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We crawled out of the trench, dirty, disheveled, bewildered. As we crawled out, I half-wanted to turn around and ask Callan for the inhaler, for the air hung thick and powdery and my throat felt acid fire. But I didn’t dare, for at the moment our primary objective was to look for camp. The smell of blood entered the mixings with gunpowder, and I could see men who had been crushed, shot, or had limbs blasted off that had died during the conflict. 

Kain finally let out a yell, and up ahead we could see some light and we stumbled towards it a little quicker, and discovered some larger medical tents incoming, guarded by knots of soldiers. 

We had to step through a smaller medical tent for the more able-bodied soldiers and a woman tossed me a damp white rag. I took it and wiped my face, then was shocked at how blackened with dirt it had become. I looked up in a mirror, and though my face had been cleaned, I looked very different from the Ted I had been back at home. My hair even wilder, practically standing on end, my eyes wide and darting hither and thither, my serious expression. 

“I’m sorry for getting it dirty, ma’am.” I said to the woman who handed me the rag. She was an older woman. 

“It’s all right, dear. You’re not the first to get a rag dirty here, and certainly not the last.” she replied, gesturing to the other soldiers piling into the tent’s entrance. 

We were sent to the analysis tent, where Callan brought up my sudden asthma attack. A doctor with the surname of Watson gave me a second inhaler and told me to keep it with me at all times, just in case. The doctor then ordered us to strip down to our shorts to examine our bodies for signs of injury. He explained this process was due to a man that didn't report a strange infection in his leg from a bayonet attack that later killed him, and it was all because he had gotten so overstimulated from the battle that he stopped feeling the pain. After cleaning and bandaging our cuts and examining our bruises and determining them as normal, we would be allowed to leave. I was the first one to be examined, and I had to wait for Kain's checkup to finish and for Callan's to begin. 

As I did, I saw a battered looking Ace walk over. His hair was all a mess, and he had left his belt somewhere in the chaos, because his pants slouched a good deal, making him look thinner than he really was. 

"You okay, little guy?" Ace asked. I nodded and he grinned at me, scratching the back of his head absentmindedly. Kain walked out of the tent, looking a bit harassed, but otherwise fine.  

“Where’s your belt? You look like a stickbug that decided to wear a burlap bag for pants.” I said, using the gentle teasing sort of voice we took on. 

“I dunno, disappeared mid-fight. Reckon the enemy was so poor, he ripped it off to sell, neh?” Ace said. The smile had been wiped back on his face with that remark, and Callan emerged from the tent and immediately came to stand at my side. 

We found our way to a second checkpoint within camp, where one could turn in the uniform he had just worn for cleaning. Kain and I had neglected to get another set of clothes first, so we ended up running stark naked through the camp, dashing to the pool that a waterfall spilled into. Callan and Ace came after us, wearing only towels, laughing at us, and putting both their fresh uniforms and ours on the ground by the pool before joining us. 

“That water sure feels good.” Ace said. He waded out under a smaller fall that dumped a small jet of water onto his head, then spluttering, yelled “It’s like being baptized!” 

“Well amen!” I yelled, spluttering a bit myself. The water was good, cool, soothing. We heard a whoop and turned and saw John splashing in with us, and Hilbert sat on the edge, wearing only a pair of shorts.  

“Where Malcolm?” I yell out to them.

“He already went for a dip and he’s off eating.” John shouted back.  

“Don’t you lot miss home?” Kain asked. We turned, surprised. I didn’t expect Kain to be the first one to mention home. 

“I don’t really.” Hilbert said quietly. “Nothing for me there.” 

“Aw, heck I do.” Ace says. “There ain’t no girls around here. No Dragon-spit.” 

“Dragon-spit?” I ask. 

“It’s a kind of alcohol they made, real mild but it goes down your throat like fire, real good unless you sneeze a lot.” Ace said. “Got a lovely flavor to it too.” I was about to ask more about Dragon-spit, when John spoke up. 

“Wow Ted, I can see your scar real well.” John said, and all eyes were directed towards my left eye, where a lightning-bolt shaped scar crossed it. Of course, my hair was plastered back by water, so my scar had become very visible. 

“How you get that?” Kain asked. 

“Tending the fires in my old factory. Guy near me was slacking off and he accidentally scraped right across my eye with the sharp end of the poker. When I screamed, he accidentally added the other half of the bolt, panicking and trying to get it away from me. It never went away.” I said. 

“Did y’ cry?” Ace asked. 

“Me? Cry?” was my response. 

“Fine, did you scream?” 

“Hell I did scream. Louder than a lion can roar.” I said, smirking. “Could have woken up the people down the street with it.” 

“I really miss the folks back home.” Ace said suddenly, and I knew he had thought of the city and missed his hometown. 

“I miss my mom, and little brother.” I said. 

“You never said nothin’ bout a little brother.” Ace cut in. 

“Yeah, Cal and I got a little brother named Damien. Cute kid, very smart. A chip off the Alborn family block all right.” I said. 

“And we had an insufferable stepfather.” Callan said. At the memory of Bernard, I suddenly flashed back. I was eleven years old again, standing in the doorway of my bedroom and clad in pajamas while my mother suddenly entered with Bernard. The first time I saw him. I remember I had looked at him, then immediately run away and hid my head under the covers and moved a little closer to Callan and cried. 

I was suddenly brought back by water hitting my face, and the others looking at me, concerned. I did not realize I had zoned out for so long. 

“You all right, Ted?” Cal asked me, and I nodded. 

“Yeah, I was just thinking.” I said. Callan only had to look in my eyes to know. 

“Ted, I’m sorry for reminding you abou-” 

“Cal, it’s nothing.” I said, shooting him a grin. He was surprised for a moment, then he half-smiled back at me and squeezed my shoulder gently. With Callan, sometimes words were not needed at all.  

That night, we learned that we were heading to the city in the morning, and so many of the soldiers threw a huge party, buying some extra food and drink for a little night celebration through the camp. The night air was cold, and the wind bit us irately, but we had set up fires throughout camp. Wine and ale had been passed around, and I sipped spring water out of a canteen while Ace gulped down the cup of ale another soldier had passed to me. Some of the men had been quite handy with their ale, and were dancing wildly around the fire, while Ace joined in after another goblet of it and had taken his shirt off and begun showing them a “tribal dance” of some kind that he’d picked up a while back in his soldier days. Ace often liked to go on about that sort of stuff, things he’d picked up from a jungle tribe two years ago when he was serving the military. 

I sat by the fire, watching the festivities with a broad smile on my face. Callan sat next to me, and we enjoyed some of the cakes and other foods that were being passed around our celebratory fire. A man across the fire called out to me, and I looked up. 

“Yes, you, boy! How old are you?!” he asked.  

“Sixteen years old, sir!” I called back. 

“What month were you born?” 

“March, sir!” 

“That’s a young kid!” the man cried to his comrades, pointing at me. “I told you he hain’t even over twenty. Now you owe me twenty!” 

I looked down, where Hilbert had been sitting by me not long ago. He had fallen asleep, and was using my legs as a pillow, and I was reminded of Damien, the dear little brother I had left behind at home. I felt my eyes begin to get wet. 

“I’m getting tired. I’ll go to sleep.” I told Callan. He looked up at me questioningly, but I scooped up the sleeping Hilbert and carried him away from the fire over to the side of camp that our tents were in. I entered one of the tents and placed himself down before throwing myself down into my own cot, where I hid my face and cried. I missed Mother and Damien so much until I finally fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, with their faces in my mind.  

The next morning, we entered trucks and were being taken to town. There was a crew of individuals back at camp, packing everything up and preparing to move it to another field or location that we would be hunkered down in. For now, we had a city to go to. We headed along a northwest trail and found ourselves going down a tranquil dirt road.

I leaned my head back on the seat, and found a few of the men sleeping and I soon learned why. We had a three hour drive through the woods ahead of us, so I, too, leaned my head back into the seat and fell asleep. 

I woke just as we were heading into town. I was sitting near a window, so the cool breeze ruffled my hair gently. I looked out the window and saw a great wall ahead of us. The truck stopped here, and let out our regiment. 

“At attention!” Kozen yelled at the opening to the town, guarded by the town police. The other leaders were there, but letting Kozen take charge, perhaps out of respect for him, for it was well-known that the best soldiers seemed to always be the ones under his tutelage. This made me hopeful for the future, and I knew after the visit to town was over, we would find ourselves at the Delta base, where we could take specific skill courses. 

We marched into town with the drummer boys belting out the rough drum roll that accompanied our appearance. The townsfolk watched from the sidewalks eagerly as we marched into the square, lining up before them. I saw parents holding the hands of young children, holding them up on their shoulders so they could see the soldiers. At Kozen’s command, we stopped, and as he yelled “About face!” to let us know to face him and most of the townsfolk, we obeyed mechanically. Our marching skills had been run through a million times back at the old base, and we knew how to keep our formation up. At his signal, we saluted the people of the town and the Nebelheim National Military flag began to rise. Once it rose, we did a chant, and some men in the back fired blanks and awed the villagers.

We were then allowed to go about and explore. We first went and found the hotel room we had been lent, and there we changed into more normal clothes, keeping our Nebelheim Military-issue jackets. They were the only jackets we had left.  

The town of Syrrus was beautiful, and located near to a lake. The town was not fearful and dirty nor too big and industrial-feeling. The people greeted us with kind smiles and seemed happy to make us comfortable. We followed Ace down the street, to a museum. The museum was made of marble, with a stone gate around it and a lawn of emerald-green grass inside. Ace led us up to a set of oak double-doors.  

“You guys have to see this.” he said, with a wicked grin. He pushed open the oak doors. 

Immediately, sights overwhelmed us. The bones of a giant reptilian creature caught our eyes, and Kain let out a whoop. It was gigantic, bigger than anything I’d ever seen, even a little bigger than a Battle-Bot. I could now see why the museum was so big. Callan and I stayed close while the others wandered about. Fossilized things seemed to make up the first floor of the museum, and we looked at tiny skeletons and huge ones alike before heading upstairs. 

Upstairs was a massive collection of ancient objects. Callan smiled and pointed to what appeared to be an ancient necklace with a design like a star on it, and I looked at it, entranced. The craftsmanship behind objects like these proved that there had been some amazing artists back then. I looked at a painting of a field that was two-hundred years old and smiled, feeling myself become entranced by the pure beauty of it.

By the time I pulled myself out of my reverie, I saw Callan by an old sapphire-encrusted sword in a display case, talking to a girl. I peeked at them from behind a small bit of wall jutting out that split one set of displays apart from another. All I could tell from here was that she had black hair and glasses, was shorter than Callan, and that she seemed to be very happy by the way she was smiling as she talked to Callan. I noticed him even begin to smile, and I smirked wryly. I nearly blew my cover when I felt someone behind me, and I whirled around. 

It was only Hilbert, looking up at me with a questioning look on his face. I grinned. 

“What are you doing, Ted?” he asked me. I pointed to Callan and the girl. 

“Lookit Hil, they’re hitting it up.” I said, grinning. Where Damien might not have understood the principles of relationships like this, Hilbert clearly did, for he burst into a broad grin. Hilbert and I peeked around that small stretch of wall at them. We watched as they headed to the door that led to the observatory.

I wanted to watch them further, but Hilbert wanted to look at the exhibits up here, so we went around. One caught my eye. It was a large stone, big enough to barely fit in the palm of my hand. It was sparkling and blood-red, and as I looked into it, I began to see my own reflection in it.

As I gazed at the reflection of me in it, there was a very strange effect it had on my reflection. My eyes first seemed wide with fear, then wide with madness. I couldn’t tell which. It left me a bit shaken, but the stone was so beautiful I could not tear my gaze from it. For a moment, I looked from the top of it to the bottom, then I nearly jumped back.

The reflection in the stone had changed. I could swear the reflection I was now looking at in the stone was the reflection of my father. He was grinning and he turned his head to one side slightly and winked at me, a youthful, carefree sort of winking. I could feel my throat close, and I reached out and touched the stone with my hand, almost holding it. The cool surface and image of my father suddenly took hold of my senses, and my mind wandered vividly. 

A man walked towards the beach, smiling. He was tall and handsome, with brown hair and blue eyes. The water lapped playfully at the sand, but that was not what he looked at. His eye caught two very young children playing there. Both boys were wearing life jackets and floaties in colors that matched their swimming trunks, one wearing a blue set and the other, green. Both boys’ swimming trunks went past their knees slightly. 

The boy in the green life jacket looked up from the tiny sand crab he held in his hand and smiled at the man. His light, reddish colored hair looked darker now that it had been wetted by the water. He was about four years old, more or less, and the man prided in himself that he had taught both this boy and his brother how to swim. This small boy’s green swimming shorts were decorated with the image of swimming turtles, and a few small seahorses. The boy had picked them out himself. 

“Hello Callan. Is that a crab  you’ve got there?” the man asked. 

“Yes Daddy. Isn’t he cute?” Callan asked the man, who nodded in approval. Callan’s smile brightened a great deal. The man’s eyes wandered from Callan’s small smiling face and his hair plastered to his forehead to the other young boy in the water. 

The one in blue now turned around, and he grinned broadly. His swimming shorts were emblazoned with dolphins. This boy was a twin in facial features to his brother, but his hair was a black that looked nearly dark brown. In fact, it really depended on how you looked at it. To this man, the father of both boys, it was dark brown, but the boy had always said it was black. Callan, with his comments that always made the man laugh, insisted his twin’s hair was “black-brown”. 

“Daddy, did you see that!” the twin in blue shouted. 

“What is it, Teddy?” the man asked. 

“The Friendly Lake Monster! I really saw him!” Teddy cried. The man walked over and scooped the boy up. He followed his son’s pointing finger out to a small raft with a head playfully carved in the imitation of a lake monster. The man laughed then, because his four year old son had truly believed it was the friendly lake monster in the story book that had become the boy’s favorite. 

The man turned and looked at someone else now, a beautiful woman with brown hair that had been watching the boys. Callan was standing with her now, showing her the tiny crab in his hand, and she smiled and ruffled his wet hair. She guided him over to the water and helped him place the crab in the sand, where they all watched the tiny creature scuttle home. The woman looked up at the man and smiled. 

“Mom?” came the voice of the sixteen-year old Ted, who watched as this all happened, and the image faded in his mind and he shot backwards through time, to another place. 

“Ted! Ted, are you okay!” a voice cried. I opened my eyes and saw Callan. Behind him was Hilbert, Kain, the girl Callan had been talking with and the others, as well as the museum director. 

“What happened?” I asked, puzzled. “I was looking at that red stone, and then I saw Dad in it, and I-” 

“Saw Dad in it? What in the world do you mean?” Callan asked, alarmed. I sat up. 

“I had a flashback or something, from when we were like four.” I replied The museum director stepped forward. He was a bit on the portly side, wearing nice clothes as well as a warm and concerned look on his face. 

“Didn’t your parents ever teach you to look and not touch in a museum?” the man asked. 

“With all due respect, sir, we’ve never been to a museum.” Callan pointed out. 

“Anyhow, that stone always has a strange effect on people. I’m not surprised someone finally coll-” the man began, then his eyes widened, catching the insignia on the breast of my jacket. 

“Sir?” I asked politely. 

“You’re from the Nebelheim National Military!” he cried out. Callan turned to him. “All of us wearing the black jackets are, sir.” he said. 

“The museum is due to close soon, but I know a place where you can get a good bite to eat. Follow Tayler, my apprentice.” he said, gesturing to the girl Callan was talking to. “She’ll lead you to the Grey Wolf Hotel.” 

We followed Tayler, who led the pack with Callan to a large nice hotel. Inside, we were led into a restaurant portion of it, where we sat in fours. I chose a table with Kain, John, and King. Callan took the other table, sitting beside Tayler and across from Hilbert. One seat at their table was empty, and it was right beside me, practically. 

“Here’s my friend now.” Tayler said, and I turned to look and was stunned.

She had long black hair and deep brown eyes and the most beautiful face I had ever seen on a girl. I gaped for a moment, then, regaining my cool, I turned to her. 

“Hey girl.” I said, winking at her. She looked at me for a moment, regarding me. 

“How cute, Tayler. A drummer boy is trying to put the moves on me.” she said. and I gaped with shock now. The others giggled and I suddenly realized she had coolly brushed off the flirting and made a swift comeback. While my ego was deflated a little, that made me feel even more attracted to her. 

After our meal, we stumbled back to the hotel. The others fell asleep, but I lay awake, thinking of  Mom and Damien back home, thinking of Dad, and throughout my memories and thoughts, the image of Violet danced through my head until I finally fell asleep looking at the lights out my window.

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