A whistle in the distance was followed by an explosion which echoed throughout the surrounding mountains. Several more explosions and cracks in the land followed before a steady calm returned to the valley. A howling wind blew across the vast snowy field. Stumps and thin strips of scarred remains filled the void as a sign of a once vibrant forest. A few trees still stood in the snow, reaching toward the heavy gray clouds in defiance of the destruction brought upon the rest of the land.
Atop a branch riddled with shrapnel sat a white hawk, its gold eyes studying Natalia’s slumped figure riding the large feathered volferd trudging through the deep snow with its two long legs.
Another series of explosions echoed in the distance. The hawk took off with a rush of feathers.
Natalia sat up alert at the sudden flap of wings. She breathed a sigh of relief once she spotted the hawk landing further away on the branch of a tree nearly drowning in snow. “How long have we been going, Revu?” The black feathers along the volferd’s neck softened under her gloved touch. She looked to the north at the sound of more falling shells with a grimace. “Endless barrages.” Her hand moved to her chest as she felt the shock waves vibrating at a low hum through the field of snow.
Revu looked back, her right golden eye blinking. A low purr emanated from within the thick neck of the volferd.
She turned from the noise to meet Revu’s gaze. “I’m sure you’re just as hungry as I am.” Leaning back slightly in the saddle, Natalia looked around at the snowy field stretching beyond to the steps of the mountains. The same destroyed forest lay on all. Markings on the trees and boulders created by past travelers made a path out of the dead forest to the town ahead, its buildings poking above the sloping hill before her. “That has to be the town of Bosavan, or we’re lost.” She gently pulled on the reigns until Revu came to a halt. “Hopefully it is…” She twisted around and began to rummage through the pack on the back of the saddle. “Map… map… where’s the map.”
Revu let out a couple of short little chirps.
She looked back and saw Revu’s large beak curling around to try to get an angle to see past her shoulder. “Some personal space please?”
Another short chirp.
“Come on, Revu, just because you have a long neck doesn’t mean you should poke your beak into everything.” Natalia replied, placing a hand on the volferd’s beak and pushing gently.
Revu pulled back with a click of her beak.
“You know you’re stubborn, right?” Natalia asked, staring into the golden eye tilting toward her. “And nosy.” She sighed and returned to rummaging through the pack. Her finger caught on a hole near the bottom and she peered around the pack to see her finger poking out the other side. “How have I not died yet?” She closed the pack and frowned.
“Oh, right!” Natalia reached along the pack to a side compartment and found a neatly folded square. Opening the paper, she looked over the details with eagerness. “Let’s see, the village of Lushvan is right there… and assuming we took the Bosakil Mountain Pass, correctly…” She looked up with a smile. “Then this is it. The town of Bosavan.” Her hand tightened around the reigns.
“Down, Revu,” she commanded.
The volferd’s wings unfolded to their full, massive span allowing Natalia to free her legs from the saddle. Revu lowered herself gently and let out a small whine of delight as she stretched out her body.
Natalia hopped down the side of the saddle and landed in the fresh snow, which came halfway up her shin, just below where her boots ended. “Deeper than I thought.” She took a deep breath and raised her hands high into the air to arch her back. Finishing her stretch, she brushed her tightly-braided blonde hair back over her shoulder and stepped around to a pack resting against the side of the saddle.
Another chirp. Revu folded her wings and moved her head back as to poke her beak against the bag near her large red-tipped tail feathers.
“I know, you’re hungry, just give me a moment.” Natalia loosened the bag from the saddle and opened it up to see the waiting seeds within. “Running low on your food already.” She set the bag on the ground in front of Revu. “We may have to ration it for the return trip.” She gently brushed Revu’s head as the volferd eagerly stuffed her beak into the open bag, her rough tongue slurping up the seeds and nuts.
“This is nice.” Natalia looked out at the snowy field and then toward the low hanging gray sky above. “These past few days of traveling have been so quiet and peaceful. I forgot how much I missed it.” She took a deep breath of the chilled air.
Another series of explosions went off in the distance, followed by an echo throughout the mountains. Her smile was replaced by a grimace as she closed the bag and tied it back to the side of the saddle before grabbing a small ration bar for herself. “I miss home.” She looked to Revu who returned a glare with one of her golden eyes. “I’m sure you miss it too, girl. All the beautiful fields to run through and clear streams to drink from.” Natalia gently ran her hand along Revu’s beak with a forced smile. “And I’m sure you miss all the food too.”
Revu chirped in reply and peeked at the pack once more.
“I know you want more; you’ll get the rest tonight with some cold worms.” She pulled off one of her gloves and began to unwrap the bar. Biting off a chunk, she gnawed on the rough, tasteless food. With a forced swallow and a sigh, she took another bite then the final bite. Placing the glove back on her hand, she took hold of the saddle. “Be happy, I bet your food at least has taste. Now sit.”
Another chirp and Revu followed the command, sitting down and unfolding her wings for Natalia to climb up.
Once settled in her seat, Natalia looked at the town poking above the slope of snow set before her. Closing her eyes, she reached her senses out to the nearest structures, searching for any life. Her heart began to beat faster as her blood surged with a flow of magical essence through her veins. “I don’t feel anything… or it’s too far away.” She bit her tongue, “We have no choice, let’s get moving.” She gently squeezed her legs and took hold of the reigns.
The volferd began to trudge up the slope, bringing into view more of the town. Craters littered the landscape, some old and partially covered in snow, others fresh. Few buildings rose above two stories, most having been crumpled down into nothing more than rubble and dust. At the heart, the main hall still rose with a gaping hole through its domed top.
“All we have to do, Revu, is go down there and confirm Union is gone, then I get my promotion to a gamayun. At least I hope they’re gone and nothing else has shown up.” Her hold on the reigns tightened. “It’ll be nice and peaceful like the rest of our trek through Imperial lands, but I should still mask our movements.” She extended her hand and closed her eyes, envisioning the snow all around her. The pulse through her veins quickened as she felt the warmth of her own blood surge to her outstretched fingers. “Some magic to help cross an empty field with absolutely no cover.” She laughed nervously. “No big deal.”
Revu moved down the other side of the slope and entered the flat terrain surrounding the town.
She kept a hold on the vision of snow, her eyes staying shut as she basked in the warmth of her focused blood. Seconds slipped past that turned into minutes. How much longer until we’re past this open space? She finally peaked her eyes open to see the town much closer but still a way away. The initial buildings standing two stories high seemed to dwarf her with their imposing stone foundations and high-peaked roofs. Her eyes glanced between each one, taking notice of every gap and window along the walls. Any Union? We’re out in the open! A hint of a chill tickled at her fingertips. She grit her teeth and closed her eyes again to the thoughts of snow. No, focus. They can’t see you if you blend in with the surroundings. The warmth returned once more.
The sound of crushing snow beneath Revu’s talons seemed to drown out the gusts of wind blowing across the field. “Hurry, Revu,” she hissed. Beads of sweat formed on her brow as she continued to hold her concentration. Natalia peeked at the sound of shifting rocks ahead to see a flash of fur vanish behind a building. Scavengers? She scanned the buildings again for any movement, the chill starting to creep back. No, there can’t be scavengers here, just Union. Her heart beat faster. No, not even Union, the town is empty! She shut her eyes. Stop thinking, just snow. Snow. Snow. Snow. All it takes is one bullet and I’m— Stop! Just think about snow! She inhaled a deep breath.
Revu paused briefly as her talons clicked on cement, the sound exotic from the crushing of snow.
Finally! She exhaled and quickly steered Revu toward a nearby building with an overhang. “Down,” she hissed to Revu and waited for the volferd to spread her wings. Once off, she guided Revu down to a sitting position behind a pile of rubble.
She wiped the sweat from her face and closed her eyes to extend an invisible touch to the surrounding area, warmth blossoming from her calming heart as she listened for any movement or sensed any presence. “The usual pests… hopefully I’m right about there being no scavengers,” she muttered to herself. Peeking out from the cover, she took in the crumbling infrastructure surrounding her: the gray dismal buildings only holding hints at their former glory, a patch of blue paint peeling here, a thin red fabric flapping in the wind there.
Revu curled her neck against her body and kept an eye on Natalia, waiting patiently.
Natalia gently ran her hand across Revu’s beak. “We’ll move soon, just give me a moment,” she whispered. Along the side of the saddle, her rifle waited in its holster. Taking hold of the butt of the rifle, she pulled it free, smiling at its clean wooden frame. She leaned her back against the smoothest part of rubble she could find along their hiding spot. There she rested the rifle in her lap and began to inspect it. The smooth wooden frame was adorned by the metal barrel going down its length and a bolt handle sticking out the right side. The scope was thin, with two small dials to adjust for elevation and wind. She pulled the bolt handle back and looked in the chamber secured with five rounds. She pushed the handle forward, sealing the chamber once more.
She rubbed at her nose, crinkling up her nose as an underlying stench permeated in the air, partially masked by the cold. How much death is waiting in this town? Loosening her coat, she reached along her belt to confirm her ease of access to a leather pack with two rows of ten bullets within.
A distant shift of rocks brought her back to full alertness. With rifle in hands she peered over the edge and looked towards the source of noise. Down the street, she spotted another glimpse of fur that vanished too soon. She focused her mind on the spot, searching for it, and felt a flutter of emotions wash through her before an abrupt silence. “It has to be a scavenger… but, it hid itself so fast.” She settled back down. “So, strange, but if it’s just the one I should be fine.” From her left hip, she unholstered the seven-barreled revolver and slowly spun the barrel confirming each slot was filled. With a deep breath, she lowered the weapons and leaned her head back. My heart just keeps beating fast.
A low chirp drew her attention. She met Revu’s golden eyes and gave a small smile. “I’m sorry, Revu. Let’s get going.” Natalia rose up into a low crouch and tightened the strap of the rifle, so it rested on her shoulder at the ready. With her right hand steadying the rifle, she moved, her left leading the way with revolver in hand. She looked ahead where the shadow of the overhang ended to the street beyond. The dim light that passed through the thick clouds revealed a large crater. With eyes closed, she reached out for anything and found no response again. “Stay close, Revu.” Natalia led the way, glancing back briefly to make sure the volferd was following.
Revu matched the pace, sensing the urgency for silence. Her head lowered beside Natalia’s shoulder as her golden eyes looked out in either direction for any sudden movements. The volferd’s talons clicked lightly against the stone, softened further by the thin layer of snow across the street.
Natalia moved down the side of the crater, stopping briefly by the jagged remains of the shell poking above the snow packed around the center. A hand stretched out from the dirt, snow decorating the frozen fingertips. Ignore it. She grimaced at the destruction and forced her way onward. Two sides of a large vehicle had been splintered by the shell, the remains thrown all around the edges of the crater. Rising up the other side, she paused at the tree defying death as its branches still reached up into the sky even though its bark was pierced by a metal car door straight through its center. It’s only going to get worse.
Moving beyond the tree, the duo found cover under another overhang built into the side of the building. From there they walked along the side of the building and entered through a gaping hole in the wall. Sounds of skittering feet echoed all around as they paused at the sight of rats vanishing into the shadows. Shards of glass crunched underneath their feet as they entered. The columns of the building showed cracks all along the sides. Furniture lay ripped apart across the floor, harvested for its wooden frames, fabrics, and metal springs; leaving nothing more than the remains that were unsalvageable. Several bones lay across the floor with tattered clothing, the flesh cleaned off. Another crater was further within where a bar had stood. The bottles that once held an assortment of hard liquors now lay strewn about in a mess. At the center a stain of bright, crimson red caught her eye. Natalia raised her brow, studying it with curiosity. At a chirp from Revu, she continued to the other side of the building.
She paused by a large set of double doors, now nothing more than the column in the center and twisted hinges on the side. Her invisible touch reached out and she sensed nothing. Natalia poked her head out and peered down either side of the waiting street to see a similar sight as the road before: a slew of debris and wreckage covered in a thin white blanket. Several more craters were spread all around, distorting the image of a normal snow-covered town. Looking up, Natalia spotted a row of buildings barely standing, their thin pillars rising above the rest of the.
Stepping out, she began to make her way to the opposite side of the street, weaving around snow covered bodies toward the taller buildings at the center of town. A sidewalk lay on the other side, leading her and Revu between two rows of dead or decaying trees. A small statue stood at the center of the small park, its proud figure now missing its head. The plaque with words written in marble lay on the ground, splintered by a thick piece of metal that had flown from a crater off to the side. More of the shrapnel and debris lay scattered through the snowy patch. A few strands of grass poked above the snow in weak defiance.
She moved around the statue and stopped at the dead man with bony hands stretched for the base of the statue. “Loyal to the end,” Natalia mumbled and glanced to the top of the statue. “Defaced, but still standing in defiance to Union.”
The pair moved to the other side of the park, passing more trees miraculously left untouched before ending up on a wide road. An assortment of vehicles lay abandoned throughout the street. Down the center was a long ravine dug deep in the concrete that made it nearly impossible to navigate to the other side of the road without hundreds of feet of detouring, as it took up nearly six of the road’s eight lanes. The ravine curve toward a set of buildings collapsed all around a crashed airship. The ship’s twin tails still stuck out with a Swenork State emblem plastered along the side - three golden stars on a blue background, each a different size, joined by a single black ring. A creaking of metal echoed from the building as the tail shifted up and down slightly in the wind. Several smaller ravines where bombs had dropped lay scattered further down the road, some leading into partially collapsed buildings.
Natalia looked out at the destruction in silent awe, her revolver holstered she reached for her canteen hidden inside her dark gray trench coat. Loosening the top, she took a long gulp. “Swenork really did a number here. I wonder what other nations have fought over this town.” A low chirp from behind pulled her attention away to the large beak waiting for her. “We will stop for the night soon.” She gently ran a hand along the side of Revu’s beak. “You’re doing great my dear friend.” She placed the canteen back in her coat, unholstered her revolver, and set forth down the side of the road towards the distant town hall. More bodies lay along their path, limbs ripped from their owners and the flesh removed entirely. Fresh snow partially masked the scent of decay that hung low in the air.
Pipes stuck out of the ground; ice frozen along the sides where water had spilled out. Store fronts along their right side lay in ruins as every single item within had been taken or lay ripped apart across the floor and remaining shelving. One store was completely missing, nothing more than a pile of rubble laid across the massive crater that had brought down much of the building.
A howling wind swept across the open space, whistling between the assortment of wreckage. Loose flecks of snow began to fall sporadically from the sky, being carried along by the gust. Natalia looked up in a rush at a sudden ding of noise and saw a large amount of rubble and snow had fallen from a rooftop high above to land with a thud against metal. Is that scavenger still following me? She came to a halt and reached with her invisible touch but found nothing. Could it be another esper masking themselves? No, I would have sensed their power initially. It’s surely a scavenger or I’m just going crazy. She took hold of the dark purple scarf around her neck and brought it up around her nose. The chill still crept through the fabric as she took several deep breaths to try to combat it and relax herself. Her grip tightened on the revolver and she resumed her movement down the sidewalk.
She studied the buildings towering two or three stories above them. I need one with a good enough sight but not the town hall itself. Natalia came to a halt as the curve of the road brought her in view of the steps leading up towards a large white building. Much of the building was obscured from her viewpoint but she could make out the pair of stone statues wielding sword and shield on either side of the rising stairs. If Union were here, they’d use the central point. With eyes closed, she reached out once more and found nothing around her and Revu. “Alright, I think this is as close as we’ll get.” Natalia turned around with a smile to Revu and guided the volferd through a doorway in surprisingly good shape.
Revu was forced to keep her head low as she followed Natalia through an open lobby ransacked and torn apart, its carpet a sickly gray. At the back a set of stairs waited with another pair of dead bodies along the steps. A group of rats picking at the remaining flesh scurried off as they entered.
“Disgusting.” Natalia spat in their direction and led Revu to the bottom of the steps, “Get to the top and we can finally rest for today.” She smiled and felt a pull on the reigns as she took the first step. Turning she saw Revu had come to an abrupt halt and let forth a squawk in protest.
“Up!” She ordered.
Revu squawked again.
“Not this again. If it really is a scavenger, we definitely can’t rest on the first floor!” Natalia growled, pulling on the reigns. She grits her teeth as the volferd held her position. “Trust me, the stairs are safe! You aren’t that fat, you overgrown bird!”
“Up! Climb up!” Natalia leaned back on the reigns with her full weight. “And you better not squawk anymore!”
Natalia growled and marched behind Revu. She untied the bag full of seeds from the saddle. Coming back around she went up the steps with the heavy bag slung over her shoulder. “If you want to eat, you’ll follow me.”
With a mournful chirp, Revu followed Natalia up the stairs, going around for two flights before coming out onto the third floor. The whole way Revu took as light of steps as she could muster with her sharp talons. Her wings spread the whole time in anticipation of the stairs giving out on her.
Waiting in the doorway, Natalia rolled her eyes. “Such a nervous wreck,” she walked on through to the new floor heading down a hallway. At each doorway she peaked in; each room was in a different state. Some were covered in snow with holes in the ceiling and glass shattered, while others were frozen in still air. All the rooms had furniture ripped apart and thrown. Dry blood stains covered several of the rooms with bones left behind. Stepping into a room near the end, Natalia peered out the window and saw the steps with the pair of statues from her vantage point. What luck, it seems everything is somewhat intact, and nothing has come up here to die recently.
She turned and went back out of the room to see Revu by the stairway in the small lobby for the floor. The volferd let forth a squawk and sat down in a huddle. She headed back toward her, “I know you hate heights, Revu. But this is the only way I can keep an eye on you while also on the surrounding area.” She holstered her revolver and moved past the volferd to close the door, which was still hanging on a hinge. Once secured, she felt past the door and down the stairway, sensing nothing living following their path. Satisfied they were alone she went back to Revu, setting the bag down as an offering to the volferd. “Now relax, there is nothing to worry about.”
Revu chirped happily and stuffed her beak into the bag, eagerly eating the food within.
“See, you just have to trust me. We’re in this horrid place together.” She gently patted the top of Revu’s beak. “This is the last bit for a while.”
Revu closed her eyes in the comfort of Natalia’s gloved hands while she continued to eat.
“Now rest, you deserve it,” Natalia said, turning away to head back down the hallway. Now we wait. Natalia stepped into a quiet, snow covered room. The bed steel frame was twisted and had a large hole through it down into the wood and into the floors below. Snow piled up in the center of the room where it had fallen through the hole in the ceiling.
She placed the rifle to the side and settled against the windowsill to look out to the stairway and the main intersection of roads at the center of the town. The drifting snow had grown slightly thicker, adding to the coat of white that already covered the town. This town is truly quiet. I didn’t realize just how loud my life had begun. How much I missed this. Yet it feels too empty. She loosened the scarf slightly and pulled free a locket. Unclasping it she saw within two pictures, one depicting a young version of herself and two other girls with big smiles. And the other picture was her surrounded by another girl and three boys along with their mother and father. I do miss you all so very much. I hope you’ve gotten better mama.
With a heavy sigh she closed the locket and hid it back within her gray blouse. Tightening her coat once more and pulling the purple scarf up she took another deep breath. She glanced down at the emblem stitched into her coat around her right breast, a small hexagonal patch with a dark red background, at the center a black orb. Out here because of what I am. Natalia shook her head and looked out past the windowsill. The snow continued to fall as the air began to cool further. Rays of sunlight slipped past the clouds as the sun neared the end of its descent. Darkness slowly crept along the outskirts of the mountains and began to swallow up what was left of the scarred town. What an abysmal way to celebrate my eighteenth birthday.
A blur of faces and crimson flashed through her mind before she woke up. Deep breaths coursed through her, the chill of the air filling her lungs. She sat up and found herself in Revu’s warm embrace. The volferd’s body had acted as a pillow, and her left wing still lay wrapped around Natalia.
Revu gently nudged Natalia against the shoulder with her beak.
She gave a weak smile “I’m alright, it was just a nightmare.” Crawling out from under the wing, Natalia reached for her rifle close by. The wood was a comfort to her distraught senses. She rubbed her forehead and found it covered in a sheen of sweat. Why can’t I forget them? She blinked her eyes and looked about in the darkness, trying her best to get adjusted to her surroundings. Her heartbeat began to slow as she got control over her breathing.
“I’m fine, trust me,” she whispered back. Natalia placed the butt of her rifle on the ground and slowly rose up. Once on her feet she began to numbly move down the hall. “I’ll be back, I just want to warm up a bit.” Without waiting on a further reply from Revu, she continued down the hall before coming to the room overlooking the main intersection of the town. Once there, she placed the rifle to the side of the windowsill and settled by it.
The sight waiting for her outside was the same as yesterday, except fortwo major differences: the fresh snow that now covered the land and the clear sky visible past the clouds that had thinned out slightly, revealing the silvery moon beyond in its descent. In that silvery light, she saw no movement or anything of interest in the intersection or the stairway leading up to the main building.
With eyes closed she reached out once more and sensed nothing but a singular owl flying high above towards a distant target. She listened to the beat of the wings from the owl for as long as possible until she was alone once more. Still nothing. She took hold of the canteen along her belt and unscrewed the top to take another sip of water. It won’t be long until the sun rises, then it’s a short wait until noon.
She tightened the canteen once more and placed it back on her belt. Standing up, she headed back into the hallway to escape a gust of wind that began to spill into the room. Natalia took light steps down the hall and looked down to see the sleeping form of Revu. We’ll head back to the safety of the camp soon. She sighed. And back into the chaos.
Natalia settled besides Revu. Her hands found the pack and she opened it up for a ration bar within. She slowly unwrapped the bar and began to nibble on one end. She tightened the coat with her free hand and curled up as small as possible. Her eyes numbly lowered to her knees pushed together. Teeth gnawed on the bar little by little. What wouldn’t I give to be back in those warm fields playing with my friends? Her head lowered further, the nutrient bar forgotten for now. The still air wrapped around the pair, its chill the only comfort it could provide in the dark space.
A glint of light pierced through a crack in the ceiling, its glow landing at Natalia’s feet. She stirred from her slumber to look at it numbly, her mind racing with the thrill of running through tall grassy fields over hills and streams. A young Revu bouncing right behind her with chirps of glee and excitement to be out in the open. The sun blazing high in the sky with its basking warmth covering all the surrounding land.
Whispers drifted to her ears and she sat up in a rush, eyes wide. Who’s calling out? Her hand squeezed her chest as she resisted the urge to answer. Another esper, of all things to show up! She squeezed her eyes shut and focused her attention to each breath she took. I can’t reach my senses out. Otherwise they’ll know I’m here.
Revu slowly raised her head from the sudden movement. A small click of its beak as she moved her eye to get a better view of Natalia, studying her.
Blinking her eyes open she looked up and met Revu’s eye. “Stay.” Natalia got up and rushed down the hall to come into the snow-covered room. There, with rifle in hand, she settled beside the windowsill and looked out at the wreckage. The rising sun poked through clouds, its glow glinting slightly off metal tips of rusting cars that poked above the fresh coat of white. At the center of it all a group of five dark blue-coated soldiers marched toward the base of the great staircase.
Raising her rifle, she rested the barrel along the sill and peered through the scope towards the group. She moved the scope to the leading soldier. He appeared at most five years older than Natalia, with short black hair adorned with an officer’s cap. He wore a Union officer’s dark navy uniform, a thin golden halo over his heart, saber at the side. The mark of a Yenvark esper, and one of their Leads no less. But he isn’t the one calling out.
She moved the scope to the next soldier, a brown-haired boy, his helmet marked with a visible crack where a bullet nearly struck through. The scope kept moving to hover over a girl with a scarf pulled up, only her eyes visible. The fourth soldier, a large hulking figure, wore a heavy mask and visible plates of armor along his body.
Natalia moved the scope over to the last soldier, a young woman. Chills ran up her spine as whispers fluttered into her ears. She only caught a glimpse of detail, including a flourish of orange hair, before she was forced to pull away. She’s the caller! She squeezed her racing heart, teeth clenched, and her eyes shut tight. A fey here? It has to be the esper’s.
She crawled away from the window to head back into the hall. A constant nagging to extend her magical reach beyond and touch the Fey’s hung at the back of her mind. Once she was back beside Revu she dug through the pack searching for a heavy contraption hidden within a bag, trying her hardest to busy her mind on the task at hand.
Revu watched with keen eyes, clicking her beak.
“Shh.” She placed the bag flat on the floorboards and opened it to reveal a metal transmitter. Loosening the transmitter from the bag she opened its lid and began to adjust the sliders and dials within to the appropriate encryption and closed it back up. Once satisfied, she set it back down and began to tap the small knob against the metal plate, creating short bursts and long pauses between hits.
Tapping away, she came to the end of the message. She paused, eyes widening. “The call, it stopped.” She reached for her heart. “Could she have caught onto my message being sent?” She began to press on the knob to add to the message. “They need to send reinforcements, that fey surely caught on.” She finished and began to pack away the device within the bag. “Help should be coming soon.”
She sealed the pack shut and sat contemplating for a few moments before standing up with a heavy sigh. “I shouldn’t wait, I need to go down and figure out what those Union soldiers are up to. Otherwise it may be too late by the time anyone else gets here.”
Revu clicked her beak.
“I’m sure you would rather leave and get food, or even follow me. But I need you to stay back and be ready to respond to me if I call you.” She slung the sniper rifle onto her back and unholstered her revolver. Taking Revu’s reigns into her free hand, she gently pulled. “Alright?”
Revu tilted her head, listening.
“Now then, stand.” Natalia ordered.
Another click and Revu stood up, performing a quick stretch of her wings and legs before chirping.
Pushing the door aside, Natalia moved down the stairway with revolver leading the way. Her heart started to beat quickly as she took deep breaths. Actual Union soldiers and it’s just me and Revu. Can I really do this? She reached the bottom of the stairway and led Revu to a corner of the room by the entrance they had entered last night. It’ll be fine, I don’t actually have to fight them. Just take a quick look for any further clues and then send a final message before I leave.
She brushed her hand along Revu’s beak. “Stay in here until I come for you or call for you, okay?” Natalia moved her hand down to Revu’s neck, ruffling the feathers slightly. “And if a scavenger shows up, run. Last thing I need you to do is get eaten out here.”
Revu gently opened her beak and licked at Natalia’s cheek.
“Not now,” She stifled her laugh and pushed the volferd back. “Stay,” she commanded and pointed to the ground. She turned and headed out the doorway in a low crouch. With a light sprint, she forced herself up against a wall of a neighboring building. Not seeing the volferd following her, she turned and continued her way toward the main intersection of the town.
Several piles of wreckage blocked her way, forcing her to weave into the street. She kept her head low, peeking above on occasion to confirm her direction. Snow crunched beneath her feet, the fresh white layer reaching around her ankles in some places. Her hands were outstretched, acting as balance as she blindly took each step. Unknown objects buried below the snow forced her to slow down occasionally to avoid tripping.
Coming to the outer ring of the main intersection, she lowered herself beside the charred wreckage of a tank that was blasted open to reveal the twisted and mangled inner gears. She saw nothing along the stairway from her vantage point. The stairway itself going up higher into a wide building with columns all along its front. The white stone of the town hall was cracked and broken in numerous places, the white stained a sickly gray mixed with multitudes of black marks where fire had burned. Holes littered across the entire structure made it a surprise that it still stood amidst the destruction.
Holstering the revolver, she pulled her rifle forward and looked through the scope. Moving the reticle of the scope along the stairs, she spotted where the fresh snow had been disturbed and followed the footprints up the stairway to confirm that the group had entered the town hall.
Natalia slung the rifle onto her back again and freed the revolver. That fey’s calling out is still quiet. She rubbed at her chest. Should I reach out to see where they went? No, then they would know I’m here. Her grip on the revolver tightened.
She moved around the tank and headed deeper into the massive circular intersection. Automobiles of all shapes and sizes were tossed about and crushed by an assortment of military equipment left in disrepair and blown apart from past battles. Bodies lay mixed in, picked clean of much of their flesh, leaving bones and blood stains. Hungry beady eyes watched her from hiding places among the wreckage; the growing chill kept them at bay. The clouds above thickened as the wind picked up, promising more snow later in the day. The bright rays of sunlight became muted.
The bottom of the stairway drew ever closer to her. She kept a focus on herself not daring to relax her senses or else be spotted by the other espers.
Near the center she stopped and holstered her revolver to pull free her rifle once more. Resting it on the sill of a broken car window, she peered through the scope to see the top of the steps. There was a large opening where the doors once stood. Now they were missing along with much of the entrance. The darkness of the room beyond was obscured but within she saw a glint of light hit something moving. What is that?…! A feeling of urgency welled up in her, and she ducked.
A hole in the door, right above her head. Another hole appeared in the vehicle behind her. A whistle of the passing bullet rang in her ear and was followed up by a loud boom as the gunshot that rung out to the entirety of the dormant town.
She grabbed her rifle and sprinted, heading for a nearby armored car. The snow slowed her movements, her feet digging in with her heavy footfalls. She grit her teeth with the effort of moving and jumped for the protection as another gunshot rung out into the air.
Landing in the snow behind the heavy plating of the vehicle she sat up and pushed her back against it. “Damn it.” She seethed through deep breathes. I guess no use in hiding anymore. She reached out, and a wash of warmth went through her body. She felt the touch of life up the set of stairs, but the familiar strong feeling of the esper and fey were distant, nearly non-existent within the structure of the domed building. They left? Why?
She rubbed her forehead of sweat. What a waste, that sniper has me pinned, and I can’t get close enough to learn anything else. I have to get back. Glancing around she took note of her path that she had taken to the center of the intersection. The assortment of vehicles, her attention drawn to the heavily plated tanks and artillery pieces. They’re scattered so far from one another, there is no way I could make it. She brought her fingers up to her lips and paused. I can’t call Revu, she’d get killed. She instead began to bite at the tips of her gloves. I could fight back, but they’re hidden in the darkness, I’d be shooting blind. Even if I conceal myself, one bad shot and I’d be spotted. Natalia took another deep breath and pulled her hand away from her mouth. Relax, I need to think… the other obvious option is to hide my movements, but can I focus for that long? Shouldering the rifle onto her back she sat up in a crouch. Well their esper isn’t here anymore to spot me, so it’s my best bet.
Natalia took note of where an artillery piece sat with its barrel twisted and angled herself to be able to walk straight for it. Think of snow, the pure white beauty that it emits. With a deep breath she closed her eyes and felt the warm embrace of the flow of blood magic. Once she was confident in the casting of her trick she began to walk forward with slow steady steps. The beat of her heart started to grow. It’s clean and appears so smooth across the ground. Her boots slid into the snow effortlessly and exited with each step. The prints left behind were hidden by the remnants of her image. Hundreds of tiny flakes to form large mounds of white. Beads of sweat formed across her face. Each step was slow and methodical as she kept her hands stretched out for balance. Every individual flake unique in its own way. Her entire being focused on maintaining her thoughts.
Her eyes shot open as she bumped into the artillery. She jumped to the side with a gasp as another gunshot rang out. Scrabbling through the snow, she skidded to the side of the piece. Heart racing, Natalia covered her mouth with the scarf and squeezed with her hands, trying to warm each gulp of air. She looked out and saw the rest of the space she had to travel and felt her heart sink. The sniper now knows my plan, but they still don’t have an esper. I just have to hope the trick works again. What choice do I have though?
She reached for her canteen and took a long gulp of the cool water within, the water quenching her thirst after the long use of magic. What about the other two? Could they be surrounding me right now? Natalia took another gulp before closing the canteen. Can’t waste energy trying to look for them now.
The next armored vehicle, nothing more than a hunk of mangled metal, sat forty or fifty meters away. Same thing, no big deal. She stepped out into the open and began to take each steady step. Pure white snow. Her arms were stretched out for balance as each step brought her closer to safety once more. A gust of wind blew against her forcing her to pause momentarily. Stay still, I can’t fall over now. After waiting for the wind to pass she resumed her steady movement. The crunch of bones beneath her boots sent a shiver through her. Breathe…
Her next step landed on something rough causing her to tilt or risk twisting her ankle. Her mind flashed with an alarm as her eyes opened and she saw that the air around her was blurry. It broke! Natalia dropped out of instinct and brought her hands up, the snow to her left was sent up in a flurry of solidifying mist. She gasped at the sight of a pointed bullet getting frozen in the magic-infused snowy wall she had created, its momentum carrying it to stop right next to her head before it and all the snow fell back down harmlessly. Move! She stumbled forward as the booming of the gunshot sounded out. With hands outstretched she took hold of a piece of metal jutting out and pulled herself from the thick snow and into the safety of cover. “I’m not dead,” Natalia muttered to herself while patting her hands across her body to make sure nothing was broken. A dizzy spell rushed through her as her heart began to calm down. “I’m getting too tired… how am I going to make it?” She gasped for air.
Natalia looked up and saw the tank with its center blasted in at the edge of the intersection. “One more time…” She took another deep breath. “Then the sniper should have a bad angle!” A smile crept at her lips. “Almost there.” Sitting up, she abruptly slumped forward as her vision blurred. I’ve used so much of my blood. She pulled herself back against the cover and ripped off her left glove. She pulled a vial filled with a crimson liquid from her pouch. Do I need to do this? Natalia brushed at her forehead with the back of her hand as another wave of dizziness hit her. Yes, yes, I do. She laid the vial in her open palm, admiring the red contents within. It seems so little. She closed her hand around it and paused. “All the stories about using these things, is it really worth it?” She looked in the direction down the street where Revu was hiding. “I could call for her.” She shook her head, “I can’t risk her life because I’m afraid. I have to do this.” Extending her hand, she squeezed down on the vial as hard as she could. The glass shattered under the pressure, the edges breaking her skin. The bloody liquid seeped out from between her fingers before turning back around, snakelike, to dive into her open cuts.
She felt a shiver run down her spine at the sight and feeling of bloody tendrils digging into her palm. Natalia opened her hand to see the last of the blood seep in, the wounds sealing shut with the last of the glass shards being pushed out harmlessly. With a deep gasp she felt a surge of energy rush through her. By the Father himself, this feels amazing!
The remains of the vial fell into the snow, forgotten and empty. She moved out into the open, heading straight for the tank. Her mind quickly focused with renewed vigor as the image of snow blanketed her movement. Her confidence soared as each step through the thick snow came with ease. Arms stretched out, she felt no fear of losing balance or any focus at that. The tank came closer and closer as she dared to open her eyes and take note of any changes in direction she had to do. A smile beamed on her face as she stretched out her hands to touch the waiting protection of metal. A growing pressure began to squeeze her. An abrupt frown crossed her lips as pain shook her very core, focus quickly slipping. A distant gunshot echoed at the back of her mind.
Looking down she saw a stain of red enveloping the right side of her stomach. She wanted to scream and cry all at once as her heart raced ever faster, the beat of it pounding in her ears. The sniper is going to shoot again. She stumbled forward, her hand finding the metal but unable to grip it as she began to slip. Just a little more. Landing on her knees she reached out and dragged herself forward. I refuse to die here! Growling with the effort she twisted onto her back and created another shield of snow, the buff of white blanketing her as another boom of a rifle firing broke the air. She felt no pain and released the spell, not bothering to see where the bullet had gone this time. Crawling out of the snow that covered her she found herself behind the cover of the tank.
Up against the tank she closed her eyes as the adrenaline kept pumping through her veins. Am I out of sight now? Can I call Revu? She loosened her coat and pulled her right glove off to press her hand against her side and began to focus on the palm of her hand. Close… She felt her hand become warm and that same warmth rush through to the bullet hole underneath her blouse. The pain did not subside as tears formed at the corners of her eyes. It’s not closing. She brought her hand up to see it stained in red. Why can’t I focus? She pulled the glove back on and tightened her coat once more.
“I need to get to Revu… the first aid kit…” she mumbled as she began to crawl along the side of the tank. Nearing the edge, she leaned back on her heels. One more sprint. Natalia bit her lower lip trying to ignore the numbness growing along her side. She closed her eyes and tried to envision a protective shield. Gasping, she wiped a few strands of hair from her forehead, slick with sweat. “My mind just won’t stop racing, is it because of the vial?” Her heart ached with dread as she eyed a set of cars just a few dozen feet away that led back into the sidewalk she had originally come from. “I can’t wait, I just have to go.”
With a final gulp she launched forward, her feet moving as fast as possible through the snow. The pain in her side ached as the warmth of blood expanded further along her blouse and began to stain her pants. Her breathing was short and desperate as every sense of her being was focused on the pair of cars ripped into pieces by shrapnel.
A sudden sharp burst of pain ruptured in her left shoulder that sent her in a spin. She slammed onto the hood of one car and slid across the top to land heavily on the other side. Her vision blurred as agony took hold of her. Stay awake. Natalia blinked several times; darkness crept at the edges of her vision as a chill ran up her spine. Stay awake! A wave of energy returned to her in flutters, the beat of her heart inconsistent.
The pain in her shoulder quickly grew as her senses came back to her. She brought her fingers to her lips and let out a powerful whistle. Revu! Stumbling to her feet, she began to inch forward, her left arm hanging at her side. Just keep moving. With gritting teeth, she fought back the urge to sob in pain, tears sliding down her cheeks. The warmth on her right side was long gone, now a freezing numbness that kept growing. I can feel the touch of magic, but why is it all such a mess of noise?
A blur of motion caught her eye, and she turned in time to see the bulky figure with plated armor charging towards her left side. Barrier! She latched her thoughts onto the idea as fear coursed through her. She let out an exclamation of surprise that was quickly changed to a grunt of pain as she was flung into the side of a deep crater. Shards of dirt and cement launched out from the ground around her in a haphazard way, several going in directions devoid of anything.
The figure descended upon her, with his large shield raised to slam it down upon her neck. A shard hit him against his side causing the shield to land off target. Without missing a beat, he smashed the spike and another rising to block his path with his armored fists. Through the rocky shrapnel he reached out for Natalia. “Please—” was all she muttered before the strong hands wrapped around her thin neck. The blackness at the edge of her vision came back with renewed strength to consume her. It hurts… Her right hand clawed weakly at the figure. Its white mask, devoid of all features, stared back at her as her legs wriggled in feeble attempts at kicking. The tightness around her neck grew. Mama…
She was abruptly twisted to her side, and the release from around her neck brought her back in a fit of coughing. Her right hand self-consciously found her revolver, the trigger a comfort to her. Blinking, she looked up to see Revu standing over her in a protective manner, beak lowered like a ram. She glanced in Revu’s direction to see the hulking figure slumped over several feet away. Natalia turned her head back to Revu to see the volferd lowering toward her with an open beak. She offered her working right arm.
The beak gripped around her right arm and pulled her up with a quick motion that carried her into the air. Natalia gasped as she landed onto the saddle with her stomach. “Run, quick…” she mumbled, and with that command Revu launched off.
A movement in the snow caught her attention, and she saw another thin figure appear in the street behind them with a rifle raised. Natalia pointed her revolver and fired off a quick salvo. A thin smile crept at her lips at the sight of the figure ducking behind cover.
“Keep going Revu…” she said, beginning to doze off. “Keep going…”