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Introduction:

More battle.
Chapter Fifty-Nine

CERTIOK

I was stuck somewhere between boredom and existential terror. Within the shadow of Castle Alkandra, my battlegroup of the disabled and geriatric was shielded from the raining hell of boulders and missiles. The distant cacophony created a droning thunder that echoed off the castle’s atrium, which acted as an enormous stone bandstand. We hung about the castle steps, watching the destruction unfold with grim faces. For two hours, we just sat there, and as we sat there, terror turned to dread to turned to hopelessness turned to boredom. It was only when Furia and her battlegroup came racing up the steps that we felt any semblance of excitement.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked her sharply.

She caught her breath, and pointed southward toward the arena. “Everyone needs to go to the rendezvous point. You, me, everyone.”

“We were supposed to stay here and cover the retreat!”

“There won’t be a retreat. Soraya and Brianna’s battlegroup are trapped, and Faltia’s committing her battlegroup to aid them.”

“What? Where’s Eva’s group?! Where’s Kiera’s?!”

Furia just shook her head, and wiped her eyes. “We lost Brianna too. No one knows where Leveria is, and Yavara’s dead.”

“Oh fuck.”

“Our only chance is to stop them at the arena. We’re going to hit them with everything we’ve got left. Come on!”

FALTIA

I was too late. I could see the progression of the battle by the orientation of the bodies that blanketed the pavilion. The beasts had charged, dealt a considerable blow to the Lowlanders, and then were halted. The Lowlanders had dug deep, used their greater numbers and training to force the charge backward, and had slaughtered the beasts all the way to the steps of the arena. There, the few thousand Alkandran soldiers who survived the onslaught were fighting for their lives down the risers that led to the sands below. Their bodies tumbled down the stone steps by the dozen as the frontline was driven relentlessly backward, and the back ranks were already hopping over the wall and forming a defensive perimeter on the arena floor. Poor fools. There was no defending a position like that. It was like trying to defend the bottom of a well. The enemy formed flanking groups along the risers, and began an encirclement maneuver to trap the beasts on the sands below. I could already see the rows of archers shuffling along the top levels of the arena, ready to begin the final slaughter. Out in the pavilion, the rest of the army formed a long line between us and the arena, goading us to break through them to save our doomed brethren.

“Tom!” I called.

The great twenty-foot behemoth came lumbering to the front, shaking the earth with every footfall. “Yes, ma’am!” He grunted, giving an awkward salute. The hairy troll was covered in burns and great open wounds, but he still moved without too much pain.

“You and your crew take the north end and flank them.” I pointed to where I wanted the fifteen resident trolls to go, “Hit them from the alleyway, and don’t stop until you are stopped, understand?”

“Yes, ma’am!” Tom boomed, then added, “It’s been an honor, ma’am.”

“And it will continue to be one after this.” I said, patting his great hairy leg. We both knew it was a lie.

“For Alexa,” he nodded.

“For Alexa.” I echoed, and sent him on his way.

“Joh Proudfoot!” I yelled. The centaur clopped to the front, and saluted smartly. “Take your men to the south end and start firing into their backs. Shoot the mages! Go quickly!”

Joh let out a yell, and the civilian cavalry charged out from the mouth of the street, and into the pavilion. I turned around, drew my sword, and waved it above my head. A third of my battlegroup had died just trying to get here. The boulders had rained relentlessly upon us, collapsing towers onto our heads, blowing holes in our ranks, and sending entire building sliding like avalanches into our sides. We were only seven-thousand strong, and the enemy was over twice that. We’d lost our numbers advantage. We’d lost every advantage. Still, my men cheered me as I haled them, and they raised their weapons overheads and roared their myriad war cries. It was enough to bring tears to my eyes. I turned around, let out a great scream of my own, and charged headlong toward the Lowland line. My battlegroup poured out into the pavilion after me, their thousands of feet causing the very earth to shake.

The Lowland spearmen up front braced themselves, and the archers in back drew down on us. They released a volley, and I heard the whistling rain of hafts descend upon those behind me, sending hundreds to their ends. The archers nocked again, raised their bows, and loosed. A deadly shower came down on us once more, nearly every arrow meeting its mark in the packed-in charge. The Lowland frontline leaned into their defensive stances. The Lowland archers nocked their bows for one last volley. They pulled back, aimed, and then Tom and his trolls burst out of the alleyway, and smashed into the elven ranks. In all my life, I had never seen so much mass move so devastatingly. The great furry beasts brought their payloader hands down, and smashed men into the ground. What was left when the trolls lifted their hands was a sticky red mess of pulverized bones and flattened armor, a two-dimensional caricature of the men they once were. When the trolls swept their hands across the ranks, it sent men hurtling into the air for hundreds of feet. Some of the bastards splattered against the arena columns, and some were sent sailing clear over the stands like homerun blasts. But I think the maneuver I enjoyed the most, was the simple and brutal trampling of the enemy. The great lumbering beasts squashed whole platoons of men by just walking, creating ten-foot gaps in the line. By the time we got there, there wasn’t even a front to charge into.

I shot through a gap behind Tom’s foot, and bloodied my sword for the first time. It went right through the throat of a reloading archer, then half-decapitated him on the way out. I dodged a spear thrust, spun away from a downward sword strike, then whirled my way into the middle of the two attackers, and before they could even raise their weapons in defense, I put my blade into the spearman’s guts, ripped the dagger out from the swordsman’s belt, and planted it into his eye. They dropped before me, revealing two archers aiming down their hafts. They loosed. I watched the arrows traverse the twenty feet between us, and intercepted them with the flat of my sword. The archers could only gawk at me as I closed the distance between us, and sent their heads toppling off their shoulders with expressions of disbelief still frozen upon their faces.

A regal knight in full plate rushed me. He swung his massive great sword with a roar, and I simply jump-roped the blade, ducked his return slice, and walked right into his guard. It wasn’t like me to toy with my enemy, but I couldn’t help but play with the bastard as he frustratedly swept about himself trying to find me. Undoubtedly, he thought very highly of himself, as well he should, for his thrusts and strikes were extremely powerful, and his technique was flawless. Unfortunately for him, there was no technique for speed. I could see his attacks coming before he even did them, and I stayed glued to his side throughout our combat until he raised his hands overhead for a downward strike, and I took the opportunity to drive my sword through his faceplate. Pink blood gushed from the steel hole in his helm, and he dropped the great sword behind him with a clatter, and collapsed to his knees.

My bout with the knight had attracted quite a bit of unwanted attention. Ten spearmen rushed me at once, closing in from my left flank and front. I committed leftward, rushed the five men flanking that side, and rapidly contorted myself between the heads of their weapons. The shafts glided along me in slow motion, and I pushed three of them to a new trajectory. With their momentum carrying them relentlessly forward, they crashed into the other group charging me, and impaled two of their own men. Isolating the two men I hadn’t redirected, I quickly dispatched them with two motions, then turned around. The six survivors of the crash all charged me at once, and I raced out to meet them. Once again, I contorted my body to move through the space between their weapons, only this time, I continued all the way down the shafts until I met the men themselves. I put my sword through one throat, slashed across, decapitated another man, summersaulted to the left, plunged my blade into the third man’s groin, pulled it out as he doubled-over in agony, then leapt up, stabbed the fourth man beneath the armpit, twirled around, slashed the fifth man across the chest, spun across his back, and plunged my blade into the last man’s belly. I withdrew my sword, and all six men dropped at once.

The Lowlanders were being pushed back. The trolls’ brutal advance into the Lowland flank had shattered their line, and the main front of the battlegroup was moving nearly unimpeded toward the Lowland’s center. Way out in the perimeter, Joh Proudfoot and his mounted skirmishers were thinning-out any formations the Lowlanders could muster, keeping the bulk of the enemy pressed in and disorganized. We had no chance against a structured army, but the citizens of Alkandra could win a brawl. Massive ogres swung their clubs to and froe, sending broken men flailing into the ranks behind them, smashing skulls into dust and splattering bodies like tomatoes. Orcs cut through armor like it was butter, splitting humans all the way down, opening vicious gaps of tendons, bones and guts within their cleanly-cloven iron shells. And I danced like a deadly little scalpel in the midst of it all, moving with precision and exactness to kill my enemy as efficiently as possible. I gutted one man, ducked a sword swing, put my blade through his chin and through the top of his head, ripped it out just in time to parry an axe, caught the hook of the weapon on my blade, wrenched it from the man’s hands, and spun as he was sent sprawling toward me. I put my sword through his mouth and out of his brainstem, then twirled before a downward strike, slashed across my assailant’s midsection, moved across him, then impaled the man behind him. Tom thundered past me, flattening a whole squad of Lowlanders who were only trying to get out of his way. He swept his massive hairy arms in great arcs, sending men flying in all directions, and then he suddenly straightened upright, and fell backwards.

I didn’t need to see what kind of foe had killed the troll. I scurried around Tom’s massive corpse, keeping my head low. One by one, the other trolls came crashing down, each of their impacts shaking the earth like felled trees. When I got to Tom’s feet, I flattened myself behind his heel, and peered around it. There were twenty mages positioned in a wide arc around the trolls’ bodies. Their hoods were down, showing me their very-normal looking faces. It somehow disturbed me even more that these creatures of such power looked like hardware store owners and grocers. I carefully drew my bow, nocked two arrows, and aimed upward. I judged the angle I would need, then from behind the cover of Tom’s massive foot, I loosed the two arrows, and dared a peek out into the open. My two targets were in conversation with each other, heedless of the battle raging around them. They gestured to the bodies of the trolls, made some unheard comments, then they pitched violently forward when an arrow went right through their skulls. I smiled to myself, and watched as the other mages congregated around the two dead bodies. A soldier’s natural inclination would’ve been to run for cover, but these were academics. I nocked two more arrows, aimed up the side of Tom’s foot, and loosed. The arrows became dots in the sky, disappeared, became dots again, then became lines, and then they were gone. Two more thuds sounded from behind the troll’s foot, and the murmurs of panic came after. I loosed four consecutive arrows, then charged out into the open.

They didn’t even see me coming. They were so fascinated by their dead comrades that I closed the distance between us without being noticed. I plunged my sword into a woman’s back, ripped it free, decapitated another woman execution-style, killed a third mage—this one a man—with a stab through his chest, rounded his body, and buried my sword into a fourth mage’s back. They noticed me after that. Four mages raised their hands to cast spells, and—Fffft, fffft, fffft, fffft!—my arrows came down, and brained them. I leapt backward, split the space between two mages, and ducked just as an old witch cast a spell. It must’ve been a laceration spell, for the two mages at my sides were split as cleanly as a bone-ham, and their tops toppled from their bottoms. I scurried beneath their falling pieces, shot out like a snake, and plunged my sword into the witch’s belly. She vomited blood when I ripped my sword out of her side, then she screamed when I ducked, and the spell meant for me acidified her flesh. I cut off the hands of the mage who had cast it, slashed a young woman across the face, wheeled around the handless man, stuck my sword through a grandfather’s neck, wheeled back around the handless man, and dropped to my belly. The spell that was meant for me struck the handless man right in the crotch, and he imploded from the point of contact, folding into himself fifty times until he was nothing but stacked pieces of hamburger. I rolled out of the way of another spell, snatched a hatchet, leapt to my feet, and sent the weapon spinning through the air to split a man’s skull down the forehead. The woman behind him opened her hands, and I rolled out of the way just before a bolt of lightning struck me. It instead electrified the poor bastard behind me, and he crumpled into a smoking heap of robes. I ran serpentine through the bodies, dodged four consecutive spells, then ran the electrical woman through, rolled around her falling form, slashed the man behind her across the face, ducked the attack that would have disintegrated me, threw my sword end-over-end into his chest, and impaled him cleanly. As he fell to his knees, I raced up to him with my head ducked low, used his profile as cover, snatched my sword, and jumped as high as I could. For a moment, I was suspended in air above the last mage. His hands were poised to cast a spell, but he’d never imagined I’d be over him. I drove my blade down, pierced him through the skull, then flipped over him, and brough my arms forward to cleave my blade through the back of his head. He dropped behind me with a retarded groan, and I wiped my blade clean with a small smirk on my face.

Fffft!

I took two steps forward, and dropped to one knee. I looked at the arrow in my chest, then drew my gaze up to the centaur who had shot it. She was horrified, gawking at me with wide, trembling eyes.

“Oh my god, Commander!” she cried, and came bolting toward me. She scooped me up in her arms, and cradled me, “Oh my god, what have I done?!”

“It’s fine!” I growled, “You were just following orders. Shoot the mages!” I laughed, blood flowing from my mouth, “I was the idiot who got in the way.”

“We need to get you to some shade!”

“What shade?” I spat, “We’re in the middle of a goddamn pavilion! Put me down, and let me—”

“NO!” She screamed, and bolted toward the rear, “No, no, no, no! I will not be the one who killed you!”

“That was an order—”

“Fuck your orders!” She snapped, and increased her speed, charging recklessly over bodies and rubble. I didn’t have the strength to argue with her. The high-noon sun was warm against my flesh, and I was so cold. Though the breath fogged from my bearer’s mouth in great gouts, it barely wisped from mine. The world was becoming dimmer. The motions were becoming blurred. The shapes and colors lost their structure, and blended together into amorphous constructs that swam in my waning vision. I didn’t even notice I was being carried anymore. It felt like I was floating. Where am I? What’s happening? Who… who is… is that… Alexa?

FURIA

The goblins and I raced nimbly across the burning rooftops while Certiok’s battlegroup lagged behind. We ran along the Knife River, where the blown-out skeletal buildings were covered in ash and blackened. The Lowlanders had spent their salvo here already, which was why I chose the path. There was no reason for them to destroy it twice. I kept one eye on the east, and watched the rain of boulders cascade upon the city’s center a half mile away. One flaming boulder crashed through the center of a stone tower, sending a blast of rubble and dust high in the air. The tower buckled, then fell in place, and an even greater explosion of debris ballooned from the site.

I took a moment to glance out at Arbor’s fields just to see something that wasn’t dying, and I felt a terrible sense of foreboding. Those fields would soon be filled with forty-thousand golden helms, and the riverbanks across the water would be lined with trebuchets and ballistae for miles. If the Lowland marines were giving us this much hell, what chance did we stand against a battle-hardened army twice their size? I ripped my attention away from the thought, and instead focused at the task at hand. Grim though our prospects were, there was still a glimmer of hope. As long as Leveria still breathed, that conniving cunt could see us out of this shit. If she still breathed.

I suddenly lurched forward, and barely caught myself on the lip of a jagged hole in the roof. The gobbling behind me extended his hand, and pulled me up to safety.

“Keep your eyes down, Commander!” He yelled, “You’ll be no help to anyone if you’re dead!”

I nodded, and tracked my path along the stone shingles as I ran. The building across the street collapsed, sending ten of my soldiers screaming into the smoky wreckage. The goblin before me leapt onto a roof, and the entire top caved in, swallowing him whole. I was as surefooted a creature as there was, but Alkandra was crumbling from every beam. Still, it was faster than trying to navigate the streets below, which had become a treacherous maze of burning rubble. All I could do was pray that each step wouldn’t be my last.

“Commander!” one of my men yelled, and pointed toward the east. I skidded to a stop, and groaned. The shower of flaming boulders was getting closer. They crashed upon the building ten blocks away, then nine blocks away, then eight blocks away. I didn’t bother watching them further.

“Run!” I screamed, I dashed forward. There was no time to care for my footing now, and I leapt recklessly from building to building, trying to get ahead of the salvo before it arrived. Screams sounded from all around as my men lost their balance, but the terrified exclamations were fading in the wake of the approaching thunder. I jumped across an alleyway, caught myself on a clothesline, swung to a balcony, landed on the railing, and ran along the thin piece of iron before I launched myself across a pavilion, and dove through an open window. I rolled onto the floor, exploded upward with a jump, and sprinted through the apartment complex. The thunder was deafening. I reached the end of the complex, shot out of the window, and for a gut-lurching second, I was out in space. The cobblestones fifty feet below me seemed to move by me in slow motion, and the statue in the center of a fountain pointed its sword up at me as though signaling my flight. Then there was cement only a foot below me, and I was on the opposite balcony, running at full-tilt. The building across the street exploded, sending massive chunks of rock hurtling my way. They blasted through the walls, punched great holes in the façade, and peppered me with pellets from head to toe. I scrambled through the apartment, shot out of the window, and reached. The iron railing on the balcony across the street was only ten feet away. Then it was gone. The building exploded into infernal red, debris blasted out, and I was reaching for nothing. My fingers instinctively grabbed for what should have been there, and I was suddenly falling. I didn’t even have time to scream. I just plunged into blackness.

SORAYA

I was on the top floor of a three-story church. The sounds of battle rang out in the distance, for the armies had passed me by some time ago, but not all the soldiers had gone to the front. There were scavengers that rummaged through the wreckage, looking for spoils to take back to their homeland. I was the greatest spoil of all. There were men right outside the door. They had found me. They pounded against the planks, blasting clouds of dust into the air, splintering the wood. The table I’d thrown in front of the door wouldn’t hold for long. The roof of this building had been blown clean off by a falling boulder, letting the high-noon sun illuminate every dark corner. I was trapped.

I nocked one arrow, and waited. Though I now had the complexion of a woman in her late teens, I had once been a veteran ranger with twenty years of experience under my belt. Twenty years as a scribe, that was. Combat for me had been spent furiously scrawling messages and sending them out via eagle to Castle Thorum. The only time I’d even used weaponry was during training. I felt very-much like the balding middle-aged man I’d once been; helpless and useless. Why would anyone ever think I could command troops? Faltia had been my captain for ten years, and the only command she (then he) had given me was over the wash boys to make sure they weren’t stealing food. Why the fuck would she put me in charge of thousands of people?! The very second adversity struck, I’d panicked and sent my entire battlegroup to the beach. If Yavara hadn’t swooped down to rescue me from myself, I would’ve led every one of my soldiers to their deaths in a blind fit of vengeance. Oh, Eva!

I wiped the tears from my eyes, and tremulously drew my bow. I had to survive. Not for me, but for the child in my belly, the last piece of Eva that still lived. I watched the planks on the door flex and shudder with impacts until one of them was finally smashed loose. I shot my arrow at the crack, and missed a foot left. Cursing, I drew my bow again just as another plank was broken free. I could see the soldiers now; their faces drawn in gluttonous sneers, their avaricious eyes scanning every inch of me. It stirred the darkest hovels of my masochism to imagine what they’d do to me, but my primal terror overwhelmed my carnal instincts, and I loosed another arrow. This one missed high by two feet, flitting out of the window above the door, and into the streets below. I drew another arrow, and shot it wide left. It thudded into the wood, the haft quivering with spent energy. The soldiers smashed in another plank. The hole they’d made was nearly wide enough to fit through. I drew another arrow. My fingers were trembling so much that I could hardly grasp the arrow, and when I tried to nock it, it slipped from my grip and clattered onto the floor.

“Hey, Missy!” one of the soldiers growled gleefully, “Do you know what we’re going to do to you when we get in?”

“We’re gonna fuck you bloody, you little slut!” another of them giggled, “We’re gonna fuck the baby right out of ya!”

“Little Missy,” a third one cooed, “quit playing hard to get, love, and just open the door. It’ll be much better for you if you do.”

“You don’t want to end up like your friend!” A fourth man snarled. “Ole’ Ronnie got his mitts on her. Cut her to pieces while she was still breathing! Look,” He held up a hacked-off pointed bronze ear, a recognizable earring hanging from it, “I even got a souvenir!”

I felt myself go white with horror. Kiera, no!

“Ah, you scared the missy!” the first one laughed, “Don’t worry, love, we’re not like Ronnie, but we can be right nasty if someone’s being rude to us. Don’t be shy now; we’ll give you what you want!

They smashed their weapons against the door, each strike causing a horrific crack to sound from the planks.

“Let us in, you bitch!” the one with Kiera’s ear snarled, “Two more ears, and I’ve got me-self a valuable collection!”

The wood splintered, and broke. The men came pouring into the room. I dropped my bow, grabbed my sword, and—there was a flash of light, and the men were shrieking, dancing frantically in a vain attempt to quell the flames that had erupted from their clothing. Their helms melted to their heads, the molten iron dripped into their eyes, and the whites sizzled, burst, and cascaded down their cheeks like bloody egg-white tears. As they screeched in agony, their armor melted to their bodies, suffusing metal and flesh, cooking them in their own pots, wafting the terrible smell of bacon into the room. They suffered for a very long time before they collapsed. Yavara groaned in pain, and slouched against the wall.

I had found her in the middle of the street while my army was retreating. Somehow, she’d ended up five city blocks north of the wall she’d been at only moments before. Half of her body was singed black, and she’d lost an arm and a leg on that side, as well as all of her hair, one ear and one eye, but she was still remarkably breathing. For a moment, I was stuck in a horrible stasis between choosing the corpse of the woman I loved, and the wounded woman who had created me. I made the right choice, but it was shamefully difficult. While my army raced on ahead, I dropped Eva on the ground, grabbed the former Dark Queen, and dragged her unconscious body into this church. There, she had remained unconscious until just a second ago.

I rushed to her side. “Can you heal yourself?” I asked softly.

She tried to open her mouth to respond, but stopped. The burnt half of her face revealed all the tendons and bones beneath the flesh of her cheek, displaying the scorched and blackened inside of her mouth. Her tongue was little more than a charred piece of pulp. She closed her one eye, and let out a pained squeaking breath through her nose. With the utmost effort, she moved her trembling hand to her face, and cast a spell. She did not heal herself completely, but closed the hole in her cheek, regrew her eye, and righted the damage done to the inside of her mouth. She left the open burns on her face, and didn’t attempt to regrow the hair on her head. She opened her half-charred lips, and croaked, “Water?”

“No.” I shook my head apologetically.

She closed her eyes, and let out another pained breath.

“Why don’t you heal the rest of yourself?” I asked.

“Can’t,” she answered tersely, “not powerful enough anymore. Need rest and time.” Her blue eyes rolled to me, and she winked, “So I’m fucked.”

I laughed ruefully. “We’re both fucked, Yavara.”

She sighed. “My name. You never said my name before. Now you all say it.”

“Sorry.”

“No sorry. Not now. Too late.” She offered me a horrific smile, “I’m in so much pain. You might think I’m a lucky girl.”

I fished through my knapsack, and pulled out a syringe. “I can—”

“No. Drugs are bad.”

“Are you fucking serious right now?”

Her horrific grin widened. “Pain is life. Death is numb. I choose life.” She coughed violently, speckled her lips with blood, then her breath eased back into its rattling rhythm. “I’m sorry about Eva,” she croaked.

“Yeah…” I muttered.

She hacked again, the sound so dry and terrible that I could practically hear the vessels bursting in her throat. “No grief!” She yelled, “Just vengeance! Kill them all!”

“Well, hello again, Dark Queen Yavara.”

“No. Do not give Alkandi credit for me.”

“Oh, so you were always a murderous psycho?”

“I guess it runs in the family.” She laughed painfully, “You and I are similar, you know.”

“How so?”

“Same kind of love.” She wrapped her fingers gingerly around her throat, “Fear, pain, pleasure. I love how you love.”

“Ah, another connoisseur of the wicked side of romance.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “but we hate differently. I was a killer long before I was dark. You are no killer.”

“No.”

She raised her hand, and pointed out the window. In the street below, there was an upturned wheelbarrow. “I can’t walk, but I can kill,” she said, “you can’t kill, but you can walk.”

I looked from the wheelbarrow, to her. “Are you fucking nuts? Never mind, don’t answer that.”

Her horrific grin widened.

YAVARA

The wind blew through what was left of my hair, the wheel thudded against the cobblestones, and the sounds of battle became louder. I bounced haphazardly in my wheelbarrow, barely able to stay on my back. Three times Soraya had lost control of it and spilled me onto the ground, but now the dips and craters of the streets were gone, and we were rolling at full-speed across the flat pavilion. The enemy’s back was turned to us as they surged into the arena, and our wheel bounced off of thousands of their dead along the way. Faltia’s front was pressing from the north, keeping the Lowlanders from committing fully to massacring the few thousand poor souls left in Soraya and Brianna’s combined battlegroups.

“Full speed ahead!” I laughed manically, pounding the side of the wheelbarrow with my one hand.

“What?!” Soraya exclaimed, “Yavara, we have to go around!”

“Into the belly of the beast!”

“I’m not suicidal!”

“A coward dies a thousand deaths, Soraya, but a brave woman only dies one!” I shouted back at her.

“Okay, cool. You first.”

“I don’t have the strength to cast spells and push myself! Come on! For Eva!”

“Eva would’ve wanted me to stay behind and save the baby!”

“Eva would’ve dressed you as a warhorse and rode you into battle herself!” I pounded the side of the wheelbarrow, and let out a whoop, “Come on, horsey, let’s get go!”

“What is wrong with you?!”

“I’ve been under quite a bit of stress lately!” I scooched violently in my seat, trying to urge her forward, “You can only take so much before you finally fucking CRACK! NOW LET’S FUCKING GO!

“Let’s fucking go!” Soraya’s terrified voice squealed in concurrence, and we charged. In truth, I was as terrified as she was, but the adrenaline dumped into my blood didn’t compel me to flee, but to race headlong toward the source of my terror. I grinned below bulging eyes as the wooden wheel bounced off the cobblestones, and the backs of the enemy came closer and closer. When we were fifty yards out, one man turned around. He looked at me, then he looked at Soraya, then he tapped the shoulder of the man beside him. That man looked back at me, then at Soraya, then tapped the shoulder of the man beside him. The third man turned around, pointed his sword at us, and let out a great laugh. Twenty men turned around, and each of them let out a jeer when they saw us. We were quite the source of amusement for another ten yards, then one of the men recognized me, and his smile faded. He said something frantically to the men beside him, but none of them would pay him any heed. He tried with all the communication tools in his lexicon to convey the threat that was approaching, but he was dull-witted and incoherent, and so when we were twenty yards away, he dropped his shield, and ran away. It was only when we were ten yards away and not slowing down, that the men watching us realized something wasn’t right. When we were five yards away, and Soraya was screaming at the top of her lungs, I finally saw the horror I was owed cross the men’s faces. It was only then that I launched my attack.

A wall of fire consumed the back ranks of the Lowland marines. The men who had jeered us were nothing but black silhouettes dancing in the flames, singing their death-metal outro into oblivion. Soraya pivoted hard to avoid the blaze, nearly pitching me over the side. She ran alongside the wall of fire as I held out my hand, and nursed the flames. I could hear the screams on the other side, and I could smell the cooking flesh. When my flame sputtered out, I launched salvo after salvo of telekinetic blasts into the plasmatic barrier. The first blasts fanned the flames deeper into the enemy ranks, creating infernal horizontal sheets that cooked the enemy alive. The next blasts put the fire out, but these were stronger attacks. Great circular shockwaves radiated from my hand, creating oscillating sonic booms that ripped men to pieces. I could see the frequency of the waves in the pattern of corpses they made in their wake. Arms, legs and heads were separated violently from torsos and flung into the ranks of men behind them. The waves traveled ten feet through metal and flesh before they dissipated, and even then, they knocked men clean off their feet.

“Mages!” Soraya cried.

Twenty robed figures were running quickly toward me, stumbling over heaps of their own dead. Only twenty? Where had the others gone? This wasn’t nearly enough!

“Charge!” I yelled, and pointed my finger toward the enemy. Soraya screamed in terror, ducked behind my body, and charged as fast as her little legs could run. The wheel thudded over corpses, the distance between me and my enemy closed, and their weak little minds became clearer and clearer to me. They had many names and memories, but at the forefront of their consciousness was sheer terror. They thought they’d killed me. How could anyone survive that blast?! It was impossible! These thoughts radiated from their minds as they prepared their pathetic spells, each of them digging into their magical reservoirs to summon the murderous incantation they’d practiced on a thousand dummies, that surefire killer Prestira had taught them to use only in the direst of circumstances. But I was Prestira’s greatest student of all. The mages charged their attacks, and I dove into their minds. As if pirouetting in a ballet, all twenty of the mages turned to the person beside them, and cast their spells. They all crumpled to the earth in various stages of death; some shrieked as they were acidified, some gargled as they vomited out their organs, and others just lay there bleeding out of their eyes and ears. Sadists, the lot of them. They deserved it.

We barreled through the battlefield, carving out a new front in the Lowland formation all by ourselves. Arrows fell around us, and shattered on my shield. Hundreds of soldiers charged us, and only dozens lived long enough to run away. I killed scores of men in a second, launched their broken bodies into the charging ranks behind them, and moved relentlessly toward my objective. The archways of the arena began to loom overhead, casting their shadows on my face. The soldiers became denser the closer I got, and it took more and more of my magic to drive a path through them. Soraya gasped and gulped behind me, stumbling with every step. Though our progress slowed, and though my magical resources were nearly exhausted, I expended myself without restraint. Why not? What waited for me in the arena but more death? My objective was my end, I was certain of it. The coliseum would be my tomb.

I sent a telekinetic blast through a row of soldiers, and their separated body parts exploded backward to reveal a vast open space. The arena. Here was the fulcrum of the battle. Faltia’s battlegroup was gridlocked beneath the north gate with the bulk of the Lowland marines. At least ten-thousand Lowlanders held a stiff line while hundreds of mages lined the rear skirmishing positions to cast devastating spells into the ranks of beasts. Dead trolls littered the ground near the north entrance, and at the entrance itself, the two converging lines were steadily growing taller atop a mountain of dead. On the sands of the arena below, the remnants of Soraya and Brianna’s battlegroup were surrounded by thousands of Lowlanders who were content with keeping the beasts penned-in until the mages pushed back. Skirmishers shot volleys of arrows, and though the trapped beasts formed an impressive shell of shields, a few unlucky beasts were struck each time.

“Where to, boss?” Soraya breathed heavily behind me.

“Faltia’s battlegroup is holding its own for now. We need to rescue yours.”

“The arena isn’t exactly handicap accessible.”

“You’ll have to carry me down then.”

Soraya laughed.

“I wasn’t joking.”

“I know,” She said, “but there’s no fucking way I can carry you, Yavara, no matter how many limbs your missing. I don’t know if I can take another fucking step.”

“I only need you to get me halfway down. I’ll do the rest!” I grunted, and pulled myself out of the wheelbarrow, “We just need to push the enemy into the arena!”

TITUS

The ground above us shook with footsteps, but not the right kind. I could distinguish the wild footfalls of the beasts from the regimented marching of the Lowlanders. Not only that, but I could smell through the foot of wood, sand and soil above me, and distinguish friend from foe. I could hear the sounds of battle, and intuit its progression by the tenor of screams and the patterns of movement. Things were not going well for us. Many of my children paced anxiously around the catacombs, eyeing the ceiling above them with trepidation. The rendezvous was supposed to happen here. The Alkandran force was supposed to stage a strategic retreat through the arena, and lure the Lowlanders onto the sands. Something had obviously gone wrong, for the only people on the sands were our own troops.

“Father?” Tiffany asked me, “Should we go back to the castle?”

“No,” I muttered, eyeing the ceiling, “if we don’t play our part now, the castle will provide no protection later. This is where the battle will be decided.”

“I think the battle has already been decided.” Tiffany said quietly.

She was right. The only smells that reached my nostrils were of the terror-soaked sweat of the orcs being slaughtered above, and the only sounds that reached my ears were the pattering of falling arrows and the screams of the mortally-wounded. It was hopeless. The enemy would march right around the arena without ever… I cocked my head, honing-in on a sound that was different from all the rest. It almost sounded like a gust of wind, but it was localized, and bore with it, a great chorus of human screams. There was suddenly a great stampede of footsteps down the risers, and a second later, the ceiling above us shook with movement.

“What the hell?” Tiffany whispered.

I followed the sound of the infernal wind with my eyes, and a smile stretched across my face. I recognized that smell. She was half-cooked and reeked of adrenaline, but the scent of Yavara Tiadoa was as distinct as ever.

“Alright, boys and girls,” I said, cracking my neck, “it’s lunchtime.”

I donned my black hood and veil, and tightened my leather gloves. I laced up my leather bodysuit, tightened my robes, and… shit, when was the last time I put on sunscreen? I stripped naked, applied ten layers of sunscreen, shoved my slimy body into my leather bodysuit, tightened my leather gloves, donned my black hood and veil, and wrapped myself in my robes. The whole process took less than a minute with my inhuman speed, but there was no way to gracefully stuff one’s body into a leather bodysuit after applying five bottles of sunscreen to one’s flesh, and so my children looked upon me with bemused smiles.

“Shall we try that again, Father?” Tiffany smirked.

“Equanimity and elegance don’t always go hand-in-hand.” I sneered back, and put on my sunglasses. “There’s nothing gained by trying to capture a lost moment.” I punched my fist through the ceiling, grasped an iron-booted foot, and ripped downward. The Lowlander’s leg dislocated before his hip aligned with the shape of the hole his thigh had made, and the rest of him came crashing down. His body was a twisted mess on the floor, but he hadn’t yet realized it. He just blinked up at us, uncomprehending of what had happened. I raised my foot, and brought it down, and his head splattered like jelly across the floor.

“Damn waste.” Tiffany mused.

“He was too fat anyway.” I said, and wiped the brain-matter off my heel, “Why settle for a substandard cut of meat, when the entire herd is right above our heads?” I punched another hole in the ceiling, snatched a man by the ankle, and broke his body through the sand and soil. I caught him by the throat, plunged my fangs into his neck, and sucked him into a shriveled husk. “Ah, a farmer boy,” I said, smacking my lips, “and a vineyard horticulturalist to boot. What a delicacy.”

Tiffany punched a hole through the ceiling, dragged the man through the hole, and twisted his head all the way around. His shocked face stared at me as she sank her fangs into his throat, and drank deeply. “City boy, but of decent birth. There’s none of that rancid slum flavor in him, but he’s not as tender as nobility. I’m detecting undertones of tobacco, and just a hint of liquor fouling. An alcoholic, but a classy one.”

“Don’t fill up on that swill, Darling, you’re better than that.” I scolded, and punched another hole through the ceiling. Pig farmer; no thank you, factory worker; no way, professional athlete; too gamey, professional chef; too marbled. Artist; not enough meat, blacksmith; too much iron, fisherman; too much mercury, accountant; not enough flavor. The bodies piled up between me and my daughter, and the shafts of sunlight grew more numerous. All around me, my children made their ***********ion of meals from the Lowland marines until the arena floor was more empty space than sand.

“Ah, here we are!” I shouted to Tiffany, “A butcher! Do you smell how well seasoned he is?” I turned the still-living butcher toward me, and asked, “What spices do you usually add to your preserved cold cuts? The pork, to be precise.”

“W-w-w-w-what?!”

“I’m going to use you in my sandwiches for the next few weeks; I want to know what you’d recommend.”

He blinked stupidly at me.

I sighed, and broke his neck. “Black pepper and sea salt it is then. I really should buy a cookbook. Tiffany, could you be a doll and throw this body over there so that no one else takes—” the ceiling came crashing down around us. The beasts who had been trapped in the middle now stood upon an island of sand surrounded by the caved-in structure of the catacombs beneath. The sunlight glared overhead, beating oppressively down upon my black hood and robes. Through the tortuous illumination, I was able to make out about a hundred robed figures standing in the first rows of the risers, looking down at us. And though we vampires considered ourselves to be the noblest and most refined of creatures, when exposed to the sudden light, we scattered like cockroaches.

I grabbed Tiffany, and dashed for an exit tunnel. I was fast, but they were faster. The heat came down on us, a great downpour of fire that filled the veins and tunnels of the catacombs like water pouring into an aquifer. We raced into the blackness of the undercity, and the fire followed us behind, illuminating the rock walls and wooden beams that supported the subterranean network. I couldn’t outrun it. I felt the heat against my back more with every step, and terror began to tug at me. I was almost consumed with the compunction to throw my daughter into the fire like a gazelle sacrificing her young for the pursuing lions, but my cooler head prevailed. There was only one way out. I pivoted, flexed my legs, and jumped upward. My fist smashed through the wood ceiling, traveled through cold soil, and exited through stone. We sprang out of the catacombs, and burst through the second row of risers.

Sunlight surrounded us on all sides, reflecting and glaring off every piece of flashing metal the surrounded us. I was so distracted by the inundation of solar power that I didn’t realize three men were chopping at my legs with axes. How rude of them. I kicked one man in the chest, and his body simply folded around my foot. His chest caved in, his collar snapped, and his shoulders slammed together like the ends of tongs. I shook him off my foot, and kicked another man in the head. His skull exploded, his brains sprayed like confetti, and his eyeballs flew twenty feet behind him. The third man, I simply flicked like the insect he was, and my index finger caved-in his chin, shattered his jaw, and broke every tooth in his mouth. Tiffany finished him off with a swipe of her backhand, sending him twisting in the air with his spine looser than a noodle.

“My god, the world is ugly during the daytime.” I bemoaned, staring out at the carnage, “It’s like looking at yourself in the mirror after waking from a bottle of scotch.”

“How many siblings did I just lose?” Tiffany gasped, struggling with her hood.

“Over half.” I sighed, “When did my children become so expendable?” I casually tore a man’s head off, “Life is such a precious thing.”

Tiffany kicked a man upward into the groin, and her leg carried through him like he was made of putty. Her foot exploded from his neck, and his head flew a hundred feet into the air as the two halves of him wilted into a puddle of gore. She scraped the awful off her foot like she’d stepped in dogshit, then pointed to the steps below us. The mages that had sent my family scurrying were now focusing all of their attention on Yavara, who stood in front of the island of beasts in the middle of the arena, guarding them with her body. She deflected spell after spell, and launched undefendable attacks that broke open whole sections of the mages line, but even I could see that she was overextending herself. She knelt awkwardly on the ground, as one of her legs had been torn off just above the knee, and she raised her one remaining arm before her, and fired off her desperate incantations. Besides the missing limbs, she looked like absolute hell. Half her flesh was blackened, nearly all of her hair was missing, and she was bleeding from every surface of exposed skin.

“Tiffany, let’s go.” I said, and tugged at her robes.

She shook her head.

I sighed. “Tiffany, there’s nothing we can do for her.”

Tiffany nonchalantly swatted a man who’d been trying to spear us, then looked back at me. She reached into her pocket, and presented me with my blow-dart. “Make me a promise, Dad.”

I closed her hand around the weapon, and shook my head.

“I made you a promise!” she hissed.

“I’m a notorious hypocrite. Tiffany, she’s not worth it.”

“What is worth it then?” Tiffany asked, and dropped the blow-dart at my feet. She didn’t even look back. She ran down the risers, crushed dozens of men in her way, and she charged headlong into the backs of the mages. I groaned, picked up the blow-dart, and charged after her.

We butchered our way through scores of men on our way to the mages, and though the marines posed no threat to my flesh, their swords cut right through my clothing. I could feel the sun against me in a dozen different places, and the thick coats of sunscreen I’d put on did little to stop the burning. The cuts seared across my back, smoking and sizzling, agonizing. The winter sun beat against my black-clad form, creating an oven within my leather bodysuit. Panic began to creep into my mind, the primal alarm bells ringing through every synapse, urging me to find cover.

Tiffany was a whirlwind of death, slaughtering at such speed that a mist of red formed around her as she decimated the mage’s line. But I knew she wouldn’t make it. All it would take was one mage to cast a spell, and twenty of them had already turned their attention from the crippled former Dark Queen, to the vampire tornado decimating their brethren. They moved in slow-motion compared to her, but it wasn’t slow enough. As her whirling claws and feet burst through robed bodies, the twenty mages at the end of the line sequentially raised their arms.

“Goddamn it, Tiffany,” I muttered as I drew the blow-dart, “why did you make me do this?”

I pressed my lips to the end of it, and blew. The Nadi wood dart shot through the pipe, and into my wrist. I felt the poison immediately, cold and liquid in my veins, numbing me where ever it spread. Not much time now. I leapt from the risers, raised my arms to my sides, and smashed into the backs of the Lowlanders. It was a brutish maneuver, and it galled me terribly that my last act of killing would be so ungraceful, but my motor functions were already shot. I simply flattened the mages I landed on, then used my forearms as blunt clubs to awkwardly smash-in the heads of four more of the bastards. I got eleven of them before the other nine turned their attention from Tiffany, and I got six more before they managed to set their eyes on me. Then, I got the last five. I killed them all without even taking a scratch. The last threat fell beneath my feet, and I came crashing to my knees a second later.

Tiffany rushed to my side; her red eyes wide. “Father!”

My tongue was so numb that I couldn’t form the words back to her, but it didn’t matter anyway, because there were no words I could say that would break the vomit of laughter coming from my mouth. I howled with it, succumbing in my last moments to the funniest joke I’d ever been party to.

Father? Tiffany whispered in my mind as she cradled my head in her arms.

I always knew my death would be terribly ironic. I smiled at her, though I could only guess where her face was. I’d gone blind. Tiffany, be a dearest and make sure my corpse stays pretty. I expect a grand funeral.

Of course, she sniffled. You’ll say hi to Ivanka for me?



I already had my afterlife, Tiffany, and it was beautiful. I felt my heart stop. Tiffany, listen to me. Don’t you ever…

ZANDER

I soared over the battlefield in my eagle form, catching the updrafts created by the great fires below me. From my vantage point, I could see the battle unfold. The scant remains of Soraya and Brianna’s combined battlegroups were retreating from the arena sands to the northern gate, where Faltia’s depleted battlegroup held a tenuous line against the pressing Lowland marines. The arena had been given completely to the Lowlanders, who also held most of the pavilion. Behind Faltia’s line, Furia’s goblins and Certiok’s support troops were spilling in from the mouths of the northern streets. There were so few of them. I could only make out the shapes of a few dozen goblins skirting the rooftops, and perhaps five-hundred orcs emerging from the smoke-filled boulevards. We had begun this battle outnumbering the Lowlanders nearly two to one. Since then, we’d dealt such great damage to their marines that we’d halved their force of twenty-thousand, but they had dealt such catastrophic damage to our civilian force that they’d flipped the numerical odds in their favor.

We were going to lose. It was inevitable. There were no fallback positions from the pavilion, for the streets leading to the castle were choked with rubble. There were no reserves, for the entire brunt of the Alkandran civilian force now fought in the pavilion, and only the children remained in the castle. Hundreds of enemy mages still lived, and I could not slay them all. I was so weak already. The cancer devoured me from the inside, hollowing me, killing me slowly and purposefully so that I was aware of each failure of my functions. I couldn’t smell anymore, nor taste anything but the acrid flavor of bile. Even in my eagle form, my eyesight was getting worse by the second. My body was wracked with chills, and my back ached with pain. But I could still kill. I swooped down with a great avian screech, and transformed once more.

I was a ten-foot grizzly bear. Not ten feet standing up, but ten feet from paw to shoulder. I’d always wanted to ride a bear into battle, but it occurred to me halfway down to the fight that being the bear sounded way more fun. I let out a great roar, and pounded headlong through the ranks of Faltia’s soldiers, and into the heart of the enemy.

I had seen spectacular things in my life. I’d seen meteors rain from a twilight sky and ignite the horizon. I’d seen creatures so rare and beautiful that it was like God had crafted them with her own hands. I’d witnessed volcanoes erupt from the hearts of glaciers, I’d watched the trees of the Great Forest change color in an instant, I’d seen a valkyrie flock battle a dragon atop a snowcapped peak. But none of those things was more beautiful than the looks on the Lowlander’s faces when I burst through their line.

I trampled twenty men, swiped with my great claw, and tore five more men in half. An ambitious young mage woman came screaming at me with disintegration spells flowing from her hands, and they washed over my fur like water. She blinked, looked down at her hands like she wondered if they were working, then she looked back up at me. I swiped down, and drove her head through her shoulders, into her chest, into her belly, and out of her ass. Her head rolled away, and her crumpled body fell in two pieces. I bounded through the Lowland marines, crushing them like cans all the way, making their insides burst from their crumpled metal shells. It looked like I’d stepped on a hundred cans of tomato paste by the time I got through their ranks, and then I was in at the north entrance of the arena, staring at ten very confused mages.

I let out an earth-shaking roar, spraying spittle and flesh from my saber-toothed maw onto the two mages closest to me. Blood trickled out from their burst eardrums, and they stared dumbfounded up at me. I swiped, and drew six-inch gashes through their bellies with my claws. Their insides plopped out, and they pitched forward with a scream. The mages behind them recovered, and quickly formed a perimeter around me. They cast their myriad spells, and I absorbed them easily into my thick hide. I crushed one woman, tore three men apart, shredded another woman into strings, and simply punched through an elderly man. One of the younger men got a lucky laceration spell through my defenses, and I felt the ethereal blade cut deep into my back. I roared, thundered toward him, and was slammed in the side by a great force. I was sent rolling through the ranks of Lowlanders, flattening scores of men before I finally skidded to a stop. I looked up to see thirty robed figures walking toward me.

The lead mage barked a command, all the mages around her stepped in unison, and they launched their attack. The telekinetic blast hit me square in the chest, and sent me backflipping for forty more feet before I landed with a crunch into a platoon of Lowland spearmen. I stood up, plucked the spears and bodies from my belly, and squared my mighty shoulders. The mages formed up, stepped once, and launched the attack again. I braced against it, and the telekinetic wind hit me like an avalanche. I withstood it for a moment, but then I was torn from my feet and sent careening through the expendable Lowland marines, breaking a dozen bodies on my way to a grinding stop. That one hurt. One of my ribs snapped, my left forepaw broke in three places, and my tailbone was shattered. I growled, and got onto precarious footing. The mages closed around me, took one unified step forward, then died in a jet blast of fire.

Yavara Tiadoa limped up the steps of the arena on one leg, supported on her left side by First-Scribe Soraya Poneria, and on her right by Tiffany Titus. The former Dark Queen was darker than she’d ever been, and balder too. She looked like she’d been charred to well-done.

“Zander?” she croaked, her voice sounding like that of a ninety-year-old smoker.

The one and only. I answered telepathically.

She hacked violently, and spit red onto the ground. “Where the fuck is my sister?”

Likely dead by now.

She groaned in response, then whimpered in agony as Tiffany and Soraya lowered her gingerly into a wheelbarrow. She didn’t move at all after that. Her eyes were glassy and distant, and the only motion her body made was the slow rise and fall of her chest that accompanied her rattling breath. Tiffany hovered over the mutilated high-elf like a protective hawk to her chicks, glaring at anyone who got too close.

Tiffany, where’s Drake? I asked.

She didn’t answer me, and that was the only answer I needed. Soraya tidied Yavara’s cloak, then spotted Certiok at the rear of the army, and ran out to meet her. She ignored the battle that surrounded her, and flung her arms around the last friend she had left. I noted solemnly that Furia was not among the goblin archers shooting from the rooftops. Soraya was the last of her kind.

“Zander?” Yavara groaned from her wheelbarrow.

What?

She opened her mouth, then shut it, then opened it again. She couldn’t find the strength to speak anymore. When I next heard her voice, it came from inside my head. Where did I go wrong that it all came to this?

It was never supposed to be your responsibility to bear.

But it was, and I failed. Where did I go wrong? It was that I didn’t attack the Highlands, wasn’t it? I shouldn’t have been so merciful.

I shook my head. Everyone told you to take the Highlands, and you refused. Everyone else was wrong, and you were right.

It doesn’t feel like I was right.

This is the end result of all tyrants, Yavara. This is your sister’s doing, not yours.

Yavara smiled weakly at me. If this is the end result of tyrants, then Alkandra was always doomed, Zander.

I smiled back at her as best as a bear could. I always knew Alkandra was doomed. You were going to make it something different, something beautiful. You were never Alkandi, and your fatal failures came when you tried to be.

And I just thought I was being who I was supposed to be. Life’s a cruel and twisted bitch.

Indeed.

In front of us, the Lowland marines formed a great shield-wall, and their mages solidified it with a combined incantation. The beleaguered beasts used the opportunity to retreat and form up. I knew it was a mistake, but I didn’t have the heart anymore to warn them. What was the point anyway? I looked up at great ships that lined the bay, and saw what I knew I would see. Hundreds of flaming boulders were released at once, followed by thousands of ballistae missiles. We were trapped between the Lowland marines and the demolished streets behind us. A collective swell of panic rose from the ranks of orcs. Some tried to charge the Lowlanders, but they simply bounced off the arcane shield. The rest tried to sprint for the cover of the streets, but the roadways were choked with rubble, and the mass of bodies were dammed before the corridors.

Zander, Yavara whispered in my mind. Her voice was so faint now.

What?

She extended her hand. Even after everything, I’m glad you found me. I’m glad it’s you who’s here with me.

You shouldn’t be.

She smiled brightly, and though her face was blackened and her head was bald and scarred, she was still beautiful somehow. But I am anyway, Zander. It’s good to have a friend.

I took her little hand in my great paw, and gently closed it. Yes, it is.

CERTIOK

The world was energy and inertia. Boulders landed with crushing effect, exploded into a thousand deadly projectiles, then erupted into gouts of flame. Scores of men and women were consumed in an instant, and those around the impacts were torn to shreds. Buildings exploded into bricks, the streets were turned to craters, and the people were turned to meat. The missiles fell like deadly iron rain, flitting black lines through the inferno, spearing everything and everyone to the ground. Though the impacts were thunderous, the screams were even louder, resonating in my skull as I clung to a flagpole for dear life. Soon, I couldn’t hear anything; only a loud whine that became higher and higher until its pitch was like a circular saw burrowing into my head. I couldn’t see anything anymore. Black smoke and dust blinded me, interrupted only by the blasts of fire that revealed for a horrifying instant, the silhouetted figures of the damned. They writhed in pieces upon the ground, their limbs flailing from beneath the rubble like eels in a reef, reaching toward a sky they would never see again. The pounding was relentless, the whistle of missiles was endless, and with every passing second, the number of flailing limbs dwindled. Soon, the boulders were just bouncing rubble. Then it stopped.

All at once, the barrage ceased. The strobed explosions gave way to the subtle glow of fires, and the black veil became a translucent grey haze. I stood there and clung to the pole. I waited. I waited longer. The haze lightened, revealing the space around me. The bodies and rubble were all covered with a thick blanket of dust, obscuring the horror that lay beneath. As my hearing returned to me, I began to catch the low sounds of moaning and weeping. Carefully, I unwrapped my arms from the flagpole. I took one step forward, and then another. My boots landed softly and silently in the snow and dust. As I walked, I past indistinguishable figures that writhed upon the ground. The wounded were just masses of grey now, painted into the landscape of dust. It was only after I’d taken twenty paces, that I found someone standing upright.

Soraya was leaning against the remnants of a wall, staring into the hazy void. I touched her shoulder, and she turned her head slowly to me. She didn’t appear to recognize me at all; she only acknowledged my existence, and then looked back into the greyness. I walked past her, unsure of why I continued my odyssey. Surely, a sane person wouldn’t move from the spot God had deemed a sanctuary from the salvo. Soraya was the rational one.

After thirty more paces, I came upon another figure. This one was traveling from the west, and walking with a debilitating limp. It was only when it came within ten feet of me, that I recognized it as another hybrid. Furia Augustinia was using her sword as a brace for her leg, which was so mangled that it took five different turns before her ankle. I supposed I was glad to see she’d survived her fall. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of feeling emotion at all. We just stared at each other for a moment, then continued on our path. I didn’t know if we were walking together, or simply following the same strange compulsion that guided us toward… where ever it was we were going.

On our way, other figures emerged from the haze. Most were people I didn’t know, but I recognized a few tribal faces amongst them. We walked like ghosts through the dust, lost and unsure, silent and grey. As we walked, I realized numbly that my instincts were guiding me toward the light. The greys painted a monochromatic gradient, and to the south, the gradient was the lightest. It didn’t occur to me that the enemy was likely waiting for us there. Strangely, it didn’t matter. I just needed to find the light.

The world began to clear. The shapes and outlines of Alkandra crystalized before me, becoming great stone columns that had been split, great towers that had been toppled, and immense boulevards that had become chasms. I didn’t know where I was. Though I had likely walked through this place a hundred times, it was foreign to me. The skeletal buildings and structures suddenly vanished on either side of me, and I intuited that I must’ve walked into the pavilion. I looked to the west, and saw the hulking remains of the arena, the magnificent statues now rendered to rock and rebar.

My footfalls no longer padded softly in the snow and dust, but fell upon hard metal. The haze cleared, revealing a forest of iron. Thousands of wrought-iron shafts porcupined the pavilion, so dense that they created makeshift pathways. Between the twelve-foot missile hafts, lay thousands of Lowland dead. They were so numerous that the stones of the pavilion were blanketed with their armored bodies, and so ruined that I could not distinguish one man from another. They were simply indiscernible mounds of burst flesh and shorn metal, all stitched together with the missiles of their own fleet. Within the mass of death, I found a young mage woman still moving. Her arm was badly injured, and her face was mangled on the side, but she was still lucid. I extended her my hand, and helped her to her feet. When the dead so outnumbered the living, survivors were allies.

I journeyed through the iron forest, helping wounded as I came across them and ending the suffering of those too far gone. As I did this, little pieces of myself began to return to me. Fear was the first emotion to resurface. The enormity of death that surrounding me was incalculable, and the odds that I had survived were so miniscule. The danger had passed, and yet the terror only seemed to grow. I began to tremble with it. The fear was followed by a creeping grief. The losses were unfathomable, and so I could not measure the pain I was supposed to feel, but every step brought me deeper into despair until it brought me to my knees. Silent tears ran down my cheeks and splashed upon my quivering hands. The mage tried to help me up, but I would not rise.

Before me was a hulking mass of fur. I thought it was one of the many trolls at first, until I made out the figure of its head. It was a great bear, and it was surrounded on all sides by shattered iron hafts and crumbled boulders. The debris wreathing the figure bespoke a story of great defense, but the dozens of iron poles in his body revealed the end of this tale. Though blood flowed from his great maw, his eyes still shown with the vestiges of life. The great brown orbs focused on me for a moment, then looked distantly toward Castle Alkandra. For a moment, they reflected the gothic citadel, then they closed. An old staff was tied to his left shoulder, but the crowned skull of Alkandi that once adorned it was gone, shattered into a thousand pieces by the missile imbedded in his back. Encased in his great furry arms, and protected by all the damage that had been dealt to him, was the half-burned body of Yavara. She was curled into his body like a fetus, her breaths rattling from her. And though her eyes stared blankly at the sky, there was deep expressiveness in them. Tears cascaded down her cheeks as she held Zander’s paw to her bosom, and muttered his name over and over. When I reached for her, she just curled further into his dead embrace, unwilling to move. I wouldn’t force her.

I turned to the west to see Soraya and Furia embracing desperately and weeping. They must’ve learned they were the last ones. I felt horribly empathetic. The Protaki and the Terdini were gone. Brock and Trenok were gone. I did not know if I would ever see Adrianna again, and the city she had built was in ruins. There was so much lost, and so little left. Where had my future gone? I looked to the east, and saw the tall masts of the man-o-wars. A black Alkandran flag waved from the flagship.

LEVERIA

It had taken Alexandra two minutes to get me beneath the ship, and it had taken me an hour just trying to get aboard it. I couldn’t very-well cut a hole in the hull, and it wasn’t like there was netting I could use to climb. I had to learn how to fly all by myself, all whilst periodically lighting myself on fire to keep the hypothermia at bay. It was a painstaking process fraught with terror. I interpreted every shout and bell that rang out from the ships as a sign that I’d been seen, and I spent ten-minute stretches of paranoia breathing through Alexandra’s mouth underwater. When I regained my nerves, I came to the surface and tried to remember what Yavara had taught me about flying. “It’s not like you’re soaring through the air like an eagle, Leveria. It’s more like you’re swimming through it. You’re pushing yourself up with the mass of air beneath you.

Well, I couldn’t fucking swim, and as I failed again and again at something Yavara had learned easily, I once again remembered all the reasons I hated my overachieving triathlon-champion little fucking sister. I became more and more frustrated with myself as the time ticked on, every precious second clanging in my head like a grandfather clock chiming the final minutes. I batted at the water like my arms were wings, I mimicked swimming like a mermaid, I even tried submerging myself and floating to the top in a vain hope that I’d simply continue floating into the air. Nothing worked. When I was at the very limit of my wits, Alexandra came to my rescue. She secured me in her soft arms, pulled me underwater, and wrapped her pretty little mouth around my brand-new cock. The gills around her neck opened and closed pleasantly as she took me down her throat, and her aqua-green eyes stared comfortingly up at me as she sucked all the anxiety right out of my balls. She grew her tentacular fingers inside of me, and penetrated my ass and pussy with both hands. As her digits squirmed into my pussy, her anally-penetrating tentacles laid their sucking nodes against my prostate, and milked me until I was thrashing in the water, screaming soundless delight into the depths, the bubbles from my mouth floating to the surface above. When my nectar flowed onto her lathering tongue, her gaze grew heavy-lidded and possessed, and she brought me all the way into her mouth so that she could drink me dry.

After that, flying came easily to me. With a clear head and a light heart, I grabbed my baggy, glided to the water’s surface, floated easily into the air, and traversed the side of the flagship. I kept myself concealed behind the bow, then dropped right into the captain’s quarters through the open window. There, sitting by himself, was King Arthur Dreus. A hundred hand mirrors lined the wall before his desk, many of them showing faces of people he was conversing with. Most of the faces were ship captains judging by their uniforms, and Arthur was issuing them orders as he watched the battle unfold from his window.

“Do we have any further reports from our ground troops?” He asked one of the mirrors.

“The enemy has been pushed out of the arena, and is mostly trapped in small pockets within the streets. They should be completely destroyed within the hour.”

“And our own losses?”

“Only thirty-three mages are reporting, sir. Of the twenty regiments we sent, all but four are reporting near-total casualties.”

“Good god,” he grumbled, rubbing his eyes, “a pyrrhic victory indeed, gentlemen. Such a waste. This is why war should always be the last option.”

“There’s a lot of questions that need answering,” one of the captains grumbled, “like what in the hell happened between the Tiadoa sisters.”

“Only the devil knows. Did anyone manage to find Leveria?”

“She dropped out of our mages’ perception once they engaged Yavara. After that, all we saw was Zander’s illusion.”

“She made a break for it then.” Arthur sighed, “Goddamn it. Yavara was dangerous, but that kind of power in a woman like Leveria…” He shuddered visibly, “We’ll have to cut off all her possible allies. Put a bounty on her head worth a kingdom, and even the Sea Serpents will turn against her. I don’t like working with those rats, but we’ve got to be pragmatic about this. If any Balamora nation dares harbor her, we’ll sanction them into oblivion. We need to make contact with our factors in Bentius as soon as possible. The Great Forest needs to be pacified once and for all. We can’t risk another Dark Queen emerging from the wildlands.”

“She’ll have allies within our own borders, Your Highness. Most of the men we’re fighting out there are Ardeni immigrants.”

Arthur tapped his chin contemplatively. “I don’t like where this is leading. Ghettos, concentration camps, and kangaroo courts? I won’t let my legacy be that of tyranny.” He shook his head, and let out an exasperated sigh. “But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s finish this battle before we begin the next. I’ll leave you to it, gentlemen.”

“Your Highness,” they said in unison, and the mirrors went dark.

“If you’re asking me, I would just round up all possible dissidents and kill them.” I said from my corner of the room. Arthur froze. I smiled, and began to walk toward him, “Of course I’d have them tortured first just to make sure. Boil the children in front of the women, rape the women in front of the men, then crucify them all in the town square just to get your message across.” I stopped behind the king, and smiled at our reflection in the hundreds of mirrors. “But then again,” I sighed, and rested my hands upon Arthur’s shoulders, “I’m just a bit more pragmatic than you are, Arthur.”

He quivered beneath my touch, and hissed, “To what do I owe the pleasure, Leveria?

“Hmm, the pleasure is mine, believe me.” I chuckled, and slid my fingers around his neck. “Why don’t you be a doll, and order your ships to massacre your ground troops?”

“Kill me.”

“Oh, I’d love to,” I purred in his ear, “but you’re too useful a tool to throw away so fragrantly. First, I need you to order your ships to fire about two degrees to the south. That should solve my problem. Secondly, I need your fleet to hang around here for just one more day. I’ve got some Highland guests coming tomorrow, and the party would be really weird if it was just the two of us. Thirdly, I’m going to need you to put a Lowland heir in my belly.”

“No, no and fuck no,” he growled.

“Those were all the wrong answers, Arthur.”

“You can torture me all you want, but I’ll never break, and you’ll never get into my head.” He snarled, “Prestira trained me since I was a child!”

“Everyone flaunts Prestira around like she was some kind of goddess.” I sighed, “They say she had a mind like a fortress. Funny; I had no trouble penetrating it.” I reached into my baggy, and pulled out a syringe filled with purple fluid. “The way into someone’s mind isn’t through their skull, Arthur,” I whispered, “the path between their legs is much, much easier.” I stuck the needle in Arthur’s neck, and depressed the plunger until the vial was empty.
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