With the elf nearly stepping on his heels, Alec headed toward Shattered Rock's exterior wall. At his side, the Red Mage was silent, his features downcast. They had said nothing to one another throughout their trek, which suited Alec just fine. He had, for the most part, sobered up, though now he was beginning to feel the aftermath of his intoxication. Every thump of the elf's staff on the cobblestones made his head throb. The less said in his company, the better. Besides, his mind was still too addled for intelligent communication, especially a conversation with the mage, though there were many words he wished to say to the man. Hopefully, he would have an opportunity to say them before it was all over.
Above all, he was especially thankful that the mage had ordered his imp to watch over Emily and the others. At the moment, the little red devil would have been more than Alec could stand.
All around them, people were stirring with the news that something was amiss beyond the wall. To his left, Alec saw a young woman fastening the armor of a gray haired man whom Alec assumed was her father. After she tightened his straps, the man heaved himself upright and returned the favor to the young woman. Standing in a doorway behind the pair, an elder woman braced herself against a doorjamb and a crutch. Except for the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, her face resembled that of the girl. She looked on, wiping her eyes as her husband garbed their daughter for war.
The daughter found Alec's gaze on her and gleefully smiled in return. Yelping to her father, she pointed in Alec's direction.
Quickly he averted his eyes.
They think I'm some bloody hero, he thought, hastening his pace.
Shadows fell on the trio as high above their heads figures darted along the many wooden planks crisscrossing the rooftops. After the wall surrounding the city fell -- which it was certain to do, being far too weak to withhold any sizable force -- the battle would spill onto the roofs. More than likely, the figures scurrying there now were stockpiling the area with arrows, ensuring that every rooftop had an inexhaustible heap of silver-tipped shafts waiting to be unleashed upon the undead.
Walking the remaining blocks in silence, they at last made it to the end of the city and stood together before the wall of poorly laid stones that would serve as the initial layer of defense. The defenders' strategy assumed its fall. They would hold their position along its ramparts for as long as possible, then, the moment it showed the slightest crack, the mages would set it, and the land around it, aflame. Those who failed to reach the rooftops would be obliterated in a rain of fire, while those who yet lived would begin their slow retreat, constantly making their way inwards to the Archenon, where they would make a final stand within the walls of the ancient human king.
Alec had no plans of making it quite that far.
They were at the foot of the wall when the mage turned to Alec and said, "You're on your own up there, Destroyer. Try not to do anything foolish. Your actions will be scrutinized by men far less sympathetic than I." He turned to Solo Ki, his features softening. "Fight well, One Elf, from this world to the next."
A golden sleeve was extended to the elf. Solo Ki hesitated only briefly before clasping the mage's hand.
"And you, Red Mage. May you at last find what you seek."
Brice nodded his head of silky brown hair and then his body ignited in flames of blue. With his eyes shut and his hands and legs hanging limply, he left the earth, the toes of his boots passing by Alec's face. In a matter of moments the mage was traveling through the air hundreds of feet above the wall. Alec looked up, squinting into the orange glow of the setting sun as the mage became a speck. He noticed others up there as well, a group a tiny dots bobbing in the air. He watched them for a while, finally losing sight of them in the growing haze of darkness.
"Shall we?" Alec said, gazing upwards at the makeshift scaffolding lining the city's wall.
The elf leaned on his staff as though exhausted.
If nothing else I'll make him happy, Alec thought, knowing that his shadow was growing weary of following him and anxious for the sun to fully set.
She leaned over the tower, covering her pointed ears beneath the fluffy black and white feathers of her collar. Looking down through a gap in the tower's circular parapet, she shivered as a sudden gust of wind drifted past. The gaps were spaced five feet from one to the next and angled downward at a near ninety degrees, allowing defending archers a clear shot at the enemy directly below them. Through the angled gap, Nathalia saw that Lord Rafe's garden was no longer green, but full of dull clad refugees waiting to stuff themselves into the palace. Coordinating their movements with jabs of his massive war pick, the wicked boulder dwarf Gunt kept the crowd moving at a constant and ordered pace. Other than Gunt, a sparse number of soldiers were present below. Mostly, the Garden was filled with the disabled, the elderly, or with children, hardly any of which could lift a bow, let alone draw an arrow. Yet, there were others walking through the Garden as well, their strides smooth, flowing. Unlike the rest of the refugees, these beings were fighters of mythical prowess, immortal beings with eyes of gray and white.
Shal'in Ome, Nathalia thought, looking down with disgust at her despondent kin.
Seeing them piling into the keep alongside children and cripples filled her with shame. She wanted to kill them herself, put an end to their lives before they humiliated the elven race by cowering in the keep, waiting for death.
Unlike them, she had come to the Archenon to fight. To save the children if she could. While the rest of the defenders were positioned along the city's outer wall, Nathalia had chosen to await the undead within the Archenon. Eventually the fight would come to the heart of the city, and when it did, she wanted to be certain she was with the children. If she was to die in this battle, she would much rather give her life knowing that in her final moments she had helped to preserve something pure and good.
With a bow of cherry wood on her back and a pair of thin, elven blades at her hips she was ready to eliminate whatever remnants of the undead made it to the Archenon. Comfortably seated on her shoulder was the imp Galimoto, his tail curled around Nathalia's left breast.
She turned, facing the backs of the children -- Tetloan's head of short-cut red hair and the lengthy dark curls of Emily -- as they looked out over the city.
"They shouldn't be here," Tetloan said, scowling down at the constant flow of people entering the Archenon's gates. He too had a pair of blades at his hips, but unlike Nathalia he hadn't the slightest idea how to use them. "To us, they're useless. But you can bet your life they'll be fighting when they're undead. Someone should have kicked them out of the city a long time ago."
"Where would they go?" Emily asked with a squeak. "You know there's no escape, and we've both seen what happens to those who flee."
She grabbed a fist-full of curls and stuffed it behind her ear.
"What about you? Would you walk those roads knowing that the demons are hiding in the woods, waiting to leap out at you?"
"Like you even know they're out there. How could you possibly know that? You act like the undead have thought things out, like they have some sort of plan. They're just stupid undead. All they know is hunger. That's all. I bet the roads are clear from here to Lock Core."
"If you're so sure then why don't you lead them there?"
"Because, I don't give a dead about them. I'm here for Nathalia."
"Like when you were there for, Whimly?" she said, her eyes misting over.
Silence was Tetloan's only reply.
"Must the children always fight?" Galimoto said from his perch. "Can't they see it gives Galimoto a headache?"
"Galimoto's right," Nathalia interjected summoning up her most authoritative voice. "The way you two carry on one would think you're siblings."
"I was only saying that we might end up having to fight these people. That's all."
The boy grew somber, lowering his head to the stone.
"You're right, Tetloan we may."
At that point it won't matter, Nathalia thought. We'll fall as easily as they once the Archenon is breached.
She prayed it never came to that, yet she held no illusions as to her own invincibility. If the dark tide roseabove the Archenon, she knew they would all be swept away, even the immortals.
Though she had intended the thoughts to be held within her mind alone, she saw Emily turn to her, a look of despair suddenly clouding her face, and she knew that the girl had heard everything.
'You're inside me again aren't you? Are my thoughts no longer my own Emily?'
'I'm sorry . . . I didn't mean to. They just come to me, your voice, your feelings. The feelings of others. I can't stop them. They just happen, same as the voices of my own mind.'
She remembered how, in order to heal his tortured mind, she had once linked her mind with Alec's. She had found him, rotting in the darkness and had felt him, the sadness, the guilt, . . . the pain. The never ending pain. She felt it still, and now, because of it, she could no longer bear to enter his mind.
'I felt him too,' the child stated, once more reading her mind.
'Alec?' Nathalia thought, shocked and intrigued. What might the child have found that she could not?
'He is still afraid, and sad. Very sad. Everything else he hides, even from himself. Like the pain. He cannot feel it. But it's there still, almost like it's a part of him now. Almost . . . comforting.'
She would trade her immortality for a second of the girl's sight. A second was all she would need, and in that moment she would finally know.
'He has shown me that as well.'
She felt a wave of embarrassment wash over her -- though she wasn't certain if the feeling was born of her or the child.
'He loves you, Nathalia, though he would never say. It's what he feels strongest, fears the most, and keeps hidden far deeper than all else.'
She dared not believe.
'It's true. He hides it, but it's there for all to see. He can't bear to be near you, would rather push you away than admit what he feels. He knows that your death would be more than he could bear. He can live -- even though he blames himself for the death of thousands -- but, if he lost you . . . he would be destroyed. Even Alec has his limits.'
'It cannot be true.'
"Well, if comes down to a fight, I'll carve every last one of them worthless wretches into pieces," Tetloan said, fumbling with two hands as he sought to unfasten one of his weapons.
The boy's actions were only marginally registered by her mind. She had thought herself freed of the Destroyer, freed from his endless cycle of pain.
Not now, she thought, hoping she had saved the thought for herself.
He only needed her when he was weak, and like a fool she would always be there to coddle him, to save him from himself. Otherwise, she was no more meaningful to him than the common gutter whore.
Rotting hell, Alec!
Now, more than ever, she wanted to go to him once more. She just wasn't sure what she would do if she saw him; hold him in her arms, or slap him in the face for being such a fool.
Meanwhile, she was oblivious to Tetloan, and to his sudden success.
In one mighty pull his sword was free . . .
. . . and flying wildly through the air, straight toward Nathalia and the imp sitting on her shoulder.
Before Galimoto could react, before he could so much as twitch his tail in fear, there came a gentle clink as steel met steel. Nathalia's blade was out, and against the silver, orchid engraved edge, Tetloan's plain blade sat, and trembled.
"Stupid child!" Galimoto said, hiding behind Nathalia's neck. "In what world was he born that he cannot wield a blade? I've seen infants handle their weapons with greater skill."
"Maybe when this is all over I'll teach you the art of swordplay, Tetloan. But for now, why don't you stick to what Master Brice has taught you."
"Sorry," he replied, embarrassed and once more fumbling as he sought to cram the weapon back into its sheath. "It won't happen again, Nathalia."
Inwardly, she breathed a sigh of relief as she too replaced her blade.
I wasn't ready for it. An instant longer and I could not have stopped him.
She felt the imp's claws digging into her neck.
"Don't worry, Lady Nathalia, Galimoto would have saved you."
And to think, Destroyer, we've wasted all this time because you thought I would die by your hand. But now . . .
"I'm sure you would have, Galimoto," she replied, struggling to regain her composure. "But then, who would have saved you?"
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