Spiritum – Chapter Five

5.

The rain had stopped, but the cool shroud of moisture remained. The forest was still very much alive. Slowly and carefully, Llannaeia navigated her way through the undergrowth, ears trained on the calls and cries zipping between the trees. From every direction, the sounds of otherworldly creatures echoed, accompanied by the rustling of leaves, the rushing of the breeze and the flapping of wings. It was so peaceful. The forests of Selson seemed like a very nice place to visit, at least under happier circumstances.

Llannaeia crept through the trees, the butt of her rifle rested against her hard polymer breast. Her brow was furrowed, eyes vigilant, the corners of her mouth twisted into a frown. Her mask’s thermal imaging drained the colour from the world, the vivid greens replaced with cement greys and incandescent white. Her patience was wearing thin. The hunt had been fun at first but had soon turned into a stupid game of cat and mouse that had gone on for far too long. Llannaeia took care not to give any indication of her presence, lest she send her prey scampering further into the forest. Too much time had been wasted to afford a single error.

The rain started again, just a drizzle. Llannaeia pressed on despite the chill in the air, ducking under low branches and stepping over rocks and exposed roots. She wondered how the others fared. As they closed in their prey had become aware of their presence and bolted, scattering like panicked rats. Her comrades had likely dealt with the bulk of the group. Hopefully, she’d be able to join them again soon.

She was coming to a wall of grey (or green) when something caught her attention, a sound unlike any she’d heard so far. It was close, just past the bushes ahead. A mound of white blazed on the ground amid the grey. Llannaeia raised her rifle, grip in one hand as she brushed aside the vegetation with the other. On the other side, she found a small clearing, and the source of the sounds. She hit the button on the side of her mask and the colour returned to the world. It wasn’t the most bizarre creature she’d ever laid eyes upon, but alien all the same. It lay on its side, writhing with pain as the dark liquid oozed from the hole in its stomach, brushing the dirt with clawed paws at the ends of muscular legs. It’s skin was bright orange, and thick and leathery. At one end was a stumpy tail and, at the other, a wide head topped with a dull horn. A row of spines stretched along its back and seemed to move with it, reacting to the pain. It let out an agonized moan that filled Llannaeia with sadness. There was little to be done. She knew it was a bad idea but she couldn’t leave the beast to suffer any longer. She’d known suffering, and the wish for something to come along and relieve it. Llannaeia raised her rifle and aimed at its head. An eye full of pain met hers as she squeezed the trigger.

Something wasn’t right. Llannaeia knew too well what made the hole in the creature’s stomach. She was on the right track. Then her attention was drawn to the bushes. She knew she’d seen something, some small movement from the corner of her eye. She’d seen many like it during her hunt, but this was different. The sounds of the forest faded as she focused on the spot, wondering whether her mind was playing tricks on her.

The quiet was punctured as the white bolt of energy came shooting through the bushes. Llannaeia had no time to move before it struck her in the chest, only to bounce off and go screeching into a nearby tree. The impact sent an explosion of wood and bark bursting through the air, and the forest into a panic. All around creatures went flying and scurrying for safety. Llannaeia wasted no time. She raised her rifle in the direction the bolt came from and pulled the trigger. A single bolt of blue energy left the barrel and went sailing back through the bushes. The quiet was broken again, this time by a cry that brought a smirk to her face. Finally, her hunt was over.

She stepped over the animal that still lay dying and made her way to the spot from which the screams originated. Passed the singed bushes, Llannaeia found the prey she’d been hunting for so long, laying on his back among a mess of fallen leaves and branches and clutching at his shoulder where a large chunk of flesh had been blasted away. He was Haelqen, light-skinned and as thin as one of the twigs he lay among. His hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in days. The once white vest beneath his brown jacket was now stained the colour of roses. He paid her no mind as she approached, far too occupied by the blood pouring from what was left of his shoulder. Then his eyes left the grotesque wound and fixed on her. For a moment he almost seemed to forget the pain no doubt cascading through him. He made a break for the pistol lying close by, though not fast enough. By the time he looked back, Llannaeia was already standing over him, and with a swift kick the weapon was far out of reach. He then resigned to his agony, head rested on the ground, grasping at his shoulder.

Llannaeia loomed over him like a sinister wraith, weapon trained on his grimacing face. He stared up at her with eyes filled with pain and terror; pathetic. She hit another button and her mask split at the centre. The two halves disappeared into her helmet. “That’s the second time you tried to kill me”.

“Please”, he whimpered. “Please help me. I don’t want to die”.

“You should have thought about that before you pulled the trigger, the first time”. Upon discovering his and his friends’ little camp, Llannaeia aimed her rifle on him and ordered him to surrender. He answered by raising his pistol and firing a shot before scurrying away like the coward he was. Were it not for her armour’s shielding, the contents of her head would have painted the trees.

“Please. It hurts so much”.

“I don’t doubt it. But like I said, you should have thought about that before you tried to kill me”.

“I was scared. I didn’t mean to shoot you, I swear. I’m not like the rest of them”.

“I suppose you had nothing to do with robbing that freighter and murdering all those people either”. The reason for their visit to the forest moon; all because he and his friends were dumb enough to rob a freighter bound from Valarayan. Apparently they were feeling a little bloodthirsty as, in addition to stealing as much cargo as they could, they also slaughtered the crew. The U.S.N Rimor was sent to intercept, and ended up forcing them to crash land on Selson after taking out their engines. They headed to the moon to search for survivors of the wreck.

The young man shook his head. “I didn’t kill anyone”, he insisted, sounding more desperate by the second, no doubt the result of the hole in his shoulder. “I swear it was the others. They tricked me. I didn’t know what they were gonna do. You gotta believe me”.

“Running with a bunch of hardened pirates like that and you didn’t know what they were gonna do? Don’t bullshit me”.

“They took me in. I didn’t have anyone else. I’m not like them, I swear. Please don’t let me die here”. He went back to sobbing like the waste he was.

Llannaeia looked to the wound. It was a mess. “You’re bleeding out”, she told him. “You’re not gonna last much longer even if I do let you live”. The shot had blown away over half his shoulder. It must have hit something vital, especially considering the torrent flowing from it.

“No”! he cried, surprisingly defiant in the face of his demise. “You can give me something… to slow it down… so you can get me to a doctor”. He was right; she indeed carried medicine, more than enough to give him some and have plenty for herself should she have need of it. It would probably stop the bleeding long enough to get him the aid he needed. It would even take most of the pain away.

“They’ll just throw you in jail. That’s all you’ve got waiting for you, some mining colony in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about those places. They’re not very nice, and, believe me, you’re going to be there for a very long time. I think I would rather I just died if I was you”. Pirating carried harsh penalties in the Confederacy.

He shook his head even more frantically. “I don’t care! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to die”!

Llannaeia sighed. She was getting bored. “Alright. I’ve got some ECM: Emergency Combat Medicine. We use it to treat field injuries. It should take most of the pain away and stop the bleeding long enough to get you to a medic”.

The young man managed a smile through his anguish. “Yes”, he gasped. “Thank you. Thank you so much”. Llannaeia snorted. He seemed even more pathetic knowing he was probably going to live. Foolish; death wasn’t something to be cowered away from. It was to be welcomed. That’s how she saw it at least. Where she in his position, she would happily have accepted a shot to the head. Better that than rotting in some prison camp in the middle of nowhere.

“Just hold on a sec”. Llannaeia’s hand went to her belt, fingers brushing over the pouches for smaller equipment before arriving at the pockets that contained the medicine hypos. The man had gone quiet. What were once frenzied cries were now quiet moans. He was slipping away. She’d need to act fast. She caught his eye. “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine”. The man’s eyes expanded with horror when he found himself staring down the barrel of her sidearm.

“No”!

The shot rang through the trees, then nothing. The bolt hit him between the eyes, and Llannaeia felt something warm and wet hit her cheek. It felt nice. The man slumped onto his back, a river of red surging from the fissure where his face used to be. Llannaeia returned the pistol to its holster, watching the red pool form around the man’s obliterated skull. She liked the way the dark liquid flowed as it left the body; slow, almost leisurely. He was unrecognizable, just a mess of gnarled flesh and melted skin. Satisfaction shot through Llannaeia with all the velocity of the bolt that brought an end to the waste of life before her. The hunt was over. She’d caught her prey. The blood on her face made her feel a tingle inside. She’d felt its warmth a few times, and it never failed to bring pleasure. Llannaeia set down her rifle, then removed one of her gloves. She then brought her fingers to her cheek and smeared it further, enjoying the wetness at her fingertips.

The quiet was broken again by the rustling of bushes and pounding of footsteps behind her. “Captain”?

Llannaeia turned to see Private Alman standing there. She was Haelqen like her, wearing the same armour and carrying the same rifle. “Yes, Private”?

The private seemed a little taken aback at the sight of her face smeared with blood. “Sergeant Runnell sent me to find you. We got the rest of them”. She eyed the man’s body.

“Son of a bitch shot me twice”, Llannaeia said. The private didn’t answer, just gave an awkward nod before starting back the way she came. Llannaeia saw the look in her eyes before she left; she saw the judgement. Fuck her.

Llannaeia picked up her rifle and followed the private. The rain started again on the way back, washing the blood from her face before dying down once more. That was for the best. It wouldn’t have been good to let the squad see her in such a state. The others were waiting at another recess in the green sprawl, along with three men on their knees at the centre, hands clasped atop their heads and dressed similarly to the man she just killed. These looked more like the pirates Llannaeia and her comrades had been tasked with hunting. They made her want to laugh, eyeing her and the private as they joined the others.

Sergeant Runnell approached, a hulking beast of a man. He was Ralenta, a big and strong one at that, tall as a house and as wide as one too. “Captain”.

“Sergeant. Are these all that’s left”? Llannaeia looked to the three men. A different expression occupied the face of each. The first looked livid; she could see the rage coursing through him. He wanted to kill them all with his bare hands. The one in the middle looked like he didn’t give a shit, like he’d already accepted his fate. The last one looked like he was about to piss himself, all the while trying his hardest not to look scared.

“All but one”, the sergeant answered. “These three surrendered. We put down another seven. There’s one as of yet unaccounted for”. Her kill.

“Make that eight. I got him”.

The sergeant nodded, then looked to the kneeling men. “What do you want to do with these”?

Llannaeia didn’t answer, strolled to the man on the right, the one who looked like he wanted to tear them apart. He glared up at her with wild, murderous eyes.

“Shouldn’t we get them back to the ship”? one of the privates asked; Calter, his name was. He was new, not yet aware of how things were done in her squad.

Llannaeia looked to him and smirked. “We could. . . but you’ll be the one carrying them”. Private Calter watched in horror as his captain pressed the barrel of her pistol to the back of the pirate’s head and pulled the trigger. The shot painted the ground and made the face of the man beside him look like a big, ripe tomato. The body slumped onto its front, juices flowing. The two that still lived looked to their accomplice, veils of stoicism ripped away, fear now plain to see. Calter’s expression mirrored theirs. He’d get used to it, like all the others.

Llannaeia moved onto the next one. He shook and breathed but was remarkably composed. “Why should we bother with dead weight”? Eyes fixed on the private, she pressed the barrel to the man’s head and fired. His head had looked like a tomato and it burst like one too. “It’ll only slow us down”.

The squad was silent but Llannaeia knew what they were all thinking. They were wrong; this is necessary. As long as men like these lived, the galaxy was not safe

She arrived at the last one. He was the most pathetic of all, tears pouring down bloodied cheeks and sobbing like a baby. “You shouldn’t feel sorry for them either”, Llannaeia told the private. “No one else does, believe me”. She put the barrel to the back of his head.

“Please! Please don’t”! Llannaeia could barely make out words through the guy’s sobbing. “I’ve got a wife… and two kids …back on Valarayan. I needed money to feed them. That’s why I was running with them. I didn’t kill anyone, I swear. Please don’t kill me. Please let me see my boys again. Please”. His pleading devolved into even more sobbing.

Llannaeia lowered her pistol. “Are you finished”?

He looked over his shoulder, seemingly surprised to be addressed at all. “Yes”.

Llannaeia nodded. “Good”. She aimed and fired. His boys wouldn’t be seeing their father again, if they even existed. Probably not; they’d say anything to save their own skins. The almost headless body slumped to the side, landed on top of the second. Llannaeia returned her pistol to its holster and surveyed the result of the slaughter. All that blood; it made her feel alive like nothing else. There she stood, transfixed by the sight of the three red lakes converging to form an ocean. These were the times when she felt most alive. She closed her eyes, lifted her face to the sky, and breathed in the forest air, savouring the moment.

“That’s our job done, guys. Let’s go home”.

“What should we do with them, Captain”? Private Thelton asked.

“Leave them for the animals. It’ll be the only good they’ll ever be for anything. You all know what to say if anyone asks what happened here”. She eyed Calter. “Right”?

“Yes, Captain”, he stammered, clearly disturbed by what he’d just witnessed.

The walk back was mostly silent. A soft breeze whistled; a light rain drizzled. The forest had returned to its peaceful state. Llannaeia would have liked to return to Selson when not on assignment, so as to have a real chance to take in the natural beauty. There were so few people on the forest moon. It would have made for a fantastic place to be alone, to get away from it all. She walked at the head the squad, certain her comrades were whispering about her and what they’d seen her do. It didn’t please her, but it was something she’d come to accept.

The trees started to thin and the canopy gave way to the silver of the U.S.N Rimor. It wasn’t long before they were standing directly beneath, the rain and sunlight blocked by its hull like a starship-sized shroud had been thrown over them.

“You guys get aboard. I’ll go and tell the old bastards we’ll be out of their hair now”.

“Yes Captain”, Sergeant Runnell replied, and they parted ways.

It was only once she was alone that Llannaeia felt she could truly relax. She took her time walking to the academy. There was no rush. They had nowhere else they needed to be, not urgently at least. They were about to go on shore leave but that could wait a little. Past the last few trees, the path to the academy was no more than a stone’s throw away. The gun metal trapezoid that was the Selson Academy for the Arcane sat perched at the top of the hill. Llannaeia smiled and swung her arm as she waded through the long grass, certain she well was out of the squad’s sight. It had been a good day.

She was about to step onto the path when she caught movement from the corner of her eye, turning in time to see three figures emerge from the forest. There was an Iringroat, a dark-skinned man with curly black hair, and a girl who looked a lot like herself, an awful lot like herself. She seemed very familiar, and Llannaeia couldn’t escape the feeling that she knew her. They got a bit closer and Llannaeia’s heart skipped a beat, eyes widening to the size of melons. The girl came to a stop with the others. She stared at Llannaeia with an expression that was a mirror image of hers

“Llann”?! Iona exclaimed.

Llannaeia was silent, unable to find the words. She hadn’t been sure at first, but now she knew her suspicions had been correct. The last time she’d lain eyes on her little sister she was no more than a pre-teen, and now here she was, all grown up. She’d had no idea she was studying at the academy on Selson, but on second thought it made perfect sense. Of all the places to run into her little sister, this was one of the most likely. She’d have never accepted the assignment had she known, having hoped to never see her again.

Resolving to pretend she’d never encountered her sister in the forests of Selson, Captain Llannaeia Aventius of the United Confederate Navy began the climb towards the academy. She didn’t say a word nor gave a second glance. The peace and satisfaction she’d felt only moments earlier had been replaced with bitterness and rage. She’d been having such a good day. Now it was ruined.

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