Interlude

Part Ten of the Sonata in Red series.
Part One: A Song of Glory
Part Two: A Choir of Intrigue
Part Three: Etude in the Sun
Part Four: A Requiem in the Dark
Part Five: Hymns of Terror
Part Six: Refrain from the Past
Part Seven: Refrain from the Past (pt. 2)
Part Eight: A Fugue in Three Parts
Part Nine: Rondo Alla Contrattempo


Years earlier.

The roar of battle fill the air with the death filled banshee’s wail. Unspeakable weapons of war pounding great blows upon the earth like the hammer of gods. Out in the trenches, Her Majesty’s crusading army weathers the storm anticipating a break in the assault to allow their advance to continue.
At the vanguard of the crusade, The 1st Assault Reconnaissance Company under the command of Captain Carter Thierris, are positioned far ahead of the main force. The campaign for the conquest of the Eastmark has raged for a century without sign of an end. Lead by Marchioness Madeleine Wilson, the expected outcome of this assault was the capturing and elimination of the monstrous encampment. Success at this junction would carry accolades for the officers involved upon their return to Caelestis.

“Captain, the regulators predict the bombardment will be exhausted in an hour,” Lieutenant Sir Alexander Taylor reported. Carter acknowledges the report with a curt nod, the lieutenant had been with him for most of their assignment, along with First Sergeant Aiden Williams, Carter doubts he could have come this far. Afforded his commission due to being the eldest son of a Caelestis Baronet, as an officer Carter was smart enough to understand he relied on the knight and the vastly more experienced enlisted man.

“Have Williams ready the men to attack,” Carter orders. The order itself is all but a formality, the planning and briefings for the strike having long since been delivered. As the lieutenant departs, Carter is assisted into his armour by a servant to the backdrop of the gradually slowing bombardment strikes.
Despite being his second year of his tour of duty, this battle would represent the first engagement where Carter would see active combat. He was afraid, though as an officer he could not afford to show that fear. A good portion of the men under his command were veterans in combating the Aberrant. They knew he was unblooded and he had yet to earn their respect. They say a mans first time facing the Aberrant defined him, Carter prayed to the stars that he would earn his honour in the battle.

Emerging from his pavilion Carter watches the company’s preparation with a critical eye. The deep alien red Eastmark sky swirls with the unwholesome appearance that defined the Aberrant territories. Pillars of sickly green flame descend upon the field in arcing trajectories originating from the profane encampment whose perverse gaze stared mockingly down at them.
Offering a silent prayer to the stars and The Queen for strength, Carter stares defiantly back. The trembling in his knees grows stronger before the reality that lies ahead. Accepting the offered cup of tea from the servant, Carter receives the Lieutenant Taylor’s report with all the confidence he can muster. “The men will be ready by the time the barrage ceases.”

As predicted the barrage soon comes to an end. Carter’s whistle signals the charge, voices bellowing orders rise up in concert and as one they surge forth from the trenches into the killing fields. From across the smokey, cratered field impossible, inhuman figures pour out to meet them.
A hail of arrows from behind him rain down on the Aberrant, dispersing the tide of bodies momentarily before the dead monstrosities are swept away by the fresh waves of foes. Volley after volley delivers death from the heavens to the monsters as the men charge forward. With just over fifty yards left, the soldiers form a wall from their shields and brace to receive the Aberrant charge.
The battle formation silences the soldiers battle cries, in its wake an eerie silence broken only by the sporadic bellowed orders from the soldiers and the advancing ethereal chittering and profane gibbering of the Aberrant. As the alien tongue reaches Carter’s ears meaning half understood claws at his consciousness assaulting his senses with madness.

Then almost as soon as it began, the battle is done. Disgusting films of alien viscera and eldritch gore spatters Carter. His sword lost in the corpse of one of the undulating creatures that had broken the line and fallen barely before it would have slain him. Horrified nausea shook him as he stood before the strange structure their enemy had been defending.
His orders were to hold this position and await further orders. As the ranking officer, first spoils of the battle were his. The nobility reserved the right to any Aberrant technology or artefacts recovered. But as Sergeant Williams had insisted it was a tradition for trophies to be taken by the commanding officer. Only a handful of men had survived the battle, less than twenty, but they all looked on as Carter took the strange glowing orb from among the spoils and raised it high above his head in triumph. A bellowed cheer rose from the men, praising the strength of Mankind in defiance of the Aberrant.

***

As the first rays of dawn sunlight peeks into the dark, heavily curtained bedroom of the aged knight. Sir Alexander Taylor cries out in fear, the familiar nightmare waking him from his slumber like clockwork.
Sebastian has been expecting the cry, enters the room, opening the curtains and comforting the gibbering old man. The knights feeble fingers cling to the servant while he babble unintelligible nonsense. Long grown used to his master’s terrors, Sebastian is patient as he listens. Amongst the garbled rambling a single phrase holds any semblance of meaning amongst the madness.

“Stars protect me, it saw me! A red moon rises and rivers run red, staining the earth with the colour of blood! Majesty take me! It never died, and it is coming!”

Rage

They roar their fury to the heavens. Hurled bottles explode in flame to whooping choruses of cheers from the mob. Standing firm against the onslaught of rage, black clad officers rally against the press of bodies. Plastic shields deflecting the bricks and bottle missiles. Tear gas, water guns and smoke grenades fire into the crowd, driving them back with efficient ruthlessness.
The people’s rage cannot be denied. Broken into smaller groups they strike at the line again and again. Shifting from a single overwhelmingly large crowd into innumerable smaller more mobile groups. They hover a safe distance from the line, an amorphous crowd of anger, arbitrarily forming into militant fists and charging.

The clash has continued for days, morale and fatigue cracks the military and police line. The makeshift masks have grown familiar. The line grows thinner every day as reinforcements simply do not return with each loss the furious crowd is bolstered, swelling in the face of continued resistance.
Within the parliament convenes to approve the use of harsher actions against the crowd. The order for live rounds is the straw that finally broke the camels back.
Fire upon your families, kill your friends without mercy! The soldiers are well trained and a great many obey. In the first wave of fire hundreds fall, a massacre. Screams of terror and rage fill the night. A country bleeds…

That night the country died. The line broke at last. Some soldiers refused to fire. Others succumbed to the last desperate retaliation of the grief-stricken civilians. Weapons changed hands as those who held the line were driven back. A clash of bodies becoming a fire fight.
By dawn politicians had been strung up, homes and business torn and burned down. The fires that tore through the streets in the wake of the devastation ate the city from the inside out. For a further month fury reigned but eventually even anger found its limit. The death throes of the city lasted another week as people struggled to survive.

***

“Grandpa, why did the they fight?”

“It’s hard to be sure my son, I was a boy even younger than you back then. My parents were lost in the collapse like everyone else. Likely it was due to greed. Such things so often are.”

“But, why?”

“It is human nature, to have what we need and want more. Greed will drive us to take and take until there is nothing left.”

“I don’t understand, Grandpa”

“Neither do I boy,” the old man nods sympathetically, placing a tough wrinkled hand on the boys shoulder, “Neither do I”

The light from the campfire flickered weakly from the makeshift brazer. They hadn’t eaten that day, and didn’t haven any guarantee they would eat tomorrow. So many years since the fall and the struggle to survive had only grown harder. The winters seemed longer, and colder. The summers seemed inhospitable and filled with malice. Nothing could grow beneath the paved soil of the city and it had been decades since relief had come. Perhaps the rest of the world had died that night too. Not even Grandpa knew, and with each night he grew quieter about the future.

The First Days of Summer

The night is long and my men have the last watch. My cheek is dry and raw in the cool night air, my tired body aches for rest, but I will not have time for many hours still and then I shall have all the time in the world. The witching hour is bright under the dreadful gaze of the blood red moon. Whether unholy omen as the civilians say, it is a boon for us on guard. The surrounding land is near as bright as day, perfect conditions for my men and I as we watch over the sleeping town. I would never have thought she could look so peaceful as she does, not since news of the invading forces arrived yesterday.
“Smoke, sergeant?” The words interrupt my thought as the roughly twisted paper is held in front of my face. I accept in grim silence, accepting the boys offered light. Private Noah, one of nine soldiers under my direct command, slow on his feet but quick with his wit. Terrible traits for a soldier. For a time Noah and I stood in silence atop the wall, for nothing more needed to be said. Before long he leaves to continue his patrol.

Hours pass. My smoke burns away and the stars fade as the moon slowly drops towards the edge of the horizon. With dawns approach the camp becomes a hive of activity, soldiers in a flurry of activity prepare for the Stand-To-Arms. Across the field I can see the Volk forces doing the same. Their force extends out in all directions as far as I can see, dwarfing our own in sheer numbers by an order of magnitude. Word of the Volk army’s approach came a week ago, Colonel Nguyen expected the order to retreat to follow. At the height of winter we had marched with orders to hold the border, now it was summer and no such word from headquarters has come. The last order we had received was to await reinforcements, that was over a month ago. I know some of my men still hold out hope for a last minute reprieve but squinting into the first light of dawn I relinquish any last dream.

I drop the last flickering embers of my smoke and grind it into the dirt. As the last squad on watch I have a small window of time to myself where I would normally supervising my squads preparations. Within the town and across the field was movement. Soldiers undergoing their pre-dawn routines for what may be the last time.  With that thought, the morning quiet is shattered by the Captain’s whistle calling us to assemble. All across the camp many identical whistles stir up a frenzy of activity. With practised efficiency my fellow squad leaders and I bellow our commands over the long shrill piercing screech. Corporal Pietsch and Yilmaz report their teams readiness, which I report in turn to my Lieutenant and fall in. In hardly a minute the remaining squads fill out the space within the walls until the entire fighting strength of the Kingdom Army’s, Steadfast Brigade stands to attention. The whistles cease and Colonel Ngyuyen atop his steed addresses us.

“Men, I look at you and I see the pride of Savières. In front of us, just beyond these walls a Volk army that would destroy all we have built, salt the earth of our prosperity and strike our greatness from history. Behind us, our homes, our families and our histories remain. We are the Steadfast Brigade, we have our orders and our orders are to hold the border until reinforcements arrive and that is what we’ll do. Make them bleed for every step they take!!”

A roar bellows up from the soldiers, our flag raised high, the sign of The Boar fluttering in the wind. As the Colonel turns his horse and rides off to rejoin the ranks of the cavalry, orders are bellowed and the controlled chaos of two thousand men readying for assault becomes absolute. The field of battle has been prepared by the engineers to collapse in places beneath the Volk advance, my squad was to be part of the force that would sally forth to meet them, if all went well the tunnels would break the enemy formation and we could rout their first advance.

“Ready to be a hero Sergeant, even you’ll be able to find a lady after we send those Volk bastards packing”

“Shut yer trap, Private,” I bark at Noah, quietly thankful to his levity, the rest of the men are scared. I can feel it. But Noah’s optimistic quips reassure them. I relay our orders again, “On my order quick march one hundred yards forward and brace for charge! No matter what happens, do not let the formation break even if you die, or I’ll follow you to hell and flog you for insubordination, myself!”

A grim chuckle from Noah ripples through the men. I grit my teeth and glare ahead at the endless Volk, satisfied to know that if I die it will be among good men.

The whistle rings once more.

“Spears at the ready!” I bellow, my voice mingling with the others, “Quick March!!”

I swear, it feels as if the very earth shudders beneath the weight of our conviction. Not one soldier considers any direction but forward, and my heart swells with pride. I can all but see the Volk army as a giant monstrous maw enveloping us, and I grin, the poor bastards don’t realise they’re simply exposing their soft palette to our blades.

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