That night there was a new message from Adrian, “Hey, I’m going to be pretty tied up for a bit. Communication is going to be a bit limited. I did have some success with my recruitment at the academy, and I have a new mage to assign to you. It’s a weird situation… he’s almost completely incapable of weaving, but he can see weaves and has a brilliant talent for analyzing weaves. Because of that they are letting him go for the academy. I’ve pulled some strings to get him assigned to your squad… it was a bitch to do unnoticed. Anyway, he should be there in the next few days. Name is Gilbert Smith. Please treat him well, Adrian.”
Several hours later a man showed up at the squad. He was short and stocky, heavily muscled with hands that looked like bricks. “Hi, I’m Gilbert. Which one of you is Tom ?”
“Hey, welcome. Our mutual friend told you to look for me?”
“Yep. Said you could help me learn the ropes. He was concerned that a soldiers life would be hard on me. He doesn’t really get me.”
“Fair. Not sure he totally gets anyone, or that anyone totally gets him. Still, what he’s doing matters.”
“Agreed. That’s why I’m here, risking getting my ass shot off. Lots of other things I could have done, even though I can’t weave,” Gilbert said, there was a moment, just an instant, where his eyes dropped, looked down and away, then he looked back up. “Anyway, I can help out. Mostly, I’m pretty decent at figuring stuff out.”
“So, how long ago did you leave the Academy?”
“So, you skipped basic?”
“Yeah, I guess. Is that a big deal?”
“Yeah, that’s a huge deal. Have you ever seen combat?”
“Dude, I’m fucking with you. They put me through basic before I started at the academy. I actually failed testing when I was a child, they thought I was normal. I got pulled out of the military when a battle mage saw me looking at weaves. I can’t touch them, my hands don’t grab the threads… but I can see them just fine.”
Tom had no idea what Gilbert was talking about. Tom smiled and nodded, trying to look interested and compassionate. Gilbert was clearly an odd duck.
“I’m also good at figuring out how the weaves interact with the world,” Gilbert continued, “all magic interacts with energy from the physical plane. Being able to see it helps me figure stuff out, the potential things in the real world have. Maybe because I can’t use the threads to make weaves I’m really, really good at figuring out how they interact, how they work, all I’ve ever been able to do is study them.”
“Okay, I assume that makes some sort of sense. Here’s the thing, I don’t know what the fuck a thread is, I don’t know what a weave really is even. Nothing you are saying make the slightest bit of sense to me.”
“Right. Sorry.” Gilbert started pacing, moving his hands as he went, the cadence of his speech increasing by the moment. “Everything in the world has different kinds of energy, for example, the air has heat energy. Everything has heat energy. That energy exists in a kind of thread, if you have the gift you can see the threads. If you aren’t me you can manipulate them, move them, tie them together. If you want to make a fireball you pull a bunch of heat threads from the air, tie them into a bundle, attach them to some kinetic energy, then throw it at the enemy. As you release it the heat becomes flame. That’s working a weave.”
“Okay. So, what’s kinetic energy?”
“Movement. you can use a weave to pull movement from things. Of course a good magician can pull apart another magicians weave. The books, the chants, the symbols? Those are tools to let a magician remember how to tie the energy together. If you tie a weave wrong it can behave in unexpected ways.”
“Right. Sorry, look this is fascinating, I’m sure,” Tom said, “but I don’t actually give a fuck. Sorry, I know that was rude, but it doesn’t affect me.”
“No, it really does. Far more than you think. Every one of us, everyone in the kingdom is affected by a number of weaves at all times. Grand weaves, weaves that shape how we feel, how we think. Adrian doesn’t know that I know this, but he’s blocked a bunch of them from affecting those of us he brought on board. I have no idea how he found them in the first place. One of the things these weaves do is prevent you from seeing them. They make you compliant, they take away your curiosity, your creativity. Somehow He saw them, then he blocked you from them. Me as well by the way.”
Tom didn’t know how to react. It was too much for his brain to take in, so he did the only thing that made sense to him. “Okay, so that’s shit. Well, let’s get you kitted and trained up. We do things differently than you did in basic.”
“No shit, I should hope so. No sane person runs into a hellstorm like that.”
The two of them walked to the equipment tent, chatting as they went. Tom kept the topics light, skirting away from magic having taken over his brain. Charlie was working the gear tent, managing equipment. As the two of them came in Charlie said, “That him?”
“Yeah, we need to get him kitted out.”
“Alright. I’m Charlie. Nice to meet you.”
Gilbert said, “You too. Can I have the third wand from the left?” Pointing to the wand in question.
“Um, sure. How come?”
“The weave is better constructed on that one. Less chance it fails in service.”
“You can do tell that just by looking at them?”
“Sure, no problem.”
“Come with me,” said Charlie, stepping out from behind the counter, “we need to look over all the gear.”
The three of them walked to the main sleeping tent. Most of the squad was in there, polishing their boots, servicing equipment, talking about women. Charlie said, “Okay maggots. I need your weapons. Line em’ up in the middle of the floor, right here,” he pointed to the ground at his feet, “hop to it. Look sharp.”
The sound of grumbling filled the room, however the men did as they were ordered. Gilbert picked up each wand in turn, holding them close to his eyes, peering deeply. The wands all appeared the same, a long cylinder of wood, with a metal core, and a protrusion near the base to act as a handle. “Okay, most of these are good, but this one doesn’t have much life left,” said Gilbert.
“Okay, how much?” Charlie replied.
“Probably a dozen or so firings. The weave is already looking weak. It will probably stop firing, very low chance of explosion or something.”
The men were staring at them, not talking. Most appeared confused.
“Alright, look,” said Tom, “Gil here can see weaves, he can spot magic. It’s a secret, we don’t want anyone else letting on. He can’t do magic, like at all, so don’t expect any extra fireballs from our lines, but it gives us an edge.”
“More of an edge than you know,” said Gilbert, “if we are close enough to the enemy line I can see what weaves they are going to send at us before they release them. I’m good at identifying weaves. Really, really good.”
“Alright maggots,” Charlie started handing them back their wands. “This is highly, highly confidential. We need to keep this within the squad. People find out what Gil can do, they all want him. We want him to stay with us, keep our asses from being fried. So, we keep it close to the vest, and we make sure he’s protected, well protected. I’m assigning him spotter duties, he gets to watch the enemy in action, from behind the rest of us. We start drilling the new tactics with Gil as a centre point. Get used to ducking when he says duck and running when he says run.”
The trio left and sat down in the mess hall. Charlie took out his flask of high test alcohol and started passing it around. “So, a good start. We have new tactics, new ways of doing things, we have the extra edge you provide Gil. Now we need to start a revolution properly.”
“I have more thoughts on that. Seeing weaves, I understand a lot about life. I have ideas – ways to make things happen that take advantage of the innate state of things, without using weaves. I’ve done a few experiments with it already, and I want to do more.”
“What kind of things?”
“Well, I can make a powder that explodes. It’s not a big explosion, nothing worth talking about, but if we put it in a container and light it on fire the container will blow to shit. I feel like there’s a bunch of ways I could go with that. It’s a start point, but the thing that makes it amazing is that you don’t need to be able to work weaves to make it work. You grind up the ingredients, put them together, and it works – doesn’t matter who you are or what your abilities are. There’s other things in the world with similar kinds of energy. If I can figure out how to combine them in the right ways, physically I mean, they can do things that you would need magic to do right now. Hell, I even have some ideas for how to harness lightning energy without magic. There’s traces of the energy in metals, and in lodestone. If I can figure out how to put them together, maybe we have something.”
Tom re-evaluated his opinion of Gilbert once again. First he’d seen the man and decided he was another grunt like them, smart enough, but not an Adrian. Now, here he was, saying all these things like they were the most natural conversation ever. “We need to give you space to work,” Tom said, his words slurring just a little. The flask was half empty. It was strong alcohol. “Charlie, can we get Gil somewhere to work?”
“Sure son, jus’ let me pull a bunch of building out of my ass. No problem.”
“Sorry, fuck, just wanted to get that shit in gear. Get us some good shit to work with.”
“Wait, maybe there is something. Maybe there is a way we can get some space. There’s a storage tent, not in use right now. It’s not ours, next squad over. They are running at quarter strength, so they haven’t got much gear. They get back up to full complement though and we lose it, also they ask a lot of awkward questions.”
“Well, chance we have to take. Let’s get to it.”
“Wait a sec guys,” said Gilbert, “don’t I get a say in this?”
“Right, sorry. So, you want to take a huge risk and set up your workshop in an empty storage tent?”
“Sure, why the fuck not.”
“K. So it’s settled. Let’s get you set up. What gear do you need?”
Gilbert gave them an extensive list of equipment and substances.
Charlie was gone a lot over the next few days. Most of the time when he returned he had something new from the list. One time it might be glassware, the next some obscure type of rock. The still was going full time, and a lot of the hooch vanished when the supplies showed up. Once enough of the new equipment was ready Gilbert sat down with Tom and Charlie for a prep session. “We have what we need to get started. Now, there’s another bit I didn’t mention. The noise.”
“Well,” said Tom, “I figured it might get a bit loud. I actually came up with a decent cover that will let us use the tent more openly, with full support from our neighbours. Charlie, you might not be a huge fan of this one though.”
“What are you going to do to me?”
“I’m going to make you set up a second still. A bigger one.”
“Actually, that’s a great idea,” Gilbert said, “I could use a number of substances distilled for my work. We can use it for hooch on the off days, enough so it isn’t suspicious. Tell everyone we’re experimenting with different kinds of booze.”
“Fair cop son, fair cop. Lots of extra work for old Charlie of course, but what else is new?”
Tom and Charlie started helping Gilbert out with his experiments. It was mostly grinding powders and seeing how they reacted when they lit them on fire. Sometimes Gilbert would put the powder in a box and light it on fire with a long string through a hole. That usually meant something exploded, so they cleared the tent for it.
Battles happened during this time period. A lot of them. They were moving forward faster than ever, the front extending further and further into Gandia every day. Suddenly they weren’t fighting for the passes through the barrier mountains, but were fighting downhill, on the downslope of the mountains, and into rolling hills. Then there were no more battles, they were marching through empty farmland, crops burned and black. In many places there were piles of salt on the fields. Towns were razed, not a single building standing, food stores gone or burnt. It was a level of destruction that Tom had never seen.
The special projects were on hold while they marched. Gilbert was still tinkering, but on a much more limited basis. Tom was in full recruiting mode, talking to as many other men as he could. The travel meant they would end up next to different groups at night, as they were sent everywhere to scout, to try and forage. He was bolder now, talking more openly. Other soldiers were more open, more willing to talk when they weren’t exhausted and broken from battle.
One bright morning, as they marched, a city came into view. Well, the remains of a city. There was smoke pouring out of the roof of the grand palace in the centre. Not a single building stood intact. Ash stood inches thick on the ground. There were no bodies, nobody had died here – at least not in the fires.
That night supper was a thin stew, some small hunks of grey meat, Tom didn’t want to think about what animal might have provided the meat. Sergeant Blake sat down, a weary look on his face. “So, we have forage duties tomorrow. Apparently there’s issues getting us food right now. The supply wagons are having trouble in the passes, and we haven’t been able to forage. Foods going to get a bit tight for the next bit. See what you can find,” he looked around the empty landscape, “but I don’t have high hopes.”