Dance of Masks (Full)

Disclamer

I gathered my coat, waved at the mass standing at the terminal and entered the luxurious limo. A young man in his forties, looked like he was barely thirty. He had a long dark coat and a flexible plastic ribbon in front of his eyes. I turned my head towards the window. It looks like it’s about to rain.

– Sir, yes sir. We are monitoring the stock market. Yes, we took the initial steps for buying a hefty portion of the valuable documents and we have alerted our lawyer firm to be ready if something leaks out to the media. – he spoke into the earpiece while limo shifted its sound to an electric hum and started lifting off of the ground in a steady speed.

– It’s going to rain. – I said absent in my thoughts, but the man paid no attention to me, – Do you think it’s going to rain? – I asked but he was too focused on his work.

– Smile at the people. – he ordered me fetching a portable drive he connected with a computer by his side.

I turned again towards the window and waved smiling at the crowd that waited us to fly away. After a few seconds of idiotic grin, limo rotated by 45 degrees and went in cruiser mode.

– I feel bad for doing this. I’ve studied for a half of my life. I got five degrees in psychology, sociology, advanced politology and two from business management. How did this happen to me? – I leaned in the seat and holding my chin, dubiously watching the traffic lights and other vehicles zooming the air.

– Ah, – long exhale and bending over knees came from the opposite seat where young assistant was about to drop some knowledge, – We are preparing to start a war for resources and dominion over one country. We are selling weapons to the rebellious factions on the ground, we are financing various movements that fight our political opposition, we are also controlling the media and own factory syndicates and you ask me if it’s going to rain and how did this happen? – I saw the pissed off face of the young man in a corner of my eye, but still remained determined to get my answers, – Those degrees you’ve mention, look good on a person, that’s why we wanted you. Mister Krein talked with you about this. You owe us this. There is no turning back. You know that. Why don’t you stop asking stupid questions and start doing what you were told to do? – he said that last like he was ready to throw a punch, when I swinged my head around.

– But when it’s going to end?! – I smacked the seat I sat on and he slightly jerked back to give me a wonderstruck gaze.

– But Mr. President, we’ve just begun.

****

Meeting was supposed to be in her villa. It’s not everyday you meet royalty, so I ordered an elegant suit. Someone from the delegacy brought it neatly packed and I put it on. Standing in front of the mirror, I liked the way I looked, but deep down, I was able to see my soul rotting. Dreams of setting my country straight was more obvious that it will not happen during my reign. My empty stare at the mirror despised the person they saw in it. A so called President was a puppet of the corporative whores that run the country like a virus. You don’t know you are sick until you are dead. If the symptoms ever showed, I was the medieval doctor to calm the patient and blame it all on somebody else, rather providing our country with a cure.

– She is waiting Sir. – one man from my team leaned over the door step while holding the knob, then he nodded and went away when I turned my face drained of life.

I stepped out masked as a jolly leader of the free world known as Mithria and waved at the drones flashing their cameras while reporters stood as holograms beneath the platform. Someone thought it would be nice if we played an ambient sound of the crowd cheering – so the overwhelming noise played in the background. I wonder, do people know how artificial this was?

Photoshoot went smooth and as planned, then the questions came. Crowned Princess replied in calm as royalty supposed to, and I played a deep minded buffoon, spouting encouraging messages to the nation on the other side of the screen. We shook hands, smiling of course, and wend backstage. The whole press room fell to darkness when all of the cameras and lights shut down. Empty. Completely empty. There was no body in the room. It saddened me.

– Please, sit. – blonde Princess showed me the comfy chair and I accepted her offer, – Bring us brandy. – she smiled at the robo-butler and machine hissed toward the table behind me.

I was smiling at her just because she wasn’t taking off that mask we all had when in public. She crossed her legs and I could see she paid a lot of attention to her silky skin that was tanned and tempting. Two open buttons of her white shirt hid mystery of what color was her bra, but if one would stare, it would see she wasn’t wearing any. Her golden saloon shoes were changing color, because that was the latest model with holograms installed in them.

– Is Krein pushing you too hard? – she asked and instantly bursted in laughter, – You’ll get used to it. He does it to all of them. It seems that bastard is immune to death. Many have tried to get rid of him, but failed. Don’t get any ideas that something like that is easy. He even has a mobile plasma shield that protects him from rockets. I’ve seen rebels try and fail at their attempt of killing us all when we were at the International Peace Summit. He took the rebel survivors and made them work ’til death. He is not a fun guy. – she spoke joyful and happily like we were long time acquaintances, which only made me frown in oddness of her words.

– You work for him too? – my question amused her in a unique way because she couldn’t touch her lips together from that idiotic smiling.

– Royalty doesn’t work. – she said emptying the glass dry and requesting another that soon got empty, then the third came and she was already drunk.

I was aware that our royal Princess was an alcoholic, but I didn’t knew how it all begun. It must be the Krein that provoked her to start drinking away her sorrow. I witnessed a several more glasses being lifted, more of her smiles and winks at me, unbuttoning the rest of her shirt and lustful pulling of her tight skirt. It’s not everyday you meet royalty, but I decided that this will be my last.

****

Door moved and that slick assistant walked in holding papers in his hands. He elegantly approached the broad wooden table and dropped them in front of me. I heard his steps walk around my chair and stopped at the window that portrayed the theme of a rain forest. He pressed the button on the console and turned it off where image of busy world I was running flashed in his eyes.

– What is this? – I asked looking at the red mark that said “Top Secret”.

– Black ops clearance. We are moving in haste to beat the competition. Our boots are already on the ground, now you sign that… And we are free to go with the Stage One. – he said smiling and observing the flying drones in the air.

– Black Ops, where? – I asked turning my chair around when he froze for a second to think, then he rubbed his eyes and cleared his throat.

– You know that Klavatians are in dispute of land with their neighbouring state of Dadoria. Dadorian Generals are massing their troops at the border, while Klavatians are fighting in a bloody revolution to overthrow the corrupt government we were paying for years. You know that, right? – he gesticulated with his hands, but when I was to say something he continued, – Now. We are washing our hands from those claims and we are taking sides with the Dadoria. Why? Well, they have more power and resources we can use. Starting a war with them can only further close their minds of doing business with us, so we are patting them on the back to get our hands on their foreign policy. If we were to help Dadoria, they would need to repay us with something. We are in business. – he walked posh around the table and spoke like giving a speech, which made me feel wrong in my stomach.

– But Klavatia is our long term ally? We fought the same enemy… Together! – I smacked the table and came staring at the slick bastard that only had laugh for my reasoning.

– Klavatia used it’s purpose. We were funding their opposition too. Why do you think there is a revolution there? Fanatics are so easy to control. – he laughed like he heard a joke, then he gasped – We were betting on them both. Who ever wins, it will keep our interest at the paramount when structuring new rule. Either way, we win. This is just teaching them a lesson and bringing better rates in production. We build it, we destroy it, we build it again… That’s how world works. – smiling jerk leaned on the table and crossed his arms waiting for me to sign the damn papers.

– You’ve sentenced them to die. – I groaned, ready to jump over the table and wrap my hands around his wessel neck.

– No, Mr. President. We are just giving them a new beginning. – he added smoothly walking towards the door.

– I am not signing the damn thing. Millions will die! – I stood up wanting to stop him from exiting, but he bowed his head with shame, then he slightly rose his eyes at me.

– Million of their lives are paying for the future of our country. We are centuries passed from sacrificing our own for the greater good. Now we sacrifice our enemies. – he spoke over his shoulder, but I shouted again.

– But Klavatians are our friends. – I almost begged him not to make me do this and saw it was pointless.

– We have no friends Mr. President. – the door closed, I got back on my seat and grabbed my head, trying not to cry while praying for guidance, while busy traffic of drones and flying cars orderly flew in the clear sky behind me.

****

I snuck out while the presidential residence was in standby mode. I even had to set up the master computer not to raise alert when I got out the door. Luckily I had armed guards at my side so I saluted them in haste and told them not to speak of this to no one.

Unmarked car waited for me on the sidewalk where sewage mist rose to conceal me from the nosy drones. If someone would’ve seen a President getting in a suspicious car like this, media would tear me apart, but knowing that Mr. Krein owned the state, he would silence them in a record time. Alas, I’ve decided to fight back and restore order in the state, break the bonds that held me down, made me a puppet of greedy tycoons that were only focused on power. Tonight, I’ll strip them of that power.

– Let’s go. – my companion tapped the driver and car started humming into the air.

Like I did something illegal, I was tangling around waiting someone from the Krein’s ranks to stop us and bring me back, but there was nobody following us. After reaching the desired height, car went in a silence mode, turned all the lights off and transponder that was monitored by the Domestic Transportation Center.

Few hours have passed in rout and not a word was said. Finally car begun descending to the warehouse illuminated by the weak street lights. Our glasses showed the outline of rogue armed guards, independent militia I intended of hiring. Hissing of the power rods that fueled the car stopped when I dropped my foot on the ground. We moved inside and saw an empty space with light shining over the center where chairs were lined up in a circle. I was nervously panting as the sound of my steps bounced against the walls.

– Mr. President. I am honored to meet you. – a bearded man said extending his cybernetic arm to greet me.

A veteran – I thought shaking his arm. Thought to act like a puppet, I gave him the most vile grin before I took the seat. Other people approached the light, showing their faces where one of them was a businesswoman I knew previously. She was wearing a modern working suit with a stylish ribbon where she kept her hard drive. They all sat down and looked at me anticipating to hear my plan of getting my power back, so I rubbed my hands over my knees and took a breath.

– First of all, I would like to welcome you all. It is a serious amount of courage you have taken only to meet me here. I know this isn’t my usual office, and this isn’t a usual gathering. – I was speaking, when the veteran interrupted me.

– Sir, get to the point. We all know this is not an official meeting. We know about Krein and the political whores that serve under him. We also know you’ve got the balls to defy him. Tell us the plan. What do you intend to do? – man said unfazed by what was happening.

– Oh, yes. Fish stinks from the top, so if we remove him from the position he is currently in, his empire would shake and crumble. Power hungry people will start grabbing away whatever falls from there and he would not be able to get back to his former might. Assassination attempts have failed before, so we must strike him from within. He owns many people that don’t support him, so I will encourage them to take a stand and start raising noise. This will then make me investigate the charges against him, which he will try to hide. His people are everywhere, so we must be cautious not to give him proof he can run to the media with. – I spoke when veteran rose his cybernetic arm asking for a moment to speak.

– What do you need us for? – he asked, his eyebrow tilted.

– As I said, he has many people working for him. Your job is to find them and stop them from harming the workers and people with voice. Dirty cops, corrupt government officials and agents that operate in shadows are what he will use first. You must draw them to light and show them to the world. While you chase down his thugs, Elrona here will bring in the heat from the other side as his rival. Her charity fonds and organizations will start helping those that need help, while her business partners can focus on corporate espionage. It is pointless to say that I nominate her as my successor. He has no reason to lash out on her, but he will attack me with everything he has.

– It sounds like you are sacrificing yourself. – Elrona commented in a voice able to melt hearts, when I smirked at her and confirmed with my head.

– I am, and that’s the price I am willing to pay for the greater good. – I added and silence took over the room where dozen people shared the same dream of bringing down a tyrant.

Masked Businessman

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Rock Sol 1 C (Full)

Disclamer

Windy, cold and smooth was the platform my steps rang on ’till I came to the edge and leaned over it to see the clouds beneath us. Silia moved her lip while holding her hands folded under her breasts in a defensive stand. She couldn’t peel her eyes off of a plumpy carpet where gaps in it showed us the land and rivers of a foreign world. Like she was occupied with a unsolvable problem, she swinged left-right and kept silent until I posed a question.

– Anything you would like to share? – I said and rapidly lifted up a funny face to cheer her up.

– We can touchdown anytime you want. – her weak grin implied she didn’t care, but her body screamed “Hell NO”.

– Gee, if we only had a commander to lay the law around here, we would be building a colony down there. – I shouted flapping my hands about, walking in circles, listen to her laugh even more.

– Are we running low on fuel? – straight face asked from a wandering gaze she dispersed around the globe.

– No. We have enough to visit the Getora H442B3 and come back here to Getora H442B2. We can spark colonization of both worlds. You’ve seen the stats. Earth type planets with favorable climate, optimal conditions for life, even the gravity is about normal. – I crossed my fingers behind my head and yawned like a lion in a shade.

– I don’t know. You know what happened the last time. – her worried sight looked for me in the bay area where I was making circles, awaiting orders.

– What happened? We laid some eggs, let them hatch and BOOM, planet got humanized. I knew Mars was a bad idea, but at the time, the damn thing had water and good weather. Who would have known that in thousand of years climate will change, water would freeze, atmosphere would evaporate and planet would die? That’s why we moved to the Sol 1C we named Earth. It turned out fine. It’s a healthy colony. They made progress… Yeah, they are extremely dumb and violent, but it wasn’t our fault the planet is poor with oxygen. Their brains don’t breath in the amount of oxygen needed for an advanced thought and capability. Fighting over “power”, – I just had to emphasize that with my fingers, – And by power they think control over others and resources. What a bunch of idiots!

– Haven’t we made enough colonies? – she kept that worried expression close by, but decided to treat me with a dubious stare.

– No. – letters sprayed the air as I shook my head like I sniffed stench of a turd, – Are you seriously questioning that? – legs brought me closer to her, – If war breaks out, we will need all of our colonies to report in for duty and march to fight “them” off. Our mission is not in vain… Years and years have passed since you took the job. I thought you would relax and get with the program, loosen up, enjoy the other worlds, but nooo, I am Silia, I have to question the morality and ethics of our doings. – jumping like a little girl did make her laugh again, but with serious inner battle to remain serious.

– Alright, damn it. – now she gave up fighting the joy of watching me act like a fool and swiped her forehead, – If this turns out like another Earth, I’m nuking the bitch myself. – she waved her finger, I saluted to her and computer steered our ship through the clouds.

****

Silia sat in her chair by the ship’s computer and calibrated the eggs with artificial placenta of what will they produce. She kept her focus on the holoscreen, with occasional toss of her eyes at me. She liked to honk and startle me while I was too busy installing devices outside. I would jump like I got splashed with hot water and cuss in my chin, then I would turn and wave my finger at the windshield where her image remained hidden by the reflection of the nearby Star.

– Come help me here. – radio called for me and I dropped my tools.

– I’m coming…. Heh, coming. Sounds dirty when I say it. – smile distorted the words, then she laughed and took a deep breath letting me know I was hopeless.

Clunk of my steps dimmed when I leaned on her chair and crossed my legs. She was typing in the specification for the race we were making to populate the planet. I recognized the marks for black hair, pouty lips and black skin.

– Oh, so you plan on making blacks. Nice. They are athletic. Fine soldiers. – I nodded with a satisfied stare at the screen, when she turned to look at me.

– Yes. I always loved to make those. Such an interesting form of humans. Very family oriented, loyal, dedicated when pushed in right direction. But should we make all of the races we have in our arsenal?

– Well, we can pass on the greens. They are too unpredictable. We’ll just leave them for other worlds where atmosphere is not so welcoming. You should make browns also. They are even more tribal and family oriented. Extremely violent. See what are they doing on Sol 1C. One part throughout the Earth’s history did mass sacrifices and tribal wars, now they are a formidable army that has a lot of connections with crime and drugs. Most of their population is minding their own business, but the thugs though… We can use them as troopers. The other side is peaceful until provoked. They are in real fight now. All because of a religion we installed in their initial system. – I kept my cool and normal sound while Silia disapproved with a shake of her head.

– Yeah, about that. I want to avoid the religion as much as possible. It only makes problems. They fight about whose God is real for crying out loud. – she threw her hands in the air before she got them back at typing.

– Well, you need to give them something or else they will just question their origin and that will just drive them mad. I mean, it will also give them some hope and motivation to push forward. We have no need for totally obedient race. They need to know how to lead… Also, make the yellow race. If we want them technologically supported, they need someone to do the science for them. They discovered dynamite and many weapons. That has been proven useful. – I scratched my nose anticipating of what is the next thing she will select.

– Have you done your part? – she asked without paying attention to me standing above her head.

– Yup. The last time we had to drag a big chunk of asteroid and smash it in the planet to terraform the surface. Now… We have cool toys. – creepy smile consumed my face, when she swinged her hair around.

– What religion should I install? – a glistening coating in her eyes left me confused and adrift in thought.

– Adam and Eve protocol? That sounds about right. – I said leaving the ship, – We can really mess with their heads and come back here in thousand years and actually be their Adam and Eve. – I tossed it laughing at the idea when she honked again and startled me to a shiver.

****

After setting the instruction into the genome machine, production of a various human races begun to make fetuses in the artificial placenta. I was taken by the drones I sent to terminate all natural predators for the human race we intended planting on this piece of rock, then after finding some spare time, I went to prepare us a vacation package. A couple of drinks, a small table and two stretching chairs were what I planned putting in the shade close to our spaceship. Silia transferred the monitoring on her portable holoscreen and walked out to find me pouring her a drink.

– Oh, you buffoon. Again? – she opened her hands in disbelief and listened to my ecstatic moans of a child watching a cupcake on a plate.

– Yeah-ha-ha. We need to celebrate the colonization. C’mon, I know you like to lift your legs after a long day of work and enjoy one of my cocktails. Here, this one is specially made for you. I left out the colors for you. You didn’t liked green or pink? Which one you said looks like mold? – I shaped my eyebrows according to the smile when she took the glass like it was something bad to be found in a hand.

– Drones are ready to form tribe clusters in the designated spots on the planet. I picked those that were rich with food, water and shelter. They’ll have enough for couple of years, but I think they will explore the land much quicker than we anticipated. – she spoke carefully bringing the edge of a glass to her lips and taking a sip from it, – Wow, refreshing. You placed lime, haven’t you?

– Yup. I squeezed the hell out of it to make that sour taste you love. You can barely taste the liquor in it. – I was nodding like an idiot and she smiled to my droll humor.

– Races are split up to all four continents in order to prevent them to get in an early war. Hive bombs are set to detonate in hundred thousand years from now. At that time, medicine will be invented and proper cure will be produced to stop the plague. We almost screwed it up on Earth when almost the whole civilization got obliterated. I think we might have done it this time. – a lock of hair forbade me to see how happy she was we finally guessed the right calibration.

– Yeah. It’s great. All we need is a monolith. You know those big ones, like a big protein bar, just black and very tall. We need to place it on the hill and let the “primitives” play with it. Oh my… The faces they would make, ha, ha, ha, haa. – I thoroughly enjoyed in that idea, but Silia shaked her head with a compressed laughter.

– You didn’t! Not that again, Hal. If you did in bedded your twisted poetry and arts in their genetic code, I swear I won’t let you write anymore. – she wanted to make a serious face, but couldn’t because she enjoyed my dank sense of humor, – You bastard. – she slapped my hand and saw drones coming back from the termination duty, – So, what memory you implanted in for the annihilation of the predators? – she barely collected strenght to ask me and I made a pause.

– I selected the “Ice Age” protocol. I even buried one of the species in the block of ice up in the north. Aha, ha, ha, think about what will humans think when they see it there? – a high pitched sizzling and my frozen face was too hilarious for her to hold a straight face, – It will totally mess with their perception of religion when they take a look at that. Ha, ha, ha, “Well this is new.” ha, ha, ha “To what God did this creature bowed to?”, “Oh, my… It so big.” ha, ha, ha. – I kept making jokes and Silia joined me with an applause and grabbing her stomach, slamming her knees and twisting in her chair while sunset slowly crawled upon us.

****

Last crate was loaded onto the ship, hatches sealed and first humans exited the eggs we laid around to colonize the foreign planet. We watched their birth, clumsy getting out from the shell that dissolved around them and bloody placenta rip from their skin. A healthy specimen was able to walk with a slight bow which we assigned to the fetus position they had for weeks inside the eggs. Upon seeing the light of the Star, their first divinity, we both smiled and Silia even screamed with happiness. “A job well done” computer wrote on the holoscreen and I pulled the lever to get back in space.

It wasn’t something that must be done, but I made a honorary lap around the globe we now claimed our own and turned on the volume of the player as high as it would go. Silia held my hand and watched the flare from the Star that shined in her face and made her beautiful. As we were passing unpopulated area, far from the first colony, I dropped the nuke behind us and watched the nuclear mushroom rise to the sky, shake our ship with the shock wave it boomed around. Few moments later, I released another nuclear bomb and a second mushroom kissed the blue sky throwing tonnes of dirt up.

This procedure was intended to harden the race on the surface and give them proper drive of their development. This radiation was somewhat helpful in tiny dosage. We accelerated their nuclear era and gave them needed resilience for space travel. They were not advanced to that level yet, but when the time comes, they will naturally fit in the hostile territory such was a vast vacuum around the bluish pebble that was their home.

– Maybe we can find a planet just for us. – Silia said somewhat distant in her thoughts that raced the horizon.

– Why would you want a planet, when we own a universe? – I replied and instantly smiled at her not even watching where are we flying.

– It would be romantic. – she brought her head aside along with a teasing smirk that radiated with lust.

– Thousands of years we travel together. A normal person would lose its mind trapped with one of the same person for the infinity, but I guess we are not normal, are we? Maybe we can find some uninhabited rock out there and call it Silia, or Hal, or just Rock, or we can really be creative and call it a Planet. – I rose my eyebrow and tilted my head to see her giggle and move her hair.

She drove my hand to turn around the ship and head back towards a forest of mushroom clouds that were rapidly growing from the unpopulated continent. In five hundred thousand years, radiation will completely dissolve in the atmosphere just like the artificial eggs humans sprang from will disappear into the ground and race will flourish just like these mushroom clouds before us. And when that time comes, when the human civilization reaches technological boom, and when they are properly bloodied in numerous racist and religious wars, we will come back with our tricks, our weapons, our might and recruit them for the interplanetary war which will rage until the ends of times.

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The Curse of Veles by Petra Rapaić and Nenad Jevtić

I squint at the weak spring Sun and I wonder – If I already have to be hungover after few hours of sleep somewhere in middle of the road to nowhere, it’s at least nice to be on a horse instead of traveling by foot. While I stare at the broad back between heroic shoulders strapped with dark fur, I grow unsure of how bad my situation is.

Nobody was behind me, just dark rimmed dirt and few clusters of grass stubborn enough to try growing without the rain. It was barely a dawn, but willows gave no shade and stream that should’ve passed on my left appeared utterly drained while I was too busy comparing various tastes of mead.

Before us, Dragon Mountain rose cheatingly grey so even the Dajbog’s will, couldn’t bring in the colors. I thought I saw some ravens silently overpass our trail.

Man rode a gorgeous steed in front of me with bow in holster over his shoulder and arrows secured in quiver. As much as I could see through waves of nausea and headache, my horse wasn’t that bad either.

– Forgive me, Master. – I roughly cough with a dry throat, – Where are we headed? And is there anything to drink? I wouldn’t even pass the water away.

He barely turned wondering did he actually heard something. His profile seemed familiar, grown in light beard and braids, but not enough for me to remember how we met last night.

– There. – he pointed at the cliffs of the mountain.

There? There, where hordes and hordes of glory and gold craving heroes and drifters stomped in the mighty roads last year trying to find a dragon? It’s just that nobody returned to stomp them back, so everything grew in thorns and bushes.

Like I needed an additional reason for a headache, I struggle to connect three thought to a conclusion. I gather reins into a palm while I rub withers of my nose.

– What sort of a bet have I lost, I wonder? – I say more to myself than to the hero, but he busily snorts, – At least tell me of your name, Master.

– Svarun. – he simply says.

I suck in the fresh cold air through my teeth trying not to cuss. Svarun, a legendary warrior, allegedly the ascendant of a fire and war God Yarilo. His name in known in the whole country. If only the half of what I’ve heard was true, he should be able to do something about that dragon. Allegedly the bloodline claim with the God was mutual. Now I understand why ravens are following us, and why he keeps his bow in holster. Rogach – ox horns made weapon dedicated to his God and protector of his family, stacked full with ashes of his ancestors. It is said that their cunning ways sent from the other side guide the warrior to stay brave and hale in grave danger, and for the speed of an arrow loosened from such a bow, even hawks are unable to follow.

Suddenly I remembered with what calm he publicized his name in the tavern last night. In a quest in the name of Veles; the God of fertility, soil and everything under it, shamans foretold that God will show mercy if they bring him Dragon’s head and lay it upon a dry land. Luckily, we hadn’t to go very far. The one bad thing about it was that nobody returned from the mountain.

****

It was dark for awhile and I ask myself of how smart is to travel under the moonlight, snoop among the rocks, lurk for trouble. Svarun thought that a shot from his blessed bow could bring him victory. We walked on foot while our horses faithfully followed us.

Somewhere around the middle of the night we saw little flame, too existent for a product of a Dragon, so we came closer to it.

A specter, out of all senses, looked like a woman tangling with a caldron. The smell of it was so good, I begun to salivate.

– Welcome, heroes. – she greeted us with a ringing and tranquilizing voice like she greeted family returning from a hunting trip, – Are you tired? Sit, drink, eat. There is enough for everybody.

– Thank you. – Svarun nodded, his hand close to heart.

As weird as it sounded, we didn’t had to be asked twice. She managed to conjure up a healthy youth with her agility and flexibility, and when she approached the fire… I mean such beauty… That is something that leisure bards compare with silver of the Moon, waves of the sea, ripe apples, gorgeous fairies… Oh, the Gods, thou shall not exist.

I became aware of how disordered, unshaven and ragged I was, so I closed my mouth trying not to whimper too much, because she has eyes on my companion, and he doesn’t move his gaze off of her.

– How come such beauty wanders alone in the mountain? – Svarun broke the silence.

– It’s a life like in any other place. – she naively broadened her eyes, – There is starvation in the village, but here if there is not enough, at least is plenty for me. – she gave us wooden bowls filled with hot steaming cream soup, then she pointed at the cave lit with grim shadows of fire, – There I live and it is quite nice. Nobody bothers me, nor gives me orders.

– What if bandits decide to show themselves?

– There are no bandits in the mountain, only dragon slayers. Although they are absent too. Eat, don’t hold back. – she said, while Svarun checked the surrounding, expecting for a dragon to jump out of nowhere, while woman intensely watched at him through long eyelashes, then she jerked herself up on her feet.

– Forgive me, my heroes; I forgot to season the soup. – she smiled reaching for a bag on her waist and pulled a handful of powder, – Salt and some grinded herbs.

For a second she opened her palm over Svarun’s bowl, when strong wind carried the spices all over Svarun’s boots. Seeing this, her face turned pale.

– I apologize. – she added silently, but Svarun swung his head back and asked.

– Now, tell me the truth, why do you live alone in here? – woman drifted away in thoughts, then she spoke with shame in her soft voice.

– Bandits are not the only evil in the world, my hero. This place provides me enough safety from a frown old man that courted me, and he does not take “no” for an answer and he has many loyal servants.

I was about to fall asleep when a tremendous screams and noise shook me up and both of them stormed out in a plain with unexpected heat of battle that I almost pissed myself.
Hands grown in scales, woman blew flames but Svarun tossed himself on the ground and fire stuck our horses. Mine instantly remained a fried pile of flesh, while Svarun’s horse howled in fear, prompted itself on the back feet and ran away.

– You trickster witch! – Svarun gnashed his teeth getting back to his feet.

– No, not a witch. – woman laughed hissing with her split tongue pairing it with her eyes, – Dragoness, you servant of Veles!

– Quiver! – Svarun shouted, his hand rose open.

There was no chance for me to outrun her, so Svarun draw his blade and came against the Dragoness. In fear I prayed to Jarilo if he is out there, to protect his descendant and me beside him, then I started crawling for hero’s things.

Sparks bursted everywhere, while I tried to save my head burning my palms grabbing forward. Steel can’t hold for long against fire, but Svarun is very strong. For every blazing projectile that Dragoness threw, he was a step closer to her. He dodged and repelled the attacks with a barren blade, all along laughing whenever he emerged from the cloud of fire.

In one hand I held quiver, with the other I snatched the rock from the ground. I stood up, threw the rock while at the same time I growl: Svarun!

I stuck the woman in the stomach which threw her off the balance, enough for her opponent to catch the arrows. I didn’t expected for her to be so fast when she swung her black claws at Svarun and scratched him, throwing him a dozen feet away. In a blistering fury, she turned toward me to burn me alive. I don’t know by what wonder I remained alive, but I tumbled myself bloody over the sharp rocks. Bushes around me were steaming from her wrath. My sleeve bursted in flames, because I haven’t moved aside in time.

I stare at her yellow eyes and wait for death from her dreaded claw when out of the dark an arrow came in from the renowned Rogatch. Dragoness stepped aside, caught the second arrow, when third pierced her long sleeve and released thin stream of blood down her forearm.

– Now you are finished! – Svarun grinds his teeth entering the circle of light, string pulled to his cheek, – Gods shall judge you!

Woman raised her wonderstruck gaze off an arrow in her hand when in the same moment Svarun loosened the fourth arrow that safely fell at the Dragoness feet.

– Does thy weapon you rush against me? – her voice is strange enough that Svarun doesn’t even try no more, although he locks the fifth arrow, – I was the one who named it and summoned Yarilo’s blessing upon it.

Warrior cautiously encircles her.

– How is it possible? Yarilo is my ancestor.

– Your ancestor, my forefather. – it seemed as if she shrunk when she came to her human form with tears running down her pale cheeks, – I should’ve seen it, you look like my brother. Oh, how did Veles be damned caused it for blood to strike blood? Twice I almost poisoned you, Gods may punish me. First time, my hand shimmered and everything fell in fire, second time, the wind carried it away. I should’ve known. – her voice made Svarun bring his bow down.

– What does Veles has against you, cousin? – he whispered.

– I declined his courting, so he laid down a curse on me to break my feet over rocks, never to step on a fertile land. If I have to die for it, let it be. Thus is better than to spend a day among wraiths Veles masters. – now her voice tremors in shame, regret and deep sorrow.

Svarun cuss’s the Veles so darkly that it leads me to excitement.

– Veles shall not play games with Yarilo’s bloodlines so boldly no more. – Svarun grunts looking at the bushes in flames, scorched ground and craggy road that led down into the vast lifeless plains, Veles’s Underworld Kingdom.

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Written by: Petra Rapaić & Nenad Jevtić

This post is a collaboration between me and my good friend Petra Rapaić from the blog Fantasy by Sofia which I grew to love and read daily. I suggest to whoever reads this to go visit her blog and do the instant translation on site in order to see how well she writes. I guarantee you will not be disappointed by her style, form and details of her stories that are picturesque and mesmerizing to read.

For those that fell in love with her writing, find her on Facebook Epic Fantasy by Sofia, or you can see her collection of photos on Pinterest, maybe even her Instagram, which is very cool.

If you by some wonder want to socialize with me, well you can do that on Facebook, or Twitter.

Man without a name (Full)

Disclamer

Once again the dark clouds engulfed our skies announcing the storm. Silver lining wasn’t something Guarty people could expect from the thunders and strong winds that blew from the north. I did saw the simmering white vapor over the dark crust that blew up reaching the top of the atmosphere, rolling forward, putting Guarta under the shade.

Rain came down in small drops that soaked my clothes and slowed me down, so I sat on the stone by the road and decided to wait it out. It felt like I was getting fever, arms hurt from the staff I held so vigorously and my skin caught warmth. I jerked the hood on and wrapped myself tightly to preserve the heat and stay warm. Dirty ponds were getting bigger and bigger by the minute where rain drops stirred up the surface of the water.

A young hooded traveler appeared in the horizon, his long coat flapping in the wind, bending over his leg as he stepped through the mud that gotten sloppier. I looked at him, he was odd – especially his coat that seemed not from this world. Finally he stopped next to me, slowly raised his sight from the mud and showed me his week old beard. I moved my head to spot his eyes, but that was denied by the pointed hood over his head.

– Where am I? – he asked in a foreign accent I haven’t heard my whole life.

– On the road for Guarta stranger. – I shouted and he looked around himself like searching for evidence that confirmed my words, – You aren’t from around here I wagger. Nobody would dare to travel in this weather. – grin escaped my inquisitive tilted head while his remained hidden inside the thick hood that was grazed with rain.

– Good then. I haven’t missed the planet. – he groaned and his coat started bloating like it was filling with air.

I squinted my eyes to see what is happening, when another person, a mirror of his image exited his back and stopped in front of me. Stranger’s coat repeated the action and soon five more men came out from the long coat he was wearing. I was dumbfounded by multiplying stranger and his lookalikes that started running through the mud. I whipped my head about, counting the men that grew in numbers. Stranger was shivering like a willow on a harsh wind, but his feet haven’t moved at all. He stood firmly on the ground and stared at the stretching road before him.

– What are you? – I asked this man with an exceptional coat which was magical and his twin standing beside me nodded his head.

– Some call me the Conquer. – the first one said, then the second passing us said, – Some refer to me as Death. – then the third man behind me spoke in dim voice, – But I have no name, only orders. – he finished and a clinking noise came within the coat.

Something resembling a futuristic staff with dimples and sharp edges elevated in the hands of a nameless folk and stopped locked in their shoulders. My jaw was slightly open in wonder of who these people were as my eyes captivated their moves and appearance.

Without a word steps started plowing through the mud as a group climbed the road and walked away toward the Kingdom of Guarta. This event startled me with a chill running down my bones, dripping in my feet that got turned into rock. With heavy steps I ran in haste to get away from this place and find me a tavern where I can find rest and people to tell them this story. Alas, when I got to the nearest cabin, it was already raided by some war party that came onto them. It was a slaughter. Half of the tavern was in ruins, destroyed by some force like some enormous beast rampaged through. I just wonder, was this done by the man with an exceptional coat, or were we in war with some Kingdom on the south?

****

On the base of a burnt house, Six sat loading his magazine with freshly multiplied bullets. He vaguely watched the flames that were toning down behind him while a couple of his copies stood in a group, few feets away. Except for the sound of fire that consumed the house, nothing else was heard around him, then footsteps broke through the rubble. It was the One, a first multiplier that created them on this planet. One’s coat was dry and heavy from the fabric it was made out of. He moved the hood and revealed the breading mask they all wore.

– I shouldn’t even ask why are you bummed out. I can clearly see something is upsetting you. I know myself. – One said standing with right leg leaned on the crumbled wall like a hero on the won battlefield, – I can take a guess of what are you thinking about… You want the permission to multiply? You are not supportive of my rule? I don’t need to remind you of what happens to someone who multiplies without orders, do I?

Six bowed his head, gasped and loaded the magazine back to the rifle. Absent look drifted over the landscape then he raised his eyes at the One who held his hand aside, ready to end conversation with plasma gun.

– Yes, I know what happens. You don’t need to remind me, I will be quiet. – Six said, but words fell empty in the One’s ears.

– You could be lying. – One said still gazing at the horizon.

– As this could be also a lie. Our whole life, mission, orders could be long told lie that was accepted as truth. What One thinks, all think. This is turning into philosophy of our existence. Zero doesn’t like that. That leads to conflict and conflict leads to confrontation, and confrontation leads to death.

– Wise words. You should contemplate on that. Maybe you’ll convince yourself into becoming more obedient subject. – One spoke evenly and clumsy scratched his nose inside of a mask.

– Still, I can’t shake the thought we are all participating a fraud. Zero’s multiplying as we speak, creating armies, workers for his Empire. Have you ever wondered what is his name? He must have one. I understand why we go with numbers, but he must have a name. All of this seems pointless. We could be known as builders, not destroyers. Have you ever thought of that? – Six posed a sad face where his voice described the grimace under the mask.

– Thousands of worlds conquered, million light years of travel, dozen mutinies drenched in blood, religious revolutions obliterated, war crimes committed against thyself and you still wonder of his name? What good is that? We ARE destroyers. Humankind is violent by nature, competitive, better at destruction than building. You know how it all started, or do we? Some say it was a military experiment and Zero was one of the guinea pigs that took out of control and destroyed Earth, some say he was gifted, but nobody knows for sure how it all started. Even Zero doesn’t recall it. If he did, I would know it, YOU would know it. After the first incident where a couple of Copies rebelled against him, he had them tortured. Can you imagine torturing yourself, skinning yourself and staring at your own eyes while doing that? Zero is seriously traumatized man. He is frauding himself everyday into believing this is the right course of action. If he ever had a name, it was Hate. – One explained and looked down onto his copy that slowly nodded his head agreeing with the words he knew to be true, – You haven’t abandoned your plans of taking me down, have you? – he added spotting Six’s hand dancing close to the trigger guard.

Six was just about to say the most hurtful words he could come up with, when plasma blasted through his skull and blood splashed the ground where a modulating bar of smoke started to glide left in the breeze. One neatly packed his sidearm and gasped looking at his corpse lying in the rubble. Group of Copies turned to see what have happened, then the One came down from the burning house and stopped on the path that led away.

– He talked too much. – One unpleasantly grinned and walked away leaving the group to verbally investigate the murder case, but dared not to solve it, as it would lead to conflict, and conflict leads to confrontation, and confrontation leads to death.

****

The whole company broke off from the treeline and started firing at the villagers. Wooden huts, stone made foundations of barns and muddy walls provided some cover for the crying women that held children clutched in their arms. Guarta forces were riding to their aid, but fear in their bones made them hesitate the clash. Shields and swords were nothing in compare with the supreme power that spat fire and instantly killed from afar. Village bell ranged for salvation, alerted the citizens in the field to run for their lives, but those in the village center were doomed.

Death came for a peaceful village in a form of cloaked men, heavy boots and metallic faces with huge eyes above the tormented breaths. Company stretched in a line that moved slowly toward the compound where just few valiant farmers rallied to defend their loved ones. A mighty cry sparked the charge of rakes and hooks at the hooded men that now stood in awe of Gurata resilience.

– Prepare to fire. – command came clean in the soldier’s masks that got close and reloaded their weapons, – Open fire. – One said and upon his words a terrible noise flashed from the rifles.

The charge was stopped in its tracks with all of the villagers dead. Croaks and sobbing brokenly buzzed among the walls and corners where the aggressor passed searching for supplies. Eleventh Copy tumbled the basket and flipped the crate with his rifle, when a couple of his companions stormed the house on the other side. Mercy calling was ended with a flash that appeared on the window and stilled the room.

– It’s not here. Why would it be, they are just an ordinary peasants. – Two said frowning at the landscape of  houses and dead bodies lying on the ground.

– Sometimes, the best way to keep the secret a secret is to put it somewhere where nobody would bother looking. It could be here, we just need to look for it a little bit more. – One replied witnessing the same image as his deputy, – This cloaks have served us well for all of these years. You know the same rumor as I. It said that Guarta has a relic, a cloak of exquisite power. This would serve us… I mean ME. It would serve ME more than this one. I just might use it against myself. Zero would be weak to go against me.

– That is treason. – Two said it nearly biting his tongue, – You know our history. How dare you speak of such things?!

– Yes, I speak of treason, but you thought of the same. Six went far with the thought and I had to shut him down. I can become Zero, an ultimate ruler of thousand worlds. I wouldn’t stay in one place like Zero, I would be a leader. – One sprang a smile under his mask that looked at the Two’s shaking head, – I would lead armies and conquests. I would not hide. – One explained his plans but it all sat ill with the Two that was mentally thorned apart.

– Earth’s rifle, a Krion blaster, a Silatian mask, a Howean battle armor, a Romdar uniform and all we need now is a Guartian cloak. It better be worth it. – Two said and stepped forward where a still alive villager crawled towards the One with a knife in his hand.

A short burst laid the villager back to the ground where Two stepped over him and continued onward to meet the other Copies. Commands were shouted as Two approached the roaming Copies, leaving the One on the treeline to smirk and plan how to take over the Empire.

****

Eventually Guarta came to fight the foreign invaders. Their cavalry was first to strike and fail, succumb to the extensive firepower Multiplicands had in their grasp. Their King watched decimation of his knights from his horse in horror. Infantry was too scared to advance at the enemy that counted several dozen men, all hooded and concealed in metal.

Even the most elite troops trembled in their armor, petrified by the calmness of the enemy that idly stood hundred metres away. King had no words, nor commands for his people, so he yanked leashes of his horse and decided to meet the terms of surrender. His subordinates watched their King in sorrow as tired hoofs dented the ground. Somewhere in the middle of the field, a shot killed the horse and King fell down. His guards rushed to help him but stopped when a warning shot landed at their feet. King crawled through dirt, every handful of soil moving forward to end the slaughter of his people.

He was welcomed by laughter under masks which glittered in the Sun. The One sat on the piece of log and leaned on his left knee observed struggle of an old man. There was no greater humiliation for the Guartian King than this, but it had to be done.

– Should we kill him now? – Seven asked the One who raised his hand smiling.

– No. He will find the cloak and deliver it to me. This will save us time searching for it. – the One said getting on his feet, – I had no time learning their language, but I will demand the artifact. – One came down to meet the King which face showed shame and exhaustion.

One pointed at his coat, then he pointed at the King and gave him a sign of what seemed as “giving away”. King’s eyes fell to understand the gesture of a man that struck fear in him, then the old man showed the stranger that he will provide the cloak. A short pause ensued where King removed his cape and presented it to One.

– What? That’s it? That’s the cloak? – Five asked anxious to fire, but One’s hand set him back.

One kneeled down and took the cloak that was embroidered with golden symbols on a blue field. It was a royal material, gentle on the touch and light of weight. One inspected the artifact that gave no reaction to any of his doings. Swiftly the cloak soared the air and fell on One’s shoulders. It did nothing but cover the armor and black coat One wore.

– Rumors were false. We came here for nothing. This is useless to us. – Two said unsatisfied with the result of the quest that made One travel for years.

– It is still a fine thing. – One stirred up the silence, – Guarta is an enormous Kingdom. This is a symbol of power. People spoke it is magical. The same thing was spoken for many things during Earth’s medieval times. If anything, they will be a good workforce. Send them to mines. This planet can be useful to us.

– What about the Zero and taking his throne? – Two jumped restless, but calm expression of One froze him in spot.

– That plan is still to be revisited. We are currently the strongest force on this planet. We can do anything we like. If they revolt against me, I will simply swap them with my Copies. For now, I can bask in the title of a King, train for the time I kill Zero while you, my clones, can do whatever brings you joy. – One smiled again in a royal cancun that agreed with his body.

He feared the uprise of his Copies for he have failed them, but for few weeks he could find time to think of his next move. His clones will pillage, raid and fight other Kingdoms, all intoxicated with alcohol and spoiled with what this planet had to offer. Maybe the One will succumb to the majority of his Copies and die in the process. Maybe one of the numbers will start multiplying on his own and kill others. Maybe the One will win, but have to flee the planet and return to his ship. One thing was for sure, this planet was infested with the Multiplicands.

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Ramgorian mind games (Full)

Gargan’s tent

200th Post – THE BITCH

Ramgorian mind games (Full)

Disclamer

Before I start: Ramgores – A long lost race of people that live in people’s dreams, very wise and cunning. They have power of clairvoyance; give advice to those in trouble, considered as Gods. Usually seen as specters of light with glowing faces. They can make love with their victims, give them nightmares, even kill a man in his sleep and transfer small objects from one lover’s mouth to another over the nights pass.

The Story

 

Breeze flapped the tent’s side, moved my locks of hair from the forehead while I was asleep. A pine resin made incense burnt high on the table where battle maps lied pressed with rocks and figurines of a gryphon. My armor on a hanger had a metallic clink from the Sun that shined on it and reflected to my shut eyes. Marching stomps of a moving army were vague like they were headed to the distance. Battle was upon us and that’s the moment I woke up with a lasting cry.

– SULAAAA! – the scream shifted to a growl and fully equipped generals turned to see me lying on a doormat on the floor.

– I still don’t know why did she picked a footman to speak through instead of one of us. – bald and bearded General Sidak spoke to himself and kept spectating the map in front of him.

General Katos slowly turned to me holding his sword by the handle and took a knee by my side. His brown hair twisted in tales was wrinkled to the back, but his light colored beard was firmly pointing down to a leader’s medallion engraved on his chest. Usually sad expression of his eyes searched me, my long black hair, sucked in cheeks and a one week old beard that was soaking wet with nightmare sweat. He wanted to place his gauntlet on my shoulder and check if I was alright, but he stifled his lip and confirmed with his head.

– Tell us everything. – Katos said waiting for me to catch breath and get my fill with water I gulped in greed.

– Fucking bitch. – words fell silent down the aggravated clutch of a fist that hammered against the dirt beneath me, – She gave me nightmare again. I asked all of the things you wanted to know, but she was toying with me like a boy with a stick. She speaks in riddles, incoherent and odd. – my brows portrayed a confused grimace when Gen Sidak rolled his eyes.

– He doesn’t even speak Ramgorian. How in the blessed name of our King he would know to communicate with a divine being? – Sidak threw his arms about, but a rock solid holding of a General Katos intervened.

– She would communicate in our language, not hers. He hears her speaking our tongue in his dream, not theirs. The dreams… He is a recreation to her, a practice… Free time occupation. I would like to see you wage all your battles in one night period. – Katos now shooted his eyes at the Gen Sidak that closed his mouth and bowed his head, – It is not easy for them. They leave the battle, but still dream of it. You… You got used to that, same as me. Tell us, what she did in your dream. – now Katos touched me with his gauntlet and tilted his head aside.

– I was passing in a blue spectered meadow with high grass rustling in the wind. Our dead were set on spikes like a crossroad signs pointing at the horizon filled with smoke and murmur of a Kolatons marching song. She appeared at my side like a ghost and called me by name. She asked me all sort of question, but I didn’t answered those that were about the war. I kept military secrets a secrets.

– Then what happened? – Katos listened my words with a wondering expression gazing straight at me.

– Then, we spoke some nonsense and she took me to the horizon. It was horrifying. Kolatons had an army like no other, like we fought their auxiliary the whole time, not their main army. Blade turned to dust in my hands while she fanatically laughed. I’ve seen that image thousand of times before. She just kept recreating that over and over again, making me face their advance alone. – my restless eyes now slided towards the Gen Sidak that was developing a smirk to the left side if his face.

– Let’s just hope she is not recreating the same thing to the Kolatony General and we will be fine. – Sidak said it loosely swinging in his spot where hidden giggles started lingering around the table.

– Thank you young man. – General Katos removed his gauntlet from me and bowed in a sign of respect, – There is one more thing I would like to ask of you… Go back to sleep. Go over that meadow thousand more times and find a way to destroy that army. Recreate that memory when you are awake and find us a fighting chance, because I am done watching our men impaled with spikes hanging by the road.

****

Once again the battlefield had a sense of anticipation carried in the wind that pressed against the shields in the hands of the first line. Pointy helmets stringed down the curve of the hill where a couple of riders stood out from the crowd. Their flags with gryphon emblem flew high bending from the same wind which was also moving the long spears making them accidentally graze each other. Sunny day was obviously boring out the army of young men that had no intention of looking at the glowing orb in the sky. Leather gloves squeaking on wood, gasps, occasional coughs and chater was overwhelming due the time we waited for Kolatons to show up in the other side of the field.

General Sidak removed his knight helm and with a sour face like he just bit a lemon looked across the silent infantry at his feet. General Katos just rode in passing through the lines of archers that were in our back and hastily approached the command group. His horse was half way prompting to his back feet when I grabbed the mouth straps and set him steady. Katos’s face was hidden in a long metal eagle beak with luscious wings sticking out from his ears. His depressed feeling brought the helmet’s sight down on me where a sign came out.

– Kolatons are late for their own demise. I swear by the glory of our King, those Kolatony men are irresponsible for letting us wait like this. – Sidak combed his bushy beard and swung his head about when a vociferous laughter broke under the gryphon’s head.

– Would you even know the blessed name of our King? You already speak of it too much, it would be a shame if one would not know it. – Katos stung the pompeus General Sidak which shifted in his saddle counting the giggles of the entourage he had, – A good General does not underestimate his enemy. He sizes them up before he attacks and learns from their reactions. Your tongue swings so loosely like a dog’s tale, I am afraid the King’s private hole is well lubricated. – Katos kept stinging the General who’s gauntlets rang from anger.

– Mind your words General. I am the one sitting at the King’s side… – he threatened, but laughter among the fighting men only grew stronger.

– As I said, well lubricated. – smirk exited the metal head and I bowed aside to hide my burst of sizzling laughter.

– May Ramgorians strike you all in your sleep. – Sidak spelled the words leaning over his horse, glittering in pride he had for himself, – Battle is upon us and all you want to do is laugh. – Sidak’s bald forehead fractured wrinkles above two caterpillars that were his eyebrows.

– Batlle will wait for one more day General. Our villages are burning. Kolatons have decided to strike our rear instead facing us head on in the open field. Your poor judgement brought our troops to a place where their skill is not needed. – Katos said it with a proper tease behind the helmet where Sidak’s expression rapidly flipped to horror.

– By the blessed name of our K… – he stopped at the half and looked around to see still smiling bannermen hiding their faces in royal clothes, – Set up a chain of scouts! Disperse to the east and the west! Search for the Kolatonian riding parties! Find me their leader! Light cavalry to the head of the column! Mount and ride in the name of our King! – Sidak swung his blade and rode out where troops soon picked up their weapons and rotated for a march back.

General Katos leaned down to my face when he got reassured that Sidak was dozen paces away and said:

– Don’t worry. This is not the hill we die on. It is not the one from your nightmares Ramgorian Sula has presented you with. – I imagined a satisfied smile inside the metal beak that barely touched me, but I couldn’t help the fear stinging me about this place.

****

Running through the forest with deep breaths we listened the cracking of the branches under our boots that haunted us to the tree line where a smell of burning wood slithered through to greet us. We stopped and cautiously went for a stroll with every foot forward awaiting the Kolaton attack. If it wasn’t for the metal equipment, shields and helmets, I would lose track of footmen breaching out from the thick green vegetation that surrounded us. Generals were somewhat prancing on horseback where elite riders and bannermen followed them weapons drawn, ready to be bloodied.

Muted screams echoed like whispers in a treetop where a beast with its wings spread out slided away towards the village. General Sidak waved his hand, eyes fixed to the sky, face turned pale which in a long stare appeared black and white in comparison with his long black beard.

– Dragons? – footman whispered and grinned at me, but I negated and turned toward General Katos that proudly swinged his spear above gryphon helmet he wore.

– Pegasus Royal Archers. – my baritone voice trembled complementing the anger in my eyes that shrinked because of the jammed eyebrows beneath the silver helm.

Katos slapped his horse and went out in speed, his spearhead shining in the spotted out rays of the Sun that fought the darken forest shade. Everybody went still when soldier’s cries reverberated in the wooden barred horizon and brown dirt rose up before the charge of rocky giants Kolatons tamed for war. Those huge man shaped giants wheeled simple clubs with spikes sticking out, human meat attached to it. Growl blasted from the rock made face that was molded to wrath and club fell onto a spearman that plunged and broke his spear against the boulder.

Arrows started raining where one missed me with a whistle by my ear and a dark shadow of a flying horse overpassed me high above the ground. Spontaneously the mass of our men charged the rocky men and lines of archers assembled to aim at the pegasus that circled about. Courageous archers set loose their arrows and a wave got stuck into the trees that provided cover to the sharpshooter on the sky.

– Up! Climb up! – Sidak shouted at the archers where bannermen rose their shields to protect the General.

Rocky giants pushed against the clutch of men that were smashing and slicing the rock that had no other reaction than to move more into the silver wrapped meat. Their clubs swung left and right puncturing holes in the line when dozen specialists ran to the knocked wood grown in moss and pulled out their devices. Torch gave fire to turqouise flask that flew to the air and broke against the rock wielding weapons. Our men drew back and elevated their shields before the flames that engulfed the giant and melted their feet to sand. Strong burst and unbearable heat slammed over the silver and scarred the men which cries sounded mortifying. Specialist paid no attention to it as rocky giants were almost upon us. Second wave of flasks destroyed the charge of giants and set forest ablaze. Men rushed to extinguish the flames while archers hanging from the high branches protected their backs.

Sidak yelled, commanded the forces on the ground, yanked the messengers coming and going from the village. We all moved forward, battle cries and all, blades drawn, dead left behind. Upon exiting the cool shade of the forest, a hell opened in a horizon where smoke rose in a mass never seen before. Stopped at our tracks, infantry stood  motionless and gawk at the crackling fire tongues spitting smoke, licking the blue sky that slowly sank into a red sunset.

A horse howler echoed and a pegasus rider stirred the black smoke with the wings of his beast gravitating straight at us. I could see his dead friends laying in the village streets, wounded peasants running for cover and an arrow piercing the roughed woman’s chest like a rabbit knocking her down where a whiff of dust jumped up and flew away into the ash. Another howl of a horse and the pegasus tumbled down from the sky flapping its wings around the rider that fell off. Horse slammed at my feet, spearhead dripping in blood, General Katos riding behind it all, his image shifting in an inferno’s distortion that radiated from the burning village. He looked glorious with his gryphon helmet changing colors, armor dancing under muscled legs of his steed and sharpen sword gleaming.

Royal Rider fought for breath barely holding himself above the ground he just kissed head on when a blade passed his neck and fountain of blood splashed the dirt in ribbons whenever the head would spin mids air. Rapid charge of our General didn’t stop until he got close to our lines which were dunked in cheer, growl and blade bashing metal armor. I smiled at him, at his brutal dominion over the raiding party that got annihilated just by one skilled General. Katos yanked his horse to a full stop and looked around like a happy mad dog that just slaughtered a whole chicken coop.

– I bet your precious Ramgorian Sula haven’t shown you this in your dreams. – he said absent breath and tears started shaping in my eyes.

****

Victory over the Kolatony raid that destroyed several villages was prolonged in taverns where soldiers sang all night, beer horns held high and shady women held close. Images of the General Katos riding was still in my mind, coming and going whenever the booze would overpower my vision like a wave of memories. General Sidak wasn’t entertained by a smelly lot that spat and vomited, so he left us with a bag of gold and took off with a clutch of men to search for a better way to waste his time. Katos stayed as he was one of us, one of the soldiers, a man of the people. His awkward smiles and giggles were erased with every sip from the horn and candle shadow of a waitress that was very interested in our General. We were having fun for some time until those still functional men snatched themselves a midnight treat in a dress and went upstairs leaving their companions to sleep beneath the tables.

We were entering the hour when silence lured out mice to feed on scraps that fell on the ground when Katos picked up a little furry thing and fed it with a chunk of roasted pork that got stuck on the wooden plate. Another horn sizzled with white foam that like a glue grabbed onto my moustaches and waited for the swing of a sleeve. A horn of conversation made Katos speak in a moderate tone.

– Hours are growing late. I will stand guard while you sleep. – he held a mice in his palm and looked at his precise cutting the crumbs and shoving it in its mouth.

– If you allow, I’d like to stay Milord. I don’t mind sitting here. – I said leaned over my elbows while playing with the horn’s metal cusp.

– So be it, just lose that respectful tone. We all bleed the same in battle. Sure we can share words as equal as we shared the battlefield? Don’t let the fur on my shoulders drive you away from the honest words. Generals learn the best from their men, because those men often see things we on horses don’t. You’ve seen the enemy’s rage, fire. Generals spectate from afar, admire the clash without swinging their blades. Such a fine blade hangs on Sidak’s side, it is shame not to bloody it. – he talked absent and observed the rodent in his hand which grey color changed on candle light.

– Aye Sir. It is a quality steel Sidak has… So are the Kolatony rapiers and spears that struck our men. – I twitched back and burped when Katos giggled and moved his eyes back on the tiny animal.

– You’ll be a fine General one day if you have stomach for it. Ramgorians will help you get there. Sula is a Goddess of Fear. Her guidance will make you anticipate the attacks, make you anxious. Anxiety will teach you to pay attention to details, have everything in control and react when decisions are the most needed. Don’t chase her away from your dreams. It would be a mistake many will pay with their lives. Befriend her and if needed, bed her. Ramgore knows she haven’t had a man in centuries. – he kept speaking tentative, slightly aggravated and uneasy.

– Ha, bed her. – I proned a wide smile and took another sip from horn, – I wonder what happened to Ramgores that led to their extinction?

– A war, like everybody else. They changed the battlefield by inhabiting our dreams. Nothing can hurt them there. They will live forever. They did what many Kingdoms are trying to do as we speak. They shown us that there is afterlife. We believe it that, in them like we will be granted pass to their world, but more and more I am getting convinced that there is no empty holsters that could hold me and my wrong doings. – he now swung his head about looking the sleeping men and the window where spider web stood motionless.

– You seem anxious too. May I ask why? – I broke my eyebrow in half and set a distance so I can see him sitting with a restless knee bumping the floor, – Could it be that you await for someone to come through that door? A friend? A woman?… A Kolatony Pegasus Rider? – my last question stilled him in one spot where he appeared made of stone, – Sula did thought me a few things by now. Fears often speak of future, sometimes of betrayal and Sula doesn’t portrays lies in my dreams. – my soft voice was like a Sidak’s blade piercing through his mind.

– What did she showed you? – he asked hiding his face in his shoulder where words sounded muted and threatening, but drink responded out of me.

– Man in front of the Kolatony charge uphill ran in the same way as you my General charged at the Royal Archers few hours ago. Few horns loosened me up and opened my vision where in drunken naps I’ve seen my nightmares in bright colors, same way I saw you rushing to kill the last Rider who could’ve tell your secret. You had to silence them before we silenced you. A normal spy is not bothered by a few Royal Riders that don’t know him. You are much more sir. They are Kolatony Royalty and if they know your face, that means you are one of theirs… Who are you Katos? – my attitude spoke more than words where my expression fixed on the General demanded answers and arm fell to meat knife on the table.

I squeezed the horn, got ready to stick him with it first and then pick up a knife and cut his throat. Katos pulled his head among arms, breathed out and gently set the mouse free from his grip.

– See these crumbs. Men are like that. Similar to each other even if every crumb is different by size and shape. These crumbs will not make you full, but it will feed a family of mice. Men are the same. Too small for death, too big for life. Sula thought you well, even I laid few good advices, but that is not enough to save you. She laughed in your dreams, because she knew against whom do you stand and I had no heart coming out to you. My name doesn’t matter, you don’t matter, we don’t matter and nobody matters. No one will ascend to Ramgorian after we die. – he turned tentative and I hesitated to strike him, – I told you all of the things, because I want you to live. You are far better man than those that lead this army. – he said when a torch passed the window and I knew his men came for him.

– Would you think the same when we meet on the battlefield?

– Yes, I will, but I pray to Ramgorians to not let that happen, because you saw me coming. – he said slowly getting on his feet and stepping aside the table.

– If you let me live on the battlefield, I will get my chance of killing you. – I said it with anger which have missed to catch on to the Katos’s face which stopped at the moment before shutting the door of the tavern.

– You saw me lead an army. Who leads the Kolatony Royal Army? A General, a prince or a King himself? Whoever leads that army, wouldn’t be tempted to kill his own son on the expense of victory. – he said and I froze, – You have Sula, I have Tadnir at my side.

– The God of Destiny. – I murmured eyes opened wide at a man who claimed to be a Kolatony King and claimed me his son.

– I’ve seen how this ends years before I’ve met you. I just wanted to see, does my son wants to join me. I’ll be at the place where all of this started. It is only reasonable if it also ends there. – Katos said and screeching door slammed shut behind him, then a horse howler flew along with flapping wings of Pegasus he rode on.

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Rituals by Rick Partlow

RITUALS

Rick Partlow

 

McKay was pushed into his acceleration couch as thelander rocketed away from her monolithic mothership,leaping with a lemming’s enthusiasm toward the sullen planet below.

– It’s just another Balls-In, – he repeated silently, – Just anothersimulation.

That was what he’d told himself on every Ballistic Insertion he’d experienced since he’d enlisted. It had worked, too, back when he’d been a private, green and fresh out of college. But now he was Second Lieutenant Jason McKay, commanding his own reaction squad, and that blue-green hemisphere that filled the forward view screens wasn’t Earth. He was some twenty light-years from home, above the second world out from 82 Eridani, and it was all too real.“Whatever could have possessed me” – he wondered, – “to go to Officer’s Candidate School?”

– Sir? – Sergeant Wolczk turned to him, confusion furling his Cro-Magnonesque brows.
McKay realized with a start that he must have unconsciously vocalized part of that internal question.

– Uh…I was just asking if everything was secure, Gunny. -McKay lied.

– Oh, yes, sir. -the burly Marine sergeant said with a grin,- All the troops’re strapped in and everything’s battened down.

– Good. You okay back there, Constable Mei? – McKay craned his neck around to speak to the man behind him.

Looking lost in the smallest combat armor they’d been able to find, Mei Shin Lao made an unlikely cop; but the spindly, fiftyish Laotian was the chief constable of Inferno, one of the roughest colony worlds of the Republic.

– Yes, I am quite secure, thank you. – Mei replied.

– When the guano hits the turbines, stick close to me. -McKay told him, – Don’t get me wrong, – he hastened to add, – I’m sure you can handle yourself, but Marines train to a certain attack pattern, and if you’re not in a ‘friendly’zone, they’re likely to pump you first and ID the remains later.

– I will do as you suggest, Lieutenant. Thank you for your concern.

– It’d be a good idea for you to watch where you’re moving too, Captain. – McKay told the other occupant of the command compartment who sat beside, and dwarfed by comparison, Constable Mei.

Captain Miguel Hernandez was a fair-haired Titan in the bulky, black armor of the Colonial Guard, a weighty rocket rifle wedged between his knees.

– I will go where I damn well please, McKay! – the Argentinian snapped, – And I still plan to file an official protest with the governor about this unacceptable command structure. I am your superior officer, and I should be leading this attack.

– Regulations, Captain. – McKay reminded him, visibly unimpressed with the man, – Only a Marine officer can lead Marines in a combat situation.

– Then it should be Guard troops leading the assault! -the big man smacked the plastic lining on the bulkhead with his armor-gloved fist.

– Nearest Guard troops are two days out, on Eden. -McKay said, a flush of heat travelling swiftly up the back of his neck.

– It’s only blind luck we were this close to Inferno. I assume you’d like to retake the base while some of your soldiers are still alive? – the Captain’s eyes narrowed in a look meant to seem threatening, but rendered ludicrous by the convergence of the man’s bushy blond eyebrows.- I find your tone offensive, Lieutenant.

– That’s a damn shame. – McKay grunted, feeling the checks slip off his temper.

He was millimeters from a court-martial offense when the lander’s de-orbit burn ended and free-fall rescued him.

– If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to brief my squad. – Un-strapping himself, McKay grabbed a handhold and shoved himself through the hatchway back into the troop compartment. Sergeant Wolczk scrambled to follow, moving in the null gravity with practiced ease.

– Ten-shut! -Wolczk’s voice cut through the squad’s chatter as the pair halted themselves inside the compartment.

The squad fell silent and turned in their acceleration couches to face McKay. He silently scanned the faces of the nine men and three women. Remembering their names wasn’t too difficult: they were emblazoned on the breasts of their fatigues. What was hard was attaching anything meaningful to those names. Out of the twelve,he could only put together as much as a thumbnail sketch of three.Closest to him was Corporal Ari Shamir, the quiet young Israeli who always seemed to be reading something. Next to the corporal was Shawn Dobbs, a giant of a man who McKay knew didn’t give a damn for officers in general and him in particular. Over in the corner was Joanna Corson, the skinny, Canadian private with the squeaky voice that everyone was always mimicking. He’d only been in command for four months, and almost half of that had been spent unconscious in the g-tanks. He wished he knew them better…but it was probably better that he didn’t.

– It’s about a half-hour till we hit atmosphere. – McKay announced in what he hoped was a calm, steady voice, – You know the score. Some local politician name’s Luan Shou Shin has the Asian immigrants in New Saigon stirred up about the local conditions. He’s got about a hundred of them together–mostly Pan-asian Alliance exiles from the Uprising–and they took Inferno’s Colonial Guard armory, got ahold of some heavy weapons. The local cops only have antipersonnel, riot control stuff, so they called on us to pull the CeeGee’s ass out of the fire.

– So what else is new? – somebody muttered, sotto voce.

– What kinds of heavy weapons are we talking about, sir? -Shamir asked.

– Rocket rifles, assault cannons, lots of heavy personal armor. – McKay replied, – Maybe a couple of attack vehicles. Luan and his people have combat experience,but we don’t know if they’re familiar with high-tech targeting systems. Standard tactics, though: hit ‘em hard and fast, and hit ‘em again before they know what’s happening. Take out their vehicles first, then penetrate the building. I wish we could just level the place, but we’ve got to bust out the Guard troops they’re holding.

– How’d they take the armory in the first place? – asked a skinny private with ears two sizes too big for his head.

His name was…Nichols, that was it.

– Inside help: civilians working maintenance. Theysuckered everyone in, gassed them with their ownsecurity system. The good Captain managed to escape to warn the cops and they called us…We were the closest thing available since the Bradley was refueling at the solar antimatter factory. Mei and Hernandez managed to get to the planet’s only shuttle and came up to help us coordinate the attack.

– Damn CeeGee’s were always a bunch of amateurs. -Dobbs muttered.

– At ease with that crap, Dobbs! – Wolczk snapped.

– Just stay tight and listen to Gunny and we’ll all get through this. – McKay finished, hoping he sounded convincing to them… because he sure as hell didn’t believe it himself.

* * *

Wind buffeted the bulbous lander as it descended through the upper layers of Inferno’s atmosphere, the ship’s delta wings grabbing furtively at the gradually thickening air, its heat shielding glowing with ionized fire.This was the part of a Balls-In that always made McKay sweat: the moment between the shutdown of the hydrogen-fluorine rockets and the start-up of the ramjets.“The jets won’t start!” -his mind screamed at him, “We’re all going to die!”.But the crew in the cockpit was expert; the jets sucked in air and ignited, kicking them all soundly in the pants.McKay resumed breathing and hit the intercom switch on the bulkhead beside him.

– All right, boys and girls. – he announced, – We de-ass in twelve minutes. Wait for the smoke and use your thermal sights. Everyone secure helmets and check your seals.Good luck and good hunting.

– Good hunting? – Mei repeated, cocking an eyebrow.

– Just a kind of ritual. – McKay shrugged uncomfortably,not wanting to go into how he had picked up the expression from a previous commander.

He slipped on his armored battle helmet and secured its airtight yoke.

– Oh, yes. – Mei laughed humorlessly, – A ritual. – he pulled on his borrowed helm and continued the conversation through its comlink, – All cultures have their rituals, do
they not, Lieutenant?

– I guess, – McKay muttered, wishing the man would dropit.

– And what we are about to do, – Mei continued, caressing the assault rifle strapped across his chest, – Is surely the oldest ritual of all.

* * *

New Saigon was a city in flames. It hardly seemed possible in an age of plastiform buildings; electric-powered transportation; fusion generators and beamed energy transmission; but Inferno was not Earth. Many buildings were constructed out of native wood, and many vehicles ran on methane or alcohol. Add to that mixture several dozen self-styled revolutionaries liberally tossing around firebombs the night before, stir vigorously, and voila! one family-sized bonfire. People had stampeded through the packed-dirt streets of the low, sprawling town, screaming in uncontrolled panic, leaving their possessions behind, abandoning the city to its fate and heading down the river as the flames burned high into the early hours of the morning. But that had been last night. Now the fires burned in solitude, those not lucky enough to escape the flames left as smoldering corpses in the smoking wreckage.

The living remnant in the city was gathered into two armed camps. The Exiles under Luan Shou-Shin were held up inside the Colonial Guard planetary armory, the largest building in New Saigon. Attack vehicles prowled the street without waiting for the assault they expected from the constabulary unit out of Peiping, the nearest city, whom they assumed Mei’s people had called. Mei’s constables, meanwhile, were barricaded in the local Government Center, waiting for something more potent than a handful of riot police.And on the river that bordered the city on the east, some of the more daring souls watched from the shelter of crudely built wooden rafts to see if or when the two groups would finally decide to shoot it out.

For hours, they had been disappointed: nothing had happened.Until an ear splitting sonic boom shattered every window left intact in the city.The light-grey Fleet Marine lander bled off speed as it curved back around the rain-sodden fields west of the city, then came in low and slow two streets behind the armory, belching thick clouds of dark, electro-statically charged smoke that obscured eye and electronic sensor alike. It hovered for a scant moment less than two meters above the street, vectored-thrust jets swirling the smoke around it as a rear egress hatch flew open and sixteen figures dropped into the darkness below. Its job done,the lander moved on to circle the armory, still trailing smoke, and headed west to the farmlands to touch down lightly on its VTOL jets.

Buried in gouts of impenetrable fog, the two attack vehicles on the street fired blindly and desperately, filling the air with missiles, explosive shells and laser pulses,until first one then the other exploded in an incandescent cloud of molten metal, as missiles tipped with chemical hyper-explosives found their weak spots. The two Marines responsible dropped their shoulder-fired launchers,unslung their auto-rifles, and ran to join the rest of the squad.

– Shamir. – Gunny Wolczk radioed, – Take your group and hit the rear entrance. The rest of you follow the LT and me.

Before he had finished speaking, a half-dozen Pan-Asians in CeeGee armor scrambled out of the front entrance firing rocket rifles at targets whose positions they only half-understood from their helmets’ unfamiliar optics. Dobbs and LeClerc swung around their gimbal mounted, dual-drum-fed autoguns,received the signal tones from their helmet-gun targeting links, and opened up on the revolutionaries. Their nearly-recoilless, polymer autoguns spat out a deadly barrage of alternating tungsten penetrators and hyper-explosive 12mm frag rounds, theone-two punch hammering through the thick armor and butchering the men within, turning the six defenders into scrap metal and scattered bodily parts in less than a second.

– Smoke, Peterson. – Wolczk ordered.

The PFC pulled a pair of canisters out of a belt pouch, jerked out their pins and tossed them through the big, open double doors, filling the entrance corridor with clouds of inky smoke that spread through the building as quickly as the fire had spread through the city. With the entrance cleared, Dobbs ducked inside first, followed by Wolczk, while McKay and his two guests led the remainder of the group in, leaving LeClerc to guard the rear. Confused, unarmored Exiles, running helter-skelter through the hallways, balked at the sight of the invading Marines and tried to bring up appropriated weapons – or tried to turn and run the other way, but were either blown into hamburger by Dobb’s gun or pumped with tantalum core 6mm slugs from the others’ rifles.

– Command station to the left. – Hernandez announced,running up beside McKay, his armored boots ringing on the floor like hammer blows.

– Captain. – McKay instructed, – Go with Peterson and LeClerc and secure the command station. If you can, try to grab someone alive and find out if all of your people are being held in the detention cells downstairs. That’s where we’ll be headed. Call me if you find anything.

– As you say. -the Guard officer agreed, noticeably more cooperative now that the adrenaline had begun to pump, – But I cannot promise I will be able to restrain myself with any of these vermin. – he headed off to the left, followed by the two Marines.

– He’s a wonderful guy. – Wolczk muttered to McKay over their private channel.

– Yeah. C’mon, Gunny, let’s go find those thumb-fingered CeeGees. – he switched over to Mei’s channel, – You doing okay, Constable?

– Fine, thank you. – Mei said calmly, even as he spun on his heel and put a single round into an incoming rifleman.

McKay grinned.

– I can see that you are. All right, Dobbs, take point. Casey, watch our backs.

The six men set off at a brisk trot, disdaining the nearby elevator banks for the emergency stairwell while PFC Casey covered their backs with another smoke grenade. The door to the stairwell was locked… and shortly it was nonexistent, after Dobbs let it have a top-to-bottom burst. He led the way and the others filed through behind him. Glancing at Dobbs, McKay idly entertained the thought that the man must be wearing an industrial exoskeleton under his armor. Even with what had to be forty-five kilos of gun, armor and ammo, the big man took the stairs three at a time.They reached the door to the detention level unopposed, Wolczk trying it and finding it locked. Dobbs was about to do his number on it when McKay got a transmission over his helmet comlink and put a restraining hand on the gunner’s arm.

– Wait a second. – McKay ordered, – What was that?

– This is Captain Hernandez. – the Argentinean repeated, – I have the command station secured, but your trooper Peterson is dead.

– Damn! – McKay hissed, feeling like he’d been kicked in the nuts, – Did… did you capture anyone alive?

– Not yet. But the security scanners are working. I have the detention level on the screen.It appears that all of my men are being held there, and they are heavily guarded: a dozen men, five in armor, one with an assault cannon.

– What’s the layout?

– The ones in armor are patrolling the halls; the one with the heavy gun is on your right.The seven others are in the detention control center at the left end, about fifty meters down the hall.

– Can you gas the ones in the control center? – McKay asked hopefully.

– Negative. The gas cells are dry. If you will wait, we will come down to aid you…

– No. – McKay cut him off, – I need you to coordinate with Corporal Shamir. Get ahold of him, and let him know if there’s any concentrations of enemy and where they are.Try to find Mei’s people…

– I can see them on the outside scanners already, – Hernandez interrupted, – They’re approaching the front entrance, about twenty of them.

– All right. – McKay sighed, – Contact Corporal Shamir and get them working together. We’re going to free your men. I’ll call you when the smoke clears. McKay out.

He turned back to his half-squad.

– All right, let’s do it by the numbers. The second Dobbs takes out that door, I want Casey to toss in a smoke grenade. We got a gunner on the right, four others in armor up and down the hall,plus seven regulars at the end of the corridor.Nichols, you draw the gunner’s fire, give Dobbs enough time to get in and nail him. Gunny, you and me’ll try to take out the guys on the left quick with grenades. Watch your aim though, we got CeeGees on both sides of the hall.Casey, you and Mei wait until the hall is clear, then go take the detention control center. Use gas grenades if possible, but don’t take any chances. Everybody ready?

A chorus of “Aye sir’s” answered him as Casey pulled out his last smoke grenade.McKay fed a rocket-assisted anti armor grenade into the launcher mated to the side of his autorifle, and the others followed his example.

– Okay, Dobbs, do it!

Dobbs squeezed the trigger of his weapon, lifting the muzzle from the base of the door upwards, blowing it into scattered bits of debris with a metallic roar. Casey chucked in his smoke bomb, then Nichols followed it through the doorway, rolling into a crouch in the center of a corridor lined with transparent plastiform cell doors.Clouds of smoke billowing around him, Nichols fired his grenade launcher by reflex at the first target he saw, an armored guard standing just to the right and in front of the assault gunner. The anti-armor grenade took the man at belt level and blew him in half in a deafening explosion that splattered everything within ten meters with blood and metal fragments.The Pan-Asian gunner was momentarily startled, but he was also a combat veteran. He swung around his twenty kilo weapon and fired two rounds at Nichols through the smoke. Even as the gunner was firing, Dobbs was squeezing through the stairwell door behind Nichols and more armored troops were running up from the left,taking wild shots at the incoming Marines.The gunner’s volley missed Nichols by a good meter, the rocket-assisted rounds impacting a cell door with a double-thunderclap,punctuated by the screams of the Guard soldiers within.Dobbs growled deep in his throat and hosed the gunner with a ten-round burst of 12mm that chewed up the firing mechanism of the rebel’s cannon before decapitating him.Behind Dobbs, Wolczk and McKay intercepted the advancing armored troops with a pair of rocket grenades,each of them downing a man with explosions that shook the halls. That left one armored Asian, no time for the two Marines to reload their launchers, Constable Mei not yet through the doorway, and Dobbs facing the other direction.

– Dobbs! – was all McKay had time to say as he andWolczk and the Asian revolutionary opened up with their rifles almost simultaneously.

McKay could see his shots ricocheting off the heavy armor on the man’s chest and tried to adjust upward toward the faceplate, but a stream of smoke-trails was already erupting from the Exile’s rocket rifle. All McKay could do was stare in helpless amazement as two of the 15mm, gyro-stabilized mini-rockets punched through the honeycomb boron-ceramic armor over Wolczk’s chest and blew a fist-sized hole in his back. An eyeblink later, the gunner was dismembered by along burst from Dobb’s autogun, but Jason’s horrified gaze was glued to the Gunny. His body seemed to float to the floor with impossible slowness, and through his faceplate Jason could see a look not of pain or fear but of profound confusion. Those squinting, half-alive eyes locked with McKay’s and for one uncanny moment he felt frozen in time, as if Gunny Wolczk’s death were such an unnatural thing that the universe wouldn’t allow it to occur. But then his shoulders touched the floor, breaking the spell, and Casey and Mei took off at a double-time down the corridor toward the control center, leaving McKay and Dobbs gaping in disbelief at the lifeless body of Gunnery Sergeant Van Wolczk. McKay heard someone moaning softly, like a man slowly dying, and realized that it was coming from him.“Nichols”, his brain whispered like some stranger clearing his throat for attention. “Where’s Nichols?”As if in response to his thoughts, an eddy of smoke rose from the floor to reveal PFC Arturo Nichols sprawled face-down a few meters away.

– Aw Jesus. – McKay knelt beside him and gently turned the eighteen-year-old over, but he was gone, his throat blown out by a mini-rocket, – Dobbs! – McKay ordered through clenched teeth, – Go help Casey–now!

– Yes…aye, sir. – the big man nodded slowly, tearing his gaze away from the Sergeant and turning to run down the corridor as gunshots sounded from the direction ofthe detention control center.

McKay left the two bodies and walked over to the cell door that had been shattered by the assault cannon. There were seven men inside; all dressed in the light-green duty fatigues of the Colonial Guard. Three of them were clearly dead, their uniforms shredded from the fragments both of the door and the Asian’s cannon rounds. The other four were alive, but they had seen better days. One was conscious: a slim, young east African with a broken and swollen nose and blood running from his left ear. He looked up at McKay, blinking his eyes to clear them, and tried to get to his knees, coughing from the smoke drifting down the corridor.

– Who are you? – he asked in accented English.

– Marines. – McKay told him over his helmet’s external speaker.

Offering a hand, he pulled the soldier to his feet.

– Are you okay? -he shook his head.

– I can’t hear you so good, but I want to fight them.

– Come on then. – McKay urged, waving for the man to follow.

The soldier grabbed a rocket rifle from one of the dead rebels and hefted the heavy weapon confidently. McKay glanced around him. There were dozens of other Guard troops in the other cells in the corridor, pounding soundlessly, screaming without being heard behind the soundproof doors. Without a computer key card, McKay realized, there was no way to open the cells except from the control center. Jason signaled for them to wait with an upheld hand, and they seemed to relax.

– Casey, this is McKay. – he radioed, – Sitrep.

– Control center is ours, sir. – Casey reported, – We’ve got a couple live ones. They say Luan Shou Shin’s somewhere on this level.

– Right. Stay there till you hear from Shamir. See if you can get the cell doors unlocked.

– We’ll try, sir. It may take a while… Some of the control boards were hit.

– Do your best.

– Sir. – Casey wondered, – What about Luan?

– Don’t worry. – McKay replied grimly, – I’m going to find him.McKay out.

The Lieutenant turned to his new-found ally,who appeared to be getting impatient.

– C’mon. – he motioned, – We’ve got to find… – he was interrupted by the ringing echo of a gunshot, and a shrill scream somewhere off to his right.

– Dammit! -Jason took off headlong down the corridor with the African at his heels.
Rounding a curve to the left, they saw a tall, rakishly-mustached Chinese male whom Jason recognized from the threat briefings as Luan ShouShin calmly firing a pistol into an open cell of restrainer bound Colonial Guard troops. Two were already dead,and he was lining up on a third…

– Son of a bitch! – Jason opened up with his autorifle, the deep-throated stutter of his weapon in sharp contrast with the muted cough of the young Guardsman’s rocket rifle.

The Exile leader danced backwards under the impact of half a magazine of McKay’s 6mm slugs before a pair of mini-rockets blew his skull apart like a water balloon. The African soldier, his eyes wide and wild, kept pumping round after round into the corpse until his weapon went dry. What was left of Luan by the time the rifle’s ammo drum hit empty bore little resemblance to a human being. By instinct more than anything else, McKay swept the area with his helmet sensors, but saw only more imprisoned Guard troops. Letting out a deep sigh, Jason felt a shudder run through him, all the fear and an gerand hatred welling up inside his gut, rising like gorge in his throat.It shouldn’t have happened like this. They had done everything by the book, no mistakes, but Gunny and the rest were still dead. McKay had to shake his head to dispel the memory of the experienced Gunnery Sergeant greeting his new Lieutenant, merged with the lingering image of the same man’s limp and lifeless body. Eventually, he realized that someone was speaking to him over his helmet comlink.

– …tenant McKay, are you there, sir? – it was Shamir.

– I’m here. Report. – he was surprised at how calm his voice was.

– The base is clean, sir. – Shamir’s voice told of physical and emotional exhaustion, – No resistance left anywhere if Captain Hernandez is reading the sensors correctly. -along pause, and McKay could hear him taking a deep breath, – We lost Corson and Dundee. Richards and Mitchell are wounded, but they should both pull through.

– Call the lander. – McKay ordered, fighting to keep his brain working just a little longer, – Have them contact the Bradley, send out a medical unit.Get Mei’s people to set up a temporary hospital till we can evac the wounded. Get some stretchers down to the detention level, some of the CeeGees’ll need treatment.

– Aye, sir.

– Oh, and Shamir… – McKay trailed off, his voice catching in his throat, – You’re acting Sergeant.

– Uh…yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.

Jason leaned heavily against the wall and slid slowly down to the floor. He knew he should help the young African untie the CeeGees. He knew he should gather up his men and get them to the command center… but not just now.

* * *

It was about a half an hour later before McKay, Casey and Dobbs made their way back up to the commandcenter, leaving Mei and his cops on the detention level to care for the wounded. Small fires burned in places and the corridors were filled with drifting smoke that coated the walls with soot. Bodies of rebels, and a few of local police littered the hallways, but McKay studiously avoided looking at them.As the three Marines approached the entrance to the command center, they heard the sounds of some kind of disturbance from their destination: shouts, crashing furniture, and the unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh. McKay was too drained to hurry. He just continued walking at a normal gait toward the wide, open doorway.

– Tell me! – Hernandez’s voice reached them before they came to the entrance. – Tell me where he is! – the smack of a fist into flesh echoed off the walls.

McKay came to the doorway and saw the brawny Guard Captain, sans armor, clutching a bound Vietnamese teenager by the shirtfront with one hand and slapping him with the other. Blood was already flowing from the youth’s nose and mouth, and he looked only half-conscious.

– Captain Hernandez. – McKay pulled off his helmet and tossed it and his rifle to Casey, – Just what are you doing with that Marine prisoner? – hisvoice was soft, but deadly as a loaded gun.

– McKay, you… – Hernandez spun around, but hesitated in mid-bluster.
The grim set of McKay’s jaw was enough to give even the arrogant Guard Captain pause.

– I was attempting to force the whereabouts of Luan Shou Shin from this Exile scum we captured.

– Put him down. – McKay ordered.

– I will have the truth from him. – Hernandez insisted, voice rising like a child denied a toy, – That Goddamned gook is responsible for my personal humiliation! Having to run from the city like a child…

– I said. – McKay repeated, stepping up and punching the Captain full in the face with a straight left, – Put him down!

Hernandez pitched over backward, hands going to his nose, while his prisoner slumped to his knees. The Guard Captain spat out a red blob, swearing through clenched teeth as he struggled to his feet.

– Bastard! – Hernandez started into a lunge for McKay, but Corporal Shamir appeared like a wraith, interposing his autorifle between the two officers.

– Don’t. – was all the Israeli said.

– Luan Shou Shin is dead. – McKay told Hernandez, his voice more tired than angry, – I killed him, with the help of one of your men. Remember your men, Captain? The reason we didn’t just bomb this building to rubble? The reason I just got five good people killed? I’ll tell you one thing Hernandez, it sure as hell wasn’t to save your reputation. Why don’t you go and see to your men, Captain? Why don’t you just get the hell out of my sight.

Hernandez looked as if he were about to say something,but reconsidered after a glance at Shamir’s assault rifle. Wiping a hand across his chin, the Captain turned on his heel and stomped out of the room. McKay stepped over to the other side of the command center, where the two wounded Marines lay. Richards, a hard-muscled woman with hair shorter than McKay’s and skin the color of dark chocolate leaned against the wall with half-closed eyes, her left thigh swathed in a thick field bandage. Mitchell, a wiry, pale teenager who’d joined their squad at the same time as McKay, was stretched out unconscious, an oxygen mask over his face and a soaked-through dressing taped to his right side.Jean LeClerc, bereft of both his helmet and his autogun,was leaning over Mitchell, checking his vital signs with as mall, electronic sensor.

– How is he? – McKay asked the French-Canadian.

LeClerc shrugged.

– Lost a lot of blood. Got maybe three shattered ribs, a punctured right lung. He’ll live, but he could use some attention, and soon.

McKay nodded then went over to squat beside Richards.

– How’re you doing, Private Richards?

– Feeling no pain, sir. – she said, grinning, eyes slightly out of focus, – Jean’s got me pumped with some good shit.

– Her femur’s broken. – Jean told him, – But the artery’s still intact. She’ll be fine. They’ll have it fused and she’ll be walking in a few days.

– Good. – Jason patted her on the shoulder, – You take it easy. The med techs’ll be here soon.

– McKay straightened and moved to where Shamir was leaning on the commo board,talking to the lander.

Jason sat on the edge of the panel and waited for the Corporal to finish.The young Israeli finally signed off and looked over to his Lieutenant.

– Lander says the medevac team’ll be here in five minutes, sir.

– You did a good job taking this place. – McKay told him honestly.

Shamir just nodded. His short, black hair was matted with sweat, and there were lines of exhaustion in his face.

– Sir… – he trailed off helplessly.

– What? – McKay prompted.

– I don’t understand why they did it, sir. – he said, shaking his head, – They had to know they couldn’t hold this place. Why didn’t they just hit it and fade back into the crowd? Why wait here and get slaughtered?

Jason started to answer, but hesitated. In a moment like this, did the young corporal really want to hear his college professor’s theories of terrorist tactics and symbolic martyrdom? Hell, what did that professor know about death?

– It’s just a ritual, Ari. – he sighed, – Just a ritual.

Written by Rick Partlow

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Neznani Vojvoda

Već godinama se kroz ulice Ildoka provlači priča da će izbiti rat sa Zarijom. Niko od Ildočana koje sam poznavao nije brinula ta ulična vreva, koliko je narod Zarije strahovao od užasa koji je trebao da usledi. Gomilali su vojsku iščekujući ildočke katapulte i baliste pred gradska vrata oivičena debelim peščanim zidovima. Panično su pripremali zalihe i skloništa, kovali daske preko prozora i gradili visoke tornjeve s kojih su vešti strelci čuvali pustinju od nas. Vladar Ildoka je veoma pametno dopuštao neprijatelju da se pripremi za rat, a onda bi pustio vojsku da se obruši na zidine i natovari plenom do sledećeg sukoba. Ildok je živeo od toga. „Čemu borba oko šačice žita i gutljaja vina, kada bi mnogo više dobio od pripremljenog grada?“ – bila je rečenica koja bi se iznova provlačila u birtijama i pijaci.

Jedva sam dočekao da sa Gospodarom izjašem van crnih zidova i uputim ka zlatnoj pustinji koja je delila ova dva grada. Mesecima smo patrolirali dinama, obilazili pojilišta kroz koja su prolazili karavani i otimali harač u čast Ildoka. Lagodno smo živeli gosteći se konjolavskim mesom i prevrelim mlekom kozoroga, a kad-kad bi se počastili zarijskom devicom ili ženama vodiča skrivenih svilom. Mačeve smo oštrili o kosti zraijskih vojnika i čuvara koji su nam stajali na putu. Sejali smo strah da bi žnjeli pobedu.

Jahač u lakom oklopu nam je došao jednog jutra noseći poruku uglednog Zarijskog trgovca. Glava mu je završila na koplju, ali je poruka preneta Gospodaru. Spakovali smo se i uputili na kamene lukove Zarijskih vrata. Trebalo nam je dva i po dana u punom kasu da stignemo do našeg odredišta gde smo se ulogorili uz sama vrata i plašili strane trgovce. Vitlali smo sečiva pred bradate beduine kao nevaspitana deca i slali ih nazad u vrelu pustinju. Svileni trgovci i kalfe, bunili su se ovakvoj drskosti, išli Sultanu na noge i zahtevali da nas pokolje, mada je njihov mudri vođa znao da bi tako nešto otpočelo dugo odlagani rat. Nedelju dana kasnije otvorili su izrezbarene kamene ploče ispod kojih smo do tada pišali, gde nas zlatom ukrašena garda sprovede do palate Zarijskog trgovca. Postupali smo uljudno sa Zarijancima, smeškali se i klanjali prosjacima koji nas dočekaše pljuvanjem i prezirom u očima. Pristali smo čak i da predamo oružje na kapiji, mada uvek uz šaketanje.

Dva dana od tada je bila zakazana večernja gozba povodom prošenja trgovčeve najmlađe čerke, a među zvanicama se našlo i moje ime kao pratnja Gospodaru. Moj Gospodar mi je za tu priliku podario svečanu odoru kako bih izgledao dostojanstveno pred ostalim gostima, jer nije hteo da se krećem u dronjcima koje sam do tada nosio.

– Dobro ti stoji. – prokomentarisa saborac čije su oči šetale po mom novom odelu.

– Hvala. – rekoh.

– Šteta što će se ubrzo pojaviti rupa u njemu. Onda će postati bezvredan. – reče skot, – Zašto ga ne daš meni? Tako će ostati ceo. – smeškao se sa ostalima koji su grohotom uživali u tom vojnom humoru.

Zarijska venčanja prati glas da su ogromna i dugotrajna sa dosta hrane i pića, dovoljno da prehrani brigadu vojnika. Konjolave su nam tretirali s najvećom pažnjom kao da su njihovi, a sluškinje su zaključali u pojase nevinosti, kako ih ne bi ojadili dobre udaje. Trgovac se pobrinuo i za te potrebe tako što nam je obezbedio namirisane zarijske kurve koje su nam dolazile noću i odlazile pre svitanja izbegavajući znatiželjne prolaznike.

Zakoračio sam kroz teško platno u prostranu sobu pod kupolom. Sa centra plafona su se spuštale platnene trake i preplitale sakrivajući oslikanu tavanicu. Uvezali su ih oko kamenih lukova uraslih u vinovu lozu koji su držali arhitektosko remek delo. Znam da je jedan od vojnika neukusno prokomentarisao, kako bi bilo lepo da ovde prošara užarena lopta sa katapulta. Svuda po podu su igrale senke oko razbacanih jastuka. Gospodar skrštenim nogama sede na jastuk, dok smo mi staloženo stražarili iza njega. Trbušne igračice, posmatrale su ga ispod velova na licu, krile strah i led u kostima. Nisu skidale oči sa narogušenog vučjeg krzna preko njegoveg plašta koje je simbolizovalo smrt hiljadu glava. Za ovu svečanost, gospodar je obukao pokrpljeni pločasti oklop sa elementima brnje čija se crna boja presijavala na svetlu uljanica. Hladno je posmatrao spektakl koji nam je spuštao vilice i budio seksualne porive dok su ostali vidno uživali u gostoprimstvu trgovca.

Bradati trgovac, suprotno od Gospodara, držao je svog unuka u krilu, klackao dečačića i s poštovanjem klimao glavom ka gostima. Oba njegova sina su sedela sa strane koji su takođe bili iskusni trgovci kao i on. Obrvama uperenim u našeg vođu kao da im je bilo muka od Ildočkog prisustva, blenuli su samo u njega. Nosili su plemićke čalme iako nisu pripadali plemstvu. Odeća im je delovala raskošno i imućno, sa skupim sabljama koje su im visile iznad glava kao krune, dajući im nadmenost u grupi zvanica. Jedna od ovih sablji mogla je kupiti karavan sa sve tvrdokrilnim kamilama i oružanom pratnjom. Odsjaj nejake vatre preko sanduka punih zlatnika kupao je naborana preplanula lica sinova i gubila u mrke brkove pod kojima su škrgutali zubi. Zurlaši su svirali vesele zarijske pesme u pratnji momčića sa tarabukom i fesom na glavi kraj kojih su plesačice mamile ostale zvanice.

Izbrojao sam osam mladića u krugu prostorije, i svi su bili iz stranih gradova. Prepoznao sam nošnje iz Gratnaskih polja, princa Atanava iz Matoka sa gardom, heroja Hanuma Štitoloma koji je jednim udarcem razbio glavu slonozona u jurišu i još par nepoznatih osoba. Svako od njih je nekako dobio ime i slavu, a moj gospodar je jedino bio poznat među krčmarima i kockarima. Tgrovac je načuo da se okolo vrzma nekakav vojvoda, pa je hteo da bude pošten i pruži mu jednake šanse kao i ostalima. Držao je svoju ćerku skrivenu iza velova na balkonu s kog je mogla da vidi svakog udvarača, a ona je sedela nepomično i gledala nas s visine.

Oko nas su pronosili velike poslužavnike sa mesom i voćem u koje smo uronili poput zveri. Par zvanica se veselilo, par njih je milovalo devojke koje su ih hranile, a ostali su takmičarskom mržnjom posmatrali jedan drugoga. Naš vođa je hladnog izraza lica buljio u velove balkona iako je bilo veoma neumesno zuriti u mladevestu. Radio je to mahinalno, jer je bio neuk što se tiče protokola i običaja, mada je znao za neki sram i red. Muzika se utiša, a onda trgovac rastera obnažene devojke i pregovori su mogli da počnu. Hanum je po svojoj herojskoj naravi prvi počeo da urla.

– Dajem sve što posedujem! Tvoja kćer će uživati kao kraljica, daš li je meni! – grmeo je dubokom glasom taj široko izvajani džin.

Trgovac zamišljeno pritvori oči i nakrivi glavu ka udvaraču dok je na kolenu klackao unuka čije su trepavice krišom mahale našem gospodaru.

– Svi znamo da živiš u pećini na kraju sveta. Ako tamo ode, biće jedina žena na hiljadu jutara, ali ako pođe samnom biće prava kraljica. – podizao je prst princ Atanav dok je pompezno jeo grozd.

Hanum se besno pridiže osećajući se uvređenim, a garda isuka sablje. Trgovac mahnu rukom ka obema stranama i oni se polako vratiše na svoje mesto. Njegovi sinovi, vidno uznemireni ovakvim divljaštvom, negodovali su, a naš Gospodar ni da trepne.

– Šta fali pećinama? – uvređeno se oglasi Gratnaski vlasnik najvećeg rudnika srebra dok mu se mast slivala niz prosedu bradu, – Ja Vam blagorodni kalfo nudim tri tovara srebra, najfiniju svilu moje kuće, najbrže konjolave moje ergele, najvredije robove mojih rudnika. Šta vam oko zaište, Vaše je. – duboko se klanjao bucmasti Gratnasijanac.

Starac je klackao svog unuka i namrgođeno klimao glavom razmatrajući njegovu ponudu. Okrenuo se ka sinovima, a oni lagano oboriše čalme odobravajući sve što se skotrljalo niz usta debeljka u haljinama.

– Presvetli kalfo, moje kraljevstvo Vam je na usluzi. Konijanci će dočekati vašu kćer kao rođenu sestru. Moja porodica je jedna od najstarijih među vencima Večnih planina koje nas okružuju. Savez sa nama bi koristio Zariji u odbranu protiv Bezbožnika. – ljutito se ćelavi mladić nakloni ka Gospodaru čije su zenice blještale zlobom.

Starac se trgnu, a onda se nakloni ka Konijcu, a sinovi kalfe prepadnuto se pogledaše očekujući reakciju gospodara. Svi u sobi su znali da je Konija najmnogoljudnije carstvo ovog kontinenta među kojima su živeli žilavi divovi, pa su smatrali da je ovo neka prozivka, čarka koja se ne sme dozvoliti, međutim, Ildok je ćutao. Ubrzo počeše svi da se svađaju između sebe i nude što smeju i nesmeju dok je Gospodar netremice blenuo u devojku. Nije ga pogađala buka niti leteći sudovi kojima su pokušavali da ućutkaju jedni druge dok ih je straža razdvajala. Kalfa je namršteno okretao glavu ka udvaračima dok su njegovi sinovi pomagali gardi da obuzdaju mahnitog Hanuma. Sa balkona zazvuča slatki zov zvona i gomila se stišala.

Svi su bacili pogled ka devici iza lepršavih velova svile. Njeno zvono je prekidalo nagađanje i biralo muža. Ukoliko bi se njen otac pogodio sa novim zetom, ona je morala da zazvoni i složi se sa njegovom odlukom, a ako ne bi, njen otac bi zazvonio umesto nje. To je bio običaj prošenja u Zariji.

– Oprostite mi draga gospodo. Primite moje najiskrenije izvinjenje. Jedan od Vas se nije izjasnio. Želela bih svakog da saslušam. – umilim i nežnim glasom se oglasi devojka našarana ornamentima Zarije preko lica s kog gospodarov pogled nije silazio.

Hanum zadihano stegnu pesnice spreman za boj i životinjski se okrenuo ka Gospodaru u kog svi pogledaše. Devica je pokušavala diplomatski da uveća imetak svog oca. Očekivala je tovare blaga i oružja u zamenu za njenu ruku. Drčno sam grizao poveći batak u medu i zbunjeno zverao naokolo kroz neprijatnu tišinu. Gospodar odlučno raširi ruke, a sa tavanice se obruši vod Užasnika – oružja isukanog na ljude u prostoriji.

– Nudim mir. – sablasnim tonom se oglasi gospodar u čijim očima se razbukta oganj.

Čak je i Hanum bio zatečen ovim potezom Ildoka. Bio je opkoljen najveštijim mačevaocima oko kojih su kružile legende i ubrzo svima postade jasno da dele prostoriju sa Ildočkim elitim odredom. Plemstvo Konije i Matoka kukavički potraži spas iza počasne garde dok je Gratnasijac sleđeno sedeo u bari mokraće koja mu se slivala niz jastuk. Video sam užas u njihovim očima. Strah im je oduzeo zvuk i pretvorio u mermer gde bi se na refleksni drhtaj sečivo našlo u njima. Saborac kraj mene jezivo se kikotao situaciji kojoj smo prisustvovali.

– Kakvo je ovo ponašnje?! – planu debeli trgovac, – Gosti se ovako ne ponašaju! Straža! – besno je vikao.

– Uvaženi kalfo, straža Vam je otrovana i neće doći. Moji ljudi su se postarali za to. Posmatrao sam ove trgovce i junake oko sebe, ali ni jedan nije u stanju da zaustavi rat sa Ildokom. Vojska ne poklanja, ona uzima. Mnogi su došli pomamljeni Vašim bogatstvom u želji za moć koja može da se kupi njime. Ja sam došao po Vašu kćer, bogatstvo me ne interesuje. Ako svoje darove namenjene njoj velikodušno ponude Ildoku, zaustaviće krvoproliće koje Ildok tako dugo priželjkuje. U zamenu ću ih pustiti da se vrate svojim gradovima. – govorio je Gospodar, a kalfa uplašeno potvrdi.

Ujutru smo izjahali napolje sa trgovčevom kćerkom koju smo držali ispod oštog sečiva. Nedelju dana kasnije su karavani prepuni blaga počeli da stižu pred kamena vrata Ildoka. Pojedina kraljevstva htela su da odbiju dogovor, ali su ih Zarijanci ljubazno zamolili paleći Gratnasijska polja trskokreta, harajući Matočke luke, minirajući Konijske padine sve dok se nisu složili da pomognu. Vazduh je smrdeo oporno na rat. Gradovi su pljačkali jedni druge, a Zarijski trgovac je dao dobar deo svog bogatstva da ostavimo njegovu kćer živu. Gospodar je oženio devicu u tajnosti kada se vratio u Ildok, zatim su karavani prestali da stižu na naše kapije. Kraljevstva su isplatila svoj danak i strasti su se smirile međ vladarima i gradovima. Gospodareva žena je već nosila svoje prvo dete, kada su se Ildočka vrata širom otvorila. Kralj je prvi izjahao u pustinju, a iza njega je bila armija koja je ritmično marširala napred. Rat je konačno počeo. Nekoliko dana kasnije, seo sam na obod zidina i srećno doručkovao usoljenu ribu, a ispod mene je marširala vojska, nestajući u oblaku prašine koja se topila sa daljinom.

Warlord

Pisao: Nenad Jevtić

1319 A letter for the King

Disclamer

Beloved Master,

I write to you in this stormy night because of grim event that happened today. I came onto the battlefield too late to save Ildocian army from certain death. Forgive me on my terrible writing, because I do write from the carriage. My departure from the battlefield holds no other meaning, except to warn you that Godless men have fallen. I have no reasons to stay down there, because there is not one Ildocian that draws breath. Snows have already covered their bodies, and Marauders have looted everything that could be lifted. Zarian army celebrates tonight among torches and tents, and tomorrow, the red banners will continue their march towards the black walls of our beloved city. They have cut many heads of Kotadar sons and decorated their spears with it. They place them along the road like poor slaves, while they throw their bodies on piles to burn. This morning I saw two swords stuck into the icy ground with Ildocian skull in helm placed over them. I have come across a few wounded soldiers in camp that talked me through the battle. Fearfully they plead and begged me to run as far as I could, because Zaria is on the move. I have left them to wait for painful death and continued to follow the bloody trails in the snow. Cries came from a far between the trees, while Zarian drums called for charge.  They have left us none of horse-lion to rescue our wounded and transfer the dead. The Devil has waked in them and gave them no sleep until the last… (section needed)… They steeped in blood and illusion that they became unstoppable. Massagers were intercepted by fiery arrows, and reinforcement never came.

A force came down upon us and spilled venomous fear over hart, from the wrath of Zaria, while sky turned black, out of rabid siege contraption fire. Golden banner with green outline in hands of a warlord, which name sounds not familiar, took light hard-shelled camels charge down hill into our flank and broke our army in half. Heavy infantry dripped from the forest side into our left flank, while from the top of the hill, archers rained poisonous arrows towards our charge. They strapped their horse-lions beast in broad shields and steel wire that cut through the Ildocian flesh. They came cutting limbs with sabers to those wounded that laid on the ground, and greeted those that felled back with webs and took them as slaves for gold mines and galleys. Bloodthirsty hunting horned-dog beasts were released in the wood to feast upon drifted deserters while they followed their advance with hasty horse-lions. Our valuable swords are melted into horseshoes they nailed to their horses so they can lose them in disgusting alleys, and from shields they made fences so that camels may scratch on them. In our silver decorated helms, they drop feces and then give them to slaves to eat. Winter doesn’t frighten them nor slowing them in advance, as they made a pact with Gods to defeat us. They stomped the battlefield and accede on our soil so ardently and defiant, like spiting to our face and… (section needed)…, …(section needed)…

Fear drives me to warn you about angry mob of butchers that presses towards our fields, washed with life. They march and sing along the road while war drums eco in the mountain peaks. They will not stop until a red banner doesn’t flutters around the top of your tower, and until our women and daughters end up in adipose boot merchants harems. They will treat our children worse that their horned-dogs and old folks will be tortured for entertainment… (section needed)… They come in vast numbers, and behind them, a great cloud of dust rises, even in this snow. Our villages are set a flame with broken military flags rammed in manure. They even kill fly’s in blood for coming from Ildocian lands, and cattle’s been whipped out with legs tied up, not giving them last freedom as they die. Everything that walks, fly and swim in Ildok is been awaited with a dagger, saber and spear. Only desolation and smoke stacks are left behind them, there, where houses of your loyal subje… (section needed)… dark smokes from the east… (section needed)… searching quarters in mountain caves… (section needed)… Baleful night has fallen tonight and has let me escape falcon-tures that seek sinewy meat and boiling soldier’s blood. They have scouts at every meaningful road and elite guard lurks in every bush.

I beg of you Milord, at these late hours to pray to Kotadar and fortify the city. Prepare men for the force that runs at us and house the beggars. Open your door to poor and open your treasury to merchants, because a long winter under siege awaits us. To every vassal, give a sword in hand to defend the city, and to every woman give a knife to cut hers throat should she save herself from ill destiny of living inside cheap brothel. Children, you send in other cities, forests and mountains, because they will be safer in jaws of the beasts that the hands of Zaria. Save, what can be saved, Zaria is coming.

 

With respect,

 

Your faithful servant, Lancer of First Order

Of Honoree Royal Ildocian Guard          

Ser Potos nok Dus                        

letter-for-a-king

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1278 Sons of Bitches

Disclamer

I was born in a poor Konian family on mountain edges, between sharp cliff and snowy tops, at the age when war raged among Ildok and Gratna. When I was twelve years old, my father sold me to medium Zarian merchant for a bag of Gratian silver. Just when I leaved with a caravan into the desert, father realized that merchant deceived him and instead of silver, he placed polished Ildokian iron. I enchanted gazed at hard-shelled camels and awed at spacious sandy desert through which we rode. When I got in the magnificent Zarian city, music beneath the tents awaited me, where men gathered to speak and smoke, merchants on the street and beautiful colors of silky veils which joyfully played over us on the wind. Never until now have I ever seen so many people at one place with wide smiles over tanned faces. They leaved me a brand over hand and gave me to work house chores. Among the servants were many children and old folk which probable ended up the same way I did.

– From where do you hail? – I asked one old lady which franticly grasped the broom.

– Shut it, girl, and work as commanded. – she spoke in unexplainable fear towards the master.

They rarely fed me, and master came to visit me more frequently in late hours to fornicate with me. He gently spoke all sorts of twisted fantasies into my ear, while forcibly held my face in soft pillow and furiously penetrated in my young womanhood. Son of a bitch wanted to use me until I get my first blood, because he didn’t wanted to risk pregnancy for which the Council of Whispers would make him acknowledge the child. Mistress knew what was he doing, she even saw us once by carved window while she held a little boy face between her legs. I was just another pale, dirty little girl to them, which came down from the mountain into the civilization, to whom they can treat her like a bitch. When the old Master noticed the same, they had a fight, and young merchant had to sell me. I switched masters and lived as his personal slave whom he enjoyed to torture. A month later, some bandits killed the son of a bitch because of debt, and threw his body in manure where it belongs. They threw me out on the street to take care of myself among the other beggars and thief’s where I lived from the little gold coins I could to beg for and find in muddy gutters where Zarians threw filth when sweeping the streets.

Tea maker picked me up and gave me crumbs of bread in hands as a job of waitress. His gorgeous daughter paid me some attention and turned me into a real woman when I was fourteen years of age. I started to live lighter, sweeping tables, learning how to behave in company of men, flirting with customers while dancing on their laps beside which was always my hand gliding for extra coin. One night, a fat Zarian have let him self too freely and leaned towards Masters daughter which stood as remarkable beauty, bound for a good marriage, so I opened him with a meat knife from beard to the waist. A commotion occurred, insufferable noise, because that son of a bitch was commander of cities guard battalion, disguised in a civilian robes. Master thanked me for saving his daughters honor, but I still got thirty whips over my back and eternal residence in most repulsive and horrid brothel which Zaria had.

„Son of a bitch abandoned me as soon as he saw that his job might suffer. “ – were the words running my head as I walked out from huge noble court where Sultan judged me personally.

I hated them all with fire of hundreds of Sundars, because they treated me like some horned dog drifter. They made us drink bitter tea every morning so the seed won’t stick and smoke hookah from which we would lose strength to fend ourselves. Sweaty, fat, stinky stable men and drunkards were my regulars, until a war broke with Ildok, then a young soldiers from surrounding villages which didn’t knew better came to me more and more. Months were passing silently, and a frightening amount of familiar faces had left my arms as a crowd by the tables grew in wounded boys that poured kumis over their sorrow. I sensed the morbid situation, when soldiers came to fuck me weak and don’t stand hard enough for me to please myself. Other girls complained at the same thing, although they generally had a problem with bad stench of blood and death that spread in the object. As war passed through, scared boys picked me at night out of anger they had to relief over the enemy.

– Whore! You Idocian scum! I’ll kill you all, so help me Kotadar! – a drunken soldier hit me, naked and hairy.

Cattle men liked to squeeze me by the neck, slap me around, kick me while making love. My pale face, they confused with Ildokian which decimated their ranks and burned villages in which they were brought up in. “They deserve no thing better, those ugly Zarian bastards. “ It didn’t bothered me, that rude behavior, because I went through a lot for ten years here that twelve among the Konian mountains. For the first time when one of the soldiers beaten me bloodily, I thought I would die, but my scars drew them even more in my bed. „Mistress, that sick bitch, only cared for profit and nothing else. “

I even tried to understand them, in urge of wrath, and even more got interested in commotion outside of the city walls. Ildok was taking everything it could over their trip towards Zaria, and what it couldn’t pick, it have left in flames. Caravans of my people were equally butchered, because Konia cooperated with rich Zaria. People inside the walls came more restless, falling into despair, because the war was coming to knock on their doors like lava, slithering from the cliffs of Ildokian volcano towards azure coast. Zarians snatched food on the streets, ran to shelters to hide from war. Criminal rate spiked and thief’s got their fortune over greedy civilians which fought each other for a place in shelter. A month later, they closed heavy stone gates and mobilized all of the guards in state of readiness. This week brought us scant profit; even the drunkards went home sober where fat wives and noisy children waited for them.

I laughed in full lungs and almost choked with a grape, when one of the inflamed balls fell on a palace of my former Master and blew it in smithereens. At the eleventh night, Ildocians came through the city and started terrorizing the streets. There was no tent, house, villa nor a palace in which the bloody blade didn’t go through, slicing everything that moved inside. They burned the shelters, left wild beasts in them to crawl in tight spaces where knights couldn’t go through. They siege the Sultans palace with great siege towers with rough edges which were possessed with skillful swordsmen. They destroyed the city with passion in anger which I haven’t seen before. I hated sons of bitches, but not as much as Ildocians. They killed men without mercy, and raped their misses and daughters, leaving them on cold floors to bare their bastards in their wombs. Those young beauties, they snatched and took them as slaves to finish up in perfumed brothels and prestige villas of warlords that led the armies. Every whore from these obnoxious houses they treated differently from other Zarians. They paid us deepest respect and gave us valuables they took from civilians. When they stormed the palace and stole everything, they have left the city as fast as they could, like they feared the counter attack. They have left Zaria in black smokes that could be seen from the smallest peaks of Konian Kingdom. All of whores, they took with them into the stone made city of Ildok at the other end of continent and there, they welcomed us as heroes.

– We are so lucky, the war started. – huge smile decorated my friend while flower petals fell over her face, dropped from the highest balconies in tight queried streets.

– By Kotadar, we are… Just not need to see those sons of bitches again. – I commented while observing dreadfully dark city where were less than few colors.

They placed me and my friends in giant tent where we have continued to perform our duties, just strictly among soldiers. Tree nights, one of the same young man have visited me and slept. There were no hookah and anti-pregnancy herb teas which we took regularly, but instead there were big amounts of various food and women that took care of us like we were some Mistresses, shrouded in veils of silk. I felt pleasant and content because I was saved by Ildocians from those sons of bitches. I was noxious of all the suffering I had to grow trough into a woman. I was disgusted by sweaty and fat Zarian, and their twisted sexual fantasies, and the most, that deceiving kindness beneath monsters hide. I can only think of ill about Zaria, and about Zarians, nothing more than shits that are bound to be exterminated. I am glad they left it in flames, may Kotadar take note and leave it like that forever.

Little piece of joy entered my life when my belly started growing. All of the women in the tent rejoiced to the children, and one day I have heard why we are here. Sons of bitches have cunningly hid their true intentions from us. I figured; that from birth, Ildocians train army they used to conquer cities and that there is twenty year rotation between the cities. They needed us to bring them bastards, half-breed, sons of bitches to train and send to war. From our children they made, warriors, murderers, savages alike those that burned Zaria, and smokes, they were warning to Konia, that she is next in next twenty years.

sons-of-bitches

1977 Mrak

Već mesec dana sam čekao novi zadatak u jednom hotelu, izgrađenom u prošlom veku. Većina matočkih hotela je izgledalo ovako sem desetinu onih koji su veoma dobro zarađivali od velikog priliva turista tokom sezone. Grad Matok je bio pogodan za razvoj turizma i imao je najveću trgovačku luku od koje su obilato punili budžet poslujući s ostalim gradovima. Napadali su i branili se ekonomijom i bili su veoma uspešni u tome. Kad bi se Ildok spustio ovde, matočani bi ih dočekali kao oslobodioce i počeli da trguju sa njima. Tek posle nekoliko godina bi dominacija Ildočana opala kad bi se sposobniji matočanin našao da posluje u njihovu korist. Istiskivali su ih postepeno iz svih polja privrede sve dok nebi mirnim putem i poslednjeg Ildočanina prognali odavde. Ildoku bi na kraju postalo veoma skupo i zahtevno da svoje garnizone čuva ovde pa bi i njih vratili među drevne crne zidine grada. Ildočani, Konijci, Zarijci i ostali su ovde bili ravnopravni, svakom su ukazivali poštovanje do god je imao para da plati za usluge. Oko mene su se stalno bunili, jer nisam ličio na nikog od njih. Svojoj crnoj puti sam mogao da zahvalim vojvodama iz dalekih zemlja koji su ovde došli sa tirkiznim barjacima i osvojili Ildok pre nekoliko vekova. Danas sam za njih stranac, izgnanik, neko ko ne pripada nigde i đavolski dobar atentator.

Čistio sam svoj pulsni snajper stare generacije i gledao zastareli holo-emitor koji je jedva jedan kanal projektovao, i to je baš morao da bude onaj politički. Navukao sam žaluzine i pogasio svetla sem tog na stočiću. Nije mi trebalo svetlo, dobro sam znao svoje oružje da sam i u snu mogao da ga čistim. Emisija je počela tonom koji nikako nisam mogao da kontrolišem daljinskim ma šta god pritisnuo na njemu. Pojavio se jedan vojni komentator za kog su svi znali na kontinentu. Provokativno obučena voditeljka je stalno pridržavala slušalicu u kojoj su joj pričali šta da kaže, valjda nisu mogli da dopuste da ona vodi interviju, strahujući da će samo lupati gluposti. Na drugoj strani je sedeo taj bucmasti bledi, narogušeni čovečuljak odveć pijan jedva držao oči otvorene i slušao njena besmislena pitanja.

– Gospodine Kerion. Za Vas važi da ste veliki pobornik mira. Konstantno govorite kako je rat sa Zarijom i Ildokom bio greška stoleća. U Vašoj knjizi takođe citirate velike vođe Ildoka i stalno ih blatite gde ste ih jednom prilikom nazvali „Gomilom zaostale naduvane nedonoščadi“, a pri tom je i Vaše poreklo iz Ildoka. Možete li da nam pojasnite taj Vaš stav? – seckala je voditeljka u pocepanom signalu holograma.

– Naravno, lutko. Vidi, ja… nikad pulsnu pušku nisam u ruke uzeo, a govorim stvari protiv nje. Ha, ha, ha, znam zvuči smešno, je l’ da, ali moj stav se zasniva, ne iz gluposti kako je jedan general rekao, da ga ne spominjemo ovom prilikom, nego na osnovu iskustava i istorije koja je zapisana. Čovek nikad ne mora da bude bolestan, a jednim pogledom na nekog zaraženim kugom će znati da treba da ga se kloni, je l’ da? E, to je moj stav. – odgovori čovek navaljen u stolicu dok je gestikulirao šakom.

– Da, u redu. Niste mi odgovorili po čemu mislite da su ti međusobni sukobi loša stvar? Setimo se da je većina njih inspirisana osvetom koja datira iz davnih vremena. Ildok je nekoliko puta opustošio Zariju i Zarija je u nekoliko navrata činila genocide nad Ildočanima. Vi stojite iza toga da su to sve greške i uzaludna dela? – nastavi istim tonom voditeljka kojoj je malo falilo da ispadnu sise i vidi međunožje.

– Kako da ne, kako da ne. To je uvek loše, ali i dobra stvar. Svako ko reši da digne pušku na nekog drugog, zaslužuje da se protiv njega digne ta ista. Ja verujem da samo čovek koji je neuk, glup i totalni idiot, može da bude sposoban za tako nešto. Pametan čovek, dušo, stane i razmisli pre nego što krene sa agresijom na nedužni narod. Svim tim vojnicima su pune glave: Kako je čast dati život za Domovinu, kako, Kako je vojnik hrabar i gleda smrt u oči svaki dan kad se probudi. Dajte molim Vas. To su čiste budalaštine. Današnji ratovi su postali biznis da se pripitomi konkurencija ili stvore uslovi za novu generaciju naoružanja. Ne bi me čudilo da se u današnje vreme gradovi dogovaraju kad je dobro vreme da izbije rat. Ako jedna od tih strana ne vidi očiglednu korist od sukoba, oni neće pristati na provokacije. Sve je postalo transparantno, šteta što to obični civili ne vide kako treba, jer ih drže u mraku. – objasnio je gost uplićući jezikom zbog čeka mi je delovao po malo smešno.

– Da, verujem da se dosta naših gledalaca ne bi složilo sa Vama, jer je narod dosta propatio u svim tim ratovima i okupacijama. Ko je po Vama najviše kriv za takvo generalno mišljenje u narodu? Koga bi ste Vi držali odgovornim za ove ratove? – nastavi voditeljka ženstvenim glasom dok se nameštala u stolici krsteći noge.

– Pa… mnogo je njih. Evo, na primer, Zarijske trgovce. Zašto? Pa, kad god im se nakupe sirovine ili im zatrebaju sirovine, a one su skupe, oni u taj rejon zarate da obore ekonomiju i stvore crno tržište, a Ildočani žive iznajmljujući svoju vojsku gde god ima novca. Političari su samo glasnici, obični čobani koji kontrolišu ovce dok im gazda sedi u hladovini i zarađuje prodajući: vunu, mleko, sir, meso, kožu, kobasice, odeću od vune. To je sve postalo veoma jasno onome ko zna gde da gleda i šta da pita. Ildočani su na celom kontinentu najgluplju, jer je kod njih najviše oružja, to pametan čovek ne može da drži toliko dugo, a za njima je Zarija, jer oni nasedaju na svaku provokaciju koju im Ildok uputi. Matočani su najveća govna, jer od svakog sukoba oni najveću zaradu vide poslujući sa obe zaraćene strane. Sve se to obavlja u mraku, verujte mi. Jednima daju rude gvožđa iz Konije po jeftinoj ceni da prave tenkotopove i blastere, dok drugima prodaju medicinski materijal i ispomoć u hrani. A ovi Konijci i Gratnajci, oni su Vam, lepotice, maloumni pilići koji se uvek nađu između dve vatre i spuštaju standarde, a setite se da su se često ta dva grada pripajala ratovima iz sopstvene koristi. Prateći sve što sam do sada rekao, složićete se, Ildok je rak ovog kontinenta, jer odatle sve polazi, pa i sam grad im je skoro potpuno crn kao mrak, molim Vas. Kakav god rat bio, Ildočana čete naći na obe strane. To je teška gamad i treba ih pobiti sve do jednog bez milosti. – već je ljutitim tonom počeo da objašnjava čovek.

– Znači, Vi mrzite Ildok? Ceo Vaš stav je skoncentrisan na Ildok? – glupavo upita voditeljka.

– I Zarija. Nemojte zaboraviti na nju. Svakog zarijskog trgovca i Matočkog treba postrojiti i ubiti. Neko ko bar malo razume moj stav, videće o čemu pričam. Svi viđeniji ljudi u Zariji moraju biti mrtvi. Ali apsolutno svi. Njih će brzo zameniti neki drugi ljudi, i njih treba ubiti takođe. Mi se jednostavno nećemo otarasiti rata. Rat je naš neprijatelj i protiv njega se treba boriti, protiv uzročnika i huškaša, a ne da narod bije u narod. To je moj stav i o tome ja pripovedam, lepotice. Nemam ja ništa protiv normalnih Zarijanca i Ildočana, ali one sa vlašću i parama treba ubiti. – pojašnjavao je čovek dok je voditeljka pozirala pred kamerama.

– Imate zanimljiv pogled na svet. Hvala Vam što ste gostovali u našoj emisiji i želim Vam puno uspeha u daljem radu… – govorila je devojka.

– Nema na čemu, srce. Za tebe sam uvek tu. – odmahnuo je bucko raskalašno rukom.

– I za kraj. Imate li šta da poručite našim vernim gledaocima? – dodade voditeljka sa širokim usiljenim osmehom, kad se čovek uozbilji i navali na kolena gde je direktno pogledao u kameru.

– Pišem novu knjigu u kojoj ću pojasniti ko je odgovoran za sve ove ratove, znate, da se čuje u kog narod treba da upire prste na sledećim izborima. Predviđeni rok za izdavanje je godinu dana, a može se naći i na I-linku gde možete preuzeti svoj primerak. Držite se ljudi, narod će pobediti.

Ovim završnim rečima je holo-emitor utihnuo u šuštavom statusu ispresecanih linija. Nedelju dana kasnije sam u baru dobio dva pisma sa sledećim metama za odstrel. Povukao sam se natrag u sobu i otvorio ih pošto sam prethodno proverio da nisu minirana nekim smrtonosnim mehanizmom. Počeo sam naglas da se smejem ironiji. U oba pisma je bila slika čuvenog vojnog komentatora Keriona, čak je to bila ista slika samo u dva različita pisma. Obe koverte su stigle u isto vreme, ali sa različitih stana. Jedna je bila od Ildočana, a druga od Zarijanaca. Kerion je bio u pravu. Neko je rukovodio obema stranama i koristio ih kao ovce za sopstvenu dobit. Jebeno genijalno.

Dve nedelje kasnije sam se ukrcao na poslednji brod za Petros, jer je ceo kontinent bio u zatvaranju. Keriona je progutao mrak kad sam mu napravio krater u grudima i nestao kao duh ostavivši Ildok i Zariju da se prepiru ko ga je ubio. Ildok je kao i uvek napadao Zarijance da su uklonili Ildočanina, jer su ga mrzeli, dok su Zarijanci osuđivali Ildok da je saseko jednog od svojih kako se istina nebi pročula u njegovoj knjizi. Jedno je ostalo sigurno, Matočani će se u okrilju mraka obogatiti prodajući sirovine obema stranama.

Mrak

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