Chapter VI

Blast Back
[A Different Kind of Chill]

~ 10th, Nox Pri, 6735 ~
(One Month Later)

Wagon wheels turned with a tired creak to accompany the clap of hooves that led them. The Lionhead Corps headquarters hummed with the usual chatter when the courier arrived. Corpsmen flooded from the various buildings on the grounds to crowd the cart. The courier greeted the men and women who gathered, holding onto a burlap sack cinched at the top with a rope.

            “Here we are, help yourselves you lonely sods. I’ve an important message to relay,” the courier said.

            He jumped from his seat and handed the sack to the nearest corpsman, then rushed to the main building of the grounds. Dylock and Chorem hung in the crowd, listening as the corpsmen called out names and tossed packages into the sea of comrades. Chorem shouted “Here!” at hearing his last name called, and a box about the size of one’s head arced over the crowd. Chorem lifted his hand, and the box floated gingerly between his fingers, guided by a telekinetic grip.

            “That’s quite the box, Thatch,” Avidan said, throwing his arm around the mage’s shoulder.

            “More cookies, I would wager,” Chorem said, lightly shaking the box.

            “Luftmac, this one is yours,” a corpsman from the back of the crowd held a small package to Dylock.

            “Oooh, one for Luftmac, as well?” Avidan continued.

            “It’s nothing, I’m sure,” Dylock said, turning away from the crowd.

            The other members of 8th Squad followed behind Chorem as he began untying the string wrapped about his package. Inside the mess hall, the squadron sat at the first available long table, kept bare by Corp’s presence at the far end, except for Arcus in the other corner – the only other person she could usually stand around her, for his lack of awareness and utter silence when reading. Her eyes shot up from her book for a small moment, hiding her annoyance between the pages when everyone else piled onto the benches.

            “Why are you all so interested in our lives?” Dylock slid down into the middle of the table.

            “Because their own lives are so pitiful they have to live vicariously through the recruits,” Holidae said.

            “Only until the recruits are as broken by your iron fist as we are, Corp,” Rin replied.

            Dylock opened his package and removed a small stack of loose pages nestled at the top of the contents. Right away he could smell a mixture of treats and another scent wafting from the paper itself. While everyone at the table traded good-natured jibes, Dylock glanced at the thin, looping lines that made up the words on the pages, and then to Chorem. He tried to turn the legible side of the letter from the group, particularly his best friend.

            “Are you still corresponding with Yoja?” Chorem asked, leafing through the contents of his own package.

            “Uuuh…yes,” Dylock said.

            Chorem chuckled and shook his head as he continued opening his package.

            “Would you rather I stop?” Dylock asked.

            “Dy, if I told you to stop, Yoja would be upset, then my mother would be upset, and then I would be dead.”

            “Ah.”

            “So…for my sake, please keep wooing my sister.”

            “Letters from a lass? Is she pretty?” Avidan asked.

            Maximilian chortled.

            “A sister. Is she a fair one?” Rin said.

            “Aye, how does she look?” Avidan continued.

            “Oh yes, please Dylock – tell us how attractive my sister is.” Chorem leaned on the table and gave Dylock his full attention.

            “Leave nothing out,” Avidan pressed.

            “Well…there’s…y’see she’s…I feel like this is a trap,” Dylock stammered. “Say, what are those books Corp is always reading?”

            Chorem took the bait, himself wanting nothing more than to avoid the path from ribbing Dylock for his blossoming relationship, to hearing about his sister’s objectification. “Aren’t they history books? Like what Arcus reads?”

            Arcus, in the corner of the table, lowered a weathered book and scanned Corp’s own, a smaller, but much thicker tome. “Considerably light reading, I would say.”

            “Where do you even acquire those bricks?” Chorem asked.

            “Private collection,” Corp all but snapped.

            Avidan, amidst the conversation, slid up next to Corp, glancing at the cover of her book and read aloud, “Bard’s Songs: The Voices of Eidlewine?”

            “What?!” Max turned.

            “Do you mind?” Corp shooed the curly-haired mage from her space waving her book.

            “No, not terribly. Is this…a pulp?” Avidan pointed to the book she waved.

            “Say it isn’t so, Corp.” Rin said.

            “Volume three!?” Avidan shouted, noticing an extra bit to the title.

            “There’s at least three of that rubbish?” Maximilian said.

            “Corp…why?” Avidan squeaked.

            “Are you morons done?” Corp sneered.

            “I could keep going, but I can save it for you later if you like,” Avidan said.

            “I don’t read them like some juvenile, love-starved, shut-in,” Corp explained.

            “Ah well that’s no fun,” Rin pouted.

            “I read them to keep up with what is happening with the other companies.”

            “But they’re so romanticized, is there anything worth gleaning from them?” Arcus asked.

            “Most of the romanticized schlock involves dialogue and exaggeration of the events, but the events themselves, and their outcome, are largely left intact. That’s what I care about.”

            “How so?” Arcus raised an eyebrow.

            “They might be thoughtless entertainment, but the pulps are the only way we can get information on what is happening in the world that the Guild is not forthcoming with. Sift through the liberties and propaganda, and that’s where you will find the truth. Just from this volume alone, I know that Mistsong has seen a stark increase in siren roosting, but also new tactics developed to combat them.”

            Arcus closed his book on his thumb, turning his full attention to Corp.

            “Oil. Heavies the down, makes it easier to set them afire,” Corp continued.

            “Fascinating,” Arcus muttered.

            Corp’s eyebrows popped in agreement.

            “I…may have to skim some of those pulps of yours…for science.”

            “Tactics from trashy novels,” Chorem mused.

            “Wow Corp, my opinion of you remains on high,” Maximilian said as he lifted a cookie from Chorem’s parcel.

            “Why do you insist on eating my cookies, and not Dylock’s?” Chorem wailed.

            “Oh, come now Thatch, his cookies are made with a maiden’s love – we can’t take that from Dy.” Rin too, took a cookie from Chorem’s box.

            “Then what of mine?” Chorem shrugged.

            Rin grimaced after a bite from a cookie he stole. “It tastes like…ugh…”

            “Despair?” Maximilian said, choking back his own mouthful.

            “Spite?” Rin said. “Did you upset your mother, Thatch? You should really write her more.”

            “What…?” Chorem took a morsel of cookie broken off in the package from transit, popping into his mouth as he read the accompanying letter. “Ah…Chedda and Cherra helped bake these.”

            “Well when you write back, tell them they’re terrible at it,” Rin snapped playfully.

            “They’re only four years old,” Chorem said.

            “All the more reason – that’s a terrible age to be slaving away in a kitchen, how do they even reach the stovetop?” Avidan said.

            “They take turns being the stool for the other,” Rin said.

            “You can steal from Chorem. I’ll take one of Dylock’s though,” Maximilian said as he reached for the box in front of Dylock. “You did lose our last two rounds.”

            “Then what do I get when I win?”

            “If you win – and satisfaction.”

            A low, droning chime interrupted the laughter, giving everyone in the mess hall pause. Utensils clanging on trays and mugs clapping on tables filled the intervals between the bell’s thrumming. 8th Squad shifted in their seats; Max and Rin lowered their cookies; Arcus and Corp their books. Nyl’s frame shadowed the mess hall table, and his subordinates all gave him a knowing glance.

            “Take the squad, get them ready,” he said, tossing a folded stack of papers over the table to Corp.

            Other commanding officers were entering the mess hall as well, holding documents of their own. Corp stood, taking the papers into her hand with her book.

            “With me,” Corp said, heading for the door.

            “It’s about time,” Maximilian said.

            “For what?” Chorem asked.

            “To make a name for yourselves, get in those pulps!”

            “I prefer to wallow in anonymity, if it’s not too much trouble,” Chorem muttered.

~

            8th Squad waited their turn inside the requisitions building. Metal clanking and scraping on various surfaces filled the space between the farrier’s hammering that echoed from the scorching bowels of the smithing department, in the back of the building. Chorem and Dylock shifted in their armor, with nothing better to do in line, inspecting how their garb rested on their forms. Dylock held his nondescript helmet in his hands, staring through the minimalistic eyeholes to the back of its interior. Nyl walked up by the line, holding his company tags up to Dylock and Chorem. “Tags at the ready. Don’t waste the clerk’s time digging for them when you get to the counter.”

            Both began reaching for the chains dipping beneath their surcoats. Dylock pulled his chain up gently, taking ahold of the tag with a delicate reverence. Chorem yanked in one large motion, the chain catching tightly around his neck like a noose. Dylock unclasped his tag and set it on the counter, exchanging a nod with Corp who then nodded to the clerk. Chorem shuffled forward, going to unclasp his own tag before taking pause, his eyes fixated on the grooves making up his name, carved intricately into the metal.

            Folemthatch. A phialboy put through the academy on a scholarship because his family had naught to their name but an old patch of fertile land.

            Folemthatch. Some farmboy from a random, nowhere town, not even worth the ink to pen its name on a map.

            Folemthatch. A foolish little boy who grabbed for a toy out of reach and changed the entire course of his life.

            Chorem Folemthatch.

            “That’s me,” Chorem muttered.

            “Wake up…you’re next.”

            Chorem lifted his head, and Corp leaned against the counter with her arms crossed.

            “Get your gear and go, farmboy.”

            “Oh…apologies.” Chorem stepped up to the counter and slid his unlatched tag across the rough surface.

            The clerk took the tag and quickly returned with a staff and small leather pouch. He took the effects and sheepishly slid away to Dylock waiting at the entrance to the office. Chorem was lost in musings best left unexplored, fraying his nerves.

            “Are you alright, Chor?”

            “Of course. Those cookies are simply disagreeing with me,” Chorem said as they exited.

            The rest of the squad waited outside with Nyl, next to one of four large coaches bearing the Lionhead Corps’ emblem on the side.

            “Everyone present?” Nyl asked, raising his voice over the clamor.

            “All except Natalie,” Corp responded.

            “No, I’m here.” An Officer of Spells stepped out from behind the coach at Nyl’s back.

            “There she is,” Corp said.

            “Hi,” she lilted, waving her palm to the group.

            “Where’s your gear?” the corporal pressed.

            “I’ve not gotten it yet.”

            “Well then hurry along, we need to move out,” Nyl said.

            “Okay, all set!” Natalie said.

            “What?” Chorem muttered.

            Someone amidst the grouped tapped a staff on the pavement, and all turned to see Natalie among them, brushing her short, black hair behind her ear. Rin shrieked for a mere second, leaning on Avidan for support.

            “Maker’s member! Do you have to do that?” Rin said, composing himself.

            The Natalie that had first appeared near the coach dissolved like a misty breeze.

            “I wanted to let you know I was here. I could not let you all leave without me,” Natalie said.

            “Do we ever, Natalie?” Nyl asked.

            “No, but I cannot give you the opportunity either.” Natalie leaned on her staff. “And do not tell me you would not – I would leave me behind, if I could.”

            “Well with those illusions, you really could, couldn’t you?” Avidan said.

            “Alright alright, everyone in the coach,” Nyl opened the coach’s sizable door and waved his hand inward.

            Each of the mages relinquished their staff to a shaft of light as they entered, and everyone filed into the coach. Both Maximilian and Arcus laid their long weapons along the bed of the carriage, while Dylock and Rin placed their gear between their legs. Nyl moved to the back of the bed, near the cab, and Corp took up the seat at the back. Nyl slammed the bottom of his fist on the back of the cab in a short rhythm, and soon the coach was in motion.

            “Okay 8th Squadron, here is the situation,” Nyl caught everyone’s attention. “A town in the northwest, Teelton, was recently having troubles with the grayfeet. Around the time we received word, things had taken a turn for the worse, and the grayfeet forced the townsfolk out of the area – their minutemen weren’t equipped for the score that fell upon the town. Our mission is to retake the town and push the grayfeet back to Zelnay’s Grin. We have a two-day ride ahead of us. We’ll be making camp come nightfall along the road, so get used to the great green yonder as your bed and bath.”

            “What will be our plan to take back the town?” Corp asked.

            “We sent a few Officers of Shadow to ride ahead as soon as we got word. They’ll meet up with us along the road to give a more accurate account of the situation within.”

            “Apologies, but…what are these grayfeet?” Chorem asked.

            “Interesting.” Corp leaned back.

            “What is?”

            “All that fancy academy learning, and they did nothing to teach you of Troima’s geopolitical spectrum?” Corp wondered.

            “I…suppose not. Apologies.”

            “It’s okay, Corp is just ribbing you,” Nyl said.

            “Corp…can do that?” Maximilian joked.

            “That’s news even to me,” Natalie clicked her tongue.

            “I thought her ability to jest was removed to make room for more grimacing,” Avidan said.

            Corp interrupted the chatter, “Arcus, care to educate?”

            Arcus leaned forward and cleared his throat.

            “There’s a canyon to the northwest that leads into a verdant basin, and it’s almost a self-contained ecosystem. Several nomadic tribes live off the land there, travelling around the basin for game and fertile land. They mostly keep to themselves because they want little to do with Troiman society at large, other than a bit of trading.”

            “Then there’s the grayfeet?” Dylock asked.

            “Correct. While the tribes recognize the Troiman government, and only ask to be left to themselves, the grayfeet take their beliefs a step further, and don’t recognize the Troimans as any sort of society; they believe that the earth’s bounties are for everyone, and all people are part of the same society to live and share equally.”

            “And this time, some grayfeet wandered out of the basin, happened upon a farmer’s pasture, and killed some of his livestock,” Nyl said. “The farmer tried to defend himself, as folk are wont to do, and that just brought the ire of the grayfeet down on everyone in the area.”

            “And there’s no convincing them to relent?” Dylock asked.

            Arcus shook his head.

            “The grayfeet are pretty stubborn. They don’t listen to the other tribes, and the only thing they’ll bow to is a power greater than theirs. Usually, the collective might of the other tribes is enough to deter them, but this time, they wandered outside of the basin, away from those tribes.”

            “And the other tribes don’t care?” Chorem asked.

            “They are not the grayfeet’s keepers, although the reports say they’ve stationed themselves at Zelnay’s Grin to see what happens. They’re not interfering though,” Nyl replied. “My theory is they may be worried that Troima interprets the grayfeet’s behavior as shared by all of the tribes. They don’t want to get involved because they don’t know how we or the grayfeet will respond.”

            “What are the grayfeet capable of? What should we expect?” Dylock asked, his heel tapping minutely.

            “Mostly tools they can also use for combat: axes for chopping wood, spears for fishing, bows for hunting, the occasional sword or shield. Some may know a bit of magic, but I wouldn’t expect anything on our level of proficiency,” Nyl replied. “At least, that’s what our reports say so far. They also most likely won’t have access to personal barriers, so if Nat, Avidan, and Chorem can keep ours fresh, we’ll have an edge.”

            “Just keep your mind’s eye on your hind’s eye – Armis won’t do much against surprise attacks,” Avidan warned.

            “Right, these are hunters after all,” Nyl added.

            “Stay in sight of your assigned mages and you should be fine,” Corp said. “No heroic deeds means no heroic deaths.”

            Corp stared at Dylock and Chorem to set the message in stone. The two young men nodded in agreement.

~

            The top half of the sun shot rays out over the open plains from the horizon, blanketing the grass in a dull light, the chilled shadows cast by trees and coaches stretching long over the land like bony fingers. Thin ribbons of smoke crept into the darkening sky, and fledgling bonfires dotting the side of the road eagerly chewed up their fresh kindling. Chorem unraveled his own knapsack next to Dylock as Rin came to their bonfire, dumping a pile of wood within the small circle of stones.

            “Folemthatch, would you light this for me?”

            Chorem turned his head to the kindling, and then twisted his finger up through the air. A spark erupted from underneath and snaked its way around the wood. The orange haunches bristled into a dancing flame, and Chorem turned back to his effects.

            “Appreciated,” Rin said, falling on his rear in front of the growing fire.

            “Rin!” Avidan trotted to the bonfire, an anger heavying his steps. “You just left me in the thicket!”

            “What? It was only over there.” Rin stretched out his hand to the countryside.

            “Surely…in the dark, you whoreson,” Avidan sat down in a huff, placing his staff over his lap, caressing the unicorn head at its top. “I could have been dragged off by some demons!”

            “Oh you pusillanimous dandy…there is still a bit of light left to the night.”

            “Aw, you think I’m a dandy?” Avidan replied with mock flattery.

            “Demons? You really believe in those tales?” Dylock asked.

            “Of course I do – Rin’s father was a smithy for the Ivory Spears and told him all manner of stories, which he then told me, even though I didn’t want him to.”

            “Some frightful things hide in the darkness, friend,” Rin muttered.

            “Nooo…” Avidan whimpered, clutching his staff.

            Chorem seized the opportunity to change the subject, even as the last bits of sunlight disappeared.

            “That’s an interesting staff, Avidan,” he said.

            “Ah, I adore these majestic beasts.” Avidan stroked the ornamental unicorn’s mane.

            “Have you ever seen one before?” Dylock asked.

            “No, only in picture books.”

            “I hear they don’t hesitate to run a hunter through,” Rin said. “It’s like instinct for them to fight.”

            “Speaking of, are you nervous?” Avidan asked.

            “About…unicorns…?” Dylock and Chorem shared a quizzical look.

            “No, not the – about fighting,” Avidan said.

            “This is your first real sortie, is it not?” Rin asked.

            “I’m trying to keep it from my mind, if I’m honest,” Chorem replied.

            “It doesn’t really work all that well, if I, too, am honest,” Dylock said, holding his palms to the fire. “The further along in our journey we get, the more real it all seems.”

            “It’s alright. Combat is not exactly something you can adjust to simply by being in the military. It will take experience for that,” Rin eased. “No amount of academy-learning or training with the corpsmen will replace being on the battlefield.”

            “It’s not as if we would ask about your experiences either,” Chorem said. “I prefer to be surprised.”

            The joke made him uncomfortable, but it just spilled from his mouth with ease. Joviality was the squadron’s second language, and it had become his as well. It staved off the boredom, and kept the mood light, but now Chorem felt he was seeing it for what it was: a way to push back against the gnawing dread of war. He saw how Rin tapped his foot, and Avidan rapped his fingers arrhythmically on the length of his staff. Maximilian seemed incapable of sitting down, only standing and shifting back and forth on his feet. Arcus held an open book, but mostly stared blankly into the distance. Both Natalie and the Sergeant’s shoulders were perpetually raised and stiff. Corp wound her hair around her finger, producing a single lock with a persistent, loose spiral. Chorem wondered what his own nervous tic was; he was too worked up to try and figure it out.

            “Just be sure to keep your wits about you, friends. That’s the only advice I can give at the moment,” Rin said.

            “Do you expect a lot of trouble out of this mission? Are you two nervous?” Dylock asked the men across the bonfire.

            Dylock’s tic was indiscernible, Chorem thought. He saw nothing in his friend that he hadn’t seen in all the years they had been friends. If he had fear in him, it was buried deep somewhere. He and Maximilian would spar, reveling in the glory of combat, but perhaps there was a weight to Max’s actions that Dylock lacked. The young man he knew always threw his all into what he did, his commitment was unparalleled. In the time to come, Chorem wondered, how would that commitment fare.

            “I am always nervous,” Avidan said.

            “No one knows what tomorrow will bring, so it’s little use to fret about it. All you can do is face it head on,” Rin said.

            “Don’t let the fact that the grayfeet are hunters betray your confidence, either,” a voice said from the darkness. Rin and Avidan gasped and then sighed at the sight of an Officer of Shadows standing just beyond their circle, shrouded in a black tabard and armor that muted the light of the bonfire, like a torchlight fallen into a deep chasm.

            “Damned spook!” Avidan wailed. “Stop doing that.”

            “Welcome back, Marilla,” Rin waved.

            Marilla bent forward in the slightest of bows. “Those wild men are certainly capable of defending themselves. One of the sods plugged Tenril in the back, rode all the way with an arrow stickin’ out of him like a damned mast.”

            “Is he alright?” Dylock asked.

            “Not sure.”

            “What of the others?” Rin asked.

            “Two stayed behind, they’re hidden in town, relaying updates by whisperweed. I need to speak with the Lieutenant in person, the last of my ‘weed tuned out before I left Teelton. Where is he?”

            Rin threw his hand over his shoulder, pointing a thumb to a larger light picketed by several figures. “Over there with Corp and Sarge.”

            Marilla stepped around the bonfire, and then stopped.

            “Also…I was following you in the shade for well on two minutes,” the Officer of Shadows said to Avidan, who reeled back in surprised unease. “If I were a lesser man, you would have never made it back to the light.”

            “Oh, well that isn’t unsettling in the slightest. Thank you Marilla byyyyeeeeee,” Avidan said to the exiting spy.

            “An arrow in the back…” Dylock muttered. “What about his barrier?”

            “Most spooks never use them. If the light hits them just right, it gives away their position,” Avidan explained. “They operate the closest to death that way.”

            “Have either one of you ever been injured before?” Rin asked.

            “Just the usual training bruises, Armis keeps us mostly intact otherwise,” said Dylock.

            “Try not to depend on that, it won’t always be around when you need it.”

            “I remember once Maximilian lost his barrier at the wrong moment, nearly lost his arm,” Avidan said.

            “Arba has been concussed…thrice?” Rin said.

            “Correct. We have all taken our fair share of injuries. I, myself, have been singed several times…fire is attracted to me,” Avidan said.

            “Remember that battle in Tavishla?” Rin said to Avidan, and then turned to Dylock and Chorem. “I was once frozen solid from the stomach down. This mage was preparing an ice spell, right? But I hit him in the head with my hammer, and his staff hit the ground and the spell went off between us, froze us both in a block of ice up to our stomachs. I had to chip my way out next to a dead mage, nearly froze to death.”

            Nyl entered the light of the bonfire and knelt next to Avidan.

            “You’re all still here though, right? That’s a blessing,” Chorem said.

            “We are…but not everyone is so fortunate. Some leave something on the battlefield…” Nyl said.

            “And some we leave on the battlefield…” Avidan said.

            Nyl uttered a solemn “Glory to the fallen,” and everyone repeated in kind.

            “Any news, sir?” Dylock asked.

            “Villagers from Teelton seem to all have arrived in Sarcota to the west, a few injured, fewer reported dead,” Nyl explained.

            “Then we simply need to route the grayfeet so they can return to their homes,” Avidan said.

            “Correct. As per our knowledge of the tribe, they have most likely taken up the town center as their main campground, so it will be our job to flush them out and take the center for ourselves,” Nyl said. “We’ll form parties for the mission on the way. For the time being, however, it’s time to get some rest. We will be riding out early, before sunrise. Sleep well.”

            The group turned to their respective bed rolls and began to turn in, wrapped up in blankets from head to toe. The fire crackled, kindling snapping with the dance of orange that rose from it. Chorem felt the warmth at his back when he turned over, his gaze peering into the cold darkness of the plains beyond the campgrounds. His eyes adjusted to the pitch of night, but there was nothing to make out, save for what his mind conjured in that space. Chorem’s body shook as Garvy, the requisitions clerk, emerged from the darkness, hobbling around.

            The young mage tightened the wrap of his blankets. His eyes were fixated on Garvy’s missing leg, the wooden prosthetic in its place, and the unlaced boot it sat so stiffly within. Unvarnished wood, unrefined insomuch as it was simply a means to an end, not a glamorous piece of craftmanship meant to be displayed. It was unlike the staves Chorem had come to hold, sanded properly and given a finish to make its grip comfortable. A weapon was given more care than the facsimile of mobility. To maim was important, to be maimed was simply an outcome. An inconvenience.

            Chorem’s thoughts lurched towards his staff loosing death from its crooked tip; burning to ash, freezing to the bone, electrifying a body until it sizzles. No longer was he practicing on wooden dummies, or hanged-up pig carcasses to really see what a spell did to flesh. Now it would be real people. Now, they would fight back. It would be him or them. Friendly matches with a barrier between health and harm were nothing compared to this new, encroaching sensation gnawing at his mind. Chorem imagined a hammer blow to his skull. A sword slice to his gut. An arrow to his breast. Even if it didn’t leave him dead on the ground, what would he leave behind? The myriad combatting thoughts obscured his mind’s eye. The image of Garvy still hobbled back and forth in those cold hills, his form indistinct but for the gait then.

            Chorem shivered. It wasn’t that cold, though. It was a different kind of chill that crept up his spine.

~

            The carriage rocked wildly atop the unbeaten grass. The sun had just begun to shine in full out from the horizon when 8th squad had Teelton in its sights. Approaching from the road was deemed too predictable, and too dangerous, so the plan was to come from the west at full speed, towards a tight collection of homes that could be used as cover. The other squads would approach from the opposite direction. The squad sat in the carriage bed, propped up by their weapons dug into the floor for stability. Their bodies were tense, swaying in the unevenness of the ground like statues packed up and ready to ship. Arba the driver and Nat shouted outside, in the driver’s seat at the front. At the moment the most dangerous place to be, out in the open where the grayfeet could target them. The familiar sound of a magical shield being projected and struck competed with the frantic hoofbeats, and Chorem winced at what his imagination involuntarily mustered.

            Outside of the carriage, Nat stood on the driver’s seat, one hand ahead of her to cover the horses, the other holding her staff with a white-knuckled grip. An illusory Nat trampled around on the roof of the carriage, her own staff readied for loosing spells. The horses would be the primary target, and they couldn’t be given a barrier. The spell itself normally scared them when applied, and while the barrier would protect from some otherwise grievous injuries, the force of an attack was still enough to leave them uncontrollable. The only recourse would be to intercept the grayfeet’s attacks with shields and wind. A swarm of arrows appeared in the blue of the sky, black darts quickly growing larger. The tip of Nat’s staff glowed, white wisps of air circling around it, and she and her replica whipped their staves forward, generating powerful but short-lived gusts around the carriage. Most of the arrows were blown off course, but one found its way to the driver Arba’s shoulder. His barrier gleamed for a moment as the arrow snapped against it. Arba rolled his shoulder and slammed the back of his hand onto the carriage’s side as the town inched ever closer.

            “We’re almost there,” Nyl grumbled. “Everyone be ready.”

            The squad shifted, hands tightening on weapons, shoulders rising, deep breaths. Corp turned, her hand on the latch of the carriage door. Everyone leaned to the carriage’s left, and it suddenly came to a halt. Corp opened the door and led the squad from the vehicle while Nat and Arba jumped down from the driver’s seat. Nat’s replica atop the carriage roof evaporated.

            “Are you two okay?” Corp asked.

            “Arrows were nothing,” Arba said, drawing a halberd from a rack on the side of the carriage.

            “Here,” Nat said, spinning her staff in her hand, then slamming the bottom end into the ground. A wave of gold swept over the squad, bestowing a barrier on them all.

            “Alright, everyone knows what they need to do,” Nyl said, drawing two bearded axes from his hips. “Get to it.”

            Chorem, Dylock, and Maximilian headed for the town center, while Corp, Arcus, Avidan, and Rin headed to the north, leaving Nyl, Nat, and Arba to cover the south. Something like war cries echoed through the empty streets, undoubtedly to alert the other grayfeet of the incoming trouble. Maximilian hustled down a small alleyway between two houses, and Chorem and Dylock followed. Dylock glanced down at the line of padded dirt beaten into the grass, clearly a trail frequented by the townsfolk, but now only his and his companions’ feet trod the path. Maximilian pressed up against the corner of a house and peered into the open.

            “Alright, Thatch, cover up pathways if you see them, choke the grayfeet off so they can only come at us from a few spots we can keep track of,” Maximilian ordered.

            Chorem nodded, and the group moved forward as the mage sprayed walls of ice over the pathways between houses.

            “So we’re to hold the town center, yes?” Dylock checked.

            “Correct, the other parties will be pushing them north, back to the fields and towards Zelnay’s Grin,” Maximilian said, holding his greatsword close to his chest. “We hold the town center so they don’t have a point to rally. Focus not on felling them if they choose to retreat, but be ready to all the same.”

            Dylock nodded, and Chorem brought up the rear after walling up another opening as they passed.

            “Strange that we haven’t seen any of them yet,” the mage said.

            “And that we’ve yet to hear of any fighting elsewhere, usually there would be a din by now,” Maximilian said. “We heard their battle cries, but nothing else.”

            “They are hunters, perhaps they are lying in wait. We should be careful,” Dylock said, glancing into the window of an empty home.

            From a cobbled alleyway, Maximilian, Chorem, and Dylock came upon the town center, modest as the town itself was. A small fountain sat in the center, but the simple statue of a maiden had been snapped off its base at the ankles, having fallen and crumbled into the water of the fountain and outside of its basin. Scorch marks on the stone hinted at several makeshift fires, and smears of blood led to a small pile of carved up meat, most likely from the cattle that was absent from the fields outside of town. Maximilian lurched from the alleyway with his weapon held at the ready in front of him. Chorem followed next, holding his staff out, with his free hand reeled back, close to his chest. Dylock walked out backwards, his shield up and his sword back.

            “Should we be out in the open like this?” Chorem wondered aloud.

            “The houses are short, no one on top of them. The archers were most likely posted at the skirt of town for anyone coming in,” Maximilian said, his gaze darting back and forth without end.

            “Seems like they were here not long ago,” Dylock said, nudging some ash with his foot.

            A shrill ululation came from an open door to a house. The corpsmen turned, and Dylock slid back in surprise. There in the doorway stood a grayfoot, loaded for bear with a sword and shield in his hands, and a bow slung over his chest. He was covered in leather and hide, and soot was smeared on his face, like impromptu war paint. The grayfoot rushed from the doorway shield-first. Maximilian met him halfway, slamming the broadside of his greatsword against the grayfoot’s shield.

            “Maker’s member, the houses! Thatch seal the doorways!” Maximilian ordered.

            More ululations erupted around them, and Chorem spun on his heel, scanning each dwelling and blasting their doors with a sheet of ice. Some grayfeet managed to escape before the ice went up, and they ran straight for the corpsmen with weapons raised. Chorem soon found it difficult to keep his stronger spells in mind, and his vision began to wash out, colors giving way to grays.

            “I’m dulling! I can’t get all of them!” Chorem warned.

            If he wanted to defend himself, Chorem would have to make do with his simpler spells as he reclaimed his focus. Chorem dug the bottom of his staff at the pavement, sending a small ripple through the ground that tripped up an incoming grayfoot, knocking him prone.

            Maximilian tussled with the first grayfoot, and pushed forward with all his might, knocking the nomad’s shield to the side to quickly slide his greatsword up across the assailant’s chest. Another grayfoot approached with a spear, and Maximilian sidestepped a thrust, bringing his hefty sword down on the wooden shaft. The spear splintered easily, and Maximilian brought his sword in low, slicing cleanly through the grayfoot’s lower legs. Chorem glanced over just in time to see the man fall off his own knees, his bloody stumps flailing wildly in pain. The mage’s heart skipped a beat, but he had no time to dwell on the matter as two more grayfeet came at him.

            Dylock turned to face a grayfoot that swung a hatchet at him. He brushed the blow aside with his shield and stepped back. The grayfoot pressed his attacks, and Dylock could only block them and lose ground. He swung his sword and missed flesh, only to take a blow to his stomach, sparks erupting from the barrier. Dylock tried again, this time catching the grayfoot’s shoulder and tracing a red streak in his skin with the tip of his sword. All manner of finesse Dylock had honed over the years was absent, in its place was the young boy, playing make-believe in the forests, an ill-suited soldier for the battle at hand.

            Chorem parried a blow with his staff, but took another to his side from an axe swipe. His barrier sparked with the strike, and while it penetrated nothing, the force of the blow nearly knocked the wind out of him. He thrust his staff forward, blasting one of the grayfeet with an unseen wave that sent him flying into the fountain. His vision grew duller, even that blast was too much. He swiped at the other grayfoot’s leg, and he fell over. Chorem pressed the tip of his staff into the grayfoot’s chest and a splash of ice froze around his torso, pinning him to the ground. His vision dulled further, it was a costly, but necessary spell. Chorem knocked the axe from the grayfoot’s hand and turned to find his friend, standing fazed amidst the chaos.

            “Dylock!”

            Dylock snapped to and swiped his sword, cutting nothing but air as the grayfoot ducked. The nomad slashed him across the chest, and his barrier bled a slew of sparks. The force of the blow knocked Dylock backwards and onto his rear. The grayfoot raised his hatchet for a coup de grace, but Chorem swung his left hand and telekinetically yanked his friend out of harm’s way. Chorem heard a yell, and fell forward from a force on his back, sparks of light falling over him as he rolled back to his feet. The grayfoot he trapped in the ice had broken free. He shivered, but then shook himself into a frenzy. The grayfoot jumped and fell onto Chorem, who barred his attack with his staff across the nomad’s arms. Vibrancy began to return to the mage’s eyes, his vision making out the contours of the nomad’s features, the excited veins pulsing beneath his skin. His aetheric levels were returning, but with his hands full barring his assailant, he had few options. Chorem shifted a hand off his staff, and the enemy’s axe came down to the side of the mage’s head, chipping the cobblestone. Adrenaline rushed to Chorem’s mind, and in his fear he pressed his free hand to the grayfoot’s chest. A telekinetic blast shot through the nomad, decimating his ribcage and throwing him away. Chorem felt a spattering of blood drip on his cheek, spit up by the nomad as he flew back.

            Chorem telekinetically pushed himself up as more grayfeet approached, having broken through the barricades of ice.

            “More incoming!” Chorem called. “Max can you head them off while I put up more barricades?”

            “At your back!” Maximilian said, rushing to intervene in their enemy’s approach. “Dylock, keep the west clear! They don’t seem to want to retreat, be careful!”

            Dylock climbed to his feet and ran to a spot in the open area between two alleyways, his sword and shield rattling in his hands. He couldn’t tell which alley the footfalls were coming from, and his eyes darted between them. His sharp breathing matched his heartbeat. Chorem held his hand and staff forward, and gathered up the broken ice from the felled barricades to aid in his construction of new ones. Manipulating resources on hand would ease the burden on his magic, and keep him enough reserves to capably fight back with. Grayfeet crashed into the forming ice walls, one jumping past it just in time to join the fray, but another not so lucky, getting frozen halfway through the barricade.

            Maximilian swung his massive sword down, catching a grayfoot in his shoulder and rending through his chest piece with a force that sent him into the ground. The tip of his sword smashed into the concrete, and when another grayfoot ran in with his old sword to attack, Maximilian slid beneath his angled blade to block the blow, and then countered by spinning around his sword and swinging it in a wide arc. The assailant rolled along the concrete, leaving behind a trail of blood from the wound to his gut. Another grayfoot entered with a hatchet already coming down on Maximilian’s shoulder, and sparks spat out from his barrier. Maximilian turned, swinging his greatsword down over his head, the broad side of the blade smashing into the grayfoot’s skull with a resounding clang. The grayfoot crumpled beneath the blade.

            Dylock yelped as more grayfeet approached, and he blocked a spear thrust with his shield, although taking another grayfoot’s spear in his side. His barrier flashed, but he still staggered. The two grayfeet charged again, and Dylock caught their crossing spears with his shield, but all pretense of counterattack was beyond his thoughts. Chorem saw his friend, and thrust his staff forward, sending a magic push directly into Dylock’s shield, shoving him backwards on his heels and into the side of a house, but away from the grayfeet. Dylock slammed into the wall and his sword fell from his hand, but he kept his shield braced in front of him as the grayfeet again closed in. Chorem shot a ball of slush at the feet of one, freezing him from the ankles down, and then with an upward flick of his staff, sent a thin, rectangular pillar of concrete up from the ground and into his chest, knocking him out. As the other grayfoot wound his spear back to attack Dylock, Chorem reached out with his free hand and telekinetically grabbed his friend’s foot, dragging him down to the ground and away just before the grayfoot speared the wall.

            Chorem set his staff across his outstretched arm, and erected a barricade of ice over the last entry point, then turned back to his friend.

            “Dylock, here!” Chorem called. Dylock picked himself up and Chorem floated the knight his sword straight into his hand. “You have to fight!”

            The grayfoot turned and ran for Dylock with his spear ahead of him. Dylock’s heavy breathing grew louder, turning into something akin to a battle cry as he stepped forward, brushing the grayfoot’s spear to the side with his shield and running the nomad through with his sword. The grayfoot dropped his spear and grabbed tightly to Dylock’s armor. Dylock turned his gaze away from the grayfoot’s angry, pained expression, and his eyes set on the blood spilling onto his sword’s hilt. The grayfoot collapsed onto the pavement with Dylock’s sword sliding out of his belly. Dylock stood there, fixated on the blood dripping from his blade as thick, heavy droplets.

            Chorem called out to Dylock again as a grayfoot approached with a hatchet wound back to chop. Chorem raised his staff to block the attack, but the grayfoot used the hatchet’s crotch to fling the staff from the mage’s hands. Panicking, Chorem threw both of his hands forward and unleashed a massive spray of ice that enveloped the nomad. Immovable in the ice, Chorem saw in the grayfoot’s eyes a mixture of anger and fear. The mage reached his hand out and his staff flew back into his grip. The ice crackled and snapped as the man struggled madly within, but he was trapped, and Chorem knew he could no longer be a threat.

            Maximilian, however, brought his greatsword down through the chunk of ice and the grayfoot, shattering both into a cascade of crumbling ice and a bloody slush, frozen flesh exploding into flakes as it hit the pavement. Chorem’s heart stopped, and in a singular moment he lived a horrifying lifetime, staring at the pile of ice and meat that used to be a man.

            “You…he was defenseless…” Chorem muttered.

            “The grayfeet won’t seem to surrender, death is what they want – for their enemies or themselves,” Maximilian said. “Be careful who you show mercy to.”

            “Right…”

            A shrill war cry rose from overhead, and grayfeet came from hiding on the rooftops surrounding the town center, with bows drawn. Maximilian raised his greatsword over his frame to block incoming arrows, while Chorem intercepted some with a shield of translucent plates. Dylock, still standing over the body of the grayfoot he had stabbed, took an arrow to his shoulder, and then his back. He cried out, his barrier flashed, and then it shattered in a downpour of golden shards. He reflexively raised his shield and spun around, managing to stop two more arrows from finding homes in his chest.

            “Dylock!” Chorem yelled.

            “Regroup on him!” Maximilian shouted.

            Chorem and Maximilian rushed to Dylock’s side, and Chorem swept his staff in a wide arc, generating a shelter of ice that surrounded the corpsmen, snapping into shape with a crisp blue. Outside, arrows clacked against the ice wall, and muffled grayfeet hollered about what to do. Within, Chorem grabbed onto Dylock’s shoulders, turning the knight to face him.

            “What is the matter with you?” Chorem asked, his vision a contrast of stark blacks and whites.

            “I-it’s just…I…I can’t get—”

            “—Dy, you can fall apart anytime you need to, just not now. Right now this town needs the corps, and the corps needs you.”

            “It…” Dylock couldn’t get anything else out.

            The fallen grayfoot, bloodied by his own sword, flashed in Dylock’s mind. He tried to look away, only to see other images, long buried in his psyche. His father’s neck split open; the gaping wound in his uncle’s stomach; his mother, nearly decapitated with a dull blade, with a massive cleave in the side of her neck. All the bandits that day, maimed or killed by Din’s storied swordsmanship. Even though the memories were faded, the faces fuzzy and the world within them a gray blur, the blood was bright and profound, pools and streaks, and a branching, delta-like flow down the gleam of a sword. Everywhere his gaze jumped, there it was, impossible to escape the viscera.

            Maximilian turned, the tip of his blade scraping into the dirt. The chilled blue of the ice wall cast a pale cerulean glow on the men.

            “Are you with us, Luftmac?” Maximilian asked. “Are you here for the people we swore to protect?”

            “I…”

            Chorem gently patted Dylock’s shoulders. “Whatever we go through, it’s worth it. Right? For the people. They’re worth our sacrifices, right?”

            Dylock couldn’t escape the blood in his memories, nor the blood to flow in his future, and he stared directly into it, a puddle of life amidst a blackening world. All that remained was a splotch of red in his mind.

            “Together,” Dylock said, taking a deep breath. “For…for the people.”

            Bits of ice fell onto Chorem’s outstretched arms. Looking up, a grayfoot had clamored atop the ice structure to drop down over the edge. Chorem turned, crossing an arm over Dylock’s chest, and thrusting his staff forward towards the grayfoot. A bubble of force pushed Dylock and Chorem back to one wall, and the grayfoot away to the opposite side. Before the intruder could retaliate, Maximilian barreled forward, impaling his sword through both the grayfoot and the wall behind him. A massive snap in the ice accompanied a large crack that grew from behind the grayfoot.

            “They’re taking to the rooftops now, keep your eyes set high,” Maximilian said.

            Chorem’s eyes fixated on the struggling grayfoot, writhing in pain as half his body was severed, his arms pounding against Maximilian’s blade while his feet dangled lifelessly beneath it. Dylock’s gaze set upon the blood dripping from the massive wound, the spot between his back and the cold wall smearing the ice with a red slush. Maximilian drew his sword from the grayfoot with a single hand, raising his whisperstone to his ear with the other. As Maximilian relayed into the stone, Chorem turned to Dylock again.

            “Are you sure you’re okay? We’re not out of the woods yet,” Chorem asked.

            “I believe I’ll manage for now, it all just…hit me at once.”

            Chorem nodded. “Right, nothing can quite prepare for this, certainly not the academy.”

            Chorem reached into the pouch on his hip and pulled out a small phial of blue liquid.

            “They don’t have classes on mortality? Shame,” Maximilian said.

            “What are we to do?” Chorem asked before drinking from the phial, his vision quickly growing more vibrant again.

            “The other groups are heading this way, it seems the grayfeet are want to converge on this space and rally as well. We need only to hold the grayfeet at bay until the rest of the corps can arrive.”

            Chorem tapped his staff on the concrete, and a sheath of gold enveloped the three soldiers.

            “The three of us against however many of them, headed this way?” Chorem said.

            “One of you is worth three of them, Thatch,”

            “And how many are you worth, Max?” Dylock asked.

            “Myself? At least ten.” Maximilian set his greatsword on his shoulder.

            Dylock chuffed in a slight laugh. He glanced at the sword in his hand, the blood caked on the blade, building into droplets at the tip. Years of training prepared him for the violence of war, but nothing could prepare him for closing his mind to the violence so that he might continue.

            “Now is the time, Dylock,” Chorem muttered, his grip tightening on his staff.

            “Right.” Dylock brushed the side of his blade against his boot, if only to not see the blood so close at hand.

            “Thatch, when we leave this barricade, they may be on top of us. Cover?” Maximilian turned to the mage.

            Chorem nodded. Outside, the grayfeet had begun to arrive, taking positions around the frozen structure. Grayfeet coming through the alleys began to hack away at the ice barriers, and a din from the Lionhead Corps closing in erupted around them. A thick gray strand of smoke snaked its way from the hole at the top of the ice barricade, and the grayfeet exchanged shouts in their own language. A low thud emerged from within the structure, repeated and slow. Cracks began to show in the ice, smoke pouring from the slits that grew into chunks of ice that dribbled onto the concrete.

            One final smash released a stream of heavy smoke to spew out into the courtyard. The grayfeet poised on the rooftops in view launched arrows into the blanket of smoke, hearing only the rattle of wood tumbling into the stone. A ball of flame flew from the smoke, setting a grayfoot on fire and knocking him into the alley behind the house he perched on. Dylock and Maximilian emerged from the smoke seconds later to engage the men in the street.

            A grayfoot with an axe swiped at Dylock, who brushed the weapon aside with his shield and sliced his sword through the nomad’s side. His eyes were immediately drawn to the blood on the blade, and he didn’t notice another approaching grayfoot, whom Maximilian engaged. The soldier’s greatsword crashed through the grayfoot’s spear and forearms, cleaving into his collar and chest. Maximilian kicked the grayfoot from the edge of his sword and turned to address another group stumbling through a smashed ice barricade. Dylock shook his sight from the blood, raising his shield to block an arrow and refocus on what could harm him.

            Chorem emerged from the smoke and thrust his staff forward, an orb of fire flying from its tip, turning an incoming arrow to ash mid-flight, and continuing on to immolate its archer. Chorem’s spine tingled at the sight of the grayfoot writhing in pain as the fire consumed him. An arrow bouncing off his barrier drew Chorem’s attention away, and as he turned his staff to the assailant, fire was in his mind like before. He paused, knowing the outcome. His plan had been to use fire to render any archery perches hazardous with a standing flame, yet setting his enemies on fire left him unsettled. Instead, he released a blast of air.

            The gust shoved the archer off his feet, but it wasn’t enough to throw him from the rooftop. However, he would be inactive for a moment, and Chorem turned to the other archers who posed a greater threat. He focused on another’s bow and yanked his hand back, stripping the weapon from the grayfoot’s hands.

            “Thatch, stick to the plan!” Maximilian shouted.

            “I’m dulling again, fire is too costly,” Chorem lied, his vision still fairly vibrant. “Work with me! If their weapons are broken they will give up the fight.”

            Maximilian rushed to Chorem as the mage groped the open air with his hands, pulling at the archers on the rooftops. One grayfoot toppled onto the roof trying to keep a hold of his bow, another flying off his perch led by the death grip he held on his own. Maximilian slid in front of Chorem and turned his back to the falling nomad, resting his greatsword over his shoulder. The grayfoot fell on the blade, sliding down the metal and onto Maximilian’s back. The fighter spun on his heel, whipping his sword away to send the impaled grayfoot into an already toppled fruit stand. Chorem hid a wash of shame and disappointment that pushed his shoulders down.

            Dylock rushed forward behind his shield, barreling into a grayfoot and pressing him against a storefront. Dylock’s sword slid into the grayfoot’s ribcage, and when he drew the blade back, blood dribbled from the grayfoot’s side.

            “More coming from the east! It’s too much!” Chorem shouted.

            As a new contingent of grayfeet appeared from an alleyway, a sheet of ice flashed into existence beneath their feet, sending them down in a slip. Behind the tumbling nomads was Rin, Avidan, Arcus, and Corp, sliding on their soles. Avidan froze a few grayfeet to the floor of ice, smashed to pieces by Rin’s hammer swung low as he slid past them. Corp pierced a few other bound nomads with her sword. Arcus came from behind, stabbing unawares grayfeet in the back with his bastard sword.

            “You’re here!” Dylock yelled.

            “Unfortunately we also bring with us a wave of grayfeet, be ready!” Rin called.

            From the southern avenue came another group of grayfeet, although they barreled into the square without much care for a fight, instead simply trying to escape. Nyl appeared in pursuit first, swinging his axes wildly, cutting down a straggler. Arba leapt from Nyl’s shoulders, coming down on another grayfoot with his halberd from overhead. Bringing up the rear was a row of Natalie, all launching salvos of magic.

            “More are coming from the south as well! Reform!” Nyl shouted.

            Copies of Natalie disappeared as she quickly took a swig from a flask. Everyone slowly began to form together, felling archers and clashing with warriors.

            “There are too many, what do we do?” Chorem said, forcing a grayfoot away from Corp as she parried his axe.

            Everyone was silent on the matter. The corpsmen tried their best to cover one another, assisting in engagements and keeping the nomads at bay. Sparks flew from glinting barriers, taking errant strikes that could not be accounted for. Chorem could feel it in his heart that the battle would be costly, at this point. Continuing to fight would lead to losses of life and limb. The mages would dull, the fighters would tire. It wouldn’t matter if a single corpsman was worth three or ten grayfeet, not if they were caught off guard and cut down. A heaviness grew in Chorem’s stomach, thinking that in death they would all be worth the same.

            “If this battle continues, the price of survival will be too much!” Chorem shouted.

            “Your vote of confidence is noted, Thatch, now keep fighting!” Nyl ordered.

            “He’s right, Sarge. It was okay when they were scattered, together this is too much,” Corp said.

            Chorem’s heart sank as he saw an axe cleave into Natalie’s collar. As her body crumpled, she disappeared in a haze, and another Natalie approached the assailing grayfoot from behind. She swung her staff wide, launching the grayfoot over some houses. Then, Chorem could think of no other recourse,

            “I have an idea! Dy, I need you to cover me!”

            “What are you thinking?”

            “Remember the sahuagin in the café, and the dragon?”

            Dylock paused.

            “Cover me!” Chorem pleaded. “I need time.”

            Dylock backed up with his shield raised. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

            “I, as well. Natalie, Avidan, I’ll need your aether, otherwise it won’t be enough.”

            “If I’m dull I can’t fight!” Avidan said.

            “Sarge?” Natalie conferred.

            Nyl pried an axe from a grayfoot’s side and kicked him away. He glanced around to take stock of the situation.

            “Do it!”

            Natalie and Avidan flanked Chorem, and Corp and Arba in turn guarded them. Nyl and Arcus stayed amidst the grayfeet as a vanguard. The mage’s set their hands on Chorem’s shoulders.

            “Do what you must, Thatch,” Natalie whispered.

            “Don’t plow it,” Avidan warned.

            Chorem held his staff ahead, perpendicular to the ground. He could feel his body swelling with the aether transferred from his fellow mages, his vision reaching a level of vibrancy only seen in watercolor paintings. He formed an image in his head, but this time it had to be more than that, more than a picture he could reference and project to the world. This had to look real, it had to seem real, and for that a spectacle was required. He slammed the butt of his staff into the ground, and from it erupted a thick black smoke, spewing from a singular point and writhing around ankles, covering cobblestone. Chorem raised his hand over the staff’s top. The black smoke pulled back, swarming around the staff and climbing into the air. More smoke filled the pillar of bubbling black, and from within Chorem used a simple auditory spell to simulate the grinding of bone, and a deep, low growl. The mage swept his arms open, and the thick, black pillar of smoke split as two, expansive wings. A horned head curled upward led by a fanged maw, lit by two flaring eyes. A thick tail stretched in a coil around bent haunches. The smoky black melted away into muted scales that ate the midday light.

            “Nana’s nethers,” Arba muttered.

            “Serious faces everyone, they need to think this is normal for us,” Chorem whispered.

            The grayfeet had halted in their tracks, mouths agape at the dragon that appeared before them, towering above the small buildings at the town square. Chorem focused his mind, working the dragon’s mouth into a howl, unleashing an earsplitting cry from within the monster’s throat. Chorem slowly wiggled his fingers, and fire spilled from between the dragon’s teeth.

            “They’ve stopped…” Dylock looked out from over the edge of his shield.

            “Go…damn you,” Chorem muttered.

            Some of the grayfeet began shouting, but otherwise they stood their ground. Chorem cursed under his breath, and guided the dragon’s head low, heaving to belch a stream of fire, sweeping it towards a row of the grayfeet. When they felt the heat, they began to flee. A horn blared amidst the screaming and roaring, and the ranks of the grayfeet receded, heading north.

            “Hold fast Chor, they’re retreating.”

            Chorem’s vision was dulling, but he could see grayfeet fleeing, slipping away from the town square through alleys and avenues. He held the image of the dragon in his mind for only a few more moments before letting it simply fade away as it curled down to lay on the ground. Chorem’s hope in the grayfeet’s unconditional retreat was only outmatched by his exhaustion. The grayfeet’s cries tapered off as their distance from Teelton grew. A moment later, two Officers of Shadow appeared from adjacent alleys, approaching the corpsmen with soundless steps.

            “Well done. We subdued any that may have tried to rally at a flank, they seem to be in full retreat. Temis, if you would keep an eye on them,” one of the officers said.

            The second officer took off into a sprint lithely chasing after the north.

            “Mission complete?” Nyl asked, resting his axes in waist straps.

            “As it would seem. Much of what was left was here in the town center, we picked off any that tried to flank you during your…little show here,” the Officer of Shadow said as he pulled a small sprig from a pouch on his waist.

            With the weed to his lips, he whispered of the grayfeet’s retreat in a few words into the sprig, and then its sparse petals withered up, breaking from the stem as dry leaves.

            “That was incredible, Thatch,” Rin shouted. “Nearly soiled my surcoat with how real it was. The roaring, the bones crunching.”

            Chorem nodded, taking a deep breath and expelling the air from pursed lips.

            “You’ve got some potential in the illusory school, that’s for sure,” Natalie said.

            “Coming from you, I’ll take that as a compliment,” Chorem leaned on his staff.

            Natalie smiled. The corpsmen spread out around the town square, some of the mages putting out the errant fires and reconstructing ice walls to keep certain paths blocked off, just in case the nomads attempted to regroup again. Nyl spoke into his whisperstone, nodding and shifting the weight on his soles as he looked over the area.

            “How are you feeling?” Dylock set a hand on Chorem’s back.

            “I will manage. I’m just glad that such a gamble paid off.”

            “Gather ‘round 8th!” Sergeant Nyl called, twirling his massive arm to corral his subordinates. “4th Squad is heading north to meet with Temis. They’ll act as a forward guard to ensure the grayfeet stay within the basin. Lieutenant Garmine wants us to remain in the town for the night.”

            “Oh ‘for the night’, really?” Rin pouted.

            “Where are we staying?” Avidan asked.

            “The square will suffice. We’ll keep some of the alleyways blocked off, rotate guard duty to watch other avenues. The grayfeet we saw may have stolen back to the basin, but we will need to check the vacant buildings for any that may still be in hiding. Dylock and Chorem, take the southern avenue; Rin and Avidan, take the western avenue. Glance indoors to ensure they are empty, call out if you encounter trouble. Do not engage alone.”

            The ordered soldiers responded with a “yessir” and paired off in their designated directions. Dylock and Chorem moved in silence, taking either side of the street when a home came up. Their hands tightened around their weapons with each door they opened, praying to the gods that emptiness was all that awaited them within. Adrenaline came in waves, small but strong, never allowing the young men to truly be at ease. Only one thing was on their minds, and it was something neither of them cared to speak about.

            “Looks like this is the end of the road for now, check these last few doors and head back?” Dylock said, no eye contact attempted with his friend, who responded with a single hum of agreement.

            The two soldiers separated, each taking a house that flanked the end of the avenue. Hearts pounding, hands shaking, nothing was found inside but quietude. In the wake of nothing, there was some semblance of relief felt. Dylock rested his sword and shield on a dinner table, inconsiderately shoving aside dinner plates and utensils that had been abandoned with urgency. Chorem’s staff disappeared from his hand in an envelope of light, but his fingers still formed a tight fist, the whitened knuckles beneath his glove creating a sharp mountain range in the leather. Both boys in unison, yet apart, found a place to set themselves, away from windows or doors. Dylock in a corner in the dining room. Chorem in the angle made where a cabinet pressed against a wall. It was there that something that had bubbled up beneath the surface finally overflowed.

            Dylock fruitlessly tried to brush away the dried, brownish spattering on his tabard, his mind returning to the grayfoot’s blood simply pouring down Dylock’s blade and onto him. He tried to turn to different thoughts, like Yoja, and the soft curls of her penmanship in their correspondences, but the ink swelled off the page, turning to rusted brown blots as the letters bloated into pools of blood. Dylock shook his head, thinking of how Yoja’s hand must glide along the page to write him such caring words, but her lithe hand left behind a smear of blood on the page. The quill in her hand became his sword, carving bloody letters onto an empty canvas. Dylock shook, and he buried his head in his hands, his shoulders heaving as sorrow overtook him.

            In the other house, Chorem breathed in short, sharp breaths, his elbows rested on his knees. His hands caressed each other, squeezing the palms in trembling fingers. Chorem saw images of flames spewing from his palms, igniting anything and everything he could ever know. He closed his hands into tight fists, so tight nothing could ever conceivably come from those palms, nothing so destructive as the magic he had used. Chorem buried his face in his fists, breathing deeply, salty tears burning his shut eyes as they looked for any way to escape down his cheeks. Chorem squeezed his eyes so tightly that stars freckled the darkness. He tried to close himself off, the sound of blood rushing past his ears drowning out his gasps of grief.

            They both cried. In their own small corners, hidden away from the rest of the world, they wept for many things. The horrors of the day, the relief of surviving, the sorrow at the loss of a shred of innocence they weren’t even aware they could lose. Their hands, their bodies, their knowledge, all a weapon. Chorem’s extensive aethereal arts, he had used them to play around. Perhaps he had always done so to ignore the other responsibilities tied to that power, to maim, to take a life, to leave a man less than they were, or turn them into nothing at all. In the blackness of his own mind, Chorem saw the wick of a candle burn, the flame writhing into the shape of a man in searing pain. Chorem’s thoughts couldn’t escape it. A deep, cold breath extinguished the flames, leaving the shape of a man frozen in a sheet of ice, shattering into chilled flanks of meat. In the end that’s all a man was – meat.

            Dylock, in all his adventurous intentions, swashbuckling with a grin on his face and a fire in his heart, ignored the viscera of combat. Striking a sparring partner, the flash, the spark of their barrier hid what a blade truly did. An earnest deception accepted, allowing him to live a lie as he balanced his life on the edge of a sword. He knew full well the death that could be dealt with a blade, but the blood, the life leaving a body? His uncle’s stomach, his father’s throat, his mother’s neck, a vibrant red pouring out into the blackness of his involuntary imagination. He held a sword in his pale hand, perpetually shining with the promise of adventure and hope, but its edge a faucet of electrifying red. It dripped into a pool at his feet in the shape of his own shadow. That was him, after all, the blood flowed just under the surface, shaping him and everyone else.

            After a time, Dylock and Chorem emerged from their houses, marking the end of the search. Chorem rubbed his eyes of the salt and acknowledged his friend. Dylock cocked his head, and Chorem nodded solemnly, then returning his own concerned gesture noticing the sheen in Dylock’s eyes. Dylock took a deep breath as he, too, nodded. The two made their way back to the town center, again in silence. The sun had crept past its midpoint, time having inched by with little regard. Bed rolls were taken from their carriage and laid out near the fountain, along with a small bonfire that had been chewing away at the wood from debris left behind in the skirmish. Someone had taken a portion of the piled-up cattle meat and stacked it next to the fire, intended as dinner. Chorem’s eyes locked on the meat, and his stomach turned before he could break away from terrible thoughts.

            “Nothing in our inspection,” Dylock said, resting his sword and shield against the fountain’s side.

            “The grayfeet seem to be gone,” Chorem added.

            “Rin and Avidan returned a bit ago, with nothing on their end as well. Chances are the grayfeet returned to the valley, I don’t believe they will return any time soon.” Maximilian stood up to stretch. He noticed the tenseness in his companions. “You two can relax for now, at least. Thatch, can you stoke the fire a bit, it’s getting low.”

            “Oh, uh…yes of course.”

            Chorem held a shaky palm to the bonfire, pushing intent to the dwindling flame. Watching the flames dance between his fingers, his thoughts flung back and forth between contradicting images. He used fire as a parlor trick, lighting blown-out candles for his siblings, but now it was something worse. He saw his brother and sisters laughing, cheering as he made a candlelight dance. He saw screaming nomadic warriors, agonized by his flames, writhing uncontrollably as his siblings laughed and cheered. Chorem lost himself in the growing fire, his sight overtaken by the bright orange light, obscuring his hand into a spindly shadow, eaten by the flame’s blooming rays that shone from between his occluded fingers.

            “Chor,” Dylock said, reeling at the flames’ spread.

            Chorem shook himself from his stupor, noticing the fire had become wild, dancing beyond the bounds of the bonfire’s enclosure of rocks.

            “Oh…sorry.” Chorem held out his other hand to the fire, shrinking it to a more manageable size. “A little exhausted, I can’t quite focus.”

            Maximilian glanced between Dylock, sitting haggardly on the fountain, and Chorem, whose hand outstretched to the fire tremored. Both young men cast unfocused stares into the bonfire.

            “You know, you both did well today,” Maximilian said.

            “You believe so?” Dylock asked, making no real effort to hide his disbelief.

            “It was your first sortie, first time bringing weapons to bear against another in a life or death matter. It went about as well as anyone could hope.”

            “How do you…how do you deal with it?” Dylock asked, glancing at his sword with its blade glinting in the firelight.

            “Time. Companionship. Some drink. Everyone will handle it differently, and you, too, shall find the way that works for you,” Maximilian replied.

            “I tried and…”            Dylock said, his sentence trailing off into a sheepish shrug.

            “That’s where time comes in to play. Soon you’ll learn how to make your mind bend away from those thoughts, to better things.”

            “I’ve dealt with death before, my family was murdered when I was young, but this is…it seems so different.”

            “Because watching someone die is different than killing someone yourself. Death has many facets to it, and they affect us all differently.”

            “When I was young, I would have the occasional nightmare, but as I grew they came less often. This, it was invasive, it wouldn’t leave my mind.”

            “It never truly will. Just like with your family, those memories will blur, and become more indistinct, but they’ll always be there, deep inside the darkest corners of our hearts. Beyond the sorrows we face, the toughest thing to come to terms with is that it doesn’t leave you. If you think you’re free of it, it will be all the harder to live with when it surfaces, in your dreams and in your quietest moments.”

            “So we’re to simply be strong in the face of it?” Dylock asked, turning his gaze to Maximilian. “To fight it?”

            “To be strong, and to fight it, implies that you will always be expected to overcome it. Strength and weakness apply to outward forces between parties, but this darkness we must live with is not a separate party, it’s us. We cannot be stronger than our own hearts, and if you attempt to be, that’s when you won’t really be the same anymore. You’ll shut out pieces of yourself, but then the darker parts will still bleed through. You’ll have cast aside your compassion, and be left with a heart hardened by a cynical dark.

            “To be expected to stay strong against that darkness, it will leave you routed when it comes harder than you are prepared for, because some days are harder than others. You’ll feel inadequate for letting that darkness get to you, and that is when it will take over, rule your life, and sometimes leave you a shell of yourself. You’re not expected to be strong, because strength has nothing to do with it. You’re not a failure because it affects you. You’re human, Luftmac, you’re human and to expect anything more of yourself leads only to the whittling of your soul.”

            “So, it’s normal to feel this way, you say?” Chorem asked, his eyes darting opposite the pile of meat.

            “As it’s human nature, yes. What you carry with you now is part of your heart, waking nightmares we suffer because of the actions we took. If you weren’t staggered by the terrible things we had to do, I would think you a heartless sort. In the end, what matters is why you took action in the first place. Feeling remorse for the lives you’ve changed or cut short, doing it for a greater cause, all of that in one is about as noble as you can truly be.”

            “I understand,” Dylock said. “I will…try not to let it hit me in the middle of a fight next time. I’m sorry.”

            “You’ve nothing to apologize for, it happened to everyone, near as I can tell.”

            “My father…he was a soldier once, like I am now. For a time, it seemed like he had tried to hide that fact from me. It felt like he wanted to keep me from a life like this, for as long as possible. He said it was inevitable though, he knew the kind of kid I was, with adventure on my mind.”

            “He sounds like a great man,” Maximilian said.

            “He was.”

            “And what of you, Thatch? Is your heart heavy as well?” Maximilian asked.

            “It is, but I believe I’ll manage. It is us or them, after all,” Chorem said, staring straight through the fire.

~

            After a night spent in what amounted to a ghost town, 8th squad journeyed back to Morgriff. It was decided that the coach would ride through the night, letting the soldiers rest in the bed of the carriage instead of stopping to camp beneath the stars again. The corpsmen groaned over the decision, but returning to their cots at headquarters was made all the sweeter for it. Dylock and Chorem were stricken with painful imagery in their quieter moments, just as Maximilian had said. However, the knitting of their squad allowed for many distractions, especially within the smaller confines of the carriage. Rin and Avidan told jokes, and sang ludicrous songs. Arcus regaled the squad of obscure world history from eras long past. Nyl spoke at length about his loving family. Liveliness pushed away the death. That was when Chorem and Dylock finally understood the level of fraternity between squads, and even when they had first arrived soldiers were huddled together, singular souls never far from a group they concerned themselves with. Each squad goes through so much, and more than just saving each other’s lives on the battlefield, they save each other’s souls at home.

            A few nights after 8th squad returned to headquarters, 4th squad arrived, having set up a contingency force to watch over Zelnay’s Grin, and overseeing the Teelton homecoming. After dinner, the attention bell chimed with a unique thrum, and the entirety of the Lionhead Corps gathered in front of a large door that had remained closed since Dylock and Chorem’s time there.

            “What is all this about? We never come here,” Chorem asked.

            “It’s not something the rookies are told about, until it’s relevant,” Arcus said lowly.

            As the door opened, the corpsmen filed into a space that stretched off from the headquarters’ border walls. Unlike the rest of the Lionhead Corps grounds, which had been beaten into a dusty pathway that turned to muck in heavy rains, this area was smothered in green. A soft grass grew underfoot, vines overtook the concrete walls in large swathes, and a modest tree sat in the center of it all, branches heavy with leaves spanning the colors of each season. In front of the queer tree was a large stone monument, its face pierced by myriad swords, each with countless chains laced around their blades.

            “Sir, what is this place?” Dylock whispered to Nyl.

            The man gestured his head forward, toward the monument. “Watch, and you’ll see.”

            A stern, loud voice from the entrance called for attention, and the murmurs gave way to the shuffle of feet as the soldiers formed rows from wall to wall. Past the shoulders of a few of his comrades, Dylock saw three figures walk between the soldiers and up to the monument. He had only seen them on occasion, knowing them only as the acting generals of the corps, the fur-lined hem of their hoods emulating a lion’s mane, and marking their high rank. Each took a position near the monument, one general on either side, with the highest-ranked official, the Lionhead himself, standing in the middle. On the left of the monument, holding a reddened sack, was a woman with midnight-black hair that straightly framed her thin eyes. The general opposite of her was broad, standing a head taller than even the Lionhead. His nearly-white hair was slicked back, tight to his head. The Lionhead possessed stark red hair, mostly left to its own devices aside from a loose ponytail cinched with a thin black bow, his features almost entirely hidden by the wild, red beard that seemed to explode from his face.

            The three of them stood firm, unwavering in their gravitas. The female general solemnly reached her hand into the reddened sack, and the Lionhead gently caressed the sword at his hip before turning to the soldiers.

            “Be at ease,” he said.

            The soldiers eased their posture, and the general to the right cleared his throat.

            “Tonight, we honor the fallen in the reclamation of Teelton. The Lionhead Corps recognizes these brave souls as they fought for a brighter future.”

            The Lionhead drew his sword and held it out as the other two generals closed in. The black-haired general removed from the bag a chain with a single company tag on it, which she handed to the other general. He read the name on the tag aloud, and the gathering of soldiers let out a concerted howl. Then the chain was draped onto the blade of the Lionhead’s sword, where it rested on the hilt. This continued for some time, with each name read from its tag, a roar of remembrance, and the chain slid onto the sword. Some soldiers held back tears, their shoulders shaking at the sound of their comrades’ names. In total, eleven had fallen, though Dylock intimately recognized none of the names, and he felt a pang of guilt in thinking that he was fortunate in that fact. Chorem, too, shared in that same guilt.

            When the reddened sack was empty, the general folded it up, and all three hung their heads low, while the Lionhead held the sword upright. The generals whispered an indiscernible chant, and the sword’s blade hummed with a faint glow.

            “These brave souls are now to be committed to stone, so their deeds may never be forgotten. Let the world forged of their decisions, of their sacrifices, carry on.”

            With a powerful stab, the Lionhead forced the blade into the face of the monument. The glow of the blade drained into the stone, and the names of the fallen soldiers etched themselves into the surface, circling the point where the sword pierced the monument.

            “Let this world remember them! Glory to the fallen! Glory to the pride!” the Lionhead shouted, inciting the soldiers to cheer through their sorrow.

            “What a poignant ceremony,” Dylock said lowly to Chorem at his side.

            “Right, but…is that what will become of us? Names carved into a rock…?” Chorem muttered.

            Dylock had no answer for him, and they both stared ahead, their eyes tracing the countless names circling numerous swords on the monument.

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