The war between Babel and Constantine has been going on for thirty years. The middle ground or war zone spanned an area fifty kilometers wide and over two thousand long. What lived inside the thick forests and jungle was monsters mages on both side had created. Manticores were common and so were drakes or griffins.
There were creatures that looked like trees call trolls that would kill and eat us. Bushes that threw poison spines, knife grass that was real knives. Serpents that could kill and eat a man or spiders and scorpions the size of a horse. Huge packs of dogs that had fangs that injected poison or large horse size cats that would hunt and kill us.
I was eighteen and serving my mandatory two years. When the war started it was only one year. Luckily for me I had grown up not far from the war zone and had encountered the beasts from hell as my father called them. I had studied them for years, right up until I walked into the army reception station.
At least the men were trained to fight before they were sent to someplace along the war zone. Three months and I rode the floating barges south and into Ning. That was one of the cities that had grown up along the war zone. I went to the dragon regiment and then into the viper battalion and then into copper company, demon platoon and finally fourth squad.
I looked at the wide bed in the long wooden building. At one time it had been a floating barge. I unpacked my things before going to meet my squad. They were a quiet lot with eyes that had seen a lot of death. Their equipment looked well used but serviceable. The squad leader started off by describing some of the local monsters.
The next morning the mages gave us a warning of enemy moving towards the city. We left as the sun started to rise. I carried my ten millimeter carbine and watched the left like I had been told. The whole company was on the move so most of the monsters would avoid us. Six hours later I was hot and sweaty and ready for a break.
The platoon split off and headed to the southwest while the company went to the northwest. My squad was second in the line of march and we were moving into an area of jungle that had suddenly gone quiet. The others slowed and started to search but I looked up at the birds. My eyes flicked and scanned the trees before they dropped below an area empty of birds.
I saw the enemy before I realized I saw them and my rifle lifted and I fired, “AMBUSH LEFT!”
The enemy soldier’s head sprayed gore as I rushed towards him. Suddenly the jungle was alive and men were shooting. I twisted and dove as I shot a second man and rolled away. I yanked a mage bomb as I came to my feet and armed and tossed it. I took three running steps and dropped as mage fire ripped the jungle apart to my right front.
Men screamed as they burst into flames and once more I was on my feet. I shot a soldier to the right three times before aiming and shooting him in the head. He had been wearing some type of armor which had protected his body. I spun to the left and knelt to shoot another enemy as he turned to flee.
My squad caught up as the enemy escaped into the jungle. I started to lower my rifle before I felt the jungle shift to my right. I spun while bringing it back up as a huge drake lunged through a bush. I fired point blank into its face and mouth which seemed to be filled with hundreds of teeth.
It jerked back and shook its head as those around me yelled to run. I ignored them as I let the rifle drop on the single point sling. I yanked out the white jungle knife my father had given me and leaped straight at the drake. One hand caught the nose and upper jaw as I brought the blade straight in behind the ear hole.
The huge monster yanked the other way which pulled the blade out. It staggered and fell and began to thrash as it died. I looked around for more danger before I moved to the animal. I caught a foreleg and lifted it and then plunged the knife into the belly. I cut up and then pulled the blade out as I knelt.
I set the knife aside and shoved one hand into the body and felt for the stomach and then the gizzard. I ripped it out and then used the knife to cut it open. I pulled out a dozen very large emeralds and twice as many smaller ones. I dumped them into a thigh pocket before I cleaned the knife and my hands. I stood and looked at my squad staring at me like I was a monster.
I grinned, “that was fun.”
I headed towards the man wearing body armor and knelt to strip him. I was right, the tiny scales were white mage metal. His rifle was a carbine like mine but had three mage bands. Each band made the rounds accelerate twenty five percent faster. I took it and his magazines before going to check each man I had killed.
The platoon leader thought it had been a short company. We set up a base and four of the six squads went out. I switched weapons and put on the armor before we left. The squad leader moved slow and everyone expected to be attacked at any moment. We went out several kilometers and turned to the south to go another.
We were almost at the turn back point when I heard the cry. It was almost like a human sob. I stopped as the other men hissed and aimed everywhere. I saw the spider webs and looked up to see a lot more. In the middle of one was a young phoenix. I looked around, “watch for a spider.”
I moved to the side where one of the trees for the web with the phoenix was. I let the carbine hang and jumped and started climbing. I heard one of the men growl as I swung and caught a branch and pulled myself up. I pulled my knife as I worked my way out avoiding the sticky ropes of the web.
I was almost to the bird when the huge spider dropped down in front of it. The rear shifted and I flung myself forward and in front of it. The huge stinger slammed into my chest and I was knocked back into the bird. I shoved the knife up and into the bloated belly and continued to cut up.
It screamed and threw itself back and dropped but I had cut its guts and they caught on the web and were pulled out. I shifted and wiggled and then had to struggle to cut myself free of the web. Once I was free I was able to carefully work the strands off the phoenix. I was a little surprised it did not set me on fire.
I checked it and moved it to my wrist before I pointed up and moved my arm. It crouched and I tossed it and it flew up and through the branches with a cry. When I climbed down the squad leader was pissed, “you do not wander off to help birds stuck in a web. And you sure as hell do not free one of those birds.”
I grinned, “it was a young one. Now it knows me and will remember that I saved it. If it sees me again and even thinks I am in danger it will try to help.”
He snorted, “this is not some fairytale.”
I checked my weapon, “no.”
I looked into his eyes, “this is hell and only someone who has been here knows what it is like. I have lived my whole life in its shadow. I know most of these creatures, how they think and hunt. You search the ground and the bushes like that is the only place they attack from. Start looking up before you die or get one of us killed.”
I moved back to my place and he stood looking after me. As we started back I saw the flicker of red feathers above us several times. Once back the platoon leader gestured, “we have orders to return.”
On the way back we were attacked by a huge serpent. It was killed and skinned before we continued. I saw the red feathers dropping through the upper leaves and shifted to look to the right and ahead, “troll!”
Everyone froze as I aimed but the phoenix screamed as it dove and reached out. I hesitated, “do not shoot the bird!”
Its claws caught what looked like a branch and suddenly there was a huge flare of white fire and the tree screamed and staggered around. I ran towards it as the other men in the platoon moved to stay out of the way. I reached the area by the trail where it had been and knelt. I lifted the stunned phoenix and stroked her head.
I stood and looked at the troll thrashing around while still burning. I shifted as I lifted the bird to my shoulder. I grinned at the others as I went back to my place. I walked and opened a ration and held up the roast beef from a can. The phoenix ate and seemed to like it and a couple of hours later I put it on my wrist.
It crouched and I tossed it into the air. No one said anything as it flew up into the branches above us. For the rest of the patrol we did not see anything. We walked out of the jungle and across a flat kill zone. In the base we started cleaning up and the few bodies of our dead were sent to the huge cemetery.
After my weapons were clean I returned my old carbine to the armorer. I went to my quarters and showered and changed before I washed the emeralds that had been inside the drake. I had been very lucky to survive and even more to have killed it. Now I was going to use the gems from that luck to find one or two house girls.
That was what mom had been and she had told me what to do and where to go. I put the gems in a pouch and got the squad leader’s permission to leave base and go into the city. I ignored the street vendors with their trinkets and flash. I turned in at a shop with solid bars on the windows.
Two guards looked me over as I headed to the back counter. I bowed to the old man behind it and he blinked and then smiled, “you wish to buy jewelry for your girl?”
I shook my head and moved to the black velvet on the counter. I pulled out the pouch and poured the emeralds onto it, “I wish to sell these Drake emeralds.”
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