Captain Angeline Quintana finally broke through the tangle of dried undergrowth and emerged at the base of a dead tree. Its gnarled roots twisted over the top of a small pool of water. She sniffed the air. Yes, the faint odor was stronger now. But she couldn’t let herself get excited just yet. Taking a step back, she planted both feet wide and lifted her hands in front of her.
The azure amulet hanging from her neck began to glow against the sticky sweat beaded on her chest. She felt the magic as it poured into her, flowing from the pendant to her heart, then outward, all the way down to the tips of her fingers. Her outstretched palms ignited with a swirling, incandescent blue.
With a careful twist of her fingers, she guided her magic around the protruding tendrils of the dead tree. Then she closed her fists and pulled. She felt the dry wood starting to splinter under the force, the dirt beginning to loosen from the tree’s hold. She kept pulling, teeth gritted.
Then with one final heave of her magic, she tore the stubborn roots from the earth and revealed exactly what she’d hoped for: a bubbling hot spring. She exhaled gratefully, a small smile cresting her lips. She needed this, bad. With a flick of her wrist, she gently laid the hollow tree on its side amongst the withered brush. Closing her fist, she extinguished the sparkling, blue cloud of her magic, and turned back to the spring.
In 10 seconds flat, she’d yanked off her boots, stripped down naked, and stepped into the warm water. The pool was deep enough to comfortably bathe, wide enough to stretch out her exhausted muscles. So much better than those awful showers back at camp. The stalls there were so friggen small she couldn’t enter one without coming down with a mild bout of claustrophobia. Pair that with the frigid water, ugh.
When she absolutely needed a hot shower, say, when she was coated in a spray of sludgy, Elven blood, she’d have one of her Salamander soldiers use their fire magic to heat the water for her. Most of the time she opted for a quick, cold rinse instead. The flame-wielders were best avoided when seeking a moment of solitude. They tended to blabber, relentlessly.
It wasn’t that she disliked her soldiers; they were just so… loud. 90% of her team was made up of the bold, in-your-face fire wizards, and while they had the perfect disposition for thriving out in the field, living with so many of them in close quarters could prove to be a bit of a challenge for those few who didn’t bear the red amulets of the Salamander. Those like Angeline, a Mage.
Battle Mages were rare, making up a little over 9% of the front line. The average Mage just didn’t have the personality or build for the life of a soldier. A typical Mage lived in one of the Castles or at a Tower outpost and used their object manipulation magic to help with daily upkeep and operations. Given that no technology worked on this side of The Veil, the Castle Mages were always in high demand for their ability to help supplement life’s modern conveniences in the absence of electronics and machinery.
But Angeline Quintana was too strong and too clever for the Masters to waste her talents on enchanting alarm bells, warehousing supplies, or casting security illusions. So, as much as she wanted an assignment other than Captain, she also knew she’d be bored with anything else.
She slid her magic amulet off from around her neck and set it on top of her pile of clothes, the cobalt blue pendant sparkling in the light of late morning. She felt naked (well, even more naked) without it on, but she desperately needed to wash her thick, curly hair and didn’t want it getting tangled. She rarely ever took it off; she absolutely could not stand the feeling of powerlessness. When she first came to this side of The Veil 5 years ago, she vowed never to let weakness control her again. She had held true to her promise ever since.
She was top of the spectrum strong, not just for a Mage, but for a wizard in general. For a human in general, really. No one would think it by looking at her, but in the past 5 years, she had mastered 4 types of martial arts, and was decently proficient in at least 4 more. Half the time she took down the enemy, she didn’t even need to tap into her magic.
While she may have wielded unprecedented strength, appearance wise, she fell only slightly above average in just about every way. She was slightly tall at 5’6”, slightly muscular (you really only noticed when she flexed), and slightly pretty, though definitely not beautiful. At least that’s how she’d always seen herself. She didn’t allocate time to worrying about appearances though, not when there was real shit to worry about.
As Captain, not only did she have the responsibility of keeping her entire squadron alive (as well as could reasonably be expected), she also needed to strategize large scale in the war against the dark Elves. And some major game changers had just fallen into her lap.
While the death rate had dropped substantially for her team ever since getting a Diviner, the visions her Diviner reported back had put a whole new unprecedented weight on Angeline’s shoulders. Not only had her Diviner, Keira, Seen visions of massive Elf hordes traversing the land, she’d also uncovered a dark secret.
One of Angeline’s own soldiers, Soren, had been secretly working for the Elves. Then on top of that, the pointy-eared scum attempted to persuade Keira to betray her people and join them as well. Keira, thankfully, would not be swayed. She and the Captain’s Second, Hale, took out the Elves in a bloody battle. But that was just one small faction.
If Soren was not an isolated case, and the Elves really did have other wizards working for them, the situation for both sides of The Veil had just become much more dire than anyone could imagine. Earth and The Realm might fall.
Angeline left Hale in charge of the squadron so that she could make the journey to the nearest Castle and discuss strategy considering these new, unnerving developments. The Earthen governments wouldn’t take the threat seriously until the Elves found a way to cross The Veil. It was up to the human soldiers stationed in The Realm to guard the doorways and pray they never got that far.
Angeline sighed and sunk deeper into the steamy water, her cramped muscles releasing in the soothing heat. If only her soldiers hadn’t lost both of their horses back-to-back within a month. Beasts of burden were hard to come by in The Realm, with the way they were spooked by magic and devoured by Elves. Her unit likely wouldn’t get replacements any time soon.
As such, Angeline was making the trek on foot. She’d already gone 14 miles since dawn and she’d need to do another 20 that day if she expected to make decent time. But first, she needed a decent bath.
Yeah, she’d get dirty again in 20 minutes, but just because she was on a critical mission, didn’t mean she should run herself completely ragged. She knew she’d function best if she stopped off for 10 minutes, tended to her sore muscles, and washed the salty layer of dried sweat off her skin. Chafing to the point of blisters would do nothing to hasten her quest.
She took a breath and dipped her head under the water, soaking her pile of tangled ringlets. When she emerged, she had about two more seconds of blissful silence. Then an all too familiar sound blasted away her brief respite of serenity.
That sound. The unmistakable sound of a Salamander biting off more than they could chew. The sound of uncontrolled flames unintentionally finding just the right pocket of air.
She leapt back into the ferns and shadows at the water’s edge, heart pounding in her throat. Then she realized her mistake. She’d jumped the wrong direction; she’d jumped away from her amulet. The azure pendant sparkled tauntingly on the other side of the pond. A rumbling crescendo thundered and she knew she had mere seconds before something very bad happened.
She dove back across the pond and stretched towards her necklace, the blue amulet just out of reach. Something massive and grey plummeted towards her, and for once, it wasn’t an Elf. Angeline whipped around and leapt back just as a colossal boulder barreled towards the pond in a slide of fury. It rolled past, sparing her skull by a matter of inches.
But though her body lay unstricken, she was not unharmed. Even with the violent echo of the shifting earth pounding in her ears, through the whispers of death barely missed, she still heard the distinct crunch of glass. She still saw a trail of blue shards, her amulet, destroyed.