It was raining again.
It felt like eight days in a week, the damn sky opened up and the rain came down. Misting, pouring, driving, in tiny, stinging nettles of cold, in warm, fat drops—they got the sampler pack.
Charles ‘Chuck’ Wheatley had learned to prefer it rainy. When the sky was clear, it was obvious that he wasn’t on Earth anymore. The blue sky was a darker blue, like the bruised color the sky back home took on when it was storming nearby. To the west, there was always that green… thing, looking like a huge moon that never rose or set. Caufield checked it out with his scope one day—said it looked to be made of green clouds and thorny vines the size of office buildings.
He didn’t want to look for himself. Didn’t want to think about that too closely. They had enough with the damn plants on the mudhole of an island they were on without them being big enough to see from the opposite horizon.
Speaking of plants, he looked to his right in time to watch a fallen tree trunk get crushed into the mud by the Hippo’s treads. The A-104 Hippopotamus was a materiel carrier, modified with wider tracks and a more robust engine specifically to operate in the blasted and withered track of rainforest they called a ‘road’ out here.
Tome, hadn’t been willing to risk getting caught shipping actual battle tanks and APCs out to the fake oil rig that housed the portal to Faerie, so the Hippo was accompanied by a column of modified Humvees with spinal weapon mounts.
Faerie. He felt stupid just thinking the name, but at the same time had to acknowledge it was fitting. He’d seen the little winged bastards and while they were more like bugs shaped like little people, no one would argue that they were goddamn fairies.
Chuck, along with seven others, were currently on outrider duty, driving around and head of the column on ATVs with mudding tires. He hated outrider duty; steering meant he couldn’t carry his weapon at the ready. Everyone learned very quickly that one always wanted their weapons at the ready on Faerie.
He scanned the treeline, about thirty feet away, watching for movement. The ‘road’ had been bombed with defoliant to create a swathe of devastation a hundred feet across from base camp to the mining complex on the island’s central mountain, an extinct volcano. Crews rolled up it on every clear day to reapply the poison because the local plants meant to reclaim it.
Whether they ‘meant’ it in the same way a lion meant to eat your face, or a serial killer ‘meant’ to stab you was up for debate every morning and every night in the mess. Chuck was on the side of the serial killer meaning. His first week ‘on the Green’ as the higher ups called it, he’d seen a damned thorny creeper avoid two mercs with flamethrowers and another carrying a defoliant sprayer to grab a man with a regular machine gun and drag him over the wall.
Something about the high sugar composition of the more mobile plants made them flame like marshmallows. The defoliant was some next-level Agent Orange-type crap that made the things wither and melt like salted slugs and made it so the mercenaries had to wear masks whenever they were outside.
The plants knew that. They could pick out folks that could hurt ’em and knew to go after the ones that couldn’t defend themselves.
It was either that, or the other natives controlling them.
During the first debrief, Chuck called bullshit on the idea that magic was a real thing right to the instructor’s face. The class agreed with him too. That was, until the instructor took them on a little ‘field trip’. Tome had spent some time getting quite a collection of freaks for their zoo and didn’t mind showing them off.
The mercs took to calling the natives, which the suits said were called ‘daoine’, elves because damned if they didn’t look like them. Almost human until you got close enough to see the pointed ears, and sharp teeth. The ones they’d seen on the field trip were even less human; they had all-black eyes.
Whatever you called them, they were the most dangerous things the island had thrown at them. Magic was real, and Chuck had seen it stop bullets, flip hummers, and sink defoliant deployment trucks so deep in the mud they had to be abandoned. Command wouldn’t even send anything that flew through the portal anymore because the buggers shot every last drone down within an hour.
They hadn’t seen any elves in the past two weeks or so. Maybe they’re killed enough of them to scare them off. Maybe they’d killed them all. Or maybe they were regrouping for an onslaught.
As they topped the next rise, base camp came into view—or at least the walls and guard towers. The walls were six feet of reinforced concrete with plate steel bolted onto the outer face. A lot of the locals were allergic to the touch of iron, so anything that could be clad in steel was.
Chuck touched the controls to his goggle and toggle on range-finding. They were just a litle under two klicks from ‘home’. It wasn’t much, but the small, crowded command complex almost felt like a luxury when a man could take off his mask and sodden body armor. The scrubbed air was a good as a lake breeze after spending the better part of the day breathing what the mask’s filters spat into his face.
They still werent’ close enough to home for it to be a foregone conclusion though. Even when the natives weren’t laying in ambush, the local wildlife got curious about the base once in a while, and like everything else on Faerie, the animals were deadly.
Sometimes the higher-ups back home would find something they wanted in their menagerie back home on the video they sent back and offer big bonuses to anyone who joined a team to capture it.
Even at nine million for a three month tour of duty, just the Hippo escorts and day to day base defense against the hellish magic and monsters was only just worth it. Neither Chuck, nor any of the other merc who’d been on the Green for more than a month signed up for that. Sometimes not even bodies came back from those hunts.
His comm crackled. Something about the island interfered with them just enough to make every transmission sound like it was coming out of a kid’s walkie talkie set instead of the high-end comms they wore.
It was Hutch, the senior merc there. He was certifiably insane from what Chuck knew of him; he’d stayed on for a second tour on the Green and seemed to take everything the damn death world threw at him in stride. Not just in stride, the crazy bastard laughed at it.
“Movement at our two o’clock.” said Hutch. He was on the lead humvee’s spinal gun, a plasma lance with an underslung grenade launcher which he swung around toward the movement he’d spotted.
“No visual here.” Veronica White, riding shotgun in the hippo had the highest forward vantage point in the column. “Eyes open. If it’s elves or butterflies, the attack gonna come from both sides at once.”
‘Butterfly’ was the reporting name for faeries to set them apart from the name of the world and following with the higher-ups insisting that they were pixies. Like it mattered when the damn things were trying to kill you.
Something shifted off to Chuck’s left, just inside the surviving tree line. He hit his comm “Movement on our nine. Good call, White.”
The comm crackled and the squad leader, Hendrix, came on. “We’re a klick and a half from base camp. No point in getting into a prolonged firefight. Lipsky, Gough: light ’em up and we’ll make a run for it.”
Leon Lipsky and Shane Gough were crewing the flamethrowers on the second and penultimate humvees respectively and they didn’t need to be told twice. Lipsky too the right, Gough took the left and both rained liquid fire across the intervening woodland.
Vines, leaves and trunks caught quickly and from some of them came the high pitched whistle-scream the predatory plants made when they burned. They weren’t the ones hunting the column though—those started up their war cry.
“Butterflies! Move! Move!” shouted someone, their voice so garbled that Chuck had no idea who. They were right: the elves sounded human when they yelled. Faeries or pixies or whatever sounded like giant bumblebees trapped in tin cans and that was the sound rising up from behind the burning treeline.
Shapes, the size and shapes of men appeared and soldered through the flames. They weren’t walking so much as floating forward, their arms extended straight out to their sides. The fire swirled around them, but the worst they did was to peel and burn away the bright paint covering their bodies of clay and treated wood.
As if everything else about Faerie wasn’t humiliating enough for grown-ass mercenaries to talk about, the higher-ups had told them that those things were called ‘battle dolls’. Like reverse voodoo dolls, the things could be driven remotely by a pixie, mimicking its actions right down to casting larger scale versions of the spells the pixie cast.
“Go, go, go!” Hendrix ordered before the first doll even cleared the fires. The humvees kicked up mud in sheets, skidding briefly before getting traction. The Hippo was too heavy for that and its engine roared as the driver floored it. The motor pool was going to earn its pay if they made it back to base.
A doll broke out of the tree line. Six feet tall, it looked like a heavy-duty scarecrow. Where paint hadn’t been scorched off, it wore a drawn-on manic grin and eyes that were black circles filled with white. Its arms were little more than featureless flippers with deep carvings around the ends.
It oriented on the nearest humvee, but before it could do anything, a beam of deadly red plasma took it in the chest, burning a holes straight through before sweeping left to right to saw it in half.
Another doll appeared not far away from the first. A pair of misty globes of green light flared into being in front of the hands before hurling across the road toward the column. The first impacted the Hippo, making the armored carrier rock on its wheels, but the thick mud kept it from going too far over. The other it the ground between the Hippo and the humvee behind it, throwing up a shower of mud and rotten vegetation when it detonated.
The other gunners opened up, sending ruby beams of plasma sizzling through the pouring rain and high caliber rounds into the trees. With the mud, running wasn’t much faster than their normal speed.
Chuck checked his shooting rig. It was a powered frame worn over his body armor that covered one arm, a shoulder and anchored around his torso. Green lights on the back of the glove told him the battery was fully charged, so get pulled his shotgun from the holster bolted to the side of the ATV. With the rig, it could be fired one handed without breaking a shoulder and making the shooter drop the gun.
The ATV’s wheel tried to twist out of his other hand as he bounced along the muddy road, looking for any sign of more enemies ahead. It didn’t take long: three battle dolls rose up from the mud less than a klick from base camp, the green witchfire already burning at the ends of their stubby arms.
Chuck gunned his engine and leveled his weapon. Like a knight of old, he faced down his foe in a joust. Only this joust came at range and faster than the speed of sound. The place where the doll’s left arm met its shoulder exploded, leaving too little support for the arm to do anything but crumble off. White and green fire burst out of the wound and the other ball of light guttered out, leaving the doll flaming and inert.
Behind him, more explosions, both the deafening booms from witchfire and the deceptively quiet thumps of grenades going off in the trees sounded. There was a wrenching sound, like sheet metal being physically ripped apart, followed by the fwoosh of flames igniting. Chuck tried to ignore the death behind him in favor of the death in front of him.
While Chuck worked the pump action on his gun, the face of another of the dolls exploded, sending painted wood spraying forward into the mud. Instead of burning, this one simply tipped over, its deadly witchfire snuffed in the moist earth. From the exit wound, Chuck knew the kill shot had come from the wall around base camp; they’d come into weapons range of the guard towers.
Two of the other outriders took down the third doll and held position along with Chuck to let the rest of the column catch up.
The ambush seemed to have been broken. Two of the humvees bore the scorch marks and deep dents of direct impacts, but the new armor upgrades and redistributed weights the motor pool fixed them up with had kept them from flipping. The Hippo had been beat all to hell, but that was what it was built for.
From where Chuck sat, one of the ATVs was missing, and Gough’s spot atop the penultimate humvee was gone, bereft of man and flamethrower. Part of the roof had been peeled away when whatever hit him and it tore them from their perch.
No one was mentioning a medic in the comm chatter, so it was unlikely they’d survived. Out of twenty-five mercs sent up the mountain to collect what the robots at the mine collected that week, twenty-three were coming back. One less death than the average native ambush. Hendrix ordering the plasma lances and mounted heavy machine guns had been a god choice. The higher ups seemed to think fire and defoliant were enough, but then they hadn’t known about the battle dolls until the pixies had already wiped out a thirty-one people and almost breeched the wall with their damn scarecrows.
Another reason to be glad they were on an island, Chuck thought. The made the variety of threats Faerie could throw at them finite. If Tome wanted to branch out to the rest of the world… they were going to need way better firepower.