"Clouds of Tyranny"

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Harmon's Last Stand

All the inhabitants of the Returner’s HQ began to wake up at sunset. Some of the lesser soldiers had trouble getting to sleep but the Doc fixed that with a few chewable tablets; the Returners didn’t have this problem being experienced in the procedure. Smith had not slept to make sure everyone had what they needed before the trip to Harmon, he would sleep at night as he usually did. Smith’s first errand of the night was to make sure that there was plenty of nutritious food, consisting of bread, soup, and dried meat for the trip to keep everyone’s energy up. Smith waited patiently in the dining area till Tara entered from the women’s dorm; she was the first one up for a change.

“Hello,” she said sitting with Smith.

“Good morning Tara,” he said before noticing her right hand, which had a blue bandana wrapped around her palm with a wad of gauze peeking out from underneath it, “My, what happened?”

“Was practicing a trick and hurt myself, but I’m ok.”

Smith shook his head then froze in realization.

“Wait! You’re wearing the bandana.”

“Yeah, it feels right to wear it now. After all, I am one of you now, right?”

“That’s right,” he said smiling over at her.

They sat quietly for several minutes until Tara finally broke the silence.

“So, since I’m part of the team now…” Smith looked at her intently, knowing exactly where she was going.

“My mother, can you tell me more about her?”

Smith took a deep breath before speaking.

“I met her in Turklane, a small farming town to the far south. Her stomach was so bulbous; she could barely do her work. Why the farmer had a pregnant woman tilling the soil, I’ll never know. I saw her toiling away in the field and something inside me said that she needed help, so I offered to provide her food and shelter in exchange for nothing. She met me for dinner that night and that’s when I felt something. The same thing I felt in you; a gift. I asked of the father of her unborn child. She said he was dead, but I knew that was a lie; that’s MY gift.”

“So, you never met him either.”

“No, not until many years later.”

“What? Who is he? Where is he? What does he look like? Does he-“

Tara was frantically asking questions till she was cut off by Smith.

“Tara, I’m telling you about your mother. Trust me, you’re better off never meeting him.”

She stared into Smith’s eyes waiting for him to continue.

“Anyway, I offered to provide anything your mother needed up to your arrival and refused to take ‘no’ for an answer, which she tried to say multiple times; your mother was very prideful, maybe too much so. It took you twenty hours to finally make your exit, like you didn’t want to leave. I cleaned you off and then handed you to your mother so she could see what she created; she couldn’t stop staring at you as you nursed.”

“Wait. You were the first person to hold me?”

“Yes,” smiled Smith, “I named you as well. Your mother said that was her repayment to me. After she had recovered from your birth, she wanted to leave, but I asked her not to. One night, she tried to sneak away in the middle of night. I knew she would, but I caught her in the process. I told her that if she ever needed my help to seek me out. I gave her the location of the first Returner camp and she found me several years later.”

Captain Reuben and the Velxeer Archers were the next to emerge; they sat at their usual segregated table, Tara noticed that Ten seemed normal today; she didn’t have the same robotic qualities she had upon her first arrival. One-by-one the soldiers from HQ as well as the other Returner camps settled in the dining area waiting for their queue to leave.

Next came Ray, followed by Sam. Ruthie and Eve emerged sometime later and joined Ray and Sam at their usual table along with Tara who had left Smith’s side once her friends surfaced. Pearl walked out of the ‘Returners’ door followed by Julius who looked as if he were sleepwalking, probably awoken by Pearl. The Doc walked out with Bridget and Helena with him and sat down with Smith; the three of them each holding a medical bag for the trip. The last to reach the dining area was Alex and Lock, who arrived together. They stood in the doorway and looked at the room full of people arranging to go to Harmon.

“Lock,” whispered Alex, “About last night? What I said…I was just in the moment…and…”

“It’s time to go to work,” said Lock walking to the center of the room to make an announcement as Alex stood there in love’s limbo.

“Returners! Make your way to the armory! Soldiers! Line up against the wall outside the armory!” said Lock as he made his way down the hall that led to the infirmary, the dorms, the training room, and the armory.

“This is a room I haven’t seen yet,” said Tara looking around from inside the armory as Lock and Pearl rummaged through various objects that lay on the shelves and hung from the walls; swords, knives, staves, spears, shields, armor, ammunition, and guns of all types.

To the very back of the armory Tara saw a barred cage that was most likely for prisoners, though it did not house anyone at this time. Inside the cage was a hole in the ground that was used as a lavatory, a tub of water used as a sink, and a metal bench used as a seat or a bed.

“Tara?” said Lock going through a box of various pistols.

Tara turned around suddenly.

“Huh?”

“Here,” said Lock handing her a silver .45 caliber pistol that matched her other one complete with holster for her other hip and four more magazines.

“Thanks,” said Tara attaching the guns in a crisscross fashion to her waist and pocketing the magazines, which now gave her a grand total of seven clips of ammo for Harmon; two being housed inside her pistols.

“Let’s see what else we got here,” said Lock exploring about the shelves, “Ah, put this on Tara.”

Lock threw Tara a Teflon vest to wear and then picked up on one himself and threw a third one to Ruthie; Tara banged on the vest and noticed that beneath the lining was a hard metal plate for stopping bullets. Ruthie handed it over to Pearl.

“It’ll just slow me down,” said Ruthie being rebellious of Lock.

“Sam!” said Lock throwing a small box at him, “Last box of mags.”

Sam removed eight of the bullets from the box and put the box into his back pocket and inserted the eight bullets into his Magnum revolver and placed it back in its holster which lay a few inches below his left armpit.

“How are you on arrows?” asked Pearl looking at Ray.

Ray gave her a bizarre look and opened his trench coat, which had what looked like an endless supply.

“Eve?” asked Pearl.

“I’m fine,” answered Eve putting two fists up. Since the Returners were all outfitted, now it was time for the soldiers to get prepped.

Lock walked to the doorway and peeked his head out the door.

“Okay! When it’s your turn at the door, you specify what you are comfortable with; sword, pistol, crossbow, etcetera etcetera!”

When Lock went back inside he saw that Alex was helping herself to a large rectangular shield and began tying it to her back. One by one the soldiers from the four Returner locations walked up to the door and requested their choice weapons.

The Returners changed into their outfits and retrieved their weapons before joining the soldiers in the dining area. Smith watched his Returners walk out, all of which were ready for a battle that could make or break their cause. There was Lock, his number one, wearing his bandana, bulletproof vest, cargo pants, and his ‘knife boots’; the knife boots had small blades that retracted in and out of the toe. On Lock’s body were over a dozen throwing daggers that lay on his thigh, in his belt buckle, buried in his vest, and one in his shoe and his Damascus hung from his left hip.

Tara was forced to leave her skirt behind and was wearing camouflage cargo pants with her two .45’s attached to them, a black tank underneath her vest, the bandana on her hand to prevent further injury, and her hair tied up in a ponytail. Ruthie was with Tara wearing her outfit that she wore in the Retriever’s swamp; she always wore this on missions.

Ruthie wore her black fighting gloves with retractable spikes and blue bandana tied in a helmet fashion over her hair. Pearl was outfitted with thick jeans, a sleeveless black shirt, leather fingerless gloves to protect herself from her own weapon, and her blue bandana tied around her left bicep. Eve wore her bandana around the belt loop of her daisy duke jean shorts as well as a tight blue T-shirt with her large knife at her side; it was half razor and half serrated blade. Ray didn’t change a thing about his appearance with the exception of his bandana that he tied much like Lock, in a stripe fashion on his forehead. Ray had his arm bow filled with arrows and the sword he bought in Velxeer hung on his right hip considering Ray’s a southpaw.

Julius did what all his men did, using their skin color to their advantage; all of them wearing black clothing to match their flesh. Julius wore black jeans, a black long sleeved shirt, and his bandana tied in a bow on his lower back around his belt. Julius’ weapon of choice is a double-barreled shotgun, which he carried due to its size, and a 9mm Beretta that sit snuggly in the front of his pants. Sam, a simple family man, didn’t bother to change since he had gotten to HQ.

Alex wore her cargo pants, white mesh top under the vest that had been provided, the shield tied diagonally to her back, her dragon’s blade on her back, typical military boots, and her newly acquired bandana was being used as a tie for her hair that was up in a ball behind her head.

Clyde looked ready to go, he craved battle after being out of commission for the last couple weeks. Clyde wore black slacks, a red tank top that showed off every single ripple of his muscular torso, and his blue bandana tied to his right knee.

Everyone going to Harmon was in the dining area awaiting instruction from Smith; Lock had Tara to his right and Alex to his left.

“Psst!” whispered Tara trying to get Lock’s attention.

He turned his head slowly to look at her as she pointed her finger at a steak knife lying on the table several feet from them with her left hand. She opened her right palm and the knife zoomed ten feet and landed in her hand without incident.

“Huh!” said Tara sounding accomplished.

“Good work,” whispered Lock back at her, “Listen, stay close to me okay?”

Tara looked at him intently unsure of whether he trusted her or if he still felt like it was his duty to protect her even though he was with Alex now.

“Sure.”

Lock looked forward and Tara looked over at Alex who had undoubtedly been glaring at her the whole time. Ooh! Someone’s jealous, thought Tara laughing to herself. Everyone got completely silent when Smith walked to the center of the room. He stood there silent for a moment thinking of what to say, then pointed to Lock with an open hand.

“These are YOUR men.”

Lock nodded and stepped onto the table ahead of him and looked about the room and saw every single person looking to him for some encouraging words; the Returners looked ready, but the soldiers looked scared and nervous.

“You all know both possible outcomes of this fight. Retreating is not one of them, I will sacrifice my life for our cause and I expect nothing less from all of you. We will be outnumbered, yes! They have training that we do not possess, but we do have something they could never begin to understand: hope. Know this! We will not falter, we will not fail. The forces of evil will not win. We’ll strike them down where they stand and refuse to quit till every single imperial is dead. Harmon needs you! We all want peace and the only way to achieve peace is to fill your heart with hate! The empire doesn’t want to take your lives; they want to take your home, your morality, and your faith in the right to do well. And we can’t let them…for if we do…they win! The only thing we can do is prevail and create a new era of GOOD!”

Lock threw his fist into the air and everyone in the room did the same and cheered for Lock as he jumped off the table. Lock was nearly tackled by Sandy, the little girl that called her uncle since she had no family.

“Uncle Lock, be careful and come back,” she said sadly.

Lock kneeled down to her level.

“I will.”

Some of the soldiers grabbed the bags full of food and blankets and Lock led everyone into the tunnel leading to Harmon; they’d be in Harmon in six hours.

Lock and Pearl led the pack across the plains while the other Returners handled the rear so as to ensure there were no stragglers. Ruthie and Tara were engaged in conversation as Alex walked quietly as to get herself in the right frame of mind for battle.

“I hope he’s okay,” said Tara referring to Lars who was in Harmon making preparations and hiding the meek civilians underground.

“He’s fine, Ter,” said Ruthie reassuringly, “He may be skinny and sweet, but he can handle himself.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” said Tara nodding her head up and down.

“You really like him, don’t you?” asked Alex.

Tara was surprised at Alex’s willingness to talk to her after what had transpired since they met.

“Yeah, he’s nice and he’s caring and he’s a good kisser,” answered Tara,

“What about you and Lock?”

Alex smiled at Tara for her attempt to be civil.

“It’s…complicated,” sighed Alex, “I haven’t a clue at how he feels about me, but I am falling for him. I try to stop myself but I can’t.”

“Lock’s a strange animal,” said Ruthie sighing, “One minute he’s in love, the next he’s trying to get rid of you. That’s just the way he is in relationships ever since Alisa died.”

Jillian turned her head around as she walked forward.

“I don’t know what I’d do if my love died.”

“It’s happened to me before when I was in my late teens,” explained Alex, “You feel lost even though you know where you are. You blame yourself for what is not your fault. You try to smile but your lips wont curve.”

Jillian’s lips tightened at the depressing thought.

“I’m so sorry Alex.”

“Thanks.”

“That’s enough, Ten!” yelled Reuben from the front of the Velxeer group which was in order of ascending number.

“Apologies, sir!” said Ten sulking.

“Give her a break!” yelled Alex in his direction, “Is it against the law to be human in your country?”

“Keep it down back there!” yelled Lock referring to everyone, then looked at Pearl who was leading the group alongside him.

“You’re a real ass, you know that,” said Pearl scoffing at Lock.

“What?”

“You heard me. She says the ‘three little words’ and you don’t say anything? You just ignore someone’s feeling? Is that how you work now?”

Lock hung his head in shame.

“I just didn’t know what to say. What can I say? ‘I enjoy having sex with you, but I don’t want to spend forever with you’?”

“At least then, she wouldn’t be confused. Women, no matter how strong, are still women and they need closure, compassion, and sensitivity.”

“Yeah, I know. But, I don’t wanna hurt her.”

“Better to hurt her feelings than kill her identity. Right now she’s blaming herself. She thinks it’s who she is that you don’t love or she’s not pretty enough.”

Lock glared at Pearl judgmentally.

“How the hell do you know that?” asked Lock.

Pearl shook her head in exasperation.

“Because I’m a woman and I can see it in her eyes.”

They reached the halfway mark as the moon disappeared behind the mountains behind them draping a blanket of darkness over their heads.

“Commander Lock,” said a jar-headed boy walking behind Lock.

“What is it?” asked Lock looking behind him at the boy.

The boy pointed to his right.

“Movement to the south.”

Lock and Pearl both threw up their fists to halt the group’s movement.

“Are we late?” asked Pearl trying to see through the darkness.

“No, too small for an imperial threat. A dozen, maybe more,” answered Lock.

“Pan’dier?”

“Seems like it.”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Alex running towards the small group of people hundreds of yards away. She stood there talking with them for a brief moment, then commenced to walk towards Lock and Pearl.

“Lock, these men are from Pan’dier. Fifteen in all,” said Alex as they approached him.

Lock looked at the fifteen men with .38 caliber bolt-action rifles draped over their shoulders.

“Who’s in charge?”

“You are,” said one of the men.

“She is,” said Lock pointing to Alex who was responsible for acquiring their assistance.

Alex positioned the fifteen gunners within the middle of the soldiers, then took her place at the rear.

The black night began to fade to a dark blue as they progressively got closer and closer to their destination.

“How long you think?” asked Pearl inquiring about the distance left till they would reach Harmon.

“We will reach the hill overlooking Harmon in about an hour, so ninety minutes. Be ready for the Lizarros.”

“Guess again,” smirked Pearl, “We took care of them a few weeks ago.”

“Oh, good.” Ray and Eve walked alongside Sam and Reuben near the middle of the traveling soldiers.

“Are we there yet?” asked Ray sarcastically.

“Funny,” smiled Eve.

“Great,” said Sam, “Feels like vacation with my daughter. Yakkity yak yak.”

Ray winked at Eve and began pushing his finger into her arm.

“Daaaaad! Ray won’t stop poking me!” joked Eve mimicking a little kid’s voice.

“Don’t make me come back there!” said Sam playing along.

“Do you people think this is a game?” said a fed up Reuben.

“Apparently, happiness is against your nation’s laws as well,” said Tara joining in on the ‘we hate Reuben’ club.

“We are going into battle! Now is the time for concentration!”

“I agree, sir,” chimed in a Velxeer archer trying to gain bonus points with his commanding officer.

“Hey Three!” said Ray trying to get Three’s attention.

Three looked at Ray who was rubbing the tip of his nose with his index finger.

“Got a little something right here.”

Three gave him an angry look and pointed his face forward. Julius choked on his own laughter as he turned his head to look at Ray who was four people behind him, then saw something strange at the end of the line; Ruthie riding on Clyde’s back.

“Damn!” said Clyde faking a strain, “You need to lose some weight.”

“Look who’s talking, fatty,” laughed Ruthie tapping the top of his head with her palm.

“It’s called muscle,” argued Clyde.

“I don’t agree with that,” said the Doc walking alongside his two nurses.

“You’re calling me fat now?” asked Clyde angrily.

“No, I don’t agree with her on your back like that. You’re still healing,” explained the doctor.

Ruthie looked over at the Doc realizing that what he was saying was right on the money and began to get off of him.

“Its fine Ruthie,” said Clyde shrugging off the doctor’s advice and grabbing her legs so she felt safe.

An hour passed as they approached the hill just before Harmon. Alex saluted a decomposing Lizarro as they passed it.

“Your handy work?” asked Ruthie looking down from Clyde’s shoulders.

Alex nodded a confirming ‘yes’. Lock halted the line and ran quickly up to the peak of the hill to look at Harmon’s situation. He crept slowly up the hill and looked over the top to see an abandoned Harmon and Lars hammering the wooden wall that surrounded the town. Lock waved everyone towards him as they followed his lead and saw the quickly approaching town as the sun slowly peaked up from the east.

They entered Harmon through the side entrance on the west side of town where Lars was building traps.

“How are things?” asked Pearl.

“Hey, glad you guys made it,” said Lars looking down at them from atop the twelve foot wall, “Townspeople are safely tucked away. Explosives set on the north entrance and got a few traps set up here.”
“Sounds good,” said Lock looking around the dark town.

“Pan’dier,” yelled Alex pointed to the inn in the north part, “Follow me to the roof.”

The gunners from Pan’dier walked up to the front of the group where Alex was now positioned next to Lock. Before leading them into the inn that would give them roof access she looked at Lock intently, not knowing what to say. Lock stared back at her wanting to say something, but couldn’t. To the right of the inn was a small store that sold sundries.

“Doc,” yelled Lock as he looked at the shop.

The Doc and his two nurses, Bridget and Helena, walked up to the front where Lock was.

“In there,” said Lock pointing to the shop.

“Right!” said the doctor walking toward the shop followed by his nurses; they needed to be protected till the fighting ceased.

“Alright, I want three on the inside with the Doc and two guarding the door on the outside,” said Lock counting out the ones to go.

The young soldiers jogged over to the shop and positioned themselves. Lock looked to the southeast part of town where a bunch of residential building stood.

“Captain Antleon, up there?”

Reuben looked to where Lock was referring to.

“Perfect,” agreed the Captain, “I’ll position my men.”

Reuben nodded at Lock and led his archers to the residential area where they commenced to climb the rain gutters to the top of the buildings and positioned themselves facing the main entrance on the south side of Harmon. Lock divided the remaining soldiers into three groups and sent one group to the rear entrance in the north side of town with Ray, Clyde, and Sam, one group to stay at the side entrance with Lars, Pearl, and Julius, and one group to take with him to the main entrance on the south edge of town along with Ruthie, Eve, and Tara.

When Lock’s team made it to the main entrance Lock positioned his soldiers in various spots that would be unseen by the imperial soldiers such as in the tree that lay in the center of the courtyard, along the wall, behind the gate of the entrance, and behind bushes.

“Okay, here’s the plan,” started Lock, “They walk in and we come down on them with a surprise attack consisting of Ruthie, Tara, Eve, and myself; soldiers don’t move. Then they open fire, we take cover, and the archers take more of them, then you soldier’s spring into action only when I give the word.”

They all nodded as the soldiers began hiding in their spots. Lock looked at Ruthie.
“I’ll be right back.”

Lock walked toward the alleyway in the southwest corner of town that connected to the various shops to look for the Retriever, who should have arrived already.

“Retriever,” called out Lock silently as he walked through the alley, “Retriever?”

He heard and saw nothing and looked back the way he came and saw smoke coming from the mountain tops.

“Shit!” Lock ran back to his team, “It’s time! Tara, fire a shot into the air.”

Tara pointed her gun to the heavens and shot a single bullet alerting the other teams of the threat that now approached them.

“They’ll be here shortly,” said Clyde, “Don’t go past where I am standing or the blast will get you. Engage after you see five blasts come up from the ground.”

“As soon as the fifth one goes off, run through the smoke as it will provide cover,” said Ray.

“Very good,” said Sam getting into the right mindset for the battle.

“I have a series of traps,” said Lars explaining his plan to his team, “Stay clear of the doorway, as long as we stay on this side of the wall, you’ll all be okay. Let them come to you. I will signal to the shooters for the first wave of their attack.”

“And take no prisoners!” yelled Pearl with conviction.

Alex had her gunners positioned on the roof that was of a triangle shape with each side at a forty-five degree angle; they were lying on their stomachs on the side that was inside the walls as not to be seen by the soon coming imperials.

“Okay, when Pearl gives the word you fire. Don’t be quick…be accurate…head shots or the heart. Make sure you all prioritize, the ones with firearms die first. Let our soldiers handle the imperials carrying melee weapons.”

“Alright archers,” said Reuben egging his soldiers on, “This will be a proud day, a victorious day. Some of you won’t make it back, but know that it is your duty to give your lives for the kingdom of Velxeer.”

Reuben looked down at Lock’s team who had their backs to the wall for concealment. While Reuben was turned away, Jillian looked over at Alex from across the town and waved, wishing her good luck as Alex sat atop the peak of the triangular roof smoking a rolled cigarette. Lock peeked his head out the main entrance doorway and saw the empire approaching, five minutes away…if that. Lock looked at the three female Returners he had the honor of fighting alongside with.

“Welcome to hell. No mercy,” he said grinning like a villain.

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