Shell Case Shorts 12 – Winner

And so this humble competition draws to a close but with not one but two superb winning entries. I really couldn’t decide between them so as there was 5 lovely books on offer I decided to award prizes to both.

The first story is a Warmachine offering from Twitter favourite, #warmonger and all round nice guy Mike aka @MrChom. The second winning entry will be posted separately.

So first up I give you…

Widowmakersby Mike Chomyk

Stanislav ran his hand over the ice cold frame of the Juggernaut. Its heartfire extinguished, its cold empty eyes stared at the grey sky. Anyone glancing would barely have seen Stanislav, his white ankle length duster draped over the snow around him. The coat was meticulously patterned to break up his shape from a distance and fool the eye into believing he was nothing more than another patch of snow and rocks.

‘Legion’ he said quietly, observing the scorch marks and deep gouges in the juggernaut’s frame. ‘I do not know if this one can be saved, he is old, his heartfire has gone out. If we move his cortex to a new frame he may not survive, Natalya’, he added, turning his head to the officer crouched beside him. Her breath hung in the air as she crouched, her back to him, covering the ground he could not see with her rifle. Her brown hair hung in a loose ponytail behind her, its end dusted with snow and ice.

‘Then we move, Stanislav. Whatever immobilised him may still be watching. The Legion may look blind and diseased but we know they see better than even we do. We must return to camp and see what the Koldun thinks to this.’ She replied, keeping her eyes trained on the horizon of the depression they found themselves in.

It was a long cold journey back to the camp. They were currently housed the burned husk of the border fort Kapitan Natalya Matovy and her crack team of Widowmakers had initially been ordered to reinforce. Dusk became darkness across the frozen landscape and the Widowmakers were bathed in the pale silver of moonlight. They moved with a quiet reassurance, barely shadows across the land. Matovy was rightly proud of her team, they were veterans, crack shots, the best that Khador had to offer. Often times, as now, her orders were unspoken as the four of them moved from cover to cover and always on watch for nearby threats.

Koldun Lord Berezov looked at them as they returned, his face underlit from the sickly pale glow of the fire lit in front of the Officers’ tents. He was a tall man, his face sunken behind a thin brown beard. He was young for his office but his voice carried age beyond his years.

‘Report, Kapitan Matovy.’ He ordered as she approached.

‘The Legion ambushed and killed the forces sent out to deal with them leaving little for us to find. We retrieved a unit patch of one Northern 12th Division rifleman, there were also some cogs and pistons from the fort’s Destroyer and the almost intact frame of a Juggernaut. All were marked with signs of Legion. It would appear that the Legion in this area have become very good at clearing their tracks. While we saw signs of battle, and of their victory we saw no signs of them at all.’

‘The Legion have always been clever at hiding themselves when they do not wish to be found’ He looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘This Juggernaut…did you preserve his cortex?’

‘My men are not mechaniks, my Lord. We know how unstable the Cortexes can be. His heartfire was long out, we were worried that if we attempted to move his cortex it might crack…or worse’

Berezov pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, obviously tired. ‘Very well, Kapitan. Sleep now; in the morning you will lead myself, some Kossites, and some Rifles to this Juggernaut. Empress knows we need every cortex we can find at the moment. I will retire also and see you and your men in the morning’ Matovy cracked off a sharp salute at her dismissal, the Greylord merely nodded in acceptance and then turned to enter the nearby tent.

That night her sleep was fitful. She had seen her share of combat. She had held the line as wave after wave of Mechanithralls had crashed against the might of the Khadoran army in full swing, she had been well and truly alone in the Thornwood, lost and low on ammo…knowing that the druids of the Circle hunted her. These Legion should be no worse and yet they somehow were. She had seen their beasts, all muscle and sinew, rip through Imperial warjacks like they were nothing more than paper and good wishes. She had watched with horror as men, still not quite dead, were taken and plunged into the spawning pots these abominations carried with them, had seen the lingering looks on the men’s faces as they sunk into the gory fluid that filled them. She had even witnessed one Legion swordsman be shot down only for one of the deadly Incubi to spring forward in his place…a mass of quivering slavering flesh that devoured all in its wake.

In the morning a cold light filtered through into the tents and the Widowmakers emerged to find a fresh dusting of snow had settled overnight. This was not unusual in the north but it would make progress more slow. The Kossites would be able to keep up, they were hardy people who knew how to traverse rough terrain but the Winterguard were a unit from Korsk also sent to reinforce the fort. They were cold, and hungry, and their simple boots were no match for the lands they walked. Matovy smiled as she gulped down a mouthful of Uiske offered from Stanislav’s hip flask but cursed the fact her team would have to babysit these men. At least the Greylord could look after himself, he was no warcaster but no one reached the rank of Koldun Lord without powerful magical abilities.

Koldun Lord Berezov emerged from his tent in full dress which was just as well, his long cloak and layered shirts would prevent the worst of the chill from hitting him.

‘Kapitan Matovy!’

‘Yes, Lord’

‘See to it that Lieutenants Ulyanov and Demerov are ready to leave. You will be briefing them on my plan and seeing to it that it is carried out. Your Widowmakers will lead the way; ten Kossites will run as detached units to your men, Ulyanov and twenty Rifle Corps will bring up the rear, the rest to be left here. I will, of course, be travelling between you with Zelnikov and Uzman of the Mechanikal Assembly in case this Juggernaut can be retrieved.’ Matovy saluted Berezov again and headed off to talk to Lieutenant Demerov, she had a feeling that Lieutenant Nikolai Demerov would not be happy about having men detached to accompany the widowmakers.

‘Natalya, this is lunacy, you know my men work better together. I’ll tell this greylord idiot myself if you refuse to!’

‘Calm yourself Nikolai.’ replied Matovy. Demerov was clearly fuming. Part of the irregular Kossites he wore a mixture of skins and leathers to keep in the heat that bulked him up to be a fearsome presence. Matovy re-shouldered her rifle as she tried to calm him, ‘I know you work better together but this Greylord seems determined to present as wide a front as possible to prevent ambush…he does not want his four best rifles all on one flank.’

Demerov sneered at this ‘Natalya, you have spent too long with these people, not only is their strange approximation of what might be called tactics making sense in your mind but you also seem to think that that garbage you call a rifle has somehow made you into a better shot than any of those you worked with for so long. You disgrace us.’

Matovy made to turn away and adjust her rifle but ducked down and swung the butt from a low stance into Demerov’s jaw. He tumbled back into the snow dazed and bleeding, his thin grey hair flapping in the breeze. ‘Do not forget, Nikolai, that I do not THINK I am a better shot. You forget your place. You are fat and old, Lieutenant; you have grown soft without Cygnarans to fight.’ Demerov lay in the snow and slowly focussed on her; he then began to smile.

‘You have not forgotten how to fight dishonourably…perhaps one day you may even be called Kossite once more. We will do as is asked, but know that it is under protest’ He stood and spat blood into the snow at her feet before heading back to his unit.

As Demerov skulked away Matovy turned her attentions to a third man who had watched the discussion. ‘I trust, Lieutenant Ulyanov that I will not need to take such measures to confirm your orders?’

‘We would be delighted to be the rear-guard for you, Kapitan Matovy.’ He stood, uncomfortable for a second, before continuing ‘May I ask, Kapitan, do you know Lieutenant Demerov?’

‘Know him? You might say that. He was my superior officer once before I left for the Widowmakers. I don’t think it ever really sat well with him that I could be promoted this high while he was left where he was. You are dismissed Lieutenant Ulyanov.’ Ulyanov saluted and returned to the waiting rifle section to talk them through their mission for the day.

The journey to the site of the battle was as slow as Matovy had feared. Patches of deeper snow necessitated that the Widowmakers and Kossites slow down for the Rifle Corps to stay within a supportable distance, and Koldun Lord Berezov’s insistence on travelling by horseback meant that the forward scouting elements had to be as far forward as possible using runners to communicate and stay in formation lest he be spotted before they could spot incoming threats.

It was past midday when they arrived at the wreck of the Juggernaut. Matovy had sent her men and the Kossites to occupy positions in amongst nearby rocks and a stand of trees. The Koldun Lord smiled as he neared the downed Juggernaut.

‘He misses his master, Koldun Medin. He saw him die, and then the Legion punctured his boiler and left him to go out.’

Matovy shivered slightly. The faraway look of a magician communicating with a cortex had always bothered her. She felt the Radiance in her pocket and said a small prayer in the hope that they would make it out of this safely.

‘Uzman, Zelnikov, he thinks his main damage is the boiler, can it be fixed?’

Two stocky men in overcoats dismounted their horses and approached the Juggernaut to inspect it. There was a brief exchange in Umbrean before one opened up in thickly accented Khadoran ‘We can fix him for now. He will be able to walk back so long as he is left to thaw for long enough and does not build up too much pressure, we cannot weld the boiler damage in this cold, merely solder and rivet.’

‘Then do so, and make haste. He has shown me that Legion patrol this area’ the two mechanics looked at each other and quickly began to set up their tools and get work underway on the juggernaut.

The Koldun Lord inspected the work as it went on; hammering, shaping, and the application of rods of metal to melt between the boiler and the patches. Many of the Rifle Corps began to mumble under their breath about being sent to save an ancient piece of junk, and the time it was taking. The cold was getting to them, and they had little to do but stand around and wait for orders to return to the fort. Matovy smiled; they were recruits…fine shots, yes, but they had seen no battles. They had not seen what a warjack could do, how it could turn the tides of battle, even one so old as the Juggernaut. Where Cygnar had scrapped its opposite number, the Nomad, Khador’s Juggernaut class had lived on as dangerous echo of a violent time. They had their quirks but left to their own devices their formidable strength was undeniable and for all their cortex shock technology even Cygnar had yet to find a quick way to cripple the chassis quickly and reliably.

Molten metal ran out of some of the joints and dribbled down into the snow leaving a hissing pool of water near where the ruined warjack lay. It seemed like hours but eventually the Mechaniks declared that the Juggernaut could be brought back online. Matovy sent runners out to warn her scouts…this was the most dangerous part of the operation. Until now there had only been noise and bodies to show where they were, a lit boiler on the other hand would give the Legion a marker that would be seen for miles in any direction. Riflemen were instructed to down rifles to give the Juggernaut water and coal from the supply sled the Mechaniks had brought with them.

‘We are ready, greylord, we await your command’ said Uzman as Zelnikov cleaned away their tools.

They Greylord looked at the Juggernaut again, ‘Then get it moving.’ he said.

The fire was lit and the two mechaniks looked on nervously as the water began to heat. Slowly life returned to the Juggernaut’s eyes, its heartfire restored.

‘It will be some time before he is able to move, 20 maybe 30 minutes, and that presumes his leg joint will hold up when he stands…some of the gouges run quite deep’ said Uzman, his nerves showing as the Juggernaut continued to warm. The trail of smoke began to spread into the cold grey sky. The sun edged to the horizon; the ground was bathed in a fiery orange glow, silence had descended; the only noise was the hissing of the Juggernaut’s boiler as its pressure rose. Breaths hung frozen in the air; still, quiet…Matovy could almost feel something was coming.

The chill was drawing in now, what had been mere discomfort in Matovy’s mind was now almost a physical presence screaming at her, but she could see nothing. It was then that Uzman keeled over with a gurgling cry, an arrow sticking through his back. Matovy reacted in an instant, running to the greylord and shoulder pulling him from his horse as an arrow sailed through where he had been sitting.

‘Rifles! Form up!’ It was Lieutenant Ulyanov. His men formed rank, freezing hands struggling to load their cloth-wrapped rifles. Arrows rained down on them, they had virtually no cover where they were but the legion archers had to contend with avoiding being silhouetted against the setting sun.

‘FIRE!’ he screamed, the rifle corps rippled out with fire, six of their number were already down and the cold was not helping their aim. Shots ricocheted off the rocks pinning the archers in place and downing one even as another four of the rifles fell. Matovy began to assume a firing position and wondered what had happened to her men and the Kossites that were with them. Surely they would have heard something if these archers had found them, even if they were caught unaware.

She raised her rifle to her eye, the small Radiance from her pocket pressed into the palm of her right hand, she saw a flicker amongst the rocks and fired, an archer fell clutching his neck. Beside her the Koldun had raised himself up to his full height once more and Matovy felt a twist in her gut as his eyes glowed blue and a blast of cold belched from his hand. The rocks in front of them shattered like they were no more than thin glass, the archers behind them met this pure and cruel cold head on. Several of the archers, like the rocks they used as cover, shattered before the arcane power, these were the lucky ones; those further away looked to have been blinded or were breaking out in cold burns on their exposed skin.

The archers had lost the element of surprise and with a lack of co-ordination began to flee their position from the top of the depression towards a nearby ravine. Matovy recognised this for what it was; this force had just been scouts. She knew they had to be stopped.

‘Ulyanov, have your men advance to that ridge and fire at will, stop them all before they reach the ravine!’ she cried. He moved what remained of his men forwards, half their number already lost to the punishing hail of arrows. Matovy headed for the ridgeline and saw similar fleeing figures from the areas the other troops had been in; clearly they too had been ambushed and driven off the attacks. The archers ran, knowing that the shadows on the lower ground would make it harder to be hit; this did not stop Matovy stopping another four before the ravine, a similar number from the rifles and the Kossite/Widowmaker teams meant only two escaped alive.

‘They know we are here now’ Berezov said, his face pale and worried. ‘There will be more, we must pull back to camp, it is defensible.’ He turned to Matovy and spoke ‘Kapitan, you will withdraw your men. Any bodies or wounded to go on the supply sled. We must hurry.’ The greylord was tired, she could see it. His spells had taken out as many archers as the all the rifle corps combined but at a huge cost to him. She sent her runners out and soon the troops returned from their positions. Casualties had been lighter there but these were men used to cold hard winters and long tedious waits on the hunt. Where the Rifle Corps had been distracted these men had seen the incoming Nyss archers, and stalked them. Only once the fighting began elsewhere had they used that moment of surprise to take down most of the attackers. One of her own men, Valentin, was down; he had been a good friend and drunk well. Three of the Kossites were dead…Demerov sadly not amongst them, she thought.

The Juggernaut, almost forgotten in the fight, clenched one of its mighty fists and rose. As it stood it vented its steam in a low bellowing roar, raising its head to look at Koldun Berezov in as close to a gesture of respect as its cortex could manage.

‘Good. We can move now.’ Berezov turned to Matovy ‘have three Kossites accompany Ulyanov as spotters with the rifles, Kapitan Matovy, your men will accompany myself and the Juggernaut…’ Berezov’s eyes turned far away again ‘…’Topor’. Two Kossites will be sent back to the fort at full speed to gain reinforcements, the rest will scout the ground ahead for threats.’

‘Yes, my Lord’ replied Matovy snapping off a quick salute and returning to prepare the remaining troops for a run to the fortress.

It was a long and hard fight in the retreat. Nyss archers sprang from nowhere to pick off one or two of the rearmost Winterguard, their bodies left behind in the snow as their numbers dwindled. Matovy could see them fall but the range was too great to shoulder her rifle and help. She sent forward runners and pulled back half the Kossites to aid the failing rearguard action, grim-faced men and women trudged back past her to join the inexperienced rifles and bolstered their strength in the fight.

The journey was longer and harder than it had felt in the morning but at last the pale light of the fires of the camp were visible on the horizon. The men were exhausted, ammunition was running low, of the twenty riflemen only five survived, half the number that had left where the Juggernaut was found. Even the Kossites’ fabled hardyness could not save them from the fire from the stands of trees and rocks that littered this place, several of their number had been left bleeding in the snow during the retreat without the time to save them. The attack slackened off as the fresh Kossites from the camp joined them, and vanished entirely as they rejoined the camp.

Berezov looked down at Matovy from his horse ‘This is not over Kapitan. They felled the garrison here, then they burned down the tower…they will be back and in greater numbers.’ He looked off to the dark horizon they had come from and shook his head ‘…have the remaining men prepare barricades and send a messenger back to the nearest town telling them this place has fallen. We must rest here tonight, the men can march no more’. Matovy could see in his eyes a sort of desperation; he knew they were going to die. Deep down in his soul Berezov knew help would never arrive in time and the Legion would destroy them all.

Men slept poorly or not at all as those who had stayed at the remains of the fortifications hastily used rubble to block easy access and began to use planking, logs, and offcuts to fill the rest. It would not hold in the face of a concerted assault but the point was merely to look like it was at least partially defended. A defensive trench was cut in front of the tower, enough to contain rifles sufficient for a fairly withering fire to be laid down on the approach.

Matovy slept fitfully, her skin crawled as her mind’s eye showed her every man they’d lost on the march back. Every man who’d been lost to Urcaen looked blankly past her, their wounds still open, blood no longer flowing, dustings of ice fringing their clothes, hands, and mouths. In the dream she turned and was met with a bright light, too bright to look at but neither burning nor blinding. It infused her, strengthened her… and then it spoke, strong and masculine but with a darker feminine echo ‘You were meant for more than this’.

Matovy was wondering what this meant when she was shaken awake by Stanislav.

‘Kapitan, Kapitan! A Legion force approaches from the horizon, Koldun Lord Berezov demands your attendance’ Matovy pulled herself together, the dream fading with her haste and headed out to the fortifications.

The area itself had been nothing more than a tower with a curtain wall surrounding a small courtyard being used as a rough stable, the small sleeping quarters and armoury being underground. The tower itself was relatively sound but missing its top level, overnight what had been the previous Kapitan’s quarters had had the walls levelled to use as a heightened platform for the lookouts and snipers. Stanislav lead her there. As she passed through the courtyard she could see holes in the walls had been filled, the one major gap in the west wall having been covered with around 7 feet of planking and with a rough firing step placed inside.

They ascended what remained of the tower and arrived before Berezov, he stood next to Leiutenant Ulyanov and brooded as he looked through a spyglass into the distance.

‘Good morning, Kapitan. Tell me what you see on the horizon.’ Matovy moved towards the rough attempt at battlements and peered through her rifle’s scope. She could see the oncoming troops. Legion archers and swordsmen, numerous smaller ‘Shredder’ warbeasts, and one large Carnivean flanked by several Shepherds.

‘I see a well-armed force we need to take down from range, Koldun Lord. We are vastly outnumbered, and there is no retreat from here. I suggest we begin cutting down what we can.’ Berezov nodded at this, he had seen death before, dealt death before, but this was the first time he had had to face odds like this, and it showed. He had originally only been deployed to the fort to be the eyes and ears of the Greylords Covenant, to replace his predecessor and report unusual activity from the Legion to Korsk. If he lived it seemed he would have a lot to report this time, Matovy thought.

‘Ulyanov, send ten of your men into that trench, have the rest take up positions on the walls. Matovy, your men are to line this tower top. Aim for squad leaders and beast handlers…after that pick your targets at will.’ Both saluted and went about their duties.

It was very manner of fact. They knew the Legion were coming, it would take them ten to fifteen minutes even at a dead run. Plenty of time to get men in place and as prepared as could be. The wounded were propped up against the walls if they could hold a rifle or were left in the small stable area if they could not. Every man and woman there knew what was outside, could see it coming closer and closer. Suddenly in the distance there was a ripple on the flank of the incoming force. A few seconds later the cracks of rifle fire could be heard. Demerov’s Kossites had lain in wait overnight outside the tower. Camouflaged and snowed over they were almost invisible in the field and an entire unit of archers fell after passing their rifles.

Matovy sighted in on the Kossites from her position atop the tower once more and watched as a unit of swordsmen ran to engage them, blades flashing in the low morning sun. She saw the Kossites reload and fire again, the first rank of Swordsmen fell from their shots before the Kossites turned and ran. The main body of the Legion was still headed for the fort but Demerov’s men had successfully drawn off some. As they ran Ulyanov signalled to the men in the yard and two great Khadoran mortars rang out. There were not many shells for these great guns and the Legion had done their best to prevent them being fired again when they sacked the fort but working through the night the men had righted and repaired them.

The shells dipped and landed short of the incoming Nyss, blasts sending some of them tumbling. The mortars rang out again, as often as the gunners could manage. Shells ripped through the Legion lines but their pace only grew. At last they were in range of the trenches, fire burst out and rained down from the snipers on the tower. Bodies fell, twisted and awkward but still the numbers were greater, the charge broke through the trench, and the Legion were at the wall. Lacking the Iron Fangs for such a defensive action the remaining riflemen retreated to the courtyard even as the Carnivean smashed through the barricades.

Matovy had picked off Shepherds and leaders throughout the assault but now she followed as the Greylord ran to the courtyard. They flew down the stairs and could hear the Carnivean smashing through everything it could find. Men, machines, mortars, all were brushed aside by the behemoth that stood before them. Berezov reached the courtyard and once more used his arcane powers to attack the legion. Some froze, many died, and the beast turned to face him. With a roar and a blast of heat the Carnivean made Berezov no more.

Matovy cried out ‘Fall back to the stables!’ and the remaining defenders gathered there as the legion relentlessly pushed on. Men fell, screams came from above everything, Matovy frantically reloaded her rifle and the beast backhanded her body through the stable wall into the Juggernaut. She slipped into unconsciousness and once more the bright light returned to her dreams.

Ulyanov could do nothing as Matovy was flung across the stables into the useless hunk of metal with a sickening thud. The Koldun’s death had left it inert, its cortex scrambled. He saw her fall even as he took out another swordsman with a well-aimed shot. It was then that he heard it. The Juggernaut sighed. He turned and saw its eyes flare, steam spewing from its vents, smoke now pouring from its stacks. Matovy was standing next to it, her eyes lit by an arcane blue glow. Her words rang like thunder in his ears and he was helpless but to obey…

‘In the name of the Empress KILL THEM ALL!’ The wounded rose where they lay, beleaguered rifles raised high and as one they fired. The Nyss before them fell and those behind began to falter, the Juggernaut barrelled into the screeching Carnivean sending it flying backwards towards the hole in the outer wall. It rose again and Ulyanov watched Matovy as blue runes surrounded her rifle, coalescing as she fired. A blue bolt thundered out and hit the open mouthed carnivean square in the jaw; its head disappeared in a shower of gore.

With their major threat gone and the riflemen reforming before them the Nyss faltered, failed, and then ran. Their flight took them straight into the Kossites who had doubled back behind them. Caught in a crossfire their force was extinguished, leaving behind only a bloody memory of the battle for the small border fortress.

Matovy watched the remaining fleeing Nyss and felt the fire pulsing through her veins. The power she had was unimaginable, if she thought hard she could even see the world through the Juggernaut’s eyes. Slowly she calmed herself, felt the power recede, and saw the looks on the faces of Ulyanov and Demerov.

‘You did well’, she said, her breaths ragged as the power receded ‘We must repair the wall and prepare for those reinforcements. Try and give the dead a decent burial too…’ She fell to one knee as it receded further, she was utterly spent.

Demerov spoke first ‘You too seem to have grown fat and lazy, Kapitan, you cannot even stand after a short fight such as this.’ He reached out an arm and pulled her to her feet ‘But in victory it seems that perhaps you are still worthy of being called Kossite.’

Ulyanov’s shock broke ‘Kapitan…what was that? You commanded the Juggernaut…that should not have been possible!’

‘This is Khador, Ulyanov, and she is Kossite. Put those two things together and anything is possible…now, let us get Kapitan Matovy to a place she can rest and we can begin clearing this place. I fear that for better or ill her life may be about to become far more interesting than either of ours.’

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