The acolyte’s plan has been set into motion, thus Bryce’s company is forced into a terrible battle that will test their resolve. Once more a battle begins in the thick mud of the trenches where nothing thrives.
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There are those who believe we grow nearer to the magical realm. I believe there is merit to this thought, but I fear for the land if this is to be the case. Studies show the two sources of magic grew thin over the years due to each nation’s eagerness to use it for their own gain. Growing closer to the realm will only allow further greed. It’s only a matter of time before the magic is drained entirely by Espers and Thaumaturges. This only worsens as more familiar bonds are created between both users of magic. I encourage every nation to practice in feeding back to the magical realm less every well is dried up entirely. Sacrifices must be made for the wellbeing of Coronam!
-Medya, The Two Thoughts of Magic
Whistling of shells passing over head came to an abrupt explosive end. Dirt and shrapnel followed, raining in a wide radius. Further explosives going off sent more debris flying. The noise was overwhelming, sending many soldiers to cower to the mud in a desperate attempt to find anywhere to hide from the chaos. Others faced with orders and the will to carry them out climbed out of the maze-like trenches to try to scurry in a mad dash toward their target before finding bullets lacing through them or a shell landing at their feet. The only grace given to any on the battlefield was a swift death.
The glistening sun high above pierced through the clouds to give a view only obscured by the growing smoke of weapons firing. A distant whistle caught Bryce’s attention. Peering over the edge of the trench he stood in he spotted a group of soldiers rushing out of distant trenches heading in his direction.
“Company! Rifles at the ready, we have another group heading toward us!” Bryce called out while bringing his own weapon to bear, a short-barreled sub-machine gun. To his side, he saw familiar faces rising up on command with bolt-rifles aimed for the approaching soldiers. “Fire at will!”
With a squeeze of a trigger, Bryce’s weapon joined in unison with the others in spitting out quick death. The imperial soldiers coming closer with each step began to fall one by one with holes appearing across their frame. Details obscured by the thickening smoke helped hide the true horror of what he and the rest had caused.
Seeing no further movement, Bryce lowered back down in the protection of the trench. “Reload and get ready to move!” He clicked a button on the side of his weapon, the empty magazine falling into his hand. Holstering the magazine, he retrieved another to insert into the weapon. With a quick pull of the hammer, the sub-machine gun was ready to fire once more.
“Bryce, those Union shells behind us seem close, don’t ya think?” Herra asked, the bolt of her rifle pulled back as she fit in a fresh clip of bullets into the magazine within the rifle’s frame.
“It’s going as expected.” Hendrick stated, coming over to Bryce in a hurry from the rear of the company. “I think it’s time we start to make our leave. The number of squads here are thinning out.”
“What makes you think that?” Herra asked.
“That imperial squad we just killed? Others further down the line made it across. Won’t be long until we have a fire fight in this tight place.”
“It’s just one thing after another…” Bryce muttered and stood up with his hand raised. “We’re moving!” He looked towards Liarie who stood tall at the center of their line, eyes and ears pointed to the sky, wand in hand. “Liarie, how are you holding up?” he asked, heading towards her.
“I fair well,” Liarie replied, glancing towards him briefly.
“Good, keep it up, we can’t let a single shell get to close to us.” He moved past her, heading for the rear of the company where Vonna was helping the shivering Roy to his feet.
“Just focus on moving, one step at a time,” Vonna said, helping turn the young boy in the direction they were heading.
Bryce nodded to Roy, giving a forced smile before turning to face the rest of the company now behind him. Dunkir and Theodore brought up the rear of the line, Dunkir with a visible scowl while Theodore had a nervous twitch about him. Next came Murn, Earl, and Herra, all shouldering heavy packs that had a slight hue to them; magic feeding toward Liarie who stood at the center with eyes still staring to the sky. Hendrick stood close to Liarie, helping guide her and pass any orders down the line. Past him, Chapman with a face plastered in mud maintained a crooked smile, joking with Zel who added in his own poorly timed comments whenever possible. Lastly to the front Vonna who still comforted Roy.
They’re all holding up so far. “Alright, let’s get a move on!” Bryce shouted and turned to begin a quick jog heading towards the central part of the current front of this section of trenches. The muddy path littered with the dead and the dying began a gradual shift outward.
Another round of whistles went off in the distance as shouts and cries filled the air. “Man the walls! Keep those Imperials from getting closer!” He called back to the others and watched them stand up to peer over the ridge towards the Imperial side. Spotting the intersection just up ahead he rushed for it. Looking around the edge, Bryce saw several Imperial soldiers dropping down to begin making their way through it. “Murn, bring that shield of yours here!” He called out and released a quick burst from his gun. One of the Imperials dropping as the others returned fire.
The large behemoth brushed past the others with swift legs, his heavy boots crushing anything along the way. “Yes, Lead Coduire?” he called out, voice heavy and clear even in the storm of noise.
“Block this path,” Bryce ordered.
Without a word, Murn moved into place, the shield taking up much of the passageway, loud dings of bullets slamming into the shield joined in the cacophony of noise.
“Chapman, Zel! Get over here and fire over the shield!” Bryce called out and took up position behind Murn to fire off a quick burst of his own weapon’s fire.
Murn’s figure remained unflinching, the shield withstanding the force being brought to bear against it.
“We’re here, Lead!” Zel called out.
Backing up a step, Bryce gave room for Chapman and Zel to take up positions to either side of Murn, their gunfire adding to the storm of sounds all around. A whistle caught his attention and Bryce turned in time to see a smooth, silvery shell caught midair by Liarie. The hem of her long, indigo skirt, dirtied by mud, billowed all around her legs in an unnatural wind. A moment later the shell was thrown off towards the Imperial side, an explosion sounding from where it had landed. The red hue of the shields held up by Earl and Herra brightened at Liarie’s touch as the fey shook herself back into action, ears and eyes seeking the next threat to draw near.
“We can’t give pause at every sighting of the Imperials, we have to keep moving, Lead,” Hendrick said, coming up close to Bryce so his voice could be heard over the noise.
“Nor can we show our back to them, otherwise we may lose someone.” Bryce moved to the wall and fired over the edge towards more soldiers running towards their position. The vibrations of the weapon in his hands shook him to the bone with each burst of fire. The tune of the weapon changed as the clip ran empty before giving nothing more than a muted click. Reaching for the clip’s ejection, Bryce paused at swift movements of dust along the ridge that made up the rear of the Imperials defenses. His eyes narrowed as he tried to focus on the objects, only barely making out the sight of smoke billowing from the rear of the metallic shapes.
“What do you see?”
Crouching, Bryce removed the clip and began to load in a fresh one. “I can’t tell the model, but it’s definitely armor.”
Bryce looked up at Hendrick spotting the man’s fear in his expression. “I don’t think so, they’re moving too fast for the terrain.” With the clip secured, he pulled back the hammer to ready the sub-machine gun. “Liarie! Are the skies clear enough for us to continue moving?”
“Yes!” Liarie replied.
“Bring up the rear, I’m continuing on!”
Liarie nodded and looked to Dunkir and Theodore who were busy firing over the wall. “We resume, ignore the Imperials for now!”
“Hold this spot, you three, until everyone has passed this path,” Bryce ordered and gave a quick glance past the shield to see the Imperial soldiers had created a makeshift barrier of bodies and debris, their weapons nearly silent under the hail of bullets that Zel and Chapman gave.
“We have it covered, Lead, carry on!” Chapman piped while reaching for another clip of bullets to load into his rifle’s magazine.
Bryce moved on down the outer line of trenches, only giving pause to confirm the others were following his swift movements. Bodies lined his path where Union and Imperial soldiers alike had fallen, their hands all seemingly reaching up in a desperate plea to escape the mud that had formed along much of the ground. Only the wooden and metal sheets left along the ground gave any evened footing.
Coming to a halt at a loud cascade of noise, Bryce saw the dirt and debris fly into the air up ahead. Another salvo of mortar shells rained down on the area before the barrage came to an end. The center can’t be holding up well at all. He shook himself into action and carried on down the path. Dirt flung high into the air began to rain down in a large radius, the dinging of it against his helmet a constant reminder of what a single well-aimed shell could do to him or any of his company.
The path slowly inclined as the mud lessened in the number of layers filling the trench. Several soldiers, part of another Union company, waved to him as he passed, words of encouragement and cries for murder lost to his focus on moving forward. The trench shifted further away from the Imperial lines before it returned to a parallel with it. His heart raced as images of the map he had studied last night came to him. The central part of the line is just up ahead, exactly where that barrage had struck. He tightened his grip on his weapon, the solid shape of the weapon a comfort to his senses.
Just as the trench evened out with the inner lines of the Imperium defenses it began to widen, due both to the destruction of artillery and by design. Bryce looked back to his comrades and motioned for them to stick close to the wall the Imperial soldiers were up against. Stray bullets arcing from gravity led them to the other side of the trench, only furthering the importance of sticking close to the protection of the dirt wall. The path continued to widen until the trench started to become more and more crater-like. Union soldiers up ahead positioned behind crates and wooden posts were firing in succession toward a target that Bryce could not see.
He reached the group of soldiers, garnering the attention of one soldier who was busy reloading his weapon behind cover.
“What is it?” the curled-mustached man asked, his eyes, devoid of emotion, only acknowledging Bryce briefly before returning to his weapon while his shaking hands reloaded it. The red insignia on the man’s breast pocket marked him as part of Gilford’s company.
“What’s the situation in this area?”
“What’s it look like?” He cocked his weapon with a loud click and turned to fill in a gap in the defenses, his weapon joining in the chorus.
“Like a bloody mess,” Bryce muttered and moved to the left around the barrier toward a thin path descending into the open space beyond. Reaching the edge of the path, he froze up in surprise at the magnitude of destruction laid out. What was once a central point of defense where the trenches fed late last night had now been reduced to a massive crater. The area was filled with an assortment of debris and remaining piles of dirt that now acted as cover for both Imperial and Union soldiers who fired at one another. The line of Union soldiers extended along the ridge of the crater toward the side opposite him where the trench picked back up as some form of protection and pathway. A heavy gun emplacement along the ridge hastily put together by sandbags and dug into the dirt was lighting up with bursts of tracer fire, the buzz of the rounds release drowned out everything else in the immediate area. Along the opposite ridge closest to the Imperium’s ridge were the Imperial soldiers attempting to gain a footing so they could advance and push the Union out. Imperial soldiers were feeding in from a few trenches that ended at the crater, many falling to their deaths as they tried to sprint for better cover. The crater’s center was filled with bodies that now lay still as a clear sign to anyone to reconsider any attempt to advance.
He turned at his name to see Liarie beckoning him toward her. Doing just that, he went back up the path to see the rest of his company huddled close waiting for their next order.
Hendrick moved close, his eyes glancing to the other Union soldiers. “I’d advise we make a quick step to the other side and head for the left flank as planned. It’s not long now until this position is overrun.”
With a nod, Bryce looked to Liarie. “I agree, do you think you can provide cover long enough for us to make it across?”
“I should be fine.” She tilted her head to the sky, ears and nose twitching. “Best we not waste time’ I sense one of the espers approaching.”
“Which one?” Bryce asked.
“The youth from the mountains of Bosakil.”
Hendrick checked over his weapon, making sure it was fully loaded. “Could be worse, could be a skilled one like Orsolya.”
“Doesn’t mean she still can’t show up.” Bryce laid a hand on Hendrick’s shoulder. “I want you to take the lead across while I bring up the rear just in case the esper tries anything.”
“Copy that, Lead.” Hendrick gave a quick salute and motioned to Theodore and Earl who were closes to them. “Pass it down, we’re cutting across!”
“Where do you want me?” Liarie asked.
“At the center, just like before.” Bryce replied and moved to the side to make space for Hendrick and the rest of the company. Each one passed him to head down the thin path and into the great crater.
“Should I remind you that this would be a bad time to fall behind with helping others?”
“No, I’ll keep up, now go.” Bryce kept a stern look.
She flicked her mud-tipped tail. “Alright,” she replied and headed down the path.
He watched her go before looking back to confirm everyone had left. Bryce looked to the soldiers’ part of Gilford’s company still firing away. I have to continue. With a sigh he caught the attention of the soldier from before with a wave of his hand. “My company is moving on,” He said, coming closer to the man. “Keep an eye on your rear.”
The man scoffed, “Don’t worry about us, now carry on!” He loaded in another clip to his rifle and pushed the lever into place, “You’re distracting me!”
Bryce stood back as the man turned to resume firing. Nothing I can do here. With a grimace he turned and headed down the path.
Spotting Dunkir behind a set of cover several meters away, he paused behind the edge of the wall to his right just before the open space of the crater began. Folding the sub-machine gun’s stock in, he placed the weapon onto his back, tightening the strap around his shoulder so it would stay in place. With his hands free he unbuckled the holster holding his dual-shot pistol and took up the weapon in his right hand, cocking the hammer back. Let Vark protect me from all that would mark my body with the red of blood. His left hand balled into a fist as he kept his eyes shut to focus, the sounds all around became distant and muffled to him as he envisioned a tight barrier around his body. Heat surged through his body as he could feel the beat of his heart picking up. With his fist still tight he opened his eyes and saw out into the world clearly; the only oddity was a slight blur in the area where light caught onto something invisible around his body. The blur was non-existent wherever he looked ahead, only lingering at the edges of his vision. The barrier itself only visible to his magic-tuned vision. And thus, I step through the destruction unharmed.
He stepped out past the wall taking no heed in staying low or sprinting for cover. Instead he kept his footing evened and moved forward at a steady pace, left fist held up. A thin layer of mud clung at his boots with each step. Dips and holes along with debris and bodies lined his path. The focus of the barrier through his tightened fist took up much of his attention, the rest of it given to moving past the obstacles in his way and reaching his companions ahead of him.
Reaching the first set of cover, Bryce walked past it to create an extension of the cover towards another makeshift wall further beyond. “Dunkir, don’t fall behind!”
“Sorry, Lead, just had to take a shot on an Imperial weasel scurrying around!” the short man shouted before dashing for the next piece of cover to join up with Chapman and Zel.
Moving behind Dunkir, Bryce felt a few sharp strikes hit against the barrier. He looked out the corner of his eye to see a couple of bullets flattened against the invisible barrier before they harmlessly dropped to the ground below. He moved the rest of the way to join the three men behind cover. “I’ll extend the cover to the next one, as soon as I give the command, I want you three to go.”
“Understood Lead, just like the fight at Galicia!” Zel shouted. He gave a pat on Chapman’s shoulder to gain the youth’s attention who was busy shooting into the distance. “Get ready, Chapman!”
Use me as your guide, Vark, spread forth your protection. Bryce stepped out from the cover and walked steady steps toward a space between the next piece of cover further away. Facing the Imperial soldiers, he extended his left hand and closed his eyes. The invisible barrier all around him unwrapped itself to create a long wall between both sets of cover. Bryce looked over to Zel and nodded his head. Focusing his attention back to the barrier in front of him he watched bullets slam in the barrier before falling harmlessly. Out of the corner of his left eye he saw the three men arrive safely behind the next set of cover. He pulled his hand back into a fist, the barrier encasing him once more.
Bryce turned to head for the cover before pausing at a nagging sensation at the back of his mind. He looked along the ridge of the crater towards the Imperial side to spot a group dropping down and huddle behind wooden and metal sheets. The last individual to drop down was a young girl, the blonde braid of hair dirtied by dirt and mud still caught his attention. It seems she has arrived. With a grimace he hurried himself to the cover and relaxed his senses slightly in the safety of the physical protection of metal. The buzz of the gun emplacement coming back with roaring attention along with everything else.
“Are you okay, Lead?” Chapman asked, offering up a handkerchief to Bryce.
“Yes, I just need a brief pause,” Bryce replied, flexing and unflexing his left hand as he holstered the right pistol and took the handkerchief. “Thank you,” He said patting the soft cloth against his forehead covered in beads of sweat.
“It’s the least I can do next to your incredible power!” Chapman smiled.
“You’re doing well, just keep it up.” He found the flask infused with dust from the night before along his belt. Unscrewing the top, he gulped down the red water within. The taste was that of iron with specks of sand. The initial gulp was disgusting, but the sensation of warmth that followed was a comfort to his beating heart. The gunfire and ringing of explosions all distant to him in that brief moment of recollection as he turned inward to his calming heartbeat. Almost halfway, he thought to himself, spotting Liarie further along the outskirts of the crater, hands raised to a well-aimed shell. Murn stood in front with shield raised against any stray bullets. Earl and Herra were to either side, strained looks on their faces at having to carry the heavy shields, the red hue of the shields evident even with the growing smoke in the air. Further beyond he spotted glimpses of Hendrick leading Vonna, Roy, and Theodore toward the remaining pieces of cover before the exit out of the crater and back into the trenches. Everyone is still making it.
“We moving?” Dunkir grumbled.
Bryce nodded in reply and placed the flask back onto his belt. With pistol in hand, he tightened his left into a fist focusing his strength on the single point. I call to you Vark, once more. Stepping out from the cover, he sought out the next piece of cover and began walking towards the space between. Guide my thoughts. Warmth flowed through him as his heart began to pick up in the speed of its beating.
Reaching the center, he extended his hand out and the barrier unfolded itself to create a wall. The three men quickly crossed over before he closed his fist again. A distant whirring of gears nagged at the corner of his mind.
A shout of pain from Dunkir, caught his attention, fist loosening slightly. Cracks in the air like glass at the corner of his eye brought his attention back to his senses. With eyes closed he refocused on his fist before opening up and moving towards Dunkir. The thick-mustached man was on the ground with a bloody shoulder, the sleeve of his coat drenched in crimson. Chapman was busy with dragging Dunkir closer to the cover while Zel was rummaging through his pack for bandages, several other containers already thrown about in his search.
Kneeling behind the cover himself, Bryce looked over the wound before meeting Dunkir’s visible scowl. His left hand loosening the barrier as he reached for Dunkir’s wound.
“It’s not that bad, don’t waste your magic on me!” Dunkir growled.
“Let him do it, you stubborn idiot. We need you shooting the imperials not staring them down!” Zel spat.
“We don’t need me shooting, we need to get out of here. Focus on that, Lead!”
“Wrap him up, Zel,” Bryce ordered.
Zel fished out another container from his pack and opened up to reveal gauze and a couple of rolls of cloth. “You know, shooting them also helps,” he replied before getting to work on Dunkir.
“Lead!” Chapman cried, panic in his voice.
Bryce turned and felt his heart skip a beat at the appearance of an armored vehicle atop the Imperial ridge, the weapon on its top spinning to action. A burst of noise echoed from the vehicle as the initial shots darted across the crater to the heavy gun emplacement behind Bryce. He looked back in time to see the heavy weapon burst into flames as the soldiers behind were torn apart by the following explosion. Flames licked out at surrounding men and women, their bodies becoming engulfed.
“Liarie!” He shouted out to her.
She said something to the three shield wielders who moved to hide behind a piece of cover. She quickly made her way over to him. “Why do you stop? We must keep moving!” She shouted coming to his side.
“If that thing turns on us, we won’t last long enough to get out of here,” Bryce nodded his head towards the armored vehicle. “You and I will move swiftly and destroy it from afar, then I want Herra and Earl to escort Dunkir out of here while us two, Murn, Chapman, and Zel clear the area of immediate threats.”
“Are you sure about this? That esper is intermixed in the chaos, what if she decides to strike?” Liarie replied.
“We have to deal with that vehicle while were still close enough to strike, what choice do we have?”
“Not many, it seems.”
With a glance over the cover, Bryce saw the area in the distance where the blonde-haired esper had dropped down. “I can’t tell if she’s still there.”
“The battlefield is becoming more difficult to read as other espers draw near. I believe she is still there, but I am unable to confirm that.”
“Keep an eye out for her, it’s all that can be done.” With the pistol holstered, Bryce tightened his left fist again and stood up in a defiant motion to the onslaught of Imperial gunfire. To either side cries of pain and fear echoed from Union soldiers as the loud buzz of the armored vehicle filled the air, the bullets ripping soldiers to shreds. He focused his attention squarely on the vehicle, right hand rising with open palm. Let those who build such crude machines in the name of none find only a cold peace. He pointed his free hand to the distant vehicle, nearly a hundred meters away. The warmth washing through his veins suddenly felt hotter than before as the familiar touch of Liarie’s presence coursed through him towards his fingertips before creating invisible motions through the air towards the vehicle. He felt a grip in his hand and began to squeeze it. The vehicle lifted into the air, dents forming all along its edge as the invisible force pressed in at every angle, the metal armor squealing in a futile attempt to keep its rigid form. Abruptly the back end of the vehicle buckled in, then the front before suddenly the entire thing crumbled into a ball to land with an audible thud. The munitions within went off a moment later as fire enveloped what remained of the car.
Bryce released the grip, a wave of exhaustion hitting him as he stumbled back a step before feeling a reassuring touch of a hand against his back, energy flowing back through him.
“Steady as she goes my dear,” Liarie mused.
He looked to her and nodded his head before straightening himself, he tightened his right hand upon the barrier, strengthening it. Smoke billowed all around him as he stepped past debris being used as cover, soldiers looking up in awe at the defiance that Bryce showed to the Imperials. He gripped the saber’s handle and unsheathed the smooth, silvery blade into his left hand. The point of it acted as a guiding light for those nearby to push back their fears, grips upon weapons tighten as triggers were pulled. Where’s the esper hiding?
At his side, Liarie wove a second barrier further ahead where now Murn trudged forward with his heavy physical shield. Zel and Chapman were just behind Murn with rifles ringing out shots in unison. The group marched toward the center of the crater where a slight hill of dirt still stood covered in debris with Union soldiers barely clinging onto the area. Reaching that small space, Liarie shifted her barrier to the sides to focus on the flanks. Murn hunkered down at the front giving a solid foundation to hide behind. Zel and Chapman found a place behind Murn as protection while firing towards Imperial soldiers. Zel shouted with excitement with each shot.
Run, you Imperial dogs. Don’t be foolhardy enough to challenge us. With a grimace, Bryce took in the scene now wrapped around him in every direction. He could make out the faces of the soldiers both in surprise at the pain enveloping their body and the anguish to give out the pain through a pull of a trigger. The Union soldiers, now taking his stand as an opportunity to push, were raining death upon the Imperials who coward behind their cover. The grip on his saber tightened as he sought any targets that threatened his position. Beyond the crater other armored cars moved along the trenches in the distance, their buzz filling the air as they drew closer to the outer line of defense the Union clung to. The dark gray of the Imperial soldiers swarmed ever closer to replace the ranks of those who had already fallen.
A burst of gunfire to his left drew his attention. With hand spread he focused the barrier, catching the bullets in the air to form them into a metallic ball. He flicked his wrist causing the ball to propel toward a pair of nearby Imperial soldiers, their bodies torn apart by the shrapnel.
Another onslaught to his right bore down on their position, his quick reflexes deflected the bullets that threatened to overwhelm the thin barrier now strengthening with his renewed focus. He began to gather the bullets again in preparation.
“Bryce! Expand your barrier forward!” Liarie called out.
Pulled from his thoughts, Bryce released the ball and expanded his barrier. The strain hit him hard as he grit teeth. The cry of pain drew his attention and he saw with wide eyes the sight of Chapman’s body collapsing back. He looked in the direction of where the bullet had come from to see the blonde-haired esper with rifle raised. Bryce released his grip on his saber, the blade caught in an invisible hold as he reached for the dual shot pistol. In one smooth motion he unholstered his pistol and took aim, the ironsights aimed squarely on the girl’s chest. A blinding light flashed around him as he pulled the trigger, the recoil kicking his hand back.
Blinking his eyes clear, Bryce growled at the sight of no clear evidence of the esper being dead beyond the distant piece of cover. With his focus on the area he could feel through the muddy mess of magical presences a glimpse of hers. She has some talent. “Liarie, is Chapman alive?” He holstered his pistol and took the saber from the air to sheath it as well.
“Yes, he’ll make it thanks to your protection.”
Bryce glanced down to see Liarie pressing a red stained hand against Chapman’s chest, the other holding the boy’s hands tightly. Chapman himself dulled in his senses from shock, “He shouldn’t have gotten hurt at all.”
“This is not the time to waste, Bryce.” Liarie snapped and gave him a glare, “Clear the area with Murn. Zel and I, will get Chapman back.”
“Let Yen keep us focused,” Bryce replied and turned to face the Imperials with renewed vigor. He raised his hand, a glow of embers forming in the palm of his hand, the very air fueling the growth into a burning inferno. He spotted two running from the cover where the esper was. Not those two, the girl is still in the same spot.
Swinging his palm out, the inferno leapt from his fingertips to bellow forth in a slow arcing curve. Embers fell in the path of the inferno catching Imperial soldiers off guard, their clothes catching fire as they ran in fear. Reaching the end of its path, the flames engulfed the barricade to join up with the rest of the flames that still burned along the wreckage of the armored car.
Just missed her. He noticed her stumble into a ditch along the edge of the crater. “Murn, stay here as protection until Chapman is able to be moved.”
He glanced back to see Zel helping to finish bandaging up Chapman, the young boy starting to regain some of his composure. Liarie looking up at Bryce with frustration, beads of sweat covering her face from maintaining a constant barrier.
“Take the help. Murn can catch up with me after.” Without waiting for a response, Bryce ran parallel to the Imperial esper towards a group of Union soldiers behind a set of cover made out of kicked up dirt and the dead.
Bryce reached the spot and with one hand still gripping the barrier he began to grow a new flame in the second. He felt a light headiness flash through him forcing his eyes to shut as he focused on the beat of his heart and maintaining the flow of magic surging to the palm of his left hand and to the barrier now tightening around his body.
A sharp pain struck at the barrier causing his heart to skip at the lethality of the bullet. Opening his eyes he saw past the growing flames to see the girl peering over cover with rifle pointed at him. She adepts quick! He snuffed the flames out in an instant by pulling the air into the barrier instead feeding the blood and energy to increasing his defense. A resounding boom echoed towards him that was followed up by a heavy impact against the barrier he held up. A spasm of pain shot up his right arm as he let out a growl of pain. The barrier became visible in the cracks reflecting lights before it shattered in every direction ripping apart the Union soldiers closes to him.
He shook his right hand, the flow of blood surging through it helping to heal torn muscle from the shockwave of the blast. Feeding the barrier with fresh blood, he unsheathed the saber, taking the blade into his left hand. Bryce felt ripples from the impact of multitudes of bullets hitting the barrier. Imperial soldiers taking the lead of the esper began to fire on him. Lend me your strength, Vark, as I strike down these endless rats.
With a swift dash, Bryce was upon the closest pair of Imperial soldiers, his saber cutting them down with a smooth swing of the blade. Another quick move and a swing of the blade cut down more men, crimson blood dusting the air by the sweep of the saber and the magic weaving through air. Bullets bashed harmlessly against the barrier he held, a surge of energy with each killed Imperial helping to fuel it.
He jumped back at a grenade being thrown in his direction, the shrapnel striking the barrier with no effect. From his vantage point he saw the thrower at the edge of the crater with more men and women joining by his side. Another armored vehicle was drawing nearer, its roaring weapon clearing out the trenches that his company had come from. This is becoming impossible. Strengthening the barrier forward he glanced back in search of Murn. Spotting the heavy-set figure of Murn coming close he shouted out an order, “Murn move to the esper’s position and keep her attention while I clear out the surrounding Imperials. Be ready to retreat!”
With a nod of his head, Murn marched past Bryce his boots leaving deep, weighty impressions in the mud. The mud itself caked on Murn but was unable to pull him back due to his immense strength. Bullets struck at his shield and armor, unable to find a weakness in his plating.
Bryce pulled the barrier back around him like a cocoon and dashed to his left flank. The saber in his hand led him along to the next set of Imperial soldiers to slash apart. Screams of pain from men and women alike were distant to his focus on the evened beating of his heart. Blood left in his wake filled the air that was punctured by bullets. Many of the soldiers who fired at Bryce were unable to keep up with his erratic movements, panic striking them, and their aim grew unsteady.
Mud, wreckage, dead bodies all tried to cling at him and trip him in his dance. With focused eyes, Bryce weaved his path unharmed by the dangers at his feet and the barrier held together by his faith protecting him from the dangers all around. Another cry of agony filled the air as the tip of the saber in his hand met skin exposing the flesh within to the open air. The life of the bodies seeped out as the blade gained a slight hue of blue at the magic filling its soul.
A sensation of the release of powerful magic rippled the air near him. He turned abruptly to its touch to see Murn knocked into a crater, where he had been sent from now stood a tall, lanky woman with the younger esper sitting up. Orsolya! This whole mess and she comes to this spot!
Moving along the outskirts of the crater now, Bryce saw the wreckage of the armored car still burning away and just ahead of him stood four more imperial soldiers firing at him from behind two sets of cover. He reached the first two, saber easily slicing them apart and with a quick motion he unholstered his pistol. He took hold of his barrier with his left hand now squeezing the handle of his saber ever tighter.
A shot from the young esper cracked his barrier. She’s quick to recover, I need to close the distance, fast.
Heading for the remaining two imperial soldiers, a man and a woman, Bryce aimed his dual shot pistol and fired the first round. Fire licked out from the barrel as the recoil shook his already weakened arm. The cover where the man stood splintered apart as he fell back in surprise.
A second crack formed in the barrier.
Vark please keep aiding me with your strength, just a little longer.
A third crack, an aching pain grew in his left hand, his nerves begging him to release the growing tension in his veins. The beat of his heart grew closer to a resounding crescendo, his teeth held in a tight grit.
With a quick step, he bounced ahead to catch the woman off guard. The saber sliced down from shoulder to waist sending the woman to the mud. Not wasting time to see her condition, Bryce stormed forward with the pull of the pistols trigger to release the second shot.
A fourth crack, then the fifth and last shattered the barrier all around Bryce.
The man who stood in front of Bryce was blinded by the flash of light from the collapsing barrier. The rifle he held faltered.
Standing there in surprise, Bryce quickly regained his composure and shifted to his right as he noticed the man blindly pull the trigger in hopes of hitting something. The saber hit its mark squarely in the man’s chest.
He spotted Murn moving out from the crater and called out, his focus on Murn helping carry the words through the air with the aid of magic. “Murn, retreat!” He holstered his pistol and raised his barrier up in time from Orsolya’s onslaught of bullets from her gas-fed pistol. As Vark aids me with his strength, so do I need yours, Yen. Please guide my magic and help focus my mind.
The sting of bullets against the barrier subsided. Bryce tightened the barrier around himself and began to transverse the terrain with swift feet. His once-light movements were more sluggish as mud gripped at him; only his determination allowed him to keep any form of pace.
He aimed his saber as he neared the closest esper, the young girl. Her blonde hair even dirtied with dirt was still a guide for his blade as he descended upon her spot.
A rush of dirt and wood blocked his view as his blade dug in to find only disappointment of the lack of flesh. He pulled the blade free and jumped back out of instinct. The dirt barrier exploding outward as the wooden shards rained down around his feet.
Bryce looked up to see Orsolya standing over the girl with pistol raised and a bright light in the palm of her left hand. To kill two espers here, let alone Orsolya! Yet… He studied her cold expression and looked beyond to the fresh Imperials entering the crater. My death would be pointless here. “Farewell,” he said to them and dashed off. The grip on his barrier held strong as he waited for an attack by Orsolya during his escape, but nothing came.
He dashed past craters and wreckage, his eyes constantly shifting to the left at the armored vehicle drawing ever nearer. The barrel of the vehicle’s weapon began to tear into the group of Union soldiers at the entrance to the crater that his company had come through. In his act of staring he suddenly caught his foot on a pothole, catching himself with his hands. Exhaustion hit him hard in that instant as he forced himself back to his feet before abruptly tripping over again.
A heavy grip on his shoulder and a quick tug on it brought Bryce back to his feet in one motion. A surge of warmth flooded into him as he blinked his eyes clear to see Liarie standing in front of him. He looked to his shoulder at the iron grip of Murn, following the arm to the faceless mask. “Thank you, both of you,” he said with a nod of his head, “But, why are you two still here?”
“Waiting for you!” Liarie seethed and turned in the direction of retreat, her hand held tight around a dim light of power feeding the barrier around the trio.
“I told you all to keep going!”
“Zel and Chapman did,” She glanced back to make sure he was following close enough behind to stay in her protection, “I came back for you to clear your retreat. Otherwise you’d be surrounded by Imperials by now.”
Murn grumbled in response to nod at a pair of Imperial soldiers crushed by a heavy object before showcasing the mark of blood on the edge of his shield to Bryce.
“And now all three of us will be surrounded!” Bryce reached for his pistol to eject the empty casings within the two barrels before sliding in two fresh slugs.
“Don’t focus on our immediate surroundings but instead on our destination.”
Looking past Liarie, Bryce saw the opening leading into the outer trench line. Familiar faces of Zel and Herra poking above cover to fire off quick shots at approaching Union soldiers.
“They’re holding onto the exit; we just need to make it there!” She slid down into a crater, hooves moving swiftly to the other side to climb out. Her free hand wove a rune in the air before sending forth a spark of lightning that caught an Imperial soldier coming too close from the right. The man cried out as his body spasmed before collapsing, limbs still shaking as he died.
Murn raced up to Liarie, shield raised to block bullets aimed for Liarie from the left.
Aiming his pistol, Bryce killed the soldier on the left, whose head partially exploded from the heavy slug. He aimed for the second and fire, the round barely missing as the woman ducked after seeing her companion die in an instant. He finished the climb up the crater and sped along to try to keep up with Liarie who was already on the move again.
The area, already a confusing mess, had only became more confusing since they had entered. Fresh craters littered the space from the artillery that now aimed further out in an attempt to catch retreating Union soldiers in the dead land. The buzz of the armored car having reached the crater’s edge filled the trio with a sense of dread as its bullets tore apart the Union soldiers, only slowing in its onslaught to cool the barrels and reload. Imperial soldiers coming ever closer were only slowed down by the quick shot of Bryce’s pistol or a strike of magic from Liarie’s skilled hands.
Moving along the ridge a group of four Imperials were firing upon Zel and Herra’s position. Seeing them, Bryce aimed his pistol and fired; the slug caught the soldier in the rear, sending the youth to the ground squirming in pain. Bryce watched one Imperial turn around to see what was wrong, and he took aim with his pistol for a second shot before pausing at the sight of the grenade being primed in hand by one soldier. “Liarie the group on our right! Can you reach them?”
“I see them!” she replied and threw out a bolt of lightning.
The Imperial at the lead was struck dead in an instant; the tendrils of light reached out for the second. The grenade left the second soldier’s hands in a perfect toss before he too collapsed to the floor spasming in pain. Bryce watched helpless at the sight of the grenade landing behind Zel and Hendrick, their distant forms caught in surprise before they jumped from the cover. The explosive went off, sending the two men sprawling into the mud. The shapes of more from his company fell back, he was not able to tell who let out a scream of pain. His heart was gripped in fear. “Liarie, run ahead!”
She met his eyes and began to speak before seeing the fear in them. She turned and sprinted off, agile hooves helping her to cover the distance far faster than any human hindered by boots caked with mud. Her long tail helped her to maintain her balance.
Vark, I call upon your aid to give me your protection. Not that I deserve—. A shock of pain filled his senses. Opening his eyes, he found himself laying back with Murn overhead in a defensive pose. He tried to use his left elbow to rise up and felt pain as he grit his teeth trying to ignore it and failing as he sunk back into the mud. Looking over he saw the blood drenching the sleeve of his coat, a bullet hole visible below his shoulder. He tried to close his left hand as best he could and closed his eyes, trying to grasp for the strands of magic, the warmth of magic in his veins felt cold on the left side of his body, the heat trying to break through. Not that I deserve it with my numerous pleas, but so I can reach my companions and help guide them out of this horror. Bryce felt the tightness of the barrier as a whisper on his fingertips, a bullet aimed in his direction slowed but not halted fell by his feet. “Murn, I can’t maintain a barrier!” he called as he looked past the heavy boots to see the third Imperial soldier who had turned to help his companion. The man was shouting in clear anger as he fired his rifle in anger at Murn. Bryce took aim and fired his pistol from the mud. The man collapsed, dying alongside his still squad mates.
Murn turned and placed his shield in the direction of the Imperial side before gripping Bryce’s right arm to force the Lead to his feet. “I shield, you fire.”
“Agreed,” Bryce replied. He tried moving his left hand, but only felt pain. With a grimace he holstered his pistol, unable to reload it with one hand. To use magic with an open wound, the worst thing you can do. He fed magic into a small growing ember in the palm of his hand. At least it’ll be easier to create then a barrier. “I shouldn’t bleed out; the wound didn’t hit anything vital.” He spoke aloud to himself more as reassurance then to anyone in particular.He looked up at the path laid out before him that led up to the exit of the area. “It isn’t far…” He began to take slow steady steps forward, eyes darting to either side in search of any Imperial who drew too close. Pockets of Union soldiers still remaining were firing wildly as they one by one turned from their cover to blindly retreat in a mad dash or simply collapse in fear, unable to act anymore.
Loud dings of bullets striking against Murn’s shoulder kept Bryce on edge, the knowledge that the Imperials were catching up giving him further urgency in his step. Spotting a pair of soldiers out of his peripheral vision he turned and firing off the small sphere of fire he had grown. The soldiers backed off in surprise as the flames engulfed the area they had been standing in a moment before. Bryce turned away focusing on another ball of fire, not caring to finish off the two soldiers who barely escaped his spell.
A misstep made him stumble a moment before he caught himself, the fire snuffed out from his hand. Standing at an awkward angle he felt a wave of dizziness hit him as he began to tilt further before Murn dragged him back to attention.
“No time to waste, Lead.”
“Thank you, Murn,” he muttered not having the strength to voice it over the roar of noise all around. He kept moving, the path growing shorter with each step as he could make out Liarie dragging a body into the trench with the help of Dunkir. Zel spotting him began to fire at something beyond. Bryce fed magic into another fire spell and turned to see what Zel was shooting toward: a group of Imperials charging toward Murn’s shield. He released the ball of fire to catch the leading woman who burst into flames, the others faltering in their eager charge to instead cower in horror at their comrade’s screams of pain.
Bryce turned and took the final steps to the incline leading up towards the exit out of the massive crater and back into the protection that the trench would provide.
“Lead! You look like shit!” Zel yelled as he ran down to Bryce help support him. “Let’s get you up quick; we can’t dawdle with these Derdainia bastards hot on our heels!”
Pulled up the incline by Zel’s insistence, Bryce froze up at the space where the grenade had gone off, nearly killing Zel and Hendrick. The dismembered arm surrounded by the pool of blood keeping him captivated.
“Lead, we need to keep moving.”
“Who’d we lose?”
“We’re losing Chapman, now let’s get you into the trench,” Zel spoke with an unnaturally stern voice, “Now!”
The sounds of battle suddenly seemed distant as he hurried forward. The sight of Liarie’s tail flicking as the fey was busy working over a body deeper in the trench helped guide him toward the entrance. “Liarie how is he?”
“A lost cause. I stopped the bleeding but he’s drifting away,” Liarie replied.
Herra, standing to the side with medical supplies, began packing them up with a sorrowful expression.
The youth lay frozen in the mud. Bandages stained red were wrapped around the stump of his right arm. More blood covered his stomach and chest where the coat had been ripped by shrapnel entering. His skin was pale white, what little life draining away with final gasps of pained breaths.
Bryce stood there frozen, the pain he felt numbed by the sorrow that now crept at his heart. His hand reached for the wooden charm hidden beneath his coat. Why must I lose another one, sister? Why can’t I keep those I hold dear alive?”
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