This was infuriating. The girl’s family had managed to delay Guarang’s unit for a few meager moments, and now it seemed the elements themselves had conspired to keep him from his glory. Coincidence after coincidence had prolonged her fate; her Breathing pedigree, the indifference of Southern peasants, the Dawnless Woods serving as her ironic sanctuary. Now this abomination appeared at this precise moment, when they’d cornered her among these savages. Why had this routine task become such a trial? Was the Destroyer testing him?
Guarang supposed it didn’t matter. This monster, the primitive warriors standing in his way, and especially the impudent woman who lead them: he’d take great pleasure in releasing his frustration on them.
In what order, though? The monster’s arrival had complicated things. If it really wasn’t one of theirs, would it be prudent to let it live a little longer? If it attacked his soldiers, could they defeat it and the savages at the same time?
Guarang knew these thoughts weren’t like him. This was the vanguard’s approach, not an assassin’s. He was out of patience and out of time, so he supposed this was an auspicious change of attitude.
“Visheta!” He called.
“Captain.” Her voice wasn’t far off.
“Come to me.” Once she was close enough, he lowered his voice. “I need you to gather the hostage-takers. We need everyone, and we can’t be weighed down by their weak. I don’t know who this monster finds more appetizing, and I want to be ready if it decides to attack us.”
“Sir,” she acknowledged before bounding away.
The moon was bright, but the bonfire was brighter. His eyes were trying to adjust to it, and that made it more difficult to see his enemy. Luckily, he was a Breather, and the wind told him she’d stopped when the monster appeared.
“Give us the girl, and we’ll leave you be,” Guarang offered. “You stood little enough chance against us. We both know you can’t fight both us and this monster.”
“Beasties don’t come ta us lookin’ fer food, stranger,” the savage replied. “They know better. This’n’s here for you people. Don’t much care if ya believe me, you’ll know it’s true soon enough.”
Guarang regretted every chance he’d given his enemies. “Erode the savages!”
The soldiers were quick to obey. The tactic was a loose engagement, to bait the enemy out of formation and dispatch them one-by-one, much like how the wind wore away at mountains. The attackers seemed to outnumber the defenders, so Guarang hoped this wouldn’t take long.
The savages seemed to be prepared for this approach. They lashed at the Breathers when they drew close enough, but didn’t pursue when they retreated. Guarang realized the girl could have- no, he was certain she betrayed their secrets. If he had any doubts about her treachery, they were gone now.
The monster made its sound again - like an enormous horse nickering - and for the first time, Guarang caught a glimpse of it. It had four legs like tree trunks, thick and flat-bottomed. Its hide glinted like armor, and its neck was shielded by an enormous, bony crest. The head seemed small compared to its oblong body, but a wicked horn, front edge as sharp as his scimitar, jutted out of its snout.
It barreled towards Guarang’s soldiers, apparently seeing an opportunity in their attack. It shouldn’t matter. It would grow tired of chasing such nimble prey…
Its momentum built faster than Guarang anticipated, and one of his soldiers failed to run in time. He tried to cry out, but was silenced under one immense footfall.
The sight was almost enough to distract him from the nearer beast. Unlike her composed comrades, the savage woman charged towards him. Did she believe she could win the night by challenging the captain?
Guarang had other priorities. “Nabhi!”
The warrior leapt from behind him to intercept his attacker. She halted as Nabhi’s blade nicked her shoulder. It seemed he’d caught her full attention.
“You’re satisfied?” Guarang was surprised and relieved that Nabhi had been so compliant. He’d never wanted this insubordinate glory-monger in his squad. Nabhi didn’t have the normal soldier’s discipline, hadn’t even been born into the caste. He fought for some perverse sense of valor, not because it was his duty. If Nabhi weren’t so potent, he’d have been executed long ago. Tonight, that seemed to be working to Guarang’s advantage.
“Quite,” Nabhi replied. “So long as you don’t interfere.”
“My attention’s needed elsewhere,” Guarang assured. “Consider yourself lucky.”
“Ya might not wanna send ‘im away,” the savage taunted. “Ya may find ya need ‘is help.”
“Come, we don’t need to insult each other,” Nabhi answered. “Consider it a compliment I chose you, despite the fact you have no weapon. That’s how highly I appraise you.”
“Aye?” The woman’s hand wandered to her waist and fumbled around her belt. Guarang scoffed; had she really forgotten her weapon? “Ya got more sense than I woulda guessed. Sorry, stranger, I done ya wrong.”
“Forgiven. Just don’t disappoint me.”
Before Guarang departed, he noticed the savage glancing towards her camp. He almost felt sympathy for her. When faced with an inevitable loss, there was bound to be guilt. Should a soldier be fighting the opponent in front of them, or one of those engaged with a comrade? It was the way of the warrior, to assume their choices could make the difference between victory and defeat. The assumption was necessary, but faulty. Soldiers only did as commanded, and the better commander would win the day.
Nabhi lunged forward, and Guarang sprinted away from the doomed woman. With the monster in play, the battle had two fronts, and he was needed where those lines met. The Breathers were versed in human anatomy, but they would need his analytical mind to find the beast’s weaknesses.
There was blood on the wind; Guarang hoped it belonged to his enemies. Breather units didn’t often suffer casualties, but fate had forced them to behave like other, more reckless soldiers. He should assume there would be heavy losses, should be ready to accept his superiors’ wrath if they decided the cost was too high.
The beast was circling back as Guarang reached his comrades. It chose its angle well, opting to stride along the battle line rather than break through it. If it had a brain worth its size, it would rampage through the savage’s side; they’d be much slower to move out of the way.
Before he could finish his thought, the beast charged straight towards him. Monstrous as it was, he supposed it was still a stupid beast.
“Bodhi, are you here?” Guarang called.
“Yes, captain!” His lieutenant sounded distracted.
“Maintain command here, and be ready to assume full control if something happens to me.”
Guarang rushed to meet the beast’s charge. He didn’t know if he could bring it down by himself, but he was confident he could devise a strategy, or perhaps encourage it to attack his enemies.
Why was it even here? From its size and shape, he’d have guessed it was a grazing beast. Why would a grazer attack without provocation? If that meant it was a predator, how could it eat the prey it trampled? One stomp and all of its meat would be reduced to a puddle of bloody mud.
Were all the beasts in those cursed woods so nonsensical?
The creature lowered its head and brandished its horn at Guarang, but a quick leap to his left and he was clear of danger. Such a clumsy enemy was a poor match for Breathers; it would never catch one without surprising them…
Something plowed into his side, knocking him off his feet. As the shock faded, Guarang wondered how he’d been forced to the ground. The ribs on his right side were broken, making it difficult to breathe. The pain was paralyzing, but he managed to roll onto his back.
Something was perched over him. The sight of it made his skin crawl, and he made a futile attempt to slide out from under it. It pinned him with its stumpy forelegs and stared at him with compound eyes. Before he could scream, a needled proboscis shot out from its head and into Guarang’s chest.
His final scream was a sigh; he felt the needle between his ribs, piercing his heart. The suction began, and Guarang watched in horror as the creature’s abdomen began to swell with his blood. How could this have happened? Why couldn’t the girl just accept her penance, why had she brought him to this awful place? Who had allowed this place to become so awful? Most importantly, why had the Destroyer forsaken this loyal servant?
As he died, he wondered when he’d surrendered all control over his life. Why had he been so convinced this was someone else’s fault?
With a flash of light, Guarang suffered no more.