North-west of Merywyn, Llael.
8th of Katesh, 611 AR.
Captain Jericho Kasey trod over a fallow stretch of farmland, hand shading his eyes against a crimson sun as it retreated over the horizon. The light wiggled and shimmered like air radiating off a ball of hot lead as it slipped behind the world. He scanned the little foxholes of his company, passing each of them slowly, gathering information. Checking for signs of excessive exhaustion, noticing quality of gear, but mainly scoping out morale.
“Private Kenny, that is not a foxhole, that is a fucking gopher hole,” Kasey said as he glanced over one of the more half-hearted fortification efforts. “Two more feet. Dig it out.”
“Yessir,” the exhausted private said as he stood up, kicking the heels of his hole-mates for assistance. “Told you it wasn’t deep enough,” someone muttered as Kasey moved on.
Frustration gnawed at Kasey. The lines on his map barely moved each day. A mile here, two miles there– the wheels of the First Army were barely moving through the endless hazards of Llael, and the slower they moved, the worse morale became. There wasn’t a single thing he could do about it except keep them busy, keep them moving, keep them alert. Always alert.
Tonight there was one particular soldier he felt a need to check on. Kasey found his foxhole after a few minutes of searching.
“Mind if I join you, gentlemen?” he said as he squatted down. Kirk Hobbs raised his helmeted head slowly to meet the captain’s gaze. The other trooper in the hole responded a little quicker.
“Yessir,” he said. A young lad, the youngest in the company. Kasey had watched him carefully for signs of breaking, but the kid was as hard as some of the grittiest vets he’d ever worked with.
“Thank you, private Jakes,” Kasey said as he slid into the crowded hole. “I’ve been meaning to ask you– any relation to Lieutenant Allison Jakes?”
“The warcaster?” Peter’s eyes went wide, and then he laughed. “Yeah. I saw her on an enlistment poster when I first arrived in Corvis. I thought she was pretty so I took her name.”
Kirk’s head turned quizzically to look at his friend. “Are you serious?” he asked. “You changed your name?”
“I didn’t have a last name,” Peter said. “Had to put one down when I enlisted.” He looked at the captain. “Why?”
Kasey shrugged. “She has a big family. A lot of them are in the Corps. At least, if you believe the story of every Jakes you meet.” They all chuckled. “I once heard a man tell me he was her cousin three-times removed from his grandmother’s side. Swore he could prove it with documentation.”
“Could he?” asked Kirk.
“He could, as a matter of fact. Had his mother mail him copies of a lineage document notarized by the Royal Department of Records in Caspia. Didn’t stop us from giving him shit, though.” Kasey looked from Peter to Kirk. “Hey, where’s your third?”
Peter gave Kirk a heavy look.
Kirk shrugged. “Kayazy got him. Haven’t gotten a replacement yet.”
“Ah,” Kasey said, pursing his lips. “Well, you won’t be getting one tonight, so I’ll post up here with you gents.” Peter and Kirk looked at each other.
“Sir?” Kirk said, puzzled.
“Would you prefer I leave?” Kasey said, raising his eyebrows. Kirk shook his head quickly.
“No sir! I just… why?”
“Because there are only two of you in here and there are supposed to be at least three, that’s why,” Kasey said. “That’s the rule.”
“Yes, sir,” Kirk replied. There was a long pause as the captain studied Kirk’s face while Kirk pretended not to notice. Peter looked at Kasey, then Kirk, then back to Kasey.
“Actually, since you’re here, sir,” Peter began, scrunching his face. “Permission to, uh… visit the head?”
“Granted,” Kasey said. Peter scrambled out of the foxhole and trotted away from the field. Kasey waited for Peter to leave earshot.
“How are you doing, son?” Kasey asked. Kirk blinked wearily.
“Fine, sir,” he said.
Kasey nodded. “Mhmm.” Several beats passed.
“Really, I mean it,” Kirk said, shrugging. “I’m fine.” Kasey said nothing. Kirk shifted.
“Fine?” Kasey asked. Kirk sighed in frustration and put out his hands.
“Sir, I…” he clicked his tongue. “What am I supposed to say, sir?”
Kasey said nothing, choosing to look away and watch the sun’s glow quietly dissipate on the underside of distant clouds.
“Do you ever wonder what war would be like without magic?” Kasey asked. Kirk blinked rapidly and frowned, searching desperately for whatever answer would get the captain to leave him alone.
“Ah… Well, n-no sir,” Kirk stuttered. “Erh, I mean. I suppose.”
“You suppose?” Kasey said nonchalantly, reaching into his bag for a cigar. He paused and looked at Kirk. “Do you mind if…”
“No, go ahead,” Kirk said, waving him on. Kasey lit the cylinder and took a puff, watching the end glow and sighing deeply. He gazed at Kirk. Kirk looked away.
“Well?” Kasey said. “What do you think?”
“About what, sir?” Kirk asked, avoiding the captain’s gaze. Kasey took another puff of the cigar.
“About war, private. War without magic.”
“I think, uh…” Kirk struggled and finally let out a long sigh, clearly realizing he couldn’t outsmart whatever game the captain was playing. He’d have to just go along with it. “I think it’d be less evil, sir,” Kirk said quietly.
“Less evil,” Kasey said, raising his eyebrows. “How do you figure that?”
Kirk finally met his captain’s gaze again. “Think about all the things magic lets us do to each other,” Kirk said, struggling and failing to hide his dismay. The obviousness of the fact seemed plain to him and Captain Kasey’s ignorance was upsetting. “A few weeks ago I watched a wizard punch a hole in a man’s heart with an icicle,” he said. “I’ve seen that same man use magic to turn children into bloodthirsty maniacs. Cryxians reanimate our dead to fight against us. Menites burn–”
“Protectorate Menites,” Kasey interrupted. Kirk froze. Kasey waved at him. “Go on.”
“The Protectorate uses magic to incinerate anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe,” Kirk continued. “Take away magic, you take away all those atrocities.”
“The Protectorate uses regular fire, too,” Kasey said after taking another puff on his cigar. “And frost magic through the heart does the same work as a bullet.”
“And the kids?” Kirk asked. Kasey gazed at his cigar, admiring the warm brown wrapper. He looked up at Kirk without moving.
“You think that’s the first time an army has used child soldiers?” He waved his cigar, drawing an accidental circle of smoke that curled in the air in front of his face. “Give me a book of military history and I could point out half a dozen instances of slave soldiers, even children.” He passed his hand over the air, wiping an invisible slate clean. “No magic involved. Just plain evil people doing evil things.” He shook his head. “I think without magic we’d all still be brutalizing each other. We’d just have to stick to doing it the old-fashioned way. You know. Knives and bullets and gas.”
“Alright,” Kirk said. “What about soul magic? Trapping people’s immortal souls in machines? Keeping them on Caen forever, not allowing them to pass on? Surely our souls would be safer were it nor for magic.”
Kasey stared at Kirk for a full minute. Kirk looked away after just a few seconds. Kasey suddenly laughed and Kirk jumped.
“You know what, you got me there,” Kasey said, shaking his head. “Without magic, souls would be off limits. But,” he added quickly, “if there’s a way for engineers to use the soul without magic, you bet we’re going to find a way, and then we’re right back where we started.”
“Sir, can I ask where this is coming from?” Kirk asked, hesitating slightly.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Kasey said. “Just something I’ve been musing on, that’s all.” He took another little puff. “I used to tell myself that the world would be better off with no magic. No cheating. Just–” he cut his free hand through the air, dividing the world in two. “Fair and square.” He shook his head and looked at his boots. “But I don’t know anymore.” He waited a while to see if Kirk would reply. Kirk remained silent. “I probably just think that because I don’t understand it,” Kasey continued. “Fact of the matter is, if I have a gun and you don’t, I might as well be a warcaster to you. I guess they just…have guns we don’t get to play with, is all.” He shrugged again. “Magic heals, too, anyway.”
“Does it?” Kirk asked skeptically, looking into the distance where Peter had gone off to relieve himself, silently willing his friend to return and rescue him from this bizarre conversation. “Does it really? Have you actually seen it?”
“Oh yeah,” Kasey said. He set the cigar down gently on a little rock and unbuckled his steel bracer, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a deep gash on his left forearm. He ran his finger along the scar. “Compound fracture,” he explained. “Artillery blew out the bottom half of a building I was shooting from and dropped me twelve feet into the rubble. Lucky I didn’t get crushed.” He rolled his sleeve back up and put the cigar back in his mouth. “Three days,” he said through his teeth. “Three days it took to heal before I was back in action.” He took a puff. “Wasn’t supposed to go that fast, but my superior officer made them.”
“Why don’t they do that for everybody then?” Kirk asked, simultaneously amazed and irritated. Kasey put his bracer back on.
“Because every night from midnight to three, it feels like there’s a hot poker inside my arm,” he said.
“Every night?” Kirk asked, frowning. “Why?”
Kasey pulled the cigar out of his mouth. “That’s when they worked on me. Set the bone, and the Morrowan priests, they…” he waved his hand around in the air above his forearm. “Used magic. And for some reason I have to feel it again, every night.”
“Sounds bad,” Kirk said quietly.
Kasey shrugged. “Whiskey helps. I got used to it after a while.” He turned his head and looked at Kirk from the corner of his eye. “Not everybody does, though.”
“Steep price to pay,” Kirk said. “Seems a lot easier to use magic to destroy things than to fix them.”
“Same is true of most things,” Kasey said. “A lot easier to blow a building up than put it together. Easier to burn a letter than to write it.” He turned to stare at Kirk intently. “Easier to tell a simple lie than explain a complicated truth.” Kirk did not meet the captain’s gaze, but Kasey could see his neck muscles tighten, could see his body suddenly freeze. It only lasted a moment. Kirk exhaled slowly, quietly. But he said nothing.
“There’s always a price to be paid,” Kasey said with great emphasis on each word. “The price of lying to your superior officer is, you lose trust.” Kirk glanced at Kasey briefly before looking away. “And in war, trust is everything.” There was another long pause while Kasey left room for Kirk to reply, but the young man would have none of it. “See here’s the problem, Private Hobbs,” Kasey said with a little more force. “Now I have to ask myself: ‘what else is he going to lie about?’”
“I’m not a liar, sir,” Kirk said very softly without meeting the captain’s eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Intentionally misleading your superiors is a crime, Kirk,” Kasey said, keeping his voice low. Even as the sentence left his mouth he could taste the hypocrisy. He wanted to spit it out, to explain himself, to excuse his own misdeeds. But he couldn’t do that here. He had a job to do. He had to set this soldier straight, no matter how much it might hurt. “And when you get away with it, you’re more likely to do it again.” The truth of it managed to calm the burn of sin in his heart. He smiled. “And I can’t have that in my Company.” He leaned forward. “I can’t have you in my Company.” Kirk’s head snapped to face his captain.
“You were fried from combat,” Kasey interrupted. “You’d just witnessed a brutal atrocity against a lovely little town. I get it. I really, really do, Private, more than you can ever know. But it’s time to get your head on straight.” Kasey leaned in deeper and grew a little louder, taking up more of Kirk’s space. “You came across a high-ranking enemy combatant, and you have not told me everything that happened. So it’s time now.” He said nothing more. Didn’t move, didn’t breathe, just stared through Kirk into the back of the private’s skull. It didn’t take long for Kirk to break.
“What…what’ll happen to me when I tell you,” Kirk whispered, barely audible. Thank Menoth, Kasey thought.
“That depends on what happened,” Kasey said, not relinquishing the attack. “But I can tell you for certain what will happen if you do not tell me the truth. You will leave the Company, and you will not come back. You will not see your friends again.” He held up one finger. “One chance, Private Hobbs. You’re getting one more chance. Don’t think for a minute you fooled me last time, so I’d advise against trying it again.” He pursed his lips and shook his head before speaking again, much softer. “That blood in the street was fresh, Kirk. He was alive.”
Kirk’s lower lip trembled ever so slightly. “What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to tell me what happened from the moment you saw Yegor lying in that rubble,” Kasey said. “Every detail.”
Kirk’s helmet sank into his hands. He sniffed. Finally he confessed. He told Kasey about the brief conversation he had with Yegor. He told Kasey he ordered Daisy to crush Yegor while he was still breathing.
“That’s everything?” Kasey asked when Kirk stopped talking. Kirk finally looked up, eyes red and swimming with tears.
“I swear to Morrow, that’s everything,” Kirk said thickly. He sniffed. Kasey stared at him.
“You sure?” Kasey asked.
“Every damn thing,” Kirk said, shaking his head and wiping his nose, but meeting Kasey’s gaze. Kasey rubbed his face with one hand and leaned back against the dirt embankment. He sighed.
“Well, fuck,” he said.
“What is it, Captain?” Kirk asked, voice trembling. “What happens to me now?” Kasey glanced at him, seeming to notice him for the first time.
“You?” Kasey asked. He shrugged. “Same thing that happens to me. We keep fighting.” Kirk blew out a sigh of relief so intense that Kasey could smell his foul breath. The captain smiled grimly. “Don’t get too excited, it’s no fun at all.”
Kirk laughed and wiped his eyes. “Yeah. I’ve noticed,” he said. Kasey fell quiet again and stared into the distance. “Are we… Are we square?’ Kirk asked carefully.
“Yeah, we’re square,” Kasey said, voice weary with disappointment. “That fucker defended Albyn like it was his mother’s house,” he said, biting his lower lip and grimacing. “It makes no goddamn sense.” He looked at Kirk. “I mean I’ve seen how dedicated Khadoran troops can be, but doing what he did to keep us off a rinky-dink little farm village? I’ve got to be missing something.” He shook his head. “I’m missing something,” he said more firmly. “I hoped you’d be able to shed some light on it, that’s all.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, sir,” Kirk said, a little crestfallen but once again relieved that he was no longer the source of the Captain’s displeasure.
“He managed to grind the gears of the entire First Army and put us on our back foot, and that’s no fucking small achievement, by why Albyn, of all places? It was totally indefensible.” He shook his head again. “You saw what we ended up doing to the place. He knew that was coming. He had to know.”
“I don’t know, Captain,” Kirk said. He wasn’t sure what else to say.
“What did he say to you again?” Kasey asked. “About being prisoners?”
“He said none of us had a choice,” Kirk recounted. The words were burned into his mind. “He said we were all prisoners of war.”
There it is again, Kasey thought. That feeling. It was the same feeling he’d felt standing in the murder holes in no-man’s-land before he’d realized they were actually mortar craters. The feeling of being in a trap. Yegor was dead. So whose trap was he in this time?
“He had no choice,” Kasey muttered. He thought about the times in his career where he, too, had not had a choice. Like being forced to order a frontal assault on a heavily-fortified enemy position not so long ago. “Someone forced him there and told him to hold at all costs,” he whispered. Who? Why? Greylords technically answered to their own order and the Empress, but they had their dirty little roots spread all throughout the Empire and were always popping up where least expected. They were limited in number, so they only showed up when it was important, like rooting out traitors or extracting information from a prisoner or hiding something.
Hiding something. He repeated the thought in his mind, rolled it over, tasted it. It was a breadcrumb. His mind was moving in the right direction, he could feel it.
Albyn was important enough for Khadoran High Kommand– or someone above High Kommand– to order Yegor the battle wizard to defend an indefensible hill. But that was like Colonel Swinburn ordering their young journeyman warcaster lieutenant to do the same. It was suicidal. Wasteful.
So if the hill had to be protected, why not use a real warcaster? As savage as Yegor had been, if the Khadorans had truly wanted 30th Battalion to stay out of Albyn, they would have parked a full-fledged warcaster up there.
Which would have forced the Cygnarans to respond with a warcaster of their own.
That would have been a shorter fight.
Yegor wasn’t meant to hold Albyn. Someone ordered him to anyway. Kasey had been over this particular problem in his mind before, spinning it around and around looking for what he was missing. He kept coming back to the same thing: the Merywyn-Elsinburg rail line. Just a few miles away now. Totally strategically insignificant at this point, with the Storm Division having recently taken Elsinburg and Merywyn being the main Khadoran stronghold in the region. Rail travel between the two cities was out of the question, and that was assuming that the Khadorans hadn’t already destroyed the tracks to prevent Storm Division from moving troops and gear closer to the enemy.
And yet there was nothing else of any strategic significance within twenty miles of Albyn. The Forgeseer and his traps were just powerful enough to be a major roadblock, but not enough to draw in a Cygnaran warcaster.
“Someone ordered him to sacrifice himself to slow us down,” Kasey muttered to himself. There weren’t a lot of people in High Kommand who had sufficient authority to force the Greylord Covenant to expend resources in a full-front military engagement, and almost all of their titles began with ‘Supreme.’
Of that small group of elites there was only one man with the tactical prowess to so expertly position a tool, callous enough to sacrifice it, and the deep experience to apply just the perfect amount of force to cause a buildup of troops without attracting a response too powerful. His gut knotted up. The handiwork of someone thinking several steps ahead. Someone whose planning abilities were assisted not only by sheer intellect, but uncanny timing. Magically precise.
Someone with the authority of a Supreme, extraordinary tactical skill, and supernatural planning.
But before he could put any more pieces together Kasey’s thoughts were halted by the sound of a nearby rifle shot in the gloom.