Captain Favion Mageson surveyed the chaos and had the same thought as he had probably had hundreds of times in the last few months – the most frustrating part of being in command was not being able to do everything himself. Instead of telling the wizards how lead their shots, he wanted to just pick up a gun and shoot the enemy, but if he did that, he wouldn’t be available to yell at the wizards who were using their swords wrong.
The truth was, his wizards were not prepared for a real battle and now was no time for training. Not when they had their back to a hillside outside the city of Gorida. The wizards fighting green pincerlings on the left flank couldn’t manage to fire their guns accurately while the wizards on the right flank kept getting their swords stuck between the armor plates of yellow pincerlings. Favion wished he would have trained some of the wizards to use hammers and maces to crack the pincerling armor, but he hadn’t expected to be fighting them without support of the regular army. Many of the wizards were resorting to magic. So far, three of them had overextended themselves and turned to pincerlings. Favion had put them down personally. He considered that his duty as their captain. That was three lives that had been spent on this pointless mission to save a single person – Captain Mira Kit, daughter of General Kit. Favion was determined that no more lives would be lost in this pursuit.
Fortunately, there were a few wizards who looked like the training had meant something to them. Acolyte Rekler was among a small group that that were actually able to fire their guns accurately. They were the only thing keeping the greens at bay. And Captain Jethrey was surprisingly good with her sword, although, as a captain, she should have been commanding and Favion would have to talk to her about that later. He needed her support in order to command more effectively… In fact, he needed her right now.
“Tell Jethrey to disengage and report to me,” he commanded Acolyte Sunney.
“Yes, Captain Mageson,”
A few minutes later, Jethrey jogged to his position. She had no sword. Hers had gotten stuck between pincerling scales. Fortunately, they brought plenty of spares.
“I’m here, Mageson. What do you need?” she said.
“We’ve got to change tactics,” Favion said waving at the battlefield. “This looks nothing like the stealthy entrance through the side gate we planned. This is a full-on battle and we’re grossly outnumbered.”
“Did you have something in mind?”
“Gorida has hundreds of underground bunkers. I want to tunnel into one of those,” Favion said.
“That sounds like a good idea, but how do you intend to do it?”
Favion fiddled with the clasp on his sword hilt. He didn’t want to say what he was about to say. “We need to use magic.”
Jethrey raised her eyebrows. “You… you’re encouraging us to use magic?”
“You know I hate it, but what we’re doing isn’t working. I’ve still got forty-seven living wizards. If I have to shorten the lifespan of one to save the rest, I’m going to do it,” Favion said. He hesitated before adding hopefully, “Unless you have another option.”
“I don’t see any.”
Favion sighed. “I remember hearing about some kind of tunneling spell.”
Jethrey nodded. “It’s not really tunneling, but we can make things temporarily intangible. You know, so we can just walk straight through it.” Jethrey said. “It’s not a quick or easy spell, and walking through solid ground will be decidedly unnerving.”
“I don’t care how unnerving it is. We’ve got to move. How long will it take your wizards to complete the spell?”
“Maybe ten minutes,” Jethrey said. “I’ll do it myself, but I need to know exactly where I’m going before I use it.”
“Not you. Have another wizard do it.”
“This is too complicated for any of these slackers. I’ll do it.”
Favion shrugged his shoulders. “Sunney!” he yelled at his runner, “Grab the maps and set me a route to the nearest bunker!”
“Yes, Captain Mageson,” Sunney said as he pulled a tube from the side of his pack.
Favion ordered his men to fall into a defensive formation. The wizards didn’t execute very well, but luckily, they were just fighting pincerlings, not a real army. During the wait, there were a few close calls and another wizard overextended herself while summoning an enormous block of ice which she dropped on the enemy. Favion begrudgingly admitted that it was a worthy sacrifice. The spell simultaneously cracked the shells of dozens of pincerlings and created a difficult barrier for them to cross, giving the company some breathing room while Jethrey’s spell completed. Finally, it was ready.
“On my command, everyone gather to me,” Favion shouted. He paused, then yelled, “Go!”
While the forty-six surviving wizards rushed to him, Captain Jethrey released her spell, which was sadly invisible, but Favion followed her and Sunney as they walked straight into the hillside. The company followed him. As soon as they were underground, the world became dark – not dark like a moonless night, but a complete, utter lack of light. Everyone needed to grab hands or the clothing of those around them as they stumbled forward in clumps. Many shouts of “Wait for me!” echoed in the cramped space. Every step was blind. Favion bumped into the wall several times and from the sound of it, so did everyone else.
“So, I wouldn’t normally suggest using magic for something swords and bullets can do,” Favion said, “but I could see using this spell to take the ground out from under the enemy. You could bury them while you kill them. It’s so efficient.”
“Nah, it takes too long to use,” Jethrey told him in a strained voice. “There’s more to it than that, but I’ll explain when I’m not shoving the matter around us into the space between universes.”
Favion let the subject drop so Jethrey could focus on what she was doing. In fact, he soon wished he hadn’t of thought of it at all because the more he did, the more he realized that it could happen to them. What if Sunney was leading them the wrong way? It would be easy to veer off course in this choking darkness. They might have already passed the bunker they were aiming for and by the time they realized it, it would be too late. Jethrey would lose control of her spell and they’d be stuck underground with their lungs full of dirt.
He needed to think of something else to keep the panic at bay. This was not how he wanted to die – walking blindly through a fog of dirt while someone behind him kicked his feet every time he slowed or stumbled. He probably wouldn’t even know when the moment was coming. He’d just be walking and suddenly, he’d be dirt.
“Stop thinking about it,” he whispered to himself. “Stop. Stop. Stop.”
Jethrey said something, but he was too busy mumbling to hear it.
“What did you say?” Favion asked.
“I said, we’re here,” Jethrey repeated.
Favion stumbled out of the darkness into blinding light. He had to cover his eyes with his hand. The exclamations and swears of the people bumping into his backside told him that they were similarly blinded.
“Who are you?” someone asked. Favion uncovered his eyes to squint at the speaker. It was a mustachioed man standing in what looked like a cage. Favion looked around the room and saw that all of the several dozen occupants were in their own individual cages.
“Is this a prison?” Favion asked, “Why are you all locked up?”
“We’re not locked up,” the man said. “We’re just keeping ourselves separate in case any of us spontaneously transforms into a pincerling,” he explained in a gruff voice. “Like your friend is doing right there.”
Favion turned to his right and saw that Captain Jethrey now had claws for hands and her skin was a shade of vibrant pink. Armor scales were growing slowly from her exposed arms and neck, but her face was still her own. She looked down at her changing body with a kind of fascination.
“I always knew I’d be a powerful pincerling when I turned,” she said. “This is the other reason we don’t use that spell in battle. Odds are good the wizard will transform afterwards.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, you better kill me quickly. If I complete the transformation, those cages won’t protect anyone.”
Favion cursed as he unsheathed his sword. How had he convinced himself that magic was a good solution to anything? Not only that – how had he allowed himself to think of Jethrey as a friend. He had known she was a wizard and he would have to kill her someday. It was like his dad used to tell him, if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’ll end up repeating them over and over.