“The thing was larger than a bear and moved faster too. Its claws could tear a horse in half. It could crush a man’s skull in its jaws without much effort at all. And its scream. That terrible scream still keeps me up at night.”
A First Hand Account of the Abomination Skrull
Mister Graves. Farmer and Colonist of Delwhick. Second day of Darkness, 3323
Boots sloshing in muddy sleet, Jake walked briskly through rows of tents. Brenarian Regulars stood at attention as he passed. Their red uniforms were soiled from days of fighting and living in muddy snow. Some suffered from frostbite and others from trench foot but spirits were generally high. Rumors had spread through camp that a secret weapon would put an end to the siege soon and Fort Agatha would again be under Brenarian control. A key ingredient to winning the war, Jake thought.
A thick fog formed in front of Jake’s face with every breath. The night air was lit with hundreds of torches. To his right, Jake heard the boom of mortars firing their massive shells over the timber walls of the fort, hammering their entrenched enemy. An orange glow reflected off the haze hanging over the battlements. The Brenarian forces were close enough to hear the Spratzian troops inside struggling to put out the fires.
Jake arrived at several tents bearing the Eye of Apollo in a wide circle. Along the rear of the circle was a long line strung between two trees, where a dozen horses stood tethered. In the center of the circle was a crackling fire. Jorn, Brutus, Amir, Margaret and Dogwa sat around it with several other knights of the Order.
“This secret weapon everyone is talkin’ about,” Fletcher said with a chuckle, “is me. Apparently word got around about my silent and deadly bow.”
Hailing from generations of hunters, archers and craftsmen of bows and arrows, Fletcher preferred to use his recurve bow in battle despite the many technological advances in ranged combat. His name, the only one he was known by, was a direct testament of his ancestors’ means of business. Keeping the name of the family trade was an ancient yet common practice in the highlands of northern Brenar. Tall and thick with bright red hair, Fletcher was a fine specimen of the Highlander appearance.
“The only silent and deadly thing you’re packin’ is the hot air escaping your trousers,” Rickart gruffly spoke through his wiry, black beard. “Your skills may impress the sheep, or the women who look like sheep in that cold wasteland you call home but here, in the new world, there is no substitution for accurate firepower.”
He pumped his rifle above his head. “Better range and accuracy. I can put a man down before he even hears my shot and I can assure you he will not get back up.”
Rickart Fin’s family hailed from the southern coasts of the old world like Amir, but he grew up in the new-world colonies. Though he was shorter than most in stature, his technique with the rifle was well above par.
“Have you forgotten the Knights of Apollo have been used as cavalry more often than not, gentlemen?” Luca Geovani asked with a chuckle. “On horseback, that accuracy you boast of is improbable. The lance, saber, and pistol are what matter when charging an enemy flank.”
An orphan, turned horse thief, Luca was taken in by the Order at a very young age.
“I can shoot from horseback quite accurately and at ten times the speed of any muzzleloader,” Fletcher retorted. “At the battle for Baxon Hill, I killed thirty with my bow before dismounting.”
“Dismounting?” Rickart laughed heartily. “I was there and I seem to recall you being pulled from your horse by a boy playing dress up in a Spratzian uniform.”
“He fought as a man and I put my dagger through his heart as I would a man. No different than how I would dispatch any foe.”
“A man, a boy, a woman, a dog. It doesn’t matter,” Armond DeFalco said in a dark tone. “If they pick up a weapon against me or aid my enemy, then they become the enemy and I will put them down by any means possible. There are much crueler ways than a bullet in the back.”
DeFalco preferred to be addressed by his last name. Not many knew his origin but due to his dark outlook on life and his usual unhappy demeanor, the knights often jested of him being the seed of an ogre and born from the womb of a hag. He certainly looked the part. He was large in stature with a round yet muscular shape. And though an ugly man, his ugliest quality was his mind.
“I grow tired of all this talk of battle,” Amir interjected. “Anything you say cannot even come close to the evil we faced on Delwhick.”
The circle grew silent. Jake remembered the horrors they faced on that island and he knew those who were there did too. Those who were not there had heard enough about it to hold their tongues.
Jake’s stomach bubbled and a lump rose in his throat. He scanned the firelit campsite and found him. William stood behind a tent with his mashed up face. He turned and disappeared into the darkness. Jake thrust his gaze down into the fire and willed his stomach to settle.
“Battles like this are nothing like Delwhick,” Amir added.
Several moments of silence were broken as Count Varro stepped out of his tent and the knights stood at attention.
“Orders down from the top,” he announced, and all the knights gathered around.
“The Regulars will begin their assault on the eastern wall at full force. This will draw their attention away from the western wall where the ground outside is generally clear and, for the most part, level. We will ride hard to the south so that they can no longer see our movements. Then we will sweep around the west in a wide arc. Once there, we will use grappling hooks to climb the battlements. When we have cleared the enemy off the top of the wall we will focus our fire on the support troops below in the courtyard. Anyone bringing ammunition to the fighting troops or putting out fires is a target.”
“We will use our rifles from the top of the wall,” Rickard reiterated, elbowing Fredrico.
“We are not to open the gates or sabotage their supply directly once inside?” Luca asked.
“Our orders are to hold the wall and pick off the supporting troops below. Nothing more. The General told me to await further orders from there.” Varro spoke slowly, emphasizing what the knights were to do. “Now arm yourselves and mount up. You have fifteen minutes.”
To their rear, the knights could hear the assault raging. The distant popping of muskets, the boom of the artillery and mortars, the frantic calls of the fighting men, the chaos of war. Varro faced the knights, watching for the signal to begin their flanking movement. A dancing light in the distance caught Jake’s eye. A lantern swinging in a wide curve, the signal.
Varro turned his horse and ordered the cavalcade forward. Jake spurred his horse forward. He and Amir were positioned at the front of the two columns of knights, six behind each. The Count led them into the black woods to the south of the fort. Then raising his rifle over his head, he turned the formation westward, then northward, and then eastward, swinging them all the way around.
When they emerged from the trees and saw the western wall of Fort Agatha, there were very few guards atop it. Several shots were fired from above, striking the soft soil around the tramping hooves.
“Dogwa, Jake, and Rickart,” Varro ordered. “Dismount and cover the ropes.”
Brutus, Amir and Luca tossed their grappling hooks and began climbing. Jake took a knee and aimed his rifle to the top of the wall. He was set no longer than a second before a Spratzian soldier poked his head over the wall to take a shot at Brutus. Jake squeezed the trigger sending his bullet through the soldier’s face.
As the three continued to cover the others’ ascent with well-placed shots, the climbers made quick progress. Reaching the top, Brutus drew his broad sword and war hammer from his back and cleared a portion of the rampart with a single wide sweep. Several enemy soldiers were killed or maimed, and one was sent over the side. He passed the climbers flailing and screaming.
Amir reached the top and bayoneted several Spratzians and shot one who attempted to dislodge one of the grappling hooks. Luca had begun his climb as the rope was cut from above. He fell a relatively short distance but injured his leg. Forced to withdraw from the climbing party, he limped to the covering party and took a knee next to Jake. Luca immediately began firing and reloading as quickly as he could.
Margaret swung her leg over the wall and slashed with her scimitar.
“That’s it,” Varro said. “It’s our turn to climb.”
They rushed to the wall and slammed their backs to it to present as little a target as possible from above. Jake slung his rifle and gripped the rope tightly. He moved up the rope faster than any other knight had and yet he still felt as if he were moving too slowly. Eyes flicking left and right, Jake expected to find a Spratzian taking aim.
Upon reaching the top, he noticed the lifeless bodies lining the floor of the rampart like corpse carpeting. Below him, the fort burned. The ammo runners and bucket carriers could not be much older than twelve. Children, Jake thought.
“Well,” DeFalco said gruffly, “what are we waiting for? Let’s get to it.”
He fired the first shot to the scurrying enemy below, striking an exceptionally young bucket carrier in the throat.
“Wait,” Varro said, holding his hand out to cease fire.
Several of the children below noticed the boy fall. He writhed on the ground gripping his throat. The children looked upward to the knights on the wall and froze. Then one boy ran to the right and disappeared behind a building.
“Count Varro,” DeFalco said as he reloaded his rifle, “our orders are to eliminate support troops.”
“I know our orders,” Varro snapped. “Just wait.”
Then Varro noticed three small cannons below and to the right. Their crews elevated and pointed the guns directly at the knights.
“Shift fire right,” Varro called out. “Take out those guns.”
The knights adjusted their aim and systematically took out the crews before they could fire. A woman ran out from a nearby building and knelt next to one of the fallen crewmen sobbing loudly.
“Hold fire,” Varro ordered. All knights shifted their attention to soldiers taking aim in the courtyard except DeFalco. Positioned next to him, Jake took notice. DeFalco waited until the knights fired again, masking the sound of his shot. The bullet struck the woman in the small of her back and punched out the other side. She arched her back and called out in pain before falling on her dead soldier.
“What are you doing?” Jake demanded, striking DeFalco in the side of the head with his stock and rising to his feet. “We were not to shoot her, you wretch, and you knew that.”
Amir and Jorn restrained Jake as he attempted to strike DeFalco again.
“She could have fired that gun just as any one of the crew could,” DeFalco defended himself.
“She showed no intention to do us harm,” Jake retorted. “She was grieving and you murdered her.”
Varro called for silence then craned his head as if listening to a distant sound. The knights fell silent, listening as well. A distant howl rose up from the western trees. It was different from a wolf’s howl or anything they had heard before. Jake felt his stomach turn and his knees grew weak. He had not felt this way since his time on Delwhick.
The howls and barks grew closer and closer. Then two large hairy creatures burst from the tree line and began climbing the wall without use of the ropes. Before the knights could coordinate an attack, the beasts had reached the top.
Jake stood, looking into the eyes of the creature for what seemed like an eternity. It had the head of a bear and the body of an ape with long, sharp claws. Flashes of the creature Skrull raced through Jake’s mind. The similarities were beyond coincidence.
Roaring, Jake plunged his bayonet into the belly of the monster. The beast did not flinch. It simply gripped the rifle, jerked it from Jake’s hands and threw it below.
The monster snarled and drooled. The other jumped below as if it had not even noticed the knights. The beast Jake had stabbed followed. It leaped to the courtyard below, shredding any and all who wore a Spratzian uniform. One opened the eastern gate as the other slashed and shredded the enemy.
Once open, the gates flooded with red Brenarian Regular uniforms. The fort was overrun in an instant. The battle was won, yet none of the knights looked happy. Jorn, Amir, Brutus, Margaret and Jake each turned to Varro.
Without taking his eyes off the abominations below, the Count spoke.
“Admiral Kro has grown very foolish indeed if he believes he can control chimera.”
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