Many have since wondered what exactly had delayed the Word of Blake assault on the Inner Sphere in late 3067. After all, they had built up massive stockpiles of mechs, ships, and most ominously, nuclear weapons.

The answer to that question was neither simple or straightforward, but one of the key reasons was the revelation of new technology on Outreach in very early November 3067, just before the dissolution of the Star League. The Word of Blake was worried about the possibility of another faction hidden amongst the stars, which might have returned to foil their crusade.

Even after our return to Outreach in late May 3068, with the assurance that there are no little green men out there (more or less), the Blakists did not bother to go ahead with their plan, because several events and opportunities had cropped up which could be extremely beneficial to their plan in the long run if they were patient.

These events were the Black Dragon Rebellion, the Taurian Civil War, and a massive inter-clan war sparked by the Star Adders, Blood Spirits, and Fire Mandrills. It was a simple matter for Word of Blake analysts to realize that the dozens of military units that would invariably fall in these conflicts would outweigh the gains made by the battered, sundered halves of the former Federated Commonwealth, thus making their task all the easier.

By formenting yet another rebellion in the Free Worlds League, they would reduce their long list of enemies yet further, increasing their chances of finally bringing their maddened philosophies to the Inner Sphere.

On hindsight, they should not have waited. Patience was not always a virtue, especially in war.

-From The Word of Blake Contagion, Frank Meronac

Richard Cameron Spaceport, Terra

Chaos March

02nd May, 3068

On a hilltop of green grass, the man known to some people as Landar stared out at the mass of dropships sitting on the tarmac of the spaceport, watching as loads of cargo marked with the sign of radioactive material rolled out of the massive transports into a nearby warehouse.

"Close, eh?" Banedon, his companion and fellow conspirator of many years walked up beside him. "Good to see that our plan is working."

"Yeah," Landar replied. "I would hate to see innocent people die from a stupid and senseless religious war fought for an equally asinine reason."

Banedon, a slender man with yellow hair, snorted, "If they had carried out their jihad, how many would have died before they were stopped?"

"The best estimates Falcon gave me for his psychohistory projections was about 20 billion people, with no assurance that the Houses and Clans would recover enough to counterattack back, and if they used nukes as well…" Landar's voice trailed off.

"Things would go down the drain faster than you can blink." Banedon sighed once. "But Falcon did say that wasn't likely, and the end result of the jihad would be a supposedly egalitarian republic dedicated to peace, probably founded by a survivor of the jihad."

This time it was Landar's turn to snort. "Oh yeah, and that same republic falls apart after its founder leaves or dies from old age because they were too stupid to check the HPGs for the Wobblies' final legacy. I never liked feudal societies anyway, and especially a feudal society masquerading as a republic only several decades old with loads of questionable policies to appease its supposedly 'equal' citizenry. This sort of artificial system falls apart far too easily for my liking, and the mass demobilization Falcon predicted is going to be a death warrant when the Enemy arrives."

A Grand Crusader marched by beneath their vantage point, seemingly unaware of the two observers. Built like a walking brick, it mounted pulse lasers and two large missile racks, capable of flattening a city on its very own.

Landar stabbed his hand at the battlemech. "These are what is needed to drive back the enemy, not hastily modified agromechs and workmechs, which is just about all there would be in the future if we didn't interfere. Better the Enemy arrives in about five years time, drawn by the events on the Qlictorio staging world, then to arrive on their scheduled sweep about 70 years later facing a humanity without communications, working battlemechs, or even a significant force of veteran, hardened soldiers."

"You really think this could be the turning point?"

"Hell yeah. There are few other places in the whole goddamned universe where the local conditions are just right, and the clinching point are the young ones coming up. They'll make all the difference in the long run, instead of dying in senseless wars against each other or languishing in farms unable to fulfill their destiny because they're dying of old age. Not to mention the Ractori…"

"Who still have no idea of who they are." Banedon reminded him.

Landar shook off the reminder with a wave of his hand. "They will find out when the time is right. Right now, our plan is going well, and everything else should fall into place when it's time."

"Pieces on a samor chessboard." Banedon said wistfully. "You were never a good player of it, because you valued lives too highly."

"And I still do. Better to coerce the enemy into moving when it's to our advantage now, than to squander the advantage due to inaction."

"The Illuminati?"

"In the right place at the right time. The emergence of Frank Meronac was an unexpected bonus, and he'll be coming here soon. The lures we set back on Outreach should be dragging him here within 6 months. The Elders already have a plan to induct him…"

"But you have other ideas." Banedon was as astute as ever.

"Correct. The potential is there, though he might be a bit old. What's important, though, is there should be somebody with the skill and ability to unite the Inner Sphere when the Enemy arrives, and I think it should be Frank, and not Ian Dorlacen as our first choice."

"You ran this through Falcon and Tarandis?" It was a statement, not a question.

Landar nodded, a few wisps of blond hair flying down to momentarily cover his brow. "Yup. In fact, the odds are even better with Frank as the front man."

"You know, if I didn't know better, I would swear somebody up there," Banedon pointed a finger towards the sky, "is helping us this time. Nice change of pace."

Landar replied, "We deserve it after being on the receiving end for so long. I don't know about you, but I get the feeling that this could be the start of something greater than anything the galaxy has seen before."

Banedon watched as the last of the vehicles moved into the warehouse. "Maybe. But I think we'll be quite happy if they just manage to survive." A dull hum could be heard from the field.

The two men continued to look out onto the darkening sky as the dropships lifted off on long tongues of fusion flame, the roar of their engines drowning out everything else.

The Nice Guy Presents

Seekers in Shadow A Battletech Fanfiction Novel

Their names had since been etched on the annals of history, their deeds and accomplishments inspiration to so many after the disappointments of the Fed-Com Civil War.

It was strange to many people that three men of such differing backgrounds managed to set aside their prejudices to swear allegiance to one another, and even stranger that they actually held to that vow despite future events.

The entire concept was reminiscent of the way Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu stood by each other in one of the most hallowed of Chinese literature classics, Romance of The Three Kingdoms. It was no real surprise, then, that the people of the Capellan Confederation were among the first to come around to the idea of the new Star League, no matter what Chancellor Liao said, because they seemed to have recognized something in Frank Meronac, Ian Calderon, and Descartin Winters that spoke to their cultural values of unquestioned loyalty and brotherhood.

As for motives, quite a few people gave the reason of a shared goal for the future. Others cited their working together on Einstein, but the truth was even simpler.

It all started with a combat exercise against the Wolf Dragoons and a barroom brawl in the same evening. And a lot of coincidences.

-Movin' and Shakin', A Colloquial History of the 3rd Star League, Daniel Mills

Harlech Training Grounds, Outreach

Chaos March

3rd May 3068

"I need some support now!" The frantic voice of Ian Dorlacen roared out over the comms as Descartin Winters idly played his hands over his joysticks.

Most of the others had long since given up on expecting any help from Des in this training exercise against the Wolf Dragoons, arranged just before their meeting with Jaime Wolf in the afternoon. General Maeve Wolf had wanted to test the mettle of the mercs, and they were more or less coerced into fighting her command with what they have on planet, which was not much.

In fact, the mech Des was riding actually belonged to the Dragoons, a 3N Rifleman that had seen far better days. It was still a potent machine of war, however old and dated it was.

Except that Des had no stomach for war anymore. His Rifleman stood far behind the front lines of the battle, a spectator unbothered even by the Dragoons, who were focusing on more accessible targets.

The training technology was truly state of the art. Each mech had been equipped with special programs and sensors that allowed them to fully simulate a real battle in almost every way, except physical combat. Even heat levels and tonnage loss were programmed into the mechs to mimic combat effects.

Des watched as Bryan's Fenris exchanged fire with a Dragoon Black Hawk, both mechs going down as they cored each other in the same instant. The sight of the Black Hawk collapsing on his screen brought pangs of pain into his heart, as he remembered Deserk's final ride on Einstein.

Des turned away from his Heads-Up-Display, trying to shut out the images of the last few moments of the desperate struggle on Einstein. The wounds on his soul, not just from Deserk's death, but also from his easy acceptance of dying, had crippled him.

"Damn it, Des! We need your mech here!" It was Frank Meronac shouting for him this time.

Descartin looked around his display, picking out Frank's Night Gyr as he blasted a Dragoon Marauder II with his ultra autocannon, dumping it on the ground with the loss of an entire torso.

To no avail, as a Wolfhound slashed through the Gyr's rear armor, seeking out its ammo stores for the autocannon. It failed to hit the critical areas, but Frank was forced to jump his mech away from the line in order to shield his rear.

There were only 4 mechs left from their side, not counting Des' Rifleman. Frank's Night Gyr, Ian's modified Awesome, Daniela Mattlov's Masakari, and Yoshino Ihara's Nobori-Nin. They faced Maeve Wolf's Thunderbolt, Brian Cameron's Loki, a Beowulf, a Wolfhound, another Loki, and two omni-Blackjacks.

The Dragoons wheeled their line with the Thunderbolt as the pivot as they targeted Daniela's anchoring Masakari with all their weapons. Daniela never stood a chance as her mech went down with a cored torso.

"Des, this is no time to be wallowing in the past. Time to fight!" Even Yoshino was beginning to panic as he realized that he had a one in three chance of being the next to be taken out.

"Forget it!" Ian's exasperation could be heard even through his heavy breathing due to the heat buildup in his mech. "If he wants to be a waste for the rest of his life, let him! Deserk's sacrifice had been in vain!"

The comms crackled with a transmission from Maeve Wolf. "So, is this the best the clans have to offer? And I was wondering what you did to gain your reputation, much less a bloodname, Descartin Winters. Your sibko must be overrated."

Ian's words had already sparked a tiny flame of defiance in Des which would normally be quenched almost immediately by his depression, but Maeve's insult was what finally fanned the flame into an inferno. Des felt a long dormant fire alight inside him, pushing him into action.

Out of all the members of his sibko that had made it past cadet training to become warriors of the clan, he was the sole survivor left. The others had all died valiantly in battle, often holding out against terrible odds, much like what Deserk had done. What gave Maeve Wolf the right to say his sibko was overrated?

What did it mean if he did not even stand up for his sibkin? Des had already given up on himself, but he did not think he could abandon the memory of his fellows that easily. He came to the conclusion that he had to fight, if not for himself, then at least to ensure Deserk's sacrifice had meaning and value.

"My sibko was not overrated!" Des yelled out in anger as he accelerated the Rifleman forward, smoothly dropping his crosshairs over a Blackjack, and depressing his triggers in a familiar motion.

Two large lasers and two medium autocannons hammered into the Inner Sphere omnimech, scouring away layers of armor and ripping into the mech's interior. A bright glow within the Blackjack could be seen on his IR screen as it lost engine shielding.

A follow up shot by Ian into the Blackjack finished it, dumping it onto the ground as Frank commented, "The sleeping giant awakes."

Des gasped for air as the Rifleman overheated into the yellow zone, the sweat from his pores bursting out and evaporating just as quickly. His brain was already assessing the situation, trying to make sense of the data streaming on the screens, seeking any advantage in the battle.

Yoshino tried to jump his Nobori-Nin clear of a crossfire between Maeve and Brian Cameron, but his leg was shot off in midair, causing his mech to tumble to the ground impotently when it landed.

The other Blackjack and Loki ganged up on Des, seeking to remove the Rifleman, the weakest mech present, from the battle. Almost before they fired, Des felt the same peculiar sensation that had first appeared back on Einstein during that last climatic battle, as if he was standing upon a precipice, where falling either way could lead to death. Standing on the thin line between life and death, it seemed, had given him an incredible edge in battle, allowing him to target mechs with almost chilling precision.

If only he did not feel as if he would really die if he took one wrong breath. And the turmoil racing through his mind did not help matters any, as he grappled anew with the thought of simply letting go and abandoning his mech, his life to the units firing on him, even if this was just an exercise.

The Blackjack and Loki missed with all their shots, even as Des replied with two autocannon bursts, the shots slamming into the Loki's center torso in a series of pock-pock explosions, Des making small corrections on his joystick as he endeavored to keep his shot grouping close.

"Seems like the Nova Cat has decided to come out and play," Maeve remarked as she consolidated her units into two short lances for a final charge over the three remaining mechs.

Frank backed his Night Gyr up, while Ian moved his battered Awesome even further back, as Des moved into the front to blunt the Dragoons' attack.

Two to one odds, Des noted. Not good at all, though he was determined to win this fight just to spite the Dragoons, especially after their slur against his sibkin.

The next few seconds was a flurry of near misses as the Dragoons sought to take him out, but the Rifleman was left untouched as Des fired back at the Loki, this time making sure to maintain a reasonable heat curve. The Rifleman 3N was not equipped with double heat sinks.

Once again, his shots were all on target, the laser carving a path into the Loki with a gray storm of autocannon shells following close behind. The Loki shuddered once, then collapsed onto the ground with massive internal failures.

The Beowulf and the remaining Blackjack cut to one side, seeking to flank them while the Thunderbolt, a Loki, and the Wolfhound charged straight into their guns.

Brian Cameron's Loki twisted desperately to avoid a shot from Ian's heavy gauss rifle as two and a half hundred kilograms of metal flew through the air towards the thinly armored shell of the Loki, but it was in vain as the gauss slug punched viciously through the thin left leg armor, spinning the Loki to the ground with the sheer violence of the impact.

But not before the Loki cut loose with dual PPC streams into the Awesome, slicing into its leg and gimping the mech, leaving the Awesome as just a heavily armed walking turret.

Frank fired his array of large lasers at the Blackjack, slicing away one arm of the mech. The Blackjack tried to compensate for the loss of the arm, but overcorrected and toppled to the ground.

Maeve's Thunderbolt unleashed a storm of missiles and lasers at Frank, the photon darts piercing the air in a horizontal rain as LRMs swarmed all over the Night Gyr in multiple explosions created by the computer program installed by the Dragoon techs, even as the Beowulf continued moving to their rear. The Gyr staggered with the loss of at least 2 tons of armor, but managed to stay upright.

"Back to back! Form up on me!" Ian shouted.

"Gotcha!" Frank replied. Des did not reply, but turned his Rifleman to face the Beowulf, moving behind the Awesome to cover its rear.

"They're going to target our backsides at all angles, so use your front armor as shields for the guy standing behind you. Keep each other alive no matter what." Ian said, then added, "Hey, I don't like losing either, not even to Dragoons."

Nor I, Des confirmed silently. He then spoke aloud, "Take out the Loki. It is trying to snipe from the ground." The Loki he had mentioned was using its arm to lever itself into a firing position, only to be foiled when Ian pumped another heavy gauss round through its center, the force of the round crashing through the internal structure and wrecking the engine.

"Done. Good idea with the talking, though. Keep in touch," said Ian.

The Beowulf finally started an attack run on them against Ian's rear, but Des quickly shifted his Rifleman over to block any clear shots to the back armor. Incidentally, that also allowed the Rifleman's infamously thin paper tissue rear armor to be shielded by the massive bulk of the Awesome.

"Beowulf starting run." Des sounded out the same instant Frank said, "Blackjack's back up, Wolfhound's attacking me. I'll try to hold them off, but no guarantees."

"Frank, forget about those two, and con-fire at the T-Bolt. Maeve's the best pilot here, and we need to take her out." Ian ordered. Sounds of explosions could be heard in the background, obviously from the Thunderbolt's missiles on the Awesome.

The next few moments were a distinct haze to Des, as all the mechs remaining on the field took shots at one another. The Beowulf tried to take him since it was unable to hit the Awesome, but missed with all its weapons, while he blasted apart its left torso with one good volley from all his weapons, gambling on his heat levels.

The shells from his autocannon tore apart the torso armor moments before his lasers melted several nice round holes through the internal structure, where the computer painted a blank blue area because it was unable to simulate the scenery behind the Beowulf.

Now it is three on three, Des told himself.

Meanwhile, Ian was in trouble, losing both of his arms to salvos from the other three Dragoon mechs, as well as most of his engine shielding.

Frank was trying to provide some support, but the Thunderbolt was a solid design with heavy armor, while Maeve Wolf was not General of the Wolf Dragoons for nothing. She sidestepped his laser blasts, ducked her mech's head to avoid his pulse lasers, and plain baffled his best efforts.

Ian fared better, connecting with both ER PPCs before one PPC was ripped away with the arm. His most deadly weapon, the heavy gauss rifle, missed as the Thunderbolt ignited its jumpjets just before the slug flew into the area it had vacated.

Des was taken aback momentarily by the jump capability of the T-Bolt, but he quickly recovered as he punched in a query into the computer for the most likely configuration of Maeve's mech.

The result he got was not encouraging. A Thunderbolt modified with clan technology, it had a large pulse laser, three medium pulse lasers, and a LRM launcher tied to an Artemis Fire Control System.

"Frank, Ian, leave the Thunderbolt to me. Maeve is not going to let you get an easy shot, so you'll just be wasting your time. Take down the Wolfhound." Des suggested. The other two agreed with affirmative responses over the comms.

As one, the Night Gyr and Awesome turned on the spot to target the Wolfhound, even as the other three Dragoon mechs tried to kill the Awesome. Wreaths of fire blossomed on the Awesome, as it endured hit after hit from the Dragoons. The legs were stripped down so badly that all the actuators were damaged, while the left torso was cored through. Despite all that, Ian continued standing as he dished out as good as he got.

The Awesome whipped a bolt of charged particles into the Wolfhound, then followed up with a heavy gauss slug right into its center, along with several pulses from its lasers. Frank contributed his own lasers to the Wolfhound's misery, but the outcome for the light mech was never in doubt. The Wolfhound, missing an arm, a leg, and its entire torso, crashed to the ground.

Des faced down the Thunderbolt, and as he targeted the already damaged right leg of the mech, he whispered softly in a challenge to Maeve, "I am the best of all the clans. You think you are good enough to defeat me? Prove it."

He fired his autocannons into the leg, paring the armor down to a minimum. It was not enough to bother the mech in any way, but Des had not intended to take down the Thunderbolt with just one salvo, which he could have if he had used his lasers as well.

No, he wanted to take Maeve apart slowly.

Maeve switched her attention from Ian's Awesome to his Rifleman, and Des instinctively reached out with his senses, trying to gauge her next course of action. He knew what she wanted to do even before she knew it herself.

Her right arm rose up as the mounted pulse laser flashed out at his Rifleman, but Des had already glided his mech away almost nonchalantly, knowing that doing so would infuriate the Dragoon general.

"Come on, general." Des taunted.

Frank and Ian took on the remaining mech, the Blackjack. The Blackjack fired its shotgun autocannon, the hail of slugs reaching out to exploit the many gaping holes in the Awesome, now looking like a worm ridden corpse.

Except that Frank moved his Night Gyr into the way, taking the many cluster rounds all over it. The Night Gyr was not in much better condition, but it still had armor over most parts of the mech.

The Night Gyr fired its ultra-heavy autocannon as it marched in front of the Awesome, shielding it from the Blackjack's fire. The moment Frank cleared the Awesome's body, Ian triggered his last round for the heavy gauss.

It crossed the distance between the Awesome and the Blackjack in an instant, battering the Blackjack even as it staggered under the Gyr's assault. The Blackjack went down again, and apparently the computers had decided that the fall had caused it too much damage, because the mech did not move again.

Leaving only Maeve alone to face off against the three remaining members of the Einstein expedition.

"Leave her to me." Descartin Winters commanded softly as he dueled with Maeve Wolf.

"Sure, whatever makes you happy." Frank apparently knew he was no match for the trueborn Dragoon.

"I'll just stay here and watch," Ian added in a chuckle. His Awesome had lost both its hip actuators. There was no way the mech could participate in the duel, which had already moved beyond the range of its remaining weapons.

The Dragoon fired again and again, but Des slipped his Rifleman away with apparent ease every time, while chipping away at its protection with his autocannons and lasers, taking care not to penetrate to the internals yet.

"Is this the best you could do?" Des's voice bubbled with laughter. "I have faced cadets who could shoot better than you!"

"Stand still, damn you!" Maeve's frustration was evident.

"Obligingly." Des halted the Rifleman into place. "Take your best shot."

To everybody's surprise, except for one exceptional observer, all her shots missed.

Des did not hold back any more, as he simply fired everything he had at the Thunderbolt's center torso. The Thunderbolt disappeared from his radar screen, leaving only the three mechs of the survivors of Einstein standing in the field.

Almost immediately, the fire that Des felt inside him during the battle ebbed away, leaving only the emptiness behind, clutching his soul in its cold, relentless grip.

"Nice battle." A tall elemental remarked as the boisterous group of mercs, save for a somber Descartin, left the hangar bays, where they had left their mechs.

The judges had ruled in favor of an unanimous victory for the Mercs in Black, a quirky name Frank had tentatively suggested for their unit. Not that the decision was in any doubt, with the MIB holding the field by dint of their three remaining mechs.

All of which would not be possible if Des had not suddenly stepped into the battle. He had been responsible for at least three kills, including Maeve Wolf's Thunderbolt. Frank and Ian were the happiest of all, knowing what the results of the exercise could mean for their reputation. They had already planned to take Descartin out for a wild night in the bars of Harlech, over his most vehement protests.

The elemental had stepped out from where he had been waiting near the bay doors, stopping the group. He was an impressive specimen, two and a half meters of sheer muscle, but with a graceful and confident manner that prompted respect. His blue dragoon uniform was well ironed, adorned with the rank insignia of a major and the patches of many campaigns.

Ian stood to alert, ready for a fight with a belligerent Dragoon, but Des laid a hand on his shoulder, and said, "I know him. Go on, talk to Commander Jaime Wolf. I will join you later."

The elemental added. "The Commander will see you in conference room 3A. Its in the fourth floor of the office block."

Frank and the others moved off, but shot the two several glances as they did so.

Descartin knew the elemental well, for in a way, they were family.

"It has been a long time, Leon."

Major Leon Winters spoke in the characteristic rumble of most elementals. "Indeed. When last we met, you had not earned your bloodname yet. Many battles have been fought and many warriors lost since then."

Des allowed some of his sadness to leak through. "Yes, many warriors. Too many, it seems."

"Descartin, I didn't exactly come here for small talk. For many years now, former Nova Cats taken as abtakha by the Dragoons on Luthien have been lost in battle. Their veneers have been preserved, their codices retained, yet there was no proper way to return them to the clan."

Des's interest was piqued. "You could have sent them to the Nova Cats after the Abjuration."

"Neg. Commander Wolf did not trust the arrangements of the Draconis Combine, and no Nova Cat was willing to set foot on a world of mercenaries. That is, until you arrived."

Des caught on quickly. "You want me to go to Irece with their legacies?"

"Aff. Even as a former Nova Cat, you are well-known to us, and a warrior of skill and courage. You are not a Dragoon, so Commander Wolf will hardly object to risking your life. At the same time, the clan will also not turn you away."

"And are these the only reasons?

"Neg. Commander Wolf also has a special missive to give to Tai-Sho Narimasa Asano of the Draconis Combine Mustered Soldiery, and he wants you to do it, since it would be convenient for you to stop on Luthien."

Des could tell that was not all. "And?" He prompted.

Leon sighed. "If nothing else, you'll be doing this for Deserk. I have heard of what happened, and his deeds are worthy of mention within the annals of the clan."

Des looked up into the blue sky, laden with clouds. "When I met him on Einstein, I was shocked at what he had become. I supposed I was also jealous, because he had found something that I would never find, happiness and contentment. And it hurts like hell to lose him a second time, when he had everything to live for."

"And that emptiness within you, it has made you invincible, quiaff?"

"What are you talking about?"

Leon leaned back on the bay door. "During your fight, I was monitoring the battle along with Commander Wolf. When you started hammering Maeve's units, Wolf ordered me to pay extra attention to your mech. For some strange reason, nobody could get a targeting lock on your Rifleman. Nobody could hit your mech, and nobody got away once you decided they had to go down. And if that wasn't strange enough, Wolf didn't say much, but simply told me to have you meet him privately after the rest of the mercs, concerning the private message to Narimasa Asano."

"Nobody could target my mech?" Des asked, even as the hairs on his head began to stand up. The lack of a targeting lock had occurred to him too, except it was a red and black Archer in his sights on Luthien years ago. The Archer also took down every mech that came near it too. Des had privately vowed to kill the pilot of the Archer if he ever discovered the pilot's identity.

"I thought it was a mechanical fault, and the techs agreed, but Wolf told them not to bother. He said there wasn't anything wrong with the mech, and he was right." Leon looked quizzedly at Des. "If there's anything you think you can tell me, say so now."

"I cannot explain it." Des shook his head. "I doubt I will ever understand it."

Des was grateful when Leon nodded, accepting his statement. "So about the trip to the Draconis Combine?"

"Let me talk to Jaime Wolf, I will make a decision after that."

"Then come on, I'll show you around the place. The Dragoons may be stravag mercenaries, but we are the best equipped stravag mercenaries this side of the galaxy." Leon started to drag a reluctant Descartin along.

Frank Meronac was grateful, not for the first time, that he wasn't the head honcho of the whole idea, that Ian was in charge.

Ian and his lawyer Fabien Dacort, were sparring verbally with no less than Commander Jaime Wolf, legendary mechwarrior and leader of the most feared mercenaries in the Inner Sphere, on everything from future contract remuneration to recruitment.

The way they were debating every single point made his head hurt.

Frank looked around the table to see the other mercs lounging in the chairs of the conference room, picking at plates of food taken from the buffet course laid just outside. They were eating quietly, and talking softly so that they would not interrupt the obviously heated discussion between Ian and Wolf.

They needed the Dragoons' help to cover their asses, as well as for practically every damn thing to start a new mercenary brigade off the ground. From material supplies to money to contract negotiation, as well as the paying off of old debts, they needed to use Dragoon funds to use, paying them back with technology from Einstein. Ian also wanted extra monies in the deal, so that they could expand the unit once everything was settled down.

Also, all the surviving Dragoons who had fought alongside the mercs had already signed on with the MIB, something which Frank was sure Wolf would not let slide without a concession in return.

All of a sudden, the sound of argument abruptly disappeared, causing Frank, and everybody else in the room, to turn their attention back to arguing men.

Ian stood up and shook hands with Jaime Wolf, broad smiles on the faces of both men.

"It has been good bargaining with you, Commander."

Jaime Wolf smiled even broader. "And you have learnt a great deal since you first tried to subcontract with us. You, and this new unit, will go far."

Jaime turned his head, and his piercing eyes stabbed through Frank. "Doctor Frank Meronac, isn't it?"

Frank tried to get his voice past the sudden obstruction in his throat. They had introduced one another when they had first met, but it was different then. He felt uncomfortable under Wolf's hard gaze. "Yes, it is."

"Graduated, NAIS, in 3062. Assigned to 2nd Davion Guards. Went through the entire mess on New Avalon." With those words, Wolf showed that he was not a man to be trifled with, as well as the capabilities of Wolfnet. "So how's your research coming along?"

"So-so. Things are tough, even with the resources of the University of Outreach that you have so graciously provided." No point in not buttering up to one of the most influential men in the Inner Sphere, Frank told himself. "The technology we have recovered is far beyond anything even the R&D teams at the NAIS dreamed up of. The closest analogy is that we're the cavemen trying to put together a working KF drive. And right now, I really feel like a caveman."

Wolf nodded in understanding. "Nothing ever worth doing comes along easily. And what about your investigation of the information source?" Obviously he had been briefed on their discovery of Landar's locker.

Ian answered this question, "We managed to get some of the answers to the questions, but there's still quite a few obscure ones left hanging. We also got the poem we found to a literature professor, who gave us the reference to a series of novels by a 20th century writer called Tolkien. We found the poem relatively quickly, but the literature professor was too busy to explain it to us, so we were left to read through the whole series for its meaning."

Frank interjected, "You mean I was left to read through the whole series."

"Hey, I don't really see you complaining, right?" Ian glared, "And since I caught you that day reading it when you were supposed to be working, I guess it can't be all bad, eh?"

Frank had the good grace to be embarrassed. "Heh. It's really a good book, I admit. I also found out about the meaning of the poem last night, though I wasn't sure about it."

"And you're telling me now?" Ian looked cross.

"Too many things going on. Better late than never?" Frank smiled hopefully.

"Alright." Ian rolled his eyes. "So what does it mean?"

"Basically, the whole poem refers to the return of a lost king to his rightful throne." Frank noted Ian's face suddenly paling, but continued. "The poem was said to be related to one of us, but who could it be?" Frank stared straight at Ian. Ian's reaction to the poem certainly was, in Frank's eyes, a deer in the headlights look.

A guilty man's look.

"I have no idea," Ian said, as Wolf shot him a sharp glance.

Frank knew that there was a strong possibility of the meaning of the poem being tied to Ian, but he wasn't about to probe any further if Ian didn't want to tell him, even if it might be important. What was one clue anyway, more or less?

"About the other questions…" Wolf trailed off.

"Uh," Frank recalled quickly, "The first question was too vague. We couldn't understand it, because there are, quite simply, no winners in a civil war, except for those watching from the sidelines. That still leaves us with more than five possible answers."

"As for the second, I think the answers is that free information is the sole guarantor of freedom, but again, that is highly debatable. If so, then it should be Comstar or the Word of Blake who have it all. I actually think the Wobblies have more, since Terra is the repository of the bulk of the knowledge amassed. Scuttlebutt at the NAIS when I was there was that Comstar had even more research projects going on than we did. Guess all that is in the hands of the Wobblies now."

Wolf shook his head. "Almost correct, but Comstar also made sure that most of the research were destroyed."

"Yeah, but the basic information is still there, which is not exactly easy to get rid off. University and research centers often have backup memory cores hidden somewhere in case somebody decides to flatten the place. Those backups could be recovered. Sort of a doubled edged sword, when you think about it."

"Then the third question, the one about the grassy knoll?"

Frank shrugged. "I have no idea what that meant. Probably some obscure reference lost to time. Ditto for the next question, though I think the archives back at the NAIS should have the answer as to who Akern Sanders is."

He continued, sipping at a glass of soft drink. "The questions about our identities were vague, like all the others, but I don't see how important that is. I mean, I know myself. Same with the others."

"The last question, about the symbol on the box, was the worst of all. How the heck are we supposed to find out?" Frank whined.

Wolf considered for a moment, then said, "Well, you did say that the largest information stores were either on New Avalon or Terra. In other words, these may be the places you were supposed to go to."

That stopped Frank for a moment, as he churned over what Wolf's words. "Places I was supposed to go to…"

"Frank, you are going to New Avalon, right?" Ian pointed out, "So that simply adds one more task for you."

"Oh yeah, just one more task." Frank replied sarcastically. "Try to get Team Banzai to Einstein. Shop for a possible contract with the Princess Regent. Look for warriors who might be willing to sign up, and now you want me to try to find the people who set us up in the first place. Anything else for me, like maybe looking around for a warship or two for sale?"

"Relax, Frank. Nobody's going to demand that you accomplish it all. Lorik's going along to help you, and the reason why we can't send any more people along is because I and the others have even more stuff on our hands. You know the place, you know the people. Just take your time."

A resigned Frank held up his hands, "I understand. Doesn't make it any easier being the 'chief investigator' though. But what will you be doing?"

"I'm going to Taurus. The Taurian Concordat is well known for its industry, so maybe I could get into a partnership with a firm to get people to Einstein, so that we could get the production lines working."

Frank nodded, "That would be great. But why not some of the other big firms like Ceres Metals, or General Motors?"

"They have their hand in too many pies. I don't want them leaking our secrets to the Successor States. I want to look for some small firm with promise and trained labor for our needs."

Jaime Wolf added, "What Ian is proposing is similar to what we did with Blackwell Corporation. In time, that would be a steady source of income, as well as providing your unit with a way to quickly replenish your mechs."

Wolf smiled like his namesake. "It seems that we will have a strong competitor soon."

Ian groaned, "Come on, sir. We are still nowhere near the Dragoons, or even some of the other merc groups out there."

Wolf laughed. "In the future, you may be." His tone grew somber. "This is a time of great peril for mercenary commands. The Grey Death Legion was virtually destroyed on Hesperus, and other good units like the Blue Star Irregulars and the Illician Lancers took heavy losses." He did not mention the other fallen regiments, Storm's Metal Thunder, the Fighting Urukhai, and the Panzer Brigade. "I have a feeling that a great danger is on the way. But no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to be able to put a finger on it."

Frank and Ian looked at each other with identical grimaces on their faces. If something was bothering Jaime Wolf, they did not want to be the ones to find out, since it was very likely that they would be in way over their heads.

"Good afternoon, Commander." The tall elemental who had stopped them at the mech bay doors walked in, with Descartin Winters in tow.

"Excuse me, Ian, I would like to stay and chat, but I have some other matters to attend to. Good luck on your unit." Jaime Wolf moved over to the elemental, who leaned down to whisper into his ear. Wolf nodded, then walked out of the room with the elemental and Des.

"Wonder what that was all about?" Ian asked aloud, even as Frank was trying to stuff some fried noodles into his mouth with a pair of chopsticks, now freed from the rigors of talking.

"Commander Wolf," Des greeted the supreme leader of Wolf Dragoons. His tone was not fawning, but neither was it aggressive either, simply with respectful towards the elder warrior. Age in the Nova Cats was respected, not scorned.

Jaime Wolf had taken him to his personal office, while Leon waited outside.

"Star Captain Descartin Winters, currently of the Goliath Scorpions. I doubt your Khan will be pleased to have you here, and Comstar would be having a fit if your presence here is revealed."

Des shrugged. "I do not care what they say. It matters not, quiaff?"

"Aff." Jaime sat down on his chair. "Do you know why I asked you here?"

"You want me to deliver a message to somebody in the Draconis Combine."

"Yes, but it's more of a favor to you."

"I do not understand."

"I saw what happened on the training field today, or more specifically, what you did. And I have seen it before."
"You mean…"

"The lack of a targeting lock, your ability to carve apart your opponents with ease that is almost terrifying. I know something had recently happened to you, something to make all these abilities suddenly appear. And you feel terrible now, don't you?"

Des replied softly. "Aff."

"That happened to them too. One died during his last battle to save his men, one killed himself, and the last…" Wolf weighed his next words, then plunged on, "The last is still alive."

Des looked up. "Who is he?"

Wolf smiled grimly. "No, simply giving you that information would be too easy. All three of those men I mentioned took a long time to come to grips with what they had become, or were becoming. If you wish to know more, you must travel to the Draconis Combine."

"Then the man I seek is there? Perhaps he even fought at Luthien. I remember fighting an Archer who was invincible."

"Yes, that is the man you seek. But tell me, why do you wish to find him?"

Des wanted to say that he wanted to kill the man, but suddenly he could not, as he realized, the man has gone through what I am going through now. He might be able to help me. Des did not think he could live with the pain in his soul much longer.

If there was anything to give his life purpose, he supposed only the red and black Archer pilot could do it.

And he told Jaime Wolf so.

When I wake up, well I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who wakes up next you.
when I go out, yeah I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who goes along with you.

The man who was trying to sing roared out the lyrics, dreadfully off-key, while his friends cheered him on, as a couple of scantily clad girls danced, or more accurately, bounced on the stage.

Cripes, Ian thought. Maybe this was a bad idea after all. Well, at least the 'scenery' was nice.

Frank was staring dubiously at his own bottle of beer, while Descartin sat woodenly on his seat.

The three of them had entered the "Elysium", obviously a play of words on the famous "Valhalla" on Solaris Seven, an hour ago. Ian and Frank had hoped that an evening of over-drinking and raucous karaoke singing might shake Des out of his slump, but it wasn't working. It was a mistake thinking that Inner Sphere entertainment might be applied to a clan warrior.

To make matters worse, a group of mercs had hogged the microphone for the past twenty minutes, despite Frank's polite requests to allow the other patrons a chance. Ian decided not to argue back, and the end result was that their ears were subject to some of the worst tortures in known space, the abysmal singer.

If I get drunk, well I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who gets drunk next to you.
If I haver, yeah I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who's havering to you.

"So where are you going next?" Frank asked Descartin. "We could sure use your help, you know."

Des replied, taking a swig of his beer. "I have agreed to carry the legacies of the Nova Cat abtakha of the Dragoons back to the clan. It is an honorable duty."

"Yeah," Ian said, "But a man of your abilities and talents could do a lot more! If you want, we could get you to Solaris Seven…"

"Neg." Des said in a firm tone. "I will not fight for money, nor for mere entertainment of people."

"So are you going to the Draconis Combine alone?" Frank turned his head towards the stage to see if the group of mercs had grown tired of their 'singing'.

"Neg. Yoshino is coming along with me, because he was born there and could be a great help, and Tina still refuses to go back to the clan. Says she has great hopes of my exploits." Des let out a long suffering sigh. "Despite all that has happened, she still has not understood the true terrors of war, and that, more than anything else, will hinder her craft."

"Uhm, is there a way back to the clan homeworlds? I don't see any travel agency offering tours of Strana Mechty." Frank deadpanned. Ian could not tell if he was joking or serious.

"There is always a way. I could, for example, travel to the Rasalhague Republic, then cross the border into the Ghost Bear Dominion. I have several contacts within the Bears, and I could then take a ride on a Diamond Shark merchant vessel back to the homeworlds."

But I would walk 500 miles
An' I would walk 500 more
Just to be that man who walks a thousand miles
To fall down at your door.

"Pretty long ride," Ian quipped.

"Aff. But I am staying here in the Inner Sphere now for my own reasons, not for my clan. I would think the technology Jean brought back to Roche would be more than enough for the clan to forgive any rules I might have broken by coming here."

And if they call for a Trial of Grievance, well, good luck to them. Ian had no doubts as to the outcome of any fight involving Descartin Winters.

"The music here is atrocious." Des added, moments later. "I think I can do better."

Frank and Ian grinned. "Yup." At least Des was coming out of his shell.

"Hey! Get off me!" A yell caught the attention of the three men, as a huge woman who looked like a man, dressed in a reasonable facsimile of a combat uniform pushed several leering men away.

No accounting for taste, Ian moaned to himself. Now, Daniela, she's something to chase. But he still couldn't work up the guts to ask the fiery Jade Falcon out for dinner, and ordering her to just seemed… wrong.

The men were trying to press the issue, but apparently a few of her friends were not happy either. The few bouncers in the bar had taken note of the brewing fight, and were moving in to stop it before it escalated. Strangely enough, Ian could spot a few hints of interest on Des's face. It seemed that fighting of any sort would be entertainment enough for a clanner.

When I'm working, yes I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who's working hard for you.
When the money, comes in for the work I do
I'll pass on almost every penny on to you.

As the bouncers moved in, Ian was very grateful that the owners had wisely prohibited everybody from bringing in weapons of any sort. Any firefight inside the bar would be fast, short, and very brutal.

Obviously, somebody had made an oversight, as a man suddenly pulled out a small holdout, and fired it at a bouncer. A girl screamed, and the entire bar erupted.

Almost before he knew it, Ian was punching his way left and right, trying to defend himself from the sudden press of bodies flinging themselves this way and that. No matter that he wasn't involved. Such brawls often have a way of pulling in everybody, as his long experience in mercenary bars had taught him.

And even the restriction against weapons didn't matter, as the mercs made their own and improvised. A table leg here, a broken bottle there. Glasses to serve as handy projectiles, and alcohol and lighters as incendiaries in a pinch.

When I come home, oh I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who comes back home to you.
If I grow old, well I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who's growing old with you.

Ian found himself fending off slashes from a man wielding a broken bottle, moving back constantly to avoid the deadly slivers of glass from slicing into him. His right forearm bled as the man managed to get a hit in, slashing viciously with the bottle.

Frank saved him by leaping into the fray with a table leg, using it with the aplomb of a master fencer. The hardened wood of the table leg smashed the bottle to smithereens with a few strong swipes by Frank, who finished off the man with a forward smash into his face. They looked around for Des.

They found Des kicking ass all over the floor, staking out a position as his personal territory, his legs lashing out at his assailants, many of which seemed too drunk to realize that they should have picked a better target.

But I would walk 500 miles
An' I would walk 500 more
Just to be that man who walks a thousand miles
To fall down at your door.

Two decidedly more sober mercs decided to serve as fire support, taking up glasses and shattered bottles, and throwing them at Des, who quickly found himself under siege, painfully blocking the projectiles with his limbs.

Ian charged forward, picking up a tabletop to serve as a shield as he advanced. Frank quickly picked up on his idea and put his weight behind it as well, the two smashing into the 'fire support unit'.

One man stepped around the table and almost flattened Frank with a solid roundhouse to his head, only to be dropkicked by Des into unconsciousness.

Ian took a quick look around, even as Des tried to help a groggy Frank to his feet.

"How do we get out of this mess?" Frank asked, shaking his head to clear it of the stars swimming merrily around it. Des pulled him to a temporary refuge behind the table.

"How about we clear the room of these surats?" Des growled.

Only to have Ian and Frank stare daggers at him.

"Just a suggestion." Des shrugged his shoulders.

When I'm lonely, well I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man whos lonely without you.
An' when I'm dreaming, well I know I'm gonna dream
I'm gonna dream about the time when I'm with you.

And the music for the song had not even stopped! One part of Ian's mind noted.

He spied a bottle of vodka on the floor, apparently missed so far. An idea came to him.

"Cover my back, we're getting out of here."

"Huh?" Frank asked as Ian scooped up the bottle and took a long pull from it. "Ian, this is no time to be drinking!" Frank was appalled.

Ian ignored Frank as he started moving for the exit, pulling out his lighter as he did so. Frank and Des followed him closely, despite their own doubts.

Three men moved to block them. Ian quickly flicked his lighter on, the tiny flame flickering in front of his mouth as he squeeze-blew the vodka out of his mouth.

The tiny flame become a huge tongue of fire, causing the men to shrink back in fright.

"Come on!" Ian yelled quickly as he took another pull from the bottle. He had a sinking feeling that it would probably take a week for the taste of the vodka to leave his mouth.

When I go out, well I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who goes along with you.
An' when I come home, yes I know I'm gonna be
I'm gonna be the man who comes back home with you.
I'm gonna be the man who's coming home.. with you!

Frank and Des charged together as Ian flamed off again, this time against their rear. Frank punched out one merc while Descartin bulldozed the other two through the exit door.

The three men stumbled out into the open, a blast of cool night air sending tingles through their senses as a reprieve from the musty atmosphere of the bar.

"Keep moving. I don't want to have any trouble with the cops." Ian said as he pushed the other two into a side alley, leaving the three down and out mercs behind them.

Ian led them down one alley after another, getting away as far away from the bar as possible. They finally came to a small park, where they halted their flight.

Frank hunched over, panting heavily as he tried to recover from his exertions.

Descartin did not even seem fatigued, staring around at their surroundings, decorated by several small statues.

But I would walk 500 miles
An' I would walk 500 more
Just to be that man who walks a thousand miles
To fall down at your door.

Ian slapped Frank's back lightly. "Frank, you alright?"

"Yeah. Sort of. Heck, this wasn't even what we had in mind!"

"Well, I was entertained." Des said, as he folded his arms across his chest.

Ian groaned. But before he could speak, he realized they weren't alone. The three shifted around, where a strange sight greeted them

An old withered Chinese man dressed in Taoist robes wandered around one of the statues, where some sort of altar had been set up, covered with rolls of yellow cloth and Chinese words, some of which Ian could make out as words meaning loyalty, brotherhood, and honor. The old man squinted a disgruntled eye towards them.

"Twelve o'clock, those punks told me!" The man ranted. "Twelve o'clock, the auspicious hour for their brotherhood swearing ceremony! Chou wan ba dan!

Lousy bastards, Ian translated silently. Years of fighting in the Chaos March had taught him the value of knowing the Chinese language, especially the widespread Mandarin version. The other versions of Cantonese and Teochew just made his head swim. Totally different accents, but the same writing form. Getting the accents and tones correct was the problem.

The man turned towards them. "I don't suppose you three jokers are here for the ceremony, eh? Hah-choo!" He sneezed once, a loud sound that startled them. "Young punks nowadays have no idea of the concepts of brotherhood if it bit them on their pi gu." Their asses, literally. "One day they are all fine and happy with each other, and the moment somebody disagrees with the others, everything else is thrown out the window!" He swung his arms around violently, ignoring the slime dripping down his nose. Ian shrank back in fear of the nose slime.

The man turned a baleful stare at Ian, "I don't suppose you're like that too, eh?"

Ian could only mutter, "No…"

"Good, good!" The man wiped his nose with a sleeve. "My name is Wang Lau Wu, and my business is in performing exorcisms, funeral services, and not incidentally, sworn brotherhood ceremonies. Just by looking at you three, I think your destinies might be pretty entwined! So why not make it official, and let me perform the ceremony for you? Only fifty C-bills!"

"Uh," Ian started to protest, "But we don't even know each other well…"

Wang ignored the agreeing nods of both Frank and Descartin, as he bore on, "The gods have brought you here! Tonight! Here! Don't you think there might be something in the fates for you three?"

"You might have a point there…" Des said.

"You can't be serious!" Ian smacked a palm against his head.

Des ignored Ian, "In the Nova Cats, whenever a warrior saves another, their souls become bound. Tonight, we have saved each other in the bar during a very dangerous situation. As such, our souls are bound. So why not we make it official?"

"What does this sworn brotherhood thing mean?" Des asked Wang.

"Oh, it means that no matter what, you will have to back one another up. Sworn brothers must never fight amongst themselves, and they must be loyal. All too often, the ties between true sworn brothers are even closer than between blood siblings. There's also often a caveat about fighting against injustice, but that's optional."

"All right." Ian gave in. "Let's do it. With the justice part."

An exasperated Frank shook his head in disbelief, but he also agreed in the end.

"Hen hao!" Very good. "Now, what are your ages? You must decide seniority amongst yourselves, and the younger brothers must obey the elder."

Ian said, "I am 42 years old."

Des was next. "I have seen 38 winters."

"29." Frank was the youngest.

"Your names?" Wang had in his hands several sheets of paper, on which he was scribbling furiously. "These are certificates, by the way."

They gave him their names, after which he had them kneel down together before the altar.

Wang poured out wine into several small cups. "Pick up the cups." He told them.

As they did so, Wang lit several joss sticks on an urn on the altar.

"Repeat after me. We three, state your names in order of seniority."

Ian debated with himself for a moment, wondering if he should use his real name. No, this is a serious matter, and so I shall not lie, for once.

"Ian Calderon." Frank spun his head suddenly to look at Ian. Ian continued to look straight ahead at the altar.

"Descartin Winters."

"…Frank Meronac."

"Swear upon the Heavens and the Underworld,"

"To bind ourselves in brotherhood."

"Combining our skills and strengths to help the weak,"

"Uphold justice, and defeat oppressors."

"That we shall be faithful and loyal to one another,"

"Even though we could not help our separate births,"

"But may we die on the same day."

"Witness our vows, and may the gods punish whoever shirks his obligation!"

"Now drink!" Wang ordered.

The three men drank together.

Ian could not help but feel as if the rice wine was trying to remove the enamel off his teeth, the burning sensation sliding down his throat in a storm of fire.

Above him, the sky flashed lightning, as the dull roll of thunder was heard.

An' I would walk 500 miles
An' I would walk 500 more
Just to be that man who walks a thousand miles
To fall down at your door.

Pant, pant. After a lot of internal debating, I decided to go ahead with Seekers. This is the prologue and the first chapter, with the obligatory bar brawl(kind of a tradition for this series). The title for chapter 2 is "Dorlacen", Chapter 3 "Winters", and so on.

The abnormal length for the opening chapter can't be helped, sorry.

Anyway, I'll be working to update New World Order once I get my hands on the FC Civil War Sourcebook. Word is that it's awesome! Get it!

Oh, and I'll still be working on ATSOS. More or less.

The next chapter of ATSOS should be up within the week, while chapter 2 of Seekers may be a month in progress.

Mech descriptions for some of the mechs used here and in ATSOS have been placed on my website's armory. Check the reviews here for the link.