Prologue: Afternoon Visitors
23 August 1914
The only sounds in Mons were of gunfire and death. Hattie had done what she was supposed to and continued healing injured soldiers at her post until the nurses had been ordered to retreat with the injured soldiers. Since she was woken up at dawn to news German soldiers had reached the city, though, there had been only one thought echoing around in her skull: Joey was out there, and he could die while she sat in the background. Now free from her obligations to the wounded, Hattie was more determined than ever to do her part at the front-line and save her brother. She walked with relaxed shoulders and purposeful strides, trying to keep her face down and away from possibly prying eyes. With the backline’s attention already torn between defending against the Germans and evacuating the city’s remaining residents, the soldiers’ attentions naturally glazed over the nurse, even as she walked towards the danger.
The blood of the dead flowed through her, fueling her magic despite the grief it struck. She let the familiar warmth settle inside her as her eyes scanned face after face for Joey. Surviving commanders shouted orders of retreat from the closest salient. They definitely wouldn’t direct her further into the battle. She ignored them and walked on.
“You there – nurse.” Of course, people were bound to question a five-ten woman in the middle of a war zone eventually. She turned to a white-mustached British officer with a large nose and tired eyes. “How did you get this far into the city? You need to evacuate now.”
“I’m not in the military, nor am I one of the queen’s subjects, so I’m afraid you don’t get to tell me to leave,” Hattie said. She shifted her pocketknife out of her sleeve and reached it underneath her low bun to the never fully healed scar there, slicing into the thick skin. The magic bled out of her like a boiling kettle, furnished by the climbing number of hundreds of corpses around her. It was nearly overkill to do a simple distraction skill.
The officer walked towards his men to continue shouting orders as if he had never seen her at all, and she continued forward on her search. She knew Joey was there; she could feel him. With her spell, he would walk right past her if she didn’t stop him.
Now at the front line, with only stacks of sandbags protecting them from the Germans, she found it harder to hide her desperation. Where was her brother?
The gunfire was ringing, forcing her to put her hands over her ears as she looked around. The power flowing from the blood in her small cut was dizzying. When she spun around to turn down another street, she nearly sobbed in relief when she saw him. He was leaning against one of the shorter stacks of bags, gun in hand as he peaked around the line.
“Joey!” she shouted, hurrying towards him. His chocolate brown hair was buzzed short to his scalp, his mustache surrounded by growing scruff. Bags drooped deep under his red-rimmed eyes, and his uniform was wrinkled and stained with sweat. At her touch, her distraction spell’s power over him broke, and he jumped at seeing her so close, barrel aimed in between her eyes. She didn’t blink. “Joey, we have to hold them off.”
“Hat– what the f– what are you doing here? How are you even in Belgium?” he asked, his grip immediately tight around her bicep. “You– never mind. You have to get out of here now!”
“Don’t be an idiot, Joey. Artillery clearly isn’t enough to hold off the Germans, but we can do it together with our magic.”
“You’re the one being an idiot. Get the hell out of here!” he said, pushing her back away from the sandbags. “It’s not safe–”
Hattie didn’t distinguish the shots from the constant barrage of gunfire, but three bullets suddenly struck through her brother’s back all the same. His eyes widened as three circles of blood formed, and he didn’t look away as he swayed. An animalistic scream erupted from her throat as she hurried to catch him. No, she just found him – they were supposed to be safe together.
He looked down at where the bullets had come out through his chest, the blood seeping through his uniform as the men around her suddenly noticed the pair. She pressed her hand into the wound, the red warm against her palm as she began to whisper her healing spell.
Men started shouting and trying to pull her off of him. She wouldn’t let them. She couldn’t. Her spell wasn’t finished.
Joey coughed in a way that shattered her heart as a soldier pulled them both further behind cover. Her brother looked up at her as men surrounded him, his mouth twitching into a smile before he completely collapsed.
His smile stayed frozen in place as the men lowered him to the ground. Their attention only stayed on him for another brief moment before one of them pronounced him dead.
Hattie fell to her knees as the world was torn from beneath her. Other soldiers grabbed her by the arms and began to drag her away, but she shook them off with a scream. She tried to crawl towards him, but they wouldn’t let her. Everything spun around her, except him. As she looked at his body lying there perfectly still, she knew she was too late.
The chaos around her echoed back into words – men shouting orders of retreat. Two men held either of her arms as they finally pulled her back, her eyes locked helplessly on her brother’s corpse. Hattie growled before elbowing one of her captors in the gut, making him drop her. Using all her weight, she swung to punch the other right in the nose. It crunched beneath her fist, his blood pouring out to add fuel to her already raging fire. She pried his hand from her arm before spinning around and bounding back to her brother.
His blood was her blood, and it spiraled through her like a shot of heroin. She nearly glowed with magic trying to burst through her skin, and it mixed with her anger until her entire body boiled with rage.
Hattie ripped open his shirt, smearing his blood onto her fingers before tracing it on her forehead in a triangle. Heaven. Hell. Earth.
Her kin’s blood rippled through her like a tidal wave, and she rose in a fury as the new power washed over her. Hattie ignored the shouting from the frightened men and walked out from behind the safety of their walls.
Before any Germans could realize what was happening, she released her power like a machine gun. It shot across the streets in a stinging gust, followed by silence as the temperature plummeted to freezing.
A single shot fired, and Hattie grunted as a bullet struck her in the shoulder. She stumbled but refused to fall, her blood singeing her skin red as it soaked into her shirt.
Her hand cradled the wound as she stayed firmly rooted in place, her spell a whisper in the Germans’ ears. Her voice came from everywhere, ringing around them like a hissing snake – but the spell wasn’t meant for them.
Jannada illali. Caadabta aargudasho. Dulkha buundo.
A mist crept from the shadows, and in its haze stood the ghosts of men answering the call to follow the witch’s march.
Instead of guns, these ghosts held bows. Their pointed helmets faded in and out, the red crosses on their tunics sliding away like melting paint. Hattie didn’t know which century they were from, and she didn’t care. Her only concern was if they were as bloodthirsty as the day they’d died.
Her chanting grew louder, bouncing around the city’s walls as she beckoned the undead forward. She called to them, and they responded by raising their bows.
Arrows shot through the streets like bullets, Hattie taking a fresh breath as she heard the thuds of German bodies falling to the ground. She had never killed a man before, but she had no regret or hesitation. One of those men killed her brother, and since she couldn’t be sure which one, she’d have to kill them all.
Hattie opened her mouth to shout the order, but it was as if the ghost soldiers could hear her thoughts. They attacked her brother’s killers for her mercilessly, gliding through the streets as hundreds of arrows clouded the skies. More and more of her enemies fell, and she bathed in the power of their blood.
“Look, it’s angels! God is on our side!” she heard a Brit shout. No, it wasn’t Him this time, but she didn’t mind giving Him the credit.
A bullet tore into her stomach, and she let out an unexpected yelp of pain. Hattie pressed against the wound as the blood drenched her uniform in warm, crimson stains, both giving and taking her strength all at once. She looked around as her soldiers persisted, an endless wave of arrows flying towards the enemy line, but the Germans were still advancing. It looked as though even angels couldn’t stop the Devil when they were already in Hell.
Another bullet buried into her leg, and she fell to the ground. Her archers continued their assault but crowded in front of her, forming a visible barrier for her even if the bullets would just fly through them. She had done her part, at least for now. Hattie crawled back towards the British line as her archers continued their assault.
It was clear that Hattie couldn’t win this battle, but she’d be damned if she lost the Great War. A fellow Ally ran towards her, shouting nonsensical insults as he put her arm around him for support. Her mind screamed that she wasn’t done yet – there was still more revenge to be reaped – but her body had completely given up. Her legs sagged, and the Ally soldier held most of her weight as he dragged her into retreat. She looked back one last time at her brother’s body as the soldier pulled her away towards safety.
No, she wasn’t done yet. Not by far.
The battle had taken nearly the entire day, but as the sun began its descent in the sky, at long last the Germans could finally claim victory. They were to move west soon, but no soldier would miss the opportunity to scavenge the dead for supplies. Fresh boots, ammunition, and sometimes even hidden snacks were too valuable.
Victory or no, the men were all still unnerved from what had happened. They argued over what they had seen. Some imagined they were angels, while others said they must’ve been demons. A few lunatics even claimed that a witch had resurrected them from the dead.
“Generaloberst König, this one’s alive!” a German cadet shouted.
The colonel general turned to the proclamation of a survivor, making the cadet’s face pale, for half of his superior’s face was burned so deeply he could see the actual muscles tick within his jaw. The story was that König’s latest encounter with an Element Focuser, and he let the false rumor spread. It was better than the truth.
Colonel General König walked over to his shouting subordinate and looked down at the mostly dead, muttering Ally soldier. It looked as though the bullets had just missed his heart; one a few centimeters to the left, and they would be dealing with another corpse instead of a potential prisoner.
An American, and by his smell, also a wizard. The colonel general smiled. How long had he waited for this chance? “Get this man a doctor. I need him alive.”