Written by Matt Ochs | Layout by John Kimmel
Bergheim – Palace Infirmary Primus
“This is for them then,” she murmured, holding the needle at eye level in a two handed grip. She looked everything like an augur holding a sacrificial knife, ready to drop into a waiting cadaver. But the corpse beneath her was not that of game, it was a man. She gritted her teeth, and with a grunt of effort the needle fell, disappearing into the corpse’s chest - Belligos’s chest.
It landed with a hollow thud, half a hand’s breadth to the left of his sternum, aiming for his heart. She put her weight into the plunger at the end of the syringe and pushed it down slowly, methodically, until the last of its contents had disappeared inside him as well.
She stopped and stared at what she had done. The syringe sticking out of his chest like a rocket turned the wrong way, poised for takeoff and, stark against the pallid flesh it balanced on.
Sufi stepped back and took a deep breath. This was what was treason looked like.
Regardless of how it looked, there was no turning back from this now. The syringe had been emptied into Belligos’s corpse, and unlike the poison, its contents would not vanish from his system so easily. It would remain there long enough for the churgeons to find it, long enough to indicate foul play.
Not hers. No. What she had done was try – she was trying – to save an innocent life. It would implicate yet another, and if the trail were followed it would lead somewhere it should not; possibly to the wolf lord herself. But if the contents of the syringe worked, then the same would be done as well, and with more certainty.
So there really was no turning back. By this act she had carried out an order and then directly undermined it, and that made her a traitor. A traitor to her lord and her house.
Her hands shook. She should feel vindicated. This was right, this was a just cause. And yet her hands shook and never had she felt less certain.
But, she had to press on. There could be no turning back from this, and she had cast her die as surely a warrior who breaks an oath. Sufi stepped forward and grabbed the syringe with both hands again, pulling with all her strength. The needle came free with a jerk and tiny fip. Without looking she threw the syringe aside with disgust before hunching over the corpse of Belligos.
“Live dammit,” she said through gritted teeth, “if not for my sake, then yours.”
Then she placed both her palms where the syringe had been, locked her elbows, and pushed. When his chest sunk as low as it would go, she let it retract, throwing her momentum upwards, and she fell into yet another two palmed push. She placed all her weight behind this one and when she came down there was a sick grinding craccck!
That’ll hurt like a demon, she thought pulling up for another push, if he wakes. She was ready to plunge again when the body below her shook. Hel, everything shook. Sufi struggled to keep her feet as the ground rattled and a deafening roar blasted in her ears.
Almost immediately red klaxons began pulsing and the deep resonant blasts of warning horns screamed in the distance.
We’re under attack, she thought, but the reality refused to sink in.
Another blast rattled the room and she came to her senses. They were under attack, and the explosions were coming from under the dome of Bergheim. Whatever – whomever - that was attacking them had already breached their outermost defenses. Which meant they were inside the city.
She had to move and mobilize her warriors, but she wasn’t finished with Belligos. The serum had to be spread through his body to work, and that meant without a heartbeat, she had to force it.
Ancestors damn it, she cursed, moving back to the body still lying on the examination slab. There wasn’t time enough for subtlety, so she heaved herself on top of him, straddling his torso, and thrust her palms into his chest with all her weight. His chest moved and ground with each of her exertions, and with each disgusting crack and crunch, she began to think that if the poison wasn’t enough to kill him, that this surely was.
Dead is dead is dead is dead, she thought, frantic.
Another blast thundered, this time close enough to the palace that she could hear the unmistakable sound of shattering glass. Sufi knew she was out of time. She had to go, and she had to go now.
She thudded a fist off of Belligos’s chest, and thought, one last time for luck. Wake up damn you, and twice if you don’t.
After that she ran.
Sufi sprinted down the corridor leading to the great hall, reaching for her vox com as she did. She flipped it on and was greeted to sounds of utter chaos.
“They’ve breached the biodome!”
“Hirsdang, gather the outriders! We must-“
“Mobilize Reinn Squad and move on the western gate!”
She wanted to wade into battle with the rest of them, but she had a duty to fulfill. With a flick she flipped her vox to an encrypted private frequency, reserved for only her and one other person.
“Lord Worgana? Are you there?”
There was fizz of static and a pop, then the channel cleared and she heard a familiar voice.
“Sufi, is it done?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Very well. Gather the rest of the Wolf’s Guard and meet me in the throne room.”
“Yes, my lord.”
There was a click and the channel went dead. Her lady yet lived. She thought of Belligos lying in the infirmary and then pushed it aside. Her duty was to House Hrothgar and the Wolf’s Mantle; and though she had defied her lord, that had not changed. She would serve her house until the executioner’s blade claimed her head. She switched her channel and immediately was greeted to chatter, but this time the voices spoke quickly and concisely, their emotions restrained and order evident.
Sufi’s heart swelled with the pride at the sound, it was the very same she felt whenever in the presence of her chosen warriors. They were the elite of House Hrothgar, the Wolf’s Guard, protectors of lord and mantle and second to none in all the Empire.
“Wolfgarl, report,” she barked and the voices quieted immediately, before the first amongst them spoke up.
Good, her second yet lived. A battle maiden the likes of Yari would never fall to such an inglorious fate as siege-fire. More than once, the two had joked that the first one to die without an enemy’s blood staining their blade would be doomed to serve the other for all eternity in Halla. It was a joke, but that wager had always brought the two of them to laughter and strengthened their sisterhood ever since first years of service in Lady Worgana’s personal guard. Yari was as close to kin as she had left.
Next were the seasoned veterans of the Wolf’s Guard, those that had served Lord Fenris when he had held the mantle and were still counted amongst the living.
“Thir here.” A veteran of many campaigns, it always comforted Sufi to have the old warrior by her side.
“Gregon here.” She felt a pang of bitterness rise in her throat at the voices of the last two. It had not been an hour since they carried Belligos’s corpse to the infirmary in ignominy, and already they were called for battle. But both were good men and she knew they wouldn’t shirk from their duty.
Her remaining battle maidens were next to report, those that had been of the Wolf’s Own, and served with her and Yari for years in the service of their lady.
“Veya still with a beating heart.” Even in the tensest of times Veya was never one to pass up on a joke. And though she sometimes walked the fine line between insubordination, Sufi couldn’t help but smile at her dogged humor.
That was everyone. Good.
“I’m on my way to the throne room, anyone not already there rendezvous immediately.”
“Yes, mistress,” came Yari’s reply. As her second she spoke for the group and her word was final.
She closed the channel and switched back the broad range frequency. From the chorus of shouts, screams, and howls of outrage that greeted her, she confirmed that the biodome city shield was down and that Bergheim was under long-range siege by a force from the west. Reports were still coming in from intercepting forces still scrambling into the vanguard, but she already knew. This had all the hallmarks of a Synthien attack. Always were they the ones to use brute force and overwhelming firepower. They hadn’t even maneuvered to launch their assault from another front than the one that brought them straight from the helhole they called home. They had simply marched from the Fracture up to their doorstep and began shelling. It was so blunt and obvious, it almost made her blush. But still, there were many more unanswered questions; like how had they been able to penetrate the dome’s defenses so easily? And how had they made their advance so deep into Jotune territory without going noticed by scouts or reconnaissance?
Sufi herself had heard Belligos’s report in the throne room. Lord Ashgar Skymir’s report was that Synthien forces were amassing on the north and west border of the Empire. Bergheim was far south of where the reports stated they should be. Was this a splinter force? Had Lord Ashgar lied about the Synthien’s whereabouts? It wasn’t like the one they called “the Strategist” to make such an error. And only a Synthien host of sufficient size could hope to siege one of the strongest defended strongholds in all of the Empire. What really was going on then?
Sufi pushed the thoughts aside. It was too much. She was a warrior, and had always measured herself by success on the battlefield, not the arena of intrigue. There was something terribly wrong the Empire; not just abroad, but even within their own home of Bergheim.
The bitterness rose again into her throat. Who knew better than her, about the sickness taking hold inside House Hrothgar?
She clenched her fists and gnashed her teeth. She was not an agent or a politician. Her wars were a bloody business and her death was destined by the blade. And lucky for her the Synthien were on their doorstep promising both.
“His vital signs are stabilizing!” Nurse Eulon turned from the databank displaying the patient’s vital statistics to face her, relief in his eyes.
“Good, move him over to a cot then, we need the examination slab for that one over there,” she said pointing to a badly wounded man lying prone on the ground.
Two muscular orderlies brought a backboard over and slid it under the patient and moved him to a place with the other less critically injured. It was odd, that one. They had found him lying in the infirmary when the first healer had arrived; already stripped of his shirt, devoid of vital signs, and with massive fracturing to his ribs. It was almost as if someone had brought him here and then left him to die.
Head Churgeon Gaya had never seen the man before, but she knew that he wasn’t Hrothgar. But in the chaos of the attack there had been no time to inquire as to his identity. Ever since her arrival in the infirmary she had been working on over a dozen patients at once. It was simply a relief that she knew he was dead or alive and turn her attentions elsewhere.
An explosion shuddered through the room and the lumes flickered as the wounded moaned all the louder. Gaya didn’t blink and she moved to minister to the man just placed on the slab.
“Yagnar, thirty cc’s of codrenaline!” She shouted to the nearest nurse.
Yagnar turned to follow his churgeon’s orders and stumbled over a pile of litter scattered across the floor. An orderly caught him and with a grateful nod he moved to the medicine bench. There scatter vials everywhere and he pushed a used needle and syringe out of the way with disgust.
Even at a time like this that should have been disposed of properly, he thought, it’s bound to end up in someone’s neck.
Just then he found what he was looking for and forgot all about the empty syringe, hurrying back to his waiting doctor and the man who needed their attention.