Chapter 16: Coryza

Adrien boarded the officer's section of the mag-rail and selected a seat at random. It was made of hard plastic with just enough foam padding over it to qualify as a cushion. Turian mag-rail trains, like every other Hierarchy-produced utility, were made with functionality and efficiency in mind. Comfort was something for other races. But after his time in the overcrowded confines of the dropship, it might as well have been the first-class accommodations of an Asari luxury liner. Even with a whole legion's worth of troops packed inside, there was still room to move around and stretch out.

Across from him, Julek lounged in his seat in an easy, unconcerned manner. Adrien was put in mind of an alpha predator resting after a long day of hunting, one so high up on the food chain that it didn't fear being attacked. Adrien found himself suddenly glad for the presence of Siros and Viggo beside him.

Sidra and Lux had also taken up position on either side of their captain; Lux looked bored and irritable, while Sidra looked as if she would lash at anything that even looked at her wrong. Julek rested his head against the padding of his seat and grinned at Adrien, staring at him with those mad, penetrating eyes of his.

"Feeling tense, Captain?" he asked politely. "You look a bit on edge."

"A little," Adrien admitted. "Well, a hell of a lot more than a little."

"Of course you are," Julek affirmed. "Who wouldn't be? Why, you'd have to be crazy not to be afraid." He snickered to himself, as if he had just told a joke that only he seemed to get.

Adrien was not ashamed to admit that Julek scared him. Where virtually all other veterans on Digeris appeared equal parts disheartened and sullen in their demeanors, Julek was cheerful and upbeat. More than that, he was clearly far too comfortable with killing than any sane Turian should be; his warning that he would personally shoot Adrien if he became a liability in his eyes still echoed in his mind, due in large part because of how casually he'd given it. Adrien was willing to bet his fringe that Julek had made good on his threat on more than one occasion. Sarissa would probably have described Julek as a borderline sociopath and recommend having all sharp objects be kept well out of his reach.

Lux and Sidra were scarcely less frightening. The scar-faced male was possessed of a quiet confidence that said he didn't just think he could kill you, he knew he could. Sidra exuded an almost feral aura about her that put Adrien in mind of those varren who were made to participate in the fighting pits common in the Terminus systems. Her speech consisted of terse, gruff words with as few syllables as possible, as if the very idea of speaking in complete sentences was anathema to her. Moreover, she was clearly a skilled fighter; Adrien still had no idea how she'd pulled off that knife trick.

In truth, Adrien would have preferred not having been paired up with Turians who might slit his throat in his sleep for being perceived as a problem. But, he knew he did not have the luxury of choosing his partners. So, best suck it up and try to make the most of the situation. Adrien put on what he hoped was a sufficiently friendly face and said, "You know, since we're going to be working together, we might as well keep things informal."

Julek blinked curiously. "Informal, Captain?"

"Yeah, like how you keep referring to me by rank. You can use my name; in fact, I'd actually prefer that."

For a long moment, Julek stared at Adrien as if he'd just been talking nonsensical gibberish. Then, he chuckled and favored Adrien with a sardonic smile.

"I'm afraid we haven't gotten to that point in our relationship yet, Captain," he said, wagging a finger at him as if he were scolding a child. "To me, you are currently little more than fresh meat that will most likely get devoured by one of the humans' pets sometime in the coming weeks. No real point in getting to know you or divulging my sordid past if you're not going to be around long, you see. If you manage to last a month or so, then I may consider remembering your name. Until then, you are just the Captain to me."

Julek yawned and rotated his neck, making the tendons crack. "Make yourself comfortable, Captain," he said. "It's an hour's ride to Coryza. I suggest that you take the opportunity to get some sleep."

The veteran captain rested his head against the padding of his seat and closed his eyes. Within moments, his breathing became deep and slow, signifying that he was fast asleep. Viggo took the opportunity to lean towards Adrien, while making sure to keep Julek in his field of vision.

"So what do you make of this guy, boss?" Viggo asked Adrien in a hushed tone. "Don't know about you, but he gives me the creeps."

"We're in agreement there," Adrien responded in an equally quiet voice. "I feel like he'd just as soon as stab me in the heart as talk to me."

"The big question is: can we trust him?" Siros put in. "I know we've been paired up with his unit, but if they're just going to shoot us when our backs are turned, we'd be better off keeping our distance."

"My, aren't we the distrustful ones?"

Siros let out an undignified yelp and all but jumped out of his seat in surprise at the sound of Julek's voice. The veteran captain opened his eyes and favored the three Turians with a lazy smile. It was now quite obvious that he hadn't actually been asleep, and it was equally clear that he had heard every word passed between them.

"Amazing what people will talk about when they think no one is listening, isn't it?" he remarked lightly as he adjusted himself into a proper sitting posture. "Honestly, you're making it sound as if I'm some kind of serial killer just waiting for you all to drop your guard. I assure you, that's simply not the case. In fact, it's in my best interest to see that you all live for as long as possible. After all, the more guns we have pointed at the enemy, the better all of our chances are for staying alive, wouldn't you say?"

Seeing that Julek's question was directed at him, Adrien said, "Um…I suppose I would?"

"Excellent!" the smaller Turian said in a delighted tone and settled back down into his seat. "I was serious about getting some sleep, Captain. You'll find that it will be in very short supply out there."

#

By some miracle, Adrien actually did manage to catch some sleep on the train. Not that it had been particularly beneficial, though. He had dreamt that he was alone in the middle of a field, surrounded by countless dead Turians. They all looked at him accusingly with their glassy eyes. What made you so special, they asked? Why did you get to survive? For whatever reason, Adrien had tried to explain why, but it did no good, and the corpses still stared their jealousy and anger at him. It had been a profound relief when Siros shook him awake.

"Sir, we're here," the First Lieutenant informed him softly.

"Thanks," he grunted, hauling himself up out of his seat. Adrien blinked and rubbed the last remnants of sleep from his eyes.

"Sleep well, Captain?" came Julek's inquiry. The veteran captain was already up and about, grinning with a cheery air that Adrien felt was very much unwarranted.

"Not really," Adrien said gruffly. "My subconscious was feeling vindictive."

"Oh, that's too bad," Julek remarked in a sympathetic tone that almost sounded genuine. "Unfortunately, there's going to be plenty more of that. Sweet dreams are few and far between out here. Not much positivity going around, eh?" He chuckled and motioned with his head towards the train's door. "Shall we depart?"

"As if we had a choice," Adrien stated wryly. Julek let out a bark of laughter.

"True enough, Captain. True enough." He then clapped his hands together as if he'd just remembered something. "Ah! Before I forget…" he reached into a pouch at his side and drew out three small auto-injectors, which he held out to Adrien with the air of a doting father giving a rather expensive present to his child.

"I'm guessing those aren't booster shots," Adrien said, trying to put some humor into his words and failing quite handedly.

Julek's ever-present grin stretched wider until it looked as if his mandibles would fall off. "Correct. These are suicide vials, standard issue for all officers. We left too quickly for you to get yours, but fortunately I've got some spares."

Adrien decided it would be best not to inquire as to why he had extra poison injectors. He took one, holding it as if it would explode by an errant jostle. Siros and Viggo did the same and with no less trepidation.

"What's in them, sir?" Siros asked, looking at the tiny vial as though it were a dangerous animal.

"Jejuntoxin." This time it was Lux who answered. "It's the single most powerful neurotoxin ever created. Acts within two-thousandths of a second. You jab it anywhere on your body, and you'll be dead before you even feel the prick of the needle."

"Quick," Sidra put in. "No pain."

"Quite right," said Julek, retaking control of the conversation. "They're to be used if capture is imminent or you're facing a certain and nasty death." He paused and then added, "Or if you just feel like ending it all and don't like the idea of blowing your brains out."

"What happens if we get captured?" Viggo asked, sounding uncharacteristically worried.

Julek shrugged. "Most likely, you'll get shipped to a POW camp to wait out the war. You might be interrogated to see if you know any Hierarchy secrets, but none of you are high enough in the ranks for that to be a major concern. That's really only something that those who rank major and up should worry about." His eyes suddenly gleamed nastily. "Of course, there's always the chance that the Hueys might be in a foul mood when they catch you and get mean. Who can say what might happen? The choice is yours though: a guaranteed fast, painless death or an unknown fate at the hands of the enemy."

Well, that's a cheery thought, Adrien remarked to himself. He carefully slipped the vial into a pouch, feeling as though he had just primed a grenade and failed to throw it. By the look of them, Siros and Viggo felt the same way as they stashed their own vials away.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

#

Adrien's first impression of Coryza was that it was damnably crowded. Active duty soldiers and reserve militia congested the streets in a teeming mass, each one busy with some task or other. Military vehicles of various sizes and functions made their way through the morass of Turians towards wherever their destination was. The air was saturated by the smell of body odor, exhaust fumes and other scents, so thick Adrien could almost see it.

"Think they've got enough of us here, boss?" Viggo asked Adrien. "Spirits, this place is cramped."

As they neared an intersection, a walker suddenly stomped out in front of the lieutenant, barely a meter away from trampling him underfoot. It was perhaps fourteen feet in height with a large, angular cabin perched upon a pair of digitigrade legs, like some monstrous land-bound avian predator. A pair of mass accelerator cannons protruded from its chin, slightly depressed to signify that they were not active and a rocket pod extended from either side of the cabin.

As it passed, Viggo yelled after it, "Watch where you're going, asshole! You trying to do the Nefs' job for them?" He followed up his tirade by raising his right hand upwards with the thumb curled up under the two extended fingers, a particularly rude gesture that would have guaranteed a fight in normal circumstances.

"What was that thing?" Adrien wondered aloud. "I've never seen a walker vehicle like that one before."

"Oh, that?" Julek said casually. "That was one of the remaining models of the Vasilias-class war walkers. They were part of a series that was developed here on Digeris about a year ago in an attempt to match the Federation in the mech field." He pointed after the walker. "That particular one was the Vasilias Stalker model, made for urban combat. There were two other models that were much bigger and more heavily armed."

Julek chuckled. "You should have seen the fanfare when they were revealed for active duty; the techies in charge of the program were gushing over them and one of the generals who had overseen their creation went on about how these new weapons would surely turn the tide of the war on this front." He let out a theatrical sigh.

"As you might have guessed, things didn't work out that way. Those walkers the brass had been praising proved to be absolute failures. Their joints kept locking because debris would get stuck in the lubricant, the computer systems would suddenly begin short-circuiting at random, and when they went up against the Hueys' mecha and Engels, they got eaten alive. Literally, in more than a few cases. Needless to say, the project got scrapped and now only a few hundred of them are still in service."

Adrien looked on until the walker disappeared around a corner. "Well, at least it's one more gun pointed at the enemy."

Julek laughed. "You really are a positive thinker, aren't you?"

"I try," Adrien said with a shrug. Spirits know, I don't want to think about how absolutely shitty our position is. A massive enemy force heading our way, outnumbering us maybe five to one, and me part of the first roadblock in their path.

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted as a column of APCs rumbled into view, parting the mass of Turians like a seafaring ship's prow cut through water. Behind them tramped a line of soldiers, three abreast. At the sight of them, Adrien's eyes widened in recognition and shock.

Titans on Palaven, that's the Scatha Sixth!

The legions that made up the Turian army had a long and rich history, stretching back all the way to before they had even left Palaven's surface. Among all the glory that one could attain, it was the greatest of honors to become a Named Legion. To earn a name, the members of the legion had to prove that they were in a league above their compatriots, going above and beyond what was expected of them. As anyone with even passing familiarity of Turian culture and society would know, that standard was high indeed. To Adrien's knowledge, only a few dozen legions had earned such renown in the Hierarchy's entire history. There was of course the 26th Armiger Legion, one of the most formidable frontline assault forces the Hierarchy had ever seen, and the 15th Ragos Legion, who had spearheaded the reclamation of the planet Oma Ker during the Unification Wars.

The 6th Scatha Legion, or the Scatha Sixth as it was more commonly referred to, had earned its name from less noble deeds. They were the ones who got deployed when it wasn't enough to simply beat down an enemy, but to make an example. Its members didn't shy away from brutal tactics, and in fact embraced them as their standard procedure. One such instance of their modus operandi happened during the Rebellions, where they managed to halt a Krogan advance by sending the commanding warlord several sacks full of severed headplates. There were very few things that Krogan feared, but getting their headplates ripped off was one of them, and the warlord had not been an exception. The delay had allowed reinforcements to come in and turn the Krogan army back. In short, the Scatha Sixth was a formidable and fearsome legion.

The legionnaires that Adrien saw didn't look formidable or fearsome. On the contrary, they looked like the very picture of utter defeat. Their march was little more than a shuffling of feet, listless and forlorn, as if it was all they could do just to take another step. The trademark black armor of each soldier was scuffed and pitted from battle. Many bore wounds, some so horrific and debilitating that they had to be supported by their comrades. Those that had their helmets off stared out ahead with hollow-eyed, unblinking gazes, seeming to focus on nothing.

All activity around the vicinity of the new arrivals ceased almost instantly as the defenders of Coryza stared silently at the trudging line of legionnaires. Adrien saw expressions of disbelief on many faces, and guessed what they were thinking: That's the Scatha Sixth? No way, no unit that hardcore could look so defeated. I must be seeing things.

Julek appeared unperturbed by the sight, a trait of his that Adrien was rapidly becoming familiar with. His eyes perused the legion with the attentiveness of a biologist that had just discovered a new animal species and was observing it in its natural habitat.

"Hmm, strange," he remarked idly. "Last I heard, the Sixth got trapped by Nef forces over a month ago. I'd have wagered that they'd have been wiped out by now. How did they escape, I wonder?"

For his part, Adrien didn't think the Sixth had escaped at all. In fact, he had a strong feeling that they hadn't. The Sixth was a Named Legion, so it wouldn't be difficult for the Federation to learn about them. From what Adrien had gleaned from their tactics, they loved psychological warfare, and what could be a more effective morale-killer than breaking one of the most feared legions to have ever existed? Whittle them down to the dregs, subject those survivors to their special brand of horrors for a time, then turn them loose to go back to their friends and spread the word about how much of a nightmare fighting them was. Send a message that said, "We took your best, and we broke them. If they couldn't resist us, what chance do you have?"

That's what I would do, if I were them, thought Adrien. An enemy that has doubts about their chances is that much easier to defeat.

The Scatha troopers were followed in short order by other survivors. They were a collection of several legions and marine divisions and looked, if anything, even worse off than the 6th Legion. In all his life, Adrien had never seen a more haggard and despondent collection of soldiers. They ambled forward with an almost drunken gait, as if each one had spent the previous day slugging down shots of sarsap liquor, weapons clutched loosely in their hands. Some looked as though they were close to breaking down in tears.

Another taunt from the Federation. Another hammer blow to our morale. Will I look like that in time? A ruined shell of a Turian whose eyes see only a nightmare that won't ever end? Is that what Sarissa will have for a husband and what Tarquin will have for a father? Will I even live long enough to find out? Only the Spirits might know.

Just then, one of the soldiers suddenly stopped in his tracks. His fellow survivors paid him no mind and simply went around him like water winding about a stone. His eyes were wide and had the sunken, glazed appearance that came from too many nights without sleep. He looked slowly around at his surroundings, blinking dully, as if wondering how he got there. Then, in a single fluid motion, he pulled out his sidearm and placed the muzzle under his chin, uttering a hysterical giggle.

Before Adrien realized what was about to happen, it did. The soldier's finger twitched and a geyser of blue erupted from his head. He collapsed in a boneless heap, blood pooling in a swiftly growing puddle. Many Turians stared aghast at the sight and Adrien knew that he was one of them. He stole a glance at Julek and his lieutenants and, as he had expected, the veteran captain hadn't even blinked. Sidra and Lux might as well have been carved from stone for all the reaction they showed.

What does it take to faze you? Adrien wondered. Just what horrors did you all have to witness to dull you so completely?

Oblivious to Adrien's stare, Julek clucked his tongue. "Well, there goes another one," he remarked lightly, as if he saw Turians kill themselves on a daily basis. Then again, that probably wasn't far off the mark. Julek turned to look over at Adrien, all cheer and glee.

"Best we get to our stations, eh Captain? The Hueys are liable to arrive any day now and we've got a lot of preparations to make."

#

The assault came three days later, and the Federation wasted no time in unleashing hell. Artillery batteries rained fire and destruction upon Coryza, alongside bombing runs from their aircraft for good measure. Whole sections of the city were leveled, crumbling into great twisted masses of concrete and steel.

But that was something that the defenders could handle. Reinforced bunkers underneath the city shielded them from the onslaught, with only the dull thuds and slight tremors of impact reminding them that there was a war going on above them. Aside from some who had been caught in the initial bombardment, there hadn't been any reported casualties.

Siros grunted in annoyance as a stream of dust trickled onto his fringe and he shifted himself out from under the spot. "Dedicated artillery units," he muttered. "I didn't think anyone still used them."

It had come as a surprise to Adrien as well. Such things had largely been rendered obsolete by the advent of spaceships. A few frigates would usually be enough to wipe most anything off the face of the world they were hovering over and a cruiser was generally considered overkill. From the viewpoint of most interstellar powers, having artillery was redundant, unnecessarily costly and overall just not worth having. Moreover, they'd just be a big target for any ships orbiting a planet. Even in the Hierarchy, the only things that could be classified as artillery was the Jiris missile launcher and Arcum siege tank.

"For a race that supposed to be so advanced, they sure have some primitive fighting methods," Viggo said. "They could get better results just by using their ships' guns."

"It might be a backwards tactic to us, but make no mistake: a Huey artillery barrage is not something to sniff at," said Lux grimly. "They can triangulate a chirping treehopper and if they catch you out in the open, you're as good as dead. Plenty of legions learned that lesson the hard way."

"Indeed," Julek put in cheerfully. The veteran captain was lounging on his bedroll, hands clasped behind his head. "They're like us in that regard; they see so much as a blip on their radar and they start shelling the place to hell."

Viggo shrugged. "Well, if they want to waste ammo, I'm sure not going to complain."

"They're not wasting their ammo," Adrien said.

"What are you talking about, boss?" Viggo asked with a snort of disbelief. He rapped the side of the wall next to him. "This place was made to withstand blasts from a cruiser; there's no way those artillery pieces of theirs could break through."

"That's not what they're trying to do." Adrien turned to look at Viggo. He was a fine officer and had good instincts when it came to combat, but his grasp of advanced tactics was rather limited.

"Think about it: while they're bombarding the city, we have to stay down here or else get reduced to ground meat. That means we're not conducting raids on their supply lines or picking off officers. So, while we're sitting here to avoid their shelling, they'll most likely be moving their units into position to surround us."

Viggo suddenly looked far less cocky. "Oh. Shit, that's not good for us then."

"Your grasp of the obvious is truly an inspiration to us all," remarked Siros, and Viggo shot him a glare.

Julek, who had been lounging about with his typical carefree attitude, nodded approvingly at Adrien. "An astute observation, Captain. Yes, down here we don't have to worry about getting blasted to pieces by their artillery. We just have to worry about what comes after."

"And what does come after?" asked Adrien as a sudden chill ran up his spine.

"Why, that's when the monsters come out to play," answered Julek with far too much cheer. "I'm sure you've heard of them, yes?"

Of course Adrien had. He could have been living under a rock for past few years and still have heard of them. The Engels and Nephilim, the Federation's pet freaks, were one of the hottest topics in the Hierarchy, with stories and rumors going around like a particularly virulent case of scale mites. The stories varied from source to source, but none of them were particularly uplifting; they generally consisted of copious amounts of gore and painful deaths.

"I've heard a few tales; can't say they were very happy ones, though."

"I imagine they wouldn't be," Julek laughed. "Rather hard to put a positive spin on such things, eh? And make no mistake, Captain, they are quite horrific to face." That statement was at complete odds with the jovial tone he spoke with.

"I don't suppose you'd be willing to give me some pointers on how to fight them?" Adrien asked.

Julek didn't answer and instead turned to regard Lux, who had been staring off into the distance with a bored look on his face.

"Lux, why don't you enlighten the good Captain? I don't want to have all the fun."

Lux gave his commanding officer a look that asked why he would inflict such a punishment on him. With a grunt, he shifted himself into a more comfortable position and turned his scarred visage onto Adrien and his lieutenants.

"First and foremost, sir," he said in a tone that perfectly conveyed his disdain for his audience without being insubordinate, "when dealing with Nephilim, don't bother using standard ammunition. It won't do crap against them unless you get insanely lucky. Armor piercing and explosive ammo mods are the most reliable type for doing damage. Aim for the head; that's the best way to kill them, but even that isn't a guarantee. They've got a healing factor that puts Krogan to shame. I once saw one with almost half its skull missing kill a squad of soldiers before it got put down for good. So if you manage to bring one down, double tap if you can. For the bigger ones, you'll need heavy weapons to take them out.

"Now, I know I'm stating the obvious, but don't get into close quarters with them; that's an almost guaranteed death sentence, and believe me, they will do their damnedest to get up close and personal. They won't think anything of charging a hail of gunfire to get at you. And if they think that's not an option, then they'll just try and shoot you with their mounted weapons."

"Great," Viggo muttered. "Anything else we should know? Do they spit fire and shit plasma too?"

"No, but the Anakim—they're the smallest ones—have a venomous bite. It's some sort of hemotoxic mix, and it's insanely lethal. You get bitten by one of them and the best you can hope for is to lose a limb. Assuming, of course, that you survive the experience; they might be the runts of the litter, but they're still nine-odd feet of solid muscle and cybernetics with jaws that can shear through metal. Odds are they'll maul you to death before the venom gets a chance to really affect you."

"An infinitely preferable fate than letting the venom run its course, I say," Julek put in. "I've seen the effects it has on the Turian body. Not a pretty sight."

"We'll take your word for it," Adrien said. The last thing he wanted was for Julek to start describing the effects or, even worse, provide some photo examples. From what he'd seen of him, he wouldn't put it past Julek to have something like that on his omni-tool.

"What about the Engels?"

Lux stared in confusion at Adrien, as if he hadn't understood the question. "What about them?"

"You haven't given any advice on how to fight them."

Lux now looked at Adrien as if he had just said something unbelievably stupid. Julek, meanwhile, literally fell over laughing.

"Fight an Engel!" he brayed, pounding a fist against the ground. "He wants to know how fight an Engel! That's too rich!"

He devolved into another fit of mirth and didn't stop until he began to cough. Then, he sat back up, still giggling to himself. He wiped his eyes with the back of one hand.

"Spirits, I haven't laughed that hard in a long time," he remarked before turning his attention back to Adrien.

"To answer your question, Captain, you don't fight an Engel. You run from an Engel. You hide from an Engel. But you sure as bleeding shit don't fight an Engel. The simple fact is, they're the size of buildings, covered in armor durable enough to shrug off most attacks and can heal from serious wounds in minutes; basically, take everything a Nephilim is and multiply by about ten."

"So there's no way to harm them?" Adrien asked.

"Not unless you have a tank tucked away in your pocket." Julek suddenly leaned forward to stare intently at Adrien. "Do you have a tank?"

The question was so earnest that Adrien couldn't tell if he was being serious or not. "No…not since I last checked."

Julek sat back, his interest apparently gone. "Well, there you have it then. Your guns would do nothing more than scratch the paint on an Engel's armor. Something of a wasted effort, I would say."

He leaned back onto his bedroll and once more laced his arms behind his head. "Well, since it seems the Nefs aren't going to play with us for the time being, I suggest we all rest up. I expect that we won't be sleeping very much in the near future."

For his part, Adrien was sure he wasn't going to be sleeping at all now.

#

The bombardment of Coryza went on for another three days. Day and night, there was a near-continuous salvo of missiles and artillery shells blasting the city. Though Turians were conditioned to stay collected when under fire, being forced to stay cooped up in the confines of underground fortifications wore mightily on the nerves. When the barrage finally stopped, it was almost a relief for the defenders.

The scene that greeted Adrien when he reemerged from the bunker was one of absolute devastation. The Federation's shelling had left nothing unscathed. Most of the buildings, once tall and proud examples of Turian architecture, were now smoldering ruins that huddled amidst fields of debris. The streets were pockmarked by craters, some deep enough to fit a tank. Water spouted from ruined pipes and a few guttering fires dotted the area. The air was thick with the choking aroma of smoke and dust.

Off to his left, Viggo let out a low whistle. "Damn. Huey really pounded this place. I don't think there's a single building still in one piece."

"No time for sightseeing, Viggo," Adrien said. "We've got work to do." He turned to address his company.

"All right people, here's how it's going to be. We'll set up a perimeter around here, squads spaced out every three yards. Find a good place to hunker down and make sure you've got a route back down to the caves. Odds are we'll get bombarded again at some point, so make sure you can get down there as fast as you can. Viggo, Siros, you're with me. Fall out."

Having received their orders, his troops promptly set about establishing their positions in the typical efficient manner of Turian soldiers. Within minutes, they all had solid defense points and were primed and ready to repel whatever came their way.

Julek, who had finished relaying his own orders to his company, sidled up to Adrien with the casual air of one meeting with an old acquaintance. Lux and Sidra followed behind him like a pair of unfriendly shadows, glaring around at their surroundings. Julek observed Adrien's troops and gave a nod of approval.

"Quick, well-organized and no need for micromanaging," he observed. "That's good. Soldiers that can think for themselves are the ones that live." He paused for a moment, then added, "Well, at least a little longer than the others."

He chuckled and looked up at Adrien. "Shall we see to our own devices, Captain? I've found a decent enough place for us to settle in to fight the good fight when the time comes."

Julek's place turned out to be a partially-demolished restaurant. In its original state, it had probably been a ritzy establishment, the kind that the upper-ranked citizens would frequent; not so much now, though. A section of its roof had been caved in, mostly likely the result of a direct hit from a shell or missile, but it still looked fairly solid. Moreover, it offered a clear view of a main street junction which would most likely be seeing a good deal of enemy traffic and had a clear route back down to the bunkers if another bombardment began.

Viggo nudged Adrien with his shoulder. "Think there's anything still good in there, boss? Hell, I'd go for a bowl of stewed Oma Ker sea snails if it meant I didn't have to eat those ration bars."

"We can hope, but I don't think we're going to be that lucky," Adrien said.

As they entered the bombed-out structure, Siros suddenly reared back as if he'd been physically struck. His hand flew up to his nose so fast that his armored palm clacked audibly against his bone plates.

"Spirits above, what is that smell?" he exclaimed, eyes wide with disgust.

Adrien soon got a whiff of it too; a cloying stench of rotten meat and other unmentionable odors assaulted his nose, so heavy that he gagged and had to consciously force himself not to pour out the contents of his stomach onto the floor. The source of the reek was soon revealed to them as they glanced around the interior.

There, propped up against a wall, was the ravaged carcass of a Turian soldier, no doubt one of the unfortunates who hadn't been able to get down to safety when the barrage had started. It was an ugly thing to look at. One of its legs was missing, torn off just below the knee, and its midsection was laid open so that the entrails spilled out in a bloody pile. One eye had been popped from its socket and hung by its optic nerve, swaying like an obscene pendulum.

"Oh, don't worry about him," Julek said, moving to kneel beside the corpse. "He's kindly allowed us to bunk with him, isn't that right?" Julek paused as if awaiting a response from the bloated cadaver, then nodded appreciatively.

"Most considerate of you," he said, giving it a friendly pat on the shoulder.

Viggo tilted his head towards Adrien, his eyes never leaving Julek. "Boss, the guy's talking to a dead body." His voice was a barely audible mutter.

"Yes Viggo, I can see that," Adrien replied in an equally hushed tone. He stole a glance at Sidra and Lux; neither of them seemed to be at all put off by their captain striking up a conversation with a stiff. In fact, they looked to be completely disinterested in the whole thing.

But the horror show wasn't over yet. Right before his eyes, without so much as a moment's hesitation, Julek suddenly shoved a hand into the morass of entrails and scooped out a large fetid clump. To Adrien's further revulsion, Julek began to liberally smear the mess on his breastplate.

"What are you doing?" Adrien blurted, unable to contain himself. The sight of a fellow Turian covering himself in the bodily fluids of a decaying body demanded he say something.

Julek stared up at Adrien, looking at him as if he was being especially dim. "I'm coating my armor in this departed soul's viscera," he said, sounding like a parent explaining a new concept to a young child. "I should think that would be obvious."

"But…," Adrien groped to form a response. "Why?" he finally managed to get out.

"You remember the Nephilim that Lux talked about? Well, in addition to being tough enough to give a Krogan pause, they also have a very keen sense of smell. Thankfully, this good soldier's rancid fragrance will most likely make them think that there's nothing here but decaying bodies marinating in their own fluids. I know, it's gruesome and terribly unhygienic, but you get used to it. It's quite astounding just what you can get used to out here."

Having finished his explanation, Julek promptly resumed where he had left off. Sidra and Lux soon joined him, all without so much as batting an eye. Adrien and his two lieutenants could only watch in mute and horrified disgust as the veteran Turians continued to apply the nauseating slurry of putrefying offal to their armor. Once they had finished, Julek gestured at the body.

"All yours Captain," he said with the air of one offering a plate of delicacies to a guest. "Plenty to go around, so feel free to be liberal."

An instinctive sense of abject repulsion forced Adrien to take a large step back. "I…I can't. I just can't."

Viggo and Siros mirrored their captain's opinion on the matter. From the look of them, they'd sooner slit their own wrists than cover themselves in rotting innards. Julek merely shrugged.

"Suit yourselves. I doubt your own scent would win out over this aromatic perfume in any case." He stood up, stretched his arms and sauntered off to a window on the far wall, Lux and Sidra trailing at his heels, which he promptly sat down beside.

What kind of lunatics have we gotten stuck with? Adrien wondered silently.

#

Adrien crouched underneath a window and peered cautiously through it. The glass panes had been shattered, leaving only a few jagged shards jutting from the frame. Night had fallen across the city, shrouding it in a blanket of darkness. The only light came from the full moon that loomed overhead. The scant illumination revealed nothing, and so Adrien ducked back down.

"See anything, sir?" asked Siros. He had taken up position alongside him, just below a hole that had been blasted through the wall. His assault rifle was gripped so tightly in his hands that Adrien thought he could hear the metal squeak.

Adrien shook his head. "Still nothing."

"If the fuckers are going to attack, why don't they hurry up and attack!" Viggo growled, checking the sights of his own gun to see if there was anything wrong. He had done that at least eight times, now; a nervous tick of his that showed up whenever the big Turian was feeling tense. The gun apparently hadn't spontaneously developed any defects since those previous inspections and so Viggo sat back against the wall with a frustrated breath.

They were all on edge, expecting the Federation to attack at any moment. Adrien himself was no exception, though he took pains not to show it. His entire body felt like one big bundle of nerves and he had to actively try to suppress the tremors that threatened to course through him. It didn't help that their hiding spot was still heavy with the stench of the dead body that was still propped up against the far wall, which now bore a distinctly hollowed-out midsection.

A shudder finally did manage to break Adrien's control as he recalled Julek and his lieutenants practically lathering themselves in the corpse's rancid viscera. He still could not fathom how anyone could do something like that, and so casually at that. Not for the first time, Adrien wondered what exactly had pushed Julek to such lengths; and, like all the other times, he quickly decided he didn't want to know.

Shaking his head clear, Adrien once more craned his neck to look out the window. Yet again, all that could be seen were the shadowy outlines of ruined buildings. Not so much as a—

Wait a minute.

There was a flicker of movement off in the distance and his eyes snapped to the place where he had seen it. His gaze stayed riveted on the spot, not even daring to blink and for what felt like an eternity, Adrien stared, trying to catch a glimpse of anything that might be prowling around.

Nothing.

You've got to calm down, Adrien, he told himself with an internal sigh. Your nerves are frayed enough as it is.

Just as he was about to sit back down, he caught sight of another flicker of movement and this time, he knew he wasn't imagining things. Barely twenty meters away, Adrien saw something slink around a pile of debris. Though he only saw if for the briefest instance, he made out a hunched, unnatural form that seemed to move about in a loping quadrupedal gait.

Adrenaline shot through Adrien, banishing all traces of torpor. Without looking away, he roughly cuffed Viggo and Siros on their shoulders. Their heads snapped towards him in anticipation.

"I've got something!" Adrien hissed, doing his best to keep his voice as quiet as possible.

Galvanized by their captain's words, Siros and Viggo swiftly took up firing positions. "Where, sir?" whispered Siros urgently.

"Dead ahead, twenty meters away!"

Adrien shot a cursory glance over to where Julek and his lieutenants were to warn them, but that proved to be unnecessary. They were already alert, their weapons held at the ready, peeking out through either windows or holes in the wall. Adrien refocused his attention back to where he had seen whatever it was.

For a long moment, Adrien remained stock-still, his senses heightened to almost painful levels. Once more, there was nothing to be seen and nothing to be heard. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the thing revealed itself, and Adrien felt his breath catch in his throat.

A Nephilim. One of the Federation's infamous bioengineered monsters.

It was a great brute of a thing, tall enough to look a Turian in the eye, even crouched on all fours as it was. Were it to rear up on its hind legs, it would easily have stood over nine feet tall. Its entire body was sheathed in a bone-white covering like a second skin, highlighting the bulging musculature that made up its frame. The overlong arms each ended in a four-fingered hand, upon which jutted claws like butchers' knives. Its protruding maw was a savage panoply of long interlocking fangs, their placement unnaturally perfect.

Something primitive and instinctual erupted in Adrien's back brain at the sight of the thing, demanding that climb up the tallest vantage point he could find and hurl rocks down at this enemy. He viciously squashed the urge just as a second Nephilim came out of the darkness, sidling up next to the first one. More soon followed; off to his side, Adrien heard Siros utter a choking sound.

"I count twenty of those things!" he said in a hushed tone. "Spirits, they're huge!"

"Now who's stating the obvious?" Viggo said. He tried to sound unworried, but the effect was ruined by the distinct waver in his voice. Ignoring his lieutenants', Adrien placed a finger to the side of his helmet, activating his company's personal comm channel.

"All troops, be advised we have enemy units gathering due north; at least twenty hostiles and possibly more in reserve, most likely a skirmishing force. Aim for their heads if at all possible. Pick your targets, but do not engage until I give the order. I repeat, do not engage except on my command."

Having relayed his orders, Adrien leveled his assault rifle at the Nephilim that had first appeared. The gun seemed utterly inadequate to deal with such a monster, and Adrien suddenly felt like a child thinking to take down a shatha with a cap gun.

The first Nephilim slowly looked from side to side; a trio of tiny green lights, which Adrien assumed marked its eyes, gazed out with a predatory focus. It then tilted its head upwards, and its massive chest swelled as it sniffed the air. Its fellow monsters mimicked the action, like a pack of varren trying to determine where the prey was hiding. And was exactly what Adrien and his fellow Turians were: prey. Armed and dangerous prey perhaps, but prey nonetheless.

The creatures continued to sniff for a few moments longer and then, in almost perfect unison, began to prowl forward. They did so in complete silence, weaving their way through the fields of debris with a sinuous grace that belied their monstrous forms.

Now I know how a pyjak feels when something is after it, thought Adrien.

The monsters had now closed the distance to fifteen meters. Adrien steeled himself for combat, pressing the stock of his assault rifle firmly against his shoulder. He activated his company's comm channel again and in a low, calm voice, he spoke two words:

"Open fire."

No sooner had he uttered the last word when the staccato clamor of mass accelerator rounds filled the air, catching the monsters in a textbook example of overlapping fire. Adrien added his own rounds to the mix and now bursts of blue light came from all angles like a swarm of angry wasps. One of them fell almost immediately, riddled with enough rounds to kill a krogan. Even then, it managed to clamber back to its feet until one well-placed or exceedingly lucky shot blew out the top of its skull. It collapsed, twitched for a few moments and then lay still.

The rest howled, more in indignation than pain, and scattered. A normal opponent would try to fall back behind cover and try to return fire, but the creatures were anything but normal. Rather than retreat, they went on the attack. Some raised their arms, returning fire with electrokinetic guns that were grafted to their forearms that spewed hypervelocity death. The others simply charged ahead, seeking out the nearest enemy they could find.

And one of them chose Adrien's hiding place as a target.

The thing ran headlong at the restaurant, moving far faster than something so misshapen had any right to. Adrien barely had time to dive out of the way before it crashed through the wall where he'd been standing only a moment ago. Siros let out a cry of dismay and Viggo swore violently as they both turned their weapons towards the monstrosity that was now in their midst.

Adrien now had the supreme misfortune to appreciate just how massive the Nephilim was. Standing upright, it loomed over the Turians like a malevolent tower, bared fangs dripping with saliva. It growled, a guttural rumbling sound that Adrien could actually feel in his chest. The sight of this creature, this bioengineered living weapon, was such an overwhelming experience that Adrien could not help but stare in shocked fascination.

The moment's hesitation nearly cost him his life. With a snarl, the beast swiped at him with its murderous claws, the attack so fast that Adrien almost didn't react in time. He ducked under the swing and stumbled backwards to land hard on his backside.

The Nephilim didn't wait for him to regain his footing and pressed its attack. It raised fists the size of hubcaps high into the air and brought them down like enormous sledgehammers. Again, Adrien escaped death by mere inches, rolling away just before the creature's fists smashed into the floor, leaving behind a small crater.

"I could use a little help here!" Adrien shouted as he regained his footing. He managed to get off a few shots from his assault rifle before he had to dodge another vicious swipe.

"Duck if you please, Captain!"

Adrien's mind registered that it was Julek who had called out and then promptly did as he was told. No sooner had he hurled himself prone onto the floor when the distinctive blast of a concussive shot rent the air. Adrien glanced up to see the Nephilim stagger back to crash into a sitting booth. Taking the opening, Adrien scrambled back away from it, putting himself well out of its reach. Strong hands seized him under the arms as Viggo pulled him back to his feet.

"You okay, boss?" the big Turian asked.

"Just fine," Adrien replied. "Hopefully I'll stay that way."

"Don't we all?" remarked Julek, his own rifle aimed at the Nephilim and with his two lieutenants right alongside. He couldn't see past the veteran's helmet visor, but Adrien was willing to bet that he was grinning manically.

"Try not to get bitten, Captain. This beastie is the one with the poison bite."

"I'll keep that in mind," Adrien promised.

The Nephilim hauled itself out of the booth's wreckage and faced the Turians. The concussive shot didn't appear to have done any real damage, but it judging by the bared fangs and loud snarl, it had managed to piss the monster off.

The soldiers didn't give it a chance to resume its attack. As one, they poured high-velocity fire at the towering abomination. Dozens of holes were punched into its armor which leaked dark red blood, but it very rudely refused to die. Shielding its head with one arm, it extended the other and Adrien was suddenly staring down the barrel of a rather big gun. The Nephilim fired back at them, the first round hitting Adrien on the side of his chest. His kinetic barrier shrugged off the shot and, in what seemed to be a theme of this fight, he dove out of the way.

Adrien glanced down at his visor's readout to look at how much damage his shields had taken and his eyes widened in alarm. They had been reduced to fifty percent; a full half gone with just that one round.

Okay, so my barriers can hold for only two shots from these things. Good to know.

The Nephilim's attack failed to kill any of them, but it forced the Turians to dive for cover, effectively stopping their own firing. It let out a roar that rattled Adrien's teeth and launched itself at him, clawed hands ready to tear him to pieces.

"Oh, come on!" cried Adrien at it as he avoided another swipe. "What's so special about me?"

Whatever the reason, the Nephilim was clearly dead set on killing him. But, in its self-appointed mission to put an end to his life, it failed to acknowledge the other combatants. As a result, Siros managed to take out its right leg with a well-placed shot to the back of its knee. The monster shrieked in pain sank down, its uninjured leg and burly arms supporting its weight while the mangled limb flopped pitifully behind it.

Unfortunately, Siros's act of violence earned it the full attention of the now thoroughly enraged Nephilim. In spite of its damaged leg, it still moved with blinding speed and swung a vicious backhand at him. Siros tried to avoid the blow, but he wasn't fast enough. The huge arm slammed squarely into his midsection and he was suddenly airborne for a good dozen feet before he crashed into a table, flipping it over and landing sprawled onto his back where he lay, groaning his misery.

With one nuisance out of the way, the Nephilim turned its attention back towards the other Turians. This time, it focused on Julek. It rose back up to its full height and Adrien was horrified to notice that its wounded leg, which had only a minute before been rendered all but useless, once more supported the hulking beast with only a minor limp to mark the earlier injury.

Spirits, just how much punishment can this thing take?

Julek, noticing that he was now the subject of the monster's murderous attention, adopted an easy and unflustered stance. "So, you want to dance with me now?" he asked it in a conversational manner. "Well, who am I to refuse?"

What happened next was something that Adrien knew he would remember to his dying day. All alone, Julek ran towards the Nephilim. Its jaws hinged, opening up almost a hundred and eighty degrees, ready to bite down on the Turian. Julek ducked under the gaping, slavering maw which snapped together with an awful clacking sound and slid between its legs, nimble as a greased pyjak. The Nephilim whipped around, snarling its anger, and the hand became a fist as it descended to crush Julek into paste. Once again, Julek was too quick and he darted back behind the hulking creature, out of reach of its lethal claws and fangs. Spirits, he was actually laughing! The mad bastard was enjoying himself!

The beast was growing frustrated with the little Turian and redoubled its efforts to squash him. Julek ducked under a wild swing and again slid between its legs. This time, though, he didn't immediately bounce back to his feet. Instead, his omnitool activated and a single-edged blade swung out, which he drove into the back of the knee that Siros had previously shot, sawing and twisting with merciless enthusiasm. As the creature once more fell to all fours, Julek called out to his lieutenants.

"Sidra, Lux, put the poor thing out of its misery."

At his command, the two opened up with their guns straight at the Nephilim's head. The armor-piercing rounds sprayed blood, bone and flesh in a wide plume. The monster's limbs gave out and it collapsed onto the floor, its head a bloody ruin. Julek strode briskly up beside it and casually put a few more rounds into the pulped flesh for peace of mind.

Adrien stared down at the dead Nephilim and then back at Julek and his lieutenants. He was honestly at a loss for words. Well, except for one, which he spoke in an impressed tone.

"Damn."

Julek turned back to him and gave a theatrical bow. "Thank you, Captain. It's always a pleasure to have an appreciative audience."

With the immediate threat gone, Adrien and Viggo rushed over to Siros, who had managed to lurch up into a sitting position.

"Are you all right?" Adrien asked as Viggo helped the smaller Turian back to his feet.

"No need to worry, sir," Siros said. "I'm a little banged up, but still fit for duty."

There was a slight note of pain in his voice, but considering he had been sent on an impromptu flight courtesy of a bioengineered monster, that was to be expected. Satisfied that his First Lieutenant was not in any danger, he opened up his company's comm channel.

"All units, this is Captain Victus. Someone give me a sitrep, stat."

Reports from the squads that made up his company flooded in. All enemy units had been eliminated. On his own side, there were three KIA, half a dozen wounded and the rest still fighting fit. All things considered, it could have been much worse.

But this was just a probing attack, he reminded himself. The Federation only wanted to test us and get a feel of what we can do.

As if acting on his thoughts, there came a raucous clamor of bestial roars and shrieks off in the distance. Adrien looked out in time to see the shapes of even more Nephilim coming towards their position. This time, it wasn't a mere scouting force; a veritable tide of the monsters, possibly numbering in the thousands, were bounding their way towards the defenders, each one eager for the slaughter that was to come.

Now the real fight began.