Azarola awoke to a face full of sand. He pushed himself up and sharp stabs of pain jabbed his shoulders and back, forcing a gasp past his cut lip. Grit stuck to his flesh in exchange for the dark red stain pressed onto the ground. Blood dripped into his right eye, obscuring half of his vision. Past the ringing in his ears, he heard eerie whistles cut through the air and the yells and screams of men, all punctuated by a relentless barrage of explosions. The wind howled around him, driving scourging sand into his wounds and stinging his eyes.
His blurred vision cleared just enough for him to make out the dust-covered rifle lying in front of him and he instinctively wrapped his hands around it. Where was he? What was happening? Why did he hurt so much? In the hellish orange twilight surrounding him, Azarola looked to one side and spotted mangled corpses of tan uniformed young men scattered amongst twisted metal remains of trucks and tanks. Burnt craters nearby gave a strong clue as to why there were so many dead. He coughed against the choking dust and acrid smoke as he stood on unsteady legs and gagged against the nauseating metallic stench of gore.
Pushing past the needling pain peppering his legs and a tilting dizziness, he scrambled for cover around the crumbling corner of a ruined house. He reached for his concealed pistol and his fingers slid against the grime-caked drab tan fabric of an Inexan army uniform. Why was he wearing this? He was a busker and garage mechanic! Over his bloodied uniform, he wore a harness and belt laden with pouches. He wiped the blood and grime away from his eyes and tried to get his bearings, but he had no idea which direction he was facing. With no sign of the barrage abetting, he left his cover and hoped he was going the right way. The concussive explosions kept pace with him as he scrambled and ducked through the dust-choked streets. Running from building to building, he discovered bloody and broken bodies strewn in every direction. What sort of nightmare was this? What sort of dream hurt this much?
Gravel and shrapnel sprayed against him from a nearby blast and he careened into a rammed earth wall. A scarlet smear streaked against the beige barrier, pointing to a gasping Azarola struggling to get his legs under him. He gripped the rifle tighter and used it to lever his battered body upright. His vision pulsed with his heartbeat, dimming and blurring in a frantic rhythm. Half-blind, he kept running, seeking some sort of shelter, any sort of reprieve.
The air suddenly became unnaturally still and the dust settled over the blasted town in a suffocating blanket. Crouching inside a faceless shop, Azarola caught his breath and waited for his vision to clear. The grime-thickened crimson crust over half of his face cracked as he squinted into the clearing sky. Instead of twilight above him, it was a jewel blue afternoon. “Now what?” he asked it. He spoke a response for the sky, “Keep moving.”
The thunder of hundreds of boots running over the broken ground and the crack of gunfire reached his ringing ears, growing louder with each beat. Azarola focused for a moment, getting a read on the direction. They were coming from the direction he ran from, the same direction the explosions came from. He listened to their progress and forced his rattled brain to make a judgment upon them. Were they friend or foe? An opposing chorus of rifles answered them. Gritting his teeth, he stood and ran from both. He did not intend to be caught in the crossfire.
As he ran, he spotted another man in a tan uniform and brimmed steel helmet crouched behind a broken wall in a row of squat, square buildings. The soldier fumbled with fitting the bayonet to his bolt-action rifle. Three men in gray uniforms approached with raised rifles, waiting for the tan uniformed man to poke his head above the ruined wall.
Azarola last used a rifle many years ago and his memory was hazy, but he put the wood buttstock against his shoulder and sighted along the barrel at one of the gray-garbed men. From the cover of the dusty alley, he fired a thunderous shot and gasped at the recoil kick aggravating his injuries. His shot flew low and to the left, grazing his target. Clenching grit between his teeth in a choked snarl, Azarola adjusted the rifle against his shoulder and fired again. The now familiar whistle of a bullet’s near miss broke through the persistent hum in his ears. Three more shots thundered from his weapon in rapid succession, flinging brass shells far into the rubble. The empty en-bloc clip loudly ejected and flew off into the debris.
Gunsmoke drifted through the dusty alley and three men in gray lay on the ground. Rubbing at his bruised shoulder, Azarola took a moment to look over the gun, grateful that it didn’t kick as hard as the old bolt-action rifle that he learned to shoot with. He searched his pockets and pouches for more ammunition, but found nothing useful. “You alright, pal?” he called out to the soldier.
“I’m fine!” The soldier darted to the alley to join Azarola. “Maedra’s fire, you’re a mess. You need to get to the medics.”
Azarola struggled to hear the man speak over the ringing in his ears. “Where are they? Where are we? What’s going on? Who did I just shoot?”
The soldier’s eyebrows climbed up his forehead. “Got knocked stupid, huh? We’re on the south side of Bosirid. Headquarters are on the north end. And we’re getting our asses kicked by the Avernans. That’s who you just shot. Thanks, by the way.”
Azarola pulled a small metal shard from the back of his hand before offering his palm in greeting. “I’m Azarola.”
“Larent Morain.” The young man declined to accept the bloody hand, instead keeping both hands firm on his rifle.
Azarola had plenty of other questions to ask, but this didn’t seem like the time to stop and chat. He pointed in the direction opposite of where he came from. “North is that way?”
“I think so.”
“Let’s go, Larent.” As his panic subsided, the demands of his injuries grew louder. He needed to get away from this place as quickly as possible.
“Thank the gods that the wind’s dying down,” Larent remarked as they ran nearly blind through the alleys and streets. “Couldn’t see a damn thing in the sandstorm. Next thing we know, we’re pelted with artillery. It’s all a mess. I don’t know what happened to the rest of my squad. I don’t even know where the rest of my platoon is!”
They paused at a bloody cluster of fallen soldiers all wearing the tan uniforms. Azarola knelt next to a couple of corpses. “Are they it?”
“Uh, part of it. Maedra have mercy.” Larent frowned as he watched Azarola rummage through bloodied pockets and pouches. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for more bullets.” His voice strained under pain, betraying his stoic facade as he grabbed every clip for his rifle he could find. “You’re down to your bayonet. Even I know what that means.”
Larent kept watch for anyone approaching while Azarola worked. “Do you still have your kit?”
“With the bandages and powder?”
“I don’t know. We’re stopping here longer than I want to, anyways. I’m still walking, so I think I’ll hold for a little while longer.” Azarola handed some ammunition to Larent. “That’ll do?”
The other soldier examined the bullets and then quickly reloaded his weapon. “That’ll do.” Without looking up from his gun, Larent asked, “Where’s your helmet?”
“What helmet?” His hand ran through his grimy black hair and his heart skipped a beat. “Where’s my hair?!” It was now cropped short to befit a soldier. What happened to his waist-length ponytail? “When did I get it cut? Why?” It was his marker of belonging to the traditionally nomadic Senviran people. Without it, he could only pass as the Inexan half of his bloodline.
Larent’s pale eyes darted towards Azarola and he swore under his breath. “Yeah, I think you need to see the medics.” He stepped in front of the confused man, showing him the red soaking through the back of his shirt.
“I think you’re joining me there,” Azarola remarked. His eyes caught the glint of a pistol and he added its belt to his own load.
They staggered onward, moving as quickly as their injuries would permit. Gunfire echoed from skirmishes all around them. Turning down a side street to avoid the thickest concentration of noise, they jerked to a stop just before reaching the next main thoroughfare. A pair of Inexan soldiers ducked within a thick doorway on the other side of the street. From farther down the road, a few gray uniformed men pinned them down with shots from bolt-action rifles.
Azarola knelt down at the corner of a building. “I’ll get them to flinch, you pick them off.” He raised his rifle and fired several rapid shots. Above him, Larent took a more deliberate aim. Hot brass casings ricocheted off the stone wall and stung Azarola’s face. From across the street, the other two soldiers grabbed the opportunity and fired at their attackers. The clip from Azarola’s rifle ejected and clanged against the wall.
With the gunfire silenced when the Avernans felled, the Inexan soldiers congregated at Azarola. One man sported sweat-soaked copper hair and a crooked, bloody nose under his brimmed helmet. The other was squat and earthy with a dark scarlet stain streaking down his right arm. “Thank the gods you showed up!” the red-haired man grinned. “I’m Rufino and this is Weldon.”
“I’m Azarola and this is Larent.” He slung his empty rifle over his shoulder. “We’re getting out of here.” Pulling his focus away from the insistent complaints of his injuries, Azarola tried to listen past the incessant hum in his ears for the movements of soldiers.
Rufino glanced over Azarola, “I think he needs to get to the medics. He looks bad.”
Weldon snapped back, “He’s walking and talking, ain’t he? He’s fine.”
Azarola butted in, “No, I think he’s right. I need to get to the medics. I’m walking and talking and bleeding and…” He pinched a small metal shard out of his forearm. “I think I’m full of this.” He examined the unyielding agony in his upper left arm and pulled back the torn scrap of blood-soaked fabric to get a better view. “And there’s that.” A large gash tore out a quarter of the ink near the bottom of his black tattoo, exposing the meat below. He sucked in a breath and cringed at the gruesome sight. “That’s one way to get rid of the damned thing.” He spotted a tan uniformed young man slumped alongside the wheel of a heavy truck and darted over to him. A quick check confirmed that he was dead. He picked up the submachine laying on the ground and collected as much ammunition as he could. “Hope you don’t mind if I borrow your stuff.” He had seen a submachine gun before, when he ran with a gang on the nighttime streets of Ixpoli. He found that familiarity comforting. While he hated the gang raids at the time, he now wished that he could go back to them. No amount of self-deception could get him to believe that this dusty, windy hell was nothing more than a glorified raid.
Just ahead of them, they heard another exchange of gunfire. At the next intersection, they saw several gray uniformed men firing at a cluster of Inexan soldiers manning the rammed earth walls surrounding a domestic courtyard. Tan uniformed bodies lay strewn about the street with a few gray uniforms scattered amongst them. The closed villa gates denied the Avernan soldiers entry only momentarily. A pair of grenades splintered the wooden barrier.
Azarola remembered the hit and run tactics used by the gangs of Ixpoli. “Shoot and keep moving!” he ordered to himself as much as to Larent. Bullets popped puffs of dust from the ground and walls around him as the Avernans divided their attention. Azarola paused behind an abandoned automobile and laid down suppressive fire before moving on towards a heavy, open gateway into a courtyard. Larent kept pace, ducking behind whatever cover he could find. Rufino and Weldon hunkered down behind a truck and waited for their opening.
Just before Azarola reached the shelter of the gateway, his magazine emptied. Azarola spat a string of obscenities and drew his salvaged sidearm from its holster. It was larger than his trusty old pistol, but fit his hand well. He checked for the safeties and found that it bore the switch and grip mechanisms he was used to. Flicking off the switch, he aimed and squeezed the trigger. The recoil immediately reminded him that this was not the easily concealed weapon he used to carry. Larent moved past him into the courtyard and climbed up a ladder to the top of the wall. Pinched between the two clusters of Inexans, the Avernans soon fell.
Azarola and Larent joined the other Inexan soldiers inside the compound. Near the flat roofed house at the far end of the courtyard, injured and dead men lay under the shade of palm fronds.
Larent wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “More for the medics. No way we can move all of them.”
“Not without a little help.” Azarola spotted the strafed cargo truck that sheltered Rufino and Weldon and his green eyes sparked with his grin. “That’ll do!” He wondered which god he should pray to for a functioning vehicle. To his erstwhile squad, he asked, “Anyone else know how to drive?”
Two of the injured men raised their hands, but Azarola shook his head. “You two can barely walk. I’ll drive. That is, if it works. Keep an eye out for anyone wanting to fill us full of holes and I’ll see if I can get that engine started.” He scrambled to the canvas canopied truck and clambered into the driver’s seat. Orange dust coated the cracked windshield and the dashboard gauges. Another mortar crashed nearby, blasting debris at the truck and cracking the passenger window. Gravel rained on the metal roof with an almost musical rhythm. Recovering from his flinch, he found the switch key still in the ignition lock. “Thank you every shining god, now please let this start!” The rumble of the engine gave the tired and battered soldiers hope and Azarola laughed. “We’re getting outta here! Load up the injured!” He spotted one of the seriously wounded gripping a rifle like the one Azarola carried over his shoulder. “Got more bullets?”
The bloodied man nodded and Azarola helped himself to a couple more clips. Slamming one into his rifle with a satisfying clack, he took up a position where he could see the approaching Avernans and their mortar. “Larent? Help me keep our Avernan friends out there busy.”
Larent knelt down and aimed for the men manning the mortar. “Don’t bother with your gun. Mine has a longer reach.”
“I can still give them something to think about.” Taking a clue from Larent’s dismissive remark, he aimed higher than usual.
Those who could climb onto the truck bed on their own helped Rufino and Weldon load the gravely wounded. As soon as the last injured man lay under the canvas canopy, Rufino shouted to Azarola and Larent.
Azarola spoke to his makeshift squad. “Rufino and Weldon in the back. Be ready to jump out and load another wounded if I stop. Larent, you’re up front with me. Let me know if you see someone to pick up. If we see anyone trying to shoot at us, we shoot back on the run.”
Azarola was the last man in the tan-painted truck, taking the wheel. At his command, it roared away from the battle. Larent winced as the vehicle bounced over pits in the road and his back landed against the seat. “I wish we didn’t have to go this fast.”
“Same here, but our pals back there need help.”
Shots rang out from the end of one of the narrow streets and Azarola heard a ping against metal sheeting. One hand firmly gripped the steering wheel to guide the truck away from the gunshots. Azarola drew his sidearm with the other hand and leveled the barrel out of the broken window. Clenching his teeth against the bloody protest of his wounded arm, he fired off a few shots at the source of the gunfire. He didn’t know if he scored any hits and he didn’t much care. All he wanted to do was make the enemy gunner duck until he steered the truck behind the cover of a building.
He tossed the pistol onto Larent’s lap. “I need a reload or another gun. No way I can use my rifle one handed.”
Larent pulled his window down in anticipation of another firefight. “Just focus on getting us out of here. I’ll take care of the cover fire.”
The dust slowly cleared away and the earsplitting noise of combat faded behind them as they left the city. Past the smoky haze, a clear blue sky greeted Azarola. “Not done yet,” he remarked to himself.
Larent kept a wary watch on the landscape. “What was that?”
“We still need to get these fellas to help.” He squinted past the dirty windshield at the billowing cloud of dust rising from the road ahead. His pounding headache and growing fatigue made focusing difficult. “I guess we follow that?”
“I don’t have any better ideas.” The soldier regarded the driver with concern for a moment. “Do you need me to drive?”
“I thought you didn’t know how to drive.”
“It doesn’t look that hard.”
Azarola shook his head and doubled down on his focus. “We’ll have to stop for that. Some of our passengers might not have the time. I’ll be fine.” Truthfully, warding off double vision was a fight that he was starting to lose. “Our stop should be up ahead. I’ll be fine.” Letting Larent take the wheel sounded like a better idea the longer he drove.
Just as Azarola found his limit, the plume of dust kicked up by the other Inexan trucks stopped at a cluster of tents nestled at the base of a mesa. There, they divested their load of wounded soldiers. Azarola swallowed against another wave of nausea and climbed out of the truck. As soon as his boots touched earth, the world tilted and he held onto the door handle for dear life. “I didn’t drink anything!” he bemoaned into the warm metal.
Larent peered around the back of the truck to check on Azarola. He waved at the medics tending to the cargo of injured men. “The driver’s wounded, too!”
Azarola felt Larent support some of his weight. “I just need to lie down, that’s all. Water’d be nice, too.”
“Sure thing,” Larent told him as they shuffled to one of the tents. “Water and sleep. I’m going to get this junk out of my back while you do that.”