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Haunted World
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Summary

When Ranger-Colonel Dermot O’Donnell’s Fourth Regiment sets out to prevent inevitable invasion by fortifying the one breach in the otherwise impervious barrier separating them from their enemies, he expects to encounter trouble from the savage environment and is not disappointed. What he does not realize is that the super volcanoes which ravaged the continent, taking out almost every living thing on it six centuries previously, did not erase every trace of its victims. The spirits of a massive column of refugees remain, guarding the place to which the soldiers have come. When the anticipated invasion begins early, long before effective defenses can be prepared, the Fourth’s only hope of survival lies in the favor of the ghosts and their willingness to wield the terrible force that exterminated them. Can O’Donnell win their aid?

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Fantasy by P.M. Griffin

When Ranger-Colonel Dermot O’Donnell’s Fourth Regiment sets out to prevent inevitable invasion by fortifying the one breach in the otherwise impervious barrier separating them from their enemies, he expects to encounter trouble from the savage environment and is not disappointed. What he does not realize is that the super volcanoes which ravaged the continent, taking out almost every living thing on it six centuries previously, did not erase every trace of its victims.

The spirits of a massive column of refugees remain, guarding the place to which the soldiers have come. When the anticipated invasion begins early, long before effective defenses can be prepared, the Fourth’s only hope of survival lies in the favor of the ghosts and their willingness to wield the terrible force that exterminated them. Can O’Donnell win their aid?

Haunted World © 2016 by P.M. Griffin

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

MuseItUp Publishing

14878 James, Pierrefonds, Quebec, Canada, H9H 1P5

Cover Art © 2016 by Charlotte Volnek

Edited by Christine I Speakman

Copy edited by Les Tucker

Layout and Book Production by Lea Schizas

eBook ISBN: 978-1-77127-777-8

First eBook Edition *January 2016

To my friend and fellow author, Mary Schaub.

HAUNTED WORLD

P.M. GRIFFIN

MuseItUp Publishing

www.museituppublishing.com

Chapter One

Ranger-Captain Dermot O’Donnell’s eyes closed briefly, but he straightened and compelled himself to view the carnage.

At dawn, the Fourth Regiment had been stationed here in full strength, two battalions, one Line, one Ranger, six hundred soldiers in each plus a couple of dozen support staffers between them. Now…

They had received almost no warning, had almost no time in which to prepare for the onslaught breaking so suddenly upon them. Colonel Campbell had made the best use he could of the poor position in which they found themselves, anchoring their right on the deep, swift river glinting below and their left on the cliffs above. The green-clad Rangers had held the slope with its adequate cover, while the Bluetunics had been assigned the flat, nearly featureless ground below. The six companies comprising each battalion had formed up in order, the Ranger Company F starting at the cliff base, E, D, C, B following, ending with Company A, in whose midst he currently stood. The Line Company F abutted them. Far down by the water was the remnant of the blue-uniformed Company A.

Armies fought in a style similar to that developed during the early days of gunfire, with one side defending a position and another attacking it. There were differences, of course. The vastly increased accuracy and rate of fire of modern weapons demanded that. Soldiers took advantage of every speck of cover they could devise or find. They did not simply stand facing one another and blast away at near point-blank range. Any major firefight was avoided whenever possible. The butcher’s yard around him explained why.

O’Donnell shuddered. The Fourth Regiment had performed a miracle in holding this position but the cost had been horrific.

His Rangers were veterans, and they had fought with both height and cover in their favor. One hundred six of them had died or had taken wounds grave enough to still threaten death. The Line troops were novices, recruits straight out of basic. They had been posted lower on the slope where there was little shelter to screen them from hostile fire, and the brunt of the sudden assault had fallen on them. Incredibly, they had held, but over four hundred of them were dead or seriously wounded, including all their officers save a single captain. Every noncom was dead. From where he was standing, it appeared as if nothing at all was alive down there.

The Fourth’s colonel had fallen early in the day, and Sharon Cheswick was among the most critically wounded.

Dermot forced the fear that rose inside him at that thought back out of his conscious mind. He did not have the leisure for personal considerations. Ranger-Captain Marii Sullivan had survived uninjured, but he was senior to her as well as to Sharon, should she live, and he was senior to the remaining Line officer. That made him commander of what was left of the Fourth Regiment. He was responsible for this position, and he was responsible for those poor Bluetunics even as he was for his own green-clad comrades.

O’Donnell led the twelve soldiers he had ordered to accompany him to the makeshift medical station set up on the eastern-most part of the Line Battalion’s position. Their physician had miraculously come through the battle relatively undamaged and was laboring to do what he could for the scores waiting for his attention. He was working alone save for two privates commandeered from the ranks, both of whom looked as if they should be receiving medical assistance rather than providing it.

The newcomer waited until the physician finished with his current patient before addressing him. I brought you some reinforcements, Doctor Foy. There’s only one medic, but the others know first aid well.

The man turned his head. His face was as gray from weariness as his hair. I can use them all and more, Captain. He glanced at those laying all around him. Fine young soldiers, all of them, and far too many would not hold out long enough for him even to begin trying to help them. He sighed. These are only the ones who were nearby. The whole line is like this or worse.

I’ve ordered details out to bring in the rest of the injured and to start the burials. I wish I could send more, but Doctor Grayson is hard at it as well, and we have to stay on the alert until General Rohan finishes tying up those Bloodshirt bastards.

Do what you can. I’ll still be here. We’ve paid too high a price to be swept away now because we get careless. He eyed the Greentunic officer sadly. He had known Colonel Campbell was dead and had heard that at least one of the Ranger officers had been put out of the battle early on. Captain Cheswick or Captain Sullivan went down?

Sharon…Cheswick is seriously wounded.

How did you chaps do?

Badly. Not as badly as you. We lost one hundred six of the troops or may lose them. The rest made it without suffering heavy damage and most of the noncoms with them. Three medics and some of the other support people are gone as well. Everyone except the physicians had taken a rifle when news of the Eastmen army’s imminent arrival had reached them. We’ve had word that one of Rohan’s other regiments will be here before morning to relieve us and give us the help we need.

It can’t get here soon enough.

The Ranger-Captain turned toward the west end of the battlefield. The bulk of the Line survivors were clustered down there, surprisingly, given the fact that the two companies, A and B, stationed on that wing had been almost completely without cover. He wanted to find out why they had managed so relatively well, apart from the fact that it was necessary to inspect the whole front.

The distance was not short. A horse would have made nothing of it, but the regiment’s stock had been moved far back out of range of the developing fight. Animals were no longer sacrificed to human hate. The world had too few of them left as it was.

It was a walk Dermot would not soon forget. The Eastmen had been determined to break though this seemingly weak place in the ever-tightening net surrounding them. Their initial efforts had failed to accomplish that, and they had realized full well strong reinforcements would be en route to aid the defenders, ending their hope of escape. In desperation, they had launched a final, ferocious charge with their full remaining strength, concentrating on the lowland segment of the defense, and had preceded it with a firestorm of rifle fire to break the Fivenations line.

It should have shattered the Bluetunics, left them without the personnel or the will to resist the onslaught, but the battered Line soldiers had proven they were still in the fight. They had recognized that if their foes reached them in number, they were done. There were far too many of the enemy to be stopped by steel, and so they had rallied and met the Bloodshirts with what proved to be an impenetrable screen of fire. The invaders’ corpses were piled high, forming one wall of the pitifully narrow lane between the two forces that none of them had been able to cross. On its opposite side were the bodies of the fallen defenders.

Once, this battle could not have been fought at all, the officer reflected, not that it would have been any less bloody conducted in the manner of those days. Old Time armies had gone to war with weapons of terrible power, missiles and explosives that would have rendered the Fourth Regiment’s position untenable and the Eastmen’s charges inconceivable. The Fire Mountains had put an end to the use of those devil’s tools. With all but two of the world’s continents and most of its islands gone and the bulk of what remained of the Mother Continent a vast stone desert, mankind did not dare compromise the efforts of the oceans and remaining vegetation, most of it confined here in the Southern Continent, to produce oxygen by filling the air with smoke and poisons. Soldiers did their work now with rifles and handguns, bayonets, swords, and knives. He shivered. They did it very efficiently.

His mouth twisted. Only two populations of the human species had survived the Fire Mountains’ fury and its aftermath, two groups clinging to the northern rim of the Mother Continent and to a smattering of islands just beyond it, just two, and here they were, at each other’s throats, slaughtering one another. Could his kind never learn?

O’Donnell swore under his breath. He had allowed himself to drift into the contemplation of history because he did not want to concentrate any longer on the grim present with which he must deal.

He had reached the place where Company B had stood, where its survivors still stood. Only Company A was beyond it.

Stop whining, you burning Fire Mountain’s son! You can crawl on that leg. See if you can’t do something for Tully. She’s a hell of a lot worse off than you are.

Dermot’s head snapped toward the man who had issued that sharp order, a big private whose brown hair was matted with congealing blood from a nasty-looking scalp wound.

The Bluetunic saw him in the same moment. He came to attention, but there was no welcome in the bloodshot, very-blue eyes.

Stand easy, Private. What is the company’s condition? There was no one of higher rank to ask, and the man seemed to have taken charge. His fellows were following his orders, too, the officer noted.

We have maybe twenty-five moving, the trooper answered. No officers. No sergeants. There are more wounded than dead, at least at the moment. A lot are badly off. I’m sorry, but I don’t have a count.—We need help, he added more sharply than a rank soldier would normally speak to a superior.

It’s on the way. In the meantime, I brought this. Dermot swung the pack he had been carrying off his shoulders and removed a large box from it. Regen. You know how to use it?

Yes, sir. Of course.

The gel was a major development of Fivenations medical science. It was no magic cure, but it effectively healed the wounds and other injuries to which it was applied within reasonably short order, even working its way inward to repair internal damage, provided the patient could be kept alive long enough for it to do its job. Unfortunately, it could only be applied to the body’s surface or, at best, as part of a wound’s dressing. Any attempt to use it internally resulted in an immediate, violent, and inevitably fatal immune reaction.

He saw the man sway. Smear some on your own head first.

I’m not bad—

Do it. We need you to keep functioning. The Ranger looked about. Company B took a beating, but you’ve come out of it better than most of the rest of the Line Battalion. Why? You fought as hard and faced the same challenge.

I did what Captain Morrigan was doing over in Company A and told the lads to stack up bodies and scrunch down behind them until the charge started. The buggers had to stop shooting then, or they’d mow their own troops down.

You told them?

There was no one else left to do it. His mouth twisted. I’d have gotten us behind cover sooner otherwise.

You did well, Private.—What’s your name?

Tompkins, sir.

What Tompkins?

Clyde, sir. People call me Tommy, he added pointedly.

The captain smiled despite himself. Tommy it is, Private.

O’Donnell picked up his pack. I had best deliver the rest of the regen to Company A and get Captain Morrigan’s report if she’s still on her feet.

He hoped that would prove the case. The woman had shown quickness of thought and initiative. The army needed people with those capabilities. It needed them badly. It would need them even more when this nightmare conflict was brought to a close. That would come and come soon now, he thought. All his regiment’s sufferings, the raw stubbornness of its soldiers, should have sealed their enemies’ fate.

Chapter Two

Less than a week after the Fourth Regiment’s desperate stand, General Rohan had completed the encirclement of the enemy forces. Three weeks later, the Eastmen government sued for peace, and the units of the Fivenations army began the process of returning to their peacetime pursuits.

Dermot O’Donnell sat at the desk in his temporary office at the huge Southern Continent Headquarters base, which was located in the northeastern part of the landmass close to and guarding the major port connecting it with the Mother Continent. The regiment was his now, along with the colonelcy required to command it, and he had to prepare it for its new assignment.

The man sighed. During all the four hellish years of war, he had longed to resume his previous task of wildlife management, the work for which he had enlisted following university graduation. Even the heartwrenching task of trying to salvage what was possible and trying to repair the damage wrought by the Eastmen on the remaining wildlife in those parts of this continent which had belonged to them or through which they had passed in their sudden invasion would have been something, but he supposed he should be grateful to have a genuine posting at all, whatever its location and nature. Too many were doing make-work or had been sent home to resume their prior lives or else to live on half pay or to seek jobs that did not exist for them in the civilian world.

There was a knock, and the two soldiers he had summoned entered the room upon receiving his permission.

Dermot smiled when his eyes met Saoirse Morrigan’s. The Bluetunic captain was nearly as tall as himself, slender, and well-made. She had the pale complexion and rich auburn hair common in the people of the Western Isle. Her eyes were jade green, large, and thickly lashed. Her features were delicate and nearly too perfect. Even with his commitment to Sharon, he could not be blind to the woman’s striking beauty.

Morrigan had a great deal more than physical perfection to recommend her, strengths that were of significance to him and to the regiment. The quick, independent thinking she had displayed during the battle was also apparent in her handling of the mundane affairs of camp life. Added to that were a strong dedication to duty and to her battalion and excellent organizational skills and administrative ability. He could scarcely have asked for a better officer despite the recent date of her commission. Beyond all that, she was a fine companion, willing to offer sound suggestions or simply to listen as the situation required.

Saoirse had been studying her commander, even as he had her. The man before her was not particularly large, only half a head taller than herself. He was slender of build and lean, but his body was hard, as was to be expected in one who had spent three enlistments, fifteen years, serving in the wild Southern Continent. His features were good, his hair black, his eyes a dark midnight blue. His coloring, like her own, was that of the Western Isle. O’Donnell was a capable officer and pleasant in himself. He would probably make a thoughtful husband. Sharon Cheswick could count herself fortunate in her connection with him.

Dermot had turned his attention to Tompkins. Tommy was big, tall and well, though not overly, muscled. He had a pleasing face, blue eyes bright with intelligence, and nondescript brown hair that was rapidly growing back after having been shaved off to permit the cleansing and treatment of his wound. Thanks to the regen, it would soon be as full as ever.

A good man, the Ranger thought, and he was proving a good sergeant. The promotion had been a sound move on his part.

The rank was an important one in the officer-lean Fivenations forces. Generals were rare. They led armies, which consisted of ten regiments. Colonels such as himself commanded those. They were comprised of two battalions, each headed by a Senior Captain assisted by two others. Six companies of one hundred private soldiers apiece formed a battalion. A Master Sergeant and two sergeants controlled a company. To compensate for the lack of formal leadership, the troops themselves could think and were expected to do so, even as Tompkins had during the fight.

Dermot returned their salutes and ordered the pair to stand easy.

Sit, he told them, pointing to a couple of straight-backed, armless wooden chairs he had previously moved in front of the desk for the purpose. We have an assignment. I’ll brief you two now and go over everything with Captain Cheswick and Marii Sullivan this afternoon as soon as I collect Sharon from the hospital.

She’s well enough? Saoirse inquired. Cheswick’s injuries had been extremely severe.

According to the medical staff. If they want to hold her another night, she can join us at the port before we embark.

The news that the regiment would be taking ship was no cause for surprise. Line and Ranger units frequently utilized the coastal waters and river systems when traveling any distance. The apparent immediacy of the departure was another matter.

Morrigan frowned. The Fourth Regiment is seriously understrength. The Greentunics were not too badly off, but her Line Battalion could scarcely be said to exist save on paper.

The commander nodded a trifle grimly. He appreciated their weakness as well. Rohan says that shouldn’t matter short-term. He wants us in place as soon as possible and has promised to send on the last of our restored invalids plus replacements for the rest once we’re settled. His eyes seemed to darken. In the meantime, we have no burning choice but to make do with what we have. The Rangers will be all right. We’re short a captain and four sergeants, but enough of the wounded have returned to bring our number back up to five hundred fifty. The medical and other support staffs of both units had already been restored to full strength. You Line soldiers number barely one hundred forty-five total, and you two are the only members ranking above private.

Not even two companies, Tommy agreed.

If I make it one big company temporarily, could you handle it with a couple of other sergeants to help you? Tompkins had previously given him the names of individuals capable of assuming the responsibility.

Yes, sir.

I can’t make you Master Sergeant just yet. You’ve had that shield too short a time, but I’ll issue regimental orders to the effect that you are functioning in that capacity and are to be accorded the same respect. It was the best he could do. Rapid field promotion occurred in war, but now that peace had been restored, normal procedures would have to be followed.

Very good, sir. We’ll manage.

O’Donnell’s eyes turned to the woman. The same holds for you, Captain. I can’t upgrade your rank just yet, but you’ll be functioning as the Line Battalion’s senior officer. If you go on performing as well as you have been, you’ll continue doing it when our replacements arrive. He smiled. Actually, it’s a good chance for you. You’ll gain experience commanding a battalion while working with a finite number of soldiers.

Her smile returned his. I won’t disappoint you, Colonel.

Her shoulders straightened. Where are we going? I presume it’s either somewhere on the Central Plateau or far south since we have to take ship to get there in a reasonable span of time.

We’re going north, Dermot informed her. To the Mother Continent.

Both his companions stared at him.

What— Tommy began.

Our orders are to study the location of a proposed settlement for potential problems, Dermot went on smoothly.

The sergeant’s brows lifted. That’s a job for a single Ranger company, not a bloody regiment, even one as undermanned as ours. He caught himself. Excuse me, sir.

I expect to hear your opinions and questions. A smile flickered on his lips. As long as they are respectfully given.

In the next instant, the officer was serious again. In this case, those ‘potential problems’ could prove significant.

He unfolded a map and laid it on the desk. The Mother Continent, he said, motioning to the Bluetunics to join him, what the Fire Mountains and their aftermath left of it, one vast rock desert with so little life left in it that not even moss has been able to colonize riverbanks in most places. Two-thirds of it is ours, one-third belongs to the Eastmen, all they have left along with their Homeland now that we’ve kicked them out of the Southern Continent, with the Barrier Ridge neatly separating the two territories.

His finger ran along the thick black line marking the feature. It makes a good border, doesn’t it? What better could we, or our neighbors for that matter, ask? A solid wall of rock stretching from the northern coast down to the southern edge, two to three miles thick, absolutely vertical on both sides, and averaging twenty-eight thousand feet in height, dropping no more than a couple of thousand feet below that in any place.

The Ranger’s head raised. In any place but one. There is a break. Right here. He pointed to a spot already circled in the northern part of the landmass. There is a pass here at three thousand feet on the Bloodshirts’ side, four thousand on ours. It’s only six yards wide, but it goes all the way through. Neither the ascent nor the descent is easy on either face for anyone toting more than a backpack, but they can be managed even by those heavily encumbered if they have determination and a lot of muscle.

The perfect site for a burning invasion, muttered Morrigan.

Tommy stared at her, but O’Donnell nodded in appreciation. The woman had picked up on that faster than he had expected. Go on, Captain.

It’s far enough from the sea to be well clear of our coastal sentries, and we have no settlements anywhere near to send warning. An army could come through there, and no one’d be the wiser until they swept over the coastal ports and seized our ships, or maybe launched some watercraft of their own that they had manhandled along with them, to strike at the Fivenations Home Islands.

Precisely, the colonel agreed.

It’s possible, Tompkins concurred unwillingly, but how likely?

That, no one knows, but Tactical Command is not about to ignore the risk.—What do you think of our recent foes’ vow to conduct themselves in an exemplary fashion from here on in?

It’s not fit to repeat before my commanding officers. I’d wind up on charges.

I could probably paraphrase it closely enough, and I can guarantee that most of the rest of us who fought those Bloodshirts would give a similar one. Dermot scowled. "Sitting back and building up their territory as we are doing with ours won’t suit the Eastmen. It never did. They want to have a multitude of slaves to handle the grunt work and to take the benefits themselves.

The bastards still have their Homeland and original Mother Continent holdings, and they have plenty of manpower left to rebuild their army. They could field one now. They weren’t satisfied when they had half the Southern Continent to exploit. They won’t be satisfied with less, and I personally don’t believe it will be all that many years before they act again. Their first blow was treacherous. The next will be treacherous as well when they decide to deliver it.

When they do, it will come through that pass, Saoirse declared. They’ll want to knock out the Fivenations themselves this time, not just hit at our Southern Continent holdings again. Their only route to do that is through here. The coasts are all too well watched. If they leave their own waters, we’ll know about it fast. She paused thoughtfully. They’ll make their move soon, I think, within the decade. If they’ve seen this gap and appreciate its value, they’ll burning well realize that our people will recognize its potential, too and garrison it properly. It’s inconceivable that they should imagine we would trust them, not even as much as we did in the past.

Why should the Bloodshirts believe we’ll give them that much time? demanded Tommy.

Because we have been working exclusively in the lower part of the continent in an effort to begin its restoration from there, O’Donnell replied. We have ignored the top and central portions, and now, we have to deal with war damage in the Southern Continent as well. The Eastmen know all that and will regard it as reason enough for believing we’ll continue to ignore those regions for a few years longer. That is Tactical Command’s reasoning, and I think they’ve hit the target dead center.

The Fourth Regiment is to garrison the place? the captain inquired. That was a given, but she wanted to know precisely the extent of their assignment.

The black-haired man nodded. "Our mission is to construct