Pride of the Ninth

[Author’s Note: this is fiction for Age of Iron, a larp system I played in several years ago. As such, while the characters in this story are my own invention (and the Ninth Legion and their traditions were mostly mine as well) the world itself belongs to others]

“Do not contradict me, scout sergeant. I am giving you an order, and I expect my orders to be obeyed. Is that clear?”

“With all due respect, sir-” Marius began, spitting the words through gritted teeth in a way that left no doubt exactly how much respect he thought due to this particular officer, “I don’t-”

Something flickered in the corner of his vision – the fingers of Gaius’ left hand, tapping out an urgent message on the worn leather of his sword-hilt.

Stop. Agree. AGREE.

Well. That made things a whole fuckton better.

Fighting back the anger burning in his throat, Marius bit his tongue, squared his shoulders and tried grudgingly to pretend he hadn’t been about to tell his Officer Commanding exactly where he could stick his pisspoor excuse for a battleplan. “Yessir. Crystal clear, sir.”

The boy looked suspicious. Was suspicious, probably. But Scout Sergeants Cato and Aulus didn’t get to their current rank without learning how to boldface officers, and the combined power of two carefully blank NCOs is always more than a match for one green kid barely out of training. So he nodded, sniffed, muttered a perfunctory ‘Good, good. Carry on, sergeants’ and, with a flick of his (somehow still spotless cloak), exited the tent.

The two of them stayed standing exactly where they were for a long moment, waiting for the OCs footsteps to fade out into the distant hubbub of the camp. Then Marius dropped his shoulders, relaxed his stance (as much as he ever relaxed, anyway), and turned on his friend, caught halfway between confusion and irritation at the other man’s apparent descent into momentary madness.

“What the fuck was that, Gaius?”

“What the fuck that was, Marius, was me saving your bloody neck.” Gaius scowled. Then he  frowned, leaned in conspiratorially and muttered “You do know who his parents are, right?”

“I don’t give a good fuck who spawned him, he’s-”

“They’re rich. Very rich. Powerful, too. Do you have any idea what mouthing off to someone like that means?”

“In Thulian lands, shit-all. You’re not in Gedrosi any more, Sacha.”

“Don’t call me that! Nobles are nobles wherever they are, no matter what your countrymen like to pretend. You know it, I know it, and they sure as sin know it. So yes, saving your neck. Unless you want to get hauled up and flogged for insubordination and disobeying orders.” He shivered, hand going almost unconsciously to his throat. “Not to mention whatever else his family wants to do to you to revenge themselves for your disrespect. If you’d done that back in the Old Country, you’d have been lucky to escape being sent to Amon Tor.”

“One, we’re not in the Old Country. Two, this is the Land of the fucking Free – or at least an outpost of it. And three, none of that is going to happen anyway, on account of the fact that you just stopped me telling that bastard where he could stick his fucking battle plan. So instead we’re going to go die in the dark like a pack of idiots on the say-so of that cunt because you couldn’t remember what Aquilina-damned country you were in!”


“No, don’t you bloody well ‘Marius’ me, Sa- Gaius. If that bastard gets us killed-”

“Then you’ll be dead and I’ll be dead and we won’t be having an argument.”

“Oh stop being so fucking Gedrosi about it.”

“I’m right.”

“I know you’re bloody right. Just…” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “Don’t get yourself killed, alright?”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

“Good. Because if you do I’ll come after you, break your bloody nose and haul you back for dying on my watch without permission. Got it?”

“Haul me back from where?”

Got it?

“Got it.”



“Got it?”

“Got it,” Gaius confirmed, looping the coil of rope carefully around his chest and slipping the grappling hook which’d been attached to it through his belt. “Are you all set?”

Marius nodded, shifting the several knives slotted onto his own belt to a better position for climbing, and running a hand over the buckles on his armour to check their fit – better to find a broken piece of kit now than halfway down the godsdamn cliff, if only because it’d be a damn sight easier to fix.  “Set. Platoon ready?”

“Ready as they’ll ever be,” Gaius said, with a sigh. “Yours?”

“Much the same.” He scowled. “Sacha…”


“We’re at the middle of a fucking hole in the middle of fucking nowhere, Sacha, who the hell do you think’s going to be around to hear you?”

“Marius, that’s not-”

Sacha, this is a fucking stupid plan. You do realise that, right?”


“A fucking stupid plan that’s going to get us all killed.”

“It’s orders, Marius.”

“I know it’s orders. On account of the fact that you stopped me telling that bastard-.”


“It’s orders, we can’t do anything about it, and that cunt Attilus is going to get all the credit for it if we do somehow manage to survive.”

Gaius sighed again, reaching out to put his hand on his brother-sergeant’s shoulder for a brief moment. “I know. But we’re soldiers.”

“We’re soldiers.”

“So we do this, whatever the cost. For the Legion.”

“For the Ninth.”

“For the Ninth.”

They clasped hands – a familiar gesture that had more behind it than simple companionship – shared a quick, rueful grin, and headed off back to their respective platoons (the component parts of which were almost all staring down the sheer drop into darkness with less-than-soldierly expressions of barely-hidden terror).

This was going to go well.


It sure as fuck started well – for a given value of the word, anyway.

Five recruits into 4th Platoon’s descent, a snapped rope and slipped knot led to the sudden crashing descent of Quintus Tullius (16 years old, clever with a knife and bloody useless with any other weapon, and already with several black marks against his name for back-talk) to the rock floor of the cavem, accompanied by a choked-off scream and a sickening crack which turned the faces of several of his more impressionable squadmates pale as milk.

The physical results of the incident – a snapped leg broken badly enough that the end of one fragment of bone was sticking through the boy’s uniform trousers and a fairly serious concussion – were bad enough. The effect on squad morale was worse – and that problem wasn’t something the medics (either magical or mundane) could do anything to cure.

4th Platoon weren’t stupid, whatever their sergeant might occasionally think, and they’d certainly enough brains between them to pick up on the fact that said sergeant wasn’t exactly happy with what he was leading them into. Add to that the facts that some of them had just seen their first major injury (and the more imaginative of them had no illusions as to how easily that could have been a death), and that the expedition Officer Commanding had already bawled half of them out for minor uniform violations and general shabbiness (which was a) to be expected and usually excused in an on-tour scout platoon and b) the prerogative of the platoon’s NCO to correct if it did need correcting) and you had a recipe for trouble.


Marius nodded slightly, not taking his eyes off the recruit currently inching her way down the cliff. “What is it, Ivari?”

“Do… um.. do you really think we ought to be doing this, Sarge?”

“Orders are orders, Ivari.”

Recruit Anna Ivari shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other and swallowed audibly, obviously trying to pluck up the courage to say something.

Marius for his part wished she’d hurry up and get on with it – and then immediately retracted that wish when she opened her mouth again, coughed and said:

“I.. that is- I don’t think these’re good orders, Sarge. I don’t think we ought to be doing this.” A pause, just long enough for him to think she might possibly have said her piece and be done, and then, in a rush of breath that held within it a damn sight more fear in it than he was comfortable with: “I think we’re going to die down here, Sarge.”

So did he, but like fuck he was letting her know that. He squared his shoulders, eyes still on the kid halfway down the rope, and cut her off before she could say anything else. “One, that’s insubordination. Say that anywhere near the OC and you’ll find yourself on a charge. Two, what you think doesn’t matter. And three, we are not fucking dying down here. And you know why that is?”

“Why, Sarge?”

“Because we’re the Ninth fucking Legion, Ivari. We don’t give in, we don’t give up, and-” he looked her up and down, scowling as he did so “-we sure as fuck don’t start shaking like a fucking leaf because some moron didn’t pay attention in basic climbing and was too busy showing off to run a full safety check. Understood?”

“Yes, Sarge.”

“Good lass.” He raised his voice, turning to face the rest of the platoon now he was sure all his recruits were safely down. “Listen up, you lot. Tullius fucked up: he’s paying for it-” (and would be for a while, if the look on the boy’s face was anything to go by. Legion magical healing might be quick, but that certainly didn’t mean it was painless) “-and providing a free lesson for the rest of you at the same time, which I’d suggest you pay very fucking close attention to. But he’s also alive. As are the rest of you. And if you pay attention, don’t fuck about, and do exactly what I tell you, there’s a damn good chance you’ll stay that way.” He looked around, making certain Attilus was nowhere in earshot, then went on. “I know you’re not happy with the OC. I know you’re not happy with the mission. But believe you me, lads and lasses, there’s fuck-all any of us can do about that. So we do what we’re trained for. We do what we’re meant for. And we do it fucking well.” Another pause, letting that sink in. “Because we’re the Ninth. And you know what that means.”

They did. Even in the middle of all this, even with half of ‘em scared shitless before the mission had even begun, they knew what it meant. He could see it in their eyes.

And Aquilina-fucking-dammit did it make him proud.

He grinned, slamming his fist against his chest in salute. “Pride of the Ninth!”

“Pride of the Ninth!” the recruits chorused. And, Lady-be-praised, they were grinning too. “Pride of the fucking Ninth!”


The cave system was labyrinthine – winding passages linking one to the other in ways that even the most experienced of scouts found bloody hard to get to grips with – and it was no small miracle that both 4th and 5th Platoons managed to get themselves to the second rendezvous point within time and with barely any missed paths or wrong turnings on the way. 5th Platoon hit the mark first, unsurprising given the fact they’d not managed to end up with wounded right at the very start of the expedition, and hit it with enough time to spare that, under normal conditions, they would have been sprawled on the floor of the open cave taking a well-earned rest when 4th Platoon made their entrance.

But 5th Platoon also had the unenviable task of being on greenie-sitting duty. Which meant that instead of getting a chance to rest their feet and take five before the real work started, 4th Platoon found them lined up in semblance of parade-ground order and getting an ear-bashing from an officer who’d somehow found a way to keep his nice metal armour shiny-as-sin while stuck in a hole under several hundred foot of rock and mud.

“-and,” he was saying, obviously coming to the end of a pre-prepared speech (which, from the expression on Gaius’ face, had clearly been going on a fuckton longer than was strictly necessary), “I expect you to comport yourselves with the honour and dignity becoming a most noble legion of the Land of the Free. Remember, the light of Acacius should shine from your soul even in the darkest of places, and-”

“From our souls, eh?” Marius muttered, more to himself than anyone else. “Funny, considering where that bastard seems to think it shines from where he’s concerned.”

A couple of his recruits, who’d been close enough to catch the comment, laughed – quietly, since they weren’t complete morons, but loud enough for Attilus to catch wind of the fact that something was up.

“What was that, Sergeant Cato?” the officer demanded, turning in such a fashion that his cloak swirled around him in a way that he presumably thought looked suitably dramatic (and mainly made Marius think how easy it would be to strangle the bastard with it.)

“Nothing, sir.”

“It must have been a very hilarious ‘nothing’, sergeant.”

“Private joke with my platoon, sir. Nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

Attilus’ eyes narrowed. “I decide what concerns me, sergeant, not you. You’d do well to remember that.”

“Yessir.” The boy was riled, that much was obvious. Riled, and looking for someone to take out his anger on. Well, better him than the recruits. “With respect, sir, there’re more important-”

Attilus’ face flushed red, his anger quickly getting the better of him. “You fancy yourself a hard man, don’t you, sergeant?”


“Don’t ‘sir?’ me in that tone of voice, sergeant, or I will have you on a charge. You’re an insubordinate, disrespectful cur, Cato, and I will not have you making mock of me, is that clear?”

And something in the back of Marius’ skull…snapped. He grinned, slowly and horribly, pitched his voice just loud enough to carry, and, with deadly calm, said: “Why bother, sir? You do such a fucking good job of it yourself.”

Attilus stared at him, apparently completely lost for words. One eyelid twitched.

Marius kept grinning.

And he was still grinning when the officer backhanded him across the face.

It was a hard blow – full strength, and the boy was wearing gauntlets. But it was worth it, if just for that semi-second of complete incomprehension. Just for that one moment where the brat realised exactly where he was, and exactly what might happen if he didn’t watch his footing.

“I will have you flogged for that, Cato,” Attilus hissed. “Mark my words. You’ll lose that rank you’re so proud of, for certain. Maybe even lose the Legion.”

“As you say, sir,” the sergeant replied, tone as calm as before despite the bruise purpling his cheekbone and the blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. “As you say.”


“Have you gone completely off your head?!”

Marius laughed, near-soundless in the gloom. “I don’t fucking know, Sacha. That’s the worst of it.”

“What do you mean?” Gaius’ voice was tense, worried. “Once he sends his report in, you’ll lose your stripe – if you’re lucky!”

“I know. And I know I shouldn’t’ve fucking said it. But… fuck it, Sacha, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Fancy airs and fancy armour and no fucking clue what being a soldier’s about, and he’s leading us into a fucking trap – least I could do is back-talk him.” He paused, lowered his voice ‘til he was almost inaudible. “Should’ve fucking killed the bastard.”

“…You don’t mean that.”

“Hah. Maybe I don’t. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I have gone crazy-”

“Which is very very likely, considering.”

“-or maybe it might be the only way of getting our lads and lasses out of here alive.”

Gaius gaped, the expression visible even in the near-total dark. “You’re mad. You’re completely and utterly mad. You’ve lost your mind.”

Maybe he had at that. But it was a cold, logical sort of madness – very different from the anger that’d led to the confrontation in the first place – and it made so very very much sense. And he was damned if he was going to let this opportunity go without making Gaius- Sacha understand at least that much.

He turned around, grabbed hold of his sword-brother by both shoulders and looked directly into his face, holding the other man’s gaze. “Listen. I’ve been Legion all my life. I know what fragging an officer means. So I want you to take me completely fucking seriously when I say I meant every fucking word of that.”

“You’re crazy,” Gaius muttered. “You’re completely bloody crazy.” But he wouldn’t look him in the eyes, all the same.


By the time they got back to the column, they’d made an agreement. Not much of one, but an agreement nonetheless.

Problem was, none of their recruits knew that. And 4th Platoon at least were not inclined to let the matter drop without a fight.

They’d got a good way ahead of 5th Platoon (and Attilus) when the first recruit spoke up. It was Ivari again, bellycrawling forward of her assigned position in the group in order to get close enough to speak without raising her voice above a whisper.

“Why’d you let him hit you, Sarge?”

“Get back in line, Ivari.”

“But Sarge…”

“That’s an order, Ivari. Get your arse back in line and shut your trap.”

“But Sarge…”

“Ivari, if I have to tell you again you’re going to fucking regret it. Back in line. Now.”

And, reluctantly, she went.

About two minutes later, however:


“What is it, Corvin?”

“She’s right, you know.”

“Corvin, I want you to answer me a question.”

“Yes, Sarge?”

“Is what you just said related to this mission in any way, shape or form?”

“Well, it is a bit because-”

“Yes or no. Is it related to this specific section of this specific mission?”

“No, Sarge.”

“Then you’ll keep your mouth shut and your mind on the fucking job. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sarge.”

“Good lad.”

And another few minutes after that:



“He’s not a very good officer, is he? I mean… he’s not supposed to be like that. Is he?”

Right.” Marius raised a hand, halting the column and beckoning the recruits up so he could address all of them without raising his voice. “This is the only time I am going to say this, so pin your ears back and pay attention. Right now, our priority is this mission and only this fucking mission. Not Attilus, not anything that happens after today. This sodding mission. So if I hear one more mention of what just happened, the recruit who spoke up is going to find themselves wishing they’d never been born, understood?”

There was a ragged chorus of assent, though it was more than a little grudging.

“Attilus is a cunt. You know it, I know it, and there’s fuck-all we can do about it. So right now you put him out of your heads and focus on not fucking up. Because if you don’t, we are going to die down here.”

Another chorus of assent, this one somewhat less grudging (unsurprising, considering he’d just voiced the shared opinion of the officer in charge of this particular excursion).

“Next bit’s where it counts. So if I hear one more word out of any of you that’s not a called contact or a piece of information I really fucking need to hear, there’s going to be trouble. Now get back in line, all of you. And the Lady go with you.”


True to their word, 4th Platoon’s recruits managed to keep their traps shut – though whether that was out of obedience to orders or complete terror was hard to tell. They’d moved deeper into the heart of the cave system now, and yet they’d still seen nothing of the abyss that was supposedly infesting the place – and that in itself was more terrifying than having the damn stuff there to fight.

What was worse were the noises.

They’d been quiet at first, scratching and scraping just on the edge of hearing, noises that might almost have been made by other people in the platoon… and yet not. And as the recruits and their sergeant moved closer to the heart of things, the noises had changed. Become louder. Harsher. Different.

And very definitely not made by anything sentient.

By the time they reached the fork in the tunnel where the route 5th Platoon was taking intersected with theirs, the sounds had become almost unbearable. The darkness was closing in around them, making it impossible to tell the origin of any noise, and the recruits were jumping at every scratch and scrape made by their companions’ hands and knees in the dirt, nerves on edge and eyes staring wildly into the darkness in mingled hope and fear of catching a glimpse of whatever the hell was out there.

But, other than the occasional half-voiced curse (and that’d been stamped out fucking quick by the judicious application of boots to shoulders and elbows to ribs), they’d managed to keep their mouths shut and their minds on the job at hand.

Which was, in part, why it took them so long to realise Tullius had gone missing.

The first Marius knew about it was an urgent whisper from somewhere behind his left shoulder, where Corvin was keeping watch.

“Sarge! Sarge!”


“Tullius’ gone, Sarge. Ivari says Dorn says he’s just… not there.”

Fuck. Swap round, get Dorn up here. Now.”

There was a scuffling sound, a sudden change in the feel of the air around as people shifted places, and then a quiet curse came floating up from the back of the pack, muted but as audible to Marius’ ears as if it’d been shouted right next to his head.

“Oh fuck. Dorn’s gone!”


By the time they’d organised themselves enough to do a headcount, 4th Platoon found they were down three from their original ten – Tullius, Dorn, and Braxis. All three were capable fighters, Tullius’ injury notwithstanding, and they’d all been seen or heard within the column within the last fifteen minutes or so. And now they’d… vanished.

Marius sent Ivari and Corvin to retrace the squad’s progress, hoping they’d come across something which’d give them a clue as to the whereabouts of the missing recruits. They returned empty-handed, both shaking with something more than cold and muttering about the strange noises they’d heard in the walls.

No-one could agree on when any of the three had vanished. No-one had seen them go – all of them had been missed only when they’d failed to check in with the other members of their fireteam at the appointed time. And no-one had any idea what could have happened to them. It was as if they’d simply disappeared into thin air, taking their armour and weaponry along with them.

By this point, the entire platoon (or what remained of it, now almost a third had disappeared) was on-edge, eyes scanning the dark for any sign of anything which might go some way towards explaining what the fuck was going on.

So it was no surprise that when 5th Platoon, also on-edge and with their nerves rubbed raw by their own brush with the unseen, made their way out of the tunnel a little way beyond the remnants of 4th, it was only the fact that Marius and Gaius were taking point of their respective groups which saved the situation from turning into a red-on-red pretty much immediately. As it was, the two sergeants very nearly knifed each other before they realised what was going on – and if they’d not then immediately turned around and stopped their recruits mid-rush it would very probably have ended with both platoons wiped out then and there.

Once they’d regrouped, done a second headcount (no more missing than before the conflict on either side, for which several very quick prayers of thanks were offered up to Saint Aquilina) and generally taken stock of the situation, the two sergeants shifted a little away from the main group (after detailing the more competent of their recruits to stand guard) and held an impromptu emergency council.

Which was when two pieces of news were brought to Marius’ attention. Firstly, that 5th Platoon were also missing recruits for no readily apparent reason – two losses, both competent fighters and one the best scout the platoon had had. And, secondly and a damn sight less importantly, that a certain officer named Graccus Attilus was also missing.  He’d apparently excused himself from the platoon in order to ‘scout the lie of the land’, dismissed any suggestion of taking a guard with him, and then simply… failed to turn up again.

Needless to say, neither NCO was particularly heartbroken by that loss – indeed, as Marius said, it might well have been the only good thing to come out of the whole fucking mess. And, without a functional and functioning commanding officer running the expedition, command devolved to the two next in the chain of command. Which meant, as far as Marius and Gaius were concerned, they’d just been handed a bloody useful way out of the whole sorry business.

It took them all of about a minute’s discussion to make a decision, a further minute to work out what they were going to tell the Company Sergeant, and about fifteen seconds to solidify all of that into something they could tell their recruits. It wasn’t a particularly hard decision to make: the mission was barely significant, a gloryhound treasure-hunt set up primarily to get Attilus the fuck away from base camp so that Company Sergeant Orleans could get on with running the Aquilina-damned company, and no-one was going to give them too much flak for making a pretty damn justifiable decision to turn around and get the fuck out of there.

Or, more specifically, turn around, retrace their steps and try and work out what the holy everloving fuck had happened to their recruits. Because for all Nova Thule/Cyad Kur was fucked-up and full of monsters, people didn’t just disappear into thin air with no traces. That, despite all evidence to the contrary, did not happen. And if Sergeants Cato and Aulus had anything to do with it, it would continue to bloody well not happen, especially as far as their recruits were concerned.

Though neither of them had a sodding clue how they were supposed to ensure that.


Turned out, they couldn’t.

By the time the two platoons (now moving together on the route 5th Platoon had taken) had made their way halfway back along the tunnel, they’d lost another recruit. 5th Platoon this time – Olivia Karth, a promising archer who’d been more than halfway towards getting special commendation for her sniping ability, and who Gaius had been fairly certain was a good deal younger than the sixteen years she claimed. She’d been in the middle of the column, lost contact with the recruits on either side of her for a brief moment and then… vanished, as neatly and silently as if she’d been plucked clean out of the world.

And, the whole way back just as the whole way there, there’d been that sound. Scraping, and scratching, and clicking, and… wrong, like nothing they’d ever heard before on the earth or under it.  A few of the more impressionable recruits had started whispering about demons and the like – and even though they’d been shut up fairly bloody sharp, the idea’d taken hold. It was, after all, an explanation, and right now that was something they were badly in need of.

Whatever it was, it was doing a fucking good job of setting them all on edge.  Ivari, who’d been sent up to scout the route ahead, had been reporting back every few minutes or so with increasing tension in her voice – she’d reached the point where, if they’d had the option, both sergeants would have agreed to swap her out for another point-man and let her get some rest. But with Karth missing she was the best scout they had, and swapping out around the column was a sure-fire way to lose more people. Not to mention a bloody stupid idea in the almost-complete darkness with a squad who were three-parts mad with fear and barely clinging to the remnants of their military discipline.

So she stayed up at the front, working her way through the tunnel on hands-and-knees (the damn place was barely tall enough for most of the squad to move in anything other than a flat crawl, but she was small for her age) and trying to keep enough of a curb on her terror to fulfil her duties.

Which meant she was the one who found Attilus’ armour.


“Sarge, I’ve got something!”

Marius cursed under his breath, digging the sides of his boots into the sand-covered floor of the tunnel as he worked his way forward of the pack. “‘Something’ isn’t much use to me, Ivari. Proper report, recruit, if you wouldn’t mind.”

The sarcasm wasn’t entirely deserved, but it did something to relieve the tension, and hopefully would give the kid another reason to keep her mind on the mission. And Acacius knew they all needed that reminder.

“It’s… I think it’s a gauntlet, Sarge.”

“You think, or you know, Ivari?”

A pause, and a scrabbling sound from further up ahead. Then something came skittering down the sloped ground towards him, glinting in the dim light bleeding from the cavern up ahead. It moved fast, almost spider-like, and he very almost went for it with his dagger before he realised what it was.

A single, polished, articulated gauntlet, moving under its own weight and helped along by the particles of sand.

He grabbed for it as it got closer, grip closing round the metal fingers in a parody of a handshake, and dragged it close enough to inspect properly. Not that there was much need – he was fairly certain the imprint of the back of that particular gauntlet was going to be visible on his cheekbone for at least a month or two.

“Attilus,” he muttered, half to himself. “Well isn’t that a turn-up for the fucking books?”

“Sarge!” Ivari again, more panicked-sounding this time. “There’s more, Sarge!”

Report, Ivari!”

“More armour, Sarge! I think… yes, there’s another gauntlet. And a breastplate. And a vambrace. And-”

“And what, Ivari?”

“Different armour, Sarge. Standard-issue greave.” Pause. “I think it’s Tullius’.”

“Understood. We’ll come to you, Ivari. Stay right where you are.”

No response.

“Ivari? You hear me?”

“…Yes, Sarge.”

She sounded as if she was on the verge of being sick. That, or bursting into tears. Neither of which was going to help the situation.

“If you hear me, Ivari, then you bloody well sing out when I give you an order, is that understood?”

“Yes, Sarge.”

“That’s better. Stay where you are, lass. We’ll come to you.”

He raised a hand, signalling for the rest of the column to move up, heard the scuffle of boots and knees and elbows and hands as they passed the order (and tried not to hear the clicking-creaking-scraping noises in the walls while he was about it), and started to shift forward himself, eyes fixed on the dim shape of Ivari’s almost-motionless form some way in front of him.

Which was about when Recruit Ivari started to scream. And after that, everything went to hell.

She screamed.

The squad, startled, froze.

And the walls and ceiling of what had been a perfectly safe (for a given value of safe) tunnel erupted into a sudden hell of claws and segmented limbs, clacking mandibles and clicking, shining, chitinous bodies.


The whole damn mountain was a bug-nest. And 4th and 5th Platoons, J Company, Ninth Legion had just walked right into the fucking middle of it.

Marius swore violently, rolling to the side as a hooked claw slashed down barely half an inch from his face. “Fuck! Cunting fuck!”

The things were everywhere, the whole fucking tunnel suddenly alive with them – impossible to tell how many, or where they’d come from, impossible to get a read on even what they looked like – and any discipline the squad had had was long gone. The recruits were screaming, swearing, lashing out with knives and boots and fists, buoyed up with the strength of sheer blind panic.

“They’re coming out of the walls!” Corvin was yelling, voice raw with terror. “They’re coming out of the goddamn fucking walls!”

Well, trust him to state the bleeding fucking obvious.

Ivari was dead. Rest of the disappeared recruits too, if the bugs’d taken ‘em. Too high a toll already. He was damned if he was losing anyone else today.

“Ninth Legion!” he shouted, pitching his voice to carry above the din of battle. “Rearguard action, defensive! Pull yourselves together! We are getting the fuck out of here!”

He grabbed the nearest recruit (Vexan, his mind supplied automatically. Caius Vexan) by the collar, hauling the kid up the slope and pressing a spare knife into his shaking hand. “Open cave, up there. Be able to stand up straight. Sending a squad up with you. Take command of ‘em ‘til I get there.”

The boy nodded, face pale. “Yes Sarge!”

“Good lad.” The last four of 4th Platoon’s recruits had managed to get themselves into a defensive formation some little distance away – workable, but it wouldn’t last. Marius raised his voice, catching the eye of the nearest and giving her a nod of acknowledgement. “Grigori, McVeigh, Rall, Corvin, you get your arses up here when I say and you get to that sodding open cave, understood? Vexan’ll take command until I get there – you know him, you know he’s good. I’ll be right behind you.” He grinned humourlessly. “Pride of the Ninth, lads and lasses.”

“Pride of the Ninth, Sarge!”

“Good kids.” Pause. Breathe. “Alright. Go! Go! Go!”

They went, scrambling past at a pace that did credit to the number of hours they’d spent learning to maneouver in tight spaces in basic, bodies flat against the floor. Claws and talons slashed past them, caught at armour and clothing, but they were learning to move around them now, learning the terrain and the enemy, and he was proud to see them clear the bottleneck and break away, headed for the cave and a place they could at least put up a decent fight.

Which left him, Gaius, and the rest of 5th Platoon still to go. And the bugs didn’t seem to be wanting to let them leave without a fight.

“Sergeant Aulus! Report in!”


“Gaius! Talk to me!”

Again, nothing.


Nothing. Again.

Then, suddenly, out of the darkness, Gaius’ voice – tense and raw but very much alive. “Engaged- ah, by the Child!- Engaged and taking losses! Trying to get up to you!”

“Need a hand?”

“Ahfuck- No, get back to your platoon!”


“Marius, go!”

For one slight, small moment, he almost considered saying no. Almost considered going back there to help. But his platoon – his recruits – were up ahead, with no NCO, no plan and fuck-all experience in dealing with situations in which things had really gone to shit. And Sacha- Gaius could handle himself (at least, he fucking hoped so).

So he went.


Vexan’d done his sergeant proud: the kid’d got the rest of the platoon ordered into a proper defensive formation by the time Marius showed up, and was enough on top of the situation that he could give some attempt at a proper report.

Admittedly, most post-battle reports weren’t given mid-battle. Or to an NCO who was busy trying to stop a giant fuckoff bug eating his face. Or by a temporarily promoted recruit who’d damn near had an arm torn off by one of the same bugs, and who was currently staying on his feet mostly out of a mix of adrenaline and complete unadulterated terror.

But, given the circumstances, it was a bloody good report. And a fucking useful one, thanks to one very small, easily overlooked detail spotted by Corvin while he’d been scrabbling on the ground trying to get away from a bug which’d been significantly less dead than he’d thought.

A single highly-polished metal greave, lying abandoned in the far corner of the cave. Next to something which, when investigated, had proved to be a tunnel entrance. A previously very well-hidden tunnel entrance, before the bug had fallen on it.

Which answered the question of where Attilus had fucked off to. In part, at least.

“We- agh!- we holding here, Sarge?” Grigori asked, wiping the blood out of her eyes in the brief pause between waves of hostiles.

Marius nodded, shifting the ragged remnants of his armour so they’d still provide some protection in the upcoming fight (and trying to keep his eyes from focusing completely on the tunnel entrance the 5th were supposed to be coming from). “Holding another few for the Fifth, Grigori. They’ll be here.”

“What if they aren’t, Sarge?” Corvin’s face was more bloodied than even Grigori’s – it looked horribly as though he might’ve lost an eye, but it was too damn dark to tell, and he wasn’t saying. But he was on his feet, which right now was enough. “What do we do then?”

“They’ll be here, Corvin. They’ll fucking well be here.”

“But what if they aren’t, Sarge?”

“They. Will. Be. Here. And if they’re not, we get the fuck out of here, find Attilus, and bring the Lady’s justice down on his fucking head. Understood?”

“Understood, Sarge.” And they knew as well as he did what that justice was likely to entail.


5th Platoon did show, eventually. Battered, and bloodied, and barely holding themselves together, but they did show.

They’d taken losses – another recruit left in the tunnel, and one who was being dragged along by two of his squadmates and who, if Marius was any judge, was not going to last the night. Might’ve been kinder to put the poor bastard out of his misery right then and there, but they’d been able to put enough magic into him to keep him breathing and half-conscious, which meant they’d keep him up as long as they bloody could.

Gaius was bringing up the rear, hurrying his recruits along and keeping half an eye on the tunnel for signs of pursuit. His hands and the front of his armour were slick and sticky with blood, but from the look of him it wasn’t all his own. And he was standing.

Marius could’ve goddamn hugged him.

Instead, he clasped hands with his brother-sergeant, offered a quick muttered prayer of thanks, and then dragged him to one side to give him a briefing on the situation as it currently stood. Including Attilus’ escape route.

“Do you think it’s worth it?” Gaius asked, once he’d been brought up to date.

Marius shrugged. “Only chance we have. Unless you think we can get back up that fucking cliff with this many wounded, fuck-all equipment and those bastards on our tail.”

“True. But if it’s a dead-end?”

“Then we die down here in the dark, same as all the others. But we’ll die with the satisfaction of knowing that fucker’s dead too.”

“We will.” Gaius smiled, grimly. “And that would be worth something.”

“Wouldn’t it just,” Marius replied, with an equally humourless grin. “We agreed on this, then?”



It wasn’t a dead-end. Wasn’t even as hellish a tunnel as the last one, to begin with – wide enough and tall enough they could get through without even crouching, and not completely full of giant bugs trying to kill them. And Attilus’ prints visible in the sand covering the floor, clear as daylight and defined enough that it was fairly bloody obvious he’d not been hurrying.


There was light up ahead, too – moonlight, or so it appeared, but where it was coming from was anyone’s guess. Might be a way out. Equally might be a crack in the rocks, too high up or too small to be any use. Or might be something else completely – mission’d been fucked up enough already that anything was sodding possible right now.

But it was light. Which, after the nightmare in the deep tunnels, was a fucking godsend.

The wounded lad from 5th Platoon hadn’t lived to see it. A few feet into the tunnel, he’d closed his eyes, rested his head against the back of the recruit carrying him, and died.

Another loss. Another weight on the scale. Another death that bastard Attilus was going to pay for, when they caught him.

If they caught him.

Marius dropped to a crouch, moving up in the shadow of the wall to try and get an eye on the source of the light. Up ahead, the tunnel narrowed significantly – about wide enough for a squad to move comfortably single-file, but dangerously cramped for any other configuration – but the moonlight shining through seemed to be coming from a larger source than a simple crack in the rock. A much larger source, if Marius was any judge.

He moved forward again, dropping to bellycrawl the last few feet to the start of the narrower section, and raised his head, moonlight catching him full in the face as he stared out into something that looked a hell of a lot like a forest clearing.

They’d made it. They’d fucking well made it.


They almost made it.

The two sergeants had, by unspoken agreement, moved to the rear of the column and sent their best surviving NCOs-in-training (Vexan of 4th Platoon and Moy of 5th) up ahead with instructions to hold their respective squads in defensive formation in the clearing unless pressed too hard to hold without further loss of life. If they were pressed to that point they were to retreat to the camp and not look back – no point losing all of them for two lives.

So they were the last two still in the cave system when the bugs found them again.

Wasn’t even a warning this time – barely any sounds, and no damn screaming. Just a sudden shadow, blotting out the light, and a claw scything down to bury itself inches-deep in Marius’ right thigh, just above the knee.

Pain flared, white hot and sudden, and he bit back a yell, slashing madly at the limb and (more by luck than skill) managing to sever it from the main bulk of the insect’s writhing form. A second later, his own leg gave out and he dropped to the floor, landing heavily with a snarled stream of invective and a gasp of agony.

The bug reared back, rising to the height of the tunnel’s ceiling and lashing out with its remaining limbs.  It was an ugly bastard and no mistake – over six feet of articulated chitin, with enough blades for an entire platoon and a head that seemed to be made entirely of mandibles. It was also wounded, angry and drooling something which neither of them particularly wanted to get any better acquainted with. And, most importantly, it was between them and the exit.

Gaius stepped forward, putting his body between his fallen brother and the looming horror as he tried desperately to parry the bastard’s attacks – and succeeded remarkably well, considering. One of the blades caught him on the cheek, scoring a line just under his eye, but the hit seemed to connect more by luck than judgement and the wound was superficial at best.

And, looking up at the thing’s face (or what passed for its face, anyway), Gaius suddenly seemed to have discovered the reason why. He dropped to one knee, grabbing hold of Marius’ left hand with his own and tapping an urgent message into his palm:

Blind. Enemy blind. Attack sound.

Well, that was fucking helpful (and for once that wasn’t sarcasm). Marius nodded, shifting his fingers to tap out a reply:

Useful. Break run?

Gaius’ eyebrows shot upwards, his gaze flickering quickly from the enemy blocking the way to the several-inch-long spike embedded in his friend’s leg.

Fine. Break MOVE, Marius amended.

His sword-brother frowned, started to tap a reply- and stopped, frozen, as a shout echoed down the tunnel from the other side of the monstrosity blocking their way.

“For Aquilina! For the Ninth!”

The bug’s head swivelled, seeking the source of the sound. Gaius and Marius, barely believing what they’d just heard, stayed crouched on the floor of the tunnel, eyes fixed on the creature towering above them.

“Pride of the Ninth!”

Moy. The boy from the 5th must have made a command decision to bring his squad back – brave, but fucking stupid. The bug had their position now – it was turning, claws scything towards the oncoming attack, and-


Afterwards, Marius would never be able to remember which of them it was who gave the order. He’d only remember the mad, adrenaline-filled scramble which send them hurtling past the creature and into the first of their own troops, the mingled cries of surprise and relief which’d greeted their sudden appearance… and the disciplineless, disorganised, panicked retreat as the sound brought a sudden rush of further enemies scuttling like a many-legged tidal wave down the tunnel towards them.

He’d remember fighting as rearguard, he and Gaius both, leaning on each other and trying to block the enemy advance with their blades and bodies, buying time for their recruits to make it back out to safety.

He’d remember Gaius falling, crying out, his blade ripped from his hand.

He’d remember his own hand, bloodied and grazed, locking tight on the collar of his sword-brother’s armour as he fought to drag him back from the claws of the oncoming horde.

And then? Nothing. Nothing, until a hand on his arm and a stuttering, tear-filled voice in his ear.


“Sarge… Sarge? He’s d- dead, Sarge…”

Slowly, calmly, as though in a dream, he looked down at what he’d been dragging for the last Acacius-knew-how-long. Looked down and, for the first time, actually saw it for what it was.

She was right, he had to admit it.

Living people tended to be less… decapitated.

Poor Sacha. Poor Gaius. Funny, really. He’d never been one to lose his head in a crisis.

Marius’ lips twitched. The corner of his mouth twisted upwards. Then, quietly, he started to laugh.

He didn’t stop laughing for a very long time.


Graccus Attilus, junior officer in J Company of the Ninth Legion of Magna Thule, was not having a particularly good night. In fact, he was not having a particularly good colonial tour full stop.

He’d been on-edge ever since he’d set foot outside the borders of Nova Thule proper – trapped in the wilderness with a company of recruits and disreputable borderline-heretical roughnecks, ordered around by a woman who seemed to care nothing for courtesy or the niceties of book-learned command, and with his own suggestions blocked at every turn, he’d been starting to think that his father’s suggestion that he joined the Legions had been entirely a bad idea from start to finish.

And then, in the past day and a half, he’d been disrespected by NCOs, chased by abyss-creatures, cheeked by recruits, trapped underground, and then bawled out by his commanding officer for a loss of life he could hardly have been expected to either predict or prevent.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t feel guilty. They had been under his command, after all, and they were technically his responsibility. But she’d seemed so damn set on pinning the blame for the entire mishap on him.

As far as he was concerned, his own actions had had barely anything to do with it. Yes, he’d gone against the wishes of his NCOs, but they were NCOs, for crying out loud. They’d been a damn sight too close to trying to be commanders already without his letting them have their way in everything, and they really couldn’t have been expected to understand the full gravity of the situation or the full import of the relics they’d been tasked with retrieving. That was an officer’s place to know and to act on, and he felt that he had fulfilled the demands of that position quite admirably.

And he-

He blinked, rubbing his eyes and staring into the mist that coiled heavily around the tents and ropeways of the moonlit camp. He was sure he’d seen- but no, it couldn’t have been. Just his brain playing tricks on him, that was all. He was too tired, and he’d overtaxed himself getting away from those damned… whatever-they-weres. That was it. That was-

But there they were again. Familiar shapes, moving out of the mist towards him, bloodstained and silent and pale as…

“Ghosts!”  he whispered, hand flying to the amulet around his neck.

“As you say, sir,” came a voice in his ear, cold and vicious as the blade pressed suddenly against the tender skin of his throat. “As you say.”

He struggled, tried to cry out, but the knife pressed deeper, cutting a thin red line of agony through the muddle of fear and half-thought excuses.

The ghosts were moving closer now, their burning eyes fixed on his face, blackened knives sharp in their bloodied hands. He wanted to pray, to apologise, to explain, to say something, to make them understand – but the blade at his throat pressed deeper still, and the words died on his tongue.

“Pride of the Ninth,” whispered the voice. “Honour of the Ninth.”

“Pride of the Ninth,” the ghosts replied, voices soft as marsh-mist.

And the knives came down.


By Watch-Night, the suicide of Graccus Attilus had become one of the Company’s most talked-over stories. It was generally agreed, for instance, that a man who had stabbed himself eleven times  (including managing to stick his own sword through his heart to the hilt, no less) and then thrown himself into a twelve-foot deep drainage ditch had, if nothing else, an admirable commitment to getting the job done properly.

The fact that there’d been eleven deaths as a result of the mission he’d so prudently legged it away from was, of course, of no relevance whatsoever.

Nor was the fact that the survivors of said mission had marched into camp the very same night (well, ‘marched’ was probably too formal a word for what they’d done. ‘Limped’, more like, or ‘straggled’. Half of them had barely been able to walk, and the half who could were as bloodied and battered as if they’d come straight off a battlefield.)

And even if either fact had been of any relevance whatsoever, there was little or no information coming from the ones who’d know about what had happened on that little jaunt into the unknown. The recruits who were only walking wounded were too traumatised for anyone to get much sense out of, the more seriously hurt were on bed-rest under close watch by the medicae, and the one man who would be expected to know exactly what had gone on was currently lying unconscious in the infirmary with a hole in his leg and a fairly horrific case of blood-poisoning (indeed, there were more than a few who wondered if they ought to be drinking to his name as well as his sword-brother’s in the lists of dead and dying).

And by the time he was conscious again, there’d been an official-unofficial word-on-the-street gone out across the whole of the Company regarding that particular mission. So no-one asked too many questions, or talked too loudly about it, or made too much noise when the possibility of that suicide being anything other than a plain and simple suicide reared its ugly head.

Because the Ninth looked after their own. Always had done, always would do. And Attilus? Attilus wasn’t one of theirs at all.


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