“There aren’t any winners in war, Coleman. Just survivors.”
-King Leto Raelthorne to Lord General Coleman Stryker,
upon witnessing the damage to Caspia in the Sul-Menite invasion
27th of Octesh, 611 AR.
The gambit was up almost immediately. Within a day of meeting with Yegor, the Cygnarans had started cautiously harassing their border patrols from the woods, obviously expecting a full-scale artillery strike in retaliation. But Yegor had nothing. The siege mortar was a lump of worthless metal and it didn’t take the southerners long to figure it out.
That had been two weeks ago.
Realizing there would be no more fiery reprisal for their actions, the enemy battalion resumed their aggression, and the last two weeks had been one long, slow, drawn-out firefight. A trencher sniper of absolutely outrageous skill kept taking down guards at night– more than once actually shooting blindly through walls to injure someone loitering inside a building. Yegor surmised he was facing a gun mage, or at least one with magical aptitude. The danger had reach a point where it was no longer safe for the Winter Guard to patrol their own fences. They’d been forced to build small fortifications just inside their perimeter, partly to keep the enemy from getting too close and partly to keep eyes on the sapping crews that periodically tried to make clandestine breaches in the wire.
Almost a third of his surviving troops had some level of walking injury, usually bullet grazes or the bites of shrapnel from rifle grenades launched over the fence. It was small comfort that the trenchers were suffering similar attrition– probably more lethal, considering the disparity in cover. But now the Cygnarans were getting regular troop replacements and Yegor was not. About every three days their observers reported thirty or forty new soldiers marching up from the south. Meanwhile, Yegor was forcing the Llaelese doctor to work day and night to patch up the wounded who could be bandaged and then putting them right back on the line. The troops did not complain. They were too hardy, too proud for that; but the new graveyard at the rear of the town was growing, as was the number of crimson-stained linens covering various body parts.
Yegor kept his gruesome promise to the trencher officers. Every day he’d randomly select a handful of civilians, have their throats slit, and tie their bodies to the fences. He wasn’t keeping anything like an honest score– two civilians for one Winter Guard is what he’d told them– because he wanted to simultaneously give the impression that their losses were more severe and also enrage the enemy into making mistakes. He killed seven or eight per day even if none of his troops died. Having fewer mouths to feed also helped alleviate the general hunger from dwindling food supplies.
If he couldn’t outright kill the enemy himself, he’d settle for needling them day and night with the corpses of these stinking villagers.
Oh, and how he’d grown to despise these peasants. When Yegor first arrived he knew the sacrifice they were going to be called to make. He’d actually felt bad about it in the beginning. They chose to remain in their homes even under the Khadoran eye; these should have been model citizens of a conquered Llael and were instead going to be tossed in front of an approaching enemy to protect a plan they knew nothing about. He kept telling himself it was no worse than the thousands of Khadorans who had frozen to death in winter when coal rations were cut short to fuel the production of colossals. That was a real sacrifice. These soft people were not accustomed to such hardships.
But he didn’t bother with making excuses for them anymore. Now he just hated them. Months he’d been dealing with them, and the last two weeks were the absolute worst of it. When he’d revealed the presence of the doom reavers, the shock from his own troops had been bad enough, but the citizens had nearly rioted. And then the constant accusations and cries and complaints and tantrums from those parents who had lost their children to…
To Grekhov’s project. No, he corrected himself, to my project. Yegor had executed the parents first when the hostilities resumed. He told himself it was because he could not risk them stirring up the rest of the townspeople, but he knew the real reason.
Feeling the shame meant he was not a monster, he kept repeating. He had not wished them ill. He was doing what the Motherland required of him, like every son of Khador. The pain and suffering of those poor youths would soon end.
The rest of these insolent Llaelese rodents, though… he felt no pity for those he strung up on the razor wire. Cowardice was something he would not tolerate anymore. Every living man, woman and child in this town was being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice to their Empire, to their Empress. Winter Guard knew it and they did not complain. Yegor wished the citizenry would follow that shining example. Instead he had to force them into obedience with harsher punishments and more executions. They weren’t under the protective care of the Khadorans now, and they knew it– they’d always known it. With the doom reavers in full view and the daily killings, it took all of Yegor’s fear tactics to keep them from becoming the very ‘rebellion’ he had lied about to secure control of the town.
Still, putting the doom reavers in the central square was a rather extreme thing to ask anyone to adjust to. He gazed out of the third story window of his own room looking down into the square. They were brought out each day and chained to posts in the center, swinging their blades madly and screaming into the leather gags in their mouths. So long as Grekhov or one of the other greylords stood present and exerted their arcane influence, the psychotic men and women would not attack each other. It was actually quite surprising how careful they were to avoid dismembering their fellow reavers with the monstrous weapons in such close quarters. Even in only a few weeks the magical pressure and the accelerating techniques employed by the greylords had caused their muscles to grow and distend, stretch marks criss-crossing their arms and backs as they developed the strength to wield the huge blades.
Well, ‘wield’ was probably not the best word. ‘Flail’ was more accurate. A few of them still couldn’t even get them off the ground for more than a few seconds. The physical pain of such exertion must have been terrible. Still, Yegor was genuinely impressed with how much progress Grekhov and the others had made in such a short time. This whole process normally took many months before reavers could be deployed into battle with any expectation of having a real impact, and here they were, spinning like deadly tops.
The young ones stayed in the cages, though. Yegor had not gone down there since he’d given the order for their capture. Cowardice. He knew it. He still did not go.
As he watched the mad creatures whirling and contorting in the square below, long shadows crept over the surrounding buildings in the early morning light. The never-ending cracks of rifles all around the southern edge of town was a constant annoyance. The stutter of weapon fire only served to remind him that their ammunition was dangerously low. Outnumbered, outgunned, and soon they’d be totally surrounded. The enemy line crept forward a little each day until his message runners had to travel hundreds of yards to the east to avoid being seen or shot at. Each moment grew more bleak.
Yegor was chained to Albyn, just like a doom reaver to his fellblade.
The enemy had almost rebuilt their numbers in spite of the constant losses, yet the Cygnarans hadn’t launched a final strike. He hadn’t heard from kommand in days, but the last word he’d received was that Kommander Zubkov’s hit-and-run tactics were grinding the enemy advance to a crawl. Their foes didn’t seem to know where to allocate resources, and so had settled for a complete standstill until all of their sectors were fully reinforced. It was the only explanation for why Albyn was not yet overrun, and it was the exact scenario Yegor had hoped for. He liked to believe he had some hand in that.
But how long could it go on? How long could they hold out here before simply withering away? Was that his fate? No grand final battle, no crippling blow to the enemy, just a slow attrition until only he was left to face a thousand troops by himself? That was the inevitable outcome at the current rate of casualties.
His morbid pondering was interrupted by a knock at his door.
Ah, yes, right on time. A spotter was here to report another group of enemy units inbound. Turning slowly and walking to the door, he took a deep breath and straightened his back. The appearance of being in command was more important now than ever before. He opened the door with a confidence he didn’t feel.
There stood Artillery Kapitan Rudensk, the man whose chief responsibility here had been the siege mortar and who was now about as useless as Yegor felt. Odd; usually the spotters gave the reports, not the Kapitan. Yegor preferred to hear intelligence directly.
“Lord Forgeseer, we’ve observed enemy reinforcements,” Rudensk said with a sharp salute.
“Yes of course you have,” Yegor replied wearily, not bothering to return the salute. Military formality was so utterly tedious. He missed the inbuilt respectful posturing of the Covenant without all this absurd saluting and snapping of boots. “As we have seen every few days for weeks, Kapitan. Why are you here to–”
“This is different, Lord Forgeseer,” the Kapitan said. Yegor finally noticed the anxiety on the man’s face. “This is a surge.”
They stood on Yegor’s favorite rooftop overlooking the fields and trenches below. Pietra had joined them. Realizing that this might be the final time he stood here, he waited to see how that thought made him feel.
Nothing. Yegor was too tired to feel.
He collapsed the spyglass and handed it back to Kapitan Rudensk.
“So,” he said after a long breath. “They’ve finally found their balls, eh?”
“They seem to have found a lot more than that,” Rudensk said ominously.
At least two hundred new troops were walking in a long column up through the burned out treeline of their old fighting position, accompanied by dozens of horse-drawn carts loaded with crates and objects too distant to perceive even with a lens. Yegor didn’t need to see their shapes or read the letters on the crates though– it was ammunition, and a lot of it. Most likely intended for the trench cannons, which meant a bombardment was coming. That was the only unexpected part of this arrival– he had not expected the southerners to willingly risk the deaths of so many civilians that would surely come if they opened up with artillery.
Yegor’s gloom and despair slowly dissolved into excitement. At last! A real fight. He would get to kill Cygnarans after all.
“This… may be the end,” Kapitan Pietra said. Yegor glanced at her. She looked chiseled from stone.
“What a glorious end it will be,” Yegor said calmly.
“So many…” Rudensk murmured. “There must be a thousand troops out there now, and three warjacks.” He shook his head. “So many men for such a little town.”
“Almost makes me feel important,” Pietra scoffed.
“They are anticipating heavy losses,” Yegor said with a smile. All of their traps and hardpoints had been completely rearranged since Lilliana had been captured in order to prevent the enemy having foreknowledge of the terrain. A few additional surprises had been added, not the least of which was the doom reavers.
The enemy battalion morphed to accommodate the latest arrivals, swelling into a growing mess of troops and camps and fortifications that had been slowly expanding for weeks now. They were obviously hoping to use Albyn as a mustering point once the Khadorans were gone. Yegor longed for his siege mortar. Those troops were so beautifully vulnerable in the open… But even his destroyer was nearly out of shells. There was no way to reach the little beetles.
“Tell our warriors to prepare themselves,” Yegor commanded. “Check every weapon, arm every trap. Move the majority of the remaining citizens to the outer houses,” Pietra nodded.
Rudensk looked despondent. “How long do you think we’ll last?” he mumbled.
“We are all going to be dead by morning,” Yegor said bluntly. Rudensk looked at him with a mixture of disgust and fear.
“You have so little faith in us?” he asked in surprise.
Yegor snorted derisively. “A thousand trenchers versus a few hundred wounded, hungry, frightened infantry?” He shook his head. “Be realistic, Kapitan.”
“Then why–” Rudensk began.
“Because our mission is to hold this town, Kapitan,” Pietra cut him off. “And we will do our duty.” Yegor looked at her in pleasant surprise. Rudensk said nothing more.
“Albyn has become a hook in their flesh,” Yegor agreed. “They aim to tear us out. We will cost them.”
“Have your greybeards learned of any rebel efforts? Any plans?” Pietra asked.
Ah, Yegor had almost forgotten about that particular yarn.
“Nothing concrete, but expect individual betrayals at any moment during the fight,” he lied. “Most of these people have turned against us.” Well, that much was fact. “Tell our soldiers not to hesitate using them as shields. They have forsaken their rightful rulers and are now enemy combatants.”
“Yes, Lord Forgeseer,” Pietra said. He could hear the hesitation in her voice, the distaste for using old men and women and children as a defensive tactic even though she genuinely believed they were rebels. It was the same weakness Vasily had exhibited, the weakness that had delayed Yegor’s chance to turn these people into real weapons. If he’d been able to bring the Covenant in earlier…
Which reminded him that he needed to do something about the koldun lords. Condemning his troops to a heroic death was one thing. Even sacrificing his own life was a noble choice. But he could not force three high-ranking members of the Covenant to remain here in spite of the danger. There were acceptable losses, and then there was wasting lives. He would not waste theirs.
“I am going to send Grekhov and the other escorts away,” Yegor said.
Pietra’s nostrils flared. “What? Why?” she demanded to know.
“I need to give an account of our actions here and inform kommand that we are about to be overrun,” he replied. She looked suspicious.
“We must sacrifice our lives but they do not?” she asked. “Why not send a Winter Guard runner? One of our own?” she suggested.
He narrowed his eyes and turned to her slowly.
“Grekhov, Prokhor and Ilya are our own, Kapitan,” he said.
She swallowed and looked away. “Yes of course, I only meant–”
“I know exactly what you meant,” Yegor interrupted. “Do not let your suspicion of my Order and your fear of our methods blind you. They are old men, hardly useful in battle, and their work in the Greylord Covenant is vitally important. I do not have authority to keep them here and I would not do that even if I could.”
“It’s just that, if some of us are to survive–”
“No,” he said firmly. “None of us are to survive except them. We have been tasked with this burden, they have not. The Covenant and Section Three require their services elsewhere.”
“Yes, Lord Forgeseer,” she said, still not looking at him.
The second-guessing was growing tiresome. Whatever happened to unquestioning obedience? This young generation…
“Make preparations,” he replied dismissively before turning to leave. “We’re almost done here.”
Yegor entered the square, quietly approaching Grekhov as he stood with staff raised, chanting quietly under his breath at the wild reavers chained to their posts. Yegor waited. After a time, Grekhov slowly dropped his staff and turned to Yegor with a world-weary sigh.
“Forgeseer,” he said slowly. His face had the look of a man who had simply given up on disciplining his unruly children.
“Things seem to have gone well,” Yegor noted optimistically. “They are able to use the weapons.”
Grekhov actually laughed. It went on long enough to make Yegor uncomfortable, and then insulted. The old man finally got ahold of himself, wiping his eyes.
“I just cannot believe you were able to convince Zerkova this was a good idea,” Grekhov said at last, still chuckling. “Look at them. They’re worthless.”
“They will kill as ordered,” Yegor insisted.
“No,” Grekhov said, bemused, “they will run screaming in all directions the moment they are set loose and be gunned down instantly.” He chuckled again. “They don’t follow commands, not even from us. It takes all our psychic control to keep them from slaughtering each other right here and now. You have wasted our time and you have wasted our fellblades.” He shook his head. “And then the children…”
The hairs on Yegor’s neck rose. “What of them?”
“They’ve gone totally mad,” Grekhov said softly, eye contact unwavering. “Helpless, unable to use the fellblades at all.” He licked his lips like he’d tasted something unpleasant. “At best, they can run with them dragging on the ground. Most likely they will simply claw their own eyes out as soon as the battle starts.” He shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll actually try to kill a Cygnaran or two. Not sure how. Perhaps the ancient madness with give them strength.”
Yegor’s stomach twisted and his bile rose.
“You realize we must go soon,” Grekhov said apologetically. “There isn’t much more we can do.”
“That is what I came to tell you,” Yegor admitted. “Please tell the others. You should leave now.”
Grekhov raised his bushy white eyebrows. “Now? The situation is that dire?”
“I’m afraid so,” Yegor said. “I expect an attack by tomorrow at the latest, and it will not cease until the town has fallen.”
Grekhov stroked his beard thoughtfully. “Yes, that is quite a problem.” He grunted in displeasure. “We will need to have a sufficient head start to outrun their advance once the town falls. I have not ridden hard in a long time, Yegor. I am not a young man anymore.”
“Your body will recover from the saddle,” Yegor answered. “My body, however, will not recover from death.”
“Don’t you play for sympathy from me,” Grekhov chided. “You made your own grave. You could have found a way out of this.”
“I don’t want a way out of this,” Yegor said firmly.
Grekhov clucked his tongue. “Yes, I am aware. You forgeseers are all the same, so battle-hungry, so anxious to play with your armor.” He wagged his head and pursed his lips. “You know we originally started putting greylords in those things to protect you, right? You aren’t really part of the Armored Korps.”
“I do well enough on the battlefield,” Yegor argued. He huffed impatiently. “All besides the point. You need to prepare to leave, and you need to tell me how to best use these…” he gestured at the reavers, “tools.”
Grekhov laughed again. Yegor’s cheeks flushed but he bit his tongue.
“Yegor, these reavers are just as likely to kill your own men or themselves.” He tapped his foot. “My advice? Shoot them and let us take the swords back. At least we’ll have salvaged something out of this.”
“That,” Yegor answered, his voice sinking dangerously, “is something you will not do. I have taken too many risks, sacrificed too much, for such an action. No.” He shook his head once. “They may not be what we hoped, but they will be put to service.”
“The blades are worth far more than those lives, or even the number of enemy lives they might take,” Grekhov said hotly, eyes flaring. “Let me return them to the Covenant where they can actually be put to good use!”
Yegor held up a hand. “Stop. This was never about the reavers, Grekhov.”
“Come on, Yegor,” Grekhov pleaded. “It’s not going to work and you are too proud to admit it.”
“When the enemy attacks, this place will become a living hell, but only if I have a bit of hell to throw at them!” Yegor shouted. “And I have gone through quite a lot of trouble to make sure the survivors will bear mental scars from Albyn for the rest of their time in Llael!” He gripped his fists and opened them with great effort, putting out his hands in supplication. “You know why I do this!” His voice was hoarse with strain. “I was given an impossible task, Grekhov! To defend this city with a few kompanies and hold it against the tidal might of the First Army? I might have done it with the siege mortar, but now…” he gripped his bald head. “Now I cannot kill enough for it to matter, cannot do enough harm to slow them down. The Supreme Kommandant–”
He stopped himself. Speaking openly of plans was not wise. Taking several deep breaths, he started again.
“Grekhov, I can only kill so many. And I can only wound so many.” He released his head from his grip, putting his hands behind his back and lowering his voice. “But their minds, their hearts… I can attack those in ways that cannot heal.”
“And this protects the rest of Llael how?” Grekhov shook his head. “That part of your plan has never made much sense to me. Those that survive will continue on, unhappy or otherwise. You attack their hearts, but the guns and knives in their hands are what kill our men!”
“Grekhov, Grekhov…” Yegor struggled to find a way to explain this to the koldun lord, to make him understand. “You have seen too little battle.”
“And you underestimate the tenacity of our enemy’s spirit,” Grekhov said.
“They will be shedding unstable troops from that battalion for months because of the next twenty-four hours,” Yegor said. “Their need for replacements will slow them down just enough to buy our rear line a few more days. Traumatized soldiers will destroy their morale. They will have constant problems with deserters. If not, then I truly have failed.”
“You know I could simply order you to release the blades to us,” Grekhov said. “I have that authority.”
“And I will die before I let you do that,” Yegor said, but it was not a threat. It was a resigned fact. “Please,” he begged. “Please do not make me hurt you.”
Grekhov looked at him for a good long while. Yegor waited. There was nothing more to say. Grekhov would either relent and the plan would move forward, or he would try to take the fellblades and Yegor would have to kill him, and then Prokhor, and Ilya, bringing the total of his murders to four.
Grekhov saved him that burden. “Alright,” the old wizard resigned at last. “Keep them. Do what you must.” He turned to look at the wild sweating bodies contorting behind him. “But I think you are wrong. This is not a worthwhile sacrifice.”
“I will never get to know for sure. I can only hope,” Yegor admitted.
“I would be happy to be proven wrong,” Grekhov said. He rested on his staff and considered the reavers. “Move their cages into the places you wish to release them, and keep them locked until the last possible moment,” he said. “Keep them separated as much as you can. Have a pair of guards at each cage to open it when the enemy comes.”
“And then?” Yegor asked.
Grekhov shrugged. “Tell them to run.”
Yegor frowned. “But I thought you said they aren’t following any commands.”
Grekhov raised one eyebrow. “I meant the guards.”
“Ah.” Yegor waited a while, hoping he wouldn’t have to bring up the children again. He had to. “How might I… most effectively use the, ah, the younger ones?”
Grekhov looked into the distance. “Of all your foolish wastes, that one offends me the most,” he said quietly. He turned back around to look at Yegor. “You should just kill them.”
“I told you I’m not letting you take the blades–”
“Keep the blades, I don’t care,” Grekhov said. He turned away. “But put those wretches out of their misery, for god’s sake.” He looked at his feet. “I am tempted to leave that whole experiment out of the report, if only to prevent some misguided idiot thinking he can do it better and repeating the exercise.”
“There will be nobody here left to contradict you, if that is what you think is best,” Yegor said.
Grekhov frowned. “No,” he said, “our intelligence will inevitably catch wind of Cygnaran reports of ‘doom reaver children’ and the internal inquisition will begin. Better they hear the whole truth from me, not second- or third- or eighth- hand from some Section Three agent.”
Yegor hesitated a moment before speaking his next thought: “If they have had such an impact on you, Koldun Lord, then perhaps I am right to believe their effect will be far worse on the enemy.”
Grekhov shrugged. “Maybe. You are one hard man, Yegor.”
Yegor looked up at the sky. Puffy white clouds were building far overhead. Another storm was likely approaching. “This weather has been persistently foul,” he remarked.
“Poetic,” Grekhov said. “A storm approaches from above and below.”
“I would prefer it stay dry a little while longer, if I had a say,” Yegor mumbled.
Grekhov smiled thinly. “Rain never hurt anybody.”
“I would prefer it stay dry,” Yegor said again.
Grekhov straightened his back and planted his Orgoth staff, eyes glittering. It was time for him to go. “Goodbye, Forgeseer. It has certainly been interesting.”
Yegor stood at the door to the basement of the tavern cellar, candle in hand. The stairs descended and wrapped around the corner before him, drawing him in.
He should see. He must face it.
Each step was slow and careful. Reluctant. The candelabras were dark, the coals in the braziers casting only a fading glow. The cages stood in empty rows, their occupants still out in the square above. The room in the back, however, was not empty.
Yegor slowly approached the dark doorway, spine tingling with the sort of preternatural sense one normally experienced in the presence of a hungry predator.
Grekhov’s recommendation of simply ending these victims’ lives had been a fair one. Yegor considered the suggestion, but that would be admitting he’d subjected these children to two weeks of torture for nothing but his own vanity; their sacrifice would be pointless. Prolonging their lives for a day so that their misery might actually break a few more enemy soldiers seemed no less humane than killing them here and now. At least then it would be for something!
Faint whispers uttered in inscrutable languages echoed from beyond the doorway. They were sounds he had heard before, but these were different. Smaller voices.
His bald scalp grew cold.
He passed through the darkness into the small room beyond. The room appeared to be a fairly recent addition, likely built to conceal illegal goods, weapons or people from the Khadorans during the initial occupation. It was a wide, low-ceilinged room of tight-fitting red brick, dim candle sconces on each wall every few feet. As his eyes took a moment to adjust to the new layer of darkness, he noticed them.
The children sat on the floor. Nine of them. They did not acknowledge his presence. The heavy blades were chained to their hands, the iron shackles leaving ugly cuts and bruises on their wrists. Each sword’s weight anchored them to their spot in the room. Every child whispered maddeningly to him- or her- self in vile words only the ancient and original owners of the weapons might have understood.
Deep scratches covered every visible patch of skin on their half-naked bodies. They looked flogged. For a moment Yegor feared Grekhov had actually tortured them, but the depth and spacing of the cuts weren’t from whips or knives. They were scratches.
One of them saw him and looked up; a boy of maybe fourteen or fifteen, his hair greasy and hanging limply around his hollow eyes. He had the sword perched between his legs blade upward, its length and width greater than his own body. Their gaze met. The young man slowly lifted his hand. In some awful trance, a tear rolled down his cheek as he pressed his thumb against the razor-sharp edge of the weapon and pressed down.
His thumb fell off at the knuckle. Blood spurted onto the weapon and disappeared into the open mouths of its grisly carved faces.
Yegor felt himself falling, vertigo threatening to send him to the floor. He covered his mouth. A darkness that was more than the absence of light crept at the edges of his vision, an unholy presence both vastly distant and awfully near.
“What have I done…”