“Was it the wicked leaders who led innocent populations to slaughter, or was it wicked populations who chose leaders after their own hearts?”
― T.H. White,
“26 humans down there, at least visible,” said Ebony through my earpiece. “If there are more they are not in sight.”
“I estimate 100 Fallen, mostly Dregs and Shanks,” said Auburn – “Chatterbox”, Airanna had called her Ghost – floating over Arianna’s prone figure as she stared down the scope. For my part, I simply crouched and waited for status updates, suddenly wishing I had a sniper rifle.
“Only one walker,” she said after a moment. “If they have more they are at campsites elsewhere.” She lifted her head from the scope. “Well, this is an unexpected development. Odds are there are more humans in the compound.”
“Definitely tunnels beneath those huts,” Chatterbox confirmed. “Probably the majority of their population is down there.”
“How has a human settlement like this gone unnoticed for so long?” I asked.
“People are pretty ingenious when it comes to hiding,” said Arianna. “What I don’t understand is why it has drawn this kind of response from the Fallen – or why they haven’t simply bombed them out of existence. There’s nothing to indicate the tunnels are especially reinforced. A couple of walkers could make a few artillery strikes and bury them.”
“Maybe more than a couple,” said Chatterbox. “But it would not take much to seal everyone inside and starve them out.”
“And yet they lay siege,” Ebony mused.
“We need to get inside,” said Arianna. She looked at me.
“I can’t cloak all of us,” I said.
“No, but you can get a look.”
I nodded and loosened my hand cannon in its holster. “Be ready to make a distraction.”
“My specialty,” she assured me.
The humans were dressed in drab browns and furs. Although of dark complexions their skin had a washed-out look, as if they rarely saw sunlight, and in the cloudy daylight it made them seem wan and sickly. The weapons they carried were ancient in appearance, and their patrols were a shambling, inattentive affair, as if they were thoroughly bored at having to make an appearance. I slipped past them easily into the cluster of grass-covered huts.
“Probably the central structure,” said Ebony softly. We stole through the ramshackle excuse for a village to the center hut, only slightly larger than the rest. I tried the door – it was made of a flat black metal – and ducked inside. It was empty; a sloping ramp led into a symmetrical wound in the Earth that disappeared into darkness. Ebony took a moment to conduct a scan.
“I have a clear map of the tunnels,” he reported. “And…something else. A pretty big energy signature below…and it’s Dark.”
“The plot thickens,” quipped Chatterbox through the comm.
“Well,” I said turning back to the door, “we can probably – “
The door opened. A human walked in, saw me, and gave out a yelp. I lunged forward and seized his head in both hands, clamped 1 over his mouth and dragged him inside. I swore as I wrestled the human to the ground. I cut off his air supply long enough for him to stop struggling. “He’s out,” Ebony reported. I let him breathe again and slid his weapon away in case he woke up.
“What’s going on?” asked Arianna. “The patrols just stopped. Some of them are moving your way.”
I swore again and looked around, but there was nowhere to hide the unconscious man. “Local stumbled on us. I might need that distraction in a moment,” I said.
“Might not have to,” she replied. “The Fallen have noticed too. I see a detachment heading in now…most of the humans are heading back to the perimeter. You still have 3 going your way.“
“Need to do this quietly,” I said softly. I slipped down the tunnel until the shadows covered me and waited.
The 3 humans barreled through the door and noticed the unconscious man in the corner. They spoke rapidly to one another in a language I didn’t understand and knelt next to their comrade with their backs to me.
I knocked out the first with a blow to the side of the head, roundhouse kicked the next, and swept the third from his feet as he turned. The fall knocked the wind out of him and a sharp blow to the temple silenced him.
Sounds of weapons fire filtered through the walls of the hut.
“Morc, the humans are engaged with the Fallen. Stay there, I’ll join you while they’re distracted.“
I cracked open the door and peered through the huts toward the perimeter. Arc weapon bursts filled the air with the smell of burnt ozone and shouts from both sides echoed. I saw Arianna making her way forward: in her brown cloak and leathers she blended well with the background, and in the overcast day the light might have been low enough…
A shock grenade landed at Arianna’s feet with unnerving precision. She somersaulted over it and sprinted for the cover of the buildings, all pretense at stealth abandoned.
Shanks swarmed through the little village toward Arianna like a hive of bees. A shank passed by the door I was looking out of and turned toward me. I shot it, but not before it had fired a shot of its own and alerted its comrades.
“Morc, I’m cut off,” Arianna reported.
“Hang on,” I replied, shooting down another shank. I tried to cloak, and then a repeater shank opened fire, driving me away from the door I had been standing in.
A Dreg stepped in my way. I stabbed it and threw the body back. The gunfire continued, but they sounded purely like Fallen weapons now.
Arianna and I met a mere 25 meters from the central building and stood back to back as shanks and Dregs swarmed in on us, cutting off our avenues of escape.
“Well, this is going to be fun,” said Arianna cheerily. “You like music?”