The battle of Stormbridge
Bastet wanted to rest, but he could not cut his step short. A man who looked rather bulky in his linen stuffed gambeson was leading him somewhere that wasn’t quite close to the prison area. But to his relief their quick pace bore fruit – it was not too long until the man finally spoke the words Bastet has been waiting for – “We’re here.”
Before them was a house spacious enough to shelter a small family, although even a glance at it would make it apparent that nobody had lived here for years. Nobody patched the thatched roof for a long time, so it was barely hanging onto the rafters. Since the oiled cloth stretching across it was torn, the window was nothing but a hole in the wall through which warm spring air breached inside. The interior of the house was peeking at them through the slouched front door, which could not be fully closed. There were no children around to stomp on the grass, so it had long overgrown. This scene was not an exception, the whole town gave Bastet the impression that it was abandoned a long time ago. The wide streets were empty, and no people, let alone carriages, were passing through.
Reaching under his armor, the bulky man took out a small piece of parchment. Bastet was literate, but he could only make out a large red seal stamped on it. – “This is an order from the warden of Stormbridge, Lord Nillen.” – he began reading in a stern voice – “At dawn, gather before the city gates. We must not let the enemy break through. You will fight with all you have, and if that shows lacking, you will drown them in your blood. Rest well.” – After tucking the parchment back under his clothes, the man handed Bastet one more leather flask of that healing liquid and instructed him to drink all of it before tomorrow. He asked him what weapon he would prefer to use, and since Bastet at least knew how to hold a sword, that was his pick. He was not particularly proficient with it. Swords did not rake soil nor water it, and that was all that Bastet has ever planned on doing. The man informed him that a sword would be prepared for him tomorrow, and dismissed him.
Bastet went inside. Unstopped by the roof, it seemed that the elements have not been gentle on the interior of the house either. The rain swelled the wooden flooring and distorted it, causing many bumps and cracks. His eyes immediately met with those of a man who was lying on one of the two beds in the room. Forcing a smile, Bastet exchanged greetings and introduced himself. The name of the skinny blue-eyed man was Kreil. Kreil seemed to be a bit younger than Bastet’s father had been, but his deeply sunken cheeks probably added a few years to that evaluation. His disheveled beard and chestnut hair were in a dire need of trimming. Before this unfortunate man, Bastet wondered how he himself looked after everything that happened. Reaching for his face, he felt a beard a few inches before his hand touched the skin. He probably looked no better, he thought.
-“I'm guessing everybody got the same treatment?” – Bastet stretched on his bed. It might have been just hay on top of a wooden frame, but this is the most comfort he had in a long time.
-“I hope not, friend. The things they did to me are unspeakable.” – Kreil crossed his arms – “And it seems that they only let us out because they’re getting attacked. They’re rallying as many men as they can.”
-“Will they… lock us up again once the battle is over?”
-“Who knows?” – Kreil shrugged – “Better focus on living long enough to find out. “
-“That won’t be so easy. They only gave us a day to recover so I’m guessing the attack was unexpected.” – Bastet lamented – “And we’re barely on our feet yet they still drafted us, they must need all the help they can get. I don’t know about you, but I ain’t got much strength to offer.”
-“I can pull my weight. Rather than that, do us both a favor and pick your words more carefully, will ya?” – Kreil frowned – “Don’t you remember your oath? The very first things that your recruiter ordered you?”
Bastet nodded. When he swore the blood oath to Gremory, she specified three clauses before she even healed his wounds. The first stated that he may never oppose Wesia or their cause. The second was a request of obedience, that he must always obey any order from his superiors unless someone ranked higher said otherwise. Lastly, she ordered that he may never lie to them or attempt to deceive them. What they referred to as Ariadne’s curse was binding him to these rules.
-“Sure, you must never act in a way that is against the best interest of Wesia, but you never truly know what that is, do ya? You can only know it through your own assessment of it, and that is something your own beliefs will play a part in.” – Kreil shook his head – “So don’t say that you’re weak, or that Wesia must be desperate since they brought even you to help. You’re just setting yourself up to believe that it’s better for them if you were sacrificed, and that the times are dire enough to warrant sacrifices.”
Bastet broke into quiet laughter. If even his thoughts were against him, was there anything that remained that he could really call his own?
-“That’s why you should think positive, always positive!” – Kreil slapped his thighs – “Wesia will do fine even without us, surely.”
-“Thanks for the warning.” – Bastet lowered his head – “You seem to know a lot more about Wesia than I do.”
-“I have a long history with them. But then again, who doesn't? Those bastards… never…” – Kreil’s mouth snapped shut as his eyelids became heavy. He stretched and yawned. The sun has already begun its descent, and they were ordered to rest well for tomorrow, so he could not continue speaking. He snuggled the hay as he lied down. Bastet was not tired enough for Ariadne’s curse to interfere, but after gulping down the healing potion, he deeply sighed and closed his eyes as well. The breeze could not fully disperse the smell of animal droppings that reeked in the room. He fell asleep to the squeaking of rats.
It was daybreak. No less than two hundred men stood on the eastern flanking tower, overlooking a birch forest that sloped down the mountain. The wall stood twenty feet high and was even thicker than that at its bottom. A lot of the bricks that enclosed it were missing, exposing the base that was made of earth and quicklime. Bastet’s injuries were healed, but he was so nervous that it still took a considerable amount of effort to ball his fists up. It was cloudy, but he was profusely sweating since he was under multiple layers of clothing. They didn’t have any armor for him but a stack of clothes might dull a strike, or so he was told. An old sword hung by his waist, and right next to it was a leather flask filled with a blue liquid – the so-called Ariadne’s blood. He asked Kreil about it, but Kreil avoided giving any answers; he was too preoccupied anxiously pacing around, stopping to look at faces, almost as if he was searching for someone.
Bastet was wrestling with his thoughts. Death cannot be experienced, as he would disappear when it occurs. It was not something he feared – in fact, it was something he had desperately yearned for back when the torturer was ripping his nails off. If he dies his mind would be gone, and the next instance of his awareness would involve the Wesians reviving him and his family after they win the war. Except that, of course, they would have to actually win it. And if they were currently on the winning side, would they be in a situation as dire as this? It is not like he could choose to die; Ariadne’s curse would not allow it. But it is not a choice he would make even if it were an option. Dead men win no wars, he muttered to himself. It felt bitter to fight on the side of people who caused all of his grief. But he desperately tried to suppress those thoughts. He's already made his choice when he swore the oath. And Kreil told him to think positively, so he had to be careful.
The infantry seemed to account for half of the assembled army; a fact recognizable by the number of people who weren’t properly equipped for battle. Most of them were men, and hardly any over the age of forty. Bastet’s gaze wandered to the man in black ring mail standing in the back, the commanding officer, Nillen of Stormbridge. After assembling them at the gates, Nillen divided the infantry into four divisions – Bastet and Kreil being in the second one. Each division was to drink Ariadne’s blood and charge at the enemy. In fact, the first division had already descended from the wall and was standing by on the other side. Bastet recognized his interrogators from yesterday in the army too – they were engaged in a conversation with the other higher ranked Wesians. Bastet couldn’t quite hear the specifics of what they were talking about, but it seemed to be about the river that was running through Stormbridge and different methods to properly secure it.
Nillen had a stern expression on his face. Every once in a while, a thin column of fire would appear in the distance. It seemed like it was some sort of a military signal, perhaps from the scouts, Bastet thought. But each one seemed to be fired closer and closer to the city. The clouds have gotten thicker and the wind picked up the speed, it looked like a vicious storm was approaching. Sooner than later, about a dozen or so silhouettes could be seen coming out of the forest. Bastet gripped the handle of his sword and slightly trembled.
-“They’re allies! Open the gates!" – The exhausted group ran even faster once the gates shrieked open. With unsteady gait and ragged breath, they finally entered the city.
The man who was at the front of the group yelled in a raspy voice – “They… They’re comin’!” – he struggled to catch his breath – “We barely escaped! There’s two thousand of ‘em!”
-“Is Illias safe?” – Nillen asked.
-“We got her” – the man turned to show the woman on his back – “It’ll be a tough one, sir. A lot of ‘em know the magics, the rest are lizardmen and satyrs.”
-“Reinforcements should be here by noon. We’ll hold until then, so hide Illias somewhere safe. Now then” – Nillen snapped his fingers, which ignited a spark between them. As he opened up his palm, he revealed a ball of fire growing within it, getting larger and larger each passing moment – “Let’s buy us some time” – Once it was about the size of his head, he shot it towards the birch trees, and it exploded in an incandescent boom. The Wesians surrounding Nillen followed his lead, throwing fireballs which lit the forest ablaze. If the enemies were trailing the group who just entered the city, that’d be the end of them, Bastet thought. Who could possibly survive in such an inferno? The flames were so hot that he could feel their heat on his face, despite the distance.
But not long after that, the heavy clouds loosened up and it began to rain. Bastet had never seen such a downpour before; it had to be the result of a similar kind of magic. The Wesians would throw more fireballs at the forest, but torrents of water falling from the sky drowned their flames. About an hour later all that was left of them was a thin white smoke. And that is when they appeared – bipedal, loosely scaled reptilians were leading the charge on Stormbridge with their weapons raised. It was the first time Bastet had actually seen a nonhuman, though his grandfather often told him stories about them. Many intelligent creatures crossed over through the purple sun.
-“First division, charge!” – the commander yelled, and the thirty soldiers standing in front of the gates gulped down Ariadne’s blood, and rushed to meet the enemy.
-“Why are we splitting up?” – Bastet asked, but Kreil did not reply. Midway, the first division soldiers groaned in pain. Then the groans turned into screams, and the screams then warped into roars that did not resemble any sound that a human could make. Their blood boiled and bones grew out of their skin. Their backs hunched and the whites of their eyes turned pitch black. A strong metallic smell pervaded the air, and it made Bastet’s stomach turn. He had resolved himself to live, but the things that these soldiers became couldn’t be called anything other than monsters. Would being like this even count as surviving?
-“It’s a blessing that they lose their minds along the way.” – Kreil covered his mouth.
A ball of fire struck the first division, scorching the earth, but the smoke dispersed under the pressure of another ear-rupturing roar. Then everything happened so fast that Bastet almost missed it. Veins of lighting descended from the sky at the monsters who dashed forward. The earth split in an attempt to bury them alive, but they easily broke through the rock, and met the reptiles’ weapons with their claws. It was a massacre. They gored through their bodies so easily that it gave Bastet hope for victory. He found himself thinking that the second division won’t even have to be deployed. But Kreil nudged him and took a step back – “Fighting against the infantry is always a losing battle. In exchange for great power these soldiers burn through their entire life force rather quickly. If the enemy isn’t simply waiting that out, they must be in quite a hurry.” – And indeed, the lizardmen and satyrs did not focus the isolated enemy. Their advantage in numbers allowed some to avoid the confrontation and advance towards the gates.
Nillen ground his teeth – “Second division, get ready to-!” – But at this instant, a fierce gale snapped at the city’s wall from behind, crumbling it with ease. Bastet lost his footing and fell twenty feet down. His vision blurred and the only thing he could hear was Nillen screaming to “capture the intruder”. He was not sure how much time passed, but when he came to, he could see dozens of silhouettes rushing into the city. His hand reached for the flask to obey the order, but to his delight, the torn flask was empty.
But he could not savor this feeling of relief – “Move!” – Kreil yelled and Bastet rolled sideways, evading a stone spike that skewered upwards from under his feet. He was given no time to collect himself; more spikes shot up from the ground, and he narrowly avoided getting impaled. Getting up, he finally managed to steal a glance at the attacker; it was an old woman with many scars carved deep in her face.
Kreil attacked her while dodging the ice spike that shot out from her hand. He slashed downwards with his sword, but she managed to block the strike with her dagger and followed up with a sideways swing of her own in order to farther the distance between them. Bastet ran at her with heavy footsteps, shouting as loud as he could to stop his teeth from clattering. The woman summoned a streak of water that coiled around Kreil’s neck, forming a sphere around his head. Kreil struggled with all his strength, but he could not break free of its grip. The water quickly filled his lungs.
There was no time to think. Bastet slashed at her, putting all of his weight behind his attack, but she sidestepped it and kicked his hips. He quickly regained his balance, launching a forward strike, but he stopped it when she used Kreil’s flailing body as a shield. She took advantage of Bastet’s hesitation to conjure a stone and hurl it at his chest, knocking him down. Just as she created an ice spike to pierce his head, a fierce gale tunneled her from the side, sending her drilling the dirt with her face.
-“Run!” – Kreil yelled as he was coughing the water out of his lungs. Their desperate attempt to escape succeeded and whoever saved them remained to fight in their stead. They ran as fast as they could, but the thick stench of blood always seemed to follow. Bastet’s heart pumped fast. A large explosion nearby knocked them off their feet. Turning around, they saw just what Kreil had been hoping for. With two curled horns and cloven hooves there stood a bulky satyr brawling with a Stormbridge soldier. Even a light touch could flip a balanced scale – it was the most they could do in this battle, Kreil explained, to help secure a kill. They hid and observed the battle.
Not long after, the soldier managed to disarm the satyr and pierced through his abdomen with his longsword. But the satyr immediately gripped his hand, firmly holding him in place. With his other hand, the satyr picked up a rock and struck with it, bashing the soldier’s skull in. The fight had come to a rather abrupt end that neither Bastet nor Kreil expected, so they failed to intervene on time. The satyr leaned backwards, and with a groan, he pulled the sword stuck in his abdomen out and poured a healing potion on the open wound. – “We won’t get a better chance than this” – Bastet thought as Ariadne’s curse activated, springing him up on his feet. The satyr was startled by the sudden attack, but he slashed at Bastet with the sword as soon as he got in his range. The satyr was tired, and it would take some time before the potion fully closed his wound. Bastet successfully parried the satyr’s attack, and the metals shrieked every time their swords met.
Bastet’s boots were becoming slippery from grinding in the mud, but the satyr did not move around much. A slight gust of air hit Bastet’s nose as the blade narrowly missed him. He took a few steps back and wiped the sweat from his brow, bracing himself for yet another attack. He was not good at this. His wrists were becoming sore since he was not used to the throbbing that went through them on every impact. His limbs were getting heavier, and he could not catch his breath. How long would he be able to keep this up? His knees gave in, and he tripped. Confident in his victory the satyr approached to deliver the finishing blow, but out of nowhere, a boulder smashed his shoulder, and he fell down with a loud groan.
Bastet quickly regained his balance and struck at the satyr’s head, splitting it open. He had thought swords to be far sharper; it dug in only up to his jaw.
-“Good job” – Kreil applauded – “I tried to hit the head but I missed. He was in no condition to be jumping around, so a rock’s gotta do it.” – He squatted down and searched the two bodies. – “Here, drink up” – he tossed him a healing potion – “we’re just getting started. We have to keep doing this until-” – but the rest of Kreil’s words never made it to Bastet’s ears, as a roaring flame enveloped the entire sky. Bastet shook his head feeling dizzy from the immense heat. A black mist consumed his surroundings, and just like that, his consciousness faded away.