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CHASED BY FIRE
Thad and Thero burst through the burning forest edge, fire licking their flesh. Brittle branches snapped underfoot, charred by the roaring flames. Cinders were flung into the air all about them, landing in their hair, smoldering against their skin. Less than two tens of men followed the twins into the wood. They had lost more than half of the warriors in the mountain pass, and a few more had been picked off in their rush to Grandath. But now, charging through the smoke-filled woods of the Great Forest, Thad had thought better of his plan and was quite sure he had sealed the fate of his remaining few warriors.
“I can’t see anything,” cried one of his men from behind.
“This way,” Thad yelled. “Stay with me!”
Once past the forest edge the woods were filled with a deathly grey smoke. It was so thick that seeing was nearly impossible and breathing even more so, the air sucked right out of their lungs, eyes burning as if aflame.
Men fought for each breath, choking as they went. Thad and Thero both continued to shout, trying to keep the men assembled, but they knew it would not be long before they were scattered among the trees, lost forever in the suffocating world they had entered.
This had been a mistake.
Thero, desperate for air, gasped hard, covering his mouth with the upper fold of his mantle. But all he took in was a chestful of burning smoke that set him gagging. He doubled over, and his stomach spent itself in one spasm after another. He eyes watered, and no matter how hard he shut them, the stinging only continued.
Thad tripped over a log, suffering from the same condition as his brother. He rolled on the ground, holding a twisted ankle.
We were wrong to come here, he scolded himself. I was wrong.
He heard his men fumbling through the wood, running into trees and coughing hysterically. To come so far and be killed by so little; it was a depressing affair.
Thad rolled to his side and opened his eyes. He caught sight of Thero’s legs; his brother was recklessly stumbling through a thicket of withering ferns.
And then Thad realized it…
“I can see!” he blurted out.
From down on the forest floor, he could see. Granted, not much, but enough. The smoke was considerably thinner, and breathing even bearable.
“Down! Get down!” he ordered. He saw Thero spin toward the sound of his voice. “Thero, lie down!”
Thero dropped to his knees, a hacking cough forcing blood into his hands.
“Lie down, man!”
Thero eventually fell on his face, more out of defeat than will. He lay there for a moment hidden among the ferns, his lungs expelling the death bound up within them.
Soon his coughing stopped.
Thad watched for movement.
Thero didn’t stir.
“Thero?” Anxiety gripped Thad’s heart. “Thero!”
Thad rolled onto his belly and began frantically pulling his way along the forest floor. It smelled of must and damp leaves, but it was a welcomed smell compared to the smoke just above him. He dug his elbows into the soft terrain and pushed forward with his knees.
“Thero!” he yelled again.
He pulled himself over a log and then tumbled down into the glade of ferns. Foliage inhibited his vision, but he beat it aside, long willowy leaves slapping him in the face. He pulled at the roots, drawing his body farther into the undergrowth.
Searching wildly, he stole glances through the breaks in the plants, hoping to catch sight of Thero’s clothing, a glint of his armor perhaps.
“Thero! Can you hear me?”
Suddenly Thad heard a soft moan.
He looked to his left. “Thero!”
Thad pushed himself up and ran the short distance to where his brother lay. He then sank back down into the protection of the lower air. He shook Thero’s forearm.
“Thero, speak to me, man!”
“I can’t,” mumbled Thero. “And let go of my arm.”
“Gladly.” Thad rolled onto his back and cupped his hands to his mouth, hoping his next words would be heard by any of his men in earshot. “Warriors of Dionia! To your bellies! Get down and breathe easy!”
He repeated the words and then waited. He heard men coughing all through the forest, some deathly so. After a short wait the coughing lessened, and soon only the roaring fire could be heard in the distance.
He waited there with his brother as Thero collected himself. The two conversed briefly until Thad noticed movement nearby.
“Someone’s coming,” Thero stated.
“Aye,” Thad propped himself up and looked over the ferns. “Who goes there?”
“’Tis I, Blandon,” said a warrior. He worked his way among the ferns to where the twins were.
“Breathing easy?” Thad asked.
“Easier,” Blandon replied with a grin, “but I would much prefer the sea breezes of Narin to this.” He coughed once again.
“As would I, sword brother,” Thad replied. “Blandon, gather whom you can. Meet us here. Quickly now, we haven’t much time to waste.”
Thad bade his brother stay put and made to move. But the sharp pain in his ankle sent him to the ground.
“What is it?” Thero inquired.
“My ankle,” he said, reaching for it.
“You stay here,” Thero ordered. “I’ll rally who’s left of the warband.”
Without any objection, Thero was away, pushing through the ferns on his hands and knees. Thad began shouting, giving Blandon and Thero, and any of the other men listening, a point to come to.
“Follow my voice! This way! This way!”
Slowly, he heard men rustling through the underbrush, crawling on their bellies toward him. Within a few moments, he was joined in the glade by no more than nine of his warband.
Thad continued to cry out until finally Thero and Blandon returned. Blandon had one man with him, Thero none.
“Any more?” Thad looked at them forlorn.
“Nay,” Blandon shook his head. Thero likewise.
“I found four who had succumbed to the smoke,” Thero said gravely.
“And I, two more,” added Blandon.
“Six men,” Thad muttered. A hand grabbed his forearm.
“Brother, we must move, as you said.”
“Aye, Thero, right you are.”
“Which way?” asked Blandon.
“There,” Thad pointed. “The smoke files away from the flames, to the east. To me. And stay low!”
The warband waited as Thad and Thero passed, and then followed them, digging their elbows into the soft forest floor and pulling themselves onward. Now only ten and two strong, they moved quickly over logs and between trunks. The smoke swirled overhead, leading them away from the source and deeper into the Central Forest.
As the men spent themselves on the strenuous effort, they soon noticed that the smoke was not dissipating as quickly as they had hoped. In fact, the ceiling above them was moving lower and lower overhead. The air was also growing hotter.
“We are indeed moving away from the flames?” Thero questioned his brother.
“Quite. Yet one would presume otherwise.”
“Aye,” Thero looked behind them.
“Tell me, Thad.” Thero tried to catch his breath, sweat streaming down his face. “What do you see there in the distance?”
Thero indicated a strange orange glow in the midst of the smoke far behind them.
“The flames are advancing,” Blandon spoke up. “But so quickly?”
“Aye,” Thad said. “We are being followed.”
“Followed?” Thero looked at him, and then back at the glow. “By the Dairne-Reih?”
“Eventually. But first by the fire.”
“I don’t understand,” said Blandon.
“It lives,” answered Thad. “I saw it just before we entered the wood. It has a soul.”
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“Impossible?” Thad cut Blandon off. “Man, what have you seen in these last days that has not been impossible? I tell you, if we do not outwit this devil, it will consume us whole and be all the more pleased for having done so. It lives, and it lives to kill us.”
“And your plan?” Thero inquired.
“Run while we can, then rest to breathe down here.”
“Serious?” asked Blandon.
“Aye,” said Thero. “It’s the only way.”
And so it was that the men began the grueling exercise of standing and running blindly through the woods; when their breath was nearly gone and their legs could carry them no further, they knelt down and then laid prostrate, sucking air in and wiping the tears from their eyes.
This was most taxing on Thad. His ankle burned incessantly, but he reminded himself it was nothing like the scorching heat he would endure if he were too slow.
“Faster, men!” Thad would yell as they raced through the smoke. When he felt the team slowing, he’d encourage them again and again until the pace resumed to what he felt a necessary speed.
Suddenly he tripped and crashed to the ground. Thad didn’t realize he was himself screaming in pain, but Thero tried his best to soothe him.
“Easy there, brother,” he said, examining his leg. The twisted ankle had caused another injury: this time, a fracture in the lower leg. White bone punctured the skin, both smeared in fresh blood. Thero looked back toward the glow in the smoke. It seemed as though they had not made any progress at all.
It was gaining on them.
“It’s just my ankle,” Thad finally spoke up. “I’ll manage.”
“Be that as it may,” Thero covered, “I think it best that we carry you the rest of the way.”
“Nonsense.” Thad made to stand up.
His leg buckled. A wave of pain shook his body from head to toe. He stumbled back to the ground and looked down at his misshapen limb.
“O Most High,” Thad quivered. He looked up to Thero. “It’s bad, isn’t it, brother?”
It was the first time Thero ever remembered seeing his brother afraid.
“Don’t be fearful, now. There’s nothing to dread. The Great God is with you.” Thero looked into his twin’s eyes. “I’ll carry you.”
Blandon and the others assisted in bracing Thero as he lifted Thad from the ground. He stood cradling him in his arms and then moved forward. He made only a few steps before needing to kneel and catch his breath. But the effort just to lower Thad was overwhelming.
“I’ll take him next,” said Blandon. He moved to where Thad lay and said, “Here, grab my neck.”
Thad wrapped his arms around Blandon’s neck and was lifted into the air, dangling from his back. They made it a good number of paces before Blandon knelt down. He took another breath and then stood, moving forward another few strides. Twice more they made headway and then collapsed in a heap.
“Let me help,” said another man. He stepped in and bore Thad likewise. He made a go of it three times before passing Thad off to yet another of the warband.
But the tedious process was very slow.
Thero looked back. The flames were advancing. The smoke was heavier, and the air along the ground was growing foul.
“We’re not moving fast enough,” Thero said to Blandon, both taking a knee.
“I’m slowing everyone down,” Thad said, hanging from a man’s back.
Thero looked to Blandon in pregnant silence.
“I know it’s true,” snapped Thad. “You need not lie to me.” Thad looked to his brother. “Thero, have them put me down.” He coughed.
Thero did not move.
“You there,” Thad spoke to the man who carried him. “Release me.”
“As you will,” replied the warrior. He knelt and eased Thad to the ground. Thad winced at the pain it produced in his leg.
All the men lay prostrate in the undergrowth.
“All of you,” Thad spoke loudly, “listen to me now. I am under orders of the King of Ligeon, and the High King of Dionia. You are under my command. To disobey me is to defy the High King Himself. If you take me any farther, you will perish. This evil can be outrun, and with any help from the Tribes of Ot, you will be found safe in the Secret City by nightfall. Each of you…”
Thero lost track of Thad’s words. It was in that instant that he realized what he had to do. He turned and looked back to the glow in the distance, now so close he could hear the roar and see the flames. It loomed toward them as they lay in the leaves. Thero felt it drawing him, asking for his soul.
But he would not give in.
Thad’s words came rushing back…
“…for Dionia, and for your King!”
Thero stood and walked to Thad. He then knelt and cradled his brother in his arms. Thad made to object, but Thero stood, and the smoke stole any breath Thad had.
“Onward!” Thero cried.
The men responded quickly and rose to their feet, but their hearts were far from their orders. They understood the situation all too well. Help, and they forfeited their lives, for their aid would not be enough for Thad or themselves; run, and they might live to fight another day.
“Do not stop for anything, save the Dwarves of this realm!” Thero added. “Do not stop for friend or foe.” He looked to Blandon, tears washing lines down his blackened face. “You must survive and give an account to the High King! He is the best of us all! Varos!”
Thad squinted through the smoke, his eyes watering. He looked up to Thero’s face, smeared with black soot. “What are you doing?” he asked quietly.
“Going with you, what else?” Thero replied. He began walking forward, his brother grasped in his arms. “For Dionia! With haste!”
With that the men took off running. Their feet trampled the forest floor, branches snapping, bushes shaking. They raced through the woods as fast as their feet would carry them. And when their lungs burned for their next breath, they stooped to suck in air, off again a moment later.
Thero strained his legs, pushing himself for the next step. Exhausted, he sank to the ground in a heap, Thad crashing in front of him.
“Leave me,” Thad moaned. “You can outrun this. You are strong.”
“And live knowing I left you, my brother?” Thero shook his head. “Then I would not be a true Son of Dionia, much less a Dibor. And likewise, do not call me your brother.”
Thero looked back; the rage of the fire was upon them. He felt the heat burning his face. He summoned all his strength and reached for Thad, taking him up once more.
They made it only a few paces before Thero collapsed again.
The rest of the warband was nowhere to be seen.
“God’s speed,” Thero prayed over them, reaching a feeble hand forward. He looked over at Thad. Both their eyes were swollen and bleeding. They were beyond tears, and their lungs past trying to expel the dangerous air. Thero’s arms and legs burned, yet he willed himself to make one more go of it.
“Shall we, my brother?” Thad asked, looking over at him, their bodies sprawled in the dirt. The air was fervent.
“We shall, Dibor,” Thero replied and pressed himself up again. “We shall until we can no more.”
The fire was just behind them now, racing forward without discretion. Thero shuffled to his broken brother and scooped him up. He kissed him on the forehead and made to stand. Everything in him resisted the action. But he cried out and willed his legs to straighten.
When he gained his feet, the two brothers strode forward like the warriors they were, and in the twinkling of an eye, they were taken home as the heroes they would always be.
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