Perpetual War: Chapter Nine – Retaliation

in fiction •  13 days ago 

Natalia chap 9 big battle final for online.png

No cost is too great to reclaim lost land, even when it requires a terrible amount of blood to be spilled. Natalia and her squad have been tasked along with many other Imperial soldiers to take back the trench lost in the previous night attack. What will the cost end up being?

See the full chapter list over at the Perpetual War page.

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

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

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Chapter Nine – Retaliation

The Yulhectur model-29 rifle, better known as the Yul-29, is a world renowned bolt-action rifle that can be found among the ranks of Derdainia soldiers. Even a hundred and seventy years after its introduction into the world, the rifle is still issued to new recruits in Derdainia, a truly impressive feat showing its history. However, the Yul-29 is unable to match the latest; Yul-37e. This rifle is reinforced by high grade steel in both its frame and moving parts in the action of the bolt. Even the wood used in the frame is chosen with care to create the sturdiest of rifles. Such a rifle would be unnecessary due to cost and weight of materials, but when made for espers it is justified. There are a variety of reasons for such a rifle for the ranks of espers within the Imperium. The most obvious reasons are the structure of the rifle allows espers to use it in a variety of spells without worrying about the rifle being torn apart.

-Fargil Alluha, The Different Firearms of the Great Nations


The barrel shot back with the release of the trigger. The payload was released into the air to soar through the sky before plummeting to a distant target. Men shouted orders as gears were shifted and the empty casing was released from the barrel. The casing was tossed to a pile on the side as a fresh shell was rammed into the chamber. With a shove of the door, the weapon was positioned to fire again. The pin was pulled with the wave of the gun chief’s hand and the weapon was fired again. Its boom shook everyone nearby to the bone.

“Majestic, isn’t it?”

Natalia looked over to Marxun beaming a smile.

“Not as impressive as the Vholtz forty-sevens stationed behind the line. But it still gets the job done.” He leaned against the crate by her side and admired the crew preparing the artillery piece for another round.

“Yea…” Natalia murmured in reply.

“It’s a shame.”

“What is?”

Marxun unholstered his pistol and released the magazine to make sure it was filled with fresh rounds. “That we are firing upon our own trench line.”

“It’s not ours anymore, Union captured it last night.” Natalia took a swig from her canteen. The cool water within quenching her thirst.

“For now.” Marxun grinned and pushed the magazine back into place. The pin was pulled as another round was released from the artillery. Marxun smiled at the boom. “We should get going; Vykter is saying our lance is part of the first wave to try to regain the area.”

“Of course, it is.” Natalia sighed and looked up to the sun that had broken through the clouds. Its rays glistened and helped warm up the freezing cold that had lingered throughout the night. Thick clouds still floated on, blocking the sun on occasion. “Another day of fighting.”

Marxun chuckled and began to walk on. “No need to be dramatic. It’s just part of the schedule.”

“Schedule, seriou-.” Natalia paused as another boom of the artillery went off.

“What was that?”

“Never mind, just lead the way and let’s get this over with,” Natalia replied.

Marxun smiled and sent off down a path leading deeper into the trench toward the innermost pathways. “From what Vykter told me, we’re going to be moving from the central path toward the east, supporting another lacespaut.”

“What about the other outer and back lines?”

“Two other lacepspauts. It’s the same plan on the other side, which Vykter mentioned our fearless Vezeto Erőshal ended up surviving and is leading the inner push on that side with Windstor’s lance.” He sidestepped as a pair of men ran past carrying a crate full of ammunition. Once past, he kept walking towards an intersection and turned down it. “We’re to join up with them at the center and push the enemy out toward the dead land.”

“When’s the part where we can finally get a good night’s sleep and a bath?” Natalia asked, trying her best to ignore how shabby her uniform was, caked with dried mud and blood from last night.

“I’ve been asking the same question! Hopefully soon.” He stopped before a path leading into a clearing beyond. “It’s been exhausting, these trenches are typically far more boring. If I had known this time was going to be so…” he rubbed at his arm, scratching at a scab. “Well, I may have considered staying back and finding out what the sergzeto would do about it.”

“Are you suggesting desertion?” Natalia asked, her eyes wide in surprise as she took a step back. I’m not the only sane one?

He laughed and wrapped his arm around her shoulder and started to walk towards the clearing. “Of course, who doesn’t consider it on occasion? It’s no different than the flitting thoughts of starting a business or suicide.”

“I don’t think those ideas are equal…” Natalia mumbled with a raised brow before unhooking herself from his grip. Nevermind.

“Finally, you two are here!” Krieger exclaimed and pointed towards Vykter waiting further ahead with the rest of the group. “We’re about to start.”

“That’s great to hear,” Marxun replied.

Crossing the clearing, Natalia took in the dozens of men and women huddled in their various cespauts waiting to move. Several pairs of eyes glanced to her as hushed voices of an esper being among them spread.

“Alright, we’re all here,” Vykter observed once he spotted the three coming up.

“What’s left of us anyways,” Lulilia added.

“There’s enough,” Hukven snapped, “and no one has died yet, just wounded.”

Vykter ignored them and waved his hand for a spot for the three to join in the circle. “Check your weapons and gear. Once the order is given, we’re moving over the top toward the eastern flank.”

“Over the top?” Natalia asked, her heart skipped a beat at the thought.

Lulilia smiled to her, “It’s not as bad as crossing the dead lands. We’re still in our territory.”

“That doesn’t mean we should take it any easier.” Vykter continued, “We’ve lived through last night and I expect the same today.” He unholstered his pistol. “We go in quick and once there dive back into the trenches. Faster we do this, faster we can all finally get some real rest.”

“When’s the last time I heard that?” Marxun asked.

Teiver elbowed him. “Focus. It’s just about time.” She nodded her head toward a man stepping to the center of the clearing.

Natalia saw the insignia on the man’s coat, three lines crossing a star signifying him as a stolános. His stout face was roughened both with wrinkles of age and exhaustion from countless battles. His arm raised and then fell.

On cue the various huddled men and women sprang into action at the sound of whistles being blown across the front. More whistles sounding up and down the trenches.

Her heart beat faster as she was forced forward by the press of bodies toward the wooden steps heading over the top. Natalia’s boots found the dirt and dry grass with a crunch as she surged forward. Legs moving quick as her hands squeezed her rifle closer to her body.

The release of bullets sounded off in the distance as puffs of smoke filled the air above the lines of trenches ahead of her. Barrier, I need a barrier! She panicked and tried to muster up protection. Shifting the rifle to just her left hand, she extended her right and focused everything to that point. A thin haze in the air formed in front of her, constantly materializing and breaking as she sprinted. I can’t… keep it up…

“Ludmila! Don’t worry about that, you’ll slow down. Just keep running!” Teiver shouted and ran close to Natalia. “Stay with me!”

Natalia nervously nodded her head and let go of the magic. This is insane!

A group of soldiers to Natalia’s far left suddenly crumpled under a fallen mortar shell. Looking to the sky, Natalia saw another shell arcing in the air from the trenches they ran towards. Following down to its source, Natalia saw another puff of smoke as a third shell was fired. Helmets poked above the wall with rifles by their side, releasing more fire towards her.

Spotting Teiver suddenly turning, Natalia followed close behind, adrenaline pumping through her veins as she tried desperately to not think of all the bullets being directed toward her or the bodies falling close by, either dead or crying out for help.

The crunch of dry grass abruptly turned to mud as Natalia landed feet first in the trench just behind Teiver. Relief washed through her in an instant at that familiar feeling of mud slushing around her boots.

“Get up, Ludmila!”

Natalia turned and saw Teiver firing down the path towards a pair of Union soldiers. The men backing off down a corner. Sitting up, she raised her rifle and fired off a shot at the last fleeing man, missing.

“By the Father, you two ran like you had grown wings!” Marxun exclaimed, landing behind, followed by Hukven and Lulilia.

Krieger slammed down with a loud huff a moment later with Vykter. “I should be dead! One of those bastards had his sights on my fat ass the whole time!”

“No time to rest Krieger,” Vykter said and marched past the man. “We need to keep moving.”

“This is a mess, a complete mess. We’re still at least five hundred meters from where we were supposed to be,” Lulilia said. “Whose idea was this?”

“That doesn’t matter,” Hukven replied and took his place by Vykter’s side as they marched down the path.

Coming up to the corner, the group huddled down with Hukven peering around the edge.

Natalia looked up at the whistling and buzzing over her head. There were glimpses of tracer fire in the light racing above the trench. Is this worse than last night? The arc of another mortar shot flew high into the sky to land far in the rear past her.

“There’s a clearing around the corner; Union created a barrier for us,” Hukven said.

“Natalia, close this path, we’ll pass it and go at a different angle,” Vykter ordered.

With a quick nod of understanding, Natalia came forward and placed her hand on the side of the corner and focused outward. The dirt expanded a moment later to completely seal off the path with a thick wall. “Done,” she mumbled as she rubbed at her wrists.

Vykter waved his hand and took the lead heading further down the path. Rotting corpses were scattered along the path, bugs crawling across their bodies since last night.

Seeing a black beetle crawling across the face of a dead man sent a shiver down Natalia’s spine. Her eyes quickly darted away before she could witness the beetle cross the man’s open eye.

A shockwave hit close sending everyone to the ground. Standing back up, Natalia, Vykter, and Hukven fired down the path with their weapons. Empty casing flying off with each shot. She tried to make it closer before getting blocked by Lulilia and Krieger taking up position ahead to add their own fire.

With a wave of his hand, Vykter backed off along with everyone else. “We’ll have to try another route.”

“No point, Vykter. They’re going to block off every way. We have to hit a different spot.” Hukven said.

“This clearing has a wider path further down we can use to cut into it from the right.” Lulilia shouldered her carbine. “We can use it to split push their defenses.”

Vykter nodded and pointed to Natalia and Marxun. “You two go with Lulilia. We’ll be keeping the pressure on here.”

“Yes, Vykter!” Lulilia gave an exaggerated salute and set off with a quick hop to her feet.

Natalia wiped at her face, sweat already dripping down. The sun above seemingly grew hotter even with the cold wind blowing across the field of death.

Reaching the pathway, Lulilia quickly jumped to the other side without hesitation and took up position against the wall. “You two alternate fire, let’s keep their attention!” she exclaimed and peered around the corner, carbine against her shoulder.

Marxun stood and fired around the corner.

Crouching low, Natalia came to the edge, heart racing. She raised her rifle and viewed down the iron sights towards the end of the path. Sandbags and wooden planks were stacked haphazardly. Over the top, Union soldiers poked above. One fell back with a bloody flash across the face as the others ducked down behind the protection.

“Tell Vark I said hello, you bastards!” Lulilia screamed with delight, releasing the full cartridge of her carbine before ducking back to reload.

“Trying to piss them off, Lulilia?” Marxun asked, backing off to reload a fresh clip into his rifle.

Squeezing the trigger just as a Union soldier stood, Natalia watched in surprise at the amount of blood that sprayed into the air. Sitting behind the cover she watched the others go at it again with another salvo.

She took hold of the bolt handle and pulled it back, releasing the last shell within. Opening her pack, she took hold of a fresh clip of five bullets, sliding the guide into the chamber. With a click confirming the bullets were secured she pushed the handle back into place, a bullet sliding into the chamber. Sitting back up into a crouch she leaned around the corner and joined the salvo.

“How long are we going to keep firing until we move up?” Marxun called out over the chaos ensuring all around.

“Do you see the path cleared up yet?” Lulilia shouted back. A clink echoed into the air as her latest cartridge ran out.

An explosive went off, smoke billowed out towards them and the surrounding area. Coughing, Natalia pulled her scarf up and waved her hand in the area trying to clear the dust from her eyes.

“Seems we’re the slow ones, it’s clear!” Marxun exclaimed.

“Let’s go!” Lulilia ran forward, with Marxun at her heels.

Charging mindlessly into everything. She stood with a huff and began to run after them. This is crazy.

Crossing over the destroyed barrier, Natalia nearly tripped over the bodies littering the tight space. Stepping over them she entered the clearing and saw the artillery piece at the center, twisted and mangled. Scattered all around Imperial soldiers behind cover firing upon Union soldiers who still held half of the clearing.

“Get down, Ludmila! Now!” Lulilia shouted.

Spotting the woman behind a metal crate, Natalia crouched by her side. By an adjacent crate, Marxun was sitting up, firing an aimed shot before ducking down again.

“They really don’t want to give this up easily,” Marxun said.

“Can’t blame them,” Natalia muttered and sat up. Spotting a woman at the edge of the clearing, she took aim and fired. Catching a glimpse of her collapsing, Natalia ducked back down. The rifle empty again as she quickly fed a fresh clip into the magazine.

“They’re faltering on the right side, aim your shots there. Let’s break ‘em!” Lililia shouted.

Shoving the handle forward to secure a fresh round into the chamber, Natalia stood and joined both Marxun and Lulilia releasing a salvo of bullets on a pair of Union soldiers closes to them. The first soldier took several bullets in the chest and head as he fell back. The wooden crate splintered as the other soldier fell back and abruptly died with a bullet between the eyes.

All three ducked back under cover to reload.

“This is going too smoothly. Are they missing their Lead, maybe?” Marxun asked.

“If so, let’s hope it stays that way…” Lulilia slammed a fresh cartridge into the carbine and pulled the hammer back. “I’m going to give covering fire, I want you two to move up.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Marxun replied and nodded his head to Natalia. “Ready, Ludmila?”

Natalia nodded her head, the rifle hugged close to her body.

“Now!”

The short burst of the carbine spurred Natalia to her feet. She quickly spotted the next closes crate and sprinted for it. With a quick slide, she pressed herself against the comfort of the sandbags and large crates. A split second later, Marxun was beside her breathing heavily.

“How bad is it?”

Natalia looked over and her eyes widened at the blood coating Marxun’s right arm. “Well, um, it’s bad.” she said bluntly.

“You’re quite the one with words.” Marxun placed his rifle to the side and unholstered his pistol.

“Just stay down, we can get you help soon,” Natalia ordered. Peering over the edge she saw three soldiers taking aim on her spot. Ducking back down, Natalia winced at the whistles of bullets arching just above her head. “Can you hit them, Lulilia?” she shouted at the woman further back.

“I don’t have a clear shot!” Lulilia yelled in return and stood to fire at another soldier at the far end of the area.

“Not the best spot…” Natalia retorted and closed her eyes, hand resting against the cover she was pushed up against.

“Makes you wonder if Lulilia is a smart tactician or just a lunatic sending us out here, don’t you think?”

“Shh.” Natalia waved her hand at Marxun. “Focus on not bleeding out.” She looked to her right at the artillery piece close by. Its central location blocked the view of most of the Imperial soldiers. “I wonder…” She placed her rifle to the side and extended her hands out, the touch of the metal cold to her even though it was several feet away. Squeezing her hands, she felt the grip around the loose plates of metal.

Standing in a smooth motion she ripped the plates in one fell swoop and sent them flying towards the three Union soldiers.

The first two were caught off guard by the sudden screech of metal, their bodies becoming riddled with metal debris. The third ducking just in time behind the cover that now became splintered and destroyed abruptly. He jumped back, eyes wide and reached for his rifle to aim for Natalia.

With her grip released on the metal, Natalia unholstered her revolver and squeezed the trigger, the hammer slamming forward to release the first round with a resounding shock. She pulled the trigger again, then a third time.

The first impact caught the man in his heart, a visible gasp evident across his face as the second took part of his neck before the third smacked him square in the forehead, sending him back into the mud.

Lowering back behind the cover, Natalia sat shaking. I stretched my power out too far. She loosened the clasp on one of the packs along her belt to reach for fresh revolver rounds. Pressing a button on the side, Natalia moved the barrel of the revolver out from the gun and began to load bullets into the three empty slots. Her hands shook as she tried to steady herself.

“You okay?” Marxun asked.

“Not as bad as you.” Natalia grinned, glancing over to Marxun squeezing his bloody arm.

He chuckled and rested his head back against the crate.

Closing the clasp to the pack, Natalia slid the barrel back into position and locked the revolver’s pin. Holstering the weapon, she picked up the rifle and peered over the edge for the next target. In the far corner of the clearing the Union were still making a stand, but Imperial soldiers were firing at them from all sides.

“Natalia, Marxun! We’re moving down another path, let’s go!”

She looked up at Vykter waving his hand.

“We need a medic for Marxun!” Natalia pointed to Marxun’s bleeding arm. She watched Vykter curse to himself and quickly rush over, Krieger right behind.

“How bad is it?” he asked.

“Bleeding my guts out, Vykter. I think I see Father’s light. It’s beautiful.”

“Shut up, boy. It’s a bullet hole in your arm. If you die from that I’ll piss on your grave!” Krieger shouted and reached to pick Marxun up. “I’ll get him to safety and catch up later, you two continue.”

“Thank you, Krieger.” Vykter nodded then looked to Natalia. “Are you good to go?”

Natalia simply nodded and stood to follow.

Leading the way along pieces of cover they met up with the remainder of the lance by another side entrance.

“Now Marxun is down? This whole lance is a mess of injuries.” Lulilia groaned.

Hukven rolled his eyes. “Would you like me to charge ahead, maybe me and Teiver can take a bullet this time.”

“No one is taking any bullets, now let’s move.” Vykter spat and went ahead with Teiver at his side.

“I couldn’t see the wound from where I was, will Marxun be fine?” Lulilia asked Natalia as they followed behind the other three remaining in the lance. The path winding down a way before turning to head to the outer line of the trenches.

“Yes, he’ll be fine.” Natalia replied.

“That’s go-” Lulilia ducked as a mortar shell came dangerously close to the group, dirt raining down on them.

“Tell me you are keeping an eye on the sky, Ludmila!” Hukven called back.

With everything else going on they expect me to catch shells on my own with no help from the shields? Natalia peered up, searching for the thin, mortar shells sailing through the bright blue sky. “Yes, of course!”

“More Union!”

Catching up to the front, Natalia found herself ducking behind a thick metal bar fallen from where it once stood. Beyond, Union soldiers fired down the path toward them.

“It’s the same situation over and over,” Hukven grumbled and laid his sub-machine gun across the metal bar for leverage before releasing a full clip at the Union soldiers in the distance.

Joining him in firing, Natalia aimed, and pulled the trigger. One of the soldiers fell back as three others ducked behind cover just in time.

“Teiver, get a rifle grenade on that spot!” Vykter ordered.

Glancing over, Natalia watched the woman place a pod-like grenade over the muzzle of her rifle and point towards the distant Union soldiers, angled slightly up. With a pop, the pod was sent off and a moment later blew a hole through the cover.

“Rain Father’s death upon them!” Vykter shouted and stood, releasing a full clip of his short-bolt rifle.

One of the Union soldier’s stomach was blown clean through, nearly splitting him in half. The other two fell under the hail of bullets from Hukven and Lulilia.

“Another obstacle clear, let’s keep it going everyone!” Vykter shouted and climbed over the cover to head down the path.

Climbing over herself, Natalia brought up the rear down the path. The blood of the Union soldiers joining the mud she ran through. The audible squish seemed louder over the constant gunfire that filled the air.

“We’re pinned over here!”

Natalia saw Dihetrik from last night holed up behind a pile of sandbags at the center of another clearing. There were three other Imperial soldiers by his side, one of whom was bleeding out quickly.

She backed off against the wall as the fire being unleashed on Dihetrik and his men turned toward them.

At the front, Vykter looked to them. “Looks like the Union set up a machine gun nest in the corner.”

“If Ludmila creates a barrier, I’ll get rid of it.” Hukven grinned while unhooking a grenade from his belt.

Natalia winced at her name and out of instinct began to extend her magic to her hands. “I can do that, just… make it fast.” She came up to the front of the group and knelt down, waiting for Hukven to take up his position. “Ready?”

“When you are.”

With a quick twist around the corner, Natalia expanded an invisible barrier, bullets quickly decorating the air before falling down.

“Back up, Ludmila!”

Natalia felt a grip on her shoulder before she was yanked back, her focus gone. She caught a final glimpse of the two men manning a machine gun next being blown apart by an explosive, an arm flinging into the air with tendrils of blood following.

Vykter wasted no time in rushing over to Dihetrik. Lulilia and Teiver were close behind with weapons raised for any further Union soldiers in the clearing. Only bodies littered the space.

“Good work, Ludmila,” Hukven said.

“Thank you,” She rubbed her wrists. Veins pulsing under her grip as she tried to cool her senses with deep breaths. Reaching along her belt she took the canteen and quickly loosened the top to get at the water within. The cool liquid felt like pure bliss to her senses.

“More Union!”

Natalia jumped, dropping her canteen as she looked up in time to see Teiver collapse flat on her back in a pool of mud.

“Damn it!” Lulilia shouted over everything as she ducked into the cover with Vykter and the rest of the men on the far side of the clearing. “Dihetrik, we saved your ass! Why are we stuck with you now!”

“Back off, Ludmila!” Hukven spat, ripping Natalia back behind the corner of the entrance to the clearing.

“Stay down, Teiver, Father doesn’t need you dying here!” Vykter shouted.

Teiver flexed her hands and slowly crept the right one up towards her stomach.

“We have to help her.” Natalia started to move forward but was pulled back as another onslaught of bullets ripped into the dirt, shredding the corner further.

“Not without losing your head,” Hukven replied.

“I… I can do another barrier.” Natalia flexed her hands, reaching for the warmth.

“You’re getting paler by the minute girl, don’t be suicidal. We’re think of something.” Hukven, checked the magazine of his rifle confirming how many bullets were left before pushing it back into place. “Be ready to act when it’s time.”

Natalia squeezed her hands, tears crept at her eyes as she watches Teiver press a hand against her stomach. This is like before all over again. Don’t die, come on! She felt a spark of an idea and quickly fumbled at her belt. “Where is it, Reita gave me, where, where, there!” She wrapped her fingers around a blood vial within the small pouch.

Hukven eyed the glint of light coming from the thin vial over Natalia’s shoulder. “What is that, Ludmila?”

“More magic.” She ripped off her gloves and took the vial into her left hand. Squeezing, the glass broke, piecing her skin. The blood leaked out briefly before abruptly slipping back up, snaking its way into the open wounds caused by the glass. Energy surged through her. Natalia felt the booming of her pounding heart consume her senses as she stood, rifle forgotten as her right hand went to her revolver. The hammer clicked back as she raised it and prepared to move around corner. I can do this, quick and precise. The magic just has to hold.

“Natalia, wait we can-” Hukven began before watching with wide eyes.

Spinning around the corner, Natalia extended her left hand out to catch any stray bullet aimed for her, while her right pointed the revolver for each soldier standing on the far side of the clearing.

The first collapsed with a bullet through the neck, gasping and wheezing for mercy as he fell. A second was caught in the shoulder, spun about before a third bullet pierced their back, sending them forward into mud. Two others fell with bullets through the chest.

The last two Union soldiers jumped for cover, throwing a grenade in their retreat.

A grin crossed Natalia’s lips as she caught the grenade midair with her magic and sent it back. A plume of smoke expanded out with a rush around the two soldiers before clearing to reveal their remains scattering the floor.

With a triumphant smile she collapsed backwards. Hands catching her mid-way to lay her against the wall.

“Drink, you need it.”

Natalia saw her canteen being offered to her by Hukven. “Thanks.” She took it and eagerly gulped down more of the water. “Just give me a minute, I can keep going.” Her vision was hazy.

“Rest, definitely, rest you maniac.” Hukven gave her a smile before standing back up.

“How is she doing?” Natalia asked, looking over to Lulilia and Vykter huddled around Teiver with one of Diehetrik’s men.

“She better live. She owes me a drink,” Hukven growled.

Gulping down more water, Natalia screwed the cap back on and hooked the canteen to her belt. Raising her arm, she felt Hukven grip it and lift her up. “Thank you,” she replied and stepped out into the clearing before stumbling back into the corner. “Okay, another minute…” she replied.

Vykter stood and came over, “Are you able to keep going Natalia?”

“Soon.” She reached into a pouch for more bullets. Releasing the pin, Natalia moved the revolver’s barrel out to shake out the seven empty casings within and began to reload the weapon. Her fingers fumbled with the bullets as she dropped a couple in her lap. Picking them up she slid each into a slot, slowly. Even with care she had to realign the bullets several times.

Vykter watched, unsure of what to say, before looking back to Lulilia coming over. “Diehetrik is going to watch over Teiver. We four are continuing on. We have a final push to the outer line. We should meet up with Windstor’s Lance there.”

Pressing the barrel back, Natalia locked the pin into place. “Let’s get going before I regret it.” Natalia moaned and stood again. She inhaled deeply and gave Vykter a weak smile.

Vykter looked down at her left hand, noticing the blood dripping from her fingertips.

Shaking her hand, she quickly ripped out the remaining glass shard and slipped on her gloves. I’m good. The wound closed with a quick surge of blood clotting the thin opening.

“I swear you espers are weird…” Lulilia observed.

Vykter nodded at the mention and turned to head across the clearing towards the exit the Union soldiers had been guarding.

Natalia stumbled behind, blinking her eyes several times to try to focus them. What did the vial do to me?

Down the path, another pair of soldiers guarded it, forcing Vykter to back off.

“They didn’t wait long for us,” Hukven observed.

Lulilia unhooked a grenade off her belt. “Last one I have for you, Hukven.

“Much appreciated.” He tossed it around the corner. A moment later, the explosion followed. Both him and Vykter moved around the corner unleashing a torrent of fire down the tight hall.

“Clear!” Vykter called.

Entering the tight space with Lulilia, Natalia placed a hand against the wall for support. With a deep breath she took quick steps to catch up and stay close. The haze in the back of her mind lessened. I think it’s getting sort of better. Her boots crunched across innumerable disgusting objects that littered the path, from bugs to limbs. She took no notice of it, exhausted from the carnage and death surrounding her.

More gunfire ahead slowed the group to a crawl as they came to the end of the tight space. The path blocked off by rubble. Hukven peered over the edge and quickly dropped back down. “Union’s completely demoed the path.” He unclipped his weapon and pressed in a fresh clip. “If we want to continue, we have to cross over the top again to the next clearing.”

“Where are the useless armored cars to support us?” Lulilia spat and punched a wooden post to her side with pent up rage. “I’m not crossing over again, Vykter. There’s only four of us, it’s suicide!”

“This whole thing is suicide from the start,” Natalia murmured, leaning up against the wall with closed eyes. “We’ve been lucky this far…”

Vykter looked to both women and turned to Hukven who was still checking over his weapon. “Do you think we can make it?”

He shook his head, “Not in a blind charge, but if we go from one crater to another.” Hukven turned and peered over the edge again. “We can do it then. Most of the fighting is still in the surrounding trenches.” Lowering back down, he said, “They won’t be paying as much attention to us.”

Lulilia scowled. “I say its suicide still!”

“We have to continue,” Vykter replied and took hold of a piece of rubble to get ready to climb over. “We stick together, and we’ll make it, trust me.”

Natalia straightened herself and nodded her head, “Let’s get this over with already.” Then I can finally rest.

With an exasperated sigh, Lulilia waved Vykter on. “Fine, lead the way Vykter. Just know if I get shot, It’s on you!”

“What are you going to do?” Hukven asked while Vykter began the ascent up. “Shoot him back?”

“Maybe…” Lulilia muttered before pushing past Hukven to climb over herself.

Watching Hukven climb next, Natalia stepped forward to the rumble. Here we go again.

Puffs of smoke floated out of the alleyways of dirt all around where tracer fire darted back and forth. The noise, already loud, was deafening above where walls of dirt did nothing to block it out. She sprinted through it all in a low huddle toward the distant Vykter who was already crouching in a wide crater. The rifle in her hands grew heavier with each step. Reaching the rim of the crater, she slid down it and crawled past the shrapnel and scarred remains at the center toward the other side where her three companions waited.

“Two more jumps then we’re landing in a crazy mess of death,” Hukven said.

Vykter positioned himself to hop over again. “We have no choice. It’s more cover then here. Let’s hope the armored support gets there in time.” He left the crater’s cover.

Two more? Natalia watched the other two leave as she huffed for air and went over herself. And armored support? She glances around, searching. Only a blur went past her as she stumbled on, her focus on keeping up with Vykter who was already darting behind the twisted barrel of an artillery piece thrown from its original place.

Joining them behind the cover, Natalia glanced over to see Vykter getting ready to move again. How can they pick up so much detail so fast? It’s all just chaos and noise.

“Almost there, Ludmila,” Lulilia said before jumping over the barrel.

Natalia simply nodded in reply. Almost. She squeezed her eyes before opening them and making the jump. Her boots landed on the other side and she was off in another heart pounding sprint. Glimpses of tracer fire threatened to twist her focus to the impending doom that could be inflicted upon her at any moment. Her hands ached to create a barrier even though she was too exhausted to perform such a task while running.

Coming in blind, she slammed up against the large undetonated shell surrounded by rubble. “One more time?” she gasped.

“Yes,” Vykter replied.”

“Then we’re into a different kind of fire again,” Hukven said.

She wiped at her eyes, trying to rid them of a bead of sweat that had slid in. Blinking her eyes several times, she realized she was alone and gasped. Move! Moving around the rubble, she spotted her three companions just up ahead starting to jump down a wall. Her eyes widened at the large crater formed where the outer trench went. On either side the trench continued. Debris had been moved in such a way that the Union had a defensive line on the outer rim of the crater. The Union soldiers still controlled a majority of the crater with more along the outer trenches.

“Ludmila! Hurry!”

Natalia heard Lulilia’s voice and felt something nick her side, causing her to stumble to her knees. Out of reflex she extended a barrier, causing the air around her to become still. A whistle fluttered to her ears and she looked up to see another bullet frozen just before her head in the barrier. Death. She watched as two more bullets appeared with the other.

“Ludmila!”

With a gulp she released the barrier and pounced forward. Her hands reached for the edge and she was promptly yanked down into a crevice. Landing heavily on her back, Natalia looked up to see Hukven looking over her.

“Looks like the bullet just grazed her.” Hukven reached for the canteen on Natalia’s belt and loosed it before offering it to her. “Drink, then get up.” He turned away to Vykter and Lulilia who both leaned against the sandbags and wood that made up their tiny haven.

Screwing off the top in a hurry, Natalia drank, her hands shaking all the while. I should be dead. Natalia looked down at her left side where a visible rip was in her coat. Poking her finger into the hole, she felt a sting of pain, and looked at her finger to see it covered in red. Pulling the coat back, she ripped off her right glove and placed her naked hand over the rip in her blouse. Focusing the warmth of magic over the wound, she clotted it over and released the magic an instant later. A wave of dizziness washed over her as she leaned back, taking another drink from her canteen. This is all insane. She placed the canteen back on her belt before glancing to either side, looking for her rifle. Finding it she brought it close to her, cradling the rifle in her arms. I really should be dead. She grit her teeth and rose up to join the others against the cover.

The space was ablaze with gunfire going every which way. Pockets of Imperial soldiers along the outskirts were all firing at the Union soldiers who held most of the area but had become cornered along most of the main trench itself now. To either side of the entrances, Union soldiers barely held on as the Imperial soldiers grew more numerous with each passing minute. On the far side of the crater a heavy gun emplacement released hundreds of piercer rounds in quick bursts, the buzz of its destruction splitting the air.

Natalia watched the heavy weapon turn and release a burst into a nearby group of Imperial soldiers hiding behind debris and rubble. The bullets pierced and ripped apart the cover, sending shards flying in every which way as the men beyond were littered with holes. Parts of their bodies burst off with a quick smoke of blood that dusted down to join with the muddy mess of the crater.

“It’ll turn to us soon! Natalia, can you put up a barrier?”

She turned to Vykter and weakly nodded. She slung her rifle over her shoulder and forced herself between Vykter and Lililia to get at the center of their weak protection. Hands placed on a wooden board supported by sandbags, she extended her reach through it and closed her eyes. “Let me know when it faces us… I can’t hold a barrier for long.”

“On our left, take him out Hukven!” Vykter shouted.

Eyes closed, she listened to the quick burst of Hukven’s weapon releasing a salvo. She shook at the release of death from the weapon. Her senses attuned with the rhythmic fire that became joined by Vykter and Lulilia. Again, I’m depending on others. She gently smoothed her hands over the wooden board, the surface rough even through the protection of her gloves. The beat of the rifles became silenced briefly as each of them reloaded before resuming the fire. Come on.

Her mind drifted with eyes closed, thoughts fluttering to silent forests and expansive plains of grass. Running through it all without a care in the world with her close childhood friends. She shook her head ridding herself of the thoughts. Not now. The surge of magic fluctuated as a spasm shook through her before she took control again. Focus.

“It’s turning to us, Vykter!”

“Ludmila, the barrier!”

She tightened her grip on the board and expanded her thoughts across the entire surface. A thin invisible wall stretched outward to take a grip upon the very air itself. Thick bullets abruptly pierced into the barrier to become caught by the suppressive grip of the magic. Each impact shook her to her core as she quickly felt her concentration falter. The powerful shocks made her eyelids too heavy to even attempt to open as she began to collapse forward, hands staying upon the board in a desperate attempt to maintain the barrier.

Her mind reeled with colors as she felt a cold chill wash over her. Her senses started to feel distant as she focused on holding onto the barrier. An invisible force was pulling at her, trying to rip it from her grasp. Just as it seemed too strong it began to loosen.

A scream of gears turning and metal twisting brought her reeling back into focus. Her own scream of shock joined the mix of horror as she looked up to see the source of death. Just above them, an armored vehicle painted a sickly gray was releasing destruction. Its turret was spinning in a blur, glowing red. Her eyes followed the tracer fire to where the heavy weapon had been seated on the Union’s side to see it obliterated. Soldiers scurrying in every direction as fire licked at their feet from the destroyed gun emplacement.

The vehicle’s turret turned and wherever its bullets met flesh, it incinerated it. Men and women were ripped into shreds in an instant by hundreds of bullets coursing through their body. Those who survived cried in agony, begging for release.

As the gun slowed, smoke billowed off it, the weapon nearly a pure red. Laughs and cheers stretched out among the Imperial soldiers before another burst of death interrupted the brief moment of hope for victory.

Natalia looked on in surprise at the armored car rising up into the air. The soldiers within screaming in fear as dents suddenly appeared all along the surface of the vehicle. A back section abruptly burst inward, then the front, and finally the invisible force pushed in every direction. The crumbled metal ball landed with a thud before the munitions within exploded in a quick burst of red.

The dirt wall above took much of the impact as it slid towards Natalia, half burying her body as she cried out in surprise. Her voice muffled to herself as a ringing from the explosion kept repeating in her ears. Hands took hold of her and pulled abruptly before more of the wall could cave in. The inferno of the car grew before steadying out to a continual fire, eager to grow and nothing flammable close enough to reach.

Natalia turned at voices and saw Hukven dragging her closer to the barrier that still stood. She glanced to Lulilia mouthing a series of curses and pointing off to the ongoing fire. Vykter shouting back before he turned to her and began shaking her. She studied the concerned eyes of Vykter, trying to understand his muffled words over the ringing and noises of battle.

“By the Father, don’t make her deaf! It’s not the time!” Hukven said.

“I’m…” Natalia replied, rubbing her forehead as the ringing was starting to subside.

“Who cares about her unless she has enough energy to fight a fucking Union esper!” Lulilia snapped.

“Ludmila! Are you good?” Vykter shook her again.

“Yes!” She spat out and sat up more. “I’m good, I’m good…” she repeated and squeezed the bridge of her nose. “An esper?”

Peering over the warped and partially melted cover, Natalia saw a man with saber at his side and a woman nearby on the far side of the crater. Both stood in defiance as they descended toward the Union soldiers. Just ahead of them, two boys fired their rifles in rapid succession with a large figure at the front carrying a heavy shield as protection.

Natalia’s eyes widen at the group, a shiver running through her as she recognized the shield-wielding figure by his white, faceless mask that seemed to stare into her very soul. Why here? Please, Father, protect me. She quickly lowered herself back down, huddling against the cover. “I… We should retreat.”

“Retreat now? We can’t!” Hukven balked at the idea.

Lulilia scowled at Hukven and turned to Vykter. “Our esper is saying to retreat. She’s right.”

“No, we have to hold out. More lances will join us, including Windstor’s.” Vykter knelt to Natalia and place a hand on her shoulder. He slowly faltered for words once he met her eyes, noticing the evident fear in them. “I’ve already asked so much from you, but we need your help to maintain this position.”

Natalia wiped at her eyes, frustration and exhaustion all hitting her at once. “I can barely feel the power.” She squeezed her hand over her heart. “I need a moment, I can help.” She mumbled, moving her hand down to the pack along her belt still holding the last blood vial.

“Recover fast!” Vykter pulled away. “We have to put the pressure on and hope the esper doesn’t turn to us.”

“Fantastic, let’s shoot at the blood-crazed maniac, that’ll get us far!” Lulilia rose up and began to fire her rifle.

She heard Hukven and Vykter’s weapons join hers. Why won’t it end? It’s been a complete nightmare since I got to these trenches. I just want it to end, please. Her heart skipped a beat as she felt the resounding thud of the esper releasing a burst of magic close by. Her mind fluttered to the sight of the waiting blood vial as she licked her dry lips. Something’s not right. Another release of magic sent a shiver through her. Why do I keep having to do this? Natalia slowly unclasped the pack holding the vial. “I don’t have a choice,” she mumbled as she reached in with shaking fingers reached for the flask and brought it up to her eyes, the red a deep crimson.

Taking her gloves off, she carefully placed the vial in the palm of her hand and stared at it. The liquid swaying back and forth within the glass chamber in time with her shaking hand. Closing her fist, she squeezed down and felt the pricks against her bare skin as the glass broke under pressure. Red spilled from her hand before abruptly twisting back into the gaps between her fingers, seeking the open cuts. A surge of power and warmth traveled up her arm before reaching her heart in a blossoming effect that went to the rest of her body. The wounds clotted over along her hands as she pulled the gloves back on. I must make this count.

With one smooth motion, she stood with her rifle aimed in the direction of the esper’s group. The iron sights settled on the esper. Her finger squeezed the trigger and the concussive blast released sent a bullet soaring through the chaos, destined for the man’s heart, but stopped short by a barrier that glistened and cracked at the impact before resealing itself. A barrier! She felt her heart beat faster as she pulled the bolt handle back and slammed it forward as the empty casing flew into the air, forgotten. Without hesitation she shifted her aim for an easier target. A gap in the masked figure’s shield gave glimpses of one of the boys. With the trigger pulled, the bullet slipped through the gap to land squarely in the boy’s chest, the force sent him falling to the mud.

Energy pulsed through her as she pulled the bolt handle back to release the second casing before slamming it back forward with a resounding click.

The Union esper paused in his magic to look to the downed boy. The other huddled close as the large masked figure moved to position the shield over them all.

She adjusted her aim for the esper but shifted to the fey as she caught a glimpse of the esper’s barrier in the light of the sun. The bullet pierced the air for the fey.

A burst of light appeared around the fey before dissipating to reveal the esper rising to fire a pistol in her direction.

With quick reaction she ducked. A burst of air went over her head, following it, she watched a hole appear in the wall of dirt behind. Rising to retaliate, Natalia squirmed as she felt hands abruptly pull her down.

“Slow down, you can’t waste what little energy you have left,” Lulilia hissed.

Hukven fired off another few rounds before ducking as another burst of air ended with a blast against the thinning barrier. “That esper is going to come for us, we need to reposition now!”

“Ludmila and Hukven will stay here.” Vykter stated and pointed to a close by barrier. “Lulilia and I, will move positions to draw their attention.” He focused his gaze on Natalia, “At that point you should get another clean shot.”

She simply nodded. That esper still has so much magic to maintain a barrier, I can’t possibly break it. Hands squeezed the rifle in her hands as she readied herself to stand once more.

“Let’s go Lulilia, I’ll lead!” Vykter said and dashed off to the right with the woman close on his heels.

Hukven shook Natalia, drawing her attention away from the other two. “Get ready.”

Sitting up, Natalia took hold of a metal rod sticking out from the barrier for support. One clean shot on the esper and that’ll be it. Her muscles began to tense up.

“They’re behind the cover.” Hukven rose up slightly, preparing to attack as well. “A few more seconds…”

“Now!”

Natalia stood with a spring to her movement. The magic surging through her kept her steady and focused as she aimed the iron sights for the esper. All she saw was dirt and mud as her eyes darted in either direction, searching for the sleek, black hair and golden.

Natalia’s eyes widened as she spotted the surge of fire growing toward her position. “Hukven!” she exclaimed.

“I know. Move!” Hukven spat and took hold of Natalia’s collar. With a forceful shove, Hukven launched Natalia towards the closes pile of cover heading left while he stayed just a step behind.

The protection where they were a moment before became engulfed in flames, the inferno quickly joining the ongoing one just above. Tongues of flame licked out, eager to grow more.

Stumbling for several steps, Natalia fell into a low ditch filled with mud. She gasped for air as she pulled herself from the sludge. A grip around her wrist ripped her free as she found herself up against something solid, hacking out a disgusting taste from her mouth. “Where is he?” She managed to say between spitting and coughing. Clearing her eyes, she quickly looked over her rifle, wiping away any caked-on mud as fast as possible.

“I… I don’t know,” Hukven said, peering over the new cover they had found themselves in. He quickly ducked down as holes appeared along thin sections of wood that made up most of the protection. “Get down,” he hissed.

Natalia did as ordered, finding herself partially back in the mud. There has to be a better way. She crawled through the sludge towards the other side of the ditch and peered out to see several rifles pointed in her direction. Protection just in front, focus… A thin wall appeared just in front of her and she brought her rifle forward.

The Union soldiers hid behind three sets of cover, at the center she saw the esper standing up with another ball of fire just about ready to be thrown.

Shifting the rifle’s aim, she fired at the esper. The barrier glinted and cracked but quickly resealed. The ball of fire grew as her own barrier shook at a glancing bullet piercing it.

“We have to move, Ludmila!” Hukven said, reaching for Natalia’s collar.

“One moment…” She pushed the bolt back into place securing the last bullet in the chamber of her rifle. Closing her eyes, she focused her senses on the bullet, hardening its casing along with feeding more energy into it.

With a squeeze of the trigger a resounding boom shook the area as the bullet broke free of the muzzle of the rifle, aimed for the esper’s chest. Visible waves followed in the bullet’s path as the magical energy infused in its shell began to release, kicking up dirt and debris along the way.

The Union esper snuffed out the flames and stretched his hands out. The light itself seemed to thicken as the bullet neared it before abruptly slamming against the barrier.

The impact broke the barrier, its shards spreading like broken glass before dissipating into the air. The esper expanded a second barrier that caught the after blow of the bullet’s concussive blast while the surrounding pair of Union soldiers were ripped to shreds, along with the cover they had been hiding behind.

“He’s alone! Excellent work, Ludmila!” Hukven shouted and stood to fire his gun.

All around several more Imperial soldiers did the same as bullets rained down on the esper’s location.

Unsheathing his saber, the Union esper stood tall against the onslaught before launching himself in a sprint. He bore down on the closest Imperial soldiers, the saber slashing through the air and causing a wave of energy to wash over the Imperial soldier beyond, ripping them in two. The following sweeps sent two other soldiers collapsing into the mud with crimson blood pouring from them.

“He moves like a monster!” Hukven said, aghast.

Natalia rose up, a wave of light headiness hitting her as she fell back to her knees. I’m already spent. How is that esper still fighting? Gritting teeth she forced herself up, using the thin remains of the cover to support her weight. Raising her rifle, she aimed at the esper and fired. An empty click came back. Damn it, reload! She cursed under her breath as she quickly ducked back down, hands fiddling with the clasp on a pouch. Opening it she reached in for a clip of ammo and forced it into the empty magazine of her rifle.

Hukven settled down beside her, reloading his own weapon. “He’s not slowing down, and the other Union soldiers are getting closer to us.”

Natalia peered over the protection and saw the Union soldiers drawing near to her position as well as several other nearby Imperial soldiers to their left. Amid the Union was the masked figure with its large shield coming straight for her.

Ducking back down her mind returned to the thoughts of nearly dying by the mask’s hands. Blinking her eyes, she took a deep breath. “We have to drive them back before we can handle the esper,” Natalia replied and sat up. From her angle she saw the Union esper diving deeper into the thin line of Imperial attackers. Another group of soldiers were slashed apart by the saber. Beyond them, Lulilia and Vykter fired at the esper rampaging through. Hold on!

Raising the butt of her rifle to her shoulder, she rose up and took aim. Sights rested over the mask and she squeezed the trigger.

The masked figure raised his shield, and the loud ding of the bullet hitting echoed for a brief moment. The man quickened his step as the two soldiers behind took cover and put heavy pressure on the other Imperial soldiers nearby, suppressing them.

Hukven fired his weapon, the impact of the salvo giving pause to the shield’s wielder before they resumed their advance.

Natalia stood and joined in firing, each pull of the bolt releasing an empty casing. The second, third, and fourth bullet each slammed against the shield with no affect. She turned the rifle for any body parts poking out from the protection, but out of instinct the man moved the shield in tune with her shots.

Pushing the fifth bullet into the chamber, she fired, and disappointment washed through her at the metal ding. The masked man drew ever nearer.

Shouldering his weapon, Hukven pulled free a handaxe from his belt and balled his other hand into a fist. “Get ready for close combat. We aren’t stopping him otherwise.”

“Clo-close combat?” she stammered and took a step back. Eyes stared into the mask that rose up above the shield. The emotionless face painted the image of her near-death days ago. Her heart raced as she took another step and fell back into the mud.

She watched with mouth agape at the large figure smashing Hukven’s axe out of his hand and slamming the man with the shield. Hukven landed with a heavy splash in another muddy puddle close by, not moving.

The figure turned its mask to her, seemingly admiring her fear before it placed the shield to the side and descended toward her with large hands stretched out.

“Stop!” She finally cried out and reached for the revolver.

The figure paused, waiting.

With the hammer back, Natalia pulled the trigger with closed eyes.

“Astyun Owun.” The figure said with a thick accent.

Natalia opened her eyes and saw the hammer jammed up against mud that had caked onto the revolver. “Why n-!?” she cried before a gasp of air escaped her at the powerful grip wrapping around her neck.

The masked figure watched with an emotionless gaze. One hand holding Natalia down with ease.

Again, I’m here. She dropped her revolver and clawed her hands for the mask. A muddy finger swiped uselessly against it, tainting the pure white surface with a stain of mud. Please… She kicked her legs out uselessly. The weight of the figure caused her to sink into the mud. The warm, thick sludge wrapped around her. Revu, help me…

Darkness filled her vision as her body became numb to her senses.

Mother!

A concussive blast flattened her further into the mud. Clawing her way out, she wiped at her eyes to clear her vision. A different blurry figure stood over her. Blinking her eyes, she saw concerned look evident across the figure’s face that quickly changed to relief.

“Thank the Father you are okay, Natalia!” Orsolya said with a beaming smile.

Relief washed through her before the pain of what happened came to her. She rose in a rush with a fit of coughing. Her hand self-consciously went to her throat, now red with a visible growing bruise.

“Take this. Drink. I’ll defend us.”

Natalia found a canteen forced into her hands. She eagerly unscrewed the top and downed the water within. The liquid was a relief to her burning throat. She saw to her left the large figure lying still a ways away. “You knocked him away?” Closing the top, she looked up to see Orsolya with rifle raised, firing with efficiency.

Following the direction Orsolya was firing she spotted the Union esper nearing Lulilia and Vykter’s position.

“Ma… Magic!” She cried out through the pain in her throat.

“I used much of what I had left saving you!” Orsolya retorted. she began to load in a fresh clip into her rifle.

Searching for her own rifle, Natalia spotted it close by and reached for it. Shaking mud from it she quickly loaded in a fresh clip into the magazine. Natalia sat up and fired. The first bullet pierced the esper’s barrier, a visible crack in it.

The esper continued his attack, his other hand held a pistol which he fired at Lulilia and Vykter. The dual barrel of the pistol released a flash of flames. The cover the two imperial soldiers hid behind was splintered and destroyed under the onslaught as the two of them backed away while firing their own weapons.

She pulled the trigger, releasing a second bullet that splintered against the shield again. I can’t stop him! Natalia pulled the handle back, the casing flinging into the air. Pushing the handle back again she fed energy into the bullet, heat rising within as she fired once more.

The esper kept going as he bounced forward. The blade swept through the air and caught Lulilia. The woman fell while Vykter fired another salvo from his rifle. Splinters of light danced across the esper’s barrier.

Lulilia! Her heart skipped a beat as she bit down on her tongue. The fourth bullet was loaded into the chamber and she fired. No effect once more as the fifth bullet was pushed forward. Die! She pulled the trigger and watched it impact against the barrier, shattering it.

The esper stood stunned for a moment before he dashed to the side of Vykter’s attack and resumed his own. The saber slashed across Vykter’s chest.

Natalia let forth an audible gasp before realizing the esper was now moving across the crater towards her and Orsolya. Reload! She reached for her pouch, fingers seeking another clip and found the last one within. “Orsolya!”

“I know!” Orsolya slung her rifle over her shoulder and unholstered a pistol with an extended magazine. Gas blew from holes along the pistol’s barrel as it buzzed with activity. Two dozen bullets released in a near instant.

The esper raised his hand, the barrier holding back the impact as he easily transverse the uneven terrain towards the pair.

“Bastard just won’t die!”

Throwing the empty clip to the side, Natalia looked up in time to see the saber descending for her. She felt a grip rip her backward as she instinctively raised her hand for a barrier. The blade easily swiped through, just barely missing skin.

A thick wall of dirt and wood rose up, splitting her and Orsolya from the Union esper. The point of the saber stabbed through the dirt before it was pulled back, then the wall suddenly burst outward, sending debris against the esper who was forced back several steps.

Orsolya stepped forward, light emitting from her left hand while the right held her pistol with a fresh magazine.

The Union esper studied her, the saber rising slowly as he considered his next move with focused eyes. Calls rang out across the field. He waited another moment, turning his gaze to Natalia’s defeated form lying in the mud. “Ellyun.” With that he turned and dashed off, heading for the remaining Union soldiers starting to retreat towards the dead man’s land beyond.

Natalia watched the exchange with wide eyes, “Stop him!” Natalia blurted out.

Orsolya shook her head and turned to Natalia. “No, it’s pointless.”

Her shoulders slumped as she lowered her rifle to her lap. “Then we’re done?”

Kneeling beside her, Orsolya placed a hand on Natalia’s shoulder. “For now, yes. We can rest.”

Natalia simply nodded and looked out to the expansive crater. More Imperial soldiers flooding in from the sides. She caught a glimpse of Erőshal leading the charge with Windstor close behind. Gunfire rang out with the triumphant cries of the Imperial soldiers shouting in the glory of the Father.

“Thank the Father.” Natalia finally muttered and crawled out of the mud, hands shaking as she found a dry spot in the dirt to lie down. Orsolya stayed near her as her mind began to wander, the exhaustion of the day finally catching up to her.

Gunshots grew more distant until finally ceasing altogether. The victorious shouts slowly turned to the cries of the dying as the Imperial soldiers were brought back to reality.

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