Carefully making sure that the door was closed all the way behind me, I turned to Red Panda and said, “I think I understand why everyone warned me about that guy.”
“I’m so glad you are safe.” She said and hugged me.
“Umm… enough with the hugging. I think I am a little hugged out for the next little while. While I don’t mind if, from you, Samdi kept doing it and it was super creepy.”
“Did you see Egret, Honey Badger, and Ant Eater?”
“Huh?” I said.
“They were three runners who delivered messages to Samdi, and who Samdi decided to keep. He told everyone they were Twice-Lived which is idiotic, they were no more Twice lived than you or me. But he kept them and made them his ‘toys.’” Said Red Panda.
“I did see two kids our age. A boy and girl. But not a third.”
“The girl was probably Egret. Describe the boy,” she said.
“A bit taller than me. Brown hair. Freckles.”
“Ant Eater,” she said. Then she said, “that must mean Honey Badger is dead. It is so sad Honey Badger always had such an independent spirit. He never cared, he never gave a shit. It’s probably what got him in the end. We warned him to be careful around Samdi. Told him never eat or drink anything he offers. But he didn’t listen.” Red Panda started to cry.
She was still hugging me, so I patted her back and said, “There, there. There, there. Lord Samdi likes me, and more importantly, he respects my father. No other runners will have to visit him as long as I can carry the message instead of them.”
“Yes Really,” I said. “Besides, if Honey Badger really didn’t care and never gave a shit, I think I would have liked to meet him. He sounds like my kind of runner.”
“Let’s go meet my big bro.” Red Panda let go of me and dashed off down the hall. I had to run to catch up to her. But then I suppose I was a runner now, so having to run made sense.
We wove in and out of the mass of people. Most people got out of our way. Children dashing pell-mell through the underground in uniform must have been a semi-regular sight. Red Panda turned and ran down another hallway like the one that had led us into the underground, and soon we were outside and into the open air again.
Instead of heading up to the keep, Red Panda dashed out into the battlefield itself. She had to stop running when after about a hundred yards when the graveled over surface became mud. Bursts of light flew overhead, and periodically in the distance, the earth shook.
Red Panda turned to me and said, “If you hear a whistling sound coming towards you, you have about five to six seconds to get out of the way. Run, dive, take shelter, do what you can to take cover. We should be fairly safe back here, but the further we get out there, the more dangerous it gets.”
The first trench was passed two six-foot high barbed-wire topped sand-bag walls and about three hundred yards away from the bluffs. The trench was about two and a half feet wide and ran roughly parallel to the cliff face for the entire distance of the valley. Red Panda jumped in, and I followed her.
Soldiers were lined up facing outward towards the enemy line. We couldn’t run, because there was barely room to squeeze past them. Three times we passed what I could have sworn were machine gun emplacements.
It wasn’t as dirty as I’d expected. The ground wasn’t the thick plodding depth of mud that I’d expected. Instead, the ground had been covered with the same aggregate gravel of chipped mountainside that paved many of the paths and roads of the rest of the camp. But then I saw a rat that was nearly the size of a cocker spaniel run across my line of sight carrying a human hand and revised my opinion of the trenches.
Red Panda led me to a tunnel that had been dug and shored up into the dirt. We went in and then down some rough-hewn stairs to some sleeping quarters and a command center. One of the walls held a large drawing pinned to the wall that depicted the valley. On the drawing, all of the trenches and other underground bunkers were drawn. There were even places marked as tunnels. Red Panda ran straight for a taller man, who if you got rid of some of the dirt and grime that covered his body, would look a lot like Red Panda, and squealed “Brother!”
“I keep telling you, you shouldn’t come here, Midget,” said the man, sighing.
“And I’ve told you not to call me Midget. My name is Red Panda. Since I ain’t changing my ways, and you ain’t changing your ways, why don’t we agree that I’m here now and let me introduce you to my new friend Lynx? Because of Lynx, I will never have to talk with that horrible man Samdi ever again.”
Red Panda’s brother looked me over, then extended a hand. “There aren’t very many good inquisitors, but there are some, if the Midget vouches for you I will withhold my judgment. It is nice to meet you Lynx. My name is Terrald Blue Panda Hazelnut.”
“My mother got it into her head that she loved Pandas. She’d never seen one only read about them in books. But that didn’t stop her from naming all of us kids after them anyway. She even managed to convince Dad that Pandas were ferocious predators to fit with the Empire’s naming scheme. Claimed they were a half polar bear and a half dire bear or some such. I suspect my father knew that all Pandas do all day is eat Bamboo. Anyway, I’m Blue Panda, and you know Red Panda, but if you ever meet my brothers you’ll meet a Black Panda, a White Panda, a Paisley Panda, a Green Panda, and Purple Panda. Paisley isn’t even a color. It was damned embarrassing growing up, but it was what Mom wanted, and there was very little Dad wouldn’t give Mom before she died.”
The earth shook all of a sudden, and a loud boom sounded from somewhere nearby. Dirt sprinkled down from overhead. Nobody in the underground chamber seemed to notice it.
“Guess what Blue, Lynx has a body knack just like you, I took him to see Orr before we came here, and Orr says he will be training with you sometimes.”
“Really? Body knacks are rare? What does yours do?”
When I seemed reluctant to discuss it, Terrald said, “Mine is a fairly basic one. As long as I keep feeding mana into it, I am half again as strong, tough and fast as I normally am. But it drains mana really quickly and since I am a much stronger Earth Mage I only use my knack if I get into a fight that I really need to win.”
I decided to keep up my lie, “Mine isn’t even that good. For one second I am twice as fast, strong and tough. Then I need to wait for 30 seconds before I’m good to go again. Good for a surprise I guess. I’m much more useful as a Life Mage than I am with my knack.”
Another three explosions sounded outside, this time the sound and the vibration came from much further away.
“I remember before I got my status, so I know how you feel,” said Terrald, still ignoring what was going on outside, “Here we are with this secret ability that supposedly makes us stronger and faster than the rest of humanity, and the average soldier, once you take their freedom points into account, can kick our ass any day of the week. Let’s just say it evens out once you are a Platinum. But you don’t just have your Life Magic, just looking at you I can tell you that you’ve got whatever ability it is that they look for in inquisitors.”
“Ability?” I said.
“They haven’t taught it to you yet. I suppose that makes sense. Nobody who isn’t part of the inner circle knows what it is. But you can’t be an Inquisitor, or be part of the Order of the House of Status, or one of any of the half a dozen other elite societies of the empire without it.”
“Huh?” I said at a complete loss.
“Put it this way. Do you have any family? Brothers? Sisters? Are they inquisitors? Assessors? Seers? Urges? Gamesmen? Delvers? Keepers? If they aren’t. If they are just normal nobility then you know they don’t have the ability or affinity or knack or whatever it is. It is the way of a lot of families with a Society member in it. Sometimes a parent is part of one of the Empire’s orders, but none or just one of the children is.”
I thought about my brother and sister. I had never been close to them. Even growing up they had usually been separated from me. Mom had had more influence over their upbringing, while in retrospect Dad had more influence over mine. Come to think of it, I wasn’t even sure if they knew how to use a weapon or what kind of training they’d had in magic. And they’d been shipped off to live with extended family in the Capitol as soon as they’d got their Maturing names.
“Things about my family are suddenly making more sense than they once had.” I said, then “So what do you do here?”
“I’m part of a team of earth mages who go around fixing the fortifications that get broken and building new ones when they are needed. Mostly the grunts dig the trenches, so we don’t have to get that close to the front unless there is some sort of major offensive. Mostly we sit in these louse-infested rat holes until somebody needs a tunnel or pillbox or a wall.”
“Louse infested rat holes?”
Three more explosions sounded, this time nearer than the others. The ground shook, and more dust fell from the ceiling.
“That damned pyromancer is really getting his rocks off today, damn it. Don’t worry, these little dugouts can take a direct hit from one of his fireballs and not cave in. The rats feed on the bodies we can’t get, and the lice are everywhere. Didn’t Red Panda tell you? Just coming out here, you are going to have to be deloused before they’ll allow you back into the main base, much less the keep.”
I thought about it for a second. “I know a life spell, well it is more of a folk spell, but it is based on life magic, but it kills lice, bedbugs, and cockroaches and well… supposedly it kills gnomes too, but I have my doubts about that. If you can get some ink and ground dungeon core, I could probably cast it in here. Anybody coming into this room would have all the bugs on their bodies die as soon as they crossed the threshold. It would make the room comfier. And it wouldn’t take me that long to cast.”
Terrald got up and opened a storage cabinet. “I have exactly what you need. We occasionally use it for our own work, but if you can get rid of the bugs, even if it is just in here, wow… I everyone in this team would be in your debt.”
He handed me a pen and an inkwell, and I set out to draw the insect and gnome killing runes around the barracks and command center. It took about fifteen minutes, and then I extended my will to the runes that I had drawn and filled them with life mana.
“Holy shit, it worked. I can see them falling off my skin.” Yelled someone who I hadn’t been introduced to.
“I don’t need to scratch! I don’t need to scratch! For the first time in two years I don’t need to scratch!” said someone else.
“The boy’s a miracle worker.”
“My balls still itch. But shit I think the kid fixed my crabs.”
It was great to be appreciated. Looks of gratitude filled every face around me. And the looks didn’t go away even when another explosion sounded outside, and the underground bunker we were in shook menacingly.
“Thank you, Lynx. Everyone we will have to agree to keep this a secret or else every grunt and jarhead in the out there will start crowding into our home. I’d say feel free to stop by anytime, but you kids really should stay back where it is safe. Also, you will still have to get deloused when you get back to the base. The parasites might die in here thanks to Lynx Elm, but everyone and everything in the trenches are covered with them.”
“I don’t know how much free time I will have, but I could probably come back and set up a few more insect free zones on the barracks and places where the soldiers sleep out here. The spell really doesn’t take that long, and it is easy to do.” I said.
“I’ll bring it up with command. I’m not sure how they will take having an inquisitor, much less a twelve-year-old, moving around their precious battlefield, but I’m sure someone will be interested. Or maybe not. The military works in mysterious ways. For all, I know some Knight Colonel thinks fleas and lice build character.”
After that, Red Panda and Terrald told each other what they’d been up to since they had last seen each other. Not long since, Red Panda came here often, despite it being both dangerous and forbidden.
Every few minutes groups of explosions sounded. Most of them were in the distance. Some were so nearby they even shook the earth. It was terrifying at first, but after a while, I got used to it.
“Just remember, if you hear a whistling crackling noise in the air, you’ve got about three to five seconds to get out of there or to take some sort of cover. At worst get down and try to cover yourself with the mud and water. It will keep the fireballs from roasting you completely. There is a rumor that we are advancing some time in the next couple of days, so stay away. Advancing usually does squat except get a lot of people killed, but you don’t want to get caught up in it. And they always end up pushing us back.” Terrald said as we were about to leave. “Follow Red Panda, she knows the best way out. And make sure you go to quarantine first when you get past the walls. They will delouse you and make sure you aren’t spies. I’d say don’t come back, but you are associating with my bratty sister so I will assume that like her, you don’t have a brain in your head.”
The only eventful thing that happened at the way back to the to the main base was that as we were passing under one of the places that I’d thought was a machine gun emplacement, it began to shoot. It had gotten dark, and while I couldn’t see bullets coming from the muzzle of the gun, I could see hundreds of miniature white-hot balls of flame no bigger than the size of golf ball shoot in rapid succession at a spot about 400 yards away. Another gun joined it targeting the same place. In the flickering light of the shooting, I could see three rows of trenches. The one we were in and then two more. In the far off distance. I could see the distant figures of the enemy soldiers climbing through the mud or over the barbed wire, and some burning where the flames from the guns struck them.
From up above I heard a screaming in the sky high overhead and then several seconds later the ground out past the last trench began exploding. More and more fireball style Gattling guns on this side of the battlefield began firing into the night, and a flare or a light mage shot a spell into the sky lighting up the dead zone between the two lines.
Red Panda said “We should leave. It’s gonna get crazy and I ain’t in the mood to charge the enemy tonight, we should get back to the main base.”
She set off at a run again, and I followed. The way back was a much more twisted and winding path than the one we’d taken in. Of course, there hadn’t been live fire flying through the air, and the exploding fireballs had been much further out when we’d come, and Red Panda had been much less cautious about sticking to low areas and safety tunnels.
On the way back, we passed hundreds of men and women rushing forward to the front lines. Our passage was slowed down getting out of their way since their destination was much more important than ours.
Eventually, we got back to the safety of the main base. Red Panda took us to the quarantine area, where we waited for a half an hour for enough people to gather, then a tired looking Nature Mage out and convinced the vermin who were inhabiting our hair and clothing to leave. It seemed ass-backward when there was such an easy life spell, but who knows. It appears that military bureaucracy on any world will always be a marvel of inefficiency.
I wanted to go out and help at the hospital with the triage and the healing, but I was told by a harried-looking administrator that I wasn’t on the schedule or on the list, and if I wasn’t on the schedule or on the list then there was no way that I could possibly be of any use. Instead, Red Panda took us to a place where we could get our uniforms cleaned in a half an hour and then in robes that they lent us, we went into an almost empty soldiers mess hall and had chow.