The Chained One (Chapter 24)

Outer Ranges

For four more days the battalion moved southwest as it had the first day, covering a modest amount of terrain given the size of their force. But the stretches of silence during the daytime hours only lasted for two of those four, with more hit-and-run assaults perpetrated upon them by specters in the dead of night. On the third day, the scouts finally began spotting sporadic groups of the creatures in all shapes and sizes, and some few were indeed foolish enough to assault the battalion head-on.

            Worn down by two evenings of interrupted rest and long days of dry, warm weather to march in, dozens of soldiers were felled on that third day, some of them the kind of men and women who Kathy might have expected to see glorious paintings or sculptures of hung with pride in some official museum or family crypt. Their ends seemed somehow like cheats, frauds, to her, as though some great hall of heroes akin to Valhalla had been robbed of its proper membership numbers.

            Still, what could she do about it? The fourth day was by far the worst, with almost thirty soldiers dying at the hands of a large pack of rendermen and a hive of man-sized albino hornets covered in tiny purple spiked barbs. Between her enchanted arrows and Byron’s hellfire shotgun, they were able to dispatch most of the oversized insects, while a couple of skilled fuxbau in the ranks, also archers, picked off the remainder that the humes didn’t catch. When everything settled down, Daggeuro went stomping through the columns, growling and snapping orders and curses of condemnation, demanding explanations of officers as to how those men and women most fatigued during the previous days’ marching could have been left on the outer edges of the formations. In the event of a skirmish, it was only natural that the most skilled and rested soldiers be on the outers; anything less was simply asking for injuries and/or fatalities.

            Kathy flinched at the sound of the kennin High Knight’s snarls and screams. She had never seen him in such a state with his own people, berating every ranking member of the battalion of lieutenant or higher rank. The sergeants he left alone; they were doing plenty of screaming of their own, and not without good reason. They seemed to be better equipped to do the yelling, for the most part, because enlisted men and women in Amermidst Kingdom, as in most Mortal Plane militaries, listened and responded better to sergeants than to anybody in ‘the brass’.

            When he was finished doing his hollering, Daggeuro came over to the Awakened humans with the right side of his mouth sneered open like a canine Elvis impersonation. “Officers’ meeting, I want the two of you enjoined,” he said briefly, hands on his hips. He looked like he wanted to say something more, but for the moment, he only indicated they should follow him with a raised twitch of his fingers towards himself, turning and stalking into the ranks, which had broken down for a rest period.

            When he finally stopped, Byron and Kathy stood in a small huddle with twelve other officers, most of them elven, but a pair of fellins and one minotaur and one lizardman present to break up the mix. The circle was ringed by an empty space, which appeared to be guarded by privates and corporals who knew better than to ask questions or hear what they shouldn’t; they all had wads of cotton jammed in their ears. Kathy noticed this, and wondered how bad the news was, or if Daggeuro just didn’t want information disseminated among the ranks too soon.

            “All right,” the kennin warrior began, hefting a sigh as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Nobody else wants to admit it, but I will, because I saw it for myself out there during this last attack. Some of those specters were enchanted, and recently.” Several of the officers nodded, secure in their ability to freely indicate agreement or denial. Daggeuro looked around, eyes settling on Kathy. She hadn’t wanted to say anything, but she too had been aware of a great deal of antagonistic magical energy present in the specters in the most recent skirmish. More than that, however, was what she’d seen via her tiny fairy statuettes, sent nearly half a mile in every direction around the battalion- there were faery in strange, almost Roman style soldiers’ uniforms on the fringes of the scouts’ range, watching, waiting for some cue or opportunity to strike. Who they were and what they were capable of she didn’t know, but she suspected that these men would not make a move until the battalion actually reached the woodland that served as the buffer zone around Parik.

            Kathy realized with a start that she was actually looking forward to the oncoming battle. Despite her misgivings about combat in general and her distaste for senseless war, she had become personally invested as one of the warriors on the front lines. More than anything, she wanted to see her Awakened power put to clever use on the field to either protect her friends and allies or to crush her enemies. She needn’t wonder how Byron felt about it; each successive assault on the battalion seemed to bring him closer to the brink of a kind of zone of brutality, one wherein she felt sorry for those who stepped up to face him.

            Daggeuro continued, drawing her attention back to the moment. “There are outbound watchers, scouts of The Chained One, also now keeping an eye on us. They’re no fools, however,” he said, pointing one finger upward and making sure everyone saw it. “No, they stay just beyond bow range of our own scouts, and they prepare enchantments and quite possibly traps ahead along the road.  As such, we will have to slow our approach from here on, allow sappers and pathfinders to lead the battalion.” This was met with open grumbling from the arranged officers, except for the minotaur captain, who looked neutral, if not somewhat pleased.

            “Will the sappers actually disarm the traps they find, or will they just build some of their own to throw back at our unseen enemies,” asked one of the two fellins, a lieutenant Blair. She was an orangish hue in fur, her heavy, dark yellow leather armor creaking as she moved, her mace hanging off her left hip coated in fresh blood. Blair feared no battle, but she didn’t care for the men and women who served as Amermidst’s combat engineers. Kathy didn’t blame her; from what she’d seen, sappers were just as likely to create and accidentally set off devices that got themselves and their allies killed as they were to find and dismantle such trickery from the enemy.

            “Sergeant Porgins is our lead sapper here,” Dagguero said, which led to several sighs of relief. The kennin High Knight nodded, looking around, meeting the eyes of each of his officers. “I see that is cause for relief for all of you. That is well. We all know that Sam Porgins is thorough, efficient, and capable. Most importantly, we all know that he’s entirely sane, which is what we need right now from our sappers. Now, on to our next point, and then we’ll wrap this up,” he said, hitching a breath and slowly letting it out. “We need to break down the columns into squads now, before we go any further. You all know the drill for squad formation- one sergeant minimum per squad, five men to a squad at least, nine at most. Heavies will remain mostly on the outer ranks of the march but stay with their squads as much as possible. Primary magic users stay centralized and protected. Now, are there any questions before I dismiss this meeting,” Daggeuro asked of them. One hand went up almost immediately from one of the elven officers, a major whose leaf cluster pin shone dully upon the lapel of his long overcoat, worn atop blackened chain armor. The kennin High Knight nodded his head and deferred to the major for the moment. When the major stepped into the center of the ring of officers, all eyes snapped from Daggeuro to him.

            “I understand, as do we all, that in the heat of battle, it is difficult sometimes to keep squad cohesion,” said the major, his voice a pleasant, rolling tenor. “Is there any procedure or rallying point for squads that have been decimated in battle?” Daggeuro, arms folded over his chest, didn’t look at all pleased with this question, probably because of its inherent assumption of the worst possible scenario. But Kathy was proud of the way her friend handled the question a moment later.

            “The procedure for squad self-adjustment is to split even remaining numbers up and down, odd numbers rounded up,” Daggeuro said calmly. “As for rally points, our men are all trained to rally to the nearest available officer in the event they become separated from their unit, so long as that officer is not in mortal peril or dying. Anything further?” The major stepped back, and was replaced in the center of the circle by one of the lizardmen, this one clearly less a warrior and more a magic user by his lack of armor and weaponry. His dirty brown robes appeared unwashed and stiff, but Kathy could detect a faint aroma of some wonderful flowering scent coming from the man. Earthen magic, she thought. Lovely stuff.

            “I have been wondering what to do about any enemies who decide they wish to surrender to us,” said the lizardman, his voice melodious, smooth. “We have not discussed what to do with such folks, Lord Daggeuro.” The kennin blinked rapidly, grinned along one side of his snout, and shook his head. His arms were still folded over his chest, but he quickly used one to point to the man before him.

            “An excellent point to make, captain Fribes,” he said aloud, beginning to pace rapidly back and forth. “These people will mostly be members of our very kingdom, men and women who are serving The Chained One for no other reason than to survive. There will undoubtedly be converts, true believers in this monster’s power and station, but they will stand out from the rest like nails not hammered down into the wood. To them, we shall be as those hammers. If we can spare the lives of our enemies, subdue rather than kill, we must. As for the specters or any other non-faerie beings he may have at his beck and call, they are to be felled with prejudice,” Daggeuro declared. “We cannot risk our own safety and victory for the sake of such creatures. Can you all be agreed upon that?” There was a collective nodding of heads, which he took as a positive cue before clearing his throat to wrap up.  “Very well.  Any other accords or questions of merit to put forth?” Silence followed as Kathy and Byron looked around, noting the way the officer corps eyed one another for signs of a continuation. When it was clear there was no other inquiry to be made, at least not by the faerie officers, Kathy stepped forward into the center of the group.

            “I have a question, actually,” she said, sweeping her eyes slowly over the assembled officers around her. Dagguero, who she settled upon lastly, seemed honestly perplexed.

            “Yes, lieutenant Potts,” he said softly, taking a step back, cocking his head to one side. “Pray tell, what is your question?”

            “When the battle begins, will the squads listen to myself and Byron,” she asked, her tone flat, her eyes narrowed not upon Daggeuro, but upon the elves behind him.  The kennin High Knight’s honor was unquestionable, beyond reproach; he would never allow anyone among the ranks to deliberately disobey an order given by either of the humans. But the other officers present, well, Daggeuro couldn’t keep an eye on them all once the battle was enjoined in earnest. Kathy looked around with her eyes still narrowed at the elves, lizardman, fellins, and minotaur. She had become fairly good at reading the reactions of faerie folk since first coming to the Ether Plane, and what she saw made her glad of having asked the question. The minotaur, for starters, seemed almost stupefied by her question, as if such a notion shouldn’t have even come into play. Why wouldn’t the squads listen? Weren’t the humans officers, too? And one of the elves also looked befuddled, but only because Kathy had served with him during the defense of Celia when the shade, Luga, attacked during her first adventure in Ether. So far as he was concerned, Kathy’s standing shouldn’t have been questioned among the ranks.

            Daggeuro cleared his throat, casting his eyes about the gathered officers. “I should say that I expect them to. If they have any desire to hold onto their honor, they will acknowledge the ranks you carry as first sergeant and lieutenant.”

            “My lordship,” spat one of the taller elven men, stepping forth without any kind of warning, his face pinched with disdain, glaring at the Awakened humans. “These two shouldn’t even be here! They have been touched by the creature we go to battle against! For all we know, they’re being controlled by it!”

            “Dare not speak such rot,” boomed the minotaur, himself stepping towards the elven naysayer, hand on the handle of his oversized mace. “Were they under such control, our wee folk allies would sense it! Do you now question the capacity for such perception among the fairies and pixies?” The elven officer took a step back, eyes lowered, shaking his head vaguely. “I thought not.” The minotaur stomped his foot once upon the ground and faced Kathy squarely, his hand grasping the handle of his mace tightly. “Lady Potts, I remember a time when my race was not trusted among the elves of Amermidst Kingdom. We were called savages, brutes, and dismissed out of hand as useless to the needs of this great nation by the majority of its citizenry and most of the High Council. But King Ovin never treated ill with us, even when the more brute tribes declared outright war against his kingdom. That noble fairy lord invited the elders of the tribes to talks for peace, and gave them gifts, gave them wisdom. Not all accepted, but change did occur. And why?” He looked around at the other officers, then back to Kathy. He was now grinning with obvious pride. “Because someone gave us a chance. And we should do the same now for these two.”

            Daggeuro’s features softened, his body loosening up. Normally, he had to be the one to berate the officers into doing the right thing when they weren’t Royal Guard. As for those men and women, well, they never questioned his orders. That alone was part of the reason he often preferred working with the Watch, because sometimes he needed someone to give him a hard time, in order to keep him sharp, on his toes. And sometimes, he needed to see one of his subordinates stand up and take the reins. Here, the minotaur had done just that.

            The kennin High Knight stepped up next to the minotaur and planted one gauntleted hand on his shoulder.  “I couldn’t have put it better myself,” he said. “You will go among the enlisted men and women, and you will make sure that regardless of their attitude toward the Awakened, toward humans in general, they will acknowledge and accept lieutenant Potts and first sergeant Torg as equals of rank to their faerie counterparts among us. If they issue any order that is not clearly dangerous to one’s own well-being, it will be followed to the letter. Am I understood?” Nods of understanding and agreement from the gathered officers, though a couple didn’t look pleased. “Good. Then this meeting is hereby dismissed.”

            The officers dispersed, and just in time; the squads were now formed and taking up formation for squad-based marching movements. Daggeuro remained with Kathy and Byron a minute, arms folded over his chest, eyebrow raised at the Awakened woman. “You know, we needed that,” he said quietly.

            “I’d thought it might be necessary,” she said back, just as quietly. “I’ve had some of my little fairy figurines flying around the battalion the last few days, listening in.”

            “Spying,” Byron grunted, but he was leering like someone who’s been let in on a dirty joke. “Sly woman. That’s part of why I love you!” He went to wrap his arms around her theatrically, and she pressed her hand over his face and shoved him playfully away.

            “Didn’t like some of what you were hearing, I take it,” Daggeuro asked.

            “It wasn’t usually anything overtly stated, nothing so obvious,” she said. “But there were tones, and whenever some of the folks refer to us, it’s as ‘those humes’ instead of by name. Some of them have also confused which of us is which, though not many. Byron has less of a reputation here in Amermidst than I do, but what he’s known for isn’t much of anything good. They think he’s completely mad, and wonder why you’ve brought him along.”

            “Well, sometimes madness is needed to fight madness,” Daggeuro said cheerfully, patting Kathy on the arm. “Come along. Get Byron and take to the front with me in a minute,” he said, charging off to the front of the battalion’s new formation. Kathy sauntered over to Byron, who was checking through his cards and resorting them, as well as writing up a few new ones on blanks from his bag. He smiled awkwardly at her as he tucked them away, and together they jogged to the front of the battalion to join Sir Daggeuro once more.

            The terror of battle lay ahead.

            General Quintus strode back and forth among the fanatical devotees to The Chained One, all of them waiting anxiously for their master to come out of his meditative trance and commune with them. The elven commanding officer had already received several missives from Chapel, who claimed to be doing his best to harass the oncoming forces, but without too much luck. ‘There’s just too many of them,’ the messages said. ‘We underestimated their response.’ Quintus was glad to have gotten as many people away from Parik as he had, because from the sounds of it, nobody on The Chained One’s side of the coming engagement was going to survive.

            When finally the ragged apparition rose from where it knelt in the central square of the village, twin lights of bitter white light, frozen beams of malevolence, shone out at the gathered crowd. The Chained One flung his hands outward, skeletal, rotting fingers spread wide. Though he stood a good fifteen feet away, Quintus could smell the dry, dusty stench of decay the creature let off from the ends of its robe sleeves, and it made him cringe. “Hear me, mine children true, my servants of heart and soul,” he rasped. “The enemy comes swiftly to us now! They are many, more than even I had foreseen coming. But their numbers will be diminished before they arrive here, this I know well, for I have seen to it!” The Chained One’s chains began to rattle loudly from his back, and those lengths which it freely wielded as its own weapons and extensions of its body dragged back and forth like serpents among the crowd. Quintus felt those length fused to his wrists and ankles grow warm with some strange kind of sympathetic energy. “Very soon, this hour in fact, they shall fall upon the first of the traps I have set for them. Oh, the blood, the screams, the agony they shall feel,” The Chained One said, hands reaching upward like a preacher in grand posturing for his congregation. His hooded head was even thrown back like a religious, adding to the flair.

If I had not realized he’s a false prophet before, surely this would have done me in, Quintus thought. Yet to his horror, the gathered crowd was enrapt by The Chained One, utterly sucked into his spell of command. Looking at any one of their faces for too long made him reflect upon the moments when he first knelt before this creature, and wonder if he had looked as foolish, as crazed, as these people looked to him now. I did, he thought, surely I did, for I am no better and no worse than they. After all, were we not already neighbors before? What has changed came not from within any one of us, but from without. Yet he had to wonder if that was necessarily true, for how could The Chained One have converted so many so quickly if they did not already have the capacity within themselves to be his subjects?

            The Chained One continued his tirade. “There are three among the enemy who must be stopped at all costs,” the creature said, weaving his hands in a complicated series of gestures before muttering something guttural and snapping his fingers. Twin beams of lime green light shot forth from his eye sockets into the air over the crowd, projecting an image of three people standing together. One of them Quintus recognized as Sir Daggeuro of the Royal Guard, Lord of the Watch. He stood flanked by two humans, one on each side of him, of either gender, one male and one female. Quintus vaguely recognized the woman, and thought he even might have heard of her. As for the male, he was nobody that Quintus knew, but there was a certain quality about his eyes that reminded Quintus a little bit of some of the mad men he’d come into contact with over the years as a member of the Watch. A leering smile graced this man’s face in the image as he wielded a strange weapon of a sort Quintus had never seen before, a thing of long metal tubes placed side by side, but with no blade or point clearly visible.  The man held it like a crossbow, though there was also no way of seeing the load that he could tell. Quinitus wondered if this were some form of human weaponry not known of in Ether.

            The crowd looked up at the images of these three people whom their master had essentially declared as their number one priority, a kind of ‘kill on sight’ order that would hold to everyone and anyone under the control of the apparition. “Be very, very wary of these three, and do not approach them alone,” intoned the master in a raspy croak. “If many of you can surround one of them, then that is best. Strike as a swarm, for if any of you should face any one of these three by yourselves, you will perish. This goes for you as well, my general,” he said, speaking directly to Quintus. “I do not doubt your skill in the field of battle, my servant. But I have seen and heard much of these three, and I tell you that alone, you would die quickly at the hands of any of these three. That must not happen; I have need of you and my lieutenants yet.”

            “We will not fail you, master,” Quintus said dutifully, saluting his master with a thump on the chest, the chains on his wrist rattling loudly for all to hear and see.  Yes, he thought, witness this loyal lapdog give assurances to his owner, folks. Witness it, and be ignorant in your zealotry to how false my promises be. The Chained One went on for another five minutes about the dangers of Kathy Potts, Byron Torg, and especially the kennin High Knight, Sir Daggeuro. When the speech was over, The Chained One took a sweeping bow to the cheers and adulation of the crowd.

            Quintus, feeling sick to his stomach, managed to duck behind a nearby residence to vomit just in time, so as not to be seen. Doom was coming upon them all, and this creature from another time, another place, from another world altogether, had brought it to them in hand. Quintus doubted that they would be able to save themselves, and as he managed to stumble out from behind the building, he saw the soldiers of The Chained One moving about the village, making the final preparations for battle.

            “No,” he muttered aloud, “we will not be able to.”

            The sapper squads came upon The Chained One’s first trap only an hour after they took to leading the battalion along the road to Parik. If they had not been trained over years, in some men’s cases decades, in identifying the little signs of things being out of place, unnatural, or otherwise not as they should be, they would almost all have been utterly destroyed, leaving several more lines of traps between the outer range and inner rings of defense around the village. But they were experienced, and their fates were not so easily sealed.

            One of the privates (which was most of them, as the average sapper didn’t survive beyond five or six deployments- it made the possibility of promotions fairly slim for them) grunted at his squad commander, a dwarven sergeant whose services had cost him eighty years, three fingers, two toes, and much of his sanity. The squat combat engineer looked where the private was pointing, nodded, and sent out a shout that sounded something like a mix of a coyote’s howl and a bull snorting. Every sapper came to an immediate halt, which in turn put the brakes on the rest of the battalion following behind.

            Being close to the engineers, Kathy could see the private approaching a small divet in the grassy stretch ahead, slowing his steps, creeping like a jungle cat upon the dip in the ground. She wondered what it was he was seeing. The private, a gotrin with light brown fur coloration, pulled out some kind of red-handled tool from his belt, in which sat nestled many tools Kathy had never seen before. He set to work on something shiny sticking only an inch at most out of the divet, his movements slow, careful, exaggerated.

            Three minutes passed before the rat-man came up out of the divet holding a device over his head which looked to Kathy like an old World War II water mine, a fat ball of metal with prongs sticking out all over its surface. It didn’t look like much, but she sensed that the device had been intended to do a great deal of damage.

            The other sappers in his squad descended upon the gotrin, and the five of them began dismantling the device and claiming spare wires, parts, and powders.  It was like watching pirana debate how best to divvy up a carcass.

            Ten minutes after this first trap was avoided, another squad of sappers fanned out ahead of the battalion, each man swiftly going to work on otherwise unseen traps. The area they walked had turned into a tall grassland area, as they had known it would, and the fact that the tall grasses and shrubbery hadn’t fooled the engineers gave Kathy a sense of reassurance. Unfortunately, that was short lived as the sappers all began calling for magic-wielders from the rest of the ranks. They didn’t sound panicked, but there was definitely an edge to their tones.

            Several minutes passed in tense silence, Kathy holding Byron’s hand tightly, looking south to the sappers’ positions, hoping they would be all right. On the east end of the line of sappers that had gone forth, there came an explosion of yellowish light and the roar of thunder, accompanied by a pair of screams that she knew immediately meant the sapper and magic user there had failed to disable whatever trap had been set to kill them. Lightning forked out towards the nearest squad, striking the ground and shorting out only twelve or so yards away. The buffer zone between the sapper squads and the remainder of the battalion saved the lives of that group.

            These second traps were far more brilliantly designed, according to the old dwarven sergeant, who brought one of the disabled devices back to Daggeuro, Kathy and Byron. Kathy whistled and reached out for it, accepting it from the dwarf with a grunt and low snicker.  “Looks like a steampunk engine of some kind,” she said. She allowed her eyes to half-close, concentrating on the remaining energy that had not been stripped away by the sappers’ efforts. “Lightning magic, decent reach, nothing spectacular, but who or whatever gets hit first gets it bad.” She handed the drained device to Byron, who looked it over like a man out of his element entirely. “One of these things could easily take out six or seven people, unless they’ve got a high tolerance for this type of magic,” she concluded, looking to Daggeuro.

            “Sergeant,” the kennin High Knight said to the dwarf, eyes narrowed ahead at the other sappers. “Any sign of oncoming trouble?”

            “Nothing as yet,” the sergeant grumbled quietly, “at least not anything obvious. I can feel eyes on us, though. Thicker brush up the road, if they’ve got archers or hurlers in there, they can hit my men just about any time now. Suggestions?”

            “I’ve a couple,” Daggeuro said, grinning at Kathy.

            Anka Denturia had been a skilled archer enlisted in the Rangers for nearly three decades at one point, a hawk-faerie whose ability to fly, coupled with his deadliness with the bow, made him a natural pick as a point-man to pick off enemies of The Chained One as they approached Parik. Everything in his long service to the Rangers had honed his skills, and one of these was the ability to sense the approach or arrival of threats to him and his. The forces of King Ovin were coming, and more importantly, they were almost within range of Anka if he took flight.

            The hawk-man took up his bow and one of his arrows, winging upward and drawing back hard on the string, eyes narrowed as he peered down over the hills toward the marching squads of King Ovin’s forces. As he spotted the first of the squads, realizing that the sappers were leading the way slowly, cautiously forward, he knew that he could take a good number of pot-shots before winging away out of spell range; not wanting to risk falling into anymore of The Chained One’s traps, the squads wouldn’t give hasty pursuit.

            Anka took a quick look around to make certain there weren’t any other airborne faerie folken nearby, at least not on King Ovin’s side. Seeing nobody, he looked down again, flinching as he sensed an enormous power, or rather, three enormous powers begin fluctuating into the very air itself. Focusing his vision, he saw Sir Daggeuro, High Knight of King Ovin’s court. The kennin warrior was carrying the legendary blades, Boon and Bane, sheathed on his hips, hands gripping the handles, eyes locked on the hawk-faerie, a knowing, toothy smile on prominent display. A few steps away to the right of Daggeuro marched a human in strange armor, a long, double-tube weapon of some kind carried in both hands, his head down, face set. And on Daggeuro’s left, having somehow remained unnoticed until the last possible second, there stood a tall, powerfully built woman with a bow and arrow of her own, notched and aimed directly up at him.

            The woman loosed her arrow a second before Anka did. Her own arrow seemed to somehow zig-zag, as if with a mind of its own, until it knocked Anka’s missile out of the sky, then rocketed up at the hawk-faerie with newfound velocity. There was no explanation for this, at least, none that would allow the laws of physics to remain intact. Anka was thinking there must be some form of enchantment on the arrow when it pierced his stomach at an upward angle, pulling a grunt of pain from him. He began to double over, trying to remain mobile while dealing with the wound, but as he finally managed to start to straighten out, another arrow punched through his left boot and stood there, bloody arrowhead dripping sluggishly as his left talon became a throbbing flare of pain.

            The first arrow that had struck him suddenly pushed through his back, causing Anka to shriek and drop, his wings fluttering uselessly behind him like a vapor trail as he plummeted to the the ground. Kathy had inadvertently willed her first arrow through the cluster of nerves responsible for allowing the hawk-faerie’s wings to work; when Anka struck the ground, she heard the sickening crunch of his neck breaking on impact. She winced, wishing above all things right then that she didn’t have to do such things. But she knew that if she hadn’t, he would have done some damage of his own to the battalion.

            The sappers had come to the line where Daggeuro had told them to stop, and the kennin High Knight guided Kathy up to the foremost of their ranks, helping her shrug her bag off of her back. She sat cross-legged on the ground and concentrated as she pulled eight fairy-shaped statuettes from her bag, establishing a mental connection with each in her mind as she brought them to life in her hands. Eyes closed, she sent them forth in a fan formation ahead of the foremost sappers, connected to them by her magic, snapping her mind’s eye from one set to another, envisioning a wall of four monitors before her like the closed circuit televisions in a security office. With each set she changed to, she quickly rifled through viewpoints in search of anything out of place, keeping an eye out for the first signs of heavy troop concentration.

            After a few minutes, one of her figurines could see a cluster of several silver rendermen in the woods, concentrating their full attention on a trade pathway through the foliage and underbrush. Not far from them was a lizardman in the Roman-style armor and weaponry that The Chained One seemed to have chosen for his faerie forces. While the humanoid/reptile warriors had struck Kathy as inscrutable when first she arrived in Ether, she had come to appreciate and understand the subtle nuances of their expressions. This one was eagerly awaiting the chance to engage the enemy, to take to battle. Leaving the figurines in fixed locations to hover for the moment, Kathy drew one of her arrows, turning a portion of her focus to it, and used her bow to launch the projectile. Controlling the arrow with her magic, she guided it through the woods ahead, carefully retracing the aerial route of her figurines until she had a clear line of sight to the lizardman once more.

            The arrow struck home in the soft spot between the reptilian warrior’s Adam’s Apple and the top of his breastbone, preventing even a gurgling noise from escaping as he slid down the tree he’d been leaning against. Kathy mentally begged forgiveness for her actions; unless pushed to the brink of combat madness by the need for survival, she would never be able to excuse her slaying another sentient being. She just wasn’t designed for a soldier or assassin’s mentality.

            She relayed what she had seen to the sappers and to Daggeuro, who took the senior sergeant aside for a brief discussion on their next move. The sergeant muttered something quietly to the kennin High Knight as they stepped away from the rest of the group. Kathy overheard Daggeuro ask about potential blowback, to which the sergeant replied in a strangely conversational way, “Well yes, there’ll be enough to level a sports field I should imagine, nuffin’ we saps ‘aven’t dealt wif before.” She didn’t care for the sound of that, relaying what she overheard to Byron.

            Her fellow Awakened seemed to have withdrawn inside of his own mind over the course of the last few days, which Kathy found ever more troubling.  The longer he went without being sociable, the more frequently she caught Byron muttering to himself or engaging in little physical tics and twitches, involuntary reflexes born of whatever imbalance it was which had been forced upon him by his Awakening. They needed Byron focused when the time came to fully and in earnest engage The Chained One and his main forces in battle in and around the village of Parik proper. Having him behaving like an eccentric bordering on the insane would do them no good.

            When she told him what she’d overheard, he gave her a great deal of relief by way of his reply.  “Jesus, I really have to wonder if it’s a good idea coming up behind these sappers,” the cynical journalist snorted with a half-grin. “By the time they’re done disarming traps and doing initial strikes on scouts, they’ll have razed half the countryside!” He shook his head, then dropped the smile by a few degrees. “How soon do you suppose until we hit the first major trouble?”

            “Well, my fairy figurines found those silver rendermen only twenty minutes away if one marches straight and hard. Double that for our battalion’s total size, and you’ve got a rough figure for the opening skirmish. After that, give it an hour and a half, maybe two, and the outlying troops will be on the go. Dagguero says we should expect a lot of specters in the outer guard.”

            “Does he want you and I to hang back and reserve our energy,” Byron asked, peering off into the distance as two squads of sappers moved ahead into the woodline, each squad accompanied by a solo magic user specializing in illusion spells and powers.

            “As much as possible,” Kathy said with a sigh, shaking her head slightly. “He’s convinced that somehow, for some reason, this whole business is going to come down to you and I.”

            “And what do you think,” Byron asked quietly, voice pitched so low that only she could hear him. She wrapped her arm around his, leaning against him, head tilted so it rested partly on his shoulder.

            “I think he thought the same thing about Luga, and he turned out to be wrong there. He’s quick to cast aside the notion that he’s a hero, but he is one,” she said.

            “That’s just part of what makes someone a hero, actually,” Byron added, squeezing her arm on his. “They seldom see what they’re doing as heroic, but rather, as the right thing to do, even if it comes at a steep price.” He heaved a sigh. “Daggeuro would do just about anything if he thought it was the right thing.”

            The Awakened humans held one another’s hands, waiting to hear what their next move would be from the noble kennin warrior. Neither wanted to admit that in their hearts, each suspected that the answer would be to say final prayers, and make peace with one’s maker. The hell of the final battle was about to begin.