Legacy Fiction - Crossroads of Courage

Crossroads of Courage

Crossroads of Courage was a narrative league for Warmachine & Hordes that started in September 2016 and ended at Lock & Load 2017 with the Battle of Boarsgate narrative event.

Season 1: Run Rabit Run

By Matt Goetz

Since this land was first turned for the bounty it’d grow,

Stood fast one truth that all mortal men know,

Choose ye wrong or choose right,

Feed ye darkness or light,

At the end of your days, you shall reap what you sow.

The rabbit loped in the late afternoon sun, stopping along its path to sniff at the air with a twitching nose or to wheel its ears in the direction of distant sounds. In the golden light of dusk, its tawny fur blended in with the field of late-summer grass. Two smaller rabbits emerged a moment later, following the larger rabbit’s trail. Holden lay on his belly fifty yards away, controlling his breathing as the wind ruffled the field. Squeezing his left eye down to a slit, he lowered his cheek onto the worn stock of his rifle. Keeping his grip loose, he nudged the barrel up until the leading rabbit stood dead center atop the weapon’s front sight like it was performing an acrobatic trick.

Holden breathed slow, balancing the rabbit atop the sight. His right finger slid into the iron loop of the rifle’s trigger guard and rested on the brass trigger, polished smooth from years of use. As he eased the

trigger back, the calm of the moment broke under the piercing shriek of a train’s whistle to the southeast—one low, long blast followed by a shrill, short one. The leading rabbit let out a chirp of warning to its companions, then it and the smallest at the rear dashed off in zigging lines to disappear into the field. The third rabbit snapped up to its haunches and froze. Its nose twitching, it locked eyes with Holden across the rifle’s barrel.

Cursing under his breath, Holden traveled the trigger back before his target could bolt. The pin snapped, the rifle barked, and the rabbit flipped into the grass a few feet from where it stood. Holden rose and started winding open the neck of a canvas sack on his hip. Within, several other skinned rabbits awaited their new companion.

Near where Holden stood, a stout young man whooped and sprang up from a blind of dry grass. Grinning, he jogged over to Holden through the cloud of blasting powder smoke. His wide face flushed from the short distance, he slowed to a walk to help look for the kill.

“I thought you were gonna lose him when that train whistled!” Wyatt exclaimed as Holden moved forward and swept the grass this way and that with a foot. “Sounded like it came from the south. What’d this one say?”

“Long, then short. Means another train is headed up that track.”

Holden jerked a thumb over his shoulder without looking. Wyatt turned and squinted south at a stand of chestnut trees where the top of a water tower protruded above the tree line. A thin strand of smoke floated up there, disappearing in the sky. He grunted and then continued helping the search for the rabbit. A moment later his hand shot down and plucked it from the ground, holding the prize aloft.

“Damn but that was a good shot. I couldn’t even see the little critter. You nailed it right in the head.” He twisted the rabbit in his hands to appraise the damage. “Right between the ears! Your granny’d sure

be proud!”

“Thanks.” Holden’s quick, flat response cut off Wyatt as he accepted the carcass, squatted down, and pulled his belt knife to dress it.

“Aw . . . I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Holden avoided his friend’s face, staring instead at the rabbit as he dispassionately skinned it.

“It wasn’t your fault. Nothing you coulda done.”

“Nothing is what I did,” Holden snapped, jabbing the knife into the dirt in front of him. He paused, his jaw working. Then he held up the carcass of the rabbit, shaking it before tossing it into the sack hard. “Nothing is what this rabbit did. But the difference is he wasn’t holding a gun.”

Wyatt stepped back with a look of surprise. Holden sighed and rubbed his hand over his eyes, oblivious to the red streaks he left behind. “It’s fine,” he said again, this time earnestly. He looked up and gave Wyatt a lopsided smile. “I’m fine.”

Wyatt watched him for a moment, and then dropped his hands to tug a handkerchief out of his back pocket, grinning.

“Like hell you are. You got rabbit blood all over your damn face.”

Ten minutes later, twilight encroached on the sky above, framed by the bare branches of the trees overhead. Moonrise was still hours off, but the prickle of early stars glowed above. The two reached a wooden trestle bridge, a thin branch of the larger southern line that crossed a defile in the woods. To the north the bridge curved closer to the defile’s opposite edge, making an easier path than scrabbling up the thick brush of the defile’s far side and drier than the marshy bog in its center. First Wyatt then Holden climbed up the wooden planking of the bridge’s side and up onto the ties. Ahead, a string of mine carts were visible through the trees, flanked by large clapboard buildings ringed with wooden boardwalks. The buildings and boardwalks stood on wooden piers a few inches above the damp soil of the town.

“Just enough daylight to get one more,” Holden said as he squinted at the sun, sitting right above the tree line.

“Don’t you think ya bagged enough already?” Wyatt asked. “Annie’s kids don’t eat that much.”

“We don’t make it out to her place that often. I want to be sure.”

“I’m sure, you half-head. Seven will feed them for a week.”

As they approached town, three clear gunshots rang out, echoing through the woods and sending night birds fluttering from their perches. Both young men froze. Furrowing his brow, Holden looked back and forth, scanning the tree line.

“You think Marley’s boys are hunting around the mine again?” Wyatt scowled. “Pritchard’s gonna give them a thrashing when he finds out.” Wyatt started moving again when a flurry of shots fired like a pine log crackling in a hot fire. Then there was another noise, a raw, animal howl of pain and panic just as shrill as the train’s whistle had been.

“That sounded like a scream.” Wyatt’s eyes were as wide as copper farthings.

Both young men sprang to life, sprinting down the trestle track to the little mining village. As they ran, more gunshots snapped off in the dark, and a rising cloud of blasting powder smoke wafted over the rooftops. Somewhere in town there came a deep and primal roar. Veering from their path, Holden and Wyatt slammed into hiding just inside the left-hand buckboard shed, a place where the town’s miners hung their tin helmets and stored their tools. The wall facing the town shook under a heavy impact, knocking dust from between the boards and causing Holden to scramble back. Wyatt crept forward to peer between two slats in the wall. If he meant to tell Holden what he saw, his words died before he could speak them. Wyatt’s eyes flared open, his jaw slackened, and his breath came out as a thin, reedy whisper. Struggling to keep below the windowsills, Holden crawled on his hands and knees next to Wyatt and pressed against the wall, snatching a glimpse through the slats of the street beyond.

On the packed dirt of the town’s main street, crumpled bodies lay in pools of blood made black by the rising moon. One of them was in a heap at the base of the wall with a broken neck. It was Pritchard. His sightless eyes started up at Holden, causing him to flinch away from the sight. Next to him, Wyatt found his voice again.

“Who’s doing this?” he asked in an urgent whisper. “Khadorans? Trollkin?”

Holden shook his head. Breathing fast and shallow, he looked outside again as a man howling in pain came crawling around a building across the street, dragging a mangled leg. Farther into town, figures

obscured by white clouds of smoke ran from unseen pursuers and fell with crossbow bolts in their backs or were chased down by enormous loping beasts. Silhouetted figures emerged from the rows of miners’ homes to the right of the mining shack. Behind them, the low cherry-glow of fires in the houses started to flicker, quickly turning into blazing yellow light.

The fires of burning homes illuminated the nearest of the figures. It was tall, corded with muscle, and covered with a network of thick scars. The thing’s face was inhuman, its mouth distended by oversize teeth and skin stretched into a beastlike snarl. Gore slicked its body and the rough-stitched hide clothes and patchwork armor it wore, and blood dribbled off the edge of an enormous axe it held in one massive fist. Lapping at the slick of blood on its face, the thing began stalking closer to the injured man, dragging in great snorts of air. Sniffing for fresh prey.

“We gotta help him,” Wyatt hissed, barely audible over the howls and screams emerging from the town. “Shoot it. Shoot that . . . thing.” He jerked his head up to the storage shack’s window on their left.

But Holden didn’t move. He clutched his rifle against his breast, watching with ever-widening eyes as the gory creature stalked closer to the wounded man, cocking its head like a curious dog. With one foot it pinned the man by his crippled leg, eliciting a howl of pain and causing the thing’s ugly lips to curl back from its teeth in a jagged smile.

“Shoot it! “Put one right in its eye! I know you can do it!” Wyatt whispered, his voice rising with panic. Holden remained fixed in place, sheened with sickly sweat. Wyatt looked back and forth, first at his friend, then at the bestial figure. When Holden didn’t react, Wyatt’s face fell. Wrenching the rifle from Holden’s hands, his expression was a mixture of disappointment and fear. “If you’re not going to help him, I will.”

Holden reached for Wyatt, his soft plea for his friend to stay dying in his throat. Wyatt stepped to the corner of the shack as the beast lifted its axe high for a killing blow. Wyatt quivered as he raised the rifle and took aim at the hulking beast, but before he could pull the trigger, the thing’s eyes snapped up from its wounded prey, glinting brightly in the reflected glow of fires.

The beast hurled its axe through the air as Wyatt’s shot went wide. The weapon cleaved into Wyatt’s chest, splitting his breastbone open and slamming him back. Wyatt skidded to a stop on the wooden boardwalk a few yards from Holden’s hiding place, staring up at the night sky. Holden curled into a ball and tried to cram himself beneath a table in the storehouse’s corner, tears running down his cheeks. He breathed in shallow, quiet breaths as the thing outside moved toward Wyatt’s broken body. If it looked to its left, it would see Holden hiding there.

The beast leaned over Wyatt and sniffed him twice. It began to rise, its head turning to where Holden struggled to stay quiet. He tensed, terrified he would be discovered, when the injured man in the street yowled in pain. The thing turned and uttered a guttural, ugly laugh. Another of the things was poised with a short bone dagger over the wounded man. Uttering a low growl, Wyatt’s killer grabbed the axe by its handle and stalked toward the other creature in the street, not bothering to free its weapon from Wyatt. The lodged weapon dragged Wyatt’s body along, his boots clattering on the wooden boardwalk a few short paces before the blade firmly wrenched free of his chest with a wet noise.

The creature with the axe snapped a powerful backhand across the other one’s face, driving it away from the wounded man. The two growled and snapped at one another in a brutish language. Eventually the one with the dagger backed away, cowed, while Wyatt’s killer shook blood from its weapon and chopped down at the man in the street. Holden flinched at the axe crunching down into the wounded man’s skull. The creature knelt down and scooped up the body with one bloody hand, howling, and hoisted it aloft like a trophy. It and the other creature, their ritual display complete, ran off toward the chaos in the center of town.

Holden’s stifled sobs were indiscernible from the grotesque noise of slaughter. Townsfolk screamed and beasts bellowed, and the cries of the dying rang through the streets. He huddled there for minutes trying to breathe quietly when a gurgling voice softly called out his name. Opening his eyes, he looked toward the sound.

“Holden. Help me.” Lying half in the dirt road where he’d been dragged, his chest a ruin, Wyatt’s mouth bubbled with blood. His tone was flat, his words thick. His fingers twitched in the dirt as he weakly reached for Holden. “Help me.”

Holden clenched his eyes shut again and bit hard on his fist to stifle the sobs that wracked his body. Pulling his shoulders tight and his knees to his chest, he wept for his dying friend.

“Help me, Holden.”

Hours after Wyatt’s pleading stopped, hours after the last strains of dying that echoed through the town fell silent, Holden crept out of hiding. The heat of the day had been replaced with the biting chill of a clear night. Only the dying coals of the charred buildings nearby gave any warmth. A flattened shop on his right had collapsed under the three-ton weight of Divot, the town’s run-down laborjack. Divot’s hull had huge rents in its plating and its left arm was twisted off, spilling a pool of hydraulic fluid and oil into the street.

Looking out for signs of danger, Holden approached his fallen friend. A sudden noise made him freeze and jerk back toward his hiding place, but it was only a support beam collapsing inside one of the burned homes. Biting his lip, he continued on to Wyatt’s side. Wyatt lay near a tangle of other corpses whose chests had been ripped open and something torn out, leaving deep and bloody voids. Only Wyatt had been saved from the bloody work: the wound in his chest ruined whatever prize the creatures were after.

Wyatt’s eyes were unfocused and his face ashen, lips parted slightly from the last time he’d called for help. Holden knelt down, closing his dead friend’s eyes. Then he drew his rifle from Wyatt’s stiffening fingers and rose to take tentative steps toward town. His shoulders were tight and his grip on the weapon tighter as he moved into the street.

“Hello?” he breathed, his voice hoarse and cracking from rawness. He took a few more steps forward and whispered again, a little louder this time. “Anybody there?”

He was waiting for a response when a crow cawed from atop a nearby roof. The harsh, barking sound made Holden freeze in the street. The bird hopped to the edge of the roof and cocked its head, regarding the pile of corpses with one glossy black eye.

“Don’t you dare,” he whispered. He made a shooing gesture with the barrel of his rifle, and the crow flapped away toward the center of town.

Once the bird was gone, Holden made his way to the noiseless main road, stepping around bodies. Ahead, his path brought him to The Chant and Cup, a common house, facing the barber-surgeon’s on the left side of the street and the mine foreman’s office across the way.

As he walked, he fished into his coat pocket and pulled out a handful of waxed paper cartridges. A few tumbled from his fingers to land near another corpse in the street. Swallowing hard, he left them there,

trying not to look at the dead woman’s accusing face. He slipped the others into leather loops on the rifle’s stock. He tried to load his rifle, but his fingers slipped and he lost another cartridge trying to feed it into the open trap door on the back of his weapon.

This time, he stooped down to pick it up—this one hadn’t fallen near anyone’s corpse. Cursing under his breath, he blew dirt and ash off the cartridge before slipping it home and locking the breech with a soft click. He was ready to begin his search again when the crow uttered a series of sharp calls, three short croaks like a mocking laugh.

Looking up, Holden spotted the crow perched atop the foreman’s office. Shapes moved in the shadows of the shattered front door of the office below it; three of the bestial men crouched in the shadows of the building, messily eating something fleshy and man-shaped. Holden held his breath and started to retreat when one of them ripped away a hunk of meat with a jerk of its head, the gory and ugly face now fully visible in the moonlight. The two of them locked eyes for a moment, Holden’s wide in fear, the thing’s narrow with rage. Throwing back its head, the thing uttered a guttural noise that pitched into something like a howl.

“Oh, god.”

Holden bolted. He sprang for The Chant and Cup’s door, hurdling the hitching post out front. The three things inside the foreman’s office left their meal and came howling after him, crude melee weapons appearing in their hands. Once inside the common house, Holden juked to his right as his pursuers smashed through the shuttered windows facing the street. They crashed into the upturned tables and chairs littering the main room, struggling to get free of the clutter.

Holden leapt over the bar and shouldered through a sagging door into the kitchen and from there into an alley that ran behind the common house. His pursuers raised a terrible clatter as they barreled into the kitchen behind him. Holden sprinted south down the alley, chanting prayers under his breath as he passed the backsides of the town’s familiar buildings.

He took a hard left at speed into a narrow gap between buildings, barely wide enough for him to run down. The sound of his footsteps changed from the flat slap of packed dirt to a hollow wooden thudding as he ran from the alley dirt to planking toward a railing that crossed his path on the other side of the gap.

When he looked over his shoulder to see if the pursuers were catching up, his boots struck one of the wooden boards and tangled up, tossing him gut-first into the railing and knocking out his wind. He nearly pitched over the side of a raised boardwalk built on the second level of the carpenter’s shop into a steep valley on the southwest edge of town. A simple crane was affixed to his left, holding a payload of cut timbers in open air.

The sound of the creatures chasing him grew louder. The first followed Holden’s path, trying to squeeze its way through the alley. A second jumped for the roof of the shop. Holden swallowed hard, his throat clicking, and climbed onto the railing. Clenching his handsinto fists, he jumped as far as he could.

He landed on the load of timbers dangling from the crane and hauled himself up. The thing in the alley clawed at the walls and snapped its jaws trying to reach him. The one on the roof bounded forward, raising its weapon to pick him off his perch. Swaying crazily on his line, Holden whacked the belaying pin that held the thick rope in place with the butt of his rifle.

Nothing happened.

With a scream of rage and panic, Holden smashed his rifle’s stock against the pin again, and it snapped free with a loud crack. He fell in a shower of logs as the creature’s broadaxe sailed through the air overhead.

Holden hit the ground hard, wrenching his right ankle, and began to tumble down the slope of the valley to the trees below. Bouncing timbers rained around him as he crashed to a halt at the edge of the trees. In the darkness above, his pursuers snapped and growled as they broke off their chase to tear down the alley past the carpenter’s shop and toward the southern edge of town.

Groaning in pain, Holden used his rifle as a crutch to stand up. He scanned the town above for signs of the creatures, trying to quiet his rapid breathing. When there was no further hint of them, he took a few tentative steps up the hill, back to town. A low and rumbling growl sounded in the trees behind him. Holden spun and saw two bestial men emerged from the shadow of trees in the valley, their lips curled back from their long and glistening fangs. They were only a few yards from him, blocking off any path into the trees.

One jerked forward, startling him. He shouldered his rifle and snapped off a shot, hitting it in its eye. As it fell, Holden broke into a run back to town. The other creature howled in rage and made chase. Holden snatched another cartridge from the rifle’s stock and jammed it home as he clambered up the slope of the valley into town. At the top of the grade, he spun and shot at the thing chasing him, but the bullet ricocheted harmlessly off an armored plate.

Stumbling backward, Holden fumbled for another round, dropping it in a panic. The thing below fell into a crouched, animalistic run up the hill. Backpedaling, Holden reloaded before tripping on the irregular ground and crashing onto his back. The thing transitioned from a crouch to a leap and flew at him. Holden fired without aiming.

His blind shot took the thing in its throat. He rolled out of the way as it crashed down where he had been, its clawed feet and hands digging at the dirt as its life seeped out of the hole in its neck. Without waiting to see if it would die, Holden picked himself off the ground and ran for his life.

He had been sprinting down the railroad tracks, the gloaming of a distant dawn edging onto the eastern sky. He stopped to catch his breath, doubled over and gulping for air, sweat pouring off his face. Two noises in quick succession got him moving again: the snapping of branches and barked shouts echoing through the trees behind him, and the low whistle of a train ahead.

“One whistle . . . means standby,” he gasped between breaths as he broke into a lopsided run. Mustering the little speed he had left, he ran away from the unseen menace in the woods.

He ran until his legs trembled, stumbling on the railroad ties and hauling himself back up more than once, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the ballast rocks. Holden ran until his lungs wheezed with every breath, until his jaw hung open and limp, until his whole body poured sweat and sagged on the edge of collapse.

Eventually he ran into the edge of a pool of light: gas lanterns hanging from the cars of two trains on the north-south main line, one train parked behind the other. Standing between the two trains, a second man examined one of the engines, holding aloft a red lantern that cast his face into pools of unsettling shadow. A line of men emerged from the southern train and stood in single-file to board the waiting northern one, a large military train heavy with armor plates and blistered with cannons. The golden swan of Cygnar stood out against the iron hull of the military train. A thick column of black smoke vented from its stacks, and a rhythmic chugging from the engine indicated that it was building steam, preparing to head out.

Holden rushed headlong to the line of men waiting to board the military train. He clambered onto the wooden platform between the two trains and almost fell again, but an arm shot out and hauled him up to his feet.

“Steady there,” a slightly older man said, scrutinizing Holden as he nudged him into line. A thick man about Holden’s age peered around the shoulders of the one who’d grabbed him.

“What’ve you got there, Rogers?”

“Local boy with a damn fine rifle. You know you didn’t need to bring your own weapon, right kid? They’re gonna kit you out with standard issue. Say, you get in a fight with one of those Caspian jerks or something? You’re a mess.”

“What . . . ” Holden stammered.

“Rifle. The armory will set you up with a military piece when we get to the front. Bayonet and everything.” Rogers pantomimed stabbing a rifle at Holden, grinning as he flinched.

“Military? I don’t . . . ”

“Yep, next stop, Corvis. Then it’s on to the front! Brinn’s sure we’re joining up with Lord General Stryker’s army! Can you imagine?” Rogers beamed with pride as he spoke. The shorter, chubbier man behind him pushed forward to look at Holden as the line shuffled forward.

“Show him, Rogers.”

Rogers laughed and dug into his back pocket, liberating a well-worn folded broadsheet. He pushed it into Holden’s baffled face. At the top in block capitals was one word: WAR. Beneath it was a stern-looking woman, her face framed by a crop of white-blonde hair. Behind her a column of Cygnaran soldiers and towering warjacks stretched out down the promenade of a major city street. The rest of the print below the picture was too small to read in the dim light streaming out of the train’s windows.

“I plan to get Major Maddox to sign it when we get to the front.”

“This guy thinks we’re gonna be anywhere close to the warcasters. He’s got a load of mud where his brain should be.” At that Rogers laughed and gave Holden a sheepish shrug before turning back to his companion.

“Hey, you never know. The Lord General was just a soldier once.”

“A soldier who became a warcaster.”

Holden looked at his surroundings again, realization dawning on him. The line was pushing him back toward the open maw of the military train, a troop transport car that the men filed into where a red-faced sergeant barked at them for their names as they boarded. His assistant wrote them in a ledger as the sergeant counted each man with a handheld tally counter.

Beginning to protest, Holden hazarded a glance back at the tree line he had escaped from, where the thin railroad spur headed back to the ruins of his former home. The tops of the trees shuddered as things moved through them—things large enough to make the trees quake. At the edge of the trees, hulking shadows lurked, some almost double the size of the things in the village.

Swallowing hard, Holden exhaled sharply and stopped pressing back against the push of the line. Rogers noticed and tried to reassure him that things would be fine. Holden didn’t move, so Rogers and Brinn joined the forward press, taking their place in line. Before they departed, Rogers gave him another grin.

“Don’t take too long, kid. Brinn and me will save you a seat.”

Holden walked back slowly, his head swiveling between the moonlit trees and the blustering sergeant. He looked at the southern train, another possible path of escape. It was crawling with workers preparing it for its return journey to the south. At the rear, an older man stood on a short ladder to check a hanging red lantern. Before the old man could reach it, a thick, clawed hand slashed out from an unseen thing lurking in the darkness behind the train and snagged the man from his perch. There was no cry of panic or of pain; the old man simply disappeared. Shadows moved beneath the southern train as something stalked forward, toward another solitary figure.

Before he could witness those things taking another life, Holden backpedaled toward the troop transport’s door. The sergeant’s calloused hand grabbed his shoulder and hauled him up into the noise and smoke of the troop car, clicking his thumb on the tally counter.

“Name?” When Holden didn’t respond, he repeated the question.

“Holden. Uh, sir.”

“We’re here to pick up three hundred.” The sergeant scowled and turned his counter for Holden to see the numbered dials. “We have three hundred.”

Holden looked over his shoulder to where the creature had snatched the old man and back to the sergeant. He stammered uselessly tryingto find his response.

The sergeant’s assistant with the ledger hovered his pen above the page, waiting to see if he should add Holden’s name. He began slowly pulling it away. Before Holden could find his words to come up withany excuse why he should be allowed to the safety aboard the train,the man named Rogers reappeared at the train car’s doorway peering over the sergeant’s shoulder.

“I think you hit the ticker twice when I stepped on, sir.”

The sergeant glowered at Rogers and lunged forward until their noses were nearly touching. “You think I’m simple, son? That I don’t know my own business?”

“No, sir.”

“See you don’t!” The sergeant turned to Holden and barked for the young man to take a seat aboard the train. At first Holden didn’t move, still agape and uncertain.

Rogers extended his hand with a grin. “You coming, kid?”

Holden stared at the hand, still unsure, until the unpleasant calling of a crow echoed from the distant trees. The noise snapped him to action. He jumped aboard the train as the sergeant angrily stuffed the counter into his pocket and bellowed forward that all were counted and aboard. Another man picked up the cry, and another, until the engineer rang a bell to signal his readiness. The train whistled again and pulled forward, picking up speed. The men in the train car started to jabber at one another, smoke noxious cigars, or stare blankly ahead. Some of them looked reluctant to be aboard, but most had a cheerful air about them as they shouted raunchy songs that frequently rhymed “red” with “dead.” Holden stumbled along the cramped walkway of the train car until Rogers grabbed him and pushed him down onto a bare wooden bench, pressing Brinn against the window to make room. They talked, but Holden didn’t listen. Instead, he pressed himself into the seat as tight as he could, closed his eyes, and choked back his tears.

The train moved north to war.

Season 2: Here Dead We Lie

by Matt Goetz

The blond youth ran over the muddy soil, sliding down one side of a wet crater and clambering up the opposite side. When he emerged, he darted from the soot-black trunk of one tree to the next in short, erratic sprints. The trencher helmet he wore was too big, and jostled on his head so much he was forced to hold it in place with a free hand.

Holden kept his rifle trained on the boy, just above the heavy bouncing pack he wore. The occasional lump of coal spilled out of the pack’s top when he hurdled a stone or fallen tree.

“Come on,” Holden whispered.

The boy, Planter, wove toward the inert form of a Sentinel warjack. Planter was within fifteen yards of the warjack’s steel and brass body when the Khadorans took their first shot. It hit just ahead of the running boy, pelting him with charred bark and splinters.

“Run, kid,” Brinn said, intense but not loud enough for Planter to hear. The older, heavier man clenched his rifle to his chest and repeated himself, this time with a voice like a quiet prayer. Holden swiveled his rifle toward the report but couldn’t spot the shooter through the rain and the haze of blasting-powder smoke and mist drifting over the battlefield.

Another shot rang out, hitting behind the running coal porter. It showered him with wet dirt, and he threw himself down. Coal spilled from the pack over the boy’s head, and his helmet went spinning. He lay there, panting, while Holden whipped his rifle back and forth looking for a target, finding nothing.

“Get up. You’re almost there,” Brinn urged. Holden glanced to the fallen boy and saw him rise to run a dead sprint for the warjack. He had only a few yards to go.

The haze drifted, and Holden spotted the shooter. A woman amid the trees on the Khadoran side of the battlefield pointed her scoped rifle at Planter’s running form.

“I see her,” Holden said.

“Shoot! He’s almost there!”

Holden was aiming when something emerged from the rolling clouds. It looked like a soldier in a disheveled uniform, but its face was wrong. Its skin was papery and grey, its eyes and mouth three black and withered holes. It lurched forward like a drunken puppeteer’s marionette. Despite its lack of eyes, it fixed Holden with those black pits, and with one hand it made an entreating gesture to him.

Somewhere, a crow cawed.

Holden tried to shoot the grey man, but the shifting white clouds swallowed it. When the clouds blew on it was gone, vanished, as if it had never been there. He didn’t know if it ever had.

The woman fired, and Planter pitched over. Blood soaked through his pale hair. The woman vanished behind the tree, likely pulling back toward the Khadoran line after killing the boy. She left only a plume of fresh gun smoke.

Holden’s eyes were wide, and he barely gripped his rifle as he sank to the wooden duckboards of the trench. He shook and stared down with unfocused eyes. After a moment of silence, Brinn crouched next to him and put a hand on his trembling shoulder.

“It’s okay. You tried.”


The beautiful woman walked forward, the heels of her boots knocking out a steady rhythm on the ship’s deck. She leaned close, smelling of leather, rum, and blood. Next to her, Planter’s grinning corpse stood at the head of a gaggle of rotting men. He held out a curved dagger for her. She took the proffered blade with a casual ease.

“Please,” Holden begged as she brought the blade to his face. “Please don’t do this.”

“Only you can stop it,” she said.

“Join us and it all stops,” Planter’s corpse chimed in.

“Join us and we can make it end,” the dead men crowed.

Then the knife began to do its work, and he screamed.

“I heard they’re sending a warcaster to our position,” Holden muttered as he looked down the barrel of his rifle. The rain that started the night before hadn’t stopped, so he had wrapped the rifle in an oiled cloth to protect it from moisture.

“What? Who told you that?” Brinn said around a mouthful of tinned meat. As he spoke, Brinn shot a glance over his shoulder to where other soldiers were emerging from their dugouts to get their own breakfast in order. He and Holden had taken the first leg of the morning watch.

“One of the new recruits from Northguard. Fowler, I think.”

“Do you think it’ll be Maddox? Does Sergeant Rogers know?”

Holden shrugged, keeping his gaze over his rifle as he played it over the line of the Khadoran trenches. “Dunno. Just what I heard.”

Brinn moved to Holden’s right and lay down in the sandbag-rimmed fire bay, pulling out a spyglass. “I damn well hope so. We could do with a warcaster.”

Brinn swiveled the glass over the field north of the trench. He hesitated on the inert Sentinel. He didn’t mention Planter or comment on the three other dead coal porters lying at the warjack’s feet. It had been days since Planter died, but no one had dared to venture out to rescue the bodies.

“I think Patriot might still work, if we could get him fired up again. With a warcaster guiding him—”

“Warcasters have their own ’jacks. Besides, Patriot’s not worth much anymore.” Holden couldn’t bring himself to look in that direction. He kept his gaze fixed on where he’d seen the thing in the smoke in case it decided to reappear.

The Khadorans made sure the platoon couldn’t get its ́jack working again, despite its best effort. Even before the ’jack’s heartfire burned out, Patriot had been in rough shape. Holes perforated its heavy shield and hull, and a slash through half its face had destroyed one eye. Patriot stood there for weeks in the rain, still as stone after its boiler had burned cold and its nearly four-ton weight had settled down into the mud.

“Well, a warcaster might draw some of their attention,” Brinn continued as he squinted at their hadoran counterparts across the churned and muddy field. “At least give us the chance to take the east hills.”

The hills were a strategically important position, a patch of high ground staking the east side of the battlefield. They held a commanding view of both the field and potential Khadoran reinforcement routes to the northeast. Through the cold morning fog, Holden could make out the bodies of a dozen trenchers still laying on the southern edge of those hills.

“Maybe,” he said, counting the dead men in his head. The platoon’s last push to take the high ground four days prior had almost made it to the line of dead trees that defined the hilly perimeter, but a rain of Khadoran shells and rockets had driven them back after killing many where they stood. The squad sergeant died leading that advance, leaving Holden and Brinn’s friend Rogers to fill the role. Holden shrugged. “I doubt the Khadorans will wait until she shows up. If she’s coming.”

“Go to hell, you pessimist,” Brinn replied. With one hand he steadied the spyglass and dug out a wet handkerchief with the other. Swiping at the lens, he examined the enemy across the cratered battlefield. “Reds are moving to the trench line. Handful of ‘em. Wait, what the hell?”


Before Brinn could explain, acting-sergeant Rogers approached them, a tin cup of coffee in one hand. Despite the wet and cold, despite the bullets that had left scars on his armor and the exhaustion creasing his face, Rogers maintained a wry grin.

“See something fun, Brinn?” Rogers asked as he clambered up to their position. He shared his watery coffee with them.

“No, sir.” Brinn didn’t sound convinced as he handed over the spyglass. “Reds are mustering for a push. Just thought I saw something else.”

“Stuff the ‘sir.’ What did you see?”

“Not sure. It looked a bit like a soldier in no-man’s-land. In the fog.”

Holden’s head snapped to Brinn, fighting to keep his expression neutral. “Did he look strange?”

“Couldn’t tell. Barely caught sight of him.”

Rogers looked through the spyglass, a small smile on his face. “You’re sure?”

“Dead sure.”

Rogers swept the glass back and forth for a few moments. Satisfied, he handed it back.

“Let’s hope he’s on our side. At least you’re right about the reds. There’s a bunch of the bastards on the west line ready to come up and over.” Rogers shrugged. “Anyway, get some rest if you can. Both of you look like hell, and I need you fresh if the northerners are mustering for another push.”

Brinn nodded acknowledgment and slid back down, grabbing his tin of food and shoveling the rest into his mouth.

“Holden, wait up.” Rogers said as Holden started to move. “Brinn told me about Planter.”

Holden swallowed. “I’m sorry, Rogers. It’s my fault.”

“Stow that. Lieutenant Landry let you keep that old rifle because you dead-eyed ten out of ten on the range, so we both know you could have made the shot. I need you to tell me if there’s something else going on.”

“I . . . I don’t think so. Smoke came up before I could fire.”

Rogers frowned at the younger soldier’s answer. “Well, rest up. We’ve got Khadorans to kill.”


Hours later, Holden pressed against the berm of the trench and peered over the stacked sandbags. Brinn and Rogers waited on either side. A dozen more trenchers stretched beyond them to the left and right, cold rain pattering off their brass helmets as they readied their rifles and affixed bayonets.

“How long until the sun’s down?” Rogers asked.

“A few minutes,” Brinn replied, holding his hand up to the horizon to measure the finger spans between the sun and it. “It’ll fall behind the left side. Be ready for them to move from that flank first.”

Rogers nodded, tipping a shower of rain off his helmet. “Right. Our job is to hold position. Brinn, be ready to fall back to the medical tents if I so order. Holden, shoot any red that looks inclined to kill your beloved sergeant.”

Both men agreed. Turning from them, Rogers moved through the press of soldiers to the chain gun team on the west flank of the trench. Privates Copley and Thatcher were checking the heavy weapon, ready to sling it up onto the trench rim at Rogers’ order. Holden primed his own rifle and set the worn wooden stock to his cheek, trying to predict where the enemy might emerge.

“Whistles,” one of the trenchers said. Idle chatter in the trench died, letting Holden make the sound out a moment later. It was the shrill whistles of Khadoran sergeants readying their soldiers to attack.

Moments later, plumes of white smoke erupted far behind the enemy trench line. The thud of three Khadoran mortars echoed across the battlefield just after. Rogers shouted to take cover, sending men diving for the trench’s dugouts. The small holes dug in the earth barely accommodated four men. Holden made for the closest, hauling himself into the dark with a grenadier named Carter close behind. Shells whistled through the air to detonate atop the trenches. The pressure of the explosions punched the wind out of his lungs. Dirt rained on top of him as one of the thick wooden beams holding up the ceiling cracked.

Over the scream and roar of artillery, Rogers shouted for the trenchers to hold steady. The barrage slowed, with the last few shells detonating in front of and behind their lines. Clods of wet dirt still pattered down as Holden scrabbled out and readied for combat. Other trenchers did the same. Through the rain of earth and clouds of blasting-powder smoke, the silhouettes of Winter Guard charged across the cratered no-man’s-land.

“Drive them back!” shouted Rogers, and the other trenchers responded with incoherent cries. They stood up from the trench and opened fire on the running men. Bullets punched through the front rank. To Holden’s left, the chain gunners hauled their weapon up and opened fire. The steady thump of the chain gun added to the erratic popping of military rifles as it mowed down the closest Khadorans.

Brighton and Simons, two fresh Northguard recruits, kept up a steady rhythm of gunfire. One fired as the other reloaded. They traded back and forth, shooting the closest Winter Guard on the left flank. Carter and Lewis, the grenadiers, kept back in the trench and fired rifle grenades up and over their comrades’ heads. The explosions ripped through the reds, dropping a half-dozen men between them.

A few Winter Guard reached the trench line and opened fire. Whitfield and Nauls dropped from blunderbuss shots. Gunser fell with a gushing wound in his leg. An instant later, a wild axe swing split Aberwall’s helmet, even as a chain gunner fell back into the trench with a hole in his throat.

The skirmish was bloody but swift. Even without Patriot, the trenchers managed to gun down most of the Winter Guard before they made the trench line. The rest put up little resistance. They finished off the last few enemy wounded with quick bayonet strokes.

“Trenchers, report!” Rogers croaked, nearly breathless. Blood spattered his face, but the steady rain was already washing it away. Voices cried back to report the losses. The number was mercifully low.

“Medics incoming,” someone called. Behind Holden, medical personnel climbed down into the Cygnaran trench from the rear line carrying folded stretchers between them. Their uniforms showed white instead of Cygnaran blue, and they bore the symbol of Ascendant Solovin on their helmets and pauldrons. Under the direction of a Morrowan chaplain, the medics hauled the wounded from the trenches. They would bring them back to the battlefield hospital, a modest thing about a thousand yards south of the front lines next to an equally modest rail line.

The medics left the bodies of the dead behind. They would be seen to later, if time allowed.


He shot his rifle, catching the fleeing father in the back. The man fell to splash in the flowing blood of the village’s other dead. With an angry snarl, Holden rammed another cartridge into his weapon and tracked down his next target as he stalked between the burning homes of his victims.

Ahead of him a giant of a man swung his axe through others, mowing them down like wheat. Bodies and pieces of bodies went sailing, and Holden threw back his head and howled with delight. He’d been afraid at first, but now he reveled in following this butcher.


“Wake up, Holden,” Rogers said.

Holden jolted up, nearly hitting his head on the ceiling of the dugout. Next to him Brinn grumbled in his sleep and rolled over, pulling his sodden woolen blanket up over his head.

Holden crawled out into the cold night air of the trench, trying not to look at the stack of fresh bodies. “What is it?”

“Holden, you’re a wreck. Other men can hear the things you say when you sleep.”

“I’m not—”

“Shut up and listen. We know you blame yourself for Planter, and Collins, and the others.” Rogers dug into a pocket while he spoke, searching for something. “I saw you during the fight yesterday. You froze up. Didn’t fire a shot. You’re the best marksman in this unit, and I need that talent on our side. Ah, here it is.”

He held out an old golden crown, warn smooth at the edges.

“What’s this for?” Holden took the coin and turned it over in his hand. It was well worn and so old he didn’t recognize the king stamped on its face.

“Holden, you can’t control everything, but you blame yourself as if it’s your fault. You second-guess and end up doing nothing. If you don’t know what to do, if you’re at a crossroad and don’t know which way to go, just flip this coin. It’s how I decided to enlist. Hell, it’s why I helped you get on the train.”

“This is old, Rogers. Might be worth something.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get another one. Now grab your gear and help me wake up the others. I’m sick of waiting for the Khadorans to attack us again.”

The two of them went down the trench and roused the rest of the unit, most of them reluctant to be woken after only a short sleep.

A few hours before sunrise, the trenchers gathered around Sergeant Rogers, a few grumbling about the early muster as they shoveled tinned rations into their mouths. Once the sergeant began speaking, even they quieted.

“I talked with Lieutenant Landry late last night. We expect a heavy fog through midday, giving us concealment from sharpshooters and spotters. Landry’s going to use the opportunity to make a push on the east hills today, and we’re going to give him the chance to get there. A platoon of the Seven-One-Five is joining us to support this offensive. Two squads are joining our attack.”

That earned a few murmured comments. Brinn called for quiet.

Rogers continued. “While the reds are busy defending the hills, we attack on the main front. When they attacked yesterday we hit them hard, and Landry and I doubt they’ll have moved in reserves to replace the wounded yet. When we clear the trenches, we move to support the main offensive and hit them on two fronts. While we attack, I want Chambers and Colhoun to get my damned warjack up and running.” Those two men nodded and made for the supply bay to get tools and a fresh pack of coal.

Rogers sketched out the plan of the attack. The trenchers would split into two groups, one led by himself and the other by Brinn. The two extra squads would support them on the approach and help them take the nearest Khadoran position. Brinn did a quick inventory of their supply of ammunition and smoke grenades, divvying them up among the gathered men.


The trenchers rushed forward over the broken ground, their rifles held tight to their chests. Some slammed into the precious cover of the trees, snapping off wild shots into the haze. In front of Holden there was a metallic ring, and the head of Private Thatcher snapped back as he pitched forward into the mud. Holden and Rogers hurdled Thatcher’s twitching body and dashed for the charred cover of a fallen tree.

To Holden’s right, a squad of trenchers fired a volley from cover. A whistling Khadoran shell detonated among them, throwing up a geyser of earth. A trencher was hurled by the blast, his limp and broken body bashing off the trunk of a limbless pine.

“Forward!” screamed Rogers. The sergeants of the 715’s squads echoed his cry. The crackling of rifle fire on both sides, the thump of explosions, and the cries of the wounded made their voices indistinct. Holden snapped off another shot with his grandmother’s rifle, jammed a fresh cartridge into the breech, and vaulted the fallen tree. Bullets and blunderbuss shot rippled the air around him, splintering the blackened trees and exposing the pale, dead wood within.

The trenchers reached the twisted barbed wire south of the Khadoran lines, some catching rifle fire and pitching over to hang in metal webs of thorny wire. Holden saw the silhouettes of Winter Guard ahead in their trenches.

Rogers veered for a crater in front of the Khadoran trenches, signaling for Holden and the others to follow. Holden shot on the run and pitched himself into cover an instant ahead of another withering volley. The bodies of Brighton and Simons tumbled after him. Only the grenadier Carter remained, sliding down the crater’s rim behind.

“Call what you saw!” Rogers shouted over the sound of battle.

“Ten guard, tight formation in a fire bay,” Holden responded while reloading. Rogers nodded and pointed at Carter.

“Fire high. If you don’t hit them they might go for cover. Holden, give us smoke for the advance.”

As Carter fixed his rifle with a fresh grenade, Holden readied a smoke canister. Rogers counted down from five, pointing at Holden. He reached one and closed his fist. Holden rose, hurling his grenade before dropping back. Carter pulled the trigger and sent his projectile sailing up to arc down on the enemy trench.

“Now! Bayonets up!” Rogers cried. Carter and Holden followed him. Carter held his rifle like a spear and Holden drew his trench knife.

They burst from the smoke on the Khadoran trench. Carter’s grenade had dropped three Winter Guard with shrapnel and caused the others to dive for cover. Screaming, Rogers and Carter leapt down among the scattered men. Down the trench line, other blue-armored soldiers poured in toward the panicked Khadorans.

Rogers landed between two men. He stabbed the first with a thrust and cracked the skull of another with his rifle’s stock. Carter landed on a third. He fell to his knees atop the man, stabbing him in the heart. Holden fired as he hit the rim of the trench, catching his target in the chest. The man he shot fell, firing his blunderbuss uselessly into the ground.

The other three Winter Guard went for their axes, but Rogers and Carter had the advantage of reach. The Khadorans had to lunge forward to try to get to them with clumsy slashes, opening themselves up for the thrusts of bayonets. The last of the reds died trying to escape the trench.

When the fighting was done, Rogers called for a headcount. Other than the few who’d died on the approach, the trenchers had reached this first line of enemy trenches without injury. There were other trench lines to the north, other Khadoran soldiers to battle, but for the first time since reaching the battlefront, the Cygnarans had a moment of relief.


They were clearing the trench to make sure the last of the Winter Guard were dead or had fled. The distant noise of combat to the east still echoed over the battlefield from the hills, but in the trench all was quiet.

“I think they’re all gone,” Holden said as he emerged from a Khadoran dugout and brushed mud off his grubby knees.

“Good riddance. Brinn, let’s be ready to support Landry on the hill.” The unit began to move east down the trench when a shrill noise froze them. Holden looked toward the sound.

From the haze north of their position, a neat wall of men jogged forward. They wore heavier armor and had carbines braced on top of their large square shields. Another row marched behind the front rank. There were more than Holden could count. Behind the ranked men a towering form emerged from the fog, over ten feet tall and wielding axes over six feet long: a Khadoran warjack.

Holden didn’t wait for Rogers to give them an order. He clawed free of the Khadoran trench and sprinted back toward Cygnaran lines, running past the bodies of Brighton and Simons. He ducked between the trees and passed the grisly remains of the trenchers from the 715, breaking into a sprint when he hit the pockmarked mud of no-man’s-land.

Holden’s companions wavered and broke before the Khadoran advance. Their flight from the trench wasn’t an organized retreat. It was a rout. As they ran another man died, shot in the back by the oncoming kommandos. The warjack screamed a piercing whistle and surged forward, bowling through two of its own soldiers as it did. Its heavy tread shuddered the earth. Carter turned and fired a grenade from the hip to detonate on the warjack’s faceplate. Enraged, it barreled on, snapping Carter’s bones with the impact and crushing his body into the mud.

Holden weaved through the trees until he saw a plume of coal smoke up ahead. The shape of Patriot was visible in the fog, and he could hear Colhoun shouting, asking what was going on. Holden screamed for Colhoun and Chambers to get to cover as he leapt down into the familiar Cygnaran trench line.

Already extra soldiers from the 715 were filling their old position. They were mostly trenchers, though there were a few sword knights in battered armor as well.

The nearest sergeant tried to get Holden to explain the situation, but was interrupted when the last few survivors emerged from the fog and trees. Brinn and Rogers led the retreat, shooting over the heads of their own soldiers at the rampaging warjack. Holden screamed and fired round after round, but most caromed off of its armored hull leaving nothing but dents.

Swatting aside narrow trees with its axes, the ’jack screamed steam once more and rushed toward the tiny forms of its fleeing prey, whipping its weapons behind them. Holden braced his rifle and breathed, then shot a round through one of the warjack’s glowing eyes. It paused for a moment, shaking back and forth like a wounded bear. It gave the fleeing trenchers another few yards of distance, but the wrathful warjack was only slowed, not truly injured. Shaking its head, it looked at the trenchers with one baleful eye and sprinted, slashing with its axes.

The thud of chain-gun fire echoed through the trees, and a shower of sparks fell off the Khadoran ’jack. Battered, limping Patriot emerged from the trees, his gun barrels glowing and smoking. The light Cygnaran ’jack squared its shoulders and set its shield, issuing a train-whistle noise as a challenge.

“One whistle means go to hell,” Holden hissed.

The Khadoran warjack veered off for this new foe, giving Brinn, Rogers, and the other grenadier, Lewis, the time they needed to make the trench. Patriot received the charge with its shield, its feet sliding back in the slick mud from the impact. As the Khadoran ’jack swung an axe up and over the shield, Patriot buried its chain gun in the other ’jack’s guts and fired a long burst of bullets. With a black spray of fluid from ruptured vital lines, the bullets punched steaming holes in the other ’jack’s boiler. The two collided again and tumbled into the mud, the larger Khadoran ’jack growing weaker by the moment as Patriot clambered on top of it, spending the last of its ammunition in a close shot under the other ’jack’s chin. The rounds chewed through hull armor to pierce the cortex. In the next moment, both warjacks vanished in the flash and roar of an intense arcane explosion.

Holden felt like cheering, but a barrage of shots punched into the sandbag he was hiding behind. The assault kommandos pressed their advantage and jogged across the battlefield, firing on the run. Holden called to Lewis, “Get a grenade ready! They’re in tight formation!”

When the first few kommandos came within range, they dropped into a crouch behind their shields. Bracing their carbines on the top rim, they fired a salvo of squat canisters trailing ribbons of smoke toward the trench. Most fell short, but a few landed among the trenchers, spewing out choking clouds of thick smoke.

“Fire!” Rogers screamed, and the trenchers opened fire. Rounds caromed off the front ranks, repelled by Khadoran armor and shields. Behind them, a second wave advanced and returned fire, their carbine rounds striking men in the trenches. Holden shot repeatedly at the approaching enemy, finding his rhythm and shooting true, but the enemy advance did not slow. The men of the 715 held one of the chain gun positions and poured rounds at the kommandos, but their shields held the worst of it back.

“Grenade!” Brinn shouted. Lewis primed his explosive and aimed for the second rank of kommandos. It arced and detonated behind the shield wall, flinging broken men away from the blasts. Holden and a handful of other sharpshooters kept firing, targeting men who were exposed when dead men’s shields fell away. Several more kommandos died, but behind them the red of Khadoran reinforcements drew closer through the haze of smoke. Holden fired a round that caught a charging Khadoran in the face. The armored man pitched back into the wet mud. In the gap the dead man created in the enemy line, the hollow-eyed creature was waiting. Only now, there were two.

Numb, Holden fell back. The sound of the battle was replaced by the thudding of blood in his ears. A rushing wall of Khadorans blocked the two creatures from his view, but he knew they were there, waiting. Around him his allies were turning back the Khadoran assault even as it reached their own trench. The Khadoran kommandos broke over the trench to his left, falling down onto the soldiers there. The fighting turned into a bloody brawl of men tackled to the mud, trying to strangle or stab their enemies with bayonets and trench knives.

The chain gun had fallen silent, its crew collapsed over the weapon as two kommandos stabbed repeatedly with their bayonets. Holden looked right to see Brinn hurl himself into battle with his trench

knife, stabbing through the helmet of the closest enemy with a brutal downward strike. A short jab from an enemy bayonet punched through Brinn’s backplate and he stumbled and fell. The enemy was being turned, but not without cost.

Rogers smashed the butt of his rifle into the face of the closest enemy and charged another. His bayonet thrust scraped off the Khadoran’s shield but left the man off balance. Rogers shouldered the man against the wall of the trench and slammed the stock of his rifle up against the Khadoran’s throat, pressing his full weight up to crush the man’s larynx.

“Holden, get up!” he shouted. Like a drunk, Holden’s head swiveled unsteadily toward him. “Get up, god dammit!”

Holden rose to take in the bloody melee around him. He could see, then, how it would end. His comrades would drive off the enemy. They would charge again, to be driven off themselves. Back and forth, back and forth, over a useless muddy patch in southern Llael. If a Khadoran bullet, blade, or bomb didn’t claim him here, then one of those . . . things would. There was no way out. Already the kommandos were being overwhelmed. The sword knights’ heavy Caspian battle blades proved too much for their shields to stop.

Rogers slashed the throat of the last Khadoran in the trench and turned back to Holden. His lips moved, like he was asking “Are you okay,” perhaps. Holden couldn’t be sure. But the parting gift of a Khadoran bullet caught Rogers in the base of the skull, blowing out his neck and spraying Holden with gore. He sagged forward into Holden’s arms with wide, surprised eyes.

And there it was. The way out.

The other Cygnarans were busy fighting, paying Holden no attention. Laying down, covered in the dying Rogers’ blood, Holden joined the wounded on the muddy, bloody wooden duckboard floor of the trench. Rogers sagged on top of him, lips still twitching as his blood flowed forth.

“Medic,” Holden cried, his throat raspy. He repeated. “We need a medic here.” Then he lay back and waited to be taken away from all of this.

Season 2 con’t

Holden tried to lie still, tried to maintain the illusion of his injury as the medical crew rushed his stretcher away from the front and to the medical tents, but Holden couldn’t help himself. He picked his head up, looking north toward the trenches.

In the area Rogers fell, Holden saw a thin figure in tattered clothes obscured by the blasting powder smoke. It loomed over where Rogers died, staring down like a collector stares at a rare sample. It looked up toward him then and cocked its head in recognition.

“Why does he still have a rifle?” asked the battle chaplain as he jogged up to the medics.

“Wouldn’t let it go, sir.”

“Get him onto the train. Khadorans flanked us to the west and are advancing on the tents.”

The medics both said “yes, sir” as they veered toward the rail spur. Through half-lidded eyes Holden saw the chaplain give him a skeptical look, but if he meant to stop them, if he saw through Holden’s ruse, he gave no indication.

The medics trotted him up to the side of the train where dozens of wounded men were being loaded into boxcars. A few doctors were tending to them, performing triage to determine who would receive

medical attention and who wouldn’t.

Then, without warning, a trio of Khadorans burst from the tents flanking the train on the west side. One of them wore a massive pressure cylinder on his back and carried a weapon with a tongue of flame licking at its barrel. The medics panicked at the sight, some dropping their stretchers as they dove for cover. Holden banged down on the ground, bouncing off his stretcher as the flamethrower-wielding kommando leveled his weapon and chuckled in a deep voice. Flying from between the tents, a black crow cawed.

As a reflex, Holden shot the kommando on the left, reloaded, and shot the kommando on the right. Both teetered and crumpled, dead. The flamethrower operator was stunned by this sudden display and swiveled to burn Holden to ash.

Holden loaded a fresh round and shot through the tank on the man’s back. The bullet ruptured the tank and it detonated, consuming the man in a flash of fire.

There was a moment of quiet. Holden felt the eyes of the wounded upon him. He heard them murmuring. One of Holden’s stretcher-bearers approached. “You say you’re wounded?”

Holden couldn’t meet the woman’s eyes. “I didn’t mean to—”

She cut him off, speaking loud enough for all to hear. “If you weren’t here, all of us would be dead. Get on the train.”

Holden nodded and lay back, trying to maintain his composure. What the woman said as she loaded him up into the train car hurt him more than any enemy’s weapon could.

“You’re a hero.”

Holden sat across from himself. The two Holdens faced each other in a wide and empty field of darkness rimmed by cold and impossible stars. Points of light flared and died in the distance, each one an echo of the sun that would never warm this world. It was an infinite theater with no audience.

The other him cocked his head like a curious bird, studying Holden from the corner of one eye. He said nothing, but had a wry smile on his face. Roger’s smile.

“What are you?” Holden asked the other him.

“I’m you. The you who stopped fighting. The you who understood the inevitability of his fate.”

“Am I . . . am I losing my mind?” Holden asked in earnest, but the other him smiled like he’d told some fantastic joke.

“Who said it was your mind to lose? I think the rest of us should all have a say.”

Holden clenched his eyes shut and clapped his hands to his face. Behind his hands he said, “You’re just a nightmare. You’re here because of my grandmother and Wyatt, because of Brinn and Rogers. You’re here because I keep letting people die.”

The other Holden laughed. The noise was a piece of broken glass. “You idiot. As if the gods care about them any more than they care about you. You’re just a grain of sand caught in the teeth of an awesome and terrible machine.”

Holden looked up. The other him had begun to weep a viscous black fluid from his eyes and mouth, mutating them into the pits that adorned the creature’s face. The endless fluid flowed down and stained his face, running onto his tarnished uniform.

“If they don’t care, why is this happening to me?” Holden asked.

“Because it had to happen to someone.” The other him leaned forward. Oily rivers ran down his face. “Because you made the wrong choice at the right time. Of all the possible fates to befall all the people alive, you failed to act when you should have. Or acted when you shouldn’t. In the end it doesn’t matter.”

Holden stared at the other him. It leaned closer, that black weeping dribbling to fill the space between them and flowing close to his feet. As if the vitality of the other Holden flowed with that foul liquor, its skin grew sallow and began to wither. Its face drew tight as its teeth dropped away like a handful of tiny stones.

Holden gaped at the grotesque version of himself, choking on his words. “Then how can I stop this from happening?”

Sweet child. As if it was ever up to you.

Season 3: In Some Smothering Dream

by Matt Goetz

Crossroads of Courage part 3

Tak-tuh-tak. Tak-tuh-tak.

As the train rolled south, the wheels thudded a steady rhythm over the railroad ties. Its destination was a small depot at the end of the track, where a caravan awaited them. There, the wounded would journey to the fortress Northguard, where better facilities waited.

Tak-tuh-tak. Tak-tuh-tak.

Holden rolled the gold coin Rogers had given him over and over in his hand—heads to tails and back again, in time with the drumming of the train. They traveled an old and, until very recently, abandoned stretch of track. At one time, someone in Llael must have imagined this line would one day carry passengers to their Cygnaran allies. War and occupation had put those plans to rest, but the Cygnaran Army wasn’t ready to complain about a gift horse when they stumbled upon it. The line traveled east of the Black River in territory still held by Free Llael and was one of the only safe passages left in the entire nation.


Holden tried not to look out the window. Not like the other wounded soldiers in the car—they craned their necks to see the roll of the hills and the sudden clusters of trees that rushed by. At least, those of them still able to move their necks did. Many were too wounded to lift themselves off the canvas cots crowding the narrow aisle of the train car. Some of them hadn’t woken up for days.

While the landscape of Llael rushing beside the train was beautiful, if Holden looked out the window for too long, he would see his reflection in the glass. In that reflection, he would eventually see his face staring back at him with deep-shadowed eyes and a black gaping mouth.

Tak-tuh-tak. Sweet child. As if it was ever up to you. Tak-tuh-tak.

Instead, Holden looked at his worn coin, flipping it from heads to tails and back again.

Tak-tuh-tak. Don’t worry about it. I’ll get another one. Tak-tuh-tak.

Holden shook his head, trying to escape the noise of the train and his own intrusive thoughts.

He kept flipping the coin as the door at the front of the cabin slid open. Dorothy Walsh walked through, holding a steel tray propped against her hip. The tray was stacked high with fresh dressings and clear bottles of antiseptic fluid. The nurse had helped Holden get on board the medical train back on the battlefront. She was the reason he wasn’t back on the field rotting in the mud with his friends.

As Dorothy made her way down the train car, she checked in on the wounded men, stopping with each one to confirm the colored cloth tags the medics left hanging from their cots. At each stop, she made notes in a little leather book before dropping it into a pocket on her apron.

Each colored tag prioritized the men by the severity of their wounds. Most of the swaying tags were either yellow or green; almost all of the men with red or black tags had died in the first few hours of the journey. Orderlies covered their bodies with burlap and carried them to the back to wait for burial when the troops reached Cygnaran soil again. A few red-tagged men remained clinging to life but only a few.

Dorothy spent a great deal more time examining those particular soldiers. Holden watched as she felt for their pulse with one hand, pulled back the lids of their eyes, or gently checked the dressings on their missing arms and legs.

Holden didn’t have a tag. No immediate danger, lowest priority, one of the surgeons explained when he’d asked why not. He didn’t mind the assessment. In his own mind, he didn’t even deserve to be on the train. He’d fled from the field of battle, leaving his brothers-in-arms behind. They had died while he lived.

In fact, being ignored by the medics and nurses was the best outcome he could hope for. Too many of them wanted to thank him for killing the Khadoran kommandos who tried to assault the train. Too many of them tried to make him feel better, which actually made him feel worse. He’d faked an injury to get aboard the train, and these people kept treating him like a damned hero.

Dorothy worked the length of the train to him after checking on the other soldiers. He noted she always kept a bright expression when she talked to him. Probably to keep him from feeling too much guilt, he thought. He and all the medical staff knew he was a malingerer. If he hadn’t killed the Khadorans, he was sure they would have kicked him off the train or reported him. Fortunately, none of the other soldiers seemed to know. If they did, they at least kept their silence.

“How are we doing, Holden?” she asked as she approached, offering him a canteen of fresh water.

“Okay. Thank you.” He gripped the coin in his left hand and took a quick drink before handing the canteen back.

Dorothy studied him for a moment and combed hair out of her face with one hand before she continued. “Surgeon Breggs told me you might give me a hand with some of the others. Would you like to do that?”

He nodded. She and the chief surgeon Ewin Breggs treated him as they would any other patient. He didn’t know if it was for his benefit or for the benefit of the truly injured with whom he shared the car. “Of course, ma’am.”

She offered to help him up, but he didn’t take her hand. It felt like too much of a lie.

He and Dorothy made their way through the car, treating the wounded soldiers. Many of the men were trenchers, but a few knights lay among them. They were easier to spot due to the deep bruises on their shoulders where the heavy storm knight or sword knight armor weighed against its leather strapping. Most of the knights had stab wounds, gashes, or dark bruises spread over their broken ribs. To a man, the trenchers had bullet wounds that left angry black-and- purple holes in their flesh, large patches of burned, melted skin, or a web of deep gouges left by shrapnel. Holden tried not to notice how the knights were given the thickest blankets and the cots closest to the windows.

The two of them worked in near silence, broken only by Dorothy asking for extra bindings or to tell Holden to hold a man down as she doused his angry wounds with antiseptic. They served the men who could feed themselves and fed the men who couldn’t. Sometimes she forced a wounded soldier to drink an alchemical solution. If her patient was unconscious, she had Holden rub the man’s throat until he swallowed. Once, he accidentally handed her a bottle of the antiseptic when she requested a drink that would reduce a man’s fever. It smelled sweet, but she patiently cautioned him to never mix the two up again.

They passed through most of the train and treated most of the other soldiers before Dorothy insisted they take a break. As they shared dry biscuits and watery coffee, she spoke around a mouthful of food.

“You don’t hide it as well as you think you do,” she said.

Holden’s hand twitched up to his face on reflex. First to his mouth, then to the corner of his right eye. Finally, haltingly, he asked, “Sorry, what?”

“Your accent. You’re Ordic, right?”

He sagged with relief. “No. I mean, sort of.”

“You’re sort of Ordic?” Her eyes crinkled as she smiled.

“My father was.”

“But not your mother?”

“No. Not really. She lived in Ord. But when they died…” He trailed off. Dorothy’s smile faded, so he pressed on. “It’s okay. It happened when I was little. Five or six. I went to live with my grandmother in the Midlunds. I liked it.”

Dorothy chewed a bit before she responded. “I lost my parents, too. In Caspia. During the war with Sul.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t your fault. It wasn’t even theirs. Sometimes people just die.”

Rogers’ coin felt heavy in his pocket. After a moment, he realized she was staring at him, so he cleared his throat and spoke. “I suppose so. My grandmother died, too. A drunk from Fharin shot her when we were hunting. She was the mechanik back home. I guess he thought she overcharged him, or he didn’t like her work.”

“Holden…” She trailed off without anything useful to say.

That was most people’s response the first time they heard. Holden smiled a bit to help her. “I used to blame myself. I was there, and I didn’t stop him.”

“You can’t blame yourself.”

He thought of Wyatt again. His friend often said as much. But he’d also said other things, hadn’t he?

Tak-tuh-tak. Help me, Holden. Tak-tuh-tak.

The thudding of the train echoed in his head. “No, I know that now. My friend—I mean, my sergeant, Rogers—tried to tell me that we can’t control fate and that we shouldn’t blame ourselves for things outside our control. I didn’t listen to him then, but I try to now.”

Dorothy looked at him again, tilting her head to one side. Perhaps she was trying to evaluate his state of mind or even considering if she should get Breggs to upgrade him to a green tag for reasons of mental well being.

“Your friend was right,” she said at last.

Holden shrugged.

They finished their meal and went back to work.

In all, there were three cars of wounded soldiers, nearly forty men total, and other than Dorothy, only six medical personnel tried to look out for every one of them. Aiding in the care of the wounded helped Holden keep his mind off the thoughts and nightmares that had plagued him in recent days. Helping them, even as clumsy and unskilled as he was, made him feel happy for the first time since his friend Wyatt died.

When they finished their rounds, Holden helped Dorothy carry the unused medical supplies back to the storage cars near the front of the train. As they passed the wounded soldiers along the way, several of them rose and stared past them to the east horizon. They looked astounded. A few nudged their sleeping neighbors awake and pointed to the windows behind Holden and Dorothy.

Holden looked over his shoulder to see what fascinated them so. Beyond the eastern windows, with the lavender of twilight at its edge, the northern edge of the Glimmerwood crept into view. Among the broad trees, flashes of turquoise foxfire flickered in the shadows, and the shiver of leaves flashed reflections of sunset on their silver bellies.

Despite his earlier misgivings about the windows, Holden couldn’t help but stare at the spray of colors in the expanse of untamed forest. He stood there breathlessly for a moment before Dorothy nudged him forward into the privacy of the storage car. She slid the door closed behind them.

As the train thundered by the mixed color in the trees, Dorothy stood behind him and peered over his shoulder, her chin brushing his epaulet. “We’re nearly to the caravan now. In another few days, you’ll all be safe back at Northguard.”

Safe. The word sounded impossible. He’d been so far from safe for so long it was almost a joke. He looked at Dorothy to respond, but before he could speak, a spot of orange fire flashed deep in the tree line.

Something screamed out of the trees. Trailing a line of sparks and oily smoke, a crude projectile hurtled at the front of the train. Holden couldn’t act before it impacted with a roar near the engine.

The train and everyone aboard tumbled as the missile exploded. With a screech, the train pitched sideways, slamming Holden into the wall. The sound of metal linkages snapping was deafening, muffled only by the crash of the car against the ground. Everything spun around him. Cases of supplies broke free of their tethers to bounce around the confined space like cannon balls. A storm of bandages, splints, and broken glass spiraled in the air. Holden slid off the tilting deck of the train to bash into the wall, then the ceiling, and then the opposite wall as the train pitched and rolled down the hill next to the tracks. Once again, his world was upended as he fell, face first, into a wall of steel.

The other him stood in a vast battlefield. Behind the gaunt frame of his other body, black clouds flickered with flashes of orange fire, illuminating towering silhouettes that grappled in the distance. Cannons thundered atop impossibly high walls, raining down explosions on waves of soldiers who ran to their deaths.

The ground all around him was puckered with craters both old and new. Each crater was a black pit in the earth filled to the rim with shadows, but glistening eyes blinked up at him like bubbles in foam. From the shadows of the battlefield, dark figures clawed to the surface. Hunchbacked shapes and gaunt soldiers pulled themselves up into the real world from some other, darker place.

“This is where it ends,” the other him cried with glee, but his toothless pit of a mouth did not move. Holden heard its words jangling in his teeth and his bones. “Where you run out of places to hide. This is where you join us.”

Holden was dizzy and bruised when he regained consciousness. A deep gash in his forehead filled his left eye with blood. Struggling against debris that was piled on him, he picked himself off the ground.

Dorothy was nearby, pinned beneath a wooden crate. It had burst open, spilling its contents of straw and bottles of sanitizing solution. He stumbled to her and clawed the splintered wood and straw away to free her. As he did, her eyes twitched open.

“My arm,” she said in a weak voice, looking down to her left shoulder. It hung low, popped free from its socket. She touched it with her other hand and winced. “Do you know what to do?”

Holden swallowed. “I think so.”

She grabbed his wrist with her other hand and guided it to her shoulder. As he took hold of her, she fished the medical ledger out of her apron with the other hand. Biting on the leather cover, she squeezed her eyes shut and nodded for him to proceed.

He grasped her injured arm and pulled away from her body with slow, steady pressure. Dorothy screamed in pain around the book as he pulled. The sound of bones scraping turned his stomach before the joint slipped back into place with a wet, gut-twisting pop.

Dorothy’s mouth sagged open, and the book slid out, a ring of deep tooth marks embedded in the leather. She grabbed the back of his head and pulled on him to bring herself off the floor.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

Tears streamed from her eyes. “I will be. Help me up.”

He guided her to her unsteady feet. Dorothy touched his chin and tipped his forehead down so she could examine the gash on his skull. “It’s deep but not too deep. Remind me to get you a green tag later.”

He smiled weakly at her joke before looking around at their surroundings. The train car lay on its side, its precious contents scattered everywhere. Dorothy picked up a bandage and tied a crude sling for her left arm, tightening the knot at her shoulder with her teeth. Despite her own injury, she picked her way to the back of the car. The door there led to the nearest group of the wounded.

“I need to see if anyone is still alive back there. You get a weapon. Your rifle should still be ahead.” She indicated the opposite door with her chin. “We need to be ready if there are Khadorans still out there.”

“I don’t think it was them. The rocket didn’t look like one of theirs,” he said. It was too ugly and too loud.

“Well, before whoever shows up, then.” She didn’t give him a chance to protest. Instead, she kicked at the rear door and climbed through when it banged open. Holden hesitated, wanting to follow her, but he followed her instructions instead.

The next car was in a similar state. The walls were lined with storage lockers containing the personal effects of the wounded. Those lockers had popped open in the crash, and their contents were tossed everywhere. Near the front of the car, a medic half-buried in a drift of objects lay in an ugly heap, his neck bent sideways at a sharp angle.

Holden picked through the contents on the floor, tossing aside bundles of letters from home, locks of women’s hair, and other such sentimental objects. As he searched for his rifle, the muffled voices of people approaching the train started to filter through the broken windows of the car. The voices were deep and rough. Something about them didn’t sound right.

Putting it out of his mind for the moment, he kept digging. At last he found the rifle, partially tucked under the body of the dead medic.

“Sorry,” he muttered as he pulled it clear. If the medic minded, he didn’t say so.

Rifle in hand, Holden crawled out of the train. The storage car behind him was tipped on its side more than ten feet away. Beyond it was the passenger car full of the wounded, where Dorothy likely was. Keeping the train cars between himself and the direction of the ambush, he crept forward, whispering her name.

As he advanced on the passenger car, the voices of the attackers grew louder. It sounded as if they were just on the other side of the train. Some were close enough for Holden to make out their thick, wet breathing. Bizarrely, the voices were speaking Cygnaran or at least something close to it. A few of the words were mushy and pronounced with a thick tongue, but he could make out what they were saying.

“Bring little brother down. Have him rip the door off.”

Holden dropped prone. The passenger car had managed to roll back onto its wheels before coming to a stop, so he peered underneath it. A dozen jointed legs, shaggy with fur and ending in split hooves, stood on other side of the train.

Farrow. The bestial boar-like species prowled the barren stretches of the Iron Kingdoms, opportunistically raiding for weapons, equipment, and food. Holden had a sneaking suspicion which they were after now.

He rose, careful to keep the train’s large wheels between his body and the farrow on the other side of the carriage. As he did, one of the farrow shouted to its unseen companions somewhere up the hill. “I smell ’em! Over here!”

Creeping to the corner, Holden held his breath and chanced a look in that direction.

A pair of figures picked their way down the upturned soil of the hillside. One was a brutish farrow, its body muscled under layers of fat. It wore a patchwork of leather, fur, and metal armor, and two crude firearms hung at its waist. Next to it was an even more alarming beast. Shaped like a farrow but far larger, it towered over its companion. It wore little in the way of clothing—just a pair of manacles on its wrists, a heavy wooden yoke around its neck, and a filthy loincloth held in place with rope. The larger creature blinked around with dim little eyes and snorted unhappily at the dust in the air, swiping uselessly with its thick fingers. Its actions reminded Holden of a young child.

The pair strode up to the carriage, and the smaller one kicked the other once in the leg.

“Open. Now.” It gave the order loud and slow, but the bigger one still needed to process it. A few harder kicks, and it trudged forward.

Holden ducked back as the big creature moved to the front of the carriage, and he slid down the side of it to avoid the creature catching sight of him. He didn’t know how the simple-minded beast would react if it spotted him, but he wasn’t eager to find out.

The whole carriage shifted in the soil, rocking to one side, as the beast took hold of the door set on the end. He could hear it snuffing and grunting with effort as it strained against the train; he could also hear the loud popping of bolts and rivets breaking under the thing’s great strength. With a final shrieking roar of resistance the door tore free.

Holden heard Dorothy screaming from inside the train for men to back away from the door. From his paltry cover, he watched in horror as the big beast reached in and grabbed one of the men within, cot and all, and yanked him out onto the grass. The beast looked down at his prize, turned its back on Holden, hunched over the injured man,and opened its massive boar-like jaws.

He brought his rifle up to fire, but before he could, the farrow with the guns ran up and kicked it in the snout. “No! Mine!”

The big thing whimpered and knuckle-walked away, pausing only to rub at its snout indignantly.

Holden didn’t have any more cover to move to. He squeezed himself flat against the train car. If the farrow turned in his direction, it would surely see him.

Holden checked the ammunition in his pocket and made a mental note of the farrow he’d seen. With the big thing distracted by its bruised nose, he might be able to take down enough of the others that they’d fall back. Or maybe he could kill enough of them that they would leave the soldiers alone. He’d more than likely die for the effort, but he was prepared to face that consequence. He refused to just watch as yet more people died.

Raising his rifle to his cheek, he sighted on the farrow. It was squatting next to the soldier on the ground, its back still turned to him. Holden took a breath as his finger slipped into the trigger guard and he slowly let it out.

Before he could fire, he felt cold metal press against his neck. A low rough voice behind him said, “None of that.”

Holden’s heart sank. One of the farrow had snuck up behind him around the back side of the carriage. Defeated, he let the barrel of his rifle drop away from his target. The farrow took it from his slack grip and chuckled. And then it swung the rifle like a club to bash Holden over the head.

Holden’s dark reflection cackled as it gunned down another soldier. Around it, a nightmare army of misshapen forms hacked and tore at the bodies of the fallen.

From across the battlefield, its hollow pits met his eyes, and it threw its arms wide in greeting. “We’ll be together soon!”

Season 3 con’t

The farrow marched them into the wilderness for miles. After plundering the train for medicine, weapons, and even the coal from the hopper, their captors piled as many men as possible in a few crude wagons hauled by the one called Little Brother and other similarly massive creatures. Dorothy and nearly two dozen soldiers rode in the wagons. The farrow left behind anyone who wouldn’t survive the journey into the woods.

Holden and the other walking wounded were made to trudge along behind the caravan of stolen goods and stolen men. Each of them was locked in a crude iron collar attached to a length of chain. On the other end of Holden’s was a fat farrow with yellow tusks poking out from under his lips. Called Atticus by the others, the farrow claimed Holden as his spoils—or more likely his dinner—after knocking him unconscious with his own rifle.

Atticus liked to mock him about this. Though Holden’s grandmother’s rifle was snapped, the stock cracked in half as it broke over his skull, the farrow kept it as a trophy and enjoyed jabbing him with it while he bragged about himself. He did so often.

“I fired the rocket at’cher train. Right in the wheels. Boom!” Atticus poked Holden in the back as he mimicked the explosion. “Tangled ’em right up, slid the whole thing off ’em tracks.”

Holden didn’t respond to the jabs, figurative or literal. Without his weapons, the larger, more muscular farrow could overpower him without much trouble. Instead, he kept his eyes on his fellow prisoners and their captors. Dorothy was trying to keep the men in the wagon calm and tended to them as much as she was able.

The other farrow didn’t seem very concerned about keeping a close eye on their prisoners. Instead, they squabbled among themselves over pieces of loot like pocket watches and small cameos. Most of all, they bickered about food. Holden had watched Atticus greedily stuff several days’ worth of ration packs into his mouth and clumsily chew it down because a smaller farrow tried to take just one. The creatures seemed to enjoy spitefully taking things away from one another just to prove they could.

After a day of travel, the farrow forced the prisoners across the Black River. They crossed using crude barges of lashed logs and caulking the wagons into temporary rafts. The big beasts swam across, dragging the burdens across the water.

During the crossing, Holden and Atticus rode in Dorothy’s wagon. She waited until the fat farrow dozed lazily before approaching Holden.

“Are you okay? Let me look at your head.” He wanted to protest but leaned forward instead so she could inspect the gash on his forehead and the knot at the base of his skull. She took her time looking at his eyes. “Your left pupil isn’t the same size as the right one. Holden, you have to be careful.”

“What for? These farrow aren’t taking us as hostages. We’re a walking larder to them.”

“Don’t say that. We’ll think of something.”

As she spoke, Atticus belched in his sleep and rolled onto his side, pulling Holden’s chain as he did and nearly pitching his prisoner off of the crude raft. The big farrow grumbled unhappily, and his stomach burbled. Looking at him, any fear Holden might have for the farrow distilled into acidic hate.

“You’re right,” he said. “Just not yet. There are too many of them. But we will. I promise.”

Holden spent the next two days looking for a chance to fulfill that promise. He watched the farrows’ habits and movements. While the caravan marched deeper into the wilderness, leaving wider roads for smaller rutted tracks, he started to notice the crows.

They were silent. Perched in the trees, dozens of the black birds watched their progress west. Their heads swiveled slowly and smoothly to track them. To track him. He wasn’t certain at first, but by the second day he was convinced the flock of crows that lined their path was watching him specifically. Remembering the crows that had haunted his journey so far, he hoped they were on his side.

The time to act had come.

Shortly before the farrow moved off on the third day, Holden turned back to Atticus with a question. “That little farrow with the white stripe. What’s his name?”

“Shuddup,” Atticus smacked the side of Holden’s head with the broken rifle. Then he thought about the question. “Gutbucket. Why?”

“No reason. Just saw him trying to drink all the sweetwater you took.” Holden pointed to a pile of alchemical antiseptic bottles on the nearest wagon. Caution labels were plastered on every bottle, but Holden suspected the farrow weren’t avid readers.

Atticus sneered at Holden.

“Bet he didn’. Bet you jus’ want me to get a bottle for you for being such a good helper.” The farrow yanked on his chain until Holden’s face touched his gummy snout. “But spoils go to the winners.”

To punctuate his statement, Atticus dragged Holden to the cart and grabbed one of the bottles. He smashed the neck off on the rim of the wagon and chugged the contents, following it up by drinking another. Atticus smacked his chops and blew sweet smelling vapor in Holden’s face.

“Point taken,” Holden said.

They hadn’t been marching for more than an hour when Atticus’ body started to protest. The farrow kept gulping back saliva and having to pause to catch his breath. His stomach made loud gurgling noises as the alchemical solution worked its way deeper into his system. In time, Atticus and Holden fell to the rear of the farrow column. Other farrow slung jibes at Holden’s captor as they passed.

The farrow brigands didn’t seem to notice or mind as the gap between Atticus and their group steadily widened, nor did they seem to care when the fat farrow stumbled to the side of the road, pulling Holden with him, and started heaving up his breakfast. Holden watched the other farrow rattle on down the uneven trail, disappearing among the foliage up ahead. Atticus made a weak gesture for his fellow brigands to wait for him and returned to vomiting on the road.

When he was certain the others could no longer see him through the trees, Holden launched himself at Atticus. He smashed into the farrow’s back, knocking him onto the ground. Atticus started to squeal in alarm and choked on his own sick as he swiped back at Holden.

He swatted Holden off his back, sending him flying into a patch of greenery. The collar around Holden’s neck stopped him short, choking him. The farrow was stronger than he was, but Atticus’ condition made him unable to fight effectively. Holden picked himself and brought both fists down on the farrow’s head. The hulking Atticus’ neck and skull were too strong. Pushing the farrow down with one hand, Holden flailed for a weapon. He found a branch that exploded into rotten splinters as he smashed it into Atticus’ snout.

Choking and blinded by the rotten wood, Atticus grabbed at the weapon hanging from his belt. If he freed it, Holden was a dead man. While the farrow struggled with his weapon with one hand and wiped the debris from his eyes with the other, Holden clawed a rock out of the soil.

He whipped it into Atticus’ head. The farrow’s skull crunched under the impact and he dropped to one knee. Holden followed up with another blow, bringing the rock down on the bridge of Atticus’ snout. Bone and cartilage popped. He brought it down again, snapping off one of the farrow’s yellow tusks. Atticus fell, and Holden hammered at him with the stone until he was out of breath. The farrow’s face was reduced to a bowl of red ruin.

When he was sure Atticus was dead, Holden knelt over the corpse and stripped the body of weapons. The farrow had taken his trench knife, which Holden strapped to his own belt. His confiscated rifle was useless now, but Atticus’ own scattergun was in decent repair. The farrow had nearly a dozen cartridges for the weapon tucked into loops on his belt. Holden pocketed them.

He rose, coming eye to eye with an old crow perched on a low branch. The bird blinked at him with one black eye, its head snapping up and down as it regarded him. He thought of the crow that had pecked at Wyatt’s corpse and the crows he had seen on the battlefield.

“Thanks for the help,” he muttered bitterly as he started after the caravan. Before he could go far, the crow swooped down into the path in front of him and cawed. It hopped forward twice, looked at him, and then looked south, away from where the farrow had taken Dorothy and the others.

Holden moved to step past it. The crow cawed again and beat its wings, then stared at him and south once more. It flew a short distance and landed on a branch, hopping around to face him again before making an irritated rattling noise.

Holden blinked. His head started to throb. “You… you’re trying to get me to follow you.”

He heard the flutter of wings. Other crows landed in the branches overhead and in the trees flanking the path. They began to croak and caw at him as a flock, making the pain in his head magnify. The first one flew back to the path, hopped to him, and took the hem of his trousers in its beak, tugging twice in the direction it wanted him to go.

Holden pressed the heel of his hand into his eye, trying to subdue the pounding in his head. When he pulled it away, Rogers’ golden coin rested within his palm. He didn’t remember pulling it from his pocket.

He held the coin up, looking at the worn profile stamped onto its surface before he gripped it tightly.

“No.” He looked at the birds, speaking this time with more confidence. “No. No, all right? Those people are going to die, and if I don’t do something it’s my fault. So if you want me to go anywhere, you’re going to have to help me first.”

Holden brushed past the bird in the road and moved to save the others. It clacked its beak in annoyance.

The farrow weren’t hard to track. Their wagons left clear ruts in the soil even after they traded the narrow path for an even smaller one. The woods became denser and swampier as Holden went deeper, the black pines and birch gradually giving way to willow and cypress dripping with sheets of moss. Holden kept to the foliage, stalking the farrow as if he were hunting a rabbit back home. While he moved, one of the crows kept pace with him with short flights from branch to branch.

Holden didn’t have to go far. The walking wounded slowed their captors down, and the brigands maintained a lazy pace. Keeping low, he picked his way through the undergrowth until he could make out Dorothy among the others. She was binding a trencher private’s fresh wound, a hand that had been cut off at the wrist. Holden couldn’t help but notice that one of the larger farrow was chewing something.

His mind raced as he tried to form a plan. If he waited too long, another trencher was sure to be hurt, possibly even killed. As he’d been at the train, he was faced with far too many enemies. He had numerous allies, but they were in no position to help him. The best he could do was draw off as many farrow as he could, trusting the other captives to seize the opportunity to strike at their captors.

He scanned the farrow for a likely target and spotted the brutish warlord with the two long pistols. He sat atop the lead wagon with the arrogance of a king in a palanquin, chomping on chunks of an apple. He would occasionally kick at the bigger beast hauling the wagon to keep it moving. Holden took a breath and aimed at the farrow. The scattergun was heavier than his rifle, but he had no problem settling it on his target.

Above him, the crow made a sound like an old woman chuckling.

He fired as the farrow brought up the apple for another sloppy bite. The spray of shot destroyed the farrow’s head. His lifeless body pitched sideways off the wagon to thud on the ground. The other farrow let out alarmed squeals as they drew their weapons. The big ones clapped their hands over their ears and whimpered.

Holden sprang from cover, reloading and firing as he ran. He aimed well ahead of the prisoners, dropping another two brigands with a spatter of lead. As he ran, the farrow opened fire, clipping the shrubs and trees around him. The smell of blasting powder and clouds of smoke filled the air.

He blindly fired one more time as he sprinted away from the caravan. Many of the brigands followed him. He hoped he’d lured enough of them away that Dorothy and the others had a chance to escape. He couldn’t outrun the farrow for long.

A deafening noise erupted overhead. Crows punched through the trees and dived at the farrow, sweeping to either side of Holden in a great black wave of beating wings. He looked back and saw the farrow being torn with beaks and talons. Some of them simply vanished. A cloud of black birds would encircle them one moment, and in the next they would be gone.

He didn’t have much time to think about it. Soon the birds were upon him, their black wings blotting out his vision. He could hear only the sounds of their calls. They circled him like a tornado, cawing madly…

… And then they were gone. His next footstep landed on ground inexplicably different than it had been, and he nearly pitched over.

He was somewhere else. The woods had become darker. The farrow were gone. The caravan was nowhere in sight. Holden looked around, trying to get his bearings, when the orange light of fire blazed through the trees. Within the dark forest to his right was a farm. It was burning. The farmhouse and its tiny field of crops were hemmed in by trees on all sides, as if it had been scooped out of the countryside and dropped into the middle of the forest.

Holden saw a farmer holding a torch, screaming with laughter. The crops blazed and smoked as the man doubled over, choking on the smoke. Confused, Holden stepped toward the man as he choked and laughed, rocking on the ground while his farm burned.

Before he could reach the farmer, the roots of the nearest trees slithered out of the soil, and the entire line of trees surrounding the farm took creaking steps together, tangling their roots and branches to create a wooden wall he could not pass.

Another storm of crows buffeted him from the darkness. They knocked him off his feet. He fell to his side, falling farther down than he expected. The soil was soft and wet when he struck, though it had been dry just moments before. It was even darker when the crows flew off again.

The sound of a hog grunting drove him back to his feet. He looked around the woods, terrified that the farrow might be near. Instead of the brigands, though, he saw a small herd of swine snuffling in the twisted roots of the trees, chewing on something he could not see. Each wore a collar with a simple bell, but there was no pigpen in sight.

Confused, Holden took a step toward them. When he did, one turned its snout in his direction and grunted. It shuffled to him, leaving its meal behind. The gap between the pigs revealed a mangled corpse on the ground.

“Hol. Den,” the pig grunted.

Holden gasped and backpedaled. The pig began to shriek like it was being dragged to the slaughterhouse. The noise was long and drawn out. As the pig screamed at him, it worked its jaw, and the noise began to sound like a man screaming.

“Hol. Den,” it squealed with a noise that made his ears ache. Its body began to lift up from the ground as it pushed itself on its rear hooves. Its fat torso hung to one side but gradually lifted higher. One by one, the other pigs left their grisly meal behind and rose in turn. Each added its shrieking voice, turning his name into a chorus of screams.

“Hol. Den,” they screeched as they took ungainly shuffling steps toward him. As they did, small, withered figures dug up from the soil. They looked like tiny hunchbacked men with muzzles and blindfolds of filthy cloth. The pigs climbed atop them to ride. Piggy back rides.

Holden backed away in horror, tripping and falling onto his back. The pigs circled around him, their breath stinking and saliva flying as they cried his name. Through the dark branches overhead, he saw a cloud of crows dive down at him as the pigs atop their whimpering mounts fell upon him.

The birds left him once more. The forest they deposited him in didn’t seem real anymore. The trees stretched up to the starry sky, and the soil rose and fell like slow and steady breathing. As he picked himself up off the ground, mocking laughter filtered out from tangled thorn bushes and shuddering branches all around him. Patches of black eyes blinked up at him from pools of oil on the ground. Bloated fallen trees inched along the ground like swollen maggots.

A hand fell on his shoulder and spun him around to meet his own mutilated face. The black pits where his eyes and mouth should have stood were twisted into something like a smile.

“We’ve been waiting for you, Holden.” When the other him said his name, unseen things in the shadows began to whisper and chant it.

“Wuh- Why—?”

“Because you belong to us!” The other him turned him around again and held his head in a choke. Its bony fingers tangled in his hair while its arm curled under his jaw. “Look!”

Figures emerged from the darkness of the trees while his reflection forced him to watch.

They came one at a time. Wyatt was first, his chest split open and his heart missing. Brinn, with holes punched through his armor by Khadoran bayonets. Rogers, a bloody hole in his throat that bubbled up black fluid as he tried to speak.

Dorothy, half her face caved in by a farrow club.

“No,” Holden said. “She’s not dead.”

“You’ll never know! You ran off like you always do. If she is or isn’t, her blood lingers on your hands! These people trusted you, and you failed them. You’re a coward! A miserable, worthless coward!”

The dark Holden pushed him toward his dead companions. Holden fell to his knees on the sticky black ground. Helpless, he looked at the corpses walking toward him. He wanted to tell the others he was sorry. He wanted to say anything.

He couldn’t.

The dark Holden leaned down and ran a finger across Holden’s cheek. It rubbed together its thumb and finger. Its toothless mouth widened into another ugly smile. “Dry. No tears, Holden? Won’t you cry for them? Won’t you weep for me?”

Holden shook his head. “No. I won’t.” He grabbed the trench knife out of his belt. “I’ll die first.”

He thrust up, stabbing the blade under his reflection’s jaw. The other him shrieked, but the roar of its voice became the calling of crows and the beating of their wings.

And then Holden was alone in the forest. A real forest. It was cold, and the sky was dark overhead. No birds stood in the trees.

Shaking, he rose. As he did, a warm yellow light began to flicker in the darkness: the glowing window of a cottage with walls of rough stone and a roof of thatch. From a distance, he could smell spices on the air and hear the soft humming of some strange lullaby. The singing voice was old, but the song seemed somehow older.

Holden walked toward the light.

Season 4: And There Was A Great Calm

by Matt Goetz

Crossroads of Courage 4

Holden pushed open the cottage door. It swung smoothly on oiled, black-iron hinges, causing a curtain of yellow light from within to spill out over him. He hesitated, letting the light of the cottage inside and the darkness of the forest outside mix as he listened to the chirp of distant frogs counterpoint the noises coming from the interior.

The cottage was warm with light. Pale, fat candles hanging by crude chains from the rough-cut timbers sputtered thin trails of smoke to the ceiling. The small space was worn and well used. Handmade patchwork blankets were draped over many surfaces, and stacks of old tomes teetered in the corners. On one pile of leather-bound volumes a shabby raven slumbered with its beak tucked beneath a wing. In a corner, a cluttered kitchen radiated warmth and spiced air throughout the cramped space.

In the center of the cottage, the chassis of a strange ’jack occupied most of the space, propped up on a scaffold of hewn timbers. It was partially disassembled, its pieces scattered on the cracked clay tiles of the floor.

An unseen woman somewhere behind the ’jack hummed a foreign-sounding lullaby that filled the room. It was a gentle song performed on a rough instrument. Her voice lilted and fell in a pattern of unusual tones as it crept across the room. With the rise and fall of the song, the light of the candles grew brighter and dimmer, seeming to tug toward each crooned note.

Holden swallowed and stepped into the cottage. When he crossed the threshold, the ’jack’s head swiveled up to meet him, green eyes glowing in its featureless face. It was wary despite its disassembled state. Its top access hatch hung open to reveal its cortex sphere surrounded by disordered mechanika, a tangle of conduits reminding him of a bird’s nest cradling a large metal egg. The ’jack had no limbs attached to it, only a bulky torso and neck supporting an inscrutable head that fixed him with a glowing stare. Despite the fact it had no means to attack him, Holden remained cautious.

Watching the disassembled steamjack’s gaze track him as he took another step into the cottage, Holden cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”

Five long blades curled over the strange ’jack’s hull, caressing the chipped enamel of its iron skin. They scraped down toward its head in a long stroke that let out a squeal of metal on metal, revealing a knobby wrist wrapped in strips of dingy linen. From behind the ’jack, a stooped old woman emerged.

She walked with a gnarled staff of dark wood and bore the heavy burden of an iron furnace on her back; its disordered stacks streamed wisps of black smoke to mix with the haze of the candles in the rafters. The fingers and thumbs of both her hands were long blades with a single curling edge. Her face was creased and ruddy like the face of someone left out in a winter storm. A studded patch of leather covered one of her eyes, and the other sparkled at Holden in the candlelight.

Her wrinkled features twisted as she grinned, revealing a mouth of crooked teeth. “I’ve been vaiting.”

The sound of her voice with its thick northern accent startled him. Her song had been gentle, oddly comforting, but her voice bore the deep scars of age. It was an old voice from an older world.

“Who are you?” Holden asked.

Her fingers twitched, making a noise like a butcher honing his blade. “You question an old voman, Holden? I am she who summoned you.”

“You must have a name. Tell me.” Holden tried to sound braver than he felt. As he spoke, though, the ’jack’s eyes flashed at him. Thin vanes of green light glowed in a device mounted to its back, filling

the air with the smell of ozone.

The old woman cooed and stroked a bladed hand on the ’jack’s head to calm it. “Ne, ne, little one. This one might still have a purpose.”

She walked to Holden, her staff tapping a steady rhythm on the clay tiles. Up close she smelled like a steam engine, an odor of hot iron and burning coal. He was taller than she was, but somehow still she cast him in her shadow. She loomed.

“What purpose?” Holden asked. Her comment about summoning him was equally vexing, but Holden resolved to deal with one vexing issue at a time.

“An uncertain one,” the woman replied. Extending a hand, she brushed the back of her metal claws down his jaw, pushing his face first one way then the next as she appraised him. “Is always the vay with men like you.”

“Like me?”

“Cowards. Heroes,” she said, seemingly distracted as she studied his features.

“I’m not a—” He hesitated.

“Not a coward? Then vhy do you run? Not a hero? Then vhy do you fight?” The old woman’s eye locked with his. She gripped her staff to jab him in the chest. “You are both. This makes you useful.”

“Useful to you,” he said. The old woman made a frustrated noise at this and flapped one of her bladed hands in a swirling gesture.

“To the vorld!” she grumbled. “Stop saying stupid things and sit. You haven’t eaten since the train. I need you strong.”

She grabbed a rough carven stool from the little kitchen and pointed to it with an iron claw. Not knowing what else to do, he sat.

She moved about the kitchen, brusquely grabbing a wooden bowl and spoon. She filled the former from a bubbling pot of fragrant stew and thrust it into Holden’s hands. She glared at him until he took a tentative sip, then she nodded in contentment. She went back to work on her steamjack while he ate. Resting her staff against its strange hull, she began cooing and clucking at the construct as she adjusted its inner workings.

Holden finished the oddly pungent meal and set the bowl on the floor next to his chair, rising to study the woman while she worked. Despite her iron talons, her fingers were nimble. Watching her work, he was reminded in a strange way of his grandmother in her shop. It was the confidence she exuded—and her aura of impatience with him.

Holden considered what to say before he spoke again, carefully avoiding any uncertainty in his voice. “You brought me here for a reason.”

The old woman paused and peered over her left shoulder with her one good eye. Her coy grin made that eye twinkle. “I did.”

“And it has something to do with those things I saw. In the forest.”

“And before, yes.”

“The thing on the battlefield. The man in the smoke.”

The old woman turned and clapped her hands together with a menacing metallic ring. “The hollowman. Do you know this vord? Hollowman?”

Holden shook his head. “No, but I think it was after me. I started to have visions of it. Nightmares.”

The woman muttered something foreign under her breath before responding. “That is her touch on you. Trying to break you. Perhaps they have an inkling of your greater purpose.”

“Whose touch?” he asked. He was struggling to make sense of the woman’s mysterious words, and he wanted straight answers.

She scowled up at him for a moment with another appraising look. “The one who lives in dreams. If they have her poisoning your dreams, it is from fear. Of you, or vhat you might become. I chose you for that potential.”

“What might I become?”

“Who can say? Your days are not yet ended. But I set this path in motion. I saved you from living like a fat cow, vedded to a vidow, vith children who would never respect you. From one day lying in a grave that no one visits before the forest swallows it. I gave you the chance to be something special. I chose you. But I cannot choose for you, Holden.” She scowled. “You have to do that.”

“What choices do I have?” If he had stood here months ago and had this same conversation, he would have thought the woman insane, but between the thing she called the hollowman, his nightmares, and the strange journey that placed him outside her cabin, he wasn’t even certain of his own sanity anymore. Mostly he just felt tired.

“Save lives or damn them.” Before he could ask the obvious question, she pointed to the cabin door. “Out there, soon, old and vicked things that are neither gods nor mortals will valk once more. Perhaps they are a bit of both. And they plan a great harvest of humankind.”

“How do you know?”

She smiled again, her ugly teeth those of a predator. “Because I intend to let them. But Zevanna is no fool. I may open a gate and let a volf among the lambs, but there is a plan.” She poked his breastbone with one talon, pricking the skin through his shirt. “You.”

Holden chewed on her words. The woman’s name didn’t mean anything to him, but he knew there was something to her. She was more than just a mad old woman of the woods. If she truly had caused him to stand here, he wanted all of the pain and confusion in his life to have some meaning. Some purpose.

“Suppose I agree. You said these… these things were like gods. How am I supposed to do anything against that?”

Zevanna gestured for him to follow her. “Come. I vill show you.”

She moved deeper into the little cabin, past stacks of mechanikal parts and through curtains of elaborate schematics and unsettling diagrams. Beyond the front room the space seemed to stretch far back, larger than the modest exterior suggested was even remotely possible.

The larger, darker space at the back looked like it was part warehouse and part tomb. Towers of old gold coins and cups and piles of older armor stood next to ’jack hoists and benches covered in rune plates. A skeletal horse atop a plinth stood next to a towering pair of mechanikal legs topped with a strange little building. In the dim corners, Holden could make out statues of kings in baroque armor that stood like sentinels over the strange space.

Zevanna led him through the maze of oddities until they reached a long workbench backed by an open furnace and a great black anvil. Lying on the bench was a rifle. His grandmother’s rifle. His rifle.

She grabbed it and offered it to him. “This is how.”

As he took it, he felt warmth spread across his skin. It seemed impossible: he’d left his rifle broken by the side of a muddy forest road next to the corpse of a farrow brigand. Yet here it was, as gleaming and perfect as the day it was new. A line of strange runes was carved into the metal of the barrel.

“How did you—?”

“No,” she said. “No stupid—”

“Questions, I know. If you brought me here, you must have brought it, too.”

“And made it better. Like you, I have a greater purpose for this. Vith this, you can kill a god… or something like one.”

He held the weapon and could feel tingling in his fingertips, like a pulse deep in the gun’s wood and steel. Just holding it made him feel flush and almost giddy.

“I’m your assassin.”

“Perhaps, perhaps no. That is to be seen. But you might be.” Her expression was inscrutable, but her voice was tinged with regret. “You might also become the other. The dark one. I cannot see your fate.”

He ran his thumb over the rear sight. “I’m guessing that’s not normal.”

She shook her head. “Only some men can duck beneath its scythe. Vhen I changed your course, it vas lost to you. This is your greatest blessing. If I cannot see it, neither can they.”

“And if I agree to help you, what am I supposed to do?”

Zevanna nudged him with her staff back toward the front room. As they threaded back through the maze of objects, she said, “Once my Scrapjack is complete, I vill go south. Vhen the moons are full, I vill open the door to these things. You must go vest. Outside Boarsgate.”

“Why Boarsgate?”

She nudged him to move faster. “I once gave a proud fool there an idea. That idea led to a bloodbath. Blood on my soil gives me power. I can vatch over you vhile you are near it. A battle comes, and it draws them close, like flies to a corpse. You be there. If you are the one I need, you vill know. You vill remind a god that once he vas a man.”

They had reached the threshold of the little cottage. Holden paused and looked back at the strange old woman. “And if I fail, what then?”

“Take comfort. You von’t know or care vhat happens next.” She pushed the door open for him with one of her clawed hands.


For a moment, an expression crossed her face that fit ill there: one of sympathy. “Go. Boarsgate. Be there by the Longest Night. After, it is too late.”

Holden stepped from the strange warmth of Zevanna’s cottage back into the cool, crisp air. The trees swayed, rattling their branches together and knocking loose autumn leaves to spiral down toward him. He wondered what month it had been before he climbed on the train, and if it really should be autumn yet. Somehow he doubted it.

“Will I see you—?” he asked, turning back to look at Zevanna. Where the cottage had stood was just a patch of gently swaying reeds. “Of course not.”

He hefted his rifle—at least that was real enough—and took his bearing from the cold stars above. “Right. Boarsgate.”

Picking his way through the forest, Holden headed west.

Captain Samuel Briggsway whistled and inclined his head to indicate Lieutenant Ashley Pemberton to join him at the head of the column of Steelheads. Scowling, Ash pushed her way forward.

“More reds?” Ash asked. For the past two weeks, the Khadorans had launched a series of probative attacks against Ordic defenses outside Boarsgate. Several chapters of Steelheads, including their Martenburg one, had been hired to support the Ordic Army defenders of Boarsgate and had clashed with the northerners on more than one occasion during the several weeks of their employ.

“I don’t think so. It might be some of the mercs they hired out of Five Fingers, though,” Briggs said. “Or maybe some of the Rhulfolk. I didn’t get a good look.”

He rubbed at the stubble on his jaw as he looked north to a copse of trees where he’d spotted movement. Patrolling outside the walls of Boarsgate had afforded him few opportunities for a shave, and his face was beginning to itch.

Ash said, “Better safe than sorry. I’ll get the men in loose formation.”

“Good call. If it’s nothing,” Briggs said as he pointed to the trees, “we can set camp there early and resume patrol in the morning.”

Ash moved back to the men, calling for them to form staggered ranks. A handful of sergeants echoed her orders, though Master Sergeant Borok’s booming voice carried above them all. In moments, the troops were arrayed for battle, with squads of riflemen at the fore backed by halberds and two blocks of cavalry stomping up at the wings. Briggs nodded in approval. He waited for Ash to rejoin him near what was now the rear of their formation before issuing his order. “Steelheads, advance!”

His men marched forward steadily, their armor clattering and their feet drumming on the soil. The heavy cavalry waited for the infantry to get a bit ahead and followed up with a crisp four-beat walk to keep pace. Briggs kept an eye on the formation as they advanced on the trees, in his mind silently pacing out a rough estimate of rifle range from the outer edge of the copse. When they were just outside it, he lifted one hand and called for his men to halt.

“Rifles ready!” Ash called. The front rank dropped into a steady crouch and braced their weapons while the second rank held their weapons at the ready position and prepared to take their place.

Briggs moved forward and cupped his gauntleted hands around his mouth. “I am Captain Samuel Briggsway of the Martenburg Steelheads, under contract to Commander Caralo Allesari of the Shield Division of the Ordic Army! Reveal yourself and state your affiliation!”

As his voice echoed away beyond the trees, Briggs privately hoped he hadn’t just seen a deer preparing to bed down for the night. He suspected Ash and Borok wouldn’t let him live something like that down.

After a moment, a shadow among the trees solidified into the shape of a man as it emerged. He was young and thin, his clothing washed out to a drab shade of blue-grey and caked with mud. He looked like he had been away from civilization for weeks, maybe even longer. The youth had a long hunting rifle slung over one shoulder that he hitched up as he stepped clear of the tree line.

“Halt! Friend or foe?” Briggs called. The stranger stopped and looked as if he were considering the question.

“I honestly don’t know,” the young man responded.

“Well, isn’t that comforting,” Ash muttered under her breath.

“At least he’s alone,” Briggs said. To the stranger he called out, “Are you alone?”

At that Ash narrowed her eyes and glared sideways at him.

“I think so,” the man called back.

Briggs glanced at Ash. “See? Like I said, at least he’s alone.”

Ash made a frustrated noise and waved one of the sergeants forward to bring the young man to them. A small group of cavalry rode out to surround the stranger as an escort. Meanwhile, satisfied that no more men were hiding in the trees, Briggs ordered his troops to make for the shelter of the trees and set up a bivouac for the approaching night. It would be dark soon, and the dark would bring with it a deep early winter chill.

A few hours later, Briggs, Ash, and Borok sat with the stranger around a small cook fire while the gobber Tak worked her magic over a pan of frying onions and lardons of bacon. The other mercenaries spread out in the woods and tried to warm themselves by small coal fires or slumbered in scattered bedrolls and tents. Briggs himself shivered against the chill of the night air and pulled a woolen blanket tighter against his shoulders.

“You say you’ve been out here for two weeks?” Briggs asked the young man. He’d told them his name was Holden.

Holden nodded slightly, staring into the hot bed of coals and chewing on a heel of bread. “About.”

“What would possess you to do that? We’ve been fighting reds here for almost that long. Plus a gang of trollkin from Gallowswood, a pack of Tharn from Morrow-knows-where, and damn-near every mercenary from here to Blackwater.” Briggs studied the man’s face as he spoke. Neither mention of angry trollkin nor of savage Tharn elicited any response.

“I’ve been waiting for something.”

“Waiting for what?” Tak’s ears pricked up as she spoke. She began to scoop her cooking into mess tins and pass them around the fire. Several of the Steelheads took large bites, breathing around the hot meal to cool it off enough to eat.

“I suppose I’ll know it when I see it.” As before, Briggs kept his eye on Holden. As far as he could tell, the comment wasn’t meant to be evasive, and Briggs could see no artifice there. The strange young man honestly didn’t know.

“If you’re looking for people killing one another,” Briggs said, “then you’ve come to the right place. Pulling jobs in Ord is usually simple work—a castellan trying to put on a show of force here, smugglers employed by the Mateus looking for extra muscle there. Boarsgate is normally pretty rough—Khador likes to test their new warcasters here. But the pay is very good. Still, the past few weeks in Boarsgate have been worse than usual. We’ve got people from across western Immoren gathered up to take a few swings at each other. Hell, I heard someone back at the fort say they saw General Ossrum and a bunch of Cygnar’s Fourth moving up from Fellig near Zerkova’s Hill. No one knows why. You picked a popular place to be.”

“That’s probably her doing,” Holden half-whispered, though he refrained from mentioning who he might be referring to. “Pulling strings to get as many people here as possible. Like setting out bait before you hunt.”

Briggs raised an eyebrow at that. Across the fire, Ash gave him a look as if to suggest she thought Holden might not be all there. He made a small gesture for her to put it out of her mind.

The rest of the meal passed in relative quiet. Borok was the first to turn in, wrapping himself in layers of wool and waxed canvas to fight off the chill. Tak and Ash followed suit, and in time it seemed only Briggs, Holden, and the night sentries remained awake. Moonrise came with Calder’s light breaking over the horizon and filling the fields beyond the trees with pale silver light. Laris and Artis weren’t far behind. The three moons were full and shining, their light describing an almost perfect triangle in the sky.

Holden looked up, transfixed by the moons. His breath smoked as he let out a deep sigh.

“Think what you’re looking for is up there?” Briggs asked as he drew his pipe from an inner pocket and began to pack the bowl.

“No. But it is my timeline.”

Two days later, Briggs looked out toward the field of gathering armies, blowing on his hands against the biting winds this high up. He and his Steelheads stood atop the northern rampart of Boarsgate in full battle dress, ready to repel any who tried to make the top of this section of high stone wall. The pale light of early morning rose in the east, casting the muddy fields and hills north of the fort with golden hues and burning off the last of the early morning mists.

To the east and west, Ordic soldiers and other mercenaries mingled at similar positions, clustered atop towers and strung out in double-ranked lines of riflemen. The captains of cannon crews atop the wall shouted windage and distance down the line, setting the gunners to make fine adjustments with heavy hand cranks to the arrangement of large defensive batteries.

Holden had stayed with the Martenburg Steelheads. The young man seemed to have some degree of military experience and suggested he’d served with the Cygnaran Army. Sergeant Grassley, senior rifleman, had expressed surprise at Holden’s marksmanship. As far as Briggs was concerned, any skilled hand with a long arm was welcome to fight by the chapter’s side, strange and cryptic statements notwithstanding.

“My god, look at that thing,” Ash said quietly. Near the back of the enemy lines strode a colossal painted in the colors of Khador’s 3rd Border Legion, each ponderous step dimpling the muddy field. Its shadow ate up whole columns of infantry in the thin light of morning. Its great size made every movement seem slower, like a warjack moving underwater.

“Let the artillerists look at it,” Borok grumbled around a reeking cigar. “Boss, cap’n of the Shield Division’s First Grenadiers wants us to be ready to reinforce the east bailey by the gate. Says some of the boys from Corbhen scarpered last night.”

Briggs looked to the blocky tower. It already bore scars from past engagements at the infamous “Bloodgate,” and he seriously doubted the soldiers north of the wall could resist such a large, stationary target.

“All right. Let him know we’re sending men. Have two squads of rifles and one of halberds reinforce the Ordic soldiers. I don’t want us spread too thin.”

“’E suggested ’e might want more.”

“Let him. And if he pushes the matter, remind him that the contract of our employment very intentionally gives me oversight of how I deploy my damn troops.”

Master Sergeant Borok threw a quick salute and marched off bellowing orders. The day was just getting more interesting.

As if in response to Briggs’ thought, a wall of white clouds appeared at the fore of the northern ranks as heavy cannons fired. A moment later, the barrage came as a distant rumble, like a far-off storm. The shots struck in the muddy and cratered field between the walls and the guns, kicking up sprays of dirt and bouncing along for another dozen yards before rolling to a stop.

“Ash, they’re starting to dial us in. I want you to put our heavy horse by the sally ports near the east bailey. Make sure they have men to lock up behind and let them back in as needed. Get one of those battle chaplains, too, while you’re at it,” Briggs said. He turned to look at Holden. Unlike several of the other Steelheads around his age, the young man hadn’t flinched at the sound of the big guns. “Holden, you sure you want to stay up here? Nobody would blame you for ducking back and waiting this out. No reason for you to be up here with us.”

The young man didn’t respond. Instead, he checked the breech of his rifle, checked the sights, and touched the cartridges in loops on his belt as if to count them.

Briggs shrugged at him and watched the infantry blanketing the hills as they approached.

Warjacks impacted with the crunch of metal in the rolling hills beyond Boarsgate while cannonballs thudded into the stones. Blocks of infantry on the field traded volleys of rifle fire or impacted with the rattle of armor and the ring of halberd and sword. Either wedges of charging cavalry or trampling warjacks smashed through the men, leaving channels of broken bodies behind them as they gouged deep into the swarms of fighters. Hundreds of war cries filled the air with a dull, unintelligible roar.

The Khadorans may have initially planned for this to be a small skirmish against Boarsgate, but events had escalated the numbers on either side. Several large armies had mustered on the battlefield just beyond the Ordic fort, while its defenders had rallied what military and mercenary support they could, transforming some poor warcaster’s training mission into an all-out assault. Boarsgate had seen worse in its day, but it was likely the largest clash here in several decades at least.

Briggs’ horse galloped through the chaos of pitched battle as he led a squadron of heavy cavalry toward his goal. He’d rather have stayed on the wall with the other Steelheads, but too many of Boarsgate’s own cavalry lay dead on the field, and there was no one else for this particular job. Most of the other swift riders were trying to break stalemates of melee behind him or had been blown off the field of battle by heavy guns.

One such shell erupted to his left. The blast wave punched deep in his guts as a shower of dirt fell on him. Briggs yanked the reins a moment before the next shell landed. Most of his men followed behind with a thunder of hooves, but a few were too slow to turn and rode straight into the explosion.

His new route took him near a small melee between ogrun and spear- wielding infantry. A hulking ogrun mercenary with a battle cannon under his arm saw them approaching. Rather than let the merc fire a shot into his cavalry as they passed, Briggs veered closer. He swung his axe low and into the center of the ogrun’s skull in passing. The impact sent a jolt up his arm that numbed his fingers and pitched the ogrun back off his feet.

Rather than check to see if he’d killed his target, Briggs spurred his horse forward through a loose group of skirmishers with bows and rifles. The men and women dived out of his path or had their bones snapped by impact with his horse or crushed under its hooves. Beyond them, his goal—a battery of Khadoran mortars—waited on the ridge of a muddy hill. The artillery crews saw them approach and began falling back from their guns. Still, he rode them down.

When the last artillerist was dead, Briggs wheeled his horse around to look back at Boarsgate. He’d ridden an irregular path through the entire battlefield to the high hills on the north and had a perfect viewpoint of the fighting below. The defenders were spread across the wall and in blocked infantry in front of it. Shots from field guns and bombards impacted high on the walls, showering the men below with stones and mortar.

“Back,” Briggs shouted, pointing his gory axe to where his Steelhead halberdiers battled with a group of trollkin bearing axes and shields. The battle had turned into a disorganized mess of men fighting, and he wanted to be back at the walls before the enemy army could reorganize enough to cut off that line of retreat.

At a gallop, Briggs led a weaving route through scattered mobs of men killing one another, giving any warjacks a wide berth.

Ash screamed for another volley. Her riflemen leaned over the parapet and shot down into the back ranks of pike-wielding Iron Fangs locked in combat with their fellow Steelheads at the base of the wall. From this angle, the Khadorans’ shields afforded them little protection from the rain of bullets, and a dozen men in red armor fell. Another squad was locked in fighting with a cluster of trollkin and she called for rifles to support them as well.

The man called Holden was with Ash’s troops. He had proven to be a skilled sniper and picked his targets well, shooting down a lieutenant and a standard bearer one after the other. Each time he fired, the rifle made a strange, almost musical, noise.

“You’re not bad,” Ash shouted between volleys.

“I used to be a trencher.” He sounded almost wistful.

Borok roared and hurled a keg of black blasting powder off the wall. It impacted below among dozens of armored men, bursting and throwing the fine powder within up in a cloud. As it dispersed in the air, he grabbed a red powder keg and hurled it into the cloud. When it impacted, the resulting blast caused a brilliant flash. The explosion threw men away from the detonation and left a deep crater where the center of their formation had been.

“Another!” Borok shouted.

Briggs’ horse thudded into the rear of the trollkin mercenaries, crushing the back lines into their comrades and forcing some onto the waiting spikes of Steelhead halberds. He fired a blunderbuss down into the skull of another before the large trollkin could attack him with its war hammer.

The sound of battle pounded in his ears as the rest of the Steelhead cavalry impacted. There were angry whinnies and the cries of injured trollkin followed by the deep bark of more firearms. Briggs swung his axe down and clove into the shoulder of another target, cutting through the links of the trollkin’s heavy chainmail. Another charged into Briggs’ horse with its shoulder, breaking the beast’s ribs on impact and sending him down to the mud.

Briggs rolled away before his mount could pin him and came up to face the roaring trollkin. It whipped a large axe at his head that he intercepted with the barrel of his blunderbuss. The impact nearly threw him off his feet and sent his firearm flying. He regained his footing and chopped into the side of the trollkin’s right knee with his own axe, causing it to stumble.

An explosion blew one of the tower’s corners to dust. Choking on the powdered stone, Borok looked out of the rent in the tower and down at a Khadoran warjack, blasting smoke still billowing around it. He couldn’t hear the sound of a fresh shell dropping into its heavy bombard, but he watched it aiming the weapon up.

Before it could fire, Borok grabbed the nearest weapon at hand, a twelve-pound cannon that had been blown off its carriage. With a roar of effort, the ogrun picked up the heavy gun. It was over a thousand pounds of cast iron that made his tendons creak and his muscles scream. With every ounce of ogrun strength in him, the master sergeant pitched the cannon through the hole in the tower. It sailed down and impacted on the warjack’s hull with a loud noise, driving the red machine down into the mud. A moment later, the warjack’s bombard triggered into the earth, and the explosion tore through its hull.

Season 4 con’t

When the skirmish ended, Briggs wiped spattered blood from his face and assessed the battlefield. The fighting had reached the walls of Boarsgate northwest of his position.

He prepared to order a retreat of the forces beyond the battlements, to pull back and prepare to defend the fort itself, when the sky began to darken. From a point over the heart of the battle, a swirling cloud of darkness began to spread.

On reflex, he looked to see what warcaster or sorcerer was behind this clearly supernatural manifestation. Though he saw flashing runes on both sides of the conflict, none of them seemed to be producing the strange darkness and the rapidly changing weather.

An unnatural dark fell like a curtain, enveloping the battlefield. At the center where it had started, the hills heaved upward. Shadowy pits opened and began to seep a black fluid, like fast-flowing coal tar, that bubbled and spread to fill in nearby craters. It moved in a pattern like the roots of a great, malignant tree, flowing around fighting men and warjacks.

“In the name of Morrow, what is that?” cried one of the horsemen. Briggs watched in horror as figures began to emerge from those pits and bubbling pools. Strange, almost-human shapes appeared, as well as some that made little sense to his eyes.

“Are those pigs?” someone atop the wall said, his voice cracking. A cackling mob of things spilled up from dozens of stains on the world. Ash didn’t know how to answer.

For a moment, the fighting paused. Other than the screeching laughter of these newcomers, there was a great calm born from confusion.

To her right, Holden lowered his rifle. He stared at the growing throng of—things was the only word she could think of—as they spread out into a large crowd. Massive figures towered among them, and sleek black hounds with lashing tongues began to pad forward, shoulders hunched like a cat on the prowl.

Holden’s breath stopped, but his heart hammered. Hundreds of the things in all shapes and sizes stood on the battlefield. But the way the other soldiers acted, he knew they saw them, too. At least this time they were real, not just visions that plagued him. He saw the pigs riding their wretched mounts, eyeless hollowmen in irregular formations, and a dozen other things besides.

The creatures parted to allow one of them to pass. It was a towering man in baroque gold-and-white armor that glowed with some inner glamour. Holden watched with growing dread as the massive man grasped his perfect face with one hand and peeled it away, like a nobleman at a masquerade revealing his identity to his paramour. Beneath was a grim face like a mask of stone with eyes and mouth that bled eerie purple light.

The figure held his disembodied face aloft and turned slowly in place so all could see. Then the face in his hand began to laugh. It was the laughter of a mad king that pealed across the hushed battlefield and caused those nearby to clap their hands over their ears.

Holden watched as the motley horde of creatures dashed toward the closest warriors, gleeful as they slashed and pounced upon the stunned men.

On the parapet beside him, a crow landed. It had come from nowhere. But it looked up at him with one expectant eye.

His courage was not certain. This was the end of his path, the moment that everything had built to for months. More? A man with a rifle, staring down at the face of a god.

With one hand, Holden gripped his rifle. The other reached into a pocket and curled around the comforting weight of an old, gold coin. He took it out to look upon it.

He could hear the voice of Rogers whispering behind him. If you don’t know what to do, if you’re at a crossroad and don’t know which way to go…

Holden flipped the coin.

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