I just couldn't stop. ^^

Ch. 16

Captain Hunks raced into the mountain cave, his short legs quicker than Major Connery gave him credit for. Mercury bounded beside him, barking and excited. He insisted Stecchin stay put, though he wondered briefly which was the greater danger.

Been a while since I was at the front lines, he thought. He pulled out his gun, a .357 Magnum, which was well-polished and oiled. I just hope I'm not too late.

Everyone obeyed, automatically pairing up to watch one another's backs. A few Rodelian maids screamed as Luna picked off a few here and there in a blink of an eye. Oland looked up and saw only darkness in the crags above. He frowned, pulled his handgun, put his finger on the lantern switch, and pressed down. His eyes blazed with that strange blue energy, and he growled up at Luna, who was up there somewhere, laughing in such a way that almost sounded like sobbing. Her voicebox had been shorting badly, so often her voice dissolved into a hissing, white noise. Good thing, for it made her easier to track.

"Luna," he snarled, his voice gravelly and dangerous, "come down here and face me. It's time you paid for your sins, too."

Her voice seemed to crackle from everywhere. "Are you going to judge me now, Tovarich?"

"You have given me no choice, Gal," he rumbled back.

She dropped down to strike out at him but missed. She immediately leapt back up and hid in the shadows. However, now everyone saw her for what she really was.

"And to think I wanted to date this chick!" Oreldo said.

"How can you think of that at a time like this?" Martis asked.

"Who cares?" he replied. "What I wanna know is what the hell is she?"

Lt. Malvin had backed away from Oland until she found a wall to lean upon. She shivered at his words. They sounded familiar. Where had she heard him say that before?

"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. I had…no choice."

No choice…three hundred men and no choice?

"They went mad. They couldn't stop. Everyone became the enemy to them. I had to…to…"

Three hundred men…three hundred…madmen?

"I didn't know what to do. My old unit is…gone."

Oh my god, Lt. Malvin thought. Oland,you tried to tell me, didn't you? You had to…stop them?

"My dear Tovarich," she suddenly heard too close, "I'll finish you soon enough, but first I must thank your precious little Lieutenant for giving me an opening."

Lt. Malvin's neck tingled and she just knew she had to bring in her sword up to her own throat just as one of Luna's blade arms came down to slash at her neck. Metal clanged on metal, and the lieutenant managed to roll out of the way toward Oland. Oland fired at the direction of the arm, the blast painfully loud, ringing everywhere. He missed, and stones started to fall at an alarming rate. Lt. Malvin realized Luna's intent.

"Oland!" she commanded, "Don't fire your gun! It's too loud! You'll bring the whole cave down around us!"

Oland gave no indication that he had heard at all, until he reloaded, but put the gun away.

"Stay close to me then, Lieutenant," he growled, moving toward her. She complied, her sword still up and guarded, turning and walking backwards until she felt his chest at her back. Once there, she turned around and sheathed her sword. He wrapped his arms around her, one hand covering her head. Hesitating, she imitated him, wrapping her arms around his waist. He then pushed her forward to the rock wall. They both crouched down. He bent over her and covered her with his body as best he could, leaving his own exposed and vulnerable to attack. Frightened, she pulled back but there was no room. She looked up to see his bright, cold eyes boring into her.

"Oland," she pleaded, "please, you don't have to…why?"

He didn't respond at first, merely tucking her head into his chest.

"Don't look at me, Lieutenant," he said. After a moment, she felt his head rest on top of hers.

Luna screamed in outrage and dropped down. Oland grunted as he felt a blade carve a path in his back. He only held on tighter as Luna slashed and stabbed his back, slicing open his shirt.

"How dare you?" Luna shrieked, "It's all her fault! You're willing to give your life…for her? I'll skin you raw!"

"Now!" they heard Oreldo shout. He and Martis fired their rifles as Carlotta and her remaining team surged forward. Too late, they saw their firearms had the same effect as Oland's handgun, as the shots bounced off and more rocks and pebbles rained down. Now big cracks could be seen in the walls. Oreldo cursed and grabbed a shield drill, charging forward with the rest. Martis grabbed one also, but paused to look up.

"We've got to get out of here!" he yelled, before joining Oreldo.

His group attacked Luna from behind. While her head didn't move, her body stabbed, parried, or shoved everyone aside. Many got some good strikes in, but nothing strong enough to cripple her. That is, until Oreldo drove the shield drill into her back. She screamed as the drill ground through her armor like butter. He hissed as the drill quickly overheated and he had to drop it. She reached up to strike him with one of her claymores, but Carlotta and another maid teamed up and disarmed her…literally.

Luna screamed in pain and rage, a keening so heart-wrenching Lt. Malvin finally understood what Oland meant by nightmares.

Carlotta climbed onto Luna's back and cried, "For Claudia, and Rodelia!"

She brought both hatchets together on Luna's neck, nearly decapitating her. Luna finally crumpled in a heap, but the echoes of her scream could still be heard in Lt. Malvin's mind. It was followed by a muttering that grew louder and louder. She looked up and realized another cave-in had started.

"Time to go," Oland said. Still bleeding, he picked her up and carried her out of the room. Carlotta signaled what remained of her team, while Martis retrieved the rifles. Oreldo checked the pulse of Nurse Ruby, and finding it faint but steady, lifted her up and carried her out.

She briefly regained consciousness. "Leave me, boy. I swore an oath to die here."

He shook his head and grinned. "Leave the prettiest gal here? I don't think so!"

She laughed, but it was painful. She lost consciousness again and Oreldo hurried on.

Within minutes, a terrible chain reaction began, exactly as Ulrich had predicted. Once the chamber behind them collapsed, the adjoining walls soon cracked and began to split apart. Faster and faster it went, until it began racing ahead as though it had a mind of its own.

"Look out!" Martis yelled as an exit got blocked. They turned back, only to be nearly trapped again.

"This way!" Carlotta shouted, pointing to a narrow staircase where the walls were thicker. "We'll have to escape through the rapids!"

Down and down they went. Martis had to leave the cumbersome rifles behind. Instead, he scouted ahead with Carlotta, keeping an eye out for weak spots and fresh cracks in the walls.

All the while, Oland ran and ran with Lt. Malvin. She ordered him to put her down, several times, saying she could run herself, but he paid her no heed.

Finally, they got to the rapids. The hollowed hall opened up to a cliff which led to a mighty waterfall that dropped into the largest cavern yet. The hydro-electric generators looked relatively unharmed, which was a miracle as well as very necessary. It would be almost impossible to navigate their way down in the dark. The cliff also had stairs carved into them, but the carving was crude and old. Upon a closer look, Martis realized it had been done by hand.

"This was here before the Shadowers came," Carlotta yelled over the noise of the water. "Watch your step! It's slippery!"

"Put me down now, Oland!" Lt. Malvin said, and after a moment, he did, but still held her arms. Oreldo paused to check Ruby's pulse. He sensed nothing. It was too late. Saddened, he left her near the waterfall, with her arms folded and eyes closed. At least she looked peaceful.

They navigated down in single file, finding what handholds they could. Every time the Lieutenant's footing was unsure, she felt Oland's hands tightened around her arms. Presently, they came to a path that doubled back on itself like a giant C. On one side was the rock wall, and on the other…empty air. It was still several hundred feet to the rapids below. As they made their way along, they could hear the rumbling of the falls above them. Suddenly there was a rumbling of a different sort, and the waterfall grew quiet as the cave started to collapse above them. However, once the water had all but stopped flowing, the cave-in seemed to stop as well.

"Lucky break for us!" Oreldo crowed.

"Keep moving!" Lt. Malvin said. "That's not going to hold back the water for long!"

As she turned to look at him, her footing slipped and she started falling into space. Oland's hands tightened to bring her back, but because her balance was off, so was his. He yanked her backwards and twisted, intending to shove her back to the wall, in a move similar to how he saved Mr. Wantz. But the angle was wrong and he wasn't fast enough. Instead, he clutched her to his chest and they both fell down into the rapids below.

"BIG GUY!" Oreldo yelled, "L.T.!"

"NO!" Martis cried.

They all frantically tried to make their way down without falling themselves.

Captain Hunks heard the rumbling and started to backtrack toward the opening. He saw his team make their way below just before the opening collapsed. There was still a chance they were safe.

"Captaaaaiiin!" he heard Stecchin call. Mercury was barking and turning in frantic circles. Bewildered, Hunks turned and rushed at the Sergeant-Major.

"Come on!" he shouted. "The whole place is collapsing! Why didn't you stay with the jeep?"

"I know!" she cried. "Major Connery said you were done for! I wasn't going to give up on you!"

Hunks laughed in spite of himself. He held onto her as they quickly left the cave.

"We have to get to the rapids on the other side," he said. "Let's go!"

Down underwater, Oland blinked and woke as though from a dream. He looked down and saw his lantern was out. Instinctively, he had held onto the Lieutenant's now limp figure. He almost gasped and swam with her to the surface as fast as he could. Meanwhile, the powerful current carried them farther and farther away from his comrades. When he broke the surface with her, he saw that he was outside, likely close to the Rodelian border. He glanced behind him and saw that nearly the entire WinterShadow range had changed its shape. He began tugging the both of them to shore, when a sudden pain struck his leg. He was immediately dragged under, almost releasing the Lieutenant in the confusion. He looked down and saw a mysterious figure in a black wetsuit, wearing red goggles, an air mask and holding a harpoon gun. On his shoulder, a grey parachute with a bomb attached to it said, "906-FTT."

Fallschirm Jäger, he realized with horror. The wingless divers! A paratrooper!

They were waiting for us? he thought as the figure attacked him with a diver's blade. The paratrooper immediately grabbed at Oland's lantern. Oland fought him for a moment, but he could only do so one-handed, since he didn't dare let go of the Lieutenant. Finally, he had no choice but to let the paratrooper escape with his lantern.

Breaking the surface again, he gasped for air and quickly made his way to shore. Lifting up the Lieutenant, he saw that her face was starting to turn blue. Frantic, he threw her over his shoulder and clapped her hard on the back. Some water came out, but there was no response. He tried again and again. Nothing.

"Lieutenant!" he cried, shaking her. "Alice! Please, wake up!" Desperate, he tried to remember how to perform CPR. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye and realized more paratroopers had surrounded him. One charged at him with another blade, but was suddenly falling to his knees as a hole appeared in his chest.

"Take cover, Corporal!" Oland heard Captain Hunks shout. He ducked, and heard two more shots. All three paratroopers fell down dead.

"Lieutenant!" It was the Sergeant-Major. "Corporal!"

If the situation wasn't so dire, Oland would have been overjoyed.

"Ma'am!" he called to Stecchin. "Help me! She's not breathing!"

"CPR, Corporal!" Stecchin said. She looked frightened but determined to help. "You have to give her chest compressions right below her sternum! I don't think I'm strong enough, so I'll have to check her airway! ABC's, okay?"

"What do you mean?" Oland asked.

"She means," Hunks said, glancing over his shoulder, "you'll know you're doing them correctly when you crack her ribs. Now hurry, I'll cover you!"

Oland laid Lt. Malvin's limp form on the ground and straddled her. He opened her orange jacket and tore open her khaki shirt and black undershirt. Finding the right spot, he brought his mitts together as Stecchin showed him.

"Oh Alice, forgive me," he whispered. He began performing chest compressions as hard as he could. He felt a few of her ribs give way and cursed himself. Stecchin checked her airway. It wasn't blocked, but she could hear a slight gurgling noise. She tried to breathe into her, but couldn't tell if it was getting through.

"Let me try," Oland said. He tilted her head back, pinched her nose shut, and closed his mouth over hers, breathing into her. He did it again. Still no response.

"Keep at those compressions!" Hunks said. "Those are the most important." Oland complied, and finally, after several agonizing moments, Lt. Malvin's eyelids fluttered and she started coughing. She rolled to the side, threw up a great deal of water, and passed out again. But she was alive.

Oland just about fainted. Instead, he cried happy tears and sat back, letting Stecchin take over.

Hunks looked around. The paratroopers had either been shot dead or escaped. Examining one of the bodies, he tried to unzip the suit. Unfortunately, his actions set off a booby trap. Scrambling back, he watched the body suddenly dissolve into a puddle of goo. Moments later, the other two did the same.

"Acid packs?" he muttered. "Damn daredevils for carrying those!"

He looked up after hearing a shout and saw Oreldo, Martis, and a group of Rodelians ride up on two rafts.

Days later, Lt. Malvin was in the city hospital. She was in stable condition, but still weak from three broken ribs and pneumonia. She slept most of the time. Her family visited her almost daily. Her father cried, which Alice couldn't remember ever seeing before. Solice and Elis tried to cheer her up by discussing the wedding plans, which of course had been pushed back a few months now. Elis looked mad and wanted to chide her for being so reckless, but she refrained, just happy Alice was alive. Lord Lionel Taylor had visited, bringing in flowers and expensive gifts.

Captain Hunks himself had come often, as well as the rest of the team. He told her that the actions of her team had said dozens of lives. Other than Nurse Ruby, Claudia and a few Rodelian mercenaries, everyone made it to the jungles of Rodelia alive. He also told of how he had commandeered the Major's jeep when the Major wasn't looking. After the mountain had settled, the Major saw no reason to stay, thinking everyone was dead.

"Sir," Lt. Malvin said, her voice weak, "about Corporal Oland…"

"I know," Hunks drawled. His teeth clamped down on his pipe, though he knew better than to smoke in a hospital. "I know all about it, but you overstepped your bounds, Lieutenant. That was a foolish thing you did, banishing him."

"But…he confessed!"

"Did he now?"

"It was a grave injustice, sir! He…said he had no choice, but…I mean, wasn't there any other way?"

"Let me ask you something, Lieutenant." He sat down on the bed beside her. "It seems to me the only other witness to this so-called catastrophe is dead, am I right?"

"You mean the Chairman? Yes, we stopped her."

"Then you should know you have no case, Lieutenant."

Lt. Malvin's eyes widened in confusion. Hunks leaned in a bit.

"A tragedy that big should mean there should be evidence, right? Okay…so where are the bodies? Where's your evidence?"

Lt. Malvin blanched. "I need to find him!"

"He's gone, and you need to heal first. That's an order."

Later that night, the Lieutenant was in a dead sleep. The drugs they had given her for pain and her pneumonia had a tranquilizing effect. Her neck tingled, alerting her, but she couldn't move. It was that strange moment between being awake and asleep, where you could feel your body, but it was as heavy as lead. She heard someone enter, but was too fatigued to even open her eyes.

She heard him approach, trying to be as quiet as possible. She could feel him standing over her. The weight of the bed shifted quite a bit, and she knew who it was. A heavily scarred hand rested on her head, petting her like a new kitten.

"I heard you're going to be okay," she heard him whisper. "I'm so happy about that. I also know you're taking something to help you sleep, so I waited until now. You can call me a coward if you want to. I don't mind. I just had to see you one more time."

Oland sighed and held his head in his hands.

"Lieutenant… I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I did my best."

Lt. Malvin struggled to wake, but the drugs were too strong.

You did do your best, idiot! You saved my life!

"Looks like I really messed up, though. I can't believe I almost lost you. All because of me."

She felt his hand in her hair again. He began caressing her face.

"I don't know why you don't want me to fight anymore," he said, "maybe Nurse Ruby was right. Were you trying to help me, or are you just too…scared of me now?"

Don't be stupid, Oland! Wake up, Alice, dammit!

"I wish I could be there at the wedding," he mused, "I know you'll be amazing, just amazing."

His hand stilled as he brushed his thumb over her lips. He leaned down until he was inches from her face. She felt the bed shift and the sudden heat of his body.

Oland…?

He hovered over her but stopped. "No, what am I doing?" he muttered to himself. "This is disrespectful. If I was your fiancé, and some other guy tried to…no, it's not right…but…"

His fingers lifted her hair off her forehead.

"I hope he's good to you," he whispered. "I hope he protects you, like I tried to. I hope he treats you like the treasure you are."

His lips seared her forehead, but were gentle. They were also much softer than she had guessed. He lingered there for a moment too long, then stood up and cleared his throat.

"I'll respect your wishes, Ma'am," he said in a formal tone. "Besides, I have to go after the guys that took my lantern. Don't know if you heard about that. I don't want you to worry, though. I'll be all right. Just knowing you're alive makes me happy. Stay that way, okay?"

Wake up, dammit! Please, Oland! Wait! Randel, wait!

He began to walk out. Just before he reached the door, he paused, spun around, stood at attention and saluted her.

"Good-bye, Lieutenant."

She heard the door shut just as she finally opened her eyes. She tried to sit up but it was still too painful.

"Oland?" she called, but her voice wasn't more than a croak. "Oland…?"

END OF PART I-Stay tuned for PART II!