It was night, and the squad had set up camp. The terrain wasn't as generous for staying hidden as a dense forest would have been, but even the foothills that rested on the edge of the mountain range that determined the border between Pergrande and Bellum still had some trees and other features that made hiding a bit easier. Given that Pergrande relied on less easily detectable forces than the magic most other countries used they also had a natural advantage: as long as they didn't create any loud noises or lights or smoke the only way to find them would be through happenstance or a lot of skill.
To be assigned an infiltration mission, going deep behind enemy lines to deal damage to their supply chain, was something which would burden a person. If everything went well you might not have to fight any significant enemies at all, but you would constantly be on edge, paranoid, and alert for any sign of trouble. If you were discovered there was little chance for a safe retreat and little chance that you could take on the forces that would come bearing down upon you. It was a job for soldiers who already had plenty of experience with the horrors of war and who didn't get spooked too easily. Skill and strategy were required.
These soldiers, while not the strongest, certainly weren't green or foolish. Their camp had a solid perimeter, guarded by wary individuals who frequently changed shifts to avoid them losing concentration or becoming drowsy while on watch. They even had a second outer layer, in sight of the inner layer but far enough out that if something tried to attack from a distance they would be able to spot it ahead of time. The technology of Pergrande helped with that, the screens of their helmets granting them enhanced vision through the use of various gizmos.
The only unfortunate part was that, due to the fact that the outer perimeter was more of a hassle than the inner perimeter, the lower-ranked soldiers were the ones who got roped into standing watch there. While all of these soldiers were veterans that didn't mean all of them had made it as high up the ranks. Some of them, while capable in their own right, had never gotten past the position of recruit due to various circumstances. Maybe they were just too rebellious. Maybe they failed to stand out. Maybe some other political factor was involved. Whatever the reason, these recruits weren't wet behind the ears but they were definitely less fortunate than the officers who remained within the camp and the inner perimeter.
But that wasn't an excuse for them to slack off. When one of the three outer perimeter guards heard some rustling he promptly reported it through his headpiece back to the officers on the inner perimeter. Nothing threatening had been detected yet, but in the land of Bellum, where dangerous beasts roamed, even rustling in the foliage could be cause for concern.
The outer perimeter guard kept his gun at the ready as he focused on where the rustling had come from. His headpiece provided him with night vision so at least he wasn't blind even if it wasn't as good as the light of day. He didn't move, didn't betray his position, hiding behind some rocks from where he could see outwards but his grey uniform would easily be overlooked by anyone trying to approach the camp. The moment he saw something move there he'd know whether to shoot or not. For now, though... he'd have to wait several minutes before lowering his weapon according to protocol.
He never learned what hit him. One moment he was crouched there, alert and with weapon at the ready, and the next moment something had pierced his throat. He tried to say something, but only a faint gurgle escaped as bloody foam formed at his lips. He tried to lift his weapon further to shoot at wherever the attack had come from, but his arms were too weak and wouldn't listen to him. Thoughts went to his family at home: they'd known that he might not come back. However he had hoped that, should the worst happen, they would at least known what had happened and why. Instead they might never known what had killed him. It must have been a sniper of some sort, in which case the rest of the camp should at least be able to handle it. It wasn't the first time they'd dealt with snipers, even if this one was even sneakier than usual.
From the inner perimeter the guard looked like he just slowly collapsed, folding in on himself and dropping to the ground, twitching once or twice before all movement halted. Attempts to call him through their headpiece yielded no results, which combined with the way he collapsed meant that he was most likely either fully incapacitated or dead. Either way, the camp immediately went on full alert. Soldiers were woken up, weapons were loaded and armed, and a group of three officers left the camp to retrieve the body and find signs of the assailant. If there was one.
The body for the most part looked fine, with no visible wounds or injuries beyond the small wound at the throat. Given that the strike had gone straight through it was little surprise how the recruit had died almost instantly. Yet at the same time there was no sign of any hostiles in the area. The previous rustling was a possible clue, but they only had the location, which was further out that the outer perimeter. Moving too far away from the camp when a guard had just been taken out without warning was dangerous. At the same time they couldn't just sit in the camp and hope it would go away.
With three officers they'd have to take the risk. Informing the rest of the camp of the situation the three of them moved towards where the recruit's latest response had indicated the rustling had come from. They were in the northwestern area of Bellum, so the foothills quickly gave away for dense forests. The rustling had come from a grove of trees with an unusual variation of colours in their foliage, no doubt from the abundance of mana Bellum enjoyed. However there was no sign of a potential enemy here either.
Once again there was no warning. The three officers were each looking in another direction with their backs turned towards each other so they couldn't be caught unawares. Nevertheless something struck them: three black spikes which shot up out of the ground (without even disturbing it!) and pierced the spine and heart of each officer. Unlike the recruit the three of them had several seconds to speak before collapsing, but the only thing they could report was: "From... nowhere..."
With one recruit and three officers dead the rest of the camp dropped all hesitation. One recruit could possibly still have been a freak accident, even if the circumstances made that unlikely. Three officers dropping soon after meant hostile action. All available soldiers took up positions behind rocks and trees, aiming their guns towards where the four deaths had occurred. They started out with twenty two, but now eighteen were left, five of which had to keep an eye on the other directions in case the enemy moved. That left eight officers and five recruits to perforate anything which might reveal itself.
Minutes passed. The soldiers didn't waver, periodically checking whether everyone was still alive. Due to the sudden method of death someone who was crouched against a boulder could have collapsed without changing position. Their breathing remained steady, their eyes occasionally shifting about but always returning to where the three officers had died. The recruit was already a loss, but three officers in one go?
Disaster struck a third time. A strangled yelp was heard from the officer watching the northeast. A different location than the first two attacks. The recruits all turned towards the sound along with six of the officers who'd been watching the direction of the original attack. The officer watching the northeast slowly toppled over, and at the same time the officer watching the southeast cried out. Aiming their guns the soldiers opened fire, careful to avoid hitting their companion but hoping to hit whatever it was that might have gotten him.
Instead, their bullets hit nothing but air, flying off into the night to land on the ground or in whatever rocks and trees happened to be in the way. Their enemy was invisible and wasn't leaving any traces on the ground either. No sound, no scent. A perfectly hidden assailant. Even for hardened veterans, this wasn't something they could just take in stride. How were they supposed to fight something that didn't show up even as it hit them? Even if it was a sniper this was unheard of. None of the scanning technology incorporated into their helmets was reporting anything.
Once again silence fell, the soldiers who'd tried to shoot the unseen enemy quickly reloading their guns. But in that brief moment, the assassin struck again. The officer watching the north yelled something about something touching his back before he collapsed, the same as the others. One of the recruits hurried over to his position and checked him. His throat had been cut open as cleanly as if a gutted fish. The recruit barely had time to report this before something struck him from behind, cutting through his armour and piercing his heart. Keeling over he tried to warn the others, but even as his mouth formed the words something hit his windpipe and no sound came out.
Now five officers and two recruits had died. The situation was quickly becoming worse and still they didn't know anything. The assailant was stealthy, appeared to be able to freely move about without betraying its position, and every attack so far had killed the victim nearly instantly by hitting a critical area. It was a surprise that nobody had been struck in the head yet: the assailant seemed to focus on the throat and the heart. Did that imply that they weren't confident about piercing the soldier's helmets?
But that didn't help them if the assassin could pick them off one by one. They had to do something and fast. Waiting for an opportunity to notice something was just going to get them killed. The two officers who'd been designated to watch the northwest and the south rejoined the rest and they formed a two-layered circle, close together with only small gaps for the inner circle to shoot past the outer circle. Like this they began to move to the north. They could use the craggy terrain there to better defend themselves. If there was only one direction from which they could be attacked even this unseen assailant would be left unable to do anything. At least, that was the plan.
This time all of them heard a whisper, soft and cold. It sounded like a creek in midwinter, clear and sharp. It was so faint that they couldn't tell where exactly it came from or whether it belonged to a man or a woman. All they knew is that for an instant they all froze.
From each soldier's own shadow a spike shot upwards, piercing straight through their body armour and their insides. With perfect precision each spike struck a critical spot, whether that was the heart, the lungs, the throat, or the brain. Some soldiers had tried to quickly twist their bodies but either the spikes tracked them or the assailant had read them like a book. The spikes disappeared as quickly as they'd appeared, having only come into existence for long enough to deliver the fatal blow.
Within seconds each soldier was dead, blood slowly seeping from singular wounds that had left their bodies unable to function. Despite their best attempts not a single one of them had ever seen the enemy or figured out how their attacks worked. Two thoughts had managed to make it into their heads before death took them:
One, there hadn't been enough space in between them for someone to pass by. Yet it seemed like the attack had come from within the inner circle.
Two, in the end what appeared to have been the death of them had been their own shadows. How was one supposed to defend against that?
Akeya took on her Akemi appearance several kilometers from where the bodies of the soldiers remained on the ground. Enough distance that nobody would immediately link her to the ambush. She'd go to the Bellum encampment and report to them that to the south an infiltration squad from Pergrande had been eliminated. They'd be able to send people to recover the bodies and confirm that she'd done her part in helping Bellum.
From her perspective the ambush had been pretty straightforward: Pergrande might have impressive technology, but their anti-magic stance had left them with a glaring weakness. They had no real way to detect magic, which meant that if Akeya used her magic to hide they were left helpless.
The first recruit she'd struck down from a distance with a concentrated arrow of twilight. While the attack wasn't invisible it was pretty hard to see and moved fast enough that the recruit hadn't been able to notice it before it had already pierced his throat. Especially since before she shot it she'd taken control of some shadows in the trees to create a minor distraction. Nothing too blatant, but enough to keep the recruit focused on the wrong spot.
The three officers that came next had entered her range when they left to investigate the rustling. Tall Shades was very good for assassinations like that, as within a quickly expanding radius it would cause her enemy's shadows to rise up and strike at them. Especially against targets who couldn't sense the associated burst of magic it meant they basically got stabbed in the back without warning.
The three officers who'd been watching the north, northeast and southeast she'd taken down up close and personal. With most of their focus on where the first four had fallen she could take to the skies and invisible fly over their heads, then dart from one officer to the other while using her claws to slice open their throats. The recruit who'd gone to check one of the officers received the same treatment, with an additional twilight arrow through the throat when he tried to warn the others.
And then the final move. With the soldiers all forming a nice double-layered circle Akeya could easily fly up and land in the middle, hitting them from point blank with another dose of Tall Shades. With the amount of raw power she had at her disposal their armour couldn't stand up to such an attack.
Of course it was fortunate that this group didn't have any stronger soldiers. Akeya had read reports about and seen with her scrying magic powerful Pergrande soldiers, clad in oblivium and decimating mercenaries and Bellum elite alike. If those had been present this would have been a lot harder, as they might have been able to evade straightforward attacks even when given little to no warning. Instead she'd essentially ripped apart a group of normal, mortal humans with no special abilities or skills whatsoever.
Lucky indeed that she could say she contributed to the war effort in a significant manner without having to reveal herself.
Weak - Imperial Army Recruit: 0/6
Normal - Imperial Army Officer: 0/16