"Gentlemen. Welcome back," said Captain Varrot in a tone that was not at all actually welcoming. The Corporal supposed none of them could be classified as 'gentle' either.
His Captain just gave her an acknowledging nod as he took position in the centre of their squad, the Lieutenant flanking the Captain on his right and the Sergeant his left. The Corporal shuffled in next to the Sergeant, gaze already starting to wander around the room as much as his unmoving eyes would allow.
The composition of Gallian officers arrayed before them hadn't changed much from last night, and this time they all sat and stood in plain view. He could've sworn the room was more uniformly lit this time around as well.
There was, however, another figure he didn't recognize milling about behind them with their backs turned. The Corporal peered more intently at them while he had the chance, while Varrot was still busy shuffling around the multitude of papers cluttering her desk, though there wasn't much to make out about them with their back turned. Another helmetless head, this one of relatively unremarkable brown hair. Their lean build stood just between Corporal Gunther and Sergeant Potter, in both position and height.
They were studying some kind of map propped against the wall.
"Corporal, if you could call for Ali- Sergeant Melchiott's presence please?"
He snapped his attention to the harrowed-looking Lieutenant Gunther, quizzically looking at the young man's dark-ringed eyes- what was he calling on him for?
Thankfully, before he could voice his confusion, Corporal Wulfstan answered affirmatively from out of his sight, and then presumably slipped off to carry out her orders, departing the room with a swift snapping shut of the door behind her.
Friedrich, he reminded himself. He was just Friedrich to these people.
"Now then… Walther," began Varrot, looking up from her desk with a glint flashing off her eyeglasses. "That is your name, correct?"
"Yes ma'am," answered the Captain.
"You're comfortable answering to us on a first-name basis?"
"Pardon me ma'am, but I fail to see where this is going."
There was a pause as Varrot briefly shuffled through a few more papers. He saw her draw out a thin book, the small rectangular shape barely any larger than the hand that clasped it. "It's not going to be easy writing cheques to one-name bank accounts," she said dryly.
In the pause that followed, the Corporal realized that none of the Gallian officers in the room were carrying weapons. Last night, that was not incredibly surprising given that his squad was likewise unarmed, but now they stood bristling in full gear, rifles and machine gun armed and loaded. The weight of his own rifle resting on his left shoulder affirmed that much.
It was disturbing how that did nothing to set him at ease.
The unknown figure in the background had craned their head around now too, teal eyes narrowing into a glare. The Corporal found her gaze settling -rather unfortunately- on him. He did his best to subtly angle his gaze away upon finding that the unknown woman was not willing to break the wordless confrontation herself.
"I don't suppose you even have bank accounts?"
"Then how exactly," Varrot began as she directed her attention to some other multitude of papers on her desk, "did the Empire- or other employers for that matter- pay you for your services?"
"With all due respect ma'am, I was under the impression we were here to be briefed on our first operation, not to be further interrogated," shot back the Captain.
"I believe delaying discussion of sensitive operational details for the sake of a little further questioning isn't out of the ordinary when you've given us such paltry reasons to trust you."
Lieutenant Gunther's mouth opened, though it ultimately was not his words that interrupted the short back-and-forth.
"Look," butted in Sergeant Potter, his rumbling voice taking on a compromising tone compared to the barbed words coming from Varrot. "None of us here woulda agreed to arming you if we didn't trust you- we just don't got a lotta details alright? And considering all we need right now are just names so we can put down a damn paycheck…"
He trailed off from there, square jaw wordlessly moving around for a few moments as though mulling over what to continue with but ultimately settling still. Lieutenant Gunther, despite not seeming to have anticipated the Gallian Sergeant's interruption, appeared content to let it sit as well.
It took the Corporal a few more moments to recognize that the Gallians were waiting expectantly for a response from his Captain now. It took him a few moments more to consider that the Captain was taking unnaturally long to answer.
So it was that the Corporal was left standing listlessly. Hanging- waiting to be yanked along.
That's why we need you to start pulling your own weight, the Sergeant's latest words to him resounding helplessly in his helmet.
Just keep quiet and stay in formation, came the Lieutenant's last piece of advice for him from the day before, seemingly in direct contradiction. Funny, how even in his head, the Sergeant and Lieutenant seemed to be at odds.
And the Captain stood there in the middle.
"None of us have family names. Some of us can't remember, some of us left them behind when we took up arms. We don't like to talk about it much."
Varrot sighed, sliding the chequebook off to the side of her desk and dragging a hand through her hair.
"Sorry for the inconvenience," added the Captain dryly.
"Be sorry for yourselves. We do actually have a briefing to hold, and it sounds as though figuring out a method of paying you is going to take more effort than expected."
"Of course, ma'am."
Ramona awoke from a restless sleep with a queer chill creeping over her skin.
Her dry mouth drew in a deep, clear breath, the sudden absence of the soreness in her throat and liquid pooling in her nose which she'd grown so used to in the past days making the coldness of the damp air feel all the more pronounced.
It was dark, and blurry. Like she was floating in a murky lake.
She moved her arms to shake off the waterproof tarp bound around her, free up her tangled limbs; but she couldn't.
A paralyzing numbness buzzed where her arm should've responded violently, the pounding hearbeat in her chest sending ripples through the murky nothingness clotting her eyes.
"Ragnite Gas- it's a goddamn deadly weapon, officially forbidden- but you all heard of what the pigfuck Imps did…"
The curse resounded in her waterlogged ears without her mouth moving.
Blind. Crippled. Mute.
"A proper fucking war vet now-"
She drew in another breath- the frigid smell of fresh rain flooding her nostrils.
Her nerveless limbs screamed for attention, but she thankfully had enough reason at the moment to try and ignore it. Yet the more she tried, the more forcefully it seemed her body drew her mind into it.
Somewhere, out there, in the sloshing rain, one of her fingers budged.
Her eyes darted around in the blind murk, and found a red-eyed beast staring back at her.
It stole her breath away, blazing orbs piercing through her bleary gaze with an otherworldly clarity as its formless black mass slithered over to settle gently on her chest.
It spoke with what was unmistakably Marina's voice- icy, like the raindrops running down her face, but she couldn't make out the words.
She squeezed her eyes in tighter, but the monster seemed to only grow clearer while everything else faded away.
It flashed her a wicked, machine-carved grin. The pressure on her chest increased.
The invisible force binding her limbs together constricted.
A sharp cold nipped at her neck. She instinctively reached up to dab away the stray raindrop.
Her eyes snapped open, but in the early morning dimness the influx of light was gentle.
Audrey slept soundly, in a guiltless calm across from her.
"Shit," Ramona whispered, the sharp bite of air on her dry tongue enough to confirm that she'd endured her bout of sleep paralysis.
She leaned her head back, appreciating the light strain it put on her body, the real clarity of the rain-dripping branches and dark, ocean blue sky overhead.
Do you recall seeing any… demons, during these incidents?
She vaguely remembered laughing at that question when her physician posed it to her- suddenly feeling a lot looser, a lot more comfortable, under the stern and unfeeling gaze of that haggard old woman at the time, thinking it was a joke. She remembered that laugh naturally twisting into a dismissive scoff when the doctor insisted, entirely too seriously.
That was years ago, back when she had few enough real health problems that her mom was all too willing to make use of their family doctor to try and fix what were probably overblown nightmares.
She closed her eyes, blotting out the sky, Audrey, the rain, and let herself muse on that while she could. A part of her wondered if she'd slip back into that uncontrollable numbness again, but another part assured her that she wouldn't let it happen.
Tilting her head back more, stretching her muscles as though they would petrify if she didn't let them loose, she let herself think back on that curious old doctor.
She'd been old. Ramona felt an odd pang of regret that her only thoughts of the doctor at the time was that she was an awful lot like that bitch of a math teacher at the time; in retrospect, the only feature she shared with the teacher was what looked like a perpetual frown on her face. She was much too soft-spoken. Too compromising, if a little flat and devoid of warmth. Always gave suggestions instead of orders. Always wanted to hear what she had to say first, rather than tell her what to do.
…then again, that probably just came with the job.
Curiously, of all the things Ramona remembered about the doctor, it was the name which eluded her.
Ramona blinked as a drop of rain found itself splashing uncomfortably close to her eye.
She wondered if the doctor was still in business. Or alive, for that matter.
Maybe she would need to pay a visit to her the next time they were back in Randgriz.
The Corporal found himself staring at the machined swirls in the map laid beneath them, losing his all-too inquisitive gaze in trying to decipher the handwritten notes scrawled over pinpointed dots and inked valleys.
He finally managed to discern one of the words, and upon looking back at the others, found that a lot of them said the exact same thing.
Like the one that disabled their truck.
Curious, he studied the map further, tracing the stencilled minefields and overlaying it with the muddled mental map he held of the woods, wondering if he could find where everything had become so derailed.
He blinked back to attention as he heard the door creak open, the uniform click of footsteps marching in followed closely by a muted pair of boots shuffling in the dirt.
"Captain Varrot, ma'am," responded the woman next to Wulfstan as she promptly snapped off a crisp salute with an energy which seemed to clash with the bleary-eyed gaze she held and the dull stains of dirt and rain splotching her uniform.
The Corporal remembered her. Melchiott, yes- he could firmly pin the name, face, and demeanor down to that precise moment on the map where it had all gone wrong.
"We were just waiting for you before beginning the briefing. Take a stand next to Corporal O'Hara."
The name rolled so strangely off Varrot's tongue, the intonation sounding so foreign and alien that the Corporal knew he hadn't heard it before, amongst the muddled mess of things he was finding he needed to remember now.
The Corporal's eyes intently followed Sergeant Melchiott as she slotted herself into the space between Lieutenant Gunther and the unnamed woman.
He tried hearing the name in his mind again, mental processes scrambling to piece together the foreign sound of her name and failing to accomplish that much.
Another Corporal. As though one- two- he corrected himself as he re-registered the Gunther sister standing angled slightly inwards to his left- wasn't enough to keep track of already.
He saw Melchiott and Gunther's lips move quietly as Varrot shuffled along some more papers, unable to discern their speech, but seeing the mild crease of smiles tugging at the edges of their mouths.
He cast his gaze aside as soon as he noticed the other woman, O'Hara, fixed him with a firm glare. It seemed to have lost the narrowed, hostile sharpness to it, but he decided it was best to avoid it regardless.
"What is it, Sergeant?"
"Did Command ever take this long to brief you?"
The Corporal heard a very unexpected series of chuckles grate over the squad radio, too jumbled and garbled to have been coming from just the Captain and Sergeant.
The Corporal wondered if he was supposed to have joined in.
Nobody commented on it, but he felt a strange pressure nudging at somewhere in his mind in the usual silence that followed.
Maybe it was a good thing that he could actually hear them now though. The Captain had mentioned they'd purposely kept him cut out of the squad comms prior.
"Now then, let's cut to the chase," said Varrot with a sharp clack of her rapping a file of papers against the table before them.
Melchiott and Gunther ceased their quiet chatter amongst themselves.
True to her word, Captain Varrot launched into a detailed briefing with no further interruptions. The Corporal listened as intently as he could.
"The Regular Army's arrival has been delayed due to inclement weather and muddy road conditions; a courier sent ahead by Colonel Vorst informed us that he expects they won't be here until another two days from now, at earliest. General Von Damon has ordered us to commence the assault on the enemy supply base immediately following their arrival."
Her finger trailed over to a small red flag planted into the edge of the map. Mildly angling his head to the side, the Corporal was able to discern the compass etched into the far corner of the map and recognize that she was pointing to the east.
"We don't have much intel on the layout of the base or their defenses, but what we do have suggests they've been moving rapidly to reinforce the position."
She effortlessly skimmed a paper off the stack lying next to her, pinning it down beneath her reflective glass gaze.
"Lieutenant Landzaat's compiled information points at a large armored column being moved in to reinforce their garrison; mostly comprised of elements from the 101st armored division we've encountered so far, but there's enough evidence to support the possibility of them being led by elite units from the 14th. The total tally of forces stands at approximately two dozen tanks and at least three infantry platoons, not including what's likely a forward infantry detachment of indeterminant size."
The unit designations were unfamiliar to the Corporal, but given Varrot's description of the 14th and Sergeant Potter's expression becoming even more stern at their mention he could infer that wasn't a good thing.
"Our intel suggests their main force is suffering similar delays due to weather, and the current estimation is that they'll arrive very shortly after our own reinforcements. Given the circumstances, I find myself in agreement with Von Damon's strategy; our best chance is to drive out the enemy before they can establish an even stronger foothold."
Varrot slid aside her paper, exchanging it with another from the pile.
"We have reason to believe that an elite forward detachment has arrived ahead of the main force, and is conducting operations in the area. Lieutenant Landzaat noted a significant spike in our casualties recently, which lines up with the estimated time of their arrival; piecing together reports and first-hand accounts from survivors of ambushed patrols, he was able to draw up an estimation of what we're currently dealing with."
There was a pause as Varrot gestured for Landzaat to take her place at the head of the table. The brief moment of silence seemed to warrant some inter-discussion amongst the Gallian officers, not subtle at all, but it didn't seem to bother either Varrot or Landzaat.
He glanced to his left, briefly catching Corporal Gunther's curious gaze before her eyes widened and she broke it off to listen in on the discussion to her other side. He couldn't make out anything they were saying from the husky, muddled undertones they spoke in.
He peered over at his own squad, finding their gazes firmly rooted to the map.
He followed their direction, pretending to be able to make sense of the lines and markings.
He was glad for Landzaat's resumption of the briefing.
"What we've encountered is an irregular scout-sniper detachment with significant assault infantry and sapper support, altogether comprising a force between a dozen to twenty troops. Their unit composition allows them to strike with sudden and devastating force at our skirmish patrols; a recurring tactic I've noted is that they'll open an ambush with pinpoint sniper fire, then break concealment and chase after the survivors with assault infantry when they rout."
A lot of those words caught the Corporal's attention, bringing back murky memories of training doctrines. No witnesses- no survivors
He felt a strange heaviness fall over him as he noticed the expressions of the Gallians morph across from him; Melchiott and Lieutenant Gunther in particular casting heavy-lidded gazes downwards.
"The survivors usually run into well-placed traps shortly after the initial rout; concealed explosives, even pitfall traps. One soldier who made it out of an ambush observed that it was though the enemy infantry was corralling them into the traps."
The Corporal noticed a subtle movement in Lieutenant Gunther, his head bobbing up and down as though needing to physically affirm what he was hearing. His lips creased into a thin line.
"Given what we've seen of their capabilities so far, it's undoubtable that they would cause havoc on our main force when they arrive. With only two days left, we're on a tight time table- but I think I've identified an opportunity to take the fight to them."
Landzaat glanced up from his notebook over to Varrot, seemingly waiting for her permission to continue. She nodded.
"The observations I've collected all suggest that they plan these ambushes ahead of time, and based on recurring patterns in our patrols. Cross-referencing their recent activities with our own recent patrols, I've identified a highly likely spot where they might be planning another ambush…"
He directed his finger over to a patch filled with scribbles on the map, southwest of the red flag identifying the Imperial supply base.
"There's a small clearing in the woods here, a short stretch of grassy plain, approximately 5 square kilometers in size left over from industrial development before the war. It's been strictly contested territory between us and the Imperials for a while, but with our recent efforts to whittle down their overall strength we've had scouting parties running into no resistance there whatsoever. With uneven terrain dominating everywhere else in Kloden, this is the only logical location to use as a staging area for an assault on the supply base. With both sides suffering heavy losses and reinforcements imminent, they'll undoubtedly be anticipating us to increase our operations in that zone while they're unable to put a firm foothold on it; given the open terrain and the tall grass and shrubbery in the area, it's almost certain that they would set up another ambush here."
Gunther nodded, adding some of his own brief thoughts to Landzaat's conclusion. "Some of the most dangerous predators let their prey come to them."
Captain Varrot didn't bother to take her place back at the head of the table before taking over the briefing again. "Sergeant Melchiott, Lieutenant Gunther has given me his personal accounts of your excellence as a soldier, leader, and a scout. We all agree that you're the most qualified to lead a covert strike team to this staging area; to confront and destroy the enemy force if they are indeed there, and to scout and observe the area until we're ready to move on it if they are not."
"There's no room for doubt. Our other senior officers simply don't possess the skills needed to undertake a mission of this nature."
The Corporal watched intently as Sergeant Melchiott pressed her mouth firmly shut, consciously standing up straighter but with lines of worry creasing her face.
Lieutenant Gunther piped up beside her.
"Come on, it'll be just like being with the town watch. You never needed any armor support back then and you did fine, didn't you?"
"Yes sir. I won't let you down," she snapped affirmatively with a nod as though to reinforce it, but the Corporal saw something in her eyes that didn't quite seem to match up with her words.
"Given the enemy unit composition we've seen fit to attach both Corporal O'Hara and Corporal Wulfstan to your strike team. With Corporal O'Hara's experience with the first war, she'll be the most suited to coordinating the strike team snipers."
The woman beside Melchiott- now officially identified as O'Hara, clasped a firm hand over Melchiott's shoulder.
"You'll be handpicking the rest of the Sevens to accompany you- another five will put your team at usual deployment strength."
And then faltered.
"Just five others?"
Her eyebrows creased, and her gaze fell upon the Corporal's gleaming red eyes, widening as though she just noticed the presence of him and the Captain's squad at the table.
"Ah, right," said Lieutenant Gunther reluctantly. "I… forgot to introduce you. This is Walther," he said, gesturing at the Captain, who merely gave a measured nod in response. The Corporal was glad to have their gazes directed away from him. "He's the… leader of these mercenaries. He, Erich, and… Michaela, will be put under your direct command for this mission."
The Corporal glanced to his right, very much noticing that his own 'name'- Friedrich- had been excluded from that list.
He drew in a breath as he turned back around to face his gaze forward, meeting the steely glare of O'Hara.
"-being their sniper, will be under Corporal O'Hara's command."
Ya, it's been a long while :/
Also, a shoutout/thanks to Fanwright for sliding over some in-universe info he compiled about the more techy bits of military order/composition a while back; lotta the kind of stuff I really don't have the attention to personally investigate and was very useful as a quick point of reference for some small details which came up in the chapter