The Praedian Records

J.G. Phoenix

 Fleeing Victory




The third time was the charm. Someone back at headquarters must have put that ridiculous thought in the Colonel’s head. It was the only explanation for what Sergeant Ricard Silva and the rest of the 203rd Reconnaissance Battalion were going through. The enemy were the ones who were supposed to be hunkering down while artillery fire rained down all around them, not the other way around. Ricard chanced one last look outside the hatch of his arma before a shell struck nearby and forced him back inside. He couldn’t see anything out there but sand, smoke, embers, and the charred debris of allied armas blown off from hundreds of meters away.

“They’ve got us,” Ricard said, letting himself fall into the vehicle command seat. “Visibility is practically zero.”

“Should we fall back?”

Ricard smiled grimly at the young arma mechanic in the driver seat. Private Nicholas Thompson was always one to point out the obvious, and he never seemed to fully grasp the situation, but he had an innocence about him that made Ricard act more courteous with him. It helped that his skills as a mechanic were second to none in the 203rd. While retreat sounded like a good option under the weight of so much wild artillery fire, they were already embarrassingly east of their original fallback position. If they went any further without orders from Lieutenant Rog, they would wish they had just hunkered down with the rest of them and taken their chances.

“No, defensive maneuvers only. No retreat until the order comes. Lucky for us, the Municans can’t tell exactly where we are. As long as we don’t take a direct hit …”

“But we can’t get any intel, either,” the Nicholas noted, “So it’s just like last time. Mission failed?”

“I don’t know,” Ricard sighed. “Probably. Definitely.”

Cordaea and Munica were at war. It was nothing new. Both countries were aiming to redraw the borders at the heart of the Arena. This vast uninhabited wasteland separated the two countries’ populations from each other, Cordaea was in the east, and Munica was in the west. The Arena played host to dozens of wars and countless border skirmishes over the centuries. This time, things were shaping up differently from the usual border push. Munica had been testing a new weapon in secret, managing to quietly pick off several Cordaean squadrons before enough intel reached High Command to prompt a full investigation. By this time, they knew only that the weapon was massive and mobile. There were rumors that the new weapon was a colossus, but arguments against such an idea were myriad and quite compelling. Cordaea had twelve colossi of its own, but they were ancient, impractical and ineffective in modern warfare. They were relics for inspiring the masses and–occasionally–crushing monsters. Few other countries had them, and for similar reasons. Munica was not one of them.

Backed up by the army, the 203rd’s main objective was to confirm the existence and location of this new weapon by relentlessly harassing Munican forces in the same regions Cordaean squads had gone missing. It was hoped they could bait the enemy into unveiling the new weapon in a counterattack, but this time, against a much better prepared force. It was a high risk operation, Operation: Summons. Once they knew where it was, Operation: Vanquish would begin, and the full might of the Cordaean Army would come crashing down on Munica’s new weapon. The 203rd Recon Battalion would be relying on Colonel Jerome Vespa to get them through both the army’s operation and their own alive.

“Either way, we’re gonna die at this rate,” Ricard groaned.

“Don’t say that,” Nicholas protested.

The initial thrust of Operation: Summons was a push into a lightly defended region in the Northwest Arena. There, the 203rd took an outpost for themselves, blew up another that resisted too long, and shot down half a dozen draque scouts. After that, the Municans started fighting back in earnest. When the vanguard of the 203rd got too close to a Munican stronghold at the base of the Rojo Mountains, the artillery fire was forthcoming and generous. Colonel Vespa wanted to avoid a premature escalation in the conflict, and kept the bulk of his forces back far enough to keep up appearances. It was a calculated but costly move for the vanguard. The 203rd had to be enough of a nuisance to make the Municans consider their new weapon as an option for dealing with them, but not so much so that they warranted reinforcements from further west. The artillery combined with the artificial sand storm was more than enough to halt their advance so far.

“Think about it, Nick,” Ricard said, “Day 1, we make a push, they cover the place in dust and shell us until we run. Day 2, we make a push at a slightly different angle, they cover the place in dust again and start shelling. Today’s no different. We’re just waiting for the order to leave.”

Nicholas hung his head.

“All they have to do to win is not interrupt Vespa’s crazy plan. If he keeps throwing us at that base, we’ll be dead before this newfangled weapon even shows up.” Another shell punctuated the point and rocked them on the spot as it landed. “I don’t care if the other units are poking around, they’re not going to learn anything we don’t already know, and these guys are getting harder to fight by the minute.”

“Come on, Rog. Hurry up. Don’t let us die out here,” Ricard muttered under his breath. Being inside an arma didn’t make him feel any safer. He had gone through all the requisite training for commanding an arma and knew the treaded behemoths, even the heavier ones, were far from invincible. As far as Ricard was concerned, Munican artillery was the appropriate response to an armored advance, especially since their aerial units were such easy pickings for the Cordaean gunners.

Nicholas shook off the blast and turned himself halfway around to face Ricard directly. “We’re going to survive. Even if we get hit, I can fix Agile and have us moving again in no time.”

“Well,” Ricard smiled, “I believe you, but we have to survive whatever takes Agile out of the fight, don’t we?”

“This is Lieutenant Rog,” a voice cut in over the radio, “Intrepid, sound off!”

“Finally!” Ricard straightened up and listened intently as the other arma crews called out in sequential order. On the first day of this Rojo offensive, only a couple of numbers had gone missing. The second day saw a few more. Today, six other crews had reported in so far. “Intrepid 18 reporting. No casualties.” His report was the last, meaning only eight crews were on the line, including the Lieutenant. Eight surviving crews, eight out of the twenty crews they began the operation with.

When the realization of what he’d just learned struck him, Ricard’s face went pale. There were numbers that should have been said, needed to be said, but between every other report, there was a sickening silence on the airwaves. Everyone had lost friends in this operation, but this was insane. Ricard knew the makeup of the whole platoon by heart; he knew where his friends were, and where a certain other person was. “Who’s left?” Ricard asked himself bitterly, trying to keep his thoughts away from the mounting dead, “Matteo. Luca …”

“All surviving armas, retreat,” Lieutenant Rog gave the order at long last. The order came too late for too many.

Nicholas didn’t wait for Ricard’s signal, and directed Agile to fall back. The arma sent its treads spinning counter to each other to quickly turn around on the spot. Then they began running in parallel and drove them all east at speed as artillery continued to rain down.

Ricard looked over his shoulder, knowing full well there was nothing to see. The inside of Agile’s hull was blocking his view of the battlefield, even as it shielded him from the fire and debris outside. As they made their way out of the hellish desert storm, Ricard picked up the radio. “This is Sergeant Silva to Intrepid 1, requesting another sound off.” The words felt childish and desperate coming out of his mouth, but even so, he couldn’t let it go. Not this time. He cared for everyone in Interpid in his own way, but the ones he might have lost today were too much to bear.

“… negative, Sergeant,” Lieutenant Rog responded. His voice was sullen, and both men knew the lieutenant’s responsibility was to the living, to Ricard, Nicholas, Matteo, Luca, and the others. Anyone who hadn’t reported in by now was almost certainly dead. “Just pray for them.”

Nicholas immediately bowed his head, letting Agile navigate on its own.

Ricard could only sink deeper and deeper into his seat as reality came crushing down on him. “Dammit.”

Suddenly Agile stopped in its tracks. Ricard nearly slammed head first into the main gun’s loading chamber. When he looked down to try and see what was wrong, he saw Nicholas nursing a fresh welt on his forehead. He probably didn’t know, either. “Agile, what’s wrong? Why’d we stop here?” Not waiting for a reply that only Nicholas could readily interpret, Ricard got on the arma’s periscope. The view outside was still dark, as if they were in an actual sandstorm and not a Munican contrivance. It wasn’t until it began to move that Ricard noticed a pillar-like structure blocking their way. He had questions, but he didn’t see why Agile stopped instead of going around. Maybe they were going in the wrong direction?

“Nope,” Ricard confirmed with his compass. They were still facing east. He took one more look through the periscope, but the pillar was gone. “What the …?”

Agile quickly began reversing and Ricard and Nicholas yelled as they and their arma were violently flipped end over end. The shock knocked loose everything that wasn’t tightly secured and sent both men all but tumbling inside the hull. Ricard fell onto the upper hatch of the turret as they came crashing down. All he could do was ignore the pain and get up. Nicholas crawled out of the driver’s seat and tried to reach him. Neither had to say a word. They knew the procedure for a flipped arma. They had to get out and either run like hell, or help Agile right itself. Ricard quickly got the turret’s side hatch open and hauled himself through it. The smoke and sand rushing past him reminded him of his scarf and goggles and he quickly covered up with them. “Goggles! Cover your mouth, too,” Ricard called back into the side hatch.

It was a relief to see Agile’s mechanical arms already deploying. The arma hadn’t been knocked cold by whatever hit them. The arms of the Cordaean light armas were similar to that of a pruden, and they carried thick, heavy shields on them that could help protect the vehicle from more unconventional attacks. The compromise with such a design besides the increased cost, was that the suspension system, as well as the weakest part of the arma’s hull, were completely exposed while the arms were undocked. On the other hand, Agile would only need a few moments to flip itself back over. They wouldn’t need any extra vehicles or equipment. Ricard planned to investigate in the meantime.

The artillery strikes weren’t landing anywhere near them anymore, which was both a relief and a sign. Ricard was still trying to figure out what that sign was, and where that pillar had come from. In the end, all he had to do was look up. Past Agile, that pillar was there again. Ricard followed the uneven structure up higher and higher, wondering when it would end. The darkness continued on, never truly ending, but rather culminating in a set of five red lights. A central light was surrounded by four smaller ones, but all of them were intense enough to pierce through the storm and fill Ricard with a sense of dread. Were the rumors actually true? Were the Municans testing a new colossus out here?

It was too late to warn Nicholas as he came out without making him even more confused. As Agile began to right itself, the pillar–no, the foot of the Munican colossus rose up from the ground. Ricard nearly panicked. “Nick!”


Nicholas hadn’t seen the colossus yet. He was facing the wrong way. “Dammit!” Ricard grabbed Nicholas by the shoulder and dragged him away as fast as he could. “Don’t talk just run! Run!”

The colossus’ foot came down like a stroke of lightning, crushing Agile and detonating the arma’s store of ammunition and fuel all at once. The explosion caught Ricard and Nicholas just as they began to move and sent them both tumbling to the dirt.




That was Munica’s new weapon, Ricard thought bitterly as he grasped at his senses. He found himself lying facedown, his goggles pressed hard against his eyes. He could feel a trickle of blood in his nose as he rose onto his hands and knees. Everything hurt, particularly his back and the bridge of his nose. Nicholas was just coming to as well, but he looked a lot better than Ricard felt. A part of him desperately wanted to get back down and lie still, rather than risk being noticed by the Munican colossus. The other part, the part that was in control for the time being, had to get the word out. The entire purpose of this blockheaded push toward the Rojo Mountain Base was to lure out the very weapon that had just attacked them.

Ricard looked back toward Agile’s remains and saw nothing but whirling sand, rising smoke, and dancing embers. The colossus was gone, but it had to be close by. The storm hadn’t let up, so he and Nicholas couldn’t have been unconscious very long. The crew’s radio was almost certainly destroyed, but there was one other option Ricard had for contacting the rest of Intrepid. His commune codec was on his person and still working, but curse this storm and whoever was conjuring it if the interference was too great. “This is Intrepid 18 to all allied units, we’ve spotted our objective in the dust storm! I repeat, objective spotted inside the storm! How copy?!”

“Don’t forget to tell them it’s a colossus,” Nicholas said, carefully sitting himself upright.

“Yeah. Wait, how’d you know that?” As far as Ricard could remember–which admittedly wasn’t much–Nicholas hadn’t even seen the colossus before they were both knocked cold.

“Well, when Agile backed up, it felt like we got stomped on. Hey, where’s Agile? Is he okay?”

Ricard was too focused on listening for a reply to break the news to Nicholas. He almost didn’t register the mechanic’s educated guess about what attacked them. If he had, he might not have caught Lieutenant Rog’s reply. It was something like an echo in his mind. “Solid copy,” Ricard heard back as he tried to tune out the chorus of wind all around him. All Cordaean arma commanders had to have advanced training in commune techniques in order to ensure communications weren’t severed by mere equipment failure or heavy fighting. Because commune techniques used mana as a medium instead of radio waves, Ricard’s thoughts could be carried a short distance to other commune specialists. The commune codec was a device that enhanced commune abilities, encrypted messages stored in mana, and carried a special type of mana suited to the work. Right now, it was their only lifeline.

As much as Ricard would have liked to tell his allies where the Colossus had been, he didn’t even know where he was. They had lost track of their position a few minutes after the artillery started raining down. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that the Municans were well aware of every minute advantage these fake sandstorms gave them. Fortunately, this wasn’t an uncommon problem for the Cordaeans. Eventually, after the Municans used this trick one too many times, some poor group of mages would get blown up while huddling around some device and the sandstorms would stop. They would start up again once a new batch of mages and their tech were brought in, but Cordaea always found her reprieve. Ricard hoped he and Nicholas would, too.

“Negative, Lieutenant,” Ricard shook his head at his commander’s order, “We can’t track the colossus for you. Agile’s scrap and we’re injured … over.” He could only wince when he looked to check on Nicholas, seeing that his colleague had just figured out what happened to their arma.

Nicholas stumbled toward Agile’s blackened and crumpled remains. Even for a light arma, to be left so unrecognizable in a single attack was nearly unheard of. He fell to his knees in front of Agile’s right arm, one of the few familiar parts left of the arma. It was torn off in the explosion and remained barely intact a half dozen meters from the wreck. There was no fixing this. The 203rd Reconnaissance Battalion’s best mechanic could only look on in grief.

Ricard was at wit’s end, and barely able to keep up his comm procedures. He was trying to get rescued, while Lieutenant Rog was trying to locate the colossus for his own superiors. Wasn’t it enough to know the plan as a whole had worked? They knew for a fact that Munica’s new weapon was operating in this area and that it was indeed a colossus. Couldn’t they regroup and try to take it down some other day? Until the sandstorm let up, or the other recon teams sabotaged it, no one was going to be able to keep track of their target. “Just guide us out of here for God’s sake!”


Ricard straightened up in surprise. He could have sworn he knew this other person calling out to him. He refocused himself and started tuning out Lieutenant Rog as he responded. That conversation wasn’t going anywhere anyway.

“Sergeant Silva speaking. I copy. Who is this? Over.” Ricard thought it might be Casey, the arma commander from Intrepid 20, and a good friend of his. If Casey was alive, then just maybe his fellow crewmate had also survived. He had to be sure and not get his hopes up for nothing.

“Rick, it’s Casey. Listen. Alice and I are in a bad way. Blitz’s treads got blown off. We tried to fix them, but Alice got hurt.” Ricard wanted to ask for details, but Casey wasn’t quite finished. “I pulled out everything I could and we’re about to blow this thing. Let’s link up and get out of here.”

A good idea, but in this storm, all they could do was find the right bearings and hope they didn’t pass right by each other. Did they even have time for that? Just because the shelling had stopped didn’t mean the Municans were done with them. The colossus was still out there, and as soon as they were finished smothering them with the sand storm, they would undoubtedly send in their own recon teams to clear the place out. They would be fortunate to be taken as prisoners of war, but Ricard couldn’t ignore the possibility that they might all just be shot on sight. “We’re not doing much better. Agile’s gone and we can’t stay here too long trying to rendezvous. Can’t you head east like us?”

“I can’t haul Alice, the rep kit, our water, Blitz, and a machinegun the whole way!”

Casey had to carry Alice, too? Ricard prayed she wasn’t gravely injured, but if she couldn’t walk, then it must have been serious. “You can ditch the repair kit; we won’t need it if both armas are out. Anyway, our bearings aren’t going to help much if our last knowns are off. We have to think of something else.”

“Well, I’m about to blow what’s left of Blitz’s body. Watch for the fireworks and tell me the compass bearing. We’ll match and meet you halfway. I’ll even let you carry Alice. Sound good?”

Of course it sounded good, and to think Alice had survived after all. Even if she was injured, that was far better than the alternative. Now he just had to reach her. Ricard figured the most difficult thing left to do would be deciding what to say to her after their near brush with death. “Stay in contact and give me a count when you set it off,” he said sternly, “This is only going to work if I know to look when the flash comes. If I miss it, we’re stuck following the sound.”

“You got it! Standby.”

Ricard and Nicholas stood back to back to cover every angle the explosion might come from. Both kept their eyes peeled and their compasses out in front of them. The sound would give them a general direction, but the sandstorm was severe enough that they could pass right by each other if they were more than a hundred meters apart, and likely far less than that. The detonation on the other hand, would give them a more precise location, but it would only be visible for an instant, being distorted and diminished by the storm.

“5. 4. 3. 2. 1. Eyes and ears, boys!”


Ricard caught a teal flash out of the corner of his eye and immediately pegged it at his 10 o’clock. He felt Nicholas turning to try and help him as he lined up the brief flash with his compass. “That was … north 30 degrees west.”

“North 30 west. Alright! We’re headed your way. Stay on that bearing and try to make some noise.”

“You’re the one with the machinegun,” Ricard muttered.

Just as they were about to start off, Ricard and Nicholas both spotted another light to the west. This one was white, and flashing like a strobe light. Stranger still was its up and down bobbing, which made it seem as if the vehicle was challenging some hostile terrain. The only thing Ricard was sure of was that the vehicle was using that light to get their attention.

“Is that another arma?” Nicholas said, eyeing the distant figure carefully.

Ricard easily confirmed that it was once it was closer, but he didn’t know what to make of it at first. “It’s one of ours. Why didn’t they sound off with the rest of us?” Maybe they had and wound up running into trouble right afterward. Ricard knew what that was like.

The friendly arma approached them using a method of propulsion neither of the two had seen since their days in training. Much like Intrepid 20, this arma had lost one of its treads to the blind artillery barrage and was pressing on in spite of it. Its remaining tread worked in conjunction with the mechanical arm on the opposing side of the hull. Acting as a crutch, the arm helped the battered vehicle hobble along at a slow but steady pace. This tenacious arma must have expected more extensive help, as its broken tread was strewn over the right side of the hull, just waiting to be fed back into the track system and reconnected. Ricard soon noticed blood and sand splattered across the heavy armor plates of that same arm, and he was able to quickly piece everything together. “They got out to try and fix your tread so you could get moving again,” Ricard explained as the arma stopped just a few feet in front of them, “then another shell landed. A near miss is all it takes.”

“That’s terrible,” Nicholas winced at the gruesome pattern.

“Bet it’s the same thing that happened to Alice and Casey. They just got lucky.” If this arma’s crew had just waited a few minutes, Ricard mused, realizing there had probably been ten surviving teams in total before this incident, not eight like he thought. He wasn’t sure why Alice and Casey hadn’t reported in, but he suspected it was simply a case of bad timing, combined with some kind of carelessness on Casey’s part. With this arma and its crew, Ricard imagined they had gotten to work on those repairs right around the time Lieutenant Rog called. He would never be completely sure.

“Your name’s Chaser,” Nicholas said, reading the arma’s burned name plate with his fingers, “You’re with Intrepid 9. Rick, let’s fix Chaser’s tread and go pick up the others.”

“Can’t,” Ricard shook his head, “no repair ki–Casey!” Ricard dropped to one knee and tried to focus as quickly as he could. Casey was already heading in their direction, but with his load slowing him down, there might still be time. “Casey, don’t leave the repair kit! Do you copy?! Do not leave that repair kit! We need it!”

“I copy, but I wish you’d told me that sooner.”

“We can’t wait for Casey to get here. I’m going to go help him out. See what you can do in the meantime.” Ricard didn’t wait for an acknowledgement from Nicholas, and took off running with his compass close to his chest. “Casey, I’m heading your way. We can’t stay here or they’ll find us. When I get to you I’ll take Alice. You get that repair kit back to Nick as fast as you can. He’ll fix Chaser and then we can get out of here.”

“Got it. You okay?”

“Well,” Ricard’s pace slowed as he thought back to Agile’s destruction. They hadn’t stood a chance, and it felt as if divine grace alone was keeping the Municans and their colossus off their heels. “We lost Agile, and it wasn’t from all the shelling. Munica’s testing a colossus out here. That’s what got us. It’s still out here somewhere, Casey. I can feel it. We have to go.”

“I always hated hide and seek,” Casey sent back, “never feels like there’s a good place to hide.”

“We’re not hiding. We’re running.”




“1700 hours,” Ricard checked the time as he followed his compass to Alice and Casey, “We don’t have a lot of daylight left.” Once night fell, the situation could shift in their favor. They would be a lot harder to pin down in the dark. Like any good two-edged sword, however, the survivors of the 203rd would have to make their way back to their allies through the pitch black desert. That perilous journey was going to have to be made on foot if Nicholas wasn’t able to fix Chaser’s damaged tread in time. If the dust storm happened to let up before they were underway, the Municans might spot them immediately. One well placed artillery shell later and it would all be over. Then there was the colossus. The longer this storm lasted, the more likely they were to run into it again, and Ricard couldn’t stand the thought of that. He had to hurry. They all did.

Minutes ticked by as Ricard searched, and more and more he began to worry he had passed his friends by without ever noticing. He reminded himself that he shouldn’t panic until he saw Blitz’s remains or the colossus. “It’s fine,” Ricard said, “even if I missed them, Casey’s still heading in the right direction, and he’s got the repair kit.” He looked all around him, checking for any signs of movement. Above and below him were distinct shades of orange that blended together at what should have been the horizon. Without his compass, Ricard wouldn’t have the slightest indication of where he was or which direction he should head in. He had seen everything save what he was searching for since he left Nicholas and Chaser, from shallow dips where a shell had exploded, to twisted and burned metal plates, fingers and other bits blown off of the mechanical arms of their scouting armas, and even a half buried sprocket.

“Sergeant Silva.”

Ricard winced. Lieutenant Rog was still trying to contact him using the Commune technique. He thought the lieutenant had given up by now, but that was Rog’s voice echoing inside his head. At this rate, he was going to have to stop playing at being unreachable and answer. He knew there were orders coming, though. Those orders would almost certainly involve that colossus the 203rd had recklessly lured out of hiding. Answering and receiving them might put his own plans for escape in jeopardy.

“Sergeant Silva, if you’re done building sandcastles out there then respond. I know you’re receiving. What’s your status? Over.”

Ricard bit back a curse and stopped dead in his tracks. Maybe if he just explained their situation again, that they couldn’t help pinpoint the colossus’ position on foot in the Munican dust storm, the lieutenant would agree and let them focus on escaping, on survival. “Sergeant Silva here. I copy. Status is … awful. Attempting to rendezvous with the survivors of Intrepid 9 and 20. Over.” The words left his lips with frustrated resignation. Even so, he had to plead his case before Rog said anything more. He couldn’t dance around any pending orders this time.

“Are there any working armas left in Intrepids 9, 18, or 20? Over.”

Ricard’s words initially caught in his throat. The temptation to lie was almost overwhelming; the temptation to twist the truth into something inconvenient for Lieutenant Rog, even more so. “Just one, sir, but Chaser is badly damaged. We’re trying to get him moving again, but he’s not combat or recon capable. Over.” Not a lie, Ricard told himself, but hopefully discouraging enough to make the lieutenant reconsider whatever he was thinking.

“Orders from command,” Rog began, and it sounded like the sympathy in his tone from their last exchange was long gone, “Any Intrepid teams still inside the storm are to attempt to locate and track the colossus. Echo.”

“I knew it,” Ricard hissed. He knew they wouldn’t be retreating if any new orders reached them. “Lieutenant, what makes you think we can find the colossus in this mess, much less track the blasted thing? If we get spotted again, we’ll be slaughtered.”

“Echo, Sergeant,” Lieutenant Rog replied expectantly.

“Sir … locate and track the colossus. Orders received. Over.”

“I won’t lie to you, Rick, things are about to heat up,” Rog warned, “Sifter 4 found the storm device and the mages and a strike package is inbound. When the dust clears, be ready to move. Over.”

“Oh crap.” So his plan to fix Chaser and escape under the cover of the sandstorm had been compromised from the beginning. No one he could get a hold of could delay the attack, and they only had a couple of minutes left at most. After that, the skies would clear, and the Municans would have as clear a picture of their targets as the Cordaeans would of theirs. “Crap!” Ricard took off running after a brief glance at his compass.

As if the world itself was conspiring against him, Ricard quickly came up on a blackened husk that greatly resembled an arma. If this wreck was Blitz, then Alice and Casey had passed him a while ago, possibly during that exchange with the Lieutenant. Ricard shook his head, realizing that he should have been paying attention. Now he had to get a hold of Casey and figure out whether to keep looking for him in this area, or head straight back. He knelt down again, giving the area a quick scan before committing to another commune. “Casey, it’s Ricard. I think we passed each other.”

“Yeah, I was afraid of that,” Ricard heard back, “but I can’t stop to check every little thing that might be a person, you know? Better to just keep moving. Try to catch up, alright?”

“Listen,” Ricard urged, remembering the planes Cordaea was sending to put an end to the storm, “Rog just told me they found the mages putting up this dust cloud. They want us to find the colossus after they take them out and keep track of it.”

“A colossus seems pretty hard to miss, don’t you think? Isn’t that why they’re using the sandstorm? To hide it while it goes around stomping on everyone?”

Casey had a fair point, but Ricard figured the rest of Intrepid was half a dozen kilometers east by now. Probably farther. Their friends in the air would need help to strike the colossus now that it was nearly sundown. It was an awful job, an insanely risky job, but someone had to be close by to help coordinate the attack.

“I’ll try and catch up, but use your radio to get in touch with Nick if you have to. Don’t just rely on the bearings we took.”


Ricard rose to his feet and prepared to move. That was when he felt a rush of mana pass through his body. It disturbed the air and the dirt around him, moving east almost faster than the eye could see. “Was that a kite burst?” That the wave of mana was heading west to east was a bad sign. While a commune booster used a special form of mana known as Vigor to facilitate long range communication, a kite burst or a kite ping was a method of using that same type of mana in a manner similar to sonar. In the old days, golems were able to use these pings to orient themselves and pinpoint every nearby entity. The drawback of such a technique was that it let everyone know you were there. To say a kite ping was easy to back trace with modern equipment would be an understatement. If the Municans were pinging for them now, then that could mean only one thing.

It was a mop up.

“Run,” Ricard said, checking his compass once and then bolting to the southeast. He was standing out in the open when the mana touched him, so whoever or whatever sent that ping out didn’t just know that he was there, but also that he was a male tanker, around 180 centimeters tall, and armed with only a pistol. He could hear a pair of high pitched motors whirring away back at the destroyed arma, the distinct sound of a Munican draque. One of those metal lizards was already on his trail. Ordinarily a draque wouldn’t concern him too much; the 203rd had shot down plenty with their anti-air guns in the last couple of weeks. Ricard was alone and on foot now. A draque was dangerous enough to lightly armored men with its jaws and claws but these Munican machines were always armed with at least a haze cannon inside their mouths and a pair of machineguns bolted on somewhere. He had to escape.

Ricard could hear the draque getting closer, but he couldn’t maneuver. His only chance was to somehow make it back to Chaser before he was gunned down. “Come on! Come on,” he pushed his legs as hard as he could. Ricard could picture himself reaching the others and waving frantically as the draque closed in on him from above. He could see Chaser turning its turret to meet the incoming threat and blowing it to pieces as Ricard dove for cover. He could easily make out Alice’s smile even in the storm. A last ditch save was just what he needed. It was a comforting lie for the moment.

No matter how hard Ricard pushed himself, he could hear the draque getting closer. He could feel the blasted thing getting closer. It was a wonder he wasn’t already under fire, but there was no use questioning it now. It was no use questioning anything. If he was caught here, he was dead. Ricard cringed reflexively when he heard the draque shriek at him. The sound was so loud it made him want to hit the dirt; the draque wasn’t just close, it was right on top of him now. Chaser and the others were nowhere in sight, and the draque was almost close enough to bite his head off. There was no chance at all of him escaping now. Ricard leaned forward as a precaution, even though it was beginning to slow him down, and weighed his final options.

I’ve got a pistol, but that thing’s got a hazer, machineguns, and enough bulk to crush me as soon as I turn around …. Was this it, then? Was he going to die here no matter what? Couldn’t someone somewhere help him? Anyone?

It was too late; Ricard could feel the heat from the draque’s mouth on the back of his head and sense an attack coming. On instinct, he dove to the ground and the draque passed right over him. As he picked his head up, Ricard heard engines, plane engines, passing overhead and heading westward. It was probably the strike package, he thought, but it was too late for any of that to help him. The draque turned around to face him, and Ricard could make out someone riding on its back. Some draques had riders and some didn’t. The ones with riders were the scout group leaders and helped coordinate their movements. Ricard was armed, so maybe he could shoot the rider and actually accomplish something before the draque got him.

“Back off,” Ricard said, raising his pistol to shoot. The draque was surprisingly quick to respond, generating momentum out of nothing and rushing toward him like a speeding train. Ricard told himself to shoot the rider on top of the draque, but he couldn’t help but try to fend off the bigger threat when it came right down to it. He got off one shot that barely nicked the draque’s left optic before he was thrust to the ground. He hit the ground so hard that there was no doubt in his mind that he had a concussion. Worse still, he didn’t know where his pistol or his compass had gone in the fall. Hope was in short supply, but Ricard still had to take note that he wasn’t dead yet.

The draque’s arm had just enough weight behind it to keep him pinned down as the rider briskly hopped down and approached him. Even in the storm, even with his most recent injury, Ricard could see the rider clearly enough now that she was standing over him. Her gear was loose enough that, if not for the long black locks blowing in the wind, he could have mistaken her for a shorter man. The draque riders only ever consisted of shorter, slender men, and their female counterparts. Ricard did note that she was somewhat tall for a rider. He also took note of her pistol, wondering if she planned to shoot him herself. Maybe the plan was to threaten him for information. Or was he being taken prisoner? Questions Ricard had tried to push out of mind earlier were starting to force their way to the forefront. Whatever this rider wanted, it was the only reason he was still alive.

“You’re my prisoner,” she said. She had a faint but distinct Munican accent, something Ricard hadn’t heard in a long time despite fighting these people on a regular basis. “All of you are.”

“All of us?” Ricard echoed, trying to understand. It took him a moment to remember, but when he did, he could hardly keep it to himself. “The ping.”

“Four survivors,” the rider confirmed. Ricard, Nicholas, Alice, and Casey. “If you don’t resist, it can stay that way.”

This draque scout clearly didn’t know Cordaeans very well, Ricard bitterly mused. “Casey, they caught me. Get Chaser fixed and run. Just run.” One last ditch effort to save the others. He could do that much.

The woman quickly knelt down and put her hand on Ricard’s forehead. “Stop that!”

“Just run!”


Suddenly the ground shook beneath them. A rumble in the distance was forthcoming, and Ricard knew the ‘package’ had been delivered. This sandstorm would begin to clear any second now. The rider noticed and stood back up. They both watched as the storm began to lift. Part of Ricard expected to see more draques flying around when the dust settled. Instead, he saw red lights in the distance, behind the rider that captured him. It was walking right toward them. Its steps were far too quiet. That’s why they never seemed to notice it coming until it was practically on top of them. Ricard could see the big red light and the four little ones approaching as a dark silhouette formed around them. He knew with a grim certainty that he wasn’t escaping, not with the colossus there.

“Blast it.” Ricard closed his eyes and reached out with his thoughts as far as he could. Hopefully he’d saved his friends by warning them, but there was still one more thing he had to do. Follow his orders. Lieutenant Rog, this is Sergeant Silva. Colossus located. My current position is unknown. Please advise. Over.

“Sergeant, we almost have your position. Just keep talking. Over.”

Colossus is one hundred meters and closing. Can’t tell the direction. Maybe northeast. Just carpet bomb the whole area to be sure.


Do it. If you don’t, they’re going to get the others. You have to hit that thing now.

“We have your position. Can you withdraw to a safe distance?” Lieutenant Rog asked, clearly dreading the answer.

No, I’ve been captured. You ordered us to track this thing, Lieutenant, and I’m doing that! Now kill it! If you’ve got my position then you know where to shoot!

“We can’t order a strike yet … standby, Sergeant. Over.”

Of all the times for them to be hesitant. The storm was clearing, visibility was coming back, and the colossus was right there. Ricard couldn’t let this mission fail just because he got himself caught. First you put the colossus above our lives and now you’re getting hung up on this?! Where was this care and concern when we were trying to get out?!

“This is a friendly fire situation, Sergeant. Command isn’t going to authorize a strike until you’re clear. We’re working on a solution, so standby. Over.”

I already told you! I’ve been captured! I’m as good as dead, so level this whole area before the colossus pulls out!

There was no response this time.

Lieutenant! Come on, Lieutenant! Lieutenant!

“Please stop,” the rider said, lifting up her goggles and pulling down her scarf. She turned back to face him as the colossus drew ever closer to them. “Don’t try to be a hero. It’s over.” She could tell he was using the Commune technique even though he wasn’t speaking. If she could sense the mana leaving with his thoughts then she was likely a mage herself, and not just a rider.

“I’m not trying to be a hero,” Ricard scoffed. It figured that the one time he put his own survival out of mind for the sake of the mission, his superiors would do just the opposite. A part of him was grateful, but he also felt as if he was being betrayed. They would rather let him be captured than risk friendly fire; the timing couldn’t be worse, but Ricard couldn’t argue with that stance, either. Even so, it was humiliating. If the colossus escaped now, it would be his fault, because he couldn’t outrun a flying motorcycle with teeth. Why couldn’t he have just stayed put with Nicholas?

“It’s not like that,” Ricard told the rider, “I’ve got my orders.”

The rider nodded, knowing all too well. “We all do.”




As the winds died down and the sands began to dissipate, Ricard could finally see the Munican colossus for what it was. The mechanical legs he had mistaken for large pillars in the storm, were covered in curved armor plates that perfectly matched the rocky beige of the Arenas Desert. The gigantic machine’s knees were covered by long plates that ran the length of the colossus’ thighs, and were set just forward of the shins, suggesting a digitigrade structure. Only a very small assembly of parts approximating a pair of feet were touching  the ground. Somehow, they held the whole colossus upright. This Munican design had more in common with the draques than a Cordaean colossus. Its similarities to the draques did not end there.

Above the waist, Ricard could see the five lights casting a deep crimson onto the rest of the body. The bright one at the center pulsed angrily, and Ricard could only imagine what it’s purpose was, or what sort of technology was humming away behind all of that armor.

The machine’s arms were thin, but about as well protected as the rest of the body. The colossus’ head rested above and behind its large, slender torso, supported by a long and flexible neck. It was still partially obscured by the fading storm, but Ricard could see clearly enough to know he had seen many draconic heads just like it in the past. Its eyes and crown sensor gave off the same fierce red light he had come to know and loathe.

On the colossus’ lower back were a pair of exceptionally large pod-like structures. On a draque, that would be where the wings were located. Ricard figured the pods, despite their aerodynamic shape, probably contained huge stores of mana. Powering a colossus wasn’t easy, and keeping mana stored internally in such a compact design was something he very much doubted the Municans could pull off, even with such an intricate design.

Ricard took in every detail of the colossus he could. He knew he was almost certainly going to be spending the rest of the conflict as a prison of war, or worse, but his training never let up. When he spotted a new type of enemy, his eyes were fixed on it. A Cordaean colossus was purely prudenoid in its construction. It couldn’t afford any more nuance in its design than that. The Munican colossus on the other hand was like a monstrously upscaled draque standing upright. In hindsight, this was exactly what a Munican colossus should look like.

The draque scout picked up her radio. Ricard watched and listened as her mechanical mount kept him pinned there on the ground. She didn’t speak to her allies in Laytier like she had with him. Instead she was speaking Munican. He could remember bits and pieces of the language, but reading her body language helped to fill in some of the gaps. She was talking about the colossus, calling it ‘Cordoba,’ and suggesting it should retreat. That likely had everything to do with the sandstorm. The scout was apparently the leader of a ‘Jinete Team.’ Whether or not he found an opening to escape, that bit of information could be worth remembering.

When the scout was finished, she put the radio away and clinched her fists. Whoever was on the receiving end of that report hadn’t taken her suggestion. That meant Ricard’s presence here was the only thing keeping his allies from bombing the colossus into the dirt. Maybe there was a way to use that to his advantage.

“You’d better run,” Ricard warned, straining to talk with the draque pinning him down by his chest. He had been bleeding from prior attempts to pull himself up, but now red was spreading out from beneath each claw. “Once those planes are done surveying the damage, they’ll come for the colossus.”

Ricard didn’t know what the planes were doing over there, now. The device the Municans used to prop up the storm was gone, as were the mages operating it. They could swing back around and start attacking the colossus right now if they wanted. Ricard desperately hoped they weren’t just holding back on his account, but his exchange with Lieutenant Rog suggested that was exactly what was going on.

“Shut it,” the scout hissed, “The Cordaeans won’t launch an attack with you here.”

Ricard winced. So that was her plan. Either way it was time for another bluff. “Are you serious, lady? My people know I’m as good as dead. They’re not gonna wait.”

“Those planes over there seem to be waiting,” the scout leader noted, effortlessly countering his point.

“Not the guys I’m talking about,” Ricard shot back. He didn’t know what his allies were up to, which made it that much harder to guard his nerves, but he had to at least pretend the area was about to be saturated in fire. It was the only chance he had of throwing this woman off and finding an opening to escape. “Why do you think we’re here? To bait your artillery into wasting all of their ammunition?”

“You’re here for Cordoba, I imagine,” the scout answered honestly, “Cordaeans usually don’t beat their faces against a wall for no reason.”

“Exactly! So now that we’ve got a visual on that oversized lizard, what do you think’s going to happen next?”

“… I think we’re both going to be disappointed,” the scout sighed.


Ricard had just enough time to glance in the direction of the faint gunshot when something struck the draque above him and dazed him. When his senses returned, Ricard’s ears were ringing and his sight was hazy. He could see the scout scampering back to her feet, and a short distance behind her, the draque she rode in on. It was barely alive, and bleeding smoke and embers from an armor piercing round. Ricard was so familiar with that kind of battle damage that he was able to instantly piece everything together. “Chaser’s coming,” he breathed, hurrying to his feet.

Ricard looked up at the colossus, being careful not to forget the giant in the chaos. Somehow, he had to get away from it, far enough that the army could take it out. He didn’t know why exactly, but he found himself calling back to the scout as he ran. “Run! Get out of there!”

“Lieutenant Rog to Sergeant Silva, are you clear of the colossus?”

Ricard didn’t expect to hear the Lieutenant’s voice again, not even inside his head, but it sounded like they were ready to finish the mission. “Not yet,” Ricard sent back, constantly checking over his shoulder as he ran toward the gunshot. Overhead he could hear the two planes coming back. It was almost time.

“We’ve got two birds running interference while the bombers get into position. Get out to at least 1000 meters. Intrepid 21 is inbound to pick you up.”

“Intrepid 21?” There were only Intrepids 1 through 20 as far as Ricard knew.

There they were. Ricard could see Chaser coming straight toward him at top speed. He turned back to see what the colossus Cordoba was doing, but just as he did, a burst of cannon fire from the planes strafed it. Some shots bounced off the armor at shallow angles while others just barely managed to embed themselves. It was more than enough to draw the machine’s attention, and thankfully, it looked like the scout had heard him and was on the move as well. She was heading in another direction, likely straight west. Having left his compass, Ricard could only guess that he was heading roughly southward. Chaser was coming from that same direction, making him confident in his bearings again.

When Chaser was close, it stopped to let Ricard aboard. Nicholas and Casey were inside, while Alice rode on a makeshift stretcher on the hull. She was gently held in place by Chaser’s mechanical arm. Ricard didn’t like this arrangement one bit. Her leg was in a splint, but surely they could have carried her inside. There was enough room for three people. They had at least thought to give her some earmuffs and what looked like a torn off piece of tarp to cover up with. Still, if they got into a proper fight … “Don’t think about it,” Ricard shook it off. He hopped onto the front of Chaser’s hull and knelt down beside Alice.

“We were in a hurry,” she said. Ricard couldn’t hide his disdain for this from anyone, much less Alice. “I tried but I couldn’t get inside with my leg like this. Riding on the outside was my idea, promise.”

“So was our new name, by the way,” Casey chimed in from Chaser’s commander hatch. “Intrepid 21! What do you think?”

“We’ll probably get split up again after this,” Ricard noted as he got into a riding position, “but for this one mission, it’ll do. Let’s go.”

Feeling the shallow cuts on his chest with his fingers reminded Ricard just how close he was to spending the rest of the conflict in a far away cell. All things considered, he was getting off light, with only a few minor injuries.

Chaser turned southeast and started moving just as the sun began to set. The turret turned backward to face the Cordoba, forcing Ricard to grab something else to keep himself stable. “Hey, don’t fire that again,” he pleaded. Alice may have had ear protection, but he certainly didn’t. “Just leave it to the planes.”

“Oh man, they’re comin’!”

“Who’s coming?” Ricard asked, though he could already hear the roars of engines coming from the east, “the bombers?”

“Yeah! Looks like sixteen of’em!”

Ricard groaned and moved closer to Alice. No matter how far away they were when the attack started, they wouldn’t be completely safe.

“Lieutenant, we’ve got Rick and we’re all clear,” Casey yelled at the top of his lungs, “bombs away! Blow that thing off the map!”

Ricard made no effort to look as the bombers began their attack, instead doing his best to get between Alice and Chaser’s turret. “Almost through this,” he said, partly to Alice and partly to himself.”

“We’ll make it,” Alice smiled. She immediately took his hand when the first bomb hit.

The attack on Cordoba could be seen and felt from over a kilometer away. Several more bombs went off in rapid succession. Ricard and Alice put their heads together to try and endure the violent tremors. All they could hear other than the explosions was Casey’s jubilant ravings.

“I don’t know what’s worse, the bombs or him yelling like a maniac,” Ricard muttered to Alice.

“Definitely the yelling,” Alice snickered.