The battle was over.
The sun kissed the horizon, sending out rays of pinkish light as it sank below the low hills of Doma. Where that light struck the brooding clouds above, it turned them the bright, reddish color of fresh blood, mirroring the state of the ground below. In only minutes, the gentle folds of nights robe would conceal the gruesome results of the days battle, but for now they were all too grimly highlighted.
In the waning light, the great bulk of stone that was Doma Castle brooded over a rutted meadow full of shattered forms, both human and mechanical. They lay where they had fallen, friend and enemy alike entwined in the embrace of death. Carrion birds flocked over the remains of dead samurai, cawing loudly as they picked at the tender flesh beneath broken armor. Disabled Magitek wreckage and strewn katanas gleamed dully. The gutted Gigas suit dominated the scene, reduced as it was now to little more than scrap. The hellish landscape gave the impression of a surreal painting; fine art in the form of ravaged bodies, elegance in Death.
Locke Cole gave a sigh as he brought the telescope away from his eye and sat down heavily in the forest undergrowth. The Doman and Returner forces had obviously had a rough time of it today, but at least they still held the castle. How, he didnt know, but hopefully they could continue to do so for at least a little longer. Long enough for the Returners and the troops of Figaro to reinforce their positions and drive the Empire off of the Northern Continent.
Edgar Figaro was officially an ally of the Empire, but he drew the line at allowing the Imperial Army to rampage across the continent unchecked. He would have already committed forces here but for bureaucratic entanglements with a number of local nobles who perhaps saw the Imperials as their ticket to seizing more power. Jockeying for position with the difficult nobles forced Edgar to keep his support of the resistance discreet. As it was, the Returners would have to suffice, backed as they were by Figarian weaponry.
Locke heard the whistle of a bluefinch from behind him and turned sharply, instinctively, scooping his weapon into his hands as he did so.
I told you not to surprise me like that, Duane, Locke said with irritation as he found himself faced with the young Returner scout. I couldve taken your head off. He gestured to the bulky autocrossbow he was holding meaningfully.
Dont you remember the signal we worked out at Headquarters? The young Moblizian asked as he tousled his brown hair, apparently not fazed at all by the realization that he had almost perished. When a scout is returning to the observation post, he gives the call of the b-
I remember, Duane. But I think the point of having a signal was so the observation post could know you were coming before you got close enough for them to riddle you with arrows. Locke paused for a second, setting his weapon aside and twirling the telescope idly in his gloved hands. So, whats the word from Doma Castle?
Got the surveillance report we needed," Duane said, handing a roll of parchment to Locke. "Got a bit of news on the battle, too. They managed to hold their own against the Magitek advance until the armor got close enough to start hitting the castle walls. Tore up things pretty bad, by the look of it. They might have been finished if one of the samurai hadnt thought to haul the cannon upright and take a shot at General Leo. It was the last round, too, but the shot hit Leos armor head on and sent it flying a good hundred yards. That was enough to break the charge completely and send the Imperials scurrying to save him.
Leo? Locke asked incredulously. The man was something of a legend, one of the most admired Imperials in the world, if not the most. The fact that his peril could halt an entire Imperial advance was a testament to his leadership ability and the faith his troops had in him. Edgar had voiced the idea to Locke that maybe Leo could be trusted. Well, as far as any Imperial could be. Is he...?
Duane shrugged. Nobody knows. The Imperials had to cut his suit open to get him out, and the sentries on the wall couldnt tell much. They just saw them taking the body back to the Imperial Camp, but they dont know if hes still alive, or even if he was then.
Locke nodded absently, absorbing the information. The Domans were lucky that Leos injury managed to stop the advance today, but the Imperials will be back in force tomorrow. For tonight, though... theyll be off guard. He stood up, stretching his cramped muscles and tucking the parchment into his back pocket.
Then that means...?
Yeah. Wed better get back to the others. Weve got a camp to raid.
The figure moved through the night so stealthily that he seemed a part of the dark landscape, a transitory blur in a murky world. His passage through the scrub of the Doma Hills stirred the foliage no more than a passing breeze. He was a part of the darkness given motion. A living shadow.
Already, he could see the outer sentry lines of the Imperial Camp, sloppy and ragged in their construction. Of course, he hadnt been expecting much from Imperial troops, but he had heard General Leos division was one of the best. Apparently, he'd heard wrong.
They had so much confidence in their toys, their frivolous weapons of war. They never considered that there might be some things that those clanking metal monstrosities couldn't do, some things that they weren't suited for. There were cases when subtlety was needed, when a dagger in the dark was much more effective than a squadron of M-Tek suits could ever be. This was one of those times.
Slipping through the concentric rings of sentry lines was little more than child's play. None of the sentries even looked his way. He supposed he could have simply walked into the camp, but there was no fun in that. He wanted these Imperials to be overawed at his presence, and dropping in on them unannounced was one way to ensure that. The more he put fear into their hearts, the more he demonstrated just how deadly and uncompromising he could be, the better.
After all, it was what they had hired him for.
He was among the tents now, moving from one patch of shadow to the next and avoiding the circles of light thrown out by the cookfires. This was way too easy. The entire camp seemed lethargic, inattentive. In the condition these troops were in, they might look right at him and not even notice. They spoke in quiet, hushed murmurs and stared blankly into the fires. A few seemed to be drinking heavily.
Familiarity with the structure of such encampments allowed him to make his way smoothly towards the Command Tent. As much as he hated following this senseless Imperial protocol, reporting in was necessary in order to make certain that he got his payment.
He worked his way around to the rear of the Command Tent, avoiding the notice of the Imperial Guards in front. Pressing his back against the stained canvas, he smoothly slid one of his daggers from a belt sheath. He whirled, inserting the tip of the blade into the wall and slashing downward in one smooth motion. The canvas obligingly parted, swinging apart in a sudden night breeze, and he slid thorough the gap
I can still make one hell of an entrance, Baram... he thought as he calmly stepped within. Panicked shouts were already sounding throughout the room.
"Oh Goddesses, it's him!"
"So, we're striking tonight?" the man asked, his face haggard in the flickering firelight. The clipped Narshe accent in his voice, normally hidden, was clear now in his state of fatigue.
Locke nodded, adjusting his bandanna with one hand. "I know we're all tired from the journey, but the Imperials will be off guard for now. It's too good an opportunity to pass up." There were a number of nods and grunts of assent from the group of men that sat around the small fire.
"Just show us the way to the party," said the youngest of the group, who probably didn't even shave yet. He patted a satchel on the ground beside him affectionately. "We'll provide the fireworks."
Locke's mouth curled up in a lopsided grin. "I don't doubt that."
The dark-clad Returners before him had the pale skin and stocky frames that marked them as being of Narshe descent. They were hard men, former mine workers turned resistance fighters, using those skills they had mastered in their former work to deadly effect. Though they numbered only twenty, they were a force to be reckoned with, simultaneously the most respected and the most feared Returner unit in existence.
They were the Sappers, and they wore the bloody reputation of destroyed Imperial strongholds about them like a Jidoorian noble might wear fine garments; with a certain amount of pride, but also with a large degree of routine. As they had been before their recruitment, they were just men doing their job. Only now, it was not rock that they were shattering with their explosive charges, but people.
"Here's the surveillance report from Doma Castle," Locke said, handing the roll of parchment Duane had obtained to Kwanda, the leader of the Sappers. "The believed positions of the supply tents are circled in blue, the ammo stocks in red."
The other nodded slowly as he studied the layout of the Imperial camp. He ran a hand over his graying beard and whispered something to himself before passing the map onto the next man. The sheet made its way from one sapper to the next, each of them committing the position of the tents to memory. It did not appear to be a particularly hard task; extensive experience at raiding the Empire must surely have given them some general knowledge of how such camps were organized.
As the last sapper finished with the parchment, he handed it to Duane, who in turn handed it back to Locke.
"Nothing we haven't seen before," Kwanda said with a grunt. "We're ready to move out whenever you are, Cole." He started to stand up, but Locke stopped him with a wave of his hand.
"Not yet, Kwanda. I need to go over my own part of this operation one more time first."
Giving them one last nod, Locke walked over to the edge of the firelight where his chocobo was tethered against a tree. He absently patted the bird's head with one hand as he rummaged in his saddlebags with the other, receiving a muted wark in reply. It took several seconds of sifting through the refuse that one always accumulated while traveling - half-empty tonic bottles, packets of greens, torn clothing - to find the roll of parchment he had been seeking. He walked back towards the fire with it, calling an order to Duane over his shoulder.
"Since you're going to be here watching the chocos, you might as well feed them. They're bound to be hungry and overworked by now." That was an understatement; the birds had been running all day in order to get the sappers to Doma in time to have some influence on the battle. "Go ahead and give 'em their feedbags while we're gone. When we have to run, we'll be glad they have some greens in them."
Duane started grumbling something about feedbags, but Locke tuned him out as he took a seat on a log near the fire. Better the kid hang around here and be bored than get underfoot and get killed. A long time ago, Locke had vowed to himself that he wouldn't let any more innocents die because of his actions. Not... after her...
Shoving the past back into the dark recesses only plumbed by dreams, Locke unrolled the sheet and studied it. It was a complex drawing of a number of levers, buttons, and dials, some with arrows pointing to them with instructions written alongside: FWD, MOTOR CONTROL, COMM., WEAP.?. He had already read over them so often that he had them committed to memory. He just wished that the majority of the controls diagrammed on the sheet had more than a row of question marks beside them. Then again, he couldn't even trust those that were marked with any degree of certainty; they were just assumptions made from mock-ups.
What had Edgar gotten him into this time?
He remembered the last time he had seen the man, the day that the sappers were preparing to depart for Doma in order to sabotage the Imperial advance. The king had drawn him aside, shoved the parchment that he was looking at now under his nose, and uttered the words which Locke would come to dread in the following days:
"So, Locke.... how would you like to treasure hunt a Magitek Suit?"
"I believe my services were requested," Shadow said shortly, his eyes flickering rapidly across the tent, taking his environment in.
A large cot dominated the center, surrounded by figures in bloodstained whites and various tables full of metal instruments. These doctors had stopped their work when he had slipped in, some of them dropping their tools in shock. On the other side of the room were a pair whose uniforms marked them as high ranking Imperials - it was they who had cried out. And there, on the cot, only his grimacing face visible above a white sheet...
"General Leo seems... indisposed," Shadow observed. Then he focused his iron gaze on the two men. "Perhaps we can discuss my fee."
"What?" one of the men began, his walrus-like mustache twitching in annoyance. "There is no way General Leo would approve of the use of a vile assassin such as yourself! It goes against every rule of honor that decent soldiers stand for! Now remove yourself-"
"That's enough, Dorath," the other said in a low, but forceful voice. "Let's take this business outside so the doctors can concentrate." Dorath began sputtering, but before he could say anything his companion was already at the tent's entrance, gesturing with one hand for them to follow.
The two Imperials led Shadow through the flaps of the tent, past a quartet of surprised guards, and out into the night, stopping every few seconds to look nervously over their shoulders at the dark figure trailing behind. Perhaps they were not so foolish as he had first thought. At least they knew to fear him.
"I can't believe you're actually considering paying this assassin, Romald," Dorath huffed as they made their way to a secluded corner of the camp. "The very idea of entertaining such notions is-"
"Here," Romald said, tossing a bag to Shadow. "That's six thousand gold pieces. You'll get the rest after you're done. We do have an agreement? Thirty thousand GP for the King of Doma's head?"
Shadow hefted the bag, testing its weight, then nodded.
"What is this shady arrangement?" Dorath said again. "General Leo wouldn't approve! He doesn't even know about this!"
"I could cut out his tongue for you," the ninja offered darkly. "No charge."
"These orders came directly from Kefka, Dorath," Romald said, ignoring Shadow's comment. "Leo wouldn't go along with the plan, so the plan's going along without him."
"How can you agree to this? Don't you have any sense of honor?"
"Don't you have any sense of realism?" Romald countered. "Look at what happened to Leo today if you want to see what honor gets you. We're at war. There are no rules. The King has no successor. We kill him, Doma goes into confusion, we sweep up the pieces. Simple as that."
The other started to say something, but Shadow couldn't make it out. He was already moving away, melting into night.
Shadow laughed shortly, scornfully. These Imperials couldn't even agree with each other. He might have been skeptical about their success if he wasn't on their side.
Creeping once more through the valleys of darkness between the fires, he made his way rapidly out of the camp and toward the forest beyond. Though it would be a longer and more difficult journey to the castle through the trees, even the sparse fall foliage would serve to hide his progress from sentries on the walls.
They wouldn't even know he was coming until he was within their defenses. They wouldn't even know he was there until his dagger went into their backs. He would be successful. He knew that with the sort of cold knowledge that only a man like him, a man who had smothered the last of his emotion beneath the icy weight of duty, could have.
These samurai were skilled men, some of them perhaps as good at killing as he was. But they would never, could never, be more efficient. They faced the handicap inherent in honor.
As he eased through the first rank of trees, Shadow whistled softly. There was a vague crackling sound, as if something were making noise on the very edge of sense perception. Then, the ferns before him parted and a low, dark shape leapt out. It landed only a few feet away from him, its deadly, angular shape almost invisible in the sparse light.
"Interceptor," the ninja said, reaching forward to scratch the dog behind its ears. "Wait here for my signal." Interceptor woofed shortly in response.
Shadow turned to look at the distant fires of the Imperial Camp one last time. From here, he could make out the square, bulky tent that housed the Imperial Magitek armor and the ring of sentries surrounding it. Fools and their toys. Let them stay there, let them guard their meaningless machines.
He had work to do.
He had work to do.
Locke Cole licked his lips nervously as he crawled through the grasses of the meadow. His belly touched the cool earth as he shimmied his way forward, careful to stay below the sentries' lines of sight. He breathed the dirt, he tasted the dirt, he tried his hardest to become the dirt. He couldn't be seen. If he was spotted, there were more than enough Imperials to tear him to pieces before he could slip away.
The sappers were waiting even farther back, ready to move forward and attack when he gave the signal. First, though, it was essential for him to get within the Imperial camp. It wouldn't do any good to make a break for the suits only to find the pilots already inside and waiting to burn him down.
It would be easier to move without the heavy suit of M-Tek pilot armor he was wearing, but the outfit would be essential to his remaining unnoticed. Hopefully, he could give the outer sentries the slip and then simply walk into the camp, make his way towards the Magitek Armor suits, and grab one.
Oh yes, no problem there. Piece of cake. Easy as pie. Only in this case, said pastries were currently located within a fortified camp of approximately three thousand Imperial troops, in a tent under ceaseless watch, and more likely than not were just going to blow up in his face once he did find them.
Yes, he would get even with Edgar for this. Most definitely. Of course, first, he had to live through it.
Locke kept moving.
There were sentries off to both his right and left twenty feet in either direction now. He had to be as silent as possible, stay as low as possible, move as fast as possible. The key was just to not draw attention.
"What was that?" a voice from his right, followed by footsteps. Approaching footsteps.
Damn it! They must have spotted the grass moving, he hadn't made a sound!
Locke froze, his eyes darting back and forth rapidly. His muscles tensed and sweat leapt onto his brow as his hand crept towards the dirk that was buckled at his side. If he was going to survive, he wouldn't be able to afford any mistakes. He hoped that the sentry would miss him, but if he was found, he was prepared to go down fighting.
The sentry's footsteps were louder now. He was getting closer. Stinging sweat dripped into Locke's eyes, but he couldn't move to brush it away. He held his breath, and the entire world seemed to grow horribly loud. Crickets screamed shrilly. The night wind roared in his ears. Grass rustled like old parchment. And the pounding footsteps sounded like the war drums of the goddesses.
The stalks of grass directly in front of his face separated, and Locke found his face less than six inches from a pair of black boots. Raising his eyes revealed a standard Imperial trooper, armed with a shortsword and an autocrossbow. An autocrossbow that was primed to fire.
Even as he heard the sentry's gasp of surprise, he was already moving. He sprang up, his right arm blurring into motion. The blade of the dirk shone briefly in the distant light of the campfires before it lodged itself in the chest of the Imperial with a wet, messy sound. Locke quickly twisted the blade and tore it free in a spray of crimson, his motions brutal, lethal efficiency.
The brown-clad man stumbled back, wheezing, but Locke's stab had been true; the trooper had taken a fatal blow to the heart. He was already dead, he just didn't know it yet.
There was a shout of alarm from Locke's left, and already the treasure hunter could pick up the motions of the other sentry in his peripheral vision. The man was bringing his weapon to bear on Locke with surprising speed.
With inventiveness born of desperation, Locke bulled into the mortally wounded trooper in front of him, wrapping an arm around the man's neck. With a grunt of exertion, he twisted the body until it was pressed against his torso, a flesh and blood barrier between him and the other Imperial.
There was the chock-chock-chock of autocrossbow fire, and a trio of bolts buried themselves in the hapless human shield. Locke staggered back a few steps from the sheer impact, feeling warm blood spill across him. For one heart-stopping instant he thought it was his own, but fortunately none of the bolts had penetrated.
Fortunately for me, anyway, Locke thought, disgust crawling through his stomach and threatening to make him retch. The guy in front of me probably doesn't feel the same.
The sentry who had fired was running forward, reloading as he came ever closer. Locke's free hand darted down, tearing the autocrossbow free of the dead guard's loosening grip. He leveled the weapon towards the other sentry just as the man finished reloading and prepared to fire again.
Chock-chock! The weapon shuddered in Locke's hands as it launched its armor piercing bolts.
Two seconds later, the Imperial was falling, a pair of quarrels adorning his chest. He hit the ground, rolled over once, and lay still. Grimacing in revulsion, Locke released the other corpse and shoved it away from him. It slumped to the earth like so much uncooked dough. For a moment, looking at the body sprawled lifelessly on the dirt, Locke was reminded of another corpse, a long time ago....
Not now! he berated himself, breaking into a run. Perhaps he could get into the camp before anyone noticed that he was the one who had done the two sentries in. The sappers had to have heard the autocrossbow fire, and he had given them orders to move in at the first sign of any fighting. If they moved fast enough, hit hard enough, maybe he could work his way to the Magitek Armor in the confusion.
And maybe the goddesses would appear with a golden chariot to carry him there. Still, he had to try.
He had only reached the first of the tents when the explosions started.
At the first sound of autocrossbow fire, the sappers had burst from their place of concealment south of the Imperial camp and begun their charge. They moved forward at a reckless pace, each with at least two satchels draped over each shoulder.
"Frag! One burst each!" Kwanda bellowed from his position in the center of the advancing pack, his ruddy face streaked with sweat.
With reflexes honed through countless hours of work and combat, Kwanda shrugged one of the satchels off his right shoulder and caught the strap in his hand before it could hit the ground. Still running forward, he swung the satchel up in front of him, giving it a sharp, precise punch with his free hand before hefting it over his head and spinning it around rapidly. The other sappers mirrored his movements.
The Imperials were waiting for them. About two dozen sentries had formed up in loose fighting formation directly ahead of the charging Returners, with scattered others moving in from all directions. Quarrels began whistling through the night as the troopers opened up with their autocrossbows.
"Now!" Kwanda yelled, bringing the satchel around and down, hurling it underhanded at the formation before them. "Down!"
The sappers dropped to the earth as their satchel charges hit near the Imperials, exploding on impact and hurling out hundreds of pieces of scrap metal in all directions. The Imperials screamed as the shrapnel tore into their bodies, shredding flesh like it was tissue paper. They fell, some still thrashing, most utterly still.
As soon as the explosions had died down, Kwanda struggled to his feet, drawing the autocrossbow from the holster at his side. He didn't have to order his men to do likewise. They had been on enough ops to know.
They advanced as one, firing their autocrossbows rapidly to suppress any sentries that might have lived through the fragmentation barrage. As he hosed down a pair of stragglers with his weapon, Kwanda wondered briefly just where along the line he had become so good at killing, and how. One day, he and his men were clearing out new passages in the caves of Narshe, the next, clearing out Imperial bases. Miners turned murderers. Excavators turned executioners.
They darted amongst the outer perimeter of tents, separating into strike groups and heading towards their assigned targets. Kwanda and his group of four were assigned to hit the central ammo storage tents while the other groups pounded the perimeter. It wouldn't be an easy task by any means, but they had gone through worse and emerged alive.
The darkness and surprise were their allies, and they moved too quickly for most Imperial troopers to even get a bearing on them. The few times that they were challenged, they managed to fight their way through with a few quick autocrossbow volleys. Occasionally, one of them hurled a heavy explosive charge to throw off pursuit.
The two blue-trimmed tents that housed most of the army's rations were directly ahead now. They would make an excellent pair of targets. After all, an army lived on its stomach.
"Brock! Jans! Incendiary! Hit those tents!"
Even as he gave the order, he let another charge fall from his shoulders and primed it with a punch. He braced his feet against the earth, leaning back as he spun the satchel above his head. Then, stepping forward, he released it. As always, his aim was true, and in seconds the small bag burst into flame as it released its napalm charge. The tent went up like a tinderbox. A few seconds later, its mate joined it as Brock and Jan's charges hit home.
A pair of explosions occurred almost simultaneously, and Kwanda saw flames leap up in two separate places from the perimeter of the tents. At least two of the groups had hit their targets, then. Hopefully the third group was all right.
Just then, another explosion tore through the air at the other end of the camp. Kwanda smiled. He knew his men wouldn't let him down.
"Sappers forward!" He cried, slamming a fresh quarrel magazine into his autocrossbow. More explosions blossomed, rending the night with sound and fury.
Locke raced through the Imperial camp towards his destination. No one tried to stop him. No one even called out. His frantic dashing fit the scene perfectly.
Everywhere, men were running. They staggered from tents and ran past the fires, their bodies brief silhouettes in the panic-filled night. All was chaos and confusion, and the smell of fear hung heavy in the air. A good half of the soldiers were drunk from spirits they had somehow smuggled in, and most of the rest had been asleep. They stumbled around in disorder, struggling to find their units and get into some sort of cohesive formation.
Meanwhile, detonations continued to shake the ground and send geysers of flame spewing up into the night. The sappers were hitting this place hard, and they were every bit as skilled and fearsome as had been rumored.
Locke just hoped they remembered to steer clear of the Magitek Armor until he was safely out of the area. It wouldn't do for him to hijack one and be blown to pieces a few seconds later.
"Form up!" yelled a nearby Imperial whose green uniform marked him as a sergeant. He was slurring his words heavily. "We'll show those Returner bastards!" None of the soldiers nearby seemed to hear, or be in any hurry to obey if they had. Locke heard the sergeant began to curse feebly, and then his pumping legs carried him out of earshot.
The tent that housed the Magitek Armor loomed before him now. Four guards stood at the entrance with primed autocrossbows, all of them looking around nervously. Swallowing a lump of fear that felt as big as his fist, Locke made himself approach them directly, slowing to a walk.
The treasure hunter's hand tightened on his autocrossbow. He could only hope his deception would work, that these guards weren't on a first name basis with the pilots. He didn't know if he was good enough to kill all four before one of them killed him, and he wasn't eager to find out.
"Out of my way!" he said with as much confidence as he could muster. Fortunately he had learned to emulate the Imperial accent long ago. "Don't you know we're under attack?"
"Y-You're late, sir!" One of the Imperials stammered. His youthful face was covered with smatterings of acne, and he was shaking like a leaf. Locke understood now. These poor green recruits must've been pulled right out of their sleeping bags and shoved in front of the tent while the experienced guards took care of more urgent matters. "There's only two suits still inside. I guess one of them must be yours. Maybe if you hurry you can catch up with your squaddie. He just went in."
Damn! Locke barely managed to keep from shouting in frustration. Just when he thought things were going to get easy...
Giving a curt nod to the head guard, Locke stepped through the flaps of the tent, eyes darting rapidly back and forth as he surveyed the room. A pair of "Grunt" model suits dominated the center, surrounded by a web of dark cables that snaked across the canvas floor to unknown destinations. A larger flap made for the suits to exit, currently pinned shut. An Imperial in a pilot uniform stood on a stepladder beside the nearest suit, bent over the cockpit as he adjusted switches and levers. He seemed to be prepping the M-Tek Armor for combat.
The M-Tek core came on-line with a shriek, and Locke knew that he had to act now, or never again. He charged towards the guard, praying that the man wouldn't turn around until Locke was close enough to strike. He couldn't use the autocrossbow. The sentries outside might hear, for one thing. For another, he wasn't exactly eager to shoot someone in the back. The man turned to face him, eyes opening wide in shock as he regarded Locke.
"Who the hell are y-agh!"
Locke lowered his shoulder and rammed the ladder hard, toppling it and sending the Imperial crashing to the ground. Following through, he jumped forward even as the pilot tried to haul himself to his feet. Locke smashed the stock of the autocrossbow across the man's face with a satisfying crack and he slumped back, out cold.
The treasure hunter stood there a moment, panting with exertion and glancing back at the tent flaps behind him. They didn't stir. The thrumming of the suit's core must have masked most of the noise. Still, he didn't have much time to lose.
Righting the ladder the unconscious Imperial had unwittingly provided, Locke clambered up into the cockpit of the fearsome machine, buckled himself into the pilot's seat, and looked down at the controls. A myriad of flashing lights, levers, and gauges looked back.
What a perfect time for his mind to go blank.
He placing shaking hands on the control sticks, struggling to calm himself and recall the schematics the engineers from Figaro had provided. If they were right, just pushing forward should make the suit walk...
The next thing Locke knew, canvas was flying past his head as the suit barreled out of the tent at full speed, breaking through the wall, snapping the wooden supports, and collapsing the entire structure. The sentries outside gave a panicked shout as the metal titan thundered through their midst, bowling several of them over. Locke caught a glimpse of the young guard from earlier standing and staring blankly after him, and then there was no more time to think as the suit slammed into another tent, sending a spray of wood and shredded canvas into the air.
Locke could only duck as the suit crashed on, tearing its way through three more tents. It kept going in a straight line, not slowing or swerving at all. The Imperials were finally starting to fire at him now, apparently deciding that taking out a reckless pilot was worth risking damage to his craft. Pressing himself as low as he could as autocrossbow quarrels whistled overhead, Locke yanked the control stick to the left in an attempt to evade. The machine went into a slide, spinning around in a complete 180 degree turn before stopping. There was a scream as a trooper was caught underneath a metalshod foot and crushed before he could get out of the way.
The treasure hunter risked sitting up just in time to see at least fifty Imperials draw a bead on him with their weapons. He unfastened his safety harness and ducked beneath the console as they opened up.
Chockchockchockchockchock! The shots were coming so quickly that they blended into one long, unending sound. The part of the seat that protruded above the rim of the suit was already pincushioned with bolts, and more were clanging against the dense frontal armor plate.
Locke reached up carefully and threw the lever forward again, sending the Magitek monstrosity charging into the mass before him. Once again, the soldiers were bowled aside and trampled like toy soldiers by the passage of the machine, but Locke was eager to put some distance between them. There were only so many times he could pull off that trick and not get hurt himself.
After only a few seconds, he had left the group of massed Imperials far enough behind to risk getting back into the seat. There was still the occasional potshot as he passed, but if he was ever going to get out of here, he'd have to look where he was going. Buckling himself back in wasn't exactly easy, either, but he didn't want a sudden stop to send him flying.
Amazingly, the suit's high-speed flight had already carried him to the perimeter of the camp. All pursuit was falling behind rapidly; he was already out of crossbow range.
Settling himself behind the controls, Locke made minute adjustments, making the suit swerve one way, then the other. The Figarian engineers had been right about the motor controls, they just hadn't taken into account how very sensitive they were. This thing wasn't that hard to figure out after all. Hell, he hadn't even needed to use the weapons.
That was when he saw them. Two huge, dark forms silhouetted against the leaping flames in the camp. They were moving his way, moving fast. Apparently at least a couple of the other pilots had noticed his destructive rampage and decided to put an end to it. They thundered towards him, black devil-machines, death molded into steel grotesqueries
Then the tent directly behind the two advancing M-Tek suits exploded like a powder keg as sapper satchel charges detonated a massive cache of tekmissles stored inside. The light of the detonation was so bright that Locke had to shield his eyes. Once he was able to look back, he saw only two amorphous blobs of black metal where the suits had been, smoke rising from their scorched surfaces.
Locke gave a victory whoop and headed back towards base camp. Hopefully the sappers would clear out quickly now that their mission was accomplished.
"Keep hitting 'em! We're almost there!"
Kwanda and his group of men were still firing furiously, dropping Imperials left and right, but they were running out of ammo, options, and time. At last the enemy was beginning to shake off the confusion that had hampered them and start hitting back. The sappers began to suffer losses; Brock and Throme had been left behind, their bodies full of autocrossbow quarrels, and Jans walked with the shuffling gait of the wounded.
Still, they fought on, pushing weary, burned-out bodies to the limit and beyond. There was one cache of ammunition they still had to hit, this one located almost in the center of the encampment. It was the biggest, and taking it out would be the perfect finale to a horribly damaging raid. The food storage tents and all the other ammo dumps were already destroyed. Blowing up the last tent would finish the job, crippling the Empire's war effort here in Doma.
But first, they had to make it there alive.
"No more ammo," Desideon reported grimly, his dark-browed face set in granite.
"Doesn't matter," Kwanda said, firing judiciously, trying to conserve his own rapidly depleting ammo. "The cache is just ahead."
Suddenly Jans cried out and went down as he was caught in a brutal crossfire by four Imperials who rushed out in a pincer movement. Kwanda knew immediately that he was dead. There was no way anyone could have survived that. Still running, he turned to open fire on Jans' killers.
Chock! One down.
Chock-chock! Two, three.
Damn! Out of ammo!
But that didn't matter now, because they were there, inside the malformed heart of the Imperial Camp, the ammo cache directly ahead. One HE charge left apiece. It would have to be enough.
Arrows were whistling past his head now. Not much time left. He pulled up the timed charge, primed it, hurled the satchel into the tent. Desideon did likewise, and then both broke out into a run in the opposite direction. Kwanda expected to be cut down by fire at any second, but he noticed that the Imperial troops were running, too. In every direction, as far as he could see, they were running.
What was the matter? Surely the blast radius couldn't be that large-
The ground shook and both Returners were knocked off their feet and into the ruins of a wrecked tent. It was only after Kwanda raised his head from the wreckage and saw the advancing cloud of yellow-green gas that was emerging from the destroyed cache that he understood. His mouth went dry with fear.
The gas continued to expand in all directions, enough to fill the camp to overflowing. More than enough. After all, the expedition had been packing enough of the special ordinance to blanket Doma Castle. As it was, there might be enough to reach the castle even from this distance.
As the gas swept over them, Desideon sat up and hacked, spewing blood across the white of the canvas.
"B-b-buh...... bio-bombs......" he managed to cough out before collapsing in a puddle of his own crimson lifeblood.
Kwanda gurgled as own lungs filled up. His eyes, his nose, his mouth, his entire body was on fire. It felt as if he were being turned inside out and plunged into a vat of acid.
Imperial soldiers staggered by, clawing at themselves in a vain attempt to dull the pain. They, too, were falling to the ground, coughing up blood as their bodies tried in vain to purge the vile poison.
They were all doomed. Bio-bombs contained the most lethal toxins in the world, and the sappers had just set off what was probably the biggest store of them ever gathered in one place. It was all Leo's fault.
I didn't think he had them.. none of us did. If he had them, why didn't he use them? His honor just cost him his entire army... and the gas will probably kill the Domans anyway.
"Leo.... you softhearted bastard," he said as the light faded and his vision grew dark. The pain in his body finally seemed to fade, replaced with a soft, gentle caress of something that was real and yet not-real at the same time. The coolness of oblivion swept over him.
"You've killed us all."
Author's Note: Well, certainly took me a while to get this one finished... sorry for the delay, but between college keeping me busy and this chapter going on longer than I expected, it's probably a low-grade miracle that this is before you now. I wish I could promise I'd work faster, but that's something I just can't do. Anyway, next chapter, those of you who are curious about what Shadow was doing during all this will have your curiousity satisfied. And, hopefully, you WILL be surprised... hehe.