Fresh clouds of dust spread through the air as the squadron slumped along in formation, long weary bodies exhausted as they trudged along the dirt road. The air was heavy with despair, the weight of their suffering crushing Lance’s lungs.
The brunette shuffled, his shoes clapping against the cobblestone path leading down to the city. Their temple stood high on the hill, a brilliant marble structure that stood out from the rest of the buildings, blue fire ever burning outside the stained glass windows, open and inviting down the winding road. Guards lined this road, standing tall and unmoving as Lance and his peers were lead from the safety of their home, their bodyguards forming an unbreakable line around them, think armour and painted crests marking each and every one of them as a knight of Altea.
Blue eyes attempted to peer past those guards, trying to catch a glimpse of the incoming company of soldiers. Not a lot of news had been heard about the latest battle, all he knew was that they’d won. Still, even won battles tended to take their toll, and soldiers were always thick with horror and self-hate after. He could feel even even here, when he was deep within the city and the company was barely a dot on the horizon.
It felt particularly bad this time though, even worse than others. Soldiers always tended to be overwhelming even under controlled circumstances like the ones they were setting up now, but this felt worse somehow, deeper even. The battle must have been a lot more horrible than he’d heard. No doubt people would be giving it a bloody name once word spread more and people started dropping names.
Lance bit his tongue, chewing nervously for a bit. He’d heard that this was the legendary Shiro’s company that had been involved in the battle. If Shiro, one of the generals himself and easily a walking legend in the making, was part of such a horrible battle than it spelled bad things for what had happened. He’d heard about Shiro’s skill in battle, about how effortlessly he lead his troop, and how he always kept it together and kept level headed no matter the situation. If a leader like that was part of such a bad situation then describing the battle as “horrible” was probably an understatement.
This was going to be a very rough day.
“This feels bad.” Hunk, his best friend and fellow Empath, chuckled nervously. “I can feel it all the way here. This one was really, really, bad. We’re not even close yet and I already feel like I’m going to suffocate.”
“I know.” Lance winced a bit, eyes on the distant shape. It was becoming a bit more difficult to make them out as the sun rose over the horizon, the golden light glaring in his eyes as it peeked over the distant mountain tops. He didn’t need his eyes to make them out though, the weight of their frazzled emotions made it very clear where they were. The rest of the city was barely waking, most not even having risen from their beds yet, and already he was beginning to choke on the the overwhelming power of their emotions. “It was a good idea to get such a large group of us, there's no way the normal number would have worked out.”
Soldiers were always hard for Empaths to work with. The lifestyle and emotional toils of life in the army was too much for even regular folk, and the people who managed to come home always came back changed. There was always something a little broken in them, something even Empaths couldn’t quite fix no matter how much healing they tried. It was more like treating a wound that would one day leave a huge scar across the skin. It was much harder than dealing with a local heartbreak or helping a grieving widow. Sure, those left scars too, but there was a haunting sort of suffering to soldiers that made it seem like they didn’t even want the wounds to be healed.
“I love helping people…” Hunk breathed, letting out a small wave of nervousness that had the others gravitating towards them, “...but I’m not looking forward to this. I mean, I’m happy to do it, but I’m going to need a lot of wind down and recovery time after this.”
Lance let out a sympathetic noise, reaching out to pat Hunk’s shoulder in a show of companionship, the bell-like hem of his blue robe pooling around his elbow as he raised the hand upward, “I know buddy, I’m going to need a lot of wind-down time too. I swear I’m going to soak in the baths for hours tonight. I’m going to use my good creams too.”
His creams and masks were pricey and he prefered to save them. Sure, the temple had no shortage of money, and each Empath was given more than enough, but import costs alone could burn through monthly coin. So he saved his nice products for days like this, when he knew he would need the extra help to wind down more the toil of the day’s labors.
Hunk fidgeted again, a wave of anxiety rolling from him. Lance felt the instinctual pull Empaths shared with one another compel him closer, as it did for the others, and they huddled together.
“You need to calm down.” Lance reminded gently, “We’re all going to be busy enough today.”
“I know.” Hunk sighed, and Lance could feel him trying to roll the anxiety back. “I’m trying. Sorry bud, its just...that looks like a small company...and they feel so much more suffocating than normal companies.”
He was right. Their group was off the temple pathway now, making their way down the empty streets now, well on their way to the meeting point. The few early risers that were about bowed away, leaving the paths open for them. Every step drew them closer to the meeting point outside the city, and ever step closer made the miasma of misery grow thicker and thicker. The sheer dread and weariness was enough to make Lance’s knees shake. It was bad, it was very bad. What had happened?
“Hey.” He felt Hunk pat his back gently. Blue eyes turned upward, meeting the gentle brown orbs of his best friend, “We’ll just have to work through it as best we can. We’ll tell the guards we need to shift out if it gets too much.”
Lance nodded, knowing that Hunk was right. There were others in the temple, and if they took shifts than it would give them all time to recover before they had to continue. They’d get through this, even if it was going to be a bit harder than most. Still, it wasn’t going to be fun at all. Just walking to the meeting point was already wearing him down, he couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like working through the soldiers.
It would be worth it when he got to meet Shiro though, that guy was his hero.
The thought of meeting Champion Shiro cheered him a bit, momentarily distracting him from the heavy atmosphere. His step had a small skip to it as he let himself imagine meeting the man who survived an entire year in Galra captivity before escaping all on his own, and then he returned to battle without even needing to see an Empath! He was so strong and so cool! Pulling through things that most men wouldn’t be able to even with an Empath’s help. It was amazing!
Hunk chucked, clinging to the sudden burst of cheeriness that bubbled from within Lance, “Thinking about meeting Shiro?”
“You know it!” Lance beamed, “It would be an honor to help someone like Shiro.”
Hunk continued to chuckled a bit, lingering onto the cheer and letting himself be lost in it rather than the despair, “I doubt you’ll get to. He’ll probably want use to focus on the more emotional soldiers. You know the ones.”
Lance frowned a bit. Yeah, yeah he did know the ones. The ones who stare ahead blankly, like they couldn’t see anything happening around them, their minds still trapped on the battlefield even as their feet marched them hundreds of miles away. Those are the ones they’re here to help, the ones who couldn’t get better without an Empath’s help.
That dampered his mood a little bit.
Hunk felt it too. The larger man let out a tired sigh, turning to look ahead a bit, “We’re almost here.”
Lance looked up, his eyes locking with the barracks set up just outside the city wall, between the first and second defensive walls. They usually met up with company of soldiers in the courtyard just outside the rooms, which were built into the stone walls, leaving everyone with plenty of space to move about and get to where they were needed.
They were at the inner wall now, the massive gate parting just enough to allow their company through. The instant they were inside the gate closed behind them, and Lance felt the heavy despair sink over him like a sudden and unwelcome wave.
The soldiers had already been let in, and they all huddled into the courtyard. The weren’t doing well at all. Many of them had lost the strength in their legs, having fallen to the ground from sheer exhaustion. The soldiers lined up the walls, huddled together as they tried to fight off the lingering fear. Men and women ran about, trying to set up the camp. Wounded soldiers were carried off waggons, bloodied bandages sagging against their bodies as they were carried off towards the building that acted as their medicine room. More soldiers line up the walls of that building, monks and alchemists both forced to work outside from the sheer number of wounded soldiers crowding them.
Even then, there were far less soldiers in this company than Lance had seen in any other.
The air was so heavy that his knees nearly gave out right there, the heavy smog of dread washed through him, knocking the very breath from his lungs. It took a lot of effort to say on his feet, and he found himself aimlessly walking forward, aimlessly trying to figure out where he should even start.
It was only then Lance realized what he was witnessing. This wasn't just survivors of a battle, these were the survivors of a slaughter. Blue eye roamed over the soldiers, not even finding one that wasn’t wounded in some way.
The other Empaths flocked, each one moving towards a huddled mass of soldiers and setting out to work, trying to smooth the pains of the pittiable masses. Even Hunk broke from his side to tend a particularly shaken man whose arm was wrapped in a bloodied sling.
Lance could only wonder forward mindlessly, mind torn as he tried to gure out where to even begin. He choked more on the heavy despair, the thick miasma a heavy shroud on his shoulders. His eyes roamed over the soldiers mindlessly, searching letting the emotions cloud him, each pain just a severe as the last.
Until it wasn’t.
He hadn’t thought that something worse could wash over him than the miasma, but then a dagger sharp pain pierced his heart, twisting it painfully as he cried out and clenched his hands over his chest, the pain far more physical than anything he’d felt from a soldiers camp before. Blue eyes snapped open, frantically searching for the source of the pain.
He found it coming from a bench of sorts, nestled under a worn tree. There were three men there, two soldiers and an apothecarist. The younger soldier was only his age, but already he seemed aged by the horrors. The apothecarist was tending to wound on the soldier, wrapping their shoulder in thick bandages. The same wounded soldier was kneeling, on of his hands spread of the older soldier’s knee.
The wounded soldier was small. He was a slight, pale, thing with too-long black hair sticking to his sweat drenched forehead. He was trembling in his armour, body giving the smallest bit of shake as he spoke slowly to the older soldier. The older soldier, covered in clean bandages, tilted his ear towards the boy, letting the other’s words wash over him. It took Lance a moment to realize that the crest painted across the armour marked the man as the General Shirogane, because the overwhelming presence of the younger boy distracted him so much.
The boy, the pain was coming from him.
He hurried over, determined to ease away the hurt now, because it was so painful, stabbing and bleeding through like someone had really struck him with a dagger, only to come to a stop once he became close enough for the boy’s pain to really wash over him.
Then he felt it. The draw.
It was the draw every Empath felt for one of their own kind, an instinctual thing that comforted them and drew them to one another. The boy must have felt it too, because he paused his conversation with the general, head jerking back. He tilted his head for a moment, violet eyes turning to meet Lance. They stared at one another for a long moment, the connection between them clear as day to Lance, but it was nearly drawn out by the fear and uncertainty, the bone deep chill of self-hate and raw hurt bare before him as Lance soaked it all up.
Then, all at once, the boy’s eyes widened as he tried to pull back his emotions in waves, trying fo file them away and out of sight. It was too late though, Lance had seen, he’d felt it, and he rushed forward to meet his fellow Empath.
“What are you doing here?” Lance asked as he approached the table, causing the other two men to look up. The brown haired apothecarist blinked at him, seemingly confused for a moment, before moving to speak, “I’m sorry, I’m healing these soldiers now. Thank you for your concern, Ser, but we are doing as well as can be expected. An Empath’s help would be better used elsewhere today.”
Lance blinked, confusion overriding him as he paused. He looked at the boy, whose face had become guarded. He studied his fellow Empath, wondering about the bone deep chill he felt from the other. He didn’t recognize the other boy from the temple, he certainly hadn’t been with the group he’d come with, and the armour...why was he wearing armour? Who would put an Empath in armour?
Who had hurt an Empath? It was illegal to do so, an automatic death sentence. Yet here the boy was, with a deep wound along his shoulder indicative of assault.
Had they...had they rescued him from the Galra?
Lance felt a new wave of horror wash over him and shivered. No, no surely even the Galra weren’t savage enough to send an Empath out into battle. Even they weren’t so stupid. The madness it would induce in them…
But it was beginning to look like that might be the case for this boy.
Gods, how did he survive? Had he traveled with them in all this thick despair by himself? The entire way home from the battlefield? What did the Garla do to him?
“Then I’ll take him.” Lance stated, reaching for his fellow Empath. The boy only flinched back though, seeming startled, the other two made a noise a well, like they were equally started by Lance’s proclamation.
“Why?” The boys snapped, “You heard him, I don’t need your help. Go away.”
“What? No.” Lance insisted, reaching out for the other Empath, wanting to pull him into a hug and ease away the waves of mistrust and fear he felt leaking through the thick walls the boy had set up. He tried to hide it, oh, he tried, but they were both Empaths and the connection between them let his muted pain through. He could hide from others, but not his own kind. And if the pain he felt was any indication of the way the Galra treated their Empaths than Lance swore, then and there, that he would personally march Diabazaal and resecure every Empath in their capital. But first he had to start with the one right here. He brushed his fingers against the others’ arm, wrapping the digits lightly around a stray sleeve as he tugged the boy, “I promise I won’t hurt you. Please, just come back to the temple with us. I swear it is safe.”
The boy gave a startled look, like he couldn’t believe the words leaving Lance’s mouth, “I’m fine. I don’t need to go anywhere.”
“Keith?” The other soldier, the Takashi Shirogane, spoke. And suddenly Lance was lost somewhere between the awe of seeing his hero and the overwhelming concern he had for his fellow Empath.
Now the senior soldier was looking between the two of them, his face twisting in concern. Lance felt a fresh wave of worry wash over him, the warm love and concern familiar in a way that made him want to march back into the city and visit his family’s house. The man reached over, his hand squeezing the younger boy’s knee, “Keith...are you sure you’re okay? I...Keith, please don’t pretend you’re alright if you’re not.”
“I’m fine.” Keith snapped, pulling back a bit, waving his injured hand towards a mass of huddled soldiers. “I’m no worse than I ever am after battle, I don’t know why he’s so fixated on me when there are guys over there doing a lot worse.”
By some some of his fellow Empaths had strayed close enough to feel the raw hurt leaking off the boy, the others also reeling in horror as they slowly came to the same conclusions he had. They were gathering now, slowly trying to reach for him. This wasn’t lost on the apothecarist, who eyed the lingering figures warrily, his eyes sharp as he studied them. But Lance didn’t pay attention to any of them, no, it was the boy...Keith...that he set his attention on, trying to reach out a goad the other into relaxing.
“I’m not here to hurt you.” Lance tried, trying to reach his arms around him, only to be rejected as the other hissed and snapped away. It was alright, though, Lance didn’t blame him, not after all this. What the Galra did was too cruel, forcing an Empath to travel with soldiers to a battle, more akin to torture than serves. So he tried again, more slowly this time, “I promise, our temple is good, we can help you there. We won’t make you travel the battlefield like the Galra did.”
“What?” Keith pulled make further, his outrage rolling over Lance is a rush of intoxicating anger, “I have never served the Galra. How dare you…?”
“Keith.” The apothecarist grabbed the boy’s uninjured shoulder, his face set in a firm frown. A cold wash of horror was slowly working through the man, creeping through his veins like ice slowly forcing through his blood, “I don’t think he’s accusing you of being a traitor.”
“Obviously he is, Adam.” Keith shrugged off the man’s hand, “Why the fuck else would he say that? How dare you. I may not be the most disciplined soldier in the army, but you can never question my loyalty.”
A heavy quite passed between the, the weight of the boy’s words settling into Lance’s stomach. Now if felt his own frozen fear, the same slow creeping he felt from the apothecarist. No, no, this wasn’t right. His distress brought the other Empaths closer, and he could fel Hunk’s own nagging concern as his friend stood from his place where he’d been helping a group, his brown eyes moving over them and locking onto Keith.
“Please...” Lance found his words after a minute, slow and uneasy as he spoke, “Please tell me you’re not really a soldier.”
“He is…” The older man stood up,his voice uneasily, fear crawling through his body like an uncoiling snake. “This is my right hand, Keith Kogane of the the Shirogane company.”
It was too much for Lance, the pure, fucked up, horror of those words running through his head over and over, never stopping. It was so fucked up, too fucked up. He cried, throwing himself at the Empath, because what else could he do? A soldier, he was a soldier. How? How was he even alive?
His cry brought the others, a flood of robed bodies joining him as they let out their own gasps and cries. His loss of control caused chaos, his fellow Empaths forcing their way over. Keith panicked beneath him, squirming as he tried to escape Lance’s hold, but he refused to let go, not after finding out what he just had. Not after learning the torture he’d gone through.
How had this happened? How had the army not noticed? An Empath in their own ranks. They’d made him fight. They’d made him stand in the battlefields. Oh gods, they made kill.
“How did this happen?” He’s not sure who is asking, it could have been him, but the chaos and rapid panic and outrage were slowly taking over even the heavy weight of fear. “How did an Empath become a soldier!”
Shiro’s eyes widened, snapping towards the younger soldier, a mix of horror and confusion filling him. By now the panic had drawn the attention of everyone else in the camp. Hunk had barreled through the others, being the largest of them, and their team of knights were demanding answers as they approached.
“What are you talking about?” The noiret demand, pushing Lance away and backing up, fear and confusion coursing through him like a raging river, “What Empath? What’s going on?”
“You don’t know?” Lance demanded, “How do you not know?”
Adam moved, grabbing Keith’s uninjured shoulder again, eyes wide and dread spilling from him as he spoke, “Keith...Keith I think you need to go with them.”
“No.” Keith shouted, balling his fists as he backed away, cornering himself against a tree as he was slowly surrounded by cooing Empaths trying to ease him into calmness. He was frantic now, eyes wild and flickering and hands twitching, “I’m not leaving Shiro. I’m not going anywhere. I’m fine!”
“Keith.” Shiro tried to ease the boy, reaching out for him. Keith snapped his head towards him, a flicker of hope filling him as he faced the older man, but it was dashed by the man’s next words, “I think you should go with them Keith.”
“Shiro, no.” The pale boy shook his head, his walls crumbling down as fresh, raw, pain physically tore through Lance’s body, causing him and several others to let out pained cries. The knights had moved in now, the heavily armoured men moving to wrestle Keith way from the tree, physically carrying the boy. Keith didn’t go easily though, kicking and clawing as he was lifted up, letting out an devastating cry that had the others trying harder to ease away the pain. It was useless though, the boy refusing to be calmed as he continued to kick and scream while the knights worked to carry him away.
“Shiro, Shiro! No! Shiro, Shiro please!” The boy cried out, still kicking as the knights carried him away. The Senior Knight, Sir Kolivan, stayed, watching the boy fight against the others as he was carried away, only turning to face Shiro well after they were out of sight and the screams were muted by distance. He was angry, unbearably angry, the heat of it rolling of him even as he keeps a straight face, “Care to tell me how and why you were harboring an undiscovered Empath in the army soldier?”
Shiro, hurt, horrified, devastated Shiro, only spoke a single, broken, sentence, “I didn’t know.”