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MASSACRE IN THE MOUNTAINS
Thad and Thero looked to one another and then back again to the enemy horde that had surrounded them from above. The archers of Ligeon had dropped their bows and raised their hands in defeat, sword points now edging them ever closer to the cliffs that circled the clearing. The remaining warband below stood motionless clutching their weapons; the two brothers noticed the fear in them, yet the archers above were unwavering, uncannily calm although their deaths were imminent. Outnumbered and tactically bested, everyone waited for the enemy to make the first move, as they had none of their own.
A man screamed out.
Thad looked to see a figure streaking through the air and then landing in the rocky clearing not five paces beside him.
The murdered man wore the amour of Ligeon, his body broken.
“O Most High, save them!” Thero beckoned skyward.
But there was no response.
It happened all too quickly for those watching. Despite the warband’s sudden pleading with the enemy above, waving their hands and calling up for mercy, the taken and the demons alike paid not the slightest attention. They moved forward as one, poking and prodding with their horns and weapon points like herding swine, heckling the bowmen who themselves remained calm and noble to the last.
The archers had no choice but to be impaled or to jump over the cliff. A few managed to leap down to rocky outcroppings and ledges that, if not stopping their fall altogether, lessened their impact below.
However the majority fell to their deaths, but not without their brothers’ valiant attempt to aid them.
The warband below ran to the cliff faces with their arms outstretched. It was feeble at best. But they could not endure such horror with indifference; they had to do something. They tried to catch their brothers, or at least break their falls with their own bodies.
One man looked upward just as an archer fell on top of his head. The impact shattered the warrior’s neck and crumpled him to the ground in a heap. The archer survived the fall but broke both legs. Another man indeed caught his counterpart, but broke his arms and back in the process. And yet others missed altogether, arriving a breath too late to a pile of flesh and armor that had moments before been a kinsman.
The enemy above bathed in glory over the scene with clattering weapons and beating their chests. Whoops came from those overhead while tears streamed from those below.
When the deed was done, Thad and Thero rallied their men, wounded and whole, and charged to the far end of the clearing. They retreated through a narrow exit in the rock that emptied out into a trail leading further east. But their escape was quickly followed as the enemy filed in behind them. Those in the rear were hacked to the ground; men carrying one another were swiftly relieved of their duty and ability.
The warband continued to run, Thad and Thero all the while looking for any advantage offered them. The trail continued to descend, and the Great Forest grew closer with the fading daylight. But the way was rocky, and they knew their wounded would not last long.
Smoke from another fire rose just ahead, heralding yet another Sif Gate, and most likely more resistance. Thad looked to his brother.
“Whatever is in the next clearing, we run through it. We must make it to Grandath.”
“Aye, but that’s where the enemy is headed.”
“But the forest will hide those who are sly enough. This mountain peak is far from my liking. We cannot stop.”
“Agreed,” Thero replied.
As the trail curved around to the right, the warband flooded into a new clearing like waters through a broken dam. The three Dairneags and small host of taken that awaited were instantly overwhelmed. Thad was the first into the clearing. He ran up behind the largest of the Dairneags and drove his Vinfae into the monster’s flank, cutting a wide wound as he ran past with his blade.
Thero went to the other side where a fold of four taken stood talking amongst themselves. They had hardly the time to look up and notice the surge of onrushing men before Thero’s blade swept low and amputated legs from two men, and wounded another two assailants with quick thrusts to their thighs. Even in his frenzied state, Thero did not have the heart to kill them, hoping beyond hope that sometime in the future they would yield once again to the power of the Most High. He knew it was pointless to wish for such a thing, but he would have betrayed his scruples to do otherwise.
The warband dispensed with the remaining Dairne-Reih with minimal resistance, skirted the large Sif Gate and fire pit, and proceeded out the far end of the clearing. They continued on, the enemy trailing on their heels, before the path took a steep dive toward a stream below. Past the stream they could see the edge of the Great Forest now getting very close. And then a sight they would not soon forget.
Why they had not noticed the raging fire earlier was beyond them, but it certainly explained why the sky was growing dim. The sinking sun was diminished in force not from its descent, as they had thought—for indeed a fair amount of daylight remained—but from an ever-expanding sheet of black smoke that blotted out its presence. And feeding that smoke was a fire that stretched wide along the forest’s edge, eating its way into the heart of Dionia.
“Great God of Athera!” Thero exclaimed, slowing slightly in shock.
“We cannot stop, brother,” Thad said as he pushed Thero forward. “We must make it to what remains of the wood.”
But even as he said it, he noticed the mass gathering of Dairne-Reih and taken that ushered the fire inward. The enemy remained a good distance from the heat, but seemed to scour the charred wreckage with great intent, following the wake of its destruction with care. And so many of them!
“There must be ten legions of them,” Thero uttered as he ran down the decline.
It was then that their current course of action seemed to make no sense whatsoever; with enemy behind and enemy before, their fate was sealed. There are certain moments in confrontation when things seem to go one’s way, even that thoughts are ordered with great light and inspiration; there are other moments, however, when things seem to happen much too quickly, where a loss of control outruns reason. This was such a time.
They bounded down the slope and crossed the stream. The enemy closed behind them. As they neared what was previously the forest edge they noticed the permeating scent of the smoke and the blackened rubble beneath their feet. Burnt trees stood like black ghosts, their limbs fragile and lifeless; charred timber was strewn about everywhere; and rocks sat scorched from the intense heat, still hot to the touch.
Thad looked around quickly. “There,” he said, pointing to a section of the forest that was particularly thick. The fire was having a difficult time catching there and preferred the drier, more spacious routes. The Dairne-Reih seemed less interested in that area, completely unaware of the small warband that was charging behind them presently. “If we punch a hole through there, we’ll have a chance of making it deeper into Grandath.”
Thero glanced at him in mid stride. “And then what? The wood is full of fire and smoke. We’ll die by the flames!”
“Or die by the sword. Which would you like?”
“I’ll take my chances with trying to find Ot again.”
Thad nodded in agreement and pushed forward, the warband following in the rear. But it wasn’t long before the enemy trailing behind alerted the enemy up ahead. Moments later a few Dairneags began closing in on the men from the flanks.
Thad yelled over his shoulder, “Fight them if you must, but make for the break in the fire at all costs!”
The warband ran more quickly now, picking through the burned forest matter and leaping over fallen trees. One demon drew near and swung at a cluster of running men. One unfortunate soldier could not avoid the Dairneag and took the blow square in his chest; the force picked him off his feet and knocked him backwards to the ground. The beast pummeled him with its clawed foot.
Still the men raced forward, fixed on the small patch of growth ahead.
They were very close now. Despite one or two incidents, they ran practically unnoticed between the Dairne-Reih, whose numbers increased as they neared the flames. The demons were so fixed on eyeing the devastation, almost as if they were looking for something, that they completely failed to notice the trespassers.
The men could feel the heat increasing; the fire was much larger than they had first reckoned. And it had a strange characteristic about it, one that made it seem hungry, unsatisfied unless it devoured its prize. It was ravenous.
Thero realized it first…
…this fire was alive.
“Almost there!” Thad yelled.
“This is really going to hurt, isn’t it, brother?” Thero asked, now quite out of breath and tired from running. The forest edge was just ahead about ten paces.
“Hurt is a relative term, Thero. Just take a deep breath.”
“No problem there.”
“Good. It’s probably your last.”
It was then that Thad gazed into the fire and the woods and thought he saw something extremely out of the ordinary…
…he thought he saw the flames grin at him. He realized that maybe this was not the best plan after all.
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