by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 5
1,800 Words: 7 Minute Read
I’m telling you this is the big one. We’re finally taking the fight to Ol’ Skulls’ door!” said the first guardsman. He had “reaper” tattooed in big letters that wrapped around his throat. His face shone like a kid on Christmas.
“Bullshit,” said his companion. A long scar slashed across his face turning one eye milky. “It’s just some orbital making the rounds so he can pretend he gives a shit about grunts like us. I bet he talks our damned ears off.” He looked up at the beating sun, his good eye squinting.
“I’m hoping it’s another one of those health and hygiene lectures,” said the third, scratching his crotch. “Then I can catch some shut eye.”
“If you hadn’t slept through the one on saadrus, you could spend less time itching your balls,” said neck-tattoo with a smirk.
“Excuse me for figuring your mom was clean.”
Neck-tattoo punched jock-itch in the arm. Jock-itch shoved him back playfully, knocking him into Scar-face. Soon all three were horsing their way toward the training grounds.
Eric rolled his eyes as he followed. He was part of the stream of guardsmen from all over the quarter all flowing to the same destination. It felt like walking behind the football team on the way to a high school assembly. Still, he couldn’t blame them for being in high spirits. Training had been canceled for the rest of day. So even if it was only for some old man with more medals than sense, it was a break in the monotony of routine. For Eric that meant half a day’s respite from Corbin’s campaign to riddle his entire body with bruises. As days in the ODF went, today was shaping up to be a pretty good one.
In the training grounds, most of the other guardsmen had already begun to form up. A wooden stage had been hastily assembled at one end. There was no podium which ruled out another hygiene lecture. The scholars who gave those couldn’t keep a coherent thought in their heads without a ream of chicken scratch notes. Scar-face must have been right.
“Should have known you’d be on time for anything that didn’t involve actual work,” said Corbin as Eric slipped into his assigned position at her left.
“I missed your sparkling personality,” he said.
“Eat shit and die.”
Silence rolled over the assembled crowd. The stage stairs creaked, pulling Eric’s attention back in time to make out Salmin and the three other patrol leaders filing behind another soldier. A stone settled in Eric’s gut as he recognized the long thin scar that ran from the soldier’s gray rimmed scalp to his stubbled jawline. Lojan Tharp. The son of a bitch who tricked him into conscription. It was no secret that Tharp was the Sentinel in charge of their hunt, but Eric hadn’t seen him since that hazy night. His hands balled into white knuckled fists, earning a curious side-eye from Corbin.
“At ease, everyone,” said Tharp, touching fingers to third eye in a perfunctory salute. “New orders down from The Tower. They’ve got a new lead on an artifact and are sending a team of scholars out west to oversee the dig. That’s our neck of the woods so we’ll be sending an escort to ensure their safety.” A groan rumbled through the audience.
“I know it sounds like a babysitting detail, but this one is right up on The Mist. I won’t lie to you. There is the strong possibility that we’ll be seeing some interference. Which is why we’re sending out the full hunt.” Excitement crackled through the gathered crowd. This must be big. Granted, Eric had never been deployed before, but he had seen teams and even whole patrols sent out. Never an entire hunt though, not a full quarter of West Watch’s defenses. He stole a glance at Corbin. She held herself unnaturally rigid as if the slightest shudder might betray her own thoughts. He had never seen her like this. It made the hairs stand up on his neck.
“We leave at dawn two days from now. I don’t have remind you what kind of abominations nest in The Mist. So, stick to your teams and remember your training. We’ll all get through to the other side of this. Report to your barracks and standby for your individual assignments. Dismissed.” Tharp saluted and strode offstage, Salmin and the other Watchers in tow.
The crowd of guardsmen erupted into an excited roar as they flooded out of the training grounds. Eric was a pebble in the stream, jostled by the rub of bodies but unmoving. Unbidden, images of the Diyakosha filled his mind, blotting out all other thoughts like clouds of leathery wings blocking out the moon. He remembered the snarling bat-like faces with their rows of needle fangs and the hateful, wet orbs of their eyes. The stone in his belly liquefied into an icy sick. This was bad. Very, very bad. He had to do something, anything to keep from being sent out there. He wasn’t ready to face those things again. This mission was going to kill him if he didn’t find a way out. Jaw clenched, Eric pushed against the thinning crowd.
“Barracks are the other way,” said Corbin, the almond curve of her eyes narrowed to slits.
He pressed on toward the stage. Just off the steps, Tharp had pulled his four patrol leaders into a tight circle. He spoke in a confidential tone to the grim-faced cluster of professional soldiers. “We could be stuck out there for a long time. So, we’ll be issuing extra antitoxin tablets to everyone. Keep an eye out for hording. A spike in desertion is the last thing we need,” said Tharp. His mouth opened to continue and then flapped shut as all five steely stares swiveled to Eric.
“Guardsmen Strange! What in the hells are you doing here? Get your ass back to the barracks with the rest of the patrol,” said Salmin, his features contorted into a lupine snarl.
Eric snapped to attention and saluted, ignoring Salmin. “Sentinel Tharp, I need to speak with you, sir.” Lojan was his only hope. He was a backstabbing mother fucker, but he wasn’t trying to get Eric killed… or at least Eric hoped not. And he knew just how green Eric was. Salmin knew it too, but he would force Eric into this on principle, convinced of some bullshit divine purpose. Lojan was too calculating, too pragmatic to needlessly waste a soldier. And, most importantly, he had the authority to override Salmin.
“Guardsmen Strange, march your sorry ass right back or—”
“It’s alright, Salmin,” said Tharp. “What’s on your mind, Strange?”
“Sir, it’s my duty to report that I’m not fit to serve on this particular mission,” said Eric trying not to look into the black fury of Salmin’s gaze. His fingers curled tightly at this sides, trying to still their trembling. He didn’t know what he was going to say until the words were falling from his lips. “Sir, I’m ashamed to say that I’m a weak link in this patrol. I’ve been under-performing for weeks now, and I would only be putting my team members at risk by my presence.”
Tharp gave Eric a hard look that seemed to poke at him, activity prodding for weaknesses in his story. Finally, he bobbed his head thoughtfully. Looking to Salmin, he asked, “And what are your thoughts on this?”
Salmin’s gaze never wavered from Eric. It was a pressing, unstoppable force that Eric felt would crush him if he didn’t get out of its way fast. Salmin said, “Sentinel, I believe Guardsmen Strange is selling himself short, well intentioned though he may be.” The flatness of his voice left no question as to what he thought of Eric’s intentions.
“Sounds like your patrol leader has faith in you,” said Tharp. It wasn’t a question, but he looked to Eric waiting for his reaction.
Eric’s blood throbbed in his ears. His thoughts raced as he bounced between the body numbing terror of the Diyakosha and the sinking dread of anticipating the punishment Salmin would concoct. He swallowed hard. Salmin wouldn’t kill him. Eric would only wish he did. Death trumped pain. He was all in. “Sir, I was trying to spare Watcher Salmin, but the truth is that I haven’t been properly trained for—”
“Liar!” Corbin’s voice cut in from behind Eric. She was standing on the rim of the conversation, her usual mask shattered into shards of disbelief and rancor. “You’ve had the same godsdamned training as everyone else. Just because you’re a lazy, malingering piece of sh—”
“Thank you, Guardsman Corbin, for your contribution,” said Tharp, one eyebrow arched in warning. Corbin reassembled the shards of her mask and fell silent. Tharp pulled a few steps away from the patrol leaders. “Step into my office, Strange. Now, what’s all this really about?” His voice grew low, intimate.
“I’m not prepared for this. If I deploy, I’m going to die out there,” said Strange. His heart galloped in his chest, rattling somewhere between loathing for the man who thrust him into this mess and pleading that that same man wouldn’t sentence him to death. It wasn’t fair that he should be tricked out of his freedom and then thrown to his doom. Lojan would see that. He had to. “There has to be something else I could do here, something I would be better suited for.”
“There’s no love lost between you and your team. You’re telling me that has nothing to do with your request?” asked Tharp, prodding at the motives like some country attorney playfully unravelling the truth. “Maybe some bonding time would do you all some good.”
Eric wanted to bloody his nose right then and there, screaming that he would not die for this stupid war. Instead, he swallowed the bile in the back of his throat and whispered, “You’re the one who got me into this. You owe me, Lojan.”
Tharp went stiff, his stare transforming to flint. Stepping away, he called to the cluster of scowling patrol leaders. “Salmin, Strange here is a special case. He needs a little extra attention if he is going to thrive,” he said. There was a pause, an infinitesimal beat like the stillness before a dropped glass shatters. “Which is why, I want you to ensure Strange receives your undivided attention for the duration of our mission.” He had the look of a boy poised to stomp an ant.
Salmin’s eyes ignited with a crucible stare meant for Eric alone. “Understood, Sentinel. We’ll make a soldier of Strange… or die trying.” Somehow, Eric couldn’t help but believe it would be the latter.
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