Pass of Fire (Destroyermen Series #14)

Pass of Fire (Destroyermen Series #14)

by Taylor Anderson

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Overview

After being transported to a strange alternate Earth, Matt Reddy and the crew of the USS Walker have learned desperate times call for desperate measures, in the return to the New York Times bestselling Destroyermen series.

Time is running out for the Grand Human and Lemurian Alliance. The longer they take to prepare for their confrontations with the reptilian Grik, the Holy Dominion, and the League of Tripoli, the stronger their enemies become. Ready or not, they have to move—or the price in blood will break them.
   
Matt Reddy and his battered old destroyer USS Walker lead the greatest army the humans and their Lemurian allies have ever assembled up the Zambezi toward the ancient Grik capital city. Standing against them is the largest, most dangerous force of Grik yet gathered.
   
On the far side of the world, General Shinya and his Army of the Sisters are finally prepared for their long-expected assault on the mysterious El Paso del Fuego. Not only is the dreaded Dominion ready and waiting for them; they've formed closer, more sinister ties with the fascist League of Tripoli.
   
Everything is on the line in both complex, grueling campaigns, and the Grand Alliance is stretched to its breaking point. Victory is the only option, whatever the cost, because there can be no second chances.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399587535
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/11/2019
Series: Destroyermen Series , #14
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 11,626
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Taylor Anderson is the New York Times bestselling author of the Destroyermen novels. A gunmaker and forensic ballistic archaeologist, Taylor has been a technical and dialogue consultant for movies and documentaries and is an award-winning member of the National Historical Honor Society and of the United States Field Artillery Association.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***

Copyright © 2018 Taylor Anderson

Prologue

Grik Persia

The sun was falling toward the distant western end of the narrow land bridge—barely three miles wide in places—connecting the convoluted coastlines of Persia and Arabia. Colonel Enaak of the 5th Maa-ni-la Cavalry (composed entirely of Lemurians from the Fil-pin Lands) was intrigued by the very different reflections the sunset cast on the great Western Ocean to his left, and the equally endless (from his perspective) but more placid Lake Sirak to the right. Enaak made a trilling sound and Aasi, his viciously protective me-naak mount, ambled forward to lap water from the lake. It was a bit salty but fresh enough to drink, and despite the land bridge, it served as the boundary between General Regent Halik’s Persia and the various Grik vice-regencies of Arabia. The border north of the great lake wasn’t as well defined, but few Grik lived that far from the coast and borders hardly mattered. A dozen troopers accompanied Enaak on this jaunt, not really a scout, just an opportunity to get away from his HQ for some air and exercise and see the sights for a while. Even for that, however, in this land, nobody went alone. His guard detail moved up and allowed their me-naaks to drink as well.

Superficially, me-naaks, or “meanies,” were like giant, long-legged crocodiles with thick hides and long jaws full of razor-sharp teeth. They also wore an almost impenetrable, semisegmented protective case covering their spines and vitals. Large eyes on the sides of their heads and narrow snouts allowed excellent forward vision and depth perception. They were fast, too, as fast as the horses Enaak had heard about, serving as cavalry mounts for the Repubs from southern Africa and for the Second Fleet AEF far to the East. Having never seen a horse, Enaak could only guess which animal had greater stamina. But with their claws and teeth, a well-trained meanie had to be a better battle mount. And at least here, against the Grik, the enemy had nothing like them, and Allied cavalry enjoyed a mobility Grik could only envy.

The troopers sat their saddles, shifting and looking around for threats while their animals slurped cloudy water. Enaak trusted their diligence and allowed himself to contemplate more general matters. Arguably, he commanded the most precariously extended land force in the entire Grand Alliance. A few ships at sea might be more isolated, he reflected, but we’ve still got the weirdest, most indefinite aassignment, on the most aam-biguous front in the waar.

Originally detailed to observe the Grik General Halik’s retreat from Indiaa into Persia and make sure he kept on going as promised, the 5th Maa-ni-la and Colonel Dalibor Svec’s Czech Legion, as his Brotherhood of Volunteers still called themselves (despite retaining few actual human Czechs or Slovaks—whatever they were, and wherever they’d come from), had shadowed Halik far longer and farther than ever expected. And they hadn’t just watched him. On numerous occasions now, they’d actually scouted for him and occasionally even fought the same Persian Grik. That happened most recently when Halik’s army conquered the dead Persian Prime Regent Shighat’s capital at Sagar. Enaak and Svec used their mounted agility to harass attempts to reinforce the city, and lobbed exploding case shot over the walls with their stubby mountain howitzers to break up concentrations of troops behind the gates.

Despite that, Colonel Svec still vigorously rebelled against any notion they were “allied” with Halik—or any Grik. Enaak couldn’t blame him. Svec’s Czechs and their still-mysterious continental Lemurian brothers and sisters had been fighting a guerilla war against the Grik in Indiaa for decades, the ’Cats having been driven out centuries before. But as long as their vague “treaty of nonaggression” with Halik held, Svec was willing to be selective about which Grik he killed. Enaak was glad. He technically commanded the combined force, but Svec’s people hadn’t joined the United Homes and even their connection to the Grand Alliance was tenuous. Enaak sensed a palpable paranoia on Svec’s part about alliances in general, based on a very old betrayal. But until they reached Sutkag, on the extreme southwest coast of Persia, and Enaak’s 5th Maa-ni-la was finally reinforced (and resupplied!) by ships from Madraas, he’d been significantly outnumbered by Svec’s detachment of the Czech Legion. If Svec had chosen not to honor the treaty, there wasn’t much Enaak could’ve done. Now the 5th had swelled to almost four thousand troopers—brigade strength for a regiment—and combined with the Czechs (human and Lemurian), Enaak practically had a division. But that still didn’t make Svec any easier to handle.

Enaak glanced northeast, back in the direction of their large, isolated encampment several miles away. Field fortifications surrounded the neatly ordered lines of tiny tents. The laand here isn’t thaat different from places in the Fil-pin Laands, he mused wistfully, taking in the tall-grass savanna, interspersed with large clumps of high, narrow-trunked trees. There were hills nearby, and hazy purple, snow-capped mountains brooded in the distance. Closer, a small column of Svec’s troopers could be seen; one of the official scout details. They were angling closer, the lumbering gait of their tall kravaas belying how quickly the big herbivores could move. Kravaas and me-naaks didn’t like each other, but given their size and power, and the long horns kravaas wore all over their bony heads, the outcome of any duel between one of them and a me-naak was always a toss-up. Since most of those present had been around each other a while, few such altercations occurred. They remained wary, cooperative adversaries. Kind of like us and Haalik, Enaak mused.

He resumed daydreaming of a home he hadn’t seen in two long years. I’m told it’s more thaan six thousaands of miles away, he thought. And though I’ve certainly traaveled it, I caan’t even imaagine such a distaance. He gazed back at Lake Sirak, its waves glistening under the dimming rays like those of Maa-ni-la Bay, and stretching beyond the horizon to the northwest. Svec says this lake was paart of the ocean where he came from. Something caalled the Persiaan Gulf. He sighed. He’d seen a lot of the world in the past two years, a world infinitely larger and more complicated than he’d ever suspected. Particularly when informed by the perspectives of those who’d seen another one entirely.

Aasi raised her head and snorted, water dripping from long teeth. Snorting again, she stepped back from the shore. Preoccupied, Enaak assumed she’d had her fill. Few things frightened me-naaks, but no land animal tarried needlessly long near water on this world. Virtually everything beneath it was dangerous—as were some things that had adapted to hunt from it . . .

“Col-nol!” came a cry from Enaak’s right. He spun to look at one of his troopers and immediately realized his mistake. The cav-’Cat already had his carbine up and was pointing it at the water. Aasi crouched, jaws agape. None of the 5th burdened their mounts with muzzles anymore; their meanies had grown too attached to them to eat them, so why sacrifice one of their best defenses? Fully half of Enaak’s troopers fired at the sudden explosion of spray in front of them, proving they’d remained more alert than their commander. Dashing out of the splashing cascade up on land was what looked very much like a me-naak—only it was easily three times as big and had eyes on top of its head. That’s how it crept so close unseen.

It had also just shrugged off half a dozen hits from .50-80 caliber Allin-Silva carbines as it lunged with open jaws for one of the troopers. As quick as the monster was, however, the meanies’ reflexes were faster and they bolted from the attack. Apparently even less attentive than Enaak, though, one trooper tumbled from his saddle and dropped to the ground in front of the beast. It began to stoop. A second flurry of shots distracted it—and the trooper’s own mount slammed into it with the force of a torpedo, jaws snapping closed on a longish neck. To survive in the water, however, the creature’s hide must’ve been at least as tough as a me-naak’s case, and it batted the smaller attacker away. It hit hard and rolled, knocking down another me-naak and its rider, who screamed when his leg was crushed.

Enaak now had his own carbine up, aiming at the thing’s eyes, but they were relatively small and in constant motion. “Baack!” he roared. Fall baack!”

“But, Col-nol!” First Sergeant Liaa-Binaa cried helplessly, firing again. They had people on the ground in front of that thing!

“Fall baack fifty tails. Thaat’s an order. Then keep firing.” Enaak insisted. He finally fired himself, missing the eye, but probably hitting the thing somewhere in the head. It screeched and turned to face him. The .50-80 cartridge the Grand Alliance adopted for its standard Allin-Silva “trapdoor” infantry rifles and carbines was a potent round; very accurate out to 200, even 300 tails (or yards) in the hands of any well-trained troop. Many soldiers could double that, and a talented few could triple it. Its big, heavy bullet would normally get good penetration on large, dangerous beasts and often killed multiple Grik in massed formations.

But this thing seemed particularly well armored, quickly flattening the slugs on impact and preventing them from going deep. And its head must be extra haard! Enaak thought as he flipped the breech of his carbine open, ejecting the spent shell over his shoulder and quickly inserting a fresh one. He cocked the hammer and aimed again. Aasi stood rigidly beneath him while the rest of her kind and their riders loped a short distance to the rear. Enaak felt a surge of gratitude and affection for the animal that had tried to eat him when they were first paired.

The first fallen trooper had taken his chance and scampered to join the others on foot, but the other was trapped under his fallen me-naak, struggling to rise under the weight of another that was dead or stunned. The ’Cat screamed as his mount writhed in panic atop his shattered leg. Dropping back on all fours, the water monster surged toward the wounded prey. Unaware of the firing that resumed behind him or the vip of bullets whizzing past—and sudden shouts that refused to penetrate his concentration—Enaak led the predator’s protruding eye just a bit. Squeezing the trigger, the carbine bucked against his shoulder and the monster squealed horribly with a terrible volume. It spun toward him again, it’s left eye popped like a bloody bubble. A long red crease across the top of its head showed Enaak he’d nearly wrecked both eyes. The shouts intensified even as the monster charged toward Enaak—and a large brown blur smashed into its side, flinging it to the ground.

Enaak blinked incredulously as another big brown shape—a kravaa!—barreled in and slammed its long, forward-facing phalanx of horns into the monster’s belly. The beast squalled and rolled, vaned tail flailing, and tossed the second kravaa and its unsettled rider away. The Lemurian rider landed on his feet, his own tail whipping, and the kravaa rose a little dazedly, two of its horns snapped off. The first kravaa had quickly backed away but charged again, just as two more converged and impaled the monster. That seemed to do the trick, finally, and the beast convulsed and thrashed while blood jetted from gaping wounds. The kravaas and their riders cautiously moved a short distance back.

Colonel Enaak lowered his carbine and shouted, “Cease firing,” even though no one was shooting now. That’s when he noticed his hands shaking uncontrollably. Quickly slinging the carbine, he crossed his arms over his chest, clenching them tight, and tried to control his blinking. “Col-nol Svec,” he called as severely as he could as the second kravaa trotted toward him. It was huffing and blowing, sides heaving, horns and ugly face covered with blood. The big man with the long, bushy beard sitting atop the animal had quite a bit of blood on him as well, though his strong white teeth gleamed through and practically glowed in the gathering twilight. “You and your ani-maal just . . . raammed that thing yourself. I saaw you!” Enaak continued. “I insist thaat you refrain from such irresponsible aacts in the future. Whaat would haappen to the Legion here, and our joint efforts, if something haappened to you?”

First Sergeant Liaa was shouting for troopers to help the wounded ’Cat, and some of Svec’s people were dismounting to assist. Several kravaas and me-naaks, left unsupervised side by side, sniffed one another disdainfully, but there was none of the usual jostling. Colonel Dalibor Svec laughed, glancing back at the monster, which was only twitching now. “I must ask the same of you, Colonel Enaak,” he replied. “In my case, Major Svec would seamlessly continue our association. (Major Ondrej Svec was Dalibor’s son by a mother whose origin was just as murky as that of his Lemurian troops.) He chuckled darkly. “You, on the other hand, are the only one who keeps me and my Volunteers from killing every Grik we see. If that voda plazivy got you while you sat waiting for its jaws to snap your hloupy head off, who’d replace you, whom I’ve learned to respect?”

Svec had a point, and Enaak shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, his tail, somewhat embarrassingly frizzed out, whipping behind him. A lot of the 5th’s experienced officers had been shipped south to join Colonel Saachic for operations against the Grik capital at Sofesshk, up the Zambezi River. Their replacements, arriving with the reinforcements, had little combat experience. Enaak’s new XO, Major Nika-Paafo, had seen a little action in the New Ireland campaign, but was wounded there and had been an instructor at the Maa-ni-la ATC ever since. Enaak still wasn’t sure how well Nika would adjust to their . . . unusual circumstances here.

A loud groan interrupted them and the two downed me-naaks finally rose and stood a little uncertainly. The one must’ve been merely stunned after all. ’Cats picked up the wounded trooper. His leg looked bad, but it was probably a miracle from the Maker that things hadn’t gone much worse. “Still,” Enaak continued to Svec, “I wish you’d stop paarticipating directly in these scouts. Even without Haalik’s aarmy trying to kill us, there are maany Grik here who not only haaven’t joined his Hunt, as they say, but don’t even know about him. Or us, for that maatter. This is a perilous laand.”

“As we were just reminded,” Svec agreed. “And again, I redirect the admonition to you,” he countered, now impatient. “That you lead from the front is one reason I like you. But as I pointed out—and for other reasons—you’re even more indispensable. And if you personally lead each scout, how will your replacement officers gain the experience they need?”

Enaak started to object that he wasn’t scouting . . . but wasn’t that the very definition of “seeing the sights”? He sighed. “Very well. Perhaaps we both might be more careful.” He glanced at the horizon, then back toward their encampment. The sun now gone, twinkling campfires were sprouting like tiny orange stars on the prairie. “I must be getting baack. I haave a meeting with Gener-aal Ni-waa and Gener-aal Shlook,” he said, an edge returning to his voice. “You couldn’t know, because you were already gone when they asked for it. I waas actually raather vaguely looking for you, as a maatter of faact,” he added wryly, “because I’d like you there. Ni-waa rarely requests meetings on such short notice, and I suspect he has maatters of importaance to discuss.”

“My troopers . . .” Svec began.

“Are in capable hands,” Enaak countered. “Come baack with me.” He paused. “And thaanks.”

General Orochi Niwa, Halik’s co-commander, was Japanese. He was thin but hard, and wore brass-studded Grik-style leather armor altered to fit a human over a long, dingy brown smock not unlike the tie-dyed camouflage smocks the Allies had adopted. He carried no weapons and entered Enaak’s command tent a little self-consciously. That may have had to do with the minor deception he’d inflicted on Enaak. Warned only moments before by a runner from the detail escorting the visitors, Enaak, Svec, and their most senior officers saw for themselves that General Regent Halik himself and not General Shlook had accompanied Niwa, when he strode through the tent flap behind the Japanese “Marine.”

This could be good, Enaak thought, or very, very baad. Everyone stood, since there weren’t any of the saddle-like chairs Grik could use. Niwa stepped aside and Halik moved to stand in front of Enaak and Svec. Almost as tall and massive as the Czech, with muscles bulging under tight, feathery/furry skin crosshatched by the scars of many fights, Halik dwarfed Colonel Enaak. His leather armor was battered and hard-used, and a few daggerlike teeth were missing from his long, savage jaws. Even his high, bristly crest had taken battle damage it hadn’t fully recovered from. He wore no cape, like other Grik generals often did, and his tail plumage flared out to the sides. Without any affectation of finery, Halik remained the most impressive Grik Enaak ever saw.

He’d been a warrior and sport fighter before his elevation, and those experiences added not only to his military talent, but also his understanding of what warriors could endure. To say he was physically frightening, with his wicked teeth and claws and obvious power, would be an understatement. But he’d come alone with Niwa and really did have every reason to appreciate the . . . non-aggression and grudging support of the Allies.

He and Niwa were an odd pair. Niwa had been a member of a detachment of Special Naval Landing Forces aboard Amagi when the battle cruiser followed USS Walker and USS Mahan to this world. Sent to Ceylon with Halik as an advisor, Niwa and the Grik commander endured a great deal together, and actually became friends. Friendship was a concept no Grik had ever been exposed to, much less understood, but there was no doubt Halik grasped it now, along with many other very un-Grik-like notions. And Niwa was important to Halik in other ways. He’d taught him everything he understood about the Allies’ position and perspective and had certainly made Halik a more formidable opponent, but he’d also taught him things like honor, mercy, and, apparently, ambition.

Key to the latter had been Niwa’s influence in turning Halik from a traditional Grik general with no regard for the lives of his warriors into a commander, now regent, whose underlying purpose had become the survival of his warriors—his people—and what they’d become. He led a Grik army that, for the first time in history, was almost entirely composed of sentient, thinking Hij, and not just mindless Uul. Enaak had reports that other Grik were “getting wise,” having been trained to think and fight as soldiers virtually from hatchlinghood, but Halik’s army had been the first, and learned what it knew the hardest way imaginable.

Part of Halik’s mechanism for accomplishing that had been simply preserving his army long enough for its warriors to reach mental maturity instead of destroying them when they “got old” and learned to think too much. He himself had been surprised to discover that warriors past the age of three or four tended to elevate themselves to a degree and only required education after that. So, by saving his army—something it was highly conscious of—he’d instilled another previously unknown concept within its ranks, one that made him a leader to his people instead of just a general to his troops: loyalty. And it wasn’t blind, instinctual loyalty like they’d owed to the Celestial Mother or General Esshk; it was earned. Motivated by that special, different loyalty, his troops actually trained and fought harder now to please their general regent and preserve his cause. Particularly since his cause was them.

On one hand, Enaak, Captain Reddy, even Chairman Letts applauded that, but they knew Dalibor Svec was right to remain wary. With a proper army of disciplined soldiers now almost two hundred thousand strong, Halik was on his way toward remaking all the Grik in Persia, perhaps beyond. He appreciated his unusual relationship with the Allies—for now—but what if his own loyalty to General Esshk, pushed by his new sense of honor, pitted him against them once again? Especially at this critical time? Henry Stokes, Letts’s head of intelligence, constantly prodded Enaak and Svec to evaluate whether Halik could be trusted to stick to the deal or was already more dangerous than ever before.

“Greetings, Colonel Enaak, Colonel Svec,” Halik said in Grik. Then he lowered his muzzle in the direction of the other officers, few of whom he knew. Enaak and Svec understood him, just as Halik understood English, but none could really speak the other’s tongue. Niwa, as always, would try to clarify any misunderstandings. “I hope you’re enjoying your stay in my new regency,” Halik continued, “won with your assistance in no small part. The weather is certainly preferable to that which we endured to get here.” That was undeniable. It got bitterly cold in the mountains to the east, and Grik were particularly susceptible to cold. Svec and his people might actually find it rather hot and humid here, but Enaak’s troopers were reminded as much of home as he was. “And you’re satisfied with the provisions?” Halik pressed. The majority of their meat came from foodbeasts supplied by the Grik themselves, though the arrival of Allied supplies had come none too soon. Humans and Lemurians both required a more diverse diet than Grik and almost nothing had been coming up behind them across the vast expanse of Indiaa, and now Persiaa as well. They’d also been extremely low on ammunition, which gave them the willies, despite Halik’s apparent benevolence.

“Quite saatisfactory,” Enaak assured, “though I hope you haaven’t depleted your neekis herds too greatly,” he probed. Obviously, neither Svec’s nor Enaak’s troops would eat dead Grik—a food source in great abundance of late, which the Grik themselves were happy to consume. But Halik’s Grik had recently adopted other uses for neekis, a type of plains hadrosaur, and were training them as beasts of burden. Neekis would never be cavalry mounts—they were too big and Grik weren’t shaped to ride them—but they were biddable and could pull much greater loads (including artillery) than paalkas or suikaas. Needless to say, they’d added a lot to Halik’s ability to project power, each able to perform the labor of a hundred warriors—now free to swell his combat ranks.

“Not at all,” Halik denied, waving it away. “The herds here are massive and had been underutilized.”

“I’m glaad to hear it,” Enaak said.

“So, plazivy,” Svec said rather pleasantly, considering his name for Halik meant, roughly, “creepy reptile” in Czech. “What brings you here, and why the deception?”

Niwa looked pained but Halik nodded as a human might. “I thought it only right to inform you myself that we’ve reestablished communications with First General Esshk. Perhaps you saw the airship that passed overhead and landed at Sagar? It was one of many dispatched to find us, but was the only one to arrive.” Halik bared his teeth in a frightening manner, but for him it was almost a grin. “I’m sure the rest were forced down by distance, or searched the wrong direction.”

Enaak hadn’t known about the Grik zeppelin, though he had no doubt his scouts would bring the report from Sagar. As for the others, they’d probably been shot down by prowling planes from AVDs offshore. He was sure Halik suspected that too.

“In any event,” Halik continued, “the airship brought tidings of the great war between our peoples—of victories and defeats.” He glanced at Niwa. “The latest was of a terrible defeat suffered by General Niwa’s people in their Sovereign Nest at Zanzibar. General of the Sea Hisashi Kurokawa is no more.” If anything, Halik actually seemed pleased by that, as did Niwa, but Niwa doubtless mourned his other former shipmates.

“We had reports of that as well,” Enaak confirmed. Halik knew all about radio and wireless communications, whether he had them or not. Denying they had more up-to-date news than Halik did was pointless—just as pointless as Halik asking for news beyond what was offered. “We also learned thaat quite a few of Gener-aal Niwa’s people survived,” Enaak conceded. “Some were taken prisoner and will be sent to the Union State of Yoko-haama, where others of their kind reside. Some haave joined our cause,” he added pointedly. “All will be well treated.” He looked back at Halik. “Some of your people helping Kuro-kaa-waa also joined us, much like a few of Regent Shighat’s waarriors joined your hunt when he was defeated.” He glanced at Svec. “I confess we were all surprised to hear of thaat.”

“That is . . . interesting,” Halik agreed, then waved it away. “But it appears, with Kurokawa gone, our peoples are free to focus on one another again—at least on this side of the world,” Halik continued, rather bitterly it seemed, and Enaak felt a chill. The zep must’ve carried information about the war against the Doms in Central and South America. Possibly about the League of Tripoli as well, which had aided Kurokawa. Keeping the Grik, and Halik in particular, from knowing how thin the Allies were stretched had been of the utmost importance. How would their “arrangement” be affected now that the truth was out? They didn’t have to wait long to find out. “Most significant to my army and me, however,” Halik added slowly, “the airship also brought a summons directly from First General Esshk and the Celestial Mother herself.”

“A summons?” Svec asked darkly, and Halik looked at him. “Yes. A command that I come at once. First General Esshk requires my army.” He looked searchingly at Enaak. “Whether he needs it to join an offensive or aid his defense against one launched by your Captain Reddy, I do not know.”

Enaak knew it could’ve been either when the message was dispatched. Esshk had loosed his Final Swarm down the Zambezi to cross the Go Away Strait and overwhelm the Allied toehold on Madagascar. The only thing that slowed it was a desperate act by Russ Chappelle and his old Santa Catalina, which steamed upriver and plugged it up. Santa Catalina had been destroyed, as had an awful lot of good people, but they bought time for Captain Reddy to assemble what was left of 1st Fleet, three corps of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and finally land in Grik Africa itself. Their position remained precarious, but they were within eighty miles of the Grik capital of Sofesshk and the Army of the Republic was churning up from the South. Enaak expected the worst fighting of the war would come in the next weeks and months, but they had a chance, at last—and he was stuck up here!

“So, plazivy, what will you do?” Svec asked, voice still mild, but there was a growing cloud behind it. Halik hesitated, then let out a long breath. Before he could respond, Niwa shook his head. “He must go,” he said, “he has no choice. As I—and you—have long understood the concept of honor, his more recent appreciation of its importance is no less sincere. As Emperor Hirohito represented the, ah . . . Maker of All Things to me on the world I came from, so does the Celestial Mother command Halik’s devotion. And General Esshk made him. He can’t ignore that.” Svec started to interrupt, but Niwa held up a hand. “Nevertheless, General Regent Halik”—he smiled wryly—“the ‘King of Kings’ fully recognizes the way he forges here, with your help, isn’t Esshk’s way, and he doubts Esshk can fully approve of what he and his army have become. Esshk might even destroy him and all he’s done because of it. If not on sight, then very possibly after Halik serves his purpose.”

Halik was nodding. “I must go,” he said, almost pleading, “but I won’t take all my army. I can’t risk everything to destruction by your people or mine, and General Shlook will stay with half my force to hold what we’ve gained and continue our efforts.”

“Half or all, we caan’t let you join Esshk,” Enaak said softly, but the resolve in his voice was clear. Even half of Halik’s army would outnumber his own force more than ten to one.

“I understand,” Halik acknowledged, “but you miss our point. I must go, as I told you fairly, but I can’t tell you now whether I go to join First General Esshk—or fight him.”

Enaak’s wide amber eyes practically bulged, and even Svec was taken aback. “So . . .” Enaak ventured.

“So,” Niwa said brusquely, “we came to invite you to join the campaign as before, though perhaps we shouldn’t expect you to scout the quickest paths. None of us have ever traversed the vast distance ahead, across Arabia and down the East coast of Africa, and it would be a simple matter for you to lead us astray. But you’d be with us, watching—reporting on us, no doubt—and this serves two functions. First, we won’t join Esshk without first informing you. On this you have our word of honor. Perhaps that might prevent your First Fleet from decimating our advance from the sky as we proceed down the coast—or even landing troops in our path.”

Faat chaance of the latter, Enaak thought. Everybody’s pretty busy right now. But they caan’t know thaat—yet. And the first notion’s pretty shrewd. Our planes might slow Haalik, bleed him, but they caan’t stop him, so Henry Stokes and his snoops will want word of his every move. We caan give him thaat.

“Second,” Niwa went on, “as General Regent Halik said—and another reason your air power might leave us to our business and we’d be glad of your company—it’s possible we may have to fight First General Esshk.” He glanced at Halik again. “We have no military alliance, nor are we ever liable to. Halik’s people and yours . . . such a thing would be difficult to imagine after all that’s passed between you. But we’ve cooperated against common enemies, and if it comes to it, we’ll gladly do so again. After all,” Niwa continued in a strange tone, “whether you believe it or not, or can even imagine it, General Regent Halik considers you his friends as well, as he understands the term. He will kill you if he must,” Niwa warned, “though he’d much rather not. If that time comes, however, he’ll give you sufficient warning to prepare for death—or escape. Your choice. On that you have my word.”

“What do you think?” Svec asked after Halik and Niwa left the tent. “Will your Henry Stokes approve this insane scheme?”

Enaak blinked deep deliberation. “He didn’t aapprove us following Haalik all the way across Persiaa or helping him against his enemies, but it seemed a good idea at the time. And our aactions were at least aaccepted. But we must evaal-uate this, and quickly. I believe Haalik will move very soon.”

“Do you trust him?” Svec growled, raising a wide-mouthed cup of seep. Seep was a spirit distilled from purplish, pear-shaped polta fruit. Tasty by itself and full of many vitamins humans and ’Cats required, it was also prepared into an analgesic, antibacterial paste. Recreational spirits weren’t allowed to members of the 5th Maa-ni-la, however, and Enaak insisted his officers abstain as well. The Czechs had no such restriction. Enaak looked thoughtful. “Oddly, yes. I mean, I certainly trust him to crush us if we make a nuisance of ourselves, but I suppose I also believe him about the rest.”

Svec gulped his seep and made a sour face. “I must agree. Granted, he mainly wants us close to shield him from your planes. But without us along, your planes would have a harder time finding him.” He shrugged. “If he wasn’t sincere, why not crush us now? He’d never catch us all, but we’d be no threat after that. I have to say I believe him.”

“We must report this to Chaar-maan Letts at once,” Nika warned skeptically. “I doubt he will trust the honor of a Grik or Jaap!”

“You might be surprised,” Enaak said, looking at his XO. It was the first time Nika had ever seen Halik or Niwa, and he was clearly a little shaken by the experience. Letts—and Stokes—had been reading Enaak’s reports for a long time, however. They may not trust Halik, but they had faith in Enaak’s assessments. “I think they’ll go for it,” he decided. “If nothing else, they’ll always have a good idea about when Haalik’s army might join Esshk, and we caan feed them reports about its strength and disposition along the way. Stokes in paarticular will consider it too good an opportunity to paass.” He blinked a little nervously. “Unless he decides we should try to stop them, somehow.” He looked at Svec. “What about your leaders? What will they say about you draagging so much of their military even faarther away?”

Svec grinned, partially at Enaak’s probing. He’d never even confirmed he had a leader. His people obviously had territory beyond Indiaa, where they’d already begun to return, since there were men in his force too young to have come from that other world when he did, and there were few Lemurian females in the Legion. “Halik’s the greatest threat to my people. Keeping eyes on him—and helping you—is the best service my military can perform.”

Major Ondrej Svec leaned forward. He had darker hair than his father and his sudden laconic smile compressed his narrower eyes into slits. “So we either go along, or try to summon sufficient transport to pull us out—precisely when such transport is desperately needed elsewhere. We should agree to Halik’s terms.” He glanced at Enaak. “Tag along, as you say. And there’s another thing to consider: if we go, we won’t just be sitting here anymore—and we may get into the fighting to the south after all, one way or another.”

“True,” Enaak agreed. “We might well be in at the finish.” He looked back at the younger Svec and blinked irony. “One way or another.”

Chapter 1

El Corazon

Near El Paso del Fuego (The Pass of Fire)

January 14, 1945

Mountain Fish, Island Fish, Ulaagis, Leviathans—they’re all the same: the largest living things we know of on this world. Far larger than anything where we came from. They’re generally solitary, highly territorial, brooding beasts, feeding on anything that will fit in their monstrous maws, including adolescent interlopers of their own species. They’re equally dangerous to “trespassing” ships, and only extremely annoying acoustic assaults can reliably discourage their attention. I hope to study them in greater detail someday, but for now I can only wallow in ignorant awe of their proportions. They’re ancient things, perhaps almost timeless—though not deathless, certainly, since they can be killed, and we know they somberly migrate from all over the world (at least once) to die in the Sea of Bones northwest of El Paso del Fuego. Paradoxically, however, they also congregate in their multitudes at the pass itself to breed and calve, and at that one place in all the world, they coexist in perfect amity toward each other and all around. Perhaps they must be on their best behavior to win a mate? Imagine, then, the double irony that these ordinarily belligerent beasts should witness the visitation of such appalling carnage upon their singular, peaceful preserve.

From Courtney Bradford’s The Worlds I’ve Wondered

University of New Glasgow Press, 1956

The evening sky was a weird, almost neon orange, shot with blue-gold streamers as the sun sank toward the red-purple sea in the west. What looked like a vast bay ringed by high mountains intruded on the land to the north, and the distant shore was dominated by the tallest mountain of all. It was a “vol-caano,” like many of the others, and though presently deceptively quiescent, its indistinct flanks were wreathed in smoke and steam. And the bay itself was deceptive as well, since it was, in fact, the gaping western mouth of what became a narrow, tide-scoured passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The local name was El Paso del Fuego, and it ran just about down the middle of where Costa Rica would’ve been on another earth.

No one knew what caused it. There were a lot of little differences on this world besides the people and wildlife. According to Courtney Bradford, the Australian naturalist/engineer fighting Grik with the Army of the Republic in southern Africa, a moderately lower sea level resulting in different coastlines was probably the result of some phase of an ice age. Sometimes there were islands where there shouldn’t be, or none where there should, and there was a cluster of whoppers around latitude 15 south where there should’ve been only the tiny, scattered, Samoa, Fiji, Santa Cruz, and New Hebrides islands.

Adventurously seagoing as Lemurians were, they’d never ventured that far into what they called the Eastern Sea before the war. Imperial explorers discovered them during one of their periodic fits of geographical curiosity, but found them unusually dangerous even for this hostile world. Now the Impies stayed away, and little was known about the islands.

But El Paso del Fuego was a bigger difference, for a variety of reasons, and theories about what caused it abounded. Most naturalists in the NUS agreed that all the volcanoes in the region blew it out, and the crazy tidal race eroded a navigable channel over time. Others—and Courtney was increasingly in this camp—thought some great heavenly body, like a comet or asteroid, whacked the place thousands, maybe millions of years ago. That might not only have caused all the volcanoes in the first place, but could explain a lot of other things, such as why this world had taken such a different evolutionary track.

While perhaps intellectually stimulating, such speculation had little bearing at present. What really mattered was that the Pass of Fire was even more strategically important than the Panama Canal would’ve been, on a world where the Drake Passage between Cape Horn and Antarctica was too choked by ice to use. There might be brief, occasional spells during which a ship might pick its way through, but the storms were even worse than those off the cape of Africa, and no one ever tried.

Unfortunately, the Pass of Fire was controlled by the Holy Dominion, a human civilization so depraved that the western members of the Grand Alliance were already at war with it before they even knew the Pass—and so many threats beyond it—existed. Most pressing now, the treacherous League of Tripoli, composed of fascist French, Spanish, Italian, and German forces from a different past, had made an alliance with the twisted Dominion and might soon bring enough power to bear to prevent the Western Allies from linking up with new friends bordering the northern Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The New United States were descended from other Americans that arrived in the 1840s, and would be a big help if they weren’t isolated and conquered. Finally, Dom-League cooperation could stop the Allied campaign against the Dominion cold. Without victory there’d never be peace, and time was running out.

Major Blas-Ma-Ar and General James Blair sat on a pair of beautiful black horses, captured from the Doms no doubt, in front of two hundred Imperial dragoons arrayed behind them. Blas was a brindled Lemurian “’Cat” Marine representing the United Homes and the American Navy Clan. She wore the tie-dyed camouflage smock and green platterlike steel doughboy helmet that was standard combat dress for all the Allies, except the Republic of Real People, arrayed against the Doms, Grik, and maybe the League. The only remaining variations were that humans wore trousers and boots or shoes, while ’Cats wore kilts and sandals. A few ’Cat Marine officers and NCOs still wore blue kilts, and the occasional battered set of once-white rhino-pig armor was still seen. Blas wore hers now, as commander of the Sister’s Own Division in all but name. Composed of what was left of the 2nd (Lemurian) Marines combined with a growing number of human Ocelomeh (Jaguar Warriors), as well as a heavy brigade of former Doms and local “true Christian” volunteers calling themselves El Vengadores de Dios, the Sister’s Own had seen more action than any other division in the Second Fleet Allied Expeditionary Force.

General Blair commanded X Corps, and was General Tomatsu Shinya’s XO. Like many officers of the Empire of the New Britain Isles, he still wore his red coat with yellow facings, black piping, and brass buttons for occasions such as this. Like his tall black shako, however, the coat had seen much abuse, and he no longer had a pair of white breeches. Camouflage trousers were tucked into knee-high boots. He still wore long Imperial mustaches, but had also cultivated a thick black beard, something only seen before in the lower ranks. The new style was catching on.

“I don’t know whaat the hell’s the point of this,” Blas grumbled sourly, tail whipping behind her. She blinked something akin to irritated futility as she and Blair urged their mounts forward and they proceeded alone. Half a mile below, down a gentle grade, lay El Corazon del Fuego, one of the principal cities of the Holy Dominion. The outskirts of the city, once a sprawling community of shops and apartments, was abandoned now; many of the buildings torn down or burned by the inhabitants to improve fields of fire in front of a fairly new and substantial-looking wall. An older wall incorporating a pair of impressive tower fortresses protected against a seaborne assault. The recent addition, encompassing the rest of the older, richer part of the city, had apparently been built to stop them.

Halfway between the dragoons and exactly two hundred Dom lancers arrayed at the foot of the wall was a large, particolored pavilion with fluttering scalloped edges. Two forms could just be seen in the gloom underneath.

“The point, Major Blas,” Blair began with exaggerated patience, “is the same as when we agreed to a similar meeting with General Nerino before the battle at Guayak. We learned quite a bit about our enemy that day.”

Blas snorted and her gaze returned to the lancers. They were Blood Drinkers, members of an elite, fanatical military order directly serving “His Supreme Holiness, Messiah of Mexico, and, by the Grace of God, Emperor of the World.” The pretentious title would’ve made Blas laugh, but there was nothing funny about Blood Drinkers at all. They looked fraudulently festive in their yellow coats with red facings. (Blas was darkly amused that Impie Marines had traditionally worn uniforms of the same, but opposite, base colors, and wondered if that was deliberate.) Riotously feathered helmets and the brilliant brass cuirasses of the officers still glowed under the setting sun, and long, intimidating lances stood erect from saddle boots. Bloodred ribbons fluttered near razor-sharp tips.

Impressive, Blas conceded to herself, an’ very pretty in their evil way. Make our draa-goons look downright dingy in compaar-ison.

Imperial Dragoons had been lancers themselves, earlier in the war, and once looked just as fine. The problem was they hadn’t been as good as the Doms. Against considerable opposition, General Shinya sacked a lot of officers, issued the troopers the same combat dress as everyone else, and took away their lances. Now they carried Allin-Silva carbines, fought on foot more often than not, and were infinitely deadlier than their Dom counterparts. Even so, Blas imagined irreverently, I bet a few draa-goon officers wish they still haad helmets with faancy feathers stickin’ out. “Nerino learned about us, too,” she pointed out, returning to the argument.

“Sadly for him, less than he might have.” Blair smiled ironically. “More specifically, that he should’ve left us alone. Perhaps this new General Mayta has taken a lesson from that and will be easier to reason with.”

Blas snorted again. “Reason? With a Dom? Whaat war you been fightin’, Gener-aal? Not the same one I been in. You fought Griks at Sinaa-pore, right? Doms’re just as crazy. Maybe worse. I hear some Griks’ll surrender now.”

“As will Doms, as you know. You command some who have.”

“Regu-laars an’ conscripts, maybe, given a chaance,” Blas conceded, but her tone darkened. “Not them goddaamn Blood Drinkers.” She flicked her ears at the pavilion ahead, though her helmet hid the gesture. “I’m sure May-taa learned a lot from Nerino an’ Don Her-naan. Baad thing is, I figure it was stuff not to do. He already knew, or picked up enough, to lead me all through the mountains by the nose an’ then haammer you on the maarch. He ain’t nothin’ like Nerino. An’ our roles are baackwards this time. Nerino had to come to us—twice—an’ we broke him both times. May-taa knows how we did it, an’ now we haave to go to him in a position he’s had all kinds o’ time to prepare. I think taalkin’ to him’s stupid.”

Blair coughed. “It was General Shinya’s and High Admiral Jenks’s orders that we should.” He tensed, wondering how Blas would react. There’d been bad blood between her and Shinya ever since the hellish battles around Fort Defiance, far to the south, but they seemed to have gotten over it.

“Yeah,” Blas grumped, tail flipping noncommittally. “They’re both great men, smaart men. Don’t mean they caan’t be stupid too. Least neither of ’em came. Thaat would’a been real stupid. Shin-yaa went with us to meet Nerino, remember? Whaat if he’d just rubbed us all out? We might’ve lost the baattle—not thaat we would’a cared.”

“We’ve all . . . become better soldiers,” Blair agreed tightly, as close as he’d come to criticizing their commanders, then darted a glance at Blas. She’d certainly become the most formidable combat leader in his X Corps, and he knew what that had cost her. There were rumors. . . . He shook his head. “And General Shinya’s now fully aware that he’s not expendable.”

“Like us?”

Blair laughed. “Nonsense. Mayta can have no motive for treachery here. He seeks intelligence, as do we. We’ll all be trying to kill one another soon enough.” He stopped and considered. “Though Mayta did request General Shinya by name”—he glanced at Blas—“as well as you, my dear. Perhaps he would’ve set his lancers on us if Shinya came, but he has to know our dragoons would slaughter them—and him—in that event. Honestly, I expect we’re safe enough.”

They were nearing the pavilion now and the two men standing, waiting for them, were resplendent in the ornate finery of Dom general officers. The most highly decorated was surprisingly tall for a Dom, probably as tall as Blair, though his skin was very dark. He was dressed as a “regular,” in bright yellow coat with perfect white facings. Gold lace practically dripped from the uniform, and he clutched a large, equally ornate black hat under his arm. A gorgeous sword with an elaborate golden guard and scabbard, with a hilt of carved ivory or bone, hung at his side, glittering against the silver-white knee breeches, stockings, and black shoes with big gold buckles.

Blas recognized the other man as a Blood Drinker. Like the lancers, the primary difference in his dress was that his coat facings and knee breeches were a dark bloodred, of course. Which is May-taa? Blas suddenly, fervently wanted to know.

“Maybe we’re safe,” Blas whispered as they stopped their horses, stepped down, and tied the reins to a picket line where two other horses already stood. It had been agreed there wouldn’t even be servants at the meeting. “But if one o’ those asss-holes really is May-taa, we should’a bombed ’em or shelled ’em.”

“Please refrain from such comments,” Blair murmured through clenched teeth. “General Mayta is reputed to speak excellent English.”

“I have sufficient English for our purposes today,” said the tall officer in the regular uniform, “and quite good hearing, considering my somewhat . . . raucous profession.” He smiled, and Blas suddenly realized he was young. So was the Blood Drinker, though he didn’t smile. He was glaring at her with an expression of utter loathing. Fair enough, she thought. I feel the same about you!

Blair stepped forward and saluted; he’d discussed this with Shinya beforehand. “General James Blair, at your service,” he said. “I’m honored to command Tenth Corps, the initial”—he stressed the word—“force investing your city—for Her Majesty Rebecca Ann McDonald and the Grand Alliance. Do I have the privilege of addressing General Mayta?”

“You do,” Mayta replied, returning the salute and ignoring—as Blair did—that neither Blas nor the Blood Drinker saluted. “General Anselmo Mayta, at your service, and the privilege is mine entirely. Until the current conflict, only once before in history had the armies of His Supreme Holiness met another upon our own sacred soil—a terrible thing, to be sure,” he added with a glance at his seething companion, “but also a fascinating opportunity for those, like myself, who make the study of war their life’s pursuit.”

Blas was blinking something at the Blood Drinker that Blair couldn’t see, but her tail was whipping like a snake preparing to strike. The Blood Drinker couldn’t know what the blinking meant, but the hostility of her posture was clear. His hand snapped to his sword and he took a step toward her. Almost gleefully, Blas reached for her cutlass. Blair quickly put a hand on her shoulder just as Mayta restrained his man.

“General Allegria! Control yourself!” Mayta said forcefully, glancing at Blair to ensure he’d stopped Blas. He sighed. “Here, I think, lies the root of our conflict on display. Hatred can be so distracting to the professional! Please forgive General Allegria—for that is his name. I had not even introduced you yet!” He scolded the man lightly, and looked back at Blair. “General Allegria is one of many . . . supplementary sons showered upon my lord, His Holiness, Don Hernan de Divina Dicha. As such, he has only the one name until he distinguishes himself sufficiently for God to bless him with another. One of many reasons, as you might imagine, he’s quite as passionate as his father about protecting our home from spiritual—and physical—corruption.”

“I’d aar-gue, Gener-aal, thaat your, murderin’ faith is whaat corrupts this laand!’ Blas seethed.

Mayta looked at Blas with delight. “Ah! And you’re undoubtedly Major Blas-Ma-Ar! I can hear you speak! I’d heard it was so but am astounded nonetheless.” He looked at Blair. “The truly faithful can’t be induced by a demon. They can’t even hear the demon’s attempts. But it became apparent that some demon—some Lemurian prisoners we secured—could be heard by the faithful.” He laughed. “You might be amused to learn how many guards were . . . inadvertently crucified as heretics when they reported this.” He cocked his head to observe Blair’s reaction but saw none. “And the truth was difficult to determine, since the captives refused to speak in front of a Blood Priest, regardless of the . . . incentives. I think it entertained them that we were slaughtering our own! But truth always rises and was eventually recognized—grace be upon those who were not believed,” he added piously.

Blas blinked confusion through her anger. “So whaat’s your point?”

Mayta regarded her with surprise. “Why, only that we now know, whatever you are, Major Blas, you’re no demon! Not human, of course, and therefore unsuited to receive God’s Grace,” he qualified, “but a mere animal, without corruptive, otherworldly powers. Clearly, you’re the most intelligent animals yet encountered, but animals nevertheless.”

He looked at Blair. “Imagine my distress for the souls of your people. As far from God as they are, many do at least know him—which made me wonder how demons could control them in battle unless they possessed them utterly. I’m tremendously relieved for you, General Blair. You and your people can still know God’s grace—and I’ll endeavor mightily to deliver it to you.” He beamed.

“Then I’m sure you’ll take it as a favor if I try as hard to do the same for you, General Mayta,” Blair said dryly.

“Of course,” Mayta agreed. Then he turned back to Blas. “Forgive my digression. You fascinate me, and I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance at last.” He spoke aside to General Allegria. “Is it not amazing to be able to converse with animals? Perhaps they might make suitable slaves. Even pets!”

Blair cleared his throat irritably. “So I gather you asked us here to exchange insults?” he snapped. “If so, I have to wonder why you didn’t wait for our great guns to speak for us.”

“No, no, not at all,” Mayta denied. “On the contrary! You know of our tradition of exchanging . . . pleasantries before battle, and I’d also like to compliment you on all you’ve achieved so far!” He smiled at Blas. “And you! Your skillful chase through the mountains had me quite convinced your entire army was on my heels.” He frowned, but his expression quickly brightened again. “I confess, based on your uncanny deception, accounts of your unnatural prowess in battle, and that you utterly destroyed General Allegria’s entire division of Blood Drinkers with the meager force I now know you had, I believed you must be a demon.” He smiled even more broadly. “I’m so glad that’s not the case.”

Blas looked at Allegria and conjured an evil grin that displayed sharp canines to best effect. “Your Blood Drinkers? How nice. I wonder why you weren’t with ’em when they got their ‘grace’?” She faced Mayta. “But I don’t get how, just because you caan hear me, I ain’t a demon. Your dopey, cracked-up, religion says so? Thaat’s a laugh.” Her grin turned predatory. “I gaar-aan-tee your faith’s gonna take a beatin’ under the hell we throw at you!” She laughed. “An’ you won’t be able to hear me then, ’cause your ears’ll be blown out!”

Mayta’s smile only broadened. “Que detalle!”

Blair sighed. “Enough of this. You asked for this meeting, General Mayta,” he reminded, “and it’s just as well, since I’ve been empowered to offer honorable and generous terms under which any commander in your isolated position would have to consider surrendering his army and the city he defends. Your situation is hopeless; you’re outnumbered, cut off from supply by land and sea, utterly at the mercy of bombardment by air and our artillery placed advantageously on the heights. If you force us to reduce the city, we can’t possibly discriminate between your troops and the civilian population. The effusion of their blood will be entirely on your hands. In the name of humanity, I beg you to yield.”

Mayta glanced down as if considering the offer, but when he looked back at Blair, his smile was gone—as was all pretense at geniality, however bizarre. “I did ask you here,” he agreed, “though I’m not as anxious as you to avoid effusion of blood.” He shook his head sadly. “You really don’t understand the One God and his requirements at all. Let me speak plainly: blood and suffering are the price of grace. They’re the toll for salvation and paradise! All who suffer in God’s name, or bring the suffering of heretics in His holy cause, will join Him in His glorious realm below! What possible inducement could you offer me to surrender that? Something else you might consider: I’m not General Nerino. You fooled me once and it won’t happen again. Also, unlike the unfortunate Nerino, I won’t be surprised by your new and wondrous weapons. I’ve seen them, appreciate them, and can respond with certain . . . curiosities of my own. Additionally, in spite of your amazing flying machines and superior communications, I probably have a stronger grasp of the situation than you—here and elsewhere. I’m not outnumbered, I have sufficient supplies to last a great while, and there are no civilians, as you imagine the term, in El Corazon. All who were are now part of my army, and every man, woman, even the smallest child able to bear arms, is anxious to crush the heretic invaders.” He glanced at Blas. “And their Godless . . . familiars.”

“So, I’ll make you this offer,” he said with a shrug. “Go away while you can. Run away. We’ll pursue, of course, and one day—one generation, perhaps—we’ll run you to ground and destroy you. It’s preordained.” He motioned to General Allegria. “We’d prefer that you stay, of course, so we may have our battle. I’ve yearned for it all my life and nothing pleases God like the effusion of heretic blood!”

The sun had set and it was darkening quickly as Blair and Blas rode back toward the safety of their dragoons. Blas was actually surprised Allegria didn’t send his Lancers after them, regardless. He had little to lose besides a few horse solders that would be of small use in the fight to come. “What a daamn waste o’ time,” she simmered, then shook herself like she felt fleas or lice in her pelt. “An’ now, after just bein’ around ’em, I waant a baath!”

“Why, Major Blas!” Blair mocked jokingly, “I know for a fact you bathed just two days ago, when we crossed that stream to the south!”

Blas chuckled, letting some of her tension flow away. “Yeah. Gettin’ downright spoiled.” She paused. “But whaat the hell did we learn?”

Blair’s smile disappeared. She could hear it in his voice. “We learned that, unlike Nerino, Mayta isn’t only slavishly loyal to Don Hernan, he’s also a believer, who doesn’t care how many die. That . . . will be a problem. The most important thing we confirmed, however, is that he’s smart.” He waved a hand in the gloom. “I’m not talking about his blatant attempt to anger us, to make us do something rash—like launch our attack before Eleventh Corps arrives.”

XI Corps was only one of the missing pieces, still approaching from the southeast, but this time they had time to gather them all together. Hopefully, we’ll do it right, Blas thought.

“I doubt he even thought it would work,” Blair added.

It aalmost did, on me, Blas realized a little guiltily, but Blair’s right. It was pretty obvious. Oh, well. Who cares? I’m already maad.

“And it may’ve actually backfired,” Blair speculated thoughtfully. “At least with that bastard pup of Don Hernan’s. If he retains a field command, it might be useful to discover his position in Mayta’s defense. As for Mayta himself, we already suspected he was no fool, based on how he handled our respective commands and prepared for us here. But now we’ve met him. . . . Blast it, I’m convinced he really thinks he’ll beat us. General Shinya and High Admiral Jenks need to know that, and they must discover why. In the meantime, we’d best be very careful.”

“We learned somethin’ else,” Blas added, her mood already submerging beneath the lake of blood she knew would come, as she contemplated the implications of something else Mayta said. How will the Vengadores—how will Sister Audry—react to fighting civilians, even younglings, when it haappens? “I think . . .” She paused. “I think we’re gonna haafta kill ’em all.”

Blair looked sharply at her. He couldn’t see what she was blinking, of course, but her tone unsettled him a great deal.

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Pass of Fire 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 9 days ago
This+is+one+of+the+best+books+in+the+series+and+a+wonderful+action+packed+read%21+The+characters+are+well+known+and+are+easy+to+cheer+for+and+observe+their+growth+through+the+series.+++I+love+these+destroyer-men%21