Natalia and Orsolya head deeper into Union lines where they draw ever closer to the next step in their goals. Along the way though danger is sure to be near and it is this tense evening where they will once more cross paths with a terrifying machine of war.
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Mucking about on spying and trickery, this is expected from an honorless general who has no taste and partakes in such lowly actions. Even the days of proud knights were plagued by this, but at least back then, the would-be assassin had to get up close and personal. Now a sniper can kill someone hundreds of meters away. Or a spy can use a complicated rune-based tool to disable great war machines. Instead of two nations building grander armies full of strength and power they are instead eager to build tinier and deadlier blades to strike one another and immobilize each other. From the shadows this war is truly won, and it disgusts me. Victory should be achieved upon the field for all to see.
-Duke Arsburg of Nothvelt, The Splendor of War
The sound of an oncoming vehicle alerted her senses. Looking up, Natalia listened to the unseen vehicle pass over the bridge above her. A glint of light swept through the grating above casting light down into the darkness that she sat in. Its engine slowly drifted away; a few Union guards above resumed their idle chatter. She stood there a moment longer adjusting her senses to the quiet again. The river to her right flowed gently, its surface glinting wherever the silver moon of Cerudan touched; the waning gold moon of Lushan was almost entirely overpowered.
“Natalia,” Orsolya whispered.
She looked over to see the outline of the woman further ahead beckoning her to keep moving. With a knowing nod she continued her slow crawl across the rocky bed. Her eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness as she took care in each step making sure to not shift any rocks out of place. Her movement was completely silent.
Ahead of her Orsolya waited before a large gap of light that slipped between the two sections of the bridge. Her eyes glued to the railing above searching for any guard who was patrolling the walkway that could look down.
“Is it clear?” Natalia whispered stopping besides Orsolya. Her hands were stretched out for balance, though her fingers itched to wrap around her pistol or rifle in such a tense moment. Her heart pounded as she looked up along the railing.
Boots on metal echoed down as a guard passed by on the walkway heading toward another part of the bridge. He shouted out in his foreign tongue to another comrade in a joking matter. A pair of laughter followed.
“They seem in good spirits,” Natalia said.
“Father’s fortune is with us then. They’ve gotten no reports of any gamayuns slipping into their territory,” Orsolya said and glanced up at the change of light to see a cloud covering the moon. “Let’s continue.”
Natalia followed Orsolya across the gap, her breath held as she waited for something terrible to happen.
A moment later Natalia was in the darkness of the next half of the bridge. She glanced back to see the light brighten as the cloud passed, another boot hit the railing as a guard patrolled along the walkway.
“No time for sightseeing, Natalia,” Orsolya hissed.
“Sorry,” Natalia replied and blinked her eyes a few times to adjust to the shadow of the bridge. With each careful step she made her way across the uneven rocks. Up ahead she saw Orsolya reach the end and head down to the river’s bank. Heading her way, Natalia took extra time in the descent, her heart racing whenever a rock shifted beneath her foot.
At the end of the bridge’s shelter, Orsolya looked up at the side of the bridge.
Reaching her, Natalia rubbed her gloved hands together the cold of the night starting to get to her. “What now?”
“We move with the shrubs along the river’s edge.” Orsolya squeezed her coat around her frail body. “And no dawdling now, the sooner we get there the sooner we can warm up.”
Natalia eyed the shrubs, small and spiny many of the leaves having already fallen off with Autumn. “Not as concealing as the bushes leading up to the bridge.”
Orsolya looked back at Natalia with a shrug. “Best make the concealment spell better.”
“Easier said than done, I’d say.” Natalia rubbed her hands together. Chanting about shrubs to hide instead of snow. She watched Orsolya crouch and begin a slow half-crawl along the river’s edge with the shrubs and tall grass, taking care to not touch any of it.
I’m not sure which one I prefer. Natalia set off after Orsolya with a shake of her head. Glancing back, she saw a pair of guards patrolling along the edge of the bridge. Tapping into that familiar sense of magic, she envisioned the spiny shrubs beside her. Between her play of magic and her dark coat she melded into the night air. The slow crawl kept her on edge as she looked on at the distant plains of pitch black eager to reach the safety of it away from the guards’ flashlights that could reveal her in a second if turned.
The river began a gradual turn, a pair of boulders jutting out from the ground blocked their path. Moving up the incline slightly, the two gamayuns dropped behind the boulders on the other side relief washing over them as the long tense hold on the magic was released.
Natalia wiped sweat from her forehead and looked over to Orsolya who was already standing, eager to move. “What was it again, five kilometers left to Bravan after the bridge?”
“That’s right,” Orsolya replied.
“Good.” Natalia stood up and gave a quick stretch. “I’m really starting to get exhausted from walking all day and night.”
Moving from the cover of the boulder, Orsolya hurried on down the length of the river. “As am I, but we just have to push through a bit longer, then we can rest in the town,” she whispered back.
The pair moved along the river’s edge, the noise of the occasional passing vehicle and its light from the bridge starting to become distant disturbances in their passage. A light drizzle of rain began to fall, a fog starting to grow along the river’s surface. Crickets moved from blade to blade along the edge of the water. A lone tree along the water grew over it, an owl sitting atop a branch looking down at them with its keen golden eyes. The still water was disturbed by ripples from a fish poking above the surface, before plopping back down.
Natalia felt the unease from crossing under the bridge wash away with the comfort of the wildlife. She paused to look back at the bridge to admire the distance they had gone. Small flickers of movement around the distant lanterns were all she could make out clearly atop the foggy bridge frame. A sudden shiver ran through her as she rubbed her arms in discomfort. “What is this? It feels… familiar.”
“Because it is,” Orsolya replied, coming to stand beside Natalia and get a better look at the sky above the bridge.
A large shape among the clouds caught her attention. “I have to be seeing things, right?”She squinted her eyes trying to comprehend the massive shape surrounded by clouds seemingly moving them with its body. The object emitted a low hum in its descent causing her to feel a wave of nausea and fear wash through her. “It’s the leviathan, isn’t it? Please tell me no and that I’m just seeing things.”
“You aren’t seeing things.” Orsolya placed her hands on her hips. “Well, the best we can do is hope it isn’t looking for us and if it is… then Father protect us.”
“Would something like that really chase us?” Natalia asked her eyes still locked on the massive object as it began to lower, glints of light emitted from its bottom as something came out from the lower hanger bays.
“No, the entire ship won’t chase us, however it houses a lot of weapons and tools to deal with multitudes of problems. It wouldn’t be difficult for it to deal with us while still maintaining whatever other mission it is on.”
Natalia reached for her locket giving it a gentle squeeze. Why does it seem like my luck keeps getting worse? I have to deal with this thing twice now?
“Let’s just be glad the bridge is behind us now,” Orsolya said, taking Natalia by the shoulder to twist her about and keep moving.
The leviathan’s hum stayed constant causing the hair on the back of Natalia’s neck to stand up. “How does something that big stay so quiet?” She rubbed at her arms to try to combat the goosebumps running through her. A flutter of wings overhead caught Natalia’s attention as she saw the owl from before flying away from the leviathan. Far off to their left a pair of deer disturbed by sleep were quickly galloping away, brown streaks glinting in the silver moonlight.
“It must have been quite high up only descending until now.”
“But it’s so massive, surely no matter how high it goes we would have heard it.”
“Not necessarily, it has plenty of gas to keep it afloat and with the help of magic it can become further quiet, at least that’s what a Domovoy told me when I asked about it in regard to our own airships.”
“You mean like our Imperator class airships?”
“That’s right.” Orsolya kept looking to her right at the river.
“I wish we’d get one of those to show up then maybe we’d have a better chance against the Union.”
“That’d be nice. I’m sure there’s a reason why that isn’t happening right now,” Orsolya replied.
“What are you looking for anyways?” Natalia asked.
“A spot to cross the river.” She slowed down by a part of the embankment that curved out into the river further, studying the space to the other side. “I suppose this will have to do.”
“That seems a bit far don’t you think?” Natalia asked raising her brow then looking to Orsolya to see her setting her pack on the ground.
“It is, but the river will curve away from our destination and this is the best spot I’ve seen so far.”
“Well maybe if we go down a bit further, we could—.” Natalia watched Orsolya back up a few steps before sprinting forward and launching herself to the other side crossing the wide gap. “Or we could cross here.” She shook her head and walked over to Orsolya’s pack to pick it up. “I’m still really not liking this direction you chose for us.”
“Yes, I know!” She hissed back, “Now throw my pack already.”
Doing as instructed, Natalia heaved the pack as far as she could and watched it get suspended in midair just above the water before floating gently across to Orsolya. Taking off her own pack she threw it next and waited for it to be secured on the other side by Orsolya. “I still don’t think I can make it… That has to be at least a dozen meters.”
“Natalia, just jump, I’ll catch you.”
“Okay…” Natalia stared at the gap with a grimace. It’s way too cold for this.
“Natalia,” Orsolya said sternly.
Seeing the scowl of impatience forming on Orsolya’s face, Natalia took a deep breath and sprinted forward. Jump, all I have to do is jump! She focused her mind on her feet paying attention to how each foot landed on the ground and left it drawing her ever closer to the tip of the embankment. Jump! She reached the edge and leapt across with all her might. The rush of wind against her face and the feeling of weightlessness surged through her giving her a brief air of pure excitement before reality crashed back into her as she realized she’d fall short and hit the water. “Orsolya!” She yelped.
A sudden invisible grip caught her just above the water.
“Natalia, focus on me just like the training…” Orsolya said through strained words, “Let my magic flow over you.”
The touch of Orsolya’s magic around her was hot and her immediate reaction was to flounder and squirm against it, to spread her own wave of magic and push it away. The touch of water against her boots alerted her to further danger.
“Natalia, let it pass over you or else I’m dropping you!”
Relax, I need to relax! She closed her eyes and focused on the hot touch trying to invite it in and relax her beating heart. She felt beads of sweat form along her body as her heart seemed to race further at the intrusion of another magic user within her barrier.
Just as the heated connection began, it ended. With a thump, Natalia landed on her feet on the other side instantly crumpling to her knees with a wave of exhaustion.
“Why’d you have to shout? You’re lucky no one is nearby.”
“Sorry, just, what was with that feeling?” Natalia gasped as she tried to catch her breath. “It felt so strange!”
“A lesson you missed in academy?” Orsolya asked giving a gentle tap of her own boot against Natalia’s to gain her attention.
“I was trained as a sniper you know, not a lot of group exercises.” Natalia looked up at Orsolya to see an offered hand, taking it, she was hoisted up to her own two feet. “Thanks.”
Orsolya laughed. “The rumors that the academies have been rushing along recruits faster as of late is true if you missed such a basic lesson.”
“Can you just tell me?” Natalia grumbled, picking up her pack, and securing it onto her back.
“Well, with you actively using your magic and not prepared for my magic your body reacted to it as if it was an attacker.” Orsolya picked up her own pack and took her canteen off the belt to take a swig of water. “I suppose I should have asked before just in case at least for my own sake; you really made me use up a bunch of magic having to fight your squirming body.”
“Sorry.” Natalia followed her lead in drinking some water as well.
“It’s fine, we’ve been lucky so far, a little extra magic used isn’t going to set us back.” Orsolya sealed her canteen and turned around. “Let’s get going, the town shouldn’t be much further now.”
Natalia quickly took a final swig of water before rushing after Orsolya. Catching up, she matched Orsolya’s pace. “With the growing tension by the mountains do you think the safe house is really still there?”
“It is, the sympathizers earned the trust of the Union years ago.”
“Have you been to this safehouse before?”
“Many times, the couple who manage it are very nice, a true pleasure to work with.” Orsolya smiled and reached into a coat pocket for an envelope with the Altálonos Voss’ seal on it. “Honestly, this seal to garner safe passage with them is a formality. The only issue I can see happening is our contact running late.”
“Surely they’d be there on time just like us?”
“Anything could happen to them.” Orsolya shrugged.
Natalia looked to her right at the distant leviathan covered in clouds, only the lights along the bottom giving any indicator of its location. A growing hum in the air sent shivers through Natalia. “What’s it doing now?”
Orsolya stopped to look. “I’m not sure.” She turned towards a rising hill, “Let’s climb up and get a better view.”
“Are you sure about that?” Natalia asked.
“It should be fine, we can use the trees near the top to stay hidden, now hurry up. Whatever it’s doing might be good information for us to report.”
Natalia took hold of her pack’s straps as she was forced into a light jog in pursuit of Orsolya. Her legs strained with the sudden increase in speed after a long day of walking across uneven terrain. A loud thump drew Natalia’s attention as she caught sight of red blinking lights starting to fill the sky past the leviathan. A jet of steam billowed along the leviathan’s side, causing clouds to be pushed away revealing more of the monstrous airship.
Nearing the top of the hill, Orsolya stopped besides a tree and dropped her pack to dig through it for the binoculars. She popped back up a moment later and peered through them. “I think…”
She came to the top and dropped her own pack with a sigh of relief. “What do you see?” Natalia squinted her eyes trying to understand the shadows she was seeing, the drizzle of rain starting to become a light shower only further obscuring her vision. The lights from the leviathan and the bridge beneath only gave glimpses into the night sky.
“Well?” Natalia asked.
“Luncal, it’s got to be,” Orsolya replied and handed the binoculars to Natalia.
Taking the binoculars, Natalia brought it up to her eyes and let forth an exasperated breath at the droplets of water along the lenses. Quickly drying them off with her sleeve she brought the binoculars up to her eyes again. Beyond the bridge, Natalia could make out the outlines of fighters along with a couple of small airships. “That small of a force has no chance against a leviathan,” Natalia said, handing back the binoculars to Orsolya.
“I know, I doubt they expected it to drop out of the clouds like it did.” Orsolya quickly packed away the binoculars and picked up her pack. “Best we keep moving before the battle starts in ear—.” Orsolya was cut off as a sudden release of power boomed into the air.
A flash of light illuminated the clouds surrounding the leviathan as trails of light raced into the distant darkness. Natalia’s eyes widened in awe at one thin trail hitting its mark in one of the airships the resulting explosion could be seen for kilometers as the fiery wreck fell to the plains below. The other trails of light crashed into the ground further beyond while returning streaks of light shot forth from the Luncal’s limited air force.
Natalia shook herself from the scene and looked over to see Orsolya shoving her pack into her hands.
“Let’s go. Now.”
Pulling the pack over her shoulders, Natalia raced after Orsolya who was already halfway down the hill. The rain was increasing, the beat of the drops helping to muffle the distant battle that was ensuring. “I can’t believe the Luncal are actually attacking that thing.”
“Of course they are; it’s Luncal! They’ll engulf this whole area into a bigger battle before they give up.”
“There is no way they’ll break through!”
“Definitely not. Doesn’t mean those feathered fools still won’t throw countless troops against the leviathan. Best we move quick; last thing we need is one of those fighters or bombers to get past and hit us by chance.”
Coming to the bottom of the hill, Natalia glanced back to see a fiery explosion high in the sky, the resulting sound too far to hear. Another release of the leviathan’s heavy guns shook Natalia and seemed to vibrate the very land itself. It’s like the trenches all over again. She rubbed her arms trying to shake the fear from her mind. The darkness all around pressed on them as more clouds covered the moon and brought forth heavy rainfall. A flash of lightning followed by a thunderous boom seemed to pale in comparison to another release of the leviathan’s guns.
Only after walking for a time did the battle start to grow more distant. The rhythmic patter of rain drops on Natalia’s steel helmet drew her into a trance making the forced march seem bearable. The ache and sores she felt in her body became numb with the growing chill of the night air. The fog that had lingered with the light drizzle from before grew heavier with the lowering temperature. The occasional flash of lightning mixed with the fog and scattered twisted trees gave the surrounding landscape a frightening, barren look.
Natalia looked ahead at the shape of Orsolya marching along. Questions about this town they were marching toward hung in her mind, unable to be voiced due to her flagging energy and the constant rain intermixed with the thunder. The distant gunfire and bombs at the bridge became nothing more than an occasional rumble. She glanced back on several occasions wondering if she would catch a glimpse high in the sky, however she saw nothing.
Their march stopped abruptly at Orsolya’s hand signal. Crouching low in the tall grass, Natalia recognized the low buzz of planes passing overhead that she had missed in her exhausted state. Looking up, Natalia spotted a flicker of a red light marking the shapes of some of the planes. “How much further?” she tried calling out, but Orsolya was already on the move. With a deep sigh, she resumed her ragged march after Orsolya.
Through a grouping of trees and across several streams that now ran higher and flowed faster, they finally arrived too some form of civilization. A dirt road awaited them in the grass, one direction snaking into a grouping of trees in the distance while the other headed up a hill toward several dozen buildings huddled close together. Sporadic lights marked the small village. In front of the town were nearly a hundred tents, moving shadows cast across the rows from lanterns pitched across the camp. The heavy rainfall obscured many details of the buildings and camp from where Natalia and Orsolya stood.
“Sneaking in should be easy as long as we head towards the rear of the town.”
Natalia looked over to Orsolya having just barely caught the words, “Lead the way then!” she shouted in reply over the pouring rain. Natalia only caught a simple nod from Orsolya before the woman set off along the tree line to make her way around the bottom of the hill. Natalia kept pace with her while keeping an eye on the camp in front of the town for any sign of a soldier or some form of guard keeping an eye out. It’s at least one company, maybe even two, enough to outnumber everyone in the town. She tightened her drenched coat around her body, the chill in the air getting to her skin beneath. The sight of the few remaining lights gave her hope that very soon she would have the opportunity to finally warm up. Are they all here because of Luncal?
Moving in a wide hook around the town, Orsolya finally began an approach toward the rear where a crumbled shed sat. Stopping by the side where a piece of the roof hung over the wall, Orsolya waved Natalia on to come over faster.
Natalia sped up until she came next to Orsolya in a low crouch, “What now?” She barely heard her own words over the loud dings of water on the tin sheet just above their heads. Another shiver ran through her as she rubbed at her wet sleeves.
“The building right there.” Orsolya pointed towards the closes house to them, its shape a murky color in the rainfall. Its roof seemed on the verge of collapse from all the rain flowing off the sides.
“Is that our safehouse?”
“Yes, I’m going to go knock on the door and let them know we are here,” Orsolya said and looked back to Natalia. “Warn me if you see any patrols coming by.”
Natalia watched the woman enter the rain, blending in with the heavy downpour. Please hurry. She tightened her fist ready to release a weak snap of magic to Orsolya to alert her of any danger.
She glanced about for any moving shadows. Seeing none, she focused her attention on Orsolya’s outline nearing the backdoor of the house.
Crouching there in the mud, Natalia felt the aches and pains of the day starting to catch up to her. Her heart was beginning to beat faster as she watched that door waiting for it to open. Her eyes kept bouncing back and forth along the perimeter of the town before her for any new lights coming on or shapes of patrolling soldiers who could be out. Nothing moved or gave any sign of life only furthering her unease.
Finally, the door opened to reveal a dark outline of a short figure. Orsolya began to exchange words with them.
Natalia watched, straining to hear anything besides the rain, and failing to do so. She looked about again and spotted a light further down the perimeter flicker on. Narrowing her eyes, she focused her attention on the light trying to spot anything further. Glancing back to Orsolya, she ached to move as the exchange continued for seemingly forever.
Just as her senses were starting to dull with the effort, she spotted Orsolya waving her to come over. Without hesitation, she rushed into the rain keeping her crouch as she dashed across the distance.
Orsolya motioned toward a pair of basement doors along the back of the house.
Natalia followed silently; her attention still divided to her surroundings, looking for any changes. She glanced over to see Orsolya sliding a plate along the side to reveal a slot for a key. She watched Orsolya twist the key and pull the basement door up.
Stepping up, Natalia looked down into the dark of the basement. “Not, exactly the warmest place,” she mumbled and went down the steps into the pitch black of the basement. She stretched her hands out for any type of support and found nothing. Looking back, she saw Orsolya closing the door, sealing them in pitch blackness. “Orsolya?” she asked as she heard the dead bolt on the door slide into place. Feeding warmth into the palm of her hand, a small flame grew, wavering as she struggled to maintain her concentration through her exhausted state.
“Relax, Natalia, we can finally rest.”
Natalia watched Orsolya walk by with a thin, flame of her own hovering above the palm of her hand. “Best thing I’ve heard all day.”
“I’ll find some lanterns to light up our temporary home, just give me a moment.”
“Okay,” Natalia replied and waited for her to pass before slumping to the ground, the fire in her hand extinguished, the growing exhaustion catching up with her. She felt water dripping off her whole body, creating a puddle all around her. She tried to keep track of Orsolya moving through the dark with her thin point of light giving glimpses to the cluttered room. Scattered tools, a couple of workbenches in the middle, a rack holding several rifles on the wall, and other minor details she barely registered. Finally, she slumped further, resting her head in her hands as she closed her eyes. What an exhausting night… could I have gotten this far without Orsolya? She ripped a glove off and tried to work off the other before giving up, too weak to pull it off. With her one free hand she rubbed at her eyes trying to clear them of water.
Lights began to fill the room, causing Natalia to blink a few times. Forcing back a yawn she renewed her effort and succeeded in pulling the other glove off. Slipping out from the straps to her pack, Natalia leaned back, taking in the dimly lit room.
“Get comfortable, this is our temporary home,” Orsolya said.
“Our temporary home? Definitely a nice change from the outdoors.” Natalia smiled, the dangers just beyond the walls forgotten for now.
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