Yep, they keep coming. I’m in a good mood, what with hockey season starting, so I’m letting you all have another chapter—and a battle scene, no less!
The Third Gate loomed up before them as Harael followed Teramus, a half dozen other priests, and a horde of Phoenix Guards through the camp. The top of the Second Gate lit up briefly as fires were summoned and thrown down beyond it. The slopes of the mountain pass ahead flickered with light. Priests were involved already.
“They got through the First Gate before we knew what was happening,” one Phoenix Guard said, breathless as he jogged next to them. “They had a plant, someone inside who opened the gate for them.”
Harael grimaced, his head still fuzzy from sleep. “Nera Nashan?”
“Who else would be attacking us from the north? It’s not Avernen, I can tell you that much.”
“Thank the Flame for that!” Another Phoenix Guard interjected. “Those things are nightmares.”
“Where do we need to go?” Teramus asked, looking up at the fortifications.
Oritten trotted up out of the night behind them. “The Second Gate. If they’re inside the First, our best bet is to catch them on the open ground in front of the Second.”
Harael nodded. A bright flash of light illuminated the surrounding area for a second before fading. The roar of an explosion carried over the Gates, and the ground shook under their feet. Harael had to dance to avoid tripping over the suddenly uneven path. Well, that can’t be a good sign.
“What in Oblivion was that?” a Phoenix Guard yelped from where he’d fallen in the shaking.
Harael and Teramus met gazes and increased their pace. “The resident White Robe, most likely,” Harael told the Guard. “Not many priests anywhere can summon fire like that.”
“Had to be,” Teramus said. “That’s way beyond what we can do, even working together. They must have picked well with who they assigned up here.”
The Phoenix Guards got themselves settled and formed up around Harael and Teramus. Ahead, soldiers waved at them from a door in the wall next to the Third Gate. They hastened toward the little entrance.
“Your Brightnesses! Follow us; we’ll get you to where you need to go!” One of the soldiers shouted. He and three of his comrades filed through the doorway. Harael, Teramus, and the Phoenix Guards followed.
Inside was a tight hallway that sloped gently downward; Harael realized that the tunnel under the third wall must be sloped, perhaps to give invaders more difficult footing. A few iron brackets on the walls held steady yellow flames, lighting their way down before the soldiers ahead suddenly turned left. A set of stairs followed, going back up, and Harael began to hear shouting coming from ahead.
They burst into a larger hallway, much brighter and much more crowded. Soldiers ran hither and yon, some yelling orders, others silent but clearly steeling themselves for a possibly dire fate.
They moved out of the way quickly once they saw Harael’s group. He and Teramus surely awed them, with their pale blue robes billowing out as they hurried down the hall, but it was more likely the Phoenix Guards around them that did the trick. Their golden armor, shining in the reflected light of flames, seemed to flow like fire itself. Silver gilding and crimson paint accoutered each breastplate, and steel tongues of fire adorned the shoulders of each Guard. Oritten’s armor was particularly imposing, with its golden phoenix wings jutting above each shoulder.
Through the crowds of hurrying soldiers they went, until finally they came to the far side of the wall. They exited a small sally port and came out into the second killing field. It was eerie: an empty plain of grass and dirt stretching a good three hundred paces before reaching the impressively tall wall containing the Second Gate.
What it was not was silent. Shouts and screams and the clash of arms could be heard from the other side of the wall. The occasional roar of fire filtered down from where priests did their work atop the Second Gate. Smoke filled the air, burning in Harael’s nostrils. Despite the season, the air was warm.
“Hurry, now!” The soldiers leading them broke into a sprint. Harael groaned, but kept up. He’d done too much on his feet already in the past day, but he had to admit that the clamor and running woke him fully. He was alert, albeit panting a bit, by the time two guards at the Second Gate let them in through another sally port.
This time they split into two groups: the soldiers leading them went deeper into the wall, accompanied by most of the Phoenix Guards, including Oritten. He met Harael’s eyes, his own peering out through the slit in his stylized helmet, and nodded at two of the other Guards. They accompanied Harael and Teramus up, up, up, until they emerged on the top of the wall.
Here, the battle was in full fray. Archers atop the wall exchanged arrows with enemies below. Harael stepped forward, looking to see what the field below held.
He was dismayed: a horde of what had to be Nera Nashan soldiers filled the field, many wielding bows. A pool of Letaalese soldiers were trapped against the Second Gate below, clearly caught trying to flee from the First. Even as he watched, one was cut down, and then another. Terror bubbled in his stomach. Never before had he seen such an enemy. Never before had he been thrown so suddenly into battle.
A group of the invaders pushed forward from the First Gate, bearing a covered ram. Their black armor hid them in the night, but fireballs crashed down into them, illuminating their forms.
Teramus grabbed Harael’s shoulder. “Stop gawking! We need to deal with that ram before they can break the Second Gate!”
Harael shook himself, breaking free of his fear. “Yes. Yes! Archers!” he shouted. “Aim for the ram!”
A dozen or so archers around them paused, saw from whom the orders came, and hurried to obey. As they drew arrows, he and Teramus closed their eyes, incanting a prayer in High Pirin. They both opened their eyes and ended with a shouted “By the Flame!”
The heads of their archers’ arrows burst into fire as they arced out over the field, dropping into the masses of soldiers. Several plunked into the covering on the ram, which promptly caught fire at the urging of Harael’s prayer.
Yells of surprise came from the men carrying the ram, but they did not drop it. Harael growled. He closed his eyes once again, hoping he remembered the proper recitation for the prayer he needed. Whispering to himself, he went through the phrases, trying to blot out the screams and the din of battle.
He slowly opened his hands, bringing them down to his sides. He turned them so his palms faced forward, and whispered the final lines of the prayer. Opening his eyes, and glaring down at the enemies below, he took a step forward. “By the Flame, let it be done.”
Fire crackled, then roared to life around his hands, trailing up his arms. It flickered, pale blue and harsh in its vigor, and he smiled. The soldiers around him fell silent and backed away, raising their hands to block their faces from the heat.
It did not bother Harael. He was the Flame; the Flame was within him.
He raised his right hand, still wreathed in azure fire, and pointed at the ram. A single lance of flame leaped out, faster than he could blink, and touched the contraption.
The roar was almost overwhelming. The timbers of the covering exploded apart, shedding blue fire over the surrounding troops like drops of water. The metal head of the ram melted and ran, scalding the legs of the men closest to it. Their screams rose above the fray.
Harael’s smile deepened, became almost a grimace. He lowered his right hand, now with only a few, weak blue wisps of heat tracing lines around his fingers, and raised his left. Another lance, this time into a cluster of archers.
The carnage was terrifying. The roar blanked his hearing, receding into a high-pitched ringing. Men and pieces of men were lifted into the air, riding a raging wave of cerulean horror. The armor melted off of swordsmen nearby, treating them to excruciating deaths. Arrows burst into flame inside of quivers. Men at a further remove clutched at their faces, blistered by the explosion.
He dropped his hand back down to his side. The rush of warmth he’d felt flowing through him was diminished; he felt cold, now, in the winter night. The last faint traces of blue fire faded from around his hands, and Harael exhaled a puff of steam. The archers around him gathered themselves and returned their attention to the enemies below, though he noticed a few of them glancing at him in awe from time to time.
He looked toward Teramus, standing a few feet away. The other priest grinned, raising his eyebrows. He mouthed something, but the ringing in Harael’s ears drowned it out.
“I said, that was brilliant!” Teramus shouted. “But you forgot the passage protecting yourself from the explosion.”
Harael couldn’t help but chuckle, even knowing the carnage he’d sown. The fighting continued all around him, but he felt isolated, invincible. It was as if his mind floated in a sea of emptiness. The chill inside of him was fading, but slowly. He was not used to channeling the Flame through himself like that, and in its sudden absence, he was uneasy. The abstract humor in forgetting to seal his hearing away punched through and helped settle him.
“I knew I forgot something,” Harael began, when he saw a figure hurrying toward them. A figure in voluminous white robes.
She slowed as she neared, archers and soldiers bowing out of her way. She was tall, only a few inches shorter than Harael, slim, and had golden hair that shone in the light of the fires burning all around. Her green eyes sparkled, matching her teeth as she smiled. She practically glowed with warmth.
“My dear,” she said, her smile widening, “that was wonderful! When I heard that there were Clerics coming up from the capitol, I never imagined I would be getting that.”
Harael, discombobulated as he was after the prayer and in the midst of so much death, was further put off by the White Robe’s demeanor. She exuded confidence and comfort.
“Ah, thank you, Your Brightness.” Harael shifted his feet. “Might I ask your name?”
She laughed, her voice rich and smooth. “Of course, of course! I am Katreina of Heart, First Chaplain of the Barrier Legion.” There was a note, something that Harael couldn’t quite place, that made her seem to be almost joking when she introduced herself. She was a sight to behold, and had an attitude to match it. “And what is your name, O Blue Robe From Letaal?”
Harael chuckled again, adjusting to her presence. “Harael, from Arbor. No titles for me, thank you.”
She took a sudden step back, avoiding an archer who fell with an arrow piercing his neck. Her eyes widened. “Dear! We really must run these vagabonds off.”
Without so much as a flicker of hesitation, she turned to the ongoing melee below, folded her hands in an odd way—extended in front of her, palms together, hands perpendicular to each other—and bowed her head. Harael could not hear her prayer, though the ringing in his ears was receding.
It was a long prayer, but Harael and Teramus stood transfixed while arrows whistled by and men died all around. Occasionally, a breeze would kick up and tussle Katreina’s hair. Harael found himself entranced, watching the delicate strands of gold float for a moment before falling back to hug her shoulder. The beauty was jarring.
Then she shouted the end of the prayer and pulled her hands apart. A scintillating light appeared between her palms, growing until Harael’s eyes burned and he was forced to look away. Brighter still, and brighter, it became. He closed his eyes.
With the light came noise, a deep cracking that cut through him like the largest drum he’d heard. His stomach danced and he covered his ears, already abused as they were.
Then the roar.
Harael fell backward from the force of it, and the world brightened like day, even with his eyes clamped shut. There was no sound that he could hear, but he felt it. Forcing himself to open his eyes, Harael found himself on his back, looking up at a tower of brilliant white fire. The inferno swirled, reached for the black night above before falling back in on itself.
Harael sat up, his vision swimming with the afterimage. Blinking, trying to dispel it, he crawled toward the front of the rampart. He didn’t even realize when his shoulder bumped against Katreina’s leg as she stood, surveying her handiwork.
What work it was. Harael pulled himself up and peeked over the top to see that the field in front of the wall was nothing but black, now. As the last of Katreina’s white fire died, it seemed to disappear into the night. No men moved down below; Harael wasn’t even sure if there were any men left to move.
It was a devastating blow.
He looked up at Katreina in awe. “I didn’t even know that was possible.”
She smiled down at him. It didn’t even seem out of place that her hair still fell in neat curls around her ears. She reached out and plucked at the pale blue robes he wore. “It’s all in the Shade, my dear.”
Of course. She was a White Robe, and was privy to secrets and devotions beyond his imagination. But still….
Harael shook his head, clearing it a bit, and pulled himself to his feet. “That’s it, then? They’re done?” He nodded down at the black grounds below.
Katreina shrugged. “There were likely a few who got away. They will run back to their princes and lords and tell them what happened.”
“But…why?” Harael looked out at the now-dark slopes and the pass leading north. The abundance of flame only minutes earlier was gone. Night was back in full force. “Why would they attack here? Even with a man to open the First Gate, they must have known that we would be too much for them.”
Katreina eyed him. “And they said you were just a normal Cleric, living a posh life in the capitol.”
Harael frowned, confused. “What do you mean?”
“You’re thinking about these things from a military view. Strategy. What could they have gotten out of this? Why?” She laughed. “Fairly sharp for a Blue Robe who trained in Meriil, my dear.”
Harael scowled at her. Did she think he was some spy, maybe a Missionary sent north? “I’m no more than they said, Your Brightness. Just a Cleric of the Fifth Shade.”
“A smart one. And a strong one, to produce such effects with your prayers.” She shook her head, one corner of her mouth titled up. “You are a surprise, is all. And please, Harael of Arbor, call me Katreina. You have earned that, tonight.”
“Very well, Katreina.” Harael was honored. Cleric of the Fifth Shade he may be, but White Robes were notoriously aloof. “But the question remains: why?”
Her smiled widened. “Isn’t that why you and your friend are here? To go north and find us those answers?”
Read the next chapter: “Beyond the Faith”