The armored commandos stripped Karl efficiently, leaving him to shiver in his tattered briefs. They were so confident he would not cause trouble that no one bothered to bind his hands or hobble his feet. The men moved with the crisp discipline of trained warriors, something completely alien to Karl’s military experience.
Now that he was out of the crater, he recalled it almost fondly, wishing he could return. The starvation diet. The freezing weather. The sadistic sniper. Those were the days.
He held out little hope of rescue. Prisoner transfers and parley in this conflict had long ago gone the way of the dinosaur, unicorn, and monarch butterfly.
His guard’s helmet com-link buzzed. The trooper gestured menacingly with his assault rifle. They were moving out.
The Green squad split into two columns and lumbered east, with Karl positioned near the center of the unit. Their heavy boots crushed through the frost, which lay heavy in the shadows of bombed out buildings, to sink into the mud beneath. The column set a slow pace, but progressed steadily, moving over, around, or through any obstacles. The soldiers scanned their surroundings constantly, prepared for an attack that never came.
Karl soon began to falter, his malnourished body unable to keep up the inexorable march. He fell often, scraping hands and knees painfully, his breath rasping, only to be dragged upright by his silent wardens. His captors seemed tireless.
The further they moved east, the harder Karl shivered, partially from the cold and partially from his mind numbing fear. If they made it to one of the Green’s hidden tunnel entrances, all was lost. Once underground in Green territory, there would be no coming back up. He wished that they would stumble across a Grey position. A swift death in a firefight would be preferable to the horrors that awaited him behind enemy lines. He wished he was brave enough to make a run for it.
No position was stumbled across. No run was made. If it weren’t for the chatter of gunfire in the distance and the omnipresent rumble of mortars, he could have mistaken the city for abandoned. Even the ubiquitous rats seemed suspiciously absent. All the life he could see consisted of himself, his automaton-like captors, and the glossy black crows lining the walls around them. Corvus Corvax he mentally noted, not crows exactly, but ravens. He gave them what attention his oxygen starved brain could spare.
While he knew that there was plenty of opportunity for scavenging in the vast concrete battlefield, he couldn’t recall ever seeing the creatures in such numbers before. He gave his captors a surreptitious scan. They had not yet noticed their avian observers. He concentrated on keeping his protesting legs moving for a time. He was probably just imagining things.
Prruk-prruk-prruk. One of the glossy black birds hopped beside him, grumbling insistently.
“Shoo,” Karl kicked spasmodically. The raven fluttered off with an indignant squawk, scolding the troubled librarian loudly, before darting back to peck viciously at his exposed ankles. Tripped up by his feathery adversary, Karl pitched forward, his jaw clenched in anticipation. The rocky ground was coming up fast.
Prruk-prruk-prruk. The stupid bird seemed to be gloating. Inquisitor-Brother Solomon Rex swung his hammer. It stopped gloating.
Sounding their distress, the rest of the carrion birds took wing, flitting up into the relative safety of the trees. Solomon watched their flapping retreat with intense pleasure. Soon…
The child was pawing through the meager belongings of one of the bloated corpses piled outside the crumbling building. The shaven Inquisitor grimaced in distaste, absently telling his beads with his free hand, his good mood forgotten. Whatever happened here, it had been a one-sided massacre. Some of the bodies had been ripped apart violently; others showed no injury at all, both telltale signs of fearsome magics.
He whistled shrilly, summoning the boy to his side. The youth was his only traveling companion; he had eschewed the Lord Bishop’s offer of a troop escort. The cleric-prince of Munich would have offered anything to get the tattooed inquisitor out of his city. Solomon Rex had done nothing to hide his derision for the man.
Solomon Rex had no need for soldiers. Alone in the wilds, the driven witch-hunter had made excellent time, relying heavily on the child’s considerable tracking talents. His quarry was mounted, but heavily laden horses could not outpace a fit man over a long distance. The devastation he had discovered this morning was still fresh. Not even the wolves had yet been in to investigate the carnage. Solomon Rex was getting close.
There was a flower. Karl noted this detail with some amazement as he fell to the unyielding ground. He lay stunned for a moment, his face pressed against the cold concrete, completely winded from the jarring impact. He had somehow missed squashing the feeble bloom as he fell, instead coming to rest with it inches from his nose.
The stalwart posy was hardly flourishing, its stem was a sickly brown-green and its dark leathery leaves were ragged and stunted, and yet it clung tenaciously to life amidst the violence.
There was a lesson there somewhere Karl supposed. Being a city dweller, and an agoraphobe at that, his encyclopedic knowledge did not include much in the way of plant life, but he resolved to learn the name of this particular bud. If he was to ever return to his beloved library. If it still existed.
The plant had established itself in a deep crack in the pavement, one long hairy stem thrusting bravely up from a base of tri-lobed leaves toward the weak sun. Atop this sat a delicate bloom of purple petals surrounding a bright yellow and white center.
“Beautiful…” he breathed, reaching a grimy finger out to brush one of the heavy petals. A bullet snapped past his outstretched hand before he made contact, neatly snipping the flower’s stem near the base, and sending a shower of rock fragments flying where it hit the road surface.
Karl howled angrily through a face full of gravel, partially blinded by airborne grit. An armored boot stomped past him as he lay prostrate, flattening the already mangled bloom. One of his captors fell at his side, blood gushing from under his helmet, panicked orders crackling over the man’s com-link.
Karl squinted, trying to clear his watery vision. They were under attack! Had the Greys mounted a rescue mission? He sat up, ready to thank his saviors for their timely intervention.
As he rose, a wild-eyed giant with a flowing beard thundered past him, laughing uproariously as he charged the surprised Greens. Beside him strode another titan, this one with a spiky ridge of dyed hair, wielding an enormous axe. Behind them another man lurked, whipcord thin and oozing mean. Karl lay back down. Those definitely weren’t local soldiers.
He hunkered next to the fallen soldier, utilizing his dead bulk as a shield against any more stray bullets. The strange attackers had somehow caught the ever vigilant Green column in a deadly crossfire, causing heavy casualties with brutally efficient sniper fire before they realized they were being ambushed. The Greens’ initial shock wore off just as their assailants broke cover and charged, which in Karl’s opinion was an unwise tactical decision. He had seen hordes of his people shatter like matchsticks against the armored bulk of a Green skirmish line. To go head to head with one was suicide.
Karl winced in anticipation for the imminent slaughter.
When it came, he was surprised at the direction it took. For all their size, the ambushers moved with breathtaking speed, darting among the well equipped soldiers before they could bring their heavy weapons to bear. The one-eyed lunatic with the axe swung wildly, separating a Green trooper’s head from his shoulders. His long haired ally dove in low, knocking another soldier from his feet. Straining mightily he lifted the armored man into the air before dropping him head first to the concrete, the force of the fall driving his helmet up between his shoulder plates, compressing his spine like an accordion.
Karl foamed at the mouth, his eyes rolling madly as he witnessed the bizarre warriors in action. The Green soldiers were built and armored like miniature tanks, and the one man had just lifted a corporal in full battle plate above his head like a sack of grain. The sinister man with the dark eyes slid through the ranks like a matador baiting bulls, nimble fingers driving a long knife deep into the seams in their armor, severing something vital with every thrust. He didn’t even have a gun.
A fourth man, bearing a familial resemblance to the two oversized barbarians currently ripping apart the Green formation entered the fray, appropriating one of the fallen infantrymen’s heavy machine guns. With an angry bear roar, he turned the weapon on a knot of enemies, its depleted uranium slugs perforating their breastplates like they were made of hot wax. When a pair of troopers made a break for a bombed out department store, the hidden sniper went to work, punching holes through the glowing lenses in their facemasks.
When it was over, only one Green soldier still moved, and he was busy desperately trying to reattach the lower half of his left leg. The dark haired man, who, to Karl, evoked visions of Ichabod Crane, knelt beside the fallen soldier, his lips twitching with a muttered absolution. His prayer finished, he turned his head slowly, pinning Karl under his dark gaze. Maintaining eye contact with the horrified librarian he calmly drove his blade up under the wounded man’s chin, leaving it lodged deep in his brain.
Karl Franz wet his pants.
Brita laid a gentle hand across the skinny man’s forehead. She guessed him to be in his twenties, although his battered body looked much older.
“Are you alright?” she asked softly, checking his vitals with a nurse’s professionalism. Most of his injuries seemed superficial, although one of his ribs might be broken. For the most part he seemed malnourished and overtired. The man shivered violently, his eyes staring unblinkingly somewhere in front of him. Leaning closer, she tracked his gaze to where it rested on her brother, who was staring blankly back.
Brita grunted in disgust, waving Frederick off from his bullying. She swore sometimes he just enjoyed being creepy.
“Hey,” She shook the man out of his trance, “are you alright?”
With a visible effort he focused on the person squatting next to him, realizing for the first time that she was in fact a young woman. Avoiding her blue eyed gaze he stammered meekly with a suddenly thick tongue. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat and tried again.
“I’ll be okay I think, Oh!” His eyes widened in surprise. When her brother’s back was turned, Brita had sent a trickle of magical warmth into the young man’s emaciated body. He moaned softly, relief evident on his drawn features. “Thank you… My name is Karl. Volksgrenadier Karl Franz.” Smiling shyly, he offered Brita the mutilated remains of the flower he had salvaged.
Delighted by the simple gesture, Brita tucked the crooked stem behind one ear, along with some stray locks of her growing hair.
“So you are a soldier then?” She asked politely. The young man looked embarrassed once again.
“Not much of one. I’m really just a librarian. Or I was, before all this.” He gestured to the smoking city around them.
Brita raised a shapely eyebrow.
“Reaaaally.” She stood, offering him a delicate hand. “Can you move?”
Karl took the offered hand, and with her help wobbled back to his feet. “I think so. Probably not far though.”
Supporting the battered soldier, Brita helped him limp over to where her companions had gathered. His arrival garnered a mixture of mild interest or, in the case of Naoise and her brother, complete indifference.
“Everybody, this is Karl Franz. He’s a librarian.”
That got their attention.
Brita could see that Karl did not quite know what to make of their ragtag band. That they were foreign was painfully obvious. They all looked well fed.
Karl viewed the northern warriors with a mixture of awe and fear. He took Deirdre in with a series of quick glances, visibly moved by her tight leather and exposed cleavage despite his weakened condition. He refused to acknowledge Konstantin’s existence at all, a detail the Inquisitor took great pleasure in. The twins just seemed to confuse him.
As introductions were made Karl became visibly upset, shifting against Brita’s comforting grip to look over his shoulder with increasing frequency.
“Something troubling you little man?” Felix asked dryly.
“I think the wind is picking up.”
Felix nodded sagely; Brita could tell he was fighting to keep a smirk from spreading across his face.
“You’re probably more than a little chilly out here in your skivvies aren’t you buddy?”
Karl gave him an annoyed glance, not appreciating the big foreigner’s quips.
“It’s not that Mr. Magnusson.” A spot of ash drifted on the light breeze, horrifying Karl when it settled on his cheek. His panic was comical to the foreign companions, who, not understanding his trepidation, watched bemused while he wiped frantically at the spot, succeeding only in smearing black soot across his face.
Staring at his blackened fingers, the blood drained from his already pale face.
Felix coughed uncomfortably, sharing a look with the others.
“Hey uh, is something wrong bud?”
When Karl spoke, his voice was nearly inaudible.
“It’s a firestorm.”
“We need to get underground, now!” Karl cried, tugging insistently on Brita’s coat sleeve.
A dull roaring rose at the edges of Konstantin’s hearing, similar to the sound of the ocean trapped in conch shells. By the look in his eye, Konstantin could tell the librarian heard it too, and had come to a far less pleasant conclusion.
“Hey guys,” James was looking through the scope of his rifle, “we should probably do what he says.”
Thousands of rats were streaming past the end of the alley they inhabited, turning the adjacent boulevard into a quivering, squeaking river of brown and black and grey furred bodies. A lean pack of wolves loped through them, their heads up and tails down, riding the current like the sleek speedboats that once raced the nearby Elbe, ignoring the easy meal as they fled the oncoming inferno. Ravens darted, fighting amongst themselves for a share of the bounty, unconcerned with the advancing fires.
As Konstantin watched, questing tendrils of flame licked into view around the edges of distant buildings, spinning and tumbling on the waxing wind. He thought they would be beautiful if they weren’t moving toward him. Quickly.
The gusts picked up, the ash falling around the company replaced by burning embers, sparking painfully where they came in contact with unprotected skin.
“Into the department store,” Karl wailed, “We need to get as deep as possible!”
He took one lurching step toward the nearby building before collapsing face first to the ground.
“I got him,” Naoise said, scooping the fallen man into his arms like a small child. Kicking up their heels, the band sprinted for the bombed out high rise. Behind them a wall of flame towered three stories high, scorching the dead city’s bones as it rolled inexorably with the wind.
Waves of heat blasted through the narrow alley, blurring Konstantin’s vision and searing his lungs. Behind the advancing conflagration, a hellish landscape glowed, super-heated stone cracking and crumbling while the metal skeletons of buildings twisted and buckled.
Choking and blinded, Konstantin and his companions fled the maelstrom, racing inside the department store’s already burnt shell as fire tickled against its outer wall.
Following Karl’s faint directives and chased by flames, they wound their way down a series of service stairs and maintenance corridors before dropping through a metal hatch into the tepid water of an old sewer pipe. Felix shut and locked the heavy lid behind them, grunting in pain as the rapidly heating metal burned his hands before he got it sealed.
Floating in the murky water, the group fought for breath, listening to the howl of flames raging above them. The inferno passed as quickly as it had come upon them, leaving them to tread water in the dark as it raced across the wasted city, turning it into a modern day Gomorrah.
In the tunnel somebody cleared his throat. They were not alone.