Bryce arrives at another town with his company in search of the Gamayuns. What clues will they find in the Town of Bravan or will the search turn up empty once again?
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.
The Unions military structure as discussed has its positives and negatives, but it can only function due to the Union’s Pastors. These individuals are the backbone of the Union’s army and it is through them that structures for defenses or fields for crops, among many other, can be made things within a swift time frame. By all accounts they act as an overseer to the slaves, though the Union sees it as a form of religious enlightenment for those brought under their fold. Slavery, you understand, has many benefits. The main one, of course, is not having to pay the worker. But I find the negatives to be bountiful, including the lack of morale in the workers as well as a lack of attention to details. If the Pastors were kept to the countryside far in the rear, I believe these disadvantages would have a lessened effect. However, the Union requires their defenses to be built and do not force their free moving companies to perform such dirty labor. Thus, you can see, Savant, the Union has many freedoms as an army, but they open themselves up to an eventual weakness in their defenses that will eat them alive, especially in prolonged front lines.
-Auruko Tem, Study on Military Structure
Bryce shifted again and again in the front seat of the truck. The cushioned leather had long since lost its air. The bumpy road caused him to get bounced up and down on the chair, only furthering his discomfort. He reached for a metal handle welded into the roof as an afterthought to give him some sort of balance in the rough ride.
“Eleven years,” Hendrick grumbled.
“What about it?” Bryce snapped after nearly bumping his head into the ceiling for the sixth time in the past thirty minutes.
“Eleven years and not a single engineering company or pastor bothered to pave a road to all these small outlying villages.”
“I’ll file your complaint to the ministry with all the other ignored requests.”
Hendrick laughed, nearly losing the cigarette that sat between his lips. “What do you think, Bryce? This village going to be a waste of our time like the ones yesterday?” He reached up to take the cigarette into his free hand and exhale a plume of smoke out the open window on his right.
“I’m not sure. Brashmar thinks it’ll be the one though.”
Hendrick slapped the steering wheel. “Yea, he said the same thing for the last two.”
Bryce tightened his grip on the handle as the truck hit a ditch. Loud curses echoed from the back of the truck. Dunkir’s own shout of Hendrick’s poor driving skills sounding over everyone else as the back wheel of the truck met the ditch next. “Well, third time is a charm,” Bryce said while shifting in the seat again.
“And the third is poisoned by the failures of the first two. We’re better to go off on our own at this point and forget about this stupid warmachine.”
“We’ve sacrificed enough for it. Just one more task from Randalk then we can be rid of him,” Bryce replied.
“And how do you know he won’t redraw the line?”
“Brashmar and Quil both assured me that this time is the last.” Bryce looked out the window to the surrounding hills they were passing by. Long stretches of grass starting to turn brown with the onset of Fall had a golden hue with the rising sun. Craters filled with water and small streams feeding into them dotted the landscape from the heavy storm that had ended just an hour before sunrise.
“They assured you?” Hendrick scoffed, “When’s the last time I heard that one? I like Brashmar, but I’m especially not a fan of him joining us on our little expedition.”
Bryce glanced down at the side mirror to watch the bouncing of each truck as they hit the same bumps. “He can be a bit overbearing… but I think it’s not bad to have him with us.”
“He’ll end up being a curse. I promise you Bryce, in the end he’ll do anything to hurt us if Randalk orders it.”
“I have my doubts.”
“As for Quil, she’s got some sort of secret about her… A sneaky fey there’s no doubt.”
“Is Liarie a sneaky one too then?”
“No, of course not, Liarie is reliable. It’s Quil I’m worried about.”
“Of course.” Bryce grinned, which quickly turned into a frown as they hit another bump in the road. Straightening himself he looked over to Hendrick who was grumbling under his breath at the cigarette losing its light. “There is nothing to worry about, especially with Brashmar. He’s the most trustworthy Lead we’ve dealt with, and I think I can convince him to follow us to the new front line.” He stretched his hand out to Hendrick who was struggling to get the lighter in his hand to spark. “Need a hand?”
“You think you can convince him through that thick skull of his?” Hendrick handed over the lighter and turned his head slightly while keeping his eyes on the road.
“I can.” Bryce flicked the switch on the lighter a couple of times before getting a good spark. The fire glowed brightly, lighting up the cigarette’s ashy end before it was snuffed out by Bryce closing the lid. “I really wish you’d have more focus on the road.”
“Yea, yea, thank you.” Hendrick replied, giving the road further attention. “You got plenty of time I’d say.”
“To talk to him?”
“Yea, that’s what I meant.” Hendrick took a long drag from the cigarette. “We aren’t finding these Imperials anytime soon.”
“You’re right about that,” Bryce said with a sigh. He saw through the dirty windshield the first glimpses of a town up ahead. The tall roofs reaching just above the crest of the hill they were climbing. “Though once we do find them, let’s hope they aren’t too much trouble and give up. Last thing we need is to deal with cornered espers with nothing to lose.”
“You got that right,” Hendrick grumbled. “I still don’t get how Randalk knew about their whereabouts.”
“An insider within Derdainia’s ranks, I’d assume.” Bryce spotted another pothole up ahead, his grip on the handle tightening. “Can you at least try to avoid them?”
The truck lurched forward then bounced back up violently, more curses in the back.
“That, damn it!” Bryce yelled.
“It’s a dirt road, I can’t help it,” Hendrick waved his hand in disinterest, “Now tell me more about this insider theory.”
“What’s there to tell?” Bryce asked, shifting again in his chair. “An acolyte having different sources of info is normal. Should be no surprise that he may have snaked one of his crooked fingers into the Imperial ranks.” He saw more of the village coming into view, groups of citizens going about their business with a couple of uniformed soldiers lounging about. Farmlands stretched out past the falling walls that surrounded the town. Several of the houses were in various states of repair while a few still had holes now covered in moss having been abandoned altogether. As the truck began to crest the hill, Bryce noticed a large crater filled with mud.
“And we’re trusting this person?” Hendrick looked over with a raised brow. “We dislike Randalk and we’re going to trust one of his spies?”
“What choice do we have?” Bryce watched the crater draw closer, the truck not moving from its path. “You are going to stop, right?”
Hendrick having missed the second question, snapped, “I don’t know, you’re the Lead here, think of something!”
“Nothing to think about,” Bryce looked over to see Hendrick not paying attention and cried out, “Watch the road damn it!”
“Bryce, honestly, we’re going like ten kilometers per hour, what’s a pothole going to…” Hendrick looked forward in time to see the crater go out of view. The two men bounced in the truck’s cabin as the entire vehicle lurched forward and stopped abruptly with a splash.
“Oh, come on, this piece of junk…” Hendrick slammed on the horn, holding it down.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Bryce listened to the loud horn for another few seconds before shouting, “Hendrick!”
“I know!” Hendrick replied and let go of the horn to swing the door open and jump out.
“One issue after another,” Bryce sighed and sunk in the chair finding comfort in the bumpy ride coming to a halt. He reached for the door handle and pressed it open to slide out onto the dirt. Shaking his legs awake, Bryce stepped over to the front of the truck now nearly submerged in mud.
“That’s going to be a pain to get out of,” Hendrick grumbled while kicking the truck’s side before marching to the rear of the truck. “Rides over, now get out!”
Bryce shook his head and turned to find Quil heading his way.
“What has disrupted our travel?” she asked, coming up beside him to see the muddy ditch. “Oh…”
“Yea,” Bryce said with a sigh.
“How unfortunate,” She looked up towards the village. “Much too close to the village to use magic, we risk alerting the gamayuns if they reside within.”
“I figured that already, luckily we have plenty of eager volunteers to help dig it out.” Bryce could see that, at the rear of the truck, members of his company were already grouping up. “Did the twins already start their search?”
“Naturally,” Quil said gently running her fingertips along his arm before walking towards the others. “They should finish their task soon enough.”
Again, she does that. Rubbing his arm of a tingly sensation, Bryce glanced back. I hope Brashmar is right, and we actually find something here. In the background a growing argument pulled him from his thoughts. With a sigh, Bryce turned and began to head for the rear, just beyond his company members he saw Brashmar marching over with his assistant Claire at his heels. Ignoring the argument that was brewing between Hendrick and Dunkir. Bryce met Brashmar halfway.
“What’s the problem, Bryce?” Brashmar asked.
“Hendrick hit a hole.”
Brashmar chuckled, “He hit several, surely you have better drivers?”
“Zel and him are the most experienced.”
“Hendrick, stop screwing up!” Zel yelled on cue.
The two men looked over to see Zel march past from his truck to join in the argument brewing just beyond.
“Right, well, I suggest trying to find a professional for the war machine when you get it,” Brashmar said.
“Easier said than done,” Liarie said stepping into the discussion with Quil just behind. The rest of the company from the second truck marched on by. “I’d suggest we move on to the village and leave the others to deal with this issue.”
“A brilliant idea, Lady Majes!” Brashmar exclaimed with clasped hands.
Bryce nodded his head, “That’s probably the best plan right now,” he looked back to see Dunkir red in the face getting pulled away by Herra from Hendrick, who was now bickering with Zel. “Let’s not waste any time and get on with it.”
“Okay,” Brashmar said and began to march back towards his pair of supply trucks, “I’ll get my company to work in helping yours then we can set off!” He hurried along, his large frame drawing the attention of his company who had stepped out from the cramped spaces of the rear of their trucks. “Juliana, I’m heading out, you’re in charge while I’m gone. Get everyone shovels and help out Coduire’s company! Tergrit, time to get those fair paws of yours dirty!” Brashmar shouted before his words began to get lost with all the commotion.
“Are we to move now?” Quil asked.
“Yes, who do you want to bring, Bryce? The village is relatively small; it should not take many of us to search it,” Liarie said.
“Well between us three and the twins who’ve already started, just a few more should do…” Bryce saw much of his company all huddled around Zel and Hendrick who were still arguing, with others joining in. Off to the side he saw Dunkir and Herra, the short man still flustered while Herra tried to calm him. Further beyond Halgurd stood with crossed arms, tail wagging back and forth nonchalantly. “I have the three in mind. The rest can grow closer together while they dig.”
Liarie stepped to his side and followed his eyes to the three. “I understand Halgurd and Herra, but Dunkir? He too argued.”
“Yes, but you did urge me to not chase him out of the company. Might be a good time to let him prove his worth beyond just anger and digging.”
“Excellent, I very much agree with this sentiment.” Liarie smiled.
“What of Murn?” Quil asked.
“He’ll stay back to help with the truck.”
“Is that wise?” Quil asked with crossed arms. “We might need the strength of a sentinel within the village.”
“Maybe, but he can get the truck out of the ditch much faster,” Bryce replied.
“A sentinel being used in such a way…” Quil shook her head in disgust.
“The decision has been made,” Liarie said with an approving nod to Bryce. “Let us gather the others.”
Bryce returned the nod and began to march towards the ongoing argument. “Zel! Hendrick! Enough!” Bryce yelled, bringing silence to the group as all eyes turned to him in surprise. “Instead of arguing, grab the shovels from the back and get to work digging out the front wheels.”
“Yes, Lead.” Hendrick replied with a croak in his voice from the yelling.
Zel merely gave a salute and a crooked smile from trying to hold back laughter before marching back to the second truck for supplies.
Bryce looked to the rest of the company all waiting for orders. “Well? Hendrick and Zel can’t do it alone, get to work all of you!”
Everyone quickly scurried away to retrieve shovels and start digging. No complaints voiced due to surprise at Bryce’s sudden commands.
“Dunkir, Herra, Halgurd!” Bryce shouted to get their attention, “Forget the shovels, you’re with me.” Bryce ordered.
“Think we’ll find anything exciting in this village?” Herra asked coming over with a quick step.
“We’ll see,” Bryce replied and looked towards the distant buildings. “I have my doubts though.”
Stopping besides Herra, Dunkir spat to the side and crossed his arms. “Why’s that, Lead?”
“There is no magical presence here, that is why,” Liarie replied with a scowl.
“That does not exclude a barrier or medallion to hide themselves from detection,” Quil cut in.
Liarie’s features softened as she looked to Quil, “Of course that is an option.”
Bryce spotted Brashmar arriving at the edge of their small group with Claire by his side. He turned and began to march off. “And if that’s the case then they won’t sense us either, now let’s move.”
“Barriers, presence, bunch of magical bullshit.” Dunkir spat again and followed the group. “Just tell me where to point my rifle, Lead.”
Looking over his shoulder at the broad-shouldered man, Bryce said “As always, Dunkir.”
As they marched up the dirt path, the sun glared down at them with its piercing gaze, the thick clouds of the early afternoon having long since left. More clouds flowing down from the distant mountains promised another round of nightly rains. The ground was uneven to either side of the dirt road, pockmarked by old craters from years of bombings that had disrupted most of the supply route that had once traveled through this area. Twisted and scarred trees dotted the plains; thin branches grew in defiance to death. Just like the trees, the village that lay before them was twisted and ruined, many buildings were cracked and filled with holes. The buildings near the center were the most well-maintained, having active residents, unlike the outskirts.
Coming up besides Bryce, Brashmar spoke in a lowered tone that was still at a higher decibel then most of the others in the group. “I have my company helping yours back there, I’d say they’ll have the truck free within the hour. Think we can search this village before then?”
“How do you want to split up? It’s a small town, but the gamayuns might slip out if we move as one group.”
“I want you and Claire to search the left with Liarie. I’ll go right with my three,” Bryce glanced up to see a smile appear on Brashmar’s face.
“You’d honor me with Liarie’s presence? How fortune shines on me!” He chuckled, his voice surely alerting everyone in the village. “What of the shy one?”
Bryce looked back to see Quil raise a brow and cross her arms.
“Again, with such a name?”
“If you can find the twins and assist them,” Bryce said, ignoring her comment.
“An easy enough task.” Quil shrugged her shoulders.
“The plan is set, I like it.” Brashmar grinned and slowed in his step to match with Herra, Dunkir, and Halguard. “Looks like you selected a good bunch to search with us! Dunkir, how are you doing?”
“Fine,” Dunkir huffed.
“Grumpy as ever. Herra, I thought your job was to keep a smile on his face?”
“Lead Helfin, I have no idea what you refer to,” Herra replied with a smile.
“I think you know well! Then our third member!” Brashmar slaps Halgurd’s shoulder, stumbling the vlaxon. “Glad to see you again!”
“Please, if you can refrain of such manners with me…” Halgurd replied, taking a sidestep away from Brashmar.
“Ahh, the same response Tergrit has with me. Maybe you two are more alike than you’d like to say?”
“Must I answer such a question, Lead? It is distasteful.” Halgurd asked.”
“No, you don’t,” Bryce replied and began to slow in his step. “Focus up, Brashmar. We have company.
“Sure thing,” Brashmar said, before chuckling to himself.
Up ahead a man came marching out from a small structure with two others trailing behind with rifles in hand. The shoddy building sat on the side of the road, with a Union banner and another depicting two crossed spears. Behind the building were dozens of tents and a pair of hastily built cement barracks further beyond. The man at the front was short with a black beard and a limp in his step. His tunic was half tugged into his pants.
“Who is the Lead here?” Bryce asked stopping before the man with crossed arms.
“You’re speaking to him,” The man pushed back his cap slightly to scratch his head. “I’m in charge here under Acolyte Winsshil.”
“Drinking on the job, Lead?” Brashmar asked.
The Lead spat to the side, clearing his throat before he replied, “Of course, what else is there to do before my company is set back to the front line?”
Plenty. Bryce bit his tongue. “Is there a pastor here?”
The man rubbed at his forehead. “I said I was the Lead in charge here did I not? No pastor!”
“Well then we’re here to search this town for any Derdainian sympathizers.”
The man spat to the side again and turned to head back to his hideout, “Search away just don’t bother my company, they need all the relaxing they can get!”
“Do you suspect anyone living here who’d protect a Derdainian?”
The man stumbled along before coming to the shoddy building to lean against its wall his two companions already heading back in with an eager step to get back to the booze. “This is conquered land, all of them are suspects.”
Bryce ground his heel in the dirt frustration building up with him.
“How do companies with such ill-chosen Leads function at all?” Halgurd asked aloud to no one in particular.
“They don’t,” Dunkir grumbled.
“It is pathetic,” Quil added.
Just another reason why we can’t win this war. Bryce forced away his emotions and turned towards the awaiting village, the drunken Lead forgotten. “We have an hour, let’s get on with it.”