UNTIL DAWN (I)
Weak rain sizzled from the ashened sky, drawing a dampening canvas over the high-strung walls of a city on full alert. Spread about watchtowers were those of brave hearts and courageous souls, yet even they were currently shaking in their boots. The faint taps of rain were rhythmic, yet drowned out by clattering of teeth and shallow panting of men raining on the walls. They held bows in their hands, yet were to afraid to pull the string back, too afraid to gaze down the sight of the abyss and fire. A city glorified for the stout men and women who would shy away from nothing for a decent coin was encased in eerie silence of unspoken word, sandwiched between pandemonium and void itself.
Inside the tallest watchtower, clad in simple, leather armor with sharp-looking daggers strapped to her belt, Aeala gazed down the sight toward the field beyond the wall. Her golden hair glistened due to droplets, her pale complexion a startling sight in the darkness of the night. Though she gazed toward what she had feared the most, she appeared calm, as though nothing could sway her. On her left stood another woman, half-a-head shorter than her with a leather-strapped bow hanging by her wide shoulders. She had tied her black hair back, only a few strands falling over her large forehead, reaching barely her glistening, purple-dyed eyes. Unlike Aeala who appeared carefree, she seemed stoic, as though she lived beyond the world she stood in. Gazing at the crimson flashes hardly did much to her expression, and even less so to her gaze.
On Aeala’s other side was a tall and stout man clad entirely in plate armor from head to toe with a massive warhammer strapped to his back, hanging like a doom-bringer. Underneath the thick helmet, if one were to look carefully, they’d see a pair of abyss-colored eyes devoid of emotion and complexity, with a layer of barren madness hiding beneath. Though it was the main watchtower inside the City of Mercenaries, there was no one else there besides the three of them; rather, no one else dared step on the same floorboards as the three of them.
“... roughly two-hundred-thousand,” the woman to Aeala’s left broke the silence with a placid voice. “The best course of action is to retreat.”
“They have the numbers,” the man voiced out in a harsh and deep voice. “But we have the quality. One of ours can go against five of theirs, even at worst.”
“It would be so if everyone here wasn’t currently pissing their dear pants,” the woman replied. “Look at them. Do they see battle-ready to you?”
“... I can make them battle-ready in a minute.” the man replied.
“I’d like to see that magic--”
“Enough, you two.” Aeala interrupted in a mellow yet deeply commanding voice. “We’ll wait till dawn. If there are no reinforcements, we’ll plan an escape.”
“Reinforcements? Our whole group is here,” the woman said. “Are you talking about the totally-made-up-guy sponsoring us?”
“Kraval,” Aeala turned toward the man, ignoring the woman. “Go at the front-most gate and take Fish with you. With the two of you there, we should be able to defend the gate till dawn.”
“Yes, m’ Lady.” Kraval’s harsh voice softened as he bent forward as much as his plate armor would allow him before suddenly leaping off the tower directly onto the concrete streets down below.
“Shaneine.” Aeala turned toward the woman who immediately lowered her head.
“Yes, my Lady?”
“You’ll bounce between the towers,” Aeala said. “Aim at whoever seems the most dangerous. Come dawn, if we’re still under full siege, regroup with Lucky and Smite and withdraw to our usual spot.”
“... I can’t leave you alone, my Lady.” Shaneine said meekly.
“I won’t participate in the battle directly... not as though I could anyway.” Aeala sighed faintly, looking at the massive army standing within the valley down the plateau. “I’ll try coordinating you guys to the best of my abilities. And... I know you won’t believe he exists until you see him,” Aeala’s voice softened as she spoke. “But, I assure you, if he’s in position, he’ll come.”
“... I’ll start with the frontal towers, gives me a better shot at nabbing whoever’s hive-minding these bastards.”
Aeala watched the woman nimbly leap off the tower and onto the nearby roof, scurrying over like a cat hidden in shadows, moving toward the front of the City of Mercenaries. Aeala had realized something was wrong this morning; air grew heavier to breathe and unsettling, cold feeling invaded her heart, not unlike the one she felt when the Endo Clan got corrupted. She then knew that the invasion was imminent; barely a few months had passed since Lino and her had parted ways, and Demons were already openly roaming the Kingdom which meant that something went wrong in the Capital recently. Though she was worried about his safety, she knew to set the priorities; using the small band of ‘mercenaries’ she had gathered, she knew she could withstand a single night of the siege, which is why she ordered a fight rather than a retreat. However, if things were to go awry, she also had to plan for the possible retreat routes. Playing with people, she learned, is a completely different ordeal than trying to guide and control the masses. The only reason they’d listened is because they are terrified of her little group and nothing else. Should things go really bad, it would turn into a free-for-all where every man would be for himself, which is something she hoped to avoid. The ensuing chaos would ensure massive casualties and could even hinder any chance of successful escape in the long run. She’d given herself a single night after which she’d issue retreat orders and become a temporary vagabond inside a Kingdom infested by Demons.
She bitterly chuckled as she replayed the day’s events inside her mind, thinking back and comparing them to when she was warming beds in the Endo Clan. Though the latter dehumanized her to her core, it was also much simpler; there were no big decisions to make, no greater evil to fight, no thousands of souls counting on you to endure and prevail. Nonetheless, she hardly had any desire to turn back to her previous life; he had opened up a new path for her, one where rue of her destiny is hers to control, and she had every intention of seeing it through.
She shook her head as though to forcibly expel the distracting thoughts inside her mind, averting her focus back onto the massive army that had suddenly began moving. Up the narrow road, in fine formation, with vanguard shields settled at the very front. She knew very well that this was not something converted Demons were capable on their own; somewhere in that sea of them is a centralized mind controlling their every action. She had little hopes of finding whoever it is, let alone taking them out, but it also provided a benefit; as they’re acting like a hive-mind, their actions are mirrored, and patterns won’t be too complex. They’ll definitely try to win over with the sheer numbers and would have no qualms about sending hundreds to die just to waste away at her archers’ arrows.
“Listen up you shivering babies!!” she used a simple trick Lucky taught her to amplify her voice through Qi, causing it to echo out throughout the entire city, but not beyond its walls. “As you can see, they’re like mindless dogs! They move straight and that’s it! If you can’t kill them, you ought to kill yourself instead! So buckle your balls up and draw those damn bows, aim and fire at the fuckers till we forever turn that road crimson in color! Aye, aye, aye!! After me! Aye, aye, aye!!”
“Aye, aye, aye!!!”
A shower of blazing gold heaved up toward the ashened sky, arcing as it turned into a downward spiral. They fell like blazing comets, plummeting into shields and flesh all the same, causing golden hue to blaze out in glory down the path toward the city’s gates. The demonized ones fell one by one, trotting over the edge of the narrow path and falling down, building up small heaps of corpses immediately. However, right after the first volley took out a few dozen of them or so, another lineup crossed the first section and began walking upward, fearless, as though they hadn’t even noticed their comrades being taken out just a moment ago. Arrow supply wasn’t infinite, Aeala knew, but it could last for a few hours if they use it smartly. Each volley sizzled over the sky like a falling star, bursting down in a fashioned glory, drawing blaze out of the cold rain itself. The corpses burned like the world’s largest campfire, while meek calls of wailing ghosts signaled the dance of the dead, the one invisible to the naked eye, yet ever-present on each battlefield. One after another joined the dance, rounding the massive flames, willing to abnegate their fear to join the last act of lucidity.
Aeala watched from the distance, her gaze cold yet turbulent beneath the surface. Whoever they are now, all of them used to be ordinary people, no doubt citizens of this Kingdom; they all once had names and families and aspired to make something of their lives. She very much doubted any one of them wanted to become a mindless drone in a hive-minded army sent on a suicide mission over and over again. She could partially feel what Lino felt the day they first learned of invasion, when he sprinted over half the Kingdom in hopes of catching up to them. They were at the border between life and death, neither here nor there, in an eternal limbo with their consciousness snuffed out entirely, never to be reawakened. She thought of it all as freeing them, however hollow that shield was. She battered back the estranged thoughts and kept her mind straight. She saw Shaneine firing off arrows one after another, not halting for even a second; she found her at the far reaches of north, inside borderline uninhabitable wilderness. It took her nearly two weeks to convince the girl to come back with her, and another month to get her to do anything but lie away at her room. Aeala had never seen another person fire off arrows at the pace Shaneine was doing, and far from with that precision, where every arrow reaped at the very least two lives, oftentimes three or four. She didn’t kill randomly either; she aimed at the places where a fall-over could cause disorder and chaos, slowing down the climb or outright causing a whole row to falter and fall apart.
She’d met and befriended an amazing group of people, yet she knew it was far from enough. When Lino asked for an army, even if he merely wished to make her feel as though whatever she was doing mattered, she promised herself she would give him one. Six people weren’t an army; they were barely a squad. And certainly far from enough to hold back the invasion all on their own. Her hands huddled up in fists, nails digging beneath her skin, causing crimson droplets to fall onto the wet floorboards beneath. She had no intention of sacrificing even a single one of them; even at the expense of an entire city. Come dawn, if they are still alone, she’ll force them to retreat no matter what. No matter the cost. And she wagered it wouldn’t be a small one.