Perpetual War chapter three! Further character development and the next mission! Some more characters are introduced which you can see in the images further down.
I want to give special thanks to the patrons who’ve supported me thus far:
Hypermice, Sean Young, and Mister Artorias
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She woke up to the sounds of voices, moving vehicles, and an assortment of other noises echoing through the walls of the tent. Shifting into a sitting position on the cot, Natalia rubbed her tired eyes, letting forth a yawn. Looking around the tent, it was exactly how she had left it before her previous mission. A desk to one side with an unlit candle sitting atop, a crate to the other side filled with supplies, and an extra pack full of clean clothes and other personal items.
Turning on the cot, she sat on the edge and nudged her naked feet against the pack she had been carrying all yesterday, her rifle and revolver leaning against it. Reaching into the pack she pulled out a silver watch. Checking the dials, she sighed and placed it back into the pocket. “Honestly, these meetings need to be later in the day,” she moaned, arching her back in a stretch and letting forth another yawn. “It’s too damn early.”
Standing up, she walked across the wooden boards that served as the flooring, the planks creaking under her weight. Opening her pack, she reached in for fresh clothes, taking them back over to the cot to lay them out. Looking about, she spotted her trench coat still discarded nearby on the floor from when she had stumbled in late last night in exhaustion. Walking over to it she picked it up, grimacing at the assortment of holes in its fabric. Taking the small pocket mirror from it, she tossed the coat towards the chair at her desk.
Stripping off her undergarments, Natalia began to reach for fresh ones from the cot, pausing as she remembered the bandages across her body. Surely they’ve healed by now… My headache is definitely gone, that’s for sure. She began to peel back the bandage from around her stomach. Dropping the strip of bandage to the floor, she smiled at the small circular scar, the wound having since closed. She repeated the action for the bandages wrapped around her left arm, right shoulder, and her head. Running a hand through her hair, she felt only a scar on the back and nothing more. Some advantages to being an esper. Though, if I wasn’t one I wouldn’t be getting shot at in the first place.
Putting on fresh undergarments, she pulled up a pair of gray pants and a double-buttoned uniform shirt. She adjusted and buttoned the sleeves, then wrapped a belt around her waist. Reaching down for her revolver sitting within its holster, she strapped it to the belt along with a couple of different small packs of supplies and ammo. Sitting down on the cot’s edge, she pulled up a pair of black socks and pulled on her boots, lacing them.
Briefing is in sixty minutes, plenty of time to get a light breakfast. She ran her hands through her hair, pulling it all back, and began to braid. I wonder what the news will be. Hopefully I’ll have a break before my next orders. She finished her braid and opened her mirror, staring into its silvery surface, using it to tuck any loose bangs of her blonde hair behind her ears. She noticed a speck of dirt on her cheek, rubbed it off, and smiled to herself. Closing the clasp of the small mirror, she placed it into a pocket of the uniform and stood. Taking a deep breath, she ran her hands down her chest, smoothing any wrinkles along the uniform. Who am I kidding? I’ll probably be sent out immediately. Taking hold of her rifle, she slung its strap over her shoulder and set off, leaving her pack behind.
Opening the flaps of her tent and stepping to the edge of the wooden platform, she was greeted to the rising sun, its rays blinding her. Fluttering her eyes as she got used to the light, she took in the red sky, light gray clouds promising more rain. Blinking again, she looked around to the source of the noise surrounding her tent. From her vantage point on the platform, she took in the sight of groups of soldiers going about their business, the occasional wagon of supplies being pulled by horse. Other tents blocked much of her vision, a few of which were also placed on similar wooden platforms, though only those of high enough rank deserved the luxury. Most tents were stuck to the dirt, the grass having long since died, the light rain from yesterday leaving a dampness to everything.
Another day in the Imperium army. Fantastic. Stepping off the platform, Natalia headed in the direction of the large collection of tents that made up the main source of food for the entire encampment. Skipping through several thin walkways between tents, she reached the mess hall in a short time, taking her place in line. She could feel an urge starting to grow in her lower abdomen. Shrugging off the feeling, she waited patiently as the line dwindled away. Come on… After years of work, you’d think these chefs could serve food faster. Reaching the tables with the large containers filled with food, she eagerly unbuckled a cup and unscrewed its top before handing it to the man behind the table. Taking the offered biscuit and the cup returned, she went on her way, sealing the top of the cup before buckling it back onto her belt and placing the dry biscuit into a pack along her belt.
Leaving the tent’s cover, she spotted the long line for the well being used to get fresh water. Scoffing, she turned away and began to head for the edge of the camp. I have time to head into the forest. Even if I’m late by a few minutes, what is Baranfel going to do to the brigadier’s favorite esper? she mused to herself, reaching the thin grassy field surrounding the camp.
Moving at a brisk pace, she came to the line of trees. Moving into their depths, the sounds of the camp became replaced by the growing tranquility of silence occasionally interspersed with the sound of animal calls and movement. The main noise that filled the air save for those rare sounds was her own boots crunching along fallen leaves, a slight chill hanging between the spaces of the thick trees of the old forest. Roots and rocks poked above fallen leaves, lining her path and guiding her along.
Wish I had more time to stay here, she thought to herself, the sound of a distant flowing river growing louder as she drew closer. At the very least, one of my missions could involve being in a forest like this. Coming to the river’s edge, she stared at the clear water racing across the smooth stones beneath. On second thought, not sure how much I’d want to ruin such peace with bullets and a splattering of blood.
Setting her rifle against a boulder, she set down the cup full of food, along with a towel, a spork, and the biscuit. Turning away, she went over to a tree, unbuckled her pants, and knelt as she began to relief herself. Finally. Finishing, she stood back up and buckled her pants before heading back over to the riverbed. Crouching by the river, she submerged her hands in the cool water, rubbing them together. Satisfied that they were clean, she shook them in the air and returned to her food, using the towel to dry her hands. Unscrewing the top of the cup and using the spork, she began to eat the warm soup within.
Getting into the routine of eating, she leaned against the boulder and stared into the river, mesmerized by the moving water. Reaching for the biscuit, she dunked it into the soup, taking her time in eating it. She was taken out of her focus once her spork hit the bottom of the cup. Looking down, she then brought the cup to her lips, downing the remaining contents. Heading over to the river, she cleaned the cup and spork, placing them back along her belt and taking hold of her canteen. Unscrewing the top, she filled the canteen with the clean river water. Taking several long gulps, she refilled the canteen and closed it, placing it back along her belt.
Taking hold of her rifle, she stood still a moment, taking in the full sight of the trees on the other side of the river. A falling leaf was the only movement that caught her attention. Satisfied in the peace of the moment, she slowly forced herself to turn and head back the way from which she came. Following her footsteps in reverse, she could feel the weight of the impending next mission starting to rest upon her shoulders. The silence and clean smell of the forest was slowly replaced once more by the sounds of the encampment, the smells of sweat, machinery, and gunpowder filling her nose. Reaching the field of grass, she crossed it with ease, the long blades of green tickling at her in an attempt to pull her back to the safety of the forest. A nagging thought of running away crossed her mind. Shaking it from her head, she entered the encampment and made her way through its maze, its organization long since forgotten after being here for so long. Even though it was a maze, she was used to it, finding the sign posts and making her way towards the post marked ‘C7’.
“My dear Natalia!”
Turning around, a smile crossed Natalia’s lips as she recognized the woman approaching. “Back so soon, Orsolya?” Natalia replied, looking up at the woman who stood several inches taller.
Orsolya was adorned in a similar uniform, the black wing insignia along her shoulder decorated by golden trim, signifying her as a higher rank than Natalia. She was skinny for her height, wearing gloves and a black scarf to keep herself warm. She had pale skin, and a visible shiver ran through her as a light breeze went across the camp. “Yes, unfortunately my target never showed up along the road. Found out later that they rerouted.” She ran a hand through her black hair, cut short to just above her shoulders, a single strand of gray falling off to the wind. “Just a big waste of time. What about you, Natalia? How did your first mission as Gamayun go?” Orsolya asked with a beaming smile, her hazel eyes regarding Natalia with excitement.
“Well…” Natalia began to reply before a whistle caught her attention. Looking past Orsolya, she spotted Vakhno approaching, a grin across his face.
“I was hoping it’d be longer before I had to see this fool again,” Orsolya muttered.
“Orsolya, great to see you have returned safely!” Vakhno proclaimed.
Orsolya waved a hand in a dismissive motion. “Yeah, it’s great to be back. I’d love to chat, but the briefing is starting in a minute,” she replied and turned away, stopping briefly to rest a hand on Natalia’s shoulder. “We can talk more later.”
“How you doing, Natalia?” Vakhno asked.
“Wounds have all healed, mostly. So, much better,” she replied, shifting on her legs, her hand resting on her left hip. “What do you want, Vakhno?” Natalia asked, watching the man nervously rub his hands together, some cracks along his knuckles from dryness.
“Oh, sorry. Just, well…” He quickly shifted his hands to the pockets of his coat, hiding them from view. “You remember my offer to go shooting? How about tonight? I hope you are still up for it.”
Natalia shook her head, letting out an exasperated breath. “Is that why you’re nervous? Because you’re scared to ask me? Are we in primary school?”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize!” Vakhno forced himself to laugh. He looked away towards a wagon filled with mortars getting pulled along by a horse and guided by soldiers. “The offer is from one Gamayun to another, to go practice some shooting. Nothing more.”
Natalia studied Vakhno, watching his eyes dart away from hers, taking in his grimace. “Fine, I’ll go with you for some training,” she said, watching the corners of his lips begin to turn up. “And it better be nothing more!” she stabbed her finger into his chest.
“Yes, definitely just some friendly shooting,” he said, taking a step back from her. “Promise!”
“Good. I assume the usual spot that Kadir takes us for shooting?”
“Yes, at nineteen-hundred hours?”
“Alright,” Natalia said. Turning without another word, she headed straight for the colonel’s tent. Can’t believe I just agreed to going with Vakhno… But he’ll never shut up unless I give him a chance. I hope I don’t regret this. Reaching the tent, she stepped up to the wooden platform and walked through the leather flaps. Entering the room, Natalia saw that the tables were still covered with paper, the map from before still at the center table. Standing to either side of her was Kadir and Orsolya, with Colonel Baranfel on the opposite side of the table looking down at the map with a tired but focused gaze. “Gamayun Ludmila reporting for duty!” Natalia announced with a quick sweep of her right hand to a salute.
“Plenty of sleep helps most soldiers. And it seems to help you Ludmila, except you forgot your cap once more,” Colonel Baranfel said without raising his head, simply glancing up before returning to the map.
Kadir let forth a laugh, coming to Natalia’s side to slap her shoulder, nearly sending the small woman to the ground. “Come on Baranfel, can’t be too hard on the girl. She nearly died on her first mission. Which, if I recall, you sent her on after I told you that it was far too dangerous.”
Straightening herself, Natalia took a small step away from Kadir so as not to make it obvious, rubbing her left shoulder from the sting of pain. “A tad unnecessary…” she mumbled.
“And I told you the mission was within her capabilities,” Baranfel said sharply. “Her presence in this very room informs us that I was right. Even then, that does not excuse her from military protocol.”
“Baranfel,” Orsolya chimed in, “your attempts at keeping order among us Gamayuns is both admirable and amusing. Natalia is destined to be just as rowdy and ill-disciplined as the rest of us. Your attempts will fail on her just as they failed on—” Orsolya said before getting interrupted.
“Gamayun Dymtrus reporting as ordered!” Vakhno exclaimed, standing at attention. “Now, how long is this briefing? I have certain… obligations to finish before tonight, Colonel,” he said with a grin.
Well, I’m already wondering if I should regret my decision, Natalia thought, turning away from Vakhno.
“Like I said,” Orsolya continued, “your attempts failed.” Orsolya shrugged as she walked over to a chair sat, her rifle sitting on her lap. She raised her heavy boots to rest on a crate, several sheets of paper billowing off to the floor.
“Honestly, what the Brigadier sees in you lot is beyond me,” Baranfel stated, not bothering to look up from his focus.
“Did I miss something?” Vakhno asked.
Kadir moved to the left side of the table, his arms crossed as he studied the map. “He sees the results of our missions, Colonel. You’re just unfortunate enough to see us before those missions.”
“Apparently,” Baranfel said.
“Uhh…” Vakhno lowered his hand, looking about with a quizzical stare.
Walking over to stand opposite from Kadir, Natalia took care to not block the view of Orsolya, who sat by the wall of the tent. A stupid cap, does it really matter?
“Colonel?” Vakhno asked.
“Shut up, Vakhno,” Baranfel spat. “And get your ass over here so I can start this damn briefing.” His voice was strained with sudden frustration.
Vakhno quickly hopped to the side of the table opposite of the colonel. “Right! Sorry!”
Natalia looked over the map, spotting the large square denoting the encampment’s location. Surrounding it were splotches of a faded dark green to symbolize forests. A thick line to the north ran the entire length of the map, another thick line several inches further north. The trenches, extending for miles to the west, while in the east they ended into the Glodoran mountain range. She scanned the portion of the map closest to her where thin gray lines came closer and closer to denote the higher elevation changes.
“Alright,” Baranfel began. “Seeing how we have a new Gamayun here, I should inform you Ludmila that these briefings cover a minimal amount of detail. All you need to know is where you are going, and what your goal is,” Baranfel stated.
“Yes, sir. I understand,” Natalia replied, looking up briefly from the map to see the colonel still focused on it. Following his hand, she watched him point out the bold line closest to the main encampment.
“North of us is the Glodoran line, as you all know and have had the opportunity to cross at least once. Currently, Imperium soldiers defend this line against the Union, who have their own trench line three hundred meters away.” The colonel ran his finger along the parallel lines, before shifting his hand to a neat stack of envelopes. “As usual, I shall give each of you a private document detailing your mission. You are expected not to share any details with one another, unless you are paired together.” Baranfel took hold of the envelopes and began to pass them around. “Be sure to review them carefully. The Brigadier expects nothing less than complete success in your assigned tasks.” He finished by throwing the final envelope at Orsolya.
Catching it, Orsolya ran a finger across the red seal. “My, did Brigadier Voss get a new stamp? It looks sharper.”
The red seal depicted an eagle with its wings spread, a sword held in its talons. Natalia ran a finger over the edges, the wax smooth against her skin. He probably sent me behind enemy lines again. I just hope it isn’t against another tank. She hid the envelope into a pocket.
Ignoring Orsolya, the colonel returned to the map, his right hand resting on the paper. “All of you are to report to the front lines at your designated camp tomorrow. There you will wait until given word to begin.” Baranfel took a deep breath before turning to head back to his desk. Once there, he took hold of the mug atop its wooden surface and took a long drink.
“Anything else we should know?” Vakhno asked, his fingers itching to rip open the envelope.
“Yes, I was getting to it,” Baranfel said, pausing to place the mug back down. “Commit the map to memory if you have not already done so. With the oncoming winter, you may be given secondary objectives out on the field before you are allowed to return.” Baranfel returned to the table, his arms crossed. “Any questions?”
“Yes,” Kadir asked. “What of our three absent Gamayuns?”
Baranfel took another deep breath, considering his words. “Gamayuns Ishtal, Stervok, and Lovken are still under orders out in the field. You needn’t worry about them.”
“When did they last report?” Natalia asked. “Do we know if all three are still alive?” She felt a tightness in her throat. Curse, I shouldn’t get so worked up… But, she can’t die out there!
“As I said, you needn’t worry about them,” Baranfel repeated dryly.
Natalia brought her hands to the table, gripping the edge. “Well—” Natalia began before stopping herself as she pulled herself back, her hands returning to rest. This isn’t the place.
Baranfel nodded his head. “Any other questions?”
Vakhno knocked on the table twice in quick succession. “I have one more,” he said, straightening himself, his hands resting on his hips. “I’m personally curious like Natalia, as those three were expected back two days ago. They’re late. Especially when you consider the fact that they left days prior to Natalia’s mission.”
Baranfel’s brow furrowed. “Need I repeat myself again?”
“Relax with the persistent questions,” Kadir said to Vakhno. “Colonel, ignore them. They are still young.”
Baranfel nodded his head. “I suppose you are right.”
Is it wrong to care about the safety of your comrades? Natalia retreated a step, distancing herself from the colonel as she stood in her thoughts. Her hands dug into her pockets, squeezing the envelope.
“Well then, I assume that is that. You have the entire day to prepare yourself for your objectives.” Baranfel slowly turned his gaze to each Gamayun. “I expect to see each of you return, as much of a pain you all are. It would be a shame for Imperium soldiers to die all alone among the enemy.”
“Do not concern yourself, Baranfel,” Kadir said, beginning to make his way to the tent’s entrance. “We’ll return like always.”
“Of course.” Baranfel chuckled, rolling up the map and returned to his desk to take hold of his mug. “I shall see you all soon, then.”
But that’s not true… We don’t always all return. Natalia watched Kadir leave. Her mind wandered as she caught Vakhno giving her a wink before following behind Kadir out of the tent. I need to stop. I’m working myself up. Think of the positive. I’ll be away from this place, for one. She was suddenly taken out of her thoughts by a shake of her shoulders.
“Oh, come on, Natalia,” Orsolya said. “This is no time to get cold feet. You’ve already done this how many times? Let’s get going.” Orsolya laughed, wrapping an arm around Natalia’s shoulder and guiding her out.
Looking up, Natalia felt confused at the big smile across the older woman’s face. “No, I haven’t. This is my second mission as a Gamayun!”
“Yes, but you’ve done dozens as a sniper. These are just a bit harder.” Orsolya replied, twisting Natalia around so the two of them faced each other.
“Well, I suppose,” Natalia said. Finding herself outside of the tent, she looked out from the platform, seeing the same old busy encampment.
“You clearly managed in your last mission. You’ll manage again this time,” Orsolya said, gripping Natalia’s shoulders and turning Natalia to face her. “Besides, this mission will be easier.”
“Why’s that?” Natalia asked with a raised eyebrow.
Orsolya’s smile seemed to brighten even more. “I already skimmed my report… And well, what do I find? That we’re both paired up!”
“Yep. It’s rare, but not terribly uncommon for a new Gamayun to get paired up. What luck that you get to learn from the best!” She grinned. “Come on, go ahead. Look and see if I’m right.” She began shifting a hand towards Natalia’s pockets. “Otherwise I’m going to look myself!”
Natalia lightly slapped the woman’s hand away and turned around. Reaching into her pocket, Natalia quickly tore open the envelope to scan the top, spotting her name beside Orsolya’s. “Wow.”
Orsolya came up close, peaking over Natalia’s right shoulder. “I hope you’re ready to learn. I don’t plan on going easy.”
Turning on her heel, she came face to face with Orsolya, “I’m definitely ready!” she laughed.
“Excellent!” Orsolya replied, making her way off the platform. “Let’s go find some place quiet and review what needs to be done.”