Chapter 20

A Wind Worshiper does not believe they are truly powerless in the world. The ‘Wind’ does not dictate to them what they are supposed to do with their lives. Instead, it is a guidance, the wisdom of ancestors and perhaps some universal consciousness, primitive interpretation of God. However, they do seem given to leaving themselves up to chance and fate when faced with the slightest uncertainty.

Anthropological Records of the Highland Culture and Religion of Laociena by ****. Published 1626

As the days wore on, Celeste and her men became very proficient at halting the supply line. They began planting explosives on the mountainside, leaving a fuse running up to their cave so they could detonate it with safety. When they saw supply trains coming through, the explosion was usually enough to stop them and leave them distracted. Celeste hurtling out of the smoke was enough terror to keep them from trying to fight back.

They found supplies would come through every other day, the first couple of times with a water wizard. They were skilled wizards, and competent fighters, but they weren't Melanie. And they were at a distinct disadvantage on the snowy hillside as well, leaving them easy enough to subdue. Though they were allowing the soldiers to return north, they were clearly taking a while to get back because the Ofprovians didn't stop sending supplies the same route.

Celeste's unit would raid the supplies they stopped for fuel and food, and a restock on any ammunition they used, then send the crates tumbling off the ridge. They planned to return at a later date, or at least give the location to the Brigadier, so the supplies could be scavenged.

After they ran out of water wizards, the Ofprovians began to send their supplies on skis, pulled by teams of horses. These were much easier to stop. They only sent soldiers with these, and they moved incredibly slowly, the horses suffering their way through the snow. They sent the soldiers on their way with their horses, but Celeste wasn't certain the horses would be making it home safely. She wasn't sure how they got horses up to start with because they didn't take kindly to being hurled off a cliff and then experiencing zero gravity.

It was after about a week and a half up on the snowy slopes that a bird arrived from Tosetti. It squawked obnoxiously at them until Celeste plucked the note off its leg. The note was brief, informing them that the battle had been a success and that Tosetti would be riding back up to the site of the massacre where he expected to meet them.

They packed up what they had and headed back down the mountain. Although it would be nice to spend five minutes away from the fire without losing all feeling in your fingers, Celeste knew she would miss the constant winds. The way the wind and cold had soothed her had left her feeling calmer than she had done in a long time. The deep cold in her bones was a sensation she was going to miss. Perhaps she would be lucky and whoever her new commander was would send her somewhere similar.

The site of the massacre was significantly improved since they had last been there. The bodies had all been gathered up. They spoke with the survivors who had been uncertain what to do with the bodies. They had checked for personal effects and noted down their owner where it was possible to identify them. The rest they had simply gathered in a tent.

There was a weird mixture of things. Letters that had been tucked into jackets. Pieces of jewellery, some old and deeply loved, and some new and made with beautiful care. Some had had small books on them, possibly personal diaries, maybe religious texts. Most had been warped by the water and would be unreadable.

It was very difficult to look at for Celeste. The deeply personal objects made everything so real to her again. She cursed herself for letting Melanie go once more. It had been the right decision though. She told herself that, at least. Every time she felt that self-doubt her spirit would be there to whisper in her ear.

You have failed every one of them. Even if your men died, you would have avenged thousands. You put your own needs, your own emotional attachment, above the justice for all of them. I only hope you won't be so weak a second time.

Blocking out her own thoughts became easier when the Brigadier and his riders reappeared. This time, Tosetti was accompanied by only a few dozen men. The rest, as he quickly explained, were helping transport the prisoners.

Despite facing off against eight thousand men, Tosetti's men had won the fight with next to no casualties. Thousands of the Ofprovian survivors were now being taken as prisoner, with some hopes of gleaning information from them about the enemies movements.

The greatest distraction came a few days later when the King's army arrived. Ten thousand men, many on horseback, their uniforms immaculate. The King looked even more impressive than usual. He was dressed in ornate armour, shinning polished metal and lustrous green trim.

“You know, I've spoken to him before,” Celeste remarked as they stood by, watching him parade to the battlefield.

“Big deal, everyone's seen him at formal functions and things,” Julius said, dismissively.

“I sure haven't met him before,” Uberto said, in a confused tone. “I thought you were from the highlands?”

“Yeah, he never visited my village,” Celeste added. “I only met him at Tricapon. Because I was a wizard, not when I was a peasant girl.”

“I guess we just live in different areas. I was nearer the capital,” Julius quickly said as the other four gave him a confused look.

The King was greeted by Tosetti who offered him the sword of the defeated enemy general as a show of honour. The whole ceremony was overly long and needless, Celeste felt. What right had the King to the spoils of victory when he was on the other side of the country when it was happening? But still, the King accepted the sword, before leading Tosetti away into the Brigadier's tent.

In the hours that passed, the King's troops began to set up new defences. New trenches began to be dug, multiple layers of them, and disconnected rather than continuous. The armaments that Celeste and her men had brought up were finally fully put to use. Great artillery guns were set up, ready for any future Ofprovian aggression in the area. Celeste was impressed as she watched the work carried out. This was what a well-drilled army looked like, she realised.

Finally, the King and Tosetti reappeared. Celeste couldn't help noticing the smug look on Tosetti's face as he paraded through the assembled crowd. With his private meeting finished, King Octavius headed to where the bodies were being stored. He stood in front of them and raised his arms to the wind, calling out a prayer to heaven for the souls of those lost men. He didn't seem to really understand what a soul was.

When that was done, he turned to face the living men and began a speech. He spoke of the nation, and the men's sacrifice. He talked of how he would honour their loss, that the Ofprovians would be forced to pay. It was stirring enough, Celeste supposed.

As she idly watched the speech, someone approached her from behind. She didn't bother to turn to look, but listened to him instead of the King as Tosetti spoke.

“I need you to meet me in my tent once this show is over.” He spoke quietly, not wanting to distract the King, evidently.

She nodded subtly, continuing to listen for a moment. The King began to speak of how he would personally see that the bodies were laid to rest peacefully.

“If he wanted to put them to rest, we would just get on and cremate them all,” She muttered.

“You know, they weren't all highland heretics like you,” Tosetti said, his voice staying very neutral.

“Most of them were though. And we aren't heretics. Our religion is why we're fighting this war in the first place,” She shot back.

The Brigadier let out a small laugh. “I guess you are stupid or Tricapon is just somehow worse than I imagined.” He laughed again but didn't expand on it. “Let me know if he says anything of interest.”

As she slipped into Tosetti's tent, she found she had nothing to report of the speech. It was a moving enough piece though. Now he had been allowed time to set up, Tosetti's tent was filled mostly with a utilitarian desk covered with carefully organised papers. He was stood beside it, examining the papers.

“Spirit of a meteor, then? Or, shooting stars, as you put it. I suppose that does describe the thing people are emotionally attached to. It is impressive, I didn't think ideas would have spirits.” He spoke with an air of amusement.

“Well, I think it is because of the physical meteors that make the appearance of stars. How did you know that?” She said, suddenly realising she'd never told him.

“It turns out some of Pesaro's papers did survive.” He waved the paper in his hand at her. It was the document she had filled out when she signed up. “He really didn't appreciate what he had at his disposal. Tell me, what is it like?”

“What is like?” She asked.

“Your spirit? What emotions go into a shooting star? People's wishes, I suppose.”

“It's...” She paused to consider. “Ambitious. It's what people want, and desire. All of that becomes a spirit that is hungry for power. For more than it has. That I have, I suppose.”

“It is interesting, imagining what voice shouts inside another's heard. I love hearing about it from other wizards. I consider what I could have had. My spirit is that of a mountain. Well, a volcano, actually. A rapidly growing one. But the locals didn't understand that it was a volcano. They just saw it was an ever-growing, ever-changing mountain. That disparity, between the physical and emotional, was very interesting to me. And so, the spirit acts like that of another mountain.” He smiled, looking even more distant for a moment. “But that isn't what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Then get on with it,” She said, a little impatiently.

“Don't be so short with me,” Tosetti smiled wider. “Following my great victory, and the death of our dear Doriano Pesaro, his majesty has decided to make me a general.”

“Congratulations,” Celeste said, sounding deeply disinterested.

“I'm being put in charge of our offensive operations, trying to gain ground on the Ofprovians. And I am being given any remaining resources of Pesaro. Which means you are now directly under my command. So, I am going to expect a little more respect from you, Captain Celeste.”

She froze for a moment before nodding. “Right, sir, then you will have that respect.”

“Good. Now, of course, you will have new orders. I am taking a day to review our intelligence and decide where we are going to hit the enemy. I'm being given plenty of men, but I think you and your unit have proven effective already. So, I'm making you a new, highly mobile unit. With heavy munitions and swift feet, you can wreak havoc on the enemy. With my mind for strategy, and your abilities, we will be able to win this war in months.”

Celeste nodded at him. “Given your current record, I have no doubt of that. Sir.” She added quickly. “I should go alert my men, then, since we're only going to have another day to rest.”

“Yes, of course. I will also, hopefully, be getting some more wizards assigned to me, since I will actually utilise them correctly. If they work well with you, I will probably assign them to your unit. But, I have yet to decide on that. So, be on your way.” As he spoke, he started to pick out a new set of papers to examine.

Celeste nodded and was about to leave when she was struck with too much curiosity to simply go. “One last thing, um, General...”

“What is it?” He asked sharply, examining her intently for a moment.

“I just wanted to know, how exactly did you defeat them? You were massively outnumbered, I just don't see...”

Tosetti smirked and stood up to his full height. “A wizard is worth, I always believe, a thousand men in a straight fight. So it wasn't so unfair.”

“How man wizards did they have?”

“At least ten,” He said casually.

She quickly ran the numbers in her head. “So…they still had you outnumbered one to twelve.”

He sighed. “Fine, I said a straight fight. But, with the right preparation, a wizard is worth so much more. And my magic, like yours, is fairly unique.”

He let the words linger, and Celeste picked up on what he was saying. “Your spirit came from a mountain that changed, so you can what, manipulate the terrain?”

“Exactly,” Tosetti said. “Maybe you are smarter than I thought. Their maps of our land clearly were worse than I expected. So, they didn't realise until too late that what they were walking into wasn't just an unfortunately tight mountain pass, but a space I had created specifically to trap them. We aimed for their wizards first, leaving them with no way to retaliate save for a few mundane rifles against an enemy they couldn't even locate.”

“How many dead?” Celeste asked quietly.

“A few thousands. Plenty more injured. We got quite a few commanders, unfortunately, though their general survived. I'm expecting we'll get a good ransom for him, though there's a chance they won't want a failure back. Their military culture is, how to put it, less forgiving than ours, as Pesaro's continued position proved.”

Hearing the number of dead seemed to sting Celeste. They were men fighting for a terrible cause but...Melanie had been right. They didn't start the war, just as she hadn't. Hungry and exhausted men walking into an ambush they couldn't have seen coming. And still she had to ask.

“Did we get any water wizards from the enemy?” She asked.

“Of the ones we killed, I don't think any of them had water powers. None of the survivors were either. Why?” He asked, narrowing his eyes at her.

“I just...I was curious.”

“That's an obvious lie. Did you let any of the wizards from the supply lines live?”

Celeste did her best, and possibly failed, to hide her expression of shock at that question. “They were all stopped,” She lied, simply.

“Then good. I will take it you used your discretion appropriately to stop our enemy. We certainly didn't see any supplies reach them. And, since you weren't officially under my command at the time, don't worry about any reports. Though I will have to have people sent up to watch that route for any sneak attacks. Now, go, take your day rest. I am intending to set out as soon as we know where to strike.” He said, waving her out of the tent.

She gave him a customary salute and left. Her mind was racing with thoughts, both worries and a sense of relief. Melanie was probably still alive. But where was she now?

Celeste and her men eagerly took advantage of the free day they had. The five of them headed a little way south, into woodlands at the base of a plateau where a waterfall cascaded into a deep pool. The waters were frosty but clear, foaming up where the falls broke the surface.

She had never felt any desire to see a man naked, a desire she had finally come to understand. But after they had all spent so long sweating in their uniforms with few opportunities to wash, she didn't begrudge them. It felt good, to wash the grime and sweat off in the cold waters. The men shivered and complained as they slowly made their way deeper in while Celeste threw herself in with abandon.

She never learnt to swim, so she didn't dare go too deep into the pool. Instead, she found a relatively smooth rock to sit on as she scrubbed at her own body, feeling as though a new her was born in the waters. She undid her braid, feeling her greasy hair flop down onto the sides of her head. The water didn't clean it deeply, but it did enough to make her feel fresher. She realised she would need to find a razor soon as the sides of her hair were growing out again.

The men happily frolicked in the water, once they got over the cold. She smiled as she watched them having some fun. It was weird to see them so relaxed. Even as they swapped storied up the mountain there was a sense of anxiousness from everyone. Teo especially. His family would have been in direct danger if the Ofprovians had reached Commodal. But now the threat felt over. The war wasn't won, but they did have a good chance.

Tosetti hadn't lied when he told them they had only one day of rest. Being back on the march was strange. After their week holed up in the mountains, Celeste felt unnatural stretching her legs. But soon the monotony of marching overcame the feeling of discomfort. She hadn't realised, as she'd left Tricapon, that being a soldier would involve so many tasks beyond fighting. Histories of war tended to discuss the important battles, not trench digging.

As an officer, she was spared much of the work; Tosetti wanted to keep her rested for use. But when she saw work that needed doing, she tried to lend a hand. She avoided using magic, but her physical strength alone was appreciated by the men around her. She soon found herself treated like another one of the foot soldiers. She found herself surrounded at dinner time, listening in to everyone's stories.

Sometimes they were personal, other times people who share their folktales. It was always interesting hearing regional variations on familiar tales. Ballads would be poorly sung out of tune some nights, when everyone was in good spirits. In those moments, she knew what she was fighting for.

Fighting was a much simpler task than she'd worried. Tosetti would spend a few days examining the terrain ahead of them and drawing up details maps before briefing Celeste on the route she would need to take. Under the cover of night, she and her men would head off. Heavily armed, they would kill the soldiers manning the enemy artillery and send up a signal flare. The enemy line would be overrun very quickly and another victory was secured for Laociena.

They would spend a few weeks pushing the Ofprovian line back before the general would get new orders from the high command. He would take his few personal troops with him, and Celeste would be forced to get to know a whole new group of soldiers. As the year began to stretch on, she felt as though she was finding a place, even if that place was ever-changing.

It was only after a few months of campaign that she felt something changing. After her first fights on the mountainside, she found she had to steel herself as she killed people. She tried not to look into their eyes as her swords cut through them. She hated to admit it, but Melanie's logic had been correct. Stopping the Ofprovian artillery would save the lives of her own men.

This became all the more clear in one specific fight. As they sprung at the enemy soldiers, Celeste realised they weren't aiming their rifles at her. Instead, hands shaking, the soldiers pointed their guns at her own men. She barely thought as she responded, guided onwards by emotions and the goading of her spirit.

You have the strength to save them. You are powerful.

Gravity left them and the soldiers began to float. They didn't know how to even control their own bodies in this state. She did, of course. She darted between the dozen soldiers, cutting them down without mercy. Each one that fell made her men safer. As she barrelled towards the final soldier, he gently floated through the air so he was upside down. His eyes met her with terror. In the moment, she shut it out.

She stood, breathing for a moment. The soldiers continued to float. Blood leaked from them, drifting through the air. The universe around her seemed blood-stained for a moment.

Celeste kept the poetry of the encounter out of her report. Tosetti didn't need that much detail anyway. But having to recall it made her turn the details over in her own mind. She felt sick to her stomach. How old had the soldier been? He didn't look any older than herself. He looked like a child almost. Why was he fighting?

She breezed into the general's tent, dropping her report casually on his desk. He didn't look up from his writing, simply waving to shoo her out. She hesitated a moment, before speaking.

“Sir...” She began cautiously. He looked up at her, irritation in his eyes. “I was wondering if I might ask you a question about your predecessor?”

Tosetti sighed, placing his quill in its inkwell. “You're being unusually formal. I assume it is because you're asking about Pesaro. He's not really my predecessor. What did you want to ask then?” He said, motioning with his hand.

“Do you know why he refused to let wizards fight? He was convinced we weren't needed, up to his death. What made him like that?”

“I didn't know him personally,” Tosettie said, stretching his arms out as he stood up. “But there were plenty of rumours. He used to freely send wizards out. It only changed after his son died.”

“How did he die?” She asked slowly.

“I think you're smart enough to guess.” He said, glancing at her darkly. “He was leading a small group on a reconnaissance mission. Pesaro led the search to find him. Apparently was the first one to do so. The trees were growing out of them, I hear. There's plenty of wizards with plant-related powers, but that is something else entirely to me.”

“And after that he refused to let wizards fight...But why, if his son had had a wizard with him, he might have survived.”

Tosetti sighed and shrugged. “I heard him talking, once, about the use of wizards in war. It was awfully boring, you understand, but I recall him going on about control. You can't control what your men will face, but you can control what your enemy will face.” He laughed, a short, cold sound. “He was wrong on all accounts, of course. He was a poor commander even before then. I don't know how he rose to his rank. Probably involved being a sycophant to our beloved kings. Not actual talent like me.”

Celeste had long stopped listening, considering the logic in her mind. As she fought those men, they had no control over anything. Even gravity seemed to work against them. It had been her choice. She had made them face that terror. And she'd done it to save her own men. Tosetti seemed to finally notice that she wasn't paying attention.

“I hope I'm not going to find anything unpleasant in this report.” He scooped the papers off his desk and flicked through them.

“Of course not,” She said, pulling back into the moment. “It all went smoothly, as our gains prove.”

“Excellent. At this rate, we might be able to storm the Ofprovian capital by the end of the year. That would certainly impress our king. But alas, I don't know that we're going to stay on our current orders forever. Get some rest. And make sure to soothe. I'm expecting some counter-attack any day now.”

She nodded before giving a half-hearted salute and slipping back out of the tent. Even as she followed her orders, letting her spirit soothe in the cool of the evening, she couldn't soothe the chaos in her mind. The terror of confronting what she had done.