“Shit.” Skarch muttered. Her support squad shifted around her uncomfortably with their eyes on the ground. She could feel the tension in their shoulders, and see how the tips of their spears quivered as they gripped the shafts too tightly. “This is a trap.”
Immediately, Skarch brought up the Party chat with her three allies. Although Silo hadn’t responded since the attack on South point Beach four weeks ago, his continued presence meant he was alive somewhere. So Skarch didn’t mind including him, in case he came to their aid.
Bit off more than I can chew,
Skarch put into chat. Then she did her best to approximate her location by triangulating the surrounding terrain and putting that out there.
Azriel responded almost immediately. She always was the first to speak. Skarch knew that it was because the young woman was driven to be the best, and she was constantly next to the monster that was Randidly Ghosthound. Undoubtedly Azriel had improved the most, and the fastest out of all of them when it came to spear use and images due to the pressure she felt.
But Skarch didn’t doubt she would get herself in over her head at some point, in an effort to surpass the Legend of Randidly Ghosthound.
Stroking her spear, Skarch sighed. Which was why it was so aggravating for her squad to be the one that was about to be crushed between two Wight forces.
Four thousand. But all of them are Zeitgard.
The forces that had been defending the Southern countryside of the Central Domain had made repeated requests to Hastam, the Central Domain capital, that additional aid sent. More and more of the landscape they were forced to concede in the face of larger and larger numbers. Other troops were shifted to assist Captain Platton and his ilk, but not on the scale that they needed to stop the advance.
The Zeitgard were a relatively new addition to the landscape of battlefields. And Skarch believed that they were a direct response to the presence of herself, Azriel, and Randidly. So far, they had run wild on the enemy. But more and more often the elite units were deployed to corral them. It was truly a matter of speed; the lower level of Wights could not even throw an attack that had a hope of landing on the three of them unless they were immobilized.
The Zeitgard still could, and their bodies were tough enough to slow them down.
I’ll be there in thirty-seven minutes. Solo, my squad won’t be able to keep up.
Skarch frowned at Azriel’s reply. Alone, Azriel would be useful, but…
Skarch’s squad of forty were crouching at the side of the river that marked the dividing line between the poverty-ridden South of the Central Domain and the truly affluent. On the South Bank, where Skarch was standing, it was farmland as far South as the eye could see. Or at least, it had been.
Now there was smoke, fire, and the ichor of dead Wights everywhere.
Skarch’s squad had received word that a large army had finally worked up the balls to cross the Hallat River and strike North. Although the assault unnerved many, Captain Platton and his peers were at least pleased that such an assault would finally affect Hastam’s bottom line and provoke a response. Thinking quickly, Skarch had moved West and South to the southern bank of the Hallat. When the Wights were pressed backward, Skarch would be waiting.
But the Wights never attacked inland. There had been no pushback by the Styles of the Central Domain. Therefore, Skarch had waited on the Southern Bank for two days and nothing to show for it. Except now another army, primarily of Zeitgard, was marching up from the deep South. Therefore, Skarch could not flee across the river, and running along it would just lead them to hit one of the main columns.
They were stuck.
After a tense three minutes, another message popped up in the chat.
I’ll need an hour. Should arrive with full Mana.
Skarch pressed her eyes closed. Randidly’s arrival would be… too late. But she didn’t say that. Instead, she stood and went up to each of her forty soldiers in turn, encouraging them, asking if they had Letters of Vestiment to pass their belongings onto their chosen next of kin. In their eyes, Skarch could see some of the fire that had grown these past few weeks dwindle to nothing.
Mechanically, they began finishing their meal and breaking camp. Everyone knew that this war spelled almost certain death for them. They were foot soldiers. But also, there was an infinitesimally small chance to grasp something great and be a hero. To those second sons of small Styles, such a possibility was too tempting to resist.
“Polish your spears,” Skarch said to her morose crew. They gathered around her in a loose circle as they stood near a copse of trees by the river’s edge. “True, it is not commonly done here in the Spearman School… but I’ll simply say this. None of you would have managed to make it this far without your spear. Consider it a good luck charm. And we will need it.”
After a brief hesitation, the entire squad joined her. With great care, Skarch took twelve minutes to show these people the finer points of spear care. It was peaceful, and in that calmness, Skarch focused only on her spear. On the gleam of the blade, on the weight of the shaft, on the scrawling Engravings that covered the weapon.
Each generation in her family would save their entire life to add even a single embellishment to the spear. So it was in the Spear School. In recent generations, her family had accomplished much to strengthen the spear. But her grandfather was overzealous and added too many conflicting Engravings.
Some of the treasures on the spear still activated, but only intermittently. And the more powerful Engravings…
Skarch sighed. This was why she had been so desperate as to join the tournament. A victory here might earn enough valuables to let her repair the family spear. But to die here…
Smiling, Skarch looked to the sky. To die here was no dishonor. Skarch just hoped that her fellow tournamentees would understand the Spear School well enough to gather her spear for her family.
“We run West,” Skarch announced as the noise of the Zeitgard column’s approach became too much to ignore. The squad raised their heads and looked at her.
“…the West is away from our allies.” One thin man said slowly.
Skarch didn’t reply. She didn’t have to. The thin man lowered his gaze and sighed.
They began trotting West and made good time. But within another ten minutes, the Zeitgard had arrived. They were forced to exhaust themselves to catch up, but the weight of numbers meant that there were few opportunities for an average spear user to take advantage of their opponent’s weariness.
Luckily, Skarch was not an average spear user. When she dropped to the back of her group, her spear cut large holes into the Zeitgard lines. The Engraving that lent her power dutifully lit up again and again as she stabbed at the pursuing Zeitgard.
But time and again she would move to help one of her squad members disengage, and at that point, the Wights would launch attacks with ghostly claws and Psychic Poison. She couldn’t be everywhere at once, and one by one her squad was dying.
Some were hit by Psychic Poison and simply collapsed, frothing at the mouth. Skarch preferred those. Although they were surely dead, their deaths were quick and quiet. It was much more disheartening when a warrior withstood the first batch of Psychic Poison only to collapse screaming when they were hit with another.
Skarch couldn’t tell if it was purposeful, but the Wights left these screamers alive, so her squad had to endure the jarring noise of agony as they ran away.
Wights would use small distractions to leap out from behind trees as smaller patrols managed to get ahead of Skarch and her group. Skarch was even struck with a Psychic Poison herself on a particularly rough ambush. Ignoring the dull headache, she smashed three Wights backward. The sound of their bodies breaking and snapping brought her no comfort because she watched a Spectral Claw rip out her subordinates innards.
It was at that moment, almost exactly thirty-seven minutes later, that Azriel arrived like a crimson comet.