I couldn’t get the taste of gunmetal out of my mouth. It probably had something to do with the gun getting pushed past my teeth. Don’t worry, I’m not the one doing that. On second thought do worry. Worry a lot.
“Last chance, partner. Tell me what I want to know,” said the man holding the gun. I tried to say something but it only made the gun go in further. “What’s that? Sorry couldn’t hear you,” he said, cocking the hammer back. I never thought I’d be in a place in my life where cocking was a verb describing what was going on near my face, much less in my mouth.
“Boss! We got trouble,” said a rough and tumble gent from the hallway. Before the boss man could reply, the wall exploded with the force of five rhino-men and two wailing banshees.
As the debris fell around me, my squad came rushing in through the new hole in the wall shooting, blasting, punching, kicking, biting, scraping, spitting, whomping, stomping, and generally wrecking every living and non-living thing in the room. After the detritus stopped bouncing, I spit the gun out of my mouth.
“Guys. Gals. Good to see you,” I said, feeling genuine relief for the first time in months.
“You gave us quite a scare. I thought ve’d lost you,” said Captain Nicoletta Ionescu, my second in command. Her piercing red eyes were a comforting sight.
“If only you were so lucky,” I said as the others untied me and helped me to my feet.
“We got more baddies coming,” Captain Johnson said, his lupine senses ever alert.
“Johnson, Ionescu. You’re with me. Darkness take point. The rest of you clear out the upper floors,” I ordered.
“Where we headed?” asked Lieutenant Michael Darkness.
“Storehouse. We’re going to need those cannons,” I said with a pleased grin.
Five hours later, I was glad to have the charred corpse of Fort Cragg behind me. The squad escorted me back to the main camp where the rest of the Fright Brigade had made camp. I got a few salutes, but everyone was too busy getting ready to move out to pay much attention to me. I reported to the command tent promptly.
“Major. You’re alive,” said Colonel Mason.
“I am,” I replied.
“Your men disobeyed my direct orders. I would have been content to leave you as a prisoner of war for your stupidity but apparently the men have a soft spot for imbeciles,” he said.
“You should give them medals,” I said.
“Because they brought cannons. Twenty cannons,” I replied. The Colonel sighed.
“You freaks will be the death of me. This whole affair began because you were too impatient. If you’d had a cooler head on those shoulders we wouldn’t be as behind as we are.”
“We’d also have a couple hundred more casualties than we got. Your men made a safe retreat thanks to my screen,” I said.
“What’s a few losses? Most of them are already dead anyway,” said the Colonel, his withering stare a supernatural power unto its own. I would have mistaken him for a ghoul if I didn’t know he was fully human.
“The proper term is ‘living impaired’ and furthermore…”
“Enough!” the Colonel interrupted me. “You have your orders. I’ll have no more insubordination from you or any of your men.”
“Sir,” I nodded and made my leave.
I met with the officers while the troops mustered. Captain Shin Igami of the 11th Reapers, Captain Howitzer of the Hundreds, and Captain Mammon of the 1st and 3rd Legionnaires joined me along with Ionescu, Johnson and Darkness.
“Colonel’s pissed. Guess you guys did something right,” I said. That got a laugh. A grim laugh but a laugh nonetheless. Mammon didn’t laugh. He never laughed. “There’s no sense in bullshitting you. Yes, it falls to us to lead the suicidal charge into the artillery embankment on the enemy’s southern flank. It is heavily guarded, monumentally fortified, and protected on every metaphysical level. It’s a distraction at best. A ploy to get their forces to concentrate on us while the rest of our human compatriots head north. Nothing more,” I said.
“All of us are behind you. One hundred percent,” said Captain Johnson. The rest nodded. I laughed.
“So what you’re actually saying is I’m heading into the meat grinder first?” I said.
“Goddamn right,” said Mammon.
People who say war is hell don’t appreciate the irony until they’ve seen a few demonic charges. Hell don’t even begin to cover it. The frontline came into view beyond the hills and vineyards. The enemy was implacably entrenched along several miles of trenches and barricades. I was impressed by the modern tactics on display. I almost admired the poor bastards.
The trumpet sounded as another bloody charge was led into the fields where dozens of men were exploded by artillery fire every second.
“ATTEN-HUT!” said the Colonel. We stopped. “Major Horus. Advance!” he ordered.
“To those who are about to die again, I salute you!” I yelled over the din of battle. The next ten minutes lasted for years.
I summoned a sandstorm to cover our advance but there wasn’t enough material to work with. The Reapers went incorporeal and took the lead but the Buddhist class Zen rounds tore them to shreds. Ionescu had her horse shot out from under her and so she became a bat to keep up with the rest of us. Johnson and his pack charged ahead of us, howling like a full moon was out. The first wave of Reapers hit the enemy line. They tore the screaming souls out of the infantrymen but the holy weapons of the monks slowly pushed them back.
That stopped when Johnson entered the fray. Apparently the enemy was running short on supplies because there weren’t enough silver bayonets or bullets to hold the pack back. They punched a hole through to the second line of trenches. Mammon led up the rear, clearing out the trenches and bunkers around the position with possessed horsemen and Hellish Armor Infantry wielding demonic flails and devilish crossbows.
In the distance my eagle eye caught sight of a counter charge. The strongest, heaviest troops the enemy had were converging on our position. I cursed and decided not to hold back any of my power. Starting the incantation I took my ceremonial sacrificial dagger and sliced my left hand clean off. The pain was tremendous but the potent energy was going to be necessary for what I was attempting. My hand dissolved to sand as it hit the cratered earth. I called to the underworld for aid. The sky was rent asunder and a colossal mummified scorpion emerged, landing in the center of the artillery emplacement.
The scorpion roared as powerful magical defenses came alive, sapping its undeathly energy, but it cared little as it was nothing more than an engine of destruction. Its pincer and stinger made short work of the artillery crew. I called upon the Hundreds to rally on my position. Howitzer and I combined our cavalry forces into a single spearhead and pushed forward. The barbed wire, trenches, pits, mines, stakes and other hazards were little more than nuisances to us but the blessed stakes, holy mines and enchanted barbed wire was tearing us apart. The sappers in Johnson’s pack didn’t have enough time to clear a path for us and we were losing many of them to the enemy’s defenses.
“Come on you bastards! You want to live forever? Well, you know what I mean!” I shouted. The enemy counterattack was swift and brutal. They plowed into our cavalry charge, stopping it in its tracks. I split from the group and tried to flank them but their battle golems turned to face me and my men with huge magic pikes. The situation was grim and getting worse by the second.
“Halt, servants of evil!” someone shouted. I felt a compulsion to stop moving like I’d never felt. Like I was back in my tomb. Like my soul was stuck in transit between here and the Duat. I turned and saw a man dressed in armor of whitest gold with a rifle wrapped in liturgies and prayers. “Foul creature, Vladimir Ivanovich commands you to banish the dead scorpion god back to hell!” the man shouted in a heavy Russian accent.
“Bite my mummified brown ass,” I replied.
“You have a good handle on English, abomination. Your British masters must have you well under their thumb,” said Ivanovich.
“Your type are the worst. Self-righteous, think you know everything, judgmental. There is a world of power outside your little sphere of influence,” I said.
“The Russian sphere is not small,” he said.
“I was talking about humanity. Humanity’s sphere is tiny. Infinitesimal. The great powers of the world are but bees tending to their honey compared to the Beyond.”
A giant winged bat woman descended on Ivanovich. With a quick motion he drew and shot the attacker. Ionescu lay dead on the ground, slowly dissolving to dust.
“I am but a vessel,” he began. Johnson howled and leapt at Ivanovich. He threw a silver dagger which exploded the captain in flames. “A vessel to power far beyond anything you English monsters could conjure.” Igami shot his reaper rifle, the shot bounced harmlessly off Ivanovich’s armor. My men were getting pushed back. I was slowly being surrounded. Escape was slipping through my fingers. “My power is the God of Abraham and Peter. The kingdom is within our grasp while you nibble at the heels of greatness.”
I called upon the carrion beasts of the desert. They erupted from the ground, devouring Ivanovich’s horse. He jumped off, landing on his feet. Howitzer swung his lance. Ivanovich parried and shot his blessed pistol, killing the captain.
“Surrender, servants of darkness,” Ivanovich demanded.
“Igami! Michael!” I called. Igami swung his scythe while Lt. Michael Darkness grew into a cloud of pitch black night.
“They’ve broken through! We’re surrounded!” Mammon shouted before a round of holy light pierced his black heart.
Ivanovich rebuked Igami, tossing a bola made from Buddhist prayer beads which trapped the captain. This was the chance Michael needed. He enveloped Ivanovich, blinding him.
“Cowards! Fight me!” Ivanovich screamed.
“As you wish,” I said.
I drew my ancient bronze sword and entered the cloud. With my supernatural senses I could see him flailing about, his technique replaced with sheer panic. I found an opening in his armor and stabbed as hard as I could. Ivanovich screamed and tried to counterattack. I dodged and sliced through his neck. Gurgling, holding his bleeding neck, wide eyed, he still stood.
“The power… of Christ… compels…” he struggled to say.
“Let me teach you something about the Christ,” I said. I summoned the ancient tomb of embalmment. It appeared behind Ivanovich, sarcophagus lid open. “He was anointed. Chosen. Your soul is power hungry and cleaves to greed. Just like the English you so despise.” I pushed Ivanovich into the tomb, shutting it. “A fine line exists between ambition and avarice. The Christ knew to give these things away that he may be unburdened. But your soul, as you call it, is heavy with the weights of hubris and desire. Let us see how it floats.” I opened a hole in the earth and cast the tomb down below, the screams from the tomb vanished in the distance.
“You have done well. For your bravery in battle, you will be awarded the medal of Unnatural Bravery for your actions.” General Hawthorne placed the medal around my neck. It reminded me of my royal regalia and put a smile on my parched lips. Captain Igami bowed as Hawthorne awarded him his medal. “As Colonel Mason went missing from the battle and was never found, the new leader of the Fright Brigade is you, Major Horus. Congratulations.”
The twenty remaining men and women and other of the Fright Brigade saluted as a trumpet played.