October 8

3732 AK

"Second squad, are you in position yet?" Surthe asked testily. "You're lagging."

Meric rolled his eyes and grabbed the handset from the comm operator.

"Not yet, Sergeant. It's been a bit rougher going than we thought. Couple of damned hobos we had to clear out so they wouldn't get shot up. It'll be another thirty seconds or so as long as we don't get interrupted by something." It had taken them nearly half an hour of crawling through abandon building and narrow alleyways to get to where they were right now, and Meric knew from the comm chatter that they were hardly the only ones in the company behind schedule—plenty of squads were further behind than his was.

"That's funny, Jewell," Surthe said in a tone that suggested it wasn't. "Get into position. Surthe out." Meric rolled his eyes again and passed the handset back to the comm operator.

This is why I'll never make sergeant, he thought. Not that he particularly cared. Being a rifleman was more fun anyway. "Alright, get the lead out of your asses," Meric ordered. "Chief is pissed." Ever since the disaster on the first of the month, Surthe had been acting as the depleted platoon's commander, with the resulting shake-ups in the remaining sergeants' role had resulted in Meric getting promoted to Corporal and taking command of the second squad until Jaec was discharged from the hospital.

"Almost ready," Davirman said, settling into a nook. Meric nodded. A quick glanced around revealed that most of the rest of the squad had also assumed good positions.

"Right," Meric nodded to the comm operator. "Let the Chief know." As the operator contacted Surthe Meric looked around for a good spot of his own. He spotted one below Michael Kairan, who was perched on a bricks that gave him a good view out the window. Meric sat down in the window, being careful not to block Michael's line of fire. He looked back at the cadet. Michael was smiling ever so slightly, a sentiment Meric could understand even if the rest of the people in the room would have found it disturbing.

"Meric, all squads are in position," the comm operator reported. "Captain Aryn says we have a go."

"So much for low risk duty," Meric muttered.

XX

Alexander Errynt shuffled aside a stack of paperwork and citations. He had stayed away from Tarre for the better part of three years after he had been dragged out of the rubble of the Clan Assembly. It had been helped by the dissolution of Clan Assembly, which meant Leon Zevayn could no longer concoct schemes to drag him down south. Instead he found that in the past few months the operations against the terrorists in the capital had picked up as the number of Rangers in the city had increased, and with them came a rising number of awards, citations, and similar things relating to soldiers doing their job well. Most of it could be handled by General Alyrson, but protocol and tradition dictated that a few of the higher awards be given directly by the head of the clan.

And as a result he was sitting in a hotel room in Tarre, signing off on the frankly absurd amount of paperwork associated with those awards. It never failed to astound Alexander what the military bureaucracy could find paperwork for. He suspected that once they had finished making it nigh impossible to award medals they planned to move onto their plan to make it impossible to use a latrine without a form signed in triplicate.

He heard someone knock on the door. It was probably just another secretary carrying another goddamned stack of paperwork. "Come in," he said. The door briefly creaked open before closing again with a loud click. "Put it on the table over there," he said, gestured without looking up.

"I think not," the new voice said. Alexander glanced up to see a tall red-headed Altuuri man standing in the entrance, wearing a saber at his hip. Alexander briefly wondered how he got past the guards outside the suite. They couldn't have been killed—he would have heard something. He doubted anyone had the ability to take down six Rangers in complete silence. He pushed that from his mind and focused on more immediate things. He reached into his pocket and activated the alarm beacon there. He looked back up at the Altuuri.

"Would you care to tell who you are?" he asked politely. It could not hurt to be civil.

"My name is Rylik. I am the finest swordsman among the Hands of Auros, and I am your executioner, sent by God," Rylik declared as he stepped towards Alexander. Alexander grasped his cane and pushed himself to his feet. With a twist of the knob on top he would have a rapier, but he didn't anticipate fighting the Altuuri man.

"One of the Hands of Auros, eh?" he said as he stood. "And what would your patron saint say about your actions?"

"Be silent. You will be the first of the godless leaders to die. Your time is gone, old man!" Rylik snarled.

"My time," Alexander said quietly, walking towards Rylik, "is just beginning." He raised his voice. "I am not trying to resurrect the past and plunge the world into a new dark age!"

"Dark Age?" Rylik laughed. "We will lead mankind out of the shadows of the machines they are shackled to and into the light of God."

"The same God who declared the growth knowledge and understanding to be above everything else?" Alexander moved his gaze briefly from the assassin to look expectantly at the door. He could hear the feet of several Rangers pounding down the hall.

"Enough of this," Rylik declared, drawing his saber. "Time—" He was interrupted by the door bursting open and a half dozen Rangers emptying their carbines into Rylik. The fanatic's head was hit three times, reducing it to a bloody mess, and his torso did not fare much better. His corpse collapsed to the floor with a thud.

"Dumbass."

The Rangers dragged the body out of the room, and Alexander walked over to his desk. He didn't have the same horrible habit as his younger son, but he smoked on special occasions. He pulled out a cigar.

"Rylik, you will be the first of your gang of idiots to die today. Thankfully not the last."

XX

Meric carefully sighted down the barrel of his new rifle and waited for the order to commence firing. He had been sitting in the same awkward position for the better part of an hour, and was getting tired of waiting in dead silence. At least OP duty had you looking for something.

A few minutes later, something finally started to happen. Hand operatives started to file out of their safehouse, an abandon tenement. Meric gripped the trigger even more firmly and smiled in anticipation. More and more enemies came out of the safehouse, until there were at least sixty of them in the alley way.

"All units, fire at will," Captain Aryn ordered. From the buildings surrounding the alley a firestorm erupted.

The new rifles were unusual. The Aurian Templars had resurrected handheld firearms designs that had been outdated by anti-kinetic shields and married them to a theurgical device that was supposed to allow the bullets to ignore them. When Meric had asked the engineer-priest what do if it broke, he was told with a straight face to pray. Michael had later explained that the mechanics of the device meant that praying would, in fact, fix the problem.

Meric pulled the trigger, and sent a bullet through the skull of one of the tailing Hand operatives. He worked the bolt as fast as he could, pouring out all ten rounds in the magazine in under half a minute. He could hear the rest of the company firing as well, loading and firing so fast it was nearly impossible for him to pick out the overlapping cracks of the machine guns from the rifle fire.

The Hands didn't even try to make a fight of it, Meric noted with disappointment. They just sprinted towards the end of the alley, heedless of casualties. Less than a dozen made it, and none of them actually made it out of the alley. An eight foot tall Templar clockman stepped out from his concealment, wielding a pair of massive, six o'clock revolvers. Meric had seen him loading them before they had moved out—they used the same 20mm shells fired from the Gatling guns usually mounted on aircraft. An ordinary human would have had trouble lifting one with both hands, let alone aiming and firing it.

With inhuman precision the clockman opened fire, hitting each of the survivors only once, but once was enough.

"All units cease fire." The alley looked as if a tornado had come through, scattering blood and limbs as it went. The most intact corpses were the ones hit by the clockman's massive weapons. The rest had been literally cut apart by a hail of gun that would have been impossible with their older condensed aether muskets.

The cacophony of gunfire faded and was replaced by the Rangers' cheering. "Take that, you fucking bastards!" Meric heard a Ranger from a different platoon yell. An understandable sentiment: after spending three years reacting to terrorist strikes across the capital, in the course of a month they had a dozen successes.

Across Tarre and outside the capital in the surrounding towns the scene was repeated over and over again. Rangers, Grenadiers, and Templars, equipped with firearms so fresh from Church forges and factories that in some cases they had received them only the day before, ambushed Hand cells and assaulted Hand safe houses. The overwhelming attacks rarely left survivors, and in the case of the Grenadiers, rarely left buildings either.

XX

Harlis Antar looked around at the sparse collection surviving cell leaders. Far too many of God's chosen leaders had joined the sacred legions over the past few days. Even though he was glad for them as a comrade, as a commander he needed them to carry out God's work.

The last of the Hands of Auros cell leaders entered the safe house. Antar counted all of them, and his feelings of dread deepened. A month ago there had been almost a thousand soldiers of God in the capital. If the number of people in attendance here was any indication, it had been reduced to a quarter of that.

"Brothers, we are faced with a difficult decision today. Our numbers are depleted and grow fewer every day. We need to determine what our next course of action should be. Whether we should continue to stand and fight here in the heart of the machine worshippers capital, or," he choked over the words, "withdraw and replenish our numbers."

"What?" one of the leaders cried. "You think that we should surrender, that we should stop trusting God just because we have suffered a handful of setbacks? That sounds dangerously close to blasphemy, Antar. With faith like that it is no wonder we done poorly under your leadership."

Antar gave a sigh. The man in question, Erveis, would have made a fine successor to the late Rylik—aggressive, bold, and stupid. Why was it that the most devout were also the most idiotic? He was about to speak, but another cell leader spoke first.

"You speak out of turn, Erveis. The blame for our failures cannot be placed at the feet of any one man—all of us have failed somehow, and allowed the three adversaries to subtly defeat us," he said, referencing the three nameless enemies of God. "I am forced to consider the possibility of withdrawing. If we allow ourselves to be wiped out then who will carry on God's work?"

"We will not be defeated. We will prevail," Erveis shot back. A few voices murmured affirmations, but the rest remained silent, though out agreement with Antar or indecision, Antar couldn't tell.

"I put the decision before a congregation of brothers, such as there is," Antar said, hoping that would placate Erveis. The aggressive cell leader was probably arrogant enough to believe that he was popular enough to win a vote. It was a calculated risk. By throwing it among the remaining leaders Antar had agreed to remain silent during the debate.

Fortunately, the debate was brief, and looked to be in Antar's favor.

"Brothers, what have you decided?" he asked. The man who had defended him against Erveis earlier spoke.

"We will begin withdrawing within the week. Those brothers who wish to remain and carry on the fight here are free to do so," he said with a glance at Erveis and his supporters. He turned back to Antar and grinned.

"We believe that the best way to safely withdraw is to turn the godless ones' own infernal devices against them."

XX

Antar had to admit, that despite being initially skeptical of the plan his supporters had formulated, it seemed to be working out well. The Hands of Auros' few remaining procurement experts had spent the better part of a week obtaining mundane civilian clothes for the leaders. Antar himself had traded in his holy robes for a tweed suit which apparently identified him as a traveling middle class businessman.

Erveis and the rest of his band of fools had opted to remain despite the efforts of several others to convince them. Antar hoped that the idiot would not do something to give the rest of them away.

Antar strode through the cavernous lobby of Tarre's airport, doing his best to look relaxed and confident. It only took him a brief glance around to realize that no one would be paying attention to him. There must have been several thousand travelers, all preparing for their own flight and paying no mind to the dozens of people who streaming in and departed every moment. Antar relaxed slightly as he waited in line.

"Your ticket, sir?" Antar fumbled for the slip of paper that he had been given by a procurer that was his means of escape. After about a minute of searching he located it and handed it to the airport official. The official rolled his eyes and gave Antar an odd look as he stamped the ticket. Antar froze, wondering if he had done something to give himself away.

"Dock 16. First time flying, sir?" the official asked as he handed back the stamped the ticket.

"Yes," Antar mumbled, not making eye contact. He quickly shoved the ticket into a more easily located pocket and shuffled off, avoiding the dozens of people milling about. He froze again when he realized that he had to get his case through a proper security instruction. He started to doubt the plan again. They had done a poor job preparing him for the obstacles he would face, and now he was not even going to make it onto the airship. He started sweating profusely as they opened his case. Luckily it was an unusually hot and humid day, so another over-dressed sweat drenched businessman wouldn't look out of place. He visibly relaxed as they close the case.

"Can I see your ticket?" the security officer asked. Antar fished it out of his pocket and passed it to the man. He gave it a quick scan before handing it back. "Going to Altuur?" Antar nodded. "Be careful. I've heard that the tension between the Royalists and parliamentarians is getting worse."

"Thank you," Antar knew that, of course. It was one of the few things he had been briefed on. He grabbed his case and moved on. Stepping out onto the dock gave him an impressive view. The airship that was going to carry him off this god-forsaken island had to be at least three hundred yards long, and had several smokestacks spewing columns of exhaust into the air. Dozens of coaljets and rotors hung off its wings and body, idling in preparation for flight. A scan of the other docks revealed that this airship, impressive as it appeared, was unexceptional. He could see a dozen others like it, and a pair that were at least twice its size.

Antar had never seen an airship up close; the only ones he had seen were the dozens that moved in the sky above Tarre and the occasional low flying military airship, swooping down over the streets to rain death on the servants of God or deliver some of their own soldiers into battle. He could understand why the godless were so enamored of their machines. They were undeniably impressive—which was what made them heretical. They tried to usurp God's place.

He was able to board without incident, and was even able to consult briefly with the other four brothers who were aboard. They all quickly agreed that they would not meet or contact each other during the trip, even if one was caught. Antar was able to begin settling into his tiny cabin aboard the airship before being interrupted.

A short, pale woman with braided longish brown hair and mundane clothing entered the cabin.

"I think you have the wrong cabin, Miss," he said coldly, snapping his case shut. She pulled the door in so she could look at it.

"No, I don't think so," she said with a northern drawl. She put a small case down on the floor.

"I understood when I purchased my ticket that I was to travel alone." Antar was going to have a hard enough time traveling as it was. If he had to share a cabin with a northern rube he would probably crack. Something bothered him about the woman anyway. She looked familiar, but he couldn't remember where he had seen her.

"Well, don't complain to me about it," she shrugged. "Not like I can do anything about it. Go find the purser if you've got a problem."

"I will," he snapped. He stepped out into the hall before realizing that he had no idea where to find the purser, or what a purser was. He would just have to suffer the woman. He could always opt not to sleep. It would only be a single day. Then he froze. Two young men in the dark blue and white of the Templars were standing in the narrow corridor. He heard a rasp of steel and leather and turned to see the Arri woman holding a saber like the ones used by the Errynt Rangers. That made it click for him. The woman was Elizabeth Errynt. "Whore!" he snarled.

"Who are the Hands working for?" she demanded.

"You heathens will never take me alive." He started to open his case, but the Templars quickly drew tubes that Antar could only presume were some kind of mechanized weapon. He felt a pair of impacts in his abdomen and an accompanying feeling of shock. The wounds did not bleed though—his unique gift from God made it clot instantly. He dropped the case to free his hands. He focused and began to draw blood from the wounds. The Templars fired more slugs into him but it would do them no good. The only purpose the injuries served was to give him more material to work with. They might kill him eventually, from organ damage, but Antar was blessed by God. He could not run short of blood.

He shaped his crystallizing blood into a pair of short lances and flung them at the two reloading Templars. Both shattered well before reaching their targets. Standing in the middle of the cloud of blood shard was the Errynt, holding out a hand to maintain a kinetic shield.

"Bitch!" Antar formed two more lances, but she dodged around the projectiles with superhuman grace. A final step forward and her saber swung through Antar's neck, her own skill aided by kinetics.

"Damn it," Liza muttered. "Who would have guessed that the head of the Hands was a blood-alchemist?"

XX

Antar was standing in the middle of a field of corpses. He shivered uncontrollably—the cold was unbearable.

"You!" he spun to see a tall, grinning man with silver hair, an angelic face, and a blood stained white robe striding towards him over the countless bodies on the field, wielding a glowing sword. "Those who defile the name of God and consort with demons receive no mercy. God wills it." The glowing sword descended down past the grinning face.