So peaceful was the first scene I witnessed at the beginning, especially if described through the eyes of a stranger. In the middle of a desert town bathed in comforting heat, a group made up of twenty to thirty children surrounded a creature magnificent in size, form, and power. With the head and wings of an eagle connected to the body of a lioness, she lowered her noble head, letting the small human hands comb her feathers and fur. Nearby, a young man dressed in light colored robes with a doll at his side talked to an older man dressed in finer material that signified his position. A few of the young ones hovered around the first man like bees to a flower, and he rewarded them with intermittent pats on the head. Further toward the edges of this beautiful sight stood a man far larger than any human, wearing a bearskin and carrying a club. He did not inhabit the periphery on his own, for the parents and guardians of the small creatures kept their watchful, distant eyes steady on the interaction between the strangers and their brood.
Of course I knew the young robed man -- a Doll Master by the name of Robert -- and the name of the town, Majaira. He, like me, was a member of the Liberators along with the Titan, Toby, and the Gryphon, Sheryl. Our commander designated his unit to free towns along the eastern edge of the Dalmuhd Desert from the banner of the Zeteginean Empire, while the unit I was in had the task of ensuring the city was not recaptured. We entered the town via the Seven League Boots, magically appearing in a narrow alley. From there I served as a silent spectator, Timothy stood to my left and Nick to my right. Our unit could have contained five soldiers of our size, but for both strategic and personal reasons it held less than capacity. This distinction did not limit our ability to carry out our duty; in fact, we performed it too well.
After a minute of peering at this slice of life, the three of us stepped out from the alley and moved into the main square. We were quickly seen by Robert and the crowd. The citizens' reaction was immediate and apparent. Whispers stirred as soon as sunlight hit our dark attire. Bodies full of relief were once again nervous with dread. To put it mildly, we weren't wanted. We were a Dark Unit in a town that had enough of the practitioners of black magic. But we had a duty to perform, regardless of the preferences of the local population, and approached Robert and the elder.
"We'll take it from here," I announced.
"Thank you," Robert replied, as though I were doing this by request and not by order. I hoped he would say more, but instead he looked toward the elder. "I am sorry, but I must take my leave."
"We understand," the old man said. Disappointment wrote its name all over his aged, wise face. Robert slid his hand back to his side and walked over to the ring of children surrounding Sheryl. The doll, animated by its master, made its way into a standing position and followed Robert onto Sheryl's back. Those that had remained on the sidelines quickly bade their children to get away from the Gryphon, so the circle of children widened, merging with the ring of adults.
"Toby!" Robert called.
The Titan moved from his spot more urgently than I expected and within seconds took his place on the great back of the Gryphon. Sheryl spread her wings and in one bound leaped high into the air. She flapped her wings at the height of her jump and she sank a little before rising into the cloudless, blue sky.
I envied Robert. His work had just begun, for other cities laid in this region to be liberated, but he would make his stays in each city brief and he would be a fleeting hero in the eyes of the inhabitants. On the other hand, we would be reviled despite our efforts, however deserved that reputation might be.
Since the scouts had given us the preliminary information on this town, and the elder was clearly unwilling to talk to us, it fell upon us to decide who would keep watch for enemy units. The city walls were high enough to provide an adequate view but Majaira had a tower in the center of town that allowed for a better view. We walked to the base of the tower as a group, and I lazily rested my back on the wooden ladder.
"I can keep watch until sunset," Timothy immediately volunteered.
I was about to protest when an uncommon voice shouted from the side, "Don't worry. I'll be the lookout!"
We turned to find a boy about the age of ten walking toward us. Eagerness peppered his steps with youthful energy, but it was not the enthusiasm we needed at the moment.
"Thank you," I answered, "but we can handle this on our own"
"I don't think ya heard the boy," a burly man said, approaching us from the opposite direction. His dark beard was as long as a Wild Man's and his eyes were filled with contempt. Alongside him were several men of varying heights but all had stocky builds. This entourage stopped well within hearing distance of us, yet the one who spoke continued forward until he stood about a foot from me. His ire-filled, heavy breaths assaulted my skin and ears, and my nose was equally offended by the odors of alcohol and bad breath.
"He said he'd be the lookout," the man continued. "We don't need any help from ya devil worshippin' freaks." He stepped away from me a little and toward Timothy. "Besides, it ain't much of a unit ya got there, missy." He pounded his stern index finger into the chain mail around Timothy's shoulder. " Looks like this fella's a bit green. He's jes' a Fighter. He can't handle somethin' as important as lookout." He and his partners further derided Timothy with echoing laughs that lasted far longer than their less than humorous statements afforded. It proved difficult to hold my tongue at the man's incorrect assumptions, and I knew salt had been poured in the wound of the hearts of the others. I stepped aside to let the child climb the ladder, and the mob applauded in approval. Not willing to endure any more of this spectacle, the three of us walked away and discussed what was to be done next.
"The day is still young," Nick proclaimed. "There's nothing else we can do for them. I'm going to take a nap."
His words hurt my heart more than those of the group that just confronted us. One of the reasons he had been placed in this unit was that after months and months of devoting himself to black magic, he had finally begun to develop a regard for others and had shaken off some of the blind affinity he had for the practices of Dark magicians. Not only did his statement indicate a reversion to his former ways, but with this declaration Timothy and I would have to stay awake if he slept soundly away. Intervention, though, came from an unexpected source. A little girl in pigtails tugged at the robes of the sorcerer as soon as he began to move away from us.
"Excuse me, mister," she asked, "but are you a Necromancer?"
"Yes," he answered.
"Please help me. Mary, my cat just died. I need you to bring her back to life." She pulled at his hand. "Please, mister."
A few seconds passed before his reply came. "I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks, mister!" the girl shouted cheerfully. She called to a boy standing across the town square. "Hey Bobby! This man's a Necromancer! He's going to help me!"
"A black magician!" Bobby replied. "Cool!" Soon more children, mostly boys, emerged from alleys and corners, and the girl led Nick in that general direction. The two passed the mob of kids in the midst and the children followed en masse, lured by their curiosity. I realized this was the break we were looking for. Perhaps I could get in on the act too, and help break down the walls of distrust that separated us from the townsfolk.
"Hey, kids!" I called as they retreated. "Don't you want to learn how to summon a Stun Cloud?"
The only response came from a youth who straggled behind the crowd with a few others around his age. "The lady with a Fighter for a boyfriend wants to show us how to make a little cloud!"
"He's not a Fighter! He's a level 16..." I barely stopped myself before I put the parents of these children in a panic a few hours earlier than scheduled. The boy had no idea why I stopped myself and finished my sentence for me before following Nick.
Only later did I realize that I hadn't challenged the boy's assumption of our relationship. Timothy didn't seem to mind, although his cheeks showed slightly more color than usual. He released a soft but noticeable yawn, but struggled to hide his exhaustion when he saw that I was looking at him.
"You're the one who needs a nap," I playfully suggested.
"I cherish the day too much to spend it unconscious," he lamented. "How I miss being able to sleep at night."
If only words of comfort came to me as easily as they arrived at the whims of others. Reassurances that everything would work out in did nothing to alleviate his terrible condition and any expressions of true sympathy or empathy would be completely impossible. I did not carry the burden that weighed on his body and mind. I was just a Witch; I could have quit my position if I wanted to. It hurt me deeply that my silence gave him no comfort, and it hurt even worse to know I could do nothing for him save the only act that my conscience would not allow me to perform directly in any case. Even if he'd asked me to do it, my heart would never let me. I was too selfish for that, so I took an even more selfish comfort that he would never ask. This comfort itself had its limits, and it could not assuage my heart from the small twinge I felt when I looked into his eyes and saw the torture of the periodic nightmare.
My thoughts resulted in a short silence between us. In the quiet, we both climbed the steps that lead to the city walls, from there we saw the sun, still high in the sky, and the ocean of sand that surrounded us. It was beautiful, very warm, without being oppressively hot, and the two of us leaned against the wall.
"Well," I finally managed to say, "we can talk, since I've never been in a unit with you before." For some reason, I wanted to change the statement, but my words would not go back into my mouth. Fortunately, he did not seem to notice how forward I was being.
"Why don't you start?" he asked.
"I'm not much of a talker."
"Neither am I. Ladies, first."
"I don't know where to begin. How did I get here? I wanted to be a Cleric. I wanted to serve the gods but more so I wanted to heal people to alleviate their suffering. I wanted to do something to help them to take away that hurt. But then I found that in order to heal, first I had to learn how to kill. And I couldn't do it. I couldn't finish off my enemies so I couldn't be a Cleric. So I became a Witch."
"I know how that feels, wanting to be something so badly only to have it denied. I once wanted to be a Doll Mage."
"For the women?"
"For the dolls." He delivered his response with enough sincerity and innocence to convince me his response was to be taken all too literally. "But I enjoyed all the aspects of it, at least from what I saw."
In my mind, I removed the helmet and chain mail he wore, and replaced his clothes with robes similar to those of Robert or any other enchanting puppeteer. Amazingly, he looked the part of a Doll Mage with little mental effort, right down to the slight sadness that made his dark eyes shine. A soft, sweet fantasy overtook me for a second, and I saw myself as a woman of the gods, the Cleric I had dreamed to be. I sat beside Timothy as I did here with an imaginary little doll serving as child sitting between us.
"You'd make a great Cleric," he declared, breaking my fantasy yet and connecting to my thoughts at the same time.
And you'd be an excellent Doll Mage, I wanted to reply, but I knew he made the compliment in part to avoid talking about himself. Fancy gave way to life in a whimper. "I'm a Witch. I practice black magic. I've ruined lives." I left it at that. To mention my crime by naming it specifically was an anathema to my lips. "They don't want me. Besides, I don't have the 'Inner Light.'"
"Maybe you can try again after the war's over." The hopeful comment buried itself in my memory.
"And what are you doing to do once we're done?"
"I don't know." He let his gaze fall to the ground. "Go back to Lake Jannenia. Live a solitary life. Roam the mountains and the woods."
"You don't have to. Maybe you'll find some people who don't care, or even someone you can settle down with."
"Wishful talk from a friend who's trying to cheer me up," he replied as he smiled at me. Even though he deflected the hint I gave him, he called me "friend" after one long exchange of words and I believed that only a few conversations lied between the fantasies of my heart and the realization of those dreams. But my lifted hope descended along with the orange sun, whose proximity to the horizon I had not noticed, though Timothy was all too aware of this.
"I'd better get ready," he said.
"Have we been talking that long?" I stole a peek at the orb of light and sighed. "I'm sorry."
"Let's hope they don't react too badly." His feet already shifted away from me.
"Yeah, see you in a few minutes." Upon my words he began the long walk away from me, not turning back even once. This was my cue that I could not simply watch the day leave the sky, and that I too had better take care things concerning of the awakening of the night. I descended the steps with purpose if not with speed toward the alley where the Seven League Boots transported us.
Before I could reach the spot, a sunset breeze swam past me and the chill stopped me in my tracks. My wide-brimmed hat provided both comfort from the sun and wind, but the remainder of my Witch's garb was not suited for the fast enveloping cold of the desert night. In my pause I heard the voices of children. Enough light remained in the dying day to see them adequately. These were the children who I had seen earlier in the day, and Nick stood in the middle of them like a spire. The girl in pigtails stood next to him, her previous happiness turned to concern for the feline that walked at her feet. The cat was presumably Mary, and while she sported no external wound, her slow, pained movements and noises of agony indicated her movements were unnatural and forced. Her owner scooped her up gently.
"Gee, why does she look so sad?" the pig-tailed girl asked, cradling the cat with the care of a newborn babe.
"Of course she looks sad!" an older youth yelled. "She's in pain. How would you feel if you never stopped hurting?"
"But she'll get better, right?" In childlike desperation she tugged at Nick's robe. "Like when she got that cut and mom and I fixed it."
"I'm sorry," Nick replied. "She won't...get better."
"Why not?" She poked the sorcerer. "You brought her back to life!"
Nick shook his head in the negative. "Her body is dead. It cannot heal. It will continue to rot until there is only a skeleton left."
"Whoa!" Bobby, the young heckler from earlier shouted. "Cool!"
"No!" the girl shouted in futile protest. "Mary's never going to go away!"
"That's what the man said!" another boy teased. "She's going to be a zombie!"
"I don't want her to hurt anymore." Tears formed in the eyes of the girl. "Can you break the spell?"
"No way, I want to see this zombie cat!" The comment earned him a well-placed punch in the nose from the girl. The boy responded my letting out a wail of pain, complete with tears of genuine hurt.
"Please," she requested.
Nick nodded in assent and lifted his left hand. The feline body accordingly went limp. Reflection toward this particular scene would wait until later, for a shout from another direction pierced my observation.
"He's gone mad!" a woman screamed. "The Fighter's gone mad!"
I turned around to face the cry, and the solitary female ran wildly from one person to the next. She started to head in my direction, and as she neared her panicked eyes kicked left and right in their sockets. Majaira's elder appeared before she came close to me, and approached her.
"Madam, calm down," the elder said, cradling her shaking hands. "Explain."
"He's taken off all his clothes!" she yelled. "And when I tried to get him to put them back on he yelled at me."
"It must be the work of those devil worshippers," a nearby man replied, "He's possessed by a demon!" Like Faeries attracted by sweet nectar a pair of children abandoned their former diversions.
"Demon?" the taller of the two boys asked. "Where? We want to see!"
A woman with a maternal air shouted, "David! Jesse! Return home at once."
"Aww...man!" the younger brother whined. "We never get to see anything around here!" Now depleted of their enthusiasm, they turned away from the scene in obedience. An older girl with dark, loose hair ran in front of the two of them, exited by some other news.
"Hey, you two!" she called. "There's something weird over here! Come on!"
She ran off with the brothers in tow, the three carried by the wings of youth. How foolish I had been to underestimate the dual effect of sunset on this city! Now not one but two of the members of the unit had drawn a crowd and I could only be there to intervene for one of them. The choice was clear. I had to protect the unit leader at any cost.
I followed the girl knowing where she led to the very spot my fellow soldiers and I entered Majaira. Already men and women, some with torched to compensate for the sun's departure, formed a wall in front of my target. Urgently, I pushed my way through the crowd, hoping to stand between them and the object that held then spellbound -- what to them was a mere wooden crate vibrating for no reason. Fortune intervened in her cruelly loving hand and at that moment the lid of the box was thrown into the air a little then landed bed. The action pushed the crown back and allowed me to break past the circle of people.
I could only hear the reactions of surprise at seeing the dark cloaked figure for the first time. He raised himself out of the box magically, turning from horizontal to a vertical position before lowering again. When his feet touched the ground, the box vanished to the amazement of the onlookers, and another batch of whispers spread through their collective.
The sun had now set and the unit's leader had risen.
"My awakening has been something of a spectacle," Christian announced.
"I'm sorry, sir," I replied, before turning to the crowd. "The show's over, folks!"
My words had as little effect on the crowd as the waves colliding against rocks in their endless struggle. A few parents escorted their brood away but the majority stared at us, unmoved in body.
"Your report, Megan," Christian requested, diverting my attention away from them.
"With the exception of this, sir, everything is going according to plan. No activity has been sighted."
"Michelle may have given me the designation leader, but there is no need to call me, 'sir.'" I could not tell if he were merely uncomfortable with the position of unit leader or if he spoke as a reminder that while were under the Liberators, we were far from a typical unit. In either case, I felt oddly relieved by the removal of the constraining formality.
"Understood." I viewed my surroundings again hoping the crowd had thinned, but it acted as though it were immutably painted in space. I closed the distance between us, and lowered my voice. "How are you feeling?"
"As well as can be expected."
"Have you...?" I began.
"You know it will only get worse with time." Again, a part of myself wanted to amend and erase my words. I had no right to nag, especially not at the leader who I had killed with silence. However the pact between us went beyond protocol. I unfortunately, knew more about his condition than himself, and it was my duty to ensure both his safety and those around him.
"I am aware of this, but our situation doesn't allow any choice in the matter." He paused, and for an instant I saw a glimmer of red in his eyes. "We'd better check on Timothy. If I caused this much a disturbance, how much more are the people unsettled by his transformation?"
It amazed me how quickly I had forgotten about Timothy. Nevertheless, I pushed my way through the crowd. I had not known the exact spot where Timothy had been headed, but a quick survey of the area found another cluster of men and women on the opposite side of the city. Christian and I walked as fast as we could short of an outright sprint toward that group. Still, the cloud of men and women around us did not dissolve. Rather they followed us as though we were made of gold.
The smell of fauna snaked its way into my nose, past the sounds of the masses that drowned out the growls. Nevertheless Christian and I rushed through the unyielding crowd that surrounded our colleague. Unlike the people who had crowded the space surrounding Christian's coffin, this group gave themselves distance from their fixation, so I was surprised that when I had a clear unmistakable view of what Timothy had become. His body was larger than it had been when we last spoke, though not as exaggerated as the legends and folk tales indicated. Instead of hands, instruments far more resembling claws were attacked to his arms, with feet replaced with paws. His Fighter's garb was gone, with fur the same color as his daytime hair supplanting the need for clothes. His canine head turned toward me, then to Christian, but no malice, no fear were in those all too human eyes.
Nonetheless, I jumped. I couldn't help it. My dealings with Christian gave me no shielding against the utter shock of the sight before me. I had seen Christian's death first hand and been responsible for all that led up to it and all that followed. I worked with him to help understand what he had become and the same guilt that unsettled my nerves eased then enough for me to have only a slice of fear. On the other hand, I had never seen this form of Timothy at night other than an occasional glimpse of the Werewolf from a distance. With time of course, I could grow accustomed, perhaps even appreciate the lupine features of the one who hours ago had been a subject of my fantasy. At that moment, though, terror gripped my mind and my body and only my duty kept me from the hysteria of the crowd.
Nick quickly joined us after successfully repelling the few young ones that swarmed him earlier. He, of course, showed no outward signs of fear or dismay. Rather this was night, the time when sorcerers flourished, when his spells would have an impact and in battle we would be more effective. Yet the mob first drawn by Christian and I joined with those already present at the scene and their fear retreated behind the curtain of their anger. Screams evolved into chants of anger. At least, the elder of the town stepped forward, and a great cheer ascended from the assembly.
"Is there a problem?" Christian asked.
"Yes," the elder answered, "we have a problem with you and your kind."
"We don't want monsters in our town!" cried a man from the back of the crowd.
"Go away!" another loud-mouthed man yelled from the middle.
"We will leave promptly after Hormzuss is liberated," Christian stated. "It is all we can do."
"That's too long!" exclaimed yet another man who hid behind the crowd. "Get out now!"
The tide of jeers rose again, foreshadowing our doom at the hands of those we were ordered to protect. Fortune again spun its wheel and pointed us in the direction of another destiny. A youth pressed insistently past the crowd and directly to the elder. I recognized him as the boy who accepted the position of lookout, but he did not even give us a passing glance before shouting his message.
"The Empire is coming!"
"How many, son?" asked the elder.
"One unit. Three Clerics, two in the front, one in the back. And a Titan in the back."
The description indicated a Light unit, exceptionally weak though not the worst unit encountered by the Liberators as of late. The crowd threw its cheers high into the air, but I could take no comfort in the news. I had not expected a fight, yet now we had to fight a unit comprised of women of the cloth. Christian, though far more reluctant than I, did not take the moment to lament this fate but addressed the crowd.
"Listen!" he told them. "A battle is about to take place. If you value your safety you will find shelter and stay there." His words had no effect but to make the multitude even more raucous.
The elder squinted as he replied, "We're leaving, but only because we don't want to get in the Empire's way!" He slowly turned around face the crowd. "Do as he says." In minutes the crowd.
"It will be best to take this fight outside the city walls as an added measure to protect the people." The elder stared blankly at Christian for nearly a minute, as though the latter had said nothing. Without warning, he walked toward Majaira's entrance, which was sealed by a metal gate shaped as a grid, and we took it upon ourselves to follow him.
"Open the gate," ordered the elder. In return, the sound of a pulley came with the shaking, upward crawl of the metal barrier.
"Thank you," Christian said.
The elder spit on the ground in reply, standing in place while the four of us walked through the opening. Though I feared being trapped outside in the barren wilderness, I knew the Majairans would not close the gate yet. Their fear led them to believe the Empire's unit would kill us, with their unit coming through the entrance to reclaim the town.
Timothy took point and stayed a short distance from the rest of us, and though it saved me the burden of being in close quarters with him, I wished I had not been so uncomfortable. Christian remained in the middle, while Nick and I took up the rear. The air had cooled considerably since sunset, and now I truly started to feel cold. The moon was low and a beautiful gibbous, and I took a peek at it as I had done with the sun earlier. I lowered my eyes, but without warning a slice of serendipity attacked my mind. The idea, lodge in my brain sent a wave of hope through my body. The solution to two problems lied right before me; all I had to do was give it voice.
"Standard battle formation once--" Christian began.
"Wait!" I cried, feeling the sudden pain of inspiration's blow. "Christian, I have an idea." I knew it was not my place to question my leader's judgement, but the power of the planted idea overruled all else.
"Our standard formation might result in unnecessary casualties."
"War is full of needless deaths," he replied, and I feared my thought would not materialize into the night.
"I understand," I answered, nearly cutting him off, "but if we can take out the leader and only the leader, then the unit will retreat to Hormzuss. And maybe the people in Majaira might change their minds about us."
"Our priorities, as it stands, are to eliminate the unit leader."
"Yes, but with our normal formation we risk destroying the entire unit." I stopped for a second to collect my thoughts. "If Nick moves to the front, his spells will only hit one target, the leader." Precious seconds ambled by us, and the threat of rejection grew more potent by the quiet. Nonetheless understanding soon presented itself on Christian's countenance.
"I see. You and I will remain in the back to lessen any chance of harming the front line. What about Timothy?"
"He'll be in the front as well, diverting attention away from Nick." A lump gathered in my throat from talking about Timothy as a mere object. "He would take the brunt of the attacks, but this is the same as in our standard formation."
"In this formation it is certain we will be unsuccessful in removing the leader in one battle."
"Then they will retreat to a town still under the Empire's control, and perhaps back to the base if the liberation is going as planned." Assurance gave a persuasive weight to my voice and I sensed I was winning Christian over. "Besides, in the standard formation we would only get rid of the front two Clerics!"
"There is also the risk that they will overpower us."
He countered the proposal expertly. I could not give a direct answer because I had not considered the possibility we could lose. We were a Dark unit fighting at night and I had seen no possible formation that would allow us to be defeated.
"Please, Christian," I begged. "I know that you feel the same way I do. We can complete our mission and get out of this with a minimal amount of loss of life." My appeal to his emotion was a transparent excuse for my plan's weakness, and it did not stop him from giving his decision.
"Very well. We will proceed with the plan." My heart leaped with a false joy, and I smiled in gratitude. Nevertheless Nick stepped forward in protest.
"Sir, please reconsider," he said. Part of me was glad he'd made the verbal mistake that I had before, and it further ensured he would not sway Christian. "This is foolish. You can't win a war by following your conscience!"
"The decision has been made."
Christian's reply put an end to all conversation before the battle, which came on the heels of our words. Even in the cold darkness of the desert night I could see the outlines of our enemies. As they neared us I observed an oddity; the robes they wore were lighter than I expected. I became aware that the scout had been wrong on one important detail. They were not Clerics but Monks, which meant those on the front line were more efficient with their weapons than I had originally anticipated. Furthermore, the Monk who led the unit could heal the entire unit with her prayers, and her spiritual power far outweighed that of many of our own healers. The task before us was still not impossible upon account of this new information, but it required an error free execution in order to attain success.
Once they were within fighting distance, the leading Monk ordered her unit to stop, then Christian also walked in front of us to face her, beginning the traditional exchange of words. A small part of me hoped that there was a chance for peace, that a fight would not take place, but experience told me that this was not to be.
"Spawn of the underworld," the Monk declared, "it is not our will to fight you, but the gods have decreed we meet on this battlefield."
"It's not too late to turn back," Christian replied. "Stand down or retreat, else you may not leave this area alive."
The Monk stared our unit with both determination and fear. "Your words, dark creature, tempt me, but we both know a higher duty compels us to fight." She closed her eyes briefly. "May the gods have mercy on all our souls." After speaking she retreated to the back row, and Christian did the same. This unspoken signal began the battle, and it fell upon me to cast the first spell. I twirled my crystal rod as I gathered the energy to begin my attack.
"Stun Cloud!" I shouted.
The clear night sky gave birth to a small gray cloud I knew all too well, materializing in the air over the enemy. Rings of light fell from the cloud, entrapping the unit in a stream of steady circles. In a few seconds the cloud dissipated in an equally speedy fashion as I had formed it, and instantly I was certain that everything had gone according to plan.
Then my eyes told me that my mind had been wrong.
Not only were all of the enemies still mobile, but the next attack came immediately after my own. The Titan swung his club with his gigantic arms, and immediately a gale was sent our way. I lost my balance and fell, as did the rest of my allies, but the terrible wind passed quickly enough and we returned to our feet.
Nick, unaffected by these setbacks spoke an incantation I had heard many times before -- the Nightmare spell. A dark fog enveloped the target with frightening images filling the leading Monk's mind. Having been on the receiving end of a few Nightmare spells, I knew the dread she must have felt at that moment. The fog faded away revealing a Monk who was clearly disoriented. Immediately, Christian established eye contact with the leader of the enemy unit. The light of enchantment welled up in his eyes, and in kind the monk's face lost all sense of emotion momentarily. Without warning, though, she shook her head in resistance, and cast her eyes to her fellow Monks on the front row.
One of the Monks on the front line stood still and stretched her arm out, holding the ankh-shaped mace so tightly that her hands lost all color. In short order, white energy in the shape of the mace formed in the air in front of Timothy, then rammed into him, knocking him back several feet. Timothy responded with a measured counterstrike that scratched her arm and caused her to cry out in pain. Her efforts were a mere distraction though, for the second Monk took her mace and aimed it in front of her.
Then I saw she was aiming at Robert.
A blast of white energy struck the Necromancer, bringing him to one knee. Renewed by the offensive efforts of those in the front, the leading Monk lifted her mace and summoned the power of virtue.
A blue, healing light covered the bodies of all those in the enemy unit, removing all their bodily injuries. The leader shook her head, still troubled by the images brought on by the Nightmare spell. What little battle sense I had told me that even her healing was not enough to fully restore her and the cost of making the payer weakened her resistance. There was still a chance we could win.
Again, I concentrated, this time using the full, more elaborate incantation for the Stun Cloud. The cloud again appeared and again my hope was raised that even one of the combatants would fall victim to its power. Likewise, the cloud again vanished and magic was again completely ineffective.
Another gale came from the Titan, and this time, Timothy, Christian and myself steadied ourselves against the wind. Nick, though, fell, unable to pick himself completely off the sand. This did not prevent him from casting the Nightmare spell again. The spell caught the enemy leader off guard and she fell to the ground on all fours. The enemy leader looked at Christian's eyes again as she arose but this time her mind had been weakened by the spells and she again raised her mace to ask the gods for strength.
The healing light came upon us.
It was the only sign of hope in a battle that was going far worse than I expected. It restored our injuries partially and Robert now was well enough to stand and walk a little. The same could not be said for Timothy. Despite his bestial strength, the Monks in the front row relentlessly for their weakened leader, burying the energy in consecutive blows. Their combined assault ravaged his body in the midst of human cries and inhuman howls, leaving them only minor injuries in exchange. It was clear that if we continued, even if the enchantment on the leader held, to continue that battle would mean our deaths. In theory, to fight until the last soldier is left standing is the heroic nature of war; in reality foolhardiness was a worse sin than cowardice. With no alternative, Christian yelled the two words I both expected but could not believe.
Our retreat was hasty, though organized, with all four of us moving as best we could muster. With nothing but sand and dry earth on all sides of us, Majaira, the city that hated us would be our refuge. The citizens left the gate open for our limping, beaten forms to enter, but I suspect it was only so they could witness our destruction firsthand. Deliberately disobeying Christian's directive, spectators stood around the perimeter of the main square of the city, with their torches giving fiery light to the darkness. Despite their bravado in the early portion of the night, they dared not rob the enemy unit the pleasure of killing us.
Again, Fortune's heartless benevolence fell upon us. Though the enemy unit had fought well, its long journey across the desert exhausted them and their march toward the city slowed. This allowed us enough time to select from our stock of items the proper herbs to heal the bruises, cuts and burns we suffered. Timothy needed the herbs most badly, and Nick speedily applied them. His reasons were not completely selfless, though, for the sorcerer used some on himself as well. Christian and I were in good condition, at least in terms of physical injury. No curative items could have helped him or me at this point. I needed another chance to put things right. Christian needed another source to satiate his longings.
"They're almost in the town," Timothy said in a voice that was a lower, more guttural version of his human one. He hadn't spoken all night until then, but I was too distracted by the memory of my own inadequacy to give it much thought.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It's all my fault. I must have messed up the spell."
Nick, angry and restored, agreed, "Yes, your plan messed everything up!"
"Quiet!" Christian shouted. As any person not given to yell, his order was obeyed immediately. "No, the spell was cast precisely, but we cannot dwell on this."
"You're right, sir," I said, momentarily forgetting his earlier request. Idealism blinded me still and I grasped at any chance to repeat my performance and make up for my failure. "Maybe we can try again!"
"The Monk was injured. We saw her doubled over."
"No, Megan." I could hear the tension and frustration in his breath, but it wasn't directed at me. He shut his eyes, trying to calm the desires within and opened them after he bade them to lie down. "We can't try it again."
"Christian..." I could only say his name when he opened his eyes, which flashed red before he spoke.
"It's too risky. We barely have enough time to regroup before they get here."
"Which is why we have to do it again."
"We have to protect this city at all costs. That is our priority. I'm sorry." Now I felt the hurt of the denial of my request, but little did I know this pain would be nothing compared to those caused by the words to follow. "There will be one change from our normal formation. I will be up front line along with Timothy."
The future I'd tried to avoid drew ever so closer, and only excuses could prevent it from coming to pass. "You're the leader of this unit. As a soldier under your command, I can't allow you to place yourself in such danger."
"You know I'm not the one in need of protection." I flinched slightly, for not only did I know his purpose for going to the front line came from strategic purposes, but he saw through my attempt to dissuade him. I still had to give one last effort, to fight against Fortune's spin.
"Please. It's not too late. You don't have to do it this way."
"I admit I abhor this course of action even more than you, but we can't let the Empire recapture a city." He again stopped to take a deep breath to steady himself. "In the past I have put my conscience away. The same must be done now. There's no use in proving to Majaira that we are noble if we can't get rid of the unit that stands in the way of our orders, and there's no use holding back if this is our last chance."
"Then let me up front. My spells don't work anyway."
"Believe me, you will not want to be in the front row." I saw his hand, which shook not out of fear but out of weakness. I knew then that our fate was unavoidable. No more words passed between us from then until after the battle.
Majaira's gate stayed wide open as a sign for the Empire's unit -- they were welcome to banish the Dark forces and restore order to the city. The enemy entered in short order, and the citizens of Majaira saved their most awesome praises for this moment. The gates to the city closed as soon as they passed through. This time no leader would call for retreat. A few citizens tried to give the Monks healing items, but they proudly refused the aid. When the unit came within fighting distance to us, the leading Monk raised her mace in confidence of her belief. She did not step in front of her unit to speak to us; repeat battles did not afford this luxury of honor.
"Perhaps the gods wish to test us again," the Monk asserted, her voice weakened. "For the gods and the Empire, we will fight to the end!"
And so the battle commenced. In the same fashion I made the first move. As I had before I summoned the Stun Cloud. Every action, every word, I had said and done the same before and the result followed suit in the same manner except for one slight difference.
All of the opponents were frozen.
Nick immediately followed suit with the Phantom spell. The paralyzed opponents screamed in terror at the nightmarish creatures slashing at them. The Monk that lead the unit and the Monk in front of her fell to one knee, weakened but still immobile. Timothy attacked the latter without the mercy of before, his claw sweeping across her neck and face. She fell instantly, unable to scream, and the blood poured out of the mortal wound without hesitation.
Christian's eyes glowed red with hunger in anticipation of his next move. In motions more fluid and effective than the shadows of the night, he slid through the air to the leader, grabbed her, bent her neck back and pierced it with his fangs. He closed his eyes, shutting out their ruby glow in exchange for the crimson rivers provided by the leader. The deadly kiss had both Vampyre and Monk resembling one being, their shadows entangled in combative unison. Color washed away from her skin until it was there no more, and the Monk was an empty shell. Christian coldly dropped the woman, rejuvenated through her loss. He bought her life force and paid for it with death.
I had no time to dwell on the scene, for I was compelled to cast my spell again. The Stun Cloud performed its duty on the remaining combatants, and their bodies stilled through magic. Again the Phantom spell was sent from Nick's incantation. While the evil spirits attacked the Monk, she awakened from the Stun spell. Seeing the lifeless bodies that were once allies, her mouth moved. I could not hear if her words were a supplication or an imprecation, but she placed her mace in front of her. The energy she released hit Timothy directly in the chest, stunning him for a second while slightly burning his fur. Her eyes widened in hope and they stayed lifelessly open as her chest was sliced open in retaliation by Timothy's claw. Internal organs spilled out of the body along with her blood, adding its donation to the stained ground as she fell. I cringed at the sight and I turned toward who Nick averted his eyes from the scene as well. Even a sorcerer who killed countless with spells and had command over the dead could not stand the overwhelming brutality. Yet my ears, my nose, and my skin all reminded me that this death was real, inescapable.
At last there was the Titan, who though damaged by Nick's spells remained frozen but in otherwise good condition. This was not to be for long. Christian, not satisfied with the offering of the enemy leader, again cut through the air to the large creature and began to drink of the Titan's living wine. For a minute, the Titan's fate resembled that of his allies, but unexpectedly, as though a conscience belatedly asserted itself, Christian stopped and pulled away. Nevertheless, the Titan's punishment for surviving the assault was not yet over, for Timothy charged and slashed at him, ripping the giant's arm from the rest of its body. The Titan, though, had no desire to be a martyr unlike his fellow soldiers and pulled away as effectively as his weakened condition allowed. Quickly, the city gate was raised to permit the giant a means of escape. Timothy did not pursue and almost immediately the sounds of bestial fury decreased, but it seemed to take all his effort to restrain himself for going for yet another kill.
In the end there were three dead Monks on the ground, one drained of all her blood, the other two lying soaked in their own life force. All because of a spell that worked just right at the wrong time.
No more children in Majaira wanted to gather around any of us, nor did any of the adults object to our presence.
I stared at the carnage we caused for a time. Seconds, minutes, hours, all time that none of the three Monks would ever have again. I don't know when, but I broke myself from my trance and walked away, wanting nothing more to do. We were soldiers, we made the mess. It was the job of the city residents to clean it up.
The city wall beckoned me with its familiarity, and I climbed the stairs to enjoy the view. The sky, a dark sea of endless celestial bodies, welcomed my eyes and my heart. In solitude, I attained an artificial peace, but I felt a slight gust. Surprised, I turned around and Christian was there, stronger and calmer than he had been before the battle.
"I don't think there will be any more units," he spoke.
I had nothing to say to him, no words of anger, sadness, or even fear. Here was Christian speaking to me as though nothing had happened. We were partners in murder, and he still talked of duty. It was then my tongue loosened, spewing a river of words.
"Why did I ever join the Liberators?" I asked, starting a rant that I could not direct. He didn't stop me. "All I had to do was just stay in my hometown and let everyone else do the fighting. But no, I had to go to war. I wanted to heal the injured. And this is what do. I kill the healers." I smothered my face with my hands, almost wishing they were literally stained with the blood I helped shed. They had no right to be visibly clean, and I removed them promptly from my eyes. "It's not like I haven't done this before, but never like this. I've always been prepared to be part of the advance. The units marched on and I didn't have time to think about it, or if we were in a city at least we knew we were going to be attacked." Tears, not softly but loudly, burst out of my eyes. "I just expected for once to have a simple assignment and not to fight anyone, especially not a unit full of ministers!"
At last my mouth stopped moving and thoughts, living in delay, chastised me for my reaction. How dare I whine and make this event as though it were a personal loss, as though I were alone in my conflict! What about those whose lives were lost? What about the Titan left barely alive? Did they suffer any less? And what about Christian? How much more would he hurt because of what he's done rather than what I watched? That was Monk he killed, a woman of the gods no different than his beloved Anne. The impact and the consequences for him were much greater than that for me.
"I'm shouldn't be crying," I said. I turned away and tried to stuff the water back in my eyes like a genie back into its bottle. "All I did was stand there and cast a spell and look stupid while everyone else did all the work."
"You need sleep," he told me. I faced him, his face blurred from my tears.
"No," I resisted. "I have to do something. I have to watch. I'd better start pulling my weight around here."
"Megan." His eyes sparkled with the enchantment of the undead. "Please get some rest."
Christian's charm spell wasn't strong, nothing merely more than a suggestion even a child could have fought off with no difficulty if she chose. I doubt that he even realized he was casting it, but I let myself succumb to the twin dreams of natural exhaustion and imposed drowsiness. I felt his arms catch me as my knees gave out and in the back of my mind, I worried that his desires may not have been abated by the recent battle. Even anxiety faded to both the reassurance of my heart and the soul-stealing sorceress known as sleep.
"Megan, wake up!"
I obeyed the command to find Timothy human again standing over me against a backdrop of light blue sky. My heart refused to connect him with the creature that had slain two monks last night even though my mind shouted that it was the same being.
"Timothy." He extended a hand to help me up and I took it. Not far away, a church bell had finished its tolls, but I could not count the precise number.
"A lot of daylight is ahead of us," he said.
Indeed it was. Though the deaths were at least a half a day old, I operated in the next few hours as a puppet, tied by the strings of fate. We met up with Nick, and either in spite of our actions last night or because of it, the three of us found breakfast quite easily. Conversation did not arise with the same facility, and other than a few necessary words we said nothing to each other. After our meal, Nick separated himself from us, leaving. Again the position of lookout was filled by on of the townsfolk, so in the spirit of familiarity, Timothy and I climbed the steps that we climbed yesterday. This time there was neither light conversation between us nor any fantasies from my imagination. I could feel nothing, think of nothing, my mind in trauma, my soul in shock. I stared at the sky in a daze while the sun slowly traveled across it with stoic persistence.
"How are you able to do it?" I asked, my words leaving my mouth without warning.
"What do you mean?" he inquired in response.
"How are you able put aside your conscience? I mean I see you, you are the most incredible man I know."
"I have many faults."
"Don't try to change the subject. Day..." I fought against the memory of his wolf-like form disembowelling the second Monk. "...or night you are perhaps the most intelligent, gentle, loving person I know." My mind told me to be quiet, but I pressed on. "Yet when the battle comes you're able to...do your duty without hesitation."
"It's not a strength. I lost control last night."
"And I sat around and did nothing. I watched and I messed things up for us. You go ahead and finish off the enemy." I could perceive a self-righteousness tint behind my words. "I didn't mean to imply that I was any less guilty than you. If anything I'm more so for..."
"It's hard on all of us, but it was hardest for you. You had to watch what I did." A caesura heightened the impact of his words. "Last night, for a second I gave into my deepest fear. I became what I had tried to resist."
"We all had a hand in it."
"But I had the greatest part. You and Nick were following orders, and neither of your spells dealt the final blows. Christian would have most likely gone mad had he not fed. I could hear and smell the desperation in his actions, and you could feel it as well. I had no such excuse for what I did."
"I'm sorry..." My words were so inadequate and empty. They could not bring back the clerics, nor could they ease his heart or mine.
"The worst part of my savageness wasn't just that it was excessive and brutal, but that I had to expose the people of Majaira and you to it. You have a greater burden. I won't forget the evil --veiled as duty-- that I did, but the twisted pleasure I received will forever be tied with that memory. No matter how much my mind and my soul may disgust it, a small piece my heart will always relish in that moment. For you there's only horror and helplessness and nothing I can do will ever take that away."
He withdrew into quiet again, and at first, I feared our stay in this city would last another night. Suddenly, a soft noise caught my attention, and I surveyed the clear sky in vain for any sign of rain clouds.
"Listen!" I shouted. "Can you hear...?" After a few seconds, the faint, distant rumbles became distinct. It wasn't thunder, but the distant firing of fireworks rendered invisible by the day.
"Yes! Hormzuss has been liberated." He smiled, and for the first time since his arrival in the desert I could see happiness on his face. Like a giddy child, I grabbed him, and he didn't seem to mind.
"No more units..." As soon as the veil of relief passed over my heart, a practical breeze lifted it, exposing me to truth's light once again. "...until next time."
"Don't worry," he assured both himself and me. "The war's almost over."
When Timothy spoke those words I had no idea how truthful they would be. The war was almost over, but while I never forgot the battles preceding and following this one, the image of the three dead Monks continued to haunt me for the rest of my days. In the books of history, this skirmish would never be mentioned, nor would Majaira attain a lofty status from the war. In the book of my heart, it was known as the place I killed three young women serving the gods.