The shelling rose in intensity again, marking the sixth fake halt. Kogan still remembered when they had started this war, when a simple shelling salvo abruptly ending was the herald of oncoming carnage. The enemy had learned quickly, emerging in the lull with all weapons readied, exacting a massive toll. So they’d moved to a dance of expectations. Each time, they varied the length of the bombardment and the length of the pause between. Last assault had been on the fifth pulse; today’s was scheduled for the eighth.
“Hold to Thorgar’s blood Sister” he murmured to Caella, resting his hand on her shoulder. He could feel her trembling. The curse that affected so many of their race tended to run strongest in those that were called to the military. Though perhaps it was simply that those who felt the curse most keenly were most likely to seek out one of the few areas of life where it could be indulged. He didn’t like to examine that too closely, given his own life.
He tried to ignore the bitter taste on his tongue that came from Thorgar’s name and the feeling of betrayal and shame that accompanied it. Thorgar, the ancestral saint of his people, held up as a paragon of restraint, renowned for overcoming the bloodlust that bedevilled his race. He still remembered his first meeting with that mythological being. His incredulity, his unwillingness to believe who he saw, what he saw. That his people could have got it so wrong was…inconceivable. Thorgar was never a paragon, or a symbol of the victory of restraint over their tainted blood. Quite the opposite. Kogan now believed Thorgar was the source of the corruption that had, over the intervening centuries, come to pollute his entire race.
He had no idea how, over that time, Thorgar had come to be a symbol of peace and harmony, but to present it as irony was an understatement of horrible proportions, and speaking his name in the ritual greetings now left Kogan sickened and guilty. Unfortunately, none would credit his story even if he were willing to tell it. Which was a twofold relief; he had no desire to bear the responsibility for shattering a saint, and even less to admit to his people that he had travelled to the cursed realm of Between.
Invoking Thorgar served its purpose anyway. Caella drew a shuddering breath and squared her shoulders. The rage faded down in her eyes and he could see that she was back in control.
It wouldn’t be long now before they would both need that rage. The rest of the storm force were assembling around them, preparing for the assault. The rage was a curse in day to day life, but a weapon at the right time. And this, like all of the assaults, would require it.
This would be a bloody event, judging by the last two days. The enemy were so deeply dug in that the shelling of the last day would have done little but keep their heads down. It would be up to his team to dig them out, and that would cost both sides dearly. He couldn’t pretend that he feared it; such a large part of him needed the violence as a release and revelled in it. He wasn’t proud of that, but he carried no shame in it either. He knew too much now of the origin of his race to feel shame over something that ran in his veins. He had done his best to control it, to channel it to a purpose that benefitted his people. That was all he could do.
He continued his round of his team, giving what reassurance he could to those who wanted it. None of his team knew his secrets, but he felt sure some suspected. They had seen him take too many wounds, too many blows that should have bought him to an end. Some, like Caella, viewed his seeming luck as a talisman, but he could feel others becoming wary. The belief that the summoned were cursed, a curse upon those who knew them, was deeply rooted in their culture; so deeply that Kogan himself had nearly collapsed under the weight of the knowledge, nearly buried himself forever when he’d first returned and realised exactly what it was that had marked him above his heart.
Now he viewed it differently. He’d come to recognise the tendrils of influence that had been exerted on his people over time, moulding them along with the other races. Aimed at shaping the whole world and keeping all of the true power in the hands of a select few. He’d identified some of those he felt were responsible and sworn to himself that if no one else could hold them to account, he would. To do that, he would need all the power he could get and so here he was. The summonings seemed to increase in frequency when he was involved in the war, which was enough for him. He had no real idea whether the violence here on Athien was directly linked, or whether it was simply that as he gained more strength the summonings naturally increased in regularity. He did know that the bloodlust rose easier in him now than ever before, and his new strength made it even harder to keep himself from the battlefield.
The other five members of his team appeared calm and ready, and not in any need of encouragement. The assault teams drew a wide range of personalities, but those who survived tended to either be very calm and capable….or mad. Which bought him to the Shaman.
The last of his small team was Dayn. He found him sitting against the trench wall, staring at the opposite wall. The Orc’s eyes were wild; wilder than usual. He was mumbling one of his ritual incantations, a mannerism that was really the reason he’d been transferred to Kogan’s team in the first place. No-one else wanted him. As Kogan got within arms-reach of him, the eyes snapped into focus on him and the dark intelligence that Kogan had come to recognise regarded him while the mouth continued with the unintelligible murmurings.
“Saved a special prayer for us today I hope, shaman?” Kogan yelled above the roar of the shelling.
“They are all special, Sam’delab” The orc’s voice didn’t seem loud, but Kogan never had trouble hearing it. There was something about the delivery. It seemed to simply appear in his ears. Sam’delab, the name that Dayn had called him from their first meeting. Kogan had no idea what it meant, had never been able to find anyone that did and the Orc had no interest in explaining it. He worried that it held a meaning, perhaps even referred to his touching of Between, but while no others understood, he supposed it didn’t really matter.
The time had come to start moving. The roar of the shelling had risen to another crescendo, and the rest of the assault force was positioned to start the advance. He couldn’t have made a speech in this cacophony even if he had been the type, which he wasn’t. With a gesture, he pulled them all to readiness and before he had time to second guess, he chopped his saw through the air.
They rose from their trench in a wave and moved into the darkness. The footing was treacherous, but since only orcs could see worth a damn in the dark and all of them were on his side, he knew they could afford to take their time until they were close enough to be seen. He did have to admit that a cautious advance didn’t come naturally to him or his race, which was awkward since the assault teams were almost entirely composed of Orcs and Minotaurs. Humans were the next most common members, Dwarves tended to be too slow for the actual assault and Elves were pretty rare. Of the Elves he’d come across, only two had ever thrived on the closeup carnage. They’d been the maddest and shortest-lived team members he’d had. Neither had lasted more than one or two assaults, lacking the constitution to survive injuries but, more than that, lacking the desire to survive that marked the true veterans. There was an art to surviving this sort of semi-controlled chaos.
It started with not being first into the enemy lines.
As they moved through the roaring darkness, strobe-lit by explosions, he slowed the advance of his own team just a fraction. He allowed the rest of the assault to gain a bit of ground, perhaps only a dozen steps or less. Small enough to not be obvious, but large enough to ensure the first shapes that would emerge from the smoke would not be them.
It was only another few moments before he heard the change; the tempo of explosions began to slow. He knew the enemy had learnt their tactics, and would be waiting. As soon as the explosions faded they would be up and firing again, expecting the assault teams. The entire assault force dropped to the ground as the enemy began firing blind. Kogan counted under his breath as the explosive tempo kept falling. He braced for what he knew was coming, a few breaths before the explosive chorus roared back to a crescendo. Both sides had learned, but now it was a dance of second-guessing. Was this the tempo drop to herald the assault? Or was it another pause to lure you out, and catch you in the open?
The enemy were short on artillery in the area, thankfully. A week ago, they had assaulted an enemy with its own support. That had added another complexity. They had predicted the assault team’s presence on the field and shelled the no-mans land viciously. The entire assault had collapsed, shredded with nowhere to go but backwards since their own forces were still shelling the area in front.
This time though, the enemy weren’t so well equipped. The tempo dropped again and Kogan stayed planted; the next pulse would be the final one. It was a harrowing experience to lay waiting on the open ground with explosions raining down so close ahead, but it was still preferable to trying to make the entire advance without cover. Small shrapnel wounds were commonplace for the assault teams. Minotaurs and Orcs shrugged off such wounds without issue, which was a large part of the reason why they were so predominant in the teams in the first place. The advantage of being halfway across the field when you start your charge made the risk worthwhile. While they could shrug off shrapnel, the larger calibre weapons of the defenders were another matter.
This pulse was intended to be shorter, giving the defenders enough time to seek shelter, but not enough to start preparing to come back out. He waited for the staccato clap of the ‘barker’, an artillery piece that fired a loud air-bursting projectile, designed to allow signalling during the shelling. He didn’t have to wait long. The clap tore through the other sounds, and the remaining shelling dropped almost instantly. The assault force rose from the ground as one in the darkness, and the true assault began.
Kogan and his team gathered as they advanced, moving at a jog rather than the headlong run he’d seen others employ. Ahead of them, the defenders would be pouring out and attempting to lay down fire, but in the darkness it was nearly impossible to pick targets. The bulk of the fire would be ineffectual until they got close enough that the assault teams’ own weapons would be in range. Some of the defenders had managed to keep some lights protected and dragged them into position, sending wedges of illumination cutting into the shrouded field. They mostly lit up nothing but smoke and dust, but caught several unlucky attackers, who were cut down immediately in a hail of fire. It was far too little to keep the assault at bay, and Kogan could see the enemy trench now as the front of the assault began to hit it. The silhouettes of the defenders were braced at the edge and firing desperately. At last he let his rage off its leash and broke into a run. Caella roared with him and was in front of him in a matter of steps. Dayn’s voice rose in an almost melodic chanted prayer as he flung a pair of grenades ahead of them, dropping directly into the trench they were approaching. Smoke billowed up where they had fallen, and defenders were obscured even as the rest of the team opened fire with a variety of weapons. Kogan sprayed the area ahead with shot, aiming to kick up mud and injure more than kill. The confusion bought them the few seconds they needed to cross the intervening ground, and he ignored the stabbing pain in his thigh and a brief tug at his side as his final stride carried him straight into the smoke and down, into the trench.
Kogan staggered to a halt what felt like an age later. His saw was dead and bent on his hand, all of its fuel expended in the carnage long ago. It was bent in the bludgeoning that he was forced to use it for in the last few moments when, out of ammunition, they’d burst into a room with a handful of the last defenders. In reality, Caella had killed most of them. He’d just dealt with the couple that had tried to get behind her. It was going to take a while for her to recover from today. The wounds on her back should have probably killed her, and they possibly still would. His team had survived though, with no deaths during the fighting, which was nearly unheard of. He’d taken a half-dozen wounds, starting with the two bullets that had caught him right as they made contact, and ending with the bayonet that a Dwarf had managed to plunge deep into his gut before Kogan could kill him.
The wounds hurt, but not as much as they should. They slowed him, but they probably should have killed him. Again, he thanked whatever divine providence had led to him being blessed with such resilience, and wondered how much longer it could possibly remain a secret. He’d seen the looks from the other assault teams, the combination of shame and guilt at their own losses, coupled with anger and resentment that his team should emerge relatively unscathed again and again.
Soon, he knew, there would come some form of reckoning. He was beginning to think he might have to leave before then, to spare his team the choice of betrayal or protecting one of the cursed. But not today. Today he could find a place to rest, safe, out of the way. The fighting would drag on for hours, if not days. The main forces were driving the remaining defenders back as far and as fast as they could. He could feel the summons pulling gently at him. It had started in the middle of the assault, and even though he was exhausted, he knew he would answer. He couldn’t resist the call any more than he could resist the call to battles on Athien. He knew that others would think his life a living nightmare, but he could no longer imagine anything else. Perhaps one day he would finally get a grip on those who had driven his people to this state, and finally wrest from them the control they had so carefully assembled, and shatter it for good. On that day, maybe he would rest and seek another life-path, one with a bit less bloodshed. Though he struggled to imagine what else he might be good at.
“Perhaps a lumberjack”, he muttered to himself. “At least I’ve got experience with a saw.”
By Colin "Bobliness" Hill