The skydocks of Tyrre were among the busiest in the world. There were hundreds of mooring towers, wide, tall structures with a flat deck on top that made them look like nothing so much a giant letter T. Spaced varying distances apart, they provided berths for the thousands of airships that drifted in and out of the docks each day. The air around the skydocks was a seemingly disorganized cluster of aircraft constantly hovering on the brink if catastrophic collision. In reality it was a finely tuned arrangement, orchestrated so that such accidents rarely happened, and only as the inevitable result of imperfect humans rather than a failure of the system. There were dozens of different kinds of airships suspended in the sky, though it would have taken an expert to differentiate between most of them.
David Marston, only cared to recognize two of them. One was a blocky Kelpie bulk carrier that stood out from its ubiquitous brethren by the specially constructed fuel containers attached to its hull. The other was even more distinctive, in that in dwarfed every other ship in the docks: the Tyrran Republic's Airship Notos, a dreadnought of the sky. It bristled with aether cannons, rocket batteries, and Gatling guns. Ordinarily, the warship would have landed at a military base to resupply. The chapter master had not told Marston the reason for the peculiarity beyond some vague political influence, merely that they had been given an unrivaled opportunity to damage one of the great infernal aberrations of the gearslave government. He watched the two ships slowly approach a set of parallel docks, waiting for the right moment for him and his concealed comrades to strike.
"Go, now," he ordered as soon as the Kelpie's crew began to transfer their cargo to the Notos. Marston and fifteen other Sons of Auros emerged from cover and advanced on the cargo airship. They had to move fast, before the Notos had time to dock and unload its marine security contingent.
"Hey, yo—" The warning from one of the Kelpie's few guards was cut short by one of Marston's comrades putting an arrow in the man. Bows might lack the untrained power of a gunpowder rifle, but in the hands of someone who knew the right thaumokinetic formulae they could be just as deadly. A volley of similar, kinetically augmented arrows followed soon after, sweeping the dock of any armed crewmen. After they finished with the armed crew, they turned their fire on the unarmed sailors most of whom were fleeing away from the bloodbath screaming. Undeterred by the loss of their masters, a number of technomagical clockwork automata continued the repetitive task of unloading the airship's cargo.
"Ignore them. They'll be scrap metal soon enough," Marston ordered when several Sons moved to attack them. They nodded and followed the rest of their comrades aboard the airship. Most had taken up position on the deck in order to keep anyone from getting back aboard. Marston followed two who had already gone below decks. He found Pavel Gavrilov and Hans Uller, a foreign Son, making preparations.
"How long?" Marston asked. He could hear the sounds of fighting above. "We need to begin our escape soon." The two thaumaturges gave him surprised looks. Their devotion to their God, the Architect, prohibited the Sons from making true suicide attacks, but no one who had come along with Marston expected to make it out alive.
"Five, maybe four minutes," Pavel said. "If we are not interrupted." Marston nodded and returned to the deck. Notos had realized what had happened and brought a number of marines to the rail. Rifle fire cracked through the air around the Kelpie, but Notos held fire on all of its weapons, afraid of firing on the fuel ship. Still, Marston's comrades were dropping rapidly. He realized that if they were to make any kind of escape at all, it would need to be done quickly. He motioned to the three remaining Sons above deck.
"Come quickly. It's time for us to leave here. Over the side." He pointed to the opposite rail of airship, beyond which was a quite fatal plunge off the tower. Without question they rushed to throw themselves over the side. One was hit by a marine's bullet through the gut. His comrades needed no plead for help. They immediately stopped and picked him up by his arms and legs and heaved him over the rail before leaping over themselves. Marston jumped after him and grabbed the alchemical battery he was carrying. He started drawing power out of it while calling to mind a para-physical formula that would weaken gravity's pull on him and his men. It took only a moment and drained the battery in an instant, but their fall slowed to a fraction of its earlier acceleration, and they touched down lightly on the ground.
"Take him and move quickly. We only have a few minutes before the fuel detonates." Marston was certain that the Tyrran soldiers had overwhelmed the two Sons who had been left behind, but he was sure that they had managed to finish their work. As they hobbled away from the docking tower it occurred to Marston that if they had been told the truth about the size of the ensuing explosion they had no hope of escaping it. He gestured for the rest of his men to stop. "Lay him on the ground and cluster close around him. I'm going to try and shield us from the blast." The invisible protective sphere that enclosed them, powered by Marston's own bioaetheric energy reserves, was laughably inadequate and would collapse instantly, but it would at least give him a moment to appreciate the magnitude of what he had helped do. A few minutes later, Marston saw what he had been looking for. A pillar of fire and debris erupted from the airship. It instantly engulfed and incinerated Marston and his men, but he was certain for a fraction of a moment that he had succeeded beyond the most fantastic of his imaginings.
The first thing that struck Jack Gloverson about the diminutive man standing in the doorway was that he looked like an angel. A cruel angel, perhaps, or a fallen angel, but still possessed of that otherworldly look that set him apart from Jack and the rest of the men in the room. He had silver-white hair that hung down to his neck, betraying his abhuman nature, and pupiless, grey, glass eyes. The conclusive evidence of his abnormality, however, was the aura of physical coldness that surrounded him. It was not the first time Jack had encountered him, but it was no less bizarre the second time, and considerably more surprising. Jack got the distinct impression from observing the other men around him that their reactions were similar.
The thirty-odd Rangers of the Errynt Ranger Division, Wolfhounds Battalion, third company, first platoon were sprawled out across a makeshift lounge that had been set up in an empty corner of a converted airship hanger, giving Michael Kairan incredulous stares, equally surprised by his words and bizarre appearance. Most of them sat in silence for several moments, unsure of how to react to the junior who had entered and a delivered a non-sense statement. One, Vincent Demirchev, worked up the inspiration to speak.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but what the fuck happened to Lieutenant Tavish?" he asked, his voice tinged by outrage. Most of the Rangers, faced with a new commanding officer, started re-arranging themselves into a less relaxed position.
"Lieutenant Tavish was appointed interim company commander yesterday, after Captain Kohlson was placed on medical leave." Michael let than hang in the air for several moments. They all knew what 'medical leave' really meant. "It is unlikely that Lieutenant Tavish will be resuming her command of this platoon. As such, Lieutenant Commander Errynt ordered that I assume command. I've already discussed the situation with Lieutenant Tavish. Lieutenant Tavish's policies and training schedule will remain unchanged for the time being. One exception: all smoking on duty or in the barracks will cease." He spoke with a quiet, almost emotionless tone. Following his proclamation there was a collective groan and several Rangers ground out their cigarettes and cigars in the ashtray, Jack among them.
"That is all," Michael said as he turned to leave. No one said anything until his already quiet footsteps faded from hearing. The room became noticeably warmer with his departure. There was a clamor of profanity and invective as the Rangers voiced their opinions of the new commanding officer. The platoon sergeant, Chief Sergeant Jonathan Hawkins, quickly silenced them by banging on one of the makeshift tables.
"If you have issues with the lieutenant keep it to yourself or say it to his face," he said. He had an expression of distaste on his face. Everyone knew that, as the senior sergeant in the platoon, he was more or less obliged to support the commanding officer, even if he actually despised the man. "Now, if you boys will excuse me." He departed as well, presumably looking for Michael.
"Isn't this guy that crazy cryopsych that was observing with the Hellhounds?" one
Here we go, Jack thought with resignation. As soon as Marik opens his mouth they'll never leave us alone. The Errynt Rangers were as bad as any other military unit when came to rumor mongering, and given Marik's inclination for exaggerating, by the end of the week Michael would likely have morphed into a demon made flesh.
"Hey, Jack, he was in our training company, remember?" Marik said. "The white-haired pretty-boy."
Damn you, Marik, Jack thought. Learn to be quiet. "Not really. That was five years ago, and I do my best to forget Ranger School." A blatant lie and everyone knew it. No one ever forgot the ten months of purgatory that was Ranger school, and any Ranger who forgot the people he passed with wasn't worthy of the badge.
"Bullshit, Jack," Marik said, eyeing him skeptically. He shrugged and began a highly embellished story about Michael from Ranger School. Jack just stared at the distant ceiling and tried not to think about what was going to happen when the new lieutenant found out.
Andrew Errynt shivered in the early morning cold and rubbed his hands together, desperately wishing for a cigarette. Even as early as Octuary, Arran could become unpleasantly cold to the unprepared. Andrew was a native to the northern region, and had spent most of his adult life defending its poorly defined borders. That didn't mean he could ignore the cold, just that he knew better to prepare for it. Anyone not accustomed either left as soon as possible, or, like the many southerners and islanders under Andrew's command, adapted to the cold quickly.
Andrew had been leading his Ranger battalion, the Hellhounds, on training exercises since the previous evening. Since then it had begun raining and dropped to just above freezing. Andrew and everyone else save the cryo-alchemists were utterly sick of the weather. Abhuman cryopsychs to a man, the small detachment of cryo-alchemists were impervious to even the most extreme cold and even seemed to be enjoying the rain.
"Sir?" Andrew heard the voice of his command squad's vox specialist. "Sir, Commander Alarson is voxing, wants to speak to you." Andrew shivered again, and not from the cold. He forced himself into a more positive mindset.
"In a blizzard…" he started. "Yes sir?" Vox protocol dictated that even superior officers relay a request to speak through the vox specialist, even when it was possible to simply vox directly. Andrew heard the voice of his commander officer as if he was standing right next to him instead of miles away at headquarters, thanks to the vox receiver implanted in his head. The conversation was rather one sided, with Alarson speaking while Andrew occasionally affirmed his understanding with a "yes sir." After a little less than a minute in contact with Alarson he broke the vox connection.
"Fuck and hell. Bobby, get over here," Andrew yelled. His executive officer hurried over, looking even more miserable than the rest of the battalion. Andrew stifled a laugh at the sight of the brown-skinned islander caked in mud and frost. Executive Captain Robert Winters had a remarkable talent for remaining immaculate in foul conditions, but it appeared that his skills had finally failed him. "Have the boys back and ready to ship out in twenty-four. Light island kit." Winters' expression brightened at the mention of island gear. The man was a reliable executive officer but had none of the cold weather endurance needed to excel in the Rangers.
"If you'll excuse me, Bob, I need to go find a faster way back," Andrew said, cringing at the necessity. After returning Winters' salute he trudged off to the east looking for the highway that ran north to the camp and was constantly traversed by convoys of trucks carrying supplies from the nearby town. It only took a few minutes for Andrew to find one and ride it back to the regimental headquarters. He hurried inside the blocky stone building and navigated his way to the command center.
The room was a flurry of activity, junior staff officers rushing in and about clutching bundles of documents. Andrew was able to cut through them to a pair of figures wearing white officers overcoats similar to his own. One was Commander Marcus Alarson, a brown skinned native of southern mainland Tyrre. He was almost as fit Andrew, a testament to Ranger officers' belief in leading from the front wherever possible. The other was Andrew's mirror image, a lean, short, pale-skinned northerner with brown eyes and brown hair that hung down to the nape of the neck. The key difference being that Silvia Errynt, in addition to being Andrew's twin, was one of the few female officers in the Rangers.
"Commander Errynt, nice of you to join us," Alarson said with only a hint of sarcasm. Silvia only quirked an eyebrow ambiguously as she slid across a folder of intelligence reports. He took a look at the stamp on the cover and blew out his breath slowly.
"The Inquisition? This is going to be a lot worse than I thought, isn't it?" he said. Alarson nodded.
"Yesterday evening the dreadnought Notos was destroyed while refueling when a group of terrorists blew up its fuel carrier. The blast has rendered most of the capital's skydocks unusable, and so far the death toll stands at around twenty-five hundred killed and far more are badly injured, mostly civilians," he said grimly. "The Aurian Inquisitors suspect that group, the Sons of Auros." Andrew read through the document detailing the group while Alarson detailed the reasons behind the Church's suspicions. The Sons of Auros are a primitivist cult of Aurian heretics that are quite popular in some of the outlying islands of the Mu archipelago. Thus far they had avoided any real crackdown by either the Tyrran government or the Church itself because their actions inside the Republic have been limited by resources to petty vandalisms and religious rabble-rousing, at least until now. Either they've been masterfully concealing their true competence or they had acquired a number of more dangerous new recruits. Their doctrine's a bit odd. They broke off from the main church about a century ago, when Tyrre and the other major powers started seriously industrializing. At first they garnered a lot of sympathy from both the agricultural workers and the new industrial workers who were being run into the ground by the changes in the system. After industrial life started improving, they lost a lot of support, leaving mostly the crazies to run the asylum. They mostly switched from opposing abuses to outright technophobia. They claim that anything made after 1700 is against the design of the Architect and should be destroyed, along with anyone who uses them. Until now they haven't actually acted on this."
"So it's just a fairly mundane group of religious fanatics. Any guesses about their numbers, skill, and gear?"
"The Inquisition estimates around three thousand of them are hiding in the outer islands of the Mu archipelago, though a lot of those people may not being willing to fight. Their gear is probably mediocre, as is their training, as you might expect from a group of technophobic fanatics. We've been told that the nastiest they can come up with is a few bows with kinetic enchantments, plus maybe a few primitive golems."
"We're sending the first and second regiments down under my overall command to deal with the problem, supporting the regular Army. Our clients in Tarre feel that the Ranges have a certain finesse that the regular Army lacks, so they're paying an extra fee for us to deploy a few battalions in the islands." Alarson's monologue managed to bring Andrew back from his perusal of the intelligence report. "The briefing in there should contain all the necessary information." He pointed to another folder. And if you can be bothered, make sure your battalion is actually ready to go this time." Andrew gritted his teeth but remained silent until Alarson departed.
"Idiot waste of my time," Andrew muttered. "He could have just sent me the damned report." He lit a cigarette and took a long drag, ignoring Silvia's disapproving glare.
"Your pet is moving up, in the world," she said. Andrew cocked his head to the side inquisitively.
"Captain Kohlson got medical leave; I ended up promoting his senior platoon commander and replacing her with a lieutenant who was observing with the third company."
"Who ended up getting promoted?"
"Lieutenant Alayne Tavish." Silvia laughed as Andrew turned slightly red.
Andrew mumbled a few incoherent denials and wandered away to oversee the preparations of his battalion for redeployment.
Silvia Errnyt watched her twin hurry away for a few moments before she headed away herself, considering the preparations she needed to make for her own battalion. It had been thrown into a state of mild chaos by the loss of Captain Kohlson. The last thing she needed was an inexperience company commander and a fresh platoon leader going into a situation that was going to be infinitely more delicate than the Rangers' more usual aggressive border patrolling. That was not being fair to Tavish. She had proven herself a reliable and talented officer over several years. The real problem was likely going to be Lieutenant Michael Kairan. While remarkable enough in that he was qualified enough to be trusted in an officer's position after completing training, and unusually experienced from a particularly bloody observation tour, he could make a terrible mess of things if he could not handle the delicate process of rooting out enemies from unfriendly civilians. That whole company was in disarray, not just the one platoon, though. One platoon was badly chewed up from a skirmish with an unusually well-armed group of border raiders, and another had lost several noncoms to retirement. At least Andrew isn't the one handling this. Silvia gave a soft laugh at the thought. Alarson already hates him enough with out him accidentally rendering one of his own companies useless.
She found her new lieutenant waiting outside of her office. The small man was sitting on the floor, back against the wall, but he quickly came to his feet and saluted as she approached.
"Lieutenant Kairan." She returned the salute. "Thank you for being punctual. I'm sorry for not doing the same." She gestured for him to follow her into the office.
"I would prefer to remain standing, if it is all the same to you," he said after she gestured towards the extra chair.
"That's fine. I take it that Lieutenant Tavish didn't tell you why I wanted to see you." Michael nodded in affirmation. "Understandable. I prefer to meet with all of my new officers as soon as possible. It helps me get a feel for my new personnel." She opened Michael's personal file and glanced over the first few documents. "I can't find any fault in your previous record. You were a qualified cryo-alchemist even before you finished Ranger school, and you finished your stint at the Academy with high rankings and qualifications as a full alchemist." She noted that he had both a cryo-alchemist's snowflake badge and an alchemist's bade on the sleeve of his uniform "And you were with us for that debacle north of the border, where, by all accounts, you handled yourself adequately." Michael shifted uncomfortably at the recitation of his early career, although Silvia couldn't guess if it was because he didn't want to hear them, or if he would merely rather be somewhere else.
"Your record since taking command of your platoon has not been so exemplary. Both your platoon sergeant and your company C.O. have both complained about some of the policies you've put in place for your troops. Chief amongst those complaints is that you've banned smoking."
Michael cocked his head to the size inquisitively. The rest of his expression remained the same. "So I should just let such a repulsive habit spread through my platoon? I would think not."
"Lieutenant Kairan, I sympathize with your distaste it, but your men are professional soldiers. They might not have the most desirable habits, but they know what they're doing. I'd let them smoke all they want. They know when it is time to fight."
"I will keep that in mind. Still, I would have preferred if Chief Sergeant Hawkins had brought the issue directly to my attention instead of circumventing me. That sort of behavior is bad for discipline." The subtle change in Michael's expression suggested that was far worse than any actual infraction.
"Ordinarily you would be right, but not this time. I asked him about it after Lieutenant Tavish mentioned it to men. While your desire to uphold discipline is admirable, I would listen to your platoon sergeant. He's been upholding discipline in that platoon longer than you've been alive, in all probability. Make sure that something is actually hurting discipline before you drop the hammer on it." Michael's lack of response put her off slightly. His record spoke well of him, but his display of apathy did not. "Would you care to respond, Lieutenant?"
"I hardly see how I can. I have clearly made a mistake, so the only possible appropriate response would be to assure that I will do my best to correct it."
"That's better, I suppose. Dismissed for now, Lieutenant."
Michael saluted. "Thank you, ma'am," he drawled. "This has been most enlightening."
It had better, Silvia thought as soon as he left. You have a lot of promise, and I'd rather not have to deal with a foolish officer at the same time as the rest of this mess.
The Errynt Rangers could move and deploy faster than most troops; that was part of their purpose. The difference became most apparent in emergencies. Where most regiments would spend the better part of a week organizing themselves for redeployment, packing equipment and planning schedules, the Rangers were able to load two regiments of troops into several airships, ready to drop into combat at a moments notice.
Part of it was their lack of heavier equipment, and part of it was that as a private paramilitary unit owned by the Errynt Clan they required less paperwork and similar bureaucratic operations to do the same thing. A lot of it was simple experience and training to be ready for anything. The only other military unit in the Republic of Tyrre that had a comparable reaction time was the Grenadier Corps, a unit that was ironically almost the polar opposite of the Rangers in purpose.
Their fast reaction time was the reason that Tyrre's regular army, ordinarily distrustful of the separate units around them, had come begging the Rangers to spare several battalions from their border guarding duties. The result was that nearly half the Rangers' strength had been pulled from the border on less than twenty-four hours notices. They were loaded onto airships and hurriedly sent south.
Victor de Sartre wordlessly took the intelligence brief from his attaché. As the new ambassador of Imperial Lemuria to the Republic of Tyrre, it was his responsibility to be up to date on the more secretive goings on in the world. That and he liked to keep a close eye on his projects while he guided them from a distance. The gears have been set in motion, now we wait to see where they stop.
He took a sip of the previously untouched glass of wine and made a mental note to reward his wine steward. Talented subordinates were hard to find in any role, and needed to be sheltered, not harassed. Outside the airship's cabin window the sun was rising over the distance horizon, providing Victor with a magnificent view of the light reflecting off the ocean.