by Matt Goetz
Fire burned in Dragos’ arms and prickled in his aching back. He had long since passed the point of exhaustion and now fought on fueled only by rage.
The boiler at his back radiated a cruel heat, and the pipes feeding his armor rattled and pinged from the pressure within. Without the steam-augmented strength his armor provided, he would not be able to lift even one of his massive hammers, much less swing them both against the press of bodies surrounding him.
Southerners in blue plate jabbed at him with their halberds. Each strike filled his nostrils with the tang of lightning, assaulted his ears with a thunderclap, and bit into his flesh with numbing pain. His skin burned with countless scorch marks where the electricity had passed through his armor and into his body.
But still he fought on.
Dragos stood under the eastern stone arch of Forlyst, a minor village on the rim of Umbrey. Around him lay the shattered bodies of dozens of Cygnaran soldiers who had tried to press him back. Their big guns had shattered the gates of Forlyst, leaving the village gap-toothed against their approach. Now he was the gate, along with the shocktroopers who had died to keep the southern dogs at bay.
Forlyst had no warjacks, no warcaster. The High Kommand had considered it too insignificant to merit such resources. It had only Dragos and a handful of shocktroopers and Winter Guard to protect it. When Khador’s enemies chose it as a staging point from which to launch an offensive deeper into Umbrey, he had stood to repel them.
Something in his armor popped, and a fresh pain screamed at his back as hot steam vented against his shoulder. He felt the skin pucker and draw tight as it blistered, then started to split open.
He clapped the head of another foe between his ice mauls, bursting it in a spray of ruby slush. His own pain could wait.
“Come, you whoresons!” Dragos cried. “Which of you will be the next to die?”
Dragos awoke with a snarl, thrashing about in his bed. Bandages covered both of his arms, spotted pink from his wounds.
“Awake at last, Sergeant?”
The voice came from the foot of the bed. Dragos had to blink against the light several times before the shape resolved itself into a tall, slender woman with raven hair and crystal-blue eyes: Kommandant Sorscha Kratikoff.
“Did I win?” His throat was raw, and his voice creaked when he spoke.
“After a fashion,” she replied. “When Kapitan Barymov’s kompany reached the city, they found you half-buried under the bodies of three dozen southerners. The others were easy fodder for the Man-O-War kompany sent to your aid once battle commenced.”
“Where am I?”
“You were taken to Laedry. You were not expected to survive your injuries, but Barymov was insistent.”
“Then I owe him my life,” Dragos said.
“No. You owe me your life, sobaka,” Kratikoff snapped. “I could have you chained to a fellblade for refusing to follow orders. My instructions were clear: hold Forlyst unless the Cygnarans attacked in strength, and destroy any potential resources in the village before falling back to the forward kommand. I intended to make them overextend into our territory, where we could deal with them with ease.”
Dragos scowled, pushing himself up onto his elbows to meet her icy gaze. He had heard rumors of the kommandant having her own issues following orders, but he was smart enough not to bring it up. He tried a different tack. “I killed them, did I not?”
“And the soldiers I sent to accompany you. Those men died because you felt the need to spill Cygnaran blood. Khador already has one Butcher, Sergeant. We have no need for another.”
Dragos fell silent. Speaking of the Butcher of Khardov had turned her face even harder and colder, if such a thing was possible.
She must have seen his discomfort. “Do not fear, Dragadovich. You will not receive punishment this time. I am not as quick as you are to throw away the lives of my soldiers.”
Dragos returned to battle ten days later; the war refused to wait for him to heal. He marched among a phalanx of Demolition Corps toward the van of another force, this time made up of trenchers and light warjacks. Shocktroopers and a pair of suppression tankers marched ahead, shielding his unit from fire. The whine of bullets ricocheting from their shields was constant. Cannons thudded and soil exploded from near misses, showering him with clods of dirt.
As he crossed the battlefield, Kommandant Kratikoff’s words rattled in his head. Was he really as bad as the madman Zoktavir? That unhinged warcaster was a true butcher—a slayer of his own countrymen, of women and children, a rabid dog who should have been put down long ago. Is that how Kratikoff viewed him, too?
Dragos shook his head to clear it of the thought. The battle line drew near. Already the shocktroopers had begun to break from their shield wall, preparing to fall upon the forward ranks of trenchers. Beyond the front line were several squat blockhouses, fronted by snub-nosed cannons on iron pintles.
Dragos waited for the shocktroopers to create gaps wide enough for his Man-O-War before shouting, “Press forward!”
The Demolition Corps chugged ahead, building up speed. They trampled Cygnarans felled by the shocktroopers and flattened razor wire beneath their steel tread. Just before reaching his target, Dragos triggered the controls in his armor to divert steam to its legs. Too many new Man-O-War believed strength came from the arms of their armor, but he knew better. To strike with maximum power, one must first press against the ground, then channel the strength through the body and into a crushing blow.
He brought both ice mauls down on the barrel of a cannon, freezing and shattering it into brittle shards. Another blow, and a frosty scar marked the concrete wall of the bunker. Another, and another, and he had created a hole large enough to see through.
Panicked shouts and rifle fire answered him, but the shots pinged uselessly from his steel cuirass. A trencher started to prime a grenade, so Dragos smashed a chunk of the bunker in with a sideways swing of his maul, catching the man in the side of the face with the debris. The trencher went limp before the explosive cleared his pouch.
Dragos struck above and below the breach to weaken the bunker wall and surged forward, letting the weight of his armor snap the structure beneath it. Inside, half-dozen trenchers pressed against the far wall, eyes wide and white.
He stomped toward them, the stack of his boiler grinding against the low ceiling overhead. He did not have room for an overhand swing, so he prepared to crush them with wide, arcing blows.
“Ceasing!” wailed one of the soldiers in muddled Khadoran. “Surrender we are!”
Dragos snarled and shifted his grip to strike the man down anyway. He swung for the man’s head. But before the weapon could pulverize the life from his foe, he forced himself to stop, his armor creaking in protest. The ice maul halted a hand’s span from the Cygnaran’s temple. Its frigid metal caused a thin fuzz of frost to form on his cheek.
“Weapons. Now,” Dragos said, keeping his words simple and clear. In truth, his Cygnaran was as clumsy as his opponent’s Khadoran had been. The man nodded quickly and threw down his rifle, babbling at the others to do the same. One by one they complied, creating a pile of weapons at his feet.
Dragos brought his mauls down on them, turning the rifles into frozen dust.
The battle had gone well. When it was over and the tally of the dead had been taken, Kapitan Barymov informed Dragos that the kommandant wished to speak with him.
He approached Sorscha’s field table. Beast 09, her personal warjack, stood protectively at her side. The men he had captured were in front of her on their knees, wrists shackled behind their backs.
Sorscha was saying something to them in Cygnaran. A trencher with a grim expression nodded at her, said something in return, and hung his head in shame. Sorscha smiled a rare smile as she thumped a gauntleted fist onto the table.
“You requested my presence?” Dragos asked. He felt uncomfortable in the kommandant’s presence.
“Barymov told me you brought these men in alive. Is that true?”
Dragos cleared his throat. “It is.”
Her eyes narrowed as she studied his face for a moment. “Why did you not eliminate them? The highest rank among them is field sergeant. Keeping them as prisoners will strain our resources, and we lack the personnel to deliver them to a military prison.”
“Because they surrendered to me,” Dragos said, “and only a murderer or a fool would not accept.”
“Why?” Her question was quick and blunt.
“Even a sergeant could have knowledge of greater strategic objectives, or the locations of key commanders. Kill them, and we lose the opportunity to discover that intelligence.”
“Correct, Sergeant,” Kratikoff said. “Had you killed these men, we may not have learned that their First Army plans an interdiction between Merywyn and our kommand post west of the border. One of the men you spared has a talkative friend among the Cygnaran commandos, it seems.”
Dragos kept silent.
“Return to your unit, Dragadovich. You will receive new orders by morning,” she said.
He saluted and made his way back to his Man-O-War. As he walked, a small smile crept across his face. Maybe not such a butcher after all.