“Sorry, no one will hear your screams. Your life has ended. You have but one choice. A slow drawn out death or a swift one.” Liem talked quietly, calmly to the captured scout. The scout’s hands and feet were bound and a gag was placed over his face. Half his fingers had been splayed already and Liem was working on the kneecaps.
“If you are going shout when I remove the gag, I take your teeth out. Ready?”
The man, scared for his life, nodded dumbly.
“Good. So show me where on the map locations of interest, supply stores, forts, anything useful.”
The man grit his teeth in pain before talking. “I’m a forward scout. You think I have access to that much information?”
“I do.” Liem said reassuringly. He placed the gag back on and took out a hammer and a chisel. The scout’s eyes widened and he panicked. He couldn’t do anything as he watched his own kneecap get split from the shin. His cries came out in muffled, agonized whimpers.
“The thing is, I know you are a scout master. The one person out of the whole reconnaissance platoon to have clearance of the Coalition’s setup.”
The man gave him a look of pure hatred.
“I know you blame me for your imminent death and failure,” Liem started, “but really it is that hellcat you should be hating.” He pointed to Ava who was squatting over a series of maps. “She is the scary one, a terrainer bred to be one with the land, to know all its secrets and to be able to sniff out the vermin. As for me, I’m just trained to dissect your psyche. She did the hard work. Tracking takes real skill, torture just takes time.”
The enemy scout lost his last kneecap. After he calmed down, Liem pulled down the gag. “I’ll never talk, you Garghent bastard!” The scout practically spat the words.
“I’ll be right back, I’m going to fetch my IVs.” Liem paused a brief moment in deliberation. “And perhaps some lidocaine to numb the pain. It’s interesting, the human body will only feel so much pain before it all gets muddled together, I need your nerves fresh.” Liem left to retrieve more torture supplies.
Hales was sitting some distance away. Liem’s work was grim but the possible benefits outweighed the moral objections. The havoc she was ready to unleash would be all the more effective if they knew key locations to attack. She had debated whether to reveal the upcoming information to other squads but decided against it, too many different attacks on important locations would be noticeable, triggering a more rapid response from the Coalition. Besides, a joint strike wasn’t the purpose Garghent was seeking with these small independent squads. Be chaotic, be unpredictable, be deadly. Those were the orders Cull Marcarios relayed from high command. The large scale fighting would be carried out by the militia and other divisions. The time would come when Hales would have to lead her squad to the frontlines. For now she was unrestrained to do as she pleased. It felt good and Hales was satisfied with her and Santiage’s plan.
Hales glanced at Yillo. He was getting twitchy, his rage unfurling. Soon she thought, soon we’d get to have some fun. She couldn’t have asked for a better classmate to have joined her squad. She did miss Abajem, her freaky wit was comforting to have and her monstrous mantis body was an asset to be hallowed. The Odd division must be having quite the trip trying to rein her in.
Hales looked to Deo next, sitting quietly under a tree, thinking whatever mysterious and guarded thoughts he was entertaining today.
She would protect him, just like she would break the attackers and protect her siblings. Any means necessary. As if to emphasize her determination, the stifled screams of the captured scout started up again.
Deo kept his expression blank, hard but blank. The fact that he might be a pacifist didn’t bother her. Hales had the power to keep him alive, of that she was sure. Though she was also sure he would fight to defend himself. She knew he didn’t value Garghent or its cause and wouldn’t contribute to the war effort. She admired that about him. He was untainted by the recent events, his values holding him steadfast. Soldier life came naturally enough to him. He had the stamina and presence of mind, level-headed enough to not panic. Even if Deo was more qualmish it wouldn’t change anything. She’d get him through the war and hopefully things could return to normal, for a while at least.
Eyeing him again, she noted how handsome he was in military garb. Her thoughts quickly degraded and she turned away to stop from blushing.
There had been a bit of a wall between them since her return. With so many things going on at once she wasn’t surprised. The war, her absence, his conscription into a city’s military he despised, her subsequent transfer of him into a special forces squadron… But more than all of this, Hales couldn’t find a way to tell him about what happened while lost for months, especially what happened in the desert, with her baby…
Hales knew Deo sensed something happened but never pressed the issue. They were both private people who understood the need for solitude, at least of the mind.
Either way, Hales tried her best to stay close friends. There was moments where talking to Deo was natural as ever, she cherished those conversations.
The most unexpected friendship, if she could call it that, was between Deo and Yillo. They rarely spoke to each other but they seemed to have a strange understanding, an alikeness that probably stemmed from their hatred. In Yillo’s case, his hate was a burning inferno. For Deo, an icy abyss. Yillo wanted to kill people, Deo merely wanted them dead.
They would soon both receive their yearnings…
The waiting was the worst part. The excitement, nerves, anxiety, all build up before a fight.
Liem was concluding his work, his torture a success. He was currently writing down the information extracted from the scout master.
A few more minutes passed before Liem emerged with bloodied hands.
“It’s done. I let him die. I’m going to work with Ava to construct a map.”
“Good.” Hales replied.
“Fightn’ will be starting soon.” Saccha said as he woke from a nap.
“Yeah, Ava and Liem are mapping the Coalition’s bases.”
“Garghent, I mean. They about to start the first attack.”
“Ah. We’ll be too far out to see the city.”
“Don’t you worry about the walls, cap’n. Garghent will hold but we’ve got to do our part here in the fields.”
“I know it will, at least I hope it will. There’s over fifty million in their army. When did Garghent become such an enemy to the world?”
“Ain’t for you to ponder, unless you going to retire that uniform and be a philosopher. Questions like that don’t have answers for us. You could go through the history of the world and pick out every wrong things someone did to another. Prejudice runs as deep as a river, aye, and just as fast. You just try your best not to get killed, cap’n. Leave the thinkin’ to the thinkers and the wars to the warriors.”
Hales forced a smile but took his words to heart. Saccha got up to prepare and Hales lay down, hands behind her head.
“The map is ready, captain!” Ava declared shortly after. Hales took a deep breath then stood up.
“On me!” Hales ordered.
They huddled over the sheet of cartography. Ava and Liem described various locations of operation headquarters, supply trains and storage units, munitions depots, mobile camps and siege weaponry.
“Where do you want to strike first?” Asked Santiage.
“We have explicit orders not to target any of their leadership, so cross that off the list.” Hales said first.
“What does that symbol represent?” Deo said, pointing to a small marking of three lines.
“That’s an engineer site, the scout didn’t have any information beyond that.” Liem answered.
“It’s nearby. It’s the only one of its kind?” Deo pressed.
“That he knew about. It seems he only had information on this wide section.” Liem put two lines on either side of the map, marking a boundary wherein all the locations lay inside.
“Do you think it’s worth paying a visit?” Hales addressed the group.
“Seems like it could be a significant spot. If they are planning something big, we could sabotage it.” Santiago projected.
“Should we tell the Cull?” Liem asked.
Hales shook her head. “If we go to that location we can tell him after we’ve seen it. I don’t want to draw attention away from the other objectives. We’re already stretched thin enough as it is. This is why we are out here.”
“I’ll work out a route to the anomaly.” Ava said.
“Everyone else, let’s gather our gear. We move out as soon as Ava has a path.”
Her squad saluted and broke off, removing all evidence that any humans had contact or were tortured here.
“We’ve got a good route. We’ll enter the thick of the forest in about a kilometer then make a wide curve around the target, about three kilometers further. After that we make a direct line and attack from the side opposite to us now. We can reach the target by sunset, raid it and leave in a direct path back towards this location under the cover of night. Since we’ve more or less cleared the scouts in this area, we have another night before anyone notices.”
“Our retreat is secure. That’s a good plan.” Santiage said, agreeing as he rubbed his chin.
“What do you think captain?”
“Let’s run it. The pace will be fast so let’s travel in formation. Ava, you’re the scout so you take point in the lead. Saccha will follow as a vanguard for the rest of us. Santiage, Yillo and myself are the core and will strike the enemy with the most firepower. Deo and Liem will bring up the rear for support.”
Hales’ squad set out, starting at a steady jog. Santiage had the biggest load with his light machine gun but it didn’t seem to affect his speed at all. Yillo and Hales carried nothing more than the required handgun and their Aspects. Saccha had his own arsenal of weapons strapped to his body, all easily accessible with a strap that could be pulled to draw in the next weapon. Liem and Deo both had mid to long range rifles and Ava carried both a composite bow and a silenced pistol, good weapons for her line of work.
They traversed the forest without hiccup, Ava leading them on a path just outside the vision of nearby enemy camps. The Coalition obviously expected small groups to attack their backline, but their focus was still the invasion of Garghet, where a majority of the army was currently constricting their surrounded position of.
Ava let the team catch up, “Okay from here, we are going to start arching around the point so we can hit it from the side. We should start to see more traffic now, they have a huge army with many followers and other workers maintaining this army. It is essentially a massive organism and as soon as a toxin is discovered, aka us, they are going to send in a cleanup crew. Keep your wits about you and follow my trail.”
Hales nodded, “If fighting breaks out before the objective, we stay the course. They won’t know what we are aiming for because they don’t expect us to know their setup.”
Ava sprinted ahead and the rest followed behind at a controlled pace.
After half an hour Ava returned to the group, warning that some perimeter guards were patrolling the area. She had killed a couple but the window of opportunity would be narrow until the shift change. Time was of the essence and so Hales ordered her team into a run.
They found themselves in a series of hills and woods along with a few large boulders offering plenty of natural cover. The terrain was busy but nothing extraordinarily unique about it.
So it came as a shock when they crested one hill and looked down on a wide depression inconspicuously hidden between raised terrain. The area stretched for several hundred meters and could only be seen right near the edge. The whole place was so lowkey that Hales could have spent weeks here and never even noticed it. Only an expert in geography and tracking could have discovered it, and that is with the precognition of leaked information of its whereabouts.
The depression featured a handful of mobile houses and digging and drilling machinery along with a wood cutter that appeared to be used in crafting wooden beams.
“They are going to undermine the walls.” Deo said, echoing Hales’ own conclusion.
“Paroxysm!” Yillo shouted and immediately turned red. Hales snapped out of her thoughts.
Enemy soldiers were attacking.
“Solar!” Hales didn’t miss a beat after that initial lapse. She took in her surroundings and estimated a hundred soldiers. Most were below and would have to climb up to get a good shot in. Thankfully the environment, while serving as a camouflage for the engineering site, doubled as a barrier from the enemy. The first threat was the perimeter guards converging from every other angle.
Hales chose planets as her weapons. She drew forth a new planet even as she threw the previous one. Her hands whipped from side to side as she rotated toward each different enemy, taking only a fraction of a heartbeat before setting its course to her target. Her innate sense of timing, distance and trajectory coupled with her martial arts training and an ability whose strength benefited from and highlighted those skills made for a devastating spew of planets spiraling from a center.
As that center, Hales chained one planet to another, courtesy of Talis Ranis, and thus formed tight clusters of three to four planets linked invisibly with gravity. They behaved much like a bola, as they spun around each other toward an enemy.
The first unlucky soldier had his hip smashed, then his shoulder broken and finally his jaw cracked. The soldier didn’t have time to prepare and the planets made for painfully difficult objects to see or predict. One bola of planets flying at an angle seemingly away from you may, in fact, wheel around and smash you from behind or on the side. Hales’ improvements of speed and launching power and her continual mastery over her gravitational settings allowed her normally weak planetary attacks to crush and break anything they collided into.
Hales kept the enemy at bay from all sides as the rest of her team found cover and picked out their own targets.
Hales noticed Deo slide behind a rock and launched a planet bola at an enemy creeping up behind him. She swiveled and saw Yillo deliver a punch that burst someone’s chest. She changed targets to someone aiming a rifle at Yillo. The planet bola reached him before he could land a shot and Yillo finished him off with a savage stomp on the soldier’s neck.
Santiage and Saccha started to fire down on the soldiers in the depression, giving Hales and Yillo enough time to clear the guards on their level.
Ava fired a bullet between the eyes of the last perimeter guard.
“We finish off the soldiers in the ditch, wreck their machines and kill the engineers and get the hell out before reinforcements arrive!”
She looked at her team briefly, everyone was accounted for and no injuries. She could sense Deo’s piercing gaze judge her. “I’m going to use a supernova to blind them, open fire when it triggers. At that point aim for the soldiers at the edge. Me and Yillo will kill their densest groups.
“They are spreadin’ out cap’n, now’s your only chance!” Warned Saccha.
Hales dashed to one side, making space. She drew two stars, one over each hand, and grew them in record time. Her speed of growth and spinning rate had become so rapid that she was almost ready to throw them as soon as she pulled them from her eyes.
The first star, a bright spinning yellow star, was flicked into the air directly above the depression. The second star, spinning in the opposite direction as the yellow star, had to be thrown downward into the depression. She had experimented many times on her return trip after meeting Talis Ranis. The second star was always the one that burst. Technically speaking it wasn’t a true supernova but the effects were similar as the star folded on itself and released all its energy in a fiery explosion. Her experiments showed that the second star had to be thrown perpendicular to the first one with the nuance that it was angled in the opposing direction of elevation. Her first star was up so the second star would go down. She was fortunate that the enemy was in a depression.
The force of triggering a self-implosion was so much greater than throwing a star into the ground and having it explode like that.
She stepped out into the open and bullets flew by angrily. Without flinching she whipped her arm and flicked her wrist at the end, sending the star on its path, tethered to the yellow star above. The second star was blue and burned extremely hot, inferior perhaps to only Yillo whose scorching body produced enough heat waves to distort his image. He stood ready as Hales let loose her star.
The blue star ripped and fought at the yellow star. It ruptured and collapsed. A couple of the most nearby soldiers were killed in the blast and anyone else in a wide area around were blinded momentarily.
Yillo pounced on them, a trail of fire left in his wake. His distorted form and their flash blindness made Yillo a phantom of red that snuffed their lives out like wetted fingers pinching a candle. Though the manner of death was more like a rocket combusting in their faces and not a wick peacefully and quietly sizzling out.
Yillo’s first punch obliterated the head of a man. The discharge from that attack ignited and knocked back a dozen more soldiers behind him, killing most and severely injuring the rest. Yillo’s body reheated and became red again. He found another group and punched a soldier in the gut, spraying bone and organs. The explosion radius from the punch was slightly weaker as Yillo had less time to build his anger up. Only a few soldiers were killed that time.
A star exploded to his side, finishing another group on his flank. Hales ebbed with Yillo’s flow, attacking the enemies he couldn’t. She was the only person Yillo had ever known who could read his intentions before they happened and act accordingly, like a single mind. Just like the day in the mountains they sparred Professor Vandle with staves…
Yillo sprinted to another soldier who started shooting in his direction. Yillo took a shot to the shoulder and his color drained out to absorb the bullet. By the time Yillo reached the shooter his body was only a soft orange. Yillo kicked his knee in, burning it in the process. The man shouted out and Yillo drew his pistol and fired into the man’s open mouth right into the brain. As if the use of a gun increased his fury, or perhaps a random thought entered his mind, although the wicked smile on his face would suggest the thrill of violence as the source of his newfound rage… regardless, Yillo’s Paroxysm inflamed to a searing reddish violet. It looked like he might break apart.
Yillo approached a soldier and delivered an uppercut, wasting all his power in a punch that exploded volcanically upward rather than into more soldiers. His mind had grown foggy as his own heat almost engulfed him. The bloodlust calmed after that peak and Yillo felt drained. Still, he dispatched a few more soldiers as Saccha, Santiage and Hales mowed down the rest. Stars and planets, lead and gunpowder filled the depression to make it a bit more level. Ava and Liem hunted down the retreating stragglers, which mainly included the engineers.
Yillo built his rage to a muted red and smashed the drill. Hales sent a meteor crashing into the digger. A few stars were sent to burn down the mobile homes and any information inside.
A massacre through and through.
“Captain,” Liem called, “do you want a prisoner? He’s the chief engineer for this site.” He had the man pinned to the ground, a knife poised over him.
Hales didn’t hesitate, she had decided the answer a few minutes before. “No time, we’ve got to go!” She didn’t want any unnecessary weight.
“You’re lucky you get to die now.” With that, Liem let his knife enter the heart of the wide-eyed engineer.
Hales and her squad left the depression, making a beeline to their campsite from the beginning of the day. The sun had set and darkness let them slip away minutes before the Coalition reached the location.
“That was a good call on the site.” Hales told Deo. He nodded and went off to brood somewhere alone. He felt more apart from the team than ever. He hadn’t fired a single round and everyone knew it. They did all the action, and though Deo disagreed fundamentally with them on the war itself, he felt the burden of guilt for not defending himself, which would have then been an insult to his conscience.
“When could you use supernovas?” Yillo asked as the rest sat around a fire, cooking and eating a meal for the night. The day was a success and the stress naturally melted everyone’s tension and usual social behaviors. Conversation became easy and to some extent, necessary.
“Ran into Talis Ranis after my last mission. He gave me some tips and I’ve just been improving ever since.” Hales could tell that Yillo, along with everyone else for that matter, looked skeptical.
She was grateful when Yillo didn’t openly confess his disbelief.
“It’s effective, that’s for sure.” Replied Yillo, electing to ignore altogether her claim. She had a reputation for daydreaming and she’d been lost in the desert for a long period, her case wasn’t exactly solid by any means but he wasn’t going to argue. She had become vastly stronger, that much he did believe.
“Yeah.” Hales couldn’t blame Yillo for his skepticism, there were times when she even questioned her story. The probability of such a meeting and the actuality of the meeting left her cognitively dissonant some days. “So when did your power make so many heat waves around you?”
“I found out I could project my rage outward slightly, like an aura of heat. I call it my Phlogiston Body.”
“They make ‘em good these days.” Saccha toasted as he contented himself with a sip of liquor.
“So all they did was train you for the last six months since graduation?” Hales asked, pouring herself a bowl of broth.
“Like a dog,” Yillo said with a touch of contempt.
Hales’ radio buzzed alive. She pressed the receiver, indicating that it was safe for her to talk.
“Cull Marcarios here, we need any available squads to flank the Coalition at the Garghent Mountains. They are doubling down over there.”
“Got it! My squad will be there tomorrow.”
“Excellent. We can coordinate then. I sense you have some news?”
“We found an engineer site with digging and drilling equipment, it looked like they may be planning to burrow underground and undermine the walls.”
“Did you destroy it?”
“Yes, and I can only imagine they have a lot more around Garghent.”
There was a pause.
“Good work captain Ailor. I’ll report that to headquarters.”
The feed cut off and Hales slipped the radio back in its strap.
“We move first thing in the morning.” She announced to her squad. And just like that the next mission was assigned, only a day into the war to defend the largest army ever gathered on the Sister Continent in the last thousand years.