‘Speak to me, verdammt, speak!’ the Hauptmann cried and slapped the prisoner hard over the ear.
Henri clenched his jaw in spite of the pain and tried to lean into the stone pillar at his back for support as his knees gave up and his head started spinning. The rope they’d bound around his waist and shoulders helped take some of the pressure away. He’d been down in the dark, moldy basement for over forty-eight hours, judging by the feeble amounts of light seeping in through the tiny ventilation shaft at the back of the room. His resilience was waning, but he bit his tongue again, and stared into the Hauptmann’s face as it was coming back into focus.
The attack had ended up failing miserably and those that were still living by the end of it were taken in, separated, and were all probably undergoing the same kind of treatment. He was hoping against it, but he knew what the reality was. The Hauptmann had been thorough in his questioning and he’d been steadily shifting into the hands-on approach, but Henri had heard much worse about Beardies capturing soldiers and literally wringing the lives out of them.
The door at the far side of the room swung open and a pair of officers walked in. As opposed to the Hauptmann’s tattered yet dignified uniform they shone of HQ cleanliness and their black leather clothing was the finest money could buy. And the latest in Beardie fashion.
They stopped on either side of Henri, the overwhelming scent of their cologne making his eyes water.
‘Maybe if you stopped stealing our land and went for some of our common sense, instead,’ Henri muttered to himself while the Hauptmann eyed the officers with visible disgust.
‘So, that’s how it’s going to be now?’ he adjusted his collar and pivoted towards the door, back straight, hands glued to his sides, nose turned slightly up.
Another officer walked in, just as spiffy and clean as the ones before.
Henri was short even for a gnome, and dwarves generally towered above those like him, but this man could only be described as a small giant. He was easily a full foot taller than the Hauptmann which made his black cap almost brush against the low hanging ceiling as he was making his way towards them. His shoulders were so broad he might’ve passed for an orc at first glance, and his legs and feet were so big Henri could’ve probably taken a bath in one of his boots – with room to spread his legs.
The Hauptmann gave a rigid salute, and the officer responded with a short nod of his head, so the Hauptmann started to issue a rundown of the events that had transpired in the basement:
‘Hauptmann Koffeln reporting, mein Herr: the prisoner has been unresponsive for approximately fifty-three hours and ten minutes, the first two stages of interrogation have been followed as per regulations and-‘
The giant raised a hand, ‘There’s no need for a full report, Hauptmann. We’ll take the prisoner – as well as all the others captured during the assault – and we’ll handle it from here.’
His voice was calm and would have seemed pleasant but for a hidden menace in his tone that allowed for no contradiction. Still, the Hauptmann pursed his lips and inhaled sharply.
‘I must protest. According to chapter 1, paragraph 5 of the most recent revision of the Capture and Interrogation Protocol, and I quote: any and all enemy soldiers taken into custody on the front lines will become the sole responsibility of the highest-ranking officer in the division that effected their capture and-’
‘You don’t have to recite the manual to me, Koffeln. My name is on the cover. We will be needing all prisoners ready for transport in exactly,’ the man checked his watch, ‘half an hour. We will only take the ones that are still breathing, even if barely. I expect you out front in thirty minutes,’ the man demanded and turned on his heels, the other officers following close behind him.
Koffeln was left fuming and as the door closed shut Henri thought he could hear the Hauptmann’s teeth splintering from being gritted so hard. It took him a few seconds to visibly calm down and unclench his fists, and when he turned towards Henri he looked almost as tired and livid as if he’d been undergoing a two-day interrogation and not the other way around.
He pulled up a chair and sat down, cross legged and leaning against the back rest. He sighed, took his cap off, then loosened his collar and smoothed down his thinning, gray hair. A metal plate had been bolted to the side of his head, just above what – Henri just realized – was left of his left ear.
A long time went by without any of them making a move. The ventilation shaft cover creaked and clattered with the wind and Henri felt a chill creeping up his spine. Silence never boded well, and Koffeln going from an enraged interrogator to dejected soldier at the drop of a hat couldn’t possibly bring anything good.
‘You know what those are?’ Koffeln asked after a while, pointing with his boot towards the door.
Henri was taken aback at the impersonal way Koffeln referred to the officers.
‘Enigma Korps,’ the words rolled off his tongue like venom and he grimaced as he said them.
‘Do you know what they do to people? What am I saying, of course you do! You’ve heard the legends, all who live in the Land have. Well, I’ll tell you,’ he said, tapping at the small metal plate, ‘the legends are true.’
He sounded hoarse and tired and Henri took that statement at face value. A feeling of fear and dread had hung in the room ever since the Enigma officers had left, and Koffeln looked like he had felt it, too. It almost seemed like he’d diminished, physically. He no longer seemed defined by his rank, and no longer carried himself as such, but had become a mere soldier with the whips of his higher-ups driving at him from far behind the frontlines.
He got up and Henri cowered, expecting another blow but then Koffeln leaned in so that Henri could see the side of his head clearly. A small symbol was branded into the metal, a pair of lightning bolts with eagle wings embracing them in an almost protective manner – the mark of Enigma Teknologie. Henry shivered in spite of himself.
He had, indeed, heard the legends – the pain and horror the Enigma Korps inflict on others, especially other races of the Land, for the “betterment of dwarf-kind”. Every other experiment, so the stories told, resulted in the death of the subject. The rest of them went mad, at the very least. And now legend had been made fact in mere seconds.
Koffeln sat back down and rested his head in his hands.
‘They pick at your mind with their cold tools. Literally pick at it, do you understand? They look for something… something that lets them know you have a future with the Korps. And if they don’t find it,’ he scratched at the plate, ‘they just cap it off and let you go. Relegated to the frontlines, doomed to do your duty, to follow your orders or die trying.’
He looked up at Henri, tears welling up in his eyes.
‘Mein Gott, how did it come to this? How has this Land become so furious and how are we so willing to pit ourselves against one another… and for what?’ he said, his hands now shaking uncontrollably.
He was beginning to stutter as his chin quivered with sobs, ‘I re-remember the day I joined. I was so hopeful, so happy to put my life on the line in order to keep the ones at home s-safe. The first assault I took part in, only half of us survived. Orcish Wyverns struck from above. We took three of them down. So many were injured… Then, the next day, we were camped in a nearby forest, well away from the battlefield. The Korps came, passed us b-by, spoke to our superiors, then took all of our wounded away.
‘A year later I saw my first Zinn Mann, one of the very early models. A wonder of engineering, or so they said. The absolute pinnacle of dwarfen technology. Ushering in a new, one hundred per cent mechanised age of warfare!’ he threw his hands up and burst into tears.
It took him a good few minutes to calm down, and he took on a much more somber tone, building more anger into his voice with every word, ‘I thought I could see one of my former comrades inside that armor – Erik. I’d know those eyes anywhere,’ he looked at Henri and shook his head.
‘There are no victories without sacrifice. None. Technology doesn’t just evolve without brave souls giving their lives for it, whether willingly or not. Erik had been injured in the attack, and they took him away with the rest. They used him to power that… thing! They butchered him and his memory. They sacrificed him for science! Do you Understand?! This cannot keep happening,’ he decided, ‘Nicht mehr!’
Koffeln slowly lurched up again and produced a bayonet from the back of his belt. He weighed it in the palm of his hand, spun it around a few times, then let his hand drop by his waist, his wrist loose, but his grip firm.
‘Mon ami, yes? That is how you address your friends?’ Koffeln asked while staring at the ground.
‘There are no victories without sacrifice. Brave souls must give their lives for it, sooner or later. Brave, unlucky souls must give their lives so that lucky cowardly ones might bask in the glory.’
Koffeln turned towards Henri and raised his bayonet. He moved around to the back of the pillar. Henri felt a hand on his shoulder and his knees almost gave out again, but his pride kept him upward. He dug his heels into the ground and straightened his back against the cold stonework, ready to meet his end.
‘Maybe you won’t be able to see me as a friend,’ Koffeln sniffled as he tapped Henri’s shoulder, the cold steel of the bayonet pressed against his ribcage, just above the bindings, just aside his heart.
‘But I hope you’ll be able to forgive me. I’m sorry,’ he said, and leaned into the blade.
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