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A horrendous groan carried throughout the plains with the descent of the Walker’s legs as they carried it forward. Everyone gazed in absolute terror upon the damage done to Haven by the bombardment of cocoons. Pain seized Janus’s heart as his body grew heavy with overwhelming concern for his comrades at the wall. With glances as hurried as his breaths, he looked between the destruction and its culprit time and time again.

It was then that Janus became aware of the cocoons that had dropped from the Walker’s body and began cracking open in its wake. The humanoid abominations that broke forth from within now limbered in their direction, intent on slaughtering the Crows maintaining the ballistae.

“Marcin!”

Janus’s call drew the vampire lord’s attention toward him, his sight following the length of his arm as he pointed out the oncoming threat.

“Defend the ground units!” Marcin ordered.

A rain of fire was conjured forth by the vampires and showered the plains in its scorching fury. One after another, the creatures screamed out in agonizing pain as their charred corpses collapsed to the ground. Yet despite these efforts, the cocoons were seemingly resistant to the flames and simply dropped off of the Walker to unleash another assault.

“Ride with the Crows, Lord Janus! Keep your sights fixed on that monstrosity while we handle these spawn.”

“Understood.”

Amid the chaos, Janus rode by those stationed at the ballistae, advancing the mounted Crows onward toward Haven.

“Keep firing!” he addressed them, his voice carrying over the stampeding hooves. “Do not lose heart, even if the odds seem against us! This monstrosity covets, wanting nothing more than to devour our Lady Soleil’s sheltering light!”

Janus wove a small flame in the palm of his hand before flailing it toward the Walker alongside the barrage of arrows.

“Show this horror that the Sanctified Lands belongs to those who have made incredible sacrifices to make it their own in this cursed world!”

Despite Janus’s own words of encouragement, his heart felt heavy as he watched one bolt after another fire into the Walker’s body, barely enough to deter it from once more reaching to collect more cocoons to bombard upon Haven.

***

The knees of one putrid creature buckled beneath its weight, collapsing to the cold streets after being cut down by the young Crow. Ellie stood several paces behind him, watching in repulsed fascination at the way the creature’s flesh blistered and melted into the stone.

“They’re not as tough as they look,” the Crow panted. “They’re slow and predictable. Probably more formidable in large numbers. Their flesh does burn if it touches you, though.”

He outstretched his palm in front of him, observing how the bile that laced the creature’s body had dissolved the fabric of his gloves. To his relief, the bile had fizzled away shorty after, leaving only a minimal mark upon his skin. Had it not been for his gear, the Crow would certainly have suffered worse.

“Come on, let’s move.”

Ellie nodded fervently and followed him into the nearby alley. They had only traversed half way to the other side when the horrible whistle of cocoons flying overhead returned to torment them. A pair crashed into the nearby rooftops and sent rubble collapsing down around them.

Her body took control before her mind could even comprehend what was happening, and Ellie lunged forward mere moments before the rubble fell where she once stood. A terrible ringing drowned out her hearing when her form hit the street. When it had subsided, Ellie threw herself to her back and stared at the mess of stone, lumber, and shingles. The Crow was nowhere to be found, and her blood ran cold at the thought of him having been crushed underneath.

“No, no no no.” She crawled toward the rubble before staggering to her feet and yanking away whatever pieces she could lift. Only the sound of ceaseless cries from the Crows and the abominations in the distance gave her company. That was, until a familiar voice muttering desperately broke through the chaos and washed Ellie over with a sense of relief.

“Gods, please tell me you’re alive.”

“I’m here, I’m okay! Are you hurt at all?”

“Just my pride,” the Crow laughed ironically, until a realization cut his humor short. “Shit, watch out!”

There was hardly a moment to react to the creatures as they spilled forth from their cocoons that were firmly wedged into the roof above. Upon hitting the pile of rubble, one tumbled down toward Ellie while the other rolled down to the Crow.

“Run!” The sound of a blade piercing flesh crept through the debris. “I’ll try to find you!”

“Okay!”

Ellie dashed into the main street, desperate to make sense of where she was amid the ruin. Though the creature had risen to its feet and began its pursuit of her, it was impossible for the creature to keep up its weakened state as Ellie made her way through Haven.

***

One by one, the putrid creatures fell to the streets with every violent stab from Bedelia’s and General Delman’s blades. It pained Bedelia to admit to herself that she was not as prepared for combat as she had hoped, as she was beginning to feel winded from the nearly endless onslaught and the pain from her injury meeting with each swing of her sword.

“Just what in the hells are these things?” she cursed.

General Delman grabbed her by the arm and helped her to a stand.

“I don’t know, but they’re leaving us with quite the cleanup. I just hope the other Crows we found are faring well.”

“Well if we don’t find a way to stop that behemoth, there won’t be a town to clean up.”

The whistle of the cocoons flying overhead prompted both of them to instinctually cover their heads and seek shelter. To their benefit, none of them crashed in the immediate vicinity, but the distance that some of them had traveled filled Bedelia with dread.

“Some of those might have landed at the town’s edge. If so, there’s a chance they could assault the coast.”

“Lady Soleil and the magicians aiding her should be able to handle anything that comes their way.”

Bedelia squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose. So much had gone wrong since the Walker descended from the Maw. Perhaps it was too unrealistic for her to hope that all of this would’ve ended at the tower, but no amount of preparation could have steeled Haven against this. At this point, all of her hopes lied with the combatants on the plains. They had to stop the Walker. But, if they couldn’t…

“I have to think of something to stop this bastard from ruining my town any more than it has, but it’s impossible with all these damn acid freaks running amok!”

“Then leave them to me,” General Delman said. “I’ll advance eastward and gather up any Crows that I find to begin clearing the town out. You head back toward the wall and see if there is something—anything—that can be done.”

“Not the most assuring plan, but it’s all we’ve got.” She gave his shoulder a parting pat and started toward the west. “Don’t die out there!”

“Nor you, Bedelia.”

***

Pained breaths tore from Janus’s lungs as he rode alongside the Crows, his body exhausted from the barrage of spells he had been flinging with frequency at the Walker. He clenched his teeth upon the sight of the narrowing gap between the abomination and the town, his fears creeping higher as he recalled his conversation with Gerald in the courtyard.

Conflict stirred within Janus. He no longer knew if it was worth it to remain on the battlefield in hopes that just one more spell might be enough to bring the Walker down, or if he should race to the coast to initiate his plan. There was no denying that they had begun making a sizable dent in the creature, the endless strikes slowing its paces and melting away its flesh to expose bone. But considering the amount of time and effort to deal only that much damage, it was becoming apparent that they would not stop it before it reached Haven. Perhaps the coast would still be spared, but the town was certain to be lost.

Reluctance pierced Janus’s heart, and he tightened his grip on the reins before steering off course toward the road to the coast.

***

Ellie darted through the once familiar streets, now twisted by destruction. After careening into an alley, she came to an abrupt stop when she found herself face to face with another mass of debris. A frustrated tut passed Ellie’s lips as she turned back toward the alley’s entrance, only to be brought to a terrified halt.

Standing between her and the exit was one of the putrid creatures. The sickly lean variant had taken note of her in the brief lapse of Ellie’s awareness. As it staggered forward, the creature opened it’s mouth slowly, revealing several rows of blackened teeth and the complete lack of a tongue.

A gurgle hissed from the depths of its throat while its outstretched arms reached for her with an acidic touch. Ellie’s heart pounded in her chest with such ferocity that she was convinced it was trying to rip through her. Amid her trembling, she kept her focus fixed on the creature and moved swiftly to one side when it lunged forward.

It had moved with such certainty that it would grab her that the creature ended up collapsing head first into the wall. In the time that it took to recompose itself, Ellie fetched from her waist the dagger that Bedelia had given her. Though her grip was shaken, she let out a panicked yell and drove the dagger straight into the creature’s neck.

Frantically clawing at the length of the blade that had pierced through to the other side, the creature fell to one knee before going completely quiet and slumping to the ground. It lay there motionless as Ellie desperately tried to comprehend that she had just taken a life. Certainly, it was the life of a mindless creature intent only on harming her, but it was a life nonetheless that she had taken.

Ellie threw her back against the wall and stared down at the lifeless body for a full minute before she could muster the energy to break from her trance. Determining that the creature was truly dead, she used her foot for leverage to retrieve the dagger. Her face contorted in disgust at the coagulated green blood that oozed from the wound and laced the blade, creating a few thin streams of steam. Desperate to stop the blood from burning the metal, Ellie rushed to a torn scrap of linen from the debris and used it to wipe the blade clean. She remembered the contact that her shoe made with the creature’s body slightly too late and found the sole mostly melted away.

Ellie cursed under her breath at the limp caused by the damaged shoe, but was relieved to find the blade of her dagger mostly intact. Returning it to its sheathe, she started back into the street to navigate through the distorted maze.

***

The coast was brimming with evacuees, most of which were riled up by the sight of the Walker as it had climbed through the Maw of the Abyss. Those who had taken it upon themselves to act as guardians to the others attempted to keep the people calm while Lady Soleil’s magicians reinforced the barrier. It was a wall of light that stretched from one distant end of the coast to the other, curving outward into the sea like a dome.

Janus rode straight along the outside of the barrier, recognizing the magic that was in use. Anyone could traverse the barrier easily enough, but the light that it used would burn creatures from Blackest Pitch on contact. But he wasn’t here to analyze Lady Soleil’s magic; instead, his eyes frantically scanned the crowds in search of Ellie. It wasn’t until he was nearly at the end of the large group of people when he noticed the caravan of the afflicted and came to an abrupt stop.

Gerald!” he shouted.

Nearly the entire caravan was startled by his voice, blinking in confusion at his presence.

“Lord Janus,” Rehor stuttered. “What are you doing here?”

“Where’s Gerald? Where is Ellie?”

Elise gestured Meen forward. Cupped in her lanky hands was Gerald, whose tiny paws held his forehead with a violent tremble.

“Lord Janus,” he whimpered.

“Gerald.” His voice could have frozen the caravan over. “Where is Ellie?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve looked everywhere! She was there, then she wasn’t. I—I got distracted—there was a panic in my family. I thought Miss Ellie had moved ahead with the evacuees, I really thought she had! We’ve been calling for her, but nothing, and no one has seen her.”

“Lord Janus.” Elise stepped forward. “I… have a terrible feeling that Ellie went to Haven.”

Janus stared at Elise with terrifying, widened eyes, his grip tightening so fiercely around the reigns that his knuckles began turning white.

“When we were lagging behind the rest, I saw something moving in the brush. I didn’t get a good look, but I’m almost certain now that it was Ellie. I should have investigated, I’m so sorry.”

Janus turned his gaze forward, his lips drawing inward as frustration and terror drowned out all other emotions. He searched his mind at an alarming rate to determine his next course of action. It was only a matter of time before the Walker would reach Haven, if it hadn’t already reached the walls.

“Gerald.”

The mere call prompted Gerald to leap from Meen’s hands, to Elise’s shoulder, and through the barrier onto Janus’s arm. Clutching him close, Janus snapped the reigns and cut through the farmlands back toward Haven. Elise reached for the barrier, but withdrew her hand the moment the terrified screams of the afflicted waking prematurely called her back. With reluctance, she shoved the situation with Ellie from her mind and rushed to lend aid to Rehor and Nairi.

***

Ellie hobbled around one confusing corner after the other. So displaced was she that it was nigh on impossible to determine where she was. The usual landmarks were either mangled by the bombardments or were impossible to keep track of through all the constant detours.

A tormented screech erupted from Ellie when she emerged from an alley and found herself right back at the west wall. She thrust her back against the cold stone of the building beside her before repeatedly slamming her closed fist against it.

Once her frustrations had tempered, she glanced at the wall and noticed that—amid the destruction—one ballista remained intact and loaded with a bolt. Ellie’s brow twitched as an idea occurred to her, and she leapt over a pile of debris and darted up the steps. There was little she could do with the ballista on it’s own, but perhaps if she could improvise something…

The rumbling of the Walker’s steps commanded Ellie’s attention toward the monstrosity rapidly approaching. It hadn’t occurred to her until that moment, when she gazed out at the plains, just how terrifyingly close the Walker was now. Even with one of its chitinous legs severed in the conflict, it did little to slow its advance. The gap between the Walker and the town was minimal, and the amount of time that Ellie had remaining was soon to be gone.

What started as pure terror that welled within her was soon overcome with rage. Perhaps she truly was the reason that the Walker stirred, or perhaps she wasn’t. But all that Ellie was guilty of was innocently following her curiosity. Was the ruination of thousands of lives truly to be her punishment? No, she refused to accept this, and it was high time that she stopped blaming herself and do something.

With every excruciating step toward Haven, the Walker slowly began easing open its mouth. Its barbed tongue and bright red palate were the only parts of it that looked even remotely vulnerable, despite the extensive damage done to its hide by the endless assault.

The sight of the disgusting maw awakened a moment of clarity in Ellie. Her mind effortlessly recalled the book she had been reading a few nights prior and pieced together a possible solution for her own situation. Given that there was only one other outcome if she did nothing, Ellie found no harm in resorting to imitation.

Her eyes began darting about her surroundings, searching for anything that was still intact that she could use to carry out her plan. Along the parapet sat a lonely barrel with its contents labeled along the outside. She yanked the lid off and found it filled to the brim with small, burlap bags filled with fire powder. Ellie raised her brow as she weighed one bag in her hand, pondering why the Crows didn’t put this to use in the first place. Wasting no more time, she gathered up several and dashed back to the ballista.

“Just don’t look, just don’t look.”

Ellie repeated the words over and over as her tensions soared with each of the Walker’s steps. With all her strength, she knotted the bags to the shaft of the bolt beside the point. Ellie prayed that the Walker’s mouth would be close enough for her strike to land true, as she had no idea how much the weight of the powder would affect the bolt’s flight.

After they were securely fastened, Ellie stepped back and searched the area again for anything else she could make use of. It dawned on her when her eyes met the nearby alley that the building in front of her was the mess hall. A crate of alcohol had been shattered, but with little other option, Ellie determined it best to see if any survived the initial blast.

Carefully, she slid down a slant of rubble and shielded her face from the dust and debris as she dashed into the alley. Ellie was dismayed to find that the spirits were mostly contained on the stone than in their bottles, yet the row closest to the street had two with nary a scratch. In her haste, Ellie retrieved only one and snatched a nearby torch from a wall sconce before darting back to the ballista. A deep and reluctant sigh parted her lips as she gripped the hem of her dress and tore off a strip of the elegant fabric, which she then tied to the bottle’s finish.

Ellie cried out when one of the Walker’s legs pierced beyond the wall, forcing her to stare upward as the creature loomed over her. Though she was frozen in place but a moment, Ellie forced herself from terror’s grasp and staggered toward the ballista. With equal parts caution and haste, she lined up the bolt with the Walker’s mouth and sent it whistling through the air as it shot up and pierced the roof.

An agonized scream resounded throughout the plains as globs of tar and bile sprayed from the Walker’s throat in its throes. Without removing her eyes from her target, Ellie felt beside her and snatched the bottle in one hand while searching for the heat of the torch with the other. When it was apparent that it was no longer where she had left it, Ellie looked down the slant of rubble and saw that the torch had rolled away back toward the alley. There was no time left for her to go retrieve it. If she was going to ignite the bottle and toss it, it had to be now.

“Ellie!”

The familiar voice calling out to her summoned Ellie’s attention toward the entrance of the next alley over. Standing there was Bedelia, who could do nothing but look on in terror. With exaggerated movements, Ellie pointed to the escaped torch.

“Bedelia! The torch!”

Not an ounce of hesitation remained as Bedelia immediately sprinted toward the torch and snapped it up in her hand. Large strides boosted her up the slant of rubble to reach the flame out to Ellie, just barely touching it to the fabric dangling from the bottle.

In one single motion, Ellie spun on her heel and swept her arm with such painful force as to propel the ignited bottle into the Walker’s mouth. She was terrified that her throw was not enough as the bottle spun through the air and only impacted the bottom of the ballista bolt. But the resulting explosion was large enough to reach the fire powder and created a burst far larger than she had anticipated.

Bedelia clutched Ellie’s arm and yanked her away from the wall. The resulting explosion from the excessive amount of fire powder sent out a devastating shock wave that sent them flying down the alley. Bedelia wrapped Ellie in her arms and held her close as they rolled straight through to the street on the other side.

The explosion had utterly devastated the Walker and created a gaping hole in its mouth that seared everything up into the cranium. With one final tremor, the Walker fell onto its back as its spider-like legs curled inward toward the body with a horrible crack. The faint signs of life in the remnants of its eyes faded away as it lay motionless beside the wall.

Breathless, Ellie and Bedelia sat up in the street and stared at the underside of the Walker’s abdomen. Their minds struggled to process everything that had happened just before the daze caused by their tumble. It was only the sound of countless cheers from the plains that finally dissipated the confusion.

Laughs forced their way through Bedelia’s gasps for air. She reached for Ellie and wrapped her arms around her head before pulling her in close and planting a victory kiss on her temple. The chuckles from behind her closed lips rattled Ellie from her stunned state and cleared away any lingering disbelief. The Walker was dead.

Ellie had not even one moment to begin celebrating her victory when the hurried clop of hooves brought forward another sense of dread. Mounted atop the approaching horse was Janus, who came to an abrupt stop mere feet from where she and Bedelia were rested. The fierce way in which he looked down at her sent a terrible chill down Ellie’s spine. Slowly, she pried Bedelia’s fingers away from her and raised to a trembling stand.

“Janus, I—”

What in the hells were you thinking!” His unbridled outrage caused Ellie to wince. “Did I not explicitly tell you to stay with the evacuees?”

“I—I know.” She looked down shamefully as tears welled in her eyes. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“Oh, Janus. Shut up.”

From down on the street, Bedelia leaned back on her elbows and grinned wildly at the Walker’s corpse.

“I’ll have you know that the only reason the Walker isn’t barreling through Haven on its way to the coast right now is due to Ellie’s actions.”

Janus’s brow twitched as he struggled to understand Bedelia’s words. He glanced back and forth between Ellie and the Walker, his anger slowly dissipating with each look. With a satisfied sigh, Bedelia rose to her feet and rested her hands on her hips.

“Well, technically it wouldn’t have been a success without my help, even if it was just a fraction of the execution,” she chuckled. “Pardon the pun.”

Ellie shuffled closer to Janus, keeping her eyes averted as she fidgeted with her fingers.

“I know, I really messed up this time. I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you.” So focused was she on her apology that Ellie hadn’t noticed Janus descend from the horse. “I swear, I won’t ever do something like that again. I promise.”

Before she could place herself in a seemingly endless string of apologies, Janus reached forward and pulled Ellie into a silencing embrace. He held her head to his shoulder and leaned his own against hers.

“I’m sorry, Ellie. I never wanted to raise my voice at you. I was just so terrified by the thought of what harm might befall you that I neglected your feelings.”

The small sobs that parted his lips prompted the same in Ellie.

“Don’t cry, Janus. If you do that, I’ll start crying, too.”

“From now on, Ellie, we’ll work together. I’ll teach you how to fight, how to use magic, anything you want to know.”

Softly, Ellie slid her arms beneath Janus’s cloak and wrapped her arms around his back.

“I’d like that, Janus.”

With a small smile, Bedelia stepped away to give the pair a moment together. She was surprised to find Gerald on the street close by, having parted from Janus the moment he dismounted. Bedelia made a small click to get his attention, then beckoned him toward her with her finger. As soon as he was situated on her shoulder, the two of them started down the street toward the crossroad, where they found General Delman upon his return.

“Bedelia, thank the gods.” He looked over his shoulder down the street he had just emerged from. When General Delman was certain that no putrid creatures pursued him, he pointed to the Walker’s corpse with an alleviated sigh. “Looks like we’ll be doing clean-up, after all.”

“Looks like it,” she laughed.

“The east end of town was spared most of the damage, so at least there’s that. It seems to be centralized along the rooftops and near the outer wall.”

“Well, all things considered, this was far from the worst outcome. But for now, we should tend to the fallen and assess the damages in both Haven and the plains.”

“Agreed. We also need to determine what—precisely—these foul things are.” He pointed his blade at the nearby corpse of one of the creatures.

“Indeed. They’re shrouded in just as much mystery as the terror they originated from. Let’s regroup with the Crows in town and do a sweep to make sure that none of these still wander.”

After Bedelia parted with General Delman and Gerald in tow, Janus slowly released Ellie from his embrace and rested his hands on her shoulders. They shared a relieved smile at one another before he looked toward the Walker’s corpse in amazement.

“Ellie, how in the hells did you manage to bring down that monstrosity?”

“Honestly? I haven’t the faintest idea. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but when I thought for sure I was going to die, everything just clicked into place. I don’t even remember how it happened, but I do know that I recalled a scene in one of the books you recommended me where the heroes took down an incredible monster with an explosion.”

“I beg your pardon?” He looked back to her. “Are you meaning to tell me that you imitated something that you read in one of my books?”

Ellie gave a few quick nods in response, which caused Janus to look out over the town with a disbelieving laugh.

“That is positively insane.” He grinned at her once more. “But I can’t even begin to express how relieved I am that I recommended that one to you.”

“Trust me, I’m glad you did, too.”

After a long stare, Ellie reached out her arms and pulled Janus back into an embrace. Tenderly, he placed one hand behind her head and rested it against his chest.

“I’m so glad you’re alright. I’m sorry that I was such a brat back at the castle.”

“Oh, Ellie, don’t worry yourself with that.” Janus paused as he closed his eyes and savored the moment. “It’s all over now.”

“Yeah,” Ellie nodded. “It’s over.”

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About the author

sennabyrd

Bio: Author who loves high fantasy, old computer/video games, and elves. New chapters posted every Friday at 3:00 PM US Central!

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