Authors: Michael G. Thomas
Xenophon nodded and looked back to the open courtyard area in front of the scorched and partially burning apartments. He knew their time was limited, and he was forced to scan the area as fast as his mind could absorb it. There were columns, water features, rock formations and the other apartments themselves.
“What about the other apartments? Are they defensible?”
Artemas stepped back from the tunnel and placed her hands back on the wall. The entry point clamped down shut. The closely fitted moving parts that made up the entrance impressed even Glaucon. It was as if the wall was a single piece of marble.
“Not really, but there is the folly, right there near the fountain.”
Xenophon followed her extended hand and spotted the object. It was made from stone like most of the artwork in this place. It had the look of a small ruined tower but much smaller than one that would be found outdoors. A partially broken circle of columns and a number of ponds surrounded it.
“This place must have cost a fortune,” he muttered to himself.
Even now, Xenophon felt completely shocked at the extravagance on show. The folly was evidently designed for relaxation, and he noticed a number of metal chairs inside and around the structure.
“Okay, let’s do this. To the folly!”
The group of five ran back from the entrance to the smashed elevator and past the water features, columns and bodies of fake Laconian soldiers. Artemas and Glaucon grabbed rifles from the dead as they finally reached the marble folly. Each of them slid into cover inside the damaged ring of columns.
“You realise that if help doesn’t come, we’ll be trapped here, and it’s open ground all around us?”
“True,” replied Roxana, “but Xenophon has a point. The open area will be a killing ground that will work in our favour. Time is working against them, so they will have to assault this position.”
Another loud blast tore through the Royal Apartments and sent clouds of dust and broken marble from where they had received Menon’s brother.
“Just as well we didn’t stay there!” laughed Tamara.
“Yeah, but it won’t take them long to break through the debris. We need to get ready,” said Roxana in a matter-of-fact tone. She looked haggard, and the drugs seemed to have an odd affect on complexion. She was only a few years older than Xenophon, but those years had instilled self-discipline and leadership into her. Even with her head pounding and her eyes dilating, she refused to back down and let the others organise their possible last stand.
“Get more weapons, and strip the dead of anything you can find.”
Xenophon nodded and ran out to check the nearest bodies. Even as he reached the first one, he almost kicked himself for not doing this earlier. Each of them carried a rifle, some carbines and the odd pistol and edged weapon. The others scattered and grabbed what they could and returned to their temporary fortress. Artemas looked back at the folly behind them and shook her head. Xenophon saw her look.
“Lady Artemas, are you alright?” he asked.
She looked back at him and the rest of her four companions. They were all resplendent in their modern Black Legion uniforms and ancient armour and helmets.
“This place, it just looked, well, it looked much more substantial when we were further away. I fear this may end up being a prison, not a fortress.”
Xenophon stepped closer and checked her weapons.
“Not at all. We have open ground around us, and strong cover. Trust in your weapons and armour. Help will be here soon.”
He moved back to the others and ensured the remaining firearms, ammunition and close quarter weapons were correctly divided up. The equipment from the dead soldiers meant they all now had loaded rifles, as well as three spares that he’d placed inside the folly itself. As he stepped back out and took up position alongside Artemas and Glaucon, his mind imagined what this place would look like from a distance. With the ruined folly, broken columns, soldiers in ancient armour and odd mixture of weapons, it could have easily been a scene depicted in one of the paintings back in the Royal Apartments. He almost laughed at the strange notion of standing beside a Medes noble lady and her Terran soldiers bodyguard, each charged with defending her from her own countrymen. It wasn’t like any experience he’d ever expected to be involved in.
This has turned well and truly upside down!
He looked to his right to find Artemas staring right back at him. She’d removed her helm for a moment and leaned in towards him.
“Xenophon, whatever happens I want you to know...”
Another great booming sound erupted from inside the apartments and was instantly followed by a horde of armoured soldiers charging out into the open space. Glaucon fired first and managed to bring down two of them before the others joined in.
“Watch out!” shouted Roxana, as she pointed to the other archway to their right that led to another set of apartments. From the gap came even more of them, as well as two of the dreaded combat drones.
“Dammit!” snapped Xenophon. “This isn’t good!”
He took aim with the cloned Doru rifle and hit what looked like a commander in the shoulder. Unlike the others, this particular soldier carried no firearms, just some kind of control unit with cables running to a backpack. It wasn’t something he’d seen before.
Either he’s stupid or he doesn’t expect to have to fight,
Incredibly, he kept moving forward. Xenophon exhaled slowly and squeezed the trigger again. This time two of the soldiers managed to get in the way, and one took the round square in the chest. He almost fired a third shot but could see the two combat drones. Both had stopped and had widened their legs, lowering their centres of gravity. They looked more like artillery platforms than actual combat drones, and that sent a shudder down his spine. His attention turned to their weapons. They appeared to be aiming their weapon arms at him. Instead of hands, he noted two long rectangular units, like launch tubes.
What the hell is that?
A series of bright flashes from the drones answered his question. Four narrow beams of energy connected with the pillar near him, and it was quickly cut into pieces.
Glaucon was sheltering nearby and was forced to roll to the side to avoid the deadly firepower of the machines.
Laser cutters on a drone! Are they insane?
“Get inside the folly, now!” he screamed.
Roxana and Artemas moved inside first and positioned themselves near the narrow slits that served as windows. It was small inside, no more than ten metres in diameter. There was no furniture or lighting. When Glaucon entered, he laughed at the sight.
“What is the point of this place?”
Xenophon and Tamara came in last, followed by a cloud of dust. They grabbed spare weapons and moved to the shooting positions. Glaucon was already firing, and the sound of incoming fire was becoming deafening.
“Right now this folly is a place for saving our necks,” explained Xenophon sternly.
Glaucon threw him a glance.
“No way can we hold against those weapons. A drone with laser cutters; it is insanity!”
A shadow appeared at the entrance and then hands, as two of the soldiers tried to rush inside. Glaucon grabbed the arm of the first and yanked him in. Tamara finished him off with her blade, and Xenophon and Artemas blasted the second with their rifles.
“Hold them back!” he shouted and moved back to the small windows. All five of them continued to shoot, but their attackers had slowed down and were using the rubble to get as close as possible.
More gunfire tore chunks from the folly walls, and gaps started to appear where the most damage had been done. The interior lit up red, and part of the wall and most of the ceiling came down around them. Xenophon threw himself onto Artemas as slabs of masonry fell about them. Roxana was buried under rubble but incredibly, Tamara and Glaucon were still standing in the ruins of the tower. Giving no respite, the enemy soldiers swarmed the place and rushed them, keen to end the fight once and for all. The first two to make it inside managed to take out Tamara’s left leg with a round to her knee. She dropped down but kept firing.
Under the rubble, Xenophon could feel a crushing weight on his left arm. He shook his helmet and dust dropped off to give him a view of the savage hand-to-hand fighting around them. He twisted over but couldn’t free himself from the heavy rubble. Only the strength of the ancient van brace on his forearm stopped the flesh from being crushed. Three soldiers ran towards him, but his weapons were nowhere to be found. He watched a soldier smash a rifle butt into Glaucon’s helmet that sent his friend to the ground.
So this is how it ends!
He heard more explosions and the smashing of glass. A great gust of wind ripped through the folly. All Xenophon could think was that part of the roof of the mighty spire must have been blown in. The soldier in front of him lifted his rifle and took aim directly at Xenophon’s face.
“Surrender!” he yelled in an odd voice.
A massive force blasted the soldier from the left, propelling him three metres in the air before hitting the ground. Three more soldiers were cut apart by a hail of pulse-carbine gunfire. The combat drone took two more steps forward but was overwhelmed by a dozen Terran soldiers, each in full battle armour and carrying personal body shields. The great form of Strategos Clearchus entered the folly to find just one soldier remaining. He lifted his right arm and slammed his exquisitely decorated Asgeirr-Carbine into the man’s throat. It was the common weapon of the Laconian spatharii, their heavy infantry, and fitted onto the arm to provide both a carbine and a razor sharp monofilament blade.
“Clearchus?” murmured Xenophon.
“Where is Lady Artemas?” demanded Lord Cyrus. He emerged from behind the Laconian commander. Like the others, he was fully armoured, though in Median armour that was much thinner and more elaborate than the Terran style.
Glaucon lifted himself up and pointed to the rubble near Xenophon.
“Under there,” he said weakly.
Clearchus reached down and ripped the rubble away until both Xenophon’s arm and Lady Artemas were freed. She turned her head and pulled off her helmet to gaze up at the form of her two saviours.
“My Lady, apologies for the delay,” Clearchus announced dryly.
Medes Battleship ‘Rashnu’
The Royal Chamber was packed full with the commanders of the Legion’s ground troops, Naval vessels and even the contingents from Ariaeus. Every one of them wore their best uniforms and spotless armour. At the centre of this great mass of warriors stood Clearchus and his topoteretes. Clearchus stood silently, watching his paymaster with interest. Most of the Terran Dukas and Komes were there, including Sosis, Xenias, Psion, Kratez, Sophaenetus, Meno and dozens more. Facing off against them was the furious figure of Lord Cyrus. He stood alone with not even his personal guards alongside him. Even Clearchus seemed impressed with the Medes demeanour.
Perhaps this Medes does have some fire, then,
Cyrus pointed to Artemas and her four guards with his mailed glove guards and beckoned for them to come forward. When Artemas was close enough, he stepped down beside her and turned her to face the assembled men.
“Look at her!” he roared.
It was easy to see. Her face was badly cut and had been stitched from chin to ear where a large piece of masonry had opened up her flesh. More obvious to most of them was the synthetic cast and sling on her arm. Few knew the story
but rumours had spread through the Legion like wildfire.
Only Clearchus and her four guards knew the extent of her injuries and the extent to which Cyrus was exaggerating them.
“This is an outrage. I want his head on a pike, today!” roared Lord Cyrus.
He stepped around his niece and pointed out the injuries, one at a time. Clearchus listened to the words, and also to the murmurs of anger and disapproval in the ranks of the officers present. He also noted the difference between the men and women of the Legion and those of the Medes. With the exception of a few, the majority of the Medes appeared almost disinterested in the injuries to one of their nobles. The Archaeans, Arcadians and Megarans were livid with the news. In fact, he was convinced that if he could lead those warriors into action this very day, they would be able to crush any army, no matter its size or strength. He looked back to Lady Artemas and spotted Xenophon and his comrades. All four seemed to have sustained minor injuries in the battle, and the young girl wore an automated brace on her leg, presumably from a knee injury.