As a little bonus celebration for finally polishing off the last of the Harael chapters in All Flames Cast, I give you Harael’s eighth chapter…where things really start going crazy.
It was hard to concentrate with terror pulsing through him. It was one thing to pray on top of a wall, protected from harm by dozens of feet of stone and metal. It was quite another to be only a few dozen yards from nightmares come to life, rending the flesh of comrades with teeth like razors and claws like thorns. Hisses intermingled with screams. The disturbing thud of dead flesh hitting the ground permeated the square.
The Avernen were not the only danger, of course. Nashan raiders clogged both ends of the market, tangled in fierce combat with Letaalese soldiers. As Harael muttered his way through his prayer as quickly as he safely could, he saw Oritten wave two Phoenix Guards forward, carving a gap into the Nashan line at the southern end of the square. That would be their best exit; Harael concentrated on the enemies there.
With a shout, he ended his prayer. Flame trickled down his arm, red and hot, coiling around his wrist and into his palm. He stared in dismay at the weakness of his prayer, but wasted only a moment before throwing the fireball with an almighty heave. It roared into the Nashan ranks, exploding and wrecking their cohesion. Oritten’s Guards led a swift attack at the weakened enemy.
Harael turned to call for a push toward the weak point, but his voice died when he saw the display behind him. Teramus had his eyes shut tied, clearly attempting a prayer; Pallo lay dead on the cobbled square not ten feet away, an Averne tearing at his throat; the soldiers at the far side were being pushed back by a Nashan contingent, too disorganized—too drunk, most likely—to be effective. It was madness.
The Averne over Pallo looked up and met Harael’s eyes. He shuddered at the sight of those vertical pupils, black as tar, staring at him from the serpentine face. It grinned, a nightmarish baring of its fangs.
With a yell, Tyler crashed into the creature, the weight of his body and armor bearing it to the ground. Harael heard a sickly crunch, and when Tyler pushed himself up, the Averne lay there, one shoulder a wreck of mangled flesh and bone. It hissed weakly, twitched, and fell still. Tyler turned his head and nodded at Harael.
Get a hold of yourself! Harael shouted at himself, trying to regain his composure. Letaalese men were falling in clumps, overrun by Nashan fighters or the terrifying Avernen. A sudden flash lit the stalls near the lake, and two of the snakelike demons fell. Their scales blackened under Teramus’ flame.
“It’s not enough, Harael!” Teramus shouted over the din. “Nothing is working as it should!”
Harael shook his head in dismay, grabbing Teramus’ sleeve. “I know. We have to do what we can—and get out of here!”
Tyler fell back, directing a few of the soldiers nearby into a thin rank around the priests. They retreated toward Oritten and his Guards, fending off more Avernen. Letaalese fell, one after another. Harael gritted his teeth; he could feel tears beginning to gather in his eyes. He stammered out a blessing and stared, hopeless, as his prayer failed to take. It should have shielded the men. They should be protected by the Flame!
Teramus, too, seemed at a loss. His shoulders slumped as he stumbled in retreat. They were worthless without the Flame.
An Averne ripped through one of their defenders, hissing gleefully as it landed only feet from Harael. He turned his gaze toward it; his vision shimmered as if looking through a haze. The creature lashed out, its claws reaching for his face.
To his stunned disbelief, the blow fell short. A sizzling filled his ears, and the Averne recoiled. Its claw was charred, the scales blackened and cracked halfway up its arm. Before either Harael or the creature could move again, Tyler was there, his blade piercing the Averne. The creature fell to the ground, eyes wide with pain.
“Come on!” Tyler yelled, grabbing Harael by the shoulder. He let himself be dragged, noticing absently that they were through the press and out of the market. Phoenix Guards surrounded him, but his mind was elsewhere. How did that happen?
Teramus appeared, miraculously unhurt. Oritten told off one of the remaining Guards, who posted up next to Teramus. “Pretty lucky your woman blessed us before we left, isn’t it?” Teramus took a deep, shuddering breath. “I’d be dead if not for that.”
Harael shook himself. Of course. Katreina’s blessing. They were protected by the Flame.
“She’s not my woman,” he muttered, still too shocked to summon any real emotion. They were ushered away by Oritten, the Guards, and twenty or so soldiers. More stood their ground, protecting their retreat.
“We must get back to Barrier,” Oritten was saying. “They have to know about this. Nashan aggression is one thing; Avernen involvement, this far away from the swamps, is totally different. Something is happening.”
Tyler nodded agreement, looking at Harael with concern. “Your Brightness,” he urged. “Are you all right?”
Harael shrugged, numb. He stared at the road winding up out of the valley, winding south. They would be harried all the way, he knew. They had no chance of reaching Barrier, short of a miracle. A miracle. Right. Does Katreina’s blessing count as a miracle?
Tyler looked toward Oritten, who jerked his head toward the road in annoyance. The sounds of men dying still came from the town, all too close behind. Men were dying, dying, dying for him and for Teramus. Dying so that the priests might live. That thought helped part the clouds over Harael’s mind, and he felt the tears return. Their faith was beautiful; their sense of duty was absolute. May the Flame take you and protect you, he thought, sending one last benediction to the men who would never feel that warmth again.
“We have to move fast, now!” Oritten growled. The soldiers and Guards still with them nodded. No few of them had a glazed look in their eyes, a sign that even the shock of battle hadn’t quite cut through their inebriation. They were lucky to be alive, in their condition. “We must get back to Barrier before the Nashans.”
They broke into a light jog, moving as fast as they could at a reasonable pace. Harael couldn’t stop himself from glancing back from time to time as the village and the battle dwindled. When they reached the heights with no immediate pursuers, Oritten ordered a slower pace. They were low on food and water: only what remained in the soldiers’ personal packs. Harael remembered his bags and the prayer books inside them, likely being torn apart and treated as trash by the flaming Nashans. Those had been precious to him; in his state, the loss of the books hit him almost as hard as the shock of seeing his comrades die.
“We will keep moving as long as we can,” Oritten announced. “We will ration out the food as best we can. There should be plenty of spring water back along our route.”
“Sir,” Tyler said, not too long after the sun ducked down behind the peaks to the west. The air was downright cold by then, and Harael was not alone in hugging his arms close. “Perhaps it would be best to send one or two men ahead. They might be able to move faster,” there was an unspoken reference to the two priests in there, Harael knew, “and that could increase our chances of getting word back to the First Chaplain and the Barrier Legion.”
Oritten considered his words. “Yes, I suppose you are right. I don’t like splitting us up in these mountains, but it may be our best chance.” He pointed at a Phoenix Guard and two of the soldiers. “Tero, Ameal, Naritten. You three will go on ahead. Remember to follow the trail west where it splits by that frozen waterfall. That will take you back to the main road to Barrier.”
The three men exchanged glances and nodded.
“Very well. The Flame guide you.”
The soldiers turned to Harael with expectant looks on their faces. He greeted them with bleak silence, and they made their leavetaking with confused silence. He knew what they must be thinking. Why wouldn’t he bless them? He was unsure, himself, but he knew his confidence—his faith—could not sustain another failure of a prayer. He thought back to Katreina and her final blessing upon Teramus and himself. Had she known that their faith would fail them? Had she seen something prophetic while meditating upon the Flame?
He sighed, trudging onward into the darkening evening, and hoped that she was well.
* * *
Katreina contained a small smile as she settled in front of the brazier in her study. A white flame burned there, suspended in the air between the two silver prongs. The familiar heat of the Flame brought her contentment and peace. She closed her eyes and reached her hands out to the Flame.
“By the Flame, gift of Pirinaan. Grant me light. Grant me heat. Grant me life.” Even with her eyes closed, she could see the pure white flame flare, responding to her supplication. “Ignite my soul, and illuminate my needs.”
With her eyes closed, Katreina had no distractions from the images that burned into her mind. They flashed through, some too quickly to thoroughly make out: jungles and mountains and deserts, a crowd of people in dark clothing, an old castle hall. These things she knew were only distantly tied to her; more immediate concerns would be more vivid, and always came last.
Next was the face of a man. He had a strong, hooked nose and the most startlingly blue eyes she had ever seen. He had the pale skin of a Pallonian, but his eyes practically glowed in the darkness of her mind until they were all she could concentrate on. She held the image, mesmerized by their beauty and their ire. Then the face was gone.
Then mountains, once again. Phoenix Guards, and two priests in blue robes. She held her breath, watching as the Flame showed them forcing their way through a snowstorm, fleeing from something and fleeing to something. She was relieved to see Harael—and Teramus—still alive, and murmured a brief blessing for them.
The mountains came into sharper detail, the storm blowing away into the recesses of her memory. No more did she see Phoenix Guards and priests. Instead, long files of Nashan raiders, their breastplates painted black, black scarves wrapped around their heads against the cold. They descended upon a trio of walls, each with a gate gaping open. They screamed through, killing men and women in their beds, killing, killing, killing….
Katreina opened her eyes with a shriek. They were back. The Gates would fall, possibly right at that moment. She shrieked again, this time with words, and burst out of her study. “To the Gates! The Gates! All priests, to the Gates!”
Heads popped out of doorways all down the hall in the rear of the temple. She ran past them like a madwoman, hurrying for her life. The exit was just ahead, the exit and clear night sky into which she could cast a flame of warning for all the soldiers in the camp.
The colored floor tiles of the hall turned into a dirt path beneath her feet as she burst out into the cold, clear night. A bright moon shown down, a thick crescent of pearly illumination. It showed her that her warning was unnecessary: soldiers and priests were already out in force, formations moving north through the camp toward the Gates. Clusters of men stood still, being blessed by men and women in orange and yellow robes; many of the priests were in various stages of disarray, with hair wild and clothes dislodged from sleep or dressed unevenly in haste. Katreina’s breath came quickly, puffing little clouds of fog into the air before her.
She followed one column of soldiers toward to the Gates, and after only a dozen yards, a squad of Phoenix Guards appeared. She couldn’t tell who they were, under their helms and in the night, but it didn’t matter. They were there to protect her; they would do their duty. The eight men jogged alongside her, keeping pace easily with her strides encumbered by her robes.
The soldiers they followed never made it all the way to the Third Gate. Nashan raiders, blending into the night, were already pouring out of the main gate and two of the smaller doors. Letaalese archers on the ramparts above rained arrows down, but the stream didn’t stop.
Katreina held up her hand, and the Phoenix Guards around her slowed. The other soldiers went on ahead, ready to engage the Nashans, but Katreina held her ground. She bowed her head, aware that she must be a beacon in the night, with her white garments. She knew her next action would only make her more of a target, but it was necessary.
It was unorthodox, but with the Gates already compromised and the Flame only knew how many more Nashan men in the pass waiting to come through, it was her only option. She distrusted the moon; she always had, ever since her days in Heart, first learning about the Faith. The sun was important, she was taught; didn’t it make sense that the moon would be its opposite?
But no, she thought as she genuflected and raised her hands in front of her, palms up, the moon is only a mirror, reflecting the light and warmth of the sun’s Flame. I can use this.
She delved into her memories, recalling the phrases and inflections of the prayer she needed. Ahead, Nashans clashed with Letaalese, their momentum carrying them into the defensive lines and through. Her Phoenix Guards closed their formation in front of her, nearly blocking her view.
It was a long prayer, one drilled into her by the best of teachers. Katreina could not stop a sad smile at the thought of Old Crispy, lecturing their class in his midnight robes, his few remaining wisps of white hair curling into funny spirals. But she could not dwell on it. She began praying.
After only seconds, her skin began to glow, faint at first but brighter and brighter—except for her hands. They blackened, the familiar pattern of charring that she knew as well as her own face. Heat pooled, gathered in rays of moonlight, invisible but for the shimmering air over her hands. Still, she prayed.
Exclamations from ahead battled with her concentration. More and more Letaalese from the Barrier Legion came up from the camp, fighting their way into the growing sea of Nashan invaders. Katreina saw Nashans fighting—and killing—the Letaalese on top of the Third Gate. The entire fortification would soon be lost. How did they get in? she wondered.
Still, she prayed. Her voice was clear and melodious as she turned the prayer into a hymn. If only there were more White Robes there. A Missionary or two would have been even better; their prowess was unrivaled.
The fighting drew closer. Letaalese fighters dropped wherever she looked. Reinforcements still poured up the slope toward the Gates, but the line was strained. Now it was the Nashans’ turn to use their archers; when men nearby began falling, two of the Phoenix Guards hefted their shields and held them over Katreina. Her glowing skin, the reflecting white robe, and the tangible heat of the air around her made for too tempting a target for the northern heathens’ to ignore.
The heat grew as her hymn went on. Katreina could feel the Flame coursing through her. The soldiers all around were in awe, she knew. The Clerics and Chaplains helping hold the line were no doubt equally impressed. No mere Yellow Robe or Orange Robe could hope to perform such a feat of faith.
For that was what it was. Katreina held her faith firmly, certain that her prayer would be answered. The Flame was benevolent to those who believed.
Heat now cascaded down from her blackened hands. The hems of her sleeves began to char, darkening in the intensity of it. Had there been grass beneath her feet instead of dirt, it would no doubt have long since withered in the invisible inferno. The Guards closest to her flinched away, turning their faces to avoid the heat on their skin. A Nashan arrow plunked into the ground next to her, the shaft and fletchings igniting almost immediately.
“Do it already,” one of the Phoenix Guards grunted. Even their blessings could not protect them from the heat forever.
Katreina closed her eyes and lowered her voice for the last line of the hymn. “By the Flame, let it be done!”
With a tangible rush of air, the light in her skin burst away. The shimmering heat above her hands poured out, arcing up and over the Letaalese line and fanning through the enemy formations. Men cried out in agony as they were burned by something they could barely see. Katreina watched with satisfaction as their armor melted off of them. She smiled in grim delight to see their swords and pikes and axes liquefy and run, searing their hands and legs. Her eyes glimmered like emerald flames as she watched them die, horrifically, by the hundreds.
Then the Flame inside of her was extinguished. The prayer was over, and her thirst for their destruction fled her along with her energy. She slumped forward, her other knee hitting the dirt with a thud. One Guard reached out a hand to support her; it was only because of this that she did not fall, face-first, into the ground. She dimly heard the man shout for a Chaplain.
He carried her back, not struggling at all with her weight, away from the now-reduced fighting front. A short woman in a yellow robe appeared alongside them, concern in her eyes. Katreina tried to smile encouragement, but exhaustion was taking its toll. The prayer was a major undertaking, and was not without price.
But that was why the Chaplain was there. The woman reached out a hand and laid it on Katreina’s forehead even as they moved. She murmured and prayer, and a wave of heat flowed into Katreina. She felt the Flame kindle inside of her once again.
“You can let me down now, Guardsman.”
The man looked down at her, his face creased in worry behind the stylized bars on his helm. “Very well, Your Brightness.” He stopped moving, set her down on her feet, and chuckled. “You know, I never knew exactly why we have that title for your priests.”
Katreina raised an eyebrow as she brushed some of the dirt from her robe. It marred the white fabric quite thoroughly. She glanced back up the slope. Men still died, up there. Brief fires flared as other priests threw their might into the fray, helping to hold the line, but she could not totally see into the darkness yet. Her eyes were still accustomed to the brightness she radiated only moments before.
“I think I have a better idea, now.” The Guard shook his head in wonderment. “You were brighter than the moon.”
Katreina frowned at the blackened and fraying ends of her sleeves. “Brighter? Not likely. As bright as, more like.”
“Whatever you say, Your Brightness,” the Guard laughed. “I am at least glad that we were able to get you to safety.”
“Safety?” Katreina scoffed. “This is not safety. They hold the Gates. I may have pushed them back for a time, but there will be more.” She remembered the vision given to her by the Flame. “There will be many more.”