Kira Volkov - Flight of the Dragoons

Description: As the brave heroes battle Jedah's forces within the fallen Metro Square, someone else slips through the angry red portal in the sky with entirely different goals in mind. Kira takes a huge risk in breaching the walls of another dimension but the payoff is too big to ignore.

Chapter 1

Kira rarely dreamed, her mind far too trained and alert, even in slumber, ready to snap to full readiness at the barest hint of something out of place or irregular, and yet this was, inescapably, a dream. It had to be. The pulsating angry red wound in the sky had swallowed her up like the hungry gaping maw of some infathomably large beast leaving her mind twisted and disoriented as she cast her gaze out of the heavy armored glass canopy across a landscape both hauntingly familiar and yet utterly alien.

Yes, this was some kind of distorted vision brought on by the transition from one world to the next.

That delusion lasted about as long as it took for her head to stop swimming, allowing her vision to focus with troubling clarity on the reality of her new surroundings.

The massive Hind helicopter dropped sharply a few moments later throwing the mercenary against her seat, the webbing of restraint harnesses creaking in protest as they strained to keep her from being smashed against the side of the cockpit while the pilot fought to adjust to the sudden turblence. The wind outside the vehicle howled at the intruders, buffeting them back and forth like a ship caught in a hurricane. The sudden lurching motions were unnatural and unpleasant, and she fought to keep the contents of her stomach where they belonged despite her years of flying experience.

It felt like minutes flew by before the heavy gunship dropped below the barrier of twisting currents and leveled out into stable flight, but in reality, the ordeal had lasted only a few dozen seconds. Kira inhaled deeply as the lurching pressure on her stomach faded away and turned just in time to catch the second assault craft drop into formation beside her own a few moments later. A wry grin spread across her sharp features as she caught a glimpse of the man sitting in the co-pilot's seat who, judging by the expression on his face, had not enjoyed the transition from real space into the Majigen any more than she had.

The man in question, Carlos Benedictus, waited for some of the color to return to his gaunt features before he peeled his eyes away from the control panels lining his own cockpit. Carlos was an attractive man in his early thirties, his lean Spanish features accentuated by a mop of black hair that somehow managed to look both unkempt and well kept at the same time. A thin wedge of hair adorned his chin in an equally rugged fashion. Their eyes met and he returned her grin, lifting a hand to give her a thumbs up which in turn made her smile a little wider. Carlos reminded her of a matador, full of personality and arrogance. He was constantly getting into some sort of trouble but so far he had always managed to dodget the bull's horns. She liked Carlos, and he was her sub-commander for this expedition.

"That was one hell of a ride, huh, boss?" Carlos' voice crackled in her earpiece, his thick Latin accent a little difficult to make out over a wave of static. Kira leaned forward to adjust the knob on the radio until she found a frequency that managed to filter out the worst of it.

"If we have to go through that shit every time," she said, pausing midsentence as a crumpled pack of cigarettes and a small lighter were fished out of her military-issue cargo pants. She pulled one of the slender sticks out of the pack with her lips and lit it with the practiced motions of a long-time smoker, barely spending more than a second or two. The tip glowed red hot as she inhaled, sending a thick blast of the dark fumes into her lungs. "I may have to cancel my vacation reservations."

Carlos chuckled. He gestured at the mutated landscape that spilled out before them with a casual sweep of his hand, turning to take another look at the blighted bits of what was once a part of Metro City that protruded from fields of blood-red grass and barren charred hills. "What? And give up this lovely view?" He clucked his tongue. "Your loss, boss. Me, I'm gonna build a little summer home - right over there, I think."

Kira snorted in response but said nothing as she crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat. The place truly was a nightmarescape right out of some low budget horror film. When she had first caught wind of the strange happenings in Metro City, she had dismissed the entire thing as some sort of elaborate hoax, a publicity stunt by some ailing film company or something of the sort. However, as a multitude of reports poured in from various sources, many of which were not the sort to indulge in humor or parlour tricks, the mercenary had been forced to accept that what she was hearing had to be true.

A portal into another world.

The sheer absurdity of the idea was matched only by the plethora of possibilities it opened up. Kira was a mercenary, selling the services of her troops to those willing to meet her extravagant prices, but she was also a businesswoman. Despite promoting herself first and foremost as a gun-for-hire, the modern world simply had far less demand for soldiers of fortune than times past. The vast majority of her considerable wealth had been gained through the black market. There had been fierce competition opposing her attempts to gain a foothold in this sordid underworld those many years ago when she had enacted her daring betrayal of the fools who had thought to keep her leashed like some kind of domesticated attack dog. She had bullied, bribed, and killed her way through all of it to establish herself as one of the serious players in the game as a purveyor of rare commodities. No matter how strange, esoteric, or illegal, Kira had made a reputation for being able to acquire anything, given enough time. Her success had bred jealousy and respect in equal measure and, after several years of approaching the delicate politics set in place by the various warlords and smugglers with aggressive gunboat diplomacy, in the most literal sense, she was now the defacto queen of organized crime throughout most of Africa.

That would only remain true, however, so long as she stayed ahead of the curve. There were always new threats to deal with as others attempted to topple Kira from her blood-stained throne, some trying to recreate her path to success and surpass her while others sought to eliminate her through betrayal or assassination. Some of them had come close. Her body bore a multitude of scars as proof, a constant reminder that no matter how secure she felt in her dominance over the regions within her control, all it would take is one lucky fool to bring that all to an end.

Ofcourse, she had a rather unique trump card that none of them knew about, one that had saved her from her own ignorance and reckless behavior more times than she could hope to count or repay. Kira twisted her head to glance back at the row of crashseats lined up in parallel against the interior of the Hind. Each was occupied by a man or woman in full tactical gear, their faces hidden behind the protective bulk of a gasmask. Her own filter lay on the floor between her feet, discarded and ignored. The mercenary's eyes instictively went to the lone jumpseat fixed to the wall directly behind the pilot's chair. Normally it would have been occupied by a tall dark-haired woman with pretty features and emotionless eyes; today it was empty.

Zhenya was both Kira's second-in-command and her long-time friend and lover. The two of them had grown up together in the war-torn ruins of the short-lived Chechen Republic, both of the young girls learning the various ways to kill and survive in the wilderness on their own when other children their age would hardly be considered trustworthy enough to be left without a babysitter. Both of them had gained a great deal of practice with firearms but Zhenya's true talent lie with the blade. She was an artist when it came to dealing silent death, both in striking from the shadows or wading into the thick of combat, cutting down foes with careful measured strikes at vital areas, as opposed to Kira's more straight-forward 'shoot them until they stop twitching' approach.

Her girlfriend's combat skills were impressive to say the least, but that wasn't what made her unique. Zhenya possessed a form of limited foresight, an ability to see glimpses of the future; possible futures to be more accurate. Her visions were not always completely accurate and the further away in time they were to the event in question the more likely something was to be different. Some small change in variables might completely alter the course of what she had foreseen making any efforts to prepare for disaster in the longterm little more than a shot in the dark. However, that power was strongest in the near immediate terms, and Zhenya had slapped poisoned food out of her hands or pushed her out of the way of an incoming bullet on numerous occassions. She was Kira's secret weapon and one of the primary reasons the two of them had managed to survive through everything they had.

And she wasn't here.

It was disturbing to Kira how much that fact troubled her. She had grown too reliant on Zhenya's gifts and it made her nervous to be without them while diving into a situation that was both completely beyond the realm of anyone's experience and almost certainly highly dangerous. The mercenary silently chastised herself for allowing herself to become so dependant on another's talents, particularly some supernatural parlour trick. She hadn't trained herself into the deadly killer she was today just to lean on a crutch that could be taken away at any time. Zhenya was skilled and gifted but neither of them were invincible and they lived a dangerous lifestyle that courted death almost every day. Eventually, her luck would run out and then all she would have is the training, her wits, and her determination to keep her alive.

The sound of someone's voice in her ear snapped her out of her haze of distracted musings. She blinked and turned back around as she opened her mouth to reply to something Carlos had said to her, her mind processing the words without conscious thought.

"...ary landing zone will be in view in two minutes, assuming our scout's information is accurate."

"It better be," she said, turning her gaze down to the small tablet resting in her lap. "We only brought enough fuel for a few hours and if we get lost and I end up having to hike out of this demon-infested hole, someone is going to have a very bad day when I get back."

The LCD screen of the pocket-sized computer glowed with bright patches of color displaying a somewhat crude topographical map of the surroundings. A large purple circle indicated the position of the portal that linked the two worlds together, surrounded by several blocky gray areas that were in turn surrounded by dark patches of red or black that eventually faded out to nothingness where the scout had stopped expanding his investigation. The gray areas indicated where sections of Metro City had been deposited, most of them clustered tightly around the portal itself, while the red and black was supposedly more open terrain dotted with patches of habitation, each marked with black dots. It was the dots she was interested in.

Three blinking dots indicated the position of her forces - two armored Hind assault helicopters and a third much larger transport helicopter. The latter lagged some distance behind the first two, doing its best to keep out of harm's way until a safe zone could be established. In ideal circumstances, Kira would have brought more gunships to protect the transport but she had been forced to assemble her resources in a hurry and sneaking an entire armada into U.S. airspace with the military already on high-alert would have been nearly impossible. She was reckless for even attempting this trip but not stupid enough to risk her soldiers and gear in a head-to-head firefight with a super power.

The information proved to be as accurate as could be expected. Within a few minutes the endless rolling hills of scorched black earth gave rise to what may have, at one time, been a dense sprawling forest. Now, however, the trees were bare of any signs of verdant growth, each towering trunk gnarled and bent into a twisted mockery of its real-world counterpart. The scenery was almost comical in its appearance, as if it had been pulled straight out of old children's tales, a haunted forest with trecherous arm-like branches reaching down from above, ready to snatch at the unwary.

Within the protective coccoon of this tangled maze lie a small hamlet. From her bird's eye view, Kira could make out most of the settlement's various buildings, though the purpose of most of them was alien to her. Crafted of old-fashion stone and mortar, the town too appeared to have been crafted in the likeness of pictures often found in old story books. A lazy winding path of trampled dirt was the only visible road she could find, cutting through the middle of the hamlet's small array of buildings and dividing it into halves. On one side were what appeared to be houses, small one or two story dwellings with clearly marked lawns seperating them from one another. The buildings on the other side were much larger and bulkier, perhaps serving as shops or factories. It was a quaint little scene, a strange little slice of archaic peacefulness that was as out of place in this bizarre demonic realm as she herself.

Unfastening her safety harness with a disdainful flick of her thumb, Kira slipped out of the cockpit and stepped into the rear compartment. The space was a bit cramped, barely providing enough room for the half dozen members of Alpha Squad to stow and equip their gear. Each of the soldiers sat in various states of readiness, some impatiently tapping feet or fingers on the metal hull, while others stared quietly at nothing. The noise of the propellers made casual conversation difficult and Kira had forbidden using the radio for idle chatter in combat theatres.

Upon her entrance, all of them rose within a few seconds, each gathering up a weapon from racks built into their respective seat, shotguns and assault rifles complimented by a lone machinegunner. One of the mercs hefted a pair of small tubes over one shoulder, twin disposable anti-tank missiles resting easily against his back. The craft tilted sharply a few moments later as the pilot began their descent towards the first of many targets, forcing the occupants to grab onto something to keep their footing. Every face was hidden behind the protective cover of a gasmask but she could recognize each of them regardless. She knew who would be eager for a fight and which ones would be calm and collected. She had hand picked each of these men and women from the hundred or so soldiers under her command to serve as her vanguard units. They were tough, strong, and skilled. More importantly, they were dependable.

A hand snapped out, fingers digging into the catch for one of the side doors. She pulled it open with a great heave and immediately the howl of whipping wind filled the chamber, buffeting everyone inside with a fresh wave of turbulence. The mercenary queen gripped a hand rail as she stepped forward, leaning half way out of the helicopter while it was still in motion. She inhaled deeply of the alien air, trusting in the information provided that breathing it would not be a fatal mistake; the masks worn by her soldiers were simply a precaution.

Kira allowed the violent breeze to wind around her for several seconds, enjoying the feel of the cold fresh air after spending several hours in a cramped seat. Within a few seconds the muted impact of the helicopter's landing gear crunching into the soft earth sent a tremor through the craft and she turned face her soldiers one final time before allowing them to disembark. Reaching into her own storage compartment, Kira pulled out only a single object, a large curved piece of metal with several straps fastened to its backside. She slid it atop her head with almost ritualistic care, her teeth flashing as she gave a Cheshire Cat grin to no one in particular.

"Lock and load, people," she barked with great enthusiasm. A sharp nod of her head snapped the metal plate down over her face, obscuring the mercenary's face behind a solid layer of ballistic plating, like a knight lowering the visor on a helm. Kira's mask was a dark dull black in color with three thin slits angled at eye level on each side to provide vision while minimizing the risk of a well-aimed shot bypassing its protection. Dozens of small scratches and scuffs covered the surface, tiny scars from countless battles, each with its own death-defying story. Only the lower half of the face-guard was decorated in any fashion, a hand-painted maw filled with large razor sharp white teeth taking up the majority of its surface, giving it an almost tribal appeal that was reinforced by the interlocking webs of tattoos visible on her bare arms.

Her teeth still bared in a wide grin, the Black Dragon pulled a combat shotgun from one of the racks and hefted it in her hands, pumping the slide with a loud dramatic clicking sound as the first round slid into the chamber. She exhaled slowly, breathing out a cloud of smoke from the cigarette still clutched in her mouth, which drifted out around the sides of her mask wreathing the mercenary's fearsom visage in an ominous dark halo.

"It's time to introduce ourselves to the locals."

Chapter 2

The rough barren dirt crunched underneath the soles of her thick combat boots as Kira stepped off the helicopter and set foot upon the alien world for the first time. She wasted no further time taking in the view; there was naught to see but mangled trees and the rusty red pall of the sky overhead. Alpha Squad followed her initiative without being told, pouring out of the gunship in single file to fall into tactical fireteam positions. Their weapons remained lowered but they would have no difficulty snapping to a firing position at a moment's notice, ready to face a threat from any direction without having to worry about accidentally striking each other. Their movements were disciplined and quick but Kira could tell that they were still a bit stiff from the long trip.

"Alright, you've all been briefed on the situation, but just incase, let's go over it one last time." Kira spoke with a casual tone, not bothering to put the harsh snip into her voice that would be expected of a commanding officer. Such things were little more than insults to a professional mercenary; these people knew who was in charge and how to obey orders without her having to talk down at them like children.

"We are currently within an alternate world that has been called the 'Majigen'. From what little we know, it's some kind of demon realm full of werewolves, vampires, giant bugs, and basically everything else that was ever vaguely mentioned in ancient legends. So, why would we want to come to a festering hellhole like this? Simple - profit."

That last word earned a few appreciative sounds from the soldiers and Kira paused long enough to turn and watch as the second Hind unloaded Carlos and the members of Delta Squad. Judging by the way he was moving from member to member, patting them on the shoulder and speaking with that pompous flare of his, she assumed he was giving his own version of the same speech.

"These creatures are the stuff of myth and legend. Things people have never seen before. How much do you think a collector will pay to have a stuffed werewolf in his den? How long before the lastest rage in fashion is real naga-hide? Does vampire blood hold the secret to immortality? I bet someone will pay for the chance to find out."

Ofcourse, in truth it was unlikely that they would have the opportunity to turn this place into a real source of continuous income. It was impossible to know if the portal that had brought them here was just a temporary window or a permanent gateway. Even if it was here to stay, the U.S. military would be likely to lock down the area much more strongly than its current state. Slipping in and out unnoticed would be a one-time deal. Which is precisely why she brought along one of her special toys.

Shortly after the landing zone was deemed secure, the third and final member of her convoy broke over the horizon and began to make its approach. Stretching nearly 40 meters from from to back, the Mil Mi-12 transport helicopter was the world's largest ever designed, almost two-thirds the size of a full 737 Boeing airliner jet. With an internal cargo capacity to rival that of its larger cousins, the Mi-12, codenamed Homer, provided unparalled ability to deliver large amounts of cargo with minimal space requirements. Unfortunately, only two of the prototypes were ever built and the project was cancelled some time in the late 1970's.

It was only by accident that Kira had learned of this amazing vehicle during her service in the FSB. When she escaped that life to begin her career as a mercenary and black marketeer, she had found herself in need of just such a convenient tool. At first she had been forced to make due with much smaller, more modern transport helicopters, but she had managed to accumulate a great deal of wealth in a very short time and one of her first orders of business was to commission the Mil company to reopen the project on her behalf.

Naturally, some 40 years after the fact there were a great many hurdles to overcome for this desire to become a reality. New parts had to be fabricated, old blueprints had to be found and verified. In order to avoid unwanted questions, Kira had ended up having the necessary factories built in her own base, a task that cost her a considerable fortune. In the end, however, she deemed the costs a worthy investment and the gargantuan beast that lumbered through the air before her was living proof of that.

Sending Carlos an order to set up a secure perimeter, Kira headed for the massive transport with Alpha Squad in tow. The entire craft had been painted a dark greasy black, save for the nose section which was adorned with the same fierce open maw as her mask giving it the appearance of some terrible flying beast ready to devour anything that might draw its ire. The word 'Marauder' was painted in bold Russian letters across one side. This was the first of her Black Ghalleons.

Kira waited impatiently as the craft found a suitable location and settled into the ground. Almost the moment that its massive tires began to sink into the soft earth she stalked towards the rear of the transport and radioed the crew to lower the boarding ramp. The sharp hiss of pnuematic pistons managed to overpower the roaring whirl of the engines and the thump of propellor blades ten times her size. A loud warning klaxon rang out from hidden speakers and with a jolt the heavy cargo down slowly dropped open.

The inside of the Marauder was even more ominous and unwelcoming. From stem to stern, the cargo bay of the massive transport had been outfitted for one sole purpose. Massive cages of heavy wrought iron lined the rectangular space on either side of the bay. The craft was large enough that the space was divided into two stories with small staircases offering easy passage between levels at the front and rear. Within each cage was a cluster of iron chains from which dangled several pairs of old fashioned manacles. Judging by their number, each of the containment cells was meant to hold atleast ten people, though the fit would be rather tight. No less than twenty of these cages lined each side of the Marauder's interior with a second set stacked onto the upper level making its total capacity for prisoners somewhere in the neighborhood of eight hundred.

It was a slave ship, a modern day pirate barge designed to transport flesh. While Kira was well known for being able to acquire nearly anything through her black market dealings, it was her willingness to sell slaves that had made her the great success she was now. Africa was a land that had a great deal of history revolving around slavery. From the early expansion of the Roman empire to Britian's colonial initiative, people hailing from the wild untamed lands of this massive continent had been subjected to the leash for most of recorded history. Barbarian tribes that lived out in the wilderness of the jungles and plains engaged in this practice as a matter of tradition and even the more 'civilized' warlords conducted raids and took trophies from their rivals. The sheer brutality of the infighting between rival dictators and drug lords took a heavy toll on lives and there was always a need for fresh bodies that would be far cheaper to purchase than the services of elite mercenaries or regular troops. There was also the mines which served as the primary source of income for many areas. Coal, diamonds, and gold were commonly sought after treasures and hiring the multitudes of skilled laborers necessary would have cost a fortune causing most to turn to cheaper alternatives. This was the secret to Kira's meteoric rise to fame and wealth.

Her intentions for this place were much the same. Whatever horrific monsters may lurk in this twisted realm, she was confident that they could be captured; and once they were safely secured within the slave pits back in her base, they would be tamed.

Kira stalked up the ramp and down the aisle running the length of the cargo bay. Her gaze shifted back and forth as she walked, eyeing the cages for any signs of structural weakness or out of place machinery. She had every confidence in the skill of her engineers but it never hurt to be cautious. Zhenya had often called her paranoid but she lacked her friend's gift of foresight and it only took one small mistake to ruin everything.

The mercenary stopped her quick inspection when the cages finally gave way to something new. Normally, the entire ship would have been filled with the cold iron boxes but the last third of its storage was instead now dedicated to massive walk-in freezers. Kira punched in the safety code on a digital keypad on the first of the large doors and, with a hiss of escaping frost, it slid open. Immediately, she was blasted with a surge of freezing air that sent an involuntary shiver through her body. She ignored it and stepped inside, her hand brushing away a layer of frost to check the thermostat built into the wall - two degrees Celsius.

It was the perfect temperature, just cold enough to preserve any meat placed inside without freezing the moisture and damaging the flesh. Satisfied, she stepped back out and closed the door. Two dozen of the lockers were installed in total giving her ample space to transport another commodity that she was sure would be in ample supply during this hunting trip - bodies. She had no idea what kind of a fight these creatures would put up but there was bound to be resistance. Even the savage tribals who she ususally preyed upon attempted to overcome her soldiers with rocks and spears. Somehow, she doubted demons would be any different.

After opening and checking each one of the freezer units personally, Kira made her way back down the cargo bay and out into the open air again where Alpha Squad had waited. As before, they were spread out in a defensive arrangement centered around the ramp, but they immediately collapsed around the mercenary as she emerged from the Marauder.

"Everything check out, sir?" A female voice crackled in her ear over the radio and Kira didn't even bother to turn her head to see who had spoken to know that it was the new girl. Marie Thompson was a former member of the British army that had gotten tired of being told she wasn't allowed to fight because she had been born a woman. Kira had found her scratching out a meager living working for one of the more 'official' PMCs and had given her a better offer when she took note of her performance reviews.

She wasn't much to look at; Kira found her rather repulsive, infact. This, compounded with the woman's incessant need to cling to by-the-book protocol, as if standing a little straighter at attention somehow made her a better soldier, had not done much to endear her to the mercenary captain. Marie was a competant subordinate, however, and there were times when a little extra polish and protocol came in handy. It was she that had been in charge of overseeing the installation of the freezer units and otherwise preparing the Marauder for its mission. Despite having such short notice, she had done an admirable job.

"Yeah," Kira responded, giving the woman a long look through the impassive mask of metal. "Everything is running like clockwork. Did you have the men wax the cages too? They seemed somewhat shinier than usual."

Marie responded with a neutral tone but it was laced with inherent sarcasm in the way that only the British seemed capable of. "With toothbrushes, sir. Right after I had them fluff the pillows."

Kira grunted but let the matter drop. Time was limited. "Our primary objective here is to collect as much cargo as possible. However, since we don't know exactly what it is will we be facing out there, you all have permission to use your personal discretion." Kira shouldered her shotgun and flicked the now burned out butt from her lips to the ground, grinding it under the toe of her boot before starting off towards the distant hamlet. Alpha Squad followed, spreading out around her.

"If it looks like too much trouble to try and capture alive, shoot it. If it resists, shoot it. If it tries to run, shoot it in the leg. I want the majority of those cages full by the time we hit the third site. Prioritize the capture of women and children - if you can tell the difference. If not, just use your judgement. Let's try to avoid a massacre here, people; dead bodies are worth less."

Opening a channel to her subcommander, Kira's hail was answered within a few moment by Carlos' peppy voice. "I am ready and willing, boss lady, as always."

"Keep it in your pants, pretty boy. How are things on your end?"

"We have moved ahead of the helos and taken position at the edge of the forest. It is not far from here to the village. Maybe a hundred yards or so." The radio crackled for a moment as he went silent, conferring with one of the soldiers. "It would seem that our arrival has caused something of a stir. There is all sorts of commotion down in the center. We've spotted atleast two different kinds of beasties. By my best guess, the primary populace is composed of... eh what did you call them... werewolf?" She could practically hear the non-commital shrug in the short pause that followed. "They walk on two legs like people but have the head of wolves and lots of fur."

"And the second group?"

"Ugh. Big and nasty things. They look like giant insects. Grasshoppers maybe. None of the others seem to be armed but these things are carrying big-ass spears. I think they might be overcompensating for something."

"You would know."

"You wound me, madame," he said with mock horror. "Anyways, I don't think these guys are going to pose much threat. It looks like they're still stuck in the stone age as far as technology goes. Not a single firearm in sight."

"Good, that'll make this easy then." Kira tapped the switch on her radio, flipping it over to a broadband signal that would be heard by everyone in range. "Listen up. Threat assessment is very low. Your primary targets are the werewolves. Move confidently but don't get careless, we don't know what these things are capable of yet. As soon as myself and Alpha are in position we will spread out and flank from two sides to cut off as many escape routes as possible."

Within a couple minutes Alpha Squad had reached the edge of the trees. Carlos signaled her with a wave of his hand from a point about twenty yards away and she nodded, lifting her hand to give the signal to attack. Like wraiths rising from the mist, the Dragoons immediately began to move, disloding themselves from their hiding places behind trees and thick brambles. Both squads moved in tandem, each keeping pace with the other to ensure that neither would pull ahead and make for easy targets. Their progress across the open field was swift, the soldiers boldly striding forward in a constant gait without the threat of enem fire to make them more reserved.


A warning echoed across the radio and all twelve mercenaries stopped at once, training their weapons on the nearby tree lines.

Marie's warning came just in time. Kira threw her head back, squinting to make out the buzzing forms of the Royal Guard as they buzzed silently above, their numbers not great enough to give away their approach through sound. Something large and fast shot down out of the sky and she only had just enough time to roll to the side to avoid being skewered by the hurled projectile.

Kira popped back up to her feet just as the other members of Alpha Squad opened fire with their own weapons. A hail of bullets tore into the sky above and two of the demonic locusts exploded in clouds of disgusting ichor. It rained down on them in thick sticky blobs but she didn't hear so much as a disgusted groan over the radio as the remaining four attackers were dissected by automatic fire, only managing to hurl two more of the archaic javelins down at them before meeting a messy demise.

"Well, I suppose that was our welcoming committee," she grumbled, wiping a large smear of green gunk off her shoulder. It clung to her bare flesh like some kind of adhesive paste and she just ended up transferring most of it to her hand. Kira grimaced and wiped her palm on the back of the nearest soldier's armor, managing to get most of it off, earning herself a reproachful look from the unlucky individual. She ignored it and looked around, scanning the horizon for further signs of hostility.

"Looks clear." Carlos turned, his own gaze dropping from the sky and nodded at her. "Keep moving," she said and both squads resumed their advance.

It took only a minute or two to reach the hamlet itself. There were no further incidents to delay their progress and the soldiers spread out into a wide line as they moved to either side of the small settlement, encircling it like a pack of wolves closing in on unwary prey. Up close the village looked much as Kira had expected it to. Stone and wooden buildings that were obviously hand-crafted were scattered about in a mostly haphazard fashion as if they had simply been laid out according to the space available at the time, each one expanding the size of the town away from the center. She was surprised to learn, however, that each of these antiquated buildings had small power lines running into them. What had appeared to be wind vanes or decorations from a distance were infact old-fashioned radio and television antennas.

"This doesn't make any sense," she muttered. "Cobblestone roads, wooden rooves, and television sets?" The uneasy feeling that she had been nursing from before came back to her in a surge. For all they knew, the initial attack had been a feint or a ploy, something designed to test their capabilities or intentions. Just what level of technology did these creatures possess?


"I see it, boss." His tone was serious for a moment. "But, hey, look at the bright side. Maybe we can catch them with their pants down. It's about time for the Late Show to be on."

"I keep telling you that stuff is going to rot your brain," Kira quipped in annoyance but she couldn't help but smile a little.

"Aww, who cares. It's not my brain that drives the ladies wild, eh boss?"

"Maybe if you tried actually using it."

He laughed. "Why bother? There are much easier ways. A little music, a little dancing, a little champagne. What need have I for a brain when I can simply sweep a girl away with my dazzling charm and rugged good looks?"

"Pig," she countered, but her heart wasn't in it. She had fallen for Carlos' unsubtle advances herself on more than one occassion. Many of the people under her command were too afraid of her to even hold a casual conversation half the time. On his first day, Carlos had tried to hit on her before even introducing himself. Kira had been so taken off guard by his sheer gall that she was rendered speechless which had apparently marked her for life as one of his personal conquests.

Ofcourse, as soon as she regained her senses she shot him. Twice. But that did nothing to deter his efforts. If anything, he came back bolder and more determined. Half the scars on his body were earned from Zhenya when he had been brazen enough to try plying his charms on Kira while she was present, or worse, on the other woman herself. Her lover was far less good-humored about the games that he played but she had been won over by his vibrant energy and ability to look past the mask she wore to the person inside.

"I happen to have a bottle of champagne back on the ship," he continued, his voice shifting into a low sultry tone that he used when he was trying to be seductive. She found it charming but only because it was so obviously exaggerated and ridiculous. "What say you and me leave the dirty work to the grunts and go have ourselves a nice long..."

"Carlos." Kira interrupted him, putting a little of the harsh commanding bark back into her voice. "Shut up and get moving. Our time here is limited and I want to spend as much of it as possible collecting merchandise." After a moment she added, "Business first. Then we'll talk about pleasure."

"Pleasure is my business, senorita," he remarked, always one to get the last word in. She sighed in exhasperation and motioned for her own troops to move on.

Chapter 3

The outskirts of the small hamlet were composed entirely of living units, the old-fashioned but well-built domiciles spread evenly apart in an expanding ring around the center of the town. Carlos had mentioned a great deal of activity upon their arrival but there was only a ghostly silence to greet them as Alpha Squad reached the outer limits at last.

Kira gave orders with hand signals and subvocalized whispers, speaking into her radio only when the members of her squad were out of sight. The seven of them spread out to surround the first house, falling into a well-established breaching formation. She hung back briefly, allowing the others to take the greater risk of being the first through the door. Ten years ago, she would have stabbed anyone who suggested that she take up a rear position in the formation. She was a little older and wiser now, with far more things to lose than she'd had back then, a dirty urchin with ideals and youthful arrogance.

She still had those ideals, and some new ones besides, but they were tempered with experience and pain. Her mistaken belief that she was untouchable had earned Kira more than one trip to death's doorstep and her once pristine body, while still shapely and attractive, was now stitched with a roadmap of all the lessons she had learned the hard way over the years. It had taken a great deal of suffering before she had started to get the hint, always a headstrong and fiesty girl, but she had come away from those trials all the stronger. As far as her skills went, Kira was sure that she could take on almost anyone and come out on top in a fair fight. One of the very first lessons she ever learned was that only idiots let themselves get caught in a fair fight.

With a loud crash, the heavy boot of one of her soldiers slammed into the door. The wood splintered around the lock, buckling slightly but holding fast. The construction was very solid, the wood thick and strong. With a curse, the man stepped back and lowered his shotgun. A resounding boom filled her ears and she turned her back to the entryway just in time, splinters showering her thick armor like miniature daggers. When she looked again the space where the doorknob had been was now a ragged gaping hole. The merc nudged the door with his boot and it swung inwards with a slight protest. He turned and gestured to the opening with one hand as if he were a butler welcoming his masters home.

A few muted laughs echoed across the radio but discipline quickly stiffled them and Alpha Squad disappeared into the opening one by one. Within seconds she began to hear reports as rooms were cleared, each voice repeating their short clipped calls of 'clear'. She was about to move in herself, if only to take a further look at the interior of these buildings centuries out of place, when the first ambush sprung.

A low beastial growl hit her senses moments before the werewolf himself. Kira reacted in a flash, her body moving subconsciously in response to the sudden threat. She pirouetted to one side and ducked just as a massive claw slammed into the space where her head had just been. Stone exploded from the blow in thin slivers and dust, the deadly talons carving a row of deep gouges into the wall. The mercenary twisted to the side and brought her own shotgun to bear on the hairy creature looming overhead, taking it in the midsection with a point-blank blast of buckshot just as it turned to strike again. A blossom of red exploded out of the wound and the wolf staggered, it's maw gaping in shock and pain. Rows of thin teeth glistened in the red light of the sky, sharp and curved for tearing and rending meat. Kira wasted no time in pumping two more shots into the creature, each pull of the trigger carving fist-sized chunks out of its torso, and with a gargled yelp the thing toppled over and lay still.

She had no time to celebrate this victory. Two more of the foul monsters lept at her almost before the body had hit the ground, coming at her from both sides and leaving her only one place to go. Kira didn't bother to think, throwing herself out of the path of the raking nails and slavering jaws of her attackers, and in doing so, fell right into their trap. A third shadow darkened the ground as another wolf lept down from the rooftop where it had been lying in wait, hundreds of pounds of muscle and ferocity slamming into her from behind. The blow sent Kira sprawling into the dirt and the shotgun went spinning from her grasp.

The wolf lept at her again, a terrible primal howl buffeting her from behind, but she was too quick for it to land the killing blow as it had intended. Planting a hand on the ground as she tumbled, Kira sprang to her feet and met the charge head on, bringing her elbow sharply into the abdomen of her assailant. Its own momentum drove the wedge of her armored pad into its solar plexus and she heard the gasping wheeze as its breath was momentarily taken away. Seeing her chance, Kira's hands flew into motion, one grasping the hilt of the short combat blade sheathed on her back while the other drew a pistol from the holster on her thigh. In one smooth motion, she fired two shots into the man-wolf's knees, buckling its digigrade legs just as easily as she might have a human's. The sharp edge of her short sword cleaved into its neck, bisecting the foul thing's head from its shoulders even as it fell to the ground.

Breathing heavily, Kira whirled to face her remaining two attackers. They snarled and snapped at her aggressively but seemed far less willing to simply throw themselves at the invader who had now cleanly defeated two attempts on her life with apparent ease. The ever-smiling maw of her mask met their toothy growls in kind and she took up a defensive stance, flipping the blade over into a reverse-handed grip while motioning tauntingly for them to approach with the barrel of her gun.

She never got the chance to find out if they would have accepted her invitation. Both creatures suddenly convulsed as automatic fire shredded them from the side. A pair of soldiers appeared from the nearby house and emptied their clips into the beasts and there was little left but a pulped mess by the time the corpses slumped over on top of each other.

"Damnit!" Kira cursed loudly, not bothering to maintain the illusion that their approach might go undiscovered any longer. "What did I tell you idiots? We need these bodies /intact/." She wandered over the messy remains and nudged them with the toe of her boot, pushing them apart to get a better look. It wasn't pretty. She sighed loudly, letting the spark of her temper die out before it could turn into a bonfire. They were just protecting her. "Maybe we can... collect their teeth and sell them to some witch doctor or something. Just... just fucking tag the thing and let's go! Looks like we're not going to be lucky enough to take this place without a fight."

While the two mercs set about fixing tracking beacons to the bodies, Kira radioed to the rest of her crew for a report. Alpha Squad had managed to avoid the worst of the surprise attack thanks to her own struggle alerting them to the danger. Carlos did not have equally good news.

"We lost two guys to the furballs, boss. One of them survived but he's out of the fight. But Tim... fuck, they just ripped the poor guy apart. With their bare hands. Those claws went right through his armor."

"Sorry, Carlos. You were friends with him, right?" Kira didn't actually care. She lost soldiers on a pretty regular basis. It was a hazardous job with a high turn-over rate. There was a reason she paid her mercenaries well up front and skimped on the benefits packages. The dead man was just another name on a list to her but she knew that her subcommander had been close so she tried to sound interested.

"Yeah... we joined our first PMC together... about five years ago, I think. I'm the one who suggested you hire him, you know, after you stopped trying to shoot me every time I walked in the room."

"I remember."

"Shit. We always knew one or the other might buy it on the battlefield but this... this was not what I expected when I signed up for this."

Kira found her anger suddenly flaring up again and this time she wasn't able to reign it back in time to keep from snapping at him. "So what? You want to quit now? This just a big game to you, pretty boy?!" There wasn't an immediate answer so she kept going, practically shouting loud enough for him to hear her without the radio. "I told you there would be substantial risks when we came on this god-forsaken treasure hunt! Every one of you signed up voluntarily! So don't go pissing and moaning just because the shit hit the fan and it was someone you knew who caught it in the face!"


She didn't give him a chance to make excuses. "Shut up, Carlos. Shut the fuck up! I don't want to hear it. Tag the body, or whatever the hell is left of it, get your balls back out of your purse, and keep moving. Now!"

Insulting his manliness seemed to do the trick. He actually sputtered for a few seconds before managing to form coherent words. "Right, boss. Sorry. Lost my cool there for a second. It won't happen again."

"It better not," she said through clenched teeth and cut the connection. Now that the embers of her rage had been stoked to life, they were not so quick to die out. Kira turned to find the rest of Alpha Squad waiting for her and she rounded on them so fast that some of the battle-harded warriors actually flinched.

"What the fuck are you all standing around for?! Go find these assholes and make them dead!" Several of them snapped salutes but none were foolish enough to linger in her presence for more than a second or two while she was in this kind of a mood. Muttering unintelligable curses under her breath, Kira stowed her backups and collected the shotgun, feeding fresh shells into the magazine from the bandoliers built into her tactical vest.

She was about to follow behind her squad when an idea struck her. Turning back to the corpse of the wolf she had guillotined, Kira collected the severed head from the ground. Frozen in a mask of pain and feral rage, it's lips were still pulled back into a fierce snarl. She sneered at the dead lupine face and tied it to her waist, a grisly trophy that matched her grim tribal appearance all too well.

Chapter 4

It took them nearly two hours to sweep the village clean of hostiles. Moving in groups to ensure that no more ambushes like the first would happen again, both squads moved from house to house, encountering resistance several times. Be it from closets or tall gardens or rooftops, the werewolves struck only when they thought they had the drop on their attackers. Two more soldiers were wounded badly enough that they had to be evacuated back to the helicopters but no more lives were lost among her personel which managed to salve her festering temper, at least a little.

Carlos in particular seemed determined to regain whatever bits of manliness he had lost in her eyes with his moment of weakness. She watched on the small screen of her pocket computer as he lead his squad from the front, taking point at every chance to do so, breaching the most dangerous rooms personally. It was kind of cute how much effort he put into impressing her but at the moment she had other things on her mind.

Kira too ended up taking the fight to her enemies personally though it was less due to recklessness than a concerted effort by the wolves to bring her down. Somehow, they had gotten it into their furry little heads that she was the one in charge, the alpha leader of her 'pack'. By the start of the second hour, after cutting her way out of no less than five ambushes directly aimed at taking her life, she was starting to actually enjoy herself. The initial attack had caught her off guard but, now that she was learning their tactics, Kira quickly became adept at anticipating when and where the attacks would occur. The wolves seemed to prefer locations where they had atleast three points of attack from which they could leap out of cover, displaying little more than rudimentary animalistic cunning in their strategy. By that logic, it was quite easy to assess the various alcoves and alleys between houses that made for the most likely locations.

These weren't warriors she was fighting. They were just peasants who happened to have bodies designed for ripping things apart. Not to be underestimated, certainly, as the first few engagements had proven, but hardly a real threat once their advantage of surprise had been lost. By now, both Alpha and Delta Squads were tearing through the houses with great ease, her soldiers apparently having picked up on the telltale signs of what to look out for as well. A veritable mountain of bodies lay in their wake and she was beginning to wonder if there would even by anyone left to capture by the time they hit the center of town.

"It looks like they're starting to give up, boss," Carlos said, after clearing out the first ambush in nearly ten minutes. "Think they finally turned tail and ran?"

"If they had, the scouts would have seen them. No, I think they have something else in mind. Keep moving but stay sharp. We're almost to the middle. That's where all that activity you saw early was centered, right?"

"Affirmative," he confirmed. A shot ran out as he executed a wounded wolf that wouldn't have survived long even with medical treatment. "There was atleast a hundred of them there, but they were dressed up like people, with fancy clothes and stuff. These guys so far have all just been wearing ripped up pants. Not that the Hulk look is a bad one but I think we've been dealing with the grunts. Maybe some kind of werewolf militia or something, who knows."

"Hmph. Judging by how freely these things have been expending their lives to slow us down, I don't think they have anything substantial in reserve or they'd have thrown that at us first. They seem quite desperate to keep us away from the center of town and I have a hunch I know why. Keep your men moving. Unless I miss my guess, we're about to hit the jackpot."

As it turned out, her hunch was right. They met with no further attacks and without resistance to slow them down the Dragoons reached the large plaza at the center of the hamlet in less than ten minutes. A single building stood tall and proud, far larger and more ornately designed than any of the others they had encountered thus far. Letters were chiseled into the stone arch that overhung the entryway, likely proclaiming its purpose or name, but they were in some runic form of writing that was completely alien to her.

Kira and Alpha Squad took up positions infront of the large entrance and she ordered Carlos to circle around to the back just incase her prey tried to pull a fast one and escape through some other means. She was just pondering the best way to breach the large structure when one of the large wooden doors swung open from the inside, the hinges creaking sharply with age. Half a dozen guns came up and trained on the doorway.

What emerged from within was not a horde of angry beasts pouring forth to overwhelm them in a tide of claws, but rather a single old wolf. Bent over a hunched back, his fur a mottled gray, the elder werewolf leaned on a gnarled wooden cane as he hobbled out to greet them. The sight of several firearms pointed his way seemed not to deter the old beast in the slightest and he simply made his way forward with a slow but steady gait until he stood only a few feet away from the mercenary queen.

Holding up his free hand in a placating fashion, the old wolf cleared his throat and began to speak, his words mostly intelligable despite a thick accent. "H-hold a moment there, if you would. I speak the human tongue and I would have words with you, invader, lest there be more blood shed here unnecessarily."

No one responded for several seconds. Kira couldn't tell if her soldiers were surprised to hear intelligible words coming from the mouth of a bipedal wolf-man but she certainly was. Eventually, she motioned for their weapons to be lowered and Alpha Squad complied, almost reluctantly. The old wolf tried to hide the soft sigh of relief that escaped at this but she caught it nonetheless and smirked beneath the impassive mask. These creatures were desperate now.

"Speak," she said, failing to hide the amusement in her voice. It was like giving a command to a circus animal. If the creature caught the intended slight in her terse response, he did not let any indication of it show in his weathered features.

"We are a simple folk," he began, gesturing to the buildings of stone all around them as if that were proof enough. "There is little here of value that would be worth the effort of stealing. Some trinkets and baubles but nothing that could appeal to someone like you."

"Someone like me?" The hint of a threat slipped into her tone as she repeated the words slowly, demanding that he elaborate upon the choice of words.

"A conqueror, lady warrior," he added, trying to remain calm and diplomatic. "Had we known that a marauder of your skill and strength were coming this way, we would have prepared tribute. We do not have much but surely it would have suited your tastes more than this pointless battle?"

Facial tells for wolves weren't exactly easy to read but Kira was sure that the old thing was nervous, frightened. 'As well he should be,' she thought, but something about his demeanor was off. He was up to something, stalling for time, perhaps.

She snorted at him, the sound distorting into a deep rumble behind the metal. "I encountered only males of your kind as I fought my way through your quaint little town." She spoke confidently about that fact despite not knowing much of anything about werewolves. For all she knew the women could be just as hairy and big as the others, without any obvious signs of gender, but she'd had someone check the dead bodies and they'd all possessed what were obviously male gentalia. Which left only one obvious question to ask.

"Where are all your women and children?" She tilted her head towards the large building behind the elder wolf. "What's in there?"

"O-oh, that? That is our... out esteemed town hall, my lady." He stumbled over the words, obviously flustered. She'd hit the nail on the head. "There is nothing in there that would interest you. Old books of... finacial records and production quotas and the like. Birthdates and family trees. Hardly anything of real worth."

"I don't believe you." Kira turned and motioned to three members of her squad and they rose from their firing crouches to trot over to her side. "You three, go check inside that building and find out what's there. I'm betting the families of all the males we killed are holing up inside."

They nodded silently and headed off for the large city hall. The old wolf sputtered in weak protest. "Y-you can't... there's nothing... "

Kira turned her gaze back upon the elder and after a long pause lifted the mask away from her face so that she could meet him eye to eye. The creature went dead silent upon seeing her for the first time, it's mouth hanging slightly agape as if it had come face to face with something truly unexpected. She stared at him, baring her teeth in a crazed grin that sent a wave of pure dread through his old bones and made the fur on his neck stand up straight.

"Then you have nothing to worry about."

It took only a minute or two for the soldiers to reemerge from the building. Two of them held their guns at the ready as they slid back out of the poor-lit entrance but the third had his arms full with something else. A young wolf, perhaps no older than a human child preparing to enter their teens, whimpered meekly as it was drug out into the open by the scruff of its neck, its tail tucked firmly between its legs. Judging by the fact that the creature was wearing a dress, Kira guessed that it was likely to be a young female.

Her captor showed no delicacy in his handling of the beast, the fingers of one hand dug firmly into the loose folds of skin at the back of her neck while the other held her maw shut for lack of a proper muzzle. The she-wolf offered little resistance to this treatment but nor did she seem to be providing him with much in the way of help and he was forced to practically yank her along in fits, her body going limp like a disobedient child being disciplined in a market.

Hot on their heels came another figure, this one full grown. It too wore feminine attire and its head was topped with a thick mane of long hair that had obviously been styled into a more pleasing form. Seeing a werewolf with a perm was almost too much but Kira bit her lip and just grinned harder at the sight. The older female was shouting something at the soldiers but the two guards with weapons still in hand kept her at bay as the helpless youth was dragged bodily into the open.

Kira waited patiently as the small parade made its way back to her side. By the time the wolf cub was dumped at her feet there were atleast half a dozen more adult werewolves gathered around the doorway of the town hall. All stared at the invaders with a mixture of hatred and fear but none made a move to try and protect the captured child save for the first who continued to speak frantically in a language composed almost entirely of snarls and growls. The girl's mother, Kira assumed. Eventually the she-wolf realized that her words were falling on deaf ears and she turned a pleading look to the elder who had lapsed into stunned silence at the spectacle.

"You said that there is nothing here that could appeal to someone like me." Kira's grin spread further still as she turned to glare back at the elder wolf, her eyes narrowing dangerously. "But you were wrong, beast. I am not a conqueror." She reached up and gripped the handle of her combat blade without breaking eye contact, drawing the length of steel with deliberate slowness so that the rasp of its metal upon the sheath could be heard by everyone present. "I'm a hunter."

Bending down, Kira took hold of the fallen wolf cub, who was still whimpering and lying upon the ground where she had been allowed to fall. The mercenary grabbed her by the scruff her neck, just as her subordinate had done, and she dragged the young wolf to her feet in a single hard pull. It let out a yelp of pain which in turn prompted another series of frantic outbursts from the creature's mother, but Kira silenced these when she yanked back on its hair and placed the edge of her blade against the cub's exposed throat.

Kira bared her teeth again in a fierce snarl at all of the werewolves present. Now they were close to the end game. The prey was cornered, backed up against a wall. In most cases, an animal became the most fierce when given no where else to go but these creatures had the misfortune of being possessed of more advanced intelligence. They could understand threats and consequences, they could be reasoned with, which meant that she could control them far easier than if they were some pack of wild beasts.

"Tell the others," she said, aiming her words at the elder wolf, pressing the short sword firmly into the hairy scruff of her captive's neck, "that they are to go and get everyone else who is hiding in that dirty hole of yours and bring them outside immediately. If they do not, I will send my troops in to bring one of your cubs out every minute and kill them, starting with this one."

The elder's eyes widened but one look into the icy chips of her fierce gaze told him that she was not bluffing. Turning to the creature's mother, he responded to her in their own tongue, barking and growling for a few moments. Visible shock washed over her in a wave and she turned to gaze in horror at the mercenary queen. Kira removed the blade from the cub's throat and gestured at the open doorway behind her with a 'get moving' expression. She didn't need to tell her twice. The werewolf turned and sprinted into the building, nearly stumbling over her own feet in her hurry to accomplish the task that had been given to her.

Kira waited patiently, whistling softly as she watched the seconds tick by on her watch. She had no intention of being entirely literal about giving them only one minute to respond but her antics were enough to make the small crowd nervous and atleast two more of the females disappeared into the darkness in the short span that followed. It took precisely one minute and twenty-nine seconds before the first of the werewolves began to file out of the wide double doors in a thick herd. From their manner of dress, she had been correct that all of the females had been kept out of the fighting. The only males she spotted were either too young or too old to be much of a threat to anyone but they still gave the soldiers fierce looks. The captive's mother was one of the first to reappear and she rushed back over to the elder's side, fidgetting nervously as her eyes darted between the sword in Kira's hand and the face of her child. Kira rolled her eyes and pushed the whiny brat towards her mother, who snatched her up in a fierce hug, nuzzling the frightened cub's neck.

"Tell her to stand with the others," she ordered the elder and he complied, starting to follow after them until she lifted the blade to bar his path. "Not you. I still have a use for you." The old wolf swallowed but nodded and stepped back.

Now that she had the entirely of the town, or what remained of it in any case, gathered before her, Kira took stock of what it was she had managed to snare. Atleast a hundred dead wolves lay strewn about on the ground behind them and it looked as if atleast twice that many remained. Two hundred live specimens and giant heap of pelts and bodies that could be stuffed and mounted at the cost of one soldier's life. Not bad at all for her first haul of the day. She signaled Carlos, ordering him to move back around the building and take up position behind the crowd, warning him to be prepared incase things got ugly again when she laid out the situation these mongrels were in. Once he was in place, she turned back to the crowd and began.

"Alright, listen up." She spoke with a hard edge to her voice, a tone that radiated confidence and command and brooked no arguments. Her gaze shifted sideways to the elder who stared at her blankly for several seconds until he realized that she wanted him to translate. Clearing his throat in an officious manner, the old wolf echoed her message in snarls and yaps that managed to sound pompous even to her untrained ear.

"Effective immediately, you are all my prisoners." She paused, allowing the elder a moment to translate and for a dramatic effect so that her words could sink and grab their attention. "Your males are dead. They threw themselves into the crucible of battle, were tested and found wanting." Unfastening her trophy from its place on her belt, she hefted the gruesome head into the air where all of them could see. A chorus of gasps and what she assumed were the wolf equivalent of shrieks rose up at the sight but she silenced them with a sharp slice of her blade at the air infront of her, narrowing her eyes.

"You have no choice in this matter. You will comply or you will die. Do not make the mistake of testing my patience or my mercy, for you will find that I have very little of either. Obey the commands that you are given and you will live, until such time as I deem your life no longer valuable."

The elder balked several times at her words, his translation becoming much less arrogant and much more incredulous with each passing moment. By the end, he was staring at the ground, hunched over his cane as if the weight of a hundred more year had suddenly been placed upon his shoulders.

Kira waited for several seconds while the crowd murmured amongst themselves but, one by one, they too bowed their heads to her until none remained willing to openly oppose her. A rush of exhileration flooded through her senses, a sense of overwhelming triumph that she had not felt in a long time. Here, she had not simply succeeded over yet another backwards African tribe in the depths of the untamed wilderness; she had invaded an alien world and subjugated creatures of legend. The power that she felt was like a drug and suddenly she could not wait to experience it again. There were two more sites that awaited her arrival, two more cities filled with who knew what sort of creatures just waiting to be put to the leash.

An all together very evil smirk spread across Kira's face as she dialed the radio to the frequency of her chopper pilots, ordering the gunships to do one final sweep as the massive slave galleon took once more to the air, relocating itself into the wide central plaza so that the prisoners could be more easily loaded for transport.

As the craft settled to the ground, its massive propellers slowly winding down from a howling gale to a dull thrum, Kira turned to the elder and coughed, drawing his attention from the spot on the ground between his feet that he had been concentrating on very intently for the last several minutes. He looked up at her with the face of a kicked puppy but she spared him no pity as she spoke.

"I have one last command for you to give."

"We have already agreed to comply to your demands. What else could you possibly want from us?"

Kira sneered. "Your dignity."

She turned to the throng of milling wolves, mothers holding their children, whispering comforting lies to keep them calm, while those without family clung to each other for support. She raised her voice yet again, easily cutting through the dying noise of the whirring engines and every head turned to regard her as she gave her final order.

"In my world, wolves are nothing more than feral beasts. Wild animals, pests that are hunted and chased away. However, like any wild beast, they can be tamed. Given enough time, you too will all be tamed, made pets for the amusement of those willing to pay my price. But right now, you are all just that - wild beasts - and wild beasts do not wear clothes."

Again, Kira paused to let her message bridge the gap of languages from her mouth to the wolven tongue. She was met with the expected looks of shock and horror and in return gave them the same snide smirk that she had been sporting for some time now. This was a common tactic of hers. So long as the people whom she captured were 'civilized' it was a given that they would value certain things. That these creatures wore clothes proved that they shared the human fear of showing off their bodies, which in turn meant that taking away this incredibly basic need allowed her to strike at one of their deep-rooted societal fears. It was a way of exerting power over her captives and it had proven an incredibly effective method of degrading and humiliating them. This in turn made them far easier to control as many would do almost anything to regain that basic level of human dignity but in the process they simply traded the illusion of pride for a tighter leash.

"This is not a request," she growled when none of them moved to obey. "Strip now or my men will do it for you."

The mercenaries took a few steps closer to the gaggle of frightened wolves, her faces still hidden behind the unfriendly countenance of their gasmasks. They all knew the score, Kira had delivered this speech dozens of times. They look menacing and rattle their sabers a bit and the slaves buckle under the idea of being handled in such a fashion. Ofcourse, they would be handled far more indelicately once she got them back to her base and the training sessions began but they still clung to the fears of the moment and through that simple bit of psychology she had cornered them without a fight.

It began as tiny pockets of movement but as soon as a few of them gave in to the overwhelming pressure of their situation the rest soon followed suit. Dozens of dresses and skirts slid to the ground until it looked like the entire center of town had been dyed into a collage of kaleidoscopic color, upon which sat the world's largest hairball. Kira watched silently until she was sure that every form before her was bare. The wolves huddled together in tight groups, arms crossed over chests, legs pressed together in the hopes of concealing their shame. Many let out low pitiful sobs or long mournful whimpers but she ignored them, pressing a finger against one ear to drown out the ambient noise as she radioed the crew of the Marauder.

"Alright, the cargo is ready for transport. Start loading them up."

Chapter 5

The turblence around the portal was just as unpleasant as it had been when she first arrived in this forgotten world and Kira gripped the edges of her seat until her knuckles were white as the world jerked and bobbed around her. She tried to take her mind off the worst of it by focusing on the flight instruments laid out before her. In particular, she watched the short range radar display that marked her position and those of the two other helicopters as they forced their way through the fierce barrier of wind that guarded their way back to realspace.

It had been a hell of a day for Kira. A hell of a day. After the grand success of the first landing at the town of werewolves, Kira had been riding high on her success and pushed quickly to move to the next location once the prisoners had been secured. The wolves were hardly much larger than a human being and the cages had proven to be perfect for containing them just as well as they had her previous cargo. They had filled over half of the capacity of one side of the ship, some two-hundred and thirty slaves down firmly within her possession. Many of the dead male wolves had been too badly damaged to make much use of but she'd had every corpse that didn't need to be picked up with a spatula loaded up as well and her freezers were now laiden with that bounty as well.

The second site had proven to be no more challenging a conquest than the first. It was quite a bit easier to take, all things considered, its population lacking the group mentality of the unified population that the werewolves had enjoyed. Slightly larger and a fair bit more modern, the second raid had been against another small town. Though their opponents had been armed with proper firearms this time, their ramshackle militia had not put up much resistance before surrendering themselves and everyone else in the town.

Kira's haul from that settlement had been much more diverse. She now had in her collection: two minotaurs, which had to be given their own cages due to their size, a sacrifice she felt well worth it; an entire family of lizard folk, who had apparently come to trade with the larger markets in the town; several hellhounds, which were not intelligent, but had been raised as domesticated pets; and a creature which she had dubbed 'cat girls', which had constituted the vast majority of the population of the town. Unlike the werewolves, who looked fully animal but walked upright, this entirely female species appeared to have been yanked straight out of a cosplay magazine, almost entirely human in appearance save for their perky triangular ears and long sleek tails.

Wrangling cats would have been the ironically appropriate term for the effort she'd had to spend trying to gather them all up and force them to listen to her for any length of time. In the end, she'd just shoved them all into the cages and had them stripped one by one, giving her big 'you belong to me now' speech after they were all literally unable to do anything but listen. Bizarrely, other than whining about being chained up, the majority of them seemed quite blase about the entire business. It had been somewhat off-putting, to have half her audience start to fall asleep, but perhaps they would give her the least trouble in the long run. At the very least, she wouldn't have any trouble finding buyers for them.

Chasing down the playful felines had cost her a great deal of time, however; time she didn't have to waste. She'd barely given the order to lift off before they were on their way to the third and final destination with only a few hours left until her projected window would close. They had to be back at the portal by then or she might find herself on the wrong side of a freakish hell world with a boatload of kidnapped denizens and likely someone coming to look for them.

Unfortunately, the last site had proven far more problematic. Almost as soon as they came within range of the settlement a swarm of angry bugs had launched a ferocious offensive against them. The same locust-like creatures from the first town gathered en masse to assault the Hinds, lobbing their heavy polearms like javelins or swooping down to thrust at the armored skin of the gunships.

Ofcourse, medieval weaponry stood little chance against the sheer firepower that the twin heavy assault craft could bring to bear and within moments of the initial attack their large caliber autocannons began to shred the flying soldiers into puffs of green liquid. Realizing they were outmatched, the majority of them had retreated but several had thrown themselves into the propellers in a suicidal charge that had very nearly gummed up the engines with their sticky bodily fluids. Both craft had stalled out in a moment of chilling tension but the sturdy Russian-built machines had managed to recover from the temporary loss of power before either was in danger of slamming into the ground.

From there things just got worse. The bugs that they had let retreat had turned their ground advance into a bogged down slog, sheer numbers working to keep them at bay while they fought against the clock. The halberds of their foes were far more threatening to individual soldiers and she'd lost two more of them to sheer overwhelming horde tactics before the Hinds had completed their repairs and swooped in to offer close-range support. After that it became a matter of routine to mop up the stragglers and push on into the settlement itself.

By the time they got there, most of the residents were long gone, having used the delay provided by the army of bugs to escape into the nearby hills. Kira would have had little trouble tracking them down but there wasn't enough time, they were pushing their luck as it was. In the end, she found only two captives take take with her from this location, a pair of ditzy mermaids who were apparently too busy playing to notice that everyone else had gone. After repurposing a pair of the still empty freezers into water tanks, the mermaids had joined her list of acquisitions and she had set off for the portal with all due haste.

As lightning crackled all around and wind buffeted her craft as if it knew of her transgressions and sought to bring her down with its fury, Kira allowed a small moment of doubt to creep into her mind. Would they make it in time? Had they taken too long? Would the Marauder be able to overcome the turbulence with its heavy load of cargo? A long list of worries assailed the mercenary, bounding around freely inside her head like pingpong balls, until the pressure seemed like it might split her skull.

Then, with a dramatic tearing sound and thunderous crack, the twisting maelstrom of demonic energy slammed shut - behind them. Kira scarely had time to take a deep breath before she was scrambling for the small computer in her lap, bringing up the radar display with a few frantic taps on the touch screen. To her immense relief, both the other Hind and the Marauder floated wearily but intact in their formation behind her, two tiny white blips on the black background.

She'd done it.

The enormity of exactly what she had accomplished slammed into Kira like a hammer and she exhaled sharply as a mixture of elation and pride swelled up inside. The feeling threatened to overwhelm her exhausted mind but she managed to reign it in long enough to open a channel to the Marauder and cofirmed a status check - the cargo was still intact and accounted for. With her paranoia momentarily satisfied, she next hailed the other gunship and was met by the charming voice of her subcommander.

"You're flying Dragoon Airlines, the world's foremost purveyor of luxury sightseeing, round trips to interdimensional hot spots, and all things furry and fuzzy. My name is Carlina and I'll be your stewardess for this evening's flight. May I recommend some easy listening music from out in-flight selection?"

Carlos' voice was different than usual, his tone altered into a high pitched imitation of demure feminine professionalism. Kira laughed a little harder than was appropriate for the weak joke but fatigue had begun to affect her mind and she found it far funnier than what he had intended.

"Cute," she said, when she managed to get her breath back.

"Ai-ya, can this day get any worse? First, you castrate me infront of the entire team and now I am 'cute' instead of 'handsome' or 'dashing'. Maybe I should get some little pink ribbons for my hair while I am at it."

"Never know, it might be a good look for you."

"Boss," he said, suddenly serious. "About what happened today..."

"Save it, Carlos. You cracked. It happens. Don't try to go making excuses. Just make sure it doesn't happen again."

She spoke matter-of-factly without any anger in her voice and she meant it. Everyone, from the worst sniveling coward to the greatest lion-hearted hero had moments of doubt or loss of clarity. She herself had faced many such ordeals as a child when she was forced to do attrocious things simply to survive. However, no matter how much she had grown from those moments of weakness, they were still exactly that - weakness; and there was little in the the world that Kira hated more.

"Seriously, don't worry about it," she added after a moment, taking his silence as the beginning of a brooding session to nurse his wounded ego. "Though you faltered and showed a hint, however brief, of having actual thoughts rattling around in that pretty head of yours, your determined efforts to pointlessly throw yourself into danger out of some juvenline desire to impress have mostly redeemed you."

"Mostly! I practically kill myself all day and she says 'mostly'. Pray tell me, boss lady, what it is I have to do to earn full reinstatement of my manhood."

Kira smiled lazily at the stars drifting by in the clear night sky as the trio of helicopters turned and made for the nearest safe place to restock on fuel and supplies for the long trip back to Africa. Already she was beginning to fade into the welcome embrace of some much needed sleep but she managed to get out one last thought before drifting off into the darkness.

"Well... there is still the matter of that bottle of champagne..."

Log created on 06:50:01 05/11/2015 by Kira Volkov, and last modified on 07:38:27 05/11/2015.