Once upon a time, the place might have been pretty. The kind of quaint little town you'd find in this part of the region, just sprung up in the middle of nowhere for no rhyme or reason other than that there was room for one. Dirt roads branching out from the center, losing themselves in the hills. A stream meandering through the middle, powering the mills. Wooden farmhouses with flowers spilling down the balconies by the bucketload.
Perfect for a damn holiday brochure. "Come to Hickville, meet interesting people and get eaten by Gears."
Sol ran a hand along one of the walls in passing. The foundations were all that was left of the buildings, vaguely rectangular enclaves amidst the plants sprouting unhindered; grass, vines and moss overgrowing the scorch marks, softening the jagged gaps in the stone. Gaps made by human-sized claws. Probably a couple of years old, judging by the degree of growth, just one of the myriad of small towns that had fallen prey to the Gears. Idly, he wondered how many it had taken. Hell, even two or three decently sized tank-types could lay waste to a village like this in a matter of minutes; no defenses to speak of, no walls or watchtowers to mention. Not that it would have mattered. Justice loved sending superior numbers even if all she was doing was weeding out a spot like this, hardly worth the effort. He knew what happened in those cases, had seen the fights that would break out over the bodies, Gears snapping and tearing up the kills like hyenas... It was entirely too much to hope that someone had managed to get away at the time of the massacre.
He shook his head. No sense in thinking about it. Just another sad little footnote under the chapter heading "To Hell in a Handbasket." They wouldn't even be here if not for the damn map, which was about as useful as a toddler's crayon doodles. They weren't so much reading directions as they were making educated guesses as to where things were supposed to be, after the initial discovery that the biggest river in the entire region was at least five miles off its actual position. A couple of rather relevant details were missing entirely, such as the gorge that had prompted their little detour.
The ruin they were currently camping out in wasn't on there either, of course, wouldn't have been on there even if it had still been alive and bustling. If cartographers couldn't be bothered to add a chasm a couple of miles long, they certainly couldn't be bothered to add towns that were hardly a mile from beginning to end, and you either ended up running into them by accident, or didn't run into them until it was far too late.
Ky had been furious about that, when he'd first realized with what kinds of tools they were expecting him to lead a battalion. "If there's time to pray for safety, then there's time to draw a proper map." At the time, it had surprised Sol just a tiny bit to hear the perfect little Catholic schoolboy talk like that. This kind of explosive anger was usually reserved for him, and that wasn't at all what he'd expected to hear.
And now, the kid had wandered off to places unknown, which was odd because he never did, always finding some way to be a workaholic or a Samaritan or a shiny pillar of hope and angel song. Sol wasn't sure what was more irritating, that he was doing it at all, or that he was doing such a good job of it, the most convincing play at being a saint he'd seen in a long time. He'd never taken a time-out before, and there was no place in which to take a time-out here, anyway, so it was just an unnecessary hassle, being forced to go looking for the kid if he didn't want to be hounded for orders, plans and signatures again. That was one upside to having to deal with a fourteen-year-old brat as a superior, at least—he was a fourteen-year-old brat who managed to stay alive, which was more than could be said about the entire last handful of commanders, and that, in turn, meant that Sol could stop being in charge and go back to doing things at his own pace.
Now that the troops had finally taken a shine to the kid, he had no desire to return to being a responsible person.
A flutter of white flashed in the corner of his eye, and he turned just in time to see Ky vanishing through a half-crumbled arch.
He was moving with such purpose that it threw Sol for a moment, senses going on alert... but there was nothing. No smell, no sound. The kid couldn't possibly have noticed something he'd missed. Shrugging, he ducked through the archway.
The place beyond might have been an orchard once, shards of pottery and troughs littering the grass, a couple of young fruit trees setting out to conquer the space entirely. Past an overhang of vines, he caught sight of Ky again, a dilapidated spire rising in the background.
The church. What a shocking and unexpected turn of events. Of course the kid'd come here, bleeding heart that he was.
The building was perhaps the only one in town that hadn't been completely destroyed by the fire, and as he stepped closer, he could see that something had been planted near the entrance—a slab of rock bearing some crude decorations, and a list in small, tight script. Ky had bowed his head, one hand clasped around the cross dangling from his neck.
It was almost odd to see it making an appearance, when he usually kept it underneath his clothes, hidden like some kind of secret. That part had always made Sol wonder, that the Holy Order's golden boy was keeping so quiet about his faith—when he'd first arrived, the entire camp had used to joke that they'd be getting Sunday Bible lessons now. It would have been appropriate; raised in the halls of the Order, strict and pious, with an almost puritanical work ethic, a perfect little missionary on the side. Wouldn't have been the first one, either. And it would have been fun, to see the kid constantly putting his foot in his mouth in an army that was Catholic only on paper.
Instead, comments in that vein only elicited scowls, making Sol wonder whether the kid was really just being smart holding back the judgmental attitude.
"...lumière de ta face. Qu'ils reposent en paix. Amen."
"Asking the dead for guidance, boy?" When Ky looked up, startled, he smirked. "Not very efficient. They only know a one-way route."
Those eyes flared for a moment, a prelude to an angry lecture, but then it vanished as abruptly as he'd put it there, Ky shaking his head, his features settling into a mask of neutrality again. "No need. The map is off, but we're about three miles from a river. If we head southwest, there should be a ford a ways downstream. We can cross safely there."
"You're awfully sure about this all of a sudden."
"The land's changed a bit, that's all. But I know where we are." He waved a hand at the ruined buildings. "This… used to be my hometown."
"It fell during the Battle of Nancy five years ago. More an accident than anything else. Nobody thought the scattered Gears would get this far."
If Ky noticed his involuntary twitch, he didn't acknowledge it, turning back to face the stone monument.
"I haven't been here in a long time. The Commander pulled a few strings to have a memorial put here, and I owe him for that. Usually, incidents like this are simply forgotten." His lips quirked. "It was a bit difficult to remember all the names. I still don't know whether they spelt that one right. Bernice or Bernadette... I wasn't quite sure."
He'd never cared for sob stories or pretentious bullshit, but hearing the kid talk about it so matter-of-factly gave him that stupid nagging sensation, that maybe, just maybe, he'd said something wrong this time. Fishing around in giveafuck bay wasn't something he especially liked, but there was still that unrelenting part of him that was tallying the names on the stone, informing him that a nine-year-old had managed to remember no less than one hundred and sixteen names, with all the records gone up in flames.
Ky had fallen silent, his thumb and forefinger slowly rubbing over the cross, eyes on the carved list and oblivious to any revelations Sol's brain was cataloguing at the moment.
It was a little surprising to learn that the kid hadn't spent his whole life in some kind of Order training camp for the indoctrination of future hope dispensers, press the button, watch them prattle. Although that didn't really deter from the entire Joan-of-Arc shtick. In fact, it would've lent more credence to it, wonderful fuel for a publicity campaign now that the kid had managed to earn a few victories, making him wonder why nobody had thought to milk that story for all it was worth. Little orphaned peasant boy turned radiant star of the future. The kind of stuff the masses tended to eat up like candy, desperate as they were for something to cling to.
"...'Pull some strings'?" he finally asked, giving the kid a sidelong glance. "If you keep bringing the wins, I'm sure they'd be happy to build you an entire cathedral."
"You assume that I want a cathedral here," Ky said, a hint of displeasure creeping into his voice.
Sol raised an eyebrow.
"I don't see how my personal circumstances are relevant to ending this war. And that's all I want."
"A vow, then?" Normally, he wouldn't have asked, wouldn't have been interested enough to ask, but the little things were starting to pile up, the small inconsistencies that didn't match up with all the upstarts looking for fame and glory, ranting on about divine trials and malevolent evil to be defeated with virtue and piety.
"Not for vengeance, if that's what you're thinking." Ky looked at him, his gaze adopting that piercing directness that always made a part of Sol bristle subconsciously, unused to being looked in the eye, unused to that kind of raw sincerity. "The Commander asked me the same thing when I tried to join. Why I was doing it. Why I wanted it so badly. 'Because, and I'll tell you right now, anger never won a war, and if that's all that's brought you here, well, then it can take you back to wherever.' That's what he said. Even if that had been my intent before, I would've taken the advice to heart. But..."
He paused, letting his eyes sweep across the churchyard, the mossy remnants of the buildings, and up into the brilliant sunshine. "I always knew the time I got to spend with my family might very well turn out to be limited. It's the first thing my father taught me, actually. The first thing any child is taught these days. Being allowed to grow up here... I was blessed. I had parents who loved me, food, a home. We never had a raid happen, until Nancy. Nine years of peace. That's so much more than what most other people get." He shook his head as if to clear it, growing silent once again.
Sol didn't reply, preoccupied with the information he had been given. It was painting a different picture from the righteous little neophyte his mind had been so ready to invoke, and while that didn't necessarily make Ky Kiske a better or trustworthy person, it did make him into something... more interesting.
Eventually, Ky spoke up again. "Does that disappoint you?"
His tone was suggesting that he knew he had managed to achieve something, and was enjoying this small victory just a tiny bit. Strange, coming from someone who should have been upset at the very least, and rightfully so. Strange, and kind of bothersome, that he should be so easy to read.
"You can't disappoint someone whose care switch is broken in the off-position, kid."
Ky merely shrugged, not bothering to try and construe anything he'd said or done into a counter-argument. "...Was there something you originally wanted, then?"
"Recon's back and ready to report, is all. They didn't look like they were twisting themselves in knots, though, so..." He finished with a vague gesture at the stone.
"I'll be there in a minute."
That was probably the closest the kid would come to asking for a moment of privacy, even from someone who had been bent on upsetting him a scant few minutes earlier.
"Right." Sol turned to go. He'd need some time to sort through this, anyway. At the bottom of the stairs leading away from the church, he paused and turned back around, struck by a sudden thought.
Ky was still standing in front of the memorial, seemingly engrossed in a recollection, his fingers trailing across two of the carved lines in a loving caress.
"Hey. What's the name?"
"This place. What's it called?"
"...Les Roises." A sudden smile, brighter than even the sunshine. "It was called Les Roises."
A/N: Comments are welcome. :)