The battalion stood at attention in the cavernous loading bay. The whine of the dropships' engines behind them slowly echoed into silence, and all that could be heard was the distant gunfire at the base's firing range and the occasional overhead helicopter. Reiker nodded to his second and began the long walk to the front of the formation, his new rank insignia gleaming in the light cast from above. He saluted as he passed the battalion's colors, acknowledging all the fallen soldiers who'd once fought under them. Then the new lieutenant colonel faced his unit. He grimaced.
'Battalion, parade rest. I present to you Legio Darket, our new commander.'
The new colonel performed an abrupt about face and saluted the approaching veteran. The man returned the salute and cast his eyes over the assembled unit. He narrowed his eyes, bringing the many scars across his face into stark relief. Taking a microphone from the podium behind him, he spoke. 'Welcome to the Velthora Legion. Every one of you will remove your knives, blade and sheath, and pass them to your squad leaders, who will in turn place them in the bins at the rear of your platoons. Carry out these orders.'
After a moment's confusion, the platoon sergeants and company first sergeants stepped forward to ensure the orders were carried out. They travelled up and down every squad, double checking that all bladed weapons were removed and handed over. Then they relieved their commanders of their weapons and returned to their posts. The Legio took a moment to watch his lieutenants remove the bins and return pushing carts full of sheathed weapons.
'Platoon sergeants, ensure that every member in your platoon, including yourself and your commanders receives one of the weapons from the carts behind you. Captains, ensure that you and your chain of command receive them. Carry out these orders.'
Murmurs of confusion rippled through the battalion as the soldiers were handed the longer blades. Shouts rose from the NONCOMS for the troops to be silent and stand at parade rest. Reiker accepted his new weapon from his second and gazed at the sheath for a moment before returning to his position. He noted a small smile on the features of his new commander.
'Your knives will do nothing in this combat theater. You may retrieve them when you rotate out. In their stead, you have each been issued a Kavlir-manufactured short sword. The weapon features folded steel and grade-A adamantium. The reverse edge is serrated, with a hooked hilt. This will make retrieval difficult after a thrust, so only do so if absolutely necessary. The hook in your hilt is for pommel strikes. The point will catch the thrust in your opponent's jaw, and with the proper application of force, will rip it from their skull.'
He raised his hands to quell the murmuring of the unit. 'Remember, these are not human. The Bayreen are extremely hostile. They are to be treated without mercy, and terminated on sight. There is zero tolerance for reluctance to fight in this Legion, so you must be willing to do what is necessary to survive. Can I count on you?'
The platoon leaders called their units to attention and an echoing cry of 'Courage and Honor, fight until death!' echoed through the bay. Reiker saluted his commanding officer.
Darket smiled and returned the salute. 'Good. If you survive, these weapons will be yours to keep when you rotate home. They will mark your service under my command. Welcome to the Velthora Legion. Dismissed.'
Riktovi ducked under a wild swing and brought his sword up in a sweeping arc, knocking his opponent's blade from his grasp. He spun on his heel and smashed the other soldier's knees to the side, sending him to the deck. A harsh voice called out and sent the captain to attention. 'Lieutenant Anders, get up off your ass and fight! You won't do much good with that sword if you can't even keep a good grip.'
Luq-Garu stepped forward from the corner of the sparring pit and unsheathed her own sword, gesturing for Anders to take a look. She tightened her grip momentarily before loosening it, allowing the sword to rest naturally in her right hand. 'Try not to use both hands. In combat, your left hand will be preoccupied with holding your rifle. Hold the weapon with a loose, natural grip. Only tighten it just before impact, otherwise you'll wear out your hand and wrist faster, resulting in a weaker grip. This will in turn, cause you to drop your sword. Practice your grip off to the side. Lieutenant Therodein, you're up.'
Steven Anders grimaced and stepped aside, retreating behind the partition. Nathaniel Therodein hesitantly stepped into the sandpit, grasping the pommel of his sheathed sword in one hand and the sheath itself in the other. He inclined his head respectfully to his commander. Riktovi grinned. 'I'll go easy on you, Lieutenant.'
On Luq-Garu's command, the soldiers leapt into motion. Riktovi unsheathed his sword and stepped forward, bringing it up in a diagonal slash across Therodein's chest. The lieutenant stepped aside and smashed Riktovi's elbow with the sheath. Turning around his commander, he unsheathed the weapon and brought the flat of the blade into contact with the back of Riktovi's neck, sending him stumbling forward. Therodein stepped after him and planted his boot solidly in the square of Riktovi's back and sent him sprawling onto the sand. Luq-Garu's laughter echoed in the cavernous space.
'Rise, o' magnificent captain, and try that again,' she taunted, casting sarcastic emphasis on "magnificent."
Riktovi growled and climbed to his feet, grabbing his sword from the sand. He paused as he noted movement in the tiered seating around the sparring pit. Hikari and Aleman were roaming among the watching soldiers collecting money and bets. They wore smirks, taking delight in their commander's plight. Following Aleman like a loyal puppy keeping watch over its companion was the younger Hadden. Wolford stood in the first tier, shouting for Riktovi to get in the fight and put the lieutenant in his place. Luq-Garu punched the captain in the shoulder to get his attention and brought him back to the sparring session. She waved her hand in annoyance and Lieutenant Therodein blurred into motion.
Riktovi sidestepped an overhand strike and brought up his blade to parry the follow-through. He swept his hand to the side across his chest and knocked aside a thrust. Therodein's boot connected with the outside of Riktovi's left knee, sending him down to one knee. The captain grunted in pain and interposed his sword between himself and a swift and powerful diagonal strike aimed for his lower jaw. The impact sent vibrations up his arm and numbed his fingers.
Therodein kicked Riktovi's sword from his hand and smashed his knee into the captain's face, sending him onto his back. The tip of his sword rested at the captain's neck and he held his gaze on Luq-Garu. The infantry soldier's eyes widened at the swift brutality of the victory. She motioned for Therodein to let the captain up. 'Sir, you'll keep at it until you put his ass on the ground. Planting yours will not speed up the training. Now try again.'
Riktovi flexed his hand, attempting to regain feeling in his fingers. He collected his short sword and readied himself for another beating. 'Where in all the Nine Hells did you learn to fight like that, Lieutenant?'
Therodein shrugged. 'My father was a Crusader during the Nel'onri Insurrection, fighting for the Culax Tribe. He passed his skills to me when he worried the Imperialist Dogs would end his life.'
Riktovi winced. The Insurrections had been a long and brutal series of wars against the sword masters of Nelonri when they attempted to gain independence from the increasingly oppressive Imperial Government. The Crusaders were the rebels' elite, capable of infiltrating an enemy base and slaughtering everyone within without raising an alarm. Luq-Garu laughed.
'No wonder he can beat you senseless. Glad you're on our side, sir.'
Therodein cast her a sideways glance. 'I did not have a choice, sergeant. Either I serve in the military, or my Tribe is sent to the gas mines on Mildoth to work until they die.'
Luq-Garu's smile faded and her heart plummeted. Riktovi grew cold. Therodein glanced between them and snarled. 'Do not pity me, Imperials. I have no need of it. Fight me, captain.' The lieutenant scowled at Riktovi's hesitation and shouted. 'Fight me!'
He leapt forward and swung his blade at Riktovi's shoulder. The captain ducked under the sword and parried the backswing. He sidestepped an overhand and blocked an upward thrust aimed at the underside of his jaw. Riktovi swept aside a pommel punch with his forearm and thrust his blade at Therodein's neck. The lieutenant merely leaned to the side and brought his knee into Riktovi's gut. Therodein spun around and smashed the heel of his boot into the captain's shin and sent him to the ground.
The swordsman grabbed his commander by his collar and lifted him roughly to his feet, pushing him back and readying his sword. He opened with a thrust aimed at Riktovi's center of mass. The captain knocked it aside and spun along the blade, bringing his elbow into contact with Therodein's jaw and receiving a knee to the small of his back for his efforts. Therodein shoved him back and swept his sword at Riktovi's knee. Another blade connected and parried the blow, rising into an upward thrust.
Therodein stepped back and allowed Campany's sword to pass harmlessly by before snatching the sergeant's wrist and pulling him closer. The lieutenant's elbow connected with Campany's kidney and he released the wrist before sending him to the ground with a swift punch to the chest. The sergeant coughed in pain and scrambled to stand beside his commander.
'Sorry sir, I just couldn't bear to see you demolished again.'
'So what's this supposed to be, a rescue?'
Campany smiled. 'Yeah, I didn't think it through.'
With that the two soldiers struck simultaneously, Campany coming from the left and Riktovi from the right. Therodein ducked low to the ground, allowing their blades to pass a foot above him. His boot lashed out and caught Riktovi's ankle, sending him into a stumble. He rose from the crouch and powered into Campany, bearing him to the ground. The serrated edge of his blade rested against the base of the sergeant's throat. He glared at Riktovi as the captain rose, contemplating his options. He leapt off the fallen soldier and smashed his boot into Riktovi's knee, sending him to the sand. His fist connected with the commander's jaw and laid him out.
Campany abandoned all pretenses of form and lunged at the lieutenant. He knocked Therodein from his stance and together they fell to the sand. The swordsman flipped Campany over him and rose to a crouch, ducking under a wild swing by the sergeant. He grasped Campany's boot and dragged him closer, powering a fist into the nerves just under the sergeant's knee and eliciting a scream of pain.
'Therodein, stop!' The flat of Luq-Garu's own blade smashed into the side of his head, sending him sprawling in the sand. She stood over the lieutenant and put the point of her blade against his throat, applying a slight pressure. 'This session is over.'
'Don't you ever take moment to yourself? You know, to relax?
Ari Racz grinned and turned his gaze to the sky, exasperated by the technician's dedication to his work. He glanced at the half-hidden form. 'Well, do you need me to get anything for you?'
Zachary Hutcherson paused. His hand appeared from under the LTV, pointing toward his toolbox. 'How about the spoke wrench?'
Racz sighed and grabbed the indicated tool, handing it over. 'Anything that you want, rather than need?'
Hutcherson grinned from under the vehicle. 'A glass of lemonade would be nice.'
'I'll see what I can do.' Turning away, he jumped as the mechanic swore and a loud clash of metal on decking echoed in the bay. The pilot turned back sharply to see Hutcherson crawling out from underneath the LTV, nursing a bloody hand and swearing at the vehicle for all he was worth. Racz stood over the swearing mechanic and gazed at the wound. 'Perhaps you should get that checked out.'
Hutcherson grimaced. 'Yeah, maybe.' He got on his back and climbed under the LTV again, dripping blood behind him.
Alarms blared. Reiker's battalion mobilized in mere minutes, stowing their gear in the heavy duty supply-carriers and running for the gunships. Riktovi leapt aboard and turned to help up his second and one of the squads from first platoon. A hand grabbed him from behind and shoved him into his restraint harness, accompanied by a gruff voice dripping with annoyance and strong authority. 'They're adults, they can help themselves. Strap in, captain. We're moving out in thirty.'
Riktovi turned to face the aggressor and his heart leapt into his throat. He turned red from the harsh words that had been crossing his mind mere seconds ago. 'Aye, Legio. I heard we are deploying to Garena, one of the mountain cities. We will have the height advantage, yes?'
Legio Samuel Darket gave a harsh bark of grim laughter. 'Never in a thousand years, captain. Now be silent and listen.' He clicked his radio a few times to gain the attention of his subordinate leaders. As the gunships lifted from the ground, his words filtered into their ears. 'At this moment, twelve million lives are at stake. This planet is at war, and has been for some time. We have lost thirty-seven million, two-hundred-fifty thousand civilians, and a proportionate number of Legionnaires and Army soldiers. We are attempting to maintain that number, rather than allow it to grow. Garena is under attack. We have two battalions from the Novaris Legion already in position, led by Sub-Commander Arya Fariné. Brothers, we also have the newcomers from Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Reiker's battalion accompanying us today. Allow us to welcome them into our Legion through the cleansing and bonding fires of battle. Courage and Honor, Fight Until Death.'
The captain repeated the oath and shook his head. He turned his gaze to the sprawling forest that was speeding by below them. The towering trees and the multi-colored canopy stretched from horizon to horizon. Beneath the leaves wound rivers that were home to multitudes of devilish aquatic animals Riktovi had never heard of, ancient roads not walked since the beginning of time, and forest dwellers of nightmare and myth. Winged creatures twice the size of the gunships broke from the tree cover and circled into the sky, painted black against the fiery reds and oranges of the sunset.
Riktovi leaned out of the crew bay and surveyed the mobilized battalions, squinting against the cold and battering wind. At least a hundred gunships and supply carriers were in the air, flanked by squadrons of air-superiority fighters and tactical strike bombers. High above them flew a massive T-230 Airborne Loader, carrying the battalions' full compliments of armored vehicles and artillery pieces. Riktovi's heart soared, and he had to admit: the airborne fleet against the sunset was an inspiring sight.
Reiker's voice came over Riktovi's radio on a private channel. 'Captain, I just received the city blueprints of Garena. Half of the city hangs on the east side of the mountain, about a third of the way up. The road uses switchbacks and turnarounds to wind its way up to the front gates. The rest of the city extends into a cavern carved into the mountain, lit by high-powered floodlights. There is only one access point, but it is large. I want your company to hold that point, minus your snipers. Place the snipers under the command of your First Sergeant and have her report to me on the wall, two points north of the gate.'
'Yes sir. What of the other companies?'
'Bravo and Charlie are on the gate with me. Delta will be further inside the city, assisting with the movement of civilians into the deeper parts of the cavern. Keep Delta covered and we'll cover you. You should have no problems.'
In front of Riktovi, the Legio grimaced, holding a finger to his earpiece. He removed himself from the safety harness and stood, moving to stand by the pilot with one hand on his shoulder. His voice filtered through the radio and was heard by ever soldier in the strike force. 'Brothers, a battalion from the Third Army is en route to Garena, but has come under heavy attack. They are taking losses and are requesting immediate assistance. Fourth Battalion, dispatch Bravo Company to their location: grid four-eight delta, two clicks south of Garena. Lieutenant Racz, provide air cover and bomber support.'
A tight cluster of gunships peeled off the formation, turning east and passing low over the treetops. They were followed by a squadron of air superiority fighters and strike bombers. Riktovi grabbed his radio and wished the squadron leader luck on his journey, ordering him to maintain contact and provide status reports as needed. Darket glanced at the captain before facing forward again. 'Legion, we are two minutes out. Lock in your weapons and prepare for a fast deployment. The enemy has been sighted a half mile from the base of the mountain. I'm patching Sub-Commander Fariné into our comms. Listen up.'
'Novaris Legion to Velthora.'
'Velthora Legio Samuel Darket receiving.'
'Sir, enemy skirmishers are exiting the forest basin as we speak. They number in the hundreds of thousands from what we can tell. The artillery bombardment has begun.' To punctuate her statement, the dull thuds of heavy cannons slowly echoed across the landscape, overcoming the airborne fleet's engines and rotors. It echoed even louder through the soldier's earpieces. 'No airborne Bayreen have been sighted yet, but our lookouts on the mountain peak believe they are en route. Your fleet's in sight. Watch the artillery arc.'
'Understood, Sub-Commander. Darket out.' He moved back to the crew bay and signaled for the crew chief to hook up the ropes. 'Legion, we're fast roping in. The Heavy Loader will return to base; we don't have time to unload the armor. Drivers, attach yourself to a squad and try to remember your infantry training from so long ago. Thirty seconds to drop.'
Riktovi released himself from his harness and stood, grabbing one of the holds on the roof of the bay to lean out and gaze at the rapidly approaching mountain. Smoke from the artillery cannons obscured the upper parts of the cliffs, the deadly rain streaking through the sky to blast into the forest and tear into the lower slopes of the mountain. A horde of alien beasts poured from the trees and scrambled up the mountain, ignoring the road completely. The captain turned his gaze to the Legio beside him. 'They can climb that?'
'Unfortunately, yes. The Bayreen can climb just about anything.'
The gunship tilted its nose to the sky in an effort to slow down as it roared over the city walls and ropes were thrown from the sides. Riktovi grabbed one of them and leapt from the gunship, his gut churning as he fell into open space. Darket jumped from the opposite side of the bay and they landed together, unslinging their weapons and stepping away from the rope. Legionnaires were roping down all over the city and immediately made their way to their particular objective. The mountain shook as one of the heavier artillery guns fired into the sweeping horde and the smoke of the discharge wafted over them. A squadron of strike bombers peeled off and flew over the horde, unleashing their deadly payloads onto the heads of the aliens.
Riktovi gathered the squad accompanying him and clicked his radio. 'Reiker's Battalion, Alpha Company, move to the cave entrance. Form up and check your weapons. Snipers, attach yourself to First Sergeant Aleman and she'll bring you to the Colonel's position.'
Darket clapped Riktovi on the shoulder. 'Let's move out, captain.'
'Aye sir.' Riktovi took point, unslinging his rifle and jogging between clusters of civilians towards the looming cave entrance. Military Police ushered the civilians back inside their houses, calling out individual blocks and districts for evacuation to maintain order. 'Lieutenant Hadden, take your squadron out over the slopes and provide suppression fire to slow the enemy advance.' The captain forced his way between an arguing couple and waved over another squad. 'Sergeant Narro, where's Campany?'
'He's already with the First Sergeant, sir.'
'Alright, you're with me then. Aleman, you have the snipers?'
'Aye sir. We're already at the wall.'
'Good girl. Hadden, do you copy?'
'Yes sir. Lieutenant Seratov will have command; relay fire-mission requests to her. Pilots Calinus and Dostoev are accompanying me.'
Riktovi pressed a finger to his earpiece and entered the shadows of the cavern. He started up the stairs of a guard tower to attempt to locate his company. 'Repeat that, Lieutenant. Accompanying you where?'
'Sir, my load of Legionnaires has deployed, as have the rest on board my helicopters. The three of us are bugging out to assist the Third Army's exfil.'
'Negative, Lieutenant. We need you here.'
'Sorry sir. Transferring you to Seratov.'
A female voice came over the radio, filtering into his mind with its seductive-yet-strong tones.'Captain, Lieutenant Seratov reporting. Hadden said you wanted us over the Bayreen to provide suppression fire. Can you confirm?'
Riktovi swore. 'Aye, confirmed. Allow First Sergeant Aleman to direct you.'
'Yes sir. Seratov out.'
Darket scowled. 'You don't instill much discipline in your men, captain.'
Riktovi shrugged and, having spotted his group, descended from the tower and jogged around the corner and to the next block. 'Extraordinary circumstances, sir. Sometimes a man has to do what is morally right.'
'Are you sure this was a good idea, lieutenant?'
Hadden gave his trademark wild grin and brought his gunship low over a copse of trees. 'Good idea? Son, I've never had a good idea in my life.'
'Roger that, Flight Lead.'
The gunships banked hard and lowered their noses to the earth, trading what little altitude they had left for speed. The terrain below them was nothing but a blur of greens. Hadden tapped his copilot, William Mihailov, on the shoulder and spoke over the gunship's ICS. 'Doesn't Corvin hate flying NOE?'
A shout came from the crew chief in the bay. 'You'd hate it too, front ender, if you could fall out the side of a fast-moving gunship and smack into the ground barely a half second later.'
Hadden smirked. 'It's better that way. Less time to realize what's happening.'
His copilot grinned and checked his monitors. 'Entering the combat zone in twenty'
The gunships rounded the side of a low mountain and beheld the great expanse of the Plains of Gorath. Small clusters of trees dotted the landscape wherever the prairie grass did not hold dominance. A small river wound its way through the plains at the base of the mountain, disappearing into the forests on the horizon. The scars of war marred everything, however. Craters and pillars of smoke interrupted the serenity of the plains, charred trees marked where majestic woodlands had once proudly stood. A small group of soldiers were running towards one such scar, firing wildly over their soldiers at the hundreds of Bayreen skirmishers behind them. Strike bombers from Racz's squadron dropped ordnance at the back of the alien horde, fearful of causing friendly casualties. His Rikter fighters flew low, strafing the enemy with their machine guns and missiles. Yet still the Bayreen advanced.
'Land between the Army and the xenos, provide covering fire with our guns,' Hadden ordered, calmly surveying the battlefield.
Calinus' voice flickered in his ear. 'Not much room, lieutenant. They'll be on us in no time.'
'Do it anyway. I'll take the rear.'
Dostoev's gunship took the lead, followed by Calinus with Hadden in the rear. The crew chiefs opened up with the right-side HMGs, the heavy caliber fire tearing into the Bayreen ranks. Dostoev touched down and he and his copilot moved to the crew bay, unslinging their sidearms to open fire on the approaching aliens. Calinus' helicopter hit dirt and the pilot moved to beckon at the Third Army soldiers, shouting for them to run. Hadden touched down and immediately he was out of his seat, leaving his copilot in command of the gunship's systems. Moving into the crew bay, he grabbed Corvin's assault rifle from the wall mount and opened fire, standing next to the crew chief while he fired the side-mounted HMG.
Hadden's heart plummeted as he gazed at the onrushing Bayreen. Momentarily taking his eyes from the field ahead, he turned his head to shout at Mihailov. 'Lift off the moment they're onboard!'
The recoil of Corvin's rifle bit hard into the lieutenant's shoulder, bringing back fond memories of his time on the range before transferring to flight school. He recalled the sharp crack of his old rifle and the explosion of wood as the round found its mark. He relished in the phantom memory of a hand clapping him on the back as he aced the marksmanship test. Then boots clanged on metal and the shouting of soldiers brought him back into a harsh reality where every moment was a test with death the consequence for failure. A soldier knelt next to him with a carbine and opened fire, fear etching itself into every feature of his expression.
The deck lurched against Hadden's boots and he passed the rifle to one of the rescued soldiers, stumbling into his chair. His copilot passed control to him and he tilted the gunship forward, following his squadron out of the field and over a copse of trees. A single shout echoed in his mind and he jerked the controls to the side moments before his world turned white.
The pilot raised his hand to block the blinding light of a midday sun. Hiking his duffel higher on his shoulder, he made his way out of the house and onto a sunbaked lawn, the grass brown and dead in the summer heat. The cloying humidity of the air suffocated him. Grimacing with the weight of his gear, he tossed the bag into the bed of his truck, pausing to wipe crusted dirt from the rim, revealing black paint scraped to gray from weathering. He ran his hand along the side of the vehicle, marveling for a moment on its trustiness and durability.
The pilot shrugged and opened the driver's door, sliding in and slamming the door shut. He lowered the window in the vain hope of tempting a breeze and started the engine, letting it idle so the cooling system could initiate. He glanced at his watch and rested one hand on the wheel, idly playing with the ring on his third finger. He ran his thumb along the smooth silver until he felt the grooves of the name cut sharply into the metal. He pressed his thumb hard against it until an indent was formed on his skin and he let go of the ring. Releasing the brake, the truck rolled to the end of the drive.
'You come back, you hear?' The words knifed into his mind and he slammed on the brake as the storm door of his home opened, banging against the side of the house. A woman stumbled down the steps, holding a small child in her arms. Tears ran down her face to fall on the boy's shirt. Two little girls crowded around her legs, clutching at the hem of her skirt. They struggled in vain to keep themselves from crying. The woman stopped just short of reaching the gravel drive, reeling as though a fist had been shoved into her stomach and she couldn't breathe. The children hugged her tight and she raised her hand in farewell, unable to speak. The blinding sun glinted off her ring, piercing his eyes with white spots.
The white faded from his vision and flames surrounded him. In the airspace just ahead of his gunship was a ball of fire, Calinus' helicopter deep within. Further on, Dostoev's burning hulk fell to the ground, figures spilling from the wreckage only to be swarmed by the Bayreen skirmishers. They were torn apart in seconds. Hadden's gunship dropped five feet before catching itself, flames and smoke spewing from the rotars. 'Mihailov, where's the back-up power?'
'Working on it, sir!'
The gunship spun around and brushed the treetops, shaking with its descent. The soldiers in the bay clutched safety lines tightly to their chests, swearing at their luck. The helicopter spun again as the pilots struggled to stabilize it, tilting alarmingly to the side and sending Corvin out of the bay to land hard in the branches below. Instruments failed and alarms blared in the lieutenant's ears, the whine of stressed metal pressing into him. Hadden grimaced as the trees disappeared and the ground came rushing towards them. 'Coming in hard, BRACE!'
Dirt filled his vision and his wife's voice shrieked in his ears.
'Delta Company, to the walls. Reinforcements are needed at points Beta and Chi.' Reiker's voice filtered through a static-laced radio into Riktovi's ears. Desperation and controlled fear colored the colonel's voice and gunfire echoed between the city blocks. Smoke filled the air, clawing at the nostrils of the defenders.
Captain Brant hesitated before replying, wary of the civilians around him. 'Understood sir. Passing command of civilian relocation to local MP. We are moving.'
Riktovi sighed and, for the hundredth time, scanned his weapons and gear. Next his gaze passed over the men and women of his company, scattered along the cave entrance. He noted their nervous ticks, the way they tapped their fingers or feet as they waited. He knew they were just as anxious to move and act as he was. It was the waiting that killed them.
The radio crackled and Legio Darket's voice could be heard over the thud of artillery fire. 'Darket to Fariné. I need an estimated ETA for the rest of Novaris.'
'Sir, the Legion's ETA is unknown. They will be here.'
Annoyance filtered into the Legio's voice. 'Understood. Colonel Reiker-'
'Racz to Garena CAOC! Emergency update: alien aircraft incoming! I repeat, large alien air force is incoming. Third Army is eliminated and Hadden's squadron and three of my aircraft are down with no visible survivors. I'm inbound. Watch the skies, Garena.'
The radio was immediately overwhelmed with orders and requests for information, but Riktovi simply tuned it out. He scanned his company for the pilot's brother while accessing the company's private channel. 'First Sergeant , pass command to Sergeant Campany and get back here. Hadden needs support.'
Spotting the soldier, he grabbed his gear and jogged in the private's direction. Hadden seemed pained, bent over and squatting low to the ground, clutching his stomach. Even at a distance, the captain could see him shaking, heaving great gulps of air into his lungs. Another soldier knelt next to him as the private hit the deck and retched. Riktovi passed an MP leading a group of civilians deeper into the cavern and tripped as the overhead beam lights cut off, thrusting everyone into nearly pure darkness. Shafts of smoke-filled light slanted in from the cavern opening, casting everything in a rusted brown glow.
The captain hit the ground hard and rolled into a crouch, raising his rifle. Alien shrieks filled the cavern and echoed from the distant walls. A single human voice rose in competition. 'Die, you bastards!'Gunfire echoed and shouts of rage clashed with the inhuman cries. The ground shook with a heavy impact and Riktovi spun to face his rear. A Bayreen skirmisher loomed out of the darkness, standing two feet taller than the captain and extending the bone-blades from its shoulders. The arms of the creature each held stolen Legionnaire short swords, wielding them with ease. The beast crouched low, faint light glinting off the scales on its back. Six-inch spines extended from its forearms and shins, and it sprang.
Sick to his stomach with the news of the assumed loss of his brother, Private Hadden charged the first Bayreen to drop from the cavern roof, screaming rage and newfound hatred. The alien turned to face him, blades sliding from its shoulders. It hissed and leapt to meet him midway. The private rolled to escape the scything blades and crouched beside it, firing his carbine rapidly into its side. 'Die, you bastards! You took my brother!'
Another Velthora Legionnaire emptied a clip into the Bayreen's chest and shouted for his squad to pull the private away. Three of the soldiers knelt by their commander, using high-velocity rounds to keep the Skirmisher back. Two others ran forward, grabbing the private by the shoulders and dragging him out of reach. A bone-blade flashed and one of the Legionnaires fell to the deck, blood spraying from his dissected torso. The other soldier released his hold on Hadden and unsheathed his short sword, stepping back to block the alien's next strike. The impact threw him to the ground.
The sergeant shouted into his radio while signaling another man forward to retrieve the private and fallen Legionnaire. 'Contact! Skirmisher contact in the cavern, point Delta-Sigma!'
Hadden climbed to his feet and blasted the Bayreen in the chest, running through the magazine and stepping out of reach of its blades. The Legionnaire indicated by the sergeant grabbed him around the chest and hauled him away, firing a pistol single-handed. The Skirmisher shrieked and leapt into the darkness overhead, its voice joining the chorus of thousands among the cavern city's rooftops. The private screamed his rage at the retreating opponent, fighting his way free of the Legionnaire. He ran into the darkness ahead, reloading as he went. His voice called for blood for the death of his brother. A First Sergeant sprinted past the squad, ordering them to regroup with their commander. She shouted for the private as she followed him into the overwhelming shadows.
'Rifles won't do much good now, switch to your side arms,' shouted Sergeant Campany, pulling out his own M-38 Tactical Submachine Gun. He took a step towards the ramparts and aimed towards the aliens just reaching the base of the wall, firing indiscriminately into the waves of Skirmishers. 'Colonel! They're climbing the wall!'
Darket's voice overwhelmed Reiker's, desperate yet collected. 'All troops, direct your fire towards the base of the wall. Kalith's Battalion, reinforce Mantano at the gate. Everyone else, hold your positions.'
Campany stepped back from the wall and gestured for the other snipers to follow him. He grabbed hold of a ladder and slid to street level, grabbing a portable radio from the gear stashed around the base of the ladder and running towards the caverns. Wolford and Mabinogi followed him, holding their M-38s tight across their chests. Campany clicked the radio and held it to his mouth, cutting through static in an effort to reach Captain Riktovi. 'Captain, the wall is nearly overwhelmed. We are en route to the cavern entrance to provide assistance to the company.'
Screams rose behind him and he paused, glancing towards the wall. Bayreen Skirmishes swarmed over the ramparts and stabbed into the ranks of the defenders. Blood sprayed in magnificent arcs as the dead fell from the wall or were tossed back into the horde. Legionnaires drew their swords while firing handguns or bullpup rifles with their free hands. Still, they were overwhelmed. The aliens surrounded the pockets of resistance and picked them off through the sheer weight of numbers, their blades cutting through the Legionnaires with ease. The survivors abandoned the wall, jumping for ladders or dropping straight to the street. The Bayreen followed.
Skirmishers leapt from the wall to pin retreating soldiers to the ground beneath their feet, claws digging into their chests. A few Bayreen Infiltrators entered after the Skirmishers to support their brethren. The first Infiltrator to reach ground level lifted one of its arms to reveal a gun fused into its flesh and bone, replacing the beast's hand. The weapon fired and acidic parasites bored into the backs of running Legionnaires. Campany's mouth dropped. 'Run!'
The snipers gave up all hope of attempting to stave off the invasion and turned their backs on the aliens, retreating as fast as they were able. Gunships flew low over the city, strafing the streets with their heavy weapons. Campany planted his boot solidly in the center of an apartment's front door and took it off its hinges, ordering his fellows inside. He stumbled through the door and heavy-machinegun fire punched into the road, cutting a path towards the wall. A Skirmisher leapt from the rooftops to land on the cockpit, stabbing through the windscreen and into the chest of the primary pilot. The copilot pulled a pistol and fired at the alien, struggling to keep the gunship level. A cluster of missiles pounded into the side of the helicopter and sent it to the earth in a ball of fire.
Campany led the way towards the back of the building, scanning every corner along the way. Entering the hall leading to the back entrance, he froze. Blood covered nearly every surface, dripping from the ceiling and running down the wall to form a pool around his boots. Deep scars in the stone walls marked where a Skirmisher had struck at the civilians living here. For a moment, the sergeant's breathing slowed and his heart plummeted. Muffled crying echoed in his head, blotting out the screams and gunfire outside the building. It was the sobbing of a child.
He turned to Wolford and Mabinogi, grimacing. 'Find her. Quickly.'
The snipers nodded and split up, Wolford taking the stairs to the second floor to search for the rooms connected by vents. Mabinogi moved down the hall and into one of the housing units. Campany stood for a moment, tracking the sound and slowly scanning the corridor. The pounding of his heart in his ears overwhelmed the gunfire and explosions outside the building. The floor shook with the passing of a squadron of helicopters, their guns blazing. The heated air was stifling, the armor and gear bearing him into the ground with its weight. And still, the crying echoed.
Mabinogi poked her head into the corridor and caught his attention. 'Sergeant, I've found her.'
'Wolford! Let's go.' Campany followed his fellow sniper into the room and watched as she opened the closet door and knelt, prying off a piece of the wall. She pointed into the darkness.
'She's in there, sergeant.'
Wolford stepped into the room, breathing heavily. 'Sergeant Campany, Skirmishers will be here any minute.'
'Roger that.' The sergeant stepped up to Mabinogi and knelt alongside her, peering into the hiding place. A bloody and tear-streaked face peered back at him, fear in its eyes. He swore and stood. 'Mabinogi, get her out of there. She may be wounded. Wolford, secure the corridor.'
'Aye, sir.' Wolford double-checked his ammunition and charged his weapon before stepping into the hall, M-38 at the ready. He slowly moved out of sight, the soft steps of his boots echoing in the perceived quiet. Mabinogi lowered herself to the ground and reached out a hand, calling softly for the girl to come out. Campany paced the room, fingers anxiously brushing over the stock of his rifle. He took a deep breath and glanced at the sniper as she slowly coaxed the child from her hiding place. A moment later Wolford's voice called through the building and gunshots echoed in the confined space.
'I've got her. We're ready to move, sergeant.' The sniper awkwardly got to her knees and stood, pulling her M-38 around on its sling so she could fire it single-handed if she needed. The child was held in her left arm, her face buried in the private's shoulder. Blood covered her clothing and arms, but none of it seemed to be hers.
Campany moved to the corridor and ordered Mabinogi to hold position at the back door. 'Wolford, get moving.'
Wolford's gun fired again before he rounded the corner, running hard and nearly colliding with the sergeant. 'Sorry sergeant. They're filling the corridors, shoulder to shoulder.'
Campany clapped the private on the shoulder and pushed him towards Mabinogi. 'Understood. You're in charge, lad. Regroup with Captain Riktovi, that's an order.'
Wolford hesitated a moment before saluting. 'Aye, sergeant.' The snipers shared a glance between them before exiting the building.
The sergeant's heart plummeted and he hefted his SMG, unsheathing his short sword with his right hand. He stepped toward the corner as the shrieks of the aliens seared into his mind, their inhuman calls grating against his ears. His breath thundered, his heart stopped. The dripping blood seemed to hang in midair. The heated currents of the air stilled and the suffocating smoke cleared from around him. Time slowed to a standstill as the first of the Skirmishers rounded the corner.
Adrenaline pumped through the sergeant's system and he no longer felt the weight of his pack and weapons, no longer felt the fear of death. He fired twice, taking the first alien in the chest and stopping its leaping momentum. Campany stepped back into the side room, narrowly avoiding the next Bayreen's leap. Its bone-blades lashed forward and the sergeant kicked the door shut, the blades punching through the thin wood but slowing enough to miss him.
He fired through the door, each shot rewarded with an inhuman scream. Hearing the click of the rifle's empty magazine, he released it and pulled the sling over his head, tossing it to the floor. Passing the sword to his other hand, Campany grabbed the back of a chair and waited. The weakened door shattered and the sergeant threw the chair into the path of the onrushing Skirmisher. He sidestepped the blades and guided them into the stone wall, where they caught and held fast. The Skirmisher shrieked in anger as the sergeant ducked under the swinging blades from another alien and pierced its abdomen with his sword, dragging the blade up towards its neck and spinning around to pull it free.
The Bayreen at his side pulled its blades free of the wall and struck out again, cutting an X in the air and forcing Campany's back against the wall. The sergeant stepped around the blades and thrust deep into the alien's side before ripping it out and continuing to parry a double strike from a new opponent. A fourth Skirmisher forced its way into the room and its blades pierced the sergeant's neck and chest as he continued his attack on the one to his fore. He slid off the blades and fell to the deck, blood pumping from his wounds. His radio crackled and drew the attention of the aliens.
'Sub-Commander Fariné to all troops: Garena is lost. Evacuate when able.'
'Belay that order! This is Legio Caenarin of Novaris, en route with both Keldoraan and Sarkus Legions in full. Hold the city.'
Sergeant Campany smiled, and darkness claimed him.