The next morning, Corecear woke to someone violently shaking his shoulder.
"Corecear! I fixed your comm! You've gotta get up. Now!"
The military officer sat up and rubbed his eyes before having the com handed to him by Gersemi. He slid the gauntlet back onto his wrist and tapped a few buttons on the side. Almost instantly, static came through the small speaker built into the device.
He looked up, grinning, at Gersemi. "You did it! I can get us out of here now."
The refugees were overjoyed at the news. Xander scooped up Oriole and twirled around with her in his arms as she laughed. Ekram and Gersemi took Mina's small hands and danced with her. Idris swept Achada up in an embrace, the usually stoic man overtaken by the emotion of the moment. Arvid simply sat on a log and polished one of her pistols.
Corecear was content just to watch how happy the group was. This was why he had joined the Invictus. To give the wronged their lives back.
Eventually, everyone calmed down and gathered around Corecear to listen in on his request for transport.
Pressing a button on the gauntlet, he waited until the static returned. Then, he tapped a code into the system and waited. Soon, someone answered.
It was a rough, scratchy voice due to the feedback, but it was clearly feminine. "Identify yourself."
Corecear responded, " This is Lieutenant General Corecear of the Folium battalion. The passcode is verus. I am surrounded by friendlies. No enemies in sight. Requesting transport for myself and nine others."
There was a pause on the end of the line before the voice replied, "It is a pleasure to find you alive, Lieutenant General. I am curious as to the origins of the nine others."
"Survivors of the bombing of Lefat. They are ready for evacuation, as am I."
"What is your current location?"
Corecear looked up at the sun, and took note of its position against the mountains far ahead of them. He rattled off a few landmark names, and waited for the delayed response.
"I will send airships to retrieve you in less than an hour. Do you still have a flare?"
After a nod from Achada, he said he did.
"Prepare for retrieval."
"Thank you, Commander.
"I expect to see you before midday. Good work locating the survivors. I will question you on your mission upon your return. Commander signing off."
Their meager collection of belongings was packed and ready to go. Achada finally returned all of Corecear's weapons back to him from under the bush she had stashed them. He picked out his flare and they set off for the nearest hill, about a mile away.
Adish seethed the entire time. What the Hell were they getting themselves into? Achada and Idris were suddenly friends, now, too? What was wrong with everyone? Were they all insane?
He refused to speak to anyone, withdrawing into his simmering thoughts of hatred and jealousy. His young face creased with disgust. He didn't have to go with them, but where else did he have to go? The woods were almost uninhabitable in the winter, and in the summer, were unbearably hot. Now, in the prime of spring, it was around seventy degrees, but the torrential rain towards the end of the season would probably be his death.
No, he would continue on with the rest of them. He couldn't do anything else. Hopefully, if things turned out badly, he would be the one to shoot Corecear straight between his malicious green eyes.
Then, they would all see.
The refugees reached the hill a few hours before noon. Scanning the skies, they waited for the airship to arrive.
It was Mina who saw it first. Her bandaged face prevented her from being loud, but she ran over to Idris and pulled on his knee. Looking down at the girl from his immense height, he jerked his gaze to the spot in the sky she was frantically pointing at. The airship was dipping down now, skimming the treetops in search of them.
Idris jogged over to Corecear. In his deep, baritone voice, he exclaimed, "The ship has arrived! When are you going to shoot the flare?"
"Probably as soon as the ship turns this way. We only have one flare, so we can't waste it."
The group watched the airship as it turned, heading towards them. Corecear struck a match and lit the flare's fuse, watching as it shot up into the sky and exploded into a blood red orb which floated above their location. The ship adjusted its flight, and made its way straight towards them. Soon, it was so close, the group could feel the wind from the propeller blades.
That's when Corecear realized it wasn't one of the Invictus's airships.
He shouted, "Duck!" and flattened Mina under him. The airship unloaded a dozen soldiers and flew higher up. Arvid pulled out her pistols and tossed one to Idris. Achada fearfully grabbed her only remaining medical tool: a scalpel. She was trained to heal, not kill.
Corecear stood and tossed the girl on her side, and she rolled down the hill to scramble into the brush. He then readied his rifle and found he was out of grenades.
The soldiers were armed with automatic weapons, and were trained from childhood not to value human lives. Their cold eyes and ice blue uniforms intimidated the group. These were the people they had been running from for weeks.
The soldiers stepped forward, and one dropped dead. A hole between his eyes trickled blood from Arvid's shot. The others quickly loaded their weapons in unison and fired.
There was little cover on the hill- just small trees and a boulder here and there. Most of the refugees made it behind shelter in time, but Oriole was hit in the back at the base of her spine. She fell screaming to the ground, blood already soaking through the back of her shirt.
Achada watched in horror from a nearby boulder as the young girl thrashed on the ground. She saw Xanthus, across from her, start towards Oriole. She frantically signaled for him to go back to the tree he hid behind, but he darted out and dragged the girl back, getting shot in the calf in the process. He clutched the wound, biting his lip to keep from screaming that it began to bleed.
Corecear and Adish were returning fire along with Idris and Arvid. The only soldier casualty had been Arvid's shot. They were already low on ammo, while the enemy had small boxes of it attached to their belts. Things were not looking good.
Adish's eyes glanced from the soldiers to Corecear's face. It would be an easy shot- it would look like a soldier's shot to everyone else. Just one quick movement of his finger...
And the other man ducked just as Adish took his shot. The bullet glanced off the boulder Corecear was taking shelter behind. He turned to give Adish a shocked look before shouting, "TURN AROUND!"
Adish turned in time to see a rifle before it smashed into his face. He fell unconscious to the ground. Corecear quickly fired, killing the soldier. He whirled back to face the others. It was practically hopeless.
She had been watching the attack helplessly, without a ranged weapon to use. Her scalpel was clutched tightly in her hand. Achada had never been so scared before in her life. Then, a gloved hand swiftly clamped over her mouth. She tried to scream for help, but couldn't make a sound. She hesitated, then twisted her arm around and stabbed her captor in the stomach with the scalpel. She twisted the medical instrument deep into his abdoment. His grip weakened, and Achada pushed him off. It was a Rebellion soldier clad in blue. He was gurgling strangely now. Achada kneeled over him, horrified. He locked his eyes onto hers, and she saw a flicker of a human emotion- fear. Then, he was dead. She had killed someone.
All hope was almost lost when the Invictus airship finally arrived. Roaring down upon the opposing soldiers, several people clad in green jumped out of the ship. They forced the Rebellion troops down the hill, foot by foot, as the medics loaded the refugees onto the airship.
The airship once again shot off, flying as quickly as possible. The Rebellion ship was nowhere in sight.
Medics were swarming around Oriole and Adish. The girl wasn't screaming anymore- she had passed out not too long ago. Adish wasn't moving.
Blood spattered the metal floor. It had been a bloody battle, and a few soldiers were missing from the Invictus forces. As things began to settle, the troops relaxed a bit and saluted Corecear. He returned the gesture.
Nina's face was free from her bandage, but it wasn't healing well. There was a large slash running down one side of her face just barely missing her eye. The small girl was quickly becoming a favorite among the medical staff. She never stopped smiling, and loved to laugh. She spotted Corecear and gave him a gleeful wave. Grinning a bit himself, he waved back.
Turning, he made his way through the airship. It was quite a large airship, large enough to provide living spaces to around fifty people. Pacing down the narrow hallways, he eventually found Achada sitting alone, gazing out a porthole window.
He hesitantly took a seat next to her on the ground. She held her knees against her chest and was resting her head on them. Her dark almond eyes were shut. Corecear noticed her face was red and blotted.
"Achada, are you alright? You haven't spoken to anyone since the hilltop battle."
She jerked around to face him, then relaxed. "I killed someone, Corecear. I twisted his intestines around with a scalpel."
Understanding dawning in his eyes, and he wrapped a scarred arm around the small woman. "Achada, I remember my first kill. It was during the very beginning of the war. Commander and I- well, she wasn't commander then, but she was still my superior- we were on one of our first missions together. I was a rookie. She had about a year's worth of experience with killing. I didn't see the man until he lunged at her.
She dodged him, but couldn't stop him from attacking me. As she turned to help me, I shot the man at point blank range in the head. Achada, the blood spattered all over me. I don't remember much after that- but I do remember that Commander helped by talking me through the horrible experience. I hope I can do that for you now."
Achada turned and faced him, her eyes streaming. "Thank you, Corecear. I truly appreciate that."
Adish finally woke up.
The man had seen him try to kill him, hadn't he? Surely, they would all hate him now. Even her. He tried to sit up, but was hit with an intense wave of pain that overcame his weak attempts. He collapsed back onto his pillow. Adish couldn't remember his head ever hurting like this before.
Groaning, he finally earned someone's attention. A nurse rushed over.
"Easy, there. You have a nasty injury, and your head is badly injured. You had a concussion."
Closing his eyes, he tried to gather his thoughts. Were they at the base yet? Or were they still on the wretched airship?
Against the nurse's protests, he gathered up all of his willpower and sat up. The world seemed to spin around him. Clutching his head, he staggered to his feet, standing at his intimidating height of six foot five. The nurse was now thoroughly alarmed.
"Sir, sit down now. You are injured, and need more medical attention."
The world was a blur around him. Her words seemed to echo in his head, each syllable like a club being beaten against the sides of his skull. He teetered, then collapsed on the floor.
He wouldn't wake up for a while.
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