It didn’t matter that she had been here before: parrying blows from swords and hands and feet and magick alike. It didn’t matter that she had fought seemingly countless battles before: knowing that any misstep could lead to her own death let alone the death of those she fought alongside.
It didn’t matter that she was a seasoned warrior, having long since earned her notches. It didn’t matter that she had fought for and proven she deserved the title of General — only outranked by Mother in the eyes of the Eighth Army. It didn’t matter that she had seen nightmares made reality before. It didn’t matter that she had witnessed the memories of Uncle’s time in Shiran City at his tribunal and the horrors that the Lord King had visited upon his second born son, let alone his people as a whole.
None of it mattered because nothing had prepared her for this first battle. None of her training, none of her experiences, none of it had prepared her for the roar and the cacophonous thud that rang out across the Field as Rhyshladlyn had drawn first blood.
Nothing had prepared her for the sting of the first shockwave of concussive offensive magick. Nothing had prepared her for the way it felt different from any battle or campaign or war she’d fought before. Nothing bad prepared her for watching Rhyshladlyn cut a path through Anislanzir’s army as the Qishir made for the City with all the ease of a knife through hot butter. Nothing had prepared her for the ferocity of the Lord King’s warriors and soldiers.
Sure Rhyshladlyn had warned that he had personally trained all — or nearly all — of them and that that made them nearly as terrifying as himself. But being told about it and seeing it were two entirely different things.
Each slice she made, each punch, each kick, seemed to only create new enemies. For every one she killed there were two more to replace the one felled. Each one foaming at the mouth, eyes battle-wild, faces flushed where they weren’t covered in blood and sand and gore. It was nightmares made reality on a level wholly unlike anything she had seen, read, or heard of before. All around her were Dhaoine dying and while that was not new to her it felt like it was.
And for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why.
She’d lost count of how many enemies she’d dropped. Lost count of the distance between her war camp and where she was at that very moment. It was nothing more than a blur of bodies, of war cries, of war songs, of screams and shrieks and howls and wails, of too many emotions to count, of thousands of cries for Healer! We need a Healer! that went unanswered. She had one focus, one goal: get to Shiran City and join up with Rhyshladlyn. Get to the City, find the door in the wall, and slip in. Take over from the inside out and then hunt down the Lord King.
It was the only thing that kept her going forward despite the plethora of cuts that stung along her arms, despite the bruises that marred her face and neck were one able to see them for all the blood and caked sand that covered every inch of her.
She came upon yet another Sinner, this one with eyes much like Rhyshladlyn’s though more gold, her sword long broken somewhere leagues behind her, her magick whip-chording out behind her to protect her back as she shrieked. Her claws sank into the throat of the Sinner and pulled, taking skin and muscle and arteries as she twirled on her right foot and spun around and away. Distantly she heard the wet death gurgle as the body slumped to the ground with a muted thud. She barely spared it a moment’s more attention before taking off again.
It was as she ran that realized that she was doing things on this Field that she hadn’t done before. That par of what made this battle feel infinitely different from all those she’d fought before was her reactions to what was happening around her were different.
Here she was killing with magick and hands simultaneously. Here she was putting magick behind the swings of a war hammer she took off a random Shiftkin that did not bear a familiar magickal signature to make it hit harder than it would have just off her physical strength alone so it pulverized bone rather than simply broke it. Here she wasn’t floundering at the loss of her sword, or the back up daggers she usually carried; instead she was easily taking down enemies barehanded while they were armed to the teeth and then some. Here she stole their weapons and killed their fellows with those stolen swords and spears and hammers and axes. Here she saw their ferocity, then matched and exceeded it with her own because her cause was just where theirs was something less. Here she was just as much of a weapon as any piece of steel on the Field.
Here she was exactly what Rhyshladlyn had explained he was, what he explained everyone was.
“You are each a weapon. I will say that again: you are each a weapon. And I say that not as you’re a weapon when given something with steel on it. No. You as yourselves are weapons. The magick you hold? It can easily kill just as much as your teeth, hands, feet, knees, and elbows can. In battle the one thing above all others that will see you surviving through to the other side is not just assuming that your opponent can do anything, even the impossible, but knowing that you are as much of a deadly weapon as the very steel you carry. So use it.”
And until the first battle had begun, until she was living that speech, she had never thought of it that way. Had never realized that what made Rhyshladlyn so deadly wasn’t just that he was powerful beyond comprehension, wasn’t just that his Patrons were three of the most powerful and oldest in the Worlds, but because he used all of himself when fighting. And as she threw another stolen sword through the face of an enemy, as she ran forward, leaping over two other soldiers with her magick arcing back behind to sever their spines, hand curling around the hilt of that sword and ripping it out of the fallen’s face, it became clear that she had been holding herself back. As she parried a death blow aimed at her face, elbow darting back to crush a throat, and then yanked a battleaxe from the hands of Magae whose signature was unknown to her before striking the Magae’s head from her shoulders with that very ax, she realized she was laughing. As she threw that battleaxe at the chest of a warrior to her right, falling into a roll to avoid the swing of another enemy — a blow that would have taken her head from her shoulders — swinging her own blade out and around and tearing open the male’s torso, grinning wide as he screamed and dropped his sword, hands scrambling to try and hold his intestines inside his body where they belonged, she found she felt alive.
Thousands of campaigns, countless battles, too many wars, and it took this war’s first battle, one she felt grossly unprepared for, for her to feel alive in a way she never had before. She understood finally how — why — Rhyshladlyn could laugh while in battle. How even when fury twisted his features, how even when the echo of his true face peaked out from behind his carefully constructed masks, he looked so happy, so content, when death and destruction and fear and blood and gore surrounded him.
He was born in a war, granted one not fought on a proper Field, but still a war nonetheless. He was raised in it. It’s no wonder that he feels most at ease when fighting.
An unnatural pulse flew out across the Field then, the fighting that surrounded her stuttering, several warriors and soldiers stumbling as it thrummed out again and again and again.
By the gods aplenty, what is that?
Frowning, she glanced in the direction of the City where it stood glowing faintly, the smoke from the earlier attacks on it still curling high into the air. A sound alerted her and she turned back in time to barely dodge a downward blow from a Sinner but she wasn’t quick enough. She hissed long and hard as the neodrach’s blade cut a patch out of her left shoulder, the blade sliding free with a sickening squelch as she squatted down before throwing her weight back and out of striking distance. Grabbing the sword from her now useless hand, she twirled the blade and brought it up just as the Sinner rounded on her again, sensing her weakened state. Another pulse-pulse slithered across the Field as her sword met eir blade and they both froze as a hush fell over the Field. It wasn’t the same as a battle lull like what she was used to. It wasn’t even the same as Silence. It wasn’t anything close to the way things settled into stillness during the Silent Time when the majority of the Worlds slept. This was more and yet less and it made every instinct in her flare to life and howl a single note of run. But she stood frozen with her sword pressed against the neodrach’s, both looking confused. Well, she looked confused. Ey looked empty. Which on its own was disconcerting.
What is going on?
The quiet disappeared with an almost audible snap and the sound rushed back in making the World sway with it. The emptiness in the Sinner’s eyes and expression evaporated as quickly as the hush over the Field had. Shaking her head to clear it, she pushed with magick and physical strength against the Sinner in front of her, kicking out with her left foot once she had enough clearance at one of eir knees and grinned as a pop and a scream followed the action. Disengaging, she swung her right arm down and back, rotating it around again as she leaned forward and lodged the blade deep into the junction of neck and shoulder.
“You will… all–” the Sinner gurgled wetly, blood frothing up from eir mouth. Whatever else ey would have said, she didn’t hear as she tore the sword from the neodrach’s throat with a spray of blood, spun, and severed eir head from eir neck.
Lip curling in disgust she flicked her wrist to dispel some of the blood from the blade. War was always such a dirty thing.
“So they’re saying the same to you as well then,” a rumbling voice said to her left and she turned, sword raised only to stop at the last second when she recognized the magickal signature of Ryel, the point of her sword inches from his neck. He didn’t even seem fazed given how quickly she had moved; not that she expected him truly to react to her the way he had to Rhyshladlyn. This was a true battlefield, not a training one. And while she moved swiftly, she was not near as fast as the Qishir. “Apologies, General. Thought you had sensed me coming.”
She shook her head and looked around, noting that they were in a small lull on their own and were allowed to take a moment or two to breathe without fearing the next attack.
“Saying what?” she asked, side eyeing him and wondering how he was so calm. He wasn’t known for his nonchalance in battle, more his hotheaded reactions and fiery anger. Guess this war will see us all changed.
The Anglëtinean lifted one orange-red eyebrow and gestured at the decapitated Sinner at her feet. “Something to the effect of ‘you will all regret this,’ though the wording varies. I have personally heard it several times since Rhyshladlyn drew first blood and the armies mixed.”
She frowned at him before her eyes slid away to take in their surroundings yet again, not trusting that they were being afforded the respite from fighting in order to have a conversation. She didn’t doubt Ryel was doing the same though she didn’t look to confirm it.
“Why would they be doing such a thing?” She wondered, more to herself than to Ryel.
He answered anyway.
“I came across Anrèhn and Zariyael on my way to you; they reported the same and said that Jahel spoke of similar things happening in his quadrant as well. Which leads me to think there is more going on with this than simply that Anislanzir is seeking retribution against the Ancients for the death of his firstborn,” Ryel began carefully, clearly choosing his words with the utmost care. “Likely that is the primary reason for it, but it is not the whole reason.”
She could understand that entirely, she was of a mind to agree. It was very troubling that an entire army all spoke the same message seconds before death claimed them. Those last moments of life were supposed to reveal one’s truest nature, the last few seconds for one to be one’s most authentic and unique self. No one ever said the same last words as another.
No one except Anislanzir’s warriors and soldiers.
“My question is–” he cut off with a snarl and she turned in time to watch him fling a hand out and she both felt and watched his magick hiss-crackle out. The enemy let out a short scream as the Anglëtinean’s attack sliced him from groin to throat. With a disgusted noise Ryel kicked him away, turning back to her with a roll of his eyes. “–why are they saying this? And why to us? I feel like this is a message we aren’t meant to hear but are by proxy.”
“What?” She queried, twisting away as the wind changed and she scented a Shiftkin approaching seconds before the hissing sound of steel slicing through the air hit her ears. “As though they’re being controlled to get a message out? I thought such magickal knowledge was lost to us,” she commented as she drove her blade through the stomach of the Shiftkin, growling when the bitch snarled, jerked to the side, and snapped the blade while it was still in her stomach. Still growling, she shot her hand out and punched the female’s nose through her brain, watching with a smug satisfaction as her body slumped lifelessly to the ground. Weren’t expecting that were you? “Furthermore, who would it be meant for if not the army they fight against?”
“Perhaps,” Ryel replied, voice strained. Turning her attention to him she saw him engaged with a Sinner, another swiftly approaching from the east. She darted around him to take out the second warrior. It didn’t take either of them long before they dispatched their respective targets. “But more that I think they were trained to repeat it over and over. They aren’t even really cognizant of their surroundings. Just fighting anything not wearing Anislanzir’s livery,” Ryel continued as though they had never been interrupted.
She frowned thinking of the way the neodrach had looked empty during the hush that had fallen over the Field minutes previous, before she turned to run towards the City without a word but she didn’t need to say anything. Anyone in her army knew if she didn’t respond she was thinking. Ryel fell into step beside her easily enough, the two of them effortlessly working in tandem to take down enemy after enemy as they ran. With each new warrior she cut down, she listened to what they spoke in the moments before their deaths and sure enough, Ryel was right. While the words and inflections were different nearly each time, the tone and the message was the same.
“I do not understand why they keep doing this,” she grimaced as she pulled her hand from the chest of yet another Sinner, it’s like they just don’t stop coming, I didn’t think Shiran was that big of a City, fingers covered in blood and torn skin and flecks of shredded muscle. With a disgusted sound she flicked the mess off her fingers. “What is the point?”
“I haven’t the faintest clue, General,” Ryel replied. “But I suspect it may be meant for–”
Whatever he was going to say was lost as an explosion shook the ground, the Anglëtinean’s wings flaring out to keep him standing, his hands grabbing for her before she could fall. Her attention snapped towards Shiran City just as several other explosions went off one after the other.
“Is someone else attacking the City from the Field?” Ryel questioned as a true battle lull fell over them, shock making his voice waver slightly.
“No, that came from within the City’s walls,” she replied, eyes wide as the first tendrils of worry slipped through her battle calm.
As they watched the smoke thicken and mix with the plumes already swirling from the bowels of the City, she felt a shift in the air that surrounded them. One that she had felt before but couldn’t exactly place. Eyes narrowed she looked around, wondering if it was a sense of danger that she just couldn’t recognize fully.
“General?” Ryel’s voice sounded strained and she turned her attention to him only to find he was staring at something behind her, eyes wide and fear beginning to drip off him so thickly she wondered if she reached out and touched the air around him if she would be able to actual feel it.
Turning slowly, she froze as she caught sight of what stood behind her and instantly she recognized the shift. It was the same one that had happened the day she’d handed over Relyt’s letter detailing Alaïs was swollen with the Lord King’s ill-gotten child. It was the same one that had happened when the only person brave enough to approach the Qishir had been Uncle.
Before her stood a figure clad in a long black cloak, the hood pulled up over its head until its face was hidden entirely from view. A thin fingered, pale hand gripped a long-handled scythe that was slung nonchalantly over one of the figure’s shoulders. That unnatural quiet that was almost like a Silence thickened the air around it, slowly spreading out the longer it stood there unmoving, staring at her. She couldn’t see its face but she knew it was looking directly at her, sensed its eyes in the way prey senses a predator is nearby even if it’s out of sight. A shudder ran down her spine and the tiny hairs all over her body stood on end. She didn’t have to hear it speak, didn’t have to look beneath to know that a god stood before her. One that no one wanted to see on the battlefield.
“I come to deliver a warning, Thayne Ishiel Firesbane,” it said, voice as deafening as monstrous ocean waves crashing against a rocky shore, thickening the air around them until it was as though the air was its voice. She was vaguely aware of how the warriors and soldiers, both Anislanzir’s and her own, had turned to face her, Ryel, and the god but she paid them no real attention. She was too afraid to take her eyes off the hooded figure before her.
“I am Listening, Honored One,” she replied carefully, pulling on a hazy memory of hearing Rhyshladlyn talk about his Patrons and how he referred to them. While she barely even paid manners to the High Ones of Mother’s people, she was not about to piss off the one god that could destroy them all with a mere thought.
She wanted to sink to her knees and bow in supplication as well, as was proper regardless of whether one worshiped the god before them or not, but she didn’t dare put herself in that much danger. It was one thing that those around her were just as frozen as she was but she didn’t trust that the second she moved the spell of immobility that saw the entire battlefield still and quiet wouldn’t break and she’d be unable to defend herself. Making proper manners to a god wasn’t worth dying over.
The way it inclined its head, she knew it understood her reasoning for remaining standing and didn’t fault her for it.
“Justice cannot be achieved without Death’s sacrifice,” it said at length, that booming voice beating against her eardrums. It took every ounce of training and willpower she had to keep her hands at her sides and not press her palms over her ears as though that would drown out the pain of its voice.
“I don’t… I don’t understand, Honored One.”
“Justice cannot be achieved without Death’s sacrifice. When the Way of Things is disrupted, only Death’s sacrifice may set them to rights.”
Before she could ask or do anything else, it was gone. But that unnatural quiet remained, thickening further and further until a roar ripped through the air, shattering it, and everyone jumped, turning in unison to look at Shiran City again.
After a few heartbeats, the fighting resumed in phases and while she parried and dodged and struck, it was on reflex alone, not actively thought out. All she could truly focus on was the god’s words repeating over and over in her head. Followed by why.
Why was she given a warning that made no sense to her at all in the middle of a battle by a death god?
It didn’t make sense and the knot of foreboding that had been building steadily in her gut since Rhyshladlyn had first appeared at her camp and shown her how to get some of her men into Shiran City, solidified and spread.
And while she continued to push across the Field as fast as possible towards the City, Ryel still right beside her, she also felt so very, very afraid.
Because in the distance the glow of Shiran City had begun to fade.