I hadn't originally planned this, but I decided to split the second episode into two chapters. It just fits the pacing better, plus the chapter would've been an absolute goliath if I did write everything in. I'd prefer not to make it too messy.

Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Gate should know how this chapter will play out. Something that bugged me was that we never got to see any battles through the JSDF's perspective until the aftermath; needless to say, I went out of my way to fix that with some original COG scenes.

I've also decided to shorten the timeline of events in this story from one year to about six months, as shown in the previous chapter. There are a few reasons for this, though it's mainly because the COG, as the only official government left on Sera, doesn't have to worry about foreign nations scrutinizing their every move.

Finally, I highly recommend listening to "BFG Division" from the Doom 2016 soundtrack during the final segment of the chapter. It just make the whole scene a hundred times more badass.

Can't say much else without major spoilers. On with the curb-stomp battle!


(Alnus Hill, COG Encampment)

Leaning over the railing of a parked Derrick, Master Sergeant Theodore Bare couldn't recall the last time he'd felt so at peace.

He knew it was only a matter of hours before the fighting began, of course. And when it did, the enemy would learn the hard way that Teddy Bare was more akin to an enraged grizzly bear when provoked. But even as a thirty-six-year-old veteran of countless battles, Bare still possessed a keen eye for beauty, and he was determined to memorize the landscape in front of him before it was inevitably ravaged by warfare.

His nickname had a lick of irony to it. Towering over most of his fellow Gears at 6'5 in height, Teddy was a juggernaut of a man. His armor was dented, scratched, and chipped in numerous places; a monument to the number of engagements he'd survived during the last years of the Pendulum Wars and the entirety of the Locust War. His short black hair and brown eyes were hidden under an equally damaged combat helmet. Bare's cuirass also exposed his tan, heavily muscled arms, adorned with a large tattoo on each of his biceps.

The first tattoo was a holy cross, placed beneath a gold halo and decorated with angelic wings. "SARAH" was written vertically in black ink down the length of the cross, while "BARE" was written on the horizontal part. The first "A" in each word was connected – he didn't care if the alignment was a little off.

The second tattoo, in extreme contrast to the first, pictured a demonic, flaming sword with a horned skull ornament. The blade was violently thrust through four black letters that bled profusely from each point of impact. The letters spelled out a single, one-syllable word: "RAAM".

There was a dark, painful story behind his choice of ink, though he wasn't currently reflecting on the past. Teddy's attention was entirely focused on what laid ahead of him now.

Calling the new world beyond Jacinto "pretty" would've been the understatement of the century. The Special Region was stunningly beautiful: the cloudless night sky, untouched by the ash and pollution that choked the atmosphere of Sera, exposed millions of twinkling stars; tall hills and grassland surrounded the other side of the gate in every direction for miles. If he squinted, he could make out mountain ranges in the far distance, picturesque and topped with pure white snow.

His sad smile was hidden behind his helmet. He wished Sarah could've been at his side to share this vision of paradise with him.

For a moment, the master sergeant ignored the fact that he was about to go to war against the hostile natives of this land. Right now, there was no miracle fuel to fight over and no Locust vying to kill him. It was just him, some fresh air, and a brand-new world with no conflict whatsoever.

An incoming transmission from Captain Mayweather snapped Bare out of his fantasy.

"Message to all units! The enemy is on the move! I repeat, the enemy is on the move in our direction! Infantry, to the trenches! I want all Silverbacks on lockdown mode! Centaurs, keep a lookout on the sky for wyverns! Same goes to you, Derrick gunners! Mortar squads, get into position and give 'em a warm welcome they won't soon forget!"

Well, break time was over. It was refreshing while it lasted.

Before he moved to the Assault Derrick's ladder, Teddy took one last glance at the expanse of valley ahead of the gate. A sea of movement that could only be the approaching army, easily illuminated by the thousands of torches spread throughout their numbers, was indeed marching towards the Coalition's new base.

The true scale of this hostile military, technologically primitive as they were, was massive. He made a rough estimate of one-hundred thousand troops; with the COG's retaliatory forces numbering only around four thousand, they were in for a very long and very bloody night.

The muscular Gear slid down the ladder, paused to collect the heavy mortar launcher resting against the side of the vehicle, and began the short walk to his post.

Payback time.


"Oh sweet gods above, please have mercy on my soul!" Vylus fervently prayed to whatever deities might be listening to his pleas. "Don't don't let me die on this hill; I beg of you! I apologize if I have offended!"

"Quiet, coward!" another Imperial horseman barked. "If you so much as move an inch out of formation, I'll drag you to the chopping block myself!"

The disgraced former commander, now demoted to a common cavalryman, audibly gulped but didn't speak further.

Vylus was one of the lucky few to escape back to Imperial territory after the disastrous campaign beyond the gate. What was once a proud, undefeated army of thirty thousand, divided equally between men and beastfolk, had been utterly massacred left and right by the Blue Golems until their numbers dwindled to the mere hundreds.

If there was one thing he learned about the foreign people's tactics, it was that they couldn't be routed once they dug in somewhere. He witnessed it personally, watching from what he thought was a safe distance while his troops engaged in a hopeless all-out attack on what he assumed was the enemy's palace.

It was a safe distance, until he heard a loud crack – followed by Torgal's head suddenly exploding right next to him. Vylus wisely chose to throw in the towel and get the hell out of there after that little demonstration of the golems' capabilities.

Unfortunately, his misfortunes only grew after his return to their home world. The general who coordinated the initial invasion plan, despite never having gone through the gate himself, was furious that one of his most successful commanders turned tail and ran the moment things looked like they were getting difficult. He'd given Vylus a choice: die on the spot, or join the upcoming siege to take back Alnus Hill without his command privileges.

He probably would've chosen execution if he knew he'd be placed at the very front of the charge. Gods, that general was almost as spiteful and thick-headed as the Emperor's eldest son.

I ask again, holy ones; please don't let these Blue Golems be the end of me! Vylus resumed praying in his mind. I swear that if I somehow manage to survive this, I'm marching straight to the Imperial Palace to give old Molt a piece of my-

"Oof!"

One of the foot soldiers a few paces ahead of him nearly tripped when his boot collided with something on the ground. A strange, bulging object connected to a short chain was half-buried under the earth, making it very easy to miss in the cover of darkness.

All the blood in the cavalryman's veins turned to ice when he heard a faint sound emanating from the unknown device.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

He didn't have the slightest idea what this object was, aside from one obvious thing – the Blue Golems must've placed it there. And if that was the case, then…

BEEP! BEEP! BEEEEEEP!

Vylus spurred his horse and ran like the wind a second before the grenade trap detonated, vaporizing every soldier caught in its lethal radius.

"What in the Underworld was that?!" he heard one soldier yell fearfully.

"Get back here, Vylus, you damn traitor!" the other horseman from earlier thundered. "When the general hears about this, you'll be- AAAAAGGH!"

The man didn't get to finish his sentence before he was engulfed a massive explosion, blowing him along with the other eighteen riders in his formation into crispy chunks of flesh. Vylus had never been so happy to disobey orders before; if he'd listened to that asshole, he definitely wouldn't be alive right now. Of course, he was still very likely to die soon if he stayed on this battlefield.

This is suicide; I have to get out of here while I can! They can't pay me enough to face those damn golems again!

The former commander steered his horse in the direction of Italica, away from the army he served so faithfully in... an army that was now marching to their inevitable doom.

He did his best to block out all the noise surrounding him, but there was so much of it – the shouts of disbelief, the declarations to capture or kill him, the shrieks of wyverns getting blown out of the sky, the screams of soldiers caught in more explosions and the high-pitched whistle in the air that preceded them…

He didn't believe it possible, but this was even worse than the first attack through the gate! Much worse!

Vylus spurred his faithful steed even faster, miraculously avoiding death even as what must've been magical blasts from the vengeful enemy continued to bombard the hills adjacent to Alnus. Just what type of hellish sorcery were they using?! The radius of each explosion was more than enough to annihilate two, even three formations at once!

The more instinctual part of his mind, the one that prioritized survival, told him he'd done the right thing by running away when he did. He had a feeling that, as horrifying as the situation was now, this was only the tip of the iceberg… and that it would only get worse for the Imperial army as they continued their march on the holy ground.


(Eighteen Hours Later)

"Got any threes?"

"Go Fish."

"Fuck!"

First Lieutenant Reynolds tossed the cards she was holding into the air, scattering them all around the floor of the spacious tent she and her uncle were presently occupying.

"Aw, don't tell me you're giving up so soon, Rey-Rey." Captain Mayweather's grin was a bit too smug for someone trying to act encouraging. "Remember the first thing I taught you about card games: 'Victory in each one boils down to the luck of the draw'."

"Maybe, but what are the odds of me losing sixteen times in a row?" she snapped back at him.

Uncle Maurice shrugged, neatly setting down his own stack of cards. Both officers were sitting at a small table in the COG command tent, taking a short break after almost a full day of fighting.

"Realistically? Extremely low. I'm starting to think you should stay away from gambling, however."

"Ha-ha. Very funny, uncle." Reynolds placed an elbow on the table and rested her cheek in her hand. "Real talk; as much as I like spending time with you, shouldn't you be out there doing your job? You know, like commanding your soldiers? You haven't given them any new orders since this morning."

The old captain shrugged again, pausing to light up a cigar before he replied. "Do you really think I need to? This has to be the easiest battle I've ever fought in my career, Courtney. Between the snipers and heavy artillery, our new enemy hasn't even come close to breaking the line. A lot of our specialists haven't got anything to do." He chuckled lightly in amusement. "Heck, why do you think I'm teaching you how to play Go Fish?"

She hated to admit it, but her uncle had a valid point. While the enemy's forces greatly outnumbered their own, their understanding of tactics was lackluster at best. Their only strategy so far seemed to consist of charging the hill over and over again until it worked. Predictably, it hadn't.

"But what if our tanks and mortar crews run out of shells? What will we do then?" Reynolds countered.

"That won't be a problem," Mayweather assured her, puffing a sweet-smelling ring of smoke. "We brought enough ammo to level an entire city. If we need more, we can send some trucks back through the gate and pick it up from base. Besides, I have my radio with me; if anything goes wrong, someone will let either me or Yanagida know."

"I'm still uncomfortable about this…"

Uncle Maurice sighed heavily. "Rey-Rey, I've been a Gear for thirty years now. When you get to be my age, you'll learn to trust what your gut tells you – it's saved my sorry ass on more than a few occasions. And right now, my gut's telling me we have nothing to worry about. Okay?"

He gave her a genuine smile to go with his words. A smile, she knew, that nobody else except her was allowed to see.

Courtney smiled back at her last living relative. Unorthodox as he was compared to most other officers, Maurice Mayweather was every bit as determined to protect the troops he led in battle as his niece. He wasn't the type to send them to their deaths on a whim – apparently in stark contrast to whoever was leading their medieval opponents.

"Well… all right. I promise not to nag you so much in the future if we win this. Deal?" She offered a callused, yet still delicate hand to him.

"Deal." He shook it, then smiled wider. "Now how about I teach you to play 52-Card Pick 'Em Up? The floor's a goddamn mess."


(Imperial Senate, one day later)

Constructed out of smooth marble and built adjacent to the royal family's palace, any visitor lucky enough to glimpse the interior of the Senate's central meeting chamber would call it luxurious. This was to be expected, of course; as the hub of the Empire's political dealings, the meeting room was well accommodated to handle even the most drawn out negotiations.

The room was circular, surrounded by eight rows of padded seats that stretched three columns high. A dome-shaped skylight allowed the early afternoon sun to shine light on the dozens of chattering men assembled throughout the chamber. At the back of the room was the Emperor's throne, protected by two royal guards and somewhat overshadowed by a huge banner with the Imperial crest behind it.

Seated on the throne was the Emperor himself: Molt Sol Augustus. He was dressed in extremely regal attire, befitting his status as a ruler; his robes were primarily colored black, white, and gold with a few traces of purple. Three gem-encrusted rings were fitted neatly around the fingers of his right hand. Despite being in his mid-fifties, the Emperor's dark blonde hair showed no signs of losing its pigmentation.

Currently, Molt was watching apathetically as a middle-aged senator with spiky black hair, a man by the name of Marquess Casel, ranted on about the events at Alnus Hill.

"It was a total embarrassment, Your Majesty! The single greatest humiliation we've ever faced!" Casel exclaimed. "We've lost 60% of the Empire's military might. What would you have us do? How would you guide the state?"

"Marquess Casel, think about how the people must be feeling."

In response to the senator's uncertain expression, Molt placed a tired hand over his face. Casel was never very good at seeing the bigger picture.

"It is true that our latest losses have cost us our military advantage," he allowed himself to admit freely. "They worry that vassals of our state and others may revolt and attack the Imperial Capital itself."

He removed the hand from his eyes, now smiling sinisterly. "How pathetic."

The Emperor secretly relished the shocked response his words emitted from Casel.

"Every time our Empire is in danger, the Emperor, the Senate, and the people become one to face the danger, and bring about even more progress." He explained patiently. "No war is won without some loss. Therefore, I will not hold anyone responsible for our recent losses."

He meant it, too. As catastrophic as the Battle of Alnus Hill was for the Imperial military, they fought with courage and determination even when the enemy's superior equipment prevented them from… well, fighting. If the surviving officers' testimonies were true, then the army apparently failed to kill even a single one of the mysterious golems occupying their most sacred ground.

But the Senate didn't need to know about that.

"To think that another nation dares surround the Imperial City…" Molt's eyes were locked with Casel's, though he raised his voice to address every gathered politician in the room. "I trust that none of you will waste time in court."

Molt was inwardly pleased to see many of the senators begin chatting with one another, their spirits raised by his stalwart conviction. While the loss of over half their military assets was a crippling setback, in the end, that was all it was – a setback. The Empire may have lost the battle, but the war was far from finished.

"But what shall we do?" a new voice interjected.

Moving to stand beside Marquess Casel was a hunchbacked old half-elf carrying a walking cane.

The Empire's ruler lifted a brow in mild surprise. Who let this guy into the meeting room? Yes, he was technically Molt's most experienced general, but the Emperor didn't recall asking for his presence. This might get more complicated than he wanted…

"The army we sent was defeated in just two days." The half-elf reminded him. "Now the Empire's side of the gate has been captured, and the enemy is attempting to set up base on this side!"

Molt resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He knew this already.

"Of course, we attempted to take back the hill as well. But the enemies in the distance… I have never witnessed such powerful sorcery!"

"We ought to fight them!" a bald man in black armor declared, standing up with a raised fist. "If we do not have enough men, we need only to recruit them from our tributaries. Attack the other side of the gate once more!"

"What good will brute force alone do?" another senator argued.

"It'll be another Godasen!" a third man agreed.

"Yeah!"

"Fight them!"

"Death to the invaders!"

"I still say this is a bad idea…"

Amusing as it was watching politicians yell at one another, Molt decided he needed to wrap this up before it came to physical blows. A simple raise of his hand was sufficient to shut them all up.

"I do not wish to sit idly by." He said calmly. "Therefore, we must fight. Send delegates to our tributaries and neighboring states. Ask for help in defending the continent from these 'golems' from another world."

He stood from his throne, showcasing his best "I'm in charge" pose for everyone in the room to see. "We will lead the Allied Army of Godu Rino Gwaban in an attack to reclaim Alnus Hill. Glory to the Empire!"

"Glory to the Empire!" each of the senators repeated, rising to give Molt Sol Augustus a standing ovation.

Only Casel remained silent. The man stepped closer to Molt, fixing the Emperor with a worried scowl.

"Your Majesty… if you go through with this insanity, it will be a bloodbath."

Molt's only response was a sinister smirk. Once again, Casel wasn't telling him anything he didn't already know. What the man failed to realize in his short-sightedness was that, regardless of the battle's outcome, it would be a personal victory for the Empire.


(Weeks Later)

Perched on a rocky outcrop atop his horse, King Duran of Elbe pondered in silence on the circumstances that brought him and his army to the Imperial homeland.

Feared across the continent by allies and enemies alike as the "Lion of Elbe", neither Duran's bodily strength nor his tactical genius were hampered by his climbing age. He was an imposing figure, clad shoulder to toe in dark red plate armor; without his helmet to keep it in place, the king's wavy brown hair hung loosely around his weathered face. A metal eyepatch, colored the same shade of red as his armor, hid his missing left eye from view. Completing his outfit was a black cape with fur around the collar.

Duran was no stranger to war – in fact, he was famed throughout Elbe for personally leading his troops against any enemy foolish enough to threaten his kingdom's borders. Having spent much of his life on the battlefield before he was crowned king, Duran's leadership and skill with a blade were legendary.

Then why did he find himself so… hesitant, to face a new foe?

"Your Majesty!"

The armored man turned to see a soldier on horseback approaching from behind.

"Your Majesty, we've spotted what appears to be enemy scouts two hills ahead," the soldier informed him, pointing into the distance.

"How many?" Duran inquired.

"Two, sir. It looked like they were putting up some kind of sign, but we couldn't read the language."

He briefly mulled over the possibility of ambushing the stray enemies. "…Leave them be. There's no honor to be gained in an unprovoked attack. Something the Emperor seems to have forgotten," he added under his breath. "Come, now. We must hurry to meet the other kings."

Duran departed the outcrop with his subordinate in tow, soon regrouping with the bulk of Elbe's army as they marched towards the Allied camp.


Later that night, in the Allied Kingdoms' command tent, the various kings, dukes, lords, and generals congregated around a large table littered with maps to discuss the upcoming battle. Excluding the Imperial messenger with them, there were a total of eight men in the tent – eight different vassals of the Empire, each in command of their own army. It was without a doubt the single largest allied military force in the Empire's long and often bloody history.

Regretfully, what was supposed to be a strategy talk was slowly breaking down into a heated argument, much to King Duran's chagrin.

"The Imperial commander isn't coming? What is the meaning of this?!" the King of Arguna hollered, banging his fist on the table like a small child who was denied candy.

"He is currently leading the Imperial army in an attack to distract the hostiles on Alnus, in order to buy time for the remaining allied reinforcements to organize. He is unable to leave his post, I'm afraid." An Imperial messenger replied without hesitation.

Duran sat down next to the Duke of Ligu, confused by what he was hearing. "That makes no sense. I did not see many enemies on the hill. If they're dangerous enough to force the Imperial army to retreat in direct combat, what would they have to gain by attacking again, and without backup?"

Much to his surprise, it was Mudwan's king that answered him. While he'd always considered the man a trusted friend, he couldn't deny that his fellow ruler was the most soft-spoken of the group, and the least experienced in military affairs.

"Duran, sir, the Imperial army is holding the enemy at bay in our place. If they weren't, we'd run the risk of letting enemy scouts discover our location," he explained.

"Lord Ligu," the messenger interrupted, "we would like your armies to attack the enemy at sunrise tomorrow."

The Duke of Ligu, a slim man with a thin mustache and green armor, grinned at the prospect of glory. "Understood. It would be a privilege to have my army take the front line."

"No, mine will!" the King of Arguna protested, standing up to glare at the Duke with his one good eye.

"Wait! We will take the front lines!"

Duran said nothing while the nobles squabbled over who got to fight the gate's new arrivals first. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair with a contemplative expression.

"Duke Ligu will lead the charge." The Imperial messenger declared. "The armies of Arguna and Mudwan will follow in that order. The rest of you are to stay behind until the battle is won, or until you are needed. We shall rendezvous tomorrow at Alnus Hill."

He left the tent after that, presumably to inform the Imperial commander about their decided course of action. Some of the lords continued to grumble, clearly upset by the missed opportunity to claim glory in battle.

Duke Ligu was not one of those people. "Oh, I can't wait for morning!" he gushed. "The Empire may have lost the previous battle, but this enemy doesn't stand a chance against the might of Ligu!"

"Ha! Keep dreaming! My army will decimate them single-handed!" Arguna's king boasted.

"Unfortunately, my army could not take the front lines…" Mudwan's ruler sighed in regret. "Such a shame. I was really hoping to prove what we could do."

Duran spoke up to comfort him. "Perhaps it is for the best, my friend. The enemy only has an estimated 4,000 soldiers, while our armies have 300,000 men altogether. We outnumber them 75 to 1. Still... do you not find it strange that so many troops were gathered to defeat such a small force?"

"What are you saying, sir?"

"I'm saying I do not like the look of this battle," Duran admitted softly. "Something about it feels… off."

His response elicited a laugh from the King of Mudwan. "Is that so? Apparently even Duran, Lion of the Elbe Clan, is no match against the passing of time!"

"Think about it, old friend. How much do we know about the enemies we'll soon face?" Duran pointed out. "We've all heard the rumors surrounding the Blue Golems by now: what they lack in numbers, they make up for with an unknown and incredibly destructive type of magic. Do you truly think we can succeed where the Imperial army failed?"

"S-Surely they can't defeat the combined strength of 300,000 trained soldiers, correct?" Mudwan's king weakly retorted.

Duran sincerely wished he could answer that. Maybe then he'd know if he was about to lead his army to victory… or a slaughter.


(The Next Morning)

"You're kidding. He wanted to know what now?!" Lieutenant Reynolds balked in disbelief as she walked alongside her uncle, the two officers making their rounds along the COG garrison's perimeter.

"Garrison" probably wasn't the right word to describe it – with a few weeks to resupply and take a breather after the native army's humiliating defeat, the Engineering Corps worked around the clock to transform what had once been trenches, tents, and makeshift barriers into what was effectively a small fortress. Other Gears with explosive ordinance training had also been made useful: the crude minefield that worked so effectively earlier was replaced and reinforced with remote-detonated charges; a useful asset to ensure that higher-ranked or more dangerous enemies would be caught in the blasts, and not just the cannon fodder. Additionally, automated turrets were placed in sight of where the enemy's forces were thickest in the previous battle to assist in repelling them in case of another attack.

Some might call it overkill or paranoia to use such defenses against a technologically inferior opponent, but Reynolds learned a long time ago that all was fair in love and war. The surge of morale among the troops after their victory wasn't a bad thing, either. It was an easy battle, to be certain, but the COG would take what it could get at this point.

"I'm serious!" Captain Mayweather insisted, looking like he'd just been told that Sera was actually flat the entire time. "I told you that many specialists were bored, but I didn't think it would be so mind-numbingly dull that some of our men would invent fantasies about this world to keep themselves entertained! I mean, how should I know if there are any catgirls here? What even is a catgirl, anyway?"

He didn't bother to keep his voice down, which garnered curious stares from passing Gears as uncle and niece continued their walk-slash-bonding session. A lot of them seemed on edge lately. Reynolds had a feeling why: nighttime scout reports indicated the enemy hadn't quite accepted total defeat yet, and were amassing the largest army witnessed since the conflict began.

She smiled grimly. Throwing more people against their upgraded defenses wasn't going to win them jack shit. If they were too stupid to realize that, then maybe her uncle couldn't be blamed for having nothing better to do except trounce her in card games. She hadn't been needed on the front lines, anyway.

Courtney turned to the captain with a kinder smile, prepared to ask him to continue his story, when his radio picked up an unexpected transmission.

"Captain Mayweather, this is Corporal O'Nellis of Sniper Team Four! I've spotted movement two hills over – LOTS of movement!"

Mayweather stiffened in alarm, all playful antics immediately gone in favor of the determined and capable leader Reynolds knew he was. "Roger that, O'Nellis. Is it the same enemy from last time?"

"I don't think so, sir." O'Nellis responded. "They're definitely not here for tea and cake, but their armor looks different. The ones we fought before were- MY SIGN! GOBLIN BASTARDS JUST TRAMPLED OVER MY FUCKING 'KEEP OUT' SIGN!"

Mayweather and Reynolds both flinched at the corporal's sudden outburst.

She wasn't finished. "VINNIE AND I SPENT HOURS PUTTING THAT DAMN THING UP, AND THEY JUST WALTZ OVER AND KNOCK IT DOWN! THEY'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! I SWEAR, THE NERVE OF-!"

"Uh, Captain, this is Sergeant Weaver." A new voice cut off O'Nellis' rant, much to the officers' relief. "We've got a lot of armed contacts headed to our position. Might want to get everyone ready for round two, yeah?"

"Copy that, Sergeant. Anything else to report?" Mayweather asked.

"Hmm… Some of these guys are wearing funny little helmets with these big fin-looking things on top. Mind if I show our new friends how retarded they look by shooting them off?"

That had to be the most unprofessional thing Courtney Reynolds ever heard in her entire military career. Then again, considering who was speaking, she really shouldn't have been surprised.

Her uncle tried and failed to hide his grin. "Permission granted, Weaver. Do so in the name of common fashion sense." Then, opening a different channel, he yelled into the radio, "All Gears, get to your positions! Enemy contacts have been spotted! I repeat, the enemy has returned! You all know the drill! Move, move, move!"

He put his radio away after that, smiling pleasantly at his niece, even as the Gears surrounding them were stirred into a frenzy of last-minute preparations.

"So… up for a bit of solitaire tonight?"

Reynolds didn't know whether to punch him or hug him, so she settled for rolling her eyes.


Miles away from the COG encampment, two dozen men on horseback, led by the King of Elbe himself, galloped toward Alnus Hill at a feverish pace. It was unusual at first glance – why would the king bring such a small force if he wished to fight, instead of his whole army? Was the prospect of earning glory in battle too tempting to ignore? To the average observer, nothing about the scene made sense.

The truth was far more ominous: King Duran, Lion of the Elbe clan, was afraid.

If what his scout said at dawn was true, the combined armies of Mudwan and Arguna, backed up by the Principality of Ligu, were en route to the enemy stronghold at Alnus. Fifteen thousand men was nothing to scoff at; on the other hand, if the Imperial army really did lose sixty thousand soldiers in two days, the Allied forces would need much more than that if they hoped to capture the gate.

Duran was aware of that. The King of Mudwan wasn't. Arguna's king was too prideful to ever consider retreat, reinforcements or not; as for the Duke of Ligu, Duran didn't know.

And Emperor Molt? Oh, he knew all right. In fact, he seemed to know a lot more about the Blue Golems' capabilities than he'd made his vassal countries believe, since not a single Imperial soldier was sighted with the other armies.

Duran was afraid for two reasons: the unified armies might have been betrayed, and his closest friend could very well be in danger as a result.

Molt, you insufferable bastard! Duran seethed, gritting his teeth so hard he heard one crack. If this war is indeed what I suspect it is, then I pray the gods are feeling vengeful!

He was snapped from his internal loathing by the sight of sudden explosions in the distance.

"No…" the king breathed, his remaining eye widening in shock. "Is Alnus Hill erupting?"

What sort of monstrous golems could make a quiet, sacred place burst into flames like that? Duran slowed his horse to a cautious trot, the men behind him following suit.

The explosions ended as soon as they began, though the sight that lay before him when his party went to investigate would haunt Elbe's ruler until the day he died.

"W-What is this?"

He looked side to side at the shallow craters littering the ground in front of him. Men from the three armies, many charred or missing body parts and all of them dead, were scattered around the field like mutilated puppets. The stench of smoke and seared flesh hung heavily in the air.

Duran heard one of his soldiers make a sick sound, forcing his breakfast back down his throat as they gazed out into the literal valley of death.

"Where is the King of Arguna?" Duran choked out. "Where is the King of Mudwan? Where is Duke Ligu?!"


(Hours Later)

"There, between the second and third hills. See him? The one flanked by banners?" Corporal O'Nellis asked her partner.

Weaver snickered from his spot next to her, aiming through the scope of his heavy sniper rifle. "You kidding me? His armor's so damn shiny, you could probably see him from space."

BANG!

"And now he's dead, which means his men are scattering…" O'Nellis trailed off while the sergeant reloaded his gun.

Through the high-powered scope of her own GZ18 Markza marksman rifle, she saw the hostiles break rank and flee in a panic, seconds before they were engulfed in a massive explosion. When the smoke dissipated enough for her to see clearly again, none of the three dozen medieval soldiers in that particular formation were still alive.

"…Which means the mortar crews are less likely to miss." Vinnie finished with an evil smirk.

She smiled fondly at him. It was good to have her closest friend back, even if he'd changed a bit during their three years apart. She supposed it wasn't important – she still understood him despite his faults, just as he understood her, and that was that.

The pair had been sitting on the deck of an Assault Derrick for hours now, identifying priority targets in the enemy's ranks and eliminating them long before they could pose any sort of threat to the COG defenders. In a twist of irony, the invaders were actually helping Faith locate their commanders; generally speaking, any men on horseback wearing fancier armor than their subordinates were taken out first. That was assuming she could even spot them in time before they were blown up by the never-ending artillery fire.

This enemy wasn't tactically flexible by a longshot, that much was obvious – but they were annoyingly persistent. O'Nellis felt herself getting thirsty, compounded by her earlier tirade against the little demons who flattened her beloved warning sign.

Seriously, fuck those things. Vinnie hadn't complained when she temporarily ignored her duties as a spotter to take a few potshots at them.

She scanned the battlefield to the best of her ability, trying to pick out a new victim through all the chaos, when the sound of someone climbing the Derrick's ladder caught her attention. A well-built, helmeted Gear in sleeveless white armor – which instantly categorized him as a medic – emerged onto the deck, carrying a small medical bag over his shoulder. Unusually for a COG soldier, he was completely unarmed save for a Boltok pistol strapped to his leg holster.

"Are you Sergeant Vincent Weaver and Corporal Faith O'Nellis?" he inquired in a flat, emotionless voice.

Vinnie put his rifle down to glare at their uninvited guest. "That's right. Sniper Team Four, at your service." He gave the man a mock salute. "Now what the hell do you want, doc? If it ain't important, then fuck off. It's not polite to interrupt a man and a woman when they're in the middle of something."

"Vinnie! He's done nothing wrong!" O'Nellis snapped.

The changes were subtle, but noticeable to anyone who knew him. He was never like this before he was convicted to the Slab…

"My name is Wesley Hutch." The white-armored newcomer introduced himself in the same unfeeling tone, completely ignoring Weaver. He reached into his bag, producing two sixteen-ounce bottles of water for the duo to see. "With Coalition injuries nonexistent at this time, the medical team has been reassigned to help distribute food and water to soldiers who have actively participated in the battle for prolonged periods. I've come to deliver sustenance."

O'Nellis met the confused glance Weaver sent her, shrugging helplessly. It was obvious the moment he opened his mouth that something was incredibly, undeniably off with this guy… but hey, if he was offering them water, who was she to refuse?

"I will return at twenty-hundred hours with further supplies." Hutch informed them once they accepted their bottles. "I also recommend finding time to exercise between enemy waves to reduce the risk of blood clotting. If you have any further medical concerns, please seek out either myself or one of my colleagues."

He climbed back down the ladder without another word, leaving the sniper and spotter to wonder what the fuck just happened.

"…I sort of liked him," O'Nellis said awkwardly. "He was… interesting. In a weird way."

Weaver grunted in response, taking a quick sip of water before grabbing his rifle and settling back in to keep picking off enemies.

Faith suppressed a giggle when she imagined him shooting at an army of Hutch clones.


(Nightfall)

"We have less than half of the 100,000 men we set out with!" a surviving noble cried in dismay.

"How could this have happened?" a second lord muttered, elbows resting on the table and massaging his temples with his index fingers. "Where is the Imperial army? What are they doing?!"

Someone sighed. "No, not even the Imperial army could stand a chance against them. That's why we were called upon for aid in the first place, remember?"

Seated across from the other generals, eye closed and arms crossed, King Duran listened to the increasingly solemn conversation in silence. Placed in front of him was a battered helmet collected from the battlefield; Mudwanian in design, it was the only reminder he had left of the dear friend he'd lost today. He wasn't sure if the helmet even belonged to the king. He didn't care enough to dwell on it.

The campaign had been a disaster the minute Duke Ligu ordered his troops to march on Alnus. The reclusive golems occupying the hill retaliated fiercely, bombarding the Allied Kingdoms' armies with their hellish magic and raising pandemonium throughout their ranks. Some traumatized soldiers even claimed their superiors' heads exploded as soon as the enemy stronghold came into view.

Not for the first time, Duran struggled to grasp how the Blue Golems attained such lethality. None of the allied forces made it close enough to even catch a glimpse of the monsters.

"Should we retreat?" the third man suggested. "The enemy doesn't seem interested in leaving Alnus Hill. Perhaps we should surrender before we antagonize them further."

It was a viable option, Duran admitted, and probably their best one. He hadn't been able to reach camp and warn the generals in time before the second offensive was launched. With such staggering losses on the Kingdoms' side, the Blue Golems were in a prime position to counterattack. If they did, there was very little hope of survival, let alone victory.

Why did they have to make this personal…

"We cannot run off now."

The four other lords in the tent turned as one to face him, each of them wearing an expression of open shock. Duran opened his eye, fixating it on the ruined helmet. The piece of armor seemed to mock him – he viewed it as both an invitation and a challenge from the golems.

He never stood a chance. Your friend is dead because of us. A taunting voice whispered in the old ruler's mind. Seek us out and claim your revenge. We'll be waiting…

"Not until I've paid them back with an arrow," Duran growled, clenching his fists until his gauntlets creaked in protest.

"But Lord Duran, we have hardly enough might!" someone protested.

"Then perhaps a night raid…"


King Duran personally despised sneak attacks. They were the widely regarded across the continent to be the most treacherous and least honorable form of warfare; there was no glory to be gained from stabbing a sleeping enemy in the back, nor was it a good way to cast oneself in a favorable light.

Today's battle changed many things – for better or worse – and Duran's belief in the value of stealth was one of them. A night raid might've come across as unsavory, though it paled in comparison to the sheer mockery of warfare the Blue Golems demonstrated throughout the day. To the Underworld with honor and glory in battle – if attacking them under the cover of darkness was what it took to win, then Duran was willing to swallow his pride.

It was an all-or-nothing plan. There was no turning back. The Allied Kingdoms mustered all of their remaining forces for this attack, spearheaded by the Lion of the Elbe Clan himself. It was 150,000 of the best trained soldiers in Falmart against 4,000 demons from another world.

The trek through the fresh graveyard near Alnus, filled with the corpses of men, wyverns, and beastfolk, still sent a shiver up his spine.

"Tonight is a new moon," he explained when one of the other kings asked what the plan was again. "In this darkness, we should be able to make it to the other side of the hill and ambush the enemy."

He watched in satisfaction from a small bluff as Elbe's army – his pride, joy, and family – made it to the other side of the earlier battlefield without any complications. They were now deeper into enemy territory than any army had been previously; Alnus Hill was visible in the distance, surrounded by the golems' numerous fortifications. As long as they kept quiet and moved lightly, there was no doubt they would reach-

Duran was nearly thrown off his horse when it started to buck and whinny in alarm. From the enemy stronghold, several small, bright objects erupted into the night sky. The objects sailed in the approaching armies' direction, bathing the landscape around them in an ominous, blood red color.

"What brightness!" the king exclaimed. Seconds later, his eye widened when he made the connection.

Brightness.

During a night raid.

They'd been spotted.

"MOVE!" Duran screamed, spurring his mount into action. Soldiers in front of him stepped to either side to allow him through, watching dumbly as their ruler made a mad dash towards Alnus.

"Knights, run! Footmen, run! All units, attack! ATTACK!"

The deafening sound of clanking metal indicated that they'd heard him and were doing their best to catch up… until the first explosives dropped. He couldn't hear much of anything after that.

Duran weaved around the field in a zigzag motion, narrowly dodging the artillery fire raining down from the heavens. "Follow me! We must keep pressuring them!" His voice was barely audible over the sound of explosions and the shrieking whistles that preceded them.

He urged his horse to go even faster. They'd nearly made it before they were discovered. Alnus Hill was so close! Just one more mile, and he could personally behead every last one of the invaders who took so much from-

The King of Elbe cried out in shock after his steed jumped off a small ledge and got tangled up in some kind of sharp metal wiring, throwing him from its back and causing him to tumble several feet across the ground. He laid there in a daze, his thoughts suddenly jumbled. The cognitive part of his mind that still worked silently cursed – how could he be so foolish to think the enemy wouldn't pull something like this?!

"King Duran! We're coming, sir!" a soldier shouted. Duran turned his head to look at him. Good – at least some of his troops were able to keep up. The man carefully cut through the razor wire with his sword, then rushed to his commander's aid; someone else called for a shield formation to guard the king until he was back on his feet.

Shields? Duran wanted to throttle whoever came up with the idea. What good would shields do when pitted against the Blue Golems' unbridled wrath?

Nothing, apparently, when said golems unveiled their next dirty trick.

"Run! Run, everyone!" Duran's warning came too late. A metaphorical tidal wave of tiny projectiles, originating from Alnus and barely big enough for the naked eye to see, washed over the army; the old knight who ruled them could only watch helplessly as his subjects were massacred all around him. The little objects ripped through the shield formation in seconds, leaving Duran fully exposed.

He felt one graze the side of his helmet. It felt hot.

The Lion of Elbe took a few steps forward in a trance-like state. The wave of projectiles never ceased, though miraculously, Duran remained unharmed. He stopped when he noticed a discarded longbow on the ground, along with a quiver of arrows. Kneeling down, he picked up the bow with one hand and a single arrow with the other.

He nocked the arrow and aimed high. He was only slightly less proficient with archery than swordsmanship – he was confident in his judgement of the distance between himself and Alnus Hill.

"Bastards… This is for Mudwan's king!"

Twang!

Duran watched the arrow disappear over the horizon. Would it hit anybody? Would it even matter?

No… it wouldn't matter. None of it mattered anymore.

Duran tilted his head back and laughed. It was a loud, insane, unrestrained sound that would've echoed into the night if it weren't for the constant explosions. He laughed at the thought of just how stupid he'd been to not trust his earlier instincts. Now, as a consequence, he'd lost many people close to him. He was practically guaranteed to lose his own life soon enough. Further punishment? Maybe. Perhaps he deserved it for his rashness.

He laughed as he imagined Emperor Molt, safe on his throne and probably laughing himself while his scheme played out perfectly. He'd tricked the Allied Kingdoms, just as he'd tricked the Blue Golems into fighting for him after his own army was crushed. In the end, the Empire was the real winner of this battle.

He laughed even as he saw the mortar shell headed straight towards him.


I just want to point out that I fricking love writing Captain Mayweather.

This chapter covers the rest of the main COG characters that will play a major part in this story. I'm aware that Dalton, Gyules, and Yanagida didn't make an appearance this time, but that was so the rest of the cast could get some development. They'll come back in the next chapter, so don't worry.

I guess I'll answer some reviews while I'm here:

Zaeva: The Locust aren't aware of the Special Region's existence, and won't be for some time. That isn't to say they won't play a big role in the future…

Guest: I'm glad you agree with my decision to use OCs. Some of the canon Gears might make guest appearances (such as Bernie in the last chapter), but none of them will play a huge role.

Rotciv557: The thing about new stories? Nobody knows they're coming, so you feel a lot less pressure to get them out. I must've spent a month tweaking and refining the first chapter. I can't say for certain if future chapters will be as lengthy (this one sure isn't), but I appreciate the positive feedback.

Wacko12: Yep, Dalton's still a private. He has confidence issues that will be addressed throughout the story.

By the way… the ratio of favs/follows compared to reviews is 3:1. Favs/follows motivate me, but reviews get me typing. Hint hint, nudge nudge.