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Near the 1st Army mustering point, Drek Lake.
9th of Octesh, 611 AR.

By the time Hammer Company’s steamer arrived at their dock, the stress of coming under fire had been replaced with a shaky weariness that plagued every one of them. They disembarked as quickly as they could, firing up the warjacks in their charge for a short march to the final mustering point.

In less than thirty minutes they reached their destination. Giant streamers of smoke on the horizon heralded the proximity of the massive base. The encampment was rigidly planned and ordered around the flat shoreline of Drek Lake, whose scattering of pines had been virtually clear-cut to make space and building material for the military operation on the West side.

They passed rows and rows of tents, small recently-constructed cabins, mountainous stacks of crates, stables for both fighting and work horses, and drill fields. The entire camp bustled with troops, officers, assistants, CRS scouts, supply staff and warjacks. A coordinator showed their COs where Hammer Company was designated to quarter on a map of the encampment. Their new Captain was to meet them there.

“I’ve counted seventy-eight warjacks so far,” Alex muttered as they marched. “I’ve never seen so much firepower in one place,” he said.

“Mother of Morrow, look at those,” Peter said, pointing in awe to a field on their left. He didn’t have to: the entire Company’s eyes were fixed on the sight.

Two megalithic war machines stood nearly three stories tall, silent and powered down. Heavy cannons bristled from their shoulders. Scaffolding had been erected so mechaniks could work on the massive constructs.

“Stormwalls,” Gerard breathed. “That’s just impressive, is what that is,” he said in admiration. “I hope we get to see them in a fight.”

“Don’t get overly excited, private,” Merrimack replied. “Khador has their own colossals.” Then he smiled. “But yeah, they’re something to behold when their guns go live,” he said.

“You’ve seen them in action!?” Kirk asked, astonished.

“Not quite,” said Merrimack. “I saw Cygnaran Armory officials performing tests with one outside Steelwater when I was stationed there. I watched it turn a derelict ironclad into chunks of metal.”

“I’m jealous of you Corporal, and that’s not something I ever thought I’d say,” Alex said. Merrimack ignored the jab.

They finally reached their destination: their own little segment of the enormous camp, with several rows of tents for them to bunk in and their own field, presumably for assembly or practice maneuvers. The field was already occupied by forty or so trenchers who were standing or sitting lazily.

“Who are those blokes?” Gerard asked Reynolds.

“The rest of our Company, Private,” Lieutenant Reynolds. They were all weary from travel and the pinching anxiety of being shot at, but upon hearing this, every one of them straightened their backs and tried to look tireless.

“Vets,” said Kirk. He couldn’t help but feel intimidated. As they approached, one man left the little crowd of trenchers and approached them. His helmet was off, exposing close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair and a clean-shaved, angular face. Icy blue eyes stared out from beneath a heavy brow. It took Kirk a moment to notice the Captain’s bars affixed to his shoulder pauldron.

“Officer on deck!” Lieutenant Black shouted. They all snapped to attention. The men in the field watched the exchange.

“At ease,” the Captain said calmly, eyeing the gaggle of tired troopers. He had a soft, almost gentle voice that didn’t seem to fit his hard exterior. “Hammer Company, I presume?” he asked.

“Yes, Captain,” Lieutenant Black replied. The Captain nodded.

“Alright. Form ranks on the field by platoon, the men you see in front of you will form up with you. They are also Hammer Company now. Several of them are your new unit leaders. Go.”

The Company hustled into formation, split into neat little bricks by Platoon. With their reinforcements they were now at full strength, sixty men per platoon. Kirk felt an intense wave of deja vu– it felt exactly like training. He didn’t like it. Standing next to strangers in his platoon made him uneasy. The Captain slowly walked to the front of the Company.

“My name,” he began, “is Captain Jericho Kasey.” His voice was soft but it somehow still carried. He paused suddenly, making a confused face. “Thamar’s tits, why do you all look so raggedy?” he asked.

“Uh, sir?” Lieutenant Webster asked cautiously.

“You look tired as hell, tell me why,” Captain Kasey said calmly.

“We left Bainsmarket on the 8th, Sir,” Lieutenant Webster explained. “We came under fire while steaming up the Black, sir.” Captain Kasey raised his eyebrows.

“Oh?”

“Yes, sir,” Webster said. “A Khadoran destroyer and a controller were concealed on the East bank and ambushed us. We incapacitated the controller.”

“Have you notified CRS about this?” Captain Kasey said sharply.

“Yes, Captain, I made a report as soon as we arrived,” Webster answered. Kasey nodded.

“Alright, I want a full brief after I dismiss the Company,” Kasey replied. “Listen up, boys,” he said more loudly. “I get that you’re a little tuckered out, but you’re going to have to get used to it, because it only gets worse from here. Much worse.” Kasey walked up to Bull, who stood at the front of Fourth Platoon’s line. “What is your name, Private?” Kasey asked.

“Neil Blythe, sir!” Bull responded a little too loudly. Kasey smiled.

“What facility were you trained at, Private?” Kasey asked. “Please, don’t yell at me this time,” he said.

“Twelfth Regiment training depot, sir,” Bull rumbled a little more quietly. Kasey nodded.

“Ah. Captain Willikers was your CO, I presume?” Kasey asked.

“Yes, sir,” Bull answered. Kasey nodded knowingly. He backed away and returned his attention to the whole Company.

“Gentlemen,” he began, “you will find me far more agreeable than Captain Jeremiah Willikers,” he said. They all tried to hide the relief on their faces. “But you will find me no less hard.” The relief vanished. “In fact, if you displease me, I will make Willikers look like your friendly old grandpappy,” he said in his calm, gentle voice. “You don’t want to see me upset. Follow my orders, be good soldiers, and you will earn my respect.” He stopped, slowly scanning their faces. “You’re all still green as my momma’s garden, so I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I am not here to protect you.” He let this statement sink in. “I am here to win a war. That is my first priority, and it is also your first priority. Some of you will die towards that end. But,” he said, holding up one finger, “I need as many of you to stay alive as possible. That is my second priority, and I take it very seriously. Inexperienced as you are, you are still trenchers, and we are still a team. We work as a team. I am your team captain.” He frowned.

“Captain Willikers was your enemy because you needed an enemy. Out here, we already have an enemy. He wears red, he hates you and he will try to kill you every chance he gets. Obey my orders and you will kill more of them than they kill of us. That’s the game. I know how to win. So do what I tell you to do, not because you’re afraid of what I will do to you if you do not perform, but because you thirst for victory. Do you thirst for victory, grave diggers?”

“YES SIR!” Hammer Company screamed. Kasey smiled and nodded.

“Good. I look forward to seeing how you will impress me. We’re going to run a couple tactical drills out here so your units can adjust to being at full strength again, and then get some rest. We’re scheduled to cross the Black River at midnight.”

***

Jericho Kasey gave orders to his new lieutenants for their combat drills, who then arranged the company on their wide drill field and had them run maneuvers: Frog-hopping advance with covering fire (no shots fired), first among one unit and then with two units; running from one firing position to another and then deploying an optimal fire overlap pattern; establishing a perimeter; rolling smoke column advance using old apples as ‘smoke grenades’ and an imaginary screening cloud; finally taking turns on an improvised target range and getting in a little target practice.

He wasn’t really interested in evaluating their skill. He had full confidence in the quality of their training and in Captain Willikers’ ability to prepare them for their first engagement. He was just giving the greenies a chance to demonstrate their competence to their new veteran counterparts, to experience some sort of trust in each others’ abilities. Normally he’d do this over the course of several days, but he didn’t even have several hours. This would have to suffice.

While they ran their drills, he had Webster provide a full report of the river boat ambush with a growing itch of anger and dread. The Reconnaissance Service should have prevented it. CRS’ failure to catch such a massive security breach eroded his confidence in their ability to keep tabs on enemy movement and conditions in Llael. Intellectually he understood the task was virtually impossible given Khador’s new ‘ball in the cup’ strategy to foiling their intelligence. Intellectually he grasped that CRS failing to catch one warjack, positioned on the edge of the Cygnaran border along a very sparsely-populated stretch of river weeks or months in advance, was not surprising and even forgivable considering the circumstances. Intellectually he knew it was reasonable to trust them. Yet he felt sick with worry about what they were marching into.

Were it not for one private’s utterly exceptional (probably very lucky) marksmanship, Jericho would be facing a report of a dead Hammer Company before true combat even began. Another dead Hammer Company.

He walked into his private tent. It was cramped, but he had privacy. The inside looked like the work of a man who was planning an invasion all by himself: maps covered in pins and marks hung about him on clothesline, more maps with pewter soldiers positioned on them in various battle arrays sat on stacked boxes. Lines, arrows, formation, names of places, large and small scale maps… maps, maps, maps.

Jericho knew from experience that the closer he got to the front, the more bewildering the whole operation would become. He remembered his first encounter with this phenomena four years earlier during the invasion of Sul. It had all made such excellent sense going in, the initial assault going exactly as planned. Watching all of their guns burn the walls of Sul in fire and lead was a truly awesome experience. And then they’d entered the gates… he’d only been a Lieutenant then, in charge of a platoon of trencher regulars. Keeping track of an entire platoon’s battle plan had been hard enough, but having even the simplest sense of where they fit into the grand scheme of things absolutely vanished. Their world became a torturous slog of urban warfare with a nation of religious fanatics who had no problems sacrificing themselves or even their children to the enemy if it meant taking out just a few of their number. He went through the entire operation without anyone ever finding out that he himself was a Menite.

Not the outrageous brand of Sul-Menite that the Protectorate demanded of its inhabitants, but it was still a very tricky time for any Menite to be living in Caspia, let alone fighting the enemy.

He’d put all of his personal beliefs aside to support and protect the men in his charge, and he never gave it a second thought. He was loyal to his country. That loyalty somehow gave him the mental acuity to see past the death, the horror, and the misery: to latch onto the tactical, the strategic. It was probably just a defense mechanism but it ended up making him a great leader. Still, he knew the moment they plunged into the chaos of combat, what felt logical or reasonable in the moment was untrustworthy. He had to keep the bigger picture in his mind, to see the whole battlefield, the crawling movement of armies as though he were a bird high above the landscape. Only then could he make sense of the death around him. Only then did it mean anything.

He looked at his notes, and then closed his eyes, imagining rising up above their encampment like a ghost, looking out over the Dragon’s Tongue river into the combat zone of Llael. He saw their direction of travel, where their line would fit in with the other companies in the 12th Infantry Regiment. A line of miles. Pushing forward, encountering the enemy, halting and advancing and halting to prevent any bulges. He looked out over the burning countryside to see their first major engagement point south of the town of Albyn, imagined the trenchworks of the enemy, the positions they would have to assault, the coordination they would use to take and hold tactically advantageous terrain. It flowed smoothly like a dance. In his mind, they struck blow after blow, driving the Khadorans back.

And yet so many blank spots persisted. What forces would they actually encounter? Intel was traveling slowly and by the time it arrived it was outdated. A curtain of fog was draped over the enemy. The fog of war. It was a reality of any warfare, but this… this fog stretched out like a huge cloudbank, covering areas he desperately needed to penetrate, a blanket of doubt that seemed to be growing as the First Army pushed in, not shrinking.

The Ninety-Second, Ninety-Third, and Thirty-Fourth companies had taken Vassons, a sprawling town just across the river, with absolutely no conflict. It was empty on arrival. They had been expecting stiff resistance. Meanwhile the farms between Vassons and Albyn had been plagued with harassment forces that attacked and gave ground as the 12th Regiment approached. In contrast, Malney– a little clump of buildings that barely qualified as a hamlet– had been occupied by two full Winter Guard kompanies and a battery of heavy artillery in an attempt to badger the Thirty-Fourth Company’s flank as they took ground. Companies from the thirteenth battalion had to rush into position to pin them down and stop the bulge in the flank. Meanwhile, an enemy warcaster with a battlegroup eight warjacks had taken position in a newly-constructed border fort placed smack in the middle of farming country just past Malney. Thirty-Fifth Company was keeping him in place while they waited for warcaster support of their own. They’d known about the fort, but the enemy battlegroup had only arrived two days ago, literally hours ahead of their advance. And on, and on… the enemy front was in constant flux, forcing them to move slowly.

Getting a twenty-mile long line of men, machines and equipment to advance simultaneously, and then stop when any portion of their line encountered firm resistance, was proving more difficult than anticipated. The desire to achieve objectives was intense. Orders just weren’t moving fast enough. He desperately wished they could just employ some kind of telepathy to keep everyone in the right position.

He opened his eyes. The tent full of maps stared back at him with no answers.

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