Chapter XX: Withered Earth
Flickering torchlight marked their perimeter. Skeletal corpses bristling with steel crept out of the night, and waded through high grass towards Chris' Harmonian troops.
The thwack-thwack-thwack of crossbow fire filled the air with a hum. Volleys of bolts darted for the torch-lit perimeter, and groups of soldiers, each three men strong, roamed the inside of the circle, concentrating their fire on the undead, one at a time. Skulls shattered into bursts of shards, and skeletons clattered and collapsed into piles of broken scapulas and femurs. At the edge of the light, piles of bone built up beneath the grass.
The soldiers were good shots, once the calm had been restored. Once she had shown them the way. Even bone buckled under the focused barrage of a dozen of the broad-headed Harmonian bolts. Even the dead could be whittled down, when separated and basking in the torchlight. When there were no trees to hide among, no treacherous folds of the earth to emerge from. Even a shadow could die when brought into the light.
Yes, these soldiers were quite ferocious when given the proper guidance. She had led them south, from the burning forest and out onto the rolling plains where high grasses swayed in the night breeze, like reeds hiding shallow waters. Along the way they had gathered the remnants of the routed 1st Squad, and together they found the 4th Squad holed up at the edge of the woods, separated from the company and guarding part of the baggage train. Their corporal had gone half blind—and half mad—from bone shards wedged in his eyes, and now languished in a stretcher, shedding tears of blood, gibbering incoherently, occasionally voicing a shrill cry for attention.
Chris' wounds had been tended to as well, but the bandaging had been a hasty arrangement. She could not allow time to be wasted on that. The gash in her shoulder burned with a fire that made the world swim before her eyes. It kept her focused, though Lucas had to steady her from time to time. Now she walked along the perimeter, overseeing the battle. Thinking about her next move.
Suddenly there was a loud cry, followed by shouts of recognition. Chris turned. Captain Huarn thundered out of the forest astride his horse, like a man possessed. He formed the head of a column of soldiers and wagons marching down the wooded hillside, like a long line of ants escaping the burning forest. Smoke billowed out from the woods behind them, and some soldiers ran alongside their wagons, using thick bundles of cloth soaked in water to beat at fires catching on their wooden frames.
A ripple went through the assembled soldiers. At Chris' side, Lucas froze, and held his breath as if the captain's fury would burn the very air from the night.
Huarn reined in before Chris at a dead stop, causing the mount to rear up and spit dirt at her. He scanned the busy soldiers—too busy to salute him—and then his eyes fell on the sword at her side. Soot lined his face, like a man dabbed in charcoal. His lips twitched into a snarl.
Chris drew up before him. "Good," she said. She had to make him see reason. "You are just in time to assume command of the retreat." She had to make him see reason. If they didn't retreat now, they would all die.
"I see you're using groups of crossbowmen to fight the undead. Impressive."
"Captain Huarn, you have to—"
"No," he cut in, "What I have to do is finish the mission. We cannot retreat." He danced the horse around, frowning at the impromptu camp. "Where is Lieutenant Varklav?"
"Dead." She tried to look him in the eye, but the captain was focused on something out in the dark. She shook her head and sighed. "Captain Huarn, I understand what you are doing here. You seek the True Fire Rune, buried in the Forbidden Ground. But the rune was not buried alone. That conflict ended in tragedy. Thousands died when the Flame Champion lost control of the rune, and those restless dead are now stirred awake by the rune."
"We must have the rune," Huarn said.
"You still do not understand." She held out her hands, palms up. "Those closest to the blast were incinerated. Even the bone was turned to ashes. But they were measured in the hundreds. The others, they rested here in the Forbidden Ground, beneath the stones. Over three thousand cairns were raised back then."
Huarn blanched. He nodded slowly. Something pained passed over his features, but was gone as quick as it came over him. He managed a sorry smile. "And yet, we must have the rune."
Chris stared at the man, eyes widening. "Will you not see reason?" She gestured at the soldiers. "How many men do you have? Before tonight, sixty or seventy? How many have you lost? Half? And of those who remain, how many still have a taste for battle? You want these men to take on a small army. Not to mention the Incarnation of a True Rune, burning the Grasslands to cinders beneath its feet!"
Huarn's eyes reflected distant flames, and glittered. "We will not fail in our mission."
"You will all die. Or your soldiers will turn on you."
"No," he said. "They won't." He sounded hoarse, but there was no hesitation in his voice.
Chris gaped. She shook her head, sought the eyes of the soldiers encircling them. She looked to Lucas, and tried to read the truth in his face. But he would not meet her eyes. No one would.
They were so young. All of them. She was a fool for it, but she could not wish death upon these young men fighting Harmonia's wars. Soldiers were the same in every nation. Looking into their wide eyes, she saw before her the faces of mothers, their features lined with worry and love. The weight of those women's eyes was on her shoulders, bearing her down.
"Knowing the price of failure," she said, "How can you lead these men to their deaths?"
Huarn drew up in the saddle, and planted his fists on his hips. "It is not the price of failure what motivates these men, Silver Maiden. It is the prize of victory." He motioned to Lucas, and said, "Take her sword." When the boy hesitated, Huarn's eyes widened, and he howled, "NOW!"
Chris flicked the sword's point down, and handed the hilt to Lucas. He took it without meeting her eyes.
Huarn gnashed his teeth. "What is this? What have you done to my soldiers?"
Chris tasted something bitter on her tongue. "I have kept them alive."
Huarn grimaced, and the fury went out of his features. "You've done a good job at that. I won't thank you for it, mind you." He sighed. "I see now why you are the Silver Maiden. Curse my name with the power of the True Runes, but I'm desperate enough, fool enough, to see that I may need your help."
"Then I will help you. If you sound the retreat."
Huarn shook his head and laughed. "No, no. You will help me, not as a soldier, but as a strategist. You will carry no weapon. You will be an advisor. That will be acceptable to Holy Harmonia. And you will help me, even though I will not sound the retreat, because you are the Silver Maiden."
When the woman was out of earshot, Huarn rounded on the soldier.
"Lucas is your name, isn't it?"
He flinched as if struck. "Yes, sir."
Huarn grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and, shaking a yelp out of the boy, lifted him clear off the ground. "Have you gone mad?" he growled. "You're taking orders from an outlander! Are you so content with your lot in life? Do you so desperately wish to work the Harakas gold mines? Work your fingers to the bone and die of arsenic poisoning? Do you wish to be sub-human, third-class scum forever?" He spit out the words, getting short of breath in the process.
Lucas' eyes were bulging. His lips trembled, and he cringed back from Huarn even held in mid-air as he was. "N-no, sir!"
Huarn let go. The man collapsed in the grass, scuttling back and onto his feet. He saluted.
"Good. Then you will remember that we are Harmonian soldiers. First, and last."
Corporal Robec, who had been born to third-class dregs in a crowded slum in a subjugated piss-stain on the map a thousand leagues from Harmonia, ran like hell. The muscles in his legs trembled, and his chest heaved with the effort of each breath.
The dragon barreled across the plains, massive feet crashing thump-thump into the earth, shaking the ground a hundred yards ahead. Grass burst into flame where it stepped, and in its wake, ashen claw-marks trailed. Its jaws dropped open, emitting an earth-shaking roar.
Robec turned his shoulder and fired his crossbow blindly, cursing the dragon in a language outlawed in Harmonia two generations back.
The damn beast was gaining on them. Whittling them down. Kantz, Lugan, Joam. Funny, he couldn't quite remember their faces. All he could remember was the way they'd melted, liquefied, when the dragon's flame licked them. But then, Lugan had been trampled at the ridge, spine crumpling beneath those smoldering clawed feet. The man had looked so surprised, like he couldn't believe it'd happened to him, of all people.
They'd held down their part of the bargain, paying the damn lizard back for their comrades. The dragon's belly bristled with the shafts of two dozen or more quarrels, sticking out like needles in a pin-cushion. They'd succeeded in pissing it off. That was for sure. They were wearing it down or they weren't. But it wasn't slowing. And there were only four of them left.
Sweat stung Robec's eyes. His vision swam, and his attention flagged. He stumbled, hurtling forward, skidding to a stop face-first in the dirt. He tasted grass, and spat.
Parras yanked at his shoulder, and propped him up. Then Farren was there, and Welc. His whole sorry, Rune-damned squad.
"By the Absolute One's balls, may they be eternal," he croaked, shaking his head. "Why'd it have to be you lot surviving this far? You're the ones I hate the most."
Farren patted his back, eyes flickering behind. "C'mon Corp. Move, move."
Robec tested his legs, and found only throbbing pain that turned his limbs into water. He looked over his shoulder.
The dragon crashed over the ridge, a hundred feet away.
Still only water. He grimaced, peeling back lips to bare his teeth. "Can't. You go. Run."
Their eyes widened at that; went all googly-eyed, like fish stranded on dry land. Realization dawned on their faces, and a sullen resignation set in.
Parras turned to the approaching dragon. He cocked a quarrel to his crossbow, squinted, sighted at the beast. "You know, corporal, I always hated you too."
Welc grunted something. He tightened his helmet strap, made sure it fit right.
Something about the futility of the gesture made Robec laugh. But his lungs burned, and he choked.
Farren pulled out his sword. He'd discarded his spear a while back, or maybe he'd thrown it at the dragon. It sure didn't stick out of its scales now, so it didn't matter.
"Corporal, I just want to say what an absolute fucking disgrace it is to die here with you."
Robec managed to push onto his shaky legs, biting down hard enough on his lip to draw blood.
"You sons of bitches were going to be my downtrodden underlings. When I was Captain of the Guard, see."
The three of them exchanged glances, but said nothing.
The dragon had slowed, and now sauntered towards them like a cat playing with mice. Its tail swept behind it, singing the grass.
"Damn it all, now it's toying with us," Robec muttered. He pushed away from Farren's shoulder, and looked at his crossbow. Then he shook his head, and threw the weapon down. Drew out his sword. "Right. You bastards ready to meet a True Rune?"
It happened in an instant. The dragon ripped its maws open. Robec threw his arms up, expecting to feel heat burning them to shreds. But no heat came.
The dragon roared. And then it began to shrink. The reptilian features softened, grew round, and scales became flesh. Hair sprouted. And a man stood before them, shrouded in flames. The quarrels embedded in its scales burned to ashes. In their place, the sigils of a hundred runes glowed brightly through the fire, coming alive with magic. The world dimmed.
Hugo crouched down behind a large boulder. His legs and knees felt leaden, almost numb with strain. He'd padded along, knees bent, for so long now that he wasn't sure he would ever be able to stretch them out again.
They were close now. Hugo could hear shouts, and every now and then, the clank of weapons, or the crushing of bone. The boulder was outlined in the bright glare of a fire raging across the horizon on the other side, where a forest stood in flames. Undead monsters stalked the night—Nash and he had seen or destroyed at least a dozen, already. And somewhere on the other side of the boulder was Serfein. Lying in wait, with the light of the flames to guide her aim.
The woman had eluded them every step along the way. Flitting from bolt-hole to bolt-hole, using that damned Godspeed Rune. There was no way they could have kept up with her. They'd had to fight for every inch along the way.
Hugo flexed his fingers round the dagger's handle, working through sweat and grime to get a better grip. "We're running out of time."
Nash squatted against the boulder. He sighed, and then blew air up at his face. Sweat-soaked hair plastered his cheeks and forehead. "Some rescue," he muttered.
Hugo felt a tightness gripping his chest. Were they already too late? Would they find Chris dead, or turned to ash by the Incarnation of True Fire?
He shook his head. "No." He ignored a quizzical look from Nash, and instead padded over to the edge of the boulder. He sheathed the dagger on his back. "I'm going for it. You take the other side."
He waited for Nash to nod, and then lunged out past the boulder. He landed on his hands and knees and crawled into a stand of weeds and nettles. He froze for a moment, then stood, and hurtled forward towards a smaller boulder. He stumbled, fell to the side, and slid down the slope before the boulder.
Cold sweat broke on his forehead. He was exposed, right out in the open. Had she already seen him?
He flailed, and ripped his fingers through the dirt. His descent halted. He scrambled onto his knees, pushed himself up, and then yanked on the edge of the boulder. Sweat made his fingers slip.
He dug his other hand into the dirt, raised his aching leg and planted his boot firmly. Then he pushed off, leaping into cover.
A bullet struck stone.
Hugo flinched. Then sagged down against the boulder, wheezing. He squeezed his eyes shut.
That was too close. He should keep moving while she was reloading, but his limbs ached. He had to catch his breath first.
Hugo wiped dirt and sweat on his leggings. He opened his eyes, began to rise—
And saw the world dim into gray mist. His vision failed. How much time passed in the dark? A few seconds? It felt like minutes. As his vision returned, a sudden light filled the sky. The sun had risen halfway towards the noon. Just in time to show a dozen men charging down the slope towards Hugo.
He jerked back with a gasp, fumbled for his dagger, drew it out and held it up in front of him.
The men were Grasslanders. Karayan. But he recognized no faces.
"Stop! I am Hugo, son of Lucia!"
If the warriors had heard him, they made no sign. The battle cry rising from their lips sounded strangely muted. Their eyes were fixed ahead, on something behind him.
The boulder? No. Something… else. If he didn't move, they would charge right through him.
A shout rang out behind him. That too was muted, the words lost to the mist.
Something leapt from Hugo's chest. A spear, then an arm, bursting from his body like a spirit given form. A man followed. Then an entire squad of Harmonian soldiers rushed through Hugo as if he were not there. He stood frozen as the two groups met five yards from his position, clashing to the dull sound of iron ringing on iron. Then a muted cry, as men began to die.
Hugo charged at the Harmonians.
Thirty-two Harmonian soldiers crowded into formation along the ridge, staring down at the dragon that crashed towards Robec's 3rd Squad. Four men remained to defy the beast, including, Chris was told, the eccentric corporal. Fleeing like stray dogs scattered down an alley by a child's thrown rock. Chased by a dragon.
The Harmonian ranks rippled with discomfort at the scene. Wet eyes, white fists clenched round weapons. Robec and his men had led the Incarnation away from them. But it was clear that the beast was gaining on them. And the soldiers who watched their comrades flee headlong knew that they were too far away to help.
Undead were closing in around them, shambling towards the dragon. No organization, now. Just stragglers, drawn to the site by the fury of a True Rune.
Chris knew that it was madness. Huarn would throw away these soldiers' lives for a slim chance of delivering the True Rune of Fire to his Harmonian masters. She could not allow that; could not allow Huarn to possess that ruinous rune. Like all knights, Chris had been taught about the Fire Bringer War, and she had read more on her own. The rune, in the captain's hands or not, would obliterate these men. It would burn them into a fine ash, like silt, to scatter on the wind across the Forbidden Ground, where it would feed new growth in the wake of the spreading wildfire.
She would kill the captain. Once the battle began, once there was confusion… There was a slim chance. Her only chance. With the captain dead, she could commandeer the survivors, and lead them away. But she would have to work fast. And she would have to be subtle.
She felt a twinge of guilt at the thought. Could she bring herself to do it? This was not what she had been taught, as a knight. But to let these men die in a fool's errand? That stood against everything she believed in. Contradicted every fiber of her being. There had to be a balance.
There was more to life than being a knight.
Huarn jerked his head in the direction of the commencing slaughter.
Below, she saw one of the soldiers of the 3rd Squad stumble. The dragon slowed, sensing its imminent triumph.
"It's time," Huarn said.
Chris tensed. She met his eyes and held them, and then nodded.
The Harmonians fast-marched, spreading out into a loose formation designed to minimize the damage of rune magic. Boots shook the hillside. Spears bristled. Sword-blades glinted in the light of the flames.
Chris followed in their wake, beside Huarn.
The captain had a dark scowl planted on his face. His sword was out, bobbing up and down as his horse thumped down the hill behind the soldiers.
Ahead of them, the dragon sauntered up to the four soldiers. Robec and his men had stopped, readying a last stand destined to fail.
They were still too far away. Though the dragon had slowed, it was now close enough to strike. They would not make it in time.
The dragon's maws opened. The soldiers ahead of it flinched, but no fire came. The dragon flashed with magic, and… changed.
A murmur ran through the formation in front of her. Soldiers stumbled in mid-step, watching the scene in confusion.
The world dimmed.
All around them, people rushed past. Hundreds of them. Thousands. A killing field, ranks collapsing into a pitched battle.
Robec stumbled forward, leading with his sword. Men rushed through the blade as if it were air. Shouting, their voices muted and dull as if reaching him from a great distance. Raising weapons, loosing battle cries. Zexonians, Grasslanders, standing together. And on the other side, Harmonians.
It was an illusion. Scenes of a battle that had never happened. Or one that had ended a long time ago.
Robec stumbled through the scene, wincing each time a man burst right through him like a ghost. People charged at him, screaming and snarling, weapons raised or set to charge. Their eyes did not see him. A spear jutted out through his stomach, and he lunged back to see a Harmonian soldier rush through him from behind, skewering a Grasslander.
Robec fell to his knees, clutched his head in both hands, and screamed.
That's when he felt the heat. Caught in the illusion, Corporal Robec never saw the tongue of rune-hot fire that engulfed him and, in the blink of an eye, reduced him to ashes. Along with his dreams of dying old.
Chris stared wide-eyed at the sight.
The sun had risen in an instant. The cool air of mid-morning filled her lungs. And a battle from fifty years ago played out before her eyes.
Huarn was there. The soldiers all were. But they stumbled around in confusion, breaking formation with shocked cries as the illusions sprawled out around them. Weapons flashed, real and imagined, but no wounds were inflicted.
A Grasslander ran through Chris, screaming, passing through her like the wind.
She flinched, and felt for her sword. But nothing was there.
Where is the dragon? Where?
She heard a muted scream. Then she saw fire bloom to the east. Trees burst into flame, and came crashing down as something bowled through the brush. An inhuman shriek shook the air.
The dragon loped out of the burning woods, vomiting white-hot fire. The press of soldiers shifted before it, then broke. Men scattered from the trampling feet of the dragon like water from a bursting dam. Soldiers threw down weapons, and ran screaming from the beast. One man lost his feet and tumbled to the ground before her. He didn't see her. He just got back on his feet and kept running. He passed right through her.
Something was amiss. The dragon she saw was part of the illusion; part of the history unfolding in her mind. How was that possible? The True Fire Rune had not taken an incarnation during the Fire Bringer War. It had belonged to the Flame Champion, Reldin. Until the cataclysm.
What then, was this beast which crushed Harmonian and Grasslander alike beneath its feet?
A scream rang out, sounding much nearer. It sounded real.
A soldier collapsed beside her. Not an illusion. One of Huarn's men. There was no attacker in sight, but as the man fell to the ground, blood burst from a gash in his stomach. As he thudded to the ground, more wounds appeared, on his shoulders, on his chest.
All around her, the screams of dying soldiers filled the air.
Chris' breath caught. Sweat beaded on her forehead. The undead. Not part of the illusion. Hidden behind it.
She ran to the soldier, and knelt beside him. Her hands shook as she pried the sword from his still-rigid fingers. There was nothing she could do for him. She flailed the weapon round her head as she got back to her feet, backing away.
She squeezed her eyes shut, shaking her head until it hurt. She had to break the illusion. She had to see. She popped her eyes open.
Night turned to mid-morning in an instant. Colors bled over the shadows, and images of undead stalking the battlefield faded as the vision healed over their presence like flesh over scabs.
She stumbled back. Clutched the sword's grip so hard her fingers ached. She closed her eyes; tried it again.
A fist hammered her gut, knocking her breathless, and onto her back.
Chris looked up, clutching at her stomach and gasping for air.
Huarn stood over her, holding his sword in two shaking fists. "This was your plan all along," he spat out. His lips twitched with rage, and blood had rushed to his face, coloring it crimson.
"No more!" Huarn shouted. He slashed down.
Chris caught the attack with her sword. The impact jarred her hands. She rolled aside, and onto her feet. Her shoulder ached something fierce; the bandage must've come undone.
Huarn pressed the attack.
Chris backed off step by step, weathering a storm of blows any way she could. Ducking here, dodging there, she parried four rapid blows, each making her hands tremble on the handle.
The sword was too heavy. The balance was wrong. It was a heavy infantryman's weapon. Not the dueling longsword she was accustomed to. The fire in her shoulder numbed her arm, making the act of compensating for the balance a frustrating act.
Huarn came at her with a heavy overhand blow.
She swayed. Huarn's shoulder slammed into hers. She yelped, bit down on her lips, and stumbled back. He slashed horizontally for her throat. Chris slammed her sword into his. The weapons met with a clang, and struck sparks. She leapt back, then lunged, thrusting for his sword arm.
An unseen blade wielded by an unseen foe cut her arm, and bit into the muscle. Something behind the illusion.
Chris screamed. Her hand numbed, and she heard the sword clunk against the grass.
Huarn backhanded her across the forehead. She sprawled back onto the grass, and raised her head.
Huarn's boot crunched against her chest. Pushed her onto her back. He towered over her like a furious giant, sword drawn back over his head with both hands, to deliver the killing blow. His chest heaved with each breath, and his mouth hung open, twisted with rage.
"Haaah!" he roared, whipping his sword at the grass. "Call yourself a knight? You are weak!"
Chris' head ached. She struggled to fill her burning lungs, and yanked at his boot. It didn't budge. She glanced to either side, and found that the illusion had faded. For her.
"Stop this madness," she said, coughing. "Look around you. Your soldiers are dying."
Huarn blinked, and his face softened into confusion. He stumbled away from her, moving as if in a daze. "What…"
Chris pushed onto her feet. Pain lanced as she steadied herself on her left arm. She used the other. The pain was somewhat less intense, there.
"This is your last chance to retreat," Chris said. "Save your soldiers."
"No…" Huarn stumbled to a stop. He whipped his sword in a wide circle, raking across two skeletons. A skull cracked, and the other's neck snapped. Both crumpled to the ground. "No," he repeated, and some steel returned to his voice. "I must fulfill the mission. I must." He set his jaw, and squared his shoulders. He stared ahead.
Chris looked past the captain. There, padding down a wound torn in the illusion, was the Incarnation. It was the real thing.
Huarn stalked towards it, picking up his pace with each step.
"No, wait!" Chris ran towards him.
Flames burst from the ground and ran in a ring around the Incarnation. It trapped Huarn within the circle. The captain marched on, unmindful of the fire.
Chris snapped back, hissing at the heat. She wagged her hand to cool it.
Huarn was no longer within sight.
Serfein had activated the Godspeed Rune and darted from the bushes when the world dimmed.
She stopped in her tracks. The momentum of her stride carried her forward, and she stumbled, flailed her arms, and slid, tearing up the earth with her boots.
Her vision returned, and Serfein blinked, eyes widening. The sun had surged, in a moment, to stand halfway up the horizon. It lanced through thin mist, dispersing the fog and revealing hundreds, if not thousands, of Grasslander warriors and Harmonian soldiers engaged in a pitched battle all around her.
Serfein hesitated, ducking down and touching one fist to the earth. She had seen enough rune magic to know illusion by sight. But what was the source? Surely not the Grasslander boy and his unseen, infuriating ally. Their game of cat and mice had gone on for too long. If her enemies had access to magic of this degree—and this was a higher order rune, to create an illusion of such staggering scale and scope—they would have used it earlier. And the illusion would have been designed to trick her. This was… ancillary. Not intended for her.
Yes, she had been caught in a vision intended for someone else, and the distant screams of dying men rising somewhere to the east told her that she was right. Those blood-curdling shrieks were distinct from the muted sounds of battle coming from the illusions. There was nothing artificial about that sound. Somewhere out there, Huarn's men were dying.
A bestial roar tore through the illusion.
Serfein started, turned, and stared down at the field. She activated a complex runic sigil on her forehead.
The illusion parted, like water cascading from the sides of a rising embankment. Through the wound strode a dragon.
The Incarnation. But… it's not.
Glowing runes studded the creature's scales, burning with the pulsing light of active magic. No. This was not the True Fire Rune. This was… a vessel. Something of the True Fire Rune lingered in its body, but it was no more than a broken shell. A broken shell powerful enough to extinguish her.
Serfein slung the rifle over her shoulder and tucked it beneath the dirt-stained cloak. Her breath quickened. She had to leave. Right now. Never mind Huarn.
It was his problem, now.
The sun had risen in a hemisphere of mid-morning light with its center somewhere on the other side of a spine of bush-covered hills. Outside the perimeter, the night remained, approaching the pre-dawn hours. The division was sharp, like the walls of a child's glass bubble filled with sloshing water. But within the hemisphere, a scene of slaughter played out.
Lilly gaped. She reined in Hugo's horse ten yards from the perimeter. "So much for diplomacy."
Yumi slowed her horse to a walk. She cradled the reins against her chest and frowned.
Yun stuck her head past Yumi's shoulder, looking ahead and then splitting glances between Lilly and Yumi. The girl's face remained impassive. "What are you looking at?" she asked.
Lilly raised an eyebrow her. She squared her arm against her shoulders, pointing. "That. See?"
Yun stared ahead. Stray hair bound back from her face brushed her cheeks as she shook her head. "Same as before. The forest's burning." She wiggled a small finger at the hills. "There's soldiers over there. And undead."
Yumi drew a sharp breath. She leaned in to give Lilly a conspiratorial look. "It must be an illusion."
Yun blinked. "Oh."
Yumi's lips twisted into a sad smile. She stroked the girl's hair with her fingers and then said, "Yun's eyes aren't meant for illusions. She can't see them."
Lilly squinted at the image. Rune magic. She shivered. "Did you say 'undead?' Where?"
Yun's arm bobbed as she counted out a dozen positions within the image. "There's a lot of them."
"I don't see anything," Lilly said. She bunched her lips together, and frowned. "I don't like this. Who is responsible for this?"
Yun traced slow movement on the horizon. Right in the middle of the illusion. "That. It's coming over the hill. The Incarnation."
Lilly felt a sudden chill. She pressed her tongue against her cheek and clutched at her rapier's handle. "Do you see Chris?" Maybe she wasn't there. Maybe she was somewhere else.
Lilly's heart sank. She mouthed a severe oath. She'd heard it from a gang of silver miners, but didn't fully understand it. How a person could be "plowed", she'd never know!
She rose in her stirrups and leaned forward, arms straight against the horse's back. She had to try. She wasn't much of a lady, Chris Lightfellow, but she was her friend. And she could always be shown the proper ways.
She plopped down in the saddle, turned, and then fixed her most ladylike gaze on Yun.
"Sweetie, we'll need you to guide us through the illusion. Can you do that?"
Tall flames hid Huarn and the Incarnation from view. Around the fire, the illusion was bleeding back over her vision, like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle depicting a moving scene of battle.
Chris knew that Huarn was lost. He would die, and the True Rune would remain masterless. It would have to be dealt with in the future. There was nothing she could do about that now. But there was something else she could do. She had shrugged the magic that created the illusion—for now. Some of the Harmonian soldiers remained alive. She could still save them.
She saw Lucas first. He stumbled through a haze, flinching at illusory men flitting past him or rushing right through him. He had his sword out, and swept it at shadows. In the stitches between the illusion, skeletons marched towards him. Slow, deliberate, like laconic killers.
The cut in Chris' hand throbbed as she gripped the heavy sword. Her fingers felt numb, but wiggled at her command. She ran towards Lucas, tensing as she sped through swaths of the illusion.
She stumbled right into a skeleton.
Chris leaned back, brought her sword up, and hacked at the dead man. The blade hammered against the back of the skull and cracked it. The skeleton crumpled before her. She leapt over it.
Lucas' blade nearly took her head off.
She stepped in on him and rung a slap off his cheek. "See me! This is not real!"
His blank eyes widened, and then focused on her as if he were just now waking from a bad dream to a worse reality.
His sword went slack in his hand. "Silver Maiden…?" He blinked, and stumbled towards her.
A skeleton stepped out of the illusion, pitching forward to swing its hatchet.
"Watch out," Chris said. She yanked him back.
Lucas stumbled over her knee, knocked himself around, and staggered back, dropping his sword and picking it up in mid-step. He shook his head and took in the scene.
"This is— Rune magic?"
Chris' slash took the skeleton's spine. Bones clattered to the ground.
She turned to Lucas. "An illusion. A vision of the past. Can you see through it?" She backed towards him, testing the vision with sweeps of her sword.
"W-wha?" Lucas squinted. His eyes went wide as they adjusted to the illusion. He nodded. "Yes. A little."
"Good. This battle is lost. We gather the others, and leave."
Numb, Lucas nodded.
"We will stick together. The edge is—"
A shout of anger and frustration pierced the air. Chris froze in her tracks.
It was Hugo's voice.
The Karayans were slaughtered before Hugo's eyes. The Grasslanders had the higher ground, but the Harmonian squad was better equipped, better trained, and more disciplined. The Karayans fought with great courage, but never stood a chance. They died as warriors.
His daggers flashed, but passed through the Harmonians like sunlight through a window. Once the Harmonians finished their gruesome work, they rallied near the boulder and crowded around their corporal as the man gestured at the field below and shouted orders, his voice strangely muted. Their eyes passed over Hugo as if he were a ghost.
He stumbled back and stared at the bodies at his feet. He fought down the anguish.
This… isn't real. Is it?
He scrambled in among the dead Karayans, hands clawing at their clothes, but digging through and biting into dirt only. He strained his eyes, crawling on hands and knees among the dead men, examining the cut of the clothes, the dyes, the patterns.
The Harmonians departed, and several of them walked right through Hugo, as if he wasn't there. He barely noticed.
There. Hugo squatted before the bearded man with the blood-spattered short-cropped sandy hair. A thin white scar from an old wound cut across the cheek. A wound gaped open in his stomach, soiling his shirt with blood, but the woven pattern of alternating red and green diamonds on the hem was still visible. And there, on the sleeve, the embroidered image of two wrestling bears.
Hugo sat back. His mouth was suddenly dry. This was Moran the Bear. As a child, Hugo had heard stories of his prowess as a hunter and warrior told around the fires. The scar, gained from the claws of an eagle on a pilgrimage to the north. The bears, commemorating the time he pinned and slew a bear with his bare hands after it had killed his hunting companions.
But Moran had died before his mother was born. Fighting against the Harmonians, in the Forbidden Ground.
Hugo collected his daggers and got to his feet. He spun around and bared his teeth. He squeezed the hilts until his knuckles hurt. This was an illusion, but the affront was real. Suddenly the walking dead made sense. He understood what these corpses were. The Incarnation of the True Rune of Fire had turned his ancestors into playthings for its desire.
"True Rune or no," he snarled, "This is unforgivable."
He had to give answer. He had to destroy the Incarnation.
He started down the slope.
The sound of clacking bones registered in his ear at the last moment. He pitched forward into a crouch, and felt a blade whiff past his head.
A chill ran down his spine. The clatter of moving bones was all around him. Hidden by the illusion. He broke into a run—
He crashed into something hard and cold, and went down in a tangle of limbs. A rugged blade brushed against his arm, sawing through his skin and drawing blood.
Hugo cursed. He squeezed his eyes shut and felt along the cold bones. The skeleton bucked beneath him, struggling to free itself. Every hair on his body stood on end. He straddled the ribs and pushed down, reaching up the spine. He felt along the vertebrae, touched against the thrashing jaw. And snapped down, hard.
The skeleton went limp beneath him.
Hugo wasted no time. He popped his eyes open, and saw jagged tears in the illusion as he fumbled for his daggers. Skeletons stumbled through the gaps, like puppeteers moving behind a drawn curtain.
Hugo rolled away from the pile of bones and came up on his feet.
A skeleton stepped from the illusion and swung its broken sword.
Hugo lunged back, almost tripped, but caught his balance. He swung around in time to see two bony arms reaching for his neck. He scrambled back.
They were all around him, now.
Hugo gritted his teeth, then drew a sharp breath. He flicked his daggers over in his hands and took on a defensive stance. Let them come.
Hugo let slip a howl, giving voice to his anger and frustration.
Hugo's scream halted Chris. She held her sword out, straining her eyes to see through the gaps in the illusion.
There. She could see him, whirling down the slope a hundred yards away. He was surrounded by a dozen undead warriors hacking and slashing for his limbs. He flashed a whirlwind of quick daggers, parrying and biting back, but it was clear that he fought to defend himself. He could not pierce the illusion.
He was drawing dangerously close to the Incarnation's ring of flame. Thousands of the walking dead were converging on their position. Behind her, the path was clear, but if she did not leave now, she would be enveloped; caught in a vice. To push deeper would be to invite almost certain death. But when she closed her eyes to fight the illusion, all she could see was Hugo's face, broken and bleeding. Even in the cold grip of death, he had that beautiful smile. She had to help him.
She turned to Lucas. "You will have to go alone. Gather the others and retreat south."
The soldier gaped at her. His eyes bulged. "You're going in there? You're insane."
Chris flexed her fingers around the sword's hilt. "Not yet."
She left Lucas in her wake, running sword first between the breaches in the false image. She kept her eyes on Hugo, saw him closing in before her, but kept glancing right and left, expecting to see the undead step in at any time.
Sixty yards. She leapt over a jutting rock, landed and slipped on muddy earth torn open by the boots of soldiers. She slid down the slope and threw up her arms to deflect an incoming tree. The trunk knocked into her good shoulder and spun her around. She regained her balance and kept running.
Hugo was being driven towards the fire. He seemed oblivious to it, but he had to be feeling the heat coming off of the blazing wall. The undead massed around him; more of them had emerged from pockets of the illusion and encircled him where he made his stand on a patch of low grass. He crouched, bending his knees and feeling around him with his outstretched daggers.
Twenty yards. She was almost upon him. Just past a row of bushes. Almost—
A spark flared to her right. The bushes burst into flame, and a wall of fire rushed right past her like a fence pushing through the earth.
Chris almost toppled into the burning bushes. She edged towards the flames. Heat pressed against her skin, and sweat budded on her face.
The fire was too hot, and the flames too tall. She could not go through it. Biting her lip, groaning in frustration, she squinted through the flames. Hugo moved like a shadow past the lurid haze. He was still standing, but that was all she could tell.
Chris looked to either side. The flames surrounding the Inferno rose on her right, spreading slowly across the damp grass. To her left, a slope broken up by slabs of bedrock ran parallel to the spine of flame. She turned towards it, and ran.
Chris clawed through bushes and low trees. She banged her knee against the protruding bedrock, and it went numb with pain. She ignored it, and scrambled on top of the stone.
The flames were still too high. The heat was making it difficult to breathe, and woodsmoke poured from the ridge. She pulled her sweat-soaked collar over her nose using one hand, and ran up the slope.
A stand of trees blocked her path. The branches were catching on fire. She went around it, cursing at each second lost as she scrambled up a series of stone slabs.
She slipped on the stone, scuffing her legs below the knee. Her whole body was afire with pain. Her legs were mushy, and the muscles throbbed each time she lifted her legs. She longed to lie down and rest. But she kept climbing.
She hopped onto the tallest slab, and caught her breath with wheezing heaves as she looked down on the fire. She was almost three yards above the ground, and the fire was lapping at the stone, spreading through the moss.
She glanced back, measured the distance, and backed towards the edge of the stone. Then she ran, crossing the stone platform in three long strides. She sent her sword spinning through the fire. Then she held her breath and leapt from the end.
She hurtled through the air. Smoke enveloped her. Flames licked at her boots, then at her sides, and arms. The heat singed her clothes, and smote her skin.
The ground rushed up to meet her. The heat subsided all at once. She landed in an awkward roll and tumbled down the slope. Pain lanced through her legs. She hit her head on something hard, and her vision swam. But she remained conscious. She felt around her, found footing for the palms of her hands, and pushed onto her feet.
Goddess, please let nothing be broken.
She stood up, wavering, flailing her arms to keep her balance. She tested her legs one at a time. They felt like water beneath her, but she could stand. She still had strength. And nothing was broken. She heaved a sigh of relief.
Chris stumbled around, and found the sword still quivering by the tip of the blade, buried half a foot into the earth. She yanked it out and looked down the slope.
Hugo was still there. His back was up against the fire, no more than ten or so yards. He must have noticed it, because he was darting in and out towards a closing ring of undead that encircled him like hungry wolves. His daggers flashed, but he was striking blindly. Some hits struck true, but most whiffed through air and did no good.
Sword first, Chris started down the slope. She half ran, half slid down the grassy dirt, and pushed her way through bushes and brambles. She hacked with her sword where the path was overgrown. She burst through the vegetation and onto the field.
Hugo's eyes passed over her. Then they slid back, and focused. He went rigid, mouth falling open.
"No!" he shouted. He jostled with a skeleton and shoved it away. "You're an illusion." He ducked beneath a slash and swept his leg, knocking another skeleton onto its back. He came back up with a fierce glare in his eyes. "No matter what, I will save her." He stalked towards her, daggers hooking through a skeleton's spine and taking its skull clear off. "You won't have her. She's mine."
Chris halted. She realized that her own mouth was hanging open, and shut it.
More skeletons crawled out of the woodwork, stilting towards her with their inhuman gaits. She realized that she too was surrounded.
"Hugo, it is me!" she called out.
His eyes widened. "No." But he was rattled. He sidestepped a hacking sword and approached warily, daggers held out to fend off treachery.
A single skeleton stood between them. It turned to face Chris.
She drew a deep breath. Then she lurched forward. With a shrill cry, she applied both hands to the sword and swung down. A skeletal arm rose, lifting an axe to meet her weapon. Her blade carried through the skeleton's wrist and snapped it. The arm fell towards the ground, and the blade ripped through the skull, splitting it in twain. The skeleton collapsed.
Chris stepped over the collapsing bones, holding her arms out to her sides.
"It is me."
Hugo hesitated, then nodded. Relief flooded his features, but then a look of something—embarrassment?—passed over his eyes. His face hardened again, and he hastened towards her. His hands clutched his daggers as if they were claws upon his fingers as he stared at her.
"How did… I thought…" He barked a short laugh. "You're free. Where's…" He sighed, shaking his head as if giving up.
She reached out a hand to grip his arm. He was alive. And he'd come for her. She wanted to smile, but something held her back. She wanted to speak, but her mouth was dry. And her heart fluttered.
"You should not have come for me," she blurted out. "You put yourself at risk." She managed a stern frown.
Hugo blinked. His lips darted open, but he pressed them shut. He shook his head.
She craned her neck, and searched his eyes. She's mine. What had he meant? Why had he said that? She brushed stray hair from her eyes. She was a mess. For some reason, that bothered her.
Hugo glanced over her shoulder. "We're surrounded."
And they were. All around them, dozens of skeletons were closing in. The flames were spreading, hedging them in, but more skeletons walked right through the flames, their bones coming away covered with smoke and soot. Teeth glittered in the light of the flame. Eye sockets yawned cavernously empty.
Chris let go of Hugo's arm and turned. "So we are." How many were out there? More than a hundred? It was possible. She shuddered.
Hugo edged up against her, and their backs pressed together.
"We'll have to fight," he said.
She drew up her shoulders, feeling the heat of his back against hers.
Live or die, today they would stand together.
Wood smoke bloomed from the flames around them, and billowed forth in dark clouds. Half a dozen soldiers remained with Huarn. He couldn't remember their names; could barely see their faces beneath their helms. But it didn't matter. They were his truest men. Waves of heat balmed against his back, and against his sides. Sweat soaked the padding beneath his armor. Blood pounded through his head like a hammer striking an anvil. There was no way to go but forward.
The soldiers at his side were past fear. So too was he. They trod the scorched earth one step at a time, waving swords and spears from this side to that as if hacking apart straw men. And the undead fell before them, collapsing into rattling piles of bone at their feet.
Out of the haze, the dragon strode. It sauntered towards them with the sinuous grace of a lion. A lion wreathed in a halo of fire, with runes glowing over its scales. The fist-sized eyes set deep in its wedge-shaped head pulsed with power and hate. It stopped to watch them, and death seemed to hang in the air.
What matter, death? To Huarn, who had been born into servitude, a third-class citizen delivered kicking and screaming into a conquered, broken, shattered nation. A thrall. Sub-human, worthless, less than a man.
He had aspired to something more. Even Holy Harmonia—may it be eternal—could show mercy. Could elevate a beast to the ranks of men, by virtue of service rendered to his nation. To the nation his mother and father fought and died to prevent from conquering Sanadia. They had been fools to believe that anything could stand in the way of the Absolute One-may-he-be-eternal. Other nations, other peoples, all eventually crumbled and withered to dust beneath the boots of the Absolute One-may-he-be-eternal.
His soldiers stood breathless at Huarn's side, clutching their weapons like extensions of their own bodies, pointed right at the Incarnation. No one spoke. There was nothing to be said. No one made a sound that could be heard over the roar of the flames. They were done.
Their faces were lost to the haze in his mind, and he no longer knew their names, but he saw the fire of resolve in their eyes. Sanadians all. They were his men, and they would face their end together. His lungs ached and twisted, but his chest swelled with pride. While other Harmonian companies were rife with petty squabbles and in-fighting, the 282nd West Company was as one. They would slay an Incarnation, deliver a True Rune to Crystal Valley, and return legends, second-class citizens in the stroke of a Bishop's feather pen. Or they would die here, leaving behind an orphan's miserable existence. A life without meaning.
Huarn coughed blood. Smoke stung his nose, and rushed into his lungs. His head spun, and he almost stumbled, losing his sword. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, and started forward.
His men marched beside him.
The dragon lurched forward. It loped three steps towards them, opened its mouth mid-charge, and—
It stopped. Snapped its mouth shut.
Huarn charged, bellowing a battle cry.
The Incarnation's form wavered amid the flames. Then it shrunk. In a burst of twisting transformation, a dragon turned into a man behind a screen of roiling smoke.
Then the man stepped out of the smoke, towards them. He had his arms outstretched. His face materialized through the haze. He was smiling.
Huarn's sword landed with a clatter against his boots. He heard the others drop their weapons, as well. For a moment he stood gaping, staring at that flawless face. Then a terror flashed through his mind.
He fell to his knees, kowtowing with his head touching the scorched earth, prostrating himself as if before his god. The rustle of armor told him that his soldiers did the same.
He heard the sound of heavy breathing, and he felt the man's presence, standing over him. Then the heat enveloped him completely.
Everything went white.
Nash stood around the bend of a shallow canyon gouged by a river cutting through the grasslands. The stream gushed past his boots, cooling but not wetting his feet. They were good boots, and had fetched a pretty penny in the markets of Algarice.
To his side, brambles climbed the walls of the canyon. He had the sun to his back, and it painted the stone in shades of gold and russet. He waited.
Serfein came around the bend at a sprint. The Godspeed Rune blurred her form, and each leap cleared five steps along the narrow bank of the river. She jumped from side to side of the stream to avoid the water and navigate through the brambles. Until she saw Nash.
Serfein splashed into the river, and came up wet and startled. She whipped out her rifle and aimed it squarely at his heart.
"Stand back. How did you…" She hesitated. "You have a rune." She stalked towards him with squared shoulders, tracking his every movement with the rifle's nozzle.
Nash smiled. "Not everything is a rune." He cocked his head and furrowed his brow. "Though some scholars would disagree. At least one school of thought I could name argues that the world is composed of—"
"Silence. You are…" she slowly raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun. "The renegade. Nash Latkje."
"I should shoot you where you stand," she said.
"But you're too curious. To know why I'm here."
"What do you want?"
Nash set his hands on his hips. "I—"
"Stop. Another move and I'll shoot. No more warnings."
Nash grimaced. "See, I knew it'd come to this. Gunners these days have no patience. No sense of… timing."
"You were a fool to come here. You won't leave alive. But first, I want to know what you're doing here. What is your connection to the Silver Maiden?"
Nash smirked. "I was thinking I would do the questioning." He gripped the twin hilts in his belt. He hadn't dared unseal the swords with others nearby. The loss of control could have been… disastrous.
Nash pulled Grosser Fluss out in one motion. The twin snake swords burst into rippling segments and spiraled out. The bullet struck sparks against the segments with a loud clang.
Nash surged forward. The world blurred around him. He flashed across the water and towards Serfein.
The woman turned and ran. But her feet couldn't carry her fast enough.
Author's Notes: This chapter got delayed a couple of months because I wasn't disciplined enough to keep working on it during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. :) It just got too tough for me to stay up all nights and try to focus on writing while waiting for games or watching games. But, all's well that ends well. Let's go Pens! :D