The Devil Inside

Stone Vault Synopses

The Devil Inside

Day One

SESSION ONE

The Pendulum War

At the Pendulum Wars’ conclusion several days before Emergence Day. Every member of the former Union of Independent Republics (UIR) nations have signed a peace treaty with the Coalition of Governments (COG). Every member except Gorasnaya.

Although it would be suicidal for Gorasnaya to start a war with the new COG, it was entirely possible it would agitate to draw Vesta into a regional conflict the COG would be unwilling to enter. Without COG involvement, Gorasnaya might flip Vesta to protectorate status, as it had with Lucthiva to the southeast, and with a few independent islands. But all the other protectorates had either offered Gorasnaya a buffer with an aggressive COG nation or had held significant imulsion reserves. Vesta had been a neutral country throughout the Pendulum Wars, and it had a history of at the very least tolerance for Gorasnayan adventurism.

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LT Morden Kane

LT Morden Kane‘s first command was going to be a platoon, and the platoon came with its share of problems— SGT Bently “Bent” Little, who was known to be reckless; CPL Alek Ralstaan, a former sergeant, demoted for striking a superior and refusing to follow orders (that would’ve led to his squad’s death); CPL Zeira Odenka, a hot-headed recent graduate from sniper school; PVT Lee Butcher, a big, strong, and rough around the edges farm gal who knows more about pistons and universal joints than tactics and armament. But each of these rough stones were potential diamonds if properly handled.

When Kane was informed he was being assigned to the 2nd Light Infantry Regiment, he knew he was in for a challenge. He was briefed en route to Banseth in the belly of a King Raven that he would be in 3rd Battalion, which had been slated for demobilization when the ink dried on the Pendulum Wars Treaty. The battalion was being reconstituted for the specific purpose of dealing with the Vesta situation. Kane’s platoon was one of three that would rotate out of B (Baron) Company to Vesta to keep it safe from the Gorasnayan threat.

Regiment warned Kane that it knew Gorasnaya had an interest in Vesta, but that was it. They also knew that Vesta had its share of Gorasnayan supporters, and that support had been enough that the nation had barely averted civil war during the Pendulum War, with the government officially announcing it would do anything to remain neutral.

Regiment believed the Vestan government had, indeed, taken action against known dissidents, and not necessarily the sort of action they wanted getting out.

Complicating things, Kane would be working with a Vestan platoon. He and the Vestan commander would theoretically be equals, cooperating, but at the end of the day, regiment intelligence had no idea who this commander was, and it was entirely possible he was a Gorasnayan supporter. Kane would have regimental support if it became necessary to countermand or even remove the Vestan commander.

Coming Together

After flying all over southwestern COG holdings, the various Gears that were tapped from dissolved units to form B Company joined up in southeastern Banseth where it bordered northwestern Vesta. Kane’s platoon was outfitted with nine Armadillo APCs. With the sun beginning to rise, they headed out. Officially, they were to be on their guard and ready for anything. Unofficially, MAJ Shlekty, their company commander, assured everyone that the Vestans would welcome them with open arms and chocolates. MAJ Shlekty also guaranteed the tour wouldn’t run longer than three months, although it’s likely they’d have to rotate back once a year.

Road Trip

They spent the entire day driving south through Vesta’s near-desolate, stony landscape. Their target: the small town of Shtovenhardt (Stone Vault) in the extreme southeastern reaches of the nation of Vesta, less than 30 klicks north of the Gorasnayan border.

So much for peace.

When the platoon passed through the Vestan cities of Shottenlind and Durkvulla, civilians didn’t run out with open arms and chocolates. People cowered behind shuttered windows or stared from the cover of heavy curtains or walled gardens, many with sour faces. It became apparent quickly that the Vestans saw the Gears as invaders, regardless Vesta was now a COG member nation.

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Shtovenhardt

With the sun setting low in the western sky, the Armadillo convoy rolled the last few klicks through Durkvulla (Shadow Valley), down the bleak stretch of Durkvulla Bhonvud (The Shadow Valley Boulevard), then turning southeast onto Shtoven Rutt (Stone Road). At the base of the mountain that held Shtovenhardt, the well-maintained two lane road curved south, then began to rise. It wound its way enough to avoid too steep a climb, sometimes enclosed by stone walls on either side that rose as high as four meters.

Finally, the convoy reached the gates of Shtovenhardt’s towering defensive walls, which rose at least twelve meters high and stretched one hundred meters west to east. Towers rose along the wall, and decades-old cannons pointed northwestward into the valley invaders would have to pass through to enter Vesta proper. The guns were old, but were probably still functional, and almost certainly still a serious threat.

Kane had his driver proceed through the open gates—thick, sturdy wooden constructs that could likely withstand even many modern weapons.

The road, now a tight two lanes, curved southeast and southwest, forming a circle at the southern end of the town. The road marked where the city split into three sections. The center consisted of the town square and a column of tall, close-packed buildings that were part house, part shop—bakery, leatherworker, cobbler, carpenter, pub, etc. Built into the eastern cliff wall were several houses with inconsequential lawns. They were the sort that typically belonged to general labor and craftsmen. The town’s northwestern area belonged to a handful of farmers with chickens and goats. There was a noticeable slope from the eastern and western walls down to the town center and even more slope toward the north gate; drainage.

The southwestern and southern wall belonged to the walled fortress. The platoon’s home. Kane ordered his driver to proceed on to the fortress.

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The People of Shtovenhardt

The town’s citizens weren’t shocked by the platoon’s arrival, but neither were they happy. Again, no chocolates or open arms. Again, sour faces behind curtains and shutters. At the gate to the fortress, Kane spotted an impressive sign that stood out as much as the grand building it hung from. The sign declared the establishment was Der Fuurplaaz, a tavern. Kane had heard the name somewhere before. The building was sturdy, mostly stone like the rest of the town’s buildings, but it rose a good six meters.

The Fortress

Even before passing through the fortress gates, it was clear something was wrong. Garbage, rotting mattresses, broken furniture—the street just inside the gate was blocked to the point it was almost impassible. Kane ordered SGT Pollik to take his squad and to check the condition of the buildings inside the fortress. Kane had been assured by MAJ Shlekty the fortress would be ready for the platoon to occupy it.

Shutters clattered and hung from loose hinges. Doors were no better. And even over the imulsion exhaust, the stench of animal waste was overpowering. Kane didn’t need to wait for Pollik’s report to know the fortress wasn’t ready for occupation. Kane had his platoon sergeant— SSG Kiersey —begin preparations to have the living quarters’ cleaned out. With night coming on, it was going to be an unpleasant several hours.

The Vestan Platoon

At the rear of the column, SGT Little spotted dust rising on Shtoven Rutt. He had PVT Butcher halt the Armadillo and twisted to get a better look back to the northwest. Through his field glasses, he saw a column of decades-old troop transport trucks.

Unescorted.

Little radioed Kane to report the sighting. Kane said it was probably the Vestan platoon. He ordered Little to take his squad back and escort the convoy to Shtovenhardt. Little had Butcher turn the ’dillo around. Two more ’dillos fell in behind his, and they accelerated down the road to the base of the mountain to meet up with the unprotected convoy.

After several minutes of Butcher testing the ’dillo’s limits, Little ordered his mini-convoy to a halt. The approaching trucks, spitting out diesel exhaust, sputtering and shaking, stopped several meters northwest of the ’dillos. Little poked his head out of the ’dillo, confirmed the trucks were Vestan military, then dismounted and made his way to the lead truck. An angry young man with curly blonde hair and a noble bearing exited the lead truck. An older non-com exited and fell in behind the young man. The young man was sporting brand-new captain’s bars, along with the Vestan military’s flourish of embroidered gold cloth rank symbols and a matching gold rope.

The captain— Shottheimen —demanded to know what Little was doing. Little saluted and explained that he’d been sent to provide escort for the trucks. Shottheimen scoffed and said he had an entire platoon of soldiers. He didn’t need escort. Little explained that COG SOP dictated no unarmed convoy would travel through hostile territory without armed escort. Shottheimen ordered Little to get out of the way, then stormed back to the lead truck. His non-com gave the ’dillos an appreciative look, then followed.

Little checked in with Kane, who told him to follow his orders. Little had the ’dillos get off the road to let the trucks pass. He then told Ralstaan to get to the front of the column. He had CPL Burke take her ’dillo to the column rear. Little then told PVT Butcher to squeeze into the middle of the column.

Butcher loved a challenge. A cracked radiator, hunting down a mountain cat that had lost its fear of humans, or squeezing a tractor through half-shut barn doors: these were thrilling moments for her. She stuck her tongue out the corner of her plump, cherry-red lips and spun her ’dillo around. She pushed the accelerator to the floor and closed in on the truck column. As she approached the last truck, wide-eyed soldiers watched in awe as she took the ’dillo off the road and began bouncing along on the rugged shoulder, accelerating past the last truck, then the next-to-last.

The driver in the next-to-last truck must have spotted her. He shifted gears and gave the old truck everything he could. It began closing the gap with the truck before it. Butcher just smiled. Her tongue danced and she muttered, “There’s still a gap!” Little chuckled nervously. There wasn’t that much of a gap. He considered calling Butcher off, but it was too late. She downshifted, punched it, and swung the ’dillo in. She had to brake at the last second to avoid the truck in front of her, but the near-impact only made her hoot and holler.

Little made a mental note not to ask Butcher to do anything like that again.

From the front car, CPL Ralstaan reported that if the mission had been to make the Vestan captain shout obscenities and shake his fist furiously, mission accomplished.

The Fortress and the Vestan Platoon

When the Vestan convoy finally limped through the fortress gates, CPT Shottheimen hopped out of the lead truck to confront LT Kane. Kane remembered his briefing. He was respectful toward Shottenheimen, but he wasn’t intimidated by the fresh captain’s bars. Kane let Shottheimen vent, then pointed out they were facing a problem: the fortress was a mess. The living quarters were not ready for use.

Shottheimen immediately latched on to the new problem. He had his platoon sergeant order the Vestan soldiers to immediately begin work clearing the officer’s quarters that would be Shottheimen’s home. Shottheimen then told his platoon sergeant to follow him to the tavern.

Not to be outdone, LT Kane had two squads begin cleaning out his quarters. He ordered SGT Little to put his squad up on the fortress walls not so much out of fear of attack as to show Shottheimen how things were done—security, discipline, order.

Kane then went in to the officers’ barracks to help the squads with the cleaning.

The First Night

Time passed, and darkness settled in and with it the cold. Shottheimen and his platoon sergeant kept themselves occupied in Der Fuurplaaz. CPL Ralstaan suggested to SGT Little that maybe some of the squad could get some rest so they could split the night watch evenly. Little approved that idea. As Little worked out the details of who CPL Burke and CPL Shearer could send for a nap, Ralstaan sent Butcher to catch some shuteye.

CPL Odenka quietly snorted at the idea of resting. She had an all-weather blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she stood alone atop a tower parapet, Longshot sniper rifle at her side. Her eyes scanned the town, always watching for potential threats. The tavern was full now, occasionally spitting out a drunk reveler who headed to a warm, waiting house and sleep. Not her, though. ZeiraCPL Odenka —could handle the demands of a night in the cold. Her sniper training had demanded much more of her.

Odenka watched Butcher making her way along the fortress wall. Butcher was big—broad shouldered—for a woman. Almost as big as the biggest men. Not ZeiraCPL Odenka. She was agile. Svelte.

Suddenly, a shot rang out. Odenka brought the Longshot up and squeezed herself tight against a merlon. She scanned the town for the source of the shot, cursing beneath her breath.

PVT Butcher had just taken the first step down the steps that would get her to the courtyard—and then to the barracks and some sleep!—when she noticed a couple of the Vestan soldiers huddling around the gate below. She smiled at the sound of their casual chatter and saw one of them—a cute kid as tall as her, who called up a shy hello. The kid was a private, like her. He had an armful of junk, stuff he was carrying out of his captain’s quarters. The kid had been one of the Vestans who’d made a big deal of chasing a possum out of the building an hour earlier, laughing as the creature angrily hissed at them before running away.

Butcher wondered if Vestans would be able to date COG soldiers. She bit her full lower lip and chided herself about thinking someone would want to date a clumsy cow like her. I ain’t no co

Someone raised her voice out in the town, then a shot rang out. And there was a ricochet. Butcher jumped. She’d seen a flash of light from somewhere—the north end of town?

Then she saw the Vestan soldier drop the armful of junk and . . . just . . . collapse. And in the little bit of light that was thrown off by the improvised lamp hanging over the gate, Butcher could see blood. So much blood. And the soldier was holding a hand to it, pressing it against his neck.

Butcher ran the rest of the way down the steps and dropped to the ground next to the Vestan soldier— Oorlunder. Private Oorlunder. He was pale in the lamp light. And he had blood all over him—his face, his neck, his hands. And his eyes were as big as the moon. And his lips were moving, but he couldn’t make any noises other than a rasping sound. And a quiet, hissing sound.

He was dying.

END SESSION ONE

Day Two

SESSION TWO

Private Oorlunder and the Sniper

ZeiraCPL Odenka —scanned the town for anything that might betray the shooter’s position. She spotted shadows—movement in between houses with candlelight leaking from open shutters. She saw a drunken fool stumbling around. She saw an old man trying to get a cat down from his roof. She saw an old woman hunched over, rubbing her back, digging up something; onions. Not the shooter. And each time, she caught a shadow or a flash of movement, always moving north. Toward the town’s massive gate.

At the same time, Butcher was calling to the nearby Vestans to get a medic. One of them ran off and moments later, a grimy Vestan ran up and started cursing. He told Butcher to keep pressure on the neck wound, then ran off to get a medical kit from the Vestan trucks parked at the far eastern end of the fortress.

Oorlunder’s eyes told the whole story: Butcher wasn’t just trying to keep him from bleeding out, she was his angel. When she pulled a bloody hand away to radio what she’d seen and heard—the raised voice, the rifle crack, the ricochet sound, the flash of light at the northern end of town—*Oorlunder* grabbed her other hand like a drowning man would a raft. Oorlunder was lost, terrified, helpless. Ralstaan shouted down for Butcher to move the kid to cover; Butcher complied.

While Butcher held and reassured Oorlunder, Little demanded the rest of the people on the wall report in—were they okay, did they see anything? When Ralstaan reported in, Little ordered him to see if he could find the shooter, then Little radioed an update to Kane.

Ralstaan tied a rope off to a merlon and told PVT Nailes to come with him. Ralstaan rappelled down, but Nailes miscalculated and missed the rope in the dark. Ralstaan’s hand shot out, and he managed to snag the screaming Nailes. Ralstaan descended the rest of the way one-handed, fighting to keep a grip on Nailes the rest of the way down.

Once they were on the ground, Ralstaan shook the kinks out of his arm, readied his Lancer carbine, then dropped into a crouch and began a roadie run north. Although he’d hoped to move with some stealth, Nailes didn’t seem to grasp the concept, and his shouts and grunts awakened the chickens at the nearest farm. Ralstaan cursed and continued on.

Kane ran from his room and ordered a sit rep. Little confirmed there’d been a shooting, that Butcher had seen what might have been a muzzle flash at the northern end of town, that Ralstaan was on his way to check that out, and that one of the Vestan soldiers was down. Kane ordered the platoon to get to cover, then ran over to where Butcher was helping the Vestan medic.

Little ordered the rest of his squad to keep their eyes peeled, then ran down the steps into the courtyard. He dashed into the town, waving back curious folks who’d spilled out of Der Fuurplaaz. He then ran north, Lancer ready, eyes scanning the darkness and the town’s tight-packed buildings, attentive to any updates over the radio.

Kane took over for Butcher and began assisting the medics who were struggling to save Oorlunder. The kid had taken a bullet fragment into the neck, and it had nicked his carotid artery. The medic checked Oorlunder’s COG tag and said they needed A- blood. Kane checked his hand computer and saw he had someone in his platoon that was a match. He ordered the Gear to come to the fortress gate. Kane then told Butcher to go with her squad and to find this shooter. Butcher absently wiped Oorlunder’s blood onto her armor and asked permission to take the ’dillo parked near the gate. Kane approved, and he had SSG Kiersey go with her.

Butcher hopped into the ’dillo and, once Kiersey had an arm hooked around a protrusion and had his feet firmly planted on a running board, she revved the ’dillo’s engine and spun it around. Kiersey hung on for dear life.

Kane told the platoon they were in a combat situation, weapons free. Odenka confirmed she was free to take the shot if she got it. Kane confirmed.

Taking the Shot

As Ralstaan and Nailes closed on the gate, Odenka spotted movement. She had a vague form just outside the gate. It was moving down the road and would be out of sight in a moment. She asked for approval to take the shot. Kane approved. Odenka muttered a nervous curse, then squeezed the Longshot’s trigger. She saw the shadow drop. No dramatic windmilling of arms. It just dropped.

Odenka fought back a burst of nausea and panic and radioed in the hit. Sure, she’d killed before. Sort of. But this was the real deal. Not under fire. Just a cold, clean shot.

The $%#@ Mountain Goat

Butcher slowed enough to pick up Little, then Ralstaan and Nailes, and the ’dillo sped out to the gate. She kicked on the floods as she approached the gate, then readied for the sudden drop onto the road just outside the gate. She slammed on the brakes as the floods picked up the target. It was down, fountaining blood.

Ralstaan began laughing. Little jumped off the ’dillo and ran for the downed target. He called back to confirm to Odenka that she’d gotten her target. Butcher pushed past Little and put a mercy round into the target’s head.

Odenka jumped at the sound. She couldn’t understand Ralstaan’s laughing. Finally, Butcher said she’d dress the thing and put goat soup on the menu tomorrow. Odenka realized she’d shot one of the area’s large mountain goats.

She released another curse, but this one was tinged with relief.

While the others jabbered, Butcher searched the road around the fallen goat. There were footprints through the blood. One set was large: workman boots. The other set was small: a young boy, maybe a girl. They both headed off to the west, the adult running, the child walking. She radioed this in to the LT and the squad.

The Investigation: Terrorist, or Warning?

LT Kane wanted to know what happened. Did they or did they not have a shooter? Where had he shot from? Did they have proof? Little handed the investigation off to Ralstaan, then began his jog back to the fortress. Kane was now at Der Fuurplaaz, dealing with the Vestan captain and the town leaders (Borkmeissen Davit Schmitz, and Stoutmeissen Taelor, proprietor of Der Fuurplaaz, and eventually Constable Vaggener).

Although initially angry at Kane and skeptical of the claim a terrorist had shot at the Gears, Captain Shottheimen changed his tune the second he realized someone had shot one his Vestan Gears. Still, the borkmeissen was unconvinced it was an intentional assault. And when Vaggener arrived (his uniform hastily thrown on), he demanded to know why the Gears were trying to take control of what they claimed was an assault. Shottheimen wanted to keep things calm and not to agitate the locals, and he pressed Kane for evidence to support the claim a terrorist had taken the shot. Without the evidence, he suggested leaving the matter to Vaggener.

Kane told Shottheimen that Oorlunder would need to get to a hospital, but that he was stabilized for now. He left it at that.

CPL Ralstaan conducted the requested investigation. Butcher worked with Odenka to identify the area where the shooter had fired from.

The people of Shtovenhardt proved less than open. Ralstaan and Nailes went door-to-door, knocking and asking each citizen if they might have heard or seen something that could help understand what had happened. Someone had shot a Vestan soldier. Who would do that? Why?

Fortunately, Ralstaan’s fire team was able to recover a casing—a 7.1mm round. Civilian, almost certainly from an older hunting rifle. They had the vague location, the type of gun. Butcher and Odenka decided to work out the intent.

Back at the fortress, ZeiraCPL Odenka —located the bullet’s impact point. She gave it a close look and put together her best estimate. She had already determined the shooter must have been insane or overconfident to attempt the shot. Now, based on the height (two meters) and the angle, she felt pretty confident the shot had been more a warning than a serious attempt to hit someone. Then again, bad snipers weren’t above thinking they could do the impossible.

The Next Step

Kane ordered Little to put people on the town’s north wall, then he ordered everyone to be on alert the rest of the night. The next morning, at SSG Kiersey’s recommendation, Little’s squad went out on patrol under Kane’s direction. Kiersey had laid out a path for them to check, following the footprints west along the northern slope. There were caves that could be checked to see if the shooter was hiding there.

Patrol Duty

They teamed with SGT Guy Loeh, who’d lost Private Oorlunder the night before. Loeh’s squad took the loss badly (they could see it in the Vestans’ eyes and body language). CPL Paul Valdor, who, like Oorlunder, was from the general area, knew of the caves. And he knew of rumors that smugglers and other undesirables (possibly even Gorasnayan sympathizers) used the caves. But they were also used by campers and spelunkers.

Little and his squad could see the Vestans were unsure just how much to disclose about the local situation. In the end, Loeh seemed interested in getting the patrol done right.

Kiersey had made the patrol sectors pretty basic to start with—five klicks out and back. Most of that was fairly challenging but manageable slopes on the western side of the northern slope. It involved lots of handhold climbing, checking and marking caves. The squads occasionally needed to use ropes and actual climbing skills, slowing their progress.

During the day, sharp-eyed folks spotted a little form. Usually, it was running out just ahead of the squads and almost always managing to hide.

The Caves

With CPL Valdor’s help, the squads identified nine caves. Four of the caves could host people, but no more than three or four at a time, and two were dead ends. Two could hold several people, and had a way out as well as the way in. It looked like these probably housed hikers and spelunkers in the past.

With the sun already having past overhead, the squads headed for the final cave toward the end of their five click patrol.

At the last cave, the squad spotted the little form—a boy—again. He was squatting at a small cairn where someone had laid a bunch of wild mountain violets. ZeiraCPL Odenka —got a good look at him, and she thought he looked familiar. As the squads approached, the boy skittered away, running north from the cairn.

The final cave was located down in a bowl, a good twenty meters down from the lowest approach point. Getting down took some doing.

LT Kane told SGT Little to have one of his fire teams search the cave while everyone else kept their eyes open outside. Kane didn’t like being so exposed down in the bowl. Little sent CPL Ralstaan’s fire team in.

Ralstaan took the lead and had Butcher stay close on his tail. He had Nailes and Lucik hang back near the entry. After having to deal with Nailes’ raw skills the night before, Ralstaan wanted to keep as much control of the situation as possible.

The cave was the largest they’d explored all day. The entry opened about three meters across, then it narrowed to less than two meters before opening onto a much larger cavern that descended gently but steadily for many meters. Ralstaan confirmed the area was empty, then he waved Butcher forward. They found ashes from a fire pit: still warm. And they found signs there had been many people within recently.

Butcher found a bullet, a standard 7mm rifle round used in Gorasnayan GK-12 assault rifles—wedged in a crack in the floor.

While CPL Ralstaan’s fire team investigated the cave, cattle started making their way into the bowl. They made quick work of the occasional piece of scrub or clump of grass.

To the north, SGT Loeh took his squad away from the cave entry and started to set them up in a semi-defensive position. It was nothing remarkable, just a casual act, like he wanted to give them something to stay busy. Or maybe he was as spooked as the LT over being so exposed in the bowl. Or both.

LT Kane and Odenka heard rocks falling down into the bowl. They looked around, thinking the boy might be back. Their alertness enabled them to spot movement to their north, above where SGT Loeh had started to deploy his men. Three men in camouflage stood, bolo grenades in their hands. They lobbed the grenades into the mass of Loeh’s troops. Loeh shouted for his men to get down.

Kane and Odenka spotted three men rising to the south of their position, each also swinging a bolo grenade.

END SESSION TWO

Day Two

SESSION THREE

The Ambush

The Vestan soldiers spotted the grenades raining down on them. Too late.

One grenade bounced off a rock and then harmlessly away. Another landed at the very edge of the bunched Vestan soldiers, barely catching a soldier and one of the cows that had wandered down into the bowl.

SGT Loeh dove on the grenade that had landed among his troops and screamed for everyone to drop.

Even as the grenade went off, LT Kane leaped into action, shouting for his soldiers to drop.

Zeira didn’t need the lieutenant to tell her what to do. She targeted one of the men on the southern ridge above her with her Lancer sniper rifle and fired. The bullet punched a hole through his head, and he fell through a crimson cloud to the ground.

His grenade bounced toward the nearest grenade-spinning man. And detonated.

Rocks and wet bits of human flesh rained down from the ridge, and the second grenade-thrower’s grenade detonated at his feet.

The third grenade-thrower was beyond the range of the blast. His grenade sailed high and into the middle of the squad. SGT Little—*Bent*—wasn’t about to lose someone to a grenade.

He dove on it.

At the north end of the bowl, SGT Loeh’s men cowered. Two were dead, a third dying. Loeh himself was a shattered, bleeding mess. The cow that had taken the worst of the first grenade was making a terrible sound. Its comrades panicked and began to stampede.

Down and south. Toward Kane’s position.

SGT Little smothered the grenade, centering it on his chest plate, the strongest piece of his armor. Strong or not, the blast hurled him a half meter into the air. He hit the ground dazed, blinded, and deafened. But breathing.

Several meters below the battle, CPL Ralstaan and PVT Butcher squatted at the northwestern end of the cave they’d been investigating. Ralstaan had found a tunnel that led up. He could hear the explosions and gunfire clearly echoing down it. He was already putting the situation together. Whoever was up there had been hiding in the cave when the squads had arrived, and they’d sneaked out when they had the chance.

Ralstaan signaled Butcher to follow him, then began rapidly ascending the tunnel.

With the Vestans pinned down to the north, LT Kane didn’t know what to do next. The attackers on the north ridge could just as easily switch their guns to fire on Kane’s forces, and from that position, Kane would have no protection. At least his soldiers had some cover against the forces to the south.

While the lieutenant debated what to do, Zeira eliminated the last grenade-thrower. Unlike the first, he entertained her, pitching forward and windmilling his arms as he fell into the bowl. She smiled. It was easier than she’d feared.

More gunmen had made themselves visible along the southern ridge. She slid another round into the breech and chose her next target . . .

SGT Little stood on wobbly legs. He could see that his squad had survived, but they were close to panic. They needed a leader. They needed him.

He pointed up the rock wall and shouted: “Get up to that ridge line!” Then he charged.

At least, that’s what he intended. What came out was “ Geyp tatha urge ine! ” And his charge was more of a directed stagger the fell just shy of an impressive face plant.

But it was what the squad needed. They got up and followed their leader, charging and echoing: “ TATHA URGE INE!

LT Kane wasn’t sure about the necessity of a charge. He had grenades, after all. But the throw would be tough. He tried one and watched it sail over the prone insurgents. Or terrorists. Or whatever they were.

Tatha urge ine sounded like a good idea.

CPL Ralstaan and PVT Butcher reached the top of the tunnel. They could see the shooters—insurgents, terrorists—above and the pinned-down Vestans below. Ralstaan pulled out a bolo grenade and signaled Butcher to get ready. At Ralstaan’s signal, Butcher laid down suppressive fire and Ralstaan stood, gauged the distance, and lobbed his grenade.

The bolo was a little off, but not so far it didn’t have an effect. The insurgents screamed as the grenade tore through them. They were prone, but that wasn’t enough.

Ralstaan dropped down and began sending bursts into the enemy ranks. Butcher did the same. Ralstaan wondered for a moment if he should’ve brought his fire team out of the cave.

Nah.

SGT Little’s charge gained momentum. He painted a terrifying image—smoking armor, soot-covered face, white teeth bared, roaring unintelligibly (although he thought he was giving his squad encouragement . . . ). He was the perfect target.

The insurgents on the south ridge fired. Wildly. But a few bullets found their mark. And even Gears armor would fail eventually. One of the GK-12 rounds caught Little in the gap beneath his shoulder, another caught him in the hip gap.

He fell. But he yelled encouragement to the squad just behind him. They were meters from the ridgeline.

In the bowl below, Kane and Zeira moved up to avoid the stampede. Zeira managed to eliminate another terrorist.

That, and the crazy charcoal man were enough. The terrorists broke.

But there would be no escape. On the north ridge and on the south ridge, the GearsCOG and Vestan alike—gunned down their ambushers.

Kane ran for SGT Little and began trying to stabilize him.

Ralstaan and Butcher checked on the Vestan soldiers, then ran up to confirm the terrorists were dead. They found ten men in various camouflage combinations. Some wore ski masks. Kane radioed they’d found the same to the south.

Locals. And Gorasnayans.

Zeira moved to the highest point in the area and set up watch. Kane stabilized SGT Little, then told Ralstaan to send Butcher and the rest of the fire team back to Shtovenhardt to get an Armadillo to transport the wounded. Ralstaan reluctantly sent his fire team back to the town, but only after warning Butcher to watch everyone and everything for ambushes.

Ralstaan didn’t trust the Vestans.

While Butcher took the fire team up and out of the bowl, Ralstaan checked on the Vestan soldiers. SGT Loeh and three of his soldiers were dead. There were several wounded, but they would make it.

Ralstaan climbed to the side of the bowl opposite Zeira and watched for any sign of more terrorists.

A couple hours later, Butcher returned with an Armadillo. She’d pushed it hard, and it looked it. She’d be spending some time in the maintenance shed scraping out dents and dings and putting a new paint job down, but the smile on her face said she thought it was worth it.

The wounded were loaded up, the worst going inside the ‘dillo. The dead Vestan soldiers were secured to the hull. Butcher’s drive back to Shtovenhardt was slower, more somber. Her pale face was even paler by the time she pulled through the fortress gate.

Kane ordered Ralstaan to stay put, hidden. He’d send Ralstaan’s fireteam back to hold the site until the Shtovenhardt authorities decided what to do with the terrorist corpses. Ralstaan told Kane to send just Butcher back. Ralstaan wanted someone he could trust, and the kid was quickly proving her worth.

Kane led the rest of SGT Little’s squad back to Shtovenhardt. Zeira scouted the path. She almost hoped for another attack. Three kills didn’t feel like enough to her. She didn’t count the terrorists killed by the grenade her first kill had dropped. If it wasn’t from her Longshot, it wasn’t a legitimate kill.

Return to Shtovenhardt

The squad made it back to town without further incident. LT Kane found CPT Shottheimen waiting for him. Shottheimen launched into Kane over the sloppy execution. Shottheimen seemed more annoyed than angry that he’d lost men, but Kane realized that might be his own perception coloring Shottheimen’s reaction.

Kane talked his Vestan counterpart down. The idea that terrorists or insurgents or something had killed four Vestan soldiers finally got through. Shottheimen seemed to finally realize they were in a real situation, and the enemy didn’t care who was Vestan and who was COG.

Kane sought advice from his platoon sergeant, SSG Kiersey. Kiersey seemed comfortable with the situation, but counseled proceeding with caution. He also wasn’t 100% sure what to make of Shottheimen.

Or the locals.

The Infirmary

SGT Little awaited treatment in the infirmary. Triage. There were more injured worse than him. The infirmary was still a mess, but while Little liked how he imagined it would look eventually. He shared his thoughts with the Vestans awaiting treatment a few beds over, pretending he could hear their replies over the ringing in his ears. He hoped the ringing wasn’t permanent.

An hour passed before one of the medics came to check on Little. The medic was blood-covered, and he looked shell-shocked. Little pointed to the Vestans across from him and told the medic to tend to them first. It took a couple tries before the medic could understand Little, and when the message got through, the medic refused to look at the Vestans.

Little wasn’t going to have any of it. The Vestans had fought, just like Little’s squad. Little shoved the medic and told him the Vestans were part of the COG now. The medic stared for a moment, then shook his head slowly. That’s when Little realized he’d been talking to the corpses.

Guarding the Terrorists

Ralstaan hid on the high rock Zeira had positioned herself on earlier. When Butcher returned a couple hours later, the two of them moved to the cave mouth they’d fought from earlier.

By late afternoon, visitors came. They were locals, dressed in simple wool jackets and heavy cotton pants.

Ranchers. Farmers.

The locals looked the corpses over, shaking their heads. The locals checked the corpses for identification, but Ralstaan and Butcher had done that earlier and found nothing.

Finally, the locals settled on gathering up the GK-12s and magazines, then they left.

A few hours later, with the sun long set, SGT Pollik’s squad arrived to relieve them. Ralstaan briefed Pollik on the locals who’d swung by, then Butcher led Ralstaan to where she’d hidden the ‘dillo about a klick away. The whole drive back to Shtovenhardt, they didn’t speak.

Der Fuurplaaz

After the thrill of battle, ZeiraCPL Odenka —found the free time she’d been released to boring. She couldn’t sleep, even though she was desperately tired. She lay on her bunk, wondering at the animal, mineral, and vegetable odors rising from its soiled mattress. Finally, she dropped to the ground, pulled on her uniform jacket, and headed out.

The fortress itself seemed relatively quiet. People were sleeping or on patrol or manning the fortress and town walls.

She wasn’t feeling much like herself, so she headed out of the fortress. It was dark. The streets were lit by oil and electrical lamps and the glow of fireplaces leaking from windows.

The tavern— Der Fuurplaaz —was crawling with people.

Zeira hated places like that. She cursed beneath her breath and walked for the tavern entry.

The interior was warm and loud and smelled of laborers. It was only about half capacity, with people still wandering across the town, visiting neighbors, or out tending herds.

Zeira turned to go, but a pretty barmaid ushered her to a table. The barmaid asked Zeira if she was a COG, and Zeira said they were all COG now. The barmaid laughed and agreed. She asked about the battle. Zeira fought back her temper and deflected the question. The barmaid asked her what she wanted to drink, and Zeira said she didn’t know.

The barmaid proceeded to give Zeira the history of Stoutmeissen Taelor and Der Fuurplaaz and how it was known throughout southwestern Sera. The barmaid stepped away and bought back a tray with three sterns, each with a foam head.

The barmaid explained the three drinks—stouts and ales—in great detail. Before Zeira could stop the barmaid, a pleasant man stepped up and shooed the barmaid away. Zeira quickly surmised the man was Stoutmeissen Taelor. Taelor began giving a more interesting description of the drinks, adding history and process for context.

Finally, Zeira tasted each drink just to get the stoutmeissen to shut up. She didn’t like any of them, but she wasn’t a drinker. Actually, she liked the one with hints of orange and honey. But she was done. She took another drink, then she excused herself. Taelor wished her good night.

Zeira yawned as she exited the tavern. She was sleepy now, but not so sleepy she didn’t notice that one of the patrons had moved to the doorway to watch her walk back to the fortress.

Maybe he’s just enjoying the view. I’m not bad looking. Or maybe he’s something more than a creep. Maybe he’s a terrorist.

She made note of his face.

The Captain and the Constable

As she approached the fortress wall, Zeira heard raised voices. She stopped and listened, identifying the source as a section of wall covered in shadows.

She crept closer. She heard the Vestan captain. She didn’t know the other voice, but it sounded like the captain referred to the other man as “the constable.”

The captain was complaining, saying: “I warned them they weren’t ready. I warned them! And now what? We can’t trust the COG. You know that.”

Then the constable shushed the captain and said he heard something.

And Zeira was moving. Quietly heading for the gate. She slipped in and hid beneath one of the tower stairs. A moment later, the captain entered through the gate and casually glanced around the courtyard.

Casual to the less suspicious eye. But Zeira knew what she had heard, and she knew the captain was looking for whoever had overheard him talking with the constable . . .

END SESSION THREE

Day Three

SESSION FOUR

Quiet Before the Storm

SGT Little woke from a nap to find one of the Vestan medics staring at him. The Vestan turned his attention to an electronic medical record device. It seemed to fascinate him. Finally, he turned back to SGT Little and—with a voice raised almost to a shout—told him he was released from the infirmary. SGT Little told the Vestan he didn’t need to shout. The medic nodded and mouthed “okay,” then quietly mumbled something about a concussion and hearing damage from the grenade blast.

Little sighed. He gathered up his gear, thanked the Vestan, and headed out.

Little was halfway back to the barracks, still trying to get a feel for how the concussion was messing with his balance when he saw CPL Burke and CPL Shearer approaching. They looked like hunting lionesses. He muttered a curse, then worried he couldn’t be sure it was actually a mutter. The corporals didn’t seem to react.

They did block his path, though.

Definitely hunting.

The attack was quick and brutal. They wanted—demanded—to know what the hell was up with Little. Was he playing favorites? Did he have problems with them? Was it because they were women?

Little held up his hands. He had no idea what they were going on about. The corporals glared at him skeptically. They asked why CPL Ralstaan’s fire team was being selected for every mission if it wasn’t favoritism. Little shook his head in disbelief. _How could they possibly think there was favoritism at play? The situation was based purely on skills and needs. He promised to do more to ensure there wasn’t a chance for even mistaken perceptions about favoritism. This seemed to satisfy the two of them.

Meanwhile, CPL Alek Ralstaan was making his way through the line in the building that had been converted into the chow hall. He spotted PVT Lucik and PVT Nailes in the line behind him. They were bullying a nerdy little Vestan private. Ralstaan let the bullying go until he’d had enough (and he sensed the other Vestans had as well). He ordered the two to back off and tried to get through to them at a rational level. They backed off, but it was clear there was something going on that Ralstaan was missing.

The little Vestan private ate his food hurriedly, then left. Lucik and Nailes coincidentally finished at the same time. Ralstaan let the three of them exit the chow hall, then finished off his own meal. He was hopeful whatever had been up was over between the three of them.

As he exited the chow hall, Ralstaan heard a scuffle and realized the bullying wasn’t done.

Ralstaan found Lucik and Nailes around the side of the building. They had the little Vestan private between them. They were shoving him back and forth, threatening him. Ralstaan made his presence known.

Once again, Ralstaan tried to be rational rather than simply tear Lucik and Nailes a new one. The tactic worked, and Ralstaan discovered the two were resentful of PVT Butcher. They didn’t like the way Ralstaan spent more time with her and seemed to trust her more. Ralstaan also got the sense that Nailes had his own interest in Butcher.

Ralstaan made sure the little Vestan private— PVT Stuben —was okay, then took Lucik and Nailes to Der Fuurplaaz for a drink. While there, he got the two of them to open up even more. By the end of the night, Lucik was headed out with the hot barmaid, and Nailes seemed to be over the idea his corporal was shtoinking the fireteam’s hottie.

Around that same time, CPL Zeira Odenka was dealing with her own demons. She had concerns about Captain Shottheimen and Constable Vaggener. She was worried now about the fort’s security.

She’d already spent a lot of time alone, trying to become familiar with the fort’s layout. It was her nature to never leave herself at risk of being trapped. In her wandering of the fort, she’d found the south-facing artillery rooms carved out of the cliff walls. She decided to make a point of inspecting the guns and their ammunition magazines more closely.

The guns were accessible through two entries on the southern fort wall. The entries were connected by a long, east-west tunnel. At each end of the tunnel, another door opened onto a spiral staircase that climbed about 12m. The staircase doors opened onto a tunnel that was roughly the same as the one 12m below. There were two doors off this tunnel, each opening onto a south-running tunnel that led to another east-west tunnel. In that second east-west tunnel, there were three doors. The two at opposite ends of the tunnel opened onto the huge artillery pieces that watched over the southern valley. The one in the middle opened onto the magazine.

CPL Odenka had just finished inspecting the eastern guns when she heard something—the quiet pitter-patter of cautious footsteps—from the tunnel. She quietly headed out and heard the footsteps again, this time coming from the spiral staircase.

She moved to the outer hallway and the staircase door, confident the loud retreat would cover any noise she might make. The door to the staircase was open. She remembered closing it. She poked her head in just in time to hear the door below close.

CPL Odenka jogged down the staircase, more curious than concerned. Who could possibly be in the tunnels besides her? The officers hadn’t bothered to assign anyone to clean up or even inspect the guns yet. They were caught up in their pathetic macho power struggles.

By the time she reached the bottom tunnel, the footsteps were distant and were in a full-on sprint. She opened the stairwell door, but the runner had reached the opposite end of the tunnel. Odenka wasn’t sure if the runner had exited the tunnel north to head back into the fort or had taken the stairwell door up into the western gun wing.

She jogged quietly down to the western door. It was slightly ajar. Odenka had left it closed. She entered the stairwell, listening cautiously. She heard footsteps—faint again—from above.

Odenka headed up quietly. At the top of the stairs, she found the door ajar again. The hallway beyond was empty, but the magazine door was ajar. She crept forward, wishing she had a pistol with her. The carbine’s going to have to do.

She pushed the door open. It was dark in the room; only the edges of crates stood out in the light leaking in from the hallway, and that vaguely. The smell of the munitions—metal, oil—was heavy in the air. She listened, but there was no sound. She entered the room, one hand on the wall, the other holding her Lancer carbine.

The hallway lights went out, plunging everything into total darkness. She froze.

Finally, she heard a sound. A boot scraping. The doorway.

A knife scraped along her armor, just missing the crease where the chest plate and back plate joined. A hand—sweaty, grimy—grabbed her in the dark, first her upper chest, then running up her throat and mouth.

Odenka pushed free and spun. She fired wildly into the darkness where she thought her attacker had been. A grunt, then the sound of running.

Odenka felt around for a switch. Light’s not off, power is. Odenka felt her way out into the hallway, tensed, ready for another ambush. She heard the door down the hallway clang. The stairs.

She moved as quickly as she could, finally stopping at the stairwell. Power was on there. Lights. There was blood. She’d hit her assailant.

She smiled.

She jogged down the stairs, always watching ahead of her. More blood on the landing, then on some of the stairs and the floor at the bottom of the stairwell. The door stood open. She checked for any sign of ambush. Nothing.

She followed the blood trail out into the fort’s courtyard, where it ended. A towel or something. No one was around. No one was on the battlements from where she could see.

No one would’ve seen anything. Odenka frowned. She didn’t like mysteries.

PVT Butcher yawned and stretched, then grabbed her towel and made her way to the showers. One of the Vestan soldiers was finishing up as Butcher entered the bathroom. They nodded at each other, then the Vestan gathered up her kit from the sink—a crude brush, what looked like anti-perspirant paste, toothbrush and toothpaste—and was gone. Butcher set her things down on the other sink. They were slightly nicer, more modern. COG-issued. Better than I had on the farm.

Rumors were swirling in the barracks that PVT Nailes had a thing for her. Before that, all the ladies thought she was getting it on with Ralstaan. She made a face. She’d only slept with a couple guys before—once in high school, once a little after boot camp. It was okay, but not enough to get all worked up about. Ralstaan certainly wasn’t the sort she wanted to pursue when the time came.

What about Nailes? She drove the thought from her mind until she was back in her room, and by then she was thinking of the motor pool. She and CPL Hans Finkel, her Vestan counterpart, had worked hard to put it together. Because she’d been pulled away for so much patrol work, Finkel had done most of it.

She liked Finkel. He’d given her a hard time at first. Tomboy. Rookie. She’d won him over with her skills. Now he respected her, but it was still awkward for him.

She found him in the motor pool already, working to tear apart the ancient Vestan truck she’d escorted that first day. He heard her and greeted her with a warm smile. She grabbed her tool kit and jumped into the last panel work on the Armadillo she’d banged up carrying the wounded and dead from the ambush site back to the fort. Banging out dents was nothing compared to hosing out blood and . . .

She shivered. She’d seen plenty of death, plenty of blood before, but slaughtering animals was different than seeing comrades blown to pieces.

Finkel seemed to sense her dark thoughts. He asked her to come over and help him with one of the truck’s imulsion reservoirs. She crawled under the truck with him and watched as he traced out the imulsion lines and how they fed two reservoirs on opposite sides of the engine. In its own crude way, it was a clever design, with the engine capable of running off half its cylinders if necessary.

After a bit, Finkel turned to her. He said, “You’re a good kid, Butcher. I like you. So I want you to listen to me. Vesta has a dark history. We’ve always been split, you see? Up north, where I grew up, we’re very independent, yes? We didn’t ever want to have to join the COG or the UIR. And we never wanted the Gorasnayans in our business. But down here, on the southern border with Gorasnaya? There are people who see a common heritage with the Gorasnayans, and they want to embrace that. It makes it so, like what happened—you can’t trust anyone. And there were a lot of things that happened during the Pendulum Wars. We may have been neutral, but the war still came here. People died. The Nacht Wache—”

They heard boots scraping, and Finkel went silent. It was Sergeant Vonderbork Finkel’s platoon sergeant. Vonderbork wanted to know the progress on the truck. Finkel smiled reassuringly and said they were almost done. Vonderbork seemed satisfied; he left.

Finkel clammed up after that, although he did warn Butcher to be careful.

LT Mordan Kane discussed the platoon’s status with SSG Kiersey. Kane appreciated having someone like Kiersey as his platoon sergeant. There was no condescension, only a sincere interest in keeping the platoon alive, and some underlying empathy towards an officer thrust into a dangerous situation.

Their discussion was interrupted by CPT Shottheimen, who arrived without advance notice.

He asked to speak to Kane privately. Kane took Shottheimen to the little office Shottheimen had left for Kane. Shottheimen paid no attention to the office’s blank walls or lack of other trappings. In fact, Shottheimen seemed oddly lacking in his usual bluster and arrogance. He immediately turned to the matter at hand—he needed to return to HQ in Polleny to speak to his command. On his way, he intended to take Private Oorlunder and the other wounded to the hospital in Durkvulla. He planned to leave first thing in the morning.

He shared that Vesta had no intention of being Gorasnayan lapdogs. And that their enemies were clearly radicals. This was welcome news to Kane, who wasn’t sure of Shottheimen’s loyalties.

Also, he wanted a good driver. The one who had provided escort for his convoy upon arrival at Shtovenhardt, the big blonde woman. And if Kane was up to it, an escort. A COG fireteam.

Kane tried to read Shottheimen, but he couldn’t tell what was going on with the young man. He tried to draw out a little more, but the captain seemed to have reached his limit. Kane agreed to the request.

Once Shottheimen was gone, Kane called Kiersey into his office to get his thoughts. Kiersey made no secret of his distrust for Shottheimen. Heck, he was losing faith in Vestans in general. But he believed there were obligations, and the only way they could ever figure out what was going on with the insurgency was to draw it out.

Kane agreed. He asked Kiersey to work up a roster for the escort, and to be sure to include PVT Butcher as a driver for one of the ‘dills. Kiersey suggested SGT Little take CPL Ralstaan’s fireteam. They’d already fought alongside (and against) Vestans, and they were all on edge enough to be alert for ambush. Kane worried they might be too on edge, but he approved Kiersey’s suggestion.

Early the next morning, Kiersey stood just inside the gate, watching Little lead his troops. PVT Butcher sat in the lead ’dill, the last of its dents banged out and a new paint job rendering it as good as new. LT Kane stood in front of it, waiting for CPT Shottheimen. In the rear ’dill, PVT Nailes manned the guns while CPL Ralstaan stood at the ready.

Kiersey had assigned CPL Odenka to ride along as a “scout.” She understood that to mean “in case there’s any trouble.” She sat in the rear passenger’s seat, fondling her Longshot, eyes constantly scanning. She didn’t like riding in the ’dill. It was a rolling coffin. She had no control over her fate while inside it. She was just like the others—a target.

CPT Shottheimen arrived. There were salutes. Little and Ralstaan helped the Vestans load the wounded and made sure the Vestan COGs were secure in the truck before heading for their own ’dill. Oorlunder, who had mostly been unconscious, came awake as the Vestans carried his litter to the truck. He spotted Butcher and gave her a pale, weak thumbs up, then slipped unconscious again.

Ralstaan said hello to PVT Stuben when he saw the little man helping secure the wounded at the front of the transport trailer. Stuben happily waved back and returned the morning greeting. Ralstaan sighed with relief when he saw Lucik sprinting through the gate to crawl into the first ‘dill.

Kane fought back the urge to order Lucik to grab a shower. The ’dill was going to be stuffy enough without someone smelling like they’d just stepped out of a whorehouse. Unfortunately, they were on a tight schedule.

The convoy engines came to life and the vehicles lurched out of the gate. The town was slowly coming awake. Eyes peeked through windows and farmers looked up from chores to watch. So much curiosity. Even more animosity.

The trip was a quiet one until they were well away from Shtovenhardt. From the front passenger seat, Shottheimen watched Butcher appreciatively for a while, then finally started asking her how she’d gotten to be so big. Butcher took it as it was meant—an innocent question. She explained how she’d grown up on a farm and done the same thing as her brothers. Shottheimen asked if she played thrashball. She laughed and said no. He laughed and asked if her brothers did. That seemed to settle the mood in the lead vehicle, despite Lucik’s snoring.

Things were calm until they reached the outskirts of Durkvulla. The city sat on a hill, the road rising steeply to reach it. A low, stone wall stood at the city’s edge.

Butcher couldn’t help tensing up. The transport truck was falling behind as it struggled with the incline. That pushed the other ‘dill farther back as well. They wanted a gap, but she didn’t like it being so large. She slowed. Shottheimen noticed, but he said nothing.

Kane radioed Little for a status. Little said the truck was struggling, but it wasn’t stalling. Kane told him to stay alert.

Little rolled his eyes as he told Ralstaan the lieutenant thought they should stay alert. Ralstaan chuckled. His carbine was wedged between his seat and the wall. He’d been alert since they’d climbed into the ‘dill. Not as alert as Odenka. She was as edgy as anyone Ralstaan had ever seen. But he’d been alert. He didn’t know who to trust, and he wasn’t about to start trusting yet.

Kane radioed back when the dill passed through the city gate. An arch rose above the low wall. It was big enough for the truck to clear. Barely. The streets were empty. It was mid-morning, but the buildings looked like a mix of storage and manufacturing, so people could be working inside. There was definitely no sign of Shtovenhardt’s rustic scenery. There had been farms on the way, even just a couple klicks down the road, but inside, the buildings were sturdy stone and wood structures of a modestly more modern design.

Little told the team the first dill was through the gate. He edged the dill back to give the struggling truck some more room. It seemed to pick up a little speed, as if it’d caught its breath. Then it was through the gate. Little kept his foot off the pedal as the road leveled off.

The buildings on either side of the narrow street seemed like bunkers to Odenka’s eyes. They had small windows, sturdy stone walls, thick timber beams. She hated urban warfare. It offered good perches for her, but it did the same for enemies. Too convenient for ambush, too—

The truck in front of the ’dill rode a blanket of fire nearly two meters into the air before it split, the cab hurtling forward, the trailer falling back and twisting and turning before slamming to the ground.

Little slammed on the ’dill’s brakes and swerved to avoid the trailer. Flames licked up the front of it. Bodies—the wounded—spilled out its back. At the front of the convoy, Butcher made sure her vehicle was safe, then swerved and slammed on the brakes.

Gunfire erupted, most if it bouncing harmlessly off the dills’ armor. Lucik and Nailes opened fire with their chain guns. Little, Odenka, and Ralstaan spilled out the front of their ’dill, risking the incoming gunfire to take up effective positions. Inside the lead vehicle, Kane held position, hoping the chain guns would deal with the insurgents. He quickly realized they wouldn’t.

PVT Stuben staggered out of the ruined trailer. He was disoriented, in shock. He wandered right into a hail of bullets and fell to the ground where he arched his back in agony, then gasped a final breath.

Ralstaan roared. He charged the nearest building and lobbed a grenade through one of the narrow windows. The explosion was a satisfying sound. The two insurgents who’d been firing from the window were slumped over the ledge, smoking and bloody.

The Gears were ready to rock and roll . . .

END SESSION FOUR

Stone Vault Synopses

The Devil Inside

Gears of War: Stone Vault phillipradams phillipradams