"Has the orc incursion been taken care of?" asked Colonel General Alexandrov, sipping on his tea.

"Yes sir, the GRU Spetsnaz units located their dwellings which were eliminated. 14 dwellings of village to town sizes were leveled, totaling some 4 322 dead. Of which we have another 3 219 prisoners. Mostly those that were too old to fight, too young, or what we conclude to be the female of their species."

"How are they behaving?"

"Violently sir. Several guards have been injured handling them and they are prone to anger easily. There is also a request for additional rations to be handed out as it appears that the orcs eat twice that of which a human their size would. Also additional request for extra guards, including more dogs."

"Any chance that these orcs could be allowed to leave on the condition that they would not attack either us or our elvish allies?"

"From the intelligence gathered from both human prisoners of war and our elvish allies, that is a negative sir. The orcs revolve their culture around warfare and acts of bravery. The males can not win mates, titles, or position without raiding surrounding villages and making war. Apparently they are often hired out as mercenaries."

"So I've noticed. This report, here, it says that they have a feud with the elves?"

"Yes sir. The elves we have aligned ourselves with are of the wood elf species, apparently possessing magical powers, but as of yet we have not witnessed any such proof of these assertions. The orcs see the elves as being weak and feminine, having no warrior honor. The elves by comparison are pacifists unless they act expressly to protect their villages from direct attack or themselves. They observe a live and let live policy while the orcs intimidate them and their neighbors into giving tribute, either material possessions or wealth."

"Then why attack the elves if they were paying tribute to them? Isn't that counterproductive?"

"From what we understand the elves were paying their tribute in bows, arrows, clothes, and crafts. Things they could make, food as well when they had extra, but it appears that the orcs had grown tired of that and demanded slaves. The elves being a tightly entwined community treating each other as family immediately refused. That refusal was what made the orcs attack them sir."

"I see," said Alexandrov, then sighed wearily, for once seeming his age as he allowed himself to slump in his metal folding chair. "I'm in a predicament now Vlad. My orders are clear. I am to eliminate or neutralize with extreme prejudice any native species or outpost that could or do threaten Soviet presence in the region. Once that is accomplished we will begin receiving our first waves of colonists. The elves, far from being a threat are turning into our biggest allies and they abhor violence. So long as nobody tries to kill them, they won't even so much as think of harming anyone. That and they've proven an instant sensation among the men. So not only are they not a threat, they are an indispensable asset to us in the region. The orcs on the other hand, are the opposite of that. They are violent, crude, ugly, and partake in many distasteful practices. They would attack unarmed people, rape them, kill them, and sell them as slaves. I am obliged to kill them, and yet I find that I cannot."

"Sir?"

"I was a young soldier when I fought during the great patriotic war. As an infantrymen with a company of conscripts under my command. As we chased the fascists out of the Motherland we came upon villages that they were forced to abandon. When we entered them, the thing I remember most is the absolute quiet that we would encounter. A hush that was not only physical, but seemed to fall over your soul. I'll never forget the sights I saw there. The men of the villages had either been conscripted to forced labor, into the fascists military, or else left to join the partisan groups. All that were left in many of the villages were the elderly, the sick, the lame, and women and children. When we entered those villages we found that they were all still there, every single one of them. From every tree branch, from every telephone pole, from every rafter we found them. Women, children, the elderly, they had hung them all. They had hung them and left them there without thought of mercy or burial. It made me hate them. Hate every facet of them to the point where if given the chance I would have strangled the life out of them with my bare hands and relished the chance for revenge. To kill such savage beasts that had done it, but it also made me realize something. Those were men that had done that. Ordinary men who had let themselves become evil. That had let the devil inhabit their souls. It was on that day that I swore to myself that I would never be like them. I would never fall to the depths of evil that they had."

Alexandrov took out a thick cigar and lit it with a match, as if using the familiar action and taste of cigar smoke to make him forget the memories he had made himself relive.

"I suppose that you might think I'm being a hypocrite don't you Vlad?"

"Yes sir, in a way you are. We bombed the villages indiscriminately both from the air and with artillery weapons. We killed many, most in fact of the orc noncombatants doing so. All the males of fighting age have been killed, their fields razed, and their homes destroyed. You've effectively erased them from the region sir."

"Yes, I did give those orders. I'm a killer Vlad, it's my duty and my profession. One in which I have become quite good at, however I have long established a line in the sand for myself. I ordered those strikes, because they were a threat. They were fighting us and as such I ended their ability to fight. Now, the circumstances are different. They are unarmed, unable to fight, and at my mercy. They are no longer a threat, now they are just scared infants and women. I will fight the enemies of the Union without remorse or pity while they resist. What I will not do however, is cross the line from being a killer to being a murderer and there is a difference. Because if I kill them now, because they are inconvenient to me, then I am a murderer, but worse than that I would be no better than the fascists I fought against and hated so much."

"I understand sir."

"Do you think me weak for being unwilling to carry out my orders Vlad?"

"No sir, I think that you're still the officer I followed proudly in the Great Patriotic War," said Vlad. The wizened warrant officer standing firmly at attention, a cataract white eye and vicious scar running the length of his face, a souvenir of his long service.

"Grant all requests for additional food, lodging, and security for the orcs. Also send in a request for more trained guard dogs."

"What shall I say about the matter of the orcs to Moscow sir? They were labeled in all reports as violent."

"Say that their status is still, undetermined and that we have dealt mainly with their martial cast. We need further observation to make an assessment as to their viability of coexistence."

"Yes sir, and what if they prove to be unable to coexist?"

Alexandrov sighed wearily.

"Then I do believe I will be relieved of command for refusal to carry out orders."

"I wouldn't have it any other way sir."

xxx

Despite her age that would have make her Feliks's great great grandmother, the elf Luella was as eager and energetic as a kid, pestering Boris with incessant questions about everything and seemed delighted by everything that he told her, leaning forward on the bench of the BTR, a look of almost awe and childlike glee on her face.

"What did you do when the Turks cut you off?" asked Luella eagerly, hanging off of the veteran soldier's every word.

"Well we holed up on this hill that had a view of the whole valley and we dug in. We were just an advance company for the 85th Motor Rifle Division so we didn't have a lot of heavy weapons to use, but what we did have was a lot of ammo. You see the Turks coming at us weren't trained soldiers, just a ragtag bunch of militia and they weren't very disciplined. Or really well equipped for that matter. They made a lot of noise when they moved around and they would shoot even if they had no chance of hitting us. Just give away their position like nothing. Pretty much a rabble. They rushed the hill a few times, but it was a steep one with no cover coming up. It had been raining the past few days constantly, which had turned everything into a muddy quagmire. You couldn't take ten steps without having to unlace your boots to get unstuck and depending where you stepped you would sink up to your knees. Their Tommy guns kept jamming when they fell into the mud and they couldn't come up the hill very fast at us. Kept getting stuck in the mud. It was easy enough to keep them off but there was a lot of them. I swear we were outnumbered at least twenty to one and some of them made it as close to us as me and you are right now."

"What happened next?" asked Luella, practically bursting with excitement.

"Well we managed to get a radio working by jury-rigging a couple that had gotten shot to make one of them work. After that we just kept calling in fire missions any time we saw something move. We were on that hill for about three days and by the time we got relieved we were running pretty low on ammo. Turns out we were pretty lucky actually. A few brigades of the Turkish SSR regular army had joined in the uprising and the rest of the 85th had to fight off T-34s and artillery. I think the 85th must have fought something like 8000 Turkish regulars and another three or four thousand militia. Wasn't really a fair fight though, we had the new T-55 tanks and their 105s just destroyed the Turkish armor. Without their tanks, the Turks got pushed aside like nothing."

"Did you get land and a share of the spoils for your part in the war?"

"HA! What I got was a three new teeth when some bastard smacked me in the mouth with his rifle and a promotion that I lost two weeks later because of a bar fight. No darling, I didn't get too much but a medal and a few more scars. Oh, pardoning my language miss," said Boris as if realizing once again of the female company present.

"That's alright, I don't mind. What happened in the Kingdom of Turkey? Did the nobles in their senate concede defeat and offer pledges of fealty?"

"Not exactly. You see we spent a few years fighting the rebels, doing stuff like hunting them out of the mountains, finding their supporters, and defending important things like airfields and bridges. Eventually what we ended up doing was reforming their government and training the Kurdish militias into an actual army. I'm telling you, those Kurds are some tough sons of bi-guns. Loyal too. You'd train up some of the other Turks and they'd turn on you and use the weapons you gave them against you. The Kurds on the other hand were very sympathetic to us and they liked socialism and communism. Last I heard they got their own autonomous region and they're Moscow's regional force down there, besides some of the bases on the southern coast that the navy keeps. Honestly those ports are probably why we went down there. Half my time there was spent manning a gate leading to the harbor. Got some good friends I keep in contact with down there from time to time."

"But wouldn't the lords have surrendered when you took their castles and lands?" asked Luella perplexed.

"Well at the end there we weren't fighting an organized army, and we don't have lords anymore. Or castles for that matter. Most of who we were fighting were just defected army troops and self-proclaimed warlords or bandits. They didn't really own any land or titles. Lots of the time it was just some random guy who picked up a rifle and tried to take a crack at us. Once things got stabilized, Moscow helped Turkey form a new government from community leaders and loyal army commanders. Then we let the Kurds take over for us fighting the insurgency."

Luella looked at Boris as if unable to comprehend what he had just told her.

"But the new government they picked, them must have been lords or been of good lineage. I mean, were they just minor nobles that you elevated to greater status?"

"No darling, just regular people."

Luella cocked her head quizzically to the side.

"I don't understand. Surely Colonel General Alexandrov is a lord of great standing to be given command of such a great army?"

"Nope, we don't have lords anymore at all darling and the General isn't an exception. His father was a train conductor actually. We have no dukes, no barons, no counts, and no czars. Just the people ruling themselves with the proletariat."

"But you said that Stalin, your last leader until he died was the leader of the Soviet Union. So he was your king right?"

"Well no, he was the leader of the party."

"But he held absolute power and he couldn't be asked to leave could he?"

"Well no," admitted Boris.

"And his replacement had to come from the proletariat right?"

"Well yes he did."

"And only the proletariat can vote right?"

"In a sense yeah, but it's more complicated than that."

"So then your lords elect your king for you," said Luella with a smile.

"Boris you're boring the poor girl," said Feliks glancing up from the map spread across a low foldout in the BTR.

"Well actually I find it quite interesting," said Luella.

"That's just because Boris embellishes his stories. When he first told me that story about hill 883 in Turkey he said it was ten to one. Now it's twenty to one."

"Ten, twenty, it's all the same sir, they were swarming us. Hard to keep track of how many there are in the middle of a firefight."

"You threw fire at each other? Do you have sorcerers as well?" said Luella, eyes wide.

"No, it's just what we call a small arms fight," said Boris.

"Oh, why?"

"Well..."

As Luella launched into another barrage of questions about anything and everything Soviet and beyond, Feliks had just finished plotting their course. They were to head to something called Arnus Hill to the Northwest. They had been promised a resupply run at the halfway point to their destination via Mi8 helicopters. Feliks wasn't quite sure why their route had been changed in such a last minute fashion, but he was sure that there was a good reason for it.

They were supposed to stop in at least a dozen villages along the way and garner goodwill towards the Red Army. Little things, like treating mild sicknesses, handing out little trinkets, and setting bones or mending cuts if there so happened to be the need. They'd be coming up on the first village in just a short time in fact.

"Hey Boris, we're approaching Blenheim village. Let the boys know eh?"

"Yes sir," answered Boris dutifully.

"Hey Luella, put this on," said Feliks passing the elfin girl a steel helmet.

"No," said Luella like a stubborn child, refusing to take the helmet, leaving Feliks holding it a little dumbly. "It doesn't fit right and it pinches my ears."

"You need to wear the helmet."

"No. I don't."

"Please wear the helmet."

"No," said Luella crossing her arms stubbornly. "It doesn't fit."

"Hey darling, we're just looking out for your safety. We don't want anything to happen to you and you wearing the helmet makes us feel a little better. You won't have to wear if for very long and I promise that you can take it off as soon as we're done," said Boris in a fatherly tone.

Luella regarded him for a moment with her purple eyes, pursed her lips, sighed, and took the helmet from Feliks, gingerly pushing her ears down so the helmet would fit with a grimace.

"As soon as we're done," clarified Luella.

"As soon as we're done," promised Boris.

"Alright we're here, village if four hundred meters ahead," came Dima's voice over intercom as the patrol column came to a halt.

"Alright boys and girls, everybody out," said Feliks opening a side hatch and climbing out. He held out a hand to help Luella out, but the elfin girl came out with catlike grace and dexterity, landing nimbly on her feet.

Nine of them left the patrol column in total, Feliks and his old section forming a protective cordon around Luella as they walked down the cobbled road towards the village. There were fields on either side of the road with ripe wheat, but nobody was out working them or harvesting the wheat. In fact they couldn't see anyone moving in the village at all.

The winding dirt road leading through it, was empty. The small one storey houses lining the street, each built differently but with the same materials and each facing a slightly different way. It was a disorderly looking place. Dirty looking and squalid, medieval looking, and the smell to match. Despite that though, the village was too empty. No right of hammer from a blacksmith, no haggling voices or even a child carrying a pail of water from a well.

"Somethings off sir, can't say it's a danger to us, but I say we stay ready to make a run back to the patrol group," whispered Boris into Feliks's ear.

"Agreed," said Feliks, thumb hovering above the safety of his AKM.

"We need to meet with the village elder before we visit any businesses or try to pass through since we're outsiders. It's a courtesy and a tradition to bring a gift when you visit. It doesn't have to be real big, but it helps," said Luella.

"Abram may I have the gift basket please?" asked Luella.

"Yes ma'am," answered the young marksman, handing Luella a wicker basket full of vodka, caviar, spices, and a bolt of expensive cloth.

It was Boris who knocked on the door, and true to his soldiery nature, knocked like he intended to knock the door down. A viewing hole opened on the door and an eye peered out from within.

"State yur business and git on with it."

"Hello and good day to you sir. My name is Luella and I am an elf of the village hidden in the glade. I am here on behalf of the Red Army of the Soviet Union and we come bearing gifts to pay homage to the elder."

"If ya want ta pass ya can, but ye best be quick about it. The Empire's gonna be 'ere sum time taday . They want ta get ta deserter in the tavern, been in there past two days straight." With that the viewing hole closed and they were left facing an empty door. Luella, rather surprised set down the gift basket and relayed what had been said to Feliks and his men.

"So Sergeant, what's your take? See who this deserter is and ambush the Empire when they come or just continue on our way and ignore it?"

"Well sir, I would say that we just keep going. Stay outta trouble and stay undetected as much as possible. No sense going looking for trouble when there's plenty looking for us sir."

"A sensible assessment Sergeant," granted Feliks. "But I'm curious about this now."

"We're checking out the tavern then sir?" asked Boris like a man used to a lifetime of officers doing stupid things.

"Indeed Sergeant."

"Alright sir, where is it?"

"I don't know actually," admitted Feliks. "Luella where's the tavern?"

"It's the building with the sign of an ale tankard hanging from the signpost and empty casks out front," said Luella helpfully and ever cheerful, pointing to a building directly across the street.

"Oh. Well that's easy," said Feliks.

The tavern was dank and smelled of piss and alcohol with a dirt floor and a thatched roof. Feliks allowed himself a moment for his eyes to adjust to the light before he proceeded in. There were a few sullenly quiet men who regarded them suspiciously from the dark corners of the room and a barmaid with a dirty and stained dress with her better years behind her that didn't even bother to look up as they came in. Feliks took the lead, heading for a shiny figure sitting up at the counter with countless empty tankards and cups in front of him.

The man was dressed in armor, steel from the looks of it but of a more Gothic European influenced design than a Roman one. Despite that it looked light and the mans silver hair fell loosely about his face, feminine in a way, but it was matted together with sweat and dirt. Sticking to his face and giving the impression that the man had not been acquainted with a bath in quite a long while. A longsword of noticeably superior quality hung from his hip, swaying freely as the man took several long swallows of ale before laying his head back down on the countertop, holding jealously onto his cup as if he let go someone would steal it and he would lose it forever. Despite his silver hair, the man looked quite young which was rather surprising. He would have been maybe twenty with a slender face and fine cheekbones. His arms were muscular though, no doubt from long hours of training and using his sword.

"Excuse me sir, I'm a translator for the Red Army and I would-"

"Fuck off then I'm busy!" said the man turning around, throwing a cup at Luella who ducked it nimbly. Except he wasn't a man, unless he was a man with a high voice, breasts, and a surly disposition. The last one wouldn't have raised too many issues, but the first would have raised many questions. "Fuckin elves, always doin...doin...fucking elves," slurred the woman setting her head back down on the counter.

"A woman soldier?" said Boris more in surprise than anything. The man may have been a veteran soldier who's seen it all, but what he had not seen was a woman in a professional army.

"A mercenary," clarified Luella helpfully. "See the armor? That crest with the cloud and crossed swords is the symbol of the Skyraiders company. Dragon riders. It's a foreign mercenary band, and expensive, but very good. It draws its members from the Messalon city states mostly, but it will also buy orphans to train and recruit former soldiers who have the skill. Of all the mercenary dragon rider bands, the Skyraiders are one of the best."

"Ask her why she's here," said Feliks.

"She'll throw another cup at me," protested the elf, purple eyes eying the silver haired mercenary with apprehension.

"That's why you've got the helmet darling," said Boris with a grin, but gave a reassuring pat on the elf's shoulder.

"Are you sure?"

"We'll be right here if you need us darling. Don't worry, we aren't going to let anything happen to you."

Taking a deep breath, Luella walked up to the counter and took out a handful of silver coins and put them in from of the young silver haired woman. The woman raised her head at the clink of silver and looked at Luella with bloodshot blue eyes.

"Whadda you want?"

"I want to ask you some questions and I'll pay you a silver coin for each one you answer if you agree to my terms," said the wood elf neutrally.

"Silver? Just for talking to ya?"

"Yes."

"Alright, I'll take your money little elf. What's your first one?"

"I would like to know what you're doing here," answered Luella politely.

"Drinkin," answered the woman taking a silver coin.

"Yes I can see that. Forgive me for asking, but why are you drinking?"

"To forget everything," answered the woman taking another coin.

Luella looked uncertainly to Feliks and Boris who gave an encouraging gesture to continue.

"What are you trying to forget?" asked Luella, visibly becoming nervous when the woman glared at her.

"Oh I dunno, how bout the fact most of my friends and men got fuckin slaughtered trying to retake Mt. Rubicon by some kinda fuckin magic I ain't ever heard of? Or how bout the fact that rather than die like a proper Skyriader I ran and now I'm a deserter? Or how bout the fact that the Empire is comin to get me now too for being a coward? Is dat a good reason ta drink?"

"Couldn't you fly away?"

"HA! Maximus is drunker than I am out back. Not that it'd make a lotta difference anyways. I'm a coward. A fucking deserter," said the woman, drawing the word out like it was some sort of splinter from a wound. She punctuated her sentence by drinking more ale. "If the Empire doesn't run me through, the Skyraiders will. Can't go home. No money to hide. Can't look for work without getting found. Not a damned thing I can do 'cept die. Tired of running anyways. Thanks for the silver by the way," said the woman taking the handful of silver. She had sounded morose at the end, defeated like she wanted continue on but felt the odds stacked against her. Luella put another coin of the table.

"Whaddya want ta know now?"

"What is your name?"

"Ianthe. Ianthe, daughter of Acamus and captain of dead men."

"It is a beautiful name, violet flower. I think it suits you well."

"Thanks, but I think silver suits me better elf," answered the mercenary taking the proffered coin. "Yeah, yeah, ere you go," said Ianthe giving the barkeep the coin who was giving her an angry glare.

"You owe a lot more than that," said the bearded man gruffly. "You've been here two days, either pay up or get out!"

"Gods, don't fuckin yell, my head is splitting," moaned Ianthe, giving several more coins to the barkeep. "What?" questioned the mercenary when the barkeep just kept glaring.

"Your dragon has drank at least seven casks, and eaten one of my goats."

"Ah, forgot to feed him. Sorry bout that. Here," said Ianthe pushing all the silver coins she had just received towards the barkeep.

"That's not enough."

"Gods, it's just booze, that's silver I'm giving you. Don't be a greedy cunt. I could damn near buy the place for that."

"You have to pay for lodging and damages as well."

"But I didn't rent a room."

"You still slept in the tavern," said the barkeep firmly.

"Fine. Here," spat Ianthe dumping out a few copper and silver pieces from her coin purse, emptying it onto the counter. "Won't matter anyways, I'll be dead by dusk." With that, Ianthe put her head on the counter and belched loudly. Luella put a sympathetic hand on the woman's shoulder, kindhearted empathy written all over her face. This young woman was going to die for refusing to die in hopeless violence. It wasn't fair and there wasn't anything she could do to help her. An idea suddenly formed In Luella's mind like a spark that took to flame.

There wasn't anything she could do about it, but there was others who could.

"So what did she say?" asked Feliks.

"She said that she fled from the battle at Mt. Rubicon, which is Camp Zhukov and she is going to be killed for it. Also though, the reason that the villagers are all hiding is because the Empire is going to kill them all and burn this village to the ground to punish them for helping them."

"They're going to kill her and she's just sitting here getting drunk?" asked Feliks somewhat incredulous.

"It's what I'd do sir," said Boris.

"Damn. And you're sure that they're going to burn this village to the ground?"

"Yes, and kill everyone here," said Luella.

"Well shit. Boris get the men together and bring the column up, looks like we get to play hero. We'll hide in the forest on either side of the road and catch them in a crossfire when they show up outside the village."

"How long do you think we've got sir?"

"Well I was going to say at least a couple of hours, but looks like right now," said Feliks a note of Apprehension creeping into his voice as trumpets sounded very near to the entrance of the tavern. The silver haired woman cursed loudly and wrapped her arms around her head in response.

"Shit," exclaimed Boris gruffly, grabbing Luella and following Feliks up the stairs to the landing overlooking the main floor. "Boys are smart, they'll take cover and won't shoot unless we do," said Boris, setting up the bipod for the RPD. They watched a troupe of Empire soldiers march into the tavern in their crimson livery with military discipline, and bullying arrogance.

Xxx

"Captain Ianthe, stand and be recognized," said the Captain Octavian of the Empires mounted legionnaires.

Ianthe heard him as if through a fog, opening her eyes slowly and groaning, hugging the bar as she stood, careful to keep her footing despite the way the room seemed to tilt back and forth. She thought that she may be sick, nausea rising from her stomach to her throat, but she kept it there.

"You looking for me?" asked Ianthe, meaning to point to herself, but instead hitting her hand off of her breast plate.

"Yes. You stand accused of breaking contract, running in the face of the enemy, and desertion. You are to be taken into custody and crucified to be made an example of," said Octavian.

"Oh yeah? Well, you ain't gonna take me so long as I've got steel," said Ianthe drawing her longsword with a flourish. It wasn't made of steel, it was far too shiny for that and it glimmered balefully in the dim light of the tavern. The blade was like liquid silver, sleek and dangerous, catching every iota of light and reflecting it tenfold as the shiny metal sang through the air. She swung it around gracefully for a few figure eights, but then the blade flew from her grasp and clattered on the floor. "Shit," said Ianthe dumbly, staring at the sword as if the six feet it had gone was far too far to go and retrieve it. With her blade hopelessly lost, she merely just stared at it for a time.

"Can I get that?"

"It wouldn't matter if you did. You're drunk and as such are in no position to resist. Come peacefully and we will not make your journey uncomfortable."

"First of all, I am not drunk. Second of all, go fuck yourself."

"Can you even tell the time?"

"Course I can," said Ianthe indignantly. She turned to an ornamental sundial set on the wall and pointed with seething vehemence. "I am not fucking drunk," spat out Ianthe like she would like nothing better than to rip the ornament from the wall and smash it to pieces.

"Just seize her," said Octavian wearily.

"Wait," said Ianthe holding up a hand. Then, she turned to the bar counter and tried to leap over, but failed, merely bouncing off of the ledge. On the second attempt she managed to get on top, knocking off all of her cups and rolled onto the other side with a clatter of metal and armor. Several of the legionnaires laughed at that. Slowly, Ianthe got to her feet, holding onto the bar counter to keep her footing with one hand, and a new cup of ale in the other.

"Are you done yet?"

"One more thing," said Ianthe.

"And what is that?" asked Octavian irritably.

Instead of answering Ianthe brought her fingers to her mouth and took in a deep breath before letting out a loud, long, and shrill whistle. There was the muffled sound of wood splintering out behind the tavern and a sound like something heavy was scraping on the outside of the tavern.

"Maximus," said Ianthe a moment before the back wall of the Tavern caved in and an angry, drunk, and large dragon came barging in. It was a large thing, its shoulders at least twenty two hands high with deep blue scales and malevolent red eyes. The dragon smacked its jaws together with a hideous clash of teeth and growled low. The legionnaires backed up, drawing their swords and seeing them as prey, the dragon charged with explosive force.

Unfortunately being drunk as the dragon was, it had poor coordination and ran headfirst into the main support beam of the tavern that was as large as an oak tree. The whole building shook from the impact, causing straw to fall from the roof and cracking the beam, but the dragon crumpled, moaning piteously for a creature of its size as its wings wrapped around its head.

"Gods dammit Maximus," said Ianthe a moment before a quartet of Empire soldiers grabbed her.

Xxx

"Now?" asked Boris, his voice barely more than a murmur.

"Now," agreed Feliks as he squeezed the trigger of his AKM, watching the soldier he was aiming at jerk and fall as the chatter of the Kalashnikov started, filling the tavern with noise, but soon was drowned out as the RPD chewed through its rounds and spit out piles of brass.

There was confusion, the soldiers not knowing what was happening or what was making the noise. They brought their shields up and held their swords ready, too surprised or stunned to do much else. The patrons in the tavern made warding gestures, believing some evil magic was at work and began praying to a panoply of different gods.

Horses whinnied in terror outside as small arms began crackling outside of the tavern, the heavy thudding of the KPVT machine guns cutting even through the continuous cacophony of the RPD. Out of the corner of his eye, Feliks could see Luella covering her ears with both hands and her eyes shut tight. The elfin girl was terrified of conflict and would go to any length to avoid it, so when confronted with it she had no idea what to do.

"Clear," said Boris, smoke wafting from the end of the barrel of his RPD when the last legionnaire in the tavern was a bullet riddled corpse. There was a couple short bursts of weapons fire outside after he said that, but it ended just as quickly.

"Luella are you alright?" asked Feliks, helping the elfin girl to her feet.

"Yes...yes, I think so. Just a little shaken," answered the small elfin girl, averting her eyes from the dead bodies littering the tavern. Even so, her boots squelched in the blood muddying the floor of the tavern.

"Sir, dragon's getting up," warned Boris swinging his RPD towards the draconian reptile as it once again rose to its full height snarling. It was a deep, powerful sound that seemed impossibly loud for the effort that the beast was putting into it. The RPD while a menacing and dangerous weapon against most things, was a mere annoyance to the creature.

"That won't do anything unless you hit it in the eyes, we need the KPVT's within 200m to penetrate it," Feliks said, slowly backing up. Careful not to make any sudden movements while keeping himself looking as big as possible to deter an attack.

"Makes me feel better."

"It' going to eat us, It's going to eat us," said Luella squeakily, hiding behind Boris. The dragon took a step towards them, it's large foot sinking into the bloody sodden soil.

From behind the bar, walking on unsteady legs was the woman in armor with brilliant silver hair. She stumbled towards the dragon which turned and regarded her with its slitted red eyes. The woman, undeterred continued on and when the dragon opened its mouth and growled lowly at her, she brought back her fist and punched it hard with a steel covered fist. Then proceeded to yell at it and judging by how large Luella's eyes got and the fact that she covered her mouth, must have been a very long and profanity filled rant.

The dragon cowed like a whipped dog, hunching down so its head touched the ground and let out what could have only been a whine.

"Lieutenant are you alright si-ahh!" yelped Vitsin, the young medic retreating behind Boris at the sight of the dragon.

"Why is everyone hiding behind me?" asked Boris, looking back at both the elf and young medic behind him.

"You're the biggest," said Luella bluntly, to which Vitsin nodded, then began shaking his head when he saw the look of his senior sergeants face.

"Junior sergeant, how many dead outside?" asked Feliks.

"Oh, um about fourteen men all told sir. But uh, seven went inside here."

"I see that," said Feliks. "Not enough men to raze a village though," continued Feliks half to himself. "I want Dima's men to secure the north end of the village until we're ready to move again, and watch for anyone else arriving. I'm expecting more trouble."

"Yes sir," said Vitsin, coming to a vague approximation of attention before rushing out of the door, eager to be away from the dragon.

"Shall we leave the dragon sir?" asked Boris, eyeing the beast with apprehension.

"Yes, I think that we should."

An hour later, Feliks and Boris were poring over a map of the region spread out on the hood of a UAZ jeep at the north end of the village deciding what to do next.

"If we keep moving ahead in a straight line hitting every village like command wants us to, we're bound to get ambushed at one of them," said Feliks tracing their route. "Word will get around about us traveling. A military convoy in Russia would still draw attention however brief, but we're moving in vehicles that nobody's ever seen and as you can see," said Feliks gesturing towards the villagers gathered at what they presumed to be a safe distance. "We're something like celebrities."

"Could ask for reconnaissance flights from camp Zhukov," said Boris thoughtfully. Get a MiG 17 to circle our path and check it for us. Wouldn't take them to long to do that."

"We could do that too, but a MiG would be really noticeable and I doubt that we're going to be getting one every single day to scout out our route. We could send a UAZ farther ahead, they're faster and good on gas, but if a dragon shows up or it gets a flat tire then we have the problem of stranded troops that can't defend themselves meaning we'll have to rush ahead to help, or in the case of a dragon they get eaten."

"So, we stick to what we've been doing then? PT 76 in front with jeeps in the middle only crewed by drivers? Least if we keep doing it like that we can fight our way out of any trouble. Not like we can move slow, not if we want to keep command's timetable sir."

"Yeah, I guess we'll just have to be a lot more careful next time we go into a village, take the vehicles with us. Even if it does scare the locals," said Feliks. "Given more time I would be more cautious, move cross country. Do this properly but the General is basically demanding that we hit one of these villages every day."

"What if we had a dragon?"

Both men looked back with a start, the 'young' elfin girl had come up as silently as the wind behind them.

"What?" asked Feliks.

"What if we had a dragon?" repeated Luella. "The people here are used to seeing them and the Empire wouldn't think twice about seeing one in the sky. They use them all the time for carrying messages and looking for bandits."

"We don't have any though, and the Union doesn't hire mercenaries," said Feliks.

"You don't use auxiliaries or mercenaries?" asked Luella surprised.

"No, only professional soldierly."

"Well we use the Azerbaijanis, basically auxiliaries sir," said Boris. "Personally I think that it's a good idea, if we can get one."

"The woman at the inn was a mercenary and she's looking for work," added Luella.

"I don't know how I feel about a woman soldier," said Feliks. "Sergeant you're more used to this. What do you say we do?"

"Well sir, she's not likely to betray us if those troops came to kill her, especially if we're her paycheck. We hired some tribes once in a while in Turkey to fight for us, and they'd do it so long as you kept paying them. It's not a horse though, that dragon she's riding so it can't just graze when we stop which means it'll have to hunt. Obviously because we can't feed the thing. Despite all of that sir, I say we do it. Good recon keeps men alive and having aviation on call any time we want is a hell of a good thing sir. Besides, she'll help with the scenery," said Boris with a grin revealing metal teeth.

"Makes you feel young again sergeant?"

"Years younger sir."

"I don't understand, she is pretty for a human, but how will she improve the scenery?" asked Luella perplexed.

"Darling that's why we love you," said Boris chuckling.

"I love you both as well," said Luella.

"Oh. Thank you darling that means a lot," said Boris, the old veteran caught off guard.

"It's almost dark," I say that we wait till morning before heading out. Besides, our new guide is probably still drunk," said Feliks.

Xxx

Ianthe woke groggily with a screaming headache in the middle of the street curled up next to Maximus. The first thing she was aware of, was the pain in her head. The second was that she was incredibly thirsty and the third was that she stunk.

Rising wearily, the blue light of early morning guiding her way the mercenary went to a watering trough meant for horses and proceeded about the process of bathing, stripping away the heavy armor that she had been wearing for some reason. The last couple of days were just a drunken blur and she didn't remember much. It was about this time that Ianthe noticed the large patches of bloody dirt in front of the tavern.

"Ah shit, I'll have to pay for it if they lost any livestock," said Ianthe to herself. Checking her coin purse, her spirits immediately fell. "Ha. Out of money. Guess it's cut and run then. The gods must hate me. I knew I should have left a better offering before leaving Messalon. Not that I can fucking go back there," grumbled Ianthe. She finished bathing and grabbed a fresh set of clothes from her saddle bags. A new under suit for her armor, black form fitting fabric with a woolen vest over top to prevent chafing and drake skin pants.

"Excuse me, Captain Ianthe?"

"Yes?" answered Ianthe turning, hand on the hilt of her sword. She was startled to find an elf dressed in mottled colored clothing and two men dressed the same holding strange staves of wood and metal. The blood drained from Ianthe's face as she recognized the dress. These were the same soldiers who had slaughtered an entire army at Mt. Rubicon.

"Lieutenant Volkin is wishing to inquire about your services."

"M-my services?" asked Ianthe, merely giving herself time to think. These people already knew who she was and if their staves were anything like the ones that the metal behemoths had possessed they could kill her without any effort at all.

"Yes. He wishes to know how much it would cost to hire you and have you act as a scout for us. We don't have any food for your mount, but we would be willing to pay quite well for your services."

"How much is quite well?" asked Ianthe. She watched the blonde wood elf talk to the young man at her side for a moment in a strange language before answering her.

"He wishes to know how much you would want."

"Sixty silver pieces up front. If my services go beyond two months then it's extra. Plus all of my food, lodging and expenses to be taken care of besides. Also fair shares of battle spoils and promise of two hundred silvers in case of severe injury like loss of a limb or an eye" said Ianthe settling into negotiations. It was an outrageously high price to pay for a single mercenary, even a draconian cavalry mercenary. Most peasant families could get by on two to three silvers a month, especially when a mug of ale cost only five coppers. One silver if they had a small family and grew their own food. What she had asked for would have bought them at least two or three dragon mercenaries, more if they agreed to the battle spoils and severance pay. Then again, a dragon itself was worth a great deal of money.

"Lieutenant Volkin finds your offer agreeable. However he wishes to give you a gold coin to keep your services until they are no longer required," said the elf. Ianthe's mouth opened in shock.

"W...what?"

"The Lieutenant wishes for you to be ready to move in twenty minutes," said Luella handing Ianthe a gold coin. Ianthe took it numbly, mouth still half agape. A gold coin was worth a hundred silvers. She could buy a small hut, stable, and the plot of land if it was in a village like this with it. Not that she would ever settle in a dung heap like Blenheim.

"Yes. Yes, I will be ready to move. Tell the young lord that I will serve him faithfully and my sword is his to command while I am under his employ," said Ianthe.

"That's very kind, but the Lieutenant isn't a lord, they don't have them," said the Elf, not relaying the message to the mottled men.

"They don't have lords?" asked Ianthe as if the elf had just told her that moon was going to fall from the sky.

"No. Even their General is of common birth and he commands a vast army. They're from the other side of the gate from a land called the Soviet Union. They also call themselves the Red Army."

"So, they are the ones who massacred the army of Legatus Severus," mused the mercenary with false candor. hiding a quiet and solemn mood settling over her, drowning out her exuberance at the wealth. The men she would be working for would be of the army that had butchered her mercenary company, her comrades, her friends. She was a mercenary so switching sides was common when the money ran out, but what would her friends think of her for joining the ones responsible for killing them? More importantly, did she have a choice? They would most likely kill her if she reneged on their deal now.

"They are, but they responded only in defense after a legion was sent through the gate to their lands to conquer them."

"Fair enough then eh? Go to war expect there to be a good chance at dying I suppose. No sense getting upset about it. Tell the lord, um, lieutenant that I'll be ready to move in ten minutes."

"Of course," said Luella cheerily. "I'm happy that you'll be traveling with us Ianthe."

"How do you know my name anyways? Were you guys, um, looking for me after the battle at Mt. Rubicon?" asked the silver haired mercenary somewhat hesitantly.

"Oh no, you told me yesterday in the tavern, but you were drunk."

"Oh yeah," said Ianthe slowly as if her memory was returning to her. "There were...Empire soldiers there right?"

"Yes, but Lieutenant Volkin and his men killed them all."

"Really? All of them? How many did they lose doing that? Must have been at least 20 of them for a normal patrol squad."

"They didn't lose anyone, and they killed 21 of them. Anyways we'll be waiting for you at the north end of the village by the vehicles. See you soon!"

Ianthe watched them go and sighed wearily, going to Maximus who was waking up, letting out a blast of hot air in a snort and letting out a low groan. Keeping his slitted eyes firmly closes against the morning light.

"That's what you get for drinking so much. Ah boy, what have we gotten ourselves into Maximus?" asked Ianthe rubbing the dragon on the snout. "Best to be on the winning side anyways, and gold fits much better than silver." Flicking the coin into the air, she watched it spin end over end, catching the light of the sun, before snatching it out of the air and then putting it into her pouch. Whatever her friends may have thought of her, money was money and it was preferable to dying. Much more preferable.

Xxx

Feliks was riding on the roof of the BTR, watching for the mercenary Ianthe to come back into view. Ever since picking her up the other day she had proved to be well worth the money. She would fly around and ahead of the convoy scouting for anything that could potentially be a threat. They had found one small patrol, only four men and Feliks was surprised at her discipline for a mercenary. Instead of rushing in for an easy kill to loot the bodies of any valuables, she had come back to the patrol group and made a report, asking for further instructions. When they stopped for the night she had left briefly to hunt for food for her dragon. The bloody mouth of the beast immediately told of a successful hunt upon its return.

Everyone had wanted a picture with the dragon, so they had taken time to quickly arrange the vehicles and men so that it could all be in the shot. Several of the men had asked multiple times if it was safe to stand close to the dragon and after reassurances from the mercenary via Luella some of the braver ones had even sat on the creature for the picture. Needless to say, as soon as the dragon made as if to stand up or even let out a grumble, the men had scattered like startled rabbits, much to the amusement of the mercenary.

The mercenary seemed to have a natural gift for languages, after only a day she knew a few basic phrases in Russian, mostly for food or water or to be handed something. She had learned one word quickly though, 'enemy'. She didn't say it too often but when she did she said it with breathless anticipation and urgency.

The land that they were traveling through seemed to come straight out of a fantasy novel. Besides the somewhat modern road, the land, unless right by a village, was not developed in the slightest, leaving either large fields overrun with shrubs, tall grass, and bushes, bordering the road. Or else forests that had probably never had a human being wander through them, thick with intertwining roots as thick as his thigh with no two trees the same. There was no wildlife though, too startled by the sight and sound of the Soviet vehicles to make their presences known, survival instincts taking over where knowledge was lacking.

Feliks ran a hand through his dark red hair, checking over the map again. Their final destination was a hill some four hundred nautical miles to the north yet. The locals called it Alnus hill, but something didn't feel right about it. They were supposed to head South initially, but the day before they were to leave they were sent in the exact opposite direction and given new coordinates. There was something command wanted them to see, or something they wanted them to find out. It screamed of secrecy, something Feliks had transferred to the regular army to avoid. Whatever it was it was going to be dangerous and possibly lethal to him and his men. He would slow their advance when they got within a hundred nautical miles of the hill. They'd travel cross country, off the main roads and out of sight. It would take longer, but every instinct in him was screaming danger by looking at that hill.

A shadow passed over him and Feliks looked up, seeing Ianthe and her dragon Maximus swoop up overhead, then pass low, matching speed with the convoy. Feliks watched Ianthe perform her stunt again, balancing standing up on her mount after unhooking her tether, before jumping off and onto the roof of the BTR next to Feliks. Her steel armor shining brilliantly in the noon day light. The dragon sped up, before landing on top of the PT 76 at the lead of the column, folding its wings in on itself. The light tank sinking visibly lower on its suspension with the added weight of the dragon.

"Money," said Ianthe in her quick cadenced accent. The look on Feliks's face made her shake her head and her face creased in concentration before speaking again. "Enemy money," corrected the mercenary, pointing ahead of the column into the distance.

"I understand," said Feliks using his limited knowledge of the local language, bringing a quick smile from the mercenary. Despite the medieval conditions of the world, her teeth were still white and strong. The mercenary was also warmly dressed despite the fact that it was a rather mild day with a heavy woolen vest below her breastplate. Made sense though, where she would be at, it could be as much as ten degrees centigrade colder than on the ground, plus the wind would bite hard. Opening the hatch, Feliks slid into the BTR, Ianthe following close behind. However, as she was lowering herself down, the BTR hit a large bump in the road causing her to lose her footing. She yelped as she slipped and was almost drawn under the heavy duty wheels of the APC, but Feliks lunged out and hooked his arms under her armpits.

The metal edges of her armor dug into his arms, while hers wrapped quickly around his neck, her feet kicking in empty air. Practically nose to nose with the girl, he was almost pulled out of the BTR himself holding her up and away from the spinning wheels. Feliks pulled and leaned back into the BTR, quickly finding himself aided by the Boris, the large man hauling them in as if they weighed no more than a sack of grain. Feliks and Ianthe fell heavily to the floor, the metal clad mercenary falling on top of him.

Resigning himself to the bruises he would get, Feliks saw the pale face of the mercenary above him, color quickly returning to her cheeks.

"Good?" asked Feliks. Ianthe smiled, and did a two fingered gestured which Feliks had been told meant yes, or good.

"Next time sir, I suggest we stop the column when the lady gets back so she doesn't become roadkill," said Boris, helping both of them into their seats.

"Agreed," said Feliks, rubbing his shoulder where the metal breastplate had dug in. "Ill take in your age old wisdom I suppose."

"Yes sir, not fair that I can't rib you now that you're an officer sir."

"Sure you can," said Feliks. "We're not in front of the men."

"Nah, too disrespectful sir. Can't teach an old dog new tricks. So why is she back anyways?"

"Well she says that there's enemy money ahead."

"Really?" asked Boris.

"Ianthe says that there's a tax collectors caravan ahead, with twice the normal amount of guards which means that it's carrying a lot of money," said Luella, quickly translating for the mercenary.

"Raising funds to form a new army maybe?" said Feliks.

"Oh sounds likely what's going on to me," added Boris.

"The Empire sent mostly mercenaries to the battle of Mt. Rubicon," added Luella. "Apparently they sent most of their regular army to a site further north, but I'm not sure where, along with the armies of the Allied Kingdoms."

"There's been heavy fighting in the North?" asked Feliks surprised.

"Yes. In fact from what I've heard at least twice the number of soldiers were mustered in the Northern Region than the Southern Region."

"Rebellion?" queried Feliks.

"I don't think so. I've heard some of the merchants we've met talking about a holy site that they were sent to try and retake. They said it was some kind of mountain or hill."

"Alnus Hill?" said Feliks with sudden avid interest.

"Yes, that was the name, Alnus hill. They say it's of the same religious standing as Mt. Rubicon. How did you know the name?"

"Because, that's where we're headed and if what you've told me is true then there may well be an army of some 300 000 there."

"Well between 200 and 300 thousand combined Empire and Kingdom forces," clarified the elf helpfully. "But with Ianthe with us now, we won't have to worry about running into them without us knowing."

The silver haired mercenary perked up at the mention of her name, looking between the elf and Soviet officer quickly, obviously wanting to know what they were talking about.

"About the money though, we're sure that it's going to be used to hire more mercenaries or pay soldiers? I don't feel quite right being a highway bandit," asked Boris

"Yes. My village's dealings with merchants and the surrounding townsfolk over the years let us know the habits of the Empire's tax collectors. They only come in the spring once a year, any more than that is when the Empire needs additional funds to fund their wars."

"Well then, that would make it our patriotic duty to make sure that the money in that caravan never reaches its destination wouldn't it?" asked Feliks.

"I believe that it would be sir," agreed Boris.

Xxx

Luicius, Gaius the Third was a portly man of middling years and a middling bureaucrat in the Empire. The taxes had increased dramatically in the last few months, meaning that they were practically stripping these villages dry and the villagers were none too happy about it. It merited, no, necessitated the increased guard for his caravan. The dozen mounted legionnaires surrounding his caravan were meant as both a deterrent to local bandits and angry citizenry alike. There were to hit as many villages as possible, then head to the province's municipal headquarters to deposit the funds, then head out again to do it all over again. As many times as they could before the region was sucked dry and the Empire instituted a scorched earth policy to prevent the advance of a foreign army.

The army sent to Mt. Rubicon had contained a small contingent of the Empire's troops, but it had been composed mostly of auxiliaries and mercenaries. Reports were that that army had been completely decimated and as such another one needed to be raised in short order. The benefit being that since it was mostly mercenaries lost, it was no great defeat for the Empire in terms of manpower or equipment. Indeed, most of the money spent could be reimbursed now, because they could merely seize it from the skeletal remains of the mercenary companies and organizations. Those funds would now be used to hire even more mercenaries, from different companies obviously, to use against the forces arrayed against them at Mt. Rubicon. To who or what those forces were, Gaius did not know, but surely they were spent after fighting such a great army as had been sent against them?

Gaius reached down and opened one of the many strong boxes at his feet. He opened it with a sense of giddy excitement as the soft shine of silver washed over him. He reached in and took out a few coins, putting them within the pockets of his finely made tunic.

Every tax collector within the Empire took a little bit of the Imperial wealth for themselves and Gaius was no different. It was called leakage, and tolerated if not condoned by many of his peers. There was no reason to feel guilty when everyone had their hand in the cookie jar.

So enraptured was Gaius with the silver in his lap that he didn't notice that his carriage had come to a stop until he heard the gruff voice of his driver commanding someone to clear the road.

Gaius wasn't overly concerned by that. He had at least a dozen Imperial legionnaires with him besides his own half-dozen retainers, all well skilled with their weapons. No doubt it was some peasant who had broken the axle or wheel of their cart. They'd be moved aside in short order so that their betters could continue on their way.

The first sound was a loud crack that reverberated several times before it faded away, but before the last echo had disappeared, leaving Gaius looking around in confusion, a barrage like firecrackers erupted all around. But this was louder, more forceful, accompanied by the terrified whinnies of pain from horses, and frightened, pained cries torn from bloody throats.

Gaius had his hands up, instinctively around his head to protect himself and cried out when something passed through his carriage leaving a neat hole in either side of it, save for a few splinters of wood. It hissed as it passed, like a serpent. The cacophony from outside lasted only a few moments, but it felt like hours to Gaius inside of the carriage, cowering amongst the satin furnishings, pulling his voluminous robes about his head like a child with their bedding.

It took minutes after the sounds stopped before Gaius worked up the courage to leave the safety of the carriage floor to look outside. Rising slowly from his position on the floor, Gaius pulled back the satin curtain on his window slowly, and screamed when he saw a being with steel teeth grinning at him.

Xxx

"That is a lot of money," said Boris whistling slowly. "Think we should take some?"

"Not a coin sergeant," said Feliks closing the strongbox and putting it in a pile with the other. The rest of his men, the ones who hadn't set up a perimeter were stripping the dead guards of swords and extra armor from the saddlebags of their dead mounts. Souvenirs to take home no doubt, with a few of them even swinging the blades around experimentally.

Vitsin looked particularly enthused, the blonde medic even doing a flourish with a blade before it flew from his hand, causing Grekov to chastise him rather colorfully for a moment, before realizing that there was a lady in the form of a petite elf present and censored his speech accordingly.

Regardless though they were having fun which was important, gave them a chance to unwind and relax. They hadn't been in any real danger in any of their engagements, well, save for the dragon in the tavern, but his men had still killed. They were young, proud, macho, and wouldn't say it was bothering them, but he could see it in the way they stared at the bodies of the dead Imperial soldiers that they were disturbed with it to some degree. Many maybe trying to moralize it, or perhaps angry at themselves for feeling bad about it to begin with.

They had been blooded together though and these men would be living together every moment of every day for the foreseeable future. Those combined things would see them become family to each other and they would help each other through it, talk about it when they thought no one else could hear their doubts and grow closer and stronger as a result. They would do that if they remained a healthy functioning unit. It was when they broke down and the unit quit working as a team that things would get toxic, but it was Feliks' and Boris' job to make sure that didn't happen.

"Yes sir," answered the veteran dutifully, but watching the strongbox all the same. "You might have some trouble with that one though," added Boris tilting his head in the direction of the silver haired mercenary eying the money hungrily from an oak tree not too far away.

"I suppose I did say something about giving a share of war spoils," said Feliks.

"So she's getting some then I take it sir?"

"Of course sergeant, don't you know? We serve from patriotic duty and love of the Motherland. Our duty and satisfaction of our service is all the payment we need. She serves for empty and shallow capitalistic reasons so she needs cold and empty silver coins to fill her empty soul."

"If I can have some silver I will put on a top hat, open a factory, and become the most oppressive capitalist you've ever seen," said Boris wryly.

Feigning shock, Feliks held a strongbox to his chest and pantomimed deep hurt.

"Comrade! To sell out our glorious socialist undertaking is just, good heavens! The scandal!"

"Don't quit the army sir, your acting is damned awful."

"Duly noted Sergeant," said Feliks, walking to the mercenary who immediately perked up as he approached. Taking a business approach, she held up seven fingers when he was within a few paces from her.

"Mine," said the mercenary simply.

"No."

Frowning the mercenary seemed to ponder a response for a moment before holding up five fingers.

"Yes?"

"No," said Feliks again, amused at the scowl that made its way onto her face. Ianthe held up three fingers.

"Good?"

"No, not good," said Feliks, amazed at how expressive the mercenaries face was, like a mirror to her inner thoughts which at the moment were somewhere between kicked puppy and left out in the rain.

"One?" asked the mercenary, holding up a solitary finger like a beacon of hope.

"Yes."

The mercenary held out her hand, seemingly nonplussed, waiting for her solitary silver coin, her fingerless gloves showing a pale, but calloused and tough set of fingers used to earning their keep with the hilt of a sword. Feliks filled that hand with the entire strongbox.

"Yours," said Feliks, watching the momentary confusion on the mercenaries face switch to unrestrained glee and Ianthe flashed a wide and white smile, hugging the strongbox close, before in her excitement began dancing around with it.

"Well you made her happy," said Boris.

"I did."

"Why did you give her so much?"

"Well because, we can't take the money without having a legitimate use for it unless we want to get a court martial for banditry and if I pay her well she's going to work even harder for us. Plus we won't have to worry about her running out on us or betraying us if there's a chance that she'll get another bonus like that."

"She's throwing the coins in the air like rain."

"I know," said Feliks grinning.

"Look at that you dog, buttering her up before you cozy up to inside her dragon's cave aren't you?" said Boris, elbowing Feliks in the ribs.

"What? No!" protested Feliks blushing hard.

"Kid, I swear just because you haven't used your gear doesn't mean you don't think with it. Still, she's your only shot now that Luella's off limits sir."

"Oh? How's that?"

"She may be old, but she's basically a teenager, sometimes she even acts like a little kid and there's no way I'm letting some mug like you make her grow up. Sir."

"Taking a paternal interest in her sergeant?"

"Yeah, she reminds me of my second daughter when she was that age. Well, not that age, but you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do," said Feliks. They stood in silence for a few moments before Boris broke it.

"So, why did you really leave the spetsnaz?"

"I don't think I know what you mean sergeant."

"Come off it sir, I've seen you in a fight a few times now. You aren't squeamish like some new recruit, hell you enjoy it. You don't miss when you shoot and you shoot to kill. You've killed people before and you don't hesitate when you have to do it again. What group were you in?"

Feliks sighed wearily.

"I'll tell you the group but that'll be the end of it until I want to talk about it again. Is that understood sergeant?"

"Yes sir."

"GRU."

"Ah. Did some nasty shit then didn't you sir?"

Feliks gave a slow nod.

"Sorry I brought it up then sir."

"Don't be, you have a right to know I suppose, just not all of it right now. "

"I'll be here when you're ready Feliks. What about all this then? Should we pack it up sir?"

"In a moment, Ianthe is amusing me right now," said Feliks grinning as he watching the mercenary laughing like a child and rolling around in a pile of silver.

Xxx

Octavian woke slowly, felling drowsy and numb. His mouth was cotton ball dry and tasted faintly of medicine. It was hard to swallow and the room was dimly lit with a candle glowing warmly on a small table in the corner of the wooden room, dispelling the dark like a pries would banish evil. The window was dark though with thousands of pinpricks of starlight visible through the panes.

"My lord, you mustn't move, your wounds haven't healed yet." It was an older voice, wizened and raspy. The air stank of sweet smelling incense and wood smoke, hanging heavy and thick in the air. Captain Octavian groaned as he tried to sit up, but finding that even the old man was capable of holding him down with ease, much to his chargin.

"How long have I been asleep?"

"Three days lord. I had feared that your wounds were too great, but your spirit was strong. It was wounds unlike any I've ever seen before on you my lord."

"My men, where are they?"

"All dead lord, you are the only survivor and your life hung by no more than a spiders thread for the past three days."

"Who, who did this? To me, to my men? Did they give their name, who they belonged to? All I remember is thunder claps and terrible noises and flashes of light."

"They called themselves the Red Army my lord. They drove wagons without horses and they growled like beasts, putting out a noxious gas. Their weapons were staffs of wood and metal that shot flame and thunder. From their direction I believe that they came from Mt. Rubicon."

"Mt. Rubicon? How did they get here so fast? It should have taken them longer to recoup their forces and gather fresh supplies. The orcs at the very least should have harried their advance, they're especially thick in that area," said Octavian, half to himself.

"I can not say my lord, there was only a few of them, no more than the number of men that you had yourself. Perhaps merely a scouting party?"

"Yes, yes that must be it. Tell me though healer, why was no action taken against the agents of a foreign power that attacked the Empire's soldiers?"

"We are simple farmers and merchants my lord, not warriors. There was nothing we could do that would not result in our own deaths. I was only able to save you from the brink of death by sheer will of the gods once they had moved on. I tried with several of your men, but their wounds proved too severe and they expired. I am sorry for my inability to help them my lord."

"No, no. You did what you could and had you resisted then you would be dead and so would I right now. I must ride though, at the very least send word about this," said Octavian, trying to rise from his bed but finding that he didn't have the strength.

"My lord you must rest for now. I have sent a carrier bird with information about what has transpired already. There is nothing else that can be done until your wounds heal. Were you to leave here in this condition you would not make it more than a few leagues at best."

"I fear that you may be right, but you're certain that you sent the bird to the correct location?"

"Yes my lord. One to the legion commander's fort, one to the governor, and one to the capital. One of them is bound to make it to its destination."

"Good, that is very good. I suppose that you are correct in your assessment. Were I to leave like this, I would not make it more than a few miles. I will rest then, until I am well enough to travel. I will need a horse though."

"I have one that you use when you are able. An old nag, but reliable and strong."

"You have my thanks healer, the Empire will compensate you for the beast I assure you."

"No thanks are required lord, merely become well again will be all the thanks I need. Rest now."

"Yes, I believe I will, thank you again," said Octavian, his breathing slowing as he drifted off to sleep. The old healer studied the legionnaire as he slept.

He was a young man, fit, strong, and from the looks of him from one of the conquered regions of the empire. His hair and complexion were fair, and on his muscular arms were tattoos that wrapped around the muscles in sharp points. Tribal tattoos speaking of his lineage. A man risen from the ranks to become an officer in the Empire's armies. Yet for all his youth and strenght, the strangest of woulds had been inflicted on him. Small pieces of metal, as if thrown from a sling, but with too much accuracy and too small of a size to be from a sling. The healer picked up one of the metal pieces from a small tray and looked at it. Just what made such things like these?

AN: Just so people know I only know the anime adaptation of GATE so I'm a little lacking in terms of the knowledge from the manga, so if some of the things you guys leave in reviews go over my head that's why. AlxkendBlader, I have no idea about the goddess.