Warning: I tried to write a short origin story around a screenshot of my lowbie engineer, Flame Fireflash, whom I splurged two transmutation charges on to revive my leveling interest, and it ended up stretching to 6000 words and killed gaming time for several days.
Long-winded, that’s me. Contains some vulgarity and one rather oblique reference to the r-word, but nothing of that ilk ever occurs in the story. No sex, but maybe some corny plot and phrases. Also furries. As in charr.
When I was a cub, I never liked fighting.
The others in the fahrar would grapple and tumble, snarling and growling in what seemed like mock fighting to adults, but was actually a deadly serious bid for hierarchy and respect… amongst their peers, anyway.
“Grawl feet! Grawl feet!” They’d chant as they adopted the hopping ape pose and pranced around me in a circle, hoping to get some sort of reaction.
I’d do my best to ignore them as I flipped through my schematics book or took apart some device with the big paws they were referring to.
They’d move on to fake whispers between each other like “I don’t think she’s a charr, -I- think a Norn got drunk and stuck in between a Bear and Leopard form!” or “She can’t be Ash, she’s as dull as Iron.”
The decidedly less creative ones would struggle a bit, then come up with witticisms like “Dumb ogre” or “Flame’s Flame!”
I’ll never know what possessed my mother when she decided to name me with the Gold Legion’s appellation, but I was the one who had to live with it.
Funny thing was, if they finally got too annoying or some idiot decided to lay a paw on my stuff and provoke me into standing up, they’d all quickly back off a step or two and glance towards their ring leader.
That was the cub I would stomp towards and grab.
I don’t know if it was just my parents’ genes or if my mother’s mission and birthing in the field delayed her in getting me to a fahrar, but I do know that I was very big for my age. Still am, even decades later.
He or she would spit and snarl and claw and bite, but I was taller and outweighed any of them. I’d use that leverage to my advantage, remembering as much of our teachers’ lessons as I could, and eventually, some scrapes and ripped fur and toothmarks later, the ring leader would be pinned down under my four paws or I’d be sitting on their head or something like that.
Most of the time, that would be the end of it.
If two or three moved at once, I’d toss an insult in their faces about being too scared to take me one on one, which usually stopped them in their tracks, or at least got them to try their luck one at a time. It never did work out for them.
After that, they’d leave me alone for a while and I’d be careful to spend more time around adults until their short attention spans found another target or they got riled up amongst themselves by someone squabbling for a higher position in the gang.
It wasn’t too hard because I found the defensive perimeter turrets and mortars fascinating and would always ask any soldier willing to humor me a million and one questions about how it all worked – loading the ammo, differences between the ammo types and when you used each, calibration, tuning and maintenance and so on. As I said, I looked old for my age, so many gave me more measured and considered answers than they might have for any random youngling.
The problem was Rakis.
Rakis had a mean streak in him wider than a marmox, and an ego far larger than you’d think his slim and small frame could accommodate. He somehow took it personal when I flipped him over during one of his attempted bully sessions and got his horns stuck inches deep in muddy snow. His buddies had to dig him out while he was flopping about and squealing like a slaughtered piglet and he never quite got over the humiliation.
He didn’t dare face me head on for years after that, but I was aware that he’d started treating everything we did in the fahrar as a competition between the two of us.
He’d race to raise his hand and answer a question first, and on the off chance that he managed to get it right, he’d shoot me some kind of triumphant look like he was trying to make a point.
While we were training with the guest scouts and stalkers, he’d swagger around with a happy smirk when he always arrived faster than me, which wasn’t hard at all since I had to take special care of where I placed my big feet and bulk in order to stay as silent as Ash Legion expects of its future operations groups.
It was all ridiculously weird because I certainly wasn’t the least bit interested in this imaginary competition that only existed in his head. The more I ignored it, the more he seemed to think that it was on, always sneaking glances when he thought I wasn’t looking, bragging loudly to his friends, or conversely, sulking if I scored better marks on any test, be it marksmanship or chemistry or tech devices.
When we were teenagers, I recall a casual acquaintance jokingly ask me if Rakis was sweet on me. I sighed and told her it’d been going on for years and I was still trying to figure out myself if it was a crush or a rivalry. She laughed, I laughed, then forgot about it.
In hindsight, that was a mistake.
You see, I didn’t cultivate any really close friendships in the fahrar, but I did try to stay on civil terms with everybody that allowed it, since after all, we were all going to be in the same warband. As one of our mentors told us gruffly, you don’t have to like or be pals with all your bandmates, just learn to work together and trust that you’ll have each others’ backs when the bullets start flying. Which was how I assumed things would be. It’s our tradition, after all.
I should have maybe listened more intently to the brief conversations I had with our veteran spies, all grizzled and scarred. “In our line of work, you can’t trust anybody, cub. Don’t ever let down your guard.” They didn’t get to their age by being foolish and stupid. They were survivors.
Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.
It wasn’t a rivalry, or a crush. It was a grudge.
A grudge Rakis’d had nursed within his black heart for ages until he finally worked up the courage and found the right opportunity.
It was our seventeenth year in the fahrar, and the night before a very important term project was due. Scoring a good grade would help get you into the first pick, those promising recruits that the better soldiers – craftsmen and artisans of their art, be it assassination or reconnaissance, scouting or sniping, traps or turrets – wanted to mentor and groom. Flunk it, and you’d be left in the bottom ranks and assigned the grunt work that nobody else in the warband wanted.
I was up past midnight in one of the workshops, determined to synthesize better and better variants of the chemical glue that was going to be submitted along with my lab report and improved valve release mechanism for a portable glue turret model that Ash scouts favored.
And I was alone. Absorbed in my thoughts and the steady bubbling of my experiments.
I didn’t hear them come in.
Something or someone landed a heavy blow on my head, sending me snout first into the lab bench, and clawed hands grabbed my arms.
Reacting with more instinct than thought, I roared with rage and fought back, shoving backwards and grappling with my attackers. I only succeeded in flipping myself over and seeing that there were three of them. Rakis, of course, and he’d brought his two closest flunkies, bigger than him but not much in the brains department, which was probably why they followed him and laughed at his jokes.
They pinned me against the lab bench, still snarling with fury, while Rakis dumped the hot glue I’d been making all over the counter and my back to help snare me in place.
“Grrrarrrgh,” I yelled as some of the goop got past my fur and scalded my hide. “Back off!” I raised one clawed foot warningly, ready to kick and rip anyone within reach.
Unfortunately, his two friends, beyond holding my arms down while I was getting increasingly glued to the table, were keeping a wary distance on each side and Rakis quickly slid out of range, an ugly smirk on his slimy snout.
“Fuck you!” I said, in lieu of anything better that came to mind with adrenaline pounding through my veins. I regreted it the moment I said it, afraid it might have given him ideas.
“In your dreams, Flame.” Rakis leered at me lasciviously for the space of one worrying breath, then he chuckled. “You don’t have to worry about us raping you. Nobody wants to fuck a gorilla.”
His two flunkies sniggered in unison.
“Then what the hell do you want?” I snarled back.
“I want you to fucking -fail-, bitch,” he said, as he reached around me carefully and grabbed the file with my lab report and my valve mechanism. He held both of them up for me to see. He let the valve drop on the floor, and grabbed all the pages out of the file, report, tests, diagrams, schematics and all – everything I had spent weeks and months working on – and tore them up theatrically.
“You’re going to crawl to the Primus tomorrow with your tail between your legs and tell him you have nothing to submit. Nothing at all.”
Like an afterthought, he lifted his booted foot to stomp on my valve. The dramatic effect was rather lost when he suddenly screeched in pain, having discovered how sturdy well-assembled steel could be, even in small packages. It must have been like trying to step on a caltrops.
I couldn’t help it. I laughed.
That really pissed him off. He picked up the offending valve and pitched it out the window, with so much fury that it must have bounced off some structure outside. The air rang with a resounding metallic clang. A muffled “Hey! What was that!” followed it up.
“Oh, look,” I drawled,” You’ve gone and alerted a sentry. Better run, boys.”
His flunkies were aiming worried looks at him now, and he’d half-turned to check that the coast was still clear.
That’s when I screwed up.
Despite outside appearances, inside I was boiling with rage and worry over what tomorrow would bring and how I was going to salvage what remained. There weren’t many hours left till dawn. I just wanted him -gone.-
I hawked up a gob of something disgusting and spat it at him.
It went right into his eye.
Then he went mad.
Rakis grabbed me by the throat in a one-handed choke as he yanked a random bottle off the bench and drenched -my- eye with it.
I later found out it was ascetic acid, but at the time, I just knew that half my face felt like it was on fire, that I couldn’t see and that he was right in front of me within reach.
I screamed in pain, kicking and biting and trying to rip all the fur off my arms and back in an attempt to get free from the glue and KILL him.
After what seemed like an eon of snapping ineffectually at air, I managed to sink my teeth into his arm with a lucky lunge. He howled in turn.
By this time, his flunkies were fighting to separate the both of us. “We gotta go, Rakis!” One of them gasped.
To this day, I don’t know if it was rage or desperation that drove him to it, but he pulled out his dagger and stabbed me. Twice. The practiced doubled motion that Ash Legion assassins are trained to use.
He was, thankfully, still a novice-in-training or I might not be here telling this story today. The sharp agony blossoming in my chest took most of the resistance out of me and he pulled free.
There was the soft patter of padded feet and a sudden silence only broken by my ragged wheezing. Everything hurt, but my eye was what hurt the most.
My thinking had gotten very fuzzy by this point, my vision out the working eye near nonexistent, everything was dark and blurry and I just remember being convinced that if I could just wash my face I would be fine. I knew there was a bucket of water that I had drawn earlier just over by that stool there… if I could just get to it…
That was how the patrol investigating the ruckus found me.
Half-drowned, face-first in a bucket of well water, what remained of my fur in shambles and covered in glue gloop, bleeding out on the floor.
To say that the Primus was incensed, would be an understatement.
In the first few days, I spent more hours lying unconscious than awake in the infirmary, full of medication and with more bandages than fur on my body. But during one of my brief periods of lucidity, I overheard our Primus bellowing at the medic demanding answers and wanting to speak to me.
Arc Steeltrap had been a Legionnaire leading Ash Commando Group 43 through many successful actions against Ebonhawke before his final sortie, when a human-rigged explosive device blew half his leg off. The story went that he picked up his leg, limped over to the next room where the insurgents were hiding, and beat their heads in with it.
He survived, of course, but his stealthy days were done. They made him Primus of our little fahrar instead, where he seemed to spend his time hobbling around with his walking cane, making grumpy faces at everyone and grumbling about cubs these days.
It really wasn’t a face I wanted to see looming over me while I still hurt all over and couldn’t even crawl out of bed to the latrine.
All credit where it was due, Medic Kludge Steelsuture, one of his wounded bandmates that had been moved back from the front with Steeltrap, managed to dissuade him twice before he finally ran out of patience on the third visit and pushed his way through.
“All right, cub,” he glowered, “What happened?”
I wriggled as far back into the bedsheets as I could. I’d been dreading this question.
I mean, what was I going to say? If I blurted out the whole truth to all the adults, Rakis and his friends would doubtless get punished but the rest of the warband would probably never trust or even tolerate me near them again. I was a loner by nature, yes, but gladium was a word even I didn’t want to hear.
“Cub, we went over the perimeter defenses,” said Primus Steeltrap, in a surprisingly gentle, if gruff, tone. “Nothing was broken or showed signs of being tampered with. Sentries report seeing nothing until they heard sounds of a struggle in the workshop and went to investigate. We need to know if we have Flame Legion spies in our midst or if intruders managed to sneak in without us realizing.”
I shook my head mutely.
“No? So no outsiders attacked you, is what you’re saying,” he continued, with a persistent logic. “Which makes it an inside job. And since all the adults in the settlement should have more sense than to threaten and nearly kill one of my fahrar trainees, coupled with your reticence to say anything, it must have been one of your band mates. Am I right? You don’t have to say anything, just shake your head or nod.”
I didn’t know what to do. In a miserable whisper, I said, “I don’t want to rat out my warband.”
Medic Steelsuture, who had been hovering in the background like a mother hen, spoke up then. “This is serious, Flame. It’s not snitching. It’s not your regular bar brawl amongst soldiers that got a bit more drunk than they should have, that we can close an eye to, or some pushing and shoving and slapping each other around. Someone pulled a knife on you, and damned near killed you. His or her own band mate.”
Primus Steeltrap’s voice was a low growl. “Blood may tolerate their damned “field promotions” where some rager kills his superior officer and takes over, but we’re Ash and better than that. We have companies and a chain of command for a reason. We train assassins, for crying out loud. You think we’ll have much of a Legion left if we let every random hotshot think they can solve all their problems by stabbing any charr they don’t like?”
I shook my head.
“Exactly. So tell us who did it.”
I shook my head again.
“Suit yourself, but this isn’t going to get any easier. I can’t graduate the warband with a loose cannon in their midst. If we can’t solve it in-house right now, we’ll have to make a report. The higher ups will send an investigator. One way or the other, the culprit will get caught.”
Bastia the Bloodhound was… stern, regal, focused. Sharper than an obsidian blade. I’d never met anyone like her.
She was my only visitor during my recovery, which did, I’ll admit, leave me feeling lonely and a little disappointed. I told myself that the adults were probably barring the others from entry, but I never even saw anyone try to talk to Medic Steelsuture and I couldn’t shake the feeling that nobody cared enough to make the effort.
She did visit very regularly though, with a very pointed look at Medic Steelsuture, who would wordlessly get up and walk to the front of the infirmary out of earshot and give us privacy.
I was always very wary about what I said to her, in case I gave away something I didn’t want to.
For lack of anyone better to talk to though, and out of sheer boredom, I let her speak and I listened, instead of feigning tiredness and going to sleep, something I was already doing for too many hours of the day.
“Good morning, Flame.” Or afternoon, or evening, but she always called me by name, and without that little twinge of lip that many others would use when saying the word.
“Morning, ma’am,” I would mumble, or “Evening, Investigator” to stay polite. There was something about the way she carried herself that demanded that respect.
“A little update for you.” She always prefaced herself with that phrase, which sometimes felt odd, as if I were her superior officer and she was reporting to me, but I think she was just used to reporting whatever she found to various parties in that clipped, terse tone of hers that it’d become a habit.
She’d been to the workshop and examined the scene and found these various colors of fur stuck to the glue. These ones over here were probably mine, wouldn’t I agree? These others were probably from the perpetrators, yes, plural, because these were black or very dark grey hairs and these were an off-brown or orange that seemed more than a touch darker than mine.
Problem is, these are fairly common coat colors and more than one charr in your warband shares that sort of coloration, right?
Or they’d kept my warband on barracks arrest until she had a chance to interview them all. You’re not very liked by your warband, are you, Flame? They’re all claiming innocence and ignorance of why anyone would want to attack you.
That you’re a loner and kept yourself to yourself and burning the midnight oil would be something you’d do while most other self-respecting trainees would be catching all the sleep they could get. Which was what they all say they were doing. But you and I know that some of them are lying… want to tell me how many is “some?”
I’d peek my one eye at her – Medic Steelsuture still wasn’t sure if my other eye would heal, he said he’d irrigated it further after my fogged up attempt at it but that its best chance now was bandages and time – and say something noncommittal, and more often than not, Bastia’s amber eyes would be glittering right back, watching my every expression.
Or well, regardless, there was someone who was going to get into a spot of trouble. Brek? Did I know him?
I kept my face as still as possible. Brek was one of Rakis’ flunkies who was there that night.
Did I want to know how she sussed him out? My band mates were all on lockdown, as she said. I was stabbed, and the culprit wouldn’t have been able to clean the weapon they used very thoroughly under the watchful eyes of both the posted sentries and the rest of the warband. So she made them produce all their belt knives, spares and all. There weren’t any ill-cleaned weapons, but Brek was missing one of his spares.
But you know, she didn’t think he was the one. A little too thick, and he seemed genuinely shocked to find out that he was missing a blade. All he can say is that he thinks someone stole it. He’s been told the Quaestor’s going to hang him by his entrails for losing an issued weapon, and that he may very well get charged with assaulting you, if no one else comes forward.
I tried not to blink or react, while inside, I was cursing Rakis’ duplicity and cunning. He must have decided to throw Brek in front of the grenade in order to save himself. I was stuck debating with myself if I really should name Rakis to this outsider, or settle for Brek catching the punishment – I mean, he was there, after all.
Then Bastia laughed.
“Flame, you younglings may think you’re being clever by saying nothing, but all your faces are like open books. I can tell you recognize the name, and that you’re not immediately protesting his innocence. If I wanted to, I could just read to you your entire warband roster right here, and I guarantee I’ll see you twitch at the right names.”
That earned her a glare, which she only seemed to find more funny.
“Oh, you’re not the only one I can read. Brek looked immediately to his friend Rakis for help, who pretended to find a spot on the wall utterly fascinating. Then he sort of caught the hint and tried not to look anywhere, but couldn’t help but exchange a pleading look for help at Clinker when he thought no one was watching, who gave him a helpless shrug. We hauled him off after that, and he’s having some serious alone time to consider his future in a cell at the moment.”
She aimed an arched eyebrow at me. “How am I doing so far?”
“Congratulations, I guess?” I rasped. I leaned back against my pillows, trying to determine if the strange feeling in my chest was the stress of trying to keep a secret I wasn’t sure I should be keeping being released, or if it was more tension from anticipating what the rest of the warband would say when I returned, or how Rakis would react.
“You don’t sound too happy. Did you fancy him?”
“HELL, no,” I snarled.
“Ah good, you have some life in you still. As I was saying, I don’t just want Brek. I want his two friends also. All their coats match the hairs left in the workshop and I don’t hear any protest from you that I’ve got the wrong individuals. Have I?”
This time she didn’t fill in the silence like she usually did. She just looked straight at me for so long that Medic Steelsuture looked up from where he was busying himself with some tools disinfecting to check that she hadn’t left. He looked down again though when he saw her, so I couldn’t expect any reprieve from that direction.
“I…” I didn’t want to fight. Or get anyone in trouble. I just wanted to be left alone and accepted for who I was in the warband. It was always everybody else who couldn’t leave me be, always said I was sucking up to adults and outsiders for help, teacher’s pet and all.
But I couldn’t make myself lie and say she got the wrong charr. That would be wrong too. I couldn’t bring myself to cover up for the warband that much when I doubted they’d do the same for me.
Now they were going to blame me for this too.
“No, you haven’t…” I whispered.
Bastia nodded like she had been expecting it, and turned on her heels to cross the room and speak to Medic Steelsuture in a low whisper.
He nodded, saluted and left.
Then she came back, pulling up a chair right next to my bed. Bastia settled into it, leaning back and grooming her claws with a small switchblade.
She seemed content with not saying anything, just studied me while I looked back worriedly at her.
Finally, I broke the silence. “What’s going to happen now?”
“The barracks arrest should be released shortly, if it hasn’t been already,” she replied. “A trap has been set for Rakis and Clinker. Both are under close surveillance. I’m staying out of sight to ensure they don’t spook further. I’m positive they’ll do something hasty and stupid soon, like try to dispose of the real weapon, or get in contact with Brek to get their stories straight.
“There’s the very distant possibility that they’ll go rogue and try to run, but the sentries have been doubled today, just in case. Or they’ll think you blabbed and come here to get some revenge and silence you, which is why I’m here, standing guard.
“They’re young and not really hardened criminal types, so I find the latter unlikely. Hopefully, they’ll be caught in the middle of doing something very incriminating.”
“If they aren’t?” I said.
Bastia gave me a level, even look then. “There will be a tribunal called, Flame. There should be enough circumstantial evidence to make a decent case, but the tribunal won’t give two hoots about my hunches on how they obviously looked the guiltiest. The only one who can give direct evidence was a witness who was there. That’s your decision if you want to testify.”
“I… I don’t know…”
“Your loyalty is commendable, Flame, if rather misplaced.” She steepled her fingers. “ I’ve interviewed your warband, remember? I’ve read all your dossiers. They don’t like you. Their distaste is quite clear. Maybe your name put you on the wrong foot from the beginning, maybe it was the age disparity, but you’ve never quite found a good fit with them.”
“Still, I’m no traitor,” I protested weakly. “And… I know he stabbed me, bbut it still feels like telling on them.”
Bastia grunted. She stood up and looked out the window.
“What about you,” I asked, “If it was your warband, wouldn’t you want to defend them? Keep them together, not lose anyone?”
“These days, my loyalty is to the Legion first,” she said. “My warband comes a distant second. As an Investigator, I travel around too much to really form close ties anymore.”
“These days, you said.” I pointed out.
She smiled, a wry, sad smile. “You’re pretty sharp. I like that.”
“That’s not answering my question,” I said.
“Long fucked-up stories are boring, kiddo.”
I gestured weakly to my bandaged, mummified self. “I don’t think I’m going anywhere in a hurry.”
Bastia laughed again. “Fine. You wanna hear a story so bad? One about misplaced loyalties?
“Once upon a time, there were some charr I knew…”
And it starts with a love triangle, Bastia said, two males, one female, all Ash and from the same warband.
One of the males, the one the female thought she loved more, was assigned to a deep cover operation in the Iron Legion. The rest of the warband was posted alongside the Iron Legion group, ostensibly to reconnoiter and combat a Flame Legion incursion in the Iron Marches, but to help pick up his covert reports, run interference and so on, minimizing contact otherwise.
Problem was, the operation went on so long, with the Iron Legion warband under such intense fire from the Goldies, that the Ash male started to believe his cover story, that they really were a band of brothers and the reports back to Ash started drying up, getting more terse and infrequent, until one day they stopped completely.
Fearing that he’d gone over for good, the Ash female disobeyed orders and went to talk to him. He confirmed as much, saying his loyalties were now with his warband, who would die for him and vice versa, that the unit was being moved north to support a big battle in three days, and that he was done with deceit and might even fess up who he was if Ash didn’t leave him be.
The Ash female returned to her warband. She didn’t get into trouble, only because the Legionnaire was the other male involved in the story and was crazy over her.
For a day, she brooded over the right thing to do before deciding to report what she’d found out from him. She was dreading the order that would come down to clean up the mess, likely by offing the errant Ash male.
Instead, a priority message came down that the warband was to intercept a Flame Legion group to the southeast, containing a contingent of shamans that were not to be allowed to reinforce the battle up north, and to ignore the Ash male that had gone AWOL for now.
Realizing that she had suddenly been given one more chance to convince the Ash male to come back to his senses, the female decided she had to break away from the warband and head north.
Some would call that desertion, you know?
The Legionnaire caught up with her while she was barely half a day away. He’d sent the rest of the warband onward with the intercept orders for the Flame Legion group.
They had a righteous quarrel, with heated words and not a few blows exchanged, but the female got her way by shamelessly manipulating his ego and his love for her. He left with the impression that he wasn’t as good as the other male she was chasing, that he wasn’t good enough for her.
The Ash female raced north to find out that she had been too late.
At dawn, just before the coming battle, the Ash male had come clean to his Iron brothers, naïvely thinking that they’d saved each others’ lives so many times over that they’d clap him on his shoulder and say all was forgiven. Or at least, not overreact.
Instead, they tore him apart, and hung his carcass on their siege engine as a traitor.
There would be some strongly worded inter-Legion messages exchanged from one Tribune to another, after the fact.
There was nothing the Ash female could do but trek back south to rejoin her warband, suspecting that she would also be gutted, hung or stuck on punishment squad for the rest of her life for going AWOL.
Except she found out that no one ever had the chance to report it.
You know what the dumb fuck of a Legionnaire did, after his quarrel? He decided he would singlehandedly infiltrate the Flame Legion group to assassinate the shamans. Because male ego.
They caught him. His torture drew in the rest of the warband, whose loyalty to their Legionnaire overrode their common sense. Some were captured, some they slew, some converted.
The only lucky thing was that the Flame Legion was delayed because they were so busy destroying the Ash warband.
The Ash female managed to sneak into the camp and free the few remaining captives. Half of those were lost assassinating the shamans and some of the converted, before the bedraggled survivors managed to make their escape in the chaos and limp home. With their warband decimated, the handful were all reassigned elsewhere.
“The End,” Bastia said.
“That was you,” I said.
She shrugged. “I didn’t name any names. I just said they were charr I knew a long time ago. The moral of the story is not to get shortsighted about your loyalties, I suppose. Or maybe that shit happens, and you deal with it the best you can.”
I thought in silence for a while.
“You do know,” she said, “that while you’re recovering, the rest of your warband has turned in their term projects and you’ll miss the first draft.”
“Probably the second and third as well,” I mumbled.
“Your future with them is an omega wolf’s lot. Always getting bullied, gnawing at the fringes for some acceptance.”
Put like that, it sounded so bleak. I said nothing.
“I’ve read your dossier. You’re intelligent, competent enough with a rifle – though that eye may affect your marksmanship from now on – good with mechanical devices. You’d make a decent enough investigator. Or even an Iron Legion infiltrator if you don’t forget your true loyalties.”
I stared at her with my good eye. “Are you…”
“Yes, Flame. I’m offering to be your mentor.”
“If I testify and leave with you, of course,” I said bitterly.
“As I said, you’re sharp. I can’t very well separate you from your fahrar and warband without just cause.”
“Sometimes,” I said, to no one in particular, “I hate the way Ash Legion works. All this subterfuge and plans within plans. Charr watching charr, hoarding information and secrets.”
Bastia chuckled. “Kiddo, we’re not here to be liked. Internal Affairs is here to make sure the whole machinery works. Do you know your history? What happened when the charr kept losing to the humans, and what happened when we won?”
“We trusted the Flame Legion blindly and believed in false gods?”
“For a time, we actually won doing that, even if it was completely misguided and under chauvinistic rule.” She corrected.
“No, we fought amongst ourselves. Each time the charr were driven back, we were too busy killing each other to prove we were right. We forgot the chain of command, let renegades have their way, and got undisciplined and disorganized.
“Ash Legion is here to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Yeah, we watch and spy on the other Legions. If charr don’t police other charr, who’d you want in their place? The humans?”
A deep cough interrupted. Primus Steeltrap had joined us. “We have them, Investigator Bastia. Trying to drop the knife down the well the gladium use.”
“Ah, excellent work, Primus.” Bastia turned smoothly. “Please have them ready to be transported to the Black Citadel by this evening.”
“What’s going to happen to them,” I asked.
“A tribunal,” Primus Steeltrap rumbled. “They’re juveniles, probably punishment detail of some sort, if they’re found guilty of the assault.”
“They will be,” Bastia said.
“If,” said Primus Steeltrap firmly.
Bastia the Bloodhound grunted noncommittally. She stalked towards the infirmary entrance without another word, but she paused before leaving and turned her head to look directly at me.
“Well?” she said, as she stood silhouetted in the doorway.
And I knew that she wouldn’t wait a second longer if I hesitated. “All right,” I said, sealing my fate down one path for good.
“You’ll hear from me soon.”
It’s been nearly twenty years since that day. I’ve gone through multiple warbands, always remembering what Bastia said. “Loyalty to the Legion.”
People sometimes ask how I can hunt and kill my fellow charr, or turn them in on orders, without the least bit of regret.
I regret the senseless waste and the need for all this fighting and subterfuge every single day.
But every society has its criminals and its renegades, and if charr don’t catch other charr, who will?