Shelling, machine gun fire, senseless charges, are just parts that make up the on-going noise of the trenches. Between the fighting there is the hard labor of repairing the damaged fortifications and healing the wounded. Even when things do calm down there is still a distant shell here or a rifle shot there that keeps everybody alert and unable to truly rest. It’s only through pure exhaustion that someone can find a good night’s sleep within the mud.
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Chapter Seven – Observations
Trenches are a complete and utter bloody mess of affairs. There is no honor in two armies meeting and digging a bunch of holes while throwing bombs at one another. What happened to the glory of sword combat? The splendor of grand cavalry charges? The magnificent display of battles that end in a short day? Instead we have long, grueling massacres that stretch on for years. Even when one side wins and breaks out of the stalemate, what do they honestly gain? Sure, they earned more land, but that land is now filled with craters and the dead, both their own and the enemy’s. Neither side wins in trench warfare. It’s just a perfect scenario to create a blood bath for all to wash in.
-Duke Arsburg of Nothvelt, The Splendor of War
They sat huddled in the thin trench, crouching low so they would not appear above the line of dirt. Vykter passed around a warm canteen to Marxun, who poured some of the black liquid into a small tin cup before passing it to Natalia and taking a swig from his cup. A smile crossed his broad face. “That’s some strong coffee! Where’d you even find this stuff, Vykter?”
Natalia glimpsed into the canteen at the dark liquid within and passed it on to Lulilia.
“You need to ask the vezeto that question. He’s the one who found the stuff for us,” Vykter replied and took the canteen from Lulilia. “Be sure to savor it though, we won’t be getting strong stuff like this often.”
“I bet you there is plenty more over on the Union side. We should just go sneak on over and take it.” Lulilia grinned.
“You and your crazy ideas,” Marxun replied.
“But they work!” Lulilia pointed at Marxun. “Else you wouldn’t have that pistol of yours.”
Marxun unholstered the pistol with an extended magazine, his other hand pulling back the barrel carved with an intricate display. “I don’t know what you’re talking about; it’s a family heirloom.”
“Of a dead Union officer on our last excursion.”
Natalia watched the exchange and saw Vykter shake his head and drink his coffee. She half listened to the exchange as she rested her eyes, the left still stung when she kept it open for too long. Her body had mostly healed from the bombardment two days ago, but there were still hints of soreness if she moved too much. She ran her hand along the barrel of her rifle, which rested in her lap. The wooden frame was kept clean by her constant attention, even with the nightly rains that left the trenches a muddy mess.
A low fog clung to the trench, its misty smell helping to hide the lingering stench of the living and the dead. In either direction the walkways became obscured after only a few dozen feet. The movement of machinery and soldiers performing their tasks also came to a crawl as many took this chance to rest. The same noise from the Union trenches had diminished as well. Both sides seemingly exhausted by the destruction had become blinded by the fog and forgotten that one another were only separated by thin strips of land.
Rays of sunlight attempted to pierce the thick fog as the sun began its morning rise. The heavy gray clouds of the autumn season helped block the heat with the promise of more rain later. Even now as Natalia rested atop the crate, a pool of mud sat waiting to dirty her boots once more.
“You two talk too damn loud! Have anything you want to share with Union? I’m sure they can hear you!” Hukven exclaimed.
Natalia looked up from her stupor to see the tall man walk into the space followed by the emotionless Teiver and Krieger’s chubby form.
“If that’s the case, then what were we talking about?” Marxun inquired.
“About how weak you hold your drink!” Krieger exclaimed and bellowed out a laugh at his own joke.
Tiever shook her head and leaned back against the wall to try to distance herself from the conversation as much as possible.
“Hey, there’s no need to be mean to Marxun! He can drink plenty!” Lulilia gently pushed at Marxun’s shoulder, “I think like two, right?”
“A lot more than two!” Marxun returned the push as Krieger continued to laugh.
“Hukven.” Vykter said, his voice giving pause to any further conversation as eyes turned to him. “What do you think? Any potential openings where the Union may attack?”
He crossed his arms and met Vykter’s stern look, “There are definitely plenty of areas where the trenches are damaged and perfect spots for them to attack.”
Vykter took his helmet off and began to rub it, fingers tracing any visible dents in the surface. “I suppose it just depends how confident they are in our defenses after that last barrage…”
“Well, they saw how slow the barrier was to activate for our section.” Lulilia stated and leaned into the conversation slightly. “I’m sure their morale is high enough to do something foolish.”
“It wouldn’t be foolish.” Teiver said.
“And why is that?” Vykter asked.
“Crav, Arulla, and Lumek are decommissioned for now. Hearing from Lance Vezeto Windstor, it sounds like they also had two injuries with Igurn and Onzetum.” Teiver reached into a pocket for a ration bar and began to unwrap it with practiced care. “It is well to assume that the other cespaut has also suffered similar casualties, especially after the Leviathan got a volley off before the barrier was up.”
“All fair points.”
“Yes, but anyone can see that as the problem, even the Union!” Lulilia retorted, “And they haven’t attacked yet!”
Natalia yawned and drew her eyes closed.
“Ludmila, you’ve been quiet, what do you think? Could they maybe get an advantage with their own espers?”
“Well…” She blinked her eyes open and straightened herself on the crate, legs crossed. “They have to be as tired as us, I’d like to think.” Natalia looked from Vykter to the rest of the eyes studying her, and she quickly lowered her head to avoid them. “We were shooting them when we got here after all.”
“Not the most talkative girl, is she?” Krieger said before taking a gulp from a flask that had appeared in his hands.
“She’s a gamayun, better at shooting then talking I’d say.” Marxun pointed out.
“And you can’t seem to shut up!” Lulilia retorted.
“Enough with the shouting,” Hukven growled and turned back to Vykter. “What do you want us to do to prepare?”
“Or are we going to sit here and talk about it instead?” Lulilia added.
Natalia watched Hukven eye the woman before straightening again as Vykter placed his helmet back atop his head.
“We’re continue to guard our sector for the vezeto. We’ve gotten enough relaxation here,” Vykter said and looked over to Natalia. “I’ll patrol the entire area that our lacespaut covers with Ludmila to determine any weaknesses that stand out more than others.”
“If that is the case, I’d definitely take a good look of the gap joining our area with Windstor’s lance. It seems like it took a heavy hit.”
Teiver finished her ration bar and took a step closer to add more details, “One of the cespauts from the fifty-seventh overlaps that area with ours and was nearly wiped out with the barrage. It will surely have been noticed by Union that the repairs there have been the slowest.”
“Good points, the two of you. Now then all of you finish up your breakfast and be on your way!”
Natalia watched the five soldiers split off into two groups a moment later taking their supplies along with them, until it was just her and Vykter in the opening. “Why do you need me with you?” she asked bluntly.
“You’re new to the trenches, but you have keen eyes that only a gamayun can have. I think having you with me will help find something no regular trench soldier will see.” He finished off his coffee before collapsing the mug and hooking it to the side of his belt. “Now then, ready to get moving?”
“I guess you’re right about that.” Natalia slung the rifle over her shoulder and unfolded her legs. Stretching, she eased down to the ground with a slow slide off the crate. She stretched her back and loosened up her muscles. “Lead the way, Vykter.”
Vykter nodded and began walking down the dirt path heading east. Natalia close behind.
How much longer until we can go, Orsolya? Natalia followed Vykter through the snaking path. Along the way, soldiers were moving dirt to fill craters and the walls of the trench. Planks of wood and sheets of metal were carried to and from as they were positioned in strategic positions to support both the trench itself and give protection when viewing out onto the field beyond. The workers moved out of Vykter’s way. Curious eyes turned from Vykter to Natalia and quickly looked away.
“Tell me, Ludmila, are you feeling better?”
“Much better, though I’m still a bit sore,” Natalia replied and added, “What exactly should I be looking for?”
Vykter paused before another crater that had caved in the back half of a wall. The two men working on it were busy standing up wooden posts to support the act of piling on more dirt. “Well, not the obvious flaws that anybody can see. We all know an efficient trench is one built in a rigid manner. Slopes and curves are a great way to allow the enemy to catch glimpses of anyone passing by to snipe.” He resumed walking, “I’ll be looking for any flaws in the design in a physical sense. I need you to look for it in a magical sense. Where the enemy can penetrate with the use of such power.”
She reached a finger out to a section of the wall and felt the touch of the cool dirt through her rugged, leather glove. “Isn’t that the purpose of the barrier? To prevent such attacks?”
“The barrier did not help us two days ago, why would it now?”
“Well, surely the Domovoy have fixed it.”
“I have my doubts that it will be fixed in time.”
“There is still a chance.” Natalia looked up to see the sun had risen higher, its rays of light piercing through gaps in the gray cloud. The low hanging fog was quickly dissipating with the growing heat. Even with the warmth, Natalia kept her coat on, the chill in the air too great to remove it.
“Yes, a chance. I believe there is still an opportunity for them to attack us.”
Natalia shook her head. “I believe the Domovoy have done their job.”
“Well, the barrier is designed for physical objects, what if magic was used? It would catch us off guard.”
“To use magic at a great distance is incredibly difficult though. The only way would be to enhance an object and shoot it our way, but if the barrier is working then the object would be just another physical object.”
“And why is that?” Vykter asked, continuing on past a machine gunner’s nest. Crates lined the side, one of which was opened to reveal long chains of bullets ready to be fed into a barrel. The pair of men waiting within the cover of the nest watched the duo pass by with salutes before returning to their breakfast.
“Well, magic could be used, but greater distances require more power.” Natalia caught a glimpse of the breakfast and idly reached for a ration bar as her stomach grumbled. “The Union would have to both gather enough power for the distance between the two trenches and the power to actually cause damage. I can’t even imagine how long it’d take them to do that and the ripples in the magical realm it would cause. Any esper on this side would surely sense it and have ample time to set up a temporary shield designed for counteracting magic.” Natalia shrugged, “It’d be a huge waste of time for the Union as defensive magic always takes less strength to cast than offensive.”
The path led into an intersection where Vykter stopped. “Maybe if you view the trenches further beyond their protection? After all, you should have a clear view now that the fog is gone.”
She raised a brow and stepped beside Vykter to look down the tunnel leading into the field of dead. The only protection was wooden boards and the ground itself built over part of the tunnel to mask its existence. “A single tunnel by itself?” She placed the ration bar back into a pocket, forgotten for the moment.
“Yes, there are many of them along the line, on both our side and theirs.” Vykter leaned against a sheet of metal with signage pointing in the different directions of the four-way intersection. “They’re listening posts, used to protect scouts and put them just a little closer to the enemy. Not particularly safe… but, it gives better perspective.”
“I’m used to seeing things from the high ground.” Natalia pointed out and turned with the idea of moving on.
Vykter placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s a different view then you’re used to it, but it is still important. Please, just take a peek, you’ll be fine.”
She looked back down the tunnel and sighed. “Alright, I assume you will be waiting here?”
Natalia nodded and lowered herself as she began to make her way towards the listening post. She came upon the roof within a few short steps and was encased in a dim darkness, the only light coming from the entrance and the exit beyond. Just how far does this go out anyways? She grimaced in disdain as she was forced to a crawl through mud that she could not see. The chill of the wet mud sent a shiver through her. Her hand reached behind as she pulled the rifle off her back, the pointed end having gotten caught in the ceiling several times.
Her huddled form came closer with each step to the light until finally she emerged in a dimly lit circular space. Slits of light pierced through the gaps just beneath the roof that gave a view to the outside. The space itself was kept barren with wooden benches to keep anyone posted out of the mud and make it easier to look through the narrow windows.
Sitting curled up on one of the benches was a dirty, blonde-haired girl.
“Are you here to relieve me?” she asked, exhaustion and fear in her voice.
“I’m sorry, but no,” Natalia replied. A pang of sadness hit her as she watched the girl lower her head in despair. “How long have you been here?”
“I don’t know…” She squeezed her legs closer to her body.
Natalia studied the girl a moment longer before stepping up to an empty bench, rifle in hand. Peering through the narrow gap she gasped at the realization of how much closer she had come. To either side and in front of her the dead land surrounded the post. Sudden dread hit her as she noticed rotting corpses mixed with the chaos of the land. She spotted rats ripping at an arm extended from the ground several feet away. To her right a horse’s leg poking above a crate had gnats covering what little meat remained on the bone.
She shook her head and squeezed her eyes trying to rid herself of the sight. Look at the Union. Natalia looked up again and tried to focus on the opposing trench. Focus on their side. Scattered trees filled the horizon along with rolling hills that extended beyond the plains. She narrowed her eyes and spotted the top of the trench at the front, recognizable by the glimpse of a sandbag here or a sheet of rusting metal there.
Detaching the scope from her rifle she peered through its lenses toward the trench, looking for any further details. She noticed the thin line of a trench heading further away toward a mound of grass that rose above ever so slightly. Following the path further along, she saw a camouflaged metal barrel just barely poking above the ground. One of their artillery pieces. Moving the scope to the right she saw the tops of a pair of helmets moving through the trench. Voices carried over to her as she recognized the foreign tongue of the Yenvark Union soldiers but couldn’t make out any particular words that she could decipher meaning from.
Natalia lowered the scope again and looked across the gaps for any particular spot to focus on again. All she saw instead was the same monotonous scene of a field of dirt only broken by glimpses of a trench and the numerous craters scattered in every direction. What is there to even learn here?
She sighed and lowered herself down, attaching the scope back to her rifle. Natalia turned at the glint of light to see the girl studying her. “What is it? Do I have something on me?”
“No, no… I’m just… curious how you were lucky enough to become an esper.”
Natalia shook her head. “I was unlucky to become one.” She headed toward the exit leading back to the trench. “I’m sure someone will be here soon to relieve you, goodbye.”
The girl simply nodded and lowered her head again.
Coming back out the other end of the tunnel, Natalia saw Vykter with his head down, half asleep against the wooden post she had left him on.
His head poked up at the sound of the mud squishing beneath her boots. “See anything worthy of note?” he asked.
Natalia simply shook her head in reply.
Vykter rubbed his chin. “Let’s continue, shall we?”
“What else is there to see?” Natalia replied as Vykter began to make his way down the path leading deeper into the network of trenches.
“The barrier for one, and a few of the different gun emplacements.” He pointed up ahead toward a hill lined with trees beyond the trench. “And I’d like to get a higher viewpoint of the defenses.”
“A higher point will be far more useful than sending me into that ditch.” Natalia scowled.
“Well you had such a vantage point when we arrived. I’m sure once we’re up there you’ll realize that it’s just as useless.” Vykter stepped to the side of a pair of soldiers marching past with planks of wood.
“If it’s useless, then why are you dragging me all over the place?”
“To try to understand our situation.”
Natalia frowned and stayed silent as Vyker resumed the pace. The path led them toward an opening that was carved deeper into the ground with an artillery piece kept low, its legs spread out to support its large barrel. The crew of men sitting idly looked over for a moment before returning to their banter around a game of cards. Shells lined the wall at the rear, ready to be grabbed and loaded into the gun at a moment’s notice. A net ran above the gun and to the corners of the opening to help hide it from any prying eyes from a distance.
“What’s the purpose of having these guns if there are more behind the trenches?” Natalia asked.
“Notice their barrels are shorter?” Vykter pointed out the detail then added while turning to the shells, “The shells have a blunted front to act as a form of scatter shot.
Natalia nodded as she followed along.
“They act as a short throw artillery similar to a mortar, but with a lower arc so as to avoid any espers putting up a protective bubble. Then the scatter shot when it explodes acts as a perfect weapon against soldiers charging across the field.”
“What about those shells?” Natalia asked, pointing out a stack of shells that they walked past towards the exit. “They have holes along their sides.”
“Gas shells, the holes help spread the gas at a faster rate once it impacts into the ground.”
She paused in surprise, staring at the black, foreboding shell. “I thought the use of gas was banned?”
Vykter chuckled and continued on towards another intersection in the maze. “You have a military issued mask folded up in one of those pouches on your belt, right?”
“Well, yes…” Natalia fiddled with her glove, adjusting it along her finger as she tried to scratch an itch.
“Then, gas is obviously not been banned. It’s just a nice thing for nations to say.”
“But, the history books…”
“Are wrong.” Vykter looked in either direction of the intersection before continuing toward another opening with a second artillery piece. “There was a time, sure, but when a stalemate occurs it’s common for sides to try anything to break it.”
Vykter turned on his heel to look down at Natalia. “And so is the use of espers with their mag—” Vykter stopped himself short. “Sorry.” he turned and kept walking. “It’s just I can’t help but think of all those who die in such horrible ways.”
She tightened her fists before exhaling deeply. Magic. He doesn’t understand, it’s not his fault. “You don’t approve of this war much do you?” Natalia asked.
“I should be home instead, taking over the family business.”
“What does your family do?”
“My father owns one of the factories within the capital.”
“Vykter… Your father owns the Vykaln Production?”
Vykter paused and glanced back at her. “Yes, and it’s where I should be instead of here.”
“Of course, working safely at the munition factory,” Natalia huffed and walked past him to continue down the trail. Her boots marched through puddles formed along the dips the trench took before it began to rise with the natural slope leading towards the hill in the distance.
Vykter followed close by. “I don’t approve of it at all, you can trust me on that.”
“Let’s keep going,” Natalia snapped and continued on without waiting for his response.
The path snaked along its way towards the rear of the defenses until finally the two came to a ramp leading up towards the hill beyond. Thin grass grew in spots to either side of them as they made their way up the incline. Wind blew against them causing the few scattered trees with their remaining branches to rustle and creak with the movement.
At the top, Natalia turned and looked over the expansive field stretched out before her. It was a similar image to the one she saw a few days ago, except now it was overcast, and the sun was still high in the sky. Her clear view gave her the chance to see the mountains in the distance, parts of the Glodoran mountain range. The rolling hills of the plains were morphed and misshapen by the eleven-year stalemate.
“What do you see?”
Natalia turned her focus to the trenches that scarred the land with that jagged shape. “Just a bunch of fools forced to fight each other over nothing.” She looked at the death between the trenches. Dim lights from either side and the glow of embers that seemed to burn forever after battles helped illuminate the discarded remains that she could just make out. The smell just as intoxicating as it was among the mud itself.
Vykter shook his head and pointed towards their side. “Enough of that, what do you see in our defenses? Is there something we need to be concerned about?”
She nodded and began to study the defenses laid out before her. The various artillery placements all along the line, hidden by camouflage. The slightly raised platforms where the barriers were dug into the ground at equal distances from one another to create continuous protection. The zig-zagging trenches to help stop snipers from seeing the straightaways of the connectors between each line, as well as stop artillery from lining up the exact position where soldiers hid. Metal and wooden nests built along the outer rim for machine guns and anti-tank weaponry at the front with more nests built in the middle for mortar teams or as munition dumps.
“I see nothing that stands out,” Natalia finally stated in a cold tone. “And from what I can see here, the Union has the same ideas. I don’t see how an esper could cause any more damage than artillery. As long as everything is fixed up in time before the Union attacks, it’ll work.”
“Nothing that may break the stalemate?” Vykter leaned close to her, watching every emotion with eager eyes. “You’re new to this place, surely you see a way to try something new?”
“No.” Natalia shrugged. “I’m sorry, Vykter.”
Vykter sighed and straightened himself. “Thank you for your observation.” He looked down the hill to see the young runner, Reita making her way out of the trenches towards him. “I honestly shouldn’t expect you to have an idea to get us out of this mess. It’s been eleven years, and no one has figured it out yet.”
“No, I’m going to head back down and get some grub.” He took a few steps down the hill and turned to her. “Are you going to join me?”
“I’m going to stay here for a while longer.” Natalia replied.
“Vykter!” Reita called, coming up short of them. She leaned over, breathing heavily.
“Yes, Reita?” Vykter asked. “What do you need from me?”
“Sorry, just…” She gulped down some air before standing straight. Giving a quick salute with a fist over her right breast she then reached into her pouch. “I’ve been looking for Ludmila all this morning to deliver an important item!”
“For me?” Natalia asked, studying Reita nervously reached into a separate pouch.
Stepping forward, Reita offered a small packet with shaking hands. “Careful.”
Taking it, Natalia watched the girl take quick steps back.
“Sorry, it’s just…” Reita paused and breathed a heavy sigh of relieve and looked to Vykter, trying to ignore the package in Natalia’s hands. “I have more mail for you and the others, where are they?”
“Back down the hill. I was just heading that way,” replied Vykter.
Reita nodded her head. “I’ll stick with you then.”
Vykter turned back to Natalia. “Don’t stay up too long. I’m sure the vezeto will be asking for your assistance somewhere soon with the repairs.”
Natalia watched Vykter make his way down the hill towards the ramp with Reita in tow before she began to rip open the package. Within she saw the glint of red and felt her heart sink at the sight of the two blood vials. “Right, Baranfel mentioned this.” She took it and quickly hid it into a pouch along her belt. “I hope I don’t have to use it.” Natalia moved to a tree further up the hill.
Finding a grassy patch to sit on out of the dirt, she settled against the thin birch tree. Her stomach grumbled as she remembered about breakfast and reached for the ration bar still waiting for her in a pocket.
“This stalemate isn’t going to end anytime soon,” she muttered to herself as she unwrapped the bar and began to eat it eagerly.
The thick bar was quickly chewed through; its limited taste barely acknowledged as she stuffed the wrapper into her pocket to be discarded later. “Hopefully I’m not stuck here for too much longer… then I can leave with Orsolya.” She reached for her canteen next to take a swig of the cool water within. “If only Revu were here. At least then this place would be bearable.”
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