Chapter 1

The bar was full of life. The bar was always full of loud noises and raised voices. Every bar was in this part of the world. There was no avoiding it. The world was full of individuals who were damaged and broken yet trying to live their lives as normally as possible when normal had been forgotten. New jobs without any violence yet violence was all most of them could remember. Violence, anger and fear along with memories of bloodshed and heartbreak. With so much stress throughout the entire population it was no wonder that drinking was the favourite pastime of both men and women. It was the only way to vent their frustrations and perhaps ease themselves into a sleep without nightmares.

On top of that the bars were no longer as closely monitored as they had been five years ago when memories of the war had still been aching and fresh. The war might have ended ten years ago but it had left a strong impact on everyone. It was impossible to simply get past it. Impossible to forget the pain when a long war had finally ended…and you found yourself on the losing side.

60 years of war.

It had not always been a war that was hot and passionate. There had been years of cold tension where neither side had made a move. But the last ten years had been explosive and frightening with technology advancing rapidly on both sides. Successes measured in body counts. It was inevitable that there would come a point when one side lost or both were destroyed.

No one ever figured themselves the losers.

Propaganda had prepared them for what might happen should they lose. Told tales of what would happen should their militaries fail. Men killed, women enslaved and children raised on the stories of how wrong their forefathers had been.

In truth it had happened differently. Not nearly as gruesome and grotesque as the posters and radio programs would have foretold.

That did not mean people were happy with it.

"Long live Gebron!" a man shouted from a table, lifting his pint glass high in the sky. The amber liquid inside sloshed about, dribbling down the sides. He was young, no more than twenty and his enthusiasm and anger was not that of a man who had actually seen war. No, he had been too young to participate in any battles. The war had ended when he was nine. Though he had been raised on propaganda that had primed him to fight, to be willing to risk his life and limbs for his country and the Arcane Confederation. There was nothing a good Gebronese man could want more than to serve his country, kill some Golden cowards and then die a hero on the battlefield.

There were a few raised glasses but otherwise silence surrounding his drunken cry.

"Hush up Willie," one of the bar workers chastised him sharply. She stalked over to his table where he sat alone and grabbed the towel from her belt. Reaching over she wiped the table down where he'd haphazardly spilled his drink. "Just because the Uniforms don't watch our bar like hawks does not mean you should go spouting that sort of thing."

"Let them find me!" Willie snapped back drunkenly as he leaned against his chair. "Those Golden cowards took my brother from me and I'll get a few swings in before they get me."

The woman frowned deeply and stood up, "Willie," she said in an angry whisper, "You're going to start problems and get your head bashed in. Your brother was killed in the war. We all lost family in the war. Everyone, on every side, from every country, lost someone. But those times are over now and we have to make peace with them. We're not shackled prisoners of this world Willie. We've got free borders and that means there are people in this bar, right now, who hail from those nations you're attempting to speak ill of. I do not want you picking a needless fight because of your pride."

Willie opened his mouth but shut it irritably. He looked around the bar. There were a few faces that he knew were local. Though there were many faces he didn't recognize. They were in the large city of Munca between the Eastern Lake, which was now called by most the Violent Pond, and the coast of the Gebron islands. It was relatively close to the continent of Epios and thus it only made sense that tourists and travelers might make a trip here. It was the time of peace and there was freedom to travel to most parts of the world. It all fell under the control of the Golden Coalition after all. The bastards had won and now had everyone under their thumb. He didn't care if things appeared peaceful and that most governments seemed to be running successfully in partnerships with one another.

What mattered was what he had lost: his brother and his chance to fight.

There was glory in fighting.

"My brother's life," he finally said, "Was worth three dozen Gold lives."

The sound of wood scraping pricked everyone's ears as several chairs pushed away from tables. A group of men stood a few tables away. Older. Some of them scarred. One of them strode the distance between the table and the waitress stepped back as he placed a calculated hand on the table. Leaning over he looked Willie in the eyes. "Are you talking about me boy?" he asked in a low voice, "I didn't come back to this godforsaken country to be mocked when I'm out having a drink."

Willie had a moment of fear before steeling himself. The alcohol in his system gave him unnecessary confidence. "I'm guessing you came to disrespect my country and my people," he retorted, "Maybe have a few laughs over our disgrace."

"I came…" the man growled, "To visit the graves of my brothers in arms who died fighting in battles that would have made you piss your pants. Yet you have the gall to disrespect me and my mates. Your bravado is misplaced kid. Apologize, or I'll make you."

Wille pushed himself up from the table, no longer satisfied with being looked down upon. "If you fought in this country," he sneered back, "Then you know that my countrymen never back down. We especially don't apologize to crudbuckets like you."

The man's face was set in stone. He was older by far, easily by two decades. The words didn't make him flare up in explosive anger as it might have in a youth. Instead he looked at Willie with anger that was cold. "Outside then," he spoke back, "And we'll see how far this courage of yours takes you." He nodded over to his friends who were now walking to the exit, eying Willie furiously.

The waitress noticed this in distress, reaching out and trying to stop them. She tried to stop Willie. This would not end well and for what purpose did it serve? He was going to end up with his ass kicked all the way to the Gebron Isles and back and then likely end up arrested for disrupting the peace. Willie didn't seem to notice, "I'm not a coward!" He stalked around the table, storming towards the exit.

The man at the table sighed and straightened back up, he looked over to the fretful waitress. "Don't worry miss," he said, "We won't kill the boy. He just needs to know there are consequences to his words. I've got too much blood on my hands…I won't be adding to it with the war over." Reaching into his pocket he placed money on the table and strode out after the group.

The beating was effective and overwhelming. Willie had never taken any classes. He'd never learned to use his fists or weapons. Those things had been mandatory learning once you were ten but had been immediately phased out when the war ended. It left him at a severe disadvantage and though the men were in a group they only fought him one on one. Each one was punishing and it got worse and worse. He didn't know if they were going harder on him or he was simply dizzy from too many punches. Eventually it was just him and a single man, the rest had finally left. He continued to try and pick himself up but was only slammed back into the ground.

"You lost!" the man said, the youngest of the group who had come into the alley. "Admit that you lost!"

"N-never…" Willie choked, the tang of blood thick in his mouth. "Gebron…will rise…"

The man growled and gave him another kick in the stomach that sent Willie back to the ground face first. He could barely get on his hands and knees at this point.

"I'm talking about you numbnuts," the man said as he crouched beside him, "But fine. We'll play it this way. Everyone else was so embarrassed that they left but I've got the patience. I'm staying here until you admit it. You. Lost. You lost this fight and your country lost the goddamn war. The whole Confederation lost. Admitted defeat. Gave up. Do you know what that is?"

"Our leaders…were cowards," Willie wheezed. He received a swift slap to the face.

"No, because they were facing an enemy they couldn't beat," the man said with a grin, "They finally figured out that they couldn't win. That the Golden Coalition was bigger and stronger. That's why." He reached down and grabbed Willie by the collar, hauling him up to face him. "Just like you now. You're facing impossible odds and you'd rather wallow in your ideals instead of just giving up. Admit it. Admit that I'm stronger than you…and this'll end."

"You're not…entirely true."

The words cut through the tension in the air. They came from a woman, not anyone that either of them had expected. Willie turned his gaze, foggy and blocked from a swollen eye, to the mouth of the alley. There stood the figure of a woman. She wore a deep blue cloak and the hood was pulled over her head. He couldn't see her face properly with his hazy vision.

"Sorry miss," the man holding Willie said, releasing the grip on Willie's collar and standing up. "This isn't really the place for a girl like you."

"It was inevitable that the war would end," she said softly, sadly, ignoring his words. "It ended because lines were crossed. People were going to die so rapidly that there would be nothing left. The war ended because one side had the courage to step back and put lives ahead of political gains. We have peace now because of courage. Both sides made terrible mistakes and are now trying to right them. That is nothing shameful."

Willie collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily. The young woman stepped forward and spoke again, "Your lesson is over."

The man paused before folding his arms, "I'll leave," he said, "But only because a pretty face like yours doesn't deserve to see violence. Though I'd suggest not speaking on those topics like you know anything about them. You weren't a soldier, you weren't involved. Don't pretend like you can possibly understand it." There were heavy footsteps as the man left the alley.

The young woman watched him leave, sighing softly to herself before crouching down beside Willie. "My place isn't far from here," she said gently, "I'll take you there and get you cleaned up." She extended a hand, "My name is Jamie. What's yours?"

"Willard," Willie answered, "But…friends call me Willie." His spittle was full of blood, it tasted metallic on his tongue. "I don't need help."

"Don't be a fool," Jamie responded with a gentle smile, "I am a stranger offering to help but I can assure you I mean you no harm."

Willie chuckled as he pushed himself up to his knees, "I may be beaten," he responded, "But a young lady like you still wouldn't have a chance of hurting me." He finally took a look at her face and for a moment time seemed to stop. She was beautiful. She was perhaps a few years older than him with high, rounded cheekbones with noticeable dimples. A nose that was curved and lips that were naturally a lovely shade of pink without enhancement. Though what was most noticeable were her eyes, striking silver. They were wide, almost too wide like she was forcing them that way. They seemed to catch everything and then tucked the information away, concealing everything in mystery.

His examination and words caused her to smile briefly in amusement, "I understand," she said, "You're a big, strong man. Put those feelings aside and just let me help you." Her expression relaxed and she offered the hand again.

This time he nodded and let her help him to his feet. Despite his expectations she seemed strong, able to assist him easily. When he swayed she took his arm, looping it around her shoulders, and effortlessly allowed him to lean on her. He didn't feel heavy to her it seemed. She was the same height as him. Ladies were not a fair bunch, they'd gone through war as well, though this girl was only a few years older than him. She hadn't seen war so perhaps she worked in a factory.

Those were questions for later. For now he simply allowed her to help him limp down the street and towards the hotel where she was staying two blocks down.