Multiple voices rang the same alarm with clear instructions. The soldiers of Garghent dropped to the ground.
The silence that followed was awful.
Then bullets caused the air to scream.
Then silence again.
“Chest hit! Marcarios is down!” Called a soldier.
“Status!” Another shouted back.
“He’ll live, body armor stopped the bullet from piercing!”
“We need cover!”
Hales was laying down trying to be still and invisible. If she drew out her Aspect now the snipers would take her life in an instant.
What to do?
The enemy marksmen were firing from a very far distance. Pushing the limits of any normal rifle.
A whole kilometer away she judged.
“They’re trying to keep the Specters out of range!” Another soldier shouted. The short grass reduced visibility by only a fraction. A trained sniper could make out targets based on slight visual cues, such as the abnormal rustling of grass or any minute movement.
Hales risked a glance up despite this.
The glint of a sniper scope reflected off the high prairie sun. But only one such glint.
“One scope!” Hales clamored.
“Head down!” A voice warned back.
Hales let her head drop with helmet facing front. A sound stopped her heart dead in its tracks, nearly literally.
A bullet slid into the ground centimeters from her prone body, the shell lost deep underground. A shell that could have ended everything.
“Crap.” Hales muttered. With little choice left after being spotted, she decided to use her power. Make an opening for her team and if lucky, survive the onslaught of fire.
A voice beat her to the punch.
“Synthesis!” Bregan called out from somewhere far to her right.
Using dirt and grass as his combination, Bregan the sorcerer stomped hard on the ground first. A wall of turf ruptured to protect him. Bullets made short work of it, but it bought him the time he needed.
With a yell he chopped the ground with the edge of his hand, keeping it parallel to the enemy’s position. A thin fissure formed along where he chopped, extending for over a hundred meters in a straight line.
Crouching low to get better leverage, and to reduce his frame as bullets sailed toward him, Bregan gripped the crevice with one hand on each edge. Heaving with mighty effort, Bregan pulled the ground apart. The entire fissure split wide open.
Bregan made a trench.
“Get in!” Though no one needed any verbal incentive.
A few soldiers fell in as the trench had formed, the rest either crawled or dove in.
Hales chose the latter and landed hard.
“Saccha!” Hales called out from her leaning position in the trench.
“Over here cap’n,” Saccha was crouch-walking through the trench and made his way to her.
“Gather our team, make sure no one is hit.”
“Aye.” It didn’t take long before her team assembled, wound free.
Unfortunately not all were so lucky. There was one casualty and another two wounded, Cull Marcarios among them.
Marcarios threw off his body armor and checked the bruise. Thankfully the shell didn’t puncture, otherwise he’d be breathing out through a whole in his lung.
“Long rangers set up!” He barked the order and coughed. His aide checked the bruise, it was far too tender to be anything benign.
“Likely a chipped rip, sir.” Marcarios only nodded in response. He assessed the situation. The trench might have saved dozens of lives, a force that consisted only of dozens.
Survive, gather intel, retaliate. That was the order of operations right now.
“Someone in Garghent must have leaked classified information to Daedal’s military.” Santiage observed. Hales turned to her tactician questioningly, but said nothing.
Hales had her own thoughts as to who the informant might’ve been. Now wasn’t the time for that though.
The sniper was joined by heavy machine gun fire. The swiftest peek over the edge of the trench was like staring into the face of death. Hales abstained this time from looking.
A friendly soldier set up his sniper far to the left. He had good camouflage and was well experienced enough in trench warfare to follow the flow of enemy fire and use the opening opportunities to sight out a target in an instant and fire a shot aimed true.
Trigger on the finger and eye to scope, he tensed and pulled his finger inward, squeezing the tight lever of the sniper rifle.
Before firing, his body burst into flames and his whole upper torso melted. The mass of flesh and bones that was his body dropped still. His rifle too was damaged beyond use.
The smell of burnt flesh stung the noses of all in the trench. Two Garghent soldiers dead.
“Enemy Specter! Fire type, Mancer class!” The sniper’s partner called.
Hales heard Corvan cursing. The sniper was from his team.
“I don’t have the range!” Corvan complained. Corvan’s Chorus Aspect would do more damage to those around him than it would to the enemy at such a distance away.
None of the Specters had the range to match the sniper, or the enemy Specter. Hales’ stars could easily be shot down by the time it traveled half the distance.
Uana’s ice didn’t have much range. Jillian merely had endless adrenaline. Xander wouldn’t risk using his Good Karma in this position with a sniper at the ready, especially considering the possibility that Daedal knows which Specters are on this mission.
Juy declared she couldn’t blind an enemy this far with her Moonblink, it was daytime anyways. Genjam was making shields with his Chaos Blue as the spears wouldn’t reach either.
“Dartan, start your Rule!” Genjam ordered.
“Already on it!” Dartan replied busily.
Hales wished they had Vandle here with Seeker or Magun with Tank or even Jid with his Hunter.
“We need to know who that fire Specter is!” A soldier said.
“Whoever they are, they’ve got visuals on us all.”
Hales listened in and let her mind work out a way to discover the mystery Specter.
“I’ve got a plan, I need someone with binoculars!” She called out. There was so much shouting and orders being thrown around and gun shots which sounded like thunder and Hales feared her voice wouldn’t carry.
A moment later a soldier responded. “I’ve got one! Need me over there?”
Hales looked to her right and saw a soldier waving his binoculars low.
“No, stay put!” Hales said before he started to crawl his way over.
“On my signal, find that Specter!” Hales commanded. The soldier looked to his captain, who was Xander, for approval. Xander said to trust her plan and to do everything exactly how she said.
Hales turned red, the weight of responsibility hitting her like a hammer blow.
This could easily go very wrong, as simple a plan as it is.
Hales drew out a planet and grew it to the size of a human head. She chose a planet with neutral colors, one that lacked any sort of saturated greens or blues. Keeping the planet under cover, she removed her helmet and set it on the planet. She had the size right and it fit believably enough.
“Three.” Hales lifted her finger with the barely rotating planet hovering above to peek over the edge of the trench. From a distance it should attract the attention of a sniper. Less than a second after displaying her decoy she shouted, “Now!”
The planet exploded from a sniper shot and the helmet flew off with it.
The soldier spent two seconds looking over the trench with his binoculars before diving down.
Shots followed his descent as he narrowly survived the two longest seconds of his life.
He cursed up a storm. Questions were launched his way in a rush but he ignored answering them until the jitters left him via profanity.
“The glint is coming from the Specter. He’s got his hands in a triangle, must be magnifying his vision or something.”
“That’s Edeno, the Loupe Aspect,” Marcarios explained, talking quieter so as not to aggravate his chest. “He can shape his hands and look through the gaps as if he was seeing through a lens. Like any magnification, he can use the sun to concentrate a beam of light on a target. And nothing’s faster than light so exercise caution.”
Most of the soldiers in line of sight of the melted corpse cast more anxious glances, now knowing who their enemy was and what they were capable of.
“So we to wait in this damn trench til’ nightfall!” One soldier suggested.
Marcarios shook his head. “We don’t have time to spare. Reinforcements will be coming, likely with heavy weaponry. We expected to have to hold off Daedal once the plant was captured, but if they knew we were coming as early as a day before, then they’ve already got more troops on the way.”
“So what’s the plan, Cull?”
Marcarios didn’t have to think about it. “We break through today.”
“We need to send return fire, a shoot and duck maneuver. Don’t stay up for more than a count of three and give a minute or two in between firing again. We need to take down Edeno and that sniper!”
Aye sir!” The soldiers chorused, invigorated now that they had a plan of action.
“Specters! We need to figure out how to get through no man’s land. We’ve got suppressing fire in the meantime.”
“I can make more trenches. We’d have a maze of trenches as we advance.”
“That would take too long, and no one would expect you to have the energy to make dozens more trenches like this.” Xander argued. The conversation between the captains and Specters was done across the trench, but some of the furthest Specters crawled closer.
Bregan scowled but didn’t have much to go on. His shoulders burned and cramped from opening the first trench.
“Here, I’m on to something!” Exclaimed Dartan. He was writing numbers in the air with his finger in a hurry. His time limit was up and the numbers disappeared as the incomplete Rule lacked a solution.
Dartan cursed. He was openly sweating and tried again.
“What is he trying?” Xander asked.
“He’s figuring out a way to make me fireproof.” Genjam said.
“You’re going out?” Uana asked, joining in.
“I’m going to use Cerulean Knight and give a proper counter attack. It can block bullets but Edeno’s heat would still fry me.” Genjam hid his fear well, but he was the only one with a decent chance of gaining ground.
Genjam was going to jump out of the trench.
“How are you going to shoot from a kilometer away, we haven’t been able to hit anything! Plus Edeno’s going to melt your gun if he doesn’t melt you first.” Corvan pointed out.
Genjam looked disheartened. “ But we need a way to get closer…”
Dartan cursed again at another failed attempt. The mathematical properties of fire were easy to amplify, but prevention from fire is a totally different equation.
“What if I use Guardian on you, Genjam?” Hido suggested. She could transfer damage from a friendly target back to herself as long as they remained in line of sight.
“The heat won’t kill you?” Corvan asked his tone giving away his skepticism, his experienced mind grating against the ridiculous plans his newbie peers came up with. Enemy gunshots increased around them.
“They’ve got more shooters! Five-hundred meters out! Barricade defenses!” A soldier shouted the update.
“Santiage, can you set up your turret?” Hales asked, a plan forming slowly in her brain. “We need time!”
“On it captain!” Santiage saluted. “Saccha, help me get the M2 mounted.”
“I’m going to freeze her.” Uana said, resuming the brainstorm. If Hido was sufficiently chilled when she used Guardian to transfer damage away from Genjam, then she could survive the heat. Hido’s power naturally gave her increased physical durability. With Uana’s Gale, there was no reason she couldn’t survive.
Corvan shook his head. “You don’t know how strong Edeno is! Cull Marcarios, stop them from getting themselves killed!”
Marcarios wanted to see where their plan was going. If they had survival down, what could they do next?
“Got it!” Dartan finally declared, a seemingly incomprehensible series of numbers and mathematical symbols floating in the air in front of him. “You’ve got less than five minutes of fire protection Genjam!”
Genjam clapped his hands together and locked his fingers together.
“Cerulean Knight!” His mass of Chaos Blue formed around him into a full suit of body armor, with spear and shield.
“Going up!” Genjam said. He hoisted himself over the trench. “Someone get me across no man’s land!”
Uana breathed a light layer of ice over Hido who was positioned so that she could see Genjam.
Hido shivered and never warmed with a single palm pointed at Genjam. Sniper shots bounced off of Genjam’s armor and Edeno’s beam of light didn’t melt through thanks to Dartan’s fire protection Rule.
“Ready!” Santiage said.
“Fire!” Commanded Hales
The heavy machine gun blasted serious bullets that could easily cover the kilometer length. With Genjam as a proper distraction, the M2 could offer real counter attacks.
Enemy fire died down as they had to adjust to Garghent’s sudden change of tactics.
“Now’s our chance!” Genjam shouted.
A broad spectrum of heat filled the air. The air became so thick and heavy that people started coughing. Perhaps not hot enough to kill though, the debilitating effects afflicted all the soldiers of Garghent.
“How is he doing that?” Asked one coughing soldier. Marcarios again explained, though not without coughing.
“Edeno makes a shape with his hand which he can pivot either inward or outward. Concave magnification spreads out light, convex narrows it.”
Uana held her breath, preparing to unleash an ice storm to cool the trenches down. She out of everyone was the most susceptible to overheating.
“No!” Hales screamed the warning to Uana. “Sudden cooling after intense heat can kill us!”
Uana flashed an annoyed look but kept her breath held. She had to breathe out soon. The pressure would eventually cause her lungs to implode if not released.
Marcarios’ explanation of Edeno’s power gave Hales an idea.
“Uana, breathe out at Genjam. Turn him into a solid block of ice!” Hales said in a rush, mindful of Uana’s growing discomfort.
Uana let out a steady and narrow stream of breath from her ice blue pursed lips. The concentration of frost built on Genjam, starting from his feet and working upwards. Having held her breath for almost two minutes, her Gale was extremely potent.
“Hey, wha-” Genjam froze into a block of ice. Pure, clean, blue ice.
The ice reflected light back at Edeno and the enemy position. After a moment, Edeno shut off his Aspect.
Daedal didn’t expect to have blinding light shining back at them, they would be momentarily stunned.
Such a powerful Aspect yet such an exploitable weakness. A mirror is all that was needed.
Uana coughed up blood. The thawed out Hido rushed to her side to transfer some of the lung damage to herself that Uana received from holding her Aspect in for too long as well as maintaining her Guardian on Genjam so that the extreme change in temperature wouldn’t kill him. Hido’s toughness was incredible.
“Charge!” Marcarios ordered. This was the best opportunity they would get.
Hales made a star and sent it to melt the ice encasing Genjam.
Santiage kept the suppressing fire going, with Saccha feeding the ammo belt. It was effective in stopping the sniper from firing. In fact, Santiage was sure the sniper had been hit.
“Hales, make a line of conductive planets!” Marcarious ordered.
“Coming right up,” Hales started to launch, one by one, small planets high in electrically conductive metals.
Most of the soldiers started running the distance. A few stayed behind with the wounded. Saccha grabbed his shotgun and joined the charge.
Bregan set his hand on the ground behind the thawing out Genjam. He looked around for a Specter to help. Jillian was already leading the charge with her Alacrity. Uana and Hido stayed behind.
“Corvan, over here!”
Corvan turned to the speaker and sprinted to Bregan as fast as possible.
“I’m launching Genjam in the air with a geyser, can you propel him forward with a sonic blast?”
Corvan nodded and unstrung his speakerphone. The instrument would serve to center his sound waves, and with enough force, hopefully blare Genjam into forward momentum.
“This won’t be enough. He’s got to travel a whole kilometer.” Corvan said realistically.
Hales approached. “I see what you are doing. Get him in the air Bregan, and we can move him the rest of the way.”
“You sure?” Corvan asked.
Hales ignored him. “Go Bregan!”
Gathering himself, Bregan pushed down hard and a moment later the ground exploded in front of him. Dirt and grass spewed up and Genjam was launched into the air along with it.
Hales had dozens of stars and planets out, all large and dense and spinning rapidly. She tethered the gravity to Genjam and threw her Solar at the enemy base.
At the same time Corvan yelled into his speakerphone. His Chorus Aspect along with the speakerphone amplified his voice to cataclysmic levels. Sound waves this loud and direct could normally kill someone but Genjam’s armor already proved strong enough to withstand melting from the beam of light. Dartan’s Rule for fire protection was for preventing heat damage to Genjam himself, his armor had been unaffected. Genjam could take the hit.
Color Aspects really are strong, thought Corvan.
The shockwave from the noise condensed the air so much that Genjam was pushed by the sound. Hales’ stars and planets pulled the airborne Genjam further, as gravity works most effectively with momentum.
Genjam thawed out in midair. Unaware what was happening, he suddenly found himself tumbling down into the enemy line. His classmates did it, they made him fly! Somehow.
With a shout of adrenaline and a heavy impact, Genjam landed on one knee leaving a crater in his wake. He rose at the same time a lightning bolt struck an arms length away.
“Fulmen.” Marcarios activated his lightning and shocked one of the nearby planets that Hales left for him. The zooming lightning connected to each planet in front of it. He created a chain of electricity.
“Boltspeed.” Marcarios focused and released a breath, emptying his mind and lungs. The air became so charged with electricity that grass in a small radius around him actually uprooted and began levitating as the static energy attracted the wheatstraw. The sky darkened as a grey cloud formed barely a hundred meters above them all.
Marcarios disappeared and traveled through his lightning, instantly appearing at Genjam’s side as he materialized from the bolt.
Genjam and Marcarios went to work before any of the other Garghent soldiers even made half the distance across no man’s land.
Marcarios used both shock and gun to deliver death. The unstoppable Genjam lanced his opponents with ease.
The area was clear. Ten Daedal soldiers dead.
“Good work.” Marcarios said grimly. Genjam was breathing too heavily to respond.
The rest of the Garghent force caught up after taking the enemy forward barricade. Only a dozen soldiers had been defending it.
“No sign of Edeno, sir.” A soldier said to the Cull.
“We’ll run a quick sweep.” Marcarios decided, “All teams, form up and search the plant. We need to find Edeno and begin preparations for defense. Enemy reinforcements will be here within twenty-four hours!”
Marcarios turned to one of his aides. “Gather the rest of them in the trenches. We’ve got a doctor who can attend to the wounded.”
“Yes sir!” The soldier started at a jog.
Hales and her team, minus Santiage who was still in the trench, began searching the plant.
The factory was massive, yet empty. The unused machinery was starting to rust. There were large quarries outdoors and closed off smelting chambers and other various operations that could go on indoors. Hales had never been in a plant before and the sheer size of all the equipment and machinery as well as the raw material piled together was daunting!
Hales could see how economically beneficial a plant of this size could be once restored.
Hales and her team were side by side with Juy’s team. The two were doing a sweep of the north side of the factory, the side farthest from where they entered.
No sign of Edeno inside any buildings.
“He’s going to be outside, with the sun.” Juy whispered.
Hales nodded and they slowly opened the exit gate.
Right outside, on a large cube of packaged and ready-to-ship building material, sat Edeno with crossed legs.
“Loupe.” He said casually before making a triangle with his hands. Light beamed from it and would have melted Juy’s face if one of her soldier’s hadn’t dove and tackled her to the ground out of harm’s way. That soldier had his legs melted off.
Edeno rolled backwards out of view as gunshots chased him.
Hales sprinted after him, along with her team and most of Juy’s squad.
Edeno turned a corner as more bullets chased after him.
A soldier warned Hales to slow down as Edeno could be preparing an ambush at the turn. She sprinted ahead anyways.
Hales dashed the corner without turning, running into the far wall. Edeno fired his beam of light but she dodged it merely by moving faster than he expected, sprinting straight as opposed to turning the corner at the initial pathway opening. A slow bend around the corner was the obvious method for turning into an expected ambush. Hales did the unexpected. The beam of light missed and she nearly broke her wrists catching her momentum on the wall.
Edeno grunted as he made the effort to move his hands with his beam activated. As the light got closer and closer to Hales, she flicked her wrist, sending a marble sized star out.
She didn’t know what would happen, certainly didn’t expect it. Neither did Edeno. How could they?
But something amazing happened.
When the tiny orange star entered into the invisible space of magnification Edeno’s hands created, the star imploded into a beam. Something likely equivalent to a gamma-ray burst.
The gamma-ray burned out one of Edeno’s eyes and continued to seer a scar from his eye socket down to his chin.
But he didn’t feel pain right now. Hales stopped dead in her tracks and the two locked gazes.
All the petty and senseless politics behind the battle meant nothing. Before anything they were both enlightened Savants. Power was their ally, their master.
With such a variety of Aspects and the diverse applications of use, it is an occasional happenstance that two Specters should meet and discover the power of fusing two complementary abilities.
Solar and Loupe synergized with incredible potential. They were like the twin of star crossed lovers, star crossed warriors. Hales froze at the thought of their combination. Edeno breathed a barely audible sigh of wonder.
Liem the torturer tackled Edeno and subdued him. Edeno didn’t fight back and let his body relax as Liem tied the Specter.
Hales took in his features finally. An older man, perhaps early thirties, rough beard and dark brown hair. Strong jaw and proportionate nose, ears and eyes.
“Make sure he lives,” Hales commanded absently. Her squad exchanged glances with each other but didn’t question her orders.
A soldier from a different squad found her team. “Orders from Cull Marcarios!”
“Let’s hear them.” Said Saccha, after Hales wouldn’t acknowledge the soldier.
“Enemy reinforcements are in sight. They’ve got tanks and at least a couple platoons.”
“E.T.A?” Saccha asked.
“Three hours. The Cull wants to start setting up defenses. He’s making the call back to base command for extraction. So we just have to hold out for a couple days.”
Hales couldn’t shake the daze. If someone could cause a true gamma-ray burst of her stars, trigger an unstable nuclear fusion… Then, is it possible to also collapse a star into a black hole?
Hales shivered. The bound up Edeno grinned.