The Praedian Records

J.G. Phoenix

Fleeing Victory




“Ah, you’ve come to.”

As Fran came to her senses, the first words she heard were in her mother tongue. She could remember running for her life; Fran apparently hadn’t gotten very far on her own. She heard aircraft engines and the whistling of large missiles getting louder and louder as she tried to get away. She could feel the enormous footfalls of the colossus Cordoba as it quickly caught up to her. Needless to say, Jinete Team’s leader had questions.

“What happened? How did I get here?” A quick scan of the room revealed that the scout leader was in an infirmary. It had been ages since Fran visited one in person. She wasn’t in the habit of getting injured, much less knocked cold.

The clinician standing at her bedside smiled as if he had an amusing joke ready and waiting for his confused patient. Fran actually recognized the man. It was Doctor Gil, a man responsible for more than just treating the wounded and handling medicine. “Something interesting happened according to the reports,” he told her.

“Interesting?” Fran cocked an eyebrow, wondering where he was going with this.

Gil nodded. “Yes. From what I read, the Cordoba didn’t retreat right away. It ran over and scooped you up, first. Only then did it activate its displacement drive. The bombs were probably already exploding all around you both by the time the drive was activated. That would explain the damage the Cordoba suffered, as well as our finding you unconscious.”

“Cordoba saved me?” No one could tell Fran she wasn’t grateful, but why in the world would the colossus endanger itself to protect one doomed scout leader? She supposed that her death in particular would have severe knock-on effects for her family. It would also cripple the Jinete Team. Even so, the Cordaeans couldn’t be allowed to destroy the Cordoba, especially not during its final trials. That was just unthinkable.

“Doctor, was Cordoba programmed for rescue tactics?”

“I don’t know,” Gil shrugged, “I’m sure they’re looking into that as we speak.”

That was Fran’s cue to get back to work. She slid her legs off of the bed and braced herself, fully expecting to feel lightheaded once she was up. “I should look into it, too.” Sure enough, she had to hold still for a moment to keep her balance. “If that’s all, I’ll be going now.”

“Try to get some more rest, Captain Sandoval. You won’t be back on duty for some time yet. Oh and don’t forget to make your report. Yours is the only one they’re still waiting for.”


By the time Fran made it back to her quarters at Fort baldi, she had been greeted by no fewer than twenty people. Most were relieved she was alright. Others were celebrating some supposed victory, something Fran found perplexing. While the Cordaeans had retreated, it was obvious to her, and likely to her superiors, the Cordaeans had learned everything they needed to about Cordoba. That would drastically limit its effectiveness going forward. The only thing worth celebrating was Cordoba’s survival.

The door to Fran’s quarters opened to a barren, sterile room. All she found there was a bed, a chair and a desk. On a temporary assignment like hers, Fran hardly stood out in that regard. The only reason she wasn’t in a barracks was due to her rank in the Munican Army. Private quarters, however dull, were her due, and they were always inside the HQ buildings wherever officers were stationed.

First things first, Fran thought as she filled out a field report at her desk. She was as objective on matters as she could be, which led her to one gut wrenching conclusion near the end of her report. She had been careless with the Cordaean crewman. Even if Audaz, her personal draque, had the man pinned, she should have stopped him from relaying anything to his superiors. Commune specialists were everywhere on the battlefield. She should have knocked him out, maybe even shot him.

Poor Audaz. The draque she had ridden since her days in training leaped to mind as she wrapped up her report. Draques were practically immune to small arms fire, but a round from an arma of almost any size was potentially deadly. The last she saw of Audaz, he was sprawled out on the ground and helpless. Maybe he was the only one lost to the bombers. The others had plenty of time to fall back.

Fran stood up from her desk, report signed and folded for convenience. “Alright. I’ll hand this in and then see Cordoba and its handlers.”

Fort Baldi was situated just outside of officially recognized Munican territory, but it was well within their ability to defend from the Cordaeans and other foreign threats alike. This allowed massive expansions over the years, expansions that included deep underground facilities. One of these facilities was a hangar dedicated to the Munican Colossus Cordoba and its equipment. If that machine was anywhere on the base, it would be there, away from prying eyes. Fran suspected some of the higher ups would be there, learning what they could about Cordoba’s antics. Her sister, Lieutenant Colonel Valencia Sandoval, might be there as well.

As Fran entered the hangar, she saw Cordoba surrounded by scaffolding and sparks as repair teams raced to undo the damage inflicted by the Cordaean bombers. Overlooking the whole scene nearby was a group of officers, including Fran’s sister and the General of the Army. She was hesitant to approach. General Cruz being here was quite the shock, but eventually Fran found her nerve.

“Captain,” Valencia greeted her with a nod.

“Lieutenant Colonel,” Fran saluted her older sister and the other officers, “Generals.”

Although Fran was the younger of the two, she and Valencia might have passed for twins with a little effort. Even now, Fran’s facade, her raven black hair, was beginning to fade. If she left it alone, her hair would eventually go back to matching the Lieutenant Colonel’s vibrant silver hair.

Major General Cano took a step forward with open arms and a big smile. “So you’re the damsel the Cordoba decided to save. Well met.”

“We were going to send for you once you were awake,” Valencia said, glancing briefly at Cordoba.

“I already handed in my report, but I’ll answer any questions you have,” Fran said, straightening up. She didn’t know whether to expect easy questions, or an outright barrage.

“Hmph,” General Cruz turned fully to face Fran. “I figured you would be the one with questions, Captain. We have only one for you.”

“Just one?” Fran winced. She didn’t mean to say that out loud, but it was too late to hide her surprise.

“Indeed.” General Cruz stepped out in front of the other officers and approached the railing overlooking the Cordoba. Fran followed his gaze to the massive machine and the work being done on it. “It’s almost time. Once all systems are fully online, Operation: Enduring Fury will begin. Lieutenant Colonel Sandoval will be made second in command of the Cordoba and all supporting units. Command will go to Colonel Berti.”

Fran only had to wonder briefly what any of this had to do with her.

“How would you feel about the Jinete Team also being transferred to the new unit, Captain?”

“You want my opinion, sir?” This was unusual. Fran hadn’t known higher ranking officers in the army to consider anyone’s personal preferences. General Cruz, whom she had only just met, was different for whatever reason. “I certainly wouldn’t mind.”

“That matter is settled, then,” Cruz nodded at her.

Only a few officers looked put off by the idea, but they wouldn’t dare speak out about it now. Maybe that nod wasn’t just for her.

“Now Captain, did you have any questions about the Cordoba? Now that you’re in our new ‘Cordoba Corp,’ you’ll have a full briefing in the morning along with the rest of Jinete. Anything you have on your mind right now can be addressed right here.”

Fran supposed her main reason for coming here was to better understand the colossus. Before the Cordaeans made their push toward the Rojo Mountains, all she was told was that the Cordoba would be performing more tests in battle, using a dusk weaver storm for concealment. The Jinete Team was to wait until it was safe to move in, and survey the results. Everything was going fine until the third attack. The Cordaeans found the dusk weaver and blew it up, exposing the Cordoba in the process. Then … then something strange happened.

“Cordoba saved me from the attack,” Fran said, “I was wondering why.”

“Me too,” Cruz said, barely resisting a chuckle, “but if the Cordoba’s programmers aren’t just covering for each other, it’s not something as simple as a ‘rescue’ subroutine for high profile officers. No, this is apparently something in the prime program. It is a core part of the Cordoba’s runic brain. Of course, that means there’s no switch anywhere that we can flip on or off to control that type of behavior.”

“Cordoba spent valuable time trying to get me out of there. It endangered itself for one officer, General. I don’t even know if it’s because I’m an officer or if it was just trying to save one person. Are we sure that’s not going to be a problem in the future?”

“While I hesitate to call this quirk of the Cordoba’s a design flaw, it will greatly impact our ability to integrate the platform into our regular forces. Don’t let it bother you, Captain. We’ve always worked around our limitations. This is no different. We do need to run one additional test; we need to know what it will do when a direct order conflicts with this little ‘savior quirk.’”

Fran agreed. The Cordoba’s actions had been worth it, this time, but what if it tried to save someone else and got itself destroyed in the process?

“Was there anything else, Captain? If not I’ll let your sister handle the rest.”

[Intruder Alert]

[Intruder Alert]

[Intruder Alert]

Fran’s eyes went wide in shock.

“An intruder?” Cruz’s head tilted slightly.

“At Fort Baldi?” Major General Cano said, “How is that possible?”

Intruders at Fort Baldi was a terrible sign. The implications were too numerous to even deal with at the moment. They had to focus on getting a handle on the situation first. Most of the high ranking officers present were beside themselves.

Valencia remained stoic, and Fran noticed her sister pulling her gloves tighter and tighter, something she only did when she was gearing up for a fight.

“Fran, we’re going,” Valencia said, starting off ahead of her sister.

“Understood,” Fran fell in behind. It felt like nothing had changed since she joined the army. Even as teenagers, their roles were always the same: Fran would find what they were looking for and Valencia would handle the dirty work.

“Leave this to us, General. We’ll coordinate the defense and deal with the intrusion, whether it’s just one or one hundred.”

General Cruz seemed just fine with the idea. “Get it done, then. I’m looking forward to a favorable report.”




“Any ideas on who it might be?” Fran asked, barely able to keep up with Valencia’s pace. “A Cordaean assault team maybe?”

“I have no idea, but we’re going to deal with them all the same,” Valencia said, “According to the sensors, the alarm was triggered over by the warehouse.”

Valencia grabbed her radio as they entered an elevator that would take them back up to the surface. “This is Silver One. I’m taking command of the garrison. Authorization comes from the top. Relay that, make sure the draques are ready, and head up the search for intruders until I arrive. Over.”

“Acknowledged, Silver One,” a voice came back, “Relaying and resuming the search. Over.”

“I’ll be there shortly. Silver One out.”

That call reminded Fran of Audaz. She wasn’t keen on taking another draque so soon after what happened, but it was going to be necessary. She couldn’t do nearly as much on foot. “Are there any more draques free, or does this warrant me grabbing the closest one and heading out with you?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Valencia brought her fist and palm together, “You lost Audaz in the field.”

Fran still felt ashamed of it, losing her draque the way she did. Those machines usually outlived their riders. So long as their runic brains were in tact, they could be placed into a new body and serve as if nothing had happened to them. With that kind of resilience, draque scouts and fighters normally kept the same unit throughout their entire career. Fran didn’t have time to retrieve Audaz’s runic brain, and whether it had survived the Cordaean bombing run was anyone’s guess.

“I let my guard down and now I’m paying for it,” Fran sighed.

“Only for tonight,” Valencia soothed. “We heard back from the rest of Jinete before you woke up. Audaz is in no shape to fight. His body was damaged beyond repair, but his runic brain is in perfect working order. By tomorrow, he should be fitted with a new body.”

“Really?” Fran didn’t even realize just how happy she looked to her older sister.

Valencia placed a hand on Fran’s shoulder. “I cherish that smile of yours, you know.”


“Hahah. Don’t lose your nerve over one little comment.” She was all business again a second later. “We’re almost there. Be ready to run. I’m going to get them things started, then I’ll meet you in the hangar.”

When the elevator arrived, the Sandoval sisters bolted through the doors. They split up at the first turn; Fran ran for the main hangar, and Valencia made a beeline for the command center. Dozens of troops funneled out of the main building while others moved between buildings. It wasn’t long before wheeled vehicles were on the move and a dozen riders were in the air. The guard towers turned on their search lights and began sweeping the area for any unexpected movement both in and out of Fort Baldi.

Personnel were even busier inside the main hangar by the time Fran arrived. Jinete Team consisted of only a handful of riders, and many, many draque units that supported them in the field. From their own section of the massive hangar, they were already preparing plenty of the draques for combat, giving Fran her pick of the units. “What’s the situation?” Fran said as she arrived. She was already settling in on one of the draques as her temporary partner. Its nighttime gear was already fitted and it looked like it was eager to fly.

“Could be a whole lot worse, I guess,” Lazo, her second in command said, “We’ve got two separate problems: an intruder in the fort, and a huge group of Cordaean arma coming straight for us. They’ve got artillery, so the walls won’t help us much.”

At least they were on top of a large hill, so the armas wouldn’t be able to shoot them directly until they breached the walls. It sounded like whatever was happening had been in the works for a while. At first, Fran worried the Cordaeans had tracked the Cordoba there somehow, but if they already had a man on the inside, then that might not be necessary. The bigger question was how the Cordaeans managed to blow past all their outer defenses and get this close without anyone noticing.

“I’ll head up the search for that intruder,” Fran decided. She also decided on the draque she would ride into the fight and climbed up into the saddle. “Perspicaz, huh? Bear with me for now.”

“How much backup do you need?”

If there were only one or two intruders, Fran didn’t want to overdo it. More importantly, Valencia could use the extra firepower to deal with the arma threat. “Two is enough. I want you and Flora to help defend the base while I help track down the rat.”

“You can count on us, Captain,” Lazo saluted her.

As soon as Fran had gotten herself situated, the fighting began. High explosive shells struck the HQ building, sending guards running for cover. Several other structures were hit, including a water tower. Fran took Perspicaz and two other draques and left the hangar just in time to see an entire volley of ignis shells pass overhead. The explosions rocked the entire base, even sending men on the far side to the ground. “Are they trying to blow everything up?” She didn’t want to think about the airpower that was likely on the way. Cordaean vehicles were always backed up by air assets. Always.

Finding the intruder in this chaos was going to be extremely difficult. Fran suspected that was the point, whether or not the Cordaeans intended to reduce Fort Baldi to a total ruin. She had the two supporting draques fan out while she checked a nearby storage building. A squad had already cleared the area, but this was where the alarm was triggered, so Fran had to see for herself. A pair of exceptionally brave men were still searching when she landed, neither of them had any clue who their unwelcome guest was or where they could have run off to. Fran had no choice but to broaden the search, even as artillery shells continued to rain down.

How was she supposed to find what was likely one odd individual in all of this? She wasn’t one to give up so easily, but whatever the Cordaeans’ plan was, it was working. The odds of finding their intruder like this were effectively zero. Even so Fran couldn’t leave it be. Valencia had given her this task and she wasn’t going to just give up.

“New plan,” Fran muttered, an idea that was punctuated by a nearby shell exploding and sending a hot gust of air over her. She landed and called her draques back. “I don’t think the Cordaeans would be hitting us this hard if the intruder was in danger. They held back even more fire than this to spare just one of their people. That means the intruder is somewhere the shells can’t reach him, or he’s not here anymore.” No plan was foolproof, but Fran couldn’t count on the enemy messing up their timing. Her target was either already outside the walls of the base, or they were inside a fortified area.

“I can’t go outside,” Fran told herself. The arma were charging toward them at that very moment. Any draques caught out in the open at long range would be plucked out of the sky by their guns. If the target was already outside the walls, Fran couldn’t risk chasing them. For now she had to assume they were in one of the safer parts of the base. “There isn’t anywhere safer than the underground facilities. But that means the intruder alarm gave us the wrong location. Or there are at least two. Maybe? One to purposely trip an alarm and the other to-“

Ack! One of the draques let out a shriek and jutted its neck out toward the side of the storage building. Its spotlight grew brighter, and the beam became narrower as the draque got Fran’s attention. That was when she saw him, a man clad all in black, injured and crawling for the safety of the large containers. She didn’t recognize his uniform, but she knew it wasn’t one of theirs. She drew her gun, but the injured man was already shooting. He was an incredible shot, managing to take out the spotlight on one of the draques’ heads, cloaking himself in darkness.

“Get him!” He couldn’t have gotten far if he was crawling on all fours, so Fran and the draques rushed over, with Perspicaz in the lead to shrug off any surprise gunfire. As soon as they reached the containers, Fran knew something was wrong. The intruder absolutely could not have gotten away in the five seconds it had taken them to catch up. There was just no one here now. Neither Perspicaz nor the other draque could find anything with their spotlights. A displacement spell, maybe? To her trained senses, that would have been as subtle as lighting a flare. For him to even attempt that while injured would be just as impressive as his shooting.

“Cordaean Special Forces, then,” Fran concluded, “This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.”


Fran swiftly aimed her gun at the voice, surprised to see her target laying on the ground right in front of her, but she was only able to keep the intruder from shooting her first. Both of them had clear shots and so much as a flinch would see at least one of them killed on the spot. The draques knew well enough not to endanger the captain by overreacting, but they were incensed, looking for any opening to rip the injured gunslinger to pieces.

“I can’t believe this,” Fran hissed at him. She was looking at the very spot the man was lying on a moment ago and he wasn’t there. If he hadn’t used a displacement spell to get away, then just one possibility remained. His black clothes, his damaged mask and helmet. Even his pistol gave him away now that she could see it up close. “You’re a vas pureblood. They’re the only ones who can do what you just did. That mean’s you’re not Cordaean Special Forces. You’re a Calman.”

“And you’re a Sandoval,” the injured vas smiled. For someone who had just been ruined by friendly fire, he seemed a little too happy to see her. “Maybe my luck isn’t so bad, ja?”

“What are Calig’s Blue Ghosts doing here?” This was even worse than they imagined. Cordaea’s neighbor and greatest economic partner, Calig, had some of the best special forces units in the world. Calmans didn’t like to get mixed up in border disputes like these, so Fran hadn’t even suspected them. If they were involved, then they had some very high profile targets they were after. Cordoba was likely one of them. Could the other be Valencia and the rest of the high ranking officers in Fort Baldi? “What are you after?”

“A little of this and a little of that,” he shrugged.

A brilliant flash suddenly blinded Fran as intense ringing bored into her ears. She shielded her eyes, but the damage was done. She felt herself being dragged to the ground by metal claws as faint gunfire rang out in the distance. “I let my guard down again,” she muttered, hoping Perspicaz and the draques could protect her from the ghosts until she recovered.




All Fran knew for certain was that one of the draques was standing over her and bracing against the incoming gunfire. She could feel the bullets ricocheting off her protector’s head and wings. The intense flash left Fran seeing nothing but white, but even as her sight slowly returned, she couldn’t make out anything clearly. Worse, her ears were still ringing, almost drowning out the panging of bullets and the draques’ shrill hissing. Fran couldn’t even steady herself, not even while down on all fours. Whether it was a stun grenade or  some Calig equivalent, it must have gone off right next to her.

Just how many of them were there anyway?

Suddenly the gunfire stopped. Fran’s ears slowly stopped ringing and the sound of artillery fire, allies calling out to each other, and Fort Baldi’s sirens became louder and clearer. “What a mess,” Fran groaned, crawling out from under the quick thinking draque.

Perspicaz was her savior. He lowered his wings to inspect the damage, while Fran, still dazed and unbalanced, tried to look around. No one was near the containers where they confronted the first of Calig’s ghosts. Fran and her three draques were alone for the moment. They were anything but safe, however.

“How is it?”

Perspicaz tilted its head back and forth, assessing the nicks and scratches in the dark as best it could. From what Fran could tell, he was fine. At the very least, he could continue the mission. They were going to need backup, though. Calig special forces were far more than a scout and a trio of flying automata could handle. Fran had to warn her sister and the others.

One radio call after another saw Valencia and the rest of Jinete warned about the Calig commandos. Fran also learned that the situation in the northeastern corner of Fort Baldi had deteriorated rapidly since her search began. Several heavy arma had directly breached the wall and brought a few squads of automata foot soldiers with them. Fran wasn’t given a choice on the matter; Valencia ordered her to join the defense and leave the ghost matter for later. The risk was great, but it was a calculated one, as Fran was already incapacitated once. She didn’t have the experience or the firepower to beat Calig’s best at night, and while under the threat of indiscriminate artillery fire. They were here for something else, Cordoba, Fran suspected. That was why they didn’t press their advantage and kill her. If she and her sister was fast enough, if they could repel the Cordaeans, then they could turn their full attention to protecting the Cordoba. The plan couldn’t be get any more straightforward, so Fran mounted up and led the draques toward the breach.

Fran soon arrived at the breach, and what she saw infuriated her. The first heavy arma was well inside Fort Baldi, laying waste to the top floor of the command center with high explosive shells. It was covered in black splashes from where rockets had struck but failed to penetrate, and its two heavy machineguns were partially melted from the battle. The arma was surrounded on all sides by automata armed with rifles and grenades. Every Munican soldier bold enough to level ordnance at the heavy tank was quickly suppressed by the mechanical soldiers. The ones who hadn’t taken cover fast enough, and the ones who were caught out in the open when the wall was first breached, all lay dead and strewn around the battlefield. Several draque units were disabled and being used as cover by the garrison.

Fran couldn’t keep staring at what was left of the command center. Her sister might have still been in there, and just the thought of Valencia dying in a surprise attack, barely able to coordinate the battle or fight the enemy herself, it was just unbearable. For now, she had her orders: Help defend Fort Baldi. Fran wasn’t sure she could contribute much to this lopsided siege, but she was going to try.

The automata saw Fran and the draques coming and forced to scatter in all directions with a hail of bullets. That was when the second arma came lumbering through the breach in the northeast wall. It immediately fired a round from its main gun into the HQ building, striking the second floor and sending concrete and dust spewing out. Fran evaded the automatons while Perspicaz and the other draques began charging up the haze guns hidden in their jaws. Just as the second arma’s heavy machineguns began to track her, Fran pulled back on Perspicaz’s control sticks and brought them both into a hard turn. The draque released all of the energy it had stored up in one concentrated beam of energy, sweeping across the arma’s flank and melting the automatons that had just joined the battle.

The other two draques fired their haze guns at the heavy arma’s machineguns, causing their magazines to explode. They had followed standard procedure to the letter, taking out the heavy machineguns first since the main guns couldn’t track them in such a close in fight. With those taken out, the only protection the armas had were the soldier drones they brought with them. The second arma began to move backward in retreat, but soon realized its mistake and drove away from the breach and toward cover, leaving the hole wide open for the next arma to come through.

“We can’t take them down fast enough,” Fran grimaced. She could strip away some of their weapons at most on her own, but the draques were light aerial automatons. They couldn’t deal with heavy armor, and certainly not Cordaean heavy armor. They needed much more firepower to destroy or disarm the arma.

“Fran get back,” Valencia ordered. Her voice came over the radio, reverberating as if she was surrounded by metal.

Fran and the three draques heard something coming from above. They looked up just in time to see an enormous draque come diving down. Valencia was inside, guiding the assault draque toward the first arma. Fran knew what would happen next, and ordered the draques to get clear. Even the soldiers were running to gain distance as Valencia’s draque opened the bomb bays on its abdomen and revealed several large bombs. One of them detached as soon as the bay opened up, and Valencia pulled her draque out of the nosedive. A few seconds later, the first arma was blown apart. The Munican soldiers had gotten clear in time, but the arma’s automaton escorts were caught in the blast before they noticed the danger. The entire area was covered in dust and black smoke.

“I’m glad you’re alright, Valencia,” Fran said into her radio.

“We’ve lost good people here. I won’t be joining them, but I will avenge them. Fran, run interference.”

Just like always, Fran thought, appreciating the sudden turn of events more than she could put into words. “I’m on it.”

The Munican assault draque, Jubilosa landed on the wall and opened her jaws, exposing a massive haze gun. The barrel extended out of the draque’s mouth and released a violent burst of mana against a group of arma gathering just outside Fort Baldi. The return fire from the automatons and heavy machineguns barely amounted to glancing hits and scratches. As Jubilosa turned, she swept the field, slagging the automatons and forcing the armas to fall back far enough to use their main guns. By the time the farthest arma could raise its gun high enough, Valencia stopped the attack and took to the night sky.

The Cordaean advance was halted for the moment, which meant they just had the heavy arma already inside to deal with. With no infantry support, the Munican defenders were able to come back with a vengeance. As they readied an entire volley of armor piercing rockets for the second breaching arma, a third hurried through the large opening in the wall. The Municans decided to focus on it first, sending seven rockets past the husk of the first arma. The automatons were shattered by the blasts almost as soon as they leaped into action. The third arma fired one shot at the garrison and then started to back out through the breach.

The second arma tried to take advantage of the reprieve by leveling its main gun at the rocket bearers. Now it was time to run interference. Fran flew Perspicaz toward the remaining arma, attempting to flank it while the other draques chased the third. She made it just in time, slamming Perspicaz and herself into the barrel, throwing the shot completely off target. The second arma’s arms deployed in response, trying to grab them. Unlike the light armas, Cordaea’s heavy tanks had four arms at their disposal. Perspicaz couldn’t get clear in time, and was jerked down by the tail. The arm on the opposing side took the draque by the crown and held them down over the barrel of its main gun. Then the two remaining arms in the back started beating Perspicaz’s body over and over. Fran didn’t know how to save them both from the arma.

“Hang on! Just hang on,” Fran pleaded, leaping from the damaged draque onto the top of the turret. She had no way of breaking in and taking out the crew, and she had only seconds before the rear arms were turned on her. She wouldn’t fare nearly as well as Perspicaz if she was caught the same way. Instead of going after the crew, Fran decided to keep moving and jump down to the back of the arma. She didn’t find anything unsecure enough to force open and damage with just her pistol, certainly not with the time she had. The rear arms were after her almost as soon as she hopped onto the back of the arma. That gave Perspicaz time to fight back, which it did by blasting the arma’s right wrist with the haze gun, the same one holding its head down.

Fran barely avoided being crushed as she dove clear of the arma’s reach. Then she saw the rest of Jinete coming. Not just the two draques she brought with her, Lazo, Flora, and everyone else were almost on top of them.

“Ready concentrated burst,” Lazo shouted. The draques surrounded the heavy arma while Flora approached to help Perspicaz.

That was enough interference, Fran thought, running for cover as all of Jinete’s draque’s mouths began to glow a bright blue-green with burning hot mana.

Perspicaz spent most of its energy melting off the arma’s grasping claw with its own haze gun, and when Flora arrived, her draque used its claws to rip Perspicaz free. They both flew away as fast as they could. The arma managed to raise its gun toward Lazo and fired a shot. The shot narrowly missed him.


The arma was struck by over a dozen beams of light from all directions as the survivors got away. The heavy arma’s armor was thicker than anyone could have imagined, but Lazo ordered the attack to continue. The arma could only use its shields to guard in four directions, and the draques kept the assault up while moving to overwhelm it.

“Keep it up!” Lazo began to worry as his own draque’s energy reserves began to run low. Several others depleted themselves entirely and fell to the ground, weakening the barrage.

The arma’s turret was still in tact, but turning more slowly as it struggled against the heat. It was trying to acquire Lazo one more time, but he drifted out of the way before the arma could open fire. Slowly but surely, the arma’s drive system was reduced to slag, its treads glowed a bright orange, molten metal began to drip from its armor plates under the withering barrage. The arma’s crew were surely dead by now, and only the arma itself was fighting back. Finally, the arma gave up on Lazo and turned its turret around to attack Fran, the only one left the turret could still reach.

Fran tried to take cover behind one of the downed draques, but she knew that wouldn’t save her if an arma round came her way.

“Just die,” Lazo bellowed in desperation.

The half melted arma didn’t hesitate. As soon as it had Fran and her pitiful cover lined up with its gun, it tried to take one last defiant shot. Fire and dust erupted from behind its treads and out from the turret ring as the whole thing went up in flames. The turret was blown away, sailing through the air as fire rained down all around them.

“We did it.”

As she came out from behind the disabled draque, Fran knew it wasn’t over. Not only did the Cordaeans have air power in the area, but the Calmans were sneaking around somewhere. She had only laid eyes on one of the unlucky ones. There was no telling how many of them there were, or what kind of damage they could inflict in the middle of all this chaos.




Fires raged as Fort Baldi’s troops and workers tried to regain some semblance of control. The breach into the northern wall had nearly cost them the battle. However, the Cordaean attack was still well underway. As Fran rendezvoused with the rest of Jinete Team, the garrison prepared for the all too likely air attack.

Brightest orange and darkest brown made up much of Fran’s view of the northern sector and its facilities. What few Cordaean armas had managed to make it inside the base had caused massive damage before they were defeated. Even the HQ building, which had been of particular interest to the armas, had been sufficiently shelled to be in immediate danger of collapse.

“They shouldn’t have gotten close enough to attack us here,” Lazo said bitterly, “not directly.”

“It is strange,” Fran agreed, almost certain they were on the receiving end of an ingenious attack. Whatever the Cordaeans had done, it had been at least a partial success, if only because they managed to bypass the Munican frontlines and half a dozen other well defended and well stocked bases and outposts. There was no way they could figure out exactly how the enemy had circumvented all of that while the battles was still on.

“We’ll figure it out later. We have to get rid of the artillery before they start firing again, then hope the garrison can deal with the rest.”

There were also the Calmans, Fran reminded herself. She couldn’t just forget about the more subtle of Fort Baldi’s intruders and let them have their run of the place.

Jinete Team flew high above Fort Baldi where they found Lieutenant Colonel Sandoval, some of her escorts, and an assault team that was finally ready for the battle. Of the more than thirty draques that made up the massive formation, Valencia’s heavy assault draque was the largest. 78 feet long from head to tail, and with a colossal wingspan just over 80 feet, Jubilosa was an imposing ground attack variant of Munica’s assault draque. The other assault draques at Fort Baldi were equipped with haze guns in their mouths, chainguns on their arms, and any ordnance they had to carry mounted on short pylons on their bellies. Their pilots were better protected than the scout riders, having fully enclosed cockpits on their backs. While Jubilosa was similar, her chainguns were both mounted on the sides of her head, shrouded in conformal armor plating. Instead of chainguns, her arms carried slender rocket pods, and her ordnance was hidden inside a large bomb bay directly beneath the cockpit.

Fran found herself smiling as they passed over Fort Baldi’s walls out into the open desert fields. This is how she preferred to do things, with Valencia at the front and her own keen eyes poised for anything the enemy had planned for them.

“The counterattack is about to begin,” Valencia said, briefing the scout and assault teams, “Assault units, ignore the automatons and cripple the armas. Then move on to the artillery. Fort Baldi’s cannons are being deployed as we speak, so they’ll finish them off. Scout units, fan out and keep any Cordaean gunships from getting past us. Once the artillery is dealt with, we’ll join you and put them down, too. Simple, no?”

The plan relied heavily on the momentum they would gain during the initial attack run on the armas. Since even the draque scout variants could shrug off anything short of a rocket propelled grenade from infantry units, the automata troops the Cordaeans had brought to support the armas weren’t much of a threat on their own. As long as the assault draques were past the armas before any gunships arrived, they should have an overwhelming advantage. A solid attack plan. The only difficult part would be the initial attack, Fran noted. Cordaean heavy armas carried two large fifty caliber machineguns which were just potent enough to whittle down draques over time. A withering barrage from those would slow them down and make them easy targets for an arma’s main gun. Some of Cordaea’s armas were armed with nothing but anti-air weapons to make things that much more difficult for Munica’s draque units.

Fortunately, Perspicaz spotted only two dedicated anti-air armas, something the assault units could handle if they were careful. Even in the dark, the scout draque’s optics could easily make out the shape of known threats. While Perspicaz couldn’t speak to Fran, it could show her what the draques could collectively see through a small display nestled between the control sticks. A list of all the armas Perspicaz could make out were quickly filling a side panel, offering Fran the chance to tap on one of them to prioritize it. For the moment, she was only interested in any potential aerial threats. They had to be on their way.

“Begin the attack!”

On Valencia’s order, the scouts broke off and kept a safe distance above the incoming fire. Shrieks filled the air as the assault draques began a murderous dive on the Cordaean armas. Fran watched in awe as Jubilosa led the attack. Despite Valencia’s order to merely cripple the heavy armas, Jubilosa destroyed one outright with a bomb and melted the turret off another during her pass. Neither of the crews could have survived. The assault draques behind Jubilosa focused primarily on the machineguns and the treads of their targets, spraying countless bullets and mana to overwhelm them. Even the anti-air armas were quickly put out of action.

“Gunships spotted,” Lazo called over the radio.

“Let’s distract them,” Flora said.

“Distract, sure, but don’t pass up a kill,” another from Jinete chimed in.

“Yeah,” another voice said, “we can bring at least a few down ourselves.”

“Enough chatter,” Fran sighed, watching as six gunships appeared on Perspicaz’s display. She could only communicate with the other riders via radio or commune techniques, but the draques could pass combat data along to each other through their deceptively informative shrieks. “It’s fine to take them down but no unnecessary risks. We’re just stalling them until the Lieutenant Colonel deals with the artillery. Understood? Prepare to attack!”


The gunships were in a loose formation, but approaching quickly. Each was an armored fuselage, laden with guns, cannons, and rockets, all of it kept aloft by two large rings whose inner surface glowed faintly in the night. Jinete couldn’t meet them head on and scattered in all directions as the gunships opened fire on them. They had almost been to slow to react, as one of the riderless draques had been blown out of the sky in the first pass.

“Not too close,” Fran ordered, “Just don’t let them get past us! Keep them their eyes on us!”

“Sorry, Captain!” Lazo apologized in advance as he came up beneath a passing gunship and latched onto it with his draque’s claws.

The gunship tried to shake him off, but Lazo’s draque held fast and began snapping at the cockpit. Unable to get a grip and rip them out, the angry flier tried its haze gun instead. A weak blast was enough to take out the pilot, and Lazo used the opening to force the gunship into an inverted state. The gunner in front took over the controls but they were already falling rapidly. Lazo released the gunship and watched as the gunner struggled. It was close, and if they had been at a higher altitude, he would have saved the gunship. Instead, a violet fireball marked the crash below.

It hadn’t been a perfect performance, Lazo thought, looking at his draque’s energy reserves. He and most of the riderless units Jinete were dangerously low. They spent a great deal of mana on the heavy arma inside Fort Baldi. The draques could fly for a while longer, but such a huge discharge of mana for a single attack was out of the question. Even the reduced blast he used was enough to push his reserves deep into the red. He supposed distracting the gunships was all he could get away with after this.

An explosion rang out behind Fran. She looked to see another drone shot down. It probably wasn’t ‘dead,’ but with their fighting ability already reduced, they couldn’t afford too many losses. “Climb higher! Get above them!”

Someone was already above one of the gunships. Flora and her draque dove straight down onto one that was trying to break through to support the Cordaean ground forces. Her draque grabbed onto the ring repulsor on the left side and tried to break it. Despite her best efforts, the arm, as well as the ring itself, were ridiculously sturdy, not so much as budging as the draque clawed, whipped, and bit down on it.

Fran was close enough to see the struggle for herself and was taken aback by the trouble the gunship was giving Flora. She always thought Cordaea’s midcentury switch from helicopters to these strange rotorless designs was an odd decision. They always looked frail and underpowered, but the gunship was just shy of freeing itself from Flora’s grasp with only light damage.

“Sister, how are things down there?” She didn’t want to distract Valencia, but Fran wanted a time table. The gunships were struggling to break through, but they had a slight advantage over Jinete.

“Almost done. Casaulties?”

“We’re down two draques and low on mana.”

“Understood. Give us a moment.”

A moment? They couldn’t be finished with the artillery yet, Fran mused. She almost didn’t see the last gunship in the pack open fire on her in that moment and Perspicaz had to dive to avoid taking too many hits. The bullets that landed either bounced off leaving deep dents in its armor, or embedded themselves in its armor. Fran realized she’d been extremely lucky there.

“Don’t let your guard down,” she said, as much to herself as to the rest of Jinete.

“One’s breaking through!” The warning was too late for Fran to do anything about it, but even the riderless draques understood the mission. One of them chased after the gunship, even as another started firing on it. The draque was riddled with bullets, and sensing its own destruction, unleashed a concentrated burst from its haze gun, spending the last of its energy to down the gunship. Both the gunship and the draque went down in flames.

Jinete Team was too scattered and exhausted to deal with all four of the remaining gunships, and another one managed to get past them. Fran was about to give chase, but her sister’s words came to her. “Just a moment, she said.” Fran turned back toward the gunships that were still fighting, and the three survivors seemed as intent on killing them as the armas had been. If they were committed now, that was good enough. “Evasion! Fly circles around them!”

The riders were quick to change their tactics and began flying close to the gunships, but not attacking them. Each kept an eye on their surroundings as they kept the enemies’ weapons from tracking them.

Just a little more, Fran prayed, just a little more and-“I’m hit!” Flora’s draque was struck in the tail by a rocket, nearly killing her outright and sending them both into a tailspin. The gunships changed their tactics as quickly as Jinete had. Instead of attacking the riders circling behind them, they attacked whoever wandered into their gunsights, sending gunfire and rockets flying to try and catch them. Fran immediately dove after Flora, but the Cordaeans were out for blood, and even she was under fire before she could reach her. Perspicaz flipped onto its back, shielding Fran from the incoming fire, and suffering massive damage in the process. Fran wasn’t sure she could recover before they slammed into the ground at the rate they were falling.

Suddenly, a brilliant orange light lanced the gunship attacking her, destroying it before she could even process what was happening. Flora was still in danger, so Fran quickly guided Perspicaz out of their fall and caught up to her. That was when she saw Jubilosa rising to the battle. A second shot from the massive draque’s haze gun blew away another gunship.

“Thanks,” Fran said under her breath.

They were dangerously close to the ground, but Flora had partly recovered and she and her draque were bracing for the crash. Just as Fran caught up, she ordered Perspicaz to grab onto them and pull hard. That was enough to dampen the impact, but both draques and their riders were sent tumbling helplessly over dirt and rocks as they landed. Only their rider harnesses kept Fran and Flora in the saddles as the draques flipped and flailed.

Fran was barely conscious when it was over. She wasn’t even certain she’d saved Flora, but both draques were whining and shrieking like the damned as they so often did when they were badly damaged. Fran undid her harness and climbed over to where she hoped Flora was. She was relieved to find the girl, even if bloody and unconscious. She was breathing. That was all that mattered for now. She pulled the slightly charred first-aid kit out of what was left of Flora’s saddle bag and opened it up. Thankfully, the contents were just fine and ready to use.

Just as Fran reached her wounded subordinate, the ember-clad hulk of a gunship came crashing down nearby. She looked up to see another one falling down. It looked like Valencia had things well in hand. The plan had worked. Surveying the field, there were two dozen fires burning, marking the doomed–or soon to be–wrecks of the Cordaean armas, artillery, and gunships. In the distance, Fort Baldi’s own artillery were sounding off, and one by one, the distant fires were fed high explosive ordnance and enveloped in smoke and dust.

“Are you alright, Fran?”

Jubilosa landed with a large thud beside the two riders and Valencia appeared from behind. She carefully climbed over Perspicaz’s twitching limbs and knelt by her sister and Flora.

“That was quite the landing,” she smirked. That was a look only Fran would ever get to see up close.

“I wouldn’t call that a landing, myself,” Fran forced a smile. She hadn’t taken as much of a beating as Flora, but she wouldn’t be able to ignore the pain once the adrenaline wore off. It was already catching up to her. She would be spending the night in a medical tent and she knew it. “Flora survived, but I don’t know what her condition is.”

“We’ll get you both back inside once the assault unit gets here. Good job following the plan.”

“Right, but what about the Calmens?” Fran knew she was out of the fight, but the Calig Ghosts still had to be found.

“Let me worry about that,” Valencia said. Her words weren’t nearly as confident as usual.

Fran knew full well why. Too much time had passed. At this point, they had nothing to go off of and those ghosts might already have fled. Worse, their objectives were completely unknown. Maybe they came to steal something, or maybe they planted bombs all over the fortress. The longer she thought about it, the more uncertain she felt.

“What do you think they want?”

Valencia paused a moment, sparing the approaching assault draques a brief glance before answering. “It’s not Cordoba, at least I don’t think so. I don’t know for certain, but Calig isn’t interested in colossi. For them to attack Fort Baldi in particular could mean any number of things. All I’m sure of is that they used the Cordaean attack as a cover for their own operation. They got a little careless, it seems, but that’s all we know.”

“We really don’t have anything to go off of.”

“Frankly, I’m more interested in the Cordaeans,” Valencia said, “they wouldn’t put so many men at risk just to cover for the ghosts. They played at least one major card for this attack. Now we know they have a secure route deep into at least one area we control and they have an objective at Fort Baldi in particular.”


“Likely. We have to figure out what they know and how they got so much firepower on our doorstep without anyone noticing. First things first. I need to finish securing the base.”

Fran nodded. There were a lot of mysteries to unravel, but the Cordaeans had irrefutably lost this battle.

A tremor shook the ground, throwing Valencia off balance and causing Jubilosa and the other draques to cry out. When the Sandoval sisters looked to the source of the tremors, they were horrified to see a massive plume of fire erupting from the center of Fort Baldi.

“What in the blazes just happened?! A bomb?!”

“Oh God,” Fran breathed, “Are the generals alright?” Was it the Calmens? Had Calig’s Ghosts brought one enormous bomb with them to take out the fort in all the chaos? They were too far away to see the true extent of the destruction.

The riders started radioing anyone they could reach, trying to figure out what was going on inside. Only a handful of calls were coming out of Fort Baldi itself.

“What do we do now?” Fran watched as the bright explosion faded away, leaving a dark shroud over their base. Her thoughts were racing uncontrollably as she tried to wrap her head around the situation.

Valencia slowly tightened her gloves. “Whoever is responsible for this is going to pay. Dearly.”