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“Born to the Legion” by Curtis C. Chen

Prompts:
An animal trainer
Cornfields
Doughnuts
“Don’t eat that!”
Spending $4
Owls

***

Born to the Legion

By Curtis C. Chen

Karin met the hawk before the war began. A noise had summoned Karin outside, into the cornfields behind her mother’s house, at half past two in the morning. She ventured into the humid night with a light-stone in one hand and a shock-rifle in the other. She found the hawk in the third field she searched, perched atop a ragged scarecrow.

“Hey!” the hawk said when Karin swung her light onto him. “Watch it, lady, you’ll ruin my night vision!”

Karin dimmed the stone. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“I’m on patrol.” The hawk lifted a wing. Karin saw the time-worn imprint of a Legion sigil.

“This is private property,” Karin said. “And unless there’s a war I don’t know about, Legion doesn’t have authority to trespass.”

The hawk snapped its beak. “I don’t have time to explain. Also, you’re giving away my position.”

Karin folded her arms. “Right. Our corn is obviously of key strategic importance to the Republic. What, exactly, are you patrolling for?”

The hawk glared at her with unblinking eyes. “Fine. I’m watching for owls. Seen any?”

Karin frowned. “This isn’t owl country. They live in the forest, or the foothills.” She pointed south with her rifle.

“Careful where you point that!” The hawk bristled, then smoothed its feathers. “Okay, fine, you’ve clearly got things under control around here. Just keep an eye out for nocturnal birds of prey, and notify your local Legion post if you see anything unusual.”

“The nearest post is twenty miles away,” Karin said.

“You can report by wireless.”

“We don’t have a wireless.”

The hawk stared at her. “I’m sorry, what century is this, again?”

“This is a farm,” Karin said, doing her best to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “The Republic doesn’t want its farmers distracted by modern conveniences. Might interfere with production, you know. And we can’t have that.”

“Okay, we’re pretty far outside my area of expertise, now,” the hawk said, shifting its weight on the scarecrow’s shoulder. “Tell you what, lady–”

“My name is Karin.”

“Miss Karin,” the hawk said. “I need to finish my patrol, but I’ll talk to my commander about getting you a wireless.”

“We don’t need a wireless.”

“I wasn’t asking.”

Karin counted to ten. “May I ask your name and rank, Legionary?”

“Saul Haliatus, Lance Corporal, Seventh Force Reconnaissance Company,” the hawk recited. He flapped his wings and ascended into the night. “Until we meet again, Miss Karin!”

“Good fucking riddance,” Karin muttered, and went back inside.

#

The war began on a Wednesday. Karin didn’t hear about it until two days later, when Saul returned with his entire Force Recon company and a new wireless set. While Karin’s mother prepared food for the Marines, and three of them installed the wireless next to the chimney, Karin led Saul outside.

“Is there some reason you couldn’t just mail the damn thing?” she asked the hawk. “Or send a civilian contractor to deliver it?”

“Hey, the good news is, your mother’s getting a free wireless,” Saul said. “And this one is top of the line. It gets over two hundred signals.”

“Wait a minute. ‘Good news’? What’s the bad news?”

“Yeah, that.” Saul lowered his head. “You may have heard there’s a war on.”

“Sure, a thousand miles away,” Karin said.

“Well, still,” Saul said. “You may also have heard there’s a draft.”

Karin counted to ten. “My mother can’t run the farm by herself.”

“Yeah,” Saul said slowly. “That’s the other thing. There’s a–how do I put this. Are you familiar with the concept of ’eminent domain’?”

Karin felt her hands curling into fists. “Why, yes, I am, Saul. That’s where the Republic screws you over and doesn’t have to give you a single red cent as compensation.”

A burst of noise, then laughter and clapping, came from inside the house. Saul hopped toward the door. “Maybe we should discuss this later. Sounds like they’ve got the wireless working. You should come take a look. It’s pretty darned magical.”

Karin stomped in front of him, blocking the door. “Saul, you tell me what the hell is going on here, or so help me, we’re having hawk soup tonight.”

“First of all,” Saul said, “it’s Lance Corporal Haliatus. Second, we are in a shooting war, and those Marines inside will hang you if you so much as smudge my sigil. And your mother will still lose her farm.”

Karin fumed for a moment, staring into Saul’s unblinking eyes. “So I don’t have any choice here. Is that what you’re saying?”

“You’ve got plenty of choices,” Saul said. “You can make a lot of trouble for everyone, or you can make the best of a bad situation. Totally up to you. All I’m saying is, if you cause trouble for the Republic, they have more than one way to screw over you and your family.”

“Like you would know,” Karin spat. “You ram-headed volunteers are all alike–”

“Are you kidding me here?” Saul said. “I was raised in captivity, lady. Born to the Legion.” He raised one talon, showing the metal challenge ring fused to his right ankle. “Nobody ever offered me any choices.”

Karin blinked. “I thought–I mean, I just thought–”

“Forget it,” Saul said. “Look. All I know is, for some reason, Legion believes this land is of strategic importance to the Republic. And they’re going to protect it the only way they know how.”

“My family has lived here for five generations,” Karin said. The sound of music drifted through the open doorway. “Wait. If they’re just going to relocate us, why go to the trouble of installing that wireless?”

Saul made a clicking noise. “I never said they were relocating your mother.”

“You know, keep talking like that, eventually I’m not going to care if they hang me.”

“Scuttlebutt says she’s the finest cook in three counties,” Saul said. “And an army marches on its stomach.”

Karin shook her head. “Let me get this straight. Legion’s going to seize our land and turn it into some kind of military base, but my mother gets to stay in the house and cook for all the grunts, while I get shipped off to fight this stupid war?”

“That’s about the size of it.”

“This doesn’t make any sense!”

Saul raised his wings in a shrug. “Welcome to the Legion.”

#

“What is it?” Karin asked. The circular pastry in her hands had come out of a vat of bubbling oil, then been rolled in a mixture of powdered sugar and some local spice. It smelled wonderful. Karin hadn’t tasted her mother’s cooking for months, and no amount of seasoning could make combat rations palatable.

“We call it dough-nut,” the vendor said, pulling another of the deep-fried delicacies from the vat in his cart. “Four dollar only. Very delicious!”

“Sold,” Karin said, fumbling four coins onto the baker’s cart with sugary fingers. She thanked him, then stepped back out into the street, holding the dough-nut close so its fragrance would block out the other, less attractive odors of the street market.

“Don’t eat that!” came a familiar and unwelcome voice behind her.

Karin grumbled and stopped next to a statue of the local deity. Saul alighted on the statue’s bronze head and glared down at Karin.

“Come on, Lance Corporal,” Karin said. “I’m starving.”

“Do you know what kind of oil that was cooked in?” Saul asked. “Do you know what the ingredients are? Whether that brown powdery stuff is something you might be allergic to?”

“It’s a pastry,” Karin said. “It’s grains, water, sugar, and fat.” Even the words made her mouth water. “We’ve been eating the local plants for days. If something around here was going to kill me, it would have happened already.”

Saul fluttered his wingtips. “As your superior, Private First Class Tenrie, I must insist on testing that food item for safety first.”

“Seriously?” Karin broke off a piece of dough-nut and held it out for Saul to peck at. “You could have just asked.”

“Holy shit, that’s good,” Saul said, snatching the last bit from between Karin’s fingers and gulping it down.

“Okay, thank you, it’s safe,” Karin said. “You want more, go buy your own.”

“Private First Class Tenrie, as your superior, I order you to–”

“Please fuck off, Lance Corporal,” Karin said, continuing down the street.

Saul flapped after her. “This is gross insubordination!”

“It may be insubordination,” Karin said around a mouthful of dough-hut, “but it is not gross.”

“Okay, I’m asking as a friend now,” Saul said. “Can you lend me some money?”

“No,” Karin said. She polished off the dough-nut and licked her fingers clean. “Mmm. Mmmmm. Oh, that’s good.”

“Now you’re just being cruel.”

“You don’t need to follow me around, Lance Corporal.”

Saul clicked his beak. “I don’t keep an eye on you, I get an earful from your mother. I don’t need more aggravation right now.”

Karin’s stomach lurched at the mention of her mother. “She worries too much.”

“You don’t worry enough,” Saul said. “Speaking of mothers, how are your falcons doing?”

Karin grumbled. “They’re remedial. I told Legion I wasn’t qualified for this. We raised chickens on the farm. I don’t know how to work with raptors.”

“You seem to do all right with me.”

“You’re not a complete idiot. Half the time these bird-brains just stare up at me like there’s–”

“Hold on,” Saul said. “Did you say ‘stare up’?”

“Yeah. The camp gymnasium floor is the only space big enough for all of them.”

Saul shook his head. “They’re not stupid. They’re uncomfortable. You need to put them higher.”

“We don’t have the equipment,” Karin said. “Perches are reserved for officers and non-coms.”

“They don’t need perches,” Saul said. “Use boxes, crates, chairs, whatever you’ve got lying around. Look, these aren’t chickens. Raptors don’t like being grounded. We want to be at your eye level or above. We need to be able to see what’s around us. Otherwise you’re just breeding neuroses.”

Karin nodded, annoyed that she hadn’t thought of that herself. “Thank you, Lance Corporal. I’ll try that.”

“Good.” Saul cocked his head. “Now, let’s revisit that dough-nut issue.”

“Kindly go fuck yourself, Lance Corporal.”

“That’s what I thought.”

#

She refused to believe it was the dough-nut, but something she ate that day irritated Karin’s bowels and provoked what the camp medic, Young, unhelpfully referred to as “bi-directional evacuations.” Young ordered bed rest and fluids, and Karin spent the next three days in and out of consciousness, stumbling between her cot and the toilet, while another trainer took over care of her falcons.

On the fourth day, she woke up with renewed appetite and staggered into a mostly empty mess hall.

“Has there been a deployment?” she asked the cook as she ladled something foodlike onto Karin’s tray.

“Where the hell have you been?” the cook said. “Scout birds raised the alarm two days ago. FORECON rolled out with their raptors, and two infantry platoons followed.”

“What did they find? What are they fighting?” Karin asked.

The cook grumbled. “Do I look I care? I just cook the food.”

Karin wolfed down her meal, then went looking for anyone who might know how the battle was going. She ran into Young first.

“How are you feeling, Tenrie? You still look a little pale,” she said, putting one hand on Karin’s chin and turning her head, as if examining her. Karin slapped Young’s hand away.

“I’m fine now, thanks,” Karin said. “Do you know what’s happening out there?”

“No messages yet. But the scouts saw owls, so.” Young shrugged.

Karin suppressed a shiver. Engineers continued to work on making wireless sets more compact, but they were a long way from being portable. Birds remained the fastest way to send messages in the field. And the enemy used owls the same way Legion used hawks and falcons: to intercept and kill smaller messenger birds. Owls were also built for stealth, able to fly nearly silent, almost hovering over unsuspecting prey.

“I need to get out there,” Karin said. “Put me back on active duty.”

Young shook her head. “You just got over a nasty bout of gastroenteritis. Rest some more, drink lots of water–”

“Those falcons need me.” Karin resisted the urge to grab Young’s collar and shake her. “They all imprinted on me at birth.”

“Look, even if I were to let you go–which I’m not–we don’t know where the company is now,” Young said. “You won’t do anyone any good wandering in the forest by yourself. Just stay put, they’ll be back soon enough.”

Karin groused, but Young wasn’t interested, and neither was any of the senior officers Karin could locate around camp. Everyone was busy trying to figure out why the enemy had so many owls here. They were clearly guarding something, but the scouts had patrolled out to a distance of fifty miles and seen no structures or vehicles from the air. The alarm they raised two days ago had been non-specific, and the company had ventured into the forest to see what the canopy of trees might be hiding.

After an entire morning of fruitless entreaties and arguments, Karin ate lunch in sullen silence and began gathering supplies for a clandestine outing. Carrying weapons and body armor back to her tent without attracting undue attention required several trips, and proved to be quite tiring. She decided to lay down for a quick rest, which turned into a long nap.

#

Karin awoke in the dark to the sound of shouting. She rolled out of bed and was nearly to the front of the tent when the first explosion hit.

She saw the light first, an orange bloom glowing behind her followed half a second later by a loud boom and a shockwave which collapsed the back half of her tent. Karin threw herself flat on the ground and found her uniform and body armor, cursing at how long it took to put everything on. More explosions made the ground shudder. An alert siren started wailing and didn’t stop.

After three minutes which felt like years, Karin scrambled to her feet, armored from head to toe and carrying a gas-action repeater. She raced toward the nearest voices and found Young treating a screaming, charred, bloody thing that might once have been a man.

“What the hell’s happening?” Karin shouted, crouching down next to Young and scanning the perimeter for attackers.

“The fuck do you think? Shit’s exploding!” Young replied.

“Where are they?” Karin asked. “Are they using grenades? Did they plant charges?”

“They’re in the air!”

“What?”

Young pointed skyward with a bloody hand. “Fucking owls!”

A building exploded on the far side of the camp. Karin saw another Marine sweeping a spotlight across the night sky and ran over to him. He jumped when she approached, then saw her rank insignia and gave a clumsy salute.

“Do you have a target, Marine?” Karin asked, flicking off the safety on her repeater.

“Can’t find ’em,” the Marine said, swinging the spotlight wildly from side to side.

“Stop that.” Karin put a hand over his. “Slow arcs. Aim toward the treeline. Sweep left to right, slowly, then back again. Count to ten each time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t call me sir. And don’t let the explosions distract you. Stick to the pattern.”

There were two more blasts before one of the owls passed through the light beam. Karin shouted and pointed, and the Marine pulled the spot to follow the owl. Karin raised her repeater and took a moment to peer through the scope before firing. She couldn’t tell exactly how big the owl was, but it was clutching something in its talons, a dull metal cylinder with a dome on the forward end and protruding fins on the back.

“Fuck me,” Karin muttered. “They’re bombing us.”

She squeezed off a short burst from the repeater, and a puff of feathers exploded from the owl’s tail. It veered off course and lost its grip on the bomb, which landed in the woods and started a fire. The flickering orange light bounced off the smoke rising from the devastated camp.

“We can’t defend this position,” Karin said. “Did someone sound the evacuation already?”

“How the hell would I know?” the Marine said. “There! Owl!”

Karin looked up, drew a bead on the new owl, and fired. The bird made a noise, released its bomb, and spiraled into the side of the mess hall. The explosive landed at the edge of the forest, throwing dirt over the camp fencing.

“We’re leaving,” Karin said. “Go get Young, then follow me.”

“Who’s Young?” the Marine asked.

“The medic!” Karin pointed.

“I don’t see anyone!”

Karin looked back at where Young had been. The burned body was still there, no longer moving or screaming, but there was no sign of Young.

“Goddammit. Just follow me,” Karin said, and made her way to the mess hall.

The owl which had crashed there was dead, three puncture wounds in its chest leaking blood onto a pile of debris. The animal was huge. Karin estimated that the top of its head would have reached her chest, if it were standing upright on the ground.

“Boy, that’s a big bird,” the Marine said.

Karin knelt down to examine the owl’s legs, but found no metal or other identification there. Then she saw a glint of reflected firelight under its beak, and reached her hand up to push back the feathers around its neck. There, encircling the bottom of the owl’s head, was the largest challenge ring Karin had ever seen, with strange markings etched into the surface.

“What is that? Some kind of collar?” the Marine standing behind her asked.

“I don’t know,” Karin said, leaning closer to study the markings. “This isn’t just a challenge ring. These symbols look like spell signs.”

“Magic?” the Marine said. “Is that how they grew it so big?”

Karin shook her head. “There are bigger raptors than this in the wild. They wouldn’t need magic for that. Or to enable this attack.”

Before she could speculate, the owl’s metal collar began emitting a vibrating tone, like a showman playing wine glasses with moistened fingers. Karin stood up and took a step backward. The singing sound grew louder, and then the owl’s body shimmered and disappeared.

“I guess that’s what the collar was for,” the Marine said.

“Fuck,” Karin said. “We need to get out–”

The earth exploded beside them, and she lost consciousness.

#

Something cold and wet splashed onto Karin’s face and up her nose. She coughed, spewed, and sat up to see Saul perched on a blackened stump next to her. He dropped an open canteen onto her belly, and she picked it up and gulped down more water.

It was daytime, and they were maybe twenty feet from the edge of a clearing which had been made by last night’s forest fire. Many of the charred trees were still smoldering. The long shadows told Karin it was early morning.

She looked back at Saul. His left wing was singed along its leading edge, and small patches of dried blood matted the feathers on the side of his head.

Karin moved her arms and legs, and found that they were bruised but not broken. “What happened, Lance Corporal?”

“You tell me.”

Karin gave a quick report of the previous night’s attack, ending with the owl disappearing and the blast that had knocked her out.

“Well,” Saul said when she was done, “That tracks with all these little trinkets we collected.”

He shrugged his backpack off onto the ground. Karin picked up the satchel, hearing metal clink inside, and opened it to find several dozen small metal rings with markings like those on the owl’s collar.

“Teleport charms,” Karin said. “Legion’s been trying to make these work for decades. How did the enemy do it?”

“I’m going to tell you what we know,” Saul said, “but only because we’re in a desperate situation, and if I don’t make it back, you need to make a full report.”

“With all due respect, Lance Corporal, fuck that noise,” Karin said. “I’m not leaving anyone else behind. And you’re going to tell me everything because I need to know how these bastards killed our entire company.”

Saul clicked his beak. “Okay. You know what ley lines are?”

“Meridians of magical force which can affect natural phenomena,” Karin recited. “Lots of farmers are superstitious about lining up their planted fields for better harvests, but it’s never been proven to work.”

“Yeah, that’s because you need specially made focus objects to collect and redirect the energy.”

Karin held up a handful of rings. “Like these?”

“Apparently,” Saul said. “And they only work in specific locations. Legion’s research has all been directed toward making artifacts, not studying the geography. It’s the interaction of the two that enables teleportation. The enemy got ahead of us there. They know where the hot spots are, and they made these rings to open portals between them.”

“So our camp–”

“Was built on a minor intersection of ley lines,” Saul said. “We had no way of knowing that. And the enemy’s protecting a major intersection on top of that ridge to the west. They’re dug into the rock–that’s why we couldn’t see their base from above. We trailed their owls there, and they ambushed us.”

“How many of us survived?” Karin asked.

“I don’t know. The Major gave me these artifacts to protect, and I raced back to camp just in time to see the end of their attack.” Saul flicked his head to one side in a gesture of disgust. “At least I took out a couple of those big-eyed freaks before they could vanish.”

Karin closed the satchel and moved to put it back on Saul’s shoulders. He waved her off.

“You carry it,” he said. “I’ll move better if I travel light.”

She stuffed the satchel into her own backpack. “You want me to look at that wing?”

“When did you pick up a medical degree?”

Karin made a face. “No need to be unpleasant, Lance Corporal. What do we do now?”

“We take another run at the ridge,” Saul said.

Karin felt her pulse quicken and her stomach turn at the same time. She could still see the burned man’s face, and hear the sounds of her comrades dying around her. She wouldn’t say no to vengeance, but she also didn’t want to commit suicide. She studied Saul’s eyes, looking for any sign that he was concussed or otherwise mentally unstable.

“Do we have a plan that doesn’t involve us dying on the mountain?” she asked.

Saul tilted his head up and clacked his beak in amusement. “We’re going to have the element of surprise.”

#

“Are you sure you’re reading it right?” Saul asked.

“I have no fucking idea what I’m doing,” Karin said. “I’m just going down the list here.”

They were kneeling in the dirt near the remains of the camp. They had searched the rubble for equipment and weapons, and Karin was now loaded down with two repeaters, a pistol, spare ammunition for all three firearms, a belt full of grenades, and food and water.

Her left hand held one of the enemy teleport rings, which Saul also gripped with one of his claws. Karin’s right hand held open a spellbook recovered from the base library. She was nearly halfway through the standard incantations, but so far, nothing had produced any response in the ring.

“Let’s go over the plan again,” Saul said.

“You worry too much.”

“You don’t worry enough.”

“Fine,” Karin said. “We teleport in–if this incantation ever works–and run around their base, killing dudes and looking for the prototype of a larger teleportation artifact.”

“It’ll be circular,” Saul said. “It might be a ring like this, or a disk or even a dome. But it will be big enough to enclose at least one squad of soldiers.”

“And that’s their invasion plan.” Karin stared at Saul. “To teleport directly into our country, wherever they can target these ley line intersections, and then fight their way through civilian populations?”

“Act of terror,” Saul said. “If they can threaten any of our citizens, in their homes, at any time, we live in fear forever.”

“Are you sure this information is reliable?” Karin asked.

Saul stared at her with an unreadable expression. “I was there when the Major interrogated the owl. The intel’s good.”

Karin looked back at the spellbook. “Well, it won’t make any difference if we can’t activate this ring.”

“Keep trying.”

It took five more pages of strange pronunciations and weird vowel inflections, but just when Karin thought her tongue would crack from drying out, the metal ring began singing. She dropped the spellbook and closed her right hand around a loaded repeater.

“Here we go,” she said. “Good hunting, Lance Corporal.”

“Try to shoot straight, Private First Class.”

The world shimmered, and Karin felt lightheaded. For a moment, everything dissolved to nothing–the ground beneath her boots, the smoky air, the hot sun on her helmet. Then she was in a new place, and the air pressed in around her, pushing the smell of antiseptic into her nostrils.

She let go of the ring, grasped the repeater with both hands, and got her bearings. Saul had already taken flight, flapping up toward the ceiling of what looked like an infirmary. Of course. Wounded soldiers would get teleported directly back to the medics.

Saul keened and dove, and Karin heard a scream and a thud. She looked over to see a man bent impossibly backwards over a metal cabinet, his spine undoubtedly broken. She had forgotten how powerful a full-grown raptor was–she had even seen hawks take out snow wolves with a single blow from above. The baby falcons she had been training were nothing compared to an angry Saul Haliatus.

Someone shouted to her left, and Karin turned and saw a medic reaching for something hanging on the wall–a fire axe. She sprayed the entire area with bullets, then stepped forward and swept the room, shooting anything that wasn’t Saul and didn’t look like it was already dead or dying.

When her repeater clicked empty, Karin reloaded with shaking hands and looked around again. Saul was on top of an operating table, his weight pressing down on the owl who had been strapped down there for surgery, and he was pecking out the owl’s eyes.

“Lance Corporal!” Karin called over the owl’s shrieks. “We need to move!”

Saul stabbed his beak into the owl’s head one last time, then lifted off and sailed out of the infirmary. “This way.”

No, Karin thought, as she put a bullet through the blind owl’s brain, not that way.

It became clear, as they fought their way through the base, that Saul was out for blood. He wasn’t interrogating anyone, or checking for maps or other information that would lead them to the prototype he’d made such a fuss about. Karin had to run to keep up with his dive-bomb attacks, and it took her some time to build a mental map of the facility and guess at the most likely location for a secret engineering project.

They had taken the enemy by surprise, so resistance was scattered and slow. But Karin couldn’t physically push Saul in the direction she wanted to go. She had to yell, cajole, and threaten to guide him toward the center of the base. At one point, she even used a grenade to seal off a stairwell. If he made it out into the open air, she’d never get him back.

She discarded one repeater after it jammed, and the second one was down to half a clip of ammunition when they found the prototype chamber. Karin emptied the clip into the two soldiers guarding the large, upright metal circle, which stood over twenty feet tall. She tossed aside the empty repeater and put two bullets from her pistol into one of the two engineers working on the artifact. Saul drove the remaining engineer into a wall, then tore out his neck.

“You okay, Private First Class?” Saul asked, landing next to Karin on the stone floor. She had fallen to her knees and was leaning forward on both arms, doing her best to stop trembling. Too much blood. There’s too much blood.

“I don’t see any markings or controls,” Karin said, nodding at the giant metal ring. It appeared to be made of gold, and had been polished so that it reflected its surroundings in misshapen clarity. “Did the prisoner have any idea how this thing is supposed to work?”

“Yes. It’s touch-activated.” Saul fluttered upward, then settled on a metal cylinder which stood next to the ring. It was about five feet tall, a foot across the top in diameter, and it began singing as soon as Saul touched it. Within seconds, the metal ring started resonating as well. “On your feet, Marine.”

The empty space inside the ring shimmered, and Karin smelled corn.

“No,” Karin said. “No! We go together, or I don’t go at all.”

“I’m giving you a direct order, Private First Class Tenrie,” Saul said. “Take those artifacts back to Legion Command. Figure out how to stop these cowards from invading our homeland.” He twitched his tail. “Then you come back and give me a proper funeral.”

Karin struggled to her feet. The smell of corn grew stronger, and she thought she could hear her mother’s voice. “I can’t do this, Saul.”

“That’s Lance Corporal Haliatus, and you will do this, Marine!” Saul squawked. “You think I can’t convene a court martial in the afterlife? I will make it my mission in death to render your eternity completely miserable! And you know how fucking unpleasant I can be!”

Karin felt herself shaking again, and this time it wasn’t from exhaustion or fear. She wiped wetness from her eyes. “Affirmative, Lance Corporal. You can be a real fucking pain in the ass.”

“Leave the grenades,” Saul said.

She unstrapped her equipment belt and let it fall to the floor. She took a step toward the circle and felt a gentle pressure, as if it were trying to pull her in. She looked at Saul, but he had his eyes trained on the doorway.

“They’re coming,” he said. “Go.”

Karin stood straight up and raised her hand to her temple in one last salute. “It’s been an honor serving with you, Lance Corporal.”

“My friends call me Saul.” The hawk turned his eyes to look at her. “Good-bye, Karin.”

“Saul.” She had more to say, but she couldn’t find the words. “You still have a choice. You always had a choice.”

“I was born to the Legion.” He snapped his head around to face her. “GO!”

She stumbled, surprised by his outburst, and fell through the circle. That same feeling of lightheadedness washed over her, and then a sensation of falling, as if she had leapt off a cliff. Then the rush of air again, filling the space around her, pushing her down.

Karin couldn’t keep her balance. She fell forward. Her helmet smacked against wet grass and hard dirt, and the impact knocked loose the tears she had been holding back.

She heard footsteps and voices, and rough hands pulled her to her feet. She opened her eyes to see a squad of MPs guarding her. Behind them were new barracks, an old farmhouse, a chimney puffing smoke, and a cloudless blue sky.

“They’re coming,” she said. “War is coming, mother.”

In the distance, a raven squalled.

© 2013 Curtis C. Chen

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One Response

  1. Great, gripping, entertaining read. The world-building was complex, but never boring. Crafting a world like this while avoiding an info-dump of exposition takes real talent, and exceptional skill. Well done!

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