North-west of Merywyn, Llael.
9th of Katesh, 611 AR.
Another sleepless night.
Days and hours were once again running together for Kirk just as they had in the first few weeks of training. Barely more than a week had passed since the destruction of Albyn, and yet time had become so elastic that the trauma and terror of that night seemed to be stretching into the past faster than it should be. The images still haunted his waking eyes– he was sure that would never stop– but they all just seemed so long ago now. How could that be?
He had been warned about the fog of war, about battle fatigue and its strange effects. But like everything else so far in this deployment, no training class could have prepared him for experiencing it first-hand. The Khadorans were his enemy, yes, but Kirk was finally beginning to understand that the Reds were not the only enemy. There was another hidden foe. This secret enemy did not use soldiers or guns, magic or warjacks. Weather. Confusion. Fatigue. Nightmares. Time. These were the weapons of one whose aims were neither the victory nor the loss of any particular side. The only goal of this elusive enemy seemed to be the continuation of misery for the maximum number of people. Kirk had finally learned the name of their real opponent, the one that both the First Army and Khadoran High Kommand were fighting against, and losing.
War had powers not even their greatest warcasters could match. It could level towns and cities, crush spirits, and seemed to attract all manner of darkness and evil to itself, from amoral wizards who enslave children to demon-worshippers stalking his own friends.
How do you defeat an enemy who grows stronger the harder you resist? Kirk wondered as he marched, eyes scanning the woods for Kayazy or traps, clearing the way for the rest of the army behind him. How do you wage a war on War? The longer the Cygnarans and the Khadorans fought, the more powerful War became. Even after Albyn there was no question in his mind that the invasive northerners had to be pushed out. Llael had been under their boot for far too long. But it was all so slow. The grand strategy they’d be taught before leaving Bainsmarket was as foggy and unrealistic to him now as a childhood fantasy. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d even looked at a map. Regardless of who was winning– that kind of knowledge was beyond his grasp this close to the front– he was absolutely sure of one thing: this conflict had to end. Quickly.
And yet the 30th Battalion crawled ever deeper into Llael, mile by agonizing mile.
When did I become so philosophical? His father would not approve.
Someone ahead and to his left shouted a warning and everyone in the ten man patrol dropped to a knee, rifles up, scanning the trees. There was a distant scream, muffled by the damp woods.
“The fuck is that?” someone whispered. Another scream that trailed off into words none of them could understand and yet all recognized.
“Heads on a swivel, keep one man in your periphery, and watch for friendly fire,” their patrol lead shouted back to them. Kirk forced air out of his chest, pushing out the nerves and grounding himself as he rose into a squat, advancing carefully. The screams continued as they moved forward, growing louder. Directly ahead of them. He peered ahead, seeing motion in a small clearing and lining up a shot.
A flash of blue armor.
What the fuck? He frowned in puzzlement, trying to make sense of this odd sight.
“What the fuck?” the patrol leader repeated Kirk’s thought aloud. The whole patrol bunched up instinctively, pressing faster to the edge of the clearing. A man wearing trencher armor was bent over the body of a Winter Guard officer who lay in the blood-soaked grass, face gray with pain, screaming at the sky. He turned to face them, blood drizzling from his mouth into his burgundy beard, eyes wide with the fear of death.
“Trencher, stand up and identify yourself!” their patrol leader shouted at the bent-over figure. His armor was filthy, his greatcoat in tatters. He froze and stood. “What are you doing here, soldier?” the leader asked. The trencher turned.
It was not a trencher. It was the body of a trencher. The entire patrol recoiled in disgust and fear. Its pallid, dead face and frosted eyes were smeared with dark blood and bits of flesh, mouth full of a rope of intestine trailing back to the Khadoran officer’s abdomen. The walking corpse was utterly emaciated, knobby bones poking through white skin, but its most obvious sign of death was its bloated, distended stomach.
“Shit!” someone yelled. “Hollowed!” As the creature faced them, a strange, enveloping hunger penetrated Kirk’s stomach– a cramp that almost doubled him over. Food. All he could think about was food.
The world around him vanished and before him lay the table in the chow hall of the Bainsmarket training depot, covered in fresh meats and pastries that morning before the Bloody Trench. But Kirk could not recall the Bloody Trench, he could only see the food before him, so clear he could almost taste it. Frosted rolls glistening in the morning sunlight. A plate of brisket gently steaming, its aroma filling his nostrils.
His own voice rang in his mind with a thought he could not silence, a thought that overpowered all others.
He needed the food. He needed the food. He was so hungry.
A rifle cracked and the oppressive, surreal half-memory instantly vanished along with the stomach-clenching hunger. The corpse monster’s head exploded in a wet cloud of rotting flesh and collapsed beside the Khadoran. Kirk blinked in surprise as the scent of death replaced his hunger with revulsion.
“What the fuck was that?” the man beside him mumbled, his gun on the ground as he slowly stood up, still gripping his sides with his arms. “I was… I was so hungry… I couldn’t move!”
“Me too,” Kirk said, grateful he hadn’t dropped his weapon.
“Hollowed,” the unit leader said. “A victim of starvation.”
“I’ve seen starving soldiers, but I’ve never seen that,” one of the patrol said. He was a corporal who had been recently busted back to private for some offense that Kirk hadn’t heard any details about. His role as a replacement on the front was likely some component of that punishment.
“It’s rare,” the patrol leader said, ignoring the pitiful cries of the dying Winter Guard officer. “Incredibly rare. Fear, loneliness and starvation can trap a soul on Caen, separated from its body. Meanwhile the body wanders on its own to eat.”
War, Kirk thought. It’s getting stronger every day.
“Someone kill that noise,” one of the vet replacements complained, looking at the suffering Khadoran in disgust.
“Let him suffer,” someone else said. “Fucker.”
“No, we kill him,” the patrol leader said urgently, looking at the rest of them. “That’s standing orders.”
“Fuck standing orders, he’s a piece of shit Red officer! How many Llaelese women do you think he’s raped, eh?”
“Just leave him here,” someone else said.
“Hollowed make more hollowed,” the patrol leader insisted, turning and drawing his trench knife. “If we leave him here, he’ll turn into another one of those things.” He bent over the screaming man and jabbed his blade through the northerner’s eye socket, silencing him.
Kirk walked closer and inspected the fallen trencher. He was covered in filth, but Kirk could make out the stencil on his shoulder: a trio of swans flying in formation.
“I don’t recognize this company,” he said, prodding the corpse over with his bayonet. The body slumped to reveal his other pauldron. It was so dirty and scratched he could barely see the marking, but it was there: a Cygnus crossed with two rifles, with the numerals XXIII in its center.
“Twenty-third brigade?” a man leaned in beside Kirk, the one who had dropped his weapon. “The fuck was he doing all the way over here?”
“Separated,” someone suggested.
“Deserter?” someone else proposed.
“Starving, whatever he was,” the patrol leader said. “Look at him. He’s been out here for a long time.”
“Fuck this place,” someone else muttered.
“Hollowed usually move in large groups,” the patrol leader said, standing up from his grisly work and wiping his blade. “We need to head back and report this. Keep your eyes peeled for any more. They’re slow, but they’re quiet. And they’re not your ordinary dead. They’re… smart.” A frightened look crossed the patrol leader’s face. Kirk knew that look.
“You’ve lost men to these things, haven’t you?” Kirk asked him quietly, but it wasn’t really a question.
“I’ve lost men to everything you can think of,” the patrol leader said.
“Maybe it was just him?” the vet asked.
“Maybe,” the leader said, voice uncertain.
“How do you know so much about them?” Kirk asked.
“You either learn about what can kill you, or it kills you,” He answered, walking through the group back in the direction they had come. “Let’s go.”
There were no more hollowed on the route back, to everyone’s relief. Kirk was certain he could still feel the pinch of hunger nagging at him. They reported the incident to Lieutenant Reynolds, who let Captain Kasey know, who came to ask them about it.
“Just the one?” he asked their patrol leader for the third time.
“Yes, sir,” he answered patiently. “Just the one trencher from the twenty-third brigade and his Khadoran victim.”
“Alright,” Kasey said, nodding. “Well, I’d rather deal with a mess of hollowed than more Kayazy or traps, at this point. We’ve got the numbers to deal with them if there is a group out here somewhere. Hammer Company! MOVING! NOW!” he shouted. The Company had already left their nightly foxholes and were packed and ready to go before he gave the order. There it was– the sound of hundreds of boots moving, men grumbling, gear clanking. War had a kind of musical quality to it, Kirk noted. Percussive artillery, the whine of bullets and mortars, the chorus of voices. The music of endurance.
“Kirk, hang on a moment,” the Captain said, dismissing the rest of the patrol to continue their march. Kirk held back, stomach knotted. Not from hunger this time. What now? What more does he want from me?
Captain Kasey picked out the rest of Kirk’s unit as they passed by in the semi-organized line of marching troops that funneled out of their dug-up meadow back into the woodland. Peter joined them. The young man did not look good. He had a dull, bitter look in his eyes that no amount of stoicism could hide; it sat on him like black oil on water. Facing Uncle Kay had taken the biggest toll Kirk had seen Peter suffer yet. Not even the collapse of Albyn had produced this effect on him. Kirk had hoped the evil bastard’s death would have brought Peter some measure of peace, but apparently not.
Then again, seeing an evil man die hadn’t brought Kirk a lot of peace either, and he hadn’t needed to face a childhood monster in the woods.
“A few replacements and supplies came in early this morning. I’d like to introduce you to your new teammates,” The Captain explained. Kirk closed his eyes and sighed. “Private Chester! Sergeant Merrimack!” the Captain shouted towards the back of the line. Kirk’s eyes snapped open.
Sergeant Merrimack? Sergeant?
Gerard and Merrimack jogged up to greet them. Before Kirk knew what was happening, he and the corporal– no, the sergeant!— were embracing, chestplates scraping against each other awkwardly. Merrimack pushed Kirk away to look at him, face beaming. The sheer joy on the sergeant’s face was contagious. Kirk felt himself smiling. A real, heartfelt smile, something he hadn’t felt in longer than he cared to think about.
“You saved my life, Kirk,” Merrimack said, looking him in the eye. “I owe you.” Out of the corner of his eye, Kirk spied Captain Kasey smiling a little before stepping away.
“How did you–” Kirk began, but Merrimack waved the questions away. “Trencher grit and a letter to our dear captain, my boy,” Merrimack said.
“The fuck is this ‘boy’ nonsense,” Peter said, but he too was smiling. The black oil was still on the surface of his heart– Kirk could see it– but it had thinned a little. Merrimack embraced Peter as well. The replacements that comprised the rest of Kirk’s unit stood awkwardly a few paces away, waiting impatiently for the happy reunion to end and their march to resume. Kirk knew it couldn’t feel good to be on the outside of a group like this, but at the moment he didn’t care how it made anybody else feel. Familiar faces, friends, were becoming rarer each day. He peered around Sergeant Merrimack and looked at Gerard.
Gerard smiled wanly. It had only been a week since he’d been hospitalized for mental strain and by the look of him Kirk was certain that he should not be back on the battlefield. The corners of his mouth were pinched, his eyes glassy, and there was a mask-like quality to his face that made it impossible to read what was underneath. Kirk didn’t like it. From the moment Kirk had met him in the bar in Caspia Gerard had always worn his feelings on his sleeve. This was a different Gerard. He was reserved. Guarded.
But by Morrow, Kirk’s chest swelled to see a familiar face. The mischievous glint was no longer in his eyes, but they still reminded Kirk of Alex.
That brought to surface a pain he had been ignoring for a few days. He buried it. I will not be gloomy! My friends are here! That old familiar trencher esprit de corps crept back like distant trumpets calling him to parade ground. It had a faded, lonely quality to it. Faces passed through Kirk’s mind: Alex. Bull. Even Ludwig. Soldiers don’t last forever, he reminded himself. And then, unbidden: I might be gone soon, too. The prospect of his own grievous injury or demise had not truly left his mind since crossing no-man’s-land almost a month ago. He hadn’t considered that reality from the outside. Would he one day be a passing face in someone else’s mind? Would Gerard or Merrimack or Peter one day sit in a trench and think about him with melancholy?
His smile covered his thoughts.
The hamlet of Alamy was barely more than twenty sprawling farm estates clustered along a tiny spring-fed creek at the foot of a gentle hill. As the front edges of Hammer Company finally escaped the scattered woodlands that had slowed them down so much over the past week, they looked down the hill to see verdant hills and valleys groomed with rows of crops rolling off into a veil of mist on a vast floodplain. More little hamlets and villages dotted the horizon. They were deep in the breadbasket of Llael now, a critical area of supply that the Khadorans had left mostly untouched to preserve its productivity for their own armies and invasion economy. Other than the standard infection of new Khadoran laborers and landowners to take hold of properties once held by natives deemed no longer trustworthy, life here had remained more normal than anywhere else in Llael.
Captain Kasey peered through his spyglass, trying to penetrate the mist that refused to yield to the afternoon sun. Just barely visible at the absolute edge of the cultivated floodplain– criss-crossed with roads on elevated dikes– was a dark line cutting through the countryside at an awkward angle. The Merywyn-Elsinberg line. The only industrial infrastructure linking the two major population centers in Western Llael. More than ever, Kasey was certain that this line held some great significance in High Kommand’s plan for the region. Word had come to him just that morning that Storm Division was regrouping in Elsinberg. The First Army was meant to seal the gap between the two cities, creating a buffer so that the Lord General could advance north to the critical manufacturing facilities in Rynyr without worrying about the Khadorans crawling out of their stronghold in Merywyn for a rear attack. It was a sound plan, and in spite of their delays and setbacks, the Cygnaran military seemed truly unstoppable in their progress.
He ran his spyglass along the train track in the distance, watching its edges distort, looking for any sign of enemy activity or damage or something to clue him in on why Yegor had worked so hard to keep them away from this line of steel. But there was nothing. It looked normal, at least from this distance. He snapped his spyglass shut and looked down at Alamy. At the edges of the creek he could see boiler smoke and the little blue shapes of Cygnaran light ‘jacks. Here and there a few tents were set up, and the number of bodies walking in and around Alamy was far greater than the typical population of such a little hamlet. Shield Company had arrived ahead of them. That was good. After a week of boobytraps, ambushes, snipers, and eerie woods– harboring infernalists, apparently– Hammer Company could stand to feel the support of another company of troops at their side. He turned to face the weary faces of his troops as they trudged out of the woods and gawked at the painterly landscape before them.
“Hey! Listen up!” Kasey shouted, whistling. The mass of bodies came to a sluggish halt. “Down below us is the village of Alamy. Shield Company arrived just ahead of us and we’ll be regrouping with them for the rest of the march forward. The locals are still in town, and this is their home, so I am ordering you all to be respectful. I hear any complaints about any of you stealing food or harassing maidens and you will be punished.” He paused, giving them the steeliest gaze he could muster. “Severely. CRS was in this town ahead of us and briefed the townsfolk of our arrival, and they have been generous enough to offer their barns and homes to house us for the night. But just for tonight. We’re off in the morning.”
“Where are we going next, sir?” Lieutenant Black piped up from the middle of the group.
“I’m expecting to receive orders on that tonight, Lieutenant,” Kasey answered, “but if I had to guess, I would say that way.” He pointed north-east, across the fields and open plains. It was meant to be sarcastic, but he was too tired and it ended up just sounding foolish, so he stopped talking and began the march down.
Buoyed by the good weather, the beautiful scenery and the prospect of finally having a roof over their heads– even if only for a night– the whole Company broke into a marching song. Unable to help himself, Captain Kasey joined in with them:
“Up to your knees in water, up to your balls in dead,
We use the kind of language that makes the captain red,
Sharpen your knives and teeth, son, you’ll need ‘em ‘fore we’re through,
Who wouldn’t join the corps. son? That’s what we’re here to do!
Out of your bunk at mid-night, the bombs are comin’ down,
The ‘jacks are breaking through and my guts are fallin’ out,
Corporal’s piss is rum, son, he won’t share with the crew,
Who wouldn’t join the corps. son? That’s what we’re here to do!
In-to the trench we go now, we dug it up today,
It’s fillin’ in with blood so we shit our pants and pray,
Shootin’ your gun is fun, son, just keep it straight and true,
Who wouldn’t join the corps. son? That’s what we’re here to do…”
The song went on for another sixteen verses.
Captain Kasey just hoped none of the residents in Alamy spoke Cygnaran.
“He should be here any minute,” Captain Don said apologetically, glancing at his time-piece again. Lamp light wavered fitfully over his bearded face, making the shadows under his eyes look even deeper and darker than they had in daylight.
“You should shave when you get a chance,” Kasey said, leaning back in the little wooden chair they’d borrowed from one of the farmhouses, staring down at the map table barely visible in the dark tent. “Keeping a clean appearance is good for morale.”
Captain Don glowered at him. “Shield Company isn’t having a morale problem.”
Kasey chuckled. “Easy, easy. Wasn’t being critical. Just figured I’d say something in case we get a surprise visit from Swinburn.”
“You think that’s going to happen?” Don said, blanching a little. Kasey shook his head.
“Nah, probably not,” Kasey admitted. “Last I heard, he’s still got his hands full digging out of the shit pile we left him at Albyn. Brass was planning on using our ‘victory’ there as a propaganda, and, well…”
“Yeah. Didn’t work out that way,” Don said, eyes downcast. They were quiet for a while. The tent flap opened quietly and they both turned to inspect the newcomer.
“Fucking finally,” Kasey said, standing up. The man lowered the tent flap and lifted the hood on his dark green cloak, revealing close-cropped golden hair and a finely-trimmed goatee. “See?” Kasey said, pointing to him and looking at Don. “That’s a neat look, you should do that.”
“Fuck you,” Don said.
“Sorry I’m late,” the cloaked visitor said breezily. “CRS has me riding across the whole goddamn front like an errand boy this week, no thanks to you two.” He reached into his cloak and tossed a sealed envelope onto the table. “Well Captain, you got what you wanted,” he said, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head. “But I’m not sure you’re going to like it.”
“Don’t blame me, this was his idea,” said Captain Don, gesturing at Kasey. Captain Kasey pursed his lips, retrieving the document from the table and breaking the seal.
“CRS confirmed it,” the agent said quietly. “Hue force buildup just north of Merywyn. They’re prepping for a big move.”
“How big?” Kasey asked, reading over the orders and doing some mental math on how much time he would have.
“More firepower than I thought they could deploy at this speed,” the agent said ominously. “Our field agent counted six conquest superheavies.”
Kasey’s head jerked up. “Six colossals?” he gasped.
“Where are they headed?” Captain Don asked.
“Don’t know yet, my info is already three days old,” the agent said. “Command seems to think it’s a show of force, flexing muscle to keep us off their doorstep. Either that, or they’re getting ready to try for Riversmet again, now that the Lord General has moved to Elsinberg.”
“Fueling six colossals on the move is expensive,” Don said, shaking his head and looking at Kasey. “Seems wasteful if it’s just a display, and Riversmet is too far to travel. Merywyn is a fortress. They know it and we know it. No reason to come out and flash guns at our spies.”
“It’s not a display,” Kasey said. “The whole fucking First Army was bogged down while we tried to figure out how to dislodge that greylord from Albyn, meanwhile Supreme Kommandant Irusk was mustering forces for… Something.” He looked back down at his orders.
It a was an authorization to blow the Merywyn-Elsinberg line.
“If they’re letting us break the rails, it must be because they suspect Elsinberg is a target, then,” Don said.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” the agent said, shaking his head. “Moving that much steel takes a lot of time and resources, even by rail. And they know how close we are. Just consider these orders an… Insurance policy.”
“How did Storm Division take Elsinberg so fast?” Kasey asked, a funny feeling tickling his spine.
“Reds pulled out and let him in,” the agent said.
Kasey frowned. “That’s not very Khadoran of them,” he mumbled.
“Some kind of political maneuver,” the agent said. “Irusk is punishing a subordinate for something by humiliating him, I don’t have all the details personally.”
“By giving up a major city in a time of war?” Kasey shook his head. “We’re talking about the author of the most-read military tactical manual in the Iron Kingdoms. I don’t recall reading anything in How To Fully Subjugate Your Enemy about handing cities over to your opponent.” He pursed his lips. “Irusk doesn’t give something away unless he’s getting something of greater value in return.”
How he longed for the simplistic tactics of the Protectorate! The Sul-Menite invasion had been catastrophic and brutal, yes, but the tactics were all at the street level. There was no grand subterfuge or massive feints. Just who could get to a city block first, and who could hold it longest. That was a scale Kasey could operate on. This was all way above his pay-grade. Why do I bother? Why do I think it’s my job to outsmart the greatest military mind in the world? He knew the answer. There was no equivalent mind on their side, and if they had any chance of victory they would have to use the smarts and experience of the men on the front, not just the men twenty miles away in planning tents being served tea and biscuits every morning.
Maybe I’m just a narcissist, he wondered. But it didn’t actually matter if he was or not, because his hunches were usually right. The rail line was a piece of key importance to the Supreme Kommandant. Yegor had proven it to be so. Maybe CRS didn’t know why, but maybe they didn’t have to. If it was important, damaging it would force their enemy to readjust. Elsinberg didn’t make sense as a target for so much firepower. They would end up leveling the entire city if they tried to dislodge the Lord General now that he was inside the walls.
Level the entire city…
“He’s going to destroy Elsinberg,” Kasey breathed so quietly the others couldn’t hear.
“What now?” the CRS agent snapped.
“Irusk. He plans to destroy Elsinberg,” Kasey repeated.
“That’s nonsense,” Captain Don said. “There are tens of thousands of Llaelese citizens– and Khadoran citizens– still inside! The Empress wouldn’t permit it, it would be disastrous for their war effort.”
“I agree with the captain,” the CRS agent said. “It would be too great a loss.”
“There are ten thousand of our troops in Elsinberg right now,” Kasey said. “Think about the damage he could do to us if he sacrificed the city.” He’s doing the same thing Yegor did at Albyn; lure us into a position and then obliterate it, except it’ll be ten times worse…
“You need to keep this kind of speculation to yourself,” the CRS agent warned. “You have no evidence and it’s only going to spook everybody if a rumor spreads that the Lord General can’t protect one of the finest cities in Llael.”
Kasey wiped his face with his hands and leaned against the table, blowing out a slow breath. There was no point in arguing.
“Jericho…” Don warned, pursing his lips. “There’s a fine line between suspicion and paranoia.”
“You see Irusk in everything the Khadorans do,” the agent said, chiding.
Kasey clicked his tongue. “That’s because he is in everything the Khadorans do and command should know that by now. How many times are we going to let that man outsmart us, eh?” Kasey huffed and looked at his fellow captain. “Funny,” he said, shaking his head. “I had this exact conversation with Major Halleck right after we pushed the Khadorans out of their trenches at Albyn.” He looked at the agent. “Snake Company was wiped out six hours later.”
“There is a huge difference between giving up a trench line, and giving up a city of thousands of people,” the CRS agent said. “I’m going to do both of you a favor and not mention any of this conversation to my superiors. Swinburn is distracted by the political mess at Albyn right now, but if this kind of talk gets traced back to you, Kasey, you’re in trouble.”
“I can deal with trouble,” Kasey said. The agent shook his head, giving Kasey a smile of pity. “Don’t look at me like that,” he snapped.
“I’m just the messenger,” the agent said, putting up his hands.
“When you walked in,” Kasey replied, “you said I got what I wanted, but I wouldn’t like it.”
“Command agrees that we need to knock out the rail line,” the agent explained, “but they want to do more than cause a few hours of repair delays. Khadoran engineers are exceptionally good at laying track. We need to change the terrain.”
Kasey gritted his teeth. “I fucking hate that phrase,” he said.
“I thought trenchers loved digging holes,” the agent smirked.
“We love digging graves for our enemies,” Kasey bit back. “Is command really going to ask a forward fighting battalion to engage in an engineering project? We have places to be. Merywyn, for example.”
“Not quite,” the agent said. “I was instructed to acquire the resources to accomplish the task as quickly as possible with as few men as possible, but I wasn’t actually given any permission to take anything. Swinburn is being stingier than ever.”
“Are you carrying a hundred tons of dynamite in your pockets?” Don asked. The agent clicked his teeth and winced.
“I had to use what I could get my hands on,” the agent said. “Luckily for you, Major Halleck still has access to a few things that Swinburn isn’t going to miss and– thanks to CRS–” he paused and pointed at himself, raising his eyebrows meaningfully at Kasey– “a few of those things didn’t quite make it onto the supply inventory list due to a ‘clerical error.’”
Kasey grunted. “Yes, yes, you’re very smart. Spit it out.”
“Quake shells,” the agent said. Kasey blinked, trying to understand. Captain Don got there before he did.
“Wait a minute,” Don said, putting his palm out like he wanted the agent to stop. “You found siege mortar ammunition?” he asked. The agent nodded. “At Albyn?” the agent nodded again, smiling this time. “How did they survive?” Don asked in shock.
“They’re triggered by a specialized alchemical timer charge that is stored separately to avoid an accident,” the agent said. “Thankfully, some of our ‘jacks use a similar timer for our own specialized ammunition. There was a stockpile of shells kept in a building near the mortar before Albyn was attacked. The building burned down but quake rounds don’t use standard explosive compounds, so they don’t cook off like normal rounds. They’re a little worse for wear but otherwise functional.”
“How many?” Kasey asked.
“I got you two.”
“We can make some holes big enough that even the Khadorans will have a tough time filling them in or going around,” Don said, smiling.
“There’s one more thing,” the agent said. “Nobody can know I got you these. Which means nobody can see them.”
“They aren’t small,” Kasey said. “And we’re on foot.”
“Nobody can see them,” the agent repeated, raising his eyebrows, “because nobody is supposed to know that you’re the ones blowing up the rail line.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Kasey said. “Why is this a secret?”
“Did you see all that land between you and the train tracks?” the agent asked. “That’s still enemy territory. And if the previous few miles of your journey are any indication, it’s not going to be a morning stroll.”
“If the rail line is important…” Don began, “And the Khadorans catch wind that we’re going to bomb it–”
“They could try to send a countering force,” Kasey said, looking back down at the map, already trying to anticipate where it might come from.
“The warcaster that attacked the 40th at Frénosel is unaccounted for,” the agent said. “He hasn’t made any moves since mid-Octesh. We’ve advised command that he’s probably still out here somewhere, so be very, very careful.”
“A trap?” Don asked, looking to Kasey. “Is all this fuss about the rail line just a setup to get us to push too far into that motherfucker’s hands?”
Was it that simple? Kasey wondered. “That sounds very Irusk,” he admitted. “But that still doesn’t explain him giving up Elsinberg.”
“Two things can be true at once, gentlemen,” the agent said, folding his arms. “Be very careful.” He paused for a beat. “But, also get it done as fast as you can.” He moved to leave the tent.
“That’s it?” Don huffed. “No goodbye kiss?”
“You’ll get it in the morning,” the agent said as he slipped out.
Kasey picked his orders back up and flicked them with his index finger like he was trying to extinguish a bug.
“They’re giving us two days,” he said, tossing the paper back across the table so Don could look at it. He didn’t. “Forty-eight hours.”
“We have to move high-yield artillery shells across two miles of enemy territory with no cavalry and without anyone noticing?” Don asked. “The trip from Albyn to here was nothing but Kayazy raids and sniper nests!”
“A group this size tries to make a beeline for those rails and we’re going to be telling the whole countryside what our plan is whether they see our ordinance or not.”
“I know,” Kasey repeated.
“Why did I let you talk me into this plan?”
“This wasn’t exactly my plan,” Kasey said, raising an eyebrow. “My plan was to send the Bastards ahead of us to do it. Guess we’re the bastards now.”
Don rubbed the bristles on his face. “Maybe I shouldn’t shave my beard, then,” he said thoughtfully.