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Rated: 13+ · Novel · Action/Adventure · #1984523
War rages on, romances deepen, and the Empire seeks to deal the Republic a mortal blow.
        Book 2: End of the Beginning

“It is not the end,
It is not even the beginning of the end,
But it is perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
                                  -Winston Churchill

                                Chapter 1
                          Spring: Year Two

        Light Keeper Dart Smalls took a look at the map in the Republic’s HQ in Moscow, Russia. He was tall with red hair, green eyes and a strong build. However, this was the first time he’d been back to headquarters for months. He’d been in the hospital with a nearly fatal wound dealt to him by the War Lord Victor Voktor in Moscow the year before.
         His friend, Rose Calumberry had dyed purple hair, was rather short, with deep, blue eyes. She came up to Dart and began looking at the map as well. Red dots represented Imperial Forces, blue dots their own soldiers and green dots the locations of Light Keepers around the world leading the fight on other fronts.
        “I’m glad to see you back to normal.” Rose said to him, cheerfully.
        “Glad to be back!” He said, smiling at her. “You did a marvelous job throwing Victor back last winter.”
        “Yeah well…” she said, blushing a bit. “He’ll be eager to strike back, and we still have a lot of work to do until this threat is defeated.”
        Dart simply shook his head in agreement and went back to the map.

        Meanwhile, across town at the Moscow Airport, two more Light Keepers were convening. Hank Borlo and Macy Hummins had gotten quite close over the quiet winter, in fact, they’d gotten very close. However, with spring drawing to a close and summer on its way, they knew the War Lords would strike again. It was time for Macy to return to St. Petersburg to see to the city’s defense.
        “Are you sure you have everything?” Hank inquired for the thousandth time as they waited on the runway for the pilots to fire up the engines and prepare for takeoff. He’d already had a lengthy chat with them too to make sure they flew safely.
        “I’m positive, Hank. It’s all here.” She gave the shoulder strap of her tote a tug.
        Everything except the thing that’s most important to me. The thing I can’t bring with me. Macy thought, her heart aching. Most of the things she’d brought with her aside from clothes were trinkets she and Hank had picked up over the course of the winter: the angel Christmas ornament he’d bought her, ticket stubs from the films they’d seen together, and the bear he’d won her from a claw machine they’d stumbled across during a walk just to name a few.
        “Please be careful.” He insisted, his voice filled with concern. “Remember, you have my number too. If you need anything, even if you just want to talk, just call or text.”
        “Thank you, Hank. You’ve been so good to me. How can I ever repay you for the last few months?” Her eyes filled with tears against her will as the plane’s engines roared to life.
        Hank brushed them away as they fell from her beautiful, brown eyes and smiled at her.
        “Just get back here in one piece so I can see you again.”
        “Oh Hank, I don’t know what I’d do without you. Please take care of yourself too.” She replied as a blush traveled up her chest and neck to color her cheeks.
        “Goodbye, Macy. I’m gonna miss you.” He said, wrapping her in a hug.
        She sighed and breathed in his scent, cherishing the warmth of his body and the safety of his arms. She wished it would last forever and knew at that moment that she was hopelessly in love with him.
        “Goodbye, Hank. I’m going to miss you so much too, you have no idea!”
        With that, they broke their embrace and, after one more longing glance, she began walking toward the plane. Before she could begin her ascent up the ramp, however, she felt a hand on her arm. As she turned around, Hank took her into his arms and kissed her passionately. He’d come after her! She melted into his embrace and kissed him back, adoring the feeling of his lips pressed against her own at last.
        When the kiss broke, Macy grinned and said, “Well, I have to come back now!”
        Hank couldn’t help but laugh, loving her every bit as much as she did him, although the words remained unspoken.
        “Is it a date then?” He asked with a smile.
        Macy kissed him again. “Does that answer your question?”
        “I think so.” Hank replied with another laugh. “I’ll see you soon, Macy.”
        “Not soon enough!”
        She bounded up the stairs with a new spring in her step and stopped to wave to him once more before she got on the plane. She watched him for as long as she could after the plane took off. He never moved and she never stopped smiling.

         Supreme General Victor Voktor climbed the last step into the Supreme Leader’s new throne room deep within the Capitol building in Washington D. C. Capital of an Empire that stretched across three continents and contested control of three more. Victor was of medium height, had brown hair, steel rimmed glasses, and cold grey eyes. He greeted his only equal in that Empire.
        “You summoned me?” He said.
        “Yes, my friend.” The Supreme Leader answered. “Perhaps you can explain what happened last winter, and how you plan to restore the situation.”
        Victor scowled as the Supreme Leader’s red eyes burrowed into him from behind his thick black cloak that covered him from head to toe. He walked over to a large map on the wall and began making his point.
        “Last winter my men were tired and at the end of their supply lines. We failed to take Moscow and were left out in the cold, literally. However, the winter is over and our strength has returned. I plan to hit them in southern Russia where they least expect it.”
        “Why the south?” The Supreme Leader inquired.
        “Because, in the north we would only be beating our heads off the wall throwing troops at surrounded and fortified St. Petersburg and we face even stronger opposition in front of Moscow in the center. But they have left themselves weak in the south and we shall make them pay for it.”
        “Very well. Carry on.” His colleague replied, having considered the plan. Victor nodded and descended from Capitol Hill.

                                                 Chapter 2

        Lt. Alvin Smithers began pulling camouflage off of his tank. He had been a soldier in the Imperial army since the first shot and had survived the Hellish winter of the first year of the war. He had received a medal for it like everyone else that lived, not that it could make up for the many that had perished, but it was something anyway. But right now things had changed. The winter was over and they were back on the offensive. The opening barrage of artillery ended and squadrons of Imperial planes flew overhead to cover the advance of the tanks and infantry below. As Alvin’s tank rolled up to the Republic’s lines they saw the devastation. There hadn’t been many enemy forces here to begin with and now hardly any were left at all. Shooting continued sporadically up and down the line but for the most part the survivors were surrendering as quickly as possible.
        “Wow.” He remarked. “We really caught them flatfooted this time, they barely but up a fight.”
        His gunner, William Axel, and driver Matthew Foley shouted up agreement from within the tank. Minutes later they realized they were past the defensive area entirely and they rolled on, completely unopposed. The Imperial juggernaut was unstoppable. The Republic had not expected the assault, just as Victor had predicted. By late May, the Ukraine, a large, fertile area and its small peninsula, the Crimea, would be lost.

        Shannon Valter folded her arms and her eyes blazed at her boyfriend, James Nuven. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me here when you could stay.” She hissed at him.
        “I have to go. I designed the battle plan. I’m the only one who can implement it.” He protested.
        “The lovebirds can do it! Let Hank go with them!” Shannon insisted.
        “Shannon, please. You know Hank misses Macy. Let him be here, closer to her. Plus, Moscow needs someone strong to defend it too. That’s you, Shannon.”
        She still looked mutinous. “Dammit James, I really hate you sometimes, you know that?”
        “I’m sorry, I really am. We’ll send for the two of you as soon as we’re ready though. We just need to find the right place to confront Victor first.” James referred to the other part of their plan.
        “James…” She hesitated. “Listen, I’ll be fine. I can take care of Hank and the city. I’m just worried, alright? He’s going to be down there.”
        “I know. Shannon, I’ll be careful, and Rose and Dart are good too. I won’t be alone. I made you a promise. I won’t go after Victor by myself.” He reassured her, placing his hands on her shoulders.
        Shannon finally let herself smile. He did remember, maybe her boyfriend wasn’t so thick after all. She gently placed her hand on the back of his neck and pulled him in for a long kiss.
        “Just don’t forget about me, tiger. Got it?”” She smiled at him again.
        “Never.” James answered, kissing her back.
        “Hey James, are you ready to…” Rose began as she walked into the room.
        She covered her mouth to stifle a gasp when she realized she’d inadvertently broke in on their moment. “Oh my God! I’m so sorry! I was just, I’ll come back!” She babbled, her face turning scarlet.
        Shannon, however, saw a chance to poke a bit of fun at her friend and smiled. “Rose, darling! Don’t go! I want to talk to you.”
        “Uhh sure. What’s up?” Rose asked, still slightly flustered.
        “James, why don’t you go help Dart get everything together. We’ll be right behind you.”
        James raised an eyebrow and adjusted his glasses but Shannon just winked at him as he left.
        “I just wanted to know what you thought of how…close Hank and Macy got over the winter.”
        “Oh that! Well, as long as they’re happy together I don’t think it’s any of my business.” Rose shifted nervously. Where was Shannon going with this?
         “Wouldn’t it be cute if they were together? The shy, raven-haired girl and the gang’s tough guy?”
        Rose smiled. “Well…when you put it that way, maybe. Speaking of boys, how are you and James?”
        “Oh, he’s a handful, but we make it work.” She rolled her eyes and laughed. Then she smiled wickedly. “But sweetheart, we need to find a guy for you.” She insisted, putting her arm around Rose and beginning to lead her from the room.
        “Me?!” Rose squeaked. “But-but...”
        “Now, who do we know that’s tall and handsome and who you spent half the winter nursing back to health?” Shannon mused, looking over at James…and Dart.
        “Dart?! But we’re just friends! He saved me!” Rose protested.
        “Just give it a thought, Rose. It’s a smart match.”
        Rose bit her lip but Shannon could tell she’d struck the mark and decided to stop teasing her friend.
        “Anyways, I wanted to ask you a favor.” Her voice became more serious.
        “Of course, Shannon! Anything!” Rose was just relieved to not be talking about relationships anymore.
        “Please keep an eye on James for me. I don’t want him to do anything stupid.”
        “I will.” Rose promised. “We’re all friends, Shannon, and I know how much he means to you.”
        “Thank you, Rose.” She surprised Rose by giving her a quick hug. “You’re something, you know that? You always make things better.”
        “I just try to help out.” Rose said, shyly.
        “It’s more than that, sweetheart. You were the one who beat Victor, and you’re the only one who feels sick when he’s around. That’s all for a reason. Anyone asks me, I say you’ve got the best chance of any of us of to slay that dragon.”
        “That’s ridiculous, Shannon. I haven’t even killed anybody like the rest of you! The only person I’ve even hurt is Victor and only when he attacks us. I feel useless half the time.”
        Shannon shook her head in disagreement. “That’s why it has to be you, Rose. You’re the best of us…and that’s why you deserve a great guy too.” She finished more quietly as they finally walked over to the boys.
        “There you are!” Dart said cheerfully to the two of them. “We were wondering where you were.”
        “Just a bit of girl talk.” Shannon said brightly, looking at Rose who averted her eyes and mumbled agreement.
        “Well, we’d better be off then. We have work to do. We think we can hold the Empire up at a port on the Black Sea called Rostov. They need it if they’re going to advance any farther.” Dart explained.
        “Good luck, guys. Give ‘em Hell.” Shannon said, giving James one more kiss before they left.
        They bid her farewell and she began to make her way back to the control room with a sigh.

        Albert Mason and Jamie Alicav had returned to England once more. Things had been quiet aside from the occasional air raid, but the country was key to the Light Keepers’ plans for liberating Europe, so they had to make sure it was held at any cost. In their boredom, however, the pair began to work on an interesting project.
        “I’ve been thinking.” Jamie spoke up, moving another piece on the chessboard between the two of them.
        “What’s up?” Albert pondered her latest move as well as what she might have on her mind.
        “The War Lords are our main opponents, yet we know so little about them. We need to organize what we know and try to learn more.”
        “You mean profile them. Try to psychoanalyze them if possible.” He countered her move and removed a piece from the board.
        “Exactly.” Jamie’s queen sped across the board. “Checkmate.” Her eyes twinkled at him with joy.
        “I let you win.” Albert retorted, smiling at her.
        “Of course you did.” Jamie laughed. “So what do you say? Shall we give it a try?”
        “Why not? I think I’ve had enough chess for one day.”
        “Let’s start with the dragon first, Victor Voktor. What do we know about him?”
        Albert pursed his lips and ran through his memories of their adversary. “He’s about the same age as us. We don’t know where he’s from, but his accent is American, and northern at that.”
        “Exactly, but what else? What does his personality suggest?” Jamie pressed.
        “He’s obviously brilliant, but his brilliance crosses a fine line into psychopathy. He’s violent and he shows a complete lack of empathy or understanding for other human beings. He’s cold, calculating, and sadistic.”
        “I think you’re right. He’s deeply disturbed, which at our age suggests a significant childhood trauma.”
        “You think he was abused?” Albert suggested.
        “I think he’s an orphan.” Jamie responded. “He never received nurture from a loving family, grew up caring for no one except himself, and that’s had a profound impact on his adolescent development. He’s egomaniacal, vain, and arrogant as a result, trying to compensate for that hole.”
        “That’s a vulnerability. We can exploit those traits.” Albert leaned back in his chair and looked out the window at the London skyline. “We might be able to turn his overconfidence against him, lure him into a trap of our own.”
        “My thoughts exactly. We need to monitor his moves carefully this year and we can draw up a plan to suggest to the others.”
        “That sounds perfect to me.” Albert nodded, impressed with how intelligent Jamie was beneath her quiet exterior. “Now, what of the other War Lord? You called Victor the dragon so what does that make him? The evil wizard?”
      “Yes!” Jamie beamed, delighted that he’d picked up on her reference. So he was smart as well as handsome…impressive. “Truthfully, we know nothing about him. We have audio files of his voice, but an accent is indistinguishable and we have no physical features to judge either. However, what he’s not doing reveals infinitely more about him.”
        “Victor does the fighting, so he runs the Empire, like Erik does for us.”
        “That’s right. He’s the one pulling the strings on all of this.”
        Suddenly, Albert’s face darkened and he came to a frightening realization.
        “What is it?” Jamie’s smile vanished and concern entered her tone.
        “Erik doesn’t just run the Republic, he looks for clues about the key and the War Lords, and he examines all sorts of different histories and phenomenon.” Albert began. “So what does the Supreme Leader do in his spare time?”
        Jamie suddenly felt sick in the pit of her soul. “I…don’t know.” She said slowly. “The War Lords must be after something more than just conquering the world for fun. They must have a plan, a final goal in mind, but what?”
        “I don’t know either, but the Supreme Leader is the one implementing it while we’re all distracted by the war.”
        “How can we interfere with him? We have to know what he’s up to.” Jamie asserted.
        “I agree. I think we’ve found our project for the coming year.” He answered her with a smile.
        “I think you might be right, Albert.” She replied. Yes, he had the brains and the looks. He couldn’t have known Jamie had planned out their exchange to tease that out of him, but the fact that they’d begun something important for their cause as well was a nice bonus. “Why don’t we go get some lunch and talk it over some more?” She suggested.
        “That sounds perfect.” He smiled at her again.
        She almost lost her cool as she felt a blush begin to rise to her cheeks, but she fought the sensation off. She’d wanted Albert since he’d taken her hand and comforted her last year in England and she didn’t want to screw it up by being too forward. She had to be clever and careful, the way she handled everything in life.
        “Then let’s get going, I’m starving.” She gave him another smile as she stood up and followed him from the room.

                                                 Chapter 3

         Dart looked out at Rostov, the city was burning. Imperial forces had bloodily broken in a few days earlier and were approaching the center of the city. But this was James’ plan. He had tried bleeding out Victor’s army at Smolensk last year and had done an excellent job at it, nearly succeeding. This year, he was determined to finish the job at Rostov. Dart saw to it that all reinforcements were diverted into the city to stop the advance. Hours later Rose came up to him covered in ash and soot.
        “We’re holding them. But, oh, you should see it. It’s…It’s just awful. James literally means bleed them out.” She said.
        “Well, I’ve had enough of sitting around. Everyone here knows to keep sending troops in. Soon we may even be able to launch a counterattack. So I’m going back with you.” He said.
        Rose nodded and they headed back into the city.

         Victor watched as more shells were fired into Rostov. He then turned to his aide Captain Christopher Cartwright.
        “This slaughter has gone on long enough. We have them deep in the trap now. Order the 16th Armored Corps into its special assignment.”
        “Yes, sir!” Christopher responded, moving to carry out the order.
        With all the Republic’s forces in Rostov nothing would be able to stop his tanks from swinging north and then driving south to the Black Sea, cutting the city off with two-thirds of the Republic’s southern army inside. He smiled as he knew he had another battle in the bag.

         Rose crouched behind some rubble as machine gun bullets slammed into the area all around her. She dove to a new position and soon found James and Dart next to her.
        "We have to get out of here!" Dart yelled.
        "Why?" She demanded, they really were holding the Empire for once.
        "Victor has sent his armor around the north of the city! We'll be cut off if we don't beat it now!" He replied.
Rose cursed and they began to fall back from the front and soon hopped onto a truck heading out of the city. They had to hold off those tanks long enough for their army to escape.

         Victor stood fuming behind a stone wall outside Rostov. His infantry were being held up here by a hasty defensive position the Republic had set up and every second wasted was a second that more of their soldiers escaped his grasp. As another swarm of their soldiers darted past his position across the field, his artillery opened up on them. Hopefully that would do enough damage until the tanks arrived. He looked into his binoculars once more and then his jaw dropped. It was the Light Keepers! Right out in the open!
        "Now you’re mine." He muttered to himself. "Sergeant! Aim all your guns at that spot." He said, pointing at his counterparts. "The Light Keepers are there and I want them dead." He hissed.
      "Yes, sir!" The soldier answered, redirecting his guns' fire to concentrate on the fleeing trio.

         The Light Keepers hit the ground as the artillery fire around them intensified. Their lines were so close now, if they could only get out of here!
        "We have to keep moving!" Dart yelled to anyone who could hear and they slowly rose and began to move again.
        The shells began to rain down even more frequently and when Dart looked to his left, one landed directly between himself and Rose. He tasted iron in his mouth and knew he must be bleeding. His head pounded and his ears rang as well. He looked around and saw Rose not moving at all a few yards away. James was trying put down some cover fire as bullets and shells landed all around him. Dart managed to crawl over to Rose and saw she was still breathing but was unconscious. Immediately he gathered her up in his arms and made a mad rush for the safety of the Republic's lines.
        “Are you crazy?!” He thought he heard James yell as he approached the trench.
        He dove into it literally seconds before another shell exploded where he had been standing only seconds before. He put Rose on the next truck out and turned went back to the trench to help direct their defenses and get more soldiers out. James was waiting when he got back.
        “That was a Hell of a thing you did out there.” He said, stopping to fire over the trench again. “You sure go through a lot for her.” Seeing Dart turn red seemed to be satisfaction enough for him and he turned back to the battle.
       
         "No!" Victor roared in an inhuman voice. They had just slipped out of his grasp. Again. "Where is our bloody armor?" He demanded of no one in particular. Finally, the heavy tanks rolled up to the wall and their commander saluted him.
        "Don't sit up there like an idiot!" He screamed at him. "Go get them!"
        "Yes, sir." The tank commander answered him. But by the time they had crossed the field the Republic was gone. Except that was, for the unfortunate piece of their army still trapped in the city.

        Dart, Rose, and James had regrouped at a new headquarters they had set up deeper in southern Russia. Rostov had just surrendered along with thousands of soldiers and many weapons.
        “Well, now we know what he’s after.” Rose began. “All of our oil fields in the south, and the Volga River to outflank our positions in Moscow.”
        “Well, we’ll soon be able to transfer enough soldiers here to take up defensive positions in the Caucasus Mountains to hold him off from the oil fields.” Dart said.
        “But what about the Volga? Where can we halt him there?” Rose asked.
        “I don’t know. But this damned 16th Armored Division appears to be the spearhead of his advance. If we track it, we’ll know where he is headed and we can prepare to stop him.” Dart replied.
        “When we do figure it out, leave it to me. I still think if I can find a city with the right terrain we can bleed him out.” James said angrily.
        “Well it‘s the best plan we’ve got.” Rose said. “Let’s just hope this one doesn’t fail, we can’t afford any more mistakes in this war.” Her eyes glanced over everyone else’s face and they were just as filled with dread as her own.

                                                 Chapter 4
         Victor addressed his generals in their mobile HQ. They were advancing so fast they had to use it. Two of the four original generals that had led their revolution from the beginning were present. The four made up a group that fell just below him in rank but sat above the sea of other officers that commanded Imperial units. They were the best leaders he had, and he needed them.
        “Well gentleman, the time has come for us to split up. The 16th Armored and half of our infantry will accompany me to Volgograd, we will seize it and then outflank these fools defending Moscow. You’re with me on this one, Fred.” Victor said.
        “It shall be as you say, my Lord.” Fred replied, nodding as Victor continued.
        “Meantime, the rest of our forces will press south and seize the oil fields in the Caucasus. That’ll be up to you, Carl. Jack stays in North Africa, Ichiro has Asia, and the rest of the front remains in a holding position. Any questions?” He concluded.
        The generals remained silent, chewing over their assignments further. At last, Carl spoke.
        “What if my men get held up in the mountains? The terrain is beyond awful down there.”
        “Then you’ll hold your position and wait for us. Volgograd is the top priority. We take it, we cut them off and we can come help you finish them. Got it?” Victor answered.
Carl nodded.          
        “Anything else?” Victor hissed. Now they all stayed quiet. Little did they know, they were playing into the Republic’s hands this time.

         For now, the onslaught continued. Lt. Alvin Smithers and his unit were pushing further and further south.
        “How far are we from the closest oilfield?” He asked.
        “Only a few kilometers.” Matt answered. “We should be there within the hour.”
        “Good.” Alvin said, sticking his head back out of the turret. Only a few minutes later, an enormous pillar of thick, black smoke rose into the air.
        “What is that?” William asked in surprise.
        “I have no idea.” Alvin replied. As the column continued toward the oil field, Alvin’s jaw dropped. “My God! They set fire to the entire field!” He blurted out.
        The refinery was in ruins, pipelines had been broken wide open, and the wells themselves sent enormous shoots of fire into the air followed by the smoke they’d seen from so far away.
        “Damn, they really did a number on this place.”
        Other tanks filed into the fields and fanned out. Everyone else seemed to be as dumbfounded as they were. At last a jeep roared into the complex. General Carl Coffer stepped out of it.
        “What the Hell do ya’ll think you’re doing?” He bellowed in fury. “Get your asses in gear and move south! Every second you sit there is another second they have to do this to another field! Move!”
        The tanks rolled again. Alvin was nervous, if the Republic was willing to do this to its own lifeblood, what wasn’t it willing to do? Still, south they moved, for miles. Alvin scanned the horizon for threats from his turret when his jaw dropped again. The imposing Caucasus Mountains rose off in the distance.
        “How in name of Hell are we supposed to scale those?” He asked.
        “Beats me.” William said.
        But the army pressed toward them, undeterred. Heads would start to roll if they delayed General Coffer’s schedule again. But delayed it would have to be. As the lead units approached the base of the first mountain, they were torn to pieces. Shells began to rain down on the Imperial soldiers. Tanks burned and were flipped over like toys, infantry were struck and whole squads were never seen or heard from again. The Republic had artillery up there!
        Alvin cursed as Matt threw the tank into reverse and they were forced to retreat. At least for now it was impossible for them to scale those mountains. Alvin got on the radio, but found other commanders asking the same question he was about to: What now? Finally, the order came back to them from General Coffer himself.
        “All units will hold at the base of the mountains. We will do our best to scale them but otherwise must wait for assistance from Army Group A. That is all.”
        Army Group A was the one led by Voktor and Mensto. If Victor took Volgograd the forces ahead of them would be cut off and then it wouldn’t matter. He can do it, Alvin thought, I know he can.

                            Chapter 5
         Victor, General Mensto in tow, was pushing closer and closer to Volgograd but resistance was stiffening. It would be a tough fight, but he believed his men could do it. They continued to brush aside resistance as his now infamous 16th Armored Division pressed toward the city. He had received some troubling news about his southern forces being halted but that wouldn’t matter once Volgograd fell. Nothing would matter after that. After the city was gone the Republic would collapse and the Empire would be able achieve its final goal. And this time the weather could not be relied upon to stop him it was only July. Winter would not set in until November. We have them now! He thought triumphantly.

         Dart looked as the 16th Armored demolished another of his delaying forces. The division’s top of the line tanks mowed down infantry, crushed barriers, and shot armored cars to pieces. Oh sure, his forces had destroyed a few Imperial units, in fact Imperial casualties lined the roads approaching the city. But it was far too little to even slow down the Empire. They continued to press on towards Volgograd.
        “They’re really throwing everything they’ve got into this.” He grumbled to himself. “There must be something more I can do.” He continued to think aloud, racking his brain. Coming up with nothing, he retreated again.
          But as always time was his weapon and he needed to buy more of it for Rose and James to prepare the city's defenses. So he did. When Victor's tanks approached a bridge it was destroyed in front of them. When they used a particular road for too long a mine would destroy one of his tanks. When his infantry stayed out in the open too long snipers would begin to pick them off. Dart sensed that the Imperial troops were becoming enraged at these small attacks but before they could act his forces would be gone, dissolved back into the countryside only to reform and attack again later. He learned the hard way they wouldn’t take that lying down.
         Dart was peering over a map on the jeep he’d been using to shadow the front when a soldier came up to him.
        “Umm, sir. I think you’d better come take a look at this.” She said, she looked as though she’d be sick.
        “What is it?” He asked, concerned. She only shook her head and asked for him to come with her again. He sighed and followed her. What had gone wrong now?
         It was a decent trek to the location but when they got there Dart almost threw up himself. A group of his soldiers stood around the sight, looks of terror covered their faces. Seven of their soldiers’ badly mutilated bodies hung from a tree. Each of them had their hands and feet bound and had a letter carved into their flesh that together spelled out “COWARDS.” It was enough.
        “Alright, Victor.” Dart said. “No more raids. Let’s get them down and get back to Volgograd. The sooner we do it, the sooner we can stop the Empire and bring these people to justice.” Several of the soldiers nodded and he helped them carry out the grim task of taking down and burying the bodies. He had held them off for as long as he could. Now it was time for the real battle.

                                                 Chapter 6
         Victor looked out at Volgograd. His forces had nearly reached the city and had already taken the banks of the Volga north and south of it, pinning it back against the river, which was now the only way to supply it. And the Imperial Air Force was already bombing the transports to try to shut off even those meager resources. But now more troubling news came, the Light Keepers were on the scene and reinforcements were coming with them.
        “Christopher, find Fred and order the army into the final push on the city, we’ll take it and then throw back their reinforcements.”
        “What about you, sir?” He asked.
        “I have to deal with these light idiots, once and for all.” He said, storming away.
         Rose had left Volgograd to personally take a look at the situation. Her mission was to scout out the Empire’s strength and line of attack, then go back to the city and help the others direct the battle. The weather was worsening with the situation. The sky was black as a storm brewed in a kind of eerie foreshadowing. She could barely see the black helicopter that flew up to the hill but she certainly felt the dull ache that filled the back of her head, like someone driving a knife into her skull. Then she saw Victor as he drew his sword after jumping out.
        “Dear, sweet, sensitive Rose again.” He said with a smirk. “This time I’ll finish you and your Republic once and for all.”
        “You’re so arrogant, Victor.” She shot back. “You’re no man, just a weakling.” She calmly remarked, drawing her own sword. He only advanced and swung at her.
         Rose and Victor clashed on the hill outside Volgograd as the armies began to open fire below them. Lightning and thunder cracked as metal clashed against metal. Rose slashed at Victor who dodged and sent a blow of his own her way. She gave ground and continued to resist, getting in a strike when she could. But Victor was still the superior swordsman and was gaining the upper hand. As Rose slashed at his neck Victor ducked down low and swung his sword up at her sword hand. He was just hoping to knock it out of her hand but slitting her wrist had the desired effect. She screamed in pain as she dropped her sword and reeled backwards. He kicked her in the stomach and she collapsed. Her head crashed into a stone on the hill then, blackness.
         Victor smiled, mildly pleased with himself as he circled above Rose like a bloodthirsty shark, literally inhaling the smell of her blood pouring out of her. At last he decided he had been able to savor the moment sufficiently and prepared to deliver the final blow. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed above him but as the sword came down it clashed with another. His face was filled with shock as he looked up and saw Dart’s sword blocking his blow. Within seconds he was joined by James, Hank, and Shannon who quickly surrounded him. It was a trap! Victor was furious but stood his ground calmly, running his eyes over each of his targets.
        “It’s over Victor. You can’t fight all four of us. Give up now!” Dart said.
        Victor laughed.
        “Me? Surrender to you?” He shook his head and leapt at Shannon.
        She barely blocked his blow, her eyes wide with terror. Hank slashed at him from behind but Victor had already hit the ground, his leg went out in a swift movement and Hank crashed to the ground. Victor was back up in an instant and a solid kick to the side of the head left Hank groaning and useless to the others. All three of them hesitated for a moment and attacked again. Victor became a blur of frenzied movement kicking, punching, and slashing, seizing every opportunity to strike at the Light Keepers. Dart sent a powerful blow his way, but he dodged it and as Shannon sent him another he grabbed her arm by the elbow and sent her flying into James, leaving them a struggling heap on the ground.
      Now only Dart remained. This time the blow Dart dealt him connected and sent him reeling back several feet. Dart charged and lifted his sword to try to finish Victor off, but as the blade fell it sliced through only air. Victor dodged to the right beneath it and the next thing Dart felt was his knee connect with his groin. He groaned in pain and collapsed to the ground. Victor had no time to finish him though, Shannon and James had regrouped and were coming at him again. But his helicopter had arrived. He hopped inside, laughing at the struggling Light Keepers as he rode off towards the battle.
         “Are you alright?” James asked Dart.
        Shannon poured water out of her canteen onto Hank’s face and he sputtered and came around.
        “I’m fine. Help Rose!” Dart shouted, struggling to his feet. “I knew we should have moved sooner.” He growled.
        “We had to wait, Dart. Victor would have seen us and escaped.” Shannon said, coming to James’ defense.
        Together, Dart and James carefully lifted Rose into one the jeeps they had come in. Shannon got in with Rose and began speeding towards the hospital. Dart, James, and Hank got in the other jeep and began speeding after Victor, towards the battle.

                                                 Chapter 7
         The three Light Keepers abandoned the jeep and entered into a chaotic fight. The Imperial troops had smashed the scratch force outside Volgograd and had broken into the city. They knew the Empire had two objectives in mind: the first was the railroad station in the center of the city. In control of it they would be able to outflank the Republic’s positions in the mountains to the south. The other was the docks on the river Volga at the end of the city. With them they could control the river and outflank Moscow.
         The Republic’s reinforcements were moving up and the Empire’s advance began to slow. Dart encouraged their fresh troops to force the Empire back. Hank and James followed suit. The Empire’s infantry had advanced too quickly and they began to move back down the streets of Volgograd. Then all of the sudden they turned and stood their ground. Casualties mounted but Dart was still able to creep closer and closer the enemy defenses. He threw a grenade and firing ceased from a building down the street. The Imperials retreated once more but this time, when the Republic’s soldiers began to advance Imperial artillery opened up and began smashing their attack to pieces. Entire buildings were crushed beneath the murderous fire. Then the 16th Armored Division arrived and the Empire was advancing again. Dart looked for Hank and James as they fell back and took up positions in new buildings deeper in the city. He found them and ran over to the store they were taking cover in.
        “You guys alright?” He asked and they both nodded in response.
        “But the city won’t be at this rate.” James said.
        “I thought that was what you wanted.” Dart spat.
        “I want to hurt the Empire, but I don’t want anyone else to be hurt.” He said quietly, giving him a hurt look.
        Before they could continue, tanks and more artillery began crushing the store and other areas they were defending into rubble.
        “Let’s get out of here!” Dart yelled.
        As they ran out of the store a violent blast shattered the glass of the store’s windows, shards flew everywhere, and Dart heard Hank swear. He turned around when they found cover after retreating yet again and saw Hank was hit pretty badly.
      “Get out of here.” Dart said sternly. “There’s nothing more you can do like that.”
Hank tried to protest but found himself barely able to stand. A soldier helped him move away from the front. The Empire continued its formula of shell and advance, shell and advance but that was exactly what James had planned and it would only work for so long. Soon the rubble was blocking the 16th Armored’s tanks from advancing and the infantry had to go it alone again.
Dart saw Victor leading the new charge and tried to get to him but the fire was too intense and each time he so much as stood up dozens of bullets were whizzing past him. The fighting rapidly became hand to hand as the Empire began storming defensive positions and the infantry of each side had to fight one another alone. The stench of death was soon in the city and would not be gone for a long, long time. After hours of brutal close quarters combat, night fell. The storm that had been brewing at last let loose and rain began pouring down, making conditions even more miserable. Both sides occupied the positions they were closest to, exhausted, and rested for the night.

         The Light Keepers had regrouped and met at the railroad station further back from the front for a teleconference with Erik who was in Moscow.
        “You say Victor fought all five of you and you could barely even touch him?” He said, fear and concern filled his voice and covered his already exhausted face.
        “Yes.” Dart said, slightly ashamed. “Have you ever heard of something like that?” He asked.
        “No, it’s unheard of…at least as far as we know from modern times. Beware, Light Keepers, there are very, very dark forces at work here, things beyond our understanding. I am doing everything I can to hold the Republic together and solve the riddle of the book, but you are the ones who must win the battles on the field. Be careful and stay safe. I am afraid that is all the advice I can offer you for now.” They bid their farewells and the screen went black.
        “I’m going to go check on something.” Dart declared, after the call had ended.
        “Yeah, well, tell something we said hello.” Shannon teased with a knowing smile.
        “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He insisted, turning and walking away, his ears burning with embarrassment.
        It was true though, he was going to visit Rose again. He couldn’t stop worrying about her condition ever since their confrontation with Victor. Her wrist was fine but a concussion? That was another matter. Along the way he stopped at a florist’s shop and bought her a bouquet of purple hydrangeas to match her hair. The military hospital was so bleak and her room was so bare, he wanted her to have something in the room that was full of life like she was.
        At last he came to the hospital and went inside to find her. He knew the way off by heart; he’d visited every day that he could. When he came across her, she was lying in bed, deeply entranced by the novel in her hands. He gave a short knock and when she looked up she smiled at once.
        “Dart! I was beginning to wonder if you’d come today.” She admitted.
        She was relieved that he had at last shown up. She was putting on a smile for him every day because it was killing her to not be out there with him. Every air raid, every sound of the guns in the distance was the one that claimed his life in her imagination until she saw his face again.
        “I’m sorry, we had a conference call with Erik. The gang says hello by the way and…I brought you these.” He handed them to her and she gasped in surprise.
        “Dart, they’re beautiful! You shouldn’t have!”
        “It was nothing! I just wanted to get something to brighten up this room for you.”
        “Well, it was very sweet of you!” She said, giving him a smile as she breathed in the lovely scent of the flowers. She grew only happier as he blushed but decided to let him off the hook by changing the subject.
        “What did you talk to Erik about?”
        “We told him about what happened with Victor.”
        “What did he say?” Rose asked with a frown.
        It truly was disconcerting that the War Lord had taken on all five of them at once and had escaped their trap. He was simply too strong for his body and too clever for his age. There had to be something else behind him.
        “Not much.” Dart sighed with exasperation. “He said nothing like that has happened since the War Lords of ages past. Then he told us to be careful and promised he’d work on it more.”
        Rose frowned again, if Erik didn’t know then they truly were in the dark.
        “How are you feeling today?” Dart asked, taking his usual seat next to her bed.
        “Better. My head aches less and it doesn’t hurt to read anymore.” She hefted her book and he could see that it was a copy of War and Peace.
        “Just a little light reading?” He raised an eyebrow, eyeing at the thickness of the tome.
Rose laughed and Dart couldn’t help but smile and become lost in her deep, blue eyes, so much so that he’d missed what she had just said.
        “I’m sorry, could you repeat that, Rose? I was…distracted.” He said, failing to come up with an excuse and turning red yet again. His mind never seemed to want to obey him when he was around her. Suddenly, it hit him that his feelings for her might have been stronger than friendship.
        “It’s alright! I just said that it seemed appropriate for our situation. If the Russian people could turn back Napoleon, then the many peoples who came here to fight the Empire should be able to defeat the War Lords too.” She reasoned.
        “I think you’ve got it right.” He began with a smile. “Our people have suffered so much but they’ve held strong for the cause of freedom. We’ve seen so much good and kindness and love throughout all this. Greed and hatred can’t sustain the soldiers of the Empire, and they’re all the War Lords have to offer.”
        “That’s a neat way of putting it and I agree. I can’t wait for this horrible war to be over.” She said, leaning back onto her pillows.
        “It will be soon enough. Things might look bleak, but light always holds back the darkness, no matter how small.” He took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
        Rose’s heart fluttered when she felt their hands touch. Shannon was right. She felt herself slowly but surely falling for him and she was terrified. She’d never felt this way about anyone before, and damn Victor Voktor but he too loomed over everything. She knew James and Shannon were together, and there was something between Hank and Macy too, but what if their enemies discovered them? It was bad enough that Victor knew they were all friends, what would his wicked mind plot if he knew he could use love as a weapon against them? Her head hurt again and she suddenly felt exhausted from her mental struggles.
        “Are you alright?” Dart asked in concern, sensing her tense up.
        “I’m fine!” Rose insisted a little too quickly. “It’s just my head again. Could you please hand me those pills?”
        They’d had her on them since she got the concussion. They were supposed to control any swelling and numb the headaches that came with it, but they also made her extremely drowsy. Dart handed them to her, she knocked them back with some water, and sighed in relief.
        “That’s much better.” Her eyelids were already beginning to feel heavier as the pain faded.
        Dart simply smiled and stood up to go but she called out to him first.
        “Please stay until I fall asleep.”
        “Of course.” He said softly, sitting back down. “I’ll be right here.”
        “Thank you.” She replied, as her eyes closed. Her mind grew fuzzier, however, and she spoke again. “Please be safe, Dart...I’m always so worried…you mean so much to me.”
        “Huh?” Was the only thing Dart managed to say in surprise before realizing it was the medicine making her talk.
        After a few moments, her breathing became more rhythmic and her chest slowly rose and fell with it. Dart pulled the blankets up over her and quietly left with a smile on his face. He couldn’t have been happier with what she’d said.

         Victor peered over a large pile of smoldering rubble near the center of Volgograd. The railroad station was now just yards away. They had shelled and bombed it half a dozen times, the roof had caved in in several places, the inside must have been badly damaged, and the structure was filled with holes that just seemed to make good positions from which enemy soldiers could take cover and snipe at his men. The Republic still had soldiers inside. Every time Victor’s men advanced across the open area in front of it they were cut to ribbons. But he had something special planned this time. His aide Captain Christopher zigzagged across the street as several pot shots from snipers missed him. He arrived near Victor and saluted. Victor returned the salute, wondering how the boy managed to keep his uniform spotless in a mess like this.
        “Is everything ready, Captain?” He asked.
        “Yes, my Lord.” Christopher replied.
        “Excellent. Then we wait.”
        Minutes ticked by and a strange and eerie quiet fell on the entire Imperial line opposite the railroad station.
        “Masks on!” Victor hissed.
        His men donned a strange apparatus that covered their faces and gave them an alien-like look. Then a strange hissing sound was heard, artillery shells were falling, but they were no ordinary shells. 
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