I forced both of them open as I unscrewed the cool metal cap and started to thrust upwards with it, splashing the water into my face. The blurring intensified, then waned, and my eyes were slightly less irritated. One more upward jerk with the canteen, and another splash of water. I blinked rapidly and forcefully to finish clearing them. Now that I could see vague shapes of hands where my hands should be, I thought it done and grabbed my rifle, getting up in a low crouch. I let the barrel brace against the lip of the trench as I looked up and over, an thoughtless glance into the blackening sky. The numb ringing in my ears had resolved itself into vague shouts and concussive booms, all the while my feet felt the earth beneath and around them tremble with the gun-powder laden fists of an artillery battery.
I looked up in my haze to see a vaguely man-ish shape running towards me, not even a foot away. If I had time to pray to Morrow I would have, but at that moment the only supplication I offered was a thrust upwards with my bayonet-affixed rifle, followed by a brief stop as the tip hit whatever that sod had for armor, and then a clean punch through the girding into his significantly softer body. For good measure, I pulled the trigger. The report was a little clearer than all the other cushioned noise. The body started to slump over me, but I shifted to the side and pushed it in the other direction with the embedded rifle. Head first it tumbled into the ground, prompting me to pull out. I stood there for a second, giving my head a chance to think before clicking open the action and chambering another round when it didn't have any better ideas. I realized things were going slightly better when I clicked the rifle back closed and I actually heard it, before a series of rifle shots erupted from the second line trench, the one just behind .
In the process of turning back to the enemy lines, I was afforded a quick and blurry glance at the rest of my trench. Members of my squad, who I thought were my squad, were knife deep and dueling those lucky few of the first wave who managed to break in. One, maybe two of my squad was on fire, slowly doing the burning dance with the lack of better options. Around again, the belly of the rifle against the ground as I lined up another shot to whoever didn't like me that day.
Apparently, Menoth himself didn't like me that day, as one of his Exemplar was in spitting distance by the time I looked up. I pulled the rifle up and squeezed off a shot before ducking myself into the front wall of the trench. There was a whisper behind my ears, the sword saying "damn, missed your head" as it swept through the air where said head used to be. I decided to move before the Knight decided to swing again. I hadn't crawled two steps when he jumped into the trench, and in a twitch of instinct I spun around with my rifle held out to block his sword. The blade slammed into the barrel with enough force to knock me onto my back, and my rifle out of my hands. I saw him, all armored and terrifying, take another step as he gripped his blade. I picked my back up enough off of the ground to allow clearance for my hand, enough to hopefully grab my entrenching tool for use as a last ditch weapon. Instead, as my hand spasmed under while his sword was hefted over ready to deliver a killing blow, I pulled out a pin.
My smoke grenade pin.
I didn't have time to mutter an obscenity as I rolled myself over to the side with all the force I could have mustered, and saw out of the corner of my eye his blade slicing down into the earth next to me. The sword was yanked out of the ground, and just as I was pushing up, the smoke grenade exploded off of my backpack. With a bang, the only thing I saw was gray haze as the smoke filled the trench faster than a blink. Assuming he saw the same, I darted forward and stood up, unclasping the strap and throwing my backpack down into the earth. I held my breath as I fought against those terrible straps to free my shovel. The last strap broke free when I felt an armored boot slam into the ground behind me. With one uncharacteristically fluid motion, I grabbed the shaft with my right hand and threw it and my arm behind me, praying to that glorious shovel so that it would deliver me from being stabbed.
What answered my prayers was the resounding clang of metal against metal. The follow through allowed me to see the Knight stepping out of the smoke like some terror from beyond the realm of death come to haunt me, with the flat end of the spade smacked against his helmet. The motion finished with him staggering to the side, and my shovel slapping against the trench wall. I exhaled in a roaring scream as I reversed the motion and lunged forward, bringing the spade to hit the front of his faceplate with all of the strength I had left in me. I stumbled forward as he stumbled backward, both of us returning to the waning cloud.
In that moment, I thought I was done. I just lied there on top of him, waiting for his gauntled hands to wrap around my skinny neck and send me to Urcaen with a want for some throat-soothing tea. The fact that a minute seemed to pass with him not moving an inch prompted me to believe that he was either unconscious or, praise thy name entrenching tool, sent to Urcaen with a killer headache. And so, warily and weakly, I moved my arms to the side and pushed myself up. The smoke had dissipated enough for me to see, half standing, his body along the ground. He didn't even twitch.
I slowly raised my arms up, breathing in deeply as only one thought resided in my mind. It wasn't the best of thoughts, but everything pointed to me needing to have it at that moment. Standing tall, arms lifted up in triumph, my mind contrasting the terror of those too-long seconds and my current status, I yelled out in a triumphant voice, "yes!"
Then I heard roughly a ton of metal crash into the trench behind me. My mind, body, and soul was screaming at me not to look back. Just stand still, maybe it will go away. Maybe it will ignore the crazy man screaming at a dead body while the fortress he was supposed to be defending was being overrun. He will be just fine with his screaming and his dead body. No need to bother him, and no need for him to look back. But he did. I did. I turned my head slowly to the side, scrutinizing every detail of the increasingly destroyed trench wall knowing full well that it would be the last comforting thing I would ever see.
The last horrifying thing I would ever see, however, stood about seven feet tall and wore enough armor to make some warjacks jealous. Decorated lovingly in iron Menofixes, scriptures in dead languages, and what I hope was not blood painted crimson robes, was an Exemplar Bastion. A Bastion is member of the Knights Exemplar trained and outfitted to survive the worst ordnance a modern military force could deliver, and most certainly able to withstand an assault with a shovel. With my grin turned upside down, I uttered a squeaky "no."
I looked straight into the shrouded visor of the Exemplar's faceplate, looking for any sign that there is indeed a squishy human being in there. That a person - a man, born from a man and a woman, who grew up from a baby, to a child, to a teenager, and to an absurdly strong and impossibly tough but still human adult clad in the most ludicrously oversized armor in all of Caen was actually in there, with all of his squishy bits. I needed to see at least the miniscule glints of light reflecting off of his squishy little eyes. Please, entrenching tool, please let there be those slimy soft ocular orbs nesting under a heavy brow. Even one glint would do, just one eye so I can be sure that there is a human being in there, and not the vengeful wrath of the creator of all mankind bound up in steel.
Nope. Nothing but a step forward and the heavy clanking of blessed iron, followed by another. Nothing but the readying of a pole-arm nearly twice my height into a position that clearly screams 'if you are within nine feet of me you will be bisected in twain, divided into two roughly equal halves.' Redundancy of thoughts of doom aside, I only looked down at my hands as who seemed to be my personal harbinger of death took another step forward. I carefully weighed my options.
In, or rather covering, my left hand was a worn leather glove. Standard issue trencher hand wear. Lo, in my right was the metal short-poled spade. Standard issue trencher namesake. Neither of these were suitable weapons for annoying, much less harming, the personified wrath of Menoth. I, however, did not get this thought through my head. Or perhaps I did, but quickly forgot it.
Instead I screamed. With my head down I screamed in anger at the entrenching tool. This was not a fearful shriek, but a very angry shriek. It even had words riding the horrid noise. I'm still not sure how they hitchhiked onto the screaming. "Why couldn't you have been a rifle? Or a cannon? A cannon would have been amazing!" I hoisted the shovel into the air, my face contorting into a mien of disappointment and impotent rage. "Or a warjack! Why couldn't you have been One-Eye, or Big Shot, or any of the other fine products of Cygnaran Armory you stupid," I yelled at the poor, undeserving shovel as I readied to toss it. "Blasted piece of scrap," I continued to holler as I threw it. I wasn't aiming for anywhere in particular, but rather nowhere in general. It just so happened that the Bastion was between me and nowhere in general. It clacked harmlessly against the armor, and fell into the even more blasted earth.
We both took a second to look down at the former projectile, before my eyes returned to regard its faceplate. I took in a deep breath through my oddly clear nostrils. "Are you finished?" it asked heavily and flatly, a manner most befitting an executioner. "Have you made peace with your false god?" Seconds, projectiles, soldiers, zealots, and lives passed. There was nothing going on in my head. The hate and fear was gone. That was a lie, but I'll get back to that shortly.
I only opened up my lips and spoke through my teeth for some odd reason. I had a habit of doing that when I was caught doing something childish or stupid. Often both. It was a damning tell, I never got away with anything. "I just threw it at you," I replied, which elicited the Bastion's head to cock to the side. "Oh, you mean Morrow? Screw him. He's off doing fuck all wherever," I continued, this time a bit more normally.
As to the lie: I still felt fear. Or rather some weird version of fear. A pure, distilled form of fear that was an incredibly potent means of locomoting one's limbs. The man-wrath readied to swing his halberd as he said, "then may Menoth have mercy, for I will not." At that, I ran. I turned around and kicked my legs as fast as my head could tell them to. I didn't stay long enough to hear the Exemplar's curses for my cowardice, though I was sure they were brimming with gravitas and eloquence. I hit the trench wall and scrambled up it as if I were possessed by a thousand horrified spiders. Upon scaling the edge, I burst into a sprint that would have saved me plenty of penalty laps if I ran that fast during training.
As I ran, I figured out exactly where I was running to: away. Even more exactly: very far away. Obviously, this was easier said than done, as I was charging lengthwise through secondary advancing lines of the Menite army. The lingering smoke of our grenades and Menite explosives afforded me some concealment, but I was bound to be spotted by someone who would make it their business to kill me. Even so, It must have seemed very strange to any who did, seeing one lone living Trencher running over and around the corpses of so many of his fellows. To be honest, it was strange even to me. There was just that pure sense of 'run run run run run run run' and so on.
When I did glance down at my killed compatriots and even recognized a few of the faces of those who still had faces, nothing registered. Just that twitch of recognition. The spasm in the brain that precedes one thinking, "Oh, you're that fellow." Even still, it was like looking at a putrefying field of flowers. Though they could be distinguished from each other, recognized, and cataloged, the uniqueness of each bleeding blossom did not matter. Who they were was irrelevant: they were now all equally scenery. However, there was something else lurking in the back of my skull, manifested by something I viewed but did not see. Some proto-thought lilting around through the cavernous space of my mind, not yet drifting into being a fully formed concept. Since I did not get the feeling that it, whatever it was, was going to make me run faster, I decided that the fluff-thought did not matter.
I came to see something that did matter, however. The lip of the front-line trench. A quick glance around as I continued to run told me that a majority of the Menite forces at this salient had already passed over and beyond this front. Anything remaining was likely their artillery and other fire support. While I was slightly thankful that my chance of dying by being stabbed, chopped, or sliced was somewhat reduced, there was still the likelihood that I would be detonated, immolated, or otherwise blasted to Urcaen and back.
A chance that was greatly increased when some of their rocket infantry managed to spot me. One of the Deliverers, as they called themselves for delivering the wrath of their god from afar and in a very explosive manner, was busy grabbing another one of their crude rockets from his pack when he noticed this exceptionally quick-footed Trencher make a bee-line for his most favorite of fortifications. I saw his distance-blurred gestures for only a moment before a wafting cloud of gray smoke passed between us. As only a hundred or so feet of distance remained between me and a nice place to retire, I heard the rocket's launch charge go off from where I saw the Deliverer squad. Again, time seemed to slow to a crawling pace. I was acutely aware of my heart repeatedly exploding in my chest, the burning in my lungs, and the broad sting of my muscles as I fought to reduce the distance between me and my only hope of worldly salvation.
The unique whistling noise of the Deliverer's rocket grew louder and louder as it reached its apogee and began its downward trajectory. I ran even harder towards the wall of the trench as the rocket fell closer. I shut my wearied eyes as Menoth's merry little tune grew louder in my ears, and just as it was about to stab a pair of daggers through my ear drums, my feet fell through into nothing and my body followed suit. I hit the ground on my breastplate, but still had the wind squashed out of me just before everything around me exploded.
For a while I thought I was dead. This was because I wasn't thinking at all. There was only a wonderful, numb, blind silence around and within me. Then I felt that my lungs needed to breath, so unless I was some sort of breathing zombie, I was unfortunately still among the living. I cracked open what I thought were my lips and took a deep, fast breath in. I realized that was a mistake when my mouth, throat, and lungs filled with half-damp dirt. While I remembered that blasted desert sand was not for breathing, the rest of my torso was once again coughing and heaving the pulverized earth our of my airway.
I put my arms to my side and started to push up while I was still forcibly evicting the migrant iron-tinged dust, and spent much too long forcing the muscles in my chest to do all sorts of neat and painful tricks. I stopped my violent coughing and pushed myself up into a crouch in the ditch. As the breaths of relatively clear air started to be pulled through my lungs, I took a moment to clear my eyes of dirt. After being relatively sure they weren't caked with mud, and were in fact still there, I opened them.
I saw them. More bodies. From the patches seen, they were all from the same unit as I. Same uniform. Same equipment. Same victories and defeats. I stared for a moment as that unidentified thought bubbled closer to the surface, flirting with breaking through the barrier into my consciousness. It was so close and this moment of silence was so conducive, so ready for that idea to make its entrance.
I twitched as I remembered that I was still trying to survive a hostile invasion. As I was unable to rely on my ears at the moment, despite them hearing an incessant ringing, I used my eyes to scan the trench. More bodies, allies and enemies alike, and another dalliance at the threshold of realization by the phantom cognition. The corpses lined against the wall in front of me were burning, either from hand-thrown firebombs or the rocket I narrowly survived, I did not know. It was likely both. There were a more on the floor of the ditch, bleeding out into the ground from stab-wounds, shrapnel, or having their faces beaten in with a mace.
I noted the metallic taste in my mouth that was mixed with the remaining dirt, and tried to spit it out. I was not successful, as there was next to no spit left to make it so. As the most unpleasant reality of what was loitering in my mouth was sinking into my brain, I decided to spend the time I had being disgusted with myself wisely and shifted over to the back wall of the trench. As I stood up to get a decent view, I moved my hand to my mouth to try and scoop out the blood-slicked mud. Considering that my hands were already covered in it, this did not help either.
I did not see much through the field of rising and twisting smoke, but it looked like the end. The Menite forces had pushed through all the fieldwork fortifications and trench lines and now seemed to be at the bulwark of the fort's gates. The only things I could actually identify as a part of the offensive were their field artillery pieces and a small few bombardment warjacks, both of which were taking positions to begin firing at and into the fortress.
The ringing in my ears continued to attenuate, which would have been good news had I not seen something that drained all of my want and ability to move. I saw one of the Deliverers running towards my position.
As stated I froze. I stood there paralyzed with the fact that he was running at a good pace and had a very nasty beating stick gripped in his hand. After remembering that I had a body that I could use and that it was a good idea to use it, I ducked back into the trench and took a good long look at what could save me from him and his uglinium-alloyed mace. There were crispy bodies, crisping bodies, bleeding bodies, and another push from that incessant emergent idea that was struggling to crash into my mind.
I looked down at one of the bleeding bodies on the floor of the trench, and some mechanism in my mind clicked into place. I knelt down and grabbed the arms of the corpse as I said something along the lines of "sorry mate, but I need your blood more than you do." I lifted it up and pushed it over another corpse. At this point I was still in the dark about what I intended to do. I had heard stories of sea witches that could use the power of blood to perform magic, but as much as I wanted to use magic right now, I was not one of those witches. I took a moment to stand still, wondering what that reflex was planning on as my body whispered to me "trust me, this will work."
So I did trust that systematic instinctual spasm, and fell onto the ground over that pool of blood. The impact splashed the pooled crimson viscera over the front of my body, and all of the strength ebbed from my limbs. I was confused at first, as I was expecting something more noteworthy than falling into someone's once-vital liquids. I started to think that I had made a terrible decision as I felt dirt fall against my arm, and actually heard it tumbling down the wall and onto my coat. Where once I was limp, I was now frozen in place with my face locked in an expression of terrible realization.
The Deliverer stood at the trench wall and breathed heavily as he was doubtlessly looking into the trench, also doubtlessly looking for the trencher that may or may not have survived that rocket. I heard the rustle of his packs and the clinking of chain as he was shifting his body around. Seconds seemed to turn into hours as I did not so much as blink. Where just previously all of my will to survive was bent on moving as fast and as far as I could, I found myself in the exact opposite scenario. I dared not even move my chest to breathe, but the ache of asphyxiation was wonderfully lax in manifesting.
I didn't even move my eyes to look in his direction, knowing that if he was looking at my body he would immediately know that this trencher was still amongst the living. A state he would quickly rectify, given the chance. Instead, I stared directly where my eyes aimed and for the first time actually saw what I had tried to see.
The thought that had been so persistently fighting its way into cognizance was small, fast, and like a bullet it pierced the fugue of my mind and punctured my very soul. However, it was not some profound axiom that transcended the bounds of Caen and would see me elevated to the same strata of so many warrior philosophers. Nor was it some kind dark revelation of the true horror of the cosmos and our place in it.
It was a question. Tiny, humble, and one asked many times before and answered just as frequently, but one that suddenly had more weight and significance than anything I had asked before. The very fact that I was able to ask it magnified it's importance within my mind.
Why was I still alive?
That was the question I was trying to ask myself when I ran through the corpses of every other man in my regiment. My perception of time and the flow of memory arranged itself into single frame. In one moment I remembered my duel with the Knight, how he should have brought the sword down on my head and cleaved through my helmet. The Deliverer's rocket should have hit me, leaving me to see a red-white flash, pain, and the nothing as I was blown into chunks of meat and bone. The Bastion should have stepped forward and brought the halberd's blade cleanly through my torso, giving me a few terrible moments to be able to play with my intestines before dying of shock. The grenade tossed by that charging zealot at the very beginning. How the shrapnel and flame should have blasted through and engulfed me.
I returned to the present, aware of the Deliverer pining to conclude his task. As I lain just feet away from his feet, the question still monopolized my thoughts.
Why was I still alive?
Why was I still alive when so, so many others died? Why did they fight to the bitter end and still make their step into Urcaen while I remained behind? There were four times where I could have – no, should have been killed. They only had one. Why did I remain?
That burning question swelled and coursed through my body like ice water flowing through my hollows of my bones. Though I was alive enough to ask that question, my inability to formulate any answer left me in a strange state of shock. I tried so hard to come up with an answer. I tried to attribute it to divine providence, but considering that I had blasphemed most of man's gods today made that an impossible answer. I tried to attribute it to fortune, but that was also invalid. By every right I should have died with the first incendiary grenade.
But I didn't. I still lived. Against everything I acknowledged as the ways of the world, I was still breathing. Well, not at that exact instance, but I think the point is made. Because that question could not be answered, because the answer was impossible, my continuing life was impossible.
I had become an impossible thing.
Everything was still for a while. I wasn't even sure the Deliverer was still above me. There was only the corpses, the smell of burning flesh, the taste of blood and dirt in my mouth, and the low thumps and keening wails of artillery. My first moments of being an impossible thing were... Oddly comforting. There was no discomfort or distaste. I started to breath in my first breaths as an impossible thing.
I had no thoughts anymore, or rather, thoughts that I could not articulate in language. There really were thoughts, but they were simultaneously lesser and greater than the ones we make with our soul's voice. I didn't, and still don't, know if I had found myself in the grip of some sort of inspiration, intuition, or instinct. Possibly none of those, possibly all of them. But as breath returned to my lungs, I knew it was time to move. I pushed myself up from the ground, and looked through and out of the trench.
The battle seemed to be just where I left it. The trench itself, the same. I knelt down by one of the piles of bodies and started rooting around for a functional rifle. It was found, faster than I could have guessed. I also turned over one of the bodies as I saw the handle of a shovel sticking out of his pack. With unreal ease I turned him over and started to undo the buckles securing the shovel as I took a moment to look at the spade. It had words written on it, in scratched and stained white paint.
They read quite legibly, "you dropped this."
I blinked and accepted this fact. I had certainly dropped something. Whether or not it was the entrenching tool, I wasn't at all sure. I'm still not.
After becoming re-equipped, and having the last fetter I had to a sane reality dissolved in a spattering of scratched white paint, I kept looking around the ditch. I found what I was looking for very quickly. I walked over to one of the spear-impaled trenchers and reached into his pack, pulling out his fragmentation grenades. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them, aside from the obvious application of killing multiple hostile targets with one shot. Other than that, I had no clue. I had an acute deficit of clues during that time.
I stowed the grenades and checked the breech of my rifle, snapping the action open and seeing an unfired and undamaged round still in the chamber. I clicked it back closed as I walked back to the lip of the trench to try and find something that I did not know I was looking for.
I found it though. 'It' was one of the Menite artillery light warjacks. It was called a Redeemer if memory served. It also had an attendant operator of some kind doing something to it. At the range they were at, I couldn't be entirely certain as to what he was doing. I assumed he was vital to its functioning. He took a step back and covered his ears as a barrage of rockets flew out of it's arm-mounted gun and went arcing through the sky towards the fort. I took a moment to look over the maze of trenches spanning the distance between the 'jack, its handler, and I.
In a moment I knew where I was, and the best route to take to get close to them with minimal chance of being seen. I started marching quickly through the trenches along that path. I kept my attention focused on staying low and stepping over and around the bodies and puddles of blood. With every barrage the warjack unleashed, I traced the arcing lines of smoke through the sky. I knew, in the odd-thoughts that twisted and clicked through my mind, that the targets were progressively getting further and further away from the fort and back towards the trenches.
I noted this, but did not come to any greater conclusion. At the rapid pace I found myself in, it was only a small amount of time that had passed before I moved to within roughly forty feet of the Redeemer and it's attendant. I didn't know what I was going to do there, and even if I did I had no intention to doubt my next course of action. It seemed that Impossible things did not get to second guess their actions.
I took a moment to perceive the area as I stood in the ditch behind them. Most of the grenade smoke had ebbed and dissipated a while ago, and there was nowhere near enough lingering haze to effectively mask the entirety of my approach.
I still knew what to do. I stood the rifle up stock-down on the ground and busied myself with releasing the bayonet. After doing to and placing the knife in the scabbard on my thigh, I latched the grenade onto the barrel as I reached back to pull out a smoke grenade. I was still unable to put my plan into a coherent sequence of events, but I had neither the want or need to. I just simply did.
All that time I was measuring the Redeemer's rate of fire. Seconds and counting did not need to be heard by my mind's ear, and I had simply memorized the duration between firings. I assumed there was a good reason to do so, and that I was going to find out that reason very soon.
I held the grenade-armed rifle in one hand, and the smoke bomb in the other. I waited until just before the 'jack fired another cacophonous fusillade to climb up the wall of the trench and make my way close to them. The attendant was just watching the trajectory now, and I finally saw what he was doing with the warjack. There was an ammo cart with spare rockets five feet away from him. He was acting as an ammo porter, at least. They had obviously prepared for a prolonged assault.
My footsteps were almost inaudible over the concussive ambient noise, but I still took my time. I kept the rifle pointed at the porter as I slowly advanced to the position. Each step was carefully placed in empty, soft earth. My movements were measured to minimize all noise from rustling equipment. Even my breathing became whisper quiet as I stepped forward.
I stopped stepping two bodies' lengths away from them, and cautiously raised my rifle to the optimum angle for firing. Hip-shooting was not advised during training or on the field in most circumstances, but considering the nature of grenades I thought I could have been forgiven for not following the standard Trencher Corps. decorum for killing people.
The Redeemer fired it's cluster of rockets once more, and I pulled the trigger on the rifle. I did not wait to see it fly through the air and hit where it would hit, but pulled the smoke-grenade's pin out with my thumb and chucked it towards the two of them. The fragmentation grenade hit first with an expected explosion. There was a yellow flash that was quickly engulfed by a burst of gray smoke, and I started running.
A sane man would have ran away. At that point, with the ammo porter likely dead and the rockets detonated, the warjack would run out of ammunition in a short time and be rendered ineffective as an artillery piece. It would have been perfectly acceptable to have ran away.
I was not a sane man. I was an impossible thing, and impossible things grab their entrenching tool and keep the rifle in their hands as they run towards the warjack. Once more time seemed to slow to a crawl. The span of time between each running footstep, between each heartbeat, grew comfortably long. I ran into the smoke and squinted my eyes just enough to keep most of the haze out as I made my way through the cloud. For a moment, there was only gray and dark gray shadow before the back of the warjack became visible through the gas. With a jump and a step, I stopped directly behind it's boiler, and with a wide sweep I hooked the handle on the coal box with the flared end of the rifle. With an angled pull back and upwards, the handle twisted loose and the door flew open, the brilliant orange glow illuminating the smoke and bearing it's hearth fire to the world.
With the entrenching tool angled vertically, I thrust my arm and the tip of the spade into the coalbox. Instantly, the heat began to become unbearable. My glove and the arm of the coat burst into flame, and before I recoiled from the terrible pain, I angled the shovel just perfectly. My arm snapped back in agony and out came all of the embers.
As the coal and my immolated arm came flying back, I kicked my leg backwards and turned to the side, leaving me at an angle to allow the flaming stones to pass by my armored chest relatively harmlessly. This did not solve the problem of my burning arm, but that dropped to a low point on the list of things to be concerned over as a gigantic armored fist swung back to slam into me. The blow connected, and the concussive force threw me back an unknown distance. I landed on my back and had the remainder of the air in my lungs knocked out. I forced my eyes open to see a blurred world, filled with smoke and flame. It looked as if the sky itself was on fire as I shifted my eyes down to see the Redeemer lumber towards me. Out of the smoke. As I saw it's armored face and red, malicious eyes focus on me it raised its awfully oversized mace to deliver a killing blow.
I saw the darkening sky behind it. The shift from the darkest blue to the hottest orange in gradual bands became the sole focus of my attention. As I raised my non-burning arm up, rifle still held and pointed at the death machine in insane defiance, I realized that it was the end of the day.
It was then that I had my first verbal thought as an impossible thing.
The mace fell towards me, hitting the tip of the rifle's barrel and forcing the gun back into the dirt. For a moment, the merest fraction of a second, the rifle held. Then the barrel bent and the stock shattered, and the flanged steel came crashing down on the rest of my arm.
There was only pain, and then there was only black.
"Could I have another sip?" I asked as I became uncomfortably aware of the lack of moisture in my mouth. The yellow light of the evening sun filled the room in long bars at odd angles as the rays filtered through the blinds. Large sections of the room had darkened as the light became more directed and angular. The young man in front of me set his parchment and pen on the impressive stack of similar notes beside him and reached for the glass, tilting it up to my mouth as gently as he could. The whole process of drinking from someone else's cup was still clumsy, but I was finding out the little tricks needed to not spill anything. Though I had no idea such skills were necessary, they became so when I had to make due without usable hands.
After gulping down the mouthful and closing my lips for a few seconds, he got the message and pulled the glass away. I took a moment to get another look at him. He had changed in these last few hours. Where first his eyes were filled with a sort of subdued idealism, they were now wide open and brimming with something else entirely. I had never seen the look before, but I knew how it felt. His nostrils widened with the intake of breath, and he began to speak.
"And then the other survivors opened fire on the Redeemer. Apparently, the grenade set off the ammunition, which damaged it's cannon so that it couldn't shoot back. They were able to blast it down at range with concentrated fire before they recovered you."
"Recovered me just a bit too late to keep this usable," I said as I playfully flapped my burned and bandaged arm in his direction. It was nothing but a stick and two appendages that were fingers at one point, which was a disturbing contrast to the complete lack of arm on the other side of my body. He made a sick face, and that made laugh because of how strangely it distorted his features.
"Don't worry, I know what happened. That 'jack was suppressing the counter attack. Once that was rendered inoperable, the core battlegroup charged through and turned the tide. The Menites were routed, and the fortress was held, or so the papers say. In truth, the fortress was in shambles, and two months later they were still refortifying that entire region. Still, Cygnar is a wealthy and ingenious nation. It'll be back up to full capacity before it's really tested."
He was quiet again. He looked at me expectantly, and I sighed before continuing.
"While High Command was allocating resources to improve the defenses of that section of the border, they got word of my exploits from the unit that found me. I received priority surgical care and was shipped off to Caspia to have some medals pinned to my chest by King Leto himself. That was the shortest part of the ceremony, and the rest was him making an inspired but all too familiar speech about heroism and sacrifice."
I took a moment to remember what I felt when our king said those words. That greatness can be found in everyone, from the most potent of sorcerer generals to the lowliest of us poor bloody infantry. I remember them sliding off of me and into a puddle of disjointed attribution on the ground beneath where I sat.
He came here to ask me the usual questions the the ones High Command pick to be the publicity mooks. Why I loved my country. Why I enlisted. What it felt like to be a hero to the nation.
"I hope you can understand why I can't answer your last question. Not now, or ever. What I did was not heroism. Patriotism and the love of my country, as lovable as it is, did not drive me to such feats of.." I trailed off and smiled defeatedly. "That was something else altogether. That was a freak occurrence. That was impossible. By all rights, that never should have happened. I went somewhere altogether strange and unthinkable. I went to the threshold. The very brink. I still don't know if I came back or went over the edge. I'm sorry I can't tell you any more."
"That's alright Mr. Malthus, I've, uh, got plenty here to work with now," he said as he began straightening out his stack of notes.
I looked straight out in front of me at the door to my room. My mind was empty, with only a few bubbles of thought still bubbling about.
"I'll tell you one day if I can tell you what it was. If it's even possible to sum it all up in a single word or concept."
He stood up out of his chair and made his way to the door. One of the nurses here came to meet him, nodding and stepping to the side. He turned back to get one last disbelieving look at me, as if he had to double check to see if the image burned in his mind was consistent with the fragile thing still sitting in the chair. His words were significantly more cordial.
"Thank you for your time Mr. Malthus."