Tunnel after tunnel and passage after passage; they ran for what seemed like (and may well have been) miles, not knowing what lay in front and not caring as long as it got them far away from what was behind. Their mad dash through the cut led Haldron and what remained of his squad to the entrance to one of the ancient mining tunnels that ran beneath the station that was almost the scene of their brutal end.
The guardians used the confusing nature of the tunnels to their advantage, turning corners and slipping through openings to throw off their pursuers. The screams of the Trassani bounced off the walls and pierced Haldron’s eardrums. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d ran so fast. He was nowhere near as robust as he once was. Every step could have been his last. He wouldn’t allow the others to help him, even if they they wanted to. After everything he’d put them through, allowing himself to be ripped apart by bloodthirsty beasts so they could escape was the least he could do.
The echoes grew quieter, then vanished. It seemed they’d given them the slip. They came across a big circular door like the ones in the mines at Chintell, open just wide enough to squeeze through. Beyond was a cavern that reminded Haldron of where he first encountered the artefact. That seemed so long ago now. The only thing missing was the calming lake at the bottom. Here, there was only rock and metal.
Finally, they could rest. Haldron let himself fall to his hands and knees. He wasn’t built for this kind of thing, not anymore. Maybe Tolov was right. The life of a guardian was a young man’s game, and he’d long since stopped considering himself young.
Erdam plopped himself down with his back to the wall. “That was insane”.
“I don’t think… I’ve seen… the Trassani do anything like that before”, Benellen wheezed. “What kind of creature could do that to a person”?
“Fucking savages that’s what. Monsters that deserve to fucking die. Every last one of them”.
“Well Haldron certainly saw to that. That’s something at least”.
“None of this would’ve happened if it weren’t for him”. Erdam glared at his commander. “You led us right into that”.
Haldron took a long breath. “They had Torben. What were we supposed do? Just leave him behind to be butchered”?
“Something better than walking us into a fucking trap. Not that it matters now. Torben’s dead, and Kallem, and Cravvik, and Rohablt, and Rowtenat. He was right about you. You have lost it. Hearing voices, getting half of us killed, and now you’ve got us trapped in an old fucking mine shaft with the Trassani on our asses. You’ve fucked us all. You’re not even gonna say anything, are you”?
Haldron pulled himself to kneeling, and said the only thing he could think of. “I’m sorry”.
“That’s all you’ve got? Nothing else”?
“Everything I did was for the good of our kind”.
“That’s a lie and you know it! You did this for nobody but yourself. You didn’t lead us out here for some fucking artefact. You did it for Searyuhb. He killed your wife and kids and then that thing came along and you saw your chance to get even”.
The mention of his family made Haldron’s blood boil. He was about to go for Erdam, but then Benellen stepped in. “That’s not important right now. We need to find a way out of this mess”.
“There is no way out. We’re fucked. We’re stuck down some ancient mine with just our flashlights to see and the tunnels are gonna be crawling with savages. What the fuck are we supposed to do”?
“We need to go back”, Haldron said.
“We need to go back. To the station”.
“Are you fucking kidding me? We just got out of that hellhole by the skin of our nuts and you want to go back? It’s gonna be full of Trassani out for our blood”.
“Didn’t you see all those tents back there? How many there were? If I had to bet where Searyuhb’s main camp is, that’s where I’d put my money. That means that’s probably where the artefact is. We need to find it”.
“No. Going back there now is suicide. Who gives a fuck what that thing is? Let the Trassani keep it. We need to find our way home”.
Haldron’s patience was approaching its limit, again. “We can’t do that! You didn’t see that thing. I did. You don’t know its power. If the Trassani work out how to use it, who knows what they could unleash upon us? And just imagine what could happen if the Imperium get their hands on it. We can’t let that happen. If we do then, Torben, Kallem, Cravvik, Rohbalt, and Rowtenat all died for nothing”.
Erdam looked to Benellen. “Do you believe a word of this shit”? Benellen didn’t answer, only looking between the two. Despite the silence, it wasn’t hard to tell which way he was leaning. “You can’t be serious”.
“Haldron’s right. I saw that thing too. I felt its power. We can’t leave it here with the Trassani, and we can’t let the Imperium find it either”.
“This is insane. We stand no chance. We’ve lost over half the squad, we’ve got no supplies, no armour, no transport, barely any weapons and ammo. We’re fucked”.
“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. If we take our time to plan this properly, we might just have a chance”.
“Yeah, might, and it’s a great big fucking might. Even if we do find that thing, how are we supposed to get it out of here and back home”?
Haldron had the answer. “They’ve got a rover near where they were . . . holding the executions. They must have took it from another squad, maybe the one we found before. If it can still run, we can use it to get the artefact out of there and get us home”.
“And if it won’t run”?
“Then we’ll figure something else out”.
Erdam didn’t look convinced in the slightest. “And what about weapons and ammo? You think Searyuhb’s just gonna let us walk on in and take back his prized fucking block without a fight”?
“There was plenty of weapons, armour, and ammunition in that stash by the rover. I saws of tons of stuff lying around for the taking”.
“Not to mention, it looked like you took most of Searyuhb’s band out of commission with that gun. Even if they didn’t all die, most of them will probably be too badly injured to fight. If we can get some weapons and ammo and a good position, we could easily mop up the stragglers”.
“We also need to collect the guys’ marks . . . and we need to find out if Searyuhb is still alive”.
Erdam scoffed. “Of course. The true reason for this insanity”.
“He was in the crowd when I shot them down but I didn’t see if I hit him. He might be dead or he may still live. Either way, we need to find out which. If he’s dead then we can cross him off the list when we get home and, if not, then we’ll finish this once and for all. We’ve all got a score to settle with him now”.
Haldron and Benellen waited quietly for their comrade’s decision. Erdam sighed, then nodded. “Great, three against who knows how many”.
The first thing was to find out how much ammo they had. With only the beams from the ends of their rifles for light, they removed the magazines and emptied out their contents. It came to seventeen rounds in all: six to Haldron, five to Benellen, and another six to Erdam who also had a pistol with seven rounds he’d lifted from one of their captors. Benellen also managed to snag a combat knife. It wasn’t much, but better than nothing.
It was time to make their move. They extinguished their lights before slipping back into the tunnel. Searyuhb’s men were surely still searching for them, and they couldn’t risk giving away their presence, which left no choice but to move in total darkness. Even then, their hunters had the advantage. Almost two thousand years of living underground had sharpened the Trassani’s senses to razor points, though thankfully they were about as bright as their surroundings, with a habit of betraying their presence with incessant chattering. That evened the playing field a little.
They headed back the way they came. Haldron went first, followed by Benellen. Erdam kept an eye on the rear, or did as good a job as possible. Navigating the old tunnels with their only their flashlights was no small feat. Doing it with nothing was practically nightmarish. Haldron had done his best to memorize which turns they’d taken during their blind rush and had a fairly good idea of where they were going, or so he hoped. They stopped at a junction and trained their ears on the void. The Trassani were seldom careful about remaining undetected. They heard nothing and Haldron stepped into the abyss. No one tried to take his head off so he guessed they were good.
They kept on but encountered no one. Haldron was surprised. He’d expected to have crossed paths with some of Searyuhb’s people by now. Perhaps their leader had recalled them, if he still lived. But then a sound floated from the dark, and Haldron realized he’d spoken too soon.
Click, click, click . . .
Haldron recognized the sound, and crept forward, confident of its origin. It repeated, click, click, click . . . louder with every instance. Click, click, click . . . Haldron listened carefully, and heard something else: The impact of a boot on rock. The tapping of the stone followed as it came skipping toward him, click click click, then footsteps.
Benellen handed over his blade and Haldron got ready. They were at another junction; the sound came from the tunnel adjacent. There was only one; they would have been chatting away if there wasn’t. It couldn’t be a guardian either. No guardian was dumb enough to give themselves away so blatantly. Every footstep was a shock to Haldron’s heart. The louder they got the faster his pulse raced. He lunged around the corner and stabbed the dark. The tip met something soft and squidgy, and passed straight through. A pained gasp rose as warm liquid poured from the point of contact. Haldron almost felt like butcher slicing his meat as he dragged the knife towards himself. There was another groan, and then a thud. He found the spot where the savage lay and plunged the blade into the base of its skull. Then there was silence.
“Well that’s one less to deal with”, Erdam whispered.
They searched the body, no small task when you can’t see your own hand in front of your face. The savage had a rifle, Guardian-issue. Haldron knew his way around them so well even in pitch darkness he had no trouble removing the magazine and stashing it in his belt. The kill provided a much-needed boost to his confidence. They might actually pull this off. He wracked his brain to remember which way they’d come. There’d be more than a few times where they took a turn, then wondered if he’d made the right decision. He just as easily could be leading them further in as out.
Haldron? We’re here. Don’t leave. Stay with us.
Haldron shuddered but said nothing. He needed to stay focused. No, Everress, I can’t. You’re not even here.
I am here, Haldron. We all are. Come to us. We can all be together again.
Haldron ignored the voice in his head. That’s all it was, just a voice. He couldn’t have that, not now. His feelings had already done enough damage.
They reached another point where the tunnel split. From the left they heard nothing, from the right, whispering. They seemed a little way off, and it was the left that Haldron’s gut told him they needed to go.
Please don’t leave us, Haldron. We love you.
He wanted to scream. Tears started welling again. He’d always loved the sound of her voice, but how he wished she would stop. Relief radiated within him when he spied the glow at the end. It was faint, the flame of a candle in the night’s sky, but it was there. They’d almost made it. Haldron hoped reaching the light would quieten Everress. The dark seemed to make her more active from what he could tell.
Why are you leaving us, Haldron? Don’t you love us anymore?
Haldron discerned a dark form bisecting the light, human in shape, with the barrel of a rifle protruding from its side. It hadn’t spotted them. It would have opened fire if it had. He crept closer with Benellen’s knife clutched tight. The creature didn’t move a muscle despite him not being particularly stealthy. This one must be hard of hearing. Haldron took a moment before pouncing, one hand over the mouth as the other drew the blade across the throat. This one put up more of a struggle, flailing and thrashing as the fluids spilled out of him. Finally, he fell limp and Haldron let him go before relieving him of his weapons. They left the savage where he lay. The Trassani didn’t treat the dead with any dignity, so why should they?
They stepped through the portal, and the veil of dark was lifted. They kept their rifles raised and fingers on the triggers, ready to drop any savages that might be lying in wait, though they needn’t have bothered. The area seemed all but deserted. Haldron was no less cautious. It was too quiet, just like the first time they arrived. He led them back through the cut, eyes and ears peeled for signs of impending ambush. No faces peered out from over the edge, and no screeches punctured the dead silence. They stopped at the end to collect themselves before stepping into the open. A grisly sight awaited them, and they could also be about to walk into another hail of fire. Haldron went first again, surveying the gantries and windows for snipers, or any other sign of life. He saw no one, and the fact his brain was still inside his skull suggested they were indeed alone. They wouldn’t take chances with tricks this time. Perhaps whatever was left of Searyuhb’s band were busy scouring the tunnels for them. Haldron then turned his attention to his handiwork. The moaning sea was now silent, piled on top of each other so densely they obscured the ground. Only when he got near did he realize the extent of his destruction: skin and clothes stained red, limbs missing their owners, whole bodies practically obliterated.
As he stared at the mess of torn flesh and viscera, Haldron recalled what Benellen said earlier. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Trassani do anything like that. He didn’t think he’d ever do anything like this either. There weren’t just men here, but women and children too. The children lay beneath the adults, like they were trying to shield them from the barrage, just as Everress had. They probably felt the same as they did during their final moments. Even after everything they’d done to his friends, family, and people, Haldron couldn’t help but wonder if he’d gone too far. Putting down the band’s fighters was one thing, but most the people laying before him had been anything but.
He pushed the thought from his head as he waded in in search of their leader, a task he hadn’t been looking forward to in the least. It would take ages to sift through them all. Then Haldron spotted something that almost overwhelmed him, with both grief and guilt. They congregated around the patch of rock painted with the blood of their friends, too saddened to bother keeping watch for enemies. Rowtenat was staring at the ceiling, now sporting a big red smile across his throat, pistol still clutched in one hand. As he stared into his lifeless eyes, Haldron fought to keep the tears from leaking from his own.
“He was one of the best”, said Benellen. “Fearless, uncompromising”.
“He saved our lives”, Haldron added. “We wouldn’t be alive if not for him”. We’d all be alive if I’d listened to you.
“One of the toughest guys I ever served with”, Erdam muttered. “And one of the best friends I ever had”.
They stood in quiet vigil a few moments longer, then Haldron knelt down. With the knife still red with Trassani blood, he sliced through the material at his comrade’s breast and retrieved the symbol to be added to the Wall of Remembrance. “Leave him where he lies for now. If we can get that rover running we’ll take him and the others with us. If not, we’ll let the guys back home know where they can find them”. Nobody protested that. Haldron looked to the cache of weapons that seemed to have not been touched since their last visit. “If you need weapons and ammo, now is the time to get it”.
They headed to the disarray of weapons strewn about like rubbish. Haldron guessed Searyuhb and his people had no idea what they were dealing with with half of it. Now that they weren’t forced to fight for their lives, the squad only realized the sheer volume of Guardian-issue ordnance Searyuhb had amassed. There was easily enough to outfit a hundred squads let alone the remnants of one. Haldron recalled reports of raiders under Searyuhb’s banner launching brazen attacks on City Defence Force stockpiles and making off with boatloads of assets. Apparently this was where it all ended up, just left in the open. They wasted no time replenishing their ammunition. Erdam took up a shotgun to go with his rifle and Haldron and Benellen took a pistol each along with some grenades. It didn’t improve their odds all that much but at least they’d be able to take down as many Trassani as possible before they met their ends.
They were about to enter the facility to face whatever lay within when, once again, gunfire echoed throughout the cavern. Haldron’s heart skipped a beat as he and his comrades ducked behind the crates. They focused on the shots, waiting for gaps before returning fire, but none came. It was just one great unending deluge. The longer they listening the less it seemed that they were the intended targets. The shots persisted but none seemed to land anywhere near them. Haldron listened closer, and realized they were coming from further away, the other side of the station by the sound of it. Then came another sound to accompany the familiar cracking of stolen guardian gear, a fast, high-pitched whistle that seemed to answer their shots.
“What is that”? Benellen whispered.
“It’s the Imperium”, Haldron replied. He’d recognize the sound of plasma-based weapons anywhere. The Guardians didn’t use them, and the Trassani certainly didn’t have access to any. They must have finally caught up with them.
“We don’t stand a chance against Imperial soldiers”, Erdam grumbled.
“What do you want to do, Haldron”?
“Everyone sit tight for now. Let’s just see what happens”.
The sounds of battle raged for some time. Despite not being able to see anything from their hiding spot, Haldron was able to discern a few important details. Based on the almost unrelenting whistling of the Imperial guns and the comparatively thin cracking of the Trassani’s weapons, it seemed Searyuhb’s forces were massively outnumbered, and losing people fast. The sounds were getting louder, slowly but surely. That meant they were being pushed back to the other side of the facility, towards them. Haldron was surprised they’d kept up the fight this long. The Trassani usually had no qualms about retreating from any force that remotely exceeded their own. This had to be their main camp. They wouldn’t have stood their ground this long otherwise. The guardians remained camped behind the crates, listening and trying to figure out what to do now. The arrival of the Imperium was fortuitous in clearing out the remaining Trassani, even if it would likely rob Haldron of his chance at vengeance, but if they found the artefact it was game over. The three of them against Searyuhb’s people was bordering on impossible, but taking on the Imperium was unthinkable.
Haldron peeked between the crates and saw the first movement since they arrived. He watched through the gap as several Trassani came rushing from the facility toward the sea of bodies. They never looked back; some tripped and fell only to jump back to their feet and keep going. They were running from something. It wasn’t hard to guess what. More figures appeared at the edge of the station. These definitely weren’t Trassani, armour almost bright orange in the glow of the cavern lights. They took aim at the fleeing raiders and fired, the bolts of molten Spiritum like lightning from the ends of their barrels, cutting down their targets. The fighting inside continued but the gunfire had become a lot more disparate. They would have been finishing off the remnants by this point. The soldiers strolled almost casually to the bottom of the bank, Haldron watching as they inspected their kills before moving onto the piles of corpses nearby. They chatted to each other but he couldn’t make out much of what was said.
The guns inside the station went quiet. The fighting seemed to have come to an end. More soldiers emerged from the facility, a few at first but then what looked to be an entire company. They grouped around the mess of bodies and limbs, surveying the gruesome sight with cold effect. Another figure then appeared, quite unlike any that came before. They were tall and slender and dressed in blazing red armour that, when combined with the orange of the lights, made it seem like they were coated in flames. Haldron didn’t need to be close to recognize a Praetorian. Another appeared after the first, and they were joined by two more figures, one clothed in red and the other in yellow. The High Inquisitor’s skin was so pale the light almost turned her face bright orange.
One of the soldiers met them at the bottom of the bank. “There is no sign of the artefact, Madam Inquisitor, nor the leader of this band”. Searyuhb; he must have survived after all.
“You are quite sure? You have searched everywhere”?
“Yes, Madam Inquistor. It seems some of this band left the facility not long before we arrived, likely taking the artefact with them”. That’s strange. This is Searyuhb’s main camp. Where else could he go? Unless…
The High Inquisitor hissed. “Do you have their trail”?
“We have men searching at this very moment, Madam Inquisitor. It will not be long before we find them”.
She then turned her attention to the dead mass. “And who is responsible for this”?
“We do not know, Madam Inquisitor. Possibly this is the work of the guardians who set out before us”.
“Not just possibly”, said the other woman, looking down upon Rowtenat’s body. “This one came from Chintell”.
The High Inquisitor joined her. “His mark has been removed. Some of them must be alive still. It could not have been long since they were here. They must still be nearby”.
“This looks recent”, said her companion in regard to the devastation. “Likely within the past couple hours”.
“They could not have gotten far in that time. We must find them at once”.
The crowd grew as even more soldiers came from the station, and it quickly went from looking like a single company to a whole legion. One approached the High Inquisitor, with an urgency that suggested he had something important to report. “Madam Inquisitor, we have discovered some Ebol corpses inside the facility, badly mutilated, but they look to be the guardians from Chintell”.
“How many did you find”?
“There were three, Madam Inquisitor”.
“Three inside”, said the woman in yellow. “The one we found at the tunnel collapse, and now this one here. That means three still live”.
“They must have escaped whatever happened here. We must find them. Search everywhere again. They may still be nearby”. The High Inquisitor turned to the soldier who seemed to be leading the company. “We must catch up with the savages as quickly as possible. We will return to the vehicles and give chase. They will not escape us again. Kill the guardians when you find them, as well as any other savages that may be hiding also”.
“As you command, Madam Inquisitor”.
The Hiqh Inquisitor and her companions went striding back up the hill before disappearing. “Spread out”! the soldier barked to his men. “Search everywhere. If you find the guardians, kill them immediately”.
The soldiers did as they were told, fanning out in all directions, including toward the crates their prey hid behind.
“What do we do”? Benellen whispered.
“Back up”. Haldron led them deeper into the chaos of crates and boxes, keeping low so as not to be spotted by their metal hunters. It was no good. They’d be found soon enough. They needed something better.
“We need to get the fuck out of here”.
“We can’t sneak past that many soldiers. We need to find somewhere we can wait it out.
Haldron got an idea. “The rover, the engine shaft. If we move now we can make it”.
Nobody was coming up with anything better, so it was agreed. They made a break for the vehicle, not bothering to look back before ducking behind one of the wheels of the mechanical behemoth and dragging themselves up into the central shaft where the engine sat. It was a tight fit but better than nothing. There they waited in silence, listening to the thumping of the heavy feet as they passed by again and again in their fruitless search.
“Just what the fuck are we supposed to do now”? Erdam asked.
“Searyuhb is still alive and he still has the artefact. So you have your answer”.
“And where do you suppose we start looking for him? He could be anywhere right now”.
Haldron nodded. “Probably, but I think I know where he’s going to be, and if we move fast we might just get there before the Imperium”.
The others stared, mystified. “Where”? Benellen asked.
“Elsheim. We need to go to Elsheim”.