Lines in the Sand Opener—Rank and File

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The Mushroom Wizard - Arc VII Banner Lines in the Sand

Lines in the Sand—Rank and File

by CupcakeTrap

This mini-scene centers on a squad of Piltover’s Special Shuriman Expositioneers Expeditioneers, on patrol outside the governor’s mansion.

Sergeant Amelia Dalton continued the story of the first time she saw combat in Shurima. Her squad, weary from a day of perimeter patrols, sat against the ridge of a sand dune while the sun melted below the western horizon. The colonial governor was holding a fancy gala at his mansion tonight, and her squad was to ensure that there were no violent interruptions from Shuriman malcontents or rabble rousers. Or the Noxian legions encamped nearby. You could never rule that out—this truce was written on tissue paper.

“So I’m sitting there in the back of the autocar. Jinx is still out cold, bound up with whatever sort of fancy handcuffs you put a Champion in. She was right next to me—within spitting distance, and I was bloody well thinking about it, wondering what exactly ‘humane treatment of prisoners’ means anyway. I had a hextech revolver in my hand, from Ms. Caitlyn herself.”

She mimed a handgun with a pointed finger. “Put a shot right between her eyes, she told me, if she gets so much as a pinky loose. I look at Jinx, I think about all those League matches I’ve seen her in, and it occurs to me: I’m practically a minion, as far as she’s concerned. I know if something goes wrong, I’ve got time for one shot before she ends me in the most horrible of ways. I get to thinking about how many Champions have been killed by us normal folk. Not a lot, that’s for sure. I try to remember how many soldiers they say it took to gun down Rob Blackblade. Certainly more than two. Heart’s pounding, but I tell myself I can’t afford shaky hands at a time like this. Sweating bullets, but I can’t take my one good shot with slippery palms. And I’ve got four hours left on my watch.”

She paused to look over her squad. Telling my first story to my first command. I should remember this.

“So I’m more scared than I’d ever been in my quite possibly soon-to-end life, wishing Caitlyn were here, or Vi, or anyone with a bit higher of a paygrade. At least I’ve got another trooper with me, I think. And then I look over at him, none other than our own Mr. Rigby here, and he’s lolling his head over his rifle, getting some beauty sleep. So I kicked him in the shins and yelled at him to wake up before I drag him to the gallows in his pajamas. Interrupting his beauty sleep. And so I s’pose it’s my fault he’s as un-beautiful a thing as he is.”

The squad snickered, even Rigby. Hearing them laugh did her good. For months now, ever since the Freljordians fixed Nyroth, they’d been escorting Piltovian research teams around the desert, often crossing paths with Noxian troops on a similar mission. They’d fought their share of Shurimans, mostly bandits and irate locals whipped into a frenzy by some shaman or warlord. Thanks to the quick and accurate marksmanship she’d drilled into her troops, she hadn’t lost anyone yet—though her mental balance sheet showed that even the greenest members of the unit had taken several lives, and that had a cost of its own. Not unrelatedly, they’d mostly avoided hostilities with the Noxians.

She’d come close to having to fill out Form MHR-6244, Certification of Eligibility for Posthumous Commendation, a few weeks ago, when a “misunderstanding” brought them into combat with Noxians for the first time on this deployment. It was the sort of “misunderstanding” that starts with a Noxian soldier getting possessed by some sort of spook from the Void, continues with his pals chasing him right into Piltovian territory, and ends with one of her troopers suffering a nearly fatal wound from an envenomed arrow. Over and over again, she’d thought about how their bullets had glanced right off the Noxian armor. Probably just bad luck, but she worried about the handful of fresh recruits in the unit, the ones who hadn’t been at the Battle of Shurima, who might get to believing that Noxians were invincible.

She looked down over the ridge at the Noxian camp below, within an arrow’s flight of their position, and once again started ruminating on what she’d do if she saw them come charging their way. Dig in and open fire? Full retreat? Withdraw with cover fire? She’d have to decide quickly. Strange thing, knowing that such a moment was all but inevitable. Whatever else her future might hold, there would be a day, or a night, when she heard the Noxian battle-cry and gave the order that might mean life or death for her troopers and herself. All over a bunch of musty old artifacts and eerie magic that, so far as she could tell, was about equally likely to harm or help.

“That settles it, then,” proclaimed Private Arthur Fernley, slapping Corporal William Rigby on the shoulder with the smiling trepidation of a rank-and-file trooper testing the boundaries of his license for chumminess with his superior. “We owe it to our corporal here to make certain he catches up on his beauty sleep—before any of this ghastly disfiguration,” he gestured at Rigby’s face, “becomes permanent.”

The recently promoted Corporal Rigby smiled at his friend the private. “Very decent of you, Arthur. You can start by taking two watches tonight. There’s a good lad.”

Fernley laughed uncertainly. His hand slipped off Rigby’s shoulder.

“Funny thing is,” Rigby said, jerking a thumb back in Fernley’s direction as he looked at the other troopers, “that he still thinks I might be joking.”

He looked back over at Amelia. “Speaking of funny things, Sarge—so that whole episode is a joke now, is it?” He looked at the others. “I was barely a month out of basic training. And so she,” he nodded toward Amelia, “practically gives me a heart attack—physically assaulting me—and starts talking about having me hung as a traitor for sleeping at my post. I thought she was serious. Didn’t occur to me that she’d use death threats as a joke.”

Sergeant Dalton, who did in fact feel a bit guilty about the prank, or hazing, or whatever it was—more of a prank, really—shrugged defensively. “Pretty much our job description, isn’t it?” She patted her sidearm, a heavy pistol modified to fire ultravelocity hextech cartridges. “Death threats, that is. Giving and receiving.”

“All I’m saying, Sarge, is that you ought to read something besides the Military Code of Regular Procedures.”

Amelia didn’t bother throwing in anything about how sleeping at one’s post during watch really was a capital offense. She couldn’t recite regulations about guard duty to these men and women, who on four separate occasions had repelled night raids by Shuriman mercs and rebels. They’d stand their watch in the eerie Shuriman night not because they were scared of her, but because they wouldn’t let each other down like that. And that’s how she wanted it.

Distracted by this talk of sleep, the troopers’ weary eyes gradually drifted back down to the Noxian camp. A few minutes passed in silence. Sergeant Dalton was proud of her troopers, knew they could hold their own against Noxians, but didn’t begrudge them a desire not to have to do so. That’s what separates us from them, she thought. We’ve got better things to do. Making the world better, not just making it ours. Fighting to live, not living to fight.

Corporal Nathaniel Starling spoke, his eyes still fixed on the Noxian camp. “I do hope the League can keep this truce together. I’m just imagining all those Noxians down there charging at us. Poison arrows and black magic and what-have-you.”

No, she didn’t begrudge them a desire not to fight. It’d be an insult to their intelligence to insist that they swagger around all day talking about how much they were looking forward to maybe getting hacked to pieces by axes.

Starling wasn’t a coward for saying that. A coward wouldn’t be here to say it. He was a brave young man from a respectable family; he’d enlisted after the bombing of Piltover, not as an officer candidate, but as a common soldier, forgoing the privileges his family’s standing afforded him in order to get into the fight where and when he was needed. Every man was entitled to speak his thoughts about his possibly impending demise.

Specialist Gwendolen Hobart, a transvox operator and the unit’s techmaturgic expert, nodded along. “Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I miss the Demacians.”

Rigby scoffed. “Can’t blame them, can we? King Jarvan saved Valoran, and he got locked up for his trouble.”

Starling shook his head. “That he did. Seems as though Noxus and Zaun run the show at the League these days. At this rate, it won’t be long before Demacia decides it’s had enough of the Council’s nonsense and withdraws.”

Hobart grinned. “Sometimes I do rather enjoy the thought of Demacia taking the gloves off. Noxians don’t play by the rules; why should they? I’d like to see what Jarvan would do to Swain and his lot if they really let loose.”

Starling arched an eyebrow. “You should be careful what you wish for. You’d get to see it for all of a week before a runespell sank Piltover into the ocean, or burned us all alive, or ripped our souls out of our bodies to power some horrible spell. Toss-up whether it’d be Demacia or Noxus that did it. A rune war like that would have three sides: Demacia, Noxus, and The Grand Confederation of Collateral Damage.”

He opened his pack and fished around inside. “I can’t say I know what Demacia would or wouldn’t do. I don’t see how anyone can presume to know what a king who takes orders from a crazed ocean spirit will do next. But if Noxus tries to gobble us up, they’ll get more than they bargained for when the New Model Army arrives.” He set his jaw and scowled down into his pack. “They’re hungry for a fight? We’ll give them a fight. We’ll give them loads—fistfuls of fight. One after another, shove ‘em right down their throat. They want to take a bite out of us, let them try.” His voice faded into angry muttering. “We’ll break their bloody jaw.”

Hobart glanced over his way. “Easy there, Starling. The metaphor’s already dead. No sense beating on it any more.”

She adjusted the dials on the transvox. The lights flashed blue and green. “I won’t deny that if this does go south, I’ll be glad for the New Model Army. But I can’t say I’m proud of it.” One of the lights flashed yellow, and she took out a thaumex reader to begin tuning the device. “Techmaturgic aura modulation? On human subjects? In Piltover?”

Oh, here they go again.

Hobart unscrewed the four iron clasps that locked down a panel on the side of the transvox. “Right now, back home in Piltover, the Shining City of Tomorrow, there’s a prison that has ‘research facility’ written over the entrance and is full of all the People of Tomorrow test subjects who didn’t come out right. They say they’d euthanize them, but for the paperwork.”

She opened the panel. Inside, fixed upon a shifting axle, a gear etched with Shuriman sigils ticked around in a sort of wobbly circle, with an hourglass filled with dark purple grains of pyrikhos at its unstable center. “Techmaturgic aura modulation. That’s something that deserves to be put in plainer terms. We put those men and women under machines and started reconfiguring their souls without any real clue what we were doing. What makes a Champion a Champion? I don’t know; let’s scan a few of ours, then start digging into ordinary people’s auras and trying to make them look more like Jayce’s or Caitlyn’s. Boldly to hope, nobly to strive, for a brighter tomorrow. You know, it’s rather important that you hope boldly and strive nobly. Switch it around, start hoping nobly and striving boldly, and this is what you get: bright and shiny hopes about a Pilt army that can stand up to Noxus and Zaun, and then doing whatever barbaric thing we think might take us there, whatever the cost.”

Starling unscrewed the cap of his canteen. “Come now, Gwen. Not another bit of handwringing about slippery slopes and whether we’re any better than Zaun. Of course we are. In Zaun, they’d have been abducted from the streets by megacorp thugs. These were volunteers. They were—they are—brave men and women who discovered they had hidden potential and volunteered to undergo efforts to bring out that potential. They knew the risks.”

Hobart answered, her voice dark. “I imagine most of them did. It seems that’s good enough for the new Piltover.”

Sergeant Dalton had heard enough. “Quite the little debating society the two of you have going here. Perhaps I ought to jog across the way to the governor’s, and fetch you some tea and cakes.”

“We have plenty of both back there. I could have a tray brought out if you’d like.”

Sergeant Dalton’s eyes went wide as she heard Caitlyn’s voice just behind her. She spun around and faced her with a stiff salute. “Begging your pardon, ma’am!” She heard her troops hasten to attention behind her, boots and packs sinking into the sand.

She’d come from the governor’s mansion, dressed for the gala tonight. In place of her usual attire, she was wearing a beautiful and very expensive-looking dress, made from wine-red fabric that shimmered as she moved, with a silver purse in lieu of a rifle. She’d snuck up on the entire squad, wearing that dress, and…Amelia’s eyes fell to her feet and saw she was wearing heels. Five-inch heels, by the looks of them. She was walking across the sand dunes wearing heels. Even for a Champion, that was showing off.

Caitlyn arched an eyebrow. “There’s no need to salute me, Sergeant. You’re the highest-ranking member of the military here. I’m a civilian.”

Sergeant Dalton lowered the salute and nodded. “Every civilian outranks me, ma’am.” She spoke with genuine pride as she recited what she’d read while preparing for the Academy’s entrance exams. “It’s civilian control of the military in Piltover, ma’am, not the other way around. It’s in the city charter. That’s what makes us different from…” She thought about the absent Demacians, then tried to think of someone else, “from…Noxus, and that lot.”

Caitlyn seemed to read her mind. “Or Demacia, some might say.”

She met Caitlyn’s eyes as she smiled back at her. The thought that here was a Champion of the League who knew her by name, and even rather seemed to like her, resonated within her.

“Nothing against our noble Demacian allies, of course,” Caitlyn continued, voice so characteristically dry that Amelia had a hard time working out where the irony came in and left along the way. “If we end up in a scrap with them,” she nodded toward the Noxian camp, “we’ll need all the help we can get.”

Specialist Hobart switched off her thaumex. “We were just saying so, ma’am.” She sighed. “Not that we aren’t ready and able, but if that lot comes rushing at us, I sure wouldn’t mind having Galio hovering overhead.”

Caitlyn reached up, as though to adjust the brim of her hat, and somewhat haltingly transitioned into slipping a lock of hair back over her ear instead. “I like to think I’m rather good at laying down cover fire myself.” Before Hobart could reply, she held up a hand. “It’s alright. I understand. Please. You fellows patrol in a warzone all day; I go to parties and fight pretend battles in the middle of an international court of law, with my own personal mage to watch over me. I only do my duty.”

She turned swiftly to another topic. “Speaking of Galio, he’s one of our guests this evening. I’ll bring him by to say hello if I can. I hear they’ve put him in some kind of tuxedo. I do wonder how they puzzled around the wings.”

Starling pointed up to the sky. Amelia turned and saw the distant shape of an approaching airship.

“The guests of honor,” he remarked.

Sergeant Dalton nodded. “Alright. Weapons check, and one more sweep. And stay sharp out there.” She paused. “Those Noxians try anything, you send up a flare and run like mad.”

“Better part of valor, eh, Sarge?” Rigby quipped, as he checked the cartridge on his rifle.

She looked toward Starling, and shook her head. “No. Once we’ve fallen back to a defensible position, and the artillery’s warmed up, and those Noxians come charging into overlapping fields of fire, and we get a lovely moment to think about what they did a year ago, with our fingers on our triggers…that will be the better part of valor.”

Return to Lines in the Sand (Opener)
Next Update: Sand Hotter Than Blood

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