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Tom was on the front line again. His unit had been rotated out for a few weeks, but now they were rotated back in. The morning was bright, sunny, the air was crisp – it was still early spring. The field ahead of him was lightly dotted with wildflowers, little patches of colour rising through the green grass.
Across the field was the enemy. A mass of dark clad warriors, his doubles in most ways. Long gone were the days of heralds and standards. Modern warfare was more practical, less colourful. The dying was the same of course.
Tension filled every muscle of Tom‘s body. It didn’t matter how many times he did this, he was never going to be relaxed about it, never going to feel like this was okay. He saw them, on the ridge above the troops. Five men, none of them looked like soldiers. He was almost certain the one in the middle was Adrian. Of course the other side had their mages as well, protected behind ten thousand men. In the end that’s what it would come down to, who had the better mages. The men were there because mages can’t take territory, although they can decimate it. The men waited, just like every time before. They made their peace with their gods, thought about their loved ones, did what soldiers do when waiting for battle to begin. Then it did. A ball of fire streaked across the sky, thank everything it came from Tom‘s side, from Iskengar, not from the invaders. Another ball followed the first, then more, dropping into the army across the field, exploding among the men on the other side. Bodies flew, burning trails in the blue sky, now turning black with smoke.
Tom knew that something would be coming back, that the Gandian mages would be launching their own spells, raining new forms of death on his men. Lightning flashed, directed into his men. The sky had gone almost black with smoke in seconds, now the lightning was strobing through it, leaving trails of white burned on his retina. Men dropped around him, bodies burned by the intense energy. Thunder cracked, almost instantaneous with the lightning, dizzying in intensity.
The beautiful day of moments before was gone. The valley was now dark as night, punctuated with burning, with flashes of intense light, with the screams of the dying. It was time to move forward. Tom stood and waved his men forward, charging towards the maelstrom. He raised his rod, eyes out for the enemy. He crested a small ridge and was face to face with a dozen of them. A quick squeeze on the handle and a blast of pure energy streamed into them, blasting a hole in the leader. Energy streaked from them toward him, missing him by centimetres at most. One of his men screamed behind him, falling. Tom kept going, kept running forward. Stopping was death, Maybe instant, maybe long and drawn out, but he couldn’t fall. His men followed, knowing the same facts he did. Screaming and firing as they went.
Fire rained down on them, lighting the ground around them. Rain started, torrents of steam spiraling across the ground, burning whoever it touched. Tom dove to the side as one of the steam whirlwinds came through the space he had occupied until a moment before. He was a veteran, this was nothing he hadn’t seen before, a dozen times at least. The battlefield was always different, but always the same. Always the same chaos, the same screams, the same dying.
Finally they hit the line, face to face with the Gandian army. Energy arcing both ways. When they went face to face Tom drew his sword. He hacked his way through soldier after soldier, steel cleaving flesh. Suddenly he was through, facing open field. Half a dozen figures looked down at him, cloaked and wreathed in power. Mages. Well, that was it then, he turned and fought his way back into the battle.
Afterwards there was nothing left of the field, nothing that told the tale of the idyllic scene from the morning. Bodies filled the land, soil drenched in blood, flames burning low, fuel running short, everything that could burn had burnt. Tom was still there, still alive once again. Half his squad were gone, dead or wounded. Somehow Tom always seemed to survive – but then again, he’d seen dozens who thought the same thing, and they weren’t there.
The battle had gone their way. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. The death toll was in the tens of thousands. Both sides had lost most of their foot soldiers, but the other side had lost slightly more. They owned this field, this empty piece of land, this blood drenched ground that would never bring forth another blade of grass, another wildflower. All of that loss of life, and they had a field.
It wasn’t unexpected. Tom always felt like that after a battle. Empty, hollow, wondering what the point was. He watched all of those people die, and he couldn’t make sense of it. Instead he sat on a rock and lit his pipe. The acrid tobacco smoke flowed into his lungs, easing his mind, just a tiny bit. After a few minutes of contemplation he got up and walked to the medical tent. Two of his men were in there, injured badly but not dead.
The tent was a hive of activity. Nurses ran to and fro, magical instrumentation in hand, figuring out what was wrong with each patient. Jonesy was there, short an arm. One of the healers was working on him. An arm was a big deal, it would take weeks to regrow, and even longer to learn to use. It was never re-learning to use a limb. Tom had done it a dozen times or so in the decade he’d been in combat. It was Jonesy‘s first time. “Hey, Jonesy . Guess I get to pin a new piece of ribbon on your chest.”
“Fuck, Sarge. Why didn’t anybody tell me how much this hurts? I would have gone for something else. My mom always wanted me to be an accountant.”
“Now, now… you know you haven’t got the brains to be an accountant. Nobody with that kind of smarts would be dumb enough to run towards the battle.”
“You got me there. Damn. How many times you say you had to do this?”
“Too many. Look, it’s better’n what happened to Dino. His leg got blown clear off… all the way up. They have a specialist regrowing his dick right now.”
“Yeah, heard that. At least he gets to figure out how to use it again… think it’s like being a virgin?”
“Wouldn’t know. I’ve managed to hold on to my cock so far. Plan to keep doing so.”
“Well, if it ever did get blown off you’d have to regrow your hand too… no way it’s hitting while you ain’t jerking…”
The room got quiet. A thin figure dressed in dark robes of the finest material was making his way Jonesy‘s bed. Adrian.
“Sorry this happened to you. Nurse, make sure this man gets priority. I want to see him up and about within two weeks.”
The nurses all fell over themselves trying to get to Jonesy, he was the top focus in the ward suddenly. Adrian grabbed Tom by the shoulder, “Can you come with me for a moment? I have matters I would like to discuss.”
“Sure. Give me a moment with Jonesy.”
“Of course. Take your time, just not too much. I’m expected at debrief.”
Adrian turned and swept out, long black cloak trailing behind him.
Jonesy said, “What the fuck you think he wants?”
“No idea. Guy creeps me out.”
“Whatever. All the cute nurses are paying attention to me now. You make sure our friend keeps liking us. I’ll just lie here and be glad I ain’t Dino.”
“Alright, take care.”
“Wait, what did you need to talk to me about?”
“Nothing, I was stalling. Didn’t want him to think I was at his beck and call.”
Tom followed Adrian outside. The mage looked irritated, but quickly wiped the expression from his face, returning to a neutral look.
“I don’t like killing people.”
“It’s not my favourite thing either. I don’t think any of us really like”
“How many people do you think you’ve killed, approximately?”
“Maybe a hundred… give or take.”
“I might have killed five thousand, maybe more. I don’t want to do it anymore. The town I was born in, we had around three thousand people. In my military career I have killed more people than lived in the town I was born in.”
“How long what?”
“Your military career. How many years are we talking here?”
“I graduated the academy six months ago.”
Tom was silent for a moment. How would his mind cope with that kind of body count? He didn’t even know that many people by name.
“Okay, so what do you want to do about it?”
“I want to end the war.”
“Well, so do a lot of people… but we don’t seem to be managing it.”
“Nobody is really motivated to. At least nobody with power. Battle mages get taught not to see people, not really. They work hard on it, making us see numbers, not humans. My problem is my imagination is too good. Did you know that almost all battle mages are only children? It’s easier to get us to not empathize if we don’t have siblings. My younger brother died shortly after he was born, a few months. There was a fire. He was in his crib, nobody could get to him. I was still with my family, so I remember him. A little bit anyway. I remember his cries, trying to reach him. It was a year or so before my testing. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work right on me, I’m not sure. The thing is, when I drop a fireball on a crowd of people, I can picture them, picture their faces as they burn. It wakes me up. That’s why I drink like I do, the drink drowns the dreams.”
Tom had no idea how to deal with that level of information. Adrian was still virtually a stranger, and now he knew more about the young mage than he did about some of the men in his squad.
“Okay, how do we make them motivated?”
“We take their power away. We take the decision out of their hands.”
“You are talking treason.”
“Yes. Treason, sedition, revolution. We take power from them, we give it to us. This war doesn’t end until people who care take control. So long as we are under the thumbs of men who have never had to take a life themselves, who are removed from the reality of their decision we will never see peace.”
“It’s been tried before. It can’t work.”
“Of course it can. When it was tried before I wasn’t part of it. I could have won the battle today in ten minutes if I’d been allowed. I’m more powerful, I’m smarter. There hasn’t been a battle mage involved with any of the previous revolutionary attempts.”
“There were mages.”
“Yes, of course, healers, hedge witches, utility casters, never a battle mage. Keep in mind Iskengar only has a hundred or so of us, and I know all of the rest. They are sheep. Dumb weapons utterly devoid of soul. They are smart, but so conditioned to follow that any deviation from a set path is going to be beyond their ability to even see. The Academy is good at its job. I am the only exception from what I can see. If there is another they hide it well. I do not.”
“Why you what?”
“Why are you telling me? Why recruit me? We don’t know each other that well.”
“I did my research. I know your career. I know you’ve been promoted to sergent and then demoted a half dozen times. I know that you stand up for your men, that you refuse leave when your men don’t get to take leave with you. I know that you are the only NCO who insists on a funeral for each of their men. You care, and you aren’t very well conditioned. You also work to get your commanders to consider different tactics. We have been fighting this war the same way for fifty years or more. No changes, we throw battle mages at the enemy, we sacrifice men, giant floods of men. The only changes are to spellcraft. Better spells that do more damage. No change to the way we use the spells, to how we move men from place to place, war has become our entire way of life. That’s what happens when you take the very people who think of the changes, and condition them to never change. You stagnate. At this point the only reason we are able to continue is that we dying slightly slower than Gandia.”
“Okay. You make a good case. Look, this is a lot to take in. I’m a soldier, I follow orders. Let me think about this.”
“Of course. I would not tell anybody about this conversation however.”
Tom heard the threat in Adrian‘s gentle tone. A threat he was inclined to take seriously.
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