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Between the Lines

by Del S

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They were getting closer. The noises that had once been far off were growing louder, and that meant nearer. He risked a quick look out from the basement trapdoor, and saw nothing in his kitchen. He heard only the thuds and rumbles of the shelling, varying levels of explosion at varying distances.

"Mother..." he said, his voice trembling as much as the rest of him. "We might have to leave soon."

His mother's frightened face did not change, but that was only because it could get no paler. It had been chalk white since Father had ran out with his squad, rifle in his hand.

"But your father..."

"Father told us... told us we would have to go to the town hall if the explosions got too close. He told us we would make it away."

Even as he said it, he knew Mother and his younger sister were thinking: he said he would come back as well. He knew they thought this, as it was what he was thinking.

Trembling, mother put her shawl over her long black hair, and put sister's woollen hat over the young girl's brown-haired head. He already had his hat and coat on, so all that remained was to leave. He put the crossbow out first, a complicated task as it was almost as long as he was tall. Mother came up soon after he had pulled himself into the kitchen, and she passed the battered old sword Grandfather had once owned up to him before she climbed up.

Sister was too frightened to climb the ladder, so he had to go back again and piggyback her up. She wailed louder and held him tighter the closer they got to the top.

Suddenly there was a deafening bang, a huge flash, and some screams. He didn't know whom, for all he knew he was screaming too.

"Mother!" he shouted, suddenly fearing the worst when he realised he was fine.

"Yes son, I'm fine," she said, after what felt like an hour. Sister's whining continued.

They neared the door out of the house, the glow of flames visible in the sky out through the shattered windows. As he opened the door slowly, he saw a bright glow outside. The house across the street was ablaze, and other houses had been flattened. The muffled bangs of distant explosions rang like a random drumbeat, and pillars of smoke reflected flames and glowed orange across the town skyline. Shells whistled faintly overhead, and detonated a few hundred meters behind the blazing houses opposite. They jumped a little, but they began to move steadily to their own country's lines and as far away from the enemy lines as they could, the snap of self-loading rifles of the enemy faintly audible far behind them, yet still far too close.

They walked the devastated streets; past abandoned carts and shattered buildings. The noise of the gun battle behind had faded, leaving only the distant thuds of the artillery battle all around. Mother carried sister, and somehow the youngest member of the family had fallen asleep to the unusual lullaby of war.

"Mother, which way did Father go?" he asked.

"Towards the town walls, dear."

He was about to ask why they had been directed further into the city and away from father, when he saw the horses. Mother saw them too, saw the smoke, and saw the blood glint on the walls from the glow of the flames. She hurried him down a side alley, thanking God there was another way rather than wander through an open-air slaughterhouse. He had, however, already seen too much.

"Mother, were those horses our cavalry?"

She didn't know what to say, as they wandered down the maze of side-lanes. The rain had begun to fall in a light sprinkle, and she stared quietly forward for the next few minutes. The rainfall intensified slowly into a torrent, bouncing off the cobblestones.

Soon, they reached another main street. Mother turned to him, smiling.

"We're almost at the town hall! We'll be safe there!" she said.

"Will Father be there?" he asked. Sister murmured in her sleep. Mother hesitated, and then she spoke:

"He might be, son," she said, lying as much to herself as to her child.

A Street corner, once a crossroads but due to collapsed buildings, now a t-shaped junction. As they neared it, about to turn it, the clanking became audible, the loud slam of metal feet on stone paving. Mother gasped, and looked around in panic. She rushed herself and her children behind an overturned cart. Then they became visible through the heavy rain. Standing ten feet tall, looking like the hooked beaks of hunting birds on legs, with a steel-helmeted soldier driving; the dreaded Magitek armour strode forth. Three of them were in sight, marching towards the corner, with the noises of others behind them. They halted at the corner, as more neared. Larger ones, with pilots hidden behind armour as well as more of the open-topped walkers. A small Magitek walker rounded the corner, and a hail of rifle shots rang out. The Magitek walker jerked, and collapsed as its pilot was slain. Two more strode out, one blazing away with a Machinegun, the other charging its cannon, its crewman firing a carbine down the street. Bullets pinged off the suits, and the family cringed and huddled close behind their cover. Fireworks whistled past, exploding as they hit the cobblestones and walls, throwing up small clouds of wet dirt and rock. The Vectorian cavalry had still only lost one man however, and the crude anti-Magitek rockets were inaccurate on a clear day.

The cannon the smaller walker was charging up fired then, impacting into a house where gunfire was coming from. The building exploded in a ball of flames and smoke. The mechanical devils marched on, further cannon fire eliminating more houses as the machine-gunners strafed the buildings not hit by cannon, barrels spewing forth long tongues of flame, and also spitting out a hail of brass casings onto the street. The larger suits turned the corner, aiming their heavy cannon, and the column proceeded...

On the rooftop above the overturned cart, a Doman soldier stood up, his launcher tube over his shoulder. He took aim at the massive bulk of one of the heavy Magitek suits, and the explosive streaked out of the tube into the weak rear armour of the mechanical cavalry unit, detonating the infernal machine in a huge fireball.

Mother saw the explosion, and ducked as some debris bounced off the cart. Then she saw the heavy suit in front turn its cannon towards her, and she screamed...

The gunner took aim, and fired his cannon. The walker shuddered as the shot left the barrel, and in the blink of an eye, the target exploded in a cloud of smoke, kicking up vast amounts of rock and causing a rain of timber. One less ambusher.

The ringing of the blast faded, as the last of the dust fell. Mother trembled and wept, clutching her children close, and they wailed too. They stayed there, too terrified to move until they fell asleep. At dawn, the advancing Vectorian infantry found them, still huddled beside the cart. They were escorted somewhere to be fed and warmed up. The general watched as the family were gently helped into an army cart. There was nothing to gain from abusing civilians.

A chocobo messenger neared. The general strode towards the fast cavalryman.

"Messenger, report."

"General Leo, sir, the town hall is taken."

"Did they surrender?" Leo Cristophe asked.

"Sir, the 5th Magitek and 12th Foot had them surrounded but...," the messenger said, his voice trembling.

"Did they surrender?" the general repeated.

The cavalryman inhaled some of the damp air, steeling himself against what he had saw just half an hour ago.

"...No, sir," he said, in a voice he fought to keep level. His face and actions betrayed that effort, and that message gave the honourable Vectorian officer more information than this young cavalryman would ever be able to without having to go back down that road. He had to know, however.

"The civilians fought too, didn't they?" Leo said.

"Yes sir. General Kefka said he had no other choice. Every person in there had a sword or a bow."

"How many?"

"We don't know sir. But even the women and children..." The last sentences came as gasps as the soldier began to break down. Cristophe waved the trooper to silence and dismissed him.

He turned to look away from the departing messenger, and stared at the sky.

"Lord in heaven, why did we ever even start thinking this was glory?"

The general sadly ordered his men to advance forward as he mounted his horse (For Domans trusted horses more than chocobos, the large birds not being native to the Doman countryside.), suddenly realising how lucky that family had been. Then he recalled that the father of the family group had probably been killed, either on the walls, in the urban melee, or at the town hall massacre. He led the horse to a trot, and began to move to the site of the "victory". There had, however, been no human winners here, just Vector. Doma, and every single soldier on both sides, and most of all the innocents of the town, had lost in some way. Their lives, their homes, their souls or their honour...

Caves of Narshe: Final Fantasy VI
Version 6
©1997–2017 Josh Alvies (Rangers51)

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