Times to rest are short for Bryce. It’s during these moments that growing closer to the members of his company are important. The trenches are not far, so such a night is important to enjoy. The war must continue on.
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I’ve learned much since my gift of live subjects. The soul is a malleable force when given enough magic and blood to flourish in. It’s through these tests I’ve gained great strides in creating stronger and far deadlier machines for you to wage war with, Mr. President. I’ve also stumbled upon knowledge that may allow me to create a familiar and link them to an esper or thaumaturge. With the familiar acting as such a powerful conduit to the world of magic, our magic users will grow far stronger than any of our adversaries! This, of course, has all come at a cost, beyond just the lives I’ve spent. Many, of course resist, their chance to take part in furthering our abilities in science and have tried to escape. This has forced me to spend more resources on better cages, additional guards, and other security measures… I digress. Instead I encourage you, Mr. President, to visit my lab soon so you may see the results in my research and consider increasing the funding to my research.
-Head Scientist Ozki, The Creation, Experimentation, and Purpose of Espers
The first moon was already high in the sky. Clouds drifting by blocked out many of its silvery rays of light. The encampment had a scattering of bonfires surrounded by a cluster of tents and temporary wooden structures with equipment and vehicles lining the outskirts. Splitting the camp, a slow-moving stream glinted in the moon light, its calming sound drowned out by the howl of wind and chatter of voices. Gradual hills surrounded much of the camp, protecting it against the worse of the winds blowing across the expansive plains beyond.
Moving through the encampment, Bryce sought his company’s banner. Brashmar’s banner, a wolf’s paw on a teal field, surrounded him. Between tents he could make out Gilford’s across the stream, a red banner with a blue stripe over a straight-edged sword. He finally caught eyes on his own, a stag’s intricate horn over a blue banner.
Heading for the familiar banner, Bryce side stepped between several tightly placed tents. Nearing the edge of his company’s encampment he spotted Darke and Riel in the shadows. Their pair of eyes studying him.
“We sense animosity against you,” Darke said.
“They sense the soul you harvested from the machine,” Riel added.
“Yes, they’re fully aware of that,” Bryce replied.
“Troubling for them to learn so quick,” Riel said.
Darke turned his eyes toward the banners of the other two leads. “Do you suspect Brashmar or Gilford shall attempt to acquire it?”
“Or even Randalk?” Riel added.
“I don’t know, but there is no point in taking risks. Keep the soul safe,” Bryce said.
“We shall do this, Lead Coduire,” Darke replied.
Riel revealed a light in the palm of his hands before hiding it once more. “We have no intention of giving it to a Lead other than our own.”
The twins turned and went without another word, vanishing around a corner of the row of tents.
Bryce continued to look in their direction waiting for something more to happen. It truly does feel like the more power we gain the harder it’ll become. He gave a heavy sigh and moved on past the dark space towards the waiting bonfire beyond. Though I’d prefer to gain such power at my own pace. A machine soul and husk gifted to me all to easily thanks to Quil’s nosiness. His fist tightened as he pushed away his growing frustration. It’s too late. I’ll have to deal with the costs for her actions.
Zel stood among the group at the bonfire with drink in hand, boasting of today’s events. He caught sight of Bryce coming closer and raised his glass. “Join us, Lead! We were just getting to the part where you stormed headstrong into a scavenger’s den!”
“Really?!” Roy asked, the boy leaning forward with wide eyes.
“Is that true, Vonna?” Herra asked with a raised brow to the young woman who was simply shaking her head.
Bryce opened his mouth to speak up but stopped himself. Best to let them have their fun while they can. He stepped closer to the fire, the heat coming off it a comfort from the chill that had blanketed the area. “Yes, it’s true, a den full of scavengers.”
Zel gave Bryce a smile and waved his hand to an empty chair. “Please take my seat, Lead! I won’t be needing it for a while with this epic tale.”
Taking the offer, Bryce settled into the folding chair. He glanced around the fire to see the familiar faces of the company he commanded. Vonna lying in a patch of grass half-listening to Zel, Dunkir sitting stiff with drink in hand brooding over his thoughts, Herra laughing at Zel’s expense whenever Vonna added in her own quip to Zel’s tale, all while Roy played to Zel’s tune eagerly. He scanned past the fire to the tents to see Hendrick quietly speaking with Chapman while they smoked.
I wonder where Liarie is. He rubbed at his eyes and sunk deeper into the chair. I suppose I’ll have to find her before this night is over. He felt the day’s events hit him hard as exhaustion weighted heavy on his muscles. What’s the plan now. A heavy warmachine, a soul, and three new recruits. He let forth a yawn and closed his eyes. Two of which seem to be getting along with the group so far.
“Damn, is my story that boring, Lead?”
He opened his eyes to see Zel looking hurt. “No, just tired, carry on.”
Zel chuckled and brushed off the pain in an instant as he resumed his acting. “You shoulda seen Murn when we had to deal with that Imperial sniper!”
“We barely dealt with that sniper, they got away!” Vonna called out from her spot.
“Come on, don’t ruin the story, Vonna!”
“I have to cause you are making up way too much nonsense.” She sat up with a scowl, “Seriously, you punched one of the scavengers that tried to attack, Lead? What a load of crap, there were none!”
“Well, our poor Zel is full of that. Isn’t he?” Herra mused.
“I swear, I don’t know why I bother entertaining you lot.” He grumbled and moved away from the fire to sit down in the dirt.
Dunkir downed the rest of his drink and stood. “You probably shouldn’t.” He turned and went off towards his tent.
Same old Dunkir. Doesn’t think before he speaks. Bryce grimaced, watching the man walk away.
“I enjoyed it, Zel!” Roy exclaimed.
“I’m glad to hear,” Zel replied.
“There’s enough of us, surely one would have your sense of humor, Zel,” Vonna said.
“There isn’t enough.” Bryce cut in and all eyes turned to him. “Just fifteen of us, we have a lot of work ahead of us.” He stifled a yawn and forced himself to his feet. “Thank you, Zel, for the story. It’s important we keep our spirits up.”
“Of course, Lead! I’ll keep telling them as long as you allow it.”
“Good. All of you be sure to get some sleep soon,” he said and moved away from the fire toward Hendrick. The chatter around the fire quickly resumed with Vonna and Herra questioning Zel’s storytelling while Roy stuck up for him.
Hendrick seeing Bryce approach quickly straightened himself, muscles flexing beneath his uniform. “How’s it going, Bryce?”
Turning to see what Hendrick was looking at, Chapman spotted Bryce and immediately shot to his feet. He held his head high and hand placed over his heart.
“At ease,” Bryce replied with a wave of his hand and took his place standing before Hendrick. The man kept a smile on his face as he crossed his arms and leaned back slightly.
“Yes, Lead,” Chapman replied and lowered his hand but continued to stand awkwardly to the side of the two men.
Hendrick nodded his head to Chapman. “Sit, boy!”
“Uh, yes, sir.” He replied and sat back down in a hurry, his hands rubbing together unsure of what to do.
“There’s no need with so much formality when it’s just us and the Lead.” Hendrick waved his hand to an empty stool to the side. “Ain’t that right, Lead?”
“That’s right,” Bryce replied and moved the stool closer before sitting. “Tell me Hendrick, before I set off on my expedition, I had Liarie go to you to verify our plan in case we had company leaving the mountains. What exactly happened to that plan?
Hendrick chuckled and took a long draw from his cigarette. “It was a great plan, but I suspect you already know the answer as to why it changed, right?”
“Of course, but I want to hear the reason from you.”
“Quil is a nosy fey, but you know that, Bryce.”
“I know far too well.”
“Well,” Hendrick paused to take another long draw from the cigarette. “She insisted that we needed to do more then just a simple trick to protect you but go on the offensive against whatever showed up. I tried stopping her to no success.” He shrugged and offered a cigarette to Bryce. “You shoulda seen how happy she was to be right, when reports came in from aerial scouts that Luncal was nearing the border a day in advance.”
Taking the offered cigarette, Bryce took his own puff. The unsatisfying taste was quickly flooded over with the release of tension that flowed through him. “She then confronted the acolyte on her own?”
“Correct. I told her it was a bad idea to indebt us to him.”
“I assume Gilford showed up soon after and the rest is history?”
Hendrick rubbed at a scalp along his hand, picking at it. “Not exactly, I’m partly to blame here. Gilford did show up, but he was lacking the equipment. For the plan to still happen I had to convince Brashmar to help Gilford and lend some heavy machines.”
“How’d you convince Brashmar to lend some heavy machines?” He handed back the cigarette.
Hendrick took it and enjoyed another draw before answering, “Well your name helped of course, but with Gilford in the picture, I had to do a little more… Let’s say I had to call in a favor from him on when I saved his dog from a bristle bear a couple of years ago.”
“A bristle bear? Where was that?” Chapman cut in.
“Yea, where was it again, Hendrick?” Bryce asked.
A big grin crossed his wide-jawed face. “Our own sacred forest back home, the Forest of Leffil.”
“Seriously? But there’s been no sighting of bristle bears there for decades.” Chapman said.
Bryce pointed at Hendrick as if having caught him, “Exactly my point.”
With a shrug he brought the cigarette to his lips, enjoying the momentary pause in the conversation. “Yet, now you know I didn’t lie, Brashmar helped me out.” Hendrick dropped the cigarette to the grass and crushed it beneath his heavy boot.
“Or you lied good enough to trick even Brashmar.” Bryce shook his head, “If Quil’s idea had to happen why didn’t you both just go to Brashmar in the first place?”
Hendrick leaned back to rest his head against a crate behind him. “Yea, unfortunately Brashmar was tied up with defending this caravan, he was only barely able to spare the machines as it was. Honestly it was a whole lotta work when I think your original plan was good enough. I’m not particularly happy that Gilford and Randalk of all people helped us.”
“Agreed.” Bryce grimaced. Damn it, Quil. Why’d you put us into this situation? And why was the acolyte so eager to help? They got me to help with the offensive, but that can’t be the only reason, right?
“Why are there issues between Lead Gilford and you, Lead?” Chapman asked.
Bryce raised his hand before Chapman, “Let’s change the topic.” He turned back to Hendrick. “How are the new recruits? I see Chapman here is worthy of dressing properly unlike the last bunch.”
Hendrick sat back up and slapped a hand on Chapman’s shoulder, “Out of the three, this boy here will be a true man within a few more battles. He already has some experience to speak of.”
Chapman lowered his eyes from Bryce. “Well, yes, I’ve done two weeks on the trench so far. Though I didn’t actually shoot my rifle or do much of anything. It was just a lot of sitting around scared shitless.”
“Great experience, I’d say.” Hendrick chuckled.
Bryce nodded. “Definitely. Raise your chin up, you’ve survived past the first test. Most don’t make it far past that part.”
“Glad to hear I’m doing okay.” He gave a thin smile.
He watched the boy lower himself again, the smile vanishing quickly as he watched Chapman’s shoulders slump. Bryce felt an urge to say something more but turned back to Hendrick, “What about Roy and Earl?”
“Roy’s completely innocent, definitely need to keep an eye on him when we go into battle. I’d hate to see the kid get killed ‘cause he faints in fear.” Hendrick leaned back with crossed arms.
Hendrick tapped his feet, thinking before he continued. “We should give him a chance, he’s not like that idiot Blaine who got his foot shot off a month back.”
“Is Earl good?” Bryce pressed again.
With a sigh, Hendrick looked up at the stars. “Yea, he’s good. Just a bit… lazy? At least that’s the impression I’m getting.”
“I see.” Bryce rubbed at his chin. Definitely not the worse group. “Well enjoy the rest of your evening. And Chapman.”
“Yes, Lead?” Chapman sat up in a rush, his thoughts interrupted.
Bryce ruffled the boy’s black hair, “Chin up. You’ll do fine.”
“Thank you, Lead.”
“See ya later, Lead,” Hendrick said and leaned forward to continue a silent conversation with Chapman.
Walking from the pair, Bryce meandered along the huddle of tents around the fire. He spotted behind the tent flaps the sleeping forms of a few of his company. Some of whom had only recently laid down and were still tossing about in discomfort. The night life of the nearby fires was also slowing down as more soldiers made their way to their sleeping bags or cots to rest.
So, much to think on and having Quil get help from Randalk and Gilford is only making things harder. If only she had stuck to my plan. Hendrick just needed to create a trench for us to hide in upon arrival then between Quil and Liarie they could hide us with magic. Or Quil could have even teleported us out, she had plenty of time to prepare! He stopped to look towards a growing distant rumbling. Even this far you can hear the artillery. Rubbing at his eyes, Bryce turned to continue his search through the encampment. I need peace… Liarie where are you hiding?
He rounded a pair of tents and saw Murn sitting huddled against a tree that was growing close to the stream’s edge. The gentle flow of the water giving the space a tranquil feel.
Murn lifted his head, the faceless mask hiding any emotion. “Lead?”
“Have you seen Liarie?” he asked.
Murn lifted his arm, bulky index finger pointing up the stream toward the edge of the camp.
“Thank you, sleep well, Murn,” Bryce said and began to head up the stream. The silvery glow of the moon pierced past the clouds briefly giving a bright sparkle to the stream. He felt at peace with the movement of the water and the sight of its glow. Clouds soon covered and sent the stream back into the darkness.
He passed the final line of tents along the outskirt of the camp. More trucks full of supplies sat with engines cooling after long days of traveling. Further ahead he spotted flickers of light around a large tree atop the surrounding ridge. A figure stood among the flickers with raised hands.
Drawing closer, Bryce slowed in his step as he recognized Liarie in the darkness. He admired the flow of her orange hair and indigo dress moving around her legs before catching a glimpse of her green eyes. She turned, hoofs flattening the grass beneath as other blades sprung back up with renewed vigor.
“I wondered if you would join me this night.” She broke the silence with a smoother voice than normal. “It’s honestly been quite a while since we’ve been alone.” Liarie reached up to another flicker of light.
Bryce watched her lithe fingers get near the light that illuminated a glimpse of translucent wings before they vanished into the darkness. “It feels like an eternity, but I believe it was just a couple of weeks ago.”
“Oh? That’s all?” Liarie mused turning from the flickers to step away from Bryce. “Then this moment isn’t particularly special then.”
He reached out to her arm and pulled her close, their eyes meeting. “I disagree.”
“Good,” She replied simply and pressed into him, their lips touching.
The flapping of light wings and dashes of yellow light on the air played all around them. The silvery moon continued to drift along, the rays of light breaking through more clouds. Distant rumbling of storms to come sounded off in the direction of the nearby mountains, their looming peaks a reminder of where the two had been.
Liarie broke away to step back towards the hovering insects along the lowest of branches leading towards the large tree.
Her wordless departure left Bryce standing there in silence. He brushed at his lips, thoughts of longing coursing through him before he pushed it all away with the looming reality of life. “Is there another reason Quil talked to the acolyte besides to get more power?”
Liarie paused in reaching out for the insects once more. She lowered her head and hugged herself. “I thought it was funny at first, how you brush aside your emotions in favor of discussing something else as if you are too embarrassed. Now I’m disappointed that it isn’t just you but humans in general it seems.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it…” Bryce slowed, his hands balling into fists as he tried to find the words.
She turned with chin held high and waved her hand as if dismissing the topic, “I should not have brought up such a silly topic. You want to talk about Quil and our latest nuisances, yes?”
“No, I want to talk—.”
“Enough, Bryce. You’re right in turning to what is next in our path. We can’t get worked up over our personal feelings when there is so much at stake.”
Bryce crossed his arms and looked out towards the distant rolling hills stretching out towards the mountains. “Fine, but I want you to understand that we will come back to this moment.”
“I know,” Liarie said, stepping closer to place a hand over his heart. Their eyes meeting once more in the darkness. “We get few moments alone, but we can’t waste them, this is our chance to discuss other matters. One day though… one day we can share more of our passion.”
He stared into her glistening, green eyes that seemed to glow in the night. No words came to his mind as he admired the freckles going across the bridge of her nose and her soft lips.
She gave a simple thin smile showing the white of her teeth before turning back to the tree. “We’ve wasted enough time; we’ll need our sleep for tomorrow so let’s not squander anymore.” Coming closer to the tree, Liarie reached out to touch the rough bark and began making her way around the tree in a slow walk. The insects, only visible with their occasional flicker, appeared to follow in her circular path. “So then, Quil.”
“Yes,” Bryce replied and turned to look at the encampment below. “Have you had a chance to speak with her?”
“Of course, she told me the same information that she told you.”
He rested his hand on the hilt of his saber, thumb rubbing the top over and over. “I understand my plan wasn’t perfect as much as I hate to admit that, and you even told me as much… Yet there wasn’t time for a better plan, we had to move as soon as we got word of Guidance. Hendrick and Quil had time to create a better plan, but why the acolyte?”
Liarie paused briefly to meet his eyes before continuing around the tree, “She saw a way to help get us stronger weapons, who’s to say that warmachine won’t outweigh the costs?”
“Maybe…” He rubbed his eyes again, “But, we could have gotten a machine through different ways. Now her actions have indebted me in being forced to take part in this foolish offensive.”
“The acolyte did not wait long to ask of you. What is this offensive anyways?”
“An attack on the Glodan Fields.”
“That is troubling.” Liarie slowed in her walk, the wings all around her seeming to flap a bit faster in tuned to her racing thoughts. “Maybe she didn’t realize the cost for asking for such a gift?”
“Quil surely knew. She must have.”
“I’ll speak with her again on taking care in performing tasks beyond her role.”
“One problem after another,” Bryce muttered and lowered himself to the cool grass, his legs stretched out as he watched the glow of lanterns shifting in the wind that made its way through the maze of tents.
“Tell me more about this offensive.”
“Several acolytes are taking part in it; the spear of the assault is a saboteur from Gilford’s company who’s to destroy one of the main barriers.”
“Impressive if Gilford truly got a saboteur into such a position. I’d very much like to meet them. What happens after?”
“Then the leviathan bombards them.”
Liarie let forth a whine and rubbed at her arms as a shiver ran through her. “They can’t be serious to use such a horrid machine!”
“I know, but there is no stopping the plan, that’s for certain.” Bryce reached a hand out to hers and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Let’s not discuss that detail any longer, tell me more about Gilford. Surely he’s here more than just to help us.”
She calmed under his touch and took a deep breath, “I’m confident he’s here to keep eyes on you and Brashmar. After all you both are the fastest rising Leads under Acolyte Randalk currently.”
“Keep eyes on what though?”
“Just on your growth and nothing more. Bryce, you shouldn’t feel so threatened by Gilford, at least not yet. Just because he is a rude man in conversation doesn’t mean he knows our intentions.”
“You’re right…” He plucked a blade of grass from its stock and began to peel it apart. “It’s still hard to not be wary. Gilford will definitely say something as we move forward, starting with our continued chase after Guidance. That’s assuming Randalk doesn’t hear about it first.”
“It’s inevitable that one of them will catch the wind of our actions. And when you consider how few see the value in chasing after rumored artifacts, we can assume that it won’t be good for us when they do learn about our actions. They’ll surely demand we redouble our efforts to fight for the Tower.” She paused in her circling to make her way towards Bryce, the flickers of light around her vanishing as the insects returned to the branches of the tree above. “Especially when you consider that they’ll be wondering what our plans are with such rumored artifacts.”
“To give as gifts to Union.”
“Is what we will tell them. In reality, though, it is to purge the evils that linger within the Union.” She sat down beside him, “You know that many will take offense to that including Randalk and Gilford I’m sure.”
“It’s necessary though, if we continue on like this, we will surely lose the war. The senseless deaths all in the name of that wretch sitting within the cathedral.”
Liarie placed a hand on his shoulder giving a gentle squeeze. “You needn’t tell me why we should despise Minister Calhounvel, just how we can dethrone him.”
“Sorry, it’s… never mind.” Bryce sighed and laid back to stare up at the glimpses of the stars past the drifting clouds.
She turned to look at him. “I understand your emotion and I don’t think you should hide it like you have a tendency of trying to do. It’s that passion that drew me and Quil to you after our mourning.”
“But I have to hide it.”
Liarie punched his leg. “You know what I mean.”
Jerking his leg, he looked at her, “Why did you do that?”
“Because you were being a fool. I mean that you need to share that passion of yours with our companions and future ones. We need to grow the company.”
Laying back down he returned to looking to the stars, “That won’t be easy. All it takes is telling the wrong one our intentions.”
“Nothing is ever easy, else we’d be living in peace on some far away farm together.” She lay beside him and snuggled closer; her hooves drew near his boots to tap them.
“Without the war we would never have met.”
“Wow, that’s a morbid way of looking at things,” she mused.
He turned his head to her, “Just trying to look at the positive of this whole mess.”
“Well, I suppose that is one way of doing it.” She turned to the sky, searching for what he was keen on staring at.
The flutter of wings beating above them filled the calm. Bryce looked back up this time towards the branches at the corner of his vision. There he spotted one of the large insects, nearly transparent. A thin ray of yellow light moved through its wings whenever it beat them, like blood running through veins. The light gave glimpses to its furry body, tiny in comparison to its large wingspan. The branches moved with a strong breeze that sent more of the wings beating before calming down.
“We never did talk about what happened in Bosavan,” Bryce said.
“You mean what happened with Guidance, I assume?”
“Yes. And those things around him.”
Liarie visibly shuddered at the memory. “Those things… they’re difficult to explain. I’ve only dealt with them once before with my sister when we explored a cave back home.” She paused, ears lowering as she stared off. “It seems to me whenever I hear a rumor it is quickly silenced. No one wants to acknowledge what lurks beneath us. I…” She trailed off again and closed her eyes. “That clicking noise they make… I just, I just don’t want to think about it anymore.”
Will Quil tell me any more? Bryce grasped her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You don’t have to, tell me more about Guidance.”
“Thank you,” Liarie replied and gripped his hand in return. “Well it’s obvious that this Guidance can see part of our plan, as expected of someone with that kind of magical talent. I do think we can convince him to help us on the merit of cleansing the Union. I think the better question is what is in your own heart that made him give pause in helping us.”
“What do you mean?”
“He said that you had come to him not in the name of Yen or Vark or even the Union. Do you have a deeper ambition that you would like to share?”
Bryce sat up, a visible scowl on his face. “I’m doing this all for the Union; I don’t know what that creature is suggesting.”
She rose slightly at his sudden movement. “There is no need to get worked up. Guidance did say he’d consider working with us once we find him again, you at least convinced him of that,” she said, placing a hand on his shoulder to urge him to lay back down.
He lay back with a huff of frustration “How do we go about even finding him again?”
Liarie placed a finger to her lips in thought before laying back down on her side. “I suppose the same way we found him the first time. Relying on the news that circulates through the other Leads and Acolytes until we finally have a rumor to chase after.”
“It took two years; I don’t think I can wait that long again.”
“We don’t have much choice… It also hasn’t been that many days since our brief conversation with Guidance.” She placed her hands behind her head and closed her eyes. “He may even attempt on seeking us out and who knows where his true physical body is right now. We have to give it time.”
Bryce simply nodded and closed his eyes once more to rest. “How much time do we have left?”
“It depends, do you want to sleep alone or out here? After all no one should be looking for you until morning.”
“You know I have to return to my tent eventually. Last thing we need is rumors spreading of a Lead laying with their Familiar.”
“I never understood your human ways of thinking negatively of those who sleep together. After all we aren’t mating, nor even naked.”
“It’s just the way it goes,” He grumbled in reply.
“I suppose. Well at the very least can you stay a bit longer?”
He heard her shift closer to him, the warmth of her body pressing up against him. Turning his head, he could see her now lying on her side, her face close to his. He looked for that familiar green glow of her eyes but saw they were shut, an expression of peace on her face. His eyes drifted down to her soft lips, reminiscing the taste of them on his earlier. A sense of comfort washed over him as the thoughts of tomorrow drifted away for the moment. He closed his own eyes and felt himself drift away. Even in that serene quiet at the back of his mind it kept ticking away, his left fist squeezing tightly. Tomorrow began another trial and he knew it all too well as he itched to get up and return to it. Only Liarie kept him still for the moment. A moment that was always too short.