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The hospital had become a place so familiar to me that I knew it like the back of my hand. My leg needed corrective therapy and I had practiced walking on it a little more solidly. It was a wonder I had been able to ignore the leg’s instability during Ace’s funeral and the hospital trip that came after, the doctors had said. Only after the funeral and birth of Tanner had it really struck me that it hurt badly, and I had barely been able to walk back to the Nebelheim trucks, using Callan and Kain as human crutches until Kain scooped me up.

Malik and I continued our nightly talks, going over military texts and history books as of late. Malik was younger, around fourteen or fifteen, yet he was incredibly intelligent and well-informed. He was an ardent scholar outside of his military service and attributed it to his humble childhood spent in poverty. His father’s exclusion from his life (though by which means, I was unsure) left him alone with an affectionate mother. She had been unable to pay for Malik to attend school, but acquired him a great tool on his seventh birthday...a library card. She taught Malik how to read and write herself and allowed a neighbor to impart basic mathematics lessons to him. Malik had taken the lessons in earnest and after reading approximately every children's book in the library that he deemed meaningful, he moved into the young adult section. He didn’t falter when saying he completed that entire section within weeks and had moved onto the colossal adults’ wing after teaching himself from the on-site schoolbooks.

“I skipped the adult fiction, most of it.” Malik recalled. I had still not seen him out of bed, but had heard he had been visited by his mother in the private ward earlier before being moved back into the infirmary. “I didn’t want to read any whirling stories of infidelity or pointless science fiction, to be honest.

“What did you read?” I asked, curious of what in the library had warranted his consideration back then. I could remember the library back home in Laurentime. When we were younger and wanted to escape Bernard, Callan and I would ride our beaten bicycles over to the library and while away many hours in crimson bean-bags, reading mystery novels together and seeing who could figure out the mystery first.

“Military. Everything they had involving the military.” Malik replied after a labored breath. “I wanted to know everything, so I read my first military history book, recommended by an elderly visitor. It introduced Battle-Bots in the most basic concepts, so I found myself checking out every book on Battle-Bots I could get my hands on until I knew them inside-out. Then I branched out and studied gun books and bomb books before I read every military history book they had. And then were my favorite.”

“What?” I asked, my interest piqued by the lilt in Malik’s voice used only when he spoke of something he truly loved. I was still flashing back to my own library, with its sanded oak shelves and new-book smell. I could still recall the huge bean-bags in the children’s’ sections. Callan and I had fit contentedly in one, pressed to the other’s side as he turned the page and we continued to explore the novel together.

“The strategy logs.” Malik sighed in a pensive sort of way. “The library near me had civilian-use war videos and logs of all the battles. They were censored to a degree, but from compiling everything I learned, I built a big picture of it in my head.”

“They had strategy logs?” I cried, astounded. Malik chuckled ominously, as though recalling the logs themselves in full. I didn’t know that military logs were accessible in public libraries.

“Oh, nothing like the good stuff here.” Malik replied swiftly. “But it was enough for me to develop an interest in becoming a military man. There was good pay involved, and the military ensures its soldiers that their family get good rations of food and supplies. So I just had to do it for my mother. But I also came here to learn.”

“I've never been to this center’s library.” I admitted. “How big is it?” I already knew it was definitely bigger than Laurentime’s library.

“Two whole stories just full of military-based books. Only one shelf isn't military, and that’s all classic fiction. Nothing new in there.” Malik remarked. “We could go sometime, maybe right now.”

“I thought the library was closed at night.” I objected half-heartedly, but I secretly had been filled with a yearning to visit it. I saw it the way Malik did now, as vast stores of secreted knowledge just waiting to be accessed by a young and malleable mind. I pondered what kind of military information we were missing out on by not going. That was enough to get me going like a kid in an ice cream parlor. I wanted more.

“It’s closed externally.” Malik explained coolly. “But there’s a hallway off of the private wards that leads to a door that’s always unlocked. It’s like we get exclusive library access.”

“Do you suppose we could get in trouble?” I queried, feeling my heart clanging around inside my chest. The idea was seductively bold; perfectly attractive to me in that essence. I wanted to go in that library badly now, no matter what the repercussions of doing so were. I wanted to see what it was that such an establishment had to offer to a young military man like myself.

“Are you kidding?” Malik shot back. “Me, with one eye and your gimp leg? We’re essentially handicapped. We might as well make the most of it.”

I had been laying there, clad in only a pair of shorts. I carefully dislodged my IV drip and pulled on a black set of Nebelheim sweatpants, in addition to a white t-shirt that came with it. My hair was groomed and uncharacteristically neat at the moment. I looked clean. I was eager to see Malik face-to-face for the first time, to share this excursion with him.

Malik stepped out from behind his barrier, clad in the same thing I now wore. We were all given these uniformly as a sort of relaxation clothes for when family or friends came to visit. I was five foot ten, lean but muscular. My hair had since been clipped a bit shorter so the nurses could tend to it with relative ease next to the tousled and matted locks they had been when I was admitted here after my impromptu surgery in Nightlock Ridge. I observed that I looked substantially more handsome when my hair was groomed, and less wild. At the same time, I had undeniably changed. My build had adapted wholly and no one would be able to mistake me for a scrawny schoolboy anymore. I was clearly and effortlessly a soldier by appearance. The eyes said everything my face reserved, almost uncharacteristically old and weary compared to the rest of my features.

Malik was shorter than me by a bit, but his build was strong enough to prove his soldierhood. His dark eye was a pool of unspoken wisdom that lay dormant, waiting to come out and demonstrate how intelligent the soul beyond it was. He had exposed that seemingly endless extent of knowledge to me while we were covering texts together. His other eye was covered by a slantwise bandage across his head.

“Well, you lead the way.” I said, moving aside. He gazed at me though, contemplating my appearance. I knew in his mind’s eye that he had a different picture, a different face to plug onto the famed Fallen Angel of Nebelheim, the solo soldier that had taken down an entire Kilmjac camp on his own. Well here he is, Malik, I privately thought. Here’s the brilliant soldier that did the deed.

“Nice to finally see your face, Ted Alborn.” Malik noted, still unable to break eye contact with me. He was beaming brightly as though I was an old friend he had once known, and I got a curious feeling inside of me like I had known him at some point or another.

Malik led the way down an abandoned side hall. We were unobtrusive as we proceeded, keeping our footfalls light and our movements fluid and careful. The door loomed in view, a dark wooden door with a covered window. Malik placed his hand judiciously on the doorknob and drew in a breath as though uneasy to some immense degree. His dark hand gently twisted the knob and the door gave way and slid ajar as he pushed on it.

The library was huge, huger than Callan and I’s library back at home. The books on it were nowhere near like the multicolored melting pot of genres. All of them were in dark colors like deep indigo or dark crimson and had the names printed matter-of-factly on them, along with titles that clearly outlined the focus of the book. This was heaven for Malik. Not a single book title mentioned love or adultery or surreal science musings. There were books on war ethics and psychological effects on its participants, however, and that was highly intriguing. I pulled a black-bound book with shining text that had Nebelheim’s War and Ethics printed across the cover as Malik pulled a book named Colonel Petersen’s Private Strategies off of a higher shelf. There were dark chairs around the room and we slid into a set of these and began to read.

Reading was an old delight of mine, revitalized by a topic that encompassed my life now. Nebelheim’s War and Ethics had only a few stories regarding ethics in it so far, but was mostly full of the conjecture surrounding how virtuous war was and the author – a former Nebelheim corporal – interpreting it.

Malik and I suddenly recoiled as the floor below flooded with light. A door down there had unbolted, allowing two vigorous male voices to reverberate across the room. Malik and I shot each other pallid looks and I slid my book back where it belonged. Malik made for the shelf his book had come from, but came skidding back over to me.

“They’re coming up the steps.” Malik murmured in my ear. “We have to go, now!” I grasped Malik and led him back to our door and we slid back behind it, closing it inaudibly behind us. We tore down the hall and heard the door to the library squeak open just as we reached our beds. We slid the curtains back in place around our beds. I heard Malik kick the book far under his bed as we both glided out of our clothes and re-folded them. I had bounded back down in bed and hauled the covers over me just as the male voices entered the infirmary, now in a more muted undertone. My heart pounded like a sledgehammer stuck in my chest. Had they seen Malik and followed us here? Were we going to be punished? I heard my curtains sliding open and I closed my eyes, pretending to be asleep.

“Is this him?” one voice inquired, almost impressed. My heart tightened in my chest. Perhaps they hadn't seen Malik. Maybe they had seen me instead. I had been behind Malik as we left the room, after all. They might have caught a fleeting glimpse of me, then.

“Yep, this is the boy.” The other said in a more gravelly voice than the first. “Hard to believe a kid this age caused that much destruction. I really give him props, it’s not easy. He’d been shot too, you know. He’s still recovering from the wound and the surgery, which they had to do without any relief-of-pain medication.”

So they were talking about me being the "Fallen Angel of Nebelheim". If I had not been working so hard to pretend to be slumbering, I would have sighed with relief. They would not even look at Malik’s area, nor would they see the book he had trafficked. Our excursion would go unknown.

The men whispered in low voices for a few moments longer around my bed. I meant to stay up until they left, but my mind clouded with fatigue and I succumbed to my body’s exhaustion. The radiant glow of a rising sun was seeping into the room when I awoke. I waited idly in my bed for a few moments before a kind-faced and brown-haired nurse in her forties advanced towards my bedstead.

“Your IV drip wasn't in when I arrived this morning.” She commented, shooting me an apprehensive glance as I put on my most innocent face. She eyed the IV drip, which had seemingly been replaced by her not long before I woke up.

“I must have pulled it out in my sleep.” I responded in my most innocuous way. “I was having a hard time laying comfortably to get to bed last night.” She gave me a surreptitious look-over before smiling. I was safe.

“Well next time, don’t be afraid to ask a night nurse for help.” She replied glowingly. “We don’t mind helpin’, you just have to remember to ask. We’re here to take care of you, after all, and keeping your IV drip in is important.”

“I’ll remember to do that, thank you.” I replied, grinning at her in a good-natured way. I waited until the door to the halls opened up and the sound of pounding footsteps approached. My curtain was flung open as a rosy-cheeked Hilbert appeared, a puffy blue coat and woolen mittens on. A light sprinkling of snow lighted on his jacket and in his hair as he beamed at me.

“It’s snowing, Ted!” Hilbert cried as a calmer and more assured set of footsteps advanced. “It’s beautiful outside, everything’s so pure-white and marvelous. It’s like being inside of a snow globe. I want you to see it.” I chortled as his enthusiasm as Callan entered my curtained area cheerfully.

“Our little brother loves the snow.” I replied brightly. Callan stiffened for a moment before breaking out in a grin. Damien really had loved the snow on the occasion they got it. Ever since he was a toddler he would react to snow the same way, with cries of joy and the need to go play in it at once.

“Yes…yes he did.” Callan added then, smiling for a moment. We didn’t have to remember Damien sorrowfully now. Our thoughts towards him were ones we tried to keep happy. It was the best we could do for our own health and reassurance to turn agony over missing our brother into joy of remembering him. He would want us to be happy, and not upset.

The days passed much like this until the end of the week. My departure from the infirmary had already been postponed by a day due to the forceful flurry of snow. It was on a Thursday that I left the boundaries of the room, bidding Malik a dreaded farewell before heading out into the snow in my uniform. The snow wasn't affecting me quite like it used to, but I relished the sight of it as we were driven to the apartment, where I was ordered by Kozen to rest, effective immediately.

That night, in a bout of outlandish irony, I was taken ill. It was odd that the very moment I left the infirmary I became sick. Callan nearly wore a groove into the floor, worrying over me as I was carted back to the infirmary to be treated for a steadily increasing fever. By the time I got there, Malik had already gone home. I was left with no known companion and a sick and clouded mind.

Another hundred hours in the infirmary had gone by before I was allowed to depart again. This time I did not become ill. It was with a show of strength that I had recovered from my wound and subsequent illness. Kain bragged right away that he always knew I was a trooper to the core and that no injury or illness could encumber my recovery. It was amusing to watch the others eye me and take note of my strength. It was weirder still, coming from those that didn’t work with me. I was now showered with commendations by other soldiers I had never been introduced to. Having a bit of military notoriety was strange to me. It made me known where I had only been eyed by my comrades, Callan, and Kozen.

I recovered fast, faster than I believed I could. Perhaps it was some kind of newfound soldier vigor, or maybe it was just sheer strength of body. During my illness, my leg was given even more time to recuperate from its injury and associated surgery. It was a little weaker to walk on at first, but it soon got stronger as I began rebuilding the strength it had possessed before my injury. A few months had passed. Callan and I even celebrated another birthday in the military. We were now eighteen.

“I’m surprised you survived that, honestly.” Callan reprimanded as I sat to eat with the others for the first time at the dinner table of the apartment we rented out. We were having rotisserie chicken (Callan opted for a lovely salad prepared by our neighbor instead) and baked potato to mark the occasion, and King kept eyeing the bottle of Dragon’s Spit like he wanted another taste. It had been a pretty satisfying beverage, but I thought to myself that Mother wouldn't like it if I came home an alcoholic. If I came home, that is. I still couldn't even convince myself that I would survive this war, but I sincerely hoped I would. There were many things I still wanted to see and so many things I had yet to do.

“Hit in the leg, better than the chest.” Kain remarked as he took in a forkful of potato hungrily. When we were out preparing for battle, us soldiers didn’t often get this kind of warm meal. It was a luxury to actually be able to sit at an oaken table and eat a warm and freshly prepared meal, instead of heating up rations for consumption over a fire. Sometimes, we couldn't afford to have smoke and would eat whatever we had, cold or not. Those were the worst days, our dismal, hungry, cold, lonely days.

“It’s insane.” King said icily. “He’s famous for taking down a bunch of Kilmjacs now. He’s some kind of great hero, some kind of saint for killing a faction of the enemy on his own. It’s madness if you ask me. They’re glorifying war. There’s nothing great about it.” The dark-haired man crossed his arms at once and sat there with a present scowl on his face. Hilbert looked up from his own meal with a kind of barely concealed astonishment, his cheeks flushed. I stared as John and Kain took notice of this change and stiffened at the sight of it.

“How could they not glorify it?” LT pointed out as he munched on his chicken leg. “In case you haven’t noticed, bro, we’re in the middle of a war. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s not ethically incorrect, I mean, haven’t you even read about what these guys have done to innocent people?”

“If we win, they’ll retreat from Tenkaiden.” Hilbert suddenly interjected, shooting a serious glance across the table at King. “If the Nebelheim military defeats them, they’ll back off. In case you haven’t noticed, Tenkaiden has been suffering under Kilmjac rule. The Kilmjacs have been burning down villages and terrorizing people over there. Do you want them to come and do that to us?”

It was the first time Hilbert had snapped, even if just a bit. The only indicators of his carefully concealed rage were his furrowed brows and the faint pink flush of anger in his pale cheeks. King stared at the small boy, stunned. I nearly dropped my own forkful of potato as I gaped at the scene.

“Yeah, and what’s the good in that if we behave immorally?” King snapped back. “We’re no better than the Kilmjacs if we-”

“Alright, that’s enough.” Callan retorted. “We’re not here to fight. We’re trying to have a decent meal, so everybody please shut up and eat!” It was Callan’s turn to become anxious and exasperated. I could see why though. Here he was, just trying to enjoy our dinner when chaos broke out. It seemed as though we could never get peace, not even in a warm little town, tucked safely in the confines of an apartment.

“Who gives you the right to tell when I've argued enough?” King snarled back. “You’re not my mother, and you’re not my commanding officer either.”

“I am, however.” I said, looking him straight in the eyes with the coldest look I could ever hope to give. “Shut up and eat. That’s an order, soldier.” I knew it wasn't right to use my higher rank this way, but I just wanted a moment of peace and quiet, even if the peaceful atmosphere around it had already been soured by bickering. King glared at me resentfully before turning his head down and eating. The rest of the meal went by in silence, Kain and I shooting each other incensed looks at how our meal was ruined. We were both alike in that aspect, we liked our meals to be jovial and boisterous affairs, not silent and subdued ire like this one turned out. King excused himself from the table first, looking almost embarrassed, and made a beeline for the room he shared with John. Hilbert left the table next, looking furious as he went off to his own room, which he shared with LT. Kain stayed with Callan and I and we ate the remainder of our spoiled dinner with a few attempted jokes and some terrible old puns that even made Kain groan.

The tense atmosphere presided over us, even as we headed to the room we shared with Kain, which consisted of one bunk bed and one single. The bunk bed belonged to Callan and I. It was the closest we had to sleeping together now. We were no longer so destitute that we would be made to share one, and there was still closeness between us without having to lay side by side every night. Callan clambered up into the top bunk while I rolled into the bottom. We switched bunks every night, keeping our use in rotation. I had been on top bunk the night before, so now it was Callan’s turn. I rolled into the bottom bunk and we waited until the sink had gone off before clambering out of our bunks with Kain. We could see King’s nightrobe disappearing behind a corner as we headed into the bathroom to brush our teeth. The three of us would make for a tight fit, and we soon learned that John, Hilbert, and LT had beaten us to the bathroom. We allowed them to brush their teeth first. The three of them hurried off, leaving us the bathroom. We were quick about it too, not wanting to be anywhere but in our beds at this time of night.

Once in bed, I had a hard time getting to sleep. I could faintly hear the calm draws of Callan’s breathing as he slumbered above me, and knew that chatting with him was a no-go. Trying to speak to Kain would be futile too, since he was already deeply asleep and drooling over his pillow. I lay in bed and waited until sleep took me.

Breakfast was an awkward affair the next morning. There was no talking to be had as we all slowly ate our breakfast meal together. I picked at my scrambled eggs and peered around the table. Hilbert and LT sat at one end, avoiding looking at King, who was placed at the other end of the table and avoiding looking at anyone. Callan turned to look at me and I smiled at him encouragingly.

Things had been looking up for us lately. The Kilmjacs were seen retreating from all of their most prominent fronts. Older military men had taken to saying that our victory was imminent, like the sun coming up over the horizon. I had taken to climbing to the roof of our rented apartment, just to watch that sun come up over the buildings. My fascination with the sun was even stronger than it had been when I was a fresh recruit at sixteen. I’d pull myself up to the roof and feel a little warmer and a little less empty every time I saw it rise. For me, the sun made all depressing thoughts into something more comforting. Instead of wondering if Mother had already forgotten me, I could ponder what she was doing each time I got up. What Damien was doing. What the kids in school were doing. I’m sure my classmates had already forgotten me by now, but I knew that Damien had to remember me. I was such a good older brother to him that there was no way he could forget.

He didn’t. Callan and I received a picture of him and I gaped at it. Spiked hair? An ear piercing? The war was making me painfully aware of just how much of my younger brother’s life I had missed. He was already nine years old, nine! He had only been a tiny little boy of seven when I was last with him, having gaps in his smile from lost baby teeth. In the picture we received, he already had many adult teeth! I knew he was taller and had a different build now too, because he wasn't so young anymore. Did I even know my little brother anymore? When Callan and I had been back home, he was a lot like me in appearance but took more after Callan in personality, being such a good kid and all. But now he was getting just as rebellious as I used to! Had I caused this?

I spent a lot of time with Violet now too, some of those instances being a bit more private than others. I wanted to tell her exactly how I felt about her, how I wanted to marry her after the war, but the words just weren't coming out. If something bad were to happen to me in battle, I didn’t want her to suffer the way Ace’s girl had. I had already been to see little Tanner, who was going on a year old by now, and I felt the sting of being the commanding officer that couldn't protect his father. Ace had been under my command when he had died, and I hadn't been able to stop it. Some commanding officer I was.

One cold night, we were lingering around the living room when Hilbert hushed us and turned the radio up. Another Kilmjac mobilization, so we held our breaths, wondering if it would be our squadron sent out there.

“Overscore Red 293, Underwing Green 760, Underwing Blue 59…” the man read, and Hilbert shut off the radio. We had heard all we needed to hear. We were going to war again.

If the apartment had been cloaked in a silent and subdued aura before, it certainly was worse now as we wandered aimlessly around for the first hour. Many of us were too distracted to finish dinner and excused ourselves early, looking for some way to escape the reality of being called back to fight. It was like we didn’t belong to the peaceful civilian world anymore, but that we were only loaned to it. We were only loaned to the normal life, and eventually Nebelheim’s military would want us back.

We all got a lot of sleep that night, unable to do anything but brush our teeth and strip out of our clothes and lay in our bunks until sleep came. There was no question about it, we were going to be back out on the front lines again. It must have been an important mission for the Underwing and Overscore factions to be working together, and I wondered just where this battle would take my squadron and I.

Underwing Blue 59 had expanded to be a total of thirty soldiers, all under my command. Many of them were soldiers I had worked with at Nightlock and a few new guys. We all met outside of the city’s limits and found the black military-issue vehicles waiting, but there was something strange about the tires on these.

“They’re for sand.” Ivan Temoc said. His squad had been fused with mine to create an even bigger Blue 59 force. His dark hair was cropped very short, the work of a recent haircut. My hair wasn't exactly short, but neither was it long. Ivan cocked his head to the side and eyed the tires on the trucks with me once more.

“Sand?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“Positive, sir.” Ivan responded. I had become used to the soldiers around me referring to me as “sir” lately, due to my promotion. I had almost refused the promotion too, but Kozen had convinced me to take it, saying I had great potential for command.

We clambered into the trucks and I began to muse exactly what desert this battle was in, for the sand tires had alerted me that we were definitely going somewhere where there was a lot of sand. The nearby Walkner Desert was a probable choice considering its proximity, but it was still days away from here.

As I predicted, the man in the cab informed me that the battle was taking place in Walkner. I informed my soldiers before dismissing us all into the black trucks, which moved endlessly. I spent days in the back of that truck with some of my force, which had been graciously divided among the trucks. No Callan in here, as I had entrusted him with the position of keeping an eye on the guys in the other truck. These were new guys that hadn't been in battles of the same caliber I had, and many of them hadn't been in a battle at all, so I gave them a motivational talking-to.

When we finally reached the Walkner Desert camp, placed on “our” end of the desert, the camp was already a bustle of activity. Kozen could be found shouting at people left and right and getting them to do their jobs right as my force moved into the tents reserved for our squadron. I dismissed my soldiers to go get a shower and a bite to eat for now as we awaited further instruction, not sure exactly what would come of it. My soldiers did look comparatively happy as they went to bathe at the end of a nearby falls, or striding to our section of the tents with full stomachs. They slept easily, but I could not. I would have to lead my squadron into battle. Again.

I felt a bit of nausea from the impending stress and walked almost a mile away from camp and threw up my dinner in the brush before returning to camp, pale and shaky. It had been a while since I had seen action on the front lines and I was becoming unbearably nervous about it. It was an older soldier named Scott Stanley the Fifth who comforted me that night.

“You’ll get used to it, son.” Scott had said. He was a friendly enough man with brown hair and a thick brown mustache, somewhere in his forties. He’d been in a number of major battles and still survived, and attributed it to family luck, saying that his ancestors had all survived massive wars in the past. He was a likable enough guy and he seemed to genuinely care for me.

“I can’t be weak for my soldiers.” I said in a sobered voice, and it was a true feeling. There was no way in hell I would reveal any kind of weakness in front of my comrades. No, I would display no reactions or emotions that would have a negative effect upon them. I had to fill them with optimism, not knowing if I would ever see them again or if any of them would ever reach their families again. Such was the dreariness and dread of war.

“You’re too young for this.” Scott then said, surprising me. “My son’s older than you, and he’s going to a university and not on the front lines. You’re too young to be in command. They don’t see what kind of things that’ll do to you. They just want the next military prodigy to be under their claim.”

We said a few parting words and returned to our respective tents. I didn’t feel much better after our chat, perhaps because there was a pang of truth in his words. Callan and I should be going to school and doing normal teenage boy things. Though it was partly our faults that we were here when we could have opted out, the military was letting me get more action than most young officers in command of a faction ever saw. This thought haunted me even after I had hit my navy-blue blankets and fallen asleep.

“Are you sure Alborn is ready for command over thirty others? He completely shut down after Major Atkins died. What if some of his young men die before him? What if his friends die? Or his brother, what if-”

“He’ll be fine.” Kozen replied lazily, turning to face the older man before him, General Becker. Becker had slicked back hair and sharp features, but even his cold stare didn’t unnerve Kozen. Becker liked Kozen. He was a tough kid, definitely a much older man inside than his boy’s age and body claimed. The boy had been a survivor, but he never called himself a victim. No, he was a soldier to the core. When his family had been killed in the Kilmjac attacks in the first Kilmjac War, he had stepped up to the plate to have some kind of command.

“He looks extraordinarily like the old Alborn. Enough for me to want to call him Colonel Reborn, though I suppose he would not understand or appreciate the reference. But he’s not really the man reborn, he’s just the man’s son. Doesn't mean he can do what his father did.”

“It runs in his genes. If anyone can do what Alborn did, it’s this son of his. Don’t tell me you didn’t think they were one and the same when he arrived tonight. I saw your eyes widen and your skin go pale like you’d seen a ghost when you saw him. You looked terrified.”

“I was not terrified, just surprised.” Becker admitted defensively. “You would be too, if you had been old enough to know Alborn. The boy looks just like him, acts just like him even…that commanding way he leads his men, like a father. That’s what the father was like. Who says it has to be him though? What about the brother?”

“Callan?” Kozen asked. “No, no, he’s too independent and strong-willed. Not malleable enough. If we tried to get him to command, he’d refuse until he got us to agree to some crazy kind of terms. He doesn’t want to be a leader. In fact, he’s only here because Ted is.”

“He’s more like the grandfather then.” Becker laughed. “Gideon Wolfert was my commanding officer back in the day, and no one could budge him, no matter what rank they were. He was always his own boss, kept to his own agenda, and he played his own game.”

“Callan to a tee.” Kozen said, allowing a smile. “I can’t get him to roll over and play tricks in the command game the way I can with Ted. From what I've heard, Ted is like his father in his inability to refuse promotion and command.”

“Pray tell, why are you so persistent about making the boy a leader? You’re going to completely break him by doing this. The first Alborn was never broken. His family and friends were safe, for the most part. This Alborn will be. There’s too much at stake for him out here.”

“Because he’s the only ace up my sleeve left.”

I was one of the first ones awake yesterday and I slipped into a meeting where Kozen outlined our plan of attack. Blue 59 - among twenty other Underwing teams - would be taking the enemy head-on while the Overscore teams would be snaking around the enemy to attack from behind. We would be caging the Kilmjac forces in and hoping to take prisoners, if possible. As such, my squadron’s objective was to join the others and engage the Kilmjacs head-on and try keeping our distance if possible while the Overscore units would snake around to attack from behind them.

We prepared silently for war and I ran my platoon under some exercises that calmed them down a bit before we marched out there with the rest of the Underwing units. We had a large array of Battle Bots, and that excited some of us. Here there was just sand, so unrestricted Battle Bot warfare would surely ensue...and we had a front row seat. I was made to advise my men to avoid being near the Battle Bots to prevent injury as they gasped at the Battle Bots lining up for war. The pilots of these were all talented and trained individuals, and one could see it in the uniform way the Battle Bots marched along in unison in front of us before veering to the sides so no soldier would be crushed.

I eyed my group of thirty, which included the original members of Underwing Blue Fifty-Nine. They were all young and clean-cut military men, but many of the “young” ones were older than I was. A lot of them were in their early twenties at least, while I was only eighteen years old. There were a few younger ones; Hilbert was only a child, Arlen was twelve, and Justin was sixteen. But aside from them, they were all young men. My platoon.

“How do you all feel?” I asked. My soldiers looked at me with widened eyes. Their hair and uniforms were scrupulously well-groomed and formal in appearance. I liked his army’s neat and uniformal presentation. It was better that we seemed to together, so organized.

“Good, sir!” many cries rang out. Many of them fit the mold of the typical Nebelheim youth; young, strong, and pale-skinned with golden or brown hair and light-colored eyes. Some stood out, though. Hilbert had black hair and some clear Tenkaidic influence in his genetic makeup. Jerome Walton stood taller than most of the others and dark-skinned, while Nizar Shirr had light brown skin and short black hair. I didn’t mind the ethnic diversity in his group, not one bit. We were all equals, all a family as far as I was concerned.

My young men were a motley blend of lifestyles. Some of them had been mere students, others had worked in bakeries and bicycle shops, and some even worked as trainee police officers. They were all young and full of promise. It was my job to lead them, and hopefully I would someday lead them home and the war would be over. My sun would rise on a beautiful day when that day came.

I joined the other platoon captains where we met up in front of the soldiers to bark out commands and monitor our forces. The other men accepted me into the fold even though I was the youngest platoon leader there by at least ten years, and definitely the smallest. Kozen would not be present during this battle, as he had the reserve forces in case one of our two divisions failed. The commanding officers – like me – all held the rank of Captain. Due to this, we were all clad in black uniforms while our soldiers were decked out in a special desert-hued camo. We looked like jet-black ravens strutting around our cluster of moving desert.

We stopped and took turns by the order we were lined up in to order our soldiers to be still. The Kilmjacs were just ahead of us, only just taking notice of us as they formed up. The Battle-Bots were deployed in ready positions at the sides of our army. Our congregation of Captains striding along the sides between our soldiers and the Battle-Bots were going to order our men to fall back and let the Battle-Bots take them on first. The Kilmjacs had only two Battle-Bots; we had ten. Our odds were looking pretty good for this battle.

It was the flashiest of our Battle-Bots - being commandeered by a Major - that led the assault first as we shouted at our soldiers to fall back and shoot at the enemy, who were clearly wearing their dark brown uniforms and visible on the horizon. I watched as some of my younger men began to perform well under the stress, and I aimed my own gun next and easily took out two Kilmjacs. I had learned how to fire and aim the gun for optimal performance by now, two years into military life. My skin reunited with cold steel and they met to form some dangerous force, a man with a deadly weapon. Soldiers on our side began to fall, but not without taking out a flurry of the brown-clad soldiers. We were in our home country with quick supply lines and had more resources, weapons, ammo, and training at our disposal.

Then, things began to get chaotic. One of the battle-bots collapsed, causing several of our men to become crushed under it as the others scattered, either to flee from the core of the insanity or to get to a better vantage point. There would be no held positions now, even though some of the other Captains ran after their soldiers, barking orders. Blood oozed from under the fallen Battle-Bot, having crushed the men under it flat like pancakes. My soldiers could no longer be found in the chaos and I could only hope to see them again after the battle.

I led a contingent of soldiers up to higher ground and the safety of hardened desert rock from which to shoot behind. On my command, the contingent fired wildly and I watched a staggering line of brown-clad men topple to the sand, which was being kicked up everywhere in clouds. I urged my men to close their eyes as a frantic whirlwind of it passed us by.

“Ted!” a voice called out to me, and I recognized LT and Hilbert. They were in my contingent of high-ground soldiers. LT gave me thumbs-up as he reloaded and fired a bullet down into a brown-shirted chest. The “clean-up” crew was going to have a field day after this slaughter.

I could tell the very moment when the Kilmjacs noticed they were being ambushed, for frantic and foreign screams came echoing over to us as the Overscore units began firing at them from behind. The Kilmjacs were boxed in and falling rapidly now, and my soldiers were filling with relief and firing surer and faster.

I saw Hilbert backing up quickly and tripping as he staggered out of view of the Kilmjacs. I turned to face him and called out his name. His eyes filled with terror as his eyes met me and he raised his hand as though to point before there was a flash of silver in my peripheral vision and something slammed into me very hard from behind and I knew nothing more.

I opened my eyes slowly. My head was throbbing and pounding something awful as though a tiny man was working away with a sledgehammer up there. I let out a light groan and tried to lift myself up, but fell back down in the powdery sand futilely, stars dancing in my vision. My whole body ached as I tried rolling onto my side. I wasn't sure if I was hearing some kind of far-off sound or if my ears were just ringing. I lay there in the sand for a few more moments before steadying myself. Something wet and warm was running down the right side of my head.

I saw Hilbert laying on the ground before me and something metallic from a Battle Bot just beyond us. I staggered over to him at once and dug my arms under him, lifting his small body. There was smoke and sand all over, but the soldiers from our side were already halfway back to camp. I stood there for a moment, dazed, before I began limping back to camp with Hilbert in my arms.

My mind was foggy. I blankly wondered where Callan was for a moment and fear seized me. What if he had been one of the men crushed under the Battle Bot? Or what if he had been shot from afar? I could never find him in this endless sea of dead soldiers. Even though there weren't half as many casualties as the Bloody Field by comparison, there were still way too many bodies for me to check. I wasn't even in any notable condition to check. My body ached and a sharp pain shot through my head with each step, forcing me to wince as I carried Hilbert along.

“Just ahead now, Ted.” Hilbert’s young voice rang through the haze that was my tired and confused mind which seemed to be ringing like my ears were, ringing like church bells. I don’t know how or why Hilbert’s voice was so clear when every other noise sounded like buzzing static in my mind. I shook my head, trying to rid it of the static buzz, but failed in accomplishing anything.

“My head hurts, Hil.” I groaned as I trudged through the sand. “It hurts something awful. How am I still alive?” I slowed to a crawl as the sand piled up and got thick in this area, but kept on chugging towards camp. I knew we needed a doctor. As was, I was fading in and out of consciousness.

“It won’t hurt for very long, chief.” Hilbert replied. Chief? When did Hilbert ever call me that? It seemed a little strange and oddly out of place, but I ducked my head and took it. It was proving to require a strenuous amount of effort to trudge through the sand here, but I was doing my very best to try. I could see a few other soldiers, all of them a good deal ahead of me. I was the only one in my general area.

“Hil, what are we doing here?” I asked. The world felt like it was spinning as I walked, and I crouched in the sand for a moment, feeling completely confused and not knowing why. I could laugh or cry, even. I had no idea what I was doing here, or what I was even doing alive. How did I make it out of that alive? Was I alive?

“Calm down, Ted.” Hilbert whispered as I struggled back to my feet and continued to trek through the sand, my arms aching miserably now as I did. I tried focusing on what lay ahead of me. Something to eat, that was a good thing. I would get to sleep, that was good too. Maybe I could take a bath when I felt a little better. I could wear clean clothes and get the sand off of me, that would be nice. My mind was miles ahead of my body as I stumbled through the sand miserably.

“I’m calm, Hil, believe me.” I replied back, smiling as I kept my eyes to the beacon of goodness ahead of me, the patch I knew to be camp. I was nearly upon it now, and my limp became more pronounced as I forced myself to speed up. The trickle of warm wetness still traveled down the side of my head, but I no longer cared. I was almost there! I could soar like an eagle for the euphoria that raced through me. I would finally get to lay down in a bed and not attend to anyone. The battle was over, I could lay down and sleep for days if I wanted to and take a shower for the entire day for the day I woke up.

“Be calm when we get there.” Hilbert warned urgently. “I’m worried about you, Ted. You’re slipping. Do you realize what you look like right now? You look crazy.”

“I might be a little beaten-up, but I’m perfectly fine, Hil!” I responded loudly as I closed in on the perimeter outside of camp. A man turned to face me and shot me a puzzled look. I waved to him and he passed by quickly, disgruntled for some reason. As I reached the area just outside of camp, I turned when I heard a voice behind me and saw a soldier only slightly older than I was. He was familiar in some way, with bright blazing eyes and his thick black hair, but it was when he smiled that I recognized him and recoiled in horror. He looked at me, puzzled.

“You’re not supposed to be here!” I screamed, feeling some kind of wave of terror and pain roll through me like a wave. A few soldiers jerked out of their reverie and turned to look at me, and one of them ran for camp. “You can’t be here! You’re not alive!”

“Calm down,” the familiar young man replied, no longer smiling. “Don’t strain yourself, Ted.”

“You can’t be here!” I shouted, crying now as I did. “You died in my arms! I saw the light leave your eyes! We buried you! You can’t be back!” Some soldiers were coming towards me from camp now. I ran a few feet from them before drawing my arms over my face and curling into a ball. A scream emerged from me then, something so rough that it was almost inhuman if not for the raw emotion it carried. I was crying now, harder than I ever had in front of other soldiers. As I was shielding myself from the specters of my memory, something sharp pricked my neck and I crumpled into the sand. Darkness.

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