30th Battalion front line, Llael.
12th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Night fell. Halleck ordered another howitzer fusillade into the trees in case the enemy had reoccupied them. As the darkness intensified, Captain Kasey slowly had Hammer Company travel unit-by-unit into the smoking forest. Odious clouds began to sink low above them, covering the moon and swelling with the threat of more rain. They could barely see more than a few feet ahead. Albyn was completely dark.
Kirk’s unit was reunited shortly before they moved out, but it was a joyless reunion. Half of them were missing. Nobody mentioned the absences and the vacant places in their squad blunted any relief of seeing each other. To make it worse, the Captain had ordered units at half strength or less to combine, and the misery of ten men somehow multiplied by an order of magnitude. They were all weakened by grief and an exhaustion that was utterly beyond description. Kirk feared that he wouldn’t be able to shoot straight when the time came. He caught himself blinking rapidly to disperse an unnerving onset of double-vision.
The woods were cold and silent. Their unit was charged with a replacement chain gun. Kirk shifted the weight of the brand-new gun shield straining against his biceps, the only fresh-looking piece of gear on him. An ammo crate was strapped awkwardly to the top of his rucksack. Merrimack struggled to stay balanced on the uneven footing with the six-barrel, and Gerard and Peter carried the hefty tripod between them like a body on a stretcher. The rest of the men in his unit– not his friends, barely his acquaintances– marched alongside them with guilty expressions. They pitied Kirk and his friends for carrying the unwieldy equipment, but they were too tired to offer assistance and settled for sympathetic looks instead of real help. Kirk didn’t blame them.
They spread as thinly as possible in the woods. The ground was too rocky and uneven to effectively dig in, so they didn’t. They formed little three-man islands in the black, forty and fifty feet apart. The strict silence forced them to sit with thoughts made foul by the pitch darkness they squatted in. Peter, Merrimack and Kirk sat on the wet loamy ground in a half-sleep twilight world. They probably should have spread further out but the risk of someone nodding off and getting taken out by assassins was just too great, so they stayed close and slept in shifts. Kirk’s knuckles bled. He was gnawing on them just to stay alert. The pain was barely enough to keep from drifting into a dead sleep.
Nobody seemed to know why they were out here alone and their pitifully reduced numbers amplified their anxiety. The Captain hadn’t even brought the grenadier warjacks because he feared the light and smoke would reveal their position. They’d been given an order of absolute silence– any man who even whispered another man’s name was threatened with a month of latrine duty.
Desperate for rest, those not on watch were permitted short naps that only served to make them more groggy. Their Lieutenants were sneaking around to ensure nobody was snoring and to prevent whole groups from passing out together. Twice Lieutenant Reynolds made the rounds in 4th Platoon, viciously kicking any man who lay prone and wasn’t supposed to be.
A month ago it would have taken him quite a while to check on every person in the platoon. There were less of them now.
The plan of action was to stand by in the forest and await instruction. That was it. No clear purpose and a vile jealousy of those at the rear position who were sleeping peacefully in tents. Hell, even the trenches seemed more pleasant than this. There was a growing resentment of Captain Kasey’s choice to have them lead the fight into no-man’s-land and now be forced to sit on some unknown errand out here in the cold and damp. They weren’t going to attack Albyn, were they? Not alone, surely? Couldn’t they at least have a day’s rest? Were they just out here to stop the enemy from sneaking through the forest? If that were the plan, did they really all need to be out here at once? Surely just one platoon would have sufficed. Maybe just a patrol.
After what felt like three hours of sitting quietly in the dark, Kirk couldn’t take it anymore. He gently nudged Merrimack awake, whose turn it was to rest and was laying propped against a log. Merrimack sat up with a start. He blinked. Kirk motioned to trade places. Merrimack looked quite sad to be awoken but relented his sleeping spot. Within three seconds of resting his head against the rough bark, Kirk was asleep.
Forgeseer Yegor Nikolayev stood tall on the rooftop. It was bare, stripped of shingles by the vibration of the mortar’s ranging fire months ago and had probably been leaking quite badly ever since. His heart raced. Months of planning were about to culminate at this moment. He hadn’t felt this excited since… well. He smiled to himself. Since he lost his virginity.
Fitting that his life would probably end in this place, because there was really nowhere to go from here: this was better than magic. At the sound of his voice, hundreds of southerners would meet a violent death. That kind of power came to only a select few and sometimes only once in a lifetime.
He couldn’t take all the credit for it. The entire trap had been Vasily’s idea and Yegor had simply added his own embellishments along the way. Accolades were not what made this a great moment, though. To watch the enemy so perfectly fall into the pit, and to wreak vengeance for all the Khadoran lives taken while their foes cowered helplessly under the beating, was a pleasure rarely experienced in this dismal world.
Justice. Perfect, fair justice.
The fact that the enemy numbers were fewer than they’d planned for was bittersweet: it signaled more severe losses and a delay in reinforcements, a credit to the stalwart initial defense in spite of the withdrawal. The Cygnarans would have a much more difficult time taking the town with such catastrophic casualties, which was the ultimate goal of this plan. Unfortunately it also meant less impact here and now.
Yet these facts did little to extinguish his excitement. He slowed his breathing to calm his heart rate. He would not make mistakes due to nerves.
The artillery kapitan assigned to their kompany stood beside him to help guide the weapon’s fire. Truthfully, it was so inaccurate that even the most basic calculations would suffice. He was mostly here as a formality and to prevent Yegor from making any targeting mistakes.
The door to the widow’s walk creaked open surprising both Yegor and the kapitan. A trooper was supporting Vasily Bazarov, who stepped gingerly out of the doorway wearing only a thin nightgown.
“Kovnik!” Yegor gasped. “You shouldn’t be up!”
“Don’t give me that,” Vasily whispered.
The artillery kapitan gave a sharp salute. “Sir,” he said to Vasily, “in your absence Forgeseer Nikolayev took command of the fire mission with Kapitan Pietra’s agreement. I saw it prudent to advise him during active operation,” he said quickly.
Yegor grated his teeth but said nothing.
Vasily returned a weak salute. His face was waxy and stone gray, nearly the same color as the nightgown. The pain in his stomach must have been extraordinary but here he stood in defiance of his awful wound. Yegor’s surprise was quickly overtaken by frustration at having his thunder stolen and then compassion; Yegor wouldn’t be here at all were it not for this man. It was only fair that he get to stand here and witness his achievement. Vasily would have to be dead soon though, but this sudden regathering of strength was the exact opposite of what needed to be happening. The man was proving far too durable for anyone’s good.
“At ease, kapitan,” Vasily wheezed. “The Forgeseer has done as I instructed. He is the only other person here who understands my plan as well as I do.” Even this sentence seemed to tax him to the point of passing out. He hung his head and tried to catch his breath.
Yegor held out his arm to support his superior officer and silenced his own doubts, fearing they would somehow be overheard. “I am pleased you are here, Kovnik.”
“Wouldn’t… miss it…” Vasily gasped. All around them on rooftops and hanging out of windows were the troops of their surviving kompany, craning to get a view of the upcoming show. Yegor looked back down to where the siege gun rested in its concrete firing bay at the edge of town and his heart redoubled its pace.
“Are you ready?” Yegor asked.
Vasily nodded. “Do the honors, Forgeseer,” he muttered, barely audible. Yegor was shaking with anticipation. He pulled a spyglass from his robe and held up his arm to get the gun crew’s attention. The weapon was primed and aimed. He almost wanted to linger here, to save this instant…
Kirk dreamt about Alex. They were still in the woods, but now they were alone, and Alex was terrified– he kept trying to say something to Kirk but no sounds came from his mouth. His eyes were wide in the dark, full of desperation. Kirk strained to hear, tried to understand, but just couldn’t make it out. Alex backhanded him in the ear painfully and Kirk snapped awake in surprise.
The sound hadn’t come from his dream.
Everyone was alert, rifles in hand. A huge boom had just sounded from the town up ahead, followed by the sound of… a train? Its volume grew. Kirk could have sworn a train was bearing down on them in the dark, engine churing impossibly fast, whistle screaming to a fever pitch that pierced his eardrums. It ceased with a bang and a roar so powerful he felt it vibrate his lungs.
A flash as bright as daylight streamed through the trees, underlighting the world and briefly casting strange vertical shadows. The sun had magically fallen from beyond the horizon and landed on the field just south of the Khadoran trench. Its intensity seared his dark-adjusted eyes. Putting up a hand and squinting in the painful illumination, Kirk saw the shockwave of air from the center of the celestial anomaly and two seconds later a stiff wind blew forcefully through the treetops, picking up leaves and twigs from the ground. The strange sun faded into a hot ember glow.
Fire. Ungodly fire reflected off the low clouds. A volcano had emerged right there in no-man’s-land, right on the edge of the trench. Smoke from the instantaneous inferno blossomed from this impossible divine attack. A star had fallen from the sky and was consuming the world in light and heat. Burning torches began to emerge from the trench. Burning people. Kirk bit his knuckle viciously hard. This was a dream. This was a dream. This was a dream.
“Gods… Gods…” Gerard pleaded in shock.
This was not a dream.
Someone shouted an order far ahead but Kirk didn’t catch it. His ears were still ringing from the blast. The detonation was at least eight hundreds yards away and his ears were ringing! What could have done this? Not even the Khadorans could have this kind of firepower, surely. This had to be something else.
Kirk blinked and saw the bright flare imprinted inside his eyelids. He couldn’t see anything.
“We’re moving up!” Lieutenant Reynolds screamed from somewhere in the dark. His voice was shrill. “Now! Now!”
“Hahahaha! YES!” Yegor pulled the spyglass from his eyes and held out his arms in triumphant elation, disregarding the painful ring in his ears. At the moment of impact, a resounding cheer went up from the onlookers at Albyn. Even the stoic artillery kapitan beside him was grinning. “They burn like torches, Vasily!” Yegor declared. The Kovnik motioned weakly for the spyglass and Yegor obliged.
Vasily held the glass to his eye and surveyed the damage illuminated by the distant flaming crater. “Gods, what a thing to see,” he breathed.
A pool of flaming alchemical accelerant burned merrily, trapping and cooking any soul unfortunate to be caught in its radius. Yegor laughed again, then turned to check on the gun, barely visible through a swelling cloud of powder smoke. He waved his arms at the crew.
“Quickly!” Yegor shouted down to them. Because the gun hadn’t originally been designed as a solitary emplacement and was instead built to be seated in the hull of a colossal warjack, its loading process was particularly onerous. They were forced to point the gun almost straight up so the suited Man-O-War could access the loading breach underneath. As soon as the weapon had belched flame and bounced against the return carriage– before the shell even hit– they began cranking it up. Slowly, painfully slowly. Boilers pumping sooty clouds, the Man-o-War lugged a fresh incendiary shell to the bottom of the gun, released the burnt smoking jacket of the previous shell and awkwardly heaved the new payload into the empty vertical compartment. Their suit hydraulics hissed angrily under the weight. It was a frustrating, tedious, dangerous process, and it took almost a minute and a half before the weapon was loaded and returned to its optimal firing angle. The positioning gears finally stopped clicking as it locked back into a marked angle.
Yegor plugged his ears this time before giving the order.
Halleck woke to the one sound he dreaded most that night: a train traveling at full steam. But it was not a train and he knew it, and about a second later everyone else knew it too. The shockwave of the impact was unbelievable. Nearly strong enough to jolt him off his feet just as he leapt from his bed.
He rushed out of his tent in nothing but his long johns, the world visible under the harsh light of a towering fire at their trench line, the dead trees cast in silhouette like thousands of broken fangs: a hellish maw illuminated by the fires of urcaen beyond its teeth. People were fleeing aimlessly in panic all around him. His stomach clenched into a steel knot and refused to release. They’d evacuated most of their wounded over the last few hours, but they hadn’t gotten everyone out yet…
Many helpless soldiers still lay nearby.
“Oh, Thamar fuck me.”
Incendiary shot. Burning alchemical paste sprayed across a vast area along with a devastating explosion. The impact hadn’t fallen straight into a trench but the heat and flame was pouring over their defenses, fires that would not extinguish until the fuel was spent. Snake Company was occupying the forward trench. He had to pull them back before they suffered a direct hit, and he had to get a runner to convey orders for Kasey to attack Albyn. Hammer Company was now their only hope of surviving the night. He grabbed the nearest fleeing trooper roughly by the arm, spinning him around.
“Tell Hammer to attack!” Halleck pointed aggressively at the eastern trees. “They’re up there! GO!” he shoved the bewildered private as hard as he could in the direction of Kasey’s company and didn’t even wait to make sure he obeyed before sprinting to the treeline. He slid into their rear trench– now totally packed with terrified troops who had filled it the moment the shell struck– and scrambled up the other side into no-man’s-land, racing across uneven, boot-sucking mud. A swirling pillar of fire ascended two hundred yards straight before him. Smaller blazes encircled the point of impact, little bonfires of conflagrant jelly. Some of the blazes seemed to be moving, and that’s when Halleck finally registered the screaming.
He had heard the screams of the wounded and dying more times than he wanted to count. This was different. An unending chorus of voices that did not even sound human, throat-tearing screeches of impossible agony. The blazes seemed to be creeping along the ground and he realized they weren’t all just chemical paste, some were people. A few were clawing hopelessly forward on their bellies, some rolling slowly in the mud in a vain attempt to extinguish their own sizzling flesh, all howling like souls of the damned. He’d heard stories like this from other veterans who had endured the fighting with the Menites during the Sul invasion– the Protectorate had a special love for fire’s power of “purification”– but this just couldn’t be captured with words.
As he approached the blaze, looking for anyone he could save and finding none, one trencher emerged from the inferno somehow still standing. Halleck couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman. The poor creature was totally enveloped in fire, skin black and peeling off a hairless skull, eyes melted right out of blind sockets, mouth agape in a silent scream as it collapsed onto the ground in a blistering pile of naked, bubbling fat. It did not move again. His stomach flipped.
That gruesome scene would revisit Halleck’s nightmares for the rest of his life.
Tearing his eyes away from the atrocity unfolding before him, he tried to refocus on the survivors huddling in panic inside the second trench. The point of impact had released a fine spray of accelerant into the nearest portion of dike, its conflagrant victims having already climbed out and were running madly into the northern fields like candles in the distance. Nothing he could do for them.
He ascended the crumbling bulwark and stood on its edge, looking down at the hundreds of dirty helmets spread in the ditch across both directions. Dear Morrow, if the Reds hit this gully, Snake Company are all dead.
He cupped his hands to his mouth and screamed at the top of his lungs: “GET! OUT!” They somehow heard him over the roaring blaze and chattering of their own teeth and the ghostly screams of the burning. Hundreds of startled faces looked up at him in unison, their eyes little lamps of terror in the darkness.
“M-Major!?” one shocked private stammered just below him. Halleck realized he was still only wearing his underewar and if the circumstances weren’t so horrible he’d have been a laughing stock. But nobody cared about that right now. He motioned to their back line.
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF THIS TRENCH!” He ordered. They did not move.
“B-but sir–” someone began to object.
“You heard the Major!” another voice cut the dissenter off, emanating from farther down the line. It was Captain Nicola.
“Get south of the trees! SPREAD OUT!” Halleck bellowed. He really couldn’t blame Nicola for allowing her company to take shelter here, but this was no safe place at all.
Not from a bombardment of this magnitude.
“Everyone out!” she reiterated. Much too slowly, Snake Company crawled up the rear trench walls, jumping over the top and running back to the battalion encampment. It wasn’t nearly enough distance to keep them safe, but Halleck realized the siege gun had been zeroed in on this area: retargeting would be far less accurate. He just needed the whole battalion as spread as possible until Hammer Company pulled off a miracle.
Captain Jericho Kasey was trembling with fury and fear. He hadn’t trembled in combat since fighting on the streets of Sul. He also hadn’t felt this disadvantaged since the urban combat of that mean war. This was about as bad as it could get.
Hammer Company abandoned all pretense of stealth, moving as fast as possible towards the town in the dim light of the alchemical blaze, filtered through dark menacing trees whose cold trunks seemed to sap the warmth from the air. He whistled for his officers’ attention.
“Swelt! Black! Reynolds! Linwood! Webster!” Kasey barked each name. “On me!”
The commando and the four scared young Lieutenants scampered to his side as he hustled his way through the scratchy undergrowth. He didn’t wait to hear questions. “Webster and Reynolds, take 1st and 4th up to the treeline, provide cover for cutting crews. We’re breaching that wire. Prep for heavy resistance. Reynolds, set that chain crew up in sight of their front gate.” He looked at them. “Stop staring and GO!” He screeched. As they leapt away, he looked at Black and Linwood. “You two, we’re circling 2nd and 3rd around to their eastern side and will attempt a second breach there. Get moving, I’ll join you momentarily.”
“We don’t have numbers for this,” Swelt warned urgently after the others left. “We can’t take this town by ourselves, Captain.”
“We’re not taking the town,” Kasey said. He worked his jaw to loosen the chin-strap on his helmet as they clambered up a steep rise. “We’re pulling their forces to the fence so you and your squad can circle around and knock out that cannon.”
“Right,” Swelt acknowledged confidently. He liked this plan better. “But I don’t think we have enough dynamite.”
“Then plug yourself into the fucking barrel,” Kasey fired back. “I don’t care how you do it, you turn that gun off!”
“Yes Captain!” Swelt drifted away and merged with the darkness.
As Swelt vanished, another penetrating blast sounded from beyond Albyn and with it came the sound of the train once again. Kasey paused and turned, breathing harder than the exercise warranted, watching through the ever-thickening forest to see–
BOOOOM. The second shell struck smack in the middle of their forward trench. Fire shot down the long channel in either direction.
“No!” His shout was involuntary. He forced himself to look away and push forward. After the roar of the blast died down, he could hear cheering erupting from the garrison in Albyn. The cowards were cheering! He focused on shutting down the cannon, trying not to estimate how many had just been wiped out by the second shell.
The second blast of thunder sounded from Albyn, the invisible train started up, and Halleck released some colorful swears all at the same instant. Only about half of Snake Company was out of the trench. Over a hundred troopers were still crowding to get out. Too soon!
Ryan Halleck knew he had about three seconds left to act, and he used them the only way he knew how: he bodily yanked the young woman scrambling up out of the trench at his feet, hurled her onto the field, and managed to get about five running steps away as the train whistle screech hit impossible volume before detonating.
It landed about sixty yards west of him directly into the overly-broad, overly-straight, overly-long trench. Had it struck above ground he probably would have suffered organ damage in the resulting pressure wave, but the depth of the explosion and the force-channeling effect of the trench disrupted the air compression where Halleck stood. Its landing place both saved those above the trench line and vaporized most of those doomed to be stuck inside, including Captain Nicola.
The blast threw Halleck onto his stomach as a curling jet of fire raced down both ends of the gully like a flamethrower. There were no screams this time: deaths came mercifully fast. The shell released an incandescent cloud of high-speed shrapnel that blossomed into the air in a fatal rainbow parallel to the trench line. Once again, the dike walls protected most everyone who had made it out. Those still inside weren’t alive to feel the bite of flying metal.
He peeled himself out of the mud, trying to dig the cotton balls out of his ears and realizing there was nothing there. He just couldn’t hear. As he stood, he looked back to see the trencher he’d tossed onto the field was laying on her stomach, fire dancing on her back. She’d been close enough to get doused with some of the accelerant. Halleck swore again but didn’t hear his own voice. He ran to her side and tore at the back of the burning greatcoat. She woke with a start and began screaming. Halleck couldn’t hear that either.
Frustrated, he stepped on her shoulder, putting his whole weight on the pauldron until she was being driven face-first into the suffocating mud and tore the coat with all his might. It ripped at the seams, sending him falling onto his butt. He tossed the burning article aside and quickly pulled the trencher up. She gasped madly through a face caked in mud, shouting something at him he couldn’t hear and so he ignored it. He checked her back. To his relief, the burning glue hadn’t melted through to her skin. Grabbing her arm, he tore back across the field to the battalion command post, not even sure what he was supposed to do when he got there.
A young privat burst through the door on the balcony, startling the kapitan, Vasily, his supportive guardsman and even Yegor. He saluted the Kovnik in a breathless rush.
“Sir, a scout has reported seeing enemy movement in the forest!” the boy declared in alarm. Vasily released an excruciating wet cough in reply. Yegor made a move to admonish the privat for surprising his superior in such a state but Vasily held up a hand for him to wait.
Collecting himself, Vasily asked, “how did they advance so quickly?”
“Unknown,” the young man answered, glancing nervously at the irritable Forgeseer. “It is possible… they were positioned in wait some time ago,” he tried to explain.
“How was this missed!?” Yegor bellowed.
Vasily held up his hand again. “Forgeseer, please,” he rasped. Then, turning back to the privat, “do not go out to engage them. Let them come to us. Defend our wire but keep a unit and the spriggan guarding the cannon. They are here to stop our attack. That cannot happen.”
The privat saluted and raced back through the doorway. Vasily looked like he was about to collapse.
Yegor gently gripped his shoulder. “I should join th–”
“No,” Vasily cut him off. “Stay here and direct the cannon. Kapitan Rollan, go marshall the destroyer in our defense.”
The artillery kapitan saluted and followed the privat.
Vasily looked sick. “I think… I need to lay down.”
Enemy rifle shots began before Hammer Company even exposed themselves. Kirk and his gun crew broke left, racing desperately to get into a covering position. Several sharpshooters in the multi-story buildings were firing blindly at anything that rustled in the black forest. A thud and a whistle followed shortly, but not from whatever monstrous artillery they had north of town– this was closer and smaller.
“Destroyer!” someone screamed. The lightning flash of a shell strike at their rear punctuated his declaration. It hit nothing but shrubs and bark thanks to how spread out they had become, but that wouldn’t last long once they accumulated at the treeline for an assault. It began in earnest.
Dozens of Winter Guard had built up in and around the houses inside the razor wire defensive line, firing as the trenchers came into view through the trees. The trenchers returned fire but nobody was hitting anything; darkness, cover, and concealment foiled every bullet. The dull hateful glow of the fire in the distance reflecting on the clouds was just enough to cast the world in a hellish light without offering any true visibility, and the periodic flashes of the cannon shell attack in the distance blinded the Khadorans looking for Hammer Company.
Gerard, Kirk, Peter and Merrimack deployed the chain gun rapidly beside a gnarled oak tree with a curled root at perfect height to provide cover for the gun. To the left, past the rows of fresh stumps leading to the knotted masses of razor wire, was the main entry gate. They’d have a clear lane of fire on anything or anyone coming out, hopefully enough to stop a flanking maneuver. They also were on the far edge of the already-thin deployment of their platoon. If they got into serious trouble nobody would get to them in time for a rescue. They sat and listened to the shots, the yelled orders in Cygnaran and Khadoran, blinked away the flashes from gunpowder, stayed quiet and immobile in the cover of the tree. Their gun now deployed and manned, Merrimack and Gerard crept right and left respectively to stay spread, watching for enemy movement through the wire.
Screams began. Bullets were finding their marks on both sides as the trenchers grew more aggressive. A column of smoke denoted the position of the enemy warjack a hundred or so yards into the town, firing blindly from out of sight. Crack, scream. Crack, scream. Someone on their side was popping Khadorans in the windows of the multi-story buildings.
“I think that’s Joffrey!” Peter whispered. Invisible, mobile, hawk-eyed: their deadly friend’s rifle barked over and over from a different place in the forest each time, and every shot found its target. They all smiled grimly.
The siege mortar unleashed a third time to erase the grins from their faces. It deafened. It screamed. It exploded hundreds of yards away in yet another sunburst of death. Their situation was growing more urgent by the second. As the artillery roar died, the pop and hiss of smoke grenades announced the approach of breaching teams to the wire at a few locations along the fence. Kirk watched shadowy figures scuttle through the stumps with the conspicuous, bulbous ends of rifle grenades protruding from their barrels. Blind suppressing fire from the enemy concentrated at the smoke points, forcing the teams to drop to a crawl. More smoke went off in response, covering the entire fence in a swirling white nebula. Another destroyer blast closer to the treeline. The air was thick with groping bullets. Joffrey’s gun went quiet as the smoke wall obscured all sight.
“What are we supposed to do?” Peter hissed. Merrimack waved angrily at him to be silent, eyes never leaving the fence.
Pop, pop, pop. The rifle grenades detonated at the fence inside the smoke. More teams rushed in as the other teams rushed out, these now with giant wire clippers and more rifle grenades. The whole enterprise was some mixture of awe-inducing bravery and absolute madness. The Khadorans seemed in little hurry to meet the trenchers at their side of the double fence. For a few seconds all fire ceased.
Pop, pop, pop. The rifle grenades once again tore at the razor wire, clippers viciously stripping what remained, and then there was a sudden riot of gagging and coughing from the breach teams as they came stumbling back out of the smoke. At the worst possible moment and in a fashion only the terrible luck of battle can present, a gentle breeze pushed the smoke from their back, both thinning its veil and carrying whatever foul element had suddenly been introduced to cause the panic. The Khadorans– who had waited patiently and silently at the second razor fence– now leaped up and unleashed blunderbuss and rifle alike at the fleeing trenchers. As the breeze both cleared the smoke and pushed it towards the trees, a ferocious sting instantly bit at Kirk’s eyes and some astringent miasma rapidly dried his throat, eliciting a rib-cracking cough.
“Gas!” Merrimack shouted, and then louder for everyone, “GAS! GAS! GAS!” to be echoed by others all the way down the line, as though its truth were not already apparent.
Eye-watering, breath-stealing, skin burning. A tool favored by Khadoran assault troops in urban combat. Not deadly, but debilitating enough to cripple even the hardiest of warriors. The gap between the two razor fences was booby-trapped with gas canisters. Every trencher tugged their leather cowl up to form a single-hole balaclava in a vain attempt to protect their nose and mouth. It was what they had been taught to do.
Without actual gas masks, it was also totally useless.
The sick effluvium unleashed by the hapless breaching crews seared everyone’s lungs as it dispersed into the woods. Kirk saw through streaming, swollen eyes that the defenseless crews had been completely gunned down, but their initial breach was successful: the first fence had holes in at least one place near his position. What was the point? There was still a second fence to breach, and they would have to return to the same spots to breach it. How many more gas canisters hadn’t triggered? At this rate, another three dozen men would die before they even had entry points!
The unfortunate shift in wind put the Khadorans at an extreme advantage now. With nearly all of 1st and 4th Platoons fighting the air instead of their enemy, the brazen Winter Guard defenders moved safely up to the secondary fence and released a withering storm of fire. The trenchers could barely see, let alone fire back. In that instant– even as darkness crept at the edges of his vision due to oxygen deprivation– Kirk realized nobody was shooting at him. They didn’t know he was there because he hadn’t fired yet. The giant chain gun was hidden in the darkness. His vision blurred with tears but he could still discern dozens of shapes massing at the fence. Over-confident.
“Peter, feed the gun!” Kirk rasped painfully. Peter obeyed instantly in spite of his agony, lifting the cloth ammo belt to stop it catching on the log or the ammo box. Kirk aimed the chunky six-barrel at the edge of the fence and let loose.
In spite of his squinted eyes, in spite of the dark, in spite of the mess of thin wire between him and his targets, he was somehow still able to see each bullet strike. Maybe it was the adrenaline. Maybe it was the moral weight of killing people. For the first time since he’d actually sat at one of these chain guns, he felt and observed its true destructive impact: metal-jacketed, 60-caliber, round-nosed soft-point bullets that flowered inside a fleshy target and left ragged exit wounds bigger than a fist. Chunks of meat and splintered bone spiraled in all directions. The volume of fire overcame the inaccuracy of Kirk’s vision and the concentration of bodies down-range compensated for his guesswork. Every bullet found a mark, sometimes two.
The Khadorans at the receiving end realized their peril the instant the chain gun blazed its tracers in their direction. They panicked after the first three shots hit their fellow soldiers, the sudden and unexpected carnage instantly collapsing their morale. A few even dropped their weapons as they fled to the cover of the houses. Too slow, too far, too crowded. Whoever had invented this weapon clearly imagined this exact moment on a battlefield: target saturation, close range, total projectile dominance.
Kirk released the trigger as he heard the rifles on his side open up again, accompanied by the heartwarming cheers of his comrades. The overconfident line of enemy had backed away and the halt in their fire had permitted the rest of 1st Platoon to re-up their counterfire.
“Sheeeeit!” Merrimack screamed in laughter, following by racking coughs. “You just greased a whole fucking squad, Kirk!” And so it was: well over a dozen broken bodies lay at the interior fence line. Kirk’s chest bumped painfully into the butt of the chain gun as Gerard slapped him hard on the back.
“Guess so,” he muttered, nudging his helmet out of his eyes in bewilderment and sniffling against the faucet of snot that seemed to have erupted from his nose.
In the span of five seconds he had saved the entire assault.
Joffrey’s cheer died on his lips as he heard Reynolds order yet another breaching attempt. Painful tears were pouring down his cheeks, but he lifted his scope to his right eye anyway, preparing to cover the unlucky men about to cross open land. He was pretty sure he’d knocked out eight of the sharpshooters in the apartment buildings ahead of them. They were good shots, but they were no widowmakers: he’d made short work of them. He scanned the dark windows just in case.
There was a lot of movement happening a few hundred feet past the wire, enemy darting between buildings. The Khadorans made a few half-hearted attempts at suppressing fire from various positions further in. One Khadoran foolishly remained in placed after firing. Joffrey found him quickly, just a sliver of a person visible along the edge of a cracked stucco wall. He was reloading his weapon. Joffrey waited patiently for the enemy to round the corner–
Snap went Joffrey’s gun, bucking into his shoulder. The Khadoran went stiff and fell straight onto his back. He popped the breach and slipped in a new bullet, quickly scooting to a new position behind a tree a few yards away before resuming his watch. The Reds were awfully quiet even as the breaching crews slunk towards the second fence…
BOOOM. The siege mortar heralded its next payload of destruction. Joffrey drove it from his mind. There was nothing he could do to help the other companies down below. He really wasn’t even sure what the larger plan was here: even if they breached the perimeter, they’d get mowed down trying to enter the town, and who knows what else faced them deeper within. The whole thing felt desperate and suicidal.
The nervous second wave of breaching teams approached the fence almost unmolested, stacking up at the four holes in the forward fence that had already been opened about fifty yards apart.
Joffrey spotted the destroyer warjack lumbering into view from between two buildings and enter a wide lane headed straight for the main breach. Dozens of Khadorans had formed a column and were walking behind it. A few trenchers tried to shoot through the huge frame of the beastly machine but were rewarded only with the sparks of their bullets ricocheting off its armor. Joffrey didn’t even try shooting at it. No reason to waste a round. Finally managing to get a few kills had given him a surge of optimism after being stuck on the sidelines during the disastrous charge on the field earlier that day, but watching this metal monster stomp inexorably towards them made him feel utterly powerless once again. They just didn’t have the firepower to meet it.
A ranking officer just behind the machine was screaming orders at it in angry Khadoran. It pointed its bombard cannon straight forward and fired right at the fence, obliterating the first breaching crew and the fence along with it in a shower of dirt. Joffrey blinked against the bright light of the explosion, stunned. Why did they shoot their own fence…? The answer was obvious before he even finished the question in his mind.
“GAS!” Lieutenant Reynolds screamed nearby and tried to button up his leather cowl again. Joffrey followed suit. The shell had burst open several more strangle gas canisters between the two razor wire fences, and the gentle southern breeze continued to carry the faint yellow-green mist straight towards them.
Kirk– or Peter, or whoever was on the chain gun– opened up the tap again and hosed the fence line with streaks of bullets, trying to prevent another one-sided shooting gallery once the gas arrived. As the thin yellow cloud approached and Joffrey braced for another wave of excruciating pain, he aimed his scope at the destroyer. The ranking officer who was obviously the ‘jack’s marshal was still screaming orders at it to fire and it was not obeying. Joffrey could see why; the bombard’s three-shell magazine was empty. He tried to get a bead on the irate officer but the ‘jack’s movements made it extremely difficult. He waited… waited… his skin began to crawl and then burn as the gas reached him.
Snap. He felt rather than saw the bullet pass through a narrow gap between the destroyer’s arm and leg and strike the officer square in the nose, passing out of the back of his head to puncture the eye of the poor fool behind him. Two for one. Smiling with satisfaction even as the air was sucked out of his lungs, he tried to reload his weapon through streaming eyes. Making a shot like that almost made the pain worth it.
Staff Sergeant Swelt and eight of his commandos hustled as quickly and silently as they could east and north around the town. They were forced to leave the cover of the trees and ran anxiously through a couple of bare plots of farmland at the edge of the town outside the razor wire. Just as Swelt began to question where the gun was located, the Khadorans obliged him with a third shot that revealed its position. The gun was just on the other side of a clump houses at the edge of the field they were crossing, inside the wire. He motioned at two of his men: clippers. He pointed to where he wanted the fence cut. Paulson and Wooten obeyed, belly-crawling up to the fence while the other commandos lay prone on the field, trying to blend in with the dirt and watching the nearby buildings anxiously. Paulson donned thick mail-lined gloves and Wooten used a pair of clippers to methodically pare the razor wire. In thirty seconds they were through.
Paulson stopped Wooten before he entered the shallow ditch between the two fences, pointing at little mounds in the earth before them. In the dark, under time pressure, in the open, less-trained warriors would have stumbled right into the trap, but the Bastards had finely-honed senses. Carefully they tiptoed around the little mounds of buried gas canisters and performed the same surgery on the other fence, finally slipping through. Swelt and the other commandos quickly followed.
They took cover behind the houses, careful to stay out of sight of any Reds patrolling the fence. Hammer Company was making a valiant attempt at convincing the Khadorans they were trying to enter the town from the south, and it seemed to be working; there was nobody on this side. The north half of the town was almost totally unprotected! He then he peered around the corner to take stock of their target and realized he was very wrong.
Twenty Winter Guard had formed a perimeter around a thick concrete channel where the siege gun rested perpendicular to his position. Boxes, crates, and overturned carts formed a tenuous wall of cover around the artillery mount. A couple of suited Man-O-War troopers were struggling to reload the colossal gun and a spriggan warjack stood between the commandos and the loading team like a statue in knightly armor, staring straight at the building Swelt was hiding behind. He yanked his head back and let out a nervous breath before risking a more careful peek.
The spriggan was looking in their direction but hadn’t seen him. That was the good news. The bad news was literally everything else.
The commandos were badly outnumbered and didn’t have the tools to bring down a warjack. There was no way they were sneaking up to that cannon without being seen, either. His first plan had been to detonate the ammo storage, but the ammo bay must have been on the opposite side of the gun because he couldn’t see it, and they couldn’t circle around without looping hundreds of yards to the north to avoid being spotted, and even if they managed that, they would have to approach the fortified position through exposed farmland.
Somebody smart had obviously been anticipating this. Swelt ground his teeth in frustration as he watched the siege gun slowly lower back into position for another shot.
A deep voice rang out from one of the rooftops in the town. Swelt’s Khadoran was a bit rusty, but he picked up the gist: eight degrees down. A spotter was guiding their fire. This would go on all night until the battalion was nothing but burning corpses unless Swelt did something quickly. The Khadoran voice screamed for fire, and the commandos instinctively pressed their hands to their ears.
The gunshot was so strong Swelt thought he’d been kicked in the chest by a horse. He looked around the corner to see the gun cranking slowly back up to vertical amidst a cloud of its own powder smoke. They wouldn’t be able to destroy the ammo, and they couldn’t dynamite the gun… he suddenly had an idea. He pulled Wooten close.
“I’m going to get into that building,” he whispered into the commando’s ear, pointing at one of the apartment structures nearby. Wooten stared back at him in confusion, but nodded. Swelt unlooped the vislovski rifle from his shoulder– he was still carrying it from the widowmaker they’d killed in the forest. “When they grab another shell, I’m going to shoot it as they put it into the loading compartment.” Wooten’s eyes went big. Hitting the shell wouldn’t be overly difficult– it was a big target and he wouldn’t be far away. But getting into the building…
“Paulson is a better sniper,” Wooten said.
Swelt shook his head. “And he’s as big as a ‘jack. He’s more likely to be noticed. No arguing. Listen. As soon as I fire, tell the others I want all of you to toss smoke directly into the enemy, give them a volley, and then haul ass back to Hammer Company. You got it?”
Wooten nodded. No questions asked. Without another word Swelt vanished deeper into the eerily dark town. He unsheathed his trench knife as he crept between buildings, peering anxiously around blind corners before sprinting through the narrow alleyways until he reached a window of the three-story building. He tried to pry it open but it was locked. Khadoran voices were approaching. He pressed himself into a dark doorway as two Winter Guard went running past, heading South towards the main fight. He waited a few beats before returning to the window. Before he could pry it open with his trench knife, someone inside slid it open for him.
He leapt in and nearly stabbed the occupant before realizing it was an old man in a nightgown. Swelt hissed at him furiously, heart pounding in his ears, knife at the resident’s throat. The old fellow stared back at him wide-eyed, tufts of white hair poking comically out from a blue nightcap. They were frozen in time.
“P-please…” The man whispered in heavily-accented Cygnaran. “I help… I help…”
Swelt gently slid the window shut behind him. They stared at each other in the dark living room.
“You alone?” Swelt finally asked. The old man shook his head.
“Wife, brother, daughter,” he stuttered in terror. H looked up and pointed at the ceiling.
“Let’s go,” Swelt ordered, motioning with the blade for him to go up the narrow stairs.
“Louis?” a woman’s voice called shakily from the floor above.
The old man looked at Swelt. “I say you help,” he whispered. Swelt grimaced. He couldn’t trust these people, but he also had no choice. It almost would have been easier if a Khadoran had opened the window.
“Lien des Cygnariens estici,” the old man answered with false confidence. The woman gasped.
“Ahmon die, nu blessie pa mon maerie!” the woman shouted back.
“Quiet! Quiet!” Swelt commanded harshly. He prodded the old man to walk up the stairs, following close behind.
“No hurt!” An elderly lady, a man roughly the same age as Swelt’s hostage and a shockingly beautiful young woman were peering around the corner of a doorway at the top of stairs. “No hurt!” the young woman pleaded again.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Swelt answered. “I need to destroy that gun. Tou compre? Destroy the gun! I need a window,” Swelt tried to explain. The panic-stricken family looked at each other.
“Il neva pous non malaifaire, ilveuit tur le Khadorans,” the old man answered rapidly.
“Shuttup,” Swelt pricked him in the back. The old man winced and the old lady covered her mouth.
“Stop that,” the old man said in Cygnaran. “I help! Ok? Look, look.” He gestured to a closed door further down the hall. “You see.”
“You first,” Swelt commanded. He pointed for the rest of the family to shut the door to the bedroom they were peering out of. “You, close the door. Close it.” They obeyed reluctantly. Swelt ignored their terrified whimpers and marched the old man down the hall to open the door. It was another small bedroom; rectangles of dust indicated furniture had recently been taken out of the room.
“The Khadorans steal,” the man said bitterly, gesturing at the empty spaces. Swelt slowly returned his knife to its sheath.
“No shit,” he answered. At the opposite wall was a narrow window veiled with sheer curtains.
“Ce vula, Louis?” one of the women called down the hall, muffled by the doors.
“Tell them to shut up,” Swelt demanded through gritted teeth. The man patted the air reassuringly.
“Yes, yes.” He went to the door and cracked it: “Je vai buen, Priscilla. Seil’vu plais silensaux, pou les Khadorans entrendeux,” he replied softly.
This seemed to satisfy the others and there was no more noise. Swelt approached the window at a crouch, peering through the curtains. Perfect! He had an unimpeded view straight down at the gun, which was being cranked back into a firing position. He had taken too long and missed his chance. He would be forced to wait for them to cycle the artillery again, which means the rest of the battalion would have to weather one more bombardment.
“They’re going to fire, cover your ears,” he said to Louis without taking his eyes off the window. Louis repeated his instructions to his family. Ten seconds later was a blast so ferocious it nearly shattered the window. Gods, that thing is a beast, Swelt thought to himself. A more distant explosion a few seconds later marked the completion of the shell’s arc. The Khadorans slowly cranked the gun back up to vertical. The whole thing was so jerry-rigged and so dangerous he was surprised they hadn’t blown themselves up. Given enough time they probably would, but the trenchers couldn’t exactly stand by and suffer shells all night hoping the Reds made a fatal mistake. How had they managed to build something like this without CRS catching wind? A truly impressive feat of secrecy and engineering.
He braced the vislovski rifle against his shoulder and very slowly cracked the window just enough to poke the fat muzzle-brake out onto the lintel. One of the Man-O-War released the loading compartment and dumped a smoking shell casing from inside. Swelt released a long, slow breath and put his eye to the scope. He would have exactly one shot at this. One. He paused.
“Go wait with your family,” he said to Louis. “And thank you for not screaming when I came in.”
“The Khadorans will come,” Louis said shakily from behind him. Swelt turned to look at him. The poor old man’s eyes were white saucers of terror.
“Eventually, yes,” Swelt admitted. “But we’re going to keep them good and distracted for a while.”
“They kill us,” Louis answered. Swelt closed his eyes in resignation. Louis was right: the Red bastards would make an example of Louis and his family to prevent any more un-alerted late night incursions. He hated it, but there really wasn’t anything he could do. He was about to trade the lives of these poor people for the lives of hundreds of trenchers. Maybe the flash hider on the rifle would be enough to conceal the firing position; maybe the Khadorans wouldn’t find out where the shot had originated.
Ah, who was he kidding. They’d kill everyone in the apartment just to be sure.
What choice did he have? This was the only opportunity he was going to get to blow up that gun, and Hammer Company couldn’t keep the Khadorans busy at the fence forever. What was he supposed to do? Come back to Captain Kasey and say, ‘sorry sir, but I just couldn’t let the Reds kill Louis.’
Meanwhile 30th battalion was probably burning to death in the trenches.
“Thamar sfuck me…” Swelt mumbled.
“What?” Louis asked in surprise.
“I can bring one of you back with me.” Swelt held up his index finger. “One. And they have to be quick.” It was obvious who Swelt was ruling out.
Louis’ eyes brimmed with tears, but the look on his face made plain they weren’t tears of grief; they were tears of gratitude.
Sergeant Swelt wanted to shoot himself.
He slipped a round out of the bullet-loops on the stock of the rifle instead. How nice of that widowmaker to leave him some ammunition.
“Murcie, murcie, thank you,” Louis said with trembling voice. “My daughter.” Swelt nodded curtly.
“Go tell her to get ready.” He turned back to the scope and lined up his shot, and was surprised by what he saw. The Man-O-War were heaving another gigantic round up to the gun, but this one looked different: it was painted bright red.
Even as Swelt was opening the window to position his gun, Yegor was watching their target area closely through a spyglass. Five beautiful flaming craters now adorned the Cygnaran position: two hit the forward trench, and a third had fallen directly into the old no-man’s-land and to minimal effect. He’d ordered a new firing angle on the fourth shot and it had landed nicely in the ravaged woods whose shattered trees were ripe for burning, followed by a fifth shot in the same area. Half the treeline was now a literal wall of fire, trapping many of the little ditch beetles on the northern side and cutting them off from the rest of their encampment. Things were proceeding perfectly.
Unfortunately all this fire was putting a lot of smoke in the air and making visibility increasingly difficult. The darkness was difficult enough, but Yegor was finding it hard ascertain how the Cygnarans were responding. He needed to see how they were spread out before they launched another shell. A flare would do the enemy no harm, but would scatter half a dozen bright lights across the sky and reveal all. There would be no hiding.
“Load a flare!” He called down. One of the Guardsmen repeated his order to the Man-O-War who were having trouble hearing through the wax plugs in their ears.
Swelt stared at the strange new shell through his scope. What in the world was going on? Should he still shoot it? Was this one special? He could let them fire it and see what it did before blowing up the next shell, but that would mean even more trenchers dying in gods-only-knew-what this payload was. The Khadorans obviously had access to alchemical gas weapons and had deployed them at the fence; was this a gas shell? If so, it would force the battalion hiding in cover to flee the gas and end up out in the open, exposed to another firebombing. But if it was a gas shell, it wouldn’t have enough explosive force to destroy the gun even if Swelt hit it. Damage the artillery, maybe– send everyone around it fleeing for oxygen, definitely. But that wasn’t enough. They’d just come back.
Then again it could also just be a bigger boom. Maybe the red shell indicated a different powder ratio, or a timed charge for an airburst, or a different shrapnel disbursement, or, or, or…
He had no idea, and he had just seconds to act. He made his choice.
Yegor plugged his ears and awaited the gun’s percussive blast. He was greeted with a much less welcome sound: something blew up at the gun bay, followed by a stellar light from below that lit the town in a painfully close sunrise. He turned and found his eyes clenched shut instinctively against the pure burnished starburst. Gunshots erupted dangerously close.
“WHAT!?” he screamed in frustration even as his eyes remained tightly closed. The Cygnarans were attacking the gun position! He summoned his magic, but he was too far away to attack even if he had been able to see. Blocking the intense light with one hand he carefully opened his eyes. Smoke now billowed at the gun: white smoke lit through by flares from within. Trencher smoke.
Yegor released some of the most nasty curses he’d ever produced.
Swelt felt back from the window and dropped the gun to the floor, eyes shut but still seeing the bright light filtered pink through his eyelids.
“Son of a bitch!” he shouted. He blinked against the glowing after-image. The room was as bright as early morning through the window. A flare. A damned flare! He should have waited. Hopefully there was enough powder in the shell to jam the gun: he’d blown it up right as they had placed it in the loading compartment. Shots went off as the Bearded Bastards made their move. He scrambled up and burst through the door. Louis’ family was in a weepy huddle around his daughter.
“Let’s go!” Swelt raced to the stairwell and forcibly broke them up, yanking the woman after him. He pulled his carbine off his back as he took the stairs two-by-two, practically dragging the poor lady along. They were screaming tearful goodbyes at each other. He didn’t even bother to tell them to be quiet.
Out the front door, into the street. Through an alley. Dear god it was bright! He made a beeline for their hole in the fence. He went in first.
“Be careful!” he shouted to his new companion, pointing at the mines. She scrambled on hands and knees through the fence, still sobbing. They made it through the second fence just as a handful of Khadorans came running through the town and spotted them. He leapt up– young lady in tow– and dashed through the rows of tilled earth as bullets zipped through the air in front of him. New shots came from another position: the Bastards were still inside the wire and engaging the arriving enemy.
“Goddamn it!” He forcefully shoved the woman towards the trees. “GO!” Dropping to one knee he raised his carbine and started picking off the Winter Guard. They turned back to him, now trying to fend off attack from two sides. He didn’t let up. The Bastards performed beautifully: laying down expert covering fire as they escaped through the fence one-by-one. Unfortunately their hurry released one of the gas mines. It wasn’t enough to stop them, but their fire grew suddenly inaccurate.
Swelt watched Simpson’s head snap back with a bullet hole as he tried to provide cover for Paulson. Paulson vengefully tossed a grenade over the fence at the cluster of enemy to drive them back. They all dove for shelter before it went off. It bought only a a few seconds, but that was enough: just as Swelt’s gun clicked from an empty magazine, the rest of the Bastards snaked through the fence, retching and gasping as they fled.
Hammer Company was too confused by the sudden explosion of light behind the town to understand what was going on or even know if it was a good or bad thing. Joffrey stared in wonder at the strange development just as something even more strange arrived: a Llaelese woman, shockingly beautiful and probably just a few years older than him, came screaming through the trees. Several trenchers tried to grab her as she passed but she refused to be captured, evading them better than a child playing tag.
“Lady! Stop! Please!” Joffrey yelled at her in Llaelese. This got her to halt long enough for a private to grab her in a bear-hug. She burst into tears and struggled viciously. The Bastards came running back into the forest behind her.
“For the love of Morrow’s mother, let the poor woman go!” Sergeant Swelt commanded breathlessly as he arrived. Her captor obeyed instantly and she sank to the ground, sobbing inconsolably. “My family, my family” was all she would say. Joffrey was stunned. This had to be the most intense day of his life, and that was saying quite a lot for him.
“Where’s the Captain?” Swelt demanded. Joffrey realized the master warrior was asking him a question.
“Uh, with 4th I think,” he answered stupidly.
“You speak her language?” Swelt asked.
“Yes, I’m Llaelese.”
“You escort her out of here,” Swelt ordered.
“Where?” Joffrey asked.
“But it’s under fire!” Joffrey answered, incredulous.
“Not for now,” was all Swelt offered in the way of explanation. “I have to get to the Captain. Move out.”
Joffrey was more confused than he’d ever felt, but he obeyed nonetheless, gently pulling the woman off the ground and holding her for a moment.
“There, there,” he said. It was all he could thing to say. Her weeping did not let up.
“Pack it up, we’re pulling back,” Merrimack said as he returned to Kirk’s gun. The exchange of fire had slowed. Kirk wiped his eyes for the hundredth time: they were not taking kindly to being gassed twice. The bright light at the other end of town was finally beginning to fade.
“The hell is going on around here,” Gerard asked even as they worked to break down the gun. Within a minute they were hauling ass back the way they’d come, and within a couple more minutes they realized something had changed.
The artillery had stopped.
“I really wish I knew what was going on around here,” Gerard repeated.
“I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough,” Merrimack offered. “Just keep moving.”
When they finally returned– tired beyond the reach of calm– their old fighting position was not as they had left it. Massive craters burned near the trenches, and the entire treeline between the farms and no-man’s-land was ablaze, sending up a mighty tower of ashy smog into the ever-more polluted clouds.
“Morrow preserve us,” Kirk gasped, dropping the gun shield in unwelcome awe. The damage was far worse than he’d guessed at a distance. The tears pouring down his cheeks were no longer from the irritation of the gas.
For the first time since joining Hammer Company, he was no longer certain they could win.