Waseda Hills, Luthien,

Pesht Military District, Draconis Combine,

04th January, 3052

"Take that Archer!" Deserk heard Descartin shout as the Inner Sphere freebirth stood unmoving in the middle of the road, as though daring them to destroy it.

He could see other Inner Sphere mechs behind the Archer, all holding back for some strange reason. No matter, that audacious Archer would go first. His hands drifted the crosshairs over the Archer, as he prepared to send it to wherever freebirths go to when they die.

The crosshairs dropped over the heavy mech. No lock. He cursed the computer once, pushed the tiny cursor on the screen up and then back down onto the Archer again. No lock!

"Stravag!" Deserk yelled, wishing he could hit his panel in frustration. He fired his large pulse lasers anyway, trusting to his own skills to get it on target.

They missed, passing by more than 4 meters to the sides of the Archer, and for all of his skill, he might as well have been shooting at a target twenty kilometers away. Deserk's eyes bugged out for a while, before he looked around. Then he saw he was not the only one to miss. Everything from missiles, autocannon rounds to particle beams were tossed at the hulking Archer, but they all flew past the mech.

Then the Archer started to move, and the grace of the mech as it strode to one side was both impressive and terrifying. Deserk could not recall ever seeing anyone move that way. Not ever. Not by Star Colonel Nostra, not even by saKhan Lucian Carns himself.

The missile racks on either side of the Archer's torso popped open, and the gleam of missile tips from the bays was engulfed in smoke as the LRMs screamed out at an Ice Ferret.

The Ice Ferret literally disintegrated under the barrage of missiles as every single one punched through the center torso armor. Deserk felt his blood turn cold at the sheer speed of the omnimech's death. That is impossible! His mind screamed at him.

"Flank it!" Deserk ordered his star. "Watch for its missiles!"

Descartin shouted back, "Forget about its missiles, more incoming!" Deserk looked up in time to see a gleaming cloud fall upon the Nova Cats. He had time only to think of one word. Freebirth.

His Mad Dog was tossed about from the shockwave of multiple missile hits as they smashed in, and Deserk watched his armor status go from green to yellow as missile after missile stripped away the mech's protection. He gripped his control sticks tightly, concentrating on sending the proper signals through the neurohelmet to his massive gyroscopes to keep the Mad Dog standing.

More missiles continued to rain from the sky, pummeling mechs all along the Nova Cat advance. Few were destroyed, but most were battered by the metal storm.

Meanwhile, the Archer was still standing, launching wave after wave of LRMs at damaged Nova Cat mechs, or using its arm mounted lasers to surgically slice apart opponents who had approached too closely. Deserk could not believe his eyes as he inspected it visually. It was untouched! Out of more than a hundred shots at it, and he could not believe there was not a single hit!

"Descartin, I am going in against the Archer! Cover me!" Without waiting for a response, he ran the Mad Dog in. Perhaps he would have a better chance of getting a weapons lock in close.

He forced his way through another hail of missiles. By Kerensky, they never seem to stop falling! His armor was beginning to show red all over, and several waves of vertigo washed over him as another salvo caught out a leg actuator.

Deserk cursed fervently and shook off his nausea, but he kept the Mad Dog shambling towards the Archer. He pressed down on all his weapons studs, trying desperately to get at least something to hit the stravag freebirth. Not surprisingly, his streak systems failed to lock, his LRMs veered somewhere off to the right of the Archer, while his large pulse lasers peppered the ground before it impotently, spraying up glassy beads formed from the laser's heat.

"Deserk, pull back!" Descartin shouted. "That Archer will tear you apart!"

Ignoring his sibkin, Deserk charged on. If only he could get close enough to fire at point blank ranges…

The Archer seemed to have noticed him, and it stepped back slightly, before its missile racks erupted in fire and smoke again. Deserk flinched back in his seat instinctively, before he noticed that he was not the target of those missiles.

They crashed into a Warhawk behind him, shattering the cockpit of the assault design. The powerful omnimech toppled slowly to the ground, bereft of a living mind to keep it upright.

Then Deserk realized the Archer had not forgotten him after all. Its lasers came up flashing, and they carved into his engine shielding like a hot blade. The heat in his cockpit surged like a wave, nearly overwhelming him.

The Mad Dog tottered forward. Deserk tried to focus his eyes through the smoke rising from the cooking circuits and his own sweating body. The targeting systems were fizzling out, and the communications band was filled with static from the outpour of radiation from the leaking reactor.

He thumbed his triggers, the buttons slick with sweat from his fingers. Again, the streak systems failed to get a lock, and the LRMs splattered uselessly against the rocks around the Archer. The pulse lasers went upwards and stayed up this time, no matter how Deserk tried to swerve the barrels back down towards the Archer.

The heat warning klaxons were all going off in a wailing scream, saturating his eardrums, but none of that mattered as the Archer attacked again with its lasers.

The brilliant beams scoured away more of his engine shielding, and Deserk could feel his mech falling apart underneath his seat. Then he saw the indicators flashing at him, warning of catastrophic containment failure.

In other words, the Mad Dog was about to go 'BOOM'.

Deserk did not hesitate, reaching under his seat for the ejection clasp and pulling hard with a sudden jerk even as the thrumming roar from the bleeding engine under him started to rise in pitch, climaxing in a high pitched crescendo, even as his seat was jettisoned out of the cockpit.

He could barely see a thing as his senses were engulfed in the wind snapping all around him, the sounds of battle around his ears, and then a burst of heat from under him.

Deserk blacked out as the shockwave from the explosion of his engine's destruction hit him.

"Deserk!" Descartin yelled uselessly as he saw his sibkin's Mad Dog go down. He sidestepped the Timber Wolf to his left even as more missiles rained down on his position.

He tried to look for an ejection seat, but the explosions around the Mad Dog obscured his view, even as he fired another volley at the stravag Archer. They all missed.

"Star Captain! Move aside! We are taking too many losses! Flank 450 meters to the left! Perhaps we can slip past them there!" Star Colonel Nostra sounded more than a bit desperate, which struck Descartin as an ominous sign.

We are clan, we cannot fail… Descartin could not believe what he was hearing. In effect, Nostra was already conceding the present battle to the red and black mechs! It was intolerable!

Descartin was half tempted to shout for them to hold their ground, or at least long enough for their elementals to retrieve their warriors, but he bit it back. There would be more than enough time when they have captured Imperial City.

He watched as two more heavy omnimechs charged at the Archer, only to be smashed by two close assault lances. Autocannons and PPCs flashed in, rending apart armor and structure, leaving only melted corpses at the Archer's feet.

A frustrated Descartin switched targets, changing to an Axman. He fired his PPCs, and grunted in satisfaction as the Axman staggered back from the impacts of the particle bolts on its torso, the heavy ax on its right arm slumping back down in surprise at the violence of his attack.

The vengeful Kell Hound counterattack sent him scrambling back as missile after missile descended on his location, his anti-missile system working overtime to defend the Timber Wolf from the deadly hail, spitting out a fusillade of rapid cannon fire.

For all of the Nova Cats' efforts, they had only destroyed about two lances of mercenaries in exchange for a full trinary. Descartin was dismayed to see that he had lost Deserk and two other warriors from his trinary.

The cluster shifted away from the deadly Archer, trying to flank the dogged defenders. A company of Kell Hounds opposed them as they charged past the hills, with the rest pouring down fire down the flank of the Nova Cat advance from their entrenched positions. Descartin led the way forward, trying not to think of Deserk as he sighted in on a Ostsol.

He unleashed a full salvo of PPC bolts, followed up by three of his medium lasers. The Ostsol fell backwards as its right leg was severed by one of the PPC bolts, but not before it hit back with a volley of laser blasts.

The pulse laser darts nibbled away at his armor, but Descartin paid it little heed as he continued the Timber Wolf on its path, barely pausing to feed the prone Ostsol another dose of laser fire as he passed it. It scrabbled on the ground, trying to prop itself up to fire, but the loss of one arm made that an impossible task.

His way was blocked by another mercenary mech, this time a Whitworth. Descartin did not even bother to fire his weapons this time. He pushed his throttle to the maximum, straining every last bit of speed out of his mech as he leaned the forward carapace of the Timber Wolf forward in a charge straight for the Whitworth, the arms held low, the legs pumping for all they were worth. If I can get under the LRM envelope… he thought.

Descartin braced for the impact even as the Whitworth launched its LRMs at him, the missiles flying past his Timber Wolf. Then the Timber Wolf took one last bone jarring step before slamming into the medium mech, which jostled Descartin violently in his straps.

The Whitworth crumpled away from the Timber Wolf for several meters as it was flung back by the imparted momentum from the Timber Wolf. It sent up a cloud of dust as it slid along the ground, before stopping to lay very still on the ground, the armor dented and bent from the charge.

Descartin had barely kept the Timber Wolf upright from the collision, but he paused for a moment over the cockpit of the Whitworth. He loomed over the fallen mercenary mech, one PPC barrel aimed at the vital head section and he was sorely tempted to blow it to bits, in vengeance for the loss of Deserk. He trembled with rage. If he could not take the Archer, then he will settle for the life of this warrior.

But something else spoke to him. No, there is no honor in killing a defeated foe. This is not the way of the Nova Cat. He forced himself to take a deep breath, and turned the Timber Wolf away.

His short pause did not go unnoticed. Sazur said, "Sir, we are almost past the Waseda Hills, and heading into the Kado-Guchi Valley. We must make haste towards the Imperial City, before the defenders can gather more strength." Descartin noted the gentle rebuke in his subordinate's words.

"Into the valley then." Descartin ordered. "Third Assault, forward."

He told himself to forget about Deserk and concentrate on the fight. And left the red and black Archer behind them.

They charged into the valley, the thick woods around them as they spied the gleaming city in the distance, their ultimate objective. They were now just 5 kilometers away. The wide bottomed valley ran on for about 2 kilometers, then opened out onto the Kado-Guchi Plains, leading finally to Imperial City.

Elsewhere, Descartin knew the battle was not going well. The rest of the mercenaries had managed to tie up the other clusters with stop and go engagements, prolonging the fight and allowing their air wings more time to hit their lines.

One other cluster, the Nova Cat Lancers, had managed to follow them through on their flanking march. The rest were bogged down in the hills, slugging it out with the mercenaries, while the Smoke Jaguars prowled behind, awaiting an opportunity to break through. Another cluster was pinning down the Kell Hounds, and Descartin hoped they would be able to destroy the Archer.

Faint hope of that, he admitted to himself.

In any case, it was up to the 449th and the Lancers to break through the remaining defenders. If they could crush all resistance in the valley, then the mercenaries would have no choice but to fall back if they wanted to continue the defense of the city, which in turn would allow the rest of the clan to advance forwards.

"Star Colonel, I am detecting mechs on the valley slopes. They are not moving." Somebody reported.

"Star Captain Descartin, confirm?" Nostra asked.

Descartin looked at his sensors. Sure enough, there were mechs standing on the valley slopes. From the seismic scans, a good portion of them were above medium class. Strangely, none of them were moving.

"Aff, there are mechs there. We engage, quiaff?" Descartin studied the slopes warily. Charging up the valley slope would not be easy, especially when faced with that many heavy and assault designs.

"Neg. Continue. The Imperial City is our main objective. If they want to stop us, they will have to abandon the high ground. Go on, but be ready if they attack."

Descartin nodded, though the action would not be seen by Nostra. The Timber Wolf started forward again, but Descartin kept the mech's torso twisted slightly to the side facing the unknown mechs. The head of the line of Nova Cat mechs was only 4 kilometers away when the battle was rejoined.

Without any warning, the line of mechs suddenly surged down the slopes. Prepared as they were for this eventuality, the Nova Cats were still stunned by the force and speed of the assault.

Descartin saw a Phoenix Hawk lead the charge down the slopes, followed closely by a Grand Dragon, moving at almost a hundred kilometers an hour. He snapped off a shot at the fourth mech in line, a Crockett. One PPC bolt missed, but the other burned into the left torso. The assault mech shook off the hit, and continued down the into the valley.

"Brace yourselves!" Descartin snapped at his trinary as the gold painted mechs slammed into their lines. He did not know if any of them received his order, but the battle swept over him, and he could hardly care less as he threw himself wholeheartedly into the inferno.

The Crockett came on at him, and Descartin drew his lips back in a snarl as he spun the Timber Wolf to his left, whipping up his right PPC even as he ignited his jets to carry him to his left in a burst of plasma flame. The Crockett adjusted its course to continue chasing his mech, its broad feet sending up stone and gravel as they sought purchase on the ground.

They fired at the exact same moment, the air between them filled with PPC, laser and autocannon fire.

Descartin blasted with his PPC and the full array of lasers, with only two laser beams passing low and above the Crockett. The PPC slammed into one of the arms, while the lasers produced molten scars all over the Crockett.

In turn, the Timber Wolf was buffeted by a variety of laser fire. Then the Crockett's LBX cannon shotgun followed up with a burst of cluster rounds. Descartin cursed as one round streaked into his cockpit, the high velocity pellets punching through the plexiglass window and sending shrapnel into his legs.

"Freebirth!" He shouted as he slammed on a shutdown override switch. The heat in the Timber Wolf was rising to near boiling temperature levels, and still rising as he sucked in air greedily.

All around him was pandemonium as Nova Cat and Luthien defender mixed it up at melee ranges. The Nova Cats seemed to have forgotten about zellbrigen as they fired at whatever target was closest at hand. Mech after mech exploded or went down as limbs were destroyed, yet everybody fought on grimly.

The Crockett was also overheating, but it blasted away with its full arsenal, as though intent on skewering the Timber Wolf. Descartin kept the sluggish omnimech moving, firing his PPCs constantly, seeking that one knockout hit. It never came, but the Crockett lost a great deal of armor as the battle continued.

Yet as the fighting continued, Descartin noted a slackening of fire between both sides as the bulk of the Kuritan defenders moved away to the south. The Nova Cats were more than willing to allow them to move away, while concentrating their fire on the remaining mechs in range. The Nova Cats also moved back, in order to better taken advantage of their longer range. Descartin could not figure out why this was so. They had to know fighting like this is suicidal. The Crockett drifted out of range, which was slightly frustrating, but also a relief, as he could allow his mech to cool down.

The reason for their actions became apparent a moment later. "Mechs approaching from the south!" Yegro reported from his Ice Ferret, miraculously still in the fight. "It is the mercenaries!"

What? Descartin could hardly believe what he was hearing. The mercenaries were supposed to be back in the hills holding back the main advance. In any case, that they had abandoned their positions meant that the balance of the Nova Cat force would be able to enter the valley as well.

But in the meantime, they were trapped between two enemy forces. Nostra knew it too.

"Everybody charge to the west! Break past their lines into the city!" He shouted.

"Aff!" Descartin replied along with the other clan officers as they brought their mechs back up to full flank speed. Then Descartin realized from his displays with dismay that the other Combine and mercenary units had managed to ring their position, however momentarily with the remainder of their surviving units.

If only for a brief time, they had two clusters of Nova Cats completely at their mercy.

"Go! Go! Go!" Descartin screamed, adrenaline pumping through his veins as they smashed into the mechs that had started the battle in the valley.

The Combine defenders held their ground resolutely, matching the Nova Cats blow for blow. Sazur's Warhawk crashed into a Phoenix Hawk, folding the smaller mech and throwing it backwards even as Descartin blasted an already damaged Hunchback into oblivion with his lasers while enduring vicious counter-fire from a Cyclops.

The elementals had been dropped into the midst of the whirling charge, and they also served notice of their threat as they swarmed mech after mech. However, Descartin could see that it was too little, too late.

The mercenaries did not hold back this time, closing quickly to savage the Nova Cats. As he engaged a Panther, Descartin saw a Grand Dragon decapitate a Dire Wolf with a well placed shot to the head. He did not take solace in the Panther's destruction as he tore it apart with another laser barrage. It replied just before dying with its PPC and a spread of missiles, all of which hit his Timber Wolf. The PPC removed the remaining armor on his right torso, while the SRM missiles streaked in unopposed by his anti-missile system, which had run out of ammunition while engaging the Crockett.

"Can I hitch a ride?" A voice came over his radio.

Descartin turned to see an ebony black elemental bound away from a ruined Kell Hound mech towards his Timber Wolf. He could also see the other members of its point scattered in half melted pieces around the dead mech. Only one elemental in the entire galaxy used such a distinctive motif.

"Be my guest, Santin West. We are out of here." Descartin said firmly. The elemental gratefully clung onto one of the few remaining handholds on the battered Timber Wolf. Descartin quickly ran the Timber Wolf away before anyone else decided that it was a good target to shoot at.

The few survivors of the cluster managed to break away right beside him. The rest of the Combine defenders did not seem inclined to pursue them, instead regrouping in the valley, probably to receive the rest of the clan forces.

The remaining few from the 449th and the Nova Cat Lancers had gathered on the Kado-Guchi Plains, just outside Imperial City,.

"Star Descartin, what is the status of your trinary?" Nostra asked. Descartin looked to his right to see Nostra's Executioner. It had definitely seen far better days, having lost an arm in the vicious fighting.

It took Descartin a short moment to ally up his losses, and he was shocked at the extent of damage his trinary had suffered. They were now down to less than half strength with only 5 mechs, and the remaining mechs were all badly damaged, including his own Timber Wolf, which had suffered internal damage. They had given all they got, but it was still not enough.

And Deserk was still dead. As he looked around the battered force, Descartin felt his anger swell. It was not supposed to be like this! Their crusade was supposed to sweep over the Combine, not bogged down into furious slugfests!

"What is our next step?" Sazur asked. There was a note of resignation in his voice, sign that he had already conceded defeat.

Descartin would have none of that.

Nostra said, "We enter Imperial City. That should be enough to ensure the surrender of House Kurita."

"Wait a minute." Descartin was puzzled. "How in Kerensky's name does holding Imperial City mean victory if everything that really matters is still in the valley?"

Nostra sighed. "Our orders from the Khan. Capture the city. Destroy their industry."

"With what?" Descartin shot back. "Two binaries? No. I say we march back to the valley. If we can time our attack at the correct moment, we might be able to create enough disruption in the Combine lines…"

"Neg. Those are our orders…"

The anger over Deserk's death finally boiled over. "To Amaris with those orders! I am telling you right now that there is nothing to be accomplished by attacking the city! Besides, to destroy those facilities is wasteful!"

Santin West cut in, "I agree with Star Captain Descartin. If we are to defeat the Dragon, we must capture or kill Takashi or Theodore Kurita, who must be on the field right now. Just taking the city, even if we succeed, is moot if the rest of our forces are destroyed."

Nostra seemed to sense that he was losing control of the situation, and he started to move his mech towards the outskirts of the city. "I will not bandy words with you any longer. I aim to fulfill my duty, and that duty calls for me to attack the city. If any of you wish to disobey my orders, I promise to challenge you to a Trial of Grievance once the battle is won."

"Stay with me, and we can win the battle," Descartin insisted to no avail as a trinary's worth of troops followed the Star Colonel's mech. "Freebirth, we can do this!" Descartin punched his console hard in frustration. "Stravag!" He shouted in anger.

Only 4 mechs and a point of elementals remained with him.

"Star Captain West, take that Centurion!" Descartin shouted as he pressed the attack into the rear of the Combine defenders. The elementals swarmed over the mech eagerly, tearing away armor and nibbling at the internals structure. The Kell Hound Centurion swatted desperately at the elementals on it, and managed to punch away one elemental, which was sent flying for almost twenty meters before rolling to a stop. It laid very still.

The remaining elementals hung on, and Santin West managed to tear away a particularly vulnerable leg actuator, which sent the mech crashing to the ground.

"Next!" The fearless elemental shouted as he bounded away for another target.

Descartin unleashed a barrage of lasers into the fallen Centurion, blowing away the arms and legs. It would take no further part in the battle.

Their entry into the battle had come as a nasty surprise to the Combine defenders. So far, Descartin could count at least a company of mechs, both mercenary and Combine, that had fallen to his makeshift Star.

If only he had two binaries with him. Then he would be sure of their chances of turning the tide.

As it was, their effort seemed too little. The display of firepower in the valley astounded him, and he saw entire clusters and regiments pound away in an orgy of mutual destruction.

"Head northeast," Descartin ordered, "That will take us into the hills. The positions there might be better." At least, he hoped so. He had no illusions of his unit's survival once one of the Inner Sphere units decided to go after them. Their success so far was all due to surprise. Now they had to get back to their own lines.

Skirting the edges of the battle, his star moved quickly, led by Yegro's Ice Ferret with West's elementals clinging on for dear life as they traveled at more than a hundred kilometers per hour.

A few dots appeared on his radar. Descartin saw only 4 dots. Easy pickings, he decided.

"Yegro, flank 600 meters to the left. The rest of you, follow me in."

He changed his mind once the enemy came in sight. In front of them was the red and black Archer, along with a Wolfhound, a Marauder, and a Wolverine.

Descartin had no doubt they meant to destroy his force utterly.

"Stand off!" He shouted. If his guess was right, the Archer should be out of LRMs by now. If they could stay far away enough, their long range weapons should be able to take down its compatriots. "Keep away, and for Kerensky's sake, do not fire on the Archer!"

Sazur blasted away with his two PPCs on the right arm of his mech, the left arm weapons of his Warhawk having been blown off earlier. Both shots missed the fast moving Wolverine.

Descartin fired at the Wolfhound, connecting with one PPC on the heavily armored center. The light mech fired back with its large laser, punching through his torso armor. Sirens wailed in his cockpit as they warned of an engine breach.

Followed by the others, Descartin moved his mech around the Inner Sphere force, taking pains to avoid the deadly Archer that was moving up to block their path of retreat back to their lines.

He sweated bullets as the two forces engaged in a race, the Kell Hounds trying to deny them a run home by moving laterally across their path of advance, while his own troops tried to stay away, wary of the Archer's ability to pick apart their mechs. Only Yegro's Ice Ferret was fast enough to hook around the Kell Hound position, and awaited them on the far side.

Descartin found himself squaring off with the Wolfhound again and again. While normally his Timber Wolf should be able to destroy hordes of light mechs like the Wolfhound, the damage he had already taken in the battle meant that even its inferior large laser was capable of inflicting critical damage on his mech.

The Wolfhound pilot was also extraordinarily good, hitting with his large laser more often than not, while Descartin's own PPCs missed far more often. Descartin ignored the numerous warnings of armor breach, heat sink loss, and actuator damage as red lights gradually appeared all over his console.

The Wolfhound finally went down as he managed to destroy the right leg, but he had also lost practically all the weapons on the right side of his mech. The other Kell hounds had been forced back by the clansmen firepower, except for the Archer, which came on stubbornly.

And Descartin realized, into range of its medium lasers.

The lasers sliced into Sazur's Warhawk, tearing away the right arm and leaving Sazur completely weaponless. Sazur scrambled backwards, shouting for help.

I need to buy time for the others. "Everybody, break past the Archer, I will try to occupy it for as long as possible!" Descartin stomped on his foot pedals, sending the Timber Wolf flying towards the Archer. He fired his remaining PPC at the apex of his jump.

The PPC scored a hit, flensing away armor on the left torso.

"That was for Deserk, freebirth!" Descartin shouted in exultation. The Archer could be hit!

But its lasers pounded away at the already crippled Timber Wolf, seeking out the vulnerable innards of the mech. Descartin twisted his mech from side to side, even as he saw the rest of his command rejoin Yegro on the far side of the hills.

Another status light for a heat sink winked from green to red. Descartin resisted the urge to wipe off the sweat pouring down into his eyes as he dueled with the Archer.

He was able to connect with some shots now that they were at point blank ranges, but it was too late. The Archer tore into him, slicing away actuators and engine shielding, along with his weapons. His cockpit was bathed in red as they spoke of the tremendous damage his Timber Wolf had endured.

A laser beam cut into his left leg, crippling the hip actuator just as Descartin was putting all the weight of the mech on that leg as he tried to turn to his left. The Timber Wolf crashed to the ground.

"Stravag!" He cursed as he was bounced around in his cockpit. He tried to get the Timber Wolf up, but it had taken too much damage. It refused to move, the internal structure groaning as Descartin shuffled on the ground, trying to avoid the killing shot. He waited anxiously for the killing blow that never came.

His radio suddenly crackled with life. "All Nova Cats, this is Khan Leroux. Retreat! Retreat!"

Descartin stared at his sensors. The Nova Cats were indeed leaving the field to their enemies.

He peered out of his cockpit window, cracked into several spiderweb-like patterns by previous hits. The Kell Hounds were also pulling back. Evidently, they had also heard the order from Khan Leroux. The Archer was walking away instead of finishing him off. Descartin leaned back tiredly in his seat, panting for breath as he tried to gather his wits to get up again.

Several minutes later, he rejoined the grievously short line of Nova Cats back to their dropships.

"Damn you to Amaris, Star Colonel," Descartin stared hard at Thaddeus Nostra. "If only you had done what I had suggested, we could have won the battle!"

He wanted to take a swing at his superior officer, but he was too tired to do so, and the 2Gs the dropship was pulling made that a difficult ask anyway.

Nostra sighed heavily. "I admit it, I should have done that, but orders are orders."

"If anyone is to be blamed, it should be me," The strong voice of Severen Leroux entered the small debrief cabin as the Khan of the Nova Cats walked in, followed by the massive bulk of Santin West. "I was the one who gave Colonel Nostra his orders. Evidently, I had misjudged the tenacity and valor of the Inner Sphere warriors. Do you wish to seek redress, Star Captain Descartin?"

Descartin wanted to look up and glare at his Khan. He wanted to jump up and strangle the life of the man who had cost them the battle, but he was too disheartened to do so. Dejected, he looked down at the metal floor of the room.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Santin West, offering him a tattered unit patch of the Otomo with the other hand.

"One battle does not a war make, my friend. There will be other battles, other victories."

Yes, he told himself silently as he accepted the vineer, and one of these days, I will kill that Archer pilot. For he was the one who had cost us the most.

"Sir, there's another one here!"

Woken by the shout, Deserk opened his eyes drowsily from the ruins of his ejection seat. He saw the treetop canopy above him, and the memory of the battle flew back into his consciousness.

What the… He sat up abruptly, just in time to see a laser rifle pointed at him by a blue clad infantryman. He stard into the dark barrel of the weapon, wondering if the freebirth would shoot him.

The infantryman was chewing a white elongated object with smoke coming out from one end, and he spoke languidly, "Hello, Nova Cat. Well, I suppose there's no harm in telling you right here and now that you're henceforth a bondsman of the Wolf Dragoons."