Wrath of Empire
The country is in turmoil. With the capital city occupied, half a million refugees are on the march, looking for safety on the frontier, accompanied by Lady Flint's soldiers. But escaping war is never easy, and soon the battle may find them, whether they are prepared or not.
Back in the capital, Michel Bravis smuggles even more refugees out of the city. But internal forces are working against him. With enemies on all sides, Michel may be forced to find help with the very occupiers he is trying to undermine.
Meanwhile, Ben Styke is building his own army. He and his mad lancers are gathering every able body they can find and searching for an ancient artifact that may have the power to turn the tides of war in their favor. But what they find may not be what they're looking for.
Release date: May 15, 2018
Print pages: 656
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Wrath of Empire
“Go on,” a voice said.
Orz looked over his shoulder at the morion-helmed soldier standing just behind him. The soldier held a short pike, a ceremonial weapon carried by some of the bone-eye bodyguards. Orz wondered where they were—what port had the floating prison sailed into this time. More importantly, he wondered which bone-eye had come to gawk at him now.
Bone-eyes were not unlike Privileged; their vast power was contained within fragile human bodies that could be broken as easily as any ceramic vase. Bone-eyes could die. This bodyguard could die. Orz envisioned himself stalking through the ship, murdering everyone in his path before swimming to shore and disappearing into the countryside.
“We don’t have all day,” the soldier behind him said, thrusting the blade of the pike against the small of Orz’s back. “Move.”
Orz snorted and took the first heavy step, careful lest the weight of his chains cause him to lose his balance and tumble backward onto the soldier’s blade. He jangled as he climbed, feeling the iron shackles scrape against his bare skin, and within a few moments he stepped out into the light of day for the first time in months.
He blinked, trying to let his eyes adjust, but was shoved along in front of the soldier. Several other guards arrived, forming a cordon around him, pushing and prodding him along the deck, half-blind, and then up another flight of stairs to the ship’s forecastle.
Orz felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked away, turning toward the railing and gazing through the pain of the light at an unfamiliar shore. A city rose above him, high on an immense plateau covered in strange buildings. He felt his breath catch in his throat; during the long, secluded journey he had thought they were taking him to a new prison somewhere in Dynize.
This was not Dynize. This city, this plateau—he knew only one like it in the storybooks: Landfall.
He was not given further opportunity to wonder. Hands grasped him by the chains and pulled him forward, driving him to the other edge of the forecastle, where he was kicked to his knees. He fell without a sound, ignoring the pain as he had been taught, and instead raised his eyes to find the bone-eye he’d already guessed had called for him.
Orz had never met the old man sitting straight-backed on a stool, sipping from a tiny porcelain cup, but he knew him by description and reputation. Ka-Sedial was the emperor’s second cousin and chief adviser, and most people in Dynize knew him as the true power behind the crown. He was a bone-eye who had risen to power on a tide of blood and taken credit for ending the Dynize civil war.
Orz was not impressed. As a dragonman, he was not impressed by much.
Ka-Sedial finished his tea and handed the cup to an attendant, then placed his hands palms-down on his knees and stared out to sea. Orz began to think that he was being purposefully ignored when he heard a commotion behind him: another person, wrapped in chains similarly to Orz, was dragged up to the forecastle and thrown to her knees.
Then another was brought up, and then another, until six men and women knelt before Ka-Sedial. Orz examined his companions. He only recognized two of them, but all five were covered in inky black tattoos, their bodies hard as granite. They were like him.
Six dragonmen, all in one place.
“This is an auspicious gathering,” Orz said softly.
Ka-Sedial finally turned his head, sweeping his gaze across all the prisoners. When he spoke, his voice was gentle, forcing Orz to strain to hear him over the creaking of the ship and the squawking of the gulls. “Do you know what you all have in common?”
They were all dragonmen, but Orz suspected that was not the answer Ka-Sedial sought. Orz looked one way, then the other, at his five companions. The woman to his left had long, dirty red hair that covered most of her face, but he remembered the scar across her left eye. Her name was Ji-Karnari, and seven years ago she desecrated a bone-eye temple for reasons he never learned. The man to his right, willowy and small of stature, was named Ji-Matle. Nine years ago he was assigned to guard one of the emperor’s cousins, whom he bedded.
No one spoke up, so Orz cleared his throat. “We have all disgraced ourselves in the eyes of the emperor.”
“Very good.” Ka-Sedial stood up, and Orz couldn’t help but smile at how old and frail he looked. He could snap Ka-Sedial like a twig, if not for these chains. Ka-Sedial noticed the smile and his brow wrinkled. He took a step over to Orz. “Tell me, Ji-Orz, what was your crime?”
Orz closed his eyes, thinking of the last few years spent in this dungeon or that, every movement restricted, always watched, like a prize dog gone rabid whose masters could not bear to put him down. “I did not bow during an audience with the emperor.”
“And why did you not bow?”
“Because he is not my emperor.”
Ka-Sedial gave an almost grandfatherly sigh and gestured toward the shoreline and the city on the plateau. “The civil war is over. Your false emperor is dead and the governments of both sides have reconciled. We have turned our wars outward—as is proper—and we have come to Fatrasta to reclaim land that was once ours. We have come to find our god, and we have done so together. United.” He sighed once more, shaking his head like a disappointed teacher, and Orz found himself annoyed that after all he and his companions had suffered, Ka-Sedial would treat them all like children.
“Why are we here?” Orz asked.
Ka-Sedial looked down at him, a hint of disgust in his eyes, then raised his hands toward the chained dragonmen. “You have all disgraced yourselves in the eyes of the emperor, and your positions as dragonmen prevent us from spilling your blood. Every one of you will live long lives alone in the darkness, left to rot away.”
“Or?” Orz asked. He could smell it now—the scent of an option, a way out. He tried to think of what he knew about Ka-Sedial. The Ka was a driven man, cold and thoughtful but given, from time to time, to rage. He’d built his power by destroying or subjugating all that opposed him. He was a man who did not take no for an answer, and did not leave any enemy standing.
Annoyance flashed briefly across Ka-Sedial’s face at Orz’s interruption. He lowered his hands. “Or you can redeem yourselves. My armies have taken Landfall. We will take Fatrasta in due time. Meanwhile, I have an errand that needs to be run and I cannot spare any of the dragonmen, Privileged, or bone-eyes in my army.”
The invasion of Fatrasta had been planned for almost a decade, but Orz still found himself surprised that it had actually happened—that the treaty between the two sides of the civil war had managed to hold long enough for this to happen. He needed more information about the invasion—what kind of people had been found in Fatrasta, their weapons and their warriors. But that would come later, he was sure of it.
Ji-Karnari, the scarred woman beside Orz, finally raised her head. Orz could see the eagerness in her eyes and couldn’t help but judge her. Dragonmen should hide their emotions better.
“What is this errand, Great Ka?” Ji-Karnari asked. “How can we be redeemed?”
Ka-Sedial put his hand out, brushing his fingertips along Ji-Karnari’s forehead. She shuddered at the sensation. He said, “There were … humiliations suffered in the taking of Landfall. Humiliations against the army, and humiliations against the dragonmen. I have already sent soldiers to deal with the former, but the latter …” He trailed off, smiling coldly. “One of your order—one of the very best dragonmen by the name of Ji-Kushel—was murdered in Landfall by a common soldier.”
“So?” Orz asked. He felt emboldened. This was a way out now, and Ka-Sedial was going to give it to him. But he did not trust Ka-Sedial, and he would ask questions. “Many common soldiers have killed dragonmen. There are overwhelming numbers or lucky shots, or—”
“In single combat,” Ka-Sedial cut him off.
Orz heard his teeth click together as he quickly shut his mouth. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He’d heard rumors of powder mages, sorcerers who might have the speed and strength to kill a dragonman with the aid of their magic. But Ka-Sedial would have said so if it was one of those. For a common soldier to kill a dragonman in single combat? That was a humiliation.
Ka-Sedial looked toward the land again, one hand twitching as if in impatience. “I do not stand for such humiliation. This soldier is an old warrior and, if given time, may attract followers. He may become even more dangerous than he already is. I am cutting you loose. All six of you. I want you to work together, with Ji-Karnari in command.”
A smile crossed Ji-Karnari’s face. Orz resisted the urge to roll his eyes. A small part of him wanted to spit on Ka-Sedial’s feet and tell him off, but a much larger part had no interest in spending the rest of his life in chains. He would accomplish Ka-Sedial’s task, and then he would revel in his freedom.
“Who is this soldier?” Orz asked.
“He is a lancer by the name of Ben Styke,” Ka-Sedial replied. “Find him and bring me his head.”
As a child, General Vlora Flint had heard stories of refugee camps formed during the Gurlish Wars. Whole cities displaced, a million people on the run from enemy armies, or even forced from their homes by their own soldiers. The camps, she’d been told, were places of untold suffering and misery. Disease and starvation were rampant, bodies left unburied, and the people living in constant fear of the next army to come upon them.
Vlora, in all her nightmares, had never imagined herself de facto leader of such a camp.
She stood on a gentle rise overlooking the Hadshaw River Valley and surveyed the long, winding string of wagons, tents, and cookfires that stretched into the distance. It was early morning, the air heavy and humid, and all she could think about was the numbers that her quartermasters had brought her just an hour ago. They’d finished their counts and estimated that over three hundred thousand people had fled Landfall—just over a third of the city—and that of those, some two hundred and twenty thousand were following this river valley toward Redstone.
Her own men, including the Mad Lancers and the Landfall garrison, had been badly mauled during the defense of the city. She had less than ten thousand men under her command, just one soldier for every twenty-two people.
How in Adom’s name was she going to organize this mess, let alone protect it?
She pulled herself out of her own head and looked at the camp below her. She could pick out her soldiers walking up and down the river, waking people up, telling everyone it was time to get moving. Three weeks since the Battle of Landfall and disease was already beginning to spread; many of her own soldiers had contracted dysentery. Food and medicine were in short supply. Most people had left the city in a panic, grabbing valuables rather than necessities, and fled without plan or destination.
She inclined her head slightly toward the man waiting patiently beside her. Olem was of middle height, a few inches taller than her, with sandy hair and a graying beard. He walked with a slight limp, and his right arm was still in a sling from a bullet wound from Landfall. He was a Knacked—possessing a singular sorcerous talent that kept him from needing sleep—but even he looked tired as piss, with crow’s-feet in the corners of his eyes and his face gaunt with worry. She wanted to order him to rest, but knew he’d ignore her.
She wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do without him.
“Any sign of the Dynize?” she asked, turning from her view of the refugees to look back down the river the way they’d come. Landfall was about sixty miles to their southeast, and the road that direction was dotted with stragglers. Her own army was camped here, guarding the rear of the refugee convoy.
Olem sucked on a cigarette, smoke curling out of his nostrils, before giving a measured response. “Scouting parties,” he said. “They’re watching us leave. But I imagine they’re too busy solidifying their hold on Landfall to bother coming after us. For now.”
“You know,” Vlora said, shooting him a sour look, “you could leave off the ‘for now.’ It just sounds ominous.”
“I never try to give you anything but the facts,” Olem responded, straight-faced. “And the fact is they’re leaving us alone. I can’t imagine it’ll last forever. I’ve got our dragoons sweeping our rear, trying to catch one of those scouting parties, but they’ve come up with nothing so far.”
Vlora swore inwardly. She needed to know the state of the city. She and her men had won the Battle of Landfall, only to be forced to abandon it at word of an even bigger Dynize army on the way. Last she knew, that army had begun to land near the city, and she had no intelligence since then. How big was that army? Were they pushing outward aggressively? Were they taking their time to fortify the city? Did they have more Privileged sorcerers and bone-eyes?
Beyond food and supplies for so many people, the next most valuable commodity was information. She needed to know whether the Dynize were hot on her heels. She also needed to know if the Fatrastan Army was heading this direction, because that offered its own set of complications. “Any word from Lindet?”
Olem pursed his lips. “Nothing official. We’ve taken in nearly two thousand Blackhats. None of them seem to have orders, or know of the falling out between you and their Lady Chancellor. I’ve put them to work as a police force among the refugees.”
Olem’s ability to keep even the biggest army occupied and organized never failed to amaze her. “You’re a saint, but keep a close eye on those Blackhats. Any of them could be Lindet’s spies. She may have left town two steps ahead of us, but if she didn’t leave eyes and ears to keep track of me, I’ll eat my hat.”
“And I, mine,” Olem agreed. “But I’ve got my own men among them. I’ll keep things sorted as best as I can. Did you know Styke is openly recruiting from the Blackhats to fill out the ranks of his lancers?”
Vlora snorted. “With success?”
“More than I expected. He’s making them renounce their loyalty to the Lady Chancellor before they can sign on. The Blackhats are damned angry she abandoned so many of them without orders. He’s got over a hundred already.”
“And may Adom help any spies he catches,” Vlora said. She hesitated, her eyes on a string of horsemen riding single file along the other side of the river. They were a company of hers, wearing their tall dragoon helmets and crimson uniforms with blue trim, straight swords and carbines lashed to the saddles. “Did I make a mistake giving Styke command of my cavalry?”
“I don’t think so,” Olem replied.
Vlora clasped her hands behind her back to keep from fiddling with her lapels. “Lindet told me he’s an uncontrollable monster.”
“I get the feeling,” Olem responded, dropping his cigarette butt and crushing it beneath the heel of his boot, “that Lindet’s version of the truth is whatever is convenient at the time. Besides, right now he’s our monster.”
“Again, that’s not reassuring.” Vlora tried to get a rein on her thoughts. They were unfocused, scattered, and the sheer number of uncertainties running through her head was enough to drive her mad. There was so much to attend to within her own army—Blackhat stragglers, the city garrison, the Mad Lancers, and the core of the brigade of mercenaries she brought with her from Adro. She had over five thousand picked men, many of them wounded, half a world away from their homes, without an employer. A desperate bark of a laugh escaped her lips, and Olem shot her a worried glance.
“You all right?” he asked in a low voice.
“I’m fine,” she said reassuringly. “There’s just … a lot to take in.”
“You know these refugees aren’t your responsibility,” Olem said, not for the first time.
“Yes, they are.”
Vlora tried to find a satisfactory answer. She wondered what Field Marshal Tamas would have done in such a situation, and realized that he would have marched to the nearest unoccupied city and booked passage home for his troops the moment his contract became null. But she was not Tamas. Besides, there were more reasons to stay in this land than a quarter of a million refugees. “Because,” she finally answered, “no one else will do it.”
“The men are beginning to wonder where their next stack of krana will come from.”
Another of a thousand worries. A little bitter part of her wanted to tell the men that they should be more concerned about getting out of Fatrasta alive than their next payment, but she couldn’t be too hard on them. They were mercenaries, after all. “Give them promissory notes against my own holdings.”
“I already did.”
“Without asking me?”
Olem gave her a small smile and dug in his pocket for a pouch of tobacco and some rolling papers. “I figured you’d give the order at some point. But not even you can pay them indefinitely.”
“I’ll figure out something.” Vlora waved him off as if she wasn’t concerned, but it was a worry that kept her up at night. A thought suddenly hit her and she squinted down into the camp. “You know, I haven’t seen Taniel or Ka-poel for a while. Where the pit are they?”
“They remained in the city when we left.”
Vlora scowled. “And you didn’t think to tell me?”
“I did, actually. Twice. You assured me both times that you’d heard every word I was saying.”
“I lied.” Vlora felt a sudden stab of despair. Despite their rocky history, Taniel was a reassuring man to have around, and not just because he was a one-man army. “Why would they stay in the city? Are they gathering intelligence?”
Olem shrugged, then hesitated before saying, “I know you and Taniel have known each other a long time. But don’t forget that those two have their own agenda.”
It was not a reminder Vlora needed—or wanted. Taniel was more than an old lover; he was an adopted sibling and a childhood friend. Instinct told her to trust him, but years of military and political training reminded her that shared history was a long time ago. So much had changed.
With everything going on right now, his disappearance was the least of her worries. She ran her fingers through her tangled hair, wondering how long it had been since she’d had a proper bath. Setting aside her discomfort, she said, “I need information.”
“Well, we might have something.” Olem pointed toward a uniformed messenger hurrying his way up the hill toward them.
“It won’t be useful,” Vlora responded, annoyed. “It’s going to be some asshole city commissioner trying to hassle me for supplies he thinks we’re hoarding from the refugees. Again.”
“I bet it’s something important.”
“I bet it’s not.”
“I’ll bet you that spare pouch of tobacco you keep in the left cuff of your jacket,” Olem said.
“Deal,” Vlora said, watching the messenger approach. It was a young woman with a private’s insignia on her lapel, and she saluted smartly as she came to a stop.
“Ma’am,” the messenger said, “I’ve got word from Captain Davd.”
Vlora shot Olem a look. “Is it important?”
“Yes, ma’am. He said he’s spotted a Dynize pursuit force.”
Vlora took a deep, shaky breath as a wave of trepidation swept through her. This would mean a battle. It would mean men dead and the lives of all these refugees at stake. But at least she could finally see her enemy.
She dug into her sleeve and pulled out her pouch of emergency tobacco, handing it to Olem without looking at him. Smug bastard. “Take me to Captain Davd.”
The Hadshaw River Valley was heavily trafficked, the old-growth forests that had once sprawled across this part of Fatrasta logged into extinction over the last couple hundred years. The land was rocky and unforgiving, very unlike the floodplains closer to the city or the plantations to the west. Farmsteads dotted the hilly landscape, surrounded by walls built from the stones the farmers dug from their fields.
The occasional rocky precipice was topped by a stand of scraggly honey locusts, and it was in such a vantage point that she found two of her soldiers hunkered on their knees between the boulders.
Captain Davd was in his early twenties, with black hair and a soft, beardless face. He tapped powder-stained fingernails against the stock of an ancient blunderbuss and nodded as Vlora crept up beside him.
His companion was an older woman with graying, dirty-blond hair. Norrine lay with her head against a stone, her rifle propped on a branch, sighting along it as she watched some target only she could see.
Anyone else might find it odd to discover two captains out on a scouting mission, but Vlora took it in stride. Like her, they were both powder mages. By ingesting a bit of black powder, they could run faster, see farther, and hear better than any normal soldier. It made them ideal scouts for an army on the run. She had taken a page out of her mentor’s book and given powder mages under her command a middling rank and an auxiliary role. They answered only to her.
In addition to scouting, they could also use their sorcery to fire a musket or rifle over fantastic distances, picking off the most difficult targets.
“Norrine has an officer in her sights,” Davd said in an excited whisper. “Say the word, and they’ll be down a ranking metalhead.”
Vlora snorted. Her men had begun to refer to Dynize soldiers as “metalheads” because of the conical helmets they wore. She laid a hand gently on Norrine’s shoulder. “How about you fill me in on what’s going on before you start killing people.”
Davd looked crestfallen. Norrine gave Vlora a thumbs-up and kept her bead on her target.
“Well?” Vlora urged Davd.
Davd shifted to make room for Vlora to hunker down between him and Norrine in the rocky crag. She crawled up beside them, looking over the edge of their vantage point, and fished a powder charge from her breast pocket. She cut through the paper with her thumbnail and held it to her right nostril, snorting gently.
Her senses flared, giving her an immediate high as sounds, colors, and smells all became brighter. The world came into focus, and she squinted down the length of the Hadshaw River Highway toward a small party of soldiers in the distance. The powder trance allowed her to see details as if she were a mere fifty yards away, and she took quick stock of the enemy. Long experience at this sort of thing gave her an estimate of five hundred or so soldiers, at about two miles distance. They wore the silver breastplates and bright blue uniforms of the Dynize soldiery. About half of them rode horses, which was new to Vlora—the Dynize who had attacked Landfall had no calvary.
The troop was on the move, the horses trotting while the soldiers marched double time. Every so often they were joined by a rider coming over the ridge from the east or fording the river from the west. Messages were exchanged, and then a dispatch was sent south.
“It’s a vanguard,” Vlora concluded.
“Making regular reports,” Davd added. “I’m willing to bet they’re no more than a couple of miles ahead of the main army. They’re probing, checking the lay of the land and trying to draw out our rear guard.”
“They’re moving awfully fast for a vanguard.”
“Huh,” Davd commented. “So they are.”
Vlora took a shaky breath. Her army—and the refugees they were guarding—were less than five miles from the pursuing Dynize. If the army was traveling as fast as the vanguard, they could force a battle before nightfall. If they took their time, Vlora might have two days to prepare. She wondered whether she should attempt to gain a few more miles before nightfall, pushing the refugees ahead of her, or choose a defensive position immediately. “You two, get me information. I want eyes on the enemy army. I want to know their strength and how fast they’re moving. No guns, and don’t be seen.”
She crawled out of the thicket of honey locusts and returned to the messenger who’d shown her the way. “We have enemy contact. Have someone prepare my rifles, then go find Major Gustar. He and Colonel Styke have an enemy vanguard to crush.”
Ben Styke sat at the crest of a hill, his scarred face turned toward the morning sun, the ground damp and cool beneath him. He leaned against his saddle while his warhorse, Amrec, grazed nearby. The sun warmed Styke’s bones, allowed him to test the limits imposed upon him by old wounds. He squeezed a handful of pebbles to strengthen the tendons in his arm that had once been cut, then healed, by sorcery.
A little girl, Celine, played on a crumbling dry-stone wall. She skipped from stone to stone, barely seeming to pay her surroundings any mind until one stone slipped out from beneath her and she switched feet deftly, finding purchase before she could fall. She continued down the wall a hundred yards or so and turned around, doubling her speed for the trip back.
Somewhere over the nearby hills was Lady Vlora Flint—Styke’s new commanding officer—along with her tiny mercenary army and hundreds of thousands of refugees from Landfall. Styke kept his own men away from the column, preferring to flank the refugees and handle the scouting. Refugees weren’t his problem. Killing—when it had to be done—was.
Styke squeezed the pebbles until a bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. He searched the back of his mind for his birthday—one of the many things forgotten after so long in the labor camps—and decided he was just a few months away from his forty-sixth. Almost old enough to be Celine’s grandfather. Certainly old enough to be her real father, if he’d gotten a late start.
Celine reached the end of the wall nearby and leapt to the grass. She wasn’t wearing shoes, despite having two new pairs, and her jacket and loose trousers were muddy from three weeks on the road. She had a girl’s long hair and a soft face, but her bearing left her mistaken for a boy more times than not. She was at once skittish and confident, the daughter of a thief and toughened by years in the labor camps.
She grasped Amrec fearlessly by the bridle, stroking his nose. He snorted at her but did not kick her to oblivion as he would anyone else so daring.
Styke discarded the pebbles and brushed the grit from his hands. The release of pressure on his tendons made him swallow a gasp, and he took a deep breath before calling to Celine.
“How do you decide which stone to step on?” he asked her.
Celine seemed surprised by the question. She left Amrec and came over to Styke’s side, throwing herself down against the saddle in the mock exaggeration of a tired soldier. She was, Styke decided, spending too much time with the lancers. Not that that would change any time soon.
“I just step on whichever one looks secure.”
“And how do you know which is secure?”
“I just know,” Celine said with a small shrug.
“Hmm. Think, girl,” Styke replied. “Think about how you know.”
Celine opened her mouth, closed it again, and furrowed her brow. “I don’t step on the flat ones. They’re the worst, because they wobble. The ones that are shaped like …” She made a triangle with her hands.
“Like a wedge?” Styke urged.
Her face brightened. “Yeah, like a wedge. Those are the strongest, because they rest on two other stones.”
“Very good.” Styke searched in his saddlebag and found a bag of wrapped caramels that he’d discovered while looting a Blackhat supply depot before leaving Landfall. He placed one in Celine’s hand.
Celine regarded the sweet seriously before looking up at Styke. “Why does it matter? Didn’t you tell me that instinct is a lancer’s best weapon? That’s what I use to find the stones, isn’t it?”
Styke considered his answer and glanced down the hill. Far below them, several hundred lancers practiced drills on horseback, riding back and forth across the small valley until it was a muddy cesspit. He listened to the shouts of his officers as they barked corrections and orders. “Instinct is just a word we use to describe all the little bits of information your senses collect and how your brain interprets them. Instincts can be improved.”
“So, when you make me inter … inter …”
“Interpret my instincts, you’re exercising my brain? Like what you’re doing with your wrists?”
Styke grunted, stifling a smirk. “You’re a clever little shit, you know that?”
“Ibana says that’s why you like me,” Celine responded, sticking her chin in the air.
“Ibana says a lot of things. Most of them are bullshit.” Styke climbed to his feet, leaning down to tousle Celine’s hair, then turning a critical eye on the lancers training down below. The training lasted hours each day as Ibana whipped old lancers and new recruits alike into shape. Both men and horses had to be trained, and Styke didn’t know of any army on this continent that drilled as hard as the Mad Lancers.
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