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“Mission accomplished,” Merry announced, planting the butt of her lance on the floor. “We have successfully reported to this empty conference room. What’s next, Sarge?”
“What I know, you know,” Principia said, uncharacteristically terse. “And keep a lid on the attitude, private. We were ordered here for a reason, and you sassing out of turn in front of the bronze will result in them landing on my neck. Guess how many times that headache will be magnified before I pass it on down to you?”
Merry cleared her throat and shifted to attention. “Apologies, Sergeant.”
“You’re both turning into actual soldiers,” Ephanie said with a small smile. “It’s quite touching. And a little bizarre.”
“Thank you, my loyal and dedicated XO,” Principia replied, sighing.
Nandi cleared her throat. “Someone approaching. Those are Rouvad’s footsteps.”
Principia’s eyes cut to her momentarily, but she didn’t bother to ask if she was certain. “Attention!”
The entire squad, already lined up along one side of the small conference room, snapped to attention as ordered. And there they stood. It was another half a minute before the door opened—suddenly, to those who lacked elven hearing—and High Commander Rouvad stepped in, alone. She paused, glancing across them with an unreadable expression, then shut the door.
“Sergeant Locke,” the Commander said curtly, “remove your insignia.”
Principia hesitated barely an instant before reaching up to detach the striped pin from her pauldron. It gave her a moment to think, as they were designed not to come off accidentally during battle. She’d done nothing court-martial worthy, and anyway, it wouldn’t be standard policy to have her whole squad report to an out-of-the-way spot like this and watch if she were about to be demoted or something…
“I apologize for the lack of ceremony, but everything will be made clear soon,” Commander Rouvad said, reaching up to begin attaching a new pin to the now-bare spot on Principia’s shoulder. “Principia Locke, you are advanced to the rank of Lieutenant, effective immediately. My congratulations.” She took a step back.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Principia said, saluting and concealing her bemusement. This she had not been expecting; that promotion should have followed either an act of conspicuous valor or another year of service…
“Conceal your old pin, Lieutenant,” Rouvad ordered. “And the rest of you are not to reveal the circumstances of this promotion, in general but particularly to any of the women you are about to meet. As far as anyone needs to know, Locke has held this rank for a suitably long period. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am!” the squad chorused, saluting.
Rouvad nodded once. “Good. You will now report to the west sub-basement assembly room B to be briefed on your next mission. Afterward, Locke, I want you to return here and meet me while Corporal Avelea prepares your squad for departure.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia said crisply.
The High Commander nodded again. “Dismissed, ladies. I’ll see you below in not more than five minutes.”
She turned and strode out through the door opposite the one they had come in.
“Well…you heard the woman,” Principia said, stepping toward the other exit. “West sub-basement assembly room B. Which is…?”
“Follow me,” Nandi said with a smile as they exited into the hall. “And congratulations, Locke.”
“Yeah, congrats, Sar—I mean, LT,” Farah added brightly, followed by a chorus of agreement from the others.
“This may present an operational obstacle for the squad, though,” Ephanie added gravely. “We’ve been relying rather heavily on your personal expertise, Locke, but you are now required by all protocol and military tradition to know nothing.”
“I don’t know when you decided to become a comedian, Avelea, but you’re lucky you already have a job.”
They were on the ground floor in the western wing already; it was a journey involving two flights of stairs and one right turn, taking no more than three minutes, before they approached a door currently guarded by two Legionnaires. Nandi fell back, letting Principia take the lead. As they neared, the soldiers shifted to cross their lances across the door.
“Name and squad,” barked one, staring expressionlessly at Principia.
“Locke, Principia, Squad 391.”
Both immediately returned their lances to the upright position and the soldier on the right, who had spoken, saluted; the other, having her lance in her right hand, simply remained at attention. Principia saluted back, then pulled open the door and stepped through.
Casey was the last in and shut it behind them, and then the squad clustered together, falling automatically into parade rest. The assembly room was large, and no less than six other squads were already present—fully-sized units of at least twelve women each. Squad 391 were not only the last to arrive, but the smallest group by far, and gathered several curious stares.
Before anyone could speak or approach them, however, the door on the auditorium’s low dais opened and Commander Rouvad herself emerged. Everyone immediately stood at attention and saluted.
“At ease,” Rouvad said in a clipped tone, striding to the center of the platform after sweeping one quick look around the room. “This mission and everything about to be discussed in this briefing are classified. You are being mobilized in response to a crisis, ladies. The Fourth Silver Legion has been completely neutralized.” The stir which went around the room was subdued considering that news, discipline relaxed only to the extent of a few indrawn breaths and shifted boots. “Along with a supporting group of Salyrites from all four Colleges who were assisting with their last mission. They have suffered only a dozen fatalities, but all surviving personnel are afflicted with a malady clearly magical in nature and are unable to act.”
She paused, shoulders shifting slightly with a deep breath.
“The situation is this. A small cult has been active in Puna Dara over the last year, known locally as the Rust. Our intelligence from Punaji territory is sporadic at best, but what we do know is that these Rust are set apart from the average run of fringe religions by the practice of grafting machine parts onto their bodies—and in some cases, replacing their limbs entirely. Reports vary and some are difficult to believe, but there is strong indication that these mechanical additions grant them physical and magical power beyond the human norm. And they are, by necessity, magical in nature, because there is no purely mechanical technology which can achieve the effects described.
“Four weeks ago, I was alerted by the Archpope and the Imperial government that both had suffered incursions of some kind.” Her expression became distinctly annoyed. “These reports were frustratingly vague, as they concerned matters which are highly classified by both organizations, but in both cases, they involved artifacts of the Elder Gods in storage by the Church and the government being abruptly activated to potentially deadly effect. The Archpope believes, on the strength of intelligence he declined to share with me, that the Rust were responsible. The Empire did not repeat this assertion, but offered tacit support to an investigation of the matter.
“At issue is the nature of Punaji politics and culture. Their windshamans see to most of the spiritual needs of their people; only a few cults have a presence in Puna Dara, all very small, and the Church has none. Naphthene is the only Pantheon goddess revered there, and she has no actual worshipers. More specifically, the Empire is not able to act unilaterally in Punaji territory per the terms of their treaty, and the Punaji government is unwilling to accept overt help from Tiraas on any internal matter, which would apparently make King Rajakhan look weak and invite dissent—or so he clearly thinks. It is therefore a testament to how seriously he takes this matter that the King agreed to host the Fourth and an attached party of Salyrites to assist in investigating this cult and taking whatever action he deemed necessary.”
Again, she paused to breathe before continuing.
“Immediately upon entering the mountain tunnel leading to Puna Dara, the entire Legion and their companions were struck by a plague. Immediately, and simultaneously, in a fashion totally unlike the normal progression of any disease. The symptoms are severe physical weakness, exhaustion, and lethargy; several perished due to the aggravation of preexisting conditions, but overall the effect seems designed to neutralize victims without killing them. Those afflicted were evacuated to Rodvenheim for treatment, where they have remained stable. The condition appears not to be contagious, and shows no sign of either worsening or abating. I simply have an entire Legion apparently cursed, by an effect which has resisted all efforts at diagnosis, much less treatment. We have not even identified the vector for the affliction. The Fourth reports they were not attacked or even approached prior to being struck down.
“It is obvious,” Rouvad said grimly, “that this was in response to the threat of a major Avenist presence in Puna Dara, and at this point we are considering the Archpope’s theory the correct one: the Rust have hitherto unseen capabilities, are extremely dangerous, and have grave ambitions, or at the very least a willingness to exercise significant power when threatened. Rajakhan’s stipulations remain in place, and with this force active in the streets of his city I firmly agree that the stability of the Punaji nation needs to be preserved. The Empire is still barred from intervening—for now. Tiraas will not suffer a hostile force to overthrow an ally with whom it shares a border, which means that eliminating this threat will be necessary to prevent an outright war of conquest.
“The Church is not acting directly, either, but organizing the cults who have volunteered personnel to go to Puna Dara and assist. After the disaster which struck the Fourth, all insertions into the city are being undertaken with careful discretion. We do not know how the Rust identifies threats, nor how they achieved this retaliation, so we cannot expect every attempt to succeed. However, the Thieves’ Guild and the Huntsmen of Shaath are sending agents to assist; the Guild already has a small presence in Puna Dara. The Collegium of Salyrene is dispatching more agents, far more carefully this time. I have been notified less formally that Omnist monks and several miscellaneous Vidian personnel are making their way to Puna Dara. It was not made clear to me exactly how they intend to help. And then, of course, I am sending you.”
She nodded to each squad in turn as she addressed them. “Each of you is a Squad One of your respective cohorts. Squads 221, 241, and 611 are dedicated rangers. You will attempt to enter Puna Dara unseen via the difficult mountain passes leading to it from the surrounding Stalrange and Dwarnskolds. Squad 351 are clerics and healers, and will proceed to the city via ship; I will be making it clear, with the cooperation of the Punaji government, that your mission is pure humanitarian relief, which will hopefully not invite retaliation by the Rust. Squad 371 are more diverse spellcasters and will attempt insertion via teleportation. Squad 211 are dark ops. You know what to do. And finally, Squad 391 are part of a diplomatic and interfaith cooperation initiative. Your method of insertion I will leave to the discretion of your commanding officer.
“Once you enter the city, those of you who succeed in doing so will find one another and coordinate without assembling at the sole Avenist temple in Puna Dara. The temple has not been attacked or otherwise disrupted by the Rust, and you will not draw their attention to it. The exception will be Squad 351; you would create suspicion by not assigning yourselves there, and so that is where you will go. All of you will link up, establish communication and cooperation with one another, the participating cults—specifically the Eserites, Shaathists, and Salyrites—and the Punaji government. Your chain of command is as follows: Lieutenant Locke of Squad 391 will command this operation in the field and be responsible for determining, organizing and executing a course of action. In Locke’s absence, Lieutenant Ansari of Squad 611 will take command, followed by Lieutenant Intu of 211, Lieutenant Raazh of 241, Lieutenant Carstairs of 371, and Sergeant Steinbrenner of 221. Captain Ombanwa, your squad will remain based primarily at the temple, and provide support to the mission as Locke or her successors require, but your goal is humanitarian and in the event of mission failure I want you to be able to distance yourselves and continue working without having to evacuate. That means, Locke, that the healers will be under your orders, but you are to leave them be until and unless you have a specific need for their services. There are Omnist, Salyrite, Izarite, and Vidian temples in Puna Dara—small ones, and only one of each faith, but they will provide starting points from which to locate one another. There is no permanent Shaathist presence and the Guild’s safehouse is of course not publicly known; you will have to find them as well, Locke.”
She paused once more to frown and inhale deeply.
“Your mission, ladies, is first and foremost reconnaissance. I want you to find out the goals, capabilities, and character of the Rust in as much detail as possible. What you learn will determine your next course of action. You are under no circumstances to politically destabilize the Punaji nation, nor endanger the established or visiting personnel of the other cults which are offering assistance. You will also, within the tolerances of those goals, protect your own welfare. We are frighteningly in the dark, ladies; this mission is perforce an open-ended one. If, having done the above, you deem it necessary to withdraw and report back, do so; if you choose to take more aggressive action, take steps to ensure that whatever you have learned is transmitted back here so that the Sisterhood’s next actions will not be taken in this same state of blindness. However, if you find the chance to end the Rust, do whatever you have to. They have struck down our own in large numbers; I have no desire to normalize relations or continue to tolerate their existence. Lieutenant Locke, I expect you to listen to the recommendations of the other squad leaders, but ultimately, the determination is yours.
“Dossiers have been compiled with all known details on this situation, which will be issued for you to read en route to Puna Dara. You will fully absorb this information and destroy them before arriving.” Rouvad gave them a beat of silence before asking, “Questions?”
There was a momentary pause, before the officer she had indicated as Lieutenant Intu spoke in a quiet tone. “Based on the reports from the Archpope and the Empire, are we assuming these Rust to have some connection to the Elder Gods?”
“We are assuming nothing,” Rouvad replied. “I consider that prospect remote, despite the suggestive connection. You will reconnoiter and answer these questions yourself before taking direct action.”
Lieutenant Ansari cleared her throat. “I mean no disrespect, Commander, to you or Lieutenant Locke, but who is she, and why is she to command this mission?”
“Your lack of disrespect is noted, Lieutenant,” Rouvad said flatly. “It is a fair concern. Squad 391 is, as I said, a unit with a diplomatic mandate; its members have connections to multiple cults and have been training specifically to cooperate and coordinate with them. As you will be relying on compatriots from other cults, including some with which the Sisterhood has historically poor relations, that experience will be immediately relevant to your success. Principia Locke, specifically, is relatively new to the Legions, but she has earned my trust. She is also two and a half centuries old, a highly seasoned adventurer, and a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. I would place a more experienced officer in command of a straightforward military exercise. This mission, however, requires lateral thinking and adaptability more than military strategy, and I judge her the woman for the job. Am I clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ansari said, nodding.
The Commander gave them another moment, sweeping her eyes again across the group, and then nodded her head once. “You have your orders, then. Each squad will move out on its own, as soon as you are able, and regroup in Puna Dara with as many of your sisters as are able to make it. Goddess watch over you, soldiers. Dismissed.”
All seven squads saluted her in unison, then turned and began filing toward the doors. Squad 391, having been the last to arrive, were closest to one of the entrances and thus the first into the hall.
“I’ll meet you back at the cabin,” Principia said to them. “I trust you’ll have everybody ready, Corporal.”
“Count on it, ma’am,” Ephanie said crisply. “How are we to proceed?”
“I’ll have an insertion strategy by the time I rejoin you. Just get yourselves squared away and be ready to improvise.”
Ephanie saluted, then turned on her heel. “Forward march, ladies.”
Principia watched them go for a moment, then glanced at the other soldiers now emerging from the assembly room. Several of them studied her with open speculation, before she turned and followed her squad. At the top of the stairs, she diverged from their course, heading back toward the small conference room where Rouvad had ordered them to meet her.
She waited only a few minutes before Rouvad rejoined her.
“At ease,” the High Commander said upon being saluted. “Well, Locke, since it’s likely to be some time before we speak again and it’s been two weeks since I had a progress report, how are your permanent projects coming along?”
“Training and practice is proceeding to my satisfaction,” Principia said. “Being an experimental squad, we don’t really have a yardstick against which to measure our progress, but the members of my squad have done well at sharing the benefits of their respective histories, and I’ve moved beyond that to actively seeking out opportunities to help other cults, and build connections.”
“Yes, Captain Dijanerad complained about having to put her foot down. It seems a handful of temples have made a point of requesting you specifically for guard duty.”
“Being out of the city for a while should hopefully wean them off the habit,” Principia said with the faintest smile. “With regard to my ongoing projects, I am similarly plugging away at the firing surface problem. I’ve no way of telling how close I am to a solution; all I can do is try things, and then try other things when they fail. It may not ultimately be practical to create a lance head which functions equally well as a bladed weapon and an energy weapon, at least not with the current state of modern enchanting. I have some more theories to test before I give up on that, but it may prove necessary to either make that two separate weapons or accept a loss of efficacy in one or the other function.”
Rouvad nodded. “And your other weapons project?”
“There, Eivery and I have had a recent breakthrough. We still haven’t figured out exactly how, but it’s become clear that dwarven device is augmented somehow through magic or alchemy. The projectile we recovered appears, to all our scrying, to be a simple lead ball, but we discovered by testing our own prototype that when you subject a metal as soft as lead to the kinds of forces involved, it turns into a sort of smudge. There are mundane tests we can run, but they tend to be more destructive, and I’m hesitant to dismantle our only sample, especially now that we know there’s an unidentified magical element at work.”
“Mm,” Rouvad said noncommittally. “Any headway in improving the device?”
“Well, it’s not very accurate,” Principia said thoughtfully. “Even less so than a comparably-sized lightning wand, and has nothing on the accuracy of an enchanter wand. I do have a theory about that. Arrows are fletched in a spiraling pattern to make them spin while in flight, which stabilizes then and increases the accuracy of the projectile.”
“Odd that the dwarves didn’t think of that.”
“Dwarves have never used projectile weapons, ma’am; between their innate hardiness and the heavy armor their forces have always favored, arrows have never made much impact on them, and they never bothered to use them on others. Projectile weapons are of limited use in tunnels and the dwarves have very seldom come out to fight anybody except to defend their own realms. They may simply not realize that lateral rotation stabilizes objects in flight. The scientific method doesn’t help you with things on which you haven’t experimented. Then again, they may just not have gotten around to it yet; this is clearly a very new technology. Regardless, I think shaping the projectile in a spiral of some kind will help with that, but it presents its own challenges. Metal balls are simple to cast; a more complex shape is trickier. It will also unavoidably make the ammunition more fragile.”
“Mm.” The Commander pursed her lips. “What if you shaped the firing mechanism rather than the projectile? Say, with spiraling grooves on the inside of the firing tube. That would be sturdier and needs to be done fewer times, and would make even a spherical projectile spin, which should help.”
Principia stared at her, momentarily dumbfounded. “That…actually would probably work. Well…blast. Now I regret I’m off to fight cultists instead of trying that out.”
“With regard to that,” Rouvad said, heaving a soft sigh. “I assume you understand the reason for your abrupt promotion, now. I trust you to have the wits to put that together, even without the help of Ansari’s rather pointed question.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Principia replied, nodding. “You can’t have a sergeant giving orders to lieutenants.”
“In point of fact I can, as Corporal Avelea could explain to you in detail, but I would rather not. Every one of those squads is seasoned and highly distinguished; every one of the women leading it has the chops to command more than seven squads on one mission. If a viable alternative exists I prefer not to insult them. Anyway, it’s sooner than I would ordinarily have had you promoted, but I would not have done this if I doubted you could handle the responsibility. I’ve placed you in charge of three captains, Locke, though with the exception of Ombanwa they are accustomed to taking temporary grade reductions for situations precisely like this one. The only reason each of those officers is not commanding a much larger unit by now is because they are all highly specialized and serve extremely well in their current positions. And then, there is your squad. All six of you, with individual records far too short to be so spotty.”
“Shahai notwithstanding,” Principia agreed. “Commander… I’m not going to question your judgment, but honestly I’m more surprised by this than Ansari was.”
“Well, we’ve made some progress if you’re not questioning my judgment.” Rouvad’s wry expression quickly faded into sobriety, however. “I’m not going to claim a great deal of affection for you, but in your relatively short time here, you’ve proved you can get things done, under great pressure and in uncertain conditions. In fact, that is where you thrive, you and your squad. You’re the right one to organize this mission. And…more to the point, I am fully confident that you will make it into Puna Dara.” The Commander hesitated, then turned her head to stare at the wall. “We have no idea how the Rust identifies or strikes its enemies. No way to know what methods will get through this defense. This strategy, trying multiple tactics to see what works, carries the presupposition that some of them won’t. I am sending good women straight to their likely deaths. Even if they use the same non-lethal methods, the situations in which they risk being incapacitated…”
“That’s the job, Commander,” Principia said quietly. “Ours to die in Avei’s name, yours to order it. We all signed up. We all serve.”
Rouvad’s gaze flicked back to her, and sharpened. “A year ago, I think I would have punched you in the mouth for saying that.”
“A year ago, you wouldn’t have believed I was serious.” Principia did not go so far as to smile, but her expression softened. “And no, Commander, you’re far too disciplined to do such a thing. You would have ordered someone to punch me in the mouth.”
She shook her head. “Goddess preserve me, Locke… Well, it is what it is. The other reason I called you here was to issue you a piece of equipment.”
Rouvad reached inside the neck of her tunic and pulled out a golden eagle talisman on a simple chain, which she lifted over her head and held it out to Principia.
“That,” the Commander explained while the elf studied the piece, “is a divine power augmentor, operating on fae energy. For a priestess, it would boost the amount of energy she could handle before risking burnout considerably. For someone with no divine ability at all…well, it may theoretically grant that power, without needing a connection to the goddess.”
“Theoretically?” Principia murmured.
“Experiment with it on your way to Puna Dara. You’re an enchanter; if anyone can make it work, you can. Trissiny recovered that thing from the Crawl last year; who knows how long it was lost down there. Mary the Crow showed up not long after to claim that she was the one who created it, and said that it will work with the most strength for someone of her bloodline. I’d been thinking of giving it back to Trissiny with that information, but frankly, no magical doodad is going to augment a paladin’s connection to the goddess all that much. You are the person who can gain the most from that device, so I am issuing it to you. Because,” she added almost reluctantly, “to my great surprise, you have earned enough of my trust and respect to warrant it. And because I am sending you and your troops into unknowable peril; I want you to carry every advantage I’m able to give you, which isn’t much. But there it is.”
Principia very carefully tucked the icon into one of her belt pouches, then saluted. “Thank you, Commander. I’ll do my best not to disappoint.”
“I believe you.” Rouvad stepped forward, then reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Goddess watch over you, Locke…and good luck out there. Dismissed.”