Lance Corporal Linus Kolgriv stood as ramrod straight as he could muster. ‘Twas more than arrows could get you killed, in this man’s army. The man in question was Leftenant Commander Holvelak. Kolgriv supposed that the Commander must have a first name, but he was sure that he didn’t know anyone who’d dare tell him, much less speak it aloud. Everyone just called him “The Commander”, out of sheer self-preservation. There was power in names, and Kolgriv would bet his paltry wages that the Commander would hear any words spoken after his name was mentioned aloud, unless spoken in church, or under a new moon.

That was the way, with witches.

“Where,” came the sibilant hiss, “do you suppose they went, then?”

Kolgriv studied the air in front of him with the fervent intensity of a schoolboy whose lector has just called for a volunteer to enumerate the organs of female reproduction. He was damned if he knew, in any case. The bloody elves had just disappeared, leaving not a trace of their passing. A whole village of them.

And he had to admit, he wouldn’t have been able to do much to pick out the organs of female reproduction, either. Might have saved himself some trouble, though at least his sudden new wife was a good Church girl, and Powlish, to boot. That had made things easier on his poor mum.

Hmm… Svelkie should be due soon. Assuming that the Commander didn’t pick him out of the line for—

“Sir,” called out Major “No-Shit” Thunder, whose cheery obliviousness was extreme even for the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade. “I respectfully submit that they have gone to link up with the main contingent, sir, in the face of the 27th’s overwhelmingly superior force!”

The sneer was obvious, even to those like Kolgriv who determinedly avoided looking at it. “Your sobriquet is well-earned, Major.” The Commander turned, and looked down over the fern-strewn descent into the quiet elf village that he and his men had been inexplicably sent to “pacify”.

Even in the full light of late morning, the forest floor basked in an arboreal twilight, broken only by the flickers of white balefire at their backs that formed a perimeter around the elf-city. The scent of two hundred meters of charred forest tickled at Kolgriv’s conscience, but only a little. Good Church upbringing or no, it took a lot more faith than he’d brought with him to insist that a little bit of calculated destruction of the Lord’s creation was against His will, not when so much of that creation seemed to be trying to kill you. The Commander had ordered the perimeter razed “so that even a mole might not cross unnoticed.”

With its usual battery of flame and lightning, the 27th had followed orders with nervous intensity. Two hundred feet of verdant forest now more closely resembled a volcanic plain of barren earth and still-burning fires. At the outer edge stood a twenty-foot wall of unearthly white balefire that had risen up behind the Commander as he had walked the perimeter, forming a blazing shackle around the elf city.

If there were any moles left, Kolgriv was sure that they had better sense than to burrow through that strip of hell.

The Commander laid it out. “We lost twelve men in full thaumechanical battle dress to a hive of bumblebees, Major. A hive that just happened to be obscured from sight by the reflection from a brook just wide enough to catch the sun for the two hours in the afternoon that an advancing force would be likely to arrive, given the only sensible encampment within a day’s journey. A hive that just happened to fall in such a way that those twelve armored men, in an attempt to avoid the bees, stumbled onto a bank of moss so unusually slippery that they lost their footing and plunged down a hill, which just happened to have at its base a quarry of razor-sharp quartzite.” The Commander spat. “Do you happen to remember how long those men struggled to free themselves, before we stopped hearing them cry out?”

“Or,” he added ominously, “perhaps you just happen to remember how we lost the battle tank?”

Despite himself, Kolgriv gulped. He remembered what had earned him that field promotion. He hadn’t had time yet to add a rocker to the single chevron that his uniform had come with.

“No, Major, the elves did not flee us.” The Commander’s voice was flat. “But I submit that you should organize some men to find them, before we learn where they went in some equally grotesque fashion. Lance Corporal Kolgriv!”

Kolgriv’s sphincter puckered. He’d been so close! “I have learned that we will be having guests, on the morrow. A priest. See to it that I am not bothered. I have… other matters to attend to.”

The Corporal stammered out an assent. A priest… might not get him killed. You never could tell, with Church men.

His relief was mixed with a new dread. He had been unable to avoid the Commander’s eye just then, and he had seen something there that he’d never seen before.

Fire. Excitement. Lust.

The balefire that trapped them all in this place crackled at Kolgriv’s back. He eyed its creator, a shudder running the length of his spine. Whatever that mage’s mysterious business, Kolgriv was certain of one thing: the destruction behind him would pale by what else this madman had in mind.