She was just a girl, a child from one of the wild tribes that still bothered us occasionally. She came into the city on a slave chain, but somehow slipped her bonds and was found wandering down the main thoroughfare some time later. She was noticed because she was on fire.
Hundreds of people saw her. She was on fire, but she did not burn. Blue flame wreathed her body, pulsing in time with her heartbeat. Witnesses say that when approached she became combative, and injured several civilians before being shot by a militant priest of the Church. Pope Innocent’s cult gained a lot of converts that day.
That was just the first incident involving this new phenomenon. The government tried to keep it hushed up, but strange things kept happening, and the word spread. Inexplicable as it seemed, some of the tribes had magic.
The people demanded answers, but our scientists had none. The government sent the army out to destroy our primitive neighbors, but unrest grew.
Then everything changed.
Some of our own babies, children conceived and born after our return to the surface began showing signs of power. The people’s grumble for explanations became a shriek.
Only one organization had all the answers.
Almost overnight, that antiquated cult of shut-ins and bearded fanatics became the most powerful organization in the city. When the government stepped down, Pope Innocent and his mysterious tribunal were there to fill the void. With his newfound powers, he appointed Father Thomas Inquisitor-General, and the reinvigorated Inquisition began a systematic culling of all those who exhibited the slightest bit of extraordinary abilities. Their investigations were thorough and ruthless. rack and the thumbscrew made a comeback.
Thus began the magic wars and the rise of the Empire of the Church.
The city. Sector 7G. The front line.
Volksgrenadier Karl Franz pressed his back into the jagged wall of the bomb crater, panting heavily. The Greens were massing for a new push, and his platoon had been “volunteered” to cut some of their entrenched communication lines.
Sergeant Danzig shouldered past him, readying his field glasses as he climbed toward the lip of the crater. Karl gripped the familiar weight of his rifle. They weren’t much of a platoon. With only six able-bodied men left, they were at less than half-strength. The grey-haired sergeant with the pockmarked face had been field-promoted the week before on the simple expedient that he was the only trooper remaining with combat experience, having fought in the gang wars, years before. What side he had been on then was still unclear. He did have a lot of tattoos.
Karl looked down at the men huddled miserably in the oily water at the bottom of the crater. That any of them were there at all was proof that the war did not go well. Danzig’s soldiers currently consisted of a lame baker, two mutinous looking Turkish factory workers, a livestock veterinarian with the slack skin of the recently obese, and little Karl, the asthmatic librarian.
When the Lieutenant had given them their orders this morning, he had praised them as heroes of the republic. Karl didn’t think they looked like heroes of the republic. Or even enthusiastic citizens. He laughed shrilly, remembering his Kafka.
“The salvation of our fatherland is left to us craftsmen and tradespeople, but we are not equal to such a task, nor indeed have we ever claimed to be capable of it,” he quoted under his breath. His theatrics earned him a poisonous glare from Sgt. Danzig.
“Here’s a quote for you trooper. Shut the fuck up. Intel reports no Greenie presence in this sector,” The grizzled veteran gestured vaguely into the smoking ruins surrounding their position, “but since when does Intel get anything right?”
Karl fidgeted nervously with his gun, hunching his shoulders against potential unseen eyes in the surrounding urban wasteland.
“Sorry sir. It won’t happen again.”
The sergeant merely grunted, busy consulting his crumpled map to see if they were near where the enemy’s fiber optic communication cables had supposedly been buried.
Karl wondered how the map could be of any use, bombing from both side’s artillery emplacements had long ago turned his beautiful city into a treacherous maze of gutted buildings and rubble-choked streets. Firestorms raged constantly, whenever the wind rose they seared through the city, scorching everything above ground to bare metal and stone.
Karl’s heart wept at the plight of his people. As a librarian, he had access to worn manuscripts and little-understood data logs which predated the apocalyptic Dark Times. His war-torn city-state had once been a part, albeit an important one, of a much larger nation, with its enormous population and strategically located deep water river port.
After the Dark Times, it had been rapidly repopulated, rising from ashes to become the central hub of a new republic. Those formative years had been chaotic, as various war lords and gang bosses took advantage of the fledgling democracy’s weakness and instability. Conflict flared on and off for years, but it never stopped pioneering citizens like Karl’s parents from turning their city into a model of successful reintegration. Trade expanded. His city’s ships had plied the waves, establishing contact with other bastions of civilization’s rebirth. The closest threat appeared to be the insular and oppressive Empire of the Church growing beyond the wild lands to the South, but they were yet distant and easily ignored. Culture flourished for a time. Karl’s people had prospered.
He shivered in his tattered uniform. Those days had long since passed. He returned his attention to their dour leader.
Sergeant Danzig was evidently able to derive some meaningful data from his map, because with a triumphant sounding mumble he dropped the paper into a waist pocket and, retrieving his binoculars, crept stealthily to the lip of the crater. Levering into position, he shuffled around for a useable vantage point.
No sooner had he found a satisfactory sight line than Karl heard the unmistakable crack of a distant rifle, and Sergeant Danzig’s head exploded forcefully from the heavy impact of a sniper’s round.
Covered in their leader’s sticky brain matter, the conscripted men stared horrified as his twitching body slid back down to the relative safety of the crater floor. As one, they looked toward the pale librarian.
“Well guys,” he fidgeted uncomfortably, “What do we do now?
Karl dropped his gun into the muddy water, and pulling an inhaler from his breast pocket he sucked on the worn plastic. It was force of habit only; he had long ago run out of medication. They were running out of everything. Men, hope, things to eat. All they seemed to have an abundance of was bullets, and as their ex-sergeant was amply demonstrating, you could really only eat a bullet once.
He thought for a time. Rockets flashed overhead. The city burned. In dark cellars and choked alleys, men fought and men hid and men died. Only the rats grew fat.
The Turks gave gap-toothed grins. “We go home.”
It took the others a moment to process the import of that statement.
“You mean…we’re free?”
Karl rattled his inhaler frantically. “Wait a second, we can’t just leave. Someone will look for us.”
“I don’t remember signing up for this war. I have a family in the protected zone; I mean to see them again.”
“What about our mission?”
The baker shrugged, “Not my mission.” Hobbling on his stiff leg he moved to the rear of the crater. Levering himself painfully over the lip, he crawled toward the relative safety of the buildings behind them. He did not make it far. The distant rifle cracked again, this time accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. The baker shuddered once, and then lay still.
Karl sat down in the mud at the bottom of the hole, putting his head in his hands.
“I think I’ll stay right here for now.”
The Turks crouched next to him. “You right. Here is not so bad.”
The veterinarian come medic nodded vigorously, his neck wattle slapping loosely against his unbuttoned collar. “Here is fine.”
“This place is horrible,” Felix commented dryly. They had been paralleling the river, sneaking from one collapsed warehouse to the next under the cover of darkness. It was clear to Konstantin that his companions were searching for something, and their continued failure had put the pagan heathens in a foul mood.
They paused against a low wall, waiting for another heavy salvo of artillery fire to pass overhead. The entire city shook under the impacts, loose bricks and dust falling from the ruined buildings. The barrage ended. They now had a few seconds before the rival guns to the west of the city answered. Bent low, they scurried to the next foundation, their senses stretched to the limit to detect the presence of any soldiers.
In the relative calm between artillery blasts, the sound of small arms fire could be heard raging in a nearby factory.
“What is happening here?” Brita whispered, her blue eyes wide, “Who are these people?”
Naoise crept past her, Hrist and Mist held securely in his thick arms. “Pray we don’t have to meet any of them Sister. The locals wear grey uniforms, if they have any uniforms at all. They’re not so bad, just desperate. It’s the green soldiers we really have to worry about.”
“Who are they?”
He shrugged, “Nobody knows exactly. This used to be a free city, part of the northern trade alliance. One day, almost three years ago, this vast army rolls in through the wilds, coming from somewhere in the Far East, with all sorts of forbidden technology, pre-Judgment type weaponry you know, and they set up a siege blockade and start demanding tribute. Well the locals here are a rugged bunch, fiercely independent, and they basically flipped these guys the bird, starting all this.”
Brita was horrified. “You mean they’ve been fighting like this for three years?”
Naoise shook his head, “Hardly. The conflict has slowed down significantly. The Green’s armored divisions are mostly useless with over half of the streets impassible, and a huge number of people died off the first winter, from starvation and disease. Most of the organization has since collapsed; now the soldiers from both sides generally stay within the city limits, underground, fighting in the old utility and sewage tunnels.”
“I don’t know why,” Felix retorted, “there’s nothing left to gain here. Even if one side wins, they’ll be lords of a pile of rubble.”
“The Grays will never give in,” Naoise countered, “Even underequipped and starving, they’re fighting for their homes and their way of life. As for the Greens, they’re too well disciplined to disobey orders. Sooner or later someone might off their madman general, but until then they’re in this for the duration too.”
Deirdre hissed from her place at the edge of the warehouse.
“Quiet! I can feel someone coming.”
The northerners sprang into action, Snorri and Felix moving off into the shadows while James clambered up the side of the building through a broken second floor window, his rifle in tow. Naoise rumbled back the way they had come with the girls, gesturing for Brita and Konstantin to follow him.
The Inquisitor ignored the one-eyed Scandinavian’s directive, instead remaining where he was, his eyes on Deirdre, who had positioned herself in the center of the alley. She favored him with a suspicious glance, but then chose to ignore him, instead focusing her energies on the approaching individual.
Konstantin could now hear the person’s advance, and from the amount of noise he was making, the Inquisitor felt certain that he had no idea anyone was hidden in the vicinity.
Loose rocks clattered together, and the individual limped around the corner unsteadily, his breathing uneven. Weaving on his feet, he got within two yards of Deirdre before he noticed her standing before him. A whimper escaped from the figure and he shuffled backwards, attempting to retreat around the corner of the building. Finding his way barred by Snorri and Felix he sat dejectedly, accepting whatever fate awaited him.
“Well well well, what do we have here boys?” A pale orb of blue light came into being in Deirdre’s palm. “He doesn’t look like much of a threat to me.”
The haggard looking man squinted wearily up at the taunting witch. “Mistress Raven?”
Deirdre started, dropping down to her knees in front of the ragged individual.
“Ay milady.” He coughed fitfully, blood speckling his lips and chin.
Snorri and Felix rushed forward with concerned expressions.
“Jesus Bill, what happened to you?”
Reaching feebly he grabbed hold of Deirdre’s free hand, patting it apologetically. “I’m sorry milady; we waited for you just like you said.”
“Mr. Budd, where are the others?”
He closed his eyes. “They’ve been taken.” With that message delivered he slumped over sideways, unconscious.
Karl leaned against the wall of the bomb crater dejectedly. They had been pinned in their muddy hole with the soggy remains of Sgt. Danzig for two days. Every evening the filthy water froze at the bottom of their prison, granting them a reprieve from the mud if not from the misery of their condition.
The veterinarian had made an attempt to escape the evening before, earning himself a painful shoulder wound for his trouble. It was clear that whoever had them pinned down was playing with them; since even a small force could have overrun their position with ease. He envied the rats that slipped in and out of their hole with impunity, at least until his three remaining companions began watching them with a more than passing interest. Soldiers on both sides had eaten worse than rodent through the course of this conflict. He tried to pretend he did not see the covetous looks Sgt. Danzig’s body had drawn in the past few hours.
Karl drew out the Danzig’s map again, inching up the side of the crater to catch the last of the failing daylight. He thought he might have deciphered some of their former leader’s chicken scratch.
A shadow moved across the much abused map. He repositioned. The shadow followed. Scowling, Karl traced the offending obscuration to its source. To its booted, heavily armed, green uniformed source.
Karl felt his jaw hit his chest.
“N’oh my god.”
Enemy troops had completely encircled them, and now stood menacingly, like bizarre menhirs around the edge of the crater.
Unlike the threadbare rags of Karl and his companions, these men were fully encased in a thick armor carapace, though in most cases it was heavily pitted and scarred from near constant battle. The gentle hiss of air through their rebreather apparatuses could be heard over the pervasive sounds of the city’s death. Infrared lenses in their helmet’s face shields glowed in the waning light.
To Karl the hulking figures looked more like fearsome war gods than mortal men, but mortal he knew them to be. While their armor made them horrendously durable, it was heavy, and slowed their movements significantly. They were vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, which Karl’s people employed with devastating results. A skilled marksman could also penetrate the weak parts in their battle plate, most notably around the neck and armpit.
Karl’s hand reached to where his gun sat propped against a rock beside him. A dozen rifles tracked his progress. His hand stopped. Who was he kidding? He was no marksman.
There was movement inside the bowl. His companions had noticed their predicament, but unlike Karl they made the mistake of leaping for their weapons. They never got off a round.
The green armored soldiers fired into the pit methodically, shredding through Sgt. Danzig’s men like they were made of paper mache. It was over quickly.
So much for the heroes of the republic, Karl thought sadly. He raised his hands slowly.
After the injured man delivered his cryptic message, Deirdre had Felix move him to a nearby basement, where she and Brita began tending to his wounds. The twins were instructed to put their heads together and track any movement in the area. Konstantin helped the American sniper keep a more mundane watch.
At one point during the night the man awoke briefly and conferred with the dark skinned witch and her men. From their place on the narrow stairway Konstantin and James could not hear what was said, but Deirdre’s expression spoke volumes. Whatever his news was, it was not good.
“Who is he?” Konstantin was curious.
“One of our sailors,” Jim explained, “Deirdre’s people live further north and west of here. We always sail in whenever the lady has business to conduct on the mainland. We usually run the blockade into the city to drop off much needed food supplies. Not all of the locals who remain are soldiers. There are civilians starving in this ruin. In return for what foodstuffs we can supply them with, the Greys hide and protect our ship while we travel in the southlands. To return home, we’ll need our ship. The problem is we seem to be missing a crew at the moment.”
The Inquisitor wondered just what business the witch and her men had in the southlands. He doubted they risked regularly entering church territory just to visit Felix at his club in Munich. That information was something his superiors would covet greatly, maybe enough for a pardon. He tried to ignore the thought. His duty was to Brita now. But perhaps afterward…
Snorri ducked into the stairwell. He was worried about something, the extent of which became apparent when he answered Konstantin’s queries with none of his customary jibes or snide remarks.
“We’re in trouble, there’s no mistake. The Greens captured our boys a few weeks back.”
James swore harshly. “What were they doing away from the boat? They shouldn’t have even been in the city.”
“They tried another resupply run. We’ve been gone longer than anticipated. Billy was out scouting when the raid went down, but he’s been able to piece together some of what happened. The Greens didn’t kill our men because they somehow caught wind that they’re foreigners, but they have them imprisoned for questioning. The good news is that Bill knows where they’re being kept.”
Konstantin glanced to where Deirdre and Naoise were drawing plans in the dust on the cellar floor. “What’s the bad news?”
Snorri winced. “They’re in the old city library.”
James sat wearily on a step. “That’s deep in the Green zone. We’re never going to be able to get them out of there.”
“I think you’re probably right, but Deirdre disagrees. She’s already sent Bill back to prep the ship. We’re going in after the rest.”