Among the trenches death comes swift and unexpected. Even those quick on their feet can find their end by a random shell that happened to come too close from up above. In the end, only the lucky will survive.
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Chapter Six – Mud of the Trenches
The Glodoran Trench Line. Eleven years it has existed as a place for men, women, and beast to die. Eleven years that the land itself has been torn apart and turned into a wasteland where nothing can thrive. There are many locations around the world that are currently in conflict, but its Glodoran that has become a true place of horror. The magic sealed away within the halls of that tower should remain locked. Need I remind those around me the destruction at the Pixxelk Plains where over half a million vanished in a blink of an eye? The deaths littering Glodoran are too high a price for the Primordial Tower.
-Marlene Vumos, Letters to End the Madness
A freezing drizzle fell from the dismal gray clouds above. Droplets bounced off the helmets of soldiers cowering within the protection of the trenches, but sound of the rain was lost in the loud whistling above. Smokey trails followed the falling shells that pierced through the heavy clouds. The shells hit their targets with a concussive force that caused man and animal alike to panic and scurry about. Dirt and debris rained in every direction. The explosions built upon one another in an overwhelming crescendo that left many to freeze up in their trenches and simply cry. Between it all, a low humming clung to the background, never seeming to go away through all the chaos.
Natalia weaved through the trenches towards the front. She turned a corner and spotted Vykter pushing through a thick muddy patch to the opposite dry side.
“They need us up there, Ludmila!” Vykter shouted back to her.
She saw a final glimpse of his coat before it vanished around the bend of the path. Approaching the mud, she stepped in and was caught by surprise at her feet abruptly sinking in, the sloshing barely audible to her over the sound of the falling shells. Tightening her grip on the strap of her rifle, she reached a hand to the left wall to steady herself. She kept her eyes focused on the opposite side of the section where the trench rose up out of the mud. The mud quickly enveloped her legs to just beneath her knees. Each step she took released more of the decaying mucky smell to fill the air.
A close impact abruptly flattened Natalia into the mud. She flailed about in alarm, her hand searching for something solid, and found it. With all her strength, she pulled herself from the muddy path, only managing to get up to her waist out of the muddy grip. With a shake of her head, Natalia cleared her eyes as best she could and came face to face with the dead eyes of a young girl. Natalia froze as she stared into the brown eyes.
“Ludmila!” A shout echoed between a brief pause before another round of shells landed.
Slowly she released her grip on the barrel of the girl’s rifle, still held in warm hands. Natalia placed gloved hands to either side of the dry path quickly becoming wet with dirty blood. With one foot free, she pulled the other out and scanned her body to make sure everything was still on her as it should be. Her eyes caught on the young girl again; the bottom half of her body was gone.
Another impact nearby shook Natalia, causing her to stumble into a dirt wall. Forcing herself back to her feet she dug her hands into the dirt to rip out a clump of it. Squeezing the dirt between her hands she tried her best to rub the blood away with the damp dirt. Her rifle and the rest of her gear jostled and shook as she kept moving. Mud and bloody footprints were left in her wake before vanishing altogether with the chaos of the trench.
Natalia came around the bend to find Vykter waiting at a corner of a three-way intersection in the trench lines. The wall waited for her at the end of the last line of defense before entering the empty field littered with years of death.
“Where is Lulilia?” Vyker called out to Hukven who sat with crossed arms and head down trying to rest. A flask in hand, unfazed by the shelling as he took another swig.
“She went off to check on the listening post!” he called back. Hukven looked up and waved his hand in her direction. “The girl’s already gotten into a mess without us?”
Vykter stood and followed Hukven’s hand to Natalia. His rifle rested at his feet, freeing up his hands which he now squeezed and rubbed together. “You alright?” Vykter called out. His brow furrowed at the muddy mess Natalia was in. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Natalia shouted in return. She looked to the sky, hands flexed with anticipation, “Why isn’t the barrier up yet?”
Krieger, sitting to the right with cigar in hand, rose up in a crouch. “It’s a joke, honestly! The useless domovoy who set it up must’ve used rodents to power it!” He puffed smoke from his lips. “It’s only been ten minutes of this crap and I’m sick of it.”
“Domovoy are espers just like you Natalia are they not? Surely you could power the barrier,” Marxun asked, rising to his feet.
Natalia shook her hands “I may be an esper like them, but it’s not as easy as waving my hand, you know!”
“Can you at least try?” Marxun insisted.
“It’s worth a shot I’d say,” Teiver added with crossed arms.
“I… maybe?” Natalia tried busying herself with mud caked between her gloved fingers, feeling heated pressure from the sets of eyes on her. Me activate a domovoy’s rune? I barely learned how to create a rune!
“It’s a plan then.” Vykter shouldered his rifle. “The Union are sure to direct their fire to the barrier, so if anything, we can at least help protect it. We’ll use the shields and move there at a slow pace, no need to die from random artillery.” He picked up a heavy metal plate leaning against the trench wall. “You know what to do, Ludmila?”
Natalia looked up at the trails of death soaring through the sky. Her fists clenched and unclenched in anticipation. “I think so.” Not like I’m being given a choice.
“Lumek!” Vykter called out to the boy cowering in the corner of their group. “Get up and grab a shield! Just like the training!”
She glanced at the youthful eyes of Lumek, fear evident in them as he took a metal shield with shaking hands.
“What is that humming?” Lumek asked with wide eyes.
Hukven grumbled a curse while Teiver looked away.
“It’s best we not think about it.” Vykter stated.
“It’s the Leviathan, isn’t it?” Marxun asked, his hands taking hold of his own shield.
“Like Vykter said, best we not think about it!” Hukven spat and stood up.
Natalia watched the exchange in confusion before she took notice of the humming with renewed interest. Are they serious?
“Slow them down, Ludmila, and I’ll finish the job,” Teiver said before sliding a pair of thick goggles over her eyes and crouched low to the ground with a long-barreled rifle in hand.
Just have to slow them down. The plates came up, and etchings along the surface began to glow a dark red. She felt an attachment to the four raised shields, a strength welling up within her beating heart. The connection of blood was made to her from the rune-powered shields that now drew energy from their wielders. A thin red veil that her strong eyes could see came into existence as a barrier of protection from the destruction appeared all around. Natalia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Alright, I can do this. The pounding of blood through her veins began to slow as she regained control of her adrenaline. Relax. She felt a warmth begin to grow within her arms and hands. Just relax and go through the motions, I’ve done this before. She opened her eyes again and felt a rush to her senses as her vision became enhanced. Turning to the sky she spotted the shells falling towards her. “Hold here!” she ordered and raised her arms high up. The shields raised with her.
The artillery shell, which had been descending alarmingly fast, slowed to a crawl.
Teiver fired a heavy bolt from the rifle that lanced through the frozen shell. The explosion that followed sent a shock wave high above in a harmless gesture.
A smile crept at Natalia’s lips, and her eyes quickly began to seek out the next shell in danger of harming them. So far, so good.
Another shell slowed in the air before it was pierced with a bolt.
Her eyes spotted the next shell, fingers stretching out for the impossible. The beating of her heart starting to take over her senses along with her deep, focused breathing. The cold, metallic touch of the distant artillery shells was a reassuring touch as they became awash in fire and smoke. Teiver’s voice was a distant noise at the back of her head, giving her direction on when to move to the next shell. The shrapnel raining down bounced off harmless against the barriers.
“The shells are slowing down,” Hukven said.
Vykter lowered his shield slightly to turn towards Teiver. “Is it clear enough to move?”
“Let’s move! We can’t let the Union destroy the barrier.” Vykter slapped Lumek on the shoulder. “Lower it, kid, save your strength!”
Lumek simply nodded, his body shivering in dread.
“Natalia! Teiver! Lead the way!” Vykter called out.
Natalia caught the confident golden eyes of Teiver before the woman took off down the trench. She followed suit with the rest of the group right on her heels. Her attention kept getting pulled to the sky towards the formation of new white trails through the clouds. A constant warmth hung around her hands, keeping her on edge with its constant tingling. The blood in her veins was pumping quickly in preparation for the use of more magic.
Soldiers cowering in the trenches squeezed tight against the walls of dirt at the deep bellowing from Hukven for them to move, curses lost to the wind and explosions.
Moving around a bend in the trench, Natalia saw a huddle of shields with the bright orange-haired girl at the center with her own.
“Vykter!” Lulilia called out, her braided loops bouncing at her sudden outburst of excitement. “It’s great to see you!”
“Keep your shields raised for our esper!” Hukven spat before Vykter could reply.
Lulilia turned her attention back to the sky with her shield pointed up. “Already done!” Arulla, Crav, and Marxun joined her with their own shields.
The combination of eight shields wrapped around Natalia gave her a new sense of strength. The flow of magic coursed through her as her hands stretched out to the sky. Another shell close by was brought to an abrupt halt before Teiver blew it out of the sky. Several more shells followed in the same fiery destruction. The shrapnel that fell brought no harm to their group.
Natalia’s eyes laid on a shell coming straight at them, her grip on it another welcoming sign to her power. An abrupt impact on her side caused her to stumble in the grip of someone else. Her grip on the magic became loosened.
Cries and shouts of alarm sounded all around. She grit her teeth through the pain and turned her gaze back to the shell, hands outstretched. Her grasp renewed and the shell halted, a thin smile creased her lips at the ball of fire that followed. A sigh of relief washed through her as she closed her eyes in a brief moment of rest.
“Medic! Get a medic!”
“Keep the shields up!”
Natalia looked down to see nothing out of the ordinary about her own body. She glanced towards the dirty hands holding her shoulders and followed them to the owner and saw that Krieger had caught her, his cigar long since lost in the chaos. “Thanks” she said, before straightening herself. Natalia took note of the metal plate with a gaping hole discarded to the side. The short, black haired, chubby man on the ground with blood covering the side of his neck coughing up more blood as two others tried to keep him awake.
“Keep the shields raised! Teiver is it clear?” Vykter shouted.
“They’re shifting their aim again, give me a second, more may be coming…” Teiver replied, her keen eyes focused on the sky.
Natalia noticed the shake in Vykter’s voice, the shiver in his hands having trouble holding up the metal plate along with the others that kept them all protected. The paleness in Vykter’s skin made her shiver. How much longer do we have to go?
“Crav, you dumb idiot, stay awake!” Lulilia cried out.
“Marxun, stay with Crav until the medic gets here,” Vykter ordered. “Teiver, are we moving?”
“I’m not leaving!” Lulilia replied.
“I think their narrowing their target on the barrier’s location for this sector.” Teiver raised her rifle up to peer through the scope. “They got eyes on it for sure. A ghost’s mark among the trails left by the artillery shells. We can move!”
Marxun continued to apply pressure to Crav’s neck while Lulilia squeezed Crav’s hand.
“Focus up, Lulilia. We are moving!” Hukven shouted over the crack of a shell exploding close by.
A consistent warmth blanketed Natalia as the pain that had hit her side vanished altogether. A resurgence of energy flowed through her. “We need to move, Vykter…” she muttered, noticing just how pale all the shield wielders had gotten. She looked to the sky at a distinct rise of the low hum that hung in the air before it returned to normal. Is the Leviathan coming closer?
“Lead the way to the barrier, Teiver,” Vykter ordered and pointed his hand in the general direction before moving forward with the rest in tow.
Lulilia held back another outburst and followed behind, the metal shield heavy even with both of her hands supporting it.
The group moved along the trench, the intersection up ahead drawing ever closer as they weaved back and forth through the zig-zagging line. Scattered soldiers looked on with fear in their eyes, the shock of the situation leaving them immobile. Holes in the walls and the pathway were crested with body parts of both human and beast. Blood mixed with the mud along with a slurry of other unknown fluids created a black goo at the muddiest sections of the trench that stuck on the bottom of their boots as they moved through it. The lingering stench joined with the constant falling shells became all a white noise to the senses.
“Volley!” Teiver exclaimed and crouched down with her rifle.
Hukven launched past Teiver to take up position on the other side of the path. Vykter took the head of the group and Lulilia the other side. Shields rose up in a defensive formation all within seconds.
They just keep coming. Natalia stretched her hands out, muscles aching with the effort. The magic flowing through her resonated with her call for its use once more. The oncoming shell closest to their location halted midair before it was pierced through with a bolt. The visible black hole in its casing erupted with flames that engulfed it entirely, followed by an explosion. The sound was a distant note to her ears as Natalia’s attention turned to the next shell racing toward them. It halted under her grip as well before it was destroyed. How much longer? She grit her teeth and took hold of a third, then a fourth, and each was pierced with Teiver’s welplaced bolts. Her racing heart grew louder with each shell she took hold of.
A black shield faltering before falling caught the corner of her eye. Hang on. She gasped for air as fear and pain came at her all at once. The shell bearing down on them seemed closer than the rest, its scratches and dents all along its silvery and bronze surface creeping forward.
The release of another bolt followed by the explosion lit the air dangerously close above the group, the wave of heat vanishing as quickly as it had come with the wind. “That’s it! I don’t see any more coming close to us!” Teiver called out.
Relief rushed through Natalia’s veins, and the heat gripping her body vanished as if a splash of water had hit her. Beads of sweat covered her face even with the chill in the air. Her legs tried to pull her down, and she leaned back against the wall in an attempt to ignore her desire to sit. Thirsty.
“Arulla, are you okay?” Lulilia asked the bulky, armored woman half-collapsed on the ground.
“Yea… I just need a second…” She replied with a wave of her hand. The shield that had fallen from her hands near the end now rested close by in arms reach. Her tanned skin seemed far paler than normal as she stuffed her dirty hands into a pocket for a ration bar.
“There’s a break in the shelling, lower the shields. Take a breather everyone while you can.” Vykter heavily leaned against the wall opposite of Natalia, the shield forgotten at his side. “We’ll have to move soon.”
Natalia reached for the canteen on her belt out of instinct. Her fingers unscrewed the top automatically as she eagerly brought the silver rim to her lips. The death and destruction all around became distant as her entire being focused on the cool water rushing through her. The temporary peace settled on her as she closed her eyes.
“I can still hear it, they haven’t stopped!” Lumek cried.
She was taken out of her thoughts to see Lumek still holding his shield up, the boy’s body visibly shaking.
“Get down, they aren’t hitting around us you damn idiot!” Hukven exclaimed and reached over the tired Vykter to grip the boy’s arm and rip him down. The shield fell, nearly crushing Lumek’s foot. “Get your head straight!”
Teiver, eyes still turned to the sky, said, “Careful Hukven…”
“Get off me! We have to protect ourselves!” Lumek reached for the shield with clawed hands.
“Damn it, sit still!”
Lulilia bounced past Teiver and got between Lumek and Hukven. “Back off, you’re being too rough with him!”
Natalia watched Hukven give a scowl and a mumbled response before backing off. Lulilia stayed close by Lumek with hushed tones. She looked to Vykter who sat still during the entire exchange. What a mess.
Arulla sat up with a heavy groan. “When are we going to shoot back? I’m getting tired of these bastards thinking they can keep doing this!”
Vykter perked up from his spot and met the woman’s fiery eyes. “We’re on the defensive. To attack now would be suicidal.”
“Then when’s the counterattack?” Her pale skin became filled with color once more as her strength returned with a growing rage. “When do we actually do something instead of cowering here in these trenches? That humming is getting on my nerves.”
“We don’t,” Krieger cut in. The shield he carried, abnormally larger and a darker shade of black than the others, had its bottom pierced deep into the ground. The large man rested his arms along the top of the shield. “We shot at them yesterday, now it’s our turn to get shot at. It’s the cycle here, best get used to it.”
Arulla met Krieger’s eyes, seeing no further explanation she spat to the side.
“We have company, Vykter,” Hukven said. “Looks like it’s Reita.”
Vykter got up from his position and moved past the huddled group towards the approaching runner coming through the trench.
“Vykter, the concentration of Union shells is turned toward the barrier!” Reita spoke, short of breath. “Vezeto Erőshal is calling for further assistance around it and the central fortification!” Although her body was plastered with dirt and mud, she still had the strength to stand at attention before Vykter.
“What we’ve been trying to do, missy!” Krieger shouted over a nearby stray shell.
With a final gulp of water, Natalia closed the canteen before standing up.
Vykter looked back at Natalia, studying her for a moment. His hands squeezed together as he turned his attention to the others before he went over to his shield to pick it up. “Lulilia take Lumek and return to Marxun and Crav. The rest of us will continue on.”
Lulilia turned at her name and rose up. “No, you need all the help you can get up there.”
“Lumek is in no state to continue, we need someone to keep eyes on him.”
“No, no, I can do it!” Lumek exclaimed getting a burst of energy as he stood up. “I… I’ll keep going!”
Vykter met the boy’s gaze waiting for him to falter. With no change in Lumek’s stance, Vykter shook his head, “Alright, we’re all moving together, grab your gear!” He turned back to Reita, “Lead the way, Reita!”
“Yes, Vykter!” Reita replied and spun around.
Natalia studied Lumek, taking note of the shiver that still ran through the boy’s body. How much younger is he? With a deep breath she followed Reita and Vykter through the trench. Teiver at her side with the rest close behind.
The group rushed onward, to their left beyond the protection of the trench was the land of dead waiting for any foolhardy to attempt crossing it. The pathway led to an intersection where Reita turned right, heading deeper into the network of trenches. Puffs of smoke blocked their view. Smoldering debris lying among craters decorated their path. Boots slammed through the dirt and the mud that filled the bottom of the craters.
Huffing with the effort, Natalia squeezed at her chest. Her coat felt heavy and hotter than usual. The sweat on her face became dried from the chill, causing her breathing to become ragged with the effort of getting enough air. This has to end soon. She took in the sight of the others, young or not, each was bearing the burden of the shield horribly. The strain of the magic was evident in their breathing and slowed pace compared to earlier in the assault. They depend on me. A wave of weakness hit her as she stumbled a step before finding her footing again with a strong grip around her arm. Krieger by her side once more she nodded her thanks. And I on them.
They took another turn at the next intersection, Reita calling out with each change of direction. Her swift hop carrying her over any obstacle with ease. A shell landed close by, raining dirt on the group. “Teiver?” she called out.
“Just a stray shell, we’re fine!” Teiver replied.
“But it was so close!” Lumek exclaimed, half raising his shield.
“Keep going, we’re almost there.” Lulilia urged Lumek forward.
Several more shells landed close by, the cacophony growing with each step they took. Scattered soldiers all alone stuck low to the ground, cowering against the wall. The white of their wide eyes staring up among the dirt.
Rounding another corner, Natalia spotted Erőshal standing on the far side of a wide-open space dug into the ground. At the center sat a large cannon at the base of a long silver tubing feeding towards a structure half buried into the hill further back. At Erőshal’s side was Windstor with his lance holding shields around another esper, a man with black hair pulled back in a short ponytail. An artillery shell above the group was slowed down by the esper before it was blown apart.
Windstor’s here too? What about the other cespaut?
“Raise the shields! Ludmila, focus up!” Vykter called out.
Her attention turned back to the sky; Natalia raised her hands to a shell aimed for the open space they now stood in. The grip of magic came back to her in an instant, a hint of pain carried with it. The shell slowed down before it was destroyed. With the release of the shell, Natalia weaved her hands through the air in search of the next, veins pulsing along her arms as she bore the weight of each shell within her grip. The relief after each shell’s destruction was brief as a nagging feeling kept at the back of her head to let go altogether. A tingly numbness beginning to grow at her fingertips.
Her vision began to blur as sweat dripped down her face, but the motions of what had to be done kept her moving. The impact of each shell caused the numbness to grow further. The cries and curses from those around her were replaced by the pounding beat of her own heart. The surge of magic that connected her to the shields started to run cold, its touch only furthering the numbness in her.
An impact close by gave her a brief surge of energy. Natalia felt the cold touch end abruptly from several shields, as those left supplied a lukewarm feeling that did little to urge her on. The change of temperatures through her body caused shivers to run up her spine as she grit her teeth in an attempt to stay focused. A wave of light-headedness rushed through her as she felt her knees give out abruptly.
With a cry, Natalia forced herself back up, ignoring the pain that shot through her legs.
Dirt and shrapnel rained down. A piece nicked her right arm, cutting into the sleeve of the coat. Blood dripped out into the air from her wound before vanishing toward each shell she froze midair. Warmth rushed down her left side of her face, forcing her eye closed. Each click of Teiver’s rifle releasing a hot shell sounded through all the noise around her. With each breath she waited for the click as a reassurance to move to the next target.
Another impact sent her sprawling onto her back, the wind knocked out of her. She clung to consciousness. Natalia could taste iron on her lips and smelled it too. A loud ringing kept looping in her ears. She tried clenching her fists, finding the right one in too much pain. Her left hand shook as she brought it up to her face to best wipe at her blurry eyes. She tried forcing her left eye open and caught a glimpse of light through it before she closed it. The loud ringing began to subside to be replaced by muffle voices. The sounds of explosions distant to the shouts and cries of soldiers all around trying to restore order in the chaos.
Using her left elbow for support, Natalia rose up to see Vykter, Teiver and Hukven crouching low with their shields raised, providing a low barrier to protect the rest of the group. Each member was in worse shape than Natalia, their bodies visibly drained physically and mentally, barely breathing in their state. The black-haired esper with Windstor’s group was down to a knee, his right hand still raised to the sky.
A low vibration hummed through the ground. Glancing over her shoulder, Natalia saw metal rods rising out of the hill beyond the open space. Yellow and green lights danced between the various rods before shooting toward a central pillar that twisted and bent at the whim of a hidden caster. The lights filled into the air above beginning to create a dome around the entire area. Its wave moved in a slow motion as some artillery shells began to hit it, their bodies dispersing in fire against the barrier harmlessly.
High in the sky above the Union’s trenches came a low frequency buzz that built up over itself as it rose into a higher pitch. Suddenly the sound burst outward and was followed by a whale-like call that bellowed out as an announcement to the loud hum of engines supporting a magnificent object among the thick gray clouds.
Natalia’s eyes widened as she caught glimpses past her companions of the outline of a massive shape in the clouds. Yellow lights dotted the side of the object, blinking and never revealing the true front and end.
The clouds suddenly opened up with a flash of gunpowder all along the side of the ship. The golden and metal plating all along the side was all she caught in that moment.
“Brace for impa—!” The voice cut out as an explosive release of power bellowed across the trenches for miles.
The barrier neared its descent as black darts of destruction pierced through the sky in an attempt to enter the growing protection. The shock wave that followed brought every man, woman, and animal to their knees or abrupt deaths. Debris rained in every direction as smoke blanketed the land in either direction of the trench.
The field of grass blew in the wind, its bright green glistening in the golden light of the setting sun. Natalia sat atop a large rock overlooking the plains. Resting in her lap was a small, curled up Revu. She gently ran her fingers through the small feathers.
She looked over in time to see her father’s hand lay atop her shoulder to give a gentle squeeze.
“I see you two have gotten quite close since I last saw you.”
She gave a bright smile as she turned back to the volferd to see the golden eyes looking studying at her. “I finally gave her a name.”
“Oh? And what is it?”
“A fitting name for your companion. Always cherish your time with Revu and support her. Thus, you can learn to trust in her support to you.”
“Of course, father, I’ll never leave Revu’s side!”
She came back to the screams of the dying, a sting in her left eye. The taste and smell of dirt filled her senses as she twisted to her side to try to spit it out. With a gasp of air, she blinked her good eye open and saw a gray smog still shifting all around her. Natalia reached out to her rifle that sat by her side, the touch of the wood brought a weak comfort in the pain that ached in all her joints. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to push it all away.
Natalia opened her right eye to see Vykter sitting close by, his helmet discarded to the side with a visible piece missing along the side. Blood was splattered across the right side of his face, mixed with the dirt and mud.
Rolling over to her hands and knees, Natalia sat up slowly. She winced in pain on her right side. Through the haze of gray, she glanced over her body and found relief in nothing grave having punctured her body. Debris laid all around, all of which seemingly bounced off her thick coat with no harm except for several bruises that added to the pain in her joints from the use of magic. She slung her rifle over her shoulder and reached for the canteen. She licked her dry lips and unscrewed it with eagerness.
“I’ll be damned!” Hukven exclaimed as he rose out from a pile of ashes, his eyes wide with adrenaline and exhilaration. “I think they hit almost as hard as the Father’s Fist!” He laughed jovially before going into a fit of coughing. Gray ash bellowing off his body.
“Vykter! Arulla needs help!” Teiver called out.
Vykter rose up and moved through the smog towards the voice. “Ludmila, with me!”
Natalia watched him go, her body unwilling to move. Instead she took another swig from the canteen, before coming up empty. She groaned as she screwed the canteen close, her body aching further with pain as all her senses returned.
Clearing his throat with a flask, Hukven began to follow after Vykter before stopping to look at Natalia. “What are you doing, girl?”
“I need a second,” She mumbled.
“You don’t have one, now get up. Vykter needs you.”
Natalia weakly squeezed it in her hands. I nearly died. “I just need a second.”
Hukven marched over and wrapped his bulky hands around Natalia’s arms to pull her to her feet. “Just a bit longer girl. You just have to push a bit longer, then you can sleep.”
Once on her feet, she weakly took a step, testing her strength. Satisfied she could walk, she reached out for the familiar warmth radiating in her pulse but found only a cold feeling. I’m so tired. She took a deep, shuddering breath. “I’m good.”
Hukven nodded and marched through the clearing smoke.
Natalia rubbed her arms and followed at a slower pace. The smoke hovered all around her as she wove a path through the terrain covered in shards of wood and metal thrown all about. The drowsiness grew into a thick haze that blanketed her mind as her steps slowed. She tried to keep her focus ahead but found her attention turn to the ground, stumbling onward and nearly tripping over a pile of sandbags along the way. Her rifle slid down her shoulder to land in the dirt. Lowering herself she took hold of it and pushed the butt against the ground to rise once more. “Damn it…” she muttered. Rubbing at her forehead, she continued. Senses shifting in and out of consciousness.
An audible cry of pain directed her through the fog. The rest of the chaos behind her became white noise to the scene set out before her.
Arulla was at the center with a large metal rod pierced through her right thigh and a visible jagged cut across her stomach. Blood was pooling around her and adding to the mud she laid in. Teiver and Vykter were both over the woman trying to hold her down and apply pressure to the wounds while Krieger held her legs down to stop the rod from moving further. Lulilia rummaged with swift hands through a first aid kit for anything to use, beads of sweat dripping off her face. Hukven opened his own kit as he joined the group and offered a needle for Lulilia who turned to Arulla to administer it.
The cries of agony came from Arulla. Words punctuated her screams with shouts of vengeance against Union and pleas for forgiveness from her father.
“Ludmila! Get over here and close the wounds!”
Her heart raced as she felt a wave of weakness hit her. With a nod, she stumbled over and collapsed to her knees by Arulla. Natalia reached her hands out to the woman’s stomach and felt for the energy but was only met with a cold presence. “I… I’m still too weak.” She muttered, “I can’t reach for it…” She pulled her hand back and squeezed her wrist close to her chest. “I can’t anymore.”
Vykter growled in frustration. “Reita! Stop staring and get a medic for Arulla! Tell them to bring blood for our esper!”
Reita still standing at the side with eyes wide like a deer caught in headlights shook herself awake, “I, um, blood specifically for her? What blood type is she?”
Reita nodded and scurried away at the command.
“Just stay with us, Arulla. stay awake!” Lulilia called, as she turned with a pair of vials filled with a grainy white powder. Ripping the tops off she poured the contents over the wound. The flowing crimson slowed, in its seepage from Arulla’s stomach. “Don’t move your hands, keep the pressure, Teiver!”
“Sorry,” Teiver replied.
“You have to have something left,” Hukven stated, reaching out for Natalia’s shoulder.
“I barely got here…”
“Dig deep gir—!”
“Enough, Hukven,” Vykter snapped. “She’s telling the truth, she’s spent.”
“Hukven go check on Lumek, there’s too many of us here.”
“Yes, Vykter,” he replied and marched off to Lumek who sat huddled close by, rocking back and forth.
Natalia looked on at Arulla continuing her crying. She kept calling out for the power and came back short of anything useful. The urge to simply lie down grew in her as she placed the butt of her rifle out and leaned against it for support. The act of sitting in the mud was making her tired as any energy she had used to wake up was quickly washing away. I feel so helpless. She weakly shook her head, trying to keep her right eye open. What’s the point of these powers if I keep feeling useless? She reached out again, a slow ember growing with her frustration.
A grip around her arm pulled her back as her focus became jumbled once more with the haze.
“Been a while since I gave one of your kind blood, now keep your arm still.”
Natalia looked up to see a man with the circle slash stitched on his uniform’s sleeve. A grimace was planted across his face as he held a sealed bag of blood with a long tube ending with a needle that he held in his other hand.
“Hold this,” The man stated, placing the bag of blood in Reita’s hands. He then gripped Natalia’s right arm again and moved the needle forward.
Natalia quickly looked away and grit her teeth. Why does it always have to be needles?
The sharp end pierced her skin and a moment later she felt the trickled start of warmth returning to her veins. The connection to the warmth of magic was starting to return.
The man came to Vykter’s side across from Natalia and set his bag down. “Esper, use your magic to close the wound in her stomach.”
With a knowing nod, Natalia reached out once more towards Arulla’s stomach and set her mind on the wound. The thoughts of it closing rushed through her mind as she pushed out her own weak warmth toward the wound, urging the blood to clot faster in tune with the powder that had been released by the vials.
“Good, good. It’s slowing down. Now then, we need this rod out if we are going to transport her.” He turned to Lulilia who looked on with hopeful eyes. “Did you already give morphine?”
“Yes!” Lulilia piped.
“Okay, esper, be ready to close the wound in her thigh once the rod is pulled out.”
Moving her hands to around the wound, Natalia closed her eyes and prepared herself. Listening for the pained cry to signal her.
With an offered stick for Arulla to bite down, the rod was promptly pulled out with a stifled scream of agony.
Focusing again, Natalia turned the energy of blood flowing into her arm toward the wound, and a moment later she sat back with a heavy sigh as exhaustion hit her again. Her eyes closed as she focused on her breathing.
“Excellent, we need to move her fast!” The man called out, picking up his bag, “We need her stabilized and I need to pull any shrapnel out of her. She isn’t safe yet.”
“Krieger and Lulilia, go.” Vykter ordered
“Yes, sir!” They called and quickly moved into action.
Natalia heard the movement and opened her eyes to see Arulla gone, in her place a pool of blood sat stagnant with a sharp metal rod at the side. “Thank you…” she mumbled, looking up at Reita who still held the bag of blood. There was a look of shock on Reita’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“I always heard that espers used blood, but seeing it done…”
She watched Reita move away with a look of horror etched on her face. Natalia looked back to her hands to see them covered in blood. A shiver ran through her.
“Good work, Natalia,” Vykter said, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” Natalia winced at his touch. “I should have helped sooner, I was just so weak, and she could have died…”
“No, you did everything you could.”
Natalia lowered her head and brought her knees close. “I… I just want to sleep now.” She shut her eyes once more and tried to push away the presence of those around her and beyond. The cries of pain in the distance haunted the corners of her mind. Her arms squeezed around her knees as she tried not to think about the voices that had gone silent.
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