• Jesse Abbott


Updated: Dec 7, 2019

Lyonesse, or so her soldiers called her when she wasn’t in ear shot, sauntered across the palace courtyard toward her waiting retinue. 

“Fifty credits says she’ll have us on the hunt again in less than an hour,” Cavalryman Raen dared Squad Sergeant Kallen. It was a sure bet for Raen.

The cavalryman stood on cobblestone holding the reins of two large sabercats, his own mount, and that of Lady Liliana DeLyon. The graceful golden haired noblewoman had a way of conveying her emotions and mood without speaking, even at a distance. 

“One hundred credits, and half an hour,” Sergeant Kallen countered, without looking down from his own cat’s saddle. He grinned slightly, watching his mistress's face. She definitely wanted to kill something right now. Raen snorted. “I’m not fool enough for that, Sarge.” He spit, emphasizing the point. “She’s in a right mood, isn't she?” He added rhetorically. Sergeant Kallen’s grin grew for a moment, before discarding it. “Riders!” He exclaimed, “Ready!”

Along the edge of the courtyard the squad of twenty four sabrecat riders straightened up in their saddles, halting their conversations as their officer and royal charge closed with them. The great cats watched her approach solemnly, as silent as their riders. Liliana, reached a hand up to her waiting cat’s nose as she spoke to Sergeant Kallen. “Have our provisions and munitions been replenished?” She focused on her cat’s nose. Rubbing it affectionately. All of the giant felines in the squad were female. Male sabres couldn't be trained to work as a pack or take being lead by a human. Liliana’s cat was named Repanse, after a heroine from childrens’ stories she’d always loved. The animal snorted, indicating she had received enough attention. Lyonese took the reigns from Cavalryman Raen.

“We’re topped of, Lady,” Sergeant Kallen replied expecting what would come next. “Took care of it while you were inside.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” She nodded to Raen as he stepped out of her way. She had to jump slightly to get a grip on the horn of her saddle but pulled herself up with ease. “We’ll be moving out immediately. Take us to the Sun Gate, I’ll explain on the way.”

“Aye, Lady,” Sergeant Kallen cleared his throat. “Corporal Kierman, lead with your team, to the Sun Gate.”

“Moving!” was all the corporal replied before wheeling his sabre cat and waving his seven troopers on through the courtyard’s only entrance. Sergeant Kallen, along with Lady Liliana, and the seven most senior riders followed Kierman’s group. The last riders to move were Corporal Otto and his seven. The Sun Gate was not far off. It was at the end of a straight causeway leading down from the family's palace courtyard. It was one of two outer gates for the small citadel. When the arched doors of the gate stood open it was flooded by Vallarn’s unmoving red star Vallarus, hence the gate’s name.

“Was it good news, Lady?” Sergeant Kallen enquired knowingly. Lady Liliana looked at him sideways. “It was needed news.”

Liliana’s oldest brother served as a warden with an Iron Wolves regiment. The Iron Wolves were the rugged warriors who braved the endless night of the planet’s frozen dark side. Their efforts were largely to ensure that threats from the dark side did not incur into the twilight belt or even further day side without advanced warning to regional leaders and strategic military planners. At times though, they undertook special tasks looking into mysteries or relics discovered in the dark jagged ice of Vallarn’s eternal night. The planet was ancient, and there had been at least one global civilization that rose and fell on it long before Imperial colonists arrived. That civilizations ruins were barely visible on the side of the planet scorched by Vallarus burning heat, but the glaciers on the night side had preserved entire cities, and occasionally the ice surrendered some of its secrets.

Having a family member as an officer with the Iron Wolves was not just a matter of pride for a noble family like the DeLyons, but also a political and expedient connection. Any self respecting Vallarn noble would ensure his family had inside information to use to advantage whenever it was available. Isaac DeLyon was no exception.

The Lyonesse and her squad had been pursuing poachers on her family’s land for a number of days when a message from the citadel’s steward had summoned her home. The park, as the large swath of family land was called, sat between Vallarn’s night side glaciers and the rift. The rift was a series of mostly connected canyons that circled the planet along its twilight belt. The canyons had been carved by ages of water runoff from melting night side ice. The yearly shift of Vallarn’s proximity to its star, Vallarus, created two seasons on Vallarn; The Thaw, and the Freeze. The planet was just past mid-thaw, and the increased water from melting glaciers had revealed something in the ice near the families property. Isaac, who always kept an eye open for information that would be of significance to his family, had forwarded the archaeological report of the Iron Wolf survey team the citadel’s steward.

The family’s Patriarch resided in Valt, the hive city and political center of Vallarn and the Vallarus star system. The family’s palace in the twilight belt, that verdant ban of life in what was otherwise a harsh and barren world, was a retreat for most family members, who only visited to get a break from the grind of bureaucracy and politics. Liliana was the most notable exception. She had made the cliffside palace her home since becoming an adult. Her mother had scrutinized her for not marrying into an allied house, but her father had indulged her apparent whimsy. Whether because of intuition or just by chance the old man had been rewarded for his tolerance by his daughter becoming both a celebrity among the noble elites as well as an effective agent who looked after the family’s  interests.

The exploits of Lyonesse, that beautiful noblewoman who hunted for treasure, tracked mutants, and challenged political opponents to duels had earned the family more fame and leverage than any marriage ever could have. Some of her duels in particular had resulted in critical political victories for the DeLyon family.

Liliana pulled a round holographic pad from the engraved leather pouch at her hip and activated it. Without slowing her cat she held it out for her sergeant to take. The blue image of an ancient pyramid shaped structure flickered to life in his hands. “Where is it exactly?” Sergeant Kallen asked, taking in the unfamiliar structure.

“About a four cycle ride toward nightside.” The Sun Gate pointed toward the dayside off the planet.  

“Why the Sun Gate then? Someone watching?” The Sergeant was no fool. Inside information wasn’t something only house DeLyon dealt in.

Liliana nodded. “Too many people know we were called back mid hunt.” The squad, one of ten that made up her detachment of riders had been tracking poachers, wild men, who had been hunting on family land. Annoyed at the interruption when it had occurred the Lyonesse now saw the public knowledge of their sudden return as a liability.

“We’ll drop into the low ground toward the canyon and skirt south, then use the first tributary we come to as concealment to circle back.” She glanced at the holograph as the Sergeant zoomed it in and out. “They’re not sure if its a ship or a building… Maybe a tomb?” 

“A tomb would be nice.” Sergeant Kallen mused.

“I’d prefer a ship. It’d be worth more.”

“It’ll draw attention either way. Sure you don’t want more than us going?” He spoke frankly, but with respect. Lady Liliana DeLyon demanded respect, but not impracticality. She respected results and competence in her soldiers.

“It already has drawn attention.” She stopped talking to wave to a couple on a private balcony above the causeway. They were apparently taking some refreshments, but stopped and rose as they saw the oldest daughter of their royal benefactor passing below. Lady DeLyoness made a point to acknowledge the respectful behavior.

“Steward Binwald received the archaeological data from my brother the same day we began our hunt.” They were passing through the gate now. Cobblestone gave way to a smooth roadway carved from the solid rock of Vallarn itself. The squad was alone now. No one would be outside the citadel walls to watch them. “The following day as he analyzed the site by satellite he saw this.” She reached for the holographic display still in Sergeant Kallen’s hand.

Kallen held the projection out between their sabres for her to take. Instead she swiped her index finger across its input screen to a new file. A series of short holo-videos strung together showing a group of men working outside the structure. They were filling crates and sacks from inside they pyramid structure and had a camp with large pack animals.

“Who?” Sergeant Kallen wondered allowed. Someone had gotten information either from Isaac’s transmission or worse, from DeLyon house servers.

“There’s no telling which house until we catch them.” Liliana seemed to have calmed since being on sabre back again. “They’ll be mercenaries, or some other disposables.” No one would be foolish enough to send house soldiers to trespass and loot on another family’s land. Low life’s from Valt were a common source of cheap thugs that also provided plausible deniability for the nobility to use in their private wars. “But I’m sure we can get them to talk, right girl?” This last was to Repanse. Liliana patted the sabre toothed feline’s shoulder before looking back to her Squad Sergeant.

“I’ve ordered Commander Nix to bring his Rangers by lifter in a couple hours. They’ll pass us en route and set up a perimeter around the target. They will draw less attention than the rest of the squadron leaving with us. The Rangers were a special company of infantry within the DeLyon household’s infantry battalion. The Rangers were one of two companies stationed at the palace, the second being standard foot infantry and tasked with guarding the facility and its immediate perimeter. The Rangers, on the other hand, were both assault troops and survivalists. All of the company’s members were recruited as veterans from Vallarn’s Wasteland Regiments who had completed their ten year compulsory enlistments. They were hard men, and they knew they had it good being employed by a noble house. That privilege and a relatively easy life helped keep them loyal. The lifters were low flying semi stealth air transports. They’d insert the Rangers discreetly and enabled a significant size force to get close without being noticed.

Sergeant Kallen nodded. Unless someone was able to tip off the looting mercenaries they’d be surrounded before the squad of Sabres even showed up to attack. No matter which way they fled, they’d be gunned down by the surrounding infantry company. “How many?”

Lyonesse took the projector back and flicked it off before sliding it into her pouch. “Bin observed forty eight visible at once.” Bin was her pet name for the steward, Binwald. The old man had served her father since before she was born and was more like an uncle than a servant.

“So we should count on about seventy to seventy five?”

Lyonesse shifted in her saddle. Seventy five sounded like a lot for twenty four riders to handle. If she was honest with herself and Sergeant Kallen she’d have admitted they should be prepared for about a hundred adversaries. It would have been ideal to have the entire squadron of two hundred and forty Sabre riders descend on the interlopers, but Liliana could not count on that large of a ground movement going unnoticed by any spies that might be reporting. On the other hand, her coming and going with a single squad was entirely routine and did not warrant any special notice. The same went for the Rangers who were regularly training or moving around in large groups by air for mundane purposes. Her forces must go unnoticed if they were to capture any of the looters. She would have to rely on Commander Nix having his troops in place to capture fleeing enemy, and in the worst case assist if Liliana was not able to cause them to route. There was always a chance they would stand their ground and counter charge her Sabres, but it was a chance she had to take.

The Lyonesse and her pack followed the ancient stone carved road toward the rift. The citadel was not located immediately on the cliff edge and the road sloped down hill before turning south. If they were to continue following the stone road it would gradually descend into the rift itself. There were some of the most beautiful ancient trees and rock formations, set in pure water rivers of melting ice, that one could ever hope to see. The rift was paradise itself. Liliana always loved riding there, but that was not their destination. 

As soon as the stone road dropped below sight of the citadel’s towers the squad left the road. Sergeant Kallen and Lady Liliana moved to the front of the column with his riders and replaced Corporal Otto’s riders. The bank was steep but manageable and after a few hundred meters of following the tree covered slopes south they came to a tributary that fed into the rift from the night side’s glaciers. They would follow this course for some time until entering highland terrain that would eventually bring them near the archaeological site embedded in the glacier’s edge. Liliana lead on, while Kallen fell back on his mount to brief both of his corporals on the situation and plan. 

Liliana never felt more alive than when she was leading soldiers through the wilderness. She was a huntress and a leader. She sometimes wondered what ancient Terra must have been like and what her ancestors, forgotten by time itself, lived like. How had her ancestors come to Vallarn? Were they even from Terra, or had they come from yet another world, itself forgotten by time. Her father had told her, when she was small that their ancestors had been fierce warriors and explorers. She’d believed him, until later in life when she realized there could not possibly be any record or account of their ancestors on Terra, since they did not even know when they’d arrived on Vallarn. She’d asked him how he knew and he’d put a hand on her shoulder and said, “Some truths are known with our heads, and others with our hearts.” He was an intimidating man, but there were moments when he could melt your heart with his sincerity. He believed their family was special, and she had decided he was right.

The narrow river they followed night side was ice cold. It would shrink to a trickle during the Thaw season but for now it was still flowing boldly. Bright red fish jumped over short waterfalls beside them. A great winged bird flew over head watching the fish, and probably wondering if the riders and sabres would interfere if it swooped to catch one. The evergreen trees were tall and healthy here. Further up stream they would begin to shrink, and as they climbed into higher elevations would shrivel into wretched shrubs too ugly to call trees. The cold weather and minimal light from Vallarus did not allow for the luxury of beauty that close to the night side.

Liliana remembered the grim work ahead of them as she looked at the dark horizon. She pulled her riding helmet out from a saddlebag and tucked up her long curls inside it, making sure her gold “main” did not come between her ears and the speaker cups. She fixed the chin strap and flipped the vox power switch on. 

“Stalker one, this is Lion Actual, do you copy?” The vox system used AI to direct voice traffic to specific recipients within the network. Stalker One, the call sign for the commanding officer of the DeLyon Ranger company. By speaking his call sign first Liliana ensured that only he received the communication.

There was only a moment before Nix replied. In that time Liliana briefly appreciated the enhanced hearing the attenuated headset provided her. Everything was clearer, sharper. She could still hear the river running, but the headset built into her helmet amplified less routine noises, like the jumping of fish or the flapping of the bird’s wings high above.

“Lion Actual, this is Stalker One, I hear you loud and clear.”

“Stalker One, Lion, what is your ETA?” Although she knew how long the positioning of forces should take Liliana believed it prudent to ask for the Ranger Commander’s estimated time of arrival. It was not wise to make assumptions in war. Calculated risks were one thing, but assumptions were unnecessary blindness.

“Lion, Stalker, should be right at three cycles.” Nix confirmed her expectations.

“Acknowledged Stalker, expect to rendezvous in four. Advise when in position.”

“Roger. Will advise”

“Lion out.” 

The movement of troops had been timed well. Nix would have his stealthy killers in position shortly before the riders. A quick face to face meet up would allow for confirmation of an established perimeter and assurances for both commanders that everything was in order. Then the riders could pass through the Ranger’s perimeter and initiate their assault.

There was not much else to do in the meantime except double check equipment and keep an eye on the surroundings as they traveled. The route from here was straightforward. It was unlikely that anyone else would even be out here, but there were plenty of large beasts in the lush twilight belt and poachers as well as the occasional band of fugitives were not entirely unlikely. Most would not dare approach even their small group, but one must always remain vigilant.

Liliana flipped down her low light visor from the top of the riding helmet. She rarely needed them thanks to Vallarn’s endless day, but they would be coming close to the night side and light could be dim. She may end up needing them if there were severe weather or they had to pursue their prey into the glaciers and the night. The visor worked fine. It flickered green before colors re-appeared. It almost looked like normal eyesight except that when one looked at an object for more than a moment it always appeared wet, as though it was going to melt. Her other equipment was in order. The shock lance, capable of burning through armor, or bursting the  heart of even an enormous organic target was fixed behind her right leg and pointed in the air. A similar weapon, but with less voltage coursing through its curved blade hung on her left hip. On her right hip was a plasma pistol. It was a powerful short range weapon that could incinerate almost anything with a single shot. Last but not least was her favorite weapon in its case and strapped to Repanse’s saddle. The old projectile rifle her grandfather had carried in one of Vallarn’s civil wars was a treasured heirloom to Liliana DeLyon. It was an antique but she kept it as a point of pride and connection to her ancestors.

Upstream of the squad’s course two smaller rivers met feeding the one they’d followed. They followed the river that prevented them from having to cross over until further upstream. Each of these rivers would be fed by other small sources. Eventually they would come to a point which would be easy to cross for the cats and they could correct their course as needed. Both Liliana and Sergeant Kallen were familiar with the terrain and navigating around natural obstacles was second nature for them.

After about two cycles the slope of the land had steepened some and the vegetation began to noticeably shrink. Plants began to take on a blue gray quality instead of the vibrant green most possessed closer to the rift. The color suggested they were not healthy. They’d crossed several small streams and were staying concealed in a ravine cut out by a narrow stream. They were traveling single file and in the shadows. Suddenly the dim light was obscured by something in the air close to the ground. A soft whirring sound immediately followed the shadow. Liliana and the other riders looked up, startled. They were comforted by the familiar shape of one of their lifters flashing across the narrow ribbon of purple gray sky above. Several others followed close behind it.

The lifters were cigar shaped with a series of vertical thrusters arranged in a crescent around the rear and a cargo door at their front. A Large single thruster provided forward acceleration while the vertical thrusters pivoted for maneuvering and breaking. Vallarn’s relentless sun allowed them to be powered by light arrays on the skin of the vehicle. That made them cheap and quiet at the same time. Each lifter could hold about fifty men and gear so only five were needed for an infantry company. They were not any use on the night side of course, and were not powerful enough to carry heavy cargo, like vehicles, but on Vallarn, most ground traffic was carried out on the back of a beast. There were too few roads outside of Valt to be of use to vehicles, so most travel was conducted by inexpensive airframes. As for travel to the night, well, the storms their made travel by air impractical anyhow. Liliana laughed at herself for being startled. Sergeant Kallen looked her way and shrugged, confessing he’d been startled too.

“Stalker One, this is Lion,”Liliana paused a moment, “You’ve just passed our position.”

Liliana could hear the whir inside Commander Nix’s lifter when he responded. They were probably noisier inside than out. “I copy, Lion, we didn't even see you.”

That was reassuring Liliana thought. If they were surprised, at least no one other than them had known it. 

The squad did not see the lifters as they returned to the palace, but they must have come close. Nix communicated that his company’s insertion was completed slightly ahead of schedule. The squad made good time across the increasingly rocky terrain. Millenia of glacial growth melting had left deposits of rock and debris scattered across the highland hills.

Finally the squad came to the last bit of low ground they could rely on. Nix’s beacon was at the top of a wooded hill. They’d have to expose themselves to travel up it. After checking in with the Ranger Commander, who informed Liliana that he had sentry’s in place to overwatch her movement they, she led the squad up the sparsely covered slope into the wood of squat and twisted evergreens. Only a few meters in one of the Rangers stood, seemingly from out of nowhere, and waived her to follow. He ran ahead of the Sabre Riders who kept up easily.

Nix’s command team was positioned in a small depression surrounded by scrubby trees. Liliana and Kallen dismounted and slid down the short bank to join the commander. A small stack of communication and sensory equipment was placed in the center of the small clearing. A sensor sergeant held a radio earpiece tightly to one ear while looking over the shoulder of a technician at a blue screen that displayed the surrounding topography. The sergeant pointed at something on the screen and the technician adjusted the display to focus on the area. A holographic display, like the one Liliana carried, but significantly larger sat in the center of the circular clearing. The scene it displayed shifted with the topographic screen as the technician refocused it.

Nix turned from watching the projection and raised a hand. “Greetings, Lady. All is well?”

“All is well, Commander. What is the situation.” Nix smiled at her response. He was always certain to be courteous to his superiors, but unlike most formal exchanges the courtesy was sincere with the Lyonesse.  

“My observation teams report up to sixty targets, not counting their animals. More could be inside the structure.”

Liliana glanced up toward the night side sky, wondering if she might see the glacier or the revealed pyramid but they were too low in the brush to see the horizon.

Commander Nix continued, “Most of those we’ve observed are only carrying small arms. It’s safe to assume they have explosives, although we can’t confirm that. Two of the Tusk Bears have auto-cannons mounted for the rider, but they aren’t being crewed consistently. All of the targets seemed focused on extracting items from the structure. We’re not seeing any dedicated security detail.”

“Good work commander,” Liliana made eye contact with Sergeant Kallen. Kallen nodded his assent. “We’re ready to get started if there’s nothing else.”

“All my units are in position. Corporal Provix can walk you to the last point of concealment momentarily.” Nix indicated the Ranger who had guided the riders to the command team before turning to the holographic display. Provix nodded. The Ranger commander waved his hand at a stand of holographic trees that stuck out into open ground like a spear head. The hills they were in descended toward the structure. The last seasonal freeze had pushed the glacier forward leaving a ridge of earth and trees up the hillside when it had receded. The result was about seven hundred meters from the nearest concealment to their intended target. That was a lot of open ground for a mounted attack against superior numbers, and too far for the Ranger’s laser weapons to be reliable.

“I'm concerned that if we rush them from here,” he held a hand over the trees, “that they may flee into the structure.” Allowing their prey to slip into a stronghold position was about the worst way this action could go. Nix continued with his assessment. “The way I see it, Lady, we have two options, wait for them to leave, and ambush, or get around from night side and attack in away that forces them towards the wood line and away from the structure.” Nix zoomed the holographic image out to a broader landscape. Small blue blobs appeared, dotting the holographic woods and ridges around the gray blue structure almost a kilometer away from their current location. Next to the structure splotches of yellow, orange and red  indicated movement frequency overlayed with heat sources.

“I see,” Liliana cupped her chin with one hand thoughtfully. “We certainly don’t want them going to ground.”

“I’d hesitate to take the squad further night side, Lady.” Sergeant Kallen eyed Commander Nix as he spoke. Nix gave an almost imperceptible nod. Seeing they were on the same page Kallen continued. “There are too many variables along the ice. We may not find a suitable route in time, and Emperor knows what else we might run into. Waiting only has the variable of time.”

Liliana was listening. She didn’t like waiting but she knew good advice when she heard it.

“I’m inclined to agree with your Sergeant, Lady.” Nix added. “They don't appear prepared to be here long. Looks like a grab and go for them.”

“We wait then.” DeLyons had to be decisive. “We will wait in the trees for them to come near as they leave. Do you expect them to head north or south?”

“Their tracks approached from the north, but you’ll be positioned well enough for any route.”

“Thank you, Nix” Liliana dropped his title which made the commander smile.

“A pleasure, Lady. Emperor’s speed! Corporal!” Nix gestured for Corporal Provix to lead the riders to their ambush point.

The riders didn’t have to wait long in their wooded ambush position. Just over three cycles. Enough time for a nap and gear inspection. The light was more dim than the squad was used to this close to the night side. It made dosing of easy.

Liliana stirred to Sergeant Kallen’s voice.”Lady… Lady, they’re on the move.” He was visibly uncomfortable waking her. She saw the relief in his face when she looked up at him, head propped on Repanse’s side. Kallen withdrew his hand from the contingency of having to shake her shoulder. The big cat stirred as Liliana snapped to her feet. The rest of the squad were mounting their Sabre Cats as she took in the scene, relieved herself that she was only a moment behind the others. She hated being last.

Back in her saddle, next to Sergeant Kallen, Liliana spoke through her helmet with Commander Nix. She was watching a tactical map on her own projector synced with the commander’s. “They’re coming through the low ground just past the hill in front of you. If you leave on my mark it should put you at their rear as you crest the hill. From the top of the hill it looks like less than one hundred-fifty meters.”

“Understood. We’ll drive them to you.” Liliana did not feel the need to make her authority known when offered sound tactical guidance by her commanders. “Waiting for your mark.” She nodded to Sergeant Kallen. Besides, the glory of this small skirmish would be the riders, even if the infantry were likely to do most of the killing.

“Riders, standby!” Kallen ordered his squad. “Any moment now.” They all knew what was coming.

The Ranger company’s platoons were spread out in a crescent of concealed positions around the mercenaries’ expected route north. Blue dots on the holographic display showed their exact positions hidden behind ridges or in dense vegetation. The yellow, orange, and red shapes of the mercenaries’ had coalesced into an unorganized group strung out on the far side of the hill to the squad’s front.

“Targets in position! Move now.” Nix voice came across the net clearly.

Lady Liliana DeLyon raised her right arm and waved the squad of riders forward. She only had to nudge Repanse gently for the Sabre Cat to advance through the brush and evergreen bows.

“Forward!” Sergeant Kallen heeled his own cat on; ordering the squad from over his shoulder. All twenty five riders moved through the dimly lit vegetation onto the open hillside in near silence. Liliana unclasped her shock lance from behind her right leg and heeled Repanse again as the ground opened up in front of them.

The big cats picked up speed and came on line with Liliana and Repanse as they trotted up the hill. The riders all wanted to move faster, but saved their mounts’ energy for the imminent charge down the hill’s far side. Shock lances crackled with energy; tiny sparks dancing on the energizing tips. It only took a few seconds for the weapons to be charged enough to pierce armor and rend flesh with the slightest impact.

Liliana’s heartbeat quickened. The whole world called her the Lyonesse, but in the next few moments she’d be as vulnerable as any mortal . Her vision focused and ears heard every sound. Just beyond the hill she heard the snorting of one of the Tusk Bears. The big animals were not as fast as cats, but good for long trips, hauling lots of gear, and tough in a fight. Twenty four riders crested the hill with Liliana, but for a moment she felt all alone. Then she kicked Repanse hard and screamed. It was a blood curdling scream. Not an order, not exhortation to the squad with her. Just a shriek. A battle cry. Blood lust, her father had called it. Repanse vaulted toward the heavy laden Tusk Bears and their mercenary riders.The squad of Sabre Cats must have appeared as black shadows on the hill, wreathed in the blood red light of Vallarus’ endless twilight. The other riders plummeted down the hill with their mistress and took up her savage battle cry. 

One hundred meters, seventy five meters… The cats closed rapidly. None of the unsuspecting Tusk Bear riders seemed to react. Everything seemed to happen slowly. 

Fifty meters. Finally the mercenaries began to respond. Men kicked their mounts frantically. The nearest animals started, colliding with each other as they turned away. One bear threw its rider, rearing in the air and bellowing at the sudden threat. Others veered away from the Sabre riders, colliding with their comrades. Those at the front of the unorganized column stopped, turning in their saddles to see what the commotion was. Those behind them bellowed to let them through.

Twenty five meters. The Sabre riders lowered their shock lances. None of them screamed  any more, involuntarily gritting teeth instead. Only a few more bounds from their mounts until the killing started.

The rearmost mercenaries spurred their Tusk Bears away from the threat, up another hill. Those in the front turned away again, now panicked themselves. They frantically whipped and kicked their mounts to regain some of the momentum they'd just lost by looking back. If cooler heads had prevailed the mercenaries might have realized they outnumbered their attackers a little over three to one. All any of them saw was certain death and they fled. 

A few of the nearest mercenaries turned their mounts to face the attackers at the last moment. Men fumbled for pistols in holsters, or scrambled for any weapon accessible. A searing laser blast cut through the air, past the squad and into the hillside. A panicked shot. The next one would be aimed. At least it would have been, but time was up. 

Liliana’s vision narrowed. All she saw was the roaring Tusk Bear in front of her. It had thrown its rider, standing to defy her and Repanse. The powerful cat leapt forward just to the side of the bear. Time stood still as they floated through the air. Finally the lance struck.

The bear’s chest exploded in a shower of super charged flesh and bone fragments before Repanse’s front paws had hit the ground next to it. The creature had not even known it was dead when Repanse prepared for another target. Liliana pulled the lance in, searing it through the bear’s shoulder. She could read her cat’s movements, as if they were her own as Repanse’s muscular body shifted below her saddle. The Lady of house DeLyon gripped her reins and squeezed her legs to keep from falling. She nearly dropped the lance as Repanse shifted to strike.

The rider and cat launched forward and up latching razor sharp claws around the head of another mercenary. The huge cat sailed over her victim’s Tusk Bear, ripping the man from his saddle then breaking bones as she landed on him beyond his mount. Liliana pulled on Repanse’s reins and stood in the saddle. 

They’d hit hard and needed to refocus. Sergeant Kallen’s riders had plowed into their own targets. She forced herself to hear again. There were screams, bellows and the penetrating pulses of shock lances discharging. Liliana looked for a threat. Nothing. A target. There were plenty.

Up the far hill over a dozen mercenaries beat their mounts, desperate to escape sudden terror. To her right and north, the main body fled up the low ground path to the waiting infantry ambush. Movement to her left caught Liliana’s attention. 

The man who’d been thrown from the first bear she’d killed had pulled himself onto the saddle of her second victim’s mount. The creature was fleeing and the man struggled to stay on its back with one arm and leg desperately gripping the saddle. Liliana wheeled, lance ready. Tugging Repanse’s reins she prodded with her heels to align with her target. 

Sergeant Kallen’s Sabre Cat darted in front of the fleeing bear. It’s head disappeared in a spray of red mist as his lance tip made contact. Kallen’s mount carried him onward immediately. The dead Tusk Bear tumbled forward, launching the man still trying to hang onto the saddle into the air. Liliana heeled Repanse toward him. She needed at least a few prisoners.

Repanse was on the stunned mercenary in no time. A thick paw pinned the man to the ground. 

“Kallen!” Liliana used her helmet’s headset. There was no counting on any other communication in the chaos of a fight. “I need two for a prisoner.” 

Turning in her saddle she saw Kallen pivoting to return to her. The other riders were regrouping as well. Liliana looked around the field. They needed to follow up quickly. The carcasses of several bears lay on the ground with about a dozen dead men. A few riderless Tusk Bears ran off at random or followed one of the two fleeing groups. Her riders closed with her.

“Stalker One, this is Lion.” Liliana took a breath to slow her speech. “Successful contact. A dozen down. Over half headed your way.”

“We see them Lion, keep your head down.” Commander Nix would be worse than out of work if his employer’s oldest daughter died on his watch.

“Copy Stalker,” another breath. “Smaller group headed night side. I’m pursuing. Leaving a prisoner here.”

As she spoke the sudden roar of massed weapons’ fire shook the atmosphere from the north. Commander Nix’s Rangers had opened up on the main group of mercenaries. The startled men had rushed headlong into the concealed infanty’s sector of fire. The report of weapons drown out all other sound. The mercenaries were just out of her sight, but laser fire and low yield explosives lit up the air with violent flashes. Smoke wafted into the air, distorting the light. There would be nothing left of the men who’d fled that way.

Two riders were bound the dismounted mercenary. Liliana turned to face Sergeant Kallen.

“Everyone good?” She knew they would be.

Kallen just nodded.

Liliana held her lance in the air, its tip crackling with energy again, “Lets go!”

She heeled Repanse hard and the cat bucked as they sprang forward. Kallen and the riders spun to follow her wild charge. The sound of sporadic weapon’s fire continued from the north. The two men who’d bound the prisoner scrambled back to their saddles, not wanting to miss the glory at hand, but not before each of them gave the mercenary a vigorous kick.

Repanse’s powerful legs devoured the ground before them. There was a rhythm to the sprint, one Liliana and her riders knew well. More prey for the Lyonesse of Vallarn fled toward the night side’s glaciers. She could see the fleeing mercenaries’ bouncing in their saddles as their beasts ran frantically over the hill’s crest. Beyond them the dark purple night side sky flickered with lightning. Storms were common beyond the glacial cliffs and red light of Vallan’s star Vallarus.

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