Atticus along with his group sat quietly in a circle after more than two hours of marching. Though they were deep within the forest, to their relief they had yet to encounter any Atlantans ambushes. Ahead of schedule, Gibson allowed the squad to take a break.
"So Lieutenant Lincoln," one of the enlisted whom Atticus recognized as Cole said. "Do you know what happened last night at the outpost?"
Atticus shrugged and looked at Gibson, who also responded with a shrug.
"All I heard from the survivors," Gibson answered in place of the clueless Atticus. "All I heard is that there were first arrows raining from the sky after night fall. Our boys returned fire and started to bombard the Atlantan side. Suddenly, there were volleys of arrows coming from different sides that covered the Atlantan riders who charged in and caught us with our pants down. What happened next was a full retreat into this forest. However, no one recalled any pursuers. Once they escaped into the forest, none of the Atlantans followed through."
"So they had captured the outpost and turned it into their forward operating base?" Another enlisted by the name of Desmond asked.
"Actually, no one knows what exactly happened to the base after the retreat," Gibson said as he took a deep drink from his canteen. "We do not know if they will use our weapons against us."
"I doubt it," everyone turned towards Atticus. "Aren't they too proud to use our barbaric weapons?"
Some of his teammates chuckled slightly at his comments. It was true that the Atlantans had so far detested the use of gunpowder among their ranks. Archery was their main form of ranged combat, and they happened to be extremely efficient and adept with such primeval weapons. Compared to the more advanced Republic hardwares, the simple Atlantan weapons could be equally deadly when in the right hands and would even provide their users the edge at certain situations such as maneuvering through the dense jungle swiftly or performing an ambush quietly.
"Well, there is only one way to find out," Gibson grabbed his rifle and stood up. "Let's get moving".
The whole operation would require all the vanguard squads to advance through the forest into a vantage point not far off the outpost. Once in position, the command squad would lit a green flare to signal the Cavalry to charge in, while all riflemen would lay down suppressive fire and steadily move in from different flanks to reoccupy the base. Once the the outpost was back in the Republic's hands, blue flares would be lit.
As Atticus' team reached their designated spot, he noticed that a couple other vanguard squads were already in position. While the enlisted members settled down to wait for the first flare, Atticus followed Gibson up a tree to have a better look at the base. As Atticus unstrapped his rifle off his shoulder, he noticed that Gibson had a confused look when scanning around the outpost.
"Here, take a look at this," Gibson said and passed his binoculars to Atticus. "Notice anything strange?"
Looking through the device, he scanned around the entire base rapidly. At first glance, there weren't anything special. Yet, after looking around he realized what Gibson was confused about. There were no one around the outpost. He expected the area to be swarming with Atlantan warriors, yet the outpost seemed to be abandoned. He even noticed the Republican flags had yet been taken down and replaced by Atlantan ones.
"It is empty," Atticus said with a perplexed tone. "Just like the forest, there weren't any sight of them."
"That's what worries me," Gibson murmured. "Can be a trap, so be alerted to anything."
At a distance, Atticus noticed green smoke had emerged. He looked around and saw that every squad was present and with rifles pointing towards the base. From around the corner, he could hear gallops rumbling through the forest. The Cavalry had commenced their charge into the outpost. Atticus instantly picked up the binoculars and tried to spot Clara among the ranks of riders, but couldn't find her as the mounted brigade's movements were too fast for him to track.
While the Cavalry advanced into the base, the rest of the infantry remained motionless. Expecting a firefight, everyone seemed to be too shocked at the lack the resistance to begin following their mounted comrades into the base. Soon, blue smoke emerged from the outpost; the base was retaken without a single shot fired.
"So, what do you think about your first battle?" Gibson beamed at Atticus, who remained confused.
Once again, the Republic's eastern border outpost was filled with blue uniforms as regiments of troops poured into the recaptured base. While everyone was still surprised at how easy the area was secured, the officers took no chance and immediately ordered all watch towers and bunkers to be garrisoned again in case of any reprisals. The remaining squads were ordered to conduct patrols around the base to seek out any possible ambushers or check if anything had been lost and taken by the Atlantans.
While Gibson kept himself busy going through the inventories at the armory, Atticus, Cole, and another trooper named Gal were ordered to check a warehouse a few blocks away. As they approached the wooden building, Atticus could hear a strange, muffled noise coming ahead of them. He stopped his troops abruptly.
"Hear that?" Atticus whispered. His men stopped and slowly they nodded at him.
"Gal, contact Gibson right away. Cole, stack up against the door."
As he and Cole leaned against the wall, the muffled voice got louder. He pulled out the Invictus and held out his palm to signal Cole to hold his position. Though he could feel his adrenaline rushing through his body, he did not want to barge into the building without any immediate backup, in case a legion of Atlantan soldiers were hiding inside awaiting to spring at him. After what seemed to be an eternality, Gal returned with Gibson and the rest of the team.
Atticus pointed at the door and raised his gun. Gibson nodded and signal his men to raise their rifles at the door. Taking a few deep breath, Atticus winked at Cole and in one swift motion he kicked the door down.
With a huge crack followed by a thud, the entrance was breached. Atticus swung forward and pointed the Invictus ahead. The muffled noise became louder and Atticus realized it was coming from the ground. As light rushed in, he could see the the room was packed with people blindfolded and gagged lying on the ground.
"Shit," Gibson exclaimed as he stepped forward. "Someone get the medics, we have survivors tied up in here!"
The discovery of the captured base personnel who were too slow to escape westward into the forest became the headline of the day. Though dehydrated and sore from being tied up and left in the dark since the previous night, there were no serious injuries found on any of them. From their accounts, after overrunning the base, the Atlantans rounded up all the captured soldiers into the warehouse and simply left them there without interrogating them anything.
It was nightfall, and to prevent losing a base to a second Atlantan attack, all guard towers and garrisons were fortified by vigilant troops while cannons were re-mounted and reloaded to prepare for any sudden assaults from the Atlantan jungle. Aside from defensive structures, most of the base had since become operational again.
Atticus' squad were not given the first shift at their garrison, therefore the team dispersed for the time being to refresh themselves. As Gibson was reporting at the command bunker regarding today's discovery in details to the top brass, Atticus decided to head to the officers' mess hall by himself. While the enlisted crammed into a bigger warehouse next door, the smaller group of officers occupied a building smaller in size but was more decorated and spacious thanks to only a handful of patrons were present, allowing Atticus to sit comfortably by himself.
After grabbing his chow and sat down by himself, Atticus stirred his chowder blankly. Though he had not eaten anything since the beginning of the expedition, he didn't have the appetite to swallow more than a couple scoops. Everything had happened way quicker than he anticipated. By now, he expected the battle to recapture the outpost would still be ranging, and as much as he prefer the current situation where the base was retaken peacefully, he couldn't help himself from being paranoid about the Atlantans' intentions.
As Atticus continued to contemplate, someone approached his table. Looking up, he found Clara standing at the opposite end.
"Mind if I join?" she asked.
"Go ahead," Atticus replied almost immediately. Hadn't talked to her ever since his outburst in in the morning, he felt relieved seeing her again.
"Heard your team had found something interesting today," she said as she sat down and lowered her tray.
"More like found someone," Atticus responded with a slight scoff. He began to pour out everything he had come across today, from the surprisingly uneventful journey through the jungle to finding the captive soldiers. Seeing Clara made him felt at ease and talkative again.
"So that's about it," he concluded. "So what about you?"
"Nothing much from the Cavalry actually. We were the first to arrive so we just stacked up somewhere while waiting for everyone else to get in position."
While Atticus and Clara conversed, the hall was bustled with joyful officers who seemed to be oblivious that they were at a war zone. The lack of any engagement had made everyone lax despite they were right at the doorstep of the enemy. Atticus looked around and recognized multiple familiar faces; he could identify a huge portion of the officers were his fellow classmate who just graduated yesterday morning. Like the rest of the inhabitants, they acted as if they were on a field trip without sharing Atticus' paranoia.
Atticus frowned. "Can't believe we just graduated yesterday morning."
Clara nodded in agreement. "And we are now at the frontline. Don't you think things evolved way too rapidly? As if it was all planned out before the supposedly surprise attack last night?"
Atticus raised his eyebrow at her observation. "Not only that, do you feel peculiar about the lack of Atlantans encountered? They-" Atticus was cut off mid-sentence by Clara who extended her palm to cover his mouth when she noticed a couple of officers passing by their table. It was after they stepped away that Clara slowly removed her hand.
"Heed me on this Atty," she leaned forward and whispered into his ear. "Don't confide to anyone but me with what you are seeing. It seemed we are stepping onto something much deeper than we can handle and I believe no one will want us start digging around."
Atticus was about to say something but swallowed it. Though he could sense something was off about the entire situation since last night, he believed he and Clara might be simply overthinking. Nonetheless, he always trusted her intuition, plus he didn't want any of his fellow soldiers think less of him because of his paranoia.
After spending the next moment finishing their meal quietly, the two started to step out of the busy hall once their fellow officers started singing in a drunken manner as if they had achieved a hard fought victory today. The atmosphere outside was more solemn since all on duty personnel were told to be vigilant of any reprisals from the Atlantans. Conversation were kept at a minimal and were usually work related, unlike the rowdiness from inside the mess hall.
Though sparse, there were days back at the Academy when Atticus and Clara would meet up to walk around the campus at night in silence. As the Pastor had described, Atticus was once a lone wolf who never seemed to fit into any crowd. He would spend nights at the orphanage wandering aimlessly by himself until Clara came into his life that cold winter night. Initially he found it strange to have her tailing him, yet he had grown accustomed to her company as the days gone by. Tonight was no different, and Atticus was glad that amidst the tense situation they were in, they could still find the time to continue their old habit.
"I shouldn't have yelled at you today," Atticus decided to finally apologize for his outburst this morning. He rarely lost his temper at her when they were younger, and when he did he was quickly smoothened by Clara's reasoning.
"No, you were right," she quickly responded. "I was selfish to allow my sensibility overcame by my emotions"
She gently grabbed the end of Atticus' right sleeve. "But I want to let you know Atty, that I don't want what happened to my mama to befall unto you."
Atticus grew silent again. Clara never told him what exactly happened to her mother, and he never tried to stir up that tragic memory of hers. He always assumed she died of certain sickness. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Clara, though having not lost her composure, was slightly shaking
"I watched her from an alley," Clara continued in a calm and cold tone. "It was about to rain, yet I wanted to surprise her when she returned from the market. She saw me from a distance though, and as I tried to approach her I saw she was suddenly surrounded by an angry mob They were carrying torches and shouting insults at her that I could not understand, yet I knew something was wrong. I tried to run up and break her out from the crowd, but before I could move a muscle I saw her being dragged forward and thrown harshly onto the ground. We made eye contact from afar, and she tried to signal me to hide, to run.
"I couldn't move. I was too scared to do anything. Then I heard a scream that still haunted me in my dreams, followed by a scene that had become a recurring nightmare. As the crowd dispersed I saw my mama's limp body in a puddle of dirt and blood. I can never understand how a kind and gentle person like mama could be slaughtered in cold blood, and I never will."
Atticus could feel her hand that was holding onto his sleeve was clutched into a shaking fist. He continued to remain silent.
"Not even the Pastor could dictate the brutality. I still had that vignette replaying in my dreams when I moved to the orphanage, until I met you."
At that moment, Atticus jolted and turned to Clara who had put on a serious and resolved face. "You have become much more than a friend to me Atty, you found and pulled me out of a dark abyss I was spiraling into. I can never forget what happened to my mama no matter how hard I tried to forget, and all I want now, as selfish as I may sound, is to protect the only person in my new life from the same tragedy."
Clara stared at the shocked Atticus who had completely lost his words. She released her clutch on his sleeve and turned around to leave after giving him a weak smile.
"My shift at the stables will begin in any moment. Find me there if you cannot sleep," said Clara who had returned to her normal tone as she left the speechless Atticus in the dark.
Patrol duty was mostly consisted of walking along a stone wall that separated the Republic and Atlantis. Between the wall and the Atlantan forest lay a barren land known to the Republic military as the No Man's Land that was looked over by guard towers and cannons mounted on the wall. Prior to last night, it never required much manpower to guard the area unlike the Alamo in the south, where the region was frequently under the harassment of the Colonies.
While his enlisted counterparts were standing firm along the wall, Atticus sat in solemn in a guard tower. Still shocked at what Clara revealed to him, he gazed blankly into the Atlantan forest which was a complete pitch of darkness at night. Although he had known her for more than eleven years, he still had a hard time understanding her and their relationship. She was still an enigma to him, yet at the same time she also seemed to know so much about him.
"Women are mysterious creatures right?" A voice appeared from behind which almost made Atticus jump. He turned around and saw Captain Gibson had joined him at his post.
"Sir," Atticus stood up straight at the sight of his superior.
"At ease, kid," Gibson said casually. "Saw you with that girl just now. Your special someone?"
"We grew up together," Atticus immediately interjected. "From the same orphanage. We also went to the Academy together, but she ended up in the Cavalry."
Gibson raised his eyebrow. "So, more like a sister?"
Atticus laughed. "If that's the case, she has taken the role of an elder sister quite seriously."
The night wind blew softly against the the elevated guard tower. Atticus looked deeper into the forest to spot any movement but to no avail as the entire region had been covered in darkness.
"We will be heading into the forest tomorrow," the captain said as he slouched down an empty seat. "The war seems to be progressing faster than anyone expected. Seems like we will finish the fight and be back home in no time."
Atticus twitched at the captain's remarks. Remember what Clara said back at the mess hall, he couldn't help but to reassure that paranoids might be justified after all.