• Sunsette

Trooper Gerald Lonz

Coronel Hartford ascended the staircase swiftly but carefully; she had a steaming hot tin kettle in her right hand, and she wasn't looking forward to a stray burn. As she took the final step to the top floor, the Coronel paused for breath. She was thin and clearly in good shape -- but she was a middle-aged soldier who spent more time on horseback than on foot these days, and had just sprinted up three flights of stairs. You could do worse than needing a second under those circumstances.


"Ma'am." The familiar voice of a young male captain caught Hartford's ear, and her eyes just barely noticed a very unfamiliar face saluting in passing. She responded in kind automatically. It was only as the captain headed downstairs that the coronel finished processing the dissonance: a new and horrific web of burn scars that crossed the side of the young man's face and neck. She hadn't seen him in a month.

"He used to be a rather handsome thing. It must have been bad," Coronel Hartford remarked as she poured a fresh cup of tea. She was back in her office with the mareschal. "I know the chirurgeons can't fix everything, but between modern magic and alchemy... I don't know. I've seen worse. But you never really get used to it."


"That's enough, thank you," the old woman said, referring to her teacup. After the coronel stopped pouring, the mareschal picked it up for a sip. "I believe he was on the eastern front. Bloody fighting there. But we're making progress. Speaking of progress, I took the liberty of looking at the final entry in your portfolio while you were out."


"Ah yes," the coronel said. "The survivalist."


"The deserter," the mareschal returned, pulling his photogram out of the bundle of papers.

The old woman continued, running a gnarled finger along the relevant portions of his performance write-up while she read it off. "Displayed cowardice three weeks ago and recommended for the firing squad. Two weeks ago, a stay of execution; instead, demoted from corporal to trooper." She lifted her finger and her gaze, meeting her subordinate's eyes.


"Well, it's certainly no loss if he dies. I understand he is a survival and wilderness specialist, which may help, but I am curious about the choice. First because he is a coward, and second because... is a witch not a survival specialist in her own right?"


Coronel Hartford smiled faintly. "Nothing in Sergeant Seule's file suggested she had strong familiarity with the mountains, and when I spoke to her about it privately, she told me forthright that she was concerned about that portion of the mission. The desert, the prairie, and the jungle are all very different environments from the frigid cold of the Meteora Mountains."


The mareschal considered this and tilted her head this way and that. "Well, far be it from me to argue with a witch when she says she doesn't know enough about nature. But...." The old woman let that word hang out in the empty space between them.


"But why a deserter?"


"Precisely."


"It's a fair question," the coronel admitted, nodding. "Did you read what he was deserting from?"


"I believe," the older woman said, rubbing a finger across the lip of the teacup, "that he panicked and fled overnight to avoid participating in a mission to clear out the spidercaves. Why does it matter?"


"All accounts are that he's afraid of fighting monsters, but ruthless in combat against enemy uniformed forces. That's no excuse, but it's consistent behavior -- there aren't many monsters on the proposed route."


"I see," said the mareschal, steepling her fingers. "That makes a certain amount of sense, but what about bloodmoon? Can he fight undead?"


"He can. His sergeant says he fights like a man possessed on bloodmoons. He'll stick with this squad to sate his blood, whatever his reasons are; too many targets he's got it in for." Hartford's voice was firm and confident.


"I see, I see. An interesting choice." The older woman took a long draught of her tea. "I approve; we're making the most out of what we've been given. Very well. I think it's time I briefed you on what's really at stake here; Squad Three's mission is the most crucial of them. I'd like to remind you that what we're about to discuss does not leave this room until we have confirmation from this squad."


"You have my attention, ma'am."

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