UNTIL DAWN (II)
Beneath the star-stretched moon, shrouded in the cold and damp drops of heavy rain, a battlefield raged on like an oil-augmented blaze. The sharp slope hosted corpses beyond count, water suffusing with woeful, coal blood, amplifying the gloom and eerie of the night. In front of the tall gates behind which stood a fear-infested city, two men were currently shouldering an onslaught of battering; Kraval heaved forward, swinging his warhammer from the upward angle and crushing the earth beneath his feet, causing the whole slope to tremble. The sound boomed out like thunder, shaking the walls and the hearts of those that stood behind him, spiraling out in awe. Next to him, slightly shorter but similarly stout man stood, donning half-plate half-cloth armor, with a massive vanguard shield in one hand and a spherical orb floating above the palm of the other. It shimmered in radiant golden, like a mini-sized sun, ceaselessly shooting out bolts of golden light, volleying the slope and the field beneath it in an endless shower of gold. Fish lifted his massive shield, which weighed over a ton at the very least, and shoved it forward, causing the line of the scarcely-clad enemies to be pushed back as though they had rug pulled under them, rolling over and falling. A mere moment later, besiegement of arrows fell from the sky, all embedded directly in-between the eyes with pin-point accuracy. Screams and sows and heaves and cries bellowed out into the petrified night while City of Mercenaries mantled the title of a mass grave. Soldiers on the walls shook ceaselessly, their teeth clattering in strange symphony, hearts ready to jump out of their chests, unable to endure the horrid sight of it all.
By the ledges of the slope, an almost invisible shadow hung over the edge, nimbly scaling the slope, occasionally leaping out like a reaper, flashing a silver radiance for a moment whereupon a head would fly off into the air, before the shadow disappeared back as though it was never there. Lucky was her name, covered entirely in pitch-black cloth with only a pair of equally black eyes shimmering occasionally in the dark, searching for their prey. The putrid and horrid smell of the decaying corpses seemed to have hardly impacted her, her eyes only ever exuding light when a head would fly off. She scaled the slope up and down, killing off stragglers while trying to search for the brain of it all, but with little luck.
Not even an hour had passed before it seemed as though Kraval and Fish would be unable to handle it any longer; the former leaned against his large warhammer, panting ceaselessly, trying to catch a breath, while the latter all but fell on his knees due to exhaustion. Yet, despite their states, they endured; both knew that if they were to fall, so would the gates, and so would the city and all its inhabitants. Their feet and calves and knees and thighs hurt, and their arms felt heavier than lead, and their thoughts came to an absolute crawl, yet the most basic of an instinct drove them, like a maddening desire for victory, for survival, for overcoming.
Aeala watched from the nearby watchtower, her eyes shimmering in faint light of unease. She had underestimated the cruelty of her enemy, the utter disregard of life that hardly anyone could have anticipated; one or two seemed to have the same meaning as tens of thousands. The rain of the army never ceased; when one wave fell off the slope, another one would emerge. Even, calm, bizarrely tranquil steps would seep into the muddied earth and climb up expressionlessly. Women, men, children, old, young, it was a mixture of it all, yet all acted exactly the same. Kraval and Fish were doing far beyond their best, and Lucky and Shaneine were outperforming everything Aeala had ever seen, yet it hardly seemed enough. Aside from them, the ordinary mercenaries of the cities, the ones standing on the walls, hardly did much; they would draw and fire their bows, but due to the shaking of their arms, they’d be lucky if they ever got a hit. It rained, but it rained at a much slower pace. Exhaustion of mind transferred over to the body itself, and the heavy rain pressed ever so tightly on already broken souls. The whole of the night seemed bleak, and dawn ever so out of reach; it felt hopeless, and such hopelessness had begun to seep even into her bones. She had considered retreating many times by now, yet held back; they had to endure until dawn, and she had to make it happen somehow.
“Smite,” she called out into the empty night. “Status?”
“Status?” a playful voice replied as a young, handsome man leaped out of the shadows and landed next to her. “We’re losing. Big time. Though those hills of corpses would tell a very different story, actually.”
“... do you have a plan?” Aeala asked, a hint of impatience seeping into her voice.
“Retreat, m’ Lady.” Smite said. “Even under the best of circumstances we’d stand no chance of winning, and this night is certainly not one of those. Devil Qi is beginning to eat away and dominate. Do you really think Fish and Kraval, those fitness-freaks, would exhaust themselves so quickly otherwise? Devil Qi is making it difficult for them to fight, or even to breathe. It will soon reach the clouds, and from clouds rain, and people will actually start losing their minds. Do you really think we can afford to be centerpieces when their souls become demonized?”
“There has to be another way!” Aeala exclaimed, glancing at him. “Find me another way!”
“... you’re really banking on him, huh?” Smite mumbled, sighing.
“I find it rather odd that you’re the only one that believes me.” Aeala said.
“... we all have our reasons. How many Qi Stones do we have left?”
“Around two thousand. Why?”
“... hmm, should be about enough.” Smite said, quickly scrutinizing the ground beneath. “I could quickly construct a formation that would distill the Devil Qi in the air, giving us some breathing room.”
“... why didn’t you mention anything earlier?”
“Because it’s hardly a solution, Aeala,” Smite said, his tone suddenly growing serious. “It will buy us a few hours - at best - but that’s it. Besides, those are the last of Qi Stones that we have; what’s your plan after on getting more of them? It’s not like they grow on trees. Even with the formation, we can’t last until the dawn. We all have underestimated the spread of Devil Qi. My bet is that there’s a Greater Demon in their ranks, hiding somewhere. If we could take him out, it would be a different story. But, we can’t even find him, let alone take him out.”
“... haah,” Aeala sighed slowly. “Brutally honest as always. Do it.”
“... you’re putting that much faith in us? In him? In this?” Smite asked.
“... if this bastion falls, Smite, it all does.” Aeala smiled bitterly, holding back a chuckle. “If they are here, it means that the Capital fell. If we too fall, who else is left to fight? Or are you suggesting we turn around and walk away from this? Of course I believe in us. You guys have proven yourselves time and again... I’ll just sit here and wait for another miracle.”
“... right.” Smite said, smiling lightly. “It’s a good idea to wait, either way. I ought to check out my rival, after all. He’s got you so smitten that I’m starting to think I stand no chance.”
“Just draw the damn formation.”
“Aye, aye, captain!”
Smite jumped off the watchtower and landed squarely on his feet, immediately withdrawing two short swords from his waist and beginning his dance; he started drawing circles and began weaving them while continuously brushing in various strange symbols and patterns. Moonlight’s stream washed past the shallow dents in earth and bathed them in ethereal silver, as though embedding them with strange shine. It didn’t take long for Aeala to feel the air lift up, as though suffocating part of it had been sucked out.
At the same time, Kraval and Fish both seemed to have regained their vigor, rousing up with an earth-shaking battle-roars, pushing forward for the first time in a while. Kraval swung his massive warhammer sideways, causing rain itself to become back-firing projectile, while Fish increased the rate at which golden showers of bolts occurred. Black blood flew hastily, drowning red plateau in complete ebony, matching it perfectly with the hue of night itself. The howls and wails of pain increased, yet the momentum hardly subsided; the crimson eyes marched onward ceaselessly still, hauntingly shot down one after another. It was a harrowing yet captivating scene, one upturning all reason and common sense. As though ghastly for its own sake, stripped of reason and logic down to the barren core. This was not how a war is waged, Aeala came to realize. This is nothing if not piling of pointless deaths, the scarring of countless souls, the death of innocence for many.
“... it’s done.” Smite appeared out of nowhere, startling Aeala slightly.
“You really should stop appearing out of nowhere.”
“But then I won’t be able to witness your adorable reactions. And, to be honest, that’s what I really live for.”
“... no, that is depressing.” Smite said, pointing at the road. “You are beautiful.”
“Really not the time or place.” Aeala said.
“To court you? Oh, you could not be more wrong. It’s always the time and the place to court you.”
“Does it scare you?” Smite asked.
“... it does.” she replied. “Very much so.”
“Good.” Smite said, smiling faintly. “It’s only right it does.”
“... how long exactly will that formation buy us?” Aeala asked.
“... as I’ve said, a few hours at most, if even that. Definitely not until dawn.” Smite replied.
“...” Aeala took a deep breath, falling into thought for a moment. “Order a retreat ten minutes before the formation collapses.”
“... are you sure?” Smite asked, seeming slightly surprised.
“There’s no reason to pointlessly sacrifice lives.” Aeala said. “It would mark us no different than them.”
“... we can still look for him, you know?”
“... it’s not about Lino, Smite.” Aeala said, sighing lightly. “It’s long since stopped being about him. It’s about what we can do for people who can’t fight this. I meant it when I said that this is the last bastion, Smite. Should this city fall, Umbra Kingdom is forever gone.”
“... then, we shall all do our best so it doesn’t fall.” Smite said in oddly serious tone before completely disappearing.
“... don’t die, that’s all.” Aeala whispered a prayer faintly into the wind, clutching her hands into fists yet again. It’s a dreaded wait again, she realized, observing decay from the sidelines; not a lot has changed since the day she witnessed Lino being nearly ripped apart before her very eyes while she couldn’t even muster enough strength to get onto her feet. It was still all the same.