Deimos supported Ceres by the arm as they walked towards the female quarters where the army had built up. The stubborn girl had refused to stay put at the centre of the camp where she could remain safe and protected from the upcoming battle. Even this far from the fortified walls of the border city, she could pick up the faint tremble of the earth as the ant legion approached in lockstep, the mindless soldier ants, more disciplined than even the most veteran of soldiers. She could hear the whispers of the wind as it complained of the winged members of the legion that blotted out the sky. There would be war today. Blood, smoke and fire.
And yet, a girl who could barely walk without her support, whose face paled from the effort of her every step, had chosen to abandon the chance at safety offered to her and volunteered her services at the front-line. Her eyes went to Ceres' chest.
The shine of the artificial heart and lungs couldn't be covered by her clothes, the organs slowly growing back with the mana constructs as the framework. It would take days yet for her to fully heal. Yet, here she was, in the midst of the battlefield. Deimos couldn't help but admire the grit of the girl. Her sister-wife was really something.
She felt proud of her and sorrowful for her suffering. As a fellow orphan, it was easy for her to sympathize. At least she hadn't been spirited away from the ashes of the orphanage that had taken her in, only to be enslaved. Ceres had it much worse.
Ahead of them, Phi-Phi was conversing with Lieutenant Ava, consulting her for her knowledge of shadow magic. As the official followers of the holder of the Swayamvar token, the three of them had the provisional authority of Captains. Considering their total lack of experience and the importance of the upcoming war, instead of assigning them their own squad, as was the norm, they had been tasked with assisting Lieutenant Ava, who was in charge of the scouting department.
There were six major departments in the army, traditionally modelled after the main characteristics of the six elements. The alchemy department headed by Lieutenant Neera were responsible for the manufacture of the potions and medicines that were the backbone that supported the army. Her husband, Del Tauros, was responsible for the ranged department comprised of mainly fire mages who were trained in the art of archery or in the operation of the cannons that lined the top of the fortifications.
Major Ursa, on the other hand was in charge of the conventional regiment of foot soldiers and cavalry, although in this mountainous environment, there was little use for the latter. They were mainly composed of earth mages whose main task was to hold the defence lines long enough for the artillery and the archers to bring their firepower to bear. His wife, Lieutenant Ava, governed the scouts, who doubled as assassins when the battle turned into a melee and the rangers were forced to hold their fire, lest they injure their compatriots.
Father was directly responsible for commanding the army and the messenger department. Composed mainly of wind mages, it was responsible for maintaining the chain of command and relaying tactical information. They could also be called upon to use their community Haste spells to improve the marching speed of the armies.
Mother was the Chief healer, wielding the medical department, providing their services wherever needed. Incidentally, the Paladins, the most elite of the soldiers, the juggernauts bathed in the blood of their enemies over the course of their many battles, were traditionally subordinate to the healers. Death subdued by life, an inspiring metaphor.
In practice, however, the two departments, comprising of the majority of the light mages, were two separate cells. Except, that is, at Firang, where Major Rawle Cervidae's chronic apathy towards command had resulted in Mother having to take up the mantle in his place.
After Father, she had the most say at the camp.
They passed through the deserted streets, the lively town having turned silent within days as the civilians were evacuated in preparation for the upcoming battle. She noticed the barren shop-fronts and the overturned signs that marked the hasty departure of their owners. A flash of colour caught her eye in passing. Tattered streamers swayed in the wind in the red-light district, their dispirited undulation seemingly mourning the departure of the men and women that populated the streets they decorated.
Her ears twitched as she picked up the soft chatter of female voices as they approached the barracks, the sound ceasing as Lieutenant Ava pushed past the doors. Eight women of various looks, stature and bloodline, attired in military uniform, stood at attention and saluted to the Lieutenant.
The army at Firang was nearly five thousand strong. Over the years, it had become an established fact that breaking through to the next realm was nearly ten times more difficult than breaking through to the previous one. Thus, a rough estimate would place the population of Tier 2 mages at five hundred and the number of Tier 3 mages at fifty. Five of the department heads were at Tier 4 while father was the only one to have reached Tier 5.
As Captains, the three of them would traditionally have command over a ten-man squad of Tier 1 mages and be responsible to a Tier 3 Marshal along with seven others. Due to their special circumstances and their inexperience, Lieutenant Ava had been showing them the ropes. Now that war was imminent, she no longer had time to babysit them so she had brought them to the barracks to hand them over to a Marshal with empty slots on her team.
While the Lieutenant briefed the inordinately tall, middle-aged marshal with drooping dog-ears and sleepy eyes, Deimos walked Ceres over to a seat and gently set her down. Ceres' sigh of relief was soft, but not soft enough to evade her ears. Noticing that she had noticed, Ceres gave her a wry smile. At least she wasn't bursting into tears anymore.
Deimos looked up at a sudden increase in the noise levels to see that the Lieutenant had left and the remaining captains had curiously sphered Phobos while the Marshal was making her way towards her and Ceres.
Stopping in front of them with her hands on her hips, she gave them a lopsided grin as she towered over Deimos. When she was speaking with the others, Deimos had seen how tall she was, but the experience was entirely different up close. The marshal's height and muscular figure gave her an extremely imposing presence. "What do we have here? A tiny cat and a sick fox, eh?"
Her tone was rough and her words abrasive revealing her humble origins. It was quite rare that a commoner had a bloodline dense enough to rise to Tier 3 from the masses. Such people were generally quite self-confident and biased against the nobility due to their relative difficulty in procuring resources. Deimos, tamped down her anger at the riling tone and responded civilly with a salute. "Greetings Marshal, I am Deimos Felidae and she, Ceres Felidae. Reporting for duty."
The Marshal cocked her head to the side and gave her a once over, taking her sweet time to respond and forcing Deimos to maintain her salute. Cleaning her ear with her little finger, the dark-skinned woman flicked the dirt away and finally drawled out, "I heard… Ye are the wives of the Boss-man's son. Pretty little thing, ain't he?"
Deimos felt her hackles rise. Dropping out of her salute, she replied through gritted teeth: "Yes..." The marshal raised her eyebrows. "Sir." Deimos forced out.
"Ye know? I was ta be the next one ta get promoted ta Lieutenant. Now, I havta listen ta a Tamer with only three Tier 2 wives." She narrowed her eyes. "Want me ta introduce some of the girls? They might be interested in a Swap."
This time Deimos couldn't help but hiss, her nails morphing into claws and her teeth sharpening. She didn't know what she would have done if Ceres hadn't grabbed her wrist on time. Lunged at the woman probably.
Actually, the Marshal hadn't said anything fundamentally wrong. Women, specially those who were quite close to each other, or those in extremely dangerous professions like delving and the military, would often agree to a Swap with each other. It basically meant that if one of them died in battle and the other's husband perished, the two survivors would marry so the woman didn't have to go Feral. It was a quite common social practice, but the way the hateful bitch put it implied that Master would surely die.
Even as Deimos' thoughts were clouded by her anger, a calm and soft voice cut through the fog. "I would prefer Sati."
Deimos turned to look at Ceres in surprise. The girl's voice was filled with conviction, her expression decisive. Even the Marshal was taken aback. Sati was when a war widow refused to remarry, choosing to turn Feral instead. Vita's divine will was guided by her hate, that meant it could be guided by hate in turn. Channelling her hatred towards the enemy who had taken her lover's life, once a woman committed to Sati turned Feral, she would rush into the enemy lines, slaking her thirst for vengeance with their blood till her last breath. If Paladins were the butchers of the battlefield, then a Feral driven by grief was terror incarnate.
Ceres turned to the Marshal and looked her in the eye. Her artificial lungs lowering the volume of her voice, she spoke. "This life of mine was snatched from death's door by him. I watched him shatter his mindscape to summon light even as my world grew dark. When he walks, I will too."
The Marshal was silent for a long time even as Ceres' words reverberated in Deimos' mind. Finally, the large woman turned around, her voice carrying over to them even as she walked away.
"Marshal Zoya Canis. Ye can call me Zoya. Welcome to the Ninth Company."
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