HEADHUNTERS (63.1)

this scene contains violence and death


52nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Tambwe Dominance, City of Rangda — North Rangda

Lydia braced her LMG atop a mound of debris, wedging it between the rocks.

The bipod had broken, and she needed to stabilize it.

“Lydia, watch out!”

Gwendolyn’s voice forewarned her, and Lydia ducked her head.

Gunshots struck the rock and chipped dust and fragments that flew in her face.

Gritting her teeth, shutting her eyes, she held the trigger and pressed down the gun.

The Myrta unleashed a volley of gunfire, a hitching, stopping-and-starting barrage that was forcing the gun up and back. Lydia struggled with the recoil, unable to see the enemy or even to peek her head out to look. She felt movement. Individual sharp snaps joined the repeating chunk chunk chunk of the light machine gun. Her fellow knights had joined her.

Lydia spread a tearful eye open, irritated by the dust.

She saw Gwendolyn standing tall beside her, holding her rifle up, aiming and firing.

She appeared to Lydia so gallant and powerful in that glimpse, her hair waving in the wind, her armor glistening, droplets of sweat falling from her face onto steel. Undaunted in the fire, with a steely gaze. Like a valkyrie of northern myths; she was so beautiful.

“Lydia, get up, we cleared the position!”

Gwendolyn’s voice was forceful, and Lydia felt an arm on her shoulder.

She let go of the light machine gun, wiped her face, and stood up from the ground.

Though the metal breastplate was decent at stopping pistol rounds, it was heavy and burdensome and drained one’s stamina. Lydia was already running on fumes, and having to stand and crouch and move around in the breastplate, symbol of her status, made it worse. Regardless, the helping hand of Gwendolyn was enough to right her, and she rose.

Ahead of them a sandbag emplacement was ripped and pitted and splashed with blood.

There were Ayvartan corpses around the defensive line, and an abandoned anti-tank gun wedged between sandbags, its operator laying dead behind the unshielded cannon. It was a lone, roadblock position with ten people, a few of them unarmed. Beyond them was a series of industrial buildings. Gwendolyn crouched beside a girl with a radio box, stolen from Ayvartans of the 8th Division, and took the handset and raised it to her ear.

“Paladin, we have cleared the anti-tank position. Patriarchs will be moving up.” She said.

Behind them, Lydia saw the tanks moving in from around the corner. Because of their thin armor, they were worried about the anti-tank gun. Lydia, Gwendolyn and a squadron of their knights had taken the decisive lead in the assault, and now the tanks shrugged off the sandbags in front of them, and opened the way. Farther ahead was the heart of the broken 8th Division. Once scattered to the winds, the elves would dominate North Rangda.

Gwendolyn set down the radio handset and waved to Lydia.

“Lady Paladin, Lord Arsenica ordered us to take out an artillery position.” Gwendolyn said.

“Breaking off from the main force, huh?” Lydia said.

“Orders are orders.”

Lydia smiled. Gwendolyn turned her head sheepishly away.

Though Lydia was nominally the vanguard, Gwendolyn had taken charge too.

Gwendolyn had transitioned so seamlessly to the front of the pack. It was almost as if it was in her blood, just a fact of nature that Gwendolyn was meant to be followed. Ever since they touched down in this forsaken continent, Gwendolyn’s meek voice had gained a measure of weight, and the people around her were listening. Lydia was listening.

She turned to the rest of the women of their squadron, and beckoned them.

Rifles in hand, breastplates yet untouched by gunfire, the women of the Knight’s corps fell in behind Lydia and Gwendolyn, and together, the unit broke off from the Patriarch tanks and the men in universal carrier APCs trailing behind them, and tore off into a nearby alleyway, cutting through the urban jungle. In the distance, as they moved farther away, the group heard gunfire as the tanks engaged the 8th Division in the industrial district.

“Let us hope they will be enough.” Lydia said.

“They must be.” Gwendolyn said.

They moved through the alleys in a column, Lydia and Gwen at the head, and the rest of the girls behind them. There were two light machine guns among them, Lydia holding one. Most of the girls had rifles; one had a scoped rifle for distance shooting. Two girls had submachine guns for added close-quarters automatic gunfire. They were shabby pieces from the old war, over a decade prior to these hostilities. But they still fired when needed.

Every girl carried two grenades. One anti-personnel frag, and one smoke grenade.

“Arsenica said it was an artillery position, right? Where is it?” Lydia asked.

“In a park just outside these alleys. And it’s Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica, Lydia.”

Lydia was not entirely thrilled to be reminded of Arsenica’s many honorifics.

In the midst of this maddening operation, a hand-fed, pampered noblewoman like Arsenica only took command because she got lucky and did the least amount of fighting. While she and Gwendolyn had been destroying Ayvartan anti-air positions and fighting the 8th Division head-on, outnumbered and in enemy territory, Arsenica had simply happened to land where the enemy radios were. Everyone deferred to her authority because she had come into possession of the crucial intelligence needed to win.

It did not sit right with Lydia. Arsenica was unworthy of leading them.

Someone like Gwendolyn was better suited. Gwendolyn was better suited.

Still, Gwen had made a demand of her and she would answer it.

“Yes, Lady Paladin Lord Arsenica it shall be, Lady Paladin Vittoria.”

“Ugh.” Gwendolyn grumbled, without even turning to meet her eyes.

Lydia laughed.

She accelerated her pace to catch up with Gwendolyn, and laid a hand on her shoulder.

“How are you holding up?” She whispered.

“I’m fine.” Gwen said.

“Are you really? I’m supposed to be in charge, but you’ve almost broke into a run ahead.”

Gwendolyn paused for a second to allow Lydia to walk a step past her.

“I apologize.”

“Gwen, you do not have to be formal with me.”

“I know. But appearances are important.”

“Gwen–”

“I’m fine, Lydia. As fine as I can be in this place.”

She did not sound fine. Lydia sighed.

“Gwen–”

Again, Gwendolyn interrupted. This time, she shot Lydia a fiery gaze.

“Lydia, I was sent here to die. And if they want me dead, I’ll die fighting.”

Lydia felt a sense of alarm.

“There’s no need to be so reckless. We can outlast this, Gwendolyn.”

“The Queen wants to be rid of me. I can never outlast that. But I’m foolish, Lydia. You know I don’t overthink things. I’m tired of sitting meekly around. That’s what I decided.”

Lydia squeezed harder on Gwendolyn’s shoulder.

“If you’re just doing it for me, you can stop with this act already.” Lydia said.

Gwendolyn blinked. Her expression turned briefly meek. Then she turned her head.

She marched at the head of the column once more. Lydia sighed.

“I’m doing it for me too.” Gwen whimpered.

Clear of the alleys, the group exited into a broader street. There was a cable car track occupying one lane of the road, and some of the cable cars lay abandoned along various points. Adjacent to it was a lane for cars, this one empty all the way up and down as far as Lydia could see. Along the concrete streets there were several tall, square, homogenous houses that probably served as rented flats (Lydia knew not how Ayvartans distributed their housing; did they have rent?). It was thick, dense terrain. Between the cable cars and the daunting wall of houses ahead of them there was a lot of cover for the enemy.

Hesitant to step out among these sights, the knights grouped in the alleyway.

“How much farther to the gun battery?” asked one of the girls.

Lydia looked around, squinting her eyes. She looked skyward. No trails; nothing.

“I don’t see any evidence of shooting. And I don’t hear anything near.”

There was always some kind of sound of gunfire in Rangda. There was a war going on. Rifles and machine guns could be heard continuously in the far off distance, reduced to a sound akin to the snapping of a door lock. Every so often there would be a far-away blast as a shell dropped, and to Lydia these distant explosions sounded like an overzealous oven burner upon its first lighting, a fizzing, gaseous sound bereft the rumble of proximity.

Despite all of this a gun firing in their vicinity would have been unmistakable.

They would have seen the trail, felt it in the ground and in their stomachs, and heard it.

“They wouldn’t keep a battery in a place like this. We should find more open ground.”

After delivering this advice, Gwendolyn then broke the huddle without warning.

She dashed out onto the road, and put her back behind an old, riveted steel mailbox.

Lydia almost wanted to shout, but her beloved 3rd Princess made it to cover safely.

Sighing with relief, she quietly signaled the next girl out by tapping her shoulder, pointing at her own eyes to tell her that she would be covered, and then pointing sharply out to the road. She would run past Gwendolyn’s mailbox and stack up behind one of the cable cars.

Nodding her head, the girl raised her rifle diagonally against her chest and breathed in.

She rushed out of the alleyway, passed the street and stepped down onto the road.

Lydia turned from her, and pointed to the next girl in the same way.

When the second girl ran out, the first one was almost to the cable cars.

Lydia watched them, her light machine gun trained on the road.

Her eyes squinted, reflexively. Tears drew from them. She caught a sharp glint of light.

This disturbance drew her gaze up to the roof of a nearby apartment building.

“Take cover!” Lydia shouted.

Just as she spoke the first shot rang out.

A rifle round perforated the neck of the first runner.

She fell to the ground, clutching her neck as if her head would fall off.

A second shot struck the ground near Gwendolyn and she pulled her legs up.

Horrified, Lydia raised her gun skyward, still catching the glint of the sniper’s scope.

They had made a mistake and positioned themselves clumsily. By the glint of the scope in the sun, she tracked the enemy down to the correct roof, and immediately laid a withering hail of automatic fire against them. She braced the gun against her shoulder and her back against the brick wall of the alley buildings. Because of its top-mounted magazine the myrta was difficult to aim and had a terrible balance, but with its trigger held down it performed as any machine gun would. Dozens of rounds chipped away at the concrete parapet and dozens more sailed over them. Her remaining squadron joined her, firing from around the corner edge of the alleyway at the rooftop. The enemy hid away.

Behind the mailbox, Gwendolyn withdrew a rifle grenade from her satchel and loaded it.

Rising from cover, she fired on the rooftop.

There was a flash and a burst of smoke from her muzzle, and the rifle grenade soared over the parapet and detonated with a sharp, sudden crack like a heavy whip. Their sniper rose over the parapet once more, but there was no glint from their rifle. Disoriented and wounded, the sniper stumbled over the edge of the building and fell to their death below.

Lydia lowered her myrta, its barrel shroud smoking, red and hot.

From her side, one of the girls ran out, screaming and crying, dropping her rifle.

Lydia and Gwendolyn both shouted a warning that went unheeded.

“Silica, no!”

Silica dropped to her knees beside the knight slain on the road, her pants soaking up blood from the ground. Her partner, the victim, was still holding her neck, gurgling incomprehensible words that bubbled with blood. Everything had happened so fast that though it felt like an eternity, only seconds seem to have flown, and the girl was still dreadfully alive in her agony. Silica bent over the fallen knight, her head on the dying girl’s breastplate, and started to cry and shout. “Jasmine! Jasmine no! No please!”

“Get back here!” Lydia shouted. She was exposed in the middle of the street.

Her screaming could draw the enemy to them!

Gwendolyn removed the spent rifle-grenade cup from her rifle, punched out the blank, loaded a real magazine, and charged out to the road, perhaps aiming to drag Parthia back.

Watching all this transpire, Lydia hastily snapped off the spent top-loading magazine from her Myrta, and one of her companions shakily withdrew and loaded a new magazine.

As Gwendolyn cleared the street, a burst of gunfire went off.

Silica froze, shook, leaned, like a pillar struck with a sledgehammer.

Perforated in a dozen places by machine gun fire, she fell, forming a bloody heap along with Jasmine. Neither of them would gibber again. Cheek to cheek, they died then.

Lydia stood frozen for a second. Gwendolyn too.

But the world did not stop for anyone else.

From farther up the road a second burst of machine gun fire trailed the ground in front of Gwendolyn. She fell back, startled, and Lydia saw her last moments flash before her eyes. Riddled with bullets like a training dummy, her golden hair and peachy skin caked with blackening, clotting blood, a gorey fountain of it, and then the fall, twitching, ungainly–

Lydia underestimated her partner. Gwendolyn surged forward, and with an acrobatic tumble fit for the olympic stage, she soared over the corpses in their deathly embrace, hitting the ground hard, and taking a sudden roll to hide behind the elusive cable car.

Machine gun fire struck the corner of the alleyway, and Lydia hid again.

Her squadron followed, cowering against the bricks.

“What the hell is going on!” Lydia shouted.

She peered quickly around the corner and saw the muzzle flash of the Ayvartan machine gun. It was entrenched in one of the cable cars along the road farther ahead, near the top of a gently sloping hill. Lydia grit her teeth. Bracing the machine gun against the corner of the alley, she pivoted just enough to bring the barrel to bear on the enemy emplacement.

Her fingers rapped the trigger to fire a controlled burst.

Crack!

Suddenly the trigger was stuck fast, and the bolt caught, and nothing fed.

Her myrta was jammed.

She felt ice cold despair gripping her heart.

Just across the street from her, Gwendolyn crouched behind the cable car as a storm of gunfire flew all around her. Dozens of holes formed on the surface of the car, every window shattered, the doors unhinged, the front falling off, as it absorbed nearly endless gunfire from farther up the hill. Lydia stared between Gwendolyn and the hill and the corpses of Silica and Jasmine. Would that be them? Was that their fate all along?

Arsenica had led them to this fate.

Lydia grit her teeth, despair turning to anger.

Arsenica, 4th in line to the throne, had commanded brave Paladin Vittoria, 3rd in line, to hunt for an artillery position in this sector. Dutiful Arsenica, who had full control over 8th Division Ayvartan radio and full intelligence on its positions from the Council that once fully controlled and commanded these armies. How had this slipped from her grasp?

“Everyone throw smokes! We’re retreating!”

Lydia had hardly shouted this, when her own smoke grenade went out.

In the middle of the street, where the mailbox was, the gas cloud started to spread.

At her side, more of her comrades joined her, throwing their smoke grenades out.

Soon the entire street was covered by the cloud.

Within the cloud the red tracers flew erratically, like fireflies buzzing by.

Lydia drew in a deep breath, and ran out.

She could not see where she was going, and she felt the pressure build in her chest and head as she tried not to breathe the smoke. She nearly stumbled as she blindly cleared the street and stepped down into the gutter, and then onto the black. Her boots stamped something wet and grisly; she nearly tripped on the corpses she could only presume to have been lovers, and she grit her teeth, and she felt bile rising in her throat, and she hoped to God that they could be happy in heaven now, hoping not to join them soon.

Ahead of her she saw the outline of Gwendolyn in the smoke.

All around her, the machine gun tracers flew.

“Gwendolyn!”

She breathed in smoke, coughed.

Lydia took the final plunge, and ran straight into a bullet.

A rifle round struck the welding seam directly over her sternum.

It was like the force of a cannonball. Her chest felt like it would cave-in.

Her breastplate dented, her left breast quivered with agony.

Lydia, choked up, screaming, collapsed just short of the cable car.

Weeping with agony, she thought for sure that she was now dead.

Then she felt the hands, the desperate tugging and the gentle grasp on her hair.

Gwendolyn pulled her behind the cable car, and laid her on her lap.

“Lydia!”

She opened her eyes and amid the smoke saw her beloved’s radiant face.

She was dirty from the smoke, and the sweat.

There was blood on her forehead.

“Gwendolyn.” Lydia mumbled weakly. “Are you hurt?”

“I was grazed. You could’ve been killed! You should’ve retreated!”

“No. Not without you.” Lydia said.

She glanced back at the road.

Gwendolyn seized her head by the cheeks and pulled her gaze away from that.

“Stop it! Just. Don’t look at them.”

She winced as a fresh round of automatic fire flew past them.

Lydia coughed. Her chest was screaming with pain.

“Arsenica is trying to kill you.”

Gwendolyn looked over her shoulder as if she would see anything but the battered cable car at their backs. Perhaps as if she could see that artillery battery they had been sent to claim. This was maybe the most despair-inducing event that could occur to a soldier. To know that one’s commander, in whom one entrusts her very life, whose good faith is absolutely necessary to succeed in an operation, is sending you to death deliberately.

Though Gwendolyn did not cry for Lydia’s wounds, she was crying now.

Lydia almost wanted to smile. Gwendolyn was much more of a soldier than she knew.

She was a perfectly mannered lady, a skilled ballet dancer, a gymnast, a singer, the best hostess she ever knew, and a wonderful lover. But she had trained, for longer and harder than anyone gave her credit for. They all had; but for Gwendolyn it felt extraordinary.

“Gwendolyn, I love you. And I’m happy to die like this than live–”

Lydia cringed reflexively, and Gwendolyn grit her teeth and shut her eyes, as something with a lot of force sailed suddenly past them, parting smoke, very close and extremely fast.

There was an explosion in the near distance.

Lydia heard footsteps, and she heard the grinding turn of tank tracks.

Behind them, a Patriarch I tank of the airborne forces advanced past the cable car.

Several men moved up to the car, putting the tank between them and the enemy.

They crouched near the two knights and offered assistance.

“You two ok? You wounded? This is an 8th Division roadblock up ahead!”

Medics moved up. A Universal Carrier, an odd-looking little armored tractor, arrived.

Gwendolyn wiped away her tears.

“I love you too, Lydia.” She whispered, as the men arrived to take care of them.


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