by Shinko Hisada (身固之妥)
The atmosphere in the field headquarters of the Istrion Army was one of barely-controlled chaos. Units drilled on the outskirts, the shouted commands of the sergeants mixing with the dull thud of weapons impacting. Dogs barked and horses whinnied, couriers ran in all directions, and even an entire squad of Elite hardly drew a blink from the surrounding men. The closer they got to the centre of the camp, the more gold and silver ornamentation they saw on the uniforms around them, until the bright metal almost overwhelmed the dark green and pale blue of the cloth.
Even Jaren felt a bit drab with only the wide bands of silver at his sleeve cuffs that marked his rank as captain. The rest of the Elite in the 64th, lieutenants all, had less silver than he did. And poor Kale in his unornamented green uniform looked even more out of place than he usually did.
The overwhelmed expression on the young man’s face didn’t do anything to help him fit in, either. At least the Elite, who spent the first years of their training in the busy capital city, were used to dealing with the press of humanity and being surrounded by high-ranking officials. Kale, who had been born and raised among peasant farmers before joining the army, was completely out of his element.
“Never been to the field HQ before?” Jaren asked his lover quietly. He touched his hand briefly to Kale’s arm, but didn’t dare linger over the contact. As little as Jaren cared about the supposed ‘impropriety’ of the relationship they had, even he didn’t want to flaunt it here.
“Is it that obvious?” Kale murmured back, his expression turning to one of chagrin. “I thought the capital was bad, but this is insane! How long are we staying, do you know?”
“Not a clue,” Jaren admitted with a shrug. “The orders I got were to present ourselves to Lord General Harson for commendation and reassignment. Whether that means they’re reassigning us here or not, I have no idea.”
He pointed ahead of them, where the main part of headquarters had just come into view. Unlike most of the camp it was a solid building of stone, not a temporary structure of wood or a canvas tent. The banners of the army and the lord general flapped steadily in the wind, the dark green and pale blue matching the colours of the uniforms the men wore. “There it is,” he declared. “Welcome to headquarters, Kale. Try not to let all the officers intimidate you – remember, you belong here as much as they do.”
A young army lieutenant met them at the gates, saluting Jaren with crisp precision. “Sir, if you’ll all follow me,” he said. “The hostlers will take your horses. Don’t worry, they’re used to dealing with the mounts of Elite, they know how to handle the spells. The lord general wants to see you in his office right away.”
“Now?” Jaren repeated, surprised. “Can’t we at least take a moment to change uniforms and make ourselves presentable? We’ve been on the road for a week, lieutenant.”
“I know, sir, and I’m sorry,” the lieutenant apologized. “Lord General Harson was very specific, he said he wanted to see you the moment you came through the gates, as you are.”
Well, there was no arguing with a general. Jaren swung a leg over his saddle and dismounted, handing his reins to the corporal who ran over to take them. “You heard the man, let’s go,” he ordered his unit, and the others followed his lead.
The lieutenant led them through the stone corridors of the headquarters, saluting now and again as they passed higher-ranking officers. The lord general’s office was on the third floor, on the side of the building that faced towards the front lines. Rapping twice on the solid wooden door, the lieutenant then pushed it open and stuck his head inside. “The 64th has arrived, lord general,” he announced.
“Send them in,” a deep voice rumbled from inside, and the lieutenant pulled back and nodded to Jaren.
Striding into the room, Jaren saluted briefly and came to attention three paces from the desk. He could hear the rest of his unit falling in behind him. There was more than enough space for them to take parade positions, even though half the room was taken up by map tables and the massive desk. Lord General Harson was an imposing man, solid as a mountain crag and just as weathered. His greying hair was cut short and his uniform could have been used as a textbook example. His expression was stern, but Jaren thought he could see weariness in the man’s dark grey eyes.
“Sir, the 64th is reporting as ordered,” Jaren declared when he heard the last of his unit fall into place. “I apologize for our haphazard appearance, but…”
“Appearances are the least of my concerns at the moment, captain,” the lord major told him. “At ease, all of you. It is I who should be apologizing for your shoddy reception when I called you here to reward you for your excellent work, but circumstances have changed.”
He looked around, meeting each person’s eyes one at a time and ending with Jaren. “What I am about to say goes no further than this room, is that understood?” he asked.
Jaren nodded, mystified. The 64th had an exemplary battle record that had only improved since Kale had joined them, and it hadn’t surprised him when they’d received orders to report for commendation. But they weren’t anywhere near the top of the chain of command, and none of them had clearance for top-secret matters. What was going on?
“The Semaskans have created a new weapon,” the lord general continued. “Something our mages can’t block, and they’ve shielded whatever it is strongly enough that our scryers can’t even get a look at it, let alone destroy it from a distance. They’re chopping through our defence lines like a scythe through a field of wheat, and nothing we do can stop them. I received word from the commander of Fort Destrier three days ago that the enemy was camped on his doorstep… and my mages haven’t been able to contact the fort since.”
There was stunned silence in the room as all of them tried to absorb that. Jaren stared at the lord general in shock. Fort Destrier was only two days march from the headquarters, and had never been so much as approached by the enemy during this entire war. It guarded a valley that had once been on the border between Istria and Semaska, but Istria had pushed the border back nearly a century ago. It was one of the primary resupply stations for the Istrion army in this area; if it had fallen all the outlying troops in this region would be cut off from supplies.
“We must retake Destrier at all costs,” the lord general said. “I’m calling in every soldier within a week’s march, but you’re the only Elite field unit I have closer than three days away. I need you to get out there and find out what this new weapon is and how it works, and report back to me with all possible speed.” He gave them a grim smile. “If we’re all still alive when it’s over, I’ll see you receive two medals for your work instead of the one you were already due.”
“Sir.” Jaren saluted the man, his mind still spinning. This was possibly the most dangerous mission his unit had ever been sent on, but he was confident they could handle it. They hadn’t earned their commendation for nothing, after all.
“One more thing, captain,” Harson said. “I want Private Coulter to stay here with me.”
“Sir?” Kale exclaimed from the back of the room, and Jaren didn’t have to see his lover’s face to know he was shocked at the unexpected attention. “Me, sir?”
“Yes, you,” the lord general confirmed. “From Captain Delwash’s reports I know you’re the best person in the army at seeing magic. You’re going to be working with the scrying mages; if you can use your ability to see magic in a scryed image, perhaps you’ll be able to get a better idea of what this new weapon is from a distance. If not, I still want you on the perimeter guard here, watching for enemy mages attempting to sneak in close. Our defences this far from what was the front line are sadly lacking; our overconfidence may well be the end of us.”
Only long and rigorous military training allowed Jaren to keep his expression blank instead of showing the dismay he felt. He’d always known that there was a possibility that Kale would be reassigned once their commanders realized just how useful the younger man’s ability to see magic was, but that didn’t make it any easier to take. From the way the lord general was talking, it didn’t sound like he was planning to reassign Kale to the 64th once this was over – and they wouldn’t even have a chance to say a proper goodbye.
Briefly Jaren considered protesting. They were being sent on a mission to try to find and identify a powerful magical artefact of some kind, and Kale would be an invaluable asset on such a mission. But he knew it was selfishness that was tempting him, not any righteous sense of thwarted duty. The lord general was right that protecting headquarters was important enough that Kale belonged here.
So he took a deep breath, and was grateful when his voice came out crisp and steady. “Understood, sir.”
The lord general returned his earlier salute, his eyes grave. “Dismissed, captain. The quartermaster already has orders to provide you with whatever you require. As of this moment your mission has the highest possible priority. Private Coulter, report to the scryers immediately.”
They all saluted this time, then turned and filed out of the office. Kale was the first to leave, but Jaren wasn’t at all surprised to find his lover had hung back to meet him as he came through the door. They walked together along the hallway in a little bubble of relative privacy, the rest of the 64th having gone ahead.
Glancing at the younger man, Jaren saw that Kale was pale beneath his natural dark colouring and there were lines of tension around his eyes and mouth. “Are you upset that I didn’t argue to keep you with me?” Jaren asked when Kale remained silent.
“What?” Looking startled, Kale turned his head and stared. “No, of course not! We both knew this could happen someday. I just wasn’t expecting it to be so sudden.” A muscle in his jaw clenched. “Our duty comes first, always. We’ll see each other again.”
Anyone else would probably have had a hard time seeing past the determined expression the young man wore, but Jaren knew his lover well enough to recognize the pain and grief lurking in his eyes. They matched the ache in his own chest. In the year and a half they’d been working together Kale had gone from being someone whose stubborn will he admired, to his friend and lover, to the most important person in his life. They’d nearly been separated once before, and saying goodbye to him then had been the hardest thing Jaren had ever done. It wasn’t proving any easier the second time around.
“We will see each other again,” Jaren promised him fiercely. “If I have to blackmail the entire high command to arrange it. But I don’t think I’ll have to. I doubt my Lady Amera is through toying with us just yet. We’re too much entertainment for Her.”
“The Goddess of Luck is fickle, Jaren,” Kale reminded him with a strained smile. “What She gives, She also takes away. We’ve enjoyed Her favour for longer than most people could hope.”
“Then I’ll find a different god to worship,” Jaren swore, and Kale’s eyes went wide. “One who favours unlikely lovers. One way or another, Kale, this isn’t the end for us.”
Glancing around, he found that they were in a quiet corridor with nobody immediately in sight except the rest of the 64th. The other Elite were just out of earshot, and none of them were looking back. Pulling Kale into the scant shadow of a recessed doorway, Jaren kissed him fiercely. At that moment he didn’t care about the possibility that they would be seen; he just wanted a chance to memorize the taste and feel of his lover before he had to go.
Kale kissed back just as intently, his arms coming around Jaren and pressing him closer. They were both breathless when they broke apart at last, but they couldn’t put it off any longer. Stepping back, Jaren tugged his tunic back into place, his eyes never leaving Kale’s.
“Stay alive,” the younger man ordered him, his voice husky. “I don’t want you keeping your promise by meeting me in the Heavens, hear me?”
“I’ll do my best,” Jaren promised him. “Gods all bless, Kale.”
With that he turned and jogged after the rest of his unit, forcing himself to focus on the mission ahead instead of what he’d just left behind.
Lying flat on his stomach at the top of the ridge, Jaren ignored the sharp rocks digging into him even through his protective armour spells. They were far less distressing to him than the sight of thousands of enemy tents spread out over the valley below him, encircling the remains of Fort Destrier.
Worse was the sight of the fort itself. The only reason he knew it was the remains of Destrier was because he’d been stationed there in the past and knew the valley well. There was nothing left but a burned-out pile of rubble, stones scattered everywhere and the pall of smoke still hanging in the air over the valley. The Semaskans hadn’t captured the fort, they’d decimated it. Whatever the new weapon was, it was unbelievably powerful.
Squinting, he cast the spell that would allow him to see the flow of magic. His eyes watered the moment the spell took effect, the intensity of the power residue below too bright to look at straight on. Magical Sight had always been Jaren’s weakest ability, but even he could see why their scrying mages had been having difficulty watching the enemy army. It wasn’t a shield spell, it was just sheer power hanging over them.
Dropping back down below the top of the ridge, he turned to look over his shoulder at the rest of the 64th, huddled beneath him on the steep slope. “Ka…” he started to call for his lover automatically, then cursed under his breath and shook his head. “Trant,” he said instead. “Get up here and take a look, tell me what you see.”
There was a brief shuffle as Trant worked his way up through the rest of the group, then he pulled himself up beside Jaren. The younger man had trained briefly as a traditional mage before deciding that his talents lay in the kind of war magic the Elite specialized in, and he knew a few tricks nobody else in the unit could duplicate. He was the strongest sensitive Jaren had other than Kale – which was rather like comparing a candle to the sun, but Jaren had to work with the tools he had available.
Trant looked out over the valley, his gaze taking on the curiously blank quality many sensitives had when they were focusing on the flow of magic. Jaren saw the way the young man flinched and shielded his eyes with one hand as if that would block the strength of the magic, but Trant kept looking even though it was clearly painful to him.
“Captain,” he said softly after a long moment. “I think I see something.”
Hauling himself back up to the top of the ridge, Jaren looked out over the valley to the section of the encampment Trant was pointing at. A little cluster of tents had been sent up away from the main part of the army, and when Jaren cast a spell to enhance his long-range sight he could see they were of much better quality than the other tents. But the pennants of the army’s commanders flew over another group of luxurious tents, closer to the ruins of the fort. “Mages?” he guessed, and Trant nodded.
“The highest concentration of power is there, sir,” the young man confirmed. “And they’re doing something that’s producing a lot more magic residue, though I can’t tell what. I can See power, but I can’t tell the different kinds apart the way Kale can.” He sounded frustrated, and Jaren patted him on the shoulder.
“Don’t blame yourself for that, Trant. There are plenty of things you can do that Kale would give his left arm for. Is there anything else you can tell me?”
“No… wait, maybe,” Trant corrected himself, staring harder down into the valley. “Is that… it can’t be. How are they powering them?”
“Translation, lieutenant?” Jaren asked mildly, but his voice had a sharp edge to it.
When Trant looked back at him, the younger man was pale and sweating. “Sir, it’s something I read about in my early classes on theoretical war magic. They’re called mana cannons; they can release huge amounts of offensive magic, focused by channelling the power down big metal barrels. But until now they’ve only been theoretical. It would take six mages a full day to gather enough power for a blast.”
Looking down into the valley again, Jaren grimaced as he spotted the long metal tubes Trant was talking about. There were four of them, aimed in pairs towards the two passes into the valley. Jaren was willing to bet that if he reactivated his Sight spell the magic hanging around that area would be bright enough to make him see spots.
“How powerful are they?” he wanted to know. “How many shots would it have taken to destroy the fort like that?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Trant shrugged helplessly. “It would depend partly on how much energy they had stored up to channel into the blast. At the theoretical minimum, it would have taken… probably fifteen or twenty shots.”
“And they’ve been using the cannons the whole way from the border. So they can’t just be charging them up before the battle and then using them up,” Jaren said thoughtfully. “Even if they committed every mage in the country to this, they wouldn’t be able to get that many shots off.”
“What if they’ve been storing the power up over time, sir?” Dena suggested from below them. “In crystals, or something. This war has been going on for more than a decade. If they just kept pouring power into the receptacles, they might eventually build up enough stored power for them to make a push like this.”
“There’s another possibility,” Leor rumbled. “Do you see any sign of captured troops from the fort? They can’t all have died, surely. There were nearly a thousand men in that fort.”
Jaren saw what he was getting at immediately, and felt sick. “Those bastards,” he whispered, his hands clenching into a tight fist. The ‘mercy’ of the Semaskans was legendary, and they reserved the worst tortures imaginable for captured Istrion Elite. “They’ve been using blood and death magic to wring power out of their captives and fuel the cannons.”
“Presira save us all,” Dena murmured, her voice shaking as she called on the patron goddess of magic. “Twelve years worth of energy from every captive that’s ever gone to their mages, and all the while the mages were free to use their own power against us on the field. Gods alone know how many charges they must have stored up. We don’t have a chance.”
“If that’s true, then they must be keeping the crystals somewhere,” Jaren said. “Trant, can you…?”
“I can’t see it, captain,” the younger man shook his head before Jaren had even finished the question. “There’s just too much ambient magic down there. It’s like trying to find a bucket of water in the ocean. It all looks the same to me.”
“They might not even be storing it near the cannons,” Jaren sighed, and slid back down the slope again. He rubbed at the spot between his brows, feeling tension building into a headache. His gut was a solid knot of fear and worry, but he tried to consider their next step rationally. “If we could destroy the power reserves for the cannons, our army could take them. But we don’t know where they are, so our next most important priority is to get the information we do have back to the lord general. Maybe now that our mages know exactly what’s being used, they’ll be able to come up with a defence.”
If only they had Kale! As sensitive as the younger man was, Jaren had no doubt he’d be able to find the location of the power sources. For Kale stored magic would look nothing like the aura of living mages or an active spell. Was there time for him to get back to headquarters, grab Kale and get back here?
“Sir!” Trant’s voice was high and tight. “Sir, they’re striking camp. They’re moving – the advance scouts are heading for the pass that leads further into Istria.”
“Laran take the souls of the men who invented those bedamned cannons,” Jaren swore. “And eternity at the hands of the Lord of Darkness is too good for the ones who ordered the torture of our people to power them. We have to…”
His words were cut off by a sudden explosion almost directly above them, the light half blinding them and the noise deafening. “What was that?” he snapped, one hand on his sword hilt even though he couldn’t see to swing at a target.
“Sir!” Stephon was stumbling towards them from the left flank, where he’d been posted as a sentry. “Sir, their scouts found us. I killed one right away but the second got off a signal before I could stop him, I’m sorry!”
“Worry about apologies later. They’ll be on top of us in minutes,” Jaren told him, blinking rapidly and invoking a bit of healing magic to help clear his sight. “Listen, all of you. Getting this information to the lord general is the only thing that matters now. It’s everyone for themselves; don’t stop for anything. Take different routes to get away, then once you’re certain you’re clear of enemy pursuit, send a message to the mages at headquarters. At least one of us must survive long enough to relay this information, understood?”
The eight Elite under his command nodded, their expressions ranging from frightened determination to poorly hidden despair. “Go!” he ordered, and they scrambled.
Wishing he knew a spell for invisibility, Jaren hauled himself up over the top of the ridge and slid down the other side. That put him in view of the enemy camp, but he was just in time; the solid bulk of the ridge protected him from the explosion that went off where he’d been standing moments before.
Desperately Jaren threw most of his power into shields as he ran along the side of the mountain. If he could just make it across the length of this ridge, there was a tributary river running through a thick forest ahead. In there he would have a chance of losing his pursuers long enough to climb up the side of the mountain again and get into a different valley.
Offensive spells of the most basic kind pounded against his shields as he ran. Lightning and fire were the easiest elements to call for use in battle magics, but the fact that they were simple didn’t mean they weren’t powerful. Twice, the force of the blasts made Jaren stumble and nearly lose his footing, but he managed to keep running through sheer strength of will.
If he’d been a traditional mage he’d never have stood a chance, but the Elite specialized in magic that enhanced their physical abilities and defences. Jaren might not be able to pull off the big, impressive-looking spells, but his shields held against the worst the unprepared enemy could throw at him and his endurance wouldn’t give out for miles.
Of course it wasn’t just the enemy mages he needed to worry about, he remembered as an arrow whistled past him. Drawing his sword, Jaren boosted the energy going into his armour spells and charged towards the enemy squad that was scrambling up the mountainside towards him.
He had the advantage of high ground and better training, but he was also still fending off enemy spells. And this was only the first squad that had been ready for battle and close enough to engage him; if he took too long cutting through them, he’d have the entire army right on his heels.
With a yell he closed on the first enemy soldier, slashing his sword at an angle. The runes etched into the blade came to life, invisible but humming with deadly intent. The air whistled over the blade as it passed through empty space before impacting the man’s body. The magic made it sharper and stronger than the finest steel ever forged, and it cut through the soldier’s hardened leather armour as if it didn’t exist. Flesh and bone offered no more resistance, and Jaren turned to the next attackers without so much as a pause. Killing people was nothing new to him, and the feel of his blade slicing through bodies didn’t bother him any more.
Realizing he was an Elite, some of the enemy troops faltered and fell back, but he didn’t hesitate to cut them down. He couldn’t afford to have them at his back when he ran.
A few blows glanced off his magical armour but nothing got through the protective spell to injure him. Unencumbered by heavy metal or even stiff leather, Jaren fought with a quicksilver grace the enemy couldn’t hope to match or defend against. In moments the entire squad lay dead or dying and the rocky ground was soaked with blood, but Jaren didn’t have the time or heart to stand around gloating.
He was running again before the last soldier had even hit the ground. The enemy mages were getting more creative with their attacks now, having had a chance to start casting actual spells instead of hurling raw power at him. His shields held, but Jaren could feel himself growing light-headed from the constant drain on his magic. He had to get under cover fast.
At least he could hope he was drawing all the enemy fire, so the others might be able to escape. Then again, considering how many tents there had been in what he assumed was the mages’ section of camp, they probably had more than enough power to attack all of the fleeing Elite.
The river was just ahead. The hair on the back of Jaren’s neck stood on end and every nerve in his body tingled, and he knew that whatever spell was now heading his way was more than his shields would be able to handle. Instinctively he dove forward and hit the ground in a roll. The ground exploded behind him, showering him with dirt and chunks of rock. Some of them hit hard enough to get through his armour spell, and he was going to have bad bruises to deal with later.
Better bruises than what would have been left of him if that explosion had hit him, though. Scuttling forward, Jaren didn’t bother to shove himself back to his feet as he crossed the last bit of distance between him and the riverbank.
The edge was more abrupt than he’d thought it would be and he went tumbling over it into the water before he realized what was happening. The water was freezing even this far into summer, being runoff from the snow-capped mountains that towered over the valley. The shock of it took his breath away, and he had to struggle back to the surface to gasp for air.
Incredibly grateful that Elite didn’t wear armour that would have weighed him down and made it impossible to swim, Jaren took a couple of deep breaths and whispered a cantrip that would trigger a spell he’d prepared a long time ago. He felt the tiny rush of power sweep through his chest, and drew one more breath before he dove back under the water.
The current was strong and swift, but it was running in the wrong direction. If he let it, the river would sweep him into the centre of the valley – and the centre of the enemy camp. Instead Jaren swam for all he was worth, spell-enhanced muscles just barely enough to let him make headway against the current.
Inwardly he was counting off the seconds in his mind. The spell he’d triggered would let him function on that one breath for somewhere between ten and twelve minutes, but when it wore off he would need air immediately. If he hadn’t gotten far enough upriver by then, if the enemy was waiting for him when he surfaced, he’d be a sitting duck.
When ten minutes had passed he reluctantly swam closer to the surface. He would have only a few seconds of warning as the effects of the spell ended. He hadn’t finished counting another thirty seconds before he felt that tiny rush of power shoot through him once more, and he knew he was out of time.
Pushing himself up with all his strength, he broke through the water just as his body rebelled and gasped helplessly for air. To his intense relief he wasn’t immediately struck down by enemy magic or weapons, and he didn’t hear any shouts of discovery either.
Shaking the water out of his eyes, he looked around and saw only trees and river. Either the enemy hadn’t bothered to pursue him, or they hadn’t realized he was strong enough to swim this far against the current. Grinning to himself like an idiot, Jaren struck out for the nearest shore.
“Lady Amera, thank You for watching over me,” he murmured between gasps for air. “I’m sorry I threatened to change my patron god… but You’re the one who brought Kale to me in the first place, so I’m sure You understand.”
Once on solid ground he started running again. He was still low on the mountainside, not anywhere near the tree line. He couldn’t rest yet, not until he was certain he was out of reach of the enemy.
He pushed himself as hard as he dared, pulling all his magic in tight to him in the hopes that the enemy mages wouldn’t be able to spot him. Only when he was safely on the other side of the mountain did he let himself relax a bit, and poured more energy into the spells that allowed him to run quickly and tirelessly.
There was one very good thing about the lord general having kept Kale with him, Jaren had to acknowledge. Kale was stubborn and determined enough that he usually didn’t slow the unit down, but the younger man simply could not keep up with an Elite who was pushing himself hard. He just didn’t have the training or the magic. Jaren would have been forced to choose between slowing himself to a relative crawl or leaving Kale behind for the enemy; neither option was acceptable.
When the sun was touching the horizon and Jaren hadn’t sensed so much as a hint of enemy magic for over an hour, he finally stopped running. Standing motionless, he used a spell to enhance his hearing and listened hard. All around him and quite a distance back along his trail the forest was silent, the birds and animals having been disturbed by his passage. Other than that, everything he heard was perfectly normal for a thick forest at sunset. There was no sign of the enemy whatsoever.
Sighing with relief, he wiped the sweat from his forehead with a hand that trembled slightly. It was fear more than weariness; with spell enhancement he could have kept running for another day at least without stopping to rest. His reserves of magic were down but not drained by the battle.
He drank the entire contents of his water bottle in one long gulp, then searched around until he found a little stream and drank from that as well. Once he was done he refilled his canteen, not knowing when he might get another chance.
Now he had a choice. He could continue running, or he could hole up and rest for the night. Remembering that he still had a report to make, Jaren realized it wasn’t a hard choice after all.
Just to be safe he found the tallest, sturdiest tree in the area and climbed as high as it would hold his weight, then settled himself into a cradle formed where two branches met the main trunk. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but he was in no danger of falling even if he slept. First, though, he needed to contact the lord general.
If any of the others had gotten away they would have to find a way to contact the mages at headquarters, probably by scrying in flames or water. None of them had any particular ability in communication spells, unfortunately; if the lord general hadn’t been forced to use them because of the lack of other available troops, the 64th would never have been sent on a mission where reporting back quickly was this vital.
Of them all, Jaren was the only one with a faster and more certain way of getting in contact with headquarters. Knowing they might run into this problem, one of the things he’d requisitioned from the quartermaster before leaving was a little mirror spelled specifically for long-distance communication. It took a lot of power and concentration to maintain, but he was more than strong enough for it.
Digging out the little mirror, Jaren flipped open the case and held it up until he could see his own eyes in it. Tucked inside the case was a single lock of short, greying hair: the lord general’s. Without that focus Jaren wouldn’t have been able to reach him specifically. Curling his free hand around the hair, he concentrated hard and whispered the words of the spell.
There was a moment of sharp disorientation that almost made Jaren think he had somehow fallen out of the tree, and then the world resolved itself again. Now the image in the mirror was a tiny recreation of the lord general’s office, and the man himself was seated at his desk. He was looking straight back at Jaren; the mirror on his side must be spelled to indicate when there was an incoming call.
“Captain. I was beginning to worry something had happened to you,” he said, and Jaren’s heart sank. That meant none of the others had reported in yet.
He could worry about them after he’d relayed his vital information, he reminded himself. “Sir. I’m glad I was able to reach you directly; there’s a lot of things I need to tell you and I don’t know how much of it you’re going to want other people to know.”
That made the man raise an eyebrow at him and set aside the report he’d been working on. “Go ahead, captain,” he ordered.
Forcing himself to be completely objective and dispassionate, Jaren reported everything they’d found. The number of troops in the enemy army was daunting; the news that Fort Destrier had been destroyed and the enemy was on the move was worse. But it was his description of the mana cannons and what they could do – and how he suspected they were being powered – that made the lord general turn pale and rub a hand over his face.
Long moments passed in silence after Jaren had finished his report, long enough that he started to wonder if he should assume he was dismissed. Then the lord general looked up again, his expression resigned. “Thank you, captain,” he said. “You and your men have done an invaluable service in getting this information to us. If you can, please return to headquarters. Even one man may make the difference in this battle.”
“I should be able to get there before the enemy does, sir,” Jaren assured him. “I don’t know how much use I’ll be, I’ll be fairly drained, but I’ll at least be able to swing a sword.”
“I couldn’t ask for more, captain. Good luck.” Lord General Harson saluted him briefly, then ended the spell from his side.
Slumping back against the tree, Jaren let out a shaky breath. At that moment he felt every minute of his three decades pushing down on him, like a weight dragging him down. Gods, he was getting too old for this sort of thing.
Not that he was likely to have to worry about it much longer. Going back to headquarters was as good as walking into certain death, he knew. Unless they could find a way to counter those mana cannons the entire gathered forces of the Istrion army would be nothing more than a bunch of sitting targets. Semaska would smash right through them, and from there it was a week of easy marching to the capital.
A sane man would be running far and fast in the opposite direction, Jaren reflected ruefully. There was nobody who would know that he hadn’t been killed in his attempt to return. He could survive in the mountains long enough to make his way south to one of the neighbouring, neutral countries. His skills would be highly valued there; Istria had been the first country to develop the Elite programme, and Istrion Elite were still considered the best of the best. He could get a job as a guard or a mercenary in a heartbeat, and probably live better than he did here in the army.
But Jaren had never been the sort of man to run from his duty, and he’d sworn some fairly binding oaths to serve and protect Istria until such time as the king chose to release him. If he fled now he would never be able to live with himself, even assuming the gods didn’t decide to enact retribution on him as an oathbreaker.
And if all of that hadn’t been enough to decide him, Kale was still back at headquarters. There was no way Jaren could run off and leave his lover to die. If he pushed himself, he could make it back in time to be able to fight at Kale’s side in the final battle. He couldn’t let Kale face that alone.
Thinking of his lover made Jaren frown as he gripped the mirror tighter. It was the lock of the lord general’s hair that gave the spell its target, he knew. Theoretically it could contact anyone he had the power to reach and a focus for.
Reaching inside his belt, he drew out a small metal case. Inside was a dark brown curl of hair, tied with a thread of raw silk to protect it from magical influences. Jaren had taken it with Kale’s permission long ago, to enable him to use it as a focus for any spells he might need to cast on the younger man if Kale wasn’t right there in front of him.
It would be a reckless use of his magic. Reckless, and wasteful. Closing his fingers around the curl, feeling the familiar coarse texture of the hair tickling his skin, Jaren decided he didn’t care.
He opened the mirror’s case again and cast the spell once more, praying Kale would be near a reflective surface and preferably alone. Given the time of day it was unlikely he’d be doing anything but getting ready for bed – if he wasn’t working with the scrying mages or on sentry duty on the walls. If he was, Jaren might be about to get them both in quite a bit of trouble.
But that would be worth it too, he knew. In two days, when the enemy army reached headquarters and turned those cannons on their forces, it wouldn’t matter anyway. Jaren wanted – needed – the chance to talk to Kale one last time before everything went to hell.
More exhausted than he could remember being in a long time, Kale fought to stay awake as he polished his sword. He’d spent two days now struggling to figure out how to use his inborn ability to see magic in conjunction with the scrying mages’ spells to see over long distances. So far he hadn’t succeeded in anything but giving himself a splitting headache. He wasn’t a mage, just a sensitive, and the mages didn’t have any idea how to link their power with his.
If the 64th had reported in yet nobody had thought to inform him about it, but he wasn’t sure anybody would bother. Technically he wasn’t part of that unit anymore, after all, so what they did was none of his business. Never mind that it was his lover out there risking life and limb to try to get them information on the enemy’s tactics – information that just might help Kale narrow the focus of his own search.
All he could do was hope that Jaren and the others would make it back in one piece and he’d have a chance to spend a little time with the older man. Jaren would tell him everything he could, Kale knew.
The sword he was holding abruptly began to glow with an eerie blue light. Kale promptly dropped it and pulled his feet up onto the cot, eyes wide. His blade wasn’t magic in any way, though Jaren had offered to put enhancing spells on it. No matter what spell was put on it, in Kale’s hands it would have remained an ordinary blade. He simply didn’t have the power or ability to trigger magical artefacts. So why was it suddenly glowing with power now?
“Kale?” Jaren’s voice was soft and oddly thin, as if it was coming over a great distance. “Kale, are you there?”
“Jaren?” Incredulous, Kale peered over the edge of the bed at the sword on the floor. Instead of his own plain features reflected in the blade, he could see Jaren’s vibrant blue eyes framed by wisps of the older man’s pale hair. “What on earth?”
“It’s a communication spell,” the Elite explained. Kale couldn’t see his mouth, but he was fairly certain from the look in the older man’s eyes that he was smiling. It was a strained smile, though, and Kale was sure there was something odd going on here.
Picking up the sword again, he leaned back against the wall and settled it gingerly across his crossed legs. “Is something wrong? Do you want me to go get Lord General Harson?” he asked, unable to figure out why Jaren would be contacting him. Judging by how brightly the sword was glowing, it took a not inconsiderable amount of magic to maintain, even for a mage as strong as Jaren.
“No, I’ve already made my report to him,” Jaren shook his head. “He’s got a mirror in his room specifically for this sort of communication. Where are you? Are you alone?”
“Yeah, I’m in my room,” Kale nodded. Glancing around at the extremely cramped quarters he’d been given, he amended, “Well, in my closet, anyway. I think that’s what it was before they shoved a cot in here for me. But the mages insisted that I be given space to myself, so I could rest properly and be fresh to try again tomorrow. I hardly was able to sleep at all last night in the barracks. I’ve gotten spoiled, bunking in with you all the time.”
“Good.” Jaren smiled at him again, but it still didn’t completely reach his eyes. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold this spell, I need to keep a certain amount of my reserves for travelling tomorrow, but I needed to talk to you.”
‘Needed to’, Kale noted. And the older man had spoken in a tone that implied it wasn’t because he’d had something vitally important to tell Kale. “What is it?” he asked quietly. “Jaren, what’s going on? You’re scaring me. You sound like you don’t expect to see me again.”
Jaren sighed. “The Semaskan army is marching for headquarters. They’ll be there day after tomorrow, probably. I’ll be pushing myself to get back before them, but I can’t make any guarantees about how much time we’ll have to talk before the battle starts.”
Knowing his lover as well as he did, Kale was able to read between the lines of the things Jaren hadn’t said. “It’s bad, isn’t it? You don’t think we’re going to win.”
“Not unless we pull a miracle out of our collective asses, no,” Jaren shook his head. He looked tired and frightened, and that more than anything scared Kale. “This new weapon they’ve got is… well. There’s nothing left of Fort Destrier for us to retake. I’m trusting you not to spread this around, we don’t need the whole encampment in a panic.”
“Destrier was destroyed?” Kale whispered, shaken to the core. Destrier was a strong fort, it had held up against decades of Semaskan raids before the border had been pushed back. “And the lord general knows? Why aren’t we evacuating headquarters? We’ll be helpless out here!”
“We can’t evacuate, Kale,” Jaren told him gently. “We have to make a stand where we are, or they’ve got an unimpeded shot straight at the capital. Headquarters is the army’s last possible defence.” He made another attempt at a smile. “On the bright side, if we do pull off a miracle we’ll be utterly decimating the Semaskan forces. One way or another, the end of the war rests on this battle.”
Feeling sick, Kale curled up a little tighter on himself. Jaren was right, of course. They couldn’t evacuate or retreat, not if it meant handing the country over to the enemy. They had to make a stand. But that didn’t make it any easier to face the idea that chances were very good he would be dead in two days. “You’re coming back?” he repeated, not sure if he was grateful for the thought that Jaren would be with him or if he should be cursing the idiot out for not at least keeping himself out of the battle.
“I’ll be there,” Jaren promised him, his voice firm. “I just wish we would have time…” He trailed off and sighed. “Well, we won’t, that’s almost certain. That’s why I contacted you now.”
“Too bad we can’t reach through this spell and touch each other,” Kale said, his voice husky with fear rather than arousal. In that moment he very badly wanted Jaren there with him, wanted to feel the older man’s strong body over and against his, wanted the reassurance of contact and the thoughtless oblivion that sex could bring. “Losing myself in you sounds pretty damn appealing right now.”
“I know,” Jaren laughed softly, ruefully. “I’ve been thinking the same thing, believe me. But maybe there is one thing I can do.” His eyes took on a certain sparkle that Kale had learned to be wary of in their time together – wary of, and to secretly look forward to.
“Jaren,” he started, but his heart wasn’t in the protest. Whatever his lover was plotting, how could Kale object? This might well count as a ‘last request’.
“What are you wearing? Your normal uniform?” Jaren asked. Kale shook his head.
“Believe it or not, they made me pull out my formal greens,” he grumbled. “Something about while I might be low ranking, that was no excuse for me to look like I’d just crawled out of a haystack.” He tugged irritably on the tight collar of his dress tunic. It was far more confining than his casual uniform, not being intended for wear while doing anything more strenuous than standing for inspection. “I was just cleaning my sword and then I was going to change for bed.”
“Good,” Jaren murmured. “Take it off. Slowly. And don’t forget I can’t see you, so tell me what you’re doing.”
“What?” Stunned, Kale stared at the image in his sword blade. “Jaren, have you lost your mind?”
That made Jaren laugh more sincerely. “You always say that when I suggest trying something new,” he pointed out, his voice dropping to a husky purr that made shivers run down Kale’s spine. “Have I ever led you wrong?”
Well, that was true. Some of the things Jaren had suggested over the last year and a half had left Kale flustered and stammering, but he’d enjoyed every one of them in the end. Licking his lips, he set the sword down beside him on the bed and raised trembling hands to his tunic.
“I’m, uh… I’m taking my tunic off,” he told Jaren, feeling unbelievably awkward. He’d never really talked much during sex, and the odd circumstances made it even more difficult. When he glanced down at the sword he saw Jaren’s eyes were closed, probably imagining him.
“Slowly,” Jaren told him again. “Imagine I’m the one doing it, and I’m determined to drive you crazy.”
“When aren’t you?” Kale muttered, drawing another soft laugh from his lover. He obeyed the command, though, slowing his hands and making himself aware of each movement it took to undo the buttons. “Okay, it’s unbuttoned, and I’m taking it off,” he said, shrugging it down off his shoulders and tugging his arms free. Once he had it all the way off he set it aside where he hopefully wouldn’t crush it before he had a chance to hang it up properly. “Now what?”
“You wearing a shirt under it?” Jaren wanted to know. Kale nodded, forgetting the older man couldn’t see him.
“Yeah, the tunic chafes the hell out of me otherwise, even though it’s way too hot,” he agreed. “Want me to take the shirt off too?” At Jaren’s affirmative noise, he lifted his hands to the much smaller buttons on the plain white shirt. “Uh, I’m undoing the buttons. Okay, I’ve got the shirt off.” He tried to imagine it was Jaren’s hands on the clothing, but failed. He knew what his lover’s hands felt like compared to his own, and his imagination just wasn’t up to the task.
“Run your hands over your chest,” Jaren told him in a low, suggestive voice. When Kale opened his mouth to protest, the older man beat him to the punch. “I know you feel silly, just do it anyway. Trust me, Kale. And you might want to sit down, if you’re not already.”
Glancing at the sword again, Kale saw that Jaren had the tiny frown between his eyes that meant he was concentrating on something. Well, nobody could ever claim that Kale didn’t trust Jaren, even if he thought he was crazy for it sometimes. Feeling more than a little awkward, he ran his hand down over his chest.
Something else followed the path of his hand, and he gasped and jerked his fingers away. “What was that?”
“Trust me,” Jaren repeated, not opening his eyes. “I can’t touch you directly, but I can at least give you this. Let me help take your mind off it, Kale.”
Biting his lip, Kale tentatively touched his chest again, and again felt that ghostly pressure echoing him. It was more obvious when he moved his hand, following just in his wake and making his nerves tingle. A faint orange glow shone in the air just over his skin as the phantom touch passed over it, then faded. “How are you doing that?” he asked, fascinated.
“Do you want me to explain the mechanics, or keep going?” Jaren asked him with amusement in his voice. “We don’t have time for both. Which will distract you better?”
“This will,” Kale immediately answered. It wasn’t at all the same as having Jaren there to touch him, but… it was certainly better than nothing, and he could at least cling to the idea that Jaren was responsible for it. “What about you, though?”
“Don’t worry about me, just focus on what you’re feeling,” Jaren told him. “If I break my concentration that much the spell will end. Both of them. Talk to me, Kale. What are you doing?”
“I’m, um.” Taking a breath, Kale decided to just go with this odd form of – did it count as sex, or was it very complicated masturbation? “I’m running my hand over my chest. And pinching… oh, gods!” He’d caught one of his nipples between his fingers, and the ghostly touch had matched him on the other side. It didn’t feel like Jaren’s hands touching him, but it certainly wasn’t anything like his own touch either.
“Like that, do you? Experiment some more,” Jaren said. “C’mon, Kale. Indulge me.”
Bringing his other hand up, Kale tried pinching at both his nipples, and could only manage a moan in response as the phantom touch echoed him on both sides. Letting go with one hand, he trailed his fingers up over the side of his neck, where he’d always been sensitive.
“I’m… I’m touching my neck,” he said, his voice coming out breathless. “Dragging my nails on it like… oh, gods… like you do when you want me to squirm.” He pressed down harder, digging the edges of his nails into the flesh until it was just on the pleasant side of pain, and gasped as the ghostly hand did the same on the other side.
“That’s it,” Jaren encouraged him, his voice husky as well. “Move your other hand down, Kale. Feel your fingers against your skin. Let your nerves come alive. Feel what I’m doing to you.”
Rubbing his fingers in small circles over the muscles of his stomach, Kale groaned when the phantom touch followed him. He tried to imagine what that was going to feel like when he got lower still, and if he hadn’t been completely hard before that thought he certainly was now. “Jaren,” he moaned, belatedly remembering that he was supposed to be talking but not able to manage anything more coherent than the other man’s name.
Apparently that was okay, because Jaren seemed to be doing the talking for him. “Bring your hand down over your pants. Don’t undo them, not yet,” he added just as Kale’s fingers brushed against the buttons at the front. “Just feel the texture of the cloth, against your hand and your skin. Tease yourself.”
Panting, Kale obeyed. The pants for his dress greens were made of much finer linen than the rough cotton of his usual uniform, but it felt incredibly coarse when he touched it now. He was so sensitized that he thought even silk would have felt rough to him at that moment. Everywhere he touched, the ghostly hand echoed either right behind him or on the other side of his body.
“Are you hard?” Jaren asked, and Kale groaned again in response. That made the Elite chuckle. “I’ll take that as a yes. I recognize that sound. That uniform is feeling a little too tight, isn’t it? Gods, I wish I could touch you, taste you.”
Without being told Kale brought his other hand down from his neck and returned to playing with his nipples. “I’m, mmn, touching my nipples again,” he told Jaren, just in case it was important for the other man to know.
“That’s fine,” Jaren assured him. “Undo the pants now. Push them down over your hips.”
Shoving the linen over his skin made Kale writhe on the bed. His hip met cold metal, and he remembered the sword beside him. Grateful he hadn’t accidentally cut himself, he turned on his side so he could look at his lover. Jaren’s eyes were open again, though it was clear he was still focusing hard on what he was doing. He smiled when he saw Kale watching, though, the change in expression lessening the tension around his eyes a bit.
“Touch yourself,” Jaren told him, locking eyes with him. “Stroke your cock, Kale. Remember the first time we were together? Just watching each other jerk off?”
“How could I forget?” Kale replied hoarsely, struggling to keep his eyes open when they wanted to close with pleasure. He wanted to be looking into Jaren’s eyes when he went over the edge, the same way he had that first time. He could give his lover that much, at least.
His hand felt good on his hard cock, it had been too long since they’d had the privacy and energy to do anything together. But the phantom hand that trailed after him felt even better, and made him gasp.
Because the ghostly touch was half a heartbeat behind his hand, it felt impossibly as if he was being stroked by two hands in opposite directions at the same time. There was no awkwardness at the crossover point, just double the pressure on that one spot for a brief moment.
It was more than just double the stimulation, though; it was an exponential increase. Kale felt like he might go mad with how fast and high it was sending him. “Jaren. Oh gods, Jaren,” he panted, his entire field of vision narrowed to the brilliant blue of his lover’s eyes. “I want…. I want this to last, I don’t want to come yet…”
“Then slow down,” Jaren chuckled. “You’re the one controlling the pace, Kale. I’m just following your lead.”
With an effort Kale slowed the pace of his hand, whimpering. That actually made the whole thing feel more intense, because he was more excruciatingly aware of every bit of pressure on the sensitive skin of his cock.
Something about the tone of his voice must have warned Jaren, because the older man ordered him, “Do it, Kale. Come for me, let me see the look in your eyes when you spill over your hand.”
Breathless, Kale held Jaren’s gaze as every muscle in his body went tight. When orgasm hit it struck him hard, crashing over him with the force of an avalanche. It was all he could do not to shout with pleasure, which might have brought someone in to check on him. He bit his lip until it bled to keep the sounds in, and ended up making nothing louder than muffled moans.
When he was able to focus his eyes again, he could see Jaren looking tense but satisfied. Kale knew that look; it was the one his lover always wore when he’d gotten Kale off but hadn’t yet taken any pleasure for himself and was almost hurting with the need for it.
“I wish I could touch you,” Kale blurted out, his heart aching. “Jaren…”
“Shh,” Jaren hushed him, the smile touching his eyes again. “It’s okay, Kale. I’ll be there in a day and a half, give or take a few hours. I promise I’ll get there before the enemy, no matter what it takes. I’ll be there by your side. For now… sleep, and dream of me and freedom.”
Kale’s breath caught in his chest. For just a moment he’d actually forgotten about the impossible odds they were facing. “As long as you’re there with me,” he agreed hoarsely, wishing he dared suggest that he sneak out and meet up with Jaren to run away instead. Jaren would be disappointed in him for even thinking of such a thing – truthfully, he was disappointed in himself. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t tempted.
“I’ll always be with you, Kale,” Jaren said firmly. “After everything we’ve been through together, there is no longer a doubt in my mind that we were meant to meet. I love you, Kale.”
“I love you, too,” Kale whispered, his throat almost closing on the words. There was so much more he wanted to say, but he knew Jaren had to be tired by keeping the spell active for so long. And he couldn’t find the words to say any of it, anyway.
“Now, sleep,” Jaren repeated. “You’ll need your strength. And so will I. You’ll see… between the two of us, I’m starting to think we can overcome almost any odds. Maybe we’ll find a way to beat this, too.”
Seizing on that thought, Kale nodded. “We will,” he swore, praying he’d find a way to back up the promise with action. “Somehow, we will. Be careful, Jaren. Come back to me in one piece.”
The image of his lover faded from the blade of the sword, and a moment later the last of the blue glow dissipated as well. Sighing, Kale squirmed the rest of the way out of his pants and moved to hang them and his tunic up properly. He’d need them tomorrow, and he didn’t want to waste precious time pressing the wrinkles out of them.
When he came back to the bed, he hesitated over the sight of his sword lying on the covers. Finally he picked it up just long enough to sheath it and pull back the sheets, then placed it carefully beside him on the cot when he climbed in. Maybe it was silly – no, it was definitely silly. But the sword was the symbol of the most recent connection he’d had with Jaren, and he wanted to keep it close. Just so he could feel like some part of his lover was there with him as well.
Despite the overwhelming odds against them, Kale felt a slender thread of hope. Jaren was right; they’d come through some pretty unlikely situations in the past intact. Maybe there was a benefit to having the Goddess of Luck as your patron god, despite the fickle nature of Her favour.
Kale fell asleep with his hand wrapped lightly around the hilt, willing his dreams to be full of Jaren.