In the wake of massive climate-related destabilization caused by global warming, the United Nations G7 group of countries sponsored Project Gateway. This project was designed to create multiple interdimensional gateways as a contingency in case conditions on Earth become unlivable. These gateways would lead to alternate versions of Earth that would provide humans with a familiar environment while allowing the planet to recover. The plan was to move back to a rejuvenated Earth after 100 years.
The other-dimensional Earth, dubbed Neo-Earth, was not what the scientists had expected.
Captain Meggan Ashcroft sprinted down the empty street. On either side, abandoned buildings with dark empty windows seemed to stare at her as she passed. Just a step behind and a little to her left, Leftenant Renard Stonemark kept pace, eyes darting about with restless caution. Both officers were clad in standard mottled gray urban camouflage uniforms with rubber soled black boots.
The young captain’s long dark hair was tucked into her black wool beret. Strapped to her back was a 5-foot composite longbow and a quiver of barbed clothyard arrows. Twin butterfly swords were sheathed and strapped to her thighs. A standard shoulder rig kept twin machine pistols in place, just under her armpits. Her gauntlets were backed with steel plates that left her fingers free while protecting her wrists and forearms. Her green eyes narrowed as she negotiated a burning car wreck. “Time to target?” She hissed.
The leftenant, his close cropped blond hair concealed under a black baseball cap, glanced at a display on his watch. “At our current pace, seven minutes, 33 seconds, and counting, captain.” His predatory grin was made even more menacing by a scar that bisected his left eye, which seemed to glow a dull red. Twin machine pistols were strapped to his thighs while a massive six-foot long greatsword was sheathed in a leather baldric strapped to his back, its handle protruding over his right shoulder. His left arm was seemingly covered in armor plate, dyed a matte black for concealment.
“Heads up. We’ve got company, leftenant.” The captain veered from her course and spun behind a wrecked lorry. Her leftenant leaped in the opposite direction, landing amid a pile of refuse behind an alley.
“Tags confirmed. Mechanized infantry platoon, standard configuration, full spread. This isn’t going to be pretty, captain,” Renard remarked wryly. “And we’re gonna get delayed.”
“Unacceptable, leftenant,” came the captain’s terse response. “Initiate full cloak on my mark.”
Renard’s eyes widened even as his hands initiated the complex gestures required for the cloaking field spell. He mouthed the incantation but held off on the final syllable.
“Three. Two. One. Mark.” With a final utterance, Renard activated the spell and released it by slapping his open palm onto the ground. A faint flash of red outlined a mystic circle around him, complete with delicate and complex runes, before his form faded into invisibility. The cloaking field spell was complete.
“Silent running protocol in effect. Switch to ultraviolet now. Proceed to rendezvous point bravo as planned, leftenant.” The captain’s muffled tone brooked no argument.
“Aye, captain. Renard out.”
The rest of the run was carried out in utter silence. The captain and her leftenant slipped past the platoon of mechanized infantry, barely glancing at their gleaming metal armor and massive weapons amid the drab post-industrial landscape of the city. Like ghosts drifting in the wind, the two officers ran, leaped, jumped, and dropped through the war-torn and ravaged cityscape until they reached the city’s nerve center: a massive monolithic structure that served as the occupying forces’ headquarters.
“Delta Drone to Hive. Rendezvous point bravo achieved. Awaiting further instructions. Delta Drone out.” Both officers remained cloaked as they posted themselves on the rooftops of abandoned buildings on opposite sides of the main street leading to the massive gates. Meggan could feel the tension in the air as searchlights swept the skies while sentry teams crawled over the open ground like ants.
“Hive to Delta Drone. Mission parameters uploaded. Encryption Helo-3. Execute. Hive out.” The robotic voice sputtered out even as all activity froze to a halt for a split-second before all the lights started flashing and troops of guards came swarming out of the gates.
“Our comms have been compromised, captain! Suggest we abort the mission.” Renard said even as he disappeared from his vantage point on the opposite side of the street.
“Negative, leftenant! We have our orders and we will execute them,” Meggan insisted even as she leaped away from the window just as weapons fire stitched past where she had been standing moments before. “Rendezvous at waypoint Tango-7. Repeat, waypoint Tango-7! Acknowledge!”
“Acknowledged, captain. Good hunting.”
Meggan leaped due east, landing on the roof of an adjacent building with inhuman strength and speed. On the roof, she could see troops converging on both buildings while vehicles were angling themselves toward their positions. She hoped Renard would be able to get away in time. Otherwise, this was going to be a very difficult mission. She noted that her cloaking field spell remained intact. The young captain channeled a trickle more spiritual energy into the spell to make sure it remained in place before leaping to the next building further east.
Half an hour later, she managed to find a mostly intact school 3 kilometers east of her position in a relatively quiet part of the city. Scrambling into the dugout beneath the football field, she proceeded to study the details of the mission instructions. Helo-3 encryption meant that it would take the enemy an estimated 3 days to unscramble the instructions, conveniently giving them a deadline automatically. Her eyes widened even as she decrypted the instructions and read them twice. This was madness!
The captain deleted all the instructions, making sure to encrypt twice before deletion. She settled onto a bench and began to think. By this time, her cloaking field spell dissipated and she solidified into view.
Suddenly, her wrist-comm beeped twice. It was a wide-band broadcast, likely from the enemy base as a response to their incursion into the city.
To the interlopers in our fair city, welcome! It is unfortunate that we were not able to provide you with a proper reception. No matter, that will soon be remedied. Suffice to say that we know who you both are, Captain Meggan Ashcroft and Leftenant Renard Stonemark. Your reputations precede you, my friends.
Captain Meggan Ashcroft, Commander of the 8th Heavy Infantry Regiment, second-in-command of the Talon Legions, and undefeated Blade Champion of the Sandstone Military Academy.
Leftenant Renard Stonemark, Sub-commander of the 4th Light Scout Division, nominal commander of the Secondary Covert Operations Group, and only living graduate of the Sandstone Military Academy’s Battle Magic College.
As you can see, our knowledge of your abilities is comprehensive, to say the least. Even now, we have dispatched our own elite officers to… welcome you. Should you surrender to them, we will allow you to return to your lines without harm. Otherwise, they are authorized to use deadly force to apprehend you. And, once again, welcome to our city.
This mission just got a whole lot harder, she thought to herself as she got back to her feet and dusted herself off. Their knowledge of who we are is not surprising. Their willingness to show off this knowledge is disturbing. And who are they sending after us?
As if in response to her unspoken question, a booming sound accompanied by a minor tremor jerked her out of her reverie. Calmly stepping out of the dugout, Meggan stepped onto the field to confront her enemy.
“Hello, Captain Ashcroft,” the shadowy figure in the middle of the field spoke in soft tones but the voice was unmistakably male. “On behalf of my government, allow me to welcome you to our fair city. My name is Major Dexter Fairchild. I have been authorized to escort you back to your lines, if you so choose. Otherwise, I will have to insist that you come with me back to our headquarters… as our guest, of course. The choice is yours.” The figure was clad in a long billowy cloak that concealed his face. He was very tall, clearly at least 8 inches over six feet in height.
“You do realize that this city used to be the capital of our nation, Major,” Meggan remarked, stalling for time. Her senses could pick up no mystic resonance from the stranger nor could she find any spells or enchantments operating in the immediate vicinity. “I should be the one welcoming you to our fair city.”
“Hahahaha!” He laughed at her audacity. “You clearly have a skewed sense of history, Captain. This city has been under our jurisdiction for the past year. It was to save this city from tyrants such as yourselves that we undertook its conquest at great personal sacrifice. You still have 2 choices: surrender or I’ll make you surrender. Choose.”
Meggan drew both her swords, one in each hand, and settled into a ready combat stance. “Make me, Major Fairchild.”
The major sighed. “Wrong choice, Captain Ashcroft.”
In one smooth motion, he threw his cloak in her direction. It spun in the air and, like a striking viper, flew straight at the captain. Without hesitation, the captain dodged to her right, spinning out of the way of the flying cloak. The major was revealed to be a bone-thin military officer clad in dress whites complete with flag markers and medals. His dark hair was cropped short while his eyes were concealed by dark glasses, even at night. A slender rapier was belted at his side while a standard-issue machine pistol was clipped to his belt.
The major drew his rapier and saluted the captain with it, golden basket hilt to his aquiline nose and blade up in the air. With a cutting downward motion, he launched himself at her with a speed that could only be described as superhuman.
Meggan managed to block his first attack with her crossed blades, but just barely. She leaped away, eyes narrowed as she calculated his next attack. Already, she was afraid his next attack would be too quick for her to block. She desperately needed to take control of this fight. The major was quick, definitely, and his sword took advantage of that speed.
He slid sideways, rapier still held at the ready, and launched himself toward the captain at an oblique angle. “Destructive Art! White fire!” He hissed as he flicked the blade in her direction. Darts of argent fire rained down on her from the major’s sword, each one exploding with tremendous force.
Meggan managed to evade them all, twisting, turning and leaping, and blocking some of the darts with her upraised blades. The final dart managed to get through her defenses and all she could do was protect herself with her gauntlets. The dart slammed into her armor and pushed her back a full six feet, her boots sliding into the ground. Her gauntlets were smoking, but intact, their protective enchantment having absorbed the bulk of the spell’s destructive power.
Move, you fool! She thought to herself as she leaped skyward, blades outstretched. She brought them together in a crossing motion. “Destructive Art! Sonic wave!” Waves of solid sound flew toward the major, throwing up dirt and forcing him to evade her attack. Suddenly, the field was obscured in a smoky haze as the captain landed lightly on her feet.
The major’s thrusting blade swept in from within the smoke. Meggan parried quickly with her left blade and counterattacked with her right, driving him back. He riposted and wheeled aside in a slash to her flank. She dodged and windmilled both blades at him, one after the other. He evaded her slashes and so they went, back and forth, neither one gaining an advantage. Slash, parry, riposte, thrust, block, disengage, like a deadly dance of steel. Their blades were moving so quickly they seemed like flashes of light curving into each other before spinning away.
Suddenly, he was right in front of her, his slender blade pointed directly at her throat. “This fight is over, Captain. Killing you would be… inconvenient. I hate paperwork.”
Meggan’s eyes widened even as she pirouetted to her left, her twin blades coming up to knock his rapier away. With a quick spin, her boot lashed out in a kick that he easily avoided. Quick as a striking snake, his rapier came thrusting through her defenses again. She parried his thrust with one blade while the other slashed upward at his throat. He evaded her slash and pivoted to his left, drawing his sidearm with his free hand. He aimed his gun directly at her head.
“Like I said, Captain,” he said with a smirk. “This fight is over.”
In a blur, Meggan vanished from sight. The major’s eyes widened as he felt more than saw the captain reappear behind him.
“You know what, Major? I couldn’t agree more.”
The click of her pistol cocking confirmed his suspicions. This upstart had managed to draw her pistol and aim it at his head in the space of a single eyeblink. Remarkable. “Most impressive, Captain. I didn’t realize you were an adept of the flash step technique. It seems our intel on you is not as accurate as we thought.”
In her left hand, her twin butterfly swords were linked at the pommels to form a single double-bladed weapon with a straight single-edged blade at each end held together in the middle, a double-bladed sword. The weapon spun in her hand, flashing in the pale moonlight before descending in an arc. The arc terminated in a flash of light and a spark of electricity as it was blocked on the way down. Meggan’s eyes narrowed.
“Of course, some of us are also adepts of the flash step technique,” the major continued nonplussed as he flicked his rapier in a negligent wave, disengaging himself from her one-handed strike. In a single step, he had pivoted forward and to the side while turning and raising his rapier to block her attack. In a blur, he was again behind her.
Anticipating this, Meggan twirled her double bladed sword even as she leaped upward. Sparks flew as her spinning blades intercepted the major’s thrusting strike. She landed ten feet away facing him. She calmly detached her two swords from each other and placed them side by side. “Bridge the gap, Twin Crimson Moons!” A bright flash of light was followed by howling winds in a circle around the young captain. The two blades dissolved into each other in a shower of crimson light, resulting in a single sword, a curved Chinese cleaver with a shimmering slate-grey blade. With a longer hilt, Meggan held the sword in both hands in a classic kendo ready stance.
“Finally, you show your true power! I was getting bored of this constant dancing about.” The major sighed. With a cocked eyebrow, he stared at her battle stance as he inscribed a complex pattern in the air with the point of his rapier. “Pierce, Silver Fox Princess!” Lightning erupted from the sky, arcing to touch the point of his rapier. Both sword and wielder were bathed in argent electric light. Segments appeared along the rapier’s blade even as it grew in length and, while still razor-sharp, the blade became flexible as a whip.
The major pointed the rapier’s tip directly at the captain. “First dance, lightning strike!” The rapier’s blade separated into segments, linked by arcing electrical energy. With a flick of his wrist, the major’s rapier, now a bladed whip, lashed out toward the young captain. Meggan caught the bladed links on her sword, the metal wrapping around her sword’s blade. Electricity arced against the metal and into her hands, the raw chaotic energy forcing her to her knees and eliciting a gasp of pain. If not for her protective gauntlets, she would have been electrocuted. She deftly disengaged her sword with a snap of her wrists even as she slid to the left.
“Crescent cutting moon!” She cried as her sword swept into line with her opponent. Her blade shimmered, gathering energy, and released a crescent-shaped energy blast directly at the major. Instead of evading her attack, he lashed his sword-whip and fired his own blast of crackling electricity to counter her blast. Both energies met in a booming explosion that cancelled the other out. With a smirk of satisfaction, she noted that the major had been pushed back a few feet by the blast.
Her gauntlets still smoldered from that last attack though.
Hefting her sword in her right hand, she pointed at the major with her left index finger and beckoned him forward, a cool smirk on her face. The major cocked an eyebrow at this gesture, his face incredulous at her insolence. “You dare?!? I shall grind you beneath my heel!”
In an eyeblink, he was directly in front of her, his sword-whip wrapping around her wrists effectively trapping her sword. His grin was maniacal in aspect. “Second dance, lightning pillar!” A flash of lightning lanced down from the heavens and struck the immobile young captain, eliciting a scream of pain before her body disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a cut section of wood.
“What? Replacement technique?!? How?” The major glanced around wildly.
The arrow pierced the back of the major’s neck with hardly any sound. The major slumped to the ground, the arrow’s barbed tip protruding out the front of his neck, his spine severed and his blood pouring into the cold ground.
“You’ll never know, major.” She noted as she slipped her longbow back into position. She put away her blades and leaped down from her vantage point on top of the dugout roof. She muttered an incantation over the major’s discarded cloak, instilling it with her own personal enchantment. This should come in handy to avoid detection, she thought to herself as she threw it over her shoulders. It billowed in the wind and concealed everything, shrouding her in darkness and providing a fair amount of protection at the same time.
I hope Renard managed to defeat his opponent as well.
* * *
Leftenant Renard Stonemark found himself in an abandoned warehouse due west of the main street leading to enemy headquarters. He, too, had received the wide-band broadcast and, while nowhere near as accomplished a fighter as the captain, had a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Protective Art! Blade Barrier!” A shifting circle of flashing knives and swords appeared in a circle around him, moving up, down, and sideways in response to his mental commands.
“Seriously, Leftenant Stonemark,” a female voice rang out mockingly. “Blade barrier? Such a childish spell wouldn’t even slow me down. Perhaps my superiors have overestimated your abilities by sending me after you. You hardly seem worth the effort.”
Renard stiffened. He hadn’t expected their agent to find him this quickly. Nevertheless, he was already prepared. No sense delaying the inevitable. He grinned in return. “It’s the simplest spells that prove the most effective. I am, however, at a disadvantage since I do not know whom I face.”
She leaped down gracefully from a second floor banister. She was wearing Marine dress blues complete with flags and medals pinned on her left breast pocket and a short white skirt that showed off her perfectly formed legs. Her brown hair was unbound, swirling around her in a chestnut stream, while her green eyes stared at him in challenge. “Commander Jessica Troy, at your service.”
“Navy? You seem awfully far from the water, Commander.”
“Marines, actually. My government felt that I was the best equipped to deal with someone of your… supposed talents, Leftenant. After all, you do come with a very impressive resume. Too bad your credentials don’t appear to be justified.” Jessica smirked as she walked forward, seeming to dare Renard to make the first move.
She was pretty hot, though.
Slowly, Renard reached back and drew his greatsword, a Scottish claymore fully six feet in length from hilt to tip, from its scabbard strapped to his back. The leftenant gripped the massive blade in both hands and settled into a relaxed kendo stance. “My master always said that what is seen with the eye is rarely what is felt in the soul. I’ve learned to trust his words, commander. You would do well to heed them.”
“Seriously! Who talks like that in this century?” She laughed aloud. Abruptly narrowing her eyes, she eyed him critically. “I’m inclined to just smack you around before sending you back to your people, Leftenant. But I feel like playing a little.” She pointed a finger at him, one perfect brow slightly arched mockingly. “Destructive Art! Acid Spray!”
A fine spray of greenish mist billowed in the shape of a large cone from her extended finger toward Renard. He knew his blade barrier was useless against an attack like that and spray attacks, by their very nature, covered a wide area. Dodging would only delay the inevitable. He grinned even as he slammed his sword tip onto the ground and leaned on it with one hand, the other pointing directly at the cone. “Protective Art! Cyclone Spear!”
A mini-cyclone the exact size and shape of the acidic cone materialized and swallowed up the acid, sending it spinning back to the commander. Her eyes widened even as she leaped upwards and over the spinning acidic cyclone. “Destructive Art! Hammer Palm!” She punctuated her shout with a downward slapping motion with her right palm. The spell drove a massive block of force directly downward, flattening the cone into the ground and nullifying both spells. She landed easily on her feet facing the leftenant, eyes narrowed.
“It seems I underestimated you, Leftenant,” she admitted grudgingly. “I won’t make the same mistake twice. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Renard shrugged casually. “Give it your best shot, Commander. All I have seen are poor and ill-thought displays of magical power. Brute force was never my preferred style.”
“That was not very nice, Leftenant.” The commander whispered as she initiated a complex series of gestures. “Protective Art. Mage Armor.” The spell transformed her dress uniform into effective armor. Shiny metal plates appeared as shin high, slightly high heeled metal boots, large wrist guards, large shoulder pieces, and a partial skirt. Metallic fabric covered her bare legs while her long sleeves were converted into the same metallic fabric. An elaborately etched breastplate protected her chest and upper torso while a short cape completed the spell.
The young leftenant nodded his admiration. “Nice. Now, I believe it is my turn.” He waved his left arm and sent his blade barrier flying at the commander. The turning, flashing blades seemed to flicker in the wan light as they flew in an even spread toward the seemingly unmoving, though armored commander.
She clapped her hands over her head and outlined a large circle with her hands. “Protective Art. Shield.” A shimmering circular field of force came into being in front of her. The blades hit the shield spell and vanished in puffs of smoke.
Renard leaped, sword extended in both hands in the classic kendo attack position. His claymore greatsword came crashing down on the shield spell, disrupting it in a shower of sparks. The commander leaped aside, easily dodging Renard’s attack. “Constructive Art! Iceblade!” A sword made entirely out of ice formed in the commander’s right hand in the shape of a standard Marine mameluke sword, cross-hilted and slightly curved, almost like a scimitar.
She wielded her sword with the ease of a practiced duelist as she slashed at his unprotected flank. He dodged quickly and brought his claymore to bear. She blocked his side slash but was pushed back by the force of his blow. The commander steadied herself with her left hand on the ground while her sword hand remained at the ready. She smiled slightly.
Renard suddenly felt a strange coldness creeping into his hands through his gloves. Hitting the commander’s iceblade had resulted in rapid freezing. When frozen, his blade would become brittle and subject to easy destruction. His eyes narrowed even as he traced a sigil on the hilt, which was rapidly being frozen. Clever. “Constructive Art. Repair. Destructive Art. Flameblade.” Eldritch flame engulfed his sword blade to counteract his opponent’s ice.
The commander didn’t wait for him to recover but attacked with a savage series of thrusts and slashes. Renard barely managed to blocked them all and he could feel himself slowing down. Her relatively lighter sword was faster than his massive claymore and had the advantage in speed. He knew a single hit from her iceblade would result in an instantly frozen body part. Like a striking serpent, her sword came at him again. He parried and swung his sword in a wide arc on the disengage, forcing her to leap backwards to avoid his savage swing.
Before she could react, he narrowed his eyes in concentration. “Awake, Iron Brother!” A swirling circle of force surrounded him, pushing her even further back and kicking up a cloud of dust. His claymore shimmered with dark purple highlights which flowed into his arms and engulfed his entire body, making his eyes glow an oddly disturbing golden color. His arms and legs bulged with sudden muscularity and his entire body seemed to grow a full 20% in size. He hefted his broadsword in just one hand, spinning it as if it weighed nothing.
“I know desperation when I see it, leftenant,” she quipped. “It seems, at least with a blade, I am the better duelist.”
“Perhaps, commander,” he admitted without hesitation. “But this fight is far from over. As a matter of fact, it has only just begun.”
“Bring it on, lef-“ Her last word was cut off as Renard seemed to magically appear at her side, his sword at her throat. What his sword had augmented in strength had also translated into speed. “Oh, that’s pretty impressive,” she whispered softly. She stared directly into his eyes and smiled. “But you haven’t seen my real sword yet. Cover, conceal, imagine, Steel Mirror!”
She shimmered and seemed to dissolve into the air. Renard’s incoming slash passed through empty space. His eyes widened in sudden realization. With an agility and speed born of desperation, he leaped upwards, rotating a full 360 degrees with his sword in an en garde position. He felt more than heard the ring of steel on steel as his blade encountered another blade on his way up though he saw nothing.
Her mocking laughter seemed to come from all directions. “You’re fast, Leftenant, but you can’t hit what you can’t see.” Renard landed lightly on his feet and immediately sprinted off in a random zigzag pattern. His speed was the only thing keeping him alive at this point. If he stopped for even a second, she would have him.
“Infrared tracking on. Target acquire.” He whispered, voice-activating his cybernetic left eye. Her heat signature gave her away instantly and he focused his gaze while angling his movements ever so slightly toward her. “Target lock.” The reticle in his eye pulsed a few times before confirming the lock. “Track target.” His left eye glowed a dull red.
Now, he could see her.
He landed lightly on the floor and grinned. “My turn, Commander Troy.” He sprinted directly toward her, sword poised to strike. At the last split-second, he skidded to a halt and slammed his sword into the ground with both hands, causing a massive shockwave to ripple outward. Behind him and slightly to the left, the air shimmered and dissolved in a shower of sparks as the commander became visible, her elaborate illusion dispelled. Her eyes were wide with shock even as her real blade, a delicately curved Spanish falcata, was raised in defense.
Renard pulled his massive blade from the ground and, in a single smooth stroke, brought it down on the commander’s upgraised blade in a hammering blow. Sparks flew as Jessica managed to brace her sword in time with both hands but was barely able to keep her sword up even as she was brought to one knee. The floor beneath her cracked and broke with the force of the blow. Her eyes widened as she coughed blood onto the floor. Renard took a single leap backwards, landing lightly on his feet.
Jessica wiped the blood from her mouth and rose unsteadily to her feet. Setting herself in a ready combat stance, she stared at Renard. “Is that all you’ve got? Felt like a fly landed on my sword.”
Renard shook his head in grudging admiration. Not many could have kept the fight going this long with him. He rushed her again, sword swinging. Their blades met and clashed in a shower of sparks. Back and forth they went, her blade always coming up in time to meet his regardless of how fast he slashed. She managed to keep him at bay for a full ten minutes before her injuries caused her to falter. He batted her blade aside and went for a glancing blow to her flank. Her falcata met his greatsword but fell out of line for an instant. His sword slipped past her guard and took off her right arm in a single clean slice. Blood fountained out of the wound and Jessica screamed in agony. The force of the blow caused her to fly into the air while her arm, still clutching her sword, flopped onto the ground. He leaped up after her and hammered her back down to the ground. Her bleeding and broken body lay twitching in a small crater on the floor, her arm and sword inches away.
Her eyes continued to stare into his with an intense glare as her left hand scrabbled for the hilt of her sword.
“Finish her, Renard. We must get back to the mission.”
He didn’t bother glancing upward to the 2nd floor window. The captain’s voice was unmistakable.
Renard hadn’t always been a soldier. Years ago, he had been a scholar, a professor of humanities and philosophy at the university. His innate skill in magic and tactical brilliance had gotten him drafted into the war effort. He had killed in battle before. He would be damned if he would kill in cold blood. He shook his head and sighed. “I don’t think so, captain.”
Renard picked up her disembodied arm and placed it against her still-bleeding shoulder. Her face was unreadable as she watched him work. He placed his hand at the joining of arm and shoulder. “Healing Art. Re-attach.”
Bone and muscle began to fuse as the arm and shoulder began to re-attach themselves to each other. Odd cracking and popping sounds filled the air and, while the spell did nothing to dull the pain, the commander remained silent even as she clenched her jaw and sweat popped out on her forehead. The previously cold and dead arm regained color as blood flow resumed and the commander felt the weight of her sword once again.
“Why?” She asked, her eyes seeming to bore into his with a puzzled look.
“Because if our superiors thought this through, there would be no need for this stupid war,” he replied. “All this fighting and killing sickens me. Your death would serve no purpose. Now, be still. This will only take a min…” His voice trailed off. Jessica’s sword was pointed directly at his throat. Renard’s face reflected disappointment more than surprise.
“This is war, Leftenant,” she reminded him in a strained voice. “Do you think your tiny act of compassion will alter the course of this conflict? Our roles in this are predetermined. We are warriors, after all, not leaders regardless of our military titles. A military officer without a unit to lead is simply a weapon, after all. That’s all we are, Renard.”
“That’s not all we could be, Commander Troy,” he responded quietly. “Before I became a weapon for my country, I was a teacher. My knowledge was used to educate the young and show them a better world, a better way, a better life. What were you before you became a soldier, Jessica?”
“I… I… I used to design interiors for homes.” She lowered her sword.
“And I used to work in a bank. Boo-frickin’-hoo. We need to get a move-on, Renard. Either you get your ass moving or I’ll put an arrow through her heart and finish the job.” Meggan already had her bow in hand, arrow nocked and ready to shoot.
Renard nodded. He quickly inscribed a mystic circle around Jessica’s battered form. “Healing Art. Circle of Rejuvenation.” The circle flashed green then settled into a soothing green glow. The commander’s wounds started to heal, albeit slowly. Renard inscribed another mystic circle around the healing circle. “Defensive Art. Lockbox.” The circle flashed white and inscribed an impenetrable cylindrical field of force.
Jessica’s eyes widened. “You’ve trapped me!”
Renard grinned. “The lockbox spell will last only as long as the healing circle exists. Once the healing circle completes its work, the lockbox will dissolve. From the extent of your wounds, that will likely take about 4 hours. It’s designed to protect you as well as us and our mission. I’m compassionate, commander, not stupid.”
“You do realize Major Fairchild will free me and come after you. You should have killed me when you had the chance, Renard.” Jessica grunted as an audible pop from her ribcage indicated one of her broken ribs had popped back into place.
“I don’t think we need worry about the major,” Meggan stated from her perch on the second level. “Last I saw him, he was missing a throat.”
Jessica laughed. “The major’s been shot, beaten, stabbed, slashed, and burned more times than even he can remember. But he always comes back. Always. Leaving him with an arrow in the throat only ensures that when he finds you, he’s gonna be pissed.”
“Impossible. You must be delirious from blood loss,” Meggan scoffed. “He had no heart beat or pulse. Dead is dead.”
“Obviously your country has not provided you with any intel on the major,” Jessica nodded in understanding. “Your military intelligence unit must be truly pathetic. No wonder you lost this city to us. Major Fairchild, if you please?”
A low rumbling beneath the ground preceded an eruption near the warehouse gates. In an explosion of earth and cement, a dirty and disheveled but otherwise very much alive Major Dexter Fairchild spun into view before landing gracefully onto the warehouse floor with a flourish. In his left hand, he still held Meggan’s arrow, covered in a thick, greenish slime.
Before anyone could move, Meggan released the arrow she had nocked directly at the seemingly resurrected major. The clothyard shaft flew straight and true however the major easily caught the arrow between two fingers, twirling it like a baton.
“Rumors of my demise have been terribly exaggerated, I fear,” he said with a cold smile.
“Impossible,” Meggan breathed. “I killed you!”
“Like my parter said,” the major replied. “It’s no wonder you people lost the war. Your intelligence assets are sub-par to the point of idiocy. Sure, you number some of the best warriors and battle mages alive but you utilize your assets in the worst way possible. Really, I am appalled at the stupidity of your military leaders. It’s almost a pity to have to kill you. Almost.”
“Can you take them by yourself, major? I’m a little indisposed, you see.” Jessica asked, indicating her wounded state as well as the mystic circles that bound her.
“Rest up, my dear,” the major reassured her. “For your token act of kindness, Leftenant Stonemark, I shall make your death quick and painless. Who knows? I may even just wound you severely and take you out of the fight while sparing your life. Captain Ashcroft, however, has merited a slow, torturous death. Seriously, Meggan, did you really believe I would die from an arrow in the throat after a replacement technique? Are you really as stupid as you seem?”
Meggan shrugged. “Most people would’ve died from that shot. You must admit, it was a pretty good shot.”
Dexter Fairchild laughed. “Indeed, it was a good shot. And, yes, most people would have died from it. Fortunately for me but unfortunately for you, I am not most people.”
“So it would seem, Major Fairchild,” Meggan observed as she slowly re-slung her bow and drew her twin butterfly swords. “I guess we’ll just have to finish the job. Renard, you ready?”
“Always, captain,” Renard replied as he stood up, greatsword in hand. “Attack pattern Bravo-Epsilon-Alpha-Tango, on 3.”
“Three.” Meggan hissed as she launched herself directly at the major from her lofty perch, both swords poised to strike. Renard likewise threw up a cloud of dust as he seemed to shift from one spot to the next, until he was directly opposite the captain. All three blades came down at exactly the same time on Major Fairchild. He raised his palm directly upward without even drawing steel.
Both swords stopped as if frozen a few inches above his hand. A faint green glow was the only telltale sign that the major had blocked the attack. Nonplussed, both warriors shifted and attacked from the major’s flanks. The major dodged both attacks by leaping directly upward, dropping a pair of smoke pellets behind. Dark gray smoke billowed out and blinded both officers. Renard re-activated his cybernetic eye and suddenly realized that the major had no heat signature. What manner of monster was Major Fairchild?
Meggan cursed silently as she maintained her defensive stance, both blades at the ready. Her every sense stretched out, seeking to find the elusive major. She stiffened in shock as a soft voice whispered into her ear. “Third dance, lightning sphere.”
Renard whirled as he heard Meggan scream in pain and fury. Like a fly caught in amber, she was caught spread-eagled in a sphere of electricity, bolts coursing in and out of her body. The sphere floated in mid-air while the major landed lightly on his feet facing Renard. “It’s called the Dance of the Silver Fox Princess. There are 9 dances in all, and we are only at the third dance. Each dance is deadlier than the last. Your captain is already disabled. At my command, the lightning sphere will fry her to a crisp. Of course, we want her to suffer a little so I’m keeping her alive. For now. Your turn, leftenant. What should I do with you?”
“What manner of soldier are you? Are you even alive??” Renard asked, stalling for time as his mind worked furiously to find a way out.
“Alive? Perhaps not technically,” Major Fairchild replied nonchalantly. “Your eye is cybernetic. Imagine, if you will, if over 70% of your body was cybernetic. I’m faster, stronger, and tougher than either of you. I neither tire nor feel intense pain. I am able to access over 90% of my brain compared to your piddling 30%. I don’t need to be alive to defeat both of you, leftenant.”
“At the same time, my spiritual energy remains undiminished,” he continued, flicking his rapier even as he started approaching the astounded leftenant. “My spells are just as potent, if not more so, than your own. In battle, I have never been defeated.”
Renard gritted his teeth even as he wove a complex series of hand gestures. “Defensive Art, Level 5 Point Defense.” He clapped both hands together and five silvery discs appeared, spinning around him. “Defensive Art, Mage Armor.” Similar to Commander Troy, silvery magical armor appeared to protect the leftenant. “Defensive Art, Stoneskin.” The leftenant’s skin took on a grayish hue and became harder than stone. “Defensive Art, Diamondback.” Crystalline diamond appeared all over the leftenant’s back, providing superior protection against attacks from the rear.
Fairchild nodded, seemingly impressed. “Our intelligence tagged you as a superior battle mage and tactician, leftenant. I’m glad to see they weren’t wrong. I can sense that your spiritual energy runs strong and deep, like a mighty river. Still, even mighty rivers can be turned from their natural courses with sufficient force.”
The point of the major’s rapier went up in a quick salute. “En garde!!” He shouted before leaping into battle.
Renard hissed. “Awake, Iron Brother.” His musculature and speed increased once again as he settled into the familiar kendo stance, Scottish claymore raised. Timing his swing, he slashed outward just before the major came into range, forcing Fairchild to evade to the left. The leftenant leaped back, gaining distance while gesturing with his left hand. “Forbidden Art, Eye of the Kaleidoscope!”
Renard’s single still-living eye flashed an incandescent white then red then blue as his pupil changed from gray to a patterned silver. Fairchild’s eyes widened in disbelief even as he pressed his attack. Suddenly, the leftenant was parrying his thrusts with ease, as if he knew in advance what the major was thinking.