Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Adventure  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

Remnant Pages Spearhead

Remnant Pages

 

Spearhead

 

 

J.B. Kleynhans

 

 

Remnant Pages

Spearhead

Revised edition

Copyright 2017 by J.B. Kleynhans

Shakespir Edition

Author’s Note on a Revised Edition

There are a few folks out there that read the very first edition of Spearhead. Given that their feedback was always been positive, it was with ultimate reluctance that I tackled redoing bits of the story, or rather, working over some of the detail that would make it the book I needed it to be. My excitement to create a unified story helped me make this decision, as Dream of Embers became the overarching story where once Remnant Pages was supposed to be a lone vehicle for my characters and plots. I had barely completed Spearhead when a much bigger plot took my fancy, and I knew I would not be satisfied if I didn’t come to write Dream of Embers, to which I was willing to allocate all my resources I had used before. Many years later I decided to re-look the Remnant Pages series, and instead of discarding Spearhead completely, I decided that on the other side of the Starwall I would revive the tale of Cid and his battle with the Fallen. Remnant Pages would now be both a series name and a very important plot component.

In essence this version of Spearhead is rewritten to make it compatible with the books that will compose the Road to Exodus series, simply because the characters and storylines complement each other greatly once I had settled on a formula. I would admit that some of the changes applied to Spearhead were a little hard to let go, but I do so knowing it was for the greater good. This way, I get to deliver to deliver a vast amount of characters and their background stories like I always wanted to, without compromising the backbone of the greater plot. Some changes ended up being very subtle, while others are obviously on the other side of the spectrum by necessity. To the few souls out there that had read the original Spearhead, I offer gratitude and a thank you, and hope that this new version would carry your approval as the first one did. On a last note, somewhere out there in world, might also be a few copies of the original printed Spearhead, lying forgotten in a shop or subway, and even the digital version might still be out there on some sites. If you do find one, you might be able pick it up for a steal, and claim to your friends to have version of the book written way back when the author was still trying to piece everything together.

Books by J.B. Kleynhans

 

 

Road to Exodus

 

Dream of Embers Book 1

Dream of Embers Book 2

Dream of Embers Book 3

 

Remnant Pages

 

Spearhead

 

Legend of Axiatés

 

Chapter 1

Taverka

 

 

Dusk was upon them, the hue of an orange sky looming into the courtyard. Shuffling feet sailed through the sand, followed by a threesome clash of wood and punctuated by a dull thud of flesh, ending it all with a man driven to one knee.

Silence was instant and kept in check by two dozen surrounding onlookers, their faces taut and their staring intent on the duellists. Back in the centre the man on his knee looked up in pain; Stelinger’s devious smile belied his anger.

Cid took a step back, his own flare of rage dissipating, yet his white-knuckled fists remained painfully clenched on the staff. The two men held each other’s gaze until Stelinger finally stood up, the tension between them tangible, Cid taking another step back.

From the side the booming voice of the Commander called the duel in Cid’s favour and announced round 12. The respite was brief and by design forced both men, however tired, to stand poised in order to start the silent count.

10 counts and 10 paces between the two men facing off, and a low murmur of anticipation grew amongst the crowd again.

5 counts; Cid snapped into a stance of serpent discipline, Stelinger lazily drawing the staff across his chest, choosing an unconvincing pose of defence given his tenacity in combat.

Commence!’

Like the namesake of his stance Cid lunged to strike, the point of the staff lashing unerringly at Stelinger’s head. Stelinger parried skilfully, spun on the spot and retaliated with a high sweeping strike. Cid risked ducking rather than a block and it freed him to lash at Stelinger’s ribs. Stelinger rotated his staff to parry again and instantly used his momentum to drive an overhead strike. Cid blocked and was driven back by the impact, his wrists in fiery pain at the shock of the collision. Retreating a pace, Cid dodged the follow-up and lunged for another serpent strike. This time Stelinger could not react and took the hit on the shoulder.

Seeing his opponent stagger Cid burst into motion, spacing his hands inches apart on the one end and swinging the staff full force at Stelinger’s stronger right-side. Predictably Stelinger blocked the attack, but Cid felt him falter. Continuing his onslaught Cid mirrored the attack, this time spinning to strike at Stelinger’s weaker-left.

Anticipating Stelinger’s block Cid pulled back on the strike at the last moment and retained most of his momentum upon impact. Never halting for a second Cid retracted and twirled the staff furiously to brush away a feeble counter from Stelinger. With Stelinger on the back foot Cid made his lunge, lashing for the fourth and final time, the staff finding mark on his chest and knocking Stelinger from his feet.

A mix of cheers surged all around as the duel came to an end. Cid looked down coldly at Stelinger and was frustrated to no end as he saw him smiling again, as though the pain of the fight wasn’t registering.

That’s enough for today!’ called the Commander from the podium, his words breaking through the spell of adrenaline.

In that instant Cid felt all the tension and rage seep away, swiftly replaced by a fatigue digging into his limbs. He wiped at his forehead, trying to prevent the sting of perspiration to his eyes, closing them almost making him forget where he was.

Reluctantly Cid stuck out his hand at Stelinger, who took it with good grace. Cid pulled Stelinger to his feet and the two men stared at each other for a moment more before they turned to their corners respectively, dropping their staves.

Lethargically Cid ambled to a bucket of water he had placed at his corner beforehand, and wearily washed his face and naked upper body. Already he felt muscles knot and bruises come to life, courtesy of Stelinger’s malicious strikes.

The courtyard emptied quickly, the talk of the men fading into the barracks. Cid wasn’t sure whether or not to appreciate the fact that none of his friends had watched the duel, convinced it was bad enough being judged by the Commander.

With the intensity of 12 rounds of duelling finally lifting from his mind, Cid reflected on the contest. He had won but 5 bouts; the second, fifth, sixth and the last two. During the second last round Cid had attacked quickly, taking advantage of Stelinger’s relaxed demeanour at the time. By then Stelinger could have remained in it if he wanted to, but Cid knew Stelinger would not mind losing when he had already won the contest in general. By the time Cid started drying himself he realized the courtyard was completely empty except for himself. He stared up at the built-in podium where Commander Bennam had stood.

Between the duels and breaks Cid had tried to gauge the Commander’s impressions, though could find only indifference on his face.

I’m starting to hate this place… At least most of the men got their wager right, thought Cid bitterly.

Clothing himself plainly, Cid heard the rumble of voices cumulating in the mess hall. Might as well go and get something to eat myself. He dumped the water into the courtyard sand and was about to retreat into the corridor when the darkening sky caught his eye. He turned on the spot and looked up from just underneath the entrance of the inner halls, gazing silently as the first stars lit up as adornment to the already present moons:

Mallova and Rodreon were the white and crimson moons respectively. They were a common sight to be seen together this time of the year, but made them no less special. There was a dark side to each of them, showing only half-parts of their countenance. Cid was a soldier, not an astronomer, but knew enough about lunar movements to make the calculation.

Eight, maybe nine days. Just nine more days to go…

 

 

Cid prodded his food absently, the noise of the dining hall senseless around his cocoon of thoughts. It remained so until a great weight settled right next to him on the single piece wooden bench. A tray lined with every available dish slid in next to Cid’s and he lifted his head to behold Brunick; a face with a round jaw and the darkest of brown eyes, his short stubby hair and beard uneven at places. The man was smiling broadly and at the point of salivating.

‘They’re always out of dumplings by the time I get here,’ announced Brunick before tearing into a chunk of roast meat.

Cid could not help but smile to himself. He had seen many big men in his life, and there were many big men in the army, but Brunick was cut from a different cloth. Brunick, an inch taller than Cid’s frame of six foot three, was a man made to battle giants. Even standing upright he had a torso like a barrel, his chest and shoulders especially heavyset with natural muscle. His arms and legs followed suit, while the recent intensity of their training had done nothing but make him even stronger. It would have been easy to stop there, but Brunick’s true danger could not be judged just by watching him eat.

In war Cid has seen and experienced the balance, endurance and agility of an athlete that did not belong to a man of Brunick’s size. Testament to the observation, Brunick was once invited to play Defender-Guardian for the Lanston Lynxes’ Bajural team. He had then, “stupidly” as Cid had put it, decided to remain in the army.

‘Enjoyed the jog?’ asked Cid.

Brunick shook his head, swallowing a large mouthful of food. ‘Got side pains halfway through, drank too much water before we started. I heard you lost my wager though.’

‘You had a wager on me?’ asked Cid, faking surprise.

‘Of course, what kind of friend would I be if I wagered on Stelinger?’

‘A smart one,’ said Cid laughingly.

Hey, I’d take issue with that,’ said Brunick pointedly.

‘You know I didn’t mean it.’

‘I wasn’t talking about my intelligence, which I think is better than your genius anyway – I’m pissed that you implied that Stelinger is so much better than you.’

‘I only won five rounds Brunick,’ stated Cid softly, trying to get Brunick to talk quietly as well. It was a vain pursuit he knew.

‘Yeah, sure. Counting rounds and all that. Claiming the most bouts isn’t the only way to win Cid. I’ve seen Stelinger’s lip on my way here, you smashed him through the face on the second, didn’t you?’ said Brunick with satisfaction.

Cid returned the smile and said, ‘the opening was there and it was hard to resist. It made for a marginal affair and the Commander didn’t call it.’

I would have punched him right there and then and knock him the hell out!’ boasted Brunick loudly.

‘You know that’s worth a disqualification,’ said Cid.

‘And that’s your problem. You attribute a set of strict rules to everything and allow exceptions and failures only to other people. Sure, that’s part of what makes you the most brilliant tactician to grace these halls, but with one crucial flaw; you’re predictable given your moral inclinations.’

‘That’s a mouthful,’ said Cid, feeling a bit battered under the storm of words.

‘Yeah,’ started Brunick, tearing into a drumstick again, ‘and if you had punched him and gotten disqualified you would have shown the Commander that you have the exact same edge that they value in Stelinger.’

‘Maybe,’ said Cid solemnly.

Brunick lost the excitement in his voice and asked, ‘did they give any indication on when they will announce?’

Cid shook his head.

‘And… have you heard anything from Elmira?’ asked Brunick with an even quieter tone.

‘No letters yet no,’ said Cid, as the name mentioned instantly stirred restlessness within him.

‘And no news on her father?’ asked Brunick.

Cid replied negative.

‘Oh, okay,’ resigned Brunick.

Cid frowned. Brunick was a man born with opinions and rarely did he refrain from expressing them. Right now Brunick’s lack of elaborate comment made Cid suspicious.

He knows something…

A harsh day brought paranoid thoughts to mind and Cid immediately sought to push them away. He would deal with his problems in Lanston in due time.

‘Where’s Alex, did he skip out on dinner?’ asked Cid.

‘Nope, he’s still on that scouting drill,’ said Brunick.

Cid made the math. ‘Tremble point and back, he should have returned by yesterday at the least.’

‘You know, you can’t predict everything with your brain!’ said Brunick, annoyed.

‘Judging by calculation and your hardly concealed annoyance I’m guessing Alex’s made some kind of detour that I’m not supposed to know about,’ answered Cid with a smirk.

Brunick then clearly turned uncomfortable and quickly said, ‘well, I think he’s met someone special on the countryside and he mus’ be visiting her or something.’

Cid smiled, curiosity taking the edge of the day away.

The bliss didn’t last long, allowing Cid only a few bites of food before another soldier tapped him on the back and relayed: ‘Colonel sir, the Commander has summoned your presence in his chamber, sir.’

Cid shot his gaze at the windows. It was dark outside, and the time had come sooner than he expected.

‘Guess I’ll have to wash and dress properly,’ said Cid anxiously to Brunick.

 

 

There were a scant few people in the dormitories; for the most part Cid found the corridors to be empty and the solitude only increased his growing brooding mood. He came to his room and sighed as he entered. The rooms were tiny, each outfitted with a single bed, bedside lamp and a dresser, the window small and curtainless. Cid gathered his neatest pair of clothes and his washing necessities, and then left for the showers.

Under a cold spray of water Cid’s thoughts began to drift. The barracks of Taverka was as old as any of the surrounding war memorials in the countryside. It was a three days ride from the city of Lanston, Cid’s hometown. Nowadays the barracks was used as an initiation camp for progressing soldiers in the Lanston army, and currently housed the Commander, four Colonels, thirteen captains, twenty-nine Lieutenants, eleven privates and some few other non-military staff. There were also five magi with them, but unlike normal soldiers magi were never given commanding rank and were mainly present to protect the Commander.

That all might’ve been extraneous information for most men, but Cid was acutely aware of the numbers always, his mind constantly working on every implication it might carry, always calculating, always weighing his men and supplies against every bit of information he could gather about his enemies or surroundings. Of course what they were doing here didn’t really make use of Cid’s best talents.

Jogging, duelling and scout drills were not really part and parcel of a progressing soldier’s regimen, not in order to test skill or endurance at any rate. Rather, everyone knew that this camp was an unofficial test of composure, and Cid had to admit that it did put him on edge. To spar with a fellow Colonel like some entry-level soldier was a humbling experience to say the least.

Yet there was reason in all of this; of the four attending Colonels only Cid and Stelinger were in the run to become the new Commander of the Lanston forces and the deciding announcement was deemed to happen any day now.

Several important promotions were to be made here, but this year the inauguration of a new Commander would overshadow the annual routine. Cid considered the prestige of Commander often, but recently his drive to get the promotion had more to it than just pride; he needed political influence and a higher status of authority within the Kingdom. The thought of not getting it…

In any case Cid had more evidence than just dire suspicion to point that Stelinger was the favourite in this race. Cid however had resolved to remain hopeful until the end. The summons to the Commander’s chamber was sure to have something to do with the decision.

I hope Stelinger isn’t invited.

Cid had no love for Stelinger for reasons too many to count, and Cid reckoned anyone should be able to spot his overt arrogance and self-importance.

Maybe that’s what they want in a Commander? But then again Cid knew Commander Bennam as well as anyone – and the Commander was nothing like Stelinger. In fact, Cid held so much respect for the wizened soldier that he could not even imagine how he or Stelinger will meet Bennam’s standard of authority given their current level of experience. Yet Cid knew that the Commander was well aware of what he was doing, and Cid, unbiased, agreed that one day or the other that either Stelinger or himself would make the best Commander in Bennam’s absence. There was no other choice when considering a succession plan.

Cid suddenly realized that he had been lingering in the shower and quickly stepped out, determined not to have the Commander waiting. He clothed and groomed himself in front of one of the mirrors. On the instant he decided to forego shaving tonight, as his stubble was still agreeable. Even in the hurry it was inevitable that Cid met his own eyes in the mirror.

Self-consciously now he inspected the reflection. Cid kept his brown hair short, much like his stubble. His eyes were an earthy colour, his chin strong and his cheekbones prominent. But rather than a handsome face staring back, Cid found his mirror image tired, battered and bruised. His eyes were dull from exertion and his left cheek was swollen, while his temple was bruised purple.

It just wouldn’t be Stelinger if I didn’t get a knock on the most sensitive spot on my head.

Cid cursed him silently, his mind flaring back to the moment during round 10 when Stelinger had blindsided him and quite deliberately rapped him on the side of his head. Cid himself had collapsed then, almost losing consciousness. Fortunately the reaction that came from the crowd was enough for him to stay awake. He had lost the round, but regained his feet…

Making it worse for Cid was that people routinely compared Stelinger to himself. Indeed there were similarities, even Cid had to admit that. They were of same height and build, with Cid having a bit more muscle. To their faces was a likeliness that of brothers, Stelinger sporting even shorter hair and defined by his sharper jaw and nose. Even his eyes were only a bit darker than Cid’s, and it was these eyes that Cid felt were sometimes following him, never giving him a moment’s rest. That though was all in his head he knew.

Patting his pullover jacket neatly, he felt the familiar square bump that rested inside the pocket. The casing had been there for some weeks now, carrying it over his heart at times, holding all he could hope for. Strangely, his meeting with Bennam would maybe come to determine its fate, and it was distressing enough without realizing this.

Again Cid caught himself squandering time within his thoughts.

‘Best get going,’ he said aloud to himself, tying his tie as fast as he could.

 

 

Chapter 2

A Night to Remember

 

 

Commander Bennam was 63 years of age. His skin was leathery and his body hard, while his snow white beard and hair were kept short and practical. The man has served with Lanston for 40 years in sum, partaking in three wars before promotion and crushed every border threat since becoming Commander at age 42, thereafter often heralded as a war hero within the Kingdom. Bennam, as by military tradition, was also an avid chess player, and at the moment, he was losing.

‘Damn,’ announced the Commander, staring calculatedly into the chess board, where his white pieces were but thin-spread.

‘I’d give myself three or four moves before checkmate.’

‘Five moves, if you start by moving your rook sir,’ said Cid, affording himself a smile.

Surrendering the Commander eased back into his chair and chuckled. He took a sip of wine and said, ‘I’ve never seen anyone play like you can, to flatter you I’ve even tried to mimic your style, but I can’t predict and then memorize a dozen moves in advance.’

‘Actually sir, planning too many moves distracts one from the opponent’s intentions.’

Bennam nodded, ‘a variable that is, the opponent’s face, his sleight of hand, and the speed at which he moves a piece… and of course how much wine he has consumed.’

Cid smirked.

But, given chess’s rigidity calculation of your measure will win over concealment of intentions because you are mindful of all intentions,’ exclaimed Bennam.

‘Sir?’

‘As you well know chess is nothing but an equation… you have eight by eight of rows and columns, that’s sixty-four blocks, and thirty-two pieces, their movements also a constant – and one way to win, regardless of positioning, the condition for victory remains the same.’

Cid frowned.

‘What I mean to say is, within the parameters of chess the outcome is always the same; a knight will always move in its L formation, never more, never less. The rules are set and do not change.

‘It’s not affected by weather, it doesn’t get tired, and it won’t need inspiration.’

‘Commander,’ started Cid, ‘you are talking of real battlefield variables, and I can only surmise that you intend to point out that tactics, even the best of them, can fail in the face of adverse circumstances. On such days the battle is won by unhesitant boldness, by theatrics, by Stelinger. That being as it is our conversation will now invariably move on to Stelinger,’ finished Cid soberly.

The Commander sighed. ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that.’

Bennam paused before saying, ‘tomorrow morning I will assemble the barracks and make my announcement. Then, I will announce Stelinger as the new Commander of the Lanston forces. I will remain available as a General for the Kingdom for a year before my replacement takes over; probably Commander Ramon from Adissa.’

Cid sat in silence and then nodded. He, and probably all the other soldiers had expected the Commander to name Stelinger above Cid. Bennam, studying Cid’s demeanour, could not help but indulge into explanation.

‘Your value in this army is sealed Cid. I chose Stelinger so that you can be at his side as Master Tactician. With your insight and logistical knowledge combined with Stelinger’s fierce approach the Lanston army can reach new heights,’ said Bennam reassuringly.

‘You don’t have to explain sir. I had not expected to make Commander.’

‘Don’t get pitiful on me now soldier, I want to explain! When I started fighting I was fifteen years old. Who is our enemy Cid? Who is the enemy which we have fought since you’ve enlisted!?

‘The Fallen sir,’ answered Cid.

‘And when I started, we too were battling the Fallen! It doesn’t change Cid! The faces of the Fallen might change, but for the greater part of my life I’ve seen the Black Armours encroach our border, never faltering and never caring if they lose men save for the inconvenience of it all! We however, have mourned for brave men on both sides for almost a century thanks to those bastards!’ said Bennam, regaining his breath.

‘You Cid, will make an excellent Commander. I do not need to tell you this,’ continued Bennam, stressing his words. ‘The Kingdom has, without a choice, denied us the forces of the other cities which means that as long as this is a border war only Lanston will remain involved. But with Stelinger at the head and with men like you and Brunick at his side there is a slight chance that we can push past our own borders and finish the Fallen threat!’

He took a deep breath, calming himself.

More quietly now Bennam said, ‘in twenty-one years of being Commander I have eliminated and stopped the border threats every time. Whenever the Fallen dared to encroach again my lust for battle ignited and we drank ale with every victory. But then they did something that defeated me Cid; they came again and again, for twenty-one years. I came to realize that I wasn’t winning, I was only stalling them from a bigger plan and then sometimes; we were really just killing our own men.

‘See, I could choose you because I want to, because it would be right, but I chose Stelinger because of what the Kingdom needs.’

Cid said nothing, not knowing how to respond to his own conflict of mind, and clearly that of the Commander’s.

Brightening up the Commander said, ‘I will one day play you at chess again though, and if you continue to sulk like this then I am likely to beat you.’

‘Maybe sir,’ said Cid, smiling a bit on his own.

‘I will bid you a good night’s rest Cid, but before you leave I would ask you to humour me on one last demonstration,’ said the Commander.

Not waiting for Cid to respond the Commander cleared the chess table. He took his own white king and placed it roughly in the middle of the board. Next he took a black Castle and placed it upside down at one of the corners of the board.

‘This is a hypothetical problem. The black piece is called an “assassin.” To you, it is invisible, and can move only a single pace in any direction. It might also come from any of the corners given your ignorance of its position. When the assassin piece eats the king, you lose. You are allowed six pieces, the simpler the better, what would you do to prevent it? Under normal rules of movement of course.’

Cid took a moment.

‘Surround five of the eight squares of the king’s perimeter with peons and then place a rook to patrol routinely between vacant squares six and eight on every turn. The assassin piece will inevitably have to eat one of the adjacent peons to the king to gain access. When it does, it will reveal its location and allow the king piece to eat it in return.’

Bennam chuckled. ‘Well, this is a classic problem, an easy one, but I don’t think anyone solves it as fast as you can. Do you see any way to solve it without losing a single piece?’

Cid glanced at the board again. ‘No sir, barring luck, sacrifice is the only sure way to protect the king.’

‘Indeed it is,’ muttered Bennam, and Cid looked up just in time to see an auspicious glint the Commander’s eyes.

‘Well then, have a good night’s rest Cid, it’s been a long day,’ said Bennam suddenly, as he sat back in his chair again.

Cid stood up. ‘Yes sir, and thank you for your hospitality.’ He was almost at the door when the Commander’s voice called out:

‘Cid, what’s the name of that spear of yours?’

Cid turned, almost impatient at the question. ‘Mindevhier, sir.’

‘Ah yes, forged in Morshiph, an heirloom is it not?’

‘That’s right sir.’

‘Keep it close Cid, even when not warring; a weapon’s presence can be as inspiring as the man who carries it,’ said the Commander lastly.

‘Yes sir, good night sir,’ said Cid, leaving the chamber finally.

Solemnly Bennam sat back deep into his armchair and stared hard at the white king piece on the board. Sipping at his wine and listening to the crackle of the fire Bennam could not help but drift in and out of sleep.

‘Good evening Commander,’ came a voice.

Bennam immediately woke from his stupor and turned in his chair to see Piatil, his personal servant. Piatil was considered a small man, especially in the likes of a war camp. His shaven head, dull clothing and small eyes made him seem rodent and insignificant.

But then Bennam pitied the man who dared underestimate Piatil. Trained as a spy in martial arts, battle tactics, politics and who knew what else made Piatil much more valuable than anyone realized. The Commander watched Piatil, the man already busy in the corner with Bennam’s cup of tea before bed.

Dangerous above all because no one even affords him a second glance; ever and only the sandal-bearer, thought the Commander. Bennam often used Piatil as an unofficial advisor, and asked him, ‘am I doing the right thing Piatil? Giving Stelinger the Commander’s post?’

Piatil turned, the cup and saucer in his hands. ‘It is a difficult debate sir, but I’d say that you would not have chosen Stelinger if he wasn’t the right man.’

Bennam nodded and took the tea from Piatil.

‘Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, why did you warn Colonel Cid beforehand?’ asked Piatil.

‘Cid is… as tough as they come, but the man is sensitive in his way and even more so now with that trouble he has with the girl. He needed to be prepared, and more importantly, be made felt needed in this army. He is needed Piatil, my whole idea of promoting Stelinger is centred around Cid’s abilities,’ said Bennam earnestly.

‘I understand, you did the right thing,’ acknowledged Piatil, ‘are you then convinced that Cid is not ready yet?’

‘That’s an interesting thought,’ said Bennam bemused, ‘I guess I still see both of them as pupils, and that they can still learn from me. But my retirement is timely, for they would only blossom if left at the lead on their own.’

Bennam sipped at his tea. ‘Thank you Piatil, a fine brew as always, I’ll grant you leave for now.’

‘Rest peacefully Commander,’ said Piatil, bowing and backing away.

When Piatil was out of the room Bennam sighed. He usually implored Piatil to eavesdrop on his conversations, so finding him roaming about after a private meeting was not strange. What bothered the Commander was how Piatil could enter a room without anyone ever knowing, and this even when Bennam was consciously looking for signs of the man. Slowly drinking his tea Bennam’s gaze fell on the white king piece again, and whispered by himself:

‘One day, when Mindevhier reaches the capital gate, I will have my victory.’

 

 

The land was dark and the ride unpleasant, the night chill making Elmira’s eyes teary. Riding double on horseback with a gown was not what Elmira had imagined, and doing so side-saddled hanging onto an armoured man made any attempt to keep up with the rhythm of the horse useless.

At least we only keep a mild pace…

‘We’re almost there,’ said Alex, his gaze fixed on the horizon.

‘Are you sure Cid doesn’t suspect anything?’ asked Elmira.

‘I’m sure, even Brunick wouldn’t drop the ball on this one,’ said Alex.

Elmira laughed a bit and followed up, ‘don’t you think you and Cid discredit Brunick a little too much?’

‘Yeah, we do tease him a lot, but the fact is that the man’s almost physically unstoppable. I’m guessing even Stelinger envies him, and that’s why everyone badgers him a bit whenever they get the chance.’

‘I see… I’m glad Cid has the two of you to keep him preoccupied, he gets lost in his own mind when left alone.’

‘He does that, the man is brilliant though, he’s miracle worker on the battlefield.’

Elmira didn’t respond as the horse hit a rough patch of terrain.

‘Count to sixty Elm, we’re nearly there.’

‘Why do you always say that?’ asked Elmira.

Sixty? It’s the number of arrows our quivers carry. Cid taught me; take care of the numbers and they will take care of you. Be mindful he always says.’

‘Yeah, that sounds like Cid!’ said Elmira, her spirits lifting as the outline of a building came into sight.

 

 

Brunick, as patiently as he could, waited a few dozen paces outside of the Commander’s chamber. Obviously he was just as anxious to discover what the Commander would relay to Cid, but he did in fact have another mission and it required him to intercept Cid the moment he showed face.

Brunick enjoyed the quiet of the night and the soft glow of the streetlamps. In earnest, the barracks resembled a small town as the different halls and chambers were all built in tidy squares and sections separated by crude stone roads. The restored lamps and boulevards were telltale signs of the town that it once was before remodelled as a barracks. Resting his back against the wall Brunick could not help but jump as a harsh voice directed at him.

At attention!

In dismay Brunick stifled a salute as he saw Stelinger approach him, the streetlight revealing an excitable glint in his eyes.

‘Not even a hello on your part, eh old Brunick?’ said Stelinger.

‘How are you Stelinger?’ asked Brunick, his flat tone betraying any real suggestion of politeness.

‘I’m doing all right, even through captain chess’ best efforts.’

‘From the looks of things Cid saw to it that you are in pain, which is why I’d say you’re snooping around here,’ retorted Brunick in irritation, ‘what do you want?’

Stelinger closed in on Brunick, his tone growing soft. ‘Easy there Brunick, last I heard you were only a Lieutenant, and not a very good one I’d daresay. And let’s not forget that you can’t even obey the simplest rules of engagement, which is why they send you running around like a dog. At least Cid can fight a fair fight.’

Brunick felt himself tremble with anger and stood up straight from the wall, folding his arms and looking Stelinger dead in the eye.

‘Cid has his reservations,’ started Brunick slowly and intently, his voice growing into a growl, ‘but as you pointed out I haven’t climbed the ladder all that much and might decide the reward worth the risk, tear you to pieces, get discharged, and see to it that Cid gets the position he deserves while you rot six feet beneath the ground!

Stelinger smiled impenitently and tapped the sword at his waist.

‘Think on it Stel, think carefully if you’d risk opening yourself for what I might have planned for you!’

Stelinger’s smile faded casually and said, ‘one way or the other Brunick you’re inferior to me, and it’d be a waste of breath to draw sword just to prove it. When Cid leaves the army, like I know he will, I’ll make sure that any of his friends who linger become permanent frontliners at the border.’

Stelinger turned on his heel and strolled away, whistling a merry tune.

Brunick’s stomach turned; he had never met anyone who could so easily detach himself from his own menace and realized that it was this very aspect that made Stelinger the danger that he was. Mercifully alone again Brunick tried to relax, but found it hard this time around. Specifically, Brunick could not shake Stelinger’s words that Cid would leave the army. Brunick wanted to dismiss the thought, but knew Stelinger’s sentiment carried weight.

Given what’s going on, there is a possibility that he might be right.

 

 

Cid left Commander Bennam’s chamber in a bit of a daze. The room had been stuffy and the mix of bad news and wine didn’t help. Walking in the night air he came to realize that he had expected Stelinger to get the position, but a small hope that the Commander might choose more wisely had ruined his preparation for disappointment. Cid sighed. All he really wanted to do now was return home.

Up ahead Cid saw a familiar figure approaching him, immediately recognizing Brunick’s outline in the dark.

‘Commander?’ stated Brunick formally.

Cid offered a smile. ‘No, guess I’m going to be called Colonel a while longer. Not that you’ve ever bothered calling me on rank.’

Brunick fell into step alongside Cid.

Curses, we were hopeful at least. Anyway, me and Alex ended up clearing the guard tower so that we could celebrate your promotion on the tower top with a tankard of ale I nabbed from the kitchen. I’ve still got Alex on standby, so I’m thinking maybe we should go get that drink after all?’ suggested Brunick.

‘Alex’s back?’ asked Cid.

‘Yeah, he returned shortly after you went to clean up. When he heard about your meeting with the Commander he reasoned we break out on the tower,’ said Brunick.

‘Sounds great, what about curfew?’ asked Cid.

‘Dumb question; you don’t have curfew and me and Alex don’t much care.’

‘You mean you don’t care and Alex didn’t mind getting bullied into it.’

‘Come on, lighten up a bit,’ said Brunick with a smile.

‘Alright then, let’s celebrate me retaining my position of Colonel,’ said Cid with as much cheer as he could muster.

‘That’s the spirit!’ voiced Brunick.

 

 

Just like Brunick said the watchtower was unguarded and empty tonight. It was a lonesome building on the outskirts of the barracks, its top the best vantage point for many miles. From almost anywhere in the streets one could see a stone-built lit lamppost peaking just over the top of the battlements.

Inside the tower they started circumventing the stairs, Cid growing at ease as he spoke of simple things with Brunick, Brunick electing not to tell him of a wandering Stelinger. At the top they walked onto the balcony and rounded the exterior stairs and… there she was.

Alex and the tankard of ale was nowhere to be seen. Instead standing there and facing them was the one woman who called upon every ounce of love Cid could have for another.

Elmira.

Her face was slender and beautiful among a brown curtain of hair, her features illuminated delicately in the lamplight. She wore a dark purple gown and covered her shoulders with a thin black shawl.

Cid…’ she announced, barely loud enough for him to hear. Brunick quickly backed away, disappearing down the stairs again with a smile on his face.

Stunned, Cid approached, his arms starting to spread and beckoning.

She closed in on him, embracing. And they kissed. Lingering…

Elmira broke the kiss, remaining in his arms.

‘Surprised?’ she asked playfully.

‘I really was and still am, although Brunick had me suspecting that something was afoot,’ said Cid laughingly. He could not hide his happiness.

‘Well, he did keep quiet until now which is…’ said Elmira.

‘Astounding,’ offered Cid.

She smiled.

‘So you came all the way with Alex?’ asked Cid, trying to piece together how tonight had conspired.

She nodded. ‘His scouting drill was perfect; me and mum were visiting the family at Ralna. At first I hoped to sneak along with the supply caravan to the barracks, but they cancelled it for some reason. So when I heard Alex would be passing by I arranged that he come and pick me up on the trip returning.’

‘I should thank them later on,’ said Cid in amusement.

‘You should, they both agreed to help out immediately,’ said Elmira.

They grew silent and she rested her head against his chest. Cid could still not believe she was here and could feel nothing but gratitude as her warmth melted away any petty army politics that had troubled him earlier. They stood in bliss, but it did not take long before something else came to mind, now that Cid had indeed pieced tonight together.

‘Elm, I’m really happy that you’re here and all, but you knew that I was coming home soon, and you knew I was going to ask…’

‘I had to get away… I don’t want you to worry about that, it is nothing okay, we will be happy together, father will understand in time, I’ll talk to him some more,’ she said, her voice was growing weak and Cid picked up distress in her tone.

‘Elm, what happened, what’s going on?’ whispered Cid, trying to search her face.

She lifted her head from his chest and met his gaze. Her face was a mask but a twin trail of tears had already stained her cheeks.

‘Father, he and that Fredrere, they already made an agreement on a date. They want to an arrange a marriage.

Cid was crushed. Again he had expected this, but the reality was hard to shake. Even as he stood there he could feel the tug of the world pulling Elmira away from him.

When?

‘Ten weeks from now,’ she breathed, burying her face against him.

They grew quiet again and time slipped by.

Elmira looked up, ‘don’t get lost on me soldier,’ tapping Cid lightly on his temple, ‘I didn’t come here so that you can plan your next chess match.’

Cid forced a smile, ‘sorry.’

She broke away entirely and stepped back while wiping at her eyes with her palms.

‘We can’t sulk like this,’ her voice thick with held up sorrow. She swallowed hard and looked intently at Cid, her hands fists at her side.

‘You were going to ask me, so ask me,’ she said, her voice firm and clear this time.

Cid sighed heavily. ‘Elm, this is not the time or the place. We are at the top of a rustic military barracks and we have no one’s blessing, least of all your father’s. What’s more is that even if I do propose it’s not going to make any difference; no person or law will accept it.’

‘They should accept it, and you’re wrong; it’ll make a difference to me. If you propose, I’ll be happy. I want to be your wife Cid, more than anything.’

‘You should know that I’m already on my knee, begging you for your hand, but… what if we wait, wait until we are at the city garden, under the stars and with this whole mess behind us?’ said Cid.

Elmira paused for a moment. ‘Wait until everything is perfect?’ she offered.

Cid nodded. ‘Yes, until everything is perfect.’

‘That’s not going to happen, you know that!’ retorted Elmira in a swift change of tone.

Cid frowned, lost for words.

‘We are under the stars now Cid, and you used to say that any barren desert or frozen tundra could be marvelled under a night sky of stars and then be perfected by my presence,’ said Elmira, playing the man with his own words.

Cid glanced at the sky and then at Elmira again, deliberately admiring the situation.

‘I did say that,’ admitted Cid softly, reaching into his vest pocket.

Elmira looked on in disbelieve as Cid held a small flat square casing in his hand.

‘You have the ring here!?’ she asked, a huge smile nagging to break onto her face.

‘The safest place; my vest pocket,’ patting his chest, ‘guess it worked out pretty well, me having to dress up for Bennam and all,’ he said with a smile.

He stood closer to her. ‘You know, you really do take the wind out of my sails,’ he stated mockingly, ‘I was supposed to court you, and surprise you, and make a bit of a hunting trip of it really and…’

‘The hunt is over soldier, from here on we meet each other in the middle, we’re in this together now,’ said Elmira fondly.

‘Well then.’

Elmira nodded, a smile etched on her face. Cid went down on one knee, presented and opened the casing. Inside was a thin band of gold, with a sizeable sapphire stone embedded into the ring. Elmira immediately knew that the ring cost but fractions of the collective jewellery Fredrere had already sent her, but the fool didn’t know her and would not have bothered to ask her what she preferred and disliked. Cid however knew, he always knew, and made sure he got her exactly what she would want.

‘Elmira, my love, would you honour the house of Rogana, and the heart of this soldier, by taking my hand in marriage?’

Yes, I will,’ said Elmira, blinking fresh tears from her eyes.

Gently Cid took Elmira’s hand and slipped the ring on her finger. Elated she inspected the ring, appreciating it in the starry light the night had to offer. Cid rose and Elmira embraced him in a fierce hug again.

‘One more thing,’ murmured Cid.

‘Yes?’

‘No more crying tonight, okay?’

‘Yeah, you’re right,’ she said wiping her new tears away.

Cid was in a fit of happiness and was about to grow silent again. Elmira noticed this.

‘Before you drift away, I have more to say,’ Elmira pressed with a smile.

Cid met her gaze, showing her that he listened.

‘I’ll be staying the night and Alex will return me tomorrow morning.’

‘I had assumed that to be the case, I would have been crushed if you had to return tonight,’ answered Cid.

‘As would I. I can’t survive another unpleasant horse ride,’ said Elmira.

‘I will arrange a carriage for you in the morning. It won’t do to have my lady worn out and bruised,’ said Cid in playful chivalry.

Elmira sighed. ‘That would be great, but I’d rather remain unnoticed. Neither father or mother can know about me being here.’

Cid nodded.

‘So do you at least have a decent room in this place?’ asked Elmira.

‘Well, it’s small, and it’s the same for everyone except the Commander’s chamber obviously, but I’d wager that my room is better off than most.’

‘Would be hard to picture you as a sloth,’ answered Elmira.

They left the tower, Cid cherishing every step he took alongside his wife-to-be. Down in the street Cid took hold of her hand as they moved in and out of faintly casted specks of lamplight.

‘So did anything decisive happen here yet?’ asked Elmira.

Cid shook his head in disbelieve at the situation. ‘You picked some night to show up, I just had a talk with the Commander and he warned me pre-emptively that Stelinger will be announced as the new Commander.’

Elmira’s face instantly turned to disappointment, ‘Cid, I’m so sorry… there have been talks in town but I didn’t seriously think they would consider Stelinger.’

‘Wish I could say they were making a mistake, but Stelinger has a way of adapting to whatever the situation.’

‘So do you,’ answered Elmira firmly.

‘Still, he is the Commander now, not me.’

‘Hey, you will be Commander, just not yet. Trust me, with Stelinger off his leash he’s bound to impulsively compromise the army. You just have to hang on till the Kingdom realizes that Stelinger is a menace,’ said Elmira reassuringly.

Cid smiled, nice to hear someone else sharing his view on the man. He however could not be bothered now by Stelinger or anything else, he was where he wanted to be.

Cid squeezed Elmira’s hand and as her eyes rose to his, he said, ‘I love you…’

 

 

Later that night Cid woke. Even in his sleep he was aware of the beauty he held in his arms, snugly pressed against him on the single bed. He knew instantly that she was fast asleep and far detached from the worry that threatened to envelope him.

His proposal, and Elmira’s acceptance, no matter how pure would not survive a court ruling should Elmira’s hand already been offered to another man, especially one of Fredrere status. Elmira had been right, proposing had done much to brighten both of their moods, but beyond that it didn’t mean much.

Just a gesture.

It was hard not to panic, hard not to look at her and think about how she could be lost to him forever.

Chapter 3

Meet of War

 

 

The following morning Cid and Brunick went out to see Elmira off. True to their arrangement they all rose very early to meet at the barrack’s stables. At the time it could barely be called dawn, but Elmira remained adamant that her family must be oblivious for now and therefore she needed to return as soon as possible. Cid for that matter was also well aware that if he was discovered having a woman over at the barracks he might as well resign before being discharged.

Brunick carried and held up a big old lantern to guide their footing, sunrise and first-hour still awhile away. Cid assumed that Brunick had told Alex about his meeting with the Commander last night, for he did not ask anything upon the matter.

Rather, on their way to the stables Alex noticed the ring on Elmira’s finger, both he and Brunick congratulating the couple excitedly. It bolstered Cid a bit, knowing at least someone approved, and then felt somewhat sullied again as Elmira took it off to hide it, knowing that parading with it would bring on unwanted attention in Ralna or Lanston.

Cid was sure that he had something to say to her as they walked side by side, but his notions would not form words as the stroll to the stables didn’t seem long enough.

Inside their good-bye was hurried and on Cid’s part clumsy, much courtesy of the helpless feeling he was nurturing. The kiss was brief and his hug reluctant. Cid murmured a few words but could not get what he had to say out properly. By the time Alex and Elmira were on the gallop Cid cursed himself, knowing that his distraught feelings had spoiled the parting. He felt an eerie sense of failure as he saw their outline going out in the darkness of the land.

Whatever was going to happen at Lanston now he would not be a part of it.

I will be back before they can force her to marry Fredrere, Cid reassured himself. Eight more days to go then we’ll be done with this place.

Cid wandered back into the stables, specifically towards his own chestnut horse; Cilverhoof. The animal stood aroused with its head over the cabinet door, peering expectantly at Cid, snorting to hurry up its master. The barracks stables held only a small number of horses, so it was immediately noticeable that some previously empty cabinets were now filled up.

Have the outriders returned then?

Lingering on the thought Cid checked Cilverhoof’s food and water, which as he knew it would be, was well attended by the barrack’s stable master. Rather he went on to stand at the beast’s side, scratching its cheek and running a stroking hand gently across the animal’s back, horse and man finding mutual comfort at each other’s touch.

Cilverhoof was in his prime, but he had not always been as strong and steadfast horse. Many years ago, Cid had received the foal as a giveaway because of a fracture in the hoof, which had become infected. Not many owners would want to care of, and others would have killed the horse even. The traders who gave the horse to Cid certainly wanted to so and could not understand why a young Cid would want it. They relinquished the horse into his care, glad that they did not have to sit with the ordeal, convinced Cid would have to do sooner or later what they wanted to.

Cid however had heard of a pharmacist who used minute traces of silver in his salves to fight the dangers of infection. He had followed his example, and applied such a mix to the struggling and sickly horse’s hoof. Cilverhoof had gone from not treading on the leg to running wildly in the pastures in no time at all. He was a good horse, special even, and had carried Cid through some of the toughest battles. It was the application of Cid’s remedy however that had gained him the name, Silverhoof, yet with Cid being Cid, he had spelt it with a C rather than an S.

‘I’ll let you out when time permits. Maybe we’ll take a ride by noon,’ Cid spoke softly to the horse.

Brunick wandered back to see where he had tarried, and swiped impatiently at Cid’s shoulder, ‘come on, let’s go breakfast!

 

There was a healthy gossip in the barracks by the time everyone was up and going. Cid caught enough of it to hear that the Commander was expected to make his announcements today. It wouldn’t be the first time the Commander leaked information on what was supposed to be a surprise assembly. At the moment though, only Cid and some others knew that it was going to happen for sure. I wonder if Stelinger knows? Maybe the Commander met with him privately also?

The rest of the soldiers habitually shot the gossip down amongst themselves, discrediting the rumour to calm their nerves. They don’t know how right they are today…

By the time they were seated in the dining hall Cid knew that the soldiers were picking up on some signs though. The men here were all of rank and most of them quite wily, their experience telling them that something would happen today.

‘Hmm, the porridge is bland… do you think something other than the announcements might be up?’ asked Cid at Brunick, who was stuffing his mouth without pause.

Swallowing his mouthful Brunick gave half a laugh. ‘How do you figure that one?’

‘The other men seem to think along those lines. Apparently some of the outriders reported in yesterday and it’s got at least a few of the soldiers revved up.’

‘Since when do you bother yourself with gossip?’ asked Brunick, determined for now to keep his sentences short so he could focus whole-heartedly on his sausages.

‘It’s the butter Brunick – we don’t have butter for our porridge. We have an easy supply line from Ralna, meaning we get a compact amount of fresh goods every week. We’ve hit our fourth week marker assuming we really are staying here for eight more days, yet we didn’t receive any more supplies. Elmira told me yesterday she wanted to come in with the caravan, but then had to change the plan because the supplies were cancelled.’

Brunick frowned, ‘so?’

‘It means we’ll be getting a mid-week restock from Lanston in all likelihood, coinciding with the rumour that we have a regiment of men coming along as well for our next skirmish at the border,’ said Cid.

Brunick lifted his left eyebrow, his mouth bloated with milk and porridge which he drank from the bowl rather than shovelling it in with his spoon. Wiping his mouth clean he voiced, ‘you know, you’d actually be doing yourself a favour if you didn’t see patterns to everything all the time.’

‘I’ve kept us alive a couple of times by being observant,’ retorted Cid with half a smile.

‘Yeah, and I’ve always watched your back while you were dreaming up your little plans,’ said Brunick.

‘I wouldn’t dare forget it, my friend,’ said Cid.

Hey look! The Commander decided to come out of that shell of his. He’s sitting at the head table!’ said Brunick. Cid looked up to his right, seeing Bennam and Piatil seating themselves amongst the men.

‘I told you something’s up.’

Brunick grunted and waved away Cid’s notion, focusing on carefully cracking his boiled eggs.

Cid almost wanted to admonish Brunick for pigging out like this, but he knew that if a border call-up was imminent it would be the last opportunity for a soldier to eat a well prepared meal. And as a soldier you never knew when you’ll be having your very last meal. It would also implicate that if Cid was to go on active duty any time soon he would not have the chance to sort matters with Elmira’s family. The possibility put him on edge and he finished his porridge in silence.

 

 

Afterwards Cid wandered the barracks alone. He was inclined to go to Commander Bennam directly and ask him straight out whether or not there would be a call-up soon. But then again, if the Commander knew of a possible border threat surely he would have told him last night? Of course Bennam had remarked on Cid and Stelinger’s potential past the border last night, but that was not a hint of a war lurking, was it?

Either way he felt a bit estranged from the Commander, knowing he had chosen Stelinger over himself, and wasn’t at all up to talking with him right now. Instead he chose to ask around, trying to determine if he had grounds for being worried. Recalling the newly stabled horses this morning Cid queried if anyone knew the whereabouts of the outriders, which the men were quick to answer to.

On their word Cid ambled to the north of the barracks, where an old windmill was perpetually turning its blades in the feeble Lanston wind to supply the barracks with water. A thick black iron pipeline ran on a low brick foundation from the main building all the way to the windmill. As Cid walked he ran his finger across the surface and felt the burning heat of the metal. Cid knew that it was by deliberate design to build the pipeline out in the sun. It heated the water enough through the course of the day to give the kitchen at least lukewarm water to work with if they did not need to light up the ovens, and then of course it was a small mercy for the more squeamish soldiers who could not stomach a cold shower.

Sitting on the far side of the windmill’s hollow framework Cid found two men who he at least were acquainted with; Captain Silas and Lieutenant Quint. The windmill’s skeletal frame allowed one to see the slow turns of the blades transfer itself into the churning efforts of the pump, extending all the way into the ground. The mismatched beat of the blades on the wind and the slow moan of the pump played a rather rural melody.

Coming up on them, he saw the both of them were smoking self-made cigarettes. Cid would rather not ask them what they were smoking; he disliked them enough as it was without having to worry about their vices. The two men often affiliated with Stelinger and were quite reputable for their service under him.

Stelinger initially made his name as a soldier by running half-genius, half-insane incursions with small companies beyond the border, fighting guerrilla battles to cut the Fallen severely before they could even get close to the Kingdom. Silas and Quint were some of the foremost of those who followed Stelinger and were ever since deemed some of the best outriders due to their knowledge on the Alparack valley.

Approaching them from behind Cid grew envious of their spot; after many days of riding in the wild they were simply two soldiers who took a breather, and staring into the far as the condensed feedback of the mill ruffled the strip of golden tufts of wild grass with rhythmic sweeps of wind.

Cid walked around the frame to stand before them.

‘Captain… Lieutenant…’ addressed Cid, looking up at them, though did so informally enough to let them know he wasn’t keen on interrupting them.

‘Good day Colonel,’ said Silas unalarmed, Quint giving an even more lackadaisical greeting as he saluted half-heartedly whilst taking a deep pull.

Cid knew better than to make an issue of it. Outriders were simply different; if not born so the job quickly made of them indifferent loners. They spent a lot of time abroad, alone and out fending for themselves. Maybe most disturbing of all was that an outrider was much more likely to be captured by the Fallen, which was considered a fate worse than death.

‘I came to enquire on your sightings in the north, are there any movements up in Alparack?’ asked Cid, deciding it best to come to the point.

Silas killed the embers of his joint on the frame and then tossed the last of the stump away.

Cid was fast to react, picking up the cigarette and holding it out toward Silas. ‘You should know of better than to toss these into grasses ready to ignite.’

Unperturbed Silas retorted, ‘I snuffed the embers properly Colonel.’ He said so with conviction, and Cid knew that he was right; he had something else in mind entirely, needing an excuse to pick up the stump.

‘As for an account of the north, I’m afraid we are only authorized to report our findings to the Commander, Colonel,’ said Silas.

‘Authorized?’ asked Cid, quietly growing angry.

‘Take it up with the Commander; we only do as instructed. I’m sure he has his reasons for keeping quiet,’ said Silas, his tone making it clear he wasn’t in the mood to argue about it.

Cid could not let out his anger on the two men even though he wanted to. Not only because they were outriders, but because the Commander had given him substantial reason up till now to be all the more angry with him. With his rank Cid had come to expect better than being put through mindless drills and left omitted in the wake of new intelligence.

Leaving the men to their devices Cid felt like giving it a rest. He would simply have to wait until the Commander let his intentions be known. Walking away he still had the stump of the cigarette hidden in his hand, and halfway back to the barracks he lifted it to his nose. Sumertas. The scent was distinct. The plant thrived in arid areas, usually between the rocks, growing where other vegetation could not choke its relatively weak root system. The outriders travelled as light as possible, foregoing the burden of carrying any amount of supplies that would slow them down or was not absolutely necessary. They usually survived from things on hand – hunting and scavenging as they went along. The Sumertas was evidence of that. It was however troubling.

The plant did not surface for many miles to the north. Silas and Quint had ridden much farther than they normally would and that spelled something out of the ordinary as far as Cid was concerned. Going as far they did was exceptionally dangerous, and they would not have done so unless under strict orders. Cid could not fathom what road Lanston would take in the coming days, but he had an ill feeling that it was something he was not going to like.

 

 

Cid had barely retired to his room when the word came that the Commander was summoning the barracks to the quad. Already feeling miserable Cid reluctantly dressed in his soldier uniform; a forest-green assortment of cloth trousers and jacket, a white linen shirt peeking around his collar. His boots, belt and short necktie were of the deepest black. On the necktie he pinned three thin gold plaques underneath one another, signifying him as a Colonel.

It was strange dressing up for this formality where Cid already knew the outcome – strange dressing up for Stelinger’s promotion. Nonetheless Cid had to show face and would probably have to sit in and among the other Colonels; close to Stelinger. Taking a deep breath Cid steeled himself for what could only be a bad day.

The quad stood like a mirror image of the courtyard on the west of the main building, though was not enveloped by wall. The stone floor was laden with simple wooden chairs for the soldiers as the Commander and his right hand, Piatil, took the podium. Cid and the three other Colonels sat at the front while the rest sat behind them according to rank.

On the edge of the quad efforts had been done to supplant and maintain a young Biridian tree, which would in years to come cast a sizable shadow over the quad. Until then these outdoor assemblies would remain an affair done under a pestering sun.

Behind the podium five men lined up, their unmoving postures consolidating the Commander’s air of authority. These men were dressed uniformly, their thick brown pocket-riddled trousers and tunics framed by a full-length green coat. Though their hoods were down, they stood with their hands folded in their sleeves as was tradition. They were the magi, Commander Bennam’s personal magicians that is, and Cid always wondered whether they could use their arts to keep themselves cool when dressed up like this. Like their clothing the men’s demeanours were identical; subservient, yet with a dismissive bearing that carried no real intent of insult.

They all came from one magical school or another, most of them situated in the Kingdom’s capital, Asheva. Cid has worked with some of these men long enough to know that there were far worse types in the world, and given the nature of their enemies, men like these were a necessity. Though their practices were strange, they were in fact trained warriors and did have actual combat experience. Cid could at least relate to that.

The Commander wasted little time, making his very first announcement that of Stelinger’s ascension. He did not even allow for an air of anticipation and seeing that Cid already knew the outcome he could not help but feel a bit grateful for the Commander’s heads-up the previous night.

Watching Stelinger stand up from beside him made it real for Cid, churning in discomfort as a man he deeply disliked was given what he coveted. It was much more than just having the status or power of Commander; if Cid could ask Elmira’s father, Vaunce, for his daughter’s hand as the Commander of the Lanston forces, maybe then he would have conceded and approved of their love. That door was closed now.

All the same Cid applauded politely as Stelinger took the podium, the man shaking the Commander’s hand heartily and recited a well placed speech off the cuff. Cid was unsurprised to find Stelinger relating with the men below; few could fake sincerity and pride the way Stelinger could. They applauded again at the end of Stelinger’s word of thanks and Cid smiled a bit by himself as he pictured Brunick at the back; in all likelihood refusing to clap, sitting with his arms folded, a challenging look on his face.

Cid considered on how Brunick would have climbed the ranks if he didn’t show such overt opinions all the time. It didn’t help that he was a Mason either and that his military career has always taken a backseat to his brethren’s mysterious meets and rites. He had been in and out of military on occasion, but was always welcomed back given his indomitable presence in combat.

When Stelinger had retaken his seat the ceremony grew a bit more interesting and Cid watched with intrigue as the other promotions were announced. Cid grew tense as he realized that Alex might also be promoted and that the man might still be on his way back from Ralna. It should have taken Alex only four hours at a commendable pace, but that would have to have been without great pause.

Worried, Cid made a subtle glance to scout the ranks behind him. Brunick was easy to spot and relief was Cid’s as he saw Alex sitting right next to those broad shoulders.

He’s back.

At ease he watched on as privates became lieutenants, some of the Lieutenants making Captain and as old Captain Margo became a new Colonel in Stelinger’s place. Cid applauded vibrantly when Alex was announced as a Lieutenant and felt a twinge of disappointment when he realized that they were done and Brunick had not made Captain.

Even with all the personal cheer and disappointment around, every murmur and talk was still focused on Stelinger. It was inevitable though; every single soldier’s fate would now be decided by Stelinger’s temperament. Cid knew that this was all in all a rather small formality within the military ranks, as many more official ceremonies and banquets awaited Stelinger once they returned to Lanston. He would be graced, heralded and bestowed trophies by some of the most important people in the Kingdom.

A city-wide parade for Stelinger, great… I have no stomach for it. Maybe I’ll take Elmira and visit at Alex’s parents for that week’s end, thought Cid, thinking fondly of the farm holdings owned by his friend’s folks.

At the end of it all Commander Bennam thanked everyone and concluded proceedings, Cid was barely listening when a sliver of information slipped through: ‘also, after we depart here, I want each of the senior commanding personnel to meet in the war room without delay.’

They were all about to discover that there would be no city inauguration.

 

 

The war room was an apartment right next to the Commander’s chamber. It was as old as the barracks itself, but had been refurnished grandiosely as it was frequently used for strategy sessions during the border wars. As they settled in the room Cid could only hope that Commander Bennam had some final instructions or wishes he wanted to relay to his top men. The only other possibility for this meet was war itself, a thought that Cid had feared throughout the day and made him stifle a shudder; any imminent war dispatch would guarantee him losing Elmira…

‘Thank you for your haste in response,’ said Bennam.

Dominating most of the room was an unusually large round table, standing waist high and bearing detailed maps right across almost every inch of its surface. The maps concerned the lands surrounding Lanston city and also entailed that of the border. Upon these maps were small neatly constructed clay figurines, representing different portions of the army of Lanston and their enemy; the Fallen.

The Colonels and Captains stood all around the table, their backs turned to several bookcases laden with old scrolls and war records.

‘This is a moment I have never thought I’d live to see, for this is my very final act as a Commander, and it will be an honour to prepare you one last time. Starting tomorrow, Stelinger will take my place and thereby take full authority of my position and military assets. I implore you, to support Stelinger in his new position and respect him as a Commander as you respected me.’

Bennam sighed, closing his eyes for a bit. Cid shifted uncomfortably on his feet; whatever came now could not be good.

‘Now, with formalities behind us I am going to confirm what some of our rumours of late have implied; the Fallen are once again on the move, their intent south-bound, our latest scout reports have validated as much.

‘We of course all knew that it would only have been a matter of time. Reports are vague, but they tell us that the main force counts as much as five-thousand Fallen troops proceeding right down Fafriv Canyon.

‘Our own force is already summoned from Lanston city; the call-up will be very specific on personnel and equipment. I’ll go through the numbers later, but to make you understand I have to explain something new on the table.’

Bennam cleared his throat and started, ‘We are well known as the guardians of our border, and for more years than I care to count we have been stalwart in that position. My last, my final contribution, would not have us squander another decade sacrificing men simply to keep the enemy at bay.’

The men were at full attention, Bennam’s mysterious suggestion making more than one of them uncomfortable.

‘In our private meets, Stelinger and myself have talked at length on a new approach for the Lanston army. We have, realistically, discussed an attack extending past our borders into Alparack valley and crushing anything in our way. This plan sees us moving right through the canyon ourselves, protected on both plateaus by supporting satellite companies. Once we secure the northern point of Fafriv we will entrench and ultimately build an outpost that will spread across the entire entry point; our own answer to Nimroth’s gate.’

Cid stood rigid, his mind working furiously. He and Bennam also discussed such a plan one night and no matter what Bennam offered, Cid always shot the plan down, saying that it reckless, saying that they didn’t know what was waiting for them beyond the border, that the Lanston army did not have the edge that was necessary to achieve such a thing. Is this why I’m not the Commander?

Yet Cid still felt the same way. He couldn’t believe Bennam would think all of their efforts to be in vain. There was nothing more important than protecting the Kingdom, nothing greater than to simply ensure the safety of loved ones. This was simply ambitious.

Bennam paused a moment to chuckle, ‘I can see the audacity of the plan taking you by surprise, it’s unlike what we have done I’ll admit – what we’ve always done! But do not worry, when I have explained in full at least half of you might accept the risks of this venture. I have never apologized for being bold and I would not let Lanston decline its greatest moment.

‘The Kingdom has never been able to stage a full-scale assault on the Fallen lands, the logistical and numeral parameters has never allowed us to do so without likely losing half our nation’s army even in victory. With this new outpost and the proper supply lines however, we will summon armies from all the cities in the Kingdom,’ said Bennam pointing his stick at the location of the future outpost.

‘When assembled, we will amass four army segments and branch out, laying siege to each of the Fallen strongholds and killing them at their roots,’ said Bennam, pointing at the strongholds in quick succession; Garral holdings, Northgarde, Daminen Steadfast and Nokhan.

‘In conclusion, we will eventually have the capacity to stop the Fallen once and for all. As you can see our initial move from here up to the canyon and then to each of the strongholds resemble a tree symbolically. Our plight will go down in history, breaking a cycle of bloodshed that has lasted for almost a century. With that in mind we have aptly named this endeavour operation Biridian, in honour of our city’s most prized symbol, as Lanston will lead the way in this war. We started out as the Fallen’s bane, and we will surely finish it that way.’

The approval was suddenly all-round and even Cid felt it despite his reservations. Bennam had the gift of convincing others and Cid understood that giving the operation a name with important symbolic reference was a smart move on the Commander’s part, seeing that the soldiers would be more inclined to assign a certain hallowedness to the entire matter.

‘Our success however will depend largely on starting immediately; the Fallen’s movement gives us a timeframe to work with. The opportunity to hit them hard in the canyon and drive them out of Alparack will not present itself like this again,’ Bennam pointed.

This was the part no one favoured, least of all Cid, who felt his stomach coil.

‘All personnel will stay here until the main force of the army arrives,’ said Bennam. ‘At dusk, I will travel back to Lanston, officially retiring as Stelinger will assume immediate authority. Also, Stelinger will lead the war meet tomorrow morning, in which he will continue to explain the plan in full detail.’

Bennam swept his gaze across the men standing before him and said, ‘I know that some of you might think that it is rich of me to commence this plan and then get out before things go awry. That is not the case. Where I have once been the hand that nourished this army I have become the same hand that constraints it. I have been a border fighter all my life, it is time for those who can do better to take rein. In this very barracks are some of the most talented military personnel in the Kingdom, and I am proud to say that the Lanston army has never been more ready to make this step. It was an honour serving with all of you and some of my old bones wish to go with you to see this through, but I guess I finally get the chance to be bored and pampered at home,’ said Bennam, his stone cold face somehow still betraying his emotions.

Cid lowered his head; the idea of a Lanston army without Commander Bennam was unfamiliar to say the least. Everything was changing for the worst.

‘I will now retire to my chamber and finish some of my records; I will leave it to you to notify the rest of the barracks.’

The men filed out of the room, Cid standing aside. He needed to talk with the Commander, urgently, even though unsure what he was going to say.

Already locked in quiet conversation with Stelinger, Cid waited impatiently for Bennam. They finished and before Stelinger left he gave Cid a blank stare, a familiar antagonism hidden inside it.

Face to face Cid was struggling for words when Bennam interjected, ‘ah, Cid, I assume you have some things on your mind, let’s take a walk.’

 

 

Beyond the barracks perimeters was something that could only be called a plain of wilderness, the prairie unchanging, and it made Cid feel all the more detached from Lanston. In every direction the horizon showed no civilization, the hub of settlements thinned out this close to the border, Ralna being the closest small town as a matter of interest, leaving one wondering how long before it too would become a military outpost.

They were walking on a small dirt trail, curving through tufts of grasses and bushes, their talk serious.

‘So you are thinking on returning to Lanston?’ asked Bennam to clarify.

‘Yes, as soon as possible,’ said Cid.

‘The army needs you Cid,’ retorted Bennam.

They stopped, Cid taking a deep stare into Bennam’s eyes. ‘It doesn’t need me to survive; it’ll be fine without me. I on the other hand can’t bear the idea of losing my wife to someone’s greed or politics.’

‘Cid, this plan, operation Biridian, is not something I conjured up to amuse myself. I only came up with it because I knew we’ve been dealt a great hand in the form of you and Stelinger. Talking in the war meet of how we will trample our enemies is easy and yes, to defend borders we can go on without you. But to go out into the Fallen’s backyard to outmanoeuvre and outclass them is something only you can bring to the table.’

‘I am sorry Commander, Stelinger will have to do, I am returning home,’ said Cid, turning and watching the horizon beyond which Lanston rested.

‘Cid, I am well informed in the city’s politics. I have ears in every corner of Lanston so to speak; it helps to know the political and business tidings when making my decisions. And well… Elmira, she is, without a doubt, going to be married off to Fredrere of House Sagril. There is nothing you can do about it, even if you do return.’

‘I will take Elmira to the Masons, they will offer us sanctuary,’ said Cid, flustered at Bennam’s remarks.

Listen to yourself Cid, now you plan on dragging Brunick’s brethren into this. How long can you hide? How long until the Kingdom sanctions action against the Masons for sheltering you?’ asked Bennam.

Cid closed his eyes; it felt as though the Commander had just stabbed him right in his back.

Preying on Cid’s silence Bennam said, ‘if you go as an ex-Colonel you will at best be barred by authorities from approaching Elmira, and of course if you stir trouble, you will be jailed.’

Damn you, Bennam,’ whispered Cid.

Bennam had to catch himself from retorting sharply in anger; he had never before suffered disrespect. Instead he placed his hand on Cid’s shoulder.

‘I do not know if you and Elmira have a future Cid. But the best thing you can do right now, for everybody, is to stay with the army. The soldiers respect you and just by being here they will have so much more faith in our plan, and… if you do stay and fight, I’ll promise I’ll use whatever influence I have back home to stall or dismantle the marriage.’

You will?’ said Cid hoarsely.

‘It would be a smart military choice on my part to ensure my greatest tactician is at his best,’ said Bennam. Cid’s mind worked with this new possibility and turned to face Bennam again.

‘Then you have my thanks Commander, I will try to swallow this thing and see it through,’ said Cid.

Bennam nodded solemnly. ‘You know, I still have a last bottle of red to finish, an unhealthy feat for a man alone, will you join me before I depart?’

Cid smiled a bit, ‘a tempting offer, but I’d prefer to rest up and be alone for now.’

‘As you wish,’ said Bennam regrettably.

They made their way back into the barracks, the silence growing between them. It heartened Cid that Commander Bennam had offered to intervene, yet he knew realistically that even a General of Asheva did not have much influence in these matters.

Right now it was strange; he had promised his horse Cilverhoof a ride by noon and despite what he had just told the Commander, Cid could feel himself walking up to the stables and leaving everything behind, racing back to Lanston for the woman he loved.

 

 

It was late in the afternoon.

Brunick made his way through the dormitory corridor; a set of slim paper slips in his left hand. Moments ago the barracks had gone to see off Bennam as he departed for Lanston. Brunick had been present and so was Alex. The only one Brunick did not see at the farewell was Cid. Down in the quad the soldiers had gathered to mail their families, and while waiting for the falconers they had burst into song. Even in the dormitories Brunick could hear the resonance of fifty men’s voices, the words telling of a sad but hopeful farewell.

He came to a halt at Cid’s door and knocked politely, a formality he usually and utterly neglected.

‘Enter,’ came Cid’s voice hesitantly.

Brunick did so, immediately launching into speech.

Hey, where were you? We just said good-bye to Bennam… anyway we’re all down at the quad again, they are launching the falcons in an hour and – what are you doing?

‘I am packing Brunick. I don’t need to send any messages, and I might run into Bennam later on. I’m going to Lanston in person.’

‘And what exactly do you think you are going to accomplish?’ asked Brunick exasperatedly.

‘Get Elmira out of Lanston if I need to, and disappear.’

‘So that’s it huh? You’re going to hole yourself and Elmira up in some remote corner of nowhere! Fine dignity that is! Tell me, do you think that’s fair towards Elm? Towards yourself?’

Cid turned to Brunick, ‘fair is not in play here Brunick! I am not going to lose Elmira!’

‘And you don’t have to,’ said Brunick, his voice low and gruff.

Cid turned away again, tucking his garments determinedly into his case. Cid felt Brunick move in right behind him.

What came next Cid did not expect. Hardly able to contain his surprise Cid almost yelped as Brunick wrenched him around, picked him up by the hem and pressed him against the wall, both of his fists pressing crushingly into Cid’s chest. The man’s strength was bestial.

‘Brunick what… do you think …!’

Listen!’

Cid stopped fidgeting, his eyes settling on Brunick’s. There was a fierce look about Brunick right now.

‘I have known you for a long time Cid, and if I had to call one person a friend it would be you. Knowing you I wish the world had a hundred more Cids of Rogana; loyal honest men who do not go through life taking the soft options! Above all you’re smarter than this; there is no point returning to Lanston only to fail!

Cid managed a cynical chuckle, ‘what would you have me do Brunick?’

‘Go to war… steel the men… win it… with you we can win it… Stelinger WILL screw up! The men will look to you – they always do when we’re in the roughs…’

Cid angered, his eyes boring through Brunick’s.

‘Think on it Cid, a month or two from now, returning to Lanston a war hero and the Kingdom blessing its finest tactician with one request of his choice in gratitude,’ said Brunick, his voice quieting near the end.

Cid lowered his gaze, his head beginning to swim, ‘could you put me down now Brunick?’

‘Sure,’ said Brunick, slight embarrassment registering on his face.

Cid regained his breath, his chest prickling with pain.

‘Return home a war hero? Receive Kingdom blessing? And that within a month or two? Aren’t you being a bit too romantic Brunick?’ asked Cid.

Ha! Last time I checked that was a quality we shared. It’s a long shot I know, but remember, you’re going out to do what you do best. Besides, I know how you think; despite being worried sick about Elm you’re also conflicted with the idea of leaving the army. This is your home, your family. So, if I can’t tell you anything else I’ll say this: saving Elmira, leading your men and winning this war is all one and the same thing!

Brunick’s words sunk in and surprisingly Cid could no longer protest rationally.

‘You know, they should have put you up for Captain a long time ago,’ said Cid, rubbing at his chest.

Brunick offered a broad smile. ‘And if you abandon ship I might get that promotion, so don’t go saying I’m trying to keep you here for selfish reasons.’

‘Seriously Brunick, I would not imply you as selfish, you are a friend like few can be.’

‘Does that mean that you’ve come to your senses?’ asked Brunick.

‘Somewhat, though the impulse to take Cilverhoof and flee for Lanston is not something I am going to shake off any time soon.’

‘Don’t worry about that, if you get cold feet I’ll just pin you to the wall again,’ said Brunick laughingly.

‘As long as you don’t sit on me,’ retorted Cid.

They shared a laugh.

Brunick turned serious again, ‘I still have to mail my folks back home, you’d do well to write Elmira a letter, and Cid, don’t hold back; tell her to wait for you and tell her you will come back for her.’

Cid nodded.

‘Well then, I’ll see you at dinner,’ said Brunick, turning on his heel and disappearing into the corridor.

Chapter 4

Mindevhier

 

 

Cid caught himself twitching as he woke, remnants of his dreaming commanding his body in those very first moments after coming to life. Dazed, he swung his legs from the bed and rubbed at his eyes with his palms. The sun had not even begun to peek at the land, although Cid instantly knew it was very early in the morning thanks to a less than enthusiastic rooster than scavenged the grounds of Taverka.

Cid had been dreaming feverishly and it was only now, moments after he woke, that he was able to piece the dreams together. They had all been memories, all of them about Elmira. Though fuzzy and disorderly, each of these precious recollections became painful as he thought about giving up Elmira to another man. For moments more he merely sat with his head on his hands and his elbows on his knees.

Despite what had been a good wakeup call from Brunick, Cid’s hunch had proven itself right; he did not feel like a soldier anymore and still the idea of leaving the army and making way for Lanston was strong.

One by one he paged through his dreams and poked each of them until they came to rest in his head. Standing up, Cid lit the oil lamp at his bed side, the room suddenly filled with an amber glow.

Restlessly Cid paced the room and only came to a stop when he saw his dresser door standing half open again, an inevitable nuisance because of a faulty catch mechanism on the inside. Cid’s eyes adjusted to the faint lighting and from where he stood he spotted his Lanston armour and battle gear inside the cabinet. They were supported on iron pegs in wall, perfectly proportioned so that the armour resembled a standing man.

Cid stared, the long shadows of the room and his waking mind conspiring together so that he imagined the armour had opened the door by itself, as though it was going to remind the Colonel where he belonged.

Even now, it was heartening to realize how much pride the armour instilled in him. He stood closer, fingering the dresser door completely open, and for the next few moments he simply gazed at it, marvelling at it in the glow of lamplight.

The layout of armour for Lanston soldiers was a varied spread of thick and thin steel, encompassing the helm, breastplate and thigh guards in the standard issue. The traditional colours of Lanston haled gold and green. The armour, gracefully curved and styled, was enamelled in a coat coloured like pale gold. The world over, they were often called the Golden Army, a name that brought both fear and pride, depending on which side of the line you fell. Many and most of the boys growing up in Lanston would believe that the armour was indeed crafted entirely of gold, an idea that had not died across generations . Cid smiled at the thought, thinking of how glorious the army had appeared to he himself as a boy.

Furthermore, every soldier wore the forest green tabards, and on the chest was a white linen woven crest; a coat of arms featuring most prominently the head of a lynx cat hovering above a Biridian tree. Cid, like the other Colonels, had the license of tailoring his armour to suit individual needs and fighting habits. For each Colonel though the barbute style helm remained the same; a slender full face oval of steel with a thick added layer at both temples which were superbly crafted in the form of lynx paws with exaggerated fierce claws.

At the top of the helm flowed a plume of green, compliments from the Wylka parrot tail feathers. The helm’s face opening was considered to be large with its rounded Y-shape and revealed the eyes, nose and mouth. This was a crucial attribute as it served to give officers a greater vision on the battlefield and the ability to shout commands without having their words muffled. The infantry core in contrast would wear closed helms for they were the men who made the most contact and had only to focus on the enemy in front of them.

Cid reached out for the helm, turned it and placed it on his head. He felt the familiar cold steel against his cheeks and the warmth of the interior leather padding on his hair. It wasn’t a pleasant accessory, but its discomfort a small price to pay anyone who had seen action would tell you.

Despite the discomfort Cid felt a small thrill, as though the helm was sending pictures directly into his head. In his mind’s eye he saw himself in battle; shouting, fighting, riding… It was not the slaughter or the bloodlust that appealed to Cid, but rather the tactics and the men that are revealed when faced with the worst of circumstances. Cid admired the specialties in war like a choreographer adores the passion and routines of her students of dance.

Deciding to feed from his new found flicker of hope, Cid did something that he wouldn’t have done any other time of the day; he donned his entire armour. True, he would have to dress formally for the war meet anyway, but that was still hours from now. Right now he needed to feel it – he needed to feel like a soldier, if for no other reason than this being the state he felt most powerful, and most decisive. Brunick was right about one thing; war was what Cid of Rogana was best at. Maybe even better than anyone else in the world.

Removing his helm for the moment, he slipped into a light leather vest to buffet his heavy breastplate, attaching his shoulder pauldrons with one-handed unease and tightening the straps where necessary. Next he slowly pulled the green tabard over his head, careful not to tear it as it became bloated and proud over his chestplate. Moving on he donned the fauld, covering his waist and upper legs. He fastened his belt and tucked the tabard neatly, which left him with tying his bracers and leg guards, then pulling on his high boots, swallowing the remainder of his trousers.

Traditionally Cid neglected greaves like those the frontliners wore, choosing tough leather boots instead which gave him increased mobility. (Steel greaves and sabatons were essential for frontliners for many reasons, one of them being able to march through the battlefield without being incapacitated by terrain anomalies or dropped weapons of the dead). Cid completed his attire with his gloves and the helm. To his belt he attached his sabre-sword, his lightweight second choice weapon.

It was empowering standing in full armour, yet Cid knew it all wouldn’t mean much without the spear. Next to his room’s door was a giant wooden casing, looking like something a wealthy musician would lug around with him. Yet no musical instrument would be flat and tall enough to fit into this shape.

Cid took the casing precariously and laid it down on the floor. The wood was polished and at its centre was a large dark metal emblem of house Rogana; a Spearhead wrapped in a wreath of leaves. Cid opened the casing.

Inside was Mindevhier, Cid’s heirloom. As it were the spear was separated into different pieces, held in place by tiny leather straps. Cid kneeled, loosened the straps and picked out the pieces. The lower shaft was the longest and served as the three foot base of the spear. It was made from a light steel and was decorated with engraved runes; memoirs of each of the warriors in Rogana’s line.

To this shaft were two available extensions; a two feet length of either wood or another steel. Cid almost never used both extensions at once, which would cause the spear to reach over seven feet in length. His more practical version was simply to attach the wooden extension and then the spearhead.

The wooden extension was somewhat lighter than the steel base and it was an important balancing factor as it carried the heavy spearhead, all the while framed by thin bronze linings to protect the wood from enemy weapons.

To be fitted over the over the upper part of the shaft were ornamental wings, a foot long each, attachable by a single strong clasp and the wings themselves working on its hinges to fold in and out. It would give the spear a remarkable appearance, and also its second name: “the Winged Serpent.” Yet Cid had never used these in battle, the wings being more decorative in his eyes than anything else.

Lastly was the spearhead itself was an elongated blade, three quarters of a foot, shaped flat and leaf-like with a definite edge and tip. Finished putting it together Cid stared proudly at the weapon in his hands.

A calm settle over him and he felt his skin crawl. Kings felt most powerful on their thrones, poets did so with pen in hand, and magicians kept their tomes and scrolls nearby. For Cid there was Mindevhier, its history alone enough to inspire. Yet holding it, wielding it, gave Cid the power and confidence of seemingly every warrior who had brandished it before him. Through every other battle Cid had wielded Mindevhier, never losing, never failing, and never suffering a single moment of disgrace.

It was a devastating weapon and despite its size it was crafted with a certain lightness so that in practiced hands it could be used with uncanny speed.

Cid twirled the spear between his fingers overhead, almost cutting the dresser, but knowing that he wouldn’t, being so very familiar with its dimensions. Even without its last extension the spear was a precarious weapon in close spaces, which was why Cid always carried the sabre as well.

Cid held the spear upright, its blade level with his eyes. He caught but a distorted reflection of himself on its flat, yet could see a will to fight burning in his face and eyes, accentuated by the lamplight. He had been looking for this, looking for his determination to do whatever it takes to be with Elmira. And truly, it was as though every ounce of will he could summon was tempered into the spear itself, lingering there for Cid to use.

He smiled by himself, thinking of how he would move; lunge, strike, cut, shatter and impale. Once, Brunick had boasted that the only person he could ever lose to in single combat was Cid whilst armed with Mindevhier.

In a sense he was right.

Brunick, wielding his choice weapon of a double-bladed axe, was almost impossible for single a swordsman to cut down without getting cleaved himself. Cid however, with Mindevhier, had the advantage of range and even though wary of Brunick’s unstoppable rampages during battle Cid could not see him getting past the spear.

This fictional encounter however would never be the case; rather Cid and Brunick were often to be found fighting side by side against whoever was unlucky enough to be the enemy. Even Stelinger, an expert swordsman, would see himself facing the odds when confronted by Cid’s skill with a spear.

For what felt like an hour Cid merely stood, visualizing battlefields, imagining new tactics and preparing his resolve for when the worst struck.

A trickle of daylight entered his room and it was the rising sun that brought him back from his revolving mind. Cid shook his last amount of doubt, blew out the bed lamp and then left the room.

He had one more thing to take care of; a letter to Elmira.

Chapter 5

The Face of the Enemy

 

 

In the foyer of Taverka’s main building stood a collection of war curios; weapons on racks, statues on pedestals, and higher up old tabards, flags and tapestries pinned to the hall wall. They all belonged to Lanston’s war with the Fallen, either salvaged from battle itself, or otherwise consisting of busts and other tokens of remembrance of past generals. Cid walked by briskly here, using the cross shaped hall as a shortcut to the other side of the barracks’ grounds.

As usual, only one of these displays caught his eye and demanded his attention. True to human nature it was the face of danger that was noticeable above all else. He halted at this new addition.

The skull helm, pedestalled like the busts, wasn’t a sight that inspired pride or fealty. Rather, it was a grim reminder of what the Kingdom and especially the forces of Lanston were up against in times of war.

The face of the enemy is a destiny feared,” as a poet had once framed it.

Hundreds of men, and sometimes thousands of men; garbed in black battle armour, their once loved and familiar faces enclosed in helms like the one before Cid, a dark-grey enamelled steel imitation of a bare human skull. Even as Cid looked at the helm he could imagine a set of dull white eyes staring from the skull’s sockets.

The Fallen; the enemy.

Or at least the enemy we fight, the enemies we see, the enemy we know.

Ask any soldier and he would tell you that these wars were won by sword and discipline, by the physical might of the military arm. The driving force behind the entire war however? The answer has always been Magic.

Cid was well familiar with the history of the Kingdom’s wars, as well he should be as a Colonel. What Cid knew to be true about their current conflicts told itself like a campfire story:

More than a century ago a Summoner rose to power; a magician of frightening abilities and undetermined longevity. The Kingdom did not tolerate men like him and he was cited for death after his first vile crimes against the innocence. In every city and in every home his name was feared most, not even brought up on nights when fathers sought to scare their sons into good behaviour. His name was not used lightly.

Arumcas.

This dark-minded man lived in exile to the north of the Kingdom’s borders in what was mostly thought of as the Fallen’s lands, where he kept company with his kind in forlorn keeps and hideaways. To fuel his ambition to war with the Kingdom, Arumcas developed a magic so powerful that it could enslave the will of thousands of men at a time, stripping away their consciousness and replacing it with mindlessness, responsive only to the commands of their masters spoken in Twilight tongue.

The Fallen was a loosely used concept for all that had to do with Arumcas, but it was used most often for these men enslaved by the magic; the foot soldiers, the drones, the men that wore these skull helms – they were the Fallen.

There were of course those who followed Arumcas willingly, also schooled in dark magicks, forming a cult called the Dey’illumra and were widely known as Shadow Priests; the men and women who commanded the Fallen soldiers and acted as Arumcas’ generals.

The Fallen thus would forever more be innocent men twisted beyond recognition. The irony of it all was that most of the Fallen were the very soldiers that had once fought for the Kingdom. They were men captured in battle, kidnapped as scouts, or lured by false promises of wealth and power.

It was well known that once a man succumbed to the Fallen spell there was no reversal, no cure. Of course, the Kingdom military had magi of their own and their powers have brought whole new dimensions of warfare to the front. Sadly, even their abilities could not save the Fallen once converted.

There was a psychological victory in it for the soldiers of Lanston though. Warring against men who one considered a brother or a friend was a quick way to die. Rather Cid, like every soldier, was drilled with a simple yet crucial mental framework; “they are beyond redemption, death is a mercy, when you fight the Fallen, you fight to kill.”

Chapter 6

The Message

 

 

The barracks library was small, but sufficient for any soldier to see to reports or personal documents. Cid quickly chose one of the four miniature tables, gathering himself parchment, quill, ink and envelope. Cid remembered himself coming here often when first accepted into the Lanston ranks. He was sure he had read most of the books here, all of them documentations of the past century’s struggle with the Fallen. Now that he looked back on it he realized the knowledge had served him well, as the strategies, insights and anecdotes of Lanston men long dead stuck with him.

Cid did not take long on what to write; he had been subconsciously wrestling with the issue all night anyway and it left him well prepared for the occasion.

Satisfied with the letter, Cid sealed it in the envelope with a hot wax military seal, grateful that the barracks overseer was such a painfully organized man to have everything up and running at all times. Leaving the library exactly as he found it Cid made for the aviary.

The barracks was still deathly quiet, but Cid appreciated the solitude as his mind was still forging determination for the day. He would later on have to confront Stelinger again in a war meet and Cid had already decided to be the leash that Stelinger needed.

The greatest worry for any commanding officer in the field was coming face to face with the Shadow Priests. It happened only but seldom in the skirmishes at the border, as the Priests, contrast to the Fallen, held fast to the desire to stay alive. Down in Alparack valley though the army would be much more vulnerable and the premise likely to lure out the Dey’illumra. It is this fact that Cid was mindful of and would be certain to remind Stelinger of it as well. This sure wasn’t going to be like any border war and Cid imagined even the veterans would be tested before it was all over. But then Cid quickly reminded himself that a handful of Lanston men, Stelinger being the foremost, had plenty of experience fighting up north. Reluctantly he admitted that Bennam would have made the right choice in designating Stelinger as Commander should his knowledge of Alparack be accounted for. It was still a tender spot for Cid and he’d rather not linger on Bennam’s rationales.

Another issue that was of special interest to Cid was that of the tactical reinforcements needed for the duration of the war, and as far as he knew Stelinger had not yet made a decisive request to a particular force or city. It was an opportunity for Cid to advise Stelinger in the matter, as he already thought about what help they would need in the canyon and the woods. The fact of the matter was that if the idealized operation Brunick envisioned were to take place, Cid would need to a take a lot of initiative in the decisions to ensure a successful march. He had no idea as to yet what Stelinger’s design for the operation would be, but Cid was eager to improve on it and ultimately, see it through.

The aviary was built right on top of the stables (which better explained why the entire building stood on the only knoll for many miles) and was solely accessible from a stairway on the outside.

On his way up Cid already heard the waking screeches and cries of the falcons inside. The aviary obviously consisted of an apartment hosting the falcons, but it had a larger, more prominent room as well. This unoccupied room sported a great non-sensible entryway at its side, like a misplaced oculus, a gaping hole in the wall as it were. Currently empty, four giant stalls stood next to each other, each big enough to house three war chargers comfortably. Just from the fact that these stalls were on the second story, one could guess they were indeed not built for horses.

Rather, it was the Volje that made home here from time to time, meant for the mystical flying beasts of great renown around the world and a prominent symbol within the Kingdom. Cid had once before seen the giant flyers; they reminded Cid more of a giant bat than a bird, but he would never say that out loud, as those who had a Volje on their tabard were many, and they disliked that comparison.

They were rare creatures, and certainly mythical to most. Traditionally the Volje were utilized as mounted war beasts, their sheer size allowing the Rangers of the Kingdom to man them. Almost every other barracks or outpost within the Kingdom recently outfitted themselves to house a few Rangers and their Volje on occasion.

The addition went far beyond from just being encouraging, for a visit from these men were as likely to be on investigatory purposes as a call to arms. Like the name implied they were keepers of the peace and the realm itself, but that often meant stepping on a lot of toes along the way.

Guards that watch the Guardians. We’ll probably need to call upon the Rangers before this is all over.

Cid brought his attention back to the task at hand. Choosing his falcon was easy, as he picked the one that appeared most perky, its cry a convincing plea for freedom. The Iramir falcons normally ranged from dull brown to black in colour, sporting a few white tail feathers. Despite being predators they were natural long distance flyers and sporting intelligence greater than the pigeons used historically. There was also the little fact that they usurped the pigeon by preying on them, the problem in full bloom when one lone farmer had bred the predators in mass. It had made transition to using the falcons themselves a necessity.

Unlocking his bird of choice from its cage, he could only appreciate how well trained these falcons were. Cid, pulling on thick leather gloves, allowed the bird to climb onto his forearm. Moving slowly Cid placed the bird on a network of perches in the centre of the room. Precariously now with the otherwise impractical gloves he tied the letter to the falcon’s left leg.

While doing so the falcon changed the tilt of its head every two seconds as though trying to gauge Cid’s intent from every angle. He looked into the bird’s glassy dark eyes, sensing its intelligence, a reassuring trait to see.

Done, Cid lifted the bird onto his forearm again and walked for the window.

‘Don’t worry birdie, I am going to try and win a war, all you have to do is deliver this letter,’ said Cid.

Positioned at the window, Cid released the falcon through the opening, the wings taking immediate flight with a rapid beat. For moments more Cid watched it disappear into the endless hue of the sky. Cid strolled for the door to exit, passing the basket of delivered letters.

Something in the basket caught his eye and he stopped to look. Only a dozen or so letters were piled at the bottom and one of them was addressed to him. He lifted the letter from the basket and realized he only spotted it because of how large his name was written on the front. Instantly curious he tore it open, Elmira in his forethoughts.

Surely this couldn’t be from her?

He was right, the parchment inside was dull, although neatly penned, and did not have Elmira’s usual spray of perfume. It read:

 

To Anthony, Lanston Provision Officer

 

Payment received with thanks. Weapons are at various stages of development. Progress is flawless to thus far, binding process better than expected. Should be ready before the end of the month. Expect delivery in time for the Lanston march. Pleasure to have done business with you.

 

Paul’op. Destinian Blacksmithies.

 

Cid frowned. The envelope was addressed to Cid, yet the letter was clearly not meant for him. But why would he get it then? The provision officer wasn’t even at the barracks, so how did the letter end up here of all places? Someone of course had quite deliberately written Cid’s name on the envelope, but it did not carry a seal of any kind; the original envelope must’ve been discarded, implying that Cid wasn’t the first to read it.

Someone wanted me to have this? I would’ve taken the letter to Bennam, but…

Cid read the letter again…

The Destinian Blacksmithies was a large chain of Blacksmiths in the city of Morshiph and did some of the finest metal work the Kingdom had to offer. It was not unusual for them to supply city armies other than their own, their products much sought after.

Binding process though? Cid had no idea what this would refer to.

Either way it wasn’t an interest of Cid’s or his business for that matter. The intent of the messenger however was the real issue he realized. Someone had something to say to Cid, but rather than coming to him in person, he sends the letter anonymously. Cid thought about showing it to Stelinger.

No, he would know all about new weapons for Lanston. Besides, whoever sent this must be adamant on secrecy. Cid knew as much that he would not be able to figure this out for now and put his thoughts aside, rather embracing a ravenous hunger. To the dining hall he went.

 

 

‘So what’s with the armour?’ asked Alex.

They were in a stacked dining hall, the mood rowdy as the tensions of drills and promotions were forgotten. It would however not be long before everyone had to deal with the reality of war again, but that seemed only to increase the men’s motive for carelessness.

‘For the war meet later, from now on we play dress up regularly,’ answered Cid, his helm put on the table.

‘Hmm, I heard the first bunch of troops are arriving this morning, they‘ve been dispatched a week ago, which means-’

‘That they’ve known something was up even before us,’ finished Alex.

‘Do you have to interrupt me every time I talk!?’ asked Brunick irritably.

‘Hey, I only finished what you were going to say big guy,’ said Alex.

‘Yeah well, I want to finish what I was going to say!’ retorted Brunick.

‘Well go ahead then…’

Cid blocked them out. They often bickered like this, innocent in essence, yet tiresome nonetheless. Both Alex and Brunick were Cid’s most trusted friends and even though the two of them would never admit it, they had a lot of time for each other. In physical presence they were opposites. Alex was a bit shorter and a much lighter build than even Cid. His stature suited his acumen as an expert trailblazer and one of the best archers in Lanston. He had a lean face, a prominent pointy noise and lively eyes that seemed to look at everything. His hair was straw coloured and kept in untidy strands.

Cid was dimly aware that Brunick had finally lost the argument.

‘So Cid, you’ll fill us in when the meet’s done right?’ said Brunick in an attempt to stave away another verbal assault by Alex.

‘Of course,’ said Cid, taking a bite of his porridge.

He then isolated himself in thought again, thinking on what Alex said, “They’ve known something was up before us…” In his mind’s eye Cid folded open the letter again: “…weapons will be ready for the Lanston march.”

Cid accepted that this new battle plan must’ve been in circulation for a while, but why did he not know that Bennam was intent on executing it? Especially so if he was serious enough to order new weapons. He could not help but feel left in the dark. For Cid’s part Bennam’s lack of communication was a cruel omission.

Chapter 7

Games

 

 

It did not seem a proper briefing without Commander Bennam. Stranger still was seeing Stelinger in charge, his presence as Commander firm even though his appearance remained much the same, still wearing his old armours. Today, under Stelinger’s authority, the warfare of Lanston was changed in entirety as the familiar maps of the border were replaced by detailed charts of Alparack Valley, the Durandal city-state, and the keeps of the Fallen to the far north. Cid swept his eyes up and down the maps, determined to familiarize himself with the logistics of the terrain.

From the moment he started talking Cid had to admit that Stelinger handled himself flawlessly; he never alienated any of the other men, even the new Captains, and explained his intentions and mindset for this war meticulously.

This however was not unexpected. Cid knew that Stelinger’s game face was a good one. Rather, Cid was more worried on how Stelinger would conduct himself out in the field and in battle.

At first Stelinger went through the numbers; in the next two days a total of 4500 Lanston soldiers were expected to join with them, camping around Taverka. It was about a third of the city’s active garrison. They were accounted as 2000 core infantry, 700 archers, 850 cavalry, 450 melee specialists and 400 auxiliary soldiers who could fill in on every category. The remaining 100 were more particular personnel and consisted of teamsters, engineers, smithies, suppliers, non-military scouts, surgeons and battle magi, and their respective equipment.

Also to join them during the march apparently were the warrior Valkyries from the city-state of Rade’Remar, a special summons by Bennam as one of his last acts of influence.

Stelinger remained the centre of attention as he explained his marching plan. Cid listened and watched the maps critically, ready to challenge any flaw that might surface.

‘We march in four days, so we’ll do our supply and maintenance on Pegnesday.’

Using a pointing stick he started to explain. Stelinger moved one of the clay figures, ‘this is the main force, more than three and a half thousand strong. Each of these…,’ Stelinger pointed at the four smaller figurines, ‘are the satellite companies. As the main force marches through the canyon, the satellite companies will take point, keeping front on the highland woods both sides of the canyon; two companies on the west and two on the east side basically. The companies will protect, cover and scout, while keeping the main force up to date with intelligence. The main force will not move without feedback, our exposure within the canyon is obvious and I cannot stress the importance of our satellites. I will therefore assign a Captain in charge to each of the satellites and grant them the freedom to choose any two-hundred men, save for a few designated.’

The designated few Cid knew were Stelinger’s personal magi and champions; among them would be Colonel Drissil, an expert in leading cavalry charges.

‘Our trek will inevitably collide with the bulk of the Fallen’s force in the canyon, where we should be able to defeat and push past them. Observe the three ramps on the west and the four on east side of the canyon; bear in mind that the ramps are our main logistical routes for our satellite companies from the forest into the canyon.

‘As it stands then, we can flank the Fallen numbers with our satellites from the ramps should the need arise. Needless to say there are some locations where we will have obvious vulnerabilities. I stress that our main concern for the satellite companies is to prevent the army being ambushed from higher ground.

‘Be mindful that there are many other smaller trails which can used to get into the canyon by small parties. We must under no circumstances be blindsided, which is why I will have the Valkyries follow us on a delayed route. Ultimately the number of men we can march is constrained by the canyon itself, so our tally cannot be supplemented lest we become a cumbersome prey. With our outriders and satellites we can assure a swift and safe passage through the heartland. We will deal with each threat as it surfaces.

‘Once we secure Jacanta point we’ll have victory, which is where we will spend the following weeks building the outpost. We will defend the area to the extent of need, protecting the perimeter while the outline of the outpost is set up with materials from our supply trains.

‘With time the camp will be properly outfitted and equipped as resources from the Kingdom reach us. As you know, once entrenched, we will await the finest troops from the Kingdom, where our mission to defeat the Fallen at each of their holdings will commence.

‘I will lead the excursion up and till Jacanta. Once we are joined by the other cities the authority will be taken up by Generals Protus from Asheva and Eroes from Isa. Nothing of this though will happen until Lanston succeeds, the progress of operation Biridian lies wholly with us.’

Cid reviewed the plan carefully in his head while some of the other men questioned Stelinger tentatively. The operation was ambitious and a little uncharacteristic of Bennam, yet Cid could not find plausible reasons to query the plan or Stelinger’s method for that matter. There would be many dangers, some of them not foreseeable, but the plan was not questionable.

After some slight debating Stelinger announced, ‘the four men who will lead the satellite parties are Captains Maverin, Olum, Phillip and Colonel Cid. I give each one of you the right to choose your own squad from the available men, be sure to get a list of the names from my advisor Piatil.’

Cid could barely hide his surprise; he was rarely arrogant about anything, but he was considered the master tactician. Isolating him from the main command would severely cut any influence he could have on their march to Jacanta point.

Cid sought to catch Stelinger’s gaze. He did, and Stelinger nodded once expressively at him. Cid wasn’t sure what to make of it, deciding to be patient. They discussed some further issues, but Cid did not partake as he anxiously waited for the meeting to end. When it finally did, Stelinger motioned for Cid to follow him. He complied. Outside, with no one in earshot, Stelinger spoke.

‘I know you’re surprised, and I am sorry to detach you from the main force, but at the moment I’m trying to remedy a problem before it starts.’

Cid’s eyebrows furrowed in question.

‘You see, the barracks has been reporting to me that they’ve seen you bring in a woman two nights ago. Predictably some of the men stated that they were sure it was a prostitute, but I’m going to assume it was Elmira,’ said Stelinger.

Cid nodded in defeat; they had been a bit careless, but he still didn’t think anyone would have noticed.

‘For now the whole thing is manageable, some of the ranks will want to see you punished and I do not want to appear slack on authority. The guys waiting the wings, the hungry ones, knows that the only way they’ll get in a position likes yours is for you to be disgraced, so they would not take kindly if I were to overlook the incident. Of course, excluding you from the march entirely is ludicrous and that’s why I’m assigning you to the satellite party. This way no one can claim that I have done nothing and you still get to participate. And Cid – the other thing is that at some point we will hit some rough patches and our victory then might just come down to some guerilla tactics in the woods. Having our best tactician in charge of that can be the difference maker. It actually works out well for all of us, I guess.’

‘Yes sir, thank you sir,’ were the only words Cid could utter, hating the humiliation.

Stelinger nodded once, turned and disappeared.

Cid was surprised to find himself breathing very shallowly as he had neglected to do so as Stelinger talked. He dared not challenge Stelinger for there was no need to; Stelinger had shown him incredible mercy by not punishing him severely, which he was entitled to do. Rather Stelinger had done exactly what Bennam would have done and so cleverly compromised in order to ensure military efficiency.

Cid could not deny that he was feeling particularly low at the moment. Not only did he violate protocol, but Stelinger had managed it all without showing a single sign of the familiar malice. He distinctly prioritized the army’s needs above his feud with Cid. Not that the feud meant much now that Stelinger had won, now that he was the Commander.

Cid gathered himself and went in search of Brunick and Alex. All he could think about now however was how right Bennam was; Stelinger responded positively to entitlement and was showing signs of becoming a great Commander. Cid returned to his room, determined to undress his armour.

 

 

Later that day, wandering to settle with these developments, Cid found Brunick and Alex in the courtyard, captured in a game with dozens of other soldiers. Most of the men were spectators, lining all four sides of the yard, but some dozen and a half men were moving in chaotic patterns with a makeshift brown leather ball amongst them, kicking up a storm of dust from the yard sand. Cid smiled, spotting Alex and Brunick on the no-shirts team.

Bajural was a regular event here for the soldiers and it was a favourite pass of time, whether playing it, wagering, or simply just watching. Of course the game they played here had little resemblance to both the rules and structures of a real Bajural match played in the Kingdom stadiums. Yet that was the beauty of it; the game was malleable and could be adapted to fit whoever was playing it.

The soldiers, as usual, placed two sets of empty ale barrels atop one another. The top barrel was positioned horizontally and its lid was removed. This hole served as the goal to shoot for. It was a small target to be sure, but it was justified by the space that they played in. Some of the children back in Lanston played Bajural using only their feet, but the real thing was played using one’s hands as well.

The particular version being played here was simple; you were allowed to carry the ball and pass it on by hand as well, but only kicks could be used to score. Also, any touch made by an opposing player to the ball carrier would see the ball switch sides with a free-kick to the defending team. The rules as it were made the game fast and frenetic.

Brunick’s strength was obviously negated by the rules and he was forced to use every ounce of skill and agility he possessed. Even so he was naturally predisposed with the size of his body as he served as a large target and an easy touch. Alex in this instance was much more efficient as he could avoid most defenders with ease.

Brunick however was as vibrant as always and Cid felt that his constant bellowing and cheering was keeping the other team off balance. Cid kept watching silently among a rambunctious crowd until a break was announced. Alex spotted Cid almost immediately while Brunick headed for the water barrels.

Hey captain,’ said Alex as he closed in. ‘Wanna join? We always lose a few men after halftime.’

Cid chuckled and shook his head, ‘do I ever play?’

‘Well, now would be a good time for a change, by the way this is our last chance to have some fun before the march,’ said Alex.

Cid remained thoughtful until he said, ‘okay, I’ll pitch in.’

‘That’s our captain!’ said Alex excitably.

Pulling off his shirt Cid entered the fray as the teams organized their new members. Cid’s presence ensured a rough mixture of welcomes and insults. The insults of course were not personal and would be nothing if not part of the game, at least in the soldier’s version. It was all part of the banter.

‘Wha…! Cid, you’re playing too?’ asked Brunick in disbelieve.

He nodded.

‘I don’t think I’ve seen you play since nursery school,’ teased Brunick.

‘Careful Brunick, you know I hate to play shirtless, I might just decide to change sides,’ he retorted.

‘Go ahead then, I’ll make sure to suggest we play tackle instead!’ said Brunick.

‘What’s that Brunick? Should we play tackle?’ came a voice from the other side.

Aye!’ yelled another.

The idea caught popular vote quickly with the surrounding crowd, voicing a tackle chant.

‘Great,’ muttered Cid to himself, knowing now that the game was likely to end as a brawl. He turned to Brunick and saw an unflinching grin on his face.

Of course he’s happy; he’s the strongest guy in the Lanston military.

The agreement was made and before Cid could get a say, (he wanted to ensure some tackle-specific rules) the game started. What had been frenetic scramble to avoid contact became a plight for as much impact as possible.

Each and every man carried the ball as strongly as they could, meeting in a clash of bodies with the tackler, the game becoming unstructured and selfish. Predictably by the time Cid first touched the ball they were trailing by three goals. It was only a moment later that was Cid levelled to the ground by an overzealous tackler. Cid rose to his feet slowly and watched helplessly as his team became outmatched again.

It turned out that even with Brunick on their side the other team were the more talented group of ball players. It didn’t take Cid long to call a time out, assembling his team in a circle, their hands already on their knees.

Who made you captain?’ asked Brunick.

‘You did, the moment you suggested we play tackle, besides I’m the highest ranking officer here.’

Ha! Pulling rank on us now are we?’ said Brunick

Cid shook his head, ignoring Brunick’s remarks.

‘How about we just do a plan Abraham’s?’ said Brunick.

The men laughed in agreement.

‘We can, but then we won’t win. Brunick you take guard at the barrel…’

‘I want to play, not stand and watch!’

‘And you’re going to, but our best bet is to have someone of your size to cover the goal. Alex, Nirm, Lias and you,’ said Cid pointing to an unknown soldier, ‘you guys stay on the flanks, support each other in contact. Jerrick and Bidom, the two of you stay on rotation on defence. Kymill and myself will remain centre field.’

‘Trenchwork?’ asked Kymill.

‘Enticing isn’t it?’ said Cid, managing to get a chuckle from Kymill.

‘Oh and Brunick, every time you recover a ball I want you to charge in as far as you can okay?’ said Cid.

‘You got it,’ said Brunick with a satisfied grin.

The rest of you stay in his shadow and execute a wrap around the moment they start to slow Brunick down. You’ll beat them on the flanks, so the moment they turn in defence move the ball back centre field to Alex to score. Lias you’ll interchange with Alex to prevent them from picking up a pattern.

The men nodded, Cid hoping that they could remotely stick to the plan.

‘Okay, break!’

The game started again and Cid’s structures seem to disrupt the other team somewhat. After a minute or so the efficiency of their plan paid off and Cid’s team scored their first goal. The other team though didn’t take long to adapt and responded swiftly with a goal of their own.

What saved it for Cid’s team was Brunick’s physicality. Brunick, still full of unspent energy, would charge at the tired opposing team, knocking many of them out of the way and committing others to the tackle. More than once Brunick was enveloped by three or four tacklers and then when Brunick managed to pass the ball it resulted in an easy score for Alex, Lias or even Nirm.

The scores remained close until a fight inevitably started, fatigue a quick way to expose short fuses. A few punches were thrown and the rest of the two teams tried to dislodge the fighters from each other.

That’s enough!’ came Cid’s voice as the two fighters were held in check by their teams.

‘Let’s all call it a day,’ announced Cid. The opposing captain agreed and before long Cid, Alex and Brunick were walking down the corridor for the showers.

‘Damn it, a minute or two longer and I would have won us the game!’ said Brunick regrettably.

‘We did well enough given that we weren’t the greatest bunch of ball players. And besides, a “minute or two longer” would have stirred up an ever greater fight. Fatigue doesn’t do much to help check in frustration.’

‘Still…’ trailed Brunick’s voice.

‘By the way Brunick, you would have made one hell of a Defender-Guardian,’ said Cid sincerely.

‘I would, but who will be watching your back when I’m playing ball? Definitely not snickerpants here,’ said Brunick.

Cid tilted his head forward to look past Brunick’s frame. Alex was indeed red in his face from silent laughter and was almost verbally incapacitated by the look of things.

‘One day you’re going to tell me the real reason you’re not playing Bajural,’ said Cid.

‘Yeah right,’ muttered Brunick. ‘Oh what is it Alex!?’

Alex managed to squeeze out his words. ‘I saw the whole thing… from the side…’ he said laughing loudly now between words.

‘The fighters, they… they were on the same side!’ said Alex howling with laughter.

‘No they weren’t,’ said Brunick, ‘one of them was shirtless.’

Alex shook his head. ‘I saw when those guys tried to tackle you… one of them lost his shirt in the scuffle… and fell on his own teammate and then…’

Cid revved up a chuckle of his own and Brunick burst in a raucous cascade of laughter.

‘Nothing like the military or team sports to dumb down the population,’ said Cid amidst Brunick and Alex’s incoherent amusement.

Chapter 8

A View from the Top

 

 

Tomorrow the march would commence. 3800 men from Lanston were nearly accounted for, the last still to come a slow trickle of caravans from the south west. The wilderness surrounding the barracks was now swept away under a massive war camp, a mobile home of many dozens of tents presented in precise rows and columns. This town of fabric had only taken its full size yesterday when the bulk of the army had arrived.

Stelinger, atop the barracks tower, stared into the far. The sight was glorious. The morning sun’s mellow shine blended well with the manila of the tents, the forest green standards hoisted high and decorating the premises in numbers, standing prideful watch over the camp. In and among the tents were several hundred restless men; sharpening weapons, playing Bajural, or simply lounging non-coincidently near the food supplies.

The rest of the army however – Stelinger turned and walked to the other side of the tower – was busy training.

It was Stelinger himself who called for a refresh course on tactics, assigning his officers to segments of the infantry to drill and practice while preparing for the march. Within a few moments of observation Stelinger could discern exactly where each of his Colonels or Captains were, albeit they only were but far-off battle clad figures in the field.

Even more than what was expected of him Stelinger had an intimate idea of his senior personnel, knowing them much better than the men truly realized. He was, as he knew Cid to be, a keen observer of people and he never failed to note their characteristics. For that is why Stelinger won through on so many occasions; he too was considered a military mastermind, but it was his preying on men’s personalities that gave him an edge.

Ignorant of this other men were at a loss at his ability to anticipate, some of them worshipping his boldness even above Cid’s well-ordered approach.

Searching for the man Stelinger found Cid easy to distinguish, mostly because the Colonel was constantly guiding his men by voice. There was also an efficiency about him that was hard to miss, an efficiency that Stelinger admired.

His gaze fixed on Cid’s company of men and he studied them. Cid was with a group of men he never even worked with before now, and yet their basic training was enough to become a lethal force under his command.

Flag, Feline, Fire and Flux. Stelinger recognized these names as the Colonel spoke them in the far, familiar with the titles Cid gave his infantry segments. Cid’s style required him to give swift and recurrent commands to his men and he used these names to make sure the right men knew what was expected of them. There was a bit of a verbal code to these names as well, so that the enemy could not pick up on Cid’s patterns or intentions.

The exercise waiting to start was a traditional war drill involving two teams:

Twelve archers stood off against a team of sixteen infantry with four archers of their own. All the archers used arrows topped with a soft rubber rather than a steel point. The rules of the exercise stated that whenever a man was struck by an arrow he was to go down and simulate death or incapacitation. The advantage was inherently on the side of the twelve archers and thus the drill was designed to gauge how well an infantry segment could manoeuvre and protect their own small group of archers.

For tactical ends the base infantry of Lanston were divided in two types; those bearing heavy oval shields and armed with spears, or those with smaller light round shields, armed with short stabbing swords. For the purpose of the exercise the infantry only needed shields and thus did not have weapons on them. Their only function was to give their own four archers the opportunity to shoot at the company of twelve. The company of twelve had no cover, but had advantage in firepower and an initial gap of a rough fifty yards.

Stelinger watched with interest. From the very start Cid subdivided his men, his voice clear and commanding. Two segments of the infantry moved slowly forward, the other two staying behind. The large oval shields, held together by a line of foot soldiers, could protect any man behind it from arrow fire, especially if they conceded to crouching a little.

The archers would hide slyly behind what was called a “turtle” of men, the name for a collection of mobile soldiers using their shields in tight ranks to protect the unit. The number of men in a turtle was dependent on the situation, Cid assigning four men to a turtle for now; three oval shields and one round shield. The twelve archers had already fired half a dozen volleys, but as expected the arrows bounced harmlessly from the slowly progressing golden shields.

To Stelinger, Cid’s plan was rather predictable, but marked it as a nevertheless effective one. The four turtles would move with varying speeds and positioned themselves at different ranges and depts. This tended to confuse the archers, but more importantly destined any volley the archers mustered to hit only one of the turtles at best. Every now and then the company of archers would try to loop their shots and it was by this that the round shield-bearers would use their lighter shields to cover any exposure overhead.

One turtle in particular was moving quite fast. From his view Stelinger could see Cid crouching behind this turtle, constantly shouting orders. Inevitably the archers focused fire on this group, their training to remain vigilant overridden by the most salient and accessible threat. If they shot the Colonel down the infantry would automatically lose and Stelinger knew well Cid was going to use the archer team’s eagerness to target him to his advantage.

He then made his move as the turtle broke up; Cid, an oval shield and the round shield moved rapidly to their left, entrenching themselves again five yards from the original turtle. This movement ensured an onslaught of harmless arrows focused on their shields and it was just then that Cid’s voice announced, ‘fire!’

Two of the four turtles had positioned themselves on the very boundaries of the allocated training ground. Three archers jumped up at the right turtle and another jumped at the far left. As one they made a direct shot at the centre line of archers. All four arrows hit and one man was shot twice as the archers’ team lost three men.

Stelinger applauded Cid silently; his misdirection was perfect and had created a slight panic. Already the archer team had lost their edge, yet now they were firing at the two turtles protecting the archers, seeking to eliminate the infantry team’s only way to victory.

Cid’s voice rang clear and the most latent turtle started moving from the back. It angled itself, squeezing narrowly past the right turtle and Stelinger saw two of the three archers slip in behind the adjacent turtle. The newly manned turtle kept moving and unsurprisingly became the new favourite target.

Cid announced fire. The two archers who had remained separately at the right and left turtles each made a quick shot before ducking again. Another arrow hit and the archer team was down to eight. Cid in the meanwhile rejoined with his original turtle and soon they were linking up with the turtle escorting the two archers.

In a sudden change of pace the eight shield bearers along with Cid and the two archers wove intricately and it was during this that one of the shield bearers was shot while being exposed. The impact was clear and the man went down dutifully on the spot as a corpse.

Yet even with their casualty the seven shields scattered themselves into a multi-depth pattern and the archers remained invisible. Cid launched another string of commands.

At this the turtles on the flanks reorganized. A round shield and an oval shield at both groups moved in behind the two centre shields and lifted their own so that they rested on the grounded shields. Now, the round and oval shields suspended in a slant left a small gap between them; a difficult target to hit, yet it was a fine hole for the turtle’s archers to shoot from, a bunker effect as it was.

Almost at the same moment the right and the left archer commenced fire from their new form of protection and continued to do so unperturbed. The archer team quickly returned focused fire and Cid saw his opportunity, announcing shots from his own cluster of men. The two archers in the centre formation had close distance clear targets and made periodical perfect shots before ducking away again.

Stelinger knew it was all over now; between the continuous shooting of the flanking turtles and the selective precise fire from those at the centre it was only a matter of time. Stelinger smiled as eventually the last remaining member of the archer team kept shooting in mock defiance, yelling insults as his arrows bounced harmlessly.

Inevitably he was shot and made a great long spectacle of dying. The exercise ended and the men laughed, helping up their slain comrades who kept playing dead right until the end.

A little bit of luck and Cid would have completed the exercise without losing a single man, thought Stelinger.

‘He is gifted,’ came a voice from behind. Stelinger turned to find Piatil with several sheets of paper in his hands.

‘And so are you, I can never tell when you’re sneaking up on me,’ said Stelinger.

Ha, don’t feel bad about it Commander, no one ever does.’

Stelinger nodded stiffly. ‘Are those the satellite drafts?’

‘Yes sir,’ said Piatil, quickly handing them over to Stelinger. While he read them, Piatil stood quietly aside, awaiting response. Stelinger immediately skipped over to Cid’s draft and read through the names of his selected 200. Stelinger was not surprised by the choices.

‘Hmm, it looks good,’ murmured Stelinger.

‘Commander, was it really wise to let Cid choose his own men? With him at the lead of two-hundred quality soldiers, don’t you think he’ll survive?’ pressed Piatil.

‘No, he won’t, I’ve made sure of that. Besides, he’ll take along all those who think like him, including that loud mouth Brunick,’ said Stelinger.

‘And what of Bennam, now that I no longer watch over him he is a loose end, and…’

‘You see too many ghosts Piatil, and that dagger of yours is much too hungry. Bennam will get what’s coming to him the moment he gets whiff. It’s all arranged,’ said Stelinger, still looking at the names on the list of Cid’s company.

Chapter 9

Beyond the Border

 

 

There was something about looking at the northern territories that unsettled each and every Lanston soldier who had ever been deployed at the border. Those who did not feel the forlorn did not know of better, for it was from the unchanging north that the Fallen came so readily marching on days of war. A straight line of travel from Taverka would see one put twelve miles behind before reaching the beginnings of the canyon, where the Kingdom’s sovereignty ended.

There the walk or ride would talk to a man, calling attention to old remnants of weapons and wagons, rusted and broken, and then pointed out stone obelisks, solitary signs that civilization passed by here, acting as a salute of honour to those claimed by this site of battle. It is here that the Kingdom built crude stone walls and ramparts in the gaps, leaving their mark upon the soil year after year.

Past it laid a land collectively known as Alparack valley, a land claimed by no one, not even by the Terituan highlanders. Even before the birth of the Kingdom, men battled on these lands as though the soil itself whispered its lust for blood for all to hear and answer to. Seductively Alparack held a vast variety of untouched resources within its borders, only just hinting of it beneath its rugged landscape. Even greed though could not make the Kingdom fight here willingly, rather protecting the border where they kept the upper hand against the Fallen. Things always change however…

Alparack blanketed itself with Biridian woods laying over vast horizons, and all along its spine was a great trademark scar; Fafriv Canyon. It was a chasm matched by no other on Angaria, stretching miles upon miles right into the Fallen lands. For either Lanston or Fallen armies the canyon would be the only viable road for regiments numbering in the thousands.

The mistake to make was to think that down in the canyon matters could be much better. It would be a perilous march, rough on men and even worse for horses and equipment. The Fallen also would not be the only living enemy to look out for. Fafriv was well known for its abandoned mines and in all likelihood Lanston would have to prepare themselves to encounter rogues and bandits ravaging the land and those who’d get in the way.

In so forgiven was the Lanston man who felt estranged from his lifelong conservatism, leaving behind his role as protector, exchanging the havens for a land whose mercy favoured the merciless.

 

 

They marched, the infantry forming large squares of columns and rows, the cavalry on the flanks and the teamsters with their wagons bringing the rear.

Every seasoned soldier had his way to deal with boredom, whether stationary or mobile, you needed to adapt to the strain of monotony. In the evenings or midday breaks before meals and rest men would often take up crafts, those who could doing woodwork or playing instruments. Although it was taxing, there was a collective solution while moving; the rhythm, the ride, and the march.

It was hypnotic, the pulse of thousands of men and hundreds of beasts; the sound of clanking armour and groaning wagons and also the whinnies of horses. It was like some kind of exodus. There were scents as well, albeit not pleasant. Then of course the sight itself of nearly five thousand men marching in unison heralded undeniably that Lanston was on the warpath.

There was an unacknowledged conditioning in all of this, a trained mindset that allowed men to get past the mundane with a certain tolerance and still be ready to summon up their fiery spirit for battle when the hour called for it. The setup was helpful, but far from flawless. Brunick was but one of many men who could not contain his impatience even when they had only been marching for two days.

Cid and his chosen satellite company already marched on the western flank, destined to break away and proceed to Alparack’s veil, the woods that is, by day’s end.

‘Have ta admit, I’m glad you’re dragging me into the forest with you, things might be a bit slow for my taste down in the canyon,’ said Brunick to a mounted Cid.

‘Don’t thank me just yet. It will be dangerous and I chose you to come along for purely selfish reasons,’ said Cid from atop Cilverhoof.

‘What about Alex then?’ said Brunick.

‘Alex knows the outline of the land and is a forester, making him a natural choice for the expedition,’ said Cid.

‘What, so you just brought me along for moral support?’ jested Brunick.

‘Well that and your axe of course, who else is going to chop our firewood?’ replied Cid mockingly.

‘Ha, I’ll set up a few of the rookies to take care of that. No, my axe is reserved for some Fallen scum,’ said Brunick.

‘Hmm, you should get yourself a proper mount. We’ll be riding by sundown and you know how finicky horses are around you. Better you get acquainted with one while we’re still on going slow,’ said Cid.

‘Right…’

Brunick disappeared to the back of the march, on his way to see the cavalry master, Colonel Drissil.

Alone for the moment Cid pondered. He did not favour leaving Cilverhoof with the march, but it would be much safer for the animal he knew. Should the worst happen in the forest they would abandon as much as necessary to escape, and that often meant horses first. Cid suddenly smiled painfully at a new thought; for if the war was to go his way then in some form or another the worst would need to happen. He did not even feel guilty for thinking this, because where the Fallen were involved, death sometimes was a thing for the fortunate ones.

Chapter 10

Sacrifice

 

 

Bennam’s entourage was already three days ride east of Lanston. They were to take a ship at Fortreal and make way for Allandiel where he and Rebecca were to live out their retirement at their second estate at the coast.

Bennam knew in his heart they would never make it, or at least, he wouldn’t. Everything has been prepared, his life’s work was at stake. His greatest frustration and regret was not being able to confide in Cid.

I hope you make it lad, thought Bennam.

Today would be no accident; Bennam knew exactly what was coming and what to do. He was at the point of no return.

Sitting in his large pavilion tent he fiddled with the curious syringe apparatus so cleverly put together from brass and glass. It was all the rage these new devices, used mainly for healers to quickly inject patients with a substance. In the syringe Bennam was cradling was a substance no respectable healer would even carry on himself. It appeared timid and translucent, like water, but was in fact a deadly poison.

In his mind he constantly thought of the army, reckoning that the march would have breached into Alparack by now. He could not describe to himself how much he wanted to be with them in the canyon.

A much better place to die…

Bennam could see the shadows of his guards outside on the tent fabric.

At least they will survive, thought Bennam. But then one of these new guards was likely to be an informant and turncoat, this much Bennam knew.

Such is the way of the enemy, find a bad seed and corrupt it, albeit with coin rather than magic. I’m just glad I sent Rebecca’s guard on another course. Boy was she angry. I’ll never get to say goodbye. O Rebecca love, if only I could tell you. If only I could tell anyone!

But then there was; there was this one man who knew exactly what was at stake. It saddened Bennam to think that only other person who knew the truth was in exile, a man with no ties to the Kingdom, not anymore anyway.

Bennam grew impatient. Waiting for death was terrible, even when prepared for it.

Then it came. He knew what to look for; the guard at the flap was momentarily distracted by something or another, undoubtedly the ploy set up by the assassin.

Without hesitation Bennam punched the syringe into his leg, pushing the fluid into his bloodstream. He tossed away the syringe among his furnishings.

He had not expected so much pain, the toxins burning in his insides. The poison was deadly, but there would be nothing subtle about it, hence the crippling pain.

He watched the play of shadows on the cloth of his manila tent. His guard at the flap left his post, and like some obscene play synchronized to perfection, a girl of maybe twenty years of age slithered into the tent.

She was raven haired, her face painted black as well and her leather outfit showing every curve of her body, designed to give her full use of every extremity. Her eyes locked on Bennam; there was no rage or bloodlust, simply the recognition of her target.

Bennam made a show of getting up with his sword, trying to hide his pain and charge at the girl. In response the assassin came in with ghostly speed, leaping high and furling her legs around Bennam’s neck. The weight brought Bennam down on his back with a thud, the iron lock of legs designed to muffle any attempt for him to shout for guards. He would not have shouted anyway.

Rolling herself from Bennam’s chest she made a quick jab to the Commander’s throat, disabling the vocal cords. The old man was suffering. Next, she slid out a syringe of her own and pushed it also into Bennam’s leg, a second toxin entering his body. Bennam watched helplessly as the poison instantly paralyzed him. The assassin stood up from her haunches, taking Bennam’s sword and sheathing it back into the scabbard at his waist. She glanced around the tent, scurrying to flip through the papers on his table. Unsatisfied she turned one last time to Bennam and rummaged through his pockets and the inside of his coat. First she found the note and then the chess piece. Looking at the note her eyes went alight, pocketing the decoy.

For a few fearful moments Bennam thought she would take the piece as well, but she thought better of it and left everything else as it were, putting the chess figurine back in his coat pocket.

She then fled so quietly it was hard to believe she had even been there at all.

The joke’s on you, Bennam tried think defiantly, head swimming in pain.

The assassin’s poison was undoubtedly designed to make death appear natural, to destroy any hint that the Lanston army was in peril. Bennam’s own poison would do no such thing.

I’ve played you. They would figure it to be a fault on the assassin’s part. The Guild will probably kill her for her conceived mistake.

Now everything is in place, I just pray…

‘For Lanston,’ Bennam gurgled incoherently, his heart palpitating, his mighty body surrendering.

Chapter 11

Dying Wish

 

 

The news hit the city like wildfire. Commander Bennam, having retired from the military after 40 years of service, was dead. Upon his return to Lanston from the barracks he had lingered in the city for three days before he and his wife departed for Allandiel, where it was said he would live out his retirement.

His departure from the city had seen scores of civilians gather at the eastern gates to bid his entourage farewell. The man was a legend no doubt. Elmira herself did not attend, but she gave the whole affair a peek from her balcony when they passed underneath.

It was hard to accept that the war hero she had known personally was dead, and even worse knowing that after everything he had survived, that he was destined to fall to a poison.

Yes, that was the word on the street, and although no official Kingdom statement following the investigation had been made, Elmira suspiciously felt that the rumour was true; the old Commander had been murdered.

The question left on everyone’s mind was simple; why now? Commander Bennam was a ferocious opponent to any enemy of the Kingdom, but why murder him when he has given up his military influence?

Upon hearing Bennam’s wife was unscathed and back at their estate just outside of Lanston, Elmira resolved to visit the poor woman before the burial and before she left Lanston for good. Elmira sympathized with this woman for obvious reasons.

From her home Elmira arranged a carriage, a luxury she could call upon given her father’s wealth. She would need to keep it discrete however. Her father, Vaunce of Merrigil, did not appreciate her associating so closely with any of the military. It was really more about Cid than anything else and Vaunce’s efforts to sway Elmira’s heart away from the Colonel had been rather overt. Elmira would not have any of it.

She shot down any attempt of her father’s to bring her closer to the noble man that was Fredrere of Sagril. Elmira wasn’t sure how much longer she could it keep it up; how effective her antics would be once her father decided he had enough. That Lanston still prescribed to an archaic system where a father only relinquished control of his daughter once wed tumbled Elmira into many quiet moments of deep anger. She had raised the matter once with her father, and his response was “its simple really, you live in luxury at my pleasure, and since you have no means of your own, I will decide what is best for you, as I always have.”

After that there was a complete breakdown between the two of them. What he doesn’t know is I would gladly leave all of this to live with Cid.

Vaunce would definitely not approve of her if he saw her now, visiting the widow of Bennam when her life was potentially still in danger. Vaunce did care for her he knew, despite being the most unreasonable man she knew.

Thus her trip was arranged at a discreet time, when father was out and about, the house hands too preoccupied with hanging out the clothes to dry in the back to be able notice anything worth gossiping about. She instructed the driver to keep to the outskirts of the city even though it would be somewhat of a longer ride.

The road took the carriage past Lanston’s meagre vineyard farms. The Lanston land was not ideal for wines but the best winemakers still endeavoured, and it ensured that the few wines produced locally were good ones. Elmira looked from her carriage window as the stringy green rows of vines past her narrow slit of vision endlessly. Like when she was a child, she wish she could just bound from the carriage, running freely chasing her friends through a green world and stealing some of the best looking grapes of the early season, eating them with such delight that the red juices stained the corners of her mouth. Later when the farm owner caught them it was only by her father’s status that she escaped the punishment bestowed on the other children.

Back then she and her father had been close, travelling all around the city with him as he made his daily business visits.

Now we’re at each other’s throats. Things are such a mess right now.

Old Commander Bennam’s house was a small estate just outside of Lanston. It was an isolated setting, yet stood in the magnificent silhouette of the city. It was strange then seeing how exposed they had lived in reality, as the waist high walls surrounding the villa was obviously for decoration and a sign of boundary rather than for protection. However, Elmira could see herself living in a place like this, for even though her father’s holdings were large, they were nestled in the heart of the city and thus overindulged in enclosed spaces created by walls, people and possessions.

The driver helped Elmira out of the carriage and she was still planning how best to console Rebecca when she was shocked to see the widow and her handmaid already approaching them. The sixty-something woman was stout in her movements, as though Bennam’s military background rubbed off on her.

Looking at her Elmira saw a dull ache in Rebecca’s eyes that said much of what Elmira had thought earlier: after all these years of warring, to have fallen to poison…

Before Elmira could really get something out Rebecca invited her in, a subtle haste recognizable in her notion. Elmira could do nothing more than follow the widow.

The house on the inside was decorated richly, but it was the view of the outside that was the envy of this place. Every room seemed to have a great range of crystal clear windows in order to portray the rolling green hills of Lanston without flaw, the curtains bridled on the sides. Elmira was led to the lounge where they sat down, instantly supplied with a pot of tea.

‘I’m so glad to see you’re keeping poise my dear, Bennam has told me all about your predicament. A lesser woman would have taken Fredrere’s hand already. I really do hope you and Cid can be happily married one day,’ said Rebecca.

Elmira was somewhat lost for words. She was here to sympathize, not be sympathized at.

‘Rebecca, you should not concern yourself with others in such grievous times,’ spoke Elmira gently.

‘I receive your intention Elmira, but you’re wrong. Bennam was a wizened man and I will not obsess over his death when I can tribute to the life that he lived. He never said it, but I know he found a son in Cid like he never had. Cid made him stronger; every ideal and moral Bennam had coveted for the military he saw in your man,’ said Rebecca with surprising conviction.

Elmira smiled sadly. ‘He does much of the same for me,’ she acknowledged.

Rebecca nodded. ‘For Bennam, Cid has affirmed an entire career spent trying to glorify the Lanston army. So my dear, you must understand, Cid may well be Bennam’s legacy and that is why I very much occupy myself with thoughts of your happiness.’

Elmira’s face grew soft, her heart aching for the brave widow in front of her. She wasn’t fooled of course, Rebecca was hurting, but she wasn’t going to show it now, not today, and she really was going to stubbornly insist that she could deal with it all by wishing well Elmira’s marriage to Cid. There would be tears Elmira knew, but Rebecca wasn’t going into grieving without a fight.

‘That reminds me!’ exclaimed Rebecca, jumping up and quickly putting down her half-finished cup of tea. Elmira was left to sit in silent amusement as the old woman scurried around the house, barking orders at the servants as they tried to obey.

They’re looking for something, thought Elmira, wondering what this was all about.

Sighing in mild exertion Rebecca returned to sit, a rectangular ornament box in her hands. She placed it down on the coffee table and proceeded to open it. Apparently it was stuffed with sentimentals and Rebecca took some time burrowing into it to retrieve what she sought. She held the object up for Elmira to see.

It was like a small piece of stone, translucent and glasslike, a crystal maybe. Round and flat. It sure isn’t a diamond. Yet it was perfectly shaped and crafted, almost like a rounded octagon, just big enough for Elmira to close it in her small fist. Locked in its core was a bright red blotch of colour with leaking red veins spreading to all sides.

Rebecca handed it over to Elmira.

‘It’s not valuable dear, I already check with Kumark the jeweller. He did say it to be a curious stone though, that he’d never seen anything like it. Bennam gave it to me, and he made it very clear that I was to give it to you,’ said Rebecca.

To me? What should I do with it?’ asked Elmira in surprise, even though she admired the stone visibly, turning its smooth cold surface in her hands.

‘Bennam was adamant; I assumed it might mean something to him and Cid. He made it sound as though this would be your wedding gift, can you imagine that! Seeing as this might be the last chance for us to speak I realized it was probably time to honour Bennam’s wish.’

‘When did he first show you this?’ asked Elmira.

‘It was just before they left for the barracks now that I think on it. Back then I laughed when he made it sound like he wouldn’t return, and that I should safeguard the stone until the right time. Now of course…’

‘I’ll keep it safe. And show it to Cid,’ promised Elmira. She held it up in a beam of light coming from the window, the stone glistening.

Such an ominous stone.

‘At least it’s pleasant to look at,’ said Elmira politely, not sure what to make of it all.

Rebecca shook her head in clear annoyance. ‘Really my dear, if it weren’t in some way Bennam’s dying wish for you to have this then I would not have bothered you with such nonsense.’

Elmira laughed. ‘Thank you, I will accept it as memoir of all that you and Bennam have meant to us,’ she said, certain that this was going to be her last, and strangest, conversation with the old lady.

Chapter 12

Among the Biridians

 

 

Still dark. Cid woke with a start, his hand habitually gliding across his jaw. Remaining on his back he counted the days since departure.

Almost two weeks now, he thought. With his hands behind his head he stared up straight above him, into a dark canvass of cloth spread over him and many other sleeping soldiers. They carried no tents, so rather they used these canvasses, mostly suspending them tied between the trees. Around their camp was a blood red strewn powder named phatavril, also called territory, its odour said to repel most insects and crawlers that would still bypass the canvasses. Even the powder’s colour was said to deter animals; whether true or not the soldiers have found it to be ever effective.

Still massaging his beard Cid could hear Elmira in his head voicing protest over the sharpness of his growth. He smiled sadly in the dark and was hit by a terrible longing for her. Had he been part of the core force he could have stayed in touch, but for now he and his company was rather isolated from the rest of the world.

Cid stood up and moved out from under the cover. He warily treaded among his comrades, only just making out the outline of their sleeping figures. During their first day of travel the entire company rode to the outskirts of the Alparack woods. They then tied down and left most of the horses at the forest border. (The horses would have been be assimilated by the main force the next day) For five days now Cid and his men had been trekking through the woods and made contact with the other satellite company the previous day. A small social exchange took place before they parted ways again.

Cid had come to admire the hospitality of the forest. These were rather dry lands and so the hassles of dense undergrowth claimed no place here. Instead Alparack was an outpost for a host of giant trees, the most common being the Biridian, overshadowing their fellow Bluegums who also stood here.

The drywood Biridian, even though smaller to the one found in rain forests, was a titan tree by any measure. Half again as tall as the lofty Bluegums, it was still their bulk rather than length that seized attention. On the bigger ones Several men had to stand together to encompass its base with their arms.

As one’s eyes ran up the spine of twisted wood, there at its bowl, rested its true distinction. It had no tree top or definite peak so to speak, rather it split forth, wielding giant boughs and branches into every direction. So twisted were they that it appeared as though someone had indeed bent and humble them to prevent their tips from reaching into the sky. Staring up at them it became a pointless task to try and gauge where one Biridian’s branches ended and where another’s began. Thus there was a natural canopy of growth, intertwined so much that the scouts could easily move from one tree to another even without breaking pace. Cid speculated that it was in places like this that myths of elves and fairies were born as the secretiveness that came naturally in the woods touched one’s imagination.

Down on the ground it was clear that any weakling tree or smaller bush stood no chance in the race for deep set water. Only patches of fine Sirrilar grasses were allowed to thrive on the surface, spaced among incredible Biridian roots and forest debris. In Cid’s mind the lack of variety in vegetation could only ever be a good thing for the army. The soldiers did not have to worry about snakes, spiders or even poisonous frogs, while the flies and mosquitoes would also be cut to a minimum. Mountains, sandstorms or raging rivers might induce a sense of adventure to a daydreamer, but to a soldier Alparack’s easy access came as a solace to counter its bloody reputation that lingered in every mind.

Thank heaven we’re not in a rain forest, thought Cid, still not content that he been removed from the greater Lanston force.

Cid however still found the forest enchanting. The clusters of tall Biridian trees had a proud presence and a good-natured silence about them. They were also so numerous that even though the forest wasn’t considered dense, it still isolated one entirely from the outside world.

Then there was the Sirrilar grass which Cid had come to find every morning covered in blankets of dew droplets despite the reigning dryness right before the rain season.

One of the soldiers had told Cid as a matter of interest that these grasses actually have hygroscopic spots on them, allowing them to attract moisture from the air in order to compete with the trees. The spectacle of an entire clearing of shining wet blades in the dawn light on the third morning had been enough to fulfil Cid’s need for sightseeing.

Cid went to stand where he would be able to see the sunrise. He found such a spot on the roots of a Biridian where it protruded dramatically from the ground, the girth rounded enough to accommodate him. Cid considered climbing the Biridian for an even better view, but judged it a bit too dark for a trick he wasn’t practiced in.

No, this spot will be just fine.

There were of course others in the company who specialized as scouts and foresters. Cid and the three other satellite leaders were forced by circumstances to make sure that their chosen scouts could track, climb trees and have reasonable knowledge on the woods itself. Fortunately Alex was well versed in almost every terrain and on the day that they set out Cid’s decision to make him the scout captain was uncontested.

Brunick’s promotion had been fiery affair though. He announced Brunick to be the captain of the melee specialists’ right after Alex’s declaration and it was met with protest. It was mainly because Brunick was Cid’s close friend and the politic was always going to bother the soldiers.

Cid had then urged any man who wanted the promotion above Brunick to challenge the big man in single unarmed combat. It was after all the captain of the melee specialists post, and Cid’s statement was met with distinct silence. Thinking back he could still see the smile on Brunick’s face.

‘Good one,’ Brunick had murmured to him afterwards.

His motivation in any case was pure, as they were fighting a different kind of war now, and given what was at stake for Cid personally he was not going to give the title to just anyone less than Brunick.

He should be a captain anyway. Words often came to nothing in comparison to action, and there was no battle figure more impressive than Brunick.

‘Thinking things through captain?’ came a whisper from behind.

Cid immediately recognized it as Alex, who came to stand alongside him.

‘You know, I’ve been a Colonel for almost three years now,’ said Cid amusingly. They kept the conversation quiet.

‘You’ll always be the Captain to me,’ said Alex.

‘A bit nostalgic are we?’ asked Cid.

‘Ah, I was scared senseless back then, but you always got us out, and you always had a plan. Hey! You even did some of the fighting as a Captain; you don’t do much of that as a Colonel. Those were probably the best fighting days of our lives, since then we’ve only ever defended the border…’

‘Hmm, I need to be at my best for what lays ahead Alex,’ said Cid seriously.

‘I know, there’s little margin for error here. But you will be at your best, cause Elm, the Kingdom and the army are all counting on you,’ said Alex.

‘Now you’re counting on me too? The responsibility is a bit unsettling,’ answered Cid mockingly.

‘Seriously, me and Brunick aren’t just counting on you – we trust you, and we’ll do our bit to see the war go your way.’

‘Thank you Alex. Now that I think of it, a little something you can carry around with you, to lessen my burden you know,’ said Cid, taking the ornamental wings of Mindevhier and giving it to Alex. ‘I’d like you keep it for the time being.’

Alex looked down at the wings in surprise. ‘I’m flattered. Winged feet for a messenger? I like your sense of poetry , Captain. What are these for anyway?’

‘The wings are said to guide the spear to its target, and fly the blade through the skies. Trust me Alex, if you ever see me throwing away a heirloom you will know that we have real trouble.’

Alex laughed. It was true, while Cid made use of throwing javelins in battle, he would never throw Mindevhier like that, which really was more of a close distance weapon to begin with.

‘Seriously now, you never do something just out of sentiment. What’s the big deal giving it to me?’

‘The materials of Mindevhier is said to be of a unique composition, especially the metals. I have been thinking; if the Valkyries do catch up with us, they will be able to track your movements with their abilities once they have examined the spear. The spear and wings will seem the same to them. It is part of their abilities I’ve heard. That way, we won’t lose track you of you while you’re out ahead scouting. Just a contingency should things go awry.’

‘Really? Gee, thanks Captain. You really do think of everything. I should be fine though, although I’d really like one of those Valkyrie to come and look for me. I have heard they are beautiful without compare!’

With a wry smile Cid said, ‘there is only woman for me.’

‘More for me then,’ chuckled Alex.

Right then the sun started looming, the light slowly crawling its way through the sleeping woodland.

Aha, dawn, I better wake the scouts. Should we run perimeter today captain?’ asked Alex, fastening the wings to his back, hanging just below his quiver of arrows.

Cid glanced at Alex and said, ‘no, we’re pretty deep in so I want two lookouts to trail us at all times, the rest of you scout ahead and cover as much ground as possible. Keep hunting and try to get something other than starved-out hares today, the men are starting to complain. Also, mark the most suitable terrain for us to pass through; we need to be efficient and comfortable when fighting ourselves out of an ambush – and Alex, we’re two days from being parallel with the first ramp of the canyon, so you can put nostalgia aside cause we’re bound to see some heavy fighting soon enough.’

‘All right captain, we’ll see you at noon,’ said Alex, parting with a wink.

Cid shook his head as he heard Alex obnoxiously shout everyone awake behind him, most of the men voicing grunts and curses of anger. Cid remained in thought, only dimly aware of the scout force prepping to depart, the other, more fortunate men, rising for a slow breakfast.

It has already been three years, thought Cid. Back then Alex was only nineteen years old and even with his set of skills he was still new to the army experience. Cid, Brunick, and Alex along with an entire company of soldiers were dispatched to the highlands to secure military help in tightening the borders against the Fallen. The Teritua highland people were an independent civilization and were a barbaric fighting lot down to the last old lady. The best of all was their absolute hatred for the Fallen, as many of their men were often captured and converted by the Priests as well.

Negotiations were going fine until one of the Terituan villages was burned down and the population massacred. Somehow, the natural distrust the Terituans had for foreigners conspired into a misunderstanding and before they could clear it up, Cid and company became the focus of the Terituan wrath rather than the Fallen.

All in all they were a small Lanston regiment isolated within an unforgiving society. In light of the circumstances their acting Colonel at the time and the leading diplomat were captured and murdered. The rest of the regiment escaped and Cid assumed command as the Captain by then. They had to fight their way out of the highlands and Cid had to use every bit of guile he had to even the odds along the way. They fought, hid and survived off the land for three months before escaping to the safety of the Kingdom.

They returned home with a mere forty of the soldiers dead and eight men incapacitated beyond ever fighting again. Cid was immediately heralded for his success and was promoted to Colonel a fortnight later. Cid had to agree with Alex; they were all scared senseless back then, but the intensity of it all made for a memorable war tale.

He progressed the memory a bit further and then found a forgotten gesture; before setting out on the mission Cid and Elmira had started seeing each other. Back then Cid was already very much in love with Elmira, convinced that she was the woman of his dreams.

During his three months away on duty Cid was sure she had moved on and found another. However, when he returned to his small house in Lanston she had come to visit him. The feeling still lingered in his memory; the moment she had told him that she had missed him and waited for him. Never had he anticipated such a loyal gesture and he cherished it.

‘Just hold on for me one more time Elm, I won’t let you down,’ whispered Cid by himself. He turned to find the camp teeming with life, the soldiers ready for the day.

 

 

Chapter 13

Fallen

 

Only five among them were mounted. These small groups of cavalry for each satellite were well trained riders and even though the woods didn’t allow much manoeuvring for horses their speed could still make a great difference in combat.

The other two riders were lone scouts, outriders, travelling far ahead. They were part of Alex’s scouting regiment, but instead of surveying the immediate environment in detail they were tasked with riding out to ensure nothing far off could compromise the company’s safety.

In fact, Cid expected at least one of his outriders to report to either himself or Alex during the day. The lack of contact to thus had become worrying to Cid, as the Fallen’s absence could only mean that they are already aware of Lanston and had retreated further into the woods.

Cid observed his men all around him. They were geared lightly for the most part, only a few of them bearing the heavy oval shields. Each did have a pack with personal goods though, since escorting provisions via war wagons or carts were out of the question. A few extra pack horses brought the rear, carrying the camp supplies.

The soldiers were walking helter-skelter through the woods, marching orderly had no place here. Cid however made sure that they didn’t grow too scattered; isolation could mean a quick defeat in combat situations.

In his mind now he run through the numbers again:

The company had 210 men in total, not counting Cid. There were 15 men in Alex’s scouting regiment, armed primarily with swords and bows. 110 of the men were infantry, carrying the short swords and shields. The melee specialist numbered 30, wielding a variety of axes, two handed bastard swords, maces or poleaxes. Brunick was the foremost of these men.

There were 40 official archers, but were not alone as some of the infantry carried bows as well. The riders here and elsewhere were a mere seven put together. The utilities numbered two surgeons with the company and one herbalist. The last five men were military magi.

The magi served a wide variety of functions and had it not been for their absolute necessity the army would never have made them an arm of the military. Nowhere else in the world of Angaria were magi more restrained or restrained than in the Kingdom. One could however reason that within the Kingdom magi enjoyed unique citizen privileges as well.

It was a historical fact that the Kingdom had originated after the common people triumphed in a war against power hungry magicians. Historians were often of opinion that, if the first King Locratiphis had not been a mage himself and the hero of the common people, then every last mage would have been hunted down and killed.

Rather, magi became one of the cogs in the machine that was the Kingdom. They were a minority people and given their capabilities over normal folk their rights were seriously limited, barring them from most positions of power. Magical abilities were not teachable to all though, as only some humans had the gift, or curse, of magic.

The schools of magic were all governed by the Kingdom itself and the types of magic studied was sternly regulated by the ruling council in Allandiel. Incidents however always happened. During the many centuries of the Kingdom’s sovereignty rogue magi have inevitably come to power and as it were the rulers of the Fallen were some of the most terrifying magi on the face of Angaria.

This all inspired a constantly fed mistrust and even hatred for any magic wielder by the common man. Cid himself and the army in general have always had a functional rapport with the military magi and there was no point for anyone in denying their effectiveness in fighting the Fallen.

The magi serving with Lanston were called Sekhaimogists, a name for magi skilled in counteracting the Dey’illumra with various schools of magic. Naturally, they were all trained in both traditional medicine and mystical healing; crucial skills for keeping casualties to a minimum.

As usual, even with Sekhaimogists around Cid was hoping that the Shadow Priests kept themselves holed up wherever they rested. Fighting senseless men was bad enough, fighting heartless men with supernatural powers was far worse. Cid’s tally of the men ran its course in the quietness of the others.

For the most part silence was encouraged among the men, their voices normally faint murmurs. It was thus when a loud ripple of voices hit the company that everyone came to alert. Instinctually the men tensed, grouping together, drawing weapons.

‘Listen to that!’ said Brunick, walking at Cid’s side.

There were definitely sounds of fighting, grunting and metal clashing, the image hidden just on the outskirts of their location. It didn’t last long.

‘Colonel!’ called a soldier at the fore.

Cid abandoned the rear, walking into a crowd of men gathering around something. Cid realized now firsthand how dangerously the forest could become at isolating one from proper coordination. At least that’s a fact that counts for friend and foe alike. A level playing field so to speak.

The soldiers stood aside deliberately for Cid. The focus of everyone’s attention was a Lanston scout, his helm removed to reveal an exerted yet alive face. He was hunched to one side, pulling hard on the bulk of a man like he was dragging a child. The soldier came to a stop, putting his boot on the man’s chest.

It was a fallen. A scout no doubt, dressed in light grey garments, bearing a black traveller’s poncho across his shoulders and arms. A dark heavy helm covered the entirety of his head; a malicious looking replication a human skull. Wounded and beaten the enemy breathed heavily, blood staining his garments.

‘We made contact sir, five of them. This one still lives!’ said Matthew loudly, clearly still revved up from the battle.

Cid waved Matthew to stand aside. He walked over to the fallen, standing across the slowly dying man and pressing the butt of his spear on his collar bone.

There it was; the white eyes, pupils invisible in snowy circles. It was a blight of the corruption; a magical telltale for all to recognize the living who are dead. He watched as the man’s chest heaved and fell as he breathed, evidently struggling as the wounds took their toll. But Cid looked deeper still into the eyes, seeing no fear or any other kind of rational response. Just a bundle of instincts and no will of his own.

Yet there was difference: The scouts and especially Fallen crossbowmen were fresh victims, as the magic corrupting their minds have not yet crippled their visual-spatial capacities needed to fire crossbows and move efficiently. They were also still the most susceptible to pain, had greater reflexes, and could even show a modicum of fear in some instance or another. The Fallen frontliners though were the older ones and were always seen dressed in the heavy black plated armour. They were not as sharp, but made it up by being fearless and relentless.

Cid continued staring. A son of someone… A brother, husband or father even?

They are beyond redemption…” came the old mantra.

With that thought Cid twirled the spear around and deftly plunged it into the man’s throat, ultimately bestowing mercy.

‘Most of you have seen many battles, some maybe even more so the than myself. Heed then my seriousness when I’m pounding in the same message you’ve been hearing for years; our battle is as much mental as physical. One aspect of that is fighting men that could have once been friends or even members of your family. Our plight however is a cruel one, for we have to cut away the dead to save our living. Remember though, that we are out to stop all of this, dedicate yourselves to this cause and we’ll see an end to this atrocity.’

Cid was pleased to see the men absorbing what he had said. It was an old message really, one they had heard hundreds of times in many different forms, yet the need to be reminded remained. Hell, I have to remind myself from time to time.

They studied the Fallen’s weaponry. ‘Normal scout set, Colonel,’ said Matthew, ‘a gladius, a knife and a crossbow.’

‘Take a good look at that crossbow though, it’s heavy enough to split our breastplates,’ said another.

Cid frowned, some thought striking him. ‘Matthew, where is Alex?’

‘Sir, I’m almost sure he went ahead to make contact with our outrider,’ said Matthew.

Cid nodded. ‘Resume positions, we march!’

 

 

The sun was almost directly overhead when Alex came into sight, running. Most of the soldiers snapped their attention on him and the company came to a virtual halt.

‘Alex you look… what is it?’

‘Just got word from our outriders, they sighted a Fallen force a day ahead of us.’

‘How many?’ asked Cid.

Alex caught his breath. ‘Walter reports seeing as much as a thousand, a complete legion! They are ready for us captain, they know we are here.’

Cid was speechless. A thousand Fallen in the woods? Assembling composure Cid asked, ‘how fast were they moving?’

‘Walter said they were essentially motionless, but they are designating strike groups. It seems they will be waiting for us.’

‘Damn it, we are not past the ramp yet,’ said Cid, his mind scrambling, ‘when last did you hear from the other Satellite?’

‘This morning, apparently they are parallel to our position and I suspect they are as ill prepared as us, or worse…’

Cid’s mind was scrambling:

 

 

Round 3

 

-The first two rounds was a show of breakneck fighting instinct. Pain was ignored and every other hit was loud rap of wood on flesh. Stelinger had triumphed in the first and Cid had rallied to take the second. The third was slower and Cid could feel Stelinger having the edge as Cid developed an early strain in his hamstring. At some point he felt the loss inevitable. Might as well be useful loss.

He made space for himself, sailing backwards. Bringing up his knee he crashed it through the centre of his own staff, splitting it into two with a crack.

A broken staff in any instance was an immediate submission just like going down on the knee or holding up one’s fist. Stelinger was too vested into the round to stop attacking even though it was already over, this much Cid had come to expect.

The moment was too fast for the Commander to call it to an end. With two half lengths of wood it was Cid who held advantage. He blocked Stelinger’s furious strike with one end, and struck low with the other, punishing Stelinger’s abdomen.

The commander voiced the halt sternly and the crowd was alive with noise at this frantic display. Cid had lost the round for sure, but it was he that had dealt the damaging blow-

Cid made up his mind.

‘Okay Alex, take a horse, ride hard west and tell Captain Olum to change his course to directly north-east, inform him of the Fallen if he does not yet know. Make sure he understands that this is not a request. Tell him we are going to scissor into each other and meet the Fallen together,’ said Cid.

‘Yes captain,’ said Alex, taking off to saddle up one of the pack horses.

Cid turned to Kallas, the ringleader among the small group of cavalry.

‘Kallas, ride with Alex make sure he gets there without harm.

The soldier nodded and the group of cavalry set off after Alex.

‘Why send Alex?’ asked Brunick.

‘I need Olum to understand how imperative it is that he responds to my command, sending anyone less than Alex might not instil the concern needed.’

‘So we’re meeting the Fallen head on?’ said Brunick.

‘If we shoot east now we can risk slipping to the ramp and be well away, the other company however will be killed.’

‘Not that I’m greatest mathematician Colonel, but I would’ve said it better to lose two-hundred men utterly than to risk all four-hundred men.’

‘I know Brunick, but if they have a concentrated legion here alone we might be in for an ugly surprise down in the canyon.’

‘And if we retreat into the canyon the whole army will crushed from all sides?’ suggested Brunick.

‘Exactly that Brunick, I can’t pretend to know how many Fallen are spread across the valley, but our best option is to strike while we still have the chance to control the forest, even if it means we take some losses.’

Chapter 14

Part of the March

 

 

The way ahead was clear. The Lanston army settled its march in the canyon, steel sabatons and horseshoes clattered on the hard rock surfaces, the labouring wagons and ballistae doomed to weave drunkenly as to avoid the hazards of the road. The great walls of the canyon on either side grew higher with every hundred yards, swallowing the army whole, caging them in a linear path for the moment.

Colonel Drissil and his cavalry segment brought the rear and a familiar ease took him as he rode among his men, their pace a lazy saunter behind the columns of hundreds. Underneath a fermenting sun he had his helm on his back, kept afloat by tiny leather strings tied to his pauldrons so that he could conveniently reach over his shoulders to dress his helm should the need arise.

Drissil had a tall face with curly dark hair and long narrow sideburns. The charger he sat astride likewise had a magnificent black coat and a single white blotch down the length of his forehead. The man had made his name with this horse:

By many Drissil was known as the Captain of the Charge, a grand yet deserved title. Never before has he failed at leading a cavalry segment to triumph, the mounted warriors who served under him often being the catalyst required to secure victory. In the circles of cavalry, Drissil was considered one of the elite.

To be sure, it was the city of Adissa, his hometown, that boasted the greatest regiments of mounted warriors. Drissil though gave up the crimson armour and black tabard, and found his calling here among the Lanston men, actively fighting the Fallen from his charger Tyldoa, namesake of one of the legendary 1000 stallions.

Right now Drissil’s greatest concern was for the well-being of the horses. All Kingdom chargers were certain to be of a tough breed and conditioned for war and travel. Still, there has never been a horse who managed to escape the devils of rough terrain. Damage to the hooves, sores, infections and muscle strains were common even with horse shoes and proper stretching exercises for the steeds.

At the very least feeding and watering was no problem. Even though growth was sparse the mere size of the canyon was enough for the horses to graze sufficiently, while the lowland springs and streams ensured that they were watered as well. In one sense it was Drissil who commanded the pace of the march, as he regularly approached Stelinger so that they might halt the stride to see to the horses.

As it were Stelinger and Cid were great minds in every aspect of battle, yet neither had the mastery that Drissil boasted when commanding the fine and timely goings of charging cavalry.

Stelinger and Cid…

They were such a duality, such opposing forces that even Drissil’s capturing personality was dismissed when these two men faced off. Drissil still felt himself standing in the crowd as Cid and Stelinger duelled in the courtyard sands. It was this feud above all that Drissil felt was responsible for him not being considered for Commander.

Yeah that’s right, thought Drissil as he introduced himself to an imaginary damsel, I’m the guy who came all the way from Adissa for better prospects and didn’t get considered for promotion anyway.

In earnest Drissil found Cid and Stelinger to live up to their reputations. He wasn’t friendly with either them, yet Drissil, even suspecting Stelinger to ascend as Commander, had always hoped on Cid to make it. For Drissil it was just a matter of Cid being more cautious in real combat situations. Then again, audacity might be why Stelinger got the rank in the first place, especially since they were parading around in Fafriv now.

Drissil chuckled now by himself. At the moment he wasn’t jealous of Cid at all; he was still just a Colonel and it was he, not Drissil, who had to scout in Alparack’s veil.

That’s what you get. One night out with your woman and you’ll be rewarded with weeks’ worth of snooping around the forest.

I wonder how Cid’s doing?

Chapter 15

On the Move

 

 

During the night Cid could pick up on cues telling him the men were sleeping poorly. News of the Fallen numbers had unsettled them greatly. On every hour Brunick himself woke and he would listen intently at the sounds at the camp edge, not closing his eyes until he was sure it was only their very own night patrols.

The men were up earlier than usual, an unofficial consensus driving them to move forward rather than wait for an ill-begotten fate. Circumstances wasn’t helped on by the forest itself, acting as a great network of walls; a fog of war as it was. Aware of this unknown quantity made everyone on edge, even with their scouts on the lookout.

Cid called for a rest every hour, assembling the company so that the magi could work. Healing grave wounds was a skill of merit, but of more practical nature was that of healing tired and strained muscles. It would seem mundane, yet Cid knew the difference it made when soldiers were fighting fit even after travelling for long hours. The magi and their magic were used sparingly for the most part, today though Cid wanted the soldiers ready for anything.

Healing was one of the primary disciplines the magi practiced. The other practices were sustaining artificial light, strengthening weaponry or armour by a variety of enchantments, and creating barriers, that is, using magic to manifest in such a way that it acted as a malleable coat. These barriers were a precarious magic, especially managed at a distance, but could be quickly used to create defensible positions. Although they would not bar a strong sword arm, they were sufficient to stop arrows or bolts as Cid had witnessed many times before.

As Sekhaimogists however, the art of Sekhai remained the foremost of the magi’s skills. Practicing this discipline made these men the counter measure to the Dey’illumra that they were. Sekhai existed as a brand of magic that could bind or interfere with the Priests’ spell casting and ultimately repel the deadly flames that they so often summoned.

Having fought among mystics and their arts, Cid was taught and had taught others on the fundamentals of magic. Understanding the crafts of war was crucial, even if one was not destined to wield the craft oneself.

Magic in all its forms seemed untamed and whimsical to the ignorant, by necessity the military men knew of better. At its basis, it always came down to Calophrites.

Spirits, mana, energy… it was all called by some other name in different circles. Calophrites however was the term used by the high-ups in the Kingdom schools, having studied magic at its finest level, while the military borrowed from them knowledge to train the men in adapting to and fighting magic.

A Calophrite it was taught, was a tiny strand of energy that, woven together, composed the very soul of man or beast. Or at least that was the theory. The theory extended to say that undesignated Calophrites roamed omnipresent all across Angaria, only interacting when called upon its more definitive counterpart; the soul of a human mage, practiced and honed.

A trained magician or Summoner soul could command these Calophrites like they could their bodies. Like a soul manifested itself in the flesh of a body, so could Calophrites interact with any known force in the world, thus allowing the magi to manipulate the elements and engineer natural impossibilities.

Otherwise invisible and neutral, the Calophrites seldom took the appearance of “steel fireflies” as it was often called, for the particles seemed lifelike and shining like silver in their darting movements. They were only to be seen like this when a spell was cast and some phrites went unspent, escaping the grasp of a mage before they could be properly assembled.

It was a lot to be mindful of for military men, but all that really mattered was that it gave normal soldiers insight in how to fight along and against mystics.

The undeniable was that this invisible ever present source of power allowed magi of all types to substantiate unusual feats. It required training and discipline though, as well as physical strength and fitness, just like running or fighting would.

Even though magi manipulated powers outside of their bodies it still took from their natural reserves to initiate and sustain a spell. In some crude way it fit well into Cid’s world, a world where if you want something out you’ve got to give something. Nothing comes from nothing, another military mantra if you will.

The soldiers stood patiently as the magi attended to them. At will, the magi’s hands would glow as soft-red oddities. They then hovered their hands a spot above the arms and legs of the men as the magic relaxed and strengthened the muscles.

When they were done Cid called over the leader of his magi, Ariman.

‘Somewhere along the way we may need you to protect us from arrow fire. Keep your men close and stay in the heart of the formation. If I call upon you to create barriers you must be ready within an instant.’

‘Yes sir.’

Chapter 16

Ambush

 

 

They moved at a good rate until just before noon.

It was then that the enemy appeared, almost as though they came to prey on the fear that nestled in the Lanston’s men stomachs. A flurry of crossbow bolts struck the soldiers without warning, downing the unsuspecting. It was chaos for an instant as the men quickly scrambled into defensive positions. Cid himself ducked in behind a tree and could almost feel Brunick’s presence behind him. He barked orders and his relieve at seeing most of the troops in the shelter behind trees or in turtles was immense.

Evident in the way men were pending, they could tell that the crossbow fire was focused from their immediate east, and Cid deducted that they were facing a small Fallen strike force bunched up in a tree, destined to herd them more than anything. The danger they posed however, was very real.

Cid peered past the tree, also keeping an eye on the bulk of his force just left of him, who on their own recognizance created a giant turtle as dozens of men huddled behind the grid of shield bearers. Satisfied with the soldiers, Cid tried to spot the Fallen in the trees.

It was a vain pursuit through the thick of the leaves, and Cid saw the dismay on his own archers faces as they struggled to spot and mark the hidden foes. The only way to know their location was to see the bolts being shot and was unlikely to be accomplished without exposing oneself in the first place.

Damn it! We need-’

‘-A decoy,’ finished Brunick, and Cid could only look on as Brunick launched past him, bearing a round shield covering thigh to neck and running straight toward the tree hosting the Fallen. Out in the open a barrage of bolts rocketed at Brunick and the Lanston archers released their own arrows in a tenacious response.

Brunick remained unscathed as two bolts cracked into his shield, all the while Lanston arrows struck five fallen, clipping them right out of the tree. Brunick slid the last few yards on his knees, coming to halt at the base of the tree, safe from imminent fire.

Desperate to do something Cid scrambled to the panicky pack horses and untied two javelins from a weapon pack. He chose the javelins deliberately as he had trained with them as a child in preparation for the day he would receive Mindevhier. In any case his skill with them far surpassed his skill with a bow. In short range Cid could throw a fatal javelin most of the time and he trusted himself to do that right now. He returned to his spot behind the tree and watched.

The company was almost calm again when ten or more bolts sliced through the camp. Four Lanston soldiers went down and then Cid saw a growing problem. From his position he could see the Fallen using adjacent Biridian trees as a pathway, all of them gathering in one massive Biridian to get a clear shot from different angles and heights, eliminating some of their defensive measures. It was however, the very Biridian Brunick was hiding underneath.

Cid could only think one thing to do.

‘Brunick! They’re manning the tree, take them down!’

Brunick, who had taken cover directly below the tree jumped into action, discarding the shield and slinging his double bladed axe from his back. He began chopping furiously at the far side of the trunk, the axe taking merciless chunks out of the dry wood. Another barrage of bolts hit the Lanston camp and Cid could not see, but heard the casualties. He watched Brunick intently, the man working rhythmically like a steam engine.

Archers! Pair up and prepare to fire ropes! Infantry Flux! Form the turtle and advance! Magi! Protect the infantry!’

Cid’s words were met with a scurry of movement and he returned his gaze on Brunick

13… 14… 15 chops. A fallen soldier noticed Brunick and crawled along a branch to get an easy shot at the axe man. He sat on his haunches, taking aim directly to below. The fallen exposed himself in the last moments, and Cid scrambled from his cover and flung the javelin as best he could, the projectile’s fleeting velocity enough to take the fallen soldier bloodily in the stomach. The man grunted as he was struck breathless and came plummeting down, Brunick not even wincing as the corpse crashed right behind him.

23… 24… 25 chops. Focused, Brunick drove home three more times to hear the weight of the tree protesting. With a massive last swing he pierced deeply into the tree.

That’ll have to do! Brunick waved at Cid.

Fire!’ cried Cid.

Ten pairs of arrows sped through the air, each arrow attached to another with a lengthy Fainkin coil; a thin specialized rope of remarkable strength. Accuracy and timing was crucial, should one arrow be delayed or skew it would wrench the partner arrow beyond use as well. Elated, Cid saw seven pairs of arrows thudding into the ground beyond the Biridian, their coils hooked around the branches of the tree.

‘Infantry break and take that tree down!’ yelled Cid.

The advancing turtle broke tight ranks and sprinted, their only protection now a barrier held fast by the magi, invisible save for the distortions it made in the air, carried forward like a curtain bulging in a strong wind. Though nerve-wracking, no complaint could be voiced as the Fallen bolts struck harmlessly against the film of magic.

Brunick was there first, picking up a pair of coils and wrenching with all his might. A moment later he was joined by the others and they heaved and laboured on the coils. On the second joint tug the tree cracked and Brunick bellowed for the men to stand clear.

The Biridian jerked, tilted, and then crashed dramatically, its bulk smashing through any adjacent tree’s branches effortlessly and the Fallen themselves powerless as they toppled dozens of feet to the ground.

The Lanston men moved in to quickly dispatch any of those who survived the tumble. Cid himself sliced a man’s throat with his saber, who had broken his back but did not die. The demise of the giant Biridian opened up the obscured area; the Lanston archers cleared to fire at the meagre Fallen who were still trapped in the other trees, their deaths only a matter of time now.

This is going to get ugly.

Automatically the magi, herbalist and two surgeons took to the wounded and Cid watched gravely, aware that the soldiers around him were awaiting command.

Within moments they knew; eleven dead and four incapacitated.

Cid commanded the men to remove everything from the pack horses and take only what they really needed. They tied the four wounded each back-to-back with a horse and Cid lost another two men as he sent them to lead the horses back to the canyon to join the main force.

‘We have to keep moving!’ announced Cid.

The men quickly formed an efficient file, jogging at a steady pace. They were seventeen men down; the real damage however, was psychological. The Fallen had struck them with such deadliness that Cid could almost smell the doubt on the soldiers now. They had come here to get the jump on the enemy, not the other way around. He reasoned in turn that Brunick’s feat had done well to stay that helpless feeling they all had harboured just minutes ago.

It wasn’t long before a hum of slight panting was among the soldiers, especially those who were heavily clad in packs and armour. The sun as well was not merciful, yet it was this very heat that made a cooler breeze from ahead all the more noticeable.

Brunick kept next to Cid and ran comfortably with his large axe bobbing on his back in its holster. Cid himself kept Mindevhier broken down in two halves, holstering them at his waist, ready to be assembled in an instant if needed.

‘What about our scouts, why didn’t they warn us?’ asked Brunick angrily.

‘I assume they are dead. We made one hell of a racket, there is no way they’d not return to us if they were alive,’ said Cid, recounting their growing death tally.

Brunick cursed. ‘Good thing ol’ Alex is with the other company then.’

‘If we don’t meet up with them soon enough then they will all be killed anyway,’ said Cid.

‘I hear ya, but aren’t we taking a risk not having some men running the perimeter?’ asked Brunick.

Cid shook his head. ‘Better we keep moving as fast as possible, random strike parties will only seek to herd us to the main force. They will have no reason to attack us if they see us heading toward their numbers anyway.’

‘Makes sense, but I can’t help but worry.’

‘Be assured Brunick that I as well am praying that I’m not making a mistake.’

Brunick laughed. ‘You’ve never been much of a praying type.’

‘It’s called a figure of speech Brunick,’ said Cid in discontent.

An hour past and the woods grew more dense, the company forced to separate at times to keep pace. Cid hated it. Up till the moment they had remained unhindered by enemies at least, yet it only confirmed what Cid knew was happening; a great Fallen host was waiting for them.

This can’t be right!’ proclaimed a soldier nearby Cid. He was but the first to protest and the sudden change was evident on Brunick’s sleeveless arms.

Goosebumps.

A coolness swept around them, a chill wind restless in the darkness of the woods.

‘What the in the world, when did we past equator?’ said Brunick in dismayed outrage.

The forest grew ominously darker by the second.

‘This is no normal weather pattern Brunick,’ said Cid morbidly, ‘Ariman!

The mage halted for a moment so that Cid could catch up with him and then fell in alongside the Colonel.

‘It’s definitely magic sir, and easy enough to detect, but it’s not Fallen magic, at least not the kind we’re familiar with,’ offered the mage.

‘Unless the Priests learned some new tricks,’ said Cid.

Unless,’ Ariman agreed.

‘So what’s happening, are they tampering with the temperature itself or-?’

‘No sir, look!’ said the mage, pointing roughly through the trees.

It was only a ten count paces later that Cid had a clear view and he stopped then to observe. Brunick and Ariman halted with him. Cid was familiar with magic, but rarely did he see anything as substantial as this.

The cause appeared as an exceedingly dark cloud in the sky, its expanse immense, as though some god had sliced a piece from a cloudy midnight sky and wedged it in between the pale blue of daylight. Soon a cool wind would be the least of their problems.

The eclipse was artificial, its implications very real, and had come so fast and subtle that they only noticed it now. Even though midday, Cid could barely see the faint stain the sun made on top of this aberration. It was hard to gauge the distance through the sky, but he guessed its epicentre was directly above where the Fallen would be camping.

‘Is that thing feeding from the sun?’ asked Brunick in alarm. The cloud did indeed give that impression, as it ebbed diabolically in all directions, reaching for horizons far beyond their current locale.

‘It’s absorbing the incoming light and heat from the sun, and yes, it’s growing as well. Sir, as far as we can tell this thing is maintained by a single source,’ said Ariman his voice gaining an anxious edge.

One mage is doing this?’ asked Brunick.

‘Sir, my advice at this time is to turn east and head for the canyon; we have no chance against whoever is casting this spell,’ said Ariman, true fear on his face.

Cid shook his head. ‘I’ve seen Fallen tricks before, giving you the impression that they’re stronger than they really are. We’ll push forward and assist Olum’s company.’

He called the halt and his command was echoed by some of the soldiers in order to stop the front runners. They all gathered around Cid and Brunick, some waterskins quickly passing through the ranks.

‘All right men, take a breather,’ said Cid, his voice loud, ‘archers form the perimeter, shoot anything that moves. Ariman, I want the magi to enhance as many of the infantry’s shields to withstand magic attacks as you can, but I also want you to strike a balance between strength and numbers. Those infantry members who do get the enhancements are to be the front and centre of the turtles at all times. Our protection will rest in your hands,’ said Cid, aware of the nervous glances the soldiers were throwing the darkening sky.

He himself considered the eclipse and knew what to do. Years ago the Fallen started to effectively lead night-time assaults, better suiting their senses and dark dress. Their dull white eyes however were very sensitive to light and it was at Bennam’s initiative that Lanston started using the Sekhaimogists to create dazzling displays of light so to incapacitate the enemy. With this in mind Cid continued:

‘Things are going to get pretty dark ahead; we’ll try to use it to our advantage. I want the magi to create spheres of light the moment we make impact. Direct them at the bulk of the enemy and proceed to create convergent barriers to redirect as much of the light as you can back unto the Fallen. If they want to fight in darkness, then so be it… ’

The convergent barriers would be another endeavour by the Sekhaimogists, often called “gates of light”, adjusting the magical curtains to alter its admittance of light; reflecting it rather than letting it pass through.

‘We’ll blind them in their own nightfall. As for the rest, keep to my instructions and we might get out alive. If we panic and break ranks the majority of our group will invariably die!’

 

 

They were running now, the air was cool and the sky dark. Scant sunlight was piercing the forest enough for every soldier to enjoy a modicum of detail. There was nevertheless a gloom that gave a sinister edge to every aspect of their surroundings.

Cid took comfort in sensing the focus of the soldiers. It seemed they understood that the only way out of here was direct victory in combat and that by saving Olum’s company they would save themselves.

In the absence of daylight the soldiers now became dark silhouettes, swerving around trees and trailing each other like a cascade of shadows. Only the enhanced shield bearers, a rough two dozen men, carried some light about them as the magically strengthened shields glowed in soft luminance as though it held embers beneath its plating.

It won’t be long now.

Cid had barely completed the thought when they heard a parade of hooves thudding on the forest floor. Cid called for the formation to face west and the men instantly formed in protective clusters. Relief was obvious as four of the five original Lanston riders appeared, who had evidently been sent to find Cid’s satellite.

‘Kallas, what news?’ yelled Cid at one of the riders, pushing aside the question of Alex’s whereabouts.

The man responded immediately, ‘Olum’s regiment has just made contact, they are less than half a mile from our position. They are on slow retreat and the Fallen are advancing!’

Cid’s heart hammered at the news.

He processed, and then yelled, ‘alright men, we continue in a straight line north and then turn west to hit them on the flank. Kallas, go back and join Olum’s cavalry, I want you to run routes when we separate their forces!’

Kallas acknowledged, the four horsemen turned face and galloped away.

Cid shouted his own men on the move again and as they ran he counted his paces. After awhile it was no longer necessary to do so as their progress allowed them a tree-filtered sight of the battlefield on their left. The Fallen had chosen wisely and stationed their force in a massive glade, which allowed them full use of their numbers.

‘Face left, make contact, and then retreat on my command! Charge!

The infantry burst into a mad dash, breaching into the glade. Cid, the magi and the archers remained behind.

The magi called to life their globes of light, their focus manifesting as growing spheres of illuminations, like tiny suns. The archers spaced themselves in a two column pattern and readied their arrows.

With the specialists backing the shields, the charge stamped right into the ribs of the body that was the Fallen army. In the darkness the Fallen barely realized what was happening and it allowed the soldiers to get in a few quick kills.

Cid strained to observe and called the retreat only seconds later, realizing the Fallen had started to respond to the new threat. The men made a sound return to the glade edge and Cid was heartened to see the Fallen directing their attention on them, alleviating the pressures on Olum’s company.

‘Archers, fire first volley!’ shouted Cid and the archers let fly a solid barrage of arrows loftily over their own retreating men’s heads and into the Fallen numbers. The arrows became invisible in the darkness but evidently struck as some dozens of Fallen collapsed on the spot. The infantry returned to position and formed tight ranks in front of the archers.

At this the magi gestured and sent forth their globes of light, hovering speedily like some type of insect, each of the brightest white light and a foot in diameter. The globes came to a steady halt among the first few lines of the approaching Fallen soldiers, illuminating them lonely. Already annoyed by the contrast created by these lights some of the Fallen vainly tried to cut them down. As fast as they could the magi weaved convergent barriers all around, the translucent films of magic palpitating forward to circle where the lights hovered. Like one the magi shaped the barriers to reflect.

Suddenly the Fallen closest to Cid’s company was caught up in a torrent of light, bright enough to be seen for miles. They were instantly blinded and those human enough to feel pain yelled as their eyes burned.

Lanston did not let up. Again and again Cid called the volleys and it became an eerie cycle of standing in almost complete darkness as arrows whistled overhead only to strike the Fallen who were revealed to the last detail. It was only moments later that Olum’s company mimicked the gate of light trick, and Cid could see them gaining an edge also as the Fallen faltered.

And that’s twenty. Cid counted the volleys, knowing that each archer carried 60 arrows, allowing a safe estimate of 45 volleys given their previous encounters. Cid halted the fire at 24, seeing that they had carved a sizable gap into the side of the Fallen advance.

Prepare to charge! Magi, keep those lights up and direct it to the north! We‘re going to cut through the head of the march!

Preceded by a war cry Cid and his entire company ran wildly, coming in as a whirlwind of Lanston weapons, tearing through the Fallen. Cid took his second kill with Mindevhier, driving the spear effortlessly though a Fallen’s armour. He continued moving with his men and the tight melee that occurred forced him to more frequently whip out his sabre, Mindevhier going static in his left hand like a spiked tail as his right hand slashed up from his hip as the sword licked.

The Fallen did not know where to attend to as Olum’s company pressed forward also and the nine horsemen rode a routing pattern through the numbers, the speed of their mounted swords deadly against the disoriented enemy.

The advancing Fallen from the north were kept blinded and thus cut off, while the head of the black march was suddenly outclassed and surrounded by Lanston men. It took but a few minutes to dispatch them, a cadence of stabbing and bludgeoning thinning their numbers by the second.

The sweat grew cold on Cid’s skin and his tunic was blood-drenched. The familiar rush of battle was on, a heart pounding painfully in his chest despite resolve and experience, the only question ever left to answer whether one would meet it out with courage or the fear that came so naturally.

A cheer of acknowledgement went up on both sides as Cid and Olum’s companies met in the middle, their victorious boots trampling the Fallen underneath. With the intensity fading, Alex quickly caught up to Cid through all of it, swerving around the men.

‘Fancy seeing you here captain,’ said Alex out of breath, ‘doing some of the fighting then?’

‘Ha, I was worried you were captured and gutted. It’s good to see you are well,’ said Cid.

‘Yeah, I decided to stick around and see if I couldn’t make a nuisance of myself until you guys show up,’ said Alex.

Cid nodded. ‘It’s going to get worse though and I’m fairly certain we’ll come to face some Priests. I want you to take two of your best archers with you and sneak along the glade perimeter. Find yourself a nest and if those robes dare get close enough you take them down. When I sound the horn we will prepare to escape to the northwest, understood?’

‘You got it captain,’ said Alex as he disappeared again in the throng of men.

In the clear for a moment, Cid set out to find Captain Olum. He spotted the man’s long beard and called him over.

‘Keep them blinded, form combined ranks and volley them till there’s nothing left?’ suggested Cid in a pant.

Right you are sir,’ said Olum with a barely visible grin.

They turned to their men, both Olum and Cid’s voices rang out. The magi continued their effort and the two companies used the time to join ranks. Moments later Olum was calling volleys as almost a hundred archers fired now, taking out scores of the Fallen ranks, their advance slow and vain. The magi kept adjusting their gate of light depending on how the Fallen moved, giving them no chance of recovery. The combined effort of the magi created a gate so bright that Cid and the others could not claim to see much past it.

14 volleys…

And then the inevitable happened.

Cid snapped his head to his right as he saw Ariman and the other magi grunt in sudden alarm, some of them actually stumbling. They lost their control and the gate of light vanished.

The sight beyond now crippled the hope of every single Lanston man. While they had just killed hundreds of Fallen, no one had been able to see that hundreds more had trickled into the glade from the north. Amongst their ranks now were Shadow Priests, mounted on dark horses, their hands spread open above their heads, engulfed in the violet flames that was their magic.

No one had to wonder why the gate of light suddenly failed; the Shadow Priest evidently disrupted it. The Fallen march was strong now; postures rigid, weapons held firm and menacing white eyes from within their skull helms enough to inspire the greatest of fear.

‘Magi keep them illuminated, don’t bother creating barriers!’ shouted Cid, knowing that any attempt to create a gate of light now would just be counteracted and essentially waste the magi’s energy. The best they could do was maintain some light as anything more ambitious would be thwarted.

‘Retreat?’ suggested Olum softly next to Cid.

He seriously considered it for a moment as a few globes of light came into existence again, lighting up Lanston and their perimeter.

‘No, keep ranks. When the time comes we can escape right past them,’ said Cid

‘They are still hundreds! And collectively we have only twenty volleys of arrows left!’

‘We have two hundred shields still and we’ll use them to entrench,’ said Cid.

‘Their numbers will weigh right through us!’ said Olum angrily.

‘And we’ll let them! We’re going to funnel these bastards, besides, if we retreat and by some miracle get past the strike teams behind us we will still have lost the war. What happens here is but a portion of what awaits the force in the canyon!’ said Cid.

‘I… what do you want us to do?’ asked Olum, clearly showing that he could not fathom the best interest of his men any better than Cid had to offer.

Cid shouted loudly, his voice easily carrying to each man.

‘I want two turtles, perfect division! Mirror a crescent formation at the first line of trees, eight yard gap! We’re going to funnel them into our melee specialists who will keep in rotation. Archers and magi stay tightly behind the turtles! Fire only at the bulk, leave the funnelled men! Front most infantry to wield spears, all enchanted shields stay mobile and watch for those priests! If they start tossing spells at us hurry to intercept them!’

Cid’s command became law as the men scrambled to obey.

He watched in a mix of anxiety and satisfaction as the two crescent shaped turtles formed and the rest of the men lining up behind them. Cid’s plan used the natural surroundings to create a perfect killing ground. The woods circling the glade were dense, yet at intervals leaking out of it were corridors with few-to-no trees, the ground hard and barren.

The melee specialists were to man the corridor while the infantry guarded its entrance and let past so few a number of Fallen as they could. This way the Fallen’s advantage given by numbers were eliminated for a while at least.

The turtles settled while Cid, Brunick, Olum and the rest of the specialists spread out through the corridor, a rough three or four yards between each of them.

‘Me and Brunick will be the central pair, the rest of you rotate every three kills and get the bodies out of the way if you can!’

Cid held his spear in the serpent stance; tightly in one hand, elbow high and bent, and loose in the other, arm extended. Even though out in the open he was, as ever, consolidated by Brunick’s presence.

Then the Fallen charged. The eclipse becoming complete.

It was fearsome. No longer did the archers release lofty arching volleys, instead they fired straight line kill shots at the passing Fallen. As predicted they first clattered against the shields of the infantry but was quick to be directed into the path of least resistance; into the corridor with the full fury of a stampede, the nuisance of the archers’ arrows and the infantry’s protruding spears keeping them from aligning their weight enough to overpower the specialists.

The onslaught was instant, most melee specialists wielded heavy two-handed weapons and the resultant impact and wounds that followed made the arrow wounds seem polite. As the swarm approached Cid and Brunick moved ever so slightly to the fore to help the first line of specialists.

Cid lunged and suddenly his view of the battleground faded away as he focused on the task before him. He remained rhythmic, his spear a partner of dance. The elongated blade of the spearhead allowed him to cleave and slash just as well stab. At times he would twirl the spear through his fingers, slashing far and wide at any Fallen that dared came too close, and once it came to it the steel butt of his spear smashed the face of an enemy flanking him.

When a fallen came in with speed, Cid launched the spear at his belly, halting him in his tracks while whipping out his sabre to kill the follow-up. He would retrieve his spear even before the man could collapse and strike again -and again.

So effortlessly did Mindevhier pierce the armours that it allowed Cid to indeed lash like a serpent; ready to attack again in a moment’s notice.

The bodies already piled and the position of the Lanston soldiers was only strengthened as the scores of Fallen killed by arrows became further obstacles at the corridor entrance. Cid could feel how the specialists around him rotated; only he and Brunick remained at the front, serving as a foundation. He could even tell how some of the specialists were dragging the Fallen bodies out from under their feet. Stumbling over a corpse will ever be a sad mistake in battle.

It was peculiar then, fighting perpetually, driven by death and beheld by the motionless infantry who could do nothing but remain firm and watch the specialists do battle while bathed in artificial light. It was indeed like fighting in an arena, and fittingly Cid drew strength from their watching eyes, as though he could react on their wishes for him to strike harder and faster.

A turning point came when Cid spotted a fallen encroaching an occupied Brunick from behind.

‘Brunick, behind you!’ yelled Cid in panic, entangled with his own set of enemies.

Brunick decapitated the fallen at his front and then, in an instant, turned on the spot and swung his axe in an overhead arc with lightning quickness. What followed elicited a raucous cheer from the infantry.

Brunick’s blood dripping axe blades struck right onto shoulder and neck, the strength of the blow collapsing the fallen soldier in upon himself, going down in a spray of blood and shattered armour. Cid was crudely reminded of once seeing a construction worker downright crushed by a falling segment of wall. Brunick’s axe had done much of the same effect. A surge of energy resonated among the men, the shields pressing a step closer without command, tightening the corridor eagerly, and Cid could feel the charge of the Fallen losing its persistence.

The eclipse had proven to favour the men from Lanston much more than the Fallen, but with the wide-spread darkness Cid knew it was only a matter of time before the Fallen made full use of it, sending in their assassins.

The shadowlings were some of the most despised magic that came from the arsenal of the Shadow Priests, lasting but a few hours, but intended to cause great damage in that short time. They were a conjuring, dark magic that replicated living things, attaching themselves to a Fallen soldier, and the soldier itself would burn out and disappear into the void at the end of its life, doomed to an shorter lifespan than the already cursed Fallen. The shadowling came to human eyes as dark cloaked beings, bent and hunched, but as fast and whimsical as the root of its name. They disappeared from sight quite easily and preferred to use long knives to deadly effect. They could not enter light or be exposed to the sun directly, being solely effective during night-time or in shadowy areas. But with the eclipse above them this was their day and with their speed they wreaked havoc in Lanston ranks desperately trying to keep the integrity of their formation.

They were kept at bay with light, and only the steel of a soldier with great nerve could find its mark and kill it. Cid organized his men to cut down the movement of the shadowlings with the light of the Sekhaimogists, and eliminate them the moment they were trapped, not taking a risk until they were.

Even with that behind them the odds worsened again within moments, the few shadowlings only a distraction it seemed to pre-occupy Cid’s magicians . Dark violet flames crashed into the Lanston men, seemingly as though the eclipse above had started spitting fire. The enhanced shield-bearers did their best to position themselves with their golden shields overhead, yet all that followed were a multitude of dying screams shrouded in thick black swirls of smoke as the flames rolled over men and foliage.

The Priests were evidently now in range at least and Cid could do nothing but will Alex and his men to shoot. The soldiers scurried to remain in formation and were struggling to do so between the smoke and burned men, some dead, others sprawling and crying in agony.

‘Magi! Clear the smoke and the flames, and focus some of those lights on the Priests!’

 

 

Alex had done this before and knew what to look for. They gathered in a Biridian to the east of the companies and held a clear view of the Fallen force in the glade. They still outnumbered Lanston terribly and Alex wasn’t sure that Cid could win this one for them. Yet he focused now at the task at hand.

Alex’s eyes locked on the magi’s lights as they sped through the Fallen ranks, finally swerving in circles to reveal the Priests in full.

‘Okay, there it is!’ whispered Alex, ‘the three in the centre are casting again!’

Alex understood that Priests enhanced themselves with faint spherical barriers of magic that acted strong enough to protect themselves from arrows. When assembling the power needed to cast their flames however, there was a peak moment when the barrier’s power was cut dry and created a window for a skilled archer. Alex set two men on the nearest Priests and he himself took the farthest. Alex pulled on the bowstring as far as was practical, knowing he was pushing the limits of his range.

‘They are synchronizing their attack, too bad for them… release on my mark,’ said Alex, his eyes training.

 

 

A loud acknowledgement came again from the infantry as three of the five Priests toppled out of their saddles almost simultaneously, shot dead from afar.

He did it!

Even preoccupied with the bloodshed Cid knew the retreat had to happen soon or else they would be overwhelmed.

Cid swept his horn from his girdle. He gave it a loud blow and announced the plan to retreat. Satisfied that the men understood they could do nothing else but fight until…

…it didn’t take long; a visible change in posture hit every Lanston soldier when another Priest took an arrow to the head. Only one Priest remained, yet it did not matter, Cid understood enough of magic to know that one was not going to dismantle Lanston’s magic on his own. Cid bellowed and his men slowly formed a tighter formation.

‘Magi, get those lights ready, I want the Fallen to be blind for at least a week!’

The plan was simple; cover the entire company in blinding light and run right past the Fallen force’s left flank. The numbers they had taken out of the Fallen was enough to have left their position too weak to stop Lanston. They did not know what laid ahead of them, yet returning south was no option. The idea was escaping any further possibility of being herded by the enemy.

Cid orchestrated and his shouts were joined by others, the gist of the command repeating itself: ‘stay together, follow one another, magi keep the lights moving and don’t leave the gate!’

Moments later a semi-sphere of light scurried over the battlefield, big enough to cover over 300 jogging men. The duality of the sphere was simple; every fool with an eye or two knew exactly where Lanston was heading, come too close though and the light would renders sight useless. Hesitantly the Fallen followed, their attempt destined to be futile. Even in the inside Cid and the others were exposed to an overwhelming white light due to the magi’s zealousness, which Cid knew was a necessity at the moment.

The pace picked up as to put some distance between them and Cid could spot the strain on the magi’s faces as they struggled to keep the sphere intact. They breached the northern border of the glade, visiting deep among the grid of trees again as the Fallen were left behind.

‘Magi retire!’ shouted Cid.

The sphere vanished in an instant and they became invisible in the gloom.

‘Keep close and follow!’ he shouted to his men.

It wasn’t too difficult to manoeuvre among the trees and Cid knew that if they kept pace the Fallen would suffer to ever catch up.

‘Say, why aren’t the Fallen brightening the lights again?’ asked one of the soldiers.

It was a good question, the eclipse wasn’t helping the Fallen much, yet right now Cid did not stop to query good fortune.

Along the way Alex and his two archers caught up.

‘Good job,’ said Cid.

‘No sweat,’ said Alex, even though fatigue was clear on his face. It was a thing clear on everyone’s faces, and Cid assumed that everyone here shared his bone-weariness.

‘There’s a grey stone cave and outcropping near here, remember? Pale point. We should be able to entrench ourselves there for the night,’ said Alex.

‘That’s perfect,’ said Cid and changed the course of his men to deeper west.

‘Brunick, you’ve been quiet so far, tired?’ asked Cid.

Brunick shook his head as he ran, his arms pumping at his sides. ‘I was jus’ thinking… the wounded.’

Brunick’s soft spoken words tore at him. Cid was well aware of the wounded, but helping them was downright suicide.

‘I know it’s easier at the border, we save a lot of wounded men at the border,’ said Brunick softly, then his voice turned angry. ‘Stelinger should never have sent us on this pathetic trip, and I’m even angrier at Bennam for consolidating the idea!

‘Brunick, I too did not find flaw with this plan,’ said Cid, barely believing that he was defending Stelinger.

‘But you would never have done this! You would never have sent us into a godforsaken forest without knowing what the hell was waiting for us inside!’ said Brunick, his voice hearable by all.

‘And that’s why I’m not the Commander, Brunick,’ said Cid, aware of the bitterness in his own voice.

‘Well, you should be, every one of these men would have been gutted if we did not have you at the lead,’ grumbled Brunick.

‘How about you Brunick, would you have gotten away?’ asked Alex.

Of course! I have a little girl waiting for me to teach her how to ride the ponies, no Fallen scum is taking me down,’ said Brunick, his demeanour defiant.

Alex laughed. ‘Maybe you should have someone else teach her Brunick, you’re not the exactly the best rider I’ve seen.’

‘Better than you,’ mumbled Brunick.

Cid knew Brunick was a fine rider, yet the word “finesse” was not forthcoming when watching Brunick in a saddle.

The Colonel was losing himself in idle thought, and then nightmare struck once more.

From the trees an onslaught of crossbow bolts came from all sides, death speeding from darkness. Cid instantly felt one crack into his breastplate, the arrow point nudging into his back. At the same time he saw dozens of his men going down jerkingly, including Alex. This could not be happening. How could they have so many Fallen in the forest?

A terrible song of wolf like howls pierced their ears. Cid tried to rally and within seconds he knew it was pointless. The crossbow volley had been devastating, but what followed crushed Cid’s hope, his mind flailing to create a way to survive. Hideous figures leapt inhumanly from the trees and landed among the soldiers. The darkness betrayed only some features, but was enough to reveal the beasts for what they were.

Hunchbacked, canine snouts, long arms, pointy ears, black fur as thick as quills, and deadly steel scimitars in each clawed hand.

Cid knew exactly what they were facing.

They were the hounds of Lymphra, two-legged humanoids called Reavers. Cid had fought against these enslaved creatures before and they were the most dangerous of the Fallen fighting force. 30 or so of them moved like dust devils into the Lanston ranks, their merciless strength of arm and metal cutting away at the bone tired soldiers.

 

 

The moment Brunick saw the Reavers he knew he had seconds to work with. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind on how the enemy tracked them down in total darkness; these beasts were feared for a reason.

Alex had already gone down and Brunick could only hope that he was still alive. Standing behind Cid, he saw the fool brandishing his spear. Deliberately, Brunick lashed out with his forearm, slamming Cid on the back of his neck and the Colonel crashed into unconsciousness. Brunick himself then laid face down and was thankful to know that his breathing would be concealed by his breastplate.

His mind raced and echoed with the sound of men dying, and he prayed for it all to end.

Chapter 17

The Master

 

This room was dark…

A strange display of violet flames crackled in the hearth, its eerie light doing little to brighten the chamber. The mansion was deathly silent, as though holding its breath in the presence of its Master, letting up no indication of rooms beyond this one. The Master had a curtain of thick shoulder length hair, jet black with a goatee to match, framing a gaunt pale face, all of it consolidating an air of a man who inspired absolute terror.

He paced, his robe billowing around him as a confounded wind slithered through the vaulting room’s window. The man lifted his hand in a sweeping motion and the windows slammed shut, the flames in the hearth cowering for a moment in response. Every inch of this olden house was covered by his magic and allowed the Master to manipulate its very fabric.

There was a knock on the door.

‘Enter Menasha,’ said Arumcas knowingly.

Menasha came in, shivering at the darkness and feeling the apprehension of his companion as well, who seemed to grow shorter the closer they came to the Master, the acolyte’s hand strangling his staff in angst.

They found their Master pacing a bear fur carpet in front of the fireplace, a book in his hands. He seemed to be lost in its pages, reading it even though there was no light to speak of.

Menasha could make out his companion jump a little when Arumcas snapped shut the book and gazed upon them. Menasha had seen this before and was unperturbed; in the dark Arumcas’ eyes turned a shade of glazed black, like blood at midnight. This is how he sees in darkness…

‘Stand closer, so that I may see your faces by firelight,’ commanded the Master.

Arumcas blinked once and his eyes returned to normal. Not that it was much better looking at him now.

Menasha, your hair have been greying these last few weeks, I hope you bear good tidings,’ said Arumcas.

Menasha chuckled, ‘my hair aside master, I’m here to inform you that Commander Bennam of Lanston has been killed. He discovered too much and had to be put to rest.’

Like Menasha anticipated his Master was not entirely pleased by the news; he looked to be nurturing suspicions.

‘Did he get word out?’ asked Arumcas.

‘No, Piatil had him watched and ensured that he died isolated. They killed him the moment he showed suspicion. But there was a problem. The assassin was supposed to slip in and inject him with Wylt, so that the investigative authorities might think his heart simply gave out. Piatil however informed me that Bennam’s death has become widely public as murder. The assassin used the wrong poison.’

‘Who was this assassin?’ asked Arumcas.

‘I have no name, but she’s from the Guild of Hands obviously. I would think they are hunting her down even as we speak. The Guild does not tolerate failure and we’ll meet her out with her demise personally.’

‘How long do you think Bennam has known of Stelinger?’ asked Arumcas.

‘Not long, for otherwise he would not have made Stelinger the new Commander,’ said Menasha as though it was obvious.

The Master nodded contently, yet remained thoughtful. ‘So Bennam is finally dead. What a pity, I have found him a worthy opponent for many decades.’

‘I always thought you’d want to kill him yourself,’ said Menasha.

‘Yes, that was the ideal,’ said Arumcas with an appetite for death, ‘who is this by the way?’

‘This Lord, is Jalson, a young acolyte in our ranks, I escorted him here as he insisted that he was burdened with an urgent message.’

‘Go on, speak then,’ said Arumcas.

Jalson could hardly seem to find his words and then uttered: ‘I wish to be released from your service my Lord…’

Menasha winced in the darkness, immediately regretting being the one who brought Jaslon before the Lord . This is going to be ugly.

Arumcas took a step forward, looming over the lowly acolyte.

‘To what ends?’ continued Arumcas, his patience a boiling pretence.

‘I wish to return to my family in Harowan,’ stuttered Jalson, ‘but I have not come without cause my lord, I have something of value, something which I would gladly exchange for my freedom,’ he said, quickly holding out a shapeless piece of metal ore, seemingly worthless, but not so by any measure. Both Arumcas and Menasha instantly recognized its nature.

All over the mansion’s wood panelling creaked and moaned ominously and Menasha knew this was no coincidence; the Masters’ moods often manifested themselves in the building, tensing and pulling at its very fibres.

‘You wish to bargain with me then?’ said Arumcas, his voice gaining a menacing edge.

‘I do not have the will to serve you any longer! I will only become an obstacle if I continue to do so. I beg of you Master, take what I have and make me forget so that I do not compromise your plans… I just want to be with my family again…’

I released you. I gave you power. I am your Master,’ muttered Arumcas, ‘servitude to me is eternal!

Menasha looked on in uneasiness, wondering whether the ore the boy was holding was going to be a problem and whether he should get his sword out.

Then it happened, the fool Jalson let his intent become known, his staff of power radiating a green light, his emotions revealing his magic. Menasha knew better than to doubt his Master and took a step back.

Arumcas lunged in a flurry of motion before Jalson could attack, fists unveiled from his robe and came lashing. One slamming the face, another in his gut, and the last hooking at Jalson’s jaw. Arumcas’ reputation told of a man who did everything with magic, making it simple for anyone to assume that he was physically inept. Those who realized the error of their presumption never lived to tell the tale.

The ore thumped on the floor, left forgotten as Jalson spun away in pain, clenching his face as he sought to escape. Menasha knew it was all over now.

Arumcas himself never stopped for a second, whipping out a short oak staff of his own from his robes. He rushed forward, hair flying, and his incantation inhumanely filled the entire hall. The oak staff went alight with violet flames and Arumcas struck its head right into Jalson’s back. The acolyte’s body became suspended and arched, enveloped in the nightmarish purple blaze before disintegrating into a great tide of ash, his screams piercing every hall in the mansion.

Fool, you never stood a chance…

Menasha uncovered his eyes, watching as Arumcas emerged from a cloud of smoke and ashy remains. Casually the Master bowed to pick up the ore, pocketing it with satisfaction, afterwards playing his fingers in the air as though he had something sticky on them, that which had been Jalson dancing to his gesture and simply seething away up the chimney and out of existence.

‘Forgive me my Master, had I known the fool was going to waste your time I would have killed him myself,’ said Menasha.

Arumcas sighed and walked over to his high-end chair. ‘No matter, but it pains me that loyalty is such a hard quality to come by.’

‘Even more so dedication, had this man not been preoccupied with his family, he would have served you for years to come,’ said Menasha as the Master took his seat.

‘Yes, it’s a shame that making people forget damages their minds, think of the servants we would have had if it were otherwise Menasha, think on it!

‘My master, on a different note, I have always been there to lightly criticize your actions should I feel the need arise,’ said Menasha.

‘What is it then?’ asked Arumcas.

‘This Stelinger, a useful pawn indeed, though I feel you have given him too much power. With that Ruin sword he carries the Priests, including myself, fear him now. What if he turns on you Master?’

‘He is no match for me Menasha,’ said Arumcas annoyed.

‘I am well aware of that Master, I’m trying to point out that he could cause irreparable damage on your campaign should he turn hostile,’ said Menasha.

‘I find that the promise of power instils loyalty even into the most fickle; that is why I trust Stelinger, his hunger and ambition is clear to see. He will eat at my table like a hound who knows no other. Tell me Menasha, for I have been wondering, what is your future, your ambition? You are a very powerful man on your own, why serve when you cannot grow?’

Menasha lowered his eyes, turning uncomfortable. ‘I have been faithful to you Master, always. You ask what my ambition is? The truth is, like so many men, I might’ve lost my ambition in the throes of it all. I am an old dog Master, one that has lived in your shadow all his life. I go day by day living your way and accomplishing your will. My servitude to you is my contentment, and your rise in stature is a rise in my own.’

‘You then value your place here at my side?’ asked Arumcas.

‘There is no other for me, Master.’

Arumcas was thoughtful ‘What do you make of Bennam’s incidence; is it a mere mistake on the assassin’s part?’ asked Arumcas.

‘Do you think otherwise Master? I would not know, surely Bennam has shown himself to be ignorant!’ said Menasha.

Arumcas shook his head, ‘even in death I would not dare underestimate Bennam. Our game has turned dangerous and I wonder at the lengths that my old foe might’ve gone to before he died.’

‘But to no avail, right Master? Even when he did realize his folly in entrusting Stelinger, there was no way he could get word out to halt the march. It was too late…’ said Menasha.

‘Yes, the march is safe, and Stelinger would have dealt with those who could intercede. Yet until our task reaches fruition I would tread carefully and expect the worst at the best of times.’

‘Your command Master?’ asked Menasha, picking up on cues that the conversation was drawing to a close.

‘Assemble all the High Priests; we’ll have a meet by morning. For now, leave me to meditate.’

‘Your will, Master.’

Chapter 18

Lanston

 

 

A letter laid folded open on Elmira’s desk, her ring laid down beside it.

The letter was from Cid:

 

My Dearest Elmira

 

You would probably have heard news of the coming war before this letter reaches you. I’m afraid our life together has been dealt another blow, for as you well know if I am to retain any dignity and influence I must fulfil my duty as a soldier on the new frontier. I am weary of this struggle and I suspect that you as well might have reached a point where you think it better to back down. Sometimes there is no shame in surrendering. I would like to think that as a friend I could advise you on how your life would be so much better if you indeed married Fredrere.

But that is not what I want to say. Rather there is a point in longing for another where one’s love in fact becomes selfish. I want the best for you, but being selfish I would beg you to endure for me one last time.

This war presents opportunity as well. If my influence were to steer the war for triumph, then I’m sure to be granted favour by the Kingdom. I will then ask for one thing only: your hand with the Kingdom’s blessing. If it has indeed become all too much for you, then take my blessing and be wed to Fredrere. If not, I’ll ask you to fight, to fight like only you can. Stave off this marriage, repel your father’s wishes. Flee if you have to… because I will return for you.

 

I love you.

 

Cid of Rogana

 

Elmira had read the letter everyday for a week, as though the letter was going to change its message and maybe tell her something more of Cid’s current predicament the more she studied it. The war could not have come at a worse time and she really didn’t need the worry of Cid being in danger again all the while.

The ring as well did not escape her grasp. She would pick it up and turn it in her hands while she remained in thought obsessively. Obviously her fear of her father made her reluctant to wear the ring, so she rather stashed it away. The prospect of marrying Cid was rewarding in itself, but she wished so she could share her engaged status with someone close. At the moment not even her mother knew, and it was altogether better this way.

Mother used to be supportive, but she always follows father’s lead.

Late in the morning Elmira was still fiddling around the house. The colour and the opulence of her new room had become lost on her. Father has always been rich, but recently business with Fredrere’s family had seen them expand the house twice this year.

It all meant little to Elmira. Instead she felt that the bright canvasses around her bed posts and the stuffy cushions propped into every chair and every corner was a mocking entity. Worst of all was the ornaments, the useless vases and stone headpieces of people she didn’t even know.

All the comfort you can buy and yet she could not come to rest. What was at first a way to move beyond the constant mindfulness became a daily routine. Every day she would wander aimlessly, first around the house and then in the city, pretending to have interests in the shops, and pretending to listen to her friends’ gossip, her wishes of steering her own life not spoken or heard.

Cid is out fighting a war again and I’m stuck playing house as usual. She could not bear the pretence; bear the fake happiness that she had to bask in:

“She has everything,” people spoke as she passed. “Her father’s rich, she has her mother’s beauty, she is to be wed to a noble”.

It was a strange Elmira thought, that the only people who remotely understood her as a person were men running around in sweaty armour with blood smeared swords. Now, one of those men, old Commander Bennam, was dead.

Elmira knew better than to condemn the city, because she loved Lanston. She did however become cynical of the city’s façade; the wealth, the marvellous buildings and the pleasant smells of food stalls and perfumes. Worst of all was the open ridicule she faced when she had so blatantly declared she would be wed to no one else than Cid some weeks before. Her father was outraged, Fredrere and his family disappointed, and the city displeased. They all said the same thing one way or the other; “the girl is stupid, she does not know what she’s throwing away.”

Elmira however would not be swayed by popular opinion. She had her own way of looking at things; in the city everything boiled down to convenience. The walls and the city guard protected, the wealth bought what was needed, and the beauty of the city itself inspired goodwill and love. Cast the populace out of the city though, hit them with plague or famine, and everything would change; people would tear each other up just to survive and all the fake notions of loyalty, respect and admiration that were so falsely cultivated in a perfect city would fall away when things got even a little tough. Again Elmira thought on how the only men she knew who would remain true in the most dire of circumstances were the soldiers.

She had known for a long time now that Cid was the man she wanted to marry, the man she could spend her life with. Out on the battlefield Cid was a magnet for triumph because of hard work and preparation, not because of inheritance. Out there, men followed Cid unquestionably because of their trust in his integrity and compassion rather than just having wealth or bearing a title of nobility. Cid would protect them as they would him, and Elmira knew that Cid would give his life to protect her.

A sharp rap on her window wrenched Elmira from her reverie. She spun to look; just a bird, pecking at its own faint reflection. She then realized she had been digging her nails into one of the useless cushions. She threw the adornment aside and shook her head at herself.

Time for some fresh air.

 

 

Walking outside in the streets Elmira knew she had been much too harsh towards Lanston in her thoughts. She knew many good people in the city and some who even supported her notion of marrying a war hero. Even her father, the instigator of this whole mess, was at his most sociable when joined by Cid for an evening drink.

Yes, father used to adore Cid’s company. Yet Elmira knew that her father was much more enticed by the status of House Sagril. The business interests to be adjoined after the wedding between Sagril and Merrigil might’ve been insignificant enough for her father to shake, and prioritize Elmira’s choice for Cid. The whole thing however stood no chance against Elmira being accepted into nobility. As her father had put it, “your decedents might even be heralded as King one day.”

The idea held no favour with Elmira, she’d rather have her sons and daughters raised by a man like Cid than have them of royal blood.

Elmira was dressed in a light blue summer dress and wore a straw coloured hat with a peachy ribbon. She locked out as many stares as there were people in the streets. It was a facet of her life she both loved and loathed. Getting attention was something she had grown up with and wasn’t ashamed to admit that she thrived on it every now and then. There was an edge however to being the focus of everyone that she deeply disliked.

She couldn’t place why exactly, but she suspected it had much to do with how she felt about the city, about how easy they would forget the pretty woman when things turned ugly. She surmised this because of how her life had changed since she started seeing Cid. The soldier had, quite frankly, turned her world upside down, just like she had his.

He admits it often, she thought fondly, I never do…

Now, the only real approval she sought was that of her husband-to-be and there was little limit to what she’d admit if only he was here now.

Her tour through the city was random at first, walking helter-skelter past all her favourite sights and shops. Lanston, like all Kingdom cities, was predominately divided into private properties. Only the King and his closest family could interfere on the matters owned by the general populace, and they rarely ever did. The principal of the common man owning his own land created the very ambition that drove the Kingdom economy, being the legal cornerstone that fashioned one of the most powerful nations in the world, and ultimately the freedom and opportunity the system insinuated made people all the more amicable toward an all powerful King in any instance.

The fabric of all the cities were owned and maintained by the Kingdom itself; the walls, the fortresses, hospitals, parks, banks, memorials, waterways and the roads.

All of these were part of what was called the “frame”, and barring the roads, were quite identifiable as they were mostly enshrined with polished sandstone here in Lanston. The walls for example were really built with granite for strength, its façade however was covered by the sandstone so that it appeared in likeliness to the Castle or banks.

Some of the walls ran an intra-city pattern, smaller, but more decorate than their perimeter counterparts, depositing easygoing yet strategic thoroughfare arches where it intersected with the main roads. These stubby wide walls served as a vantage for patrolling town guard during peaceful times and, dressed in their Lanston armour, you would write off coincidence when seeing the pale gold of helm and chestplate against the backdrop of sandstone. Elmira had long before this day noticed that it wasn’t just the soldiers, but much of the populace coordinated themselves around the frame even when given a choice; from people’s outrageous new fashions to remodelling houses, everyone accepted the frame as their orientation.

Of all of it Elmira enjoyed the city-view of the towering castle most, the showpiece of Lanston no doubt. The foremost of her childhood dreams was being be able to see it on the inside one day. Though just like any normal citizen she could not really appreciate its splendour given the proximity issues.

Getting past the Castle perimeter was a privilege granted to very few and even fewer made it past the doors and into its hallows. Ruling the city from the Castle as their homestead was the Dauflon and his family. Each city had a Dauflon, a cousin or some other close family to the King. The King himself resided over Asheva, the capital city of the Kingdom

So rather, whenever Elmira wanted to see grandeur up close she would go to the city’s central bank. A giant square greeted the masses into the very nexus of the populous’ wealth. Bordering the square was a building with a titanic face as the eight steps that led up to its elevated entrance were fifty feet from side to side with a set of bronze stair rails every ten feet. At the top of the stairs a great trio of pillars stood at each side of the entrance, supporting the protruding roof overhead. Elmira had been inside with her father many times as a child, watching him talk to the bankers while she stood aside, bored as hell.

One of her favourite cafés though was just across from the bank on the other side of the square. She would sit there with her girlfriends under an umbrella and drink freshly squeezed juice or brewed coffee while watching hordes of people move about to do their business.

In the centre of the square was a fountain encircling an island of statues proportionate to the size of the square. Ironically, it was never the rich merchants or nobles who were captured in these statues even though they paid for it. Legends of ages past stood watch in exaggerated size over the square as water flowed their sword points and the mouths of their steeds and into a shallow, but giant round pool.

Cid isn’t one of the statues… yet.

Elmira was way too restless to bother sitting down at the café, so she made her daily trip to the fountain. Beggar children were plentiful in Lanston and although she cared, she also hated being ambushed by guilt tactics.

The fountain also served as the city’s symbolic wishing well and by making her daily wish she killed two birds with one stone; she’d flick a meaningless copper coin into the pool, make her wish and then later some crafty homeless child would scurry around the pool gathering the coin at the bottom to buy food. She stood at the pool edge, not sitting down at a bench like she’d used to. She opened her purse, got out the copper coin and flicked it, watching it sink to the bottom.

Just bring him back safe to me.

This was all she could really think off. Too many times she has wished for a happy life with Cid. Things had gone wrong now to the point that she suspected the best she could ask for was for Cid to survive. She smiled by herself. It was strange; as a child and even as a late teenager she would come here to wish for wealth, beauty and a prince to marry so that she could live in the Castle. While marrying Fredrere would not grant her living quarters in the Castle, she would most likely be married in the Castle chapel and then-after attend many a banquet for noble families within its dining hall. Now of course she wanted none of it, or at least nothing that did not include Cid.

Not wishing to linger Elmira turned and left the square. Her route remained random for a moment more until she decided she might just as well go to her final destination; the post office. She did not expect much letters from Cid given that he was now on active duty, but even the possibility made her compulsive to check every day.

 

The post office was quiet as Elmira knew it would be. People seriously expecting letters came in early, especially on the turn of the week. Now was neither. The building was a short fat tower. The messenger birds were held and kept in the upper stories and the mail was sorted into the family cabinets on the first floor. Elmira had her own personal cabinet nowadays, courtesy of living in her own place of residence, though it still be behind her father’s walls.

She got out her key and unlocked the cabinet. Sliding open the small drawer, she was surprised to find a letter; she had been so prepared to see nothing.

Hastily she pulled it out, immediately spotting the military seal. She tore it open and unfolded the letter carelessly. It wasn’t from Cid – it was short and formal and written in a very deliberate writing style.

Her eyes scrambled over the words again and again. Only a few words penetrated her thoughts:

 

…regrettably… war… Cid…Rogana… ambushed… deceased… in action… sympathize… body not recovered… honour his memory… military burial…

 

Elmira could not accept it. At first a wave of sorrow and shock swept over her, her first instinct to suppress it, to sweep it aside. Yet she became unsteady on her feet, overwhelmed.

First Bennam… now Cid!

This is wrong, this can’t be right, they’ve made a mistake!

Her mind grabbed at possibilities, denying every word in the letter. Yet she looked over it again, and again. The date caught her eye…

Somewhere in her mind a piece of information was tucked away that made her ruffle through her purse. She pulled out Cid’s letter, checking the date.

It was written the day right after she left the barracks. The letter claiming Cid’s death was written just the next day after.

Impossible. The army would not have marched so soon and far less have been in any kind of peril at that time. There was only one other alternative;

thinking about Bennam and wondering whether someone was taking out the leadership of the Lanston army, murdering its commanding officers. Then again, that would have been city-wide news as well.

The entire operation would have been stopped!

No matter what this letter said she needed to make sure Cid was safe, she needed certainty. Body not recovered… if he was in danger then Elmira had to do something to get him out. As quickly as she could she wiped away the tears and steeled her resolve.

This is not over yet! Cid cannot be dead!

By the time she left the post office she knew exactly what she needed to do.

Chapter 19

The Summoner

 

 

A strange man was hovering over the soldiers’ bodies, exalting himself as healer to these men. He worked tirelessly to keep them alive, using all his skill to stop the bleeding and seal the wounds, mindful of infection.

A scattered collection of scrolls lay around him, bold-pressed foreign numerals of power written on them. Lighting the darkness was a lively campfire, a tiny pot of boiling water placed snugly in the coals on the side, its scent telling of herbs of some kind.

The man focused on one soldier in particular who had taken a crossbow bolt in the chest, his face deathly pale. That however was partly because of the healer’s arts. Upon realizing their rapid loss of blood the man placed their already unconscious bodies into an even deeper sleep; a cold one, so that everything could slow down. He did this for all except for the Colonel, who had taken but a light flesh wound and a big knock to the head.

The healer’s supplies were growing thin though, the Oltaisa syrup he used to create synthetic blood already spent. Should more wounded arrive the healer feared they would be beyond help if they were severe cases.

The man turned as he heard a soldier behind him groan. The Colonel was waking.

 

Cid woke, his head throbbing intensely for a few seconds and then dulled to a mild headache. Muddled at first, he sought to clear his senses and distinguish what his last coherent memory was. He opened his eyes.

Campfire and several sleeping bodies. Cid nudged himself upright with his elbows to sit.

Out of sight and near a cave, this is good. Grey stone… this must be Pale point. We’re far from the canyon though. Pretty deep into the forest actually…

Still disoriented Cid wondered where all his men had gone.

Three… there were but three soldiers lying around the fire. One of the men was Alex thankfully. Where are the others? Cid could see at least a dozen personal packs strewn around their rocky camp. Why did the group split?

A mage was attending the three sleeping soldiers’ wounds, and as the man moved on to Alex, Cid realized that he was not outfitted in the Lanston cloths. There was a foreignness about him that was unsettling.

Taking a closer look he saw that the healer wasn’t administrating the standard set of herbs and salve either, which laid suspicion in Cid’s mind. Till now the mage hadn’t even given him a single glance.

A Shadow Priest!? The thought rose suddenly and without merit – Cid quashed it. He was much more likely a wandering mage, albeit a strange place to wander. Sitting motionlessly, feeling tired, Cid studied the man’s method. For now he was merely dabbing at the raw boundaries of Alex’s arrow wound with a cloth soaked in a substance that stabbed at the nose.

Cid had seen the process a thousand times. A trained healer would, after containing the bleeding, sterilize everything, clean the wound, and then administer a soft fine herb cooked in boiling water that worked in tandem with a healer’s magicks.

Accelerated tissue regeneration was one of magic’s true virtues in the field of medicine and it often saved men that are doomed otherwise by severe wounds. In practice though even the best healers did not have precise control, rather they merely helped on the body’s natural processes, racing against infection, decay or blood loss.

Cid studied the healer. He was dressed in a common cut of a brown travelling tunic and trousers, his figure framed by a long grey cloak. At his side was his half-open pack, revealing some of his vials and scrolls. The man had a youthful face, despite the fact that his styled black hair had streaks of grey.

‘Healer, what’s your name?’ asked Cid.

‘Patience sir, give me a moment so that I may attend to this man,’ he answered without looking up.

The man’s voice had a certain authority about it and Cid was quick to question it.

‘Who are you? This is a war zone, no civilians are allowed in this area,’ said Cid, his mind swimming at the moment.

‘Take a while to gather yourself Colonel; I will explain the moment I finish this soldier’s wound,’ said the man, as though he had seen Cid rubbing at his temple.

The smell of the healer’s medicine grew stronger and Cid’s suspicion was fuelled.

‘What is that, Autemisciour?’ asked Cid impatiently.

The healer scoffed. ‘I’m trying to heal a wound sir, not decorate it. No, this is Ylrit, and it’ll do much better than anything you’ve ever heard of.’

The man was right; Cid had not heard of Ylrit before and was not a Kingdom approved healing substance for military use as far as he knew. Cid however was more concerned for Alex at the moment than anything else.

‘He will be okay right?’ asked Cid.

‘Colonel, they’ll all be playing soldier again in no time, that is to say if we don’t get tracked down and slaughtered,’ answered the man casually.

Cid was about to question the statement when something else struck him.

He watched in awe as the healer worked his magic, reading from one of the scrolls from his pack, his voice a low mystic chant. He kept his hand outstretched a spot above Alex’s chest to focus the magic. The process itself was not strange, but Cid witnessed in confusion as Alex’s wound recuperated perfectly, sealing shut in a manner that should have taken weeks.

Never before had Cid seen a healer who did not use stitches. Because the arts of healing were so fragile, the skin regrowth and soft tissues usually resulted in malignancy or excessive callus formations. Instead, healers used good old stitches to cross that bridge and make the magic a boon rather than a blunder.

Alex’s wound however was now perfectly healed without any stitching done, including the skin, only appearing paler against the backdrop of the rest.

Cid jumped up, sword in hand, pointing it at the crouching healer’s head.

Again healer! Who are you and what are you doing here!?’ asked Cid forcefully, his own latent distrust of magi surfacing.

The man stood up calmly and looked Cid right in the eyes, once again showing himself to be a powerful presence even with Cid’s sword inches away from his face.

It was a rare sight, and a first time for Cid. Magi, in some way or another, were oppressed in the Kingdom and were often expected to be humble and subservient.

There was nothing of that in the healer’s face or posture.

‘My name is Lidayel, and I am a Summoner.’

Cid’s eyes widened, barely able to resist ending the man’s life right there.

‘As for what I’m doing here? Well, I wish I knew for myself…’

 

 

Brunick walked wearily onto the scene from the trees, quickly catching Cid’s attention with a wave of his hands.

‘Cid, it’s okay, the man is a friend,’ said Brunick, realizing he was threatening the Summoner with his sabre.

The Colonel backed away as Brunick plunged down with his back to a rock. The big man wheezed, his face was pale and sweat covered.

Cid felt a great relief at seeing Brunick alive, swallowing hard at the fortunes of surviving what they did.

‘Where have you been Brunick?’ asked Cid, his mind still trying to get a grip on what happened.

Brunick shook his head at Cid.

‘The Fallen caught up,’ Brunick said disheartedly at Lidayel.

Clearly Brunick and this Lidayel had talked at some length while Cid was out.

‘Brunick, we were ambushed, how did we get here and where are the other men?’ asked Cid softly.

Brunick looked heavily up to Cid.

‘They are gone Colonel, we are all that is left. I knocked you out and played dead myself. When the Reavers made tracks I got back up, carrying you on my shoulder and Alex in my arms. Then I ran into Lidayel here. I wanted to kill him first too, but I needed to count on his help. I returned for more men while Lidayel started healing you guys here. I’ve been up and down four times, but when I got back now… well, the Fallen has covered the sight… we salvaged some packs as well… we’ll be needing the food…’ said Brunick, a rare sound of defeat in his voice.

Cid could not believe it. After how they fought; after defying the odds second after second. Cid could still hear the men’s cheers as Brunick decimated the Fallen with his axe. The men he had known and acquainted in these last few days; Matthew, Ariman, Olum… They were all gone now…

‘We failed,’ breathed Cid.

No we didn’t,’ growled Brunick.

‘I watched the battle from afar Colonel, I myself did not believe that you would make it out. You did everything you could.’

And you did nothing!’ bellowed Cid, ‘if you are a wretched Summoner why didn’t you help us then!?

‘Keep your voice down Cid!’ growled Brunick.

‘I have some explaining to do,’ said Lidayel, as he found his seat at the other side of the fire. ‘Heed me Colonel, your troubles are larger than you might imagine.’

Chapter 20

A Tale of the Forgotten

 

 

All around was quiet as Lidayel’s voice and the crackling fire interchanged.

Summoners were the stuff of myth and legend, stories of their powers and origin always exaggerated only by a little bit. In a world of magic, Summoners were thought of as the be all, end all.

While magicians were human, Summoners were not, even though appearing as such, being much more powerful to begin with. Consequently they were even more despised and feared than normal magi; if in any setting Summoners couldn’t be controlled or subjugated to law, then they were hunted down and killed in most societies, that much wasn’t even debatable.

As Cid had heard once, less than a hundred Summoners still existed on the whole of Angaria in the present day. Personally, this was the first time Cid had ever even come into contact with a Summoner, and despite feeling liberal to magicians, finding a being such as Lidayel here of all places made him suffer a great unease.

Cid delved in himself to answer his discomfort and the conclusion was simple. Arumcas, the leader of the Dey’illumra and master of the Fallen, was a Summoner himself, and also the main reason why everyone in the Kingdom was highly distrustful toward their kind.

To add to their enigmatic existence Summoners could live to become hundreds of years old, and the way Cid understood it normal magi like Ariman could only practice their magical talents when released by a Summoner. A Summoner could thus, touch the soul of a talented human and stimulate his or her innate magical potential. They blossomed or awakened to magical powers, however way you want to put it.

It was this that made Arumcas an even greater threat, for there existed the scenario where power hungry magi would swore servitude to the Summoner in exchange for having their powers released.

‘I do not assume to know how much you understand about Summoners, but I’m guessing that you are not clueless on the subject. Even so feel free to interject if you have any questions. You should know that, in addition to being a Summoner, I’m also part of those called the forgotten, and I worked under the Conclave in Isa.’

Cid and Brunick remained silent, both of them had heard of the mysterious Forgotten; originally they were Summoners who suppressed their own memories and powers to escape Kingdom prosecution. However, with the Kingdom anointing its own council of Summoners the practice has grown ever more bizarre. Summoners deemed fit for fieldwork were often made to forget a certain amount of information in order to control them. Of course, speculatively, one had to wonder how much different the practice was in comparison with that of the Shadow Priests controlling the Fallen.

Cid and Brunick’s silence indicated for Lidayel to continue:

‘Some of us as you might’ve expected have been working in close tandem with the Kingdom’s special forces. They call on us, we remember, we operate, we return to report and then we are made to forget again. We remember much again with time, but for now all I recall of recent events is that of my wife and what we were doing here. I do have a functional memory though and I recollect as I interact. Also, the magic forcing down my memories fluctuates, so forgive me if I ever appear confounded or lost.’

‘Your wife is a Summoner as well?’ asked Cid.

‘Yes. We got separated a day ago. We we’re hunted by the Fallen and I’m afraid they might have captured her.’

‘You mean she couldn’t defend herself?’ asked Cid incredulously.

‘That’s just the thing; our magicks are estranged to us after we’re made to forget. To save your men I had to use all my healing scrolls, and this eclipse above us? It was my doing as well,’ said Lidayel.

‘You did this?’ asked Cid in surprise, pointing up into the sky, coming to rethink everything that had happened these last few hours.

Lidayel nodded.

‘This eclipse, was it a scroll also?’ asked Brunick.

‘Yes, one I had with me and the best I could use in the face of the Fallen. I have very limited control at the moment and sometimes I am not even able to call up any magic at all.’

‘But you can by using the scrolls?’ asked Cid.

‘Somewhat yes, the incantations on the scrolls allow me to release spells prepared pre-emptively by other Summoners or magicians. The specific energy is stored somewhere safe in world, and by reciting a unique phrase of ancient Tajeni languages it released and comes to my use. It is crucial for someone… in my position, ’ said Lidayel.

‘You know, this eclipse did a lot to help us in battle,’ admitted Brunick, looking up at the startling ceiling of darkness.

‘And still we lost all our men,’ said Cid bitterly.

‘I am sorry about that, but even as I watched you fight I was struggling to remember how to create even the simplest of magicks. For the eclipse, the healing, and this campfire I used scrolls, I could not help even though I sorely wanted to.’

‘You are here on a mission for the Kingdom?’ asked Cid.

‘Yes, it was an important investigation. The council of Summoners at Asheva thought they might’ve found a way to reverse the corruption that controls the Fallen,’ said Lidayel.

‘And they did!?’ asked Brunick before Cid could, both the soldiers aroused by the news. It was a matter close to the heart of every soldier; the only way to hate the Fallen was to know that they could not be healed and yet no one wished upon the Fallen the fate of irreversible servitude.

‘Yes in a way, but it isn’t practical – it only works on immediate victims. As you might know after a month or two the corruption starts degrading the victim’s brains. They typically lose crucial brain functions within fifteen months and then die any time afterwards.’

‘So you can heal fresh victims?’ asked Cid.

‘That we can, although it is a tiresome and sensitive process, and it’s as likely to kill the person as it is to save him. We captured some stray Fallen scouts during the week, incapacitated them and healed them. They were all rather old Fallen though and died as the corruption was alleviated. Our hypothesis is that a younger victim should be able to make it and our spell itself could use some more refinement. The thing is though our experiments have stopped, we were working with the Kingdom, but not anymore,’ said Lidayel.

‘What? Why?’

‘There has been betrayal Cid, of that I have no doubt.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Brunick, raising his voice at Lidayel for the first time.

‘We were assigned to do research in this area and so I was thoroughly briefed on your march north. Just before me and my wife set out I was intercepted by a courier handing us a letter from Commander Bennam. We were under his jurisdiction from then on and he assigned us to specifically this part of the forest.’

‘So?’

‘Colonel, I have been monitoring this forest for more than a week now and from what I could gather the Fallen prepared their ambush on you meticulously. They have undeniably been forewarned and might’ve even been set out to particularly kill you and your men. What’s more is that I was designated to the very area of your ambush.’

‘I don’t…’

‘Someone sold you out for death Colonel, whether it is Commander Bennam or this new Commander Stelinger, I don’t know, but it is clear someone wanted you out of the way, and maybe me as well given the importance of the work we’ve been doing.’

‘Commander Bennam would never…’ started Cid.

It was so easy for Cid to suspect Stelinger and also so satisfying to think that he might be a bad seed after all. Yet Cid has known Stelinger for years now and he could always admit that Stelinger’s arrogance was rivalled by his loyalty toward the army and the Kingdom. As for suspecting Commander Bennam, that was downright ridiculous.

‘I think you are mistaken,’ said Cid.

Lidayel shook his head, ‘give the truth time to show itself Colonel, but until then I’d advice we move with caution.’

A moment’s silence grew between them.

‘So what do we do from here?’ asked Brunick, unimpressed by the situation.

Cid looked up at the cloudy eclipse. Judging by the darkness Cid guessed that it was really night time now and that the cloud was rendering the landscape as dark as it could possibly get.

‘How long will this eclipse last?’ asked Cid.

‘I can’t be sure, but I’m convinced that its energies will not survive the night.’

‘So tomorrow we’ll be back in broad daylight among a legion of Fallen. Fantastic.’ said Brunick in sarcasm.

‘We’ll only be six. We travel smart, and we can slip all the way back to the ramp and join with the army in the canyon,’ said Cid.

‘A fair plan, but one I will not partake in. If there is indeed a betrayal then showing face at Commander Stelinger might not result in the best of consequences,’ said Lidayel.

‘I’m afraid you have no choice Summoner, now that you are no longer under Kingdom jurisdiction it would be my duty to at least ensure that no rogue Summoner is running across an active battlefield.’

‘Are you saying I’m a captive now Colonel?’ asked Lidayel.

‘For the time being yes, and as long you stay cooperative I will not make things uncomfortable for you.’

Again Lidayel shook his head. ‘I need to go out and look for my wife. She is all that I have Colonel, especially now.’

Cid wanted to sympathize with the man and did indeed fall silent for a moment.

‘Sorry Lidayel, but we will be needing you to come us,’ said Brunick.

‘Why? Because of some ridiculous Kingdom law?’

‘That and more,’ said Cid, ‘if there is something shady afoot then we would be remiss to let you go, since you may be well the person that we need to distrust.’

‘You do not believe me?’

‘For the most part I do, and I thank you for your assistance, but given your accusations I’m going to place my trust in my fellow soldier above you Summoner. Besides, finding your wife will be much easier once the army clears the canyon,’ said Cid.

Again they grew silent.

After awhile Lidayel spoke, ‘the men will be hungry when they wake, we should have food prepared.’

Cid acknowledged and nodded at Brunick. Brunick stood up and started to prepare some food from the packs

‘Do you think your wife is still alive?’ asked Cid tentatively.

Lidayel nodded. ‘They will have use for her and I suspect she will be taken to one of the fortresses.’

‘To Northgarde?’ asked Cid.

‘Yes, they will undoubtedly present her to Arumcas,’ said Lidayel bitterly.

‘Will they try to corrupt her?’

‘No, we Summoners can’t be corrupted; they will however try to extort her for information. There are many a reason why we are made to forget…’

‘What would happen if you could not safe her, if you failed her?’ asked Cid hypothetically, his thoughts firmly settled on Elmira.

Lidayel laughed cynically. ‘The only true memories I have are of her. I can, without lying, say that my entire identity rests on her existence. Should something happen to her I would likely lose my mind, and as you well know insane Summoners don’t make great humanitarians.’

Cid could only respond with a nod.

‘I would probably end up destroying every single Fallen I could find the minute my powers returned,’ said Lidayel, ‘a tempting prospect as it is already.’

Cid was thoughtful, asking, ‘What is your wife’s name?’

Lidayel was silent for a moment.

‘I… I can’t remember,’ said Lidayel, and Cid saw on his face a look of real defeat revealed by the campfire.

Chapter 21

Desperation

 

Elmira walked into the estate grounds of House Sagril poised, and unperturbed by the guards trying to stop her. They wasn’t sure how to handle the situation so decided to escort her into the lavish building that was house to Fredrere. This was her last resort, her only option left. She would concede much in the next hour.

Inside the house Elmira was halted by the housemaster, an uptight looking old man who dressed way too heavily for summer weather.

‘I’m here to see Fredrere,’ said Elmira.

‘And who might you be?’ asked the man.

‘I’m afraid circumstances have not allowed us to be introduced, I’m Elmira of House Merrigil, daughter of Vaunce,’ she said stiffly.

The man could not hide his surprise.

‘Of course my lady, might I enquire pre-emptively the purpose of your visit?’ asked the man.

‘Tell Fredrere I have a proposal for him,’ said Elmira, making it clear that it was all she was going to say to the housemaster.

‘I’ll inform him of your presence, please make yourself comfortable in the lounge while you wait,’ said the housemaster, bowing and then disappearing up the staircase.

Elmira sat apprehensively in the silence of the giant lounge, its solitude exclaimed by the many empty armchairs and a grandfather clock tick-tocking endlessly.

I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m doing it for Cid though. Knowing he’s okay comes first.

Elmira was still planning her words when the Housemaster returned.

‘Fredrere is up in his office and he will be glad to see you now,’ he said.

Elmira followed the housemaster up the stairs, into the second story corridor and entered one of the many doors. In relation to the rest of the estate Fredrere office was smaller than Elmira expected. Then again, he probably doesn’t spend much time here. Elmira understood that Fredrere would love the idea of having her as the trophy wife, but that the coin that would come from adjoining with House Merrigil’s business was an essential motivation for both him and his father. As a minor nobility, Sagril was the greediest kind of nobility, and by what Elmira had seen to thus, the laziest.

‘Ah Elmira!’ said Fredrere happily, rising from his seat, circumventing the desk and planting a kiss on Elmira’s cheek.

Elmira humoured him, but only just.

‘Please take a seat, oh and Oustin, be sure to send up a pot of tea, will you?’

‘Yes Lord Fredrere,’ said Oustin, leaving the room.

Elmira took her seat opposite of Fredrere.

‘It’s so good to see you again, your beauty rarely escapes my thoughts, but entertaining your actual presence puts rest to many a daydream.’

Elmira smiled, not because she was flattered, but because she would need Fredrere to be amicable.

‘So, I must admit I do hope your visit means that you have finally come to terms with my offer of marriage?’ asked Fredrere, his eagerness not well hidden.

‘It’s about Cid,’ said Elmira flatly. She had intended to go through the pleasantries, or at least wait for the tea to arrive, but a part within her could wait no longer. She needed to do something.

Fredrere sighed. ‘Marriage isn’t always about love Elmira, and you’ll find the most enduring of unions are often based on agreements of convenience and financial co-existence. Your father knows this and wants the best for you. I want the best for you.’

You want the best for yourself! thought Elmira. She kept herself in check however.

‘This soldier, Cid, is a man who cannot provide the luxuries that you grew up with, and what’s more he will be missing half of the year just to put food on the table, honestly is that the life-’

‘Cid is dead,’ snapped Elmira, interrupting Fredrere. Elmira herself did not believe this, only rapping Fredrere to get him to stop lecturing her.

Elmira was keen to realize true shock registering on Fredrere’s face.

‘Elmira… I’m so sorry. I did not know. How did this happen?’

‘I received a letter merely stating that he was killed in action,’ said Elmira, ‘I have reason to believe that the letter might be mistaken.’

‘How so?’

Elmira explained.

‘Why are you here then, telling me this?’

Elmira stated her proposal, eager to not to sound as if she were pleading. ‘You have the resources and the men to send out to go and look for Cid. I need to know that he is alive and well, and that he is going to return to Lanston safely.’

‘Why would I do this?’ asked Fredrere softly.

Elmira had been dreading this moment.

‘If you send out a search party, returning Cid home, I’ll agree to marry you,’ said Elmira.

Fredrere was stunned and Elmira could see his clockwork toiling.

‘But then again, you are to be married to me anyway,’ answered Fredrere.

‘Not If I refuse, if I kick hard enough on this then my father might not be so willing to sign me over. Think on it, if you agree now then you’ll have no further worries about the arrangement. As long as my signature is not on a document I can make it very difficult for you,’ said Elmira.

Again Fredrere went silent with thought.

‘We have a deal then’ said Fredrere, a smile of satisfaction appearing on his face. ‘I’ll set up the documents as soon as I can, so that the dispatch of men will not be delayed unnecessarily.’

Oustin returned with a pot of tea.

‘Ah, there he is, good man,’ said Fredrere, barely able to hide his euphoria.

Elmira however, was struggling to keep face.

I am about to sign over my life.

Chapter 22

Treetops

 

They were on the move.

‘So one day, we will be able to cure the Fallen by the numbers?’ prodded Cid mildly, not wanting to het his hopes up.

‘That’s a possibility,’ answered the Summoner between breaths.

Lidayel wasn’t nearly as fit the soldiers, but Cid appreciated that he was pushing himself to keep up. They all knew that their survival depended on getting into the canyon.

In earnest they were all exhausted, especially Alex and the two other soldiers, Welce and Girdo, whose wounds had just healed. It left them a bit brittle and only their strength as soldiers helped them to cloak their discomforts. Even so there was little choice otherwise for them but to keep on running.

From pale point that morning they set out, careful and vigilant, each man holding down a cold breakfast. They mostly emptied their personal packs then, as the weight would slow them down, in the end just taking enough food to get them to the canyon. There was no sign of the eclipse today, its magicks diminished just like Lidayel predicted, sunlight another enemy for the moment.

‘I have always wondered about the magic, how it works, and how the Priests gets so many men twisted. Can you explain this to me?’ asked Cid.

‘I assume you know the basic workings of Calophrites?’ queried Lidayel.

‘Yes, they are what the soul looks like broken into fragments right?’

‘That is a way to put it, yes. The Fallen spell works much like that which a skilled healer would use. You see, an efficient mage engineers his spell to operate in tandem with a victim’s soul. Not all men can use magic, but every single soul has the capacity to interact with mystics.

‘A healer would draw upon the strength of a wounded man’s soul and practice the process in such a way that the mage can have enough energy to continue his work on many more that may need his attention. The Fallen spell is the same, it is bound to the soul of the victim, feeding and sustaining itself from the soul like a parasite.

‘There is more to it though; the soul is expressed through emotions, feelings and memories. Magic consequently is the same; spells are strengthened or dampened on the account of emotions touching the soul. A healer working on a man willing to fight for his life will strengthen his own soul and can end up saving himself. And as such a man with hatred and anger is much more easily corrupted by the Fallen spell.’

Wait, are you telling me that it is wrong for us to psych the men up, that by making them hate the Fallen we are exposing them more readily to corruption?’ asked Cid.

‘No, you do what you must. Callousness is necessary. Besides, the Fallen have never failed to corrupt someone, do you think any one man is completely devoid of darkness or hatred?’

‘Would it help then, the other way around? You know, clinging onto that which you love rather than focusing on the hate?’ asked Cid.

‘I’d imagine that it would be easier to heal the corruption of a man whose love for the good is stronger than the bitterness, as long as the spell is practiced correctly that is,’ said Lidayel in another few huffs, ‘up to our last attempt, our spell, even read from a scroll could not cure the man as well as it should.’

‘It’s a strange thing,’ started Cid, ‘seeing words and incantations bring forth reality, a single spoken verse powerful enough to save a life.’

‘Is it any stranger than your own voice Colonel? Your ability to control men? To command them with distinction and organize their capabilities?’ said Lidayel, letting the statement hang. ‘There is much power to be found in words, remember that. Even the Fallen only respond to commands in Twilight tongue, as you may well know, and those who speak it are few and evil.’

Cid was thoughtful.

‘All these years we were taught that the Fallen will only ever be our enemy, that they are our brothers no longer. The idea of curing them, of recovering them…’

‘I assure you the Fallen Priests fear our discovery above all else. Although I would advise you to cling fast to your hatred for the Fallen, it might be a decade still before we are able to reverse the full effect of their magic.’

‘I do not hate the Fallen, how can I? They are not aware of what they are doing. No, my hate is reserved for the Priests.’

Lidayel nodded. ‘Never have there been a people collectively more hated than the magi.’

Cid wanted to reply, but knew Lidayel was right; magi had power, ordinary folk did not, that discrepancy would haunt a peaceful co-existence for all time. The Kingdom of Asheva at least, was a bastion for rights for all people, its laws accommodating a great variety of people. Even so the relationship between the magical and non-magical was strenuous, the magicians often barred from certain positions to regulate the balance of power.

Alex was on point, his eye catching something and his fist shooting up to signal everyone to a halt. Like one the men huddled, the numbers split around the trunks of two trees, their eyes peeking to where Alex was pointing. Ahead of them, far ahead them, a group of Fallen soldiers moved across the trails, disappearing again one by one as they followed each other.

Twenty-six, Cid counted. They were definitely still being searched for. How could they know? Were the Reavers on their scent?

He whispered at Alex. ‘Should we try the trees?’

‘It’ll slow us down considerably, but I don’t think we have much of a choice captain.’

‘Right then.’

Cid motioned for everyone to start climbing.

Great…’ Cid heard Brunick mumble.

Cid knew Brunick well enough to know that the big man could count all of his fears on two fingers; the first was magic, and the second one was heights.

 

 

The birds weren’t helping, scattering and crying in absolute terror as six desperate men flung themselves through their homes. Cid reckoned they were still safer up here, well hid and having the high ground should they be discovered.

The Biridian walkway was truly something remarkable. It wasn’t convenient or easy-going, but the very structure of these trees allowed the party to move about the forest using only the giant branches and bowls.

At some point they found a family of tree dwelling lemurs, the animals jumping playfully and effortlessly from tree-to-tree to mimic the men. The biggest enemy at this time was the noise they were inevitably creating. Even without all the animals they were stirring up, their boots on wood pounded like dull drums and the weaker branches could not help but sway and crack as their weight caused the fine Biridian leaves to go off in a chain of rustling.

The party kept a commendable pace even though it remained a perilous footing. The leaps were the worst, some trees requiring the party to take a proper run up to be able to jump to the next tree. Welce was the first whose jump caused him to skid as he landed, and lose his feet. As he fell he grabbed hold of the branch, hanging. Alex was there quickly there to help him back up and they resumed the pace without pause. Several times more someone nearly fell, Brunick cursing furiously when it was his turn.

They were making good way when Alex called for a halt again. Like before they huddled quietly, this time in the bowl of a single Biridian. Cid and Alex, at the edge, looked down at the forest trail.

Once again, this time in broad daylight, they spotted the Reavers. The party’s scent was clearly obvious to them and Cid reckoned that they were only still unfound because of the tree top path. It would only be a matter of time though.

The Reavers sniffed hungrily around the clearing below, their monstrous canine figures seeming perplexed by where Cid and his men could be.

‘There are only three of them, we can take ‘em if we surprise ‘em,’ whispered Brunick.

‘And announce ourselves to the entire forest? I don’t think so,’ rebuked Alex.

Brunick grunted.

It was painful, tired muscles cramping in the awkward positions forced on by the Biridian. The Reavers continued to snoop the area, abandoning their two legged endeavours and suddenly favouring all fours like the dogs they were. Clearly they were frustrated, their sense of smell telling them there was something close, but unable to pinpoint where to look.

Cid was sure that they would need to fight in the next few moments, when suddenly one of the Reavers shot out of the clearing below, growling with feral intent.

The soldiers went rigid as they heard an unknown human voice scream with horror. In astonishment Cid glanced at his men as though to make sure everyone was here with him. The two other Reavers followed their brother.

Cid dared to move, walking across the width of the bowl and laying down on his stomach on one of the boughs. He felt the other men creeping closer as well, settling behind him.

They saw it. Four men as far as they could determine, dressed in rough leather armours, their hair filthy and their weapons crude. They stood in a small circle.

Cid and the soldiers witnessed their last moments. The four unknown men had stumbled into the wrong part of the forest and paid with their lives for their mistake. The Reavers pounced on them, their trademark scimitars brandished with a kind of skill that did not suite these animals.

The untidily clad of men tried feebly to fight back, but the Reavers tore them to shreds within seconds. Terrible howls of victory filled the forest, the Reavers mangling the dead corpses with unnecessary cruelty, their jaws and ferocious teeth crushing hungrily into the flesh.

The party remained silent until the Reavers finally grew bored and cantered off, laughing like hyenas.

‘That was close,’ said Alex nervously.

‘Yes and it will be the death of us soon enough, we don’t stand a chance trying to fight them in the trees,’ said Cid.

Who were those men?’ asked Lidayel, a fear in his voice shared by them all.

‘I believe they were mere bandits, Alparack attracts all the wrong kinds,’ said Welce.

Man, did they choose to scour on a bad day. What would they be doing here though?’ said Brunick.

‘There are some rivers in these woods. They are mountainous, so I might say that they are sifting for gold in them,’ said Alex

‘Do we continue for the canyon sir?’ asked Girdo.

Cid thought for a moment, running maps through his mind and judging distances.

 

Round 9

 

-Stelinger had won the previous round, outclassing Cid just, tripping him and holding the staff to his throat. That was worth a win. Right now Cid was still channelling the rhythm he gained from round 8 and he could feel Stelinger giving way to a well-rounded attack pattern. Stelinger stumbled somewhat before Cid’s fury and then leapt backwards with the grace of a dancer.

Predictably Cid charged in to finish it. It should’ve have been over. Stelinger, as quick as a wink, slammed the staff into the courtyard sand and then kicked the loosened grains with the side of his foot with force. A hefty puff of sand shot up, catching Cid in the face and distorting his attack. Stelinger struck maliciously, finding mark on Cid’s suddenly exposed body every time until he could do nothing else than take a knee to signal defeat.

The men cheered at Stelinger’s display and Cid rose cursing himself.

Stelinger had remained mindful of his surroundings and I was overzealous, too hasty, to end the round-

‘No, there should be a river directly north of us right? It cuts right through Alparack and into the canyon,’ said Cid.

‘Yes sir, where the river hits the centre of the forest is supposed be Rattle point, but sir, that river is no more than a stream. It won’t help us in fighting the Reavers and we’ll be out in the open,’ said Alex.

‘I have no interest in fighting the Reavers Alex, all I want to do is travel upstream so that the Reavers lose our scent. We’ll turn around again when we’re in far enough and mount the Biridians once more.’

‘Geez captain, wouldn’t it be quicker just to dart for the canyon?’

‘We wouldn’t make it Alex, the Reavers are on to us,’ said Cid

‘But we’ll still be exposed if we travel in the stream,’ said Alex.

‘And right now it’s our best chance to get to the canyon without a following. Or get to the canyon at all for that matter,’ said Cid.

‘Right then, we’ll dismount here?’ said Alex.

Cid looked down the Biridian, frowning at the straight shot down its base with no real climbable surface to speak off.

‘Let’s find a different tree; this one makes me feel a little bit like Brunick.’

 

 

On solid ground again they followed a reasonable trail, using the sun to keep them heading north. It was an easier run than the tree tops, yet every step forward was met with a pounding trepidation in each man. The reason was that it would take but an instant for them to be discovered now and at the moment they did not stand a chance fighting while in the thick of the woods.

Another howl wailed through the woods, at least telling them the Reavers were not close, nor at where they were going.

‘How much farther?’ asked Brunick from the rear.

‘Nearly there, count to sixty,’ said Alex at the lead.

Even with Brunick running behind him Cid was aware of Brunick’s annoyance at the remark.

Without mishap the trail eventually opened itself, the Biridians thinning in the wake of the river. The sound of rushing water played soothingly on the men and at first, they each simply splashed into a trench where the water pooled waist deep. The fresh white foam was remarkably cold and all the more refreshing because of it. Cid placed his armour at the bank and his chest immediately became pinkish in response to the warmth-pinching cold river. None of them cared though, quenching their first, filling their water skins and rinsing the dirt and blood from their bodies.

They did not tarry or linger, the threat of danger not going to subside any time soon. They used the cloths from the packs to dry themselves and Brunick came up with the idea to use them as cloaks while running in order to dry them out as they moved. Dressed again the men kept to the stream, the water level quickly dwindling to ankle-depth the rest of the way up. In effect they were travelling away from the canyon now.

Cid expected Brunick to question the plan every step of the way. The fact that he didn’t confirmed how weary they all were. It worried Cid though, Brunick was often the one to disregard rational fear and it was his defiant personality that kept men’s hopes up.

Either way the water had been empowering, and the rest of the stream upwards accommodated a swift pace. It was crucial to keep to the water, as it eliminated both their tracks and their scent. The act had hazards of its own though. Wet boots and feet were a breeding ground for fungus and infection and Cid made a mental note to warn the men to dry their feet properly when the day was done.

They were barely a hundred yards further when Girdo cut his foot on a sharp unseen rock in the river bedding, tearing right through his boot.

They halted at Cid’s behest as Girdo removed the torn boot on the bank, painfully clutching his foot with wincing and curses. Alex, Brunick and Welce watched the perimeter, staring deep into the cavities of the forest for potential enemies. Cid took a look at the wound. Bandaging wasn’t going to help while travelling in the water, apart from that the pain would hamstring Girdo in any case. He looked at Lidayel.

‘I have no more healing scrolls Colonel, and I do not have the control I need to risk healing him normally,’ said Lidayel perceptively.

‘You must try,’ urged Cid, ‘if the Reavers catch a blood scent in the water then our endeavour will be for nothing.’

Lidayel consented, knowing that debating the point would not help the cause, hunching as he hovered his hand over Girdo’s foot; there would be no time for fancy herbs or antiseptics.

Lidayel became a mask of concentration, mumbling an incantation and Cid could not believe he was witnessing a Summoner struggling with a spell that a practiced mage could do effortlessly.

Nonetheless his endeavour was fruitful, Girdo’s foot repairing itself under a soft rosy light radiating from Lidayel’s hand. It was a blotched healing effort this time to be sure, as the cut became a curious ridge of calluses as it sealed. Girdo was not going to complain though and could voice nothing but thanks as he slipped his tattered boot back on and testing his leg. He smiled in the absence of pain. ‘Perfect,’ he voiced, despite the deformity.

Cid saw a faint look of personal satisfaction on Lidayel’s face.

By Cid’s Command Alex took the lead again as they continued upstream.

‘Hey Summoner, why do have to sing nursery rhymes while healing? I mean, you weren’t using a scroll just now right?’ asked Brunick.

Lidayel actually laughed. ‘The words itself are not magical. It is like I explained to Cid, magic is often about feeling. When a musician finds an inspirational a song in his head, he rushes to pen down the notes and words to preserve them. Our incantations work in the same way, the exact feeling needs to be replicated for the magic to work, especially in something as sensitive as healing. We are trained extensively to pair up the right feelings with certain gestures and words that come from the old tongue, so that when uttering them the feelings surfaces as it should. The words are a mental trick, a rhyme like you suggested, to put my arts through the right paces.’

‘Good to know, but what of magic that come from scrolls, like that eclipse you made?’ voiced Brunick.

‘You raise an important question. Some kinds of powerful spells are prepared beforehand and then bound with very specific rituals or incantations. From a tome or scroll a magician can read or enact the incantation. If successful someone like me can summon a spell through the vast Calophrite channels even if it was prepared thousands of miles away. Although it always takes some energy and control on the practitioners part proportionate to the magnitude of the spell.’

‘Guess there’s a lot more to it than what they’ve told us in the briefings,’ complained Brunick.

‘We spend many years studying and training Master Mason, do not berate yourself for not understanding all of it in a single exchange,’ said Lidayel.

‘You know Summoner, you practiced some pretty good control back there,’ praised Cid.

Lidayel nodded. ‘It will come with time, for now I have to take it easy, burning down the forest by accident isn’t one of my intentions.’

‘It would be great finale though; us, cornered by a thousand Fallen and you Summoner lighting them up! And we’ll all go down together while forest burns to the ground!’ said Brunick in a bout of cynical humour.

Hmm, Brunick is still vocal, guess I was worried for nothing.

‘Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that Brunick,’ said Cid.

 

 

With a mile behind them they abandoned the stream, turning on the south bank of the river again. They took a quick respite in the cover of some clustered bluegums, eating the last scraps of food from the packs. Cid had to force himself to stand up, the urge to just lie down for a minute becoming stronger. He knew the other men felt the same way.

Again they mounted the Biridians and this time, having hopefully confused the Reavers, they could make a direct shot for the canyon. They gained that rhythm again, as though they were getting better at jumping through trees. It was only Alex who ever seemed to have a complete hang of it, but it was expected as he had been a scout and forester since childhood.

They were making solid progress when Cid heard Brunick curse behind him -he was having the most trouble with this treetop path.

‘It’s only Cid who can come up with a plan where you find yourself backtracking all the way into enemy territory so that you can escape certain death!’ said Brunick, grunting as he made his jumps.

Girdo and Welce laughed in response.

Cid smiled quietly. There it is, I knew he was going to complain.

 

 

At sunset they came to a halt as it was due time for a rest. It was clear for all that they could not continue moving. They settled in the bowl of a big Biridian and Cid watched as the men laid down, each of them asleep within an instant.

Going to sleep hungry.

Going to sleep on the knotted branches of a tree.

Going to sleep with a murderous enemy on the search.

Cid removed his own armour and weapons, precariously tying them to hang onto a branch to create more space for himself in the bowl.

Traversing the Biridians had been even trickier than Cid had anticipated. Turns out nature didn’t coordinate Biridians to form a clear cut path for humans. Rather, they had to move in all directions, sometimes backtracking in order to find adjacent Biridians that were at eligible jumping distance. It was nerve wracking as well, making leaps from a tree to another, three dozen feet in the air with enemy patrols ignorantly passing by underneath. Of course these facts only caught up with you afterwards.

Wrought with paranoia Cid almost forced himself to stay awake. Rather he lied on his back with his hands behind his head, his eyelids heavy. The Reavers could so easily track them down, climb the trees and kill them in their sleep.

This was about as safe as they could get though and he could not afford not sleeping. Cid tried to press on, tried thinking about Lanston, about the army, about Elmira. Instead, his body took over and threw him into slumber.

Chapter 23

Tidings

 

Stelinger lingered, slowing down his horse so that eventually he became detached from the marching mammoth that was the Lanston army. Alongside him were Piatil and his personal mage, Reighler, disguised as a Sekhaimogist.

They came to a complete halt as they were joined by a rider coming down the west side ramp. The rider was dressed in Lanston armour, but like the mage he wasn’t a man loyal to the Kingdom.

‘Report,’ said Stelinger.

‘Both companies are destroyed sir, but there is no sign of Cid’s body…’

‘Explain this,’ said Stelinger, his temper coming to a boil instantly.

‘Their scouts picked up early on the Fallen. Cid went to aid Olum like you expected him to. Only thing is, with the combined strength of the companies Cid was able halt the Fallen ambush and escape right past them. That eclipse in the sky didn’t help either.’

‘What was that thing, was it the Priests’ doing?’ asked Stelinger angrily.

‘No sir, apparently the Fallen cornered a Forgotten Summoner on some conclave assignment. His powers were still non-coherent so he ended up creating that eclipse, sucking the daylight right out of the sky. The Reavers caught up with the soldiers after they escaped of course – they killed most of the men, but Cid…’

‘What about Brunick?’ asked Stelinger.

‘No sign of him either Commander, but that doesn’t mean that they are alive.’

Stelinger was fuming. Cracks were appearing in his plan. Already it was well known that Bennam was murdered. The assassin screwed up. And now Cid might still be alive as well…

‘Believe me, they’re still out there and are probably travelling with the Summoner now. Go back, tell the Priests to fan out and hunt down Cid and his men.’

‘I understand Commander, but what if Cid enters the canyon also? The Fallen can’t follow him then lest we force an unwanted encounter.’

‘We will kill him on sight as well; I’m going to assign the Rade’Remar hunter party to track along the forest border. Cid of House Rogana has just become a traitor to the Kingdom and an enemy of the Lanston army.

The fake soldier saluted and made way, retracing his steps into the forest.

Piatil gave Stelinger a cold look, one that did not hide discontent. ‘The men respect Cid, Stelinger. They will not be so easily convinced that he is a traitor.’

‘You are right on that, but it’ll help them to know that he was involved in Bennam’s murder,’ said Stelinger confidently, ‘send word to Lanston, warn them of Cid with all haste.’

Chapter 24

A Meeting Perchance

 

 

Something was going on at the Sagril residence, something other than Elmira that is, causing a much greater stir than she could ever hope for, and putting a strain on Fredrere’s face that was good to see.

A week later Elmira was once again waiting in Sagril’s lounge. She was fuming, so angry that she pictured herself strangling Fredrere. I wouldn’t get far though.

Being angry however gave her the edge over grief. She had signed herself over to marriage just like she had promised. It was a done deal, there was no escape now. Fredrere however had shown reluctance in assembling a force to send after Cid. His first excuses had been dreamed up nicely: “it’s a warzone; I need clearance before I can send any men in.”

He could have told me these little nuances before I signed the paper!

Elmira though knew that he shouldn’t have had much trouble getting authorization from the Dauflon of Lanston.

As it turned out he wasn’t really bothered about his end of the deal and she had come today to confront him over it. For now however Elmira was gripped with curiosity, the novelty of it tangling with her hotheadedness. Something else was definitely afoot here:

Upon entering Elmira stumbled onto a scene of Fredrere arguing with well-dressed men right there in foyer, the confronters’ backs covered by uniform cloaks of a rustic maroon; grand, tall and warrior like, maybe even royalty if Elmira didn’t know of better. Spotting her past the faces of his visitors Fredrere waved her into the lounge and took the discussion upstairs.

Sounds like Fredrere’s in a spot of trouble, good for him, thought Elmira maliciously, wondering at the same time who those men were.

It wasn’t a long wait before the men in the maroon cloaks came down again. Fredrere did not follow on the stairway and Elmira steeled herself to storm into his office if she needed to. Her idea was interrupted by these maroon cloaked men though, their attentions blocking her way.

Face to face with them Elmira could not hide her surprise, the look of Fredrere’s nervous face suddenly understandable. There were five of these men, and on the chest of each of their tunics was a coat of arms that could belong to only one force in the Kingdom; the Rangers of the Conclave.

What would they be doing here?

They were well groomed, their tunics and leggings a fine cut in the place of the armours they reputedly wore in battle. Each of them did carry a sword though, the hilts and scabbards well visible at their waists.

‘Are you the lady Elmira of Merrigil?’ prodded the leader, a man with dark hair and a stern face.

‘I am,’ said Elmira faintly, a torrent of fears flooding her thoughts.

What have I done?

‘My name is Olexion, First of the Rangers. Whatever business you have with Fredrere can wait. Please come with me, I suspect we have some equal interests to discuss,’ said the man formally.

Without being disrespectful there was no question in the man’s tone. He was essentially ordering her.

For a moment Elmira wanted to refuse, fearing the whole thing a ploy by Fredrere. Yet she felt the man had something important to say and allowed her to be led out of Sagril’s residence. Elmira had to admit that even in the most frustrating of circumstances that being escorted by a company of Rangers was a unique feeling, their dress ensuring that they were not mistaken as anything less than remarkable for even a single moment.

‘Do you know of a place where we can sit down in comfort and talk sensibly?’ asked Olexion.

Elmira thought hard, still wishing to judge the men she walked with.

‘There is a coffee house just down the road, it is expensive though,’ said Elmira, looking up at the leader. Doing so, she felt her quest to maybe expose these men had little merit. They were, to her eyes, true Rangers, if only for the reason that they were giving Fredrere some grief just a moment ago.

‘That’ll be fine, money is not a problem,’ said the leader without a thought.

 

 

Elmira usually attracted a healthy number of glances and today she did all the more so as the Kingdom’s finest guardians escorted her into Ritter’s coffee shop. Elmira asked for a discreet table in one of the corners, rather than her usual spot in the open. Seated, their petite serving girl could hardly hide her nervousness when taking the five men’s orders.

How do think I’m feeling girl? thought Elmira, as she sat among the warriors.

It became immediately clear to Elmira that the leader Olexion was not a man to mince words. He didn’t even wait for their drinks to arrive to start talking. He was clear-cut and precise and the story he told was a great confession of conspiracy.

‘Do you know why we are here?’ asked Olexion.

Elmira shook her head.

‘You are involved with Colonel Cid of Rogana, is that correct?’ said Olexion.

‘Yes,’ answered Elmira, not at all liking where this was going.

‘Then you knew Commander Bennam, or at least heard of him?’

‘Yes, I knew him personally,’ said Elmira, wondering if she was going to have to start lying at some point to protect Cid or herself from some imaginary prosecution that was taking post in her head.

Olexion was silent for a while, looking at Elmira steely, making his judgment.

What is it already!?

He then elaborated: ‘My men and myself were assigned to investigate the recent death of Commander Bennam of Alon. We came from Allandiel by flight, first securing the scene. There was little for us to investigate as far as the killer is concerned, but our pathologist took to the deceased and confirmed murder by poison.’

He let the statement sink.

‘So he really was murdered…’ murmured Elmira, ‘will you be able to find the killer?’

‘From the little evidence we could procure it was a hopeless pursuit to begin with, nonetheless we’ve all but abandoned the chase and delegated that responsibility down to local authorities.’

‘Really? Why would you?’ asked Elmira.

‘Because, strange as this may sound, we found that identifying the killer was the least of our problems. As you might guess the sheer magnitude of Bennam’s death gave us incentive to have a closer look, especially into the old Commander’s records. I had expected to find some oddities, such was Bennam, but I was a bit thrown when I realized the Commander was utilizing every last ounce of his authority shortly before his death.’

‘Umm, sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but right now there are very few things I really care about, what is it that I-?’

‘The Lanston military has been compromised,’ stated Olexion quickly to get Elmira’s attention, ‘there was a betrayal, and we are not sure what fate waits for the Lanston men deployed on Operation Biridian.’

Oh, no,’ said Elmira, wondering if the letter she got proclaiming Cid’s death had something to do with this. Could it have been right?

‘We got our first report from Commander Stelinger only recently. He stated that some of the soldiers turned traitor and sold out the army to the Fallen. He was adamant that these men would most likely have been connected to Bennam’s murder as well. According to the Commander your beloved, Colonel Cid, seems to be the centrepiece of this, travelling with likeminded companions and by the account a rogue Summoner as well,’ said Olexion.

Elmira leaned forward, her eyes wide. ‘No! You don’t know Cid, the army is his entire life! He would never-’

‘I did not mean to imply any betrayal on his part, my lady,’ said Olexion.

‘What then?’ asked Elmira.

‘You received letters this past week right?’ asked Olexion.

Elmira nodded, the words of the latter letter surfacing, making her eyes warm and teary.

‘One of the letters claimed Colonel Cid to be deceased?’ suggested Olexion.

‘That’s right,’ she spoke softly.

‘I assure you the letter is one of a kind, it was sent to you and only you, in all probability by Bennam himself. There is no military record stating that Cid is deceased. The information disclosed in that letter is deliberately inaccurate.’

‘You mean the letter is wrong! Cid is alive?’

‘We have no information to indicate otherwise, and we only heard of his supposed death when we spoke to Lord Fredrere. We were a little more than just baffled, so we took it as misinformation,’ said Olexion.

He’s alive! Elmira clamped her mouth with hands, tears of relief in her eyes.

‘Would you like a moment?’ asked Olexion.

‘No, please continue.’

Olexion smiled. ‘From what I’ve read I would not so readily suggest that Colonel Cid’s life is centred on the military alone my lady.’

‘Did you read all my letters?’ asked Elmira incredulously.

‘Yes, and had there been more, we would have read them as well. We do what we need to, and we have the means to reseal them as necessary.’

Elmira knew she would have to let the issue go. She’d like to get her way with anyone touching her personal messages, but the Rangers were somewhat outside the law by all accounts and trying to hold them to that was a fool’s quest.

‘Okay, so Cid is alive and I am glad, but can you please make me understand why Bennam was trying to give me a heart attack and why you are furrowing through my mail?’ said Elmira.

‘We needed to follow all leads. As for Bennam’s intentions, well, twenty-one years ago, before he returned to Lanston as the Commander he served as an operations intelligence specialist in Allandiel. It was a bit before my time of joining the Rangers, but I knew from reports and study that the man was wily.

‘Back then he was in charge of an operation called the Scourge, a Kingdom endeavour to rid the capital city of an underground alliance of corrupt families, their sole motivation to overthrow the King and the sovereignty. The details of this saga are truly unimportant in our current matter – Bennam’s methods at the time however, has relevance:

‘Commanding the Scourge, Bennam was in charge of assigning undercover specialists to infiltrate the rebel families. These spies though had little to no contact with Kingdom authorities once they went covert, yet they still required ways to be identified as friendly targets should the need arise for feedback or assistance.

‘As you might imagine the only way to truly pierce deep enough into such a tight knot of families was to have splinter agencies, enlisting men and women who were mostly nobles themselves, yet were not well known enough to be associated with the King, not in any loyal way that is. The idea was for them to appear as low-ranking yet resourceful nobles who wanted to live out their ambitions by joining the rebels.

‘The rebels welcomed this tactic, for it created an open channel and they sent spies of their own deep into Kingdom hierarchies without the authorities knowing of better. The coordination needed to carry day-by-day safe words was not practical and the small but efficient group of rebel spies took advantage of this system. A lot of Bennam’s personnel were dying and some of them actually did end up joining the rebels. The Kingdom intelligence needed some way of communicating loyalty that was standardized, and something that could bypass underneath enemy notice.

‘Bennam came up with the solution, retracting his most trusted and issuing them the means. He thus granted his agents immunity by writing them innocuous letters or certificates, mentioning a specific person in some way or another and putting it into circulation. These letters would easily pass the scrutiny of enemy spies. The ones relating to the men loyal to Bennam however, always had an invisible oil-based stamp on it. Needless to say the right men always knew what these certificates were and tested them against water.’

Elmira was listening intently, and she pulled the letter claiming Cid from her purse. ‘Show me,’ she said pushing out toward him.

Olexion took a few drops of tea from his cup and rubbed it over the corner of the letter. Barely visible, the stain seemed to lift a Sovereign insignia. ‘Oil and water repel each other, thus the oil outline is suddenly in contrast with the surrounding paper,’ explained Olexion.

‘Those unable to be recognized by such a letter would be jailed. There was no ambiguity about this safe word system and ensured the families downfall. This was Bennam’s idea and his signal, the plan was well documented after they eradicated the families. It is something I have studied in full.’

‘What does this make of Cid then?’ asked Elmira.

‘Bennam was waving a flag, a discreet one albeit, he was signalling my lady, so that we may know Cid is not a traitor,’ said Olexion.

‘So, if Bennam was determined to signal Cid as… but then why would he…?’

‘Stelinger’s report claiming Cid as the turncoat, and Bennam’s aver claiming otherwise paints Stelinger as our most likely traitor, I now have reason more than just suspicion to believe this.’

‘Stelinger is in charge of the Lanston forces and he’s the traitor?’ asked Elmira fearfully, ‘and he’s in league with the Fallen!?

‘Supposing I’m right the Lanston army will be in grave peril I’d imagine,’ confirmed Olexion.

‘Wait; if Bennam had the mind to save Cid from prosecution then he knew there would be betrayal. All along he knew? Did he promote Stelinger to Commander knowingly!?

‘Yes and more startling, he knew he was going to be killed, in fact he planned for it.’

He did? Stelinger was behind it wasn’t he?’ accused Elmira.

‘Extending our assumption, yes.’

‘Why didn’t he tell anyone, why did he do all this?’ asked Elmira.

‘My investigations to thus led me to conclude that Bennam was well aware of a betrayal in the Kingdom, perhaps of one even deeper than just Stelinger. Even as Commander though he was well watched and monitored – haunted even I would say. We Rangers are not the only ones who check letters. He could not raise his voice without someone breathing down his neck.’

‘Piatil,’ said Elmira in realization, ‘I always thought that little man was a menace.’

‘Bennam wasn’t one to go down without having his say though. His unusual display of pulling strings might have seem to be done in ignorance, simply consolidating whatever the enemy’s plan might be, but I would venture as far to say that he was preparing a counter measure, a plan that centres itself around your Colonel Cid and required the old Commander to keep quiet until the Lanston march commenced.’

‘He believed so much in this that he was willing to die for it?’ asked Elmira.

‘Maybe he had little choice, but there is no doubt that his sentiments were noble,’ said Olexion.

‘And his death?’

‘The man knew what he was doing, and the only way he could ensure his plight reached the highest echelons of power within the Kingdom was by making a statement.’

‘By getting himself murdered?

‘I’m glad to see that you are following. Bennam has long been known as one of the best military and political minds in the Kingdom and was exceedingly clever in execution. He could not contact Allandiel directly as you know. So I’d imagine, when the time was right, he’d let slip some indication that he knew of the betrayal in the Kingdom and he was taken out for it before he could warn anyone. This however like I told you, he expected, and he understood his death was the only thing that was going to lure me and my men out to investigate in isolation. When we did investigate our pathologist found an obvious trace of Ramonin poison in his body, a very poor choice for any would-be assassin given its overt symptoms on the skin. Because of this the pathologist took a closer look and continued to discover Bennam’s heart gave out to a much more subtle poison, identified as Wylt, unidentifiable unless someone has reason to cut into the body.

‘He was poisoned twice?’ asked Elmira disbelievingly.

‘Yes, technically it’s still considered murder because the unidentified poison killed Bennam first, the Ramonin though? We can’t think that any Assassin would bother using it, even in conjunction with Wylt, which rather leads us to believe that Bennam poisoned himself right before the assassin struck.’

What!?’

‘He knew what was coming. It was his way of ensuring that we know he was murdered and not suffered a heart attack like the enemy wanted us to believe. This is our most apt conclusion and it above all else alerted us that Bennam was trying to point us toward something, and all the while lull the enemy into thinking their plan was still on track. To make sense of it, the attack on Bennam must’ve been to keep the Lanston march unhampered. It predicts nothing good and is the reason we started the prolonged investigation in the first place and leaving the killer almost… unimportant,’ said Olexion.

‘Did Bennam leave you anything, something to guide you?’ asked Elmira.

‘Indeed, yet he was still reluctant in showing his hand, possibly in fear of his enemies coming down upon it by chance,’ said Olexion, withdrawing a white king piece from his vestment. Elmira looked curiously at the chess figurine.

‘We of course looked at his most recent war records and diary entries and while we learned much from it we still couldn’t get any decisive information.’

Olexion held up the white King. ‘We found this on his person though. Does it mean anything to you?’ asked Olexion, a hint of caution in his voice.

‘Well no, not personally. But Cid and Bennam used to play chess all the time. It really was one of Bennam’s pastimes and Cid always used to beat him,’ said Elmira, unsure whether she was helping.

Olexion started tampering with the shaft of the piece, twisting it carefully. The piece’s lower foundation came off and Olexion reached into the narrow top to pinch out a slim tapered paper.

Elmira almost gasped in surprise.

Olexion unrolled the paper and angled it for Elmira to read. The writing was tiny, but readable all the same courtesy of the old Commander’s neat handwriting. Its entire surface was used to pen out a few names:

Paul’op of Destinian Blacksmithies

Fredrere of Sagril

Elmira of Merrigil

Cid of Rogana

Stelinger of Priam

Piatil, of none

Brunick, of Masons

Vanapha of Rade’Remar

Lidayel, of Council

Luthren, of Council

Yarea, of Council

 

‘I don’t get it,’ said Elmira.

‘No one was supposed to get it my lady. These are just names of some very interesting individuals and we have investigated each and everyone since, some in person and others just by the records we have on them.

‘Bennam’s records coincided with each of these names, except for yours of course. These records show that he exercised considerable influence in his last days. For one, he ordered a massive amount of new weapons for the Lanston core infantry all the way from Morshiph, a conspicuous act on its own, let alone the fact that he noted that Stelinger was involved in the decision. For reasons unclear to me as of yet Bennam worked through the business network of Sagril, utilizing their shipping prowess at high expense.’

‘Is that why you were at Fredrere’s?’ asked Elmira.

‘Yes, though I’m afraid both he and his father Lord Salstrice are rather ignorant on the matter save for the transport of the weapons. Not that we are the wiser, we have yet to discern Bennam’s intent with this.’

‘So Sagril might be criminal?’ asked Elmira hopefully.

Olexion gave a one-sided smile. ‘I don’t think so my lady, but they are a defensive lot, rude as well, it might’ve given me great pleasure had I discovered they were underhanded.’

‘And these weapons…?’

‘…are another trail to follow, it’s suspicious on its own and gives us at least a faint hint on Stelinger’s motivation.’

‘So killing Lanston’s finest soldiers isn’t enough for Stelinger,’ fumed Elmira.

‘Yes, to be callous about it, killing a third of Lanston’s active garrison is barely going to hamstring the Kingdom. There is some other motivation I’m sure and the weapons must be central to Stelinger’s plan.’

Olexion looked down at the paper and trailed his finger across some names. ‘These three names; Luthren, Lidayel and Yarea, drew specific interest for us, since they are all well-known Summoners.’

Summoners?’ said Elmira in surprise.

‘Yes, the Kingdom dispatched two of these Forgotten Summoners to the warzone to test new magicks on the Fallen. Bennam however, reassigned them to exactly the spot where Cid’s satellite company was sent. This can be no coincidence; for it was here that the companies were supposedly sold out, ambushed and killed. Should Cid have run into these Summoners he might’ve survived, Stelinger’s attempt to have him killed foiled. Bennam’s preoccupation with Colonel Cid makes me think that whatever he was planning he was vesting his hope in your man.’

‘For what purpose? Why all the secrecy, why play along? If he was willing to get himself killed, why not stop the Lanston march somehow?’

Olexion shrugged, ‘that’s what we have to find out. But for now we have abstained from alerting the Kingdom.’

‘How come?’

‘The effort Bennam spent keeping everything as quiet as he could suggests he did not want anyone to know or get involved beyond us Rangers. For now I would respect that notion, as I am confident that the old Commander only sought to do what’s best for the Kingdom.’

Olexion moved on to the next name.

‘This Vanapha is a prominent Valkyrie of Rade’Remar, also part of a detachment issued to Alparack. The involvement of such specific names baffle me, I can only conclude that Bennam had something elaborate in mind.

‘We have looked into all these people by now. Bennam was clearly using the full width of his authority to set something up, and it would be impossible to know what he was planning unless we investigate further. Now; we know how Cid and Stelinger are involved. Which bring us to you.’

Me?’ asked Elmira in surprise.

‘Yes, why do you think I would be sitting here and sharing this information with you?’ asked Olexion.

‘Because my name’s on the list!’ said Elmira defensively.

‘And why would it be there my lady?’ asked Olexion.

Elmira shrugged. ‘You checked my mail right? That’s how Bennam planned it, he sent the letter anonymously to an unimportant person like me, the letter passed scrutiny and you got hold of it by seeing my name on the slip. That way you know Cid is not a traitor. That’s it, isn’t it?’

Olexion leaned forward in his chair. ‘Your deduction is correct, but the way I see it, you are one of the few persons Bennam felt he could trust completely and he knew you care about Cid more than anyone else. He must’ve disclosed information to you, or left something with you, anything. Something he couldn’t keep on himself… or put in a letter…’

Elmira shook her head. ‘He didn’t.’

Olexion sighed. ‘There must be some sense to this,’ he said, sitting back and putting his hands behind his head.

‘Why didn’t Bennam trust Cid though? Why would he leave something with me?’ asked Elmira.

‘Everything he did was to keep the game going. Operation Biridian might be compromised, but Bennam was certain he’d get his way in the end. His death for example was set specifically to get the Rangers involved, knowing we would have the means to properly investigate the tidings of Lanston. His secrecy however in each of his actions was designed to my best guess to let the enemy proceed with their plan, ignorant of Bennam’s intentions. I guess it’s safe to conclude that Operation Biridian was real enough for Bennam and he was going to have his swing at the enemy. His knowledge of the setup made for a rare opportunity, he consolidated the enemy’s plan and in turn it allowed him prepare an exact counter measure. One that would hit the Fallen hard.’

‘Bennam was a fool that way, he could cost much more lives than his own,’ said Elmira angrily.

‘I would like to agree with you, but I knew much of Bennam. He was a man who fought border wars my lady, never did he suggest risking it all, rather declining glory to ensure safety; it was one of his strengths as the Commander of Lanston. The mere fact that he would hatch such a ploy now makes me dually suspicious. Whatever it is he knew, it is something we must discover as well, for it is surely of grave importance to have driven the old man like this.’

‘What I don’t understand is, what could Bennam possibly expect Cid to accomplish? I mean, if Cid is running around without intelligence then what good is he?’

‘That question I would think is to be answered by the Summoners, I take it you know about the Forgotten?’

‘A little,’ admitted Elmira.

‘You see, Lidayel and Yarea are many decades old and are privy to information like you can’t even imagine. They are however, always forced to forget before going onto missions. If Cid could have managed to catch up with these Summoners and they remember…’

‘So maybe they know!’ said Elmira

‘Precisely,’ said Olexion, ‘and I’d think they would be able to supplement the dark spots of our intelligence.’

‘What exactly do you plan to do from here on out?’ asked Elmira, feeling their discussion was coming to a close.

‘We’ll look into the city for the rest of the day, see if we can’t pick up some more leads. By tomorrow morning we will set out for the Alparack valley. We will investigate the situation and if possible in any way make contact with Colonel Cid, his men and the Summoners, and to see if we can support them in securing Lanston’s safety.’

Elmira could not contain herself. ‘Can I come with you?’

Olexion was not used to being surprised this much and it took him a while to shake his head.

‘My lady, we will be travelling on Volje into an active battlefield. It will be neither comfortable nor safe.’

‘And I am promised to wed to a spineless man while the man I love is out fighting someone else’s war, trust me, I think I can bear a little adventure,’ pressed Elmira.

Again Olexion shook his head. ‘I sympathize my lady, but I cannot agree to this.’

Elmira could not let it go. She had one more hand to play and prayed she would not seem the fool. She reached into her bag and pulled out the stone Rebecca had given her. She held it up in the light from the window.

‘Does this mean anything to you?’ said Elmira.

Olexion’s expression remained unchanged; it was his eyes though that trained themselves on the thing in Elmira’s hand.

‘I thought you said-’

Gotcha, thought Elmira.

‘It was a gift from Bennam, his widow, Rebecca, gave it to me. What is it?’ asked Elmira curiously, enjoying herself.

Olexion was hesitant.

‘Here’s my offer Ranger; you explain to me what this is and I’ll come with you to Alparack, keeping it safe until we find Cid. Then, in exchange for your help the stone will be yours,’ said Elmira.

Olexion grunted. He was cornered, he had no other choice.

‘That lady, is an Alder stone. The Temple in Asheva collects them and they are used to magically store Summoners’ memories so that when used they may remember their past lives and reconcile their powers.’

‘Bennam wanted those Summoners in Alparack to remember something. He was laying out a trail,’ said Elmira, surprised by her own excitement. This story was much more interesting than anything else Lanston could offer her.

‘That would be my guess as well. My lady, I must insist on you giving the stone to us so that we may set out for Alparack by morning. If I can get the stone to the Summoners we will undoubtedly uncover Bennam’s secrets.’

‘No, the stone will be kept with me until I find Cid, you can take the stone along if you take me along,’ said Elmira determinedly.

Olexion wasn’t going to pretend that he was winning. He leaned forward. ‘We depart tomorrow morning at dawn. Make sure you are at the Castle gates by then. Our Volje are stationed there at the aviary, so we’ll take off from there.’

Elmira brightened.

‘You won’t regret it sir. Thank you,’ said Elmira. ‘Could you send someone to escort me from my house?’

‘You do not have guards of your own?’ asked Olexion disbelievingly.

Elmira shook her head. ‘I’m still confined to my father’s wishes and he will not allow me to leave without excuse. I simply need a valid way of getting out without him prohibiting me. If I’m to be summoned to the Castle by a Ranger my father will not interfere,’ said Elmira.

‘Very well, Troas here will be waiting for you at your house tomorrow morning.’

‘Thank you, I live-’

‘We know where you live my lady,’ said Olexion almost impatiently.

The Rangers paid for the drinks and departed without a further word.

Left alone Elmira was struck by the absurd occasion of meeting these Rangers and even more bizarre was this fable of betrayal they confided to her.

All she really cared about though was Cid’s well-being and for now she had hope. But there was something else, the promise of escaping Lanston set a great excitement in her; suddenly she felt involved in the matter as though she too would have a say in how life would turn out for Cid and herself. One thing she knew for sure was that this stone she carried was incredibly important, for otherwise the Rangers would not have wasted any more time on her. She also knew Bennam had deliberately intended it to come her way, so that the Rangers could get it from her.

He might not have banked on me coming along with the Rangers though…

As Elmira prepared to leave she thought about this man, Olexion. Everyone always held fantasies of the Rangers being chivalrous, courtly and crowd pleasers. Elmira would not dare question the Rangers’ bravery but there was something hardened about Olexion, like a man who had seen too much of life. It might’ve just been his personality, but his subordinates seemed to be much of the same.

Guess they won’t be the best company while we travel, not that it matters really.

Chapter 25

From Rade’Remar

 

 

The Valkyrie women caught up with the army that night. Their summons had come to Rade’Remar some weeks ago, theirs an independent city-state isolated from the world of men on a desert island. Although the Valkyrie were allowed to govern themselves they still fostered a loyalty pact with the Kingdom, which obligated them to serve when the calling came. They were a small group, being only eight of them, but made up for their lack of numbers with abilities unique to the Sisterhood.

Vanapha led them. She was the foremost and the Captain. They would stay clear from the army in general, rather preferring to tail the men from Lanston and identifying threats from a distance. Today however Stelinger’s messenger had routed back to find them, urging the Valkyries to meet with the Commander.

The army was preparing to stop for the night when the Valkyries walked into a camp busy assembling itself. This was no accident; with the men preoccupied with putting up their shelter the Valkyries might be less hindered on their way to the commanding pavilion. Even so, as they moved through the town of tents there wasn’t a single man who did not look up at them from his place of work or rest.

Hailing from the desert these women were proud warriors by nature. Tall, lean and muscular, and all that without betraying a single grace of feminine beauty. They were armoured in light steel breastplates, helms, greaves and bracers; enamelled to appear a grey-blue over their otherwise leather garments, their jerkins showing at the shoulder and collar, matching the tassets around their waists. Their thighs were bare above their greaves and boots, much more for mobility rather than teasing the men as they would so like to believe.

Each woman shouldered a composite long-bow and a quiver of 50 arrows.

Just by listening to the whispers of the other men someone ignorant would soon discover the Valkyries to be archers of world renown. Their secondary weapons were mostly swords at the waist, and two of them also carried spears with which to counter mounted forces, or more likely in the canyon, charging Reavers. It was nevertheless their skill with a bow that made them strike helpless fear into their enemies. Contrast to her sisters Vanapha’s armour was enamelled a dark red, signifying her as the Captain.

Lanston soldiers drew closer to the sight of the Valkyries like moths to flame, their gazing almost shameless. Vanapha kept her face cold and held her sights on Stelinger’s tent; she was pleased to know her sisters were doing the same, and pleased to know that their helms blocked out most of their faces.

The relationship between the Kingdom and the Valkyries was strenuous at best. The Kingdom did not believe that all allies were equal, and made they very clear that the only reason the Valkyries could live in peace on their island was by the Kingdom’s goodwill. The Valkyries did not share this sentiment, seeing themselves more than capable of fending for themselves. Nonetheless, their enemies were always mutual, and their interests more or less aligned. The allegiance was beneficial, and far outweighed what would come to pass should the east ever crumble to the fallen masses.

During the walk through the camp Vanapha kept glancing at the sky; she was not alone. Shaki-Halima the green had made a sudden appearance, a mid-sized moon with an emerald glow, a jewel of the sky and associated with so many things mystical. Even the Valkyries were surprised at its appearance, or rather, they had expected a different moon entirely at this point in time.

Upon entering they found Stelinger’s pavilion crowded with men. They were his guards, his magi, and also, unbeknownst to the Valkyrie, Colonel Drissil. The interior for now was a mess of tables and maps, certain to be cleared later to accommodate a couple of sleeping pallets

They came to a crowded halt and Vanapha made the first gesture, removing her helm and saluting this new Commander. She had worked a couple of times under old Commander Bennam and she now realized she hated coming to terms with a new commanding officer.

Stelinger was dressed casually and didn’t respond favourably to the Valkyrie.

‘Best trackers in the world and you show up now?’ stated Stelinger.

The women from Rade’Remar were hot-headed to the last and it was only by Vanapha’s composure that Stelinger wasn’t crushed under a storm of retort. There was some serious staring though.

‘Since we’re all so very merry I’ll make this brief,’ said Stelinger coldly, ‘I have a rogue Colonel running loose in the valley. He has already cost me four hundred soldiers’ lives and he might still continue to jeopardize our operation. We suspect he sold the army out to the Fallen. He travels with a spear and his accomplice carries an axe. Also, he seems to be accompanied by a Summoner, so practice caution. Find them as quickly as you can and kill them, show no mercy.’

‘Alparack Valley is huge, even with our Farsight it may prove difficult to track them down promptly,’ said Vanapha.

‘I’ll give you something to look for then,’ said Stelinger, drawing his sword.

Vanapha went rigid with alarm, but the Commander merely held the sword toward her.

Touch it, take it in, Cid’s spear is made from the exact same steel.’

Vanapha motioned at Claire, the group’s foremost Star·Seer, to approach.

The raven haired girl came to stand at Vanapha’s side, then touched the flat side of the blade. She closed her eyes for a moment, frowning, as though she was tasting the metal of the sword with her fingers. She drew back some time later, her face going pale, yet remained silent as she retreated behind Vanapha again.

‘There, you should be able to find him now, report to me when they’re dead, and bring me the spear,’ said Stelinger callously, ‘that is all.’

The Valkyrie saluted in silence and left the tent.

Vanapha was relieved to be out Stelinger’s face. She now knew that she definitely preferred old Bennam. This new Commander was a menace.

‘Claire, what is it, you look like you’ve seen a ghost?’ asked Vanapha outside.

Claire waited until they were out of the thick of listening ears. ‘Funny you should mention that Captain, I might as well have – it was as if the Commander’s sword was alive.’

‘A weapon of Ruin?’ asked Vanapha.

‘I cannot be sure, but what else could it be?’ said Claire.

‘You will be able to find this man Cid though?’ asked Vanapha.

Claire nodded. ‘As long as he carries his spear, yes.’

‘Then let’s get out of this camp and be done with it, we’ll be going home soon enough,’ said Vanapha encouragingly to all her sisters.

Chapter 26

Suspicion

 

 

Night-time was an entity of its own down in the depths of the canyon. What was a beautiful play of red and orange colours from the rocks during dusk and dawn became an incredibly dark act at night. Coming on the heels of the last of daylight was the howling wind, descending from the mesas and plateaus, gaining a ghostly fury as it sailed through Fafriv. It blew unwelcomed dust it as came, rocking the tents and dousing the fires. Irritable the men would get their spare leathers, cloaks and buckskins and erect makeshift barriers as they spanned them between their tents to protect the campfires.

Drissil himself could not stand the wind, cursing it. The word was strong around the camp, its implications causing hundreds of men all around whispering in arguments and conspiracies.

Drissil wasn’t convinced. Cid of Rogana, a traitor? A fool in some way, sure… a traitor? I don’t think so.

Drissil had at least expected Stelinger to capture Cid before condemning the man to death, to give him chance of trial or interrogation. This was why Drissil didn’t trust Stelinger, why he had wanted Cid to get the promotion instead. Whether Stelinger was in the right or not Drissil was suspicious.

Hell, since Bennam’s death everyone’s been suspicious, an inevitability given that Cid, the deemed culprit, was one of the most trusted men in the army. On top of it, they were out in unfamiliar territory and the very man who had conceived the operation was murdered.

Very encouraging, thought Drissil sarcastically.

Lying on his conscious now was the fact that Drissil was actually present when Stelinger assigned the Valkyries to hunt Cid down and he could do nothing to stop Stelinger. The Valkyries would, if their reputation was anything to go by, arrow Cid and his men down without them even ever knowing they were being tracked. Drissil rolled his shoulders uncomfortably at the prospect of an innocent Cid killed by his own Kingdom.

The facts substantiate Stelinger though; Cid might as well be traitorous, thought Drissil. Even then he didn’t believe it.

Drissil knew Stelinger didn’t like Cid, but why hinge off and redirect valuable forces, straying from the plan and thus endangering the army?

Drissil was however in no mind to challenge Stelinger on Cid’s situation. He was content to watching things unfold like they should. Whether or not Cid really was a traitor, Drissil would be ill-advised drawing Stelinger’s attention.

One thing was for sure, the little trust he held for his new Commander was being blown away like the dust by the howling wind.

Chapter 27

At Beck and Call

 

Stelinger slept, rolling onto his back. He let go the defences of his mind and allowed himself to be lulled into the warmth of the magic, leaving everything real and sensible far behind. It would not be his first time, and had been expecting contact for some while now.

Just like a dream Stelinger had no reference of when it started, merely finding himself walking through a void of nothing more than dark mists swirling all around him. He could move his feet, yet it brought him nowhere, the void continued ever on. This was a dream to be sure, but he knew it was nothing ordinary.

He waited, and then even before the man appeared he felt somebody else touching upon his consciousness. Arumcas stepped forward, looking just like he did when Stelinger had met him in the flesh. Tall, a gaunt face, and a dark curtain of hair that fell onto his shoulders. Stelinger had little doubt he was staring at the most dangerous man in the world.

He would rather ally himself with such sooner than later. In some way he was already the Summoner’s champion, but right now he was fearful in the light of Cid’s survival.

Arumcas’ magic allowed dreamers to make contact hundreds of miles apart and he didn’t put it past the Summoner to be able to hurt or kill people in this way as well.

‘It’s been awhile,’ announced the Summoner.

‘Yes Master, the operation has developed much since we last spoke. I’m regretful though to report that Cid of Rogana is still alive.’

‘How so?’

‘He fought his way past the trap, by chance he picked up a stray Summoner on a Kingdom mission and it gave him the means to get out of the ambush,’ said Stelinger.

‘A stray Summoner?’ asked Arumcas, sounding more curious than annoyed.

‘I had Piatil look into it. Two Summoners were dispatched to Alparack’s veil to test new Kingdom magicks. The full details as you might imagine are not available to us here at the warcamp.’

‘And what will you do about Cid? I do not need to tell you that he is the single greatest threat to the plan.’

Stelinger afforded himself a smile. ‘Bennam’s best intentions will serve us once more. He requested assistance from the Valkyries for our march north, and I have already assigned a group of them to track and hunt down Cid.’

Arumcas nodded, considered his words and then said:

‘I found you as a man open to the possibilities of power beyond the mere echelons of the Kingdom. I shaped you, and I iterated upon you that there is no backing out, no failure. If we succeed, the Kingdom will fall and give way, and you will claim your place at my side in our new society.’

‘I have dedicated myself wholly to that end, Master,’ said Stelinger, fearing that Arumcas was also emphasizing what would happen to him if he did not succeed.

‘Then we understand each other. We will speak again, soon,’ said the Summoner, fading out of the dream like a ghost.

Stelinger shivered, sure that he was doing so in his pallet as well. He’d like to think that he feared no living man, but this Summoner was far beyond any normal human and revelled in the death of others. He understood well that if he allowed Cid to disrupt the plan Arumcas might well kill him as punishment. Pushing these notions aside he closed his eyes and waited patiently for the dream to end.

Chapter 28

Traitors

 

 

By sunrise they were on the run again. Hungry and tired they were, yet Alex assured them the canyon was close now and it spurred them all on to keep moving. At some point they abandoned the treetop path, choosing the ground trail as they were nearing the end of the forest border.

The trees finally thinned out and the men slowed their pace, the earth already much harder under their boots as they neared the ridge.

Up ahead, gaped the canyon. For the first time in more than a week they could breathe into horizons, the blue sky vivid to their eyes, the forest a maze best left forgotten. The cliff leading into the canyon below was quite a sight by itself. Earthquakes or some other seismic activity had started the scar through Alparack, while wind and flash floods had cut the passes deep and smooth. Growth was sparse inside the canyon self as it accommodated mostly bushels and succulents, the occasional twenty feet tall cacti a remarkable feature among its otherwise bland plethora of rocks and stones.

Cid and Alex quickly studied the landscape, trying to discern exactly where they were.

‘Captain, I think the ramp is south of us, we already passed it. I wouldn’t advise trying to scale down here,’ said Alex, looking down the cliff face.

‘I think you’re right, let’s move,’ said Cid.

All along the ridge they travelled, sticking close to the forest edge so that they could easily get out of sight if needed to. They did not have to run far to spot the ramp and again they drew strength from knowing they were headed for salvation.

The only one remaining sceptical was Lidayel, Cid keeping a close eye on him, knowing that the Summoner would face some reprimand or another.

Already Cid started preparing his report to Stelinger. There were many things he could say, but there was no way of doing it without having to admit that he had failed to keep the men safe.

They descended along the ramp, the forest already feeling far behind in exchange for the canyon’s rugged surface. Cid and company had barely made it down the ramp when it happened:

Two Lanston riders came at them from the south, having spotted them. The speed of the horses kicked up dust and rocks, and the riders shouting at each other. They seemed to be arguing.

Cid was too weary to even register that they were in danger, yet unsure why they were being approached with such fervour. Wide-eyed they stood as the leading Lanston rider eventually disregarded his companion and skilfully aimed his bow in the saddle, directing it at Cid.

The arrow sung.

They barely jerked out of the way, the arrow finding mark in the ground behind them.

‘What the hell!?’ shouted Alex, Brunick grumbling a string of curses as well.

The man was already aiming again, now closing in on them. The second rider however was not in the same mind. He pushed his horse and closed in on his partner. With another shout he lunged at his mate and pulled him from his horse at speed, both of them going down hard.

In pain and anger the two men rolled, their voices still rampant.

Cid was at a loss, and it was Lidayel who rushed forward. Like a snake Lidayel’s hand shot out and grabbed at the squirming figures. His hand closed in across the attacker’s face. His gesture was met with a small flash of light and the man slumped into unconsciousness in an instant. Lidayel helped up the other man.

‘Don’t worry, your friend here is only sleeping, he’ll wake within the hour,’ reassured Lidayel.

The amiable Lanston soldier shook his head in dismay and removed his helm. Cid identified the man as Harlem, a talented scout and outrider.

‘Did the Priests get to this man?’ asked Cid apprehensively, already assuming the answer.

Harlem though, had something different to say.

‘Afraid not Colonel,’ said Harlem, the man’s face sweating and unsure in the heat of the canyon.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Cid in confusion.

‘Colonel, I don’t know, something is wrong, I’m not sure whether I can trust you… but I have always felt you held the Kingdom’s best…’

‘Get to the point Harlem,’ said Brunick sternly.

For the first time Harlem met Cid’s eyes directly. ‘You are Colonel no more Cid, and you, and anyone found at your side, are to be considered traitors and enemies of Lanston.’

What!?

‘By order of Commander Stelinger you, Brunick and Alex are to be hunted down and killed on sight, for betraying and endangering the army, and also for being identified as conspirators in the murder of ex-Commander Bennam.’

The canyon wind played a dreary tune to the silence as the soldiers swallowed hard on this one, even Lidayel looked distressed, despite having predicted a scenario along these lines.

‘Commander Bennam is dead?’ asked Cid finally, a blunt pang hitting him.

‘Murdered a fortnight ago just outside Lanston. We got word by letter a few days past.’

‘It can’t be,’ muttered Brunick, dumbstruck.

Cid looked hard at Harlem, his instincts to act decisively on the present competing with the news of Bennam’s death.

‘You don’t believe that we’re traitors, do you Harlem?’

Again Harlem’s eyes were unsure, looking at his feet, shaking his head. ‘No, I think the Commander has made a grave mistake,’ he said carefully.

‘This is no mistake,’ said Lidayel strongly. ‘Cid, I warned you against this, the army has been compromised and whatever way this war ends it’s not going to be in favour of the Kingdom!’

‘And I’ve told you before; I would rather trust my fellow soldier than you Summoner!’

‘Colonel,’ started Harlem, ‘I would suggest you and your men disappear until you have a leg to stand on. Commander Stelinger has assigned the Valkyrie hunters to track you down.’

‘Great!’ said Alex sarcastic exasperation, ‘maybe we should find refuge with the Reavers, maybe they’ll take us in! Do you think we might get pack privileges?’

‘Not now Alex. How does Stelinger know we still live, Harlem?’ asked Cid.

‘A rider joined with us from the west three days ago, shortly after those wounded men you send back, claiming that he was the lone survivor of a great Fallen ambush, that you and your men,’ pointing his finger to Brunick and Alex, ‘were collaborating with the Priests.’

‘This is a setup!’ cried Brunick in dismay.

Cid’s mind prodded at possibilities, but for now only one clear answer came to the fore: Flee!

He took a moment to decide and looked at Welce and Girdo. ‘The two of you should return with Harlem to the camp. They would have assumed you dead, so they will not think you traitors. If anyone asks you tell them that you’re not sure what happened out there and that I had blindly led the company to their doom, okay? Don’t incriminate us, but say what you need to say to keep yourselves safe, you got that?’ said Cid.

Welce and Girdo nodded solemnly.

Cid looked at Harlem again. ‘When the time is right, I will return to sort this mess,’ he said firmly.

‘Watch your back Colonel,’ said Harlem, tossing both his and his companion’s food sacks at Cid’s party.

They were off again in an instant, Harlem, Girdo and Welce staring in silence as they traipsed up the ramp and vanishing into the forest once more.

 

 

***

They were on the trot, each of them already nibbling at the dried meat Harlem had given them, their mood sullied that the forest was brought back so swiftly to their travels.

‘So what do we do now?’ asked Brunick.

The party had been reduced to three soldiers and a Summoner. Make that three tired traitors and a rogue mage too scared to use his own powers because of memory lapse. Things are not looking good.

‘I don’t know Brunick, for now we keep running, from anything and everything trying to kill us.’

‘How about returning home? I don’t want to sound like a coward, but wouldn’t it be best to return to Lanston and clear our names, or at least get out of this mess?’

‘I would not count on it Brunick, they would expect us to return to the Kingdom. If we really are believed to be traitors then Stelinger would have alerted both the border and city authorities.’

‘So that’s it? We just head north, not knowing what lies ahead?’

‘We know exactly what lies ahead. The bulk of the Fallen force has yet to meet the army. The safest place for us might well be as close to the point of impact as possible, strange as that may sound.’

‘We’re heading for Jacanta then?’

‘Exactly that, in the meanwhile we have to avoid contact with both Fallen and the Valkyrie.

 

Round 7

 

-it was a stalemate of sorts. The break had been brief and both Cid and Stelinger were wary of each other. Defences had already been tried and tested and the victory would simply fall to the man who kept his cool. It was a faire of short careful strikes and solid blocks, almost like an unofficial agreement to remain conservative and see who would slip first. It was Stelinger who broke the rhythm, suddenly swinging the staff recklessly from all directions, driving Cid back, forcing him to defend with great effort.

Cid had suspected that the best option would be to counter with equal measure, rather he engaged himself in blocking every strike. It was a mistake and made it all only a matter of time. Stelinger was on the front foot and his multidimensional attack broke Cid’s fortitude piece by piece, until his defence was a moment too slow. It was a stalemate of sorts no longer, as Cid got a sharp lash on the stomach. Instantly Cid shot his hand up, resigning as he knew that the round could only induce further pain-

 

Now however Cid had no intention on being crushed from all sides, whether by Stelinger or otherwise. He would go on the attack. They would risk much, but travelling to Jacanta point would still allow them to have a say should Lanston and the Fallen meet in combat. The only way they could possibly return to the Kingdom safely now would be with the army, heralded by the men as patriots, not traitors.

For that to happen Cid would have to show face at Jacanta and he would have to influence the battle in some way. Getting close to the army though would be a problem again on its own.

Breathing tiredly Cid’s gaze fell on his tunic; the green fabric bloodstained and torn. He found it difficult to feel like a soldier at all anymore, and much less one from Lanston.

Chapter 29

Guarded Truths

 

 

Inside the pavilion Drissil had lost his cool.

What started out as a mere enquiry was now a raging argument. He had been content with letting Stelinger enjoy his new high of power and intent on staying out of his way. Declaring Cid a traitor had already been a reach, but Drissil had trusted the Commander enough to let it go. Compromising the army’s safety however, was something Drissil would not stand for.

In the last few days Stelinger had let the march advance even in the absence of feedback from the satellite companies. Of course, by now everyone knew that Cid and Olum’s companies were utterly destroyed, but made it no less crucial to scout the surrounding valley, especially now that they had a blindspot. Not knowing the area was the quickest way to lead the army into harm’s way.

Then, whenever Stelinger did use scouts it was only men from his own regiments, men chosen by him who were either working under him back during his incursions or worse still; men who had never even been in the Lanston military before now. These men reported to him and only to him. In private he conferred on their intelligence, making the excuse that he wasn’t sure who to trust and was keeping things closed up to those ends. Colonels Margo and Atolyn were too fresh from captaincy to raise an issue, but from Drissil’s point of view it seemed as though Stelinger was deliberately isolating the Colonels from the army.

It’s absurd!’ Drissil had slipped at the end.

He knew then he was in for an earful and as was expected left Stelinger’s tent with the Commander’s words still stinging him, ‘If you deem yourself to be of superior judgment, then by all means, take your cavalry and go scout Alparack’s veil, it’s not as if one of our Colonel’s hasn’t already jeopardized this entire operation because of bitterness! Remember Drissil, I am under immense pressure here; the entire Kingdom is counting on Lanston to clear the way for the invasion, for the end of the Fallen! If you have nothing else to complain about then leave me, go now…’

Somewhat deterred by Stelinger’s words Drissil wandered aimlessly through the camp. They had come to an early halt today, a lack of intelligence preventing them from going into the narrows until they were more enlightened on their enemies’ positions.

Why bother today? We’ve been marching blind till now anyway…I could really use a drink, thought Drissil frustratingly by himself.

Their storage tents did hold some ale, which they used sparingly to be sure. He made his way to one of these. Predictably he found plenty of soldiers gathered indifferently around the distinct white storage tent, its pallor already dusted by the canyon winds.

It was so arranged among the ranks that only a Captain or higher-ups could authorize some drinks for the men. Cunningly the men would thus wait at the tents, pretending to be lounging or nibbling at some food, waiting for a dry-mouthed senior officer to come and cool his throat. Obviously any officer serving his own thirst would be obliged to agree to dispense for all the soldiers within earshot.

Drissil did not hesitate, not today, it was trying enough without having to worry about Stelinger. He signalled for the men to set the flow and he was soon handed a wooden mug as the men all around cheered on his name.

Nothing like a spot of ale to win some short-term loyalty.

The beverage wasn’t chilled, but it was a great deal better than drinking water all day. Without saying the soldiers were not allowed to get drunk on the march, but a mug or so for the slow days helped keep their spirits up and it was here more than anywhere else that gossip made its great appearance.

Like an outdoor military tavern, thought Drissil.

Most of it was useless information and petty family stories, and Drissil was so used to channelling it out of mind that he almost missed an interesting bit of news. Had it not been for his discussion with Stelinger minutes earlier he might not have paid attention it at all.

He approached the soldiers in question.

‘Hold up soldier, what did you just say? Is this Girdo and -’ asked Drissil motioning with his hand for the man to continue.

‘Welce is his name sir. They returned. Apparently they are survivors of the ambush that took out Colonel Cid’s and Captain Olum’s companies.’

‘They are here now!?’ asked Drissil.

‘Yes sir, I heard Harlem found them while scouting the pass to the north. I still can’t believe Colonel Cid -’

‘What’s your name soldier?’ asked Drissil.

‘Frask sir, and this here is Derowin.’

‘Good. Take a barrel there and follow me,’ said Drissil.

Surprised and slightly hesitant the two men hefted a heavy barrel of ale and followed the Colonel.

At the far side of the camp Drissil found a tent pitched open at the side where Harlem, Girdo and Welce sat. He had been roughly guided by a great many soldiers as he asked for directions through the maze of tents. Frask and Derowin still followed him, bravely carrying the heavy barrel.

Clearly nervous, Harlem and the two newly returned men sat in tight triangle, speaking in hushed tones. They immediately grew silent when they saw Drissil approach.

They’re hell out nervous about something alright.

‘Hello boys,’ said Drissil as cheerfully as he could muster, ‘good to see you back among us.’

Drissil motioned for Frask and Derowin to stand closer.

Minutes later the six men sat in the tent, the barrel emptying quickly as they talked into the night. They weren’t drunk, but Harlem’s group had accepted three rounds of ale without protest.

Whatever the story, Drissil could understand why the men would be rattled, but Drissil wanted to know exactly why. He would have preferred not to have Frask and Derowin around, but he figured the numbers of their seemingly casual gathering of soldiers helped ward off suspicion from anyone else.

Even tipsy Girdo and Welce talked vaguely, trying to avoid pointing fingers, Drissil growing impatient.

‘Tell me about Cid, did he betray the Kingdom like the Commander claims?’

The three men were silent and unsure.

‘Whatever you may think I am your side, I only want what is best for the Lanston army, I have no time for Stelinger’s feuds or agenda.’

It was Harlem who spoke first.

‘Colonel, my scout partner Julian and I encountered Cid…’

After Harlem’s brief account Girdo and Welce took over, explaining their tale from the beginning. The facts they requited were almost fabled and in any other instance Drissil would have been unlikely to believe them.

‘Cid, or well, the Summoner and Lieutenant Brunick at least seems to believe that someone betrayed them, deliberately endangering the west side satellite companies,’ said Girdo carefully.

‘You mean to say they suggested that Commander Stelinger wants Cid dead?’ asked Drissil without shame.

Welce grimaced, scratching his head and nodded in the process.

Drissil was well aware of how uncomfortable the men were, including now Frask and Derowin who listened in as well.

‘Hmm, what about your friend, Julian? Did he report to Stelinger when he woke?’ asked Drissil.

Harlem shook his head, ‘couldn’t remember a thing. I don’t know what the Summoner did to him, but when Julian came to it was as if that part of his memory was erased. Luckily I realized what happened immediately so I told him he simply fell from his horse and hit his head, which worked because I had to tackle him from horseback when he tried to charge at Cid.’

‘He used to work under Stelinger back then, right?’ asked Drissil.

‘Yes, almost all the core scouts are now men affiliated with Stelinger,’ said Harlem, himself on the verge of admitting suspicion of Stelinger, ‘when we first saw the drafts of the designated scouts I was pretty sure I had only made it because I’ve been an outrider all of my career.’

‘Are you still taking point?’ asked Drissil.

‘The Commander truly knows nothing of what happened I am sure. Tomorrow I’ll be back setting the pace Colonel,’ said Harlem.

‘Good. We need men out there who we can trust. Thanks for telling me all of this lads. I’ll back you up should you come under cross from authorities. Just keep your heads down and leave it to me to get the truth out. I don’t care whether it’s Cid, Stelinger, or the both of them living out agendas; I won’t let them endanger the army. Report to me directly if you come across anything else worth noting. Come on, let’s have a last round.’

Chapter 30

A Prayer for the Road

 

 

Alex led to them to a cavern in the canyon at sundown. It did not go deep as far as the party was concerned, its space allowing only small hares or rodents past fifteen feet in.

The entrance at least was well enclosed by a neck of rock and it allowed them to mercifully light a small fire. They did however have to use flint and tinder as Lidayel was reluctant to use any magic and especially the likes of fire he told them. They constantly fed the ever dimming fire a snack of twine and twigs, the only real kindling they could use right now. Solemnly they ate the fruit from the food sacks Harlem had given them.

Cid realized that at least one of them should have complained that the fire’s light and smoke was going to betray their location, but no one did. The fire was an extra companion, the night time visitor there to listen to all the troubles that could only be spoken through a grim silence. Brunick sat close to the light and it wasn’t long before he took out a tiny pocketsize pig leather booklet from his vest.

Cid had seen the book a thousand times; Brunick carried it with him everywhere. As usual it was a somewhat comical image, seeing the big man sitting hunched and crossed legged, cradling the book in his meaty hands. Brunick read intently in the meagre light offered and Cid wanted to smile at the familiar sight.

He found he could not.

With his arms around his knees Cid kept a locked gaze with the paltry flame. It felt like he was staring at his own hope, wavering in the canyon wind that managed to sneak into their enclave, on the verge of dying out, saved merely by that it did not have anything better to do than just survive.

Bennam is dead…

The thought came gradually and it was the kingpin of insanities that plagued Cid right now. Commander Bennam had always been the face of the Lanston military and his death only fuelled Cid’s alienation with the army.

Deemed traitor, possibly murderer in the eyes of some. We might lose the war, we might die… even should we live I will lose Elmira.

Still Brunick was flipping through the small vellum pages, oblivious of the world around him. It was something to envy, Cid decided.

Brunick was a born into the brotherhood of Masons. Cid had always known this, first discovering when they met as adolescents. The Masons were a small order, claiming to be descendants of some of the finest stone working families in the world. True enough the greatest buildings within Asheva were crafted and designed by Brunick’s ancestors. In general the Masons were all burly and strong like Brunick, and almost all as vocal as well. Growing up in the sanctuary woods of Orlo, it was ironic, yet not illogical, that Brunick’s choice weapon was that of a lumberjack rather than the trademark hammers of the Masons.

The real distinction of the Masons however came by their religious teachings. It was well known that the Masons subjugated themselves under a being called the Benevolence, claiming an intimate connection with a deity concerned with all humanity’s well-being. In contrast, the people of Asheva was cautious toward it, for the Kingdom’s very existence was inspired by men fighting the Summoners who would claim themselves masters over humanity. In the far west, past the impassable Starwall, it was said to have a city where the Benevolence slept and watched over the world. But here in the east, having no contact with the west, the idea of a Benevolence was unfamiliar to anyone outside of the Mason circles.

Cid was undecided about how he felt about it all.

He had to admit that he was sometimes curious and jealous of Brunick’s faith. It was straightforward, yet it allowed Brunick to carry himself with such confidence. Or maybe that’s just who he is?

‘We are failing,’ uttered Cid before he could stop himself.

Brunick looked up, closing his booklet, his hands swallowing it. Brunick did not meet Cid’s gaze, rather tossing another few twigs into the fire. He then stood up gingerly and sat closer to Cid.

‘We have people counting on us Cid. We’re in the roughs now to be sure, but we have to survive, we have to get out of this.’

‘I am not saying I’m giving up. ‘I’m… making a remark… I can’t believe Bennam is dead, he was…’

‘A great man,’ finished Brunick. ‘No matter what’s going down it doesn’t change what we need to do Cid. You know this. We still have our responsibility to the Kingdom and you still have to win Elmira’s hand.’

‘I wish it were that simple, that the Kingdom would so willingly give me Elmira if only I could be an inspiring Colonel,’ said Cid hopelessly.

‘No, it’s not that simple, they won’t divert her hand from Fredrere just for a Colonel, you know that.’

Cid stared hard at Brunick, a flash of anger rising, not sure why the man was changing his tune after planting the idea with the Colonel in the first place.

Brunick continued, ‘they’ll give Elmira’s hand to war hero, nothing less, and I never intended to say it otherwise.’

Cid remained impassive for awhile, ‘and you’re certain I’ll come out as such? And in these conditions?’

‘I’ve never known a war in which you didn’t come out a hero Cid, my occasional wagering is not a gambler’s habit, I have faith in you because I know the man,’ he said, pointing directly at Cid.

Cid wasn’t convinced, chewing his lip.

‘This here,’ said Brunick, gesturing and circling his finger to their surroundings, ‘this is the odds, and there can’t be war heroes without odds.’

‘Fate is working for me so I should play along?’ suggested Cid in tandem to what Brunick was hinting at, his voice ringing with cynicism.

Yeah, it’s not so long ago that you led us right out of Teritua. Everyone had thought us dead by then, but you got us out alive. They made you Colonel after that, imagine what they would give you if you saved us all from this mess?’ said Brunick.

Cid gave half a chuckle at Brunick’s antics. ‘Do you think this is a mess, I mean the operation?’

‘Cid, really… we lost four hundred men, Stelinger is in charge and we have no real experience fighting in Alparack. How do think this is going to turn out if something else goes wrong? No, it’s like I said, your war hero odds have shown up and you might save much more than just your own marriage.’

Cid nodded, in thought for a while before he asked: ‘Will you read me that bit about the angels again?’

Brunick smiled, habitually folding open his book at the right place.

Brunick had a great voice and flair for storytelling, whether he was elaborating a joke in a tavern or preaching from his teachings, he commanded the attention of all. Brunick read the passage resolutely, knowing just where to punctuate his sentences, Alex and Lidayel silent as well as they listened alongside Cid.

The Mason finished and closed the book.

Brunick laughed a bit, ‘you really like that passage, how come?’

‘Hmm, grand white wings, the invisible guardians, the ethereal messengers, great beauty and grace, flawless, untainted…’ said Cid, encapsulating the gist of the passage.

‘You are thinking about Elmira?’ asked Brunick

Cid nodded, a bit embarrassed. ‘More than that; I’d like to think that someone is watching over her, that something is there to protect her when I cannot. That when I go to rest, thinking of how much I love her, that an angel sits at her bedside whispering to her of how much she’s cared for while she sleeps. That someone is at least witnessing our struggle if nothing else. Our upbringing is very different Brunick, but because of Elmira I sometimes find myself hoping that some kind of Benevolence is out there. Not so much for myself as for her,’ said Cid.

Brunick nodded understandingly.

A thought struck Cid. ‘Brunick, you are allowed to marry people right?’

‘In our circles, yes,’ said Brunick.

‘Would you, if we are allowed, if it comes to it, join my hand with Elmira’s when we return home?’ said Cid.

Brunick’s face split into a smile. The big man knew full well that Cid was looking for something to hang onto, a possibility of a future instance that could give him hope and Brunick was glad to give it to the Colonel.

‘It would be an honour, my friend. I’ll do you one better, we’ll celebrate the whole thing in Pathra,’ said Brunick.

‘Ha! I thought outsiders are not allowed?’

‘It’s time for an exception, and its more the journey involved than Pathra being off-limits truth be told,’ said Brunick thoughtfully.

‘Thank you,’ said Cid happily, ‘Elmira would love to see Pathra.’

They were silent for a while, listening to Alex and Lidayel’s conversation:

‘…and the staff?’ asked Alex.

‘Trees and plants have something very similar to our souls. They are not as complex, but a well-crafted staff or finely prepared herb can increase our magical capabilities when used right,’ answered Lidayel.

‘So all of this has got to do with how souls interact?’ asked Alex.

‘Oversimplified that way, but for the most part, yes. Although I would not use my staff much now in fear of losing control. I have not again yet mastered the workings of my own soul, never mind something outside of me,’ said Lidayel.

‘Like when you try to summon fire right? You can’t do that because…’

‘I might lose my hold on it and create something much larger than I intended. A magician’s resistance to his own magic will protect him, but it won’t do any good killing everything else around him.’

Oh! So that’s why the Priests can light up their hands like candle wicks,’ said Alex.

Lidayel smiled, putting his hands together and rubbing them fiercely. A small enraged yellow flame came to life in the fold of his palms, writhing as he rubbed, evidently not burning the Summoner’s hands.

Alex’s mouth was agape as Lidayel ceased and the flames disappeared.

You did it! That was control right?’ asked Alex.

Lidayel shook his head. ‘There are more types of fire than you think. It’s an easy trick for a magician to mimic and conjure the light spectrums of flames, like I now did. That was simply an illusion.’

‘The Priests then,’ said Alex thoughtfully, ‘do they make their flames purple because it scares better?’

‘No, it’s a fire on its own, those violet flames are blasted magic, banned by the conclave of Asheva,’ said Lidayel in disgust, ‘they are designed to tear and burn through any obstacle. Only a barrier of magic can stop it effectively.’

‘And what about…?’

Brunick grunted, waving their conversation away and turning to Cid, ‘I was about to pray silently by myself, I don’t know, but would you like to-?’

Cid thought about where they were and what they faced.

‘Why not…’ he shrugged.

Brunick nodded. ‘Just close your eyes, listen, and take solace.’

Cid complied, shutting out the rest of the world.

And Brunick prayed.

Chapter 31

Hunted

 

 

‘They are tailing us again, and closing. They knew I was snooping! if I was a bit slower they would have put a shaft through my head,’ said Alex as he caught up to the camp. They had been heading up north for another day now, putting as much space between them and the Lanston army as they could. Taking heed of Harlem’s warning Cid had issued Alex to fall back now and then to monitor the hunters’ progress.

The fact was that four exhausted men could not outmanoeuvre an elite squad of scouts and sharpshooters. Right now they were taking a breather along the border of the forest, hidden mostly by the trees.

‘We’ll have to do something, soon,’ said Lidayel.

You’re one to talk, how about some magic tricks?’ said Brunick.

‘I’m still as likely to worsen our chances as improve them,’ answered Lidayel, looking distrustfully at his own hands as they shone with faint magical light.

‘Any chance you could conjure up a couple of horses, or at least some ponies! I’m tired of running!’ said Brunick.

Lidayel laughed genuinely. ‘My friend, your take on my arts is like that of fairy tales. We do not create things out of thin air, we manipulate-’

‘Yeah, yeah, I have heard the stories before: Things you can and can’t do!’ said Brunick mockingly.

‘Listen!’ interrupted Cid. ‘We should get moving again soon. Lidayel, is there any chance you can use your magic to create controlled distractions? Anything that can fool or misdirect some Fallen scouts?’

Lidayel nodded. ‘Yes, I should not have too much trouble with that.’

‘Good, now listen carefully everyone…’

 

***

Brunick and Cid were sprinting as fast as their armour allowed them. The party had split for now, Alex and Lidayel heading into the forest while Cid and Brunick descended into the canyon again.

‘Do you trust Lidayel?’ asked Cid as they ran.

‘More than I do Stelinger, Cid. I’m reckoning that the betrayal is real enough, whatever Stelinger is planning we have to stop it,’ said Brunick firmly.

‘We have to survive first, then discover what’s really going on,’ said Cid.

‘Ha! Don’t worry Colonel, we’ll make it, we just have to keep our heads above water.’

 

 

Some hundred yards into the forest.

Bingo,’ whispered Alex, his trained eyes spotting the Fallen first. It was a small strike group on the move, their patrol clearly not on the trail of anything particular at the moment.

Alex pointed them out to Lidayel. The Summoner acknowledged with a nod.

‘I can pester them with arrows, that would get their attention, but I’d think we might need something a bit more substantial to get them moving,’ whispered Alex.

‘Leave that to me then,’ answered Lidayel.

Alex readied his arrow and Lidayel concentrated. The arrow flew and hit a fallen scout right in the neck, the man collapsing without much ado. His comrades halted at the sudden movement, turning as a group. Alex and Lidayel made no effort to hide themselves and instantly became the target of thirty Fallen or more.

Lidayel stepped out from behind a tree, massaging his palms like he was crushing something, a hint of sparks and smoke squirting from his hands. An array of crossbows levelled at them. Alex knew fear then but saw nothing of it in the Summoner’s approach. Lidayel steadied, his fists clenched at his sides now, seemingly holding what appeared as flames trying desperately to escape his grasp.

‘Alright then Brunick, let’s make some ponies.

Lidayel threw his hands wide open, scattering a dozen globules of fire into the air, like tiny pebbles of flame. At their highest the globules exploded, coming down as billowing entities of flames and smoke. Alex watched with awe, his heart pounding madly.

The Fallen had already backed away at the sight of the fire, abandoning their notion to attack. Then everyone watched in surprise as the fire took shape.

Horses, seventeen hands tall, grew from where the fire hit the ground, the whole of their bodies comprised of blazing flames and smoke, as though every fibre of their being was burning.

Alex walked from behind in his shelter in mute amazement as the horses charged fearsomely at the Fallen, their movements’ dependent on Lidayel’s merest whim. The Fallen turned to flee and escaped the clearing as fast as they could, the horses on their trail.

‘Now we follow, we’ll rout them right back to Cid,’ said Lidayel.

‘That isn’t real fire is it?’ asked Alex in alarm as they ran after the conjured galloping beasts.

‘If I could use real fire we wouldn’t have to go through this charade. No, they are illusions, merely appearing as fire,’ explained Lidayel.

‘But you can summon fire right?’ asked Alex.

Lidayel nodded, a smile of confidence on his face. ‘Give it time, I can feel my control growing stronger by the day.’

‘So did you come up with this?’

‘Brunick gave me the idea, but to be more specific, the Fallen can’t fear rationally and they can’t learn new fears, most of their minds are too debilitated for that. Primordial fears however, instinctual fears in other words, like fire and charging animals, still activate the flight functions of their minds.

‘Great call,’ praised Alex as he saw the Fallen scatter.

‘Let’s hope Cid and Brunick have equal luck,’ said Lidayel, steering his horses to divide as well, accommodating the Fallen so that he could push them towards the canyon.

 

 

Up ahead the canyon narrowed, making a bottleneck of crags, the rock formations both jagged and blunted. The last hundred yards Brunick and Cid dashed flat out to reach them, identifying them as sanctuary. Like two needles falling into a haystack they disappeared into the gullies.

The army Cid knew would take a secondary pass that routed around this obstacle, there being no way a marching army could pass through here safely. All the same there was something to be admired in this maze, the rock here a perpetual victim of erosion, so that the depths and lines on the surface were faces of great character. In the rush however there was no sense for the men to bother with the origin of this place save that the potholes of its consequence could injure stray footing.

They kept as low as possible, so rather than climbing or running across the rock above they stayed to the trail below. That is however, until they became stuck.

‘Damn it, we’re gonna have to show face,’ said Brunick as they came to a dead end on the ground.

‘Let’s make it quick then, we should still have enough space between us and them to escape fire. They climbed up – only to realize Cid was wrong – and dead ahead stood a poised Rade’Remarian Valkyrie.

The moment Cid cleared to the top a force hit him right in the chest, splitting his armour. He went down, almost falling from the edge, Brunick immediately hauling him back to his feet. With a leap and a bound Cid and Brunick were into the next set of gullies, both of them landing hard.

Come on Cid! I can’t carry you all of the time!’ bellowed Brunick.

Cid found his own feet. ‘It’s okay, I’m not wounded, just winded,’ he said, tearing himself out of his broken breastplate on the run and casting it aside to be forgotten. Left in his vest he ran much easier, but another arrow now was sure to kill him.

They tried another route. The Valkyries had clearly blindsided them and were already all over the place, their invisible footfalls on the rock tops putting a scare into the men.

‘Can’t believe this, we’re like cattle in a gangway!’

‘Keep moving Brunick, Alex should be here any moment.’

‘He better be,’ said Brunick, ‘I don’t want to be buried looking like a porcupine!

Another arrow came hurtling down on them, striking rock instead. If they had been anywhere else Cid and Brunick would have already been dead. In terms of archery, few were as effective as the Valkyrie and any deficit Cid thought they might harbour was swept from his mind.

Up ahead, a Valkyrie jumped nimbly into the gully, a spear in her hands and already charging at Brunick. The short spear was ideal for this narrow section of pathway.

Halt!’ shouted Cid at Brunick.

Cid wrenched the helm from his head, slipped past Brunick, and caught the charging spear on the inside, driven back uncomfortably.

These women were no ordinary girls. Cid kept firm though and Brunick lunged, grabbing the tamed spear right out of the Valkyrie’s hands and ramming his forearm straight onto her shoulder, knocking her from her feet. With a giant stomp Brunick stepped right onto her ankle, a cry of anguish tearing from her lips.

‘Sorry lassie, I’ll make it up to you one day, I promise,’ muttered Brunick, already on the move again.

Sullied, Cid threw away his ruined helm now as well; he was starting to feel rather naked given their situation. He glanced at Brunick as they swerved through the pass. There was a demented look about him now and he knew what he was thinking:

Fighting your own Kingdom was bad enough, being forced to strike at women was morally almost too much a price to pay.

‘This is Stelinger’s doing, all of it!’ bellowed Brunick, his voice echoing through the gully.

Then they heard a shout of warning from above, as though in concert with Brunick’s ramblings.

Fallen!’ came a women’s voice.

They couldn’t see it, but a song of snapping strings broke out above them and it turned obvious that Lidayel and Alex had been successful.

They did it!’ said Brunick in disbelieve.

They risked a peek, climbing the rock wall halfway up, just high enough for them to peer their eyes past the edge.

It was true. The Valkyrie had assembled in a spread out formation and orchestrated a rhythmic surge of arrow-fire. Their target; hardly visible black armoured figures across the canyon edge and concealed in the border of the forest. The Fallen were returning crossbow fire, the exchange a whistling affair of projectiles. What was clear to see though was that the Valkyrie’s unsurpassed skill versus the Fallen’s clumsiness would not prove to be a prolonged distraction, even with the Fallen having the higher ground.

‘Brunick, this isn’t going to last long, we have to act quickly!’

Brunick grunted.

There!’ shouted Cid, pointing.

‘That’s their leader, the one in the maroon armour!’

She was a tall woman, with golden hair flowing from her helm.

‘The plan?’ said Brunick as they climbed down again.

‘They’ll focus on us again soon enough, you draw fire and I’ll take her from behind,’ said Cid.

‘You got it.’

‘Okay, break!

They split off, invisible for the moment as they sprinted through the narrowest of gullies right underneath the furiously fighting Valkyrie. Their leader though had spaced herself on a separate outcropping of rock, sporting herself a clear view of what was happening.

Brunick was first to break into the open field and the marooned armoured leader immediately targeted Brunick instead.

***

Vanapha saw the renegade soldier appearing into open space. Immediately she changed her target and shot at him. The burly man moved uncannily and he took what should have been a headshot to the shoulder.

No matter. Now… killshot.

 

***

 

Alex and Lidayel appeared some yards away from the rapidly losing Fallen by the forest edge. They remained well hidden as they viewed the entire scene from the side. Alex looked upon Brunick, the aiming Valkyrie Captain, and Cid approaching her from behind. He knew he had to act fast. He garnered an arrow and pulled, aiming. He could easily kill the Valkyrie, but that was obviously out of the question. He loosened…

 

***

 

Vanapha sensed the arrow coming at her, knowing it would have snapped right through her own bow or hand. She took a step back, the arrow whistling past, mildly interrupted, and aimed again within an instant. She could however not possibly sense what would happen next.

Cid slipped in right behind the Valkyrie’s position. Like a lizard he scrambled up the rock face, reached out, and pulled hard on the rim of her chestplate, clearing her from the rock and hurtling her to the ground.

The shot never became reality as Vanapha felt herself hooked from behind, wrenched right clear off her perch. The fall was short and sudden, too much so to try and break it. She landed flat on her back, her body and head jarring with pain.

She was dimly aware of the figure still on the rock wall, now jumping down towards her. The traitor would not have her this easily. Instinctually she threw herself upright past the pain, gaining her feet in a twirl of legs. The renegade soldier backed away just in time, Vanapha spotting the broken down spear at the sides of his waist.

Furious, Vanapha, launched a roundhouse kick at the man’s head. Cid was rocked as the flying steel greave almost smashed his consciousness to bits. He staggered away, and instinctually employed an old sparring technique by feigning longer than the actual incapacitation, favouring his head to one side so that he could know where to defend next.

Somewhat like a predator sensing weakness, Vanapha charged forward to finish Cid, kick pending. Vanapha was outdone when the man caught her leg, drove his own past her standing ankle and pushed her from her feet again with all his weight, pinning her. This time there was no recovery as a saber-sword appeared at her neck.

Cid looked down at the woman, past the steel helm and straight into beautiful honey coloured eyes, his sword pressing down on her throat. There was something in her eyes he did not expect to see; a visible lack of defiance or panic, and it unsettled him after all the fight he had just seen.

She’s ready to die a warrior’s death.

Sympathy was a useless sentiment for now however.

 

 

The Fallen were dead, and all around the Valkyrie aimed their bows at the downed Brunick.

Halt!’ came a woman’s voice.

The Valkyrie all eased the tension of their bows as they saw their leader appear, a Lanston soldier holding her as a shield with a sword against her throat.

‘Tell them to drop their weapons,’ whispered Cid.

‘One way or another they’ll kill you, you get that don’t you?’ asked Vanapha at Cid.

‘Not if you call them off,’ said Cid.

‘What do you wish to accomplish?’ asked Vanapha.

‘I have a better question, why are you willing to die?’ asked Cid.

That shut her up.

‘You have a Star·Seer in your ranks, right?’ asked Cid.

‘Yes.’

‘Call her over, let her look into my head,’ he urged.

‘I can do it myself, we are all practiced at the skill,’ said Vanapha.

‘No, call over your Star·Seer. Do it Valkyrie, and we’ll both get to live!’

Claire!’ called Vanapha.

Moments later Claire was standing with them.

‘Harbour no ploy Valkyrie, for I will slit her throat if it came to it,’ said Cid threateningly to the raven haired girl. He hoped he was convincing, because he had no stomach for killing an innocent person just following orders.

Carefully Claire stretched out her hand to touch the temple of a man at the brink of killing their Captain. Cid felt an eerie prick in his head, followed by numbness to the back of his neck, the woman’s fingers seemingly ghostly. The sensations became stranger still, Cid straining to keep the Valkyrie at sword point. It tingled as Claire’s Sight worked into the mind and Cid could almost feel how the woman was peering and paging through his head. It was worrying having someone access memories so conveniently, the worst of all being the different emotions that came surging up. Cid went through rage, fear, sadness, happiness and surprise within seconds, yet he willed her to see the truth. Again he lived through the ambush…

Suddenly Claire stood clear, her withdrawing hand leaving Cid mercifully alone in his thoughts.

Vanapha!’ she gasped. ‘This man is no traitor!’

‘Now, tell your warriors to stand down,’ said Cid with a calm satisfaction.

Reluctantly the Valkyrie did as they were told, looking a bit confounded by the sudden change of plan. There was a visible relieve of tension for all as Cid released Vanapha. She quickly stood aside, her sisters-in-arms joining her side.

‘Brunick! Are you okay?’ yelled Cid, weary.

‘Just playing some possum, no harm done!’ yelled Brunick in return, giving Cid a thumps-up from where he sat.

Vanapha looked at Brunick, her eyes searching for a wound to his shoulder.

Nothing.

Her gaze lingered on the man as he regained his feet, her suspicion and surprised noticed only by her sisters.

 

 

It was a surreal scene that night as eight female warriors sat along Cid, Alex, Lidayel and Brunick around a massive campfire. The Valkyries were peaceful for now, and yet there was much awkwardness between the two groups for their earlier encounter. Lidayel helped stitched that rift by spending the afternoon healing everyone’s cuts and bruises, mending among others two bolt wounds sustained by the Valkyrie, practicing his returning power with care.

After she had been healed Brunick apologized profusely to the warrior whose ankle he had stepped on. Brunick seemed much more at ease when the woman assured him that she had suffered much worse injuries by now and that he should not concern himself.

Cid sat next to Vanapha, locked in conversation, already having explained to her their misadventures to thus.

‘Your friend keeps looking at me,’ said Vanapha in amusement.

Cid shot a quick glance at Alex, who was talking with another Valkyrie. Cid however had also noticed how Alex shifted his eyes towards Vanapha now and then. He could not blame the man.

When they had set up camp the Valkyrie undressed their armour to be casual in their cloth garments. They were all attractive women, but there was something different about Vanapha. Both Cid and Alex had a firsthand shock of Vanapha’s visage.

She had removed her helm, letting the rest of her golden hair falling loosely. She was tall, almost six feet in length. Her body was perfectly slim and toned, and her skin, like most Valkyrie, had a healthy bronze shine from spending days under a dessert sun. Her face was mix of soft and sharp features and Cid could now admire how those honey-coloured eyes fit into the bigger picture.

Immediately noticeable however was a thin milky white scar over her left eye and cheek. What would one expect? They were warriors after all…

It was a small blemish, but Cid had to admit that even though it was a scar that would ruin the beauty of most women – on Vanapha it was more like a reminder that she was after all, only human. Cid could not deny that this woman was, if anything, intimidating. Both her stature and her beauty was enough to repel most men as they considered their unworthiness.

‘I’m afraid your people have been dealt a raw deal again, Vanapha,’ said Cid.

‘Hmm, you’re one to talk. It’s your head Stelinger wants,’ said Vanapha.

‘Do you think Stelinger is a traitor?’ asked Cid.

‘Either that or he’s stupid. Why condemn a decorated soldier before questioning him?’

‘Stelinger is not a stupid man, which leaves but one conclusion for all of us,’ said Cid soberly.

‘What are his intentions though? Surely it’s not just about endangering the army?’ asked Vanapha.

‘No, he planned this expedition with Commander Bennam for a reason. We’ll make it our job to find out, and if need be, stop him. As for you, I suggest you lead your warriors back home.’

‘That’s it huh? Send the pretty women back home so they don’t get exploited or mistreated by men?’ said Vanapha defensively.

Cid was alarmed; he had underestimated just how prideful the Valkyrie really were.

‘That is not what I meant,’ started Cid, ‘I am merely pointing out that this is truly not your war. If I could I would take my own men back home.’

She looked hard at him.

‘Claire tells me you’re really only in this war because of your woman in Lanston,’ said Vanapha, her voice altogether gentler now.

‘Yes, wish I could tell everyone that I’m out to fighting for Lanston, but this place is…’

‘Don’t feel guilty, from what I’ve heard you’ve done more than your fair share of saving people,’ said Vanapha.

‘I’ll tell you one thing though, after losing four hundred men to treachery I am inclined to think that I might just finish this war with a vengeance,’ said Cid.

‘Someone has to pay,’ agreed Vanapha.

‘So, are you intent to return home?’ prodded Cid.

‘Hmm, it’s as you say, my warriors owe no allegiance to a treacherous Commander. I’ll send them back to Rade’Remar tomorrow. As for me…’

Cid’s face formed the question. ‘What is it?’

Vanapha turned her face away for a few moments before answering.

‘A few weeks ago I got a letter. There was no name on it save for my own. The man who delivered it was nearly shot dead by my sisters, for he appeared as nothing more than a desert bandit. He made tracks the moment the letter was handed over. He seemed pretty determined not to linger.

‘It wasn’t a Kingdom letter so I had no obligation to look at it. It was a curious thing though so I read it before I could decide to burn it for good measure; we have never much trusted the world of men outside the Kingdom, and even the ones on the inside do not escape our suspicion. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but I was completely thrown by the message. I couldn’t fathom who would send me such a thing, or know so much about me.’

‘What did it say?’ asked Cid

Keeping a glassy gaze on the fire, Vanapha cited:

I hold your answer, a truth long discarded.

In Durandal I await your fair approach, for the light outside shadow’s sake permits me not.

Know I that your blood is touched by a flame that withers all, a tempest chained but not laid to rest.

Seek forth a war imminent, betrayal abroad a sign of the times,

then follow the Winged Serpent to guide your way.”

 

Cid shook his head in disbelieve. He didn’t like the sound of that at all.

‘Alex!’ he called. The trailblazer’s gaze shot up where he sat.

‘Come here a second will you?’

Alex stood up, coming closer unsure, his eyes darting between Cid and Vanapha.

‘Show her the wings.’

‘Oh, right,’ said Alex, hastily taking the wings from his back and holding it so that it glinted by firelight.

‘Those come attached to my spear, Mindevhier, also known by the name of…

‘The Winged Serpent,’ finished Vanapha in understanding. ‘I had thought the reference might allude to some obscure star formation, but this makes much more sense.’

‘Thank you Alex,’ said Cid, dismissing the man, and he returned rather disappointedly back to his spot.

‘I guess I found you. But now what? I don’t suppose you have any answers for me?’

Cid pulled up his shoulders. ‘None. I don’t even have answers for my own men. Unless…do you have the letter here?

From her pack Vanapha took a fine slip of paper and gave it to Cid.

It was written exactly like she said, giving Cid some indication of how many times she must have read over it. More than anything he was looking for familiar handwriting. After years of reading Bennam’s war reports he could distinguish the old man’s handwriting without much effort.

This is not it.

Bennam’s writing used to be neat and had a pull on his letters from being right handed. Whoever wrote this letter pushed hard down on the paper with his left hand and his crooked letters was a terrible mismatch to the stylish riddle of words.

Cid sighed. ‘This is not Bennam’s writing. Someone is playing us…’ he said hopelessly, thinking of the very letter he had received. The two were connected in no way, but considering Lidayel’s situation as well left little doubt in his mind that someone was manipulating them, and quite possibly, the army. To what ends though?

‘I get the last part, but “your blood is touched by a flame that withers all…” What is that about?’ asked Cid.

‘That is my burden and my burden alone Colonel, it’s a matter that I will not divulge, not with anyone,’ said Vanapha evenly, yet making it clear she wasn’t open for discussion.

Cid nodded to show understanding, ‘and this person who wrote the letter is leading you out to Durandal, because he is informed on this… matter?’

‘It is not keeping any secret I’m worried about, it is answers that I’m looking for,’ said Vanapha.

‘You are troubled by this, the letter is written to prey on your need for knowledge and you know the words by heart from reading it obsessively. It is likely then the reason I saw that fearlessness in your eyes. Further you take it upon yourself to share this with me because I’m mentioned in this letter.’

‘Hmm, insightful on your part. Fearlessness is a bit of a strong word though, but I take your point; yes I am looking for answers, and someone is leading me on by some pathetic riddle, and it troubles me that I’m so easily drawn out to the most cutthroat city in the world.’

‘Are you then not willing to tell anyone why you would be so touched by this letter?’ asked Cid again.

Vanapha shook her head. ‘Not when I myself do not understand the matter, Colonel. When I was young some terrible things happened, things I could not explain, and it raised questions that have hung over my head for all my life. More than that I won’t say.’

‘And you’re still determined in going to Durandal?’

‘Initially it was my plan to sign up for this mission. That way I could fulfil my quota of duties for this year and visit Durandal in one go. Now however I just want to go home again, yet…’

‘What is it?’

‘I want to return home because this whole Durandal tale is likely to be a ruse. It is not impossible that some wily well-informed Durandal slave trader is looking for a Valkyrie to catch and sell. Besides, getting to Durandal is difficult enough, even for a Valkyrie. But now I’ve met you and…’ said Vanapha looking at Cid’s spear.

‘Does this mean you want to come with us? You do realize that we have no intention of going to Durandal?’ said Cid.

‘I know, I would like to tag along if you’ll have me, you said you’re going to Jacanta point right? If I do come with you I might still be able venture to Durandal, pending on how the war turns out.’

‘I should warn you, we are traitors still in the eyes of Lanston, you might be in danger if you are seen travelling with us,’ said Cid.

‘Don’t worry Colonel, I’ve spent my years growing up avoiding marauders in the desert. Steering clear of an army will only be easier for you if I come along,’ said Vanapha.

Cid nodded silently.

‘You don’t want me?’ she asked after awhile.

Cid hesitated. ‘I’m reluctant to get anyone else involved with us. If I had any authority in the matter I would have send you home. As a lowly traitor though I guess I could only welcome one such as you. There is something more to it though, I mean more than the letter, right?’

‘Am I this easy to read?’ asked Vanapha in amusement.

‘I would not call it that, but you kept looking at the stars as we talked. Now, it might just be that you are enjoying the sight, but given your occupation I’d think there’s a little bit more to it.’

Vanapha nodded. ‘Look,’ she said and Cid followed her peering eyes into the night sky.

Out in the wilderness the stars were a wonderful display, the landscape free of the ambient city light that diminished the heaven’s radiance. Still Mallova and Rodreon were the moons dominating sky. Between them however was a new moon, Shaki-Halima, a green moon beginning its cycle as it appeared as a small sickle in the sky. Cid knew enough about the enigmatic Valkyrie to know that they were only warriors because they needed to be. Their main occupations however, were alchemy and astronomy.

‘Now, Mallova and Rodreon are common sights…’ said Vanapha. ‘You know the Diamond Box right?’ asked Vanapha, interrupting herself.

‘I know of it,’ answered Cid.

Vanapha pointed and explained like one who often taught younger ones at Rade’Remar. She showed Cid an elaborate network of stars, its shapes called echelons, each with a different name that was used to decipher the purpose of the moons’ positioning.

‘So Mallova and Rodreon in that formation merely suggests the duality of war. Rodreon is blood. Mallova is life. Life continues after bloodshed. The victor gets to live and the land welcomes the defeated to grow life anew. Now however, we see Shaki-Halima appearing between them, starting its cycle. In our interpretations it means revelation, or the truth uncovered, anything in that line.’

‘And you’re driven now because of this?’ asked Cid.

‘I know what you are thinking. Even we Valkyrie’s look upon the signs with scepticism; it is far too easy to misinterpret or generalize star signs when one is narcissistic or emotional.’

‘But you still think this revelation might concern you?’ asked Cid.

‘I am merely taking it as a sign that I should at least try to find truth. You however I can see are not all that trusting of my stars.’

Cid laughed bitterly. ‘My friend Brunick, the big bloke with the axe, is one of the Mason. He believes in a Creator that acts as a father to us all. Your kind, the Valkyrie, put your trust in stars and moons. Me myself? I believe in what’s up here,’ said Cid, pointing at his head own head, ‘and I trust in this,’ he said, taking Mindevhier and holding it up so that it was bathed in firelight.

Vanapha laughed lightly, carrying her mirth into her words, ‘this whole time I’ve seen a strong man with a great mind. Now I’ve realized that you are a fool also.’

Cid smiled. ‘I wouldn’t argue that point, but in what way am I a fool to you?’

‘My sisters, like Claire did to you today, can see into the minds of men, a power given by the Valkyrie moon; Mallova. You travel with a Summoner of great power, his too is a gift from that lying far beyond what even Star·Seers can see. And your friend Brunick, well, you said it yourself; he is a Mason and he also is empowered by a moon, all the while believing in a father deity.’

What!? Wait, what is it that Brunick – I don’t understand?’

Vanapha laughed again. ‘You have the most interesting friends and you don’t even know what they’re capable of or where they come from.’

‘Tell me about Brunick!,’ implored Cid.

Vanapha shook her head. ‘I do not think he wishes you to know yet, besides, where we’re going you’re gonna discover all soon enough for yourself,’ said Vanapha, and Cid could see by her face that she was pleased with herself for having stunned him a little bit in return.

Cid resigned, smiling by himself.

‘So is Alex an interesting friend too?’ he asked in retort.

Vanapha smiled, ‘he is gifted with a bow, that is all. He is however loyal and trustworthy, that is easy enough to see. There are no powers greater than that,’ said Vanapha.

‘I’ll toast to it,’ said Cid quietly.

Food’s ready!’ bellowed Brunick from the fireside, having prepared the last meat from their supply given by Harlem.

Everyone stood closer, filing with their clay plates provided by the Valkyrie’s packs as Brunick cut and served. The Valkyrie supplemented the meal with a few fruits they carried with them.

Cid waited at the back with Alex and Lidayel, allowing the ladies to be helped first. Cid kept looking at the sky, his mind connecting the starry dots like Vanapha had explained. Seeing them as a system or pattern gave much more incentive for observing them. He and Elmira used to lie down underneath the night sky for long hours, drawing their own lines between stars, their design prophesying nothing of the world save for the love they had for each other.

I miss you. The thought was not new, often surfacing when Cid was away from Lanston, but came by especially strong now with all the uncertainty of their situation.

As Cid ate his mind wandered to the strange people around him; Summoners, Valkyries and now his friend the Mason as well. Despite their power they appeared as victims in their setting. More than anything Cid was renouncing the notion of bizarre coincidence, starting to speculate whether someone was dictating the players in this war. He found it hard to exclude Bennam, hard to stop wondering if the old man himself was traitorous. But if there was someone out there trying to help, who in heaven’s name could it be?

 

 

Later that night Lidayel sat quietly next to Claire, talking. Most of the camp had already retired, scattered around the clearing. The Valkyries slept on their traveling cloaks, the men rolling out their sacks.

‘Your powers really don’t work during certain moon cycles?’ asked Lidayel.

‘When Mallova is at the dark side of Astalus our powers of Insight and Farsight are lost to us,’ said Claire.

Lidayel frowned.

‘Can you explain Astalus to me? My memory isn’t being cooperative,’

Claire was amused and told: ‘Astalus is the titan star, although it is a star in name only. In reality it is a lifeless but giant planet composed of metal compounds that appear as a dark blue crystal to us. It’s even many times larger than our own world. It is impossible to see though save through telescopes because it emits very little light of its own.

‘And it shares its moons with us, right?’

‘That’s right, you can say that Astalus has eight different moons. Astalus however loses some of them to us because of changing gravity patterns, and sometimes, when its pull is strong again, it will take those moons back,’ said Claire.

‘How does that work again?’ asked Lidayel, scratching his head.

‘Astalus seems to be liquid in the sense that it expands and contracts from time to time due to spontaneous temperature flares, ultimately altering its gravity patterns. When we are close to some of its orbiting moons they join Angaria’s orbit given that Astalus loses its gravitational influence. It all needs to happen at exactly the correct time, which makes it hard for even us to predict what will happen in the future. Of course should we be given too many moons, or none at all, .’

Incredible, although I expect I might’ve once known this before you were even born,’ said Lidayel in embarrassed amusement, ‘though there is a rather unexpected pleasure at learning things anew.’

Claire smiled. ‘Now Rodreon, Castilleon and Mallova are moons orbiting Angaria on a regular basis. Relatively speaking of course. Greathir, Ellock, Loikana, Trigon and Shaki-Halima are much more uncommon, some of them taking centuries between appearances. At the moment we are witnessing Shaki-Halima make a rare appearance. Personally, it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever seen it,’ said Claire, staring fondly at the night sky.

‘To think a moon gives you your power,’ said Lidayel in awe.

‘They of course influence many things – tides, volcanic activity, animal migration, seasons and even people’s mood or magical capabilities.’

‘Insight and Farsight… Farsight, is that how you tracked us?’

‘We track trails the old fashion way as well, but yes, Farsight allows us to see mental enhancements of sights our eyes are too weak to see; it comes very handy in archery.’

Lidayel laughed, ‘poor Alex, he doesn’t stand a chance. And Insight allows you to see into men’s minds, like you did with Cid?’

Claire nodded. ‘We also use it to see more clearly into stars or chemicals, hence our specialties; Alchemy and Astronomy.’

‘How come only you though? What singles the Valkyrie out?’ asked Lidayel, also feeling that he knew the answer once.

‘We are similar to the Masons, our teachings say that we were born from the moon Mallova as the Masons are of Greathir. Ordinary folk were born from the dust of Angaria itself, though some of them are given power of magicks through Castilleon, the sapphire moon and then of course by Summoners like yourself.’

Fascinating…’ said Lidayel.

‘It is said that your kind witnessed creation itself.’

Lidayel shrugged.

‘It is said that the Summoners were breathed to life and then assigned to be the architects of our very constellation, taming the mighty Arrhua spirits to assemble the earths and skies from out of the chaos. When life flourished on Angaria you grew jealous of humanity’s corporal existence and thus descended you from the echelons of power to live among humans… Or so the story goes.’ said Claire.

‘Wish I could tell you whether it’s true or not, but right now I can’t even remember my own wife’s name.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry about that,’ said Claire, sympathy on her face.

Lidayel was in thought for a moment.

‘You can look into men’s memories right? Like you did with Cid earlier?’ asked Lidayel.

Claire nodded, hesitant as she saw eagerness lit up on Lidayel’s face.

‘Then try to look into mine, you might not see much, but maybe it can help me remember things faster,’ said Lidayel.

‘Sure,’ said Claire, already reaching out.

Lidayel caught her by the wrist.

Be careful and go slowly, my memories are sealed by the powers of another Summoner, do not go farther than you feel comfortable with or you might hurt yourself.’

‘Okay.’

Claire touched Lidayel lightly on the temple. Earlier that day she easily entered a willing Cid’s mind. Lidayel’s mind however was like a cage of locked steel doors. She tried to force her way through and could see her efforts hurting the Summoner. Still she pushed a little harder, determined to get something…

Images flickered, so distorted that they were impossible to interpret. Sights and sounds washed intertwined, the both of them almost drowning in recollections ages old. She broke away, pain lancing through her own mind in time.

‘I’m sorry, I should’ve pulled out sooner,’ said Claire, breathless and exerted.

Lidayel looked at Claire, somehow struggling to find words after the probe.

‘No, it’s fine actually,’ he managed, ‘it might be my imagination, but it felt like you’ve loosened things up a bit. Thank you.’

‘I hope you remember everything,’ said Claire with a smile, catching her breath.

Lidayel noticed how tired she suddenly seemed, much like he now felt.

‘I have pestered you enough for the night, why don’t you rest now?’

‘I might just do that. It was good speaking to you Summoner, I hope you can tell me all about your kind one day,’ Claire said, standing up.

Lidayel bade her good night, searching for himself a place to curl up and get rest. All the while he felt a growing power in his mind.

 

It was the dead of the night. Lidayel slept at the edge of the camp, his back turned on his comrades. His stirring mind woke him every half hour, the thoughts and memories of a past life visiting him like relentless dreams.

Something is definitely happening…

No forest, I could risk it…

Still lying on his side he stretched his arm out in front of him and snapped his fingers. Instantly a real flame sprang to life within his palm, sustaining itself from seemingly nothing. Its heat was caressing to Lidayel, yet he could make it hot enough to feel at home in a blacksmith’s oven. For many minutes he stared into the flame of his own design, faint memories forming and returning to him like a puzzle coming together.

Finally a name formed and it rolled of his tongue.

She did it, she unlocked my memories, or at least some of them.

Yarea,’ mouthed Lidayel, a cascade of emotions hitting him. ‘Yarea…’

His power and memories were returning, if only a fraction of them. He was a Summoner once more.

I’m back,’ whispered Lidayel, closing his fist and dowsing the flame.

Chapter 32

The Way Forward

 

 

At third hour of the next morning they gathered, their demeanour unhurried as they settled breakfast. It was the first time in some while that Cid felt relaxed, knowing that they were no longer in immediate peril. They were meandering for awhile, the intention of the parties growing into question.

‘Have you decided then?’ Cid asked the Valkyrie, deciding to bring things to a point.

Vanapha nodded, her face again hid by her light steel helm.

‘I would like to come with you; my warriors are to return home, our arms will not be granted to a man as questionable as Stelinger.’

‘We’d welcome the extra sword and company,’ said Cid with a smile, realizing he had been hoping the Valkyrie would stay.

Vanapha took time speaking with her sisters, the women looking nonplussed through it all. Cid was sure that between Vanapha’s decision to continue to Durandal and word of an unsecure war operation, that it was much too troubling for the already proud and suspicious Valkyries. At the end of it she bid farewell to her warriors, parting with them after giving clear instructions for their return.

‘I told them to avoid the Lanston army entirely so that they need not report on what happened. They will return to the Kingdom and take a ship from Fortreal back home,’ told Vanapha to Cid, her sisters already clearing out.

‘That is wise, Stelinger might react rashly if he discovers you failed his command,’ said Cid at Vanapha, looking at his party. ‘All right then, we’ll try to make a straight pass to Jacanta point, although we might have to oscillate between travelling down in the canyon, on the ridge, or in the forest if truly necessary. We may need to hide a lot and pacing ourselves will be crucial. We can’t let Lanston draw too close to us as we are still considered enemies, but nor can we exhaust ourselves. At Jacanta I hope to make timely contact with the Lanston army so that we can see our names cleared and the war won.’

His notion went uncontested.

 

 

Silently they travelled north, trekking and manoeuvring through the last remainder of the maze of crags. It was an up and down struggle to continue forward and occupied them enough to forego conversation. It took them an hour and then they breached into the smooth fold of the canyon again.

‘Let’s take a moment to discuss where we’re going and what our plans are,’ announced Lidayel.

‘All I know is that I’m going to snap Stelinger’s neck!’ said Brunick.

Cid shook his head ‘We don’t know whether he is a traitor Brunick, we can’t say for sure. We have to get to Jacanta point before making any assumptions.’

‘It’s time to accept it captain, Stelinger set us up,’ said Alex.

‘Archer here is right Cid, look at what he’s done so far; he specifically endangered Olum’s company because he knew you would not abandon them. Then he set loose the Valkyrie on us knowing you would be reluctant to fight your own Kingdom, and much less women for that matter. Oh, and let’s not forget that nice prostitute story he sold you back then; it was he that was wondering around that night, I saw him, and he saw you with Elmira, which was all the excuse he needed to assign you to Alparack’s veil where the ambush waited. He is exploiting your character Cid, just like he’s always done,’ said Brunick determinedly.

“Moral inclinations,” that’s what you called it right?’ said Cid.

‘Glad to know you’re listening,’ said Brunick.

‘I for one was talking about my wife,’ interrupted Lidayel flatly.

‘Oh, right,’ said Brunick.

‘What happened to her, where is she now?’ asked Vanapha comprehensively.

‘We suspect the Fallen has captured her,’ said Lidayel, his face darkening as though he was only just now reminded of the fact.

‘I think you’re mistaken on that,’ said Vanapha.

‘Mistaken on what?’

‘While I was with my sisters we came across several bandit groups, fleeing the canyon passes as the army marched. One group we encountered gave us some trouble, like they were intent on fighting us. When they realized who we are however they fled. They were a real cutthroat bunch, but they seemed to be traveling heavy and I was sure they had a woman tied to one of their horses. We only pursued them until they escaped to the north-western pass; they were undoubtedly heading for Durandal.’

‘That is another possibility,’ agreed Cid, ‘Durandal is well known for trafficking in women.’

‘And remember those men we saw in the forest, those killed by the Reavers!? Lidayel, your wife might not be with the Fallen after all!’ said Alex.

‘It is a comforting thought to be sure, but how can I be certain whether she is in Durandal or not?’ said Lidayel.

‘Magic?’ suggested Brunick, ‘you’re getting better at it now, right?’

Lidayel smiled. ‘I am not too proud on being instructed on magic by a Mason, but you do have a point Brunick, I should be able to locate Yarea’s position without trouble while I meditate.’

‘In the meanwhile we still have to figure out what Stelinger hopes to accomplish.’

‘We’ll see Alex, for now we keep it simple, we’ll get in the way of anything that would put the army at peril.’

After a quick lunch they mounted the canyon wall again, using a small trail to get up close to the forest. Down in the canyon itself they would have reached its deepest trench, where a stubborn portion of last season’s rain carpeted the dip with soft dried out mud cakes. Hence their reluctance to leave such obvious tracks they decided to travel topside once more.

As was usual it was Lidayel who first showed signs of fatigue, his breathing hard and his stride losing posture.

‘How are you holding up?’ asked Cid.

The Summoner gave Cid a smile, his face brave despite being pale and strained.

‘Better than you might think.’

They made camp early that night, the sun to keep its fiery eye on the landscape for an hour more. Brunick occupied himself at the forest edge, chopping some firewood, while Vanapha and Alex went in deeper to hunt. Cid stared out at the world, the canyon’s complexion soft and orange as all came to rest.

 

The forest was darker, the last of the daylight filtering weakly into the glades.

Alex followed Vanapha like a shadow, the Valkyrie’s steps swift through the forest trails, appreciating her silent footfalls. Yet moving as they did Alex found it impossible to track anything. Vanapha however could probably sense something up ahead. Alex didn’t say anything, but he was sullied by the affair. The Valkyrie’s abilities were to be respected, but it cast a tall shadow over Alex’s more traditional approach to tracking and archery.

Vanapha suddenly stopped, Alex halting right beside her.

‘On to something?’ asked Alex.

‘It’s more difficult to sight in here than you’d think, but I’ll have us a target soon,’ said Vanapha, her eyes peering into the reaches of the forest.

Alex nodded.

‘Why have you been looking at me like that?’ shot Vanapha.

‘Looking?’ asked Alex in surprise.

‘I can’t see everything, but I’ll always notice when someone is watching me,’ said Vanapha.

‘Hmm, guess it’s obvious really. You’re a woman and well… we don’t get to see much of your types in a battlefield,’ said Alex, trying to swing his embarrassment into humour. ‘Do I make you uncomfortable?’

‘Men ogle at me wherever I go, I’m always aware of it. You just look at me… different, why is that?’

Alex shrugged. ‘I’m a scout and a sharpshooter, I observe things more intensely. I guess it means I’ve got your back, you know, since your sisters are gone and all,’ he said, struggling to hide his uneasiness.

Vanapha ignored the remark and held up her finger to her lips, proceeding in a slow stride, and entering a dense corridor of trees as her sight alerted her of a target ahead.

Alex indicated to her quietly that he was going to veer to the right, actually determined to kill the prey himself. Detaching from Vanapha he realized he didn’t even know what kind of animal she’d seen. Alone now he ambled semi-circles around the trees as he moved closer, lifting his legs high to accommodate the protruding Biridian roots and then softly inserting his footing into niches of soft dirt, avoiding the crunch of forest debris. All the while his practiced eye scanned the forest floor, searching for the slightest indication of recent passage. Every few paces he would peer a deep straight line through the aisle of trees, standing still as he sought for signs of motion.

His hunter’s mind jumped and closed out everything else as he saw the buck, eager to get in close. He was rather certain this was the animal Vanapha sighted. Anxiously he hunkered, steadying himself and pulled swiftly. He had a clear shot, the buck grazing ignorantly a mere thirty yards away, its muzzle tucked in long strands of Sirrilar grass.

The arrow hit out of nowhere, striking on the side, instantly penetrating the lung. Alex released the tension on his string as the buck collapsed just after half a second’s attempt at escaping the wound. It was precisely the shot Alex would have made; only he still had his arrow. He walked forward, arriving at the animal the same time as Vanapha.

‘Great shot,’ supplied Alex, not sure whether there was any point in complementing the Valkyrie’s supernatural skill.

Alex hunched, removing the arrow and handing his bow to Vanapha so that he could shoulder the animal. With their dinner across Alex’s shoulders they walked to camp, the forest gloom intensifying.

‘What was that about having my back?’ asked Vanapha.

‘Well, I know you can take care of yourself, but it helps to have some cover in the thick of battle,’ said Alex.

‘I appreciate your intention, but your efforts will be better spent on protecting your friends. My Sights keep me safe, I don’t need cover, not really,’ said Vanapha, her pace quickening as they sought to escape the pitch black that was settling in the woods.

Alex, somewhat left behind, looked hard at Vanapha as she walked ahead.

‘Oh yes you do…’ murmured Alex under his breath, barely able to believe that only yesterday he had his bow trained on this woman.

 

Lidayel helped Brunick bring the wood to the campsite and they only waited minutes more for Alex and Vanapha to return with a buck, Alex bearing the creature across his shoulders. Cid had no doubt that Vanapha’s ability had sped the hunt considerably.

Brunick took what looked like quiet pride as he built a rather pointlessly big castle of wood. He then, as Cid knew he would, assigned Alex to the flint and tinder.

‘Allow me,’ said Lidayel. Alex halting his efforts as Lidayel approached.

Like a man sure of himself, Lidayel crushed something invisible in his right fist and then immediately directed his palm at the pile of wood.

A globule of fire escaped his hand, darting right into the hollow of the wood. There was instant puff of smoke from the cavities and the fire emerged like a fissure, quickly enveloping every inch of kindling.

Real fire this time?’ asked Alex with a grin.

Lidayel nodded, the smile on his face speaking of a man who was no longer lost.

‘You’ve gained control,’ said Cid in cheerful recognition.

‘More than that, with Claire’s help both my powers and memories are returning. It will only be a matter of time before I am my full self again.’

Hell yeah! Now we can march right up to Stelinger, punch him in the face, and ask him what in Greathir’s name he thinks he’s doing!’ said Brunick, punctuating his statement with a fist into his palm.

‘My powers will take awhile Brunick, but rest assured we’ll have someone answer for this mess soon enough,’ said Lidayel, stretching out his arms at the fire.

It was then as though Lidayel was puppeteering the fire, his hands’ subtle gestures moulding and sculpting the flames. The fire grew higher and then higher again, and for a moment Cid thought Lidayel was losing control. Lidayel brought his hands together at his chest and then motioned them like he was savouring the touch of silk.

The towering flame looked defiant to the Summoner’s inclination, but then slowly submitted as Lidayel’s power proceeded to shape its every outline. Like Alex had seen with the false fire, Lidayel now crafted a spectacular figure out of the blaze. Its features grew more obvious with every passing moment until they were all staring at a woman, encapsulated in the reds and yellows of the fire, the coals and embers forming the finer details.

Cid saw a look of bliss on Lidayel’s face.

Is this…?’

‘Yes, this is my wife, her name is Yarea,’ said Lidayel, holding the fiery phantom in place.

According to the figure Yarea was a petite woman, even more so than Elmira thought Cid. She had an open face and hair not even at shoulder length, with a slight stylish curl. She was in any case, a pretty damsel, as long as one were to trust this image Lidayel conjured.

Brunick whistled. ‘Gee, I guess you Summoner types can woo any kind of woman with your tricks.’

Lidayel laughed, more out of happiness of the moment than at Brunick’s comment. ‘Remember that she is a Summoner also Brunick, she has tricks of her own.’

Lidayel closed his eyes. Brunick started to say something but Cid hushed him, as he realized what the man was trying to do.

The party sat quietly and watched. To them it looked as though the Summoner was just relaxing. Lidayel’s mind however reached out far and wide, transcending its bodily confines. He could not envision sights like the Valkyrie could, rather, his magical sensitivity allowed him to pick up on anything with great energy or power. In theory, Yarea would be easy to track down.

He opened his eyes in frustration. ‘I might be getting something, but it’s nothing definitive and I have no inkling where it might come from.’

‘Let me help,’ said Vanapha, having thought about this. Without waiting for consent she reached out, touching Lidayel’s temple with two fingers.

For the second time Lidayel felt the eerie connection with a Valkyrie. Instead of trying to break through his memories though Lidayel was flooded with visions of the surrounding landscape. They grew so big and wide that he quickly became disoriented.

I’m seeing the world without eyes.

‘Focus now,’ said Vanapha aloud, her voice alien to Lidayel’s newfound perspective.

Taking heed, he tried to pick up on the trail of magic again. He found it, pulsing to the west. As though Vanapha knew she focused her Farsight in that direction. Lidayel’s power combined with the Valkyrie’s Farsight proved efficient and their shared vision sped on its prey like they were looking from the eyes of an eagle.

They found their target; to the north-west in the Drimdyar pass travelled a large group of bandits and it was clear to both Lidayel and Vanapha that the tied up woman with them was no common girl, her presence shining with magic.

They withdrew, the both of them somewhat flustered at the new combination of powers.

‘We found her,’ announced Vanapha.

Lidayel gathered himself. ‘She was drugged though; her mind and powers were faint and confused. I understand now. The bandits know full well she is a powerful mage. She would have killed them all by now if they didn’t keep her sedated.’

‘Well at least now you know. It’ll be much simpler to save her from Durandal than Northgarde right?’ said Brunick.

‘There is a problem though. Those bandits are clearly shrewd, if they know she is a mage they might still sell her off to Arumcas, she’ll fetch a much better price that way,’ said Cid.

‘I will find her though; they will not kill her. And whosoever be her captor will pay a price far worse than any weapon can inflict.’

‘Do you intend to stay with us then Summoner?’ asked Alex.

‘With my powers returning I can attempt to fight past all the Durandal sentries in the Drimdyar pass. It would however probably cost either my life or Yarea’s. I guess fate wants us to remain intact a while longer. You see, should Lanston win at Jacanta the Ghost pass will be cleared, and will be a much safer and subtler route to travel afterwards.’

Cid was thoughtful for a moment before he asked, ‘how strong are you in comparison to Arumcas? Will you be a match for him should the two of you meet in battle?’

Lidayel released his magical hold on the flames, the embers sinking and returning to what a campfire should look like.

‘I do not know, but I’d say he’s still much stronger than any Summoner the Kingdom has ever associated with, even stronger than Grandmaster Tabacher of Allandiel. I say this for the simple reason that he is far older than any other Summoner I know and he has, to the best of my knowledge, never been made to forget.’

‘And he has been practicing his arts relentlessly for over a century,’ said Cid.

‘There is that,’ said Lidayel.

‘Is there any chance he could have corrupted Stelinger, you know, like some kind of new spell that makes him look like he’s still in control?’ suggested Alex.

Lidayel shook his head. ‘No, Arumcas likes his closest servants to maintain their brain faculties for the simple reason that being sentient is so much more effective than being manipulated. As is the case with the Shadow Priests, their working minds allow them to excel in magic where Fallen cannot.’

‘Tis the reason the Fallen are often a clumsy enemy,’ said Vanapha.

‘Not when you face them head-on and they have the numbers,’ said Brunick.

‘And what they lack in coordination they make up with relentlessness; pain and fatigue is a notion wasted on them,’ said Cid.

‘I would say that if Stelinger is working under the command of Arumcas then it is by his own choice,’ said Lidayel conclusively.

‘That is, he thinks it’s his own choice,’ said Vanapha.

Lidayel nodded. ‘Arumcas, even without his magicks, has shown himself to be a master manipulator as we’ve seen with the Reavers; they seem to be bred and nurtured to follow his will blindly.’

‘It all leaves a bad taste in my mouth though. I’d never thought Lanston would suffer a disgrace like this. I didn’t even think Stelinger would ever do something like this,’ said Brunick, disgust showing in his face.

‘Yet we should all remember that there is a slight chance that Stelinger is not at fault here, maybe not deliberately anyway,’ said Cid.

He was met with incredulous stares from everyone and Brunick actually gave a cynical bark.

‘Why are you defending him? He hates you even more than you hate him,’ said Alex.

‘I’m defending Commander Bennam…’ said Cid, suddenly struck by Bennam’s death; it was strange though that he struggled to convince himself that the old Commander’s actions had any merit at all. ‘Bennam would not have chosen Stelinger if he didn’t think he would be a great Commander.’

‘Well I have long since made peace with the idea that Bennam screwed up on this one Cid. He should’ve made you Commander whether Stelinger is a traitor or not.’

Cid sighed. ‘If we cannot succeed at Jacanta, then… well, you guys should be fine. As for me, if I cannot win this war then I would rather die in it.’

‘Don’t talk horseshit Cid, you’re better than going pitiful on all of us,’ said Brunick.

‘You’re our captain and all of us have a stake in this. You just keep at leading and we’ll put this war away in no time,’ said Alex, throwing some stones to seem casual. ‘And seriously, the Teritua story is getting old, I can’t wait to see how this one turns out!’

Cid chuckled.

The campfire had been reduced to a mound of coals. They cut a few prime pieces of meat from the buck and let it grill on their makeshift rotisserie. No spices and no salt tonight, so the meat was bland. Yet as always it was a solid meal and that went a far way to keep up the travellers’ strength. It wasn’t long after eating that they all settled down for the night, as the fire also withered into nothingness.

Chapter 33

One of the Masons

 

 

Cid woke, his eyes sore and dried from the canyon winds. The sound of rocks crunching under boots made him snap upright with his sabre coming out. He rarely slept without it anymore.

Easy, it’s only me,’ said Vanapha in response to the lick of steel as it left its sheath near her ankle.

Cid noticed her hair was wet and tied up, her scent surprisingly perfumy.

Cid grunted, putting the sabre away and rubbing at his eyes. ‘Early riser are you?’

‘Actually, there’s a spring just down the trail and I never pass up a chance to clean up. You should try it every now and then,’ said Vanapha mockingly.

Cid blushed and smiled. Being in war didn’t allow one much hygienic outings and right now Cid and company were as grimy as they were likely to get without participating in bloodshed.

He looked at the other men, sprayed out and sleeping obstinately. Even Lidayel, who had seemed well groomed at first, was looking ragged and unkempt, oil build-up evident in his long strands of hair. With the presence of a lady, albeit she a warrior, and seeing how the other men looked, Cid was inclined to agree.

‘Hmm, I think we all might take your suggestion seriously,’ said Cid, rising.

Cid took out his simple cloth cloak, intending to dry himself with it. He set off alone down the trail without pause, suddenly yearning for the water.

 

 

It was the second hour of the morning, Cid monitoring the sun thoughtfully.

‘Much better,’ announced Alex as he joined them back at the campsite, still shaking his hair dry with his fingers.

‘Brunick?’ asked Lidayel.

‘Still scrubbing away, he has a lot to wash,’ said Alex laughingly.

Cid was standing with his back to them, turning to the horizon to the north.

‘Two days until we reach Jacanta,’ said Cid loudly.

‘We’ll hit the Basin before that. The army is at least a day behind; we should be able to scout out the situation thoroughly before the battle,’ said Alex, who was starting to pack his things.

‘The army is likely to send out their own scouts far out today though, seeing that my sisters and I did not return to report,’ said Vanapha.

‘You’re right, but we shouldn’t have much trouble avoiding them,’ said Cid.

‘I wonder if Stelinger ever considered-’

Brunick!’ interrupted Vanapha in alarm.

Cid whipped around on the spot, but saw no sign of the man.

Vanapha was already on the trot, her bow in her hands, escaping their enclosure of rocky fences like a bounding hare to ignore the lethargy of the trail.

‘Come on, Brunick is still at the spring, Vanapha has seen something!’ Lidayel supplied.

Cid hurried to follow, grabbing his spear and finding himself running on Alex’s heels. By the time they made it onto the trail he could see Vanapha far ahead of them, sprinting towards the waters. Twenty paces later Cid could see what Vanapha had seen.

Brunick, half dressed, was already outside the pool. His figure though was tensed and poised, dark shapes closing in on him.

Shadowlings!

Brunick had the mind to take his axe along, yet the sight could not be more horrifying as Cid knew that Brunick alone had no chance against that many of them.

Brunick was buying time though, manoeuvring himself all around the pool edge, his eyes squinting for any sign of movement from the shadows. They did not entertain a fair fight, streaking suddenly from nowhere, in a whirl of black smokes like a cloak, daggers flashing, and Brunick could but turn in a defensive effort, the creature already gone the other way before he could offer any riposte.

Brunick knew what he had to do; spacing his hands wide over the shaft of the axe, for the moment only allowing himself short cutting strikes in order to better defend himself until he was reinforced by the others.

Vanapha came within a comfortable firing distance, jumping on a small solid rock for a good vantage and let loose. A shadowling screamed in agony as the arrow hit it in the spine, going down, and the shadowy magic left him as he died, the Fallen scout’s body very human in death. The sudden uproar however triggered the other shadowlings, making them sense that time wasn’t on their side any more, and like one now they charged, encircling Brunick’s figure like a pack of dogs. At this sight Cid sprinted as fast as he could, overtaking Alex. Still a distance away though he could do nothing but will Brunick on to survive somehow.

Brunick cleaved horizontally, forcing space as he ripped through a multitude, their projectile-like movements coming to a sudden halt as the host body suffered mortal wounds.

More came on a delayed rush, haunting Brunick with attacks too fast, the Mason seemingly taking fatal cuts. He landed his axe into the belly of one, but the weight of the dying shadowling carried the axe out of his grip.

Pressing on Brunick rolled out of the ambush, regaining his feet and his axe in unison, spun, and then met a shadowling vaulting from an outcropping in the air with the double blades coming in overhead. The creature came through cleanly decapitated, its headless body slamming the earth in a lifeless heap.

Vanapha crucially shot down one more without error, the arrow speeding faster than anything else to pierce neck and throat.

Brunick continued to retreat inch by inch without turning, waiting for back-up.

Vanapha fired another arrow, soon followed by one of Alex’s who had caught up. Two shadowlings went down, one dead and the other wounded in the back. Cid was far out ahead of them.

Ten paces…

Desperately Cid wrenched himself forward, aiming his spear and plunging it into a shadowlings side, the pain overpowering the creature and lifting it from its feet before being driven into the ground. Cid had his own taste of the shadowling’s stealth then, one emerging unnoticed, ignoring Brunick and leapt at Cid in turn.

Cid did enough to avoid its blades, and then tried to grasp the creature, to pin its arms. Even with his arms wrapped around it he wasn’t ever sure whether these men were corporal while the magics lingered on them.

It felt real enough, for a second at least, before it somehow twisted out of Cid’s hold, aiming its blades to Cid’s belly.

His breath caught in his throat.

An explosion ensued, first the blinding light and then an instant later the combination of heat and concussive force. Cid tilted and was swept from his feet, assuming the shadowling was experiencing much of the same. Ears ringing and mind flailing Cid sure hoped that whatever magic Lidayel was using that it was under control.

Momentum flung his body to tumble down the slope towards the pool, the tiny sharp rocks inherit to the water bank a cruel buffer. A tormented howl pierced Cid’s deafness and told him that Lidayel’s spell had found its mark. He halted his roll forcibly with elbows and knees, and blinked profusely to clear up his vision, witnessing the instant before the shadowling hit the water, tumbling much like he had, yet engulfed in flames. It crashed into the pool, its figure disappearing in a sudden upsurge of steam.

Its burned carcass surfaced subtlety moments later, motionless.

Cid breathed deeply, his mind not understanding how they had survived – how Brunick had survived! He looked back at Lidayel, raising his hand in acknowledgement to the mage, who seemed ever more pleased with himself.

‘So much for bathing,’ said Brunick jokingly, wallowing back into the water to wash the blood from his chest. None of it seemed to be of his own however.

Cid was astounded. He had seen it with his own eyes; how the shadowlings had cleaved and slashed at Brunick. He imagined that Lidayel had somehow shielded Brunick, yet sure enough there were many angry red lines across his arms and chest as though he had been whipped, but there was no blood and no wounds.

He should be dead!

Cid rose on unsure legs, closing in on Brunick, the ringing in his ears stubborn.

‘Brunick, what… how in the world-?

Brunick looked down at his own body, examining the scars, unimpressed.

There was a silence of expectation, everyone now staring.

‘Alright, I might as well tell you,’ said Brunick reluctantly.

‘Tell them or I will,’ said Vanapha, ‘no point hiding it.’

Brunick looked at Vanapha, flicking his eyes to Lidayel, Alex, and then locked onto Cid, knowing he owed the truth to him more than anyone.

‘I am a Stoneskin,’ said Brunick, as though it was something to be ashamed of.

Even Alex had not managed to comment and Brunick knew this was one of the rare occasions he would stun the trailblazer into silence.

He was however surprised to see Cid smiling, shaking his head, and on the verge of laughing.

‘What is it?’ he asked defensively.

‘All these magicks and fables are catching up to me!’ he laughed in relief. ‘But really, I’m just glad you survived, and now I finally understand why you’re in the army, and not playing ball…’

 

 

A soldier would go through his career tethered to the fears of knowing how fragile his own body is to the merciless weapons crafted by other men. Brunick was different and had a gift, a gift any soldier venerated, a gift that made Brunick resistant to even the most devastating of physical onslaughts.

The condition was magical in nature, this much the fable explained, and thus disqualified him from playing Bajural since mystics were strictly prohibited in any form in the league. It did however make Brunick an almost perfect warrior, one who could go into battle without fear.

Stoneskin; a legacy, a myth even. One Cid had not believed in till now. Here he was, his friend Brunick, carrying that legacy on his own body. They were moving slowly forward, still in the grips of what had happened, talking it out.

‘How long have you known?’ asked Cid.

‘It started when I returned to the army four years ago, just before our expedition to Teritua, remember?’

‘Yes, you were away with your fellow Masons for awhile, did something happen that made you change?’

‘No, turns out it’s a natural process among my folk. Not everyone is endowed of course, still kinda of a big deal among us if you are. We keep it secret for the most part, it’s simpler that way, you know? The whole thing’s got something to do with the Greathir moon as well, it’s some kind of “reciprocation” they called it between Mason and our patron moon.’

‘You felt it?’ queried Cid.

Hell yes! When it first started it was itchy and tight and uncomfortable. Ever since though I’ve felt my strength increase and my skin and muscles have grown harder and harder by the year. You have no idea how much stretching exercises I have to do just to keep myself limber,’ confessed Brunick.

‘You won’t turn into a statue will you?’ asked Alex, finally finding his quip.

Brunick laughed loudly, shedding some of the tenseness he had carried the last few minutes.

Cid had never seen the big man so careful on a subject, or so embarrassed by anything.

‘So how many people know about this?’ asked Cid.

‘Only my brethren. How did you know, Vanapha?’ asked Brunick.

‘I know more of your kind than most, but I realized in full when I shot at you the other day and my arrow didn’t wound you,’ said Vanapha.

Cid nodded, now understanding.

Gee, so you’re invulnerable,’ stated Alex.

Brunick shook his head. ‘Magic can beat me,’ casting a glance at Lidayel, ‘and there is something else too… Cid give me your spearhead.’

Cid complied, detaching the headpiece blade and handing it to Brunick. The big man took it and made a delicate show of slicing his own hand, just nicking it enough for some blood to show.

Absurd as it was Cid expected nothing to happen, yet Mindevhier effortlessly gashed Brunick’s palm, bloodying his hand and wrist.

‘Is this what you meant when you said that only I can beat you in a fight?’ asked Cid.

Brunick nodded, as Lidayel took his hand to heal the shallow wound in stride.

‘And here I was thinking you valued my skill,’ said Cid.

Brunick laughed.

‘That is no ordinary spear,’ said Vanapha, impressed, ‘according to Stelinger it’s made from the same metal as his sword.’

‘My brethren told me of Hethellean, it’s possibly the rarest of metals and as a honed weapon can harm even us Stoneskins. I deducted that Mindevhier’s blade must be crafted from Hethellean when Cid accidentally cut me last year when we were ambushed on the border,’ said Brunick.

‘Yes, I remember the day,’ said Cid thoughtfully.

‘I’m familiar with Hethellean as well,’ said Lidayel looking up from Brunick’s hand, ‘if my academic memory serves the metal is magic-resistant and can cut right through Calophrites just like it does with Brunick’s skin. It also requires the best of forges to craft them effectively,’ he finished.

‘And you’re saying Stelinger is wielding a Hethellean sword?’ asked Cid at the Valkyrie.

Vanapha nodded, ‘worse than that, my sister Claire came in contact with the sword in order to track you down, and she suspected it to be a weapon of Ruin.’

‘A possessed blade?’ asked Alex in alarm.

‘A common misconception that is, possessed is not the most apt term. Ruin weapons bond with their owners, man and weapon mutually growing stronger through interaction of thoughts and sensations,’ said Vanapha.

‘Are Hethellean weapons and those of Ruin different from each other?’ asked Cid.

‘Ruin weapons are Hethellean weapons released by a Summoner, just like a Summoner releases the potential of a human mage,’ said Lidayel.

‘Weapons are but one possibility of Hethellean. Devices and machines that can pierce or resist magic would revolutionize warfare once more,’ said Vanapha.

‘I would like that though, going into battle without fearing the Priests’ magic,’ said Alex.

They continued their talk as they wandered forward.

Cid’s mind however began reaching for that very letter he had received;

Destinian smithies… new weapons… binding process…

Had someone redirected that letter purposefully to warn him?

Cid decided not to doubt the matter. Given what was happening he had to assume something was afoot and that it was larger than what he could grasp at the moment. He had to be decisive and he needed facts. Even more now became his drive to reach Jacanta.

A conspiracy formed in his mind; one that would explain what Stelinger had been up to all along.

Chapter 34

Flight

 

Early in the morning Elmira was ready. Again, like the time she had travelled with Alex to Taverka, she felt the thrill of breaking loose from the life her family and status designed for her. She manoeuvred quietly around the house, gathering some last supplies for her trip, always finding some more room in her pack. The Alder stone as the Ranger had named it, was wrapped up and tucked away safely as well.

She dared not wake her parents. Essentially she was ready to confront her father, but preferred all the same to avoid it. She was dressed uncharacteristically plainly, keeping to a dull blouse, a brown cloth pants and rough leathery sandals she had bought for her trips with Cid to the farmlands near Orlo forest.

In the kitchen she left a letter painstakingly written to her parents. Even after she had reread the thing half a dozen times the letter was still more secretive than she intended, for despite her quarrels with her parents she did not want them worried while she was away. In short it told only as much that she was off with the Rangers by their request, that she would be safe, and that she would return soon enough. Sheathing the letter in among the fruits of the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, Elmira hastened her escape. Lastly she slipped her engagement ring on her finger, knowing that from here on she could wear it shamelessly.

Everything was well until she attempted to leave the estate, the two guards refusing to let her pass alone into the streets. She started panicking, quietly pleading with them to let her out. They would not budge, refusing to let her go before the town guard commenced their morning shift. Elmira started eyeing some crates against the manor walls, wondering if her little adventure would start off with her scaling a twelve foot wall.

I’d do it, but I’d probably break something trying.

She was then saved by a Ranger, before she could ponder more desperate escape routes. One of Olexion’s men, named Troas, came into view on the street just outside the gate. He beckoned the two guards to speak with him.

They complied, wide eyed and unsure. Elmira stood closer, intent on listening and ready to jump into her own explanation should it be necessary.

Troas spoke quietly with the men, assuring them that Elmira had business at the Castle and that he was to escort her there. The guards dared not impede on the wishes of the Ranger. Whether official and dictated by law, or unofficial and dictated by reputation, the Rangers wielded massive influence anywhere in the Kingdom, and everyone knew it.

Elmira was released, thanking the guards as they let her through and greeting the man Troas. The Ranger was mindful enough to have brought a spare horse from the castle stables for Elmira’s use. He helped her atop the mount, rather unnecessarily now given her clothing, yet still appreciated.

Troas mounted his own steed and they set off. Excited now Elmira slowly rode alongside Troas through the streets, growing bored quickly with their leisurely pace. She had expected something more of a hush-hush, glances-over-the-shoulder, keep-to-the-shadows escape to the castle.

Pointless now that I think about it, but still more exciting than this.

For now the sun was just starting to settle on Lanston and the only other men in the streets were craftsmen or bakers readying for the day’s work, so rather the ride to the castle was peaceful and Elmira decided to enjoy the rare sight of an awakening Lanston.

Her companion was quiet and did not show any overt interests in his surroundings. Just like yesterday, Elmira thought the Rangers as almost being surly in nature, not with the intention to be rude, but rather as though their occupation discouraged idle conversation. They were either trained not to indulge in small talk or they were all introverted like Cid had been when she first met him, quite possibly both, thought Elmira.

Elmira understood Cid well enough to know that he did his best to be sociable around her, but being true to himself he was a man who only spoke when he felt something needed to be said. Nevertheless Elmira respected him for it; not only could she bear his silences, but she knew that when he said something it would be because he meant it.

The Castle was not far from the district in which Elmira lived and even though they kept the horses to a slow trot they were at the Castle gates before dawn was spoiled.

Troas, garbed in his official dress, effortlessly gained entrance past the giant gatehouse of the castle. Suddenly, the one gate Elmira had been curious to get past all her life was the gate that would lead her to Cid.

Past the gate a decorate road led straight through the grounds to the Castle doors. Elmira basked in all the splendour that was the castle’s garden, finding much beauty reminiscent like that of the city’s central park. Troas led them to the stables at the Castle’s west flank, were they handed the horses over to some sleepy-eyed stable boys. On foot, Troas and Elmira retraced back to the double doors where they once again gained instant admittance.

Elmira knew that the Castle of Lanston was considered somewhat small in comparison with those of Asheva.

To her though the castle was grandiose in every aspect, its mix of ancient architecture and contemporary remodelling prickling her fairly suppressed appreciation for opulence. Inside they found but only a few servants, preparing much for the day like the craftsmen in the streets below.

The Dauflon and his kin are probably all still asleep, thought Elmira in amusement.

Dressed as plainly as she was Elmira felt a rare sense of inferiority as a parade of painted portraits on the walls in the peripheral corridors stared down on her as though noticing her common attire. Troas walked them through the older parts of the Castle, quite detached from the royal family’s living quarters.

They halted at a massive bronze plate on the wall that held engraved on it a coat of arms. It was a shield crowned with the Kingdom’s patron symbol; the Red-Rocket Aloe, the plant’s seven tower-like red flowers each representing a city of the Sovereignty. In fascination Elmira looked on as Troas unlocked the man-sized bronze plate like a door. He did it so swiftly that Elmira only realized what he was doing when he swung the whole thing open on hidden hinges, revealing a small passageway. He beckoned Elmira to enter first.

‘Please my lady, watch your step, there is no light inside save for that which comes from the aviary.’

As Elmira treaded inside the passage it immediately became an incredibly tight and dark stairwell, the walls so narrow that two persons could not ascend or descend with or past one another. Troas closed the plating solidly behind him, shutting out even more light. Like Troas warned, Elmira almost had to guess where the next step would be and she knew this would be but the first time to be grateful to herself for dressing as comfortable as possible. There was some light though, and it did indeed come from above.

Elmira wondered at the secrecy of the passage and concluded it was to keep the Volje safe in any case, or at least out of reach and sight from daring servants and pages looking to pass the time. As she carefully climbed with Troas just on her heels, she came to the realization that she wasn’t just going to see a Volje up close, but also ride on one. Her excitement to thus far had nullified that awareness and she couldn’t help but feel nervous now, wondering whether she could stomach flying at all.

Around and around they went, the stairwell revolving at least twice per floor, the tall Ranger forced to walk somewhat stooped. Even though it wasn’t, the small enclosed darkness made the climb feel long.

The narrow stairwell finally emptied out into the aviary, a room of incredible contrast proportionally to that of the passage. It was a single vaulted ceiling hallway, leading up to a yawning cavity into the sky that served as a drop-off or landing.

Elmira immediately spotted Olexion and the other Rangers, already tending to their Volje individually. The aviary had a great many cabinets and accessories lined against the walls, but Elmira paid it little heed as she focused on the Volje.

The sight of the beasts made Elmira lose composure for a moment, her body automatically walking slower. She liked and adored horses, having grown up with well trained steeds, yet the Volje was another animal entirely.

The two-legged bodies were mostly furred, having only feathers on the furled wings, which it used very effectively as front legs. Even walking all fours the stature was still that of a large stallion and greater. Elmira was immediately struck by the giant head resembling a keen hound’s, huge yellow eyes looking intelligently at her, seeing her for the stranger that she was. Their ears were upright, and their snouts ridged as though armoured. She could imagine the set of teeth they must have.

‘Cid was right. They do look like bats,’ said Elmira in distress.

Olexion at first gave her stern look, but changed it into an amused smile soon enough. ‘You will come to like them my lady.’

Along the centre fold the wing were a hand-like paw, armed with claws that looked like clouded glass, and the claw size could fold over a man’s head and crush it like a bird could a worm. Its tail Elmira noticed was long and thin, and twice again the length of the body. There was no doubt though that this creature was something that belonged in the sky, its other features being distinctly avian – and then there were its wings!

An immense creature like this could do with nothing less than the most impressive wingspan a person could see in this part of the world.

As they were, the Volje folded their wings neatly to their sides, yet one of the foremost, Olexion’s Volj in fact, responded to Elmira’s presence, encroaching, and then in a display of power, opened its wings wide and flapped once, the resulting gust of wind almost knocking Elmira from her feet.

‘I didn’t think they were that big,’ said Elmira in dismay in the shadow of the towering Volj.

‘Having second thoughts?’ asked Olexion.

The Volje turned away, clearly satisfied with its message sent.

Elmira shook her head. ‘No, this should be better than riding anyway right? Let’s get on with it.’

‘Fine, you pair up with Sedger-’

‘No, I’ll be flying with you,’ pressed Elmira quickly.

‘My lady I insist-’

‘No, I will not be fooled and then dropped off somewhere by one of your subordinates, I coming with you,’ said Elmira.

Olexion sighed silently.

‘Very well, stand aside while we prepare them,’ said Olexion.

‘Remember, I still have this,’ said Elmira, holding up the stone.

‘I’m painfully aware of that my lady,’ said Olexion.

‘You know, you should really start calling me Elmira, all this milady stuff is painting me out as nobility, which I have no intention of being.’

‘As you wish,’ he said.

Elmira sure he wasn’t going to adhere to the agreement.

Standing near the stairwell doorway she watched quietly as the Rangers saddled their Volje, Olexion obviously saddling his beast to take two. The Volje were inspected and Elmira was impressed by the series of stretches the Volje did on their own at the command of the Rangers. They would bound into the air, flapping their wings once to almost reach the height of the hall’s vaulted ceiling, landing with another gush of wind. It was over all too soon.

‘Come now, let’s be off,’ said Olexion when they were done, motioning for Elmira to come closer.

Trepidation caught Elmira now, her heart pounding hard as she neared the Volj.

‘Don’t be afraid.’

Olexion cupped his hands, hoisting Elmira up as she stepped onto them.

A bit higher up than usual, but not unlike a horse, thought Elmira, at least there would be no more side saddling for me.

Olexion then ushered a command and his greyish Volje lifted its front left leg. Using it as a step Olexion agilely pounced, turning his body in mid-air perfectly into the saddle. Elmira instinctively held on to him. She looked around. The other Rangers were mounted as well.

Olexion gave the command and the Volje turned, forming a line to face the great exit some thirty yards from where they stood, the launching point laying ahead like a cliff edge.

There was some enthused shouting and the Volje roared with a deep-bellied sound. Elmira winced as the Volje suddenly burst into a run, the dash of the five beasts playing an eerie sound of clicking claws on the stone floor. The initial rocking was far worse than that of riding a horse and Elmira was glad she had Olexion to hold on to. They reached the edge of the landing and the beasts jumped forth into empty air.

Elmira was breathless as the sun hit her face.

There were moments of free fall – and then Elmira felt the beat of the giant wings by her sides. They descended for a moment more and then gained rhythm, the flutter becoming quicker and more powerful, and then slowing again as they stabilized. It was alien to say the least and Elmira wasn’t exactly sure whether she was nauseous yet or not, her position powerless and at the mercy of the beating wings.

But then it became wondrous. The Volje reached an ideal height, caught a draft, and spread out their wings rigidly to glide.

‘See my Lady? Its flight is more like an eagle than any creature staying in a cave.’

She admitted it was very majestic, a smile creeping over her face.

They banked, swerving right around the perimeter of the castle to set their course northwards. The tilting and the wind blowing her hair out behind her made Elmira giddy, only just suppressing the urge to whoop, reckoning Olexion would disapprove. She was unlikely to say it, but she was grateful to the Ranger for allowing her to come along and so she was keen on keeping the man content.

Elmira looked down and saw a whole new face of Lanston; the city she had known all her life became an entity that she could marvel in its entirety from a single vantage point. Everything was in perspective; every building, square and garden, part of a great whole. See saw the stadiums, the towers and even the castle in a way now that the Dauflon himself would be jealous of.

The city soon past out of sight though, the Volje gaining in speed. From Lanston a winding road carried on, cutting a line through the country. Elmira followed it with her eyes, knowing all too well that it ended with the town Ralna, from where only dirt trails existed to Taverka, the border, and the lands beyond. Even though the world had never seemed as vast Elmira could not understand how swift they were moving over landscapes, how quickly one horizon would be traded for another.

Their speed altogether brought up another question. The wind in Elmira’s face and ears were but a gentle breeze and she knew Olexion’s body was not enough to block out this much wind. Their passage through the air was too light, too easy. She looked over Olexion’s shoulder and was not sure whether she was imagining it, but the daylight seemed to bend slightly around them, like it was hitting a water droplet. Immediately she wondered whether the stories were true.

‘Ranger?’ she asked, and upon hearing her own voice not being lost in the wind she thought she already knew the answer.

‘Is it true then that you and your men can use magic?’ she asked shamelessly.

‘Yes my lady, though we are not born magicians. Our Volje are creatures of a magical kind, they share their innate abilities with us as a pact of trust, and lend upon us the power needed to create spells. To be honest our repertoire is rudimentary, but in the instance of both battle and travel our skills are crucial,’ said Olexion. ‘How did you notice?’

Elmira looked up, seeing a faint rainbow of colours bouncing from Olexion’s magic.

‘I saw this… bubble of yours,’ said Elmira as she recognized the faint contour. Now that she knew it was there she was sure she could see its outline enclosing the entire Volj, fixed around their speeding mass.

Bubble?’ asked Olexion.

‘Yeah, you know, like when you’re taking a foam bath and pick up some foam in your hands, and if you blow it just right the bubbles spurt out flying. They have the same sheen of rainbow colours when the light hits them right,’ said Elmira.

Olexion chuckled. ‘I’ve seen your bathtub phenomenon before. I guess it really is a better description than barrier or shield, although the Rangerhood are a prideful bunch, calling our most prevalent magic a… bubble, would simply not have gone down well with them,’ said Olexion.

‘Can’t call a man’s toys by its name, huh?’ laughed Elmira.

‘No, I guess not,’ answered Olexion in amusement.

‘Are you then blocking out the wind with your bubble?’ asked Elmira.

‘Yes, I’m redirecting air to suit our needs and comfort. I’m also filtering daylight; the sun is merciless up here in the open. In battle we use the physicality of the barriers as weapons or as a way of protecting ourselves.

‘I see. What is your Volj’s name?’ asked Elmira, seeing if she couldn’t keep the conversation going a little longer.

‘The conclave received him from the breeder as Oel Dannel. It means “grey one” in the old tongue. I’ve been partnered with him for all the years of my service. Our bond is strong, and our magic better off because of it,’ said Olexion.

There was silence and Elmira conceded that getting Olexion to talk was going to be hard. She rather craned her head again to watch the landscape pass by. The land was now puckered with verdant hillocks and she saw a lone antelope bounding in fright to the threat of this unusual aerial predator. Only hours ago Elmira would have envied the buck’s freedom.

Yet it was here, flying, that she felt her freedom, a feeling that released her from all the troubles that the corners of a city had cultivated in her mind. Best of all it gave her hope and renewed her strength. It was all the more better knowing she was off to see Cid, slipping the shackles of her life to chase the man she loved.

Chapter 35

A Memory of Years Past

 

 

Olexion felt Elmira behind him resting her head on his back. It wasn’t long before she fell asleep, her slight weight settling against Olexion’s. It was strange for the Ranger, so at first it unnerved him a bit, but then, well…

Olexion had never married. The Rangerhood usually required sacrificing marital bliss. Against the odds many of his younger counterparts were indeed wedded, but then again they would never make the highest positions.

It has always been a question of the kind of woman Olexion encountered; most of them did not appreciate his way of life, or his demeanour for that matter. Yet here behind him now was a woman with a will of steel, accompanied by many other characteristics he thought could not co-exist.

He had not expected her to show up that day, and had not expected her to keep resolve, holding on to the stone and braving the skies. On the other front she was committed to a soldier, so she understood the sacrifices and the effects war had on a man. It was a rare experience for Olexion to admire a girl like he did Elmira.

This Cid is one lucky man…

Olexion reconsidered the thought, taking in account that which he had read in the reports and considered the woman behind him.

No, there is nothing lucky about Cid; the kind of loyalty like Elmira was showing toward the soldier was a loyalty earned.

Thinking about this Olexion knew that somehow he needed to get the Alder stone from Elmira and get her somewhere safe. He would not have her come in to a war, not to be endangered or revealed to it; Olexion himself cast off his innocence long ago to spare others theirs’. She wouldn’t like it, but it was for her own good.

Yet Olexion could not make this decision. He made excuses to himself, like thinking how much she would appreciate seeing Cid alive and how tedious and time consuming it would be trying to get the stone from her.

She is a shrewd girl, he commended in his mind. But I have to leave her somewhere behind, it’s for her own protection.

Still he could not make this decision. Puzzled, Olexion contemplated.

He was not a man to show much excitement, but flying was one of his most prized experiences in life. Flying now, with this warm steel-willed girl behind him was unexpectedly comforting, nurturing contentment and triggering a deep seated urge to protect and reluctance to be distanced from her.

Olexion realized he wasn’t going to leave her behind because he didn’t want to. Suddenly he felt a conflict of emotions.

She has enough suitors as it is, he joked by himself in order to shake the uncomfortable affection. He rather focused on the task at hand, on what would wait them in Alparack and how best to get the answers they needed. His mind drifted to the Alder stone. How familiar…

It was a memory so burned into Olexion’s mind he was sure no one will ever be able to make him forget it. It was roughly ten years ago by now, but the images remained vivid:

 

Asheva was a glorious city, standing as the capital of the east and one of the most powerful nations on Angaria. No one could ever be sure, but it was widely believed to be the biggest city in the world. It was Olexion’s hometown and he grew up in constant admiration and wonder of it, his penchant for history and grandeur even as child ensuring that there was always something more to discover. Despite the coming of adulthood he could, like so many others, almost still not believe that men could build such gargantuan structures like the Grand Citadel.

Most of Asheva’s was a façade of polished marble; priceless statues and great parks intersected with elaborate waterworks of waterways, fountains and pools. In cost-effective resemblance to the rest of the marble frame the massive city highways were built with a white stone, whereupon some of the first intra-city railway systems in the world were laid, the stream driven carriages of public transport becoming the answer to a city that had the potential to grow too great for its own good. Nowhere was it more grand or beautiful than around the Citadel itself, recognized as the prime beacon of human achievement and prosperity.

With the duties of a Ranger though, Olexion quickly became accustomed with all the dark nooks and crannies of the world that most people were ignorant off. As a boy he would not have been able to dream that so many secrets rested within Asheva itself.

It was a fateful day. Olexion was rising through the ranks with unprecedented speed given his dedication to his calling. Tabacher, the Grandmaster of the Summoner conclaves and schools, invited Olexion into the very hallows of the Conclave in the Citadel.

The Rangers were protectors of the realms in the public eye, but the foremost of their duties saw them trained to fight rogue Summoners and direct or protect Kingdom Summoners should the need arise.

To the outside world Summoners were the unknown quantity and therefore a menace, better left unmentioned in public circles, leaving the Rangerhood plight a sensitive affair. To these ends they reported to both King Reneus and Grandmaster Tabacher; the two most powerful authorities in the Kingdom.

The censored reality was that the Kingdom used an array of Summoners to protect its bounty and people. Working in tandem with these Summoners were the highest ranking of the Rangers.

The Summoners incidentally taught the Rangers the magic they used with their Volje, and like the Summoners the Rangers had access to information like very few others in the Kingdom.

Even up here in the Citadel premises matters were kept secretive and vague, and till this day Olexion had yet to come to understand the true relationship of Summoner and Ranger. Grandmaster Tabacher was about to cast a revelation onto Olexion.

Tabacher led the thirty-year old Olexion into a great hall. Like all Summoners Tabacher had a certain grace and power about him. His presence was helped on by the fact that he was older than any would care to fathom, though like all of his kind he didn’t show true signs of degeneration.

He was taller than most Summoners and unlike the others his face was the only one who did show some age, the emerging lines giving his face some human character. Olexion knew Summoners could live for hundreds of years and Tabacher was undoubtedly some centuries old, and would in all probability outlive Olexion still. His dark hair and beard fitted his face like a mane, his pale blue eyes speaking of intelligence and experience of many ages.

The hall was long, its smooth marble wall running up to become a high ceiling. With the double doors closed behind them the place was eerily illuminated with torches of blue light, magical light no doubt. Olexion should have known by then he wouldn’t like what he was going to see.

Apprehensively he treaded behind the Summoner, casting his glance all around.

Along the wall, demanding Olexion’s attention, were giant spheres, floating next to and above each other, the luminance of the room suggesting they were liquid.

‘Go on, take a look,’ urged the Grandmaster.

Curiously Olexion approached. A closer glance revealed the sphere to be nothing more than a man sized bubble of water. An odd piece of magic, but…

Olexion took a startled step back, shaking his head.

He had seen a face inside the sphere. It wasn’t just a sphere, it was a cocoon!

Tabacher appeared at his shoulder as Olexion suppressed a shudder.

‘These are our Summoners, Captain. Thirty-seven of them, some of the most powerful beings on the planet, all contained in one room,’ said Tabacher, his voice vibrant by the insinuation of his own statement.

‘They are… alive!?’ asked Olexion, making the outline of naked bodies in each of the spheres before him.

‘Yes, this is how we keep them in suspension, rendered in a complete comatose state. They are perfectly protected and preserved, even nurtured by the waters around them. Before we enclose our Summoners we make them forget, so that they are fresh and controllable when they are waken again.’

‘The forgotten,’ whispered Olexion in recognition.

‘Yes, of all the Kingdom Summoners only I have never been made to forget. I stand vigilant over my kin, ever ready to serve the Kingdom.’

‘But why?’ asked Olexion.

‘Rogue Summoners are more dangerous than anything else in the world Captain. Even when we give them their memories back we only lend to them a functional fraction so they do not grow conscientious and turn upon the Kingdom,’ said Tabacher.

Olexion was horrified. A person without memories. What has become of one if you don’t have memories? When your most essential recollections were denied?

‘How are their memories restored?’ asked Olexion, his mind trying to justify what he was seeing.

‘It is good that you ask,’ said Tabacher, ‘like this.’

Tabacher strode to a particular sphere. He waved his hand mystically and the cocoon burst with a pop and a blast of water. Instantly a naked woman crashed down on the floor, groaning in pain on the cold wet stones.

Olexion immediately reached out to help her up, but Tabacher pushed him away.

‘She is dangerous!’ warned the Grandmaster.

She didn’t look like anything threatening to Olexion.

‘Rise,’ said Tabacher callously.

The woman did so, weakly, her knees caving in several times before she could stand upright. From her face Olexion could see that she did not know who or where she was.

Casually Tabacher took a small crystal stone from his robes.

‘This is an Alder stone,’ said Tabacher, holding it out for Olexion to see, ‘it holds all the memories of a Summoner like Yarea here; it can take as well as give, and that to whatever extent necessary. They are, needless to say, one of the most crucial devices in the Kingdom. In time you as well will have to be able to operate one of these. Observe.’

Without seeing if Olexion was keeping up, Tabacher held the stone to the woman’s temple. As if recognizing the Summoner the stone shone bright, sending revolving flashes of light all over the dimmed hall. In response her face went rigid, her mouth agape, her eyes wide and her body quivering, the cold and pain inescapable as though the stone’s mystics kept her upright through it all.

Even back then Olexion was a hardened man that had killed mercilessly in his life. Somehow though he did not know how much more he could take of this.

10 seconds…

30 seconds…

A minute…

The woman’s pale body trembled so that she was inevitably down to her knees again, Tabacher keeping the brightly flashing stone above her head. Every passing second Olexion fought the urge to knock the Grandmaster out of the way and help the girl, to preserve some decency in any case.

Finally Tabacher put the stone away in his robes, the light disappearing again. To a speechless Olexion the Grandmaster said, ‘like you might imagine, there is much more to it than just bringing the stone into contact with a Summoner. Your experience of magic will, once you are trained, allow you to selectively take and insert memories into Summoners. But that is a matter for another day.’

Tabacher turned to the girl. ‘Get up,’ he ordered.

The woman complied.

‘Dress yourself and take the normal set of scrolls from the library. Report back to me to receive your mission briefing.’

The woman left without a word, clearly still not in her right mind, yet with enough cognition now to know where she was and who she served.

Olexion found his voice as the girl left the room.

‘Grandmaster this is madness! These Summoners are nothing better than the Fallen!’ cried Olexion.

Tabacher laughed deeply, amused and not all rattled by Olexion’s outrage.

‘Do you think you are the first Ranger to react like this? I know son; this does not appear chivalrous. Remember, these were once men and women who claimed themselves masters over humanity. Now they serve out their purpose for the glory of the Kingdom.’

‘You are one of them. You are not treated like this!’ shot Olexion.

‘I am the keeper and therefore I bear the responsibility and the burden of having to see my brethren degraded to such an existence so that all humanity can live without fear,’ explained Tabacher.

‘Grandmaster… I do not know what to make of this,’ said Olexion.

‘Give it time young Captain. The men you know, your superiors, do you think they would have supported me in this if they didn’t think it necessary?’

Olexion was silent.

‘First-Ranger Kieran is growing old. One day you will take his place and become a hand of greatness that will protect thousands of lives. Of that I have no doubt,’ said Tabacher.

Still Olexion said nothing.

‘Let’s wait for the Summoner outside. This lighting might be gentle on the forgotten, but its gloom isn’t comforting otherwise.’

 

 

Later, standing outside one of the Temple’s great balconies, Olexion and the Grandmaster was approached by the Summoner girl. She was a petite woman, though she now looked like one fully aware of her powers and status. She was well dressed, her hair tended and a small satchel of supplies hanging from her left shoulder.

She smiled as she neared, appearing much more coherent than before.

‘It is good to see you again Grandmaster,’ said the woman with genuine happiness, the smile and sunlight revealing the Summoner’s beauty.

‘As it is to see you,’ said Tabacher rather fondly. ‘Yarea, this is Captain Olexion, a Ranger new to our senior ranks. He will be your escort in your mission. Forgive him if he seems still a bit ignorant on the Summoner’s ways.’

Yarea stuck out her hand in open friendliness and Olexion took it, his previous feelings of dismay in sudden conflict with what he was seeing now.

‘An honour to meet you my Lady…’

This isn’t like the Fallen at all. Still…

‘Come then, let’s go the war room so that we may discuss your task,’ said Tabacher.

 

 

Olexion returned to the present as he felt Elmira wake behind him.

He had come a long way since then. He had indeed become First-Ranger and come to accept the accompanying burdens. Sometimes he still wondered if it was worth treating the Summoners like they did. Nonetheless it was a system that worked and it kept the populace safe, just like the Grandmaster said.

‘Where are we?’ asked Elmira groggily.

‘We are making good way my lady, thanks to your stoutness we did not have to stop much. We are already past the border and we are currently flying over the east side of Alparack’s veil,’ said Olexion.

‘Ha, I’m a bit tougher than you thought, eh?’ said Elmira.

‘Yes my lady, you have proven yourself to be a favourable travelling companion.’

‘Are we landing soon though? I’m hungry.’

Olexion smiled. ‘We should find some outcroppings shortly and we’ll then rein in for the night,’ said Olexion.

Guess she comes along all the way…

Also their companion for the entire way, no matter how far they flew, were the moons, their presence growing as the light faded. Even before Bennam’s murder Olexion had studied the skies with trepidation. Most men did not talk with any seriousness when talking of signs in the moons; they were supposedly a storyteller’s tool and nothing more. Olexion thought about it little differently, at the very least entertaining the idea that some fool might grow a delusion of grandeur knowing that the skies demanded royal blood, and start a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

Many cycles of these moons passed by the Rangers’ notice without too much worry, but projected now by the astrologers of Asheva were a series of formations that culminated with the most ominous of all permutations. They called this formation the Kingslayer, and predicated the demise of the King.

Olexion could hardly be bothered to sleep outside of the King’s door in paranoia; there were thousands of other men who could do just that. He would rather go looking for signs of trouble.

Such a vague warning by the skies however had the left Olexion with no place to start, other than the already increased security around the Citadel in Asheva. That was until Bennam was murdered. The old Commander was important enough on his own to warrant Olexion’s attention, but finding that King chess piece on his person had shook Olexion a little. Bennam himself led the fight against those who sought to dethrone the King all those years ago, and then also the Kingslayer formation had appeared. When the names inside that King piece had involved both very important Summoners and a Valkyrie, Olexion had become convinced he must go after this bizarre gathering of individuals. The Valkyrie at the very least would be able to shed some light on the Kingslayer moons and whether the formation would surface at all. Contrast to conventional logic, Olexion expected he would find a way to protect the King very far from the halls of Asheva, and more, he would only come to know what Bennam knew if he followed this trail laid out for them.

They stopped for the night, always resting on the high places of the earth.

‘What are you thinking about?’ asked Elmira, noticing a look on the Ranger she thought she recognized quite well. The rest of the Rangers were busy preparing camp.

‘Of matters I cannot even discuss with my subordinates,’ said Olexion.

‘But you can discuss it with me I am sure?’ she teased.

Olexion laughed off some of his seriousness. ‘I would not wish to worry anyone with it, least of all you. My charge is to think long into the future. I must have my mind on scenarios other men won’t even consider. I know it sounds strange to be so concerned about things that might not even happen, but that is both my nature and a requirement of my profession.’

Elmira chortled. ‘Wait until you meet Cid!’

Chapter 36

Dreams of a White Flame

 

 

Vanapha shivered and descended into a familiar world. A terrifying place. She felt herself becoming short, her movements whimsical and clumsy. Her sights were gone, her mind blinded. The hallway had a giant red carpet running its length and the marble pillars joining floor and ceiling were immense. The opulence did nothing to sooth Vanapha.

Here, at this point of time, she was just seven years old and she knew very well what was coming. The memory found no foothold while she was awake, so it came to her when she slept, over and over again. Trying to control the dream she ran as fast as her legs could carry her, determined to get out of the hallway and onto the balcony before anything bad could happen.

But the hallway just never ended and as she stopped to look behind her the same set of guards, council members and pages were standing about despite her best efforts. She could not get away; she could never escape these faces. Most significantly she could see her father at the far side, locked in conversation with a man wearing a heavy robe.

Suddenly she had the urge to tell her father something important, her fears forgotten for an instant as she honoured the events of the memory unintentionally. She started running to him, eager and innocent, and then came the light.

Vanapha halted, her bliss already ruined. She looked down at her own chest; a bright white light coming from inside her, illuminating through her skin and clothes. It was blinding, and an eerie weightlessness made her feel as though her feet were leaving the floor, as though she was floating. The display quickly turned every head in the hallway, brows furrowed and mouths agape. For a few seconds Vanapha herself was ignorant, but then realized what was going to happen. She opened her mouth and shouted, trying to warn and halt approaching faces of concern, her words having no sound. Inevitably her old handmaiden, Sinta, was there first, rushing forward to help the child, her face the most concerned of all. Sinta barely reached up for the girl floating so ominously…

A fierce energy surged from within Vanapha, something emptying itself from her chest. First the flash, and then the rippling tides. Sinta toppled instantly, gone forever. Vanapha could see the fire, appreciating herself as the epicentre, the flames as white as snow intermeshed and outlined by an oily blackness, furling across the entire room, sweeping and engulfing.

In the few instances of chaos and destruction her eyes darted toward her father. She saw many things, but she distinctly remembered seeing a guard shoving her father behind a marble pillar, shielding him as the blaze hit the brave soldier right from his feet.

There was a unison of outcries before utter silence. The white flame disappeared in an instant and Vanapha alone was left standing, no longer floating, the giant hall still rumbling with shock and wind.

Only the inanimate were moving, ornaments slipping tentatively still from their places on the wall and paintings writhing as remnant flames ate away at the canvasses. The hallway was dressed in soot, the marble pillars frightfully stained with black. The floor was strewn with remains. The flame burnt everyone. Everyone was blackened and charred beyond recognition. Everyone was dead.

Vanapha’s shocked mind seemed to have turned off her hearing and it returned to her only then. She heard the agony cries of a single man, coming from ahead. She ran forward, hoping to see her father. Behind the pillar her father was on his knees at the screaming soldier’s side, he himself yelling for aid.

The soldier’s wounds were terrible, the pungent smell of his burned flesh still with Vanapha. With wide eyes her father looked at her, his gaze asking a hundred questions, his confusion and fear bringing tears to her eyes. The memory ebbed away after that, simply fading to the soldier’s terrible screams of pain.

Everything changed after that day. She was sent away, to Rade’Remar. That life was left dead. She could never understand what had happened, nor did it happen ever again, anyone who could explain removed from her life.

I became Valkyrie thereafter.

 

 

Alex got a kick full in the face, the impact rocking him from his slumber. He cursed softly, already planning on how he was going to get revenge on Brunick despite him being a Stoneskin. This night they were sleeping in the canyon path, their chosen spot a small clearing among the rocks. Sitting upright and dazed, Alex realized that it was Vanapha lying in front him, her feet having been near his head.

I can’t remember falling asleep this close to her.

She was dreaming though, flailing and kicking, moaning as she sought to escape her nightmare. He sat closer, prepared to wake her; Vanapha’s hand reached out desperately and he caught it, holding it tight and still.

She did not wake and suddenly, he did not want her to. He gentled his touch, caressing her hand with his fingers. It was easier looking at her now, her Sights and her proud bearing put aside. He knew it wasn’t appropriate, but right now, no matter how powerful a warrior she appeared to be, she was just a little girl.

Alex could guess the nature of her distress, Cid having discussed his conversation with Vanapha with him and Brunick. She was haunted by a past memory and it was surfacing in her dreams, that much was obvious. She was however secretive about it and when Alex had asked her on it she simply shut him out.

Looking at her now Alex could not think it was the same woman. With her hair loose and her slender figure curled on a cloak she did not look like the warrior Alex saw day by day. She continued to relax at Alex’s touch, he assuming the worst of the dream was over as well.

He should then have let go of her hand, but he didn’t. She could wake up at any moment and then he would be at a loss to explain why he was touching her. Still he caressed, smiling as his fingers left the softness of her hands and feeling the harder film of calluses on her fingertips, a consequence he knew was the inevitable result of having fired thousands of arrows.

Reluctantly he let go, setting her hand down slowly. Her dream had left her sweaty and the canyon wind was chilling her into a shiver. Alex removed the upper half of his sack and covered her with it. He watched her a moment more, only relenting as he saw her slow down into a soft breathing rhythm.

He laid down, ready to continue where he had been interrupted. At least Alex was a soldier, and soldiers welcomed sleep at any time they could. Sleep would come fast…

By tomorrow Vanapha would be hard up again, appearing as a warrior elite in every aspect, ignorant that Alex had seen her like this.

He closed his eyes and strained to identify her softening breathing among the night sounds, allowing it to lull him to slumber.

Chapter 37

Into the Mines

 

 

Fafriv was a place of roads for those who could find it, a little bit of daring allowing one to tread its highs and lows, the winding ways not always going somewhere, herding its denizens into dead ends if not careful.

Vanapha took point.

The trail was skinny and high up against the canyon wall. They risked being spotted, but were only a bit more visible than traveling down below. In exchange it would take a compact and sure-footed enemy to pursue them, so there was some confidence in their path, even if Brunick didn’t much like it.

‘Better than treetops,’ he kept mumbling as his running boots occasionally kicked some loose rocks from the edge, making him nervous.

It took a while but even as careful as Cid was he came to trust the Valkyrie’s almost precognitive instincts on where to go. Now in particular they followed her blindly, yet did so with merit and Cid could only wonder how useful she would have been in Alparack’s veil.

I wouldn’t have lost all those men to start with…

It was as if her eyes could bend around corners or rise up above her to peek at what laid ahead. It was limited though, as Cid himself had proven when he had successfully ambushed the Valkyrie. He did however concede that had Alex not fired at her she would most likely have realized Cid was stalking her from behind that day.

During their talks Vanapha once proceeded to explain that Farsight and Insight were at the mercy of the same human flaw that concerned normal sensory functions; oversight.

‘Though someone like my sister, Claire, can see better than me; both in depth and clarity,’ Vanapha boasted.

Their pace remained steady, guiding them lower again through the canyon branch by midday. Changing landscape settled all along the eastern cliff face, taking form of unnaturally carved indentations, as though someone had cut giant slabs from out the canyon body.

‘Quarries?’ asked Alex.

‘It would seem so, but there are some abandoned mines around here,’ said Vanapha, ‘most of the entrances are collapsed and those cleared areas you see were once the pack yards.’

Cid was thoughtful. These mines were notorious, even though they rarely came to thought when considering Fafriv. They were never much visited upon by any Kingdom men, even the greedier ones. After many years still, these mines were out in the nowhere, far from everything, unpractical and unsanctioned, and at the moment, abandoned. Gold Cid knew could lure men to strange places, but for now he was thinking along different lines and he became intent on investigating.

‘Vanapha, could you find us a tunnel entrance that is still intact?’ asked Cid.

‘Sure, there are a couple of them in the vicinity, are you looking for something specific?’

‘Yeah, try to look for one that goes down deep.’

His party looked at him with surprise and he hoped his hunch would prove right so that the situation would explain itself in time.

 

Lidayel lit the way, several globes of fire floating around the party and casting fickle shadows against the tunnel wall. The main tunnel was spacious enough so they could march down without stooping, and the remnant walkways of lumber ensured for safe footing,

Cid in the meanwhile could no longer stave off the others’ questions so he explained:

‘I received a letter just before the march. I wasn’t its first recipient as it was intended for the army’s provisionary officer. It was rather old, stating that some new weapons would ready for the Lanston march.’

‘Yeah, the entire core infantry got new broad swords, all the way from Morshiph,’ said Alex.

‘That’s right. I think someone though, possibly a fellow soldier, was trying to warn me without raising suspicion. The matter had little to do with me in the first place, so I paid it no heed in the beginning, but then, well, you all know what we’ve been through and it points to some conspiracy or another. If Stelinger’s motive is treacherous, then it may well be those very weapons that form part of his plan. If we can just confirm what I suspect is down here, we might have an inkling on where the threads meet.’

It wasn’t long before Lidayel’s fiery globes faltered.

‘Hmm, air’s getting a little thin,’ said Lidayel as he strained to keep the suffocating fires alive.

‘We’ll risk going just a little further,’ said Cid.

The wooden walkways ceased and the tunnels became ragged holes as though they weren’t dug out by humans any more. The tunnel split forth many times.

‘Vanapha?’

‘It’s very distorting down here, I am not sure… Without light I can’t really see…’ she said.

‘Follow your nose!’ said Brunick, taking the lead confidently.

‘What do mean?’ asked Cid, as they reluctantly set off deeper after the big man.

‘Caverns with valuables are usually dug out with multiple intersecting tunnels from all around, it’s just for more practical mining that way. That means they have better air, even more than some of the isolated tunnels above them.’

Cid chuckled. ‘And I thought you were the team scout,’ he said to Alex.

Alex shrugged defeated in the faint light.

Brunick proved right as their path soon gave them a draft of air, leading them on. The chosen tunnel inevitably led them to a mining cavern; a large spacious cavity shaped like a dome, still littered with forgotten and broken mining equipment. They walked to its far side wall, where the last excavation had clearly taken place.

Lidayel focused his light on the wall. The rock was rather smooth as though the miners had taken great care mining here. Instantly noticeable were streaks and smears of a metallic grey on the rock face.

‘Unless I’m mistaken…’ suggested Cid.

Vanapha approached to confirm. She touched the wall with her hand, nodding only moments later.

‘It’s definitely not any normal metal.’

Cid held out his spear. She touched it and within a second she knew.

‘Yes, these are, or were, Hethellean mines,’ said Vanapha.

Alex whistled, the high pitch creating great resonance through the tunnels.

‘That’s a lot of metal,’ said Alex.

‘Don’t be fooled,’ said Vanapha, ‘those veins you see are mostly discoloured rock. Hethellean isn’t a very condense substance in its natural form. I’ve sensed the amount when I touched it, and I don’t think there is even enough to craft a single sword.’

‘Alright then, allow me to explain,’ said Cid, making sure he had everyone’s attention, ‘the letter I got spoke of a binding process on the weapons made for Lanston. Now that we know these mines are indeed Hethellean mines we can conclude-’

Wait a minute, how can you be sure-?’ said Brunick.

Because Stelinger is acutely familiar with this land,’ said Cid. ‘Remember some years ago he made his name by running incursions into Alparack against the Fallen? I’m sure he discovered these mines, and that’s why he’s carrying that Hethellean sword now.’

‘So what? You have one as well,’ offered Brunick.

‘Yes, but Mindevhier is an heirloom that’s been in my family for a hundred years or more, from an age in the Kingdom when resources were used up for weapons without a second thought. Think on it. Stelinger has had that sword for what, three years or so?’

‘But his sword is not newly forged?’ asked Brunick.

‘No. His blade, Giardia, is from the same era as Mindevhier. It was likely though that he obtained the sword from the Shadow Priests, and hence he was corrupted in a way outside the scope of Fallen magic.’

‘And now Stelinger is after more Hethellean for his Masters,’ said Vanapha.

‘I’m not following. Is Stelinger teaming up with the Fallen to mine this land to forge weapons?’ said Alex.

‘That might’ve been their first intentions, but like Vanapha pointed out there isn’t much left here. The greatest stockpile of Hethellean would have undoubtedly rested in Kingdom storage.’

‘I think I know where you’re going with this. Stelinger used the Destinian Blacksmithies to forge the weapons with the Kingdom’s Hethellean stockpiles,’ said Lidayel.

‘Are you saying the entire infantry core has these weapons now?’ asked Alex.

‘No, there isn’t enough of it in the world to supply two-thousand soldiers. They only bound the normal steel swords with Hethellean extracts,’ said Cid.

‘Okay get to the point here because I’m not understanding how any of this fits into anything,’ said Brunick exasperatedly.

‘The two-thousand swords were made to be broken down again, to get the Hethellean that is. What I’m saying is, Stelinger rigged the weapons so that the Fallen can capture them and make use of the Hethellean.’

Brunick ran his hand through his hair nervously as Alex said, ‘gods, he’s going to murder the entire Lanston army so that the Fallen can loot the weapons!’

‘Yes, he’s leading Lanston straight into what must be a massive Fallen ambush. Ultimately he controls the scouts, intelligence and authority, and he’s using the Lanston army’s manpower to carry the weapons safely into Fallen hands.

‘It’s quite a ploy, using the army itself to ignorantly transport the weapons,’ said Lidayel.

Brunick shook his head in quiet anger and disbelieve. ‘Why the mass? I mean, a lot of effort went into obtaining the resources, crafting the weapons, and getting it to Lanston, and that’s not even counting the gold and paperwork involved. Weren’t they better off going a bit more covert?’

‘I would surmise that their effort was a necessity. Nothing passes beyond the border except the Lanston army, not a single trade route is authorized to the north. What’s more should the Destinian Blacksmithies have forged only a few weapons with a dense concentrate of Hethellean our Sekhaimogists would surely have noticed their powers waning around those arms, raising suspicion. No, I’m fairly certain this plan was well conceived and made in no way to benefit Lanston.’

‘So what of Bennam?’ asked Brunick then, his jaw set tight as he uttered the question.

Cid knew well what he was implying; even if Stelinger was at the head of the treachery, it would still have taken Bennam’s authority to approve those weapons. ‘I don’t think either way we’re leaving here with all our questions answered Brunick. That Bennam had a hand in something is going to be difficult to deny, and I’m just hoping the truth reveals him to be the man we all knew.’

‘What I don’t get though is what the Fallen are planning to do with just a few dozen Hethellean weapons? It’s like you said right, they’re going to break down the Lanston arms, but the metal just isn’t enough to craft that many pure weapons?’ asked Alex.

‘That is what I can’t understand either. A few extra specialized weapons aren’t going to help them defeat the Kingdom. They must have something else on mind. Though to me it matters not, it is clear what we must to do. Somehow we must intercede, we have to save the Lanston army and thus prevent the Fallen from ever getting those weapons!’ said Cid.

That should be easy,’ said Brunick sarcastically.

‘There is little choice in the matter,’ said Vanapha.

Cid nodded. ‘Agreed, let’s go topside, I’m not overly fond of these tunnels.’

 

 

They made camp.

Brunick and Alex had somehow gotten into one of their favourite arguments over how the Lanston Lynxes would fare in the upcoming Bagural tournament. The summary of the situation was simple; Lanston was a struggling team and while both Alex and Brunick rooted for them, their outlook was fundamentally different, Alex being a skeptic, Brunick a diehard fan.

Vanapha, realizing they were arguing over the team prospects, silently shook her head and indicated to Cid that she was going hunting before light’s end.

Cid nodded her off as he gathered a scrap of twigs for a fire, knowing he would have to wander a bit to find proper wood. Lidayel lit the pile of kindling Cid had collected.

Sitting down Cid listened as Brunick and Alex raved on, making a few wagers. At any rate he was glad the two men were preoccupied with the prospect of getting back home. It meant they were hopeful, yet he knew at any time they were focused enough on the task at hand.

Once again Alex proved he knew just how to irritate Brunick as the big man disengaged and announced he was going to find some proper firewood, which was at least a valid and timely excuse. Alex chuckled satisfactorily as he sat down at the smouldering twigs with Cid and Lidayel.

‘Where’s Vanapha?’ he asked.

‘She decided to go hunt while you two were bickering,’ said Cid.

Alex said nothing, but Cid could see him dismayed for some reason.

They grew silent.

Cid kept Mindevhier on his lap, marvelling at the weapon. Knowing it was a Hethellean weapon he realized that it wasn’t just valuable sentimentally, but had true value in the cause of battle.

Lidayel noticed Cid’s clockwork was fixed on the weapon.

‘You’ve felt it, haven’t you? The thoughts stirring within the spear?’

Cid looked unsure at Lidayel and then back at Mindevhier.

‘It is nothing to be afraid of,’ answered Lidayel.

‘How is it then, how can a weapon gain consciousness?’ asked Cid, the look on his face telling Lidayel that Cid was deeming this particular phenomenon as absurd.

‘Be careful how you frame the issue. Let me explain. Hethellean is truly a unique element as it interacts with both Calophrites and Adalophrites, magic in other words, where normal matter would not. Hethellean weapons can cut and dissemble magic as a result of it repulsing these phrites. Vanapha and Brunick’s abilities for example are internalized magic, which are made possible by Adalophrites.’

‘How is Adalophrites different, I mean from Calophrites?’ asked Alex.

‘Think of Adalophrites as Calophrites’ distinct relative, same in a sense, but with its own behaviour and preferences. I assume you’ve heard of the “steel fireflies?”

‘Yes, I’ve seen it as well, several times,’ answered Cid.

‘Adalophrites are much the same, when they are amassed yet undedicated they form a spectacle of “golden fireflies.” Adalophrites do not like to bond as much as Calophrites so they can’t be used as diversely in what you would think of as magic. Yet they form profound abilities in certain individuals, as is the case with Masons, Valkyries and us Summoners as well.

‘Now, Vanapha’s ability may be too whimsical to be effected by a Hethellean weapon, but like you know Brunick’s Stoneskin falters against it. This being as it is Hethellean has another very curious quality. Sometimes, when it comes into contact with a strong soul, it takes an imprint of that person’s personality and memories.’

‘Wait, the soul is made of Calophrites as well right? If Hethellean repulses it, why would the weapon take it upon itself to make imprints?’ asked Alex.

‘That’s what makes it so curious. Fanciful theories have suggested that the soul as a whole is much different than the sum of its parts and that might explain why Hethellean craves the touch of a soul yet repulses the phrites. It only interacts with something of a much higher quality. ’

‘Am I to understand that, every ancestor of mine who ever wielded this weapon, has left some his consciousness and memories in the spearhead?’ asked Cid morbidly.

‘Feelings, memories, experiences… as long as they were powerful they would have embedded on the Hethellean,’ said Lidayel.

Cid took another hard look at Mindevhier.

‘Don’t look so worried Colonel,’ said Lidayel in amusement, ‘your will is your own, unlike Stelinger’s weapon your spear has not been released and cannot exercise influence over you,’ said Lidayel.

‘But what then of those thoughts I’ve encountered holding the spear!?’ asked Cid.

Lidayel smiled widely, clearly enjoying being able to explain things that have only recently returned to memory, as though he was learning all knowledge anew.

‘It was simply recognition Colonel; when your thoughts surfaced by themselves, let’s say for example your pride for the army, or your love for Elmira, similar feelings left by your forefathers merely acknowledges your own.’

‘So a released weapon of Ruin like Stelinger’s will end up influencing his behaviour?’ asked Alex.

‘Most likely, you see that same recognition I mentioned comes into play with Ruin weapons as well. Hethellean can take imprints of any living thing it touches, including its victims. Stelinger’s corrupt and vile mind would draw on memories and feelings of those he has butchered as well.’

Whoa, I’d go insane,’ said Alex.

Lidayel nodded. ‘In some way it would be safe to say that Stelinger is already not in his right mind. You see, I suspect that after luring him out with promises of power, Arumcas released Stelinger’s weapon, knowing it would compromise his loyalty to the Kingdom and make him an all the more useful puppet,’ said Lidayel.

‘What use is such a weapon then?’ asked Cid.

‘Apparently, man and weapon becomes a stronger entity as one, man’s familiarity with the weapon becoming absolute. With it, a man like you Cid can draw upon the experience of his ancestors as if it were his own. I have also knowledge that weapons of Ruin are even better at striking down magic, which is why the early Kingdom made these weapons to fight Summoners and Arrhua.

‘The King himself carries a very old Hethellean sword if memory serves. Yet another interesting aspect is that the weapon will kick back at any who tries to wield it except for its rightful owner. If you’d like I might able to release -’

‘No!’ said Cid, his statement hanging in the air.

‘Cid, a Ruin weapon will be of immense value for whatever lays ahead. Even the Priests would be wary of you and it would help if you encounter Stelinger. It might determine whether you lose or win in this cause.’

‘I understand the merits Lidayel, but I would not compromise who I am. If I were to lose track of myself and my reasons for being in this war, it is then that I will surely lose Elmira.’

‘But you can control it Cid. You are not Stelinger. If anything, a weapon of Ruin can strengthen your resolve.’

‘My resolve is at least my own. Should I start feeding on the feelings of others my own may become distorted. Surely you can understand this? If your determination to save your wife was influenced by someone else’s memories, would you even be here with us in this ridiculous situation?’ said Cid.

Lidayel nodded. ‘I understand your concern, and I’ll admit I admire your resoluteness; a lesser man would not have hesitated to claim a weapon of power.’

Alex nodded in agreement and asked, ‘so these Ruin weapons are the most efficient way for non-magical folk to kill off magi and Summoners?’

‘A fair assumption, yes,’ said Lidayel.

‘That thing you mentioned, about weapons of Ruin fighting against those who’d try to wield it without being its rightful owner, how does that work?’ queried Cid.

‘Well obviously weapons can’t move by themselves so they cannot resist the efforts of man physically. It can however flood the person’s mind with random sensations, confusing the would-be warrior so much that he loses his coordination and mindfulness in battle. It’s like fighting with an unwilling weapon I’d imagine,’ said Lidayel.

Cid took note but said nothing. He wondered whether he should have taken up Lidayel’s offer, the temptation of a weapon of Ruin catching up with him now, moments later. He pushed down the notion, repeating what he said to Lidayel in his thoughts.

He had always known Mindevhier was special, but now that he knew its true nature he was almost afraid of it, or wary at least, as though the spear belonged to someone stronger.

Brunick returned right before sunset, with his arms wrapped around and clutching a bulging bundle of wood to his chest. This at least distracted Cid, as they quickly set out to create a proper fire, increasing their light and heat as that of the day faded away.

They did not wait long for Vanapha, returning with a lean buck across her shoulders. The buck was skinned and proper fillets cut, a makeshift grill prepared. Lidayel fidgeted in his satchel to find some spices which he spread sparingly over the meat. A very pleasant aroma of food found Cid’s nostrils then. His stomach responded hungrily and for now at least, he could focus on simpler things.

The wait for the meal was almost painful, and Cid stared far out to their path ahead. Today’s detour underground had slowed their progress, but they would undoubtedly reach the Basin by tomorrow.

Chapter 38

Concerns

 

 

The march was slow in the narrows, Fafriv winding down to a long slender ravine before it would open into the Basin. They had yet to depart this morning, the dreary pace of the days behind them making the Lanston men reluctant to get moving. Their camp for now was an endless stretch of tents rather than their usual cluster, adjusting to the space offered by the ravine.

To present supplies had held well and the men were healthy if nothing else, even in complaining that their clothing supplies had not considered Alparack’s obstinate ability to wear and soil on everything. Drissil knew that, since they past the borders of the forests the potential for an ambush was unlikely, their current locale a milestone point in terms of security.

Furthermore the eastern two satellite companies had emerged from their respective woodland just yesterday to join with the main force, boosting the march with another 400 men. Captains Maverin and Phillip reported minimum Fallen encounters and no casualties on their part, unlike those of Cid’s and Olum’s companies. In all, it was going well for Lanston, yet Drissil was worried.

The Colonel was standing among the engineers as they practiced their maintenance on the ballistae. Somehow, Drissil’s experience with the devices at Ravanack had seen him become the unofficial overseer. He would not complain however, for no else seemed as primed for action like he was, the attending artillery Captain rather lackadaisical.

Drissil forced himself to pay attention as the engineers tested the machines, eager to find mechanical flaw if there were any. On the Isle of Adissa the ballistae were mounted on towers or galleon ships, those fierce and pending artillery greeting a traveller no matter how he approached the city. These field ballistae were attached to a wheeled-base unit and were built somewhat smaller so that they could move effectively. The principle design however could not be improved much and was thus the same across the Sovereignty.

The wooden base elevated the great crossbow to the height of a man’s chest while housing the gears and winches. The wheels on the bottom axis were small and steel-plated around the rim to handle the terrain with a soft suspension on each. The base had a hollow spot right beneath were the bow was mounted, wherein lied the rotary gear, allowing the bow and the upper part of its platform to be rotated while the base remained motionless. Likewise, the bow’s aim could lowered or heightened on a similar gear mechanism. A few degrees either way made a world’s difference in where and how the bolt would travel. The higher based models like these were despised by the men who had to labour manoeuvring them, but well-loved by battlefield commanders: The inherit height that they fired from meant that the engineers had little need to incline the bow upwards, and the less arc there was to the projectile the more speed it had when hitting the enemy.

The base had a winch on the side to lock the gear during fire, so that the recoil action would not wrench the bow out of its position. The bow-arms spanned massively to accommodate the force needed to launch a projectile of nine feet. A specialized Fainkin coil was tensed on the bow during battle, unmanageable without the cranks used to wind and pull the coil back.

Along the spine of the crossbow the missile was inserted into a groove from which it could jump smoothly and without resistance. These wooden missiles were crafted with care, each thicker than Drissil’s arm, with a heavy iron tip and blades making it resemble a very devious arrow. In further resemblance the missile sported leather tail fins, which gave it aerodynamic balance and set it spinning through the air to cause all the more damage. A final heavy lever at the back released the pin of the catch, launching the missile as the tension was unleashed.

Aiming and maneuvering these devices was an art of its own and Drissil would leave that for the engineers. Rather he instructed them to go through the paces, loading false projectiles and shooting them against the canyon wall so that they could correct any apparent decline in the devices’ capabilities since setting out from Lanston.

The ballistae lurched satisfactorily as the headless shafts rocketed into the canyon wall, the coordination pleasing as well. There was a mathematical constant in the difference of setting and aiming the ballistae for a headless shaft and that of the bladed shaft. All Drissil knew about this was that, should the practice projectiles fire perfectly, the engineers would only have to account for the constant difference in order to get the same result with the bladed design.

With a few practice rounds for each of the machines Drissil called the engineers to rest. Lazily he sauntered through the camp. By then he was considering taking the entire cavalry regiment and backtracking a bit so that they could do some manoeuvres; the horses needed to keep lithe and fit and he was sure the men would welcome it as well.

The thought was interrupted, the soldier named Welce addressing the Colonel.

‘No word yet on Cid, and there is no consensus whether he is dead or not.’

‘And the Valkyrie?’

‘The outriders were being secretive, but it sounded as though the Valkyrie abandoned their mission. They did not report back as far as anyone is concerned.’

‘I wonder why?’ asked Drissil.

Welce shrugged. ‘Everything here in the camp seems fine, but the word from the outside tells a different story.’

‘Have you had contact with Harlem?’

Welce frowned and seemed to bite his tongue before saying, ‘sir, I regretfully heard that Harlem was killed in action. It was reported that some Reavers caught them unawares near the Basin. His companion Julian seemed to have escape without hurt, rather miraculously.’

They did not talk about it, but both men would wonder for long hours on the nature of Harlem’s’ death.

Drissil cursed. ‘It’s getting harder to know where to turn to. How about the Fallen?’

‘No definite reports sir, everyone seems to assume that they retreated from our trek and will hold at Jacanta point. We have nothing to indicate their numbers as of yet since old Commander’s Bennam’s intelligence. I’m worried that what we saw in the forest might mean they are a lot stronger than we initially guessed,’ said Welce.

‘You are right. It does not bode well this silence. If the Fallen had a legion in the western veil alone, how come this entire valley has been devoid of activity? We’re getting through too easy and we have no idea where the Fallen might be massing, or how many they may be…’

‘Have you spoken with the Commander, sir?’

‘I don’t think talking with him is an option anymore.’

Welce seemed uncomfortable.

‘Not to worry soldier, I’m just being careful. I want to be ready when matters get real. If Stelinger is not at fault then no harm will be done. It’s best for at least one of us to be worried at all times,’ said Drissil with a reassuring smile.

Still Welce seemed concerned. ‘You’re wrong at that Colonel. Girdo noticed it as well; the men’s front is as always, hale and hearty. But we see and hear things that the command does not, as is the reason you’ve assigned us.’

Drissil frowned.

‘When the men’s guards are down at night and they talk – they talk about Bennam and they talk about Cid. They are not at all sure of this operation anymore and the fact that we haven’t seen any action till now only frustrates them. They long for border wars, and they too think we are marching blindly.

‘They are… afraid sir.’

Drissil stomach churned uncomfortably. Hearing that thousands of men acknowledged his concerns somehow made it worse. It was a consensus that Lanston did not belong here, that it had no business prowling through these lands in search of trouble. They were here now however, and could only hope they would make it out alive.

Chapter 39

The Basin

 

‘This is it,’ said Cid in realization. They were in the Basin of the canyon and Jacanta point laid ahead to the north, past increasingly rugged terrain and a ramp leading right out of the Basin, thereafter one left Alparack and Fafriv for good in exchange for the lands of the Fallen.

Cid knew now that the Lanston army would never even see Jacanta point.

The landscape was encompassing, like a pit of a great arena, its sloping mountainous wall running all around, creating several layers of grand terraces as though the idea of spectators were real enough. There was a flatness to the rest of the Basin even counting the few dots of mesas, making it a place to accommodate marching numbers, all except for a single pinnacle of rock projection, its tall figure able to cast a mile long shadow during the first and last hours of the day.

It’s all going to become an abyss.

‘The Fallen will not wait for Lanston to get to Jacanta. This Basin is the best place for them to assemble and push their numbers. We overlooked it, the whole plan did. If I had to wager a guess the Fallen will seek to overwhelm us here,’ Cid confessed to the others.

‘Gods, are we going to risk scouting ahead? See if we can spot whether they have some kind of force lurking behind those mountains?’ asked Alex.

‘Those can hardly be called mountains,’ commented Vanapha, ‘that is a mountain,’ she said, pointing to the east of the Basin where the highest peak stood in what Cid remembered to be a 500 mile radius according to the charts.

Mount Hashur.

It wasn’t a gargantuan mountain, but its size was accentuated by the hollow of the Basin and seemed to be the culmination of Fafriv as the eastern ridge that had been the canyon wall led all the way into its side.

‘Whatever – well, should we have a look?’ pressed Alex

‘They must be swarming the area already. Their scouts are probably tracking Lanston’s progress. I’d rather not,’ said Cid.

‘I can look,’ motioned Vanapha.

Cid turned at the woman, his appreciation for her growing by the day. ‘Can you show me as I well? If there is something past those hills it would do me good to try and gauge their strength,’ said Cid.

Vanapha nodded, standing close to Cid. She reached out, clamping both her hands on Cid’s temples. Her touch was both comforting and eerie.

‘It is a far way from here. Be patient okay, it’ll help me focus my sight,’ said Vanapha.

Cid closed his eyes, breathing deeply, waiting for something to happen.

Suddenly something intruded into his consciousness and then colours streamed in, giving his mind’s eye a picture only after his logic adapted to them. Cid felt a flying sensation as his mind was fooled by the soaring vantage Vanapha was sharing with him. He could understand how the Valkyrie cherished the stars so much, for in this instance their Farsight was like looking down from a heavenly body in the sky. He could only imagine what they saw when they turned their gaze upwards, at the stars themselves.

The farther they moved north the less detail they could see. He wasn’t sure whether or not he was imagining it, but Cid was getting the feeling that Vanapha was straining to sight across such a distance while maintaining her bind with Cid. He willed the vision softly forward, yet still eager not get impatient like Vanapha urged.

Already the experience was invaluable, for Cid managed to observe and surmise many of the Basin’s fundamental logistical parameters, noting its valleys, ridges and terraces. The vision floated farther, reaching out to the north, gliding above and over the hills… and then they saw the Fallen.

Jacanta point was an altogether higher ground than the Basin; a large flat stretch of land before narrowing down to some mountain passes that ultimately divided into Nimroth’s gate to the north and the Ghost pass to the north-west.

What should have been a lonely plain of dust and rock though, was a war camp, undeniably massive. Hundreds of tents stood there, black ones with royal orchid embroidery on the edges as though the enemy could afford and appreciate vanity.

Fallen soldiers moved through the camp like ants, working or wandering, their continuous patterns enough to lull the mind. Cid and Vanapha’s vision wasn’t clear or focused, but the scale of the camp made up for that deficiency.

They saw the robed Priests on black horses and the menacing Reavers scavenging at the perimeter. Among the clusters of tents, those comprising the commanding circles, stood the catapults, the devices recognizable by their size and dark lacquered frames. Cid made notes in his mind, pushing down shock as he tried to calmly measure the prowess of their enemy.

His effort was interrupted. The vision was suddenly pulled to the side and became focused on a mound at the front of the camp, the vision gaining clarity. There stood but three men – two men purposefully flanking one. At that moment Cid thought that Vanapha no longer had control, that they were being watched.

The experience became increasing alien and Cid actually felt like he was standing on that mound, looking up at the giant.

Upright he was in fallen armour, his hands clenched on a dual set of battle hatchets, as though he was already waiting for his enemy, hungry and vengeful. The men at his sides were heavily robed Priests and their spread hands convinced Cid that they were indeed aware of Vanapha’s scrying and in turn were trying to leash her efforts in order to look back.

He was sure then that they were successful, for the man in the middle’s dull white eyes were fixed on Cid, brimming with as much recognition as fallen eyes could ever show. For now the giant went without his skull helm, his clean shaven head and hard features worsening the pit in Cid’s stomach, the fate of Lanston encapsulated by this one man.

The vision mercifully faltered and disappeared. He returned to his own mind and opened his eyes, the sudden wrench back upsetting his balance for a moment.

‘I’m sorry, I cannot sustain the vision at such a distance,’ breathed Vanapha, looking a bit pale.

‘It’s all right,’ said Cid, ‘I have seen all I needed to see’, not sure whether the Valkyrie had seen all that he had seen. She did not raise the matter, so Cid was not sure what to make of it.

‘So they are indeed waiting at Jacanta?’ asked Lidayel.

‘Yes. It was difficult to estimate, but I would say they are one or two regiments short of ten-thousand soldiers, and that’s not counting the men they can call from the surrounding valley. In any event it’s much more than Bennam prepared Lanston for,’ said Cid morbidly.

‘Do you think Bennam was fed false intelligence as well?’

‘I just don’t know Alex. He made me think he knew more than he was telling, but I can’t believe he would allow Lanston to march if he knew the Fallen were this many,’ said Cid.

Staring up at his surroundings, Brunick said, ‘it’s a massive range of attack, if they push a few thousand men over that ridge and down the ramp then Lanston will be dead down to the last mule. The way home will not be safe either, I’d wager they’d have cells and strike groups in the woods still, just waiting to cage any that might flee.’

‘We have to stop the army from making contact,’ said Cid, turning as he spoke, his mind mapping the battle and its inevitable outcome. ‘Once Lanston enters the Basin it will be like Brunick says; the Fallen will seek to surround and seal off the entire site.’

‘How do you suppose we stop the army? We have no leg to stand on in any circumstance. If we try to communicate with the army Stelinger will have us killed,’ said Vanapha.

Cid considered his options, each more desperate than the last.

Eventually he turned to look at Lidayel. ‘It has to come from you Summoner. We need something big, something that can buy us time!’

‘Like what? Creating another eclipse isn’t going to do us much good,’ said Lidayel almost defensively

Cid observed his surroundings, studying the vast expanse, trying to gauge an answer from it. He turned his gaze into the sky, his eyes running up the peak of Mount Hashur and beyond.

‘Those are some pretty heavy clouds, rain season is bound to start any day now,’ said Cid, focusing on the woolly whites rolling tentatively above the rugged land.

‘I know where you’re going with this; it’ll take an enormous amount of rain to flood this valley. I cannot do it Cid, I can’t make rain out of nothing.’

‘And you don’t have to, we have all the clouds and moist we need. You just have to find some way to get the natural process of rain to work for you,’ said Cid.

Lidayel was intently staring at the clouds now, holding up his hand to block out the bright of the sun.

‘Clouds reach a threshold point, then release due to heaviness,’ supplied Brunick hopefully.

‘And they do so because of pressure caused by compact moist, again, I can’t create water by myself,’ said Lidayel

‘You moulded the fire the other night, why don’t you do the same with the clouds?’ said Vanapha.

‘I get what you’re saying, but it’s a bit too much, exercising so much control on such a scale and range is beyond me. You can’t lecture me on how practical this idea is,’ said Lidayel.

‘What about something small then, at least at first, like a chain reaction, you know, just tweak nature to work faster?’ suggested Alex, despite Lidayel’s reprimand.

Cid nodded. ‘Alex’s got a point. How about it?’

Lidayel paced away, his wits trying to formulate something at the behest of his comrades.

‘No it won’t be enough, I need to have direct control if we want a proper cloud break, but it’ll take far more energy than I can muster.’

‘More than the eclipse?’ asked Brunick after the Summoner.

‘Remember! I had a scroll for the eclipse and it didn’t use as much energy as you would imagine, as it sustained itself from the sun, this however will not happen simply because I want it to!’ said Lidayel.

‘Come on, dig deep, you’ve got to know something that could help,’ said Cid.

Lidayel was thoughtful, wracking his mind. It then struck him, but then just as quickly wiped the excitement from his face.

‘What is it?’

Lidayel kept quiet.

‘Don’t hold back on us Summoner, more than four thousand men’s lives are depending on you,’ said Brunick.

‘There is something,’ Lidayel started hesitantly, ‘the old Summoners, in order to assure survival for our kind, stored great amounts of magical power in the land itself, accessible by the Calophrite channels. They passed down the secrets to call on these powers very carefully and are now guarded by both Grandmaster Tabacher and the King himself. Each Summoner of the Allandiel council is taught one ritual in order to use some of these powers in the face of an ordeal. It is one of the reasons we are so often made to forget; so that we do not reveal our secrets to one such as Arumcas when captured.’

‘And this power can help us create the rainstorm! Can you remember how to call upon on it?’ asked Cid excitedly.

‘I’m not even sure I should be even telling you this, much less doing it,’ said Lidayel.

‘Come now Summoner, our cause isn’t going to get much more desperate than this. Think of it this way, if we can somehow beat the Fallen here, then the Ghost pass to Durandal and your wife will be cleared clear open,’ said Alex.

Even now Lidayel wasn’t swayed.

‘Lidayel, we either take this risk or we all lose,’ said Cid, ‘how do you think this is going to end if we don’t intervene now?’

Eventually Lidayel nodded, conceding.

‘We have to get to the centre of the plain, and don’t dare get impatient; this is going to take the remainder of the day.’

 

 

It was a painfully slow process. Lidayel had spent two hours in meditation before he seemed ready to assemble his powers. Several times he allowed Vanapha to enter his mind in order to help him remember parts of the ritual that remained elusive to his memory.

Cid and the others watched uncomfortably as Lidayel made markings and symbols in the red dust with his staff, talking to himself all the while. They proceeded to stand further and further away as Lidayel’s eccentric ramblings became louder, his drawings growing bigger.

What started out as simple etched lines in the dust later became a circle with a thirty yard diameter of intricate design, symbols containing symbols. Somehow, the canyon wind did not even touch these inch deep drawings. Then Lidayel started to chant rhythmically, walking all around his symbols, his gaze fixed as though he was reading them.

‘We should start finding higher ground,’ said Vanapha.

Cid knew better than to question her and thus agreed.

After trekking arduously to the ridge of the western plateau they witnessed Lidayel finishing his spell. Far below Lidayel now stood in the centre of his patterns, his staff held above his head and his eyes set on the heavens. The earth around him grew dark and Cid looked up to see the shadows of the clouds outgrowing daylight.

Clouds of deep blue and steel grey were massing right above the Basin, the epicentre of it all in line with Lidayel. They grew from out of nothing, feeding from moist still invisible, then twisted and swirled with such conviction it was as though Cid could see Lidayel exercising every motion of control. Tied down the clouds loomed closer, leaning over the land. Soon thunder peals sounded overhead as though the heavens were voicing their discontent at the attempt of someone leashing them.

It’s coming,’ said Vanapha with a knowing smile.

As the first drops struck them Brunick laughed, stretching his arms wide. Small puffs of dust jumped up at the impact until the first layer of ground was sated. The drops were heavy and cold, promising, but nothing worth mentioning.

Even after ten minutes of varying intensity, the land was barely wet. Cid did nothing else than keeping his gaze locked on Lidayel’s unchanging stance, his staff still held aloft, certain that if the Summoner faltered the entire effort would go to waste.

‘Is he struggling…?’ asked Alex.

‘I don’t think he can manage it,’ said Cid disappointedly, the clouds were heavy, but the rain remained feeble, ‘he did warn us.’

Cid grimaced as Lidayel lost his balance in the far for a moment, planting his staff in the ground to hold himself up, his exhaustion understandable.

The clouds grew to an impasse, soon to escape his grasp. Cid bit in his lip as he saw Lidayel suddenly casting the staff away, spiralling to fall in the dust.

The Summoner lifted his hands up again, staring deep into the heavens, reaching up as though he was standing on his toes. His fingers contorted above his head, like he was grasping the clouds.

‘Look at that!’ said Brunick first, Lidayel’s determination coming to life as the pattern he drew in the dust started glowing with hues of blue and purple.

Like an orchestrator he wrenched his hands dramatically, as though pulling on something heavy. The mightiest of clouds above him responded, tugged out of their comfort, spinning unnaturally as Lidayel seemingly tore through the layer he himself had so carefully built.

A crack of light and thunder heralded, the drops pulsating from above, pushing away from the clouds. There was a brief anticipation before the cold and the wet sagged in completion.

…and then the rivulets ran. The rain became incredibly hard, the sky widening its maw to douse the land. Cid and company tried to find cover vainly under an outcropping as the onslaught soaked their clothes within moments, yet all of them could not help but show elation as this giant dry Basin met its match against the waters of the sky.

The canyon flooded, nothing escaping the downpour as even Hashur was obscured in the veil. Lidayel, down below in the Basin, remained fast to sustain his magic, his hands spread open humbly now at his sides, his stance seemingly welcoming. Already the Basin hungrily accepted the water into its folds so that Lidayel’s ankles were submerged.

And then his knees…

And then later his waist…

Past a certain point Cid accepted that Lidayel was using his power to keep the water from swallowing him completely.

The rain lasted with incredible intensity as though the clouds were saying collectively: “you’ve asked for me, now I’m here to stay.” The pinnacle itself must’ve grown nervous as the water crept up its base.

The outcropping where underneath Cid and the rest found shelter was the only dry ground in sight as it split the waters before it cascaded down the plateau steppes and into the fold, saving them from being swept by the flash of muddied water raging past.

The mix of dust and moist gave a unique and refreshing scent, overpowering on this scale, and it reminded Cid of when he was doing patrols on Lanston’s countryside with Brunick as young soldiers. When the rain came, the local farmers would invite the havenless men to find shelter at their houses, standing alongside the hardened sun-beaten men and women under their veranda’s, watching in silence as the waiting land received its long overdue gift. It was never lost on Cid and Brunick when they stood there how much the farmers appreciated the rain, for they would remain as statues for all the duration of the downpour, watching, much like they were watching now.

It was when it seemed that it would never stop raining that the clouds thinned out, sun beams tearing desperately through the sullen cover. Down below the sights and sounds of rushing water converged from every direction onto the Basin. The entire landscape changed colour and when the sun made its comeback a spectacular rainbow presented itself, stretching across the expanse of the valley. The Basin now resembled a lake, the water lively with movement as it would not come to rest until it all gathered at the lowest point possible.

Cid felt a strong hope, as though things were finally swinging back into their favour. With the Basin as it was neither Lanston nor the Fallen could approach it, the water barring the path. Lanston had a chance now, as long as Cid could get his say.

From afar they saw Lidayel slowly walking from the centre, wallowing toward them, using his power sparingly to part the waters and carve an easier path. Cid could only imagine how tired he must’ve been. Nevertheless he allowed himself to grin as the Summoner approached, Lidayel himself smiling quietly.

 

In the Lanston warcamp…

The downpour had hit them hard as well. So intense did the rain come that some of the tents were crushed flat under the rapid weight, men crawling out of them soaking wet, either laughing or cursing in helplessness. Luckily for the soldiers all the water was running downhill into the Basin. Stelinger however knew what this meant. He kept his tent flap open aslight, peering to the outside as Reighler stood behind him.

‘This is the Summoner’s doing,’ said Stelinger.

‘To be sure young master, he called up a phenomenal power to create this storm,’ said Reighler.

‘Impressive,’ mumbled Stelinger, ‘although delaying us will not stop the war.’

‘My master, I wish to express concern. If the Summoner calls on-’

‘He won’t,’ stated Stelinger. ‘Tomorrow we will ride out and take care of them. I will not allow Cid to be a thorn for a day longer.’

‘Master, there are only so few a man you can confront them with, and honestly, we do not stand a chance against them,’ said Reighler with concern.

‘You are right, but I do not intend to take them face on,’ said Stelinger, turning to Reighler. ‘Cid carries his spear, Mindevhier, a Hethellean weapon like mine. With it he can dispatch both Brunick and the Summoner.’

‘You wish to corrupt Cid,’ said Reighler, a malevolent grin growing on his face.

‘We will ride out and isolate him. I will work my magic, you see, I know how to anger Cid, anger and hatred is the key. Then you can work your magic,’ said Stelinger, picturing a set of dull white eyes.

 

 

They sat but huddled around a wet, smoky and struggling campfire that night, ensuring that they would all turn to sleep quite early, none more so than Lidayel.

‘Who was that man we saw with the Fallen today?’ asked Vanapha finally.

Cid raised his eyebrow.

‘I know you recognized him Cid… that man who stood with the Priests?’

The rest look questionably at the two, Cid unsure whether to make assumptions and raise unnecessary fears.

‘I thought you saw nothing, I didn’t say anything because you didn’t,’ said Cid.

‘I was… caught off guard, I had not known the Priests could take hold of my Sight like they did,’ admitted Vanapha.

Cid nodded in understanding. He looked at Alex and Brunick, ready to explain. ‘When Vanapha and myself were scouting the enemy camp, her sight came upon a giant man. He just stood there, waiting, with a battle hatchet in each hand, dressed in Fallen armour. I am rather certain it was our old friend iDartés.’

Brunick and Alex’s faces showed what Cid felt when he had seen the man earlier.

‘Are you sure? And he’s a fallen now?’ said Alex.

‘Yes, he will undoubtedly lead them into battle.’

‘Alive eh? Doesn’t surprise me, he was always a hateful bastard… ugly too,’ said Brunick.

‘Who is he?’ asked Vanapha curiously, Lidayel hunching forward from his stupor to listen in as well.

Cid gathered himself as he sought to explain, his gaze setting on the puffing pile of tinder.

‘Three years ago we were sent into Teritua to acquire the highlanders’ help in securing tighter borders against the Fallen. The high Chieftain uTolais was sympathetic towards us, for he too was wary of the Dey’illumra. Most of the Teritua were highly distrustful though. Within our first few days we quickly learned of iDartés, the highlanders’ champion. He was a man bigger than even Brunick here.

‘Six-foot-ten I’d say, with a pair of shoulders like an ox!’ said Brunick.

‘Please let me finish Brunick. He came off as a power hungry savage from the very beginning, and was keen to convince the high Chief that we were not to be trusted. We were learning as much as we could of the highlanders at the time, so we came upon some of their politics. Although a bit uncivilized the highlanders had the most extraordinary magi, which they called Shamani.

Apparently there was a ritual among the Terituan people where, in times of great distress, they would call up a spirit and impart it to a chosen champion, creating a powerful warrior. We thought it but a story. iDartés wanted that power and brought many arguments to the Chieftain to receive the honour. uTolais was reluctant, he said he wanted no one person with so much power and I suspect he knew of iDartés’ cruel hart.

iDartés was not going to give up. While we were on the travel again he arranged the butchery of one of his own villages when we passed close by. He blamed us, citing us as the murderers, going to the Chieftain and begging for the power of his people so that he may exact vengeance and protect his people from all foes.

In his fury the Chieftain conceded, the ritual was practiced. Imbued with power iDartés gathered his best men to hunt us down, our leading diplomat and Colonel already murdered.

It was a terrifying race across the Terituan landscape, our minds firmly set on escaping death. We came into contact with iDartés several times and it was like fighting a nightmare. He did not breath flames or command thunder like the Shamani suggested he would, but he was much stronger and faster than a human should be, and maybe more dangerous than anything else, he was relentless – tireless – it seemed.

That he had some spirit in him was of no doubt. He carried trademark hatchets with him, although hatchets are a bit of a misleading term, for they were big enough to split a man’s chest without much effort. When we wounded him he simply continued on, our combined efforts doing little to slow him. He killed so many of our men singlehandedly… our escape in the end was timely and I was sure we would never again face such a monster.’

‘I see, our odds aren’t improving are they?’ said Vanapha, ‘but he will not be leading the Fallen, not if he is one himself.’

‘You misunderstood me Valkyrie, the Priests will command the army yes, but iDartés will lead. The instinctual mind of the Fallen will respond to his size and fury in battle, they will see him as a pack leader and they will be stronger for it.’

‘Like a talisman then, we’ll have to kill him quickly if it comes to it,’ suggested Vanapha.

‘Oh, he’s much more than just a talisman, I put three arrows in the guy back then and he still came charging at me!’ said Alex.

‘He’s an impossibility,’ agreed Cid, ‘just before we escaped Brunick wounded him badly. We left him for dead and we thought he would die alone there on the border. As we know now that was not the case. He survived, and now he’s a fallen. All that hatred must’ve caught up with him.’

‘Wait a minute though, we haven’t seen him in the flesh. Cid only saw him in Vanapha’s Sight! Wouldn’t the captain’s fears project themselves into the vision maybe? You know, he might not be alive at all,’ suggested Alex.

‘I saw him as well Alex,’ chided Vanapha.

‘Yeah, but maybe the captain’s-’

‘Forget it Alex, the giant is alive, and we’ll meet him again. Best to prepare for that eventuality,’ said Brunick.

Cid understood Alex’s denial. The Fallen already were a terrible enemy and should not have the pleasure of commanding one such as iDartés.

‘You mentioned that a spirit was given to iDartés?’ asked Lidayel, after having listening quietly.

‘That’s right.’

‘Can you remember what was the nature of this spirit?’

‘The Shamani Teritua talked of the spirit of the raging wind, more than that they did not reveal, save for their riddles and chants,’ said Cid.

‘Of the raging wind…’ murmured Lidayel, ‘I would then, assume, that the spirit was in fact an Arrhua manifestation. I had not thought such magic possible, if the Kingdom had known they would have opened a dialogue with the Shamani long ago…’

‘So what is this Arrhua?’ asked Brunick.

‘In a way they are spirits like the Terituans believe. They are called ancients by most and they were central to the Kingdom’s past struggles. I can’t divulge much though, that part of my memories is still dark. What I can tell you is that if Summoners are feared above all, it’s only because most are ignorant of the Arrhua.’

‘What does this tell us of iDartés?’ asked Alex.

‘He is not an Arrhua, he is but a vessel for some of the power of one, but that makes him no less fearsome than you already suggested,’ said Lidayel, ‘and no less unique for that matter.’

‘How do we kill him Summoner?’ asked Vanapha.

‘He can be overpowered, of that I’m sure, but the spirit will protect him and it might be more practical for me to battle with him at range, or even better, a cut by a Ruin weapon will stymie his bond with the spirit, leaving him vulnerable…’

‘I’m sorry Lidayel, I know you mean well, but I will not let Mindevhier be released. I cannot risk it. We will find some other way to drag him down; our victory will count on it.’

‘Ha! Let them all line up, Stelinger, iDartés, Arumcas… I will give them a taste of steel that’ll put em all in their graves,’ boasted Brunick.

‘Best not to worry about the man prematurely, we still have a lot to do before we get the chance to see that ugly mug,’ said Cid.

Silence hung in the air, the struggling fire growing weaker, announcing a time for everyone to roll over and get some sleep.

The following morning carried a serene calm about itself. The cool moist air and gushing water had transformed the setting remarkably, the scent of damp dust still heavy in the air. Cid and company were slow in their movements today, their determination to take cover at the base of Mount Hashur decidedly patient as both Lanston and the Fallen would predictably seek to scout this suddenly altered landscape.

Ultimately it counted in Lanston’s favour that they would run a proper reconnaissance in response to the rains. It would do no good however if that same reconnaissance came upon Cid’s party and were force to kill them. Therefore Mount Hashur was a logical hiding place until they could make proper contact with the Lanston army without being in danger of any kind.

Ironically that would only happen when Lanston realized that Stelinger had betrayed them and that they were in grave peril. Of the foremost of Cid’s thoughts now was confronting a betrayed and angry Lanston army, trying to piece a way to approach them when the time was right. He would have to count on Girdo and Welce having made some sway among the men or that he could talk reasonably with one of the other Colonels. Either way Stelinger’s presence would be a problem.

For the moment Cid pushed down an old soldier habit of his, the one that came up as a reminder to be always vigilant. It was a taxing mindset and Cid wanted nothing more than to feel the calm of the morning, the sated soil softening the lands touch.

They moved but sporadically, Cid trusting Vanapha to warn them should Lanston scouts come too close. They embarked on a small ridge of a plateau that rounded right around the rim of the Basin. It was just above the water level for now and allowed them to pass by the narrows’ exit into the Basin, from where they’d continue east, mounting one of the rims again to reach the base of Hashur.

Their passage by the narrows would be brief, yet it was here that Vanapha held her arm up, her head turned into the winding way of the canyon.

‘Someone is coming, but they are blocking my Sight!’ said Vanapha in alarm.

The narrows still submitted a steady stream of water into the Basin, and fourteen pair of hooves clattered towards them, sending sprays of water up in the air as they came.

‘Stand fast, they’ll run us down if we flee!’ said Cid, automatically feeling the spear assemble in his hands.

Cid’s heart raced as they were quickly approached by a group of seven riders, six of them in Lanston gear. The odd one out was a Sekhaimogist no doubt, distinct by his garb and Cid reasoned that he was negating Vanapha’s abilities with his own.

The leading rider Cid realized in dismay, was Stelinger himself. He looked smug, armoured as a Commander of Lanston, his helm in his lap and a fine green cloak billowing lightly behind him. That he would come out in person should have made Cid cautious by then.

Stelinger advanced and the assumption was made that these men of his were traitors like himself, for Cid could not recognize any of them. This was alarming in the light that a Commander was always accompanied by experienced and thus, notorious soldiers.

They will all die! Cid decided.

Instead of charging Stelinger’s men came to a complete halt a safe distance from Cid and company.

Stelinger took the liberty of speaking first, directing his attentions at Cid.

‘Alive and well, I see. Although you do look a bit tortured, this land will do that you though,’ said Stelinger to his own amusement. ‘You are a fool like Bennam was, just harder to get rid of.’

Stelinger!’ said Brunick, losing his verbal capacity in anger like when he argued with Alex, rather moving forward hungrily.

‘I guess we’re not going to be diplomatic today, not that I had the intention on being so. Kill them,’ said Stelinger nudging his head, mirroring Cid’s thoughts. His warriors charged forward like one.

Vanapha aimed, yet it was a furious Cid who met the first fake soldier, having primed himself for a counter charge, rushing the man right out of his saddle with the range of Mindevhier. Cid’s victim fell hard and was dead by impact.

Alex and Vanapha each arrowed down a rider, their horses cantering as their masters’ bodies hit the ground. Vanapha, ready in an instant again, levelled a shot at Stelinger. The arrow came straight at his head and he seemed not even to blink as the tip smashed into a smoky barrier, protecting Stelinger. They had been expecting it.

Lidayel stood ready to overpower both Stelinger and his lowly mage, his hands glowing in preparation. In an instant he focused on the foremost charger instead, the horse and rider coming in fast from the side. The man was a threat for only a second more before the air sizzled and flashed, the compact blast of flames smashing the horse and rider apart.

At the same moment Brunick grabbed at the last rider, who vainly tried to thrust his sword into Brunick’s shoulder. Having halted the man and his horse, Brunick wrenched the traitor to the ground and stomped on his face.

Cid turned his attention on Stelinger, who sneered at him. ‘Come along Ciddie, you wouldn’t let a Summoner do the fighting for you?’ Stelinger veered his horse and was joined by his mage as they galloped away back in the direction of the Lanston camp.

Cid was overcome by a fierce rage and leapt on a dead traitor’s horse.

The horse whinnied and reared in surprise, but with a determined grip Cid subdued the animal and gathered it into chase.

‘Cid wait!’ came Brunick’s voice.

The words were lost on him as he disappeared in the narrows, determined to catch Stelinger before he reached the safety Lanston camp. One way or another, Stelinger was going to pay.

 

 

Stelinger halted his horse and strained his hearing above the rushing water, holding his hand up for the others to be quiet.

‘He is following. Good, stay out of sight. You know what to do.’

Reighler nodded.

Cid came around the last bend and charged the horse in a straight line, coming up to Stelinger who had slowed down and turned around again to face. His grip was merciless on Mindevhier, ready to pierce through any magical protection and into Stelinger’s heart. Stelinger had his own longsword out, pointing it casually at Cid.

Cid nudged the horse forward at full tilt, his spear leading the way. Stelinger urged his horse into a counter gallop, holding his sword loosely. Collision drew close. Stelinger could not contend with Cid’s range of attack and at the last moment he caught the spear under his arm and wrenched both Cid and himself clear from the saddles.

The spear and sword was lost in the tussle and the horses merely stood clear from their manic riders. The men rolled on violently through the water, struggling for position with elbows and fists. Cid won through, pinning Stelinger flat on his back, blood running red in his face with fury. He reached for his sabre at his waist. Had the water been inches thicker he could have simply drowned the man. Pulling his sabre back he realized Stelinger was going to die now, justice and vengeance done in one swift plunge, and wondered if the man would beg.

With Cid’s hand jammed on Stelinger’s throat the Commander growled breathlessly: ‘Good night Cid!

Cid froze, only aware for a second as a cold hand closed on the back of his head.

The pain was immediate and his muscles went rigid in his one-knee down position. His first thought was that someone stabbed him in the back of his head, but then realized he wasn’t dying or darkening, the pain seeping into his body as well.

He lost control, his sabre falling into the feeble torrent, the water tumbling it arduously downstream until caught up against a rock. The hand remained on him, taking away all his strength and making of him no more than a puppet.

A terrible whisper came by his ear, a voice in a language Cid did not recognize.

‘Hold fast to your hatred Colonel. Hold fast.’ The words were strange and foreign, yet he could understand them.

A horrifying sensation gripped Cid, as though the will of someone else was pouring into his body. The fact that it hurt so much made him think he could resist it, even if vainly. That strange feeling of an intruder crawled up his neck and he finally blacked out as it entered his head.

Stelinger rolled out from under Cid’s failing grip. With glee Stelinger looked on as Cid’s eyes grew to a dull white, his muscles going limp.

‘He is now ready to be instructed Commander,’ said Reighler.

‘Rise,’ said Stelinger in Twilight tongue. He was well-versed in it.

Cid did so. The emotion of his face remained a moment before fading to nothing.

‘How specific do I have to be?’ asked Stelinger at the Priest.

‘His memories and faculties are still perfect. As long as you use the Twilight tongue he should follow any command flawlessly,’ answered the Priest.

Stelinger could hardly hide his excitability and recited his command in a dark language:

‘Cid,’ he uttered, ‘your friends will come looking for you… Brunick, Alex, the Summoner and the Valkyrie… kill them all… and kill any who travel with them… anyone… don’t hold back.’

Stelinger smiled as Cid picked up Mindevhier mechanically and searched for his saber downstream.

‘Saddle up Reighler, let’s trust our friend here to clean up,’ said Stelinger, gathering his sword.

They were off within moments.

 

 

The party sprinted to keep up with Cid, following the sound of his horse. The narrows winding path made it impossible to see past the next turn. Vanapha took the lead, her Sight telling her that Cid was nearby and that he was alone.

In reality she saw Cid first and she came skidding to a halt in comprehension of what had happened, holding her hand up for Brunick, Alex and Lidayel to stop as well.

‘Where is Stelinger?’ asked Brunick, his axe eager in his hand.

‘He’s already escaped, look at Cid though,’ warned Vanapha.

The soldiers only now realized that Cid was standing far ahead, motionless, with his back turned on them.

‘Hey captain!’ shouted Alex ignorantly.

No, don’t he’s-!’ warned Vanapha

Cid turned. Brunick and Alex were speechless.

His eyes were bleached to nothing but a snowy white, Mindevhier ready in his hands and no recognition to speak of. He started to march forward, straight at them, a threat in his stride. Vanapha readied an arrow within an instant, levelling her aim at Cid’s head.

‘Don’t take another step!’ she shouted, trying to exploit Cid’s still intact mind.

Cid indeed came to a halt.

‘Lidayel, you can heal him, right?’ asked Brunick anxiously.

‘Yes, I have to get in close though.’

For awhile Cid seemed thoughtful, a crease forming on his forehead. The party held up their breath as Vanapha remained rigid with her tensed arrow.

As though Cid knew he wasn’t going to win he turned and bounded off upstream, quickly disappearing around the next bend.

Alex was the first to set off after him and Vanapha grabbed him by the collar.

Stop!’ she said, wrenching the man back.

‘But we have to get to him before anything else happens, before he loses his mind!’

‘He has time yet. As long as we do the hunting he’ll keep moving and it won’t do us any good to get closer and closer to the Lanston warcamp. We have to be smart about this. He is commanded to kill us, so he will come to us invariably as long as he feels as though he has the edge. He was unwilling to take us on now because he would have died. He’ll wait until he can isolate or separate us before attacking!’ said Vanapha.

‘So what do we do now?’ asked Brunick, Alex hearing a distress in the man’s voice he had never heard before.

‘We’ll stay mobile; we are in the heartland of enemies now, both of those we have in Lanston and the Fallen. I suggest we still move to the east side of the Basin, there are lots of hiding places at the base of Hashur and might be more suited for our attempt to corner Cid.’

Lidayel agreed, ‘Don’t worry soldiers; if we can constrain him somehow I will be able to heal his mind.’

Brunick breathed heavily, the shock of the moment clearly weighing on him.

‘But you said nobody has survived the healing process yet.’

‘Cid is still very fresh Brunick, if I can save anyone, it’d be him,’ said Lidayel reassuringly.

‘Okay let’s go then, come on big guy, we’ll have Cid back to normal soon enough,’ said Alex, patting Brunick on the back.

The party set forth grimly, leaving the narrows.

Chapter 40

Icy Skies

 

 

Elmira had grown accustomed to this living through the clouds, sure she would be hard-pressed to revert back to any other form of travel, save for that which could provide shelter and cushions. Unawares she stared ahead over Olexion’s shoulder at a vortex of clouds growing exponentially from itself, the colours of blue and grey misleading to appropriate distance and the threat of the storm.

The first drops soaked right through Elmira’s hair, truly cold against her scalp and skin. The next drops came stronger and for a few seconds the rains nicked hard at her face. Olexion released the reins of his Volj and gestured widely. Elmira felt the rain suddenly cease on her body, the growing downpour then weltering against the strengthened bubble, its enhancement timely enough for them to be spared of hail, the ice pellets cracking on the barrier. Elmira shivered; the air has cooled down, the winds whipping up.

The land grew in shadow. The storm it seemed had been intent on not being heralded in any way. Elmira wanted to ask Olexion on it, but as a gust of wind blew them off course she knew that any torrential experience was tenfold more intense up here than on the ground.

Olexion signalled for the other Rangers to stay close, Elmira feeling better at it all as the other Volje lined up on either side to form a wedge.

‘It is no normal storm my lady, and I’d wager this land has never seen the likes of it before!’ said Olexion, his voice surprisingly clear thanks to his barrier.

‘Is it magic?’ asked Elmira.

‘Yes. My suspicion would fall upon a Summoner above anything else. Even a dozen of the greatest magi cannot create such a feat!’

‘You think it to be the Summoners that might’ve made contact with Cid?’ asked Elmira hopefully.

‘It is what I hope for my lady, for the only reason that could warrant creating such a tempest would be altering the landscape and stalling what may come to pass.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Some miles ahead of us lies the Basin of Alparack, aptly named-’ thunder cracked, interrupting Olexion, Elmira gasping and squeezing the man tight in fear.

‘As I was saying, aptly named, for its potential to gather waters could easily see it form a lake. In its dried state it would be a battlefield favouring the masses, filled with water it would halt marching armies,’ said Olexion.

‘You’ve been here before then?’ asked Elmira

‘Many times I’d admit, you might be glad to know that we have a shelter on Mount Hashur, we may as well stay there while we survey the area in the days to come.’

Elmira looked up; seeing giant clouds exploding to become seemingly glassy dust, pulsing in all directions much faster than they were flying. As the Volje flew the barriers smashed mesmerizing trails through the hail. The lightning grew fiercer, the gusts colder and playing the Volje in directions unintended. Olexion quietly shook his head, murmuring. He signalled to his comrades and they banked, quickly turning around completely.

‘We’re fleeing?’ asked Elmira teasingly, although feeling grateful for the change of mind.

‘It is not my nature to brave that which will surely kill us my lady,’ said Olexion, ‘we’ll go back to where the storm diminishes and camp for the night. In time we will find the Summoners and any who may travel with them.’

‘It’s all still a good sign right?’

‘Yes my lady, we are close now, by tomorrow we will have something to look for.’

Chapter 41

Oldeloft

 

 

The Basin was becoming a death trap. At Jacanta point to the north laid one of the greatest Fallen armies ever assembled, waiting to swallow whole the ignorant Lanston army marching in the narrows still. All the while scouts of both Lanston and the Fallen manoeuvred into the Basin as the two forces approached ever closer.

Alex maintained that the scouts used by Lanston were probably lackeys of Stelinger, his own chosen band of traitors who would supply the army with false information.

Vanapha became the leader of the group for now due to her Sights. She would, as if by some instinct, warn the party to hide anytime they were about to be discovered, saving them from having to fight men they would rather not.

Worse even than the scouts all around was Cid. He was hounding them, stalking the party like an animal. Vanapha was more aware of this than the others and she knew the only way to avoid disaster for now was to stick together as closely as possible.

Twice they made close contact with Cid, the Colonel almost catching them off guard. Being together however Cid did not dare attack, rather slipping away again when he realized the odds were still against him. The Valkyrie could see the whole affair eating away at Brunick and Alex; their friend and leader had become a Fallen, that which they must war against.

Vanapha only hoped they could save Cid before his instincts were broken; for when that happens, Cid would attack without restraint, regardless of the odds, and the party would have to kill him to stop him.

 

 

Brunick monitored the sun through the sky, noting that it had been exactly a day since Cid’s conversion. The small trek from the west to the east of the Basin had taken much out of the party, if just mentally. They were already among the folds of the east, using dense rock constellations at the base of Mount Hashur to hide. Last night had been the worst yet. They took turns watching for danger, none of them really getting to sleep.

The day became tedious and after Lidayel’s feat of power it was as though the sun sought to repent by burning mercilessly, sapping strength from all. At the moment they enjoyed the shade of some considerable sized boulders they chanced upon, clustered and stacked peculiarly. Vanapha though would not have them stay still for long, urging the men to get moving again.

They barely abandoned the cover when Vanapha saw something coming in fast, startling her Farsight with sudden alarm.

‘Take cover!’ she ushered.

The men scrambled to hide away and followed Vanapha’s gaze; she was looking into the sky. Five colossal bird shapes sped overhead in the backdrop of the sun. Their interest in the area was clear as they banked as a unit, as though circling the area in search of prey.

‘Those are Rangers!’ shouted Brunick in careless realization, ‘we have to get them down here! We have to let them know we’re here!

‘Volje,’ whispered Vanapha by herself, realizing they were indeed mounted as Brunick suggested. ‘Lidayel, get over here!’

The Summoner complied.

‘Get their attention,’ said Vanapha.

‘Are you sure that is wise? We do not know why they are here, they might not be friendly,’ said Lidayel.

‘We have to risk it,’ said Vanapha.

Lidayel seemed to have raised resistance only by careful habit and held his hand up to the sky without further question. A fiery globe shot into the air, gaining height with magnificent speed. At its peak, far up in the sky, Lidayel focused and the globe flared as a bright red colour. The Rangers immediately noticed it, steering their Volje to the sight overhead.

Down below Lidayel spread his arms and his magicks bathed his hands in the same red display, making him all the more visible even in daylight. The Rangers purposefully searched the ground and spotted the Summoner. There was no hesitation.

Fearsomely the Volje descended in circular patterns, sounding great eagle cries along the way. They could not know their intent, but the diving beasts seemed life threatening in any instance. Only at the last did the Volje show passiveness, gliding widely to coordinate their touchdown. The party stood aside, opening as much space as possible for the Rangers to land on the barren patches among the rocks. They came down in great billow of wind, dust swept up and thrown aside.

The Rangers dismounted immediately, looking overtly alert and suspicious with their swords drawn. They might’ve been ready to negotiate with those calling their attention, but were nevertheless vigilant. It was Elmira though that leapt frantically and broke the tension as she gave Brunick a big hug.

Olexion and his men straightened, sheathing their swords slowly.

It was the strangest thing. Brunick and Alex could not believe seeing Elmira here of all places, while Vanapha and Lidayel were certain to guess that this was the woman they heard Cid talk so much about.

What would she be doing here? they’d thought.

Olexion in turn had never seen such a bizarre gathering; Brunick a documented Mason, Lidayel a Summoner Olexion knew personally when memory served, and a Valkyrie woman without a doubt judging by dress and bearing.

What’s going on here?

‘Where is Cid!?’ asked Elmira, suddenly aware he wasn’t present.

Brunick sighed, marvelling at the odds of the person showing up who he would never be able to look in the eyes if something happened to Cid.

‘He’s okay Elm, he’s alive but…’ started Brunick diplomatically.

An uncomfortable silence ensued.

Olexion interrupted Brunick’s difficulty shamelessly.

‘Lieutenant Brunick, I am Olexion, First among the Rangers, I’m certain that we can answer many of each other’s questions.’

Brunick took the man’s hand. ‘It’s good to see you and your men Ranger. This may all look very strange to you and we’ll be glad to explain to anyone who is still reasonable within the Kingdom,’ said Brunick, a tired relief coming onto his face.

‘You sound like a man burdened,’ said Olexion.

‘Ha, you have no idea,’ said Alex in kind, sounding more cynical than he had intended.

‘Excuse the lack of formalities Ranger, but we have been battered by the sun, quite hungry and somewhat sleep deprived,’ said Vanapha.

‘Very well, we have a way station hidden up in Hashur just above us. It’s called Oldeloft, and serves well as a refuge of ours. We were actually just heading there when you signalled us. Let’s go make ourselves comfortable there and we’ll talk at length. We can all fly double-’

Forget it, I’ll climb if I have to, you won’t catch me dead on one of those things,’ said Brunick, nudging his head toward the Volje.

Olexion pursed his lips. ‘Fine, there is a trail that leads up to it, I’ll walk you there,’ Olexion turned to his men. ‘Survey the area; I want to know exactly what’s going on down here. Meet us at Oldeloft at sundown.’

The Volje took flight, Olexion’s own Volj trained to on without him.

‘Come along then, it’s a stiff walk up, but it’ll be worth it.’

They followed the Ranger, lining up behind his steps.

‘Great job Brunick, you just foiled my one chance to ride on a Volj,’ said Alex in quiet anger.

‘You can count on joyrides some other time,’ answered Brunick, annoyed.

Elmira fell in stride with Brunick, a great worry on her face.

‘Brunick, where is Cid?’ she asked quietly, though making it clear that she wasn’t letting the matter wait.

Brunick was intent on sitting down and speaking coherently with the Olexion, but he could no longer not tell Elmira the truth.

‘The Priests got to him Elm, he is a fallen,’ Brunick said grimly, unable to meet her eyes despite his best efforts.

Elmira’s horror was complete as she came to a halt, her features taut with shock. Brunick turned to her, holding her gently on her arms with his massive hands.

Don’t worry!’ he whispered forcefully, ‘we found this Summoner, his name is Lidayel! Elm! He can cure Fallen! And we know where Cid is!

Brunick could not tell whether Elmira had heard anything for she was outright whimpering and he was sure she’d fall to her knees if he weren’t supporting her arms.

Lidayel approached, standing close to get Elmira’s attention.

‘My lady, I am Lidayel. It is as Brunick says, if we can get to Cid I will be able to heal his mind,’ he reassured.

‘Cid is a fallen?’ asked Olexion in alarm, as he too had evidently stopped to listen in.

Brunick nodded over his shoulder. ‘Let’s get to that Oldeloft of yours. I’ll explain all you’d like to know and probably a bunch of stuff you won’t.’

 

 

For the first in a long time the companions enjoyed what could be remotely called civilization. On the shoulder of Mount Hashur, hiding in the shadow of its peak, was an old grey-stone house. It was well hidden out of sight from anything down below and all could appreciate how only the Rangers with their Volje might find it.

Like Olexion warned the mountain trail had been punishing pressing uphill. Alex was in unvoiced wonder as he recognized an unassuming road winding up the mountain cone, there only for those who knew of it. Coming up to the shoulder, Oldeloft’s hold revealed itself as a secret of the land, something one would simply not see on a map.

The building had an asymmetrical number of rooms wrapped around a central corridor, with an impressive veranda at the front and a fire pit at the back. A single dead tree stood at the front near the veranda, its figure withered to a fragile ash complexion. A separate block of simple holdings stood aside to shelter the Volje.

The dwelling was big enough to house another ten men if it needed, and was outfitted in a way that suggested it could be utilized for long durations. In all, the way station was well stocked, yet scantly furnished.

It did have some comforts, mostly concentrated in the lounge, where Olexion and Brunick spoke quietly. The two men sat across each other, speaking over a dusty coffee table. Their voices interchanged with a quiet array of questions and answers, the stories told supplementing each other. Elmira sat to their left on an old green couch, somewhat calmed now, yet not uttering a word. She was detached, only showing attention whenever Cid’s name was mentioned.

Vanapha was exploring the house and Alex had discovered a hammock hanging from the veranda’s roof which he had fallen asleep in. Lidayel was having a look at the house’s books in the very next room. Armed with a thick leather bound tome the Summoner returned to the lounge, laying himself down in a reed framed recliner.

‘Hmm, we’ll have to save Cid, he’s too valuable to let slip to the Fallen,’ said Olexion, concluding.

‘We’ll be glad to have your help, we ourselves wont dedicate our time to anything else until we have Cid back,’ said Brunick.

Olexion nodded, ‘do you have a plan yet? From what you’ve told me it might be very difficult to approach this man.’

‘Yes, there will be nothing simple in this, even magicks won’t help much because of that Hethellean spear of his. That’s the least of our worries though.’

‘I’m listening,’ said Olexion.

‘Even as a Fallen Cid isn’t reckless, with his instincts still being intact and all. He retreats the moment he realizes he’s fighting the odds, so we’ll need to advance with subtlety,’ said Brunick.

‘I agree, it might be best if you and the Summoner can approach him alone, while the rest of us hides away and watch to offer support should the need arise.’

‘If I can just get that spear out his hands, then he can’t harm me anymore. That’s easier said than done though,’ said Brunick.

‘And our Summoner friend, he will have to make direct contact?’ asked Olexion.

Brunick grunted, ‘that’s how the magicks work apparently, guess it’s not much different from healing a wound.’

‘Yes, proximity is always an issue in magic,’ stated Olexion.

Lidayel sat up straight from his chair on the far side of the room.

‘I’d like to point out that just like healing wounds take time, so will this. Brunick, you will have to hold him down while I work,’ he voiced.

Brunick nodded.

‘It sounds like a reasonable plan. I’ll be sure to help if things get messy. Have you any notion on where he might be?’ asked Olexion.

‘Vanapha is a skilled Star·Seer. She’ll use her Farsight to track him down.’

‘It is settled then, rest now, you’ll need your strength and wits. By dusk hour we’ll set out and find him. We will heal him then,’ said Olexion to Elmira more than anyone else.

Elmira did nothing more than nod.

 

 

Vanapha welcomed the rest, though she was never one to sit still, nor afraid for solitude. She scoured Oldeloft’s supplies, finding a good array of weapons, equipment, medicine and trinkets. All the while the issue of Cid came back to her. She reminded herself that they were going to save him soon, that Lidayel would heal him, but it did little to settle her nerves. She was disturbed by how quickly she had come to care for him.

Seeking to preoccupy herself Vanapha tried to garner herself some new arrows from the Oldeloft’s collection, as her own quiver was running dry. This was a bit more difficult as most of the arrows stockpiled here were made for shorter bows than hers. In enclosed spaces like this her Sights were always a bit awkward, nonetheless as she searched manually she kept simultaneous efforts to scour the house mentally. She regretted it somewhat as she saw the other members of her party.

None of them were at ease; Elmira was sleeping in one of the rooms, her dreams making her mumble in distress, Brunick was pacing all around the house, Alex couldn’t find rest on the hammock and Lidayel was sitting in the lounge reading a book, but never turning a page. Only the Ranger Olexion seemed unperturbed, standing solitarily at the mountain edge, staring at the Basin.

Vanapha tailored her Sights as to avoid her friends, rather focusing on the nooks and crannies of the house. There was no denying that everyone here idolized Cid in some way and the thought of his character being lost to the Fallen spell was terrifying. Even Olexion, Vanapha knew, who had no emotional investment in Cid, would be well aware of Cid’s importance in whatever laid waiting for Lanston in the days to come. Again she pushed the thoughts away, strengthening her Sights.

Her efforts paid off, revealing two tightly wrapped packs of thirty well preserved arrows that would fit her composite longbow. This however did not happen before she found a concealed trapdoor in the storage room, taking note of it. After replenishing her arrows Vanapha returned her attention to the basement.

Knowing it would be dark, she lit a lantern and opened the trap door, revealing a steep flight of stairs into the underground. She descended and as the lantern revealed the nature of the basement Vanapha smiled.

It was a small square fully furnished room, its premises completely outfitted with what made it a rudimentary laboratory. Her trained eye as an alchemist quickly allowed her to spot equipment here that she would need to create some basic potions and formulae.

Among her sisters she was known much better as an outdoor warrior or scout. Rigid training as a Valkyrie though left no single woman on Rade’Remar without the ability to read stars or create alchemical substances.

Unashamed she ruffled through the counter unit’s drawers, finding withered notes alongside old bottles, breakers vials and casings. Apart from the obvious glass instruments covering the surface of the counter she found an assortment of thickeners, diluters, acids, catalysts and most importantly, sealed vials containing pure water with an ideal mineral count. Other than that she found nothing decisive – nothing that could allow her to create anything exotic or useful.

Her motive was simple; she knew that one way or the other she was likely to get herself involved in a coming battle. As a lone archer, even with her Sights, she would not make much difference against the numbers of the Fallen. The solution she now believed would be to create something using her alchemy, anything at this point that could help the Lanston men.

Vanapha had ideas, but for now she would have to wait until she could get her hands on proper materials. She was hopeful though, as her Sights could help her now that she would be searching the landscape for it.

Resigning to the fact that she wouldn’t be able to do something with the little laboratory right now, her mind instantly jumped to Cid again. She then admitted to herself that she was growing worried and that she felt great concern for the Colonel. They would have to do something soon.

Chapter 42

Somewhere in the Middle

 

 

It was close to sundown when Olexion’s Rangers returned; bearing good news. They had seen Cid at the foot of the mountain, near one of the old mine entrances. Olexion prepared everyone to leave within an instant and it was clear they were all determined to get Cid back. They were to go quietly on foot, hide behind a ridge and hope Brunick and Lidayel to be enough to fix the man.

Once again Olexion though found himself on the losing side of an argument as Elmira refused to stay behind. The woman seemed inimitable in her stubbornness.

It doesn’t matter, he thought by himself, with our plan she won’t get near Cid anyway.

In anticipation Olexion gathered himself a round steel-plated shield from the house storage, having not fought with one since his training days. He sincerely believed he might have need of it should he face Cid; going with sword alone up against a man with a spear of that size was a fool’s cause. This shield in particular had a fine edge all along its rim, an old Diengezi design if Olexion recognized it correctly, made so to make of the shield a weapon as much as a armour. Taking time to sharpen the long-since dulled rim, Olexion also polished its surface with some suspicion, finding the mark of Diengezi hidden under a sheen of decay. The simple but true marking of great warriors set some confidence in the Ranger now that had been lacking.

They set off, Vanapha taking the lead again as she mystically tracked down the fallen Colonel. Elmira could not understand how this woman knew exactly where to go, but she wasn’t going question good fortune. At some point the group split, keeping a scarce contact with hand signals as they wound down to the mountain base. They didn’t tell her as much, but Elmira instinctively knew that Cid was somewhere between their two groups and they would press him from his hiding ways soon enough. She wanted so badly to see him alive, but she dreaded the moment when he would appear before her as a fallen.

They came upon the man much sooner than they were prepared for and this time he was waiting, knowing the game they played. Evidently he had chosen a large open natural court of sand in front of the mine entrance. He was definitely not going to be cornered, not easily anyway.

Vanapha, Alex, Elmira and the Rangers hid away and kept to the ridge. The reasoning was that too many approaching stimuli might scare Cid away again, or worse than that, set him to attack without relent.

‘Are you prepared Summoner?’ asked Brunick over his shoulder, as Lidayel followed right behind him.

‘I should be, like I said, I need to touch him directly. If you can just subdue him somehow,’ answered Lidayel.

Neither Brunick nor Lidayel were feeling particularly confident.

‘Any other magic tricks you can think of?’ asked Brunick.

‘Maybe, but not much that will help us in this situation,’ whispered Lidayel as they drew close.

‘Fine, be ready to back me, I’m going alone, see what happens.’

Brunick walked with his hands up, his axe left with one of the Rangers back at the ridge. They wanted to be as appear as docile as possible.

‘Cid…’

There was no recognition or response from Cid. He merely stood, bare-chested and upright, Mindevhier still looking deadly as he held it limply in his right hand. In his eyes was nothingness, devoid of emotion and intelligence in its pallor.

‘Cid, you’re… come on, this is not you. You can win it. They can only corrupt men with dark minds… you are not a bad man Cid…’

Brunick could not imagine a more terrifying encounter, against his own friend, wielding the one weapon that could kill him.

Getting closer, Brunick turned hopeful; still Cid stood motionless, his morbid eyes looking off in the distance.

He’s fighting it, I knew it! thought Brunick, taking another step closer. Brunick’s optimism nearly cost him his life.

Cid lunged with terrific speed, the spear and his arm striking at a range close to three yards. Brunick jerked away and the spearhead cut through his Stoneskin and into his bicep. Backing away Brunick felt his arm go somewhat limp.

Alex and Vanapha stood with their bows poised, neither one of them having the heart to shoot. Cid attacked furiously, his initial lunge followed by short quick stabs at Brunick’s chest. Brunick, with his left forearm, uncannily managed to brush away the spearhead as he slowly retreated. It was only moments though before his hand was cut severely. He retracted in pain and demised followed as Cid sliced right into his leg. Brunick knew the wound was not as bad as it looked and made a scene of collapsing onto his right knee. This way at least he knew what was coming next.

He had seen it a hundred times; given enough space and offered with an incapacitated opponent Cid would cut wildly at his foe’s throat. He did not disappoint.

Brunick surged upright, taking advantage in Cid’s sidelong sweep. He moved right past the cutting point and caught the shaft of the spear. With a wrench he drew Cid in close and with a head butt divided him from the spear, Cid rolling backwards to regain his feet, blood lining from his nose.

It wasn’t over. Brunick had once observed a mildly drunk Cid win a bar brawl against a group of thugs singlehandedly without much trouble. Cid closed in fast and Brunick wobbled on his feet as Cid struck without restraint, knuckles cracking on his cheek. Brunick barely registered the blow when another right hook took him on the jaw.

This isn’t like Cid at all! thought Brunick, considering the warrior he knew, the one that held himself in check his entire military career. This is a Cid that wasn’t holding back.

Brunick responded, spinning on the spot to take the next hit on his back. In one fluid motion he cast the spear away and as he came to face again he punched angrily at Cid.

Cid staggered at the heavy blow and Brunick reached in order to overpower his friend. He had been sure it would work, yet Cid’s fighting instinct suffered no deficit as he spun and slipped from Brunick’s grasp. Brunick raised his arms to defend himself but even so Cid’s fist snaked past his and struck him right on the throat.

Pain took Brunick and then a duo of light-headedness and numbness below the neck detached him from his body. He collapsed, willing his artery to continue carrying blood. He was only barely aware that Cid was going for his spear again.

Lidayel knew he had to make his play now and casted. Cid dived, rolling as he grabbed the spear. Just as he came back to his feet the sand around him shot up at Lidayel’s behest, a dire wind of magic flurrying the grains around Cid like a tormented dust devil. For moments Cid stood disoriented inside the eye of the wind.

Lidayel could then only panic as he saw Mindevhier cutting vertically through the spiral of sand. The Hethellean weapon negated the magic, the wind faltering, and Cid charging…

 

Far off Elmira was watching in horror, the plan failing miserably, Brunick down and bleeding. She saw Olexion abandoning her side, jumping from the ridge and rolling to break his fall, and then ran full tilt with his sword and shield to assist.

Vanapha could not wait another moment. The choice was weighed and she found it better to wound Cid than have Lidayel killed. She knew Alex would never make the choice so she let loose the arrow on a collision course with a moving target. Lidayel was backing away in fear when he saw Cid go down miraculously with an arrow through his upper left leg. Cid moaned, struggling. Lidayel steeled himself and ran forward to make contact, hand reaching.

The Colonel though was far from defeated, stopping Lidayel dead in his tracks as he swung Mindevhier threateningly. Lidayel had no choice but to back off once more.

Cid saw Olexion approaching and his flight instincts took over. Painfully he wrenched himself upright and it took him but three steps to get his leg working again. Inhumanly he ran across the sands, past Brunick and toward the mines. Olexion made no show of stopping the pursuit.

‘Come along Summoner!’ he shouted over his shoulder.

Elmira watched the scene drift away toward the mine entrance. Her nerves were killing her. She herself made way and it was then that one of the Rangers grabbed her by the arm.

‘It is dangerous lady, you cannot follow!’ spoke the man harshly.

Elmira had no time to listen and raked at the man’s face. He yelped in surprise and Elmira broke free to follow. She bounded from the height, falling hard in a roll, imitating Olexion as best she could. Nonetheless she got back up quickly to sprint toward the mine. Never before in her life did she run faster, her causal leggings and shirt allowing her athletic legs every inch of motion they could muster.

‘We should follow,’ said Alex morbidly as Vanapha already hurdled herself from the ridge. They ran side by side.

Brunick got up again, drowsy, but pushed himself so that he wasn’t far behind. At the entrance Brunick realized the Rangers were coming along to help their Captain. He halted to instruct.

‘Hold up lads, Cid might try and lose our trail and escape. You bunch wait right here and tackle him if he comes up, all right?’

 

 

The path down was well lit, lanterns hanging brightly, signs of recent excavation laying new suspicions in Olexion’s mind. It was however the least of their problems for now. They should not have been forced to this and not a moment passed where the Ranger did not doubt the wisdom of following Cid here.

Olexion and Lidayel came into the first great cavern; no sign of him yet.

He heard shuffling feet and as he turned he could not warn Lidayel soon enough. Cid emerged from the darkness of a tunnel and struck out with the butt of his spear to knock Lidayel on the backside of the head. The Summoner went down instantly. From his back and waist Olexion branded his shield and sword again, with no need to beckon, as Cid approached.

 

***

 

Elmira entered the dark and murk of the mine long abandoned. She flew into the passageways, not really knowing where she was going, realizing her fervour might see her lost in this maze.

There it was! Clashing weapons! Olexion evidently had already caught up. She followed the noise, manoeuvring cautiously despite her haste as the jagged rock floor made for a treacherous footing. There were signs of recent excavation as fresh lanterns became more prominent the closer she moved to the sound. She then came to the central cavern where the tunnels converged, a vaulted ceiling supported by timbers and lit up with dozens of lanterns suspended by pegs and chains.

In the centre, a spear striking a shield, was Cid and Olexion.

Elmira approached, her legs feeling weak. They were fighting without restraint, Olexion using his round steel-plated shield to stave off the attacks and Cid himself using his skill with spear alone to keep Olexion from nicking him.

Elmira had no idea what his initial intentions had been when he decided to follow Cid, but for now she could see an emotionless Olexion struggling frantically with his opponent. If Olexion let up for even a second Cid would kill him, and Elmira now knew that Olexion in turn would do anything if his survival depended on it.

Of course, he’s a Ranger. Cid’s just a soldier; an expendable.

Elmira could not allow it. She waited… and then saw it.

Cid parried Olexion’s sword and kicked hard at his raised shield, driving the Ranger back, Olexion struggling to find his footing as his heel struck rock. This was how Cid created space and with it he could lunge with his spear.

He never got to it. Elmira flung herself blindly into the fray, her heart pounding as she waited to be skewered, dimly aware that Olexion had stumbled behind her.

Cid stopped in mid motion, his drive to kill subsiding at the sight of distress on Elmira’s face. A torrent of recognition came through his enclosed mind. For a moment again it seemed as if he was gaining control, the signs favourable

Then it too subsided. He made a sudden cut, yet Elmira was ready as she leapt backwards. He pursued.

‘It’s me Cid, its Elmira!’ she cried, her feet shuffling backwards.

Cid missed another stab, tearing at her shirt, splitting her skin, but nothing more than that, his accuracy dampened by the battle inside.

Elmira found herself backed to the chamber wall, her hands touching cold rock. Cid came up and raised his spear to her throat, her tears dripping onto the blade. All it took was for him to straighten his arm and slide the edge cleanly through her neck.

Elmira could find nothing in his eyes. ‘I love you Cid…’ she pleaded.

On the ground Olexion could not get there soon enough and he hesitated to approach, unwilling to risk testing Cid’s response. He was just too far away…

The story sickened his stomach. The soldier who warred to deserve his woman… and ends up killing her. She saved my life and now she will pay with hers.

It never came. It never happened. Instead Elmira watched as Cid’s eyes gradually locked into hers, not just looking at her vaguely, but rather searching her face, almost at the point of recognition.

For the third time Cid remained as still as a statue, as though a great internal struggle had left the command of his body to no one.

Moments passed by painfully, Elmira noticing Cid’s breathing slowing down, his bearing slightly less threatening and small muscles on his body quivering.

Elmira raised her hand, gently brushing away the spear from her throat. Cid did nothing still. Almost recklessly she curled her arms around Cid’s neck, her face pressed against his bloody chest.

There was no recognition, no tender response, neither was there any violence. Just nothing. She sobbed heartbrokenly, clinging onto the shell of the man she once knew.

Olexion dared not make any sudden move, lest Cid be sent into a death drive again. He studied Cid. Somehow, someway, he had managed to prohibit himself from killing Elmira. He turned to look at Lidayel where he laid face down.

He didn’t kill the Summoner either! Olexion realized. He’s winning!

Yet it was no less Elmira that stayed his hand. Olexion could barely believe the courage of this girl and could not fathom how Cid’s love for her could be so immense to override the Priest’s corruption. Olexion had never seen anything like it before, neither had he expected to.

Alex, Brunick and Vanapha made their way into the chamber, their presence preceded by their footfalls.

They were equally shocked to see Elmira in a one-sided embrace with Cid, as Cid held his spear loosely in his right hand, looking dully at the cavern wall. They assessed the situation.

Plan Abraham’s?’ suggested Alex

Plan Abraham’s!’ agreed Brunick, as the big man already started sneaking up on an oblivious Cid.

‘What is a plan Abraham’s?’ asked Vanapha, eager to know her role.

‘It merely suggests that each man does what he thinks is the best possible solution to the current problem.’

That’s not a plan!’ hissed Vanapha.

‘It is if it works,’ said Alex, notching an arrow.

Vanapha was aghast and would have scorned the man if the situation allowed it.

‘So what are you going to do?’ said Vanapha in a harsh whisper.

‘Give Brunick a moment’s distraction so that he can lock onto Cid, I don’t know how though,’ Alex looked at Lidayel, his figure unmoving at one of the tunnel entrances. He could only imagine what had happened, but saw enough to know he wasn’t hurt too badly. No wounds, maybe just a hard blow to the head.

‘We’re going to need Lidayel, can you use your Insight to try and wake him? You know, like go inside his head and shake things up?’ asked Alex.

‘I’m on it,’ said Vanapha, creeping along the chamber wall toward Lidayel’s body. None of them wanted to give Cid any reason to go into a frenzy again.

Olexion merely sat on his haunches, studying the situation carefully, also content to remain motionless as the others appeared to have a plan. He would help if he got the chance, prioritizing getting Elmira out of the way.

Brunick was halfway toward Cid now and glanced nervously back at Alex. Alex nodded encouragingly even though he did not have any idea of what he was going to do yet. Alex tensed, realizing that within a few steps Cid would detect Brunick and attack again. Somehow Elmira’s touch was keeping him docile, but for how long?

Should I shoot to miss? No that won’t work…

Shoot him? It is for his own good… No, these arrows pierce, I’ll end up wounding Elmira.

Alex’s eyes drifted around the cavern, registering that Vanapha was already attending to Lidayel.

There!

The cavern boasted heavy oil lanterns. Alex knew then what he should do. Brunick had slowed his stalking, waiting for whatever Alex had in store. One of these lanterns was suspended by a small chain just five feet above Cid’s head.

It was hard to judge, yet Alex was sure the Lantern would not fall directly on either Cid or Elmira. Just a distraction.

Elmira watched with angst over Cid’s shoulder, her heartbeat racing and hoping Cid would not pick up on her arousal. She became rigid as she watched Alex aim at the roof and Brunick closing in on Cid.

Alex fired, the twang of the bow piercing the cavern silence and the arrow neatly clipping the chain.

At the last second Elmira slipped from her embrace with Cid and ran to Olexion. The lantern crashed, its oil reserves bursting into a surge of flame. It happened so near where Elmira had stood that her clothes would surely have caught fire.

Cid himself was almost caught by the blaze, rather his white eyes exploded with pain at the sudden light. Even Brunick had to quash the urge to shield his eyes for an instant as he rushed forward. The moment Cid shielded his eyes was all Brunick ever needed. From behind Brunick’s big arms slipped underneath Cid’s arms and locked his hands behind his neck. Cid screamed violently, dropping Mindevhier, twisting and struggling like a captured animal to escape Brunick’s grasp.

Brunick though demonstrated his strength as he subdued Cid even with a wounded arm and leg, countering every attempt the man made to escape. Elmira watched with apprehension, yet feeling for the first time that the cause was not lost.

Vanapha entered Lidayel’s mind. She almost lost consciousness as she encountered one of the strangest mazes of mental activity she had ever touched. Lidayel’s mind was immense, and very dark. Only in one spot did she find the small entity that compromised the Lidayel they knew. She tugged until she could see response.

Lidayel, wake up!’

It was a command, not a request.

Vanapha pulled back as Lidayel regained consciousness. Vanapha helped him sit upright and pointed feverishly at something. Lidayel started seeing coherently again and realized he was staring at Brunick; his lock on Cid had driven the exhausted and wounded Colonel to his knees. In his face Brunick himself looked ready to collapse.

‘You have to heal Cid, now!’ shouted Vanapha, unsure whether the Summoner was wholly with them yet.

Lidayel nodded, knowing what was at stake. He rose bravely, his feet barely aligning correctly. Olexion stood closer, walking by Lidayel’s side. They stopped in front of the kneeling Cid. Olexion kept his hand on his blade, ready for anything.

Steeling himself Lidayel reached out and touched Cid’s forehead. He screamed and a gush of bloody foam seeped from the corners of his mouth. Lidayel worked his magicks, tentatively forcing himself into Cid’s mind almost like Vanapha did with him just moments ago.

It wasn’t difficult to discover the corruption; it was everywhere, like a mirror image of the Colonel in a great struggle with the real Cid. It told of what Lidayel had explained; the procedure could prove fatal to the victim, as the taint proved almost inseparable from Cid’s faculties. There was hope however; he was a fresh victim, and what’s more he was fighting his way through the madness because of Elmira’s presence.

In any case Lidayel struggled with the corruption as it rooted itself deeply, its obstinacy weakening the Summoner.

Olexion realized that Lidayel was losing and beckoned Elmira. Lidayel drew his hand back, breathing heavily as rounded sweat drops trickled down his face. Unhesitant she walked up and then slowly she continued to sit down on her legs, her knees almost touching Cid’s. She reached out to caress his face.

Again he seemed to calm, his resistance against Brunick withering and his head coming to rest as though he cherished Elmira’s touch.

‘I’m here Cid, I’ve come for you. I’ve waited for you. We meet each other in the middle, right Cid? Come on, I need you…’

Olexion watched intently.

‘Now Lidayel, give it everything you got!’ said Olexion as Cid came to an impasse. Elmira drew back again as Lidayel slammed his palm across Cid’s forehead. Cid made indications of struggling again but this time Lidayel’s onslaught rendered the corruption helpless, accepting as much help from the Colonel’s intact mind as he could.

The rest looked on muted as Lidayel’s face was the only indication of what was happening. Finally Lidayel let go, a look of clear relief evident as Cid’s head slumped. Brunick laid him down gently.

Olexion hunched and lifted Cid’s eyelid, the hazel of his iris returned.

‘It’s done,’ panted Lidayel, ‘he is healed,’ he continued, the Summoner looking ready to faint again.

Elmira wanted to sit by Cid’s side but Olexion interrupted her.

‘Let’s first get out of here, if someone else catches us in here then we’ll be sitting ducks. We are clearly not the only ones who know of this place.’

Brunick flung Cid over his shoulder like he was a sleeping child and the party made a slow ascension to the surface. Lidayel brought the rear and the Summoner did not speak as a growing horror was returning to his thoughts, estranged memories catching up with reality.

Chapter 43

Lights on the Mountain

 

 

Brunick found some well-deserved peace nurturing the fire in the pit behind Oldeloft. He was patched up and healed, much thanks to Lidayel, his muscles tender and sore. All the while he read from his booklet, finding solace in his brethren’s teachings. He knew it was far from over, that Lanston was still in danger, but somehow with Cid back it all seemed alright.

Brunick was not a man who doubted himself, but years fighting next to Cid had made him understand that the Colonel gave him much needed direction, a voice of reason in battle that Brunick valued as much as his own instincts.

It wasn’t just him either. Brunick knew whatever chance Lanston could hope to have would come from Cid. Both himself and Alex were good loyal soldiers, but even if they did had the means to warn Lanston they simply did not possess the acumen to guide them to survival.

No, Cid was needed, and Brunick was, as he knew Elmira would be, selfishly grateful that their best friend was alive and well above all else. Brunick quashed then the urge to check up on the man, knowing he was sleeping and that Elmira was at his side – and would be until he woke up.

‘Mind if I sit?’ asked Vanapha, coming from nowhere.

‘’Course not’ said Brunick, shifting his weight and putting his book aside, ‘what does your stars say, are things making a turn for the better?’

Vanapha smiled. ‘The heavens has changed much this last month, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen so many moons surface at one time. You might not see it right now, but soon Loikana will appear as well. To answer your question I cannot glean favour or hardship from the moons, only the onset; the truth of change is revealed in the heavens, the truth of outcome is decided by man.

‘I was looking at the moons myself. Our teachings also talk a lot about the skies. I don’t read much into it though, it’s better to sometimes just look at it. The sky is beautiful out here in the middle of nowhere, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, the landscape here is much like our sisterhood’s desert.’

‘I have been meaning to ask you for some time now; do you ever allow men to your home? To Rade’Remar? Cause last I heard you guys were warring against some pirates and their stories always claim that no one man ever sets foot in your stronghold,’ said Brunick.

Vanapha grinned in amusement. ‘No, there are exceptions and a little more than you might think. If we ever get out of this forsaken land I would welcome a visit from yourself, Cid and Alex anytime.’

‘Good to know,’ smiled Brunick, ‘where is Alex by the way?’

‘He’s taking a lying down. He didn’t show it much but I think he was as worried as you were. I guess everyone is tired though,’ said Vanapha.

Brunick grunted. ‘Lidayel was here earlier on, sitting here with me. He seemed occupied – and distant. I was busy speaking with him when he just took off down the mountain trail, haven’t seen him since.’

Vanapha seemed thoughtful.

‘When I looked into his mind I saw a lot of troubled thoughts tied up. We should give him space, his memories are returning rapidly now and I would think that even the slightest bad recollection could be daunting if remembered out of context,’ said Vanapha.

‘He’s been great though, he saved us a few times now with his magic, and with Cid he was the only person I know of who could save a fallen,’ said Brunick, ‘things have been rough, but we have a lot to be grateful for.’

‘Do you think it’s… I mean, all of us, is an accident?’ asked Vanapha

Brunick laughed, waving his little book. ‘I’m a Mason, we rarely believe in accidents, and neither does your kind, right?’

‘Well, we Valkyrie believe in leniency, that the world can always go in one direction or the other, but what I do see right now is a unique group of warriors gathered on the precipice of war, a group that can determine its outcome.

Brunick nodded. ‘I’ve had my talk with Olexion and I’ve followed Cid and Lidayel’s stories enough to know that Bennam had a hand in how we all came together. I can’t say I’m not mad, I don’t like being used, not by anyone.

‘That’s maybe why I follow Cid without a second thought; I know the man carries the soldiers’ best interests always. But then I guess I trusted the old Commander like that as well. I can only assume he had put us n this path for a reason. We have to follow it through to the end.’

‘I’ve met Bennam before; he didn’t strike me as reckless,’ said Vanapha.

‘We knew him in that way as well, but I think we were ignorant of what Bennam was involved in, especially at the end – Vanapha we’ve got trouble!’ said Brunick, jumping up.

The peak of Hashur had been a shadowy statue till now, as it suddenly lit up with scattered lights, moving rapidly, dimming and brightening as though whoever was carrying it was trying at a stealthy descent.

‘Hold on Mason,’ said Vanapha, already sure of what she was looking at as she sent out her Sight to confirm. Her vision was nothing but a dark blur until she focused on the lights.

Vanapha laughed lightly, ‘sit down Brunick, those are Tsuraugi , sun lizards.’

It seemed to take Brunick a while to shake his tension, ambling back to his seat.

‘Oh, right. I’ve heard of them,’ he said as he sat back down. He scratched his beard, smiling as he looked at the lights moving around the very peak of the mountain. ‘Have you seen them before then?’ he asked.

‘We have them on Rade’Remar, and we often use their scales in our potions. They are curious creatures and rather docile. They have a nasty bite though, not venomous, but nasty.’

‘How do those scales of them work?’ asked Brunick, ‘do they really catch the sun?’

‘Yes, their scales are developed to absorb and store sunlight. They live in large communities which is unusual for reptiles. During the day they keep high out in the sun for a few hours and then hide away in holes or caves to avoid the eagles. Their scales keep them warm in the dark and they also use the light during the night to lure insects to eat. I would guess that the scales serve as a mating attraction as well. They are a very successful species because of it all.’

‘Incredible, what do you use their scales for?’ asked Brunick.

‘Many things, we often draw on them to create Trisera, fire potion, which we harness as a weapon against marauding pirate ships. The effect is quite dramatic as you can imagine.’

‘Ha, I would like to see that,’ said Brunick laughingly.

‘You know, you’ve given me an interesting idea, I might just see if I can get some of those scales by tomorrow,’ said Vanapha, looking at the lights.

‘To do what?’ asked Brunick.

‘I found a small laboratory workshop in the building’s basement, with a few scales I can create a weapon, one we might need before we’re done.’

‘Yeah… we’re going to need a lot of good things,’ said Brunick, thoughtfully touching his axe at his feet.

Chapter 44

Madness

 

 

Lidayel wandered aimlessly all around the Basin’s rim, his thoughts caught up in a circle much like the path his feet followed. He was alone then, a ways from Oldeloft, and right now he had no stomach for company.

How could I have been such a fool?

None of his surroundings registered, the sounds of the day lost on him as well. He was introspecting, fitting memories together that had been part of a long and disturbing life. Years of terrible pain descended on him. The worst of it all was the ignorance; having falsely believed that Yarea could be his. He felt betrayed from all sides:

The Kingdom, for making him forget.

His brother, for being the man Yarea loved.

And his own mind, broken and defeated, beyond repair.

Only the idea of Yarea remained untainted, and even as he considered it he realized he failed her; he failed to keep safe the only person he still cared for.

He had powers any King would be jealous off, yet he did not command the affections from the one he loved. Even if he did free her from her capture it would change little, he would still be better off in the solace of forgetting.

He found his hands shaking, smoke and vapour churning from them as though his magic had a mind of its own. He felt his body growing warm, everything around him starting to shimmer.

Lidayel looked down at the Basin. He was beyond anguish, beyond rational thought, every day of failure coming back to haunt him on this day. There was no respite, no slow process of working through it. Just everything re-emerging at a single moment.

I will have none of it anymore; this day will end with me. I will tear this land asunder!

Chapter 45

Recovery

 

 

Olexion watched the land below with Oel Dannel at his side, from the shoulder of the mountain where Oldeloft stood. Time and again the Rangers found themselves in the most dangerous of situations and it was one way or another the stuff would-be adventurers boasted about in taverns, often borrowing upon tales of the Rangers to supplement their own accomplishments.

It was inevitable these expeditions, as the nature of their calling required them to often face world-crisis, both overt and subtle in approach. Olexion had to admit that the circumstances he found himself in currently were rather unprecedented.

He looked down at the Basin and its newly acquired appearance, a lake with no name. The land seemed much softer, and surprisingly, greener, as confounded wild grasses and moss made a resurgence after being dormant for who knew how long. It wasn’t that long ago that Olexion had been here at Oldeloft on another mission, and back then the land had been its usual dry self. To be sure it all looked alien to him now and from it he recounted the magnitude of Lidayel’s magic and what it meant for Lanston.

The water however wasn’t holding well and would clear up soon enough. There was good reason why the Basin wasn’t a regular lake, as it had too many leaks like the pass trails or some of the old mine holes, and no sated soil to start off with in the first place. It simply stalled the horror that laid beyond it at Jacanta point, it wouldn’t prevent it. Somewhere, just on the other side of those northern hills, lurked one of the greatest Fallen forces ever assembled, on a collision course with a Lanston army not prepared for its prowess.

For the moment though Olexion was more intrigued by the company he found himself with, not one to linger on things he couldn’t change. He turned away from his spot on the edge of the cliff, leading his Volje back to the nook of Oldeloft. Olexion had assigned the Rangers to keep watch over the valley and rightly so, for the rest of the party was resting heartily, compensating for recent events.

Elmira, even though she had endured much more than she was conditioned for and deserved rest herself, was attending to Cid day and night. Cid was in the worst shape, the process of alleviating the corruption not helping his already exhausted body and mind. Lidayel wasn’t much better off. He had spent much of the last two days healing the party, using the reserves of his power to patch up Brunick and Cid who both suffered numerous wounds that would kill if left unattended. Alex and Vanapha at least were unscathed.

Olexion in the meanwhile had grown worried about Lidayel, as the mage had taken to an increasingly brooding mood since healing Cid, not speaking more than a few words at a time. Olexion had his suspicions, mainly wondering whether fighting the corruption in Cid’s mind had influenced Lidayel somehow.

 

 

Cid woke…

…and twitched as he struggled to sit upright. He wanted to reach out and kill unseen enemies, phantoms who had no face or origin. But something has changed, his clearing consciousness confused at the urge of impulses.

‘Easy now,’ he heard a female voice, as delicate hands pressed down on his chest. Thereafter came a host of other sensations, convincing him he was lying on a soft bed. Cid thought himself delusional, figuring his mind was trying to protect him by dreaming of a place he would like to be more than anywhere else in the world.

Cid…?’ queried Elmira.

It can’t be…

‘Cid, are you awake?’

He pried his eyes open, the fog lifting. Hovering above him was Elmira, her face a mask of concern. They seemed to be in a stone house, which made no sense and made Cid wonder again if he was dreaming.

‘You’re here…’ breathed Cid, reaching up to touch her face.

‘I am,’ said Elmira her countenance lightening up as the man she loved woke up from a fate worse than death.

‘Help me sit upright,’ he urged.

Elmira did so, but Cid soon felt himself go limp, his body cramping, and took to laying down again. Elmira ran her fingers down his chest where his muscles used to be strong.

‘You got so thin,’ said Elmira worryingly, ‘the moment I get you home I’m going to prepare meals for you non-stop for a week.’

Cid struggled to laugh, chuckling hoarsely. ‘I would like that very much, we’ve been on the run for days on end and I haven’t had a proper sit down meal since Taverka.’

Despite the pain and discomfort Cid found a feverish happiness at Elmira’s presence. He did not know how she got here, or even where they were, but as always his moments with her transcended the worries of war.

‘Then I’m dragging you to a barber, you look ridiculous with this,’ said Elmira pointing to his beard.

‘And I don’t think I’ve ever seen you as dirty as you are now,’ retorted Cid with a smile.

It was a truth not worth debating about, but even so Elmira was taken aback.

‘I came here for you, and save you, and you tell me I’m… I’m filthy,’ scorned Elmira.

‘You’re still very pretty,’ said Cid, smoothing over.

Elmira narrowed her eyes.

‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.

‘Smile for me,’ interjected Cid.

‘Cid I-’

‘Just smile.’

She couldn’t help it, the corners of her mouth curling into a smile, but there was a weariness to her face otherwise.

There, now I’m much better,’ said Cid

Elmira wasn’t all that interested in Cid’s antics; she couldn’t pretend that nothing happened and that they were just supposed to forget about it all. She laid her head down on his chest.

‘I was so afraid I’d lost you,’ she said softly, pinching back a well of emotion that had haunted her.

‘Do you want to cry a little?’ asked Cid softly, almost feeling her distress.

Elmira nodded, soon sobbing. Weakly Cid raised his arm, cradling the woman. ‘I am sorry… so sorry you had to go through this. I’m sorry that me being a soldier is dragging you into this mess.’

‘Fool, I dragged myself into this,’ said Elmira

Cid watched her face, lazy tears coming from her closed eyes.

‘Are you still determined to marry me?’ he asked.

Elmira sat bolt upright again, ‘look,’ she said, showing Cid the ring on her finger. Elmira knew she had to tell Cid about her arrangement with Fredrere at some stage or another, right now however she could not find the courage.

Cid formed a lingering smile, taking her hand. ‘If you have any doubt on the matter then I’m saying this; I’m in this war for you, I’m out here to win your hand, nothing else,’ he said.

Elmira laughed weakly.

‘What is it?’ asked Cid.

‘I just thought, well… seems you and Brunick are slipping, you know, me having to come and save you and all.’

Cid chuckled, his body reacting with a fit of weakness and pain again.

Elmira noticed. ‘Rest now soldier, I’ll be here when you wake up again.’

She barely finished her sentence when Cid fell into slumber, the man still not sure whether he had just been dreaming or not.

 

 

Later that day.

Olexion and the men scouted the skies and came to land at Oldeloft’s hold again. They were grave to say the least. The water in the Basin did not hold long under an unperturbed sun, its heat already burning away the vain attempt of the moss to flourish in the wet. They were not alone in noticing this, as both of the armies were on the move again, drawing ever closer to each other.

‘Sir, should we not make contact with Lanston’s command? To try and stop them?’ asked Parvel.

‘I would like to, but Stelinger is fully aware of what he is doing. I don’t know how he will respond to us.’

‘Certainly he wouldn’t attack us Rangers?’ stated Troas.

‘I’m not sure on that, he’s already sealed his fate within the Kingdom, and remember; he wants Lanston to be crushed. If we try and interfere he’ll have his way with us.’

‘So do we leave Lanston to their fate?’ asked Valan.

‘No, we will not abandon these soldiers to Stelinger’s treachery. Tomorrow when the armies make contact, we will assist – by then Stelinger would have left the army proximity. And…’ Olexion’s voice trailed, looking over to Oldeloft.

‘What is it sir?’

‘I pray that Cid makes a full recovery by then. If he can take command and we can attack from the skies… and with the help of Vanapha… and the Summoner. We’ll have a chance then.’

There was silence for a moment as each of the Rangers pondered, until one of them mumbled, his gaze fixed to something down in the Basin.

‘Sir, what do you suppose the Summoner is doing?’ asked Troas.

Olexion took his eyes from the north and looked into the Basin again. This time a figure was slowly walking through the water, unhurried and in tune with the valley’s temporary peace, yet the act itself was greatly worrying. He was already halfway to what could be called the centre.

‘That’s Lidayel,’ said Olexion, as though he had to convince himself.

Olexion could have come off as paranoid, but he’d spent enough time with Summoners to know that being made to forget could result in dire consequences. And now, from what he’d suspected before, he had no doubt that Lidayel had slipped.

Yet the First Ranger stood, staring at the Summoner, as though he was sure that this couldn’t be happening. Not something like this. Not now.

Down below Lidayel raised his arms, spreading them. Olexion’s fear came to life.

 

 

Cid and Elmira were talking in Oldeloft, sitting on the bed. Elmira had taken time to explain her situation with Fredrere. She came to realize that Cid was holding back, his face a taut mask hiding rage and shock.

Elmira thought quickly and rather dived into another important topic; the entirety of that which she and Olexion had discussed in Lanston. Somehow Elmira was the last person Cid ever expected to share Bennam’s conspiracy with. It bothered him, and after some thought he realized that he wanted Elmira far away from these matters, completely separated from the life Cid would sometimes be occupied with. He nonetheless listened intently, unsurprised to find no flaw in her logic or understanding. He had always appreciated her of his world.

The story itself was one surprise after the other, Cid somewhat in disbelieve that Bennam could have gone to such lengths. Afterwards Cid was turning the Alder stone over in his hands.

‘We’re supposed to give this to Lidayel?’

Elmira nodded. ‘Olexion seems to think so.’

‘All his memories, in this jewel? Unbelievable. His entire life held in a stone…Bennam, what on earth were you up to?’ said Cid to the air. ‘Why did you keep me in the dark?’

‘He knows you like I do,’ suggested Elmira, ‘if he warned you prematurely you would not have been able to keep face in front of Stelinger. Besides, he was being watched by Piatil, I never trusted that little man.’

Cid grunted.

‘Whatever it was, I would think Bennam had our best interests-’

‘How can you say that!?’ said Cid angrily, frustration finally surfacing.

Elmira blinked in surprise.

‘He made Stelinger Commander! He sanctioned a war we are now likely to lose! He manipulated you, me, Vanapha and Lidayel!’ said Cid.

Don’t shout at me Cid!’ said Elmira.

‘I-’

Remember, whatever Bennam was doing, whatever he was planning, it haunted him so much, and was so important that he willingly died to set up all of this. Who knows Cid, maybe he knew something, for all we know he might’ve been trying to save the Kingdom. And do you know what? I visited Rebecca when the news came to Lanston that he was dead. Do you know what she said?’

Cid gaped, Elmira not giving him chance.

She admitted to me that Bennam considered you as a son, that you were an idea of what he was trying to achieve with the army. As it is Rebecca told me that they were preoccupied with our happiness Cid, that she was dealing with Bennam’s death by hoping for the best for us!’ she said, turning her head away.

‘Elmira, I’m… I’m sor-’

Cid never got to his apology. The room door burst open, Alex and Brunick crossing the threshold like conjoined twins.

Cid! If you can get up I’d suggest you come quick,’ Brunick managed to say first. Cid and Elmira found their feet, Cid doing so tentatively. A telltale on Brunick’s face worried Cid, motioning that it either got to do with heights or…

What is it!?

‘It’s Lidayel, he‘s down in the Basin. I dunno what the hell he thinks he’s doing but it sure isn’t looking good!’

Cid gave the stone back to Elmira, while she pleaded with him to consider his condition. He escaped her warning and without a further word Cid ran from the building, knowing he would have to see for himself. He was barely outside when the shockwave hit the mountain, fine dirt dancing as it made obscene waves across the landscape.

They stopped in their tracks, Cid shooting a questioning look at Brunick.

That’s Lidayel all right.’

‘See if you can get hold of Vanapha, we might need her. I’ll go down and ask him what’s going on. He might’ve lost control of his power like he feared.’

‘Be careful Cid,’ grumbled Brunick, turning and charging uphill after Alex to find Vanapha.

 

 

Vanapha bounded gracefully to the next rock, a satchel tied across her shoulder and rested on her hip, her bow left at Oldeloft. Even above Oldeloft Mount Hashur kept its rounded nature, creating natural scaffoldings and walkways of rock. Up here they were actually a bit narrow for human use, but Vanapha was no stranger to treacherous elevations, the golden wastes of Rade’Remar having similar projections.

The grey lizard scrambled at the impact of Vanapha’s boots, vanishing into the many cavities of the rock constellations. She had seen a few of the creatures by now, but only one of them was mature enough to have the fire scales. Without it they looked quite normal, their scales uniformly flat and grey.

The ones that did catch the sun were bright and bloated, their scales appearing as yellow studs randomly placed among the grey ones.

Frustrated at the chase Vanapha realized they were smaller here than on Rade’Remar. A difference in diet maybe?

To the point it would have been easier to shot one of them and poach the scales. Vanapha knew though that they were already hunted all over the world for their alchemical uses and thinning their numbers unnecessarily wasn’t something she was going to take up for convenience sake.

She would have her way though, for the creatures had an odd way of being reckless, which is maybe why they stayed up here where the eagles could catch them in the first place. Even after Vanapha had frightened them, some of the lizards came back to the surface, planting themselves on a flat table of rock to catch the sun.

Vanapha made a full revolution around the base of the peak, seeing her friends of only a moment ago reappearing. One of them, seemingly somewhat larger than the others, was already studded with bright yellow. It would not stay long until it was satisfied it had enough sun for days to come.

Watching them crawling tentatively to get a better spot, Vanapha hunkered down in silence, allowing them a false sense of safety.

Finding the moment had come she approached quietly for the next few steps and then burst into a run, leaping again and clearing the gap. Her thudding boots stirred a panic once more, but this time they did not find their way fast enough.

Ignoring the pale ones underfoot Vanapha grabbed her prey by the tail. Hissing and twitching she brought it up, holding it far out so that she could avoid that bite. Taking her knife from the pouch she waited for the creature to surrender and stop its spasms. The flailing exhausted it eventually and Vanapha, as gently as she could, slid the knife in underneath the bloated scales, prying them loose.

The creature slowed down to a periodical hiss, almost as though to remind Vanapha that it was being defiant. She knew it hardly felt the knife, probably more pissed off than anything for losing its efforts of spending a day in the sun.

Seven scales she pried loose, letting them drop at her feet. Satisfied, Vanapha swung the lizard slightly, wary of its bite, and let it go, allowing it to fall harmlessly onto the dust trails circumventing the rocks. On its own feet again the lizard scurried for its tiny cave, hissing furiously.

Smiling, Vanapha picked up the scales, putting them into the satchel. They were hot to the touch, but not enough to inflict any harm. The scales isolated from the lizard’s body looked fragile as they appeared as nothing but a thin membrane enclosed on a swirling globule of fire trying to escape, like a translucent peach seed glowing from the inside. Using her Insight she focused on the encapsulated flame, its slow churning hypnotizing as she blocked out every other sense.

A tremor hit the mountain, the sudden disturbance enough to scare all the lizards into hiding. Vanapha almost lost her footing, her Sights instinctively peering into all directions. She frowned as she saw a man down in the Basin, the water up to his waist. A moment later she saw Alex and Brunick waving at her some way down. Alerted, she started to make her way down, sure that she would have to get her bow from Oldeloft.

Chapter 46

Calamity

 

Whatever restraint or limitation Lidayel might’ve had before it was all gone now. He was standing with his arms spread over his head, his fingers and hands the epicentre of a great aura of light. He was bathed in a sphere of steam and a halo of fire revolved above him, circling itself like a giant serpent. At his command the earth rocked, sending tremors far beyond both Jacanta to the north and the narrows to the south. This was why Summoners were feared, why they were hated enough to inspire hunts, persecution and murder.

Cid was wading toward him, the growing heat of the water putting a scare into the Colonel. As the distance closed an angry wind became known to Cid, strong enough to halt him.

Lidayel! What are you doing!?’ shouted Cid over the howl of the wind.

Cid was sure the Summoner could not hear him, but to his surprise Lidayel removed his stare from the heavens and locked it onto Cid’s.

There was madness about him, it was clear enough to see. He didn’t respond to Cid, his face tight, his eyes raging.

‘Lidayel have you lost your mind!?’ Cid yelled at top of the lungs.

Still no response other than a murderous stare.

Damn it!’ shouted Cid, retreating a hundred yards back to the trail as the knee deep water started to burn at his legs.

Cid converged with the party, all of them huffing from the quick descent.

‘He isn’t in his right mind!’ lamented Cid.

‘If he keeps this up he’ll create a landslide, we have no trouble where we stand, but the entire Lanston army is still in the narrows and will be buried underneath a mountain of rocks!’ said Olexion.

Cid tried to weigh the costs carefully, but he found the choice eerily easy to make, nodding at Vanapha.

For the second time in days Vanapha readied to shoot at a friend. The arrow flew, destined to hit his midriff, piercing the veil of steam. It was about to struck Lidayel when the halo of fire surrounding him lashed out like a guardian and incinerated the shaft instantly, only to continue its spiralling path.

In response, Lidayel’s magic intensified, sending stronger tremors still, and the peaks and cliff faces of the land around crumbled as the weakest of the rocks started tumbling. The Summoner didn’t leave it at that, as soon the entire expanse of water in the Basin became a giant cauldron of steam, so thick that they could barely see Lidayel and his halo.

‘This is a pointless vantage. We’ll have to attack him from the air,’ said Olexion. ‘Valkyrie, come with me!’

They ran up the trail, disappearing to Oldeloft where the Volje were kept.

Cid turned to Alex, ‘go back to Oldeloft with them, I am too weak still to run the distance uphill, bring me Mindevhier and make sure you keep Elmira locked inside, she must not leave the house!’

Alex nodded and was on his way without question.

‘What do you think we should do?’ asked Brunick apprehensively.

‘Hope Lidayel comes to his senses before we have to kill him,’ answered Cid soberly.

 

Olexion assembled the Rangers at Oldeloft, the Volje soon taking to the air, Vanapha mounted right behind the Ranger. Vanapha had never before experienced anything quite like this, revelling in the sensation of flight despite their situation.

‘I am going to fly in sideways so that you can have a clear shot,’ shouted Olexion.

They floated high, the heat from below creating such strong convection that the Volje struggled to close in.

Hold on!’ cried Olexion, using his magic to drive through the steam and the convection. Olexion suddenly banked and Vanapha saw her shot. She released again, the arrow diving like a bird and struck Lidayel in the hip. The Summoner cringed, but kept to his feet, taking the pain, his magic raging once more. Reactively Lidayel called upon his halo of fire and it breathed great lengths of flame into the sky at the Rangers.

Olexion instinctually braced and created a barrier around him and Vanapha, the flames folding fearsomely around the sphere of Calophrites before relenting.

They were unscathed, for now. Olexion knew though Lidayel’s power would soon become overwhelming.

Down below Cid tampered with his spear. Alex had run furiously to return within minutes with his weapon.

‘You still have the wings?’ asked Cid urgently.

Without answer Alex took them from his holster on his back and handed them to Cid. Alex looked grave. They had real trouble.

Looking up, Cid saw Vanapha’s arrow hit Lidayel, and in reaction a shockwave so great hit the canyon that Cid lost his footing momentarily. Alex helped up the weak-legged Colonel.

Cursing, Cid set to work on Mindevhier, adding the ornamental wings, a thing he thought he would never do. Right now however he knew that no weapon other than Mindevhier would work. He proceeded into the waters again. Vanapha’s attack might have angered Lidayel, but with his focus broken the wall of steam that had masked him was dissipating. The tremors in the meanwhile were getting worse.

Enraged Lidayel held fast his magic, the Basin an absurd display of the elements. Cid was able to approach, the spear held in his hands. Ideally Mindevhier was never crafted to be a throwing weapon, but Cid knew his skill with javelins would not fail him. On the other hand, he would have one go at it.

The Rangers continually tried to get closer, eager to have one of their numbers strike unharnessed. Yet Lidayel attacked without relent, throwing streaks of fire into the sky, mercilessly trying to incinerate them, the barriers just holding and ultimately pushing the Rangers away again. That last blast, almost knocked Olexion and Vanapha out of the sky.

It was then that Cid knew there was no other choice; he could no longer prioritize Lidayel. The water deepened and he kept speed by lifting his knees high. Even with the spear in his hands the wind was pressing, whipping the surface of the water into his face. It grew harder until he realized he had to act before he was overwhelmed, or before Lidayel could grew wary of the Rangers’ distraction.

With his heart in his throat, Cid made his run up and flung Mindevhier with all his strength, the spear sailing mystically through the fading sphere of steam, shearing a path, the Hethellean blade effortlessly piercing the halo of fire, and struck Lidayel right in his chest.

He went down dramatically, hitting the water as his concentric patterns of magic crashed and faded in chaos. A moment later Lidayel became the epicentre of a great wave of water, surging upright and branching out as a complete circle. Cid could do nothing but brace as the wave toppled him from his feet.

Spluttering he came up, determined still to get to Lidayel. He splashed forward, the absurdness of the situation and what he had just done eating away at him. He became bone tired again, but pressed through to the spot where his spear struck out of the water, marked by a blotch of blood.

His hands grabbed into the water and he lifted Lidayel’s head and shoulders from under the surface, resting the Summoner’s back on his knee. Lidayel coughed, pinkish water spewing from his mouth.

There wasn’t much they could do for him now.

Why Lidayel?’ asked Cid, disturbed by what he was seeing.

Why did you do it!?’ repeated Cid.

Lidayel’s lolling eyes tried to focus, already glazed over in reality, yet he managed a struggling utterance.

Yarea… Yarea… I remembered,’ said Lidayel.

‘Yes, what of her?’ whispered Cid.

‘She was never… my wife, Cid… married to my brother… my memories… so broken… that I… so in love… that I was fooled by my own… I am sorry…’ Lidayel’s face showed defeat and sorrow.

‘It’s okay, I understand,’ said Cid softly.

‘I failed Cid… hatred did not break you… but I… never let hatred get to you Cid… don’t fail anyone in spite of bitterness… you were stronger than me… you are stronger…’

From above the Rangers watched apprehensively as Brunick and Alex stayed at the edge of the Basin, muscles tensed in preparation to charge in and help Cid should the need arise.

Everything became quiet again as the winds disappeared and the deep tremors of the earth came to nothing, as though they all were hushed to listen as the water wallowed and weaved, splashing faintly against the rock faces.

Cid stayed hunched on the balls of his feet, content to strain his muscles in order to keep Lidayel comfortable. As Lidayel’s’ face grew tired so did Cid’s sorrow grow. He now saw into a man who had been dealt a terrible ordeal, a man’s whose mind was as wounded as his body.

It was hypnotic, waiting for a passing, waiting for death, listening to nothing but the flapping wings of Volje above and sloshing water that would not come to a rest.

Cid saw Lidayel’s eyes go halfway closed and felt the man’s body go limp.

Lidayel’s last sight was the spread wings of a black Volj overhead against the backdrop of the sun.

He died.

For moments more Cid cradled the man’s body, suddenly struck by a great regret for Lidayel. It was then that he saw the fate of a Summoner, even a noble one, cursed by power and notoriety. Here he held a man he owed so much, yet was forced to kill him.

Then came the magic, Lidayel’s last act of power.

Cid’s eyes grew wide as the body began to glow, the blood on his face and arms peeling away like morning dew surrendering to sunrise. Lidayel’s skin became golden, a soft pulse of light emanating all around. Cid did not wish to panic, to toss the man’s body back into the water and run. Rather he steeled himself to be calm and to hold the man respectably as the light grew more intense.

‘Cid, get away from there!’ he heard Brunick bellow from behind.

Cid could not, the light was gentle and glorious, inviting, bathing Lidayel in a golden glow. His face became peaceful, the lines and depressions fading and his once greying hair becoming strands of fire. Somehow the magic was not lost on Cid; he could feel it soothing his muscles and giving renewed strength to his limbs.

Then, as though Lidayel’s body could no longer contain the light, his frame swelled and disintegrated, Cid’s hands peeling through nothingness as flesh and fabric turned into a dust, bright and golden, scattering like fireflies.

Adalophrites

They flew in a regal revolution all around Cid, and then came to a slow, solemn rest onto the waters like yellow petals, drifting. The light faded with time, leaving no remains of the Summoner.

Cid stood up, surprised to find his eyes teary. Gravely he reached for Mindevhier beneath the waters. There was no trace of Lidayel’s blood left on the blade and a strange strength ran along the shaft and into Cid’s arms, tingling his innards.

Cid turned, walking slowly back to the edge, the Rangers overhead turning back and disappearing beyond sight to land at Oldeloft. It was a lonesome walk back and Cid felt an unfound gratitude at the fact that he had Alex and Brunick waiting for him like glum statues. On their way up Cid could not help but tell Brunick and Alex of Lidayel’s plight, how his life had caught up with him and why he gave in to rage.

‘So all this time, he thought Yarea was his…?’ said Alex, voice trailing.

‘What happened to his body though, did it disappear?’ asked Brunick.

Cid nodded. ‘I guess that is how they die. They aren’t human, remember? Maybe he has returned from where he came.’

‘I never thought he was that powerful though,’ said Brunick.

‘It’s like he said, magic comes down to emotions and what he felt must’ve given him enormous strength,’ said Cid.

‘Poor guy, he was so helpful. Wish we could have saved him,’ said Alex.

‘Yeah, yet with or without Lidayel we still have the responsibility of saving Lanston, otherwise this Basin is going to become a grave to many more, and their bodies won’t disappear so readily,’ said Cid.

Chapter 47

Ruin

 

As night approached they made a small fire just outside Oldeloft. Mourning Lidayel, they did not talk much. The Summoner had left a painful hole in their ranks, regardless of how briefly they had known him.

Brunick was poking unnecessarily at the fire and not far off Cid was trying to occupy himself as Elmira introduced him to the tied-down Volje. It turned out to be quite soothing stroking and touching the obscenely large creatures, and even more so with Elmira by his side.

‘Damn it Elmira, here I was imagining you at home,’ said Cid, chastising her without much conviction.

‘I wasn’t going to leave everything up to you,’ said Elmira slyly.

Cid laughed, running his hand behind the beast’s ears.

‘Volje! You rode on one! Haha, I can’t turn my back for a second without missing something.’

‘You’re the one who told me to do whatever it takes to escape Fredrere,’ said Elmira.

Cid looked fondly at her, ‘and you did, you did it. When this is over we’ll go to the country, to Pathra. We’ll go live with Brunick and his brethren for a while. I’ve already discussed it with him. It won’t be a lavish wedding, but it’ll be among the Masons’ memorials and in a chapel. Brunick has even agreed to marry us himself.’

‘I would love that,’ said Elmira, smiling, ‘but what of Fredrere?’

Cid looked hopefully over to the fire where Brunick and Olexion were now talking.

‘Give it time, the right people are now involved. I won’t give up on you Elmira, we will have our life together.’

She hugged him tightly.

As though Olexion knew that Cid had been looking at him, he turned and marched toward the couple. Elmira broke away.

‘Colonel Cid, I do not wish to spoil the evening, but it is imperative that we speak at length on our state of affairs and how they became so… converging,’ said Olexion.

Cid nodded. ‘I am sincerely sorry our first meeting had to be at sword point. Your presence and that of your men is truly a boon, and I am personally grateful for bringing my Elmira along, it means much more than you can know,’ said Cid.

Olexion gave a rare chuckle. ‘She did not give us much of a choice.’

Cid smiled, imagining how Elmira’s obstinacy put a rare-felt discomfort on the Rangers

‘Right then, how much do you know?’ asked Cid

‘Not enough I’m afraid. I assume Elmira has told you about our investigation?’

‘Yes, she did,’ said Cid.

‘Brunick and myself talked at length as well. Stelinger seems like a traitor no doubt, but I struggle to piece his motives. Do you have an inkling on what he’s trying to accomplish?’ asked Olexion

This,’ said Cid, holding out Mindevhier’s spearhead.

Olexion looked on the weapon with confusion.

Cid explained. ‘The blade is crafted from Hethellean. A unique-’

‘I know what Hethellean is Colonel. What has this got to do with Stelinger?’

‘I received a redirected letter while at Taverka, explaining a successful bonding process done by the Destinian Blacksmithies in Morshiph. It was enough for me to lead us to investigate the mines in area, which have also been recently excavated for Hethellean. We also know that Stelinger was well familiar with the Alparack area even before the operation and so we suspected that by his instruction the weapons Lanston were outfitted with contain Hethellean, if only in part.’

‘If Stelinger stands in league with the Fallen why would he arm Lanston with specialized weapons?’ asked Olexion.

‘The weapons were never made to benefit Lanston, rather using his power as Commander, Stelinger shaped his plan so that he could march Lanston right into a fight of insurmountable odds. He has been controlling the military intelligence even before Bennam stepped down, mitigating the reports on the size of the Fallen assembly.’

‘And when they’ve killed off every last soldier the Fallen claim the weapons for themselves,’ finished Olexion in understanding.

‘It’s brilliant I’d admit, if successful they’ll have bypassed years of unsuccessful smuggling by using the army as one massive escort of weapons,’ said Cid.

‘What they hope to gain with the weapons is another question raised though. A few Hethellean weapons aren’t going to do them any good against the Kingdom,’ said Olexion.

Cid nodded. ‘We have discussed the issue as well, but to no avail. My chief suspicion is knowing that Stelinger is carrying a weapon of Ruin, and he might be the first of many to be corrupted in this way should the Fallen craft more of its kind.’

‘Champions of the Fallen, eh? It is a dark prospect. I would think there is more to it though, for men like Stelinger are much too dangerous to enlist without merit. I’ll have to assume we’ll only discover their true intentions in the future,’ said Olexion.

‘Above all else I just wish I knew what Bennam was thinking, knew what he knew,’ said Cid.

‘What we’ve seen leads me to believe that Bennam started the operation and made Stelinger Commander knowingly, a ploy no doubt of his own.’

‘And now the entire Lanston army might pay the price for his risk taking. Why would he have allowed us to continue this operation, knowing it would amass to nothing?’ asked Cid bitterly.

‘I’ve wondered on the matter myself. My conclusions are vague but I think that I can explain some of it: you might or might not know this, but Bennam was well informed on the Kingdom’s most guarded secrets, a right he earned as the Commander of Lanston and the bane of the Fallen.’

‘It is unsurprising, yet I never thought of him that way,’ said Cid.

‘That he knew something within the Kingdom was terribly wrong is undisputable, and the fact that he did not surface with the information means that his secrecy would serve the Sovereignty at the end of it. I can only surmise that his knowledge of the implications of this Hethellean gambit far outweighs our own. My view on this is that he used all his influence without rousing suspicion, piecing together a counter measure; bringing me here, assigning the Summoners and calling upon the Valkyrie, everything to push us to this point and maybe even see us victorious.’

‘If you are right I shudder to think what lies ahead of us after this,’ said Cid, looking to the north, ‘it is likely that the Fallen host will attack Lanston by tomorrow and there won’t be any chance for the army to escape. It’s fight or die now.’

Olexion grunted, ‘we haven’t lost yet. The reports that I’ve read suggests that you are something of a tide-turner, and right now I’m rather sure Bennam was counting on your talents.’

‘For me to have any effect on the battle I’ll need to have direct command of Lanston. Right now I can’t even get to close to the soldiers without being arrowed down as a traitor,’ said Cid.

‘We will help with that,’ said Olexion.

‘How?’

‘Stelinger will inevitably have to abandon the Lanston army at some time before he gets caught up in the fight himself. We will watch from here and keep an eye on the Basin. The moment he detaches himself from the army we can fly you right into the Lanston camp itself. Without definite authority the soldiers wouldn’t dare attack the Rangers. Then you can explain yourself and garner the approval of the other Colonels.’

‘And I am then to take charge?’ asked Cid.

‘You must. Men trust you Cid. I predict that they will follow you readily when they realize what they are facing and that they are altogether betrayed,’ said Olexion.

‘I guess it’s the only play we have,’ said Cid ‘we will, without a doubt, need you and your men in the sky. It will be crucial to cut down the catapults and Priests.’

‘It is what I had in mind as well,’ said Olexion.

‘One more thing,’ said Cid, looking at Elmira, who handed him the Alder stone.

‘Ah, yes. It was intended to revive a Summoner’s memories, a clue left by Bennam to help us out. I’m afraid even if Lidayel had not died his mind was too fragile to be restored to its former self.’

‘He has a wife you know… or at least that’s what he thought… it’s complicated,’ said Cid.

‘Yes, Yarea. She is married to Lidayel’s brother, Luthren.’

‘Luthren? You know about all this? Where is he then?’ asked Cid.

‘The Rangers work closely with the conclave of Summoners. As far as I know Luthren is still in suspension in the conclave of Asheva, strangely he remained unassigned through all of this. What of Yarea, what happened to her?’ asked Olexion.

‘We concluded that she was kidnapped by a group of bandits from Durandal, there was no chance for us to catch up before they reached the Drimdyar pass, she is likely to be sold into slavery there,’ said Cid.

Olexion shook his head in disgust; the idea of losing two Summoners was a loss felt both personally and professionally by the Ranger.

‘We might, when this is over, send a detachment to Durandal to see if we cannot extricate Yarea. I am not hopeful though, even the Rangers’ influence is meagre within that city-state of thugs and mercenaries,’ said Olexion.

‘If you decide so, speak with Vanapha on taking her along, she also wishes to go to Durandal and she is worth ten good men,’ said Cid.

‘I’ll suggest it to her then if it comes to it,’ said Olexion, and feeling nothing was left to be said bade them a good night. ‘I’ll give you your privacy back then.’

The two of them alone again, Elmira looked up at Cid, her mouth stretched.

‘What is it?’

‘I don’t know, Cid… I can’t stomach this. I made peace with you being in danger all the time, but now it’s different. Everyone is talking about how strong the Fallen are and that Lanston is betrayed and leaderless… I don’t want you to go tomorrow,’ finished Elmira.

‘Elmira…’

‘I know what you’re going to do. I know you have to go out. I love for you for being the way you are… and I know it’s important, fighting for our home, it’s just…’

He stood closer, holding her. ‘I still have to fight for you remember? And it’s even bigger than that, thousands of Lanston lives have a stake in tomorrow. Not to sound vain, but they will need me.’

‘I know,’ she said softly.

‘Hey, I’ve even got Brunick praying for me these days, it’ll be all over soon and then we’ll never have to look back on anything. We’ll be happy together.’

She smiled. ‘Yes, you’re right.’

Later on they joined everyone by the fire, their talk trying to be careless, but somehow always led back to the impending battle. When it did, everyone grew quiet for a while to shake off the topic, and when that happened all of them recalled a dying Summoner, his last moments the most dramatic this valley had ever seen.

 

Oldeloft was dimly lit on the inside, an array of lanterns and candles in each room. By midnight Cid was up for the third time. He found himself wandering through the house back to the storage where they kept their packs, gear and weapons. Along the way he picked up an extra lantern. Inside the tightly crammed room he quickly made his way to Mindevhier, laid down on a table.

As ever it was a prideful sight by firelight, but tonight it inspired a chill into Cid.

Each time he had tried to sleep a dream came to him. It was dreams of voices of strangers and images that meant nothing to Cid, yet called to him. He ran his hand along the spear’s shaft, again feeling as though something was stirring within the weapon. Cid had the sudden urge to reacquaint himself with the spear – to tame it, picking it up and taking the lantern with him. He left the house.

 

Alex tip-toed, prowling the house. He couldn’t find her. He had woken up seeing Vanapha leaving her room and then got up when he didn’t see her come back. He thought she had gone into the storage room but did not find her there. He exited the house, searching for a sign of her in the darkness of the mountain. He was surprised to see Cid at the house front, practicing in the light of a lantern he hung from the dead tree. Not wanting to bother the man, Alex decided to retreat to his bed again.

Then he saw the chimney, the smaller one, puffing light hints of vapour into the air, the smoke and moist only just revealed by the moonlight. Confused, Alex went back into the house. Even though knowing better his sleepiness made him check the fireplace in the lounge, which he found untouched as he knew it would be connected with the bigger chimney.

Calling on something he had seen earlier he returned to the storeroom. There it was, a solid iron pipeline extending from the ceiling and not stopping as it ran right into the floor. Curious now Alex stamped his feet as quietly as he could. He moved three paces before the thump of his foot hit a hollow space. Only then did he notice the trapdoor, its outline barely visible against the backdrop. Carefully he lifted the trapdoor.

She’s in here?

He knew the basement would be a hiding spot for the Rangers, but the chimney already gave Alex an indication of what Vanapha would be doing here.

Alert now he walked buck-kneed down the uncomfortably narrow steps. The enclosure welcomed him with a haze of vapours, most of it mercifully using the ventilation shaft to escape the house.

He immediately saw Vanapha, her back turned on him, her hands tweaking and prodding at an elaborate setup of vials, beakers, burners, drips, distillers and clamps holding everything in place. Alex had seen similar instruments in alchemist shops, but it was a strange change to seeing a woman working with the instruments rather than a sweaty old man with a singed beard.

He walked closer and before saying something he watched her intently. She was wearing goggles and a thick apron with matching gloves. She seemed to work mainly out of a big cauldron, feeding everything else with its bubbling substance, like she was actually busy cooking. The strong smell and small belch of fire that came from the pot however was instantly enough for anyone to know she wasn’t busy preparing a soup.

‘How did you find me?’ asked Vanapha, without turning.

‘I heard you going into the storeroom and you didn’t come back. I got curious.’

‘Couldn’t sleep?’ asked Alex, rounding the table to stand opposite of Vanapha and watch her work.

‘Do you think anyone is sleeping? With Lidayel gone and Lanston certain to die without us? It weighs heavily on everyone.’

‘I guess this mean you’re fighting with us tomorrow?’ asked Alex.

I have my own reasons for helping, but… it wouldn’t feel right if you stayed to fight and I did nothing to help. It is not my fight, but I have taken it upon myself to play my part. The Kingdom will leave this land better off in victory and if it needs my skill then I can do nothing less than stand with Lanston.’

Alex nodded, commending the woman in his thoughts. Rather he said, ‘What is all this then?’

‘I’m making Trisera, a fire potion,’ said Vanapha, returning to her work.

‘Do you want to be alone?’

Vanapha looked up at Alex. ‘No, its fine. I can actually use some more clamps,’

‘Clamps?’ asked Alex in confusion, looking at the counters around him.

Vanapha pointed at his hands.

‘Oh, right,’ said Alex, standing closer.

‘Goggles and gloves,’ advised Vanapha, pointing. Alex didn’t need to be asked twice.

‘There are some clamps but they are pretty rustic and I’d rather not take the chance with this mixture,’ said Vanapha,

‘Sure,’ said Alex holding up the small vials as Vanapha used a suction nozzle to incrementally fill them up with a lively orange liquid.

As Vanapha worked she said, ‘now I know I probably don’t have to tell you this, but don’t drop or spill this, okay?’

‘I wouldn’t dare,’ said Alex, the liquid offering a fiery smell to his nostrils.

Filling the vials halfway, Alex stood like a statue as Vanapha propped dividers into the vials. Next she filled them up all the way with a translucent substance she had been preparing on the side.

‘So I gather that when these two mix they ignite?’ asked Alex.

‘Actually no, the Trisera on its own will ignite on very high temperatures or with a moderate impact. It’s the latter quality that makes it both useful and dangerous to handle. The Panoli acts as a fuel and shortens the combustion rate, if you mix it with Trisera and give it a good impact it creates a sizable explosion.’

‘So no mixing followed by sudden movements, right?’

‘Yes, even if we do survive it I’d rather not burn down the house, it’s got a nice charm to it,’ said Vanapha.

Alex chuckled, ‘then again, any place with a warm bed this far into the wilderness is charming.’

‘No arguments,’ agreed Vanapha, smiling as her eyes remained trained on her work.

Done, Vanapha plugged the vials with corks, then took them from Alex, putting them in a small wooden casing. Five more times Alex took up a vial in each hand as Vanapha replicated the process. At the end of it Vanapha placed a dozen vials in the casing, shut it tight and slid it in her satchel. Smiling contently she took off her gloves and goggles, Alex doing the same.

‘Thank you, you are a steady lab hand and tolerable company,’ Vanapha mocked formally.

Alex smirked, ‘what kind of man would I be if I didn’t made sure we have some fireworks for the showdown?’

Vanapha laughed and Alex mirrored her smile.

‘Do you think some things, you know, don’t happen by accident?’

Vanapha raised an eyebrow. ‘This you ask of someone who studies the stars?’

‘Exactly! So I was thinking, do you think it was just coincidence that Cid ended up having me carrying the wings of the spear, and you know, you coming to look for them?’

She looked really angry for a just a second.

Alex backpedalled. ‘Cid told me about the letter. And how you were supposed to go looking for the Winged Serpent He thought it might be prudent that we know!’

Vanapha sighed, dispelling her frustration.

‘Don’t read into things that aren’t really there Alex, sometimes things really are just coincidence. We just want them to be more,’ she said as gently as she could.

Alex felt greatly embarrassed, angry at himself that he had even brought it up as clumsily as he did.

‘Of course,’ was all he managed to say.

It was a bit awkward afterwards, so Alex had no choice than to crack a fake yawn.

‘Well, I won’t blame if you want to get back to bed,’ said Vanapha.

Alex smothered the yawn, ‘hmm, how about yourself?’

‘Oh I will be crawling in soon, I have no intention of staying up all night. Though I will clean up first, you’ll only notice how much you stink when leave here,’ said Vanapha.

Alex chuckled. ‘Can’t go to war all dirty now can we?’

‘No, we can’t,’ said Vanapha with a smile.

‘Well, I’ll leave you then to it, goodnight Vanapha,’ said Alex.

‘Sleep tight Alex.’

Alex returned to his room, disappointed with the situation, chastising himself. Then again, given how likely they were to survive tomorrow, he didn’t regret trying, not at all.

Outside the house Cid lined himself a square in the dust, having hanged his lantern on the lowest branch of the dead tree. He was already bare-chested and bare-footed so he immersed himself in an imaginary war, the lines on the ground becoming much larger than they really were and enemies of renown emerging from the night.

His muscles tensed and relaxed, stretched, tightened, bounded and then released as he moved, rapidly spinning, twirling and leaping, his spear often moving in the opposite direction, switching so fast in his hands and playing so swift through his fingers that it became an animal, barely kept in check by his efforts. Over his shoulder, behind his back, often from the hip; using his body to feed the momentum, and the momentum to perpetually cut, strike, lunge and stab. It was as much a dance as it was fighting.

 

Round 10

 

-Cid was a master with the spear. He was well known for it. The staff was not much of a different weapon, yet Stelinger showed great proficiency in defeating Cid, despite being actually far more practiced in swordplay. Stelinger was his equal, the man who boasted talent in exposing Cid’s deficits and was unrestraint in exploiting them. This is how Stelinger won, by doing things others were reluctant to.

But then Stelinger thought he’d already won, that it was over, that Cid could no longer win. In the last few rounds Cid started gaining, his determination adapting to the patterns Stelinger had shown till now. In a fair fight, with a good deal of stamina left, Cid was always going to take the last rounds, Stelinger’s antics becoming familiar to the strategist.

Stelinger felt himself driven back and then slotted for an opening, striking Cid on the side of his head. Almost comically Cid fell flat on his back, losing consciousness. A cry of outrage among the men woke him a second later, sitting up.

Dismayed he witnessed the Commander calling the round he should have won in Stelinger’s favour, the man not even chastised for finishing Cid with an illegal manoeuvre. The round had been crucial for it marked the count where Stelinger could no longer lose the competition no matter what. Voices called for a change of judgment.

Bennam remained passive. This brought an even greater outcry from the spectators and it brought Cid angrily to his feet. Stelinger spat to the side, eager to raise his eyes to Cid’s. He tried to hide it, but Cid saw the doubt in Stelinger’s face. The commander might’ve let it go, but he had lost favour with the men, knowing Cid had the better of him. They no longer tolerated Stelinger’s tactics, Cid left wondering if the Commander had overseen the foul with more purpose than just for the sake of continuity.

It changed then, knowing that despite their winning wagers were heavily laden on Stelinger, they would in their hearts support Cid now. Stelinger would have you believed that it did not bother him, but no one escaped the displeasures of a crowd, even one as small as this. The sudden loyalty made Cid tightened his grip. He was going in fast. He would win the next round and then the last as well. By the end of it all the men would not count the rounds; they would simply see Stelinger fall-

 

‘What are you doing?’

Cid was wrenched from his world, enemies fading, his fatigue catching up with him. He turned to Elmira, she standing on the veranda, her figure barely lit by the lantern’s glow.

Still overextended in a move Cid found himself embarrassed, smiling as the sweat dripped off him. He straightened himself, looking at Elmira’s questioning face.

‘Guess I’d have to call it playing,’ said Cid.

Elmira smiled, ‘we’ll don’t let me interrupt you, I want to watch,’ she said, sitting down on the low wall of the Veranda.

‘Why aren’t you sleeping?’ asked Cid.

‘You kept waking me, is something wrong?’ asked Elmira.

‘No, I don’t think so. Just restless,’ said Cid, retracing his flattened lines in the dirt.

Somewhat more aware now that Elmira was watching Cid put himself through the paces again, but did in no way hold back. As he moved and circulated he caught glimpses of her face, her mouth set in a quiet smile.

He finished with a show of throwing the spear into the air and catching it with one hand as it came spinning down. Elmira mimicked silent applause.

Cid though was rather flustered; he simply could not get away from the thoughts emanating from the spear.

You feel it now don’t you?’ came a voice from behind.

Somewhat shocked Cid turned to see Vanapha, coming from the back of Oldeloft with a lantern of her own, a satchel hanging from her shoulder.

What is this?’ asked Cid, knowing she was speaking about the spear.

Elmira was left frowning.

‘I can see it as much as you can feel it. Lidayel, he released your spear Cid, the moment he died he used the last of his power on the weapon that had just killed him. Mindevhier is now a weapon of Ruin.’

Cid looked back at the spear, feeling intensely unfamiliar with it, despite the fact that his skills were as sharp as ever.

‘I did not want a cursed weapon,’ said Cid.

‘It’s only a curse if you make it one,’ said Vanapha, ‘a man like Stelinger will come to worship his blade and indulge in the sword’s bloodlust. You can choose, when you take up this weapon what kind of man you’ll be and whether the weapon will control the man, or the man the weapon.’

‘What is she talking about Cid?’ asked Elmira, having stood up and ambling to his side.

‘Of things I want no part of. Soldiering is a simple craft, I keep my head down and fight. Magic should have no place on the battlefield,’ said Cid bitterly.

‘Now you’re just lying to yourself,’ said Elmira.

Cid looked questioningly at her.

‘She’s right, magic is a given, and you are no lowly soldier Cid, everything about you is groomed to be burdened with the weight of other men. You stand so that others may have a voice, so that those who share your determination can live out their best with you leading them, so that they may survive. The magic you hate so much? You are its enemy, now more than ever, and ironically by the end of it you will have shown the Kingdom that mystics has its place in the world. That is your plight. Your weapon holds the ideals of those who fought for the same things you did,’ said Vanapha, ‘even the moons acknowledges you Cid, they will witness your fight.’

Without meaning disrespect Cid laughed mirthlessly at the woman, Elmira jabbing him on the shoulder.

Vanapha held a content smile.

‘Look, let me show you…’

Vanapha walked over to where they stood and they looked up in the sky, the Valkyrie tracing her finger through the air.

‘The diamond box remains constant as Angaria orbits around the sun. Tell me what do you see, can you remember the echelons?’ said Vanapha to Cid.

Cid took a while, studying the moons. He had been ignorant of it till now, but there were four moons in the sky, Loikana being a big dark purple circle, hardly visible if one wasn’t searching for it against the black sky.

‘Mallova and Rodreon are full now, still in opposite echelons, the cloisters. Loikana appears in the crown echelon and Shaki-Halima is moving up into the crest. It’s right in between Mallova and Rodreon.’

‘Yes, Shaki-Halima has moved to a crucial position. In their current formation the moons represent thus; Mallova and Rodreon still stand as the duality of life, Loikana appears as the beast of old, emerging to slaughter, and Mallova is the representative, the will of the people to banish the beast.’

‘And I assume our “great black beast” is the Fallen right?’

‘Yes,’ Vanapha nodded. ‘And soon enough Shaki-Halima will align with Mallova, the light and the dark against each other. It is the great sign of the Kingslayer. What we do here tomorrow will have ramifications far beyond our already important stakes I’m certain. We have entered an era of critical consequence.’

‘I’m sorry Vanapha, I just can’t see how you can think that the heavens cater themselves for us, that they could possibly twine their paths to suit our actions,’ said Cid.

‘You are narrow-minded on the matter Cid. Do you think Ruin weapons alone take imprints of souls, that our will and emotions are not sent forth by our spirits and made part of the annals of the heavens? There is no magic Cid, because it has already touched everything and all that is spiritual is born from it. Our victories and defeats, the cry of a dying soul, or the jubilation of a soul that found its love, the prayer for another – they ebb into eternity, caught on those strands of Godliness that we do not understand and then woven even more mysteriously into our story, the heavens mirroring our destinies.’

Cid was thoughtful. ‘Why did he do it? Lidayel, I mean.’

‘I would think it was his way of saying: “I give you this weapon… so that you may save Yarea.”

Cid was a little surprised.

‘You think he really meant me to go after Yarea?’ asked Cid.

‘It was all he had; even though not his wife like he thought, his love for her was real. If he could have used his last power to save her you know what he would do… rather the only thing he could do was give the one man who would be inclined to take up the charge a great weapon,’ said Vanapha.

Cid kept his eyes on Mindevhier, Lidayel’s face flashing continuously in his mind’s eye. The Summoner’s plight had been relevant to Cid and somehow now he could not let it go, not when he was fighting for the exact same thing.

‘Maybe I’ll do it. If we can win this war…’ said Cid.

‘You’re a bit predictable,’ said Vanapha in amusement.

‘Brunick seems to think so too and Stelinger already exploited me on it more times than I can count.’

‘Don’t change though, even though I’m Valkyrie I’ve met many men from the world around and I trust no man more than I do you,’ said Vanapha.

She suddenly appeared embarrassed by her statement and turned away to head back inside without a further word.

Cid looked steadily at Mindevhier. This time it was for real, there was truly hidden strength now contained in the spear.

I will not fail then, I won’t betray your trust, thought Cid.

‘That was beautiful what Vanapha said, about the heavens, right?’ said Elmira, hugging Cid, her eyes full of starlight. Cid looked down on Elmira, her arms wrapped around his waist, her head pressed against his chest and her gaze transfixed on the moons.

Cid wanted to kiss her then, but let the notion go. She was so beautiful, just looking up and marvelling, so beautiful that he did not want to interfere, simply watch her and admire, seeing the same heaven on her face that she saw in the stars. He could believe through her; Brunick’s God, Vanapha’s living cosmos. With Elmira in his arms, looking the way she did, the world made a rare kind of sense.

He kissed her lightly on the forehead and she reached up, refolding her arms around his neck. Dropping the spear he pulled her close, so that he could faintly feel her quickening heartbeat as he kissed her passionately. They soared, the mountain falling away, whatever beasts hiding in its shadow left unimportant and forgotten.

Chapter 48

Dawn of War

 

Morning at Oldeloft came with a set of grim determined faces. They all made a show of getting in some breakfast, but everyone’s nerves were shot , and it was as though the onset of battle would only be sated if it fed from their apprehension. They ate but very little.

A silent consensus made them decide to take to the air and get it over with. The Rangers saddled up the Volje and Cid confronted Elmira, holding her by the arms.

‘You’re staying right here, okay? It’ll be safe. You don’t leave this area for anything!’

This time Elmira wasn’t going to argue, she had no place on the battlefield, understanding she was as likely to endanger everyone else as much as herself.

‘I love you soldier, be careful down there,’ she urged.

‘I will,’ said Cid, first kissing her on the head and she lifted her lips to meet his. They kissed but briefly and he held her tight for a few seconds. He then disengaged decisively, turning to help Olexion saddle the Volj.

The others as well were preoccupied with preparing for take-off when Elmira approached Vanapha.

‘Valkyrie?’

Vanapha showed her that she was listening.

‘I’ve seen you shoot a few times and I don’t think skills of archery get much better than yours. Watch out for Cid will you?’ said Elmira.

Vanapha cast a faint smile. ‘I will.’

Thank you.’

Behind them Brunick was finally kicking; he had kept a brave face until it became time to mount. He insisted on remaining on the ground and refused even when his partnered Ranger offered to take it easy.

‘You’ll just have to miss the fight then,’ said Alex mockingly.

It was enough to set Brunick off and make him bear it, mumbling as he mounted.

They each paired and mounted with a Ranger, except for one man who remained solitary on his Volj. Olexion sounded his horn and the Volje took to the sky, bounding from the shoulder to catch a draft, climbing quickly to leave Elmira far behind.

Cid, partnered behind Olexion, could not imagine a better experience to have just before going into battle. The tug of flight away from this land and into the air a temporary realization of escaping Alparack, a taste of triumph before fighting the most wretched fight of their lives. He noted how the Rangers now looked complete, going into battle with their flying beasts, billowing red cloaks and their dark leather armour. Cid looked to the land below, unable to rest his eyes on anything in particular.

There was this thing about war where you started to feel wary of your own bodily restraints, where you wished you could see the end of it, to perceive yourself in relation to the entirety that was your allies, your enemies, and the fated battleground. This was it, flying gave that answer and it spurred on Cid’s feeling for the battle, the sights forming plans in his already busy mind. The whole of the Basin laid open exposed to him and he could even peek into the narrows, yet did not see Lanston at the time.

Cid smiled as the wind whipped and breathed into his vest, he looked to Brunick and his partnered Ranger to the right, and was surprised to find the big man looking rather comfortable.

The bliss of flying was to be ruined. They gained incredible height; so much so that Elmira back at Oldeloft could only track the small dots in the sky. Olexion led them all to Jacanta point.

Cid had seen the Fallen army before, yet then it had only been a hazy mental representation. The real thing made a lump in his throat that he could not swallow down.

In a single pass they saw it: They were mobilizing, and it was a gargantuan march of black armours, their movement toward the Basin a grotesque sight.

‘By the King’s crown! How many do you think are there?’ asked Olexion.

‘More than I first thought, ten-thousand and counting, we are more than doubly outnumbered.’

They did another sweep, scouting to the west of the Fallen march.

‘Reavers, Priest, siege engines… we are going to have our hands full,’ said Olexion.

Cid grunted. ‘We better turn back, looking at them isn’t going to make this any easier.’

‘To the Lanston camp?’ asked Olexion.

‘Yes, the sooner we can mobilize Lanston the better,’ said Cid.

Olexion signalled for the other Rangers to follow. The Volje banked in a single wedge formation and turned for the narrows. Now, having seen the Fallen host, the experience of flying was suddenly lost on Cid and company.

On their way south he could not help but notice the one Ranger who flew alone, Lidayel supposed to sit behind him. Cid wondered on how much the Summoner would have meant in this fight if he was still alive. Yet even if Lidayel was to be confused and powerless, Cid sincerely wished he could go back and save a man from himself who deserved much better than what was given.

 

 

Stelinger’s scouts had told him the story: They had kept their distance, looking on transfixed the day before as they felt and saw the Summoner.

Well, everyone felt the Summoner…

They told Stelinger how Cid and his company were still alive, and how he killed the Summoner who suddenly turned against them. Stelinger should have been elated at the news of the Summoner’s passing, but hearing about the presence of the Rangers placed a pit in his stomach. There were too many loose ends and Piatil’s concerned ramblings was tormenting.

Right now he was riding out with his men. He had given the army the order to march and then quietly detached from them like he planned. Parting ways, he knew it was only a matter of time before they would walk into the Fallen onslaught.

Victory was close.

It was strange casting off the power of Commander, for he had come to revel in the position, especially after craving it for so many years. Yet he knew the reward that awaited him was far better than any mantle the Kingdom could offer.

They slipped away into the pass, the way to the city-state of Durandal, diverging wholly with Lanston’s course. One of Stelinger’s men then pointed at the sky, ‘the Rangers!

Stelinger looked up, seeing two Volje taking flight, following their already aerial companions from somewhere on mount Hashur. They were too far away to see any detail, but the roar of the Volje were made to be heard by all. At least they would not spot Stelinger, not with Reighler at his side. Even the Valkyrie couldn’t get past that one.

During the battle he would keep to his patience, satisfied with staying aside and keeping his blade clean, more than pleased to be able to trudge onto flesh and bone and steel afterwards, and see the remains of Rogana dead among all that had been Lanston.

 

***

 

Drissil stopped the march entirely and the Lanston force was in complete disarray. For now though he didn’t allow anyone to question his authority, as he entrenched himself at the pavilion, quickly silencing down anyone who dared to back up Stelinger. He wasn’t even allowing as much as a tent peg to be removed.

Drissil’s motive was simple; Stelinger was nowhere to be found. There was a brief meeting this morning when the Commander gave orders to march into the Basin and mentioned the possibility of contact today. Just by the mention of it Drissil’s skin was sent crawling.

Now, on the eve of breaking into the Basin Stelinger was missing. Drissil’s suspicions were confirmed moments later when Welce approached him in an urgent run.

Sir! I saw Commander Stelinger and his champions take leave, they mounted and slipped into a branch some hundred yards back.’

Damn it!’ bellowed Drissil, realizing that whatever was happening it was decisively not in Lanston’s favour.

It was thereafter that Drissil took command and brought it all to a halt. He wasn’t going to march Lanston into the unfamiliar when Stelinger was acting like a jester. Paranoia wasn’t a quality of Drissil, but sound instincts were, and it was this that drove him to send out scouts of his own. Up till now Stelinger used men whose loyalty Drissil had come to question. Drissil did not want any of it before, and he sure wasn’t going to allow Stelinger’s favouritism to cost the army their safety.

Then of course there was that little matter of the tremors that hit the canyon yesterday. Everyone had been rather sure that the Fallen were trying to bury Lanston in a landslide with their magic. Stelinger had dismissed the notion and revealed a bit more of himself to Drissil.

It was as if he just doesn’t care anymore.

For now 4100 men waited in frustration, the heat of the day and the pressure of the situation making all concerned tense and irritated.

Then it got worse…

Archers! Targets in the sky!’ shouted a Captain.

Drissil cursed in immediate aggravation as he cast his eyes to above, wondering what in hell’s name they’d done wrong to invite a flight of winged enemies. He squinted into the sky…circling above them were… Volje!’

To the men around him Drissil cried for a halt, praying silently that those beyond earshot would not shoot.

Rangers! The Rangers are here!

Drissil’s thoughts were echoed by his men’s voices, tensed bowstrings slowly forgotten as the wings came in close. The five Volje landed gracefully in the field before the pavilion and Drissil was awed to see nine warriors dismounting.

Cid, Brunick, Alex, a Valkyrie and no one less than Olexion the First Ranger himself along with four other Rangers.

The last few moments for Drissil felt like fever dreams.

The Rangers were looking well groomed and armed as always, and the Valkyrie at a glance was the same beautiful woman Drissil had seen that night in the pavilion. Cid, Brunick and Alex though looked pretty battered as they stood together, the eyes of the camp on them despite the company they kept. They had no armour anymore, dressed only in their casuals and their weapons, each carrying some freshly healed scarring.

Drissil watched Cid stepping forward. His vest and leggings were tattered and torn, his hair and beard as messy as it could ever be. He even seemed a bit malnourished.

But he carried the spear at least, and with it looking peculiarly more the upright man than Drissil had ever seen him before. He appeared like Lanston’s lost shepherd and Drissil was sure that for first time since Bennam’s departure, Lanston finally had a Commander again.

He approached the group, feeling as though he could hug the fool from Rogana.

‘I don’t think I have ever been more happy to see you,’ said Drissil in genuine relieve.

Cid chuckled. ‘Thank you for not shooting at us. Last we heard we were traitors of some kind.’

‘How could I? I have a missing Commander and you come arriving here on Volje like some kind of godsend,’ said Drissil airily.

‘We had hoped the Rangers’ presence will protect us till we can explain ourselves,’ confessed Cid.

‘I hope it’s a short story,’ said Drissil.

‘No, it’s not, but do not worry Colonel, right now I know even better than you the need for haste.’

 

They were inside the pavilion and Cid explained everything.

Stelinger’s a turncoat,’ said Drissil to himself as though testing the idea aloud.

‘Given our plight, I’m not even surprised. If I could get my hands on him now…’ he boasted, roaming the tent confines and massaging his hands together.

‘You have done every man here a great favour by rousing your suspicions and stopping the march. Had you gone oblivious into the Basin the army would have met a force it is not prepared for,’ said Cid.

‘Don’t get too fond of me just yet, we still have to escape these bastards and that will need a solid plan of retreat,’ said Drissil.

Cid shook his head. ‘Any attempt at escape will see us cut down, the Fallen already control the surrounding valley and we will not be able outmanoeuvre them, even if we do engage in hit-and-run,’ said Cid. ‘Imagine trying to flee through the narrows with four-thousand men, haunted by strike parties and Reavers attacking from higher ground.’

Drissil did not seem ready for this piece of information. ‘But you said there are more than ten-thousand of them ready to fill the Basin, come on man, we cannot go toe-to-toe with that!’ said Drissil.

‘We have little choice Colonel,’ said Olexion, ‘we all saw the Fallen’s position, we have to act soon if we wish to entrench ourselves in the Basin.’

Drissil sighed, doing some quick thinking.

‘Well then, Cid, I suggest you take point as the Commander, as is your right, I’ll back you up,’ said Drissil.

‘Are you sure that’s wise?’ asked Cid, more out of courtesy than anything else.

‘When my scouts return to the camp with word of the Fallen force they will follow you blindly if they must Cid, they will trust you.’

‘Good!’ exclaimed Olexion, ‘do you have a plan yet Cid?’

Cid realized everyone was looking expectantly at him. He in turn looked at Stelinger’s map tables. Like always he ran the numbers through his head, visualizing the Basin; its entryways, its slopes and its potential pitfalls.

‘Yes I do. Drissil, get the officers in here, and the magi as well, above all else we’ll need precision and therefore understanding in all our faculties.’

Drissil left the tent.

‘Everyone gather around the table,’ said Cid to his party, ‘and look lively, we need to play an outfit capable of winning.’

The first part of any plan Cid could fathom today would always involve isolating command, baiting those Shadow Priests in close enough so that Olexion’s Rangers could take them out. At least that way the Fallen on the surrounding highlands would not attack unless provoked. After that it might all become a straight brawl and Cid was worried that even his best preparation would not break the strangle hold the Fallen would have on them.

 

 

Cid instructed vehemently, moving the figurines on the maps in presentation, the pavilion squared full with men of rank.

He stood there looking like a vagrant, yet now every single officer’s attention was vested on him. The situation called for decisiveness and even the most hot-headed of soldiers wasn’t going to question his authority. At the moment Cid’s ability made him the undisputed Commander for this battle, official entitlements could wait.

In his mind he was back in that room, sitting across Bennam, calculating, fingers testing the weight of his chess piece on the precipice of making his move. Bennam as an opponent would often play like one assuming defeat, testing Cid’s logic with unexpected and costly moves. Till now he did not realized how much this was to prepare for him for days spent warring the Fallen. For there was no courtesy or calculus that would take in consideration human life; if the Fallen had to win by using every last drone they would still consider it a victory. On their part there would be no surrender and no retreat, no threshold Lanston could reach by taking a few quick kills, and it limited his plans to nothing outside absolute victory over a greater force.

Some clever stratagems came to mind, as Cid pictured allotted men finding themselves on places where the Fallen would be hard pressed; the stage, the mesas, the pinnacle, the plateaus encircling the premises…

Knowing the land, measuring the numbers, calculating the outcome. And still he doubted greatly. He was not going to allow himself right now to worry about Bennam’s intentions, or about how much of this he was responsible for. Nonetheless Cid would have welcomed the Bennam he knew at his side now, the one that would put fire in the men’s eyes and then take one of Cid’s plans and make it even better.

Alone and without the Commander though Cid was left to answer the question of what Lanston would need to do to secure survival when the worst of the Fallen were to be unleashed. The answer came hesitantly, the idea of it bold and glorious, though so trodden with risks that utter defeat was the only other possible outcome. He would not have promoted the idea, save that for today, their lives might depend on it.

The men and the one woman looked on as Cid used the figurines as to how he was envisioning the battlefield. Cid nurtured satisfaction in his chest as he found understanding among the Captains, having been fearful that the plan would be too abstract or too bold on the account of their lack of preparation, that many arguments would spark. Today that did not happen.

Without reluctance Cid assigned Brunick as the leader of the melee specialists and Alex Captain over a regiment of archers. He would mostly leave Vanapha to her own devices, but he plotted her into a sequence he was developing, suggesting to her how best to contribute.

Cid kept routing his stratagem back to the Rangers, as he knew their presence alone was a great reinforcement for everyone’s doubt. In reality they did provide the edge that Lanston needed and Cid planned most of the battle around their speed and aerial abilities.

When Cid finished he sent out the Captains to get word out to prepare the army for the march, to make for the Basin.

As the Captains left the tent a mage came before Cid who had stood out of sight near the entrance. He recognized the man as master Jartiveld, the leader and coordinator among the Lanston Sekhaimogists, an ageing yet sturdy magician. He was a man Cid rarely spoke to save for instances where Jartiveld came to point out flaws of Cid’s allocation of their arts. He did not disappoint.

Gravely he said, ‘Colonel, your plan to shield the men from the Fallen catapults will not work. Their projectiles are too much for us to stop on such a scale.’

‘Maybe a little faith will make a difference,’ said Cid at the man.

‘Our arts do not work that way!’ said Jartiveld.

‘No? I spoke at length with a Summoner these last few weeks, who confessed to me that the emotion – let’s call spiritual volition – of a man could strengthen the arts.’

‘An impractical suggestion that is! We will die under the flames of the Dey’illumra if what little courage we have fails us!’

‘How about this then: when you tend to a man to heal him, you hook his soul into the process, allowing his will to survive to help the magic, right?’

‘Yes,’ answered Jartiveld tentatively, his face unsure as though he didn’t actually like agreeing with Cid on anything.

‘Then allow the soldiers to help, weave the power of their courage into your spell,’ said Cid.

‘What courage?’ ridiculed Jartiveld.

Cid was growing agitated. ‘The spell can work and you know it. Master Jartiveld, if you do not feel confident to lead the magi then I must appoint another in your place.’

Jartiveld stood closer, his theatrical voice becoming low and serious, ‘I am one who has fought most of my years next to Bennam Colonel, I may be cautious, but I am no coward. If you ask me to go out there then I will, words of mine indicating otherwise are merely on the account of sparing men’s lives from needless deaths.’

‘Master Jartiveld, I hold you in the same esteem as Bennam did, for I would not have tolerated a mouth as wise as yours if I did not need you. There will be courage magician, just make sure you weave your spell like you’re supposed to,’ said Cid.

‘Ha, a fine model of the old Commander you are Colonel. I will weave the spell then, but you must do something about the men, they are not ready,’ said Jartiveld already leaving the tent.

That last statement worried Cid, knowing the mage was right.

Drissil came to Cid’s side, shaking his head. ‘They never really are military men like they should be.’

‘Yes, but men like Jartiveld are fighting men, and they do belong with us,.’

‘This Summoner you mentioned, was it he that caused the tremors yesterday?’ asked Drissil.

‘Yes, he lost his mind to the severe nature of his magic and we had to stop him.’

‘What was he like? As a Summoner I mean?’

‘Powerful and ageless and strange, yet helpful, even with the circumstances of his death he convinced me in some way that the Kingdom will one day have to renounce its harshness toward the magical kind. If we survive this, I want the kingdom to re-think its stance toward magi,’ said Cid thoughtfully, his words left to hang in the air.

Outside they heard the growing reverberation of men mobilizing to set course north.

‘Come with me Cid,’ said Drissil, ‘let’s get you in some armour.’

The narrows seemed empty leaving the pavilion then, as the many surrounding tents were already loaded on the wagons and filed in behind a slow march kicking up a healthy swirl of dust despite the rains.

As Cid followed Drissil to a lone standing provisional tent he asked, ‘my horse, Cilverhoof, I don’t suppose he’s still around?’

‘I thought you’d never ask. He is a grand stallion that one. Don’t worry Commander, I saw to him myself and he’s never been in better shape.’

 

Ever since the ambush in the forest Welce had walked with a dread in his mind. Now that dread was alleviating. Even as he moved along his fellow soldiers he considered their fortune; Cid had returned, and that with the Rangers on his side.

How did he do it?

What’s more, there was a Valkyrie involved and a rumour was spreading fast that Brunick, Cid’s Mason friend, was a genuine Stoneskin. Best of all the Captains let them know just now that they will all be joining the fight. It was unusual for a man to shrug his fears just before a war, but Welce couldn’t help feeling better off knowing Lanston had powerful allies and that Cid was at the command. He knew the other soldiers were still doubtful and unsure, but then Welce had been there when Cid made them survive that ambush in the forest. He was counting on the Colonel to do so again.

 

 

Cid smiled as he stroked Cilverhoof. Three quarters of the camp was already mobile, leaving only a small cluster of utilities yet to depart. Much like Mindevhier, Cilverhoof was another extension of Cid’s personality of war and it was only now, with both his steed and his spear, that he felt re-emerged as a soldier.

Drissil provided him with a spare set of armour which he dressed in without delay. He also outfitted Cilverhoof with a customary light chestplate and faceguard, the horse patient as he tugged the belts to even lengths.

Prepared, the last few tents were folded and stored on the wagons, the non-combat personnel destined to watch over the supplies and keeping out of the sight in the narrows. Cid and Drissil galloped side by side to join with the slowly advancing march. Cid had left it to each of the Captains to inform their men on the plan essentials. For the Lanston army to win their discipline would have to be immaculate, their foothold unwavering. A single fracture could cause the army to be overpowered by the Fallen, that much was a given.

Moreover it gave the Colonel the incentive to address his men personally. Cid and Drissil caught up with the back of the march, leaving the slow moving supply trains far behind. Drissil had an inkling of Cid’s intentions as they began riding an aisle through the rough count of 3000 marching men.

Cid nodded at Drissil and the man swept a Lanston horn from his saddle bag, blowing it loudly for all to hear.

In the narrows the Lanston army became deathly quiet, stopping and directing their stares to the two Colonels, who were still dividing the men as they rode to the fore.

Listen well men,’ said Cid, rearing his voice as loud as he could, his words carrying undiminished through the canyon. The sudden clout of thousands of eyes made Cid break out in a sweat and his stomach twisted so that he felt unsteady on his horse. Even a man like Bennam rarely had the need to attend to this many soldiers at a time. Cid swallowed hard as he and Drissil turned at the front of the march, facing Lanston.

He settled his gaze over the soldiers, seeing his own stony uncertainty on their faces. At first Cid’s intention was only to remind the men to keep cool and keep disciplined, to listen to their Captains. That he realized, was going to be a far cry from being enough.

Tutored under Bennam Cid knew full well when a host of men were ready for fighting or not; when they would match up with a fire on the inside or when they would merely raise their arms so that death be not imminent.

These men were lost, betrayed. They did not march out hundreds of miles to be lied to, abandoned, and then set up for death. Cid appreciated that this wasn’t their fight, even though their survival depended on it. Men did not enlist, say long goodbyes to families, and make sacrifices to be driven to this point.

His voice echoed: ‘It is good to be among you again, brothers.’ He swallowed hard again, finding no truth to tell that would encourage them, lifting the helm from his head, holding it on his lap.

‘Some of you might still be a little surprised to see me, I know my friend Drissil here was. A good man he is… he saved many of us today. Even as you look upon me now you’re wondering whether you should trust me, and if there is anyone left to trust at all,’ said Cid.

Cid’s silence became long, even awkward. He spotted Vanapha in the crowd, her gaze fixed on Cid as well. She gave a slight nod, urging him on. He took a breath, pushing past the pit in his stomach and the dryness in his throat.

‘We have been ravaged by death and betrayal,’ he confessed, hearing his own words bouncing along Fafriv, finding no refuge on the cliff walls and fleeing into the deep.

He wrestled with where to start.

‘At Commander Bennam’s death, we have lost the most stalwart of those who have fought the Fallen; lost the very icon that defined defiance against the madness of our enemies.’

There was a slight pause.

‘At the hands of Stelinger’s betrayal, our leader for this operation, we have lost much of who we are as a military force; our faith in one another, our identity based on the trust of our superiors, and ultimately our strength as well. How can we stand and fight when we do not even understand what we are as an entity anymore? When we cannot look up to those with experience and know; “these are the men who will see me through the day…” They are men we vowed to follow blindly, and blindly we stand here today.’

‘It’s been a long road for Lanston; we have always prided ourselves on being the guardians keeping the Fallen at bay, and what has been predicted to be our finest victory…’ Cid grimaced, ‘…now appears as our demise.’

‘I very nearly succumbed to what we all fear, the Fallen spell. And I very nearly come to destroy that which I love most. The betrayal parted onto me made me fearful and that fear tore me further from Lanston than any exile could. It puts you out of your mind this evil, and sets it on a place where that voice of reason does not reach.

‘By now you know that agents of the Fallen had been right here among us, and that we are truly here by their design.

‘It’s strange this evil, as it washes away at the memory of what we are, bereft of our truest self as the seeds of doubt are so carefully sown – even when grew up, raised on the stories of Lanston’s glory. That Lanston would never fail against the Fallen! We should not be here, this is not our land, not our way! Our fight is elsewhere, in places protected and sensible, where the soil is familiar and where promises of return are promises kept!

‘But I have been thinking, sooner or later, that it would always have come to this! Always we were destined, always we knew, pulled to this heartland of enemies by our very charge, that at some point or another we would come face to face with the greatest of Fallen in a deciding battle!

‘Its true, we are fewer in number and our position in this war is weak. We do not have those heroes in our army which have shattered the Fallen and protected our Kingdom today here with us – our brothers and our fathers. We do not have Bennam here to lead us like he has done for so many years… Those men who so warily returned home so that citizens may fearlessly utter, “they are invincible, our heroes will never fall!”

‘Yet we are men from Lanston! We are still the men who have taken up the gold armour and donned the tabard of green. We are still the men laid down with a charge a century old! To protect the Kingdom! To see our enemies lay to rest so that the darkest of days cannot descend upon our lands! Upon our people!

‘When we march, breaking into that Basin, we stand up to protect strength itself! That very strength of mind passing from generation to generation to stand in a world of tyrants that would enslave the wills of our sons and daughters! It has not changed! The Kingdom was breathed to life as the people struck out at the darkness, and it will survive fighting in the very same way it began! We Lanston, are strength for strength’s sake, we are the rock where odds break!’

‘And that strength will live on if we return home, so that they can all say again, “they are invincible, our heroes will never fall, the golden wall cannot be broken!”

‘Remember now who you are Lanston! Recall your strength! You are the single entity that has stood against the Fallen for one-hundred years! When we reach the Basin an enemy will await us there like you have never seen before! Our trust, our discipline and our fortitude will be tested…’

‘Look now to each other, look to your Captains. Find the courage to watch over the man next to you, find the courage to fight for each other.’

Cid could see the determination of his own voice tweaking the faces of the men, witnessing gloved fists strangling their grip on the weapons.

‘Take it upon yourself to find strength, and when you have none, look up to Brunick! Look up to the skies to see our Rangers! Lanston is not alone nor forgotten! Look up and you’ll see me leading the charge. Mindevhier will be at the heart of the battle!’

Cid breathed, eyes scanning the faces before him.

‘Your trust is hard earned! As well it should be! So I will say this to you:

My body will hit the ground! Sprawling and broken! Crushed under the Fallen! But I will not abandon you! I will lead you free of this terror, or I will find my final resting place here in Fafriv!’

With that Brunick leapt on a butt of rock, brandishing and shaking his axe in the air. He stood as a Stoneskin unashamed, bare-chested and dressed only in cloth trousers; any armour he could don only there to hinder his movements.

Death is calling our names lads! Let us respond in kind!’ roared Brunick.

A mad frenzy of cheers surged through the Lanston army. Chestplates were pounded and weapons raised, horses rearing. Cid held up Mindevhier as he and Drissil turned into the Basin. Drissil blew his horn loudly, the army pending north.

They marched.

 

 

Not long after Cid and Drissil were leading the cavalry up the western plateau to flank the Basin. He felt eerily reassured saying all that he had said to the army, his thoughts put to a calm as his words made the men brothers again. There was an edge to it though, as though his promise would linger in the canyon and he would have to answer all that was expected of him.

Cid looked to his right to watch the marching infantry in the Basin below. Golden armour underneath the sun, green tabards over each heart, white Kingdom standards bearing the Red-Rocket Aloe flowing in a scant wind, the heavy wheels of ballistae toiling over the rocky surface.

Fear was a cumbersome companion, making one slow in one’s movements, but the brave face brought forth by the unison of marching circumvented and contained that fear, keeping it at bay. In the end the show of it all was as much about inspiring your own as intimidating the enemy.

Apart from the core infantry Cid’s plan saw to it that three segments boasting a mix of shield-bearers, melee specialists, archers and magi would stay mobile. They were to be the strike groups, dedicated to specific targets and otherwise to inflict as much damage as possible. Timing was crucial for these groups as they were small and vulnerable, and could be easily overpowered if utilized erroneously.

Olexion’s men circled overhead continuously, the Volje’ eagle cries majestic, half reminding one of a life beyond this shell of warfare.

Cid was pleased to see all the regiments of the army taking their place. He felt Mindevhier tingling in his hands, prodding him like some long forgotten part of his mind, as though the spear recognized those very feelings before a coming battle.

Chapter 49

Battle

 

It was Elmira who boasted the best view; from the perch of Oldeloft she could see almost every detail of the Basin below, standing some 600 feet above it. The streams and rivulets of days past were of a fleeting kind as Alparack evidently swallowed the disturbance to enshrine itself with a desert-like appearance once more. The soil however was still fresh with moist and brought forth the rich red colour in the land, highlighting the contrast as every ridge and cropping of rock remained dull in oranges and browns.

From the back of Oel Dannel Elmira marvelled at the giant Biridians when they made their way here, but such great statures were reduced to shy and sparse foliage here in the Basin, brittle and staying flat to the rocks as though seeking strength from it, hardly visible as specks of green or grey.

When all was quiet she had heard Cid’s voice down in the narrows. She strained to discern his words and found she could not, and the few words that did reach her were not enough to follow. But it was not lost on her. She knew exactly what Cid was doing and felt the hair on her arms rise when Lanston cheered at the end of it.

She first heard the rhythm of the steel march and then witnessed as the Lanston men came in rank and file, leaving the canyon narrows and entering the Basin. It was a unique sight, topping any military parade she had seen before in Lanston.

She then saw the cavalry at the far west, detaching from the infantry and riding a separate trail onto the plateau. Elmira guessed that Cid would want the cavalry as close to the action as possible, but also at a position where they would be unlikely targets. Elmira recognized the roar of the Volje and smiled as she looked up to see Olexion and the Rangers coming into sight, circling the Basin premises.

It was somewhat like watching a play, keeping an admiring gaze as familiar players entered, all the while searching for a her favourite character, wondering where he hides.

Her slight anxiousness became fear when she noticed something at the north.

The Basin at its northern point finished with a giant natural ramp leading over the otherwise abrupt cliff wall and into the lands ahead. On the northern plateau the landscape was dominated by cone shaped hillocks, jutting up next to each other like teeth.

They blocked out the view of beyond and left only sparse pockets of flat terrain along the ridge facing the Basin. There was however a neck cutting through the hills like a path, intersecting with the ramp, and it was there, at the land’s maw, that the Fallen army amassed.

Elmira had never before seen the fabled black armours, and now that she did she wished she could erase her memories like the Summoners. It was much like watching a nightmare unfold and even though Elmira was perfectly safe where she stood, the sheer sympathy she had for the Lanston soldiers twisted her stomach.

Thousands of Fallen appeared at the top of the ramp; marching infantry in black enamelled steel-plated armour, emerging from the shelter of the hills. At first the approach seemed slow, but as they grew in number their advance hastened, bulging collectively to fill the high ground.

Elmira was too far away to truly make out the skull helms, yet was glad for it. The mindless men chanted together in unison with a strange tongue of harsh sounds. In addition they slammed their weapons to their shields or breastplates, the cacophony of it all reverberating across the valley.

In all Lanston suddenly seemed small and quiet.

On the nature of the chant Elmira too was enlightened; the Dey’illumra spoke their command in Twilight tongue and like a ripple effect the drones would start repeating the words until the chorus became an order to even the farthest fallen.

The Fallen however did not march far, choosing not to leave the safety of their position and Elmira could only speculate how many of them still waited beyond those hillocks.

The bulk of the Lanston infantry in contrast marched determinedly and continued to do so right up to the centrefold of the Basin, lodging themselves snugly between the base of a plateau ridge, the one that seemed like a stage of rock, and an obstinate pool of water, the last and lonely remains of the great rains.

They kept their backs to the stage as they took positions. Elmira then understood that any charging enemy would falter through the knee deep water in trying to get to Lanston and the ridge itself would prevent the Fallen from trying to circle them.

Even without Cid telling her much about the army’s workings Elmira knew that Lanston specialized in infantry turtles, and was able to entrench and protect themselves until such a time that the advantage was theirs.

Today they lined up with shields and spears all along the width of the pool, allowing the stage and waters to become a boundary. Spread like they were, the men fashioned ranks eight or nine shields deep, laced with lines of archers that could fire from protection. So that the formations could close the impressive ballistae were helped on as an increasing number of men pushed them into their final positions, arming the ranks with firepower.

It was a good place to stand she reckoned, yet there was a danger that the Fallen numbers would crush the Lanston men against the stage, allowing no retreat or reformation of tactics.

Elmira then followed the smaller strike forces going even further, each of which quickly proceeded to the top of three mesas in the Basin between the ramp and the pool, claiming those high grounds. The Basin was by no measure a uniform landscape, nature having carved the very elevations Lanston sought to capture and hold and use.

Meanwhile the cavalry had come to a halt also on the western plateau, where they stood parallel with the core infantry, yet far detached from the Fallen’s warpath. Elmira was almost sure Cid would be with them and it was searching through the cavalry ranks that Elmira spotted Vanapha, the Valkyrie.

It was quite a distance off, yet where she stood it would have been hard to miss her. At the east flank of the Lanston core infantry was a lone pinnacle of rock, a rare natural pedestal, reaching defiantly into the air from its flat surroundings like a tower, a 120 feet tall.

Perched at its top stood the Valkyrie in her maroon armour, upright and assured as she viewed the battlefield. Elmira could not even imagine how the Valkyrie had scaled the pinnacle of rock so fast, or how she had done it at all.

A trickle of movement caught Elmira’s eye to the north. The Fallen were mobilizing, their position enforced as a giant crescent around the northern rim of the ramp. Among the hillocks Elmira saw devices of wood being rolled in to the fore, positioned in those pockets of flat terrain at the cliff edge.

Catapults.

She had seen some of these siege engines on Lanston’s city wall before, but even at this distance she knew the Fallen’s were bigger. There were six of them, spread from one another in perfect intervals every 20 yards, or so it seemed by Elmira’s best guess. At the side of each were two or three mounted men on horses, standing among the device’s engineers. Studying them Elmira saw they donned robes of black, purple or red.

She then knew that for the first time in her life she was looking at Shadow Priests, the architects of untold tragedy and the reason they were all here. Elmira wondered what kind of man it took to willingly participate in the destruction of innocence and so delightfully twist the brave beyond recognition. She had a special hate for them for how close they had come to taken Cid away from her.

All came to rest then, a calm that could only predict the doom of men. A slow wind came down the peak of Hashur, picking up the fine red dust of the mountain as it surfed down. Elmira felt the grains on her ankles before they were swept clean from Oldeloft, spraying endlessly onto the battlefield.

Unaware of it Elmira hugged herself, her gaze flickering between Lanston and the Fallen, trying her best to see an outcome where Lanston would be victorious.

From the north a lone horn sounded, Elmira listening to the call the Fallen favoured. They might’ve been mindless, but the theatrics of war were clearly not lost upon them. It sounded once more in lonesome fashion, and then on its third ring, a dozen or more horns joined in.

Elmira shuddered as this black beast of men found its roar, laying down its challenge for Lanston. From Lanston’s part the Captains of the core infantry, the strike groups, and the cavalry all sounded their battle horns as well. The Lanston call was prideful, but halfway through it was drowned in the noise of the Fallen.

Elmira could not gauge where the Fallen’s chain of command came from, but she realized there was no doubt or ambiguity among them as the first regiment of Fallen infantry set forth, marching in box formation down the ramp, each of them visibly carrying a wide shield on the left arm. As they descended a new regiment of Fallen appeared at the top of the ramp, waiting.

Tight, clustered and shielded, the approaching regiment was the arrow fodder, an effort to waste Lanston’s supplies Elmira knew, as those nights she spent humouring Cid’s long talks of war usually stuck with her. The Fallen would not care losing men; they merely did what they deemed necessary to crush Lanston.

It struck her then that the men coming down that ramp were once part of normal families, some of them from Lanston. The Fallen was sending once innocent men to fight those they’d call brothers. The notion appalled her, trying to heed the famous military mantra:

they are beyond redemption… death is a mercy…”

For the first time she truly understood why Lanston needed that mind-set, why it was crucial, but she herself could never believe in it. She had seen Cid fall to their magic, driven to the edge of darkness. But then she saved him, Cid was redeemed, given a second chance away from just a mercy death.

Elmira ended the train of thought as the Fallen cleared the ramp and she tried to estimate. The approaching regiment appeared as much as a 1000 men when she compared them to the core of the Lanston infantry, which she knew was just more than 2000 men from last night’s talks.

For one last time Elmira considered going back in and wait the thing out anxiously in the house. She did not want to see death, except that she strangely felt that Lanston needed a witness, someone to note their bravery.

It was the strike groups that first found their reach. From three different mesas they commenced fire, stinging the Fallen with arrows and picking off the numbers as the marching men left behind a trail of bodies.

Undistracted the Fallen thousand rambled towards the infantry core. It disturbed Elmira how the enemy soldiers would downright sacrifice men to test their footing and waste Lanston supplies. The infantry core remained remarkably patient, allowing the Fallen to come within range of 80 yards.

Then, primed, the archers from the core infantry unleashed waves of arrows, separate lines of men firing a volley every six or seven seconds. The intervals of arrows ate away at the Fallen ranks, hitting them hard despite their shields and armour. The Fallen march kept its shape even though losing many dozens, closing in on the core with more speed with each man they lost.

Lanston was determined to avoid contact for as long as possible and the core infantry rolled forward and angled one of their ballistae. The engineer took aim, urging his men into motion as they toiled to get the perfect shot, rotating the headpiece on its foundation.

Just like a giant crossbow the ballista released a bolt, with a snap of coil and lurch of mechanics. The bolt, longer than a man, lunged from the device. Elmira saw the wooden shaft flying at the Fallen with demonic speed.

It hit the black armours on the front, its blades and weight easily tearing through a 50 count of men before losing momentum and disintegrating as it hit the soil. It was a gruesome sight. More than just the apparent casualties the ballista bolt had shattered the Fallen’s tight posture and they became all the more vulnerable to the next volley of arrows.

Lanston sought to dismantle their enemies, firing ceaselessly at the Fallen. The enemies advanced vainly, their numbers decimated by the time they reached the strip of water. The arrows were finally halted and from the Lanston core rushed but 40 men, meeting the last of the Fallen regiment in the waters and quickly finishing them off in a one-sided melee.

In good spirit the Lanston men cheered. The first test was done, but if the Priests had indeed only been looking to disarm Lanston by some measure then they had been successful.

Elmira noticed now that while Lanston was fighting the relatively meagre regiment, the enemy catapults were being loaded. Elmira was sure they were still yet out of range, but she shuddered at the damage those machines would have on Lanston.

There was quiet stalemate for awhile and then everyone heard a duo of horns sounding from the Lanston Cavalry. An order had come and this time the gold armours took initiative. Two of the three Lanston strike groups started moving, dismounting their respective mesas, forming a tight rank and marching right at the Fallen’s high and mighty position. They were less than 500 men combined and Elmira sincerely thought Lanston was making a mistake. She saw the Rangers circling far above the men below, their rotations moving subtly closer and closer to the Fallen.

The Fallen responded to the marching strike groups, rolling their catapults forward to the very edge of the cliff. Then Elmira saw magic the likes she had never seen before. The Priests who waited mounted at the sides of the catapults raised their hands, touching upon and wielding their mystical force.

All the while the Fallen engineers prepped the catapults, loading, winding and aiming them. Elmira had no idea with what the Fallen initially loaded the device, whether it was simply rock or a more sophisticated projectile, but what followed drew every single stare in the Basin. The command was sounded.

The catapults snapped and launched, the wooden arms coming upright to hurl six giant balls of violet fire through the air with great tails of black smoke. They came plummeting hundreds of feet far from their elevated launch point, and Elmira could hear them burning terribly through the air, sure that they were magically guided as well as they descended flawlessly on the Lanston men.

Without panic the two Lanston companies formed complete turtles, holding their shields tight at the flanks or overhead, each shield becoming a protective scale. Just before the men enclosed themselves entirely in semi spheres of shields she saw the Lanston Sekhaimogists raise their hands. The shields folded close and an instant before impact Elmira saw the golden shields illuminate like a lantern.

The projectiles crashed in concert, striking on top and around the companies, the purple fire swallowing the turtles whole, dark plumes of smoke rocketing into the air and a dust storm kicked up, barely masking the fragments and shrapnel propelled through it all.

The devastation was obscuring everything and there was a solitary moment of uncertainty. Elmira’s eyes widened as the flames dulled and the smoke dissipated, and still the golden shields remained in place, impervious and unscathed, still glowing.

Sensing it was safe to move the Lanston men broke up, the spell ended. They moved with unexpected speed toward the ramp, the heavy shield bearers working hard to keep up. Again Lanston seemed to be reckless.

The Fallen showed the immediate intention of labouring to reload the catapults, but even Elmira sensed it was pointless to shoot now as the Lanston men drew too close. The soldiers ran right up the slope, finding rest half way up where the ramp had a smooth terrace of ground. Joined together they once more formed a turtle, this time merely making a straight wall of locked shields to face the Fallen. Elmira could not fathom what they were trying to accomplish, the meagre amount of men surely to be crushed and far removed from their brothers who could help them.

Predictably enough the foremost of the Fallen issued a slow march down the ramp to remove the Lanston stain before them. The Lanston magi started weaving their magic again, their waving gestures almost comical behind the turtle. Elmira expected something extraordinary to happen, something to justify Lanston’s suicidal position.

Her train of thoughts was interrupted as she spotted Brunick for the first time. He was at the lead of the 400 men on the ramp, at this distance only recognizable by his bare chest and his axe as he swung it over one of his hunched comrade’s shield to crush an enemy on the other side of the wall. The Lanston soldiers fought tightly, never risking their formation for a second, relying on conservative stabs and arrows to keep the Fallen from stampeding through and over them.

Even after a minute nothing resulted from the Sekhaimogists’ effort and Elmira grew frustrated. By now she had heard of Brunick’s Stoneskin, but has never seen its workings before and so she feared for his life all the same.

A Captain of the turtle blew his horn and then the Rangers suddenly made their first decisive move. Elmira had missed something, this she knew – something has changed.

Olexion and his men came diving swiftly into the fray, descending toward the catapults.

The Shadow Priests tried to overpower the Rangers’ barriers with their magic, but nothing happened, and it was only then that Elmira understood that Cid planned to get his Sekhaimogists in range to bind the powers of the Priests so that they could not harm the Volje.

Desperately some Fallen soldiers aimed their crossbows at the air and even before their bolts were released Elmira knew that the Rangers’ bubbles of magic would keep them at bay. There was an eruption of chaos as the Shadow Priests were wrenched into the air, the mighty Volje grabbing their prey with all the efficiency of a hunting fish eagle.

She saw the dangling beings crushed in the clawed grip and then dropped a hundred feet in the air, their already limp bodies flailing into the Fallen masses. Seemingly feasting the Volje dived, ceremonious in their slaughter.

Only a handful of them escaped with their lives, fleeing like rats into the safety of the Fallen numbers, hiding with their peers in the deeper mass of the Fallen army. Quickly adapting the Rangers aimed their Volje at the catapults. As one, three Rangers at a time dived and in a fluid motion the Volje grabbed at the frames of the machines, tearing it apart as they turned upwards again, rendering the catapults worthless.

Elmira cheered, bouncing on her feet, hands clasping, realizing they had just disabled some of the Fallen’s most powerful weapons. The men in the Basin also cheered as the companies on the ramp started their retreat, determined to get out of the way before the Fallen could truly weigh on them.

The head of the black-armoured march tried to chase down the strike forces, but the Rangers simply changed form once more, sweeping dangerously low across the ramps as they lashed out at Lanston’s pursuers. Claws came to rend, and the barriers of the Volje extended as rams as they crashed through the Fallen.

The Lanston men made a sound retreat into the Basin, quickly retaking their former places on the mesas. The Fallen who had taken it upon themselves to chase mindlessly and managed to escape the Rangers’ onslaught were quickly shot down by the strike force that had remained entrenched on their mesa through all of it.

It was all rather familiar as the two forces returned to what they were before blood was spilt, yet now the Fallen were without the catapults and many of their Priests, all the while more than a 1000 of their men’s bodies made a trail along the Basin floor.

Elmira could identify turmoil in Fallen ranks there at the maw, their faceless command having just been thrown around like dolls, and the Priests who remained alive would not expose themselves unknowingly again.

Elmira read into the vigilant posture of Lanston and came to expect the worst again. There was no let up by the soldiers, their eyes fixed, their armaments poised. In her mind the Fallen were crippled now, but the tensed and braced golden armours told Elmira different, explaining to her that Lanston’s entire effort was simply to force the enemy into one inevitable designated direction; to wound the beast in such a way that it had no other choice than to emerge from its cave, raging and roaring, to bring on the very worst so that it could be dealt with out in the open.

It came. There was a growing reverberation, the horns of the Fallen sounded throughout, consensus reached. The horn songs faded as they started marching, ushering a slow stampede, the sound of their armours steadily increasing as more and more men were allowed forwards.

There was nothing ambiguous or guileful about it; the Fallen had simply decided to reach out and overwhelm Lanston. The first line of men had long cleared into the Basin when still more marched from the hillocks.

Elmira knew not what to make of it, because now she could see the entirety of the enemy, and they were much too great for Lanston. Worst of all was that small circle of men that came through the middle, escorted and protected by thousands. All of them were Priests still mounted, save for a single fallen walking right among them, his size making him a giant of a man.

Then, as though her eyes were trying to conjure up images in denial, she saw hordes of dark spots moving rapidly through the open valley, many of them on the flanks of the Fallen march. Her first realization was that some of them were running on all fours, the nightmare revealing more of its horrors.

The beasts she thought had been tall tales on the soldiers’ part bounded inhumanly onto the mesas where the strike groups waited. In mid-air the Reavers brandished their scimitars from the back-holsters and came down hard on the Lanston men. The strike groups scurried to eliminate these animals amongst them, all the while failing in thinning the Fallen – all the while the black march moving closer to the core infantry.

The core infantry started its very own wave by wave arrow fire again, trying to kill off as many as they could before inevitable contact.

The strike forces seemed to struggle internally with the Reavers, as their closed ranks did nothing to hamper the beasts’ fury.

Then Elmira saw her final fear come to life. For the moment she was sure Lanston would die and she had been vainly hoping Cid knew this, that he and his closest men would decide to retreat in faith that the Fallen could no longer hunt them down.

She knew he wouldn’t; there was just too many men left in the Basin.

The cavalry came with a steady pace into the Basin, descending down the trail in a long line of horses.

A disturbance wrenched Elmira’s gaze to the black march. A bright spark of yellow flashed as a precursor of the explosion, orange flames sundering a multitude of Fallen, smoking remains dividing the path and halting their step.

Elmira stood agape, Cid and the cavalry forgotten for a moment as she sought the source of this ghostly intervention, the Lanston men apparently untroubled by it, doing little to help Elmira through the confusion. She looked at Vanapha, sure the Valkyrie would be the first to find the origin.

Rather strangely she found the Valkyrie frantically busy with something in her hands, tying an object to an arrow it seemed. Curious, Elmira watched her and deducted much in the next few moments. She remembered her working on something or another at Oldeloft, thinking of those vials she showed Cid. Piecing together what had happened Elmira looked on:

The Valkyrie deftly twirled the second arrow between her fingers, mixing the substance. Posturing, she took careful aim with that arrow, waiting for the right moment. Then she released.

Elmira’s gaze hopefully followed the arrow as it sped an incredible distance to the black march. Vanapha had waited for the Fallen to dense up and her arrow was destined for those who did so the most. Elmira’s carefully poised eyes saw the arrow strike but a single worthless face in the Fallen ranks.

The explosion was instant. On impact an inferno breathed to life with such suddenness that it displaced dozens of men brutally, igniting them as they flew. Again the march was slowed and hindered, the flames withering from their initial fury, but standing as tireless landmarks puffing plumes of smoke into the sky.

Elmira’s gaze was drawn to the cavalry again. Out in the open they formed a wedge, like a long-sided triangle pointing its head at the Fallen’s west flank. At its foremost was Cid, Elmira seeing his spear lifted high and the man alongside him undoubtedly the fabled Colonel Drissil, Captain of the Charge.

The two men on their horses suddenly set pace, leading the wedge forward. The canter turned into a gallop and the gallop into a dash, the charge of cavalry bearing murderously at the Fallen’s flank. The black amours remained fixed on the core infantry, only bracing themselves instinctively a few seconds before impact.

Elmira saw Cid and Drissil coming in fast.

She could not bear it and closed her eyes. A great clash of steel and flesh sounded, intertwined with screams and cries of horses and men. A few seconds later Elmira found she couldn’t bear the ignorance any better than knowing and opened her eyes.

It took her a moment to realize what she was witnessing. The Lanston cavalry had smashed right into the ranks of the Fallen, shattering that which had been a boundary of bodies.

The wedge formation evened out with the resistance of enemies, but still Cid and Drissil led the charge, the cavalry changing its pace and direction at the mere whim of the two men. The air was clear today, the rains having weighed down the red dust of the land, so even though she saw Cid only as a small figure on the battleground, there was no mistaking him; kicking at the fallen at his sides and spearing those in his way, then ramming with Cilverhoof to create space when necessary.

Elmira noted that the strike forces had freed themselves from the menace of the Reavers, ultimately overwhelming the suicidal spree of the dogs with numbers.

The Lanston cavalry all the while worked itself through and around the Fallen like a worm, eating away at the march’s figure. They never quite got far enough to strike at the Priests, but were dealing damage nonetheless.

Elmira could not know this, but Drissil’s feeling for the charge was so acute that he experienced it as a tide of the ocean. He knew immediately when the momentum was lost and ordered disengagement whenever needed. In an instant Drissil’s command was enacted. The cavalry surged from out the Fallen’s reach, peeling away, turned around and made a cutback route, gaining their speed anew as they rammed into the enemies, then gouging them with weapons before retreating again. Vanapha synchronized her attacks, firing exploding arrows every time the cavalry needed some breathing room to retreat.

The ranks became tenderized and the melee specialists charged in, each specialist followed closely by two shield bearers. There was no need for command; years of drilling caused the men to follow an innate timing.

They surged in, cut down dozens of Fallen and then retreated, the shield bearers covering their escape should the enemy pursue with crossbows. And she was then reminded of playing as a child outside and seeing two different colonies of ants tearing away at each other. Only now it was real men, real faces of sons and fathers on both sides.

The half and half effort by the specialists seemed to be an unmatched recipe until fatigue made them somewhat slower. Elmira tracked a figure breaking away from that black heart in the middle, abandoning the Priests and striding ferociously through his own ranks, his size and presence becoming greater the closer he got to Lanston. The last hundred yards he sprinted, breaking into the isolated specialists just when they sought to hamper their next victims. They were not prepared for it.

The giant fallen man was invisible to most until his first few strokes fell. Suddenly the specialists were failing, attempts of fronting and escaping useless as the giant cleaved the life from them, moving inhumanely from death to death, his savagery ordaining the lesser fallen around him into rage of their own.

It was but a small part of the battle, yet Elmira was sure this giant could see to it that Lanston’s greatest plan be foiled in his warpath. One other had her sight on the giant and the arrow could not have come timelier. It thudded nearby on the ground, but the result was pure, the giant and his men swathed in the flames, disappearing.

Nothing escaped it, nothing stood up from it. Certainly it was another great milestone for Lanston’s survival.

Elmira had been estimating and found that at least for the moment the Fallen were losing men much faster than Lanston, even more so as Vanapha continued to punctuate each sequence with a callous kill of fire and smoke.

Yet after all the effort the Fallen was still immense, still great. It seemed as though the numbers they lost only weeded out the extra luggage as their group turned more condensed, stronger, and faster as well. They pushed forward, straight at the core infantry, almost ignoring the Lanston cavalry and the few men hacking at their sides so that their march looked like a pursued exodus more than anything else. This worried Elmira, for the most likely answer to their demeanour was a means to sunder Lanston.

Regardless of the black march’s enforced cumbersomeness, another pack of Reavers broke out into the open. Again like before they came with such speed across the land that Elmira couldn’t catch where they were coming from. This time they decidedly converged toward Vanapha’s pinnacle; she was being identified for the threat she was.

Tensed and fearful Elmira watched as the Reavers sank their claws into the pinnacle surface, crawling up with strong arms to get the Valkyrie. Whatever the Reavers’ shift of attention spared to Lanston would now ensure Vanapha’s demise.

 

 

Alex watched from the thick of the core infantry. Even as he commanded his line of archers’ volleys he was well aware of the Reavers’ ascension to Vanapha on their right, their numbers crawling up the spine of rock demanding his attention, even though meaning he would have to falter his volleys for a moment.

He shouted to his men closest to him, making the cluster face east. His order was clear: shoot a volley at the Valkyrie. Their hesitance was swept away by the urgency in his voice, the men aiming and pulling uniformly. Alex trained on Vanapha again, determined to buy her time if nothing else and trusting her to adapt to his plan.

 

 

Vanapha was frantically trying to wave down one of the Rangers, seeing no escape from these menacing creatures on her own. They were closing. The first of them she simply shot in the head, allowing its body to roll limply from the rock. The next seven however were imminent and she was to be overwhelmed.

Her Sight alerted her of it first, and then she looked at the core infantry as a murderous flock of arrows ascended toward her. With great relief she vaulted backwards from the pinnacle top, sliding the bow over her body in one motion and catching the edge as she hung in the shelter of the shadow side.

She heard the swarm of whistling arrows coming in fast and how they struck the howling beasts right in their backs on the other side, their wounded bodies swept from the pinnacle by the volley. She saw some undesignated arrows flying right above her where she had stood but moments earlier. Her Sight warned her that one Reaver on the other side had not been hit and was still coming up.

Vanapha scrambled up again in a race, she and the creature clearing to the top at the same time. She anchored herself, tilted and straightened a kick right into the Reaver’s throat before it could gain momentum, getting a yelp out of it before sending it over the edge.

Her troubles weren’t over. The Reavers’ failure only allured more to the cause, the Priests evidently directing the animals to eliminate the one who could kill them if the opportunity surfaced. Now more than a dozen new Reavers were climbing, pursuing at each other heels, great black furred arms reaching up and up before slamming their claws into the rock face. Again Vanapha waved and this time one of the Rangers responded. Sedger abandoned his hassling of the Fallen for a bit, gaining height so that he could dive circling for the Valkyrie. He knew there wouldn’t be time to land.

Vanapha saw Sedger coming in even faster than the Reavers, the beasts’ ragged breathing loudening. Preparing herself, Vanapha took another Trisera arrow, spinning it while taking a deep breath for what she was about to do next. Notching the arrow onto the string she made the slightest run up and leapt completely clear of the perch. The Reavers turned their heads as their prey jumped over them, so very high up in the air. One of the confounded beasts bounded out after her, having peace with falling to its death.

Prepared for it Vanapha could only hope Sedger would arrive in time, her hypervigilance making everything seem slow. She turned her body in the air and took quick aim. She shot past her aerial pursuer and into the pinnacle.

This time the explosion rocked and shattered the pinnacle, the clinging Reavers dead instantly. Vanapha closed her eyes instinctively at the light, using her Sight from there on. She could feel the concussive force pushing her and the Reaver even further, keeping them airborne for another crucial two seconds.

The rock of the pinnacle split like glass, catching up with them. The darting rock pieces crushed the Reaver first and just when it should have rend through Vanapha’s body a curtain of a barrier threw itself into existence to halt the rocks with a smash. Vanapha opened her eyes and smiled as her legs and arms caught onto the speeding Volj, the sudden change of her body’s acceleration making her giddy.

‘You have my gratitude Ranger,’ said Vanapha as she held onto the man.

‘No worries, lets clean up, eh? I’m sure you’d like to get back at those Priests, they have been giving you a lot of attention after all.’

‘Yes, lets,’ said Vanapha, looking down at the core infantry, and silently thanking the man watching her back.

 

 

Alex breathed easier and felt his arm find a solid rhythm again as they volleyed. He had seen Vanapha making it safe, with the pinnacle exploding so fiercely that some of the smaller rocks rained down on the core infantry.

Alex had been sure he would see Vanapha die, falling to her death or crushed by the flying rocks. The Ranger’s magic came just in time and Vanapha’s superior senses allowed her to catch onto the Volj in mid-flight.

For a moment Alex wished so that it was he on that Volj catching the Valkyrie, but then he knew he played his part in saving her and being a soldier he understood that, especially now, they were all faceless cogs working together to get through this alive.

 

 

Seeing Vanapha caught by the Ranger, Elmira’s concern became wholly focused on Cid again.

She winced unconsciously each time Cid entered the fray, but she found the sight reach an insatiable side of her, experiencing an unexpected satisfaction at seeing the Fallen slain. Fighting as they were Lanston seemed favoured as the Fallen grew more exposed with every route, those Priests centred in the middle looking not so invincible anymore.

They were halfway through another route when Cid was suddenly snatched from his horse, a fallen soldier grabbing desperately and pulling him from his saddle. He disappeared in a mass of bodies, Cilverhoof cantering on riderless.

Elmira gasped, her panic making her heart throb in her stomach as well as her throat. Her eyes searched desperately for any sign of him.

Drissil had seen the event from the corner of his eye and had to adjust the charge, in the first instance not to trample their Commander and in the second to make a swift cutback to try and save him.

Some of the melee specialists went in blindly to the spot where Cid fell, putting themselves in harm’s way as they collided with the Fallen, hacking as though making their way through a dense forest of black armours.

Elmira saw an arrow hit a fallen enemy every few seconds exactly where Cid would be and she traced the fire back to the Valkyrie on the Volj, whose frantic demeanour gave Elmira hope; hope that Cid was still alive for the moment.

Drissil managed to clear a sizeable path with his cavalry, the concentrate of bodies diminished. Elmira saw a Lanston soldier hunched like he was trying to help someone up, then a second later a fallen plunged his sword in the man’s back.

Elmira felt herself growing faint, yet her entire focus remained on the chaos below. Tidings for worse only sought to bring nightmares alive again as Elmira by chance spotted an ashen figure wandering near a column of smoke, tearing himself from his broken black armour and searching the ground for his weapons, his rapid movements showing his rage. He should not have survived it…

Then Drissil voiced a retreat from the thick of things, commanding everyone to get from out the Fallen’s reach. Elmira could not believe what she was seeing.

They are abandoning Cid…

 

There wasn’t time for deliberation for Brunick, knowing from horrid experience how quickly these things could go wrong. He had seen Cid wrenched from horseback just like everyone else. From his safe distance away he started the charge on foot, roaring, peace with whether he would be helped or do it alone.

He’d like to think that he had no fear, but the sound of men following his charge bolstered his poise. It seemed utterly lunatic for a bare-chested axe man to stampede into heavily armed and armoured men.

But then the Stoneskin made him almost invincible and his axe, fists and elbows became flailing weapons, carving into the Fallen ranks. He lost his momentum in the weight of the enemy and then his aid came, heavy swords swinging from behind to help Brunick cut through.

This was another type of battle; the Lanston military was bred to be conservative, calculating and efficient. The melee specialists though existed exactly for situations like this, when desperate times called for feral fighting. The slaughter was up close and personal, Lanston’s finest warriors the overdue spectacle as fallen and soldiers were weighed man-to-man.

On Brunick’s part the frantic Lanston men were favoured, but they were here in this mess on their own cognizance and as such they weren’t fighting for mere survival; they were fighting to get their Commander back.

Brunick had a good idea of where Cid had fell, and from the front he pushed their endeavour in that direction. He was like a shield then, fighting, but his body taking most of the hits, his fellows spared what he could endure. The swords and hatchets of the Fallen pinched, bruised and welted his arms and chest, but they seemed nothing more than blunt instruments to Brunick’s body.

From his peripheral Brunick saw the cavalry make a swift retreat. Brunick immediately shook the notion that Drissil was giving up on Cid. It was however growing dense and difficult, and if they didn’t get out soon Lanston’s entire survival would be sacrificed on Cid’s behalf.

His mind tricking him into what he wanted to see, he recognized his Colonel in a man running forward with Mindevhier. Yet the weapon of Ruin was overwhelming altogether and the Lanston soldier stumbled, struck dead instantly as he fell by a merciless Fallen’s blade. Brunick grimaced, realizing the man had tried to recover the legendary spear, but could not handle it.

Veering a bit off course Brunick picked it up from the dead man’s clasp, broke it down and holstered Mindevhier with haste in his belt, knowing he would be the only man other than Cid who could carry the weapon. Even before he could holster the spear properly he felt the weapon kick at something in his mind, trying to ward Brunick. Strangely, even though the spear repulsed him, Brunick was sure he felt the Colonel’s mind in the weapon. He’s got to be close!

A few panic-stricken moments then-after left Brunick fearing for the worst.

Should have seen him by now… crushed under the Fallen if he didn’t come up on his own…

Enraged Brunick cleaved forward, sensing the men behind him were now favouring retreat, their safety jeopardized this far in. Brunick knew they couldn’t stay much longer. Then he saw it – the most important aspect; he was on his feet.

Just ahead a single man in gold armour was fighting his way out of a Fallen pocket. The man pivoted, his attention flicking insistently between his enemies all around, his savage display with the sabre keeping him alive. Cid was fighting so uncharacteristically furious that Brunick saw the shades of the Fallen spell in him again. Only this time he was fighting against the Fallen and Brunick joined the Colonel’s side, relishing the moment. In the clear for a moment Cid took the spear from Brunick without a word, and both men were stronger for it.

Now its Drissil’s turn…

Monitoring the cavalry Brunick issued as much space as he could with sweeping strokes, diverting as many of the stragglers to Cid who could deal with them more swiftly. Time was against them. In his peripheral he saw something tear through the Fallen from the greater body of the black march.

It was iDartés, coming with a growing pace, his chest and head still ash stained, his hatchets already clawing, carving a path through his own men.

It was clear he was approaching with a vengeance, his glare fixed on the two Lanston soldiers who had stopped him once before. Brunick wanted to warn Cid then, but the Colonel already left his side. Sweeping his gaze back to iDartés, he saw Cid front up to the giant. Blindly he charged in after the Colonel.

He wished to be the voice of reason, to wrench Cid back and leave the fight for better times. Even if he could, he understood the mind of the man he followed; being fiercely driven and urged by the promises he made to his men, promises he made to Elmira, to end a past that would haunt if left to survive. And so, even Brunick in his caution would stand with Cid.

Cid spun away from a Fallen troop, trusting Brunick to deal with him. The Mason did so, ending the man promptly as Cid lunged at iDartés. Those who knew iDartés were quickly reminded of his danger. Reversing his hatchets he used the shafts of the weapon to quickly block and parry Cid’s stabbing attacks. It took him mere moments to push Cid off balance and follow it with a backhand blow, the gauntlet smashing Cid from his feet.

Brunick tried to surge in but the lesser Fallen swarmed, ready to isolate those who’d try to cut down their leader. With his hands spaced wide over the shaft of his axe he kept his attacks at short deadly slices, efficient, risking no time consuming plunge, reserving that honour for iDartés.

Cid was quick to his feet again, this time on defence, dancing and ducking away from iDartés’ furious hatchets. Waiting for iDartés to overextend himself, Cid went on the attack again, his attacks well placed to press the giant until an opening could be found. But iDartés wasn’t going to disappoint his well earned reputation, adjusting to every extent of Cid’s effort, using his strength to placate and turn the spear with every counter. The spirit that fed iDartés’ unwavering battle instinct needed to be dealt with and Cid knew the answer to that was right there in his own hands.

Cid twirled Mindevhier around and thrust with the butt of his spear, aiming for a blunt stroke to the throat. iDartés thought it an opportunity, rolling his shoulder and quickly caught the shaft under his armpit, wrapping his massive arm around the weapon, seemingly ensuring Cid’s defeat, the spear collectively a tug-piece between the two men. But then Cid saw all that he wanted to see, the unstoppable giant wincing as Mindevhier flooded the man’s mind with the wills of warriors long dead.

Never lingering for a second Cid twisted the wooden shaft clear, the spearhead in his hands. He spun and then swiped the blade high, the edge opening up the giant’s throat.

iDartés stumbled back, dropping a hatched and the other half of Cid’s spear, clenching at his bloody neck. It should have been over, but the enraged iDartés inhumanly raised his boot into Cid’s chest. Again he toppled, hitting the ground hard, fearing death as iDartés stood over him.

The giant would bleed to death, but not before he ended the Colonel. iDartés raised a single hatchet overhead, looking unsteady on his feet, the spirit that made him so strong already fleeing, yet his gaze fixed on nothing but Cid, seeking to bury the weapon in his old opponent.

Another boot slammed the ground right next to Cid’s head, the twisting sole grinding the grains of the earth to screech in his ear. Anchored, Brunick’s axe came arching through the air, a single axe blade plunging into the collarbone of iDartés.

The blood fountained, spattering, and the weakened hand dropped the last hatchet. With a roar Brunick pulled the axe clear, the giant sinking to his back and skidding across the earth. iDartés was left for dead; he would not rise again.

Drained, Cid came to his feet, Brunick tugging him upright. They were still in the thick, still in danger, yet iDartés’ body was laid out like a signpost of terror and there was not a single fallen who showed fervour in approaching the giant slayers.

Then Drissil came charging.

 

 

In time Elmira felt herself growing closer to the edge, reflexively stepping forward, as though her body was going throw itself after Cid. Before her mind could be numbed she was sure she saw Mindevhier, and then the man carrying it disappeared again. She had to remind herself to breathe.

Brunick was obvious then, bare-chested and raging, quickly swerving around where she had seen the spear and then moments later joining a soldier’s side who surfaced sporadically.

Hopefully now Elmira watched the two men, isolated among the enemy. She could not be sure, but she thought she was looking at Cid down below back-to-back with Brunick. The scale of sights and sounds were overwhelming and so her focus remained dedicated to these two men. Mindful of the giant’s approach she realized within an instant the savage Fallen was targeting the men she watched. There was a terrifying exchange, weapons flailing. She first saw the soldier go down and seconds later Brunick cut the giant down, his death this time beyond doubt.

Purposefully the cavalry circled, making a long train and then cutting back at the Fallen, coming in with an angle. Elmira only then realized that Drissil had not retreated at all, but that he needed the right charge. Rather than trampling the Fallen, the realigned horses cut a deep path through, making a protective half moon to separate oncoming Fallen. Never stopping for a second the cavalry created a momentary wall between the specialists and the greater Fallen numbers.

Astonished Elmira followed the men on foot’s escape. She held her breath, keeping her eyes on the man by Brunick’s side, the two of them jogging to safety, the cavalry already again overtaken them.

In mid-run the man reassembled the spear as he had carried the halves, and then whistled at and waved down Cilverhoof. Only then Elmira was certain as she felt a horrible stress release its grip on her.

Cid’s alive!

The horse slowed to trot and Cid lifted himself into the saddle swiftly. He held up Mindevhier and Lanston rejoiced at seeing their Commander alive, the cavalry forming around him again.

None were as relieved as Elmira was.

In the meanwhile the battlefield was favouring the Fallen. The distraction of trying to recover Cid had broken a crucial rhythm for Lanston’s part and it cost them time as the enemy worked themselves tirelessly forward.

The Fallen’s emergence would not be mistake on their part, that much was known by all. Yet when the Fallen reached their mark Lanston was struck by a visible air of defeat. Despite Lanston’s best efforts the Fallen numbers had carried itself right up against the core infantry, the front most already trudging over a path of bodies, that very first regiment serving its purpose in death as they cemented the water and muddy slope.

It happened with time, the encounters clumsy for awhile, but its implication became clear only at the last moment. The Fallen suddenly formed a great dark circle, pressing the core infantry against the ridge and separating the Lanston forces entirely.

The outer half of the Fallen assembled and entrenched, creating a half circle of defence and facing opposite to their front-most brothers. They hunkered down, aiming crossbows, or holding up deadly spears and halberds, their footing strong. In this bold development the Lanston cavalry became eliminated. Like a porcupine they were. Charging at the motionless backside of the Fallen was suicide now and the only vulnerable spot the Fallen had was at the other side of the circle which was completely inaccessible to Cid’s cavalry.

The ballistae became a small mercy for the core infantry as they fired devastating shots into the numbers, only just stalling the breaking point. Should the core infantry at any moment let up their ranks would be breached and they would have no chance.

On the Fallen’s side the Priests were now in prime range. Still protected by hordes of men and their magic, the Priests casted their fire, the flares of purple less imposing than those of the catapults, but often slipping through the far-stretched defences of the Sekhaimogists. The Rangers did their best to protect the core, flying in with barriers of their own to intercept the comets of flame, scrumming through the heat and smoke before they could land among Lanston.

Elmira looked at the aimless cavalry and strike forces, powerless in any case. She’d never thought she would see it, see Cid stumped like this, without a plan and without choice. He sure looked it now, his cavalry regiment trotting in indecisive circles.

But then she knew he’d try something, even if it just was tackling the enemy from behind. Moments later he circled his spear in the air. His voice became loud and shouting, commanding both his cavalry and strike forces.

There was an exodus of movement, Elmira watching the final decisive moments of the battle. Everyone was taking their places for the showdown.

Minutes passed, the next more wretched than the last, and then finally the uproar came from Lanston.

She held a hopeful breath of air as she saw Lanston breaking the enemy, and then she downright smiled knowing Cid would come through alive.

Chapter 49

The Charge

 

Cid was still reeling from being pulled from his horse and his fight with iDartés. There would be much time afterwards to ponder the pain though, or maybe, no time at all. He felt the pressure of thousands of men’s lives weighing on him, tormenting his already muddled thoughts into doing something.

The Fallen he knew, would eventually use their numbers to press the Lanston force into a corner, and prevent any kind of intervention by using their vanguard to entrench with crossbows and spears, very much a porcupine formation that protects the back.

He had anticipated this very situation and explained his only possible counter measure to the Captains in the pavilion. Only this time they looked at Cid as if he was mad, and Drissil, if not wanting to save Cid’s face, would have called Cid a lunatic by then. He had assured the men that it would not likely come to this. That he was merely planning for the worst.

Now…

He gave the order, knowing that delaying the decision only made it less likely to succeed. The strike forces had the easy bit. They simply abandoned their mesas, lined up as a turtle as close as possible to the backside of the black circle and kept them preoccupied with some light volleys of arrows.

It would come down to the cavalry. Cid ushered his horse forward, Drissil all the while at his side. To those looking for salvation the cavalry finally set out, becoming a long line of horses again. They rode clear of the battlefield, circling to the south and wheeling to mount the plateau that led down to the stage that stood at the core infantry’s rear. From the infantry’s perspective it might’ve seemed that the cavalry was fleeing then.

The uphill ride took longer than Cid anticipated and with every passing hoof beat he could only hope that the infantry held fast, biting down on his own teeth as he pictured the foremost shields in a tight line. A mere fracture would mean defeat, now more than ever.

Stand fast! Hold!’ he heard the drowning shouts of his Captains in the core, knowing that the strength needed to keep the Fallen at bay was growing thin.

The cavalry reached their designated point and turned, Cid becoming motionless as he waited for his men to line up straight behind him. He glanced at Drissil, who gave him a nod. With a cry Cid lifted the spear overhead and started the charge, each pound of hoof beats setting in motion another. They came bearing down the slope in a slick line, their path straight towards the back of the core infantry. Cid’s men blew their horns, the tone and pattern alerting all of Lanston of what was happening. Cid took a quick glance to the Rangers above, hoping they were ready as well.

Up ahead the edge waited, a 12 foot drop right where the most central of the core infantry stood with their backs against the rock. Whatever happened now, Lanston would be together, just like he promised his men; he would die or triumph amongst them.

For experienced cattle ranchers bovine animals were easy enough to stir into a herd-frenzy great enough to launch them blindly off a cliff edge. Horses were different, being more sensible and more individuated animals. The war steeds were trained together though, conditioned to follow wherever the leading charger might dare. Cid and Drissil braced their horses, Cilverhoof and Tyldoa, for the leap. It was up to these two steeds.

Come on, come on,’ Cid whispered at Cilverhoof, riding low on the animal’s neck now, keeping it in check with his thighs tight around the back.

They were so close now. From their slightly elevated position they witnessed in mid-ride as the core held up bravely against an overpowering Fallen host, the encounter an increasingly desperate grind of flesh and steel.

The sun was setting now, its diminishing light bringing out the fiercest colours of the landscape. On the inside of Cid’s visor it created a golden sheen, so transfixing the Lanston men themselves seem to glow. Leading the way was the spear and there was not a second that past in which Cid could not feel the strength and the dream of Lanston resting in his arm.

Two dozen paces to go and Cid and Drissil urged their horses into a full sprint, detaching themselves somewhat from the rest. The last of the Lanston horns were sounded, the last signal given.

Primed, the ballistae were fired, their great bows aimed to launch bolts in a scissor pattern. Viciously the Fallen were torn apart again, a gaping hole created by the missiles. The Rangers came down together in one fell swoop, gliding dangerously low as they delivered the second punch to keep the enemy staggered. With some time to breathe the Sekhaimogists hiding all around focused every shred of their magic to dismantle the barriers protecting the Priests in the black heart. From Sedger’s Volj Vanapha fired her last Trisera arrow in accordance, a straight shot at the Dey’illumra. Despite their efforts the arrow struck among them, the swelling flames eliciting terrible dying screams from bodies who could still recognize pain.

There was an uproar in the Lanston ranks, the command sounded. They then did what they needed to do, risking it all as they broke their own ranks, surging to the sides, parting right down the middle to create yawing aisle. The last few paces loomed and Cid gripped Cilverhoof hard, aware of the horse’s ever so slightly twitches that indicated it wanted to veer off course. Cid kept him straight and true, Drissil doing much of the same.

The two Colonels became airborne, their horses clearing the edge with giant bounds. Cid could almost feel the Lanston men parting beneath them just in time, having been sure of it that he might strike some of his own men.

They fell, pitching forward, Cid raising himself from the saddle standing in the stirrups to spare both man and steed a dreaded impact – it would all feel like a mistake until the very last moment.

Cid’s heart resumed beating as his horse found its hooves, miraculously still charging, himself settling back into the saddle, and then felt the blood in his veins thundering as he heard all of his men right behind him, his spear steadying, Mindevhier leading the way.

The path was clear, the enemy staggering and leaderless, and the line of cavalry came like a raging river, cascading over the edge and struck the Fallen force in its face. The cavalry surged in deep, branching, the enemy circle collapsing, crippling them past recovery. Those very Fallen who had entrenched themselves at the rear, hunched down with their backs turned on the cavalry, were oblivious until trampled under the mighty charge.

With the enemy defence all but broken Lanston men paraded in from all sides. The core infantry took the front foot as they charged into the cavities, getting their chance finally, bludgeoning the Fallen while the strike forces did much of the same from the other side.

Cid rode and fought, Drissil at right, with his sword flashing from horseback, the wanton fury of it all drowning out rational thoughts now. From all the contact Cilverhoof had a head wound, but Cid knew he had to stay mobile until the end. It was almost over now. The men were giving it their all, fighting as hard as they could to finish before more lives were lost. He broke clear, flying through the enemies, his spear striking here and there.

Cid felt a gush of wind as one of the Rangers ripped through the Fallen just left of him and then pulling gloriously out of the dive again. Cilverhoof cantered and cantered to the far side, the resistance of enemies suddenly scant, the battle simply thinning and fading, the shouts and clash of steel growing weaker, the chorus of it all becoming solitary outcries.

The clout and rage of battle lifted itself from Cid’s mind, his vision growing wider, removing his helm, and he saw it – he saw Lanston victorious, the black armours smote. They had won through. All was safe.

He dismounted wearily, patting his horse on the cheek, the animal’s breath rattling in exhaustion. The battlefield was theirs, but there were always those still crawling, and those who would die in the next few moments so helplessly.

May death be swift…

Parvel signalled at Olexion and the First-Ranger looked down to the trail where he was pointing. Their Volje glided, circling Hashur, and as Olexion caught up to where Parvel was a second ago, he saw; Stelinger and his men were fleeing the valley. He knew it was them, not because he could identify Stelinger at this distance, but the parade of horses and the robed figure of a shadow Priest riding with him left him with no other assumption.

It happened fast, the riders taking another trail, one that went north from the shoulder from the mountain. It was rarely ever used, for it went straight through Jacanta and Nimroth’s gate, a natural foothold of the Fallen that guarded the Ghost Pass or the abandoned roads stretching to the Fallen strongholds. Before Olexion could call Parvel back, the young Ranger sped off in pursuit. Olexion cursed. If they were going to strike at Stelinger it needed to be a co-ordinated effort.

The battle might still have had loose ends then, but Olexion could not let Parvel pursue them on his own. He urged Oel Dannel on, trying to catch up. Parvel’s Volj came plummeting through the air with unparalleled speed, wings folded, gaining on the horses at an alarming rate.

The riders were already cantering across the Jacanta flats where the defeated Fallen army had camped so massively only hours before. Olexion and Parvel would take them here, out in the open, where the Volje could do their worst. It had to happen now, before the riders could take a trail where Volje would not be able to follow so closely.

Soon the Volje were coming in low, closing in.

After a few glances over his shoulder Stelinger shouted at his mage, who started preparing a spell of fire in mid-ride – no mean feat to be sure. Olexion knew it was pointless, for a lone Priest’s magic would merely fold on the Rangers’ barriers.

Against all expectations Stelinger turned and wheeled his horse with great skill, charging in right underneath Parvel and reared the animal high. Parvel was diving so low he passed just over Stelinger, the claws missing their target, the path of horse and Volj not yet colliding.

Stelinger’s sword came up flashing, not near enough to injure, just like the talons which missed him in turn, but slicing the air underneath the speeding Volj in a very deliberate act. It was never in vain, Parvel’s exposed barrier bursting into a thousand scattering Calophrites by Stelinger’s sword, the fragments of silvery light dying away after an instant of escape.

Parvel sped on unprotected, pulling out of the dive.

Olexion knew in horror what was coming next; the dread confirmed as the waiting Priest aimed his staff.

A great surge of violet flames erupted, burning vividly through the air and meeting Parvel head on. Both Ranger and Volj were swallowed in flame and smoke, crashing in a torment of cries. Olexion felt himself shout something senseless in the noise as Stelinger circled back, he and his entourage speeding away desperately to get into the Ghost Pass.

Olexion turned back. He could no longer pursue, he could not risk it. He landed near Parvel’s wreck. Even from afar he knew the Ranger and the Volj were nothing more than incinerated remains.

Olexion looked painfully at Parvel’s blackened face sticking out from underneath the beast’s frame. He felt nothing but blind hatred for this man Stelinger. He knew though he could chase the man to the ends of the earth and still lose against him. Helplessness was not something Olexion suffered easily and it was definitely not something he was used to.

Warily Olexion mounted with his Volj again, Oel Dannel giving a sad low cry at seeing his kin’s demise. They took to the air again to return to the battlefield.

Stelinger’s arrogant grin as Parvel hit the ground kept coming up, and it set the Ranger’s blood boiling.

Chapter 50

Durandal Waiting

 

The battle reached its inevitable climax; routing the remainder, laying to rest the wounded, and saving those Lanston men who could still be saved.

There was nothing pretty about it. The cavalry scattered all around the Basin to cut down fleeing Fallen. Those foot soldiers of Lanston who could bear on were wandering around, bestowing death and mercy on the wounded Fallen or helping a brother. Magi and surgeons were everywhere, tents quickly erected for emergency surgery, and yet still they could not attend all the wounded at once. It was a place of anguish, the cries of men dampening the euphoria Lanston had shown moments before. The soil and rock of the Basin were bloodied, arms and war craft scattered along their dead owners all made for a grim painting from Olexion’s vantage.

Uncertainly he circled the Basin, not sure on how to approach Cid yet and wondering what he himself would do when all was said and done. This is a no man’s land, a place good for nothing but war and greed. Yet today it was not just survived by Cid, outlasting odds and enemies, but the man conquered it compellingly.

His reward; the loss of his beloved…

Whatever happened here was of little consequence for the nobility of Lanston. Cid could return a war hero, and yet if the right persons did not speak up, no court was going void the arrangement between Elmira and Fredrere. It left Olexion thinking; he still had the very real fear of the King’s safety. Too many men have made noises regarding the matter in the last few months. What Olexion needed from all of this was Cid on his side. He was considering his options. If he could offer the soon to be Commander of Lanston the right incentive…

In his heart Olexion was most fond of Yarea, above all other Summoners. He could see himself going after, but he was ruled by higher duty. He had to return to the Sovereignty. And he would need help.

Satisfied that the battle had played out its last grim moments, Olexion quickly stopped by Oldeloft, letting Elmira get up behind him so that he could take her safely down to Cid and the others.

What he witnessed here today however made Cid more valuable than any mighty Summoner, regardless of how much resistance he would encounter if he said something like that out loud.

He dived with the Volj, finding Cid and Drissil walking slowly with their weary horses among a plethora of men both standing and laid down.

Olexion landed, catching the attention of all nearby.

Elmira smothered Cid in a hug the moment she dismounted, almost bringing down the man who was as bone weary as he had ever been.

‘You watched all of it didn’t you?’ he said.

‘I’m just glad your okay. I never want to see anything like that again anyhow.’

Over her shoulder Cid directed a tired smile at Olexion.

‘I’m very sorry about Parvel, I’ve been told…’ said Cid

‘As am I. Many men paid a price today Colonel. I’m afraid our struggle is not over. Walk with me if you will. There is something you and I must discuss.’

Feeling some foreboding Cid left Elmira in the care of the others, and he and Olexion alone went on to discuss the future of the Kingdom.

 

***

 

 

Cid called them all to the tent where they had done their war planning. The party shuffled in wearily, worried that there was some new crisis.

‘Enemies on the horizon?’ asked Alex.

Cid, sitting in the middle of room, smiled reassuringly. ‘Only very far away.’

‘Where did you get the chessboard? Don’t tell me your thinking of playing now?’ asked Brunick

Cid shook his head. ‘Olexion retrieved it for me from Oldeloft.’

‘So what’s this Cid?’ asked Elmira, as everyone gathered around.

‘That night that I proposed to you love, I met with Commander Bennam. He was trying to tell me… well many things, not all of which I understood or even took notice off. All this time I have been thinking, since we learned the level to which he gone to inform us; did he leave one last message in that room that only I would understand? We know he was being watched, so he couldn’t say it directly.’

‘So what is it?’ asked Elmira.

Cid held up his hand, ‘you will have to give me some patience. I would need to replicate what we did that night – on the board I mean, I can’t help but feel Bennam was trying to point out something on it.’

Drissil chuckled. ‘You cannot mean to tell you can remember a game you played two months ago.’

‘You clearly don’t know Cid,’ said Brunick.

‘I’m going to try at any rate. If go through the motions, I should be able to remember how the board ended up, more or less at least.’

‘Good luck, we’re rooting for you on this one,’ quipped Alex.

The corner of Cid’s mouth curled up in a smile.

The others went quiet, and suddenly Cid was back there in the room with Bennam, playing for his part, playing against himself, making the moves as though he and Bennam were playing their game again. The exact same one. For awhile he was oblivious to those around him, hearing the fire of the hearth of that night, tasting the glass of wine, and Bennam staring intently at the board just across him. The others stood and watched in awe as Cid went about making move after move. They had no idea whether he was successful, but he looked very much like he knew what he was doing.

The pieces thinned out, Cid taking his and Bennam’s from the board as they clashed. Finally Cid halted, remembering the moment Bennam conceded defeat.

Cid looked at the board in awe, ‘Bennam very deliberately stopped the game five moves from checkmate,’ making a final adjustment on the chessboard.

Drissil crossed his arms. ‘A fine game I’m sure, but what does this mean for us?’

Vanapha stepped closer in shock, looking at the pieces and the way they were arranged in their final state, seeing a pattern in them by looking directly down on them. ‘That is the symbol of the Kingslayer! As the moons undoubtedly will arrange soon enough!’

Cid nodded. ‘Bennam knew. He wanted to warn me that someone will come after the King the way they had come after him.’

A murmur broke out in the tent, the mood suddenly grim.

‘Guess that settles it, we’re off to Asheva aren’t we?’ asked Alex.

‘The King will need our protection,’ agreed Olexion.

Brunick and Vanapha said nothing.

‘I had hoped all of this is over,’ said Elmira worryingly.

‘I’m afraid since Bennam’s death matters have grown increasingly dire, love,’ said Cid, stretching his hand out and taking hers.

Cid swung his head at Vanapha.

‘What are your plans Valkyrie?’ asked Cid.

‘I wanted to go Durandal from the very beginning, remember? I have to admit though, there is no point in me pursuing my past, especially not on such a capricious whim as I’ve entertained until now. I don’t need Farsight to know that the Fallen agenda is mobilizing to a far greater extent than in the past. If the King is danger, I’d much rather come with you. If the King is the Fallen’s great target, then I want help you.’

Cid smiled gratefully at her.

‘Let us make arrangements then with the rest of the army. Colonel Drissil I would very much like it if you could take charge in marching the Lanston men back home. The rest of us, we must return to Kingdom borders with haste. We’ll rest properly along the way, but the faster we get going the better!’ said Olexion, and everyone knew that he was right.

 

 

When everyone had gone outside again, Brunick waited for Cid at the pavilion exit.

‘That’s not the way the game played out, was it?’ asked Brunick.

Cid snapped his head toward the Mason in surprise. Brunick looked angered.

‘I know that you made up all of that. That chess match. You and Olexion. You hatched this plan by his request.’

Cid was stunned, and didn’t know what to say to Brunick.

‘It’s not that I don’t believe that you can remember every single move that night, or that Bennam didn’t have the guile. But for him to have orchestrated a match that finely would mean that he would have to play a game better than you. I know he couldn’t beat you. And I know you Cid, I know when you are uncomfortable.

‘Duplicity does not come easy to you. And abandoning someone is even less characteristic of you; both you and Olexion know that Yarea was not captured by just any group of bandits, but extracted by agents of Bennam himself. Olexion himself cares for Yarea, so I knew something was up when he didn’t raise regrets about turning back to the Kingdom. Bennam never wanted to save the king – if he really is in trouble – he wanted us to go to Durandal after winning the war and bring the stone to Yarea, and with her powers added to ours, we were supposed to cripple the Fallen beyond recovery. That was Bennam’s mission,’ said Brunick, laying it out exactly like it was.

‘I believe that the King really is in trouble. Bennam made reference to it that night – for real. And he was wrong to think he could manipulate everyone to march blindly to Durandal, said Cid, ‘and is what I’m doing so different from his kind of manipulation?’

‘The old Commander set everything aside – his life – to give us a chance to strike at the heart of enemy. He wanted you, nobody else, to do this!’ said Brunick

‘And he condemns the king to death?’

‘Whose king Cid? Ours? The same politicians who have prohibited us from winning this war over and over again? No. Lanston is the might of the realm. Not Asheva. You have everything you need to rule. Once our mission was done, no one would command more power than you. The head of the eastern armies. The best of it is, no one is going to stop you from marrying Elmira.’

Cid was dumbstruck. ‘I’m not an administrator of cities Brunick. I am a general. We cannot live under martial law because I deem the land’s kings to be weak.’

‘What about going after Yarea?’

Cid looked at his feet.

‘You say Bennam gave us this chance. I don’t see it Brunick. We’ll have to go to Durandal without the Rangers. We have very little hope of survival.’

‘So we are condemning Yarea to whatever fate awaits her?’

Cid wiped a solitary tear from his eye. ‘She is going to be alright.’

‘But not returned to her former self. As dumb and ignorant as the Fallen.’

‘Quiet down Brunick. It’s not the same. I won’t play Bennam’s games. Not when he all but lied to me. If we save the sovereign rather, Elmira and I will be married. Olexion… Olexion has a lot of influence. I have to believe that. It is not just her either; I’m not going to risk your safety or the others’. And, I’m not going to risk my life with Elmira. I have waited long enough Brunick. I want my wife. You have to understand that if Yarea was just beyond the next hill, I would have chased after her. But we don’t know is waiting for us in Durandal.

Brunick sighed. ‘You sure that spear isn’t already weighing too heavily on you?’

Cid shook his head. ‘This is all me. Don’t tell the others. Whatever wrongs I’m doing means someone like Vanapha won’t go running north just to put herself in danger. We need Vanapha to come with us as I am sure you know. If we are going to chase a Kingslayer no one’s abilities will be more important.’

‘I won’t tell the others. I will however not be part of this. I will be going home.’

‘What? Wait, no Brunick. We’ll still need good soldiers! With you at my side-

‘Sorry Cid, it is time anyways. It’s been a long time for me and I want to see my family. I would much rather do that than go on a mission that I don’t believe in.’

Cid was quiet for awhile. ‘I understand. Go well. I… there is no one I value at my side more than you. Come back soon. You have to marry me and Elmira anyhow, remember?’

Brunick nodded with a faint smile, which gladdened Cid, for a moment he had thought his trickery was going to cost him his friendship. But there was something else nagging at Cid now, something else he saw in Brunick’s demeanour.

‘Your home is much farther away than you care to admit, isn’t it?’ asked Cid, knowing he was right, but realizing he still knew very little about the Masons.

‘I’ll be back. Maybe sooner than you think,’ reassured Brunick.

 

The day became slow and dreary. Great pyres were erected for all the dead. They moved away from it before day’s end, from a battlefield beset by fires, camping in the canyon before the great trek back home. The battle was won by Lanston but operation Biridian was certainly over before it really began. A compromised mission like this would never be allowed to endure.

Cid kept the Alder stone, turning it over and over. He had made a silent promise to himself that should there ever come a time that Lanston could start a campaign on Durandal that he would seek out and rescue Yarea. More than that, he could not shake the feeling that Yarea, with her memories restored by an Alder stone, would hold Bennam’s closest secrets. That made him think that he was making a mistake not going after her. One day I will come for you. Strange then, Cid felt that come what may, whatever direction life took, he would go to Durandal eventually. It was unavoidable. One day… and when that day came, he, and whoever went with him, would be in for the fight of their lives.

Epilogue

 

The petite woman finished the large room, the new broom in her hands already taking a beating by the scope of her work. Her efforts would not survive the end of the day, the many men who used the lounge careless and unruly. She never complained. She never questioned what the men here occupied themselves with. And there were many men here, coming and going, like a hideout of sorts, or a den of thieves, so many weapons and liquor doing rounds here. Prostitutes too sometimes.

Given the types roaming the place, she was surprised to live here without fear, despite her not being allowed to leave the premises.

They treated her very well, much better than anyone in her position she had ever heard off. This city was the Mecca of slave trade, most women sold here used for sex even when they were meant for menial labour like herself. The men here did bring prostitutes in every now and then, but she was left alone.

The men here did not make such advances on her, except one, who had tried to pin her down one evening. She had screamed, and the master of the house had come storming in, gabbing the man from behind, and twisted his neck with a savage snap. After that, the people here seemed to give her even more space and courtesy than before. She didn’t understand their treatment of her, but she was incredibly grateful for it. The only thing the master ever asked for was that she helped keep the place tidy. To her it was a small price to pay.

Her boss, her master, despite his good treatment of his personnel, was a man everyone feared she had realized not long after they had come here. One thing the woman knew; he was not fully human, even when he appeared so to the casual observer. There was something bestial about him, even when he tried to hide it, often wearing cloaks and gloves.

For some reason he did not talk with her other than a few words at a time, even though she had seen him be quite jovial when drinking with his men. He was so serious when he encountered her and so she suspected that he knew something about her that she didn’t. She of course had not mustered up the courage to ask him. She didn’t want to disturb the way things were. Not yet.

She had discovered to herself to be in Durandal; how she had come here, or what her previous life was like, she did not know. She could not remember a thing. She had a name she was sure, but it escaped her, fragments of memories never coming together even when she could almost taste them.

In her private moments, when she looked at herself in the mirror, she thought that hints of her past life came back to her, however very fleeting. Add to that, it made her feel as though she had lived a life that belonged to someone much older than she was. She didn’t like that at all, wanting to feel as young as she looked, and hence didn’t vest too much energy on remembering. It would come back to her or it wouldn’t, and she had a feeling that something significant would have to come along to allow her to remember fully. She did however wonder if she had left behind family.

Those were her darkest moments, when she thought about what family she might’ve lost, and yet she couldn’t even remember them. She thought that something terrible must have happened when she was captured for her to forget everything the way she had, something traumatic maybe. She wanted to turn her anger on her captors, but something wasn’t quite right – somehow she knew that they wouldn’t be involved in any atrocity if there was one. They treated her too well for that.

In the long run, this was not a city to stay in, being the crime capital of the world and all. She imagined that one day she would escape it, maybe, but she would not entertain any idea of rebellion as long as her current situation remained the same.

She did not complain. She was safe. She could not ask for more than that. She was however, only after a weeks here, extremely bored. She sometimes had the strangest dreams, dreams where the most fantastic feats of nature happened all around her, and more often than not, it felt it was as if she were the one causing them. What to make of the dreams she did not know, but she was convinced that her boredom here was sending her mind into strange places during the nights.

 

She liked spending her spare time in the building’s courtyard or on the balcony, getting a little sun, the balcony in particular looking out at the more affluent areas of the city. Up here she saw the mansion of the ruling Dauflon just beyond the city borders, perched on a hill. Whenever she looked at the mansion she felt something very familiar, as though that feeling of great power that surfaced in her dreams seemed to resonate with whatever was held inside that great big building.

One night, she had studied the mansion under the cover of nightfall. It was quite a sight. All the many windows of the building showed well-lit rooms, except this one room, but had the faintest sheen of purple, ebbing from deep within the room. Somehow, she felt it. She felt its power. It scared her, and she turned away, her heart racing frantically, for a moment grappling with a fear that felt as though it came a long way, a fear she did not have a name for, from a past as dark as it could be. She did not look at that window again. She sincerely hoped that whatever darkness waited in that mansion, never visited this already dark city.

 

The trip back was harder than Stelinger remembered, longer too, with the shadow of defeat hanging heavily over him and his retinue. They had ridden almost non-stop, pushing the horses mercilessly and not taking proper rest. Two weeks after their war with Lanston they came home, a place yet to be recognized as the home of some of the most darkest souls on Angaria.

Coming up to the mansion Stelinger considered running away for one last time. The idea had little merit – there was no escaping his Master.

Past the gates and inside the giant halls, Stelinger’s knock was slight on the heavy door of the audience chamber, his anticipation great.

Enter,’ came the Master’s voice.

Stelinger held his breath as he opened the door, revealing a dark room, a faint purple fire in the hearth. Stelinger’s first footfall was met with a creaking as though his body was laden heavy with his failure, yet it was the entirety of the room that cramped and shuddered, and did so in complete accordance with the Master’s displeasure, the magicks’ effervescent presence unbearable.

Stelinger felt his sword respond to his state of mind, recognizing him, telling him what he was facing.

It was terror.

Glossary

Angaria – The name of the earth, used but seldom.

Alon Bennam’s family line.

Asheva – The capital city of the eastern Kingdom. Also used as the collective name of the seven cities comprising the kingdom.

Conclave – referring to the mysterious home and organization of the Summoners within Asheva. They are ruled and commander by both the King and Tabacher.

Adalophrites- Related to Calophrites, these greater strands of magical energy appear only in certain groups of highly magical individuals. The souls of Summoners seemed to be made only of these strands. While Adalophrites cannot be used as diversely as Calophrites, they do give set abilities in the individuals wherein they surface.

Alder Stone – a crystalline gem forged with incredible care. Its design makes it very powerful, drawing power through its density rather than its size. In the east these stones are used to store the powers and memories of Summoners.

Alparack Valley – Refers to the greater valley surrounding the Fafriv canyon. It is a area typically claimed by no one, and has seen many wars. A no man’s land.

Arrhua- spiritual beings lurking in the very elements of Angaria. Thought of as having a primitive consciousness.

Astalus – The titan star. A lifeless planet of enormous size, comprised mostly of metals. The planets bizarre core temperature fluctuations cause the planet to expand either to the point of fragmenting or shrink to an incredibly dense state. These two extremes create great discrepancies on it gravitational forces its exerts on heavenly bodies around it, sometimes become so weak that it loses its moons to the influence of Angaria, and then at other times taking some of these moons back when its pull is strong again.

Autemisciour – a well-known and widely used plant for medicinal purposes. Interacts well with magic.

Bajural – a sport played with a leather ball. There are many variations of the sport around the world. The pronunciation of the word also differs from area to area. An official league exists and is played between the seven cities of Asheva.

Basin – a natural stretch of flat land, low-laying with cliff walls surrounding it at the end of Fafriv canyon. Essentially a lake without water.

Benevolence – Resident to Allandiel, sleeping in the Great Vault for all eternity. Dreams perpetually, his powers working far and wide to sustain all of Angaria.

Biridian – a mighty tree with branches and boles so thick and far reaching as to creating some of the most impressive canopies to be seen wherever they may grow.

Black armours – a different name for the Fallen, but more specifically referring to their heavily armoured soldiers used in wars.

Calophrites – Magical strands of energy, said to be the building block of the human soul. When the human soul and the undesignated Calophrites interact or communicate, magic becomes possible. Not all humans can use magic however.

Castilleon – the sapphire moon. Its cycle is very long, often taking two years or more.

Crystal- a substance prevalent in matters of magical natures

Dauflon – A name given to the ruler of one of the seven cities. The title carries the same power as would a Duke.

Diamond box – network of stars used as a frame of reference to interpret the movement of moons. At midnight, the Valkyrie take stock where the moons are located and predict future happenings based on their position within the Diamond box.

Dey’illumra – the cult name of the Shadow Priests working under Arumcas.

Durandal – a city loyal only to itself. Known as the crime capital of the world. Escapes the wrath of the Fallen by doing trade with them, and supplying them with crucial resources.

Fafriv – the name for one of the most famous of canyons. This great scar through the earth divides the forest of Alparack, and is virtually the road between the Kingdom and the Fallen forces. Fafriv has also been known to be mined for minerals and metals in the past.

Fainkin- A material created by a industry of the same name. Known for its strength and flexibility. Used by the Lanston military as ropes or coils for their siege engines.

Fallen – The army of Arumcas; men corrupted by dark magic to be enslaved under his command. They are referred to as the Black armours, for wearing dark steel plating and skull helms.

Farsight – The ability of the Valkyries to see things over vast distances, and also view things in a panoramic manner.

Insight – The ability of the Valkyries to view things very closely, to such an extent that they can see the very building blocks of the matter of an object.

Iramir – a species of falcons used as messengers.

Greathir – The patron moon of the Masons.

Ghost Pass – a road branching toward the forlorn city of Durandal, the only alternative road the far north other than Nimroth’s gate.

Golden Army – a proud name given to the soldiers of Lanston, referring to their gold-coloured armour. This term for them is famous right across the world, giving them an almost mythical status on the other side of the Starwall.

Guild of Hands – An assassins guild often associated with mysterious deaths around the world. They are known be to linked with the wraith-kind, providing liberated souls for the death-mongering creatures of darkness. Blamed occasionally for the death of important kings in political plots. There insignia is an open hand with a black studded triangle on the palm. The only known organization to actually exist on both sides of the Starwall.

Hashur – The only true mountain within the Alparack Valley. Stands high over the Basin, directly to its east.

Kingslayer – The most feared formation of moon within the kingdom. Thought to predict the demise of the king of Asheva. This formation is represented by the moons Mallova, Shaki-Halima Loikana and Rodreon. Mallova the white and Loikana the black will line up, the smaller white moon against the backdrop of black.

Lanston – One of the seven cities of the Kingdom. Renowned for its Golden Army, having thought the Fallen forces for more than a century, and keeping the peace for the rest of the Kingdom. Even before the rise of the Fallen, Lanston was known for combating both the forces of Pangia, and assisting the west when the Starwall was open.

Lanston Lynxes – The city’s official Bajural team.

Magi/Magicians – Humans trained to use magic by schools within the Kingdom. The magicians within the kingdom are very strictly regulated and kept away from positions of power given the Kingdom’s tumultuous history with magic users. While only certain individuals are gifted with magic, their innate abilities still needs to be released by a Summoner. While these magi can be quite powerful, they are usually nowhere near the potential of Summoners.

Mallova- The white moon. The moon with the shortest cycle and also the patron moon of the Valkyrie. It is believed that the Valkyrie’s powers come from Mallova, being the “white eye” of the sky.

Masons – The most prolific order in the world as far as past deeds are concern. Their buildings and sublime architecture are widespread. They are often seen as having a hand in everything given that most of the great structures were built by them.

Merrigil – A wealthy house of Lanston. Elmira’s bloodline.

Mindevhier – An heirloom within the family of Rogana. The spear called Mindevhier is said to be crafted from unique materials with exceptional properties.

Morshiph – a City famous for its metal work.

Nimroth’s gate – a natural defensive position of the Fallen named after the great devourer himself. Beyond it lies some of the Fallen’s most valuable strongholds.

Oldeloft – a waystation of the Rangers in the Alparack Valley.

Panoli – A flammable alchemical substance that can help shorten the combustion rate of whatever substance it’s mixed with.

Pathra – Home of the Masons.

Phatavril – A red powder used to keep insects and wild animals at bay. Used for creating safe spaces around campsites.

Priam – Stelinger’s ancestry.

Reavers – Canine-like beasts who have been mutated into humanoids by the magic of the Dey’illumra. Powerful, fast and fairly intelligent these brutes with their very sharp senses are some of the most dangerous of the fallen forces. Other than their claws and teeth they can also carry weapons, and are very proficient at using them. They are also known as the hounds of Lymphra.

Releasing – The act of unleashing a person’s or item’s innate magical potential. This is act is done by Summoners. Being released can be seen as Blossoming, a term used in the west, but which also refers to the broader phenomena of anything moving or evolving into a higher state of being, which can happen without the assistance of a Summoner.

Remnant Pages- The last remaining work and documentation of the travelling scholar called Jeot Agathir. C