The battlefield was alive with explosions, shrapnel and little else. The war had raged for only three days but already the front line of the fighting had been rendered lifeless, weapons with no will or vitality of their own either programmed or enchanted to seek out foes had lost the ability to distinguish what a friend looked like.
In their wake, fields that had once been green were scorched ash gray and torn apart.
Val and Jen raced from one crater to the next, each dodging automatic weapon fire with a fleetness that only their rapidly dwindling enchantments could grant them.
“Can you see who’s shooting?” Jen called and they both rolled to their backs on the edge of a crater than provided far too little cover to be considered safe.
“No,” Val said, wrapping a length of duct tape around a grazing wound she’d taken on her leg. “I don’t think the Devouring Eye’s troops could have flanked us like this, unless Tam was wrong on their dreadnaughts still be operational?”
“That wouldn’t be like her,” Jen said. She wrenched one of her fingers back into its socket and turned it 360 degrees so that the threads would catch and hold it in place properly. Her other hand was missing below the wrist but it had been worth it to trade even a nice enchanted silver hand for surviving the grenade that had landed at their feet. “With comms down we can’t check though.”
“Thoughts on how we get out of this?” Val asked, peeking over the lip of crater at the legion of troops advancing through the distant smoke. “We’ve got a company of Law Binders inbound. With James’ primary portal down, and about a legion of other Law Binders sitting on our alternate gateway out, I’m feeling like we’re a little short on exits.”
“If it was just the two of us, this would be trivial,” Jen said. “We could sneak past that primary line and have our pick of escape options.”
“Yeah, but we’ve got three hundred refugees who aren’t going to be so easy to sneak past the army that’s here to kill them,” Val said. She traced a glowing glyph on her arm and flinched as a bomb burst just outside their crater sending a hail of hot rocks peppering over them.
Three more bombs detonated, bracketing the crater Val and Jen were huddled in. They froze as the last one fell and Val finished tracing her arm glyph. Shadows stole up from the earth and wrapped each woman in a cocoon of sheltering night. No eyes could see them and no sensors detect them as long as the mystical darkness shrouded their presence.
After a few minutes of silence, the air above the crater flashed with heat but no light was visible.
“Broad field laser weapons,” Jen said, nodding in approval at the weapons efficiency. One sustained blast put out enough energy to vaporize any human target within two thousand yards. “That complicates things.”
“Yeah, we can’t exactly sneak through those,” Val agreed.
“No, I mean it complicates things for them,” Jen said. “They really should have held those in reserve. Poor tactical management to break them out at this stage.”
“Our enemies can cook everything on this battlefield, us included, and that’s bad for them?” Val asked, a moment before a thought occurred to her. “Oh, wait, I guess it is.”
“Yeah. Area denial weapons are great but they deny the area to your troops as well.”
“Unless you’re troops have armor that will leave them unaffected by the beams,” Val said, understanding where Jen’s thoughts were going.
“Armor that, by its very nature has to offer full body concealment,” Jen said.
Two minutes later the pair was clad head-to-toe in the shimmering, mirror armor worn by the special forces infantry who’d been sent out to neutralize them. The armor wasn’t a perfect fit, but it was close enough that by the time anyone thought to question them, a quick snap kick would make for a viable answer.
“I can get our refugees,” Val said, adjusting her helmet and turning to see if Jen needed any help. “This will let me get through the Law Binders perimeter and from there I can use one of the short distance teleport enchantments Tam gave us before we lost her.”
“Good,” Jen said. There was a tear in one of her sleeves, but the enchanted silver of her current set of arms made the gap in the armor irrelevant. Her arms could protect her from more punishment than a tank’s frontal plates. All the stolen armor needed to do was provide her with a disguise “I can take the Law Bearers primary control nexus down. It would be more efficient to suborn it and issue false orders, but without Sarah…”
“Yeah, I know,” Val said, putting a reassuring hand on Jen’s shoulder. “Opening the Earth as a sanctuary world wasn’t going to be easy but I don’t think any of us fully anticipated what we were getting ourselves into.”
“Anna knew,” Jen said. “She talked with me after we made our original vote on how we were going to handle the Preservers. This kind of warfare? She knew it was exactly the kind of thing we’d been landing in the middle of.”
“She was still in fully favor of it though,” Val said, not having to guess at her absent teammates state of mind.
“She was,” Jen said. “I don’t know if it was that she thought we could handle it based on our past successes or if it was just inevitable.”
“Knowing Anna? A little bit of both probably,” Val said.
She looked out at the blasted wasteland in front of them. It hadn’t even been two weeks since she’d first visited the area and she could almost see the ghost of the green fields rolling before her leading to the quaint hilltop village with cheery little puffs of white smoke coming from a half dozen chimneys.
The reality before her was far bleaker though. The green fields were gone. The village was gone. Even the hill the village had stood on was gone. Wiped out by a merciless force bent on conquest and subjugation.
Exactly the sort of force that Charlene had pledged them against.
Val sighed. She wished, for the hundredth time that she could have been faster, or stronger, or offered better planning options.
“It’s going to be ok,” Jen said.
“No, it’s going to be better,” Val said. “Ok would have been if the people we’re helping didn’t lose their homes.”
“Ok, yeah, that suck,” Jen agreed. “But even if we’ve lost contact with Anna and the rest, you know they’re still working on the problem on the Earth side of things. All we need to do is get those people off this planet and back to ours. Anything past that is a problem for tomorrow, and for more of a team than just you and me.”
Val huffed a short laugh.
“I thought I was supposed to be the one giving pep talks to the newbie,” she said.
“You looked like you needed one more than I did,” Jen said, smiling.
“Have you seen anything like this before?” Val asked, curious about the lack of impact the carnage seemed to have on her companion.
“Exactly like this? No, but I mean we don’t have Law Binders on Earth. Similar to it though? Yeah. I traveled a lot in my training and there’s a lot of places in the world where bad things have happened, and a fair number where they’re happening still. I’ve heard stories from people who’ve lived through some of the worst things that humans have done to each other.”
“Military training is supposed to help with this, but I guess it only goes so far,” Val said. “And I never saw duty in a combat zone. I can’t help thinking what it’s going to be like if one of these groups tries to bring the fight over to us.”
“It’ll be ugly. People will get hurt. Probably a lot will die. From what Tam and Sarah have worked out though it sounds like that will mostly be on the invaders side.”
“Yeah, and that makes sense I guess. Moving troops isn’t easy under the best of conditions, and this would be harder than shooting a company of them to the Moon.”
“Speaking of which,” Jen said. “We’re going to need to make sure that the stable portal we have Tam and Sarah open for our refugees gets taken down thoroughly, so the Law Binders can’t send a few squads through after us. That’s going to mean someone needs to stay behind here, makes sure it’s closed, then finds their own portal back. I know you have seniority here, but I’d like to be the one to do that since I was part of the initial team that connected with these people.”
It was a reasonable argument, but Val was still going to refuse it and claim the responsibility for herself until an even better idea came to her.
“Just meet me at the refugees hold out,” Val said. “I have a short detour to make first, then we can all get out of here.”
Jen almost felt bad about taking down the control nexus. None of the people inside were carrying the sort of enchantments she bore and so it was less of a battle to overwhelm the forces present and more of a trivial chore. Kick here, head butt there, a leg sweep just to mix things up. Most of them didn’t even get the chance to reach for their weapons before they were on the ground and unconscious.
The only members of the aggressor force Jen put a lasting hurt on were the ones who carried the insignia of the Law Binder’s Inquisitors. The refugees had painted a frighteningly clear picture of the atrocities the Inquisitors were responsible for and given that their standard weapon loadout included variable setting pain sticks and vials of flesh dissolving “Confession Enhancers”, Jen had little trouble believing the accusations were true.
With their commander out of commission and the Law Binder’s central nexus a burning ruin, Jen’s run back to the refugee’s hold out was a thankfully untroubled one. The troops acted on the last orders they’d received by thanks to the work she and Val had done which had left them stranded on the wrong side of the Law Binder’s advancing forces, the army’s troops were all marching in the wrong direction to find their quarry.
Checking with an aerial spirit to make sure she was unobserved, Jen sprinted the last quarter mile to the hold out and arrived to find the refugees all prepped and waiting within the transit circle Tam had drawn on the ground before stepping back to Earth to setup the matching circle there.
Everything was ready. Except for Val, who was nowhere to be found.
A wall of the stadium sized hidden venue exploded and in drove one of the Law Bringers Laser Pulse Field Tanks.
Jen lept at the tank, her few remaining enchantment glyphs blazing. She didn’t have enough left to destroy the tank, and she probably wasn’t fast enough to get inside before it fired and killed everyone in the building, but she had to try.
Or maybe she didn’t.
Halfway through her flight, Val popped out of the top of tank.
“Sorry! Little late!” she said. “Time to go though!”
Jen landed on the side of the tank and shook her head.
“What did you do?”
“Grand Theft Tank? Is that a thing?” Val asked. “We really have to leave though. Like now.”
The two of them sprinted towards the refugees, each activating the emergency recall glyphs they carried. The primary teleportal had been destroyed, and the alternate mana reserve to power the emergency portal had been overrun by Law Binders. That left only using their personal teleport glyphs inside the unpowered confines of Tam’s emergency portal and hoping Tam could find the magic needed to power the entire affair from her sanctum on Earth.
“The portal’s going to remain open if we don’t close it,” Jen said.
“I don’t think so,” Val said. “Remember how Tam said nuking a portal was a really bad idea because the portal stays open but it’s orientation is shifted off into warp space or something?”
“Wait, a nuke?” Jen said. “What did you do?”
“Those Laser Tanks put out a lot of power,” Val said. “I don’t know the math, but I know it’s enough to make a really big boom.”
“You fed its output back in on itself!” Jen said, listening for, and hearing, the high pitched whine of a reactor going critical.
“Yep. I think we have about a minute and then this place is going to be glass.”
“Think Tam can get us back in a minute?” Jen asked, pressing her glyph tighter against the ground.
“Definitely,” Val said. “But that reactor is sounding a bit louder than…”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence before a blinding flash burst over them.
When her eyes cleared three hundred refugees, plus herself, Jen, Tam, Anna, and the rest were standing in the middle of a football field whose stands were on fire.
“Made it out in plenty of time,” Val said and swayed back in Aranea’s arms.