Late Winter EP Contest

Moderator: Augur

Which Story is the Best?

Poll ended at Tue May 01, 2018 6:26 pm

Untitled (Sorrenson's Entry)
The Taciturn Stranger and the Thrice-Forged Blade (Brute)
Garrison Duty (David Henderson)
An Arte Tale (Maniacal Laugh)
Total votes : 15

Late Winter EP Contest

Postby Augur » Sat Feb 03, 2018 3:22 pm

The contest is to submit a short story.

This contest is going to cover the February-March time frame to give players adequate time for their submissions.

Submit any (one) short story of your own creation.

  • Grammar and spelling are important to create a quality submission, so you need to seriously proofread your work!
  • The short story can be approximately 5,000 words. Deviation can only be within + or - 500 words or less.
  • The short story must be based in one of the game settings of the Palladium Megaverse. (Palladium Fantasy, Rifts, Robotech, etc.)
  • Make sure that any image used is no more than 300 pixels in height and 800 pixels in length. No more than one image is allowed.


Explanatory Notes:
The contest ends March 31st. Augur will validate/invalidate each submission at this time based exclusively on the quality of the writing, add a poll to the contest, and the EU community will vote for their favorite submission. (Time to bribe your fellow players!)

The contest judgment will begin on April 1st, and will be concluded by no later than April 15th (IRL permitting!).

1st Place: Submission will be read aloud and produced as a podcast episode on Radio Free Merctown. +10 EP
2nd Place: +5 EP
3rd Place: +3 EP
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Re: Late Winter EP Contest

Postby Sorrenson » Tue Mar 13, 2018 7:05 am

Marta sighed, looked down at her feet and then at her kids. “You really want to hear how it happened?”
“Yes!” The twins replied in unison.
“Okay then.” Marta paused. “Look, this was back during the war, and… things happened, bad things, to everyone.” She paused again and started staring blankly at a point in front of her face. She did this long enough that the twins started glancing at each other. They sat, wondering if she was finally going to tell them this time.

* * *

Marta shuffled along with the other refugees, slow and unsteady. She was tired, more tired than she had ever been, but taking a rest was impossible. The Dead Boys were out hunting for groups like hers. Every step she took was a step away from them. Each second resting was one they got closer. She hadn’t eaten a proper meal in weeks and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. Her stock of rations now exhausted, she had no idea where her next meal would come from. She was starting to doubt if she would ever have another meal again.

She looked up from her feet and slowly checked the faces around her. Something was off; something wasn’t quite right. Then it dawned on her, she recognized no one! Where was her uncle? Where was her cousin? They had been there just a while ago, hadn’t they? She froze in panic and the person behind her bumped into her wordlessly. He looked at her and no doubt saw the fear and panic in her eyes. His expression never changed as he stepped to the side and continued on his way, offering nothing. She looked past him as he drifted by, searching out her lost relatives. No matter how hard she looked, how loud she shouted it didn’t matter. They were gone.

She wanted to go back and find them. Well, part of her wanted to go back and look, another part knew that if she did that she’d probably die. If she went back, she’d be going alone. Doing anything alone out here in the wild, with Dead Boys – and worse – on the hunt, seemed like a death sentence to her. She stood there, not knowing what she should do and heard something that made her blood run cold. In the distance behind them she heard the distinctive whine of jet engines. Small ones like the ones on hover-cycles or power armor. The sound was getting louder. She screamed and ran. They all did, scattering like hunted rabbits.

* * *

The 3rd leaned against a tree and tried to relax.
Well, one way to know your super stressed is when you can’t even relax enough to take a piss. He thought to himself.
I know right! You need to chill the hell out man. Came the inevitable mental reply.
Antonio, you’re not helping. Talking to you is not relaxing, even at the best of times. In case you hadn’t noticed, this not a good time. The 3rd replied.
Yeah, things aren’t flash… Let me take control and I’ll piss for us. Antonio offered. I can actually feel it this time. You must be busting.
No, I want to piss against this tree and not in my pants, again. The 3rd, as usual, refused to cede control of their body.
Listen 3rd, or should I address you as Mister Wayne Holden III? The Third? Do you really want to start that conversation again? We’ve been though it many times before and the end result is always the same. Neither of us have spotless records when it comes to controlling various bodily functions. Heh, spotless, geddit? Antonio clearly finding himself amusing, again.
The 3rd sighed and dropped his shoulders. Arguing with Antonio was a royal pain in the ass, so much so that he just couldn’t be bothered with it right now, so he let it go. He started to piss.
Look! I’m helping! The glee in Antonio’s voice was obvious. Despite his best efforts The 3rd laughed a little.

Once again The 3rd was happy that he wasn’t alone out here. Well, technically there was no one else around, but he always had Antonio to keep him company. It hadn’t always been this way though. Oh no! Back in the day just after the M.O.M. implants, Antonio was a real unpleasant surprise. The thought of something else sharing his skull seriously freaked Wayne out! For a long time he refused to acknowledge Antonio. With time though Wayne became less and less Wayne, and more and more The 3rd. He learned to accept Antonio. Not that he had much of a choice though. Wasn’t like Antonio had anywhere else he could go. He had his faults though. He was a glutton; The 3rd’s pot belly was evidence of Antonio’s appetite for food. He was lazy; he let The 3rd do all the work. He was a coward; he never ever did any of the fighting. He loved to party; which meant that The 3rd often missed out on a lot of the ‘fun’ they had. The 3rd hadn’t been close to a woman in months. Antonio claimed to have sex constantly. The worst was that he could read and The 3rd couldn’t. Antonio, the bastard that he was, never missed an opportunity to rub it in The 3rd’s face.

The piss taken care of, The 3rd started following the tracks again. He could feel Antonio on the edge of his attention. What’s up? He asked.
Are sure this is the right thing to do? Following Dead Boy tank tracks through the wilderness doesn’t seem to be your best plan. Doing it alone makes it seem like one of your worst. Antonio sounded concerned.
The 3rd scratched his chin, pondering something. Yeah, it could go wrong.
Wrong? Of course it’s going to go wrong! When was the last time anything went right? Frustration and fear creeping into Antonio’s voice.
That’s one of the few things I like about you. The 3rd smiled.
What? Antonio asked.
You freak out enough for the both of us. The 3rd responded.
Well, someone has to keep us alive! Antonio practically shouted.
Bitch please. What do you think I’m doing? When was the last time we ate? I’m not following these tracks looking for a fight. I’m following them because the Dead Boys will have rations to steal. They’re good like that. The 3rd stopped and cocked his head to the side. You hear that?
Yep, someone’s getting shot at, blown up, butchered, murdered etc… Antonio replied with no enthusiasm.
Come on, let’s go.
If we have to, I hope you’re right about the food…
The 3rd picked up his pace and set off along the tracks towards the distant sounds of fighting.

* * *

Branches whipped painfully across Marta’s face as she ran through the trees. The efforts of her failing arms, trying to clear a path, almost for naught. Even though she’d cast an invisibility spell on herself, it was obvious where she was and where she was going. She couldn’t be seen, but every move she made was given away by the undergrowth. Behind her she heard, and felt, the screams and cries of anguish of a massacre. She looked over her shoulder and saw nothing. Breathing hard she propped herself upon against a tree, not sure if she was able to run anymore. She wiped the sweat and tears from her face and saw she was bleeding.

Before she could even consider what to do next she saw movement. They were following her! She froze as two figures stalked toward her. She slapped her hand over her mouth, to stifle a scream, as she recognized that they were Dog Boys! They were both looking right at her. Not right at her face, or looking into her eyes, but looking right at her location. They couldn’t see her. However they knew, for a fact, that she was there. The paused and sniffed the air. The smaller one growled quietly and made some hand gestures to the bigger, drooling one. The bigger one moved off to one side, the smaller one went the other way. They seemed confident, as if they could sense her fear.

Marta’s eyes darted from one to the other. What should she do!? She was too young for this! She had never wanted this war and had no idea about fighting! She’d heard about Dog Boys and how they could sense magic. They could sense the spell active on her right now, but she dared not cancel it. She closed her eyes and took a breath, sensing within herself. Damn it! She knew she had precious little mana left to power her spells. She mumbled and cast a quick protection spell. The Dog Boys dove to the ground. Marta wondered if they were trained to do that, or if it was a natural reaction. Their snarling grew louder as they lifted themselves back up. They started getting closer again, slowly but surely. Marta noticed that they had weapons, pistols and humming vibro-blades. She didn’t have anything. She cursed herself as a fool!

With the last of her mystic reserves she cast the only offensive spell she knew. A stone appeared in her hand. The large drooling Dog Boy saw it, pointed and yelled, “There!”

In some recess in her mind Marta realized too late that she should have cast that spell with her hand behind her back and out of sight. The Drooler didn’t hesitate and charged Marta bellowing and snarling as he came. The other Dog Boy fired at where he thought Marta was and hit her. Marta screamed. With no other option her brain clicked over from flight to fight. She took a step towards the charging CS mutant and screamed as she threw the stone with everything that she had

* * *

The 3rd watched the Coalition vehicle though the trees. He pulled off a glove, licked his finger and held it up in the air.
Ew, gross! I know where those fingers have been. Antonio exclaimed.
Antonio, what are you talking about? How else am I gunna know which way the wind is going? The 3rd sounded a little confused.
If you knew where I’d been putting those fingers you wouldn’t be licking them. Wait? Wind direction? Who cares!
The 3rd sighed mentally. Antonio, you always do this. Now isn’t the time for a fun and exciting round of ‘Let’s make The 3rd guess who Antonio has been rutting with!’ Drop it. On the other hand, wind direction matters a lot right now. If we were upwind of those two Dog Boys on top of that EPC, they’d have smelt us long ago. We’re not, so they haven’t.
Oh, that is good news! No but seriously, next time use your pinkie. Antonio replied.
The 3rd sighed again.
So, what are we waiting for? Antonio asked. Bit odd don’t you think, the two of them standing on top of the tank like that.
It’s an EPC, not a tank. Odd? Not really, they’re spotting for someone. There is a better view from up there. That’s why the one on the left has that big radio and the other has his eyes glued to a pair of binos. The 3rd replied as patiently as he could.

The 3rd stepped back out of sight from the EPC and checked his pistols. He was very low on ammo.
He could feel Antonio getting nervous. So 3rd, I’ll see you on the other side? He asked.
The 3rd smiled. His constant companion had never liked fighting and never stuck around during a fight. He preferred it this way, it was easier to focus and concentrate on not dying. Yes, Antonio. I’ll see you on the other side.
Okay then. Best o’ luck and all that, don’t die. Oh, don’t forget: Pinkie for testing the wind from now on, okay? Pinkie! Then Antonio was gone. The 3rd was alone in his head.

The 3rd snuck out from behind the tree towards the EPC, safeties off. He stayed low, but moved quickly. He could hear radio static, which was probably helping him. Background noise is the friend of a sneak. However, if he could hear that, then any noise he made would be heard by the Dog Boys. He was very good at not making noise when he didn’t want to. He got closer, close enough to take the shot. He was an excellent shot and he knew it, but with his ammo low he wasn’t taking chances. He paused. From this angle, behind them, the Dog Boy armor they were wearing pretty much prevented a one shot kill, their heads and torsos well protected. Oh well, can’t always have it easy.

He lined up a shot, using his off forearm as a brace for his gun. He had an instructor chew him out for doing it in the past, but he felt like it helped. So he kept doing it. Suddenly, the arm holding the radio to the Dog Boy’s disappeared in a red mist. Then the Dog Boy dropped out of sight as its scream filled the air. The other one turned and faced The 3rd, eyes wide, starting to snarl and reaching for a weapon. That was the last mistake it ever made. The 3rd shot him repeatedly in the face. One down! Whump! He heard the one-armed Dog Boy hit the ground on the far side of the EPC. He ran to the corner of the vehicle, weapons ready. He could hear the Dog Boy, breathing hard and cursing under its breath, but couldn’t tell what it was doing.

He peeked around the corner. The Dog Boy was fumbling with a grenade on his webbing. It was set to be grabbed by the arm he didn’t have anymore. That, plus the way he fell and landed made it awkward to grab it and pull the pin. Even if he could do that, throwing it far enough away would be tricky. The 3rd smiled and stepped out into full view. The CS mutant saw him and redoubled its efforts. It managed to pull the grenade from its webbing and used its teeth to pull the pin. With impressive effort it rose up to its knees and flung the grenade at The 3rd. It landed at his feet. The Dog Boy screamed “Diiiiiiieeeee!” The 3rd started to laugh. The grenade burst and started spewing a cloud of green smoke. The Dog Boy sank to the ground, fully spent. The 3rd kicked the grenade away, and shot the Dog Boy several more times, just to be sure. He walked over to the dead body and unclipped a frag grenade from its webbing. “Well Mr Doggie that was a good effort ruined by bad luck.” He gave it a pat on the head.

He went to the door the EPC and confirmed his expectation: There were only 2 left behind. The rest would be out hunting. He looked around and was pleased with what he found. There were a few weapons, lots of e-clips, ammo and most importantly, there was food and water. He used the term ‘food’ loosely. Antonio wouldn’t be happy about it, but they wouldn’t starve.

* * *

Marta couldn’t believe it! Her rock hit the attacking Doy Boy right in the face! It dropped to the ground. It didn’t move. She stood staring at it. She was confused. Part of her wanting it dead, another part hoping it would get up and walk away. It didn’t move. Ha! If only those guys who used to laugh at her for throwing like a girl could see her now! They’d be so…

A wild scream from the other smaller Dog Boy brought her back to the here and now. She leaped to the side to avoid more laser blasts. She looked up, got to her knees and flung a magic stone at it. She had no idea if it hit or not. It was running at her. Not charging like the other one had. It was advancing while shooting. It shot at her and she threw stones back. Sometimes she hit, sometimes she didn’t. She didn’t really care if she hit or missed. The only thing that mattered was that she was fighting back, finally lashing out. She’d been running for so long that fighting back felt surprisingly good.

He was getting close now. He took a final shot, dropped his pistol and pulled another vibro-blade. Marta’s eyes narrowed, this would be her last throw before he was on top of her. She threw with all her might. It hit true! The Dog Boy stumbled and fell. He didn’t get up. Marta stood, frozen. She’d done it! She was still alive! She’d won! Her joy short lived. It dawned on her; she was now a killer, a murderer! Her heart sank immediately, full of remorse. She’d grown up wanting to heal people, to help them. She slumped to her knees, her eyes full of tears. She cried. She cried, not caring if anyone heard her. That was a mistake.

She never saw anyone else and certainly never saw the neural mace, but she felt it. She felt it each and every time its blows rained down on her. Whoever was using it must have been very angry. Even after she blacked out, somehow she was aware of her nervous system being lightly fried.

Her bloodied unconscious body lay at the feet of the Psi-Stalker. He took off his helmet looked down at her. He stretched his neck until it popped. He expertly zip tied her hands and feet, gagged her and put a bag over her head. He had proper mage restraints back at the EPC, but knew that this, plus excessive amounts of neural mace lovin’, would keep this little mage helpless. Pity about Gus and Shorty though, replacements were few and far between these days. In spite of that, he smiled, he’d been getting hungry. “Hello breakfast lunch and dinner. It’s nice to meet you.” Without too much effort he lifted her up and flung her over a shoulder, walked back past the dead Dog Boys and back through the trees.

* * *

The 3rd sat waiting, hidden in the trees. He broke off a piece of dog biscuit and put it in this mouth. It was hard, really hard.
I’m gunna have to eat these with water. They’re made for Dog Boy’s teeth I suppose. He thought to himself.
He felt Antonio stirring. Food had that effect. Hey. Good work on not dying - once again. Oh! So you were right about the Dead Boys having food! What are we eating? It tastes kinda weird, like stale beef. Is it safe to eat?
Um, I’m not sure. Some kind of biscuit I guess. Yeah, it’s safe to eat. The 3d replied.
Good. It needs more sugar and less salt though. So, what’s the situation? Antonio asked, he liked to know if he was likely to be shot at anytime soon.
We’re alive. The two Dog Boys are dead. I buried them in the trees on the other side of the EPC. I found a bunch of food, which I’ve buried behind us. I pulled out all the fuses in the fuse box and set a booby trap. When it opens next some frag grenades go boom. Now, we’re waiting for the rest of the Dog Boys to come back. The 3rd quickly brought him up to speed
You’ve been busy, was I away for that long? Antonio sounded impressed.
Not long, I found a vibro-entrenching tool and worked quickly.
Hang on, how do you know they’ll be Dog Boys? Antonio asked.
Call it an educated guess… The 3rd didn't want him to know it was dog food just yet.

Marta could feel it; she was on the cusp of a new plateau. She couldn’t focus though, something kept tickling her with lightning. No tickling was the wrong word, tickling never hurt this much. She slowly became more aware of her body. She couldn’t see and couldn’t move much. She could tell it was really windy, she was cold something was making too much noise right beside her head. She could almost recognize the sound, she felt like she should be afraid of it. Ah, but that plateau was so close. Achieving a new plateau had always been such a lovely experience. Up until to now that is. She could sense this one would be different. Life had taken a very dark turn for the worse. She doubted his plateau experience would qualify as ‘lovely’. Not just that though, she felt that this time her psychic abilities would blossom dramatically! If only these lightning tickles would just stop!

The 3rd, and Antonio, watched the Dog Boys closely from their concealed position. They were coming in to land.
Well, you were right: 2 Dog Boys and a Psi Stalker. Antonio commented. He was quietly pleased that he knew that Stalkers and Dog Boys went together. He didn’t know much about military stuff, but he knew that.
Yeah, check it out. The Stalker had someone tied up on the back of his Speedster. The 3rd replied.
Weird, why would he do that?
Found someone worth taking prisoner probably. The 3rd replied dryly.
The instant the hover-cycles landed, the CS troopers quickly moved out to secure their EPC. The Stalker kept watch while the other 2 cleared the interior. They reappeared not long after. One of them went over to the Stalker and spoke with him. They were too far away for even The 3rd to hear, but judging from the body language of the Stalker, he was cursing a whole lot behind his sealed helmet.

As they watched he unslung his neural mace and struck the prisoner several times.
Well, now we know the Prisoner is alive and being kept stunned. Likely a mage the Stalker will use it for a meal at some stage. The 3rd observed.
What, like kill and drain the mages mana? Antonio asked.
Maybe, might just keep it alive and feed off it over and over.
Shit. That sounds grim for the mage. Antonio felt sorry for the poor bastard.
The stalker walked to EPC and went in, out of sight. The Dog Boys took positions behind their hover-cycles. After a minute they both started sniffing the air with purpose.
What are they sniffing at? Antonio asked.
Their dead buddies, I only half buried them. Well, not even half. The 3rd said.
Right, on purpose? Oh, upwind and downwind right?
Yep. Your learning! The 3rd seem impressed. Don’t worry; I used the pinkie to test the wind this time.
Antonio laughed a little, even though he wasn’t really in the mood for laughing.

Marta could smell electric burning. Was that cooked meat she could smell? After the most recent lightning tickles she wasn’t really sure what she was sensing, or how. Her head rolled a little from side to side. Her neck hurt, as if someone had put sand paper between her vertebra. In fact everything, that she could feel, hurt – a lot. She inhaled slowly, her meditative training driving her breath. She exhaled and felt something, relief perhaps? She did it again, and again. After a while she could sense some kind of clarity returning to her mind. She sensed the plateau right there, why didn’t she just pass though? What was holding her back? She felt frustrated. Where was she? Was she bound? She tried to move and couldn’t. Yes, she was bound! Gagged too and she couldn’t see anything.

Then she understood why she hadn’t reached the next plateau. She had to accept that nothing would be the same. She’d changed, the world had changed. She shook her head. No, the world hadn’t changed; it had always been like this. Her place in the world had changed. That distinction seemed important. She’d been shielded, protected all her life. Her family and her community had kept her from knowing the cold hard reality of how terrible things can and do happen to anyone, to everyone. She understood, because something terrible was happening to her right now. There was no one to save her. No protective family, no brave handsome Cyber-Knight mounted on a silver horse. No-one else was around to do the dirty work of keeping her safe. If she wanted to live she had to do her own dirty work. She understood the price she would pay: her innocence. Innocence her family tried so hard to protect. Innocence that now she was starting to find a bit embarrassing. In an instant she agreed to pay it. She wanted to live and if these CS butchers had to die, then so be it. If she hadn’t been gagged, she would have smiled a little on the outside. Deep within herself, she stepped onto the next plateau.

Boom! Something exploded! Marta felt someone fall on her, flail around for a bit, and then push against her as they stood up. As they stood up they took most of the bag covering her head with them. She could see again!

The 3rd smiled to himself as his booby trap exploded inside the EPC. Part of the blast vented thought the open door and knocked the Dog Boys off their feet. This was what he’d been waiting for. He got up and started a low run towards the EPC. The Dog Boys would be distracted for a moment or two, lots of dust, ears ringing and all that. He covered the distance quickly. One of the Dog Boys stood up, shaking her head. She saw The 3rd running towards her, but it was too late. He fired off several quick shots and she dropped to the ground, dying. For the third time today The 3rd was happy the CS was stupid enough not to give Dog Boys proper full-body armor.

The second Dog Boy, a big one too, came from nowhere and leapt at The 3rd. It’s shoulder driving into his head. He fell back and tried a rolling throw, but the Dog Boy was too strong. They tussled and rolled, the Dog Boy ended up on top. The 3rd tried to break free, but the Dog Boy was able to pin him easily. Oh shit! The 3rd felt the tell tale, tooth shaking vibration on a vibro-blade being pushed against his armor. His head being pushed to the ground and too once side he couldn’t see much. There! Just of reach he could see a neural mace, beside the Dog Boy he’d just killed. He tried to reach for it. He couldn’t. The vibration was getting steadily worse.

Marta couldn’t see much, just dust and lots of it. She could hear fighting though, close by. The dust cleared and she saw in front of her a Dog Boy on top of a man. The man was pinned and reaching for something. He was reaching for a weapon! Marta’s eyes narrowed and she focused. With a power she didn’t have just minutes ago she made the weapon fly telekinetically into the man’s out-stretched hand.

"Fuuuuck!" The 3rd screamed.
Is this it!?! Screeched Antonio
Suddenly the mace leapt into The 3rd’s desperate hand! He activated the mace with this thumb and clocked the Dog Boy upside the head for all he was worth. Thunk! The pressure pinning him released and The 3rd kicked himself out from under the Rottweiler-Human mutant. He scrambled away from the body, panting hard. He looked down and saw a deep and ugly vibro-blade cut in the chest plate of his armor. It almost went all the way through. He took the vibro-blade from the Rotty and made sure that he wouldn’t be a threat, to anyone, ever again.
Phew! That was a close one. Antonio observed.
The 3rd nodded. Wait, you stayed around for all that?
Yeah, I’m not sure why though.Antonio seemed surprised at himself.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw the prisoner moving. She moved her hands in front of her face so she could see them and the zip tie binding them together burst open. She pushed herself up and looked at her feet and another zip tie broke into pieces and flew into the grass.
How is she doing that? Antonio wandered.
Telekinesis I think. The 3rd replied.
What do you think she is? She looks human. Antonio stated the obvious.
Yeah, she does. She might not be though. The 3rd had been around long enough to know that she could be something else than human.
The both watched her carefully.

She then sat up properly astride the hover-cycle and released the buckle on the gag in her mouth and threw it away. She looked young, late teens or early twenties he guessed. She was filthy. Her travelling clothes torn in many places, she was coated in dust, dirt and blood. She looked at him and he stared back.

The 3rd heard a footstep behind him. Instinctively he dropped and leapt over a hover-cycle and into cover.
Shit! Should have made sure the Stalker was dead. He cursed himself. That was a rookie mistake!
Nothing happened, no gunfire, nothing. He peeked over the hover-cycle. Whoa!
The Psi Stalker was standing in mid air, legs flailing. He was holding the dangerous end of a C-27 up and under his chin. He was struggling; something was making him do it. The 3rd looked over at the young woman. Her hands were slowly moving and twisting as she held them out in front of her, all the while pointing them at her levitating captive. “Just kill him.” He said.

Marta savored her new found power. She had never been strong, physically strong. She was now incredibly strong - psychically. It felt amazing! She toyed with the Stalker and made him squirm. The Crazy said something. That was what they were called wasn’t it? The ones with the things in their head that gave them power, but drove them mad. She tried to ask him what he said, but her throat was too hoarse. Instead she just croaked at him.

“Just kill him.” The 3rd repeated. “Stop playing with him; get it over and done with. If you wanna live through this, killing him is pretty much a necessity. Playing with him isn’t. There could be more Dead Boys around and this is just wasting time.” Marta looked at him. He was right. Choom! The Stalkers head disappeared in a ball of plasma as she telekinetically pulled the trigger. She focused on the Crazy’s thoughts and started listening in.

Damn! This girl is cold. Antonio observed.
Maybe, maybe not. She’s young and she was toying with him. The 3rd responded.
You don’t like that kind of thing?
Oh hell no! That’s the kind of shit I’ve seen demons enjoy way too much. The 3rd practiacally spat the word ‘demon’.
Yeah, good point. So what do we do now?
Not sure. I guess I talk to her for a start. The 3rd replied
Offer her some water first. She sounded like she can’t speak. Antonio suggested.
Oh yes please! Marta loudly interjected telepathically.
The 3rd froze. You’re psychic? He asked her mentally.
Yes. I’m sorry to intrude into your thoughts… My name is Marta.
Do you think she can hear me? Antonio asked.
Yes, I can hear you both. She replied.
Aw yeah! Antonio cheered.
The 3rd frowned. “Call me The 3rd. The other guy is Antonio. You want some water, and something to eat?” He asked out loud.
"I do. I’m starving!" Marta cried.
The 3rd tossed over his canteen and a can of ‘Fido Yum’ from a pouch. She accepted both gratefully, wasting no time peeling the lid off the can and getting the food into her mouth.
Dog food, you gave her freaking dog food!? And you wonder why you never get laid! Antonio asked The 3rd incredulously.

* * *

Marta's tale finished, she looked up and paused. She felt like a weight had lifted. Her daughters were staring at her, looks of total disbelief written all over their faces. She smiled sadly and said, “That, my children, is how I met your father.”
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Re: Late Winter EP Contest

Postby Brute » Thu Mar 29, 2018 10:19 am

The Taciturn Stranger and the Thrice-Forged Blade

The fog lifted with a sense of familiarity. He was in the woods, in pain. Glancing down, he saw to his horror his blood-drenched hands and arms. In his right hand he bore his sword. Not again. He whipped around, scanning for enemies. He did not recognize where he was.

Woods. Blade drawn. Blood. Was all he thought. Finding no immediate threat, he turned and began running downhill, in search of water.

What have I done? He asked himself. Who did I kill? He ran like a deer, with preternatural grace. In time, he heard the babbling of a small stream. He slowed his pace, nearly creeping, until he arrived. Scanning the area, he found no one to confront him. He knelt by the stream and scrubbed drying blood off his hands, arms, and clothes, then cleaned his sword with tender concern, leaving no fleck of blood on blade or grip.

The sword was unusual - a long, straight narrow blade, like a katana (but not curved), like a longsword (but delicate). Its steel was polished white and inlaid with strange markings in gold around an etching of a dragon. The handle was a fencing handle, a pistol grip without the bell guard, though the blade was too long and heavy to be considered a fencing sabre. This sword was strange, but was no stranger to him - he knew it better than he knew himself. It bore no scars of battle, nor any signs of having been forged - no mark of hammer or fire could be found along its blade.

He stood, and quietly surveyed the wood. Follow the water He thought, and set off down stream.

Woods led to fields, and fields to pasture. He found a road, and followed it to a large city.

* * *

He approached the gates of MercTown. A loudspeaker announced that he was being scanned for magic, and he knew his sword would light up like a beacon. Guards approached and handed him a datapad. "That's some weapon you've got there. Fill this out." He glanced at the datapad with dismay. The first field was titled, "Name." He handed the datapad back. "Can't."

The guard looked at him dubiously, sizing him up. He had been wearing pants and a loose-fitting shirt with no armor - both soiled by blood, mud, and dust. "Can't read?" He shrugged. That was a better answer than the truth. The guard shook his head, annoyed. "Fine then. Name?"

"Carson," the man lied. The guard tip-tapped the name into the datapad. A few questions and lies later, and the guard was satisfied, and let him in, bearing a map of town. He passed through the gates, looking for a place to eat, and sleep. He thought, It'll all be clearer in the morning.

* * *

It wasn't.

He awoke with a headache, still remembering nothing of the previous day's events before awakening in the woods. After he'd eaten and bathed, he'd found the usual nicks and scrapes, and a fairly serious burn on his back which was healing well. His thoughts turned to the sword, and he knew he'd used one of its runes to heal himself. What did I get myself into yesterday? he wondered, not for the first time.

He washed and dressed, slinging his sword and scabbard across his back, and headed downstairs to breakfast. As he ate, he collected a few odd looks, but he was left alone. He had to come up with a plan. He had no idea who he'd killed yesterday, and thus no idea whether he was a wanted felon. And he didn’t like the way these people had been looking at him.

After breakfast, he walked outside. He’d taken stock of his creds, and he had a little, but not much. He wandered through the markets, looking for deals on travelling supplies: backpack, tent, bedroll, and other things. He’d had all of this stuff, but must’ve left it in the woods. He had no memory of how he lost them.

He bought new clothes and changed into them in a dressing room, and some new boots while he was at it. He considered changing his hair color, but laughed at himself at the thought. His sword would identify him no matter his hair color or his disguise. He felt the steady weight of the blade at his back. He would not sully the dignity of his sword by wrapping it or trying to disguise it. He knew if worse came to worst he had options – he could run if fighting endangered too many. Some of the runes on that blade held untold powers, like the one he used to heal himself.

As he shopped, spending his last few credits, he mulled over what he’d been doing, what was the last thing he could remember.

Canada… I was going to Canada for some reason. Why? I… I’m not welcome down south. And I don’t want to spend more time than I have to in the CS… he again sensed the weight of his blade, and knew its magic would make him a target in some areas. This was no ordinary magic sword, after all. This was the Thrice-Forged Blade. He didn’t remember how he learned that, or what it signified, but he knew it made him a target.

Restocked, he headed back to the hotel for a bite to eat, hoping he hadn’t already outstayed his welcome. On his way, he swung by the Job Market Café. If there was a short, easy job he could take to earn a few credits, he could do that, and maybe earn enough to pay his way to Canada.

* * *

The Job Market Café had a job board, and as the man scanned the jobs he immediately crossed out ones which were likely to require an entire merc crew, focusing instead on the likely one-man jobs. One of these jobs seemed simple enough – to escort a child to Chi-Town, to be reunited with family. He’d wanted to give Chi-Town a wide berth due to the heavy presence of Coalition forces there, but the job payed well, and it was in the general northerly direction of Canada. He pulled the tab on the flyer and walked back to the hotel.

At the hotel, he ate and picked up his deliveries from the day’s shopping. He went to his room and packed his gear into his newly-purchased backpack. He slung his sword across his back, tossed on his new trenchcoat over it, and then pulled on the backpack. The sword was largely concealed, except for the distinctive grip. He’d hoped it was enough – the grip had been confused for a rifle grip before, and he laughingly considered buying a stock for it to encourage the delusion. Lastly, he pulled his long, wild platinum-blonde hair into a topknot, to keep it out of his face. Glancing in the room’s mirror, he nodded. Look almost civilized.

Leaving the hotel, he travelled by side streets to the address on the job posting, and rang the bell by the door. An old man in a moth-eaten cardigan pulled the door open. The man held up the job posting, and the older man swung the door open wide. ”Here about the job, eh? Good, good. Not many takers to go to Chi-Town from here… and I can’t afford a whole mercenary company’s salary, you know, so if you’re here representing a crew you’d best turn and go.” The old man eyed him warily. The other man shrugged to indicate he was alone. The elderly man nodded. ”Good. Not a talker? That’s good too. Ain’t got time for idle chatter. Name’s Brennan. I lived here with my niece Laurelai… She’s dead now. Left her kid behind. MercTown’s a great place to run a gunshop like mine but it’s a crappy place to raise a kid, and I got no patience for a kid who’s cryin’ all the time.” Brennan eyed the younger man, almost challenging him to say something, to criticize him. The younger man offered no challenge.

Brennan continued. ”Kid’s nearest relative – aside’s me – is my nephew Lucius Grey, up in Chi-Town. I called him and he’s willing to look after the kid, but he can’t come to MercTown, so I need someone to escort the kid there. Think you can handle that?”

The younger man eyed Brennan. ”What’s the catch?” Brennan smiled and coughed out a laugh. ”No catch. Get the kid to Chi-Town. Alive. I’ll pay 1000 credits now, and Grey’ll pay you 2000 when you get there.” The man eyed the elderly man, noting again the moth-eaten and generally unkempt nature of the man’s appearance, and decided to test him, just a little. ”Travel costs.”

Brennan considered this, and nodded. ”If you wanna take a public transport to Chi-Town, I’ll pay half. I got an old beater truck you can take, if you want, and leave it with my nephew. He’ll sell it and forward the cash back to me, I guess.”

The man considered the offer. Public transport is faster and more reliable, but it’s… public. Good chance of being spotted by the CS. And given I don’t know exactly who’s after me and for what, that’s a pretty big risk. Truck’s a good option, if it runs, but it’s slower. And presumably, I have to keep it in sellable shape. As he pondered the deal, Brennan walked out of the room, saying ”Don’t think all day about it. I got work to do.”

He stood there, and saw the kid in question for the first time, coming down the stairs in the hallway. A small girl, no more than 13 years old, in pants and a shirt under an oversized utility jacket in olive drab, with black hair cut short. She stared at him. He stared back. Brennan returned with a steaming mug, that smelled of chicken soup. He looked at the elderly man and nodded once, perfunctorily. Brennan turned to the girl. Kai… get yer bag.”

* * *

The truck was out back under a ratty blue tarpaulin. It was an ATV-type vehicle, and the man nodded in approval as it meant he wouldn’t be bound to the road. ”Engine struggles a bit through the mud but give it some choke and you’ll come through all right. Truck smells like dead badger, too, but you get what you get.” Brennan ambled around the walled-in courtyard behind the house, gathering a few things and tossing them into the truck. A gas-can, roadmap, an empty canteen, a half-used first-aid kit, and a couple of other trifles he thought would be handy

Satisfied he wasn’t forgetting anything, he turned to face the man. ”This truck ain’t the greatest. It ain’t the kind of truck you can just turn the key and go… that’s why it’s out here under a tarp instead o’ bein’ used. But treat ‘er right and she’ll get you there.” Brennan eyed the man suspiciously.

”What’s your name? You never introduced yourself.”

”Carson,” the man lied. Brennan nodded.

”Carson… I ain’t one for raising kids. But don’t take that to mean I don’t care. I’m givin’ you a truck to use, and credits, and I’m trusting you’ll get her to my nephew in Chi-Town. What assurance you gonna give me that you won’t take the credits and dump her in the wild?” as Brennan spokeKai came outside hauling a duffel bag, and heaved it up into the truck.

The man gave the only promise he had to give. He drew his sword from its scabbard on his back, and planted the tip in the ground. Kneeling behind the sword, he said ”On my honor she will reach Chi-Town safely.” Behind Brennan, Kai boggled at this unusual display.

Brennan considered this for a moment, then nodded. ”You’re a strange ‘un, Carson, an’ no lie. I’ll take yer word, then, but if this kid don’t show up in Chi-Town I’ll send hell on earth to find you.”

The man nodded. ”No doubt.”

* * *

The MercTown to Chi-Town road is long and dusty, but fairly well-travelled. Once on the road, the man handled the vehicle with skill, navigating around torn up chunks of the ancient road – some with trees growing through them – and keeping enough space between him and other travelers’ vehicles so they couldn’t ID him without binoculars. A healthy suspicion keeps a man alive.

On a good road, the drive would be about 6 hours. With a kid in tow, a junker of a truck, and who knows what monsters and d-bees between one place and the next, it could easily be twice that or more. The man aimed to keep a steady pace, keep his head down, and avoid any trouble if he could.

After about a half hour, Kai decided to try to talk to him. ”Mr. Carson? That your name?” The man nodded. It’s not, but it’ll have to do.

”What do you do when you’re not babysitting?”

”Kill folks, I guess.” It wasn’t a lie.

Kai sat back, and said nothing further for several miles.

The road was patchy and there were obvious scars of recent combat here and there. As they’d gotten their start in the late afternoon, and the road couldn’t be trusted in the dark, the man began searching for a place to pull over for the night.

He found an intact exit and pulled the truck off what was left of the highway. A battered sign, with letters missing, read “…f …ham” Kai laughed. ”They must really hate ham here.”

He pulled in at a decrepit structure that had an ancient signpost with the letters TA atop it, once colored but long since bleached white. He pulled in to refuel the truck with his new-earned credits, then opened the truck door, and jerked his thumb at Kai to get out of the vehicle. ”We getting some food?” she asked, and obligingly hopped out. The man nodded, and they walked to the decrepit building.

Inside, the man grabbed some “road rations” – salted treats and candy mostly – to share with Kai tomorrow, and a sixer of cola. He paid, and sat at the counter to eat.

When the waitress arrived, Kai ordered a grilled mushroom sandwich with cheese, and the man said ”Same,” handing his menu and cred card to the waitress. As the food arrived, the man heard a number of heavy vehicles entering the lot – powerful engines idling down. He snuck a sidelong glance out the large plate window at them. Coalition ATVs.

He grabbed both sandwiches and began wrapping them in napkins. ”What gives?” Kai asked.

”Time to go.”

Kai looked outside, saw the CS vehicles, and looked back at the man shoving the wrapped sandwiches into his trenchcoat pocket. He took his cred card back from the waitress, who looked at him like his hair was on fire, and grabbed Kai by the wrist.

”Hey! I wanna sit and eat!”


He moved purposefully to the door, but saw the Coalition soldiers approaching, in their gleaming black armor, with death’s head helmets, a Dog Boy in tow. Crap. He jerked around to the restrooms. As the CS soldiers entered, he ducked into the restroom corridor with Kai. He’d hoped to see a service door to the back, but it wasn’t here. He opened the door to the men’s room, and shoved Kai in. ”Hey!”

He glanced angrily at her but said nothing, instead approaching the lone window in the restroom. It was a high, narrow band of etched glass that barely served to let in the light. He shoved it open, and then pulled down, hard on the frame. The window came free of its track with a groan of twisted metal. Kai boggled anew at this display of the man’s strength. He turned around, and picked Kai up, and hoisted her to the high window. She climbed through, landing unceremoniously on the other side.

Kai looked to either side and decided to make for the car, walking nonchalantly around to the front, looking for the soldiers. ”Whatever, crazy dude. I dunno what kinda trouble you’re in, but leave me out of it,” Kai mumbled. She noticed the man was not following.

Kai reached the truck, and climbed in, grumbling about the missing sandwich. ”You getter get back here with my food…”

Kai watched the store, and saw the troops inside, questioning the clerk and waitress. They both gestured dramatically to the restrooms.

Suddenly, there were two tremendous sounds of wrenching metal. Kai turned to look, and saw the CS vehicles, each with their hoods open and obvious damage to their engines. Smoke was beginning to rise from them. As Kai watched, the truck door opened, seemingly on its own, and the vehicle’s weight shifted as if someone had climbed in.

Instantly, the man was in the seat, and shoving his sword into the passenger footwell as he tried to start the engine. The soldiers began running out of the building. Kai’s eyes went wide as the soldiers drew their weapons. The man placed his hand on Kai’s head and shoved her down into the footwell, as the soldiers began firing.

The truck complained, but started, and the man eased the truck around and back on to the road, soldiers pursuing on foot and firing. The rear of the truck took some damage but as he pulled onto the road proper, he gunned the engine. It sputtered, but caught, and he jerked the vehicle into gear and sped off.

”WHAT WAS THAT? You’re gonna get us KILLED!”

The man glared at Kai. He had no patience for being second-guessed. Staying would’ve gotten them killed faster than leaving – but it wasn’t Kai’s fault for not knowing that.

He turned his attention back to the road. ”Not us. Me.”

He drove the car into the night like a madman, heedless of the unseen dangers, eager to put distance between him and the CS. A dozen miles later, he pulled off the road entirely, pointed the vehicle more or less northward, and began crawling through the woods. He found a small clearing and shut off the vehicle, turning off all the lights. They sat in darkness, he and Kai, saying nothing. He remembered the food they’d ordered, and drew the two sandwiches out of his pocket, handing one to Kai. It was cold.

”We’ll camp here tonight.”

* * *

Kai slept fitfully, tossing and turning and muttering, mind churning over the day’s events and coming up with no answers. The man slept in 20-minute spurts, awakening at every odd noise. Twice he left the vehicle and prowled the woods, to ensure they weren’t followed.

Dawn arrived with the twitter of birds, which always set the man’s mind at ease, though he knew that the CS would be combing the area for him. He looked at Kai. What have I gotten her into... This was stupid. This would’ve been easy money for anyone else… he thought.

He started the truck, applying gentle gas, as it coughed to life. Continuing northward, he picked a path through the trees wide enough for the ATV, occasionally reversing to pick a new route when the growth was too thick to traverse.

Mile after mile they picked a slow route through the trees, occasionally crossing a road, but only after ensuring they wouldn’t be seen.

Eventually, the route began to point downhill, and he edged the ATV down the slope. At the bottom, though, the ground was deceptively sludgy, and the ATV tires sunk into the mud, and the engine promptly stalled.

The man gripped the wheel in anger, fuming. He opened the door and leaned out, looking around. They were at the beginning of a 30’ or so stretch of bog, before the ground heaved up into another hill. He sat back down, and started the engine again, and put it back into gear. When he stepped on the gas, however, the tires rocked only slightly, and the engine sputtered and stalled again.

Kai looked concerned. ”What’s wrong?”

The man sighed. ”Take the wheel.”

Kai’s eyes widened. ”I can’t drive!”

”Keep it pointed straight.”

The man popped the ATV into neutral, and stepped out of the vehicle, strapping his sword to his back. He sunk a couple of inches into the mud – not nearly as deep as the ATV had. Quietly, he said farewell to his new boots, as he walked around the back of the ATV.

An ATV like this weighs about three tons. He knew he had to push it at least 30’ and partially uphill before it could be put in gear. He took a deep breath, and felt the familiar weight of his sword at his back. He placed his hands on the ATV’s bumper – about chest height – and began pushing in earnest.

Miraculously, the vehicle moved. Inch by inch, he pushed it through the mud, sinking knee-deep himself. He could hear Kai gasp in amazement as the vehicle began to free itself. The man pushed, and the 30 feet turned into 29, 28. At 19 feet, the vehicle hit a particularly marshy patch, and its right passenger-side tire sunk completely into the mud, up to its fender. The man cursed.

He stomped off into the woods, drawing his sword. Kai swiveled in her seat, trying to locate the man. ”Oh no you DIDN’T just leave me here alone!” She heard the sounds of impact in the woods in the distance, and shortly, the man returned with an armload of fairly large and heavy branches. He dumped them by the front wheel, calling, ”Get out.” Kai looked at him as if he were insane, but saw the sword in his hand and did not question. She jumped down and followed the man to the passenger side. The man grabbed a tree-trunk sized branch and wedged it underneath. ”I lift. You shove those under.”

Kai’s eyes widened even more. ”You gonna lift this truck?”

The man didn’t respond, but began to exert himself, muscles straining, legs sinking deep into the mud. Eventually, however, he held the makeshift lever with his arms fully extended above his head, and Kai hurriedly shoved the thick branches under the tire. Gently, he lowered the truck onto the branches, and heard them crack and crunch under the tire, but they held.

Kai clambered around and back into the driver’s seat as the man returned to the rear of the truck and began to push anew. The branches under the front tire groaned, and after two minutes of heavy exertion, he managed to edge the truck up and out of the marshy hole.

He resumed pushing until he felt the truck angle upward, and when he felt more-or-less solid earth under his feet, he shouted ”Stand on the brake!”

Kai obliged, and the truck held fast. The man hurried to the driver’s side and reached in, popping the truck into park, and wrenching the emergency brake into place.

Out of breath, he leaned against the truck and calmed himself. His breathing back to normal, he jerked his thumb at Kai, and she moved back to the passenger seat as he climbed in. He pulled Brennan’s roadmap out and tried to piece together where they were. As they sat, something loud impacted the ground in front of the ATV, send it scooting backwards downhill into the mud. Mud and debris cascaded down around the vehicle, and the man’s ears were ringing. When his head cleared, he saw CS soldiers coming into view from the top of the hill.

* * *

He climbed out of the vehicle, and up onto the hood as they approached.

The leader of the troops pulled off the death’s head helmet, to reveal a woman’s face with short-cropped hair. The man drew his sword, and stood still and silent, examining the Coalition soldiers as they aimed their rifles at him.

The lieutenant spoke first. ”Is that a child in your vehicle?” The man nodded once.

She turned to the side. ”Stand down. I’m not harming a child today.” The soldiers aimed their guns to the ground.

The man, standing astride the vehicle, tapped the windshield with the tip of his sword. ”Kai. Get out.”

Kai climbed out and ran into the woods. Some of the soldiers made to give chase, but the LT stopped them. ”Stand down – the child is no concern.” She turned back to the man. ”You know why we’re here?”

The man began to nod, but shook his head instead, unsure whether they were looking for him for killing people or for something else.

”Okay. Well. Let me tell you a story.”

* * *

There was a man. Some say he was a man, anyway. He was a legendary swordsman, actually. He had a fine sword, until it was broken in battle. The tale goes that he was contracted to slay a monster with it – a dragon. He said yes - if they could take his broken sword and forge the finest blade from it. They agreed.

The smiths toiled long and hard, and recast the blade into a weapon of singular quality. It was sharp and balanced and beautiful. The man took the sword and hit the anvil with it with such strength that the blade shattered. He said ‘Try again’, and left. Again they forged a sword, and again he broke it on the anvil. ‘Try again’, he said. So once more they tried, using every ounce of craftsmanship and they had, casting and recasting until it bore no flaw. When the man came, he tested the sword, and split the anvil with it.

He took that sword and slew the dragon, and many other enemies, and eventually that sword was lost to history. They say the blade was decked with gold and gleaming bright, emblazoned with the image of the dragon it slew.

We think that sword you have there… is the sword from the story.

* * *

The man stood and listened to the tale. ”If you want it… Come and take it.” He touched a rune and disappeared, and the truck shuddered as if hit by a great force.

The soldiers opened fire, peppering the ATV with rounds. One of the soldiers from the back of the group screamed in pain and fell to the ground, cut down mid-stride. There was no sign of the man. ”Switch to thermal!” the woman shouted, and the soldiers raised hands to helmets to adjust their optics.

As one, they saw the halo of heat emitted from the man as he sprinted to the side. They aimed their weapons at him and fired, hitting him several times in the torso, but he didn’t slow. Instead, he pointed his sword at the cclustered soldiers, touching a rune with his index finger, and fire leapt it and engulfed them. The other soldiers exclaimed in dismay as their optics temporarily whited-out from the flare of the magical flame.

Again they targeted him, but he took to the air at the last second, and he aimed another gout of flame at the same soldiers.

”Fan out! “ the lieutenant commanded, not eager to see her squad bunched up and taken out by magic fire. She pointed at a nearby pair. ”Go get that kid!” The two ran off into the forest.

She looked at the swordsman. ”I tried to be reasonable. But you Keep. Killing. My. Men.” She pointed her sidearm at him, and fired, leading his position as he moved, and landed several good shots into his thigh and chest. The bullets hurt him, and he grunted in pain, but the damage was tantamount to a mere flesh wound.

He arced up and around, and flew into the CS patrol in a zig-zag, swinging left and right, and took out two soldiers. There were only three left, plus the lieutenant, and the two that’d gone after Kai.

Gotta protect her. The swordsman flew in the direction Kai ran, and easily caught up to the running soldiers, landing in front of them. As they brought their weapons up to fire at him point-blank, he used his sword to slap the weapons away, and circled around to knock one of the soldiers off his feet. At that moment, the lieutenant and the rest of the soldiers came into view.

They refrained from firing at him due to his close proximity to the two soldiers, but they drew vibroblades and drew close. He fought them expertly, sidestepping and parrying their clumsy blows with elegance, slipping his blade into the weakpoints of their armor like an artist. One by one they fell, until it was just he and the Lieutenant standing.

Both stood there, limping, panting, bloodied. She glared. ”Give me the sword… I’ll let you go. We can end this bloodshed.”

He stared at her. This sword chose ME. he thought. He shook his head. ”No.”

Her eyes flared. ”I can’t let you go with that sword.”

”You can’t stop me.”

She drew her sidearm as he leapt to the air, and she emptied the clip at him as he flew away.

* * *

He flew, and landed in front of Kai. Kai slowed to a halt, out of breath.

”Damn. You… look like shit…” Kai gasped, and collapsed, and began crying. ”I miss my mom… I just want my mom… I wanna be safe and I want my mom and I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN…”

The man sheathed his sword. ”Listen… Something’s happening… Whatever happens… you need to … whatev…”

A fog descended over the man’s mind.

As it lifted, he found himself muddied and bloody, in the woods, a 12 year old kid crying in front of him.

He knelt. ”Who… who did I kill this time?”
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Re: Late Winter EP Contest

Postby David Henderson » Sat Mar 31, 2018 7:28 pm



As it turned out, it was a lot less glamorous being a Savior of Humanity than they lead you to believe.

Erik – Private Erik Humphries, CSA, Iron Heart Second Corps, First Division, 112th Platoon, Charlie Squad, CSID IL10-210-091-967F-8E1A – had this to say about garrison duty after two weeks of it. It was…boring. He had figured that after finally getting out of Basic and the brass assigning him to a genuine combat unit that the real work would start, the putting it all on the line in defense of Humanity. Sure, he’d been nervous as hell as he’d stepped off the transport at Echo Base, but he was ready to do the job, as he’d been trained.

So far, the most dangerous thing he’d encountered had been latrine duty the day after the mess hall had served refried beans.

Today had been a typical day so far, as he had come to understand how life worked for the lowly grunt; reveille, breakfast, PT, work duty – today his squad had been assigned to motor pool maintenance, and you really had no idea how big an APC was until you’d washed one by hand. Followed by lunch and now he was in the exciting position of an hour’s liberty until the afternoon’s work duty. Sure, it wasn’t hard work, and the food was both decent and plentiful, but he had the nagging feeling that all the training he’d been put through to become a soldier wasn’t being utilized.

Lying on his bunk, the dull rumble of an ongoing poker game in the background, he pulled a picture out of the breast pocket of his BDUs and smoothed it with his thumbs. It was a still of Jessie, smiling at the camera, and he couldn’t help but smile back. She was his girl…and she was one of the main reasons he was here.

As anyone who’d come from the ‘Burbs would tell you, life inside a fortress city had to be better. Trying to get by in the danger and the squalor of the massive shanty town that surrounded the fortress was next to impossible if you weren’t willing to do things that gave you nightmares, and even if you were getting by, that’s all you were doing.

Erik wanted something more, something better, for them. So he signed up. Fast track, baby, assuming he lived long enough to serve out his tour. He smoothed his fingers over the picture again, hoping desperately that Jessie’s family would be able to keep her safe until he could come for her.

Hold on, baby. I’m— A piercing alert whooped through the barracks, accompanied by strobing red lights. Erik sat bolt upright on his bunk, narrowly avoiding cracking his head on the underside, and the poker game on the other side of the room came to a crashing halt in a bout of emphatic cursing from the participants.

”INCURSION ALERT. INCURSION ALERT.” The loudspeakers that kicked in once the alert sirens had subsided wasn’t a whole lot less intrusive. ”ALL SQUADS, 112, MOBILIZE AND ASSEMBLE AT STAGING AREA ALPHA. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Silence fell for a long moment after intercom fell silent, then the barracks erupted into chaos as grunts hurled themselves into motion. Stuffing Jennie’s picture back into his shirt pocket, Erik scrambled to his feet and joined the throng pouring through the door to the arming room attached to the barracks. Shouts and near-collisions gave the illusion of chaos, but this exercise was something that even a greenbean like himself had drilled repeatedly until it was second nature.

Navigating to his rack, he went through the ritual of donning his environmental armour while his thoughts raced. This was it, this was it – his first field encounter against a live enemy of the Coalition! His mouth was dry as the clamshell of his breastplate locked in place and made connections with the limbs, green tell-tales lighting up for a moment before winking out again. A number of others of the platoon were already buttoned up and double-timing it out to the armoury, but some were still streaming into the arming room at a run from wherever they had been when the alert came in.

Grabbing his helmet he fitted it into place and watched as the armour ran through its start-up diagnostics, status bars coming up full and green for power, air, and structural integrity. Everything checking out, he joined squad mates in a dash across the grounds to the armoury.

Inside, the impression of chaos was a little stronger. At the far end, eight SAMAS pilots were in the process of having their suits being fitted to them, large ammo drums for their rail guns being hooked to the backs of the flying support armour. Nearer the entrance, the base Quartermaster was assigning weapons and ammunition to the line of grunts, the line moving swiftly as she slapped rifles, e-clips, and grenade pouches into waiting hands. Erik even saw a plasma cannon issued to one of Bravo Squad’s heavy gunners.

Even with the level of ambient noise echoing about the interior of the armoury, Erik noticed a measured thudding noise coming from behind him. Twisting about in line, he saw a startlingly massive form at least seven feet tall walking past and turned to follow its progress. He belatedly recognized the CA-6 armour, which meant it was either a powered exoskeleton, or—

“Who is that? he wondered aloud. The grunt in front of him looked back – he recognized the ID number on the helmet belonging to Rodriguez -- then jerked a head sideways at the broad back advancing ahead of them.

”That? That’s Master Sergeant Vickers. Came through two weeks ago on furlough, musta got in this morning to wait on pickup. He’s probably got family in the area.”

Erik nodded slowly, although his helmet absorbed most of the motion. ”Is he…”

Rodriguez chuckled. ”A ‘Borg? Oh yeah, he’s pretty hardcore. I hear his list of awards is pretty epic.” Shaking his head, Rodriguez turned front again, leaving Erik to watch the massive ‘Borg pause beside the Quartermaster and lean down to speak with her.

She looked up sharply at him, then nodded and tapped a few quick commands into her tablet before moving onto the next soldier. The sergeant continued his ponderous walk down the armoury to where the remaining two SAMAS were still having their ammo drums loaded. The crew down there looked up to see him coming, and they must have received commands from the quartermaster because they began preparing another rail gun.

”Soldier!” Erik jumped guiltily, and hauled his attention back to business. It seemed the swiftly moving line had brought him to its head while his attention had been elsewhere, and the quartermaster was impatiently holding rifle, e-clips, and a grenade-pouch for him to take.

”Head in the game, soldier!” she barked, and he hastily collected his issued weapons. He was glad that his helmet hid the burning embarrassment in his cheeks, but he didn’t let himself think that meant he was getting off easy.

”Yes, Staff!” he snapped out smartly, and then continued forward to clear the line. Shouldering his rifle and stowing ammunition, his eyes crept over to where the Master Sergeant stood patiently while the techs connected power leads and ensured the ammunition drum was secure.

It appeared that they were going to have some muscle for this outing.

Hurrying out of the armoury, he double-timed it over to the staging area to fall in with the rest of Charlie Squad. Corporal Ryder, squad leader and designate Charlie One, nodded her head and turned back front, hands absently checking over her combat load. Erik was the last Charlie to arrive, although not the last of the platoon.

He’d only been there seconds before their transport rolled up in a rumble of oversized tired. A pair of Mark Vs, not the latest and greatest of the war machine but certainly sufficient for garrison transport.

The last few members of the platoon sprinted into formation, and thud of heavy feet and whine of powered servos heralded the arrival of their air support wing. Lieutenant Simmons, the platoon CO – unmistakably so due to the officer’s plume on his helmet – stepped out and turned to face the troops.

”All right people, we have a D-Bee incursion forty klicks west of here, confirmed by Sky Cycle eyes-on,” the Lieutenant announced, his voice amplified by his helmet’s speakers. ”A flock of some sort of flying humanoids, and they’re tearing into the settlement.” He paused a moment.

”We are responding in force, and we are going to make them sorry they ever let their wings carry them into Coalition air space,” he announced in a rousing and eminently junior-officer tone. ”Sergeant,” he nodded to Sergeant 1st Class McRae, platoon senior NCO, and stepped back.

Sgt. McRae took the Lieutenant’s place and began calling out orders. ”Alpha and Beta Squads, you’re in Bus One,” he called out in a parade ground voice. ”First Wing, you’re with them. Charlie, Delta, Second Wing, you’ve got Bus Two. Load up, people!”

Lieutenant Simmons had already disappeared into the depths of Bus One, the members of Alpha and Beta double-timing it up the rear ramp of the APC while the four SAMAS waited to file in last. Erik fell in with the rest of his squad as they headed to Bus Two, armoured boots pounding up the ramp as the entered the vehicle.

Erik had been in this type of transport before, as well as several other of the Coalition’s troop transports, but this was the first time with live ammo and with a fire action waiting at the other end. His hands were sweating inside their gauntlets, and it wasn’t something that the climate controls were intended to deal with. Fortunately, in his opinion, the rest of the squad couldn’t tell how he was feeling by his face.

”First field action, oh yeah,” Charlie Four crowed, slapping Erik on one shoulder. ”You must be ‘bout ready to shit a brick, Hump!” A general round of laughter greeted this sally, and Erik felt his cheeks flame. He’d hoped that stupid nickname would have stayed behind in Basic, but it seemed that soldiers everywhere were going to shorten his surname all on their own.

”Knock it off, guys,” Corporal Ryder admonished the squad, but even Erik could hear the amusement in her voice. Great, just great, it was so much fun to be a laughingstock. He knew that while he was assigned to this squad, he wasn’t really going to be accepted as one of them until he’d proven himself in a hostile situation.

Well, he was about to get his chance.

Strapping themselves down in the jump seats lining the sides APC, Erik was facing Delta Squad doing the same thing on the opposite side of the vehicle. Delta compliment included the platoon’s trio of Dog Boys and their Psi-Stalker handler, and he couldn’t help but smile as he saw the enthusiasm the dogs were showing. Just like their smaller, unenhanced cousins, they were just so damned happy to be going for a ride.

Once his fellow infantry had finished boarding he expected to see the powered suits of Second Wing arriving next, but instead the heavily armoured cyborg Sergeant boomed his way up the ramp, his heavy tread sounding as massive as that of the SAMAS that followed him in. All five were armed with the long-barrelled rail gun that was standard issue for the flying units, and wondered at the power of the soldier’s bionics; such a thing was usually a crew served weapon when in the hands of infantry, and it took three soldiers to maneuver and load it properly.

Sergeant McRae came up the ramp last, and Erik jerked his attention away from where Master Sergeant Vickers was strapping in against the wall, for all as if he were just another powered unit. He double-checked his own fastenings as the Sergeant made his way to his seat and strapped in.

”All right, Dead Boys, we’re going for a little ride,” Sgt. McRae announced, even as the APC lurched into motion. ”We’re a little more than half an hour out from the target zone, so don’t get yourselves wound up just yet.” There was what sounded like at least a little resignation in this announcement, and Erik could see why. At the best of times, soldiers weren’t a very subdued lot, and on their way to a firefight, it was almost like they were obliged to show how very unconcerned they were with a lot of banter.

Erik let the banter flow around him for the most part; his attention was focused more inward. Of course he was apprehensive, he was on his way to his first seriously dangerous situation, one where he could lose his life if he did something stupid. Or worse, if someone else did something stupid. They were all carrying around weaponry that could vaporize a person in an instant if it wasn’t for the body armour they all wore, and for the umpteenth time he checked his tell-tales to make sure he was suited up correctly.

”Relax.” This gentle admonishment came from the seat to his immediate left, and he looked over sharply. Charlie-Nine sat there and he was regarding Erik with what seemed to be a steady gaze, inasmuch as he could tell with the opaque faceplate obscuring features.

”W-what?” he replied ingeniously, thus certainly dispelling the idea that he was at all stressed. Great, that was well done.

”You’re stressed, I can tell,” he was told flatly. ”Yes, it’s a combat mission, and unless I’m mistaken it’s your first. But the brass always sends out a ton of overkill; if they’re sending a single platoon in a pair of busses and one wing of air support, the scouting report said maybe fifteen, twenty hostiles at most.” He clapped a hand on the shoulder of Erik’s armour, the gesture made awkward by their positioning.

”They’re outnumbered and outgunned. We’ll be fine, so stop fretting, greenbean.” The tone wasn’t mocking, but rather genuinely looking out for a fellow trooper, and he felt a rush of gratitude.

”…all right. Thanks,” Erik replied. He sat back and consciously tried to settle his thoughts, focusing on what his squad mate had said. They were coming in with numerical and technological superiority; there was another platoon and several ‘bots back at base they could have deployed as well if they thought they would have been needed; and, tellingly, nobody else seemed at all edgy.

He let out a breath and felt some of the tension go out of his shoulders. Yes, this was going to be a hostile situation. But no, he shouldn’t have any problems as long as he didn’t do anything stupid. He would be okay.

They were going to go stomp on some D-Bees that shouldn’t have been starting shit in their territory. Hoo-rah.

The bus slewing around interrupted his musings, and Sergeant McRae’s voice rose up over the low rumble of chatter and engine noise.

”All right you lot, put away your cards and get your game faces on! Second wing will deploy first and get airborne to provide visuals and cover!” He nodded to the Sergeant Major leading the wing, who gave a thumbs-up in reply. ”Charlie will deploy to the right, Delta to the left, space and form a perimeter about the bus. Lock and load, people!”

The APC ground to a halt, and the noise of the tail ramp whining down at deployment speed was rivaled by the clatter of armoured gauntlets hitting harness releases. Erik stomped down on the butterflies that were trying to take up residence in his stomach; as the new guy he was Charlie Ten, which meant he was first off the bus.

The ramp boomed to the ground outside and the SAMAS thundered down it in pairs, jets cycling up for launch even as they moved. As it turned out, Erik wasn’t the first infantryman out either, nor was the hyperactive looking Jack Russel that was Delta Ten. That honour, unsurprisingly, went to Sergeant Vickers, who moved down the ramp with surprising speed even as Erik ran for the door.

He followed the massive blend of man and machine as they ran alongside the Mark V, fanning out into their half of the perimeter circle about the transport. His position in the formation had him nearly at the front of the vehicle and so he was in a great position to see what was ahead of them.

There were at least a dozen forms with wings circling up ahead, some three to four hundred yards away, and what appeared to be a handful more on the ground below them. The targeting reticles in his HUD had assigned green beam and amber grenade icons to each hostile, indicating they were well within the laser range of his rifle but barely within that of the grenade launcher – they were within engagement range.

Erik snuck a quick glance at Sergeant Vickers, again taken by the impressive figure the massive ‘borg presented as he stood at the fore, almost casually holding his rail gun in those huge hands. He couldn’t imagine what it was like to go through such a radical physical conversion, but the results were undeniably effective.

The brass must have passed down commands to the squad leaders, because Corporal Ryder abruptly got them moving.

”Charlie Squad, firing line, flank the APC!” Now deployed in the field, they were using comms rather than helmet speakers – standard protocols to restrict enemy access to tactical information. As the squad moved to deploy, behavior from a few of the D-Bees up ahead indicated they had taken notice of the platoon’s arrival. This was hardly a surprise with half a dozen SAMAS in the air, their jets filling the air with the hollow roar of their climb for altitude.

It seemed that Lieutenant Simmons wanted to take advantage of the several that they had caught on the ground – Erik trained his helmet optics on the group, and the magnification revealed they were feasting on a gutted bull – as Bus One spat a volley of mini-missiles from the forward launchers.

The quintet of missiles screamed across the intervening distance, covering it in under two seconds. Even as they formed up their firing line Erik could see a couple of the hostiles start to flap their wings, attempting to take to the air, but by that point it was far too late.

The missiles impacted, exploding in a roar of shrapnel that shredded through everything within twenty feet of the point of impact. The military-grade munitions gouged a crater into the soil of the field, and as debris rained down Erik could see that…well, there really wasn’t anything at all left of the hostiles.

Whoa. He’d never seen in person before the effects of missiles on live targets, and all he could say was, they were damned effective.

”Weapons free, weapons free, fire at will,” Corporal Ryder commanded, and Charlie Squad opened up on the enemy even as the airborne hostiles wheeled and came winging toward them with raucous cries.

As they approached at rifle point Erik got his first good look at the hostiles, and he had no problems whatsoever pulling the trigger on them. Huge and hideous, they were humanoid – technically – but no one would ever confuse them for humans. A haggish face with glowing eyes, sagging bare breasts and green-blotched skin the colour of a corpse, they had massive bird wings instead of arms and huge black bird-feet with long talons. They may have been female, but they certainly weren’t women, and the laser fire from the infantry line began to chew into them.

Erik found it wasn’t that difficult to remember his training, even as he was facing oncoming hostiles that were intent on feasting on his entrails. The combat computer in his armour even made it easy, synching with his rifle and keeping tabs on ammunition levels and highlighting the targeting reticule when the sights were aligned. There wasn’t even any kickback as the laser pulses seared out of the muzzle of the rifle, and gaping holes began being blown into the flesh of the flying monsters, whose approach began to falter.

Then the stuttering roar of the rail gun beside him shattered the relative quiet of laser fire, and despite himself Erik lowered his rifle to stare at Sergeant Vickers. The huge ‘borg was holding his rail gun like it was nothing more than one of the pulse rifles, and loosing long bursts of slugs at the hostiles. Unlike the searing laser fire, the impacts from the rail gun hit them with a viscerally physical force, flight lines staggering and feathers flying in bursts of gore.

The sergeant’s helmeted head rotated slightly in Erik’s direction, even as he fired off another burst that sheared a wing clear off one of the hostiles. Hastily, Erik raised his rifle and rejoined the firing line, his shots even easier now that the bird-women had closed half the distance. From the look of things, they weren’t going to get a chance to close the other half.

And that was before the flight of SAMAS strafed the approaching flock, each half of the wing catching the hostiles in a crossfire that dropped half of their remaining number in moments.

After that, it was just clean-up, bringing down the stragglers that had had enough and tried – vainly – to escape.

Erik’s heart was racing as they neutralized the last hostile, but it was with exhilaration now, not fear. He had known, intellectually, of the might of the Coalition war machine, but to witness it – to be a part of it – was another matter entirely.

”Told you there was nothing to worry about,” Private Wilkins told him, ejecting his spent e-clip and slapping in a new one by rote, and Erik couldn’t help but grin like an idiot – fortunately concealed by his helmet’s opaque face plate – and nod in return. No wonder the Coalition States were the greatest power in the known world. What could possibly stand up to their might?

He started when the three Dog Boys of Delta Squad simultaneously set up a discordant howl, and as he wheeled around he saw their Psi-Stalker handler raise his head abruptly and look downfield to where they had first sighted the hostiles. Erik looked down that way himself, but couldn’t see anything. He—

He couldn’t quite make out what he was seeing at first, but it swiftly became apparent when a massive rift split the air those few hundred yards away, easily a hundred and fifty feet high and widening rapidly. His mouth fell open in shock, and he felt a great deal of sympathy for the Dog Boys who abruptly began to whine and edge back from the giant, hungry-looking tear in space. Overlapping orders came over the comms from multiple sources simultaneously, but it was hard to pay attention in the face of what was emerging from the rift.

Forty feet high, fifty even. Incredibly ugly, pale reddish skin that seemed to hang off the monstrous skull with a gaping mouth that looked large enough to swallow one of the APCs whole. It was moving fast out through the rift, deceptively so due to its massive size, and it was somehow flying.

That somehow became apparent as a pair of wings unfurled again, clearly tucked in to clear the rift as the beast came through, and those wings seemed to shade acres. Over two hundred feet of creature seemed to be out of the rift already, and it was still emerging. That was…impossible! The rush of supernatural horror than crawled across Erik left him feeling weak and uncomprehending.

Impossible or not it was coming, and the edge of panic was starting to grip these formerly disciplined and victorious troops. Laser fire lanced out from numerous points, and a clear command belatedly emerged from the tactical net, directly from Lieutenant Simmons against the protocol of chain of command.

”Fire, fire, everybody fire on that thing!” It wasn’t the most proper of commands, but it was one that everyone was certainly willing to embrace. Erik snapped his rifle up and began triggering bursts, aim a laughable concept against something that was, quite literally, larger than the broad side of a barn. If they were having any effect, he couldn’t see it.

One of the Mark V pilots wasn’t at all concerned about the cost of munitions, and unleashed a thundering volley of missiles from the front launchers even as the turret rail gun began its own chattering bursts. Again, one could hardly miss a target that size, and dozens of missiles, tearing fragmentation and searing plasma both, detonated against the colossal creature’s hide in a cascade of destruction that utterly dwarfed the previous missile launch.

The creature bellowed in pain, convulsing as the devastating attack savaged it, and that bellow itself was almost a physical thing, the sound so loud it would have deafened them all if their armour hadn’t suppressed the noise. Even suppressed, it was unbelievably intense.

Also unbelievable was the fact that it kept coming! It appeared to be injured, yes, but not severely, and as the monster’s pair of tails slipped finally through the rift it was over halfway to them already, hundreds of feet long and sweeping those huge wings toward them!

It was at that point that Erik noticed another figure riding atop the beast, dwarfed by its size but surely several yards tall itself when taken by itself. Red-skinned, bat-winged, with curling ram’s horns over the face of a man and terminating with the black-furred legs of a goat, it waved a huge rune-covered sword in a circle over its head to point it toward their now laughably small platoon.

And swarms of creatures began pouring out from between the exposed ribs of the monster. Many spread wings and climbed into the air, while many more dropped easily to the ground and began running toward their position. Taller than man, with heads like dragons, they were a riot of golds, bronzes, reds and greens, blues, blacks, and the occasional flash of silver and white as they churned toward them in a roaring mass.

Bolts of lightning began to lance unerringly down out of the clear sky, striking troopers where they stood returning fire. The impacts staggered the soldiers, clearly causing substantial damage with each strike. Erik abruptly was yanked backward to slam against the side of the APC, Sergeant Vickers’ hand releasing his shoulder to take up his rail gun again.

”Take cover, soldier. This is a shit show now, and you’re going to get your head shot off if you don’t keep it down.” The sergeant’s voice was a deep bass rumble, but even with the end of the world happening all around them, Erik was astounded to realize that the Sergeant didn’t seem particularly worried, or even surprised.

Vickers turned back to the battle, his rail gun chattering bursts of fire into the oncoming horde which in Erik’s mind seemed like pissing into the wind at this point. Grenades began to burst in amongst the hostiles, and he was abruptly galvanized back into action. Following orders, he used the side of the APC as shelter and began rifling grenades out into the fray as fast as he could work the action, emptying the magazine in a matter of seconds.

A quick look told him that he didn’t have time to reload the launcher, and began firing off laser bursts once again. The bulk of the APC beside him shuddered with repeated rail gun fire, and the laser turrets poured their own deadly fire into the mix. The other APC unleashed barrages of its own missiles into the oncoming hostiles, temporarily slowing the assault but only for seconds as dozens more of the dragon-men filled the gaps.

Erik could only blame his focus on the approaching dragon-men for missing the fact that the massive half-dead looking creature – troop transport? – was still coming. The APC shuddered, lurched, then went flying end over end as the creature clubbed it with one huge limb, sending it tumbling away in a screech of tortured metal. If they had been sheltering on the other side he wouldn’t have survived the impact, but the Mark V had been knocked away from him instead, so he only found himself a dozen feet away and flat on the ground.

Which is where the first of the dragon-men found him as they overran the line.

Eric abruptly had teeth in his face and claws tearing at his armour, which began to record damage flags at an alarming rate. He shouted and struck out at the creature, but he might have had better luck trying to lift his bunk back at the barracks – with his bunkmate still in bed. It clawed at him twice more before it was suddenly gone, and in that moment he could see a SAMAS flash by overhead with a trio of winged hostiles in pursuit.

”Get up soldier!” A familiarly massive hand gripped his and hauled him to his feet as if he weighed nothing, and letting him go Vickers whirled to ram a pair of long, keen-looking vibroblades protruding from his forearm into the chest of one of their attackers. They were in the middle of a melee, and quite clearly, they were not on the winning side of it.

Eric had no idea where his rifle had been knocked clear to, but he scrambled for a familiar form on the ground and came up with a plasma canon that apparently had lost its heavy gunner. He wasn’t a specialist on this, but his training did include the handling of heavy weapons and he used it to pick one of the beasts off the sergeant’s back.

”Get to the other APC!” Vickers boomed, and he took off at an incredible rate toward Bus One, using his massive armoured body to clear a path through the dragonoids. Erik ran hard in his wake, taking advantage of the momentary opening until he slammed hard into the side of the APC, breathing heavily. The anti-personnel pods on the sides were cutting into the lizard-men, but not quickly enough to make a difference.

”We need to hold this point!” Vickers bellowed, taking up his rail gun once more and unleashing flechettes into the enemy. ”I’ve called in a nuclear solution from the USN Revenge on maneuvers in Superior. Birds are ninety seconds out, and I need to paint the target.” Somehow, Eric could hear the fierce grin in the ‘borg’s voice. ”The Revenge. Seems appropriate.” The sergeant turned back to face the battle, his head tracking the huge transport creature as it slowly wheeled around for another pass.

The next minute or so was a blur of weapons fire, chaotic screaming, and a mass of colour and sizzling energy strikes. Eric saw Vickers take numerous lighting strikes and physically fight off several assaults, supported by the handful of troopers that were still left standing. The plasma canon ran dry and he liberated another pulse rifle from a fallen comrade, and took a fireball in the upper torso that left his armour damage conditions mostly in the yellow. This didn’t look like a survivable situation, and despite his impending death Eric couldn’t help but be amazed at the relentless beating that the sergeant was taking and still going. One of the legs of his armour was completely gone, and the bionic leg beneath was heavily damaged but still the ‘borg fought on. He was as much machine as man, in more ways than just the literal, and it was both awe inspiring and terrifying.

And when the end came, it was just a burst of pure, white light.

Until there was sound again, muffled and indistinct, followed slowly by vision that was wavy and distorted. He wondered just how he had survived, and tried to sit up – only to discover that he was already upright. And floating. His heart raced as he laboriously looked down to discover that he just…ended right below his ribcage, and his left arm was completely gone. Panic tried to run through him, but they must have been feeding him some pretty good drugs through the breathing mask he wore because he not only didn’t feel any pain, he couldn’t get too worked up.

A shape loomed up before his tank, distorted and indistinct through the suspension fluid.

”We are very proud of your sacrifice, Private.” The voice was warm, compassionate. ”I am Colonel Thaddius Lyboc. Tell me, son. Have you ever hear of Project Rebirth?”
Last edited by David Henderson on Sun Apr 01, 2018 7:53 am, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Late Winter EP Contest

Postby Maniacal Laugh » Sat Mar 31, 2018 7:54 pm

An Arte Tale

I was not interested in being a martyr or dying for a good cause, I only wanted to get off that damned island. Unfortunately the fastest way to do that involved rescuing a large group of prisoners. One of the prisoners was a pyramid master. While I am as fully capable of using a dimensional pyramid as any other Atlantean, I would need a master wrest control of one from the minions controlling it.

My mission had already gone sideways of course, otherwise my nice simple escape route would have been available. But now, it was necessary to do things the hard way, with much more chance of harm to myself.

I kept out of sight as best as possible. Even in the darkest part of night, most of the inhabitants of the Market could still see adequately. I kept my las-gun in my right hand, unpowered chain sword in my left. I was beginning at that point to feel the sensation that so often places me in harms way. The excitement of battle, the thrill of the fight started the adrenaline even before I had engaged the enemy.

Sometimes the added alertness of that state worked to my advantage. And such was the case here. I picked up a moving form in the darkness as it prowled on the second story above me. I knew it was after me. A quick shot from the las-gun brought it down.

Brought it down crashing into the rickety stalls below with a crash.

“By all that’s holy,” I muttered. And ran.

Instead of a stealthy approach to the slave pen, I ran full speed. With the time for subtly over I holstered the las-gun and drew the other chainsword. With both active, the audible humm would easily give my position away, but such was life. Battle was joined, my blood was up. Five decades of blade training had already taken over.

The rapier and small sword fencing styles of Renaissance Europe would always be my favorite, they had a beauty and deadly simplicity that the more hack-and-slash martial arts of so many other cultures lack. But against armored foes, or the more indestructible seeming supernatural monsters, something with a little more raw power was needed. My chainswords are lighter than most, but their adamant-carbon teeth bite deep.

I liked to think of my chainswords as chain-rapiers, but that was purely a conceit. The technique was modified from medieval sword-and-dagger techniques of the middle ages. My swords, despite the bell guard and accessible ricasso were really arming swords.

In my early decades of training, I persevered with more traditional pairings, sword and dagger, sword and buckler, out of some sense of duty to my previous masters of defence. Several near death experiences eventually led me to my current armament. I approached battle with either a sword in my left hand, always, and either the las-gun or the other sword in my right. Reversing the hand was possible with no effect on performance.

As it so happens, during the moments leading up to a battle, I often became lost in thoughts of fencing theory.

So, there I was, approaching the slave pens. Two gargoyles lay behind me, heading to whatever hell it was that they believed. They grossly underestimated a lone human. I found a pair of dragonsaurus blocking the juncture that I believed to be the way I needed to go. I honestly felt bad dispatching the poor creatures. They were loyal to their masters and knew nothing else in life. Still, I had need to move forward and they were hindering my progress.

Unfortunately, I had taken a wrong turn. Backtracking while fending off another pair of gargoyles, I found the right path. At that point I turned from retreat to offense and closed rapidly in on the gargoyles.

One of the basic tenets of any school of defense was range. In this scenario, the gargoyles clearly had the superior range. It behooved me then to close that range as quickly as possible. I generally shied away from fancy acrobatic maneuvers, preferring to keep a solid base for powerful strikes. In this case however, the speed needed to get within the sweep of the sub-demons’ arms required something flashy. So I played dirty. I feinted a leap to the left, but instead rolled under the gargoyle’s attacking arm, and sliced off all his toes. He howled in pain.

I took the opportunity for another cheap shot. I did not know, nor did I ever want to know, what lay beneath that gargoyle’s loin cloth. Whatever it was, I tore it out with a paired, spiralling cut. Thusly distracted, I quickly ended them and moved on.

Finally I found the slave pens I was looking for. I was perhaps not a vision of the heroic as I approached the cell. I was covered in a large amount of blood and gore. I was sticky. The sounds of gargoyles howling in pain surely had been audible from this location. My black coat was rent with the evidence of close calls. All in all though, I was in good shape. Escaping should not be a problem.

The moment you think you have one, is the moment you have lost.

I thought I had won at that point. When the prisoners started wailing and scrabbling back in the cell, I thought it was because of my current horrifying visage. That little tingling feeling borne of years of fighting and the rush of adrenaline saved my life again.

There was a flash of light and I rolled to my left just in time for a shimmering blade to slice through the cell’s bars. But while they passed through the bars, they did not slice them. That told me several things. The bars were somehow warded against magical attacks, which made sense, most Atlanteans have access to a magical tattoo-weapon upon adulthood. It also meant that my attacker was also blessed with mystical tattoos. Many servants and guards in Splynn were equipped with such things.

So, this was not just another minion, this was someone that their master liked.

But my stomach turned over a few times when I saw the black armored and beetle helmeted figure rushing at me. A Sunaj. Things had clearly gone sideways. This smacked of an ambush. That might have accounted for the poor performance of the dimensional raiders I had hitched a ride with to get here. Forensic analysis needed to wait, of course.

I weighed my odds. I felt confident I could beat this assasin. But I also was a realist and knew how fiersome an opponent even a single Sunaj was. Factoring in the whole getting home part and I grudgingly determined I had to fight this monster.

En garde and ready positions were things for children. I responded to his stance with a position I knew he would know was typical of a certain response, for immediately he had put himself at a disadvantage when he chose to use the sword against me. I could read his moves. I knew his style, co-evolution of sword techniques on countless worlds boiled down to several broad categories. His two-handed magic longsword dictated actions and maneuvers that precluded others and limited his defences against certain lines of attack.

All said and good, of course. That analysis was solid and useful. But this was a real fight. Training had to inform, not control, action and reaction. Thought could not enter one’s mind, it only slows the body down. Thankfully, I was still in my prime and supremely trained and experienced.

I would be even more of liar than I really am if I told you that fight was easy. Clearly as I’m still here to tell the story, I carried the day.


The cage doors were warded against magic, but not against adamant-carbon alloy. It only took a few passes of my blades to open a hole. As the prisoners escaped one by one I cut the shackles form their hands and feet. I also counted them. Twenty-five. Dammit, so many, I thought.

“Which of you is the stone master?” I asked once everyone was gathered about me. I wanted to get moving right away, but I wanted to make sure the stone master was safely besides me. I had several plausible excuses for such a request already prepared.

No one came forward though. So I started to panic a little bit. This was my secondary plan for getting off of Atlantis. I had neglected to concoct a tertiary plan.
“Wizards? Ley-line walkers? Fraggin’ shifter? Anyone know how to open a rift?” I asked trying to keep the desperation from my voice. “Look, my information for this mission has been generally and tragically faulty so far. I was informed that there was a stone master in your group. I have a plan to get us to a small pyramid, but needed a stone master to wrest control of the rift gateway from its current link and target it to an escape for us.”

While the masses of useless peasants just stood there, I tried to formulate this tertiary plan. I could see three real possibilities. First, find a place to rift away from in the Splynn Market. Second, make it to the Preserves and escape in the rift madness the Terror Coast. Third, and least attractive to be honest, escape to North America.

Idle speculation was a fairly tragic mistake, even though we had only been stationary for three or four minutes. We were still milling around without direction when one of the prisoners screamed out.

Turning around at the noise, I saw an adversary that made my heart pause. Scuttling along the walls was a conservator, one of the prisoners dangling, impaled on his tail, the blood sprinkling the entire corridor. “Run!” I yelled out, the prisoners were frozen in fear. There was only one way to go, so they ran. Leaving me face to face with the monster.

The tight quarters ultimately worked to my advantage. The conservator was larger and stronger. It was only slightly faster. But the real challenge to me was its array of natural weapons. I had no base understanding of its combat technique. It was harder to read its feints. In most fights against a human weilding a weapon, I knew what they would do by their subtle cues: the placement of a finger or toe, the focus of their eyes, angle of their weapon, etc. I knew what it meant. But with this conservator, I did not have the benefit of any of that. It was all reaction on my part.

The fight lasted what seems like days, but I later calculated that it was about fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes of some of the hardest fighting I have ever had. The tight quarters, yes, they limited the conservator’s range options. It had a three dimensional battlefield, mine was only two. But he couldn’t get far enough away on the walls to be out of my reach. If he extended his range, it limited his attack options.

I had dropped my right hand sword after an ugly parry. We were right next to the cell where the prisoners had been, so I was able to kick the unlocked door into the conservator’s face, giving me a moment to draw the las-gun. That was ultimately my winning maneuver, but only just barely.

Even in the tight hallway, it was a dynamic fight. The conservator was up and down the walls. I spun and lept like I had never done before. Eventually it had to end. I was spinning away from one of the monster’s claw strikes only to be caught in the eye by the stinging tail. It was lucky thing for me that my eyeball was ripped from its socket by the stinger. If the toxin had entered my bloodstream I would have been helpless. I would have been dead.

That seems to have been what the conservator expected. It landed and turned to face me. But he sat still for a moment. I had already wheeled around before he realized the poison had not taken effect. I like to say I aimed for its third eye, but I was just lucky. The las-bolt pierced the eye and boiled its brain.

My eye socket was a bloody mess. I was tired. My armored coat was in tatters, so I abandoned it. I could see the sun rising at this point, my hopes dwindled. Sure I had saved the prisoners, but I may have, or so I thought, doomed myself.

Before it got light, I cut up some cloth from a few different stalls in the Market. Wrapping these around me I dared not rest so I pressed on, trying to look like I was one of the multitude of slaves on errands for their masters. I was not really sure where I was going, but instinct told me that staying in one place was a bad idea.

I had to make a choice, make some move. I had skulked in Splynn for too long. I found a troop of slave-prisoners being marched to a small pyramid. I noticed that the guards had not kept count of the slaves, seemingly only concerned that the bulk of them made it. In fact, I watched one of the gargoyle guards bite the head off of a prisoner and cast the body aside, laughing the whole time. It was during another such wanton act of monstrous cruelty that I snuck into the gaggle of prisoners. They were wholly devoid of hope and barely registered my presence. It was one of the more depressing situations I had witnessed.

I knew where we were going, and hoped it would be an improvement. This small pyramid was a link to a similar one in the Preserves. From there, I could either take over the pyramid or make my way to the coast. I was still fairly well armed, I had stolen some battery packs for my weapons along the way. Plus, I was never weaponless.


My thought of taking over the pyramid by myself was foolish. We appeared on the platform after the teleportation and were surrounded by a handful of conservators and an equal number of high lords. Other minions were about too, and there were few options for any productive aggressive behavior. Still, no one thought to check us for weapons, the assumption that we’d already been disarmed, I believe.

Without much ceremony we were lead outside and loaded onto a barge. I can not say how far out we went, but a hundred miles at least. At a seemingly arbitrary location, we were just dumped from about fifty feet up into the forest below. Several people died, almost all had broken bones of some sort. Naturally, I was without harm.

I played like I was injured until I was reasonably sure we were alone. Then I started rounding everyone up. Another situation had presented itself where my survival depended on taking charge a helpless group. At first they were all suspicious of me, but quickly I won them over. I took stock of the skills of this group, hoping beyond hope for something useful, and was predictably disappointed. They were just farmers and townsfolk stolen from their homes by slavers.

The Preserves were no place to start a new life. That was clearly out of the question for me, but what was I to tell this scared and pitiful rabble?

So I lied. “We have a chance here to survive for a long time. There are hundreds of thousands of square miles of wilderness and tens of thousands of other intelligent beings scattered throughout.” I gauged my impact, it was minimal, but at least a few people were paying attention. I needed medical attention, I was hungry, I was still fatigued. I need to get these people to do some work for me.

“A lot of you are farmers. Some of you are tradesmen,” I said. Tradesmen sounded better to me than useless baggage. “We need to move from this spot. Let’s gather the wounded and head west.” I picked west more or less at random. I felt that my confidence would encourage them to listen to me.

The other reason they would follow me was that I had real weapons.

Using my swords we cut down small trees to make travois for the wounded. It was rough terrain, dense tropical forest, so our movement was slow. Everyone was hungry. Thankfully water was plentiful. Some of the rabble was from the south east area of North America where the climate and plant life was similar to the current circumstances. As we got more accustomed to the surroundings they rose mightily in my esteem. Especially when they found food.

After a long day of travel we stopped for the night. We had gathered food along the way so that when we stopped, there was a “feast”. I took as much as I could without seeming greedy, covering it all up by making sure everyone got a fair portion. We dared not light a fire, but the night was warm and muggy. Our tropical experts had us establish elevated sleeping platforms, and secure food storage for the night. I did not question it, despite it requiring more work. I was glad too, for when it was my watch, I witnessed the parade of insects and other unnameable creatures that scurried about on the jungle floor. It was mesmerizing. And horrifying.

The next day and for several more after, we travelled west. Ostensibly it was to find a suitable place for a permanent home. I was really just trying to achieve my secondary escape route through the dimensional mayhem of the Terror Coast. Although, discussing North America with these people, it started to seem like a more and more logical choice. Still, I felt that an escape of this planet with the least number of steps was the best course of action.

We never found anything as secure as I had hoped, but we did come to a valley with overhanging cliffs on one side. It had a small river at the bottom and some marshy flatland with river plants, apparently edible. Agriculture was only available on an limited scale, but these people had no seeds for grains or any other staples. Still, it looked like a place to make a future. It looked like that to these simpletons anyway. I knew their odds were terrible.

There were a few healers, mundane mostly, though a few people had psychic powers of a limited sort. They mended the broken bones and my eye, and very few people died in the trek through the jungle. All and all, about seventy-five people made it to the new “home”. They were all complete strangers, being separated from their families and acquaintances as they were sorted for their transportation to the Preserves. Cliques had started to form over the trip, so I made sure to squash those that appeared to be divisive and encourage the more productive groups. I had cemented myself as the leader.

I put in the necessary effort to appear to be “leading from the front” all the while planning my escape. Needless to say, living an agrarian lifestyle under the ever present threat of a Splugorth hunting party was not acceptable in any way. I knew these people were doomed, but I did not in any way begrudge them their attempt at survival here. I knew I couldn’t save them all, so I planned on setting them up as best as possible before sneaking off.

We made our homes as concealed as possible. We minimized the signs of our activity. The more woodsman types helped figure out what would burn with little smoke, what plants to eat, what fish to catch, what animals to hunt. It was a pretty primitive existence. I had to conserve my ammo, which took some creative problem solving on my part. I told them, “We have to learn to live without my weapons, they will run out of power sooner than we hope. We should restrain ourselves, and only use them in defense against monsters.” They seemed amenable to that, but I thought I would again make myself seem benevolent by adding, “However, I think it would do us all good if once a week we hunted a large game animal for the town to share using my weapons.” They liked that idea. A lot of the game animals here could not be brought down with wooden spears. And I reinforced the very real fact that they were my weapons. They were not communal like so much else in this village.

I grew weary of this life quickly. Far too many weeks went by without any opportunity for my escape. The worst part was that these people really seemed to accept me as their leader. It was frustrating. It was a surprisingly harmonious village though. Somehow the woodsman types had gravitated to leadership roles without alienating the more helpless. The gender balance was also fairly equal. Probably having a tall, immensely skilled and strong, one-eyed woman as the leader of the village helped keep some of the more pig-headed men in line. It had already been established that even without my weapons, I could easily defeat any number of these peasants without breathing hard.


I tried not to count the days, after the first thirty it was a depressing number. With each passing day, not only was I still stuck, but the chance of attack from a hunting party increased. This little village was almost sustainable. Almost. We never had enough food, and no matter how hard I tried, I never had enough either. We had no supplies and had to live completely off the land, and that is a very difficult thing. The people grew thin and weak. They were stronger in some ways than when we were first dumped into the forest, but not in any way that would benefit long term survival. Our numbers were dropping. The conditions were not conducive to procreation. We had at least two pregnancies, but they all miscarried before the end of the first trimester.

I was becoming desperate to get out. I could feel my strength waning too. That was not acceptable. I had to decide to stay forever or go now. I gathered the people together, now only about sixty, and said with as much gravitas as my weakened state would allow, “We are dwindling here. I had hoped we had enough to flourish off the land, but it is hard. I do not want us to die by wasting away. We are faced with choices.” I paused for effect, looking around at the sad, tired eyes of these people. “Some of you can stay and be better off than all of us. There is food here for some, but not all,” I tried to make this sound positive, though I shuddered at the idea of living in the jungle on just what I could gather from the trees. “Some of us,” I said, inflecting my voice to convey my sadness at such a suggestion, “must leave here.”

Their eyes flickered registering the idea, but no one moved. Conserving energy had become an instinctive skill. I continued, “I am not certain of a destination, but I will lead a group to the west.” I looked around the villagers, gauging reactions. Some people shifted and shuffled, others remained perfectly still except for a tightening of their gaunt faces.

My guess was about twenty would go with me. Forty was still more than this little valley would support. I had to examine my own motives here. Twenty would be much easier for me to deal with and to escape when the time came, but it would certainly doom those who stayed here. I was silent and more genuinely thoughtful for a long moment. “The hard truth is we need at least thirty of you to come with me. Thirty people could live in this valley and barely have enough to eat.” I once again tried to determine the reactions. Still everyone was silent. I never felt like one of them, but at this moment I had sympathy for their plight.

“If we we have fewer than thirty volunteers by sunrise tomorrow, the remainder to fill out that number will be chosen by lottery,” I said, the first genuinely dictatorial style decision I had made all these months. This statement elicited a reaction. Twenty or so immediately volunteered, the ones I had identified earlier.

I nodded and we hashed out the plan to leave the next day. There were no supplies to speak of, so the necessary preparations were quick. Most happened that night. In the morning we all gathered in the town square. There were twenty five in the morning. I cursed. How was I going to select five from thirty-five?

I sent the twenty-five volunteers out of earshot to prepare extra spears and bows. The remaining people were standing around looking scared, guilty and defiant. I only needed five. I appealed to their better nature, also known as shaming them, “I understand if you are scared, if the idea of striking out into the unknown has you trembling.” There were a few heads turning side to side looking at their neighbor’s reaction. “What you must keep in mind, you must realize that the more of you that stay here, the worse off you will be,” I said, but this time I picked the five or six most likely candidates for my purposes and held their glance until they broke and turned their eyes away. “And if you choose to stay, you will be forced to choose who eats and who does not. It will happen. You will be starving. Too many mouths for the land. Do you understand?”

They did not. No more volunteered despite my best efforts. I cursed under my breath. Then standing to my full height, I took out a sword in my right hand and said, “Do you want me to choose or to choose by lottery?”

No one answered. I was really at a loss. I had tried to manipulate them so I did not have to make the tough choice. I did not want draftees amongst my ranks through the jungle, they would be morale problems. But now I had to follow through on my proclamation or face a loss in credibility. One thing I could not allow was any blow to my authority.

“Alright then, we will have a lottery,” I said. I gathered up twenty twigs all about the same size and shape. I smeared soot from the fire pit on five, making sure to really work it in so it would not rub off. I put all the twigs in a pouch and shook it vigorously. I had everyone line up. With my sword in hand, even as scared as these people were, they had no will to oppose me. I hated ruling by fear, but at this moment, I had little choice in the matter.

As I went down the line, I had certain people step out. Those with handicaps like lame legs or maimed arms. People who could not survive a long trek. That removed about fifteen people. Then the lottery. I had everyone chose before looking at their twig. It was a very tense time. The five with blackened twigs broke down. They were scared and upset. It is hard to say if they had loved ones they didn’t want to leave or if they just did not want to leave. I was not happy either. This situation was bad news. These five would be problematic.

As quickly as possible I hustled those five off to join with the others about to leave. They were all to be equipped and ready when I returned to them. I said my goodbyes with much feigned hope to those staying. I told them how brave and smart they were for surviving. Finally, I turned my back to them forever. When I reached the other group, I was met with twenty-five hopeful faces and five dour, scared faces.

We set out immediately. Heading west, for the most part. It was still jungle and keeping a straight path was impossible. We stopped in a clearing on a small rise. Looking back east we could see thick black smoke coming up from our small valley. Chances were everyone was dead back there. The five draftees wailed and bemoaned the foolishness of leaving. The illogic of that bothered me, as did their disruption this early in the trip. I thought about cutting them loose. The expressions of the others were hard.

Marching on was the only choice. If there was a hunting party in the area, that would actually be the best chance of escape, but not dragging along thirty tired and hungry peasants. I am not so heartless as to use them for bait. Even though that was a really attractive idea.

Progress was slow and everyone was silent for the next few days. We came to the side of a steep hill leading down to another valley. There was no cover to speak of, scrubby grass and the occasional stunted tree. The decision to go down this slope was almost fatalistic. We did not know if the hunting party was still around, but an aerial observer would easily spot us moving down this hill. We went anyway.

And a spotter identified us.

A small group of flying vehicles descended upon us, but did shoot. They landed and their inhabitants all lept out. Several Kittani, a half dozen humanoids in full armor, and conservator “guide” rushed across the ground. Significantly, none had ranged weapons. They were here for the sport of killing close up. But that gave me a marginal plan.

Sadly, there was no way I could save all of my villagers. I had taken out a kitanni, but the other monsters had spread out to attack the villagers. I called out to the two near me, “Follow me!”

They did, but I calculated that they would think I meant everyone. The others were already dead. I raced for one of the skimmers. If we could get it off the ground, we would be untouchable. I easily outpaced the villagers. I leapt into the skimmer and fired it up. A kitanni had a hold of my arm and attempted to stab me in the face with plasma sword. One of the villagers actually had the will to kick him in the face. That allowed me enough time to close the canopy and get us in the air. Looking down, two of the humanoids were tearing a villager limb from limb while another was flaying the last villager alive. The villager next to me cried. The cruelty of these creatures was beyond reason and even I shuddered as we sped away over the treetops.

A mile away, I opened the canopy and tossed the kitanni’s arm out the window. My boots were soaked through with his blood. Somehow that was a little bit satisfying.


It seems odd, but we raced north-west from there and met no resistance across the rest of the Preserves or the Refuge. My fellow survivor was named Elias and he hailed from a place called “Florida”, and that is where we headed directly.

Just in sight of land after crossing the Demon Sea one of the engines overheated, sending us tumbling into the surf below. Elias broke his leg in the crash, I had a rather bloody head wound. After a brief rest Elias led us into the tropical forest and to his home.

I rested there until I was healed and healthy again. Then I was off, hoping to find a way home in North America.
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Re: Late Winter EP Contest

Postby Augur » Sat Mar 31, 2018 8:37 pm

Note to self: word count these stories before setting up the poll.
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Re: Late Winter EP Contest

Postby David Henderson » Sat Mar 31, 2018 8:38 pm

I'll tell you right now, I'm about 150 over but I ran out of editing time.
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Re: Late Winter EP Contest

Postby Augur » Sun Apr 01, 2018 7:20 am

That's within the margin.
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