Inhale... Fire... Exhale...
Zai's shot took the transport in the engine, forcing the vehicle to shudder to a stop.
Like clockwork, the Hegemony soldiers slid out from the bed of the wagon, a couple in combat frames - thick, powered armor that could give the average person a fraction of godlike strength and protection.
They surrounded the vehicle, uncertain if they were under attack or if the engine had just failed. Their guns traced the forest line, looking for any hint of the enemy in the dark, rainy shadows.
It was only when the driver got out to inspect the damage that Zai fired her second shot, which acted as a signal. The bullet took the driver in the chest, painting the front of the transport red.
From both sides of the forest, weapons fire ended every unarmored soldier's life. Zai took out three more soldiers, emptying her magazine. Then she reloaded and took aim at the nearest enemy frame.
From the forest line, a rocket-propelled grenade fired by one of her people took out the combat frame in front of her, drawing cheers from her soldiers. The frame lurched, but remained standing. Its pilot was dead.
The cheers died when the second combat frame sidestepped behind their companion, using the fallen armor as a human shield. Aiming its grenade launcher into the woods, the first shot turned two of Zai's soldiers into memories before the rest dove for cover.
Zai chose to stand her ground. As the leader, she was the only one in a frame. Hers was a utility frame named Rabbit. Rabbit was more like an exoskeleton than proper armor, modified for speed and to assist in handling the massive anti-materiel rifle she'd used to start the operation.
She swore, chastising herself for not firing quickly enough to save her men. Disabling the engine in one shot had been a gamble, and the rifle wasn't rated for penetrating combat frame armor at a hundred meters. Even so, a glancing shot could have thrown off the enemy.
A pair of rocket-propelled grenades fired, one after the other, the first shot glanced off the top of the enemy frame while the second missed entirely.
The enemy leveled a grenade launcher in the direction of the second and fired, and Zai thought she saw the silhouette of someone in the explosion before the darkness and rain consumed it. Hopefully, they were alright.
"Fall back and regroup! I'll stop him!" Zai shouted through her speakers before she broke cover to charge at the enemy.
Without realizing she was screaming, Zai charged in at full speed, her frame eating the distance in heavy, metallic steps, a single thought in her head. If she couldn't kill it with the rifle at range, then she'd just have to close the distance.
Her bravery was rewarded when her soldiers, rather than retreat like she'd ordered, opened up with a hail of fire, drawing the frame trooper's attention just long enough for Zai to jam her rifle into its ribs and fire.
The bullet passed all the way through and out the other side before the frame collapsed... but not before it managed to grab the arm of Zai's frame, tearing it off and almost taking her arm with it.
She swore again. Once it was clear no one else was firing, she opened her frame and hopped out into the muddy road as her squad approached.
"Why didn't you run when I ordered you?" Zai asked.
"No offense, Captain, but I think I speak for everyone when I say we weren't going to give up. Not after they got Sh'zi and Edam." The speaker was Ezyr, a mousy-haired guy barely past looking like a teenager. He had brown hair and a whispy hint of beard that was invisible in the darkness.
"Fine. Check the bodies. Grab rations and ammo. If any of them are alive, tie them up at the trees. Lorn, you're on me." Zai gestured at the tallest member of their group, a woman in her forties with her long grey hair in a braid under her beret.
Together they walked to the back of the truck and flipped open the canvas, only to be met by a pistol shot that missed but sent Zai's people raising their arms and preparing to shoot as they looked towards the sound of danger.
Zai recovered, realizing the shot had been a warning, before peering into the barely-lit back of the truck. Inside, a Hegemon officer was holding a gun to a girl's head, and Zai recognized the Aviyan features in both of them.
"I demand to speak with your leader!" the officer shouted.
"That's me," Zai replied, eyeing the man as she slowly raised both of her hands.
"I demand safe passage back to Escator, or I kill the Doctor."
Zai looked from him to her. She was tan-skinned and smooth-featured, her hair a shade of black so dark it had a blue aura around it.
She had utility tape over her mouth and metal cuffs on her hands, as well as bruises about her face that suggested whoever she was, she'd been valuable enough to interrogate and keep rather than execute.
"Sorry, traitor, I have no idea who she is. So why don't you calm down and lay down your arms? We won't kill you if you surrender..." Zai's eyes were drawn to a slight movement in the corner of the vehicle. The barrel of a gun poked past the edge of the canvas, its wielder trying to line up a shot.
"Lies. Everyone knows you rebels execute anyone in the government you catch," the lone survivor licked his lips and adjusted his grip on his gun slightly.
Zai continued to occupy his attention. "Whose lies are those? The King's lies? Or the Hegemons'?"
"What difference does it make?" The officer asked.
"Well if you believe the first, you're a collaborator. If you believe the second, you're a fool."
"Either way, I'm dead. Is that what you're going to say?" the enemy officer laughed.
"No. Not if you surrender. Let go of the hostage." Zai said in a level tone.
The man paused, working through a calculus that Zai knew firsthand. Loyalty to authority, or staying alive. The gun in his hand lowered for a moment... but then his thoughts resolved.
"I think I'll keep the hostage-" He cocked his pistol.
As the officer's grip adjusted around the action, the girl suddenly rose up, bodying him into the wall of the truck. He pulled the trigger but shot only canvas where the Doctor's head had been.
The gun that was pointing in from the side fired. The bullet clipped the officer in the side as the girl struggled forward, barely able to move with her feet bound.
Zai quickly drew her sidearm and aimed. She had to be cautious with the hostage, but as the officer started to recover, aiming his pistol from the hip towards her, Zai fired. Two 13mm rounds took him in the chest, and then she climbed into the bed, placing a final shot in the officer's head.
With the standoff ended, Zai turned to the hostage, pulling the tape off of her mouth. "Are you alright? Doctor, was it?"
The woman was shaken, but she nodded, sitting up. "Yes... I'm fine... I take it you're with the rebels? The Sunrise Sword?"
"We are. May I ask who you are?" Zai asked gently.
She looked shocked, and more than a little roughed up. "My name is Amri Jeng... Professor of Ascendant Research at the High Institute of National Studies in Escator."
Lorn climbed into the bed, along with the shooter from the side of the truck, a full-bodied woman everyone called Qal, or Brick, because of her enormous strength and stamina. "You alright, Captain? Qal was worried she might have zinged you."
"I'm fine. See if we can find some keys for these cuffs. I want us up and moving in five."
"What about your frame?" Lorn asked.
Zai thought for a moment. "Qal, see if you can get the arm free and toss it in the basket. We can fix it up when we get home..." Zai paused to wonder when she'd started thinking of their little makeshift base in the foothills as home. It had been years since she was last in a city.
"Captain, if I may speak," Dr. Jeng said softly, "It's very important that I be brought to your leaders. I have intelligence that the monarchy and the Hegemony are planning something big and-"
"First, we're taking you back to our base. Right now there's a big operation going on, and I won't interrupt our leadership so you can stick your nose in it, especially if it turns out you're a spy."
"Captain, I must insist. Your operation is in grave danger-"
"Save it for-"
"The Second Ascendant of Lighting is here, in the east!" Amri shouted.
Zai paled. "That's not possible... our comrades in the north have her pinned..."
"I assure you, it's true. I was with her in Ashkenrihtan village until the day before yesterday... when I discovered how the Hegemon's Ascendants are really made..."
Zai's eyes widened. If what she was saying was true, there was a chance they could not only end the war, but ensure that the Hegemony never returned. If the people had an Ascendant on their side...
"Lorn, get on the radio and get Major Riel." Zai ordered, "Tell her I'm calling in every favor she owes me and the squad. Get the warning up that the Ascendant of Lightning is in our theatre, somewhere around Ashkenrihtan. I'll be right out if she asks for me."
Lorn gave a small salute before tossing Zai the keys she'd found before hopping out of the vehicle, the former officer's pistol sticking out of her back pocket.
"Thank you for listening to me, Captain," Dr. Jeng said as Zai started undoing the cuffs on her legs. "Please rest assured, I am not going to betray your trust... I know I was on the wrong side for much of my life... if there's any way I can help, I want to-"
"Captain!" Lorn shouted.
Zai gave the Doctor an apology before standing up, going to the edge of the truck.
"What is it? Did you get the Major?"
"Yes, ma'am. We're being ordered to retreat."
"What!? By who?"
"The Major. She's taken command of the field..." Lorn wiped the rain from her eyes... not rain, tears, Zai realized. "We're too late. The Lightning has... General Vaan is..."
"Get everyone here... and keep quiet about what the Doctor said." Zai ordered after she had a moment to let the news sink in. In short order, everyone was gathered and Zai was in her frame again, the bodies of their two fallen comrades placed in the basket on the back along with the severed arm.
Zai had opened Amri's handcuffs, and the doctor sat in the remaining hand of Zai's frame. "Nightraven Squad... I have new orders," Zai raised her voice. "We're returning to base before making our way to headquarters. Our new mission is to get Dr. Jeng there at all costs. She has valuable intel that could help us in the war..."
Lorn cast a questioning look at Zai, but Zai ignored it. "Whatever happens, even if I choose to sacrifice myself, get her to Major Riel. Understood?"
"Yes ma'am!" they chorused.
"The time for raiding is done... Nightravens, let's fly."