A figure stood out against the darkness but Haldron couldn’t discern any features. He saw a shape: head, torso, arms and legs, but nothing else. And yet, it seemed so familiar. There he stood in what he could only think was one of the many tunnels he’d walked in his short existence. It was dark. He was used to the dark, perhaps even more so than the light. But this was a different kind of dark, the kind that penetrated the soul. The figure was still standing there. He wanted to go to it. It called to him, willed him forward. But he couldn’t. It was like he was stuck to the spot, walking but going nowhere, like on a conveyor belt going in the opposite direction.
Haldron recognized the feeling inside. The same one he felt when they stopped before, when they found the bodies. The warmth, safety and love he felt inside. It was almost intoxicating.
He recognized the figure, recognized her shape. She was standing right there, just outside his reach. If only he could get to her. If only he could-
“Haldron! Wake up”! Haldron opened his eyes. The dark was gone, replaced with light of all different colours. Another figure filled his view, this one easily recognizable. “Get up, Haldron”! Benellen’s expression filled him with dread.
“What’s the matter”?
“What”? Benellen repeated himself and Haldron sat upright, suspicions confirmed. “What do you mean he’s gone”?
“He’s not at his post. We can’t find him”. Haldron got to his feet. “Rowtenat and the others are looking, but so far there’s no sign of him”.
Haldron rubbed his eyes. “Is everyone else accounted for”?
“Alright. Let’s just wait for the others, and if they haven’t found him, we’ll figure out what we’re gonna do next”.
Their attention was drawn by the clap of boots on rock, Rowtenat, Erdam, Rohbalt and Cravvik approaching fast.
“We can’t find him. But we did find this”. Rowtenat extended his arm. Clutched in his hand was the standard-issue sidearm carried by all guardians.
“Seems so. Everyone else has theirs”. Benellen took the pistol. Rowtenant eyed Haldron. “Good to see you’re finally up. The rest of us are looking all over this cavern while you’re taking a fucking nap”.
“Watch your mouth, Rowtenat”.
“This is all you found”? Benellen quickly cut in.
“Take a look at the grip”.
Benellen flipped the weapon and he and Haldron took a closer look at the spot Rowtenat pointed to. In an instant, the situation went from ominous to terrifying. Haldron’s eyes bulged, fists clenching at the sight of the three lines etched into the metal. “Searyuhb”.
“Some of his guys must have grabbed him while we were sleeping”.
“Who else was keeping watch”?
Cravvik stepped forward. “I was”.
“And you didn’t see or hear anything”?
“No. One second he was there and the next he was gone”.
“We didn’t find any blood either. They must have taken him alive”. This just got better and better. They all knew how the Trassani liked to treat captured Guardians.
“Did nobody hear anything”?
Rohbalt shook his head. “He was supposed to wake me so I could take over from him. He never did, and I went to check his post and there was nothing”.
“Where did you find this”? Benellen held up the pistol.
“There’s another tunnel at the far end of the cavern”. Rowtenat nodded in the direction they came from. “We found it at the entrance. That must be where they came from, and where they took him”.
“It doesn’t make sense”, Cravvik said, ominously. “They could have just picked us off in our sleep. Why take only one of us”?
“That doesn’t matter right now”, Haldron quickly replied. “All that does is the Trassani have captured one of our comrades, and we all know what that means”.
“He is fucked”, Erdam muttered.
“We can’t just leave him”, said Rohbalt.
“We’re not”. Rowtenat gave Haldron a look that suggested he was hoping to hear the same.
Haldron nodded. “We’re not leaving anyone behind. We’ll follow the tunnel and find where they’re holding our friend and then we’ll find a way to rescue him. Everyone take a couple minutes to prepare yourselves. We leave as soon as we’re ready. Now fall out”.
The squad nodded their understanding before heading off to get ready. Benellen remained. “Haldron. A word”. They stepped toward the shadows, out of earshot of the others. “You know what this is”.
“They’re leading us into a trap”.
“If they wanted to just kill us, they would have slit our throats as we slept. Searyuhb’s got something special planned for us”.
“I know. But what can we do? We can’t just leave Torben to face whatever they’ve got in store for us”.
“I know that. I just wanted to make sure you know what we’re walking into. The others should know as well”.
Haldron wasn’t so sure. “We need them focused and ready to do what’s necessary. We can’t risk them letting their fears get the better of them and dropping the ball because of it, not now. Do you understand”?
Benellen hesitated a moment. “Yes”.
“Good. Now let us prepare ourselves”. Haldron gave him an encouraging pat on the shoulder before they split up though he felt little of the confidence he tried to instil in his colleagues. They were walking into the lion’s den, and the lions knew they were coming, and were armed with swords, guns, explosives, and who knows what else? It was times like this when Haldron wished he had Tolov by his side, the Chief Officer the one he looked to when he needed some encouragement. He doubted even Tolov would have much to offer him were he here. After everything he’d done, he’d be surprised if the Chief Officer had any kind words for him if he saw him again. He took up his rifle and joined the squad despite feeling no more prepared now than a couple minutes ago.
“You ready”? Benellen asked.
Haldron nodded. “Everybody listen for a few moments. We’re going to get this done as quickly as possible. Torben is probably being held close by. We’re going to find him and rescue him. Searyuhb may be there, maybe he won’t be. Likewise, the artefact might be there or maybe not. That’s not important right now. Torben is our priority. Our goal is to rescue our friend. But this also could be a chance to complete our mission. Once we’ve got Torben, if by some chance Searyuhb is there and you get an opportunity, do not hesitate. Kill on sight. We’ll deal with the artefact too, if we get the chance. But remember what our priority is. Now let’s go and save our friend”.
They headed for the tunnel Rowtenat spoke of. The multi-coloured haze reached its terminus and they were forced to rely on their lights again though that only went so far toward revealing what hazards may be ahead. It was a tight squeeze; they had no choice but to move single file. The tightness served as the accelerant to their already heightened fears, little room to move if the Trassani chose now to strike. All this was deliberate, all part of Searyuhb’s game. He was doing everything he could to wear them down and ensure he’d won the fight before it began. It was working. The tip of Haldron’s boot collided with something that bounced off the rock with a metallic clank.
“What the fuck was that”? Rowtenat whispered.
Haldron aimed his flashlight to the spot he last heard the sound. He saw something that looked familiar, though he couldn’t be sure until he’d taken a closer look.
“What is it”? Benellen asked.
Haldron turned to the others, held it up for everyone to see. “Another calling card”. A flashlight from the rifle of a guardian.
“At least we know we’re on the right track”.
They carried on. A good twenty or so minutes passed without incident. They found neither clue nor any divergences from the path. Haldron did his best to stay focused as he tried to formulate a strategy. The end couldn’t be too far away. They needed a good plan for when they reached it. Searyuhb’s people were probably camped at the other end. Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to get the drop on them. Trassani camps weren’t that organized though Searyuhb had proven to be an exception. His camps were unusually close-knit and well-guarded and, on top of that, he and his people were certainly expecting them, and prepared for their arrival. Whatever happened once they reached the end, one thing was certain; they were going to have a hard fight on their-“.
Haldron stopped, looked over his shoulder. “What is it”?
“Nothing”, Benellen replied, puzzled.
“Somebody said my name”.
“No they didn’t”.
“I heard it”.
“Nobody said anything”.
Haldron spun around, temper rising. “I heard my name. Who said it”?
Haldron spun again, aimed his rifle at the darkness. “Who’s there”?
“What the fuck is he doing”? Erdam whispered.
“He’s fucking lost it”, Rowtenat whispered back.
Haldron heard the whispers but paid them no mind, far too distracted by the fear wrapping around him like dark tentacles. “Identify yourself”. No answer.
Haldron. He heard it clearly this time. It didn’t belong to any of his comrades, nor did it seem to come from the tunnel at all. It was a woman’s voice, one that sounded all too familiar.
We’re here, Haldron.
Haldron’s hands started to shake, tears forming. It had been so long since he’d heard her voice.
Come to us, Haldron. We love you.
Haldron lowered his rifle and stared into the abyss. He felt it again, stronger than ever. “I love you too. But I can’t. Not yet”.
Please don’t leave us, Haldron. We love you. We need you.
“I know, and I will. I’ll be with you soon”.
A hand took him by the shoulder and spun him around. “What the fuck is wrong with you”? Benellen demanded.
“I… I don’t…”
“This isn’t the time to be losing your mind”.
“I… I’m not. I’m fine”.
“You sure don’t seem it. How are we supposed to follow you on something like this when we don’t even know if you’re all there”?
“We don’t have time for this. You can second-guess me all you want once this is over but right now we need to find Torben. Is that clear”?
Benellen stared, almost in disbelief. “I just need to know that you’re good”.
“I’m good. Now let’s move”.
Before anyone could say anything else, Haldron’s rifle was raised and he was moving on though that didn’t stop them from whispering among themselves. He tried to stay focused on the mission at hand but all he could think about was the voice in his head. Everress; his love, taken so cruelly and prematurely. Could it truly be her? But how? There is no afterlife, and no such thing as ghosts. We fade away when we die, like every other living thing at every corner of the universe. That left only one explanation. He wouldn’t have been surprised if his men put a bullet in his back and continued without him.
The tunnel twisted and turned like another great snake, a twistier and turnier one. Then something caught Haldron’s eye. He lowered his rifle and squinted at the dark. He saw a light, an orange pinprick a few hundred yards away, like a lonely star in an otherwise barren night’s sky. “Everybody stay alert”.
Haldron’s heart surged as they got closer. The fluttering in his stomach made it seem like a flock of eagles were beating their wings inside him. Searyuhb’s people were probably waiting at the end, ready for a fight. The light was probably from their campfires. He still didn’t have a plan for when they got there. He didn’t even know what awaited them. They could be walking into a hail of bullets for all he knew.
They reached the end, only to find another turn. The lights of the campfires shimmered upon the wet walls with such intensity it seemed like they were approaching the opening itself. The actual end was about a hundred yards away, with what looked like another cave beyond it. They turned off their lights, no need for them with the welcoming glow turning the walls the colour of the sun. Haldron kept his eyes peeled for movement ahead. He saw nothing; no shadows dancing or figures strafing. He heard nothing either, only their soft and stealthy footsteps to keep the silence at bay. Trassani camps were normally rowdy and chaotic affairs, their inhabitants doing nothing but drinking, fucking and fighting like animals, unless they were ready for an attack.
They passed the portal and it seemed like they’d entered another world altogether. The darkness gave way to orange light washing over them like the waves of the beaches a world away. Beyond lay a cavern far larger than the one they’d come from, but no sign of Searyuhb or his people, or any sign they’d ever been there. No campfires, bedrolls or tents, no weapons, vehicles or equipment, no crude symbols painted on flags to denote the band to which they belonged, and no dismembered and eviscerated bodies mounted on pikes to intimidate trespassers. The glow that drew them originated from the floodlights built into the walls and ceiling, connected by the mess of wires running between like thin vines of red, yellow and blue.
Rowtenat asked the question likely going through everyone’s minds. “What the fuck is this”?
“Trassani didn’t set these lights up”, Benellen said. “And there’s not supposed to be anything out here”.
Haldron followed the wires with his eyes. They ran deeper into the cavern before disappearing from view. “Whatever they’re for, they’re being powered by something. That means someone’s here. Keep your guard up”.
The walls narrowed into a thin cut though this looked to be only a fraction of a much larger space. The ceiling hung thousands of feet above. The wires ran into the cut and the guardians followed. There were still no signs of Trassani presence, nor any more of Torben’s possessions. The lack of signs should have been reassuring but the clouds inside Haldron only darkened. What if they’d gone the wrong way? Torben and his captors could be miles away while they were stumbling around in the dark. The cut snaked like the tunnels, the wires running along its walls so thick the rock beneath was practically obscured. The end came almost from nowhere and they were greeted with a sight that answered some questions but left many others. Here, the orange of rock was contrasted by the cold grey of the buildings and the maze of ladders, walkways and gantries that linked them. Tracks squirmed like flailing tentacles to the tunnel entrances dotted about the distance. Haldron had never been here before but it all felt very familiar. Then it dawned on him; the mines. The buildings and tracks, they looked just like the entrance to the mines in Chintell.
“It’s a mining station”.
“But there isn’t supposed to be anything here”.
“It must be abandoned, and old from the look of it”.
“Still doesn’t explain why it’s not on the maps, unless…”
“We must be near Elsheim”.
“Elsheim”? Cravvik repeated.
“The fallen city”, Benellen explained. “Destroyed by the Chinchi nearly two thousand years ago. We never rebuilt it. You’ve never heard of it”?
“Of course I have. I just forgot the name. You don’t need to know history to be a guardian”.
Benellen gave a quiet snort. “I suppose not”.
“Stay focused. We’re not alone here”.
“You think Searyub’s here”?
“Definitely”. Haldron felt it in his bones. “Rohbalt. Your rifle”. Rohbalt handed over his weapon and Haldron stared down the scope, scanning for signs of life. The place seemed just as desolate with the aid as without.
“What do you want to do”? Benellen asked.
Haldron handed the rifle back to its owner. “The only thing we can do. We go in and find our friend”.
“They’re gonna know we’re coming. There’s no cover between here and there”.
“Then we’d better hope they aren’t good shots. Let’s go”.
They set off toward the structure, watching for movement on the walkways and in the windows. Haldron couldn’t help but wonder what Searyuhb had up his sleeve. He’d already had plenty of opportunities to wipe them out. At the lake, as they left the tunnel, in the cut, and now as they approached the station. He had the advantage. The way ahead was barren, nothing to prevent them from being picked off one by one. Yet, the shots never came. He must have something spectacular planned if he was willing to give up this many chances to take them out so easily.
They lined up along the wall at the outermost building. The point where the tracks converged lay to the right and, with it, their entrance. That was the easiest way inside, the way their enemy would be expecting them to use, but there was little choice. They followed the tentacles beneath the walkways and the buildings on metal legs and were greeted by a mess of relics from an age long passed. Mine cars sat in their berths, containers stood open, tools lay strewn across work benches, all untouched for almost two thousands years. It looked like everyone just up and left. Were he an archaeologist, Haldron would have had a field day wandering these ruins. Alas, he was too busy making sure he didn’t get his head blown off to appreciate the history in their surroundings. There was still no sign anyone had been here in millennia although there was no shortage of hiding places. Everywhere Haldron looked shadows crawled up walls, the buildings overhead a barrier for much of the light from above.
They seemed to be reaching the main part of the station. A short staircase led to a raised walkway that branched in several directions, the entrance to a different building at the end of each. They stopped at the point where the path diverged. “Which way”? Erdam whispered. In front was blocked by a heavy-looking blast door that probably hadn’t opened in two millennia. The chances of it opening now were slim to say the least.
Haldron was in the process of what to do next when the decision seemed to be made for him. A clank of metal on metal split the deadness and drew the squad’s attention to the right where the door to another building stood ajar. The sound set them on edge, the first sign of something being there other than themselves. Haldron crept forward, fingers and mind tingling. It felt like walking through static electricity. There was only darkness beyond the threshold. Haldron turned on his light and prepared himself, then shot through the opening, ready to gun down any savage that might be lurking within. He scanned the dark but there were no lurkers waiting to open him from belly to throat. It looked like a machine shop, judging by the old workbenches, tool cupboards and ancient machinery.
“Shit. Look at this place”, said Cravvik. “Imagine, thousands of years ago guys were working in here”.
“Stay focused. We’re not alone”
A door at the end led to a corridor with lockers along both sides. Haldron’s heart felt like it could give out at any moment, just waiting for a raider to jump out and gut him. The end brought them out into a yard. There were more buildings here, with walkways networking above. The wind whispered in Haldron’s ear but nothing else. They stopped at the centre, shadows looming over them like pillars of black. The place was dead. Haldron had to wonder if he’d been wrong. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Perhaps the noise in the machine shop was innocuous. But then why are all the lights on outside?
Haldron was worried he was hearing things again. But then he looked to the others, and wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or terrified. The same unnerving look occupied the faces of his fellow guardians. It may not have been his wife’s voice but it was one he was very much familiar with. They heard it again, an animalistic screech with the power to send a chill down the most hardened of spines. Everyone turned in the direction from which it came but found only empty space. Electricity shot through every strand of Haldron’s fur. There was another screech, from behind this time. They turned and took aim. Nothing. Then came one from the left, then the right.
“We’re surrounded”, Benellen whispered.
“What do we do”? asked Cravvik.
“Everyone stay calm”.
The screeches continued, a single beastly choir. They came from every direction but the guardians saw nothing of the creatures to whom they belonged.
“What are your orders, Haldron”? Benellen asked a good question but Haldron had no answer to give. They were surrounded by an enemy they couldn’t see much less shoot, and if they ran they were dead.
Something landed at their centre, Haldron almost deafened by the bang that followed. Then all he could see was grey. His lungs felt like they were on fire, eyes stinging and watering as the smoke overcame him. He couldn’t see the rest of his squad, but he heard their coughs, splutters and moans. The chorus of screams and screeches grew in volume until it drowned out everything else.
You need to pull yourself together, Haldron thought as he rubbed his burning eyes. You need to pull yourself together right now, or you and everyone else is going to die
“Benellen?! Rowtenat?! Erdam?! Rohbalt?! Cravvik!?!
“Haldron”?! Benellen came bursting from the smoke. “We need to get out of here”!
“We need to find the others”!
“There’s no time”!
They heard a thud behind them, like boots landing on rock, and turned to find a figure enveloped in smoke. It looked nothing like their comrades. It was like a scarecrow, tall and slender with spindly arms and legs, clutching a sword like the one Haldron found in the mine. It began to approach, raising its weapon and letting out a bloodcurdling shriek. Haldron raised his rifle and fired and the figure disappeared. He wasn’t sure if it was dead nor was he about to stick around to find out. More shots followed, accompanied by more screeches.
“This way”! Haldron led them through the smoke that was beginning to clear. They found their path blocked by another sword-wielding figure that seemed to appear from nowhere. They didn’t stop, raising their rifles and cutting it down. The smoke cleared and they arrived at the door they’d previously come from.
Haldron spotted a few more figures approaching fast. He took aim but didn’t fire. The rest of the squad came rushing from the haze, Rowtenat carrying a wounded Rohbalt under his arm. More followed, these brandishing swords. Haldron and Benellen opened fire, not stopping until their comrades were through the door before following themselves. The screams bounded after them. Haldron ripped his pistol from its holster and opened fire behind. His boot then caught on something solid and he fell. He should have been straight up and moving again, but he only lay there on the machine shop floor as the screams grew louder.
Get up. You need to get up. Get the fuck up! He felt a pair of big hands take him by the arm and shoulder and was hauled to his feet.
“Come on, Haldron”! Benellen roared. “Get up”!
They rushed through the machine shop, along the walkway, and down the steps. They could see the cut in the distance, the entrance to the tunnel on the other side. There was a shot from behind and Haldron felt something whiz by his temple. More followed, bullets darting by their heads and hitting the ground near their galloping feet. They cleared the station and were completely exposed, nothing to protect them from the guns of their pursuers. Haldron looked over his shoulder at the station that no longer looked deserted. Atop roofs and walkways, the savages took aim with their rifles looted from the bodies of fallen guardians. They were firing but not a single shot found its mark, each seeming to miss its intended target by barely an inch. Haldron knew what they were doing as much as they did, each round meant to just miss and keep them on the path intended for them. They wanted them to go that way.
The calls and cries of Trassani raiders rained on them as they followed the cut. Grinning faces popped out from over the edges before disappearing just as fast. Haldron’s hand went to his holster only to find it empty. He must have dropped his pistol when he fell. The end was in sight. Then it was just a clear run to the tunnel. If only it were that simple, but he’d learned long ago that nothing was simple in the life of the guardian. It wasn’t a surprise to find his instincts hadn’t failed him. The tunnel was a barely a stone’s throw away but it was nowhere to be seen, hidden behind a wall of unwashed bodies in raggy clothes. There formed a laughing and cheering semicircle. The guardians raised their rifles though Haldron wasn’t sure why. They might have taken out one each before they were set upon. More emerged from the cut behind them. The last time he’d so many in one place was the day that took his family. Searyuhb had been busy. He lost a great many followers that day, many of them by Haldron’s hand.
Everywhere he looked grotesque faces leered back. They may have belonged to the same species but they were a far cry from the Ebol, or any other type of human. Their time underground had not been kind to the Trassani. They didn’t have fur, skin so pale they could have been mistaken for an army of corpses. The smell was almost enough to knock Haldron off his feet, the culmination of so many filthy bodies in one place. Their clothes were little more than dirty rags, the skin not covered decorated with myriads of burns and scars that formed crude patterns, the Trassani’s unsophisticated answer to tattooing.
The cheering finally died down. Haldron’s weapon remained raised despite the pointlessness of it. The front parted and a particularly tall savage strode out. He was dressed the same, dark rags sewn together to make a pair of baggy pants and a brown sleeveless top that exposed the grotesque patterns scored into the grey skin of his arms. Not an inch of him was undecorated with some form of wound, some old, some looking like they were acquired recently. His left eye was covered by a leather patch; his right ear was little more than a few strands of flesh protruding from the side of his head. A black string with bones attached dangled from his neck, no doubt having belonged to his victims, the ones he’d personally killed at least. The sight of this one sent Haldron’s nerves into a frenzy. He’d imagined all manner of scenarios in which he came face to face with the man who robbed him of everything. In all of them he pictured him in his hands rather than the other way around. He would be standing over him, staring into his eyes (or eye) before putting an end to his worthless life. He’d been so sure what he would do but now he wasn’t sure about anything. His rifle was trained on him, barrel aimed to his heart. One pull of the trigger was all it took. But when it came to it, Haldron could only stand there, finger still.
Searyuhb came swaggering up to him. The end of Haldron’s barrel touched his chest, like he was daring him to do what he wished he could. But then his finger left the trigger and he lowered his weapon. With a short (and slightly disappointed-sounding) exhale, Searyuhb closed the distance between them. He was about a foot taller. Haldron tried to avoid his eye but couldn’t help but be drawn to it, big and so badly bloodshot the whole white was stained red. With his eye still on him, Searyuhb wrapped a hand around the stock of his rifle and ripped it from his grip. Haldron didn’t resist. The savage leader held up the weapon and looked it over, like he were examining it. Haldron doubted he knew a thing about the working of Ebol weaponry. He extended the arm holding the rifle and one of his minions came scurrying over to take it. After some incomprehensible sound from their leader, several more came forth and set to relieving the squad of their weapons. Searyuhb looked Haldron up and down, as if examining him now. He fixated on a point on his chest, raising a hand and touching a long, pointed fingernail to the spot. Haldron looked down to see it was the symbol of the Guardians that held his nemises’ attention. He looked back to Searyub, now wearing a hideous grin, teeth filed to spikes.
He opened his mouth, as if to take a bite out of him. “Garjan”. He tapped the point on Haldron’s chest with his blackened fingernail, all the while repeating the butchered word. It’d be almost comical were it not for the direness of the situation.
Searyuhb turned his attention to the crowd, threw up his hands, and roared something in his primitive tongue. His followers went wild again, laughing and cheering with all the boisterousness of a stadium full of sports fans. Then he shouted what sounded like a command and a few of his followers came forward, metal shackles swinging in their hands as they approached. Three seized Haldron, two forcing his hands behind his back as the third applied the manacles to his wrists. He did nothing except relent, the fight having been siphoned from him. The rage inside was tempered by the hopelessness before him. The leader gave another command and then they were being dragged back through the cut, back towards the station.