(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
The weather was calm, as he was too. Though blossoms danced around his seated form, he did not heed them, nor allow their dizzying colours and enticing perfume to interrupt his meditation. Preparation was needed, and he had come too far now to allow himself to be distracted, even by beauty such as this. In the Gobi, purpose had scorched the words of wrath into his heart. They could not be ignored.
There was clarity in solitude, and purity in silence. He had been granted both in abundance. Silence had been his choice though, for it took a certain strength of skill to keep the words inside his breast, and hold the screams when he was wounded. Since he had begun his journey westwards he had uttered not a single word, and found peace in a silent world. It was only in the privacy of the Gobi that he had allowed himself that briefest of lapses. That one terrible, magnificent moment.
As for solitude, that had been provided through the nature of his quest. In all the lands he had walked, he had found not a soul to match him. In a world of poverty and slavery, weakness and despair, he stood alone. He was not like them, his destiny was not to be dictated to him by any man. He would carry out his lonely quest eternally, unrelenting in purpose, because there was no one else.
After all, he was the Swordsman, the master of the blade. In all existence there was no such being that came close to his mastery, and he knew this for he had sought out any that might claim to be his equal, but there was no one that truly could.
However, it was not vanity that drove him, for did not care for wealth or pride, nor did he care for glory, the pursuit of which was frivolous and wasteful. He was merely an artisan, a master of his craft. It was his dedication that forced him onwards to face new challenges and overcome them. The blade was his heart, and could not be denied.
Time ceased as he sat in meditation. All was black, and silent, and still.
Then he arrived.
Three blasts of black lightning crackled overhead as Captain Thrace threw himself once more against the makeshift wall and waited for his weapon to cool. They were persistent, whatever they were, and numerous too, though the darkness made them difficult to see. He had discovered early on that for some troubling reason they did not appear easily on his infraspex, their heat signatures and life readings registering only when they moved, or when they attacked. This made fighting them incredibly difficult, as he was forced to rely on his natural vision. It was like spotting shadows in a dark room.
Still, the defence was not entirely hopeless. Thrace had heard an unnatural high-pitched shriek that he had come to associate with the sound of one of the alien things dying. It was a frightful sound, and upon first hearing it he was reminded of ancient folktales of banshees and ghouls. After a while however, he warmed to the sound. Every wail meant one more of the bastards was dead.
It was hard to tell what the attackers looked like, cloaked as they were in the growing blackness, but every so often he would catch sight of a form, gangly and hunched, with legs more resembling those of a goat, and strange protrusions rising from their helmets, like the antlers of some unknown beast. Private Vonz had certainly been right about one thing, they weren’t human.
Private Nagra had given him as detailed a description of how the attack had begun as she was able to. They had caught the soldiers unawares, killing a third of their number before retreating back into the tree line. It was then that Nagra had ordered the remaining soldiers to build the wall using anything available. Thrace had commended her for her initiative, but he knew that all the praise in the galaxy would not bring back the soldiers that had been lost because of the surprise attack. He could see the shame on her face, but it was nothing compared to the guilt he felt.
‘Then they returned about five minutes ago,’ said Nagra, finishing her explanation of the events. ‘They’ve been shooting at us from the trees ever since.’
‘Why the trees?’ asked Grundig, thinking aloud.
‘Better cover,’ offered Nagra. ‘They’re nearly impossible to hit if they stand still, but the second their guns fire they light up like a Reunion’s Day parade. There’s no clear cover between us either, and they’d only risk greater exposure if they tried to flank us.’
‘They’re trying to pick us off,’ said Thrace. ‘Trying to minimise their casualties.’
‘That was my guess,’ agreed Nagra. ‘Their equipment is better than ours, and their weapons are… well, I’ve never heard tell of the like, sir. Could it be experimental?’
‘It’s not Protectorate tech,’ sighed the captain. ‘I wish there was an easy answer to this, but there isn’t. Those things aren’t human.’
‘So Vonz was right…’ muttered Nagra.
Thrace nodded. ‘It appears so.’
The private looked notably shaken by this revelation. Thrace had little doubt that she had suspected this was the case for a while, but to actually accept the truth of it was difficult. Not five minutes ago he had believed aliens to be a myth, the creations of deranged deep-space traders and parents that wanted to stop their rebellious children from signing up with the expeditionary fleets.
But he could scarcely deny the evidence of his own senses. He had seen them, and heard their terrible cries, that he knew in his gut could not have been produced by human vocal chords. They were aliens, intelligent xeno-forms, whatever you wanted to call them.
In that moment he recalled an old veteran that would frequent the mess hall in his training barracks, though the man had long since retired. He would sit alone, and pour out drinks of foul-smelling liquids, while the other recruits sniggered at him behind his back. They said that the drink had driven him from his wits, that he spoke of fighting alien soldiers with monstrous forms and weapons that fired with the fury of a captured storm. He had laughed along with them, but now he wondered if perhaps that old veteran had been right all along.
‘Sir?’ Thrace didn’t realise that Nagra was still waiting on him. He allowed his mind to drift and he cursed himself for it. ‘What are your orders?’
‘We hold out,’ said Thrace. ‘It’s all we can do. We have to hold out until reinforcements can arrive from orbit.’
‘Are reinforcements coming, sir?’ asked Nagra, her eyes lit up.
Captain Thrace just smiled and patted her on the shoulder. He dared not tell her the truth. She was holding the other soldiers together right now, and he would be damned if he took the last vestiges of hope away from them.
Still, he knew that no one was coming. They were completely on their own now and there was no way that the Victory in Silence could even know they were under fire. In time they’d send scouts to check on them, but at the rate they were losing soldiers he wondered if there’d be anyone left to find.
‘Do you reckon they’re after the Prefect?’ whispered Grundig a moment later.
Thrace turned to him with a look of surprise. He had almost forgotten about that entirely. ‘It’s possible,’ he said, ‘but I doubt it. We didn’t even know it was on the ship, how could they know?’ And why would they care, he wondered. It seemed strange to try and guess the motivations of something that not long ago he would have sworn did not exist.
‘They’re aliens,’ said Grundig flatly. ‘We don’t know anything about them, but they sure seem to know a lot about us.’
The comment genuinely caught Thrace off guard. ‘Why do you say that?’
‘Well they attacked us, didn’t they?’ grunted the sergeant. ‘Not only that but they’re keeping to the trees, shows they know our range, and I’d wager they know about infraspex.’
‘You think they’ve fought Protectorate forces before?’ asked Thrace. The idea was absurd, surely.
‘Just a hunch, sir.’ Grundig shrugged.
Another trio of blasts crackled over the top of the wall and Thrace gritted his teeth as he heard soldiers screaming as the shots hit home. Without thinking he rose up from his position, rapidly firing his spit-gun in the direction of the blasts. A furious spray of super-heated metal ejected from his weapon, whizzing through the air until it collided with one of the alien attackers, briefly revealing its hideous form before ripping through its helmet and causing it to topple backwards.
In that brief moment he caught a glimpse of the horrific trophy it wore as a faceplate. It was a human skull, taken from an unfortunate native most likely. Just the sight of it made him want to retch.
Grundig had loosed a few shots as well, though his aim was paying the price for his wound. When the two ducked down once more he could tell by the sweat pouring down the sergeant’s scalp that he had seen it too.
‘What the hell are those things?’ spluttered Grundig, but Thrace had no answer for him, at least nothing reassuring.
‘They look like hunters,’ said Thrace, his rational mind trying to make sense of what he’d seen. ‘They must be using the natives as sport.’
‘I wonder how long that’s been going on.’ There was anger in Grundig’s tone.
‘Could be why the natives never advanced,’ said Thrace. ‘Not really important right now though.’
‘Right.’ Grundig nodded apologetically.
More screams followed as the lightning shots became more accurate. A soldier, not far from Thrace, doubled over backwards as a beam of crackling energy burst through his torso, shredding his vital organs in an instant and continuing out through the back of his torso to catch a second soldier. The doomed soldier stumbled for a moment, looking down at the gaping, searing hole in his chest, and then he died. The second, mortally wounded, but not killed, tumbled forward, shrieking in pain that Thrace dared not imagine.
‘They’re toying with us,’ spat Grundig. ‘Picking off a few, making us think we have a chance, and then now they’re going to overrun us!’
‘Not if I can help it,’ said Thrace, then he shouted. ‘As one, soldiers, concentrate your fire. Blast them into oblivion! Show those alien freaks the fury of the Protectorate!’
Together the soldiers rose. For Thrace, the world seemed to turn grey and though he could still see shots firing on either side of him, he could no longer hear them. Even the sound of his own voice seemed to disappear beneath a calming silence. To his right Grundig was yelling something, but the words were lost to him. A concert of spit-guns fired at once, their muzzle flashes making the murky waters sparkle like a swarm of fireflies flittering just above the surface. Thrace had never seen anything so beautiful.