Time had passed, and I had made my choice. The Archimandrite took me by the hand and placed me within the group. He pointed to us as one and gave forth his pronouncement on our task. We would succeed, but we may or may not accept it when the time came. Sniggers ran like ripples on water.
The elders knew their own minds; we all knew that. Their plans came to us sealed in wax paper and wrapped in a bow; it was all too perfect. I understood that it was part of my path to leadership to take on this kind of role within the community, but I was uncertain how they had known about me.
The Archimandrite, the leader of the elders spoke to me in private; he seemed torn by our mission. He understood that it was necessary for the future of our community, but he could see that the taste of success would be – rather than bittersweet – hollow, like ashes in our collective teeth. Pointless.
Our training was necessarily short, focussing on the destruction of the creatures, and the route to the lands beyond. There would be no rescue from the Bad Lands, because no one would know that we were there. There were no other communities, therefore our people must be the ones to live.
The attack came out of the blue, yet it seemed we were prepared for it. Each man had the correct bit of kit for their job, and they fought the first wave off with ease. Unease turned to a surfeit of hope, of confidence, of exuberance, as the splash receded. Some were too jubilant to question success.
I kicked through a few of the felled, and they were under armed, and barely equipped with the full complement of flesh and bone under their metallic wing. Some had fallen without a shot being fired at them, like some absurd form of machine obsolescence. Were we doing this for real or training?
We regrouped in the lee of a collapsed cinema, on the outskirts of this ruined town. There were tales of places like this from our youth: places of fun and entertainment; places where the lights went out and the heart started beating. Those days were simple dreams of a past long dead now. We hid well.
The incoming shell had been a blur; one of the crew had thought it was a drone: that would have been a bitter end. We stuttered and span, wondering which way to run, rudderless. One man led the way: he had spotted a door through the ruins. The door was locked; the air around filled with sparks.
The Erkekjetter held the keys in his greasy grasp; none of us could bring ourselves to trust him. His appearance was as out of kilter as his demeanour: we knew we were expecting someone, but we had no idea that one of the great elders would be based so far out in to the Bad Lands. Why so far?
His command bunker was little more than a pile of sticks covered by a tarpaulin. The trench it was dug in to was lined with excrement and daubed with the faces of the damned. It felt like a holding pen for the lost. We fit in to it perfectly, and started to take on its hues. A coffee pot bubbled on.
Talk turned to our future successes and the ease with which we had seen off our foe. One man, self-appointed elder-in-waiting, strutted his way through the company, issuing proclamations upon our chances of future survival. He spake me “dead”, and The Erkekjetter raised an eyebrow of jest.
Eyes met across the crowded space; we paired up and nodded. We had become too comfortable in our new-found safety; too bloated in our new-found success. We would need to make our way out; conclude our mission; get seven bells kicked out of us in the process. We were destined to suffer.
The rush came all at once; they invaded the blackened air as if a murmuration of starlings, looking for their roost. Their attack was lacking in the ferocity for which we had been trained, not that the others gave much of a mind. They took the ease of victory as symbolic of their moral superiority.
This wave of attackers seemed far more professional, more alive, but I didn’t believe it. Too many were taken down with only glancing blows to their wing tips; others cowered on the ground, as if acting the part. Nothing smelled quite right, and I refused yet to accept the reality of this place.
Two steps; halt. The ground shook, the air shook, the light filled the mind. It was as if we had been transported to an alternate realm, a higher plane. Black had become white, and our guns rang out in to silhouettes. Confusion, red and blue, reigned supreme. Silence filled the air like rushing milk.
We pushed ourselves back to back to back to back: a wall of support. And we fired. Oh how we fired out and upon the massed hordes. We lived for the kill, and they died in their droves. They died for us and we loved them for it. The colour of the future would be painted in their endless blood and shit.
The Archimandrite was correct; we didn’t have time to question his prophecy, only to marvel at our own survival. The marks in the dirt showed me that this was far from the first such skirmish which had taken place on this wet, cold dirt. We were now lost and we were bruised, but we had not died.
The touch of the wind on my face had brought me alive, after years cooped up in that bunker. I knew that I could not go back – that was integral to our mission, after all – but that my path would not be the one which had been set out for me. The Archimandrite had singled me out for a higher purpose.
Brotherly love abounded in this place; this place of my departure. They were each lost in the reverie of survival; too lost to see the quiet departure of one of the lesser members of their number. Their orders were vague from this point, as if the intelligence had been lost in the bouts of discussion.
I painted my face with the blood of the fallen and snuck my way away from the Bad Lands: out in to The Pale. No life could hold here, but there had been stories. I covered as much distance as I could before I was noticed. The sound of their deaths still came as a shock to my system. Ambushed all.