Chapter 34

As new weaponry is developed, new tactics always appear both to utilise that technology and to counteract it. This battle is perpetual, leaving all new technologies nullified by the ones that came before. There is still a window, of course, where new technologies are at their deadliest, and that is where tragedy lies.

The Tragedy of ****: A New History of the 1570 Holy Wars by ****. Published 1730.

The next month of war was a blur in Celeste's mind. She hadn't realised, due to lack of anything to compare him to, that Tosetti was very sparing in his use of Celeste. All the wizards under his command really. It was probably a simple logical decision. If you don't give wizards ample time to rest then you risk creating a much bigger problem for yourself. But since she barely had time to soothe these days, the kindness of his actions spoke to her instead.

She barely got a day without another mission. Sometimes alone, sometimes leading a charge of men against enemy positions. These didn't seem like the careful plans Tosetti had left behind. Instead, there was an impatience to it all. Rumour was that the general whose army reached the Itosparians capital first would be lavishly rewarded by the king, which did explain the rush they seemed to be in.

Older tactics weren't working as well, Celeste had started to realise. The enemy had larger amounts of bolt loading guns every day, and the ammunition to keep them functioning. She began to pay attention to the reports her General received, slipping them off his desk when he wasn't paying attention, which was most of the time. He barely seemed to scan the reports she gave him anyway.

It painted an unsettling picture. The Itsopasarians were becoming incredibly effective at raiding supply lines. Specifically, those carrying the newer Ofprovian guns. She had questioned this but was, obviously, ignored by the General. The Ofprovians don't want any help, he said, they knew what they were doing.

Yes, that was very clear, they knew just how to protect their supply lines, Celeste thought as she listened to bullets whizzing over her head. Sat in mud with the sun beating down on them, she began to wonder why she hadn't just run from the war already.

She poked her head over the top of the trench, scanning the horizon line for just a moment, before a bullet nicked the side of her head. She ducked down again, placing her hand on the wound. It was a shallow graze. What little blood was welling up would soon be gone.

“Are you alright?” Teo asked, crouching beside her.

“Of course.” She nodded, trying to give him a brave smile. “I'm a wizard, we're built to survive.” With that, she popped up again, levelled her rifle, and shot an enemy in the head.

She tried not to let the image of it into her mind. Before the shot had even travelled through all of the man's head, she had ducked back down, hearing more bullets speed past her.

“See, and a good shot.” She exchanged guns with Teo, letting him reload the spent rifle while she considered their next move. “We've got to advance soon. I don't fancy being caught in an artillery shower.”


“We don't have any cavalry to try charging with. We don't have enough manpower to hold them down and advance at the same time. But if we can get over there, that should break the whole line.”

“Do you have any long-ranged powers you've been keeping from us all this time?” Teo asked with a pained laugh.

“No. I can move fast but...” She considered for a moment, feeling inside herself. Feeling her feelings. It was a difficult thing to consider. The more empowered your spirit was the braver you would feel. The more reckless. Yeah, I can make it, you would think. She had to push through that and consider it logically. “I can't do much before I reach my limits.”

“Is it time to dig in? Or make a tactical retreat, Captain?” Teo asked.

She shook her head. “There must be something we can do. What sort of supplies do we have to work with?”

“Explosives,” Teo said casually, slipping their pack off the back to look through it.

“Why didn't you say?”

“I don't have any fuses. Even if we could get it over there, there's no way to be sure it would go off when you want it to.”

She sometimes forgot how skilled he'd become with explosives. “They would set off if I shot them though, right?” She asked, checking her rifle.

“Yes, obviously.” Teo looked up at her, meeting her eyes with concern. “But to get an angle on that, you'd have to put yourself in direct danger.”

“It wouldn't be the first time.” She grinned, reaching out her hand. “Pack them all together for me. And give me your rifle as well.”

With a rifle slung over each arm, Celeste was ready to make the attempt. As soon as the explosion went off, the men were to begin the charge. She picked up the bundle of explosives to examine them again. They were packed into tight burlap bags, tied together loosely. They should, if all worked as intended, fly apart as they exploded, creating a larger effect. And hopefully they wouldn't fly into the no man's land.

She gave the signal and men up and down the trench raised bits of wood and metal up over the top. Bullets started flying, pinging off the decoys. Celeste seized the moment and leapt into the air. The world rushed away from her. She forgot, sometimes, just how good that sensation of freedom felt. What it was like to be unbound by the world around her.

But she had a job to do. She threw the explosives with all her strength and watched them spin towards the enemy trench. It was a small window. If she waited too long, she was just going to get shot out of the air. But the explosion wouldn't have any effect until it was over the trench.

She shouldered one of the rifles and took aim. Firing the gun flung her backwards through the air, but she knew how to keep herself steady as she moved. More importantly, the shot was already on its way by the time she was knocked out of position. The explosion roared in the sky, spreading out across a huge section of the enemy trench. She'd shot it when it was still high above the trench so it would confuse and disorientate more than maim. Was that kinder?

She threw the spent rifle behind her and brought the second one up and over her shoulder, firing it behind herself to boost her forwards. She started to drop from the air. As she hit the ground, she carried on the momentum and broke into a sprint. The soldiers were running alongside her, rifles and swords at the ready.

For a moment she was caught up in the rush of it. The sick excitement of that battle charge. The cries of excitement or terror, or both at once. No. She couldn't let her emotions get the best of her, that's what it wanted. She drew her swords and sped up, easily outpacing her men. She had to get into that trench before the enemy started firing again. It was her duty to protect them.

The bolt loading guns turned out to be less of an advantage at a close range. In the time it took to pull back the bolt, Celeste could close the distance between her and a man. In less than half an hour, the front line trench had been cleared out. They had met an impasse in trying to break into the backline trenches. However, that wasn't such a pressing concern. As shells began to harmlessly sail over them, they knew they would be safe for a while longer.

“Quick thinking, Captain,” Her commander was telling her.

Celeste found it difficult to listen to her commanders for very long anymore, but she nodded along to his praise.

“I'm going to have you in charge of leading the next advance as well then. We have a...” He consulted a pocket watch. Celeste held her own through her jacket. “An hour, I would imagine, before they recalibrate. Be ready to move before that.”

“Sir,” She said quietly, returning his salute before he turned and headed down the trench to inspect the state of the men.

She breathed out heavily and checked the time. It would be good to keep moving. Sitting still was becoming even more of a chore of late. And yet a chance to rest her weary body was all she could dream of. She considered her surroundings, trying to figure out how to best soothe herself. Being caught without much magic left wasn't ideal.

“Good news?” Teo asked.

She hadn't even noticed him approaching her. Had he approached or had he been waiting?

“We've got new orders. We move within the hour. Is there anything you wanted?” She asked, motioning for him to walk with her as she looked for somewhere to rest. They walked down the trench, past men slumped on the mud breathing shallow breaths of relief. And men working still, removing the enemy bodies as best they could. There were still supplies to be looted, particularly the enemy firearms.

“Not exactly. You are my Captain so I do need to come to you if I need to know my orders.”

“You really shouldn't look to me for that. I'm just trying to get us through the last of this.”

“I understand that. But I-”

He was cut off by an explosion above them. It sounded like a shell impacting, the vibrations running through the air and into the ground below them. Every soldier around them looked up together to see an explosion, not of fire and heat, but of smoke. There was a moment when Celeste thought that it was just a large cloud above them. The colour was wrong though. A sickly green, or maybe yellow, like the seeping puss of an infected wound.

It hung above them for a few seconds as though riding the winds, before it began to fall. It crept down towards them in an ever-accelerating cascade. More explosions echoed around. On all sides, they were being flooded with bile clouds.

“What is that?” Teo said, stunned.

Celeste was at a complete loss. It was like nothing she'd ever learnt about. “Something I think we should run away from.” If it was another weapon of war, it was something they should get away from. It looked like soothing would have to wait.

There was a commotion behind them. Celeste spun to see the commander pushing through the men, starting to shout. “We've got to retreat, now! Come on! Stop standing there! How did this happen?”

“What is happening, sir?” She asked, watching as the panicking officer scrambled out of the trench.

“Not now!” He shouted as he started running.

Celeste thought he had gone mad as she watched him sprinting out in the open. She assumed he was going to get shot. Instead, another shell exploded above him. He kept moving but the cloud descended before he could get out from under it.

The screams were one of the worst sounds Celeste had ever heard. Garbled like she was listening through water. The clouds were something evil, a weapon worse than being torn apart by explosives. It was too thick to see through, and even sound had a difficult time working through it.

Seeing the officer die sent chaos through the remaining soldiers. Men began scrambling out of the trench as though that might save them. The clouds were rolling along the ground now. They moved slower horizontally, but not as slow as the men anticipated. They ran for the areas of clear air that remained but soon they were forced to move through the thick clouds instead. There was coughing and sputtering and screaming. It was hard to say if any of them made it through.

“Look away,” Celeste cried out to the soldiers who were watching in terror. Action, danger. Terror. At least that kept her mind acting. “We won't save them or ourselves by staring.” She looked up and tried to assess the situation. “It's not spreading too fast once it's on the ground. Let's move west, where less of the shells exploded and it's clearer. We might be able to wait this out.”

And so, they began to move. A shuffling run through the trampled mud of the trenches. Celeste kept to the back of the group as they zig-zagged along the land. The trench had been better established than their own, supplies and structures impeding their progress. Men stumbled, exhausted from the days of battle before this. She pulled along the ones should could, putting their arms around stronger men to keep them all going.

Finally, a call came from the front of the group came that they couldn't go any further. Celeste went to see the problem. They were surrounded. The clouds had rolled in ahead of them. They could go no further, only consolidate themselves. Outside of the trench, the land had been consumed by the clouds as well.

The soldiers huddled in, a silence falling over them. Celeste stood by, watching them mourning their own deaths. She didn't have the heart to offer hope. There wasn't a way out she could see either. Several of the men were looking over letters or drawings. The small tokens of their families, their lovers.

Celeste took out the pocket watch again. She ran her thumb over the golden cover. It was gilded, she assumed, she knew golden should be heavy. But the material didn't matter. Just as the tattered paper of a letter didn't matter. Clicking it open, she could feel the mechanisms within it moving rapidly. Every piece knowing its part in the machine. But what mattered was where it came from. It was a gift from Sabina, and a promise. That they would meet again.

She found Teo stood at the edge of their safe zone, staring into the putrid cloud. He didn't look worried or intense, just relaxed. It was an expression that concerned her more than any other would have done.

“I didn't think death would be so beautiful.” He didn't bother turning to face her as he spoke.

She gave him a sideways look. “You think this is beautiful?”

“I don't know, the way it rolls along. It reminds me of water.”

“Much deadlier.”

“Drowning isn't so hard. I knew a kid, when I was...Well, it doesn't matter now.” He sighed slowly before straightening up. “Are you going to be on your way then?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I know you can get out of this fine.”

Celeste turned to him, disgust on her face. “You think I'm just going to leave you here to die.”

“It's your best option. If we're lucky it will dissipate but you shouldn't wait around on our behalf.”

“Teo,” She said, grabbing hold of his arms. “I am not leaving you here. If we all die here, so be it. But I have failed you enough already. If I die it won't be without trying.”

“You couldn't have done any better.” His voice was reassuring but his eyes betrayed the truth.

She gently rested her palm on his cheek, wiping away a tear with her thumb. “Listen to me, soldier, I am still your Captain.” She was reassuring herself, really, asserting her power over the situation. “We are going to find a way out of this.” She spun to face the encroaching cloud again. “Right, what options do we have? Could we try burning it away?” Vague memories of medical lessons played in her mind. Cleansing with fire was a traditional way to deal with illness, maybe something similar could work here.

“Do you have a way to do that? Anyway, I've heard about explosive gases that are being developed. If this went up, I don't think there's a chance of survival.”

“Fine. Let me think.” She ran her hand down her face, pulling the skin taut for a moment as she examined their current enemy. “It flows. Moves down.”

“That's what things do.”

“Yes, things are pulled by gravity. But clouds don't sink. Which makes it heavier than the air around it.” She stepped closer to it and waved her hand, creating an air current that disrupted the uniform flow of it. “What if we could create enough force to send it back into the air? It might disperse up there, or it might stay up there just long enough for us to make a getaway.”

“There's some spare munitions around here, if we put some coverings around them, we could direct the force.”

“If I make a gravity free area, big as I can, just for a moment, that should give us the maximum movement.”

“It wouldn't be a big window to move still.” Teo bit his lip, but there was a smile there, ever so slight.

“I don't have much magic left to work with...” She paused, considering. “If we time it perfectly, I would only need a single instant of magic.”

“I can put together some fuses so we can time it. I managed to scrounge some up, I had them in my-” His placed his hands on his shoulders, reaching for his pack. “I left it when we ran.”

Celeste breathed out heavily. Manually lighting explosives would be...messier, in all ways. If they timed it wrong, she could have no effect or simply kill herself in the process.

You still have time to run. Their lives aren't worth ours.

“They are worth infinitely more,” She spat as she began to unbutton her jacket.

“What are you-”

“I'm going to get the fuses. You have everyone else set up the explosives.” She pulled the jacket off and pressed it over her mouth, seeing how tightly she could hold it.

“You'll die,” He said, standing in her way.

“It's our best chance. I'm a wizard, there's a good chance I can survive long enough. If I don't breath any of that stuff in...It might help.”

“Put that back on.” He started to take off his own jacket. “It might damage the skin too. You should keep on all the layers you can.”

Celeste was stunned for a moment before smiling, taking the jacket from him. “Thank you.”

He pulled her into a brief hug which she happily returned. “Make it back.”

“I won't let you down now.” She pulled the spare jacket around her head, using a sleeve to cover her nose and mouth. “Now go. We don't have long.”

She watched him jog back to the others for a moment, then turned and plunged into the clouds.

The world shifted colour in an instant, like at the hour of twilight. The sickly yellow was hard to fully see through. Distinct objects melted into vague shapes. And the pain. Her covered skin didn't feel too bad, but her eyes were on fire. She blinked rapidly, making them water but that did little to clean them out.

She bit her tongue and pushed through the water. Looking through the dense clouds and the tears in her own eyes, she managed to make out various bags and packs. She would have a way to go, but distance was hard to judge within the cloud. Every step she wanted to assume she'd gone far enough and leave. But that would do no one any good.

You still have time to quit this stupid endeavour. We have life. Isn't that what matters? That pocket watch...

Celeste ignored anything the spirit said. The pocket watch was a promise to return to Sabina. But it was a promise that the her that returned was the same as the one that left for the war. She couldn't face herself, never mind Sabina, if she didn't fight to save people.

It soon became clear that the jacket wasn't keeping all of the clouds out. She was breathing heavily, sucking in small amounts of it. It burned her throat and mouth. She could feel her lips forming small blisters. Inhaling it unprotected would be unimaginable agony, she realised. Like breathing in fire. Like being eaten from within.

She pushed that thought from her mind as she kept searching. Any bag she came across, she flipped open and felt inside. Finally, she felt them. At least, she hoped they were. Long pieces of thread, tougher than any she was used to. It had to be. She grabbed the bag and turned around, breaking into a sprint.

How long had she been walking through the fog? How far had she gone in that time? It started to worry her as she ran. She should make it out quicker, shouldn't she? But what if she had got turned around? She could be running deeper into death. Or worse, it could have spread completely in this time. She would be running until she died. Her grip on the jacket was getting looser. More of the cloud seeped in, trying desperately to reach her lungs.

Maybe it was only her years at Tricapon that saved her. Her body had adapted to breathing the thin air. Had she taken deeper breaths down here, she might have inhaled too much. But as she broke through the cloud and out into the world of colour and life again, she didn't contemplate that fact. She just thanked the Wind she was alive.

“Gusts and Gales,” She managed to cough out.

Teo was waiting for her. Had he been waiting the whole time, or had he just heard her coming? She tossed him the pack and he silently took it, getting to work.

She focused on coughing out the last of the cloud. As she did, she noticed she hadn't left it completely behind. Motes of yellow clung to her clothes still. She tore the jacket off and tossed the two contaminated pieces of clothing into the cloud, just remembering at the last minute to get her pocket watch out. She held it tightly as she stumbled up to Teo.

“You going to make it?” He asked, placing a hand on her shoulder.

“Of course,” She said between hacking coughs. “Just...light the fuses. Tell me when.”


The men were assembled at the edge of the trench. It was probably the most dangerous place to stand. They had placed the explosives in a hole in the ground, angled so that it should clear a path directly to safety. That was the idea, of course. Though being nearer to the explosives was a risk, the head start was all they were after.

Celeste watched the spark burn along the fuse. The countdown to their escape. Or death. She tried not to think about their chances.

“Ten seconds,” Teo announced.

She flipped open her watch and watched the seconds tick away with terror. She didn't know the exact distance they had to cover, so she would just make the zone as big as possible. But for only a few seconds. The amount she would empower her spirit scaled exponentially so she couldn't risk any more than that.

Three. Two. One. She felt the world around them vanish for just an instant. Gravity no longer held them to the fragile planet they were on and all of them were free. From the war, from reality. Magic was always easier when you can evoke the emotion naturally. And she longed for her freedom again so deeply.

Then the explosion happened. The ground shook and everyone was sent floating into the air. But so, was the cloud. A huge slice of clean, breathable air was cut, like an ocean parting. She would like to see an ocean one day. And that could still happen.

She released the magic, gravity returned. She felt lightheaded. Everything felt...well, so much at once. She was overjoyed that the plan had worked. There was so much waiting for her out there still. Gripping tighter to the watch, she took the first step forward and leapt out of the trench.

“Quickly, no one else dies today.”