THE WRATH OF CONN [Ep 10]


#1

“Why does it seem we’re only all together these days when we have movie night?”
-Fara Somers.

“Hells no. I did not shed blood on the soil of damn near every dimension in the Core and watch the better number of my friends, family and countrymen die horribly at the hands of the Dark Gods so you could force me to watch that thrice-damned Bertha Javelins rom-com.”
-Eleod Vrinnicus.

“This is delicious. Why are so many people violently opposed to the idea of pineapple pizza?”
-Biminberrick the Griffin Hand

“… how does he eat??.. WITH NO ORIFICES???”
-Osprey.


#2

When Fara had first moved down to Albrook for school, she had to work out a schedule with Roxanne. Her combat training couldn’t suffer just because she was now pursuing a post-secondary education; she knew that, nevermind the number of times Roxanne felt the need to remind her by impressing upon her the importance of her destiny as this era’s Mana Knight. But for Fara, the schedule was actually about more than just training with Roxanne. It was about making sure that she was able to spend time with her friends; that she didn’t lose the important connections she’d made.

Fara didn’t have very many close friends when she left Egmont; or, if she did, she couldn’t share with and relate to them the way she could with her small, close-knit circle: Roxanne, Terry and Osprey. These, she knew, were important friendships for her: and so, the time she allotted to being off-campus and hanging with them was just as important, if not moreso, as her obligations as the Mana Knight.

So movie night became A Thing. Fara and her friends strived to make it A Weekly Thing, but all too often something would come up that made this unworkable. It seemed like, ever since spring break, more and more somethings were “coming up” and getting in the way of a proper movie night with the whole gang. More than just movie night, though: the team’s “extracurricular activities” (a euphemism Fara found appropriate for describing their various heroics in and around Albrook [and beyond!]) had often involved small subsets of the team rather than the whole team together. First there was the airship cruise during spring break: that was just Fara, Denise and Terry (and dumb old Terry forgot to bring his super suit!). Then Terry, Osprey and Kamiko dealt with the whole Prism-Man incident (which Fara was actually sorry to have missed, as she had a few ideas for how she could have used the Mana Sword to fight Prism-Man’s solid-light constructs), and then Osprey and Roxanne (and a number of other characters) went off to shut down some droid slavers.

Fara had to stop and think: when was the last time the whole gang was together on something?.. She took a sobering pause as she remembered when it was: it was when they all went off to get their asses handed to them by Marcus. She shuddered at that thought… having a memory of everyone here for movie night was definitely preferable.

Over time, the ranks of “the gang” for movie night had expanded. Osprey usually insisted that Kamiko be invited over (ostensibly because he knew he could rely on her to back his movie picks, but Fara thought the ex-spy’s crush on the daughter of Eblanese nobility was sort of cute), and Terry spent so much time with Violante that having her around on a movie night happened pretty organically. Roxanne always extended a courtesy invitation to her neighbors, Eleod and Grilka – something that Fara felt conflicted about (on the one hand, Eleod was an extremely unpleasant person to be around… on the other, Grilka always brought baked goods). And then there were the new houseguests: the griffin hand, Biminberrick, and the “robot butler” that Osprey had brought back, Butlesworth (a name which Fara was amused by the first few times, but now she’d really wished she’d been part of the whole “droid slaver” mission so she could have stopped that name from being implemented).

“So there it was,” Osprey said, recounting (again) the story of the fight against the droid slavers. “Captain Svensgaard and Klyde were pinned down by this Western gunslinger, both shot and wounded, and the Captain’s first officer was unconscious. … All seemed hopeless. But THAT is when Roxanne and I showed up, after I beat the everloving crap out of the Triad enforcer, and Roxanne mopped the floor with the giant monkey-warrior…”

Roxanne scowled. “That is NOT how it happened,” Roxanne said. “Lagothrix of the Knifesong and I fought to a stalemate. He was a most formidable warrior and you will not dare besmirch him in your retelling of our fantastic heroics.”

Osprey cleared his throat. “Yes. Okay, fine. She fought the giant monkey-warrior to a stalemate…”

Roxanne nodded her approval. She allowed herself a smile and a sigh of affection as she thought, again, of Lagothrix.

Osprey continued his story: "… So we showed up. And the gunslinger was like: ‘Oh look, more Guardians.’ And she starts shooting at Roxanne. And, I swear to all the Gods, this was one of the most badassedly awesome things anyone has ever done in the history of things: Roxanne doesn’t even flinch. She stands there, and she brings up her arms and she DEFLECTS the bullets off of these shiny metal bracers that Klyde gave her. SHE DEFLECTS THEM!!! And she KEEPS deflecting them, over and over, the gunslinger must have unloaded fifty rounds at Roxanne, but not ONE of them so much as grazed her. And she does this, and she looks at the gunslinger, all stone-cold and badass-like, and says: ‘I am not Guardian. I am Roxanne North-Star!’ And we charge and the gunslinger’s all ‘Aaaah!’ and she runs off, and she’s about to take Butlesworth with her… but then Zendir shows up and snatches Butlesworth away with a big, shadowy tentacle-monster thing.

“And we’re all like ‘Ha ha! You failed! You didn’t get what you came here for!’ And she gets on a jetbike and speeds off, and we chase her in the van, but then we crash and Violante has to come and pick us up… But, really, the important and most badass part of that story, was Roxanne and her bullet-deflecting moves!”

As Osprey told his story, Fara noted, briefly, that Terry and Violante were sitting pretty close to each other on the couch. Like, really close. … Could they be…?

“So THAT was the important part, was it?” Eleod broke in, his brows furrowed down over his subtly-glowing yellow eyes, and his thick arms folded across his barrel-chest.

“Hell yes it was!” Bim asserted. “Gosh, I wish I could’ve been there!”

“Yeah you do,” Osprey said, nodding approvingly at Bim. “Up top!”

Osprey held out his hand, and Bim gracefully leapt up into the air and flipped to “high five” himself against Osprey’s outstretched palm.

Eleod grunted, his ashen-gray face set into a sneer. “What about the part where you willingly collaborated with an agent of the Dark Gods… and then, when all was set and done, you LET HIM GO FREE??”

Osprey blinked. “I mean… Zendir didn’t do us wrong, Eleod. If we hadn’t agreed to work with him, that gunslinger might have gotten away with Butlesworth and brought him to the Master.”

“I am surrounded by idiot children,” Eleod said, as he uttered an incredibly obscene Dwarven oath under his breath. He leaned forward in his seat, piercing Osprey with his gaze, and pointed a single, lecturing finger in Osprey’s direction. “You weren’t around for the Great War, kid. You don’t know what a Graulemn really is, because if you did I don’t think you’d be quite so cavalier about having let one escape.”

“For your information,” Roxanne interrupted, “Osprey and I do know what a Graulemn is. This Graulemn, in particular, nearly killed us both. And it was my call to accept Zendir’s help and then to let him go so we could chase down the gunslinger.”

“Oh was it now?” Eleod said. “And this ‘gunslinger’ was such a prize that you could afford to let a fucking GRAULEMN slip through your damn fingers?”

“She was an agent of the Master,” Roxanne said.

“Was she? And you’re basing that on, what, something a priest of the LORD OF LIES told you!?”

“If I may interject.”

The voice was Butlesworth’s; it was calm and level, emotionless but still, somehow, warm and friendly and polite. All eyes turned to the robot, who was standing far off to the side of the assembled group of friends.

“I do not know what a ‘graulemn’ is, nor do I know who this ‘gunslinger’ was, nor do I have memories that date back far enough for me to hold much in the way of an informed opinion about anything that any of you all seem to be so passionately arguing about. But here, if you’ll permit me, is what I do know: I know that the faces of Master Osprey and Mistress Roxanne are two of my very first memories. With them, I associate feeling happy, and safe, and cared for. I know that, in the time since I was activated, I’ve come to understand that I was to be sold as property at the event in question. I know that this ‘gunslinger’ had meant to, in the best of all possible scenarios, force me into labor as a slave. Or perhaps strip me down for parts. My life as I know it now would not be, if it had not been for Mistress Roxanne and the choices she made during said conflict. For that reason, I know that I do not know enough to question Mistress Roxanne’s choices that lead to my being here with you all tonight. Because without those choices, I simply might not be at all.”

Eleod sneered. “That’s very touching… But my memories include watching a Graulemn reach out with a spell and rip the blood straight out of a man’s skin, seeing a Gingrim impale a man on a conjured spear made from the bones of fallen GA soldiers, and looking on in horror as a Baneling reached out through shadows and severed a man’s life thread with half as much effort as it takes to blink. You made the wrong call, Valkyrie. You chased down a common criminal to recover a bit of stolen Guardian tech, and allowed a powerful agent of purest evil to walk free.”

Grilka looked at Roxanne apologetically. As an awkward silence settled over the room, she rested a hand on her husband’s arm and stood up. “Looks like my basket of treats could use a refill,” she said pleasantly. “I’ll go see what I can scrape together quickly before the movie starts.”

Eleod rolled his eyes. “Grilka…”

The dwarf woman ignored Eleod as she stood and made for the door. Eleod hefted himself out of his seat and followed after her.

“Grilka,” Eleod repeated, catching her just outside the door to Roxanne’s apartment.

“Don’t,” Grilka said. She pursed her lips and turned to face her husband, consciously lowering her voice as she spoke. “I’m not going to make a scene in front of the others. But Gods damn it all, Eleod… you are sometimes the most impossible of men.”

Eleod’s eyes widened in anger, but Grilka cut him off: “Don’t you dare start in on me now, Eleod Vrinnicus. These are some of the only people we’re friendly with here… The time we spend with Roxanne and her guests is some of the only socializing either of us get to do. And what do you do when we’re invited over? You sit there like a salty old cuss and you insult everyone.”

“Did you not hear the story? They had a Graulemn and --”

“THE GREAT WAR IS OVER, ELEOD!” Grilka was surprised at herself; she’d just snapped, without meaning to, and was much louder than she’d intended. She composed herself, cleared her throat. “I’m sorry, my love,” she said. “But it is. The war ended quite some time ago. I know this is not news to you. But sometimes, you do not act like you know.”

Eleod grumbled. “Don’t patronize me, Grilka.” His tone was not combative; it was apologetic, almost… imploring.

“You’re lucky I am such a fine baker,” Grilka said. “But let’s not test to see the limits of the diplomatic power of my cookies. I want you to go back inside and play nice with Roxanne and her friends. I will be back soon. … And you and I will talk again before the night is over.”

Eleod reached out and took Grilka’s hand as she was turning away. As old as these two dwarves were, as many hard times as they’d seen, Grilka’s hands were still soft to the touch.

“I’m sorry,” Eleod said. “I’ll… play nice.”

“Good,” Grilka said. Eleod did not let her hand go.

“I love you, Gril,” Eleod said. “I am the way I am, and all these years you haven’t been able to fix me… but I do love you.”

Grilka smiled. “My father did warn me about you,” she said.

“… so you keep telling me,” Eleod said, returning the smile.

“Go on, inside now,” Grilka said, pulling away her hand and scurrying off toward the couple’s apartment.

Eleod exhaled. He straightened his shirt, and turned to go back inside Roxanne’s apartment. As he rounded the corner back into the living room, all eyes were on him. Fara, Roxanne, Osprey, Bim (one assumes, since he didn’t actually have eyes), Terry, Kamiko, Violante… the damn robot Butlesworth, and, hells, maybe even the polterchairs, too.

Eleod forced a smile and clapped his hands. “Well. Come on! Let’s use this little cookie-baking break to decide what stupid movie we’re all going to watch together this week!”


#3

::Rizett Interdimensional Aerospaceport, Albrook::

Amid the bustle of arriving and departing flights, in the crush of the crowd that choked the walkways and corridors of this, one of the largest commerical travel hubs of the Web of Worlds, there walked a very, very important man who was trying very, very hard not to be noticed.

He wore plain clothes, an untucked button-down gray shirt, well-worn blue jeans and a gray coat. A simple black baseball cap covered his head of silver hair, and a pair of (expensive designer) sunglasses shielded his well-known blue eyes. The important man was tall, as humans went – though there were members of other species here at the aerospaceport who were far taller (and far broader).

He had just debarked a 20-hour airplane flight from New Kasuto, and was dog-tired. But he had something to do, one call to make, one last connection to see to, before heading elsewhere.

The important man thought he caught someone looking at him. He was trained to avoid being looked at, to keep from being noticed in a crowd: he ducked and weaved aside. His relatively recent notoreity and fame had made it harder for him to use some of the skills that had helped to make his career what it was… but he would never let it be said that he did not thrive on a good challenge.

He slipped in with a bustling line of people heading toward the baggage carousels, then slipped away and doubled back. He found himself, eventually, after a long series of feints and other maneuverings, in a long side-corridor where payphones lined the walls.

He couldn’t help but smile to himself as he considered the irony: in places of privelege in the modern Web, sapients were walking around with advanced telecommunications devices in their pockets. And here he was avoiding using his own handheld device because retro-tech afforded him greater security.

Approaching one of the lonely wall-mounted phones, he slipped a geld coin into the slot and began to dial. It was a local number; it was a number he had memorized; it was a number that belonged to a man that was the entire reason for his being in Albrook.

“Hello?” the voice on the other end of the line was female; not unexpected. He knew Eleod was married, after all.

“Oh, hello, miss,” the important man said, turning to look over his shoulder. “I’m sorry to call so late, but I’m a friend of Eleod’s. Is he around, by any chance?..”

The woman on the other end of the line sighed. “He’s over at the neighbor’s, Gods bless him. Might be time to pull him away from that lot, though. I can go and get him, if you like?..”

The important man laughed his charming laugh. “No, that won’t be necessary. I know better than to pull Eleod away when he’s having a good time.”

The woman on the other end of the line laughed. “That’s why I think it might be time he came home; he may be having a good time, I’m not so sure how the neighbors are faring…”

“All the same,” the important man said, “Please don’t pull him away. Just, when you have a chance, tell him I have his paint brush. Would you do that for me?”

The woman paused. When she spoke again, she seemed puzzled. “Yes… yes I will… Who’s calling again?..”

The important man hung up the phone. Checking his surroundings, he quickly blended with the crowd and carefully made his way out of the aerospaceport.


#4

::Roxanne’s Apartment::

Roxanne placed her hands on her hips and glowered at Osprey. “Absolutely not. We are not watching Blades of Fury again.”

“It’s Akesawa’s magnum opus,” Osprey said. He looked to Kamiko, and she nodded in support.

“I’ve come around on this one. While I originally thought Blades of Fury was too slow, I’ve since come to realize --”

“I don’t care,” Roxanne said. “Tonight was supposed to be my choice, since this is my apartment and my gigantic flatscreen high-definition TV. And I want to watch Space Battles.”

“Actually, I believe it was supposed to be my choice tonight…” Osprey suggested, forcefully.

“Os, I think it was Roxanne’s night,” Terry said. “I mean… I don’t even remember the last time she got to pick the movie.”

Osprey frowned. “… But. Space Battles?..”

“Yes,” Roxanne said, “Space Battles. An optimistic vision of a future ruled by science and the better nature of humanoids. Relating modern Web-wide events through allegorical proxies… In space.”

“Honestly, it’s kind of an outside-the-box choice for a Valkyrie,” Fara pointed out. “The entire premise is that the people of the Web set aside their lust for warfare and begin to work together toward peace and the common good.”

“Oh please,” Osprey said, “Roxanne’s a total Moldenberry nerd, that’s no secret.” He looked to Roxanne. “Please don’t make us watch Space Battles. The special effects are so cheesey… I mean, it was made in the 20s, before space travel was really a thing, before the revolution in CGI effects. That one lizard guy’s head is totally fake.”

“Which is… kinda puzzling,” Violante said. “I mean, there are several different reptilian humanoid races out there that could have been cast to play the lizard guy…”

“First of all,” Roxanne said, “That ‘one lizard guy’ is Lieutenant Commander Yithiron. And while he was originally played by a human in makeup in Space Battles 1, he was re-cast for Space Battles 2 and has been played ever since by noted lizalfos actor Ben Bhallzig. Second of all, Moldenberry’s production house has been on the cutting edge of CGI effects ever since the TV series ‘Space Battles: The New Order’ aired. Third of all, you better get ready to swallow a truckload of that good old fashioned Moldenberry cheese, Osprey… because we are marathonning Space Battles 2 and 3 tonight.”

“… but I’m lactose intolerant,” Osprey protested, meekly.

Eleod, eager to show some form of comaraderie with the rest of the group (even though he had no idea what was currently being talked about), chimed in: “Well, I generally think movies are a waste of time, and personally hate James Moldenberry because I read on the OmniNet that his great grandfather was an evil Gingrim who sacrificed three hundred virgins to Thanatos to secure his family’s success and prosperity, but Roxanne should have her choice of stupid movie to watch so I agree with her.”

Everyone turned and stared at Eleod. No one quite knew what to say. Except for Bim.

“Points for effort?” said the griffin hand.

At this point, Grilka returned with another basket, this time filled with muffins.

“Sorry that took a while,” Grilka said, as she set the muffins down on the coffee table. “Did we decide what to watch?”

Osprey reached out and held his hand out over the muffins. He picked one up out of the basket and held it in his hand. “These are warm… you were only gone ten minutes!”

Grilka smiled and shrugged. “I know, I’m sorry. I would have been back sooner but… it was the strangest thing, Eleod. There was a call that came in for you.”

“Was there?” Eleod said. “Who was it?.. Probably a damn telemarketer.”

“No, I don’t think so… they didn’t say who they were, but they said something about a paint brush.”

Eleod’s eyes widened. “A what, now?”

“The man hung up before he said who he was, but he wanted me to tell you he had your paint brush. It was just the oddest thing. I’d have been back sooner if not for that call.”

“You baked these muffins, and a disconnected call kept you from getting back even sooner?..” Osprey was doing the math in his head. This was going to bother him even more than trying to figure out Biminberrick’s basic body functions.

Eleod stood. “Sorry about this, people,” Eleod said, “You’d best start the movie without me… I’m going to go see if I can return that phone call.”

Grilka frowned. “He didn’t leave his name, dear. Come, stay for the movie --”

“No no, it’s fine,” Eleod said. “I think I may know who it is. Besides, after my outburst earlier, when I rightly chided Roxanne for allowing a servant of Torak to go freely about his evil business, I’m sure none here will miss my presence for a bit.”

Without another word, Eleod made his way out of the apartment.

Osprey broke the silence that followed: “So that means Roxanne’s pick has one fewer vote, right?”


Eleod hurried back to his apartment, and locked the door behind him. Paint brush… how many years had it been?

He moved over to his old, dinged-up easychair, set down a notepad and pen on the armrest, and sat himself down. Picking up the receiver of his landline phone, he quickly dialed in a long-memorized phone number, and as the phone rang, he picked up his pen and got ready to write.

“You’ve reached the Dandy Lions floral company,” came the pre-recorded voice message, “A Toroian institution since 14 WR. We’re not available to take your call, but if you have your order number handy, dial it now and we can call you back as soon as possible.”

Again, Eleod dialed in a number, painstakingly memorized. As he punched in the last number, there were a number of clicks on the line, followed by another recording.

“Hello, Eleod,” said the voice on the recording. “I know I don’t have to remind you, but just in case, make sure you’ve got a pen and paper handy. You’ll want to write this down, because this message will auto-erase once it’s been played. I’ll wait a moment in case you need to go see to that.”

“… pansy ass prick,” Eleod muttered under his breath, “Of course I’ve got a godsdamned pen ready. Who the bloody hells do you think you’re…”

“Okay,” the recording continued. “So you’re likely wondering what this is all about after all this time. It’s bad, Eleod. Bad enough that I’m assembling the rest of the old crew, and I’m going to need all of your help on this one. Make sure you’re writing this down --”

“Bloody hells,” Eleod shouted, “I’ve got a fucking pen already! Just get to the damn point!!”


“Wait,” Violante said, “Why are the lizard-people fighting the other lizard-people?”

Terry leaned in and whispered: “Yithiron and those guys are goodguys. The other lizard-people, with the cybernetic parts on them, those are the Qeltok, and they’re the badguys. They want to make everyone cyborgs like them.”

Fara watched as this bit of nerd-interpretation went on. Terry and Violante are totally all over each other, she thought! When did this start, and why hadn’t either of them told her!?

“Of course, the Qeltoks’ phase-adapting shield technology wouldn’t be an issue if any of the crew of the SS Victorious had a sword,” Osprey noted.

“Movie night doesn’t always have to be about watching people sword fight, Os,” Fara said, consolingly.

“Why not?” Osprey asked.

Fara thought about it, but could not come up with an answer for Osprey. She silently wondered the same thing herself just then.

Eleod returned then. He walked into the living room and switched on the light, and everyone complained as he did so.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize you’d started watching your dumb movie,” Eleod said. “Well, you should stop it, or pause it, or maybe just destroy the tape or disc or whatever and go and read a book instead. But I’d like to see Fara and Roxanne and Terence in the other room for a minute, please.”

“Really?” Roxanne said. “You’re going to come back into my place, stop my movie, and start tossing around demands just like that?”

“I know I’m usually a little forceful in trying to show you all how idiotic you are,” Eleod said, “But this time it’s important. Please. I have something I need to talk about.”

Grilka looked up at Eleod. “Dearest, we talked about this…”

Eleod held up a hand. “Grilka. Please. This is important. Mana Knight stuff.” His eyes flashed and he looked at Fara. “We can have my intervention about my interpersonal issues later.”

Grilka turned to Roxanne apologetically, but she shook her head and waved Grilka off.

“C’mon Fara, Terry,” Roxanne said. “Let’s see what Eleod has for us. You guys can keep watching without us.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Osprey said. “Surely, we will continue watching this very movie and not change it to a better one the minute you’re out of the room.”

Roxanne and Fara walked over to Eleod, following him into Roxanne’s kitchen, while Terry extricated himself from Roxanne’s extremely comfy couch and brought up the rear.

Eleod waited for Terry to slide the kitchen door shut, then spoke in a hushed tone. “I’ve just received a message from an old war buddy of mine. Something… big is going down, and my old unit from the Great War is reassembling to handle it. Long story short, I think you three should come back us up.”

Roxanne scoffed. “What? Just like that? I’ve spent every moment of my time here in Albrook trying to make nice and be neighborly with you and Grilka, you’ve done nothing but complain and be salty with us in all of that time… and now you want us to ride off with you toward some vague danger?”

Fara was more receptive than her mentor… she cleared her throat and stepped closer. “Maybe we should hear him out, first, before we say no.”

“Oh?” Roxanne looked down at Fara, arching a brow. “Why is that?”

Fara shrugged. “I’m the Mana Knight, like you keep telling me. This might actually be something I have to do.”

Roxanne inhaled, nodding slowly. “Okay, Fara.” She folded her arms across her chest and glared at Eleod.

Eleod nodded. “During the war, I was part of a special GA task force. We answered directly to Celiose, though later on we dealt with Praxer and the Celpo as well. Some of us had been pulled from other parts of the Grand Army, others recruited directly to the task force from civilian life. We were known as the Baneling Busters… and, well, that was our job, really. We specialized in killing Banelings when the Dark Gods sent them after us, though we more generally were employed to handle elite threats and agents of the Dark Gods – like, for instance, powerful Graulemns…”

“Okay, we get it,” Roxanne chided.

Eleod cleared his throat. “The prime requisite for members of the Baneling Busters was magic use. In fact, in those early days, we were the only GA unit made up entirely of spellcasters. This was by design, since Banelings and other high-level threats were mostly magical in nature. Of course, spellcasting was only part of what made for a successful Baneling Buster… you had to generally be an all-around badass as well, or else you didn’t survive for very long. As it is, there are only five of us left now.”

“So…” Terry said, cutting in, “What’s this thing you say you want us to tag along for? Something you and your fellow magic-using badasses can’t handle?..”

Eleod furrowed his brows. “I didn’t say we couldn’t handle it. Well… the truth is, I don’t know if we can handle it. I don’t even know, at this point, whether or not the other surviving Baneling Busters have agreed to go. All I got was a message asking for my help. Before I tell you any more, I need to know that you’re with me on this. This is kinda sorta a top-secret sort of thing… I can’t say anything else unless you’re with me.”

Roxanne shook her head. “I’m sorry, Eleod. I can’t – I won’t – put Fara’s or Terry’s life at risk by signing on with whatever it is you have to go do without even knowing what it is you’re asking for.”

“I understand that,” Eleod said. He turned to Fara, and looked her right in the eyes. “But I want you, Fara, to consider all I’ve just told you. About the kind of things my unit and I did during the war, the kinds of monsters we had to fight. Doesn’t that sound to you like exactly what a Mana Knight should be doing?.. instead of palling around the city, stopping bank robbers and street thugs?”

Fara blinked.

“The answer’s ‘no’ until we know more,” Roxanne said.

“Roxanne,” Fara placed a hand on her arm. “I think I have to say yes.”

Roxanne’s eyes widened. “Fara…”

“No, hear me out,” Fara said, “Yes, Eleod’s been kind of a jerk to us. He’s unfriendly, he’s got no tact and he generally seems to be anti-everything-fun… but he’s a goodguy, isn’t he? And these Baneling Busters, they’re goodguys, aren’t they? If they’re asking for my help killing some big bad monster, or whatever… aren’t I obligated to say ‘yes’?..”

Terry nodded. “Well, I don’t know why Eleod asked for me to tag along… And I don’t really need Roxanne’s approval. So I’m going to say ‘yes’ as well.”

Roxanne looked at the two and sighed. “Fara, please think about this. Your sense of duty is, frankly, admirable… but he’s asking for a commitment before we even know what’s in store for us if we go along.”

“Whether we say yes or not, Eleod’s going,” Fara said. “How can I be okay with that and stay behind, out of concern for my own safety?”

Roxanne pursed her lips. Her own reservations aside, her concern for Fara’s well-being… the girl had a point. She allowed herself a small moment to feel some pride for the modicum of maturity her student had just displayed.

“… Tell us more, Eleod.” Roxanne said.

“So that’s a yes?” Eleod pressed.

“Fara’s not going with you without me, and she’s already said yes. That’s about as good as you’re going to get.”

Eleod cleared his throat, and nodded. “Fair enough.”


#5

Eleod began to explain: “The officer who was in charge of the Baneling Busters contacted me tonight. Here’s the situation: a rogue Grand Army officer has absconded with an Aquitane-class vessel. What’s more, he’s stolen technology from the GA that’s got us rather… concerned. The Celpo analyst my CO talked to seems to think that the stolen technology that this rogue officer took can be used to create Banelings.”

Roxanne closed her eyes and shook her head. This was exactly what she didn’t want: Fara fighting Banelings? Was she ready?.. was she about to send her student off to her death?

“That’s a lot of vague language you’ve got there, Eleod,” Terry said.

“That’s because there’s a lot about what’s to come that we aren’t sure of,” Eleod said. “We’re going into this with our eyes half-shut, mostly because this is completely off the books. This is unofficial and unsanctioned: we can’t call for reinforcements, and we don’t have the resources of the Grand Army to back us up.”

“… And it keeps getting better,” Terry said.

Eleod shrugged. “The Grand Army isn’t what it was. It’s bogged down in bureaucracy now. It can’t act with the kind of unilateral agility that it did during the Great War, or even the early part of the post-war era. We have the Alliance Congress now, a body that wants to slash the budget and rein in ‘excesses.’ Civilian oversight.” Eleod pointed a finger at Terry. “Hells, it was your king that started the trend when he brought the House of Lords to a place where it removed Celiose Cole from the office of Generalissimo. Things were never the same after that mess.”

“Fair point, I guess,” Terry said. “But you don’t think the Alliance Congress could get behind a mission to take down this rogue GA officer?..”

Eleod laughed. “Are you kidding me? You’re talking about a body that’s broken down along four lines: Tasnicans, Guardians, Esperians and Scandians. The first one that gets behind doing something about this is going to invite either opposition or one-upmanship from the other three. It’ll be debated endlessly for weeks. There will be speeches. Cabinet meetings. Talking sessions. There will be tangential issues that somehow come up during the debate. Someone will object to something said in one of the speeches, and then there’ll be a rebuttal to that objection. And that’s before they even start talking about how they’re going to pay for it.”

“So,” Roxanne said, “You’re going to take out someone who’s gone rogue by… going rogue yourselves?..”

Eleod scowled. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “When it comes down to it, I’m a soldier. Soldiers do what needs to be done… my CO recognizes that. He wouldn’t have taken us on this road unless he believed this was truly a threat to the Web.”

Just then, the kitchen door slid open. Osprey cleared his throat. Eleod’s eyes widened.

“… how much did you hear?” Eleod asked, quickly.

Osprey held up a finger. “I’d like to take this moment to point out that I am an excellent spy and infiltrator, and I am also well-versed in physical combat and spellcasting. So I’m a little offended that I wasn’t asked to come along and hear this offer as well, especially now that I happen to have overheard the entirety of Eleod’s explanation.”

Eleod sighed, exasperated. Then, from behind Osprey, Violante emerged. She smiled weakly and offered Eleod an apologetic look. “So,” she said, “I want to let you know I didn’t really know what you all would be talking about… I just thought it’d be fun to tag along with Osprey and play spy for a little bit. I totally didn’t mean to overhear anything, even though I did.”

“I meant to overhear all of it,” Osprey said. “Because I am an excellent spy.”

“Yes,” Eleod said, “We know.”

Just then, from between Osprey’s and Violante’s legs, Bim crept forward. He had no facial expressions to read, but his stance suggested submission and/or apology. “The ONLY reason I was standing at the door just now was because you guys had blockaded the kitchen, and after eating a lot of Grilka’s muffins I was craving something salty and wanted to make popcorn.”

And then, from behind Violante came Butlesworth.

“OH COME ON,” Eleod said. “Why doesn’t EVERYONE just come on in and participate in the highly classified conversation!?!?”

Butlesworth’s eye-lights blinked quizzically. “I do believe this is everyone, Master Eleod. Mistress Kamiko has fallen asleep on the couch, and Mistress Grilka had to use the lavatory.”


#6

::Albrook, the following day::

The cafe was busier than usual for midmorning on a weekday. Being around so many people, given the clandestine nature of his being there, made Eleod visibly uncomfortable. Moreso than normal.

Muttering to himself, he took a seat in a corner booth. The friends he’d recruited (some with intention, others with… less intention) had dispersed throughout the cafe, taking seats at the counter and small tables, far away enough from Eleod to avoid suspicion.

A young waitress approached Eleod’s table; her demeanor was needlessly cheerful and sunny. Her bald head, slightly pointed ears and dark skin gave her away as a mul (half-human, half-dwarf). She wore a bright pink apron over jeans and a tee shirt; the name badge on the apron read “Kaeli” (with a little heart dotting the i).

“Hi there!” the waitress said, notepad and pencil at the ready to take down Eleod’s order. “What’ll you have today? Can I interest you in our early lunch specials?”

Eleod eyed the waitress carefully. He paused for a moment before he said anything further. “What I’d really like is your breakfast sampler platter,” he said, probing the waitress suspiciously. “Have you stopped serving breakfast already?”

The waitress frowned. “You know what, hon? Let me go back to the kitchen and check on that for you. The chef might be able to throw another sampler together for you.”

“That’s all right, miss,” Eleod said, “I think I’ll just have the pastrami sandwich instead.”

The waitress put away her notepad (without writing anything on it) and nodded. “Comin’ right up!”

The bubbly young waitress bounced away. Her cheerfulness slightly threw Eleod: he wondered if she’d actually just end up bringing him a pastrami sandwich, and that the trouble he’d taken to remember the exchanges of secret code-phrases was for naught. But then, minutes later, a man in a baseball cap and dark glasses slid into the booth opposite Eleod.

“Those sunglasses are nice,” Eleod said. “Do they make them for men?”

The man in the cap chuckled. “Eleod Vrinnicus. Has it been so long?”

“Never long enough, it seems,” Eleod said. “Is all this cloak-and-dagger shit really necessary?”

“Can never be too careful,” the man said.

Eleod nodded off in the direction of the mul waitress. “She’s one of yours?”

“They’re all mine, here,” the man said, with more than just a hint of pride. “I’ve some… long-term plans for which a front operation like this is most useful. Plus, I get a decent cut as an investor. So it works out.”

“I never knew the RAF paid so poorly that you needed to become a small businessman,” Eleod joked.

The man smiled, and returned the barb: “Poorly as I’m faring, I truly pity you your GA pension.”

Eleod smiled back – something he didn’t do very often. “Say, listen, Rycar… something I have to talk to you about.”

“Yes?” said the man – whom Eleod otherwise knew as Admiral Supreme Rycar Mountbatten, of the Tasnican Republic Aerospace Fleets.

“In the recording, you said you knew, somehow, that I had a connection with the exiled Guardian superhero, the Shield… and that you wanted me to ask him along.”

Mountbatten nodded. “And I’m going to preserve my air of mystery by failing to disclose to you how, exactly, I came by such information. Did you approach him?”

“I did,” Eleod said. “And I took a small liberty in recruiting two others. You may not have heard of them, but you shouldn’t let the lack of notereity color your judgment of their worth.”

Mountbatten blinked. “You wound me, Eleod. You know I’ve an eye for talent first and foremost. Who are these special individuals you’ve recruited?”

“One is the Mana Knight,” Eleod said. “I’m not certain whether or not you’re familiar with what a Mana Knight is…”

“Please. I grew up with most of the same childhood stories you did,” Mountbatten replied.

“Well, I happen to know the current incarnation. Her talents are exactly the sort of thing the Baneling Busters could make use of. The other candidate I had in mind is her mentor, a real honest-to-gods valkyrie. Complete with combat skills honed over centuries, super-human strength and a stupidly magical spear.”

Mountbatten smiled. “Excellent work, Eleod. I think they will make wonderful additions to the team… provided they can be trusted to be discreet?..”

Eleod sighed. “Well, wait,” he said. “Because there’s… more. I was overheard while I was making my recruiting effort.”

Mountbatten frowned. “Go on,” he said, the intensity of his glare concealed by his sunglasses.

“So… inadvertantly, I ended up recruiting… four more, in addition to the Shield, the Mana Knight and the valkyrie.”

Mountbatten folded his hands on the table. He shook his head silently.

“If it helps any,” Eleod said, “One of them is an ex-ZAPS agent.”

“Truly?” Mountbatten said. “What’s the name of this former Guardian spy?”

“Osprey,” Eleod said. “Not sure if that’s his first or last name… or, even if it’s his real name.”

Mountbatten paused. “Hmm. Sounds familiar…”

“It’s possible you may have been an unsolicited recipient of his resume,” Eleod said.

“Ah! Yes, that’s where I’ve seen that name before,” Mountbatten remembered. “All right. Go on. What about the others you… ‘inadvertantly’ recruited?”

“One’s a Damcyanese smuggler. She’s covertly affiliated with the communist resistance against the occupation in Damcyan,” Eleod said.

Mountbatten smirked. “A communist, you say?.. Not sure how I feel about that… Is she useful?”

Eleod nodded. “Gearhead. Ace mechanic; anecdotally, I hear she’s one of the best around. She’s the mechanic who works on the Shield’s seraphim suit between his outings to beat up gangsters and Pyra dealers on Albrook’s streets. You said you needed a skeleton crew for the Iceni… this one may prove her worth there.”

“Then perhaps we can set aside her… troublesome ideological associations. For now.”

“Then there’s the robot,” Eleod said. “R-Series. Pretty sure it’s of Guardian make, but to be honest it’s hard to tell. Could be an RT. No serial number, and nobody we’ve talked to has been able to properly ID the thing. We acquired it from a droid slaver base we raided --”

Mountbatten laughed out loud. For a moment, some of the cafe staff looked over to the booth, but seeing that the Admiral was in no danger, they let it pass.

“Raided a droid slaver base!?” Mountbatten said. “Oh, Eleod, you and I have very, very different ideas of what it means to be ‘retired.’”

Eleod grumbled. “I had nothing to do with it. And believe you me, if I had been involved, it would have gone down differently. Osprey and the valkyrie let a thrice-damned Graulemn slip through their fingers so they could retrieve the R-series droid.”

“Truly?..” Mountbatten said, stroking his chin. “What could be so important about this droid that they allowed a Graulemn to go free, I wonder?..”

“Yes, I wonder this, too,” Eleod said, still steaming over the fact. “The droid seems capable, for the most part. Mostly does light cleaning and housework for the valkyrie. Seems to be a fair hand with a computer, though he mostly uses it to order the valkyrie’s groceries.”

“… a robotic butler?” Mountbatten said.

“His name’s Butlesworth,” Eleod clarified.

“… Why, of course it is.”

“And that brings us to… the last of my recruits. His name’s Biminberrick. And he’s a griffin hand.”

Mountbatten said nothing for a while. Then: “A… what?”

“Griffin hand,” Eleod said. “You know, like in those religious coloring books that some of the more cheery Elementalist sects give to kids to explain the Pure Land to them.”

“… So…”

“He’s… enthusiastic?” Eleod said. “And he is a very, very comfortable foot rest, I’ve heard.”

Mountbatten sighed.

“Look, he overheard, I had to bring him along.”

“No, no, I get it, Eleod.” Mountbatten looked up and waved to the waitress, who nodded and ducked back into the kitchen. “I suppose three out of four isn’t bad.”

“Six of seven if you include the Mana Knight, the Shield and the valkyrie,” Eleod corrected.

“And… they’re all here in the cafe now,” Mountbatten said, as he scanned the room and slowly picked out all the likely suspects based on Eleod’s descriptions. “Well, Eleod… it seems retirement’s made you forget what I meant when I asked for discretion. Next time I’ll remember to spell it out better for you.”

Eleod locked eyes with Mountbatten. “Look here, sir. You call me up out of nowhere, run me through all of this password secret code bullshit, ask me to follow you into danger yet again, only this time without the full force of the Grand Army to back us up… and oh yeah, by the way, bring a friend because it turns out we’ll be a little shorthanded due to that whole NOT SUPPOSED TO BE DOING THIS thing. The way I see it, you should be thankful I convinced anyone to show up here for your dumb ass.”

The waitress returned, with two pastrami sandwiches for the table. She also set down a pair of cold, refreshing glasses of Kuat Cola (the King of Colas™) on ice, and gave each man a plastic-wrapped piece of Maranda Farms string cheese.

Mountbatten smiled as the waitress bounced away again.

“Consider it on the house,” Mountbatten said. He looked back out into the cafe. “And the same goes for your recruits, as well. Whatever they ordered, it’ll go on my tab.”

Eleod rolled his eyes.

“You’re right,” Mountbatten continued, “Beggars can’t be choosers, after all… and I suppose it must be said that I can use all the help I can scrape together for this one. I apologize if I seemed… ungrateful.”

Eleod took a bite of his sandwich. “I guess it’s fine,” Eleod said. “You’re a Kriegsnavee man, after all… what else should I expect?”

Mountbatten smiled. “Infantry grunt,” he returned. He checked his watch, then pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket. “After we finish these delicious pastrami sandwiches, you will gather your friends. Here’s directions to a private airstrip just outside of town. I have a gunship there that will take us to the Iceni. Officially, I’m field testing combat systems with a skeleton crew and have the ship entirely at my disposal for the next two weeks. Unofficially… well, you and your rabble, and a few other hands I’ve recruited, are that skeleton crew.”

“But, just to be clear… sandwiches first?”

Mountbatten nodded. “Sandwiches first. This pastrami is return enough on my investment in this place. You’ll never taste its like again anywhere.”


#7

::Bridge of the Storm’s Eye, Sylphid’s Cloud Nebula, Manaspace::

Captain Benedict was the archetypical career SAGA man.

Though he had come over to the Space Armada from the Guardian Space Fleet, after years of service he now bled White-and-Gold. It was a phenomenon that was true of the other branches of the Grand Army: at inception, the Grand Army was was built out of the military forces of several allies come together. And over time, the men began to lose the particular affect of their homelands’ military services in favor of the culture of Celiose Cole and the Grand Army.

SAGA was the youngest of the Grand Army’s branches, but it followed the same trend. Whatever the land of their birth, whatever military service whose uniform they might once have worn, whatever gods they may have prayed to: once they joined up, were Grand Army through and through.

Some loyalties, though, were harder to shake. As evidenced by the mutineers aboard the Storm’s Eye, who wore ad-hoc symbols of the Dark Gods, either crudely stitched into their tattered uniforms or scrawled upon their bare flesh.

The bridge of the Storm’s Eye showed signs of a recent battle: scoring from the discharge of energy weapons marred the otherwise perfect contours of the bulkheads and consoles. The corpse of one of the SAGA bridge officers lay slumped in the corner, smoke trailing up from a hole blasted off-center in her back.

Nearby there were more officers, less dead than the woman in the corner, though their white SAGA uniforms were not so crisp and clean as the regs demanded. They were kneeling, their hands clasped behind their heads. Their faces showed a spectrum of emotion ranging from fear to defiance. Standing behind the defeated officers were their captors: a motley assortment of gruesome humans and humanoids. They were wielding an assortment of energy weapons and cruel-looking axes, swords and cudgels. One sinister looking human, standing apart from the rest with oiled black hair and furtive green eyes, wore a necklace that proudly brandished the cackling-moon icon of the Dark God Zeromus. Other symbols of other Dark Gods were visible among the mutineers as well.

A pair of large, nasty-looking orks were each holding one of Captain Benedict’s arms. As the automatic sliding doors leading to the captain’s office opened, and the leader of the mutineers walked in, the orks pressed their meaty hands on Benedict’s shoulders and forced him down onto his knees.

Even on his knees, Benedict was still half-a-head taller than the leader. Diminutive, but still human, the leader’s arms and legs were stunted, out of proportion with the rest of his human torso. His stark-white hair was wild and mane-like, and he was dressed in a uniform of inexplicably crude, mismatched leathers. His tunic was opened to his chest, and there resting between his bizarrely well-developed pectoral muscles, suspended from his neck by a silvered chain, was an ivory amulet carved in the shape of a coiled cobra; its inset eyes a pair of glimmering rubies.

Veterans who traced their GA service back as far as the Great War would remember the emblem of the white cobra: it was the sigil of the Dark Goddess Maitreya, though as Maitreya’s devout were best known for their skill at deception, it was almost never worn so brazenly as it was now.

As the lead mutineer approached, Benedict saw him, and his eyes narrowed.

“Conn…” Benedict hissed.

The small man cracked a crooked smile. In one hand he held a small porcelain bowl, while in the other he held a pair of black lacquered chopsticks. Despite the fact that his fingers were shorter, stubbier than the average human’s, he found no difficulty making an expert display of using his chopsticks to stir the unseen contents of the bowl he was holding.

“Ah, Benedict, my old friend.” Resting his chopsticks across the top of the bowl, he reached out a hand and stroked the side of Benedict’s face. “How the years have been kind to you. You are now a… Captain, is it?..”

Some vestige of Guardian-ness remained in Benedict: his stiff-upper-lip defiance. “Whatever you want,” Benedict said, “Whatever it is you’re after, it won’t work. The Grand Army will beat you. You may as well kill us now, because we won’t help you.”

“Kill you, old friend? Never,” Conn said. He twirled his chopsticks in his fingers, dipped into his bowl and brought out a flopping, translucent green little object that looked vaguely like an earthworm.

“Do you like… Gummi-Worms, Captain Benedict?..” Conn asked.

Benedict had no idea how to respond to this question.

Conn held the Gummi-Worm firmly in the chopsticks, turned it over and beheld it from multiple angles, seeming to appreciate some undetectable aesthetic about it. “They say that Gummi-Worms are best served cold, Captain… so I’ve put these in the freezer. They are quite yummy, in my tummy.”

He took one end of the Gummi-Worm and sucked on it, slurping loudly. Withdrawing it from his mouth, he held it in the light, so that its sticky coating of saliva seemed to shimmer.

“Have a taste, Benedict,” Conn said, moving the chopsticked Gummi-Worm closer to Benedict’s face.

The SAGA officer recoiled, but the orks held him firm. One of the orks put a hand on the back of Benedict’s neck and pressed him forward. The Captain cringed, turned his face away, and shut his mouth.

“Oh come come now,” Conn said, mockingly. He flopped the worm about, slapping the spit-soaked end against Benedict’s face, leaving spatters on his cheeks. “Don’t be such a weenie!”

The other SAGA officers watched, confused and horrified at the peculiar manner in which their captain was being tormented. They didn’t know what to make of it: it wasn’t quite fear-inducing, but neither did the prospect of such antics seem in any way appealing.

“Pinch his nose,” Conn said, and in response one of the orks reached down and clamped his massive, green fingers down onto Benedict’s nostrils. Benedict sputtered and spat, jerked his head around futilely against the orks’ grasp, but it was all to no avail. At last, his mouth flew open to take in a breath, and with uncanny precision, Conn flipped the wet, sticky Gummi-Worm inside. The ork’s hand then moved down onto Benedict’s jaw, holding his mouth closed, forcing him to live with the reality that there was only one way the Gummi-Worm was going to leave his mouth.

Conn laughed victoriously, as Benedict gave a satisfyingly audible swallow of surrender. Conn turned and handed off the bowl and chopsticks to the black-haired man with the Zeromus symbol around his neck, who eagerly stepped forward to collect his master’s props. “You see?” Conn said, as he pinched Benedict’s cheek. “I have done far worse than kill you. I’ve given you my cooties.” He clapped his hand against the side of Benedict’s face.

Conn took a step back. “Take them to the shuttle, and send them to the lab-domes below.” He took the bowl of Gummi-Worms back from the Zeromus worshipper, and tossed one in his mouth. “Our friends in the facility must be absolutely famished by now…”


#8

::Captain’s Briefing Room aboard the Iceni, Orbit of Mana III, Manaspace::

There was part of Fara that silently wondered if she could somehow use this newfound connection to Admiral Supreme Rycar Mountbatten to build up her resume without blowing the whole “secret mission” part of all of this.

She marveled, for a moment, at how little these big missions seemed to phase her. It all just sort of seemed routine by now: secret mission with the Admiral Supreme of the RAF to hunt down a rogue Grand Army officer and a stolen battleship? Sure. Esperian nationalist terrorists hijacking a luxury airship cruise? Why not. Battle to the death against the King of the Reklar in the Mana Pureland? Been there, done that.

She was more worried about her “history of the Fringe” paper, due on Monday, which she’d barely started and didn’t have all her sources lined up for. The secret mission thing had really cut into her budgeted study time.

Glancing around the room, she started to feel that familiar “how do I fit in here?” feeling – though, as she caught Terry and shared a brief glance and nod with him, she realized that she was feeling out-of-place in the hero game less and less since moving to Albrook.

Terry was one of a few familiar faces present; Osprey was there, too, choosing to stand apart from the rest, leaning against a wall, arms folded across his chest as he wore his well-practiced “I am the night” scowl. Biminberrick the griffin hand was beside Osprey, peppering him with observations and questions, which Osprey was trying very hard to ignore (because it was crimping his style). There were Butlesworth and Violante; the robot butler was standing at attention just behind Terry’s seat, while Violante had taken the seat next to Terry and the two were deep in conversation. And she was laughing at Terry’s jokes. Like, a LOT.

“Could it be?..” Fara wondered.

Roxanne was over on the other side of the table, talking with Eleod. There were three others with Eleod: another dwarf, this one with a thick red beard and long, dark crimson robes; a hulking todo dressed all in furs and leathers; and a tall, well-muscled woman whose pointed ears, white hair and red eyes instantly gave her away as a sheikah – the infamous and secretive Hylian tribe said to have been charged with the protection of Hyrulean royals for countless generations, and noted in lore for practicing what could well be the Hylian equivalent of ninjutsu.

These must have been the “Baneling Busters” Eleod spoke of.

Just then, Mountbatten emerged from behind a pair of sliding doors, sipping at a black-and-gold coffee mug. At his side were two others, humans, both dressed in lab coats: one a middle-aged man whose black hair was thinning away from his face, the other a younger woman with close-cropped blonde hair. Both wore glasses: the older man’s were thicker (more like goggles) and seemed to sit right up against his eyeballs; the young woman’s were thinner, set in fashionable silver frames that rested down toward the end of her nose.

“Just a quick update,” the Admiral said, as he took his seat, set his cup down on the table and briefly swiped through some screens on his console, making sure his presentation was ready to be shown to the whole group. “We’ve cast off and gone dark. So far as anyone in the RAF knows, this is a simple training flight with a skeleton crew. In case any of you were wondering: this is, officially, the point of no return. For real, because we can’t go back to let anyone off.”

As Mountbatten tapped at his console, the lights in the room dimmed. Those who were standing came to fill some of the vacant seats around the conference table. Near the center of the table, a state-of-the-art holo emitter projected an image just above the table. Fara overheard Terry whispering to Violante, scoffing at how the Iceni’s holo “… was way lower res than the one aboard the Crownguard.”

The holo image displayed a grainy image of a photograph, alongside holographic text detailing a Grand Army service record.

“Meet Sub-General Conn Guitierrez,” Mountbatten said. "aka Ricardo Montalconn; aka Conn Noonan; aka Conn Singher; aka Grumblestinck Connderbatch. More commonly, and infamously, just known as Conn. Little is known about his past, thanks to his preponderance of pseudonyms. We do know he claims to be the son of an Imperial Magitek knight, which seems to be true, as his Grand Army health profile indicates inherited genetic damage consistent with a parent who had a large number of magitek infusions. He has dwarfism – possibly an effect of the afforementioned genetic damage – but also possesses a superior intellect. We suspect, but aren’t certain, that his intellect is the result of a short-lived magitek infusion program conducted by the Gramones… but, like most things Conn, we’re uncertain.

“What we do know is that he was once a Lord General in the Dark Wrath and was known to be a devotee of Maitreya. Conn was the mastermind behind the Dark Gods’ victory at the Battle of Pang, repelling GA forces from Southern Ticondera. Before the formal establishment of the Dark Wrath, Conn was one of the Dark Gods’ greatest mortal strategists, and frequently consulted with Dorian while he commanded the Dark Gods’ forces. But Conn never really got on all that well with Burzmale; didn’t appreciate the direction he was taking the war. So, with the help of Praxer, we got him to defect. He got a GA commission, sold out his old Dark Wrath pals, and for a time everything was swell.”

The holo-image changed, showing the schematics of a very large spaceship.

“Until now. The Grand Army’s trying to keep this a secret, but Conn’s gone rogue. He has absconded with an Aquitane-class battleship and… something else. Something worse than an Aquitane battleship.”

Mountbatten swept out a hand toward the man in the labcoat. “This is Doctor Kino Tatsumota, a Celpo research scientist. He will explain further exactly what it is we think Conn has.”

Tatsumota adjusted his glasses, as Mountbatten again shifted the holo-image. Now, it was showing the schematics for a device that looked a bit like an Ultima warhead. Several parts of the schematic were blacked out.

“This,” the scientist began, “Is a Device With No Name. It was captured by the Celpo at the end of the Great War, with intelligence, helpfully provided by Conn, that intimated it was an experimental Dark Wrath doomsday weapon. After my departure from the Guardian Ministry of Science, I joined the Celpo and was placed in charge of a team whose job it was to determine what in all of the Hells known to Gods and Men this thing actually does. I remain the head of this team today, and our work – after all these long years – is still incomplete.”

The holo-image shifted again, and the schematic of the Device With No Name flew apart. Little white lines connected blocks of text with different close-in details of each discreet part of the device. Some parts of the blocks of text were, again, blacked out.

"I always suspected Conn knew more than he would tell when he lead the Celpo to the device. My examinations lead me to believe that the device had been sabotaged prior to recovery, but not in a way that would render the device useless… just in a way that would keep it from operating, or keep us from learning its secrets. This was done with intention… by, I believe it’s now safe to assume, Conn himself.

“But Conn did not anticipate that I would come into contact with his device,” Tatsumota’s voice somehow evidenced pride, despite his cool, level tone. “In spite of what must have been his very best efforts to disguise the Device, I have surmised that it is built upon the magiteknology of the old Vectoral Empire. While my team never filed any official findings on what the Device’s purpose is…” Tatsumota adjusted his glasses. His utterly flat, expressionless mouth briefly flirted with a grin. “My best guess – and my guesses are only very rarely wrong – is that this Device With No Name is a birthing matrix for Banelings.”

There was a silence as the words sank in with all assembled.

“What’s a… Baneling?” said Bim, who seemed to sense the apprehension of those around him, even if he did not yet feel it himself. Dr. Tatsumota took a beat, as he acknowledged that there was, in fact, a griffin hand randomly seated at the Iceni’s conference table. Likely, Tatsumota surmised, the creature boasted of some great and hidden power, or else there was no way Mountbatten would have brought it along on such a dangerous mission.

“I am so glad you asked,” Tatsumota said. The holo display shifted again, this time rendering an image of a terrible creature, built from shadow and malice. “Banelings originally were creatures called ‘hyps,’ stolen from Aryth by the Dark Gods and twisted into living arcane weapons by some dark combination of magic and science – an artistic hybridization that the Dark Wrath excelled at in almost every weapon they built, and which we presently understand only a fraction of.”

“Meanest sons of bitches the Hells ever shat out,” Eleod said, interjecting. “I saw more of my friends turned inside out by those Godspawned freaks than I ever want to remember.”

The red-bearded dwarf agreed, nodding solemnly, along with the todo and the sheikah.

“Lucky for everyone at this table, we destroyed most of them during the War,” said the todo, folding his massive arms across his chest.

“So, is that why they built this machine?” Osprey asked, “Because the big walrus over there went and ate all the Banelings?”

The todo eyed Osprey suspiciously.

The other scientist, the young blonde woman, spoke in answer to Osprey’s question: “I believe that after a while, the Dark Gods and Burzmale’s generals had something of a… falling out. There is a point in the history of the Great War where we see fewer monsters and magic in the Dark Gods’ force, and more of Burzmale’s soldiers, tanks and war machines. The device may have been an attempt by the Dark Wrath to compensate, to create more Banelings for the war effort after the Dark Gods themselves cut Burzmale off.”

Mountbatten cleared his throat, and interceded, covering for his own perceived lapse in etiquette. “This is Dr. Lana Dougal. She’s a senior member of Tatsumota’s research team, and a noted scholar of Great War history.”

Dougal nodded politely after being acknowledged.

“The history lesson’s all well and good,” Terry said, speaking up. “But can this ‘Conn’ character turn this Baneling machine on? I think that’s the important part.”

Mountbatten turned his attention from Terry back to Dr. Tatsumota. Tatsumota had been looking at Terry knowingly, as if sizing him up. He broke his gaze only when he noticed Mountbatten’s head turning his way.

“At this point all we have are guesses,” Tatsumota stated.

“But your guesses are supposedly never wrong,” Terry returned.

This time, Tatsumota’s smile was evident. “Only very rarely,” he corrected, seeming to relish the exchange. “If in fact it was Conn who sabotaged the machine before directing the Celpo to steal it, perhaps for the purpose of storing it until he could secure it for himself again, then we must assume that he has the means to re-activate it and that this is the final stage of Conn’s grand plan.”

“So it behooves us to have a plan of our own,” said Mountbatten. “And now that we’re all caught up, we can talk about what that plan is. We know that Conn’s stolen ship, the Storm’s Eye, is on the very edge of Manaspace, beyond the 9th orbital, in a nebula known as Sylphid’s Cloud. We know this because, until a few days ago, the Storm’s Eye’s transponder was still broadcasting the ship’s position.”

“Well, that’s convenient,” said Violante, scoffing.

“Yes,” Mountbatten said. “One might think that, maybe, General Conn simply didn’t know enough to deactivate his transponder after stealing his massive Grand Army battleship. But it would seem that even our Damcyanese outlaw mechanic friend, here, has doubts about that. I am inclined to agree: the superior intellect of Conn would not be so careless. He does not care that we know where he is. In fact, it is highly likely that he prefers it this way. He is leading us into a trap.”

The holo display shimmered and displayed a three-dimensional rendering of the Sylphid’s Cloud nebula.

“You seem fairly sure,” Roxanne observed. “Maybe he did just forget to turn the transponder off. How do you know?”

“Because I know the man’s mind,” Mountbatten shot back, with finality but not venom.

“By the Gods,” Bim said, hopping up and down excitedly in his chair. “The Admiral’s psychic!”

“Conn was one of us, once,” said the sheikah. She reached down to the bunched up turtleneck gathered at her throat, and reflexively stretched part of it up to cover the lower half of her face. It was an unconscious motion on the shiekah’s part; she did it because the thought of Conn was… unpleasant.

“Supposedly,” said the red-bearded dwarf, his bushy red eyebrows bowing under the weight of a furious scowl.

Mountbatten regarded the men of his former unit, and nodded. “After his defection, Sub-General Conn was attached to the Baneling Busters. He promised his inside information would help us wipe out the last of the Dark Wrath’s Banelings.”

Eleod absently stroked his long, dark beard. “We suffered more casualties under his command than we had for the entire rest of the war combined. And now we know for sure: he meant to get us all killed. All for this. So there’d be fewer of us here for the endgame.”

Mountbatten sighed. “We were never able to prove any actual malfeasance on his part,” the Admiral said. He rested his elbows on the table and folded his hands in front of him, his eyes playing the spaces between his fingers. “But with what we know now… much of what he did back then seems clearer…”

“You know what doesn’t seem clear?” the todo stood and pointed at the nebula. “That. Why would he run here, of all places?”

“True enough. Hiding in the giant space cloud does not seem the best opening gambit for someone who’s just stolen one of the most powerful starships in Web space. It’s an amateur move, but it does make a certain amount of sense for someone like Conn, who has little to no actual experience in space warfare…”

Mountbatten tapped into his console, and a section of the nebula on the display was highlighted.

“I have two theories. First, do not underestimate Conn. He knew it would be me coming for him, which meant that he knew I would be bringing the Iceni. Iceni’s a smaller craft – smaller than an Aquitane battleship anyway – but she’s very tricky, built to be a capital ship slayer, and she happens to be commanded by one of the greatest living starship commanders in the Web. So, knowing this, Conn chooses the nebula, a battlefield where short range sensors will be all but useless.”

“… How does that help anybody?” asked Fara, venturing to speak.

Mountbatten’s eyes fell upon the girl, and he recognized her from Eleod’s description. For a moment, his face softened. So this was the hero with the Mana Sword?.. He felt hopeful just to look at her, and somehow, Fara was encouraged, even if she had no way of knowing what the Admiral Supreme was thinking.

“Sauce for the goose, Miss Somers,” Mountbatten explained. Then, further, with a slightly arched eyebrow: “The odds will be even. Both ships blinded, my advantages will be diminished, as will Conn’s disadvantages.”

The Admiral continued: “My second theory: you see the highlighted sector of space within the nebula? My sources tell me that that’s the location of a secret Celpo research facility.”

“What kind of research facility’s built way the hell beyond all the planets in a dimension, in the middle of a giant space blinding cloud!?” Terry asked.

“The kind where we don’t want anyone to know what’s being done there,” said Tatsumota, matter-of-factly in spite of the chill in his voice. Fara guessed that creepy Dr. Combover was probably one of Mountbatten’s sources. “Isn’t that about the same idea King Derik had when we rounded up all Gate’s OmniSent agents after they so kindly identified themselves with bolt-badges?”

Terry’s face darkened. He still carried a lot of shame for things that both he and the Kingdom did during the OmniSent Crisis.

“I don’t believe Conn would activate his baneling birthing matrix aboard the Storm’s Eye,” Mountbatten said. “Too risky, not his style to put himself in danger like that. But this Celpo facility? Isolated on the far end of Manaspace. Hidden from view in a nebula. And leagues of vaccuum, ice, gas and dust between himself and his waking offspring. He could safely test the Device there and ensure that I split apart my forces, sending some of the brave souls I brought on the journey down to the facility to deal with the machine and its newborn banelings, while I’m forced to stay aboard my ship and face off with Conn and the Storm’s Eye.”

The Admiral nodded. He laid his hands flat upon the table. “So, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

“Wait. What?” Osprey said.

“It’s why most of us were brought along,” Eleod said, “To fight Banelings. Unless your resume has a few lines about all the useful things you can do on a starship?”

“But what about the part where he thinks this was part of Conn’s plan the whole time?” Osprey said. “Maybe I’m old fashioned, but as a rule I don’t like doing exactly what my enemy thinks I’m going to be doing.”

Mountbatten smiled. “It’s a good rule, I’ll grant you. But it’s amateurish. Sometimes it’s wiser to dance all the steps and wait for an opening. Which is what we’ll do: exactly what Conn has planned… only to feint and counter at just the right moment.”

“Your dance analogy brings me shockingly little comfort,” Osprey said.

“Get used to it, bird-man,” barked the todo, chortling.

Mountbatten tapped at his console one last time, and two small blocks of text filled the space above the table. “Our team assignments. Fara Somers, Terry Shale, Roxanne North-Star and Osprey, you will join Eleod Vrinnicus, Galgann Fireblaster, Horker Frostreaver and Thetrel Skysinger on the away team…”

“Dr. Dougal will ride-along,” Tatsumota said. The Admiral shot him a questioning glance. “You will need one of us on the ground who has some experience working with the Device. It is the only chance you will have to safely shut it down.”

“I think I know another way to shut it down,” said Galgann, the red-bearded dwarf, his eyes glowing with magical fire.

Tatsumota glared at the dwarf. Knowing that Galgann was a veteran of the Great War, knowing that he was a priest of Rubicant and a master fire elementalist, the Celpo scientist glared daggers, utterly fearless, and said in a tone that could rip the heart from a man: “You will not destroy the Device.”

After a tense moment of locking eyes with Tatsumota, Galgann backed down, covering the chill in his spine with a scoff and a grunt as he turned away.

“Thank you for playing nice, boys,” Mountbatten said, condescending to both the doctor and the fire-magic wielding dwarf. “Very well, Dougal rides along. And we try to recover the machine intact… but if that’s not possible, it must be destroyed.”

Tatsumota regarded the Admiral, but said nothing. Even his silence seemed off-putting.

Mountbatten returned to his team assignments: “Doctor Tatsumota, Violante Vaquero and… Butlesworth… you’ll join my skeleton crew. Miss Vaquero… how do you feel about helping to keep the Iceni from exploding?”

Violante’s eyes lit up. “It’ll be like a dream come true, Admiral, sir… my hands, elbow-deep in the guts of a spaceship!?!? I just, can’t even!!”

Tatsumota sighed. “Perhaps I could… supervise. In the interest of avoiding a cascade reactor failure.”

“Ooh! Ooh! What about me!?” Bim bounced up and down excitedly. He hopped off his seat, and scuttled over toward Mountbatten. “Which team do I go on, Admiral, sir!?”

Mountbatten was flummoxed for the first time he could remember. He blinked, and then, after deliberating, turned and looked back at his coffee mug sitting on the table. He reached over, picked it up, and regarded it for what seemed like forever. Then he reached down and set the mug on top of the griffin hand. He looked at what he’d just done, and smirked.

“Your post is next to my chair on the bridge,” Mountbatten said. “Don’t let it spill.”


#9

::aboard the Iceni::

The “away team” had been told to muster several decks below the main bridge in ready room alpha. It was essentially a large locker room and armory, built to accomodate Republic Marines stationed aboard the Admiral Supreme’s flagship. Now, the team that it housed was far from what one might expect from the Tasnican uniform code.

Fara observed the “Baneling Busters” get settled in – and not without some amount of admiration. All of them, warriors in the modern era who used magic and archaic weaponry. The best of the best at what they did. She couldn’t help but feel, at last, like she was among kindred spirits.

“Somethin’ on your mind, girl?” Horker bellowed, catching Fara out of the corner of his eye.

Fara came out of her own head, brought herself back to the present. “No, I’m sorry. I just… I’m honored to be counted among you.”

The todo scoffed with a grunt. Horker Frostreaver was a todo from the Ice Country. Nothing about him was uniform, which seemed odd for someone who was a Grand Army veteran: he wore nothing that Fara could identify as modern garb, everything from his rough-cut vest down to his thick boots was made of sealskin.

It suddenly struck her: how should she feel about an anthropomorphic walrus wearing sealskin?..

Horker reached behind him and picked up a solid block of ice, sliding it inside his locker. Where the fit was imperfect, he forced the issue with his prodigious strength, shaving off a spray of rime as the block wedged into the locker with a thud.

“You ain’t counted among us 'till you’ve dropped your first Baneling. Or, survived your first Baneling. Whichever it happens to be.”

“Gods, it’s gonna smell real bad in here real quick,” Thetrel interjected, as she slid in on the bench and opened up her own locker. “You don’t need all of that, do you?”

Fara couldn’t see what was inside Horker’s locker from where she stood. The todo must have known this, because – with a grin – he reached inside, pulled out a whole fish, and then bit off its head with a sickening crunch.

“I’m very a particular eater,” Horker said, flecks of meat and brain and scale and bone spraying on his breath as he spoke and chewed concurrently. He swallowed hard, and spat something off to the side. “'Sides which, every todo larder I’ve ever been in smelled worlds better than the last hylian cunt I had.”

Fara balked for a moment, but then reminded herself: this was literally locker room talk.

While Horker was talking – and eating – Thetrel Skysinger had been pulling various knives, blades and stars out of her locker and affixing them to various straps, sheaths and braces hidden all throughout her dark, loose-fitting uniform. The lower half of her face was covered with a mask, but Fara saw her as she turned to look at Horker. And everything she needed to know about how the woman felt was broadcast by her piercing red eyes.

“You wanna run that by me again, blubber dick?” Thetrel twirled one of her blades in her fingers as she said this. “Or am I going back home after this mission with a nice, warm, asshole-skin coat?”

Horker froze, momentarily showing what might have passed for fear with a seven-foot-six walrus man. But then he laughed it off, raised his hands, and turned to face the woman he’d just insulted. “All right, all right, Skysinger. You win. I’m sorry. Sheikah, not hylia. I’m sorry.”

Fara didn’t know how anyone could make the mistake of calling a sheikah a hylia: the hylia were basically human in appearance, but for the pointed ears that suggested they may have shared lineage with elves. The sheikah, on the other hand, were a secretive offshoot clan of the hylian race, easily distinguished by their white hair and red eyes.

For her part, Fara also wasn’t sure that saying Thetrel was a hylia was anywhere near to being the most offensive part of what Horker had said…

“You’ll have to forgive them,” came a voice from behind her. It was the other dwarf, the non-Eleod dwarf, Galgann Fireblaster. He looked different from every other dwarf from Mana that Fara had ever seen: a Mana dwarf’s skin would be brownish-gray, and hair color would run a rather earthy gamut from blonde to brown to black to gray. Not so for Galgann, who was a magma dwarf from the underground of the Crystal Dimension: Crystalese dwarves had coal black skin, and brightly colored hair that ranged from an unnaturally bright yellow-blonde to varying shades of orange and red.

“We are not all so uncouth as these two,” Galgann continued, leaning on his heavy iron staff as he came up alongside Fara. “But then, most of our manners and civility died along with the better part of our recruits.”

“Yeah,” Fara said, “Eleod had mentioned something about not all the Baneling Busters surviving the Great War.”

Galgann chuckled darkly, as he played his claw-like fingers through his thick red beard. “My dear, Eleod has vastly understated things. Exactly none of our brothers-in-arms had the luxury to die of old age or ‘natural causes.’ The four of us – Horker, Thetrel, Eleod and myself – are the very last of the vaunted Baneling Busters.”

Fara searched her memory to see if Eleod had mentioned that only four members of the old squad had survived the Great War… sensing her disturbance, Galgann laid a hand upon her shoulder.

“Oh but don’t let that frighten you,” the red dwarf said, kindly. “We survived because we are the very best. Stick with us, girl – with me, more specifically – and you’ll be fine…”

“That’s about enough of that,” Eleod said as he entered the locker room. As he entered, Galgann hastily drew his hand back from Fara.

“So glad you’re here, Vrinnicus,” Galgann said. “I was just introducing our young Mana Knight to the other Baneling Busters.”

“Aye, I can see that. And now she’s met them. So you should leave.”

Galgann’s smile did not fade. “You and I really should set aside some time to bury the hatchet one of these days. It’s not good for the soul to let these things fester.”

“I dunno how you’d know that, lacking a soul as you do.”

Galgann laughed. “All right. I will go, then.” He bowed courteously in Fara’s direction. “It was lovely to make your acquaintance, young one. Perhaps we shall speak again soon.”

Making a show of it, Galgann leaned on his staff as he walked from the room. When he was gone, Eleod took Fara by the arm and drew her close.

“You watch yourself around him, Fara,” Eleod said. “He’s bad news, and I wouldn’t trust him further than he can walk without that metal stick he carries.”

“I mean, he was giving off a little bit of a creeper vibe,” Fara said, “But of the three Baneling Busters I’ve met today, he was the only one who didn’t make a gratuitous reference to genitalia. So, that’s a plus.”

“Words and actions, Fara,” Eleod said. “These two here? Horker and Thetrel? They’ve never had a kind word to say to each other for as long as I’ve known them, but I’d trust either and both of them with my life any day. Galgann Fireblaster, on the other hand, is the worst kind of dwarf I can think of. All the worse because he can talk prettier than the floweriest Toroian poet, if you can believe that.” He sighed, and locked eyes with Fara. “Look, we don’t always see eye-to-eye. And I’m not always the nicest I can be to you, I know that. But listen to me just this once. Watch out for Galgann. Up here on the ship, or down there in the field… never take an eye off of him. Ever.”

Just then, one of Horker’s fish hit the cold metal floor right between Eleod and Fara. It hit and splatted with a sickening wet sound, spattering semi-frozen liquid across both of their shoes.

“Ah crap,” Horker said. “One o’ you grab that for me and toss it back? Five second rule, c’mon, it’s still good.”


#10

::Iceni’s Bridge::

When Fara came onto the bridge, Roxanne and Terry were both there already, each standing to one side of Admiral Mountbatten’s command chair. Osprey was reclining in an empty bridge officer’s chair, allowing Butlesworth to feed him grapes. Bim, of course, was at his station, standing dutifully infront and just to the right of Mountbatten with the Admiral’s coffee cup balanced perfectly on his head. There were a few others there, too: mercenaries, as Mountbatten had promised. Eleod (who was standing beside the Admiral’s command chair) recognized several of them from the service staff at the cafe with the amazing pastrami sandwiches.

“Ah, Ms. Somers,” Mountbatten said. “Had yourself a little tour of the barracks?”

Fara smiled pleasantly. “Yeah, you could say that.”

The Admiral regarded her, and smiled softly. “Horker is an… acquired taste, I know. But he is very, very good at what he does. I’d not have kept him around were that not the case.”

As interesting as she’d found the todo, the exchange between Eleod and Galgann was foremost on her thoughts. But she nodded, smiled again at the Admiral and said: “I’ll keep that in mind. Are we there yet?”

The Admiral laughed. “Fast as the Iceni is – and she’s very fast – we’re only a few hours into the trip. Even at top speed, we still have enough time that you’ll all want to grab a power nap and sample something from the galley before we hit the outer edge of the nebula.”

Terry nudged Roxanne. “Under 12 parsecs my eye, am I right?”

Mountbatten sighed audibly. He whirled and locked eyes with Terry. “You. Off my bridge. Immediately.”

“Whoa,” Roxanne chided, “Easy there. It’s a line from one of the Space Battles movies --”

“I know exactly what it is, valkyrie,” Mountbatten said. “Space Battles was one of the only things we could watch in the earliest days of the Republic Aerospace Fleet, when transdimensional space broadcast was only slightly newer than transdimensional space travel. And, gods damn them, that one line kept me from getting into it. Which made some of my first spaceborne tours very, very lonely and boring.” He levelled his gaze at Terry again. “Parsecs, my fine young friend, are a measure of DISTANCE. Not TIME. And as a matter of fact, the time it would take for any modern Web starship to cross a single parsec would be prohibitively inefficent without the aid of the strands.”

“I’m so sorry,” Terry said, with all the sincerity he could muster. “For what it’s worth, she’s the big Space Battles fan. I only said anything because I thought she’d get a kick out of it.”

Roxanne stammered. “What? I didn’t --”

“Nope! He’s right!” Osprey said, sitting straight up, spitting out a grape and pointing accusatorially. “She even tried to FORCE us to watch Space Battles at like every movie night ever!! I will testify to this in every court of law there is.”

Osprey beamed, a gratified smile on his face. Revenge, he thought, definitely was a dish best served cold. And it is very, very cold in space…

Mountbatten calmed himself. He reached down and straightened out his uniform jacket and breathed a deep sigh. “All right,” he said. “Just… no more sci fi references on my bridge, please. I know none of you are in the uniformed services, but this is still a military vessel and we are, even off the books, conducting a military mission. So let’s keep things professional. Please.”

“And, specifically, no more Space Battles references or talk of any kind,” Osprey said. “Isn’t that right, Mister Admiral, sir?”

Mountbatten nodded. “Yes, of course, fine.”

“And also, can you tell her no more trying to pull the ‘it’s my apartment’ card when it’s movie night and she wants to watch a stupid Space Battles movie for, like, the umpteen billionth time?”

“Mister Osprey,” Mountbatten said, “Should we talk about that letter of recommendation you’d asked me about, now?”

“… Hmm?” Osprey sat back in his chair. “I… must have missed what you just said, sir. Because of how professional I was.” He gave an awkward salute, and turned his attention to look at the forward view screen. “Oh look, it’s space.”

From one of the forward console positions came a series of beeps. They almost sounded derisive.

Stationed at the controls was a squat, brassy-colored droid shaped vaguely like a trash can. Its head was a rough dome – shaped, more accurately, like half a dodecahedron, with several of its faces on one side adorned with lights and other fixtures. It had two small manipulator arms extended from its cylindrical body, and with them it was operating the controls of the ship.

Standing next to the droid was a small Mana sprite, her mane of bright pink hair swept back by her long, pointy ears. She was wearing a simple blue smock, and had a bow and quiver slung over her shoulder.

The Admiral looked at the sprite expectantly, and she faltered.

“He, um…” she fumbled for words. “He says he admires the naivete of our guests.” The sprite smiled diplomatically.

The droid beeped again, and the sprite knocked its side gently with her fist while still offering Mountbatten a smile.

Butlesworth shook his head. “That elven girl is not interpreting that droid’s words correctly at all…” he said, silently; just under his “breath.”

“Better late than never,” the Admiral said, “But allow me to introduce our pilot. This is V3-86F, a V3 pilot droid. He’s got some after-market quirks, but if you ask me, those are the kind of thing you want to look for when you hire on a droid mercenary. The sprite child next to him is Nopen Feanthas… and, don’t ask me why, but the two of them come as a package. She’s the droid’s interpreter.”

“Why don’t you just get a voicebox for your droid, Nopen?” asked Terry.

Nopen giggled. “Oh, V3’s not ‘my’ droid. He’s my friend! And he told me he didn’t want to go through the procedure of having a box put in… So I respected his wishes! I met him half-way by learning how to talk Robotese instead!”

“Oh my gods, does she always talk like that?” Osprey asked, as the high-pitched, childlike and sing-song nature of Nopen’s speech seemed to grate on his very soul.

Butlesworth’s face was always inscrutable, but he made his own feelings clear: “That is a welcome and very much appreciated sentiment, Nopen Feanthas.”

“Thank you, Mr. Big Robot Man!” Nopen said, followed by another string of pleasant giggles.

“Make it stop!” Osprey pleaded, covering his feather-obscured earholes with his hands.


#11

::Still the Iceni…::

Attached to the marines’ locker room was a small training area. It had various workout equipment, weights, treadmills… and a sparring ring.

Both Horker and Thetrel had opted to spend the better part of their travel time here, getting in a last-minute workout before the ship’s arrival at its destination.

When Roxanne and Terry arrived to do some training, they didn’t realize what, exactly, they’d be walking into.

“Hot damn, look at you!” Horker bellowed, as he caught sight of Roxanne in her form-fitting combat suit.

Roxanne and Terry exchanged glances.

“Now aren’t you glad we talked you into wearing clothes when we train?” Terry said.

“I’m not sure these make things any better where that is concerned,” Roxanne replied.

Horker made his way over and interposed himself between Roxanne and the edge of the sparring ring. “Hey gorgeous. What’s with the little man, here?”

“… Little!?” Terry said, defensively, staring up at the over-seven-foot-tall walrus guy.

“You two ain’t, ah…?” He took his index finger and rapidly inserted it into a circle formed by the index finger and thumb on his opposite hand.

Terry blushed.

“Not that it would be any of your business if we were,” Roxanne said.

Horker smiled. “Oh, good. I don’t have to kill the little guy to get your number then.”

Roxanne’s brows furrowed. “And what makes you think you could do that? Do you know who this is?”

Terry tapped Roxanne’s shoulder. “C’mon, Roxanne… it’s not worth it…”

“Just knock him out, it’s the only way to get through to him while he’s rutting,” Thetrel called out from the treadmill (where she was clocking a running speed of 37.8 miles per hour).

Horker ignored the sheikah. “Gosh, I guess I don’t. Who are you, little man?”

“He’s The Shield,” Roxanne said. “You know, the superhero?”

“Ohh,” Horker looked over Roxanne at Terry. “So you’re a superhero, huh?”

“Hey, what happened to secret identities?..” Terry laughed nervously. He sized up Horker, and observed: “Your hand is bigger than my head…”

“Yeah,” Horker said. “You know what else on me is bigger?”

“Hint: it’s not his brain!” Thetrel called out again. (her running speed on the treadmill was the same, and she did not appear to be anywhere near to being out of breath)

“Why are you so focused on him, anyway?” Roxanne asked. “Wasn’t it me you were interested in?”

“Oh, thank Gods,” Terry muttered.

Horker regarded Roxanne. “You know it, baby. You want a piece of this, after all?”

Roxanne shrugged. “Not really. I just want to see how long it takes for your blubber to stop jiggling after I punch you out.”

Thetrel stopped hard on her treadmill. She turned and looked at Horker and just laughed.

Horker exhaled out through his nostrils so hard that the whiskers on his face all shuddered. Just as suddenly, his face relaxed, and he smiled wide, his lips curling around his tusks.

“Smart girl,” Horker said. “But maybe not so smart as you think. Maybe you need someone to teach you why it’s not smart to mouth off at a todo.”

Roxanne smiled. “Better men than you have failed at similar endeavors. Know you this: you face now a daughter of Zahd. I am Roxanne the North-Star, betrothed of Chief Lagothrix of the Knifesong Clan, and in the terrible name of my father, I challenge you!”

“… betrothed!?” Terry said. “To him!?”

“Well,” Roxanne said, “Basically. We’ve texted a bunch. We keep meaning to get together, but he’s, like, all the way out in the Fringe. I just have a feeling he’s the one. … Surely this feeling I have about this person I met and fought against one time couldn’t be wrong.”

“You wanna try the aristeia again, North-Star?” Horker said, “Or should we just keep rolling with it, and I’ll act like I’m impressed and you’re the first valkyrie I ever bumped uglies with?”

Roxanne might have been somewhat deflated that Horker wasn’t intimidated by her. But if she was, even a little, she didn’t let it show.

“‘Bumping uglies,’” she said with a scoff. “That’s a good term for what’s about to happen to you, ugly.”

“Roxanne,” Terry started, “You don’t have to–”

She raised her hand and silenced him with a glance. Horker chuckled.

“Neat trick. Can you make him sit and roll over, too?”

“I can make you roll over,” Roxanne said, as she climbed into the sparring ring. “Unless you’re about to change your mind.”

The large todo cracked his knuckles. With surprising grace, he hefted himself up onto the canvas and through the ropes of the ring.

“Ground rules?” Horker asked.

“I hit you till you can’t talk anymore,” Roxanne said.

“Hmm. Careful,” offered Thetrel, as she perched atop one of the stationary bikes. “I don’t think you want to leave the boundaries so vague when you’re fighting a magic user.”

“Oh, I don’t need my magic for this one,” Horker said.

He hardly had time to follow up his boast before Roxanne laid into him with a swift combination of punches and kicks, focusing the center of his massive torso. Horker doubled back, evidencing some pain, but none the worse for wear thanks to his thick layer of blubber.

The todo chuckled; the time for quipping was over. He lunged forward, with speed Roxanne wouldn’t have thought him capable of, his fist flying straight at her. The valkyrie crossed her arms in front of her to block the hit, which slammed into her with the force of a refrigerator launched through a gravitic rail gun. Absorbing the force from the hit, she let herself spin round, pivoting on her left foot. As she spun, she flung out her right leg and then crouched down, sweeping Horker’s legs from behind and taking them right out from under him.

The todo’s eyes went wide as he realized what had just happened, but it was too late: gravity took hold, and he hit the canvas hard. Catching sight of where Roxanne was out of the corner of his eye, he balled his fist and lashed out. Roxanne deflty sidestepped, and Horker’s meaty fist crashed into the mat where she’d been standing only half a second before.

Grinning, Roxanne brought up her fists into a ready position and danced away from the fallen todo. Horker struggled to regain his feet.

“You’re tricky,” Horker said. “So am I.”

He drew himself up and swung out with another punch – or, at least, made it look like he was. In truth, his overly-dramatic wind-up was something entirely different: a bit of arcane treachery practiced by many magic-using brawlers across the Web, a form of somatic concealment designed to throw an opponent offguard and cover the casting of a spell.

Thetrel spotted it, but was surprised by it and unable to call out her warning in time before a bit of frost manifested out of thin air, freezing Roxanne’s right foot to the canvas floor.

Roxanne first noticed something was wrong when she tried to sidestep the todo’s clumsy attack and nearly tripped over her own foot. But where a mortal warrior might have faltered, might have been unsure of what to do next, Roxanne was a valkyrie. Her mind was different, on a fundamental level, from a normal human’s: bred for battle, she could adjust more quickly, strategize more efficiently.

The ice that locked her foot in place nearly tripped her, but Roxanne shifted her weight, moved her left foot, and parlayed her stumble into what looked to be a purposeful crouch. And once she’d secured her weight, balanced herself appropriately, she drew back her right fist, and let fly.

Right into Horker’s unprotected groin.

The todo yelped and stumbled aside, gripping at his midsection with both hands, then fell face-forward into the canvas.

Roxanne reached down and smashed the ice with her bare fist, then stood and looked over at the quivering mass of todo that had, mere moments before, been so boastful and confident.

“I mean, was that necessary?” Terry asked, as Roxanne came to the edge of the ring. He offered her a hand to help her down, but she leapt down to the floor without his aid.

“Don’t know,” Roxanne said. “But it sure felt good.”

“Wouldn’t you have been required to marry him, or something, if he’d beaten you?” Terry asked.

“Sleep with, Terry,” Roxanne said. “A warrior who defeats a valkyrie in single combat gets to sleep with her. But it looks like Horker’s not going to have to worry about sleeping with anybody until he’s spent some quality time with an ice pack.”


#12

::Sylphid Cloud Nebula::

V3 beeped out something. Nopen, dutifully, offered her interpretation: “We’re approaching the nebula, Admiral!”

Mountbatten nodded. “Very good. Maintain our course, V3. Butlesworth, I’d appreciate it if you took up the ops console. Ms. Vaquero, if you could assist Dr. Tatsumota in main engineering?”

Tatsumota adjusted his glasses and leered at Violante. He swept out a hand in the direction of the lift doors. “After you, my dear.”

A chill ran down Violante’s spine. She opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and entered the lift.

Eleod was standing just to the side of Mountbatten’s seat. The Admiral sighed deep.

“I know this is about what Conn did to the Grand Army,” Mountbatten said. “He stole a battleship. He stole dangerous weaponry from the Celpo. He poses a grave threat to the Web, and it’s our duty to do something about it… even if we haven’t exactly received that order yet. But… that said… I can’t help but feel some personal resolution marching off to face this man down.”

“Oh, it’s totally personal. You’re not wrong there.” Eleod said. He cleared his throat. “Look. Rycar. I’m not the young… younger man I was during the war. I know that, as much as any other mission we’ve run, this one could be my last. I just wanted to make sure you knew…” Eleod paused and thought. He seemed to struggle to find the right thing to say.

“Don’t get all weird on me now, Eleod,” Mountbatten said. “Not when you have a job to do out there.” The Admiral turned and looked at the dwarf. “Anyway. I know, old friend. Just promise me you and the rest will be extra careful this time out.”

Eleod nodded. “I just wanted to make sure you knew,” he repeated. “I’ll go get the away team ready to debark.” He looked off toward the lift. “Hey, creepy doctor! Hold that elevator!”

Mountbatten watched as Eleod, Violante and Tatsumota disappeared behind the sliding lift doors. Deep down in the pit of his stomach, he wondered if this would, in fact, be the mission that ended the Baneling Busters.

“Admiral,” came Butlesworth’s voice from the ops console. “We have entered the nebula. As expected, long range sensors are inoperative.”

V3 offered a series of beeps, which Nopen faithfully reported: “V3 says short range scans show another vessel approaching.”

Mountbatten considered. “The Storm’s Eye?”

“Most likely,” Butlesworth said. “However, the vessel’s transponder is not broadcasting.” The R-series droid glanced again down at the console, then: “Wait. New development. The ship is… transmitting what I think might be a distress signal.”

Mountbatten stood from his chair and came down to the ops console, glancing over the R-series’ shoulder. “That’s a Grand Army code,” he said. He grimaced. “But it’s old. Very old, before SAGA…” Mountbatten focused for a moment, deciphering the code from memory. “It says it’s from a Captain Benedict… he says his bridge crew has seized control of the vessel from hostile actors, but the ship’s power is failing and comms are offline.”

V3 beeped excitedly, and Nopen said: “Sir, V3 thinks it might be a trick.”

“Oh, of course it’s a trick. Who in their right mind would fall for such an obvious trap?” The Admiral patted Butlesworth on his shoulder. “Kaeli, raise shields.”

From her perch at a console elevated just above the Admiral’s command seat, a young mul girl (the waitress from the cafe) nodded and began punching in some commands. “Raising shields, Admiral.”

No sooner had the shields gone up, a pair of white-hot antipode blasts lanced out from the Storm’s Eye. The Iceni’s defense fields absorbed the better part of the blast, but the whole ship shook under the impact.

Mountbatten wheeled around, but, thankfully, Bim had done his job: his coffee had not spilled.

With a smile, the Admiral took a sip, then set his mug back down on the griffin hand.

“Return fire,” Mountbatten said. While he appeared uninterested or unconcerned, he kept a careful eye on the R-series: he’d noted that the bot didn’t appear to have a serial number, and from what Eleod and the others had said he hadn’t had any specific military training or programming. But the droid seemed uncannily proficient at the console of a Tasnican vessel; within seconds, and with incredible accuacy given the nebula’s disruption of sensors, two missiles flared out and impacted on the Storm’s Eye’s hull.

“We are being hailed, Admiral,” Kaeli said.

“They appear to have fixed their power failure issues,” Mountbatten quipped. Then, with a nod, he signaled to the mul, who put the communication through to the main viewscreen.

The image that filled the display was that of a Grand Army Aquitane-class bridge – only, there were no Grand Army officers to be found anywhere. Instead, the ship appeared to have been crewed by a motley assortment of scum and villainy: no uniforms of any kind among them, but for one or two who wore recognizable clerical vestments associated with the Dark Gods. There were humans, but also goblins, and moblins, and drow elves and gerudo and lizalfos. And there, enthroned at the center of them all, flanked on either side by large green-skinned ork bodyguards, was the man himself.

“Conn,” Mountbatten said, dispassionately.

“Ah, Mountbatten,” Conn said. “My old friend. Surprised to see me?”

“No,” Mountbatten admitted.

“But, you remember me,” Conn said, with a self-satisfied smile. “I cannot help but feel touched.” Then, darkly: “I, of course… remember you…”

“Conn, in the name of the Space Armada, Grand Army, I am ordering you to power down your vessel and surrender it to my command, along with the weapon you’ve stolen from Grand Army custody.”

Conn laughed. “Really, Admiral. Do you forget that you now deal with the superior intellect? You have not come here on behalf of SAGA, the Grand Army or even your quaint little Republic Aerospace Force. No… you have come here alone. Hunting me. Your old friend. Am I not right, Admiral?.. Or, is there some other reason your bridge crew are not wearing any sort of fancy uniforms?..”

Mountbatten, reached for his mug for a quick sip of coffee before setting it back down on the griffin hand.

“You’re right,” Mountbatten said. “I am here for you. I came on my own. As you say, hunting you. But that does not change the way this is going to go down here. You will surrender the Storm’s Eye, along with her crew – unharmed. You will turn over the device you stole from the Celpo. And you will, ultimately, remand yourself to my custody.”

“So confident are you, old friend.” Conn sneered.

“I should think justifiably so. Your one chance was your opening gambit, catching me unawares at the outset. And at this, you have failed. At this close range, your vessel is no match for my Iceni and her shields. If we continue to trade shots, I’ll dance around your strikes, absorb whatever hits you manage to land, and pick you apart piece by piece; shields and hull and all.”

“Yes. Sadly, you saw through my clever ruse, Admiral. Perhaps you are right; perhaps I do not stand a chance against you. But tell me, Admiral… you being a modern military man, and all, you must know how those vaunted defense fields of yours work?”

Mountbatten exhaled. “I’m no starship engineer, but like most modern weapon systems, I know that our defense fields are a work of magiteknology.”

“Ah, yes,” Conn said. “You are correct, of course. Now, I, as well, am no engineer… but I do know a thing or two of magic, Admiral. The root of magitek, all magitek throughout the Web, is it not? It was, as you will recall, the great advantage of the armies of the Dark Gods during the war. The terrible Dark Gods and their frightening, magical monsters.”

“Monsters which I built my career on slaying,” Mountbatten observed, with a nonchalant grin.

“Yes of course you did, Admiral,” Conn said. “With a little help from your dear old friend, Conn, wasn’t it? A friend who, now, is sat here before you, still unsatisfied in his curiosity of how it is your tiny, tiny little ship has such an impressive protective shell.”

“To what end?” Mountbatten asked. “What’s the meaning of this?.. You’re stalling.”

“Surely I have made my meaning plain, Admiral,” Conn said. “I mean to avenge myself upon you. I will deprive your ship of its precious shields… and, after that, I mean to deprive you of your life.”

Mountbatten couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “Conn, in all these years, I have never known you to boast idly. And certainly not from so disadvantageous a position.”

“Admiral,” Butlesworth interjected, “He may not be so disadvantaged as we think. He may have --”

Kaeli interrupted Butlesworth with some urgency: “Sir, they’ve locked onto us.”

“Did you know, Admiral,” Conn spoke, “That the Storm’s Eye was recently refitted? An experiment, it was: its GigaMerton cannon replaced with a massive SuperVolt coil. In magical terms, we might say the Storm’s Eye is an elemental variant. Trading its fire elemental aspect… for one of lightning. And air.”

“Hold firm,” Mountbatten said, motioning to Kaeli. “Shields are up. Let’s wait for him to expose himself.”

“Air, of course, being quite appropriate here in Sylphid’s Cloud,” Conn spread his arms and laughed. “Have you figured it out yet, Admiral?”

Mountbatten’s eyes went wide.

“Sylphid,” Conn said. “Against your Gnome defense barriers.”

“V3, take evasive --”

The Iceni shook, as a massive arc of electricity streaked across the brightly-colored space between the two ships, lancing into the Iceni. The defensive fields shimmered, but could not hold back all of the energy. The lights on the bridge flickered. Sparks flew up from several of the consoles. Kaeli and another one of Mountbatten’s mercenaries flew off their feet, rolling across the bridge floor. Mountbatten tumbled from his seat.

Through it all, as the ship shook, there was the sound of Conn’s laughter: high-pitched and incessant.

As the shaking died down, Mountbatten hauled himself to his feet. Emergency lighting was active; V3-86F had toppled over in the attack, and Nopen and Butlesworth both worked to pull him back up.

Glancing over, Mountbatten was relieved to see Bim: still standing. Coffee unspilled.

He took a delicious sip, set his mug back down, and patted the griffin hand appreciatively.


#13

From a view-port in the RAF gunship, Fara could see the nebula-clouds behind them light up suddenly, and in silhouette she could see the Iceni and the stolen SAGA battleship.

Was that an explosion? An attack of some kind?

“I hope Violante’s going to be all right…” Fara said to herself, under her breath.

“Really?” Osprey observed. “We’re the ones heading down into a space station that we think might be filled with shadowy terrors of unholy death, and you’re worried about the people we left behind on the indestructible warship with one of the greatest space admirals of all time?”

“Gods,” Horker said, “I can hear Mountbatten’s head inflating from here.”

In the midst of the chaos of the starship confrontation, the small gunship was able to slip free of the Iceni’s hangar undetected. With the Baneling Busters aboard – plus Fara, Osprey, Roxanne, the Shield and Dr. Dougal – they made a beeline toward the abandoned research facility. As they got closer to the appointed nav point, the nebula thinned and they could see the facility: a series of domes and tubes protruding from the rocky corpse of a lonely planetoid.

Thetrel and Osprey were piloting the craft, which left everyone else to share the close-quarters of the passenger cabin. It was only thanks to the urbane and cosmopolitan nature of the modern RAF that at least one of the seats was large enough to accomodate Horker (and a similar adjacent seat could accomodate a fully-suited-up Shield).

“Coming up on the station,” Thetrel announced.

“And transmitting docking codes,” Osprey replied. “Although, I would like to note, I do have sufficient computer skill to break into this facility without the codes. As is detailed in the extended edition of my CV.”

Thetrel ignored him. “And we are go on docking.” She checked her console. “It’s automated. There’s no one at the controls on the other side.”

“Yep,” Osprey said, as he did his part on the controls for docking procedure. “Very, very ominous. A lesser man would be right to be afraid. But me? Mm mm. No sir. Not scared at – hey, is that a SAGA shuttle docked next to us?”

The lights were out in the SAGA shuttle as the RAF gunship passed it by. But then, a spark, as if from some exposed wire, illuminated the inside of the craft. The view-ports were smeared with a thick, opaque liquid…

“Okay,” Osprey said. “That, is most likely blood. Someone docked here, and they left a lot, a lot of blood coating the inside of the shuttle. Or, maybe just the windows. But still not scared.”

The gunship came to a halt as its airlock aligned to the airlock of the station.

As the Baneling Busters removed their restraints and came standing, Eleod took command.

“All right, first thing’s first. We establish a perimeter around the airlock. Lock this area down and we have our beachhead. Then we branch out and search the station. Keep your comms on and your weapons drawn until I say otherwise. Are we clear?”

All at once, everyone armed themselves: Fara manifested the Mana Sword, Roxanne thumped the Daedalus lance’s haft against the cold metal floor, the Shield deployed his Vanguard module, Osprey unsheathed Shiva’s Edge, Horker drew up his axe (a weapon seemingly made entirely of enchanted ice), Thetrel brandished her fighting-chain (and simultaneously charged it with lightning that arced and danced across its links), Galgann’s iron staff instantly began to glow and radiate intense heat, and Eleod’s fists swirled with shadowy energy. As the airlock opened, the warriors poured out and came into a docking bay that – but for the light coming in through the airlock doors and radiating off a couple of their weapons – was completely pitch dark.

“They’ve knocked out the main power,” Dr. Dougal observed. She chuckled. “Clever little pirates. I’ll get it back on.”

“Doctor,” Eleod said, “You really should stay on the gunship until we’ve secured things here --”

“Nonsense, dwarf,” the scientist said. “I’m Celpo. And you do not order me around. Quite the opposite, in fact.” She looked around. “You, valkyrie. Come with me while I look for the main power breaker.”

“Excuse me?” Roxanne said.

“Did I stutter?” the Celpo scientist replied.

“Well, it was nice knowin’ ya, doc,” Horker said, as he took a step away from Roxanne.

“Everybody, knock. it. OFF,” Eleod said, his voice a commanding whisper. “Do you hear that?”

There was silence. Then, a shuffling. It had an unearthly, echoing quality to it; it wasn’t like someone was physically moving around in the darkness, but that something unnatural was trying to make a noise that sounded like it.

Dr. Dougal lit up her mobile phone’s flashlight and held it aloft. And then, all at once, there was a loud and disapproving hiss followed by something that sounded like a whipcrack. The light went out, and Dr. Dougal fell to the ground in a heap, her neck and right wrist bent in ways they weren’t meant to be.

Hell broke loose. The warriors scattered to all sides of the docking bay as a shadow moved among them. Fara invoked Lumina and lashed out at the thing with the Mana Sword, only to have Roxanne push her back and interpose herself as the shadow retaliated. Galgann, seeing what he thought was an opening to attack, unleashed a stream of fire in the direction of the shadow. There was shouting, and more magic flew, and then an explosion.


“There he is! Knew the old cuss was too tough to die on us like that!”

Eleod woke to the visage of Horker, staring down at him. He winced and brought himself up to his feet.

“What happened?” he asked, as he reached up to feel at a burn wound on his head.

“Fuel explosion,” the Shield reported. “Rock from the surrounding asteroid’s caved in the starboard accessway. One dead, one wounded…” Terry sighed as he said the next part: “And… two missing.”

The small-hairs on the back of Eleod’s neck stood up.

“No…”

He looked around. By the airlock, the men had laid out Dr. Dougal’s body and covered her in her own bloody labcoat. Next to her, Thetrel Skysinger was laying on a makeshift bed of cargo blankets, her badly burned arm wrapped in gauze.

Everyone else was accounted for… except for Roxanne and Fara.

“Gods… forgive me,” Eleod pleaded.


#14

Fara wasn’t sure how long she was out, or how long she’d been lying there before she realized she was awake again. All she knew was her ears were ringing, and her head hurt.

She tried to stand, but something was on top of her. As she shifted, tried to move the obstruction off of her, she realized it wasn’t just a “thing” pinning her down, but a body. Her eyes had adjusted enough to the dim light filtering up from the floor that, once she’d wriggled her way out a little, she could see who it was.

“Roxanne!!”

Carefully, she squirmed her way out from under Roxanne, and gently set the valkyrie down. Blood was smeared over Fara’s hands from an open wound on Roxanne’s side. With the light filtering in from the emergency lighting down the corridor, she could cleary see the wound.

It was the first time Fara ever remembered seeing Roxanne injured. By, like, anything.

Quickly, almost without thinking, Fara removed her kevlar vest (so much for her flashy new armor’s first sortie…) and took off her U of A sweatshirt. She tore off the sleeves and fashioned a makeshift bandage, tying it tightly to keep pressure on the wound. She bundled up what remained of her sweater and carefully slipped it under Roxanne’s head.

“My, my, my, that’s simply marvelous,” came a voice from behind Fara – one she didn’t recognize. “You are so ingeniously clever, do you know that?”

Fara turned. Sitting on a large boulder was a woman with pale white skin and long, silky black hair. Her eyes were framed with black eyeliner that accentuated her red eyes all the more against her chalk-colored skin. A pair of small, thin braids framed the woman’s face, each one decorated with golden beads interspersed unevenly down the length to her shoulders; the rest of her hair was straight and spilled down to her mid back. She wore a tiara, a band of shining gold, that sat just above her ebon bangs; the center of that tiara was decorated by a small medallion set within the gold; the emblem of a coiled white cobra with eyes of flashing ruby. Despite the unclean surroundings – the fallen rock and debris, the dust in the air and the blood from Roxanne’s wound – the woman was immaculately clean.

With supernatural speed, the Sword was again in Fara’s hand, and she had drawn it up and was holding its point mere inches from the woman’s face. The woman simply laughed.

“And so very charming, too. I can see why you were picked. In spite of… Well. Everything else about you.”

Fara did not relent. “Who are you?”

The woman arched one of her slender black brows. With regal, seductive grace, she stood up, her white silk gown falling perfectly into place around her statuesque form, and walked forward; her body seemed to slide right through the sword, as if the woman weren’t really there at all.

“Let me guess: History. Not your favorite subject in school, child?” she laughed. “Many are the names I’ve been given over the course of my long life. The most recent, which you would be most likely to know, is Maitreya. And there’s no need to be rude, child. Away with your weapon. I’ve only come to talk.”

Fara lowered her sword; with a thought, it vanished from her hand. It was strange: she could feel the threads of mana around this figure, but somehow it seemed like they were of a kind she didn’t quite know how to cut… like they were more… advanced?

“I don’t have time to talk,” Fara said. “My friend’s hurt. I have other friends in danger… So, sorry, I just didn’t budget in enough time today to sit and listen to a Dark God cackle at me.”

“Oh, nonsense. You’ve as much time as I say you have. Honestly… Mortals.” Maitreya folded her hands in her lap and resumed her seat. “I do have it on rather good authority that this wouldn’t be your first time taking a call from the divine. No?”

“You mean Rainere,” Fara observed. “Yeah, we talk. Occasionally. Just usually not in the middle of life or death situations.”

“So what you’re saying is that your divine sponsor is never around when you need her?” Maitreya’s grin was somehow wicked and sweet all at once. “Now, for instance… with a dying friend, and in the midst of a nest of murderous monsters. Shameful, that is.” Her eyes flashed as she seemed to look straight through Fara; looking at her, but somehow also within her, searching, probing. “If you and I were friends, I might be inclined to take a more active hand in ensuring your wellbeing in a place like this…”

Fara rolled her eyes. “Really? Are we doing this?”

“Doing what, dear child?”

“Okay, I know you were banished to the Place That… Wasn’t… Something, or whatever, but have you not kept up with any pop culture in all the time you’ve been gone? This is, like, villain cliche #462.”

Maitreya smiled darkly. “Villain? Me? That’s a bold accusation… We’ve only just met, after all.”

“You’re a Dark God.”

“Goddess, child,” Maitreya said, sweetly. “And, yes, I was affiliated with the so-called ‘Dark’ Gods. But would you truly condemn me for little more than the associations I kept a generation ago? What do you know of me that you could say is villainous?”

Fara faltered. “Okay, that’s not fair. If I’d known there was going to be a test I might have studied. … or, crammed.”

“Hmm,” Maitreya supressed a chuckle. “Not so well informed as you thought, I suppose. Maybe I’m not so wicked as you’ve been lead to believe. Maybe my worst crime is that I picked the losing side in a war that reshaped mortal civilization. Maybe if that war had ended differently… or if I had chosen my friends more wisely… you and I could have been dear friends.” She smiled sweetly, her lips a shining crimson.

“Yeah, well… coulda, shoulda, didn’t…”

Roxanne groaned. Fara turned away from Maitreya’s illusion and bent down, tending to Roxanne’s wound.

“Maybe we still can be friends.” Maitreya said. “Maybe I can even help your injured companion, there…”

Fara turned to look at Maitreya. “Yeah? Tell me: what was it you were goddess of, again?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Thanatos is the God of Death,” Fara recited. “Torak, the Lord of Lies. Chaos, the… um. … Lord of… himself. And then you. What was your profile? Illusionary lurking?”

Maitreya said nothing. She smirked. “Things are not so simple as you let on. Thanatos, the God of Death? Surely, that sounds rather dire. But being human, you must know that death is a necessary part of life, as necessary as night is to day or shadow to light. Do you reckon that just because a mortal’s lot is to embrace life and fear for its ending, this makes a God of Death necessarily evil? Did you know, in time long past remembering, Lord Thanatos was once also a god of wealth and commerce? No one ever mentions that part of things. And my dear brother Torak… did you know he actually used to be quite handsome? A paragon of youth and beauty, before he was possessed of a visage all of madness and shadows and untruths. It was Tahran, the Light himself, who burned away Torak’s handsome face with his flaming sword, and thereby made him the terrible whispering blood god you mortals are all so afraid of now. And that weapon you wield? The ‘Mana Sword.’ It’s quite a lot older than the impudent upstart who passed it to you. It has been used in the past by both gods and by men, and not always toward the pretense of nobility you seem to be so enchanted by.”

“Funny, that’s kinda like why my dad wouldn’t let me buy a used car,” Fara muttered.

“My point is, this world we all share is more blended gray than many mortals seem capable of admitting. There is simply power, and the wielders of it… and those whom they deem their friends. In the long view, child, if you’ve any wisdom to you at all, you may come to see that the friendship of Maitreya is not so bad a thing at all.”

Fara rolled her eyes. “I believe your next bit starts with: ‘We are not so different, you and I…’”

Maitreya’s smile quickly faded. She stood. “Since you insist on being so difficult, child, let me be plain. If you will not have my friendship, then instead I will offer you a trade. I will mend your friend, here and now; ensure her life and send you off to go and rejoin your ‘Baneling Busters’ again… off on your merry way to slaughter evil creatures and whathaveyou. In return? You will do me a service. A service whose terms I design, and of which you will have no say.”

Fara made a face. “Well. Now we know you weren’t the Goddess of Dealmaking.”

Maitreya extended her hands apologetically. “You balk at the notion of my friendship. And so I turn to the vulgar language of barter – you’re Tasnican, you ought to understand that better than most. Is it not entirely right and proper that I should name a price when offering you something? Are not all things among you mortals ultimately transactional?”

Fara stood, and turned to face Maitreya. “You know, I didn’t do well in econ in my senior year, but I think I learned enough to know the difference between capitalism and blackmail.” She paused. “Wait. Maybe not blackmail. Extortion?” She paused. “Racketeering?..” She shrugged and shook her head. “Whatever. Point being, bad deal, and I think I’ll give it a pass.”

“Why?” Maitreya asked. “Because I’m the big badguy?”

“Pretty much yes,” Fara said. “I mean, I’ll admit I can’t specifically itemize all the shitty evil things you’ve done, but I know the Dark Gods killed millions.”

“It was a war, you naive little girl,” Maitreya said. “The Light Gods, the Grand Army… they killed just as many, if not more. Whole species were eliminated during that great conflict, and for what? Because they were deemed monstrous, and aligned with my siblings and I. The ‘Dark Gods.’”

“There’s a difference,” Fara said.

Maitreya smirked. “Is there now? Well how convenient for you. Was there a difference when your Generalissimo exploded an Ultima missile underneath the army of innocent Tanes the OmniSent had leashed on Albrooker Plain?” She gestured toward Roxanne. “Let us consider the Valkyries. Do you know how much wanton violence, death and destruction the daughters of Zahd have been responsible for? Or Zahd himself, even?”

Fara was silent. She couldn’t deny what Maitreya was saying; it had just enough truth to it that there was no argument possible – or, at least, none she could think of on the spot, worried as she was about Roxanne, and her other friends…

“Good? Evil? I may only be here as an illusion right now, but the vision you see before you is far more real than those comfortable concepts.” She folded her hands and her gaze pierced Fara; her smile was imperious, victorious. “Celiose and I have many, many things in common, my dear girl. And not only that we both favor white in our wardrobe.”

“Fara…” Roxanne stirred; she had been awake just long enough to understand what was happening. In spite of the pain shooting up her side, she tried to stand (and failed, painfully).

Fara quickly went to Roxanne and set her back where she was, held her bandage in place, kept her head on the makeshift pillow. The valkyrie would lose consciousness again, but not before mustering the strength to speak again:

“Lies…” Roxanne said, then with a groan: “… Don’t…”

Fara clasped Roxanne’s hand. She closed her eyes tightly, keeping back tears, and bit her lower lip. “I think you’ve said all you’ve come here to say,” Fara said, as she stood up again. Without thinking, she had called the sword back to her hand. “Now I think it’s time for you to leave. You’re disturbing my friend’s beauty sleep.”

Maitreya sighed. She stood again, and shook her head. “I am not entirely surprised this encounter ends the way it does,” she said. She turned to walk back down the corridor, and spoke over her shoulder. “But know that this is merely an opening gambit. You and I shall talk again, I think. And in the end, one way or another… your blood and that sword will work for me someday…”

Fara watched Maitreya walk away, but then called out after her: “If you’re an illusion why are you walking away instead of just disappearing!?”

Maitreya laughed. Where she was in the near-collapsed corridor, behind the boulder she’d been sitting on, there was a fallen emergency lamp that shone its light upward, illuminating the ceiling. She looked down at the source of the light, near the fallen lamp, and seemed to notice something. As she smiled, there was an audible hiss – but not from Maitreya’s lips.

“I think you have other things to worry about now, dear,” Maitreya said. “Until next time, Fara Somers.” She waved goodbye, each of her fingers with its blood-painted nails rising and falling in turn slowly, tauntingly. Then she turned and walked noiselessly away.

Hesitantly, slowly, Fara followed after Maitreya. She looked down the corridor that the goddess had left through and found it empty, with no trace of anyone there.

“Drama queen,” Fara muttered under her breath, and as her eyes trailed downard she saw what Maitreya had seen before she left.

There was an emergency lamp that had been knocked free from the wall in the explosion; it was lying on the floor, still shining its light brightly. And there, pinned under the boulder and trapped within the light being given off from the emergency lamp, was a creature that looked like a small, emaciated human. Its shin was inky-black, and shined as though it were wet. Around its skin, wisps of shadow magic, like black flames, licked outward from its frail body, only to immediately be extinguished by the harsh bright light. The creature was struggling to wriggle free from under the boulder, frantically clawing at the rock, when it noticed Fara.

It screeched loudly and bared its black fangs.

It was a Baneling.


#15

::Iceni’s Bridge::

Mountbatten tapped the comms button on the arm of his chair. “Tatsumota, come back. How bad are we hit?”

Amid crackling comm static and the sound of rumbling on the other end, Tatsumota’s voice replied: “Bad, Admiral. Reactor’s down, but Miss Vaquero promises she can have emergency power up in a few minutes.”

Mountbatten sighed. “Kaeli, our shields?”

“The defense field took the brunt of the hit,” Kaeli reported. There was a gash on her bald head, just above her left temple; a trickle of blood ran from the wound and down to her cheek. “We won’t have it back until engineering deals with the reactor situation.”

“I need antipode batteries,” Mountbatten said.

“We only have enough reserve power for a handful of shots,” Butlesworth reported. He turned and looked at the Admiral. “Not enough against the Storm’s Eye’s shields.”

“Admiral, we have wounded,” Tatsumota reported. “With your permission, I’m going to leave Miss Vaquero in charge of main engineering and take command of the medical bay.”

“Yes, go, fine,” Mountbatten said, dismissively. “Go to med bay, that’s all right. Just the damn ship might blow up while you’re there, is all…”

On the viewscreen, Conn laughed. “Admiral. You appear to be having a stressful moment. Is there anything I can do for you?..”

Mountbatten turned. Conn laughed again. “I am glad we have this moment, Admiral Mountbatten. Now, with you at my mercy, I could – and probably should – just wipe you away like the stain on the Web you are…” he leaned forward in his chair, his stunted legs dangling far above the floor below him. “But I wanted you to know first who it was who had beaten you. Like the little weenie you are.”

Mountbatten’s face, normally a mask of composure, telegraphed his sudden helplessness. Had he allowed hubris to bring him to ruin? He looked around him, at Kaeli, at Butlesworth, at Nopen and V3. This ship was full of people who had trusted him, had followed him, who believed in what he stood for. His mind raced, searching for a way out. He knew Conn wasn’t unbeatable; in fact, Conn was very beatable. Space was new to him, whereas Mountbatten was one of the pioneers who had all but invented space warfare.

Even so, Mountbatten knew he had to let go of his pride. His crew shouldn’t have to die because he hadn’t taken his own advice; because he had underestimated Conn.

“Conn,” Mountbatten said, spreading out his hands as he paced toward the viewscreen, “If it’s me you want… I’ll board a gunship and come over to you. Just spare my crew. Please.”

“I make you a counter-proposal,” Conn said. He raised a hand, his stubby index finger extended upward. “I’ll agree to your terms if – IF – in addition to yourself, you hand over to me all data and material your Doctor Tatsumota has on the Device With No Name.” He paused, and then continued: “Oh, and I also want all of the pallettes of Maranda Farms string cheese that you stocked in your galley before you left Mana III.”

“YOU MONSTER!!” Bim shouted, in an uncharacteristic show of emotion.

One of the orks leaned in and whispered something in Conn’s ear.

“Yes, that is a good point, Marcellus,” Conn said. “Just the reduced fat Maranda Farms string cheeses, I think. Yes?” Conn looked around at the rest of his crew, and they all seemed to nod in agreement. “I mean, you wouldn’t think it, but they actually do taste better than the real thing. Crazy, right?”

Mountbatten was resolute. “I can get you the string cheese,” he said. “But… I --”

“Don’t insult my intelligence, Mountbatten,” Conn said. “You were about to try to tell me you don’t know any Doctor Kino Tatsumota, or what the Device With No Name is. And you expected I would believe this, even though you were just shouting to someone named Tatsumota over your intercom, and if he is aboard the Iceni, that means you know exactly what it is I have taken.” Conn smiled. “Of course I knew you would bring him. That disgusting little weenie of a man, who has had his disgusting weenie hands all over my Device for all these years… You will give me all of his data, all of his notes, everything.”

Mountbatten sighed and dropped his hands. “You have me, Conn. You have me. Give me some time to gather all of the data… and string cheese.”

“I give you… sixty seconds, Admiral,” Conn said. He crossed his arms victoriously. Above Conn’s head, his two ork bodyguards gave each other a congratulatory fist-bump.

Mountbatten turned his back to the viewscreen, and gave a signal to Kaeli, who surreptitiously muted the call so they couldn’t be heard.

Mountbatten walked over to Butlesworth’s console, and placed a hand on the droid’s shoulder.

“Let me try and take advantage of that compuerized brain of yours,” Mountbatten said. “Why would he, of all things, want Tatsumota’s research on the Device?”

“To ensure its destruction,” Butlesworth suggested. “So no one else would know whatever Tatsumota knows about it?”

“All he’d need to do is blow us into dust for that,” Mountbatten observed. “No… the reason we’re still alive right now is because he wants that data. But why?”

Butlesworth thought. “The Device was never activated before Conn helped the Celpo steal it. Perhaps when he turned it on, it did not function as he expected. Maybe he wants to see if Tatsumota knows something about the Device that he, himself, does not?”

Mountbatten stroked his chin. Then, his eyes widened. “That’s it. V3, over here, quickly.”

The pilot droid detached from the helm console and rolled over to ops. Butlesworth politely stood aside as Mountbatten sat down, and, with the V3 droid’s help, they began quickly typing-and-tapping-and-swiping through a number of schematics screens as they flashed by on the ops console’s screen.

At first, V3 didn’t really know what was going on… but, without a single word being passed between them, as V3 saw the data on the screen, he knew what Mountbatten meant to do. He beeped happily and chipped in: clearly, Mountbatten had called him over here because a V3 pilot droid made a far better (and faster) hacker than a human without a cyberdeck did.

“Admiral?” Conn said, trying to get Mountbatten’s attention.

Mountbatten signaled to Kaeli, who turned the audio feed back on. “Sorry, Conn. We’re trying to get it all together. Tatsumota was being… uncooperative. You have to give us more time.”

“Time is a luxury you don’t have, Admiral,” Conn said, wagging his finger derisively.

Butlesworth looked over Mountbatten’s shoulder as he worked. His eye-lights blinked. “I don’t understand,” the droid said.

Mountbatten looked over at Kaeli, and she obliged by muting the sound again.

“It’s crude, but it’s our only shot,” Mountbatten said. “Conn said the Storm’s Eye had just been refitted, which must have made it easier for him to steal from stardock because it hadn’t had its security protocols re-implemented.”

V3 beeped to fill in the rest of the details.

Mountbatten nodded; he didn’t understand V3’s speech, but he was sure the droid understood his intentions. “That’s right,” the Admiral said, “We’re going to hack in and initiate a diagnostics cycle for the Storm’s Eye’s defensive systems. Which will drop their shields and turn off their guns just long enough for us to get the upper hand.”

Butlesworth considered. “Clever,” he said. “But what if Conn engaged the security protocols after he stole it, and gave himself full access? He is quite intelligent…”

“Then we’re fucked and we all die,” said Kaeli, the bright demeanor she’d evidenced as a cafe waitress now gone completely.

“Fifteen seconds, Admiral,” Conn called out.

Mountbatten stood from the ops console, allowing V3 to slide in. Across the way, Butlesworth slid into the seat in front of the helm console and made ready to activate the controls. Mountbatten nodded to Kaeli, and she turned the audio feed back on once again.

“Conn,” Mountbatten said, “Once we’ve sent over the data and all of our delicious low-fat string cheese from Maranda Farms… how do we know you’ll keep your word?”

“Oh, I’ve given you no word to keep, Admiral!” Conn said, with a confident grin. “In my judgement you simply have no alternative.”

“I see,” Mountbatten said. He straightened his uniform jacket and cleared his throat. “Well. Then… I shall just have to rely upon your honor as an officer of the Grand Army, to hold to our agreement.”

Conn’s smile widened. Behind him, the two orks were outright laughing at this. “Of course,” Conn said.

Mountbatten turned and spoke low to Kaeli: “Lock weapons on target. Await my command.”

Kaeli obeyed, locking in all of the Iceni’s antipode banks. Violante had managed to bring auxiliary power online, but the poor wounded ship was still fighting way below her potential… Kaeli wasn’t even sure how many shots she’d be able to squeeze out before the power gave out, or Conn somehow managed to get the Storm’s Eye’s shields back up.

“Time’s up, Admiral,” Conn said.

Mountbatten turned back to the viewscreen. “Here it comes,” Mountbatten said.

“And my string cheeses?” Conn asked.

“Now,” Mountbatten said.

V3 beeped and complied, beginning the transmission of the hastily-contrived bit of malware. (for about a minute’s worth of work, V3 thought, it was quite an admirable little hack!)

From just off-screen, one of Conn’s men shrieked.

“Lord General!” came the voice, “Our shields are dropping!!”

Conn balked. “Raise them! Raise them raise them raise them!!!”

“Fire!” Mountbatten said.

Kaeli unloaded. Everything the Iceni had left streaked out across the swirling multi-colored space of the nebula and struck the hull of the Storm’s Eye. Explosions peppered the Storm’s Eye’s skin, and the whole ship shook.

“RETURN FIRE!!!” Conn screamed as he tumbled out of his chair, “EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, THROW EVERYTHING AT THEM YOU WEENIES!!!”

The transmission abruptly cut off, and the image of the Storm’s Eye in space filled the viewscreen again. Roiled by the attack, and unable to strike back, the Storm’s Eye turned about and flew off, deeper into the nebula.

Mountbatten sighed, and unbuttoned the top three buttons of his uniform jacket. He collapsed into his command chair, and reached for his coffee mug. He took a quick sip.

“Still warm,” he mused, before setting it back down on Bim’s head.


#16

::Docking Bay, Sylphid’s Cloud Celpo Facility::

With a soft, blue glow, Horker’s healing water enveloped Thetrel’s badly burned upper arm. The pink, tender flesh glistened as the magic did its work; the sheikah winced in pain as the ice-cold, mana-infused water danced across her extremely sensitive, recently-burned flesh.

Eleod sat on a nearby supply crate, his head in his hands. This was nothing new to him. It was not the first time he’d been put in command of a team and lost someone – as he thought this, he cast his eyes over to Dr. Dougal’s body, a bloody mess covered in her bloody lab coat. But Fara?..

“I wouldn’t take it too hard, if I were you.”

Galgann came up beside Eleod, thumping his iron staff on the ground as he walked. “That fool scientist was asking to be killed. No respect for the chain of command. No understanding of what it means to be a soldier on the field.”

Eleod’s eyes ached as he pulled his head up to regard Galgann. “And Fara? Roxanne?”

Galgann shrugged. “Their fates are unknown. We only have one body, after all.”

“I know,” Eleod said. He looked over at the Shield, who was pounding away at the debris choking off the collapsed passage with his powersuit’s armored fists. Eleod didn’t know what to say, except that he wished he’d also had a big robot suit so he could futilely try to dig Fara out right alongside him.

“You need to do something,” Galgann said, “Say something. We still have a mission to complete, or else this entire trip has been for nothing.”

Eleod sighed. It pained him to admit that Galgann was right. But what could he say? While Terry beat his hands against a snarl of rock and steel that he had no realistic chance of clearing out on his own, Osprey had perched himself atop the loading fork of an old cargo-lifter. He had said nothing since the explosion; he merely sat there, staring at the pile of debris, a blank and haunted expression in his eyes. How was Eleod supposed to console the two of them after what they may have just lost? How could he face them, knowing that the Mana Knight had only come on this excursion because Eleod had asked her?..

“We have a mission to see through,” Eleod said at last, as he came to his feet. “Let’s form up. We’ve got lights on here in the docking bay, so this will be our fallback position. Horker, crack open that crate of glow-rods over there. I want everyone carrying a light as we move down the remaining passage. We’ve just seen what an internal explosion can do to some of these corridors; there’s no telling how many others have been similarly collapsed or damaged in the time since this facility was abandoned.”

All throughout Eleod’s speech, there was the constant ringing of the Shield’s armored fists striking the rock and steel blocking off the collapsed corridor. Finally, Eleod stopped talking, and looked off in the Shield’s direction.

“Shield,” Eleod called out. “I said form up.”

The Shield stopped. His armored shoulders heaved, and he turned. He regarded the dwarf through his helm’s visor.

“No thank you,” the Shield said. “I’m not going anywhere until I get to Fara and Roxanne.”

“That ain’t a good idea, kid,” Horker said. “You keep bangin’ around like that, you might just bring the rest of the ceiling down.”

“… Or bust a hole out to space and depressurize the entire facility,” Thetrel offered.

“Well then it’s a good thing I dressed for the cold weather,” the Shield said.

Horker rolled his eyes. “We ain’t got time for this shit,” he muttered, as he stomped over to the Shield and took hold of his arm.

In a flash, the Shield spun around and landed a seraphim-armored punch square in the center of Horker’s chest. The todo stumbled backward, but regained his footing and braced himself as the Shield charged him for another strike. Horker conjured his ice axe and deflected, smashing the axe against the Shield’s head and sending the superhero reeling. He came about just in time to catch Horker rushing at him, bellowing a roar, his axe raised over his head. The Shield deployed the Vanguard module, deflecting the axe and then catching Horker square in the face with his gravitic baton. The todo flew backward, rolling on his back and then tumbling to his feet. He roared again, and the two combatants charged right at each other, until –

“Terry!”

Osprey leapt down from his perch, landing between Horker and the charging Shield. In an instant, the Shield stopped and just stood there.

“Terry, they’re right,” Osprey said. “We can’t stick around here while there’s a mission to complete. We need to listen to Eleod…”

The Shield shook his head. “We can’t leave them, Os. We… I can’t…” he couldn’t finish his thought.

“We won’t,” Osprey said, as he laid a hand on the Shield’s shoulder. “We’re not leaving this rock without them, one way or another. But we have a job to do first. And Roxanne would be so pissed at us if all we did after travelling all this way was dig around looking for her and Fara.”

Eleod approached then, standing beside Osprey. He looked up at the Shield.

“I swear to you,” Eleod said, “We will find them. I will make this right, one way or another. But with Fara… not here… I need you, Shield. … Terry.”

The Shield sighed. His Vanguard module retracted back into his gauntlet with a snap. He nodded. “Okay, Eleod.” He cast a glance back at the pile of rubble, observing the limited progress his banging and bashing had made. It took everything in him, every ounce of willpower, to walk away from that mound of slag and stone – knowing, as he thought he did, that he was leaving behind friends who may have been trapped underneath.

“Now that that’s dealt with,” Galgann said, “What exactly is our mission now? With the good Doctor dead, none of us can actually turn off this machine if we find it.”

“What are you getting at?” Thetrel asked, as she finished wrapping her arm in a fresh bandage.

“I should think it’s clear enough,” said the magma dwarf, a fire dancing behind his glowing yellow eyes. “We cannot turn it off, but we need to stop it, one way or another. Our only option: we destroy the machine.”

“I’m pretty sure I remember you were voted down hard when you brought up the ‘blow-it-all-to-hell’ plan at the last meeting,” Osprey said.

“I don’t suppose you got any better ideas, birdbrain?” Horker asked.

“Not as such,” Osprey said. “But I’m pretty sure blowing up the device makes this a non-scoring round for us. Mission failed.”

“Yeah?” Horker said, “Well, call me crazy, but I dunno how I feel of going through all this work just so that creepy Celpo scientist can take a Baneling-making machine back to his secret lab and do Gods-know-what with it. Just as well we let Galgann get his rocks off blowin the damn thing up, if you ask me.”

“We didn’t,” the Shield observed.

“Knock it off, all of you,” Eleod said. He sighed. “So the mission’s changed a little. This is nothing new for the Baneling Busters. But one thing we do not do is sit here on our asses bitching at each other when exactly none of you are responsible for making the actual decisions about which machines we’ll be blowing up when.” He looked pointedly at Galgann Fireblaster. “Have I made myself clear?”

Galgann nodded. “As ever, Eleod,” he said, coolly. “As ever.”

Eleod puffed himself up and marched to the head of the group. “First, we find the damn machine. And while we’re doing that, we watch each others’ backs and make sure we don’t lose anymore people to the evil shadow monsters lurking out there. Now let’s move out.”


#17

Fara wasn’t sure how much time had gone by.

She did know that, in however much time it had been since Maitreya had left her, she had hardly taken her eyes off of the creature in front of her.

Reflexively, the sword had leapt into her hand, and she was pointing it right at the creature. But she didn’t dare move, not at all.

The terror that was coursing through Fara now was born of all of the stories she’d heard about the Banelings – the terrible, terrible Banelings. They could move undetected through shadows, and they could kill with powerful magics. They were the Dark Gods’ assassins of choice during the Great War, and not for nothing, either. Monsters, all of them; terrible, frightening monsters.

And here was one, right in front of Fara. The first one she’d ever seen in her life.

… And… honestly? It looked sorta on the runty side.

She didn’t relax her guard, of course, but she observed that this very first meeting with a Baneling was… well. Not-so-impressive. It looked small, emaciated. What did Banelings eat, anyway? Some of the stories said they drank blood and feasted on the brains of their victims. Probably not true. Probably.

But Fara couldn’t get over the size of the thing. She knew that the Banelings originally from hyps – a humanoid species from Aryth – and the hyps were about human-sized. So she sort of always assumed that a Baneling, then, would be roughly about as big.

So why was this one only slightly bigger than a small dog?

Beyond its size, the creature was pinned by a boulder; one of its legs stuck beneath it, possibly broken. And caught in the glow of the emergency lamp the way it was, the little Baneling appeared helpless to use any of its vaunted shadowy powers.

Small. Pinned. Helpless.

Fara had to remind herself what her mission here was: to kill Banelings, to stop this machine that was spewing them out. But she looked at the small, alien creature, and had to wonder.

She’d spent several minutes listening to Maitreya monologue at her. Roxanne had come to, briefly, to warn her away from the Dark Goddess’ lies.

But, like any good villain, not everything Maitreya had said was completely false.

With Maitreya’s words ringing in Fara’s ears, she took a tentative step closer. As before, when she first approached, the Baneling hissed at her… but it also cowered. It drew its arms back toward itself, defensively. Its tiny body was shaking.

Fear. The thing was afraid of her.

That just about settled it for Fara. This mission, maybe it wasn’t what the Baneling Busters thought it was. Even if it was, though, Fara was not going to murder a helpless, frightened creature just because, all her life, she’d been told it was a monster.

Fara approached the boulder – mindful not to make any sudden movements in front of the tiny Baneling – and rested her hand upon it. She focused her attention on the strands of mana that made up the boulder: the essences of elemental earth and quasielemental minerals that coalesced within its physical form. She reached inside herself, drew up the Mana Sword, and lashed out with a quick surgical stroke, cutting several of the strands. A segment of the boulder immediately crumbled into pebbles, and the boulder itself, now off-balance, fell back and away from the small Baneling, freeing it.

The Baneling clambered away, crawling with its small, black clawed hands and dragging its maimed leg behind it.

As a final gesture, Fara lifted up her booted foot and stomped on the emergency lamp, immediately killing the light.

At first, she couldn’t see anything. But then she concentrated on Shade (just like Eleod had once told her to), and found that she could now see in the darkness.

What she saw made her nearly pee her pants.

She could see the tiny Baneling crawling away into the darkness; as soon as the light went out, it seemed to fill-out, becoming no longer emaciated but robust – almost cherubic, even. It crawled away to where the light’s edge had been… and there, standing waiting for the creature, were more Banelings. Dozens of them, all roughly humanoid forms, staring at her through the darkness with creepy pinpoint eyes.

As Fara had initially thought, they were human-sized. In the dark, they looked almost like they were wearing robes that were constantly blowing in a sourceless wind, but these were actually waves of the most black and powerful shadow magic you could think of, constantly emanating off their physical bodies in rippling currents of power. One of them knelt down to tend to the small, injured Baneling, while another took a tentative step toward Fara.

Suddenly very afraid (and regretting that she had smashed the only source of light), she moved back toward Roxanne, and drew up the Mana Sword.

At the sight of the sword, the Baneling stopped moving, and held up its hands. It shook its head, still holding its hands out in front of it, palms outward. After a moment, the Baneling pointed down at Roxanne, nodding its head in her direction for extra measure.

Fara, breathing heavy, looked down at Roxanne, then back up at the Baneling.

“Yeah,” Fara said. “I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think maybe your son had something to do with my friend being hurt.”

The Baneling said nothing, nor made any indication it had understood (or even heard) what Fara had said. It simply pointed again at Roxanne.

Fara looked again at the fallen valkyrie, then back at the Baneling. The Baneling pantomimed, holding one of its hands to its side, then, again, pointing back at Roxanne.

“She’s injured,” Fara said. “I know.”

The Baneling took a step forward. It pointed at itself, then pointed again at Roxanne.

Long moments passed. Fara thought she knew what the Baneling was trying to say, but wasn’t sure if it would be the smartest idea to play along. Again, the Baneling pantomimed: pointing at itself, pointing at Roxanne, then placing one of its hands again on its side. Finally, Fara sighed and took a step to the side, allowing space for the Baneling to move toward her wounded mentor.

“… Boy I hope you didn’t just say you wanted to eat her,” Fara said.

Keeping its eyes on Fara’s sword, the Baneling moved forward. There was a sudden hissing sound from one of the other adult Banelings, and it took several quick steps toward Fara, writhing tendrils of shadow magic making ready to leap out and sever the Mana Knight’s life thread. But the lead Baneling, the one that was moving toward Roxanne, turned and held up a hand, and immediately its fellow stopped moving.

Fara exhaled anxiously. “I’m insane,” she said. “I am absolutely insane and Roxanne is not going to believe a word of this. Which may be just as well because she would be so mad.”

The Baneling kneeled and laid its hands on Roxanne. Fara lowered the sword and watched as the Baneling worked. Because she had invoked her connection to Shade, she could not only see in the pitch darkness, but she also was able to observe strands of shadow magic working on knitting Roxanne’s wound closed. Impossibly, the Baneling was actually healing her.

That was something they never mentioned in the old Great War stories.

Fara could hardly believe it. She de-manifested the Mana Sword.

With no trace of fear, Fara moved to the side of the Baneling and placed a hand on its shoulder. It seemed momentarily startled by the sudden warmth of a human hand, but turned and looked Fara in the eyes.

“Thank you,” Fara said.

This time, she was sure the thing understood her. It nodded, and stood to its full height. Silently, the Baneling moved off and joined its kin, and then the rest disappeared down the corridor.

Fara could hear Roxanne stirring. She knelt down and took her hand.

“Roxanne!”

The valkyrie shook her head and started to sit up, propping herself on her elbow. She reached down and felt at her side. “Gods, how long was I out for? Where are we, Fara?”

“I don’t have time to explain,” Fara said, “But we need to get moving. We have to find the others, sooner rather than later. Can you stand?”

Roxanne nodded. “Actually… I feel great. Amazing, really. … Did you say how long I was unconscious?.. And who turned out the lights?”

Fara helped Roxanne to her feet, and kept hold of her hand. “We’re still in the facility. You were hurt, and… we got some unexpected help. I promise I’ll explain more later. Just stay with me. Try to keep up, and try not to trip. I’ll get us through.”

In the dark, Fara could see Roxanne smile. “I guess you’re in charge…” There wasn’t resent in Roxanne’s voice, but more than a small hint of pride. “Be careful, Fara. Banelings are no joke.”

Fara smiled back, even though she knew Roxanne couldn’t see it. “You don’t even know the half of it.”


#18

::Iceni, Engineering Deck::

Mountbatten knew that he had not won the fight. At best, the Iceni’s surprise counter-attack against the Storm’s Eye had earned them a temporary reprieve; some breathing room.

Several of Mountbatten’s crew had been injured by the initial SuperVolt blast, and it was enough to keep Dr. Tatsumota and the handful of medical staff in the med bay busy. Meanwhile, Violante had the unenviable task of keeping the RAF flagship limping along.

“They hit us here,” Violante said, indicating a section on a cross-sectional schematic of the Iceni, “And again over here. The attack may have looked like a single burst from their SuperVolt coil, but really it was two consecutive and very intentionally directed pulses. In addition to taking out our defense fields, we’ve lost main power, and there’s no way that’s coming back unless we can change out the coupling inside the reactor chamber itself. Auxiliary power will have to do for now.”

Mountbatten and Butlesworth both leaned in and looked closer. “What’s the significance of these two spots where they hit us?” asked the Admiral.

“On their own, not much,” Violante said. “But the Gnome defense fields work by shifting energy as needed to meet incoming attacks. With the power that the SuperVolt coil was pouring into these two spots, in such rapid succession, and just far enough apart, it forced the defense field to try and shift quickly to block the damage and that overloaded the field emitter. And that’s how they punched through.”

Mountbatten stroked his chin. “So it wasn’t just an elemental antithesis effect, like Conn suggested.”

“I’m sure the Air-Earth factor didn’t help us,” Violante said. “But the point is he can do this to us again, even if I bring the defense field back up.”

“Which you’re completely able to do, I assume?” Mountbatten asked.

Violante took that as a challenge to her ability. She crossed her arms and stared down the Admiral. “Yes. But it’ll do absolutely no good if the defense field can’t do anything against that SuperVolt blast.” Violante sighed, but then stopped. Then, as she looked back at Admiral Mountbatten, she managed a smile. “I think… I have an idea. I don’t know if it will work, but if it does…” She pressed her hands against her mouth, then started to explain: “You’re familiar with how a lightning rod works? You have a building with a metal rod at the top of it…”

“And the rod attracts lightning strikes, and then disperses the electricity so that the current goes to ground without harming the building it’s protecting,” Mountbatten finished her thought. “Yes, I know how a lightning rod works.”

“Well,” Violante continued, “We might be able to do something similar the next time the Storm’s Eye’s SuperVolt coil hits us… Now, SuperVolt fire doesn’t work quite the same way lightning does, but it’s still electricity. If we can channel it so that it goes around the Iceni’s hull, without striking us, then we’ll be fine.”

Mountbatten nodded his head. “Promising… if it works. How can it be done?”

Violante shoved her hands in her pockets and shrugged. “I’m not sure I–”

“We can channel the energy through the defense fields themselves,” offered Butlesworth.

Both Mountbatten and Violante turned and looked at him.

“We would just need to modify Iceni’s shields… as Conn suggested, create an ‘elemental variant.’ Magitek components retain enough arcane properties that they can be modified slightly without significantly altering the technological component. Invert the affinity of the defense field’s elemental energy from earth to lightning magic. The emitters themselves will not be affected, but the energy they produce for our defense field will be able to channel away the Storm’s Eye’s SuperVolt blasts.”

Violante balked. “That… doesn’t sound right to me.”

Butlesworth turned his head to look at Violante. “I am certain this will work, Ms. Vaquero. I will assist you, if you like.” He looked back to Admiral Mountbatten. “There is, however, what one might call a ‘catch’: if we modify the field in this way, its effectiveness against more conventional ship-to-ship arms will be diminished. Only the Storm’s Eye’s main gun will be countered.”

Mountbatten nodded. “It’s the weapon Conn will rely on first and foremost in our next encounter: the small man, so taken by the impressive power of his overly large weapon.” He smiled, slid his hands into his pockets, and looked at Violante. “Do it. Take the droid with you and get it done.” He looked at Butlesworth out of the corner of his eye, and said: “Sometime you will have to tell me how a robot butler knows so much about magitek weaponry.”

“I can’t account for what I know, Admiral,” Butlesworth said, “But so long as I’m aboard your ship helping you, all that I do know is at your disposal.”

“How long will it take?” Mountbatten asked.

Both Mountbatten and Butlesworth looked at Violante, but she held up her hands defensively. “Hey. With auxiliary power online, I can get the defense fields back up in an hour or two. You have to talk to the robot, here, for an estimate on his lightning-field plan.”

“Miss Vaquero,” Butlesworth said, the very soul of politeness, “You are mistaken. It was your idea that we should attempt to emulate the way a lightning rod functions. This plan is as much yours as anyone’s.”

“Well, I appreciate that, thanks,” said Violante. “So then how long do you need to modify the emitters?”

The robot’s eyes blinked. “As I have never attempted this before, nor am I aware of anyone else who has, I fear I cannot give you an estimate. But I will work as quickly as I can.”

The Admiral’s communicator on his belt buzzed. He quickly drew it up. “This is the Admiral,” he said.

“The Storm’s Eye is returning to our position,” Kaeli’s voice came over the comm. Then, she was heard talking to someone else on the bridge: “No, ‘Admiral’s Cupbearer’ is not an official command rank and I do not take orders from you–”

Mountbatten smirked. “Tell V3 to turn us around. Run away at top speed, make a show of it. I’ll be back up there momentarily.” He replaced the communicator on his belt and clapped his hand on Butlesworth’s shoulder. “Well, get to work you two. Contact me as soon as you’ve got something. I’ll try to keep us out of firing range until then.”


#19

Taesha Sunsong.

Eleod remembered the name, as he remembered all of the names of the former members of the Baneling Busters during the Great War. Taesha was a sprite from the Upperlands, and a Sun Priest devoted to the Mana Elemental Sola. She was beautiful, she was brilliant, she had a wicked sense of humor. Taesha was one of the few in the company who had a life outside of her service: she was both a wife and a mother. Her husband was a soldier in the Grand Army under General Model Steinmetz; he had enlisted to fight even though the Sunsongs were a very influential and important family among the Upperlands sprites and he could just as easily have stayed out of things. But he chose to fight – both of them chose to fight. Back home, the couple had three children, all of them still very young (the oldest was barely 40) and being cared for by Taesha’s younger sister. She came from a big family, which was unusual among the longer-lived elven races, but it made her seem more human to hear her talk at length about the family she had waiting for her back home in her beloved forest. Taesha was someone you wanted as a friend. She cared about you, she asked how you were feeling, she would offer to lend a hand if you were in trouble. She was also quite impish, and loved a good practical joke. She was the kind who always, always had to have the last word.

And she was torn in half with a flick of a Baneling’s wrist, right in front of Eleod’s eyes.

Eleod remembered Taesha the most out of his fallen comrades from the Great War. He remembered her face, her eyes widened in surprised as her body tumbled to the ground; he remembered her mouth frozen in that gasp, as if she were preparing to ask a question about what had just happened. Of all the death that Eleod had seen, all the corpses and all the victims and all the slain enemies, Taesha’s face in that moment stayed with him. Haunted him.

“Is it weird we haven’t seen any of them yet?” asked Osprey. Shiva’s Edge was out and clutched in his hands, the light from the team’s glowrods glinting off its pale blue surface.

“Banelings’ll show up when they wanna show up,” Horker said.

“Besides, they aren’t the mission,” Thetrel said. “The machine is.”

“Yes,” Galgann said. “And I’m still not convinced Eleod’s made the correct call.”

Gaevi Grayeye.

Gaevi was a Pandoran monk infected with lycanthropy when he was a young man. He spent years trying to control his affliction, studied martial arts and meditation, travelled the Web over seeking out wise men and sages who might know how he could be rid of the beast. It wasn’t until he returned to the Mana Dimension and visited the Moon Shrine in Kakkara that he finally came to find peace. Through the wisdom of Luna, Gaevi learned to live with the wolf inside. He was an old man, and had given so much of his life to his quest to cure himself; when the Grand Army came recruiting magic users for its special unit of Baneling Busters, he didn’t hesitate.

He was killed so fast Eleod didn’t even see it happen. Again, a Baneling took one of his comrades, and he hadn’t been quick enough to do anything about it.

The group moved steadily up the corridor. Back toward the docking bay, it had been metal on all four sides, but as they moved deeper into the facility the walls, floor and ceiling around them were all just asteroid: rough-hewn rock cut away to make space for the Celpo’s secret base. The narrowing of the corridor ought to have been reassuring, as there were fewer places for deadly shadows to hide. Somehow, the confinement did not equate to comfort.

“Shouldn’t be much further now,” the Shield said. He twirled his baton in his hand.

Navarha.

As far as Eleod knew, Navarha didn’t have a surname. She was a Gerudo dervish who had an affinity for both fire and water magic. She was able to cast spells very much like “antipode,” even though that particular magic hadn’t been popularized before the emergence of the Gate Dimension. She used to speak at length about how unpopular Ganondorf was among her people, how many among the Gerudo hated him and how that was the real reason Ganon was forced to relocate to the Dragon Dimension to lead the Dark Dragon army. She said that when she went back home, after the war, she wanted to devote the rest of her life to improving the lot of the Gerudo: fighting for equality for her people in Hyrule, political enfranchisement, equal opportunity. To break with the bad reputation and events of the past, to economically empower the Gerudo communities. To make a difference.

She never got that chance. Eleod always wondered if he had only paid closer attention, if he had been more alert, if he had reacted quicker when he saw those shadows start to shimmer… maybe he could have saved Navarha. Maybe Navarha would have gone back home, and would have helped her people, and maybe today she’d be a Member of the Alliance Congress from the Gerudo nation.

But Eleod didn’t save her. And she was dead now, another brave soldier killed by a monster of the Dark Gods.

“If we don’t destroy it,” Galgann asked, “What then? We carry it out? We’ve not seen a single Baneling since we left the docking bay. You think the creatures will just let us walk away with a machine that supposedly creates more of them?”

“Eleod’s in charge,” said the Shield, “And he said we don’t destroy it.”

“The dwarf’s got a point though,” Horker said, “This whole setup stinks worse than last year’s catch in summer. We’re supposed to go into the heart of a nest of Banelings, and then… what?”

There were more names. They each had a story, they had hopes and dreams and quirks and flaws. And the reason Eleod was thinking about them now, instead of listening to them bicker amongst each other as a backdrop to his flashes of memory, was because he had failed them and they were dead.

“No more,” Eleod whispered to himself. He glanced around at the brave warriors who were with him. “There is no ‘what then.’ We go in. We smash that blasted machine. And then we fight our way back out and kill any Banelings we find along the way.”

The Shield glanced at Eleod. “Smash it?.. But I thought you said --”

“I said we’d find the damn thing,” Eleod said. “But if we aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to win, people will die. Dr. Dougal is already dead… Fara and Roxanne may be hurt, or may be…” he stopped himself. “No more. No more deaths on my watch.”

Horker chuckled. “Now that’s more like it, Eleod.”

The Shield and Osprey looked at each other warily.

Nothing further was said as the group continued on through the maze of tunnels. Eventually, the tunnels opened up onto a larger chamber. Eleod’s Shade-vision helped him see beyond even the edges of the light from the team’s glow-rods: this was a chamber that likely wasn’t part of the original facility. It was bigger, rough along its edges, like it was the hollowed-out burrow of an animal.

Or nest of animals.

On an elevated dais at the far end of the room was something that looked a bit like a warhead: tall, cone-shaped, metallic. It exactly matched the image they’d seen on the holo back on the Iceni.

“The device,” Eleod whispered. He nodded. “Galgann, light it up! Everyone else, perimeter!”

The heroes tossed down their glow rods and formed a circle around the fire dwarf, facing outward with weapons raised, spells ready. All around them, at the edges of the light, shadows stirred. There was hissing, and screeching; the dark intelligence in the shadows knew what was going to happen next. They saw Galgann channel his fire spell, tongues of flame licking the air about his face and hands, building up into something that would make the most terrible of explosions.

For Taesha. For Gaevi. For Navarha.

All at once, with a victorious shout, Galgann let his fireball fly. It screamed through the air, over the anguished protests of the darkness filling the cavern, soaring on its inevitable trajectory toward the Device With No Name.

But then, all of a sudden, the flame was snuffed out like a candle. It took Eleod a moment to process exactly what he was seeing next.

There, standing in front of the Device with a sword held aloft, was a girl dressed in drab green body armor.

Fara.

“I can’t let you destroy the Device, Eleod,” Fara said.

Eleod’s face broke with anger. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he howled in rage.


#20

“He’s pulling up behind us,” Kaeli announced.

Mountbatten nodded. “On screen.”

At his command, the viewscreen showed an image of the Storm’s Eye looming behind them. Comparatively, it was massive. In size alone it would seem the matchup was heavily weighted against the Iceni. Fortunately for the Admiral and his crew, these contests were not usually determined by size.

“Maintain our speed, but change heading,” Mountbatten entered some calculations into the console on the arm of his chair, and sent them over to the helm.

Almost immediately V3 issued a string of loud protest beeps.

“Admiral,” said Nopen, the loyal sprite, as she interpreted for V3, “V3 would like to point out that this heading will take us into the path of a magnetic storm near the heart of the nebula.”

“I am aware,” Mountbatten said, confidently. “Continue.”

“The storm will worsen the sensor disturbance,” Nopen said, further interpreting for V3.

“I am sure I said to continue, didn’t I?” Mountbatten asked.

A datapad was resting on his lap, displaying a nav chart of the interior of the nebula. In the upper left hand corner, a digital clock blinked with the current time, accurate to the milisecond. As the time ticked away, he used his fingers to rotate the map of the nebula and manually change the positions of the two ships.

Kaeli grinned. Admiral Mountbatten was old-school. The nebula was mucking with sensors, but it didn’t matter to Mountbatten: his mind was all he needed to track both ships’ positions. This was why she and all the rest had pledged themselves to him: no one alive today but Rycar Mountbatten could save the Republic from its enemies, or itself.


Aboard the Storm’s Eye’s bridge, Conn watched intently as the Iceni fled.

“There she is,” Conn said. He stroked his chin and mused. “And not so wounded as we were lead to believe… So much the better.”

The helm of the Storm’s Eye was being manned by a lamia – the handmaidens of Maitreya, so they were called; human woman from the waist up, white-scaled serpent from the waist down. She half turned and remarked to Conn: “Lord General, if they enter that magnetic storm ahead, we will lose them.”

Conn grimaced. He turned and looked at the greasy-haired man wearing the emblem of Zeromus. “Explain it to them.”

The Zeromus worshipper nodded and, at his weapons console, launched a small rocket just off the Iceni’s port bow.


“Incoming missile, Admiral!” Kaeli announced. The bridge crew reflexively braced for impact; each of them knew that the modifications Violante and Butlesworth had made to the defense fields would afford no protection against a missile impact.

But that impact was not to be. The ship shuddered as the missile instead sailed right past the Iceni, grazing its port side.

“He wants to frighten us into turning around to meet him,” Mountbatten said. He looked to V3. “Stay on course, helmsman. Maintain our speed.”


The Iceni continued moving, undeterred.

“He tasks me,” Conn muttered to himself, drumming his fingers together, “He tasks me!..” He then noticed that the Storm’s Eye was starting to slow. “Wait, what? Why are we losing speed?”

“We can’t go in there, My Lord,” the lamia said, “We would be entirely blind from the storm!”


“Sir,” Kaeli announced. “Storm’s Eye is slowing.”

Mountbatten’s eyes flashed. “Open a channel, audio only,” he said. When it was open, Mountbatten spoke: “What’s the matter, Conn? Afraid to follow this through to the end?” He paused. Then, just to rub it in: “Conn. I’m laughing at the ‘superior intellect.’”


Conn fumed. “That WEENIE,” he howled. Then: “Full power!”

“Lord General,” the lamia protested, but to the astonishment of his ork bodyguards, Conn flew forward from his command chair and lunged at the controls.

“I SAID FULL POWER, DAMN YOU WEENIE LADY WITH YOUR WEENIE LADY PARTS!!”


There was a moment’s silence, as Mountbatten and his officers waited for what the Storm’s Eye would do next. Then, Kaeli spoke: “They’re resumed pursuit speed. They’re gaining on us.”

“Let them have a few more kilometers, the throttle up to full speed,” Mountbatten said.

V3 beeped. Nopen nodded, and looked up to the Admiral. “They’re two kilometers out from being in range to fire their SuperVolt coil at us.”

“Keep pace, just ahead of them,” Mountbatten said. “Make him work for it before we show him our surprise.”

Mountbatten continued working on his tablet. His fingers danced across the touch screen, his eyes flitting across the length and breadth of the nebula map.

“We’re deep in,” Kaeli said, “Nothing but static.”

“Slow to half,” Mountbatten said, not taking his eyes off of his tablet. And why should he? The view screen ahead of him was a haze of blurred pixels and snowy white fuzz. Right now, the Admiral’s mind and his constantly-evolving computations were all the sensors the Iceni had – or needed.

Still fixed on his calculations, Mountbatten called out: “Kaeli, call engineering over the comm. Tell them to activate our defense field.”


There was silence on the bridge of the Storm’s Eye. Frustrated, he pursed his lips and clapped his hands on his knees.

“Fortibras!” He called out. One of his orks leaned forward. “You are good with the television in my condominium back home… see what you can do!”

The ork – dark green and with a metal plate bolted to his forehead – nodded and lumbered over toward the viewscreen. He smacked the side of it with his meaty fist, a maneuver which often yielded satisfactory results with television sets. Not so in the midst of a magnetic storm in space.

“It is as I feared, Lord General,” the lamia hissed, “Sensors are unresponsive. We are totally blind --”

“Full stop, they’re right in front of us!!” screamed a woman at the sensors console – from the symbol she wore, and her provocative dress, it was easy to identify her as a Tyranid, a priestess of the Dark Goddess Tyr.

The lamia quickly throttled down and prayed they would stop in time.

Conn, rather than fearing an impact, smiled in fiendish delight.

“Open fire!” Conn screamed. “Let them taste of Sylphid’s thunder! A dish best served… TEPID!!”

The Zeromus worshipper chuckled. He tapped away at his console. “Charging the coils,” he announced. Then, after a second or two: “Ready to fire on your command, Lord General!”

“YOU WEENIE, I ALREADY GAVE THE COMMAND! THE COMMAND WAS GIVEN! OPEN FIRE!!!”

The ship rumbled as the charge from the SuperVolt coil was released. It was a sound like a broken garbage disposal; a rumble that the entire ship could both feel and hear. Make no mistake: the main gun of the Storm’s Eye was a massive, massive weapon. Deadly, to be sure: but, as the flickering lights on the bridge gave evidence, also somewhat draining.

“Did we get him?” Conn asked.

The others on the bridge looked at each other and, each in turn, seemed to shrug.

“Fortinbras! The screen!”

The plate-headed ork smacked the viewscreen again, to no avail.

“The Iceni isn’t there anymore,” the Tyranid announced. “It’s gone. I think we got it.”

The bridge erupted in uproarious cheering. Conn soberly stroked his chin.

“Turning us around, Lord General,” said the lamia.

“You will do no such thing,” Conn snapped. “The Iceni is gone, you say?”

The Tyranid nodded.

“And what of the debris?”

The woman blinked. She turned back to her console. “I… I don’t know, my Lord. I don’t see anything.”

“Perhaps the debris is so small it does not register on our diminished scans,” the lamia offered.

“A convenient and stupid assumption,” Conn sneered. “All ahead, minimal speed. This is not over…”


The Iceni seemed to hum as the torrents of raw electricity disgorged by the Storm’s Eye’s main gun washed over them.

The humming remained the worst of it. Whatever harm this weapon was once capable of inflicting on the Iceni, Violante and Butlesworth had effectively neutralized it.

The men and women on the bridge audibly sighed in relief.

“Helm, maintain heading, adopt new course,” Mountbatten announced, transmitting more numbers to the helm.

V3 beeped happily. Nopen shrugged.

“Sir?” Kaeli asked. “What now?”

Mountbatten smiled, but kept his eyes on his tablet, manipulating the image along with his chronometer and his sense for the Iceni’s movement through space. “Conn is intelligent,” Mountbatten said. “Breathtakingly so. But his attack patterns thus far indicate that he is thinking in just 2 dimensions.”

On his tablet, Mountbatten spun the nebula map. He tapped a button in the corner, and the viewscreen’s static was replaced by a shared image from the Admiral’s tablet.

The rest of the crew now saw what only Mountbatten and V3 had been aware of: the Iceni had descended several kilometers below the 2-dimensional plane that the Storm’s Eye was travelling on.

“Adjust heading, change course,” Mountbatten said, as he sent more numbers to V3 at the helm. As V3 complied, Mountbatten kept track of the time it took for the Iceni to turn, the speed of deceleration from the downward dip and then acceleration again. He moved the Iceni along on the map so it was crossing under the Storm’s Eye’s keel.

The bridge crew watched in awe as Mountbatten, his mind acting in place of a proper nav computer, tracked the ship’s movement down the length of the Storm’s Eye.

“Slow to minimal speed,” Mountbatten ordered, then punched more numbers into the console on his command chair. “Change heading and course as follows.”

As V3 complied, Mountbatten began to move the Iceni back "up"ward, lining it perfectly in position several kilometers behind the Storm’s Eye.

“Kaeli, ready a full antipode spread,” Mountbatten ordered. “Fire at will, on my mark, directly ahead of us.”

Kaeli, never one to doubt the man who had become her personal hero, nodded. “Aye, Admiral. Ready to fire on your mark.”

Mountbatten set the tablet aside. He stood, and folded his hands behind his back.

“Fire,” he said.