Their retreat was a disorganized mess despite the bellowing of the officers, and quickly turned into a panicked flight away from the camp, soldiers scattering in an attempt to outrun the Fae. Kyr lost Torin in the confusion of running for the nearby woods as guns boomed all around him. He kept hold of his rifle only through force of habit, gripping it so tightly his knuckles turned white and he could barely move his hand when he did finally ease his grip. He blundered through the trees, hearing nothing except the sound of guns over his own harsh breathing and the crash of his flight. When he finally staggered to a stop, bleeding from a cut on his cheek caused by a branch whipping back into his face, he was alone in the sleepy dim green of the forest.
He took a series of deep breaths and looked around carefully to make sure he wasn’t about to be attacked before he pried loose his grip on the rifle and slung it over his shoulder. Somewhere above him a bird twittered and that more than anything relaxed him; if he was still being hunted through the trees, the birds would be quiet. It went silent again when he himself moved, turning and walking cautiously back towards the camp to see if he could find anyone else.
He found the road and crouched down in the bushes a few feet back from it, watching carefully. In the distance he could see smoke rising lazily up from what used to be their base camp, and the movement of Fae vehicles. They seemed to be relaxed and not watching for survivors, but Kyr still backtracked into the woods as quietly as he could before turning south.
Returning to the road once he was out of sight, he walked along the edge, swiping sweat off his forehead and watching for the dust clouds of approaching vehicles. When one approached from the south, he flagged it down, automatically unhooking his rifle and holding it ready to use, if not actively threatening.
“Don’t go up that way,” he told the frightened-looking woman driving the car. “It’s Fae territory now.” For a moment her face blurred and he sagged, dimly thinking that he was probably scaring her more than anything else. “I need a ride. Need to find my unit.”
“I passed some trucks...” She swallowed hard, then nodded to the back seat. “Get in.”
“Thanks.” He tried to muster a smile for her, then opened the back door and slid in, resting his gun between his legs and his head against the back of the seat. His eyes slipped closed and the world around him faded away.
He woke lying in a hospital bed with an IV in his arm and bright sunlight shining through the window, laying a stripe of gold across the foot of his bed. For a few moments he studied the low beige ceiling above him, then glanced down along a row of beds identical to his, most of them containing wounded soldiers. He relaxed a little at seeing them and recognized the place enough to know he was in the base hospital in Alliston, one of their major hubs.
A nurse wandered over and gave him a distracted smile, fussing with his bedding and helping him to drink a glass of water. He waited until she’d wandered off again before sitting up and removing the IV from his arm and the monitors from his body. The alarm brought a medic hurrying over and after a few moments of arguing back and forth, Kyr was allowed to shakily get to his feet and walk to the bathroom to empty his aching bladder.
When he made his way back, feeling better if still unsteady on his feet, he found Torin waiting for him, standing awkwardly in full gear beside the bed with his rifle cradled in one arm. As soon as he saw Kyr he put the rifle on the bed and yanked Kyr into a rib-creaking hug, his body armour digging into Kyr’s chest. A little startled, Kyr hugged back, ignoring the disapproving look a nearby nurse shot them.
“Miss me that much?” he asked, jokingly, when Torin released him.
Torin smiled a little. “You’ve been out a week, Kyr. Scared the shit out of me. How you feeling?”
Kyr looked at him for a moment, his own smile fading as he took in the shadows under Torin’s eyes and the drawn look to his face. “I’m okay. Hungry.” He tried to smile again. “Have we taken back Daniel yet?”
“I’ll tell you everything later.” Torin squeezed his shoulder and picked up the rifle again. “Long as you’re not sent home.”
“I’m fine, they won’t.” Kyr watched him walk out then turned to find whoever was in charge.
They put him through a series of tests and made him stay an extra night for observation before he was finally allowed to report back to his unit commander. His gear and weapons were returned to him and he walked into his unit’s dorm to applause and friendly insults. Flipping up his middle finger at the worst offenders—and glad to see that Akiva was one of them—he walked down the row of beds to the empty one at the end and dropped his stuff on it, glad to sit down for a moment and rest. He recognized the gear on the bed next to him as Torin’s, but there was no sign of Torin himself.
When he asked he was given a vague explanation that Torin had been called away to talk to an officer and nobody knew when he might be back. Feeling a little put out, Kyr slung his rifle over his shoulder and went for a walk, watching the camp activities. Everyone he passed seemed subdued and exhausted, and the base wasn’t nearly as busy as he would have expected. He walked until near sunset and returned to the dorm with a headache and shaky legs, to find most of the unit gone for dinner and Torin waiting for him by his bed.
“You okay?” Torin asked when Kyr approached, frowning.
“Yeah, I’m good.” Kyr sank down on his bed and put the rifle down, flexing out his sore arm.
“’Cause you look like shit.” Torin sat beside him and passed him a bottle of water. “Sorry I wasn’t here when you got out. I saved a couple officers’ asses during the retreat and now I’m their best friend.”
“You’re the biggest ass-kisser I’ve ever met.” Kyr downed half the water in one long go. “Now tell me what’s happened while I was out.”
Torin looked away, chewing on his bottom lip. “Well, we fled in disgrace. Got organized again and tried to take back old Danny, got our fucking asses handed to us. I saw him, the guy with the antlers. Shit, he’s fucking terrifying.”
“Fuck yourself.” Torin ran both hands back through his hair, making it stick up in dusty spikes. “Anyway, they’re basically in control of everything north of Highway 86. People have been evacuating all week and they’re actually being let through. We’ve been told to help them get to safety and not to engage unless provoked. Hear some officers want to offer a truce.”
“And let them have half the country?” Kyr snorted. “Nobody would go for that. Don’t think they would either. Fuckers want it all.”
“Basically. So we are on standby until further notice. Rumour is we’re going to be off for the winter. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll all die in a blizzard or something.” Torin got to his feet and offered Kyr a hand. “Come on, let’s go eat. You look like you need it.”
The order to stand down for the foreseeable future came down the next morning and their Captain gathered them all together to inform them that they weren’t going to be sent home. Instead they were set to clean-up duties and continuing to help the evacuees from the north, moving them away from lines patrolled by grim-faced Fae in leathers and body armour. Kyr witnessed a few scuffles and one fight that sent evacuees screaming and ended with two soldiers and a Fae dead. After that they were kept on a tight leash until the flood of evacuees became a trickle.
Winter settled over them and the snow fell early and hard, driving them further down south to avoid its icy touch. Along with Torin, Akiva, and a few other men from their unit, Kyr was sent to one of the many refugee camps to help keep order. He was called away from patrol one stormy afternoon by one of the sergeants and walked over to the debriefing area, where new refugees were inspected before being allowed into the camp. He didn’t recognize the woman there until she spoke his name in a shocked and scratchy voice, and for a moment only stared at her dirty face and tattered clothes before looking automatically for his father and Marigold.
“They’re not with me,” Magdalin said, drawing herself up with some of her former dignity. “We got separated. But they must be here somewhere.” She gave him a pleading look and added, “Right?”
“I haven’t been checking.” He nodded to the soldier on duty and put a hand on Magdalin’s arm, drawing her away from the debriefing area. “I’m going to take you to get a shower and something to eat, then I’ll look around, okay?”
“All right.” She ran a hand distractedly through her matted hair. “You did join the army.”
“Hey, it’s what I’m fucking good for, right?” he said, and sighed when she winced. “Sorry. Go get cleaned up and I’ll ask around.”
He watched her walk into the women’s building then went to find Torin and asked him to have a look around for his father and Marigold. Torin returned before Magdalin came out of the building and shook his head as he approached.
“No little girls named Marigold in the camp. No sign of your father either.” He bumped his shoulder lightly against Kyr’s. “I put out the info though, and someone will find them.”
“Hope so.” Kyr thought of Aldeen, which reports said had been heavily damaged by a series of missile attacks. “I didn’t really expect...”
“I know.” Torin bumped his shoulder again and straightened up when Magdalin came out of the building, clean and wearing freshly washed clothes. “Ma’am. I’ll catch you later, Kyr.”
“Who’s that?” Magdalin asked, watching Torin walk away.
“My Lance-Corporal.” Kyr nodded to the food hall. “I’ll leave you with Mags. She’ll get you some food and get you a place to sleep. Mari and... my father aren’t here, but we’ll figure out where they went.”
She touched his arm but said nothing as he walked her over and handed her off to Mags, and he was relieved to duck out of the food hall and get back to his unit. He took patrol from one of his companions and went out with Torin, pacing back and forth along the camp perimeter as the day shaded into a cool rainy night. Neither of them said much for most of the patrol; Torin looked distant and Kyr had enough to think about as the camp settled in for the night. He thought about his father for the first time in months and realized the hurt and anger was fading, becoming little more than an ache deep down inside.
“You look tired,” Torin said, interrupting his train of thought. “How’s your head?”
Kyr reached up to trace the new scar along his jaw and cheek. “Hasn’t fallen off yet.”
“Would it make much of a difference?”
“Fuck you too, sir.” Kyr glanced out across the dark camp. “I want my father and Mari to be found safe.”
“I’d fucking hope so.”
“But after that, I don’t care.” He chewed on his bottom lip, trying to put his thoughts in order. “Like, I’m not going to suddenly become their perfect fuckin’ soldier son and patch things up and all that happy bullshit. I’ll fight to protect them ‘cause they exist, not because they’re family.” He glanced at Torin, trying to read Torin’s expression in the rainy light. “Is that... crazy?”
Torin laughed a little. “You’re fucked up, Kyr. Nah, I don’t think it’s crazy. I think they’re lucky you do anything for them. You’ve got a better family now.”
“Sometimes I think you’re gayer than I am.” Kyr slid his free arm around Torin’s waist and gave him a tight hug. “Thanks.”
Another two weeks passed before his father and Mari were found in another refugee camp and the decision was made to ship Magdalin to them instead of bringing them to her. Kyr said no when he was asked if he wanted to be on the squad taking her and a handful of other refugees down, but he met with Magdalin at her request the night before she left. For a little while they just walked in a silence that weighed uncomfortably on Kyr’s shoulders, then she stopped him and awkwardly patted his arm.
“I want to apologize,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance before and I suppose I didn’t really want to. But I’m sorry for all the times I’ve fought with you.”
He forced back a sarcastic retort and managed something of a smile. “Thanks.”
She studied him for a moment, then sighed. “I see you still hold a grudge.”
“Don’t start with me. Let’s just... leave it at this. Stay safe on the trip tomorrow.”
“Kyr.” Her voice turned him back when he tried to walk away. “Look... Your father misses you. You should talk to him, at least. You could die tomorrow, or he could.”
“All right. If we’re both still alive when this war ends, I’ll talk to him.” He nodded to her and turned away, and this time he didn’t look back.
He was on patrol when she left and paused for only a moment to watch the trucks pull out of the camp and disappear into the grey day. Life at the camp settled back into a routine of patrol and training and trying to get information out of their leaders. He heard there had been a few more skirmishes along the new border between human and Fae territory, but otherwise the Fae seemed to be laying low. At night most of the unit talked about the Fae’s sudden reluctance for combat, most of them theorizing that the Fae were turning chicken. Kyr watched Torin during these discussions, studying the way he smiled slightly and said nothing, just continued with whatever he’d chosen to occupy his hands with that night.
Spring came damp and cold, full of rain and mud. Skirmishes built up again along the border, though all reports stated that the majority of the Fae army was staying further north. Kyr barely noticed his twenty-first birthday pass, too busy hunkering down in the face of a sudden powerful thunderstorm that reminded him uncomfortably of the tornado that had driven them out of Camp Daniel. Paranoia that the Fae were still using the weather began to cause nervous murmurs throughout the camp, despite the best efforts of the officers to keep everyone in line, and the first deserters were reported a few days later.
“If they’re trying to fucking psych us out, they’re doing a great job of it,” Torin muttered as he and Kyr sat around a campfire that night, trying to dry damp boots and socks. “Half the camp’s about to go squirrel on us.”
“Think that’s what they are doing?” Kyr asked, holding his hands out to the fire.
“Maybe. They’re a cunning bunch of sheepfuckers.” Torin looked up as a shadow approached and saluted, followed a moment later by Kyr when he recognized the platoon Sergeant.
“Come with me, Torin.” The Sergeant nodded to Kyr and waited for Torin to pull his boots back on before leading him away. Torin glanced back over his shoulder and shrugged slightly before he disappeared into the darkness.
He didn’t come back before Kyr went to bed and Kyr slept restlessly, worried and tense. He was only dozing when he sensed someone walk up to his bed, and his eyes opened wide when a hand clapped over his mouth, muffling his surprised shout. Another hand caught his fist then Torin’s voice growled in his ear to be quiet and get dressed. Kyr nodded and sat up when Torin let go of him, easing off his bunk and pulling his gear on as silently as he could. A few of the other beds were empty as they walked outside and he found Akiva, Mikael, and their platoon Sergeant, Yao, waiting outside an idling truck.
“We’re going on a recon mission,” Torin said quietly as the Sergeant gestured them all into the truck. “Up to Aldeen. I told them you used to live there.”
“What do they want in Aldeen?
Torin shrugged, settling his back against the side of the truck and the rifle across his knees. “I don’t ask. I just do.”
Shaking his head, Kyr leaned back and tried to doze for most of the ride over to the closest southern point to Aldeen. They left the truck safely hidden and snuck over the border before dawn broke, then lay low for most of the day, scouting out the area and moving on again once night fell. It took them a few days to make it up to Aldeen, even after sneaking a ride in an old abandoned car that Mikael hotwired, and once they reached it they camped on the outskirts for a while to watch for any signs of life.
The city was barely recognizable, great blocks reduced to rubble and burnt out cars scattered haphazardly like toys thrown by a child having a tantrum. Some parts of the city were still burning but the majority of it seemed empty and abandoned. At dawn Yao waved them in and they moved cautiously through the wreckage wrapped in a blanket of cool fog that muffled all noise and made Kyr feel vaguely like he was walking through an alien landscape.
They saw a handful of bodies, Fae and human alike, as they walked, most of them unrecognizable after a hard winter and the attentions of wild animals. Kyr tried not to grimace as they passed what might have once been a woman, though he couldn’t tell for sure without a head. Beside him Torin looked around warily, his rifle held ready and droplets of water sliding down his skin from the mist. In the shifting greyness, Yao and Akiva, ahead of them, moved in and out of sight, their voices muffled as they talked to each other and called back instructions.
“Fuckin’ great place for an ambush,” Kyr muttered, pitching his voice for Torin’s ears alone.
“You jinx us with your loud fucking mouth and I’ll personally ball-gag you.” Torin bumped him gently with one arm. “Stick close.”
They inspected a few buildings as the pale sun rose, still not warm enough to burn off the fog right away, but none of them contained anything more interesting than more bodies and rubble. Gradually they made their way through the downtown and worked up towards the northwest end, where Oakenheart Academy had stood, though Kyr doubted it was still there. His doubts were confirmed when they approached it and found most of the building shattered into bricks and dust, the pathways blocked by unsteady piles of debris.
“What are we looking for?” Torin asked finally, swiping misty droplets from his face. “Sir?”
“We had reports about Fae combing this place with a fine-tooth comb,” Yao said after a moment. “They didn’t seem to find what they were looking for, so Command decided to send someone to check it out. Kyr.” He waved a hand and Kyr jogged up to his side. “What’s around here? Or what was around here?”
“Uh, the school.” Kyr nodded to it. “Oakenheart Academy. Couple of residential. St. Seb’s down the road. Nothing that exciting.”
“We’ll keep looking. Spread out and pay attention.” Yao nodded and they began to move again.
Kyr wandered down towards St. Sebastienne automatically, aware of Torin across the road and Akiva up ahead. The elementary school was in as bad a shape as the Academy, its roof collapsed over half the building and a number of its walls knocked down to reveal the weather-torn insides. Kyr stepped carefully over what used to be a wall and looked around the remnants of the hallways, remembering what it looked like before. He moved into the half of the building still unsteadily standing, listening to the creaking above and around him, and saw that one of Solan’s murals had survived almost intact, if faded from exposure.
He heard footsteps behind him and turned, smiling a little, to show Torin. His smile faded almost before it fully formed when he saw it wasn’t Torin at all, but a pair of Fae who both towered over him. He registered their uniform at the same instant as they recognized his and saw their eyes widen even as he brought his rifle up. One of them snapped something in a language he didn’t understand and the rifle was yanked from his grip hard enough to send a stab of pain through his fingers, then sent spinning into a corner. He backed away, scrambling to draw his sidearm, and came up hard against the wall behind him a second before the one who hadn’t spoken darted forward, grabbing his wrist and slamming his hand against the wall until the gun fell from his numb fingers.
“Yell and I’ll tear your throat out,” the Fae said conversationally, his voice barely even holding a trace of an accent. Kyr looked into pale blue eyes and swallowed hard, trying not to cringe as more overly tall shadows came out of the darkness, and hoped that the rest of his team had the sense to get out quick.