October 22, 3732 AK

Marcas Alyrson drummed his fingers on the table impatiently and waited for the Republic Intelligence Service officer to finish delivering the briefing. A servitor automaton scuttled across the table and refilled his empty glass of water. He absently glanced through the folder of intelligence reports that had been distributed at the start of the meeting. He was too disciplined to need to suppress the urge to yawn, but the entire briefing was more or less the same as the ones Alyrson had been receiving for two weeks.

The three other senior commanders in the room had similar experiences, it appeared. The briefing finished and the RIS officer's quickly morphed into an expression of petrified horror at their silence. The RIS director spoke up.

"Thank you, Mr. Zymer. That will be all." Sir Jonatas Weburn gestured subtly for his underling to depart. Zymer nodded and grabbed the contents of his report before shuffling out.

"There you have it gentlemen," Weburn said. He glanced around the others around the room. "Most of the surviving Hands of Auros have fled the country, and most of the ones that remained were caught thanks to our mole in the Hands' command structure. Unfortunately, the hundred or so we estimate remain are determined to make their end a bloodbath. They've already bombed a Saevenok Omnitech office and—"

"Get on with it, Jona," David Ravaner growled. "We've all seen the briefings—and the newspapers. Why are we here?"

"President Cayan wants me to coordinate the clean up operations against the Hands," Weburn said.

"President Cayan wants you to save his ass at the voting booth," Leon Aldiss muttered from next to Alyrson.

Probably true, Alyrson thought. Actually, it's certainly true. The incumbent president would stand for re-election in December, and his poor handling of the fighting in the capital had lost him a great deal of support. Throw in Leon Zevayn as his opponent, saying 'I told you so,' at every opportunity, and Cayan would need a miracle to pull out an electoral victory.

"Then why am I here? With all due respect to the problem here, General Silva has bigger fish to fry, and wants the Rangers down here moved back up to the northern border ASAP."

"I'm afraid that the fighting up north will have to wait until this is resolved. The regular army is lacking in the skills to effectively deal with the remaining enemies, so the Rangers are needed here."

"Let the Templars handle it." Alyrson said. He gestured at Aldiss. "That's what they're supposed to do anyway."

"As I'm sure Father Aldiss will be happy to confirm, the number of Templars in Tarre at the moment are insufficient to handle the clean-up."

"I've had three hundred Leonites transferred from the Gigant Ocean island states. They will arrive within two months, and then, I assure you Mr. Director, we will be able to handle it," Aldiss said. A look of surprise flitted briefly across Weburn's face before he regain his composure. Three hundred Templars was a large force for the Church military, even if they were from the Templars' lowest order.

"And what should we do in the meantime, Father? The Hands won't wait patiently for your men to arrive."

"And what should I do about the north?" Alyrson interjected. "I've got almost half of the Rangers' combat strength sitting around down here, and eight battalions can't hold a line a thousand miles long. Civilian casualties up north are climbing faster than they are here."

"A compromise then, General," Ravaner suggested, eager to move on to a different subject. "You have six battalions here. Keep two here and send the rest north. They can't be too sorely missed, and you'll have them back in three months, tops."

"Fine, Jona, but the Wolfhounds are going north. So are the Hellhounds and Laughing Men." Alyrson couldn't afford to leave his most experienced troops on glorified police work.

"How is the RIS investigation of foreign involvement in the Hands' operation coming along," Aldiss said with a look at Weburn that suggested he already knew the answer.

"Not well," the intelligence director admitted, very deliberately setting his folded hands on the table and avoiding eye contact with any of the other people in the room.

"Would you care to be more specific?"

"We've determined that most of them fled to Altuur, but that doesn't mean much. Their weapons are from all over." He glanced up at Aldiss. "Keep the Inquisition out of this. The RIS will handle this. Altuur is our most likely suspect for foreign interference, and that's outside your jurisdiction." Whether or not it actually did was debatable, but Weburn was probably hoping to deter the Aurian's intelligence branch with the threat of a turf war. Ravaner cleared his throat.

"If we could move onto more important matters, gentlemen?"

XX

Marquis Royan Falmas, the Foreign Minister to His Majesty King Logan of Cordalis, very deliberately ignored the man prostrated before him as he pretended to read through an intelligence brief. The man did an impressive job remaining still and silent despite his dire situations. After several minutes of leaving the man to wonder Royan stood and tossed the brief onto a nearby table. He walked towards the prostrate man slowly, deliberately placing every footstep with enough force for him to feel the vibrations through the stone floor.

"Well, Kynan, what am I supposed to do with you?" Royan said. "You have failed in the duties that I gave to you. More than that, you continued to assure me that everything was going as planned, when," he gestured to the brief lying on the table, "clearly this was not the case."

"The king is displeased, and feels that you should pay a high price," he continued. Kynan, who had thus far held up admirably, gave a slight tremble at the mention of the king. Royan motioned to the knight standing behind Kynan, who nodded and drew his curved blade and laid the edge against Kynan's neck. The alchemically sharpened edge drew a thin line of blood at even the slight pressure the knight was applying.

Royan stopped in front of Kynan and nudged the man's chin with his boot. Kynan started to look up, but jerked his head down again when the unmoving blade began to bite deeper into his neck.

"Fortunately for you, my dear Kynan, the king has left it to my discretion. And despite your failures, I fully intended to give you another chance, especially in light of the unforeseen benefit that your failure has caused." He waved off the knight, who nodded and sheathed his blade. "Stand up." Kynan slowly did as he was told. Royan nodded in approval at

"You failed me once, and I cannot forgive that, but I have confidence in your ability to handle some projects, if perhaps not any important or challenging ones." Royan pulled a fresh sheet of paper from the table and began writing. "Your meddling with the Aurian fanatics in Tarre would have been an utter failure if not for its leaving Tyrre exposed in other areas while they confronted your pet terrorists." Kynan fidgeted nervously, clearly worried about what Royan was writing but unable to see because the Marquis blocked his view with his own body.

"I am sending you south to the Vale project," Royan said, folding the paper and pouring a few drops of molten wax on the crease to seal it. "I want you to deliver this letter to Marquis Allon, who is the foreman there." He passed the letter back over his shoulder to Kynan.

"Don't fail to show, Kynan. I have my ways of knowing if you shirk your duties." He gestured to the knight to escort Kynan from the room.

"Prove to me that you can handle basic management and I may be able to trust you with something important again, Kynan," he said as Kynan left. "Don't disappoint me."

XX

Jaec strode into the Hellhound's barracks compound to a scene of chaos. The parade ground was cluttered with gear, and the Rangers were emptying more equipment onto it every moment. A few moments of examination revealed that it was more organized than first glance suggested, and another detachment of Rangers was loading crated up equipment into trucks almost as fast as it was coming out of the barracks and battalion headquarters.

He stiffly threaded his way through the obstacle course of military equipment towards his own barracks. Several weeks of biomass grafts, regen treatments, and lying in hospital beds left Jaec a little out of shape, but it was better than having a pair of holes through him. He found Captain Aryn directing her company in crating up its equipment, including some unusual looking weapons he had never seen before.

"Sergeant Glovyrson, reporting for duty, sir." He saluted, holding it for several moments as Captain Aryn finished dealing with a logistical problem.

"Back from the hospital, I see," She said as she returned the salute. She gestured to the white shema wrapped around his neck. "Congratulations on your recovery and award. I expect Chief Surthe will want to put you to work. He's inside."

"I take it that we've still got no platoon CO, given that my orders are to report directly to you."

"Unfortunately, you are correct."

"Are we going somewhere, sir?" Jaec indicated the parade ground.

"I'll let Surthe fill you in. Dismissed Sergeant."

Jaec entered what had previously been a cluttered barracks. It was now more or less bare, the company having stripped it of gear and personal effects in preparation for redeployment. He spotted Chief Sergeant Surthe leading a procession of Rangers carrying heavy looking crates. He stepped out as they passed.

"How convenient, Glovyrson. You get discharged from the hospital just late enough to avoid any real work," Surthe growled. "You don't even have to collect your own gear. One of the harlequins, Kairan, did it for you yesterday."

"Sorry, Chief." Jaec said. If the medical corps doctors had gotten their way, he would still be lying in a bed, recovering. "Where are we going?"

"Back up north," Surthe said. "The shit's started to hit the fan up there." He grinned devilishly. "Now you guys who've spent your whole time down here get to find out what Rangers really do."

Jaec shuddered slightly as Surthe strolled away.

XX

The Hellhounds were loaded onto a chartered train heading northbound to Ebaram. The steam locomotive was hardly the fastest option available to them, but it was far cheaper than airlifting the whole battalion to Mayvan Air Force base. It took the train two and half days to traverse the twenty five hundred miles between Tarre and Ebaram, which passed in a blur for Jaec and most of the other Rangers. He vaguely remembered crossing the Zylesan Channel Bridge, and Meric talking about the new weapons, but all of that was pushed to the back of his mind upon encountering the conditions in Ebaram.

"If this is what Rangers really do, I might have to quit," he said as icy cold winds whipped across the exposed train platform, scything through his warm weather urban uniform like it wasn't there.

"If you think this is cold, wait a month," Kaiji said as he brushed past him. The northerner looked utterly unaffected by the frigid temperature. He tossed his small gear bag on the back of a waiting truck and turned to help his smaller cousin. Michael, if anything, looked more comfortable than he usually did.

"I sure as hell hope that the 'racks are warmer than this," Meric muttered, breathing into his hands as he staggered towards the trucks. Jaec trudged after him, the two of them throwing their gear bags up into the truck before climbing on with the help of the two cousins.

"Both of you are from Arran," Meric said while Jaec helped the rest of his squad into the truck. "Have you guys ever been here before?"
"You could say that," Michael drawled. Kaiji just rolled his eyes.

"I'd say that the L.T.s are from here, given that they sound like a pair of north side boys," Cayril Andarynt, Jaec's comm operator and one of several northerners in the platoon, said. His slow northern drawl was even more exaggerated than Michael or Kaiji's, and he mangled his o's even worse than they did. "Ask around the company, Jewell. There are probably a couple dozen blizzard city boys in the unit. Most of them will vanish over the weekend."

The trucks engine started and they began the unpleasant drive through Ebaram to Fort Mayvan. Jaec didn't actually see much of the city on the way from the railroad station, as they drove around the outskirts, sticking to the highways that passed over the rundown slums and industrial facilities on the west side of Ebaram.

"Why?" Jaec asked

"The usual stuff soldiers do on leave: get drunk, get a tattoo, and try to get laid by someone who isn't a prostitute. Since they're back home, most of the ones who don't already have it will get their Kaishtriya caste tattoo and braids." Cayril shrugged. "Most people from around here are pretty conservative."

"At least we don't wear jewelry in our hair," Kaiji started before Michael cut him off with an elbow to the ribs.

"Hey," Jaec said, slightly self-consciously. "It's not jewelry." He changed the subject.

"Does anyone know why exactly we're getting shipped up here? No one has bothered to enlighten me yet."

XX

Davyth Kailyr rummaged through a chest of drawers, looking for anything of value. His two bodyguards, large men by the standards of the Arraki tribes, stood behind him vigilantly. They had no inclination to search for any loot themselves. They were guaranteed the same, large cut of the takings regardless of how much they found on their own.

They tensed up and clutched their new weapons every time the scream of aether bolts or the crack of gunfire sounded nearby. With the firearms the Altuuri missionaries had provided them Davyth's raiders were able to take on even the local Republic Militia units that were coming after them. The local constabularies didn't stand a chance.

After several more moments of fruitless searching, Davyth kicked over the chest of drawers and gave a yell of frustration.

"Firestarters!" he said, holding out his hand. One of his bodyguards produced a pair of hermetically sealed flasks containing the alchemical incendiary and handed them to Davyth, who hurled them against the chest and wall. Both caught fire quickly, and the raiders rapidly departed the burning building.

"Find Gavan and Jaylak and tell them to pull their boys together and gather up the captives," Davyth ordered one of his bodyguards. "We're leaving."

A few minutes later just over a hundred Arrakis were gathered on the edge of town, many of them loaded down with loot. Several were holding a dozen chained together civilians, most of whom were looking panicked and frightened beyond words.

"It used to be," Davyth said in Tyrren, "That back in the old days you'd get to spend the rest of your working in the fields as Satriyas. The old days are gone, so just pray to the gods that your leaders care enough to ransom you back." He turned away to give the order for his warband to head north.

"Fucking moron," someone said behind him. Davyth twisted back around to see one of the captives laughing at him. Most of the captives were a pale as Davyth, but this one was one of the brown-skinned southerners. "Do you really think that is going to work? The Air Force is just going to come in and kick your ass."

Wordlessly, Davyth motioned to one of the raiders watching the captives. The man raised his pistol, and the defiant captive's laugh abruptly turned into a scream as a bullet shattered his kneecap.

"For his childish little outburst, you get to drag him along," he said in Tyrren. He switched Arrish to address his own men. "Get moving. Scouts, same place as always."