It was a crisp, clear morning that greeted them as the sun rose to reveal the town of Arbristhene within a league of their position. The sand had flattened out, and there appeared to be little, if any, wind whatsoever. The town lay low, just like the sandy floor, only slightly darker in color than the sands that encompassed it. On the horizon, the faint color of the Talyxian forests that lay beyond the city, the almost fleshlike pink all but obscured in the morning sunrise. The small band of fighters continued their trek across the decidedly more packed sand, each taking to their own thoughts and making not a sound other than that of their movements. Rheyk was no exception. He every so often looked up at the town ahead of them and wondered to himself. Did we choose our mission wisely? Or did Rain consider this possibility and choose to travel to Eastwater first while we chase down a ghost here in Arbristhene? He shook his head ever so slightly. What will be will be. If our trek is in vain, at the very least, we will know that the people of Arbristhene are safe for the time being. Furthermore, I could have more time to prepare the group before we have to engage in more fighting.

He quietly hummed the start of an old, familiar tune to himself. I wonder if she knows, he said to himself. I wonder if that is why she does not send out the full wrath of her forces to destroy us while we are small, instead of what we all have been lead to believe that she doesn’t find us a threat to her dominance in the region. He was slightly troubled by this, but he picked up his head a bit as he heard those nearest to him picking up on his humming and matching it. Before long, all of them were humming the tune lowly. Few of them knew where that tune had come from, and fewer still even knew what the words themselves were. Perhaps none of them really understood them at all; though all that really mattered was that it gave them the encouragement that was so desperately needed, time and again.

That alone was enough.

They stopped humming and speaking amongst one another once they had reached the outskirts of the town, the sun having fully risen above the horizon to a blazing morning of light and heat. The small band of fighters split up into units of no more than ten individuals each, quickly fanning out and heading into the down to spread out and seem to disappear, in order to avoid causing a scene that might alert the northerners to their presence. It was agreed that if there was no sign of the northerners in the village, that they would quickly move through Arbristhene and towards the forest, where the northerners were certain to be moving in from. They kept low and quiet, keeping off of the main streets as possible and always keeping alert watch around themselves at all times. The element of surprise, while their greatest ally, could also quickly turn into their worst enemy if turned upon themselves. But as the sun crept further into daytime and its prominence as the cruel master of a fallow sky, they found no signs of northern forces inside of the town.

It was a few hours before anyone saw the smokestacks rising into the sky behind the town that indicated the northerners’ presence. It was quickly, unanimously, and separately agreed to move through quickly and meet the northerners before they had a chance to make a move on the town. Why they had decided to move so late was beyond their understanding – already there were enough stories from the East that had birthed nothing short of animosity and dread towards Rain’s followers that had never been seen in such intensity and numbers in all of history. Surely, the northerners would not hide and attack sneakily, considering that fear and brutality were their primary weapons. But to attack well after dawn was unheard of. Perhaps that was the goal – to throw the villagers off-balance so as to make the most profound psychological impact as possible, or perhaps to show that they feared nothing the southerners could throw at them, and that they wished for all to see what had been done. As profoundly twisted and wrong her plans were, Rheyk had to acknowledge that Rain had always been one to display a cunning and intelligence not easily found in those of her kin.

Once they had passed through Arbristhene, they quickly regrouped and advanced on the northern forces’ camp. Considering that they would be seen regardless at this point, all secrecy was abandoned in favor of speed. Certainly some of the enemy would notice them, and would have ample time to arm themselves, but many would certainly not – at least, that was the hope. The band of fighters rushed onto the northerners quickly, arms at the ready and poised to strike. A small wave of panic rushed through the camp as the northerners briefly fell under the incoming wave of fighters. Nearly a tenth of the northerners were slain before anyone in their camp had the wits about them to arm themselves and fight back. Though, once the northerners had done just that, the invading force was pushed back, losing a half-dozen soldiers in the process.

Rheyk found himself so surrounded by his fellow soldiers that he was unable to do more than watch. He tried to move to get himself more space to be able to aid in the fight, but found that all but impossible. “Give me room!” he bellowed to the soldiers around him. They complied, pushing back against the northerners at least enough to give him room to move and join in the fight. He pulled an arrow from the quiver, knocking the almost alien-looking projectile to his bow and quickly firing at a northerner who had managed to push through enough to strike at him. The arrow pierced the northerner’s head through their eye, poking out the back in a small splatter of blood and gore. The stricken northerner cried out once exactly before collapsing to the ground, lifeless.

Rheyk had already turned and knocked another arrow by then, not even bothering to watch and make sure that they were actually dead. He knew it from the moment the arrow struck. The next soldier he shot in the chest, the black arrow piercing through the thick metal armor that they were wearing enough to tear into flesh. This sergal dropped their weapon, like the others, but did not die. They crashed to their knees, but quickly dove for their weapon. Rheyk saw that coming and first struck them on their face with his bow to distract them, before he dove for it himself. He reached it first – a well-made halberd with a pike on the opposite side of the axe end of the long, staff-like weapon. He gave a hard kick at the sergal and barely heard the sounds of bone cracking over the sound of the battle. The sergal cried out in pain, a desperate, almost animal call. Rheyk rolled to his feet and quickly brought the pike to bear, pointing the spear end at the northerner’s head. “Stay down if you wish to live,” he growled, before he parried a pike from another northerner. He shoved back hard and, in spite of being a foot shorter than the sergal, knocked them back enough to bring the halberd around and slash viciously at their head. The metal helm stopped the blade from slicing though their skull, but it was enough to knock the northerner to the ground. He wasted no time, slashing at the exposed neck and cutting off the attacker’s head in one swift, sickening stroke. Rheyk turned away at the rather large spray of blood, the sound of the blade cutting flesh and bone a wet and stomach-turning sound. Quickly after the sergal’s head had been cleaved off, a large pool of blood formed, pulsing from still-functioning arteries, before slowing into the trickle of death. He forced himself to look at it for the briefest of moments, before tearing his eyes away and quickly turned back to the battle raging around him.

After a moment, he realized that there were no other enemy troops within reach, and so he began to move to find more of them. He quickly found that the northerners were retreating, making haste towards the alien forests of the northwest and away from Arbristhene. A cheer went up with the defense, as they pursued them far enough to ensure they would not think about a counterattack. Once the surviving northerners, some scant half of their original strength, had fled, turned back to the northern camp to gather their own dead and look for any supplies they could use. In all, they lost nine soldiers, four of them fresh recruits. Rheyk dreaded the letters that he would write to their families, if they had any, explaining the circumstances of their death. He quietly questioned for a moment if what they were doing was worth the cost of doing so.

It was then that he stumbled on the injured northerner, whose armor markings indicated she was the captain of the force. Rheyk knew it was a she, because the north never placed a male in charge of large groups of forces. He looked down at her, and quietly asked, “do you intend to continue fighting us, or do you wish to spare yourself?” It was a question he asked whenever he could. He always remained hopeful, even if the usual answer did not make him optimistic.

“Never,” she spat, blood gurgling in her throat and foaming at her lips, which only matched her murderous look. “I will never surrender to an agudner like you.  You belong as a slave, not even as a soldier, much less the leader of any military.”

Rheyk nodded his head sadly. The answer was always the same. “So be it,” he replied, before he struck her on the head with the axe part of his halberd, wincing as he heard the cracking of her skull and the sick sound of the halberd hacking through bone, flesh, and organ alike. He left the halberd embedded in her head and turned away, a nearly angry scowl on his blood-streaked face. He had done it partially to make her death as quick and painless as possible, and partially so he wouldn’t have to hear her screams. 

The End

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