Come the next marshalling there were only thirty-nine of them left. Beluka was carrying the body of his friend already cold. Gesper was the dead lad’s name, thought Mestarés, the captain of the group. After numerous attempts to dissuade Beluka, they just let it go. He refused to leave Gesper with the rest of the dead. The fool was going to get himself killed in the process, but he was useless in his mewling state anyway. Mestarés just wished he would shut up - they had invited enough trouble by just coming to this place.
Of course what they called the marshalling was more of a desperately lucky reunion after the monstra had scattered them, Mestarés having arrived here with a squad of eighty men. Confident and self-assured with the sense of security of having won multiple battles against combat dummies, they did not come to these parts expecting much difficulty. After all, they were to capture a convict girl and nothing more.
Airlifted to the borders of the Gardens of Scithea, they had arrived in relative comfort. That was another thing; what was called the Gardens was actually a den of monstra living in a part of the earth so overgrown with trees and vegetation that there was little chance for humanity to ever reclaim this part of the world, that’s assuming that men hada footing here once upon a time.
The Imperials as they were called were heavily armoured, the impossibly tough carbon plates protecting their chests and shoulders, while the rest of their combat uniform was an ominous black of military grade cloth. The supposed masterpiece was the headgear, which Mestarés wasn’t going to get into right away.
As his men were, they were ideally suited to a quick infiltration that expected a great amount of fire power aimed back at them. Infiltrate... withstand whatever was thrown at them, and overwhelm the enemy in a storm of bullets. That was what the Imperials had been known for. What they were not, was a hunting party. Even so they were not ill-equipped beyond all redemption; every fifth man in the company was ordered to have his helm activated with an infrared heat detection visor. Mestarés pulled his own visor over his eyes occasionally, scanning the undergrowth, startled every now and then by the movement of a bird or the red-haired apes that tentatively followed their movements out of curiosity. He alone was ill at ease. They had yet to come across such then, but in the back of his mind he was hoping that the divide, however great or small, between normal animal life and monstra remained unobserved today.
Despite some earlier observations, there was evidence of mankind here, albeit long gone; old stone ruins rising as high as some of the mightier trees. But who had built these things were anyone’s guess. Mestarés didn’t like it, not the trees nor the ruins. The ruins reminded him of something and the trees, well... Mother Nature was a cold-hearted bitch when all her children came out to play.
Mestarés had a hard time keeping his mind on the goal. He was actually more preoccupied with leaving here alive. The only real reason he wanted to capture the girl was because if he didn’t, then someone else would.
Tracking the girl was only half of it - they would in all probability need to flush her out and then hope she come quietly. Given her supposed powers Mestarés wasn’t sure that they could see the girl using the infrareds. They would have to wait and see on that one.
Add to that the military report of this girl had a lot of missing details that were not even under the confidential files of Mestarés’s tablet. Mestarés was torn between alerting his men what a threat she potentially posed and keeping the sensitive nature of her origins quiet. The best part of the report was the status indicator saying: Unremarkable. Not even his crew was fooled. If she was unremarkable, why on earth were they chasing her into Scithea? And how did she escape The Hold?
‘She seduced the guard, that’s how she escaped,’ said Tony, a short, loud mouthed man by anyone’s standards. ‘Heard she has tits like mountains!’ he cried out, gesticulating to the heavens with dramatically clawed hands as though trying to grab something, letting his rifle dangle by its strap.
‘Weapon safety!’ urged Mestarés in a tone as dull as the subject.
‘My gun is as safe as houses, boss,’ said Tony.
Mestarés wasn’t even going to go into a lecture into what a gun in the military really is.
‘That’s because you don’t have no bullets little man,’ said Beluka laughingly to Tony, who was still sensible at the time.
Mestarés didn’t mind the banter. Hell, sometimes it made missions like these come to a swift close, albeit for the wrong reasons. But the light heartedness was maybe a little too much; in these men’s minds this was just another exercise, involving the amply growing desirability of the girl they couldn’t wait to have a look at.
At some point Mestarés thought that they went in too deep. Turn back now! his thoughts kept nagging him. They pressed on. There were places of the forest where the noise increased to deafening heights, the cacophony of birds overpowered by a hum of insects, like they were really in some big hive. Even so they had no problem with insects except for the solitary bug Mestarés had crushed on his own cheek. He alone was helmetless. He didn’t allow his men the courtesy he offered himself. A “do as I say, not as I do” kind of thing. They obeyed that command and didn’t question it either. Mestarés was by no means a large man, he did however cast a deceivingly large shadow. His years with the military stood at fifteen, most of them served actively. His face was a little too bony to be called fine-chiselled and his blond hair was kept superbly short. Once, not too long ago, a woman said he looked too much like a rodent behind his back. Not the nose or mouth apparently, but the eyes. When he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see this rodent she was talking about. The lady in question had been exceptionally pretty, so at times like these Mestarés just shrugged by himself to rid an idle mind of an insult that mattered more than it should, and certainly visited him more than it should.
So he was a little startled when one of the more junior men approached him, breathlessly. Not because he had been running, but because the man was plainly nervous addressing Mestarés. That was down to that surprisingly big shadow; just sometimes, Mestarés enjoyed the fact that he was intimidating.
‘Sir we’ve spotted her, she’s moving through the ravine. She’s running, she knows she hasn’t lost us yet.’
Mestarés allowed himself to show visible relief and excitement. ‘Take twenty men and follow her every step,’ he told the man who reported the news to him, a very sudden promotion bestowed upon the man. Mestarés reared his voice louder. ’The rest of you numbskulls, listen up, we’ll split up, and keep your damned comm. devices online! Beta team will coordinate our approach so that one of us can blindside the girl and corner her!’
’Are we Beta team sir?′ asked the man who had just been handed twenty men and the task of chasing the girl down.
‘That you are, get moving!’
Truthfully speaking there was no point in trying to deny how ill-conceived this operation had been. They wanted to push amateurish new recruits into a hostile environment, and compensate for it by putting men like Mestarés and Sternroe in charge. Sternroe was the other captain.
Mestarés knew bringing greenhorns here was a recipe for disaster. He would not have had it this way and that is why he always had a little back up. Just in case. Fifteen years of excelling did not come without resorting to outside help. That was one of the reasons Mestarés never insisted on limelight. He downplayed his achievement and avoided major accolades, for the simple reason that should he be audited or news ever make it to the bigheads, that he, Mestarés, used a foreign contact to secure almost a fifth of his missions... well, the Imperial pride would never allow for that, no matter how effective it was. What he did do well however was keep his men safe, and keep Doma Arak safe in the process. And that had to happen by any means necessary in Mestarés’s book.
Two hours later they had the girl backed up against a river, a bed of rocks allowing the sparsest of river streams to wrestle its way through stones as jagged as teeth. Do not try and go over the river, thought Mestarés. He got the impression she was smart enough to know she was trapped and that risking going over the rocks was not really an option. Drawing closer, she had an icy cold face to her, a detached look as though a smile never crossed her features. This was accentuated by hair as white-gold as Mestarés had yet seen, framing a pale face and running down to the small of her back. ′
He wondered if he was the only one unnerved by the bow she carried, white as the moon - an unnatural looking thing.
Along with securing her bow, somewhere along the way she had managed to get a change of dress since escaping from the Hold. The top she wore was unblemished white, and while it crept up into her neck it left her stomach and back exposed, the undersides of her breasts showing. The skirt she wore was lavender purple with frills that resembled the outline of flower petals. A quiver of arrows rested on her hip and her feet were sandaled.
She was a very fit lass, was the euphemism thrown around the military these days and having heard his new men speak he could almost hear their thoughts right now. Seeing her like this Mestarés felt his own blood quicken and he was always worried what his men might do confronted with a situation like this. The men Mestarés used to run around with won’t resort to that kind of thing. Then again, this was as likely to end bloodily which was no better than the other scenario Mestarés dreaded. At least with the former he could ensure no acts of rape were committed on his watch, but once she was out of his custody...
‘Her tits ain’t that big at all!’ protested Tony, setting the men laughing raucously.
‘Shut up man!’ shouted Mestarés. ‘Secure the target!’ he ordered.
But it was their mistake thinking that the matter was wrapped up then. The truth was that they had been followed for some time now and just as they had trapped the girl they had also pressed themselves against the river, primed for an ambush. But that wasn’t even taking in to consideration the trouble the girl gave them.
If it was one crisis or the other, Mestarés could see their firepower grind out to a gradual victory. Somehow they expected the girl to just drop her weapons and give up once a half moon of men pointed their rifles at her. She did drop her bow, but Mestarés could see by the look in her eyes she had not given up to their capture. He could not anticipate what would come next. Six men rushed forward to detain her. When they were ready to take her down, four men stepped out from the mists of the river, the spirits of the dead suddenly spilling into the world of the living. Mestarés was maybe the only one that would recognize the armour of the living dead. They had no time for ponderings, but the men were from an extinct Kingdom that had no love for Imperials.
What became abundantly clear to Mestarés was how the girl had escaped The Hold to begin with. She is summoning them.
The ghost warriors came to life with swords in hands, plunging and stabbing them into the Imperials, the rest of Mestarés’s men powerless to shoot at the backs of their own men. The girl in the meanwhile had swept up her bow in the chaos and sent unerring arrows through the wall of her own warriors and the dying Imperials. It would however only be moments afterwards that all of Mestarés’ squad rallied and opened fire to tear the girl and any trickery she might have to shreds.
But then the beasts came...
Everyone had been so focussed on the girl and her dead warriors that not one of the men had seen the fast encroaching Volven. You could’ve had towering outposts with men staring through heat detection cams in a 360 radius, and still the monstra would have come through the undergrowth with too much speed for the sentries to issue any worthwhile warning.
Mestarés’s voice rang out as he tried to assemble his men into a tactic that could possibly resist the Volven attack, the appearance of them becoming more apparent as they tore into the Imperials:
They were canine-like beasts with long bodies, and most of them standing to the hip of a man. They came in from all sides. Their hair was short to the point of being transparent, except for the mane around their heads. The smooth bodies bundled with muscles when running, and the claws upon the paws a terrible black as much as their fangs were a terrible white. The faces seemed to be captured in a perpetually snarling state.
The sound of gunfire escalated to a thunderous chorus, but for the Imperials it was all panic. Nothing Mestarés could do now would stop the unravelling of his company.
Whatever body armour the Imperials carried crunched under the teeth of the Volven. At least the more steadfast of the Imperials would form a pocket of men and open focussed fire to bring down a Volven beast... only for another to come from behind.
It was then that Beluka’s friend Gesper was savaged by two Volven. He was swept from his feet by one, dragged along the ground and then another bit into the man, almost torn two ways between the two beasts. Beluka seemingly forgot his own rifle, and pulled one of the creatures from Gesper’s body. It didn’t stop there, as he lifted the creature almost as high as his head - they didn’t call the man the Hippo for nothing. He tossed the mad writhing creature into the river and its rocks.The second creature left the already savaged body of Gesper and pounced on Beluka, who went down on his back.No one was sure how he managed it, but he got an arm wrapped around to grab the creature by the back of its mane, pulling the fangs away from his throat. With his other hand he had his handgun out and pressed it against the Volven’s temple.Two shots later and he was lying underneath the dead creature. Not everyone was going to show Beluka’s resiliency however. Men were fleeing into positions as to have their back against something, but the persistence of the Volven was going to reduce them to shreds.
For this, Mestarés had an ace up his sleeve all along, or a contingency depending on how you looked at it. Considering his roaming the wilds without his first choice men he had already been reaching for his comm. unit every five minutes with a particular person in mind. To ensure he had not too many families to notify upon his return, he was rather certain he would call upon his contact sooner rather than later. That was grim thinking.
It didn’t take much more to convince Mestarés to call in back-up. Things were going south very quickly. When he dialled, he waited in dread anticipation for the call to connect, firing his rifle sparingly as he did.
‘We’re under attack! Volven beasts! Please assist! I repeat we’re under attack!’
’Your government ferry was late...’ came a conversational voice across the radio, the response leaving Mestarés dumbfounded.
‘Are you on site?!’ asked Mestarés.
’I am, but I incurred extra costs to get here and time lost to station myself nearby. Add two thousand Pessenants to what we agreed to,’ crackled the voice
‘Gods man! Men are going to die!’ said Mestarés into the phone.
’Repeat that argument to yourself, and then agree to my offer.’
‘Can you just get your ass in here!’ shouted Mestarés defeatedly into the phone. The call went dead and Mestarés prayed that Fedaro was on his way and had taken Mestarés’s plea as a confirmation that he would dump as much money in Fedaro’s lap as he could reasonably muster.
Every moment thereafter was costing men’s lives, but the tell-tale roar of an engine was fast approaching. Here comes Fedaro. And so he did, driving a tunnel through the brush of woods, coming into plain sight with a drama that was often associated with the mercenary.
That he still found the time, energy and spitefulness for the lack of a better word to arrive here on what he always called an Iron Horse was just a little bit too much. A throwback of the cylotrons that still used fossil fuels, the Iron Horse roared with life absent in modern corners of the world. The bike was a Menmer-Gaddimon, the two wheel all terrain combat ready version, all roar and bluster, the exhaust rattling at the turn of the throttle. Why make all that noise when you’re not going anywhere? And that’s why your damned ferry cost so much... you had to smuggle in that archaic monstrosity. Mestarés’s irritation with Fedaro however was very short-lived. He arrived speedily, which mattered above all else.
He came to a halt in the midst of the fray and left the bike leaning on its kick stand. He slung his fabled Musket from his back, the tip of it fitted with a gleaming blade right underneath the muzzle of the gun.
When Fedaro appeared into sight, he was exactly as Mestarés always saw him; garbed in a navy tail coat, combat pants, boots and bandoleers criss-crossed over his shirt under the coat. His dark hair was long now, reaching into the back of his collar. Mestarés also spotted the bracelet on his arm, a piece of technology that might yet bring the demise of Kings.
Where Fedaro marched from the point where he had left his motorcycle, his attentions did not pass over a creature without bestowing death upon it.
There was a lot to explain about Fedaro, but the only parts that mattered now came down to that long barrelled weapon that his very dark eyes stared across.
The Musket as it was called was actually a fully automatic rifle, but much too long if compared to the combat rifles the Imperials carried. With the bladed tip, it was as good as a spear, and Mestarés knew Fedaro was a very accomplished shot. He never used a scope, but that didn’t mean Fedaro couldn’t hit a target at a healthy distance, especially with that long barrel. But his style was mostly up close and personal. Had the discharge of projectiles not overtaken the crossing of swords the man would’ve ended up flaying the flesh from his enemies with something as archaic as that disaster he came riding on, Mestarés was certain. Point being, He was a warrior born and bred.
Fedaro’s bullets bit into the rabid creatures, felling them faster than any Imperial man could. Mestarés would never, ever admit that aloud, but Fedaro was frightfully effective, and received premium reward from Mestarés in situations like these.
His skills against any kind of foe were always enough to hit the critical parts even in the heat of battle. But he did not leave it at that. These monstra, especially the Volven kind could take hits to anything but the head and heart and continue on for minutes more, their tenacity not fading until they closed wildly salivating jaws on one or two more hapless victims. Fedaro however had the proverbial silver bullets in his arsenal, the man painstakingly having crafted bullets from materials that reacted venomously once shot into the bodies of the beasts. Paralysis or even rapid decay of flesh was the result. What was happening here wasn’t unique either. Fedaro had ways of combating creatures right across the world; it’s what he did. He was always prepared, and if in the instance he wasn’t, he would do research to make sure the next of its kind would go down smoother than the last.
Soon however the Volven gang-pressed him as well.
Fedaro’s Musket came up in an arc, batting a beast away and then slicing open the throat with the blade with a second swing as it came right back charging. He took another head on, driving the blade into the shoulder like a spear, and then fired a solitary shot to finish the Volven.
It was almost hypnotic watching the man fight, but Mestarés’s senses returned to him and he rallied his men to help finish off the pack; if Fedaro’s bullets ran out because he was the only one fighting they would all be in a hole again sooner rather than later. Mestarés focussed his efforts on providing cover fire for the mercenary, finishing off beasts unattended or already wounded, just in case one of those bastards decided to take Fedaro from behind.
Having taken the worst edge of the Volven’s attack, the Imperials routed the rest of them, a sudden quietness installed when the last bullets were fired.
Taking stock, it was carnage, plain and simple. And in the chaos of course, the girl had escaped.
Mestarés found himself in a state where he couldn’t stop swearing. He did so under his breath. He didn’t want to relay to his men that he was losing composure.
Fedaro came trudging toward Mestarés, stepping over the carcass of a Volven as he said, ‘You should have called sooner.’
‘There’s a reason I have a standby offer and an offer on top of that for you to respond should you be necessary. You were never this expensive.’
‘And your government’s currency was never this weak.’
’It’s your government as well. Your father was an Imperial, fought in all four battles of Residas. That’s not something you can keep hidden you know. It was because of men like your father that Doma Arak became as mighty as it did. Some might even call him a war hero.’
Fedaro shrugged as though that didn’t matter to him. ’The Imperials had better men back then at least. You used to have better men.’
‘They’ve moved on. The talented men were all drawn to the palace.’
‘And you’re stuck doing reconnaissance?’
‘Some things are a calling,’ said Mestarés, ‘the urge to stand on walls already safe and feel important has not come to me yet. I serve my homeland much better here than anywhere else.’ Mestarés didn’t know why every exchange with the mercenary had to feel like an interrogation or even why he felt the need to explain himself. Of course Fedaro was an unnerving man to just about everyone, but it bothered Mestarés that he had to suffer this disquiet.
‘Are you going to help us track down the girl?’ asked Mestarés.
‘Yes. But only until a point; if this hunt of yours becomes a suicide mission I want no part of it. ’
‘I will pull my men out before that happens I assure you.’
‘What’s left of them,’ murmured Fedaro.
They trudged on a while before Fedaro asked, ‘Are we capturing the girl?’
‘Dead or alive.’
‘What about that special division of yours? That one that rounds up freaks and uses them for the cause? Wouldn’t she be a nice addition?’ asked Fedaro.
‘She is deemed to be outside the realm of reconciliation. The girl has spirits of dead warriors slain by Imperials following her; do you think she is going to show any amity towards us?’
‘I can see how that can be a problem. You obliterated her people.’
Mestarés chose to ignore that. ‘She will not come easily, it’s likely we will shoot her down,’ he reiterated.
Fedaro nodded. ‘Very well.’ He took a cloth and started wiping the blood from the blade on the tip of the musket. He stowed the cloth away carefully, Mestarés noticed. Maybe that’s how he did his research?
‘You have another company close by?’ asked Fedaro.
Mestarés didn’t answer him immediately. ‘Sternroe leads another company east of here. I would prefer not to rope him into this.’
’Sternroe, as in, your rival Sternroe?’
‘He is not my rival. I am not in any kind of competition with him. He simply finds it in himself to find fault with others, provided it gives him a stepping stone for his own ambitions. What I’m trying to say is, if Sternroe sees that I’m using you I will have no end of trouble. He wouldn’t hesitate to report me for every little breach that is associated with contracting external help.’
‘Well, you need external help, and we need Sternroe.’
‘No, I cannot have you and Sternroe anywhere close to each other.’
‘I will leave the bike behind and follow in stealth. There is a place nearby where I can store the bike away safely.’
‘No,’ said Mestarés. ‘You can make all the noise you want, but then Sternroe is kept out of this.’
‘You do realize that these Volven beasts’ aggression are completely adaptive? They do not need such large teeth, claws - and such strength for that matter, to take down a few lemurs or antelope. There are things in the Garden that will shame any one aspect of the Imperial military. I do not know why I have to tell you this,’ said Fedaro.
Mestarés kept quiet and Fedaro got the impression he had not reached the man.
‘How important is this girl really?’ asked Fedaro.
‘I’m not entirely at liberty to discuss that...’
‘So clearly not someone the Imperials are willing to let go then,’ said Fedaro.
’And they send you in charge of this bungling bunch?’
‘Enough of that,’ said Mestarés.
The Hippo walked past them, crying as he carried the body of his friend.
‘You should get rid of that guy,’ said Fedaro.
‘He will collect himself soon enough.’
Before they moved out Fedaro asked for the final time: ‘Are you sure you want her dead? She could be useful.’
Mestarés sighed. ‘It’s for the best.’
‘What’s her name?’ asked Fedaro.
‘Does it matter?’
Fedaro smirked. ‘I have a friend, a black man from Tathras, who carves the names of every person he kills on a pole of wood he keeps. Point being, he doesn’t kill until he has a name for his victim.’
‘Her name is Gloria, apparently,’ said Mestarés in order to cut a conversation short as to why Fedaro was a friend to someone who killed so many people that they were recorded on a wooden pole.
‘Call Sternroe and his men in, we don’t know what’s waiting for us,’ said Fedaro.
Mestarés lifted his comm. device to lips, this time with much more reluctance than when he had called Fedaro.
A snake of imperials moved through the forest trail, now with more than a hundred men, their gear rattling and their boots crunching in a not-so-covert fashion. Fedaro was following them in secret, and would only emerge if the very worst was to happen. That is extremely likely, thought Mestarés in a bout of cynicism. What had been merely a reluctance to go on this expedition has now blossomed into a spell of foul temper. Mestarés could not believe how predictably smug Sternroe had joined up with them. ‘A strange tactic, sacrificing half of your squadron to detect your prey,’ said Sternroe. ‘But I guess some of us don’t mind the paperwork afterwards.’
Mestarés had merely shut up because any response would simply bait the man to further taunt him.
‘You did the right thing calling me, I had been worrying that my new recruits aren’t getting enough rescue operations under their belt, but I think we might consolidate that part of our scorecard after today.’
When they set out Mestarés kept as far away from Sternroe as possible. Hopefully the son of bitch will get savaged by a Volven before the day comes to a close. Then again Mestarés would be just as happy never to see a creature like that again.
They had left the Hippo behind who insisted on burying his friend. Mestarés didn’t want to go through with it but Sternroe commanded that they press on. ‘I’m going to kill her myself,’ grumbled Beluka before they left him, and by the cold look of him, Mestarés knew that was as good as a promise.