With javelin in one hand and partisan in the other, Kaleva tilted his skis into a sharp turn before zigzagging back into formation. It brought an opportune moment to gaze into the gentle flurry behind him, even as their column of hundreds continued their journey north.
The twenty-three year-old had left his quiet, farming hamlet two days ago, after the village seer announced the Jarl's orders. His fellows had been on the road ever since, merging together with men from several settlements along the way.
Kaleva felt uneasy about leaving his home behind, protected by only the older members of the militia. It was illogical that they should travel north to rally, only to ski back south for war. Would it not be easier to simply wait several days before meeting up with the brave army as they marched for glory?
Skied. Not marched. Only a foolish heathen of the south would march in this weather.
But watching the snowfall did alleviate his worries by a hint. After all, the wisen seer was right. The war was timely and just. With the blessing of the Stormlord, the early snow had already piled knee-deep, transforming every field of land into the smoothest highway. In this realm of heavenly white, the imperialistic Trinitians shall flounder and perish while the true descendants exacted revenge for an age of humiliation.
After centuries of encroachment and expansion into the north, the impertinent southerners were dissolving into internal turmoil once more -- brother fighting against brother like the abyss-tainted demons they were.
But this time, Skagen was not recovering from the scything death of epidemics, or preoccupied by the schemes of morally-corrupt traitors. This time, the Hyperboreans of the north shall seize the moment and recover what was rightfully theirs.
The southerners might mock them as barbaric 'Northmen' whose only occupation was to raid and pillage; but to the Hyperboreans, the North Sea and its fertile coast was their promised land. It was here, in ages past, where the blood of their ancestors shattered the most cunning abyssal offensive of the Dragon-Demon War. The divine dragonlords may have long since departed, but their legacy -- their gift to humanity -- would live on through mythic champions of yore...
Kaleva saw the signaler raise his flag before tilting it to the right with a shake. Major Kaleva of Rimpi -- the name was proud and common -- called for the entire unit to bank right into a full stop.
As over a thousand skis scratching against icy snow came to a halt, everyone's eyes and ears extended outwards to sense what the Major warily sought.
Then Kaleva heard it...
A soft but frantic rhythm, as though thousands of feet stomping down upon hard sand...
No, not feet...
Hooves, of iron and steel...
"FORM SCHILTROMS! ANTI-CAVALRY!" screamed the Major.
...But it was already too late.
Kaleva was still kicking the skis off his snowshoes when the first black rider charged over the crest of nearby hills. Dozens... no, hundreds more followed along the length of the ridge -- a swarm of hungry black that surged over white slopes like a tidal storm. The forward ranks pelted javelins and spells alike before drawing swordstaves, soon leveled into glistening rows of charging blades. The ground itself began to tremble and quake under the thunder of a thousand hooves. Even the skies rained steel from crossbow volleys, sent by endless waves of horsemen peaking hilltop crests.
The skiers never even had the time to finish reforming their ranks...
Battle cries in Imperial soon echoed from the other side, and the entire column of leather-clad ski infantry found themselves pincered in between two opposing flanks. Surrounded by the blood-curling roar of thousands, Kaleva found himself shaking against the meaning of those foul words once told by veterans:
"Holy Father with us!"
But the young Kaleva would never see the panic that ensued, or the butchering that followed which dyed an entire field of snow in crimson death.
His last memory came when the weighted tip of a heavy javelin shattered his spine, just seconds after he retrieved the round shield that could have saved his life.
----- * * * -----
Kaede had wanted to fight. It was an excellent opportunity to attune to the life that Pascal would live. She even spent every spare moment over the past day in preparation, adjusting the composition of the quicksilver bow she formed out of the 'morphic blade' Pascal gave her.
'Spring steel', actually, even if the enchanted alloy looked like mercury. Despite being a quarter short of her Yumi-Daikyu, the new bow was so strong she had to activate her runic Elemental Body just to shoot it, at least until Pascal had her gloves enchanted. His willingness to refill those spells had been begrudging at best -- he thought she was wasting her time.
He might even be right. Kaede's preference in weapons was, after all, rather obsolete.
Hyperien bows had already evolved past their medieval equivalents on Earth. Rather than a traditional recurve composite bow, Weichsel's few -- and their far more preferred steel crossbows -- were of compound design. Like the bows of modern athletes, they used a levering system of cables and pulleys. The result bent steely limbs to store greater energy, yet required less of the draw strength that took traditional longbowmen years to build.
Nevertheless, she felt compelled to wield it. With several Smiting spells in her runes, a few exacting shots to pierce the heads of leading officers could deliver devastating damage to organization and morale.
But equipment and arsenal wasn't the real problem right now.
Kaede's hands were trembling.
In fact, her entire arm -- perhaps even the entire body -- continued to quiver lightly as she watched on from a hilltop, mounted alongside two other signal officers.
The fighting across the fields was no skirmish. It wasn't even a bloody battle.
It's a massacre.
Nearly eight hundred Skagen ski infantry had been caught in the open by almost fifteen hundred cavalrymen. As though two-to-one odds weren't enough, Weichsel's forces managed to sandwich the enemy in-between, using the snow, the rolling hills, and some mirage arcana to remain unnoticed until the last minute.
The defenders' few mages had tossed runes out by the handfuls, attempting to raise pillars and walls of icy stalagmites in the wintry fields. But the Weichsen officers never gave them a chance. Swarms of Ether Seekers shot out like a missile massacre to interdict the stones, disrupting their magic through the forced injection of hostile, unstable ether.
The few obstacles that did form were not enough to break the charge. Experienced cavalrymen in black partial plate leaped over them with ease, driving wedge formations -- their triangular tips led by spell-fortified officers -- into the gaps between incomplete spear walls.
The results could not be more one-sided had a column of tanks plowed straight into a courtyard of assembling infantry.
From her vantage point and through familiar-enhanced senses, Kaede had a clear and far-too-detailed view of the grisly bloodbath. No less than five cavalry wedges had pierced into the loose column of Skagen ski infantry. Driven by momentum and muscle, the Weichsen chargers shoved through disorganized foot soldiers before trampling them underfoot. Meanwhile their riders sliced and stabbed with sabers and swordstaves, hacking limbs and severing necks even as bloody spurts dyed their armor and steeds in ghastly red.
Here and there a band of defenders rallied under the leadership of an officer, but these pockets of resistance were soon picked out by spotters. Mounted arbalesters and Reiters ringed the battlefield from higher ground. Like sickles through wheat, sudden hails of missiles quickly mowed down those brave enough to hold their ground.
Kaede had thought that this couldn't be much worse than watching the most gruesome of documentary videos. She thought that her practiced emotional detachment when observing history would suffice...
She couldn't have been more wrong.
The scent of blood permeating every breath of air...
The crack of bones as ribs shattered under thunderous hooves...
The sound of slicing metal as keen edge met flesh...
The splattering of blood as yet another sack of meat struck ground...
This... is war.
Kaede felt as thought she was stuck in a constant cringe. A faint sense of nausea rose up with every breathe. Her fingers tightened around the not-quite-longbow; but even under the firm grasp of her right hand, her left arm continued to shiver and shake.
They said that only those who experienced battle firsthand knew hell...
Pascal had warned her that the first time often left a recruit shaken. It was why soldiers were repetitively drilled to perform their task with mechanical automation. But since she acted as an observer and not participant, there would be no such distractions for her.
His follow-up words had been "you will get used to it".
Used to it... sure, once I'm properly desensitized to the killing.
She wasn't sure if that was better, or worse... far worse.
"They didn't stand a chance," remarked one of the signal officers, a young, plain-faced Junior Lieutenant with flat blond hair, slate-blue eyes, and a tall, freckled nose.
Given the wintry conditions, this should not have happened. Not even the lightest cavalry could ride unimpeded in knee-deep snow. Had it been any other country, the horsemen would have struggled to merely keep up with the cross-country skiers, let alone outmaneuver them.
But Weichsel was different. More precisely, the Weichsen professional cavalry had a higher ratio of noble-to-commoners than any other. At least one in every four soldiers of the 'Weichsel Cavalry' formations was a trained battlemage, and the Reiters plus Phantoms were almost entirely spellcasters.
This magical saturation gave them an overwhelming advantage in arcane support. Such utilities varied from Climatize buffs that kept the soldiers warm and their armor from locking up, to Snowskimmer spells that allowed horseshoes to gallop atop snow as though firm ground. Periodically recasting these effects for hours would prove a constant drain upon their ether supply, but a mage-dominated army could afford such luxuries while retaining enough reserves for combat casting.
"Not even a single siphon," commented the other officer, a pale-skinned, lanky young man of the same rank who rubbed his nose with nonchalance. "Just a gaggle of dirty peasants from backwater villages; hardly a victory worth our time."
They had introduced their noble origins earlier. But Kaede merely remembered them as Werner and Karl. It wasn't really fair to the former, who paid his respects through solemn words. But the latter was just annoying, if not callous to the point of inhumane.
"Eight hundred lives and not worth your time, is it?" Kaede spoke bitterly.
"Whose side are you on?" Karl tossed back, his tone still uncaring.
Loyalty has nothing to do with ethics!
Kaede felt her brows twitch in anger, when she spotted a change in the slaughterhouse.
"They're trying to surrender," she pointed out to a small group in the northeast, lead by an officer who raised a jury-rigged white flag stained by blood. They numbered no more than sixty... then suddenly halved as a hailstorm of already-airborne bolts, both steel and ether, cut them down in a crossfire from multiple vectors.
Kaede sent the same words to Pascal through their link, and received only a mental tap in reply.
Werner's preoccupied gaze identified that he was also communicating to the headquarters staff, except through a maintained Farspeak spell. The concentration required to hold it steady was what kept forward signal officers out of battle.
"Orders from Colonel von Konopacki," Werner turned towards Karl. "Tell Major Kempff he is in now in charge of accepting surrenders on the east flank. All officers and mages are to be executed..."
"WHAT!?" Kaede instantly went to glaring at the 'better' Lieutenant. That's a war crime! Even here!
Haunting images of Wehrmacht crimes passed through her mind, stamped into memories from the thoughtlessness of a father's hobby: showing his kid Russian Great Patriotic War (WWII) documentaries since the age of seven...
"--But disarm and release the soldiers if they kept their hands up. We have no room for prisoners."
The implications were simple: kill their commanders in front of them. If their spirit lay broken enough to attempt nothing, then let them go. Otherwise, slay them all.
"Got it. YA!" Karl urged his horse to gallop down the hill, towards wherever his commander was.
As a student of history, Kaede had to accept wars -- they were simply an inevitable act of human conflict. She would even make leeway for accidental atrocities in the heat of battle, since the aggression of warriors, once unleashed, was not easily contained.
But this is deliberate... it isn't just awful, it's outright EVIL.
"This is wrong!" Kaede almost shouted. "The Articles of War require that surrendering troops must be taken prisoner and offered a fair chance for ransom or exchange!"
"The Articles of War weren't signed by the Northmen," Werner replied, his voice now past solemn and onto frozen. "They certainly didn't adhere to it when they raided my village twelve years ago."
Staring at him in shock, Kaede could just barely make out the cold embers of hatred that burned within his callous eyes. They contained not only vengeance, but also the horrors that had desensitized a man to violent atrocities since his childhood years.
"So we're to lower ourselves to their barbaric standards?"
"My job is to pass orders, not to interpret them for debate," the officer continued to survey the fields without any change in expression, never even bothering to meet Kaede's gaze.
----- * * * -----
"WHAT!" the mental shout left a buzz in his head.
Pascal wondered if Kaede even realized that she just did that.
"Sir! That does not meet the operational guidelines of the Weichsel military!" He continued his firm intonation; his steely gaze locked onto two deep-brown orbs on a long, gaunt face stuck with a permanent frown.
"There are many things in White Typhoon that does not meet our operational guidelines, and you would know them since this was your proposal in the first place! Captain! We must continue our advance at full speed, unburdened by any prisoners of war, nor divided by the need to guard over them."
The counter was no less imperious. Its words came from Colonel Kasimir von Konopacki, once the commander of Nordkreuz forces in Marshal von Moltewitz's absence.
General von Manteuffel went ahead to personally lead the Phantom Gale company as a hunter-seeker vanguard. With Princess Sylviane's help, they roamed in advance of the main force, eliminating patrols and outposts to keep Skagen's field surveillance in the dark. In his absence, the Colonel was given command of the main body -- six companies of Weichsel Cavalry plus four more of Noble Reiters -- with precise orders of each enemy column to intercept and destroy.
Apparently not precise enough, Pascal grumbled in his thoughts.
At the moment, first echelon 'headquarters' was entirely mounted on horses, its officers watching the distant battle from a hilltop on the southwestern flank. Pascal had dispatched Kaede to the east side to observe, then overlaid her sight onto a corner of his own vision for a perfect view over the entire field.
...Except right now she was staring at a signal officer.
"Kaede quit arguing with a Lieutenant and turn your focus back to the field," he ordered.
She did, but not without complaint:
"Are you seriously agreeing to this?"
He didn't bother answering that; his focus was better spent against von Konopacki:
"Our orders are to neutralize each force..."
Pascal swung his fingers towards the slaughterhouse.
"That enemy is broken, shattered, and ruined! They pose no threat to us now, and any survivors' morale will be shot for weeks at least. Within the objectives of this operation, we gain no benefits to killing them all, except to provoke the populace into greater resistance upon any assault."
The Colonel almost snorted, as though in disbelief that such rabble could constitute any worthy 'resistance'.
"With all due respect, Sir. I quite agree with the Captain..."
The words were almost soft-spoken, yet they still contained a seeming font of conviction. They came from Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen, a middle-aged commoner of moderate stature and, despite his large and balding forehead, a handsome yet unassuming visage. He was also the General's intelligence officer, left as the nominal second-in-command of the main body.
"--The Jarls are at fault for those we kill in battle, but news of any field executions will be blamed solely upon us -- and their sons will hate us all the more for it in the years to come. Furthermore, our policies were created to encourage our enemies to surrender, instead of fighting to the last man and causing unnecessary casualties to our own. I'm sure the General would..."
"Fine, have it your way," the Colonel relented -- more like brushed it aside. "I've got an army to run; you can take care of the petty humanisms."
Meanwhile, Pascal didn't waste a second. He began even before von Konopacki finished speaking, and all the better as he clearly felt Kaede's simmering anger:
"Get down there and tell Major Walter Kempff to spare all officers who led a surrender. We should encourage the gutless wonders who willingly gave up their commands, not warn them off."
The Lieutenant-Colonel exhaled a faint sigh of relief. He turned towards the signal officers, but Pascal stopped him short.
"I got it."
"Surrendering isn't necessarily cowardi..." Kaede's reactive backlash soon trailed off.
"Quit being emotional and use your head," Pascal reprimanded as he returned the Lieutenant-Colonel's appreciative nod. "Inform them in Lieutenant-Colonel Ostergalen's, and by extension, General von Manteuffel's name. Ostergalen happens to agree with me."
"Yes Sir," she replied. "And thank you."
Although in Pascal's opinion, the decision had never been one of morality, nor did he feel strongly for the ethics involved. It was rational, even intelligent to spare those who surrendered. The total annihilation of an enemy force might look better on paper, but such shortsightedness was undoubtedly foolish in the long term:
"Colonel von Konopacki may be a skilled tactician, but he is a political numskull and hence will never become a general. There is no purpose in igniting more anger when we could avoid it; only the Imperials would benefit from that."
----- * * * -----
Gerd Kessler snapped his heels together, alongside forty-six other officer cadets in black-on-burning-red uniforms. They made up two entire graduating classes of Phantoms-in-training from the Königsfeld Academy, newly arrived at Nordkreuz to be sent forth into battle.
The old man -- well, not actually as old as he looked -- who stepped up onto the podium was Colonel Sir Erwin von Hammerstein. Even with his wrinkled cheeks neatly shaved and wearing a spiffy uniform, the Colonel still looked like a bandit plucked out of the mountains: ferocious, bulging eyes that could scare a recruit by mere glance, a big mouth whose toothy grin wavered between contagious and frightening, and coarse, darkly tanned skin that belonged to a farmhand more than any aristocrat. The man was neither tall nor strongly built, but his homely face alone was more than enough to leave an impression.
He was also a legend in the Weichsel military, especially among the lower ranks. Had anyone asked for the bravest and most daring commander, every soldier would point their fingers at him.
...But it wasn't all a compliment.
Erwin von Hammerstein was known for his fearlessness, not only towards the enemy, but also to his own superiors. It was why that despite his thoroughly impressive battle record over a century of service, the man was still a mere Colonel. To him, leading a charge came as easy as whipping a subordinate or disobeying an order. If it weren't for the chestful of medals he collected, his equivalent number of demerits would have sent him to court martial long ago.
"Talk about a bunch of scrawny-ass dew-dripping sprouts..."
The lines across his brow easily tripled while his big mouth turned into a deep, downward curve.
"I'm sure you all know me -- Colonel Erwin von Hammerstein here. People call me anything in-between the 'daredevil' and the 'pillory celebrity', and chances are everything you've heard about me is true, except I don't have any extra heads or digits..."
A few cadets lost their composure and chuckled. Two of them even snorted; one of them being Reynald.
Gerd could almost see little glittering stars in his friend's eyes. The boy worshiped way too many heroes.
"I'm here today on a simple matter," von Hammerstein continued in his gruff voice. "The late Marshal, Father bless his soul, had assembled a new unit of Phantoms two years ago. Problem is, they're no knights, not even cadets... Yes son?"
A fourth year that Gerd didn't recognize lowered his upright hand and spoke out:
"By the laws of Weichsel, only the King may create a formation of Knights Phantom."
"Yes I've got your permission and paperwork right here, ye damn lawyer," the Colonel waved the stack in his hand before putting them back down. "And Holy Father forbid that you should listen; I said they ain't no knights. They're trained in the Phantom's ways, but not to your standards. Reason is a simple one: the last war showed that we could always use more Phantoms, but we don't have enough nobles to go around. So these fresh greens are all yeoman instead..."
Some of the cadets started murmuring in discontent, and Gerd could feel his blood-flow speeding up. Like any other branch of the Weichsel military, there were officers of yeoman origin -- commoners blessed by magic -- in the Knights Phantom. But they had to earn the lowest rank of nobility, a Knight's Cross at least, to be accepted for training. Gerd himself was a rare exception, 'recognized' only due to Parzifal's insistence and his own top scores.
"But our shortage in officers is even worse, hence why I'm here to ask for your support. We need platoon leaders, and I need a sidekick, all ranked straight up to Junior Lieutenants."
"Sir!" Another fourth year spoke up, rather smugly too: "we're officer cadets. We're guaranteed Junior Lieutenants or higher upon the campaign's completion, which is also the lowest ranking for any proper Knight Phantom. Why should we devalue ourselves to a lesser unit?"
"...Especially one that probably won't see any action this war," a third-year girl named Hannah von Gerd-couldn't-give-a-damn chipped in.
"All you vainglorious, ladder-climbing bastards can get out of my face," von Hammerstein growled. "I want you punks no more than cowards and deserters."
Most of the cadets paid just enough respect towards the authority of his Colonel rank to wait out his last syllable before strutting away, insulted and angry. Knowing about the man's foul mouth was one thing; experiencing its receiving end? Something else entirely.
"And this is the so-called elitest of the elite, all fracking five of you," he scanned over them like a lion observing gazelles, then snorted as he came across Ariadne. "A blood-be-damned Manteuffel too. I'd thought you'd be first to clear out."
"My pride isn't so cheap to be insulted by meager and ungrounded provocation, Sir!"
Yet there was definitely anger in her voice, buttressed by a staunch refusal to leave the battleground. It was apparent enough that even Gerd -- who Reynald often mocked as 'oblivious to barnhouses' -- could sense.
The girl might exemplify many virtues, but having rhinoceros skin certainly wasn't one of them.
"So why'd you stay? Why join up?"
"Any soldier could join a famous unit, Sir!" Ariadne stared back with unerring challenge. "It takes a true knight to forge one themselves. As green as these troopers may be, I highly doubt any unit assembled by the Marshal and drilled by yourself lacks potential!"
And then, it happened. The famous one-eighty, as Colonel von Hammerstein's mouth went from downward half-circle frown to upward half-moon grin in an instant.
"Spoken like a true man!" He lauded, despite facing someone who was anything but male.
Ariadne looked like her facial muscles had been petrified, but the Colonel already went on to his next target:
"What about you Gerd? After fighting tooth and nail to jump on the bandwagon? What would your benefactor say now?"
The young man smirked back. It was a pleasant surprise that the Colonel knew his name and background without ever meeting him. Whatever roughneck image von Hammerstein might like to cultivate, the man certainly did his homework.
But if bluntness was how the old geezer liked it, then Gerd would gladly play ball by the same rules:
"I never gave a rat's ass about prestige to begin with, Sir! I just wanted a cavalryman's opportunity to prove myself, and nothing better than to do it alongside others of my own kind!"
Colonel von Hammerstein settled for a toothy nod this time, before moving down the line:
"And you, Reynald?"
"Not to burst your bubble, Sir, but I don't frankly care for the unit," the short redhead shrugged, oddly uncaring for one whose eyes were lit by idolatry just moments prior. "I'm just joining up to watch my friends' backs."
"Good reason as any!" the Colonel boomed. "Lydia?"
Gerd had never paid attention to the petite girl before, other than knowing that she was in fourth-year and probably the smallest of the Knights Phantom cadets. At one-sixty-four (5'4") and of fragile appearance, she held a demure yet thoughtful look that was definitely his type. Her pale skin and cute nose almost resembled a plainer version of Cecylia, except with hazel-brown eyes and wavy, chocolate-brown hair, its short tips just barely draped over thin shoulders.
It was actually rather hard to find a girl with short hair in the academy, where flowing long tresses were considered both a sign of femininity and wealth. Gerd found that to be a shame. Petite and innocent, lively yet demure -- it was perfection for a girl.
He even had many heated debates with Reynald over the topic, even if his friend often chided his tastes as 'bland'.
"To learn from one of the best unit commanders in the history of Weichsel, Sir."
"Flattery isn't going to get you anywhere, but accepted!"
Ever though Colonel von Hammerstein said that, his grin still stretched from ear to ear when Lydia offered her response.
"Last up, Kayeten!"
Kayeten was one of those young men who lacked even a single impressionable feature. He was of average height, modest build, with an utterly plain face where not even faded-green eyes managed to stand out. Yet, if Gerd's memory served, the name 'Kayeten von Krupinski' consistently made the top six ranks in performance among the fourth-year class.
"I agree with both Ariadne and Lydia, Sir!"
"So long as you're agreeing with them and not skirt-chasing."
"Not a chance Sir," Kayeten answered without even a second of pause. "I already have a fiancée back at home."
Both Gerd and Reynald stared at him with gaping expressions that went "seriously?"
Stupid noble blood, Gerd thought bitterly. What does that generic man have that I don't?
"Well I hope you kids are up to the task," the Colonel continued. "Ariadne, you're promoted to full Lieutenant as my second. Gerd and Kayeten, you two are raised to full L.T. as well; take charge of second and third platoons. Lydia, you'll be Gerd's second. And Reynald, you'll lead the recon squad. Any questions?"
Gerd smiled cheerily. Rank and half of promotion; too bad for those picky highborns who left early.
Meanwhile the ladies' hands shot up, and Lydia was picked first.
"Why am I under him?"
Well, at least you didn't straight up say 'the commoner, Gerd decided to give her some credit. The fact she was cute certainly helped.
"Take it up with your meh grades," the thuggish-looking commander answered simply before pointing towards Ariadne.
"If you're lacking support officers, I'd like to request a transfer for Parzifal Sigismund von Seydlitz der Chevallerie. He's the best healer in our class and will gladly accept."
"Who is this, your lover?"
Ariadne looked like she just bit into a rock. But before she even had a chance to say anything, it was Reynald who countered:
"He's my best friend. I'd prefer that you do not insult his character and honor, Sir. Otherwise I'd be forced to challenge you to a duel."
"And you think you'll win?" Colonel von Hammerstein sent a half-derisive half-amused smirk.
Which the young man returned in kind:
"I have a perfect record."
The old commander made an odd snorting sound.
"Don't forget those words when I take you up on it. But we've got a war to win right now, son, so save it for the enemy." He then turned to Ariadne: "I take back my comment, Miss von Zimmer-Manteuffel, and I'll see what I can do."
Ariadne merely nodded back, her meadow-green eyes still burning with the fury of a prairie fire.
Well, aren't we off to just a peachy start, Gerd thought.
Kaede glanced at the contemplative Pascal in the 'Instant Cabin' they shared. The tiny room deployed from a cube that could fit in her... well, his palm. She didn't even complain about sharing a bed again, since it was infinitely better than any tent in this snowstorm.
"What is it?" She asked, less from curiosity and more an attempt to distract herself from brooding thoughts.
"Parzifal, Ariadne, Reynald, and Gerd all signed up under one command," Pascal turned towards her with his soup bowl in hand. "It is the new Grenadiers Phantom unit father created in secret, probably to avoid opposition from the Knights Phantom until they were ready. Colonel von Hammerstein was shrewd enough to put Ariadne as his second-in-command, which stopped any lingering doubts from General von Manteuffel over its deployment."
"Well... of course. He'd want to give Ariadne the chance to excel, being head of her clan and all."
Pascal nodded back as he took another bite of 'beef stew'; more like jerky and spiced vegetables boiled in snow.
"Yes. But von Hammerstein also requested a company name to boost morale -- that is standard for Knight Phantom companies, except they are not knightly. Command seemed hesitant to hand one down, so I am trying to think up of something for them to push."
Kaede gave it a quick thought. Given the Phantoms' modus operandi, the answer seemed quite simple:
"In my world, there was once a famous formation that advanced so quickly through enemy lines that neither friend nor foe could keep track of it. They called it the Ghost Division..." she paused briefly as dark clouds descended upon her thoughts once more. "Think this unit could live up to that name?"
"With that madman in charge? Not a single doubt," Pascal's grin stretched across his face. "Ghost Riders it is then."
She forced a wry smile back. It would take time for her to make peace with a different type of ghost -- the haunting sight of over six hundred dead and wounded strewn across snowy plains dyed a bloody red.
True to what Parzifal spoke of the Healers' Oath, the Weichsel medical squads attached to every company did their best for friend and foe alike once the battle was over. Even Kaede contributed where she could, but they were only given limited time before the army had to move on.
In the midst of winter and far from the nearest settlement, those who sustained major injuries would soon join the dead.
...The field of corpses.
"Something has been bothering you," Pascal stared with worry. "You have barely touched your dinner."
"It's nothing, don't worry about it," Kaede replied without looking.
There was no such thing as being 'underhanded' in war, for what were 'tactics' and 'strategy' but ways to cheat the system?
But 'ethics' weren't the same thing.
We can't cheat conscience.
A soldier needed not just the conviction to win, but also the will to achieve victory through correct means.
Pascal did his best today, she decided. The rest are my own problems.
Kaede knew it would be yet another long and sleepless night.[ Next Chapter ]