The boots of the Royal Army shook the country side. Mountains bent and rivers stopped; the march was deafening. The dreaded summer had come and the Resistance was readying for a long and bloodied season. The Royal Army crossed the eastern front and set up camp. They drilled day and night knowing full well their movement was under surveillance. They wanted to the Resistance to see how well organized, how well disciplined and how well prepared the army was for the coming battles. Tent cities stretched for miles. Smoke plumes rose from improvised factories and machine shops. Landships and automatons sat in neat rows between regiments, and running over the fields were soldiers clad in the lavender colored cloaks of the Royal Guard.
The Instigator was attempting to sneak behind the ranks. The front had drawn nearer than expected and sooner than hoped. The Resistance was pooling its forces in the seemingly ancient city of Dercas. The city had streets narrow enough to funnel enemy soldiers if the battle moved inside the tall walls. The Instigator thought not of that eventuality. Her mission was to move by enemy lines and fetch a captured operative and the spy sent to save him.
She led a small force. Ten men and women armed to the teeth with the finest blades and rifles the Resistance could muster. The arms were infused with the power of aether; a force the Instigator had only heard of in hushed whispers. They crept through the hills of the eastern forest, looking out on the Royal camps and hoped their travels would go undetected. Beyond the forest lay the crags and valleys of the plains where little more than tall bushes and shrubs would provide cover. They were a small force, but with speed and agility on their side they could be home by the next new moon.
The thorns of the wild rose bushes snagged and tore the patterned uniforms the team wore through the forest. There were complaints of gnats and enormous moths buzzing around ears and eyes, but the voyage beyond enemy lines went smoothly. When the team reached the roadway heading to the Bronze Palace, there was a collective sigh of relief and a burst of resolve to reach the camp and shutter it for good. Rumors of the prison camp were sordid at best. Sneaking the Resistance’s spy in there was a point of pride for the Instigator for she crafted the cover story of the spy being the sitting mayor of a town that did not even exist. The spy’s mission was going according to plan, so said the spy’s handler. But the timeline shifted and the captured alchemist was needed now, before Dercas could fall.
The road was dirty and quiet. Shrubs waved in the wind, which went on to whistle through the slight crags and cuts in the valley’s earth. If they had not been carrying scoped rifles and glowing blades the scene would have been serene.
The team walked in silence for miles. The Instigator ran the names of the other nine through her head, knowing the power of a name. She memorized their stories and backgrounds when they left Tirr. They ate a meal together at camp outside Buri, but chatter ceased before heading to the eastern forest. This far into the territory of the enemy every word mattered. Words were the Instigator’s specialty.
An explosion sounded in the distance followed by a plume of dirt and rock shooting skyward.
“Cover!” shouted one of the team members. More explosions, more dirt and rock.
“Rally to me, friends,” the Instigator ordered. She ran for a dip in the land large enough to shield the entire group.
She could not see the aggressors or pin-point the source of the cannon fire. The frequency increased, but as the team sought cover the accuracy of the shots fell.
“Risso, I need eyes out. Be our hawk and find our prey,” the Instigator commanded.
The thud of cannon fire continued. Dust began to layer over their goggles. Riflemen began to cycle aether trough their weapons and ready for a battle.
Risso returned to the Instigator’s side with dire news.
“Fifty of the Cloak and Cowl are heading this way. Lavender Cannons are on the northern ledge; two or three I think,” Risso reported. The Instigator tried to remain calm. The Cloak and Cowl were the King’s personal guard. Lavender cloaks and black cowls masked their frame, their faces were covered by dull metal masks that allowed no words to escape. The carried rifles that glowed blue at the barrel, pulsing with energies granted by aether. They were accurate, powerful and merciless. The voiceless killers of the Central Palace. For fifty to be in one place at one time meant the situation facing Dercas was more dire than originally thought.
The Instigator held her locket and searched for the words to help her troops survive the day. When she found them, she called the team near.
“We are the first and last,” she started before being interrupted by a cannon shot, “first and last line of defense this day. We have our mission. It is not a mission that will grant our allies a resource advantage or a simple strategic point on a map. Our mission will save the lives of our comrades back home. It will keep the hope of our cause alive. Ending that dastardly camp, bringing our assets home, and putting these Voiceless in the earth are all that matter now. For comrade, for cause; follow me over this hill and we shall find our glory together. After this, we go to the Bronze Palace and then back to Dercas. It is all that simple.”
With a roar, ten Resistance fighters climbed the rocky hill. The next steps in what had become an exceptionally long mission.
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