Chapter 36


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Celeste opened her eyes slowly. Through her eyelids, it had seemed abnormally bright but as she opened them, she found she wasn't blinded. The light above her was like a half-opened eye. She blinked her eyes a few times to check she did have them fully open, but the light remained the same shape. It was a warm, deep orange. A sky as the sunset.

As she focused, she made out the rocks around her that formed the eye. Sticking out from the harsh rocks were struggling little trees, reaching up to cling to the light that was dripping down to them. She'd seen this scene before, just from a different angle. How had she fallen into a ravine? She didn't recall doing that but then a lot of what had happened in the minutes before she was knocked out slipped had her mind.

She didn't linger on trying to remember and instead continued to consider her surroundings from where she lay. Sounds. Water. Tumbling down and crashing into a pool somewhere to her left. She wasn't wearing boots. Her legs below the knee had been placed into a cool flowing stream. The cold water spread coolness through her blood, across her skin, and into her bones.

She turned her head left to watch the waterfall. It came from above the ravine itself, possibly it was what has formed this very shape in the rock. She hadn't thought about erosion, about how the landscape formed, since a short course on basic geography she had taken. It was only looking back clearly she could see how that was intended for military use. As all of her classes had been.

Turning the other way, she saw a figure kneeling and facing away from her. As their head rose up, she recognised the headscarf of Melanie. Celeste heard the other woman's voice carried around the ravine, quiet words in her native tongue, before she leant forwards again. She watched with interest. Straining to listen closer, she still couldn't make out the words Melanie continued to say. Even if she could discern the sounds, it was unlikely she knew enough of the words to parse the meaning.

Melanie sat up again and let out a small sigh before beginning to stand. Celeste tried to prop herself up on her arm and speak to Melanie. She managed to open her mouth but the only thing that came out was a pained groan. She looked down and noticed the bandaging on her arm.

“You should probably rest a bit longer,” Melanie said without turning. She bent down and scoped up a compass then started rolling a piece of fabric she'd been knelt on. “You're lucky you only got shot twice. I cleaned the wounds as best as I could, but I think your immune system can handle it anyway.”

“What happened?” Celeste asked, realising how dry her throat was. The sensation like sandpaper running along the soft skin of her throat sent her into a coughing fit.

Melanie dropped the fabric and hurried over to Celeste. She swiped a water skin up and, holding the back of Celeste's head gently, pressed it to her lips.

“I was hoping you could tell me what happened,” Melanie said gently, meeting Celeste's eyes.

She panted for a moment after gulping back the water. “My memory is a little foggy right now. Where are we anyway? How did we get here?”

“You have been out for longer than is healthy. I assume your body is just recovering. Sorry, I didn't mean to hit you so hard.” She put the waterskin back into a pack and stood up, looking up to where the narrow slither of light was pouring in. “A hole in the ground. I got you away from there and I needed somewhere we might be harder to find. Plus, it was cool down here. I figured you needed somewhere to soothe and clear your head out.”

Celeste sat up now, careful not to put weight on her right arm, and looked around them. The stream flowed down the ravine into a smaller tunnel. The ground was mostly loose gravel, no trees even attempting to grow this far down. And all around them were the ruins of a camp. It was like a graveyard for heavy canvas. Ruins was the wrong word, she realised. The tents didn't look like they had been assembled and abandoned down here but instead thrown down here. The frames were sticking out at random angles she couldn't imagine happening naturally.

“And all of this?” She asked, motioning around.

“The Itsoparians, I believe. They must have realised they couldn't carry everything during a retreat and dumped it here where it wasn't going to be retrieved.” Melanie strolled over to an abandoned chest, part of it caved in from the fall, and kicked open the lid. “Some weapons and equipment but there are records in here. I guess they didn't have time to discriminate what they needed when they were fleeing.”

“So, we're in friendly territory?”

Melanie paused before turning to face Celeste. “I'm not sure there is any more friendly territory for you.”

Memories started coming back to her more clearly at that. The officer below her as she'd killed him. Gunshots. Teo's dead body. She shook her head to clear the image away, but it didn't work. His face haunted her mind as she tried to find the words she needed to say. “So, I guess you were hoping I would explain why I killed them?”

“It is not something I expected you to do. It's the sort of thing you would have killed me for.” She moved to sit on a larger rock, staring at Celeste with unreadable eyes.

Celeste took a large gulp before shrugging. “I think I might have made a mistake.”

You did not. It was him, a monster you should have no remorse for.

The reassurance of her spirit did nothing to actually comfort her. “I believed that the officer was a soldier I had seen before. We were, this was after the last winter, we were returning to camp and we stopped at an occupied village to resupply. But we found the soldiers had been...” She inhaled sharply, trying to find the words to describe it.

Melanie rested a hand on Celeste's shoulder. “Don't worry, I can guess, you don't have-”

“No!” Celeste cried, yanking her shoulder away and feeling a jolt of pain run down the wounded limb. “They were brutalising the place. Butchered the soldiers there, raped women, treating it like their own petty kingdom. That man, if he was one of them, he deserved worse than that.”

“If?” Melanie queried.

“It is possible he was just a random soldier. No more guilty than the rest of us.” Celeste could feel Melanie's eyes on her, but she didn't dare look up to meet them. She focused on the water, watching it running slowly through the ravine. She splashed her feet for a moment, watching the ripples drift away from her.

“Not as guilty as us,” Melanie said after a few moments. It was Celeste's turn to try and meet eyes that would not look back now. “Being a soldier, fighting with all you have, you have to go out of your way to do things more terrible than we do without thinking.”

“You know, the first General I served, Pesaro, he died in a cavalry charge after you flooded his trenches. He told me, and I never understood at the time, that wizards shouldn't be fighting on the frontlines. He didn't let any wizards under him fight there. And I got why after a while. He lost a son to wizards, he didn't want the same thing to happen to another boy in war, to die in the same fear.” Celeste pulled her feet out of the water and spun around to look Melanie directly in the face now.

“But he was wrong. He was stupid. What we can do, it is terrifying. If I could undo everything I've done then I would. But I've watched men charging into gun fire. Seen them ripped apart by explosives, seen them choked and drowned in clouds of death. Maybe there was a time, a thousand years ago, when we were the most terrible thing a man could meet on a battlefield.”

“I thought I was fighting this war to save people,” Melanie said bitterly. Her face tensed before she reached up to wipe a tear away. “All I've done is kill and maim and leave things worse than I've found them. And in all that I haven't achieved my own aims even. I've just been another weapon in the arsenal, right beside the artillery fire.”

A silence fell between the two of them then. What was there left to say? Celeste realised she'd shown all of herself to Melanie by now. Everything she was capable of, all the monstrous acts she could commit and keep going. All that remained was to share the litany of their crimes with one another. It was better than being stuck with them bouncing around in one's own head.

“Surviving, that's the worst part for me,” She said eventually.

“What do you mean?” At last, their eyes met.

“Seeing all of my men die and yet here I am. For so long now, the only purpose I've felt was protecting them. That's not something I can do. I can only kill. I thought that was protecting people. Now I have to survive and do what? There's nothing left I can do, but they had so much more to give. So much left to do with their lives. They were just children.”

“We are just children,” Melanie was quiet. “We were. Neither of us chose this fight. I had to, for my family and my people, it was my duty.”

“I wish I hadn't known about this war. I wish it had seemed like someone else's business. Because it was. Ofprovo is going to send missionaries and we are fighting to kill people who did nothing to us. I should have listened to Sabina, ignored this and lived my own life.”

“Why did you come to fight then?” Melanie seemed to tense up as she spoke, her tone curter. “If you knew you were fighting for nothing.”

“I didn't know that for certain,” Celeste said in exasperation. “And I thought I was protecting people. But I couldn't do anything. I'm just one person.”

One wizard. You should have listened to me, you've always thought too small.

“Shut up,” She muttered.

Melanie looked on, clearly understanding that Celeste wasn't talking to her.

You know I'm right. You could have won this war. If it were won then no one else would have had to die. Now you have all this blood soaking you and for nothing.

“Shut up!” She shouted, grabbing her head. “I don't need your sheepshit. I need...” She panted, the pain in her feeling almost overwhelming for a moment. Her arm was aching, her lungs were burning, and her head was tearing itself apart rather than letting her breathe.

She leapt directly into the air, ignoring a cry from Melanie. She pulled herself up the rocky face of the ravine, wincing when she pulled with her right arm. In a few seconds she had broken through to the surface. She was in woodlands. She needed to go higher. Leaping up again, she found herself above the treeline, balancing on a single branch.

Out west, she could see the fires of war raging on still. A world come apart at the seams. Men dying out there, bleeding and suffering, and her heart only hurt more. She could not save them, not all of them, not all the innocent. And did guilt even matter anymore? She was no arbiter of morality.

So instead, she did the most natural thing of all, something she hadn't done in far too long. She felt the winds. Let them blow over her.

“Tell me...” She whispered. “Tell me what I am supposed to do. You've never failed me before.” That might have been a lie, but when all else was failing her, faith was all she had left. It had brought her here and it would return her to safety.

After a few moments more, she jumped back and fell into the ravine again. She landed heavier than she'd intended to, sending water flying up around her. It hung in the air for a moment with her loose hair.

“Compass,” She said, holding out her hand. She felt the cool metal disc land in her palm and glanced at it. She wasn't an expert navigator, but she knew how to orientate herself. “East-south-east,” She muttered.


“Are there any maps around here?” Celeste asked, springing into action suddenly. She needed this, she couldn't stay still.

“Yeah, I think so,” Melanie said, still sounding confused.

Together they dug through the scattered chests until Melanie exclaimed that she had found one. They laid it out rough parchment and Celeste laid the compass on top of it, pointing with her finger.

“So, we're about here, right? Then if we just-”

“No,” Melanie cut her off. “We're here. Let me do this, what bearing do you want to follow exactly?”

Celeste checked the compass and read off the bearing and Melanie got to work. She moved with quick precision as she marked the line the Wind told her to follow. She had a sinking feeling of where the line would lead them, but as it was drawn on the map, she felt the determination welling up inside her.

“This leads us right through the heart of Laociena. What exactly were you trying to figure out?” Melanie asked, examining her carefully.

“Where the wind wants to lead me. I see it now.”

“You can't mean...”

“I've got to go to Teldomia.”

I told you that you have been thinking far too small. Maybe now that the Wind agrees you will listen to reason.

“What business do you have at the royal capital?” Melanie spoke hesitantly, but not with confusion. With fear.

Celeste stood, gathering her mind for a moment before nodding. “I've spent all this time fighting a pointless war and failing to save those around me. I will end this war and I will make sure no one else will suffer like this. I'm going to kill the king.”

There was a pause, where Celeste began to question how stupid her plan now sounded.

“I'm coming with you,” Melanie said, standing to meet her gaze.


“There's nothing left for me to do here. I've failed. The least I can do is come and help you see this whole thing through.”

“You have a homeland to go back to still. I can't keep you here fighting my battles for me.”

“You're not keeping me here, this is a choice. My choice. I've not been given many of those in my life, don't try to deny me this one.”

“And your people? The Ofprovians trying to convert them?”

“I can't fix that myself. And I don't want to return, at least not yet. I am so soaked with blood, I fear I would bring nothing but more violence back home.” She turned her eyes down for a moment, before looking back at Celeste. They burnt, cold and determined. “We were friends before all this. I don't know what we really are now, but I want to help you.”

Celeste nodded. She couldn't exactly turn down help from any sources at this point, particularly not someone as skilled as Melanie.

She will drag you down. This is your burden to bear.

Of course, it was. But friendship was a burden too. To be known for what she had done, that pain wasn't going to leave her. She had worked through all the pain in her life so far, there was just a little further to fight before she would finish what she was put here to do.

They scoured the wreckage for any remaining supplies, changing from their military uniforms into some baggy civilian clothes they managed to find. They took weapons and wrapped them up to disguise them and packed the preserved food that was still edible into two packs. Finally, Melanie wrapped up the cloth and compass she had been using when Celeste had awoken.

Without a final backwards glance, they began the long march East, to kill a king.