Spiritum – Chapter Thirty-seven

37.

“I’m telling you. My grandfather killed a Galdrill more than twice the size of this rover all by himself”.

“And I’m telling you no fucking way. If such a thing even existed, it would have chewed him up and spat him back out. But it didn’t because it never fucking existed in the first place”.

Cravvik and Erdam had been arguing for quite a while. It all started when the latter took umbrage with the former’s claim of his guardian grandfather having single-handedly fought and killed a Galdrill more than twice the size of Helerenna. The rest of the squad listened quietly, doing their best to contain their amusement at the two guardians growing more and more annoyed with one another by the second.

“It fucking happened, I’m telling you”! .

“Your grandfather might have killed a Galdrill by himself, but he certainly didn’t kill one twice the size of this rover. Galdrills can grow big but not that fucking big. It wouldn’t have been able to fit through most of the fucking tunnels”. Galdrills were the giant arachnids that dwelt within the tunnels and caverns beneath the mountains of Muldaenuia, and, while most grew to the size of a large Ebol male, there were countless reports of individuals growing substantially larger though no concrete evidence had ever been offered to support such claims. Nevertheless, the Galdrills remained some of the more dangerous creatures the Ebol shared their continent with and, like the Trassani, were a source of many headaches for guardians out on patrol.

“My grandfather told me himself before he died and my grandfather was no liar”.

“I’m not saying he was a liar. Maybe’s he just couldn’t see all that well”. The squad were powerless not to snigger, Haldron included.

“There was nothing wrong with his eyes either”!

“So where’s the evidence? Your grandfather must have showed you pictures when he sat you on his lap and told you this tall tale”.

“Oh I’m sorry, he must have forgotten to get his camera out while he was busy trying to keep the fucking thing from eating his squad”. Cravvik looked set to dive across the compartment onto Erdam at any moment. He’d always been easy to wind up.

“So his squad were there as well were they”?

“Of course they were”.

“But you said he fought and killed the thing by himself. What were the rest of them doing”?

“Running and hiding. My grandfather was the only one who stood his ground”.

“And how exactly did he slay this mighty beast? I doubt an old rifle or carbine would have done much damage to something that size”.

“You’d be surprised. He shot it in its legs until it fell and then he plunged his dagger through one of its eyes. The thing damn near cut him clean in half, he told me. You got any more questions”?

“Yeah, how come I’ve never heard of this guy? I would have thought if your grandfather did as you claim his name would be better known, especially in our city”.

“Well… my grandfather was never one to chase fame. He just cared about getting the job done”.

“I’m sure he did. That’s why he went round claiming that Galdrill he killed once was ten times larger than it really was”.

The squad couldn’t contain their amusement any longer. This was the part of patrolling the tunnels Haldron loved: sitting with his comrades, listening, laughing, and joking while being ready intervene if the banter went too far. They were a whole other family to him. Nowhere else did he feel more at home than in their company. With Everress and the children gone, they were the only family he had left.

But despite the happiness he found in their camaraderie, Haldron still felt the weight of the ever-present shroud over him. It clung so tight the slightest movement was like trying to move a ton weight. All he could think about was their last stop and whatever had drawn him toward the darkness. Even as they laughed and poked fun at each other, Haldron noticed the sideways glances from his teammates. Earlier had shaken them to their cores. They might even think he was crazy. He wasn’t so sure himself. There was something in the darkness; he was certain of that. Something had attracted him and filled him with peace and joy, something familiar. One thought had crossed his mind. Haldron tried his hardest to suppress it but, no matter how hard he tried to push it aside it only pushed back harder. If there was another explanation, he couldn’t think of it. But it couldn’t have been. Their kind didn’t believe in the afterlife, and they certainly didn’t believe in ghosts. Haldron didn’t want to think what the others would do if he started speaking of such things in front of them. There’d been more than a few Guardians to claim to have encountered the spirits of loved ones in the tunnels and they seldom remained in their posts for long afterwards.

The argument had fizzled out. Cravvik refused to answer any more of Erdam’s questions on the matter though the others weren’t done discussing it. “What do you make of Cravvik’s story, Haldron”? asked Torben.

Haldron smirked. He didn’t believe a word of it. “Well I…”

He wasn’t given a chance to finish his thought, ears and mind pummelled by the deafening boom and the almighty tremors that followed. The squad were thrown from their bunks into a pile on the floor. Haldron lay near the bottom, the weight of his colleagues practically squeezing the life from him. They tried pulling themselves to their feet only for the tremors to send them falling back on top of each other. The explosion had passed but Haldron couldn’t hear a thing save for the moans and cries that could only be from the engine. It took all his strength to stand. He had to get to the front cabin and find out was happening. He recognized the sound that came before they were thrown from their bunks. He’d heard it many times before.

Haldron made it to his knees but then came another crash, followed by the agonized screech of metal and the howling of Helerenna’s engines. He felt his weight leave his body as he went flying toward the wall, then the ceiling, ears ringing like someone was blowing a whistle inside his skull. Shockwaves wracked him as he bounced off the hard metal, only to be sent into the wall again, then back to the floor, then the ceiling. With every impact, the pains flooding his muscles and bones multiplied. The screeching and crashing persisted, like a building was collapsing onto them. Haldron was powerless, able only to pull in his arms and legs as tight as he could and brace for impact.

It ended as suddenly as it started, and then everything was still again. A mess of bodies lay piled atop one another, Haldron again close to the bottom. They stood up one by one, the laughter of a minute ago now replaced with groans and muttered curses as they tried to get their bearings. It was a hard crash. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if there were a few concussions along with some more serious injuries. They were all lying in the same bunk which was now on the floor, the bunks opposite above their heads,

“What the fuck was that”? Rowtenat moaned, hunched over with one hand on the back of his head and the other holding his side.

“It sounded like an explosion”, replied Benellen. “I think we might have hit a mine”.

Haldron got to his feet. “You just might be right. What about Rohbalt”? The door to the front cabin (which was now sideways) opened and the squad’s sharpshooter came tumbling through. Haldron dragged himself across the compartment and helped him to his feet. “Are you hurt”?

“I think I hit my head”. The fur of his forehead was wet and stained dark, a nasty-looking gash beneath.

“Do you remember what happened”?

“I was just driving and then there was an explosion. I lost control of the steering and hit a wall, I think”.

“Alright. You just sit down while we figure out what happened. Kallem will take a look at you”.

“In a moment, Haldron”, the medic called. “I took a nasty hit to the nuts from someone back there”.

“I think that might have been me”, said Benellen

“We’re on our side, guys”, said Torben, looking up at the passenger exit that was now on the ceiling.

“Yeah no shit”, Rowtenat replied.

“What are we gonna do if we can’t drive. We’re stranded out here”. The quiver in the young guardian’s voice betrayed his rising panic.

Haldron raised his achy arms. “Let’s all just stay calm. We’ll figure that out once we’re out of here and we’ve made sure everyone’s alright”.

“As long as there’s no fifty-foot Galdrills, I think we’ll be fine”, Erdam called from the back of the compartment.

“Fuck you”, Cravvik moaned. The laughter returned albeit quieter and more uneasy than before.

Haldron could barely see a thing. The crash had knocked the lights out. He heard Rowtenat sniffing behind. “You smell that”? Haldron sniffed the air and caught a whiff of something strong and foreboding.

“Smoke”, Erdam said. “The engine’s on fire. We need to get out of here now”.

Haldron felt around for one of their rifles. He hit the button beneath the barrel and the bright tube of blue shot to the ceiling. “Grab your weapons and as much ammo and supplies as you can, and be quick about it”. They did as they were told, aided by the incandescence from their leader’s rifle. Haldron stood beneath the opening and helped the others up and out. Rohbalt went first, followed by Kallem, then Benellen, Cravvik, Rowtenat, Torben, and Erdam who was by far the heaviest. With everyone else out, Haldron jumped and grabbed his friend’s hand and was hauled to safety.

“How the fuck did we hit a fucking mine”? He heard Rowtenat demand as his feet met the rock.

“Because I didn’t fucking see it, that’s why”, Rohbalt answered.

“But what the fuck was it doing here in the first place”?

“Three guesses”, Benellen said.

“Those cocksuckers! And what the fuck are the fucking minesweepers doing? Do they walk these tunnels with their heads up their asses”?

“They must have missed one. That or it was put here recently”. That last part gave Haldron a chill. Why would the Trassani put one random mine here? Unless they knew someone would be coming through. First the bodies and now this? No way was it a coincidence.

What they found at the front of the rover was nothing pretty to look at. The explosion and crash had reduced Helerenna’s face to a mess of burned and twisted metal. Not a single inch was recognizable. It was a wonder Rohbalt survived. Helerenna had been through a lot in her long life but it seemed this would be her final journey.

“Great”! Rowtenat moaned. “We’re fucked. She’s ruined”.

“And we’re stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere”, Kallem added as he tended to the wound on Rohbalt’s forehead.

Benellen turned to Haldron. “What are your orders”?

The others looked to him though he saw not a shred of confidence in their expressions. To Haldron, there was only one option. “We keep going”. Their looks went from doubt to shock.

“Keep going”?

“Searyuhb’s still out there and we’ve still got an artefact to find, and the Imperium are catching us up fast. We need to move now”.

Rowtenat stepped closer. “Don’t you see the big smoking wreck behind us”? He gestured to the remains of Helerenna. “How the fuck are we supposed to catch up with Searyuhb now”?

“We walk”.

“Are you fucking crazy?! It takes fucking hours to get through these tunnels in a rover and you want us to walk”?

“And we can barely see a thing with just our flashlights”, Erdam added.

“We’ll use our goggles”.

“They’re inside the rover. And we’d be exposed to attack from the Trassani and whatever else is lurking up ahead”.

Haldron’s patience was paper thin. “So what do you suggest we do instead? We’re miles from anywhere. We can’t go back now, especially with the Imperium on our tails”.

“We can signal back to Chintell”, Rowtenat answered. “Get them to send out a rescue party”.

“And what do we do while we’re waiting? Sit in the dark and hope the Imperium or the Trassani don’t find us first? I’m sure they would appreciate us not giving them a moving target”.

Rowtenat’s temper looked to be approaching its peak. “What about food and supplies? Most of it’s inside Helerenna, and nobody’s gonna risk climbing back into that deathtrap. We’ve got nowhere near enough to survive out here”.

“We’ll find food and water up the line. Have you forgotten what we are? Or did you hit your head harder than you thought back there? We’re guardians. This is the kind of thing we’ve trained all our lives for. Now shut your mouth and do your job”.

Finally, Rowtenat seemed to realize he wasn’t going to win. “All this for a fucking block”.

Haldron had had enough. “That block is either our salvation or our destruction. Either way, it cannot be allowed to stay out here and we can’t let it fall into the hands of the Imperium. Now we’re going to find it and we’re staying out here until we do. Does anyone else have a problem with that”? Nobody looked happy, but no one spoke. Haldron supposed that was the best he could hope for.

He left Rowtenat to get back on with their journey. “Why don’t you just tell us what we’re really doing out here”?

“Excuse me”?

Rowtenat hesitated. “I said… why don’t you tell us why you really dragged us all the way out here”?

Haldron returned to him, noses practically touching. “Well you seem to have all the answers. So why don’t you tell us”?

“You should have taken that promotion when you had the chance. You’re in no state to be leading this squad, not anymore. You wouldn’t have led us out here if you were. You’ve killed us all, and for what? Revenge”?

“You watch your step, Rowtenat”.

“You think you’re the only one who lost people that day? You think killing Searyuhb is gonna bring them back? Guess what, it won’t”.

“Rowtenat”! Benellen snapped.

“The artefact is my only concern”.

Rowtenat snorted. “You can say that as many times as you want but we all know what’s really going on. What about all our wives and children? Did you ever stop to think about what they might feel if we died out here? No, you only thought about yourself and what you wanted. What if the Trassani attack again while we’re stuck out here? Would it bother you if our loved ones died while we weren’t there to protect them”?

Haldron glared. “You have your orders. Now follow them”.

“Or what”?

“That’s enough”! Benellen stepped close before things got any further out of hand.

“Stay out of this! I want to know what our “commander” is going to do if I don’t want to risk my life anymore on this revenge and suicide mission. Yeah, we all know that as well. Where does that leave the rest of us? You want to take us with you? Maybe we don’t want to die out here. Maybe we’re not broken like you. So I ask again, what happens if I don’t want to go any further”?

Haldron hesitated, options dwindling. “If you don’t follow my order, you’re going to be sorry”. That was the best he could manage.

“Why? You gonna report me to the officers when we get back? If we get back? Do you really think anyone back home is gonna listen to you after all the shit you pulled? You’re finished. We all are. Because of you. Now I’m going home”.

Rowtenat started back the way they’d come. Haldron had to do something. He couldn’t let one of his own disobey a direct order and abandon a mission. One desertion would only lead to another. But what could he do? Words had already failed him. That left one option. He drew his pistol and took aim at his comrade. “Don’t go any further, Rowtenat”.

Rowtenat stopped and turned, just enough to see the weapon aimed at him from the corner of his eye. “You gonna shoot me, Haldron? After everything we’ve been through”?

Haldron kept his eyes, and weapon, trained on his comrade. “If it comes to that”.

Rowtenat didn’t answer. He turned to the squad looking on in horror. “Is this the man you’re going to follow? Are you really gonna keep following him after everything he’s done? Do you all want to die out here for his vengeance”?

The squad was silent, each member being torn apart by a pair of invisible demons pulling at them. Haldron was their friend and commander and they would follow him into hell itself, but no one wanted to die out here either. At that point, he had no idea whether he’d be continuing the journey with them at his back or if he would be facing Searyuhb and his horde alone. As far as Haldron could see, it could go either way. Then Torben opened his mouth. “I lost my father and sister that day, the day Haldron lost his family”.

“We all lost people that day. Half of Chintell wants to kill Searyuhb, but they’re not risking their lives and getting themselves in trouble with the Imperium to do it. This is madness”.

“Is it madness to want to keep it from happening again”? Kallem asked. “To make sure no one else feels the pain we felt that day? The pain we have to live with for the rest of our lives? We’ve got a chance to do that now”.

Rowtenat looked worried, his position eroding from under him. “But it’s not worth dying for”.

“We’re Guardians”, Benellen reminded him. “It’s our jobs to lay down our lives in the defence of our city. That’s what we do. If we have a chance to prevent a repeat of that terrible day, we should take it, even if it means dying. We risk our lives every second we spend in these tunnels anyway”.

“This is more than just risking our lives! This is suicide”!

“Nevertheless, this is what we must do, for the good of our city”.

Rowtenat eyes darted between them. Then Kallem started moving. He stopped by Haldron and Benellen, standing at their side in solidarity. Then Torben stepped forward, then Rohbalt, Erdam and Cravvik, until it was just Rowtenat by himself with Helerenna’s lifeless corpse at his back.

“You’ll never make it back by yourself”, Haldron said, sidearm still aimed at his comrade’s chest. “But if you come with us you might have half a chance of surviving this. And besides, your squad needs you. I need you”.

Rowtenat stared though his look gave no indication of what was going on inside his head. Then something changed. Haldron couldn’t quite put his finger on it but something told him it was time to lower his weapon. Just as well he did; his arm felt like it could fall off. After much humming and hawing and a final sigh, Rowtenat re-joined his squad, approaching with all the dignity of a child on his way to his room after a stern telling off. Haldron managed to hold in the breath of relief fighting to escape his lips. If push came to shove, he knew he wouldn’t have been able to pull that trigger.

Nobody said a word, and then they were moving again.

“And keep an eye out for any more fucking mines”.

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