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Black Hats

Victor Krause marched in lockstep with his fellow countrymen in the first rank, his shouldered musket held snug by his left arm, bayonet fixed. He and the men he marched in a tightly packed line formation, four ranks deep. From a distance, they would have looked like a strip of blue cloth blanketing itself over the farmlands of Northern Vikoria.

Victor was proud that he was a member of the Karmadenian Grenadiers' Fourth Regiment. The Karmadenian Grenadiers were a formation of elite shock troops from Karmaden, the capital city of the Republic of Vikoria.

Being a Grenadier, as the name suggested, meant that not only was he armed with a musket but also hand grenades as well. Grenadiers as a whole were renown for not only their impressive throwing arms but their ferocity in melee combat as well.

Watching the furious bayonet charge of twelve hundred well-trained Grenadiers coming right for you was enough to spook even the most veteran of enemy troops.

The distant booms of artillery and faint cracking of musketry had reached his ears as the Fife and Drums played the classic 'Onwards Vikoria' on their instruments. Ahead of him, he could see the effects that the artillery had on the farm fields.

The cornfield that his regiment was marching towards was pock-marked with artillery craters and skid marks from cannonballs that bounced on impact. Next to the cornfield lay a two-story farmhouse with a barn next to it.

Victor assumed that whatever family had lived there was long gone by now.

At least he hoped they were.

This battle was an inevitability.

The Imperium of Rycinia was attempting another invasion of Vikoria, targeting the resource-rich territories of Northern Vikoria no doubt. It didn't help that Rycinia was just across the border from these territories.

John Kainesworth, the general of the Vikorian Central Army, had seen it fit to stop the Imperials here, hoping to catch the enemy in the awkward position of border-crossing.

And so, Victor was here.

He watched as an enemy cannonball flew high over the heads of his regiment, thankfully missing its mark. It detonated harmlessly behind the formation, no doubt a frustrating sight to the Imperial artillery crew that fired it.

When he refocused on the landscape in front of him, he noticed movement from the corn stalks. As the stalks parted he could make out the green uniforms of Imperial Line Infantry.

Being a Grenadier, he expected to see the enemy at some point so this was no surprise to him. Hell, in some messed up way, finally seeing them gave him a modicum of relief. They were no longer an unknown but a clear and present enemy to fight.

Simple.

And that was when he saw something he thought he'd never see.

Victor's eyes widened in shock.

The enemy line infantry was reforming their ranks after having some difficulty shuffling through the cornfields. Now clearly visible, the Imperial infantry had set up their line formation with four ranks of men deep, just like the Vikorians across from them. As the enemy marched towards him, they looked like a wall of green uniforms closing in on him.

And every single one of those green uniforms was topped off with a black hat.

"No..." Victor muttered softly, "Not them."

To the outsider, the black hats were simply an accessory, merely a part of the Rycinians' uniforms.

But to Victor and his fellow Grenadiers that marched with him, those hats were a bad omen.

The Black Hats Brigade.

The most elite and storied brigade in the entire Rycinian military.

A brigade that once charged the Vikorian Fort Branda and crushed the defenders despite being outnumbered five to one.

They were many stories and mysteries surrounding the Black Hats Brigade, some true, some embellished.

For many regiments, just the sight of those dreaded black hats was enough to make enemy forces flee from battle.

And Victor himself wouldn't blame them.

Only pride kept the Karmadenian Grenadiers firm and resolute, even after this unfortunate realization.

The officers of the Fourth Regiment ordered their troops to halt, every footfall slamming to the ground in unison, and the Fife and Drums stopped playing. What followed was quiet as the officers attempted to judge the remaining distance from the still-advancing Rycinians.

A silence that was shattered when Victor heard an ear-splitting blast from somewhere to his left. He resisted the urge to cover his ears, causing them to ring.

As he turned to look at what had happened, he suddenly wished that he hadn't.

His eyes were met with the sight of bleeding and dismembered men, some that lay still, and others that writhed in agony. They all laid together in a clump on the ground, their uniforms, equipment, and bodies torn and bloodied.

Victor cursed to himself as he tore his gaze away.

"Damn arty finally scored a hit," he heard one of the officers say.

"First rank! Kneel!" the officer next to him ordered as he attempted to draw attention away from the carnage, raising his officer's sword to the sky.

Victor, in the first rank himself, obeyed the order as he was drilled to do.

He watched with intense concentration as the Black Hats Brigade slowly marching their way closer, the black geysers of artillery hits littering the field between the two formations.

"Make ready!" the Vikorian officer yelled.

Victor cranked his musket to full-cock, letting out a breath he wasn't aware he had been holding in. The morning dew on the grass wet his knee, as if trying to distract him from the orders that he knew he was going to receive next.

"Present!"

He lowered the musket into firing position, the stock resting snugly in his shoulder. This first shot was likely to be his most accurate since the gunpowder smoke would obscure the enemy in future volleys.

He would have to make this shot count.

Once the enemy had halted their own march, the command was given.

"Fire!" the Vikorian officers all shrieked together.

Victor squeezed the trigger, the recoil from the musket rocking his shoulder back. The cracks from the muskets of the other kneeling Grenadiers soon followed, the shots sounding like an angry beehive when they fired all at once.

The second after he fired, Victor watched the enemy soldier he had targeted drop from his formation.

Mouth agape, his brain screamed at him.

"I got him! I got one! I shot a Black Hat!" he cheered in his head, the adrenaline causing him to begin reloading his musket with excitement.

He listened as the second rank behind him fired off their own volley, the rounds whizzing over their kneeling comrades' heads.

Victor gazed up momentarily to watch as more Black Hats fell dead from the volley fire of the Karmadenian natives, raising his own spirits.

"We can do this, boys! The Black Hats are just men! They can be shot as easily as any of us!" a Vikorian officer proudly declared, punctuated by the third rank firing their volley, as if to illustrate his point.

As Victor was busy packing down his gunpowder by shoving his ramrod down the barrel, he heard the distinct crack of Rycinian muskets.

The screams and yelps of Grenadiers followed as Karamdenian now had their turn to drop from the line.

Victor's heart nearly jumped out of his chest when he watched the man next to him take a bullet to the throat, the man gurgling on his own blood as he slumped forward.

The Black Hats fired two more volleys.

Victor continued his reloading during each one, silently praying that he would not get shot.

He finished reloading, bringing his rifle to bear as he ignored the thuds and the cries of pain of men being struck with bullets around him.

The next sound he heard, he could not ignore.

Screaming.

But not the shrieks of terror or the pitiful wails of dying men.

The screams of bloodthirsty psychopaths on the hunt.

Victor looked on in mute horror as he watched the swarm of green uniforms and black hats surge forward, growing even closer by the second. Their eyes were wild as they rushed towards the Vikorians, whether they were drunk with adrenaline or bloodlust Victor did not know.

Either way, the sight chilled him to the core.

"They're charging us!" one of the Vikorian officers shouted in surprise, his voice tinged with unease.

An older officer next to him took the initiative.

"Fire at will! Quickly now! After you fire, get a grenade ready!"

Victor did as he was told, his hands shaking as he fired into the cloud of gunpowder smoke in front of him, having no idea if his shot even hit anything.

After he sat his musket against his knee, he primed a grenade, assuming that his comrades were doing the same.

As he finished readying his grenade he gazed up when the same officer spoke.

"Toss 'em now! Before they get too close!" the older man ordered.

Victor arched his arm back, determined to put as much power into his throw as he possibly could. With a grunt, he launched the portable bomb from his hand, watching as it sailed through the sky and joined the dozens of other grenades.

The result was brilliant.

The grenades had landed with almost perfect precision in front of the enemy charge as if the Black Hats were running through a minefield. With a similar effect, the bombs exploded all around the charging enemy, spitting shrapnel to and fro, no doubt wounding or killing scores of Rycinian elites.

"Charge!" the Vikorian officers cheered, their sabers drawn and pointed towards the enemy.

Victor stood up, feeling slightly better after witnessing the damage that the grenades had done, and he poised his bayonet before sprinting forward.

The Grenadiers and Black Hats met each other in glorious melee combat, both of the elite units trained heavily in the brutal art of close combat.

Men clashed against each other the clanging of bayonet steel and the thuds of men beating each other with their muskets. The yells and cries of fighting men only interrupted by the occasional gunshot or pounding of an artillery shell hitting the ground.

Men slashed and stabbed. Men bashed, smacked, skewered, and beat each other. Men shot their opponents in the face with a loaded musket at point blank range. Other men slit the throats of enemy soldiers that they managed to get behind.

Even the sound of a grenade detonation could be heard.

Victor picked one of the first Black Hats he saw and moved to skewer him on his bayonet. He failed as the Rycinian dodged and moved to return the favor, the Black Hat going for a stab to Victor's chest.

After Victor batted the enemy musket away, he jammed his bayonet into the Imperial's stomach and cruelly twisted it before pulling it out. As he watched the defeated Rycinian pathetically curl up into a fetal position on the ground to nurse his wound, Victor felt a shot of confidence flow through his body.

He realized that not only did the Black Hats get blasted by the grenades of the Fourth Regiment, but that the Grenadiers had also broken up the enemy charge with a counter charge.

Hell, the Black Hats might even break. It would be the first time in the entire war that a Vikorian unit had accomplished such a feat.

Pride swelled up within him as he moved to engage another Black Hat.

That was when he noticed something off about the second enemy soldier he approached.

The Imperial was not meeting him in melee, nor was he occupied with another Grenadier.

"No..." Victor breathed.

The enemy soldier was aiming at him.

This Black Hat looked young, not a day over nineteen. The Rycinian's eye were wide as saucers as he got a clear look at Victor.

Victor himself only being a few years older.

The Vikorian then realized what was about to happen.

He briefly saw a flash from the Black Hat's musket.

Then Victor only saw black.

Author: Cipher