Iron & Glass: Episode 16 — Hounds of War

        Our hero finds himself bereft as he girds for battle.          I screamed.         My head spun as the world turned around me—shapes, lights, and

        Our hero finds himself bereft as he girds for battle. 

        I screamed.

        My head spun as the world turned around me—shapes, lights, and the roar of sounds I couldn’t decipher. Something took hold of my shoulder. I struggled free and struck out. Then something clamped on my opposite arm and I struck again. I kept striking till something like iron bands held me down. The world was still in turmoil before my eyes.

        My heart galloped as I puffed like a bellows, till a sharp pain in my neck sent a wave of warmth through my body. I don’t know when, but my vision cleared as I went slack. 

        Four bruised and disheveled men in fatigues held me down while a man in a sack-like suit, reminiscent of medical scrubs, stood over me. 

        “Can you understand me now, Lord Faustus?” The man in the sack-suit gave me his best professional frown of concern, his features shadowed by an overhead lamp.

        My skin was cold with old sweat—it didn’t help that I was only clad in a gown. Above me was the ceiling of a cavern or tunnel, with a bundle of cables running along it, from which swung a bare bulb. I turned my head and saw cots to either side of me, like the one on which I lay. 

        “Lord Faustus?”

        I looked him in the eye and croaked. “Yes, I can. What happened…doctor…?”

        “You can call me Callixtus.” The man directed the soldiers to let go of me. “You survived a near-strike by an explosive warhead.”

        I struggled to sit upright, but fell back to the cot. “Does Ae…the empress live!?”

        Callixtus moved to press me back down. “Yes, but lie down. You’re still recovering.”

        A tall man in officer’s garb, with a scarred face and eye-patch, brushed Callixtus aside. “I wish I could say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Faustus, but—” The ground shook with a dull boom and dust fell from the cavern ceiling as the light flickered. “…you’re coming has complicated an already desperate situation.”

        My words came through clenched teeth, “Clovis, where’s the empress?”

        “That’s Field Marshal Cypriannus to you. His face was stone, his voice pitiless. “She’s in a coma.”

        Though lying still, I could’ve sworn I was falling as a sob rose in my throat. I choked it off. “How long has it been?”

        “A week. And before you ask, the reason your injuries aren’t worse is due to one of the healing beds, technology from the Fathers. We have to use them sparingly, but they work especially well for those with the Inheritance, which is why we know you have it.”

        “So, you need something from me.”

        “You’re no fool, at least.” Clovis tossed me the orb. “The Hypogeans have an artifact of the Fathers and possibly someone with the Inheritance to use it. You’re all we have to counteract it.”

        Callixtus peeked over his shoulder. “Sir, I can’t countenance this. He needs more time to recover—”

        Clovis pinned him with a stare. “Doctor, you are dismissed.”

        Callixtus looked ready to argue, but finally, he answered with a perfunctory salute and a heel turn as he went to treat other patients.

        The eyes in Clovis’s scarred face turned back to me. “Whatever condition you’re in, I need you up and moving. We’re making a counter-push. Can you fight?”

        I raised an eyebrow. “Which do you mean? Am I able to fight, or do I know how?”

        “Both.”

        “Yes to the second, but as to the first,” I pushed through the pain and rose to my feet, “the answer is also yes…I think.”

        Clovis grunted. “Good enough.” He made a flick with this hand to the men around him. “Get him—”

        “I need to see her…now.”

        A storm rose in his expression and he opened his mouth, but we locked eyes for a long moment, and then he gave the barest hint of a nod.

        “Take him to the empress, then get him cleaned up and in a field uniform.”

        Everything passed in a blur. I remember her still and battered face, a cold field shower, a quick scrape to my cheeks with a razor to clear away stubble, some clothes shoved into my arms, and then marching down a tunnel, surrounded by burly men whose eyes scoured every corner they passed—my bodyguards.

        We met Clovis at the mouth of a large tunnel. He spoke to me, sotto voce. “Sappers are clearing the way into the Hypogeans’ own tunnel network. The infantry goes in after that. You’ll be in the middle of one of the spearhead formations. We’ve tried other thrusts before this, but our communications are blacked out, the troops become confused and disoriented, and the Hypogeans seem to appear and disappear at will. We’re certain they’re using Ancestral technology. Now we have you to fight back with, but if this counterattack fails, we have nothing left. Don’t fail.” He slapped me on the shoulder.

        I gulped and nodded.

        I trudged down bends and branches of tunnels with my bodyguards, embedded in a larger unit that was marching to the point of attack. Slung on my shoulder was something larger and more powerful than the Hypogean submachine gun I’d been using. Eventually, we stopped, taking our place at the staging point for the assault.

        The tunnel shook with the roar of an explosion. The troops loped down the passage, toward the breach. I was caught up with them, wondering whether my end had finally come.

        To be continued…

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