Chapter 49 of Quest for the Blue Crystal

Terran “Tarn” Clavius, commander of the Legion at Cumao, Purgatorius, lowered his telescope and turned to the adjutant.

“I’m puzzled, Minse. Mileu uniforms, but only thirteen soldiers. They ride down the road, in full view. Why? What is it that they want? It’s three hundred miles to the nearest Mileu outpost, and that one skirts Aloria, far to the south. What brought these men here?”

Captain Minse remained quiet, knowing that the questions were merely Tarn’s way of thinking out loud; usually for benefit of his subordinates, who admired their hardened, quick thinking leader.

“Take a detachment out to meet them. Double the guard at each lookout tower in case this is a diversion.”

Minse snapped off a salute and a crisp “Yes, Sir!” and turned to carry out the command. Tarn raised the telescope to his eyes and watched the strangers approach.

Ten minutes later Captain Minse raised his hand, stopping his troops a few yards ahead of Drake’s. “Soldiers of Mileu! Identify yourselves and your business here!”

Drake stopped his troops, but continued to advance by himself until he was beside the captain. “I am lieutenant Dravis, in command of the Fourth Battalion of the Esaf Mileu,” stated Drake, smiling grimly. “What’s left of it, anyway. We started out three hundred strong, on a mission to explore the northern banks of the Glorian for possible siting of a new hydro station. We were ambushed by Rauders. Whole damn tribe, it seemed to me. They had circled around and came up from the south, cutting off our natural path of retreat. We were forced to head north, deeper into their territory. It was a setup. Soon we were hemmed in by the mountains on the east, and Rauder reinforcements coming in from the west. We rode like the wind due north for fifty miles and found by luck or the grace of the Crystal, they didn’t have Bors Pass cut off.

“But it was a near thing. When we reached the western edge of the pass, we saw clouds of dust from the north; I’d stake my life that the Rauders were moving in to plug this last hole.”

Drake spat onto the dirt road. “Anyway, we started through the pass, which slowed us down enough that the Rauders caught up. We fought a rearguard battle as we backed into the pass. Up near the snow line, we got lucky; an avalanche cut off pursuit.”

Drake looked dirty and tired. “That’s it, captain. We’re all that made it through. We ask for shelter, provisions, and safe passage through your country. We’ll cut through Condeu for our return to Mileu.”

Minse had listened carefully to the story. It sounded plausible, yet certain questions bothered him. The Rauders had always attacked in small bands before; did this signal a change in their tactics, perhaps a cooperative, united efforts among the diverse tribes? If so, it was going to be a sorry future for both Mileu and Condeu. The Rauder lands contained nearly as much land as the two civilized nations combined, and every male Rauder was raised to be a warrior. Only the internal bickering among the dozen tribes had prevented them from becoming more than a nuisance to the northern regions.

Tarn would certainly want to question these men. After of course, the formalities and normal precautions were observed.

“Dravis! Have your men throw down their weapons and stand by for a search.”

Drake nodded. He turned and shouted to his men, “Dismount! Drop all weapons to the ground! Open all bags for inspection!”  Drake dismounted, unbuckled a sword belt and let it drop to the dirt road. He opened his saddlebags and motioned for Minse to inspect it.

Minse remained mounted as he trotted around to the open bag. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to a shiny metal object.

Drake pulled out the MP-5, held it up for closer inspection. “It’s a bedrock core sampler,” he said.  “Something new the techs back at Damanusk dreamed up. See this round opening?” Drake put his finger in the barrel. “Well, you hold it against the rock you want to sample, and it digs out a cylindrical core, just as neat as you please, and packs it in a metal shell for storage until it gets turned in for analysis at the labs. Here,” Drake pulled out the clip, and ejected a round into his hand.

He handed it to Minse. “Now isn’t that the neatest little thing you ever saw?” said Drake as Minse examined the bullet. “Supposed to make the siting of a power plant more efficient based on geology. But that’s beyond me!”

Minse started to give it back, but Drake shook his head. “Keep it as a souvenir. My men and I have more than enough samples to work with.”  Minse thought it strange that a man who had been through as much as Dravis was still able to smile at some new toy of technology. But there was no mistaking the look of fear and battle fatigue on his men. Minse waved for them to follow.

Drake put the gun back into his bag, then he and his men mounted up and followed Minse into the fortress. As the twenty foot doors swung ponderously shut behind them, he  reached into his bag and withdrew the gun.

“It’s clobbering time!” he shouted, digging his heels into the flanks of his horse. As the beast leaped forward, he pulled the trigger. A cascade of loud pops filled the air.

Minse felt as though he’d been punched and stabbed a dozen times. He couldn’t breathe. He touched his chest; his hand was awash with blood. He dimly heard more of the popping noises, followed by the screams of his men, and the coppery smell of blood was everywhere. Then he didn’t see or hear or smell anything ever again.

***

Drake jumped from his horse and ran to the command building, bursts of his gun cutting down those who were stupid enough to peer out the windows at the growing commotion. With battle screams ripping from their throats, his troops spread out to the other buildings.

Drake kicked open the door at the top of the stairs, surprising two men inside. One was obviously the commander, judging from the braid and fancy insignia. The other man was dressed in wizard’s robes. The commander was pushing a sensiball against the wizard’s chest.

“Damn it man, you have got to get a message through! Notify the proconsul of the attack. And get reinforcements! I’ll hold them back.” Tarn drew his sword.

The wizard shook his head violently. “It’s no use! I can’t get the spells to form! We have got to get out of here! We are all going to be killed!” The magician threw the sphere to the floor and ran to a back door. Before he reached it, Drake squeezed off a dozen shots, and a line of gaping holes ripped through the wizard’s back.

Drake turned to Tarn. “Terran Clavius? Commander of the Legion?”  Tarn nodded. Drake saw Tarn’s hand tighten on his sword. “I’m Michael Drake; Commander of the Special Forces unit of the New World army. Clavius, your base is overrun, and with disappointing ease.  I was told that your troops had more experience, more talent than any other unit in all Salmineria. Well, I guess that’s just hogwash, because me and a dozen men just kicked all your asses.”

Drake laughed. “And not one of my men was even wounded! What a riot!”  Drake laughed even harder, and Tarn lifted up his sword. With a sudden lunge he moved in and swung it towards the laughing head. Drake back stepped and pulled down the trigger; kept it held down till Tarn’s head had been ripped to a mass of shattered bone and oozing, bloody brains. Drake stopped laughing when the body hit the floor with a wet thud.

He had hoped that at least one of his men would have died in the fighting. It would have been easy to point to the dead comrade as the one with the least kills; his punishment already meted out by the enemy. But no such luck. And no backing out. If the men believed that they were fooled into being scared this once, the threat would never scare them again. And it might have to work again.

Drake decided to postpone his decision until after the men destroyed the wind powered electrical plant. Might as well squeeze some more use of the guy before he died.