Chapter Three: Verdun Run
Vanth slowed and stared into a forest reduced to bare trees and shards of broken stumps.
The townspeople would have taken cover here when the Germans marched through. And so, they bombed the trees. Safer than sending soldiers into the forest.
Even if Vanth could help the ghosts lingering among the ruined timber, she didn’t have time.
More miles than moments.
Roads weren’t entirely safe, but she used them anyway. The German’s patrols and Cloaked soldiers made enough noise to spot a mile off. She skipped around the loud fools and ran through trees or stinking marshes left by the mortars and heavy rain.
Bodies rotted in some of the worst areas, often with shocked ghosts still working out their own cause of death.
Vanth took a chance and ran straight through a mostly empty town in better shape than her lonely village had been. Food cooked somewhere in its boundaries, some type of meaty stew.
Smelled lovely, but she’d learned her lesson already.
Hours stumbled by in counts of bombed out fields and rubble strewn towns. A hazy sun almost brightened the day until about ten A.M. when rain pissed from the skies. Vanth hated running in the downpour, but the cool water eased her aching throat.
Dusk fell and she felt her legs again for the first time all day. The pain and the needles and all the weakness of mortal flesh. She needed prayers or rest to heal the damage.
Her lungs started to hurt and the goddess wondered if this body could die from exhaustion. Her old ones never had, but she’d never pushed one like this.
She heard shelling getting closer all the time, but the front didn’t really stand out until she topped the last hill.
In half-a-dozen steps, the countryside went from war ravaged to the end of the world. Vanth knew that if civilization truly died in this endless battle, barbed wire would serve as tombstone and machine gunfire as funeral dirges. She could feel the truth echo in each tick of her overworked heart.
Vanth’s weapon bumped against her back as she headed East. Down a side path and into the trees, where mortals found only fear and darkness.
Hidden by magic, Pluto and Hades played their strengths. Acres of the dead manned cursed trenches, an open air labyrinth grave.
Vanth scurried into the nearest gap in the line and started through the festering crowd of old bodies. Her skin crawled more with each step, almost like an ache. She’d have never allowed the zombies if her Pantheon still held any sort of sway.
The dead deserved better, but the brass didn’t care about the opinions of their sacrificial lambs.
She often wondered if her body would find a way to the long, waking hell of these trenches and if her soul might live to see it.
Vanth stopped for a few gasping breaths—the world seemed hazy and her chest hurt worse than before—and a moment to clear her thoughts.
Melancholy never saved any lives.
Nowhere close to centered, but in a rush, Vanth pushed her way through, looking for any signs of the living.
A plume of bluish smoke caught her eyes and she followed the twisting lines.
Three soldiers nursed a bowl of cocaine in a circle.
One pulled his pistol, but the other two barely noticed her.
Vanth raised her hands, although the ache in her chest got worse. “Whoa, soldier. Just looking for command.”
“At the main camp,” he answered in a heavy Scottish brogue.
“Who is this,” one asked, revealing a black, forked tongue. Scales shined beneath a heavy layer of camouflage magic. Some type of snake man.
“I’m Vanth, from special ops. Directions to Ares? Or we walk there together?” Maybe carry me? Before I collapse.
“Follow the main trench another two branches and turn left,” the snake man said. “Should be a company of men somewhere there. The corporal will have a better idea.”
Vanth nodded and entered another damned trench. She found a lieutenant first, a Brit from their Expeditionary Force. The brass traded troops now and then for coded ops. Vanth didn’t know the whole situation, but she spent a pleasant week outside London learning how to use her Lewis gun with the British Expeditionary Force and all the humans at that base seemed in the know.
“Ares?” she asked.
“The black gent?” he asked, then pointed behind him. “Up with the rest of the top drawer.” The man didn’t look at her, instead staring down the trench she’d walked from.
Vanth glanced back, but it was just the usual shambling corpses. “There a problem, Lieutenant?”
“The fog is really thick there. I didn’t even notice our line extending that way.”
And some mortals are enchanted out of their gourd. If the clock kept time, no need to mess with the gears, but Vanth truly didn’t care for these world wars. “Nothing I see that way.
He nodded and looked at her.
“As you were, then.” Vanth saluted.
Vanth hadn’t really needed to ask, fifty-feet farther down the path, Ares voice carried across the field. No mistaking that deep rumble.
She stumbled through the last trenches and down a path. In a wide field, the tents started. HQ was near the back, in a long khaki tent secured with actual struts instead of simple rope and pegs.
Vanth lifted the weighted door flap and stepped inside.
Ares stood in the center of the room, shirtless and wearing half a face of shaving cream. The yells stopped as she entered, but Vanth could see from the sword in Artemis’s hand that coincidence gifted the silence.
“Evening, folks,” she wheezed.
Ares turned, golden eyes tracking her up and down. Pale scars lined his thick arms, a history of the War God’s battles marred his black skin. Rumor had it that he was half-Egyptian, the product of Hera’s wandering eye and Sutah’s easy charm.
“You look half-dead, soldier,” Ares rumbled.
“She’s a psychopomp,” Artemis said, eyes shining with godly magic. “Probably normal for her. State your name. Business here?”
“Vanth. Etruscan,” she gasped, feeling decidedly not normal as the chest ache moved lower. “Safkhet’s company. Death goddess, too. Not just a psychopomp.”
Artemis sheathed her blade.
“Is there a reason for your presence?” Ares asked.
Vanth opened her mouth and winced at a burst of pain in her jaw. “Uhh, well, there’s something coming this way. New war machines?”
“And this is news why?” Artemis picked up a bag and dumped a tiny rifle onto the table Vanth leaned against. “This is a Bergmann MP 18, a new German machine gun.”
“Small,” Vanth muttered. The whole world seemed a little dark and small, but that could be the tent’s simple oil lights.
“Uses pistol rounds,” Ares told her. “Maneuverable. Good for cutting through trenches and outfitted with large capacity magazines.”
Artemis shook her head. “Always a new cog in the meat grinder.”
“But the Fox, Reynard the Fox, sent me.” Vanth coughed and took a deep breath, but the air didn’t seem to help. “He said it was big, everyone here would die.”
Ares laughed. “No, last time we took intel from him, the damned—”
“He said that he still longs for Athens. And then to wink,” Vanth added, still gasping. “Which I figure you can just picture.”
The God of War blushed, walked to the sink and busied himself with shaving.
“Lord Ares?” Artemis asked, smile wicked and tone ringing with innocence. “Big brother, did something happen between you and Reynard in Athens? Something that perhaps—”
“I’ll kill the bastard,” Ares said, voice a jagged rumble. “He’s being honest. He’d never bring up Athens otherwise. This is important, Artemis.”
She looked to Vanth with a brow raised then back at Ares. “If you say so.”
A weird pressure started in Vanth’s lungs. Like a weight from nowhere. “He also said ‘Vulcan and Hephaestus had the same idea, but the first is quicker.’ Any ideas what he meant?”
They both nodded and met eyes, but didn’t share.
“Did he say anything else?” Artemis asked.
Vanth shook her head as the lights went out.
Chapter Four: Like Clockwork
Vanth woke in a real bed and relative quiet.
Artemis left a note to stop by the chow tent and then come see her for further orders. Simple words, but the message was pretty clear: Vanth had officially been moved to the front for the duration of the siege.
“Should never have checked on that damned light,” she muttered. After a cold birdbath in the borrowed tent, Vanth headed out in search of food.
The mess tent smelled like bacon and eggs, so she figured it must be morning.
A short, thick woman with long hair and a husky singing voice crooned while kneading a brown dough. She wore civilian clothes, but in military colors. A plain sweater and skirt that stopped about mid-calf.
Vanth waited at the counter for long as her stomach would stand, before she said. “Excuse me?”
The cook turned and smiled at her. “Everything’s ready if you’re hungry. Just grab a plate and serve yourself, I’m…” She held up two dough covered hands.
“Thank you, Miss,” Vanth nodded.
She turned to look Vanth over and her red eyes sparked. “You new?”
“In a way.” Vanth scooped eggs onto her plate. “I’m on special detail, but I’m here on extended loan.”
“Really? Impressive. I just make the food.”
“That’s impressive to me,” Vanth assured her.
“Vanth,” she said. “Etruscan.”
Hestia nodded. “Oh, I’ve heard of you. The psychopomp prodigy, right? They say you got a nice singing voice.”
“I don’t use my chthonic magic much these days, but I can carry a tune. I’m a death goddess, too. And you’re the dethroned Olympian, right?”
“Not anymore. The black veil was taken off Dionysus’s seat this week. If we weren’t at war, I’d be a high god again.”
“That’s swell. Congratulations.”
Hestia sighed, then offered a half-smile that had probably seen better days. “Don’t mean so much. If we lose, I’ll probably be executed with the rest of you gunnies. If we win, there won’t be a throne.”
“I’ll still address you as Lord, all the same.”
Hestia chuckled, a deep, honest humor strong enough to draw Vanth’s smile. “For that, I’ll get the cookies started early today. Give you some about an hour from now, okay, sweetie?”
“Looking forward to it,” Vanth said. “What time is it?”
Two hours from the Fox’s deadline. “Might want to bake fast.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“You have a gun?”
Hestia reached under the counter and pulled out a model ‘97 shotgun with a thin bayonet. “Gotta hunt with something,” she said. “Lots of boars nearby.”
Vanth nodded. “Good bacon.”
“Thanks. Got some sausage if you’re interested.”
Hestia tossed a few familiar smelling links into a pan. They sizzled and popped while Vanth cleaned up another serving of potatoes and eggs.
Artemis stomped in with a wave, collected coffee, and sat down far enough off for privacy.
Vanth preferred eating alone this morning, anyway. She wanted to enjoy her delicious food and not hear how they were all doomed.
Others showed up, mostly for carriers loaded with breakfast for the soldiers in the trench.
Vanth didn’t realize the entirety of their situation, but an empty mess at this hour couldn’t bode well for their numbers.
Although she got a third plate with little trouble, so that was pretty nice. Loaded down with six of the sausages Reynardine had served her.
Vanth finished two of the greasy links before she asked, “Are these local?”
“Hmm?” Hestia looked over. “No, those are my own recipe.”
Ares walked to the counter and served himself a pile of eggs.
Vanth finished chewing her sausage. “They’re quite good. I’ve never had them before the other night and—”
Hestia went completely still, besides her bright red eyes, flashing with barely tempered rage. “Where did you have them then?”
“Oh, well… Reynard says, ‘hello’…”
With a scream that would chill even a frost giant’s heart, Hestia snapped a wooden cutting board. “I’ll cut his tail off!”
Ares attempted tried to calm her down, then keep her from going straight after the Fox, but he simply got a hard elbow to the face for his troubles.
Hestia took some calming tea, swearing dark vengeance while it brewed. Through the threats, Vanth ascertained that a number of rations disappeared recently and that the Fox had indeed been at camp.
The news didn’t surprise her, but the fire in the chef did.
Lot of things striking about her.
But Vanth didn’t have time for new friends, really, although she hung around for her lavender shortbread cookies before meeting Artemis.
Who sent her directly to the damned trenches.
Passing through hadn’t been so bad compared to actually standing on the wooden plank. Being assigned to the stinking watery, graves set a whole other shade on the affair.
Least it’s the living in this one.
The enemy across the way didn’t seem keen on attacking, although the occasional rifle shot or machine gun burst echoed from both sides.
Her new trench mates might have been nice enough, but she’d arrived with news of a mystery attack. That was even before showing up at the trench with hot cookies and tea.
Vanth might as well have kicked them in the balls. And she would’ve before sharing her tasty prize.
Fuckers live near the mess tent. I never even knew about the blasted sweets.
Of course, they also didn’t know about the backstock of cookies in her bag back in the ten. The chef promised more, too.
Apparently selling out the Fox could be lucrative.
Not a bad idea, considering he probably got her body killed at least. In her ghost form, only another psychopomp could damage her. Or a death god. She might end up maimed, always that chance—damaged, but stuck in this corpse.
Vanth would sell the bastard out again if she could.
Another soldier leaned out of the fog. “Masks on. Forward men spotted gas. Pass it down the line.”
Vanth sent the word along to the nexts soldier, pulling her own gasmask from the belt hook. She fixed the mask tight, tugging the straps until they hurt. Better to have a headache tonight than poor vision. Flush masks worked better, too, according to her training. She’d never worn one in a proper fight.
A wolf outfitted with a gas mask and armor passed by. Likely one of the Norse clan of wolves, brought on by Tyr’s joining.
Word had it the Fox accomplished that feat as well, although half the good tales she heard these days involved that trickster, and, in her experience, you couldn’t trust a single one.
A quiet rattling beneath the wooden planks caught Vanth’s attention. Vanth aimed her Lewis gun down, but the watery bottom didn’t seem deep enough to hold a soldier. The sound faded, seconds later another passed with a slow ripple of the water.
The gas rolled over them, as half the men aimed guns to the floor.
“Sergeant said to step lively,” a voice said. A woman, maybe Artemis—hard to tell in the haze and the masks.
Another ripple passed with the rattling sound. From somewhere in the distance, someone screamed. Shots cracked the air, and then silence and heartbeats that felt even louder.
Every ear strained for hint of the reason behind the quiet.
Screams and bullets flew in Vanth’s own trench, out of sight but a mere five yards away. She dived to the wall, scurrying along in the muck to stay out of the center. Guns and screams echoed closer. Someone screamed about a snake, and Vanth looked down to see a living chain of bronze and leather twisting around her boot.
Letting the gun drop and catch on her shoulder strap, Vanth pulled her pistol and cut the snake in half. Another took its place and she put a bullet through the front end.
“Bayonets! Clubs and Shovels!” someone shouted down the line. Vanth holstered the pistol and stomped on the muddy ground.
A click sounded from the muddy water and a long knife shot from the tail.
Before Vanth could move, the blade pierced clean through her ankle. The goddess spun the Lewis rifle from her shoulder and smashed the snake with the gun’s oversized cooling barrel. Falling back, she caught herself on the other wall.
Snakes flashed by under the boards as blood dyed the muddy trench water. Shredded flesh from the razor-tailed snakes drifted along.
Pulling herself upright onto the trench board, Vanth stepped on the snake, grinding the twitching head under her boot in spite of the pain.
The wounded ankle started to knit, but she didn’t have enough latent energy left for a complete heal. The extra prayers in her pocket were tempting, but a few snakes—
“Hyena!” someone screamed.
Vanth pulled out the glass flask and shook the bright gold liquid. The concoction spun, she sipped half of the sweet prayers in one go. Blood pumped in her head, but the chaos of the world settled with a long shudder.
Vanth’s body shook and the gas faded to a mild blur. More a nuisance than an actual obstruction.
Powered by the mortal prayers, Vanth healed the wound in the scant seconds it took to draw her Lewis Hurl.
Only about ten people left standing in her trench, most on the boards. Near the other end, the outline of a hyena ripped at a floored man.
Sighting the head, Vanth fired a burst.
The clockwork sparked and just a tiny hint of soul, real natural spirit, wiggled free and faded into the gas.
Vanth stride forward, gun raised, and careful to keep to the middle of the wooden walkway. She hopped most of a dead soldier and landed next to the shattered hyena.
The metal skull took all three hits, leaving round holes and just one wide exit wound.
Vanth poked at the remains, caught up in the odd formation of gears and brass piping.
Far too caught up.
A clockwork hyena sailed from the top of the trench and latched onto Vanth’s face.
Teeth pierced her mask’s lining, but the thick leather saved her flesh from the bronze hyena’s maw.
Chaos exploded as the real attack hit. Dozens of clockwork hyenas flooded over the barrier.
Vanth dropped her rifle and pulled her pistol, but a second hyena caught her arm. The goddess screamed into her gasmask, fogging the inside with her lavender breath, and kicked at the hyena on top of her.
A gun fired above her, a single shot taking the first down. Vanth punched the hyena on her wrist, knocking the clockwork into the standing water. The snakes attacked with a shrieking chorus of metal.
Vanth looked up at her savior.
Artemis, silver eyes glowing with godly energy, filling the trench with round after round from the Bergmann MP 18. She didn’t even aim, just shot from the hip. Each trigger pull ended a clockwork in a shower of sparks, gears, and shreds of soul.
After a dozen kills, Artemis reloaded and waved at Vanth to pull back.
Blood ran down her arm, but Vanth wanted her rifle more than she cared about the pain. No sign of it on the walkway, so she plunged her hand into the trench and came up with a scratched barrel, and a blown apart action—an unlucky snake must have struck the magazine.
Vanth left the pieces, best burial she could manage, and drew her Scythe from thin air. She felt odd carrying a bladed weapon to a gunfight, but better than just a pistol.
Half-empty pistol. Need to get more rounds for that, too.
The gas blew off the field as they climbed to the HQ compound. Artemis led her to a tent. The whole area looked clear right to the sky.
Vanth stepped inside and found Ares sipping tea with a stack of books in front of him. “Figures.”
Artemis pulled off her gasmask. “He’s more useful with strategy.”
“I’m making notes for when we get overrun, too,” Ares added. “So historians will know how we died.”
Vanth snorted. “That sounds very positive. Glad our leaders aren’t losing faith.”
“Artemis mention how many we lost just now? Do you have any idea what our situation is?”
Vanth nodded. “Sure, we gabbed. Even stopped for a smoke and tea on the way through the gas and clockwork monster filled trenches. The brew tasted a bit mustardy, but it helped the sandwiches.”
“Nonsense,” Ares replied. “Hestia makes wonderful sandwiches.”
Vanth knew sarcasm came from the Greeks, but most she met were awful at the art.
“We lost about half,” Artemis said. “And I mean just lost. We have no idea what happened to half of our troops in about an hour. They’re either cut off or dead.”
“Well, with mechanical snakes in the water and similar hyenas about, I’m not surprised.”
“The other half is mostly wounded. Not a lot of deaths, but… for our numbers a human without a foot is better off dead. You and one other made it out of that trench.” Artemis walked to a cabinet and poured a large tumbler from a crystal bottle.
Ares tossed his notepad on the desk. “Oh, yes. Getting drunk is really going to help our situation.”
Artemis stuck her tongue out at him and then drained her cup. “If I see another option, I’ll take it. Until then, the bottle it is. Helps me think.”
“I’ve experienced that effect myself,” Vanth added helpfully
Artemis poured a second cup and carried the drink to Vanth. “We don’t have anything to replace a WPD like your Lewis, but we might have a nice rifle or two. Drink up and go see the quartermaster.”
Vanth gratefully sipped the harsh whisky. “Quartermaster?”
“Hestia,” Ares told her. “We are really short-handed.”