Act 1: The Destroyer


#1

Most of the village’s homes had burnt down in the bombings.

Dark Wrath’s air forces weren’t as powerful as the Luftwaffe, but they could have the same vicious thoroughness. The difference, Hannibal de’Zama knew, was that the Republican Expeditionary Force bombed to be thorough. The Dark Wrath bombed to be vicious. It showed in the burnt, twisted structures. This village, only fifty miles west of Tzen, was part of the Wrath’s terror campaign to insure that Albrook’s countryside knew no peace.

They might not be able to take Albrook yet, it seemed to say, but they could kill their people. No, Hannibal thought, they could do worse than kill their people. His hands curled around the grain of his rifle.

The seventeen year-old boy looked a sight. He still had his uniform from his boarding school in Maranda, though it was now muddied, bloodied, and torn beyond recognition. The white button-up shirt and trousers were there, and his school’s emblem – sewn onto the left breast – was a strangely discordant thing with the rest of his clothes. His boots were stolen from a dead REF soldier. His jacket was an old, grey NAMAC coat that had been passed down by many hands.

Tauroch’s Own 19th Rifles didn’t receive the best gear. They weren’t soldiers, really. They were another attack on the people of Esper. The Dark Wrath could destroy their villages, burn their fields, and steal their children.

He turned open a cellar door with the butt of his rifle, using it as a wedge to force it. The lock had gone to rust long ago; it snapped, and the doors opened, revealing darkness down below. The 19th had simple enough orders: find every person in the village and drag them to the center of it. By now, he knew what came after that. They didn’t deploy the boys of the 19th to fight on the front. By now, he knew what happened if they refused.

Ever since the day that his train to Nikeah was attacked, he knew that life was precarious. He wouldn’t be returning to school any time soon. He wouldn’t be traveling home to see his father, nor would he see any of his friends. He knew, for certain, that he would never see his mother again. The image of blood pooling from under a turned over bench stuck in his mind’s eye, even six months later. When the Dark Wrath took him and the other boys on the train, they made sure that he knew that. The emblem of Tauroch, hanging around his neck, was a reminder of it.

They couldn’t make him believe, but they could make him pretend. When Hannibal dug deep within himself, he found one thing: he wanted to survive.

His eyes took a moment to adjust to the dark of the cellar. He looked down into the darkness, finding only crates stacked up, one atop the other. He knew these could make a good hiding place; he knew, too, that Captain Zendir would be back to check on their work. He needed to do a thorough search, so he began to check behind each of the boxes. He found nothing but old hay, gone moldy, and dust.

He turned and started to walk away, when he heard the cough.

It came from inside one of the wooden boxes. Hannibal went to it quickly, using his bayonet to slide the box lid off it. Inside, a boy with black hair stared up at him, his brown eyes wide and frightened. He couldn’t have been older than eight.

Hannibal’s stomach sank. “How old are you?”

His voice shook when he spoke. “Seven.”

Hannibal swore under his breath. He reached a hand out towards the boy and saw him move back to the corner of the box, recoiling away from Hannibal like he was a wild animal. It made Hannibal’s hand shake and he couldn’t still it. He reached no further, staring down at the boy’s terrified, tear-filled eyes.

Then, Captain Zendir’s voice cut through everything else. He had a kindly voice, like a gentle headmaster, but Hannibal knew that was a lie. He spoke of death like an old man calling his family to dinner: “Time to assemble!”

Hannibal didn’t have time to think about it further if he wanted to survive. The boy started sobbing and screaming as Hannibal grabbed him by both wrists with one hand. He wasn’t that strong, yet, but he had enough in his arms to overpower the boy. He yanked him free of the box, dragging him out. He kicked his feet, pleading between sobs, and Hannibal let his mind retreat the way that he always did. He learned that in sword practice, in Maranda. If he retreated with himself, if he forgot the world, he could simply act.

He could keep himself from feeling.

Captain Zendir smiled as Hannibal approached. He looked perversely proud, which threatened to cut through Hannibal’s trance. He was an unassuming man; balding despite being young, with eyeglasses perched on his nose, and a friendly smile like a teacher might have. The effect was ruined by the grey-and-black of his Dark Wrath uniform, though, and the same emblem of Tauroch hanging from his neck.

He was the priest attached to their regiment. He stood before a ring of boys that looked like Hannibal: tired and weary, sporting bedraggled clothing mixed with used gear, and the same deadened look that Hannibal knew were in his grey eyes. Each of them held a rifle, and the inside of the ring had some dozens of people inside of it. They were of all ages, men and women, children and grandparents. Many were wounded; many were bloodied.

Hannibal shoved the boy, hard, through the ring. He stumbled, sobbing the whole way, to the huddle of the people.

“Let us begin,” Zendir said. “Tauroch, we give these souls unto thee as an offering. In death, may they come to know to you. May you reign over their souls as you have reigned over their lives.”

His eyes closed, Hannibal kept his breathing even. This was the hardest part of the trance. He focused on everything but the sobs and quiet pleas. He tried, especially, to tune out the promised lies of parents telling their children that everything would be fine. He felt the heat behind his eyes, but he forced that down and ground his teeth. He remembered what happened, when one of the 19th broke into a run and refused. Zendir shot him, but he did worse to him later.

He needed to survive.

“You are weapons,” the Captain continued. He addressed them, now, and it was a memorized speech. The words were burnt into Hannibal’s mind, now. He could recite them. “You are not men. You can only kill and destroy, and you are blessed, for this gives you meaning. Were you to do anything else, your life would not matter.”

Hannibal let out a slow breath through gritted teeth.

“Ready.”

He opened his eyes and took his rifle to shoulder. He heard, as much as he felt, all of the other boys around him do the same thing.

“Aim.”

He found his target. His trance, perhaps, wasn’t as as good as he told himself – or maybe it was too good. He found the brown eyes of the boy that he dragged into this, staring at him and filled with tears. He clung to the leg of an old man next to him, and he was deathly still now. Hannibal adjusted the sight of the gun, aiming right between his eyes. His finger did not shake on the trigger.

“Fire.”

Hannibal did.


#2

Lieutenant Commander Mic Hosluft sat slumped at his desk, trying to sleep. The Republican Expeditionary Force Air Corps left him precious little time to catch some shut-eye, because Celiose Cole – the damn kid – kept the REF moving constantly. He supposed it was necessary, given how badly they were outnumbered, but pilots didn’t do their best work without some quality sleep. An infantryman could fight tired, Mic thought, but a pilot had a few dozen gauges to remember.

Sleep, of course, wouldn’t happen. He knew that. He just tried to pretend he might. When the knock came at his door, Mic sighed. “Come in.”

He opened his eyes after the door opened, looking up to see one of the logistics division sergeants staring at him. Mic fixed the sergeant with a look with those blue eyes of his, making his expression as sour as he could. “Well?”

“You’re not going to like it, sir,” the sergeant answered, coughing into his hand.

“Of course I won’t,” Mic answered. “You woke me up.”

The sergeant seemed to consider this for a moment, before he sighed. “You really won’t like it, sir.”

“Well, best spit it out, then,” the pilot said. He stood up and stretched his arms, holding back a yawn. “What sort of bad news?”

“Your brother-in-law is here to see you.”

Mic reached down to his desk, grabbing his cup of coffee. He took a sip – and then promptly made a face, because it had gone cold and quite undrinkable. He sighed down at the cup, then put it on a plate. “You’re right,” he said, “I really don’t like that news. Damn it all.” He sighed. “All right. Send him in.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mic sat back down at his desk. He didn’t dislike Alfred de’Zama, exactly, but he reminded him too much of Mic’s late sister. He missed Erica, still, and Alfred grieved differently than Mic. For Mic, it was better to remember her in private. For Alfred, it was better to obsess. Of course, he was the one who lost a wife and a son to the Dark Wrath bombing. Mic lost a sister and a nephew – and he had a way to deal with that.

His Spitfire had eight confirmed kills painted on its nose since he received the telegram.

He looked up as Alfred shuffled in. The six months since hadn’t been kind to him; his brown hair went grey, his face had more lines, and his beard had become unkempt. The suit he wore, hardly a necessity to visit the REF base in Albrook, was rumpled and threadbare in parts. Mic felt sorry for him.

“Alfred,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“Hannibal’s alive, Mic,” he said immediately. “I know it.”

“This again.” Mic crossed his arms over his chest. “Look. That train was blown apart. I’ve seen what those bombs can do–gods, man, I’ve dropped them on the Wrath’s supply lines. They didn’t find a body because there wasn’t one to find.”

“There was for Erica.”

He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling his anger rising. He knew that anger wasn’t fair to direct at Alfred. “Yes,” Mic said, “there was. There wasn’t–”

“He’s with the 19th.”

The Boy Killers. Mic knew them; everyone on the Solthai Continent knew them. Poor boys conscripted from Dark Wrath-held territory, from Mobliz to Tzen, and sometimes grabbed from as far north as Nikeah. They even whispered that boys were kidnapped from their homes in Maranda, but the REF intelligence found that unlikely.

“He can’t be, Alfred,” Mic said. “I know you want him to be alive. Gods, I do too. But he’s–” Alfred cut him off by pulling an envelope from his coat and dropping it on his desk. “What’s this?”

“Look inside.”

Mic tried to ignore the trepidation filling his belly and did so. Inside were three photographs, all black and white. They had to have been shot back-to-back, with one of the telescopic cameras that had just become popular. It must have cost Alfred a fortune to hire someone to get these pictures. They showed a sight not unfamiliar to Mic: images of the dirty, rifle-carrying boys of the 19th being printed in newspapers across the Web to terrify any who stood against the Dark Wrath. It was another outrage.

A tall, lean boy stood front and center in each photograph, wearing an old NAMAC jacket and carrying a rifle. Mic’s breath caught in his throat. His nephew. “How?”

“I paid six hundred thousand gil to a reporter from Tasnicaport,” Alfred said. A staggering sum, more than Alfred could ever afford. No wonder his suit looked threadbare. “He got these. They’re from a month ago. After the massacre at Viendo.”

Another village butchered, Mic knew. He closed his eyes, imagining Viendo, and where they knew the 19th to be moving towards. He could picture the likely route in his mind, and even where they might make their ambush.

Alfred mistook his brother-in-law’s silence. “You’ll help, won’t you?” he asked. “You said–you said if I could prove it, that you’d…”

“I’ll get him back,” Mic said, his voice drier and quieter than before.

When he looked up at him, Alfred’s face was stricken. “How? He’s behind enemy lines. How could you ever–”

“I’ll need to pull some strings,” Mic interrupted. “But I’ve got a couple of friends. My second in command–he was at your wedding. Darius Laenus?” Alfred nodded, once, dimly. He may not have remembered. “He can get us sent on a long-range patrol. He’s fucking Gage Rizett’s niece, and she’s greased a few wheels for us before. We can get a few Spitfires and a cargo plane, then get out there and cover him. And there’s…”

He frowned, as he considered the option.

“There’s…?” Alfred prompted.

“There’s a cavalryman from Maranda,” Mic said. “Rimmel Coward can’t stand him, but he gets results. If anyone can get us an opening to rescue him, it’s him. He’s said we should rescue the 19th, not kill them. It’s gotten him in hot water with Cole and Lenart already.”

Alfred nodded, though he looked terrified. “They’re boys, Mic,” he said. “They wouldn’t really kill them. Would they?”

“They’ve destroyed six villages, raided three more. Cole says it’s expedient to do them in, before they do any more, and that a rescue mission would kill valuable soldiers. The only thing holding them back is that the 19th is behind the front line forces,” Mic said. “They’re careful to protect them, so they can keep killing our people.”

“Gods.” Alfred’s voice shook. “And this cavalry commander?”

“Captain Theodore Orville Halberg,” Mic said. “Some aristocratic type. He earned his stripes fighting in Colby’s last battle. I think it’s time I give him a call.”


#3

The cavalry kept their own camp by necessity. Chocobos were friendly birds, but they needed stables, feeding, and care. In a modern army, their elite status had come into question. The rumors said that dwarven tanks would replace chocobos within two years, but Mic had a tough time imagining it. The cavalry charge remained at the heart of warfare, and while the knights of old were something of a legend in many parts, the aristocratic classes still made up the majority of cavalry officers. Their camp looked nicer than the rest: converted houses instead of the quickly assembled wooden office blocks, with more than a few men lounging in polo shirts and shorts when they were off duty.

His second-in-command whistled lowly. Darius Laenus was a tall, handsome man with blonde hair and striking green eyes that won over more than a few ladies. The rumors about Darius and Gage Rizett’s niece weren’t the only ones swirling about his proclivities.

“This is pretty posh,” he said. “Is that–look at that, Mic! They have a bloody cigar lounge! Right in camp. No wonder General Cole complains about the aristocracy taking up commissions. It’s not that they’re incompetent, this must cost a fortune.”

“Bloody right,” Mic swore under his breath.

The men here, while under the command of the Republican Expeditionary Force, were something quite different. Mic and Darius found their way there as flyboys from Solthai; the poor continent at the heart of the Esper Dimension, where its citizens had long been caught between the power struggles of Tasnica and Ticondera. The dream of independence died with the Nikeahan and Moblizan Army Corps. For them, from those beaten down, lower class industrial cities, they simply had to enlist in the REF, or be conscripted into the Dark Wrath.

The men from Jidoor and Maranda were different. They formed the Local Companies. Auxiliaries that enlisted as a unit, all from one city, and worked with the Tasnicans as allies. These men were aristocrats and the looks they give Mic and Darius weren’t friendly. After all, their fathers remembered when Gestahl’s Empire dominated their cities – and that empire’s heartland was on Solthai before the Ruin.

Darius seemed to sense those looks. “We better find this Captain Halberg and get out of here,” he said. “Don’t suppose you know where to find him?”

“I do, actually,” Mic said. He cut the younger man a look. “The cigar lounge.”

“We need one of those things.”

“Remind me of that, next time I’m in command of a large armed force,” Mic sighed.

They walked into the cigar lounge and found it full of smoke. It looked like one of Albrook’s coffeehouses from the Imperial era, converted into an officer’s lounge. The carpet was moldering and ancient, the wooden decor classic, and the men inside wore fine uniforms bedecked with medals from their cities. T.O. Halberg was at the center of it all, sitting at a table and joking. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a good ten years on Mic and Darius at least, and sported a mustache popular among the wealthy in the east.

The room quieted when the two airmen entered. Mic didn’t like having every eye on him. He overcame it by walking straight up to Halberg, who gave him a long look.

One might think him a fool – a rich man playing at war – and they would be wrong. Halberg’s style was thoroughly upper crust Marandan, to be sure; his coat was clean and pressed, his buttons polished. He still had an unmistakable look in his eye: calculating and thoughtful, the eyes of a soldier. His smile, too, had a way of cutting across any class boundaries. When he smiled at Mic and Darius, the room began to murmur again.

“I didn’t expect to see men from the Air Corps here,” he said. “Captain Theodore Orville Halberg, in charge of the Maranda Local Company. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

He thrust a hand towards Mic, instead of expecting a salute. It only improved his opinion. Mic shook his hand vigorously. “Lieutenant Commander Mic Hosluft. This is my second, Lieutenant Darius Laenus. Both from Nikeah.”

“Beautiful city,” he said. “It’s seen better days, but I always loved the dock district there. Best seafood in the world, if you ask me.”

The sentiment surprised Mic and, he saw with a glance, Darius too. The dock district of Nikeah wasn’t a place that a wealthy man often went.

“It is,” Mic agreed. “We grew up in Weathersby.”

“A fan of Horton’s pub?” Halberg asked, leaning forward. “I liked to go there. Best damn fried cod that you could hope to find.”

“You’re bloody right, Captain,” Darius said. “Horton’s is some of the best. My dad used to work the bar there, after he got injured in the factory. Big fellow, balding. You remember him?” Mic glanced at the younger man. He knew this for the test it was; a test to see whether Halberg was talking about places he never went to, to impress a few lower class yokels. Sometimes, they had to deal with that attitude from Easterners.

“The bartender at Horton’s was a woman,” Halberg said. The confusion showed on his face. “Meanest little old lady that you’re likely to ever meet.”

“So she is,” Darius laughed. After a moment, Halberg was laughing too, having understood what they were getting at. He waved over a waiter – and they found three ales in frosted mugs, sitting on the table in front of them.

Halberg lifted his, but didn’t sip yet. Mic already took a drink, while Darius was on his way to draining half of the mug in one gulp. Mic eyed his second warily; his appetite for sex was matched by his appetites for food and drink.

“What can I do for you boys?” Halberg asked.

“You know the 19th?” Mic asked. Halberg nodded in reply, and Mic went on. “Word is, General Cole wants to send the Air Corps in. Use those new LF1 Devastators to shoot them up before they burn down anymore villages.”

He watched Halberg tense up. The Captain drank from his ale, then, and swirled the drink around in his mug for a moment. “Damn shame,” he said. “They’re victims, as much as the places they destroy are.”

“They are,” Mic said, “and we mean to rescue them.”

Halberg’s brown eyes lifted and met Mic’s blue. He saw it, then: Mic had his agreement. He took a gamble in coming here. The Local Companies were allies, but they were expected to follow orders just the same. Orders hadn’t been given yet, but they would come. Both men knew what this was. It wouldn’t break the agreements of their fragile alliance, but it would push the very boundaries of them. Mic bet on Halberg being a man of honor.

“That won’t be easy,” Halberg said. “They’re behind enemy lines. Getting to them will be hard. So will getting them out.”

“They’ll pass within twenty miles in three days. A brigade of Ticonderan legionnaires at the front will be between us and them. If we can tie them down for an hour, we can use our Spitfires to slip right in there, get them, and get them out.”

“You’ll need more than cavalry for that.”

Mic glanced at Darius, who nodded. Darius’s arms crossed over his chest. “Any ideas, Captain?”

“I’ve got one,” Halberg said. He turned, looking directly at a boy of no more than nine, with black hair. “Ricardo! Go tell the Zozo Foreign Brigade that we’ll need them for an operation in three days. Fetch their commander and bring him to me.”

“Y-Yes, Captain!” the boy said, his Figaran accent clear, before he turned and ran off.

“He’s from Figaro?” Mic asked.

“My squire,” Halberg said with a shrug. “His parents wanted him to learn a thing or two about cavalry, and the Figaran cavalry was almost wiped out last year.”

“I see,” Mic said, though he didn’t. Some Figaran traditions were lost on him. “You plan to get the Zozoans to back you up? Infantry?”

“More than that.” Halberg frowned. “I mean to make one less Ticonderan legion in the Web. They’ll never know who your real target is, because half the local companies will descend on them. You’ll have your chance to slip through. Can your squadron do it?”

“Of course.” Mic grinned at him. “The sky’s ours, Captain.”


#4

There were times when Hannibal’s new life seemed almost normal.

The 19th had to make camp sometimes. They rarely made camp with the regular soldiers. Another of the boys claimed their older brothers and fathers could be in those regiments, because most were also conscripted these days. A few diehards existed; the Revivalist Empire’s remnants left a few regiments, and some clung to the old NAMAC traditions. The Dark Gods being what they were, and revealing that to the entire Web, meant most men wouldn’t join their armies willingly.

Fortunately for the gods’ ambitions, they didn’t care one whit whether their soldiers were willing.

Asking those conscripts to ignore their sons, nephews, and brothers conscripted into the 19th was too much, though. So they kept them separate, and their camp could resemble a perverse sort of school camping trip. Hannibal could hear jokes and laughter. He could see smiles around the camp fire.

He kept himself separated from all of it. He knew how false it was, but that wasn’t reason enough. He knew that many of the other boys could be cruel. He felt it, too; this life had a way of twisting a person into becoming something else. He didn’t stay away because of that, either. When he escaped this place, he might need to kill them. He couldn’t let a familiarity, or a sense of camaraderie with the others, slow him.

He had to escape. He had to survive. It meant putting his life before everyone else’s. It also meant keeping separate from them. He found a hill at the edge of camp to sit on, and he looked down into the camp with grey eyes, watching the others laugh and pretend they were weren’t prisoners. They pretended that Zendir’s guards, ever present in their black-and-violet uniforms, weren’t always waiting and watching.

“You always separate yourself from the rest.” Hannibal jerked at Zendir’s voice and turned, seeing him approach. The priest of Tauroch didn’t dress as other Graulemn did; he preferred a black uniform, styled after those robes. Before he met him, Hannibal had only seen those robes in photographs.

He nodded to the priest-captain, not wanting to speak.

Fortunately, Zendir was often happy to hear himself talk. “You aren’t like the rest of them.”

Hannibal had thought long and hard whether he should try to make himself invaluable to Zendir; he decided against it. It would put himself in the priest’s power even more, and he knew that Zendir commanded powers of some sort. But, more than that, he wanted to direct Zendir’s suspicions. He could do that best with defiance. “No, I’m not,” Hannibal said. “I’m not what you made me.”

Zendir laughed at him, which raised Hannibal’s ire into something more real. “You really think that? You are here because I let you be.”

He narrowed his eyes at the priest, tilting his head to the side, and said nothing more.

“I’ve seen you move to the edge of camp alone. I could have the guards order you back. I’ve had other boys ordered back into camp. It’s better, for most of them, to form these friendships. The more precious they are, the richer it is for our Lord when they are shattered by betrayal.” Zendir smiled, with the twisted kindness that made him look like a schoolteacher. “But not you. You are different.”

“Why?” Hannibal asked. “How?”

“You can achieve heights that they never will,” Zendir said. “I am unlocking their true nature… as monsters. As base beasts, who will kill and hurt. I will wash away the lies that they wrap themselves in, so those lies may feed our Lord.”

Hannibal felt that familiar emotion come back to him: hatred. His eyes narrowed and he felt his pulse quicken. A part of him wanted to lash out, but he was only seventeen; he didn’t doubt that Zendir could strike him down easily, and he only had his old rifle.

“I can see that you hate that,” the Captain said. He smiled again. “Good.”

“You’re a monster.”

“I am.” Zendir laughed. “I don’t deny it. But I will make you into something stronger, too. Something more pure. I will strip away your lies.”

He knew, at this point, that he was only playing into Zendir’s game. Hannibal couldn’t resist his desire to know, though. Zendir tempted him with it, and he couldn’t very well resist. He would have to be stronger. “What do you mean?”

“You’re a destroyer,” Zendir said. “You were when you came here. The others had to be broken down, before they could strike down another. You did not. I doubt that you ever fought or killed, before I found you… but dealing death comes naturally to you.”

Hannibal said nothing, even as he knew it to be true. He hadn’t shown the hesitance the others did. He learned to shoot quickly; he learned to fight quickly. His competitiveness, formerly limited to the sporting field, came out in his training. It felt almost second nature to him – as familiar as playing a game of rugby back in Maranda. It came quickly.

“And the lies?” he asked. “What lies do you see?”

“You tell yourself that you are anything but a destroyer.” Zendir smiled again. “You cloak yourself in that, Hannibal. You tell yourself that you’re a student – a normal person. But if you remove that cloak, if you embrace that desire for destruction… then you will bring glorious ruin, death, and desolation to the Web. You can pretend otherwise, but I have seen.”

The Graulemn leaned towards him, smiling wider. “That’s all you are, at heart. I will give you the opportunity to prove it soon.”

Hannibal stared at him, feeling that hate – and couldn’t keep it out of the intensity of his stare. Zendir met it, understanding it, and smiled wider. He turned, then, and began to walk away from the boy. “Be ready,” he said. “There will be a battle soon – and I intend to give the Republican Expeditionary Force something to remember. I will show Celiose Cole the truth of our Lord.”


#5

It was dawn when Mic’s squadron left. The 9th Combined Air Combat Squadron, nicknamed the Sky Riders, were a mixed unit. Mic preferred to have the flexibility to choose a Spitfire or an LF1 Devastator for a mission. His twelve flyboys had a reputation as one of the few squadrons with the wings to fly both machines, but they had shown their mettle many a time before. For this mission, they would need the Spitfires – and only eight of them left today, with Mic’s in the lead.

The Spitfire wasn’t a fighter. It was a short, fat pod with two propellers to each side to keep it aloft, and deployable landing legs. A turret of guns sat on its underside.

Strung up between two of them was a magitek armor, which Darius sat inside. Mic could see his leather facemask on; the open-air machines meant all of them needed leathers and masks, because the elements at this altitude were a real threat. Mic had to look over the machine through the glass eyeguards built into his flight mask. His dark blue scarf fluttered in the wind after him, as he leaned forward over the controls.

He heard Darius’s words crackle through the static-filled radio. “There’s Halberg and his formation, straight ahead, sir.”

Mic saw them right away. Halberg hadn’t lied: the Local Companies had come out in force. He saw the Marandan cavalry were ahead of the mass of Zozo’s infantry, which in turn had support from regiments from Jidoor and Mobliz. Those were mixed between infantry and cavalry, with a few artillery hanging in the back. The force ahead of them looked far more formidable: an entire Ticonderan legion, enchanted armor shining, long rifles and spears gleaming, and their cavalry among the heaviest in the world. Even from this height, Mic could see the length of their lances – and the bulbous extensions on the ends of some, which held explosives. The Ticonderan cavalry could ram one of those into a tank and blow through the armor’s side.

It made him wonder, at times, if Cole’s tanks would really take off.

“I see them,” Mic answered. “Boys, hold your fire. We know they have mages and we don’t want them getting any clever ideas.”

The cacophony of affirmations came over the radio. Mic still watched the Ticonderans with nervousness, waiting for them to notice the little band of eight Spitfires and decide to do something about it. Halberg, thankfully, gave them something to worry about. The Jidooran artillery opened up, the crack of man made thunder coming from the ground below, and then fire and smoke opened holes in their lines.

Mic whooped, though his flight mask and the whipping winds meant no one could hear it.

Then the Spitfires were over the Ticonderans’ heads and left them behind. The speed of air travel still amazed Mic, sometimes, as they left an entire pitched ground battle behind in a matter of seconds. His eyes, though, scanned the terrain below. He found the ridgeline that would lead to where the 19th Tauroch’s Own Rifles were meant to be, then motioned with his hand. He turned his Spitfire, and the rest of the Sky Riders did the same.

When he spoke into the radio, his voice was cool and calm. “Drop down to combat height. We’re going to strafe the guards, then drop Darius behind them.”

“Ready,” Darius transmitted. “Get me in there, sir.”

“Commander!” another man interjected, more panicked. “They’re right around the ridge and they’re doing–” Mic saw it. He expected at least a mile to drop down, but he found that the 19th and their guards had formed up directly in front of them. As they lowered, he found himself looking a tall and lean man in dark uniform, bespectacled and smiling. A shiver ran down Mic’s spine. He was flanked by guards.

In front of him was a boy, perhaps only eleven or twelve. The officer raised his hand aloft and vile energies spewed forth, like a spectral flow of black and violet water, that surged into the boy. The boy’s body distended and bloated hideously. He screamed, and the scream deepened as his body changed. Flesh bulged and skin mottled; eyes took on a deep red glow, as the creature’s head looked up, and hair fell away as his clothing shredded around unnatural muscles.

“GRAULEMN!” one of his pilots screamed. “They have a Graulemn!”

“Kill the priest!” Mic yelled, “Or we’ll have more of those–” The unnatural, hulking beast leaped on legs that twisted until they were inverted, like a jack rabbit’s. The monster gained unnatural height, jumping straight up and over the Spitfires. It landed right on the left Spitfire, a meaty and clawed hand ripping the pilot free and throwing it. Darius’s armor sagged down suddenly, as the line snapped, and the Spitfire and monster both went crashing to the ground.

Mic couldn’t look for long, as the guards below opened fire – and the boys, too, he realized. Bullets pelted the aluminum armor, bouncing off for the most part, but he felt one whizz right by his head. He sucked a breath in, as the Sky Riders followed their training. They all banked to the sides hard, splitting down the middle around the 19th.

“Regroup!” Mic yelled. “We’ll get behind them! Get me Darius’s status and tell me where that…” Mic’s words died in his throat, as he saw where the monster was. It leaped through the air, straight over the heads of the boys and guard below, and came directly towards his Spitfire. “Shit!”

He reached for his sidearm, knowing how little it would do. His gloved fingers fumbled with it, while he kept one hand on the controls. The monster’s jaws opened wide, into a rictus grin, as it flew through the air towards him.

Then, a metal cable whipped out and swung around the monster’s grotesquely thick neck. It curled tight. Mic saw the magitek armor, dangling free in the heavens, coming down for a hard landing. It pulled the monster down with it, smashing it down into the ground below. They landed in a cloud of dust and smoke, but Mic heard an unnatural scream a moment later, followed by the brilliant red flash of a magitek beam.

He banked the Spitfire around, just as some of his men opened fire. There were only a dozen guards, Mic realized, and they stayed at the sides of their formation. Cannons rattled, raining down machinegun fire on the guards. He saw them fall one by one, and the boys staring in confusion. Some began to bolt; others stopped and stared; a few fired on the Spitfires. Mic brought his Spitfire down; the propellor pods on the side slowed, as it lowered, and landed on its three-pronged feet.

Mic grabbed his rifle, stowed over the side, and leaped out.

He took it to shoulder immediately and fired, a round splitting through the skull of the nearest guard. Mic spat, before he turned, and found himself staring at the wild eyes of a boy carrying an old rifle. He aimed it for Mic’s chest.

“Wait!” Mic yelled. “We’re from the REF. We’re here to save you! We’re–” The boy fired. The shot ripped through Mic’s shoulder and blood splattered onto the Spitfire behind. Mic crumpled, falling against it with wide eyes under his mask. He stared at the boy, who calmly stuck another bullet into the firing chamber and aimed again.

Before he could fire, the side of his head blew out from a second rifle shot.


#6

The boy’s corpse collapsed in a heap and Hannibal lowered his rifle. He took a couple of deep breaths and waited. The gunshots and chaos he feared never came. Some of the other boys stared at him, but their rifles lowered. Hannibal looked back at the REF pilot, slumped against the Spitfire, and staring at him behind the goggles built into his mask. Hannibal approached him, carefully, smoothing out his threadbare NAMAC jacket and trying to be presentable.

He rehearsed something like this speech a thousand times. “My name is Hannibal de’Zama. I came from Nikeah and the train from my boarding school was struck by Dark Wrath bombers. I was kidnapped and impressed into service. I ask that–”

“Believe me,” the soldier answered, “I know. Gods, you’ve gotten taller.”

He realized he knew the soldier voice. The pilot pulled the mask off, and short cut brown hair plastered with sweat spilled out. Hannibal knew those blue eyes, though, and the confident smile on his face – though it was strained terribly by pain.

“Uncle Mic!” he cried and rushed over. He stopped short of hugging him, but he reached a hand down. Mic Hosluft took it, then pulled himself up to his feet. He still sagged on the side where he had been shot.

“Glad to see you’re in one piece, Hannibal,” his uncle said. “We took you for dead.” The airman’s expression turned crestfallen. “We found your mother, and…”

Hannibal turned his steel grey eyes up at the older man, then shook his head. “She covered me from the shrapnel. I got out of there, but the Dark Wrath was waiting. This man, Zendir, was there. He is–”

“The Graulemn?” Mic asked. “We saw what he did to that boy.”

“He’s powerful, uncle,” Hannibal said. “Far past the other Graulemn that I’ve seen him talk with. They fear him.”

“Gods preserve us,” Mic swore under his breath.

The voice cut in. Hannibal knew it immediately; he did not mistake its distinguished kindliness for kindness. There was something dark in those words.

“They do not listen,” Zendir said.

“I’ve always wanted to shoot one of you Tauroch-loving sons of bitches in the head,” Mic said. He drew his sidearm and fired, but Zendir ducked to the side. Then he was a blur of shadow and smoke. He whirled past and through the swing of Hannibal’s rifle butt, which parted the smokestuff that the priest turned into like it was so much mist. Then, he came to Mic, and his hand reformed – but it was long and clawed, mottled grey flesh instead of human skin – then grabbed Hosluft about the throat.

Those fingers squeezed, nearly crushing his windpipe, as the rest of Zendir formed in a more human visage. Still, he didn’t so much as flinch when Hannibal slammed his rifle butt in his leg.

“You’re a gods damned monster!” Mic snarled at him.

Zendir smiled and spoke in the same kindly voice he always did. “How quickly it understands.” Hannibal swung again, harder, and he felt something break within him. Rage filled him – and this time, the rifle butt slammed into Zendir’s leg so hard that wooden splinters exploded. The boy barely noticed his own screaming, but he saw Zendir sag. His fingers loosed their grip on Mic, who crumpled to the ground.

The Graulemn turned to look down at him. “Good!” he said, some inflection entering his voice, and a maniacal smile splitting his face in an ugly way. “Yes. Good. My perfect destroyer is ascending and our Lord shall be most pleased.”

“I’ll kill you,” Hannibal promised.

“You won’t,” Zendir answered. “But you’ll kill many others. You–oh, bother.” Zendir’s promise cut off, as all three of them heard it: the mechanical stomp and clank of magitek armor. The low-riding, black thing, with its protruding body and huge legs, came rushing in. The clawed arm swung out, and Zendir ducked, but then it came back on the back swing and hurled him clear across the field.

The armor turned. The sandy-haired pilot in the seat grinned, before the mouth of the sleek black body opened up – and then fired a pulse of fiery magical light. It struck the ground where Zendir was, and a massive fireball went into the air. Zendir’s body flew, then came down with a crack.

“Bit of overkill, Darius,” Mic said. He stood to his feet slowly, rubbing his neck.

“I have to disagree,” the armor’s pilot said. He turned to look at Hannibal. “This the boy?”

“Hannibal de’Zama,” he replied.

“Lieutenant Darius Laenus. Your uncle’s second in command.”

“Pleasure,” Hannibal answered, with a grimace. He looked at where Zendir fell and waited – waited for the Graulemn to get back up. Nothing moved over there, though, and he shook his head. He turned his eyes back to Mic. “Uncle, are you all right?”

“Been better,” Mic said. He covered the shoulder he had been shot with, pressing his scarf against it, and then looked at Darius. “What’s our status?”

“We’ve got all the boys, sir. We’ve got them rounded up and the guards are dead,” Darius said. “But… we’ve got a problem. We’re down three Spitfire. Some of the guards had rockets and took out the engines on Lainer’s and Morton blew his motor trying to get away. We lost Johansen, too, to the Graulemn-made monstrosity.”

Hannibal’s eyes lowered to the ground. He knew the boy, though he never knew Zendir could do such things. He glanced back where the priest fell, but he still saw no movement. Mic didn’t seem bothered by that, though. Instead, he reflected on something else.

“Five aircraft,” Mic said. “Not enough to withdraw everyone. We’ll need to march with them. But… gods, that’s not going to be easy. This is what we wanted to avoid.”

“If we hurry, we might be able to,” Darius said.

“Sir,” a voice crackled over the magitek armor’s and Spitfire’s radio at once. “We’ve got incoming. It’s a brigade of cavalry, followed by infantry.” Hannibal felt his stomach sink; they had been freed only to face the Ticonderans. “Sir, it’s Halberg and the Local Companies!”

“What?” Hannibal asked.

“They routed an entire legion?” Mic asked, dumbfounded. Then, he held his head back and laughed. “The brilliant bloody bastard!”


#7

Mic rode back with the Marandan cavalry. They had a baggage train, carrying their kits and camping gear, and that included a wagon for the wounded. With his shoulder, flying a Spitfire would have been hard. Hannibal was walking outside of the train, perhaps enjoying the first free air and footsteps he had. Mic still chanced a glance back at them, feeling a gnawing disquiet. He could only guess what sort of trials the boy experienced. He could only imagine the scars left on his mind. But, Mic saw how Hannibal killed the boy who shot him without hesitation.

He could have shot to injure him. He didn’t.

He would have to talk to the boy’s father and send him somewhere safe. Maranda was too close to the war, perhaps. Maybe Mic could pull some strings and find him a place to stay in Tasnica. They hadn’t seen much of the war directly.

It surprised him when he heard a Marandan logistics officer call out. “The Colonel is approaching!”

Mic sat up straighter against the cushions he laid on, which were propped against some of the crates in the wagon. To his surprise, Theodore Orville Halberg climbed into the back of the wagon with him and took a seat. He pulled his cigar box from his coat, then offered one towards Mic. “Here,” he said. “Cigars from Damcyan. Best you’ll find.”

He nodded his thanks to Halberg and took a cigar, then accepted the light. Mic took a long drag. It felt good; his shoulder still ached, despite the attentions of a white mage, and his neck was still sore where the Graulemn gripped it. “You have my thanks, Colonel.”

“And you have mine,” Halberg said. Mic tilted his head to the side, confused by the sentiment. Halberg explained further. “The Esperian city-states are looked down on by the rest of the alliance. It’s true that we lack the unity that the other nations have, Hosluft. But… the Tasnicans think we’re weak. They think we’re not made of the same stuff, because we’re pack of squabbling cities, barely able to keep it together after an apocalypse.”

“Mm.” Mic nodded. “I’ve seen it, too. I remember when Albrook joined Tasnica. My sister lived there. They felt there wasn’t anything they could do. The Empire was gone, Figaro and Doma were barely holding it together, and NAMAC fell to the REF.”

“I mean to show them they’re wrong.” Halberg puffed on his own cigar. “We’re not weak. We’ve survived horrors they can only imagine. Our honor is tested in fire and steel. I want the world to know it, by the time this war is done. But… it’s more than that. I want our own people to know it, Hosluft.”

“Everyone from Esper?” Mic asked.

“Every last one,” Halberg said. “We need something to give us hope. Or someone. To remind us that we’re not so different. That we can stand with giants, instead of under them.”

Mic sighed, then looked up. “I won’t argue it, Colonel,” he said. “I’ve thought the same.” He looked out the back of the wagon, up at the blue skies. The skies that the Returners cleared for them, but that they never had made their own. “There is a reason that I’ve fought with the REF. I don’t relish working for the Tasnicans. I don’t like what they took from us. But… my Sky Riders, Colonel, are the best airmen there are. The smartest, the quickest, the bravest. And we’re all from Esper. Every last one of us. I want to give our people the skies back.”

He turned a long look on Halberg. “I want to give them something to look up towards, that can give them hope. That means beating back the Dark Wrath ourselves.”

Halberg smiled. “Bully.”

Mic smiled back. “One thing at a time, eh, Colonel?”

“Quite right,” Halberg said. He started to stand, to prepare to retreat. “Hosluft, there’s one thing I meant to ask you.”

“Of course.”

Halberg’s expression was carefully guarded as he looked down at Mic. He saw the lion in the older man, then; guarded and careful, something stronger and dangerous behind that relaxed aristocratic air. “I heard your nephew was among the 19th.”

Mic considered his answer, before he replied. He decided on the truth. “He was.”

“Good,” Halberg said. He nodded. “I always like a man who values his family.”

The Colonel nodded to him, before he walked back to the front of the wagon. Mic watched him leave, before he leaned back again. He puffed on his cigar, while he watched its smoke drift up before his view of the blue skies.


#8

Hannibal found it comforting to walk. The Marandan baggage train, with its mix of guards and infantrymen marching with it, were familiar in a way. He had seen scenes like this before, with the Dark Wrath. In the end, infantry regiments weren’t so different on the surface, whether they were Ticonderan legions or from Maranda. He had to give his rifle up, but it was broken, and his uncle gave him a spare REF jacket instead of the beaten up NAMAC one that he wore. He had a chance to wash his face.

He was still troubled. When he asked one of his uncle’s men whether they found Zendir’s body, they told him that it vanished. Hannibal knew better than to expect the Graulemn to be dead, but he had hoped for it nonetheless.

He marched with the soldiers here because he remained troubled. Most of the boys of the 19th were further back, kept in a group. It was only because of his uncle that he could be separated, but he felt grateful for it. Fate brought those boys together, but he didn’t wish to keep with them. He always kept himself apart. That, he decided, had to continue.

“Hey!” a voice called out behind him. “Hey!”

Hannibal turned, looking back to see a red-haired boy his own age jogging up. He slowed his pace down, and realized that the boy wore the same REF uniform that his uncle did. He had a patch with a silver eagle, outlined in blue, on his shoulder. The Sky Riders’ insignia, he thought.

“Yeah?” Hannibal asked.

“You’re the Captain’s nephew, right?” the boy asked, as he caught up to Hannibal.

“Yeah.”

“I’m Ensign Lainer Cheskle,” he said. “I’m in his unit. My Spitfire got grounded by some rockets. I thought I’d come see you myself. The whole squadron’s been wondering about you.”

“Hannibal de’Zama. You’re a pilot?”

“Damn right!” Lainer answered. “Best there is, too.”

Hannibal wrinkled his nose. “You got shot down.”

“That’s beside the point,” Lainer said.

“I don’t see how,” Hannibal sighed, “but okay. I’m his nephew. My mom was his sister. How old are you? You don’t look older than me.”

“Seventeen,” Lainer answered. “A little young, but the Captain forged some papers for me, and Lieutenant Darius got them through. He’s fucking Gage Rizett’s sister and sometimes he can do little favors for us.”

“Same age as me, then.” Hannibal frowned, as he thought about it. “And you said my uncle helped you fight in the war?”

“Look, maybe you don’t know, but…” Lainer leaned in, conspiratorially, and dropped his voice. “Your uncle is a hero. The man’s the best pilot in the REF. Rizett thinks he’s nothing but a damn hotshot, but people everywhere look up to him. They also say he eats it up – he likes the popularity. Some people worry the brass will bust his ass.”

“Probably took a risk, saving me and the 19th like that,” Hannibal said.

“Are you going to feel guilty about it?”

“Not particularly,” Hannibal admitted.

“Good, because that’s why we like the Captain,” Lainer said. “We know he does this to make a difference. He makes ups proud to follow him. He makes us all better. I would have been some freckle-faced farmboy sputtering at an old Imperial sky armor turned into a crop duster, if he didn’t give me my wings.”

Hannibal’s brow furrowed, then he nodded. “Right,” he said. “Lainer, was it? I need to go talk to my uncle. I’ll catch you around.”

“Can’t keep you from the Captain, if you have business,” Lainer said. “I’ll see you later, Hannibal.”

Hannibal waved at him, before he took off. He knew where Mic was staying in the baggage train. He found the wagon and approached from behind. A quick jog, then he climbed up the back, to see smoke wafting out. His uncle had a cigar clenched between his teeth, and leaned back against a crate thoughtfully. He waved with his good arm.

“Hannibal,” he said. “Looks like you got some sleep.”

“I did, uncle,” he said. “I had a couple questions for you.” Mic nodded, without another word. Hannibal climbed into the wagon, then sat across from him. “I want to join the REF. The Sky Riders.”

Mic pulled the cigar from his mouth. “First, that’s not a question.”

“I’m a liar,” Hannibal said.

“Second, absolutely not.”

Hannibal was never the sort of boy to get petulant. He could fight with his father, but he argued instead of throwing a temper tantrum. The things he saw erased even the barest of impulse of that from him; the things he did took away any temptation to fight. He leaned forward, steel eyes looking into the older Hosluft’s blue, and he shook his head.

“I’m not asking, Mic,” he said. “I’m telling you. They killed my mother. I can see what my parents were doing. A simple life, a good life, with a good education so I could take over father’s business in Nikeah. But I saw things out there. I… did things, uncle.” He felt his voice crack, briefly, and he stopped that with a swallow.

“And that’s all the more reason,” Mic said, “for you to go back–”

“That world doesn’t exist anymore,” Hannibal interjected. “It can’t exist anymore. This war won’t let a world like it exist. It doesn’t need businessmen, right now.” He thought to what Zendir told him, and not for the first time, Hannibal wondered if he was right. “It needs soldiers.”

He saw Mic relent. His uncle had always been a man of passions, and it was why he didn’t get along well with Hannibal’s father. The way Mic looked down, the way he sighed, and he knew – whatever he might say next – that Hannibal won this argument. “Your father’s not going to like this.”

Hannibal smiled. “I can live with that.”