CHAPTER 2: Reinforcements

Atop a small bluff in the underworld, a single M60A3 TTS sat, nestled into a hull-down position as a sentry while Combat Engineers slaved away on the plateau behind them, filling Hescoe barriers with dirt and rock using several Bobcat loaders and backhoes. Sandbags were filled for emplacements and steel posts were pounded into the ground to support concertina wire. Steel pipes were welded together to make raised shooting platforms and planks were laid on top to give soldiers a place to stand. Shelters were dug in case for some reason munitions began landing inside the H-barriers, and the engineers had just begun building lodging for all the troops soon to be residing there when the tank crew had checked in last.

Inside their home on tracks, the crew were relaxed, the driver asleep while the commander and gunner stayed on the lookout.

"Hey, it's almost time for our check-in, isn't it?" The bored loader asked, sitting on his seat.

"Yeah. See anything yet, Landreth?" The commander inquired, scanning with a pair of binoculars.

"Nope. Nothin' but rocks. Might've seen some movement earlier, but I'm pretty sure it was just my eyes playing tricks on me."

"Check on thermals."

….

"H-holy shit! Contact, Tank front! Friendlies!"

The second Landreth glanced through his main sight and flipped on thermals, the hills lit up, multiple large signatures crawling over the hills to join one solitary M1A2 Abrams.

{Paladin One-Six, this is Druid One-Actual. Reinforcements have arrived.}

Scrambling to answer the radio, the tall commander clicked his headset forward and adjusted his microphone on his CVC helmet. "Druid One-Actual, Paladin One-Six. Welcome to the party. FOB Liberty is almost finished and COP Kitty is being built now."

{Roger that Paladin One-Six, stay on post until Archer One-Three comes to relieve you, break. Then move to FARP Eagle by COP Kitty and standby after topping off on any ammo or fuel you may need.}

"Roger that One-Actual. Standing by until Archer One-Three relieves us."

"Bro, ain't that Stonewall, the dev?" Landreth asked, having listened to the conversation on the squawk box.

"Hell yeah, and I'll bet he's here to kick some ass."

Six hours later

"One-Six!" A voice yelled, echoing through the motor pool and rousing the tank crew from their slumber.

"Yo!" The tank commander yelled back, cigarette hanging from his mouth while standing guard.

"You guys wanna go get some?" Stonewall asked, grinning.

"Fuck yeah! Eh… Sir!" The loader yelled with a sharp salute.

"At ease. Don't hold me higher than everyone else." Stonewall replied with a chuckle.

"Okay, but… once this is all over, can I get your autograph?"

Stonewall blinked owlishly for a second before laughing. "What's your name?"

"Lee Foster, Sir."

"Pleasure to meet you Lee. Cut it with the 'sir' crap. I'll get you my autograph once we're outta here. For now, mount up and I'll ground-guide you."

In minutes, the crew had packed up anything that was left out and climbed into their tank, following Stonewall after starting up. The ginger guided them through the packed motor pool to the gate, where his own M1 Abrams and a pair of Bradley IFV were off to the side. There, the crews were performing last-minute checks on equipment and bullshitting with each other while 'for whom the bell tolls' played through the squawk box of one of the Bradleys. Upon seeing the Ginger walking towards them, the crews wrapped up what they were doing and climbed into their vehicles, infantry mounting up in the backs of the Bradleys. Finally stopping the tank, Stonewall jogged to his tank and grabbed a CVC helmet off the front slope as he climbed up and dropped into his hatch, the turbine engine of his tank slowly spooling up before finally settling into an idle.

{Paladin One-Six, this is Druid One-Actual. Comms check, over.}

"Druid One-Actual, Five by five, Over."

{Paladin One-Six, be advised, I talked to Paladin One-Actual earlier. He let me know you weren't exactly happy with guard duty. As such, you are now designated Druid One-Four. Welcome to the party. Over.}

"Hey Ware, did we just get volunteered to join Stonewall's platoon?" Foster asked, looking at his commander.

"I think so." Ware responded, lighting up a cigarette before responding. "Roger that. Druid One-Four standing by."

{One-Four, you will be second in line. Druid One-Two will be in front of you. Make your best speed and we'll adjust accordingly.}

"Solid copy. We're ready to move out."

{Druid One-Two, lead us out, nice and slow.}

{Druid One-Two copies. Leaving the wire.} A female voice came over the radio, sounding deadly serious as one of the two Bradley's pulled out in front of Ware's tank.

"Alright Jake, let's go. Don't rear-end the Bradley."

"That happened ONE TIME!" The driver yelled as the tank began crawling forward, matching speed with the Bradley while Landreth traversed the turret to ten 'o' clock after they've left the perimeter. Behind them, Stonewall's tank traversed its turret to two 'o' clock and the commander sat on the turret roof, talking with his loader for a moment. Eventually, he looked at the Patton tank in front of him.

{One-Four. Settle in. We're in for a bit of a drive.}


Critter slammed his fist in annoyance as he looked at the screen. Platoons of players from Hell-Bound and War-Torn were swarming the Underworld and Dark Territory.

Along with all their hardware.

Despite his best efforts, there was no way for him to stop the tides of players arriving into the Underworld. Whoever set this up knew what they were doing, and the hordes of mechanized troops were far more organized than he ever could have expected.

So far, the initial wave of his players had been slaughtered by the armoured assault. Social media and forums were slowly filling up with complaints that it was some kind of trap meant to grease up XP gain for the Hell-Bound and War-Torn players while others exhorted the two communities to throw themselves into the battle for the Underworld, claiming that innocent lives were at stake. The tanks and infantrymen made mincemeat of any new arrivals not loyal to their cause, the dancing fireflies of tracers clearing the fields of anyone brave -or foolish- enough to challenge them in a 'fair' fight.

Luckily for Critter… the enemy's big guns weren't everywhere, their expansion limited by fuel and ammunition.

His latest waves were concentrated around some ruins further away from the mechanized forces, and they were slowly overwhelming the AI's and their allies.

And, glancing at his watch, he realized something that made him grin;

Another plan was in motion.


Hellbound,

Admin DMZ, USA.

"Dex! Where are you at?!"

Rushing through the halls of the in-game office, Alice dodged and weaved through the cubicles and interns, looking for the lead admin, eventually giving up on finding him the old fashioned way. She quickly activated her admin menu and teleported herself to him, finding him in the intel office with a couple interns, looking at multiple UAV camera feeds. "Dex, you oughta see this."

"What is it?"

"Remember how you asked me to look into how the enemy communicated before going into the Underworld? They've been using forums."

"That's great! But what do I need to see?" He asked, glaring at the interns when they looked away from the camera feeds.

"The same guy who was organising the enemy just popped up on one of our forums a couple hours ago."

"What?! What did he say?" He yelled as he snapped his head to look at the red-haired admin, a tablet in her hands, which she quickly offered to him.

9 hours ago:

Cr1tt3r1234: Hey Everyone!

Just heard that the Underworld theatre Alliance-Pact truce is ending. Once it ends, everyone gets double XP for any kill they make regardless of who they're fighting!

Happy Hunting!

—-

"Get that shit deleted immediately and post a warning. Anyone caught team killing in the underworld will be given a thirty day ban and a three month restriction from any post-1970 equipment or vehicles."

"You got it Boss!" She snapped with a salute, teleporting herself back to her office and sitting down at her desk, setting about what she'd been instructed to do, but not before trying to back-trace the IP of 'Critter', using Hellbound's massive server to hide her IP.

While the trace was running, she deleted Critter's post and posted a simple warning.

Just now:

Alice (H-B A): No, the Alliance-Pact truce is NOT over in the Underworld. To anyone thinking team killing in Underworld is a good idea, here's your one and only warning: Anyone caught teamkilling in Underworld will be given a thirty-day ban and a three-month restriction from any post-1970 equipment. Players may eliminate teamkillers without punishment. That is all. Use your brain, people.

"There." Alice muttered, checking on the trace only to stare in shock when she found the trace showing her own IP. It took her a moment to realize that Critter must have countermeasures against being traced. Cutting the trace, she sipped at some coffee and giggled.

"You sneaky bastard…"

After all, she loved a challenge.


"All Druid One elements, standby for contact. This has been a hotspot of activity."

{Druid One-Four copies, loading H-E.}

Standing up on his seat, Stonewall charged the M2 in the CROWS mount on the roof of his tank, something he had neglected to do earlier out of laziness.

"Lion! Gimme a CAN round!"

"You got it!"

With a hiss of hydraulics that were barely audible over the sound of the engine, the large viking-bearded loader pulled a Canister shell out and spun it around before he slammed it into the gun breech, flipping the arming handle up once the ammo door closed. "Up!"

"You realize we gotta get close to use CAN, right?" A skinny man chuckled into the intercom, peering through his gunner's sight.

"Yeah Wolf, I know."

{Contact! Infantry, Front!} The lead Bradley reported, {Convoy halt!}

"How many?" Stonewall asked her.

{Couple hundred. Possibly a thousand.}

"Copy. All units, line formation. Two-Two, Two-Three, once we're in position, offload your troops."

{Roger!)

{Copy, moving.}

"Badger, move us up. Get on line to the left of One-Four."

"Moving out."

Grabbing the controls for his M2, Stonewall began scanning as his tank moved up, watching until they were roughly in line with the Bradleys and Patton.

"Badger, halt. Wolf, identify, infantry front, five-hundred meters."

"On Target!"

"Fire."

"On the way!"

With a muted thump the breech kicked back and spat the aft-cap into the collector, sending a thousand tungsten ball bearings crashing into the ranks of the dark knights charging at them. Within seconds, a massive fireball ballooned over Stonewall's tank, making him pivot the CROWS mount to find the source, finally spotting Druid One-Four engulfed in flames, its turret knocked off the ring.

"What the fuck just happened?!"

{Druid One-Four just took a hit from our front! Confirmed tank!}

"Can you get a TOW on it?!"

{Negative. They backed off after they fired.}

"Loader, gimme a sabot! Driver, flank speed forward!"

"What the fuck's going on?!" Wolf yelled into the intercom, flipping the ammo selector to Sabot while the loader slammed a shell into the breech and slapped the arming handle up.

"UP!"

"Druid One-Four suffered an ammo detonation thanks to a tank to our front. We're killing the bastard!" Stonewall snarled, firing his M2 into the still-advancing knights while 25mm cannon shells ripped into the same targets. "Two-Two, Two-Three, pop smoke and retreat until we have this tank taken care of!"

The two Bradley commanders acknowledged his order just as Stonewall's tank slammed into the knights at full speed, some trying and failing to jump out of the way. Nobody in its path was spared as tracks crushed and the hull pushed anyone down and under the seventy-ton tank.

"Driver, slight left." Stonewall ordered, "we'll try to flank him."

His crew sat tense as they closed the distance, ready to spring into action at any moment. After having been referred to by their roles, they knew their commander was in the zone, ready for a type of warfare that they'd almost mastered.

And after a minute, they crested a ridge and found what they were looking for: a T-72 painted in Underworld camouflage.

"Gunner, identify, tank front!"

"On target!"

"Fire!"


Asuna's blade cut through ranks of dark knights. It was an absolute charnel house, the fallen Human Empire troops lying in pools of blood everywhere. The soldiers were outmatched by the Dark Knights players. They cleaved through ever thinning ranks of soldiers despite Asuna's best efforts. Growing increasingly frustrated with Amy's sudden disappearance, the bloodied swordswoman began taking out her frustration on the Dark Knights, yelling for the ex-samurai to do something repeatedly while she fought off attack after attack. Asuna looked up with dread and anger as more Dark Knights appeared before her. They charged without hesitation their weapons high. Asuna gripped her sword firmly, ready to stand her ground one last time… when a seven-second burst of automatic fire ripped into the Dark Knights, clearing a wide swath from in front of her. As if a switch had been flipped, the Knights were suddenly far from confident as a murmur of "Tanks?" rippled through their ranks, their heads looking around in terror.

Before anyone could understand what happened, a bright light appeared in the red skies above them, followed by a loud screeching sound that filled everyone's ears.

"Enemy reinforcements?" Asuna muttered, despair in her voice. Her sword wavered a bit.

The beam of light turned into a silhouette before becoming a tornado that shredded through the Dark Knights effortlessly. Limbs, torsos, and heads flew around, one landing in front of Asuna before disappearing in a storm of pixels.

"A sword… skill?" Asuna muttered before recognizing the newcomer, "You're…"

The familiar samurai threw a big grin as he looked at her.

"Hey! Sorry to keep you waiting, Asuna," he said casually.

"Klein…"

Behind Asuna, a clatter of rubble shifting revealed a grinning Amy, her M240 in her hands. "Klein! That was fucking badass!"

Klein's grin grew massive.

Asuna looked up and saw the skies glow once more. Thousands of beams of light appeared in the skies. More of their friends and allies began descending upon the Dark Territory while the echo of explosions and guns drew closer in the distance. A bright red flare shot into the sky.

Turning her radio volume up, Amy pressed the push-to-talk button. "Horseman One-Actual, Gypsy One-Two. Is that you I hear in the distance? Over."

{Gypsy One-Two is Horseman One-Actual. Tell everyone that the cavalry is on its way! That big light show in the skies, friendly or not?}

"Horseman One-Actual. The light show is friendly this time, break. You may want to hurry or you're going to miss the party, over."

{Gypsy One-Two we're greasing our tracks with their guts!}

Amy grinned and walked over to Asuna, using a handkerchief to wipe the blood off her face before walking to Klein and speaking to the surrounding dark knights, her voice echoing through the ruins. The Human Empire troops tightened their grip on their worn swords as they witnessed everything. Hope was returning to their battered hearts.

"Listen up! There's a platoon of tanks almost here! We can do this the easy way, or the hard way! Anyone who doesn't want their ass kicked better leave or surrender now!"

The Dark Knights merely shrugged before rushing forward as the beams of light descended faster and faster.

Amy yanked her M240 up to her hip and fired, her burst only lasting a second or so before it quit. "Gotta reload! Asuna, Switch!"

Before any of the two girls could react, a Dark Knight tried to charge from behind them. A mighty slash crashed down on him as a familiar silhouette appeared.

"Agil!"

More flashes appeared.

"Liz! Silica! You came!"

"Of course we'd come!" Liz claimed as she and Asuna clasped each other's hands.

"How could we not?" Silica asked warmly before the three girls embraced each other.

"You've been pushing so hard… look how banged up you are," Liz remarked, "You're overdoing it Asuna."

"Leave the rest to us. Everyone's here!" Silica added.

"Everyone?"

More and more ALO players materialized. Asuna recognized so many of them. Eugene of the Salamanders, Sakuya of the Sylphs, Alicia Rue of the Cait Siths. They had arrived with whatever players they could muster. Even the last of the Sleeping Knights were here!

With great war cries, they threw themselves at the stunned Dark Knights while their leaders coordinated the counter attack.

"It's not like we have a personal beef with you, but we're gonna make you pay for what you did to our friend. Three times the amount… no, a thousand! You bastards!" Klein declared before he and Agil charged into battle, their weapons held high. Amy hurried to roll a new belt into the feed tray of her M240, seeing a chance to fight alongside her boyfriend before she realized the possibility of friendly fire and shook her head, walking over to Asuna.

The four players stood transfixed as they saw their friends fight harder than ever. Asuna drew her sword but a voice suddenly spoke up.

"Lady Asuna? Who exactly are these people?" Renly asked, flanked by two guards, "And also… those knights?"

She smiled at the Integrity Knight.

"They're my precious friends! They've come from the real world to help us."

Renly and his guards gasped in surprise before he walked over to Liz and Silica.

"Is that right? I'm so glad! I thought that everyone from the outside world, aside from Lady Asuna or Lady Amy, would look scary, like those soldiers or iron golems."

"Of course not!" Liz exclaimed, "I'm Lisbeth! Nice to meet you Mr. Knight!"

"I'm Silica! It's very nice to meet you!" the smaller girl said with a bow.

"My name is Amelia. Nice to meet you." Amy says with a grin, bowing respectfully, like she's not bothered by all the weight on her person.

"Right! Nice to meet you! My name is Renly," he said, shaking everyone's hands.

Asuna's face hardened.

"Liz, Amy, how many people converted in all?"

"Maybe a little over 2000 from ALO, I think? I couldn't convince every single player who heard me out." Liz reported sadly before turning away in shame.

"That's more than enough and every little bit counts," Asuna said, putting a comforting hand on Liz's shoulder, "Amy, what about the War-Torn and Hellbound players?"

"So far, we've got a battlegroup under Nguyen's command with 5 companies. Roughly 500 players."

"Only 500?" Liz asked, surprised at the rather low tally.

"That's all our logistics could support at first, and that's all we could find on such short notice. I imagine we've got at least four times that coming in the second wave."

"What about Stonewall?" Silica asked curiously, "Isn't he here yet?"

"He said he would be in the lead elements of the second wave. So he's probably here already."

Asuna took note of all the information she got.

"In order to minimize our casualties and keep reconverting possible, I'd avoid a war of attrition. We'll keep the perimeter small and bolster our healing. Once Nguyen and his forces arrive, we'll be able to expand our defenses and keep the enemy away until more reinforcements arrive."

She then looked at Liz and Silica.

"Liz, Silica, I want you to fall back with 200 or so and form a support unit," she ordered.

"Understood!" Silica exclaimed.

"Okay! You can count on us!" Liz added with a raised thumb.

Asuna then turned to Renly and ordered him to aid the monks in healing the wounded as well as teaching the newly arrived ALO players how to use the Underworld's formal arts to heal.

"I'll stay with you since I have comms, and if anyone breaks through our line I'll engage targets of opportunity." Amy relayed to Asuna, charging her machinegun. Asuna nodded in agreement.

"Can you contact Nguyen and ask him where he is then?"

"Sure thing." The ex-samurai said with a nod, pushing the PTT button on her radio. "Horseman One-Actual, Gypsy One-Two. Status report."

After a few seconds, the radio came to life

{Horseman One-Actual here! We have a visual on your position. We are arriving on the Northern side of the ruins and will be within weapons range in 5 minutes!}

"Roger that One-Actual. Engage and destroy. Be mindful of crossfire."

{Gypsy One-Two, tell everyone to stay put on the Northern flank. We got a big surprise for them! Over!}

"Copy that, Out."

Turning her radio volume down after passing a spare radio to Asuna, Amy turned to everyone on the front line and yelled "HOLD THE LINE!"

A great cheer came from the Human and ALO lines as they fought with great vigor. The clash of swords resonated throughout the ruins as not one side put a single step back. The desperate defenders refused to yield a single brick while the Dark Knights hurled themselves forward with ever more ferocity.

"Where's Nguyen?!" Asuna exclaimed, looking at Amy, as she saw the fighting grow more and more intense. The ranks of the Dark Knights weren't thinning fast enough.

"Horseman One-Actual, engage as soon as you can! We're gonna start losing people soon!"

{Gypsy One-Two, Dragon One-Actual. Engaging the enemy.}

"Dragon One-Actual, where the fuck is Horseman?!"

{Horseman is right behind us. We're making some breathing room.}

"What?!"

Asuna looked at Amy in confusion as she heard a completely different voice on the radio set answering them.

"Wait…" Amy muttered, slowly connecting the dots. "Dragon… holy shit..!"

A great roar followed by inhuman screaming filled everyone's ears. The screaming grew closer and closer. A horrified Renly ran up to Asuna and Amy.

"Lady Asuna, Lady Amelia!" he gasped, fear all across his face, "There are green iron monsters burning up the Dark Knights! We must stop them before-"

"They're with us Renly. Calm yourself." Amy said with a grin, watching the rear of the Dark Knights' ranks become engulfed in flames.

A wide-eyed Asuna had already seen flamethrowers being used in War-Torn and Hellbound but never at such a scale. Two M67 Zippos were burning through the enemy's ranks with impunity. The flames consumed all in their path as burning Dark Knights tried to run away or put out the fires. The screaming knights spread the flames as they ran into each other in a panic, their front line surging forward in an effort to escape, only to be shoved back towards the flames. The air grew heavy with the stench of burning flesh as the fighting momentarily stopped.

"What… what kind of allies do you have?" Renly stammered, horrified. Asuna couldn't answer, but Amy grinned before she looked at him.

"The best kind."