12th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Kirk hunched his head into his shoulders so hard he feared his neck would permanently disappear, eyes twitching across the tortured plain of mud, trying to glimpse past the marching machinery before him and feeling totally exposed. Breath came ragged through gritted teeth. Merrimack’s incantation of impurity continued. Far off to his left and right, similar teams with mismatched warjack escorts were scuttling out of cover into the jaws of death.
In the distance, the enemy defenses had lost some of their integrity under the punishment of the fusillade. Kirk saw metal twitch and realized the rotary cannons were drawing a bead on them. He would have vomited again if his stomach hadn’t already unloaded itself earlier.
Behind him, Halleck declared another round of fire. Kirk’s entire body flinched uncontrollably as the howitzers unleashed their cargo once again, the outgoing shells shrieking just overhead and blooming into flowers of fire and debris down range.
A new, deeper sound suddenly whacked him in the spine and traveled right through to his lungs, a punch so deep and so reverent that it made him forget what was happening for a split second. This new sound originating from far off to their rear transformed into yet another new sound, a wail with tone and depth like a mad opera singer riding a squealing elk out of the underworld. It was terrible to feel. He sensed the air move as the cannon shot barreled past just above them.
An invisible giant punched its fist into the log-and-mortar glacis at the Khadoran line, just beneath the barrage cannon directly ahead. The force splintered the enormous wooden beams and pulverized the concrete into gravel, turning out the whole support structure like an uncontainable bubble emerging from the very hillside itself. An entire log weighing maybe three hundred pounds tore itself free and pinwheeled gracefully into the air, hitting the mud a hundred and fifty yards away with a resounding THWACK.
Merrimack’s prayer of obscenities finally halted.
A cheer rose up from the trenchers behind them, and for just a moment Kirk felt hope as they plodded across the dirt, inching closer to being in range of the enemy. The barrage cannon was gone!
And then the Khadorans decided it was time to deliver their own operetta.
A shout of thunder erupted from behind the bulwark, and that now-familiar banshee scream soared to new heights in a piercing choir of death.
The field erupted in craters all around him, light and pressure and zipping shrapnel mixing with a rain of dirt so heavy it shaded the sun. Kirk screamed uncontrollably, fighting the animal urge to flee or crawl or dig a hole.
A sharp buzz, instantly followed by sickening ripping sound. The stink of blood assaulted his nose.
For a moment Kirk thought he had been hit and waited for the pain.
But no, it was the ill-tempered mechanik. He was suddenly laying down, face-up, gurgling a puddle of blood from his mouth and neck. Kirk saw him as he trotted past, and then never saw the man again.
Merrimack’s swearing resumed.
The thunder transformed into the intermittent popping of artillery firing at will. A shell scored a direct hit on the defender escorting the weapon crew to their right, launching half a dozen whirling sand bags across the field.
The ground dipped suddenly. Kirk stumbled. They sped up to try and cross the murder hole they’d foolishly walked into.
Cracks like twigs breaking. More smoke across the enemy position. Whip! Whip! Zip! Bullets filled the air to the left and right of the cyclone and punched leaky holes in its heavy sandbags, burrowing into the steel plates within.
“This is so STUPID!” Kirk screamed irrationally, the stress cracking his voice into a convincing imitation of puberty. Coming to his senses for half a moment, he quickly checked to make sure the rest of his team was still with him. Peter was scurrying shoulder-to-shoulder with him– how had he not felt that?– and Bull was stepping on his heels right behind, with Merrimack to his right hauling the gun tripod on his shoulder, his face a white mask of terror, lips pressed into a line so thin they vanished totally. The surviving mechanik was practically under the warjack’s feet at this point, he was trailing the machine so closely.
Black Jack barked in the distance once more. Its ghostly voice sang overhead. The giant punched the Khadorans again, but missed the second rotary gun emplacement by twenty yards.
“Smoke! Smoke!” Merrimack shouted, yanking a grenade off his bandolier and pulling the pin. The rest of them followed his lead, hands stuttering like poison victims, throwing grenades as far forward as they could. The cylinders burst into rapidly-expanding opaque white clouds, obscuring their approach for a few moments. The clouds merged with the haze of weapon smoke that had settled on the field to form a confusing, unnatural shadow. The cyclone suddenly juked left, then went straight ahead once more, dipping into another murder hole.
The cracks of rifles continued, but the bullets were less concentrated now, zipping blindly through the smoke wall at their old charge lane.
“Yeah, smart!” Bull shouted praise at the warjack as though it had made the tactical choice on its own. But no, the journeyman warcaster– safe back in the trench somewhere– was in control of their path here. The cyclone was following orders just like they were.
Meteors flared up from the Khadoran line.
“ROCKETS!” Merrimack screamed. But there was nothing they could do to avoid the new threat. Ordinance fell like hail, mushrooming across their path. One hit the cyclone.
“Motherfucker!” Kirk hollered, shielding his eyes against the burst of fire on the warjack’s hull. Its sandbag armor blew apart, showering them in burning sand and shattered metal plates. One shard bounced painfully off Kirk’s helmet.
New heavenly bodies streaked at them: field gun rounds, blazing orange, detonating all around. One managed to find the one remaining sandbag dangling precariously from a strap on the shoulder and exploding with minimal damage to the machine.
Another rocket burst directly in front of them. A pneumatic cylinder in the ‘jack’s leg let loose a screech and vented steam. The mechanik cursed, pulling tools off his belt to repair the damage but there was too much motion, too much chaos. He could do nothing. The ‘jack slowed from its injury. They passed through their own smoke cloud, coughing.
One more new nightmarish sound announced its arrival, but the smoke blinded them to its origin.
Some demon burped again to their far right. They left the smoke cloud, exposed once more.
Kirk whipped his head to see the origin of the noise. A stutter of orange lights glittered in front of the surviving barrage cannon. The chain gun crew and ‘jack to Kirk’s right had a thousand puffs of dirt erupting at their feet. Two men fell in a spray of gore. The remainder raced to the ‘jack’s left, scrabbling for cover from the storm of bullets but now out in open view of the Khadoran firing line. The rotary gun belched again, showering the defender ‘jack in so many bullets at once it sounded like rain on a tin roof. The panicked crew scrambled to drop smoke.
Too late. Rifles snapped in unison ahead. The men died in sprays of their own blood, disintegrating in the crossfire. The defender carried on, ignoring the dead it had failed to protect. Kirk’s dread became all-consuming. From the corner of his eye he saw friendly reinforcements racing across the field to try and take up where their companions had dropped the chain gun parts, but they would die as well if that barrage cannon didn’t go down.
“We’re going to die,” Kirk whispered to nobody, and nobody heard.
Major Halleck was watching the slaughter unfold, dashing across the rear line, screaming orders, trying to keep the men from panicking. Most of Hammer Company was now out in the fray, scattered like ants, zigging and zagging in some vain hope of avoiding the rain of destruction. That infernal whistle sounded again and Halleck watched Captain Kasey lead Hammer Company’s 4th Platoon out into the waking nightmare, dashing off to the side of the field to plug a hole that Snake was leaving as its men strayed too far west, too close to the barrage cannon that they were trying to avoid. The screams of the wounded and dying somehow made their cries heard over the cacophony of explosions and bullets.
Those chain gun crews were racing too far forward. They needed to deploy. Now. But Black Jack had fired thrice at the easternmost barrage cannon and failed to destroy it all three times. Halleck watched helplessly as the Man-O-War gunner obliterated one human being after another, daring any lost soul to approach the dropped pieces of the chain gun on the field. Halleck’s mind raced. A plan formed.
The long cannon took another shot, deafening everyone nearby. The ball whizzed through the trees on its way out… and sailed clear over the enemy gun. Terrible luck. He cursed angrily, jumping into the emptying trench and charging towards their first howitzer battery, scrambling up into the elevated foxhole.
“New target! New target!” he screamed over the chaos, grabbing the spotter by the shoulders and twisting the startled man to face the enemy gun. He pointed at it. “Continuous fire! Fast as you can! Go!” And then he was out, racing over into the open field, diving into the next artillery position to repeat the order. As he left that howitzer and sprinted to the next one, he was rewarded with the whump of the first trench cannon opening fire on its new priority.
It took a few minutes of full-out running to deliver the message to all nine gun crews. He probably should have used a messenger, but he had to be certain the order was clear. Accuracy wasn’t important. Volume of fire was all that mattered now. He looked up to see intermittent plumes of debris and smoke bursting up around the hated machine gun. He hadn’t given them much time to dial in their target, but artillery bombardment from nine different angles on one little patch of earth would eventually strike true.
His lungs burned, the veins in his meaty neck bulging with strain, but he didn’t stop to rest, racing now back to a foxhole in the woods, occupied only by Lieutenant Colbert. His arcane turbine was belching smoke and the young lieutenant’s body seemed to be glistening with a strange blue light as every ounce of his arcane force was driven into expanding his control range out to the field, delivering mental orders to his warjacks. He was still as a rock, eyes squeezed shut.
“Lieutenant!” Halleck shouted a little louder than he intended. Colbert jumped, but didn’t open his eyes.
“Major,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’m busy.”
“You’re leading the teams out too far, you need to stop those ‘jacks and start shooting! You’re well within range!” Halleck ordered. Colbert’s eyes snapped open. They shone with a brilliant blue light, then faded as he momentarily looked through his own eyes out across the field in the distance.
“I didn’t realize they were so far,” he muttered, suddenly jumping up and running ahead.
“Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” Halleck shouted, chasing him down.
“I have to get closer, Major, or I’m going to lose my connection to them!” the young warcaster shouted back. The two men jumped down into the trenches. Colbert scrambled up onto the embankment, laying low.
“Lieutenant, be careful,” Halleck warned. Colbert closed his eyes, ignoring the Major. After a moment he opened them again. They blossomed with cerulean light. Out on the field, the two cyclones’ weapons began chattering, hosing the enemy line with bullets. Thump! The damaged defender on the right flank let loose a shell, and then another. Down on the left the other defender followed suit.
“No!” Colbert lamented. “I’ve lost contact with two of the ironclads. I think they’re… I think they’re down.”
“Well let’s hope the gun teams can use them for cover, at the very least,” Halleck muttered. He looked right, towards the new concentration point of their howitzers. It was constant now, a ceaseless beating of the dirt by some deranged drummer. The rotary gun was still loosing intermittent screams of hot lead, but it was less accurate, peppering the field in random bursts and hitting very little. The armored operator was totally blinded by the new downpour of carnage. New chain guns added to the cacophony off to his left, and then a second, and then a third. Tracers blazed even in the bright daylight. Counting the cyclones, there were now no less than seven chain guns tearing up dirt and flesh across the enemy embankment. Halleck breathed a sigh of very momentary relief.
“Defender down,” Colbert said. The warjack on the right flank, the one that had absorbed the brunt of the machine fire, had finally taken one hit too many and was now laying on the field in a flaming wreck, oily black smoke billowing from its ruin.
“Keep the rest of them going as long as you can, run interference for our gun crews. Good work, Lieutenant,” Halleck said before pushing himself off the dirt and clambering up a rickety ladder out the rear side of the trench. A cheer went up from the howitzer crews and Halleck turned: the barrage cannon had finally gone down. “About time,” he wheezed, still breathless. He stopped a private who was running past on some unknown panicked errand.
“Deliver a message to–” Halleck started, but was quickly interrupted.
“Ammo!” the young private shouted. “Ammo to the chain guns!” he said, raising both heavy ammo canisters in each hand before dodging off. Halleck looked around, spotting Lieutenant Lewis of Shield Company leading a unit through the trench to the west flank. Halleck ran alongside them above the ditch.
“Lewis!” Halleck shouted. “Have Corporal Weston deliver a message to Sergeant Bradson, tell him to use Black Jack to break up the glacis directly ahead of Hammer, Snake, and Shield. If he can’t hit the fucking enemy then at least he can shoot the ground for me! And you tell him to stop firing once we enter the field!”
“Yes sir!” Lieutenant Lewis answered, turning quickly to Corporal Weston. “You heard him! Go!” the Corporal responded by rushing away.
“Get ready,” Halleck declared to Lieutenant Lewis. “I’ve got to find Nicola and Donn and get this fucking circus organized for a charge!”
“Gods, we’re so close!” Peter cried out. They weren’t more than eighty yards away from the enemy now.
The cyclone had suddenly halted at the edge of another murder hole, spun shockingly fast and pierced Merrimack with its gaze. Merrimack’s neck prickled. He could feel a human mind on the other side of those mechanikal eyes staring back at him.
“Ok,” he mouthed to himself, then “we set up here!” to the crew. Bullets whined around them and the cyclone turned back around in response to finally– finally— unleash its own lead. The chittering of the twin guns blended into one rhythmic peal of lightning that didn’t seem to end, rivaling that of the terrifying enemy barrage gun. Tracers streaked out onto the enemy bulwark, dissolving sandbags and sending up little spurts of mud.
“I’ve got to stay with the ‘jack!” the surviving mechanik said, jaw clattering in shell-shock, body twitching spasmodically. He was in no condition to help anything, man or metal. Everyone had a breaking point. This was his. “I’ve got to… I’ve got…got…”
“Go back!” Merrimack shouted at him, pointed to the rear. “Go back!” He tried to grab him by the shoulder pauldrons but the panicked soldier was losing cohesion, tearing away madly.
“I-I-I-I-” he stuttered manically. And then a bullet struck him directly in the back, ending his misery. He fell face-first into the mud just ten feet away while the ‘jack limped off.
“Shit!” Kirk yelped as a bullet zipped off the edge of his helmet. Tears of panic welled in his eyes. I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home.
This was no fun at all.
All four of them tossed the last of their smoke grenades to form another veil of concealment. Even under terrible fire, they rebuilt the gun with the speed and efficiency only hours and hours of practice could manifest. In moments they were ready, but the smoke persisted in puffy white clouds. Swhip! Zip! Bullets hummed by randomly, leaving little white trails in the fog. Deadly bees hunting for targets in the heavy smoke.
“Bull! Let’s go, we’re not helpful here,” Merrimack ordered. The four of them were hunkered behind the pitiful cover of the gun shield. Only Kirk– whose entire body was planted behind the gun– and Peter– whose small size had, for the first time, become the greatest asset imaginable– were covered. Poor Bull’s huge frame stuck out just begging to be shot.
“Where to?” Bull’s normally-baritone voice was pinched with stress.
“We’re going to pick up that chain gun,” Merrimack said, gesturing to their right, to the collection of corpses that was accumulating near the weapon parts guarded by a thousands high-velocity rounds hurled off the Khadoran barrage cannon. Bull blanched in terror.
“C-Corporal-” he stuttered, trying to come up with an excuse.
“Sir, what if we get hit?” Kirk asked, terrified of his friends leaving. “Who takes our gun?”
Merrimack snarled like an angry animal. “This gun is manned, that one isn’t, and having all four of us right here is too much of a liability!” he shouted.
“If we go over there we die!” Bull shouted back, eyes bulging, spittle flying.
“If we go ANYWHERE we die!” Merrimack hurled back, gesticulating madly. “I’d rather die killing those drunk asswipes, not curled up in a hole in the ground! I am ordering you to follow me!”
To Bull’s credit, he stopped arguing. Mustering courage even he didn’t know he had, and somewhat awestruck by Merrimack’s unusual intensity, he stood. The two men unslung their rifles from their backs and duck-walked into the sea of white, vanishing from Kirk and Peter’s vision.
“Gods help them,” Peter mumbled, staring at the space where’d they disappeared. A new brutal fusillade of shells swept across the battlefield in the direction the two men had just walked.
“I hope that was outgoing,” Kirk said shakily.
“Ready up,” Peter responded, throwing himself onto the ground directly at Kirk’s side, holding the leather ammo belt in his hand and feeding it out of the ammo canister. Kirk took several sharp breaths as the smoke began to dissipate.
Thwack! A sniper round dug into the gun shield almost immediately as their silhouette emerged from the fog.
Kirk decided to let the Khadorans know exactly how he felt at that moment.
With a primal scream of rage, fear, and gut-wrenching adrenaline, he squeezed the trigger on the gun and began the long, steady rhythm of revenge for the misery of having to crossing that abominable field. He swept his gun across his vision, careful not to yaw too far left or right and expose his sides or Peter’s. Every third round was a burning nail of light, guiding his accuracy and drawing far more attention to himself than he would have liked.
A unit of enemy riflemen taking potshots at him from their cover suddenly realized it wasn’t safe to be where they were. Kirk’s relentless accuracy– in spite of the jittery weapon, in spite of the haze of battle, in spite of his nerves– scored several hits before the clump of men withdrew. Kirk couldn’t tell if he’d killed any of them.
Had he killed them?
It was a new thought. A sick thought. Had he just killed other human beings?
The pause it gave him was not sufficient to overcome his fear, however. He did not let his finger off the trigger.
Several guns were now blazing just like his. He glanced quickly down his left side, seeing four other chain guns spitting shots along with the cyclones. It was heavy now. The rifle fire on the enemy side was withering under the terrible storm.
Black Jack sounded his mighty report once again, the shockwave rolling across the trees as his latest delivery howled by. It punched into the dike not seventy yards from where Kirk sat in the stinky mud, rattling his molars and sending up a truly awesome burst of debris skyward, generating just enough rubble to provide a little extra cover.
CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK-CHAK! His gun spoke without break. He knew he should be firing bursts, but he couldn’t help himself. Some animal part of his mind was convinced that if he just held down the trigger, nothing could hit him back.
Some brave Khadoran rocketeer managed to weather the fire and let off his missile straight at Kirk’s position. Kirk had exactly one second to act. He threw himself back in a reverse sit up, the back of his helmet slapping the mud. If the rocket had struck the gun shield, both he and Peter would have died instantly, but fortunately for them the Khadoran had not had enough time to line up his shot and it blew past just overhead in a spray of fire. Its payload detonated in the embankment of the murder hole just behind them. The heat was tremendous. Without missing a beat, Kirk sat right back up and was back on the gun, hosing down the space where the rocket had come from, hoping to catch its owner.
Peter was laughing like a lunatic, tears running down his dirty cheeks in some twisted mixture of relief and terror and rage and hilarity at their impossible luck. Kirk might have joined him if his jaw wasn’t suddenly welded permanently shut. His teeth ached from the pressure. He saturated the rocketeer’s last position with little craters.
There was a harsh battlecry to his rear. His skin crawled and he froze, his mind disoriented by the direction of this vicious sound: had the enemy encircled them? How? He whipped his head around to see a glorious sight.
Six hundred ferocious trenchers were racing each other to cross the field in waves of righteous fury that stretched in both directions, firing as they came. Mortar explosions bloomed amongst them taking out a dozen at a time, and field gun rounds burst overhead to shower them in hot steel fragments, but the tide was relentless. Amongst them came Daisy and two other grenadiers, stomping along, the comforting doonk of their grenade launchers chucking bombs overhead. It was terribly satisfying to hear the Khadorans scream for once.
Kirk saw Alex coming straight at him. Relief– totally premature, but utterly comforting nonetheless– flooded him. Alex was alive. Kirk could see the same sensation reflected in Alex’s winded face.
“It’s time to move!” Kirk said, pulling Peter roughly off of the ground and unslinging his rifle in one clean motion. As they righted themselves, the storm broke over them and rushed past, men screaming wildly and firing rifles, bayonets fixed. Alex skidded to a halt beside them, shoving them along.
“Let’s go let’s go!” Alex shouted behind Kirk. Not five seconds after they abandoned their position, a field gun scored a direct hit and sent the heavy gun emplacement flying apart in a deadly hail of shrapnel. Alex raced ahead. Kirk felt himself being swept away by the chaos. The ground rose beneath him and he stumbled on a chunk of wood. Peter stopped to haul him back up. They were right at the bulwark now. Their companions were cresting the fortification, avoiding broken razor wire, approaching the top of the trench–
The air temperature dropped impossibly fast. Kirk could see their breath suddenly fog, lungs becoming smoke machines.
And then it hit.
As the first line of trenchers approached the enemy, a literal explosion of cold so powerful it killed on contact blew over the top of the trench. A stream of sharp ice billowed out from the Khadoran line, manifesting out of thin air and tumbling through men who didn’t even have time to scream before their faces froze solid.
As a child, Kirk had once seen a street performer in Caspia who could breathe fire. He would pour alcohol into his mouth and spray it over a lit torch, sending out a fireball for the crowd’s delight. This looked exactly like that, except it was somehow ice, not fire, and it was huge. A flamethrower of pure white frost.
Bright blue runes flickered somewhere over the bulwark.
“Battle wizaaaard!” someone screamed before another billowing spray of icy death showered him into silence.
Three more avalanches of ice launched out further down the line, spraying back and forth, hosing down scores of men and completely stopping their charge. Kirk was just out of range but he could feel the supernatural cold penetrate his armor and clothes like he was totally naked. The press of men suddenly became tight as the assault lost momentum. Men went prone or into bended knee with rifles up.
“FORWARD! FORWARD!” Captain Kasey came barreling in from the left flank, a broken grenadier stumbling along behind him, popping grenades into the Khadoran trench to try and stop whatever arcanist was responsible for this new devilry.
The Bastards came to the rescue.
Only ten of them, spread out almost thirty feet apart, but charging in with carbines blazing like an army all their own.
“OFF YOUR ARSES! KILL THOSE FUCKING SNOWMEN!” Staff Sergeant Swelt hollered. Even Captain Kasey was momentarily taken off-guard, realizing the rogue unit had disobeyed his order to remain in cover. But he wasn’t going to waste a good opportunity.
“CHAAAAAARGE!” the Captain screamed at the top of his voice, and like a frozen waterfall thawing in spring the attack resumed with unstoppable force.
Two dozen more died in frost sprays, but now it didn’t matter. They were pouring into the Khadoran trenches and the Khadorans couldn’t stop them.
Alex was maybe ten yards ahead of Kirk. He looked back at Kirk and Peter, waving them forward as they all ran.
“Let’s go!” Alex shouted a third time.
Kirk saw Alex crest the bulwark, silhouetted against the smoky air.
And then Alex exploded.
A rocket fired at point-blank range from a Khadoran just inside the trench burst in Alex’s chest, vaporizing him instantly in a bright light and killing the suicidal Khadoran along with it. In less than a second he was gone.
“NO!” Kirk cried. Or at least he tried to, but another wave of frost blew over them from across the trench line and the word froze in his throat. He coughed. He wasn’t close enough to be struck by the wall of ice but the cold was so strong, so sudden, so deep that his muscles seized in protest, sending him crashing to his hands and knees in the frozen dirt.
He felt nothing. No pain, no more fear, no more noise or heat or cold or exhaustion or anything. He was momentarily suspended in some pocket world, seeing the battle around him but not interacting with it. An impossible distance ballooned between him and Peter, who wasn’t more than three feet away and yet was now a thousand feet away, a million feet away, sealed off behind some glass wall too thick for even sound to cross. Only one fact remained on this side of his magic bubble:
Alex is dead.
Alex is dead.
Alex is dead.
The phrase rang out in this new prison, waiting for him to notice it.
Alex is dead.
Suddenly it bit, and with its trenchant stab it popped his bubble, sending him hurtling back into the world. Noise returned. The stench of blood and smoke– only slightly dulled by the new frosty air– returned. Pain returned. Pain from the frozen ground burning through his palms. A cramp in his side.
Peter was yelling at him, tugging on his arm, desperately trying to pull him off the ground. For a moment Kirk seriously considered just staying down, letting some Khadoran line up an easy headshot and finishing him off. But no, this wasn’t just about him. People were depending on him. His friends were depending on him. Most importantly, Kirk knew in his heart that it wasn’t what Alex would have done. He would deal with the pain later.
With Peter’s help, he righted himself. He wrapped his hands firmly around his rifle. He stumbled ahead. He crossed over the bulwark pausing for just a fraction of a breath before hopping into the enemy ditch.
The melee happening inside the trench was a nightmare. As he jumped into the dirt, landing hard, a trencher to his right impaled a Khadoran against the wooden siding with his bayonet, both friend and foe screaming hoarsely in terror. Before the northerner had even died, another Khadoran– seriously wounded and lying on the filthy duckboards bleeding out– fired his blunderbuss straight up at the trencher’s head, spraying Kirk’s face in a horrible burst of gore and sharp bone.
Mindless anger. Animal anger. Ascorbic, all-consuming. Without even a thought or hesitation, not even bothering to properly aim, he pointed his rifle at the wounded enemy soldier and fired. The rifle bucked into his shoulder and a red hole appeared in the center of the Khadoran’s bald head. He went limp in the muck.
The back of Kirk’s neck prickled. He pulled a paper cartridge-wrapped bullet from the bandolier wrapped over his shoulder and slipped it into the rifle breach while simultaneously turning and dropping to one knee in a smooth practiced motion. Another Khadoran stood there with his axe buried in a trencher’s chest, blunderbuss in his off-hand. Kirk fired again, the report virtually unheard in the cacophany. The bullet bit through a thin steel breastplate to kill its bearded owner. Kirk reloaded.
Trenchers were jumping over the bulwark in twos and threes now. All he could see was blue armor and familiar trencher greatcoats. A body nearly knocked him over from behind.
“Sorry!” Peter’s voice rang. The tide of bodies was pushing them down the trench, into the screams, Kirk almost riding the back of some unknown fellow warrior in front of him. They approached a hard t-intersection in the trench. A blast of fire and smoke. The trencher in front of him was peppered with grape shot and fell, clawing at his shredded face and gasping through a hole in his neck. Kirk rounded the corner and fired without even looking, unable to see past the gunsmoke. There was a half-screamed curse in Khardic to reward his blind shot. Kirk charged straight at the sound with his rifle aimed like a battering ram– he hadn’t thought to affix his bayonet– and thudded into another heavy body, knocking the wind out of himself and bouncing his foe straight onto the ground.
The Winter Guardsman’s gut was blooming red from the bullet Kirk had put there. He squirmed and kicked in the mud, mouth a giant ‘o’ of silent agony, grasping in panic for the small axe that had fallen from his belt. Kirk flipped his weapon around and delivered two vicious blows to the man’s head with the butt of his rifle. Just like training. Skull split under the second impact. The sound made him ill. He kept going.
The only way out is through. The only way out is through. The only way out is through. He repeated this mantra, trying to hear it in Captain Kasey’s voice, trying to drown out the unbidden and competing mantra of I have to get out of here! I have to get out of here!
The trench walls suddenly sloped away and Kirk was standing in the open. He dropped to his belly as bullets whizzed by where he’d stood. The Khadorans were retreating before him, now quickly back-stepping past a line of abandoned and smoking mortar emplacements, the ragged survivors of the enemy kompany trying to form a single organized firing line. Two beastly crimson-painted Khadoran warjacks billowed stinking clouds of black filth as they back-pedaled in front of the group, practically forming their own stormcloud just above the Winter Guard, blocking enemy fire with their massive frames, armor plates clinking and clacking as they shuffled awkwardly in reverse.
It was Kirk’s first time seeing the enemy war machines, and they were even more awful in person than he had imagined from the simple drawings and diagrams he studied in training. They were a utilitarian mixture of hard lines and sloped surfaces, evil-looking helms with giant face-grills seeping arcane light from within, and a sense of monumental weight behind every movement. They gripped a hulking mechanikal axe in each right hand and a fat stubby bombard cannon instead of a left arm. Between them was another machine.
No, it was a man in a machine. A Man-O-War. Or was it? He had strange markings on his armor and a decidedly magical-looking axe that glowed with bright runes of an unknown language. Azure light shimmered around him. A ridiculous black beard ushered out from a bald head and a face with deep frown lines. His eyes shone with brilliant light beneath a thick dark single eyebrow as he focused his arcane might.
Kirk’s heart sunk. Fuck, is that a warcaster? How can this get any worse!?
Shwhack! Fast as a bullet, a two-foot spike of pure ice launched from the wizard’s outstretched hand, followed by a chunk and a high-pitched scream emanating from Kirk’s immediate rear. He whirled his head to see the enchanted weapon lodged all the way through a trencher’s chest, pushing up out his back stained in gore as the man fell to his face. Kirk looked forward as a fusillade of shots burst from the retreating Khadoran riflemen.
For a second, the enemy wizard’s eyes turned to Kirk, and the young Cygnaran man from the outskirts of Caspia knew his life was about to end. He frantically tried to reload his rifle while prone, hands shaking uncontrollably. The terrible wizard began to summon another spell. Kirk closed his eyes.
Lieutenant Colbert pumped his legs as hard as he could to close the distance to the front, choking on the vile fume of the battlefield.
The fog of war was a phrase that meant a lot of different things. It could mean the fog of unknown information that soaked all battlefields, the metaphorical darkness that concealed your foe’s movements as well as your own, a fog that only proper reconnaissance could clear. It could also mean a mental fog, the shattering of awareness inflicted by the feverish chaos of battle. But right now to Lieutenant Colbert the fog of war was a literal fog: a choking mixture of coal smoke and spent powder and poisonous gasses and smoke grenades and burning debris. It now drifted in ragged, filthy little grey clouds across all of no-man’s-land, obscuring vision and burning the lungs.
He could still feel the two cyclones and one of the defenders under his control. The defender had a boiler leak and was burning its furnace so hard to compensate it risked setting itself ablaze. The cyclones were battered– he could feel a hitch in one of their gait– but fully functional. With a mental query he asked them both how much ammunition they had left. The answers were discouraging. They were almost tapped out.
Come! He ordered the cyclones. In the unique multi-sight that only a warcaster would ever experience, he simultaneously saw them emerge from the haze from either flank, and also saw himself from two different sides running across the cratered landscape. He had six eyes. No matter how much training he underwent it always gave him a splitting headache. He pushed the left one hard, trying to overcome its limp. As Colbert ran he began to summon a spell. Picturing the arcane formula in his mind he immersed himself in the invisible torrent that always surrounded him, allowing it to fill him up and channeling its energy. Releasing the spell into the two cyclones and using what little energy remained to overboost his power field, Colbert prayed to Morrow that it would be enough to stop a bullet. He drove a path through the trenchers who hadn’t yet crossed the bulwark, screaming at them to move out of the way, and with a final psychic urging to the machine cortexes, built enough speed for all three of them to leap the wide trench.
Colbert could not have known that the cyclone on his left carried a deep stress fracture in the casing of its locomotor differential at the hip joint. He could not have known that the damage had been missed on inspection when he’d arrived that morning. He did not know that the increased heat and speed of the machine leading the approach of the chain gun crews had caused the fracture to become an actual breach, hot oil bubbling from its gap like molten pitch, a tear that widened with each impact of its weighty leg. He could never have guessed that a bullet had torn open a sandbag just above the machine’s waist as it rotated its torso, dumping the gritty contents directly into the open wound. And he did not know that forcing the machine to run at full steam had spread the sand through the entire enclosure, sandblasting the gear teeth. He would never know that perhaps it could have continued to function for a while longer without the added force of trying to leap.
All he knew was that as he hurled himself and his warjacks bodily over the wide Khadoran trench landing with a tremendous thump on its northern side, one of the cyclones didn’t make it. The gears in the differential finally slipped with a scream of metal, freezing one of its legs in place mid-jump and catching its heavy armored foot on a shattered log. It tripped on the embankment and hurtled into the open trench in a painful clash of steel and bursting pistons, instantly crushing three trenchers and two Khadorans under its multi-ton mass. The boiler ruptured, venting a superheated cloud of steam down both lanes of the trench. Friend and foe alike let loose piercing screams as they were flash-boiled alive.
“WHAT!?” Colbert shouted in fury and confusion. He didn’t have time to figure out what had gone wrong, however. The enemy was now in full retreat and being covered by a huge, bearded, bald-headed wizard in Man-O-War armor. As Lieutenant Colbert caught sight of the wizard ensconced with swirling runes mid-spell, flanked by two destroyers, he blanched. Was that a warcaster? Nobody had told him to expect one!
The enemy arcanist caught sight of Colbert at the same time, losing focus on the hapless soldier he was about to destroy. The runes vanished as the greylord canceled whatever magical attack he was summoning. As he saw Colbert and the cyclone his eyes flared pure white with arcane power. He shouted an order in Khardic and made a hand gesture at one of his warjacks.
No, Colbert realized with relief, this was no warcaster. A very powerful arcanist to be sure, but he had no mental communication with machinery.
Which also meant no power field.
As fast a he had ever cast a spell in his life Colbert shunted arcane might directly into the Cyclone’s mechanika, directing it across the cortex and into its two chain guns. Rune plates captured and harnessed the raw power. They spun up unnaturally fast. The guns howled together in one long mechanical scream that didn’t seem to end, unleashing a curtain of bullets. Every round blazed azure as a wall of magically-empowered ammunition traveling almost too fast to track filled the air between him and his foes.
The armored frost wizard had already cast a new spell when the barrage arrived and instead of shredding their target in a hail of light, the bullets passed through some strange vast circling array; glittering wheels of runes made manifest in thin air. As each bullet crossed the magical barrier, its course erred, diverting at impossible angles into the dirt as it somehow was pushed away from the greylord and into the spaces between all of the panicked Khadorans. Colbert watched in awe and frustration as what should have been a death sentence was neutered on arrival.
Still, there were many bullets, and only so many places they could be delivered before they began finding bodies. Even the rounds that missed exploded under the sheer force of their arcane payload, fireworks of humming shrapnel blossoming among the grey- and red- clad enemy who were now in a full rout under the attack, sprinting in a long curve toward the woodland stretching up to Albyn. Shots meant for the enemy wizard whipped aside instead to impact the warjacks escorting him. Bullets that normally would have failed to penetrate the bulky machines now shattered their armor with impossible kinetic force.
Almost as soon as it began, the scream of destruction halted, the warjack’s ammo containers depleted. The barrels continued to spin, ends glowing with red heat now, not just magic. Still, the trick had done its job: the enemy retreat had gone from an organized display of suppressing fire to hundreds of men running for their lives.
Were it not for their greylord protector’s rapid spellcasting, most of them would probably be dead and he along with them. Colbert wanted to shout out another charge, to pursue the fleeing enemy and kill all of them before they reached the safety of Albyn.
A bullet sparked off of the greylord’s giant shoulder plate, then another. Before any orders could be issued, the greylord met Colbert’s eyes with ferocious intensity. The message was clear: I’m not done with you. Just as Colbert gathered his arcane energy once more for a direct attack on the wizard, the greylord put his hand in the air to summon yet another spell. A thick, icy fog bank instantly materialized in front of the retreating kompany, hiding everyone and everything from natural sight. Colbert cried out in pure impotent frustration.
His vexation was instantly replaced with fear as one of the destroyers plunged out of the fog towards him. Whump whump whump whump! Its feet pounded the earth like their own artillery. Colbert knew he couldn’t outrun it or avoid it at this range and it was too massive to dodge. Intercept! he urgently ordered the cyclone. It obeyed without hesitation, building momentum to slam the enemy machine. The destroyer lowered its torso to brace for impact.
CRACK! Sixteen combined tons of steel met in a blast of sparks. The destroyer’s charge stopped instantly, its curved hood and cortex bay crumpling under the impact. Still, its thicker plates and greater mass did far more damage than they received. The cyclone’s segmented cowl crushed so far that its head was forced to stare straight at the ground. It stumbled back, throwing its arms out to try and maintain its balance. The destroyer didn’t waste a second raising its giant executioner axe and lopping off the cyclone’s left arm at the elbow joint like there was nothing there at all. The cyclone blindly swung its remaining arm and heavy six-barrel into the destroyer, connecting with the ‘jack’s head with a thunderous bang. The Khadoran machine’s head snapped to the left, faceplate shattered but unbroken. It raised its axe again. Colbert knew the cyclone was lost even before he felt the cortex vanish from his mind. The destroyer’s axe plummeted straight through the cyclone’s hull.
Goodbye, soldier, Colbert thought sadly as the machine’s mental presence winked out. Colbert took a deep breath and shunted every last bit of his arcane energy into his power field as the evil Khadoran giant ripped its blade out of the wrecked cyclone, its head still jammed to the left. This is it. Lieutenant Colbert drew a trench sword off his belt. Defiant, but impotent in the face of so much strength. A metallic screech emitted from the machine’s neck and then the head snapped out of its frozen leftward-facing state to pierce Colbert with murderous intent.
Before the destroyer could advance, another warjack’s thumping feet sounded. Both Colbert and the destroyer whipped their heads right just in time to see a grenadier pound into view, running behind the destroyer far faster than the Khadoran heavy warjack could turn. With a delicate flick it spun the mattock in its left hand– turning the spiked end forward– and swung it straight into the back of the destroyer’s leg with all its might, ripping open the support assembly and tearing the achilles piston clean off. The red giant’s leg buckled, forcing it to one knee. The grenadier skidded to a halt and delivered another blow straight to the destroyer’s heavy boiler. The pointed tip bounced off in a flash of sparks, but the grenadier hammered it again, and again.
On the third impact the boiler punctured, unleashing a cloud of super hot steam directly into the grenadier’s face. Flesh and bone would have seared under the heat but the ‘jack felt no pain. It widened the hole with another ferocious strike.
The destroyer rapidly lost power. It emptied its coal hoppers into its firebox in response to the rapid pressure loss, lighting a bonfire under its vacant boiler tank. Flames licked out of its stacks and from every vent port. The delicate alchemical mechanika of its cortex hissed and popped in the heat as the machine cooked itself alive, its internal light replaced only by the hungry glow of fire. Frozen in place, it burned out of control.
Colbert breathed a deep sigh, releasing the grip on his sword and sliding it back into the scabbard. He nodded at the grenadier.
“Thanks,” he said, looking more closely at the word stenciled on the machine’s cowling. “Uh, Daisy.” Daisy stared back at him for a moment before turning to look at her controller: Captain Kasey jogged towards them.
“Don’t call her that, it’s a stupid name,” the Captain wheezed as he wiped a bloody trench knife on his dungarees.
“Her?” Colbert smirked. Kasey ignored him, turning instead to face the enemy. The clouds of mist were dissipating to reveal the retreating kompany vanishing into the woods leading up to the town.
“Well, shit,” Kasey sighed.
“Do we pursue?” Colbert asked.
“No. They’ll have covering fire from the town on the approach, and I have no idea what’s hiding in those trees,” Kasey said in resignation. Colbert’s heart sank. They had gotten so close! “I want to give the woods a good shellacking before we move into them,” Kasey added. “Go tell Major Halleck we should reposition the howitzers,” he ordered.
“Sir!” Colbert said as he ran off. The urgency with which he complied was less from obedience and more out of a need to conceal the bitterness on his face. If they had been able to eliminate the entire kompany before they’d escaped, taking Albyn would have been much easier. Now they had no choice but to dig the Reds out. Urban fights were always the most treacherous. If that damn second ‘jack hadn’t dropped into the ditch, he might have been able to lay down enough fire to kill that battle wizard and slay the fleeing troops…
He jogged back the way he’d come. The battle was mostly over now: there were a few small skirmishes still happening inside the trenches, but those Khadorans who hadn’t managed to escape were now dead or dying. 30th Battalion was moving up the the two mile stretch of fortification totally uncontested, tossing grenades into dugouts just in case any foes lingered.
They had done it.
Now the real question: what was the price?
Kirk had witnessed the whole exchange between Colbert and the greylord. The junior warcaster had saved his life. As soon as the cyclone’s firestorm ran dry Kirk had started shooting at the armored wizard. He had come so close– so close!— to a headshot, but nerves and distance and obscured vision caused the bullet to ping off of armor instead. He watched frozen in terror as the two warjacks met in battle. He watched the cyclone’s demise, and then the destroyer’s as Daisy saved the day. He watched the enemy escape.
And then he finally stood up. The battle was unceremoniously over. No ringing of a bell or shout of victory; the fighting just seemed to end.
A weighty blanket of weariness he had never known or imagined fell over him. A singular desire overtook him: to lay down in the dirt and sleep. His bones felt like lead. Pervasive, saturating exhaustion. Total and complete enervation. But he did not sleep. He turned slowly, boots crunching dirt and rubble to hike back up to the trench. He stood at its precipice to look out over the field he had crossed. The field of the fallen.
Bodies were scattered across the wrecked land, tossed there by some thoughtless giant. Some were whole, facing the sky with sightless eyes or facing down in suffocating mud. Some were less whole.
Some were not there at all.
Kirk tried to find the place where Alex had died. He wasn’t sure he knew where it happened. Nothing seemed familiar now. He searched the ground for some clue of Alex, some piece of evidence that his best friend of seventeen years had existed. Proof that Alex was real. Kirk found a stain and some displaced earth wet with recently-melted frost and blood. Was it here? His foot kicked something heavy: a Bannfield model 603 service rifle. Its stock was shattered. A hand was still attached, terminating in a bloody mangled stump instead of attached to a human being. Kirk crouched down and picked up the broken weapon gingerly, gently wiping dirt off its surface. He looked at the hand. Its index finger was gripping the trigger. Was it Alex? He couldn’t tell. What did Alex’s hands look like? Funny how you could spend your whole existence with someone by your side, could spot them in a crowd of a thousand people or recognize their voice with a single word, but couldn’t identify their hands if your life depended on it.
He crouched there for a long time, huddled over the remnants of a soldier that was either his friend or someone else. In some ways he would never get up again. For the rest of his life and probably a long time after he was gone, some part of his spirit would stay crouched in that spot on that miserable span of mud and death where his world had changed forever.
What am I supposed to do without you, pal?
Grief was a chasm that swallowed him whole. Kirk had never felt so alone.
Captain Kasey trudged along their new ridgeline, now just a shell-hammered ditch in the ground. What a shitty place to die for. He turned his eyes back toward Albyn. This was no victory, this was a stepping stone to a greater fight.
“Captain Kasey,” someone called. Kasey turned to see the Major walking toward him from their rear position. Funny how fast labels changed in war: half an hour ago that had been their forwardmost fighting position. Now support was moving up from behind what little tree-cover had survived and were using the trenches as their rear, while the Khadoran trench represented the northernmost edge of the battalion’s advance.
“Sir,” Kasey said quietly. Halleck came to a halt at Kasey’s side and turned to face the field of death. They stood silent for a while, watching men collect their dead and wounded. Four derelict hulks of friendly warjacks lay smouldering where they fell. A fifth had somehow fallen into the enemy trench. They’d have to clear that one out first.
All this for two hundred and fifty yards of nothing.
Halleck let out a long hiss of air. “Thamar’s pussy,” he said.
Kasey snorted lightly. “Thamar’s pussy…” he echoed. Another long pause.
“You did good today, Captain. That was a hell of a thing.”
“A hell of a thing,” Kasey echoed again quietly. A new and haunting sound drifted to them on the wind: a long, keening wail of grief.
Ah, Kasey thought. So we’ve come to that part of the battle.
He stepped off the bulwark and began to walk with the agonized steps of a man with no strength at all.
“My men need me,” Captain Kasey said.
“I want accountability as soon as you have it,” Halleck answered softly. Kasey lazily put up a hand in acknowledgement. “Well Captain, you got what you wanted,” he mumbled quietly. “Hammer Cmpany isn’t green anymore.”