ctober 3

October 3

3732 AK

"The operation was technically a success," Chief Sergeant Surthe explained. "The Hand operatives, fifty in all, were all captured or killed. Their casualties stand at forty-seven killed, two critically wounded, one captured intact by Cadet Lieutenant Kairan." Captain Andara Aryn rubbed her eyes. She hadn't gotten much sleep in the past few days, given what had going on with her company and TarreCOM in general.

"How about friendly losses?" She asked wearily.

"Ten killed in action, including Lieutenant Zaval. Fifteen wounded, ten badly enough to need to have some major surgery before they can be stitched up and regened by the biomages. One of the observers was badly injured. The rest should be back on their feet inside a week. In addition, the Templar Dallek was partially damaged. Sir, frankly, first platoon is combat ineffective for the time being. We're down a CO, we've got two squad leaders out of action in the hospital, third squad is nearly gone and first isn't much better."

"The rest of the company isn't much better. Second and Third got mauled in an ambush." Aryn glanced down at the written after action report. "I do have to inquire about the five CVA recommendations," she said, referring to the Rangers' second highest valor award.

"The actions of Sergeants Glovyrson and Narason, and Lieutenant Kaire clearly merit them. The reasons are detailed in the AAR." Surthe hesitated for a moment. "I think that Lieutenant Zaval and Lance Allos merit both merit posthumous awards as well."

"You… never mind, Chief." Aryn decided not to say anything, but she had a suspicion that Surthe was being overly kind concerning the actions of Zaval and Allos. "I'll get these sent up the chain of command. I want you to fold up first platoon together as you see necessary. You're going to be in command for a while now, I'm guessing. There aren't any officers to spare. The Kasa in charge of personnel has all the spare junior officers acting as XOs in units on the border. In the mean time, the First Company is being put on low hazard duties. Dismissed, Chief."

XX

Trooper Kol Brandis came from a family with a long military tradition. His father had been in the army before him, and so had his grandfather. A Brandis from every generation had served in the Tyrren Army, going all the way back to the Kingslayer War, when the King had been toppled and the Republic of Tyrre had been established. As such, both he and his family had been immensely proud when he completed infantry training. Then he had been assigned to the dullest post in the country: TarreCOM. He had been overjoyed in a perverse way when the skirmishes against the Cordali arms smuggler had started. It was a chance to see some action. Of course, it turned out that in fighting both the smuggling ring and the Hands of Auros, the Rangers and Grenadiers got all the action while the clumsy inept Army regulars got to carry the bags. As if the Rangers needed anything more to be full of themselves about. The damned Air Force had gotten more action than the regulars. Instead of fighting, Kol was serving his country by guarding the brig. And the brig had one prisoner.

And the prisoner wasn't even very interesting. The captured Hand operative did nothing but sit in his cell and brood. A scarred Aurian priest had come by at one point to question the man, but he remained totally silent. It had been three days since the prisoner was brought in and he had yet to eat a single scrap of food, but managed to look no worse for it. At least until today. When Kol entered the brig with Trooper Zekal, the other guard on duty, the prisoner was passed out face down on the floor of his cell.

"Shit," Zekal said when he saw. He called out to prisoner a few times, getting no response. "Get the door open. We need to take this guy to the infirmary." Kol nodded. He unlocked the door and covered Zekal as he entered the cell to grab the prisoner. As Zekal got his arm under the man, the prisoner grabbed the trooper by the throat and squeezed. Kol immediately fired, hitting the prisoner in the elbow. Kol's eyes widened and the wound failed to bleed or even weaken the prisoner. There was a sickening crunch as Zekal's windpipe collapsed. The prisoner grabbed Zekal's trench knife while Kol scrambled to reload. The prisoner delivered a kick to Kol's chest, knocking him back a few feet and causing him to fall down, dropping his ether musket. The prisoner jumped after him. The last thing Kol saw was Zekal's knife descending towards his eye.

Jan Seit grabbed the second Tyrren soldier's trench knife. He glanced at the pit in his elbow. It would heal within a day or two, if he made it that long. In the meantime, that arm was going to be a little stiff below the damaged joint. He motioned to grab the musket, but realized his kick and the fall had damaged the barrel.

"Damn," he muttered, picking the keys off the corpse. He grabbed the soldier's ammo, in case he found another weapon he could use. He stalked out of the brig, glancing around the large yard. The sun had already set. There were still a few soldiers doing drills in the field, but they were mostly distracted by the hounding of their obsessive officers and were unlikely to notice him in the dark. There was one oblivious guard outside the brig, clearly not expecting anything to happen inside TarreCOM's primary military compound.

Jan moved silently up behind the guard, clamped a hand over his mouth, and jammed a knife into the back of his neck, through the spine and into the brain. It was a relatively quiet and bloodless way to kill someone. Jan lowered the dying Tyrren to the ground and quickly searched him. He was able to get a functioning ether musket off the soldier, as well as a handaxe to add to his arsenal of melee weapons.

Moving away from the brig and the corpse, Jan stalked around the edge of the grounds. He stayed in the shadows and was able to avoid notice by any of the drilling troops or numerous runners moving back and forth across the compound. He crept up to the side of the massive multistory building he was sure was the headquarters of TarreCOM. The only other buildings larger than it were airship docks, and they were very easy to identify.

He glanced around to make sure no one was nearby to hear, and then smashed open a window with his fist. It left several deep cuts in his hand but there was no bleeding, only a small amount of black fluid oozing out slowly. He quickly jumped up and swung in the window.

The room was a currently deserted and darkened office. It probably belonged to some staff officer, given the amount of paperwork that was piled on the desk, and the reference books that would be out of place in the office of a combat commander. Jan moved to the door and cracked it open slightly, looking out to see if there was anyone passing through. The traffic was light but consistent.

"Damn," Jan muttered. He had hoped to be able to get farther without being detected. It looked like he was going to have to resort to violence earlier. He left the musket in the office and stepped out into the corridor. He moved quickly down the corridor, avoiding eye contact and hoping that no one would notice a poorly dressed civilian moving through the building. It didn't seem likely, given that the building was filled with people in the brown and green uniform of the Tyrren Army or the white longcoat of the officer corps.

He stopped to think for a moment, mentally going over the floor plan he had memorized a month earlier. It was hazy, but he figured that he needed to get off the ground floor and up to the second to find his targets. He headed for the nearest stairs. Someone finally noticed the out of place civilian as he ascended.

"Excuse me." A bronze skinned army officer with an urban accent said. "You're not supposed to be here." Jan ignored him and kept going up the stairs. "Stop." The officer ordered, more firmly. When Jan continued to ignore him he sprinted up the stairs after him. Jan discreetly drew one of the knives he had taken. The officer started to grab Jan by the shoulder. Jan twisted around and slashed the man's throat and kicked him down the stairs. This caught the attention of a pair of officers entering from the second floor. One immediately turned and headed back onto the second floor. Jan considered trying to throw the knife at him, but dismissed the though and instead started sprinting up the stairs. The knife wasn't balanced for throwing, and Jan's skill with thrown weapons was mediocre.

The second showed a bit more courage and drew an ether pistol. He fired and managed to hit Jan. It was a good shot that managed to hit Jan in the throat. If he had been an ordinary human it would have stopped him in his tracks. As it was, a bit more of the black fluid coming from his elbow and hand spilled out, and Jan would be unable to talk for a few days.

Jan stabbed the man as he ran by, the knife getting lodged in the man's chest. Jan left it and pulled out the second one. If the fleeing officer managed to get an alarm off he was going to have much of a chance to complete his mission. He slammed the door open and spotted the fleeing officer down the hall.

Jan sprinted after him. It did not really matter a whole lot, given that at least two other soldiers had spotted him, but if the building went into lock down he wouldn't be able to reach his target. The fleeing officer never made it to the alarm. Jan caught up with him and drove a knife into his neck. Out of the corner of his eye Jan spotted a sergeant in an Army uniform rushing towards him. Jan snatch the pistol from the dying officer's belt, spun, and fired it, hitting the charging man's chest. The sergeant was slowed by the wound, which would probably prove fatal within a few moments, but kept coming. Jan sped up the process of his dying by pounding the butt of the pistol into his head with enough force to break the weapon.

Jan pulled the saber from the dead officer's belt and grabbed the sergeant's sidearm. He didn't have much of a chance of remaining undetected at this point. He was covered in blood, sported a wound that was obviously fatal, and had killed four people in the building. He grinned as more people came down the hall. At this point there was no reason not to add a few more bodies to the mix.

XX

"Through a series of advances in biomagy and biothaumturgical engineering, the future Tyrren infantryman will be faster, stronger, and tougher. Saevenok Corp. and Diomedes LLC have been conducting tests in cooperation with the Errynt Rangers with several of the implants. While the tests are still in progress, so far the ocular implants have proven to be effective, as have the hematological modifications."

Elizabeth Errynt tried to pay attention to the Thaumaturgical Corps officer explaining the proposed package of biothaumaturgical augmentations. It wasn't very interesting, given that Elizabeth almost certainly knew more thaumaturgy than he did. She was attending the meeting in place Marcus Alyrson. A senior representative of the Errynt Rangers needed to attend, but Alyrson was busy and wouldn't trust Andrew with anything important if he could help it. The two men loathed each other. Alyrson thought that Andrew was a disorganized maverick pretty boy, which he arguably was. Andrew's dislike of Alyrson stemmed from the fact that Andrew was used to being right on account of his intelligence, and tended to assume that someone who disagreed with him was an idiot until proven otherwise.

"Why will this be useful to the Army?" one of the senior Army general asked. "The Rangers might be able to find some use, but for troops in battle lines these augmentations are excessive."

Of course, Elizabeth agreed with Andrew on that most of the time. The generals in charge of the Army were a collection of troglodytes whose conception of tactics was set in stone.

"It will be useful after a single barrage from an airship wipes out an entire regiment," Elizabeth said. "You need to update tactics along with the technology."

"I think you over estimate the effectiveness of airpower, Miss Errynt." General Rioan said.

"Commander Errynt, thank you," Elizabeth said, grating her teeth. Rioan looked as if he was going to respond, but the door to the room was smashed open. The man who entered would have been of perfectly generic description, were he not soaked in blood, displaying multiple chest and throat wounds, and wielding a Tyrren military saber. His faced twisted into a wicked grin as he looked around the room. He quickly drew a combat hatchet and buried it in Rioan's temple.

Elizabeth was already moving. Her sidearm and sword cleared the scabbard nearly simultaneously. She snapped off a shot that tore off several of the attacker's fingers. A black fluid slowly oozed out off the wounds, but no pain registered on the man's face. He slashed the neck of another general who was attempting to stand up and flee. Elizabeth vaulted over the crescent shaped table. Everyone else in the room was scrambling to get out of the way of the superhuman attacker. Elizabeth vaulted over the table again, landing in front of the man. Whatever capabilities he had, Elizabeth doubted he could beat her in hand to hand combat, especially considering that his normal reach advantage would be a detriment here.

He took a swing at her, but the close quarters made the swing slow. Elizabeth grabbed his wrist and took a swing at his head, guessing from his wounds that there wasn't much a chest wound would do to slow him. He snapped up his fingerless hand to block to blow, but it wasn't much use. The thaumaturgically reinforced steel sheared through and lodged in the side of his head. Elizabeth's eyes widened; he didn't even blink from the wound and wrenched his wrist free. Elizabeth delivered a crushing kick to his kneecap, breaking it by the feeling she got. He stumbled long enough for her to cut off his remaining hand.

The Thaumaturgical Corps officer had finally managed to find his balls and fired a shot from his sidearm that gouged another chunk out of his torso. Elizabeth decapitated him. The head rolled away, but she noticed that its mouth and eyes were still moving. However, the body remained immobile, so she turned to assess the situation in the room.

"Fuck," she muttered. General Riona was down with a combat hatchet in his head, and General Eloran had been nearly decapitated. She heard the scream of another ether bolt and turned again to see the TC officer finish kneecapping the corpse. He glanced over at her.

"Okay, what the fuck was that?" The irony of the question was not lost on Elizabeth.

XX

Leon Aldiss stepped over a blood stain in the front stairwell of the TarreCOM HQ and continued up the stairs. Turning down the hall he spotted the familiar figures of Andrew Errynt standing next to a woman he didn't know personally, but he guessed from the context.

Elizabeth Errynt looked remarkably similar to her twin brother. She had the same light brown hair, though she kept it in a single braid instead of the four Andrew wore, and she had the blue-grey eyes that identified about three quarters of the Arri population. She also shared her brother's tendency to go everywhere armed to the teeth.

"Nice of you to show up, Father," she said sarcastically as he approached.

"I was delayed," he snapped back. Elizabeth gave him a skeptical look. "What the hell happened here?" He stepped against the wall to allow traffic to pass.

"The prisoner we fished out of the Tam escaped last night. Killed three guards in the brig, and another nine people, including General Riona and General Eloran," Elizabeth said.

"How did that happen?" Aldiss growled. "A prisoner not only managed to escape, but broke into your HQ? Is the Tyrren Army totally incompetent?"

Andrew shrugged. "Don't look at me. It wasn't my plan. Though give the Army some credit; no one had any idea what prisoner was when we locked him."

"Excuse me?" Adliss said, puzzled. "You knew that he was an extremely dangerous. What made him special?"

"Makes," Elizabeth said, pointing to a series of black stains on the floor that Aldiss had overlooked before. "I presume the Templars' training includes some study of illegal schools of thaumaturgy?" Aldiss nodded. "The attacker was a variety of necromorph. That came out its wounds. The TC is doing an analysis right now, as well as analyzing the thing's head, which is alive, apparently."

"Forgive me," Aldiss said. "But how do you confuse a necromorph with a human? I was under the impression that they usually resembled animate corpses."

"Yeah, that's what I thought, too" Andrew said. "Then I wandered down to the TC lab and saw what they had down there. The bigger question is where it came from. I was under the impression that the Hands found stuff like that even more repulsive than clockwork implants."

"They do. You think that this necromorph was an infiltrator?" Aldiss asked.

"It makes sense," Elizabeth said. "The Hands wouldn't use necromorphs, and they don't have the kind of thaumaturgical expertise to create a new variety of necromorph anyway. It has to have come from somewhere else."

Aldiss ran through dozen groups that sprung to mind, and ran into the same problem with all of them. "To what gain? No one is better off if a terrorist group gets stronger." Another possible group popped into his head. "Actually, wait. The Triumvirists." The Church of the Triumvirate was a quasi-militant religion that was moderately popular in Altuur and Tyrre, particularly among Altuuri royalists.

"I could buy that," Andrew said. "They'd probably get a kick out of Aurian infighting, and I'd believe that they have the expertise to do something like this. They've generally been bolder since King Torran converted last year."

"I wouldn't equate a few Orange royalist sub-factions with the Triumvirist as whole," Elizabeth said, referring to the two major political factions of Altuur: the Orange Party royalists that supported the rights and authorities of the King, and the Green Party republicans that varyingly wanted to abolish or reduce the throne and peerage, depending on how radical they were.

"Who else, then?" Aldiss said.

"Cordalis, maybe," she suggested. "King Logan hasn't exactly been friendly to Tyrre, and he'd benefit from general internal violence."

"Yes, but if Cordalis is responsible then they've done it rather clumsily," Aldiss pointed out. "Given that the Hands ended up with most of the weapons from the Cordali arms smugglers, the link is too straight forward."

"I like straight forward," Andrew said.

"This strikes me as being rather convoluted, though"

Andrew glanced over at Elizabeth. "Maybe, maybe not. But with any luck we'll have gotten rid of one thread in this tangled mess pretty soon."

"I presume you're referring to Operation Durendal." Aldiss said. "We're looking forward to that. It will give us an opportunity to test our new Theurgy rifles. But if this is all there is to see here then I'll be going. It's useful to know we fight be facing something a bit more unusual than we were expecting, but I have other things I need to do." He mimed raising a glass. "Here's to hoping Durendal goes well."

XX