* * *
"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
As if things couldn't be bad enough, Rautha thought sourly.
"Hold fast, men!" Rautha shouted. "Hold your position as best
"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
The brief hesitation proved fatal. Without warning several
figures rose, as if they had come straight out of the ground,
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
* * *
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
Lienz, nursing a wound to his arm, shook his head. "It couldn't
have been the underground. Those were trained, proffessional
"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
"But how could those guerillas get past us?" yelled Lienz. The
young soldier was visibly upset. For once, Melkav didn't blame
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
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
"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
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
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
A bunch of soldiers were gathered around something.
Rautha walked over to the gathering and pushed the soldiers
"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
"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:
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.
"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
"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."