The Angel of War - Part 1

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MARTEN

The sun warmed Marten's face with its orange glow. The backs of his closed eyelids were lit up like a fire in the darkness and he could see the interweaving of tiny veins. Late. His mother hadn't woken him before dawn to tend to the cows. A long night with friends. That wasn't a dream, was it? All was fine in the world, Marten was sure, his mother would have woken him if it were truly that late in the day. Just a few more minutes of–

A sharp clang of metal on metal startled him back to the land of the living and he wrenched his eyes open, only to be blinded by the afternoon sun. He lifted an arm to shield his vision and realized he was not in bed. He wasn't even home. This was the battlefield and he'd gone to war; the land of the dead and dying, not of the living.

Pain radiated from the back of his head down his entire body. Marten reached to the back of his head where his fingers slid across a swollen knot and came back bloody. His helmet was missing. Luckily it had done its job by blocking the worst of a surprise blow, but he'd still been knocked out cold. Blinking rapidly, fragments of memories came back to him:

A letter stamped with the wax seal of Unified Empyrea.

His mother sobbing in the next room.

The weight of his pack as he marched in ranked formation.

The stink of sweat as soldiers huddled together, waiting for the war trumpets.

Plodding of hooves deafening him as he charged, throat raw from screaming.

A boy Marten's age dying on the end of his sword, and the darkness that followed.

Marten craned his neck to search for the fighting nearby but he couldn't see past the stacks of bodies and hacked-off limbs littering the ground around him. The motionless soldiers donning the Unified forces' gorgeous, yellow-gold armor had been splashed and stained with crimson. Enemy corpses laid intermingled in the bed of death, but their faces looked so very much like the faces of Marten's allies that he wouldn't have known the difference had their emblem not been emblazoned upon their shoulders.

Marten's back was wet. He jolted when he saw beneath him. He'd fallen in a slightly sunken crater, the blood pooling together in a grim bath. Marten rolled to the side and clawed at the mud to pull himself free from the pit. The rational part of his mind told him that the damage had already been done, but every other ounce of his being told him that the blood would soak in deep and corrupt his soul if he didn't escape.

After he was able to get a good enough hold on a rogue limb dangling in his direction, Marten wrenched himself to a drier surface. He sucked in hot air as if he'd just breached the water's surface. He didn't understand why he couldn't manage a normal breath until the tears filled his vision. He squeezed them free, the liquid cutting two clear paths down his dirt and blood-spackled cheeks. Marten wondered if this was how his father had died in the first Empyrean War, alone and afraid. Had he thought of his wife and son in those final moments? Or had he been killed too quickly for self-reflection? Simply a sharp release of breath, a last beat of the heart, a light winking out into eternal darkness.

When Marten regained his composure, he saw a middle-aged dead man lying directly in front of him. The man wore the simple uniform of the New Republic of Asyrema; a rebel faction that had formed after the fall of the Emperor several years ago. Marten had enlisted to support Unified Empyrea which consisted of a conglomerate of forces attempting to maintain peace along newly-drawn borders. The capital city of Asyrema still held the majority of wealth attained by its once-sprawling empire, not to mention the backing of the Majestry and its Energy-wielding Cardinals.

The New Republic man's face was blank and sagging to one side, his eyes closed and mouth open. Marten wondered why the man would sacrifice himself in order to create more unrest and needless violence. Had life not been decent and worthwhile just the way it was? He just wanted to be home again, to see his mother's smile one more time.

Someone yelled. Marten twisted in order to see two men fighting nearby. They looked ragged and drained, but their wide eyes spoke volumes; they hated one another, and they would kill for their cause. The Unified captain, in gold armor and a white cape hanging from his right shoulder, stood firm despite his exhausted demeanor. The New Republic fighter didn't have armor–in fact, very few of them did–yet the man advanced upon the captain with a respectable bravado. Marten couldn't sit and watch, lest the enemy win. This was why he joined the war, to help those in need, and he needed to help his captain before it was too late.

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