Tikimaken sucked in air in deep gasps, doubling over slightly and stumbling a little as he kept running forward. He squinted his eyes, then forced himself to slow down, but not stop running, instead letting his speed gradually fall back into a fast walk. Exhaustion dulled his mind, and the relief of having made it almost caused him to collapse.
The gnomes manning the outpost in front of him raised a cry when they saw him, and he smiled to himself. It was an out-of-the-way spot, some distance from any of the fighting, and well-hidden among a cluster of rocky hills in the shadow of a crevice under a stone overhang. The small squad of soldiers guarding it didn’t seem like they’d seen combat, at least not recently.
“Fellow - Sir,” one of them said, correcting himself presumably when he saw Tikimaken’s System description. “We didn’t expect to see anyone else making it here. You came from the battle?”
Tikimaken nodded, still drawing in air greedily. He stopped and rested his hands on his knees. “I was lucky to make it out,” he said. “Then I made my way here, dodging their patrols as best I could.” He paused for a moment. “I need to report home.”
That was what he was expected to say, even if he didn’t feel any particular urge to see any other officer at the moment.
He didn’t need to look at their expression to know he was lucky to have made it out alive. If he hadn’t decided the battle was lost and run, he wouldn’t have. He pushed down the faint feeling of guilt he felt at the thought. He survived, that was what mattered, and he would be more useful to his people alive rather than one more casualty of that utter disaster of an attempted assault.
“Alright,” one of the other soldiers said. “We have a cart here. It’s mostly downhill to the transit point, and then you can hitch a ride on the convoy going back to Telimelekilete-En, sir.”
Tikimaken nodded, muttered his thanks and stumbled into the tunnel opening. There, he found the cart, a simple wooden vehicle. One of the soldiers spread a blanket on the space in the back and he settled down, letting them strap him in. His eyes closed and he barely heard the sounds of the soldier getting the cart moving on the rails before he nodded off.
It didn’t take too long for them to reach the transit point, where several of the rail lines converged and split. Tikimaken hopped out of the cart and found a place on one of the bigger trains, several of the carts hitched together. They would take the main road, a stretch of wide tunnels and a few open parts. Since it was mostly going uphill, the carts were pulled by a draft team. This time, they were using bovine monsters he vaguely recognized as Steel-Horned Oxen, strong and tireless beasts. They must have been brought in because of this route’s military importance.
“You’re with the army?” one of the drivers asked him. “Coming or going to a deployment?”
“Actually, I just came from the battle,” Tikimaken responded with the best smile he could manage. “To be honest, I just want to sleep for days.”
The driver nodded in understanding. “We have a bedroll in the back of the middle cart,” he offered. “It might be a bit loud, but you should be able to catch some sleep.”
“Much obliged,” he answered, nodding at the man and turning to climb in.
He slept through most of the trip, which made it hard to know how much time it took. It was not the most comfortable journey, jolting around in a cart and with the sounds of other travelers all around him, but Tikimaken was exhausted enough to still fall asleep easily. Even when a particularly loud noise woke him several times, he returned to sleep. When he finally woke up for good, he felt refreshed and much more alert than he had before. He carefully sat up, stretched and climbed out of the bedroll, before heading to the front of the wagon.
They were almost to the city. The beasts were moving quite quickly, so that should not surprise him. He could not see the sun, so he didn’t know what time it was; however, judging by the signs of activity around them, it should be daytime. That prediction was proved true after a short while, as they approached the city and the darkness in front of them brightened slightly, in reflection of the light falling down upon the city from the daylight sky.
The wagon halted briefly in front of the outer gate leading down into the city, then continued on. Once they reached the end of the track, Tikimaken jumped down. He waved at the driver who’d talked to him before, then turned to head into the city proper.
He had not been back since the beginning of the campaign, obviously, so he was not quite certain how things might have changed or where he should go. In truth, he really wanted to go see Tikelikel. He hadn’t talked to her in far too long, and after the harrying journey and all the fighting, he longed to see her face. Unfortunately, he was not sure where she would be right now, either.
It turned out he was worrying for nothing, as the decision was taken out of his hands as soon as he reached the outer gate of the facility the army had taken over as its headquarters. It used to be a factory, but had been hurriedly restructured to accommodate the needs of the war. The sentinel at the entrance waved him in, and Tikimaken passed through the gate in the metal fence and into the outer yard. Here, a young man whose face he vaguely recognized approached him hurriedly.
“Tikimaken, Unbroken Rock?” he asked, barely waiting for a sign of confirmation. “Follow me, sir. You arrived just in time.”
“How so?” Tikimaken hesitated, then followed the young man, who he noticed was not wearing any kind of uniform.
“The boss will explain, I’m sure.”
He led him into a side building and down a corridor into a well-appointed conference room. Tikimaken felt his eyebrows rising as soon as he recognized the woman apparently waiting for him. “Dekilakel?”
“Tikimaken. It is good to see you. I probably should not be saying this, but I’m relieved you survived.” She smiled and grasped his hand.
He nodded and returned her smile. Dekilakel was a friend of Eli’s, and also quite high up in their faction. “I am, too. It is good to see you, as well.”
He tried not to think about his companions. Realistically, most of them were likely to be dead. He was hoping that some of them had escaped, at least. They were quite high-level, like him. Erdeken had a good head on his shoulders; he would have known to retreat in time.
“I suppose you have not had any contact with home while you have been on campaign?” Dekilakel asked.
He shook his head. “No, not at all. I was expecting to be debriefed about what I’d seen at the battle as soon as I came here, to be honest.”
“Yes, of course. Was it as much of a disaster as it seems?”
Tikimaken hesitated for a moment, then decided he had to take this chance to tell someone who might be able to do something about it. “I am not sure what you have heard, but if I had to guess, it was likely worse. We were absolutely decimated, Dekilakel. I am sure the Hivekind suffered losses, as well — and I will be the first to admit I did not have a very good overview of the battle, so I cannot be sure how heavy they were — but it might not matter. Our army is effectively gone. Both of them, apparently.” He paused for a moment. “To be frank, the decision to push on at all was very questionable. This was … something we should have been able to see coming.”
She nodded seriously. “It is not the only questionable decision that has been taken during the course of this war. I am aware.”
Tikimaken cocked his head slightly, watching her. “Good,” he said after a moment. “I have to admit I cannot help but wonder, though. The faction …”
"The faction didn’t decide these things, our military commanders did,” she said.
“I know,” Tikimaken replied, but his tone would make it clear that he didn’t consider this to be a full answer.
She looked at him for a moment, before continuing. “That said, you are right. The military commanders we were relying on for this campaign weren’t chosen because they were the most competent, but because of political reasons.”
He frowned. That could either mean they had patrons in high places — or that they were supposed to be less competent than would have been possible. Is this another example of our people maneuvering to get rid of opponents? he wondered. They might not have considered potentially extending the war to be a bad thing, either … A chill ran down his spine at the thought. Perhaps his response would have been different only a few weeks ago, but now, after all that had happened, he had to work not to show anger at the possibility.
“Were relying on?” he asked instead.
She nodded with a small grimace. “Of course, we can’t have them continue to make decisions in this war. Not after this. Hoping to whittle down our opponents’ military strength may have been a secondary aim, I’m sure you can guess as much, but no one expected things to go this badly. Looking back, I have to admit we were far too arrogant. No, if we are to dig ourselves out of this hole we have just stumbled into, we will need our best effort, across the board. For all gnomes, not just Historicals.”
Tikimaken was not sure she truly understood the full gravity of the situation, but her last words did ease his tension a little. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked. “Not that I do not appreciate it, of course. But I’m sure you have many things to do.” Well, he supposed they wouldn’t have sent a woman to talk to everyone about military matters, but the two of them knew each other, and he had far more important things to worry about than being hung up on inconsequential details. Still.
“Because you will help me, us,” she answered frankly.
“Me? How can I help? I’m only a merchant who almost lost his life in this war.”
“Exactly. You’re a well-respected member of the Historicals, Tikimaken. You’re rather strong, you’re known for being level-headed, and now you have personal experience with this war, experience right from the front. When you tell them what is truly going on, they will need to listen, won’t they?”
“I hope so,” he responded, a little hesitantly. He frowned in thought for a moment, then nodded. “I will certainly try my best,” he continued more firmly.
This was an opportunity, and more than that, it was something he had to do for the sake of his country. He had never felt this way before, and it was a little startling to realize it now, but he was not going to let it stop him. If he failed, he might doom a lot of people, maybe all gnomes on this continent.
“Very good,” Dekilakel replied, giving him a politician’s smile. “There is a meeting of the general staff with executive council members. I hope I can count on you to give your report while keeping in mind what we have just dicussed.”
“You want me to speak at such a meeting?” Despite himself, his eyes widened slightly.
“I am serious about this, Tikimaken,” she said. “Many people in the executive council are too preoccupied with the usual politics to grasp the magnitude of the challenge we face. For that matter, I am not convinced that certain high-ranking officers are much better. And the factions’ struggle over resources and influence has become more pronounced in the military sphere. I need a personal account to knock some sense into them … among other things.”
“I’ll try my best,” he repeated. “Do you have other veterans lined up to give reports, as well?”
“Of course. We have some written reports, as well. That is not the only reason I am talking to you, however.”
“I assume you have something else in mind for me.”
“Indeed.” She smiled again. “It would be a shame for your talents to go to waste sitting around here, or dying on some random hill. I intend to give you an opportunity to help, not to mention some influence. Do you know General Aliekin?”
“I do, although I wasn’t aware he was a general,” he answered with a frown.
“He hasn’t been for long. But he’s almost certainly the brightest of our senior commanders. He has also been an outspoken voice for caution and a proper evaluation of our opposition, and he has begun devising some strategies and doctrines to counter the enemy from every report we could gather. We are going to be on the defensive for the foreseeable future, but unlike some others I could name, he is refusing to panic and using the time we have to prepare. We are giving you a position as his assistant.”
“What?” He stared at her in surprise. “But I’m not a soldier. I may be a good combatant, but this is a senior officer’s posting.”
“Would you rather die in some random tunnel?” She frowned at him. “If the chance to stay out of combat isn’t good enough for you, think about Eli, at least. Besides, we’re hardly giving you this on a whim. We need people who have actually been out there and seen the fighting, and for some mysterious reason, we are tragically short of senior officers with such experience. Furthermore, I am hoping you will be able to work as a sort of liaison between the faction and military command. You have always been good at that sort of thing. You also have personal experience with the Hivekind, knowledge of the surrounding area, and a sense of discretion.”
He stared at her for a moment longer, closed his eyes, rubbed the bridge of his nose, then opened them again and returned her smile. Everything she had said was true, after all. He really was not looking forward to going back out there, into the line of fire, either, and doing important work here in the city was just what he needed. “Alright. You’re right. I’ll do my best, and thank you.”
“Good. Then let’s get going, the meeting is about to start.”
“One more question, if you would.” Then he hesitated. “I’ll tell you truly, Dekilakel, it is looking grim. We must have lost many soldiers, and they will not be the last. Is there anyone advocating for … limiting the damage that we must suffer? Perhaps ending the war? You are right, I do have personal experience with the Hivekind — and they are not mindless monsters. They can be reasoned with.” He grimaced as he said that, Peri’s dead face flashing by his inner eyes. But he focused on the gnome in front of him.
Dekilakel’s face closed off. “You mean attempting to sue for peace? No,” she said curtly. “Perhaps there are some people talking like this, but you should not mind it. We cannot afford to screw this up, Tiki. Losing the war is not an acceptable outcome. And what do you think it would do to the faction, to you and me?”
“Alright,” he muttered, then gave her a firm nod.
“Let’s go. Get your head in the game, and focus on relating your experiences clearly.”
He wiped his palms on his trousers, wishing he had time to change his clothes, but only nodded. This was an abrupt turn, and he was uncertain what the future held, but this was indeed a kind of battlefield he felt more suited to. Although he doubted he had seen the last of actual battlefields.
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Bio: A reader and writer, mostly of science fiction and fantasy. I'm currently trying my hand at writing web serials, though I've finished several novels offline. English isn't my first language, please point out any mistakes you see.