(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
He was called the Hun, and more blood had been spilt in his name than any man would ever know. Though his accomplishments were legendary, there were but a few that even knew of his involvement. A master tactician, the Hun had tutored warlords and tyrants alike. He taught the strong to be stronger, and he preached his craft with the conviction of a priest.
His motives, if any, were unknown to the Swordsman. If it was power he craved, why hide his achievements? Why not lead the soldiers himself as he had done many years before? If it was influence he desired, or wealth, then why did he never choose one side? Why plunge the world into chaos?
Always where the Hun was concerned were there questions and confusion. Most men cared nothing for his intentions, they willingly took his advice and did not question. Most men were foolish and greedy, desiring only that which the Hun could offer them. They never even asked what he wanted in return.
Some of these men, the Swordsman had claimed. The Hun had made them hardy foes, but their skills had degrading over time. Pride had swallowed the knowledge of what they had been taught. Oh they needed the Hun then, but now no longer. After all, in their minds they had manipulated him. Too bad he had never taught them humility. They might have lived longer.
Those that had survived long enough to spill more than just their guts had told the Swordsman of the Hun. By following a trail of proxies and disciples, the Swordsman had been able to track her adversary, his path leading to the east.
The quest had taken many years, and yet in that time the Swordsman had learnt very little about the man himself, other than his appearance. Large, like an ox, with a shaggy mane of hair and covered in the skins of slain beasts, that was what they had told him. They had not been wrong.
More muscle than man, the Hun’s form was unnaturally bulky, more resembling some primordial war-god than any mortal being. His arms in particular, which bore no armour, were thick as oak and looked more than adequate to tear a man in two. His hair, which was black as pitch, was long and ran loose upon his shoulders. His beard, which was braided, hung from lips so tight they might have been carved from granite. About his chest he wore an embroidered tunic, over which was a layer of scale armour, of Mongolian design. He looked, the Swordsman thought, every bit the warmonger that his victim’s had claim him to be.
But there was also something else, something they had failed to describe. It was not the way he looked, for the ferocity and savagery was evident, but rather it was in the way he walked, with careful strides that quite belied his awesome bulk, and the look of peace upon his features that hid his lust for war.
Steely was the gaze that he affixed upon the Swordsman’s armoured form as he crossed the orchard. There was curiosity in those dark eyes, but there was no fear.
‘You have come a long way,’ he said. ‘A long way, indeed, to murder me.’
‘This is a mistake,’ said Thrace, his hands raised in submission. All around him those few soldiers that had survived the battle were glancing at him and then to the Prefect in alarm, perhaps uncertain whether to drop their guns or fire them. They had all seen what the Prefect had done, had seen what it was capable of. Mere moments before it had been as a rallying cry, and they had revelled in it. Now, the thought of that terrible power being turned against him, and on the eve of such an improbable victory… was almost laughably cruel.
Xorya Nurielle, Fist of the Council and one of the six most powerful beings in all of human space, fixed the captain with a crimson glare that would plague his thoughts until his dying breath. Like most of the Protectorate’s soldiery, his knowledge of the Prefecture was fairly limited, and his exposure to such marvellous and terrible beings, all but non-existent. Of Nurielle itself, almost nothing was known. Records detailing the past of the enigmatic Fist were murky at best, and at worst contradictory, often stating folklore as fact and rumour as truth.
What Thrace did know of the one the soldiers called “Wrathangel” was that it was not a name born of a reputation for mercy. It was said that the Fist went where it was called, and left only destruction in its wake.
‘The captain’s right,’ chimed in Grundig. By now he was sweating profusely. ‘Our orders were to secure the ship. No one told us about any Harvesters, or whatever those things were, and they certainly didn’t tell us the ship was being crewed by a gaw-ramned Prefect… uh, my lord.’
The Prefect glanced in the sergeant’s direction and he stopped in his tracks, transfixed by its furious gaze.
‘My lord,’ protested Thrace, ‘we are loyal soldiers of the Protectorate.’
‘You speak that name as though the Protectorate is but one entity, but it is not’ said Nurielle, its voice artificial and tinny, but it still managed to send icy tendrils deep into Thrace’s chest.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘I think I do,’ said Grundig. His face turned momentarily pale, and Thrace watched as colour gradually returned to his cheeks, which in turn began to redden. He was staring at something behind the captain now, and whatever it was had replaced his fear with anger.
‘Lower your weapons,’ said a voice that turned Thrace’s heart to ice.
He turned in its direction and to his surprise and confusion, there stood Private Amos, alive, well, and aiming a spit-gun directly at the captain’s head. His armour was shredded where the bolt had hit him, but there was a strange glint of something metallic that he wore beneath it. It could only be body armour, but of a construction that Thrace could not identify. Of one thing he was certain, it was not standard military issue.
‘Traitor,’ spat Grundig.
Private Amos laughed. ‘Me a traitor? Well, I shouldn’t really have expected a more enlightened view from a line grunt such as yourself. Must make things a lot easier to just hide behind the excuse that you’re only following orders. Do you even know what they plan to do to this world and its people? Do you even care?’
‘Who are they?’ asked Thrace, but he was sure he could guess the answer.
‘Why the Prefecture of course,’ said Amos, confirming his suspicions. ‘Our inhuman masters. Doesn’t it bother you that you fight for them but know next to nothing about them? Don’t you want to know what they plan to do to Gyptica?’
‘That’s not our concern,’ said Thrace. He hated himself for saying it.
‘That’s a pity.’ Amos shook his head sadly. ‘I am sorry to hear that Captain Thrace, I really am. You seem to me a reasonable man, and you clearly care a great deal for the lives of the men and women under your command. I had hoped you might be open to what I have to say.’
‘Perhaps I would be,’ said Thrace, with barely disguised annoyance, ‘if you weren’t pointing a gun at my head.’
Amos nodded slowly, but he did not lower the weapon, nor did his grip on the trigger relax. It was hard to see him as the bumbling, eager recruit that had followed him into the bowels of the Smithsonian and had appeared to give his life to save his captain’s. The man that stood before him now, though he looked like Amos was a sterner man, an angrier man, whose dark eyes spoke of a conviction that had been previously absent.
Thrace had seen rebels before, and he had even been forced to deal harshly with treacherous soldiers in his own ranks, but those were of a different breed entirely. This entire situation had been meticulously planned and orchestrated by a group that was more than a simple band of reunified colonists, resentful of their new overlords. This was a sign of division, and worse, conspiracy at the highest levels.
‘So what’s your play, Amos?’ he asked. ‘You going to shoot me in front of all my men? In front of a Prefect? You saw how well that worked out for those aliens. Do you really think you stand a chance?’
All throughout the conversation, Nurielle had been standing quite silently, seemingly content to merely observe the events unfolding around it. Its weapon was held loosely at its side, lowered, much to Thrace’s relief, as soon as it became apparent that the captain had not been part of the conspiracy, though still the Prefect made no attempt to intervene. It seemed almost amused by the proceedings.
‘It’s unfortunate that the Prefect had to wake,’ said Amos, and as he briefly glanced in the direction of the giant, Thrace caught the fear in his eyes. ‘The plan had always been to commandeer the mission and destroy the vessel while its occupant still slumbered. We didn’t really bank on the aliens turning up quite so swiftly. An unfortunate complication.’
‘We?’ queried Grundig, then he stiffened as he felt the cold touch of a spit-gun muzzle against the back of his neck. ‘Oh.’
Thrace turned back to face his sergeant and cursed as he saw who had just appeared. Private Nagra, her armour sodden and tattered, displayed the same glinting body armour lingering beneath. Her face was messy and partially covered by a rebreather that she had apparently slipped on seconds before faking her own death. That wasn’t even the worst of it. All around them the surviving soldiers were levelling their weapons, looking not to Thrace, but to the newly “resurrected” Nagra for their instructions. Even a few other seemingly dead soldiers had miraculously revived, joining their comrades and drawing weapons of their own.
‘Why?’ asked Thrace, hoarsely. It was hard to fathom the enormity of the situation. There were still soldiers that lay dead, many cut down by the superior weaponry of the svartalfar, but a few exhibiting wounds of a far more familiar nature.
‘Because of Niktor,’ said Amos, and a few of the soldiers bowed their heads in reverence. ‘Because of the massacres carried out in the name of peace. You served the Protectorate loyally for many years, Captain, surely you have seen the excess of violence that the Prefects employ.’
Thrace licked his lips, but found he could draw upon no comforting thoughts to deny the former private’s claims. He had indeed seen much violence in his lifetime, and he would be lying were he to say that he had never wondered if it had all been necessary, but he was loyal to the Protectorate, and he believed in the doctrine. He had seen the darkness that so often corrupted isolated colony worlds. Cut off from humanity, many colonies had succumbed to power struggles, and been transformed into almost medieval autocracies, strife with misery and oppression. He had seen worlds where the strong not only dominated the weak, but reprogrammed them forcefully into vicious zealots, willing to die for the superstitious teachings of their tyrant overlords.
Worlds like those brought war upon themselves. It was a tragedy, but there was no other way. Diplomacy could not undo hundreds of years of lies and subjugation. Humanity had to remain a united front, or all that the Protectorate stood for would be for nothing.
Yes, he had questioned. When the cities of Azazael burned, he had doubted. When he had watched the slave-warriors of the Zu’ur crushed by the thousands, had had doubted. But at no point in his career had he ever faltered, or come to the conclusion that the means could not be justified. There had to be war, before there could be peace, and there were always casualties in war.
‘You say you are not a traitor,’ said Thrace calmly, ‘but you stand for everything that is anathema to me, and the Protectorate as a whole. I don’t know what happened to you on Niktor, what happened to any of you, but I know one thing for sure. You are wrong. You are all of you…’
The captain stopped as he felt an unfamiliar heat in his chest. A searing pain raced through his chest, and he looked down at the trickling red liquid that had begun to seep from a smoking gash. He cried out without sound, the pain too intense to give sound to. Then he collapsed into the water. He had not even heard the gun fire.