PERPETUAL WAR ARC Three: CHAPTER One – The Calm

The moment of crossing over the lines has finally arrived and with it a calm. While both nations face one another at the trenches it is not often that they look over their shoulder to those sneaking past. It is in this moment that Natalia and Orsolya have finally found a chance to rest and discuss their plans of what is to come in their very near future.

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The featured art was done by Mattias and you can see more of his work here – website.

The editing was done by Luke Thompson and here is his – website.

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An esper’s instinct is quite refined. Instinct is a basic tool for survival that every living creature has. Everyone instinctively ducks and covers at the sound of a gun going off, but it is the esper who reacts to the gun being aimed. Espers are constantly sensing their surroundings, like gentle waves being sent out in search of any danger. Their ability to perceive direct danger even in the most complicated of battles is unmatched by anyone, save perhaps the other weaver of magic, the thaumaturge.

-Ondel Huvez of House Zelterion, Espers of Coronam

The fields of grass covering the rolling hills swayed back and forth with the gentle breeze. The thick cloud coverage from earlier in the day grew thin under the intense final rays of the sun. The orange glow was only furthered by the rising of the golden second moon.  The combination of lights made the field appear to be an amber ocean.

Insects weaved through the tall blades of grass while slim, tiny birds swooped down to catch them before flying back into the sky. Trees and large boulders that broke the surface of amber were covered in birds that sang loudly in their evening hunt.

Natalia took it all in peacefully until her eyes settled on a wrecked car at the center, rust covering what remained of the vehicle. “Why do we always seem to ruin everything?”

“What do you mean?” Orsolya replied.

Natalia walked back to the center of the clearing to see the older gamayun busy working on the contents of the pot over a small burning fire. “This place is beautiful, why do we leave our trash around from this war without any care of what damage it is causing?”

“You sound like one of those Vlaxtawk.” Orsolya dipped a spoon into the pot and took a sip of the soup. “Almost done,” she muttered while sprinkling in more seasoning.

“Why do you say that?”

“An entire faction of nature lovers. I think you’d fit right in.”

“I really don’t think so.” Natalia leaned forward to get a look at the soup, her stomach grumbling. “I heard some rumors of a few Lances being burnt alive, because the Vlaxtawk set the forest aflame.”

“They made some sacrifices to defend their true home.”

“Okay, but what about all the rumors about scavengers? I heard several in the academy say that it was the Vlaxtawk who mutated animals into those mindless things.” Natalia licked her lips as she watched Orsolya taste the soup again. “Is it done yet?”

“Rumors aren’t fact until they’re proven true.” Orsolya offered her hand to Natalia, “Your bowl.”

“Oh, right!” Natalia quickly thrust a hand into a pouch and pulled free a collapsible bowl that she opened and gave to Orsolya. “Rumors sure, but they’re started with some sort of truth behind them.”

“Hmm, sometimes, or they are started with the intention of being fake.” Orsolya filled the bowl and handed it back to Natalia before retrieving her own bowl to do the same. “Or it could be something entirely different, after all scavengers have been around all my life and were here way before then. It’s possible no one was even alive when the first scavenger came to life, so who’s to say what happened besides hearsay now?”

“I guess you’re right.” Natalia dug out a spoon from the same pouch and eagerly began to eat the soup, the chunks of vegetables and meat satisfying her hunger in an instant. “Wow, Orsolya, this is great!” She exclaimed between mouthfuls.

“Thank you,” Orsolya replied and placed her bowl to the side. She removed the pot from the fire to place to the side. Retrieving another pot from her pack she opened it up and filled it with just enough water for cleaning from a jug before placing it over the fire to boil.

“How’d you make it so good?”

“When you’re out alone in the field as much as I am, you learn to cook.” Orsolya dug into her pack for a pair of wrapped biscuits; unfolding one she tossed it over to Natalia. “Or from what I heard from some other gamayuns, learn to steal food.” She took up her own bowl and leaned back against the rocky wall.

Catching the biscuit, Natalia dunked it into the soup, and allowed it to sit for a minute to soak up the liquid. “I’d like to think cooking would be easier.”

“It is when you can find secluded places like this to hide the campfire” Orsolya said with a wave of her hand at their rocky outcropping beneath a large hill. “And of course, while you still have supplies to cook.” She pats her pack that sat beside her. “Eventually though we’ll be on rations only so enjoy the food.”

“How’d you know where to find this place anyways?” Natalia eyed the large rocks all around them with part of the hill overhead blocking out much of the rising golden moon, Lushan. The thick bushes at the edges further concealed their hiding place.

“I lucked out on finding it one time when returning from a mission. I had a Union patrol hot on my heels and I found this place. Thankfully, they didn’t have an esper, so I found a tight space between some rocks up against the hill,” She pointed back towards the edge of growing dark around the fire,” and I stayed put for a few hours until they left.”

“That’s definitely lucky! I’ll have to remember this place for next time.” Natalia pulled the biscuit out and began to eat it eagerly.

“Hopefully, there won’t be a next time come next year.”

“You actually think this battle will be over?”

Orsolya smiled and leaned forward to ladle more soup into her empty bowl. “Maybe, if we’re lucky the stalemate will finally be broken.”

“I doubt it.”

“You’re probably right; it’s just my wishful thinking,” Orsolya placed her bowl to the side and stuck her hand out, “Do you want more?”

“Of course.” Natalia stuffed the last of the biscuit in her mouth and handed the bowl over.

“Honestly, I hope to get transferred and you should hope the same. There are other fronts that we can fight on that are much safer. There’s just way too much focus on Glodoran, we’re bound to get killed here eventually as every nation throws more crazy weapons and machines into the mix.” Orsolya handed the bowl back to Natalia and picked up her own again.

“Like that leviathan?”

“Exactly that!” Orsolya groaned, “I heard that the cespaut you were part of was in the thick of that storm when it hit.”

“You heard right,” Natalia shivered as she recalled all the explosions going off around her. “I still can’t believe I survived.”

“You have good instincts.” Orsolya leaned back against the wall and looked past Natalia.

“I’d say it was mostly luck…” Natalia sighed and noticed Orsolya staring off. Looking over her shoulder at the sun nearing its final moments of descent, the glow of amber intensifying into a deep shade of red. Natalia’s heart warmed at the sight as the horrors of the world washed away in that moment.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Orsolya asked.

Another moment passed and the sun’s final rays began to flicker away, nighttime descending upon the land with a light golden glow from the second moon now being covered in thicker cloud coverage.

“Yeah,” Natalia finally replied with a forlorn tone and turned back to her bowl to finish the last of its contents.

“I just wish it didn’t bring with it the cold night,” Orsolya complained placing her empty bowl to the side and fished through her pack for her blanket to wrap around her body.

“You’re already cold?”

“Of course!”

Natalia shook her head. “You’ll probably freeze to death before any Union get to us.”

“I’ve done enough of these cold missions including ones late in winter. I’ll survive though don’t be surprised if I complain. It’s honestly torture for me,” Orsolya said, pulling the blanket tight around her body and leaned to the side to rest her head against her pack. “I cooked dinner; you deal with cleaning the dishes.”

“I figured as much,” Natalia said, already taking the pot of boiling water off the fire to cool while she reached for a cloth rag from her pack. Once the pot had cooled slightly, she ducked the cloth into the pot of water. “Looking at the map, I estimate we’ll be out here for two weeks, you think that is about right?” She asked while busying herself with wiping her bowl clean with the wet rag then doing the same for the first pot. The small fire crackled on, its embers dimming as Natalia pushed the rocks at the edge in to stifle its growth.

“If we’re quick about it, I’d say you’re correct.” Orsolya reached out from her blanket to push her bowl towards Natalia’s.

“Though, I suspect command will give us a bunch of extra objectives.”

“You are also correct about that,” Orsolya grumbled. “They seem to give even more near the end of the year as if they’re desperate to get as much done as possible before the cold freezes everything still.”

“Or maybe Baranfel just wants to see you freeze.”

Orsolya’s eyes seemed to spark before turning to anger. “Oh, if you are right about that, Natalia, that man will face a true reckoning!”

“I’m kidding, Orsolya!” Natalia laughed. “Isn’t it Altálonos Voss who gives out such orders anyways?”

“Hmm, not always, it occasionally is Baranfel; he is unfortunately in charge of us gamayuns in the area.”

“He really is uptight… I wish Kadir was in charge. He’s much more relaxed,” Natalia replied.

“I agree entirely, my dear.” Orsolya rubbed her eyes before letting out a yawn. “So, in the trenches was that the first time you’ve worked with a cespaut?”

“No, I’ve worked with another up in the Bosakil mountains.”

“Really? I thought you were a solo sniper up until now?” Orsolya shifted into a sitting position again, keeping the blanket tight around her shoulders.

“I have been for most of my service; it was just in the beginning.” Natalia shook her head before the memories of the mountain range could come back.

“I’m sure I know the answer already, but which did you prefer? Working with others or alone?”

“Definitely alone.” Natalia paused in scrubbing the last bowl in her hand. “I’ve now left two cespauts behind and each time it’s hurt. The cespaut with me in the trenches… Teiver, Krieger… I didn’t even get a chance to see if Lulilia made it through with her injuries. As for the first cespaut… never mind.” Natalia resumed cleaning in earnest.

Orsolya waved her hand, “Best you don’t get too attached anyways. You’ll help out all sorts of cespauts and individual lances.” She shifted her pack, so it was in front of her and began to rummage through it. “Some will die, others will live. All you can do is try your best and make sure you survive.”

“That’s easy to say, but I’d like them all to live if I can help it.” Natalia handed the clean bowl to Orsolya and spread the damp cloth out by the fire to dry. She then dumped the second pot’s remaining water off to the side.

“There’s no need to stress yourself out trying to do that.” Orsolya collapsed the bowl and stuffed it into her pack then began to untie her sleeping bag. “Some battles are just too chaotic, like the one we just came out of. You tried your best and some of them died. I did the same for my cespaut and yet nearly all of them died just ‘cause of one lucky artillery shell that got past me.”

“We should still try and give everyone a fair shot with our power.”

“I agree, we can try, but war is not fair, it’s chaos. No one can survive chaos forever. They can only raise their chance of survival. I’d suggest you focus on keeping your chances high when you go out to gamble in another fight.”

“But…”

“Natalia.” Orsolya glared at Natalia, “You have someone back at home, yes?”

“Yes, Revu…”

“More than her, I’ve seen you looking at that locket you have hiding.”

Natalia self-consciously brought her hand up to the locket hiding beneath her coat.

“Focus on your own survival so you can make it back to them.” Orsolya loosened the blanket around her and got to work on quickly unrolling the sleeping bag, before sitting atop it with her blanket wrapped back around her shoulders. “We should be sleeping soon; we have a lot of walking to do at first light tomorrow.”

Natalia gently squeezed the bump that the locket created beneath her coat. She’s right, I should focus on making it back to them. Natalia turned to her own pack and retrieved the sleeping bag within to unravel across the ground. Doesn’t mean I still can’t keep those around me alive, but I’ve already risked a lot to do that. She paused and ran her fingers along her neck. Choked nearly to death a second time and stabbed by that Union esper for my troubles. She sighed.

“What’s wrong now?”

“Just thinking about what you said is all.”

“I figured you would, same discussion I had with Kadir when I was your age.”

Natalia turned at the sound of Orsolya rummaging in her pack again. In the dim glow of the fire, she noticed the thin strip of silver along a wrapper. “What’s that?”

“See for yourself,” Orsolya tossed over the small bar and began to unwrap her own bar.

Catching it, Natalia looked down at the brown label with the familiar ration logo letter “R” and beneath it the flavor stating “chocolate”.

“How did you get this?” Natalia ran a finger over the bar, excitement welling up in her at the promised taste within.

“The advantage of being a halcyon rank,” Orsolya replied before crunching down on the hard chocolate bar. “Don’t worry though, you’ll start getting special rations after this mission, I’m sure of it.”

“Do you really want to give this to me?”

“Seriously?” She paused in her eating to add, “Natalia, you’ve earned it. You’re a gamayun! You’ve fought tooth and nail to get here! Now eat the damn chocolate before I take it away!”

“Okay, okay!” Natalia laughed at the visible scowl on Orsolya’s face that quickly turned to a smile. “I’ll eat it!” She eagerly ripped the wrapper and brought the bar up, admiring the sweet smell of chocolate and the sight of the smooth milky brown surface. With a big bite her heart swelled with bliss as the hard chunk of chocolate quickly melted on her tongue, sending her taste buds singing in joy at such a distinctive flavor. Her entire body relaxed in an instant as she seemed to melt herself, laying back on the sleeping bag.

“Good, huh?”

“I can’t remember the last time I had chocolate.” Natalia looked up and gave Orsolya a big smile. “Thank you, Orsolya.”

“No problem. Be sure to not waste any. I have several more bars in my pack with a couple of unique flavors.”

“Other flavors?” Natalia asked leaning forward with eager eyes.

Orsolya wagged her finger, “No, they aren’t for looking, they’re a secret for later.”

“Okay,” Natalia took another bite of the chocolate bar savoring its flavor, her body seemed to sing in excitement at more of the delicious treat. “How’d you get so many bars anyways?”

“Well, fortunately for me, though I guess unfortunate for Kadir, he’s allergic to chocolate.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep, sucks for him!” Orsolya laughed.

“That’s so sad,” Natalia said while taking another bite.

“That it is,” Orsolya finished her bar and reached for her nearby combat belt and took hold of a slim pack. “While I’m in such a giving mood, I have something else for you.”

“Another gift?”

“Yes, though it’s not as exciting as chocolate.”

Natalia eye’s widened at the sight of the blood vial now sitting in the palm of Orsolya’s hand. Her heart skipped a beat, “You’re right, it isn’t as exciting…” She trailed off, still staring at the blood within.

“Take it.”

With a shaking hand she took the vial.

“I know you used both of yours in that trench fight, and well, I ended up not needing either of mine yet, so at the very least we both can have one.”

“Orsolya… is it normal to have an… uh, reaction to using one?” Natalia asked remembering the flashes of red.

Orsolya nodded her head and reached over to Natalia to force the young girl’s hand over the vial. “There are consequences; you should only use one when you have to.”

“What will happen to me?”

“Nothing serious yet, you’ve only taken three.”

“But what could happen?” Natalia pressed further.

Orsolya leaned into the fire’s glow more, “How old do you think I am?”

“I uh,” Natalia stammered as she noticed the wrinkles beneath Orsolya’s hazel eyes and her frail figure, “Early forties? I guess?”

“Try thirty-two.” Orsolya gave a thin smile and sat back in the shadows cast by the small fire. “Just one problem with using the vials. Thankfully I slowed down, and my appearance improved. Though I’ve heard of espers dying before they even turn twenty-five due to overdosing on the blood.”

“Overdose, seriously?”

“Yes, they can’t get enough of the high.”

Natalia shivered at the memory of pain and exhaustion shocking her system after using one of the vials. “No matter how good the initial feeling is, it is horrible afterwards.”

“Good, I won’t have to worry about you getting addicted then. Just make sure you always remember the feeling that happens after.” Orsolya closed her pack and shifted it to the side to give her more space to lie down. “Well, I think it’s about that time to set the sentry up.”

“No, I can get it so you can stay warm.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, and anyways I’ve never had a chance to set one of these up.” Natalia offered her hand to Orsolya.

“Alright,” Orsolya reached into her pack for a small tripod with a capsule on top and handed it to Natalia before pulling back beneath her blanket again.

Natalia began to move a few different dials on the contraption before pausing to study the numbers along the sides of the capsule.

“Are you sure you know how to set it up?” Orsolya asked.

“Yes, I skimmed the boring manual.”

“You skimmed it?”

Clicking two side buttons at the same time, the capsule’s top snapped open to reveal a needle. Natalia ignored her question and presented the revealed needle to Orsolya, “I believe the runes are tied to your blood.”

“I wish it was tied to yours,” Orsolya stuck her hand out from the blanket and pressed her thumb onto the needle until a drop of blood slid down its length and into the core of the contraption. “You did place the hooks I gave you earlier on the north side of camp, right?” Orsolya asked.

“I did, you don’t need to worry. I’m a fast learner and I have good instinct, right?” Natalia replied, taking the tripod back to open its legs, and set it down at the center of their camp before turning a final dial on it.

Orsolya smiled, “Right, of course.”

“If I remember correctly from the manual, now that the sentry is powered by your blood, if anything larger than a meter goes near any of the hooks, the runes on them will alert the sentry that will give you a subtle shock to wake you up.”

“Right, which means we can both sleep soundly knowing we’ll be alerted to any intruders.”

“My only problem is what if an esper notices us and uses magic to sneak in?” Natalia asked.

“Well, we have our medallions for that,” Orsolya replied.

Natalia reached into her pocket for the medallion, its dull copper surface was warped in the shape of an egg. The clasp was secured shut to keep her bloody fingerprint within safe along with the rune that encircled it. “Do you think these things will really help hide us?”

“They’ll definitely hide us and my rune on my medallion ties the sentry into the same spell.” Orsolya rubbed at her eyes as she stifled a yawn. “Though this whole system works as it expects an esper to not reach out for us in such an area. If they knew where we were and did just that they’d probably bomb us out of existence with something like that leviathan before we even knew what was happening.”

“That isn’t comforting,” Natalia moaned, “Why wasn’t I given this for my scouting mission in the mountains anyways?”

“They’re expensive, just like the sentry.” Orsolya replied simply and she reached out with one foot to begin shifting the rocks around the fire to stifle the flames further so they’d burning out altogether. “The rune is a complicated spell and has to be unique per user. The Domovoy who created it took well over a week for each of our medallions and were created specifically for this mission. As a matter of fact, I think a second Domovoy was brought in for yours to have it done in time.” Orsolya finished with the fire as the last of the light vanished. The only light now came from the moons high above, their glow slipping past clouds and the tall rocks all around the two women. “And to make it more expensive these medallions only work for a time. By our next mission new medallions will be made out of fear that the Union or some other nation will figure out the current rune patterns and be able to detect us with ease.”

Natalia stared down at the smooth surfaced medallion, fingers running across it out of awe. “I assume that’s also why only you have a sentry and not both of us?”

“Correct, well I’m going to go to sle—” Orsolya paused to let forth another yawn. “Sleep now…” She finished and she promptly crawled into her sleeping bag, pulling the blanket with her inside. “You should sleep, as well.”

“I’m not tired yet.”

“Suit yourself, just know that extra day we got to rest after the trenches will catch up fast if you don’t sleep some more.” Orsolya buried herself deeper into the confines of the sleeping bag, “Good night.”

Natalia sat there running her finger over the medallion, listening to the wind rustled the trees beyond their hiding spot. The occasional animal call of a distant wolf or nighthawk pierced the air. First night down and there are at least two weeks ahead of us. She stuffed the medallion back in its pocket and began to crawl into her own sleeping bag. At least two more weeks without you, Revu… Her eyes began to droop as exhaustion quickly began to overtake her. I wonder, once winter sets in, will I finally be given a chance to go home?

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Author of the on-going serial "Perpetual War"

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