* * *

 

 

"There is a game Kronosian youngsters often play before becoming

warriors, called mazha, which in our tongue means 'choke' or

'throttle'. The rules are very simple; two players strangle

each other, until one or the other either looses consciousness

or let's go in defeat. In other words, whoever can hold out

the longest wins. That is what's happening between our peoples.

This war is a game of mazha, each side with it's hands clasped

around the other's throat."

-Zharin Kellerav, Warmaster, in a message to the Imperal throne.

 

Without warning the trees seemed to erupt in a barrage of laser

fire from the hillside. Five went down immediatly before they

could hit the ground.

Killian Rautha immediatly realized what had happened as soon

as the first bolt of lasers was fired. Crafty Melkav had set

a trap, and Rautha had walked straight into it.

Quickly all the Lylatians were on the ground, aiming their

weapons in the direction of the oncoming fire. Unfortunatly

the damned kronies had concealed themselves well; shooting at

them was going to be difficult.

A Rabbit liuetenent shouted to Rautha, "Sir! They're flanking

us!"

As if things couldn't be bad enough, Rautha thought sourly.

"Hold fast, men!" Rautha shouted. "Hold your position as best

you can!"

"Sir!" a Racoon yelled. "How can we last if they have us boxed?"

"That's an order, dammit!" Rautha snarled. "Sit it out!"

Of course, Rautha sympathized with his men's fears. The

temptation to run was strong, but Rautha knew the only direction

to go was north, away from the city of Astograd. If they were

routed now, there would be no choice but to abort.

He could only hope that Monroe would show up in time.

 

* * *

As soon as his soldiers had flanked the Lylatian force, Melkav

became worried. Instead of running, the Lylatians were holding

out, despite the obvious high rate of casualties.

They couldn't possibly know how many of us are here, he thought.

We've boxed them in. Why doesn't Rautha run?

Melkav was a veteran soldier. He had seen many fights, and was

respected in the Kronosian army, both high and low. Were it

not for his age he would still be a Vishnaki, an elite

supersoldier of the Kronosian empire. He was still regarded

as an equal by the Vishnaki death commandoes; even after having

to leave their ranks he proved to be a formidable leader.

And now, all his experiance and his instincts were raising alarms

of warning. Something was horribly wrong.

Then it hit him in a flash of intuition. "Shit!" he yelled.

He turned to his fellow soldiers. "Move! Pull out! Get the hell

out of here!"

The other soldiers stared for an instant, not understanding

why they should retreat, but duty and discipline told them to

obey, and swiftly. Dutifully they broke off fire and backed

away.

The brief hesitation proved fatal. Without warning several

figures rose, as if they had come straight out of the ground,

and fired.

Melkav didn't have time to think. "Run!" he shouted. "Run as

fast as you f***ing can!"

If the soldiers couldn't understand the order before, they sure

as hell understood now. The Kronosians backed away in a hasty

retreat.

* * *

Twenty minutes later what was left of the troupe had regrouped.

Most of the soldiers looked dumbstruck.

A stunned Soval asked no one in particular, "What happened?

Who were those soldiers?"

"Not soldiers," muttered Khalin. "Underground Lylatians.

Cornerian guerrillas. The rabble who stayed behind when we

invaded."

Lienz, nursing a wound to his arm, shook his head. "It couldn't

have been the underground. Those were trained, proffessional

soldiers."

"You're both right," said Melkav.

All the soldiers turned inquiring glances to their commander.

The Badger cursed. "Yes, that was the underground. No other

Imperial force has landed within eighty five kilometers of here.

The underground, now, the underground has always been here.

It stands to reason that they would mobilize to help the Imperial

takeover."

"But how could those guerillas get past us?" yelled Lienz. The

young soldier was visibly upset. For once, Melkav didn't blame

him.

He sighed. "It would be foolish to call them guerrillas now.

Most of you new recruits don't know this, but over the last

four years the underground has been getting....smarter. Faster.

Bolder. Lately they've shown more and more competence, and

formidability. What we saw today is an example of their

increasing ability."

Melkav paused. "And not just here on Corneria. The Venomian,

Katinan, and Titanian underground movements have been showing

more teeth lately. They've stopped becoming annoyances and have

started becoming a threat." He sat down on a rock and hunched

his shoulders in defeat.

"The Lylatians got lucky today," muttered a Wolf.

Melkav shook his head. "No. That wasn't luck. That was clever.

Damnably clever thinking." Melkav looked at each of the soldiers.

"That explains why the Imperial Lylatians didn't retreat. They

knew they had friends lurking about. The underground would be

quick to announce their presence to the Imperium. I'll wager

anyone here that Rautha got suspicious when we didn't attack

him out in the open. Figuring we were laying a trap for him,

he had the Cornerian resistance fighters creep on alongside

as backup." Melkav sighed and pointed at Lienz as he spoke.

"Remember what I told you about arrogance? I made the same

mistake today. I failed to consider the guerrillas."

"Can we still stop them?" asked a Fox.

Melkav looked around. It didn't look good. Much of his force

was dead or wounded. Even without the casaulties, the Lylatians

outnumbered the Kronosians.

Melkav shook his head. "I don't know." He shrugged helplessly.

"With this force, I don't really know." He scowled. "We'll have

to use every ounce of our cunning if we can hope to stop him.

This Rautha is as cunning an opponent as I have ever had to

match wits with." He laughed. "Were we not at war, I would

greatly enjoy sharing a glass of lehnka with him. This fellow

is worthy of respect, my boys. Anybody who can teach an old

Vishnaki a thing or two about battle is someone to be feared

indeed."

"We should give them a worthy salute, at least," remarked Khalin.

"We'll be dueling with them for awhile now; at the very least,

we should show our respect."

"Why not?" grinned Melkav. "These Lylatians are the perfect

enemy to pit our very lives against."

 

* * *

Six kilometers away, Rautha was pacing the hastily constructed

camp, growling in frustration.

"I owe you one, Katt," he said to a Feline in camo gear, sitting

on a log and sharpening a knife with a whetstone. "If wasn't

for your guerrillas, there would be no way to make Astograd.

Katt Monroe grinned. "It was your idea for me to cover your

ass, remember? Of course, I do appreciate the compliment."

Rautha growled. "Damn my stupidity! And damn the fool who decided

on our landing site." He continued pacing. "I should have known

better then to expect an attack in the open. Melkav knew full

well I would be more worried about that then a sneak attack

in the woods." He stopped and stared angrilly at his feet. "Damn

clever fellow, Melkav."

Katt smirked. She knew more about the Kronosian army then most

Imperial Lylatians did.

Four years earlier, Katt and and other trained operatives, all

working under the request of the Emperor Boltzman Gorastar,

snuck into the Lylat system and entered the underground, the

name for the various resistance and freedom fighters working

to undermine Kronos-Lylat. The operatives' mission was to train

and organize the guerrillas into an effective resistance force.

Katt was proud of her detachment. She had taught them well,

and they had taught others, and they had taught others, and

so on.

Presently Katt stood and sheathed the knife. "Well, at least

he's on his toes now. I'd say our arrival was a surprise for

him."

Rautha nodded. "That's what worries me. He doesn't seem to me

the type who makes mistakes often. I suspect he'll only be

craftier then before."

Katt frowned. "We outnumber them, you know."

Rautha turned a thoughtful look to Katt. "True, but I can't

spare the time to seek him out and eliminate his force. He's

all ready badly damaged our timetable." He sighed. "Now we have

to push on to Astograd as fast as we can. All the while he'll

be laying ambushes along the way, which will cost us time and

soldiers." Rautha paused. A faint grin showed on his face. "I

enjoy a tough opponent," he said. "And this son of a bitch,

this Melkav, he's as tough as they come."

"Sir?" called a voice from behind. Rautha turned to confront

a Squirral standing patiently behind him.

"What is it, Hale?"

The Squirral pointed to the edge of the camp. "I think you should

see this."

A bunch of soldiers were gathered around something.

Rautha walked over to the gathering and pushed the soldiers

aside.

"What the hell is this?" Rautha muttered.

Sitting on the ground was a sack. It looked as if it was made

of torn cloth.

There was a note pinned to the sack. Rautha carefully took the

note and glanced at it. He couldn't recognize the language,

but he guessed it was Kronosian.

"It just was....there," explained a Fox. "Somebody found it

just sitting there. I swear it wasn't there two minutes ago.

I ran a scanner over it, no sign of explosive material or

poison."

"Let me see that note," said Katt. She scanned the alien script.

"'Dir kavla', it says. I think it's a gift for you, Rautha."

"Me?" Rautha blinked.

Katt shrugged. "'Kavla' roughly means leader, commander, but

it's a word that is used with respect, like a title." She raised

a brow. "It's also only used when referring to an equal. I'd

say this is from Melkav."

Rautha carefully slit the knot of the sack with a knife. Inside

was a note and a beautifully crafted blade, about nine inches

in length, sheathed in well polished, decorated hilt.

The blade was curved slightly like a scimitar, and the hilt

and sheathe were carved in elaborate Kronosian script.

He unfolded the note. To his surprise, it was written in Inglish.

He read it out loud:

"Killian Rautha,

Greetings and salutations from one warrior to another.

We Kronosians admire those who can best us in battle, for we

are people who have seen many wars and have learned much.

It is custom amongst those who are Vishnaki to salute anyone

they consider equal upon meeting. In keeping with that custom,

I have sent you a gift. It is called a draka, and it is a badge

of pride among warrors who prove themselves.

I look forward to our next battle.

Arkan Melkav"

"I'll be damned," muttered Katt.

Rautha shook his head. "What the hell is a Vishnaki?"

"I don't know," admitted Katt. "The word isn't familiar. It

could be an honor guard of some kind." Katt shot a glance at

Rautha. "Interesting, though."

"Very," muttered Rautha. "It's a damn shame."

"Sir?" asked a puzzled Stag. "What's a shame?"

"It's a shame we had to be enemies," said Rautha. "If I knew

Melkav better, we could have been good friends. He strikes me

as a man of great virtue." Rautha folded up the note and placed

it in his pocket. "A damn fine soldier is out there. It'll be

a shame to have to kill him in battle."

"How could it be a shame to kill a kronie invader, boss?" asked

a Ferret.

"The next person to call those soldiers 'kronies' will be

reprimanded," growled Rautha. "It implies inferiority. To think

the enemy inferior is to be susceptible to overconfidence.

Overconfidence leads to stupid mistakes." He glared at all the

assembled. "Now rest up. We march at 0400 hours."