Hales came to at the crack of dawn. Saccha eased her down. Apparently she had been hauled across the grassy plain for hours. Her memory was foggy and her vision spotty.
“Hit ya head, cap’n. Passed out all night.”
Hales groaned and felt around her scalp. She found a sticky and tender lump under the cover of her hair.
“Drink some water.” Espen the medic handed her a canteen. Hales accepted it and drank deeply.
The fog around her eyes started to clear but the headache only intensified.
Hales heard some hushed arguing and remembered to observe her surroundings.
Saccha and Esepen were by her side. Corvan and Santiage were the ones engaged in quiet debate on the far side of their barebones camp. Purposefully away from her.
Cursten and a few soldiers from Corvan’s squad were in the center counting rations.
Liem and another soldier were talking casually off on another side.
Corvan had lost two squadmates in the previous day’s fighting. Everyone was accounted for except for two others. Ava the terrainer and the helicopter pilot.
Hales looked to Saccha, who read her mind and answered first. “Ava’s out scoutin’ and the chopper pilot died in the crash.”
Hales nodded and turned to Espen for a more detailed explanation.
“The good pilot angled the chopper nose first in his landing. It’s an emergency landing that increases the chances that the crew will survive and all but guarantees the pilot’s death. You hitting your head was the most serious injury any of us received.”
Hales took in the information. They were lucky to be alive, or rather they owed their luck to a pilot who sacrificed himself for a bunch of strangers. Hales felt guilty because she knew that kind of sacrifice wasn’t anything she could mimic.
“Saccha here carried you the whole way, probably ten kilometers from where we crashed.”
Saccha picked up the story from there.
“We had to cut east. Deadal’s got an army ten times the size we faced on the march to Garghent. Our route home’s been altered to say the least.”
“Most of our supplies and ammunition had to be left behind. My medical equipment got ruined in the impact as well.” Espen said.
“What’s our plan of action then?” Hales asked.
“Not sure yet. Captain Corvan and Santiage are arguing over our options.” Espen explained.
“Well captain, further to the east is a desert. North is towards Deadal’s borders and they’ve got a line of troops west of us going south to Garghent.”
“Surrounded on all sides,” summed up Saccha.
Espen continued, “on top of that they know we’re out here. They’ve got search parties scouring the area.”
“We’ve lost ‘em for the time being.” Saccha pointed out.
“Corvan wants to go south as fast as possible and reach Garghent before Daedal’s army does. Santiage wants to stay put until you’ve recovered.”
“Which will take how long?”
Espen paused for a second. “Honestly you received a pretty severe concussion. Realistically you should stay inside a dark room for at least a week.”
“But we don’t have a week.” Hales summed up.
“Or a dark room.” He agreed. “That’s the argument they’re having.” Espen finished.
Corvan and Santiage noticed Hales was awake at the same time and went silent. They stood and approached her.
“How are you feeling, captain?” Santiage asked.
“Like my brain is being wrung out the way you would a towel.”
Santiage turned to Corvan, “Captain Ailor needs to rest. We all need to.”
“We don’t have food, water or ammunition to survive for weeks.” Corvan argued.
“Why don’t we split up? Corvan you can take your squad and head back to Garghent, tell them we are alive and behind by a few days.” Hales offered.
He shook his head. “I’m not leaving you and your squad to die out here.”
“We have Ava. We can live off the land well enough.” Hales countered.
“There are at least a dozen search parties out there looking for us, I’m more concerned you’ll be shot.”
“All the more reason to split. Smaller groups are harder to find.”
“And easier to attack.”
“There’s only twelve of us anyways, already a pretty small group.”
“I’m not losing another soldier!” Corvan snapped sternly.
“Then you’ll have to wait.” Hales said equally as stern. “Give me three days and I’ll be ready.”
Espen gave a look of disapproval but stayed silent. All things considered, they would be lucky to even have three days at this spot.
Corvan relented and accepted her conditions.
“We’ll let you rest now, captain.” Santiage said as he signaled Corvan, both of whom walked away to discuss more strategy.
Hales lay back and draped a blanket over her head to block the morning sun.
Weariness overwhelmed her and she faded to sleep.
It was too hot to stay asleep for long so she really spent all day tossing and turning. The head pain made her thoughts scrambled and she found it difficult to daydream.
If the day was agony then the night was a blessing. Cool air, no sun and a slight breeze refreshed her enough to move around and get the blood flowing again.
“Cap’n,” Saccha acknowledged as she wandered around the camp.
“I feel cold.”
“No fires. Would be a beacon for the enemy.”
“Ah.” Hales was disappointed. She enjoyed the smell of burning wood and a cooked meal wouldn’t be half bad.
Hales sat down and passed the time by watching a group of soldiers in a circle playing dice. She never understood the fascination of the game, yet was therefore fascinated enough to watch it.
Ava came back from her scouting mission and reported some good places for camp, where the nearest river was and a route that should be safe enough for the return trip. She also reported that the search parties were going in the wrong directions.
All good news. Finally.
Hales relaxed, knowing that they had a short respite.
And then Saccha pulled out a grenade.
It was surreal.
Hales couldn’t move, frozen by shock and disbelief.
Saccha pulled the pin of the grenade. Hales still couldn’t react. Why was no one else doing anything? The grenade would blow everyone up.
Saccha unscrewed the top of the grenade and tipped the contents into his mouth.
Hales blinked, checking her eyesight. Her vision seemed to be working. Perhaps the hit to my head is giving me hallucinations, she decided.
Because why would someone drink from a grenade?
And then realization dawned on her.
That’s how he does it.
He smuggles alcohol in grenade shaped flasks.
Saccha gave a sigh of deep contentment. Then took another swig.
He noticed Hales watching him and he held out the grenade as an offering.
Hales shook her head and leaned back, staring at the stars.
She thought of space but couldn’t help smiling about her squad member and the shock it gave her seeing that grenade, the event was so bizarre set against the backdrop of the last day and night. At some point she fell into a dreamless sleep.
The next day went much in the same way. The day was hot and the night was divine. Saccha got drunk as the rest played dice. No enemies nearby and Corvan and Santiage were still locked in debate.
Hales didn’t dislike Corvan, but the older kid tried too hard to know everything, in her opinion. As if every single decision had to be thought of and planned by him or else it wouldn’t work.
He meant well, she knew, but he came off as bratty and arrogant. Probably born into a military family that expected him to climb through the ranks.
Hales had little she could do but think all day long. The headache wasn’t so bad anymore that she couldn’t let her mind drift into half-consciousness, at least as she remained laying down. Moving around made her dizzy and nauseous.
They stayed at that location for four days before making slow progress south bound to Garghent. Food and water were easy to come by once the group made some headway. They were still being searched for by enemy trackers but the initial army was long gone.
One of Corvan’s soldiers spotted a second army on the march during his night shift at watch.
“Eight thousand strong. Heavy weaponry. They look like soldiers from the city Natung.”
“They are planning a joint, full scale siege of Garghent.” Santiage deduced.
“Just them, or how many other cities? How long has this been planned?” Corvan pondered.
“We’ve got to get back, now.” Hales declared. Her sudden motivation was for her siblings and Deo.
“You up for it?” Corvan asked.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Alright everyone, we’re picking up the pace first thing in the morning!” Corvan ordered.
“Yes sir!” His squad chorused.
They marched hard for three days due south.
Hales thought of Deo constantly. Wondering how he was, what he was doing. How concerned he must be that she wasn’t home.
In short, she missed the violet eyed boy.
That last thought made her blush.
“Halt!” Ava whispered sharply. “Enemy camp four hundred meters ahead.”
“Part of the army?” Corvan whispered back. They had the relative cover of the tall grass, but sound travels easily in the open prairie.
“Looks like a search party. Two dozen soldiers at the least.”
“Can we make it around them?” Corvan questioned.
“They’ll see us for sure. We need to turn back.” Another soldier input.
“They will know we were here in the morning. Pressed grass is a dead giveaway.” Ava refuted.
“So what, we attack?” Corvan speculated.
“Either that or they will hunt us down. We’ve got the element of surprise.”
“I don’t like our options,” admitted Corvan.
“Santiage,” Hales started. “What do you think of attacking?”
“It would need to be lightning fast and nothing could go wrong. They’ve got soldiers set in a perimeter all around the area. If any one of them escapes we’ll be looking down the barrels of the army within a day.” Santiage kept his opinion objective, merely stating the realistic tactical import of their situation. Hales valued his console.
The burly tactician continued, “even if we make a successful raid it won’t be long before they know their squad is missing. However, we are low on ammo and supplies. This could be our best and only chance to restock. Either way we are going to be on the run from now until Garghent.”
“Corvan what do you think?” Asked Hales. A decision like this was too difficult to make with her skull-splitting headache.
“If we can take out some bastards on the way home and remove the most immediate search party then it’s an opportunity we’d be foolish to miss.”
“So it’s decided.” Confirmed Hales.
“Lightnin’ raid. Formation Q, Santi?” Saccha asked, presuming.
Formation Q is an assault operation strategy wherein the attacker encircles the enemy completely before launching a simultaneous strike directly into the main body. A few conditions must be met before Formation Q can be initiated.
One, the attacking force must be smaller than the enemy.
Two, the enemy must not be aware of the attacker’s presence.
Three, the eyes of the enemy must be cut out before the incursion.
‘Q’ was chosen as one could imagine the symbol of an eye being stabbed, the most vital step in the operation.
Subterfuge was key, blinding the enemy was paramount for a successful raid. No one survives, no one sees it coming.
“Everyone in position?” Corvan checked.
Eight of the twelve soldiers spread out.
They are silhouettes in the night, ghosts who bring with them bloody death. The silence of their walk makes even the moon shout.
Saccha finds the first of the Daedal watchmen. He crushes the bone of the man’s neck with a sudden blood choke.
The second of the watchmen has his neck severed through the jugular vein down to the spinal cord by an eight inch blade.
The third watchman receives cold steel directly into the trachea and vocal cord after which he meets a slow and noiseless death, save for the gurgling of blood.
All deaths five seconds apart.
A shadowy hand raises above the horizon line, gesturing for the ghosts to close the circle.
Insects burrow underground and fly to safety as they pray to be spared the wrath of the phantoms.
The snoring ceases as the ghosts enter the camp.
The moment is now.
Eerie is the atmosphere…
Hell in the form of lead shot vomits from the ghosts as each chooses their targets and reap the souls but leaves the bodies for maggots and worms to feast on.
Rib cages implode and faces collapse. The stench of death hangs in the air alongside sulfur.
Hales’ sidearm tastes innards and organs and muscle and bone.
The work is completed as flawlessly as planned.
Supplies are scavenged and the camp is left to rot. The ghosts who are now living men leave the dead men who are now ghosts.
The next morning a Natung scout finds the assaulted camp on his rounds and reports the attack to the main army. A tracker is sent to the location and points the direction that Garghent traveled. The several remaining search parties are gathered into one by the afternoon.
But Hales and her squad are hours from that location.
“I need to rest,” Hales announced. The forced march through the night took its toll from her.
“But-” Corvan was about to argue but settled down instead. Fatigue weighing heavily on his body as well.
“An hour or two is all I need.” Hales assured.
“I need it too,” Corvan admitted.
“I’m going to scout the rear.” Said Ava. They had been awake for more than twenty-four hours. Hales was impressed by her whole squad at their stamina and efficiency. Sure they were older, but for Ava to endlessly scout and hunt and cover tracks was above and beyond.
Hales felt so proud of her squad that she could cry. She wanted to say something to them, tell them how honored and grateful she was for their skills and care but she would have felt too awkward saying anything.
“Hey Corvan, when we were at the plant you mentioned a last resort ability, Seven Trumpets I think you said, what does it do? If you don’t mind me asking.” She asked suddenly, remembering she had that as a lingering question.
Corvan paused to think for a brief moment. “Honestly, I’m not sure what it does. Someone a long time ago told me my Aspect could be used as a trigger of some sort. But he said to never use it unless ‘all is lost’.” He quoted.
“Who was that someone?”
“I wasn’t even a teenager at the time so I don’t really remember, but he was an engineer or architect or something along those lines. Just came to my house one day, said some things about my Aspect which at the time I couldn’t even use. I don’t know how he knew I could do it but I guess he was a Specter himself, if that explains anything.”
“Wow, so you were pretty young when you got your Aspect?”
Corvan shrugged. “I didn’t exactly have a… great childhood. So I guess I got it early in life. It took almost a decade to build up my voice box to be strong enough to actually use my powers.”
If Hales had a nickel for everyone she knew who had a particularly rough childhood…
“Is that guy still alive?”
“Not that I ever found. No records or anything of him. Can’t even remember his face. His words stuck with me though. Seven Trumpets was what he called it. I’ve never forgotten that.”
“It feels ominous.”
The conversation died out and Hales welcomed the quiet.
“You almost ready?” Corvan asked after another half hour.
Before Hales could respond, Ava came sprinting back shouting.
“Enemies! Less than a kilometer, we have to run!”
“Yes.” Hales said, answering Corvan’s question as she gathered her gear.
They broke into a run as Hales lagged behind.
Saccha stayed back with his captain.
“Corvan take your squad and get out of here!” Hales shouted.
As if to emphasize her words, the enemy opened fire. Still too far to hit anything accurately, they were covering ground fast.
“Damn it.” Corvan couldn’t decide what to do. Stay at Hales’ pace or take his squad and get to safety, but he’d already lost two too many soldiers.
He hated himself for this, but he chose the selfish option.
“Okay squad, we’re getting out of here! We’ll regroup with captain Ailor when we lose the enemy.”
Corvan took his four soldiers and they broke off into a hard run.
“I can’t…” Hales’ head hurt so bad. She slowed to a stop.
Saccha reacted instantly, “doc, you carry her. I’ll keep ya’ covered.”
Espen wasted no breath talking. He scooped Hales into his arms and ran.
Saccha fired some rounds into the grass where he knew the enemy was approaching.
We’re dead if they try to cut off our path, thought Saccha.
More and more bullets whizzed by.
Saccha turned and shot the first enemy close to enough to actually see.
A dozen more took the dead man’s place.
Hales’ squad only went as fast as Espen who carried her could go.
Which was not fast enough.
A bullet took Espen in his shoulder but he ignored it and kept running.
Cursten and Saccha sprayed bullets randomly into the enemy’s direction.
Santiage, Ava and Liem took turns shooting suppressing fire to curb the enemy advance.
There were just too many.
Three more shots brought Espen down. He stumbled and dropped Hales who rolled out with her arms protecting her head.
“Sorry… captain.” Blood was gathering in a pool around him as he lay on his back.
Hales tried turning him over to check the wounds but he grabbed her arms.
“No…time for that.”
“Espen.” Hales started as her voice choked..
Saccha dragged her away.
Cursten stayed around the dying medic and let loose his machine gun’s fury.
Santiage tossed a grenade, this one filled with TNT, behind them.
Their efforts were perceptibly ineffective. Sure they killed dozens, but there were dozens more.
Cursten was torn to shreds by a volley of lead. He died before he hit the ground.
“Put me down.” Ordered Hales.
Saccha ignored her.
“Put me down!” She screamed.
“Cap’n we gotta run. Can’t do nothing ‘bout the dead.”
“Saccha, this is an order. Put me down, take the others and get out of here. I’m slowing everyone down.”
“I’m not losing anyone else!”
“We’re not losing you cap’n.”
It had been since before the helicopter crash that she used her power.
Her head felt so stressed and swollen.
“Solar.” Pain flared tenfold in her head, but raw adrenaline and determination pushed her through.
She perhaps wasn’t thinking straight. It was exactly the formula she needed to think of her next move.
She started by pulling out a star and threatened to burn Saccha. He had no choice but to set her down as the star blazed right in front of his face.
She used the star to separate herself from her squad.
“Everyone leave! That’s an order.”
The complaints started.
She expanded her sun.
“I’m going to ignite this whole place.” Hales cut them off.
Santiage finally took charge, “You heard the captain. She’s got a plan and we’re in the way.” Her squad reluctantly left. Santiage gave her a last glance that said ‘are you sure’?
The resolution in her eyes was absolute.
And like that she was alone.
She redacted her earlier thoughts and spoke aloud to herself. “Guess I could do it after all.” She meant about the whole sacrificing oneself like the pilot did for her. Seeing Espen and Cursten die for her clicked something in her brain.
She moved the sun to face the enemy.
“I don’t plan on dying.” She reaffirmed to herself. “So it’s not really a sacrifice. I just can’t run anymore. This is logical. No one else on my team has to die.” She could feel tears start to well.
The pain and so many other thoughts ran through her mind.
Now was the time to focus.
Her star expanded to twenty meters wide and she kept spinning it faster and faster.
The twirling star radiated in the night.
The ball of fire melted any bullets shot at it. The enemy would have to go around.
Hales waited for the right moment.
She suddenly lost control. “Damn it all…”
Her body gave up on her.
The sun, still spinning at dizzying speeds, fell. It seared the ground in a corkscrew sort of way as its inertia chaotically carried it around the grass in outward expanding concentric circles, setting fire to everything it touched. As it spiraled on the ground it finally toppled and crashed, causing a blinding flare and a massive explosion.
Hales passed out as her world flashed for a moment and then went black…
Hales groaned awake. It was midday and the sun stung her eyes, producing salty tears.
She was covered in soot and dirt. Practically buried in the stuff. She tenderly sat up. Checked her toes and fingers for movement. Everything was working. No wounds that she could feel. Just a pounding headache and a general body soreness.
She stood up and explored the area. There were signs of a fire and more than a few blackened bodies. She counted at least twenty.
She could follow the path the sun took as it spun on the ground. She was lucky that it exploded relatively far away from her, though the force did knock her meters from where she passed out.
No one else was here. The enemy had moved on.
Somehow her body hadn’t been found.
She didn’t possess the energy to care why or how she was alive. It was enough that she was.
The enemy had camps and armies on all sides. There was no chance she’d be able to slip through. Tracking and terrain navigation were not strong points for her. She’d never be able to find her squad.
She had one choice.
She gathered as many intact supplies she could find. Wasn’t much. Some water, a torn blanket, a few wrapped meals and little else.
Hales went east.
To the desert…