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by Rodryn
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #2297179
IAM Image Prompt - May 31st, 2023 - The Winter - Editing in Progress
         Without warning Johnathan found himself engulfed in a howling dirge of iced daggers. Winters bite gnawed to his bones, and he braced against a vicious gust eager to knock away his footing. He tried to advance into the grey-white haze and failed. His hand, a mere foot from his face, disappeared from his sight. Rocks scrapped within his innards, and he fumbled to unfold his shovel.
         Neither could he continue nor afford the delay. However, his comrade's laughter at a seasoned Ranger dying by this squall echoed in his head. Powdered flecks grabbed the wind with each crunch of dull steel into compacted snow. Numbness crept over his body, and he forced his arms to obey. Shivers grew violent, and with the burrow large enough, he thrust rifle, rucksack, and himself in.
         Reggie will receive a walloping when Johnathan finds him. Damn that fool and his hair brained notions of adventure. He is just a boy, yet times such as these force them into becoming men. Not a natural progression and rather one born out of desperation and false promises. Johnathan drew a woolen blanket around him and spat. He should have kneecapped Reggie back on the farm and let father beat some sense into him.
         Johnathan feared sleep and forced his muscles to flex often but stopped when sweat threatened to form. Above him, the storm continued to rage, and he felt a tickling frustration with each glance at his watch. It was nearing first light when the clamor subsided. He clawed his way back to the surface, wishing to suffer no further obstacles.
         Warm sunlight kissed his face, and the air held a fresh, crisp aroma, peppered with pine. Thrushes chirped from atop mighty pines standing in defiance of winter. Shaking snow from his jacket, he shouldered his gear and set off, wishing for a pair of snowshoes. He did not get far when a low buzzing rapidly approached.
         Diving at the side of a tree, he observed four, no, five, planes zip overhead in tight formation. A reconnaissance flight, which meant ground units were not far behind. He swore and forced his legs to cut through the shin deep powder. Healthy pines dwindled in number, and suddenly yielded to a graveyard of blasted trunks and wooden corpses.
         Past the old tree line sat a town, marred, and ruined. Johnathan moved across a field of half buried impact craters, careful to avoid slipping into them. Blackened frames sat upon cracked foundations, and walls and roofs sat punctured with openings of various diameters. He gazed over rubble strewn streets and felt a tightness in his chest.
         Two days prior Johnathan sat with Reggie at a cafat the east end, sipping coffee and complaining as grunts do. Carmilla, the waitress, had eyes for Reggie, yet the young fool failed to offer himself. He teased him about it, and Reggie's face blossomed redder than a ripe beating. Man enough to fight, man enough to toss, as Johnathan often remarked. Carrion pecked upon frozen bodies, cawing in frustration. His lips moved in silent prayer for Carmilla, and he hoped she made it out.
         Johnathan moved from tattered alleys to shattered husks, his footfalls light. He stopped to inspect snow on the road and frowned. Neither man nor machine disturbed the white layer, and he felt relieved yet frustrated. The enemy has not advanced this far north, but Reggie's crew failed to reach the town. His eyes darted down the avenue, charred window and door frames sat empty, and he elected to follow the road. If luck would have it, he would run into Reggie along the path. A murder shot into the sky, their wing beats drowning out the silence.
         A low rumbling arose from the south end, and Johnathan darted into a nearby house, pressing himself into shadows. The rumbling intensified, and he risked a peak through a shattered window. Two treaded transports stopped in the intersection and a swarm of adversaries poured from them. Gunners sat atop their mounts, alert yet relaxed. Their voices reached Jonathan's ears and he snorted at their joviality. Although he could not blame them, and knew he'd have the same tone if his side was winning.
         Impatience licked his stomach, and he suppressed several unholy phrases. The enemy soldiers scrambled to place sandbags and concertina wire under a dissatisfied officer's glare. After several moments, the officer spoke into a radio, barked acknowledgements, and motioned for his troops to mount up. Four men remained at the checkpoint while the rest clamored aboard. Johnathan slunk into the shadows as the transports groaned by. Once their engines faded away, he crept from his hiding with calculated steps.
         The enemy position sat upon the route he intended to follow, but he felt confident in sneaking past them. He heard them speaking in their native language and he caught a few snippets. They were delayed like he was, and there was some mention about reinforcing against an attack. His mind winced, knowing his foes would be both disappointed and delighted. Their last assault forced a sudden retreat, and he doubted the main force could organize fast enough to throw a counterpunch.
         Acid boiled in his stomach, and he stopped to catch his breath. Once he heard Reggie had not reported in, he embarked on this mission, and failed to account for the enemy's rapid advance. If Reggie was alive, they will have imprisoned him, yet Johnathan felt a calm fall over him at the thought. Reggie would be safe, out of the fight and able to go home once they've lost. He shook his head and pressed himself forward. One way or another, he will have his answers.
         Johnathan knelt upon reaching a small side street. It connected to the intersection and his eyes peered down towards the checkpoint, observing their rotation. He sprinted across upon spotting his opening and he slid into the opposite alley, shouldering his rifle. Satisfied he was not spotted, he returned to his feet, using the wall as leverage.
         A gentle creaking turned into a mocking groan, and brick folded upon itself, leaving a large opening in the wall. Jonathan sprung away as he glimpsed four heads turn towards him through a window, and voices shouted in his direction. He reached the end of the ally, hunkered behind a rubble pile, and aimed his sights on the alley opening. Two men appeared and whipped their heads about, inspecting with raised weapons. One of them moved deeper into the ally, eyes fixed on, dammit, on footprints in the snow! His eyes found Johnathan and went to shout, but a sharp crack of a rifle sent him sprawling into the ground.
         Johnathan cycled his bolt as bullets peppered around him. Their patter ceased and he shot up, sprinting away as his adversary called out his position. Reaching another building, he braced the rifle on the windowsill, ears focused on their shouts. His rifle bucked and another soldier fell upon stepping from the alley. Again, he moved further back, ducking the cracks of bullets. He entered a collapsed church and swore when he reached the back wall. Turning, he saw the remaining soldiers enter and he ducked behind a pillar.
         They fired and hot lead zipped across stone walls. He followed their footsteps as they split up, trying to out flank him. His heart hammered the base of his skull, and an idea struck him. He snatched up a rock and flung it towards the soldier to his right. Warning shouts erupted and he heard them dive to the ground. Johnathan popped the corner, waited, and fired at the first one to stand. The other did not rise and he heard a light whimpering.
         Ejecting hot brass, Johnathan approached with his trigger half depressed. The last solider lay face down, arms over his head, crying. His face contorted in terror upon spotting Johnathan, and he presented his hands, palms out. Stuttered pleas tumbled from tear-streaked lips, and Jonathan felt bile in his throat. This wretch was no older than Reggie. Old enough but too young at the same time. Doctrine dictates he honor the surrender, but he could not afford to manage a stray. He would slow him down, cause further delay or worse, alert others to his location.
          Johnathan took a deep breath, steadied his aim, and peered into watery, blue eyes. A sharp crack, and a bullet impacted floor behind the cowering soldier, and he sighed. He reached down, hauled the poor boy to his feet and shoved him away. Shouting what sounded like gratitude, the solider hurried off, and he disappeared into town. Conflict boiled within his stomach, but he nodded, certain it was the right call.
          His own parents wept a torrent the day Reggie told them he signed on, and they begged him to look after Reggie. He wondered if the lone soldier's parents wept as well and wondered if any of the men he just killed had promised to watch over him. Besides, there was enough death for today and nobody else need cry. Johnathan shook his parents voice from his head and departed the church.
          Following the road from twenty meters inside the tree line, he forsook proper concealment for speed. The day grew short, and he wanted to get to Reggie's last know position before nightfall. He spotted a cloud of bombers at high altitude and had to hide three times to avoid foot patrols. As the sun touched the horizon, he resigned himself to finding a place to sleep when he spotted a half-buried tank next to a fallen tree.
          His chest fluttered upon recognizing the markings as friendly. He approached but stopped, its tread sat broken, and a blast mark lay etched into earth. Jonathan resumed his advance with cautious steps, inspecting the ground intently. Reaching his destination, his mind jumped on seeing 'Gnasher' painted on the side of its barrel. This was his brother's tank, and he sighed, grateful Reggie listened to his objections and joined the armored division rather than a rifle company.
          Jonathan hoisted himself atop the steel frame and heaved on the hatch. It refused to budge, but a few strikes from his rifle stock instilled compliance. Silence and a lack of odor greeted him, and he whispered into the darkness. With no response offered, he lowered himself into the confined space and his foot grazed a helmet. His torch snapped on and a pounding sounded in his ears.
          Three pale bodies lay huddled with blue lips and closed eyes. Reggie was leftmost, arms wrapped around the center man. At first Johnathan shook his shoulder then kicked it as his voice cracked while shouting and vision blurred. Reggie was as cold as the metal around him yet looked peaceful in his slumber. He slumped into the commander's chair, lip trembling and his hand covered his face. He heard his parents begging him to watch over Reggie, keep him safe and bring him home. His reply to them echoed in his head and fell from his lips as he jabbed the air with his finger.
          "Break is legs if you don't want him to go! I can't stop him either way. I will try but first law of war is people die, and the second law says nobody can change the first."


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