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“Second and Third Companies! Intercept incoming enemy mage groups on the center line, then regroup at delta point!”

The verbal slam of the companies’ affirmative chorus rang in my ears, almost blocking out the deafening gunfire.

“Fourth Company! HQ reports heavy guns mobilizing at the left flank, I want those guns slagged before they fire a single shell or I’ll shove the casings up your asses!”

“Yes, Major!”

Neumann and his company tore through the air towards the distant, growling armored units that sloughed their way across the ruined landscape like vast, crocodilian predators.

“First company, reform on me!” I barked, my voice still high and rasped from hours of shouting. “Volley formation, support the Eighth and Twelfth Regiments and keep the right flank from buckling or I will personally deliver your next performance review etched on a lead letter!”

“Yes… Major!?”

They obeyed, even as their reply came out enthusiastically confused.

“On my mark!”

I raised my rifle, taking aim down the sighs as I shunted mana into the spare Type 97 computation jewel I kept on me. I refused to use that cursed Type 95 in anything but an absolute emergency and this shitstorm hadn’t quite measured up yet.

“MARK!”

Thunder preceded the lightning strike of our spells hammering into the enemy line. High-yield compression rounds factored to disrupt rather than damage turned the haphazard Russy charge into a total rout seconds later as the disciplined fire of Imperial guns cut down the half-trained conscripts.

“Reload and realign thirty degrees west!” I snapped, turning as I spoke. “Take aim! On my mark!”

More and more Russy soldiers filled my sight as I lined up my shot.

No, not soldiers.

Barely even men.

They were human animals driven across the pitted battlefield by the pistols and bayonets of their own people to absorb Imperial bullets and spells; an onrushing mass of meat designed to bludgeon the enemy into insensibility by sheer numerical advantage.

My stomach turned at the heaving mass beneath me. It was as much rock and mud as it was meat and blood down there by now. They were trampling the corpses of their own men only to be blown apart to pave the way for the next wave to claim another few gory inches of Imperial land.

“MARK!”

Bodies flew through the air in pieces.

“Major!”

Visha’s warning was all the advance notice I got, but it was enough. The tone and timbre of her voice told me everything I needed to know. After this long spent side by side, we barely needed to speak anymore, the two of us could share more in a look than most could in a full conversation, and this time, like so many other times, it saved my life.

A detonation cracked across my shield as I threw it into place, layered and reinforced from my normal defensive spellcraft.

It still sent me spinning backward. The world careened drunkenly around me as I fought to stabilise myself, and I cursed inwardly, raging as I tried to find my balance.

As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered.

Viktoriya Ivanovna Serebryakov, my Adjutant, caught me, one hand gripping my left forearm, and pulled me out of my spin and into a stable flight pattern as she dove and jinked into evasive maneuvers that I quickly matched.

Her hair was brown, the color of creamy coffee, and her eyes the color of cold Russy skies.

Beautiful, I thought.

She was so beautiful.

CRACK

A shot rang out and split my Adjutants barrier, carving through the casing her propulsion drive. She let out a startled cry of panic and suddenly I was the one keeping her aloft.

“VISHA!” I gripped her arm and dove, whoever was sighting us had a range and vision advantage, so I ducked until we were skimming the ground.

“Major! Let me go!” Visha cried, “I’m slowing you down!”

“Shut up!” I snarled.

I wasn’t letting her go. I couldn’t let her go!

Another snapshot and my shield flashed blindingly before detonating, and suddenly my mouth was filled with mud and blood. I could vaguely hear Visha calling my name, and someone was dragging me out of a trench, I think.

They turned me over and I stared up into the uncaring sky, the sun was a cruel, hard yellow, like the rind of unripe lemon, and I could feel him staring down at me.

Everything hurt.

My body ached, my limbs were numb of all feeling but pain. Is this what you wanted, Being X? To make me suffer for not praising you? To force me beneath the waves of war over and over and over again until I finally gave up?

Silence answered me.

Total silence.

I blinked in confusion and sat up, wincing as agony cascaded through my small frame.

Everything was quiet.

No gunfire, no shots rang out. No screams of the grievously wounded or plaintive groans of the dying. Not even the caw of carrion birds rejoicing over a new feast.

Just silence.

I was surrounded by silence… and the dead.

Weiss and his company were laid out in front of me, blown out of the sky. I only recognised my loyal second in command because his upper half was still mostly intact, unlike the rest of him.

Numbly, I turned my head left to look at Neumann and Grantz, the boisterous leader of Fourth Company, always the loudest and most enthusiastic of my supporters. He looked much better when he still had his entire face, honestly.

And Grantz, the closest thing to a conscience the 203rd had. Always so full of high ideals and honorable intentions.

Those ideals and intentions were spilling out all over the battlefield now.

Much good they did him.

Behind me was Keonig, or what was left of him.

Quiet Wilibald Koenig embodied my favorite type of worker; steady, dependable, unambitious, and competent. If I gave an order, it was done, if I spoke, he replied with efficiency.

Or he did anyway.

He might still if I could figure out where his head went.

My breath rattled in my chest as I turned my head to look down to my right to find the one I always looked for. My Adjutant… my Visha.

Her chest was peppered with holes from gunfire, her flak jacket stained an ugly rust-red with her blood. Eyes that should have reflected the sky were dull in death, and I sat down beside her to brush the hair from her face.

Visha, my strong right hand, known in Imperial military circles as White Silver’s Wing. She was right there until the very end.

A shuddering breath left me as I turned slowly, and laid down so we were side by side, just as we were meant to be, and on a whim, I reached out and took her hand.

It was cold and stiff, but I held on anyway, then I closed my eyes, and I finally-

 


 

-wake up.

Sweat is soaking my sheets as I sit up in bed and I can barely breathe. My blonde hair is matted to my neck and shoulders, and my whole world is reduced to a pinhole surrounded by a gray aura.

Panic attack.

My mind helpfully supplies the term for it, as if I weren’t keenly aware of the fact already. The Great War is over, it had been over for better than ten years… and I hadn’t even been on a battlefield for the last six months of the cleanup.

Treaties had been signed and ratified, and in the ensuing months I’d managed to push a post-war doctrine of pacifistic cooperation through Strategic HQ, and much to Supreme Command’s chagrin it had worked.

I get to my feet shakily, nausea roiling in my belly as I moved away from the bed, out of the bedroom, and into the small den, grabbing my bathrobe as I cross the hall.

My robe went on with a little difficulty. I’m barely twenty and my body already feels like it’s falling apart; the pain is omnipresent, and injuries I thought I’d shrugged off ages ago always return at inopportune moments to remind me of their existence.

The den smells strongly of coffee because, after five years of brewing coffee every single morning at the kind of strength that I drink it, the scent had simply sunk into the walls, ceiling, and floorboards, and smoke was there too, underneath it all.

I’d taken up smoking a pipe a few years back on General Zettour- no, he asked me to call him Hans after he retired -on Hans’ recommendation and, annoyingly, I had to admit that it helped with my nerves and anxieties.

I slump gracelessly onto the couch. I’m too exhausted to move any further, and too jittery from my nightmare to sleep. Part of me wants to make it all the way out onto the porch; the home I’d purchased looks out over a vast prairie, and staring out across it always did wonders for my mood, even at night.

I’ve found that it’s easier to forget about trenches and bombed-out fields of corpses when I’m looking at a lush green prairie.

Instead, I do what I always do in these instances.

I reach for my pipe.

It’s already cleaned, polished, and packed with sweet tobacco leaf, and I tuck it between my lips with one hand as I pick up the book of matches that was right where I’d left it the night before with the other.

“Damn it,” I mutter as I try to push the little sleeve out. My hands are shaking and I can’t get them to stop. “Damn it… damn it!

My temper frays but I tamp down on it before it gets out of hand. The last thing I need is to snap and starting breaking things again. I’d always prided myself on my cool and collected mind, but after the war I found myself losing that aspect of myself more and more.

Taking a deep breath through my nose, I go through the mental calculations of casting my shield. I don’t have my computation jewel, but it doesn’t matter, I have enough raw mana that a faint shield flickers into existence around me even without the amplification of the jewel.

Better. Much better.

My hand stops shaking as the shield resolves, and I pop the sleeve out, draw out a match, and light it.

A few puffs later and I’m in a much better mood as I stare out the window. The view isn’t quite as spectacular from the inside, but it’s probably also quite cold out there, and I’m currently wearing my bathrobe, a half-dried sheen of sweat, and nothing else.

Why?

Because it’s my house, by thunder, and I’ll sit naked in it if I want to.

I take another breath of the pungent smoke, then exhale. It took me a long time to appreciate just why the conference room of Strategic HQ was always filled with smoke, but now I understand the appeal.

Smoking is still a disgusting habit, but as a great writer once said: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’

Inhale, exhale.

So much war… so much death. A part of me wonders if it’s my fault, too. Would this war have happened if Being X hadn’t been so damnably insistent on teaching me a lesson that I refused to learn even to this day?

Well, it’s not like it was a lesson worth learning anyway.

What kind of worthless lesson is: ‘If you’re feeling helpless, don’t bother trying to do anything yourself, just cry out to God and hope He helps you instead.

Bollacks to that.

Realistically, I know it’s not my fault. The political, economical, and social foundations for the Great War were laid down long before I, as Tanya von Degurechaff, was even born in that squalid nunnery.

Inhale, exhale.

The best part of being out here in the countryside is how peaceful and quiet it is.

My entire tenure in the war had been spent trying to secure myself a tidy place in the rear echelons where it was nice and quiet, and while I’d never actually managed that for more than a couple of months at a time, I had at least made it through to the end of the war and I was dead set on spending the rest of my time here a peaceable fashion.

Inhale, ex-

“Sh-Shit!” the irritating smoke wracks a cough through my lungs, and my shield collapses as a fit of coughing overwhelms me.

By the time I finally clear my throat, my pipe is out, and I glare sullenly at it for a moment before fishing for another set of matches.

If only my hands would stop shaking, damn it.

Damn it!

Stop shaking!

Stop shaking!

“Tanya?”

I freeze as a pair of soft, gentle, and familiar hands cover the matchbox that refuses to stay still. With easy precision, they prod the sleeve open, draw out the matches, strike them, and hold them out over the bowl of my pipe that’s clenched between teeth set into an aching jaw.

Inhale, exhale.

I blow the smoke out of the side of my mouth to keep from sending it into her face as I pull the pipe from my mouth.

“Sorry, Visha, did I wake you?” I ask as my former Adjutant rises from where she was kneeling before moving to sit beside me on the couch.

“When you got up,” she confirms, “you always do, though, you know that.”

“I tried to be quiet this time,” I say grudgingly.

“Nightmares again?” Visha asks as she snuggles up to me, wrapping her arms around me and pulling me closer until I’m resting my head on the soft swell of her generous chest.

“It’s nothing,” I reply as I shift and turn until I’m settled comfortably against her where I won’t be blowing smoke in her face. “Just dreams, I’m fine.”

She sighs.

“You’re not,” she whispers against my neck before pressing her lips to my collar in a gentle, pleading kiss. “I know you’re not.”

The pipe creaks as I bite back a retort. Visha doesn’t deserve my temper, not now and not ever. Instead, I take a moment, do a few more rote calculations, then pull the pipe from my lips as I tip my head back and look up at her.

Sky-blue Russy eyes stare back at me from a face shaped like a heart framed by creamy brown locks of hair that are still deliciously messy from sleep.

By comparison, I know I must look awful. The last time I’d checked there were bags under my eyes that would’ve required an airline tag if I’d been traveling, and my appearance was starting to suffer from my lack of sleep just as much.

She really did deserve-

“Stop that,” Visha’s voice takes on a tone of playful admonition as she leans down and presses a kiss to my forehead.

“Stop what?” I ask with a raised eyebrow.

“You’re thinking I shouldn’t be here again,” and my eye twitches at the accuracy of her remark.

She brings her right hand up to lace her fingers with mine, and as she does the rings on our fingers clink together. Mine was, appropriately and annoyingly in equal measure, made from white silver, and bore a diamond. Hers was an arctic blue sapphire set into a band of pure gold of rare luster, with only a single adornment disrupting the shade.

Stretching out from the setting of the gem was a tiny, ornate wing of silver.

White Silver’s Wing.

“We’ve always been together, Tanya,” Visha says softly as she nuzzles against my neck. “And we always will be.”

“Even if I never have another peaceful night of sleep again?” I ask, and I hate how my voice cracks.

Tears suddenly threaten at the edges of my eyes, and my vision blurs as Visha pulls me tighter against her for a moment before relaxing.

“Yes, Major,” she replies with a kind of wan humor. “But that doesn’t preclude trying to sleep when it’s almost three in the morning.”

“I didn’t realise I’d been out here that long,” I say as I stare down at the spent remains in my pipe.

“You never do,” she laughs quietly before kissing the top of my head. “Now come back to bed.”

“I still smell like smoke,” I reply as I reach out and tap the bowl empty into the ashtray by the couch. “You hate that.”

“I don’t hate it tonight,” she says, and her hand moves to my chin, tilts my head up, and she presses her lips to mine.

I don’t have the wherewithal or the desire to stop her, even though I know she hates how my mouth tastes right after I’ve smoked. Her lips are as soft as always, and I shiver a little as her hand moves down across my throat, and along my shoulder. I feel her trace the scars there, and shiver again as pain lights up along my limbs.

Too many broken bones, too many bullet holes, and too many fractures. Not even a body as young as mine had been could take that sort of continuous punishment with some serious side-effects.

My doctors say the pain will never fade and, rather, will likely grow worse as I get older. They offered me a script for opiates, morphine probably, but I turned them down… I had a bad enough habit with smoking, I didn’t need to add that kind of risk for addiction on top of it.

Pain is an old friend anyhow.

“Come on,” Visha stands, but I hesitate as I stop to admire her naked beauty backlit by the moonlight for a few moments. “Or keep staring, if you want.”

I chuckle before rising to join her, taking her hand again as I set my pipe down.

“I won’t apologise,” I say with a weary smirk, and Visha leans in to kiss me again.

“Good,” she playfully nips at my neck as we pass into the bedroom, and let out a soft squeak of alarm. “Don’t ever apologise for looking at me, Major.”

“I’m not a Major anymore,” I reply as I shed my bathrobe while she crawls into bed.

“Funny,” she says wryly, giving me that come-hither look that even now sends my heart into palpitations. “I remember calling you that several times, and at varying volumes, last night without you protesting.”

I… ugh, you’re shameless, you know that?” I say finally, a blush finding its way across my cheeks despite me.

“Shamelessly in love, maybe,” Visha reaches out and gestures for me to join her. “Now come over here, let me chase away the nightmares.”

“They’ll just come back,” I say grudgingly as I slip into bed and curl up against her.

She kisses me again, and this time I let her melt through my arguments and defenses. My Adjutant is the only one I’ve ever let see past the stern, implacable wall of the White Silver, and she might be the only one who ever will, and… and maybe that’s enough.

“I’ll chase them away again, then,” she replies as she pulls back and starts kissing down my chest.

I tangle my fingers into her hair as pleasure starts to replace the pain in my chest and limbs.

“Visha?”

“Mm?” She rises from somewhere around my navel, and smiles at me.

“I love you,” I say quietly. It’s hard to say, it shouldn’t be but it is. It feels like admitting a weakness, but can’t not say it.

Not to her.

Not to my Visha.

“I love you too, Tanya,” she smiles playfully and I laugh as she crawls back up to lay beside me. “Forever.”

I nestle against her and let out a quiet sigh.

Maybe this time I’ll be able to sleep without the nightmares hounding my mind, but I don’t hold my breath. Besides… even if they do come again, she’ll be here.

My tireless Wing. My Adjutant.

My Visha.