An Iron Kingdoms Story
By Todd C. Edwards
Jernigan loves hunting during those few weeks in the fall when there are still enough leaves on the trees to provide sufficient cover, but not so many that he can't line up a good shot at the ten Khadoran troopers below. The Kossite woodsmen loiter around their camp, unaware of the danger that perches up on the hill.
Jernigan joined the Cygnaran Long Gunners as soon as he was old enough. He started at the local garrison in Orven and was the kind of soldier every commander dreamed of: a crack shot with no attitude. He loved to shoot, but back then there were precious few targets. When his outfit got tasked with hunting down a group of escaped convicts, his commander discovered Jernigan's talent for tracking prey and making difficult shots with ease. The next day, Jernigan was on the train to Caspia where he joined the elite sniper training school.
When Khador invaded Llael and started the war, Cygnar deployed Jernigan and his partner, Billings, to the front lines. Their field commander sent them on reconnaissance and harassment missions deep into occupied territory, and they loved it. They aided resistance fighters and harassed any Khador troops they could find--all with the goal of slowing the Khad's advance. As soon as they returned and restocked, they went right back out. Khador provided a never-ending supply of targets.
"Hey, Billings, what do ya say?" The damp leaves surrounding them muffle his whispers. "Should we surprise some Kossites?" Jernigan asks the question out of habit; he knows the answer already.
"I thought you'd never ask. You want I should spot, or do I actually get to have fun this time?" Billings always has the same answer. Sometimes Jernigan gives him the shot, and other times they both shoot, but not today.
"They may not be too bright, but those Kossites know their way around the woods. Once they start dropping, they'll scatter. I'm gonna need you to keep an eye on them for me."
Billings sighs and pulls a battered pair of binoculars out of his backpack. He sets his own rifle next to Jernigan and sighs again as he settles into place.
"Save the drama for bard school, you old badger."
Billings grunts back and then props himself up on his elbows. He peers through the grimy lenses and ticks off the Khadoran troopers.
"Archer with red hat by the stream. Two axemen sitting on a rock in the clearing. Four packing tents. Ah, there he is: rifleman standing in a group of three. He's the only one with a gun. He's got to be the leader."
"Gotcha, you bastard."
Jernigan lies down on a rock and extends his modified repeating long rifle out in front of him. The sniper version of the weapon has the cylinder crank mounted on the right hand side in order to make room for a scope. This crank is designed to be pulled straight back so the shooter can cock the gun while lying prone.
The forward section of stock rests on his backpack in a spot where the leather has been worn smooth by years of use. He pulls the caps off of the narrow scope that runs halfway down the barrel and places them in the pocket of his loose jacket. Then he levers the safety catch to the firing position.
His gun is ready to fire.
Sniping is all about the ritual. Know your weapon better than you know yourself. Get situated. Slow down your heart rate. Relax. Find your target. Tall man. Looks like he's giving orders. Focus on the clothing, not the person. There. Fur cap. Earflap. Focus. See the detail. The tiny circle of light coming through the scope becomes your whole field of view. A white patch in the fur. A focal point. Deep breaths. The patch dances around like a beer-swilling gobber--fast at first, but then slower and slower until it stops. Sniper, gun, target. All linked into one living organism that breathes and moves in perfect synchronicity.
"The three seem to be making plans. If you're fast, you might be able to get them all. No better time than now."
Slow exhale. Squeeze the trigger.
The trigger pivots and releases the catch that holds back the firing spring. Once free, the spring slams the pin forward into the cartridge waiting in the firing chamber. There it shreds the paper wrappers that separate the two components of the blasting powder, allowing them to mix. When a grain of the first powder comes into contact with its counterpart, they erupt into a tiny flame.
In the millisecond after Jernigan squeezes the trigger, hundreds of pairs of grains burst into flame releasing energy and causing more of the powders to mix and ignite. All throughout the chamber the chain reaction flares into an expanding firestorm that pushes in all directions. The hammer and walls of the firing chamber refuse to budge, leaving the barrel as the only avenue of escape. The lead bullet sitting between the flames and freedom accelerates down the tube.
The bullet bursts forth from the end of the barrel in a cloud of black smoke. The barrel is long enough that the flames have all burned themselves out by the time the bullet reaches the end, so there is no flash of light to give away their position. Jernigan knows there is a sound, but in his trance-like state, he doesn't notice it.
Usually, a bullet will catch on the inner wall of the barrel as it accelerates out, causing it to wobble in a random direction. The wobble can cause the bullet to veer slightly, thus limiting the range of accuracy. Jernigan's bullets never veer, which allows him to shoot from farther away--distance is a sniper's best defense. It has never occurred to him to wonder why his bullets never veer; he just figures he'd gotten lucky and inherited an exemplary weapon.
Jernigan doesn't need to watch his target; he knew the bullet would hit even before it left the rifle. Instead, he pulls back the cylinder crank on his rifle, compressing the firing spring and bringing the second cartridge in line with the pin. His eyes never leave his targets.
Faster now. He has five remaining shots and he needs to finish five more targets.
Two and Three are easy. They stare at the bloody stump that remains on the shoulders of their leader. Even Billings would have no trouble delivering the headshots.
"Three down. The rest are scattering. Work fast, Jernigan."
Four runs for cover behind a rock, but she misjudges the angle of attack. Head shot. Quick. Clean.
Five bounces around from hiding spot to hiding spot looking for safety, moving erratically. The shot catches him in the gut. Sloppy.
Six will be easy. She bends over Five in order to pull him behind a log. The final round. Jernigan puts it in Five's head.
"What the hell?" Billings is too professional to look up. He continues to track the Kossites through the binoculars.
"Shut up. Get moving. They won't be ambushing any patrols anytime soon."
They stand up and sling their packs. Billings leads the way, rifle in hand. They trot at first, fast enough to put some distance between them and the remaining Kossites, but not so fast that they'll trip on one of the many rocks and roots that are hidden by fallen leaves.
Billings zigs and zags, ducking here to avoid a low hanging branch, jumping there to clear a puddle. Jernigan mimics his steps out of habit--no need to blaze a separate trail. Without thought or glance, he replaces the caps on the scope and slides his rifle into its leather sheath. Once it's protected from the elements, Jernigan holds the gun low and speeds up.
The two men sprint through the woods like a pair of stags--never slowing and often changing direction to confuse the trail--until they reach a stony clearing. Waves of granite frozen in time create a desolate anti-oasis in the middle of the lush forest. No trees grow in the area, but that's why they came. Not even a rabid Kossite could track them across the barren landscape.
Back at their camp that evening, Jernigan can sense Billings' gaze. Billings would never be the first to say anything--his outburst during the fight a fluke due to surprise--but he has a way of getting others to talk first. He would have been a productive Inquisitor or a frustrating father. His determined silence wins out during dinner.
"Well?" Jernigan speaks but doesn't look up from his dry sandwich of hard cheese and cured sausage. "Cat got your tongue? You know you want to ask, so out with it."
"Fine. I'll ask: why didn't you kill Six? And don't give me any crap; I know you had her in your sights."
"Wrong question, my friend."
"What do you mean? You did let her live, right?"
"Well, yeah, but that wasn't my aim. I had to finish Five."
"But you already got him!" Billings stood and paced around the campsite. He ranted in that chopped off whisper that says he'd spent many days in dangerous territory and behind enemy lines. "Sure, it was a belly shot, but he was as good as dead in a few hours. And if they had hearts, those damned Kossites might have been slowed down by an injured man. Leaving them with wounded is good practice. You know that."
"I don't know why I did it." Jernigan stares up at the stars as he relives the moment. "I had her sighted, but when I squeezed the trigger, there he was in my sights: face all distorted by the pain. I guess I had to finish him first. His eyes went slack when I ended the pain. It felt good."
"It isn't a person on the other side of the sights. It's a target like anything else. You start seeing the person and you lose your edge."
"You don't have to tell me. I know my job."
"You gonna be alright?"
"Yeah. Don't worry about me."
Billings doesn't look convinced. Neither does Jernigan.
Jernigan suspects that Five was the beginning of the end of his military career. The first sign that he is going to burn himself out just like his brother, Johans, did. Sure it had taken a lot longer, but finishing hundreds of lives will fry your brain just as surely as channeling through a faulty cortex.
He doesn't want to think about it. He doesn't want to talk about it. Stick to the rituals. Talk about the job: "I wonder what those Kossites are doing so far south?"
Jernigan couldn't afford to burn out just yet.