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W pracy użyto fragmentu piosenki God’s Gonna Cut You Down, znanej także jako Run On. Autor pozostaje nieznany.


03.09.2031 | Independent Kingdom of Scotland | 572 day of war.

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Niepodległe Królestwo Szkocji Nowe Imperium Brytyjskie Zjednoczona Republika Irlandii Obszary objęte walkami podczas powstania szkockiego w 2030 roku.

Drenched in morning dew, the misty moors of the Pentland hills were last sanctuary of local flora, and a veritable natural bastion for fauna in the local region. Even before the outbreak of war and rise of the New British Empire — led by Empress Meghan Markle — surrounding area was designated a UNESCO National Heritage Site, where every autumn purple oceans of heather attracted tourists from all over the country, and provided Edinburgh residents with a beautiful place to escape from their daily routines in the port metropolis. Surprisingly, fights going on in the nearby city did not disrupt the circle of life for the animals living here. The distant cannonades of artillery and sky-high flashes of mortars blended into surrounding landscape like a mottled grass snake in densely overgrown mulch.

Because, as every day, the starling announced with its singing the advent of silvery morning, and mink and martens, after a successful night's hunting, went to their earthly dens for a well-deserved rest. Lizards, having quenched their thirst with small drops of dew, went in search of a boulder on which to spend the afternoon basking in warm rays of sun.

The gray hare slowly slid out of its dark burrow, twitching its pink nose. Fearful animal froze for a second in stillness every time the sound wave echoed across moors of a just detonated cluster shell destroying houses and killing the inhabitants of concrete jungle. However, when the rumble fell silent, burly jumper would again move a meter or two only to repeat the aforementioned action as if honoring victims of distant attacks.

After a few minutes, hare reached the edge of black asphalt road and stopped. Unmoving eyes combed still sleepy surroundings in search of danger. Slowly, in small leaps, the animal stepped out into the open leaving safe cover of purple heather. When it reached dotted line of the white strip it stopped again, as if led by a gut feeling. Ears laid back now perked up. Instinct kicked in, which, in the case of many species, weighed in on whether or not the prey would survive.

"Threat! Threat! Threatened? No, run away? NO! Yes? Find the direction of the attack! YES, YES! Run away?"

Indecision sealed the fate of little jumper.

Tiny body was crushed when "something" that went beyond the concept of ordinary animals flashed down the road and left behind a black patch of fluids and a pink pile of something that just a moment ago was breathing and enjoying a hare-brained life.

— Fucking hell — the driver cursed as car bounced up slightly. — That's the third one today! If it goes on like this, by the time they see us they will surely smell the stench of guts.

— If you want to turn off the "camouflage" then talk to the Witch. Go ahead, I'll even turn on the radio for you — replied the passenger, pulling out a walkie-talkie. Bearded Scotsman sitting behind the wheel turned pale.

— N-no, there is no need for that — he mouthed quietly. Riding beside the driver, mercenary sniggered, tucking device back into his vest pocket.

— That's what I thought. By the way, do you guys don't eat stuff like that by any chance? Haggis or something?

— It's completely different — reflected the Scotsman, correcting his wool cap. — Traditionally, haggis is pudding in a sheep's stomach, but today it's wrapped in a plastic casing.

— Then you'll make a pate out of the stuff you've smashed — the mercenary squawked in reply.

— Are all Americans so… patronizing?

— Yhm, and now we have come to visit the gut-eating Scots, offering some American freedom as a gift.

The soldier smiled, while adjusting his tactical gear. It consisted of a black and ash A-TACS-type uniform, a fleece cap in gray camouflage, a thin black woolen balaclava, and a vest of the same color concealing angular magazines for the AK-308.

The Russian assault rifle with a lightweight polymer butt stock powered by 7.62×51 mm NATO ammunition and having an effective range of 300 meters has become a popular choice among mercenaries, replacing the expensive KRISS Vector submachine gun, which remained equipped on the company's more elite units.

Russian construction developed on AK-12 subcomponents took part in the current areas of military struggle, which were the battles in cities of southern Scotland, becoming a worthy opponent against rifles and PMs of American origin, also having their share in conflict on the island. Easy availability of the ammunition caused A.R.G.U.S. corporation to re-establish its contacts in western Europe in order to gain additional profits from sales of surplus bullets in the future.

Mercenary patted rifle's cold metal body and slid his finger over the angular magazine that held up to 20 rounds.

— American dream is over Yankee — said the Scotsman taking advantage of the talker's distraction. — Whether you want it or not, America as we all knew it is gone.

The mercenary interrupted his inspection of the weapon and looked obliquely at the driver.

— And who is saying this? Without our help, Scotland would have had a red cross on its flag long ago. How long did you hold the borders? A week?

— Two days — muttered the rebel quietly.

— Ha! Two? Really? I mean I don't want to belittle your army, but you could have prepared better.

— Prepare?! And for what! — the Scotsman suddenly exploded. — How were we to know that the English would trample on centuries-old treaties, agreements, traditions the moment a woman who has lost her mind is in power.

— Are you talking about, well, what's her name… Markle?

— Yes. Empress Meghan Markle — driver pronounced the name in such a venomous tone that the mercenary sitting next to him fell quiet.

— Well, well. Someone here doesn't like that name — he said after a long moment of silence.

The Scotsman looked as if he was about to spit, but held back the impulse.

— Oh and that is very much so — he replied in a serious tone. — She killed hundreds if not thousands of people to get to the throne. Even her own family was not spared. Of course, she carefully covered up everything, but everyone knew the truth just wouldn't accept it. Those statements of hers in the media that terrorist groups or hostile powers were behind everything. I ask what kind? IRA? Russians? Please — the guerrilla paused for a moment, when a sharp turn appeared in front of the car. Driver slowed down and without haste went around the curve. — Praise God that Ireland united when in our country everything went to hell. — He continued while straightening the steering wheel. — If it weren't for their deliveries of supplies, we would have been slogging away in labor camps long ago, but now we have a real chance to recapture Galloway Park.

— From what you tell me, the Empress doesn't care much about her PR. — Said the mercenary to which Scotsman nodded.

— Just to let you know. A pile of documents lands on this woman's desk every day, and among them are orders to bomb more targets - our warehouses, bases, outposts, but also hospitals, schools and power plants. They destroy everything that has any strategic or tactical value.

— What should I tell you? This is how it is in war. All tricks are allowed.

— You speak as if this is something normal — remarked the flustered Scotsman, and mercenary suddenly burst into genuine uncontrollable laughter. The driving rebel felt touched by his speaker's reaction — I said something funny? — he asked, and soldier's laughter eased slightly in strength.

— You sure did — replied the masked man catching his breath. — How many combat missions do you have to your credit? Just in general. You don't have to be specific — the Scotsman pondered for a moment unsure of the direction this conversation was heading.

— Eleven, I think? — he said without conviction. — Yes. This one will be my twelfth.

— And it's my thirty-fourth on this island, which means I've done more for your country than you, my friend. I don't want to brag here, but this is my job. Who were you before you enlisted? — The Scottish rebel opened his mouth to answer, but closed it back after a moment. — Go ahead, don't be shy. — Encouraged the mercenary in a friendly manner.

— F-fisherman — the driver finally replied.

— A fisherman! — picked up the soldier immediately. — You were a fisherman. A noble occupation. You sail the seas, catch whatever falls into your nets and so on. I, since I was twenty years old, have been going where the war is going on. When I left army, I knew nothing but how to operate a rifle, so I decided to pursue this career path. It started innocently enough. Only a few security assignments. Once an embassy, once some VIP. After a couple of years I landed in the PMC. I thought I already knew everything about paramilitary companies, but it wasn't until working for this Company that I understood what it meant to be a mercenary. In the military you have ideals, principles, honor. When you do it for a corporation it all comes down to one thing. You kill them, or they kill you. You take a less emotional approach to war. The enemy is just a target and that's it. Opponent means nothing to you. After a while you stop hating him.

— What do you mean by that? — The mercenary shrugged his shoulders.

— I don't know. I guess it's that me and my buddies aren't much different from Markle. Each of us has a nasty contract to his credit, which later you keep dreaming about at night.

— But at least now you're fighting for the good side.

— You don't even know how many times I've heard this kind of text — the rebel fell silent, thinking over mercenary's words.

— Did you once work for… — guerrilla began uncertainly. — Well, I don't know, for terrorists?

— Do you really want the answer to this question? We are having such a nice conversation.

—Uhm, then maybe you know how it works? — asked Scotsman changing the subject. The passenger looked at him with a sidelong glance.

— What's that? — Driver made a hesitant movement with his hand.

— All this, this magic, this tauma… Tauma…..

— Taumaturgy?

— Exactly. Do you know how it works?

— No. Too high steps for my legs.

— And it doesn't bother you? You wouldn't want to know how… Well, how is it possible — the mercenary shrugged his shoulders again.

— Because I know. I don't think so. My salary is pretty good and I do what I like. I'm able to feed my family, send my kids to college. Besides, as they say, "The less you know, the better you sleep." — Bearded man was not satisfied with the answer.

— But I think you need to know something. Anything at all. Even if only basics. After all, you can't…

The soldier interrupted him and forced driver to make eye contact. Beer eyes shone ominously.

— Listen dude, I'll give you a very good advice now. Don't stick your dick between the doors. — Driver's gaze jumped from place to place, looking either at the narrow road or at the masked soldier holding a rifle on his knees. — You are really, really lucky to have caught this transport. On the second thought, it's probably bad luck after all. Especially for you. You're only here because we need a guide. We would have managed on our own if it weren't for the fact that enemy could track us in a second if we turned on navigation. And then one rocket to the point and boom. We would have all been killed. The thing that you're so picky about — Soldier pointed to strange marks painted with an oily substance all over the Land Rover. — It makes us invisible and silent. We are a mirage on the road. Invisible to eye, senses, and especially the sensors of Brits. And don't forget that we are not fighting for your cause. We are fighting as long as the money flows. When this conflict is over, we just like that — the mercenary snapped his fingers loudly. — We will disappear as if we never existed. We will be just another unconfirmed troop of guerrillas seen this day and that day. Nothing more. Do you know our motto? — The driver shook his head negatively. — It reads: "We don't ask questions. We simply get our job done." Few people fall for the fact that this principle works both ways, so end the pointless questions, because the answer is: no.

Scotsman, who was just about to ask another question, gave up on the idea and concentrated on driving the off-roader again. Due to the working magic, he could not see the hood as well as the engine itself, so the driving experience was quite unusual. Through the partially invisible roof, the driver spotted two black ravens flying above the car, as if traveling along with them.

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The mercenary, seeing that harsh words had managed to inflict intended effect, leaned against the window, trying to get some more rest before they drove into war-torn Edinburgh. Strangely twisted tree symbol painted on the glass twitched under the touch of soldier's body. American reluctantly changed position avoiding contact with the sign.

Shadow 2 to Shadow 1, over.

— And that would be all for the rest — muttered mercenary reaching for the crackling radio. — Go ahead, Shadow 2.

Shadow 1, why don't you speed up a bit? If proximity sensors haven't decalibrated yet, the readings show that I'm sitting on your bumper. I can see your ping less than 10 meters away. I don't want to drive up into your ass. You can't see shit in this fog anyway, and active camouflage doesn't help.

Soldier looked in the rearview mirror, trying in vain to see cloaked vehicle. All he knew was that somewhere behind them was a black 8-ton International MXT-MV half-truck, followed by two more nearly 18-ton HEMTT M985 military trucks. One carried an angular container with a new version of a kinetic cannon rented by the rebels, while the other, on its extended platform, had a special transport module for a 30-man squad of soldiers acting as security measures for high-value cargo. The convoy was closed by a second MXT-MV half-truck nicknamed Husky by locals.

— Sure, Shadow 2, we're pulling away now — replied mercenary rushing the Land Rover driver. Scotsman obediently accelerated.

Thanks Shadow 1, Shadow 2 out.

— Will this weapon work? — the driver asked hesitantly.

— Fuck, more questions? — Scotsman fell silent, avoiding the soldier's stare. In the end it was mercenary who couldn't stand the deafening silence. — Alright, because we're going to sit here like these two dickheads. Why would it NOT work?

— I don't know. I think it's a delicate piece of equipment.

— Yes, it's fragile, expensive, damn difficult to use and not very handy, but it can make Swiss cheese out of an armored enemy carrier. Shit, when I think about it now, it'll probably smash a bunker too. After all, it's a kinetic cannon, electromagnetic launcher, railgun, you name it. This beauty — The soldier pointed behind him with his thumb, continuing in a calmer voice. — Fires bullets at Mach 7, and when configured, shoots any caliber and any type of ammunition. Except for occasional exceptions of course. 7,62? Nothing easier. BMG .50 cal? But of course. A 120 millimeter anti-tank missile? No problem. And the list goes on and on.

Bearded man scratched his ear for a moment.

— And will it launch something else?

— Huh? — mercenary looked puzzled at the Scotsman. — What do you have in mind?

— Well, you know. For example, a brick, or a piece of rebar?

— And what the hell for?

— I'm asking out of curiosity — soldier glared at the road in front of him.

— Because I know… Probably yes. I'm just not sure why you want to do it? You can only break the launcher. Besides, who will find you a perfectly symmetrical rebar? No, it's better to use regular ammunition. Less risk of losing an arm and— WATCH OUT!

The mercenary shouted in such a tone that driver, without hesitating, stepped on the brake pedal as far as it would go. However, both men sitting in the car spotted the danger too late. Land Rover was hit from the front by a missile with a force that toppled it onto its roof, and inertia did the rest.

The off-roader, carried by force of momentum, scrubbed its metal plating against the ground raising a rain of sparks and leaving bright furrows in the black asphalt of the road. The vehicle flashed when arrangement of symbols forming the active camouflage was destroyed, until finally, in a flash of blue light, the green Land Rover found itself back in a world limited by known laws of physics.

The car, however, did not slow down, instead it rapidly approached the next corner. Deprived of the ability to turn, vehicle flew off the road and cartwheeled down the slope, riffling through colorful heather with the black scars of the thrown earth. After a short while, the off-roader came to a stop tipped on its side and leaned against protruding trunk of a once cut tree.

— HOLY SHIT! — driver of transporter that was following Land Rover braked sharply in an attempt to avoid the fate that met the lead vehicle. Another mercenary, one of the six passengers in half truck threw himself toward the walkie-talkie pressing transmit button so hard that the key broke under his fingers.

— CONVOY STOP! CONVOY STOP! — he hollered into the radio, grasping the safety handles as the soldier driving the car tried to recover from skid into which vehicle had fallen after the brakes locked up.

Bad weather conditions, a surprise attack, or perhaps the active camouflage meant to conceal the column of vehicles caused real chaos on isolated A702 road among the low hills of Pentland.

The mercenaries in cab of an eight-wheel HEMTT truck carrying a container with a valuable cargo were taken completely by surprise at the sight of a gliding sideways International, whose angular shape began to shine through a taumaturgical curtain damaged by driver's sudden maneuvers.

Soldier behind steering wheel of the truck swerved sharply to the left, avoiding a collision with the 8-ton transporter. Maneuver, aggressively executed, caused left front wheel of the truck to fall into a roadside ditch and bounce off its inner wall. The reactive suspension jostled the vehicle upward, which went over canal flying off the road.

The car managed to stay upright gliding straight up a gentle hill. A sea of purple heather braked the HEMTT, whose triangular front end plunged into the soft soil of slope 70 meters from the road. Its engine, throttled by bumpy ride, died, and the mud scraped from the ground violated intricate symmetry of the magic marks and the vehicle appeared in a flash of blue in the middle of the moor.

The two mercenaries in truck's cockpit looked at each other, disbelieving the current situation. The adrenaline flowing in their blood, however, quickly brought them back to reality.

— Are you all right, Aiden?

— I think so. And you, Tyler?

— Also. What the hell happened?

— I have no idea. I think Shadow 1 drove over a mine.

— Route was supposed to be clear. Then how the hell…

Attempt to figure out the cause of accident was interrupted by a hail of medium-caliber bullets that fell on the cab of the truck. Mercenaries huddled in their seats trying to avoid being hit.

— Shadow 3, to all Shadows! We are under fire, I repeat, we are under fire! We need support! We need— — That's what Aiden managed to transmit over the radio before armor-piercing ammunition tore through the reinforced glass of the windshield and pierced his vest. The soldier's vision blurred, and his inert body collapsed onto the steering wheel. The loud sound of a horn echoed across the moor.

— Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! — hissed through his teeth Tyler unbuckling his belt and pushing himself into leg space, thus wanting to avoid the fate of his colleague, who was staring with no longer seeing eyes at the purple flowers.

After a few seconds, soldier heard an incoming transmission in his headset. It was Shadow 4, the second HEMTT from the convoy. It was broadcasting information about the current situation and passing on orders.

Attention to all Shadows, disable camouflage. Deactivate camouflage! Hostile on the peaks, hostile on the peaks. Shadow 5 and Shadow 2 proceed to Shadow 1 and evacuate their crew. You have permission to open fire. Shadow 3, can you withdraw to the road? Shadow 3, can you retreat?

Tyler pressed the transmit button.

— Negative, Shadow 4, vehicle immobilized, I repeat, vehicle immobilized. The driver is dead! Driver is K.I.A! — yelled the mercenary trying to outshout roar of shots being fired and the deafening sound of truck's horn, which in time began to change its frequency. — We are— I am under constant fire. The enemy has armor-piercing ammunition. How copy, Shadow 4? Have you copy, Shadow 4? Over.

We have received, Shadow 3. Stay in position and hold it. We'll try to secure the area.

The radio fell silent only to fill up again a moment later with communication between other Shadows, but Tyler didn't care anymore. Bullets continued to fall on his truck again and again, pounding the reinforced bodywork, tearing armored windows and spilling glass particles all around, or hitting Aiden's body, which was moving violently torn by the bullets.

Soldier leaned his head against cold metal door, feeling the bullets ricochet or burrow into deeper layers of the bulletproof plating. "I beg you to hurry, Shadow 4." — thought the mercenary, placing loaded rifle next to him on the floor and embracing his legs with arms. — "Faster guys, faster."

Cold air of the foggy morning oozed through the cabin's punctured windows.

Tyler shuddered as he exhaled a cloud of steam and began counting down the seconds, hoping that help would come after one of them.

At the same time, Shadow 4 stopped across the road at a height of the shelling HEMTT having previously removed its camouflage cloak in a beautiful display of blue light. The starling-haired man serving as commander of this convoy looked at his squad, which was preparing to defend itself.

Twenty-eight men just got up from their narrow seats unlocking their rifles or putting extra ballistic plates in their vests. After all, the enemy was using armor-piercing ammunition, so the extra cover couldn't hurt. One of them approached the commander, holding a portable radio device of the latest generation.

— Air support will be here in 40 minutes, sir — The soldier reported. — They will send us two Mi-35s along with a ground team.

— A Long Time. Much too long — the man muttered, looking through a small observation window at the second truck less than 100 meters away. — It might as well be on the other side of valley — he stated.

View of the entrenched HEMTT was obscured by Shadow 5, which dashed along side of the road, heading towards the second International MXT-MV to carry out Shadow 1's rescue operation. Having at his disposal an M2 Browning rifle fed with 12.7-millimeter ammunition, gunner on the turret of the half-truck decided to thin enemy ranks a bit by pulling a long series across the top of the right slope. Admittedly, he exposed himself to gunfire in the process, but 10 centimeter-thick armor plates positioned around the shooter's position effectively protected the soldier that was operating machine gun. The car, approaching twin half-truck, left a narrow strip of lead shells behind it.

— I hope they can make it to Shadow 1. We have to somehow pull out Shadow 3 — said the starling man to himself.

After a while he shook his head in frustration.

It's unbelievable that they managed to approach me like this. ME! Jack Ryder. The commander of the Shadows. ME? Black Jack?! Who is it? The British? Impossible, no one knew about this convoy. No one except…

— Sir? — Soldier snapped the commander out of his deliberations. The man glanced sullenly at his subordinate.

— What?

— Our crew in the cabin reports that they have successfully protected themselves from gunfire. They managed to lower the armor plates on all windows, so we can leave from here at any time. Our trailer can also withstand enemy fire — mercenary pointed to the thick walls of transport module — We're safe here for the moment, but the driver warns that after a long time in idleness, the repair systems may not be able to compensate the damage. He mentions mainly about vulnerable tires. The complementary foam is still holding up, but as I said, we don't know how much time is left before we are immobilized. — And as if to confirm man's words, bullets again began to tap on both walls of the trailer.

— Thank you Ethan, be ready. — Material of the balaclava moved when soldier smiled slightly.

— Always, sir — he replied, joining rest of the squad.

Ryder passed a quick look around the interior of the vehicle until his gaze fell on a shrunken figure in a long black coat sitting just beside the door, at the very end of the row of seats.

In the gloomy color scheme of the garment, only element that differed from the rest was a small band slung over the left shoulder. Two horizontal stripes of white and red were joined by a quickly painted symbol, whose dried paint had managed to peel off in individual places. Sign in the form of a large letter P, at the bottom diverging into the shape of a sea anchor, almost emanated old history and memories of past events.

Despite the confined space, each trooper kept as far away from the crouching individual as he could. Jack approached strange passenger and stood right in front of him.

— Well, Ms. Anna, now is a good time for explanations.

Petite woman slowly raised her head, revealing the lower part of her face. Snow-white skin marked with scars and marks, the origin of which could only be guessed at, accompanied by narrow rough lips, created an image that aroused feelings of uncertainty and a sensation of indefinite darkness. The rest remained hidden among shadows of the hood.

The woman smiled.

— What kind of explanation does the commander have in mind? — she asked in a voice young and spirited, with a slight hoarseness and a barely audible Eastern accent. Ryder put his hands on his chest and sighed ominously, barely holding back his anger.

— Hmm, why don't we start by saying that, as if you hadn't noticed, we have driven into a trap. I already have one confirmed victim, and two may soon join this report. That number is only going to increase in the next few minutes. — Woman tilted her head curiously.

— And what does this have to do with me? — Ryder, having failed to restrain rising anger caused by the condescending tone of the female interlocutor, banged his palms on the seat back and leaned over the little person bringing his face within centimeters of the passenger's head.

— THE FACT THAT WE WERE AMBUSHED WHILE BEING SMEARED WITH YOUR SCRIBBLES, WITCH! — Shouted with full fury Black Jack splashing saliva on the woman's face.

She, in turn, slowly, almost sneeringly lifted the hem of her sleeve wiping suddenly wet cheeks.

— Culture, Commander Ryder. After all, you don't want to go out on a limb in front of your men, do you?

Jack, losing all patience, slammed his fist into the free space of seat near woman's head, leaving a deep dent in the metal backrest. To his growing anger, the Witch completely ignored the blow. Worse, she even started laughing.

Ryder retreated to his previous position while cursing under his breath, seeing that he had lost this confrontation.

— Wonderful, just fucking wonderful. — Man combed his hand through the hair. — Ethan!

— Yes, sir?

— How long till the support will be here? — The mercenary looked at his watch.

— 37 minutes.

— Fuck me.

In the meantime, woman stopped laughing. She stood up, adjusted her coat and reached for a long cane made of black wood. Then with determined, heavy, almost metallic steps she headed towards the door of the transport module.

— Where are you going, ma'am? — asked Ryder in a voice now purged of emotion.

— Oh! The commander was reminded how to address ladies? — woman turned to the soldier. — Outside, and where to?

— For what?

— For what? For what? To get your man who is trapped in transporter — said the Witch, pointing with her cane through the window. — After all, the poor thing is dying there with fear.

— Alone? — woman looked theatrically around.

— Apparently, no one else will rush in.

— Miss Świtoń,1 you can't go out there — Jack said with emphasis, strangely accenting the name of the woman who spoke to him. — They will kill you.

— Many have tried during the two Occult Wars and damn it, I'm still alive. Huh, a while ago you commander also wanted to kill me. — the woman noted. She pronounced the statement in a joking tone. The corners of Ryder's mouth twitched involuntarily.

— Right, but this is different — he added mastering his expression. — Your magic doesn't work here. These Brits have something that allows them to see us in EVE radiation.

Woman shook her head.

— No commander, they don't have something, but someone. — Ryder stuck an attentive gaze into the hooded figure.

— Are you sure?

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— Absolutely. I have been practicing thaumaturgy for over 200 years. I have prided myself on my mastery of the field for 70 of them, so it is impossible to allow standard sensors to detect my signs. So there are only two explanations left — woman raised a pair of fingers covered with a white glove — either the British have done what the whole fucking Obscura couldn't and developed a new generation of sensor technology, which I sincerely, dare to doubt or….

— …or they found someone from outside — Jack finished. Witch nodded her head.

— That's right. Probably the sons of bitches have in their ranks someone familiar with the arcane magic, being as good a thaumaturgist as I am. Maybe even better.

— So what are you planning to do?

— I'm going to lure them out. — Ryder raised his eyebrows in surprise.

— And how do you manage to do that if I can know?

— Oh it's really simple. I'm going to take away what they came here for. After all, they didn't come all this way just to annoy us. Right, Commander Ryder?

— Kinetic cannon — whispered the man, looking away towards the stranded HEMTT, on whose trailer still stood a shipping container with contents worth millions of dollars. Woman nodded.

— By pulling out the vehicle we will probably force our adversaries to launch a frontal attack. And who knows? — The witch shrugged her shoulders. — Maybe we can defeat them in an open fight.

— Wait a little longer — Ryder replied, having picked up the woman's idea.

Hooded figure rested her white-gloved hands on the cane, freezing in stillness and waiting patiently to see what the starling man would come up with.

The seed of a plan began to sprout in Black Jack's head. Finally, he snapped his fingers above his head and pointed to the powerfully built man.

— Ivan! — shouted Ryder. The called-out mercenary straightened to attention, awaiting orders. — Put on heavy armor, you have a job to do.

— Yes sir — replied soldier in Russian, nodding to his two colleagues, who went with him to the armored locker containing additional equipment. Jack leaned to his radio set.

— Commander to Shadow 4 crew, over?

This is Shadow 4, go ahead sir.

— Is the front winch operational? — After a brief moment of silence, Ryder heard the slightly consternated voice of HEMTT's driver.

Affirmative, sir. All readings are on green.

— All right, on my mark, you will drive up to the Shadow 3 as close as you can. Do not let us get stuck. I repeat: We must not get stuck. Do you acknowledge?

Affirmative, sir. We are waiting for signal.

Satisfied with the driver's answer, Ryder quickly changed the channel establishing a connection with Shadow 5 and 2.

— This is Shadow Leader, give me a sit-rep here! Over.

The reply was sent by Shadow Captain 2, whose fast-spoken words were drowned out by the Browning's loud rattle.

Shadow 2 to Shadow Leader. We are under heavy fire. No signs of— Shit!

Soldier transmitting the message paused when an enemy series clattered against armored walls of the carrier. Jack heard whizz of a rotating turret as the gunner changed the priority target. The rumble of machine gun bullets being sent drowned out the transmission.

— Repeat, Shadow 2! — Ryder ordered. Called mercenary obediently followed instruction of the commander.

I repeat: No sign of large-caliber platforms as well as grenade launchers! Break. Together with the Shadow 5 gunner, we are forming a firewall for a six-man team from our transporters. Team has reached Shadow 1, I repeat: Team has reached Shadow 1! We have two men down. The squad is trying to get back to vehicles, but they are under heavy fire. How copy Shadow Leader? Over.

— Roger Shadow 2. After the action is over, regroup and join us. Together we will try to take out Shadow 3. Over and out.

Jack finished speaking and looked out the tiny observation window toward the hills surrounding valley. He could not see the enemy, he only noticed sudden flashes of exhaust gases released by adversary weapons. One of the mercenaries approached commander.

— Sir, Ivan reports that Grim is ready.

Ryder turned towards depths of the transport chamber. At its very end, he saw huge figure of the Russian, now encased in a black bomb suit. Two other soldiers were attaching the last pieces of additional equipment.

Armor, previously designed to protect the wearer from IEDs, had been modified so that thick layers of nomex, kevlar, polymer and carbon fiber could withstand fire from firearms up to and including category four.

Soldier's face was obscured by the tinted visor of a bulletproof helmet, further reinforced by a thick ballistic plate with grooved eyeholes. On the rough metal, someone had painted a skull with a gruesomely open jaw, giving the armor a more aggressive appearance.

In addition, for comfort as well as to increase the suit's combat capability, a small temperature control system was installed inside, which adjusted conditions inside the suit, not allowing the body to overheat or the helmet's glass elements to fog up. A camera located on the right shoulder provided image for extended HUD program, displayed on a screen inside the visor.

On the chest of the suit was placed a patch with name that armor has received: Grim.

Few people could stand up in the suit, which weighed more than 80 kilograms, and even fewer knew how to move in it. The huge Russian, however, was able to handle heavy armor without too much trouble.

— Can you hear me Ivan? — asked Ryder, waving his hand in front of mercenary's invisible face. The helmet moved slightly, and from loudspeaker fixed in the middle of support straps binding the suit Jack heard distorted voice of the mercenary.

Loud and clear sir.

— Listen carefully soldier. In a moment we will approach Shadow 3 with the intention of pulling him out. Your task will be to connect winch cable to buried machine. We will try to get as close as possible, but be prepared to go outside and walk last meters alone. — Grim stood motionless. — We will provide you with covering fire with everything we have to make sure you get the job done. Unless we are mistaken, the enemy will attack as soon as we try to get Shadow 3 out of those heathers. Once you complete the task, you will move along with towed truck. Use it as cover. And don't take the rifle. It will only slow you down. Any questions?

No sir.

— Good luck Ivan — said a satisfied Ryder patting Russian on the shoulder. He sincerely doubted that man felt the gesture. He did it more for the soldiers watching this briefing. — When you come back we'll all buy you a round. Right boys?

Transport compartment filled with thunderous cheers.

— Hell yeah!

— The Grim will not be defeated by anything!

— We'll show these fuckers that you don't mess with the Shadows!

Ryder waited a moment for voices to quiet down then he turned to his mercenaries.

— Don't think you'll just watch and admire the show, mediocrities! — he thundered in a threatening tone. — All of you to your positions! After all, we are going to cover him, for fuck's sake — the soldiers rushed to their stations. — If Grim returns with even one gunshot wound, I will personally make sure that you return to the base on foot.

All men lined up at the twenty-eight retractable screens built into a wall of the transport module, positioned at standing head height. These allowed a view from inside to any armed passenger on the machine. Ten centimeters below was a small shooting slot opened by a nearby button that unnshut the oval flaps of bulletproof metal that trailer consisted of. Placing their weapons in the designated areas, the mercenaries had taken up a shooting position, ready to open fire. Seemingly powerless and defenseless truck had now turned into a mobile nest of machine guns ready to dispatch an alarming amount of lead angels filled with death.

Seeing that every one of his men was ready for action, Ryder looked at Ivan, who had taken up a position at a rear door, carefully moving the woman out of the way. She merely swept big man with her eyes then sat back down in her previous position with a slight sigh. Black Jack heard the incoming transmission in his left ear.

Shadow 5 to Shadow Leader, Shadow 5 to Shadow Leader, over.

— Go ahead for Shadow Leader.

We have managed to secure Shadow 1 personnel, Commander. Our man is in tough condition, but will survive. I can't say the same for local. — Ryder looked out the window spotting the taillights of International, which was just sending a medical report to Shadow 4's on-board medic — We are about 15 meters ahead of you. The enemy has focused its fire back on Shadow 3. Shadow 2 is standing by us. We have three-quarters of our ammunition left. What are the orders sir?

— Shadow 5 and Shadow 2, in a moment we will move towards Shadow 3. When we get close to him Grim will hook up a tow rope so that we can pull him out of the mud. You two are tasked with providing him a firewall worthy of a VIP. Sky shall be the color of the lead from our bullets, understood?

Understood, commander. We're going to make a medieval autumn out of these cocksuckers asses.

— Shadow Leader, to all Shadows we are starting the show. Shadow 3, we're coming for you. Shadow 4! Go, go, go! — Jack shouted into the microphone, grabbing with his hand mountings of the trailer structure.

Powerful diesel engine spewed a huge cloud of black fumes. Gently operating the gas, HEMTT's driver drove perpendicularly into the ditch, letting modern suspension do its job.

Eight-wheeled, AWD vehicle crossed the deep canal without much trouble and began to glide slowly toward Shadow 3, which was standing further away, while splattering hundreds of purple flowers along the way. HEMTT was followed by both semi-trucks, which bravely traversed the drainage ditch.

Alarmed by the sudden movement of machines, the unknown enemy focused its fire on the long truck.

Bullets clanked against the module's armor. Mercenaries corrected their positions when the bumpy ground tossed vehicle upward. Some, unprepared, fell on their squad mates. Driven by sulfurous curses, they returned to their positions, now richer in their newly acquired knowledge of off-road driving.

60 meters — reported the driver as he approached second HEMTT. The shelling has intensified.

— Time to earn your pay, am I right people? — called out someone, and the question was answered by many nervous laughs.

50 meters — continued man in the cabin. Soldiers placed their hands on the hatch release buttons, ready to open fire.

— Turn on the soundproofing! — shouted Ryder.

Quickly changing setting on their headsets, the mercenaries activated option to suppress ambient sounds. In a moment, enclosed space could get really loud, and no one liked the vision of losing their hearing while shooting. Jack handed a rubber pair of earplugs to a woman sitting in the corner.

— It's okay — she replied politely, making a strange movement with her hand. The air around her wavered. Ryder closed his hand hiding its contents in his pocket and shrugged his shoulders.

40 meters, 30, 25… 20! — Black Jack felt the vibration of stopping driveshaft under his feet. — We won't go any further commander. The ground in front of us is unstable. There are 20 meters left to Shadow 3!

Hearing last message, Russian opened the door, and without waiting for Jack's order, jumped down onto a grass one meter below. Along with slam of the entrance closing, Ryder yelled out at full volume.


Twenty-eight screens swung open. Twenty-eight small armored windows let the gray of late morning into interior of the dark trailer. Twenty-eight buttons were pushed. Twenty-eight barrels found their way into firing ports padded with special material to help keep weapons cool. Twenty-eight dropped safeties clicked loudly and as many rifles roared their death song, flooding the room with a deafening roar.

In mere seconds, turtle-shaped vehicle turned into a bunker on wheels. Aiming at mountain peaks 250 meters away, soldiers sent bullet after bullet trying to hit the enemy. Floor of the module quickly filled with oozing shells. This cacophony of fiery inferno was soon joined by two rattling Browning machine guns, whose half-inch ammunition ripped the earth from ridges of hills surrounding the valley.

Enemy, barraged by lead rounds rushing toward him at supersonic speeds, was forced to break off the attack of his current prey.

Taking advantage of the pause in shelling, Ivan moved towards front of the HEMTT, taking as long and slow steps as suit allowed. Above his head, a veritable cannonade of gunfire rang out as the entire module wall sputtered with gunfire, shielding him from the enemy gunners. Inside the armor, Intelligent Communication System silenced dangerous ambient noises by dozens of decibels.

Ivan got the impression that instead of the loud fire series of the Shadows, his colleagues were hitting the metal wall of the vehicle with hammers. However, the soldier, not bothered by the sound sensation, quickened his step soon reaching the cockpit door.

The crew, after the attack on Shadow 1, had managed to lower the ballistic shields on the windows of their truck thereby also limiting their large field of vision, so the heavily armored mercenary banged a few times on the slanted hood of the vehicle signaling to the operators sitting inside that he was now in position.

The driver, waiting for this kind of sound, released the hook latch, which slammed into the soft ground. Grim raised the red hitch, taking aim at the still-trumpeting HEMTT. The heavy suit's boots sank into the heather making the trek even more difficult.

Halfway across, Ivan was grazed by a bullet that ricocheted off his helmet. The man knelt on one knee, but immediately rose, not letting such a triviality interfere with his mission. However, the Russian, despite his powerful physique, was still just a man. And the enemy's shelling came closer and closer to his position marking the path in front of him with small splatters of black earth. The mercenary ignored the incoming shells, taking another superhuman step. And another, and another…

Finally breathing heavily, with pounds of mud on his boots, he reached the bumper of the stranded HEMTT.

Wrapping the iron beam with a thick steel rope and reinforcing the resulting structure with a heavy buckled cable, Ivan waved his hand in the direction of the Shadow 4 crew, out of breath to inform the team that the job was done. Fortunately, the man sitting in the cabin noticed the gesture and, pressing a pair of buttons on the dashboard, activated the winch. The metal cable began to wind slowly onto the cylindrical feeder.

Grim crouched in the cover of the buried truck's rear suspension. He saw the rope straighten completely, and the chassis groaned protractedly as the salvage device began to pull the huge machine out of the thick mud.

At first it went well; first two of the four rear tires appeared, and after a while the axle dividing the rear suspension saw daylight. However, when it was time for the second pair of wheels, the black rubbers came out halfway through before getting completely stuck in the wet soil.

The winch operator increased the engine RPM doubling the power delivered to the towing mechanism, but the HEMTT stood motionless, having nothing for the man's efforts. The determined mercenary threw the truck into reverse and stepped on the gas, unleashing 445 horsepower from the diesel stable.

The truck's wheels began buckling in place throwing heaps of wet sand into the air. The engine howled and the rope trembled taut. Ivan stepped back, fearing that when the earth deigned to release the buried vehicle from its embrace it might be trampled by it, which in the case of the 18-ton truck was not conducive to positive images.

However, the HEMTT remained at its resting place unmoved. The mercenary driving the second truck was forced to let go of the accelerator pedal, seeing a sudden temperature spike inside the engine compartment.

This is useless Ivan — exclaimed the driver in a heavy tone. — We'll never get him out of this shit.

Grim stood motionless amidst a rippling sea of purple flowers. The man could smell their delicate fragrance inside the armored suit.

— I'm going for him — the mercenary threw the reply into the microphone, stepping out from cover and moving towards the cockpit of the stranded truck. — Shadows! Focus fire on the left slope! — ordered the soldier moving as fast as the heavy suit allowed.

— Understood! — replied the Shadow 5 gunner, turning the turret and sending to the top of the opposite slope several kilograms of tracer ammunition, which flashed a bright green glow.

The visor inside the mercenary's helmet dimmed, protecting the man's eyes from the bright dots of light. The Russian paid no attention to this, focusing on the current task. He felt the opponent's single bullets disintegrate on impact with the layers of his armor's bulletproof material. He had the impression that a wasp had gotten inside the suit, stinging him again and again, leaving a wide area of dull pain in its wake. A small HUD icon informed him that painkillers had been applied. The target was still four meters away, three, two, one….

Ivan pounded the side panel of the cabin.

Friendly! — he shouted through the loudspeaker set.

He feared that a soldier waiting for evacuation, surprised by the sudden intrusion into the cockpit, might shoot him in the face. The mercenary, despite his confidence that the helmet's metal shield would stop an incoming bullet, somehow had no desire to test the durability of his equipment.

The Russian slowly opened the passenger-side door. First he saw the chaotic interior of the cab, and a moment later Tyler's young face turning towards him, frozen in an expression of complete surprise.

— Is that you Ivan? — He asked, staring as if mesmerized at the small black openings of the mask.

And who else? An enemy soldat did you expect? — replied the powerful man, increasing the volume of the radio on his chest. After a moment, he continued by shouting over the roar of falling gunfire — Listen Tyler, we will not take you out alone. You have to start the vehicle! Otherwise we will never move from here!

— And how the fuck am I supposed to do that in these conditions! — replied the mercenary hidden under the dashboard, pointing to the bullet-marked rear wall of the cabin, on which a new splinter appeared again and again.

The remnants of the windshield clung to the rubber gasket or every stronger piece of Plexiglas. The floor of the cab was strewn with shards of glass and deformed shrapnel from enemy shells. The Russian was amazed that the soldier did not die hit by an accidental ricochet.

Okay, take it — said Grim unbuckling a heavy vest with bulletproof plates inside and handing it to the mercenary. The man looked at the armor, turning it uncertainly in his hands.

— You know there's a hole here?

I know… Put it on and get behind the wheel — the soldier who was just in the process of fastening the latches of the additional armor looked at the powerful man in astonishment.

— Are you kidding me!

Do I look like I'm joking?

— There is still Aiden there! - shouted the mercenary with a breaking voice.

The Russian raised his eyes only now noticing the body of the Shadow 3 driver. Aiden was almost torn to pieces by the enemy's intense fire.

The soldier, lying on the steering wheel and still resting his elbow on the HEMTT's now barely audible horn, had his back turned to the arguing two. The man's head, completely massacred by enemy armor-piercing ammunition was dripping dark saliva onto the speedometer clocks, which, flowing into the recesses of buttons and switches, leaked in a narrow trickle onto the cold metal of the truck's floor.

Aiden's brain — nearly pushed out of his skull — marked the stiff seat with irregular red stains, forming a horrific mosaic of pink tissue and plasma on the driver's headrest. A tattered vest devastated by the adversaries' rifles as well as an ashen uniform completely soaked in the brown color of blood made up a grim picture of the reality of the mercenaries' current defensive action.

Ivan glanced back at the younger man. The vision of approaching the massacred corpse paralyzed Tyler, who, staring at his comrade's lifeless body, visibly turned pale despite the mantelpiece he wore. Finally, the Russian took the initiative.

Okay, move! — he commanded while grasping the door frame.

The shock absorbers crackled in silent protest as the nearly 400-pound individual stood on the first step of the truck's doorstep.

The Russian climbed into the cockpit.

— What are you doing! — shouted Tyler, forced to make room for the huge figure.

I'm saving our lives — replied Grim, leaning over the mercenary and grabbing the neck collar of Aiden's uniform with his hand.

Ivan pulled hard to free the body from the straps. The horn went silent and for a second the Pentland moors were once again plunged into silence. The sudden change was also noticed by the enemy, who redoubled their efforts in eliminating the HEMTT's crew.

The mercenary, disregarding the bullets wheezing around him, dragged Aiden through the cabin.

Forgive me, brother — he whispered, loosening his grip. The dead soldier hit the cold ground deafeningly. — Okay, your turn! — called out Grim. — Get behind the wheel, or we'll both end up like him.

— Damn it all to fuckin' hell! — growled Tyler, but obediently complied with the order by crawling on the blood-dirty floor. Ivan took the mercenary's current place.

The younger man reached the driver's seat carefully making sure to keep his head down. Blindly, he began pummeling the bloody dashboard in search of an ignition.

Hurry up, Tyler! — called out Grim as he took another bullet into his suit. The huge silhouette of the armor was a perfectly visible target for the gunners, who were happy to fire shots at the black suit.

— Fuck it! — shouted the younger man standing up, having previously covered his face and upper body with a heavy bulletproof vest. The mercenary felt the lead bullets hit the ballistic plates, which deformed the thick metal.

The soldier quickly found the ignition. The starter rattled loudly, and a small cloud of gray smoke rose from under the hood.

— Come on baby, come on… — muttered Tyler gently adding gas.

Why don't you starting it! Let's get out of here! NOW!

— And you think what the fuck am I trying to do! — the soldier growled in response, again trying to start the engine. — I know you can do it… Come on, I'm begging you… Come on baby… FOR FUCK'S SAKE GO YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT! — roared Tyler, sending a powerful kick towards the main console. The machine, as if on command, started the diesel unit spitting out a black fog of smoke from the long exhaust pipes. — God, thanks beautiful — whispered the mercenary, quickly throwing into reverse and pushing the gas to the limit.

The jammed tires began to rotate, and a white cloud of steam emerged beneath the front fenders, caused by the heat from the rubbing of the rubbers against the damp mud of the ground.

Seeing that Shadow 3 had managed to start the vehicle after all, the driver of the second truck released the brakes and tried again to pull out the buried HEMTT.

The extra 445 horses made a colossal difference. The 18-ton vehicle almost immediately freed itself from the thick layer of earth, leaving a deep hole behind.

Feeling that the wheels had caught firmer ground, Tyler skillfully turned the machine 180 degrees, driving it into the center of the triangle formed from the convoy's three remaining vehicles. The HEMTT found itself in the zone of the Shadow's covering fire, which eased in strength after a time.

Letting off the gas, the man allowed the machine to traverse the last meters before, exhausted with nerves, he settled down on the blood-stained seat completely ignoring the existence of the outside world.

— God, what blessed silence — Tyler said to himself, wandering around with absent eyes.

Grim, who also seemed to have limped away tired from the grueling mission, raised his heavy head as the viewfinder's HUD glowed bright red.

It's not over yet — muttered the mercenary, looking toward the rising slope in front of him and noticing what Ryder had warned him about. The Russian opened a communication channel with his commander. — To Shadow Leader, the enemy is advancing.

Hearing the message, Black Jack turned in the direction Ivan was looking, and saw the oncoming threat.

Twenty barrel-shaped objects tumbled over the right peak of the mountain and came, rushing down the slope, approaching the formed cordon of military vehicles at an alarming rate. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryder saw a similar sight on the opposite hill.

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For a long moment, Jack had trouble determining what he was actually looking at. At first he thought that the adversaries were advancing on him like the old cavalry using small mounts, but when the figures came closer he was surprised to see that in the place animal's mouth was the torso of an armed soldier. What he had previously taken to be a horse turned out to be the metal body of a barrel-shaped robot, which was reaching incredible speed on its four stick-like legs, rushing to meet the ARGUS mercenaries fire. The gunners behind the Browning machine guns could hardly manage to hit the fast-moving targets, which could change their course in a second. The distance between them quickly began to melt away.

— What the hell is that? — asked Ethan staring at the oncoming enemy squad straight out of a Science Fiction novel. Ryder paid no attention to his subordinate's question.

— Cease fire! — he ordered, shouting through the currently running fire salvo.

The soldiers stopped firing and with a clatter of metal rails they closed the observation screens and firing windows. Jack turned on the radio relaying new orders.

— To all Shadows. Shadows dismount the vehicle, we will face the advancing enemy in an open area. Alpha team! Secure the left flank. Bravo team, move to Shadow 3 and hold position. Let's go!

Without hesitating, the mercenaries reloaded their weapons ready to carry out their new task. Ryder opened the door of the transporter, letting through the soldiers, who one by one jumped off the trailer. The men moved toward their designated positions along the way splitting into two smaller teams.

Black Jack vaguely checked the magazines for his modified SIG Spear and, with a deft movement of the sliding bolt, inserted a cartridge into the modern assault rifle's chamber. He also corrected the mountings of his RONIN-type helmet with an integrated ballistic mask, at the base of which was a small toxin absorber. The dark blue lenses of the goggles were equipped with a simplified version of an extended HUD system that worked by brief pings between scanning devices on nearby vehicles and reports from observation cameras worn by some soldiers.

Once the program was up and running, Ryder saw his men in shades of pale blue and the approaching enemies in angry red crimson. He noticed that next to the dark female figure, the software added a yellowish bar: Not identified.

— Are you heading out ma'am? — he asked in a voice distorted by the mask. The witch shook her head.

— You go ahead, commander. I'll provide assistance if you need it.

Jack shrugged his shoulders and left the module slamming the door behind him. The woman was left alone in the empty trailer.

— But it wouldn't hurt to get ready — she muttered, rising from her seat and heading deeper into the transport compartment.

Empty shells rasped under her heavy steps as she approached the open armored closet, now giving the impression of being incomplete due to the missing Grim suit. The woman — undeterred by the numerous signs with a skull and exclamation marks — began to shuffle through the equipment left behind, randomly opening drawers and peering into the numerous compartments housing magazines, grenades, knives, flashlights, explosives and many other more or less dangerous items and combat accessories in their recesses.

— No, no, not that either… — she murmured to herself while taking a vague look at the available arsenal for ARGUS mercenaries.

As she was just about to walk away in resignation, a flash of polished wood caught her attention. She lifted her gaze, slipping her hood slightly.

— Hi beautiful — she whispered, reaching for the almost antique by today's standards M79 grenade launcher.

Manufactured in the last century, the weapon, which had undergone its battle baptism in the Korean War, now hung from the ceiling, tucked away in its case. The protruding polished stock was marked with numerous scars of past clashes and lines etched with the blade. Each marked the successful destruction of a target.

The woman removed the weapon from the case with anointment. Carefully sliding her open hand over the dark brown wood, she imagined the events that once unfolded before the former owner of the grenade launcher.

— If only I could have you in '44. The Nazis would shit themselves at the mere sight of you — she concluded while finishing her inspection. — But that's the grumbling of an old hag. Today you have a job to do.

She put the gun down on the floor now reaching for the 40-millimeter caliber cartridges lying in foam extrusions in one of the drawers of a cabinet signed with the graceful name "The Ultimate 4-0 mm Disintegrator."

The woman took out five massive shells, placing them near the grenade launcher, and sat down in front of them with her legs crossed. From her coat pocket she pulled out a small cloth bag. Slowly and steadily she began to pull out its contents, arranging the items in front of her.

A jar with a strange slimy liquid the color of blood red, a leather journal worn by the teeth of time, a set of paintbrushes and a small black candle.

The witch got to work, opening the sealed lid. She began by painting intricate patterns on the floor that with their serpentine, scarlet lines wrapped around the weapon as well as the ammunition laid next to it. Suddenly, the woman, with a quick brushstroke, connected the five bullets to form a pentagram. The shadows in the trailer blackened.

Anna continued the ancient rite of ordaining weapons having its origins back in the days of the First Occult War. Having lit a candle and placed it in front of her, she humbly bowed her head forward, beginning to read an incantation from a journal written in faded ink.

The words, quiet at first, grew more and more powerful. With each consecutive sentence, their toxin filled the room warping space and poisoning time. Acidic venom oozed from the woman's mouth, almost dripping onto the yellowed pages of the notebook.

Suddenly, the module lights flickered and evidently went dim. The weapon lying in front of the witch trembled and rose a few centimeters. From inside the threaded barrel came a hideous, slimy, hate-filled squawking voice.

Who from the Ancient Ones dares to summon me? — Anna bowed her head even lower.

— Nëzgulu, Lord of the third plane, I summon you to fulfill your contract.

The contract?

— That is correct, my Lord. According to a contract made by a mortal during the 36th blood moon, you have agreed to lend a fragment of your immeasurable power once every one hundred and fifty days. This is my second of five negotiated summons.

Your name is Anna?

— That is correct, my Lord.

What power is needed for one of the Ancient Ones.

— I humbly ask, my Lord, that with a pinch of your honor you bless this weapon on behalf of one of the 11 Lords.

The voice fell silent after which the Witch heard a chilling laugh.

Here's your blessing! — the demon hissed, and the weapon fell lifelessly to the floor.

The darkness left the room. Anna raised her eyes to the candle, which now became a pile of cooling ashes.

Hunter did not disappoint, as usual — she muttered, packing up the items and taking the weapon into her hand.

The grenade launcher almost sparkled with energy. Witch picked up the 40 millimeter cartridges, feeling a change that only a thaumaturgist could notice.

— Definitely did not disappoint — she repeated.

What a fucked up day! — thought Ryder with rage, running towards the Alpha troop's position and firing several accurate shots at the nearest attacker. One of the mechanical centaurs fell stumbling over its own feet, and the soldier in control disappeared under the body, crushed by the heavy carcass of the robot. Jack, paying no attention to this, quickly changed his target. — First the sons of bitches attacked my convoy, and now they're arranging a damn reenactment of the Battle for the Alamo. — Three squeezes of the trigger and another enemy bit the soil of the moor. Black Jack ran the last meters stopping behind one of the mercenaries.

— Good to see you, commander — said the soldier, while firing from behind the cover of the Shadow 5 armored carrier.

— How's the situation?

— Not too fun, the grunts are running around us, and the cover here is practically nonexistent. The only thing holding them back for now are the 50 cal.

Ryder raised his gaze quickly analyzing the current battlefield. The adversaries were conducting charge after charge, but always braked about 50 meters before the cordon to escape to the left or right and start circling around the cluster of Shadow vehicles. After regrouping, the enemies would renew the assault, only to break into smaller groups again in the final meters like a wave crashing against the coastal ramparts. Seemingly pointless tactics became extremely effective weapons in the hands of enemy operators, who were able to exploit the full potential of the enormous mobility provided by the four-legged exoskeleton.

The enemy systematically repeated the maneuver, and soldiers armed with submachine guns fired single shots taking advantage of the terrain and the inconvenient position of the mercenaries.

Casualties began to appear on both sides.

— How much ammunition does machine guns have left? — Ryder asked.

The questioned mercenary grimaced, firing a long burst at the nearest centaur. The bullets ricocheted off the metal body with a loud clang. The soldier spit upon seeing the result and answered after a moment.

— Not much. Jefferson have a quarter of the belt left — the man pointed with his head to the gunner operating the Browning machine gun. The barrel of the rifle mounted on a nearby vehicle had already managed to heat up to a dark red. — I suspect it's similar at Max's end as well, but hey! We have plenty grenades — he remarked, pulling the pin.

With a vigor he threw a fragmentation grenade at the enemy rushing along the mercenary cordon. The man, without stopping, ran straight into the armed charge, which detonated right under the belly of the titanic stallion. The force of the explosion tossed the robot upwards, and the metal debris pierced the trep's body.

— Good throw, let's keep it up! — praised Ryder.

This was the last positive remark Jack made during this clash. Seconds after saying his words, he saw the four men of the Shadow 2 crew standing behind the neighboring vehicle being mowed down by the enemy's series.

In a rush of adrenaline and the simplest reflex that has saved his life more than once, Ryder threw himself at the mercenary kneeling next to him, pinning them to the ground. A moment later, he heard bullets hitting the armored sides of the transporter where, just moments before, they were both standing. The clattering sounds of Browning stopped abruptly.

Jack, guessing what had just happened, quickly rose from the ground, and helped the dazed soldier get up.

— Withdraw, now! — he ordered, and the mercenary obediently complied with the order, running away on still soft legs towards a deep rut, acting as a makeshift trench for other soldiers of Alpha unit. — You're alive Jeff?! — he shouted, opening the door of the transporter.

Gunner was lying on the floor of the tower's rotating frame. With his hand stretched out in front of him, he tried to grab something that only he could see. Ryder fell to the wounded man squeezing through the row of seats.

— Hey! Jeff, are you okay? Talk to me soldier! — mercenary's gaze sharpened recognizing the commander's distinctive mask.

— T-t-they got me… — he whispered quietly.

— That's just what I see, where exactly? — asked Jack analyzing the man's uniform in search of a gunshot wound, but did not found one. — Jeff, where the hell did you get hit?

— My head hurts…

Jack only now looked at the soldier's face, noticing the scarlet stain on his mantelpiece. He unbuckled the wounded man's helmet and gently rolled up the blood-sticky material of the mask.

In his left cheekbone, Ryder spotted a deformed cartridge that had shattered the upper part of his jaw and lodged in it. Black Jack was shocked that the man was still able to pronounce sentences.

— Okay, I see the problem. From now on, try not to talk, clear? — The soldier slightly moved his head. — You'll be fine, for this scar you'll pull out any chick — he added in a comforting tone. In the injured man's eyes Ryder saw small fire of amusement.

Commander of Shadows leaned over the man's transmission device, with which all mercenaries were equipped.

A small tablet encased in a rubber casing also served as a so-called automatic Panic Button; it activated an alarm signal when the system detected that the user's vital functions were fading or deteriorating drastically. The notification sent by the program went to nearby soldiers and the nearest medic.

Ryder activated the described procedure manually and after a moment saw on his viewfinder that the man's status had changed from injured to incapable of fighting and awaiting medical attention. Opening his first aid kit, Jack quickly found a needle with ready-to-use ampoules of painkiller. Wasting no time, he applied the medicine to the man.

— You'll be fine — he repeated, patting the mercenary on the shoulder. The man raised his thumb helplessly in response. Ryder smiled seeing the weak gesture. — Now let me repay the motherfuckers with a good one. — He said standing up and took a position behind the machine gun.

To Jack's eyes appeared an oncoming wave of enemies, who took advantage of the Browning's lack of covering fire to launch an assault. Without wasting a moment, Ryder reloaded the weapon and pressed the trigger, aiming at the very center of the enemy grouping.

The spearhead of the adversaries collapsed as if swept away by the impact of the giant. Centaurs falling under the onslaught of bullets dragged their comrades running after them, and in a second the entire enemy unit went to pieces, turning into a cluster of metal legs, titanium bodies and human limbs. Black Jack heard as if through a fog the wailing of wounded soldiers.

However, he was not given to enjoy this victory because suddenly, a half-meter long steel arrow pinned him against the rear wall of the turret piercing his left shoulder and impaling him on the armored wall as if it was made of soft wood.

The mercenary roared in pain, reflexively grabbing the metal projectile sticking out of his body, which ripped deep into his muscles and rattled his bones. Ryder, with the rage of a wounded animal, looked in the direction from which the unexpected shot came, after a moment spotting the shooter.

He was standing some 50 meters behind the failed charge. He was dressed in a dark mottled coat that blended with the nearby surroundings, making the individual appear to wave against the purple heather. He wore a hood over his head, however, even from such a distance Jack could see the bright oval of his face marked by blue paintings. In his right hand he wielded a modern composite crossbow, on which he had just loaded another bolt.

— God fucking damn it! — hissed Ryder and redoubled his efforts in an attempt to free himself from the wall, but the arrow did not flinch. The mercenary pinned to the tower was a perfectly visible target for the marksman standing on the hill.

The hooded crossbowman unhurriedly raised his weapon to his eye, and Jack thought he saw the flash of a sharp arrowhead about to pierce his chest.

However, instead of the swish of the darts, Ryder heard a distinctive "phump" and the whistle of a flying demolition round. The ground near the hooded man exploded with infernal fire, transforming a section of the hillside into a blazing conflagration. The bowman disappeared in black smoke, thrown into the blackness by the shockwave of the thermo-barrel cartridge like a rag doll by a wayward child.

Black Jack, following with his eyes the narrow trickle of gray smoke that the bullet left in the sky, saw Witch standing next to the carrier.

She, earlier, had shed her heavy black cloak, revealing a narrow waist and a slender body encased in a small Class I exoskeleton.

All of the suit's limbs, connected by titanium attachments, moved in perfect synchronization with the woman's skeletal system. The actuators powering the motor systems wheezed quietly to the rhythm of the hydraulic compressors located along the steel spine. Anna's petite figure seemed to have the strength to stand up only because of the modern suit.

Her milky-white hair interspersed with single raven-black strands was tied in a short braid, and her pale, young and in its own way beautiful face marked by numerous scars now widened in an expression of contentment. The woman's eyes, as dark blue as the sea, brightened at the sight of the damage done.

A thick cloud of exhaust gases oozed from the barrel of a grenade launcher she was holding. The witch reloaded the weapon by inserting a new 40 millimeter shell into the cylindrical chamber. Another "phump" and a second enemy squad was wiped off the face of the earth.

Jack stared at the fiery display with a breathless expression. He didn't know how the woman had accomplished such destruction with an old grenade launcher, but he didn't care. He drew an almost animalistic satisfaction, at the sight of the opponent's charge, which lost momentum and fell into complete chaos when hellish fissures opened under the feet of the mechanical centaurs.

"Phump… Phump… Phump" and the show came to an end.

Ryder sensed movement behind him. Another skill acquired during countless hours of combat missions. He looked over his shoulder, recognizing the figure of his deputy, who was just climbing onto the roof of a half-truck.

— Are you all right sir? — asked Ethan hiding behind armored cover of the turret.

— Yes, I'm fine — replied Black Jack — Son of a bitch just scratched me… and pissed me off.

— I can see that — replied the mercenary, jumping down into the turret and facing the commander. — You were lucky sir, there are no traces of heavy bleeding, which means nothing serious, but you can't leave without a cutter — he noted, analyzing the steel bolt still stuck in Ryder's left collarbone. The commander looked angrily at his subordinate.

— Then get it, damn it! I'm not going to stand here like a damn crucifix.

— Help?

Both men raised their eyes when the irregular shadow of a woman fell on their masked faces. The barrel of her grenade launcher, now thrown over her back, still belched gray smoke.

Ryder didn't know if it was his senses failing; dulled by the adrenaline leaving his body, or if the woman had again used her mysterious signs to move soundlessly in her armor. In any case, she was now standing over them, paying little attention to the chaotic firing of retreating enemies, who, after experiencing massive losses from the Witch's enchanted weapons, were returning to the valley tops, giving up further attacks and leaving behind slain and wounded comrades. Some mercenaries cheered at this sight, while others took the opportunity to further thin the enemy's ranks.

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