Perpetual War: Chapter Two – Encampment

Awakening, Natalia finds herself safe and near her comrades. However this safety shall be short lived as soon she’ll set down a new path.

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Perpetual War:

Chapter Two – Encampment

Every war begins with the death of an individual. What follows is a struggle to decide who will claim victory in the end. Why it began in the first place is different. Resources, land, pride, revenge, disagreements, ideas, power, religion, technology, fear, hate, jealousy, feverish love, and many more reasons. None of it has to make sense either, it just has to make sense at the time to spark the flames of war. It’s through history that we can look back and realize the mistakes that led to the conflict. History teaches us all we need to know to navigate life and triumph over any dispute that arises. And yet, we instead make the same mistakes over and over and over again. The kind of mistakes that lead to millions of dead. It’s easy to place blame upon the nations that take part in the war such as Derdainia, Luncal’sha, Oligany, Swenork, Yenvark, and Ashakuriya. But that is the easy way out, in reality, all the blame can be placed upon us individuals. It’s by our actions that tragedies such as the White Vein, the Splitting of the Durnoc Peninsula, the Bloated Starvation, or the Metal Experiments occurred. Each could have been avoided, instead we urged them on, to be added to the long list of dark stains in history. Where this war that has come to be known as the Perpetual War began, I couldn’t possibly tell you. The one thing I can tell you is how it will come to a close. It ends with the death of an individual.

-Halbern Isador, A Philosophical Take on the History of the World

Through gaps of darkness she felt the cold air and the touch of feathers change to the warmth of cloth. Voices echoed all around but were too distant for her to understand. Her world kept getting turned all about as the touch of hands carried her from place to place. The numbness that had enveloped her began to subside, only come back with renewed strength after the pain hit her. She wanted to cry out.

In the haze, a relieving touch brought her the comfort she was trying to cling onto. In that instant everything became peaceful as that touch stayed near, helping her come closer and closer to a warmer place.

Natalia woke up to a clean, sterile smell. She blinked several times at the harsh gaze of lights above. Pushing herself slowly up onto her elbows she looked around the tent to see the dozens of beds filled with men and women in different states of recovery. Nurses and a doctor walked along the aisles to perform their checkups and deliver breakfast. Dizziness began to swell up in her head forcing her to collapse back into the sheets. Where was I before?

She tried to raise her left hand to call the attention of a nurse and immediately felt a sharp pain in her shoulder. With a gasp of pain, she tilted her head to see the bandages stained red. That’s right. Natalia reached toward the bed post behind her and pulled herself up, so she was slightly upraised by her pillows. Pulling her clean white shirt up she noticed another bandage going around her stomach. It feels like such a faraway dream. Her eyes wandered to the right where a tube went from her arm to a pack of fluids held by a metal stand. How did I get here anyways? She rubbed her forehead and closed her eyes as another wave of dizziness washed through her. Revu was carrying me… Leaning further back she looked up to the ceiling. The flash of a white mask with no emotion caused a shiver to run through her. The thick material of the tent shifted above her from the movement of the wind outside. A brief howl of wind caused the various nurses to pause in their quiet conversations. Natalia brought her hand up to her neck to feel the bruise that had formed there. Think of the positives… I’m alive, that’s a good thing.

“It is good to see you finally awake.”

Natalia looked up to see a gray-haired woman dressed in a plain white nurse gown stained with red along the sleeves. “Where am I?”

“You’re safe behind the Glodoran Trenches.” She took Natalia’s wrist and checked her pulse.

“Wait, how?” Natalia looked at the nurse with a raised brow, “I was up in the mountains.”

“From my understanding you were airlifted over here after being found,” the nurse said. “Now, open your mouth.”

Natalia obeyed the order and felt the thermometer get pushed beneath her tongue. Airlifted… Is Revu safe?

Reaching for the stethoscope around her neck, the nurse put it on and leaned forward, placing the silver resonator disc over Natalia’s heart.

“Wha’ ‘bout my ‘ferd!” Natalia mumbled around the thermometer.

“Please, refrain from talking,” the nurse ordered, moving the disc down to Natalia’s stomach.

“’ine.” Natalia shivered a little at the cold touch of the silver disc moving further down her midriff.

Standing straight again, the nurse took the thermometer from Natalia’s mouth, her eyes looking at the thin red color within. “Good. Now, sit up.”

“What happened to my volferd?” she asked again, slowly easing herself into a sitting position.

“I do not know.” The nurse placed the silver disc on Natalia’s back, “Please take a deep breath.”

Natalia huffed and took a deep breath. Let me go, I need to find, Revu.

“Breathe.”

Another deep breath. “Can I go already?”

She took the stethoscope out from her ears and placed it back around her neck. “Not yet.” The nurse then picked up the clipboard attached to the bed and began to scan the information on it. Pencil in hand, she filled out numbers along the charts.

“Why not? I’m feeling better., Natalia said before rubbing at her forehead from another wavy of dizziness. She lowered back into the comfort of the pillows. “Just give me some medicine and send me off already.”

“I’m glad you want to leave so bad after your lengthy stay, but I have to make these last few checks before sending you back to duty.”

“Lengthy?”

The nurse paused and lowered the clipboard slightly. “Yes, it has been two days since you have arrived.”

“You’re joking, right?”

“I’m not.” The nurse resumed her review of her papers. Blinking her eyes of exhaustion. “It’s what happens when you lose nearly three pints of blood. That much blood loss is fatal for normal girls.” She finished making notes on the paper, tapping the tip against the end. “Though, I suppose you aren’t normal.”

A shiver ran through Natalia. “Two days?” She mumbled and lowered her head. Two days… I nearly died on my first mission alone. She balled her hands into fists.

“Here, take this.”

Startled from her thoughts, Natalia looked up to see a glass of water and a wrinkled, old hand with a white pill waiting in the palm being offered to her.

“Take the medicine please, I have more patients I need to check on.”

Gulping down the pill and water, Natalia handed the glass back. “When will I be able to leave?”

“Now as a matter of fact. You’ve cleared all the minimal tests needed for an esper,” she replied, removing the IV from Natalia’s arm and pushing the stand to the side. “And there aren’t enough beds to have us waste one for you to sleep any longer.”

“Minimal tests? Checking my temperature and breathing was it?” Natalia rubbed at her forehead “Where am I supposed to go now?”

The nurse paused for a second in thought before resuming her work. “Go find your superior officer. It isn’t my problem.”

“Of course… Stolános Baranfel…” She moaned. Maybe I should have just died.

“Now sit up so I can give you fresh bandages,” the nurse said, taking a roll of white gauze and beige bandages from a drawer on the cart.

Natalia sat back up and raised her arms. The nurse began to remove the bandage around her stomach and replace it with a fresh one. Glancing down, Natalia noticed the circular red scab along the right side of her midriff. A shiver ran through her at the thought of the bullet piercing through.

“Turn to your right,” the nurse ordered and began to work on Natalia’s left shoulder.

Natalia looked around the medical tent, whispers catching her attention. She spotted two nurses whispering to one another, looks of exhaustion crossing each of their faces. She saw past the nurses as they moved to a man lying still, his legs gone. She quickly looked away to other beds to see a woman with an arm missing or a boy with an eye patch tossing and turning in his sleep. “Why are there so many injured today? Did the Union attack?”

“There’s always injured here,” the nurse replied, finishing up the second bandage before backing up. “Now get up and get dressed. I need this bed empty since yesterday.”

With a slow nod, she stood up. Placing a hand on the bed’s post for support, she felt a slight dizziness take her, but its effects were washed away by a few deep breaths. Straightening her shirt, Natalia noticed her pants and trench coat hanging over the edge of the bed. Taking hold of the gray pants, she pulled them up over her white briefs, smiling at how clean they were. She took the dark gray coat next and paused to look over it. “The holes have already been fixed?”

“The seamstress fixed it up for you.”

“Please thank her for me,” Natalia smiled at the touch of ruggedness and warmth the coat provided her. Tightening it, she went to the foot of the bed where her boots waited, along with her rifle, belt, and pack. Putting her feet into the holes of her boots, she knelt and began to tie them.

The nurse was already removing the covers of the pillows and pulling the sheets off the bed while Natalia finished. “Be sure to get more rest tonight and not do anything strenuous. The doctor doesn’t need you back in here taking up another bed.”

Tightening the last boot, Natalia stood up. “I understand.” She knelt by the foot of the bed to take hold of her rifle and pack. Slinging the straps onto her shoulders she wrapped the belt around her waist and made her way towards the long tent’s exit. The beds she passed, filled with an assortment of injured, kept her on edge. The sights of boys and girls even younger than her lying with bloodstained bandages made her heart ache. This place is always full… I don’t want to ever return. She came to the exit and paused by it to use a post for support. Her head swirled from the rush of movement. Oh, I just want to sleep by your side right now, Revu.

With a huff she stepped from the cover of the tent and onto a brown patch of grass that was barely surviving under the presence of the encampment. She paused to look around at the gray walls of other tents surrounding her, a group of soldiers walking past, crates and barrels lining the dirt path. She felt a drop of water hit the bridge of her nose and glanced up to see rolling gray clouds covering the sky, sections of white filling the gaps. A subdued darkness covered the area, and the sound of the wind drowned out any distant noise. The familiar smells of dust and dirt drifted on the wind replaced that from the clean sterile tent.

Nothing seems to change here. Natalia looked past the group of soldiers to see row after row of tents that led off into the distance with a line of trees and hills beyond. Two years and it’s the same dull place. She finished tightening her belt before checking to make sure the holster for the revolver and cartridges of bullets were all secured. She followed in the footsteps of the soldiers, her head lowered in thought. She glanced at wooden posts that denoted what each tent was, the numbers guiding her along to an eventual turn down a new path. A light drizzle of rain began to fall, a nearby patch of flowering weeds impossibly bright and yellow seeming to move in delight at the drops. I hope the stolános isn’t too angry with me.

Natalia paused at the end of the tight path between the tents, her hand took hold of a nearby post as a brief dizziness washed over her. Can this medicine work faster? She felt loose bangs of hair slide forward to cover her face. Swiping her hand along the top of her head, she gathered up every loose strand to pull back until it was as straight as possible. I must look like a complete mess. She reached into a pocket in search of a hair tie, which she used to tie her hair back into a ponytail. With a deep breath, she walked out onto the main path filled with more soldiers going about their business. A horse trotted by, dragging a wagon full of supplies. Natalia crossed to the other side of the path where she stopped before a wooden post. She knocked on the post at the entrance of a tent, the signage above denoting it as C7.

Knocking again, Natalia heard nothing from the tent. She stepped up onto the wooden platform supporting the tent, pulled the flap back, and poked her head in. Within she saw lanterns hanging from the poles supporting the tent, lighting up the space to reveal a mess of papers. Tables and boxes filled the sides of the tent, cluttered with documents. At the center was a large table, unable to fit the map that covered its surface. Beyond the table sat a desk in the back with a lantern, more paper lining it. The man sitting there had sleek black hair and a grizzled face, his black mustache kept in perfect trimmed condition. His eyes stayed glued to the stack of papers beneath his pen. The black coat adorning his shoulders was worn, most noticeable by the graying at the edges of the sleeves. The bronze bands on the shoulders of his coat denoted him as a stolános.

Stepping the rest of the way through the flaps, Natalia paused before the table with the map. She recognized several locations on it as the surrounding area, the black drawn lines going across its surface depicting the current trench lines. “Stolános Baranfel, I’m here to give my report,” she stated with a salute of her left hand rising to rest over her right breast.

The stolános slowly looked up, his bushy eyebrows making him appear angry. His right hand began to tap on the desk as he waited. “Ludmila, you’re missing your cap.” He leaned back in his chair with crossed arms.

“I…Um,” Natalia stammered as she stood frozen there under Baranfel’s gaze.

Baranfel enjoyed the sight a moment longer with a raised brow before he waved his hand to the pair of chairs opposite of where he sat. “Just take a seat, already.”

“Yes, sir!” Natalia barked, quickly moving around the table and taking the seat on her right. She placed her pack and rifle by her side.

“Report.”

Natalia nodded, averting her eyes away from the stolános’s intense gaze. “I traveled along the Bosakil Pass from the mountain camp towards the town of Bosavan. Once there I took up position to verify the reports that the town had been abandoned. It was upon the next morning that five Union soldiers appeared at the town center heading towards the town hall. I tried to approach them and get a better view of their intentions within the hall; however, they knew of my presence. One of the soldiers was a Lead and one of his companions was a Fey, who I believe was able to detect me with her calling.” She paused and glanced toward the stolános to see him staring at her with a focused gaze. Her eyes darted away as she gulped. “I did not see any other Union soldiers and failed to confirm their plans as I had to retreat due to their tactical advantage,” she finished, a tightness coming over her from the heat of the room.

“What makes you think the fey was able to detect you?” the stolános asked, his chair creaking as he shifted his weight.

She glanced to the pack where the transmitter laid within. “After sending the message, the fey stopped calling.” Natalia glanced up to see the stolános’ attention turn to one of the stacks of papers. The invisible pressure of his gaze seemed to lift slightly. “Upon heading out to follow in their steps there was a sniper waiting to fire upon me. I don’t believe I did anything else to draw their attention.”

“Let me see the transmitter.”

Natalia nodded and quickly bent over to dig through the pack. Coming back up with the metal transmitter she paused in trying to find an empty place on the desk. “I, where…”

“Just put it down!”

“Right, sorry!” She placed it and sat back in a hurry.

Opening the top, Baranfel took out the circuit board within, disconnecting any wires. Turning the board in his hands with care, he studied the complex wires and lines along its surface. “So, a fey then,” he sighed and placed the board to the side and leaned back in his chair with a tired expression. “I will inform the Communications Division to change the encoding of the messages once more.” The stolános brought his attention back to Natalia. “Do you have anything else to report?”

“Yes, I used a blood vial out there.”

Baranfel groaned. “Those are expensive… I hope it was put to good use?”

Saving my life! Natalia simply nodded in reply.

“I’ll try to get you another one in time for your next mission, anything else?”

“No, stolános. But I do have a question.”

“Go ahead.”

“Was Revu air lifted back with me? Where is she?”

Baranfel looked at another piece of paper, “Your volferd is with a supply caravan heading back here. They should arrive here tomorrow to pick up more supplies.” He lowered the paper and looked up again. “Any other questions?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. You have the rest of the day off, go get something to eat and some rest. I expect to see you back here tomorrow for the briefing at O-eight-hundred.”

“Wait,” Natalia began and felt the eyes pierce into her. “I, um, so…” She rubbed her hands together, “Am I a gamayun now?”

Baranfel rubbed his forehead and let forth a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately…” He began to reach into a drawer on his desk.

Unfortunately!? She squeezed her hands hard trying to control her emotions.

“Alkon Masikin has approved it on the condition you returned alive.” Baranfel offered an envelope stamped with a red seal. “As did the altálonos.”

Taking the envelope with shaking hands, Natalia looked down at the stamped seal, an osprey with wings spread and a sword held in its talons. Her fingertips glided around the edge of the smooth wax before opening the envelope. The paper within was a lengthy letter with the first line congratulating her on the promotion to the rank of Gamayun. “I can’t possibly thank you enough Stolános Baranfel!” She smiled brightly to him.

He waved his hand. “You got your promotion to gamayun, Ludmila. But I expect on your next mission for you to do a better job.”

“Yes, of course sir. I won’t let the enemy outsmart me again!” She replied. Standing up with rifle and pack in hand, she placed them onto her shoulders and began to head out.

“And Natalia.”

“Yes, sir?” she asked, turning around to see the stolános already bent over, pen in hand, writing.

“Also make sure that next time you come back on your own two feet and not a bloody mess hanging over your volferd.”

“Yes, sir…” Natalia mumbled before walking out of the tent, the light shower of rain greeting her with its coolness. A gamayun. She glanced down at the letter, skimming the words of the single brief paragraph talking about her recent accomplishments as a sniper. She dug her hand into the envelope for the other object within, a patch decorated by a black talon. A thin smile creased her lips at its pearly black design. Natalia folded up the letter and placed it into a coat pocket. The emblem kept in her free hand, her thumb gently rubbing the smooth texture. She exhaled deeply and took a few steps before leaning against a nearby wooden post. Her forehead was covered in sweat as dizziness washed over her.

She raised her chin to the sky and closed her eyes to enjoy the feel of the falling rain against her face. I got what I wanted. Another promotion… another raise to my paycheck, which means more money for you, mama. Shaking her head, Natalia began walking, following the signs as she crossed aisles of tents. Her boots splashed in the small puddles beginning to form along the muddy path. Natalia sighed and stopped by the side of another tent. “I can’t think straight with this growing migraine,” rubbing her forehead she resumed her pace. “Food…” She mumbled, stuffing the black talon patch into a pocket, forgotten for now.

Waiting for a pause in the foot traffic along the dirt path, she crossed over, dodging past a large artillery piece getting pulled by two horses. She glanced back in marvel at the massive barrel of the gun and the gears used to adjust it.

“Careful!”

Natalia twisted around and quickly jumped to the side, out of the way of two men carrying a crate towards a tent. This place is too crowded. Turning down another corner, Natalia reached a massive set of tents placed near each other in a long rectangle.

She walked beneath an overhanging flap and found a space filled with dozens of tables crowded by men and women eating and talking. I’m already missing the wilderness. Finding her way to the line towards the tables serving as the kitchen, she waited patiently, her fingers gently rubbing together for warmth. She looked along the sides of the tent to see the outside, a darkness starting to grow over the encampment and a chill coming in.

“More rain…” a voice spoke nearby. “Poor bastards at the front tonight are going to be freezing in the mud again.”

Natalia looked up from her thoughts to see two men in line with her talking to one another. Both were older than her by several years, the first with a full-grown beard, his cap shadowing his eyes. The other who had spoken first had scruff along his face, poorly trimmed, his hair shaggy.

“We’ll be stuck in that mud soon, ourselves,” the bearded man said.

“You think?”

“For sure. There’ll be plenty of rain the next few days. That’s what we get for building the trenches in this valley.”

“Still doesn’t make sense to me why we’re in a valley of all places,” said the shaggy-haired man. “Why not up in the hills so we have the high ground?”

“It’s just how things worked out. Damn Union showed up and got us stuck here.” He scratched at his beard, trying to rid himself of an itch. “Let’s just hope the rumors of the Leviathan aren’t true.”

“You can’t be serious, are you?”

“I wouldn’t lie about such a thing,” The bearded man looked over to Natalia, his eyes quickly averting away.

“What’s wro—” the other man began, looking down to see the black orb patch over her right breast, then meeting her gaze. “esper…” he mumbled, quickly looking away.

The same welcome I always get, figures. She turned her eyes back to the floor, feet shuffling as the line moved. She took a tray atop a stack and walked the line, offering it to the servers for food. Feeling the weight on the tray, she looked down to see a biscuit and a bowl full of a brown stew that smelled bland, only a few chunks of meat floating at the top. Natalia walked away from the line, her eyes scanning the rows of tables for familiar faces. She spotted two men at a table, the older one waving a hand towards her. What luck! Alkon Masikin! With a drink in hand already.

The man who waved her over had a full head of gray hair pulled back in a short tail. He had a clean-shaven face etched with wrinkles from age and long nights. His eyes looking back at her were black, a youthfulness behind them. The sleeves of his trench coat were rolled up to reveal some muscle of his thick forearms, his large hands showing visible wear from use. “Come join us, Natalia!” His voice strong but had a distinct raspy tone to it. “Or should I say Gamayun Ludmila?”

“Thank you, Alkon Masikin,” Natalia replied with a smile. She bowed slightly in his direction. “I can’t thank you enough for giving me a chance as a gamayun.” She peeked up at the mug he held, catching sight of the dark liquid within. He really is drinking! I thought it was prohibited for espers.

He waved his hand dismissively, “You deserve it for all the hard work you’ve been doing, now sit! Eat!”

“Thank you, Alkon.”

“Enough of that ‘alkon’ crap. You are a gamayun now Natalia! And as such you are welcome to call me, Kadir.”

Natalia nodded, “Alright Alk— Kadir.”

Kadir chuckled before taking another swig of his drink.

Kadir… a companion now… a comrade. A tapping sound caught her attention as she looked up at the man sitting across from her.

“Natalia, I’m sure you remember Vakhno here,” Kadir said.

“How, could I forget him?” This loud oaf.

“Glad I’m not forgettable! How are you feeling, Natalia?” Vakhno asked in an even tone, a smile on his lips. A gray cap covered his clean-cut brunette hair and his mustache was kept trimmed. Leaning forward he rested his elbows on the table, his left hand tapping the table rhythmically. A visible scar ran between his ring and middle finger, the trail vanishing up the sleeve of his gray coat. “You look better, that’s for sure!” He laughed at his own joke, his hazel eyes taking her in.

Natalia rolled her eyes. I swear.

“Vakhno, have some respect for our Natalia. She’s been through a lot!” Kadir growled.

“I am being respectful,” Vakhno replied. “I did ask her if she was doing better, did I not? You heard me, right Natalia?” His fingers began to drum faster.

“Yes, I heard you.” Natalia shook her head. “And yes, I am doing much better.” She picked up the spoon on her tray and began to scoop up some of the stew. A grimace crossed her face at the taste as she forced it down her throat.

“How was your first mission? Heard you came back with a lot of blood on you. Did you use a vial?” Vakhno asked, eying her curiously.

A shiver ran down her spine, her left hand hurting at the memory of the glass vial crushing in her hand. “I… I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

“Honestly, Vakhno. You ask too much. And stop that infernal tapping,” Kadir ordered.

“Sorry,” Vakhno replied, pulling a pair of gloves from an inside pocket of his jacket, the brown leather worn and beginning to turn black. Lying the gloves flat on the table, he resumed his tapping on the gloves, the leather muffling the sound. “Anyway, I am merely curious. I’ve heard a lot about the vials, haven’t had a chance to use one myself.” He reached into a pocket with his free hand and produced a small vial with crimson blood inside, twirling it between his fingers.

“You should hope you never use it,” Kadir said before taking a gulp of his large mug sitting before him.

“Why’s that?”

Kadir lowered his mug. “I’ve seen enough espers go crazy on it.”

“Oh, come now, they go crazy? That is just exaggeration. Surely it ain’t that bad.”

Natalia paused in her eating to watch the vial of blood twirl into the air before Vakhno caught it. “It was euphoric, but cut short,” she stated.

“Oh?” he replied, eying her curiously. “Why’d it end?”

“Vakhno!”

“No, he’s fine Kadir…” Natalia said. Taking a deep breath, she looked down in thought before talking, “It felt amazing, up until the part where I got shot.”

Vakhno let forth a fit of laughter, “Seems you got blinded.”

“It might have been better the experience ended early for you,” Kadir said.

Natalia winced and rubbed her right side, “I’m not sure about that…”

“Honestly, it must be an experience thing. After a few vials, I bet any esper can control it,” Vakhno said.

“It is not based on experience. You are a fool to think that,” Kadir said.

“How would you know?” Vakhno asked, turning his attention to Kadir. “You barely go out on the field anymore.”

“Experience means nothing with those vials!”

Natalia watched the two men glare at one another before returning to her meal. “Please, let’s change the topic.” It’s pointless anyways.

“Sorry,” Kadir said before taking another gulp from his mug.

Vakhno straightened himself, his arms crossing as he began to shake his legs. “Sure, we can change it.” He leaned forward, his focus on Natalia. “You looking forward to your next mission?”

“I don’t believe that’s the topic she meant, Vakhno,” Kadir said.

Natalia lowered her spoon again, her eyes studying the eager look of Vakhno. “Yes, I suppose I am.”

Vakhno stopped shaking his legs, his fingers resuming their tapping on the gloves, a grin crossing his lips. “That’s great to hear! You’ll have a lot of fun for sure!”

“I think I will.”

Vakhno’s grin grew bigger. “Came back covered in blood, and you want to go back out there. It’s really exciting stuff, being a gamayun.”

“There is nothing exciting about this job. You should take it more seriously,” Kadir stated.

“Nothing wrong finding a little fun in your work,” Vakhno said. He picked up his leather gloves and pulled them onto his hands. “Surely Kadir, you find some enjoyment in being a gamayun? At least the satisfaction in lining up a long distance shot and hitting the mark?”

Kadir slowly exhaled, his arms crossed. “I suppose I can’t deny there being some… satisfaction.”

“See?” Vakhno laughed. “We’re all alike in this basic desire.”

“I fail to see how we are alike though,” Natalia said.

Vakhno smiled. “Well, I could give you lots of reasons. But personally, I’d rather talk over some shooting. Orsolya and I are doing a little competition tomorrow, you should join.” Vakhno casually began to crack a few of his knuckles.

“Orsolya, who’s that?” Natalia asked.

“She’s the Halcyon Gamayun here,” Kadir said.

“And a real pain at that, I plan on outshooting her tomorrow for the second time!” Vakhno gave a grin. “It’ll be a lot of fun, the three of us.”

“Why not four?” Natalia looked over to Kadir.

Kadir chuckled, “He knows if I show up, he’d lose to me, just like he did to Orsolya.”

“One, I beat her, and two, that is not the reason why I don’t invite you,” he stood up, arching his back to stretch. “I just think it’d be bad if I pulled you away from your deserving rest. After all, you are an alkon, got a lot of things to keep you busy I’m sure.”

Kadir simply nodded and returned to his drink.

“I should be going, let me know tomorrow at the briefing if you’d join us, Natalia. I think you’ll find it worth your time. After all, it’s important to know your comrades so when you’re out there alone you have a reason to come back from that solitary paradise.” Stepping from the bench he waved his hands, starting to walk off. “That’s what you always say, right, Kadir?” He chuckled.

Natalia watched Vakhno leave, her eyes taking in the rifle slung over his back, the wooden stock and scope giving off a slight shine, having been cleaned recently. I think I’ll go just so I can beat him.

“I swear, that boy is ridiculous,” Kadir scoffed, watching Vakhno walk off and vanish among a crowd of soldiers. “Six months a gamayun and he thinks he can take on anything. Damn fool.” He took the final gulp of rum sitting at the bottom of his mug.

Natalia picked up her spoon and began to finish the last of the stew in her bowl. Solitary paradise… Being out there, is that really paradise? It is the furthest I’ve been from the army in a long time.

Slamming the mug back onto the table, Kadir knelt close, his eyes studying Natalia. “You’re thinking about what he said.”

“Yes. He is… Well, he isn’t entirely wrong,” Natalia replied before taking the last spoonful of the brown stew. “Glad I’m done eating this stuff.”

Kadir sighed. “Unfortunately, he learned from me, just like you have. So no, he isn’t wrong.” He stood up and placed a reassuring hand on Natalia’s shoulder. “I never said it, but it’s great to see you make it back from your first mission. Get as much rest as you can, you’ll need it before tomorrow’s briefing.”

“Thank you, Kadir. Before you go though, do you mind me asking you a question?”

“What’s that?”

“I thought espers couldn’t drink alcohol.” Natalia eyed the empty mug still sitting on the table.

Kadir chuckled, “We aren’t supposed to, but when you’re old like me and moved up the military ladder, you find a need to pick a poison.”

“A poison?”

He waved his hand and began to walk off, “You’ll understand one day.”

“A need for poison, doesn’t seem to make sense.” She watched him go before shrugging and returning to the empty bowl set before her. I guess just another lesson of his. She began to nibble away at the biscuit. I wonder what everyone is doing back at home. She neared the end of the biscuit, taking time to savor the remaining bites. Home… it feels like I get further away with every day. At least I have Revu. She finished the biscuit and absentmindedly licked at her fingers for any crumbs. I can’t wait to see her tomorrow.

 

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Author of the on-going serial "Perpetual War"

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