Chapter Seven, Part 1

Let me tell you a story...

Her cheeks flushed, almost crimson in charmed embarrassment.

"Corporal, you're just too--do you really think my eyes are like starlight?"

I prickled slightly, I'll admit. I mean, she was laying it on a bit thick. But so was our church liaison officer... our married liaison officer.

"Miss Corwinne," he smiled earnestly, ignoring the promotion from Lance Corporal she’d just given him,"I'm paying the stars a compliment, really I am." He nodded for emphasis. "And your hair is just like the leaves on this apple tree we had outside my window growing up... in the Fall its leaves got this beautiful shade of red. In the mornings, in the dew, they'd just shimmer in the light... That's what your hair reminds me of, Miss Corwinne."

Oh, I could just eat him right up.

She was looking good tonight, I had to admit. It would be unfair to call her “grimy”, but Corwinne normally sports a slight patina of thaumiol and sweat, and is more at home with a spanner and her ether goggles than with the collapsable fan and corset she'd slid herself into for the evening's festivities. Her long leather jacket had been traded for an auburn evening gown that offset her hair just so, and she seemed as at home in her creamy, elbow-length opera gloves as she'd normally be in their insulated workman's cousins that normally covered her fingertips. A diamond-studded necklace with a massive ruby pendant completed her outfit, as well as her cover as a baroness of the Fanelands.

Her attempts at a Fanish accent when we'd practiced had been nothing short of apocalyptic, so "raised by the Church in Noldon" had been the cover we'd finally adopted. The festivities thrown in honor of the visiting Church dignitary--that'd be me--had been meager, but the sight of her had certainly made the effort worthwhile for every NCO in the battalion.

She giggled, then sighed wistfully, leaning on the arm of her escort. I didn't prickle. Much.

"Ah, Corporal, you're sweet. I don't suppose I'm very likely to meet a nice gentleman like yourself anytime soon, though, spending my time here on the front." Then she turned and gave me a huge stage wink, pointing a gloved thumb at our escort and shaking her head imperceptibly, a huge, "will you get a load of this guy?" grin on her lips. Walking several paces behind them, by dint of my red collar an honored guest of the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade, I suppressed a laugh.

That was my girl.

We made our way down from the officers' mess, where by now drunken NCOs were expounding upon what they would enjoy doing on or to various parts of my partner’s anatomy. The welcoming party thrown by Leftenant Commander Holvelak--whose augustness I had yet to lay eyes on, telling me all I needed to know about his feelings toward the Church--had essentially been a debauched drinking binge, though with a single female in attendance, it had devolved into increasingly non-hushed depictions of the extreme sexual prowess of all those in attendance--myself thankfully excepted. Corwinne had been like a wrinkle in the fabric of reality, projecting a zone of rapid shushing wherever she arrived, and having the irresistible pull on the eyeballs wherever she’d left. Me, no one quite seemed to know what to do with. Certainly every officer in the room was a devout churchgoer--he’d hardly be elevated to officer without checking off that box--but by their profession and nature, these were none of them holy men. I was both the distant authority figure they all longed to please, and a goddamn annoyance that prevented them from completely eye-fucking the only woman they’d seen in months.

I was largely ignored, which suited me fine. I wasn’t here to socialize.

Having plead my partner’s tiredness, we now meandered our way down gently corkscrewing ramp of our conquered elven village's Mother Tree. Each tread of my ceremonial slippers sank ever so slightly into the ancient leather that wound around its trunk, held aloft by branches that the elves had coaxed to grow just so from the massive oak's girth. Relaxing as my partner distracted her smitten Lance Corporal--though able to distinguish between seven different models of thaumagical battle dress already, I was pretty sure Corwinne wouldn’t have known the difference between a Lance Corporal and a Captain--I marveled at the 27th's new base of operations... or rather, at the remains of the millennia of elven patience that had crafted what we then stole.

The Mother Tree had been the center of the village, and its arboreal common areas would once have featured court hearings, religious ceremonies, and carefree revels. It stood taller than any tree I had ever seen, its upper reaches no less than five hundred feet from the earth, and from what I'd heard over more than several bottles of the Leftenant Commander's wine, it was a piece of kindling by comparison to what could be found farther into the elvish lands. That thought was enough to make a city boy like me feel a certain awe at our enemies, and a primal regret that any of this war was necessary. The Mother Tree's leaves were five feet wide, and when she gave them up, the elves wore them as armor that was lighter and sturdier than most of our thaumaturgically-reinforced leathers. Any people who could create such amazing bounty out of nature, whisper to it like a consort to her lover, telling him just what he needed to hear--

Just like that, my reverie snapped. Like an emphasis laid down over my own internal monologue, an image highlighted in my imagination, came the Revelation. Most in my order pray daily for signs from God, for spiritual guidance and help in troubled times. They would happily sacrifice their worldly wealth for a glimmer of soothsaying from on high. Self-flagellation isn't unheard of, in an effort to purify themselves to accept the holy oracle. Suckers. Revelation means only one thing in my life: someone would die soon.

My senses in overdrive, I cast my too-human perceptions out into the night, hoping to catch any sign of what we were about to face. Elves, it had to be. I’d heard that they just vanished when our troops approached: no one had seen a single elf. That didn’t mean they weren’t around, though. Given the string of minor, coincidental disasters that befell the men of the 27th as they made their way towards the elf village--disasters that cost the lives of nearly two dozen men and rendered inoperable the heaviest weaponry in the brigade--I suspected elf-magic at work. No way had the elves just given up their village and fled.

"Lance Corporal, I don't mean to rush you, but is there any way we could pick up the pace a little? I've got... er... these robes aren't much protection against the weather, you know."

Corwinne heard it in my voice, and her hand went immediately to her belt... which wasn't there. I saw her stiffen from behind. She wasn't one to give much credence to "ancient superstition", but she trusted my nose for danger. Without her tool belt, though, she wasn't packing her usual bag of tricks. "Defenseless" was a strong word, but it didn't look like she'd be laying much smack down tonight. Great. Her would-be suitor caught none of this, however, and cast a frown back at me.

"It isn't so cold out, Father. Still, if your holiness is uncomfortable..." he sighed. "Certainly, Father. We'll be to your quarters soon. Commander Holvelak thought you would be more comfortable at ground level, and we're almost..." He stopped, trying to follow my frantically-darting gaze. "I'm sorry, is there something that you're looking for?"

There was, and I spotted it a fraction of a second after it found the Lance Corporal's neck. Crimson and yellow mixed as the arrow took him through the throat. It tore through his larynx, flying off into the dark, and he crumpled, clutching at the breaths that were mixing with the blood that poured from his body.

Off into the dark? The arrow had come from...

The elf seemed to step from the Mother Tree itself, the bladed end of his war bow slashing down at Corwinne. There was this sort of crevasse, a curious fold of the tree's bark that had served both to hide a mud-painted infiltrator and to cause my eye to just glaze right past his hiding spot. Even seeing clearly the hideaway from which he'd stepped, I could barely force my eyes to focus on it. Such was the magic of the elves, if you could call it that: they spent their centuries carefully shaping the trees, breeding the animals, and moving even the earth itself to serve their precise needs. And we’d had the gall to invade one of their carefully-shaped cities? The whole of the natural world seemed to obey their every whim!

One of those whims appeared to be my partner's death. God and I had other plans for her.

We were both moving before our escort's knees had hit the leathery floor. Corwinne's hand bent strangely, releasing the contents of some hidden pouch in her glove; these she flung at the Lance Corporal. Shimmering blue and silver motes sped through the air with a speed borne of purpose. Corwinne called them "metamorphic bio-pattern perfectors", which seemed to be her way of saying that they'd fill in the gaps of you that for some reason had gone missing. Victim of many such gaps, I knew them all too well.

Just as I knew her, and her infuriating penchant for self-sacrifice. Dodge out of the way of the blade aimed at her throat? Oh, Jaspar, I couldn't, not if it would make a difference in saving the life of some--

My internal monologue took a moment to compose itself as I barreled into her, hitting just at the waist so as not to knock the wind out of her. As her head whipped forward, the elf's blade sliced through a lock of her hair, but Corwinne's haircut was the least of my worries at the moment.

I deposited her a few paces down the ramp, and turned to face our attacker. The elf was lithe and quick, a new arrow already nocked and drawn. His leaf-armor was coated with a thick mud, but as he stepped into the moonlight that filtered down through the thick arbor, his skin began to glow softly, emitting a cool blue radiance. By every appearance, he had me dead to rights. But he didn't have God on his side.

How can I describe it, fighting with divine guidance? It's like everything in the world goes black-and-white, except the thing that I absolutely have to focus on, which shines with the brightest color. Sometimes I'll see things, flickering ghosts of the Divine Will, showing me What Must Be. When I say that the Lord guides my hand, I mean just that: He shows me the way. It isn't as if He takes the reins, and I've certainly enough scars to prove that I'm not always worthy of the advice He offers... but it does mean that I'm liable to spot things that no one else sees, and make judgments just that fraction of a second faster than anyone expects.

It also means I'm a bastard to hit, especially when you're sure you've got me covered. The elf let his yellow-fletched arrow fly without even so much as a "die, outlander"--which just goes to show that they have no sense of the dramatic--but I was already in motion, sliding into just the right position, not through any great battle instinct of my own, not by watching the elf's all-black eyes to know where he's aiming, but because I could see a Jaspar-shaped emptiness in the air that cried out to be filled.

I filled it, and the arrow's breeze tousled my hair rather than its tip spattering my brains. The elf's black eyes betrayed him for only a second, but in that time he saw a feral grin, and a blade slide into my hand from a hidden wrist-sheath. I felt Jorngnir swell like an erection, the Butcher's Blade eager to taste new meat... and then, with an electric sizzle, the elf pitched forward, thin streams of smoke curling from his pointed ears.

"Damn it, woman," I groused, "I even had a witty one-liner. I swear, you take all the fun..."

I turned, breath catching just a little. "... out of the job," I finished, weakly. There she stood, her red evening gown clinging to her body, her arm cocked with some sort of oversized lightning pistol pointing casually towards the sky. Her breasts rose just slightly in her corset and her face was flushed with adrenaline. She put one hand on her hip and I swear to God she blew the smoke off from the muzzle of her gun.

"It's cute of you to stare," she chirped brightly, "but I think I'm probably going to need scary-fuck-you-up Jaspar, not I-have-these-pelvically-frustrating-vows Jaspar, mmmkay?"

"I wasn't staring. I was pouting."

"At your woefully inadequate sex life, I know. Now's not the time. Scary Jaspar!" She bared her teeth and made a claw with her empty hand, to show me what she was getting at. “Rrrrr!”

"I was pouting at... come on, one-liner! Those don't happen every-- Ahhh, wait up!"

Before I could gather my wits enough to ask her where she'd gotten that pistol, given the anatomically-accurate nature of her current attire, she strode past me, tearing her necklace off with a hard motion. Her body shimmered, glittering silver for a moment, and then she stood revealed as the Corwinne I knew so well: battered leather jacket, insulated workman's gloves, boots and breeches, and more pockets than could be picked by all of Sayn Agaetha's Reformatory for Wayward Lads.

"You weren't really wearing.. you just glamoured yourself!" I sputtered. "I'm in ceremonial slippers, here! With the full frock, and this cord that's got tassels on it! Tassels!"

"He's very grouchy when I'm cleverer than he expects, Corporal. How's the neck?" She was helping our escort to his feet, which was made a bit of a chore by the way that he was lying in a pool of his own blood. Very slippery, those, especially when combined with the wooziness of blood loss.

The man was clearly dazed, and he pawed at his neck in confusion. Where torn flesh ended, a shimmering blue substance had coalesced, and as he probed it, it bent and flexed under his fingers, just like the real thing would.

"Don't pick at it," his guardian angel scolded. "Your skin will grow back around it, and you'll be good as new, with barely any scarring or anything. Metamorphic bio-pattern--ph, never mind; it's maaaa-gic. See?" She held up a lens from her goggles so that he could see his neck reflected. "Sparkly!"

"... and therefore magic," I finished, grabbing one of the Lance Corporal's arms as she took the other. I jerked my head toward the elf's smoking corpse. "Let's do a little more magic and disappear before that guy's buddies show up."

We escorted our escort rapidly back to ground level, and by the time we'd hit the forest floor, he seemed to have regained control of his legs. Talking did not seem to be a faculty that had returned to him yet, which I took to be a mercy as I strained to listen for the further dangers I knew lurked in the night. My Revelation hadn't yet been answered, which meant that the dying had only just begun.

"I'm wearing makeup," Corwinne hissed loudly.

"What?" I was genuinely taken aback.

"You're not talking to me, which is what you do when you're mad at me. So I asked myself why you would be mad, and I figure it must be because I was just wearing a glamour and you had to wear your stuffy ceremonial robes, which I suppose must not be very comfortable or particularly combat-ready. And then I said, 'Ah-ha!', because you hate not being combat-ready, so not only are you mad because you're the only one who's been uncomfortable, but also because you're questioning whether you'd have gotten that guy if you were just wearing your regular robes instead of these ones, which reminds you that you're mad about me not really wearing a dress."

I stared at her, but for a different reason than last time.

"Sooo I thought I'd point out that only my clothes were glamoured, and I really am wearing makeup, which is a total bitch-and-a-half to put on, you have no idea, so I really did have to suffer just like you did and you shouldn't be mad." She waited for a reply, fidgeting slightly under my baleful look. "Maybe a bitch-and-three-quarters?"

"Sayn Ieander," I spat, failing to repress a grin. "I swear I wish I could stay mad at you."

She grinned back. " 'Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne.' "

"Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne."

" 'And I like what you've done with your hair.' "

I sighed. "And I like what you've done with your hair. Can we--?"

She was on a roll. Even the Lance Corporal was grinning at me. " 'And I'm sorry I never take you to nice places where you can wear dresses for real, and maybe dance with you a little.' "

I dropped and spun low, Jorngnir's haft catching them both at the backs of their knees. Three arrows whizzed just overhead, and a fourth nicked my shoulder, drawing a streak that neatly matched my banded collar.

"We'll talk about this later," I gritted...

To Be Continued!