(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
Many years ago, when he had had been little more than a greenhorn, the then-Private Hyllius Thrace had learnt a lesson in pain. It happened during the siege of Sygarius, a dark time for the Protectorate, and his first real experience of front-line combat.
Sygarius was a newly reunified world, brought into the fold little over a decade previous. It had always been unstable, but never openly rebellious. At the time it had been theorised that active acceptance of Protectorate rule would require another five years to be successfully achieved, and little over a decade more for all remnants of previous governments to be dissolved and forgotten indefinitely. It was to be a shining example of what the Protectorate could achieve through strength of diplomacy, rather than open force.
It was a surprise to everyone when the people of Sygarius finally revealed their rebellious nature, destroying the Protectorate embassy and declaring all out war on their would-be saviours.
Thrace learnt much of this later of course. It had not seemed important at the time. They had been dropped en mass, he and a military force the size of which he had never seen before, into the sprawling cityscapes, where the chaos of war stood ready to engulf them all.
He was granted his first sight of Sygarius as they piled out of the troop hovercraft and onto a flat space of barren land that had once been a recreational park. The air was foul, and brimming with smoke, and as his eyes searched to find its source he could not stop himself from staring at the blazing skyscrapers and devastated landscape that stretched before him for impossible lengths. Orbital strikes had set the ecumenopolis aflame. The soldiers, as he would later discover, were there to make sure nothing escaped the inferno.
On Sygarius, Thrace had learnt how to fight. It was nothing like the regimented training he had received at the barracks, or the small scale incursions he had been involved in as part of the Protectorate’s motion against piracy.
The men and women he fought on Sygarius were not soldiers, but they fought like demons. For the most part they were little more than civilians with guns, easily routed, easily dispatched. Many ran from combat, but many more ran to it, and while those that did seemingly presented no considerable threat, it was the look in their eyes, the anger and the hatred, that would haunt him for years to come.
By the end of the campaign more than seventy-five percent of the planet was in ruins. The Sygarite officials ended up abandoning their own people, choosing to side with the Protectorate in a desperate hope that peace and order might yet be restored, and it was, in the fullness of time. Sygarius would eventually become the pillar of obedience, unquestionably loyal, and without the smallest hint of dissent, though it would remain little more than a shadow of its former grandeur.
Thrace had returned from the planet’s surface a hero, having taken command of his squad when his commanding officer was crushed by debris from a falling building. He had successfully rooted out a number of rebel holdings, and survived being shot in combat with a militia band. His men had carried him home.
Of that time he could recall a great deal, though it had been over in almost the blink of an eye. He had seen the bullet flying towards him, watching in slow motion as it appeared to single him out across the battlefield. At the time he had believed that he would surely die, and when he fell, the world blackening, his limbs searing with pain, he was sure that that would be it.
For a time he had screamed, loudly and without the burden of shame for the pain had been unimaginable.
But when he could scream no more, and he was lying there, believing that he was soon to die, a single memory flickered into his head. It was of a soldier, little more than a boy really, with blazing flames inside his eyes. He had stared at him accusingly, as though it had been Thrace alone that had caused all the misery in his short existence. Then he had pulled the trigger.
It was the exact same look he would later see in the eyes of Private Amos.
‘Don’t talk,’ said Grundig as Thrace awoke with a jolt. ‘Keep your head down, sir.’
The sergeant’s words sounded laboured, and his breathing was worryingly rapid.
‘What…?’ asked Thrace.
‘Bastard Amos shot you, sir,’ said Grundig. ‘Then that bitch Nagra shot me in the back.’
Thrace tried to look around, then wincing as agonising pain lanced through his body. He was lying on a stretch of muddy earth raised out of the water. Shots were firing, and there were screams too, though he could not pinpoint the direction. It took him a moment to remember where he was and what was going on, and as he glanced to his left he realised he must have been dragged up onto the mound that covered the Smithsonian.
‘Where is…’ he began.
‘Wrathangel?’ asked Grundig, though he didn’t wait for a reply. ‘Fighting those traitors. Tearing them to shreds by the sounds of things. I tell you, sir… what I couldn’t do with an army of… of…’
The sergeant fell onto his back and gritted his teeth, forcing back a cry of pain.
‘Sergeant?’ asked Thrace. Finding himself unable to move, all he could do was turn his head. Grundig was as ever by his side, but his breathing was beginning to slow, and his skin was ghostly pale. He had taken off his helmet and his short messy hair was caked with water and mud. He stared up at the night sky and smiled, though his jaws were still tightly locked together.
‘It’s going to be all right, sir,’ he said. ‘Didn’t think it would… like this…’
‘Sergeant?!’ Thrace called again, cursing himself for not being able to move.
Grundig turned to him, and to Thrace’s surprise, there was not so much as a single bead of sweat on his skin. He smiled. ‘Clumsy oaf’s pretty good with… a gun… got me pretty good after she…’ the words trailed off, and he swallowed, screwing up his face in an agony that Thrace could only imagine. ‘Been an honour, sir.’
‘Don’t die on me, soldier,’ said Thrace, his throat choking with emotion. ‘You don’t have my permission.’
‘Respectfully sir, I don’t need your gaw-ramned permission,’ laughed Grundig. ‘I don’t need…’
Thrace watched as his sergeant’s eyes closed for the last time, and his body fell rigid. A hot trickle dripped down the Captain’s cheeks, and he held back the pain as he reached out to check his old friend’s pulse. Fingers pressed against his still warm skin, but there was nothing. He was gone.
He cursed under his breath. He wanted to shouted the words out loud, scream them to the high heavens, but the pain was a barrier he could not transcend no matter how hard he tried. All he could do was stare up at the sky, completely helpless, weak, exposed and now alone. He had always known that the Sergeant would die before him, the man had boasted as much himself. He was reckless, dangerous, took far too many risks, and perhaps worst of all, was a damned hero.
How had this happened? How had any of this happened? None of it seemed to make sense.
Overhead he saw lights darting back and forth as spit-gun fire lit up the night sky. Red flashes clashed and were followed by screams. He was reminded of that time, all those years ago, on Sygarius, and the more he thought about it the more he could not shake it. He was going to die, and this time there was no squad to drag him to safety. The most loyal man he had even known had just died defending him. No one was coming to save him.
The world was going black again, the din of the gunfire blurring into strange music. He blinked a few times, trying to force himself to hold back the abyss but the more he tried the more strongly it pulled at him.
With a great force of will he tried to hold his eyes open but what he saw was not the night sky, it something else entirely. It was daylight, and there were trees around him, and a light breeze upon which he tasted the tender scent of blossom…
‘They say you do not talk,’ said the Hun. ‘That must grow tiresome.’
The great man walked towards him, hands held at his sides, though the Swordsman had little doubt he could respond quickly if provoked. He could sense no aggression in the man, though his potential for violence was clear. He was after all, a butcher.
The Swordsman rose to his feet, adopting a combat ready stance.
‘So they are correct,’ continued the Hun, to his own amusement. ‘Not to worry, there are plenty of other, more fitting, ways to communicate.’
As if by way of reply the Swordsman drew his sword from its scabbard, its long sharpened blade reflecting the afternoon sun.
The Hun smiled, and drew his own weapon, an axe with a long wooden haft and a short iron blade. A dishonourable weapon, the Swordsman noted, but not quite what he had expected. He knew the Hun was a master of many weapons, for he had taught their use to all of his disciples. It seemed almost an insult then that he had brought such a pathetic weapon. Perhaps he was as proud as his disciples had been. If so, he would die just as fast.
‘They say that none can best you in a straight fight,’ said the Hun. ‘Yes, I have done my research too.’
They began to circle one another, the Swordsman’s steps light and graceful, the Hun’s heavy but powerful.
‘I have studied you,’ he continued, ‘just as you have studied me.’
The Swordsman did not flinch at his words, nor display any sign of surprise. The Hun smiled, and then with a loud roar he charged forward, seemingly ready to throw himself bodily at his opponent, and crush the Swordsman under the weight of his armour. The Swordsman backed away, levelling his sword ready to puncture his opponent’s gut, but the Hun’s attack was a feign and he stopped short. He grinned at the Swordsman’s quick reaction, exposing pristine fangs.
‘Good,’ he said, ‘not a fool then.’
It was then that the fight properly began. Humiliated by the Hun’s dishonourable tactics, the Swordsman raced forwards, weapon raised for a decapitating strike. The Hun reacted swiftly, batting the sword away with his axe but within seconds the sword was ready to strike again, this time aiming for his arm. Once more the Hun deflected the blow, and once more the sword came back for another strike, the blade testing his defences for a weak spot. The two weapons clashed again and again, and all the while the Hun was pushed backwards, rapidly losing ground against the Swordsman’s furious assault.
There was a thud, followed by the loud clatter of armour as the Hun walked backwards into a tree. Blossoms fell from the tree’s branches like a sheet, blinding the Swordsman who was forced to retreat back into the clearing.
Behind the falling wall of blossoms the Hun let out a ferocious cry and exploded forth, waving his axe in wide, deadly arcs.
With lightning fast reflexes the Swordsman rolled aside, just missing the Hun’s attack, and watching as his opponent continued forward. He waited a split second and then booted him in the side, knocking him to the ground and sending the axe spiralling out of his grasp.
The Hun howled in anger and thrust his fists into the earth, sending sprays of mud into the air and fist-shaped craters where he had hit. The power of his anger seemed to lend him renewed strength and he was soon up on his feet again, speeding towards his weapon.
In his armour the Swordsman could not match his speed, and at the last moment his sword came sweeping down, hoping to catch the Hun in his exposed flank, but the large man showed surprising agility, and dodged the attack before bringing his axe up to stop the blade dead, the small iron axe-head the only thing stopping the Swordsman from cutting him in two.
‘Impressive,’ grinned the Hun. ‘But you are a weapon, I am a general.’
Inside his helmet the Swordsman frowned but before he knew what was happening a length of rope swept under his feet, knocking him onto his back.
‘Like a beast you stalked me,’ said the Hun, triumph in his voice. He picked himself up from the ground and gently dusted off his furs. ‘You followed my scent across the continent and no doubt you have waited a very long time for this moment, but your plan is flawed. You wait for me in the open… did you think I would not know the place?’
The Hun advanced slowly, spinning his axe in front of him as he looked down at his foe.
The Swordsman made no attempt to right himself, or roll out of the way. Instead he just lay there on his back, staring defiantly back at the Hun.
‘I led you here, little assassin,’ he said. ‘I knew that you would follow. Did you really think to catch me unawares?’
‘Yes,’ said the Swordsman, removing his helmet to reveal the face beneath. ‘I did.’
The Hun’s just stood there, eyes wide and an expression of complete surprise upon his face.
‘But… you’re not…’ he started.
In that second of confusion the Swordsman leapt up, weapon in hand. The sword sliced forward, easily cutting the haft of the Hun’s axe in two as the large man clumsily attempted to fend off his attacker. He stared in shock and growing anger as the blade reached up to touch the exposed skin of his neck.
‘Yield,’ said the Swordsman, voice filled with bitterness and hate. ‘Yield, great general. Yield, to me. Yield to a woman.’