Atilonian trucks had halted on a dirt road south of Wenderguard. Cid’s black dress shoe sunk in the mud as he stepped down from a cab. Rain pattered him, wet his hair and dampened his suit, before he unfurled his small black umbrella.
“What’s happened?” he asked aloud as he walked down the road, past idling transports and the inquisitors that milled on the grass.
They were confused, shocked. A wall of fire raged five trucks down, appeared to engulf the hill behind it. Cid took inventory and counted seven trucks on the road or pulled up on the grass, where their tires had sunk into the loam. His eighth, and last, truck had been caught in the blaze; the cab howled with flames, its cargo lost to the inferno.
Cid’s wrinkled white glove tightened on his umbrella.
An inquisitor stepped forward, his dress uniform hidden beneath a heavy black greatcoat. His black cap tipped forward with his respectful bow. “Sir,” he said. “We lost the last truck and the rear guard, but the rest of the convoy is safe.”
“I can see that,” Cid said and turned to survey Vultheras, Wenderguard, and the frothing sea. Black smoke billowed from the mist-shrouded ships of the Second Fleet, while fire spread from molten wounds across distant hills. The heavy downpour did nothing to abate the flames.
“We’re still gathering information,” the inquisitor said.
“Take me to the comm officer,” Cid said.
The inquisitor nodded. “Of course.”
Cid followed him two trucks down, where the subordinate opened a cab door. “The lord is here,” the inquisitor said. “He has need of you.”
A woman in inquisitorial dress stepped out. She was also wearing a greatcoat, her bob of blond hair largely hidden by her hat. “Sir,” she said; acknowledged her superior with a hand-over-heart salute.
“Have you contacted the general Stefano?” Cid asked
The inquisitor nodded. “Yes,” she answered. “But there’s been no reply.”
“Could there be a problem with our equipment?”
“Not with the receiver,” she said, “but our channels are flooded with questions. The Army’s divisions are trying to reorganize, but no one has assumed command.”
“Continue hailing Stefano and his staff.”
She nodded. “Yes sir,” she said, and climbed back into her truck.
“By Achlesial,” a woman said. Cid folded one hand behind his back and turned; he saw colonel Valentina by the corner of his eye, watching the inferno from his shadow.
“I thought I told you to stay in the truck,” he said.
The colonel stiffened in her tan buttoned-up greatcoat. “And ignore this?” she asked, gray eyes glaring beneath her white officer’s cap.
“You’re safer inside,” Cid said.
“Do you know that?” she asked, gestured rigidly toward the sea. “Are any of us safe?”
“Barring acts of god,” he said. “But I can’t protect you from a stray bullet if you’re outside your bullet-proof box, so please return to the vehicle.”
She scowled and the special inquisitor rolled his eyes. “Don’t give me that look,” he said. “If you didn’t want protection, you could have kept your mouth shut.”
“Sir,” the woman inquisitor piped up; held the ear of her receiver down to her collar as she leaned over the cab window. “I’m hearing reports that the Empress Atheria has sunk.”
Cid didn’t turn his head. “Of course,” he said, umbrella steady in his hand as he watched black smoke rise beyond Vultheras. “What else could make such a magnificent plume.”
Valentina stepped forward. “Have you heard from Stefano?” she asked.
The woman inquisitor met her eyes, but flinched, appeared to hesitate.
“You may answer her,” Cid said.
“Yes, lord inquisitor,” she said to Cid, then looked to Valentina. “We’ve no word from the command staff, my lady, but based on what I’ve heard, Cohenburg is in flames.”
The colonel narrowed her trembling eyes. “It’s… what?”
“We should assume the command staff, along with second general Stefano and the good captain Flavio, are dead,” Cid said stoically. “Admiral Giovanni was aboard the Empress Atheria; I’d wager he’s dead as well.”
The special inquisitor turned his head and found Valentina chin down with her cap squeezed in her hands. She appeared somber, but her eyes betrayed something else.
“You don’t have to make a show of it,” he said. “You hated those men. If you’re so glad they’re dead, you should smile.”
Valentina straightened up; hair wet by the rain. “Did I give you the impression I was happy?” she asked.
“Be careful with your tone,” Cid said. “Lady Valentina.”
She sneered with disgust as she turned sharply toward the water. “They weren’t good soldiers,” she admitted. “Flavio and Stefano were obsessed with themselves; they couldn’t see past their own pride to do what was best for Atilonia.”
“And what is best for Atilonia?” Cid asked.
“That her servants work together,” she answered. “Take advantage of every talent—every asset—to eliminate Bastilhas as fast as possible.”
“Don’t condescend me,” she said.
“I apologize,” Cid said. “But I am curious, what’s your appraisal of our situation?”
“The Army’s strength is in its centralized command,” Valentina said. She fit her wrinkled hat back on her soaked hair. “A command that has been eliminated. We’ve lost cohesion, and we’re on the backstep. If the Bastilhasians take advantage before we regroup, tens of thousands could be killed. We risk annihilation and with nothing to show for it.”
“Someone is bound to take command of the Second Fleet,” Cid said, turned to the sea. “Many dozens of ships certainly remain, along with the bulk of our marine infantry. I doubt they’d turn tail after such an insult, we can count on them to advance.”
“Straight into their guns,” she added.
“And look,” Cid pointed at the Wendergerd Bridge. “Our tanks are advancing. Once we’ve seized the bridge, the battle is as good as won. The Bastilhasians don’t have the men to resist us once we’re over the wall.”
The special inquisitor heard the crack of a cannon shell, and saw the resulting explosion on the bridge. A second shot chased the first and landed further behind.
“What are those idiots doing?” Cid wondered aloud.
Plumes of fire erupted from the arms of Vultheras; seconds passed and Cid’s face hardened.
“Brace yourself,” he said.
Colonel Valentina glanced over her shoulder. “What?”
<Boom!> The ground shook and the colonel stumbled forward a step; whipped her head left in wide-eyed shock. Three hundred feet below, on a cliff just above the shore, a battery of ten 4 Inch Medium Guns had turned to scattered rubble and billowing smoke.
“It appears their counterattack has begun,” Cid said calmly.
Simultaneous quakes then rattled the ground, and the clamor of further explosions echoed far to the west. A band of rain swept up the hill and splashed Cid’s legs. The special inquisitor looked down with a frown, his pantlegs already dirtied by mud then soaked with water.
“Sir!” the woman inquisitor shouted from the transport cab. She leaned out the window on her arm, her receiver once again pressed to her collar. “The Bastilhasians have appeared in the west!”
“We know they’re in the west, in the mountains,” he said.
“They’re in the foothills,” she said, a palpable fear in her urgent delivery. “Golems are in the hills.”
Cid was silent as the echoes of explosions, so recently distant, crept closer by the second. He looked at the shore, at the distant smoke, and to the inferno that threatened to approach their waiting convoy. He looked again at his shoes and scowled.
“You don’t have to make a show of it,” the colonel said. “If you’re happy, feel free to smile.”
“I will admit, the thought of their deaths gave me great pleasure,” Cid said and straightened his head. “But we cannot lose this battle. I will not permit it.”
“That’s a fine sentiment,” Valentina said as she looked to the Wendergerd Bridge, where their tank columns had turned into a heap of twisted wreckage. “What army do you propose we use?”
“Gather the inquisitors,” Cid said to the male inquisitor who answered with an arm-over-heart salute.
“Well?” Valentina pressed.
Cid glared at her with a side-eye, but said nothing. It took mere moments for the inquisitors to assemble around the special inquisitor. They stood on the grass and the road, wherever there was room. By Cid’s count, exactly twenty-three remained.
“I will brief you all on our situation,” Cid began. “Minutes ago, a Bastilhasian retaliation of startling scope destroyed Cohenburg, killed our command staff, and—at the same time—crippled naval command by destroying the Empress Atheria. Our enemies have wasted no time in taking advantage of this. They’ve attacked from the west, behind the bulk of our forces, and trapped us in a cage of flames.
“If we do nothing, our defeat is certain, but there is one thread of hope: We are alive. As ranking supreme commander, I name Emilia Valentina acting commander of the 3rd Army and leader of the Coalition of Armed Forces. You will act as an improvised command staff and serve her to the best of your abilities.
It was silent, but for the sounds of the storm and approaching battle.
Cid turned to Valentina, who peered suspiciously through the inquisitor’s black eyes. “What is this?” she asked.
“It’s your promotion,” he said.
“You far outrank me—”
“And as a man of higher rank, I have important places to be!” Cid snapped. His umbrella rattled in his grasp. “I cannot play trivial games of war; I have my orders, now you have yours.”
“Thirty-thousand confused men, however many of my planes still fly, and a handful of rage-blind ships!” she shouted. “Against unknown enemies—golems, even! Of course, there’s no question I’ll win! I’ll carry your hopeless battle to victory, with valor!”
Her sarcasm was evident, but Cid’s thoughts were distracted. He made slow breaths, steadied his hand, and suppressed what led to his outburst. In moments he’d regained his calm demeanor.
“I would not give you orders you could not follow,” he said and moved close to the colonel. He held out the umbrella. “Please, take it.”
“Are you mad?” she asked. “We don’t need umbrellas! We need more soldiers!”
He glared, and she scowled, but she did take the umbrella. He stepped back, into the rain, and turned to walk to the rear of the truck. “You will have your soldiers,” he said quietly. “Come this way.”
At the back of a transport, Cid produced a switchblade from his pocket. He extended its gleaming, steel edge, and sliced away a canvas tether in one motion. A body tumbled off the truck bed, collapsed in the mud.
Valentina stared in disbelief. The body looked like a corpse, but it was naked and blackened, as if cloaked in the deep shadow of night itself. “What unholy creature is this?” she asked. “A monster?”
“Your soldier,” Cid answered and looked down at the dark corpse. “Arise, ghoul.”
The body jerked, pressed its hands through the mud, and stood on its bare feet. It had no face, but for the impression of a nose, and two haunting white eyes, glowing like the light of the moon.
“Arise,” Cid said again. “All of you!”
The seven trucks gathered around the road juddered and bounced. Their canvases ripped, torn by the sharp claws of bestial hands. Creatures that resembled men and women emerged, tumbled across the ground, as they clambered to push past one another. They assembled—one-hundred-fifty ghouls—each as silent and still as the last, staring at Cid with their saucepan eyes.
“Kill anything with a gray coat,” the special inquisitor said. “Go.”
And they turned; ran, without so much as a nod. They charged up and down the hill, spread in all directions, to go wherever fire didn’t reach.
Cid turned to Valentina, and she looked disgusted. It was a natural response.
“Do you have objections?”
“I have a thousand objections—” she said, but halted before she spoke further.
“I was saving those ghouls for a very dangerous adversary,” Cid said quietly, calm and collected, though he was soaked by the rain. “But losing this battle is not an option. I’ve given you your trump card, deliver me a victory, with valor.”
Valentina began to shiver in the most natural way, for the wind was hard and the rain was cold, and it had soaked through her greatcoat, affected her skin and bone. Cid moved past her in perfect composure, with an eerie silence to his steps. Though he was wet, and wore a dress suit ill-suited to the inclement weather, he didn’t shiver. He looked unnatural stillness to him, and she could do nothing but stare.
“We’ll win,” Valentina said after her moment of distraction. “You’ll see, by the end, we didn’t need your monsters. Atilonia has no place for the dead… or creatures like you.”
Cid smiled and stopped, slid his hands neatly behind his back. “Is that so?” he asked. “I think you’ll find Atilonia has a place for everyone.
“Including—and especially—for a creature like myself.”
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