Most of the village’s homes had burnt down in the bombings.
Dark Wrath’s air forces weren’t as powerful as the Luftwaffe, but they could have the same vicious thoroughness. The difference, Hannibal de’Zama knew, was that the Republican Expeditionary Force bombed to be thorough. The Dark Wrath bombed to be vicious. It showed in the burnt, twisted structures. This village, only fifty miles west of Tzen, was part of the Wrath’s terror campaign to insure that Albrook’s countryside knew no peace.
They might not be able to take Albrook yet, it seemed to say, but they could kill their people. No, Hannibal thought, they could do worse than kill their people. His hands curled around the grain of his rifle.
The seventeen year-old boy looked a sight. He still had his uniform from his boarding school in Maranda, though it was now muddied, bloodied, and torn beyond recognition. The white button-up shirt and trousers were there, and his school’s emblem – sewn onto the left breast – was a strangely discordant thing with the rest of his clothes. His boots were stolen from a dead REF soldier. His jacket was an old, grey NAMAC coat that had been passed down by many hands.
Tauroch’s Own 19th Rifles didn’t receive the best gear. They weren’t soldiers, really. They were another attack on the people of Esper. The Dark Wrath could destroy their villages, burn their fields, and steal their children.
He turned open a cellar door with the butt of his rifle, using it as a wedge to force it. The lock had gone to rust long ago; it snapped, and the doors opened, revealing darkness down below. The 19th had simple enough orders: find every person in the village and drag them to the center of it. By now, he knew what came after that. They didn’t deploy the boys of the 19th to fight on the front. By now, he knew what happened if they refused.
Ever since the day that his train to Nikeah was attacked, he knew that life was precarious. He wouldn’t be returning to school any time soon. He wouldn’t be traveling home to see his father, nor would he see any of his friends. He knew, for certain, that he would never see his mother again. The image of blood pooling from under a turned over bench stuck in his mind’s eye, even six months later. When the Dark Wrath took him and the other boys on the train, they made sure that he knew that. The emblem of Tauroch, hanging around his neck, was a reminder of it.
They couldn’t make him believe, but they could make him pretend. When Hannibal dug deep within himself, he found one thing: he wanted to survive.
His eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark of the cellar. He looked down into the darkness, finding only crates stacked up, one atop the other. He knew these could make a good hiding place; he knew, too, that Captain Zendir would be back to check on their work. He needed to do a thorough search, so he began to check behind each of the boxes. He found nothing but old hay, gone moldy, and dust.
He turned and started to walk away, when he heard the cough.
It came from inside one of the wooden boxes. Hannibal went to it quickly, using his bayonet to slide the box lid off it. Inside, a boy with black hair stared up at him, his brown eyes wide and frightened. He couldn’t have been older than eight.
Hannibal’s stomach sank. “How old are you?”
His voice shook when he spoke. “Seven.”
Hannibal swore under his breath. He reached a hand out towards the boy and saw him move back to the corner of the box, recoiling away from Hannibal like he was a wild animal. It made Hannibal’s hand shake and he couldn’t still it. He reached no further, staring down at the boy’s terrified, tear-filled eyes.
Then, Captain Zendir’s voice cut through everything else. He had a kindly voice, like a gentle headmaster, but Hannibal knew that was a lie. He spoke of death like an old man calling his family to dinner: “Time to assemble!”
Hannibal didn’t have time to think about it further if he wanted to survive. The boy started sobbing and screaming as Hannibal grabbed him by both wrists with one hand. He wasn’t that strong, yet, but he had enough in his arms to overpower the boy. He yanked him free of the box, dragging him out. He kicked his feet, pleading between sobs, and Hannibal let his mind retreat the way that he always did. He learned that in sword practice, in Maranda. If he retreated with himself, if he forgot the world, he could simply act.
He could keep himself from feeling.
Captain Zendir smiled as Hannibal approached. He looked perversely proud, which threatened to cut through Hannibal’s trance. He was an unassuming man; balding despite being young, with eyeglasses perched on his nose, and a friendly smile like a teacher might have. The effect was ruined by the grey-and-black of his Dark Wrath uniform, though, and the same emblem of Tauroch hanging from his neck.
He was the priest attached to their regiment. He stood before a ring of boys that looked like Hannibal: tired and weary, sporting bedraggled clothing mixed with used gear, and the same deadened look that Hannibal knew were in his grey eyes. Each of them held a rifle, and the inside of the ring had some dozens of people inside of it. They were of all ages, men and women, children and grandparents. Many were wounded; many were bloodied.
Hannibal shoved the boy, hard, through the ring. He stumbled, sobbing the whole way, to the huddle of the people.
“Let us begin,” Zendir said. “Tauroch, we give these souls unto thee as an offering. In death, may they come to know to you. May you reign over their souls as you have reigned over their lives.”
His eyes closed, Hannibal kept his breathing even. This was the hardest part of the trance. He focused on everything but the sobs and quiet pleas. He tried, especially, to tune out the promised lies of parents telling their children that everything would be fine. He felt the heat behind his eyes, but he forced that down and ground his teeth. He remembered what happened, when one of the 19th broke into a run and refused. Zendir shot him, but he did worse to him later.
He needed to survive.
“You are weapons,” the Captain continued. He addressed them, now, and it was a memorized speech. The words were burnt into Hannibal’s mind, now. He could recite them. “You are not men. You can only kill and destroy, and you are blessed, for this gives you meaning. Were you to do anything else, your life would not matter.”
Hannibal let out a slow breath through gritted teeth.
He opened his eyes and took his rifle to shoulder. He heard, as much as he felt, all of the other boys around him do the same thing.
He found his target. His trance, perhaps, wasn’t as as good as he told himself – or maybe it was too good. He found the brown eyes of the boy that he dragged into this, staring at him and filled with tears. He clung to the leg of an old man next to him, and he was deathly still now. Hannibal adjusted the sight of the gun, aiming right between his eyes. His finger did not shake on the trigger.