The Barefaced

Chapter 5 of Thinker Traitor Soldier Spectre

Nihlus shifted from one side of his contused body to another and grunted. He was sitting on the hard floor of the evac shuttle with his back propped against its nauseatingly vibrating hull, trying to find a position such that nothing hurt. A futile effort. The biotic blast had slammed him against a tree, and he was saved from a broken back or worse by pure luck.

He wasn’t feeling so lucky now. Three broken ribs and a hairline fracture of the sternum. Nothing medigel wouldn’t fix, but he couldn’t afford a dose that would staunch all the aching. He had to be clear-headed when he faced the music.

The others were more or less ok. Theeka had taken the full force of the blast too, but it threw her far between the trees and into shrubbery. Lantar had taken a round in the chest, but the armor had stopped it, and he was only bruised. Farril got his face singed in the missile explosion in consequence of wearing an open helmet. He was fortunate to get away with nothing more serious than burned facial paint. Black in place of airy green made him look weird. Strangely intense and, in honesty, kind of hot.

The others were fine. Most of the villagers were fine as well.

The little girl was dead.

Nihlus took off his gloves and groped for the green stone the girl had given him in the pockets of his underweave. He started turning it over. The overhead lights in the shuttle made its gleam cold.

You should have shot the krogan immediately. Your indecision killed a child.

The thought punched him in the gut, and he had to squirm for air. Several heads turned and he pretended his back was hurting. When he closed his eyes, he could still hear the mother’s inconsolable wailing.

Had he managed to save the child, he might have been able to rationalize his subsequent actions. Instead, he couldn’t stop thinking of all the various ways in which he’d failed. Today and in general. He had shot the krogan, disobeying direct orders, after the girl had been killed. The Blood Pack had won the battle and taken the krogan’s body to the Shithole, which he hadn’t been able to find. “Don’t screw this up, Nihlus, it’s important!” That’s what Thadon had said. And he screwed it up. In every way imaginable.

The green stone stared at him, full of silent judgment. You killed a child today, and you’re thinking about your miserable excuse of a career? Way to go, Kryik, my man.

If only he could tell himself that her death hadn’t been in vain. Or swear in all honesty that it would be avenged. Or if he could just brush it off and not be bothered. Like Theeka. Theeka, who was blissfully snoring across the way with not a care in the world. She hadn’t blinked when the little girl’s body hit the ground with that sickening damp thud. Perhaps because the child was human. Didn’t make a bit of difference to Nihlus.

“What’s eating you, Sarge?” Mirene asked. She was sitting on the floor next to him. Everyone except the two of them were either sleeping or trying to.

“Can’t relax,” he lied. “Everything hurts.”

“Uh-huh. And I’m a krogan princess.”

Nihlus pocketed the stone. Mirene’s eyes followed his movements with a calm focus. She wore the crimson colors native to Taetrus. He couldn’t memorize the name of the pattern even though she had repeated it to him at least thrice. But he could recall the details of half a dozen official variations off the top of his head, no problem. If he ended up without a job, maybe he could try to set up a paint shop. Carve himself a niche in the business with multi-color stuff, alien motifs, barefaced people, all the taboo shit the traditionalists shunned. Get cheap colors for credits he’d borrow from friends he didn’t have. Work out in the streets. Likely sleep there too. Yeah. Sounded like a plan. Fucking brilliant.

“Do you suppose,” he said, “if we hadn’t been there today, that—nothing would have happened? You know, the bomb, the battle…”

“The human child?”

“The human child.”

Mirene stared at him for a few seconds, as if waiting for an elaboration. “Are you serious?”

He shrugged.

“Spirits, Nihlus. Sometimes you’re so naïve it’s not even funny. Or maybe just plain stupid.”

“Ah, so it’s Nihlus now?” He didn’t mind the informal address, but he hated when she talked to him like he was a kid.

“Sorry, Sarge. But it’s true. What would’ve happened if we hadn’t been there? Hm, let me think. The bomb… it would’ve gone off anyway, and probably there would’ve been a bunch of people on the beach crowding to see what it is. My guess… ten to thirty fatalities right there? The battle… Well, ok, I’ll give you that. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a battle. But then we wouldn’t know that the Shithole is within a fifty-klick radius of the village.”

“Only if that’s where the gunship came from, and if it took off right after the crash, and we don’t really know any of those things, now, do we? And even if we did, how is a fifty-klick radius a good thing?”

“It’s better than nothing, no? We covered more than that in the past few months.”

Nihlus huffed.

“The child would’ve lived to see another day,” she continued, nodding. “But eventually the Blood Pack would pick her up. The punchline: if we hadn’t found the village, they’d keep selling kids to slavers. Think about that.”

“Always the voice of reason.” Nihlus gave her a thin smile. Mirene was the second oldest in the squad, after Vezeer, and the only one with an academic degree. It was a shame pre-contact history didn’t count toward a commission. She was among the most capable and well-trained soldiers Nihlus had ever met, and she had a way to put things in perspective.

“Here’s another challenge, then,” he said after a while. “Thadon’s going to court-martial my ass beyond the Veil and back for insubordination.”

Mirene laughed. “You think you’re that important?”

“No. But I think he hates me enough.”

He thought back to his first day in the IIC. The recollection of getting acquainted with his new CO was painfully vivid.

“I see you’re a good soldier, Kryik,” Thadon had said. “Your ability scores are enviable and your tactical expertise, or talent, or luck—whatever you want to call it—is impressive. In a way, I’m glad to have you. But let me make one thing very clear: I’ll take no bullshit from you.” He waved a hand over Nihlus’s file, displayed on the console; likely the most checkered service record he ever had the misfortune to see. “Here’s the deal: I’ll take a risk and entrust you with one of my best units—and you won’t question my orders under any circumstances. Are you picking up what I’m putting down?”

“Yes, sir!” Nihlus said. And by the Spirits, he meant it.

But it turned out that Thadon pertained to a very broad definition of trust, and a very narrow one of a direct order. The degree of control he insisted on made it impossible for Nihlus to operate effectively. His initial respect for Thadon soon wore thin, and then dissipated altogether after Wolta. Wolta had been one of those results worthy of extranet headlines but it changed nothing in their relationship. Thadon kept treating him like trash and apparently never lifted a finger to try and—gasp—reward him. Or, Spirits forbid, promote him. People got promoted left and right for crap that was nowhere near as significant, but his name never came up. Just like in all his previous posts. That’s the life of an outsider in the turian army for you.

“The Major doesn’t hate you,” Mirene said. “He’s just scared you’ll drag him down with you.”

“Why, thank you so much for the vote of confidence.”

“What, did you want a collar to cry in? You don’t get to climb the ranks by playing the smartass all the time. Either suck it up and do as you’re told, or live with the consequences. Just don’t whine about it. It makes me wanna hit you.”

“Oh, I’d like to see you try.”

Mirene elbowed him in the side. She was rather gentle, all things considered, but he had broken ribs in there. “Ow! Fuck!”

Several pairs of eyes blinked open, and several growls later, closed again.

“Sorry, Sarge,” Mirene said. “You asked for it.”

They sat in silence for a bit. Nihlus didn’t really want to talk, but he didn’t really want to be left alone with his thoughts either. Mirene looked like she had something in mind, so he invited her to speak up with a gesture of the chin. Anything to keep his mind off the girl.

“How come you never applied for the Spectre program?” she said.

Ah. That. He knew it was coming. There had been whispers about it behind his back from the first day he’d joined the squad. Strange how nobody had thought to just come out and ask him until now. It wasn’t some big secret. It was just…

He sighed. That hurt. He shifted. That hurt more.

“I did,” he said at last. “I do. Every semester. Never even got a note from a recruiter.”

And that, that hurt the most.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

It was one of those immutable facts of life: even if there was a turian recruiter willing to ignore his place of birth, there were none who could ever see past the red stamps in his file. Insubordination, contempt, assault on a senior officer, brawling, failure to conform to the doctrine, failure to integrate into a unit, improper conduct degrading unit cohesion–every offense, shy of all-out mutiny, had a place in his record. They only kept him around because, when all else was put aside, he could get the job done.

Not anymore!

It was a long ride to Hierote.


The shuttle dropped him on the landing platform on the 128th floor. The view from there was gorgeous. Hierote sprawled in every direction with its glass domes and flickering lights. Shastina’s Gate, nearly ten klicks away, was clearly discernible if one knew what to look for. It meant the weather had been fair during the day, with no wind, and no sand. It also meant there would likely be a sandstorm during the night. But there were no signs of it yet. In the west, toward the starport, the sky was a magnificent pink, crisscrossed with dark aircraft trails and thin, translucent clouds.

Nihlus took a deep breath—it still hurt, dammit—then turned his back to the city and marched inside. As he went through the busy, brightly lit hallways, leaving crumbs of dried mud on the carpets and making people turn after him with wrinkled noses, his apprehension evolved into a nauseating anxiety more alike to battle readiness than to any sort of thoughtful attitude appropriate for civil discourse. They should’ve let him take a damn shower if they wanted him to be civil. He didn’t even get the option to stop by the med-bay for a proper checkup. The dead krogan was too important to wait.

During the elevator ride to the command offices, he studied his reflection in the mirror and brushed several specks of greenish muck off his face, trying to ignore the thumping of his heart. His colors wanted reapplying; his skin tone wanted a good night’s sleep. There was a thing that could fix that, though. Without a second thought, he brought up his omni and administered himself a shot of stims. By the time the elevator stopped, he was charged as a thundercloud.

Killing the krogan had been the right thing to do. Child-murdering sons of bitches had no place among the living, not on his watch. He was glad he killed the krogan.

The Command Center was a cavernous room dominated by a round table with an immense, two-meter holo of the planet in the center. Around it were numerous workstations, shimmering in a myriad of colors. It was all just for show, of course. The actual CIC was underground. The big-shots liked their offices with a view, though, and the extranet reports looked better in natural light.

A dozen crests turned to see who made such a rude entrance. He paused to let them have a good look at him, and to scan the space. Other than the entrance he had just come in through, there were two others, on the far left and right, and each was guarded by two soldiers, a total of six. Nobody else in the room had armor, and while some carried sidearms, most were unarmed. Good to know such things. Just in case. He grinned at the audience and strode toward Thadon’s office.

And Thadon was just about to leave it. They almost collided head-on, and Nihlus bore enough momentum to make Thadon recoil and curse. He was tall, but not as tall as Nihlus, and packed less mass inside his wiry frame. Simple cobalt colors marked his face, one of the many variations on the Qarido design, native to Palaven.

Nihlus stopped short and stood at attention.

“Damn it, Kryik, look where you’re going!”

“Sorry, sir.”

Thadon stepped back and gave Nihlus a dissatisfied look-over. “You look like shit,” he said. “And smell even worse.” His ungloved hands had landed on the chest-piece of Nihlus armor and he was wiping them on his pants.

“Sorry, sir. Didn’t have time to groom.” As you damn well know.

Thadon snorted. “At ease.”

Nihlus relaxed his stance, clasping his hands behind his back, with feet wide apart. He was satisfied to note that nothing hurt anymore. The stims were the crown achievement of Galactic society.

Thadon went behind his terminal and tapped the comm. “Sir? Kryik is here. Just in, directly from the field.”

“I see,” said a voice from the other side. The General’s voice. “Is he hurt?”

After the most cursory of glances, Thadon said: “Doesn’t look like it, sir,” without bothering to wait for Nihlus to nod, or Spirits forbid, say something. Asshole.

“Alright. I’ll be there in a minute, with the Spectre.”

“Yes, sir.”

Nihlus had been wrong to think he couldn’t possibly get more anxious. Why wasn’t Thadon giving him a lecture? Why did his debriefing require the General’s attention? And… did he really just hear that there was a Spectre involved? Or was his stressed-out, exhausted mind, affected by both medigel and stims, playing tricks on him? It was certainly conceivable. He had been wanting to meet a Spectre, a real Spectre, since he was a boy.

“Sir? What’s going on?”

Thadon didn’t look up from whatever he had been doing on his desk—stacking some hard-copies into neat, parallel piles for some fucking reason. It took him a long time to reply.

“It’s not your place to ask, Kryik, and it’s not my place to answer. Wait for the General. And watch that tongue of yours.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Not yet.”

Nihlus gritted his teeth. Just don’t be a dick to him, she had said. Who was being a dick now, eh?

“You didn’t report any casualties,” Thadon said. That translated to: I heard you sent some of your men to the med-bay. Is Theeka among them?

“No, sir. No serious injuries. Just some sprains and bruises.”

Was that a small sigh of relief? It was hard to tell, as Thadon was still busy arranging things on his desk.

“How close were you to the crash site?”

And there I thought you knew how to read maps. “Less than five klicks, sir.”

Thadon nodded slowly, then finally looked Nihlus in the eye and shook his head, unloading all his disapproval without saying a word.

Nihlus caved. “Sir, I know I screwed up big-time, and I’m sorry, but—”

Thadon lifted a hand to stop him. “This is out of my hands, Kryik. I can’t protect you anymore. Take my advice and keep your mouth shut. Speak only when spoken to and for once in your life, don’t call attention to yourself.” His mandibles worked with unspoken words. “Maybe it’ll all just blow over,” he muttered.

Nihlus stared at him. And sure enough, now that he looked, he saw clear signs of anxiety on Thadon too. Whatever this was, it was big. Alright, he got that. But what the fuck was all that about protecting him? Thadon, protecting him? He almost laughed out loud.

But then the door opened behind his back and he hurriedly stepped aside to let the General through.

Nihlus liked the General. In that abstracted way you like an extranet celebrity who allegedly reads fanmail, but it’s never your fanmail. He had that perfect, regal posture that Nihlus associated with authority, and the calm confidence of age and experience. He smelled of expensive soap and freshly pressed clothes. Passing by, the General gave Nihlus a stern, no-nonsense look that he extended to Thadon too. They both saluted.

Following behind the General was a barefaced man. He wore a suit of light, off-white armor. Nihlus couldn’t tell its make, which was a curiosity in itself. It was clean, but it had definitely seen combat. He also couldn’t tell the make of the heavy pistols strapped to the man’s hips, but they looked three generations ahead of standard issue sidearms. A velveteen, embroidered cowl was draped over the front of his crest. And what a fascinating crest it was! With the valluvian horns, a hereditary trait so rare Nihlus had only seen them on the extranet, once, and those belonged to the late General Desolas Arterius. Who had a younger brother, Saren Arterius. Who was rumored to be a Spectre.

A pair of mirror-like, steel eyes drilled into Nihlus from a hard, steel face with unexpected intensity. Like a physical force pushing him back. Nihlus stood his ground, but he exhaled with relief when the barefaced turned his scrutiny to Thadon. He then took his time scanning the room: the walls, the window, the scant furniture and at last, the ceiling corners, as if checking for surveillance. All the while he stood in the doorway, commanding attention. Even the General seemed to relax when he finally entered and let the door close behind him. The familiar odor of several days too many in a combat suit lingered briefly in his wake. And something else, disquieting and familiar, that Nihlus couldn’t put his talon on.

“At ease,” the General said. He inspected Nihlus from crest to toes and back, then stepped inside his personal space to peer closely into his eyes. Nihlus held his breath. “What have you been taking, son? Stims? Medigel?”

“Both, sir.”

The General stared at Nihlus a few more seconds, then looked at Thadon, who gathered his mandibles and shook his head. The barefaced settled across from Thadon’s desk and looked at Nihlus again.

“Eyes here,” the General said, pointing at his own face.

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.”

“As you’re undoubtedly aware, you’ve been recalled here because you were instructed to apprehend a krogan who ejected from the vehicle that crashed in the jungle, and bring him in alive. But instead your squad opened fire on him and had him shot. Is this correct?”

“Yes, sir. No, sir,” Nihlus hurried to correct himself. “I fired at the krogan. The others observed the Major’s orders.”

“From what I heard, you were all involved in a battle with a gunship.”

“Correct, sir.”

“But you’re sure it was your shot and not someone else’s?”

“Positive, sir.”

The General sighed and exchanged a glance with Thadon, who was standing at ease and silently watching. The barefaced kept his gaze fixed on Nihlus with unsettling resolve, like some cunning beast waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on its pray.

“Eyes on me, Sargent,” the General repeated with calculated annoyance.

“Yes, sir.” Nihlus felt like someone had turned up the heating inside his suit above the safety recommendations. Sweat began to trickle from under his crest. It was all he could do to stop himself from wiping it off.

“Tell us what happened.”

“Yes, sir. The engagement took place in an uncharted, illegal settlement on the south bank of the Ibiss, full of civilians. Mostly women and children, suspected to be slaves. A small spacecraft crashed into the jungle on the other side of the river, about five klicks north-west of our position. A few minutes after the crash, a parachute appeared right on top of the village. We cleared the area out of precaution. But the parachute wasn’t carrying the target. It carried an armed missile instead.”

The barefaced scoffed and everyone looked at him inquisitively. But he just shook his head and signaled them to go on. Nihlus hurriedly fixed his eyes on the General again.

“Go on, son.”

“We were all outside the blast radius, but it served its purpose as a diversion. The target maneuvered around us and might have gone undetected if—” he swallowed hard—“if he wasn’t accidentally discovered by a human child.”

The barefaced scoffed again, and waved everyone’s unspoken question off again.

“We had the krogan surrounded.” Nihlus deliberated on how to continue. No one there was interested in how horrible the experience of witnessing the murder of that child had been, or how it had affected him, but that was the foremost thing on his mind. “Maybe we could’ve overpowered him at that point. I’m honestly not sure, sir. I’ve never seen a krogan that old, that big, or that intelligent before. And he didn’t look like he had any intention of going down quietly.”

“What size is your unit?” the barefaced suddenly said. He had a deep, musical voice, but his inflections were arrogant and smug. Nihlus found himself feeling offended.

“Eight men, sir.” He straightened up, trying to look taller. “IIC’s finest.” For what that was worth.

The barefaced looked at the General, who shrugged and nodded.

Thadon shifted, moving his mandibles as if he had something to say. Something along the lines of “perhaps, if you look past the misconduct and count only the raw scores,” Nihlus guessed. The son of a bitch really did hate him. But thankfully, the General ignored it.

The barefaced had an utterly unreadable expression. He still stubbornly stared at Nihlus. “Go on.”

“Well, that’s when the gunship arrived.” Nihlus wasn’t sure who to look at anymore, so he switched from the General to the barefaced and back. “They opened fire and we fired back.”

“You carry heavy weapons, no?”

“Yes, sir. A Thunderstorm.”

“Why didn’t you use it to shoot the gunship down?”

“It was too close to civilian buildings, sir.”

The barefaced raised his browplates. Nobody moved or made a sound. Obviously it was the wrong answer, but Nihlus didn’t have any other. How was it wrong, though?

“I didn’t want to risk it crashing on the settlement,” he explained.

“Clearly,” the barefaced said. The overt annoyance made him appear darker, taller and even more imposing. There was something truly awesome about him. But that utterance was so drenched with condescension that he might as well have spit Nihlus in the face. It stung like a whiplash. Nihlus struggled to put aside the conflicting impressions.

“A Thunderstorm blast at that range would have put everyone at risk,” he said, but his voice had none of its usual strength. “Even your krogan, sir.”

“Pff. He’d have brushed it off like dry leaves on the wind.”

That was probably true. Nihlus dropped his eyes in silent defeat.

“Yet apparently he couldn’t brush off your shot,” the barefaced said after a while, as if thinking out loud.

“I only opened fire when he used biotics on us,” Nihlus said, sensing a potential opening. “I thought his shield would absorb the shot. I didn’t shoot to kill, I swear. I just wanted to knock him out, so I aimed at the chest. He should’ve brushed it off, like you said. But his shields failed and… somehow the shot went in his neck.”

“You mean, you missed.”

“No, sir. If I intended to hit him in the neck, I guess I might’ve missed. But I was going for the center of mass, at close range. I think—” he glanced around at everyone, looking for moral support—“I think the uh… force? of his biotic attack altered the trajectory of the round.” But they just stared at him with undiminished disapproval. “I don’t even know if that’s possible but—”

“It is,” said the barefaced.

“—I know I didn’t miss,” Nihlus finished. It sounded pathetic, but damn, if there was one thing he could rely on in his sorry excuse for a life, no matter the circumstances, it was his aim.

The barefaced held his gaze for a few more beats, then sighed. “Either way, a krogan can survive that kind of injury unless he bleeds out.” He turned to the General. “You said the Blood Pack took him?”

The General turned to Nihlus. “Kryik?”

Nihlus was trying to fend off a tide of disproportional relief. The barefaced believed him! Perhaps there was still a chance to get out of this relatively unscathed. He straightened up and cleared his throat. “Yes, sir. I didn’t witness it myself, because the biotic attack knocked me out. But my men saw another krogan haul the body onto the gunship, which left in a hurry.”

“To save his life,” the barefaced said.

Nihlus wanted to say, I certainly hope they failed! But the hard edge of his anger was blunted. As long as the krogan lived, he could cling to the hope that the girl didn’t die in vain.

“Even if his shields were busted, he should have had his barriers up,” the barefaced mused. “What kind of biotic attack did he use?”

Nihlus felt blood rush to his face. “I uh… don’t know the word for it, sir.”

“Was it like a projectile? Describe it.”

“It wasn’t a projectile. More like a… cone-shaped… thing,” he gestured, feeling intensely inadequate. “About six meters wide at the point where it struck me, some ten meters from him? But it went on for at least as much further.”

That was surely the lamest description of anything ever, but the barefaced was nodding. “It just pushed you? It didn’t burn your armor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Which hand did he use for the biotic attack?”

“Um…” Nihlus closed his eyes, replaying the painful memory. “Left, sir.”

“Did he carry a weapon in the other?”

“Yes, sir. A shotgun. An old model. I couldn’t tell its make.”

“Did he use his omni-tool?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you see it?”

“Yes, sir. On his left hand, sir.”

“Anything distinctive about his appearance?”

Nihlus hadn’t thought about it, but—”Yes, sir. Insignia on his right shoulder-piece. A double heart.”

“What else?”

“Uh…” Nihlus closed his eyes again. “Slight limp on the right side. The fabric of his armor was shredded around the waist. Possibly no longer space-worthy. Unusual skin tone?” He blinked. “I could draw his facial paint if that would help?”

“No need. I know how he looks.” The barefaced studied him. His gaze no longer seemed predatory, but it was still making Nihlus’s heart race. “You have a good visual memory.”

“Yes, sir.” It was a curse rather than a blessing. The dead girl’s cyanotic face had joined the score of ghosts that haunted his memories together with the krogan’s personal description. “Thank you,” he added, remembering his manners.

“What would you have done to disable him, had the gunship not been there?”

Nihlus raised his browplates. Did he hear it right? He glanced at the General and at Thadon, but they looked equally surprised. It wasn’t hard to remember his reasoning, though.

“I had two men flanking him in an obvious way, and another—Farril—was hidden further behind. He was supposed to make a sudden noise on my mark. When the krogan turned toward it, Theeka was supposed to hit him in the temple with the butt of her rifle and knock him out while I covered her.” Nihlus felt unusually self-conscious. None of his COs had ever asked him about his field improvisations, especially the failed ones. “I know it wasn’t the most brilliant idea, but—”

“It was the right idea,” the barefaced said. “Likely the only right idea in that situation.”

The implied praise made Nihlus swell. “Thank you, sir.”

But the barefaced had already shifted his attention to the General. “I’m done here. I’ll need a transport to take me to the crash site, a terrain vehicle with a week’s worth of supplies, and all the intel you have on the location of the Blood Pack base.”

The General was nodding. “I’ll prep a ground unit to escort you.”

“No. I work alone.”

Nihlus held back a snort. Both the General and Thadon shifted awkwardly in their spots and the lack of an immediate acknowledgment created a tense silence.

“What?” the barefaced said.

“Saren,” the General uttered. Nihlus gasped, but not because of the unexpectedly personal address. It was him. “You know I have the utmost respect and admiration for your abilities. But you wouldn’t last a day in the jungle on your own, let alone a week. We train people in basic survival for six months here, and even so we suffer regular losses to things like quick-mud and swamp gasses. Please, trust me on this. If you won’t take a whole unit, let me at least find you a guide.”

The barefaced—Saren—seemed to weigh it carefully, but then waved his head for a negative.

Excitement peaked in Nihlus and he started speaking before he—or anyone else—could stop him.

“Sir? Take me and my men. Nobody knows that part of the jungle as well as we do. We’ve been tracking Blood Pack movements in that area for months and we know their routes and routines. And we’ve seen what your krogan can do. We’ll be ready for it if we face him again.”

“It’s out of the question,” Thadon said. “You and your men are under investigation, pending charges for insubordination. Sir,” he addressed the General, “I strongly caution against allowing this. Kryik is impulsive, strong-headed and unreliable. Not to mention unfit to go out in the field again due to injuries and exhaustion.”

“I’m as fit as I’ll ever be,” Nihlus muttered though his teeth. “Care to test it?”

Thadon’s face darkened. He opened his mouth to reply, no doubt with some shitty remark on how this only proved him right. And in a way, it did. Nihlus cursed himself for losing control, and braced himself for the worst. But instead of Thadon, it was the General who spoke.

“Stand down, both of you. And keep your traps shut. No one asked for your opinions.” He shot warning glances from Nihlus to Thadon and back. Finally, he turned to the barefaced. “I apologize on behalf of my subordinates. Normally I’d tell you to pay no heed to their bickering, but in this case, they both have a point.”

“I don’t have time to pick and choose,” the barefaced said. He seemed conflicted. “I’ll take you and your men,” he addressed Nihlus. His eyes assumed that dangerous glow again. “But I won’t tolerate disobedience, or any distractions. Do you understand?”

The world shrunk and there was nothing in it except that bare face and those cold, fiery eyes. Nihlus experienced a moment of pristine clarity and knew without a doubt that his life was about to take a strange turn, for better or for worse, and that there would be no going back.

He smiled. “Yes, sir!”


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