At last, the long-awaited Chapter 8. Longest thing I've ever written, to be sure, an achievement I seem to be all too focused on. Anyway, I'm happy with it for the most part, but as always I've got a nagging feeling at the back of my head telling me I'm doing something wrong. Mostly it's something about repeating myself, but I'll let you be the judge.
I'm sure you'll notice early on that I've again copied dialogue from the game, but this time I tried involving Christian a bit more. I don't consider it well done, but I think it's a decent first step in the right direction.
Remember to point out anything you feel might be handled better, so I can try and improve it for future chapters or (possibly) any rewrites I might undertake (note that rewrites will most likely not happen anytime soon).
The desert was, unsurprisingly, very hot and dry, more so than Christian had expected. He'd never been to the desert before so he was finding the heat hard to cope with and had to constantly restrain himself from reaching for his canteen. At least he didn't have to walk.
"… I guess Erna was right... I really can't handle the heat," he chuckled to himself and smiled, but quickly stopped, opting to think about the scorching heat rather than memories. It felt much better, even though he almost literally felt like he was melting away.
As the squad went further into the desert, it passed countless trenches and odd rock formations, the remains of ancient buildings and roads. Christian had heard about how the Barious had once been the site of a large city but was destroyed in what was now known as the Darcsen Calamity, leaving the Barious in its current state with nothing but crumbling walls dotting the landscape.
"Hmm, looks like we're close to where the enemy should be." Christian turned his head to see Welkin standing out of the hatch and looking over his map. He hadn't made any mention of what it was they were looking for, but Christian figured it was obvious. Welkin proceeded to mark something on the map then knocked on the tank's hull, signaling Isara to stop. It wasn't long before Alicia, Largo and Rosie, the woman with her red hair tied into buns, had gathered by the Edelweiss. There was also a news correspondent, Irene Ellet, who Christian had only just met as the squad was leaving Amatriain. Apparently she was covering the story of Squad 7's exploits for the GBS radio station, starting at Vasel, but Christian hadn't noticed her in Kloden, possibly because she'd been laying low for safety reasons.
"We'll stop here for a bit. Get the men properly rested and hydrated while we scout ahead," Welkin ordered and Largo proceeded to distribute watermelons from the supply truck. Christian reluctantly accepted a slice. He wasn't very fond of the taste, but he had wasted enough water and needed the refreshment.
Once the distribution was finished, the Edelweiss headed a little further ahead, with Alicia, Largo, Rosie and Irene joining Christian on top of it. Eventually they came upon a small hill overlooking the desert, and Alicia pulled out a pair of binoculars. To the east, a trail of dust could be seen as squads 1 and 3 disturbed the desert sands on the way to their destination.
"Know what, this is one strange place." Largo spoke up as he continued chomping on his watermelon. "Rocks with holes in 'em. Dug up ground as far as the eye can see."
"Not always. They say this used to be a huge ancient city." Welkin responded, barely looking up from his map.
"And now it's nothing but a big, empty, irritatingly hot wasteland." Christian grumbled and forced down the last of his watermelon. "I'm never coming back here willingly, that's for sure."
"We all know what happened," Rosie spit out a melon seed and tossed away the skin. "The Darcsen Calamity happened. They say the dark-hairs used some kind of dark arts to burn this city. Left nothing but ash."
"I don't know. Isara said that was a myth with no real historical evidence."
"I'm with the reporter on that one," Christian added. "I've studied the subject somewhat and I haven't seen a shred of hard fact, only theories and conjecture."
"Look, their kind has been diggin' up ragnite since forever, so who's to say they don't know some weird Darcseny type way to use the stuff as a weapon. I'm just sayin'."
"I doubt it. Besides, why would they completely destroy their own city? It makes no sense."
"Anyway, " Largo butted in with a determined tone, "as I was saying, we are in the middle of the badlands, and what exactly are we doing here?"
"We've received some intelligence," Welkin answered, saying the Imperials had been spotted setting up a base near the ruins. "Squad 7 was sent out here to investigate."
"Imperials here?" Rosie looked puzzled. "Some sandbox to come play in… I don't get them. Who knows what they're thinking."
"She's right. Something is definitely up here." Irene added and leaned over the cannon. "I mean, I just can't figure it out, you know. Why would they occupy this place?"
"I say let them," Christian took a moment to stretch his limbs. He hadn't realized how stiff his joints were feeling after enduring the tank's vibrations. "Whatever's out here can't be of much value, so why not hit them where it hurts while they play archaeologist, here in the middle of nowhere?"
"Kid's got a point, boss." Largo turned to Welkin to say something else but was interrupted by Alicia.
"Enemy sighted," she declared, still staring intently through the binoculars. "Tanks at 0-4-0! Distance 800! Hold on… yes! There are foot soldiers as well… and they're taking up combat positions!"
Welkin immediately alerted the rest of the squad through the radio, ordering them into combat formations. Once they had rendezvoused at the tank, Welkin gave a quick briefing.
"There's a lot of ground to cover, and much of it is open," he continued, "so use the ruins and trenches for cover whenever you can. The snipers play an important role as well, so make good use of their talents. Now, move out!"
The soldiers remained close to the Edelweiss for the first few feet down the hill then jumped for the closest cover available as they drew closer to the ruins. At first there was no sign of the enemy except for the occasional figure running in the distance.
The shocktroopers quickly took the lead, with the scouts close behind them and the occasional engineer and lancer. The ruins felt eerily silent as the Imperials remained out of sight. At the heart of the area was a large rock, with a trench running right through it. The rock wall bordering the trench looked quite smooth, as if something had cut the rock clean. Christian positioned himself inside the trench but when the enemy still refused to make a move, he decided to shift his position to a couple of parallel walls few feet ahead, only to be taken by surprise by an Imperial who had already settled in between them.
"Shit," he cursed and dove back into the trench, just in time to avoid the shots that followed.
Realizing they'd lost the element of surprise, the Imperials started their attack. Their numbers were spread all over the place, behind walls, rocks or crouching in the trenches up ahead. The Imp between the walls began harassing Christian, taking potshots at him from his cover but refusing to fully emerge, forcing the Gallian to keep his head down.
Once the Edelweiss was in range, Imperial lancers made their move, stopping it in its tracks but not really damaging it. The tank retaliated with a couple of machinegun bursts and managed to take down one lancer but the others bolted back into cover in order to reload.
"Snipers in position, ready for orders," a female voice sounded on the radio. Some of the snipers had nestled on top of a ridge slightly to the south, overlooking the battlefield, and began scouting for potential victims.
Growing impatient of dealing with the Imp, Christian reached for one of his grenades and armed it, then tossed it over the wall closer to him. The Imperial scrambled to get out of the blast zone but was sent flying out into the open, and right into the crossfire.
"We've got eyes on enemy reinforcements coming from the northeast, by a largely intact building," one of the snipers reported from his position. "Too many to handle with snipers alone, recommend sending a small group to intercept through the rock."
"We're on it," Christian heard Alicia responding from close by. She then motioned to those around her, Christian included, to follow her through the trench to the other side. Besides Alicia, the team was composed of Claudia, Montley, and Nils, with Christian and Hannes taking point.
A couple of Imperials greeted them when they emerged but were quickly disposed of. As they moved further along the trench, which expanded well beyond the rock, there was a sudden bang and Christian felt a stinging pain in his left leg, causing him to stumble and fall forward but managed to let his shoulder take the brunt of it, sparing his face.
"Sniper!" The team took immediate cover before more bullets landed. A few more whizzed by as Alicia risked a look, suggesting multiple sharpshooters. Meanwhile, the enemy reinforcements drew in closer, half of them taking up defensive positions by the building while the other half moved on Alicia's team and opened fire.
"Snipers, do you read?" Alicia asked the radio. "We're pinned down just south of the building, multiple hostiles, and snipers on the roof! Requesting support!"
"We see 'em. Standby." Within moments the enemy snipers collapsed dead on the roof or fell off, and the radio crackled once more. "Enemy snipers eliminated, providing additional cover."
"How's that?" Claudia asked as she finished treating Christian's leg, making sure the bandage was properly tightened. Christian grimaced a bit when she pulled on the wrapping, but it was more reflex than pain thanks to the Ragnaid's sedative effects.
"It's bearable, stings a little under the pressure though."
"I'm afraid the bullet's still in there. I can't reach it without the proper tools," she continued, looking somewhat concerned. "But I can call the medic and have her treat you."
"No, don't. I'll be fine."
"Are you sure? Even with the sedatives, you'll be limping through the battlefield, and they won't last forever."
"I said; I'll be fine. Don't worry about it." Claudia remained skeptical, but Christian insisted.
"Alright, but if you start hurting again, I'm calling the medic."
"Yes, dear." Christian was starting to feel oddly playful, possibly caused by the adrenaline. He could feel the tingle running through his arms as he picked up his weapon, itching to get back into the fight. "I'm not missing this action."
Christian took his position by the rest of the team and fired at the first Imperial in sight. He was trembling a bit from the blood loss, so his aim was a little off, but was still able to eventually bring down his target.
As Alicia's team continued to advance on the building, Welkin's main force began pushing back the Imperials on their side. The desert sands were riddled with dust clouds as explosions scattered the surface in all directions, walls crumbled and soldiers dove for cover. It wasn't long before the Gallians had complete control over the ruins and the last Imperials were killed or driven out.
But the battle wasn't won yet. Across the field to the north the Imperials held the advantage. Although their position was composed of only light fortifications, it would be a hard fight for anyone crossing the open field, which was devoid of all cover, with the exception of very few trenches. In essence the field was a kill zone, spelling almost certain death by the hands of snipers, not to mention the 3 Imperial tanks that were now headed towards Squad 7's position.
Before they were in the lancers' range, the tanks began bombarding the ruins from afar. While not very accurate, it served to put the pressure on the squad and effectively turn every wall and rock formation into potential hazard zones, thus limiting the number of reliable cover available.
The Edelweiss and the lancers attempted to retaliate, but hitting specific targets at such range was never the strong point of heavy weaponry. The Imperial armor suffered a beating but remained intact and continued their barrage.
"Hm? … It looks like the wind is really picking up," Welkin addressed his sister in the driver's seat below him. He'd noticed that the dust, scattered by the explosions, was clearing at an increasing speed.
"I suspect it's a sandstorm," Isara responded, already aware of it. "They're infamous in these areas, capable of causing severe visibility drops."
"That might be troublesome." Welkin adjusted the turret, aiming at the closest tank. "It might be a lot harder to spot the enemy until it blows over." The Edelweiss shook as the round went off. In the distance, the sand blew up in all directions mere inches from the Imperial armor.
"True, but the same goes for them. This might be our chance to get close."
Meanwhile, outside the tank, some of the Gallians' attention was being drawn to a large wall of dust approaching from the east. It covered most of the horizon, and its constantly shifting form suggested wild wind activity.
"Aw, hell…" Christian, who had dug in deep in one of the trenches, cursed as he observed the approaching storm. Reaching for his pack, he immediately pulled out his handkerchief to cover his face with. "Crap, I forgot my goggles… This is going to sting."
"You can have mine." Claudia extended a pair to Christian.
"But, what about you?"
"You need them more than I do. I'm unlucky enough as it is, anyway, so it won't make much of a difference," she giggled in response.
"Well, alright… But stick close to me, ok?" Christian insisted and put the goggles on.
"Alright, Sevens," Welkin's voice appeared on the radio, "looks like we've got a sandstorm coming, so be ready. Once the storm hits, we'll make our advance and use it as cover. I recommend you pair up with at least 1 or 2 squad mates, and stay within calling range of the nearest group. It's possible the storm might interrupt our radio signals, so you need to be able to communicate directly."
Sure enough, within minutes the battlefield was completely obscured by the violent winds. Visibility was near zero, and the soldiers were having trouble making out anything further than 10 feet away.
For Claudia, the visibility was even worse. She had to squint in order to keep the sand out of her eyes, but it wasn't very effective. In any case, she was having serious trouble seeing anything, and had to keep a hold on Christian's backpack so as not to lose him. What she didn't know, however, was that Christian was pretty much lost as well. He hadn't noticed until too late that he wasn't hearing anything beyond the storm and, sure enough, the radio was out, so now he just kept going in as straight a line as possible, hoping he'd eventually run into something, or someone, that'd help him regain his bearings.
As time passed and the two just kept walking, Claudia began growing concerned.
"Is everything all right?" She had to shout through her mask and the storm to make sure he'd heard her. "It feels like we've been walking forever!"
Christian shouted back some words of assurance, but he knew perfectly well they were lost. He just didn't want to cause any needless worry, or admit his failure for that matter. Instead he kept going, still hoping he'd stumble his way onto the right path, until eventually he could make out the shrouded form of what looked like a small portion of a wall.
As the pair got closer, Christian could make out the form more easily. It was definitely a wall, a corner wall to be precise, the only standing remains of whatever building that must've been located there. From their current angle of approach, the wall's "interior" was facing away from them, and Christian feared there might be someone hiding there already. A little farfetched, to be sure, seeing how they'd bumped into no one else for what seemed like miles, and the only sound was the wailing of the wind.
Still, he was cautionary by nature and proceeded as such, asking Claudia to stay put a few feet away from the wall. He could feel his heartbeat rising as he prepared to take a look, taking fully into account the possibility of someone being aware of his presence on the other side… And his hunch was right.
The moment he turned around the wall, someone lunged at him. He tried retaliating but the attack came too fast, so he managed putting only a few bullets into the section of the wall behind the attacker before dropping his gun from the impact. The assailant was an Imperial in crimson armor, and proceeded to immediately shower Christian with punches as he struggled underneath. Christian was able to block most of them after receiving the first few and went straight on the offensive at the earliest chance, pushing the Imperial off to the side and rolling on top of him, effectively turning the table in his favor.
But the Imperial proved quick, managing to catch both of Christian's fists before they hit and turning the struggle into a wrestling match. For a while, the two of them wrestled in the desert sand, struggling to subdue the other with punches and various holds. Christian could hear Claudia frantically calling from behind the wall, unable to assist and growing increasingly worried. Christian tried to respond but only ended up presenting the enemy with an opening, which he exploited in order to pull out a knife from his belt.
Christian managed to stop it just inches from his chest, but his opponent was strong, and the pain in his leg was sapping his strength as the sedatives were beginning to wear off.
"Blasted ragnaid! The timing couldn't possibly be worse!" Christian thought to himself, as his sweating steadily increased and every muscle in his body felt like it was exploding from the adrenaline. But despite the effort, the knife was slowly getting closer. He could hear the Imperial chuckling under his helmet, looking forward to the kill.
"Pathetic Gallians, you really can't realize when you've already lost, can you?" The words were a little interrupted by the helm and the wind, but clear enough so Christian could just make them out. "You've been a real pest, y'know. Which is why, once I'm done with you, I'm going to have some fun with your lady-friend. But don't worry. I'll make sure to take very… good… care… of her." Christian could feel something suddenly awakening within him when he heard the smugness in the Imp's voice. He felt intense anger flaring up, a strong desire for vengeance. The memories he'd been trying to forget since the beginning of the war were surfacing yet again, stronger than ever, and feeding him with a powerful will to survive in order to deal out his hatred of the Empire.
Before the Imperial could realize, Christian had turned him on his back and wrestled the knife out of his grip. He then proceeded to give the bewildered enemy a furious thrashing before plunging the knife hilt-deep into his neck.
The Imp made a last gurgling noise as his life ebbed away, but Christian didn't feel like stopping. He retracted the knife from the man's neck and forced it with all his strength through the armor on his chest, multiple times, until the blade was all but broken. He then stood up and drew his pistol.
"Christian!" Claudia called once more when she heard the gunshot. Besides the first burst of shots, and the occasional grunt she'd managed to pick up through the wind, she had no way of knowing what was happening, until she heard the last shot after a moment of relative silence. When Christian didn't respond, she began fearing the worst, but after a while she could hear footsteps approaching. They were irregular, as if the person was limping badly, which she was able to confirm once she could see the advancing figure. "Is that you, Christian?"
"… Yeah, it's me."
"Oh, thank Valkyrur." Claudia breathed a sigh of relief. "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine… Had a bit of a scuffle." Christian sounded out of breath. "Come on, let's get some better cover."
As Christian came closer and extended his hand, Claudia could now see the considerable amount of crimson staining his uniform. "I-… Is that blood?"
"It's not mine. Don't worry."
"But there's so much! What the hell happened?" Christian ignored the question, but dragged her inside the corner of the wall and sat her down.
"Get some rest," he said and sat himself next to her, covering both of them with a blanket he pulled from his pack, and quickly fell asleep from exhaustion. Claudia tried to do the same, but her current questions and concerns kept her wide awake. Instead she tried getting some of the sand out of her eyes, but there was only so much she could achieve with just her hands and the blanket was too small for her to be moving around a lot without it falling off.
Eventually she managed to relax a bit, resting her head on Christian's shoulder as she listened to the wind wailing outside the cover of the blanket. It provided a strange sense of stillness, and she could feel herself slowly dozing off.
Claudia awoke to the erratic crackling of the radio. She could only make out occasional words amidst the static noise, one of them being "find". She was certain it meant the squad might be looking for them, and was about to inform Christian when she realized he was no longer there, and she had been lying alone under the blanket. The storm had also subsided, so she risked a look from under the cover.
There seemed to be nothing nearby, except an odd mound with what looked like pieces of crimson metal sticking out of it. Her eyes were still somewhat covered with sand, so she reached for her canteen in order to wash them, looking forward to getting rid of the irritation and finally being able to see properly again. She was just about done when she noticed Christian approaching.
"Ah, you're awake," he greeted her and turned his attention to a rifle that had been leaning against the wall. It seemed to be an Imperial design. Christian noticed the curious look on her face and turned to the strange mound. "Turns out our friend here was an Imperial sniper ace. I figured I'd hold onto his weapon, now that he's not in much of a condition to use it."
"So… That's his blood on you?" Claudia asked with renewed concern. It took Christian a second to realize he was still half-covered in red; he hadn't paid it much heed.
"It was either him or me," Christian replied in half-truth. He didn't want Claudia to panic any more than she already had. "The fucker wouldn't stay down, so I had to be a little more… persuasive."
Claudia didn't know whether she should be relieved, suspicious or just plain scared.
"In any case, we should get moving." Christian slung the rifle on his back and offered his hand to help Claudia on her feet. "There's something I want to check out."
"We're not heading back?"
"Not yet. There's something I want to check out, first."
"What about your leg?" Claudia looked at Christian's injured leg but realized his limp hadn't been as bad as before for a while, now.
"I'll get by on the ragnaid for now." Christian answered and gave his thigh a light clap. "And don't worry. We're practically a stone's throw away from squads 1 and 3, so we'll be fine, even if something goes wrong."
It turned out the pair had gone further off course to the east than Christian had anticipated, and they really had been walking for miles. Instead of Squad 7's original route, to arrive at the temple's southwest side, Christian had ended up leading Claudia to the northeast of the temple, close to the other squads' destination. And during his short scouting trip, he'd noticed something big further north, and now he wanted to take a closer look.
"Have you guys seen the new kid?" Ted, Alex, and Ted's friend, Melville, turned to see Hannes walking towards them, accompanied by Jane. He looked concerned.
"Nope. Haven't seen 'im." Ted was the first to answer.
"I don't think I've even met the guy." Melville spoke. He was a rather tall fellow with a round, friendly face, which seemed to be in a bit of contrast to the red mohawk he was sporting. "What's he like, anyway?"
"Oh, you wouldn't like 'im, Mel. He's this huuuuge, buff, monster of a man, with sharp teeth, and grumpier than an old man at 5 in the morning," Ted exaggerated in a playful fashion.
"… We really need to work on your gullibility, man."
"You're his roommate, aren't you, Ted?" Jane asked.
"I don't like to brag… but, yeah."
"Don't be stupid. Bragging is your middle name," Alex chimed in with a chuckle.
"Heh, I suppose it is."
"N-… Now that I think about it… I haven't seen Claudia anywhere, either." A timid voice emerged from a nearby shade, where a petite girl adjusted her glasses. Nancy had a habit of keeping to herself, preferring an unobtrusive presence, so Hannes hadn't noticed her sitting there, until now.
"So we've got two missing militiamen?"
Ted and Melville's faces suddenly lit up, an odd grin forming on their lips. For a moment the two just chuckled between themselves, but their need to share the laughs eventually got the better of them.
"You hear that, Mel? We've got two missing. A boy and a girl!"
"And you know what that means!"
"It's a ROMANTIC RUNAWAY," the two of them shouted simultaneously and burst out laughing. While the joke itself wasn't particularly funny, Alex found himself holding back a smile at the way the two of them acted it out. Hannes and Jane, however, were not amused.
"I just knew they had something going between them! I knew it," Ted eventually managed to declare once he regained control of his breathing.
"This is not a laughing matter," Jane responded by hitting him on the back of his head with an audible slap, nearly smacking him face first into the sand.
"You had it coming, Ted. Some things just aren't material for a joke," Hannes supported Jane. He had his arms crossed and a look of great displeasure on his face. "We've got two comrades somewhere out there, in the middle of the desert, possibly wounded or worse. This is not a time to be cracking jokes about the potential nature of their relationship."
Ted withdrew, with a sheepish shade of red coloring his cheeks. "Well… Has anyone tried contacting them?"
"Not that I'm aware of. And even then it's quite likely their radios might be out of commission, jammed with sand, for example." Hannes sighed. "Anyway, we'd better make sure the commander's aware of this once he gets back."
An uncomfortable feeling of despair crawled through his body, as Christian beheld the metal beast on the desert floor below them. He could sense his strength leaving his body, and he vividly recalled how feeble he felt when he first laid eyes on the monster, yet at the same time he felt the rising desire to blow it apart.
"Christian? Is something wrong?" Claudia noticed he'd suddenly started breathing more intensely, almost trembling. The tank below was certainly a fearsome sight, but she didn't feel nearly as intimidated by it as Christian seemed to be.
"That tank..." Christian hissed through gritted teeth. "Showing up here of all places… Why?"
"What? What's wrong?" For a moment Claudia thought Christian was beginning to cry, but it might have just been his breathing.
"If you must know, that is the tank that pretty much single-handedly crippled Ghirlandaio!" His response was a little more forceful than he'd intended. "And, yes, I was there!"
Christian proceeded to mutter something under his breath, but Claudia couldn't possibly make out what. It was most likely just common cursing, though.
"So… You were actually at Ghirlandaio?" It wasn't that she needed a confirmation, but for some reason she felt like she had to hear him say it again.
"… Ugh… Yes, and I'm not very fond of the memory, so I'd appreciate it if you'd keep it to yourself." Christian took a moment to reassert himself, taking deep breaths to try and calm down. He was directing way too much of his hostility towards Claudia, simply for being curious about something he himself had revealed. He wasn't even sure why he'd told her in the first place. Most likely it'd been a reflex, a habit of his for answering questions before they were asked, something that had developed after Ghirlandaio whenever he got irritated or angry. "Just… Don't go spreading it around… If you want, I'll answer any questions later, just don't tell anyone. I'd rather be free of any attention regarding that place."
"A-alright," Claudia nodded her head in agreement.
"Good… Now if only I could get closer…" Christian started looking around the area, observing the landscape.
"Why not just walk up to it? There's nobody guarding it."
"Not unless you'd want to get torn to shreds… See those two spheres on the side? Those are machine guns, two on each side and one on both ends, and they'll rip right through you in a heartbeat. That thing is a fortress, and not just because of its size. It's practically indestructible."
"Wow…" Claudia was awestruck. "But indestructible? You can't be serious."
"Of course not, there's always a weak spot… I just don't know where it is, yet." Christian sighed. "I think the radiator must be built inside it, or maybe it's too hard to reach because of the machine guns and the rear-cannon. But either way, our best bet is to destroy it from the inside."
"But the only way to get close to it would be… from above?"
"Exactly," Christian replied with an enthusiastic grin. "But we won't be able to do much when it's just sitting out here in the open… Come on, let's head back. At the very least, we should warn the others of its presence here."
"Pick up the pace, we need to hurry!" Christian shouted back towards Claudia, who seemed to be slowing down. About halfway to the temple, they'd noticed an Imperial jeep heading in the opposite direction, carrying a noticeably important individual. Even from afar, the man's clothing was visibly extravagant, so Christian had naturally assumed him to be the Imperial invasion commander. And, given his current heading, there was no doubt he was returning from the temple and heading for the giant tank, most likely planning on wiping out the militia… Unless he'd already done so.
The fact that he was leaving the temple area with minimal escort worried Christian greatly. He couldn't believe the squad would just let him go, so either he somehow managed to crush them or the militia was more corrupt than the Regulars' high command. Those felt like the most likely options, anyway. Christian hoped the bugger had simply managed to sneak away, though the flashy outfit pretty much ruled out that possibility.
"I'm running as fast as I can, but it's hard while carrying all this gear," Claudia called back, slowly falling behind. "And how can you keep going so fast with an injured leg?"
"… I ignore it." In all actuality, he was in considerable pain, even with the sedatives from the ragnaid capsule he'd used just after spotting the jeep. "Here, place your arm over my shoulder. It should be easier if we support each other. We're almost there, so try to hold back the exhaustion."
Eventually the pair reached a large arch just outside the temple, connecting the cliff on their side with another across the entryway to the low valley. Just behind the temple entrance they could see the Gallian flag fluttering over the base camp, surrounded by stacks of sandbags as makeshift cover, and some militiamen behind them. In the ruins below, the rest of the squad was taking up positions behind the crumbled walls and in the trenches, with the Edelweiss positioned just outside the chokepoint that formed under the arch.
"They're taking up combat positions…" Christian breathed a sigh of relief, but remained somewhat puzzled. How did the enemy commander manage to break through if the squad didn't plan on letting him go? "Say… the lieutenant isn't one of those fanatically honorable soldiers, is he?"
"Eh?" Claudia was a little taken aback by the odd question. "Well… no, not as such. He's a little odd, but that's about it, as far as I know… But why are you asking that all of a sudden? Don't we have bigger things to worry about?"
"Ah, sorry, you're right. Think they can hear us from here?"
"It's worth a shot."
Christian proceeded to shout towards the soldiers closest to them at the top of his lungs. He could see some of them turning their heads, trying to locate the source, until one of them spotted the two of them waving on the cliff's edge. He tried shouting a warning, but it seemed they couldn't hear him clearly enough to fully understand it, so one of them decided to run over to them.
Christian was quickly able to identify the approaching soldier as Hannes, his messy, dark curls being almost a dead giveaway.
"Where the hell have you two been? We've been worried sick about you," Hannes called from below, a playful tone in his voice.
"We got a little lost in during the storm, but never mind that! We've got trouble!"
"If you're talking about Commander Fancy-pants, there's no need for worry!"
"You don't know what you're getting into!" Christian explained more seriously. "You need to get everyone into better cover, or you'll be massacred!"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"You're not up against an ordinary tank! This thing is near impregnable; you won't be able to get close to it without the proper strategy!"
Hannes looked skeptical, but relayed the information through his radio.
"I suppose you've got a plan, then?" Hannes asked after receiving an affirmation from Welkin.
"Tell the lieutenant to keep the squad back, keep your distance as much as possible! Claudia and I are going to try and get on top of it and destroy it from within! But if you can take out the machine guns on its sides, you can use the ladders to scale it as well!"
Again Hannes relayed the information, although still doubtful. Whatever response he received from Welkin, however, seemed to put him more at ease.
"You're certain this plan will work?"
"It's the best I've got! If not, we'll have to improvise or abandon the field!"
Hannes appeared to hesitantly nod in agreement, and then turned to leave.
"Oh, and by the way! The commander asks you to be careful up there! We've already lost you enough times for one day!" With that, the shocktrooper ran back to his comrades.
Christian took a deep breath and turned to Claudia. She looked surprisingly calm, considering what was to come, which in turn helped him to calm down as well. But it also produced a sense of anxiety, like a bad omen… It had been the same at Ghirlandaio, but the feeling was stronger now.
"So… I imagine the monster will be here any minute…" Christian unconsciously began fondling his MAGS M4, as well as pulling at the strap of the Imperial rifle he had on his back. "You ready for this?"
"Not really," Claudia replied. "I'm still not very used to fighting… And I'm not exactly what you'd consider lucky, but now I'm going to be jumping onto some invincible metal beast and try to bring it down… To be honest I'm not very optimistic about our chances, especially if my luck is involved."
"You're not scared, are you?" Christian tried his best not to sound condescending.
"Surprisingly, no. I'm actually more afraid of not trying," Claudia responded with a slightly nervous smile. "I mean, I've endured hardships my entire life, so giving up now would feel kind of… Odd… I'm not quite sure how to explain, but… It'd feel like I'd be denying the very center of my being, or something in that direction."
Christian was about to say something, but distant rumbling distracted him from his intended words. Looking towards it, he could see the massive tank approaching through the valley, accompanied by a group of soldiers following along the cliff.
"Shit," Christian cursed and pulled Claudia behind the arch's base. Risking a peek, he hoped the Imperials were too far away to have spotted them but, considering their blue uniforms standing in the middle of the brown desert, that was highly unlikely. "Looks like there's too many for just the two of us… But we might be able to buy some time until the tank is in range, if necessary."
"Or," Claudia pulled the rifle off of Christian's back and readied it, "we could start picking them off right now."
"You sure you know how to handle one of those?" Christian asked, a little perplexed at Claudia's initiative.
"Not really, but it's not much different from my regular rifle, I imagine. It just has the added benefit of a scope."
"You might want to be careful, though. These rifles tend to-," Christian was interrupted mid-sentence as Claudia fired off a shot, the recoil knocking her back a bit and causing her some pain, judging by the look on her face. "… have a bit more of a kick."
"Just my luck…" Claudia rubbed her right shoulder a bit and looked to the approaching soldiers. Her shot hadn't hit any of the Imperials, but most certainly managed to alert them. "But… I think I've got the hang of it now." She readied the rifle for another shot, planting her legs firmly into the ground beforehand, and readying every muscle in her upper body.
The shot went off a little smoother this time. There was still some recoil, due to the fresh bruise on her shoulder forcing her to give way, but by some miracle she managed to get one Imperial square in the leg.
"Ow, ow, ow…" Claudia winced and grabbed her shoulder again. "I don't think I'll be doing that again…"
"Let me." Christian grabbed the rifle from her hand and took aim at the first Imperial. Looking through the scope, he couldn't help but feel the irony of it… He hated snipers. Christian took a quick breath as he finished aiming, then pulled the trigger.
The Imperial in front was immediately knocked backwards as the bullet tore right through his faceguard. His remaining comrades began really picking up the pace, hoping to reach their attacker before he'd manage to fire off another shot. Christian, on the other hand, slung the now-emptied rifle on his back and took out his M4 instead.
"Whoa… How'd you pull that off?"
"Beginner's luck," Christian replied and urged her to get ready. "And… I may have gotten some pointers from… an old friend… But enough of that! We need to hold these guys off until the tank's in range!"
Claudia nodded and took aim with her rifle. As soon as she opened fire, some of the Imperial scouts responded in kind, with most of the Imperial unit joining in soon after. The bruise on her shoulder irritated her to no end, throbbing every time her rifle recoiled, though it wasn't nearly as bad as when she was handling the Imperial one.
Christian pulled out the last of his grenades and armed it, tossing it at a couple of lancers that were getting too close. The blast knocked them back, along with a few shocktroopers accompanying them, but was unable to kill them. One of them was shot dead as he struggled to get back on his feet, but the other managed to crawl behind a rock, the distinct blue glow of ragnaid emanating from his location as he tended to his wounds.
"How far is the tank!" Claudia asked, ducking back into cover and loading her rifle with a new clip.
"Not far! It's passing the Imps at this moment!" Christian unloaded a few rounds into one of the advancing shocktroopers, then moved on to his next target. The enemy's advance was slow, but they were starting to get alarmingly close. "Once it passes under the arch, make the jump and go prone! And remember to put everything you've got into it, don't hesitate when you leap!"
"Just make sure you don't leave me alone on that thing, ok?"
"Don't worry! I'll be right behind you!" The two turned their full attention back to the fighting. The Imperials seemed to be getting disheartened, having lost a few of their numbers to only a pair of Gallian militiamen, but their advance continued. The tank, however, kept a steady pace and slowly distanced itself from the unit, drawing ever closer to the arch.
"Now! Go, go, go!" Christian ordered when the tank began passing under it. Claudia moved as far back as the cover allowed and sprinted towards the edge, putting every ounce of strength she had into the jump once she reached it.
She landed roughly but safely on a platform, making sure to keep low as Christian had instructed. "Come on!"
Christian grimaced as a lancaar round landed a few feet away, launching some pebbles at him, but shrugged it off and moved to jump. The sedatives were still functioning, but the pain was enough to weaken his legs and the distance of his jump turned out a little shorter than he had hoped. He managed to grab hold of the top of the ladder, but got the wind knocked out of him when the rest of his body followed suit and crashed into it.
For a moment he hung onto the ladder, attempting to regulate his breathing, but Claudia offered a hand and helped pull him up.
"Th-… ack… Thank you…" Christian eventually managed to cough up.
Back on top of the cliff, the Imperials had reached the arch, some of them deciding to take a breather while the others continued towards the temple. It seemed none of them were too concerned about the two Gallians, now that the tank was beginning to turn away from the cliff.
The pair could hear the sounds of battle emerging once again as Squad 7 began harassing the tank with lancers hidden in the ruins, and the Imperial soldiers came into contact with the Gallians by the temple.
"Come on. Let's see if we can't get this door open." Christian gestured towards a metal door a few feet away, leading off the platform and inside a structure at the back of the tank. He struggled trying to open it, pulling and pushing with equal force, but it would not budge and had no visible openings, except for a small slit around eye-level. "Bah… It must be barred from the inside… Looks pretty sturdy, too, so I doubt we'll be able to force it open."
"There must be a venting system or an air filter around here, somewhere..." Claudia suggested, figuring the Imperials would have to keep the air circulating or otherwise suffer asphyxiation or be cooked alive by the engines' accumulating heat.
Christian took a quick look around the platform, but could see nothing resembling any sort of circulation system. It was almost as if the tank was completely solid, not hollow. "Maybe there's something on the other side. Think you could take a look?"
"Sure, but I'll need some help getting over this thing," Claudia nodded and gestured at the thick, metal crest sticking out at the top of the tank, connecting with the main cannon in front and the structure at the back. It was about one and a half her size around the middle point, with a slight downward slope on both ends.
Christian offered his hands as footing and boosted her to the top of the crest. Once there, Claudia jumped down on an identical platform on the other side.
"… No! Nothing!" Just then, there was a loud noise as a massive piece of ruin came toppling down, right in the tank's path. The tank slowly drew to a halt, stopping a few meters away from the mostly solid wall. A couple of small explosions followed as some of the Squad 7 lancers managed to take out the machine guns on the left side.
Suddenly, the tank's main cannon moved, aiming at the wall in front of it, and, with a deafening boom, blew it apart like a pile of leaves, blasting rubble in all directions.
Christian was surprised to see something pop out of a hatch just few feet in front of him, quickly realizing it was some kind of radiator. He immediately reached for a grenade, but found nothing but thin air, having used his last up on the cliff.
"Claudia! Did a radiator pop out on your side as well!"
"Yes!" Claudia responded, grenade already in hand. She quickly tossed it inside and distanced herself from the blast zone. Within moments the tank shook as the radiator violently exploded, but the remaining radiator withdrew back inside.
"Christian!" Christian heard Hannes' voice coming from behind him. "What's the situation?"
"We've managed to take out one radiator, but I was unable to take out the other one, and now it's back inside."
"So there's still two remaining?"
"Two? There's one more?"
"Yeah, at the back by the rear-cannon, but we need to hurry!" Hannes grew serious.
"Why? What's happening?"
"There's something major going down east of the temple. Squads 1 and 3 are getting massacred by some woman! Chances are she'll be heading here soon!"
"Shit," Christian started feeling uneasy. "Ok, quick, help me up!"
Hannes did as instructed, helping Christian on top of the crest.
"Tell the lieutenant to keep obstructing the tank; try to make it fire the cannon again!" Christian continued from atop the crest then turned to Claudia, while Hannes got on the radio, and pulled her up. "You've still got grenades, right?"
"A few, yeah." Claudia reached into her pack, pulled out a couple of grenades and handed them to Christian. She glanced at his injured leg and asked how it was holding up.
"As long as we're not in any immediate danger, I'll be fine," Christian waved off her concerns, claiming the sedatives were wearing off but still working. He didn't want to use up any more of the ragnaid unless it was absolutely necessary.
Another ruin soon came toppling down, blocking the tank's progress once more. The tank still had some way to go before reaching it, but there was no room to maneuver around it, so eventually it would have to blast its way through like before.
"We need to wrap this up, guys! Just heard from the radio; 1 and 3 are pulling out with heavy losses and Imperial reinforcements will most likely be heading this way!"
"Unless you can wedge open the radiators, I'm afraid you'll have to wait a bit," Christian called back while he and Claudia made their way towards the rear. "Just be ready when the time comes! We'll finish this in one go!"
Sure enough, the tank again drew to a halt before reaching the obstruction then blew it apart with a single shot from its main cannon.
"NOW!" Hannes and Claudia immediately armed their readied grenades and tossed them into the radiator on Christian's command. The tank shook even more violently as the explosives went off at the same time, so much that Claudia nearly fell off, but Christian managed to help her regain balance.
The tank was now seriously damaged, but still managed to keep going.
"Dammit, this thing just won't go down, will it?" Christian scratched his head in frustration. "Looks like we may have to get inside anyway…"
"Not necessarily," Claudia interjected. "The radiators were pretty close to the armor plating, so the explosions may have weakened those sections enough for a lancaar round to penetrate it."
"Guess it's worth a shot… Hannes! Get on the radio and tell them to focus fire on the plating below the radiators!"
"That might not be enough, though." Christian looked back at Claudia. It would most likely still take a lot more to bring down the metal beast, and they were running out of time. He could see the Imperial reinforcements approaching on the horizon, led by what looked like a person bathed in blue flame.
Christian's mind almost instantly wandered back to all the books he had read on the Valkyrur of old, but they all said the race was long extinct, so how could the Empire possibly possess such an individual?
"In any case, we should still try to get inside. We need to take this thing out before their reinforcements arrive."
"We might be able to get in through the radiator hatches. We may have to wedge them back open, but they should be fairly damaged so it probably won't need much force."
The two went back down to the platform where Hannes was standing. Claudia was able to jump off, no problem, but Christian had to climb down, as the pain in his leg was now seriously progressing. The landing would've felt like a two story jump, if not worse.
"Help me get this open." Christian waved Hannes over to the hatch. Though it was indeed damaged, it took a lot of effort. The two struggled for a moment before asking Claudia to wedge her spade underneath it. Claudia managed to force it open just enough so they could get a better grip, and together the three eventually succeeded.
"Whoa. Must be pretty hot down there…" Claudia jumped back a bit as hot air rushed out the hatch, much like when opening a heated oven. "You sure it's safe to go down there? I mean, we did toss a grenade in there, not to mention the heat generated by the radiator itself before, y'know, ka-boom."
"Well, now that most of the air is out, it should be safe enough." Christian took a moment to check the temperature by sticking his hand down the hatch. "The walls seem a bit hot, though, so you might want to avoid touching them with your bare skin or for prolonged periods of time."
"I'll go first," Hannes declared and prepared to jump in. "I'll see if there's an actual way in from there. If not, you'll have to pull me back up… but, hopefully, the blast will have created an opening in any obstacles present."
Hannes waited for the other two to express their approval then took a deep breath before going down. The interior was uncomfortably warm, almost suffocating, but not much different from a sauna. Had he been wearing nothing but a pair of trunks, instead of the full military gear, Hannes might actually have found it relaxing.
The radiator immediately opened up into a small maintenance area through a blast hole. Hannes took a quick look around, aiming his gun into every corner, just in case. The area was a mess, with various pieces from the radiator scattered about and the walls dented by some of the heavier fragments, but no Imperials in sight, except for a few bodies that got caught in the blast.
A sudden explosion, followed by minor vibrations, startled him for a moment.
"The squad's started the counteroffensive!" Christian's voice sounded from outside. "How's it looking down there?"
"Looks like we're good! There's a door here that should lead out into a main corridor!"
"Ok, we're coming down." The two quickly joined Hannes inside. Before heading out the door, Claudia made sure both her comrades were properly stocked with grenades and ammunition.
Christian slowly opened the door just enough to peek outside. A few Imperials were walking through the corridor, heading to the front of the tank. Christian risked a better view by sticking his head out the doorway as they passed but there was little else to be seen, except for a door at the front of the corridor and a ladder at the back of it.
"Looks like the area's mostly empty… They could be preparing for evacuation," Christian said in a half-whisper and reached for a grenade. "I'll bet the door at the front leads to the command center, so that's where we're headed. Be ready on my signal."
Hannes and Claudia nodded and Christian waited for the enemy soldiers to reach the door. When one of them was about to open, he armed the grenade and tossed it down the corridor so that it landed by the Imperial's feet.
"Go!" Christian bolted out into the corridor with Hannes following close behind, guns ready. The explosion killed most of the Imperials by the doors, with only one managing to escape largely unscathed but was quickly mowed down by machine gun fire. The door was blown half-open, and some of the enemies inside could be seen scrambling for cover.
"Shoot everything that moves," Christian ordered Hannes as they reached the door, hugging the wall on each side. "Claudia, watch our backs!"
The ensuing firefight proved challenging. The Gallians only had one, tight opening with little to no time to move out of cover for a proper aim, forcing them to stick mainly with potshots, while the Imperials had the numeral advantage and some cover, enabling them to keep up a relatively steady salvo. Christian could hear a commander shouting orders from within, pressing his soldiers to drive back the Gallians and secure an exit but with no avail. But just as the Gallians began making progress, Hannes' radio crackled with an urgent message.
"Everyone, fall back! You're no match for that woman!" Welkin ordered. "Focus on the tank if you can, but stay away from her!"
Christian and the others had little time to react as the message was almost immediately followed by an explosion in the hallway. A lancaar round had managed to penetrate the tank's armor plating, leaving a wide hole in its left side.
"Shit! Claudia, you okay?" Christian called. The hole was worryingly close to her location.
"Y-yes… *cough*… I'm okay!" Claudia responded, trying to clear the smoke out of her face. Curious, she risked a look out the hole, only to have her fears confirmed. "Guys, we need to get out of here!"
"Why? What's wrong?" Hannes and Christian returned to her almost immediately, having lost what little foothold they'd had because of their surprise from the explosion.
"That woman. She's heading right towards us!" Claudia gestured outside, where the woman, covered in blue flames and wielding a lance and shield, was rapidly getting closer. A large force was at her back as well.
Christian hesitated for a moment, intimidated by the approaching threat, but quickly snapped out of it by the sound of Imperials in the hallway.
"I guess we're out of options," Christian reached for the last of his ragnaid and applied it to his leg. "Go! I'll be out in a minute!"
Hannes and Claudia nodded and headed out the hole. It was still a fair drop to the ground, so Hannes swung onto the still-intact ladder to his left, then helped Claudia do the same before sliding down safely.
"Come on!" Hannes gestured and headed to the front of the tank, towards the retreating Gallians, but was stopped in his tracks almost immediately by a strange, blue energy blast that landed mere inches in front of him. He turned to see the strange woman pointing her lance at him, building up another shot. Without thinking, Hannes fired a few rounds at her, only to see them bounce off her shield, which she somehow managed to raise faster than the bullets could reach her.
"Get back! Go around it!" Hannes called to Claudia and headed for the tank's rear as the woman resumed charging. Just as the shot went off, he grabbed Claudia's uniform and pulled her behind the tank, barely evading the attack.
"Come on. Let's get out of here," Hannes said once his heart rate started returning to normal. "Stick close to the tank to avoid the guns."
"What about Christian?"
"I'm sure he'll be fine. He's proven himself to be rather resourceful so far." Hannes reassured her as he made sure to keep up with the tank's pace. "Besides, we'd only get ourselves killed getting in the way of that thing. That… witch."
Claudia reluctantly accepted Hannes' reasoning, simple as it was. She felt like they were abandoning him, something she had great difficulty justifying, but seeing the woman's power left her little choice and all she could do was hope Christian would indeed manage to find a safe way out. Little did she know her worries were largely unfounded.
Christian hadn't really intended to leave with them in the first place. He absolutely had to have the tank destroyed, so much so that he was throwing every principle of his, regarding certain-death situations, out the window. His plan was essentially a gamble, but one he felt compelled to make.
As soon as Claudia and Hannes were out, and Christian had finished applying the ragnaid, he headed in the opposite direction, back to the hallway. Taking a deep breath, he waited for the Imperials to come closer. Once they were close enough, he pulled out a grenade, jumped out into the hallway and rammed into the first Imperial so that he fell backwards on his comrades, causing some confusion. He then tossed the armed grenade into their midst before hightailing it to the end of the corridor and up the ladder.
Claudia jumped when a sudden explosion resonated from inside the tank. She couldn't help but grow increasingly worried as the situation worsened, with Imperial troops now moving around the tank, trying to trap them on the other side, and still no sign of Christian or the rest of the squad. With the threat of the machine guns looming overhead, she and Hannes had no choice but to hold out in the open, with Imperials regularly emerging from behind the tank's front and rear.
"Hannes, Claudia! Get ready to run for cover," a voice emerged from Hannes' radio. "Ready? … GO!"
Without a second thought, the two immediately bolted for the closest ruins as a barrage of lancaar rounds began pummeling the tank's side and gunfire pinned down the advancing Imperials.
"You two alright?" Largo emerged from cover once the pair arrived safe and sound. Hannes confirmed that they were both fine. "Where's the kid? Wasn't he with you?"
"He's still inside."
"What! Is he crazy?" Largo seemed unsure whether he should be worried, angry or impressed but eventually settled on an odd mixture of all three, expressed with an odd chuckle. "He gets out of there alive, he'll be very, very dead… C'mon. What's left of 1 and 3 will be here soon, so we'll be startin' the counter-attack any minute, now."
In the meantime, Christian had managed to locate the rear cannon's control room, along with its ammunition supply. He took a quick look around and located a maintenance hatch leading outside, on top of the gun's chassis. "This should provide a decent escape route."
With that in mind, he made some quick preparations to make sure he'd be able to make it outside in time before the explosion. He could hear the Imperials beginning to try and force their way through the door, which he'd barred from the inside, but it would only be a matter of time before they got in.
With the final preparations in place, he headed up the hatch and outside. Once there, he pulled out the last of his grenades and took a deep breath. "Here goes nothing…" he thought, and armed the grenade before dropping it down the open hatch, then took off like a wildfire in the opposite direction, towards the closest way down.
The Imperials that finally came bursting through the door were greeted with a bone-chilling sight as the grenade landed near a toppled oil canister, with a trail of oil leading to the exposed shells.
Christian was rapidly approaching the ladder on the tank's right side when the grenade went off, with the subsequent explosion of the ignited ammunition causing the entire metal body to shake violently and setting off a chain reaction as the various machinery began overheating.
A particularly violent explosion caught him off guard as he was making his way down. Although the fall felt like an eternity, he was still having trouble grasping the situation when the ground hit, and soon after, everything went dark.