'This 'ere is wot we calls a hhhalberd,' explained the sergeant loudly, emphasising the "h". 'And Traffy, my boy, you are 'olding it the wrong way up.'
'Sorry sir, I thought it was like a double-handed stabby thing.'
'No worries Traffy, just pay attention.'
'Yessir, righ'chooar sir.'
'Right. Corporal Whirtale is going to briefly take you through some of the techniques for this 'ere instrument of death. Corporal, if you will.'
Czioc watched coolly from the sidelines. The barracks' training grounds were vast flat sections of dirt marked with white lines, like bizarre military sports pitches. Maybe from the other side of the cavern they made sense, the god-graffiti of ancient civilisations. All around him, dozens of regiments were going through various training drills and exercises. To one side, archers fired hails of arrows and bolts at targets, while far away he saw armoured knights charging up and down. There were even chariots holding what looked like crossbows the size of furniture, hurling huge spears into ranks of innocent dummies.
And here, finding out which way up to hold a halberd, was the unit he'd been assigned to.
He rubbed his eyes; he'd been awake half the night trying to conjure up some bullshit to impart to the army as "consultant advice". That's what consultants did, right? Charge people large amounts of money for two types of bullshit: bullshit that wasn't true, and bullshit they already knew. Today, he had become a consultant – although his payment was transport, not money.
He examined the sergeant walking over the dirt towards him – a tall, hefty figure in a dark evergreen uniform. The man sported a gleaming bald head and a bright ginger moustache.
Of course in reality, the army had a problem: there was no tactic you could employ against the aliens, no secret advice. They were shape-shifting blobs of diseased goo; they attacked in countless waves of innumerable demons and non-sentient filth. There was only one way to fight them: chop them up. And, to be precise, have many more people chopping them than they had blobs attacking you.
Even that was difficult to be sure of, when they attacked through the ground. You couldn't see them until they were melting your face off.
Zhouland had shown him the Ethe recordings of the incoming tide of black horrors. There was no denying it – they looked exactly the same random, disfigured demons that had destroyed Colonel Trimasth and Pshappa and overrun the city of Jzilinasa. If Czioc hadn't been told it was happening here and now, he would have thought the footage was from his old world. Maybe it was, and this was some cunning scheme to pull the wool over his eyes. Judging by the army though, it would be quite an expensive exercise. Why go to that effort when they could've just killed him weeks ago?
'Mister Czioc, I presume,' said the ginger-moustachioed sergeant, standing a clear eight inches taller than Czioc. He extended a hand and barely waited for Czioc to raise his before shaking it vigorously.
'Sergeant Gabriel,' Czioc nodded, feeling the vibrations up in his shoulder.
'Call me Sergeant Gabs, everyone else does.'
'Glad to have you as part of the unit, always keen to have fresh blood to mould into a mean fighting machine.'
'Um, I appreciate you having me as part of your regiment, but I'm not here for training…'
'I beg your pardon?' Sergeant Gabs looked mildly offended. 'We will be travelling to a major conflict zone – at least, it will be when we get there – and having an untrained idiot could severely compromise the safety of my soldiers. Never mind the success of the operation!'
Czioc sighed, saddened to think that after surviving the end of the world and battling untold horrors, his rank was still "untrained idiot". It was like being scolded by Agnes for not knowing what "key skills" were, or why they were more "key" than other "ordinary" skills.
'Fine, fine, I'll have another look at the schedule. I'll even start on the—' he glanced at the soldiers again, '—halberd stuff later. But now I've got—'
'You've got a presentation, I know,' Gabs said gruffly. There was a strong whiff of disapproval in his tone. Czioc got the impression the sergeant was of the old school, and had been forced to sit through one too many slideshows, and could count their benefits on one middle finger.
A voice cut through the Ethe to both of them.
'Sergeant, advisor, are we ready?' came the military technician's voice. In truth it didn't need Ethe technicians to engineer a conference call, even to an entire army; Czioc suspected it was to make them look important. As someone also working hard to justify his role, he could understand. 'Connections are ready, units are standing by.'
Very rapidly across the acres of dust, soldiers halted their exercises and downed their equipment. Smothering silence rolled in.
'And we're live in five, four, three…' Czioc never found out where "two" and "one" went.
'Ahem,' coughed Sergeant Gabs, broadcasting the back of his throat to the entire armed forces. 'Over the coming weeks, en route to the battlefield wot is not a battlefield quite yet, Mister Czioc will be imparting invaluable tactical advice on slaying the enemy.' The sergeant looked over Czioc's medium frame and rather unimpressive figure. The expression on Gabs' face grew suitably unimpressed. 'This is a new enemy, men, a ferocious an' evil enemy, the likes of which the world 'as never seen before. We shall need our brains and tactics just as much as our weapons and armour. Mister Czioc.'
Czioc had been thinking about his own style of approach, and had come up with the "sandwich" technique. You needed to – how to put this – exaggerate the truth, amp it up, puts bells and whistles on it, in order to justify whatever the hell you'd told them that they needed you for. So his plan was to pad out the lies with large amounts of truth, so no-one would be able to spot them.
The Ethe connections buzzed, thousands of soldiers waiting.
'This invasion,' said Czioc, 'is made up of alien beasts who do not register on the Ethe and can change shape at will. They are led by large zombie dragons with magic powers. They can merge with both ordinary materials like stone and concrete, and living people.'
He paused, soaking up the electronic silence in his head.
So far, so good.
'The best way to kill them individually is to chop them up into little pieces. They are highly scared of fire, and their zombie dragon king leaders are extremely vulnerable to it. You will also encounter large blobs like the one that attacked the city – these are dangerous war beasts but, like all of them, they are extremely stupid.'
He wondered if he'd gone overboard with the stuff about dragons. And as for the last bit, well, he didn't know they were stupid…
Electronic tumbleweed rolled through the airwaves, as an entire army digested this uncomfortable and slightly fictitious briefing. Next to Czioc in the real world, Sergeant Gabs coughed offline.
He'd researched some real basic, solid military strategy on the Ethe, just to tie everything up.
'In conclusion,' he stated firmly, just to underline that this was the end of his speech, 'don't be afraid. I'm an ordinary guy from the Migration and I killed dozens of them with just a sword. Archers, you'll need to cover the infantry. Get your cavalry on the wings so you can outflank them. 'And go for the dragons – if you can kill their leaders they lose the magical energy that drives them.'
He smiled confidently.
The whole army travelled in open wagons, large impressive constructions of ironwood and brass, drawn by four horses each. They were fearsome war machines in their own right: pairs of crossbows were fixed to either side, while the wheels had painful-looking scythes and the horses wore barding. Cavalry rode two abreast on either side, with the bolt-thrower chariots bringing up the rear several kilometres behind the front.
Each wagon slept eight, uncomfortably.
The army was so full of wargear that Czioc had surprisingly been given a choice over his personal equipment. While the standard option was full plate armour, Czioc had avoided the tin-can-man option and took a chainmail tunic with padded leather trousers. A shield was an obvious choice, but a small and lightweight one, and despite dragging a halberd onto the wagon, he felt much safer with a simple sword in his belt. He even picked out a pair of steel-capped boots.
He weighed the sword in his hand. It was light, straight, well-made. But it was no Desci Rhombus.
They rode in convey through rich countryside and lush forests. The land was still full of people farming and fishing and logging and working, which at least meant the highways were functional. To Czioc, this world seemed more organised and focused than the distressed panic he'd seen back on his world. Either these people didn't know there was an invasion going on – and after several thousand soldiers crashing past, drenched in weaponry, that was pretty unlikely – or they weren't bothered. Invasions came and went like the seasons. The military was here. They fixed this kind of thing.
Except not this invasion. Czioc was quite certain no-one here understood what these monsters were like.
But surely if anything could stop them, it was an army?
The further they got from the city, the less secure the land seemed to be. After two weeks, people greeted them with relief and gratitude rather than the disinterest; after three, they barely saw any people at all. The caverns grew in size, until the convoy steamed through one tunnel into a mighty space of yellow: plains of corn and wheat expanded all around, curving round the cavern and stretching far overhead like patches of gold and white and beige.
The fields were untended and overgrown. The soldiers started muttering uncomfortably. This wasn't right.
Czioc had gone into greater detail with each individual regiment individually about specifics of the alien horde. He barely had to add anything to his perfect cocktail of half-truths: the truth itself was so incredible anyway that it was hard to know what was real and what was make-believe. When rumours started accusing him of making it all up, of the whole operation being a sham, a quick glimpse of his original visual recordings was enough to silence even the biggest sceptics.
But it couldn't quell the unease. No-one was tending the fields.
Czioc crept out of the wagon every evening to make a bed in the dirt and soil. Not only was it far more comfortable than the cramped wagons, but he felt strangely at home making beds under random bushes, a new one every time. It reminded him of the Migration, of being constantly on the move.
'I thought you'd be off with the posh carriages,' muttered Flaxter snidely one afternoon, as the wagon rolled along the asphalt highway. Under the cavalry's hooves, weeds and cracks encroached ominously on the road.
'I'm a consultant, not a general,' replied Czioc coolly.
He'd tried learning the names of all the other soldiers in the wagon, but something in his brain kept stopping him. They weren't important, not here, not now. He could recall Traffy, the young and eager one, Flaxter, the hardened cynic, and Whirtail, the quiet professional. But there were a pair of mantrel twins – one of them was called Dallston, but he didn't know which – and a large lizardman who kicked in his sleep with big reptilian feet. And finally there was Sergeant Gabs, who constantly acted as though he'd just been woken up and was not happy about, well, anything.
Something moved overhead. Czioc tried to act casual when Des landed on one of the hefty crossbows, flapping her wings to keep her balance as the wagon clattered along the road.
'What the hell,' said Flaxter, 'is a seagull doing this far inland?'
Traffy eyed her with a hungry grin on his face. 'I say we pluck it and eat it!'
'Crawwwk! Fark orf you twat!' screeched Des, eyes blazing with hate.
Traffy withdrew uncomfortably. He didn't know how to react after being sworn at by a bird. He was tempted to apologise, but knew he'd never live it down with the rest of the regiment.
'Don't worry, the bird's with me,' said Czioc wearily.
'Ha! Don't get too excited, you'll give yerself a heart attack,' snapped the bird sarcastically. 'Got any chips? Come on, one of you must have.'
Czioc sat upright and shifted closer to the bird, so he could talk discretely. 'Thought you'd stayed back at the city. Where've you been?'
'Investigating,' replied the bird casually. 'Investigating this, investigating that.'
'We're in mantrel country now,' Czioc said quietly. 'What do you know about it? I suppose you own all of this as well.'
'Huh, as if,' sighed Des. 'Daddy gave all this to my sister Kesdrovina. 'Cos she had to have an island, didn't she. Did I get an island? Craaaawwk! No bleedin' islands in the Channelsea are there!'
'What about the island? What is it?'
'It's like a sacred place,' explained Desdromina. 'Not just for mantrels, for everybody. They used to think the natural spirits watched over it, like it was a special place close to, uh, close to the gods or something. Craaaaak! The science geeks here reckon it's a significant part of the Ethe, right, but the mantels won't let them near it.'
Czioc could see it, far away on the Ethe. The social Ethe was badly-constructed – there were few tags or labels describing towns, cities, seas and people, and many of those looked out of date. All he could see was an island, a sphere maybe twenty miles across, surrounded by sea in all six directions.
'So all you's got to do,' said Des, 'is kill all the black things with your sword, swishswishchopchop, jog a few thousand miles, swim through a shark-infested sea, and rescue the maiden.'
He glared at the bird.
'Why are you here again?'
'Sqraak! It's a laugh, right?'
That's one way of describing it, muttered the dead voice.
Oh, you're back, thought Czioc sullenly, staring at the golden waves of corn in the wind. His bum was getting sore. These war wagons were huge impressive machines of death, but the army could have invested in some cushions.
I just want to say, began the voice, I think this is a stupid idea. And you're a highly ungracious host, deliberately seeking out dangerous places where you – and therefore, I – could get killed. But since you're committed to this ridiculous plan, I wish you all the best.
How very kind of you.
Czioc's eyes drifted over the bright cavern, watching lone birds swooping through the empty space with fields waving gently in the background overhead. He felt slightly drowsy.
To be honest, Czioc added, I think you overestimate the value you bring to this partnership. I was expecting magic powers at least—
'Shit!' yelled Sergeant Gabs as the wagon in front pulled to a stop.
There was a commotion up ahead, and Czioc suddenly noticed a great turmoil on the Ethe, but not before the wagon in front had come grinding to a halt and forced their wagon and several cavalry off the road. Flaxter fell off the edge and rolled under a mounted soldier's horse, narrowly avoiding losing a leg to one of the wheel scythes.
Ahead of them the line of wagons had collapsed into a chaotic mess in the middle of overgrown cotton fields. Soldiers were everywhere shouting, milling around on the roadside or standing up in the wagons.
Czioc couldn't see anything up ahead with his eyes, not even from up here in the wagon. The Ethe gave an impression, but it was still a confusing mess. 'Des,' he yelled to the seagull, 'get up there, see what's going on. Give me a live feed.'
The bird flapped up in an awkward spiral, clumsily hovering some forty feet off the ground.
'Sqraak! It's chaos mate!' she cawed down.
'Just give me the feed!'
A yellow light flicked on in his brain's switchboard and he confirmed the connection, wiring his mind's eye to what the seagull saw from her physical eyes.
It was indeed chaos. Blocking the whole width of the road were dead tree trunks, which was ridiculous because the nearest trees were more than a dozen miles through the fields around the cavern. Surrounding them were the people who'd dragged them there: refugees. Angry refugees who'd fled their homes and wanted food, supplies – and protection.
'What is it?' said one of the mantrels, possibly Dallston.
'Refugees,' said Czioc, looking over their Ethe profiles. He felt a familiar chill in his brain; these were people who'd seen horror coming their way.
'Well what good're they gonna do holding us up?' carped Flaxter in frustration, having picked himself up. He leaned on the wagon's brass plating. 'They should be letting us through and fucking off back to the city.'
Des gently flapped down, landing clumsily with her bright orange feet on a crossbow mounted on the wagon's side. 'More bleedin' ref-yoo-jees! They should harden the eff up, that's wot I say!'
In the back of Czioc's head, the Ethe suddenly flickered blue and cold, just for a second, as if something was wrong—
He lurched backwards as the wagon shifted suddenly.
Des looked down from her crossbow. 'Oh fark.'
The ground was melting.
'Into the wagons!' he yelled. Soldiers stood down below looking at him dumbly. 'Into the wagons now!'
And then the screaming started.
The road flashed through a spectrum of black, the asphalt swirling with watercolours of sickly dark green and grey. Hands emerged, reaching up and grabbing what they could, soldiers' and horses' legs alike. Other shapes sprouted too, tentacles and claws and suckers and things not of this world…
The rest scrambled up and looked over the edge of the wagon, gripping their weapons in terror. 'What the fuck,' yelled Flaxter frantically, 'what the fuck what the fuck?!'
'Craaaak!' shrieked Des, shooting up into the air.
To one side a cow-shaped blob was taking form, hung fangs sprouting from its mouth. Traffy grabbed one of the mounted crossbows and shot it from no more than a few feet, cleaving its head in two with a horrible wet sound.
Yells and screams came from further up the convoy, as the crops shrank across golden plains now stained with black.
The two halves of the cow head wavered, revealing fragments of rusty metal – and then grew, becoming heads in their own right…
'Forget the crossbows!' shouted Czioc. 'Use your swords and your halberds! They only die when you chop them up!'
The wagon jolted as a wheel dropped six inches into the ground.
'Are we safe in here?!' called Sergeant Gabs drawing his sword.
Czioc gave him a baffled look. 'No?!' He swung his sword as a tentacle snaked up beside the wagon. 'But it's the only protection we've got!'
The fields were alive now with whole things clawing and pushing their way from the earth, surrounding the entire length of the convoy. Some of the wagons rolled out into the chaos, fiends falling under horses' hooves and sliced up by the scythes. But they didn't make it far before getting stuck, the shifting mass of black bodies jamming the wheels and melting the wood.
Czioc looked around, screams and shouts gripping his senses. He gripped his shield and sword in terror, lashing out whenever a fiend came close. But the wagon was sinking. They all were.
Suddenly a great splatter sounded, as an oily wound was slashed into the alien masses. Czioc turned—
The bolt throwers had arrived.
Charging through the carnage from the rear, the chariots fired whole volleys of spears at a time, cutting long gashes into the hordes of demons.
There were dozens of them.
'Hell yeah!' cheered Traffy. 'Did you see that?!'
Chariots and wagons tore into the black things, mowing them down close to the road; soldiers and cavalry hacked at anything that moved, clearing a defensive space. All around them, black things were falling and dying and lying wriggling on the ground in little bits.
He caught his throat and gripped his sword and shield even tighter. They were – they were fighting, and winning.
He jumped down from the wagon and started hacking at anything oily and black, the last claws and snaking ivy that grew from the road. Horses neighed and reared all around. He looked up – and only now did he notice Zha-wards, the ground started to swell…
A chariot came careering through the crops and overturned, its crew screaming as their limbs stretched into rotten snakes. Mounted soldiers quickly cut down their former comrades.
There was a scream back in the wagon; Czioc saw the crew leaping out as Sergeant Gabs' eyes turned black, his body shaking violently. Flaxter grabbed one of the mounted crossbows and shot him through the face in a shower of blood and oily pus before throwing himself down to the filth-strewn asphalt.
'Argh fuck, I've got it on me!' Flaxter yelled in panic, his tunic giving off steam and a spot on his neck starting to sizzle.
Back at the fallen chariot, a bloated tiger-thing crushed a soldier in a mess of plate armour and entrails, and gave a low roar as it tore open two cavalry that had rushed in. It began lumbering onto the road, followed by smaller fiends snapping below it.
'Here!' Czioc shouted to the others. 'Plug the gap!'
…in the field behind the fallen chariot, the enormous mound began taking shape…
Czioc skirted to one side of the monstrous tiger, sweeping his sword in front of him; the blade made contact, sending a black spray over his chainmail, hissing when it met the clothes under the metal links. The tiger-thing swung a brutal paw, forcing him off-balance as he leant back, but on the other side the mantrel twins drove swords into its neck and belly. Traffy swung his halberd and drove the blade into its head, while a snarling swing from Flaxter cleaved off the front of its face. Hundreds of worms hissed from the wound, but the troops cut and slashed and brought the beast down mercilessly.
'There,' spat Flaxter, panting heavily over its prone body, 'that should do it.' He stood there as the other soldiers stared at him for a second, his hair growing down his back and dripping slime. 'What? What is i—'
The vast swelling tumour in the land erupted, both spraying and swallowing cart-sized lumps of earth. Claws stretched from giant mighty limbs, a forked tail swung heavily behind it, and the decaying head rose up…
'You are fucking joking,' breathed Czioc, eyes wide.
'Look!' came the cry on the Ethe. 'It's the dragon!'
Czioc's heart hammered against his lungs as he lashed out with his blade, trying to keep the smaller and more immediate horrors at bay.
'It's not real!' he shouted frantically. 'There are no dragons! I just made it up!'
Eyes stared down, grossly mismatched in size and oozing rivers of pus, carried in a lizard skull laden with grey-black lumps of flesh. The whole thing was so big the size was impossible to guess; you'd have to measure its length in slimy sports fields, or its height in dinosaurs.
Its jaw creaked open, and a hurricane of acid and mould streamed forth.
Dinosaurs seemed definitely less scary right now.
'It looks real!' was all Traffy could say, hacking at a squid on stilt-like legs as he fended off a headless pig with his shield.
Czioc tried not to watch, which was easy with the distraction of imminent death all around you. But inwardly he deflated as the rallying cry went up and the army faced this monster which may or may not have been the leader of this horde and may or may not have had magic powers. The spear throwers shot flaming bolts at it, which disappeared with tiny hisses of black steam. Infantry charged towards it, only to be crushed by a wagon-sized foot; Czioc caught terrifying glimpses of dangling legs and feet as the foot raised again, soldiers half crushed, half drowned in filth.
Above, Czioc saw Des wheeling about the air in terror.
'Des!' he yelled at Desdromina, fending off two cat-like insects from near his feet. To his left the mantrels and Traffy hacked desperately at the hairy beast that had been Flaxter thirty seconds before. 'Des what can you see?!'
'Craaawwwwwk! Squaaaarrrk!' cawed Des.
Czioc flung his head from side to side, whirling and slicing with his blade on all sides as he looked through the Ethe at Des' electronic profile – which revealed, suddenly, just a bird. No intelligence, no social records, no diaries about chips. Just a bird.
'Aaaaarrrrrrrr!' he yelled, cleaving monsters left right and centre. What now? he snarled in his thoughts to the dead voice. Any fucking ideas?
His head was silent.
Damnit you coward! Where are you? Where are you?!
The noises of battle and people fighting clashed all around him, and the monsters piled on – but inside his brain, there was nothing.
'Traffy, left! Dallston watch your feet!' he barked to the soldiers.
Something bitter welled up behind his eyes as he fought for his life; tears were hardly helpful on a battlefield, but somehow he couldn't stop his eyes stinging with wetness. He was alone. He'd been brought out this far, fighting and running and killing and surviving world-eating monsters. And he'd been abandoned. He felt betrayed.
And as the aliens piled up, with a huge mantis-horse rearing up with twisted spiny arms, and a mutant log that resembled an alligator lunging for his feet, and a slime-covered tree-thing lurching towards him, he knew he couldn't feel any worse … when a familiar voice contacted him on the Ethe.
'Having fun are we?' called Agnes from her glass-walled office in the city.
'What the fuck do you want?!' he yelled, leaping back and throwing his shield up against the mantis-thing.
'I hope you're enjoying yourself out there,' came her bitter, sullen voice over the Ethe. She shook her head, ignoring the sounds of chaos and dying she could hear in the background. 'Look at you, striding about, killing aliens, thinking you're the saviour of the universe. Well I know what you are. You're a loser.'
'I don't think I'm anything!' he shouted out loud for anyone who cared to hear, monsters and allies alike.
'You're useless. You've got no skills, no ambition. You're going to die here, and you'll never have achieved anything.'
'Grrraaaarrrrrrgh! You don't know where I've BEEN!' he roared, cleaving the tree-monster apart in a spray of black. 'I don't know the meaning of the word never!'
He closed the connection, closed every connection, blocked everything out except his senses and his desperate furious will to live. He dredged up energy reserves that he didn't know he had – maybe they came from his head, maybe he'd just made them up – and stopped merely defending himself. He turned and ran across the road, and drove forward into the black monsters, carving up any fiends in his way and stepping over their chunks of bubbling flesh. He began hacking a rough trail Tak-wards, away from the vast hulk of the dragon surrounded by decay and carnage.
He saw a gap in the demons, with untouched fields beyond.
'Czioc!' cried Traffy desperately, looking up as black fiends weighed down upon him. Czioc glanced back between the wagons to see him and other embattled soldiers cutting and slashing against the dark tides.
They were done for. The army had put up a valiant fight, but there was no strategy against these things, there were no tactics that could work – there was nothing that could stand against their sheer weight of numbers and the evil stuff they were made of.
Somewhere in Czioc's soul he felt an echo – it was pity, sadness, an urgency to help. But his soul was a fortress. His mind was a pure sword forged from one piece of metal; focused, unyielding, neutral, strong. There was only one thing he could see now.
He turned forwards and carved a rancid gargoyle diagonally down its chest, before hacking at a tube-fingered horror to his right. Staggering over their pulsing remains, he looked out over the plains ahead, and saw nothing. He had found a weak point in the tide of black nightmares, had stood strong and stayed alive, and had cut through them to the other side.
Without looking back, he plunged through the gap.