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Yippet gripped the first wrung of the ladder, “Let’s get this over with.”
“Sir,” Krypt grabbed his arm with a squeak, his skeletal face grew pale, and wiry fingers fumbled with his weapon. It filled Yippet with pity, perhaps he was too hard on the boy. “What if,” Krypt’s breath caught, “What if I see it? What if there’s a crack in the roof and I glance up?”
“Kid, Krypt,” Yippet grabbed him by the shoulder and spoke softly, his voice slipped from harsh to gravelly. “Don’t worry. If you even glimpse the sky, I’ll kill you myself.”
Krypt nodded, his breathing slowed as reassurance swept through him, “Thank you, Sir. That’s a weight off my shoulders.”
“And Krypt,” Yippet turned back up the shaft. “You’re a Trench Runner now, call me Yip.”
He sighed and ascended the ladder.
This wasn’t how he thought he would start his day, making a run to a doomed Burrow with an F.N.G in tow. At least it was warmer outside.
Before, he was shivering on the damp concrete, maintaining his flak rifle as he waited for his Trench Mate. Yippet had gone over it dozens of times as his patience waned. He finished cleaning the fourth barrel again, going back to the first.
The joints of his knuckles were like ice as he scrubbed with his more wire than brush tool. His balaclava was so uselessly thin that his face stung. The fading bulb cast cold light on the grey which didn’t help. But his cloak was thick; his job had that perk, at least.
He kept shifting down the wall, following the squeaking of rats that were moving in a pack to conserve warmth. He hoped to sap a few tendrils of heat from them as he waited.
“You know that doesn’t actually work?” The guard by the vault door said.
“It’s the wall rats or I sidle up to you for warmth,” Yippet shot back.
The guard started to retort but they heard footsteps coming up the rampart. They both straightened, their breath misting the air in unified anticipation.
Yippet listened for the reassuring sound of his Trench Mate’s steady gait, of hard leather boots echoing against the concrete. Instead he heard the measured, steel capped march of the commissar. The two men stiffened and waited for his arrival.
Yippet cocked his head. Another sound followed the commissar’s. A scurrying flip flap of leather wraps against the cold ground. A moment later, they arrived.
The commissar stopped before Yippet, tall, broad, and menacing with his black cape and cap. His companion was a young man, more a boy, dressed in a thick brown Trench Runner coat four sizes too big. He clutched at his flak rifle like someone who had never felt the true weight of the weapon.
“Commissar Dryn,” Yippet saluted, “You have me on a run?”
“Yes, this is Krypt. He will be replacing Cytta.”
“Is Cytta okay?”
“Lucky bastard,” Cytta would live a much shorter life than Yippet, even if it was painful. “What’s the run, Sir?”
“Burrow 43-G got hit.”
Yippet shrugged, “So?”
The kid gasped.
Dryn turned to him with a steely stare and he jolted back to attention, “We have transmissions from a survivor,” He turned back to Yippet.
Yippet glanced at the vault guard who hazarded a shrug, “And?” Yipped ventured, “They’re dead either way.”
Dryn sighed, “The survivor is a Cardinal.”
“Stow it, Trench Runner!” Dryn reached for his pistol and Yippet cut his curse short. “Now you get out there, show the kid the ropes, and get the Ecclesiarch off my back, eh? There’s a good lad,” he stormed back down the rampart.
“What’s up his arse?” The vault guard asked after the commissar had reached a safe distance.
“Ecclesiarch probably revoked his harem privileges until the Cardinal was safe,” Yippet slung his flack rifle over his shoulder.
“Boohoo,” The guard moaned, turning the lock mechanism on the door as Yippet and Krypt readied to leave. “I haven’t even seen a woman in two years.”
Yippet laughed, “Pretty sure a poster doesn’t count.”
“Yeah, well,” he grunted as he hefted the door open, it clicked and there was a rush of foul air from the antechamber, “I still think about it.”
“Wouldn’t we all?” Yippet nodded to him and ducked through the portal.
“Um, Sir,” Krypt followed, “If there is a Cardinal in danger wouldn’t the angels just…” He was silenced as Yippet grabbed him by the neck, slamming him against the closing vault door.
“Do you want to die, kid?” Yippet glanced over his shoulder, gesturing the gallows.
Three gaunt bodies listed motionlessly by the wall of the vast chamber. The crime that led to their deaths was scrawled on the wall behind them, graffiti in bold red letters, ‘WHERE ARE THE ANGELS?’
Several Ecclesiarch agents scrubbed it clean while an enforcer watched outwards with hooded eyes. Their navy robes were dark and threatening in the hollow space.
“I didn’t know,” Krypt choked through Yippet’s grip, “I’ve never been out here.”
“Just keep your mouth shut.” Yippet released him.
They marched past the gallows as the enforcer tracked their path. Yippet nodded as he passed, Krypt kept his eyes down. Other Trench Runners sat against the walls between the support pillars on break, resting on thin blankets and cooking their stock from the hamster cages.
“Hamsters?” Krypt ogled, “What do they taste like?”
“Kind of like rat, but less chewy,” Yippet pushed down the chamber until they came to an exit shaft with rusted steel rungs riveted into the wall. “Grest,” Yippet addressed the guard lying across their path, his head was pressed against the wall as he peered through a periscope, “Any news?”
“Ceiling seems to be intact, I think a pigeon fluttered by the view slits a few moments ago.” He pulled away from the periscope, one clean round mark around his eye marked him as the spotter, “Where’s Cytta?”
“Yeah,” Yippet grabbed two conical helmets from the rack by the ladder. He strapped one to his head and handed the other to Krypt.
“What’s a pigeon?” Krypt asked as he donned the bulky helmet with fumbling fingers.
“As best we can tell it’s like a rat with cockroach wings,” Grest shrugged before returning to the periscope.
“I’ve always wondered if they taste like a combination of the two,” Yippet licked his lips. He gripped the first wrung of the ladder, “Let’s get this over with.”
After reassuring Krypt’s fears they reached the top of the shaft. Yippet creaked open the hatch and cautiously lifted his head, making sure to keep the brim of his helmet level so he would not view the sky if the ceiling was cracked.
The trench seemed in good order. The only light that filtered in was from the view slits on either side. The pointed ceiling sloped to overhang the edges by a large margin to ensure that no one accidentally looked up.
Still, it was best to be careful.
Yippet climbed from the shaft and pushed down the middle of the muddy trench, keeping within the buffers to provide further protection from curious eyes. He held his flak rifle to his shoulder and scanned through the view slits.
Nothing but damp grass and stone. The cold breeze caressed his features, whistling calmly through the trench, still a great deal warmer than the cold air in the Burrow.
“Clear,” Yippet said.
Krypt climbed out behind him and sealed the shaft. He gave a thumbs up to the periscope looking down the trench. Grest bobbed it up and down in acknowledgement.
“What is that?” Krypt rose and stood close to Yippet.
“That’s the wind, kid.”
“What is it, is it like a big air pump?”
“Not really, it’s not as consistent as that. It’s like when you blow air out of your mouth, but, everywhere,” Yippet marched down the dark, narrow trench.
“Well, if there is that much air being blown, how big is the monster that’s blowing it?”
Yippet halted, and turned slowly, “Kid, keep those kind of questions to yourself, I don’t want to think about it.”
“Ah, yes Sir, I mean, Yip!” He slung his flak rifle over his shoulder.
“Now remember, don’t look up, only look out. If you look up and see the sky… well you won’t be you anymore.”
“Let’s go then,” Yippet resumed his march.
They pushed down the trench cautiously. It was a two day journey to Burrow, 43-G. They encountered many forks in their path, overrun with weeds and mud which Krypt gazed at in wonder. Yippet kept his eyes on the signs leading them to different Burrows, sagging whenever a new mark indicated another fallen.
Not just 43-G. 25-F went down without him knowing, the black mark through the sign was like a dagger to the heart. He fought off a band of Skygazers with Trench Runners from 25-F before. They were good lads.
They didn’t deserve to be possessed.
He hoped the Runners he worked with had the good fortune to die before their Burrow was torn to shreds by Harpies.
They were nearing the end of the first day when Yippet held out his fist. Kyrpt bumbled into him, keeping his eyes down like a good Runner. His conical helmet clinked into Yippet’s with too loud a sound.
“Quiet!” Yippet whispered harshly. He shouldered his trench rifle and aimed down the view slit, his sights tracking the crunching of approaching footsteps.
Krypt gasped, trying to control his breathing while quietly un-slinging his rifle. He aimed where Yippet aimed, trembling as they tracked their targets slowly up along the side of the trench.
About a dozen of them, out under the sky. The Skygazers stopped right by them, talking.
“Are you sure this is the trench?” One asked, “It seems, too natural?”
“And what would you know of natural?” Another responded, “We’ve never been out here before yesterday.”
“Quiet, both of you,” a third, commanding voice cut in, the group went silent.
Within the trench, Yippet and Krypt kept their rifles trained on their ankles.
“What is it?” Another asked.
“I thought I heard something.”
“Not likely, probably just a rat. Trench Runners wouldn’t go to downed Burrows.”
“But this is a trench?”
“Yes, we can follow it to a bunch of forked paths and find other Burrows that way.”
“Let’s go then, it’s getting dark out here… creeps me out.”
The Skygazers continued on, and Yippet tracked their path as they followed the trench behind them.
“They sounded human?” Krypt breathed.
“They always do, that’s what happens when they take your body. They would use you to befriend hapless Burrowers, disarm them, and then drag them outside. Then they force them to gaze skywards so their souls can be siphoned. Failing that, they track down other Burrows for the Harpies. If you ever meet a Skygazer, kid, kill them, no matter what they say.”
“Okay… one of them sounded a little odd though.”
“I think that was a woman. Best not think about it.”
“What if they find our Burrow?”
“Then our Runners will gun them down before they can signal to the Harpies. Let’s go.”
They pushed on through the night.
With sleep encrusted eyes and throbbing headaches they continued as the night brightened into day.
Yippet stopped in his tracks, a lance of pale light struck down from the ceiling before them.
“There’s a hole in the roof,” Krypt muttered.
“We have our helms. Just keep your eyes down, remember the nursery rhyme.”
Krypt nodded as they continued on, he was whispering the rhyme to himself as the trench top became perforated, the rents and cracks widened the further they went as the sun rose and sent golden rays to torment the Runners.
“Keep your head down, your eyes low,
You’ll be safe in the Burrow…”
They reached a space where the walls had collapsed and had to climb over mud and rock and the occasional corpse. The air was growing fresh, the breeze was picking up.
“…If you see the sky,
You’re about to die,
Take a knee and pray,
Before light of day…”
They reached the entrance shaft to Burrow 42-G. Instead of an enclosed trench there was a wide rift in the land before them, exposed to the daylight as the skeleton structure of the Burrow broke through in a crumbling mass.
“…When the Harpies wail,
You’ll quake and pale,
Be sure to stay low…”
His voice dwindled as they stepped out into day, cautiously, keeping their heads level as to not look up.
Yippet finished the rhyme for him.
“…Stick to the track,
Maintain your flak,
We must keep safe the Burrow.”
It was rough, uneven terrain, the water supply had been wrenched open and they trod through mud and blood and squelching corpses.
“What if there are Harpies above us?” Krypt said through heaving breaths.
“You would hear them.”
“What if Skygazers are around?”
Yippet swivelled, scanning the depressions in the gutted Burrow. There could be Skygazers around, poor souls who had glanced up and been possessed by the Harpies’ spirits. They could be waiting just on the lip of the crater, toying with them from the higher elevation. But they could not look up to know.
“Don’t think about it, just find the safe room, the Cardinal is in there.”
They slowly poked around the ruins. Very few rooms were hidden from the light. Hundreds of people dead from battle or suicide, large claw marks indicated where the Harpies had done their work to the structure and the leadership.
“Is this a Cardinal?” Krypt bent over a corpse and used the corner barrel of his flak rifle to lift a hood from its face.
“That’s a woman, Krypt. The Cardinal will be in blue robes like the Ecclesiarch, only more embellished.”
“Oh,” Krypt reverently lowered the hood, “They don’t look how I thought they would look.”
“They’re not angel folk sent to preserve the population, Krypt. They’re just people, like you or I, under the yoke of the Ecclesiarch.”
“That sounds blasphemous.”
“It probably is.”
They heard dull thumping and they snapped their rifles around. There corner of a large black object protruded from the mud, a bent antenna listed from its top.
“I’d bet a whole hamster that’s the Cardinal’s safe room.” They cautiously moved around the structure and found a locked door, tilted to one side as the chamber had been dislodged in the attack.
Yippet knocked the door with the butt of his rifle.
“Who’s out there?”
“Trench Runners from 45-T,” Yippet answered.
“And how can I trust that you aren’t Skygazers?”
“Take it on faith, Cardinal. If we are Skygazers you’re dead either way.”
There was a pause, and then a clanking before the safe room door groaned open. The Cardinal wore a long hood to cover his eyes and stood tall to peer straight at Yippet and Krypt, taking note of their conical helmets.
“Thank fuck for you two!” He stumbled out and collapsed, “I thought those Skygazers would lynch me.”
“Careful Cardinal,” Krypt helped him up, “Eyes down.”
“Oh shut up, Runner, just get me to safety.”
“But you are already safe!” The voice came from up the crater.
Yippet and Krypt spun around, keeping the brims of their hats level and aiming their guns high – blind.
“Who goes there?” Yippet cried.
“Skygazers,” The Cardinal gasped, “They’ll kill me and possess you two for sure!”
“There is no need for violence friends, well, not for the Runners. We just want to punish the Cardinal for his crimes. There’s no danger for you, you can look up, it’s safe.”
“How many?” Krypt swivelled his gun around wildly, “How many?”
“Quiet!” Yippet strained his ears, they were sliding down the crater, “Dozens?”
“At least twenty,” The Cardinal said.
“How do you know?” Krypt asked.
“Because he’s looking up at us, friends,” The Skygazer said. “The faith they enforce is a tool to keep you under their heel, there is no danger in the sky.”
“He’s a lying demon!” The Cardinal gasped.
“How come this Burrow is a crater?” Yippet challenged, “How come there are bodies everywhere?”
“Because the Angel had to fight through the slaves to kill the Ecclesiarch, and now you’ve let him out.”
A Stargazer slid into view and the two Runners trained their guns on him. He looked normal, just a Burrower, only the light shone freely on his pale face and he held his arms high in surrender.
“Just look up!” He cried, “There is no danger!”
“Remember what I told you, kid,” Yippet said, “Take the shot.”
Krypt scrunched his eyes shut and squeezed the trigger. There was a click and a boom as his first barrel fired a flak shot, then a second, a third and forth repeating perfectly. The force pushed him back and sent his aim high, but the first few shots hit the hapless Stargazer, ripping him to shreds.
There was roar from the surrounding foes and they surged down the crater.
The two Runners opened up, strafing the upper levels of the crater blindly, spraying and praying, hopefully hitting something other than the sky until their enemy came within view. Then they levelled their guns and had something to aim at for a change.
Fresh blood and chunks of scattered flesh littered the rot infested ruins as their numbers swarmed in.
Then, over the cacophony, a keen wailing approached from on high.
“Harpy!” Krypt screamed.
“Keep shooting the Stargazers!” Yipped ordered, he took a knee, planted the butt of his weapon in the ground and aimed the barrel up over his shoulder.
He opened fire, strafing the skies as he kept his eyes down. Each successive boom concussed his poor ears and the shell casings spilled across the mud. Without impacting anything the flak rounds reached their randomly set distances and exploded, the strategy was hope, hope to catch the Harpy before it could swoop in and finish them.
The Cardinal cried out and stumbled back into the safe room, struggling to swing the heavy door closed.
Even as Yippet strafed the skies with ringing ears he heard the wailing grow louder, and closer, honing in. There was a rush of air as it screamed overhead, slamming into the safe room before the door could be closed.
The safe room exploded outwards with concussive force and knocked the Trench Runners to the ground.
Through the dust cloud and dull ringing Yippet reached for his flak rifle in the mud, struggled up onto his knees to see Krypt being dragged away by many Stargazers. They ripped off his helmet as he screamed and struggled and they held his eyes open to see the sky.
Yippet growled and fired his flak rifle into the lot of them.
Half a dozen people torn to shreds instantly.
Another charged in to tackle him and Yippet gunned him down with the last of his ammo. No time to reload. He drew his knife. Slashing and stabbing he struggled through the ruins to get back to the trench.
Then he heard the wailing again, he turned to see the Harpy emerge from the obliterated safe room with the Cardinal’s desiccated corpse in its arms.
It was huge, standing taller than any man Yippet ever saw, with golden skin and enormous red wings that spanned out, clearing the floating debris away. It sighted Yippet with sad, human eyes and leaped into the air.
Yippet resisted the urge to follow its path, keeping his head down, but he still heard the wailing as it swooped, arching down to get him.
The creature slammed into him, knocking the wind from him and pinning him on his back, it tore the conical helmet from his head and he scrunched his eyes closed.
“Peace, friend,” It said in a voice too pleasant to be trusted, “The fight is over.”
It took his head in its talons and caressed his eye lids, “There is no danger. Open your eyes.”
“I would rather die than let your spirit possess me! Just kill me, please, let my miserable life end, show me that kindness.”
“Your miserable life will end.”
Hands from the gathered Stargazers reached in and pried his eyes open as he screamed and thrashed under the weight of the Harpy.
Its golden image shone onto him with an angelic, loving face, and then it moved aside, showing the wide blue sky beyond.
Yippet’s scream caught as he gasped. It was beautiful.
He waited, tensing for his soul to be ripped away, but nothing happened. “What,” He breathed, “What?”
“You have been lied to all your life, friend,” the Harpy said, “By his ilk.” He presented the Cardinal’s head, with gaping eyes and lolling tongue. “Ever since the cataclysm they have kept you down trodden, enslaved women to their filthy desires and kept you in the damp dark, for control. My kind decided that this was unacceptable.” It let him up.
Yippet struggled to balance, blinking in the light and stumbling away from the Harpy. He knocked into the other people who held him steady.
“It was all bullshit?”
“How do I know that I am not possessed right now?”
“What does your heart tell you?”
Yippet paused, he had never had to listen to his heart before. Some feeling swelled up, something horrible. Guilt, anger, rage.
“I’ve killed so many people who were just trying to help me? I killed Krypt?” The sobbing broke out, “What…” He shook his head. This was too much to bear.
“Do not blame yourself, friend,” One of the Skygazers said. “We were all deceived. Now, you can show us to your Burrow and we can free your people. There will be casualties,” he gestured the present battle field with solemnity, “The Ecclesiarch will not give up their power easily, but it must be done.”
Yippet nodded, understanding what had to be done. He looked back at the smiling Harpy, “So what are you?”
“Some would call me, an Angel.”
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