Sergeant Vila Kiprik has survived many brutal missions during his thirty-year army career, but this last posting to Demon's Deep is his deadliest yet. Top Brass need the mine working again for its rare quartz deposits, but the miners have gone AWOL, replaced by crazed savages.
Kiprik and his squad have been charged with taking back control, but this is no ordinary drive. Sinister forces more deadly than madmen hunt them in the shadows and that retirement up in the Duchy mountains soon begins to look like a pipe dream.
As reality itself breaks down, and magical charms fail against wild, untameable powers, Kiprik is thrown into a fight for survival, sanity and redemption. But do thirty years killing in the name of the flag put him beyond saving?
One thing is certain, a reckoning approaches, and it's probably around the next bend.
Read: Chapter 1 of Ranker’s Charge
Kiprik wasn’t the kind of man to succumb to his fears. In fact, if asked, he’d have denied having any. He was a soldier, an old, grizzled one at that, and in the ranks fear only got you to being worm food quicker – he’d learned that on day one.
But this tunnel was something else. Darkness wrapped it like a shroud and everywhere was black, so black, the space so tight, the imagined pressure bearing down so oppressive. Somewhere, water dripped, and a rat scuttled past his army-issue, thirty-six barleycorn boot. Rats can’t hurt you, he told himself, not like a million tons of granite.
He pushed on, his torch flame catching glints of red crystal in the tunnel walls. Keen to think about anything other than being buried alive, he wondered how much a bucketful of the bloodstone would go for back home. He’d seen the per-ounce price outside a merchant’s in Tal Maran. It had been around eight marks. Eight by—
Perhaps he’d imagined it. Down here in Demon’s Deep you could mistake your own rough breath for something worse. He searched the flickering darkness for forms. Nothing. He took a cautious step.
Another growl. It sounded human.
He held a breath, waiting, his heart beating fast against his ribs. Indistinct black shapes in the nooks and crevices played tricks on his eyes. He took another step and a shadow ahead shifted, a figure forming. Highlights of cheekbone and teeth. Then another behind it. They started towards him.
He waited to make sure. Just one second. One excruciatingly long heartbeat…
Kiprik took off.
He wasn’t a short man and the low, uneven ceiling forced his fifty-year-old spine into testing angles. He risked a look behind as he threw himself over a piece of jutting rock. The creatures didn’t seem to care about the obstructions, crashing into them without a care.
“Two up!” Kiprik shouted ahead. Ja Vok! You’re out of shape, old man.
His tin helmet caught on a protrusion and clattered on the floor. No time to retrieve it. He risked another glance. Two pairs of eyes glinted red, only strides away.
He rounded a corner and squinted as bright, orange light shone into being. He stumbled to a stop and looked back, shielding his eyes. The deranged men rounded the corner, and screamed as light blinded them. And two army-issue broad-axes decapitated them where they stood. Flesh, blood and bone sprayed the tunnel walls and a swollen, reddened head rolled up to Kiprik’s boot.
He pulled the shutter down on the dazzling lamp. The tunnel walls danced in torchlight once more and his eyes relaxed. You had to admire sodalamps. Especially these latest, army-issue models. Smoke free. Virtually indestructible… they even worked underwater. And the unnatural orange light blinded the Unbound down here in the darkness.
“Vok! Those things get faster every time,” Kiprik said, still panting.
“Yeah,” said one of the decapitators. “Either that or you’re getting slower, sarge.” The trunk-armed corporal, a big lad in his thirties with short-cropped blond hair, was called Tenerson, Tyberius to his mother. The rest of Third Company called him Stack. He kicked the deformed head down a fissure in the rock floor.
Kiprik frowned. “You could show some respect.”
“Respect? To a hammerhead? You’re kidding right?” Stack always called them hammerheads, a lot of men in Third Company did, on account of their distinctive, hammer-shaped skulls. The longer people survived the Affliction, the more pronounced the shape became. It made them easy to spot. With the younger ones it wasn’t so easy, often the only symptom was the red eyes. Mind you, the manic savagery was also a dead giveaway.
“You’re bleeding, Ty.”
Stack held up his hand. It dripped blood. He sat on his haunches and winced.
“Here,” Kiprik said, and pulled out his medkit. A fragment of white bone was lodged just above Stack’s thumb. He used his blade to remove it and wrapped a bandage around the hand. Lucky for Stack, the Affliction wasn’t something you could catch.
Kiprik took out his snuff box.
The other axeman, Orson, otherwise known as Pups due to his young years and tendency to wet the bed after too much ale, rolled the two Unbounds’ remains into the fissure.
Abacus, the remaining member of Eighth Squad, had been sitting on a boulder, watching the operation. He jumped down. “Nuf sniffing, Kip, we’ve got miners to find.”
“Alright, get off my back, Abs.”
“I need that bonus, sarge! It’s alright for you, you’ll have your pension in a few weeks.”
Abacus was the bean-counter, or logistics man, as he preferred to be known. Native to the shores of Krell—the wild country they now fought in—Abacus wasn’t his real name, of course. Kiprik had heard his Krellen name but it was unpronounceable, Gaythst, or Guthst, or something. Anyhow, everyone had forgotten it and no one asked anymore. Abacus suited him just fine.
He was right about the quotas though. Jelik, the camp commandant, didn’t take kindly to laziness in the ranks. It wouldn’t do to attract any black marks with a week to go until retirement, not with a rocking chair on a modest but comfortable porch to look forward to. Kiprik planned on buying a cabin up in the Duchy mountains, where he might overlook a lake, and spend his time fishing for carp, supping ale, and romping with a rosy-cheeked, local wench.
He pocketed the silver snuffbox and picked up his axe, and the torch, shaking it to liven up the flame. “Take over from Stack.” Abacus grunted but did as he was told, readying himself with Orson. Kiprik squeezed back into the tunnel entrance again.
All was quiet as he retraced his footsteps. He still wasn’t sure why they had to clear the mine like this. There had to be a better way than using a lone ranker to lure them out. But then, the creatures were easily scared off, so it was said. His cynical side suspected it was the best way the army bigwigs back in Sendal could think of to avoid paying pensions. Those with no family were always expected to be Bait Men, the unfortunate soldiers sent ahead of the other rankers to flush out the enemy. Kiprik wouldn’t have let his men go in his place, but the principle irked nevertheless.
He went further this time and the glints in the rock wall turned yellow with Citrine deposits. It was no surprise the Sendali army was so keen to reclaim this mine. The need for rare quartz had multiplied since the discovery of sodalight. He counted his footsteps. Fifty. That was the limit. They would have to reposition the ambush point. He turned to head back.
Something hissed and a bundle of fur pounced from a high ledge, a mine cat—the vermin were plentiful down here. It raked claws across the side of Kiprik’s face and he flinched. He lost hold of the torch and it dropped into the shallow gulley at the centre of the tunnel.
The flame fizzled out, and everything turned black.
“Shit. Er, boys,” he called.
A different kind of hiss pierced the darkness. Definitely no cat. Kiprik readied his axe. Footsteps sounded. Then breathing. Then a yowl.
Something brushed against him and he spun, losing his point of reference and any notion which way he was facing. He swung the axe through thin air. Something howled behind him and he whirled again, blood pounding in his ears. He swept the axe blindly and it stuck flesh. He staggered, hefting to pull it away.
The axe came free and he struck another unseen form to his left. The blow made a brittle, cracking sound as it broke bone and warm blood spattered into his eyes.
“Ranker down!” he yelled more urgently.
More snarling. Confusion. Kiprik fought for his life, hitting out at anything, his axe getting heavier in his two-handed grip. Strength waned and he cried out for help. Another crack, another slice, and his lungs burned.
The hold on the axe shaft slipped under slimy gore and the blade raked the tunnel wall, a shower of sparks lighting a brief, horrifying glimpse of red eyes. Hands reached around his neck. He roared for survival and twisted away as torchlight appeared along the tunnel, revealing the misshapen faces. His squadmates shouted, and blinding, orange light hit as they unshuttered the sodalamp. Several Unbound ran screaming for the shadows and disappeared into the mine’s deeper reaches.
Kiprik stared in horror. A pile of mutilated body parts lay all around, heads at unnatural angles, and half-naked torsos gouged by steel. Streams of blood ran into the gulley, soaking the wick of his treacherous torch.
Then he saw her. Just a child. Thin as a twig, limp as a leaf, and her skull a mass of blood-soaked, matted hair. She flinched, and he bent down, peeling the wet hair back from her face. She gargled blood, her eyelids flickered once, then she was still.