“So,” Private Tallem Leuvis said, leaning over in his seat to whisper. “What do you think he’s going to be like?”
Private Alesov Ridely blinked, startled into alertness. He’d been on the brink of falling asleep before Tallem’s sudden interruption, the result of a late-night graduation celebration (or party) that went on a little long. “Hmm? Sorry, what? Who’re we talking about?”
“Who am I talking about?” Tallem rolled his eyes, but didn’t make a dig at his best friend’s dazed state. “Who do you think I’m talking about?”
Alesov continued to give him a blank look.
“Our Division Commander, of course!” Tallem hissed, glancing around to make sure no-one else heard. “Casimir Ursam. What do you think he’s going to be like?”
Alesov paused to consider the question. “Dunno. Like most superior officers I expect?”
Tallem let out a snort, making the jangling new buttons on his uniform shake. “Come on, man. He’s the youngest person to make 1st Division Commander of the Shield Hand since the freaking Division was founded. That must be something pretty damn special.”
Alesov shrugged. “I guess if you say so.”
Honestly, Alesov didn’t really care all that much about what Casimir Ursam was like. He’d never really been as rank-obsessed as Tallem was and didn’t pay too much attention to tales and rumours. He was the third son of a farmer and only really joined the Formican military because he was certain he’d never inherit and wanted to make at least some kind of life for himself.
Still, he’d suffered his way through bootcamp, through the countless exercise and drills and lessons in summoning willpower and eventually managed to impress his superiors enough that he was allowed to go through the Arklyte Ceremony and join the main forces proper. From there, he’d expected to be sorted to the 3rd Division, the general police force who maintained peace and order all around the country of Formica. It wouldn’t have been a glamorous job, but it would’ve be easy and mostly safe and given Alesov the chance to settle down peacefully somewhere with a family.
However, that didn’t end up being the case. Somehow, he’d impressed someone somewhere enough that he’d ended up being sorted into the 1st Division.
Aka, the Gifted Hunting Division.
You see, Formica was fairly unique among countries on the Three-Fingered Continent, mainly in that it was possibly the sole sovereign nation not run by Gifted. Or defended by Gifted. Or had almost anything to do with Gifted. Not because no Gifted ever turned up there mind- On the contrary, Formica’s population produced more Gifted than almost any other country its size- but because those Gifted that did turn up, didn’t tend to last long.
Why? Because over 150 years ago, Formica made a standing law banning all Gifted from its boundaries under pain of deportation or, more commonly, death. And it enforced that law quite vigorously.
Admittedly, this was something that tended to make them unpopular among their neighbours, most of whom eventually ended up being ruled by Gifted of various temperaments and capabilities. However, Formica had several advantages over said neighbours that protected them from invasion.
First, it had quite a lot in the way of natural defenses. Being situated on the ‘thumb’ of the Three-Fingered Continent meant that there was only one direction for a ground army to invade from and said direction was defended by countless mountains, valleys and vales that lay across said border, along with Scarmonger’s Chasm and various territories ruled by the Wolf King. In addition, while there were plenty of potential landing spots from sea, Formica was famous for its dozens of underwater rocky outcroppings which made sailing without a precise map very dangerous indeed.
Secondly, it had the advantage of an almost patriotically ‘anti-Gifted’ populations. For as long as he’d been born, Alesov had heard the countless tales of how monstrous Gifted people were, how everything they touched turned to ash and how it was the decree of the Arklyte Gods for the population of Formica to do everything they could to cast out the filth wherever they might be found. Any invasion force that attempted to cross the border would have to salt the earth behind them to stop riots, rebellions and sabotage from breaking out in their wake.
And, finally, Formica was widely considered, among Formicans at least, to have the strongest non-Gifted military in the world. Which was where Casimir Ursam came in. The man that so many soldiers called ‘The Hunter’, according to Tallem at least, was head of the 1st Division of the Shield Hand, the division dedicated to hunting down internal threats, in particular Gifted ones. The man had helped to take down monsters like Pylex, MisterMind and Inverter and had a nearly 90% success rate in his hunts, with the targets in question either being captured or killed. He’d also played a key role in rebuffing the Wolf King’s Invasion nearly 5 years ago. It was quite an impressive record.
Of course, Alesov only really knew all this because Tallem wouldn’t shut the fuck up about him, but he could appreciate the man’s competence nonetheless.
Now if only he’d bloody arrive on time.
“Seriously, we were meant to be meeting at midday, right?” Kiran, a younger recruit, poked his head towards the window. “The sun’s starting to look pretty low right now.”
Alesov shrugged. “Well, if we got it wrong, we’re not the only ones.”
On the contrary, there were three entire seven-man squads crammed into one relatively small briefing room, all waiting for Casimir’s appearance. Alesov’s own Squad, Squad 179, let by a hard-nosed man named Rugrim, Squad 183, composed mostly of sharpshooters, and Squad 185, let by… ugh, Lieb.
“Hmph.” Lieb Geminox folded his arms and turned up his nose. “Well, needless to say my father will hear of this mess-up. I’m sure he’ll have whatever idiot screwed up the schedule out on the streets and shovelling dung by the next Tidesday.” He sneered at Alesov and his group. “Perhaps it’ll make you farmboys feel at home? I’m sure you all miss the pigswill your mothers used to make for you.”
“Shove off, Lieb.” Tallem scowled.
“Are you insulting a superior officer?” Lieb let out a haughty laugh. “No wonder people keep saying you hicks aren’t cut out to be in the Shields. Not a button of sense in any one of you. I wonder, was your head filled with muck for brains when you were growing up or were you just born that way?”
Tallem snarled and moved to get up from his chair. However, Alesov caught his arm before he could and gently lowered him back down.
“Leave it.” He said. “He’s not worth the trouble.”
Tallem was silent for a moment, his glare still fixed on Tallem. Then he slowly lowered himself back down to the table. “I don’t know. He feels like he’d be at least a little bit worth it. Tell me you haven’t thought the same.”
Honestly, Alesov had. A lot of times. He’d been stuck with Lieb Geminox all during basic training and the man had somehow made it through the entire course without a single improvement in his attitude or behavior. Apparently, his father was some big deal noble and merchant who had a lot of important contracts with the Foot, the Division assigned to transporting various goods and so on. Alesov knew this because the man whined about his father constantly, in response to almost every minor mishap. It was the sort of thing that got old fast. Plus it was absolutely no secret that the only reason he’d been promoted to lead a squad was because his father had greased enough palms to baste a roasted hog.
Still, he could deal with Lieb. What he couldn’t deal with was all this damn waiting. Seriously, was anyone going to turn up today or was-
“Attention!” The shout came in as the briefing room door swung open.
Immediately, Alesov jumped to his feet, standing to full military attention, as did every other squad member in the room. Even Lieb wasn’t so stuck up as to forget his most basic of training. As such, they were all looking very neat and tidy and professional when the blue-cloaked man walked in.
Alesov’s first impression of the man was that he was… well, impressive. He honestly looked like the poster boy for what you’d imagine the perfect military man to be like. Firm chin, perfect jaw, cropped blond hair and a genuinely impressive musculature that you could see even through his uniform. He had a friendly, easy-going smile on his face and his hazel-brown eyes seemed to glimmer with amusement.
If this was Casimir Ursam, he definitely lived up to his reputation.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
“Oi, Feliks. Do you mind moving? You’re blocking out my light.”
The second man who entered was significantly less impressive. He was tall but lanky, with a noticeable slouch as he walked. He wasn’t exactly unhandsome, with a tuft of messy black curls on his head, but there was impressive bags under his eyes and he had almost a dead-eyed look to him. His uniform, a deep blue, looked as clean and new as Alesov had ever seen, but the sloppy way the man worn it indicated he’d practically just tossed it on and called it a day. If Alesov’s drill instructor had seen him dressed like this, he might well have died of apoplexy.
“Yo.” The second man grabbed a chair, turned it around and sat backwards on it. “I’m Division Commander Ursam. Y’all can stand down now.”
At the command, the squad members did so, slowly returning to their seats while sharing confused looks with one another. Alesov certainly wasn’t alone in being somewhat befuddled at their Commander’s… odd demeanour and appearance. Then again, wasn’t there a story about not judging things from outside appearances? Maybe once the Commander started talking, he’d be more professional.
Casimir Ursam lazily scanned the room, his dark eyes focusing on each and every soldier in detail. What he was looking for, Alesov couldn’t tell but, judging by the slight scowl that crossed his lips, he obviously didn’t find it.
“My first impression of you all,” He said in a dry, unconcerned voice, “is that you’re all probably going to be terrible soldiers and I really don’t want to be here.”
Alesov felt his expectations sink. Well, so much for Casimir being more professional once he started speaking.
“I mean, honestly,” Casimir continued, clearly unconcerned with the looks of anger appearing on several visages around the room, “you’d think as Division Commander, I’d have much more important work I should be doing right now. More than enough that you’d also think I shouldn’t have to waste my time holding the hands of a bunch of snot-nosed newbies through Baby’s first mission. But nooo!” He flung his hands into the air. “Apparently, according to the Headaches upstairs-” Alesov winced at the derogatory nickname for the Head Division. It was certainly a common nickname among the rank-and-file, but never one he’d heard a superior officer use in public. “-it’s military tradition for the Division Commander to escort at least one group of new squaddies on their first mission each graduation. So I somehow got saddled down with you lot.”
Casimir seemed to manage to get a hold of himself at this point, taking a deep calming breath. Alesov straightened up in his seat slightly. Maybe now they’d actually start getting into the mission briefing-
“Did you know that today is my daughter’s birthday?” Or not. “My little girl, my darling Inna, is turning 8 years old today and I’m not going to be around to see it.” Casimir reached into his pocket and drew out an old worn sketch of a cherubic young girl with curly black hair. “Look at her! Isn’t she adorable? She deserves better than to be all alone on her birthday without her daddy because some old bureaucrats wanted to raise ‘troop morale’! Don’t you all agree?”
Apparently, this was starting to wear to Commander Ursam’s blond-haired compatriot as well, because he stepped forward and gave a single polite cough.
“Oh, right, yeah.” Casimir seemed to remember where he was and folded the yellowing portrait away. “For those of you who aren’t aware, this-” he gestured to the blond-haired man. “-is Captain Feliks, Leader of Squad 103, who will be joining us on this particular expedition. Say hi, Feliks.”
Captain Feliks stepped forward and gave them all an easy-going smile. “I look forward to working with you.”
“Yeah, great.” Casimir said. “Now, I’m not particularly used to… moderating or simplifying my language for you newbies-” No freaking duh. “-so Captain Feliks has kindly agreed to handle the main briefing for me. So be nice and listen to every word he says and maybe there’s a chance you might all live through this.” Casimir flashed a grin and rubbed his hands. “Best of luck. I’m going to go nap in the corner.”
Alesov assumed the Commander was just making a bad joke with that last line but no, Casimir did indeed drag his chair over to the corner, slump backwards in it, dump his hat over his eyes and make a damn good impression of someone lying down for a mid-afternoon nap. Alesov could see half the group openly gawking at the snoring commander. Tellam looked particularly heartbroken as if watching his dreams and preconceptions about his hero literally collapse into dust.
Captain Feliks on the other hand, merely gave his commanding officer a look of mild exasperation, the sort of look of a man who had fully more-or-less expected what he’d got, but had still clearly been holding out hope that maybe some kind of sanity would prevail.
“Thank you Commander Ursam,” he said, stepping forwards, “for that unique and inspiring speech. I’m certain every man here will forever take it completely to heart.” These words were spoken with such straight-faced dryness that Alesov was almost actively impressed by the man’s sheer self-control.
If Casimir was bothered by his subordinate’s obvious sarcasm, he didn’t show it. Instead, he merely raised his hands in a thumbs-up without even bothering to sit up or remove the hat covering his face.
“As for your mission today,” Feliks turned back to the group of trainees. “We will be investigating reports of a Gifted in the nearby town of Shellburg. Now, from what information we could gather…”
Alesov sat up and took attention as Feliks explained the details of the mission they were to undergo. Apparently, a local blacksmith, by the name Kuttler Smitt, was currently under suspicion of possessing a Warrior-type Gift. Witnesses had described catching a heavy falling beam with his hands when a local house collapsed, saving a young child from being crushed. Follow up investigations from members of the 5th Division concurred that there was indeed a high chance of Kuttler having a strength and/or durability related Gift of some sort. Hence why he had been targeted for capture or elimination today.
Honestly, Alesov felt a slight twinge in his stomach about this mission. They were targeting a blacksmith who, by all reports, was simply living peacefully in a small town with his wife and three children, all because he had the audacity to use his powers to save a child? This was a man whose family had seemingly been loyal fixtures of Shellburg for several generations and now his neighbours all wanted him dead for something like that? Even if Gifted were supposed to be cursed and bring disaster wherever they went, this still felt wrong somehow.
Still, this wasn’t exactly something Alesov could outright state aloud in front of everyone. Not unless he wanted to be dragged off by the 5th Division for ‘subversive behaviour’. No, best to keep quiet and keep his head down until the mission was over.
If Alesov had been paying attention, he might’ve realised he was being watched at that moment. Unnoticed to any of the trainees, Casimir Ursam had tipped up his hat just enough for a single eye to look out and examine each of the trainees in turn. It ran from face to face, taking in all sorts of details, before pausing on Alesov and the queasy look of hesitation on his face.
“Hm.” Casimir murmured to himself quietly so that no-one else heard. “Interesting.”
Then he placed his hat back over his eyes and continued the charade.
Eventually, Feliks’s briefing began to draw to a close. He’d already gone over in heavy detail the exact nature of Kuttler’s daily routine and the detailed plan that had been decided on to achieve his successful capture. The three Squads were to wait until he returned home, after a busy day’s work at the forge, and ambush him in the street outside his home. Lieb’s Squad would be sent first into his home to retrieve his family in the hopes that they could use them to talk him into surrendering. However, should that fail, Squads 179 (Alesov’s squad) and 183 were to open fire on him from adjacent rooftops.
(”Make certain you are a high vantage point and shooting downwards into the center of the street.” Feliks had stressed upon them. “If you try shooting at him from ground level, you’ll end up firing on your own comrades.”)
However, while this plan was perfectly simple and made more than a fair amount of sense to Alesov, there were… certain people who had objections.
“This is absurd!” Lieb screeched in that annoyingly nasal voice of his. “Why should my squad be delegated to merely securing some woman and her squalling brats?”
Feliks fixed him with a patient stare. “I understand your frustration at having the less glamorous job, but this role is every bit as important as the others. Possibly more so. After all, this is our best option for taking the man alive.”
“And why should we care about that?” Lieb protested. “Gifted are nothing more than a plague on the earth. We should be aiming to wipe them out on the spot, plain and simple.”
Suddenly, a low chuckle cut through the air. It took a moment for Alesov to realise that it was coming from Casimir, who was still sitting with the cap over his face.
“Sorry Private,” Casimir leaned forward and removed the hat from his head. “I didn’t quite catch your name there.”
“I’m not a Private.” Lieb snarled. “My name Lieb Geminox, Leader of Squad 185. My father is-”
“Yeah, I don’t care.” Casimir said bluntly. “You’re an idiot.”
Lieb turned bright red and did a rather impressive impression of a goldfish, his jaw bobbing open and shut fruitlessly. Alesov tried not to take too much amusement in it.
“Do you want to know why this division bothers giving the option to catch Gifted alive instead of murdering them all on sight?” Casimir said. “Or why we accept their surrender and make a big show of deporting them if we think they’re safe to deport? And if you say ‘cowardice’ or ‘defeatism’ I will have Feliks slap you.”
Lieb’s mouth snapped shut.
“I’ll put it bluntly for you.” Casimir said. “We accept surrenders and make deportations to give our targets hope. Because a target who has no hope will grow desperate. A desperate target will do desperate things. And when a Gifted individual, a person capable of tearing the earth asunder, ripping a man limb from limb, destroying your very essence of being, when a person like that grows desperate and sees no way out…” He leaned back in chair and ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, bad things tend to happen. And since we’re the agents generally tasked with subduing them, that means bad things happen to us. Get it?”
Alesov blinked. That… honestly made a lot of sense to him. Probably more sense than anything else the Division Commander had said today.
However, certain other people clearly still weren’t convinced.
“How in the hell did you ever make Division Commander with that kind of defeatist attitude?” Lieb had apparently lost all sense of decorum and roared across the room, spraying spittle everywhere “A true Division Commander should be bold and decisive and give no quarter! Who cares if the Gifted scum grow desperate? Barely any of them have abilities capable of matching our might and those that do will fall before the grace and favour of the Arklyte Gods! All this talk of appeasing them is little more than cowardice in the face of their menace!”
The room fell into a hushed silence. Every eye in the room was either on the fuming Lieb or on Casimir, who had been casually watching him, unreacting through the entire outburst. However, Alesov had noticed there was something new in his eyes now, hidden behind the dead-eyed apathy and amusement. Something sharp. Something dangerous. Something that started to put thought to the idea that maybe there was a reason this man was so highly-regarded among the Shields.
“A true Division Commander should be bold, decisive and give no quarter, hm?” He said, his voice dangerously cheerful. “Well, I’ll confess I don’t think I got my position through any of those means. And I’ve never been all that much of a pious person either, so I doubt I have much of the Arklyte Gods’ favour. But you want to know how I did get my position?”
With that, he dramatically threw off his cloak and undid the top few buttons on his tunic, before pulling down the collar to reveal a large purplish scar on his shoulder.
“See this?” He said. “I got it from Pylex, while he was busy burning down half of Lontown. He’d already taken out 4 full squads and was halfway through destroying a fifth when I stabbed him through the brain with a Arklyte sword.” Next, he rolled up his right sleeve to reveal a circular branding mark just above his elbow. “This one I got so I could pretend to be under MisterMind’s control. That bastard was on the brink of conquering an entire city before I got close enough to shoot him to pieces.” For his third scar, he rolled up his trouser leg to reveal a series of small jagged scars that almost looked like a single enormous bitemark. “This fella I got from one of the Wolf King’s minions, while his friends ganged up on and tore my predecessor to shreds. I ended up leading the countercharge that sent him and the rest of his army back home with their tails between their legs.”
With that, he casually dropped the trouser leg back down and turned to face the slowly whitening Lieb.
“Do you get it now?” He said. “I’m not Division Commander because I’m bold or pious or whatever crap the recruitment posters seem to think. I’m Division Commander because I’ve been through enough shit to know what I’m doing. And because I get results. Understand, Private?”
Shakily, Lieb nodded and returned to his seat. However, a small part of Alesov suspected that the cocky would-be commander would dismiss this all a few hours later and return to his usual arrogant self.
“Now, I’m going to tell you all two stories.” Casimir said. “Both are somewhat similar recountings of certain Gifted Hunts I’ve been on, with a few changed details between them, and both are also completely 100% true. Think of it as an impromptu lesson about the most important thing you need to know when doing this job. Arklyte knows it’s saved my ass on numerous occasions.”
Alesov couldn’t help but feel himself lean forwards, entranced by Casimir’s words. He could see several of his fellows doing the exact same.
“Now, the first story some of you might have heard of.” Casimir said. “It involved a fellow who went by the name ‘Tornadeath.’”
Alesov could see the light of recognition appear in Tellam’s eyes. Of course he’d heard of it.
“Now, Tornadeath was a bandit who turned into a pretty damn dangerous Gifted when he learned he could create full-blown tornados at a whim.” Casimir said. “While he certainly didn’t have the same kind of fine control over his wind as someone like say, Swyft-” Alesov could see several disgruntled faces at the mention of the Haven sky-captain, who was also currently one of Formica’s biggest public enemies, “-or one of the Viente family, he was still incredibly dangerous, utterly ruthless and almost suicidal to face head on, to the point where most of the Squads in the area had chosen to retreat rather than risk fighting him.” Casimir ran his eyes across the room. “Now how do you think I beat him?”
Tellam’s hand shot up.
Casimir blinked at the sudden show of enthusiasm. “Kid, we’re not in public class here. You can just answer.”
“It was a sneak attack, wasn’t it Commander?” Tellam answered.
Casimir shrugged his shoulders. “From a certain definition of the word.” His eyes turned dangerous again. “We snuck into his house at the dead of night, made sure he was fast asleep in his bed and then shot him full of holes. Sneaky and dishonourable? Maybe, but it got him dead and made our jobs safe and simple.” He paused a moment to let that sink in. “Now, the second story is a little more humorous.” He cracked a slight grin. “It involved us being sent to apprehend a little girl near the old town of Chym. A little girl only a few years older than my own darling little Inna.”
If Alesov had been watching properly, he might’ve seen the way that Feliks visibly stiffened at the mention of the town’s name.
“Now, when you hear of people with Gifted abilities, you usually think of something impressive, right?” Casimir said. “Super-strength, flight, the ability to bend the elements to your will, you know the sort?” He began to chuckle. “However, this little girl had clearly been fresh out of luck when the Giftgiver was doing his rounds, because she had got one of the worst Gifts I’d ever heard of. Specifically, rather than getting anything useful, she’d gotten stuck with the ability to create and control flower petals. Not flower plants mind, or anything vaguely useful, just the normal everyday petals. Nothing special about them whatsoever.” His chuckling began to increase. “You have to admit, it’s funny right? That such an awful Gift existed in the world?”
Apparently, the man’s laughter was contagious, because Alesov spotted a few of the other recruits beginning to chuckle among themselves.
Casimir’s grin widened. “Don’t feel any need to hold your laughter back on my account. God knows I almost busted a gut when I heard about it.” He lifted his hands to encourage them, his own laughter echoing through the room. “Go on. Laugh. It’s funny, right? Being able to control flower petals?! What kind of ridiculous ability do you call that? ”
Slowly more and more recruits began to join in with the laughter, Casimir’s amusement feeling almost infectious. Alesov personally didn’t find it that funny, but he gave a few chuckles for appearances sake. Tellam, on the other hand, was practically doubled over with tears of mirth, although whether that was because he actually found the joke funny or just because his idol had more or less ordered him to laugh, Alesov couldn’t tell.
Casimir watched the laughing soldiers with an amused look of his own. Then, like the snap of a finger, his smile disappeared and turned into something deadly serious.
“Now stop laughing.” He said. “Because the first time we encountered that girl, she massacred three entire squads without blinking an eye.”
The mood in the briefing room dropped like a stone. Alesov could see recruits, their face still frozen mid-laugh as their eyes widened in reaction to the news.
“See, a flower petal can be a deceiving thing.” Casimir said, leaning back calmly in his seat. “On its own, it really doesn’t seem like much of a threat, am I right? Soft, fragile, easily tearable, hardly much of a weapon. You could bring dozens, hundreds, even thousands to a fight and it would barely make any kind of appreciable difference.” He paused. “But a million flower petals? A billion? Several billion? Enough to start blotting out the sun? That’s a different matter altogether.”
Casimir leaned forwards, his fingers intertwined and for the first time Alesov began to understand just how many years this man must’ve served, how many battles he’d fought, how many sights he must’ve seen.
“Imagine a bona-fide tidal wave of flower petals descending on you.” He said in calm, steady words. “Imagine them forcing themselves down every single orifice they can, eyes, mouth, nose, ears, anywhere they can reach. Imagine them choking you slowly but surely with their sheer bulk and wrapping themselves around every last airhole in your helmet until the air runs out and you begin to be smothered. Imagine if in that horrific blizzard, there was a young little girl running around with a sharp knife who knew intimately where you were, but you had absolutely no way of sensing until her blade was already in your back.” He shuddered. “There’s a reason I consider that little girl to be one of the most terrifying opponents I’ve ever had to face in this job. Because she taught me one very important lesson.”
He looked around the room, making eye contact with every single student he could. Many of them looked away, including Lieb. Alesov, however, did his best to keep his gaze fixed and got what seemed like a flicker of respect in Casimir’s eyes when he looked away.
“The important lesson I learned was this.” He said, once he’d gone through everyone. “Never underestimate a Gifted. Now matter how weak their Gift may appear, no matter how confident you are in your skills or teamwork or weapons, the second you underestimate a Gifted is the second that things go to hell.” He paused. “Hell, I’ll go the extra mile and say especially watch out for the Gifted with seemingly weak Gifts. Because a Gifted with a powerful Gift can grow content with that power and not look for a way to improve. But a weak Gifted has to find every possible use out of their Gift to have even a hope of surviving in this world.” He paused. “And that, Private Lieb, is why I make a point of giving an opportunity for Gifted to surrender. Understand now?”
Every eye in the room turned to Lieb, who gave a shaky pale nod.
“Great!” Casimir clapped his hands. “Now, I think we were just about done with the briefing, so-”
He was interrupted by Tallem suddenly raising his hand and waving it about in an attempt to catch the Commander’s attention. “Um, sir! Sir”
“Blue moons and red stars….” Casimir muttered to himself. “Are you going to stick your hand in the air every time you want to talk to me, kid?”
Tallem paused, uncertain how to react.
“Get on with it!” Casimir said impatiently. “What do you want to say?”
“Oh, um, I just wanted to ask a question.” Tallem said. “That girl you mentioned, with the flower petals… did you ever end up apprehending her?”
Casimir and Feliks shared a glance.
“Well, since you asked,” Casimir said slowly, “after the fiasco that was the initial arrest attempt, the Headaches got their act together and organized nearly a dozen squads, a mixture of Swords and Shields, to ambush her and neutralize her through any means possible.” He hesitated. “We were given the order to shoot to kill.”
“And did you?” Alesov found himself asking. “Kill her, I mean?”
Casimir snorted. “Gods no. She went through us like a rampaging bull through butter. She plowed through every ambush and turned all the tricks we tried right back on us. In the end, only about two squads survived and she made it cleanly over the border.” He tapped her chin. “Last I heard of her, she’d taken up the name ‘Bloodrose’ and carved out a fairly sizable chunk of territory for herself on Leve, with Mightiest’s full blessing of course.’”
Alesov felt a shiver go down his spine and he knew he wasn’t alone. Leve was widely considered as Mightiest’s continent ever since he’d toppled the remnants of the Akuman Empire nearly 100 years ago. Any Gifted who want to settle down on the continent or take territory had to prove both their might and worth to Mightiest, the man considered the undisputed Strongest Gifted on the planet. For this girl to impress him that much… And with only the power of flower petals…
“Right then!” Casimir clapped his hands. “Who wants to go Gifted hunting?”
“Was that all really necessary?” Feliks asked several minutes later, long after all the recruits had left.
Casimir raised an eyebrow as he put his feet up on a chair. “Which part? The goofing around or the serious stuff?”
Feliks let out a deep breath through his nose. “Either.”
“Well, they needed to learn the serious stuff sooner or later.” Casimir said bluntly. “They need to learn that hunting Gifted isn’t a game and that even the smallest prey can be fatal in the wrong circumstances. And, since the Headaches insist on covering up every mention of the Bloodrose fiasco…”
“Can’t imagine why.” Feliks muttered. Letting the population know that a large chunk of your elite forces had been slaughtered by a little girl with rose petals was rarely beneficial for morale. “And you goofing off?”
“An important lesson about not judging by appearances.” Casimir said. “A very important tip in our line of work. Especially if any of them end up transferring to the Swords and get stuck dealing with any of those Division Commanders and their various quirks.”
“That is… technically true.” Feliks grudgingly admitted. He was clearly mentally recalling previous experiences with the more… eccentric branch of the military. “Did you have to look like you were enjoying it so much though?”
“Enjoying it? Me?” Casimir’s look of faux outrage was a site to behold. “Why Captain, you do me a disservice! I was merely acting as I felt would make the most fitting for my goal of molding those impressionable youngsters!”
“…” The look on Feliks’ face told exactly how much he bought that.
“Also, can you imagine the look on their faces when they try to tell the story around and nobody believes them?” Casimir’s grin was like a squirrel who had discovered sugar for the first time. “It’s going to be hilarious.”
“…You are the literal worst.”
“The town is in sight, Commander.” The footman said, leaning back to whisper in Casimir’s ear. “We should be arriving in about 10 minutes.”
“Understood, Captain.” Casimir nodded. He turned to the rest of the squad, all of whom were lined up, sat upon the footcoach’s cramped benches. “Hope you’re all ready. Because you’re not going to get a chance to back out when we’re out there.”
There were a few murmurs here and there among the men. Alesov himself stayed quiet, staring tensely at his own hands. There was something… overwhelming about entering battle for the first time. He couldn’t find the right words for it, just a unsettling sense than ran through your body like a fever. If he’d been tense when he’d arrived in the briefing room, it was nothing compared to now.
This wasn’t a drill. This wasn’t training. This was the real thing. And one-slip up could mean death.
A sudden sneeze caught Alesov’s attention and made him jump. He turned to his left to see it was the young woman sitting by Casimir’s left, right next to Captain Feliks. Her face clearly had none of the tension on it that Alesov felt, as she halfheartedly wiped her nose on her sleeve. If anything, she looked almost bored by the whole thing.
Alesov could still remember the sheer surprise he’d felt when she showed up at first, nearly two hours ago when they were first loading the Arklyte footcoach. Sure, intellectually he’d known that women had been able to join the Formican military for nearly 40 years now, but they still made a point of keeping the female and male squads trained separately to avoid fraternization. So Alesov wasn’t really used to seeing a female soldier, let along expecting one to just saunter up, carrying a thin longsword by her side, and hop into the coach with them.
Naturally, it had taken Tellam’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things military to provide an explanation.
“Alesov!” He said, nudging his friend’s side. “That’s Xama Blacklock, the current Captain of Squad 101! She had one of the highest recorded killcounts during the Wolf King’s Invasion!”
Now that got Alesov’s attention. Squad 101 was the most prestigious Squad in the Shield 1st Division and generally considered the right hand of the Division Commander. Only those in whom said Commander had complete trust and faith in could even join and captainship, even temporarily, was often considered a strong stepping stone for promotion to Commander.
And currently, the title belonged to a woman who barely reached up to Alesov’s chest.
Still, she didn’t seem to be up to anything all that impressive, mainly just lying back with her head rested against against the coach wall and sitting silently. The only one who’d even tried to approach her was Casimir, who had tried to greet her cheerfully only to be returned with nothing but stony silence. As it was, she hadn’t said a word to anyone since she’d arrive.
Well, okay, that was a partial lie. One person had gotten a reaction out of her. Specifically, Private Rotef Corrus, an incurable sleaze for whom apparently basic training had not fully beaten out all of his bad habits. (No prizes for guessing he was on Lieb’s squad). Apparently, he’d gotten it into his head to try and cop a squeeze of the Squad Captain while she was seemingly distracted. He got about as far as lifting his hand towards her chest, before Captain Xama’s eye had snapped open and snatched his wrist in an ironclad grip.
“Ah, Private Corrus!” Casimir had said, upon seeing Rotef’s bones slowly being crushed in Xama’s grip. “Just my advice, but I suspect this mission will go a lot easier for you if you don’t have your all fingers broken beforehand.” He gave a twinkling smile. “Xama is not much of a morning person.”
Private Corrus had wisely backed off. In fact, he had backed off to the point where he had actively requested to sit at the very opposite end of the coach to her. Apparently, that had been one hell of a glare.
“Alright,” Casimir said, getting to his feet. “Since we’re almost at the meeting point, I thought we should go through one last warm-up on your Arklyte weapons. I trust you all know how to activate them?”
Every soldier in the coach nodded, Alesov included. It was quite an obvious answer, really. Every soldier here had been trained in using Arklyte and had gone through the Arklyte Ceremony as part of their graduation. Hell, arguably their entire training had been more or less preparing them to wield Arklyte. It was kind of a big deal in Formica.
“Good.” Casimir said. “Then I want you all to quickly run through the three basic forms.” He raised his forearm, revealing a shining black bracer, with a green jewel placed in the center. Then he closed his eyes and the bracer began to glow with an ethereal blue light.
“Sword.” Like a snap, the light suddenly took form, transforming into a simple triangular blade extending from his wrist. After a few careful practise swings of the blade, Casimir moved his forearm so it was facing downwards.
“Shield.” Immediately, the light changed shape, forming a thick rectangular shield that covered a decent amount of Casimir’s body. After tapping it a few times with his knuckle to make certain it would hold, Casimir dismissed the shield and turned his arm upwards, so that his open palm was facing the ceiling.
“Shot.” This time, the light became a simple blue diamond, hovering gently above Casimir’s palm. It looked harmless, but Alesov knew that, were Casimir to unleash it, it would fire a powerful shot of Arklyte that, depend on the strength of the user’s will, could do anything from leaving a nasty burn to punching cleanly through hardened steel.
This was Arklyte, Formica’s most powerful tool against the Gifted.
As the story went, Arklyte was first discovered by Formica’s founder, Prince Solas Forthborn, the exiled son of the Great King Luthor the Defiant, the man who let the side of the Old Nobility against the vile Precursors in the War of Old and New. Unfortunately, in spite of King Luthor’s best efforts, his armies were smashed and he himself killed by none other than Emperor Gier in the Battle of Hourglass’s Turn. Those nobles and soldiers who survived retreated to the secluded country of Formica, where their fates grew dim as the Gifted scourge conquered more and more of their former lands.
However, it was Prince Forthborn who managed to turn the tides and shine the light of hope back to the people of Formica. After being visited by a vision of the Arklyte Gods themselves, Prince Forthborn was led deep into the mountains where he came across the Light-Blessed Spring, a mysterious font of magic that gave all who drank from its waters the power to summon and wield the Arklyte for themselves. With this power, Prince Forthborn and his band of heroes were able to push back the Gifted scourge and secure the land of Formica for the true faithful.
At least, that was how the story went. Honestly, Alesov had heard a bunch of different interpretations, including the Arklyte Spring being an abandoned Crafter’s Project, the result of a great stone falling from the heavens, to Prince Forthborn either not having existed or having died alongside his father at Hourglass’s Turn and merely being a made-up figure the Head Division used to spread propaganda.
Whatever the truth, it didn’t really matter he thought. What mattered was that they had Arklyte and their enemies didn’t. And that gave them a strong advantage over the other militaries of the world. Alesov knew that people like Gier would give their left arm for even a single vial of the stuff, hence why the source of the Arklyte Spring was kept secret from all except a small handful of the most Starblessed Priests. Even during his initiation, where he was fed a sip of water from the spring, he was fully blindfolded so as not to look upon it.
“Oi, that’s not an excuse for you all to woolgather.” Casimir’s voice cut through the coach. “Like I said, all of you run through the three basic forms for me. Sword. Shield. Shot.” He repeated the three movements once more and this time the recruits followed, Alesov included.
Arklyte was actually surprisingly easy to use… at least in theory. All one had to do was summon up the Arklyte and shape and mold it according to your will. Simple, right? Well, not quite so much. It took significant concentration and willpower to form even the most basic shapes and, even worse, the durability and power of said shapes was completely dependent on that will. If you lost focus, your sword might shatter, your shield crumble, your shots barely even tingle your opponent. It was why they made such an emphasis on the three basic shapes in training, making the recruits practise them again and again until it became little more than second nature.
“Now, I feel the need to ask,” Casimir said, “has anyone here even taken specialised training lessons in Arklyte manipulation outside of their basic training?”
A smattering of hands went up. Alesov wasn’t surprised to see Lieb’s hand among them, his face beaming smugly. Outside tutors were extremely expensive so it was no wonder that his father had paid for them.
“Right.” Casimir nodded. “Well, forget all that shit and stick to the three basic shapes for the purpose of this mission.”
Lieb’s face visibly plummeted. “But- But, sir!”
“The last thing this team needs is some hotshot fucking up the squad formation because he thinks he’s hot shit with a Arklyte blade.” Casimir said, his tone brooking no room for argument. “Stick with the three basic formations for now and get a good sense for how your teammates move and fight before you start to introduce more complex moves into the equation. Understood?”
There were a few uncertain nods in response. However, Lieb’s wasn’t among them. He merely folded his arms and looked away from the Division Commander, a scowl on his face.
“We’re coming up to the outskirts now, sir.” The driver said.
“Alright, lady and gents.” Casimir clapped his hands and got to his feet. “Prepare to disembark. Good luck and try not to die.”
The coach’s door swung open, a footman on each side and the three Squads quickly leaped out, moving in the precise and ordered formations that they’d been taught in basic training. The spot they’d landed in seemed to be near the empty outskirts of town. Not a soul could be seen, the 3rd Division having cleared out the area earlier, although Alesov thought he saw a few curious faces peeking out of the windows of a few nearby houses.
As Alesov stepped out of the floating Arklyte-powered coach and moved into formation with the rest of his squad, he suddenly felt a firm hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Casimir smiling down at him. Standing a few feet behind him was Xama, her hand resting cautiously on her longsword.
“You’re with me, squaddie.” Casimir said cheerfully.
“…Sir?” Alesov was frozen with indecision.
“Well, I’m sending Feliks off with Squad 185 to make sure the acquisition of the family goes according to plan.” Casimir said. “And, since I’m going to be the one negotiating with the target, that means I need someone with a vested interest in keeping me alive to watch my back.”
“Um…” Alesov’s eyes flickered towards Xama, who watching the two like a hawk. “But what about-”
“Like I said.” The smile didn’t disappear from Casimir’s eyes. “I need someone with an interest in keeping me alive.”
Xama let out a small snort and rolled her eyes, but Alesov noticed she didn’t deny the accusation.
“But my squad-” Alesov tried to protest.
“Will be fine on their own.” Casimir dismissed the complaint, although there was a slight glimmer in his eye as if he was pleased Alesov brought the topic up. “And if they’re not… well, one person probably won’t make that much of a difference.”
Well. That was foreboding.
Alesov swallowed, before giving a hesitant nod. “Alright. What do I do?”
“Just keep a few paces behind me and do your best to look intimidating.” Casimir said, striding purposely after the other squads. “But not too intimidating in case you scare him off. Just find some neat little middle ground between intimidating and adorable and I’m sure you’ll be fine.” He hopped playfully over an old worn fence. “If things go to plan, you won’t even have to fight.”
Alesov carefully followed, still unable to shake the dark feeling in his gut. “…And if things don’t go to plan?”
“Weeeell…” Casimir’s smirk sharpened a little. “Do your best to not let me die then.”
Alesov gulped. Why did he get the impression that was going to be easier said than done?
The first stage of the plan seemed to go well enough. They reached Kuttler Smitt’s house in good time without any noticeable incidents or ambushes. According to their 3rd Division contacts, Kuttler had left that morning to do his usual work at the forge and wasn’t expected to be due back for at least an hour. In addition, his entire family, his wife, his two sons and his daughter were all confirmed to be inside their family house, eating dinner.
It was Lieb’s squad who was sent in to retrieve the family, two men sent to watch the back entrance while Lieb himself kicked down the front door and led the rest of the Squad inside. Just as Casimir had said, Feliks followed closely behind them. Shouts and startled screams quickly followed, but died down quickly.
As for the other two squads, they were sent to line the roof and upper floors of the buildings surrounding the street. Most of the houses were built to the typical Formican standard and placed tightly together, with a handful of options to get onto the roof, albeit not exactly easy ones. Fortunately, in that regard, Alesov’s squad got lucky, finding a trapdoor that led directly to the rooftop of one particular building, allowing them to spread out from there. The other squad weren’t quite so fortunate and were forced to utilise ladders to get to their best vantage points. On one spot, Alesov could see Tallem crouching and giving him a little wave, which he subtly returned.
Meanwhile, Casimir, Alesov and Xama had spread out in the centre of the street. Casimir was in the very middle and several steps in front of the other two, helping to mark his position as leader. Presumably, the intention was that he’d be doing the talking in this. Xama was standing a few paces to his left, in a stance that seemed casual, yet was also clearly ready to move at any moment. Alesov couldn’t help but be low-key impressed at how subtly battle-ready she seemed. In comparison, Alesov’s stance wasn’t anything special, merely a standard battle-rest position he’d been taught in basic training.
In the corner of his eye, he saw a couple of flashes of Arklyte, indicating that everyone was ready and in position.
“Well, things seem to be going fine thus far.” Alesov muttered to himself. “Looks like this might be an easy one after all.”
Xama’s eyes snapped towards him. “Why the hell would you say that?”
“I’ve got to admit, I’m with Xama on this one, squaddie.” Casimir said, turning a skeptical eye on him. “Did they not teach you anything in bootcamp about not taunting fate?”
“Wh-Well, that’s just a superstition, isn’t it?” Alesov said.
Xama and Casimir traded glances.
“I like to think of it more as not dropping your guard unnecessarily. ” Casimir said in a technical manner. “Anything could happen on these hunts, after all.”
Xama shrugged. “My reason isn’t nearly so complex. I just think Fate’s a bitch.”
“Well, come on!” Alesov protested. “The guy’s not even here yet. What’s the actual worst that could happen right now?”
A sudden bang of Arklyte Shot caught his attention. He turned his head to see a series of bright lights flashing in the window of the Smitt household, followed quickly by muffled shouting. Then the window smashed as a body was flung cleanly through it.
Alesov’s Arklyte shield instinctively flickered on as he dashed over to see with the trouble was. As he got closer, he realised that the groaning body on the floor was none other than that of Lieb Geminox, who seemed somewhat banged up. Suddenly, the door was flung open and Captain Feliks stormed out, his fists glowing with fierce Arklyte. He advanced on Lieb, who scampered away with very real terror on his face.
“Feliks!” Casimir shouted, approaching the scene. “What happened?”
“What happened?!” Feliks roared. “I’ll tell you what happened! This idiot happened! He murdered the entire fucking family!”
Casimir’s eyes widened. For the first time since Alesov had met him, the Commander seemed to lose his composure. “He did what?!”
“He killed them!” Feliks snarled, rage on his face. “He waited until I turned my back and then pumped them full of shot!”
“They were traitors!” Lieb screeched. “Scum, halfbreeds and traitors! They deserved nothing but death!”
“THEY WERE CHILDREN!” Feliks roared, grabbing Lieb by his collar and lifting him clean off the ground.
“Feliks, stand down!” Casimir ordered. “We’ll deal with this later. For now we need to-”
“Commander?” Xama’s calm dulcet voice cut through the room. “We have a problem.”
Alesov turned to see a man standing at the opposite of the street. A very familiar looking man, dressed in blacksmith’s garb and carrying a large hammer. The entire squad had been given professional sketches of Kuttler Smitt’s face, thus Alesov had almost no trouble recognising the man on sight.
And, judging from the open mouthed gape on his face, he’d heard everything that had just been said about his family.
“…Oh shit.” Casimir said.
This was enough to break through to Kuttler and change his look of desperate disbelief into one of pure encompassing rage. Throwing his head back to the heavens, he let out a deafening bellow, a shout of such rage and pain and loss that it made shivers run down Alesov’s spine. Suddenly, his muscles began to quiver and grow. His blacksmith’s shirt ripped apart as his torso bulked up larger and larger. His arms, already thick with muscles suddenly expanded several times their former girth, until each one was almost the size of Alesov’s torso.
“Uh oh.” Feliks said. “That’s a transformation type Gift.”
“…What does that mean?” Alesov asked nervously.
“It means that everything our reports told us about him just became irrelevant.” Casimir said. “And that he’s most likely several times stronger than we planned for.”
“Oh.” Alesov’s voice was weak. “So that means…”
“Things just went to shit.” Xama said eloquently. “Again.”
Kuttler took that as his cue. Letting out a roar that sounded more-like a grief-stricken animal than a human being, he began to charge forwards, using his engorged upper half to speed up his movements, almost like a monstrous gorilla.
“Alesov…” Casimir said, slowly backing away. “How fast can you run?”
“Reasonably fast?” Alesov said, a hint of hysteria in his tone.
“Well, get ready to put that to the test.” Casimir said. “Because this plan has officially gone to hell!”
“Open fire!” Casimir roared as he dashed for cover, Alesov, Xama and Feliks close behind him.
Immediately, the street lit up with the glare of Arklyte as the Shield Squads rained down dozens of shots upon the charging blacksmith. Cobblestones splintered and shattered to pieces as errant shots impacted around his feet. However, Kuttler seemed completely unaffected, only swaying slightly as a hailstorm of Arklyte smashed into his torso. He didn’t even bother lookingtowards the shooters, his eyes still firmly fixed on the open front door to his house.
“Shit.” Alesov heard Casimir mutter under his breath. “Low durability, my ass.”
Apparently the reports had underestimated his speed as well, because it took the relatively bulky blacksmith little more than a few seconds to cross the entire length of the street. Or at least that’s what Alesov had assumed. In actuality, all he’d seen was a slight widening in Xama’s eyes, before turning his head to see the absolutely livid Kuttler right behind him, a fist raised in fury.
“Shield!” Alesov roared, summoning an opaque blue shield, just in time to block Kuttler’s fist from smashing into his side. However, the sheer force of the blow was enough to lift Alesov clean off his feet and sending him flying several feet away, nearly slamming into a nearby wall. Alesov skidded across the ground, his uniform catching most of the impact but still leaving him with a dull throbbing pain in his back. His Shield had shattered apart on impact, the will forming it critically distracted, leaving him with only a blurred vision and a slight headache
“You doing alright, squaddie?” Casimir came to a skidding halt beside him, before dragging him into a nearby alley. “Come on, this is no place to be resting.”
Alesov made an incoherent grumbling noise as he tried to tried to regain his bearings. In the distance, he could vaguely make out flashes of blue light and Kuttler roaring in pain. As his vision began to focus, he realised it was Xama currently engaging the Gifted blacksmith, her longsword drawn and the edges glowing with Arklyte.
Alesov watched with awe as the diminutive woman slid cleanly under Kuttler’s wild punch, before slashing outwards at his leg and scoring a thin red line across his thigh. Then, as easily as she had gotten under his guard, she retreated, smoothly dodging the hammer blow that shattered the ground beneath her. Again and again she attacked, scoring blow and cut after blow and cut on the enormous Gifted. Every movement was smooth and considered and executed with a level of perfection as to make Alesov almost feel jealous.
“Shit.” He heard Casimir say. “Her sword isn’t sharp enough to hurt him.”
Alesov was about to protest, having seeing Xama scored at least a dozen wounds here and there, but then he took a closer look. Now that he thought about it, even though Kuttler’s engirthed body was littered with dozens of small cuts now, not a single one of them appeared to be anything worse than skin deep. And judging from the scowl on Xama’s face, she knew it as well as he did.
Suddenly, a mistake was made. Xama accidentally misjudging the timing of a jumping slash and found herself caught in mid-leap with an enormous forearm swinging straight towards her. She was able to compensate almost immediately, twisting her body in mid-air so she could use the forearm as a launching board instead, but the sheer strength of the swing meant she was ‘launched’ halfway across the street.
She managed to compensate again, landing carefully in a crouched jump that somewhat reminded Alesov of a cat, but the damage had been done. Now there was a significant gap between Kuttler and Xama and Kuttler used that opportunity to turn around and charge straight into the house where his family had been held. For a second, Alesov thought Xama was about to follow, but she visibly caught herself mid-step and stopped, instead turning around and sprinting over to where Casimir, Alesov and Feliks were hiding.
“My sword can’t cut him.” She stated, sliding into a crouch beside them.
“We’d noticed.” Casimir said dryly.
Xama nodded, as her eyes flickered over each of them and their status. Then she did a mild double-take as her eyes flickered back to Feliks. “Why the hell did you bring that?”
Feliks blinked and then looked down at his hand. Dangling from his fist was the dazed form of Leib. Judging from the way his eyes were swimming, he was well and truly out of it, whether from being flung out of a window or everything else that had happened since, Alesov couldn’t tell.
“Tch.” Feliks made a disgusted sound and dropped the semi-conscious Squad Leader. “Sorry. Force of habit.”
“Worse comes to worse, we can use him as bait.” Casimir muttered darkly.
Alesov was about to say it was a poor time for jokes but, judging from the look on Casimir’s face, it wasn’t a joke in the slightest.
As if to punctuate this, another of Kuttler’s earthshattering bellows shook the earth. No. Not a bellow. There was far too much pain and grief in voice for it to be a bellow. This was a scream. A horrified, terrified scream.
“Shit.” Feliks’ voice was weak. “He found the bodies.”
Moments later, the scream was joined by others. More human screams, those of pain and terror. Arklyte flashed in the windows as the very foundations of the building seemed to shake and shudder.
“And now he’s found the rest of Squad 185.” Casimir scowled.
Alesov’s eyes widened. “We have to go help them!
He formed a Arklyte sword as he prepared to jump out of cover. Before he could move, however, he felt two distinct hands gripping onto his wrist and shoulder, keeping him from moving. He turned to see both Casimir and Feliks holding him in place.
“Wh-What are you doing?” He tried to wriggle free, but their grips held strong.
“That blacksmith is hyper-durable, super-strong, incredibly angry and can shrug off even the sharpest Arklyte blades we’ve got without any appreciable damage.” Casimir said. “And you want us to go into an enclosed space with it? I like my limbs intact and in one piece, thank you very much.”
Alesov’s eyes darted between them, wide and panicked. More screams rang out from the Smitt building. “But… But… He’s killing them!”
“Alesov, I know it’s hard to accept.” Feliks said gently. “But there’s nothing you can do for those men right now. We have to wait until he’s out in the open again. That way, we can wear him down with shots and-
“Hmph.” Xama snorted. “You really think that’s going to work with this bunch of newbies?”
Feliks didn’t seem dissuaded. “We have the advantage of numbers and territory and I’ll bet he can’t keep up that form forever, so-”
“Quiet!” Casimir snapped. His eyes were fixed firmly on the Smitt house. “Something’s happening.”
He was right. Then was an odd thumping sound, repeated over and over again, like someone smashing their fist into a drum. The building’s foundations seemed to shake with every thump, dust spilling from corners and the rooftops.
“What’s he doing?” Feliks muttered.
Casimir’s eyes were narrow. “It sounds like he’s bulking himself up to charge at something. But what would he be…” His eyes widened. “EVERYBODY GET OFF THE ROOF NOW!”
Jumping out of cover, he ran out into the middle of the road, waving and yelling at the squad on Kuttler’s side of the street. Alesov and Feliks shared a glance before running after him. In the distance, Alesov could spy Tallem, crouched behind a chimney, giving him a questioning look.
“What’s wrong?” Alesov asked.
Casimir ignored him in favour of continuing to yell at the squad positioned on the rooftops. “Get off the roof!” He cried. “Get off the roof right now!”
However, his warning shouts came too late. All of a sudden, the ground began to rumble and Alesov heard a crashing noise. Followed by another. And another. Each moving from house to house along the street, violently shaking each building as it passed. Alesov could see the squad members on the rooftops begin to wobble and shake as they tried to keep their balance.
“Oh Gods.” Feliks said in a hushed whisper. “He’s charging the walls.”
That was when the buildings started to collapse.
One by one, the old stone houses began to fall in upon themselves, walls collapsing inwards, kicking up huge teeming clouds of dust that coated the air. The soldiers positioned on the rooftops didn’t stand a chance. Even the few that had taken Casimir’s advice and began to climb down were caught by the suddenness of the collapse. Alesov could see the look of surprise on Tellam’s face right before his feet fell away beneath him and he vanished into a teeming maelstrom of falling brick and dust.
“No!” Alesov screamed, collapsing to his knees and helpless to act.
This wasn’t right. This was just supposed to be a training mission. Something light to get them used to working as Shields. Now two entire squads had been wiped out at the hand of an almost indestructible foe and he couldn’t for the life of him think of a way to win.
However, Casimir clearly didn’t have the same opinion.
“Xama, Feliks.” He said, his tone eerily steady. “I’ve decided. We’re switching to Plan H. Start making your preparations now.”
Xama and Feliks both nodded, before dashing off in separate directions to Gods knew where.
“Alesov?” Casimir’s voice almost sounded gentle. “Are you still battle operational?”
Alesov could barely hear over the sound of blood rushing in his ears. This wasn’t right. Tellam was dead. That monster had destroyed an entire street. What could they do against-
“Private Alesov!” The voice was sterner this time and Alesov instinctively snapped to attention. “I said, are you battle operational, soldier?!”
Alesov paused a moment. Was he battle operational? He wasn’t badly injured that was for sure, but could he really fight? Could he really keep going after seeing something like that? He didn’t want to die. He was just a kid, caught up in something far more dangerous than he’d ever expected. He didn’t want to do this.
But… if he didn’t, then more people would die.
After all, there was still another squad stuck on the rooftops on the opposite side of the street. If Kuttler did his house-charging trick a second time, then they would all be slaughtered as easily as his own squad was. And who was to say that Kuttler would stop there? Who was to say he wouldn’t continue on his rampage, smashing every house and person he could find in a desperate attempt to assuage his grief?
No, he had to be stopped. This wasn’t his fault and this was wrong, but he still had to be stopped. And if Alesov had to risk his own life to achieve that, then… well, I guess that was just the job.
“I’m battle operational.” He said, getting back to his feet. “What do you need me to do?”
A flicker of a smile flashed across Casimir’s face before he switched straight back to business. “Do you remember the town maps we went over during our briefing? There was a sizable pond a few blocks from here. Do you recall it?”
Alesov nodded. He’d mainly been paying attention to the street where they’d planned their ambush, but he could just about remember the large blue shape near the village green.
“Good.” Casimir said. “The two of us are going to lure Kuttler away from these houses and towards that pond.”
“Alright.” A note of skepticism crept into Alesov’s voice. “And how exactly are we going to do that?”
Casimir gave a weak smile. “Remember how I asked you earlier how good you were at running?”
Alesov reluctantly nodded. “Please don’t tell me you’re going to-”
“’Fraid so.” Casimir stepped forwards towards the dustcloud and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Oi ugly! Don’t you want to know who killed your fatass wife and squalling brats? Because he’s standing right here, you enormous shithead!”
A furious bellow was the only warning Alesov got before a huge shadow leaped out of the dustcloud and turned to face them. Smashing through several dozen walls had not improved Kuttler’s looks any, but the furious snarl was still easily recognisable, as were the tracks of tears running down his face.
“Kill… You…” He snarled with a grumbling voice. “Kill… You… All…!”
“Right.” Casimir said in a surprisingly light voice. “Time to run.”
With that, he took off sprinting down the street, Alesov hot on his heels and, judging from the bellow behind them, Kuttler not far behind. Alesov ran as fast and hard as his legs could carry him, putting every last bit of energy he could into keeping ahead of Kuttler. He knew that, with the Gifted’s incredibly speed and strength, even a moment’s distraction would result in his death, so he couldn’t afford to look back. Yet, from the increasing intensity of the thumping footsteps behind him, he could tell that the blacksmith was slowly but surely catching up on them.
“He’s too fast! He shouted to Casimir. “We’re not going to reach the pond in time!”
Casimir didn’t look worried. “Did they cover the prime targets for hitting extra-durable Gifted in your classes?”
“Um… yeah.” Alesov’s mind flashed back to his training days. “Eyes, mouth, ears and nose, right?”
“And crotch!” Casimir added. “You’d be surprised how many super-durable Gifted can still feel the impacts you hit them with, even if they don’t penetrate.”
“Okay?” Alesov made a face. “Don’t really get your point.”
“My point is, kid,” Casimir raised his hand and summoned up a dozen shots at once. “Better hope my accuracy is good.”
Like a flash, he swiveled on his heel and fired his shots directly towards Kuttler’s face. The Gifted’s eyes widened in surprise, but he was able to raise a thick meaty hand to block the attack just in time.
However, this only meant he didn’t see the second run of shots hidden in the shadow of the first.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, none of the second wave of shots hit Kuttler in the crotch like Alesov assumed Casimir had been intending. However, quite a few of them still managed to slam into his kneecap with enough force to sufficiently buckle it. And, at the speeds Kuttler was charging at, this meant he went down hard, smashing a few more cobblestones under his bulk.
“Don’t stop running!” Casimir shouted as Alesov began to slow. “That won’t keep him down long!”
True enough, barely a minute later, Kuttler was back on his feet and giving chase once more. And he’d learned a few tricks this time, picking up large chunks of brick and flinging them at great speeds towards the pair. Fortunately, Casimir’s accuracy with his shots was strong enough that he was able to pick most of them off out of the air, although a few slammed uncomfortably on Alesov’s shield.
Fortunately, this back and forth did sufficiently slow Kuttler long enough for Casimir and Alesov to reach the pond.
Honestly, calling it a pond was probably a bit too kind. Sure it was big enough and looked deep enough to technically classify as a pond, but the water was filthy and there was a visible layer of muddy pondlife floating on the top. It clearly wasn’t any sort of a place for fishing or drinking from and Alesov couldn’t help but wonder what Casimir had planned for it.
“What now?” He asked desperately.
Casimir quickly scanned the length of the pond, apparently looking for something. Whatever he’d been searching for, he quickly found as he dragged Alesov towards a small pier leading out towards the middle of the water. As the two clambered onto the pillar, Alesov noticed a sharp cut had been scored onto one of the soggy wooden posts, a cut that looked fairly fresh.
However, he didn’t have too much time to wonder on that because not long after, Kuttler arrived on the scene. The enormous Gifted darted into view, his head shaking left and right in search of the prey he’d been chasing. When he spotted Casimir and Alesov, his eyes seemed to narrow.
“Shields up.” Casimir murmured as the Gifted slowly stalked closer.
With an audible gulp, Alesov did as his Commander asked. A sizable blue rectangle popped to life between them.
Kuttler, on the other hand, seemed more than willing to take his time, with his prey effectively cornered. He moved slowly, carefully, lifting himself up with muscled arms onto the relatively shaky pier. His eyes burned red with murderous frenzy.
“Whhhhyyyy…” At first Alesov thought the low rumble coming from his mouth was just another growl, but he quickly realised it was a question. “Whhhy? Why did you have to kill them?”
“I’m sorry.” There was genuine pity in Casimir’s voice. “It wasn’t intentional. We only wanted you.”
“Why though?” Kuttler’s voice began to sound more and more human. “I never did nothing to nobody. We were living peacefully here. We didn’t deserve this.” Fresh tears began to roll down his eyes. “They didn’t deserve this.”
“I know.” Casimir said. “And I’m sorry. Truly, I am.”
Kuttler was silent for a moment, so still that one could’ve mistaken him for a statue. “…Do you have children, soldier man?”
Casimir nodded. “One. A little girl. She turned 8 today.”
“8, you say?” Kuttler nodded. “Congratulations. I remember my Zemel’s 8th birthday. We had a big party in his honour with some of the savings from a recent job.” A slight smile crossed his face. “He ate so much that he spent the next week complaining about his stomach hurting” The fight seemed to visibly leave him. “We stayed up all night watching the stars together. And now he’s gone. Now they’re all gone.”
“I’m sorry.” Casimir said again. “I understand your pain.”
“No.” Kuttler said, taking a step forward. “No you don’t. You might think you do, but not really. You wouldn’t understand this feeling unless I took your little girl and ripped her to pieces in front of your eyes. Then you might understand.”
“You know, it doesn’t have to be this way.” Casimir said. “You can still surrender. I can get you a good job working in the mines or a new life overseas. You can rebuild. It doesn’t have to end like this.”
“No.” There was a sad smile on Kuttler’s face. “I think it does.”
He reached out for Casimir’s shield. And the pier exploded with Arklyte.
It took Alesov a moment to realise what was going on. One second, he’d been holding out his shield in a desperate attempt to keep Kuttler at bay, the next the ground beneath his feet seemed to collapse away and he was left to tumble into the pond. The cold muddy water shot through him like a shot to the system and he thrashed in his attempts to keep his head above the surface. Judging from the enormous splash and sound of thrashing, it seemed Kuttler had had the same instinct.
Which seemingly was exactly Casimir had been waiting for.
When the pier had been destroyed by a series of Arklyte shots from below, Casimir had taken advantage of the distraction to leap forward, Arklyte shield still formed and jump on top of Kuttler’s back, dunking his head under the water and using his shield to keep it there. Kuttler had attempted to regain his balance by righting himself in the pond, only for Feliks to emerge from under the water’s surface, gripping onto Kuttler’s feet with his arms and preventing him from finding purchase on the shallow ground.
It took Alesov a moment to understand the genius of Casimir’s plan. Kuttler was super-strong and incredibly durable, but his strength was limited if he couldn’t find leverage on physical solid ground and no amount of durability would help him if he couldn’t breath. Casimir had deliberately lured him to a place where his biggest advantages would lose their sting.
“Don’t just stand there woolgathering, Alesov!” Casimir shouted, as the Gifted bucked and thrashed beneath him. “Grab his arm! Help keep him under!”
Alesov’s instincts returned to him in a flash and he charged forward, shield at the ready, before snatching on of Kuttler’s enormous muscled arms and doing his utmost to keep it still. Even underwater, the man’s strength was incredible and Alesov felt himself being flung and shaken through the water like a ragdoll. However, the additional weight seemed to help keep him under and stopped him from breaking free.
Then disaster struck.
Casimir had been knocked slightly loose from his position on Kuttler’s back and one particularly fierce buck cause him to tumble forwards into the water. He recovered admirably quickly, but not before Kuttler managed to find some purchase on his shield. This momentary recovery was enough for Kuttler to force his head back above the water, where he took a single, shuddering breath.
Alesov couldn’t help but feel a twinge of despair go though his mind. It had become clear during the tussle that their plan had been reliant on taking advantage enough of Kuttler’s panic and surprise to overwhelm his strength and cut off his air before he could recover and shake them off. Kuttler breaking free and taking even a single breath practically cut their chances of succeeding in half, especially with Casimir thrown off his spot. He was about to yell at Feliks to break off when he felt something move by his legs.
That was when Xama leaped out of the water with her longsword and delivered a single, brutal horizontal slash that cut through both of Kuttler’s eyes.
A burst of blood and fluid joined the mud and water dripping down Kuttler’s face as the blacksmith let out a heartwrenching scream, one that was quickly cut off into a gurgle as his head was forced back down under the water by Casimir.
Xama, meanwhile, didn’t stop to wait or celebrate her successful strike, instead dropping her longsword, grabbing the back of Kuttler’s head and using it to backflip out of the water and land directly between Kuttler’s shoulders. Her diminutive size meant she had a much easier time staying balanced than Casimir did, especially since Alesov saw her form three small Arklyte hooks from each ankle, which clung onto Kuttler’s skin like a falcon’s talons.
‘Huh,’ a small, non-hysterical part of Alesov’s brain noted. ‘I didn’t know you could form Arklyte blades from your feet.’
However, he didn’t have time to properly ponder this as the sudden loss of his eyesight if anything made Kuttler struggle even harder. Each swing of his arms was like trying to rodeo an infuriated bull and it took everything Alesov had simply to keep his grip. But keep his grip he did and, with Casimir freed up to grab the other arm and Xama stabbing small thin blades inbetween Kuttler’s joints, the Gifted was painfully outmatched.
The confrontation from there only took a few minutes, even if it felt like hours to Alesov. However, eventually, Kuttler’s struggles started to weaken, then slow, then cease altogether. Casimir insisted on keeping his head under a few more minutes to be certain he wasn’t faking, but once Kuttler’s body began to deflate and shrink back to it’s normal size, it was clear which way the fight had gone.
Didn’t stop Xama from removing his head with her sword though, just to be safe.
So it was that Alesov found himself nearly an hour later sat on a log with a blanket draped around him, shivering heavily and silently thanking the Arklyte Gods that it wasn’t winter. Across the seat, he could see the members of Squad 183, the only fully surviving squad, combing the wreckage of the street that Kuttler had destroyed in his rampage, searching for either survivors or bodies. Amazingly enough, some members of Squads 185 and 179 had survived the carnage, the former by slipping out the back while Kuttler tore apart their compatriots and the latter by incredibly lucky with their landing.
Not Tellam though. Tellam was dead. And so were many others. Kirin, Tuldar, Scass, friends Alesov had made in training who had been snuffed out like that. And for what? One dead Gifted.
“How you doing, squaddie?”
Casimir’s voice snapped Alesov out of his self-pitying funk. He turned to see the Division Commander swaggering towards him, seemingly no worse for wear, aside from the mud and filth he was coated in. The Commander looked him over briefly and tilted his head before letting out a tut.
“That bad, huh?” He reached into his coat and pulled out a small flask. “Try some of this. It’ll peak you back up.”
Alesov took the flask gratefully and brought it to his lips. No sooner had he taken a swig than he felt his mouth and lips light up in fierce searing pain. It was like someone had taken the very essence of hell itself, distilled it into its purest form and put into an alcoholic drink. And he’d just put it into his mouth! He immediately spat the unholy mixture out onto the ground, much to the amusement of Casimir.
“Blue fucking Stars!” Alesov swore. “What the fuck did I just drink? Was that poison?”
“Aye.” Casimir grinned. “Poison of the best kind.” He took the flask back and took a swig for himself. “Got the recipe from my sister in the Swords. Apparently over there it’s considered a ‘light pick-me-up’.”
“I think it probably should’ve stayed over there.” Alesov muttered dryly.
“Remind me never to introduce you to any of Xama’s personal brews then.” Casimir chuckled. The humour vanished from his face. “So, what’s troubling you then?”
Alesov blinked and looked up at his Commander.
“Come on, kid.” Casimir said bluntly. “It’s written all over your face. Something’s bothering you and, since you’re one of the few newbies here who actually did a fairly decent job, I figured I should find out what.”
Alesov made a face. Despite Casimir’s praise, he really didn’t feel like he’d done much of use in this mission. At best, he’d just followed Casimir’s lead and tried not to screw up too badly. Then again, considering how much of a clusterfuck this mission turned into, maybe that was indeed high praise in comparison.
Still, that wasn’t what bothering him.
“Commander Ursam…” Alesov’s voice was hesitant. Normally, he’d never dare to say such a thing in front of a superior officer, but for some reason he felt he could trust Casimir with this. “…Were we the bad guys today?”
Casimir very carefully did not react.
“What makes you say that?” He asked slowly.
“It’s just that…” Alesov struggled to put his jumbled thoughts in order. “All this damage… All this death and destruction… None of it would’ve happened if we hadn’t come here. And I know Lieb is to blame for a lot of it, but… Kuttler Smitt… He and his family were just minding his own business here. They weren’t going to do anything like destroy the town. Not until we turned up first and attacked them. So was this all just our fault?”
Casimir was silent for a moment, visibly considering his response. Then he spoke. “Yeah, more or less.”
Alesov blinked and did a small double-take towards Casimir’s direction. He’d been expecting a dressing-down, not an outright disagreement. “Huh?”
“We’re the bad guys, Private Alesov.” Casimir said. “And the sooner you accept that, the easier it’ll be. Unless you buy into that whole ‘Gifted by the Devil’ crap, our job is literally to hunt down people solely because a quirk of birth and either kill them or kick them out of their homes forever.” He paused. “Sure, some of them definitely deserve it, but just as many certainly don’t. It’s evil work and we’re bad people for doing it.”
“Th-Then why?” Alesov stuttered. “Why do you keep doing it?”
Casimir shrugged. “I have my reasons. Maybe one day you will too.”
“But…” Alesov wasn’t satisfied with this meagre explanation. “You’re a good person, Commander. Why would you do this if you don’t-?”
Casimir let out a bitter snort. “Kid.” His smile was not a nice thing to behold. “The one important thing you should know about me is that I haven’t been a good person for a very long time…”
It was late at night that Casimir finally arrived back home.
Ursam Manor was an interesting place to behold, simultaneously a mix of old and new architecture. Most of the main building had been destroyed in fire nearly 30 years ago and rebuilt according to more modern specifications, but every here and there, signs of the old architecture peeked through, moments of history that the fire had failed to consume.
However, Casimir chose to pay no attention to this as he stalked through the main door. As always Rosemary, his maid and one of the very few servants he kept on a regular hire, was standing by the doorframe waiting for him. She quickly fell into lockstep with him as he stormed past.
“How is she?” Casimir asked.
“Not well.” Rosemary stated in a bland voice. “She had another incident early this morning when she was playing in the garden. I managed to get her inside before the neighbours saw, but it was a close call.”
Casimir made a noncommittal hum. “We may need to see about keeping her indoors for the next few months.”
Rosemary bowed her head. “As you wish.” A flicker of a smile crossed her face. “She missed you today.”
“I know.” The tension seemed to leave Casimir’s shoulders. “I missed her too.” He paused. “You don’t think she’s-”
“She only went to bed an hour or two ago.” Rosemary said. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind it at all if you woke her.”
A momentary hesitation flicked across Casimir’s face. Then he nodded and changed direction.
It didn’t the two long to reach the door, a small wooden one engraved with various sculpting of bears and infamous Formican heroes. It was quite a pretty-looking door and expensive too, not least for the steel plating secretly reinforcing it, nor the two dozen deadlocks adorning the side.
Carefully and quietly undoing each of the locks and chains, Casimir gently pushed the door open to reveal the scene within.
Pillows. Tables. Chairs. Objects. All floating steadily through the air, as if compelled by some unseen force. There was nothing visible suspending them, no ropes or wires, but they hovered almost hauntingly nonetheless. Casimir saw a small straw doll slowly float past his head and gently reached out to push it out of the way.
And, at the centre of this scene of magic and mystery, a small girl slept alone in an enormous four-poster bed, her arms clutched around a small bear-like doll dressed in some figment of a bard’s uniform. Casimir slowly pushed his way through the room, doing his best to avoid the floating objects and gently rested a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“Inna.” He said gently. “Inna. You can stop now.”
She woke slowly. Her eyes fluttered open and shut, confused, tired and then slowly understanding. Around her, the floating objects gently began to settle and sink back to the floor, much to Casimir’s silent relief.
“Papa?” She murmured in a sleepy voice. “You made it after all…”
“I did, my sweet.” Casimir gently stroked her hair. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Nu-uh.” Inna said. She paused. “Did you have an exciting day today?”
Casimir’s eyes twinkled. “Well… I guess you could say that. It wasn’t as fun as it would’ve been with you though, sweetheart.”
Inna looked thoughtful for a moment. “C’n you tell me about it?”
Casimir paused. “I don’t see why not. See, it all started when I was talking to your Uncle Feliks…”