Chapter 18

I pray for your forgiveness, but I dare not pray for the Lord’s. War is a terrible thing. I understand sacrifices must be made. You do not need to repeat this to me of all people. But when we have the power to save our people from this empire, I intend to do so without bloodshed.

Letters from the Wizard known as Melanie Almasri to her parents. Dated 1044-1049 (AT 1567-1572). Held in the Octavius Memorial Library, Ofprovo.

As she had anticipated, the next morning Celeste's men were all reluctant to wake. She had to burst into their room and kick them from their slumbers. The sun was clearly rising, but its light was yet to overcome the mountains as they were setting off. It probably wouldn't truly get light in the city until ten. And even then, the light had to filter through the smoke, the smog, that hung over the city like a pillow choking out all light.

As they prepared the armaments for transport, Celeste couldn't say she would miss Commodal. With some effort, the wagon of weapons was brought into the yard and attached to a horse.

“We've been told this should be enough,” The stable hand said, nervously patting the horse.

“I believe so,” Celeste said as she climbed up onto the wagon.

“You had better look after his one well,” He said, ruffling the horse's mane before stepping back. “He's hardy and loyal, but we all have our limits.”

“You have my word. I will make sure he has no more burdens than he must.”

She took a deep breath. It was time to see if this would work. She let freedom overtake her. She imagined herself leaving all these responsibilities behind. It was ironic in a way. She felt her braid float slightly without gravity keeping it down. She pulled it down and tucked it into her jacket, then let the field around her extend. The whole cart started to rise into the air. Panicking, she released it, letting the whole thing crash into the ground. The horse was very spooked, and Celeste could feel everyone's attention on her.

She tried again. This time, she didn't extend the field so far, instead leaving the wheels with their usual gravity. The cart was still left a lot lighter, but it had enough downward force to stop it floating away. A driver climbed on the front and they set off. Behind them were two more carts loaded with lighter supplies. Alongside her men, there were a dozen more soldiers to act as a guard of the supply train.

Celeste sat crossed legged, focusing on keeping the gravity field up. She hadn't had to hold it up while in a relaxed state before. The only times she would have it up for an extended period of time, she was usually fighting. And even then, she turned it on and off regularly. However, even as she concentrated, she did look like she was just sat without a care in the world while everyone else was left to walk.

“When do we get a ride?” Called Julius. He stumbled a bit on the dusty road, bouncing his pack to keep it high up on his back.

“Never, sadly. You wouldn't be safe up here,” She explained dismissively. Even she didn't feel so safe. The cart was very full, she was only staying on because she was holding onto the ropes anyway.

“How wouldn't we be safe, you're just sitting there?” Uberto asked.

“It's a wizard thing,” She said dismissively, trying to talk as little as possible. It pulled her attention away from her job. “I'd rather be walking.”

“We can swap if you like,” Teo said with a laugh.

“Sadly, that isn't how this works.”

“Why are you so with it already?” Uberto asked.

“What do you mean?” She said, turning to look down at him marching alongside. His shoulders were slumped, his eyes only half-open.

“I mean, you seem very awake. You didn't drink much less than us. Why are you so good at getting out of bed? Is that a thing they teach at your wizard school?”

“Nothing like that,” She said with a shrug. “It's just a wizard thing.”

“Are you going to say that to every question we have?”

“Only if it's true. I don't think I could explain everything about magic to you. There's a lot to take in, and I don't have the patience to be a teacher.”

“Fine, can you explain one thing to us? Properly explain.”

“Depends on what it is,” She said honestly.

“What was that thing last night? I heard it was some kind of wizard-”

“I've seen plenty of wizards,” Teo cut in. “They always look a bit...different, but nothing like that.”

Celeste sighed, considering how to explain it to them. “He...They...It? had been a wizard. That is what happens to a wizard when we overuse our powers,” She put it simply.

“So, you have a limit to your powers?” Uberto pressed.

“If you don't manage it, then that is the limit. But it's not like, once you've done too much, that's it forever.”

“And you're going to be able to manage yourself, right?” Felipe asked. “I wouldn't want to have to fight that thing again without your help.” He seemed to shudder at the thought.

“Don't worry, it is easy enough to avoid, particularly for me,” She admitted. “Besides, whatever I become, it won't be like that. If you're lucky, I'd be gone before you had to fight me.”

I would kill them before they would have to fight us, fear not.

“It would be you, not us,” She muttered sharply.

“If it's easy to manage, what happened to that wizards then?” Asked Uberto.

Celeste shrugged. That thought had concerned her. The wizard must have been helping work the factories, run some kind of engine with their heat. Perhaps they had the spirit of a volcano. What could have driven them so far that they didn't soothe properly? It must have been hard in the city, but even so, the risks are too great to let it get that far. And now they were dead. She'd killed them. And she had saved people. She had to remind herself of that.

“I don't know,” She said quietly. “I can't know another person's mind. Hopefully their body will be returned to the Winds,” She added.

The group was silent for a short while before Julius said, “Can you at least carry the packs for us? They do have your food in as well as ours.”

With a sigh, Celeste nodded. “Alright then, throw it up to me.” She reached out her hand to catch the pack. However, Julius can't have accounted for the lack of gravity. She should have realised this beforehand.

The pack soared into the air above them. In a panic, she leapt up and snatched it from the air before letting gravity return and her drop back down heavily. The whole cart suddenly got heavier, digging it into the ground, and the horse whinnied in shock.

“What are you doing back there, wizard?” The driver called.

“Sorry, I was being careless. Just a minute.” She motioned for the others to chuck their packs to her and she tied them down before they set off again.

The journey continued much the same. The men bickered and joked and Celeste did her best to focus. As they settled down for camp in the evenings, she would leave her jacket to the side, trying to keep cold. In the valleys, there was less wind than Celeste would have liked so keeping herself cold was the only way to soothe herself. She seemed to be keeping stable, not that it was fun.

After her years at Tricapon, she had forgotten what it truly felt like to be cold. Even when she slept with the balcony open, she could crawl out of bed in the morning and slip straight into a hot shower. Out here there was nothing like that. She would jump up and down for a while before everyone else woke up. The presence of the Taoan mountains meant there was no sunlight on her until near the morning. So as she sat on the cart, keeping it light, she felt herself shiver.

The weather stayed pleasant, at least. Being cold was bad enough, but being wet and cold would have been unbearable. Possibly deadly.

Her men did at least start to notice her coldness.

“You know, you can sit closer to the fire,” Teo said one evening, as she sat shivering in only her shirt.

“I'm fine. Really,” Celeste muttered, forcing down more dry rations.

“Why are you so distant?” Felipe asked, his eyes seeming to pierce into her. “You never seem to want to get to know us all that well. We're going to be working together for...Who knows how long. It just seems strange.”

“We're not exactly working together under the best of conditions,” She said simply.

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“My orders are to make sure these armaments get where they're needed as fast as possible. What are you four supposed to do?”

There was silence for a moment, before Julius spoke up. “We are to kill you if you misuse your magic.”

“Exactly. It's best for all of us if I don't get to cosy with you all.” She turned her head back down.

“Come on,” Uberto said. “It's not like we're looking to kill you. Wind, I'm not looking to get into any battles if I can avoid it. When I got put into logistics I was overjoyed.”

“If you're not prepared to fight, why did you sign up?” She asked, examining his face. He didn't look any older than her. None of them did. Maybe Teo was, but he couldn't be more than a year or two her senior.

“I mean this is our fight, right?” Uberto said. “The Ofprovians are trying to destroy our religion. If we don't stand together now, then what even is this nation.”

“I just wanted to do something other than factory work my whole life, if I'm honest,” Teo admitted.

“Surely there are more ways to help, and to avoid a factory, than just the military?” Celeste said.

“Then why are you here with us? You are a wizard, you don’t have any choice? Why not go be a village wizard, or find a noble to work for? It isn't like they conscripted wizards,” Julius pointed out.

Celeste shrugged. “I have to protect my people as well. We have to protect this nation. I don't know what other options there were for me, where else I could use my powers effectively.”

“Then we all are in the same position,” Felipe said, chuckling. “Not that the rewards aren't nice. And hey, if we keep working supply lines and maybe win a small skirmish, we will have left this war with a good story.”

“The rewards?” Celeste asked.

“You know we do get paid right?” Felipe asked, narrowing his eyes.

“I've never really used money,” She said with a shrug. “That kind of left my mind.”

“The money's nice, but it's the housing I'm really looking forward to,” Uberto admitted.


“Oh yeah, veterans will all receive a housing pension. I'm going to move my folks down into a small town near us. I think they'll like it there.”

“You really want to live in the lowlands? After we've fought to protect our highland religion,” Celeste mused.

“If you want to stay up there, that's fair enough. But opportunity is in the city. I might get some education as well.”

“Education is not all it's cracked up to me,” Julius said with a laugh. “I'll be glad for just the respect we might get out of this. If I could earn a commission, I might be able to get a comfy army position after the war as well.”

Celeste smiled, looking between them as they spoke. She'd never had such concrete plans for her future. Before...Well, back in her village, she knew she would probably have to get married, but she couldn't envisage that future. It wasn't a reality she could see coming into being. But she never had much direction at Tricapon either. She was focused on the now. And it wasn't until the previous year the thought of war even appeared in her mind. She supposed Tristan had been right, there would always be wars in her lifetime. They were inevitable, and she lived long enough that they were unavoidable. But she would do her duty in this one. That was enough of a goal for now.

Their travels continued smoothly enough, until near the end of their journey. They'd been travelling for nearly two weeks when, as they approached a turning in the road, they heard hoof beats coming towards them.

This wasn't, in itself, so worrying. But this would be the first time they would have met someone travelling in the opposite direction to them. Occasionally fast riders had overtaken them. They watched the corner with anticipation as two riders appeared. They rode towards the supply convoy for a few moments, before seeming to startle and rear their horses up.

It took Celeste, and apparently everyone else, to notice that they were wearing the blue uniforms of Ofprovo. Her eyes went wide and she waved her arm towards them. It was a knee jerk reaction, but she was glad to have done it.

“Shoot them!” She called.

Twelve shots echoed around them, mostly striking the rearing horses, but a few catching the riders. Her men went forwards, trying to inspect the bodies.

“What are Ofprovians doing this far south?” Uberto mused.

Celeste wanted to know that as well. “The cart might shake a bit, don't worry.” She said to the driver, before jettisoning herself high in the air. She pulled herself further up with vacuums and gazed out at the road ahead of them. She slipped out her spyglass to get a good view of it.

Marching towards them was an army. A sea of deep, Ofprovian, blue. They were still a way off, but they were closing fast. She dropped down, landing heavily on the cart.

“They were scouts,” She said hurriedly. “And the rest of their army is marching this way right now.”

“How is that possible? They can't have broken the line already,” Uberto said.

“I don't know, and I don't care. But we have to get these supplies off the road and hidden before they reach us. And hide those bodies, we don't want them knowing we've been here.” She spoke fast, the plan forming in her mind as she spoke it.

They uncoupled the carts from their horses. The animals were led over the nearby hill and forced to lie down. Celeste had to personally move the carts. She removed gravity and lifted them since they were a fraction of their weight. With them concealed behind the hill and treeline, they removed the scouts' and their horses' bodies. Teo kicked around the dirt of the path to try and hide the bloodstains before they all went to cower on the other side of the hill.

It was terrifying. It took nearly twenty minutes for them to arrive. And then they were passing for nearly an hour. All the while, they knew that any noise might alert the army of their presence. Celeste even considered for a while killing the horses to avoid them making any noise. The endless rumble of feet and wagons went on, metres away from them. If the column put out more scouts to its side then they would be done for. They had no way to silently kill any scouts.

And so, they lay there. Minutes passed like years. They could see the plateau looming over them, and Celeste wished she could be back up there. Completely safe. So distant from all of this. The chaos and terror.

The implications weighed on her worse than the sound of feet. If the Ofprovians were marching south, then what had become of the army Pesaro had led to defend the north-east? He was an experienced general, he wouldn't have been beaten easily, right? Celeste cursed herself for ignoring military history, or tactics, or anything like that while studying. Everything she had learnt seemed to meaningless when death marched so close to her.

If the army came for them, Celeste could survive. She was a wizard, a powerful one. She could leap off to the plateau. She could run and run and never look back. But she watched the faces of her men. The boys who lay in the grass beside her. Sweat trickled down their young faces as the sun crested the mountains. She could survive, but that would lead them to certain death. She knew she couldn't bear that thought on her conscience.

Eventually, the army passed. Celeste was the first to crawl up the hill and make certain they were well passed. She leapt high into the air again, looking both ways. North she could see nothing. To the south, the army was only getting further away.

They worked fast to get the supply train moving again, pushing the horses even harder than before. There was barely a word spoken. The same thought was in everyone's mind.

The evening sun was reflected against the mighty stone face of the Taoan mountains as they reached their destination. The battlefield was even more of a mess than Celeste had imagined it to be. They stopped the carts by a set of smouldering tents, that might once have been the quartermasters, and approached on foot from there.

They were stopped first by the trenches. Deep ditches dug into the earth. Bodies were scattered in them. Many lay face down, but those that didn't bore expressions of terror. At least, they did when their faces were still recognisable.

The trenches were surrounded by more bodies. Craters dug into the earth, leaving bodies and limbs in their wake. The freshly turned earth would soon be growing healthily with its bloody food. Everything about this made Celeste's stomach turn.

She looked out across the slight dip between these trenches and another set. In the shallow valley, more bodies were laid out. Horses joined them here, all being consumed by the grass below them once more. Their green uniforms meant she didn't quite grasp the scale of death at first, they blended in too well. Bodies that lay in holes were obvious. But the ones between them, those in the grass, they could have just been lumps in the ground. Until she looked closer and saw faces, and hands, swords and guns, braids and eyes.

The feeling in her stomach was bad enough, but it was nothing compared to the emotional anguish. Every body that she saw made her think of the man it had been. A person, living and breathing with a story. Family, parents and friends and lovers. And few times her mind played tricks and she thought she saw the face of someone she knew. A boy from her village, a fellow student. Maybe some of them really were people she knew. She wouldn't know.

She knew this was the spirit's work. She'd been using plenty of magic. Emotion poured through her soul like she'd never felt. She dug a chair out of a collapsed tent and had to sit for a while to recover herself. She tossed her jacket aside, loosened her shirt, and sat in the shade.

It won't do enough. The spirit whispered. They will still be there. And you will still feel this. There is only one way to make this better, to feel alright again. Get revenge. Chase down that army, slaughter them. It is the least you can do.

It took all her strength to ignore its voice. She knew it was wrong. But what it said felt right. Emotions were powerful, she wished knowing that made them go away though. She soon realised she was barely soothing her spirit like this. And her men weren't having an easy time either. They were stood silently together, trying to ignore the sight before them. She watched them hugging and felt guilty. It stabbed deeper, of course. All her feelings did right now.

“Did any of you know people here?” She asked softly. The four shook their heads but said nothing. They could barely lift their eyes to meet hers.

Despite the scale of death, there were a few soldiers remaining from the army. They had salvaged the remaining tents and were grateful for the fresh supplies the wagons had brought. Most of what they had was sacked as the Ofprovians rolled through. As the shaken soldiers sat and ate, they explained to the newcomers what had happened.

The trenches had been dug to protect against the artillery. They had been keeping safe from the latest bombardment when the water had flooded in. No one was sure where it had come from. Most people manage to avoid getting swept up in it. But of course, as they climbed out of the water, they were met by the bombardment. Those who hadn't been killed were led by General Pesaro on the remaining horses. He had insisted on a large charge at the enemy line. Once the general had been slaughtered, the army had marched across, doing their best to kill any remaining Laocienans. This, they all surmised, was the army that was marching south.

Celeste left the men so she could get some breath. There weren't many places to look where you could be truly calm. The death was so all-encompassing. The remaining soldiers had tried to start organising bodies, but it was a task beyond the dozen of them in the day since the massacre.

As she stood above the trench, looking out over the battlefield, her spirit spoke up.

Isn't there something odd about the trenches?

“What do you mean?” She asked, looking down. Bodies still lay down in the dirt below her.

They said that they were flooded out...

“So the water?” She finished. She dropped down, touching the ground, and the bodies. They were only as damp as you would expect turned earth to feel. It was obviously a wizard who did it, one who's water didn't last long once it had been used.

I will say it if you don't want to.

“River sprits aren't so uncommon,” She muttered. “She wouldn't do this.”

She always seemed pretty willing to follow orders if that was her duty.

“But she wouldn't kill all these people, would she?”

You would do if you were ordered to.

“No, I wouldn't. This isn't right.”

You were so eager to be put on the front line, did you think that wouldn't involve killing?

“I didn't...I just...” She sighed, burying her face in her hands. The thought made her body ache with the pain. This was all too much.

She hopped up the side of the trench, eyeing the battlefield again. The area had been pastureland, once, with the few remaining trees now shattered logs. No, that wasn't quite right. One tree still stood tall. A strong tree doesn't survive a strong wind, she thought. And that tree didn't look native, she realised. She could be wrong. She didn't know if she wanted to be wrong or right.

She sprinted across the field, careful not to step on any of the dead bodies. She nearly tripped on a few shell holes, but she kept going. She reached the trees and grabbed its trunk, feeling its rough bark. There was never any sign, so she tried hitting it. Her fists felt wet, but the pain wasn't so bad.

“Wolfram! Wolfram! What are you doing here?” She cried out, hoping she wouldn't appear mad.

The tree stood there defiantly for a few moments before it vanished. In its place, the green-haired man stood. He smiled weakly, before collapsing. Celeste managed to grab him from the ground and carry him back to the tent, out of the sunlight.

“Everyone, I need you to watch him,” She ordered.

“Yeah we can keep an eye on him, where are you going?” Someone asked.

“No, I mean, physically watch him,” She said urgently. She wasn't sure how long he'd been out there, in tree form, but she didn't want to risk it. She needed to soothe him.

“Who is he?” Julius asked. “Why was a peasant wizard out on the battlefield?”

Celeste shook her head. Now she looked harder, she did notice how Wolfram was dressed. He did look like a peasant. Simple, filthy, clothes that she could never imagine him choosing to wear. What was he doing out here?

Following the massacre, Celeste had become the highest-ranking officer there. Not that she felt so important as she commanded her two dozen men, but she did feel a responsibility to them. She helped to set up the tents with them and went through the supplies to get the stuff together to fix up a decent meal. They would be eating nearly double rations, but since they had food meant to supply several thousand, it probably wouldn't be such a problem.

Before they ate, they discussed the best way to start organising the bodies. But that was a job for tomorrow, and once the food was ready Celeste insisted that they talk about something more pleasant. They managed to keep a good mood up, a few songs even breaking out.

It might have been the singing that woke up Wolfram. He came stumbling out of the tent, looking at them with manic eyes. Celeste managed to calm him and get him sat back inside. She brought him food and watched him eat for a while before trying to ask him anything.

“Glad to see you're still alive. I didn't think you would be able to survive on your own out in the big wide world.” She said with a laugh.

“I'm still not sure I can,” He said through a mouthful of food. “God, this stuff is good. Haven't eaten warm food in weeks.”

“What are you doing up here? I thought you would head back south, to your family?”

“I thought about it for a while,” He admitted, wiping food from his mouth. “But they wouldn't accept me back. Not really. Plus, they've got embroiled in this war down there too. If I'm going to fight in a war, I want to be fighting for people who don't deny me my title.”

“You're fighting?” She asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

Wolfram shrugged, swallowing back another mouthful of food. “I'm not planning to do the fighting itself. But I'm a spy, for the Itopasarians. I'm a pretty good catch. My magic is actually pretty good for it. And I'm already fluent in most languages. And accents. Like this.” He slipped into a very bad imitation of her accent for his last few words.

The Itopasarians, their allies in the war. Teodor was from there, she wondered what they were up to now. She nodded at Wolfram though.

“Is Itopasar faring as poorly as us then?” She asked.

“I can't say. I've been travelling along the line for a while now. I'm supposed to be heading into enemy territory as soon as I can. Though, good thing I ran into you. I might have been consumed out there,” He said, shuddering. Even as he did, he seemed to smile. She had no idea how he could remain to cheerful in the face of it all.

“I need to ask, you were there at the battle, right?” He nodded slowly, his face actually growing more serious. “Then I need to know, did you see who...Do you know if she...”

He reached out to rest a hand on hers. “Melanie was there. I didn't see her doing it, but I don't think there are any other water wizards in that army. It had to be her who flooded the trench.”

Celeste sat quietly for a moment. The anger and betrayal smouldered in her for a moment. She said nothing, clenching her fists tighter. Wolfram slowly pulled back.

“I know that isn't what you would like to hear. But this is war, you understand that right?”

“I know,” She said, quietly. “That doesn't mean I have to forgive her.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“If I see her, she had better hope she can move faster than me. I won't let her get away with this. If only I had been here. I could have stopped her, I could have saved...” She choked on her words.

Wolfram placed a hand on her again. “That isn't your fault. You were serving under an idiot general who didn't have you here. You were just doing what you were supposed to. As was she. This isn't a school game anymore.”

“I know that,” She spat out. “That is why I won't lose to her next time I see her.”

Wolfram sighed, leaning back. “Thank you for looking out for me. I should be off tomorrow though. They will expect me to start sending reports back soon, and I will need something to report.”

“Are you going to be okay out there?” She asked, looking up at him. “Will you be safe in the sunlight?”

“Sun doesn't rise properly for ages. Though I might fashion myself a mask to keep it off my skin. Are you going to be safe, is the more important question? It's a big job here.”

She nodded, thinking of the bloodbath outside. “Someone has to do it. Maybe I couldn't stop her, but I will do what I can for those she killed.”