Shadow's Pursuit

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Chapter Four

RAINE DISCOVERED, ONLY a few short days following her swift and easy infiltration into First Company, that her presence in the group of ‘enemy’ soldiers was not as discreet as she had thought it was.

She was sitting nearby a section’s set-up point for the night, keeping out of the line of sight of the soldiers but yet within acceptable distance of them. Should anyone see her, she could still claim to be a part of their section. It was easy enough- people cared not for the individual faces around them.

She considered this as she heard footsteps approaching, leaves crackling underfoot, and she sat up from her comfortable position on the ground. She readied herself for her excuse, but it died in her throat as her visitor appeared from within the trees.

“Well, this is interesting, is it not?” came the voice. Despite her training, Raine felt her muscles tense and a sharp intake of breath funnel down her throat. A wave of unease washed over her.

“Lloyd,” she said, rapidly getting to her feet and smiling as genuinely as she could, willing the panic from her eyes and ignoring the energy rush through her body. Her mind was crawling for excuses, explanations, anything, but it was strangely quiet. It’s all over, she thought. Tenebrae protect me.

“Indeed, it is very interesting,” Wetherdon said, slowly walking towards her with his hands behind his back. His thin lips were curled into a small smile, his eyes shining from behind his round glasses with something akin to excitement or anticipation.

“What would be interesting?” she asked politely, her trepidation increasing with each of his steps. He lifted his hand to push his glasses up his sharp nose.

“It is interesting that I would find you here, Miss Raine, amongst First Company,” he said with equal politeness. “Especially as I am almost certain that you were placed in Second.” Standing before her, equal height, his smile turned into a teeth-baring grin.

“Yes, they made a few changes at the last minute,” Raine started, but she fell silent as he tilted his head, looking at her from over the rims of his glasses. His teal-coloured eyes were filled with a fierceness that made her step back.

“Come now,” he said softly, still grinning. “We both know that that is far from the truth. I had detected your presence the moment we had left the capital.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. Her instincts were screaming at her to run, but she knew that there was no point. She had to feign her way through this. There is nothing else to do- unless I attack him? Knock him out and drag him somewhere? The muscles in her right arm tensed, her hand slowly tightening into a fist.

“I’d be delighted if you would speak with me,” Wetherdon said, his grin fading back into a polite, interested smile.

“What do you want to discuss?” she asked, heart racing. Despite her fear, she focused her mind, taking into her memory all that was around her- the different shades of colour on the plants and trees, the smell of dirt, the calming embrace of the shadows. I must keep my mind strong. If he starts to use Death Magic on me, I must be aware.

“Dear Raine,” he said with a small sigh, smiling and shaking his head softly. “I was worried that you would not speak to me again regarding our last conversation.”

Raine glanced around but it was clear that they were alone- the section members had not heard them.

“What do you intend to do?” she asked, keeping her rising fear from her voice.

“I have no intention of alerting the company captain of your presence so please, calm yourself.” he said smoothly. “I would just like to talk to you.”

“You mean that you won’t tell them I’m here as a spy?” Raine said, her eyes narrowing. His smile was not reassuring. “That makes no sense. Why?”

Wetherdon’s eyes shined. “Because perhaps, Miss Raine, we could come to some kind of an agreement instead.” he said. He looked up at the sky through the canopy, seemingly fascinated by the slowly passing clouds. “It would be so much nicer if we could get along. I would hate to have to curse you.”

Raine’s eyes narrowed, her pulse thumping powerfully in her throat. “What do you want?” she said slowly, catching on quickly.

Wetherdon gave a small laugh and a short, casual shrug. “The same thing we discussed last we met- I want to help you to become a Death Mage.” he said. Raine ignored the flash of fear that shot up her spine. Not this again.

“Why are you so adamant on this?” she asked, frustration rising. “I’m a Water Mage; I have no want or intention of becoming a Death Mage.”

“I am adamant on you becoming a Death Mage because that is what you are.” Wetherdon said smoothly, ignoring the tone of her voice. “It is as simple as that. You cannot deny what you are, nor can you deny what you can and must do.”

Raine gritted her teeth. “But I don’t want to be one!” she said. He raised an eyebrow.

“Does that mean that you have come to terms with the fact that you do have a Bridge of Death?” he asked, voice musical. He’s enjoying this. She shook her head slightly.

“I don’t know! I’ve never seen it, or felt it, so I don’t know.” she said.

“But you accept that you can sense élan vital, no?” he asked.

“Maybe.” Raine said shortly. “But I don’t know if that means anything.”

Wetherdon laughed again. “My dear girl, no ordinary person can sense élan vital! One has to have either the Bridge of Life or the Bridge of Death to be able to sense it.” he said. “And we have already decided that you are no Life Mage.”

Gods curse him; I have to get out of here. Someone’s going to come past us soon!

“Okay, fine.” she said, rubbing her temple. “Let’s say for a moment that I do have a Bridge of Death. Now what? You want me to become a Death Mage? You’ll let me go if I become a Death Mage?”

Wetherdon’s eyes were glowing. “Indeed. I will not say anything to the superiors regarding your presence here if you agree to take a few lessons with me.” he said.

Her frown deepened. “With you? Why?”

He cast her a brief but condescending look. “Surely you don’t want others to know that you are undertaking Death Magic training, no?” he said.

An image of Chelstra’s scowling face flashed into her mind.

“No,” she said. “But what about Life Magi sensing me? They’ll know anyway!”

Wetherdon shrugged. “Not necessarily,” he said, unconcerned. “Because you also have a Bridge of Water, I would assume that it would alter some of the effects of an activated Bridge of Death. It is most likely that they will not be able to sense it.”

“But you can sense it,” she said defensively, “What stops them?”

Wetherdon gave a deep, exasperated sigh. “As I have told you before, my dear, like-kind can detect like-kind. I am a Death Mage; therefore, I can sense your Death Bridge, even if I cannot sense your Water one. Life Magi detect nothing within you, as they are not like-kind.”

Raine chose not to reply, but he continued to watch her patiently as she emotionally struggled.

If they can’t sense me then no one will know, and it will be okay. I’ll do a few lessons with him, learn a few tricks, and then leave it at that. I just have to get out of this situation- I cannot be found here as a spy! The section could move or hear us at any moment!

“Alright, I’ll do a few lessons with you,” she said, resigned. Wetherdon’s smile broadened, his teal eyes gleaming. “As long as you don’t give away my identity here.”

“Trust me, I have no intention of doing such a thing,” he said, clearly very pleased. “And I assure you, you will not regret learning Death Magic. You will see how incredibly valuable it is as a realm of study.”

“If you say so.” Raine said, her eyes scanning around her once more, the thought of training with Wetherdon only increasing the nausea in her stomach.

The Death Mage nodded.

“Very well Miss Raine,” he said politely, as though they had just been discussing the weather, “I will leave you to your work. I will contact you when we return to the kingdom regarding our lessons.”

“Alright.” she said.

He gave a small bow and turned and walked away promptly, disappearing into the trees as smoothly as he had come.

Raine let out a long sigh. What in the name of Rendeis am I meant to do now? she thought desperately.

AT LAST, AS the week of travelling was coming to a close, the First Company was called to a stop. Word quickly travelled around that the company scouts had returned from their journey ahead of them. Platoon lieutenants were ordered away for briefing with the company captain, leaving the section sergeants in charge.

They sat on their packs, still in single file, and Raine kept to the side of the group, out of sight. Movement caught her eye and she watched with mild interest as a large beetle trudged past in front of her boot, climbing through its mountainous terrain of leaves and dirt.

A cool breeze was sweeping through the trees, shadows growing along the ferns and shrub of the understory as the afternoon rolled in. The air was slightly humid but fresh, smelling of the sweet fragrances of birch, holly and hawthorn with the undertone of decomposing leaves.

I wish I had brought a book to read, Raine thought idly, letting her mind wander.

“Thankyou for the book you brought me,” she said quietly, looking up at him. “It was very entertaining.”

“You have finished it already? Are you that bored here?” Aloyce asked her, sipping his coffee slowly. She looked down at her intertwined hands, resting on the table. Her plate, half eaten, sat to her side. The rest of the table was vacant, and no one disturbed them as they sat alone.

“I don’t have the time to be bored.” she said with a hint of irritation. “Every waking moment I’m fighting Damien, or running, or doing push-ups, or throwing knives.”

Aloyce’s eyes narrowed. “Then how did you find the time to read the book? Are you sleeping?” he asked, voice even. She shrugged, and then winced at the pain that shuddered down her shoulder.

“Yes, I’m always exhausted so I fall asleep straight away.” she said. Aloyce said nothing, silence growing between them.

Then he put down his cup and moved forward. “You do not like this place.” he said.

She looked up at him, eyes growing wet. “I hate it.” she stated. Her bottom lip trembled.

“I’m sorry.” Aloyce said, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “If I could get you out, I would. I would take you back to the magi, but law is law. Even Father’s words did nothing. There’s nothing I can do.”

Something flashed across his face, a fleeting expression that she was unable to recognise. She wondered if his eyes, the same dark shade as her own, were expressing pain. It was not something she had seen often in her older brother.

“I know.” she said. The tears in her eyes slowly disappeared with each blink of her eyelids. “It’s just, my training master is so…” She searched for a precise word. “…mean.”

“I heard that he is one of the younger ones, around your age?” Aloyce asked.

She nodded. “Yes. They said that he is one of the most skilled they have even at his age, so it would be best if he taught me since all the other instructors are busy with the more experienced students.” she said, thinking back to the day when she had been brought before Grandmaster Kyushu, bewildered and terrified. Aloyce didn’t answer.

“And he is really good, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think he likes having to teach me everything from scratch. There are kids younger than me that are far better than I.” she said, her voice lowering to barely above a whisper. “I don’t know why they bothered with me at all.”

“Rules are rules, Raine.” Aloyce said, the sharpness in his voice bringing her eyes back up to his. “But don’t lose hope. You started later than them, but that does not mean that you are useless. You will learn. Just give it time.”

“I suppose.” Raine said. She was about to put her chin in her hands when her brother shifted, pulling something from the pocket beneath his black and red tunic.

“Here,” he said, and pushed a small book over the table and into her hands. “I brought you another.”

Tears welled in her eyes again. “Thankyou Aloyce,” she said, her voice cracking. The cold roughness she was so used to seeing in her brother’s eyes faded slightly. “I appreciate it.”

She was pulled from her daydream as the section started to move, and she stepped back out and casually re-joined them from the rear. Her movement was so swift and natural that even those in front of her did not question where she had come from. Excitement was awakening in Raine’s chest as she realised that they had finally reached their position, and battle would soon be commencing. Despite her confidence in her infiltration techniques, however, she also felt nervous.

Stirred by both fear and excitement, the First Company moved through the woodlands with newfound energy, and Raine’s infiltration section went with it.

WITH MORNING CAME an increased air of excitement and anticipation, but it was one that was quickly quashed as hard labour began. They didn’t have long to prepare the fortress, but the energy of the Earth Magi was not limitless. They started by preparing walls that were just above waist-height, with trenches behind them that acted as the initial line of defence against Second Company. The plan was to construct a building that would house the non-combatants- the officers in charge, the tacticians and the advisors, as well as the flag and a small Flag Guard. Then, the rest of the company would reside behind taller walls and guard towers. For the time being, the area was littered with tents and makeshift wells and latrines, organised in a loose and scattered fashion.

Magi were called away separately from the infantry and were used to increase the defences of the area. Earth Magi continued to thicken the walls and create tunnels and traps; Water Magi assisted the Earth Magi in making mud traps and wells, whilst Air Magi acted to steer wind currents in the Company’s favour so that the sounds of their construction would not be heard by their enemy. Fire Magi simply assisted the infantry with the manual labour of setting up traps, chopping down trees and guarding the location during the day.

Raine spent her day helping the Water and Earth Magi, and no one questioned her position. Why would they, she thought as she filled a deep well with water, it’s extra help. Luckily for me, there are no other Death Magi around to detect my presence. She worked alongside her Earth Mage companion from Second Company, a young man named Will. He was only slightly taller than her, and had curly mud-brown hair that wavered between his ears and his shoulders. He was of average build, leaning towards the well-fed side but by the way he walked, Raine guessed that he had more muscle than fat beneath his tunic. His face was surprisingly young and void of even stubble, and only his bright green eyes and sharp and witty nature revealed his age.

Raine would stand close to him and pretend to be working, taking her time in filling wells whilst they talked. It was slow because he, like the other Earth Magi, was exhausted, but it allowed the two of them to share information.

“People are realising that their scouts have disappeared for a while,” he said to her at one point. “The officers are apparently getting restless.”

“So they would be,” she said quietly. “It shouldn’t be very long now until they figure out what’s happening.”

“Do you have any plans?” he muttered, placing his palms against a wall and strengthening it. They could hear the rock in the wall as it compressed together. Raine looked sideways at him.

“What do you mean? About the battle?” she said quietly. He nodded. Raine turned around slowly and casually, taking in the scene around her. Most of the soldiers didn’t look twice at them as they roamed around the low outer wall, working on trenches, wells or the wall itself.

“I’d like to get a look at the flag,” she said. “Maybe we can see how many people are guarding it. We could steal it or disarm the Guard or something, then hide away until the whole thing goes over?”

Will frowned. “That’s one hell of a job.” he said. “I overheard that there’s at least four of them; do you really think you could take four on?”

“It all depends on who they are, I guess.” Raine said quietly. “If all they’ve built so far is a small construct for the flag and superiors, then it shouldn’t be too hard to infiltrate. Who knows, we could sneak in there when they’re distracted or something and steal it from right under their noses.”

“Now that’s an idea.” he said, nodding. He went quiet for a moment as another mage passed by them. “Create a diversion and get inside whilst they’re too busy dealing with it. Not bad.”

“But then again,” he added after a thoughtful pause, “That’s still four people you’re up against. And then you need to get out of the area. Good luck with that.”

Raine frowned, pushing her thoughts to the back of her mind for future contemplation, and continued on.

IT WAS LATER that day, when the sun was starting to descend and the sky was a rich mix of pink, orange and blue, did Raine decide that Fortis, the God of Luck, was truly against her.

She and Will were finishing up the final touches of a well when the order to rest for the night was given. They leaned back with sighs of relief as they inspected their handiwork, and Will turned to her, his eyes overbright with exhaustion.

“I was wondering when they’d finally give us a break,” he said, voice light, but Raine was paying him no attention.

The swaying motion of hair, tied high and like a horse’s tail, had caught her eye and she was frozen with horrified realisation. The worst part was, he had also seen and recognised her and was staring quite openly back at her from his position some twenty paces or so away. She hadn’t even known that he was there, having just exited a large tent. Her whole body was tense, her mind blank. Not again. Not now. Please Rendeis, not now.

Hayato crossed the space between them in a few sweeping steps and looked down at her, his dark eyes filled with disbelief. His lips were tightly pursed together, his well-defined jaw clenched.

“What in the name of-” he started, his voice demanding, but then he stopped himself and looked away for a moment. Raine continued to look at him with wide eyes, her cheeks starting to burn, energy flooding her system. Her diaphragm was contracted into a tight, painful ball. Hayato quickly composed himself, his eyebrows arching into a frown, his eyes looking at her with serious curiosity rather than surprise. “Raine.” he said, a statement rather than a question.

Her voice bubbled through the ice in her lungs and throat and reached the surface. “Hayato.” she said quietly.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. His eyes flickered over at the people moving around in the camp area surrounding them, but his focus was solely on her. Will took a few steps away from her, watching with trepidation, but it didn’t register in her mind that he was there at all.

“What do you mean?” she asked. His eyes narrowed.

“You’re a spy.” he said. She could feel a cold anger coming from him, and it scared her. She knew that he was taking his position very seriously, but she hadn’t expected actual anger. This isn’t just a game to him, she realised. It’s a chance for him to prove himself. She found that she had nothing to say, so she only looked back up at him with panic.

“You are, aren’t you? Second Company sent you.” he said. She saw the muscles on his arms contract and tighten as his hands balled into fists, the second-lieutenant bar on his epaulette glinting in the dying sunlight.

She was dumbstruck, unable to move under the surprising intensity of his accusing stare. No excuses came to mind.

“I-I- don’t-” she stammered. His eyes flared with anger and he took a step forward, clearly having decided on his next course of action.

Suddenly there was a loud crash from behind him and he turned to the source of the noise, momentarily torn from his angry reverie. The well that they had just created had collapsed, and the extra water she had filled it with was spilling out across the ground.

“Come on!” Will cried, grabbing her hand and pulling it violently, “Run, Raine!”

Raine took the opportunity. She spun on the ball of her foot and took off with the Earth Mage, dodging the soldiers around her with ease. She heard a cry of surprise from behind her but she kept going, gliding effortlessly past confused guards and magi.

A moment later, she could hear heavier footsteps behind her and a spark of fear rushed through her as she realised that Hayato had given chase. She remembered their sparring exercises and she knew that she probably couldn’t outclass the Archipelago warrior with her blade. And I can’t use my Shadow training here either, she thought frantically, desperately trying to formulate a plan. I’m going to have to outrun him and get as far from here as possible.

The notion that this was simply a training exercise did not come to her mind at all as she flew through the company camp, Hayato close on her heels. The look in his eyes had obliterated any notion that he would be sympathetic, amused even, and the fact that she was a genuine spy only confused her further. It felt real, whatever the feeling was. And that was enough.

“Split up!” she cried to Will, her Shadow training taking hold. She had tried to run from Damien countless times before. Will nodded, his face pale and eyes wide, and he headed to their left whilst she turned to the right.

“Stop her!” Hayato bellowed loudly from behind her, and she realised that he had chosen to chase her specifically. She wondered for a fleeting moment if he had even thought of Will at all.

Luckily for her, the soldiers around them were fatigued and inattentive and by the time they registered his command, she had already swept past them. The camp was filled with infantrymen and magi, and she moved through the crowds with feline grace, made easy by her small and thin frame. Hayato must have been having a harder time, but she had a strong feeling that the look on his face must have been enough to scatter the soldiers. He remained five or ten paces or so behind her, keeping up with her movement’s quite well.

Her legs started to feel the familiar ache and burn of running and dodging and she altered her breathing, trying to clear her mind as she twisted and turned past soldiers, tents and trees. Hayato kept up with her, not falling for any of her quick changes in direction or suggestive movements. It’s getting dark, she thought, thinking back to her training. If I break his line of sight for just a moment, I’ll be able to backtrack and escape the camp through the darkness of night. I just need to distract him for a moment. Once she was out in the surrounding woodlands, she would be safe.

“Surrender, Raine!” she heard him call. She ignored him. The thought of using her Shadow techniques crossed her mind but she disregarded them- she wasn’t skilled enough at Shadowstep. She could conceal herself if she remained still, but that option was not available to her now. And besides, there could be Illuminators nearby, for all she knew.

She started to hear Hayato’s breathing from close behind, quick but steady. His footsteps grew louder. She cursed. Of course he would be an excellent runner.

She raced through her techniques in her mind as she sidestepped an infantryman, disappearing before he could even get a look at her face. She couldn’t run forever- she had to do something, and quick.

As she moved alongside a tent, swiftly avoiding the stakes and rope supporting its flimsy structure, an idea came to mind. She reached down to her belt and pulled out one of her small throwing knives. A thin wire was connected through the loop at the pommel and she moved it through her fingers, wrapping some of it around her hand. She chose her target quickly, her body moving through muscle memory, and headed straight for it.

She easily dodged a group of soldiers, shielding her from Hayato’s view for a few seconds and during that time, she extended her arm before her and the dagger flew forward, slicing through the tent-rope to her right. With a quick, fluid movement of her wrists, Raine moved the wire in her hand and brought the blade to the left, slicing through that rope as well. She snapped her arm back with practised ease and the blade returned to her hand just as she entered the tent.

She had a fleeting image of two male soldiers, staring at her in stunned surprise, and she reached up and grabbed the top of the tent as she exited the other side. As expected, the entire structure collapsed, trapping the soldiers and Hayato inside, who had only been a few paces behind her.

Raine put her knife away as she doubled back, the air now filled with angry yelling from the patrons within the tent, Hayato’s included. She felt a short stab of guilt at having trapped him so, but she couldn’t allow it to hinder her thoughts. She moved to the front of the tent again, ready to disappear into the trees and wait for the cover of darkness.

But then a horn rang across the twilight sky, drowning out the cries of confusion and anger from those around her. Raine froze, listening to the sound, and her eyes went wide as three loud blasts sounded, a few seconds of pause between each one. The ceasefire signal, she thought. So the exercise has been cancelled. But why?

She moved back towards the tent, watching tentatively as Hayato clawed his way out of it, his usually calm and placid expression furious. It was such a fierce change that it shocked her, but she remained where she was as he quickly found her and stormed towards her.

“You-” he growled but then he stopped, perhaps catching the fear in her eyes.

“The ceasefire command has just been given, sir!” a soldier cried out, rushing to his side. “Does that mean that the exercise is over?”

It was clear that Hayato wanted to continue talking with her but he forced his gaze and attention away. “It does.” he said, concentration growing across his handsome face. “Have the platoon stand down and wait for my next orders.”

“Sir!” The soldier disappeared into the woodlands, leaving the two of them alone once more.

Hayato looked at her, disbelief growing along his features. Then he sighed deeply as more voices rang out around them. She could sense his anger ebbing away, so she risked a sheepish smile at him.

“I’m sorry, Hayato,” she said quietly. “My section was ordered to act as an infiltration section- I had no choice but to act as a spy.”

Hayato continued to look at her and finally, after a heart-pounding moment of tension, smiled softly. “You’re more skilled than I thought, Raine.” he said. “I can’t say that I’m exactly pleased with you being a spy, but I think my pride is more wounded over being trapped by you in that tent than anything else.”

“I’m sorry about that too,” she said, relieved that he hadn’t seen her throw her wire-blade after all. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

Hayato went to reply but another soldier called out his name, interrupting them. “The captain has ordered a meeting with the platoon lieutenants and second-lieutenants, sir!” he said, casting a quick, curious glance at Raine. “It’s about the ceasefire.”

“I have to go, Raine.” Hayato said, expression hardening. “I don’t know why they cancelled the exercise, but I would imagine that it has to be serious.”

“Right.” she said and with a firm nod, Hayato disappeared, his hair flicking behind him with each of his purposeful steps.

“What in the name of Holy Athos is going on now?” someone said, and Raine turned to see Will standing beside her.

NIGHT WAS FINALLY upon them when the door to the officer’s building opened and Hayato emerged, along with the other platoon lieutenants and second-lieutenants. Raine rapidly rose to her feet, waiting for him to finish his conversation with his colleague and notice her, but she could see even in the dim campfire light that his expression was grave.

Their discussion ended and Hayato looked around for a moment before sighting her. He was in front of her in a few large strides.

“Is everything alright?” Raine asked him, not liking the troubled look in his dark eyes. Will remained by her side, looking at the Kayokian with interest.

“Not exactly,” Hayato said after a moment. He looked at Will, but there was no anger on his face- it seemed as though he had completely forgotten their previous ‘spy’ status. Speaking directly to Will now, he pointed in the direction of a man nearby, talking seriously with a group of soldiers. “See that man there? His name is Crombley. He is your new section sergeant. Go and talk to him and he will brief you on the details.” Will looked at him for a moment, stunned.

“We don’t have much time,” Hayato said, voice sharp, “Please go to him.”

“Right, yes sir!” Will said, recognising the warning. He cast Raine a quick, bewildered look of goodbye and promptly made his way across the ground.

Hayato turned to her and she braced herself for whatever he would say next. His expression softened.

“I apologise; I’ve alarmed you.” he said. “So much has been going on; I’ve been very busy.”

“You seem stressed,” Raine said, watching him as weariness grew across his face. “Is everything alright?”

“Not really,” Hayato said, looking at the groups of people that were moving around them. “We’ve just received word from Second Company that Treston has finally declared, for lack of a better word, war on us.”

Raine’s eyes widened but she waited for him to explain, her heartbeat rising. “It seems that the scouting party of your company discovered Treston troops building a bridge across the Severin, right in the middle of it and in plain sight of Avendan forces,” he continued, voice low. “It’s an obvious act of war, so both First and Second Companies have been ordered to take them out. The training exercise has been cancelled- real battle is upon us.”

“Are we to help your company, then?” Raine asked.

“Yes. Like I said, the training exercise is no more. We are now allies as per usual and we must act as such. I figured that you would want to assist.” he said.

“Of course.” she said quickly. “I’m just amazed that Treston would invade so suddenly, and so obviously.” Hayato nodded, and she realised from the look in his eyes that the thought that had been on his mind for some time. Why would Treston make so bold a move? I know Desmond was planning on invading eventually, but in such a direct way?

There was a pause and finally Hayato sighed, looking at her with tired eyes. “We will have to move, I’m afraid.” he said. “I have placed you into my own platoon, Section One of Second Platoon. I hope you don’t mind.”

“That’s fine; I’ll be happy to.” she said. “I’ll go wherever you need me to be.”

Hayato smiled. “I had hoped you would say that. Here- I’ll introduce you to your section sergeant, and then I will have to leave you. I have so much work to do that I am almost swimming in it.” he said, gesturing to her. They walked together towards one of the many groups forming in the area.

“I’m sure you’re doing a great job.” she said. Hayato only gave a wry smile.

They approached a small group of people, huddling around who Raine assumed was the section sergeant. As they did, Hayato slowed to a stop and turned to her.

“Please be careful out there,” he said, and she was touched to see genuine concern spread across his face. “This isn’t a training exercise now- they will be trying to kill you.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m sure I will be fine.”

“I really hope you will be.” Hayato said. His expression became pained. “I simply wish that I could go out there with all of you, but all I am allowed to do is lead the platoon to the battle-zone. After that I am ordered to act as tactical support.”

“You’ve been given a great opportunity as the platoon second-lieutenant; you can’t just throw it away because you want to be with the others.” Raine said sympathetically. “Although I know what you mean- it feels good to be fighting alongside your friends.”

Not that I can say much about that, she thought with another pang of guilt. Hayato nodded solemnly.

“I know. At any rate, I beg you, take care of yourself. Keep your guard up.” he said.

“Of course, I will.” Raine promised. He nodded again, satisfied, and gestured for her to move ahead.

The section sergeant was a Fire Mage and since she didn’t recognise him she assumed that he was from one of the other magi platoons. Hayato gave him a quick explanation and with a small nod and a smile to her, he disappeared amongst the crowd of people.

“Tried to sneak in on First Company, eh?” the sergeant said, grinning slyly. About her height and with short, curly brown hair, he gave off a vibrant, intense energy. Raine wondered if it had anything to do with his fire-casting abilities. Although that can’t be said of Hammond, she thought wryly. I think he’s only got enough energy to keep his own heart beating.

“I was ordered; I didn’t choose to.” she said. His grin widened.

“Suuuure,” he said slowly. He looked away as more yelling cut through the air. “It doesn’t matter what company you’re from now at any rate, so I guess I better introduce you to the team. We’ll be heading off shortly, I imagine.”

“I can’t believe Treston would do something so direct; it makes no sense.” she said, more to herself than to him.

“Well it looks like they are,” the sergeant said spitefully, expression darkening. “They’ve got at least two hundred men guarding the damn thing too, so that’s pretty serious to me.”

Raine looked away through the mass of people around them, frowning. An image of Aloyce flashed through her mind. She bit her lip.

“As long as everybody keeps their heads on, we should be alright.” the man said, reading and misinterpreting her concern. “Come on, let’s get going. I’ll let you in on the details as we move.”

IT WAS NO exercise now- they were responding against a genuine threat.

My country, Raine thought as she dashed through the crowds of magi and infantrymen preparing their gear hastily and huddling in groups to receive orders. The members of Section One of Hayato’s platoon accepted her with a mild curiosity that quickly diminished as the thought of the real enemy grew. From what Raine could discover from slices of conversation, both Companies were now heading north towards the Severin River to destroy the Treston bridge and its defenders in a dual effort.

They marched for much of the night, only stopping at midnight to allow them a few hours of rest. Then they were up and travelling again at dawn, rapidly covering the distance between them and the river with few breaks in between.

THE AIR AROUND them was thick with trepidation, the calls from birds and insects dissipating as they crunched through the dead leaves. They travelled for many hours, looking around them as the woodlands darkened into another night, still and quiet. At last, the sun had started to sink and they were ordered to set up camp for the evening.

“Does that mean that Treston is already on Avendan soil?” Raine asked quietly. The sergeant, Demley, nodded. Already briefed, the rest of the section was silent, looking around through the trees and ferns with determination on their faces. Hayato was apparently up ahead, but Raine had not seen him since he left her with the section the day before.

“Sure does,” Demley said. “They’ve got the basic structure of the bridge built, but need to strengthen it before it can carry any real weight.”

“How does the War Council plan on attacking?” she said. Demley turned his head to look at her from the corner of his eye, which was twinkling.

“Welcome to the world of siege warfare, my dear.” he said.

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