27th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Kirk, Gerard and Peter huddled around a group of NCOs that were being briefed by Lieutenant Reynolds, listening in with a gaggle of other troopers anxious to hear their next move. Kirk wondered who would be leading their unit now that Merrimack had been carted to the rear for triage. Wanting to clear up the uncertainty of their path forward wrestled with the feeling of terrible vulnerability from standing so close together. He stayed anyway.
“Most of the surviving enemy company is giving ground to 4th as we push up from the south,” Reynolds shouted over the din of a barking chain gun and screaming artillery, sliding his finger along the map as he spoke.
“What the fuck do you mean they’re giving ground!?” one of the officers answered furiously, veins in his neck straining. “Were you not in the first wave? There are two dead warjacks–”
“Cool it, Withers!” Reynolds barked at him. “The rest of the battalion is getting it way worse on the other side, trust me. Most of the enemy are dug in up there.” He pointed at the heaviest cluster of buildings at the northernmost part of the town.
“We had to have killed at least fifty of them already,” Corporal Felix said, a member of a unit that had taken severe casualties and was now absorbing Kirk and his friends. Kirk guessed Felix would be taking over for Merrimack, but at the rate the platoon was being reorganized by losses, he couldn’t be sure. “How many can there possibly be left? Why are we even stopping?”
“Traps ahead,” Reynolds answered curtly.
“Lieutenant, traps behind,” Felix said in amazed incredulity at Reynold’s confusion, gesturing backward with his thumb. “We just walked through them!”
Reynolds just pursed his lips and shook his head. “The buildings are four and five stories near the center of town and they’re very crowded,” he explained. “It’s a lot of vertical territory to cover and a lot of places to hide. We could lose half our company just right in here.” He jabbed at a cluster of buildings on the map, just ahead of where they now stood. “That fucking ice wizard is holding up the whole goddamn battalion, so they are counting on us to push up into the khadorans’ assholes and cause a rout. But they let us in on this side for a reason and we don’t know why just yet.”
“Doesn’t feel like they ‘let us in’,” Peter whispered to Gerard.
“Because they’re getting their asses kicked, that’s why,” one of the other NCOs argued.
“So are we, Corporal Rayburn,” Lieutenant Reynolds countered, eyebrows raised. “Or are you not noticing our own body count?”
“I’m fucking noticing it,” Rayburn snapped, adjusting his shoulder pauldron in annoyance. Everyone was on edge from the high of war, Kirk noted. The NCOs were rarely this feisty. Reynolds blinked slowly and gritted his teeth.
“Here’s the move,” he said, choosing to ignore Rayburn’s saucy tone. “Split units into five-man teams. These halls are too crowded for full units to be piling in and out.”
“No shit,” Gerard whispered to Kirk. Kirk looked at him and nodded in agreement, barely flinching at the sound of a nearby explosion just a street away.
“Each team clears one floor,” Reynolds continued. “Second team clears the next floor up, then another split unit advances to the third floor, and so on. No one unit should be clearing a whole building, and no team should have to clear more than one floor. When a floor is clear, the unit on the floor below needs to leave the building and move to provide support outside where needed. Is any of this confusing?” He asked the last question slowly and loudly, turning to each NCO to make sure nobody was lost. This was not entirely new information– urban combat followed a similar line of logic in training. Splitting units like this and having previous teams clear out of a building before the teams above were finished was a little unusual.
“Let me be crystal clear: some of these buildings are wired with heavy explosives,” Reynolds said. “Enough to bring down the entire structure. I’ve gotten word that Snake Company has watched four go down and nearly wipe out an entire platoon. No more of that shit. If a building goes down, I don’t want to lose more than ten men. One team per floor per building, no more than two teams in a building at one time. Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! Do we understand each other?”
“Fuck,” Peter muttered. Kirk and his friends looked at each other in terror.
“Yes, SIR!” the NCOs barked.
“Roll up!” Reynolds shouted back, pulling the map off the Spriggan’s carcass and stepping away to supervise the next push forward. Kirk made a futile attempt to wipe rainwater out of his eyes only to have another sheet of driving rain blow under his helmet. The storm had taken a bad turn and everything on him was soaked. He had a few rifle cartridges tucked in a dry sack deep under armor, but that made reloading extremely slow. He wasn’t even sure those would be dry for much longer.
“Unit three, on me,” Felix shouted over the noise of other NCOs rallying their troopers and the driving wind. Kirk, Gerard and Peter leapt into Corporal Felix’s unit, shoulder-to-shoulder with more men and a couple of women they didn’t know or even recognize. This battle was turning all the surrounding faces into strangers minute by minute. “That one,” Felix said, pointing down the street at the tall building that the sniper had been firing from. “Sergeant Sable!” he called another NCO. “That one.” He pointed at the building again. “Four floors, we need four teams.”
Sergeant Sable turned her attention from her unit to Corporal Felix. “There’s a community hall connected to the back of that building,” she answered. Other than her voice, Kirk would have never known she was a woman. She was the biggest member of her unit. “I recognize this street from the map. We’ll start clearing the first floor and then you send a team through the back into the next building.”
“I don’t want to clear two buildings at once,” Felix warned.
“It’s only one story,” Sable argued. “And nobody else is going to do it.”
Kirk’s stomach instantly squeezed, forcing him double to spew what little water he had managed to get down since they entered Albyn. He stared at his fluorescent yellow bile diluting in the rainwater on the cobblestones, shocked at himself.
“You ok, private?” Felix asked as Kirk stood up, wiping his mouth and reaching for his canteen.
“Yessir,” Kirk managed, trying to drink quickly to hide his vibrating hand. Felix watched him for a couple of seconds. “Just nerves, sir,” Kirk said. “I’m good to go.” Felix nodded and gestured for them to move up the street. They all started jogging to the entrance to their next objective.
“What was that?” Peter asked quietly as they splashed through puddles in the little craters from the Spriggan’s grenades.
“I don’t know,” Kirk said, feeling anxiety wash over him. “Something about that trading hall,” he said, swallowing bile back down. “Made me nervous.”
“Just another room,” Gerard said, trying to reassure him. “We’ve gone through over a dozen already.”
“Right,” Kirk said with confidence he knew none of them felt. “Just another room.”
The two units spread out in the t-intersection at the edge of the street loop and watched Sable’s first team stack up on the door to a little restaurant on the first floor of the four-story structure. They breached and two of them were instantly mowed down by an improvised pipe bomb full of metal hardware. Sable cursed angrily as she watched the survivors go in, staring at them like she could keep them alive through sheer force of will.
“Watch your feet!” she shouted at them. A minute passed.
“Clear!” came a voice from inside. Sable leapt forward with the second team almost before she’d heard the word, and Felix’s team was right behind her to press through to the building at the back. The complicated maneuver and the growing dread made Kirk wish they could have just shelled the whole town and been done with it.
Felix’s unit filed into the dark restaurant in a single line, moving through a dining hall full of little round tables with clean white tablecloths. Beautiful paintings hung barely-visible on the walls. Aside from the blood and debris from the pipe bomb, the space looked so pristine Kirk almost felt like he was trespassing. Rain clattered angrily against the tinted glass. No furniture barricades, no boarded windows.
Sable’s first team of three survivors began carrying their dead squadmates out the front door as Sable’s second team stacked up near the stairway. She turned to Felix, nodding toward the back. “Let’s go,” she said to her team, leading them up the wide steps. Felix nodded in acknowledgment and turned to whistle at his second squad waiting just outside the front door.
“Don’t sit right outside!” he shouted at them. “Move!” They stared at him. He sneered angrily. “Move back!” He watched them jog back to the other side of the street, shaking his head. “If this building blows they’ll get pasted, fucking idiots,” he mumbled to nobody. Heavy footsteps creaked the floorboards above them as Sable’s team cleared the second story. Thunder rumbled, or was it guns? Kirk couldn’t tell them apart anymore. They pressed by the kitchen– again, almost totally pristine– into a wide hallway that led up to an open double-door into a black chasm. A wall of impenetrable darkness lay before them. It looked like a mine shaft or a tomb, not a trading hall connected to a restaurant.
“Anybody have a flare?” Felix asked, not sounding hopeful. Nobody answered. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Thought so. You two, look for a candle or lanterns or something,” he said, pointing at Kirk and Gerard. They looked at each other and turned back into the restaurant to look for something to light their way. Kirk found a box of matches on one of the dining tables and Gerard found a small oil lamp in the kitchen. Kirk lit the lamp and took it from Gerard before they returned to the two other men flanking the opening to the next structure.
“We’ll cover you,” Felix said to Kirk. “Watch your feet.” Gerard took position next to Felix. Kirk hooked the finger-hold of the tiny lamp over the top of his rifle so he could grip his weapon with both hands. Something was lurking past the threshold. Kirk could feel it– an evil presence. More than any other moment since he’d arrived in Llael his own death felt frighteningly close, like peering over a waterfall and feeling himself slip. He took a step through the door, edging carefully into a large chamber. “Don’t linger,” Felix whispered. Felix, Gerard, Peter and the nameless fellow soldier under Felix’s command stood in pairs on either side of the door, rifles up and aimed into the next room. Light reflected off wooden beams fifteen feet above them, revealing little rectangular windows up above papered over to block almost all light from outside, chattering under the heavy rainfall. A row of large wooden benches and empty stalls at the edges of the room marched on into the darkness. It reminded Kirk of the chow hall from basic training.
Something growled in the darkness. Movement. Felix’s rifle snapped a puff of light and smoke as something charged screaming straight at Kirk, momentarily illuminated by the rifle blast before disappearing again. In that same instant Kirk fired, the rifle jumped and the lamp fell, casting them all into a hellish underlight as the little flame descended to the floor. Roaring like a wild creature, a half-naked dirty man flailing an enormous sword rushed straight at him just as Felix’s bullet ripped a hole in his stomach and blew gore out his back. He did not even react to the injury. Kirk fired through the man’s throat even as he stumbled backward, trying to escape the wide overhead arc of the blade being whipped towards him by the man’s charging momentum. His shot tore through the assailant’s throat and out his neck, showering Kirk in a fine mist of blood just as the tip of the blade nicked through the front of his helmet, yanking it down over his eyes and sending him painfully onto his backside.
The rest of his team shouted and screamed as more hellish sounds emerged from the pitch dark. Rifles popped and deafened them all as Kirk struggled to his feet, yanking his helmet off his face just in time to see two more maniacs with swords flying towards them with bullet holes in their bare chests. The shock of a woman’s naked breasts, violent tearing screams, the bloodlust in their eyes, swords that seemed to be thrashing around with a will of their own, defying physics and dragging lunatics by their chains…
“RUN!” Felix shouted, leaping into the open doorway to block the charge of a bullet-ridden woman as her blade– carved with faces that moved in the dim underlighting– swept right through his rifle and directly into his chest like he was wearing no armor at all. She was using her entire body as a counterweight for the outrageously oversized weapon, something clearly not made for human hands. Felix coughed blood into her face and she laughed in delight. A man crept up beside her, blade dragging on the floor at his back. He pulled on the handle with all his might, whipping the steel monstrosity overhead and planted his blade straight into Felix’s helmet, splitting him down to the collarbone. His skull separated into two halves with a wet tear.
Kirk let loose a scream he didn’t know he could produce, turning to flee with the mindless terror of escaping prey. He forgot about his friends. Suddenly he was back outside in the blinding flash of a lightning strike getting doused by rain, sense coming back to him as he turned to try and reload. Struggling to pull the drysack from his chestplate he looked back into the dining room, counting each second in preparation for a monster to emerge and cleave him in two. Someone from Sable’s first team ran up behind him.
“What happ–” one of them started to ask Kirk. He didn’t get to finish. One of the broadsword-carrying monstrosities screeched and hurled himself out of the restaurant into the street, driving his blade right through the trencher’s stomach and out his back with a horrible sound of grinding metal and bone. Kirk couldn’t seem to reload. He couldn’t even move, transfixed by the nightmare unfolding in front of him. Someone shot the crazed swordsman in the head and they both collapsed, dead.
“Peter! Gerard!” Kirk screamed as the other two teams outside rushed to help. They were still inside.
“The fuck was that!?” someone asked. Kirk didn’t bother to answer. He just couldn’t seem to reload. The order from his brain to his hands wasn’t going through.
“Give me your rifle!” Kirk hollered at the trencher who had shot the swordsman on the street. The man blinked.
Kirk didn’t bother to explain, ripping the gun out of the trencher’s hands and charging back into the restaurant. It was empty. The black doorway in the rear stared at him like an inky well. Heavy footsteps and the sound of struggle sounded from upstairs. Kirk leapt up the stairs two-by-two, the rest of Sable’s unit following right behind him. Ascending to a second dining room at the top of the stairwell, struggling to see in the twilight of papered-over windows, two more swordsmen had chased Peter and Gerard up here and had them cornered. That gut-wrenching sensation of pure evil assaulted Kirk once again, almost sending him to his knees in terror. Sable’s entire first team was dead on the floor including Sable, their bodies hacked and dismembered alongside the one swordsmen they’d managed to kill before giving up their lives. Kirk’s friends were cowering like frightened children, screaming and crying as they tried to reload their weapons while the monsters stalked toward them slowly, reveling in their fright, dragging their heavy, grotesque, ancient weapons along the floor. The two swordsmen were covered in gaping bullet holes that they didn’t even seem to feel. Sable’s second team thundered up the stairs and froze right beside Kirk at the heinous sight of their unit and officer butchered on the floor.
Kirk fired into the naked back of the swordsman to his left, severing his spine and sending him crashing to the ground with a pig-like squeal of rage. The other whirled to see their surprise attacker and screamed so violently it had to have burst his vocal cords. Some unnatural quality of the sound froze Kirk’s boots to the floor. More screams and shots erupted downstairs as the fourth team was ambushed by another wave of inhuman brutes. The squad behind Kirk rushed back downstairs, partly driven to help their friends, partly wanting to escape the creature in the room with their dead squad.
No longer pinned by the gaze of the swordsmen, spell momentarily broken, Gerard and Peter were able to reload and fire two bullets just as the swordsman was a step away from decapitating Kirk. The man fell to the ground, writhing momentarily, eyes staring viciously up at Kirk before losing focus.
Kirk could not stop shaking. Every muscle vibrated and a soft wail escaped his lips, turning into a keening moan of pure, unintelligent, totally raw fright. Gerard and Peter approached him slowly, gripping his arms, anchoring him to reality. Kirk sobbed and sank to the floor in a fetal crouch, hugging the rifle.
“We need to get out of here,” Peter said, voice trembling. The sounds of battle downstairs had stopped. Lightning flickered through the papered windows, searing their dilated eyes before sending them back into crushing darkness.
Gerard peered down the stairs. “Hey,” he said softly, almost not wanting to be heard at all. No reply. “Hey,” he said again, only slightly louder. A wet growl answered him. All three of them froze.
Peter yanked a grenade off his bandolier and tossed it down the stairs. Smoke and fire spouted into the dining room below but the sound felt distant. The din of war was costing them all their hearing. He tossed another one, his last one. Whump. Gerard tossed his last grenade as well and they all crouched motionless at the top of the stairs. Whump. Kirk suddenly remembered how to reload and tried to slip a fresh cartridge into his rifle as silently as possible, praying to Morrow that it wasn’t too damp.
Several rapid heartbeats raced by. No sound, no movement. Still they waited.
Awful screams sounded in the distance, carried on the driving wind.
“How many are there?” Peter asked, frozen.
“I don’t know,” Kirk whispered. “The room they came from was pitch-black.”
“Did we… did we kill trenchers? With those grenades?” Gerard asked, burping queasily at the mere thought.
“I don’t think so,” Peter said. Kirk couldn’t tell if he was being sincere. “Trenchers don’t growl like that. It wasn’t…. It wasn’t even human.”
“We have to go down there,” Gerard said, but didn’t move.
Kirk sighed. “Alright,” he said, lifting his crouch just enough to begin stepping carefully down the creaky stairs, rifle up. He crept down, step-by-step into the little restaurant now shattered by their grenades.
All of the trenchers were dead on the ground, bodies hacked by swords and burned by the grenades. Three of the crazed swordsmen were also dead, although their bodies were hard to identify after the explosives had done their work. Their swords lay in puddles of burst flesh. Kirk couldn’t take his eyes off the surreal weapons. The faces kept shifting.
“Are we… Are we all that’s left?” Peter asked, stunned. “Again?”
“I’m not sure,” Kirk said. He couldn’t seem to recall how many they’d gone in with or who was with who. Had they all been killed, or had some fled?
Those carved faces…
Gerard snapped his fingers in front of Kirk’s nose. Kirk blinked and looked up.
“What do we do?” Gerard asked. “We don’t have a commanding officer.”
“We need to…” Kirk began, trying to figure out what should happen next. He was drawing a blank. Who were these monsters? Where had they come from?
“Doom reavers,” Peter murmured as he gazed at the cursed weapons lying on the ground. “How did they get here?”
“We need to find Lieutenant Reynolds,” Kirk finally realized. “We need to warn him.”
More animalistic screams carried on the wind outside, location indeterminable.
“I have a feeling he already knows,” Gerard breathed.
“Nobody said anything about doom reavers!” Peter shouted, startling the other two. “How the fuck did they get here?”
A timber-shaking boom traveled through the floor, rattling the shredded paintings somehow still clinging to the walls.
“Another trap,” Kirk said. “Probably another building down.”
“The rest of Hammer Company has to be ahead of us by now,” Gerard said. “We need to catch up.”
All three of them looked up at the dark doorway into the trading hall. There was more light now– a door had been opened on the far side.
“The rest of Felix’s unit must have moved on,” Kirk realized. He blew out a shaky breath and checked his weapon. “We need to get going. Come on.” Gathering their nerves, they cautiously stepped into the dim hall, sweeping their rifle sights around the room, grateful for the faint illumination from the door on the other side. They walked a wide berth around the corpses of the doom reavers they’d killed in the initial charge.
“These people are so small,” Peter said, glancing at the bodies before looking away uncomfortably. “I thought doom reavers were supposed to be huge.”
“That’s what they said in training,” Gerard said. “Maybe the swords give them… some kind of illusion of size.”
“None needed,” Kirk said sharply. “They did enough damage.”
“It should have been worse,” Peter said as they approached the other end of the hall.
“Tell that to Sable and Felix,” Kirk said angrily.
“I mean it,” Peter said. “We shouldn’t even be alive. I counted ten of them. If these were real doom reavers, they would have butchered all of us before we even knew what hit us. These people were slow.”
They stacked up on either side of the open doorway, peering into a large paved square. Buildings towered around the central square. The flagstones were littered with the bodies of Cygnarans, Khadorans, and the strange doom reavers. Rifle fire periodically lit up windows from inside like spirits of war. A horrific screech sounded from somewhere nearby.
“I swear this town is bigger on the inside than the outside,” Kirk said. The rhythmic thump of warjack feet approached. They ducked back into the hall, waiting to see if it was friendly or enemy. Approaching the square from a narrow street on their left, the familiar shape of a cyclone and a squad of trenchers walked slowly towards them, rifles up.
“Friendly!” Kirk shouted from inside the hall before stepping cautiously out. The cyclone twitched to face them, spinning up its barrels.
“Easy, easy,” one of the trenchers said as the others lowered their rifles. He had sergeant bars on his pauldron alongside the curving stencil of Snake Company. The marshaled cyclone whistled irately and turned to scan the area, barrels clicking to a halt.
“Where is everyone!?” Peter shouted at them over a blast of thunder.
“Most of Hammer Company was supposed to be right here!” the sergeant shouted back. “A runner was sent to us for support. Where’s your platoon?”
Gerard pointed at the buildings all around them. “Clearing!” he said. “There was supposed to be support on the street, but…” he looked at the carnage in the town square. “Looks like they got ambushed…”
“Shit,” the sergeant replied. “Alright, here’s what we’ll–” he was interrupted by the sound of voices approaching through a doorway in one of the apartment buildings facing the square. Five trenchers ran out, stopped, turned, and fired into the darkness behind them.
“What the–” the sergeant leading the cyclone began, but was once again interrupted when his warjack whipped its torso around to face another doorway thirty yards away. A doom reaver came screeching out, sword clattering on the cobblestones as it was dragged by arms too small to lift the weapon. The cyclone’s barrels were already spinning. Bullets whined through the air as the warjack unloaded on the interloper, blasting its head and limbs clean off.
“Oh gods,” Gerard murmured. “Was that… was that a child?” He wiped his eyes repeatedly. “Did that warjack just blow up a fucking child?”
A window crashed above them and a pair of bodies fell howling onto the ground, landing with a wet crunch. Another cursed sword clattered away from dead hands. A trencher and a barely-clothed young man lay still on the ground.
“What the fuck is going on here!?” the sergeant screamed furiously.
The squad of trenchers who had fled their building to return fire stood up from their firing line and reloaded, trying desperately to keep rainwater off their fresh cartridges.
“Fookin’ doomies!” one of them shouted back, his Thurian accent so heavy he was barely understandable. “Fookin’ women and children!” he added just as another screaming maniac charged out of the house they’d been assigned to clear. The squad opened fire and killed her instantly. “I’ve had enough of this shit,” one of the trenchers said. Kirk could feel himself resonate with the young man’s impotent fury.
“Where’s the rest of the platoon?” Kirk asked, running out of cover into the square, looking up at the windows all around them. Each building seemed full of activity. Gunshots, small fires casting strange light through the windows, wild screams.
“Split!” the other trencher answered. “Reynolds told us to stay here and clear this area and then moved on. And then we got fucking ambushed by those cocksuckers.” He gestured angrily at one of the dead Winter Guardsmen laying in the square. “Then we go into these goddamn buildings and there’s fucking doom reavers in there!”
“That was a child!” Gerard screamed, voice crackling, pointing at the messy body lying outside the door across the square where the cyclone had done its violent work. “A child attached to a sword!” Nobody was sure who he was screaming at.
“Fookin kids!” the Thurian-accented trencher repeated, voice trembling so hard it was nearly musical. “The fookin reds are usin’ fookin kids!”
“We need to get your platoon out of these buildings now!” the sergeant commanded.
“But, the lieutenant said–” Peter began.
“Your lieutenant isn’t here,” the sergeant interrupted. “I am. We’re getting these men out.” He turned to his warjack and made a fist, then a flat palm. “Stay, guard,” he said loudly. The cyclone spread its legs a little and widened its arms, pointing a gun down each of the two streets leading into the square. The sergeant turned to his own men. “I’m going to help these boys out, you stay with the ‘jack and keep anyone from sneaking up on her, right?” His men looked at each other, then at their sergeant.
“Right,” one of them answered obediently, if not enthusiastically.
“The rest of you, on me,” the sergeant ordered. Kirk and his friends fell in behind the five-man squad who waited for the sergeant to enter the building ahead of them.
“I can’t do this again,” Gerard moaned, but fell in anyway.
The next few minutes were a blur for Kirk, a series of moments strung together with no sense of connectedness: three dead trenchers in a living room lying beside a ‘doom reaver’ clawing frantically at a mortal wound in his throat, eyes wide in pain. A squad giving emergency first aid to one of their friends as he died in their arms, both his legs gone from an explosion. Two trenchers desperately trying to put out a fire in a bedroom that had been started by an overturned lamp. The building felt crowded with dead bodies, enraged young soldiers, and misery.
The sergeant barked at everyone they passed. “Get out! Get the fuck out!” He had to grab and shake a few out of their stupor to get them to hear. “This building is clear, get the fuck out! Why are there so many of you here!? There’s only supposed to be ten men in here, goddamn it!”
“They kept popping out,” one of the stunned troopers managed to whisper, pointing numbly at an open closet covered in blood and occupied by a half-naked corpse. “Just… kept coming out, we kept calling for help, so… so they all rushed in…” he pointed to two dark, wet stains on the ground by the door where an explosive had gone off. Someone’s intestines were stuck to a wall. Kirk looked away.
The sergeant gave the young man a hard slap. “Get out of here!” he ordered. “Get your buddies and get out!”
Rending screams sailed down from the floor above them. Muffled voices. A gunshot. More muffled voices, followed by a distant “clear!”
“Sweet Ascendant Markus, we do not have time for this,” the sergeant grumbled. He turned to Kirk and opened his mouth to speak, took a breath–
The windows exploded in a flash of light so intense it burned Kirk’s eyes even as he shut his eyelids. Glass blew into the bedroom they were standing in, followed by a rush of heat and smoke. The entire building trembled like it had been punched by a titan. The roaring did not stop, nor did the fire. The next thing Kirk knew he was lying on his back staring at the brightly-lit ceiling wondering where he was. He rolled over and coughed. Glass crunched underneath him.
“Sergeant!” he called. There was a fire in the room. He struggled to his feet, turning to see the bedsheets were blazing merrily and every other person who had been standing in that little bedroom– Gerard, Peter, the shell-shocked trencher, their sergeant– were all lying unconscious on the ground. “Sergeant!” he screamed, running to the NCO’s body. His trench coat was shredded from broken glass, but there was no blood. Kirk kicked the man hard in the side. The sergeant gasped and rolled over to look straight up at Kirk in shock and surprise. The sound of the cyclone’s chain guns opening up from down below snapped him back to wakefulness.
Fire roared outside like a furnace. Gerard moaned. Kirk ran to his friend’s side and pulled him off the ground, and then Peter. The fire on the bed was spreading, the heat in the room growing more intense by the second. The trooper who had been in the bedroom when they’d arrived was already pulling himself up. “Let’s go let’s go!” Kirk shouted, trying to herd everyone out. More shots from the street below. The cyclone was firing full-speed now, the twin chain guns blurring together in one loud peal of thunder. Kirk’s head was pounding so hard he felt like a gremlin was going to pop out of his skull. Somehow– he couldn’t even remember how– they made it back through the building and onto the square. It was unrecognizable.
The structure directly across from them was gone, along with half of the buildings on either side. The entire square had become a demolition site littered with piles of brick, glass, and burning wood. Dust hung in the air so thick it was almost as dense as a cloud from a smoke grenade, parting just long enough for Kirk to see the cyclone half-buried in rubble, upper torso locked in place facing one of the streets and firing incessantly for a few more moments. The peal of the chain guns finally halted as their ammo canisters went dry.
A small pile of bodies clogged the street the cyclone had been unloading into. They weren’t military. They weren’t even deranged swordsmen. Kirk saw old men, women, children. No weapons. Through the parting dust came the vague, bulky shapes of soldiers in greatcoats and the distinct outline of ushanka hats on their heads. The cyclone’s barrels spun up again, but the bullets meant for the enemy had been depleted.
The khadorans had just herded at least thirty or forty innocent people into enemy fire as body shields. The headache slamming inside of Kirk’s brain redoubled. The Khadorans were scrambling over the rubble and the bodies now, faces perfectly lit by the blazing ruin of the exploded building; their eyes were panicked. In the distance, a trencher battle cry sounded and the Khadorans redoubled their effort to cross the square. This wasn’t an enemy charge, this was an escape attempt.
Kirk took a knee, lifted his rifle, took aim at the lead Khadoran and fired. The enemy seemed to notice the trenchers for the first time. They lifted their weapons. Too late. The square was surrounded by cygnaran troops streaming from the buildings they had been clearing, slaughtering the enemy in a volley of crossfire. Unable to press forward, the Khadorans tried to turn back but were impeded by the rubble and corpses, trenchers approaching them from the rear and trapped in the square. Their unit leader dropped his weapon and threw up his arms, eyes wide. The rest of his men followed suit, blunderbusses and rifles thudding to the ground.
“Sdavat’sya!” he shouted. “Surrender!” he repeated in thickly-accented cygnaran. “I surre–” his knee exploded from a rifle shot. He fell to the ground, screaming. Kirk reloaded his weapon as his friends and allies followed suit, killing and maiming the helpless enemy. The northern soldiers tried to run. They didn’t get far. Kirk walked slowly to the man he had just crippled, lying helplessly in his own blood, gasping in pain. Lying beside him face-down in a mess of broken plaster, a llaelese child missing both of her legs shifted as the khadoran flailed his arms, inadvertently pushing her corpse. Kirk looked at her. Such a small shape. Her hair was dark, but so covered in plaster dust that he couldn’t tell what color it was.
“Look at her,” Kirk ordered. The khadoran stared up at him, teeth gritted, eyes furious. Kirk gestured viciously at the corpse. “LOOK AT HER!” he commanded. The khadoran stared back at him defiantly.
“I surrender,” the man said. He had officer marks on his uniform. Kirk flipped his rifle around and smacked the northerner hard in the nose, crushing it. The man gasped in pain and coughed blood.
“Look at what you DID!” Kirk screamed. His face contorted in a way he didn’t intend, and suddenly the rain on his face was warm. Slamming the rifle butt into the man’s face again, Kirk watched the officer’s eyes go soft as bones crunched under the powerful strike. He struck again. There was no more face to look at. He turned away from his grisly deed.
Trenchers bearing the marks of Shield Company were climbing over the rubble now, coming from the street the Khadorans had appeared from.
“Enemy routed!” one of them shouted at Kirk as he passed. “We’re chasing them out of the city! Let’s move! MOOOVE!” Kirk was instantly swept up in a crush of troops, forcing him out of the square. Gut-shaking explosions rippled through the ground in waves, spouts of fire launching into the clouds above the rooftops.
“This whole fucking town is rigged to blow!” someone screamed from somewhere in the group.
“Stow it!” someone else shouted in reply. Too late. The pace of the advance grew from a jog to a sprint. Kirk was stuck right in the middle; not a single familiar face was anywhere in sight. A sea of blue helmets, backpacks and shoulder pauldrons bobbing up and down all around him. They rounded a corner and Kirk realized he was right back on the street where he’d destroyed the Spriggan, where Merrimack had been evacuated, where his Lieutenant had mapped out their careful plan to clear the town.
“Complete shit,” Kirk rasped to nobody between breaths, mouth painfully dry. The rain had eased to a light sprinkle, no longer enough to even wet his lips. “Complete, utter shit.” Scattered rifle fire up front. Where were they even going? Did anybody know? He couldn’t see anything! The rifle fire grew more intense. Whoops and hollers, trencher battlecries. Shouts in Khadoran. Kirk had reached the end of his strength. Shock was settling in. Still his legs hammered the ground.
In a flash he was back at the 12th Regiment training depot, running loops on the parade ground with 4th Platoon for their third hour, Captain Willikers hollering at them from the center of the field. “You boys think this is hard!?” he screamed. “You don’t even know the meaning of hard! Your dicks have been soft since the day you were born! I will teach you pain!”
Another flash. Running up the embankment at the Khadoran trench. Alex vanishing in a burst of light and blood.
Kirk stumbled. An arm pulled him up. Back into the sea of bobbing helmets. They were approaching the edge of the town now, passing buildings and streets Kirk did not recognize. Up ahead, lines of artillery and support crews. The razor wire was gone. The group began to disperse into the maze of winding lanes, structures burning or half-collapsed, smoke everywhere. They had caught up to the enemy now. Trenchers were shooting, slashing, and beating fleeing Khadorans left and right. Every horrifying scene Kirk had witnessed in the last hour or so was repeated before him with different faces and different backgrounds: a trencher disemboweling a Khadoran. A woman fleeing a building and being shot in the face by a terrified, adrenaline-blinded trencher. Somehow– somehow– another ghastly doom reaver had slipped out of the town and was creeping through an alley with murder in his eyes, sword clanking on the ground as it was dragged by its chain. The animal ran screeching at Kirk, hands out like claws, not even bothering to wield the cumbersome blade. Kirk shot him.
Chain guns lit up outside the town as Khadorans fled the violence behind them only to be mowed down. No, not all reds– some citizens. Or doom reavers? Kirk’s vision was getting blurry. Each moment ambushed him with no connection to the previous one, a constant stream of baffling encounters that transformed into another one before he could gather his bearings. It was too much.
Now he was back at the field of stumps, standing beside a screaming chain gun that was firing indiscriminately into the town. He turned and watched a woman’s face disappear as she fled, toppling into the dirt. She was no soldier. No monster.
“Stop it,” Kirk whispered. There was no town to leave. More rippling explosions ballooned throughout Albyn, the tops of buildings vanishing from sight as they collapsed. The rain clouds were bright with fire. “Stop it,” he said again, watching the town burn. The air had grown hot. Trenchers were streaming away in twos and threes, sometimes mingled with the enemy who were bayoneted as soon as they reached the Cygnaran line.
“I said STOP IT!” he shouted again, voice nearly gone. He shoved the gun loader hard enough to cause the whole weapon crew to stop firing in shock and stare at him, puzzled.
“The fuck is wrong with you, private!?” the lead gunner barked. Kirk wanted to explain. He gestured furiously at the hellscape before them, grasping at words that would not come. He pointed at the corpse of the woman they had just shot, lying in her own brains twenty yards away. He wanted to explain that their mission was to rescue these people from the enemy, not slaughter them; but even that thought didn’t seem to make sense anymore. He couldn’t see any enemy. He saw only frightened civilians and surrendering northerners without weapons, both being mown down and bayoneted indiscriminately. Lightning flashed and for a moment they all seemed like doom reavers, all wielding vile cursed blades and grimacing at him violently as they charged his line, but the illusion vanished with the explosion of another building. There was nothing left to rescue, no enemy left to kill, no town to liberate.
Albyn was gone.