet again soon enough. Its three arms were tipped with long claws of bone. My own shots, lacking conviction, barely slowed it down as it knocked Yenkov off his feet. It had a moment to raise its claws before Belkin clubbed it with his empty cannon. Its limbs shattered just as Yenkov heaved it off him. Belkin hit it again. It struggled weakly, before one last blow put it out for good.




There was another mutant. My first shot was good. Head shot. Except its face was in its chest. I clawed my sabre out of its scabbard, even though the mute was too far away. My second shot was a click. The revolver was empty. My searching hand found that so too were my ammunition pouches.




I hauled myself up with my free hand. Belkin struck the mutant from behind as it leapt past him and over Yenkov, bowling it into me. I brought my sabre up, but the act took me suddenly off balance. My sabre went right through its chest and the face there, and I collapsed, the quivering corpse of the mutant a dead weight on top of me.




I rolled my head to the side, trying to see the other bunker. Three figures were running out of it towards us, blades in hand flashing as they cut their way past a mutant. There were more misshapen figures, pressing after them. The biggest of the three shapes Molte, I thought turned around, shooting for a moment before discarding his sidearm and laying on with his sabre. It was hopeless.




Then, a shrill whining overhead. Searchlights picking out mutants as sheets of rain were blasted away by the gusts of powerful engines. Volleys of musket fire from above, cutting through our foes. There was a cry from the edge of the forest, and I imagined that I could hear the sound of booted feet running across the mud, bayonets being locked into barrels.




The 6th had come at last.




Then, I lapsed into unconsciousness.








When I came to, I was lying in a hospital bed. The quality of the air, and the sounds wafting in from outside, told me I was back in West-11. An orderly was checking my bandages.




'Welcome back, sir.' It was Yenkov.




'Corporal?' I said, hoarsely.




'We thought we'd come visit,' he said. 'We' meant him and Tyrg. They had miraculously escaped with only minor injuries. 'You and Belkin, I mean,' he added, motioning to the bed beside mine.




'Jurin?' I asked, trying to prop myself up on my elbows and failing spectacularly.




'Didn't make it,' Yenkov said, shaking his head. 'Died on the spot when the bunker blew in. Your warning got me and Belkin just in time. Jurin was a shade too slow.'




'Talgus? Molte?'




'Both alive, sir,' Tyrg said. 'So's Chenski.'




'Oh,' I said. I didn't have any disappointment to mask at this point. My first action with the unit had turned out to be a disaster. I was simply glad to have as many of them left alive as I did.




'Colonel said he'll debrief us tomorrow, if you're okay to move,' Yenkov said, glancing down momentarily. 'Sarge says he'll talk to you, too, since you've showed that you're ready to sacrifice your own for us. Said to tell you that don't mean he likes you any, though.'




'Sacrifice?' I wondered. 'What does he mean?'




Tyrg helped me sit up, then gestured towards the foot of the bed. The empty half of it.




'Shame about your leg, huh?' he said, slapping me on the back.




I could have killed him. That wasn't funny. Instead, I sighed.




'Acceptable losses,' I shrugged.

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I remember trying to read this a while back, but the text and shtoof was undecipherable, thanks to TiF's asplosion.




Another amazing story from you, aha. This is set in the same universe as your other stories, right? And that's one you've created yourself? I must say, I have no criticisms that I can think of. Kudos for another great story. ;>


sleep like dead men

wake up like dead men

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