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Basic Training—Graduation

12th Infantry Regiment training depot, outside Bainsmarket.
8th of Octesh, 611 AR.

There was a low pall of clouds the morning of their final day. They were on the trampled parade ground for the last time, the huge pole and Cygnaran banner waving proudly in its center. Every man was in full gear. On every left pauldron a was a freshly-stenciled black emblem of a Cygnus crossed with two rifles, with the numerals XXI in its center: the symbol of the Twenty-First Brigade of the First Army. On every right pauldron was a white icon of a spiked hammer, in the style typically carried by the monstrous hammersmith-class warjacks: the symbol of Hammer Company. Every metal surface of their kit was polished to a shine, every piece of leather oiled.

“Atteeeeeeeen-SHUN!” Captain Jeremiah Coleman Willikers announced at the front of the assembled company. Two hundred and forty backs went rigid with a snap of boots. The Captain was in his crisp dress blues, a collection of medals dangling heavily from his chest, his empty left sleeve rolled up to the shoulder. His gray handlebar moustache was meticulously waxed and preened. He gazed out over the rows of young men.

“Lieutenant Black, please state our full order of battle!” Willikers ordered, still staring ahead.

“Sir! Eighty-Second Company, Thirtieth Battalion, Twelfth Infantry Regiment, Twenty-First Brigade, First Division, First Army, SIR!”

“Thank you, Lieutenant! Eight-Second Company, what is our name!?” Willikers asked.

“HAMMER COMPANY!”

“What is our motto!?”

FIRST TO FIGHT, LAST TO LEAVE!” Their chorus of voices barked out the rallying cry of the Corps.. A crow called mournfully in one of the trees outside the encampment.

“At any other time,” he began again, “we would hold this graduation ceremony in the city of Bainsmarket, then parade you through the streets to applause and celebration. At any other time, your families could visit to see you all become real trenchers.” He let out a long sigh. “This is not any other time. The moment I graduate you, you will be marching out of here, two hours to the Bainsmarket rail depot, where you will board a train north. At the end of the line you will then board a steamer going up the Serpent’s Tongue River to rendezvous with the rest of the Twenty-First Brigade, where this company will be brought back to full count with veteran soldiers and command will be handed over to Captain Jericho Kasey. And from there… Llael. In seventy-two hours, you will be in enemy territory.” He let this sink in before proceeding.

“The Nineteenth and Twentieth Brigades have already crossed over. Their combat engineers are developing a fortified line as we speak. Storm Division has taken Riversmet away from the Khadorans and are digging in to hold against a counterattack. Gentlemen, this war is underway. There is no time to waste on fanfare.”

He scanned their faces. Eager. Young. Hopeful. He sighed quietly. He’d done everything in his power to harden them. To their credit, they were. The forty-five men who had dropped out of training over the last three months had been treated with total respect with no exceptions. This had surprised each of them, of course– they were braced for screamed insults when they asked him to leave. Instead he had nodded, shook their hand, congratulated them on their effort, thanked them for their patriotic sentiment to enlist, and had the training staff kindly usher them off base. It was a kindness these here who remained had never seen him exhibit, nor would they ever. To them, he was and always would be a terrifying monster. It was his job.

When recruits dropped out, he felt relief. He had managed to save the lives of forty-five boys. Though the remainder had made it through, somehow it felt like too many. More than half of these tenacious young men would be dead or wounded before the end of the year.

A few of them would probably be dead by the end of the week.

This was a fact he wished he could have impressed upon them during training, but doing so was not permitted by command. His job was to train trencher companies, not scare as many people out of the army as possible. He had tried to accomplish both anyway.

Images suddenly bubbled forth out of the depths of his mind, buried memories pushing against the tide of his will.

Private Halifax carrying his own dripping entrails.

Private Fredrick laying in the dirt with no limbs.

Private Gif, screaming, trapped in a shell-hole flooding with chemical gas.

He blinked his eyes shut, trying to hold each memory at bay.

“Captain?” Reynolds whispered in front of him, looking concerned. Willikers’ eyes opened. The world came back. The company waited patiently. This was hardly the first time he’d fallen silent during an address.

“From this day forward,” he continued as though he’d never stopped, “you all take up the mantle of a soldier. It is a heavy burden.”

Corporal Bernetta blazing like a torch.

Lieutenant Sparrow shot through the heart.

“But it is a burden made lighter by many hands. The hands of your brothers and sisters in arms.”

Captain Leeds drowning in her own blood.

Private Keyes slowly crushed by a sadistic warjack.

“I told you in the beginning that you would not be trenchers until I said you were trenchers. Well, I say to you, on this day, you are trenchers. You are a family.”

Private Linton writhing on a stretcher.

Carrying my own severed arm.

The ghost of his arm flexed painfully at that last one. With titanic effort, Willikers forced the images to stop their macabre parade through his mind. Lieutenant Reynolds handed him a long sheet of paper. On it was listed every name of every man in Hammer Company. Captain Willikers glanced at it briefly. He clicked his tongue in annoyance.

“Oh, hell, I can’t read this without my glasses,” he said impatiently, handing it back to Reynolds. The truth was his vision was still as sharp as a raptor; he just didn’t want to read the list of names.

Its length reminded him too much of a certain casualty report.

He cleared his throat, stood tall, and announced his shortcut to reading the list of promotions:

“With the authority vested in me by the king’s army, I unilaterally promote all present unranked recruits to the rank of Private in the Trencher Corps.” There was a tense pause. “Permission to celebrate,” he added.

The entire company let up a massive cheer, leaping into the air with rifles raised and slapping each other on the helmet. Willikers gave them several minutes to congratulate each other before settling down.

“Unit leaders, with the exception of Corporal Merrimack, you are as of this moment still only privates. That may or may not change depending on the will of Captain Kasey. More than likely you will remain privates and your unit command will be given over to more experienced soldiers once you meet up with the Twenty-First Brigade. If Captain Kasey decides otherwise, then you will be promoted to corporal and you will keep your command. Don’t expect it, though. And don’t be disappointed. Learn from your new unit leaders. The tides of combat change quickly; you may be required to resume your mantle.”

He struggled to find what to say next. He always had a hard time with this part, searching for some parting piece of advice that might save a few more lives.

“Keep your rifles clean, keep your boots on, and watch each others’ backs,” he said finally. “And for Morrow’s sake, listen to your COs.” He found Joffrey’s face in the crowd and pierced it with his hawkish gaze. “Anyone insubordinate gets to come back here and explain it to me,” he said venomously. He paused for the last time. “Good luck to you all. Kill some Reds for me.”

And that was it. He would never see any of them again. What a bizarre thing war is, he thought.

“First Platoon, leeeeeeeft FACE!” Lieutenant Webster shouted. All of First Platoon snapped to their left. “MARCH!” he ordered, and they began drumming out the familiar rhythm of boots on the move. Each Lieutenant ordered their platoon off the parade ground in disciplined order, saluting Captain Willikers in rows as they passed. He returned their salutes.

***

Kirk gazed in wonder at the Captain as he stamped by with Fourth Platoon. Jeremiah Williker’s features were drawn into a tight grimace, haunted eyes looking right through the marching troops like they were a company of ghosts. Has he lost it? Kirk wondered.

It was a look Kirk would soon become intimately familiar with, a look he would see repeated on hundreds of faces and even come to wear on his very own.

It was the look of a man in his own private hell.

***

The excitement of their induction into the military wore off almost the moment they left the training depot, replaced by the tedium of yet another march. Once they were on the main road out, the little hills and woods surrounding the training depot gave way to open farms. The fierce-looking Dragonspine Peaks rose in front of them, tips dusted with snow even in summer. The ground rose slowly as they traveled.

Periodically a horse and cart would travel down the road and they would have to stand in the tall grassy berms flanking the road to allow it to pass. After an hour the clouds above broke to reveal a delightfully blue sky and a gentle breeze that seemed to rinse away all weariness. Kirk remembered hiking down this road with a gaggle of recruits three months ago, disordered, led by a training lieutenant with unflagging patience. He imagined superimposing their march out with their march in. He pictured passing himself and his friends as they horsed around, threw rocks at each other, complained about the distance, generally reveling in their last moments of an undisciplined life.

He couldn’t even relate to it anymore. Looking back on their joviality he was almost annoyed with himself. He wanted to smack his past self and shout “act like a trencher!” But that wouldn’t have been very fair. Three months ago they were just farmboys. Now they were trained killers.

He marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Peter and Alex. Peter suddenly began looking around.

“Hey, guys, where’s Daisy?” he asked. Even after all their hard training, he still just sounded like a boy to Kirk. It hadn’t stopped making him uncomfortable. Gerard, hearing the name of his pet, peeked down the line at Peter.

“That’s a good question. I didn’t see her at parade,” Gerard said. “Lieutenant Reynolds!” he said, calling over the line in front to their Lieutenant.

“What’s up, private?” Reynolds asked without breaking his stride.

“Where’s our warjack?” Gerard asked.

“Our grenadier was carted out late last night ahead of us,” Reynolds said. “It’s waiting on the train.”

“She’s got a name,” Gerard said with a little smile.

“I refuse to call our company warjack by that ridiculous name,” Reynolds said testily. “And you’d better not stencil anything on its helmet again, private.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir,” Gerard said, glancing at Alex conspiratorially.

Soon their dirt track met a wider, paved road heading straight south. There was quite a bit more traffic on this road, mostly carts traveling in and out of Bainsmarket with market goods. There was enough space for their entire company to march unimpeded, and anyone traveling on foot quickly made way for them to pass, watching curiously as they went by. They crested a hill and were treated to a spectacular view of the valley below, braced on three sides by sharp mountain walls.

The walled city of Bainsmarket sat in the center of the valley, its hundreds of red-roofed buildings clamoring for space, their walls glowing a pale cream in the late morning sun. Surrounding it for thousands of acres were patches of lush farmland growing all manner of food and commercial crops. A towering structure rose up in the center of the city, topped with an azure blue dome that glinted like a jewel: the Cathedral of Ascendant Markus. Beyond that was an even bigger structure of imposing grey stone, strangely out of place in the beautiful scene. The Presidium: the fortress of Bainsmarket. Huge rail lines snaked in from south and north, hardly more than black strips at this distance. A long train currently traveled one of them, its engine blasting a little smear of soot over the picturesque landscape.

“That’s might pretty,” Alex said quietly. “I don’t remember it looking like that when we left. The farms kind of remind me of home.”

“We arrived by train at night, and it was at our backs when we left,” Kirk said. “We never really saw it like this. It does look a tiny bit like Caspia, doesn’t it? The farms, anyway.”

“Hey, Lieutenant,” Gerard called again.

“Yes, Private Chester,” Reynolds said wearily.

“Are we there yet?”

“Shuttup, private. That’s an order,” Reynolds said.

“Yes, sir,” Gerard said pleasantly.

It was another hour of fast marching before they were passing into the city gates, slowed by traffic. They were caught behind a pair of heavy laborjacks carrying huge loads of timber in their arms, their heavy footfalls rattling the cobblestones.

“This place is a zoo,” said Alex impatiently.

“It’s the busiest commercial hub in the kingdom,” Kirk said.

“Have you even been to a zoo, Alex?” Peter asked skeptically.

“No, but I bet they’re like this,” Alex said. “A bunch of animals stuck in a big box, fighting for space,” he said grumpily.

“Caspia has a zoo,” Bull’s deep voice resonated from behind them. “I’d like to see it one day. Oh, hey, Lieutenant,” he said, raising his voice.

“Sweet Morrow, what now?” Reynolds said loudly.

“Are we going to have a chance to visit the Cathedral before we depart? I’d like to slip in a prayer or three,” Bull said.

“Not today, I’m afraid,” Reynolds said. “We’re on a tight deadline. I didn’t know you were religious, Neil,” he said.

“I think I ought to be, before we go into a fight. You never know,” Bull said with his characteristic earnestness.

“I’m sure Ascendant Markus can hear you just fine from here,” Reynolds answered. It was a bit of a glib remark, but Bull took it to heart. A moment later Kirk could hear muttered prayers behind him.

Kirk’s parents were also fairly religious members of the Church of Morrow, the dominant religion in Cygnar. Caen was a perilous place; religion served as a vehicle of safety through the world of the living and, presumably, offered a safe haven in the world of the dead. It was something he hadn’t ever given a whole lot of thought to. He didn’t doubt the spiritual realities of their world. It was hard to be doubtful when things like necromancy or magic existed. He, like most people, had heard enough compelling stories about the miracles of the various god-beings that held influence over their world to know they were real. At least in the case of the Church of Morrow, miraculous healing performed by church officiants in their wards for the sick was a very common means of restoration for those who could not afford more ‘traditional’ medical care. He just didn’t feel a particular drive to be a devotee of any of them. If he had to be, it would probably be to Morrow, the benevolent ascended human who served as the only real protector and alternative to mankind’s’ other dominant deity, Menoth.

The Protectorate of Menoth was the main bastion of the God of Man’s religion on Caen. If they were any accurate representation of what was in store for him in Urcaen, he wasn’t too keen being a participant. In his observation, zealous Menites were not good people.

Still, his lack of religious conviction had now suddenly become a source of discomfort. Death loomed over all, but now it seemed to loom so much nearer and more menacing than ever before. In a couple of days people would be shooting at him, not just over his head. What awaited him if a bullet had his name on it? What journey stood before him if he was selected to cross into Urcaen ahead of everyone else? He didn’t know, and that disturbed him more than it ever had. Bull’s quiet recitation seemed now to carry more gravitas than it had at first. He decided right then to recite a prayer to Morrow he had heard his mother say in church many times:

Recall, O gracious Morrow,
those who have fled to thine shield and found safety;
those you have harbored against evil
and thine enemies you have struck down.
Remember those Saints whom you have called to Ascend
and the peace you’ve granted to the downtrodden.
Remember them,
and forget us not in our present need…

“Thamar’s tits, you two muttering are going to drive me nuts,” Gerard said testily. “This isn’t a company of Precursor Knights, is it? Did I join the wrong damn army?”

“Hey, have a bit of respect,” Alex said hotly, leaping to Kirk and Bull’s defense. “Or didn’t your mother teach you that?”

“You mean my dead mother?” Gerard said, menace trickling into his voice.

“How hard that must be, having only one parent,” Peter said sarcastically.

“Shuttup, orphan boy,” Gerard spat back.

“Come on guys, don’t be like this,” Bull’s baritone voice muttered anxiously. Neil had an intense dislike of any conflict within the Company and exhibited genuine anxiety any time they started to bicker.

Corporal Merrimack groaned loudly from two rows back.

“Oh my god, you are all worse than children,” he complained. “Shut your pie-holes.”

“Cut the chatter, all of you!” Reynolds said. “I don’t want to hear another peep from anyone unless it’s to tell me we’re under attack. Gerard, the next time you open your mouth, even if it’s to breathe, I will put your fist in it.” They marched in sullen silence through the crowded, noisy streets. It was another thirty minutes before they entered the massive rail yard of Bainsmarket.

A huge train was parked on one of the loading docks with over thirty armored and flatbed cars stretching through an arch in the city wall out into the fields. The engine was beastly, nearly three stories tall with a triple-boiler system and three stacks that were already belching grimy black clouds. The engine went chuff, chuff, chuff in slow intervals. Cranes sent plumes of steam and black coal smoke into the air as they moved giant pallets of wooden crates. Yard workers and soldiers crawled over it like ants, loading and securing gear. Eight warjacks were already chained to the open flatbeds for transport. A whistle blast sounded through the air.

“Hey! There’s Daisy!” Gerard whispered to Alex, pointing at one of the flatbeds. Sight of his pet warjack drove their earlier conflict from his mind. On the flatbed were two grenadiers, one of them identifiable as theirs with the emblem of the Twenty-First Brigade in crisp new black paint on the polished blue hull. On the flatbed next to the grenadiers was a cyclone-class heavy warjack that was nearly twice the mass of either grenadier, also chained to the heavy bolts in the flatbed by its shoulder rings. A drum-fed variant of a chain gun was mounted under each of its arms. Alex pointed to the fearsome titan and whistled.

“I think I like that one better,” Alex said.

“Don’t say that too loud or Daisy will hear,” Gerard cautioned. Alex rolled his eyes.

“Gerard, Daisy would just as soon swipe your head off as put grenades into the enemy,” Alex said. “Don’t get too attached.”

Lieutenant Webster had been given temporary command of the Company until Captain Kacey took command. He gave the order to halt and the company stopped.

“Hang tight, I’m to find the yardmaster and figure out what the hell we’re supposed to do,” he said, walking off into the crowd. The men stood in ranks, adjusting gear and looking around the enormous train depot. Kirk glanced at Alex. His friend had taken off his helmet to wipe the sweat off his head.

“Hey,” Kirk whispered, pointing to Alex’s head. “Your golden locks are returning,” he said. Alex’s head had a short layer of flaxen hair. They had all had their heads shaved every month of training; this was the first time in three months any of them had grown more than fuzz on their heads. It was like watching some artifact of their old selves return, re-distinguishing them from the mass of sameness and uniformity that had characterized their life in the training camp. Kirk pulled off his own helmet and ran his hand over his head.

“I’m really glad I don’t have to look at your weird veiny skull anymore,” Alex said. “Don’t ever shave your head again Kirk, it doesn’t suit you.”

“Do you remember the time you convinced me we should do our own haircuts?” Kirk said, the childhood memory jumping to mind. Alex suppressed a laugh.

“Your mother cried when she saw you,” Alex said.

“How old were we? Seven? Eight?” Kirk asked. “You did such a horrible job the only thing my mom could do was shave it down to my scalp,” he said, snorting.

“You did way worse to me. My mom forced me to keep it like that for a week as punishment,” Alex said. Kirk grinned, remembering his young friend’s ridiculous appearance.

Webster returned to Hammer Company to convey the news.

“Alright,” he said, addressing the whole company. “They’re running a little behind, but once the train pulls forward a few cars we’ll be able to board. Store all weapons and explosives in the armory car. No firearms allowed in the troop cars. We’ll load up the armory one platoon at a time and then you all can board. We should be leaving here in a few minutes.”

In spite of Webster’s assurance that they would soon be on their way, it was another hour of boredom before the train squealed forward, pulling the transport cars onto the loading dock. Each armored troop car had a chain gun mounted on the top.

“I call dibs on the gunner seat for our car,” Kirk said in excitement.

“No, you don’t,” said Reynolds sharply. “You and your buddies have been noisy this whole trip, you don’t deserve it. Private Mason and Private Carlisle, you’re on the guns for Fourth Platoon’s cars,” he ordered. Kirk tried to conceal his disappointment. This was hardly the first time he’d caught flack due to his proximity to Alex and Gerard’s antics. He was getting used to it.

Sort of.

Each car could hold thirty seated men, and there were enough cars to hold a full company. They lined up on the ramp to the armory car, handing over firearms and grenades to Lieutenant Webster and three other men from Firstst Platoon organizing the gear in racks and boxes stuffed with hay. Then they boarded their troop cars, each platoon split in two. The cars were roomy with their reduced numbers. Thinly-padded wooden benches lined each cabin. Tall, skinny upside-down keyhole-shaped windows that resembled embrasures in a fortress wall offered a limited view but maximum protection in the event the train came under attack. Such fortification offered little comfort knowing their weapons were stored in a car at the rear. On more dangerous journeys, they might have been permitted to remain armed, but traveling through the Cygnaran heartland at full steam was usually not a risky transit.

Yet another half hour of stowing gear and boarding passed before every head was accounted for and the troop car ramps were pulled up. The train engine began chugging harder, a piercing whistle blasted, and the train slowly rolled out of the yard with a painful squeal.

“Finally,” Gerard said with a sigh of relief. “My dogs are killing me.” He put his feet up on the empty seat next to him.

“Kirk!” Peter hissed suddenly, gripping Kirk’s arm like a vice. Kirk whipped his head around in surprise. Peter pointed out the narrow window as they slowly pulled away from the station. There among the flowing crowd was a single stationary figure like a rock in a stream.

He was tall and slender, draped in a black greatcoat that hung from his bony shoulders. He had a jet-black bowl of hair on his head, sickly-looking eye sockets set deep with grey eyes and scarred cheeks from some illness of boils. He stared directly at them as the train slid away, unblinking eyes fixed on Peter as if his gaze could peel away the armored car and stare into their very souls.

“Who the hell is that?” Kirk breathed as the train built momentum and the man in the crowd vanished from sight. The man had filled him with a strange icy tingling that was utterly terrible. Peter was frozen.

“Uncle Kay,” he finally gasped.

“The escapee-hunter from Turinsdale!?” Kirk said, shocked. He had believed Peter’s story, but never actually imagined the evil figure from his young friend’s past to make an appearance. “How did he find you?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Peter moaned. “He just missed us. What if he’d gotten to me while we were waiting to board…” Peter swallowed audibly.

“Then an entire trencher platoon would have bayoneted him to death, if you didn’t first,” Kirk said with certainty. “Look, I don’t know who that guy is, and frankly I never want to know. But however good he might be, I seriously doubt he’s going to be able to cross into a warzone crawling with thousands of people without being apprehended. And even if he somehow managed that, how is he going to sneak into a troop of men in combat? And even if he manages that, he’s going to have to contend with a group of warriors and machines armed to the teeth. He just doesn’t stand a chance. You’re not just a runaway on the street anymore, Peter. I’ll bet he’s never had to deal with a situation quite like this,” Kirk said firmly. He could see Peter’s shoulders slowly relax, but his friend didn’t look totally reassured.

“Yeah, I guess,” Peter said. “But I’ve heard he can grab anyone anywhere… I once heard he stole back a kid who had escaped into the swamps of Widower’s Wood and was caught by gatormen. They were getting ready to eat the poor lad, but somehow Uncle Kay grabbed him and got away. I don’t think Kyle was better off in the end,” Peter said mournfully. He looked sick.

“Why the hell is he so motivated?” Kirk asked. “It’s been, what, six months since you escaped? What could compel him to track you all the way out here?”

“Money, I guess,” Peter said. “The real question is, why does the Turinsdale Overseer pay so much to have orphans returned?” They looked at each other. Any reason they could imagine was not a kind one.

“He has to be selling them to someone,” Kirk said finally. “And for a lot.” The motivations he could guess for such a heinous trade were not ones he cared to dwell on.

“I wonder what I’m worth for him to wait six months to find me,” Peter said darkly. “And why.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Kirk said. “Like I said, he’s not getting to you in Llael. The only thing you’re going to need to worry about there are Reds.”

“Wars don’t last forever,” Peter said faintly. “Deployments don’t last forever. One day I’ll be alone, and he’ll get to me, like everyone else…”

“And you’ll be a veteran trencher by then,” Kirk insisted. “Not a scared child. I don’t care how good of a tracker he is, he’s catching children, not warriors. He’s got his work cut out with you. And I don’t care how much that piece of filth in Turinsdale is selling you orphans for, eventually the cost will outweigh the goods,” Kirk said angrily. “He’s probably got other younger orphans that are easier to catch.”

“Maybe it’s better he keeps chasing me,” Peter said slowly. “I’m a harder mark. The longer he keeps after me, the better chances another escapee has of staying escaped,” he said, resolve trickling into his voice. “Maybe this is meant to be. This is how I can help my friends back in Corvis,” he said with vigor. His eyes narrowed to slits. “Maybe I can kill him,” he whispered. The viciousness that Peter could exhibit never failed to surprise Kirk.

“Maybe,” Kirk said. “Though you won’t be alone. If I see that guy coming towards me, I’ll put a bullet between his eyes myself,” he said. “Nobody has ever creeped me out as much as he did.”

***

About four hours passed of uneventful travel down the North Rail Line towards Corvis. The line from Bainsmarket to Corvis had never actually been completed and dead-ended many miles south of the swampy ‘City of Ghosts’, as Corvis was often called. Between the seemingly perpetual wars, invasions and counter-invasions raging around Cygnar over the last ten years, completing the rail line from Bainsmarket to Corvis just somehow never seemed to be high enough on the chain of priorities for Cygnar’s military-industrial complex. This was largely due to the fact that the line ran parallel to the Serpent’s Tongue River just thirty miles North, and shipping had been running up and down the Serpent’s Tongue River for over a thousand years. The abrupt termination of the North Line was minimal deterrent to movement of people and goods North and South. The Serpent’s Tongue River remained the primary conduit to and from Corvis, where three major rivers met: The Serpent’s Tongue, the Black River (from the north) and the Dragon’s Tongue flowing South-East. Most everything North of Corvis was either dense woodland or heathland scattered with lakes, fishing villages and fortresses until one reached the final border fort of Northguard; the final bastion of defense, fallen and retaken, between Cygnar and Khador. And just North and East of that at the intersecting borders of three nations was their deadly destination: Llael, a country fissured by war and death.

The train finally began to slow and came to a long halt with a scream of steel brakes. They’d reach the end of the North Line, which had been transformed into a hub of military activity at the end of a fresh rail loop that diverted trains back South after they emptied their cargo. There was a huge bivouac all around them, laborjacks and infantry and specialists and a hundred men and women in the myriad of support jobs that were keeping the Cygnaran war machine running smoothly.

The ramps opened and they disembarked into the hot, stuffy air. Boiler smoke from all the machines left a cloying scent in their nostrils. A trencher logistics officer was waiting for them as they disembarked, a clipboard in her hand.

“You guys Eighty-Second company, Thirtieth Battalion?” she asked to nobody in particular. Webster stepped forward.

“That’s us,” he answered. “We’re supposed to be on a steamer to Corvis before nightfall.”

“You’re going to have to wait for us to offload your gear, requisition horse carts, and get your warjack fired up for march. It’s about five hours North-West at a normal pace, but you guys are almost an hour and a half behind schedule, you’re going to have to march hard to keep our timetable running,” she said in annoyance.

“We got held up in Bainsmarket,” Webster explained. She waved her hand.

“I don’t care. Just get to your steamer by 6pm,” she ordered. Webster sighed.

“Hurry up and wait, right?” he said. She grinned humorlessly.

“You must be new to this,” she said.

It was another hour before they were on the move again, this time with Daisy marching along their column, her heavy tread feet thump, thump-ing the rhythm of their rapid hike. They were moving so quickly that they had to stop once to refuel her coal hopper.

By the time they reached the river, every one of them was exhausted, thirsty and bored. The sun was racing them to the horizon when the long, wide band of the Serpent’s Tongue River was finally before them, swift and deep. A small dock stood at its steep bank, the crew waiting on land and watching Hammer Company approach. An enormous steamer with gigantic paddle wheels sat moored to the dock, small wisps of smoke drifting from its stacks.

“I feel like we’re still in Basic,” Alex complained when they got to the steamer dock. “This seems like the sort of misery Fat Willy would enjoy putting us through,” he said.

“Oh, did you think life would get easier after we left the training depot?” Lieutenant Reynolds replied curtly.

“No, sir,” Alex replied automatically.

“Then be quiet. You’ve more than used up your allotment of griping for today,” Reynolds said, voice buzzing with annoyance. “I’m just as tired as you are, you don’t hear me crying about it.”

They boarded the steamer quickly, compared to their wait at the train in Bainsmarket. The crew were anxious to get them moving and they were out in the middle of the river while the sun was still shining its last hour of light.

Kirk didn’t remember much of the steamer trip to Corvis, other than it was uncomfortable, exceedingly dark once the sun set (there was no moon in the low clouds) and he had to take watch in the middle of the night, after being woken from a dead sleep. He did, however, remember the passage through Corvis.

It was pitch black when the lights of the city began glittering on the horizon, straight ahead up the river. Kirk could see other boats and steamers on their flanks now, soft lights and distant boilers chuffing like little spirits at some indeterminable distance in the blackness; some powering up the current like theirs and others headed back South. The lights of Corvis grew ahead of them, its towers, smokestacks, walls and buildings cutting an even blacker outline against the dark cloudy sky. The sparse woodlands on the banks gave way to boggy marshes and peaty flatland, the lights of little houses or plantations glittering like fireflies deep in their misty reaches. The foreboding walls of Corvis rose before them, a span of the wall crossing over the Serpent’s Tongue in a pillared bridge of immense size with three open portcullises that had not been closed in six hundred years. Little blinking torches blazed on its parapets. The city somehow seemed to grow vertically as he approached, obeying only the strange physics of a dream world floating in a dark void. Kirk rubbed his eyes and gazed in wonder as they passed under the cold shadow of the bridge.

Corvis’ original foundations had long since dropped deep into the miry depths below the city hundreds of years ago, whose flooded or entombed passages were supposedly haunted by the spirits of its first settlers (or worse). The city was perpetually being rebuilt aboveground, like a ladder slowly sinking into quicksand. It straddled the confluence of three enormous rivers, their intersection directly in the center of the huge city, a vast waterway that separated the banks of the various districts by more than half a mile of deep, fast water. The City of Ghosts blinked yellow lights all around him in the mist. Fog horns moaned through the dark. Bells pealed mournfully across the onyx water. Voices of crews and watchman could be heard calling to each other, their proximity impossible to gauge. The whole place felt like some kind of purgatorial dreamscape suspended over misty depths. The humid night air sent a chill through Kirk’s body. He thought of Peter, asleep below. He was glad his friend wasn’t awake to see his haunting former home pass by in the inky night.

It lasted only about twenty minutes: soon they were passing under the arch over the Black River. The banks, smothered in ghostly buildings with pointed rooftops, closed in on their little steamer and then opened again as they left Corvis. They chugged slowly up the more aggressive current of the Black River, the banks giving way once more to marshy woods cloaked in dark mist, this time unlit by any civilization. Only dark, drooping masses on the edge of the river.

Kirk watched the glittering lights and dark outlines of Corvis vanish behind him. As it disappeared on the horizon, he heard footsteps climbing up from the lower deck; his relief watch. He silently let his replacement take his position on the deck, walked stiffly back to his hammock in the stuffy crew compartment and let exhaustion sweep him into oblivion, unsure if the mirage of Corvis had actually come and gone or if he was still dreaming.

***

“ENEMY CONTACT!”

Kirk woke with a start, uneasy dreams fleeing instantly into the aether. He struggled out of his canvas hammock, his bunkmates doing the same. In seconds they were clamoring up the stairwell to the main deck. He squinted in the intense sunlight of mid-morning, the sky a brilliant turquoise with scattered, ragged clouds. He shielded his gaze, scanning the banks anxiously. The East bank was thick with green deciduous vegetation. The entire Company was out on the main deck, packed shoulder-to-shoulder.

“Get them back below decks!” the captain of the ship bellowed, leaning out of the doorway of the main cabin above them. “It ain’t safe up here!” To accentuate his point, there was a low thump and a blast of smoke on the East bank from within a thicket, followed by a high whine.

Artillery.

“Hit the deck!” Lieutenant Black screamed from somewhere near the stern. They all dropped to the hardwood planks as the shell screamed over their head. A blast and a geyser of water went up just fifteen feet off their port bow.

“Hobbs, Flint, Mitchell, man the deck guns!” Reynolds shouted somewhere amidst the crowd. “Léandre, find your rifle and get into the crow’s nest! Everyone else get back below deck!” There was a pause, the men both hesitant to flee from their first taste of combat and also fearing their fate if the ship was struck while they were below.

That was an order!” Reynolds screamed.

They deck sprang back into motion, the Company hustling back down the wide stairwell while Kirk and the others fought through the stream of bodies to their positions. There were three small swivel-mounted cannons on posts spaced across the port and starboard of the steamer. They were small enough to be aimed and operated by a single individual, but not particularly powerful. Anxiety blasted through Kirk’s guts as he realized the shoreline was too far for their small shells to reach with any effectiveness or accuracy. He could see now the origin of the first enemy shot: in the bushes was a trail of black smoke increasing in size, coming from the heavily-camouflaged outline of a Khadoran destroyer warjack, armed with a huge bombard cannon instead of a left arm.

“Oh, shit,” he said loudly. Its typical red paint had been covered with a dull green mottled scheme that made it difficult to see until it was up and running.

“How the hell did that thing get down here!?” Lieutenant Webster shouted up at the main cabin. “We’re still in Cygnaran territory!” The captain peered back down, eyes wide in fear. The stacks on either side of the ship were now bellowing filthy smoke at a tremendous rate as they tried to add speed.

“The Reds snuck down a handful of ‘jacks along the bank before the invasion started,” the Captain answered. “We’ve come across a couple of these now, usually where the banks are closer. Everything on that side of the bank is the Cygnaran border, after that it’s just the Glimmerwood. We don’t control that woodland!” Webster turned red with rage.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me this!?” he demanded.

“CRS told us the banks were clear!” The captain replied anxiously. “They said they cleared out enemy assets, this one ain’t supposed to be here!” he said. Webster cursed furiously in reply. There was another low boom, another puff of smoke, another screaming shell.

“Hit the deck!” Lieutenant Black shouted for the second time. Kirk threw himself down painfully.

There was a deafening blast, a bright flash and the acrid scent of burning. The shell had struck their starboard paddle-wheel and blown it to pieces. The boat shuddered with the impact, chunks of wood fluttered through the air. A shout of alarm sounded above, and Kirk looked up to see Joffrey dangling precariously from the ropes up to the crow’s nest.

This was a very, very bad situation. They were too far from the bank to give any meaningful return fire, and their guns weren’t powerful enough to put down a heavy warjack anyway. They needed naval support.

There was none. They were alone on the river. Too far to land for an offensive landing, and too close and slow to escape.

“Thamar bite me,” Reynolds yelled. “Get us to the West bank!” he shouted at the Captain.

“I’m trying!” he screamed back, voice shrill. The boat was turning sluggishly to port, closer to the enemy.

“Can any of you see the controller?” Webster yelled at the three deck gunners. Kirk strained to see who was managing the warjack– it couldn’t be on its own.

“There!” Private Flint said, pointing. There was movement just behind the warjack’s bombard cannon. It looked like a Winter Guard trooper or officer, dressed in khaki greens. There was another blast in the distance and they hit the deck once more. This time the shell arced too far forward, bursting in the water ten or so feet in front of them. Kirk could hear the shrapnel from the heavy round pepper the gunwale. They got up quickly. If one of those high-explosive shells landed on the deck, they were all dead. Kirk felt his hands shaking.

“Gunners, aim for the controller and fire at will, aim high to compensate for distance,” Lieutenant Black ordered. Kirk kicked open a wooden crate at the foot of the gun: it was full of two-pounder round shot. Pathetically inadequate ammunition. Short of a direct hit, they would never do anything to the controller, and these rounds weren’t heavy or fast enough to puncture the armor on the warjack. He looked at the warjack on the bank, then up at Joffrey, who had taken position in the crow’s nest and was anxiously adjusting the sights on his weapon.

“Wait, Lieutenant!” Kirk shouted suddenly, spinning. “We can’t hit that controller, but Joffrey can,” he said.

“I ordered you to–” Lieutenant Black started, nostrils flaring in frustration.

“He’s right,” Reynolds interrupted. “These are close-quarters deck-clearing guns, we’ll only make that rat bastard take better cover if we open fire now,” he said.

“Then what do you propose?” Lieutenant Black spat angrily. Lieutenant Reynolds looked up.

“Joffrey has to hit him,” he said softly.

“We’ve got a few more moments,” Kirk said quickly. “Destroyers have three shells in their magazine. He’s taken three shots. That Red is going to have to reload the warjack manually and he’s by himself, it will take him a minute,” he said.

“Private Léandre!” Lieutenant Reynolds shouted up to the crow’s nest.

“Yes, Lieutenant!” Joffrey’s Llaelese-accented voice rang back.

“That Khadoran is reloading his destroyer. You’ve got maybe twenty seconds to take him down. Do you have range?” Reynolds asked. There was a pause.

“Yes, Lieutenant, I have range at this height, but we are moving in three dimensions and I am at an extreme dis–”

“I know the situation!” Reynolds interrupted. “You are going to have to figure it out, private! I’m not asking for a headshot, but you have to stop that Red and you need to do it soon,” he ordered.

“Yes, Lieutenant!” Joffrey answered back. The four Lieutenants and three gunners including Kirk craned their necks to watch the young Llaelese trencher brace himself in the little basket high above them.

Morrow, let him hit, Kirk prayed silently. Too much time was passing. He looked back at the bank. He couldn’t see any more movement.

Crack! Joffrey’s meticulously-maintained Bannfield Model 603SV let loose a sharp report and a puff of grey smoke from its barrel. All eight of them stared anxiously at the bank. Several beats passed.

“I hit him, sir,” Joffrey declared, his voice still high with tension. “But I don’t think I killed him.”

“Did he finish reloading?” Reynolds asked urgently. Joffrey peered back down his scope for several long seconds.

“It does not appear so, Lieutenant,” he said, relief flooding his voice. “He’s in the bushes, I can see movement, but he’s injured,” he said. The destroyer was standing still, gazing at them serenely as they passed, bombard tracking them slowly. They couldn’t hear it, but the warjack’s firing mechanism was clicking repeatedly, trying to unload at them with an empty magazine.

“Can you finish him off?” Reynolds asked. Joffrey lined up his rifle again, pausing several seconds before letting out another shot.

“No more movement,” he said finally. “But I don’t know if I hit him. He might be in cover.”

“Well I’m not full of shrapnel, and that destroyer can’t load a new magazine by itself, so I think we’re in the clear,” Lieutenant Reynolds said, sighing with relief. “Private Léandre, you magnificent bastard, I would kiss you if I had the energy left to climb up there,” he said with a broad smile. Kirk started laughing, and then private Flint, and then they were all cackling like maniacs. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Corporal Merrimack poke his head out of the stairwell.

“What the hell is going on!?” he asked, confused and terrified.

“Joffrey just saved our lives!” Kirk said gasping for air and holding his ribs, tears of mad hilarity streaming down his face. There was a huge cheer from below deck and the rest of Hammer Company came streaming up, shouting and waving their arms at Joffrey up above, who for his part looked completely stunned. The captain of the boat was hanging out of the doorway of the main cabin, waving his hat in delight.

“Captain, how far are we from our destination?” Webster called out.

“We’re about two hours south of Drek Lake,” the ship captain replied. “That’s the mustering point of the First Army.”

“Good. Take note of our current position. We have to notify the CRS of that warjack’s location the moment we land,” Webster said. “The controller may be down for now, but if he is able to recover or has a replacement, then the next steamer is going to suffer a worse fate than ours,” he explained. The captain nodded in response, still grinning foolishly along with everyone.

A close brush with death had made them all a little goofy.

Joffrey was climbing down the webbing into the waiting arms of his celebrating comrades, who began shaking his hands and slapping his back relentlessly the moment his feet touched the deck. He looked bewildered. Alex leaped forward out of the crowd and hugged him.

“I’m sorry for every bad thing I ever said about you,” Alex said, laughing. “I owe you, we all owe you,” he said.

“I shouldn’t have been able to hit him,” Joffrey muttered, brows furrowed in confusion. “I mean… how did I hit him?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” said Alex.

“Morrow intervened!” Bull cried aloud.

“It didn’t feel like it,” Joffrey said, baffled. “It felt like every other shot I’ve ever taken, just… how did I hit him?” he repeated.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” Kirk said, pressing in to offer his own congratulations, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

Lieutenant Hank Reynolds watched all of this at a distance, smiling to himself.

I told you, Willikers you old coot, he thought. I told you we needed that boy.

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