PROLOGUE

FORGOTTEN CASUALTIES

It is the 31st century. War has engulfed the galaxy from the Periphery, to the very heart of the Inner Sphere. The Great Houses, and various other factions, have temporarily put aside their differences to stop the menace of the Clan Invasion. Trellwan. Luthien. Tukayyid. But these stories are well known. They are not the focus of this holovid.

Let us now part the fog of war, to observe another kind of conflict. Operations so clandestine, their very existence is denied by all parties involved. Those forces which carry out these actions have seen more combat in their brief service than most experience in a lifetime. Swift. Deadly. Unhearalded. These are the untold stories of the soldiers whose reward for success could be ignominious captivity, who lie in unmarked graves upon desolate hellscapes, who are mourned and respected only by their surviving peers: The Living Legends.


Grabbing his neurohelmet, Colonel William Thorn turned away from the tri-vid projector, snorting at the over-the-top, sensationalist, show.

"Yeah, right." He mumbled to himself while moving away. The two young technicians watching the flamboyant docu-drama remained where they were. Their job had already been done, so all that was needed was for the assault company hidden in that cave to acknowledge the colonel's orders and move away. Still, they looked at their commander with the apprehension of those who had seen too many combat deployments already, as he approached the master sergeant watching over the final preparations.

"Status?" The colonel asked.

"Everything ready to go. Some technicians are still verifying a few things, but we can move at your order, Will." Master Sergeant Saburo Aoki said, in a very calm, professional, manner.

"The Falcons?"

"The last data sent by the scouts puts them at Hill 117 in something like…" He looked at his wrist computer. "three minutes."

"They're ahead of schedule."

"Like the good Clanners they are." Acknowledging the information, William Thorn started to walk away, to the front of the cave. He turned back, while walking, to say to his second-in-command:

"But that's good. We'll get to meet them sooner."

He kept moving, donning his neurohelmet, his thoughts going over a multitude of tactical possibilities and combat plans. The cave his assault unit was using as a hideout was some kind of natural marvel, dug for millennia by the relentless forces of small streams of water. A force as relentless as the colonel hoped his men to be.

He stopped near the two BattleMechs that made the core of that unit. Looking like armour-clad giants, eleven meters tall, sporting huge gun barrels on their arms and torsos, and powerful fusion reactors in their very hearts, those machines were the rulers of the battlefields of the 31st century. Huge and powerful, with enough power to raze entire armies, the BattleMechs inspired terror in the soul of every self-respecting soldier.

Thorn's own Mauler stood near the cave entrance, on one knee, waiting for its pilot to enter the cockpit and bring it to life. The colonel looked up, to the open hatch in the back of the 'Mech's head, from which hung an articulated ladder. A technician was hanging from it, closing a few panels in the broad back of the machine.

Having finished the launch procedures, the tech then descended, saluting the commander when he got to the ground, and moved away to allow him to climb. Before doing so, Thorn glanced back at the cave one last time. Powerful spotlights lit the ample space, allowing him to see the crews of the tanks climbing to the vehicles, and the armour-clad infantry readying their weapons. He also noticed that Sergeant Illich had already climbed into the cockpit of the other BattleMech in that assembly, a Marauder, crouched over its big reverse-jointed legs, and waiting for the order to move. The heavy metal canopy came down, sealing the pilot from the outside world. Satisfied, the colonel swung his index finger over his head, giving the order to start the march. The roar of diesel engines and the humming of fusion reactors filled the cramped space, as Thorn climbed to his command post, at the top of the Mauler.

Even though the machine was big, the head always seemed incredibly small to him. He contorted in the space between the command chair and the control panel, so he could sit, facing the ample observation windows, that made up what would pass as the Mauler's "face". Only then did he press the switch to close the hatch. He felt the click in his ears when the cockpit pressurized, effectively isolating him from the outside world, inside his own combat capsule atop a powerful 90-ton colossus.

"Thorn's Shadow Legion assault company, state ready op." He ordered over the comm., while his fingers flew over the control panel, bringing it to life with a confusion of lights and colourful screens. Somewhere under him the fusion engine started to whistle, reverberating in the full glory of its fiery core.

"Able Two, states ready op." Sergeant Illich replied, followed by each tank commander and squad leader in the company. They were all tense, cold, knowing what would follow. Still, they all sounded like the professional soldiers they were.

"Very well." Thorn grabbed the control sticks and brought his machine to both feet, standing on its full, impressive, height. "Form up on me. Let's go."


Their time was one of war. The powerful Clans had been stopped at Tukayyid, but just for a brief period. The whole invasion had been put on a fifteen-year halt, as dictated by the terms of victory, but that hadn't prevented the militaristic enemies of the Inner Sphere from arranging a few raids here and there. It was as if they were seeking and exploiting weaknesses among the defenders. Mercenaries like the Thorn's Shadow Legion both thrived and died in those days of prolific business.

William Thorn himself had already seen his fair share of battles. Almost half a century old, his face had a few scars which told some dreadful stories of his youth. He knew he was getting a little too old to take part in the "big game", but, still, he just couldn't imagine himself doing anything but see ravaged landscapes through the ferro-glass of his canopy, while entire worlds burned furiously around it.

Worlds like this one, a quiet place called Bucklands. The Jade Flacons, one of the most aggressive of the Clans, had undertaken an assault into the very heart of the Lyran Alliance, targeting the industrial world of Coventry. On their way they took a few other worlds as well. The counter-assault was being planned, but, in the meanwhile, it was up to the mercenaries to ascertain the strength and composition of the attackers.

"Support company, are you in place?" Thorn asked over the comm. The answer came a few seconds later, preceded by the clicking of static, as the on-board computers worked to decode the message.

"Affirmative, sir. The scouts are ready to 'TAG the incoming star. Just give the order when you're in place."

Good. Everything was ready.

The Jade Falcons were moving troops to reinforce a nearby base, very probably to start a search for the Legion's dropship. After all, what self-respecting invaders would allow unauthorized landings on their recent possessions? After learning that a new star of 'Mechs was using the same path as the last reinforcements, Thorn decided to plan an ambush in order to take a few prisoners. It wouldn't be easy, given the suicidally determined nature of the Clanners, but he had his orders. The attack would be made in a small snow-covered valley, surrounded by gentle hills and sparse stumpy trees, named Owl's Pass. The support company was hidden behind a few of the hills, almost two kilometres from the planned attack point, hopefully distant enough to not be spotted right away by the enemy sensors. Its missile launcher-equipped tanks ready to engulf the enemy with a volley of pure mayhem.

Meanwhile, the assault company would be hidden in the other side of the valley, ready to attack as soon as the enemy was softened enough. Thorn divided it into two forces, adding a few more tanks and 'Mechs that had escorted the fire-support tanks in the previous hours. The two assault units would divide the Clanner force, diminishing their combat potential even further. Not that it would guarantee a victory. Against the Clans, victory was never guaranteed, even with the best of plans.

"Sir, this is Scout One." A voice called over the comm. Thorn sighed, releasing some tension. Time to get started.

"Report."

"I have the Clanners in sight. Five 'Mechs. A Masakari; a Thor; a Shadow Cat; and two Ullers. No infantry nor tanks."

That was odd. Even the Jade Falcons, as obsessed by their concept of honour as they were, seldom sent 'Mechs to the field without any kind of support. Such a thing was not unheard of, but still…

"TAG 'em!" Thorn finally ordered. There was no point in waiting. If the Falcons were planning something, they would have to deal with it anyway. "Support company, open fire! Assault One and Two, prepare to engage!"

On the other side of the valley, the lance of Partisan tanks fired a massive 160 missile-strong, volley. Leaving a huge cloud of gray smoke in their wake, the missiles arced over the hills, and descended over the Clan 'Mechs, following the dim light of the targeting laser. Hidden among the chunks of snow and trees in the flank of the hill, the scout infantry had the sole responsibility of making that first salvo hit its mark. The Clan pilots though, seemed to be expecting such an occurrence, and were fast to spread out, avoiding most of the damage. The only casualty was the Shadow Cat, which moved a little too slow, a little too late. The soil around the bird-like machine boiled with explosions for an instant, the snow being immediately vaporized into thick columns of vapour. A huge metal leg flew into the air, twisted into an almost unrecognizable shape, smashing into the ground with a huge rumble. The rest of the machine disappeared under the smoke. One down, four more to go.

"All right!" Thorn yelled. "Assault Company, move!"

Assault One was the first group to meet the Clan 'Mechs, coming from the North. Thorn's Mauler strode over a squat hill, its huge feet melting the snow underneath, right into the dusty soil, negating most of the agility of the BattleMechs, their main advantage over other types of ground combat vehicles. It was little comfort that the same problem also plagued the Clan 'Mechs, now coming into sight.

"Ah! So typical of you Freebirths to use foul trickery when facing true Mechwarriors!" The voice cracked over the open frequencies, while both forces traded inaccurate long-range blasts. "Barbarians like you deserve no more than scorn and swift death!"

"Damn! She's babbling nonsense!" Sergeant Saburo Aoki remarked. "I was hoping this Clanner wouldn't do that."

"Can it! Concentrate on the fight!" Thorn yelled, although, truth be told, that specific Clan warrior seemed to be of the talkative type.

"Now you shall die in terror under the talons of the Jade Falcon, stravag scum!"

As a consummate professional, the colonel just ignored the taunting. The Clanner was trying to confound him, maybe scare him a little. Clan warriors were, like the Spartans of long-forgotten Terra, bred specifically for combat, and all of their life was devoted to that single purpose. They were the best combatants humanity had to offer, and, as such, even those outnumbered BattleMechs could be dreadfully dangerous.

Thorn halted the charge, and moved his Mauler into the bottom of the valley. Illich's Marauder and the tanks led by Aoki followed, turning their turrets at the Falcons. Now both forces were getting closer, and the firing was becoming more precise. One of the mercenary tanks, a Schrek, stopped dead on its tracks when a direct hit from the Masakari's particle projection canons ripped through the armour, opening a huge hole in the flank. Flames and black, oily, smoke rose into the air, as the surviving crew tried to escape that blazing inferno. Thorn swore, and launched a new missile volley into the enemy assault 'Mech, this time relying on the Mauler's own aiming systems. Thirty long-range missiles flew from box-shaped launching racks mounted over each shoulder, leaving straight lines of white smoke on their trail, accelerating inexorably into their target. The Mechwarrior behind the controls of the assault 'Mech was quite good, and moved her 85-ton machine with incredible agility, tilting the torso downward, managing to dodge most of the missiles. The remaining were still able to crease the topside armour, burning the Jade Falcon insignia painted there, and seemingly cracking open the long range missile launcher. Leaving a trail of black smoke, pouring from the gash in the wrecked weapon, the Masakari strode forward, aligning the double-barred PPCs on its arms for the next shot.

Noticing his slower machine was unable to move out of the line of fire, Thorn flinched instinctively. Two blue beams of pure energy hit the Mauler's mighty chest, making armour explode as it reached critical temperature and boiled in a single moment. The 90-ton man-shaped colossus trembled, but the chest plate withstood the insult. Thorn centred the bird-looking enemy on his reticule and returned fire with the quartet of 30mm autocannons mounted in his machine's lower torso. The hail of bullets carved a trail of craters in the flank of the Masakari, forcing it to move out of the way.

The colonel used the second of respite that followed to see how the rest of the battle was unfolding. Illich's Marauder traded blows with the enemy Thor. Both machines weighted some 70 tons each, and had a diverse set of weapons, ranging from PPCs to machine guns and missiles. Still, the more advanced man-like Clan model was gaining the advantage, showing only superficial damage, while the Marauder, which looked like a big, menacing, crab walking over two long legs, already exhibited deep gashes pouring black smoke and sparks into the atmosphere.

In accordance with the Clanner tradition of single combat, the Ullers did not intervene in the heavier 'Mechs' combats, instead focusing on fighting the tanks. The surviving Schrek cut welding lines into the right leg and arm of one of the light Clan 'Mechs with the three large lasers mounted on its turret. The machine walked backwards, visibly damaged. Almost a kilometre behind it, the APCs from Assault Two were dropping the heavy infantry. And the situation was only getting better. The second Uller was hurled forward when a massive projectile hit it on the back, shattering the armour, and managing to damage internal components. The remaining mercenary 'Mechs were joining the fight, encircling the Clanners in a deadly trap. The angular Bushwacker came firing missiles from the missile launchers mounted on its left arm and over the angular hull. Striding along it was a 45-ton Hollander II, a medium BattleMech built around a massive Gauss cannon.

The downed Uller was not moving, so the lighter mercenary 'Mechs joined forces with the armoured infantry in harassing the remaining light Clan 'Mech. The tanks then pointed their weapons at the other enemy units.

"Attacking by the rear?" The enemy commander shouted when her Masakari got hit by laser fire. "Barbarian surats! You truly know no honour! As so I shall use any means necessary to dispose of you!"

She then proceeded to welt Thorn's Mauler with a well-aimed PPC shot, making metal flow down its chest like wax. Its next shot hit the Schrek right in the middle of the turret, bending one of the laser barrels. The tank halted immediately, the crew suddenly more cautious.

"What is she talking about now?" Aoki asked.

"I have no idea." Thorn again blasted away with his autocannons, barely hitting the enemy. Looking beyond the battlefield, he finally saw the five enemy tanks coming down a distant hill, behind the second pair of mercenary 'Mechs. The support units he felt to be missing earlier.

"Daniel!" He called for the Hollander II pilot. "Watch those tanks behind you!"

There was no time to confirm if the young Mechwarrior acknowledged the order. The Masakari was again in the offensive. It was firing the PPCs continuously, certainly producing huge amounts of heat, risking engine meltdown. While his 'Mech rocked around him, Thorn only wished it would happen sooner rather than later, thus sparing him of keeping on with that duel. The Clanner was smart, though, controlling her rate of fire, managing the coolant, so he kept firing back. This time he used the large lasers mounted on the Mauler's cylindrical forearms. One of the blue beams connected with the wing-like arm of the enemy machine, melting metal, but without breaching the thick armour. Thorn added the missile launchers to the volley, the explosions opening huge breaches in the weakened flank of the thing. The two assault BattleMechs were now involved in a private combat, oblivious to the bigger battle raging around them.

To Thorn's left, the Marauder had fallen to its backward-bent knees, creating the oddly ridiculous sight of a huge monster sitting in the middle of a firefight, while leaking huge columns of greasy smoke. The Thor had no chance to finish it, though. It was now fighting two Demolisher tanks. Equipped with dual 200mm autocannons, the giant vehicles were just tearing it apart. Further beyond, the remaining Uller got caught between a missile volley from the Bushwacker, and the Hollander's pulse laser fire. In a turmoil of explosions and smoke, it had the legs and arms blown off, the cockpit bent inward, and the torso sliced front to back. The massive impact must have damaged the fusion engine inside, as in the next moment, what remained of the 30-ton machine exploded in an obfuscating flash, a million small pieces of metal flying into every direction.

The detonation was enough to call Thorn's attention back to the rest of the battle. He looked right in time to see the newly arrived Clan tanks opening fire over the Hollander II. Six sapphire laser beams connected with the 45-tonner's back, liquefying metal and making internal mechanisms explode. The 'Mech felt over its knees, already enveloped in flames.

"Damn you, Daniel!" The colonel groaned between his teeth. He disengaged from the Masakari, and strode forward in full throttle, passing by his enemy, who swung around, confused by the sudden change in her adversary's behaviour.

Thirty long range missiles flew right of the Mauler's missile launchers, exploding around the enemy tanks. Still, they kept firing at the downed Hollander II. Missiles exploded against the shoulder armour and the exposed internal components. The flames grew bigger, and burbling coolant fluid gushed into the burned ground.

"Eject, Daniel!" This time Thorn was yelling openly in the Legion's comm. channel. It was obvious the Hollander was lost. It had too little armour to withstand any kind of heavy beating, especially on the back. Given the state of the 'Mech, though, Thorn doubted that the young Mechwarrior was still listening to any radio chatter. Nonetheless, in the next moment, the cockpit cracked open, and the command chair ejected upward, like a missile.

Good.

The mercenary leader turned his attention to the Clan tanks. It was a heavy, a rectangular Oro, commanding a quartet of lighter Ares tanks. All of them were heavy armed, if a little under armoured. Thorn fired his four autocannons against one of the rhombus-shaped Ares, penetrating the cracked armour with the azure beams of his large lasers. The machine caught fire immediately, out of commission. The remaining tanks rolled backwards, trying to aim at the new adversary, 90 tons of pure metal fury.

A second Ares caught fire when hit by shoulder-launched missiles deployed by the assault infantry, hidden among the snow miraculously intact on the margin of the burning field of combat. The remaining tanks were hit by a salvo of missiles that seemed to come from nowhere. Thorn had a moment of confusion before remembering the Partisan tanks and the laser-tag equipped scout infantry. They had been waiting for the right moment to intervene, and now they used it to the best effect. The infantry moved out of cover to finish the tanks and mop up any surviving crew.

And now only the Masakari remained. Thorn was reminded of it when the Mauler jumped forward, hit by the powerful PPCs he'd turned his back to. The massive BattleMech fell to one knee with a large thump. In the control panel, a bunch of red and yellow lights came to life, indicating a breach in the back armour, and damage to internal components.

"Curse you and your treachery, Freebirth!" The assault 'Mech's pilot yelled. "You will die by my hands, even if that is the last thing I do!"

But she wasn't able to deliver the killing blow. The Bushwacker and the Demolishers turned on her, blasting the lonely Clan 'Mech with missiles and heavy autocannon rounds. The powerful machine was torn apart. Thorn was finally able to bring the Mauler to its feet, and turn to the wounded Masakari, now weirdly supporting itself over the crushed remains of one of its bird-like legs, and trying to get some footing with the other. The "wings" were also smashed, the PPC barrels bent in different directions.

"How dare you? We are your superior, mercenary!" Still defiant, the pilot seemed unwilling to stop taunting her enemies, although her voice now seemed tired, with a hint of disbelief. "You… You…" She must have seen the Mauler raising his arms, making aim with the lasers. "You will meet our kind again, mercenary! This ignominy will not go unpunished…"

"Oh, shut up!" With those words, Thorn fired the lasers, shattering the flat canopy of the Clan 'Mech. The cockpit caught fire while the huge, ruined, mess that once was a mighty gear of war collapsed over the ground, sending torrents of snow and dirt in all directions, like waves on a beach.


The commander of the Thorn's Shadow Legion strode among the parked war machines, an infuriated expression on his scarred face. He stopped near a huge Demolisher tank. Sergeant Saburo Aoki sat over the turret, watching the armoured infantry rounding up the captured Clan personnel. He looked down to Thorn as soon as he saw him.

"Ah, Will! We're almost done here."

The colonel crossed his arms. But he didn't look back at him, instead staring at a young man who was gazing at the burnt remains of the Hollander, on the other side of the valley.

"Casualties." Thorn asked, nonetheless.

"Seven dead, a few more wounded. The Hollander II and the Marauder aren't going anywhere, and the same goes for both Schreks. We also don't have the necessary equipment to take the Masakari with us. I did put a few technicians scavaging for any useable part they could find."

"Right…" Thorn took a deep breath. Seven casualties. It wasn't much, considering they'd just faced a front-line Clan unit, but, still… those were people he knew, people under his command. Above him, over the tank's turret, Aoki followed his gaze, finding the young Mechwarrior lamenting his lost 'Mech.

"You going to kill him?"

"We shall see."

Thorn uncrossed his arms and approached the Mechwarrior.

"Daniel." The other man inhaled deeply, and then turned to face him. The colonel let a moment of awkward silence linger, before asking: "What were you thinking?"

Lieutenant Daniel Axon seemed to ponder his words for a moment.

"Sir… I…"

"You nothing!" Thorn cut his sentence and took a step forward. "I told you to pay attention to those tanks, and what did you do? You got blasted by them because of your recklessness!"

"Sir… If I may…"

"Go on…"

Daniel looked at his boots for a moment. When he glanced back at Thorn he said:

"There were enemy BattleMechs still operational on the field, so I decided that the tanks were the lesser threats and concentrated on the Ullers. The tanks didn't seem that important."

"The tanks, Lieutenant Axon, are a part of the field of combat. They might not have the mobility of a 'Mech but can be equally deadly. I've already seen men killed for lesser mistakes than the one you did!"

"Sir…?"

"You were stupid, do I make myself clear? I'll let you keep your job because I'm in a good mood, but don't test my patience ever again."

Daniel saluted, in a somewhat insecure manner. Good, Thorn thought, his words had hit dead centre.

"William!" Aoki's voiced called. The colonel turned to face him. "The scouts have seen a few Clan 'copters. We're done here, so I think it's better to get back to the barn."

"Right. Call the men!"

"Yes, sir."

Thorn started to move away, but then he hesitated, and turned back at Daniel. He was already running to hitch a ride in one of the APCs. The kid was an excellent pilot, but reckless, too eager to face other Mechwarriors, to find the perfect battle: that romantic ideal from to the ancient knighthood tradition which found its way into the minds of the modern men and women ruling the battlefield from atop their massive walking engines of death. Too much attached to something that, in the end, had nothing to do with the battlefield. War was death, no more, no less. 'Mech, tank, rifle, knife, hand… It didn't matter from where it would come, it only mattered that it was there, ready to reclaim those who made the deadly mistake, who were in the wrong place, who run out of luck…

Thorn whispered to himself, "Are you that eager to be a dead hero, kid?" With a last look at the rapidly assembling squadron, he ran back to his Mauler, to a legend that would probably never be told.