Art by Juan Ochoa.
From the author: Bond-Pilot Leyna Raskin has the mundane task of watching the flank of her regiment's march to Fort Rigour. But war is full of the unexpected, and simple duties can get complicated fast...
Watch the Flank
by Thomas Parrott
(Thank you to Jennie R. and Daniel S. for editorial notes)
It was late afternoon on a crisp autumn day. The sky was clear and sunlight slanted down between the trunks of the trees. The leaves had turned, painting the forest in brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow. Raw magic crystalised from the saturated air, dusting the leaves with tiny aether crystals. Bond-Pilot Leyna Raskin stayed resolutely facing the setting sun for a moment more. As long as she didn’t turn around, she could almost convince herself she was just out on a woodland stroll, enjoying the beautiful weather.
There were flaws in this illusion. For one thing, there were no forests like this anywhere near the hamlet of Toien where she’d grown up. Acres of cultivated fields and orchards, but nothing so wild and untamed. Homesickness stirred in her chest at the thought of those golden fields. Toien was far to the north. They were down near the border here, at the edge of human habitation.
‘It ain’t Elphyne, but you can see it from there,’ Master Runesmith Felder had said before they set out.
The other thing that ruined the illusion, of course, was her perspective. Leyna saw it all from twenty feet up. Many of the ancient trees still towered over her, but it was not the scale a mere human would have faced. She was the soul-bonded pilot to a Stormcaller giganphract, a towering aetheric warmachine. Each phract was composed of three key components: a frame, a bound spirit, and a pilot. Stormcallers in particular were light frames bound to lightning elementals, built for speed and used for reconnaissance.
Leyna sometimes wondered if the spirit that connected her to her machine and served as its engines had a name of its own. If it did, she doubtless wouldn’t have been able to pronounce it. She thought of it, and thus the giganphract, as Jolt.
‘See anything, BP?’ called a voice from nearby. The last of the illusion dissolved.
Leyna smirked a little bit. ‘Trees, Lieutenant. A truly astounding quantity of trees.’
The phract responded to her thoughts and movements. She turned to face the speaker. Right now the connection was that of a puppet and marionette. She was still aware of her flesh body hanging in the control harness; sustaining higher levels of the bond could be exhausting for a pilot.
Lieutenant Tobias Weaver leaned on his flame lance as though it was nothing more than a walking staff. The weapon’s crimson stood out sharply against the blue of his coat. Though they’d been on the march for two weeks now, his chin was immaculate and his mustache was perfectly waxed. He was not a small man, but his head didn’t come up to Jolt’s knee.
‘Trees, you say? Invaluable report, Bond-Pilot. I’ll include a commendation in my after-action write-up.’ His tone was dry, but a wink took any sting from the words.
Weaver’s platoon was guarding the flank of the regiment’s march, and Leyna had been detached from her own thunder of four phracts to accompany them. She didn’t mind, truthfully. It was more interesting than slowly trudging at the speed of the foot with the main body.
Not that it was free of frustration.
‘“Watch the flank”, the colonel told us. Watch it for what? We’re a hundred miles from Fort Rigour and that will be a hundred miles from the front.”
‘Expect the unexpected,’ he said lightly. ‘The moment the general staff decides we’re safe and doesn’t set pickets, that’s when it all goes to hell.’
She took a deep breath and released it. All of her sounds took on a metallic quality when translated through the phract’s voicebox. It made the sigh a harsh rasp. ‘I know. I just didn’t sign up to serve as a forester.’
‘Funny thing,’ he replied. ‘I heard there was talk of using phracts for logging before the war broke out.’
Leyna reached out and pushed on the trunk of one of the nearby trees until she could hear the wood groan. ‘Seems an unfair fight, if I’m to be honest.’
‘Is that all you think they’re good for? Fighting?’ He sounded genuinely curious.
Leyna glanced back towards where the main column would be. You could see the dust of their march up the dirt road even this far out. ‘No. I suppose not. You could use a phract for all sorts of things, sure. But who would dedicate themselves to the bond just to play lumberjack?’
‘Is it painful? I heard it was,’ Weaver asked.
‘The initial binding, perhaps. Now? No,’ Leyna replied.
She closed her eyes. She didn’t have to -- as long as she was in the creche, Jolt was always there. It was as much a part of her now as the nose on her face. An alien presence at the back of her mind. There were no thoughts she could make out. It had emotions she could feel, but she couldn’t make sense of them. Impatience, sometimes. Eagerness before a fight. She learned to push it aside.
‘No,’ she repeated. ‘Not painful. Just odd. When you are piloting, you are never alone. The rest of the time, you are never complete.’
He nodded quietly. His face was turned away from her, invisible from this angle. What did he make of such a strangeness, she wondered? Certainly the bonded pilotry were a group apart socially from the other armed services. Old prejudices about creatures of the spirit world -- and those touched by them -- died hard. Walking into a military bar in a pilot’s whites tended to stop conversation. They were at once elite and unwelcome.
‘We should move ahead,’ he said.
‘Of course. Need a lift back to your platoon?’
Weaver winced theatrically but nodded. ‘If you would be so kind, BP.’
Leyna had Jolt drop to one knee. The lieutenant climbed up onto the phract’s back. She stood carefully as he got himself situated with a firm grip.
‘As I’ll ever be,’ Weaver replied.
Leyna set off through the forest. The constant low electrical hum Jolt produced rose to a sizzle as she picked up speed. It felt like the beat of her own heart, an electrical pulse, steady and strong. Weaver had told her once that there was nothing so terrifying to foot soldiers as a phract on the run. It seemed impossible for something so big to be so graceful and swift. She could have run faster yet unencumbered, but she took care to weave among the trees so that the lieutenant wouldn’t be swatted off of her by a wayward branch.
She noticed the fog when they were halfway back to where the lance platoon should be. It had been too subtle to catch her eye at first but soon it was rolling around Jolt’s knees. She pulled up and rested a hand on a nearby aspen, frowning as she looked around.
‘I see it,’ Weaver said grimly.
He pulled a capsule from a pouch on his bandolier and tossed it out. It ignited in mid-air, burning a brilliant blue as it sank into the murk.
‘Aetheric surge. This isn’t nat-’
A tendril whipped out and snatched Leyna’s legs out from beneath her. All that magical grace vanished and she fell like what she was: tons of metal and wood. She had just the presence of mind to twist as she fell. It kept her from crushing the lieutenant, but he was still hurled free from her back and tumbled off through the underbrush.
She hit the ground hard and winced. The pain came through as alloy plates buckled, felt only distantly. Jolt’s presence was hot and sharp in her mind. Her true body had been flung against the straps of the harness. It left her ribs aching, her breath burning in her chest. Her bonded elemental’s fury made the creche stink like ozone. Her legs were bound by whatever had snatched them. She couldn’t make it out clearly in the fog, but it was no match for her phract’s strength. She tore it with a snarl and a surge and began to clamber back to her feet.
It was time. Leyna immersed in the bond. All sense of herself as separate from her phract fell away. Flesh, bone, wood, and steel were one.
Dark shapes blurred through the murk and smashed at her before she was up. They struck with tremendous impact. Sparks flew where each one hit armour plating. She threw an arm across her face in instinctive defence. One thudded into the wooden plating under her wrist. The pain was instant and jagged, a knife through her flesh. The suffering of the elemental spirit transferred across their bond.
Leyna looked at the offending spot and saw what these weapons were: immense thorns, fired like a cannonade. She grabbed it with her other hand and yanked it free with a hiss and swept the area with her gaze. There was an enemy here somewhere and she had to find them. She pulled a javelin from her phract’s quiver to be ready.
There, a shadow in the murk, as big as-
It was pure luck that she saw another one of the tendrils lashing in towards her before it struck. She lunged with the speed that was her frame’s hallmark, nailing it to the ground before it could impact on her. It was a vine, an impossible growth thicker than a person’s torso. It writhed around the javelin’s sharp tip like a serpent, still trying to get at her. She yanked the weapon free and crushed the creeper into pulp beneath a metal heel.
‘Leyna,’ rasped Weaver.
She spared him a quick glance. He stood nearby, leaned up against a tree. He was a mess from where he’d been thrown. Bleeding from a dozen scrapes, his arm clearly broken. Lucky to be alive. She couldn’t afford him any more attention than that.
‘You need to go, sir.’
‘I can’t just leave you to an unknown-’
‘It’s a phract or the equivalent. I caught a glimpse of it. You’re hurt, and no use to me alone anyways. Get back to your company, ready them, and make sure the regiment knows.’
Weaver outranked her, but he was smart enough not to make an issue of it in a bad moment. Instead he nodded and straightened. ‘Guts and glory, BP.’
‘Guts and glory, sir.’
He loped off into the distance. Limping. She put it from her mind. Another duty beckoned. Leyna raised her javelin high and concentrated. Jolt’s power surged in response. It built from a whine to a howl. Sudden brilliance. A bolt leapt from the tip of the javelin up into the sky, a reversed lightning strike. Visible for miles, with thunder to follow. The Stormcaller line was aptly named.
The regiment would see that. They’d know something had gone wrong, at least. Now she could abandon all thought but engaging her foe. She focused on the hunt completely, stepping off amidst the trees. Standing still would play into the enemy’s hands. She’d caught a glimpse, but she needed more than that if she was going to stand a chance.
Another barrage of thorns. She heard them before they struck this time, the rapid thudding. Leyna sped up to evade them. Trees splintered and buckled around her as they struck home. One glanced over her shoulder and knocked it off kilter for a brief second. She staggered, recovered.
There, the direction the attack had come from. That shape again, tall and spindly. Leyna didn’t hesitate. She hurled the javelin with all the artificial might of her phract. It was lost in the fog as quickly as she’d thrown it, but she could feel the metal with Jolt’s alien senses. She stretched a hand forth and bore down.
A sizzling torrent of energy erupted forth. It spidered among the trees, leaving a dozen smoldering fires in its wake. The blast honed in on where the javelin had landed and concentrated on that point. It flowed down the conducting rod in the center and lit up the object it had lodged in like a spotlight.
It was a gangling assembly of wood, several feet taller than her own phract. There was wood in Jolt’s frame, but this was different. This thing seemed alive. Leaves and flowers sprouted from it, and vivid green creepers crawled along its surface like bindings.
The javelin was lodged in its thigh and the arcing electricity had ignited the wood all around the impact point. The enemy phract screamed, a shrill cry of pain. It reached down with grasping hands and yanked the offending weapon loose. Stray coils of power scorched its fingers in the process.
Leyna didn’t waste her time watching. She had no intention of letting this foe escape into the fog to trouble her once more. She sprinted to close the distance. She hurled another javelin as she ran. This time the enemy was ready. It jerked aside, narrowly avoiding the hurtling missile, and responded with a new volley of its own thorns. They erupted from spiny surfaces on its shoulders.
Leyna plowed through the assault like heavy rain. Pain spiked as a few lodged in her frame, but she disregarded it. Instead she drew her axe as she ran. A ten foot haft of copper-cored alloy ending in a deadly wedge blade. It channeled the lightning of the Stormcaller frame. Sinuous arcs were already crawling on it as she charged.
The tree-like entity had begun to back away, a desperate attempt to disengage. Too little, too late. She closed the gap in a matter of seconds. She brought the axe around in a hissing arc. Now it was her foe’s turn to throw up its arms in a desperate last-second defense. The blade sank home with a splintering crash.
The left forearm was all but severed by the impact. Leyna tore the blade free with a twist. Quarts of thick golden sap spurted out like too-thick blood. It spattered across the ground in resinous clumps. The enemy wailed again in clear agony. She didn’t give it a chance to recover, kicking it hard in the chest. It staggered backwards into a nearby tree with a crash and splintering of branches. A blizzard of red and gold leaves erupted.
Even amidst the swirling leaves, it was the clearest look she’d got at her foe. It was less humanoid -- there was nothing easily identified as a face. It was taller, head and shoulders taller than Jolt, but gaunt. There was scarcely a body to it, all spindly limbs. If there was a pilot she had no idea where they were creched.
Leyna dismissed her curiosity. She could examine this thing when it was dead. She stepped forward to finish the job. Seed pods shot out before she could. Unlike the bladed burrs of earlier, these weren’t aimed at her. Instead they latched onto nearby trees. The life they connected to withered visibly. In the next instant they sprouted. The coiling vines of earlier lashed forth with serpentine speed.
Two coiled around each of her arms and legs. Unlike the single assaults of earlier, this was plenty to lock her in place. She strained against the constraint but the creepers just tightened in response. Jolt screamed, a howl that clawed through her mind. If there was one thing the lightning spirit hated, it was confinement.
The foe had clearly decided that discretion was the better part of valour. It did nothing to continue the assault. Instead, it staggered away from her to seek sanctuary in the fog that still roiled all around them. Fury at the sight ignited in Leyna’s chest, a match for the rage her bonded spirit felt.
‘How dare you turn your back on me, coward!’.
Leyna’s amplified voice echoed among the trees like thunder. Her enemy hesitated and glanced back.
The power coils of the Stormcaller were already keening from her efforts to free herself. The shared wrath between Leyna and her spirit drove them to new heights. A lightning elemental possessed many powers, but they were dangerous to use. Hard to contain. The javelins, the sockets on the axe, these allowed them to be channeled safely.
If a pilot wasn’t concerned with safety…
Arcs of electricity spread from the coils on her back to writhe across her entire frame. They scored her armor and filled the creche with clouds of smoke. It hurt, like hot sun on burned skin. She ignored it all and demanded more power, more fury. The vines holding her ignited under the onslaught, cooking off with hisses and pops. She tore free of their blackening husks with a triumphant cry.
The enemy turned to run.
‘Too late,’ Leyna snarled.
She surged across the distance between them and planted her axe directly into its back. It cried out and stumbled. She twisted the weapon free with a splintering of wood and struck again. The enemy fell with a terrible crash that shook the ground. Leyna planted a boot on its back and raised her blade to finish the job. It came down with a final thud. A brilliant flash dazzled her eyes as the aether left in her foe boiled off all at once.
Jolt was screaming at the back of her mind. It barely penetrated the red haze of her rage. A warning-
The blow caught her square in the back. It struck with cataclysmic force. Leyna was tumbling across the ground before she knew what was happening. She fetched up against a tree swiftly, the impact knocking it over with a great crash. Pain screamed at her from multiple angles. Some of it was so sharp it must have been her true body; a dislocated shoulder, she guessed.
Leyna raised her head, clumps of mud falling from the steel plating. Another of these odd tree-beings stood there. Enemy reinforcements. They hadn’t arrived in time to save their comrade, but there was plenty of time to avenge them. This one was different. If the first had been a willow, this was a towering pine. It must have been twice as tall as her Stormcaller.
It was armed for melee. In one hand, a mighty cudgel with a twisted, thorny knot at the end. In the other a great oval shield. It rapped the former against the latter as she lay there.
Then it spoke. ‘Eichir agara bàsch air do casain, sradag.’
There was no doubting it now. That was the tongue of the Faer, though she did not understand it. They had come north of the border for unknown purposes. If they had decided to enter the war…
Leyna pushed herself warily to her hands and knees. The weight of her phract dug great rents in the earth as she did so. The faerin let her rise back to her feet with what seemed an air of cold contempt. Some sense of strange honor? How did one judge inhuman motivations? It even waited until Leyna had picked up her axe. Then it gestured with its cudgel, a clear “come on then” motion even across linguistic barriers.
Leyna shifted to a two handed grip, holding the blade of her axe between the two of them. She circled cautiously and it turned with her, keeping her in front of it. She feinted to the left, but all her foe reacted she might as well have been menacing a statue. It just watched her, apparently unconcerned, allowing her to make the first move.
Gritting her teeth, Leyna lunged in earnest. Now her foe reacted. The shield was there in the blink of an eye, knocking her blow aside. The force of the block alone sent her staggering backwards. Low, hissing laughter echoed around her, as if trapped and amplified by the fog.
She recovered and narrowed her eyes. Resentful anger burned in her chest. Leyna shifted the axe to her right hand and drew a javelin with her left. A few more tense seconds of circling and she hurled it with all her might. She didn’t wait for impact. Instead she darted around and to the side to strike at its flank.
Leyna got past the defenses this time. The axe blade sank into the bark-and-lichen covered thigh with a resounding crunch. It lodged there and she spent a desperate second she didn’t have struggling to free it. Her foe had caught the javelin on its shield, and it came around with the club in a backswing-
The world went white and then black.
The shock of smashing into a tree snatched Leyna back into consciousness. She screamed in agony. Her perception was split in a migraine-inducing fashion. The bond between her and Jolt was fraying under the severe damage the frame had taken. In half her mind, she was hanging in the dark of the creche, battered and bruised at best. In the other half she was still part of the war machine, though she could only see out of one eye now.
The rut dug by her tumbling frame was strewn with debris. Her axe was out of sight. A questing hand discovered that the left side of her giganphract’s helmet-head was staved in completely. Leyna tried to push herself up with her other arm, but it wouldn’t respond.
‘Come on, Jolt! Come on, dammit!’
She gritted her teeth against the agony and focused her will. Grudgingly the limb started to move. She dug aether-powered fingers into the dirt to try and force herself up.
A shadow fell across her.
She looked up in time to see the cudgel already coming down. The first blow shattered her arm at the elbow. Leyna screamed again and thrashed against the harness, Jolt’s agony coming through their bond loud and clear. The faerin gave her knee the same treatment a heartbeat later. The joint bent the wrong way with a crisp snap.
Leyna blacked out again. It was the weight of her foe’s foot on her chest that brought her around this time. She didn’t feel it. She heard the groan of the creche walls straining under the pressure. The bond was fully broken. All she could do was hang in the darkness and wait for the end.
There was a sound in the distance. Thunder. Like a storm rolling in.
Her consciousness ebbed. The world faded once more.
The ceiling above her was stone painted white. Her entire body ached like one massive bruise, but the pain was distant. Her mouth felt dry as a desert. Her mind, at least, felt clear.
She was laying in a bed. Leyna turned her head to the right. The movement felt like it took minutes to complete. A table was laid out next to her, with a series of focus crystals on it. Amethyst, quartz, turquoise. They were aether-infused, lending them an unearthly internal glow. Healing, and extensive at that. She must have been hurt badly.
She began the laborious process of turning her head the other way. The room was small, the walls as white as the ceiling. A door was set into the wall. A woman sat in a chair beside her bed. She was dark-skinned and wearing the black pants and white jacket of a phract pilot. A white beret was perched on her shaved head. Her bond-marks were subtle; earth elementals were rarely as flashy as their kin. All that showed was glittering specks across her skin, like mica in a handful of rich soil. She was sound asleep, slumped low in the seat.
Leyna knew her. The name was worrisomely slow in coming. Thunder-Lieutenant… Gina Jameson. Yes. That was it. Leyna’s immediate superior. She must know how badly wounded Leyna was.
Leyna would call out. As simple as that. She took a deep breath and licked numb lips.
‘Hrhgghrh,’ she said.
Lt. Jameson startled. Her beret slid off to the side as she looked around wildly. Her slate grey eyes settled on Leyna and she took a deep breath.
‘Gods above, Raskin, you scared me.’ Jameson collected her beret and gave her subordinate a smile. ‘Good to see you awake, though.’
Another raspy croak was all the response Leyna could manage.
‘Ah right,’ Jameson said. ‘The physicks said you’d be about a raisin when you woke up.’
She got a canteen from her belt and leaned forward to gently provide Leyna with sips of water. Leyna gratefully accepted. The drips and drops might as well have been the ambrosia of the gods.
‘You got lucky,’ Jameson continued while Leyna drank. ‘The thunder saw your signal and set off towards you right away. So we arrived just in time to keep you from being turned to raspberry jam.’
‘Jolt?’ Leyna managed to ask. Her voice was still creaky and hoarse.
Jameson rolled her eyes. ‘Yes, you’re welcome for saving your life. Anyway, your phract was retrieved along with you. I’m told the Runesmiths think it can be fully repaired. The physicks said the same thing about you. Given time, hopefully a full recovery on both fronts.’
The lieutenant knocked on the wood of the bed quickly. A superstition, Leyna would have thought before. She had fought faer yesterday, though. Who knew?
‘The enemy?’ she asked.
‘They withdrew when we arrived. We haven’t heard anything from them since.’
‘Never seen phracts like that,’ Leyna said.
‘I’m not sure phracts are exactly what they were. Something similar, maybe, but we brought the one you killed back here. The smiths are puzzling over it. It was living wood with no pilot.’
Jameson nodded. ‘He made it back safe. More intact than you were by the end of it.’
The lieutenant was staring at her with dark eyes. Leyna met them uneasily.
‘Pilot Raskin… why didn’t you fall back?’
Leyna blinked. She thought back to the battle. It was a blur for the most part.
‘Had to cover Weaver’s escape,’ she offered.
‘Sure,’ allowed the lieutenant. ‘I get that at first. But from what we can tell, you tried to take on an enemy well outside your capability after he was long gone. Why? You’re recon, pilot. Not a phract destroyer.’
Leyna shifted uneasily. She tried to hide her discomfort by taking another gulp of water. She could think of reasons, but she was applying them after the fact. In truth, it had simply never occurred to her to flee in the moment.
‘I don’t know,’ she admitted finally.
Jameson nodded slowly. She capped the canteen and sat back slowly, crossing her legs with a frown. ‘I appreciate your honesty. Lightning spirits can be… impetuous. Reckless. The bond is supposed to leave us in control, but...’
‘It was my fault, TL, not-’
Jameson stopped her with a raised hand. ‘You’re a fighter, Leyna. You’ve got that fire. You don’t have any quit in you. I see it in your face every time we train. I’m not blaming your bondmate. I’m concerned what happens when a pilot is a little too similar to their spirit.’ Her face was stern. ‘We’re soldiers, Raskin. I don’t need berserkers in my outfit. That gets my people killed.’
Leyna dropped her eyes. ‘Yes, ma’am.’
Jameson sighed and scrubbed a hand over her face. ‘We’ll talk about this more when you’re back on your feet. For n-’
The door opened. Bond-Pilot Adams stood in the doorway. His expression was grim.
‘Apologies for interrupting, lieutenant. All commanders are to report to the council chamber.’
‘What happened?’ asked Jameson.
‘Recon elements have reported in from near the border. The faer have crossed again. They’re headed this way.’ His eyes were dark with worry.
‘And this time, they’re coming in force.’