“Well that place hasn’t changed much,” Erik said to himself as he crouched in the rubble. Much like Avalon City, the city that once stood proud on Battle Island had been built by the mysterious Cairen. Two centuries of constant warfare had pretty much reduced much of the city’s buildings to piles of rubble. The south end of the island was firmly in Imperial hands, but the northern tip was under the control of the Dark Towers. The middle of the island was a no-man’s land where Imperial and Dark Towers combat units maneuvered and fought. Much of it was small unit skirmishing, but every so often there was a massive battle that did little more than get a bunch of people killed. Battle Island was a meat grinder for both sides, but too strategically important for either to lose. Even after the front lines were pushed several hundred kilometers north, Battle Island was the one place that the Dark Towers could send in massive forces. Erik was looking at the reason.

The three functioning gates stood tall and glowing. The Dark Towers fortress in front of the gate was only fifteen years old. That was his fault. The fortress had been only build as a reaction of when a very young Erik Jaegar chased Arem into the one of the then four gates and detonated a twenty kiloton nuclear device on the other side. Erik didn’t really care about the fortress except for its proximity to his objective. 

His comm vibrated the preset alarm. It was twilight – the critical time. Erik lowered the faceplate on his helmet and dashed out from his spider hole. The camp was set out just like a human prisoner camp. Erik didn’t know when the two commands on Battle Island started prisoner exchanges, but it was the only front where that happened. Maybe it had something to do with the grinder the Island had been for both sides. 

Erik used a bit of power and leapt over the concrete wall as soon as the guard walked past. Orcs weren’t the most observant of guards, especially in the confusing light of twilight with a light sky and dark ground. Erik used a bit more power to land silently on the packed dirt. Orcs patrolled the walls, but goblins and draks patrolled the internals of the POW camp. Erik pulled a small charge from his ruck and attached it to the wall. If all went well, Erik wouldn’t need the bomb disguised as a glow panel. If not, then Erik at least could make another way out or use it as a distraction. 

Erik jumped on the roof of the nearest building. He oriented himself to the camp’s layout and started jumping towards the women’s barracks. Knowing Corry, she’s already in charge of one of the barracks, Erik thought to himself, And she wouldn’t even need her lofty status. He smiled. He had missed Corry these last couple of years.
Erik was in the middle of a jump when he heard the clack-clack of a suppressed rifle. He pushed down to the nearest building and ran to the noise. Peering over the edge of the roof, Erik saw a man in armor shooting a drak patrol with a suppressed assault rifle. Erik brought out his suppressed submachine gun and took down two of the small humanoid lizards as they tried to run. With the draks dead, Erik rolled off of the roof and landed next to the freelancer.

“Jaegar, why am I not surprised?” Roland Call asked. Erik knew Call. The two had worked together frequently when Erik had been a freelancer on Battle Island. The military liked using freelancers as deep scouts and to supplement their own forces. “Who are you here for?”

“I imagine the same person you’re here for,” Erik answered. He didn’t have to wait for Call’s grunt to know he was correct. 

“I didn’t think they would send another freelancer,” Call said. The pair sprinted away from the battle towards the centermost women’s barracks where the officers were kept.

“Neither did I. Look, I’m doing this as a personal favor for my step-father,” Erik said, “I’m not here to jump your contract. Hell, I’m not even being paid more than expenses on this job.” 

“Yeah, those personal favors are a bitch,” Call said with a humorless chuckle. “Well, since you did step in with those draks and because of our previous relationships, I might be willing to cut you in on 10% of my contract.” 

“Ten percent of how much?” Erik asked. 

“Half a mil,” Call answered as the pair ducked past a goblin patrol. Both kept very still as the squat humanoids trundled past. Goblins weren’t much in a fight, but they were very good at spotting intruders. Plus, they’d bring all sorts of trouble down on the two freelancers. 

“Deal,” Erik said. “What’s the extract plan?” The two crept towards the lit barracks. Call was point while Erik covered their rear with his submachine gun. 

“South culvert,” Call answered. “Bill’s sitting there with a technical to cover our extract.” Erik nodded. Bill was a steady hand with heavy weapons, and he’d created a little niche in the freelancer world as a “sidekick for hire.” 

“There’s the final problem. You didn’t happen to bring Little Britches with you?” Call asked. 

“She’s too loud for this kind of job,” Erik said. He looked at the pair of hobgoblins standing outside the barracks. It would have been so much easier if he still had *Far’ling*. He holstered the submachine gun and unlimbered his rifle. “I’ll take right.”

“You always take right,” Call said as he sighted his own rifle on the left hobgoblin. “Target.”

“Target,” Erik said. Three heartbeats and both rifles coughed. Both hobgoblins dropped as the back of their heads were blown out. The two freelancers dashed forward. Before they could grab the handle, the door to the barracks opened. A stern-faced woman in prisoner togs frowned at the pair. From her bearing and the gray hairs in her neat brown hair, Erik judged her to be the senior officer of the women prisoners. 

“I can guess why you two are here,” the senior officer said in a whiskey voice. “Lieutenant Kinsey, front and center.” A beautiful black-haired, blue-eyed woman rolled off of her bunk and walked to them. Like most men, Call was momentarily transfixed. Erik raised his faceplate.

“Erik! I wasn’t expecting you to come for me,” Corry said in a rich voice. 

“You didn’t think I’d let one of my best friends langur here for long, did you?” Erik chided her as Call pulled himself together.

“Are you only taking her, or can you take another?” the senior officer asked. Call looked over the officers in the barracks. 

“I suppose we could take another,” Call said, his voice a careful neutral. 

“Ensign Bartley, you’ll be going with these two.” A doe-eyed blonde was quickly rushed next to them. “Follow their instructions to the letter and they’ll get you back to our lines.” Erik could feel the young officer’s terror with an undercurrent of determination. Erik guessed she was having a hard time in the Dark Towers’ hands. She had that look that the delvers liked in human women. 

Without any further words, the quartet scurried back into the darkness. Erik guessed they had maybe another fifteen minutes before one of the other patrols ran into either the dead draks or the dead hobgoblins. Fortunately, Call had the guards’ routes mapped. The Dark Towers never really understood the need to vary their guards routes or times. A tense ten minutes and the quartet was at the culvert. The stench of the putrid water filled the area.  

“The bars under the water’s surface are cut away,” Call said. “Just keep your eyes closed and feel your way through.” 

“Don’t worry Ensign, just a few moments of nastiness, and we will be free of this hellhole,” Corry said in her most soothing voice. The ensign nodded, screwed up her face, and slipped into the water. 

“You’re next, your highness,” Call said when Ensign Bartley splashed out of the other side of the wall. 

“Just think of the vermilion fields,” Erik said to Corry as she walked into the water. 

“Vermilion?” she asked, in a cool tone. Erik nodded. “You know, I always hated the vermilion fields.” As soon as Corry was underwater, Erik pressed the button. The explosion was loud enough to be heard from across the camp. A fireball lit the night sky. 

“What the hell?” Call asked a moment before Erik put his rifle in Call’s face. The freelancer didn’t even bother looking surprised. “Damn, I was hoping to get you at least outside the wall.”

“Who hired you?” Erik asked. 

“You know I’m not going to tell you that,” Call said. Erik felt the freelancer’s resigned emotions. “I thought I’d hid it from you better. You never even let on that you were suspicious.” Erik fired a burst. As the body crumpled to the ground, Erik swore. He hated having to kill people he considered friends. 

The pair of gunshots sent Erik flying over the wall. He quickly found Corry from her psi-scent. She had Ensign Bartley behind a shed. Across from them was a small flatbed truck with a heavy machinegun mounted. Bill, the other freelancer, was crouched behind the truck door aiming a heavy pistol at the shed. Erik pushed against the wall a bit harder. Bill realized too late that there was someone above him. Much like Call, the freelancer wasn’t afraid, just resigned. Erik fired twice with his rifle. 

“Corry, let’s go,” Erik shouted as he landed on the cab of the technical. He knew something was wrong from Corry’s emotions. 

“That bastard shot the ensign,” Corry shouted back. “Bring the med kit or we’re going to lose her.”

“It can never be easy,” Erik gritted through his teeth as he grabbed the olive green pack and darted towards his friend and the orcs screamed in the night. Well, Corry was safe and he had Little Britches.