The lancers retreated down the black road until they were out of the reach of Raben’s sniper rifle. He stepped off the spiral tower’s firing step out of their line of sight and leaned against the merlon’s cool gray stone. From this position he could see through an interior embrasure into the Attis Chapel’s lower bailey. Outside the walls of the chapel, four Camaronian dragons circled the dead and the dying on the black road. Their leather wings snapped over the lancers’ bodies, and he knew it would not be long until they tore at lancer flesh with their sharpened front talons. More dragons and several reapers, attracted by the sickening sweetness of spilt blood, flew toward the chapel, filling the air around him and he feared their feeding frenzy might soon find him.
He unfastened his rifle’s scope and re-mounted the firing step to survey the surrounding yellow steppes that spread out in four directions from the stone embrasure. Other than the lancers at the bottom of the hill, he could not see anyone or anything else. He tried his com-cell again and received only static. Corporeal Bleak and his squad were probably dead, he thought. He re-attached his scope and sat with the rifle--its butt firmly placed against the gray stones-- firmly between his legs and realized the question now was not how he would escape but how the lancers would attempt to breach the wall. He had blown the bridge over the crevice, a natural moat, forestalling any direct attack against the gate’s double iron doors. He knew, however, they would devise another way in. They could scale the sides of the hill. It would be difficult but they could do it with time and ropes but he would have sufficient time to pick them off with his rifle, if he saw them. Seeing them, of course, was the problem. More likely, he reasoned, they would position snipers around the hill and hope to hit him when he raised his head in one of the embrasures in the crenelated wall of the spiral tower.
A reaper veering from the road, catching his scent, and hovering several meters over the tile slates of the tower’s flat roof interrupted his thoughts. He reached for his dead sergeant’s pistol and blasted a short burst at the beast. Several rounds hit it squarely in its broad breast, throwing it back and up before its wings crumpled and sagged. Dead, it fell to the tile floor of the Chapel’s parade ground in the center of the main bailey.
Just mid-day and a cool autumn wind stirred bits of debris on the roof. Fishing out a half-eaten iron ration from a pocket of his fatigue pants, he absently chewed, while watching another reaper alight next to the dead one. The living reaper circled its fallen kin twice before it tore into its flesh. With its maul full of bloody meat, it turned its head to watch the scout on the tower wall. They both chewed slowly, sizing the other up. Out of pure curiosity, Raben opened his mind to investigate the reaper’s aura. The blazing whiteness of it startled him. Pure chaos, an antithesis to his ordered blackness, filled his mind. Rather than the nausea and repulsion he usually felt when confronted with the contagion of humans tainted with the gangrenous confusion of chaos, he felt an instance attraction to the bird-like reptile and wondered if there was a natural chaos symbiotically opposed to his natural order sense. The beast eventually turned back to its food, choosing to ignore Raben, who continued to watch the animal from the tower, as more reapers and dragons arrived and descended on the dead.
An hour later, bored with the creatures, he dozed against the stone wall of the merlon, his head resting on the barrel of his sniper rifle. However, shouting and shots soon awoke him and he shook his head, embarrassed he had fallen asleep. He slowly rose to peer through the embrasure. A squad of lancers was shooting at the dragons in a feeble attempt to drive them away from the bodies of their fallen. Raben immediately realized they had advanced within the range of his sniper rifle. He raised the weapon and aimed at the furthest man and pulled the trigger. There was a splatter of blood and he slumped down upon the black road. Raben ejected the round and inserted another. He shot the man at the back and the others did not notice him fall, as they continued to harass the dragons. He fired a second round and the penultimate man in line fell backwards off the road and rolled a ways down the side of the hill to rest in the dry yellow grass. They still had not noticed.
A lancer mounted on a tall black gelding galloped up the hill toward the men, shouting at the top of his lungs, pointing at the tower, warning his comrades that the sniper was felling them one by one. Raben sighted on the horse and estimated the distance to be outside his range but he fired anyway. The horse went down head first throwing the man forward. He lay in a heap, unmoving, while the horse struggled up with a wound in its broad chest and a broken leg.
The lancers now knew he was firing at them and reluctantly withdrew down the hill as the dragons returned to their gristly task.
As Raben ejected the last shell casing he heard a thud and then a chip of stone hit him below his left eye. He immediately dropped down off the firing step as several spurts of automatic fire splattered on the stones of the merlon where he had stood. Snipers had crawled up the side of the hill, hiding in the dried yellow grass, to reach a point to fire at him. He gathered up the sergeant’s machine pistol, his knapsack and his sniper rifle and pulled up the wooden door in the center of the tower and descended the spiral stairs to its second level. He passed quickly through the second level to the ground floor and pulled open the thick wooden door that opened onto the lower bailey. He couldn’t see the reapers on the parade ground from here but he was now on their level, within easy reach of their fangs.
He stepped over the anti-personnel mines he had buried around the door and worked his way along the western wall of the lower bailey until he reached the steps leading to an open gorge tower situated mid-way down the curtain wall of the citadel. The open gorge would not provide him the protection of the spiral tower but the lancers did not expect him there and with luck he might be able to hit one or two of them before they realized he had moved.
He slowly climbed the steps to the top and placed the machine pistol and his knapsack down on the smooth stone floor of the open gorge tower. He then took a deep breath and stepped up and peered through his sight. He started with the road and then swung in a 180 degree arc across the steep side of the hill, knowing he had only a few seconds before the lancers saw him.
He made the sweep and saw nothing. They must be camouflaged, he thought; just as he had been camouflaged, covered with cut yellow grass, when he climbed the road to the chapel the day before.
He was about to make another sweep when he heard a scratching static in his left ear. The com-cell had picked something up. It must have been due to the change in his location. He moved to his left and heard the static again. Forgetting about the snipers, he grabbed his equipment and moved to the spiral tower at the southwest corner of the main bailey, adjacent to the chapel.
He pushed against the heavy door, which resisted him at first, and then climbed the stairs to the top. At the top of the stairs, he heard Bleak’s voice for the first time in two days.
He pressed the red rune on the com-cell and said, “Rover here, over.”
“Damn you, Rover, where have you been?”
“Destination reached, leader. I am under attack.”
“There is a lancer brigade with light weapons only.”
“We are on our way. Is there an entrance for us at destination?”
“Negative, leader, there is only one way in and the brigade controls it.”
“Any surprises awaiting us?”
“The road is mined past the brigade.”
“We will seek vertical help. Stay available.”
The com-cell went dead.
He repeated the words out loud: “vertical help?”
He scanned the southwest side of the hill one more time and still didn’t see any snipers. He decided it was time to make a complete survey of the walls. He descended to the ground and crossed the lower bailey and then entered the main bailey, heading to the southeast tower. The reaper was lying next to the partially eaten carcass, seemingly asleep. One green eye was open, however, and Raben felt the beast watching him.
He turned away from the reptile and continued toward the southeast tower. Once there he scanned both the south and the east. In the east, he saw a cloud of black dust maybe five to ten kilometers away. He immediately suspected it was another contingent of lancers. He opened his mind and felt sure it was a CDF troop heading his way. He also felt confident they planned to scale the walls after dark. The question for him was which side would they attack? The south and north walls were unassailable. They knew he was watching the west so the attack would most likely come from the east.
He needed a spot where he could maximize his fire. Because of the wall dividing the lower bailey from the main bailey, he could not see both east and west walls. If they scaled the east they could use the dividing wall as cover. If he took up a position on the stone allure of the dividing wall he could cover both the east and the west, although he would be unprotected on the east side. He rubbed his face and felt the thick stubble against his palm. He hadn’t slept in two days and he yawned as he returned to the northwest tower and climbed to the top. He scanned the steep side of the hill one more time before he descended to the second level and rolled up in his poncho. Before he fell asleep he set his watch to wake him in an hour. He figured he had that much time before they attacked. He was wrong.
An explosion woke him forty minutes later. He scooped up his weapons and ran to the top of the tower and leaned out on its interior side. A lancer wearing a cloak of yellow grass lay in front of the door, his left leg gone and blood flowing out of his wound. Another man, also in camouflage, sprinted toward the Gothic archway in the separating wall, heading toward the main bailey, seeking cover. Raben lifted the sniper rifle and drilled a hole in the man’s back just as he was slipped under the opening. As he fell forward, the reaper sprain onto him and ripped into his neck with his massive jaws and dragged him to the other side of the wall into the main bailey.
Looking through the rifle’s sight, Raben scanned the lower bailey. He couldn’t see anyone so he opened his mind, attempting to pick up an aura or a trace of any lingering lancer assassins. He sensed a third man crouching on the far side of the open gorge tower. There was nothing to do about him now, he thought. He would wait until dark. Maybe, if he was lucky, the reaper or a dragon would get him. He sensed the man was terrified of the reaper and the mines and he suspected he wouldn’t make a move for awhile.
One thing he guessed from the attack was that the lancers intended to scale the western wall. As soon as the sun set he would find the lancer and deal with him and then take up a position on the allure of the dividing wall.
The com-cell vibrated in his ear. Bleak was trying to contact him but it was impossible for him to move to a more advantageous position now. He would have to wait until night fall. He crouched against the stone of the tower and closed his eyes.
As the sun began to set, he climbed up on the firing step and gazed through an embrasure facing the black road. One dragon remained. The others had flown away to their roosts, carrying parts of bodies in their mouths. Down below, he could sense the lancer crouching behind the gorge tower. He was not sure if the reaper remained in the bailey. He thought, but he was not sure, he was receiving a vague sense of the beast’s white aura near the chapel.
With dusk, a cold breeze blew from the north and he could feel winter’s imminent arrival. He sat down on the firing step, placed his head in his hands, and closed his eyes. He saw snow falling on the steppes and Kaiser tanks stalled on snow covered trails. He opened his eyes suddenly, realizing that time was running out for a counterstrike. If winter fell before the Kaiser’s forces launched their counterstrike, they would spend the winter dug into the shores of the Dons River.
Kavka had emphasized the importance of Attis Chapel to each member of II Squad. He had ordered that no one but Black Robes were to be admitted into the chapel. He scratched his chin and wondered what they would say when they discovered he had already been inside the edifice. He also wondered what would happen to the chapel and to him if the marines did not cross the river. How long would the squad, surrounded by thousands of CDF, be required to hold the chapel? That is if Bleak, indeed, showed up. He knew what was going to happen to him if they didn’t. He felt the sheer weight of the mission descend upon his shoulders, as the sun finally set behind the horizon.
As soon as dark fell onto the bailey, the lancer, hiding behind the gorge tower, crawled around the base of the tower to a point where he could fire at the southern embrasures of the spiral tower. Raben sensed his movement and his fear. He noted his aura was a light brown and he had calmed down and was now prepared to finish his mission. He also felt several other lancers crawling toward the outer wall. If he was to reach the dividing wall, he had to move now and that meant facing the lancer hiding in the lower bailey. He swung the sling of the sniper rifle over his head and then lifted his knapsack up onto his left shoulder. He checked the magazine of the machine pistol and descended the spiral stairs to the ground floor. Before pulling the wooden door open he wrapped himself in his camouflaged poncho that turned a dark shade of gray; its intelligent material, taking on the color of the night and the stones of the chapel. The hinges squeaked.