By Blake Tan
Battle filled her dreams. Centaurs swarmed over the hills, their hooves kicking dust so thick she could only see their vague outlines as they closed the gap on the caravan.
“Seraph! Form line,” her throat dry and scratchy with dirt, bellowing over the din as her squad formed up around her. Two ranks, the front rank kneeling, their rifles leveled. Behind them, the merchants struggled to keep their pack bulls from panicking. “Fire!”
The shots rang in her ears. Bullets cut through the clouds of dust, finding their marks and the centaurs in the front of the charge buckling, their fellows leaping over their blasted corpses, whooping their battle-cries. “Load!”
Through her helmet she saw the centaurs wheel, rallying to their shaman. Splinters of earth leapt from the ground, knife-like shards of rock raining down on their positions. Jehanni lifted her shield, calling forth her protection magic, sheathing her soldiers in blue light.
“Fire!” More centaurs fell, their cries like the howling of wounded animals. Beside Jehanni, Corporal Taggart took an arrow in the neck, gasping, his hands trying to stop the bleeding. “Load!”
“Lieutenant! More centaurs on the ridge!” a faceless figure beside her, pointing, before another arrow pierced her warding aura, plunging into his chest.
“Lieutenant Jehanni, they’re forming up for another charge.”
“Sir, on our left flank!”
“By the Six Gods! We’re outnumbered.”
Jehanni remembered her father’s stories, his weathered workman’s hands rough and callused as he held her little palm in his own. Their family came from a line of heroes, long ago before the Elder Dragons rose, before Palawa Joko dammed the Elon. Her ancestors were Sunspears, proud champions of humanity, and they were among those who had stopped the forgotten god Abaddon from destroying all of Tyria.
She was a scion of Elona, and she would not die forgotten here on this wind-ravaged steppe. “Seraph! Draw swords.”
“Sir, that’s suicide! We can’t win.”
“Soldier!” Jehanni took the faceless Seraph by the shoulders. “We don’t have to win, we only need time enough for the merchants to make a break for it.”
Around her the squad shifted, the protective warding starting to shimmer. The centaurs howled, pummeling the barrier with arrows. “Draw swords.”
Their blades glinted, coming alive in their hands, steel bright as white flame. Each man’s face coalesced into recognition in the dreamy haze, and Jehanni knew each of their names: Longfellow Luke, Jeb Ford, Sara Pettigan, Red Rurik, Feng the Zealot.
Her warding spell shattered and the Seraph came spilling out. Arrows pinged off their shields and they smashed into the centaurs. Rurik slipped the tip of his sword past a centaur’s shield, hamstringing it just as Jeb rushed past, plunging his blade into the centaur’s back. Feng was blasted off his feet when the ground erupted, but Sara helped him up while Luke fended off a pair of Tamini lancers, deftly sidestepping their charges and answering with furious cuts of his own.
“Kill them! Kill the humans! For the Tamini!” roared the centaur shaman, galloping forward, waving his war-staff over his head.
“Balthazar guide my blade,” Jehanni prayed, closing her eyes and letting the magic flow from her body and into her sword. She charged, and the spell teleported her, crossing the distance between herself and the shaman in a blinding flash of light. The Tamini shaman caught the tip of her blade with his staff, deflecting it from a killing blow, but she followed up smoothly with a shield bash, knocking the shaman aside.
“It ends here, human,” grunted the centaur, throwing earthen daggers at her with a wave of his hand. “Kryta will be ours!”
“Never,” she said, blocking the first two shards. The third hit her in the gut, knocking the wind out of her. Jehanni almost fell to her knees, stumbling, but caught her balance in time to get her shield up. The centaur hammered into it with his staff, roaring wordlessly, trying to overpower her with his sheer size. But Jehanni had held a shield wall against ettins in Queensdale. Some weakling Tamini shaman wasn’t going to trample her. She threw her weight behind her shield, pushing back with all her strength. Blue fire ignited around her, setting the shaman alight in purging flame. “We are Krytans. We will never surrender!”
Her sword struck true, driving deep into the shaman’s gut. He shuddered, his hooves flailing helplessly, before sliding off her blade and onto the dirt. Around her, the Seraph rallied. Though he limped on a bad leg, Longfellow Luke still lifted his horn to his lips and blew a victorious cry.
The horn-call died on the second blast when an arrow cut Luke’s breath short, wicked barbed point sticking him in the back. Jehanni caught him as he fell, Jeb pointing his sword at another group of centaurs forming on the ridge ahead. “By the Six Gods!”
Luke shook, blood bubbling to his lips, and Jehanni hummed a prayer to Dwayna while she channeled soothing magic into him. It wouldn’t be enough to save him, but at least it would spare him the pain.
“What now, Lieutenant?” Feng asked, his helm spattered with blood.
“We meet Grenth,” Jehanni said grimly, rising to her feet. “It’s been an honor to fight beside you all.”
As they turned to face their doom, Jehanni prayed her father would look kindly upon her. She’d done her best, she’d done her duty. Then, horn-calls sounded in the distance, of a sort Jehanni did not recognize. It was not centaur, it was not Seraph. The boom of black powder erupted from the far ridge and the ground beneath the gathering centaurs exploded. Bits of blasted Tamini rained down on the Seraph as even more cannonballs rained down on the centaur positions.
“What is that? Charr weapons?” Sara asked, searching through the smoke. Jehanni’s muscles, sore as they were, tensed, ready. What were the charr doing out here? She saw the armored shapes charging down the hill, a black banner with an ivory insignia flapping in the wind. There were indeed charr, but norn also, and even some humans. They smashed into the scattered centaur positions, shattering the already fragmented warbands.
Jehanni and her squad, exhausted and many of them wounded, could only watch as these new soldiers efficiently and effectively took apart the centaur forces like a tinker with his toys. It all ended in a matter of minutes, the last of the Tamini fleeing for the far hills. A norn, his armor dented and scratched, strode up to the Seraph, struggling with the buckles of his helmet. When he finally got it off, he looked down at them with a bright, friendly smile.
“Bear’s blood! You all look like you’ve been to the Mists and back,” the norn said, offering Jehanni a hand. “Crusader Geirmund at your service, lieutenant.”
To be continued.