Day or night there is never a safe moment within the trenches. Whether it’s a stray shell or bullet, death is always close by. Natalia is about to be thrown in to yet another fight. How will the Imperial lines fare this night?
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Chapter Eight – Face to Face
The great northern fields of Glodan stretch for many miles in every direction. Their beauty captivates any soul who sets eyes upon them. I’ve ventured many miles across its landscape, my destination that lonely mountain at the center. Along the way I have seen so much wildlife. Insects with swift yellow wings that glint in the Summer light. Great tri-horn stag herds grazing for food. I even caught a glimpse of a sky serpent before it vanished among the clouds. Soon though I shall reach the mountain, and there I hope to find the true treasure of these fields. The Primordial Tower. I highly doubt I will be able to break into its grand walls, but just setting my eyes on it will give me great satisfaction and accomplishment.
-Baxter Kuluq, Notes of an Explorer
The light drizzle of rain left a freezing chill over the huddle of coated figures. A mist hung low in the air, drifting slowly across the land. Puddles formed at their boots to be added to the muddy depths of the trenches.
High above them the first moon shined brightly with its silvery rays of light piercing the gray clouds. The clouds drifted slowly with the low wind in the air, more on the horizon promising further rain later in the night.
Natalia hugged her coat tightly to her body, shivering all the same in the chill of the air. Her canteen held in her hands beneath the coat.
“Why do you suppose we’re fighting to get into that tower?” Marxun asked aloud to no one in particular.
She looked off to the west toward the lonely mountain that pierced the clouds. The tower itself hidden within the rocky walls.
“It doesn’t matter to us,” Teiver said from her position up against the wall, binoculars in hand as she studied the distant Union lines.
Krieger took a long gulp from his flask, “I bet you it’s filled with riches!” He chuckled before letting out a loud belch.
“Riches? Treasure? Was your past life a pirate out on the Eastwind Sea?” Hukven asked. He punched Krieger in the arm lightly. “Is that flask full of grog?”
Krieger pat his belly. “Alright, how about a grand feast within?”
“Food and drinking, do you think of anything else?” Lulilia questioned and rubbed her smooth chin. “We have to be realistic. Whatever is in the tower, it’s something worth drawing the attention of every nation.” She leaned back and kicked her feet out atop the crate she was sitting on. “I bet you it’s some kind of magical power, wouldn’t you agree, Natalia?” She eyed the esper with a catty look in her eyes.
Natalia nodded her head. “I’m sure, something like that.”
“It’s weapons, a destructive force that can wipe out every opposing nation,” Hukven said with conviction in his voice and a raised fist. “Exactly the reason why we must fight strong for the Imperium to claim it for the Father!”
“And you’ll be the one to use it to save us all with that dull head of yours!” Lulilia exclaimed before laughing at Hukven.
Hukven growled and slammed his fists together. “You trying to start something, Lulilia?”
“Yea, I am!”
“Stop it, both of you!” Vykter snapped and looked to either one before returning to his mug of coffee. A thin trail of steam wafted off the top of the mug to dissipate into the cold night.
“Sorry, I posed the question, Vykter,” Marxun said.
Vyker ignored Marxun entirely and added, “It’s likely to be both a weapon and something magical based.”
“See, I was right, Lulilia!” Hukven exclaimed.
“Vykter said we’re both right, you idiot.” Lulilia turned to Vykter and smiled. “What kind of magical weapon could it possibly be though is the question.”
“Who knows, the most knowledgeable one here would be Natalia, for that one.”
Natalia shook her head. “Why’s it matter what’s in there? None of us will see it.” She sighed and took a swig from her canteen, the water within cool to the touch. “It probably won’t be opened in our lifetime.”
Everyone became silent as they turned inward to their own thoughts. The wind picked up briefly with a howl before it settled down once more. The drizzle of rain continued, seemingly with no end.
“Like I said.” Teiver lowered herself and folded up her binoculars back into a pocket. “It doesn’t matter to us.”
“Did you see anything?” Vykter asked.
Teiver turned to Vyker. “There are movements in the distance. I’d like permission to head to one of the listening posts to get a better look.”
Vykter nodded his head and looked over to Natalia. “Do you mind joining her, Ludmila? We can’t let them sneak up on us with any tricks.”
“Sure, I can go.” Natalia stood up, her boots squishing into the mud. Better than sitting still all night.
Teiver nodded to Natalia and took off at a brisk pace toward the nearest listening post.
“Don’t take too long ladies! The next cespaut should be here soon to relieve us for the night!” Hukven called out.
The tight path was dimly lit by sparsely placed lanterns. The light of the moon illuminated the spaces in between as the two women made their way to the listening post. Weaving past several other soldiers on guard duty, they reached the intersection and paused before the tunnel heading into the dead land beyond.
Teiver took the lead as Natalia followed her down the dark path. Ducking their heads, they blindly walked through the tunnel, only a dim silvery glow ahead giving them any direction as they half crawled, half walked through the mud. A shiver ran through Natalia as she ignored the various unfamiliar touches that brushed against her hands and back of her neck. The sense of something crawling was constantly on her mind.
Coming out the other end, Teiver rested her heavy bolt rifle to the side and pulled out the binoculars to peer out beyond the thin protection of the post. Resting in another corner was a man leaning against the wall and peering out himself.
The man looked at Natalia crawling out the exit before glancing back to Teiver. “You see something?” he whispered.
Teiver shook her head and continued her observation.
With a quick stretch, Natalia came up to the wall of the small space and unslung her rifle from her shoulder. Turning a knob, she released the scope from the rifle and brought it up to her eye. Seeing a blurry mess, she lowered it and cleaned off the lens with a soft cloth before trying again. She saw only dim spots of light in the void of black. The silvery glow of the moon did little to reveal details to her due to the low hanging mist that permeated heavier on the land of dead. “I’m not seeing anything. Why are we ev-”
“Hush!” the man snapped. He quickly lowered himself down to his pack left atop a wooden bench. Digging through it he came out with a metallic piece with a loop that he wrapped around his right ear and closed his eyes to listen to it. “Something’s approaching us,” he whispered.
“From what direction?” Teiver looked over to Natalia. “Get your rifle ready.”
“Right.” Natalia reached for her rifle and attached the scope back onto it. Rising back up she saw Teiver still peering through the binoculars.
“From the front… a bit to the right.”
Teiver changed her angle of viewing and froze onto something. Pulling back, she snapped to Natalia. “Get up here,” she hissed.
Standing up to the platform, Natalia brought the rifle to the sill of the thin windows of the listening post. With the barrel of the rifle resting on the metal frame dug into the surrounding dirt outside, she peered through the scope in the direction that Teiver pointed. “I don’t see…” She mumbled, frantically looking for any movement in the darkness.
“How can you not see him?” Teiver whispered under her breath. “Stop using the scope, it’s too dark!” She spat before heading for her own rifle.
“The scope?” Natalia murmured and pulled back to look into the darkness with her own eyes. Her eyes widened as she spotted the various individuals moving through the shadow of the mist.
Coming back to the sill a moment later, Teiver lined up the iron sights over an invisible target in the distance. With a click of the trigger, nothing happened.
Natalia frantically unhooked the scope and placed it in a belt pouch before making quick adjustments to the iron sights of her rifle with shivering hands. Natalia looked over at the click to see Teiver working on clearing out mud along the bolt of the rifle.
“Of all the times for a jam…” Teiver looked up and gave Natalia a scowl. “Shoot them, or we’re dead.”
“They’re getting closer!” the man hissed and ripped off the metal head piece to stuff it into his pack. “We need to back up; it’s more than one now.”
Unable to get a good enough grip, Natalia ripped off her gloves and stuffed them into a pocket before finishing the adjustments to the iron sights. Finishing, Natalia raised the rifle and searched for the shadows.
“Get down!” Teiver pulled Natalia down by the sleeve of her coat as a gunshot rang through the night air. Several more followed as they struck the sheets of metal providing weak protection for the listening post.
Natalia twisted about to head for the exit with Teiver close on her heel. “I’m sorry!” she exclaimed as she held onto the rifle tightly with the surge of adrenaline pumping through her veins.
Up ahead the man cleared the tunnel and dropped dead with a flash of a muzzle behind his head.
She spotted the small shadow of a stick thrown towards them. Reaching for it, Natalia sent a surge of energy through her right hand causing the object to shoot back out the way it came. A moment later a loud explosion went off, causing the exit to collapse in a bloom of dust sending Natalia and Teiver into a fit of coughing.
Teiver gripped Natalia’s shoulder and twisted her about. “Another grenade!” she gasped through the air.
In the dim silvery light, Natalia saw the cylinder object at the end of a wooden stick left in the center of the listening post. She extended her hands out again and focused on the air between her and the grenade. It went off, collapsing the other end of the tunnel, the shockwave harmlessly hitting against the invisible shield which maintained the ceiling of the tunnel.
Cast in pitch blackness, they both listened to their heavy breathing as gunshots traveled into the trench beyond. The cool air of the space did little to dampen the heat of adrenaline that had taken over.
“Well?” Teiver finally broke the growing silence between the two of them. “Are you going to use your magic to get us out or are we going to suffocate?”
“Just…” Natalia gasped, surprised by the fear in her voice. “Making sure I’m still alive.” She rubbed her hands together and reached up to the ceiling, the wooden planks damp to the touch. “Ready?”
“Yes, do it already!” Teiver snapped and cocked her pistol.
Natalia nodded. “Of course, just making sure I am…” She turned her focus to the planks and fed the warmth up.
“Not a concussive blast, I’d like to still hear.”
“Oh, right.” Natalia felt the warmth dampen. She’s being quite bossy. Imagining the planks moving she pushed them up with an invisible force. Dirt rained down on them and she expanded her reach to create a thin bubble that pushed the dirt out of the way as well.
Teiver sprang up without hesitation and aimed her pistol for the nearest shadow and saw none. “They’re all in the trench, let’s go Natalia!” Slinging the rifle over her shoulder, she climbed out of the hole and ran forward with pistol ready.
Letting go of the magic, Natalia followed suit, her hands staying glued to her rifle. Flashes of muzzle fire drew her attention to the right heading back the way where the rest of the cespaut was defending.
“Over here!” Teiver called out before jumping down into the protection of the trench.
Landing on her feet, Natalia ran with Teiver down the tunnel of dirt, moving past several scattered bodies. An explosion up ahead sent a plume of fire into the air for a brief second before vanishing into smoke. More exchanges of gunfire ringed out into the night.
Rounding a corner, Natalia froze up at the man charging towards them with a shovel in hand. Teiver fired off a clean shot sending the man to collapse on the floor.
Teiver glanced over to Natalia and spotted the rifle. “What are you doing? Put that way! Get your pistol, this is no place for long range.”
Natalia gave a confused look before Teiver shook her head and kept going. Pistols and shovels? What is going on? Staying two steps behind, Natalia still held onto the rifle.
Coming to an intersection, Natalia saw a man down the path and raised her rifle to fire.
Teiver pushed Natalia out of the way as another soldier jumped on them from atop the trench’s wall.
Landing on her back, she looked up to see Teiver get pushed down by the newcomer. Natalia reached for her rifle and tried to fire. The flash exposed the hand shoving the rifle out of the way as the man descended upon her. In the glint of moonlight Natalia saw the axe coming for her head.
A pistol shot sounded off behind and the man collapsed to the side with a dark liquid pouring out of his neck.
Natalia felt a splash of warmth across her face as she tried to sit up. By the Father! She wiped at her face, her body shaking.
“What did I say? Put the rifle away!” Teiver offered her hand to Natalia.
Taking the hand, Natalia was brought to her feet and simply nodded as she slung the rifle over her shoulder and unholstered her waiting revolver.
“A revolver? You’re in a trench…” Teiver rubbed her forehead of sweat. “Check it, is it loaded, is their mud caking the barrel? Hurry, we need to move.”
“I, yes, right.” Natalia pushed the barrel from its resting position and rotated the barrel checking each slot filled with the copper casing. Satisfied with her inspection she snapped the barrel back into place and cocked the hammer back. “I’m good!”
Teiver turned without a word and headed down the intersection deeper into the trenches.
“Don’t we need to get to the rest of the cespaut?”
“We won’t make it at this rate,” Teiver replied. Her head turned back and forth constantly looking for any suspicious figures in the dark night. “We will have to take one of the inner paths around to meet up with them.”
“How many Union soldiers do you think are actually here?”
“Why would I know?” Teiver slowed upon exiting the connector into the next trench. The sight of a waiting body with an arm missing gave her pause. “Just listen to the gunfire, it’s a lot of them…”
Natalia gulped down her fear as best she could, trying to ignore the sight of the dead man.
Heading down the next path, most of the gunfire sounded off to their right. Another set of explosions went off and briefly illuminated the area.
Coming to an opening, Teiver paused by the corner of the wall to peer around its edge.
“What do you see?” Natalia whispered as she waited behind the woman. Her finger inched closer to the trigger, desperate to pull it.
“Get back,” she snapped and pushed back just as an explosive went off. Smoke billowed out, and Teiver went in, pistol blazing.
Natalia followed suit and saw a man charging for Teiver from the side. She lined up her revolver and froze as she saw the white of his eyes and the snarl across his face. Her eyes widened as the man’s head was blown apart by a pistol round. Two more rounds followed before the smoke cleared.
At the center the artillery piece was twisted and broken. Around it, three gray uniformed soldiers laid dead. Around Teiver, two dark blue uniformed soldiers now joined them. Teiver was reloading her pistol, the empty magazine now secured in a separate slot along her belt.
“You froze up, you can’t do that,” Teiver said.
“I’m sorry… It’s just…” Natalia squeezed the handle of her revolver. “I’m not used to this…”
“Brutality? Be happy it’s nighttime.” Teiver kept moving toward the other side of the clearing past the smoldering wreckage. Its smoke added to the cloudy night.
The next pathway tightened to either side as they went. A hiss sounded all around and a moment later an orange glow encompassed the entire area. High above, several flares glowed brightly in a gentle descent. The crackle of gunfire sped up rapidly as the shouts and cries of battle grew to an intense heat before dying with the dissipating glow of the flares.
Teiver paused by another intersection and peered around the corner before heading down the path. “Almost there.”
Up ahead and to the right Natalia caught glimpses of muzzle fire followed by tracers racing above the dirt in either direction. She squeezed the revolver in both hands, the shivers coursing through her body caused by the growing adrenaline. The sight of the man’s eyes before his death played through her mind. Her trigger finger ached.
Around another corner, Teiver stopped abruptly in front of two individuals.
Catching up, Natalia recognized Marxun and Lulilia in the dark. A smile of relief crossed her lips. Back with the group.
“I can’t believe both of you are alive!” Marxun exclaimed.
“Where’s Vykter? We need to regroup and fight back this raiding party.” Teiver spoke with an unnaturally, quick tone.
Marxun pointed his finger heading east back towards the listening post. “He’s just up ahead with Krieger and Hukven, guarding our right flank.”
“Catch up with them, Marxun and I are guarding this position,” Lulilia said.
Teiver glanced back at Natalia and shook her head. “I’m going alone, keep Ludmila here. She’s not prepared for close quarters.”
“What? I can handle it just fine!” Natalia tried to step past Teiver but was blocked by an arm.
“Stay and make yourself useful from a distance with your rifle instead,” Teiver said and left without another word.
Lulilia nodded her head to Natalia. “Had a rough time I take it?”
With a growl, she holstered the revolver and unslung the rifle to hold in both hands. “No, everything went great!”
Marxun chuckled and went back to his spot up against the wall several feet away with his own rifle.
“It’s okay to mess up on your first time. Fighting hand to hand is very different.”
“I…” Natalia paused and went back to her rifle, focusing on adjusting the iron sights for a longer range. I keep messing up. Once done she raised it to position along the wall. “Teiver’s right, I’m better off with my rifle.”
“You’ll have to deal with facing the enemy again.” Lulilia leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms.
“Does it get easier?” Natalia asked, glancing back to see Lulilia looking oddly gloom.
“No, it just gets… bearable.” She sighed and turned towards the distant firefight to her right.
Seeing no further response, Natalia turned back and peered down the rifle’s sights and into the darkness beyond. Shapes moved along the top of the trench in the distant and the field in front of it. Tracer fire and explosives giving glimpses of men and women in the midst of combat. “How am I supposed to be useful at all here? It’s too dark to shoot anything!”
“You aim for any fleeing toward Union’s side,” Marxun replied from his own vantage point.
Natalia nodded and focused on the shadows along the top of the trench. Her breathing slowed as she waited.
Another flash of orange along the top gave glimpses of individuals crouching low. A moment passed and fires erupted again. The soldiers standing by the glow of the fire quickly darted away to hide in the darkness. Her finger pressed against the trigger lightly as she watched the figures vanishing. They could be ours. She moved her finger away and continued to search for a target.
A sliver of light danced in the distance before vanishing in the night.
“The other barriers are on, but ours isn’t yet…” Marxun said.
“The espers haven’t done shit yet… They better hope Union doesn’t start lobbing shells over here again.” Lulilia punched her open palm. “Sorry, nothing against you, Ludmila.”
“None taken,” she replied, half listening. The rifle shifted as she followed her sight on a pair of figures moving along the edge of the trench. Natalia watched them throw something into the trench and dart off into the dead land. She squeezed the trigger as the explosive went off. The pair of figures kept going, unaffected.
“Did you get one?” Marxun asked.
“No, I’m going to see if I can get a better spot.” Natalia pulled away from the wall.
Lulilia stepped over to block Natalia’s path. “Are you sure about that? Me and Marxun can’t follow you, you’ll be alone.”
Natalia brushed past her. “I have to go; I feel so useless here.” She didn’t wait for a reply and raced towards the noise of chaos up ahead. I can’t be afraid. I have to stop at least some of them. With swift feet she made her way, passing by bodies lying across the floor. Hands stretched out to her as the injured called for help. Steeling herself she kept moving, the grip on her rifle tightening.
Coming around a corner she spotted a pair of gray uniformed soldiers on raised steps, firing above the wall toward distant targets. “Do you se—” She stopped short as she watched one of the soldiers get flung off the steps to land in the mud at her feet. Part of his face missing.
The other soldier raced over, crying out in fear at his fallen comrade.
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out as she watched the boy cry over his dead friend. Her heart ached as she grit her teeth, trying to stay calm. Seeing no use in helping she went past him to the steps. Warmth radiated through her veins as she focused her mind at the idea of a thin barrier. Taking the step up she peered through the thin air barrier out to the waiting landscape. From the new vantage point she spotted a group of three soldiers huddled behind sandbags atop the trench with rifles firing towards the defenders. She gasped as one fired at her and she stumbled back, the thin barrier she created had shattered and the remaining shrapnel had bounced across the side of her helmet. “Maybe Baranfel’s right about the helmet.” She grumbled and forced her way back up to the steps.
With her rifle pointed, she wasted no time in getting into position and focusing her attention on the three attackers. She rested the iron sight over one soldier poking his head above the cover and pulled the trigger. Natalia smiled at the sight of the helmet bouncing off and the man falling back. Spotting the other two rifles pointing toward her, she quickly ducked as the whistle of bullets raced above her. I did it! She couldn’t force the smile away as she pulled the handle back to release the empty casing within. Pushing the handle forward, the bolt locked into place and she rose up again. Her eyes widened as she spotted the thrown object land right before her and had just enough time to raise a barrier as she was thrown back.
Rubbing dirt from her face she shook her head and saw the crying boy looking at her.
“Are… are you okay?”
With a nod she sat up and looked over her body to make sure everything was alright. Seeing no egregious wounds, she stood and made her way into the trench. Have to find a different position.
Drawing closer to the fiercest part of the battle, she found a step up and peered over it. Looking for the sandbags again she grimaced at the sight of the two men gone. Shoot. She was about to lower herself when a sudden release of air in the distance caught her attention. “Artillery!?” She exclaimed and quickly ducked down just as explosions went off all around her. Dirt rained down to land against the barrier she had created.
Stay focused. I just need my shield to last. My hard as steel shield. Her eyes closed and breathing evened.
When the noise stopped, she stood and climbed the step to peer over the edge. In the darkness she spotted shadows running towards the Union’s side. Raising her rifle, she prepared a shot before she was forced to duck by another wave of artillery fire. With her barrier formed, she hid in the shin-high water, waiting for the destruction to pass.
“They ran… I have to get to Vykter, they need my protection.” She stood and began to head deeper into the chaos before pausing. “What if he’s already dead along with everyone else? Then I’m going to my own death…” Natalia looked back, aching to return. “No, I have to try!” She raced off without a care of danger. I can’t be useless; I have to help. Her boots splashed through the mud, the sticky muck trying to pull her back. Natalia weaved through the trenches, her attention turning away from the numerous dead and dying. This isn’t a place for me.
Among a machine gun nest, she found them huddling with a few standing, the shields in hands pointed to the sky. Halting before them she slung the rifle over her shoulder and quickly scanned the faces turning towards her. “Teiver? Vykter?” She asked and saw no reactions. A distant release of more shells drew everyone’s attention.
“Raise the shields! We have to hold out!” a gruff voice called.
Natalia spotted the thick-bearded man and met his eyes.
“An esper?” he asked, eying the hexagonal black orb insignia on the right breast of her coat. “Please, protect us!”
With a nod, Natalia crouched by the soldiers and expanded the barrier outward for them all. What am I doing? I can’t protect them all… I never can. She grit her teeth and shook her head. No, focus on the barrier! A surge of warmth blossomed in her as she felt the shields direct their energy to her.
Shockwaves shook all around them as debris rained against the barrier. Several of the soldiers cried out in fear as those with shields were forced to their knees, too exhausted to stay standing.
Why do I keep getting into situations like this? She stood up as the dust and dirt cleared. Those with shields stared at her with wary looks of fear. Skin pale in the dim moonlight that escaped through the clouds hanging low. A drizzle of rain began as an explosion sounded deeper into the trenches.
Natalia turned at the sound to see thick smoke blooming into the sky, an orange glow permeating at the base.
“The barrier…” a boy mumbled.
“We’re defenseless!” another shouted
“What do we do?
“We must escape!”
“Silence!” the bearded man shouted and looked to each soldier with a stern look. “We will retreat in an orderly matter, not be reduced to mindless beasts.” He studied them before continuing. “Grab your gear, we’re heading west to the next barrier. Keep your weapons at the ready in case of any more raiders.”
The group all nodded and went to grab whatever gear they needed along with any supplies left in the nest.
Natalia shifted past them heading deeper into the area. A hand on her shoulder stopped her. Glancing back, she saw the bearded man.
“You’re going in deeper?”
“I have to, I’m looking for a lance vezeto that should be here.”
The man nodded, “Last I saw him he was with his cespaut heading towards the barrier.” He released the grip on Natalia’s shoulder. “Tell him that Vezeto Dihetrik is still alive thanks to his efforts. And of course, thank you, Gamayun…?”
Dihetrik nodded and turned to lead his cespaut back to safety.
She turned and continued down the dark path. The occasional lantern or glowing embers gave her glimpses to the nightmare that she was running through. The sickly bodies sinking into the thick sludge that threatened to swallow up everything in the trench. Craters formed by explosives created gaps in the defenses where more death could be seen. A rotting stench grew heavier as she went, as night flies and hardy roaches began to come out in swarms in response to the recently killed.
She swatted away the insects that flew by her face as she tightened her coat and drew a cloth around her face. The cold air caused her breathing to become more ragged as she went on. The rifle grew heavier in her grip, its wooden frame a comfort even as it weighed her down.
Distant gunshots continued to ring out further ahead. Fear crept at her heart, and her eyes darted at any sign of movement. A series of shots close by caused her to freeze. Crouching low, she listened for it to continue. Cries filled the air but were abruptly cut off by another shot.
This is crazy. She bit her lower lip, trying to force herself forward when another barrage was released in the distance. Out of instinct she curled up tighter and expanded a barrier around her body.
Waves of vibrations shook her to her core as a shell struck close by. The barrier held briefly before she was flung about by the fresh wave of another explosion. She landed face first in the mud and quickly dug herself out in disgust. Dirt rained all around her as she rolled over and expanded the barrier once more. Warmth surged through her body as she closed her eyes.
Once the shelling had passed, she opened them again. She brushed away the mud from her face as she stood up and continued. The rotting smell clogged her senses as Natalia tried in vain to shake it from her mind. Her boots sloshed through the sickly sludge, occasionally stepping on something hard that she tried to not imagine as being anything but a rock or stick. The bodies littering her path made her think otherwise.
Reaching an intersection, she froze up at the corner as another series of gunshots rang out down the path heading towards the barrier. The orange glow of the destroyed barrier continued to rage, helping illuminate the path she was about to descend upon. Once the gunshots had ceased, she peered around and saw a pair of soldiers behind a makeshift barrier firing down the path toward the glowing fire. In the light she recognized the blue uniforms.
They have no idea… She raised her rifle and aimed it over the back of the solider on the left. Her finger rested over the trigger as she took a deep breath and held it. Don’t think about it, just fire. She pulled the trigger and the resounding release of energy surged forward.
The man slumped towards the barrier and slid down it to end up as a lump. His companion stopped firing to look over in confusion before turning toward her.
She quickly ducked back behind the cover and pulled the bolt handle back to release the shell within. One more, one more, one more. She slammed the bolt forward, locking the next bullet into place. She spun around and froze as she spotted the remaining Union soldier lying flat on the ground with an axe to the back of the neck. Coming over the makeshift barrier was a pair of soldiers.
“Derdainia!?” one of the gray uniformed men shouted.
“Krieger!” Natalia shouted back, recognizing the deep voice of the chubby man.
“Ludmila! Thank the Father you are alive! Quick, we must get back to Vykter!”
Natalia quickly made her way down the path, trying her best to ignore the two dead Union soldiers. Her eyes briefly settled on the one she had killed, the blood drenching his coat along the back. Relief washed through her that she could not see his face.
Standing at Krieger’s side was Hukven, a grin across his face as he slapped Natalia’s shoulder. “Well done, girl!”
Natalia returned a thin smile and waved her hand. “Let’s just keep going. I’m getting exhausted with having to help you fools.”
“She protects us from some hellish Union shelling and kills a man and suddenly she has enough confidence to impress, Father, I’m sure of it!” Krieger laughed.
“You keep laughing Krieger and the Father may even hear you.” Hukven twisted Krieger about. “Let’s get going. Ludmila, you stay behind and be ready to give covering fire.”
The three made their way down the path, fire lined their path where wooden debris had been thrown about by the explosion from earlier. The flames grew as they drew closer to the destroyed barrier.
In the clearing, an orange hue hung low in the air. The artillery piece at the center was ripped and torn apart. Bodies lay all about, blood mixing with the mud filling in the ditches and craters scattered across the ground. On the other end guarding another entrance to the area were two figures, sitting low to the ground. They both turned at their approach and stood in welcome.
“Ludmila, you came? Either you’re a lucky fool or far more skilled in this place then I originally thought,” Teiver said.
Vykter stepped forward and gave a salute to Natalia. “Fool or not, she’s here and for that I am grateful.”
Natalia quirked her head. “Let me guess, you need my magic?”
“A good guess, I’d say.” Krieger chuckled.
Teiver pointed her thumb back towards the entrance. “Down this path the last few raiders are holed up. They can’t get out without us shooting them, and we can’t shoot them as they have the choke.”
“And we need them gone,” Vykter added and took his helmet off to rub at its surface. “Last thing we need is them planting more explosives.”
“We’re lucky that the Union stopped firing for now,” Hukven said and walked over to a wall to rest against it with a heavy sigh.
“Well, I can create a barrier, but there’s no way I could move while doing it.” She wiped sweat and dirt from her eyes. “I’ve used up a lot of my energy already.”
“The only way she made it here.” Teiver holstered her pistol and pulled the rifle off from her back. “But, if you can hold a barrier up long enough, I can fire over it and keep their heads down while you three charge over the edge and catch them from the top.”
Vykter placed his helmet back atop his head and secured it with the strap. “As good a plan as any other.” He turned to Natalia. “Do you think you can hold a barrier against a volley of bullets? We can’t risk you or Teiver dying on something too risky.”
“Yes, I should be able to do it,” Natalia responded. She squeezed her rifle in anticipation. I can do this.
Vykter nodded and turned to Hukven and Krieger. “Alright, get ready for some sprinting. We have to do this fast.”
Natalia watched the three men quickly make their way over to a section of the wall that had turned into a slope. While Teiver took up position by the entrance, loading fresh bolts into the cartridge before locking the mechanism into place.
“Ready, Ludmila? We move when you go.”
“Yes, let’s do this,” Natalia replied and crept up to Teiver’s side and prepared to jump into position. With the rifle slung over her shoulder, she flexed her arms, and felt the pulse of magic flood into her hands, warmth flowing through her veins towards her fingertips. Raise the dirt and create a barrier to catch any that hit above. “I can do this,” she whispered to herself.
With a swift pounce, she landed on her feet at the entrance and slammed her hands into the mud. Thick rock and dirt rose to block the bottom half the path in an instant as she raised her hands in time to create a barrier of air as the first bullets raced down the trench towards her. She saw tracer fire light up the air as more bullets careened towards her. The barrier held as the bullets flattened themselves before falling to the ground below.
A burst of a rifle firing sounded to her right as she glanced out the corner of her eye to see Teiver firing a heavy bolt that raced down the hall of dirt. Closing her eyes, she put forward another surge of energy to feed into the barrier. The familiar sensation of light headedness hit her as she grit her teeth and powered on.
Cries of alarm and an explosion took her attention as she looked up to see three shadows standing atop the walls firing down into the darkness. Smoke billowed out of the darkness as another grenade went off. Several flashes of tracer fire followed before just the distant gunfire to the east was all that remained.
“Is it over?” she murmured, her shaking hands lowering slowly. The warmth rushing away in an instant as she sunk to the ground.
“Yes, good work, Ludmila. You did much better than I would have ever thought.” Teiver stood and offered her hand to Natalia. “Let’s get you up and group up with the others.”
Natalia took the offered arm and followed Teiver down the path. Her eyes went wide in surprise at the number of bullets lying flat on the other side of her makeshift barrier.
Coming close to the end of the path, Natalia saw the three men now in the protection of the trench leaning against the wall with different expressions: relief across Kreiger’s face as he took deep breaths, Hukven grinning with delight, and Vykter simply relaxed.
Vykter straightened himself at the approaching pair of boots. “Good work you two. Tonight, has ended up not being a complete and total failure.”
“Lots of failure though…” Krieger muttered between his breathing.
“He’s right,” Teiver added. “Their raiding party took out way too many of our own.”
“What’s done is done. We should move back to group up with Lulilia and Marxun,” Vykter replied.
“We’ll be coming back; you know that right Vykter?” Hukven asked.
“For what?” Natalia asked. “Haven’t we suffered enough? Let’s get something to eat already.” She rubbed at her stomach, her use of blood leaving her with a pang of hunger.
“Do you hear that gunfire just east of us? The Union hit there far harder than here,” Hukven said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of the night they have that entire bank to themselves.”
“You think Erőshal and Windstor are still alive?” Krieger asked. He used a cloth to wipe away the sweat from his pudgy face and took a gulp from his canteen.
“Maybe, no use in going to them yet. We’d just get ourselves killed in our state. Now let’s move,” Vykter ordered and marched past them all to head back toward the orange glow of the destroyed barrier and further west.
Natalia looked to the distant gunfire; fear crept at her heart. This nightmare just keeps going. She reached a hand up to rest over where the locket hid within the coat. “What wouldn’t I give to be home, in bed.” A thin smile crossed her lips as she turned to follow the group. “Wake up to warm eggs and bacon cooked by you mama. Go out and play all day,” she mumbled to herself and wiped a drop of sweat that had crept down into her eye. “Instead I’m here, suffering.”
The flurry of gunfire continued into the night. A drizzle of rain started to fall, adding to the mud that seemingly caked everything. The cries of the dying echoed on.