The Hope that Troubles the Heart

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Fires crackled along the road; it burned in the cradle of a blown-open tank, across overturned transports, and wherever oil had spilled. The wet grass didn’t catch light, but that was no comfort to the casualties moaning in the mud. Zelaphiel heard it as he rolled onto his shoulder: Whimpering groans crowded by the sounds of war and falling rain.

“W-Wait,” a soldier in a blue greatcoat said. He kicked up dirt with his boots, put his hands in the air, as he slinked back against a truck’s crushed cab.

Bombs fell in the distance, shells exploded on land and sea; Zelaphiel saw the glare of their flash reflected in pools of dirty water. Machineguns echoed far away, men shouted, and those cries were punctuated by the report of rifles and the blast of grenades. A gasp joined that background, so faint only Zelaphiel could hear.

The soldier that had begged and bowed, then shivered with a sword sheathed in his chest. A Bastilhasian knight, clad in steel plate and full helm, delivered the mortal wound. He retrieved his sword, withdrew it with the wet rasp of blood and bone, and watched as the Atilonian fell to their side. The life was gone from their eyes.

Zelaphiel watched, slowed his breaths so not to be heard, but then winced as a terrible agony came to the front of his mind. It became apparent that though he could not turn his feet or move his legs, he could still feel their pain. Silently, he parted his lips. “Pain Suppression,” he whispered. “Level 5.”

A small arcane circle flickered above his index finger, and his suffering vanished.

The knight turned toward the prone Zelaphiel; his tabard, checkered in the red and white heraldry of Great House Darigon, fluttered in the breeze. Small eyes were visible through the visor of the knight’s helm, and they betrayed his mortality, if not his remorse.

Activate HUD, the angel thought and his vision was populated by meters and icons. A vertical health meter tucked into the corner of his eyes had depleted below 20%. Debuffs indicated that he wasn’t suffering from the Bleeding condition, but that he was Crippled, and worse Disabled. His movement was greatly restricted. Next to those effects were two buffs, presented beside the health meter. The first icon was for Pain Suppression, while the other was for a buff called Deep Glamour.

[True character status altered by magic,] the buff read when observed. [Arbitrary appearance, gender, species, and level in effect. Health regeneration disabled.]

I could break this disguise and reveal myself, Zelaphiel thought. But the trouble that would cause… I don’t know that I could stand it. Maybe he won’t notice, maybe he’ll pass me by, and spare me anymore hassle.

The knight stopped and took his sword in both hands; Zelaphiel held his breath. When it seemed the knight had discovered him, he heard fast footsteps splattering through the mud.

Bang! a rifle sounded. A bullet punched through the knight’s armor, tore a hole through the breast of his tabard. Blood poured out the wound, but he did not falter. One shot was not enough to put down a knight of Bastilhas; a knight empowered by mana.

A large soldier in a blue uniform wet by mud and rain leapt over Zelaphiel; swung a gladius held reverse in his hand. He clashed with the knight and the din of their struggle was loud in the angel’s ear. The knight was strong, but his longsword was slow to swing. The gladius was quick, but it was in the hands of a mana-void Atilonian. Zelaphiel silently commended the soldier, who delivered swift cuts to the gaps in the knight’s plate. Where the chainmail failed, the gladius sliced the knight’s cotton undergarment, and blood spurted across the road.

Bang! a second shot and the knight staggered. The fresh injury to his shoulder troubled his swing, but he persisted unbowed. The knight brought his longsword down in a hew of terrible strength. “Wind Cutter!” he cried. “Level 1!”

The Atilonian, to his credit, parried the blow by bracing his gladius with both hands. The knight’s sword, green-lit by magic, crashed on the short blade and pressed the Atilonian into the mud. Though the sword’s edge never touched the brave solder, a lashing gale surged past the knight and sliced deep cuts in his sides and shoulders.

An ordinary Atilonian would have died instantly, but that soldier fought on, as Zelaphiel was picked off the ground. The angel was lifted up over a man’s shoulder, swung like a heavy sack. “Get the radio!” his rescuer shouted; it was sergeant Zanon’s voice.

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Bang! another shot, but Zelaphiel couldn’t see that it landed. He heard the thump of footsteps, but they weren’t from Atilonian boots. Bastilhasian reinforcements, a squad of plate-armored knights, charged down the hill.

“I got it!” Denato shouted, the radio pack was in his arms, ripped canvas and all.

“Fall back!” Zanon ordered.

“Medati!” Denato shouted.

There was no answer. Zelaphiel caught a glimpse as he was turned; sergeant Medati had forced his gladius deep through the knight’s neck, pushed him to his knees. The knight struggled to breath, wheezed in his helmet. Crack! the neck snapped and the sergeant’s hands slipped from the handle of his sword. Blood poured with the rain.

“Ilario!” Denato shouted again, it was Medati’s first name. The sergeant turned, not to run, but to face the approaching knights.

“We have the radio, we have Meneghin, we’re going!” Zanon yelled.

“What about him!” Denato shouted back. “What about Matteo?!”

Zanon pushed Denato forward, off the road and onto the slope, into the slick grass. He nearly stumbled over and slipped. “Go!” Zanon barked as he slid down after him.

Bang!

Zelaphiel watched blood pop from the stomach of a knight as they stepped onto the road. They fell on their knee and Medati stepped in with an angled slash, but another knight parried and pressed forward. They locked hilts and struggled for control. The sergeant was pressed down, and then he was out of sight.

Bang! the angel heard one more time, before lieutenant Benasso stepped off the road and ran down the hill, rifle swinging with his arms.

They escaped into the gloom, through the encroaching fog. The knights, perhaps distracted, did not follow the Atilonians that ran thick through the grass. Soon they found a crater, or depression, of the meadow-green grass that covered the loam. At the bottom was a rising pool of filthy water, and Zanon’s boots splashed in it when he dropped down.

The sergeant laid Zelaphiel gently on his back. For the first time the angel could see his legs. They were torn and shredded; his feet were gone, and so only jagged endings remained. A mortal would have been very disturbed by the sight, and Denato certainly was. The corporal set the radio pack down, against the slope above the water, and tried to avoid eye contact wherever possible.

“That’s alright,” the angel said to the young man. “I know it doesn’t look good.”

“Meneghin,” lieutenant Benasso said as he slid into view. His boots splashed in the pool. “Can you—damn,” he began, and caught himself. He deflected his eyes from the second lieutenant’s terrible injury.

“Speak,” Zelaphiel said with the sharp authority of an angel, and he realized instantly it was out of character. He was still a second lieutenant, the radio operator Simone Meneghin. “Your mind, please,” he continued and tried to play it off with a simpering smile.

“Your legs,” Benasso said.

He had a good heart, and that grated on the angel. It was not a time to moan over trivialities, such as functional limbs; not when the lieutenant had something on his mind.

“My legs—” the angel spoke, and halted. What was the normal reaction to a grievous injury? He didn’t have time to wonder. “We’re at war, sir. I can bear this much.”

Benasso frowned, turned his head, and appeared to think. A shell landed close by, shook the hillside. He nodded. “We’re all that’s left,” the lieutenant said. “I didn’t see Matteo on the road, and the others are dead.”

“We’re all that’s left because you left Ilario,” Denato said.

Benasso looked pale as he turned to face the corporal. “I know,” he said. “And that radio is worth a thousand Ilario’s.”

A scowl developed on the corporal’s face. His hands balled into fists, and he splashed forward through the pool. Zanon grabbed him by the shoulder. “That can come later,” the sergeant said. “Focus on the future, what we can still do.”

“We need to contract the command staff, report what’s happening here,” Benasso said.

“It might be too late for that,” Zelaphiel remarked. “You saw them, didn’t you? Golems. Those things move faster than an armored car at full sprint. They’re already in Wenderguard.”

“We can still do something!” the lieutenant shouted.

“For who?” Zelaphiel asked. “The channels are doubtless filled with like-minded lieutenants trying to do good, and all they’re doing is adding to the confusion. If the command staff remains, let them deal with it.”

Again, the angel had broken character, but he was right. Denato dropped back onto the slope. Zanon and Benasso also seats where there was room. Zelaphiel realized how tired they looked; it was fatigue from so many things.

Lieutenant Benasso’s greatcoat was soaked, and his hat was gone. His rifle was discarded in the grass beside him, and he looked as muddy as the water. A pressing concern was the cut down the right side of his face, and he was lucky that the blade or shrapnel had missed his eye. It appeared raw, but not too deep. If it didn’t get infected, it could still scar nicely.

Sergeant Zanon had lost his greatcoat at some point, but his hat remained on his head. He was injured around the arms and legs, where his dress sleeves were ripped and damp with red. Those injuries might have been superficial, compared to what troubled his thoughts. He stared out of his hands, cupped over his knees; still like the grave.

Denato sat red-faced and frustrated, brown eyes glaring off into the grass. He was the best looking among the bunch. Zelaphiel thought if he had energy to be angry, that meant he could still fight. By contrast, Benasso looked about spent.

The health bars visible above their heads confirmed the angel’s estimations.

Why does this remind me of that place? Zelaphiel wondered. Is it the artillery, or the rain? Or is it the cold, and the smell of blood? Or, could it be the hopeless looks on their faces. Could it be their expressions? The faces that say ‘we are powerless after all.’

They’re only NPCs, but they make me feel anxious.

The angel slid his hand into his pocket, produced a cigarette and lighter from his inventory. He drew the cigarette to his lips and flipped the lighter; though it took several attempts, the flame did spark, and he inhaled the smoke.

A hazy breath passed his lips and he retrieved the cigarette, let it hang loose between his fingers. He pressed his head back and felt the rain against his cheeks as he stared up into the pea soup sky.

It was a day like this, wasn’t it? Zelaphiel thought, closed his eyes.

“Alex, let’s go!”

We were on a skyscraper, and it wouldn’t stop raining.

“She’s still in there!”

Our enemy had breached the base. Scientists, good men, and women were trapped below us. My job was to keep him safe. He kept looking back.

“Cruise missiles are in-bound Viper 1, five minutes to impact.”

And our com-officer wouldn’t stop warning us. A battleship was dropping from orbit, right on our heads. Nukes were on the way, that was the only answer.

“The chopper is here we have to go!”

I pulled hard on Alex’s arm, but he wouldn’t budge.

“Gunshow this is Carebear, I’m seeing three Blackmarks circling down.”

And before long, those devilish eagles came swooping in, ready to knock our escape out of the sky.

“Carebear, I see them.”

Alex looked at me. I knew what he was going to say.

“That’s your sister!”

I knew there were good women down there. The best women.

“I know who she is!”

He didn’t need to tell me that.

“Heat signatures detected; they’re priming weapons.”

Time was running short.

“Flares out!”

Beams crossed down from the sky, melted through the roof, but missed our chopper.

“Fox one! Fox two!”

Missiles streaked overhead.

“Viper 1, cruise missiles are four minutes away.”

Warnings kept blaring in my ear, and I was angry.

“Commander, we have to go, now!”

I pulled hard on him, pulled him like a stubborn yak.

“We can save them!”

He protested, the damn idiot.

“We can’t save anyone if you die!”

The look on his face, when he turned to me that final time: Exhausted, confused, and defeated. If there was anything we could have done, or if there was a chance to save one person, I would have let him go. But he knew he’d been beaten. We’d lost that fight… and we’d lose so many more.

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Zelaphiel opened his eyes and made a thin smile at lieutenant Benasso.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, the angel thought.

The lieutenant frowned and looked to the water; he seemed to watch its rippling surface, as if lost in the rain, and the clamor of battle. Meanwhile, the howl of distant engines approached. They roared, louder and louder, until an Atilonian dive bomber buzzed mere feet above over their heads.

Rata-tat-tat! its machineguns blazed. It was strafing the ground.

Benasso turned his head up and his eyes brightened.

“There’s something we can do,” he said. “The radio—”

“The Air Legion,” Zelaphiel said.

Benasso nodded. “The weather is awful; they need us to spot targets.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, sir,” Zelaphiel said and gestured to his legs. “I can’t exactly get around.”

“Teach me how to use the radio,” Benasso replied.

He stared through Zelaphiel and the angel took a drag from his cigarette.

These NPCs are getting me worked up, he thought.

This is why I hate field work.


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