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Machinations

Chapter 1: Umbra

By William Shick

Occupied Llael, Autumn 608 AR


This is the stupidest thing Ive ever let you talk me into.
Rutger looked over at the hooded woman beside him. Really?
he asked with a smirk. What about that time in Leryn?
The cool blue eyes of Taryn di la Rovissi stared straight back
at him. You have a point. Letting you live was the stupidest
thing I ever let you talk me into.
That wasnt what I was referring to. Rutger couldnt help
but chuckle. Besides, if you hadnt let me talk you into
coming with me, you probably would have married some
noble and grown fat and lazy from having servants feed you
all day. He winked, punctuating the jest and causing a smile
to break across the gun mages features. Just think of all the
fun you would have missed out on.
Yes, I just cant imagine how much simpler life would be
without you, she said as she strode in front of him. At least
married and fat I wouldnt find myself marching on some
damned fools crusade. She waved her hand, gesturing to
the motley Highborn forces that marched around them.
Rutger took stock of the glorious army of Lord Elias de
Gilfyn, dispossessed Llaelese noble and esteemed member
of the Highborn Covenant. He had to admit that the sight
was a far cry from the image on the Llaelese Resistances
propaganda posters in Rhydden. The forces arrayed were
not brave citizens throwing off the shackles of Khadoran
oppression and marching with the spirit of a free Llael in their
breasts. In truth, Rutger doubted if more than a dozen among
them were even Llaelese. The majority marched under the
banner of de Gilfyn and the Resistance for one reason: the
coin de Gilfyn had offered them to do so.
Still, Rutger decided as he looked over the army, hed rather
have seasoned mercenaries at his back than a bunch of green
recruits whose only qualification was a staunch belief in
their cause. Here, disciplined ranks of Steelhead halberdiers
marched in step with their fellows, their powerful polearms
at rest across their shoulders. Steelhead riflemen followed
as their officers bellowed out cadence. In addition to the
company of Steelheads, the Resistance army boasted a
detachment of Rhulic soldiers from Horgenhold. Several
units of Forge Guard kept steady pace behind the Steelheads,

their heavy plate armor seeming to have little effect on their


inexorable march, while Horgenhold artillery crews guided
sturdy wagons loaded with stout cannons beside their
hammer-wielding brothers in arms.
While the infantry force was impressive, it was the presence
of the famed warcaster Drake MacBain and his battlegroup
of battle-scarred warjacks that demanded attention. The
great machines were currently stowed on several supply
wagons in the center of the army column but were clearly
visible over the heads of the soldiers, along with Rutgers
personal warjack Rex. The presence of such a seasoned
battlegroup was what made the force a credible threat to the
Khadoransor at least it would have, if not for one small
detail. Despite his exceptional combat experience, MacBain
was not actually in charge of the army. That honor was held
by de Gilfyn himself.
Though de Gilfyn had held the rank of general in the
former Llaelese Army, as often happens with nobles his
rank had been granted because of his station rather than his
capabilities as a soldier. In the three weeks since his force had
left Rhydden, the man had proven himself to be painfully
unqualified when it came to command. He clearly lacked
experience in personally directing an armed force and also
suffered from a deficiency of common sense.
Taryn had disliked de Gilfyn from the start. He represented
everything she had come to loathe about the nobility of her
former homeland. She watched with barely restrained disgust
as he rode past, giving orders to one of the Steelhead officers.
That fool will be the death of us, you know, she growled.
Rutger wanted to tell her to give the man time. That first
impressions werent always the right ones. At least de Gilfyn
was here, willing to fight alongside his men, unlike so many
other members of the Highborn Covenant. Looking into her
eyes, though, he knew shed never hear it. Instead he flashed
a devilish grin and said, Dont worryby now Im used to
pulling you out of the fire.
Fitting, since youre the one who usually puts me there,
Taryn shot back. The playful jibe stung Rutger. He wasnt
about to let anything happen to her because of him.
A sudden commotion brought his attention back to de
Gilfyn, who had guided his steed too close in front of the lead
supply wagon while speaking to his adjutant, forcing the
driver to pull back hard on the reins to avoid a collision. This

abrupt halt cascaded down the line, causing increasing chaos


until a loud crash split the air as the last two wagons were
overturned in their frantic attempts to keep from crashing
into their comrades. The load fasteners snapped, and bundles
of food and supplies scattered across the dirt road.
Rutger let out a small groan. The warjacks were safe and
secure, at least; none of those wagons had overturned. But
the damage had been done. The carefully organized column
had fallen into complete disarray as soldiers in the back
found their formations broken and soldiers in the front
turned to see what the commotion was all about. It would
take some time for the sergeants and quartermasters to sort
out everything.

Not only did Dunlyf contain an ample stockpile of red


powder, its location far from the heavily garrisoned Rynyr
made it a prime target for the Resistance. Even the vast
Khadoran army would have difficulty mounting a quick
offensive to take back the town at that distance. Combine
this with the numerous other threats against the occupying
Khadoran forces, including Cryxians and the Protectorate
of Menoths Northern Crusade, and the recapture of Dunlyf
would surely be a low priority. To the Resistance, however,
the towns liberation would be a great symbolic victory
against Khador as well as providing a large supply of the
valuable red powder, which Resistance forces could use in
their continuing fight.

Turning away from the scene, Rutger saw his old friend
Brunner Ainsworth striding toward them, his Steelhead
plate nicked from years of hard use. A wicked scar stitched
its way from beneath the right side of his bulbous nose
through his bushy, black mustache and down to the left side
of his jaw. Though the battle scar gave him a rather fearsome
appearance, his deep brown eyes radiated with good humor
and his voice was jovial as he called out to Rutger with a
wave of his mechanikal hand.
Brunner and Rutger had served together years ago in the
Cygnaran army in the same trencher squad. The pair had met
at the enlistment office, gone through boot camp together, and
fought together in several border skirmishes against Khador.
It was during one of those encounters near Fellig against
Khadors infamous 5th Border Legion that Brunner had
saved Rutgers life. Late in the battle Winter Guard had
overrun their squads position and Rutger had found
himself standing alone against three Khadorans. Brunner
had intervened in the nick of time, but the
action had cost him both his hand and
his good looks. Rutger had left the
trenchers not long after that.
Though he kept in touch with
Brunner, when the two had run
into each other in Ternon Crag
this spring it had been nearly
three years since they had seen
each other. Brunner had told
Rutger about Lord de Gilfyn
raising an army to liberate a small
Khador-occupied town southeast
of Rynyr. Apparently the town
served as a supply point for the
distribution and storage of the
red mineral mined in Rynyr
that was a critical ingredient in
the production of the blasting
powder used in ammunition
across western Immoren.

Seems were breaking for lunch already, Brunner said as


he approached. I told His Grace that the next time he found
himself saddle sore all he had to do was say so. No need for
him to bring the whole supply train to a crashing halt!
Rutger chuckled. You misjudge the tactical genius of our
patrons strategy. Now that were diverted, none will think
to question his warrior spirit! From the corner of his eye
he saw Taryn fold her arms and cock her hooded head to
one side. It was her not amused stance. Typically it meant
she felt Rutger wasnt taking the situation as seriously as
warranted. It was a look he saw all too often.
Dont suppose I could convince you to use that prize
warjack youre always going on about to give us a hand?
Provided you dont think flipping a couple empty wagons
upright would be beneath its regal stature.
As long as youre supplying the coal I think Rex can be
persuaded to help. Wouldnt want your boys to sweat under
all that armor. They might chafe without their mommies
around to powder their behinds, Rutger shot back.
Brunner let out a deep laugh and clapped Rutger on the
shoulder with his mechanikal hand, causing the prosthetic to
whir. You got me. Only the most delicate flowers have what
it takes to be Steelheads!
Taryn huffed. Ill leave you boys to it. Id hate for anyone to
take something seriously around here.
Rutger took a breath to try to persuade her otherwise, but
the gun mage had already turned to stride away from the
pair, her long cloak billowing up as if dismissing them both.
Taryn had been at best cold in her dealings with Brunner
since they had left Ternon Crag. Rutger knew she still held
a grudge against the Steelhead for convincing him to agree
to this venture.
It was worse than that, actually. Not only had Rutger gone
behind her back and signed onto a job without consulting
her, he had done it knowing Taryn had already set up a
lucrative contract for them as bodyguards to a Cygnaran
merchant traveling from Ternon Crag to Corvis. He couldnt
blame her for being angry: signing with de Gilfyn had
meant theyd had to back out of their contract with the
Cygnaran, running the risk of earning the mans ire as well
as a black mark on their reputation as reliable mercenaries.
Nevertheless, Rutger couldnt say no to his old friend, and
once again his obligations had put Taryn in a rough spot. She
had been furious with him and Brunner both, to say the least.
Since their departure she had forgiven him, but she had not
done the same for Brunner.
You sure this jack of yours is up to menial labor? Brunner
joked as they reached the wagon carrying Rex. Rutger
released the straps securing the machine and fired up the
boiler. Id hate to have him scuff his paint.

Rutger shot back, I wouldnt worryRex doesnt make


his living off his looks like you do. Brunner laughed. The
Steelheads mirth was infectious, and Rutger found himself
chuckling too. Rex has saved my life more times then I can
count. Im sure he wont mind saving your bacon with a little
common labor.
With a deep rumble, the hulking warjack slowly came to
life, blazing heartfire lighting its eyes. Hydraulics hissed
and gears whined as the powerful machine stepped down
from the wagon, stretching from several days of inactivity.
The sight was strikingly similar to a man rising from a long
sleep. With a slow turn of its armored head Rex took in its
surroundings. When its eyes settled on Rutger, the jack let
out a whine of steam from its bronze faceplate.
Hey, big guy, Rutger said, patting the armored cowling
that covered the jacks neck like a master would a faithful
hound. Up for some heavy lifting?
Rex rumbled in answer and followed the pair toward the
overturned supply wagons. Rutger couldnt help but smile
to himself as he saw the effect Rex had on the soldiers milling
around. Even for veterans like these a fully functional
warjack was a sight to behold. Rutger had to admit that the
great steam-powered machines still caused him to marvel
from time to time. And no one could help but shudder in
awe when the power of those machines was fully unleashed
on the battlefield.
A voice boomed out behind Rutger as he instructed Rex on
what needed to be done.
Fine machine like that Toro deserves better than grunt work!
Rutger winced slightly, instantly recognizing the voice as
Drake MacBains. He didnt bother turning to acknowledge
the warcaster. While Rutger respected MacBains skill as a
warrior and a warcaster, the mans bravado and larger-thanlife personality had a tendency to rub him the wrong way.
Just gets us to the fighting quicker, doesnt it, Rex? Rutger
said to the warjack, who rumbled in response as it flipped the
first wagon back onto its wheels with a squeal of machinery.
I still dont know how you got your hands on one of the
Ordic militarys prized warjacks. Those things are harder to
get than a smile from the empress!
It wasnt easy. First I had to keep it from killing me.
Ever had a partner who didnt try to kill you first, Shaw?
MacBain asked.
Unlikely. Taryns cool voice broke into the conversation.
Rutger isnt great at first impressions. She stepped next
to Rutger, her right hand resting casually on the grip of the
magelock at her hip.
MacBain smiled and nodded in greeting to the gun mage.
How he ever convinced you not to put a bullet in his brain
Ill never understand.

Taryn shrugged. We all have our moment of weakness.

Thanks, but no.

MacBain chuckled. Coming from you thats quite a


statement. He glanced back at Rutger and said, Youll
have to teach me your tricks one of these days, Shaw. Then
he turned to Brunner. Boss wants to know when well be
moving again, Captain.

Come on. Dont tell me youre attached to it! Its not like you
can bond with it.

Thanks to Rutger and Rex here, should be within the hour.


MacBain nodded and said, Ill be sure to let His Eminence
know. He paused and watched as Rex righted the other
wagon. You ever think of selling that jack, Shaw? Id be
willing to make you a very generous offer.

Rutger looked at Rex. Maybe not, but that doesnt mean


MacBain cut him off, Look, keeping a fine machine like
that as a marshaled warjack? Youre wasting its potential. I
promise youd be walking away with more than its worth.
Before Rutger could respond Taryn scoffed, With as much
money as Rutgers put into that thing? The full treasury of
Cygnar wouldnt make us break even.
Rutger looked at her and saw the determined set to her
features. It was the same look she had when the pair was in
the thick of battle, each holding death off for the other. It was
the look that said she had his back, and no one would touch
him while she did.
A ragged call drew their attention. A lightly armored scout,
his rifle marking him out as a former CRS ranger, made his
way quickly toward them.
MacBain, sir! The scout paused, attempting to slow his
rapid breathing. Rutger could see a thin sheen of sweat across
the mans grimy face. Whatever he had to report, it was
clearly urgent. Rutgers hand instinctively tightened around
the hilt of his mechanikal sword Jackknife. Sir, weve got
Khadorans on the march and heading our way.
MacBain scowled as he pulled a thick cigar from a pouch
on his hip. He chomped down hard on the end of it as he
asked, Disposition?
The scouts voice lowered as he finally caught his breath.
At least a kompany. Lord de Gilfyn has requested you and
Captain Ainsworth join him to discuss a battle plan.
His Lordship is itching for a fight? MacBain chuckled. Well,
lets not keep him waiting, then! MacBain inclined his head
toward Taryn. Unfortunately, it seems well have to continue
our negotiations at a later time. That is, if Shaw can keep that
Toro of his in one piece. He winked at her in a way that made
Rutgers blood heat before striding off toward the front of the
column with Brunner, whistling an old Tordoran chantey.
Taryn watched them leave with narrowed eyes. Yeah, I feel
comfortable with our lives in their hands, she muttered
sarcastically. Especially with His Lordship in charge.
Rutger shrugged. We could join them.
I dont think we were invited, she said with a smirk.
So? Its not like theyre going to throw us out, he insisted.
She nodded. Good point. She started to follow the other men.
Thanks, by the way, Rutger said.
For what? she asked, turning back toward him.

Standing up for Rex. He didnt think you cared. Rutger felt


the warmth of the warjacks heartfire wash over his shoulder
as it stood idly behind him.
Taryn gave him an even look. I just didnt want MacBain
gunning for us after he realized what a money sink that jack
of yours really is. She crossed her arms in front of her chest
and leaned to one side. Rutger braced himself for the scolding
he was about to get. With the fortune youve poured into
that thing you could have any top-of-the-line warjack you
wanted. Hell, combined with the fortune Ive poured into it
we could have a whole battlegroup of warjacks.
Rutger sighed; he knew better than to argue. Her annoyance
wasnt really about Rex. Maybe it was about MacBain. Maybe
it was about the upcoming fight. The only thing he knew it
wasnt about was him not swooping in to defend her honor.
As often as he wished that were his place, she had made it
plain following several tavern brawls that it wasnt.
When he made no reply, she turned again to leave, muttering,
Why you insist on keeping that jack running above all else
is beyond me.
As he watched her he felt a familiar pang in his chest. Before
following her, he reached up and patted Rexs cowl gently.
What can I say, boy? Im a sucker for lost causes.

When Rutger and Taryn joined those gathered for de Gilfyns


war council, the noble glared at them but said nothing. The
former ranger who had brought the summons had sketched
a rough map in the dirt and was on his knees detailing what
he had seen of the enemy force.
Brunner stood stroking his mustache with his real hand
as he listened to the report. Youre sure they have
warcaster support?
Yes, sir. Even without the signs of warjack behavior when
under mental command of a warcaster, an officer in steampowered armor is a pretty dead giveaway.
MacBain asked, What of the enemy warjacks? Did you get
a count?
Two Juggernauts and a single Destroyer, all active. He
hesitated, as if uncertain about offering an opinion, before
adding, I think theyd already seen some fighting. The
words earned a raised eyebrow from MacBain.
De Gilfyn broke in. What makes you say that?
Well, sir, this was no patrol. And Ive witnessed more
Khadoran forces heading to battle than Id care to count.
Theyre always disciplined, orderly, efficient. This one was
disordered, and both the troops and the jacks looked a bit

beat up. I couldnt get close enough to confirm, but they


moved like a force withdrawing from a bad fight.
They were retreating? Brunner asked, brow furrowed.
But from who? Menites?
No idea, sir, the scout responded. Thats whats strange.
If there were another army in the area big enough to make
the Khadorans turn tail, I should have seen some indication.
Rutger exchanged a glance with Brunner, who waved
him over. The Steelhead captain leaned in and whispered,
Whats your take on this?
Rutger looked down at the map. As he studied it, he felt
Taryn come up beside him. Looks like we could catch them
pretty unaware, she said.
Rutger looked over at her hooded face and nodded. I was
thinking the same. He kneeled down and scratched lines
into the dirt map as he talked. If we circle around, we can
intercept them here. Take them from the flank and scatter
them.
MacBain and Brunner nodded. Such an attack would
certainly minimize damage to our own force, Brunner said.
Its a sly move, MacBain agreed.
Lord de Gilfyns face had reddened as the meeting got away
from him. No! His proclamation split through the council
like a thunderclap. If we try to flank them, we might lose
our chance to exploit their disordered state. We will meet
the Khadorans head-on and show them the strength of the
Llaelese Resistance.
But my lord, we must be careful to conserve our strength for
the assault on Dunlyf. Brunner said.
While I appreciate the concern, Captain, we cannot risk
allowing any Khadorans to carry news of our forces to Rynyr
or, worse, Dunlyf. We must meet the enemy quickly and
annihilate them utterly. This cannot be achieved without
engaging the entirety of the enemy force at once.
With respect, my lord, I have fought against Khadorans
many times in my career, and in my experience one should
take every advantage he can against them. I would implore
you to reconsider, Brunner said.
Im with Ainsworth, MacBain chimed in. Theres no
reason to give a Khadoran a fair fight if you can avoid it.
De Gilfyn pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his
eyes shut before speaking slowly and deliberately. I thank
you for your counsel, gentlemen, but I will not allow a chance
for any of the enemy force to escape destruction. Captain
Ainsworth, you guaranteed me your Steelheads were more
then up forhow did you put it?thrashing Khadorans. It
is time for you to deliver. He punctuated his statement by
jabbing a finger at the Steelhead captains chest. Now that

I have made myself clear, I will expect to make all haste to


meet our enemy and destroy him.
Rutger could see the venom in Taryns eyes as she watched
de Gilfyn stride off. Fool! she growled.
Rutger placed a hand on her shoulder. Nothing we can do
about it now.
She turned her glare to him, causing him to pull his hand
back as if scalded. Her face softened. Doesnt change the fact
that hes an idiot.
MacBain chuckled. I would disagree. Taryns look was
incredulous. About the nothing we can do sentiment,
he added quickly. He looked around at the group, clearly
savoring his dramatic pause.
De Gilfyn may have command over the army, but I have
operational oversight of the forces warjacks. Which, according
to the contract wording, would include their controllers. A
devilish smirk broke across the warcasters face. De Gilfyn
never expected to have a jack marshal along.
Taryn scoffed, So Rex saves the day once again.
Rutger looked at Brunner. Are you okay with this?
Brunner nodded. De Gilfyn will still get his fight. His enemy
may just be a little more distracted then expected. Youre
going to be on your own, though.
Rutger looked at Taryn. Their eyes met and she gave the
slightest nod of her head. He smiled. Ive got all the backup
I need.

The sounds of battle split the crisp autumn air. Men shouted
war cries, warjacks rumbled, gunfire boomed, and steel
clanged. The screams of the wounded and dying completed
the chilling cacophonya cacophony Rutger knew intimately.
Rutger crouched low, doing his best to conceal himself within
a dense copse of trees near the battle. He gave a silent prayer
of thanks for the noise of combat, as they easily drowned out
Rex, who was hidden farther back, his steam engine idling at
a soft roar. Taryn stood next to Rutger with her back pressed
against the trunk of a gnarled oak, magelocks drawn. The
runes along their serricsteel barrels glowed faintly as she
channeled magical energy into the loaded rune shots.
She peered out at the unfolding battle. Several Winter Guard
were assembling a trio of mortars about a hundred yards in
front of the concealed trio. In moments the Khadorans would
be ready to bring their devastating artillery to bear against
the Resistance forces. Well, MacBain and Brunner have
their attention, she said in a low voice. You ready to do
something stupid?

He grinned back at her. Always. You?


Im standing next to you, arent I? With a blur of motion,
Taryn snapped around the tree she had been using for
cover and dashed forward, arcane runes blazing about her
magelocks as she fired into the knot of Winter Guard riflemen
who had taken up position near the mortars. In moments
several had fallen to her fusillade, their comrades still trying
to discern where this new threat was coming from.
Rutger drew his own hand cannon and snapped off a shot at
one of the quicker riflemen who attempted to draw a bead
on Taryn as she reloaded. The powerful shot obliterated
the mans head in a plume of red mist. With practiced ease,
Rutger cracked open the guns breach and loaded another
silk cartridge into the chamber. The pair had the Khadorans
attention already, and rifles were being raised in Taryns
direction, the enemy rightly prioritizing the gun mage as the
more dangerous target.
Rutger snapped the hand cannon shut and brought his free
hand up to his mouth. The bitter tang of alchemical blasting
powder stung his tongue as he blew out a shrill whistle. The
copse of trees shook with the sound of a locomotive as eight
tons of iron plating and machinery raced forth at Rutgers
call. He grimaced at the report of the Khadorans rifles. Before
Taryn could even react, Rex was there, his bulk between her
and the Khadoran rounds. The combined weight of fire tore
through the iron plating on his shoulder, causing sparks to fly.
Before the riflemen could unleash a second salvo, several
more rune shots slammed home, thinning their ranks. Rutger
bellowed to Rex, and he and the faithful warjack charged
straight into the remaining Khadorans. Jackknife flashed in
his hand, trailing arcane energy as it cleaved through Winter
Guard armor like kindling, the energy surrounding the blade
causing his enemies blood to sizzle and pop. As he cut his
way through the guardsmen in front of him, he caught sight
of another Khadoran closing from the side, rifle raised like a
club. Before Rutger could turn, Rexs fist flashed and the man
was sent hurtling through the air.
With the riflemen dispatched, Rutger took a moment
to survey his position. The mortar teams were wildly
gesticulating toward him and Rex, but the pair were well
within the mortars minimum range. This left the Khadorans
extremely vulnerable save for the few blunderbusses the
teams had at their disposal. Arcane fire trailed through the
air as Taryn targeted the Winter Guard armed with those.
All right, Rex, lets finish the job. Just be careful of the
mortars. We still need them, Rutger shouted to the jack
over the clamor of battle.
Rex let out a bellow of steam, which Rutger took for
acknowledgement. The pair raced forward while Taryn
continued to lay down deadly arcane fire from behind. She
dispatched the last of the Khadorans before Rutger and Rex
reached them.

Show-off, he said as she caught up to him, smoke trailing


from her pistols. She just smiled. He quickly examined the
artillery pieces, satisfied to see they were battlefield ready.
Think you can fire one of these as well as those pistols?
Rutger asked her, a roguish grin crossing his rough features.
Blunt instruments are really more your thing. I prefer a
little finesse.
Your loss, Rutger said. He rotated the crank that adjusted
the mortars elevation, estimating the range to begin firing
into the rear of the Khadoran ranks. Ready, aim Before he
could finish he felt Taryns body crash into him, knocking him
down as Rex thrust both of them to the ground protectively.
He looked up in time to see the jack turn as a heavy rocket
exploded off his armored torso. Rutger heard Taryn grunt as
shrapnel from the blast struck. Her leather armor saved her
from the worst, but several pieces of shrapnel still made their
way through to slice exposed skin.
Rutger looked out and to his dismay saw several more units
of Winter Guard approaching from behind the battle, clearly
some form of rear guard. Now he, Taryn, and Rex were caught
in the middle.
Are you okay? he asked Taryn, concern rising as he saw
blood trickle from a wound in her scalp.
Yeah, Im okay. She grunted as she pushed herself up.

Realizing their own mortars were being used against them,


the Winter Guard began double-timing it toward the trio
to get within the weapons minimum range. Even working
as fast as he could, Rutger was able to get only two more
shots into the Khadorans before blunderbuss fire forced him
to take cover. Several shots impacted off Rex as the Winter
Guard favored the bigger and far easier target. Rutger cursed
as he saw the jacks rotator spark and give out. He turned
to look at Taryn, who had given up on her mortar and was
snapping off shots from her magelocks.
He looked back over the scene and knew what he needed to do.
Get out of here, Taryn. Rex and Ill slow them down. He
pulled himself up and drew Jackknife.
What? Dont be stupid, Rutger! Taryn shouted back, an
edge of panic in her voice as she saw him stand.
He turned and locked eyes with her, wanting to take in every
bit of her face. He smiled. Its what I do best.
Before she could respond he was off, Rex racing forward by
his side. He could feel the weight of the Winter Guard fire
shift toward him as he closed. A heavy impact slammed into
his shoulder. He grunted under the force of the blow, feeling
his feet give way as the heavy blunderbuss slug spun him
around. He stumbled to one knee, trying to regain his
footing and bracing himself for the finishing shot. Instead

Good, cause weve got company.


More like half a kompany, she said grimly as she brought
her magelocks to bear. More than we can handle.
Were not out of this fight yet. He got up and began
dragging one of the mortars around to face the other
direction. Rex, help! He pointed at the other two mortars.
The big warjack rumbled over and hauled the two mortars
around with less care than Rutger would have liked,
but he didnt have time to be picky and he was
sure Rex knew it.
Without waiting to make sure Taryn would take
up her own mortar, Rutger pressed the firing
torch to the fuse. He didnt bother aiming at a
specific target; hed faced mortars before and
knew how inaccurate they were. Instead he
simply aimed at the mass of Winter Guard, trusting
in the large, explosive round to make up for the
lack of precision. With a roar the mortar round shot
up through air and came whistling down onto the
approaching mass of Khadorans to blossom out in a
brilliant explosion that tore through the ranks. No
sooner had Rutgers round struck home than a
second, from Taryn, struck amid the charging
mass. Moving quickly, Rutger reloaded and
fired another round. They needed to do as
much damage as possible if they were to have
any hope of living through this.

Rex was there, standing protectively over him, hammer


lashing out at any Khadorans foolish enough to try and
close. Rutger pulled himself up and joined Rex, Jackknifes
runes blazing. His shoulder was sore where the round had
struck, but thankfully his armor had protected him from the
worst of it. He planted his feet and raised Jackknife into a
defensive posture as three Winter Guard charged him, axes
drawn. There was a crack of pistol fire and the heads of two
snapped back as arcane rounds slammed into them, leaving
scorched trails in the air. At the death of his compatriots,
the third slowed just enough for Rutger to sweep in with
Jackknife, splitting the mans breastplate and carving into
the soft flesh beneath.
Rutger didnt even turn as he lashed out at two other
Khadorans. I told you to get out of here. His gritted his
teeth as he blocked an axe strike with Jackknife, the impact
sending painful reverberations through his injured shoulder.
I heard you, but when have I not regretted listening to
you? Taryns cool reply came back. Besides, the cavalrys
here. Her pistols flared as she spoke, and two more
Khadorans dropped.
As if to emphasize her point, the ground around a group
of Winter Guard just in front of Rutger cracked and burst,
sending stone shards flying. Rutger heard the familiar sound
of a Mules steam cannon firing and saw yet another explosion
tear through the faltering Winter Guard line. Glancing behind
quickly, Rutger saw that the Resistance army had broken
the Khadoran front lines and were sweeping through with
MacBain at their head.
Looks like you ran into a bit of trouble back here, Shaw.
MacBains voice boomed over the battlefield clamor. With
casual ease the warcaster lashed out with his signature
weapon Undertaker, taking off the head of one of the
remaining Winter Guard engaging Rex. He chuckled. Didnt
bite off more than you could chew, did you?
Ive chewed through worse, Rutger said, readying himself
to join MacBains attack despite the protests of his body.
Well, Ive got it from here. Besides, you look like you need
a rest.
Come on, RutgerMacBain can handle this. Taryn said.
Rutger felt her arm slide beneath his, and she began to pull
him back. He resisted for only a moment.
Rex kept himself between the pair and the fleeing Winter
Guard. Hydraulic fluid leaked from a dozen ragged holes in
its armor, and Rutger could hear the harsh grinding of gears
from several of its joints as it moved to keep pace. He grimaced
at the thought of the repairs the warjack would need.
Oh, and Shaw? MacBain called. Rutger turned, Taryn and
Rex stopping beside him. The mercenary warcaster grinned.

Consider my offer on your Toro rescinded. At least until you


hammer out the dents you gave it today.

Rutger had expected his first steps into the town of Dunlyf
to be made to the sounds of cheeringor, at the very least,
gunfire. Instead the only thing that greeted the Resistance
army was silence. Instinctively his grip tightened on his
weapons as adrenaline pumped through his tense body. He
took comfort in the familiar growl of Rexs servos behind
him and pushed his growing unease down, forcing himself
to focus. He wasnt about to let some carefully concealed
Widowmaker get the best of him.
Taryn strode beside him, her movements fluid and graceful
as she tracked across alleyways and empty buildings with her
magelocks. A casual observer would have seen the bearing
of a deadly gunfighter, poised for a fight. Rutger however,
could see that she was unsettled by the current situation just
as much as he was.
While Taryns anxiety over the current situation was hidden
well beneath her cool exterior, the rest of the Resistance army
was far easier to read. Rutger could see Brunner leading a
detachment of halberdiers along the left side of the main
thoroughfare, opposite where Taryn and Rutger were
positioned. Behind them MacBain and his battlegroup were
just beginning to make their entrance, accompanied by the
heavily armored Rhulic Forge Guard. It was the Steelheads
job to flush out any ambush or trap, keeping MacBain and
his valuable jacks in reserve for a counterattack. No one
expected the eerie calm to last. But it was clear the strain of
not knowing when that calm would be broken by extreme
violence was wearing on everyone.
As the force came to the center of Dunlyf, Brunner began
waving platoons down different streets, having them fan
out to perform a more thorough search of the structures. He
motioned for Rutger and Taryn to head down a smaller side
street better suited to them than to a larger group. Rutger
nodded at his friend and motioned for Taryn and Rex to
follow. The big Toro was barely able to fit between the
buildings on either side of the narrow street.
Youre on edge. The sound of Taryns voice made Rutger
jump. He cursed under his breath.
Id just prefer the fighting to start. I didnt come here for a
leisurely stroll. Besides, Im not the one with a twitchy trigger
finger. He nodded to her hands and she followed his gaze.
Sure enough, both her index fingers were twitching ever so
slightly against the triggers of her magelocks.
She smiled ruefully at him. Facing death is a lot easier than
waiting for it.

He nodded. Dive in head first, thats my motto.


And thats why I handle the contract negotiations.
He was about to respond when a sudden noise down a nearby
cross street made them both turn in that direction, tensed.
He caught her eye and she nodded. Hand cannon raised and
ready, Rutger quickly made his way to the intersection, Taryn
covering his back. Listening intently over the rumble of Rex,
who strode dutifully behind the pair, Rutger heard clattering
down another side street to his right. He pressed his back
against the wall of the corner building and peered toward
where the sound had come from. A sharp clamor caused him
to instantly snap back behind the cover of the house, braced
for a burst of gunfire that never came. Instead he heard more
shuffling, quicker this time.
Taking in a deep breath, he leaned ever so slightly past the wall
again and took in the street. There was no cover to be seen.
Going to have to run for it.
Taryn nodded and darted out around the corner, her long
cloak billowing as she raced across the open expanse, body
low and muscles tensed. Rutger followed quickly behind her.
Whoever it was they were chasing was clearly unconcerned
with stealth at this point. Rutger could easily hear scrambling
footsteps racing away from the trio.
The sounds of their quarry echoed down a tight alleyway.
Without pausing Taryn disappeared around the corner in hot
pursuit. Rutger grunted as he realized Rex wasnt going to be
able to fit. He didnt break his stride, though, but picked up
his pace to keep Taryn in sight and cover her back. The gun
mage swiftly rounded another corner and Rutger cursed as
he ran flat out to catch up. As he came around the corner he
nearly barreled into her.
She stood pressed against the casing of an open door which
led into the house adjacent to where the alley emptied into a
cross street. Rutger worked to still his heavy breathing from
the sprint, his heart hammering in his chest. He could hear
noises from inside the house. Now that he was able to make
out the sounds without the rumble of Rex, he realized there
was something off about them. Something wasnt right.
Taryn turned toward him and mouthed, On three.
He nodded. She turned back to the open door, her hand
raised as she pumped it.
One ... two ... three.
Like a flash the pair burst through the open door, guns raised.
Rutger caught sight of something big and dark as it flashed
forward like a bolt. He tried to raise Jackknife but was too slow.
He heard the loud crack of Taryns magelocks and felt the heavy
body smash into him. Suddenly he was on the floor, his back
slammed against the hard wood as the form crushed the wind
from his lungs. A warm wetness spread across his face and
torso. Bloodbut his? He couldnt tell. He fought to breathe,

and an earthy musk filled his nostrils. The smell of wild game.
He could hear Taryn but couldnt make out her words. No ...
they werent words. Was ithe paused for a moment, his mind
trying to make sense of the soundlaughing?
Was she actually laughing?
The body was rolled off him, and he took in a deep breath,
blinking as he cleared his eyes of blood and the dark
oppression of the weight. He looked at Taryn. Her whole
body was shaking as she fought to contain nervous laughter.
She pointed next to Rutger. It was a blasted deer!
He looked to where she was pointing. There, two large bullet
holes in its side, was a huge doe. They had been chasing
wildlife.
Unbelievable, she said. Khadorans, gatormen, Menite
zealots, thugs and lowlifes of every kindand you nearly
get taken out by venison! Her voice trembled slightly with
relief as she wiped tears from her eyes.
Ha, ha. Rutger pulled himself to his feet. He brushed
himself off and took stock of the house. What do you make
of this?
She paused, her eyes scanning their surroundings. The place
was dusty and several pieces of furniture were overturned,
but nothing seemed to be missing except the people. Plates
and utensils were even set on the dining table. Doesnt look
like the former occupants were planning on going anywhere.
She moved off into an adjacent room while Rutger made his
way to the kitchen. He tried not to think about the childrens
playthings scattered in a corner by the fireplace.
The kitchen and pantry showed signs of animal foraging.
Grain and rotting half-eaten vegetables littered the floor.
Taryns voice called out, It doesnt even look like they
took anything with them. There are clothes here, a trunk
with winter gear, a hairbrushhell, they even left jewelry
behind. She came back into the main living room holding a
gold chain with a small pendant.
Rutgers brow furrowed as he pondered what could have
compelled the inhabitants to leave in such a hurry. Even
Khadorans would have given the people time to pack some
belongings when clearing the town. And they certainly
wouldnt have left anything of value untouched once the
owners had been evicted.
Ever the pragmatist, Taryn slid the necklace into a pouch at
her waist. She nodded at the dead deer. How long do you
think a town needs to be empty before the local wildlife
decides to take interest? Two weeks? Three?
Rutger shook his head. I dont know. Its a fairly rural area.
Maybe less.
She was the first to give voice to his thoughts. Regardless, I dont
think were going to find any Khadorans waiting in ambush for
us. Whatever happened here, everyone is long gone.

I think youre right. Wed better report back to Brunner.


Taryn raised an eyebrow. You think hes having better luck
then us?
Rutgers gaze settled back on the scattered childrens toys.
His grip tightened on his hand cannon. Morrow, I hope so.

Rutger walked slowly through the empty town of Dunlyf, the


afternoon sun low in the sky. It had been nearly a week since
the Resistance force had arrived in the eerily deserted town.
Tensions had been high. Though the men and women of the
army were still wary, they had found a level of normalcy in
the unsettling situation, and by now no one was drawing
weaponsor worse, firing shots at the slightest noise.
Still, the question of what had occurred in Dunlyf weighed on
everyone. Hardened mercenaries or no, Rutger could see it in
their faces. And the more they tried to avoid it, the more their
eyes were drawn to the signs of Dunlyfs citizens seemingly
ripped from their daily lives to vanish without a trace.
Rutger knew, however, that what had happened here was
the smaller question. The real concern, the one that kept the
soldiers awake at night and ensured they avoided walking
alone at any hour of the day, was more visceral: would it
happen to them?

He ran through the situation in his mind for the hundredth


time. It was possible the Khadorans had relocated the
civilians for some strategic reason. But why hadnt they
taken the stores of the valuable red powder with them? As
far as the Resistance forces could tell, not a single barrel was
missing from the several storehouses that dotted the town.
Stranger still, the Khadoran barracks had been burned to the
ground, leaving nothing but charred wood and ash behind.
It was not unknown for the Khadoran army to engage in
a scorched-earth policy when retreating, but if it had been
them why hadnt they put the entire town to the torch? No,
it simply didnt add up. He continued to puzzle over the
mystery as he made his way to Dunlyfs town hall, which
now served as the Resistance forces HQ.
Rutger pushed his way through the heavy oak doors to walk
past the foyer and into the general meeting area. Steelheads
huddled in knots around lit braziers in the perimeter, their
weapons rested against the walls while they chatted with their
compatriots or engaged in various games of chance. Near the
center of the room, a large table had been set up with several
maps spread out across it, illuminated by lanterns on either
end. Brunner was bent over one of the maps, talking with
a halberdier sergeant, and Rutger paused. Given everything
his friend was suddenly dealing with, Rutger wasnt looking
forward to the conversation they needed to have.
Brunner finished relaying his orders to the sergeant, who
gave a quick salute before moving off. Finding himself with
a moment of respite, Brunner stood up to his full height,
stretching his back. He caught sight of Rutger, and a weak
smile broke out over his face. Rutger! Good to see you. I
assume our mechaniks took care of Rex?
Yeah, looks like they did a great job. Of course, it wouldve
been nice if theyd slapped a new coat of paint on him for
me, Rutger laughed. Any leads on where the townspeople
or the Khadoran garrison went?
Brunner shook his head and sat down heavily in his worn chair,
a deep weariness lining his features. Some of the boys found
what could be signs of a skirmish in the forest a few miles to
the northeast. He paused to take up an iron mug that was
holding down the corners of several maps, leaving dark stains
where it had sat. After a long draught he
continued, Im going with Glabriels
squad to check it out personally.
This might be the lead we need to
find out what happened here.
He looked expectantly at his old
friend. I dont suppose I could
convince you to come along?
Itd be good to
have your eyes.
And Taryns, too,
if you think

10

Rutger raised his hand, cutting Brunner off. Sorry, but our
contract is up. Technically it ended three days ago. Ive talked
it over with Taryn, and its time for us to move on. The look
on his old friends face was worse than a shot to the ribs.
Id hate to lose you. Im sure I could convince de Gilfyn to
pay your extension fee. Hell, if he wont cover it I will.
Rutger shook his head. I appreciate the offer, Brunner. But
I have other obligations that I need to see to. He didnt say
Taryns name. He didnt need to. She had been more than
understanding, more so than he really deserved.
Brunner looked like he was about to say something, but
instead he reached out his good hand. Take care of yourself,
Rutger. See you back at the Crag? Lets try to make it just a
year this time.
Rutger took Brunners hand and clasped his other hand over
it as well, smiling ruefully at the old farewell ritual. Since
they never knew what lay in store for either of them, they
made a point of always setting up a meeting in the future. It
gave them a reason to believe the goodbye wasnt their last.
As long as the first rounds on you, you can count on it.
Brunner simply nodded. Rutger turned and headed back to
the small house he and Taryn had appropriated for their use
in the days following their arrival.
Taryn was sitting at the dining table, which was tucked
into the farthest corner by the fireplace, where a small fire
warmed the room. Her feet were crossed upon the table,
boots flaking dried mud onto its surface as she cleaned one
of her magelocks. Howd he take it? she asked without
looking up as Rutger entered.
Fine. He was just heading out to follow up a lead one of
the patrols found, Rutger paused, Might even point them
to the townspeople.
I know what youre going to say, she said, looking up and
locking eyes with him, but its not our job. And they definitely
arent our responsibility. Only reason theyre Brunners is
because his contract says they are.
Rutgers reply died in his throat, and he simply shook his
head. He knew Taryn was right. The image of the abandoned
childrens toys sprang to his mind. He began absentmindedly
fiddling with the full purse attached to his belt.
Taryn raised an eyebrow. You earned that payday, Rutger.
She raised her magelock and sighted down the barrel at his
freshly healed shoulder. Dont make me remind you how.
He forced a grin, holding up his hands in mock surrender.
No reminder needed. Youre right, youre right.
She nodded, holstering her magelock in one smooth motion.
I always am. Youre just too stubborn to listen most the time.
Yet another of aspect of my charming personality.

You should be careful about relying on that too much.


Charm wont stop bullets.
It stopped yours.
She scoffed, swinging her feet onto the ground before rising
from the chair. She made her way to her bedchamber and
paused in the doorway to look back at her partner. It stopped
me from pulling the trigger. Theres a big difference.

Rutger was awakened by a heavy pounding on the outside


door. Instinctively he snapped upright, pulling his hand
cannon from the holster slung about the bed post. Shaking
the sleep from his mind, he could make out a muffled voice
calling his name. He dressed quickly and stepped into the
cold central living area of the house just as Taryn did the
same. The first rays of dawn were barely beginning to creep
in through the windows. The pair shared a quick look before
Rutger opened the door.
Standing at the entryway with one fist raised to knock again
was a worried-looking Steelhead Rutger recognized as one of
Brunners lieutenants. Rutger wondered what trouble could
have compelled his friend to send for him. For a moment he
expected to hear the sound of bombard fire in the distance
heralding the attack of the missing Khadoran garrison.
Rutger stared at the man, still slightly bleary-eyed. What
does Ainsworth want?
Im sorry to bother you, but I felt someone should tell you.
Tell me what? Rutger asked.
The lieutenants words came fast, his building panic clear.
Captain Ainsworthhe never returned from patrol, sir. He
went with Sergeant Glabriels squad yesterday to investigate
a lead on what happened here, and they havent been seen
since. The entire squad is missing.
Khadorans? Taryn asked from the back.
Possibly. We cant tell much from here.
Rutger didnt even take a moment to think. Wheres
MacBain?
Making final arrangements to leave. His contract, like
yours, was completed upon securing the town. Unless Lord
de Gilfyn extends it, MacBain will be gone by evening.
Rutger fingered the heavy purse at his hip. Get them
both. Quickly.
Yes, sir. The lieutenant hurried off to gather the two men.
Rutger, Taryn said, What do you think you are doing?
This isnt our job.

11

Rutger turned. Taryn stood with her arms crossed, leaning


to one side. He knew what was coming but spoke anyway.
We cant leave.
Taryns gaze was icy. Thamars teeth we cant! Brunner isnt
our responsibility. He knew the risks.
But he could still be alive. I cant just walk away. I owe him.
Owe him?! You dont owe him anything! You came when he
askedand dont forget that wasnt easy. You fulfilled your
contract to the Resistance and to him. You cant go running
to the rescue every time the man finds himself in danger.
Your loyalty to him already almost got us both killed! I wont
stand by and watch you endanger yourself or our livelihoods
out of some foolish sense of self sacrifice for
Enough! he shouted, cutting her off. I wouldnt be
standing here today if it wasnt for Brunner. He risked his life
and came out far worse for it. I wont abandon him when he
actually needs my help. Rutger was surprised to see Taryn
shrink slightly at the intensity of his gaze. He turned away,
trying to calm himself. He knew she had a pointbut he also
knew she was wrong. He made his way to go.
Rutger, she said, stopping him. Its going to take more
than youve got to keep MacBain around. He turned just in
time to see a heavy leather purse fly toward him. He caught
it, surprised by its weight. He looked at her.
For a brief moment Rutger almost failed to stop himself
from saying something he had wanted to say since they
first met. Swallowing the words, he said, Ill pay you back.
Every crown.
Damn right you will. With extra interest from Brunner.

Taryn crouched low, scanning the ground beneath her


intently. Rex stood some distance off, glowing eyes scanning
the surrounding wilderness for any sign of trouble.
Rutger frowned as he looked over the area Brunner had gone
to investigate when he and his men went missing. The signs
of a recent skirmish were plain. The ground was covered in
heavy boot marks and the nearby foliage had been splintered
and shredded by blade and bullet. The markings told of a
desperate stand, with Brunner and his men being drawn into
a tight circle at the center of the clearing.

several of the footprints were clearly from standard-issue


Khadoran military boots.
Taryn moved forward, keeping her gaze low as if following an
invisible trail. About ten paces away she stopped in her tracks.
Rutger, she said, youd better take a look at this.
Rutger hurried over to where she had crouched. There,
concealed beneath heavy fronds, lay a heavy iron gauntlet
with a stump of forearm sticking out from its back. Thick
iron bands wrapped around it, bolted in place by rusty
rivets. Instead of terminating in fingers the gauntlet ended in
a dome divided down the middle. Rutger drew Jackknife and
used it to carefully prod at the metal. A serrated blade sprang
from the end of the gauntlet.
Cryxian? Taryn asked.
Maybe, Rutger said half under his breath as he considered
the find, though Ive never seen anything like this on a thrall
before. He motioned to the forearm. And that flesh looks
like it was only recently severed from a living body.
Taryn looked at him. I dont suppose youd be willing to
change your mind about staying?
Rutger grunted.
Didnt think so. She looked around, her hands firmly
resting on the handles of her magelocks.
A warning bellow from Rex shattered the quiet of the
surroundings. In an instant both Rutger and Taryn were on
their feet, weapons drawn. As they scanned for danger, a
rough voice called out and a figure wearing a long greatcoat
and a broad-rimmed hat stepped out of the shadows, a heavy
quad-iron trained on the pair. Rex vented steam in a shrill
whistle in preparation to charge, but a shout from Rutger
held the mighty warjack in check.
Harlan Versh, Rutger growled.
Versh tilted his head slightly in greeting. Never thought Id
run into you again, he said, a faint hint of amusement in his
gravelly voice.
Maybe thats because the last time we met, you put a
bullet in me. Rutger scowled as his hands tightened on
the grip of his weapons. Been looking forward to repaying
you for that.

Whoever had attacked the squad had taken them by surprise


and with overwhelming force. The fact that there were no
bodies meant one of two things: either the Steelheads had
been taken alive or their bodies had been carried off. Oddly,
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