Kaede pushed Pascal's levitating chair up to the ridge, where they had a perfect view of the Hafren river crossing. A thin veneer of snow covered the ground and she could see her breath in the freezing air, but the army's assault forces didn't seem to mind as they forded the icy waters.
Showers of arrows criss-crosssed over the waterline as the Lotharin archers and the Cataliyan bowmen dueled. Cold steel fell like icy rain upon both the defending phalanxes and the towering attackers. But while the rows of southern spearmen thinned under the continuous barrage, the lumbering oak and yew giants hardly even flinched as they made their way across.
The four-legged migratory trees shrugged off flaming arrows and withstood infused explosive spells with minor injuries. The Lotharin mages had hardened the vanguard's bark into fire-resistant ironwood before layering on even more protective spells. Soon the walking trees emerged onto the shores and smashed into lines of Cataliyan spearmen. Their wooden appendages flailed about their thick trunks, cleaving into formations and hurling men into the air like rag dolls.
The Cataliyan military machine was known for their professional Ghulam heavy cavalry and composite bowmen. But their typical infantrymen were little more than conscripts motivated by cries of holy war and religious martyrdom. Against the Lotharins' new arboreal allies, those men never stood a chance and their formations quickly began to collapse.
Seeing the front lines buckling, the Cataliyan horse archers at the rear discharged one last volley before turning to flee. They ran straight into the glowing embers of the 'Polar Cross' Oriflamme, as Edith-Estellise had led a small group of flight-capable armigers across the marshy terrain in the south and flanked the main defense force.
"All too easy," Kaede declared with pride. She had helped the Princess in preparing for this opposed river crossing, although her contributions were little more than studying her magical map to pick out the best locations for the assault and the flanking insertion.
"It is just a rear guard, albeit a substantial one," Pascal spoke dryly in his weak voice. "Maybe as much as ten thousand. But the infidels have already withdrawn east and south. I reckon they are crossing the Gwilen River even as we speak."
He then let out a deep exhale.
"You two were too careful and waited too long."
"We're not all as audacious as you, Patton," Kaede scowled a little as she felt the need to defend herself. "We're the ones winning on this front now. There's no reason for us to take unnecessary risks and throw it all away."
The Cataliyans had gambled and lost almost three brigades of elite cavalry at the Battle of Glywysing. That still left over thirty thousand men besieging the city of Roazhon. Though with their best troops destroyed and their reinforcements sunk off the coast of Lysardh Point, they had no chance of taking the city before a major Lotharin counteroffensive.
However, Princess Sylviane had also been licking her wounds since the pyrrhic victory at Glywysing. Pascal had almost died and Duke Lionel suffered a blow to the head that left him unconscious for days. The healers left orders for both to rest and recover even after a week's passing, depriving Sylviane of her two best tacticians.
News had it that the Cataliyan commander -- General Salim -- survived the catastrophe at Glywysing and made it back to his army with the ragtag remnants of the three brigades. Facing an accomplished foe that they could not help but respect, both Sylviane and Kaede agreed it was best to take the steady route and risk nothing.
Pascal did not respond, although Kaede could feel him brooding as he continued to stare through her eyes. The blindfold was still wrapped around his head to facilitate his eyes' recovery. Although Kaede thought it might make him a little less jittery to at least feel like he was present at the battle.
Kaede skipped over there as her gaze turned to the northeast where flaring spells lit up the morning sky. Colonel von Mackensen's Knights Phantom clashed with the putrid-brown Cataliyan wasteland drakes over the orchards south of Roazhon. He had led the city's defenders out in a sally just as they agreed over Farspeak communications. However, it was clear from the chaotic air battle that the enemy had been prepared for this and used their drakes as a second rearguard to buy time -- likely to retreat across the Gwilen River unmolested as Pascal surmised.
"They should still have enough time to capture the enemy's artillery train," Kaede remarked positively. "No way the Cataliyans will withdraw their siege equipment in time."
"Yes... it will help make up for the fact I lost all of the Lotharins' heavy siege at Gwilen," Pascal commented dryly.
Kaede frowned. She hadn't realized until now that her comment earlier had bit him hard. She had grown so used to Pascal's shameless confidence that she was unused to him doubting himself.
It felt... unnatural, and she didn't like it one bit.
I guess everyone gets depressed once in a while... even Pascal.
"And their sacrifice diminished the Cataliyans' numbers so severely that they could not force an assault of Roazhon when they arrived," Kaede put a reassuring hand on Pascal's shoulder. "You tried everything you could to change the balance of power on this front. There is no shame in that."
"What good is trying?" Pascal's bitterness picked away at the weak spot in her argument. "The results are all that matter."
I just said-- Kaede almost retorted before she forced herself to relax with a sigh.
It didn't help anyone to take her annoyance out on the person least able to bear it.
Crouching down besides his levitating chair, Kaede wrapped her thin arms around his head and shoulders in a tight embrace. Thousands of troops assembling for the river crossing could see the two of them on that hill crest, but Kaede didn't care as she gently asserted to him:
"You were the one who organized the Battle of Gwilen River that bled our enemies white. You were the one who devised the plan to lure their elite troops away into Ceredigion. You were the one who seized upon the opportunity to ambush their reinforcements at Lysardh Point. You were the one who shattered the enemy right wing and threw all their advantages into chaos at Glywysing!
"Without you, the Lotharins' Avorican front would have collapsed before Gwendolyn even had the opportunity to intervene! The common soldier may not understand that," she thought of his new moniker, the Deathbringer. "But every lord and officer educated in the ways of war knows whom they owe and should be grateful to!"
The familiar girl poured her encouragement and assurance across the empathic channel that they shared. She could feel the dark, gloomy mist thinning on his end, at least enough for a wry, half-snorted chuckle to emerge:
"I think you greatly overestimate the military wisdom of the typical Lotharin officer."
Kaede couldn't help but giggle at his condescending tone. Now this is the Pascal I know!
His trials weren't over. She knew he would still hit many road bumps in his long journey towards recovery, and every one of them could spell another bout of depression for him, another moment of self-loathing and bitter regret. Though as long as she could help keep his emotions afloat, she was sure she could keep the worst damage in check.
After all, contrary to popular belief, what didn't kill a person wouldn't necessarily make them stronger. Too many leaders survived bitter struggles that left them seemingly 'tougher', but it came at great costs that their nation would be forced to bear. Every loss had a chance to leave deep mental scars, hardening the mind and anesthetizing the heart in exchange for the iron will to carry on.
History would later blame such rulers for being 'evil' and 'tyrannical', rarely remembering the callous circumstances that shaped them into being.
Kaede kissed Pascal's bandaged temple before she returned her gaze to the front lines. She could see the cerulean glow of Princess Sylviane's embers, flying up and down the icy river and encouraging her men forward. She remembered that night when she embraced the Rhin-Lotharingie heir, as the latter wailed in the depth of grief over the death of her closest companions.
A mercy from God that they both survived, the Samaran girl thought to herself.
Both Pascal and Sylviane were such brilliant yet lonely individuals. If one of them had died, the other would have lost the last of their family and their only remaining emotional support. It would be difficult to pull through without freezing their heart to numb out the pain, leaving debts that would return to bite in the decades to come.
The very thought sent a shiver down her spine, as she thought of the infamous 'man of steel' and his romantic story gone wrong.
I have no desire to see a 'Stalin' emerge on this world.
------ * * * ------
Kaede was deep in thought as she pushed Pascal's levitating chair past Roazhon's citadel gates.
They had missed the welcoming ceremony that Queen Katell had thrown in Princess Sylviane's honor. The Samaran girl didn't mind though. Even from outside the city gates, she could hear the loud trumpets and boisterous fanfare at the time. Someone even conjured a rainbow over the city that rained sparkles. Up close with her familiar-enhanced senses, the deafening noise and blinding colors would have been insufferable.
Kaede's only regret was that Pascal couldn't take part in the celebrations. The Princess had been welcomed back as a conquering hero, as her recent chain of victories had relieved the siege of Roazhon and pushed back the Cataliyan offensive in the war's western front. But much of that credit belonged rightly to Pascal, as it was his stratagems that set up the events to make everything possible.
Besides, while his dour mood may have alleviated slightly from Kaede's encouragement, it could always use another lift.
However, Pascal's healer -- Sir Ariel -- had vetoed it. He was furious that Kaede took Pascal to see the battle, and berated her for what must have been ten minutes on 'proper rest and recovery'. She couldn't even edge a word in before he finished his tirade and simply left, leaving her more than a bit disgruntled at the end.
Doctors, she fumed at the memories even now. They value the physical condition so much yet care so little for the patient's mental welfare!
"It's not fair," she mumbled under her breath. "They were your achievements too. You should have been there."
The feeling of bandaged fingers grazing her hand brought Kaede back to her senses.
"Funny," Pascal croaked with a huff of humor. "I thought the same thing at Nordkreuz when I received your medal in your place."
Kaede touched the Knight's Cross that hung beneath her collar. It was a reminder that recognition did not come without price, for she had almost lost her life that day to help bring about the battle's victory.
"Yeah but that's different," she noted. "The medal bore my name. Even though you received it in my place, it showed that Weichsel's King and army valued my contributions. But what of the Lotharins? What did they do to show you their appreciation? Other than--"
Kaede trailed off, burying the words 'an ungrateful nickname'.
Pascal had reacted poorly since the first time he heard it. He always kept his silence, but Kaede could feel the sharp pain those words inflicted upon him.
"I did screw up many times," he exhaled a deep sigh. "Besides, I do not mind if Sylv receives the recognition. She is the next Empress and I am the consort. It is not that unusual, and it certainly benefits her legitimacy for the commoners to believe that every victory belonged to her."
"But--" Kaede tried to retort, however Pascal's quiet chuckle stopped her short.
"It is not so different from a master benefiting from a familiar's deeds. I do not remembering you vying for your even share back then."
The familiar in question pouted. What am I supposed to say when he puts it like that?
Pascal's palm then reached up further and fully covered the back of her left hand.
"Thank you, Kaede. I appreciate what you are trying to do."
Kaede felt the heat rise as her cheeks blossomed. She couldn't even avert her gaze when he was blind and sharing her eyesight to begin with. She then heard a faint chuckle from him which only made her embarrassment worse. Since without his vision, Pascal could only rely upon his heart and their empathic link to read her reactions.
It was yet another version of him that she wasn't used to.
"It's not fair," she mumbled. "I don't get any privacy from you."
She could almost feel him grinning, as a portion of his usual haughtiness seemed to return:
"Of course not. You are my familiar."
Roazhon's riverside fortress was oddly 'normal'. Other than its slightly sloped walls and better sanitary conditions, it looked no different from a duke or king's castle that Kaede could find in Western Europe.
The Samaran girl was still pushing Pascal's levitating chair towards the guest lodging, on the wing of Avorica's royal keep, when she heard an exuberant cry:
Turning about, she saw a petite maid with short, brown hair running up from a side door on the guest wing.
With a beaming smile, Marina stopped just within the Samaran's reach. She suddenly seemed to remember her manners, and dipped a perfect curtsy.
"Milord, Milady. Welcome to Roazhon Castle," she spoke cheerily. "Your rooms have already been prepared. I'll lead you to them."
"Hello Marina, how've you been?" Kaede smiled back, but she shook her head at the maid's offer to take over in pushing Pascal. Instead, Marina simply fell to her side and led them towards the front doors.
"Quite well, Milady," Marina stressed the style with a teasing tone, knowing well that it made Kaede uncomfortable to hear it. "The siege was short and painless. The bombardment was light considering the knights phantom kept harassing the heathens' artillery. I haven't been doing much; just helping out at the military kitchens and keeping an ear open for Lady Cecylia."
When Pascal and Sylviane took the Lotharin troops west two weeks ago, Cecylia had joined the Weichsel knights phantom in reinforcing Roazhon. Though for an intelligence officer, that meant gathering information on their allies and keeping enemy saboteurs at bay, to prevent them from opening gates or burning supply stores. It was Pascal's choice for Cecylia to take Marina as an aide, as Kaede was unconscious at the time and didn't hear about it until afterwards.
...And with that, the familiar girl also remembered:
"What for?" The maid was inquisitive.
"I said that I wouldn't send you into any danger that I didn't take myself. I didn't hold up my end of the bargain in the end."
"I'm pretty sure that being unconscious meant you took up way more dangers than I did," Marina chuckled. "Besides, it was his Lordship's orders, not yours."
"You are being far too nice to her," Pascal's telepathic voice rang his disapproval inside Kaede's mind. "First promoting her to Lady's Maid, and now this? After what she did, she doesn't deserve it."
"And I'm sure treating her as an ex-assassin would inspire a great deal of loyalty," the familiar retorted before she could stop herself. "I understand how you feel. But please, as we've discussed before, let me handle it."
She turned to Marina with a thankful smile, before turning around so she could pull Pascal up a spiral staircase. His levitating chair stayed upright and made the job much easier, though she still had to climb backwards to ensure that Pascal's feet didn't slam into the stone steps. The stairs were rather steep, and Marina kept a hand on Kaede's shoulder to make sure she didn't trip herself.
"This way," the maid held open the heavy wooden door as they reached the second floor landing. "Left side."
"Where do you sleep?" Kaede asked as they moved down the richly furnished corridor, with its thick rug, intricate wallpaper, and life-sized oil paintings. It was easy to forget that they were still inside a military fortification.
"The servants' quarters are down bottom," Marina noted.
She avoided saying 'the basement', as though the nobles would appreciate not being reminded that their servants slept below ground.
"Could you ask them for a room next door," Kaede requested. "Tell them I'll need help at night. After all, the Landgrave is still recovering from severe injuries, and he didn't bring a valet with him."
"And tell them I do not want one," Pascal grumbled before Marina could even offer.
Kaede giggled: "he's not really comfortable having a stranger help with his... business."
"Of course. They should be alright with me helping out instead," Marina walked ahead to open the double doors.
"And thank you, Milady," she added, as though knowing exactly what Kaede had in mind.
"Oh, don't thank me yet," Kaede added as she entered a bedroom that was far too big for her tastes. Chandelier lighting in the bedroom always felt excessive to her, although at least the four-poster bed was suitably massive and comfortable-looking.
"He really does need a lot of taking care of. Hopefully, we won't leave stains all over the carpet and make the staff angry."
------ * * * ------
Kaede and Pascal had dinner in their room that night, although this time Sylviane didn't have time to join them. The Princess no doubt had a state banquet to attend, although Kaede savored her share of the marvelous cooking from the dishes Marina brought upstairs.
Now, with the food put away, she pushed Pascal into an adjoining room and helped him take off all of his clothes and potion-soaked bandages. With both of her arms supporting him, Pascal climbed off his levitating chair and into the waiting stone bath -- which looked more like a small, shallow pool on a raised platform.
The water was hot. Not enough to burn, but sufficient for him to quickly start sweating. The healer said it would help expunge the body's wastes and boost his recovery, though even if that wasn't the case Kaede would have insisted he take a bath. The healers' cleansing magic just wasn't thorough enough, and he was starting to give off some pungent odors down below.
"Does your Ladyship require any help?" Marina asked from behind Kaede.
"Okay seriously, that's enough," Kaede huffed out as she knelt on the side, scrubbing Pascal down with a towel in hand. "We're not in anyone's company, so start referring to me like normal again."
"We're in his Lordship's company. Proper decorum should be upheld."
Kaede groaned as she could almost hear laughter in the maid's voice. Even Pascal had to hold back a snort.
"But no, I can take care of this part," she answered. "It's actually a lot easier than I'm used to. Well, sort of."
"You've taken care of a disabled man before?"
"Sort of, for my Grandpa, back in the world where I came from," Kaede explained as her arms reached into the shallow water and elevated a leg to wash. "He was a Shturmovik pilot -- essentially the air cavalry of my world -- during our 'Great Patriotic War'. He was hit by anti-air flak fire during combat. His leg never remained the same and was the first to go during old age. I wasn't old enough to help much before he died, although I've watched my mother and elder sister at it."
She still remembered all the times her mother and sister had to work together just to replace the bedsheets or roll him onto his side to wipe his back with a towel. Even the most basic chores could take up to an hour and leave both of them sweaty and exhausted.
"At least Pascal can still lift himself and doesn't require me to change his diapers," Kaede absentmindedly added.
A soft giggle came from the maid, while his Lordship groaned:
"Please leave me what dignity I still have left."
Even Kaede grinned a little as she scrubbed the towel down his leg and around his feet a little too enthusiastically.
"That hurts," Pascal suddenly exclaimed.
She had pulled his leg up too far. The still-healing tendons weren't meant to stretch.
"Sorry," Kaede rushed to lower it, almost losing her balance on the pool's edge in the process. Only a last second hold on his shoulders kept her from falling in, though the sudden pressure on his injury forced Pascal to clench his teeth as he tried to conceal a pained groan.
"Ah! Sorry I didn't mean to do that!"
"You know -- this would be easier if you just came into the water with me. There is room."
"Yes, I'm sure you would love that..." She rolled her eyes, before she realized that he could see the disorientation of her sight.
"My eyes are still blind, in case you forgot," Pascal turned his blindfolded face towards her as a reminder. "I only see what you see -- which is honestly rather weird when I'm looking at my own naked self."
Kaede sighed as she sat up and straightened her back. He does have a point, she thought with a frown.
...And why am I being so sensitive about this? If this was back in Japan, we'd just be two guys in a public bath.
Of course, it was hard to forget the reason: she wasn't a 'guy' anymore. If nothing else, the strenuous work would probably be easier if she still was.
"Fine," Kaede conceded at last.
She started to unbutton her pseudo-uniform jacket before she remembered:
"Marina, could you please cut new bandages from that roll on the dresser? Use the same sizes as the ones I just took off. Just leave them on a chair by the door when you finish. And also please wash his clothes."
"As you wish, Milady." The maid teased one last time before closing the door, leaving the two in private.
"Cut the link," Kaede then turned to Pascal. "I have to look at myself when I undress. No staring."
Her master gave an exasperated sigh.
"I have seen you naked before..."
"Just, do it!"
"Fine, fine." Pascal begrudgingly agreed, though Kaede had no means of making certain.
"You could try asking nicely at least, like how you asked your maid."
"She didn't turn me into a girl, which I'm reminded of every time I undress." Kaede snapped back as she pulled off her skirt and threw it onto a pile atop the nearby chair. She then reaching behind her neck, her fingers fumbling to untie the knot that held up her undergarment's halter top.
"When are you going to let that go?"
"When I'm back..." She uttered before her lips froze.
She had wanted to say back in my old world and body. Though at this point, she wasn't even sure if that would ever happen. Especially if what Lady Gwendolyn's comment was true, and that another Worldwalker hijacked Pascal's familiar summoning spell for reasons unknown.
What if I can never go back?
Leaning over the pool, Kaede examined at her naked reflection. A petite girl's face and body stared back at her , complete with delicate features, thin shoulders, and small breasts.
That was her now. That was her life now. Everything before -- everything she once remembered -- was gone, lost to her in this new world.
A droplet fell into the water and sent out ripples to disturb the image. The tears had slid down from her eyes before she even noticed them.
"I am sorry Kaede. I should not have brought it up again," Pascal's voice was solemn this time, without even a trace of the playfulness it held earlier. "And you have every reason to still hate me for it."
"I don't..." She wiped her eyes as her legs stepped into the pool. "I don't hate you for it, alright? I don't even blame you for it much anymore. I just... haven't quite gotten over it yet."
"And..." her wispy voice dropped to a bare whisper. "I don't know if I ever will. It's hard to just 'let it go' when I lost everything in my life and had it reset."
"Yes." He acknowledged. "I understand. Again, I am sorry."
Exhaling a deep breath, Kaede sat down besides him and pulled his legs onto her lap. She wanted to resume his bath, to at least keep moving with her new life and take her mind off what cannot be helped.
...Just like she had been doing all this time.
------ * * * ------
Kaede's consciousness awoke. Her eyes fluttered and opened to the dark room, lit by only the bright moonlight filtering in through the curtains. Her senses returned to her body as her mind rebooted itself, sorting out the information from her surroundings.
She could feel movement. The comforter pulled and the mattress below her shifted. She could no longer feel Pascal next to her...
Sitting up, she quickly noticed Pascal's dark figure on the edge of the bed. He was trying to use the chamber pot, and -- not for the first time -- he was having difficulty doing so.
"Wait... let me help."
Pushing herself out from the covers, Kaede shivered as she stood up in the room's colder air. Walking around the bed, she soon helped to steady Pascal before pulling the small chamber pot on the bedside chair closer to his private parts.
At least I didn't have to help with his pajamas this time, she thought with a yawn. His motor skills were definitely recovering.
Her hand kept the chamber pot tilted until the sound of his pee hitting water stopped.
"Sorry for waking you," she heard Pascal mumble. "I thought I could manage by myself this time."
"It's my job to help take care of you right now," Kaede rubbed his shoulder as she replied. "You don't need to feel ashamed about it."
"I doubt there is a man who does not feel shame when he can only answer nature's call with help," his figure shook as he pulled up his pajama pants once more.
That's... probably true. Especially for one as prideful as him, Kaede thought, before pushing the chamber pot back into its spot against the chair's back.
She then helped tuck Pascal in, before rushing back to her side and snuggling between the warm sheets once more.
The two of them did not speak any further. Though as Kaede twisted and turned with time's passing, she realized that she couldn't go back to sleep.
She had rushed back to bed not just because it was cold, but because the darkness disquieted her. The odd shadows caused by the curtains' wrinkles, the pitch blackness in the room's corners, they reminded her of images that she desperately wanted to forget:
The haunting memories of Glywysing's battlefield, with its blackened fields and burnt tree husks and carts of mangled bodies.
She could almost see the shadowy outlines of disintegrated soldiers engraved into the room's walls, or the piles of blackened flesh and bones haphazardly piled into corpse wagons in the dressing mirror.
Even closing her eyes did not help, as images of that day replayed itself in her mind's eye over and over again.
"Pascal?" Kaede whispered as she pulled the covers higher and squirmed closer to him. Maybe, like her, he was also still awake.
Her guess proved correct as he responded:
Though now she had his attention, she wasn't really sure what to say.
She hadn't approached him at all about what he did on the Lotharin left flank that day. It seemed, inappropriate, to confront a severely-wounded patient about it.
However, Kaede also knew that they had to have a proper discussion about it. She needed that conversation. They needed it.
Just... not tonight.
She snuggled up to his side and pulled the comforter over her head. Her hands took his and clasped around it, as though seeking proof that he was still there.
"Next time, please, talk to me first, before you put any knowledge I gave you into action."
She felt that would be enough for one night. That should be enough for tonight.
For a minute, Pascal didn't say anything. Then, her hand felt felt the squeeze as his fingers closed around hers.
"You have my promise."
Kaede nodded against his shoulders in a silent thank you.
At last, with his warmth as her shelter, she began drifting off to sleep.
She never heard his quiet mutter half an hour later, or noticed that Pascal still laid awake and brooding in the darkness.
"The responsibility is mine, Kaede. I am sorry to have burdened you with my failure."
------ * * * ------
On the same night, in the Caliphate camp south of the Gwilen River, the Marid Hakim sat next to his partner's bed as he held onto an ailing hand.
General Salim was almost bald as his hair shed over the course of the past week. His skin was sloughing off in chunks, exposing unsightly 'burns' and blisters all over his body. Three ulcers had popped around his lips, leaving gaping sores that added to the nonstop bleeding from his nose. The entire tent smelled of vomit and diarrhea, as Hakim had lost track of how many times Salim's bed had to be cleansed with magic.
The healers had all given up, despite Hakim's offers of reward which included an entire lifetime's accumulated wealth. "His organs are beginning to fail," they had declared earlier.
Perhaps if the General had returned from the Ceredigion forests faster, they might have had a chance. But Salim wanted to make sure that the remnants of his cavalry made it back out, and for that he lost any hope of saving his own life. Since then, his condition had rapidly deteriorated. Even his breathing was now unnatural: it almost sounded like he was drowning from a lack of breath, which was not far from the truth as his lungs began filling with his own blood and fluids.
The Marid squeezed the hand of his partner. They've been together for over forty years, standing together day after day. From the courthouse to the battlefield, from the southern steppes of Eurypha to the northwestern forests of Hyperion, the two of them had spent more time together than Salim did with even all of his wives combined.
They were the truest of brothers, and a crystal blue tear of magic-infused water slid from the Marid's eyes as he watched his partner die a most agonizing death, helpless to do anything about it.
"Hakim..." the General coughed out one last breath. "Please... take care... our men."
The sacrifice of ten thousand troops as the rear guard had purchased enough time. Twenty-seven thousand Caliphate soldiers withdrew south of the Gwilen River this morning and destroyed the bridges behind them. Nearly two-thirds of the men were logistical troops with little actual combat strength. However, by keeping up an illusion of General Salim alive and in the saddle, they forced the exhausted Lotharins to act cautiously and forfeit their narrow window to give chase.
Barely holding his composure together, Hakim vowed as the light slowly faded from the General's gaze. His hand trembled as he gripped his partner's fingers, realizing that their limp state meant that Salim had just passed away.
The past three weeks had cost the Caliphate nearly seventy thousand soldiers on this war front alone. But even the sum of all those lives could not compare to the loss of his longtime companion. Baha ad-Din Salim ibn Ziyad was not just another 'statistic'. He was not just another faceless name lost in the lengthy casualty reports.
No, he was the dearest of friends, and Hakim would never be able to forget it.
"I swear... I will see our army back to the Caliphate. I will see it rebuilt."
He vowed to himself, to his partner's ascending soul, to the Prophet and to God himself.
"And I will have revenge upon these infidels."