Chapter 22


source. date.

It was one of the greatest tragedies of war, Celeste was beginning to feel, that it gave you plenty of reasons to grieve and yet no time in which to do so. Though she was also grateful for that, as her shovel cut through the dirt. The numbness of physical labour kept her mind from thinking about Julius. After the battle yesterday, she hadn't had enough time to soothe and so her emotions were still running high. Her soul wide open. She couldn't stop to linger on the thought of his face for too long or she would feel burning tears welling up in her eyes.

Tosetti had been as understanding as usual. He was more concerned with their loss of magical resources. The enemy seemed to have few wizards available, or weren't placing them on the battlefield, it seemed. He spent hours pondering what the enemy was planning with his officers there. Celeste had hated the whole affair. She knew he didn't expect much insight from her. And she had none to give. Her mind was turning from the day's battles.

As soon as she was let out of his meeting, she went to find some work to do. It didn't matter much what. If her body was moving, then she could keep her mind off the dead boy in her arms. She felt as though she barely knew him, as she reflected upon him. He had kept so quiet about his past, like there was something he was concealing from them.

Sweat was forming on Celeste's forehead in the warm morning light. She loosened the brass buttons of her jacket, letting it hang open. She reached down and felt the mud on her fingers, cool and wet still. With a heavy breath, she got back to digging.

The battle had been a complete success, as far as Tosetti was concerned. Numerically their loses had been minimal. Emotionally, Celeste didn't agree with that assessment. But the valley was now under their complete control. Trenches and dugouts now needed to be made faster than the enemy could bring in new guns and start bombarding them. It was a small target area, which would make any artillery attacks all the more deadly.

Securing more land north of the valley was Tosetti's next goal. From there, he believed they could stage major attacks on the enemy supply lines. The Ofprovians had finally fully mobilised their troops in the east and were bringing them in. Up till now, they were fairly evenly matched on troops, thanks to their Itopasarian allies. While the Ofprovian's productive capacity was much greater, they simply lacked the troops to wield all the guns they could make. Soon, they would be able to overwhelm Laociena. That was the worst-case scenario though.

Melanie had once told Celeste that not many people back in her homeland trained in magic. It boded well. Their magical capabilities seemed to be all that was giving them the edge right now. If they started coming up against well-trained wizards, Celeste doubted she would continue to be of much use to Tosetti.

She turned her attention back to the earth, digging with newfound energy. She glanced over to watch Felipe beside her. His shovel was buried in the ground, his hands holding it as if to turn the mud. But he was still, his eyes staring blankly at the growing trench.

As she examined his face, she noticed just how young he was. He couldn't be older than her. He was a boy, not a man. What was he doing here? He shouldn't have been surrounded by mud and death. He was no older than her, really. All of her friends seem to have been thrown into this. Only Sabina had had the foresight to run as far away from the war as possible.

“You alright?” She asked softly, nudging him with her foot. Talking was easier than thinking of everything she missed.

“Wh-” He said, blinking rapidly as he looked up at Celeste. “Yeah, I'm...I don't know, I'm just sort of here, you know?”

She nodded. It made no sense, but she could feel his pain. “I'm sorry that I couldn't-”

“Don't.” He cut her off. “You didn't do anything wrong. You were there to help us. It was just random misfortune.”

“Still, I know I wasn't as close to him as you all were.”

“That makes sense. We've all been together since basic training. We had been part of a larger unit before we got assigned to you. Hadn't spoken to him so much before that though.”

“You were assigned to kill me,” She said with a small laugh. “It's weird to think about. Your orders were to shoot me if I did anything wrong. And here I am trying to protect you all.”

“You might be a wizard, but you're not all-powerful. It doesn't matter how much you try, that's not something you can do.” He looked sternly at her. She was frozen for a moment before nodding.

“Winds knows, I'm aware my power isn't limitless. But what good is it if I can't use it to save the people I care about?”

“Use it to win this war then. I've seen you fight. We've secured so much thanks to you. That is how we will save our country. The sooner we win, the soon we can return home.”

Celeste nodded. He was right, she supposed. But what home did she have to return to? After all this, she wasn't sure she could face sitting in a school. And what was left for her in her village? She left a freak, with a dead boy at her feet. Though, she did miss it all. The calm fields, the stupid sheep.

“Captain Celeste!” Tosetti's harsh voice called her back to attention.

“What do you want?” She asked lazily, looking up at him.

“Firstly, I'd like a little more respect,” He said, rolling his eyes. “Secondly, I want to know what you're doing down in the mud?”

“I'm helping to dig trenches. Sir.” She said, looking around as if for support. All the other men turned their attention to their digging.

“I told you to get rested. I need you fully soothed as soon as possible.”

“I'm fine. I can soothe like this,” She said, stabbing her shovel back into the ground.

“This is an order. The rest of the men will get along fine without you.” He clicked his finger and motioned at her with his finger.

She sighed and pulled her shovel up, stepping out of the trench and approaching him. “I can help.”

“You are put to better use elsewhere. Now get up the cliff or something to soothe yourself properly.” Tosetti watched her for a moment as she started to walk away.

He had started talking to some other people when they heard the noise. Celeste didn't register it at first, she wasn't used to hearing it this far away. She looked back. Everyone else was looking up stunned for a moment. Shells were arching through the air from the enemy lines.

“That's not possible,” She heard Tosetti mutter before he raised his voice. “Everyone get back. Into the valley!” As he called, he leant down and placed his hands into the mud. In an instant, huge sheets of rock rose out of the ground, forming a protective shield in front of the trenches.

So, this was the extent of his powers, Celeste thought. The Ofprovians really hadn't stood a chance at the start of the war.

The rock couldn't withstand shelling through. The first barrage easily broke through sending chunks of rocks raining down on the escaping soldiers. Celeste darted back, dodging chunks of rocks and stepping up beside Tosetti as he raised another rocky shield.

“What's going on?” She asked. “They couldn't have got their guns up that quickly, right?”

“I didn't expect them too. Not unless...” He paused for a moment, patting his chin. “They planned for the loss of the valley and were preparing for this.”

“That doesn't seem like a sensible tactical plan. This valley is a strong defensive position.”

“But we took it. Maybe it wasn't poor planning but rather pragmatism. That doesn't matter now. Get the men away. I'll see how much more I can do,” He said, shoving her away.

She took off down the trench, looking for anyone who needed help. As she jogged, she looked up to see the path of the next volley of shells. Her eyes widened as she watched them. They had altered the trajectories. They were easily going to soar over Tosetti's rocks. She could see the paths they were going to take, wind speed taken into account.

“General!” She called as she realised one of them was headed straight for Tosetti. He was trying to raise the rocks higher, but it wouldn't do anything. She started running to him. He stopped her with a raised hand. Then the shell hit.

Mud and shards of rock were sent flying along with the shrapnel from the shell itself. She shielded her face with her arm, feeling the jagged material cutting through her uniform and her skin. It took a moment for the smoke and debris to clear. Stood there, calm as ever, was Tosetti. His uniform had been shredded. But he was alive and unharmed. Brushing mud from himself, he headed over to Celeste.

“Get that look off your face. And get out of here. We are both wizards, I can handle myself. And I need you to follow orders.” His voice was low. He waited for her to give a nod in response before heading forward to watch the enemy line.

Celeste continued with her orders, rushing along the trenches to look for any soldiers in need of help. And of her own men in particular. She had to make sure they were safe. That was her duty.

She tried to keep her eyes on the sky, watching for the next load of shells. Tosetti's defences were holding up enough for the retreat to continue. But they weren't stopping everything, and the constant destruction was slowing people down. Some men had been crushed by rocks that needed to be lifted before they could hobble away.

Finally, through the chaos, she spotted Felipe again. He was helping to get another man away from the trench. The man's side had been torn into by the shrapnel of a shell. Blood trailed down him, soaking into his uniform. She was about to head over and help when she took a brief look at the sky. Her physics lessons were paying off a lot in this war, as she predicted the arc of the shell.

She panicked as she realised where it was headed. She had time, didn't she? She broke into a run, shouting something at Felipe. It was hard to hear her own voice over the whistle of the shell. And over the panic in her mind.

The blast must have knocked her unconscious because she found herself opening her eyes to see the clear sky. Her head rung and her front ached. She looked down to see bits of shrapnel embedded in her. Pain was weird as a wizard. The shrapnel was manageable, but the panic in her mind was excruciating. She scrambled up to see a shell hole where her friend had been.

His body and that of the other man lay a few feet away. Their uniforms had burned away on their backs, exposing the seared skin. She rushed over as though there could be any other diagnosis. She flipped his body to see his face caked in blood and mud. Was there still some emotion in his eyes? Some sense of recognition? She wanted there to be, some chance that he was still alive. But wishing didn't change the reality. She rested a hand on his face for a moment, then let him slump into the ground.

You couldn't save any of them.

“I know that,” She spat back.

You're thinking too small. You think you can just run around, saving everyone individually.

“What else am I to do?”

Fight. Win the war. When your enemies are dead, your men will be safe.

Celeste turned the words over in her mind. While the bombardments continued, no one could be safe. But if she stopped them, if she killed every last Ofprovian on the other side of the no man's land, then she could save them all. She'd looked down on Melanie before, but now she saw the other woman was entirely right. She'd just been fighting for the wrong side, for the invaders. Celeste would protect her home.

She grabbed a rifle off a fallen soldier, checking it was loaded. It would be good for one shot, but that would still be an advantage. She checked her swords were at her hips and began to run towards the defences, preparing to leap over them.

A hand caught her arm and she turned to see Tosetti. He could move fast when he wanted to.

“What are you doing? Your orders are to help in the retreat.” He said sharply.

“I'm going to stop the bombardment. I'm going to protect everyone.”

“You can't do that,” He snapped. “You'll die.”

“Then I'll die to save them.”

A shell crashed into the barrier above them, showering them with stone shards

“You'll die for nothing. You are worth a thousand men, and you are not going to save that many with these theatrics. Now follow your orders, soldier.”

She pulled her arm away from him with a scowl. “I have a duty to my men, as few of them as are left. If I come back, you can kill me yourself if you like. But I came to fight this war to follow my conscience. And I will continue to do so until I die.”

With that, she leapt into the air, bouncing over the top of the damaged barricade and onto no man's land.