The Fallen Front (39.1)

This scene contains descriptions of burning and violence.

35th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Dominance — Bada Aso, Matumaini Street

Far in the distance, the spiraling pillar of fire and smoke reached out to the heavens, piercing the skies like a javelin hurled from hell. At the epicenter everything burned in moments, and then the fire crept through everything flammable, bursting through every gas line, every petrol tank, through cracks in the streets and roads, over roofs.

It was the most visible thing to the fleeing grenadier. There was nothing but that hellish edifice at his back, and the whistling fires that swarmed over every available surface.

In the heat the flames took the shape of demon’s hands, hungry and greedy.

He ran with all of his might as the red fingers snatched at him from all sides.

Whenever they closed he felt the burning, the agonizing, all-encompassing heat.

There was no part of his body that did not go white-hot, that did not hurt as if bubbling and warping within his skin. He felt that he would melt, even in the open street. He felt the agonizing pressure of the fires everywhere, building over his skin and inside his guts.

His helmet became hot a a frying pan and he threw it away before it cooked his brains.

His vision swam and he could only barely tell he was running by his own clumsy footfalls.

Everything around him raged and thrashed, everything tore and shook and warped.

Angry red tongues slithered from windows in a burst of glass and concrete.

Creeping orange-blue claws reached from the cracking earth to seize him.

Where there was not red fire there was black smoke that made him choke and cry.

Mid-run he searched desperately in every pouch, every pocket. He threw away everything but his gas mask, casting aside his smoking coat and his belts, and donned the object. It was hot, and it hurt, but it cleared his head, allowing him to breathe. Behind him his ammunition cooked off in its pouches. His coat slowly disintegrated in the oven.

Everything hurt. His heart pounded, his teeth chattered, and he screamed.

He screamed for release, for some measure of relief. But he found no respite.

No street numbers, no landmarks; everything wavered within the inferno.

Every second that passed, he felt, as if time was slowed around him. He felt every minute instant of pain, every touch of hurt over his flesh, a horrifying depth of pain.

Layers and layers of agony washed over him but he would not allow himself to stop.

He ran with all of his might, knowing he would be consumed if he did not take each step.

With every step he found the fires staying farther and farther behind. Sweet release!

Gathering the last of his strength, he hurled himself past the fire and into smoke.

He found his body slowly freed from the burning grip of the demons.

In front of him, wavering in the haze, was the hole in the center of Matumaini.

That hole that had been blown in by the artillery; it was the only form of cover.

He dashed for the hole, hearing laughter in his head coming from all sides.

Bada Aso’s burning demons hungered for him, hungered for everything. 

“Help! Help me!”

That voice was not the demons and was not his own. It was his mother tongue, almost forgotten in the scramble. He stopped at the edge of the aperture, and a greater human instinct overtook him. His stressed body, outside the flame, found some equilibrium, enough to pause, to take stock, to gather breath, and to scan the surroundings.

He turned his head over his shoulder and gazed into the creeping wall of fire.

How had he escaped such a thing? He did not know.

“Help me!”

Over the strange crackling sound of the flames, he heard the voice again.

Dashing away from the hole, the grenadier hurried to a nearby ruin, and pushed through the half-collapsed doorway into the rubble. The building had become a skeleton of rebar and concrete that held inside it a mound of gently smoking wood and stone from its ceilings.

There was another scream, and it was much closer. Quickly pushing away rubble, the grenadier found a comrade, trapped under a chunk of board and filler that had fallen.

“I’m here to help you! Try to slide out when I pull it up!” He shouted.

Below him, the trapped person, his face also covered by a gas mask, nodded his head. His screams subsided into gasping, quavering cries between sharp, panicked breaths.

The grenadier seized the slab of debris and lifted it with all of his strength.

From beneath the rubble the trapped soldier slipped out and dashed to the door without another word. The grenadier dropped the slab, and was about to go after him, but the trapped soldier stopped at the door. He was framed suddenly in a bright light.

In front of them, a column of fire and smoke blew skyward from the Matumaini crater.

Black smoke belched from the street and into their building, sucking out the air.

Once more the heat began to permeate their environment.

Their remaining clothes smoked.

While the trapped man stood transfixed at the door, the grenadier slowly and gently settled behind the mound of rubble, nestled into the bowels of the ruin with his arms around his knees and his legs against his chest. All of his energy had left him.

Outside the fires crept and crept, until they overtook them, and everything.

36th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E

Ayvarta, Adjar Occupation Zone — Kalu Hilltops, Bada Aso Outskirts

Bada Aso, jewel of the Adjar Dominance, became a ruin choked in smoke and bursting with flames. Although the fires had long since reached their peak, having risen so far that people swore to have seen them from the sea or beyond the mountains, in their place they left a pillar of smoke, a black tower that descended slowly overnight until it covered the area in a choking gloom. Inside the cloud seething red bursts flashed every other hour, whenever something new erupted, snapping like lightning contained in an earthbound sky.

There were still things to burn, and so the unseen demons unleashed from beneath Bada Aso’s earth continued to feed. Some untouched gas line, some discarded petrol container, some hidden pocket of the monstrous gas still dormant below the red-hot earth; whatever the red claws of this monster grasped, instantly and violently exploded and burned.

Von Sturm stood dumbfounded atop a hill in the outskirts of the city. His blonde, slightly wavy hair was disheveled, sticking up; he had not had the presence of mind to gel it back into the smart style he usually wore. He was a short, soft-faced man who looked as if too boyish, too unripe for war, and facing the devastated city, his youth seemed all the more pernicious. It made him seem smaller, helpless, easier to break where he stood.

Through his tear-swollen, reddened eyes and through the foggy lenses of his binoculars, the General watched silently as the fire and smoke carried on its implacable course.

One night’s fitful sleep was not enough to make sense of the scale of the carnage. Yesterday he was leading a triumphant assault; today he was thoroughly beaten, his forces, his battlefield, everything blasted to pieces too dramatically for even the wildest imgination. For once, he had a sense of fear so strong that it stifled his passion and a sense of confusion and helplessness that overwhelmed his pride. He had no idea what to do.

It was as if his mind had burnt away with the city, and there was only the holy awe left.

He was staring into the billowing black face of a god as it ate his city, the city out of which he was destined to lead a glorious campaign that would cement his name in history. Matumaini, the Umaiha Riverside, Penance, the central districts, the open, grassy north of the city upon which he had intended to blitz through with his tanks, all of it was buried under that black cloud and the red bursts that periodically raged enough to be seen through it.

Just after the explosion, much of the city could still be seen, in the midst of its destruction. As the survivors retreated from it, and the smoke slowly descended, everything was obscured. At the edges of the city he could see fires spreading as if fed by invisible magma.

Any farther and the cloud became too thick to really see through. He could see outlines, sometimes, when something exploded violently enough. Outlines of ruined buildings that jutted at alien angles and seemed like architecture from hell. Faces, he saw them too; groaning, hurting faces in the cloud; cheerful, mad-driven grimaces in the fires–

That might have been his own head. He was afraid to confirm these sights with others.

Nobody came to fetch him, but the movement of the sun overhead indicated to Von Sturm that a long time had passed. He had been transfixed with the flames and smoke, drawn as if out of his own body to watch the devastation unfold in a dull, quiet panic.

Slowly he pried himself from the grip of Bada Aso. He scanned the surroundings with his binoculars. He watched the road. A line of water-tank equipped Sd.Kfz B Squire half-tracks wound their way toward the city, carrying a platoon of fire-fighters armed with everything they could muster to fight the fires and look for survivors in the black poison. Water guns, shovels, asbestos suits with oxygen masks; they were diving into hell now.

In a time that felt like another world away, Bada Aso and its port were critical to the supply line running through Adjar and aiding in the push to Tambwe. Putting out the burning city was necessary, but seeing it from the hill, Von Sturm found it a hopeless task.

He felt a strange desire to reach out with his hands and stop them. To tell them to stop. To tell them that it was futile, that it couldn’t be fought, that nobody would be in there. That there was nothing here for them, on this continent, that they should’ve never–

But he stopped. Stopping them, stopping this, meant the final death of him.

What else could one call rendering irrelevant nearly a decade of one’s life?

Von Sturm felt the fear of a God much closer to him; the peril of his own existence.

There was too much inertia here to stop. Too much inertia in the wheels of those armored carriers, in the solemn hearts of those men, and in the angry, desperate need of the man with the violent, noble surname who could not now stop. There was a weight of history behind them that would– no, must, carry them all forward. In a fraction of a second, the doubt was dispelled from him, and buried, and forgotten. Because it had to be.

Von Sturm left the holy awe behind and turned his back on Bada Aso as he turned his back on all other useless things. For his simple ambitions, no introspection was necessary. His heart hardened again, encased so that it could neither breathe nor bleed in this war.

But It wouldn’t be the same as before. His hands were still shaking. His eyes were still red.

There was a chain-link in him that had been inexorably severed, just as the 1st Vorkampfer had been inexorably destroyed and Bada Aso inexorably burnt to the ground.

He returned to his command post to await his demotion, and to seize back control of his weary staff from the panic of the moment. Yelling at others would at least distract him.

Far in the background, another explosion raged within the cloud. Its sound shook him.

It was like laughter.

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