28th of Octesh, 611 AR.
Morning dawned bright and cheery through the ragged wisps of vanishing storm clouds. Kirk’s boots dragged him slowly through a chow line that had materialized only a few hundred yards outside the smoking ruin of a beautiful Llaelese village that had once been called ‘Albyn.’ Kirk would not call it that name ever again. Using that name to describe the detestable mess nearby felt like an unforgivable insult to the memory of a lovely place. It was a monolith in his mind; rain-washed rooftops glittering in the setting sun, perched upon its hill as an invitation and a challenge. Albyn was only a memory now. He had never gotten to see it in peace. He would not shop lazily on its narrow streets, not retire to one of its inns, he would not take a family here. There was no liberation of the locals, no crowds of cheering villagers as the Khadorans were routed. The waking nightmare of the attack had been some other city from some invasive dimension that had somehow encroached on this beautiful town and replaced it entirely.
A bored-looking private in an apron slapped a wad of thick stew onto Kirk’s tin tray. He looked down at his meal to see a mass of human entrails buzzing with flies. Nothing goes to waste in the First Army he mused idly, no energy to be upset. He blinked and the glob of flesh melted into an unappetizing but edible stew ration.
The edges of Kirk’s reality had become fragile.
Kirk turned and dumped the contents of his tray onto the plate of the trencher in line behind him. She looked at her double helping of food, looked at Kirk, and shrugged. Kirk’s boots decided to take him out of the line, so he dropped the tray onto the trampled grass and waited to see where he was going. Exhaustion had manifested into a possessive spirit that had bumped Kirk a few feet to the left of his own body and was now firmly in control of his actions, sending him here and there on seemingly random and pointless quests. This time it was marching him back to the steaming, wretched labyrinth of burned-out foundations. He was a lost soul returning to his place of death to haunt it forever.
“Private Hobbs,” a voice intruded on the exhausted spirit occupying Kirk’s body, causing it to flee and snapping Kirk rudely back into place. Kirk wrenched his gaze from the grey abyss of the dead city to see Lieutenant Reynolds. The lieutenant was more disheveled than Kirk had ever seen him; his uniform was soot-stained and torn and he had shed most of his armor.
“Lieutenant,” Kirk answered flatly.
“Captain is asking for Hammer Company to assist in search and recovery,” Reynolds asked, face pinched with fatigue.
“Fuck you! I’m not going back in there. You do it,” Kirk fired back. But his mouth hadn’t moved and Reynolds’ blank face indicated that Kirk was the only one who had heard his insubordinate reply.
“Recovery of what?” Kirk asked numbly.
Reynolds sighed. “Tag fellblades, and locate any survivors, enemy or civilian,” he said quietly. His eyes told Kirk that he knew there would be no survivors.
“Not bodies?” Kirk asked.
“No,” Reynolds said, blowing a breath. “No. That’s somebody else’s job today.”
“Why is the Captain asking us to go back in there?” Kirk asked, his throat suddenly tight and dry.
“Because we were in there last night,” Reynolds explained without conviction, “and he believes we may know where to look for survivors. And,” he added with some hesitation, “where the fellblades might be.”
“Anybody who survived already made it out,” Kirk said, shaking his head. He turned his eyes back to the dismal ruin; it was a colorless stain on the world. Mostly rubble. A maze of walls barely-standing, streets clogged with debris and bodies. Just looking at it sucked the blue out of the sky. “And those swords…” their warped faces flickered in his mind, eliciting an involuntary shudder.
“Captain’s orders, private,” Reynolds stated, his voice pleading.
“Who else is going?” Kirk asked.
“I’m gathering men here and there to take turns,” Reynolds said.
“Who else is going in?” Kirk asked again. Can’t you see I’m not ready to do this? he wanted to say. But he didn’t say that. He would never be ready.
“A few others,” Reynolds said. “You can take Daisy,” he offered. “In case you need to dig.”
Apparently Gerard had been unlucky enough to run into Reynolds as well, because he was already standing among the latest group to be assigned the task of wandering aimlessly through the ruined wasteland. Ludwig was with them. For the first time since he had met the man, Kirk felt no trepidation upon seeing Ludwig. Now he just felt stupid for ever thinking the salty bastard was scary. The poor man did not look well. He was pale as a sheet and wouldn’t meet Kirk’s eyes. His fingers were drumming a hectic rhythm against his thigh.
Other than Ludwig and Gerard it was another random group of faces Kirk didn’t know. All of them had the Hammer Company symbol stenciled on their armor, but these weren’t really Hammer Company– not to Kirk. Other than Gerard and Ludwig they were mostly replacements. Daisy stood behind them, boiler chugging merrily, oblivious to the bullet welts that pocked her armor like a plague of boils. She’d taken heavy fire at some point and shrugged it off. The blue enamel over her steel body was coated in a thick layer of soot; only scratches here and there revealed her true color beneath the filth. Some dark reddish-brown substance had crusted heavily on the spike of her mattock. Kirk avoided thinking about who it might belong to.
Gerard side-eyed Kirk.
“Guess you just can’t escape me, eh?” Gerard whispered, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. His short hair, normally a wild red, was now the color of dirty amber. That mischievous light in his bright blue eyes had been heavily muted, but it was still there. Such resilience. It reminded Kirk so much of Alex. He had to look away.
I’m glad you’re not here to see this, friend, Kirk thought. Speaking to Alex sometimes made him feel better. Gratitude that his friend hadn’t been forced to witness last night’s atrocity helped dull the omnipresent ache of loss.
“Just an hour,” Reynolds repeated to them. “That’s it. Command has a box to check and we’re going to help them check it.” He walked up to each of them and handed them a bundle of thin wires with a strip of red ribbon attached.
“If you see one of those fellblades, place this somewhere nearby.” Reynolds handed a bundle of the little markers to Kirk. “I cannot stress this enough: unless you want to end up like those poor villagers, do not touch the swords.” He stared at Kirk, trying to force the words into Kirk’s blank eyes. “They will drive you insane.” He walked to Ludwig and handed him the markers. Ludwig took them without meeting the Lieutenant’s gaze. “If you touch one, get out and find me immediately.” Reynolds stepped back, setting his fists on his hips, clearly trying to present a cheery image that he did not feel. “The Order of Illumination has already been notified and agents are on the way to collect the cursed artifacts. All you need to do is mark them. When you’re finished, leave the warjack here and another group will take over for you, then you can go rest.” He saluted them and walked away, leaving them at the edge of the abyss.
“How about we don’t and say we did,” one of the other men whispered. Kirk shrugged his pack, sweat trickling down his back in the growing heat.
“How about you don’t be a pussy,” Kirk retorted and began walking into the ruin. Boots splashed through grey pools choked with ash. Gerard looked up at the sun, then checked his pocket watch.
“It’s just an hour,” he said, closing his eyes slowly. “Just one more hour.”
“He didn’t even mention survivors,” one of the other trenchers remarked.
“Aint no survivors,” Ludwig said, words tremulous, breathing heavy. His pace quickened and he passed Kirk, rounding the still-standing corner of some obliterated apartment building– the only part of it that remained standing.
“Be careful,” Kirk mumbled after him as he disappeared from view.
“Where the fuck’s he goin?” someone asked.
“No idea,” Gerard said. “But I’d leave him alone.”
They ascended great mounds of collapsed buildings, scanning the rubble half-heartedly, Daisy slipping in the debris as she climbed with them. They peered into the open pits of dark basements, shimmering with foul water. Three or four of them split off into a second group.
“Found one!” someone called.
“Shit! Don’t touch it!”
“I’m not, dumbass.”
“Whoa…” they huddled around the hilt of one of the evil swords half-buried in the scorched rubble. All of them except Kirk and Gerard, and Ludwig, who was still out of sight.
“Mark and it and move on,” Kirk said with command as he watched the other trenchers group around their find, surprising himself. “It’s not a toy.”
“Shit, yes sir,” one of them chuckled. He turned around and saluted at Kirk dramatically and repeatedly. “Sir, yes, sir!” He snapped his boots. “Yes sir, private sir!” The others laughed.
“Fucking child,” Gerard said, shaking his head in disgust before turning away. Kirk turned with him. They spread out further, Gerard and Kirk sticking together. Daisy decided to follow them, much to Gerard’s pleasure.
“See, she knows me now,” he said, turning to look at their loyal ‘jack as they crept through the ruins.
“She doesn’t know anything,” Kirk said. “She’s a machine.”
“Don’t listen to him, Daisy. He doesn’t mean it,” Gerard said.
“I do mean it,” Kirk said.
“There’s another one,” Gerard said, freezing in place and pointing at a tip of metal poking out of a pile of still-smoking wooden beams.
“Do you recognize this place?” Kirk asked, turning around to survey the cheerless world.
“Not even a little bit,” Gerard said as he stuck a flag into the wood and kept walking. “None of this is familiar.”
“It’s like it got wiped away,” Kirk mumbled. “All of it.”
Someone screamed in the distance. Daisy’s head perked up and she let loose a hiss of steam.
“Those idiots,” Kirk said, marching quickly to the source of the sound, scrabbling down a pile of loose brick. The scream grew louder as they approached. They found the rest of the recovery team surrounding the edge of a huge pit, the remnants of some basement whose walls were still partially intact up to the second story, blocking Kirk’s view. Something about the wailing voice was familiar and it chilled his blood.
Ludwig was at the bottom of the pit, ankle-deep in a puddle of putrid water, standing with his arms at his side as he wept.
“Morrow preserve me…” Gerard gasped at the sight. All around Ludwig were burned bodies chained to fellblades, at least a dozen.
“He found the jackpot,” someone muttered. “Look at them all.”
“Those bodies…” another trencher began. “They’re…they’re so small.”
Ludwig looked up, and his face made them all recoil.
“CHILDREN!” Ludwig howled at them between gasping sobs. “I KILLED CHILDREN!”
Someone gagged. Kirk’s feet were glued to the ground, his heart racing.
“Come on out, Ludwig,” Gerard said, bending down at the edge of the pit, voice trembling. “It’s not your fault.”
“Yes it IS!” he rasped. “I locked them IN HERE!” Ludwig sank to his knees, splashing the filthy water onto his armor. “I saw them down here when we were fleeing, the building was on fire, and I… I…” he vomited into the ashy mud.
“Grab on, Gerard,” he said. Gerard looked straight up at him, eyes red and streaming. He blinked and sniffed, then reached up for the butt of the rifle. “Someone help me!” Kirk ordered. The other men leapt forward. Two grabbed Kirk’s ankles and another grabbed the rifle to make sure it wouldn’t slip. They all pulled, grunting with the effort of lifting a soldier in full gear. Gerard’s boots scrabbled furiously against the slick concrete walls, but they got him out, all of them laying there as they caught their breath.
Gerard sniffed, staring up at the sky.
“Why’d he do that?” one of the men asked, staring at Ludwig’s corpse. “Was it the swords?”
Ludwig’s stare flashed in Kirk’s mind. Those empty eyes… It was the look of a man facing the reality of a lifetime to contemplate his experiences in war.
“No,” Kirk whispered. “It wasn’t the swords.”
Gerard opened his mouth wide, took a deep breath, and let out a guttural scream.
“The fuck!?” a trencher shouted in surprise. Gerard screamed again. Kirk looked down at his friend to see a pit more bottomless and more dreadful than the corpse-laden basement.
“We need to get him out of here,” Kirk said. “He never should have had to come back in here.” He crouched down and pulled Gerard up off the ground, tapping some impossible well of strength to force the young man to stand even as his body shuddered with silent weeping. “Come on, Gerard. You’re done.”
“Here, we’ve got him.” Two of the other men came alongside Gerard and carried him on their shoulders as he let out another broken scream that trailed into sobs.
“I’ll stay here,” Kirk said. The other men in the work group stared at him.
“Why?” one asked.
“So you can bring the lieutenant back here with a rope to get Ludwig,” Kirk said.
“Yeah,” Kirk said.
“Not gonna do anything stupid, right?”
Kirk glanced at Ludwig’s body. “Like that kind of stupid?” he asked. The other trencher raised his dark eyebrows. Kirk shook his head. “No. Just get the lieutenant. I’ll keep Daisy.”
Kirk needed to get rid of them. He needed to be alone. He knew he should have helped Gerard, should have gone with them to see that his friend got the care he needed, but he just couldn’t listen to the screams. Gerard was broken and Kirk wasn’t sure if he’d ever see him whole again, and that was just a little bit too much.
The other men left. Bright sunlight baked his helmet. Ludwig’s blood filled the puddle. A fly buzzed.
“Fuck this,” Kirk sighed, and his boots took him on a walk deeper into the black and grey ruin. The spirit of exhaustion returned, bumping Kirk back out of his body and sending him into blessed numbness as his limbs took over. Daisy hissed with a subtlety that Kirk would have almost guessed was a sigh of her own, then she plodded after him on his mindless quest.
Something made a sound in the rubble. Kirk froze. Daisy chambered a grenade into her grenade launcher with a solid clunk. . They cautiously rounded an enormous pile of smouldering debris and entered a street that was unusually wet to see a glint of bright red and gold among the ash and shattered brick.
“No fucking way,” Kirk breathed, and the oppressive, deadening spirit of exhaustion fled once more to let him feel the full brunt of reality. Kirk and Daisy approached the glittering bright spot in the dirt. There lay the broken armor of a highly-decorated Man-O-War, covered in runes and sigils, encasing the body of a greylord wizard. Kirk gripped his rifle. The wizard groaned. He was pinned under a massive wooden beam that had crushed his legs, and both of the arms of his suit were utterly mangled. Kirk was shocked the man was even still alive. Melting ice and frost was draining off the armor and forming a little river away from the greylord’s body. His bald head was white with fine ash. His eyes opened.
Kirk gasped and stepped back, aiming his rifle. Daisy lowered the barrel of her grenade launcher and pointed it at the man’s exposed head.
“Don’t fucking move,” Kirk whispered. This wizard had nearly killed him in a trench just a few weeks ago. Lieutenant Colbert had saved him from an ice spike through the chest. Here lay not a man but a living weapon. Even in such an injured state, he radiated danger.
The greylord’s eyes opened. Kirk shuffled back. The wizard coughed a spray of blood down his armor with a groan.
Somehow, in the midst of the uncontrollable conflagration that he himself had created, the evil bastard had used his magic to stop himself from being burned alive even as he was buried.
“Why?” Kirk asked. “Why did he have to die but you live?”
Yegor moaned again and coughed more blood, wincing in the bright sun. “Who?” he rasped, licking his bloody lips. Kirk shook his head in amazement.
“Move and my warjack will blow your head off,” Kirk said. Yegor rotated his head to peer at Daisy, grimacing in agony. A wet chuckle wheezed out of his chest.
“I’m… not moving,” Yegor said with a smile in perfect, barely-accented Cygnaran. Daisy whistled softly.
“You evil motherfucker,” Kirk said, breath suddenly coming hard. “You are a monster,” he said, voice shaking with rage. “What you did to this place, it’s–”
“A true patriot,” Yegor wheezed painfully, “sometimes must… become a monster.” He blinked slowly from the effort of speaking. The empty, pointless denial sucked the wind out of Kirk’s lungs. All he could do was shake his head in amazement. Is this really happening? Surely this was a hallucination.
“A monster,” Kirk repeated.
“Tell me…” Yegor mumbled, then coughed. “How many Khadorans… surrendered to you…last night?”
Kirk took a step back and gasped. His rifle was shaking in his hands.
“How many,” Yegor continued doggedly, “did you murder?” he hissed the last word like it burned.
Kirk stared for several long heartbeats, body trembling. The incrimination pierced his soul.
“I didn’t use children to do my killing,” Kirk whispered through gritted teeth. “And every Khadoran I killed chose to stay here, unlike the poor people you kept as prisoners.”
“None of us… had a choice,” Yegor said. “All of us… prisoners of war.”
“You. Lost.” Kirk drew out each word. “It was all for nothing. Everything you did was for nothing.”
“Do you enjoy… your victory?” Yegor asked softly, rolling his eyes around to gesture at the rubble. Even crippled and dying he managed to be grandiose.
“Daisy,” Kirk said, struggling to master his voice. He raised his left fist in a careful, slow motion. Daisy looked at him with rapt attention. He opened his fist, fingers flat, palm facing down, and slowly lowered it. “Crush.”
The warjack needed no additional prompt. She lifted her giant treaded metal foot and set it down almost delicately into the chest of the Man-O-War suit, crushing it like paper. Yegor let out a gurgling scream and then a geyser of blood from his lips as the armor screeched and collapsed under Daisy’s weight. Bones crunched like soggy twigs. Daisy pulled her foot out of the flattened chest and a stream of blood emerged from his crushed body, mingling with the melting ice into the street.
Kirk turned away, heaving. He wiped his eyes. It took a long time to steady his breathing. Technically he had just killed a helpless enemy officer. Technically that was against orders. Technically, high-ranking enemies were to be captured for valuable intel.
He didn’t care about that. All he could think about were the dead children lying in the pit next to Ludwig.
Sleep was conducting a prolonged guerilla campaign against Captain Kasey. One moment he’d be sitting on a crate trying to force down some chow, or looking at a map, or hearing a report from a messenger, and the next his eyes would snap open and he’d wonder how much time he’d lost. He hadn’t put his head down to rest in over thirty six hours. Extended sleep deprivation was as much a hardship of battlefield conditions as cold or heat or artillery. Every deployment inevitably became a war against sleep. This time he felt it trying to sneak up on him from behind and was able to fight it off, at least momentarily. Nodding off in front of Colonel Swinburn would not produce positive results for his career.
The colonel was just arriving on horseback, a gigantic Karpathan destrier that was a spoil of war taken from a defeated Iron Fang knight. The beastly animal churned up the muddy road leading up from the farmlands south of Albyn. A pair of administrative aides rode alongside him.
Major Halleck stood ram-rod beside Kasey, staring at the approaching animal like it was about to run him down. Kasey knew it wasn’t the horse he feared, but the man it bore. He, too, felt that fear. Swinburn was a legendary hardass, stubborn, and prone to fits of rage. He was not known for being kind to those who disappointed him. Kasey had worked with him during the Sul-Menite invasion and found his tactical prowess to be nearly equal to his obstinance and selfishness. Swinburn had only been a major then, and his attitude had worsened with age and rank. This was not a man to be trifled with.
He stopped the horse just a few feet from them and leapt off, splashing into the mud. Standing six feet three inches, his uniform hung limply off his rail-thin frame. He had a face carved from granite, stricken with permanent frown lines and sun-speckled. His salt-and-pepper black hair was cut in a close-cropped style similar to Kasey’s, although Swinburn looked much cleaner and put together.
“Thamar’s tits, what a fucking disaster,” he began as he approached the two officers, staring daggers at Major Halleck. His voice had the hoarse, almost quiet tone of a man who had spent his entire life screaming and had to put extra effort into making his vocal cords produce sound. “Look at this shit. What the fuck have you done to my town?” His rapid-fire pace of speaking reminded Kasey of a chain gun barking out bullets. Swinburn’s eyes slid away from Halleck and onto Kasey. “Why the fuck are you standing here? I’m here to yell at this motherfucker. Don’t you have a report to write or something?”
“Sir,” the captain began as calmly as he could, “the strategy employed for the attack on Albyn was designed and executed by the both of us, I bear some of the–”
“Are you actually trying to protect this motherfucker?” Swinburn clipped, gesturing angrily at Major Halleck. To the major’s credit, he did not move a muscle. “I put him out here to show me what he could do, and he has failed miserably. You really want to attach your career to his sorry ass? Because I assure you, he does not go up from here.”
Kasey took a deep breath to try to erase the tremor he felt creeping up on him. “I accept when I make mistakes, sir. We believed– I believed– we could reduce civilian casualties by–”
Swinburn shot his finger out and pointed dramatically at the smoking mess of Albyn’s remains.
“How many civilian casualties do you think that reduced!?” he screamed. “I am not exaggerating when I say this is an absolute unmitigated travesty! We are attempting to win the hearts and minds of the Llaelese people here, Captain, and now we have an atrocity to deal with!”
“Sir this was not our atrocity,” Halleck began. “The Khadorans–”
“Yes it is, Major!” Swinburn bit back. “We won, and now we have to explain it to the Llaelese people, because word will spread. And the farther word spreads, the worse the story will get. Morrow, preserve me.” He growled. “Have you recovered the fellblades?”
“We’re–” Captain Kasey began.
“Shut the fuck up, Jericho. I’ve heard enough out of you.” Swinburn turned back to Major Halleck. “Who’s in command here? You, or him?” He flicked his thumb at Captain Kasey.
“I am, sir,” Halleck answered stoically. Kasey gritted his teeth. This wasn’t fair. Swinburn was just angry and looking for someone to blame.
“Have you recovered the fucking fellblades?” Swinburn repeated more slowly. “I’ve got the fucking Church of Morrow burrowing up my ass for answers, and the Order of Illumination is already sending agents. I want those fucking fellblades in a nice neat pile, every one of them accounted for with a bow on them.”
“We’re still locating them, sir,” Major Halleck answered.
“LOCATE. FASTER!” Swinburn lifted onto his tippy toes as spittle flew into Halleck’s face. “And then when you’re done with that, I’m pulling you off the front. You have some serious work ahead of you if you ever want to climb out of the shithole I’m going to toss you in.”
Halleck twitched. Kasey wanted to scream. Halleck swallowed hard, stood a bit straighter, and saluted.
“You want his job, Captain?” Swinburn asked, turning to Kasey.
“Absolutely not, sir,” Kasey said.
“Sure seems like it!”
Swinburn turned back to Halleck. “Meet me at the battalion command tent at fifteen hundred. If you ever want to do real work again, a huge pile of demonic swords will go a long way toward cheering me the fuck up.” With that, he turned around and leapt back onto his giant horse with surprising alacrity. “And shave your fucking faces, you look disgraceful.” He and his aides turned their horses and trotted back the way we came. Kasey rubbed the stubble on his cheek self-consciously.
“It was nice knowing you, Jericho,” Halleck said quietly.
“Give him time to cool down,” Kasey said. “None of this was your fault. Or my fault, for that matter.”
“He’s right about one thing at least,” Halleck said bitterly. “This was a fucking atrocity. Have we found Yegor’s body yet? That’s about the only thing that would make me feel better right now.”
“Last I heard, a burning building collapsed on him right when Snake company broke the enemy line,” Kasey said. “He put up one hell of a fight.”
“Where are we at on finding those swords?” Halleck asked.
“I’ve got Hammer Company on rotating search parties,” Kasey said.
“I want the church to do recovery,” Halleck said. “Don’t let anybody touch those things, they’re incredibly dangerous.”
“I know. I already warned my lieutenants,” Kasey said.
“Speaking of which,” Halleck said, nodding towards an approaching figure. It was Reynolds.
“Captain!” the young lieutenant shouted as he approached. Kasey sighed wearily. Sleep tried to ambush him again but he fought it off. Barely.
“What is it, lieutenant?” Kasey asked.
“We’ve got a, uh, bit of a situation,” Reynolds said nervously.
“Sounds like a problem you can handle,” Halleck said to Kasey, turning away unceremoniously to prepare for whatever secondary fit of screaming the colonel would surely unleash upon him later.
Kasey and Reynolds walked together through Albyn’s ashes to look for Private Hobbs and the grenadier ‘jack. The still-smoking piles of buildings, the streets choked with corpses almost perfectly-camouflaged by ash and dust, the heavy aroma of acrid burning… It all reminded Kasey so much of Sul-Caspia in the aftermath of the war with the radical Menites. They, too, had burned their own neighborhoods rather than allow their enemy to take them. The memory of that year made the menofix hidden in his armor weigh heavy around his neck.
“Private!” Reynolds shouted through cupped hands. “Private Hobbs!” he dropped his hands. “Goddamnit, Captain,” he sighed. “This place is burned to the foundations and yet it’s still a maze.”
“Yegor picked a good spot for his last stand,” Kasey said, crunching through rubble. “I would have picked this place, too.”
“Captain, you shouldn’t have made me send Hammer Company back in here looking for shit,” Reynolds said. “This was a mistake. Let one of the rear platoons do the dirty work. Sir.”
“Your criticism is noted, Lieutenant Reynolds,” the captain said calmly. “But I’ve got a ruined village covered in fellblades and I have the colonel breathing down my neck to get them out, and not a lot of time to do it, so you’ll have to forgive me for using the men who actually might know where to look.”
“Captain, I was in here six hours ago and I don’t even know where to look,” Reynolds said.
“Private Hobbs! State your location!” Kasey shouted.
“Over here!” came a distant shout. They followed it. Sure enough, a streamer of thin black smoke indicated Daisy’s presence on the other side of a half-disintegrated structure. They rounded a corner to see Kirk sitting at the edge of an open pit surrounded by crumbling brick walls, Daisy watching him silently. Kirk saw them approach and stood up slowly to salute. Kasey and Reynolds saluted him back. Kirk pointed into the basement.
Kasey stepped to the edge of the pit in a gap between the crumbling walls and looked down at the dead trencher surrounded by the bodies of enslaved children. He blew a sharp breath.
“Well, fuck me,” he said. “This day is getting worse by the hour.” He turned to Kirk. “Talk to me.”
Kirk briefly explained what happened in a drab monotone that made Kasey worry. The young man was not doing well. “Thank you, private. Why don’t you head out of here and get some rest.”
“There’s… There’s one more thing, sir,” Kirk said. Reynolds glared at him.
“You didn’t mention anything else,” the Lieutenant said, irritated.
“I found the wizard’s body,” Kirk said quietly. Reynolds inhaled sharply.
“You might have included that detail when–”
“It’s fine,” Kasey said, cutting the lieutenant off with a raised hand. His heart was suddenly racing. “Show me.” He turned to Daisy, holding up a fist. “Stay,” he commanded.
The three trenchers walked carefully through debris-littered streets until Kirk led them to Yegor’s crushed body. Kasey stood and stared at the bald-headed wizard’s empty, dead eyes for a long minute. He squatted down and inspected damage on the Man-O-War armor’s chest. The broken metal seemed fresh, devoid of the scorch marks and soot that marred the rest of the armor. He squinted at it. It was awfully similar in size and shape to a warjack boot. Kasey turned to look up at Kirk, pointing at the crushed chest.
“Any idea how this happened?” he asked. Kirk’s face did not move.
“He was dead when I found him.”
Kasey turned back to look at Yegor’s broken body. Kirk might have been telling the truth; Yegor legs were crushed flat between an enormous wooden support beam, and both of his arms were broken at the elbow, the armor bent into a sickening reversal of their normal range of motion. Judging by the burns coming up from the boiler, he had clearly been roasting in his own firebox for a while. But the blood trickling into the street seemed pretty fresh.
“That didn’t answer my question, Private Hobbs,” Kasey said. Kirk opened his mouth but Kasey put up his hand and shook his head. “It would be better,” he said, “if you don’t lie to me. I’m not in the mood.”
Kirk swallowed. There was a long silence.
“Yes, sir,” Kirk said at last. “I had Daisy…” tears welled in his eyes and he began to breathe hard. “He was a monster, sir,” he whispered. “What he did to those children… And Ludwig…” Kirk’s teeth began chattering as fresh tears flowed from his crimson eyes.
“Alright, soldier,” Kasey said, standing up. “It’s alright. Calm down, now.” Kirk sniffed hard and tried to master himself. “Was he dead when you found him?”
Kirk’s lip trembled, but he refrained from more tears. “Yes, sir,” he said slowly. Kasey nodded.
“Alright.” Kasey sighed. “Lieutenant, please escort the private to a place where he can get some sleep, and notify Major Halleck that we’ve located Yegor’s body. He’ll want to see it.”
Reynolds saluted and turned away with Kirk, trudging back down the shattered lane. Kasey turned back to look at Yegor, desperately wishing that they had found the sick bastard alive. It was probably better that they hadn’t. Kasey might have wanted to crush the life out of the evil wizard himself. He hocked a big wad of spit and fired it into Yegor Nikolayev’s open, unflinching eyeball.
“Roast in urcaen, you sorry piece of shit.”