Casualties of War
(Play-By-Email Story from the 11th Hour / DC By Night Role-playing Game)
© November 28th, 2002 by JDK
"Their's not to make reply,
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The moon painted the rocky, desolate highlands in a Dore-esque palette of silvers, greys, and blacks, and the shifting clouds lent an eerie inconstance to vision as fifteen men trooped across the darkness, all dressed in the weeds of their chosen profession: the killing of their fellow men.
One of the youngest among them swore softly, the sound cut short as he clamped down on his pain to stop a shout that could apprise an unseen enemy of their presence. Their leader, a tall and burly man they all hated cheerfully and respected despite themselves, glanced back with slight approval. They were a good lot, his boys, but young, so damned young. Almost as young as his charges back home, and Kirby, the baby of the lot at 19, barely needed to shave twice a week. Still, good lads, he had to admit, as skilled as he was at their age, and though he’d never tell them so, more disciplined. Too young for dying, but that was the way of war.
The tall man raised his hand to indicate "stop" and as the little group came to a halt, he spoke in a soft voice redolent with the intimation of violence. "Now over this next rise is the ville' they told us to come investigate. So we go in, quick and quiet-like, and investigate. The folks are supposed to be friendlies, so ask first before ya' start shooting, but ask from behind cover if you want to get back to the States. I’m not luggin’ your corpse home over my shoulder, damn it." The men chuckled quietly at the gallows humor which they knew to be brutal honesty in fact, and spread out into a skirmish line with the ease of long practice.
The little group crested the rise before them, their eyes falling on the spectrally-illumined village in the valley below. It was quiet, almost unnervingly so, but unsurprising, given the locals preferred to be in bed early, much like the early American settlers their way of life resembled with its eternal hard work and small rewards. Still, the friendly ones were decent people on the whole, good soldiers and fiercely independent, happy to aid those who they saw as liberators. The leader of the group moved through the village, coming to one windstripped hovel slightly larger than its companions, squatting bovinely upon the baked hardpan. The big man tapped the door, lightly, then rapped a touch harder, stopping as the first firm blow set the door swinging open with a quiet creak. His broad, handsome features tightened at this unforeseen circumstance, the rifle at his side swinging up to ready. A fraction later, the ruddy features below the silver-brushed sable hair blanched. He stepped back from the door, but the coal-black eyes remained fixed upon the darkened doorway before him. "Boys, we may have some unplanned activity here," he called out quietly, in a crisply steady voice he didn’t feel. "Spread out by pairs and check the other houses."
After a moment of freshly chill night air, he stepped back into the hut, letting his eyes adjust to the absence of the spectral light outside. A crumpled mass lay a few feet inside the door; only the torn clothing and remnants of one hand spoke of its former humanity. The torn flesh mingled with the garments was only beginning to turn, the bitterly cold weather of winter at the high altitude having preserved it well. The empty cartridge casings scattered across the room and the smashed remains of a Kalashnikov laying beside its similarly-wrecked former owner spoke that the man had fought valiantly, if not successfully. And yet…
The man walked into the second room, having already surrendered hope that what might be there would be different from what he expected. Rightly. The savaged remains lying on the sleeping-room’s floor could no longer be recognized as the village head’s wizened spouse, and those beside her bore only a torn clump of long, silken black hair to speak of the prettily wild teenage daughter so many of his troops had gazed on longingly in weeks past. Something was wrong here. Wrong. He walked back outside dazedly, his mind focusing on the intellectual ramifications of what he saw, rather than the raw shock. Bodies torn apart. A hail of ineffectual bullets. No enemy bodies. Perhaps the enemy took away their dead. He would, despite his harsh words. But… Something wrong. Wrong. WRONG.
"Sarge!" he heard the cry from at least three angles at once, and looked to the closest one first. Young Kirby was trotting toward him, and the acid stench of bile, the stained front of his desert-camo blouse, spoke volumes of the sights the wiry soldier had seen. From the other two angles came Kingsley, his rough features drawn and trying to blanch despite his onyx skin, and Clancy. Clancy was a poet in his spare time, with a wild imagination… And his features told of his imaginings more clearly than his muttered words. His pale-blue eyes stared, but didn’t see, as he mumbled… "No blood…."
Slowly, the group convened in the center of the village. Each report compounded the horrors of the previous, until the combat-hardened men looked around nervously at each whistle of the night wind through the rocky crags around them. Last to speak was West… His voice shook slightly as he said, simply, "Sarge, I think you ought to come see this for yourself." Their leader inclined his head in agreement, and followed the smaller man to an abode at the edge of the village. A few minutes later, the two men rejoined the group, and the leader spoke up. "We’re goin’ back to base now. We’re gonna tell command what the facts are, and *just* the facts. No crazy conjecture about why there’s no blood, no speculatin’, and no wild stories about holes in the ground that looks like somethin’ digging up from under, instead of down to. Got it?"
Responding with nods rather than words, none of the soldiers trusting their voices after the sights of the night, they fell into line and started the long march back home.
The wolf called Edgerider sat up in the woods, shedding his wolven form for human shape, and walked back to the buildings of his new home. He swore softly as he over-stretched, pulling at the fresh bite wounds, and let the residual shudders the memory-dream always brought fade away as he moved into the house for a drink and a bite...