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Hell Hath No Fury: Chapter Twelve
Last updated: Friday, December 29, 2006 19:26 EST
Erthek Vardan tipped his chair back. He balanced it on its rear legs, with the top of its back braced against the wall, while he held the book tilted so that the ceiling-hung kerosene lamp's light spilled over the pages.
The wall behind him was made of logs notched and laid into place, then chinked with clay. It was rough and ready looking, but it was also solid and, like the steeply-pitched rain-shedding roof, it was definitely weatherproof. The weather was still warm enough that the fire crackling on the hearth wasn't really needed for heat, yet it was a welcome relief against the omnipresent, damp chill. Coupled with the sound of rain pattering against the roof overhead, it produced an oasis of welcoming comfort which was almost enough to make a man forget that he'd been stationed at the ragged edge of the known multiverse.
Personally, Erthek wasn't likely to be that forgetful.
Grateful as he was for the stout roof and the fire, he missed things like the theater, hot baths that didn't have to be laboriously heated, bucket-by-bucket, and restaurants. No one would have called him a hedonist, but he hadn't quite counted on conditions this primitive when he volunteered for three years' Portal Authority service as a way to earn money for college. Still, he knew he'd been lucky, in a horrid sort of way, to have drawn this particular posting.
What had happened to the Chalgyn Consortium's survey crew was horrible, but the PAAF had shown these "Arcanan" barbarians that they didn't want to confront Sharonian soldiers, whatever they might have done to a surprised, vastly outnumbered party of civilians.
Erthek himself was no soldier, of course. In fact, he was a civilian employee of the Portal Authority on his very first assignment. He was also less than twenty-one years old, and he suspected that he'd been originally earmarked for this particular relay post because his superiors figured that he, unlike some old fogy in his thirties, had the youthful resilience to survive it. Or it might be simpler than that. In fact, it almost certainly was. After all, he was probably the most junior Voice in the Authority's employ, and when he'd first been assigned to Thermyn, no one had had any reason to suspect the existence of Hell's Gate, far less what was going to happen on its other side. At that point, this had simply been what had to have been the least desirable Voice posting of them all, so it had made sense to hand it to the most junior Voice of them all.
But the choice to assign him here had virtually guaranteed Erthek's later career. No one was going to forget his part in passing the critical message traffic from Hell's Gate back and forth along the Voicenet. Erthek Vardan was going into the history books, and wasn't that an amazing thing? The notion amused him, and yet there was something else under the amusement. A hard, vengeful something that found grim satisfaction in serving as one of Sharona's messengers in the confrontation with the murderers of Shaylar Nargra-Kolmayr and her companions.
He'd never expected to find himself doing something that important this early in his Authority service. And, truth to tell, he was grateful that Petty-Captain Waird chan Lyrosk had finally reached Fort Brithik. Chan Lyrosk was a Ternathian, on loan to the PAAF, which made him not simply senior to Erthek in the Authority's service, but an army officer, as well. Erthek knew he'd miss the independence he'd enjoyed as the only Voice available to Company-Captain chan Robarik, Fort Brithik's CO . . . but any disappointment on that side was more than outweighed by the relief he'd feel when someone else became officially responsible for this critical Voice relay tomorrow morning.
He grimaced at the thought, then looked up from his book at the clock ticking away on the mantelpiece. A fresh gust of raindrops pattered noisily across the roof and made him even more grateful for the fire of split logs. But under his gratitude, there was a growing flicker of concern. It certainly wasn't anything strong enough to call fear, but it was more than simple uneasiness. There hadn't been anything scheduled, but it was unusual for a full day to pass without any Voice transmission from Shansair Baulwan. If nothing else, Shansair usually made a conscientious effort to tell Erthek when he was shutting down for the evening so that Erthek could shut down himself, instead of maintaining his Listening schedule.
Well, he told himself, if I haven't Heard anything from him in the next hour and a half, then I'm just going to have to send him a message and ask if it's okay for me to go ahead and turn in. He ought to be able to Hear me, even if I can't Hear him without trancing. In the meantime . . . .
One of the chickens in the hencoop built onto the side of the relay station stirred, clucking loudly as something disturbed it. Erthek listened for a moment -- they'd had problems with a persistent bobcat, and he started to reach for the shotgun racked on the wall above him. But the hen in question sounded more querulous than frightened. An approaching bobcat would have led to something more strenuous, and Erthek chuckled. Probably that last gust of rain had blown in through the coop's wire side and the chicken was merely letting the world know how irritating it had found the experience.
Still, the sound was almost like a reminder, he thought, glancing at the clock once more. Then he slipped a bookmark between the pages of his novel, closed the book, and laid it in his lap as he closed his eyes and settled into the upper stages of a trained Voice's trance. It increased his sensitivity and extended his reception range considerably, and he reached out, Listening for all he was worth for any hint of transmission from Petty-Captain Baulwan. There was nothing, and he frowned slightly as he started to --
Commander of Fifty Iftar Halesak, CO, Second Platoon, Able Company, Second Andaran Temporal Scouts, moved through the wet, rainy dark with a serpent's silence. He hadn't asked for this assignment, but that was only because he hadn't known it would exist. And if he had known, he would have assumed it was the sort of thing Special Operations would have handled. Unfortunately, it would appear that Two Thousand Harshu was a bit short in the SpecOps department. No doubt the expeditionary force commander found that highly irritating, but Halesak didn't. He was too busy being fiercely glad that he'd gotten it to spare much sympathy for his commanding officer's dilemmas.
As an officer of the Second Andaran Scouts, Halesak would have wanted vengeance for what had happened to the Second Andarans' Charlie Company when the Sharonians massacred them, no matter what else might have happened. He'd known some of those men for upwards of ten years, and all of them had been his brothers in arms, his family. Indeed, one of those massacred men had been his brother-in-law. Yet there was a part of him that was almost ashamed by how little Charlie Company's complete destruction actually meant to him . . . compared to what else had happened. As one of the very few garthan officers in the Union Army, Iftar Halesak's heart filled with a white, blinding fury whenever he thought of the way the Sharonian butchers had shot down Magister Halathyn vos Dulainah as if he'd been no more than a stray dog.
Halesak hated the shakira and the entire perverted, vicious caste system they called a society with a pure and burning passion. He'd been luckier than many, because his father had possessed the determination and the courage to break free of Mythal before Iftar had ever been born. It was as well he had, too, for Iftar had been born with the Gift his father had not. It wasn't an especially powerful Gift, but it would have been enough, back in Mythal, for the shakira to have taken Iftar away from his parents and placed him with a shakira family to be raised.
But if Fifty Halesak and his two sisters had never personally lived under the crushing weight of shakira oppression, all too many other members of his family had, and so had his wife, when she'd been a child. And because those others who meant so much to him had, he'd understood on a deep, emotional level what all too many of his fellow Andaran citizens grasped only intellectually. He'd understood that Mythal's chosen society wasn't simply wrong, it was evil. Which meant he'd understood just how special Halathyn vos Dulainah had truly been. What it had taken for the man whose Gift and intellect had made him the crowning jewel of the shakira's magic-wielding establishment to turn his back on all of the power, prestige, privilege, and family prominence which had been his simply because his own fierce sense of right and wrong had left him no choice.
In his entire life, Iftar Halesak had never personally know a single shakira worth the effort to snuff out his miserable life. But every garthan had known of Halathyn vos Dulainah and the way he had made their cause his own. And now that man had been slaughtered. There was not a garthan in any Arcanan-claimed universe who would ever forgive these "Sharonians" for that, and Fifty Halesak knew he carried all of those other garthan's hopes, desires, and anger with him as he made his careful, quiet way through the darkness.
He and his men had spent the last twenty-one hours hidden in the sopping wet trees around the Voice's cabin's clearing. They'd had to be cautious, of course, but it really hadn't been that great a challenge for someone with the Andaran Scouts' training. Now, if everything went according to plan, Able Company first platoon was about to hit the next voice relay after Fort Brithik at this same, exact moment.
He eased to a halt, raising his left arm to signal the other men of his platoon, as a chicken clucked loudly from the coop beside the relay station. He stood waiting patiently in the breezy rain, despite the fire blazing within him, until the noisy fowl had settled back again. It didn't take very long, and he used the time comparing what he'd seen with his own eyes so far to the briefing Five Hundred Neshok had provided. It was amazing how accurate the five hundred's information had turned out to be, he thought, and then, as the chicken quieted, he started forward once more.
The daggerstone in his hand seemed absurdly light in comparison to the dragoon arbalest he normally carried. Many Gifted Arcanan soldiers carried daggerstones as personal, backup weapons, but they were seldom used offensively. They were too short-ranged for normal battlefield use, and if they were loaded with fireballs -- the most common spell loading -- they weren't exactly precision weapons. Most troopers considered getting caught in the fringe of their own fireballs to be a Bad Thing, after all. Besides, they were too readily detected, too likely to betray a man's position to any Gifted adversary, to be carried on most scouting or covert operations. But he'd already determined that the log-built relay station had no windows to let out any betraying flashes of light, and worries about detectability didn't loom so large against murderous barbarians who hadn't even known magic existed three months before, he told himself with a thin smile.
He and his point squad reached the front of the relay building. He really should have delegated this particular task to his platoon sword, he knew, and perhaps he would the next time. But not tonight. Oh, no, not tonight.
He took time for one more quick, sweeping glance around. Then he laid his left hand on the door latch and drew a deep breath. The door was unlocked, the latch turned easily under his hand, and he slammed forward, driving his shoulder into the heavy wooden panel. It exploded open, and he erupted into the room beyond it.
According to Five Hundred Neshok's information, there were only three men permanently housed in this relay station, and only one of them was a Voice. Halesak had expected that information to prove as accurate as everything else Neshok had told him, but he hadn't expected to come face-to-face with the Voice so quickly. For a moment, he refused to believe he had, that things could possibly have gone that well. But then he saw the bronze falcon badge on the other man's civilian tunic.
Erthek Vardan's head jerked up, and his eyes snapped open. He had no idea what was happening. He didn't even know the origin of the sound which had yanked him so brutally up out of his light trance.
Nor did he ever find out.
His eyes might have opened, but they still hadn't focused when Iftar Halesak raised his daggerstone and triggered the first of its stored spells. The spell ripped across the relay station's main room in a bar of quasi-solid lightning. It struck Erthek square in the chest, and his heart and lungs literally exploded inside the ribs which had been no protection at all against that spell.
He was dead before he ever truly saw the man killing him.
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