A symphony of clangs echoes along the walls as it carries itself through the cave’s multitude of tunnels. Its source is a pair of clashing armoured warriors. Garbed in burnished bronze and wielding the finest blades forged by human artificers, there was nought to differentiate the two, not even their skill at arms.
Champions of their respective nations, any imperfections had been beaten and tempered from them after two decades of war. They were at the height of human perfection and across the vast realms of humankind, there would be found no equals. Only those of divine birth would be their betters.
Thrust, swish, clang, slash, the hectic sounds of battle continue, with neither side weakening nor relenting. Both had been blessed by a plethora of Gods, each with a different stake in the war. Such fickle patrons would never allow their champions to parley, to surrender, to live and die peacefully.
Since the moment their respective fathers had allowed them to playfully swing a wooden sword, they had been chosen and destined to be enemies. And now that long foreshadowed moment had come to pass.
Snap. The sound of spear shafts shattering concludes the first act as both combatants fall to their knees, their chests heaving as they gasp for breath. No words are spoken, nor are they needed, for both had come to respect the other. In another, more peaceful age, they could have been friends or at least friendly rivals.
But despite the far-reaching consequences of the battle, there was but one mortal witness, all others having been slain or banished. In the corner, far from the reach of a careless thrust or swing was a young woman, garbed in noble attire.
Though their facial features were hidden by a silk shawl with floral designs, it did little to conceal their obvious nymph-like beauty. But it would have been clear to even a casual observer that they were not here willingly, for they were gagged and their hands and feet bound by thick rope.
Clang, the drum-like drone of shields bashing against each other announces the end of the second act, the two sweat-drenched actors staggering back from each other, with their toned limbs near lifeless after an uncountable barrage of blows.
Instinctively sensing that the end was near, the warriors raise their swords and stand straight whilst wetting their now dry lips.
Roaring the names of their patron deities, the champions surge forward, emptying what little reserves they had remaining, seeking to end the fight with a single strike.
But they had unknowingly called to the same God, who had equally blessed them both and was satisfied by either result. As their swords clash in the middle, one bends and warps before shattering, having weakened first despite the care it had been shown by its wielder.
A surprised gasp escapes the lips of one as they watch the shards of bronze scatter in front of them, but it does not last long. Carried by the momentum of the swing, the still whole blade soon finds itself embedded in their chest.
Falling into each other’s embrace, the two champions, one with a plume of white feathers, and the other with black, stare into each other’s eyes with an anxious smile on both of their lips. The wait soon ends when one falls to the ground, a look of satisfaction etched onto their face.
Now alone, the victor stands silent, the only movement coming from their eyes as they continue to linger on the fallen. Kneeling, they reach for coins contained within the slain’s garments, which they place atop their now closed eyes and whisper a prayer.
Having performed the victor’s duty, they wrench free their weapon, turn and stagger towards the still bound observer. With a pair of deft swings, they cut them loose before staggering back and sliding down the damp cave wall.
Unclasping the straps, they throw aside their black plumed helmet, exposing their sweat-drenched face and hair to the cold air. Weary, they turn their bright blue eyes to the woman sitting next to them and wait.
And they continue to wait as the woman does not move, nor speak, instead remaining silent, staring almost aimlessly at the far cave wall. The warrior reaches out, but the movement causes a gut-wrenching pain to form in their side and they begin to cough. A layer of red forms on their fingers as they taste copper.
Fearfully, they look down and notice, finally, the remnants of their foe’s sword which had pierced their side. They had lived their life by the sword and knew the grievous nature of the wound. Choosing not to waste time on pointless treatments, they decide to ask the woman the only question that truly mattered.
“Lady Oracle, tell me, did we win?”
As if roused from a dream, the woman turns and reaches out, touching the warrior’s face. The warrior finds their warm touch soothing. Pulling back their veil, the woman allows the warrior to look upon their face for the first time. Mesmerised, the warrior stares into the woman’s almost glowing green eyes.
As the cryptic whisper leaves the woman’s lips, an earth-shattering roar is heard in the distance, followed by a series of tremors. As shards of rock and thick slabs fall from the roof and walls of the cave, the warrior pushes the woman into a hollow. Raising their shield above their head, they shelter the woman from the debris, whilst knowing this would be their final act.
As more and more rocks fall around them, the warrior’s vision grows dark, but before it claims them, they hear a final whisper.
“But we will.”
Despite the season, a cold shiver runs down the length of my spine, whilst the hairs on the back of my hand stand on end. The sudden, unexpected jolt causes my eyes to flicker warily in every direction as I search for the source of my fear.
It was an emotion I had grown to know well due to the various attempts on my life. Though my eyes reveal nothing obvious, I trust my instincts and continue to search. Soon, my gaze centres on the nearby undergrowth.
Spying something silver buried beneath the mound of leaves, I reach for the sword on my waist. With trembling limbs, I silently draw the sword and hold it outstretched in both hands.
The creature or thing suddenly growls, the guttural sound being followed by the opening of a single eye which stares into both of mine. In response, my fingers turn a deathly white as I tighten my grip and point the suddenly child-like blade in its direction.
Slowly, a bear-sized creature stands and shakes off the leaves and branches which had formed its blanket. As I become caught in its aura of fear-inducing splendour, the breath leaves my body and I find myself unable to do anything more than pray.
Though wolf-like in appearance, it possessed none of the loveable traits of the animals which were bred in the Palace as pets and hunting companions. Its shaggy and coarse fur contained a mixture of dull greys and black hues and within its now open maw were three rows of serrated teeth, akin to the sharks which swam in the deepest waters.
I watch helplessly as the creature raises its snout and sniffs the air, searching, before its single dull grey eye turns away from me. Hope swirls within me as I realise the creature is blind. The feeling soon turns into relief as the creature turns away and walks back into the gloom.
But this relief is quickly shattered as a panicked, desperate gasp escapes my lips as my body suddenly remembers to breathe. The sound is enough to draw the creature’s attention and a fierce howl escapes its lips as it turns back.
As the creature steps closer, the sunlight from above the canopy banishes the darkness which had concealed its true nature, as a second head emerges.
Knowing its identity is enough to cause a stream of sweat to drip down my helmeted brow and shattered the fear which had paralysed my body. Almost pleadingly, I will my legs to move.
My breathing grows increasingly shallow with every step that I take backwards and growl that I hear emanating from the creature’s throat. Panic was on the verge of overwhelming my thoughts. I wanted to run, but I knew that my fear encumbered limbs would be quickly outmatched by the great strides of the beast. My only chance was reaching the campsite.
Why did I have to go so far?
I chastise myself for the foolish decision which had led me to the depths of the forest, all to avoid the embarrassing gazes of the men in my party.
But any further thoughts are interrupted by the whistling of a pair of arrows that burst from the undergrowth and embed themselves in the snout of the beast.
A figure dressed in dull bronze armour bursts from the treeline, their breathing haggard as they call my name whilst grabbing my shoulder and throwing me backwards.
With near-effortless movements, they parry the downward sweep of the Khaos spawn’s claw and thrust upwards with the flaming torch held in their hand into the beast’s lupine snout.
As the smell of sizzling meat permeates the air, the creature howls a high pitched yelp and lurches backwards.
“Stay behind me.”
Tears of relief form within my eyes as I recognise my saviour’s voice and armour.
Placing themselves a few steps in front, they guard me with their shield and body as the beast delivers another series of blows. As deep gouges are dug into the shield’s metallic face, the warrior strikes out with their shield and torch, each thrust aimed at the spawn’s twin faces.
Unable to assist for fear of becoming a liability, I instead linger in the background and pray. But any hopes that the beast would flee, due to the numerous cuts and burns forming on its skin, are dashed when one of its jaws snatches the flaming torch from my guardian’s hand.
With their torch lost, the warrior switches to their spear, jabbing and lunging with its iron tip. But the weapon does not incite the same fear into the beast and I can only watch as they are slowly overwhelmed by the spawn’s ferocity.
As we are forced slowly backwards, I gather the remnants of magic which lingers in the aether. But my action draws the beast’s attention. Fixing its gaze on me, it ignores the spear thrusts which shallowly pierce its skin, and instead braces its legs and prepares to leap.
Sensing the threat, the warrior turns towards me and shouts a warning whilst thrusting down with their spear.
Their shout is drowned out by the painful screech of the spawn as its paw is pinned to the ground. But placing all their weight and effort into grounding the beast leaves them vulnerable to its remaining thrashing limbs. I watch in horror as a heavy strike shatters their bronze shield and sends them crashing into a nearby tree.
I barely stop myself from rushing forward as I cry out their name, hoping for a response. Thankfully, my worst fears are not realised as I hear a series of groans from the mass of broken timber.
Slowly he stands, but his once-proud frame is now feeble in appearance due to his bloodied limbs and broken armour. Turning towards the advancing spawn, he casts aside the splintered remnants of his spear and draws his sword.
Barking his instructions whilst wheezing in pain, Belen hefts the remnants of his shattered shield and points his curved iron blade at the beast’s opening maw.
“As long as I breathe, you shall not pass.”
Though his words are barely a whisper, I hear them. Turning, I close my eyes and fight back the growing dampness that wells within them.
“Thank you, Belen.”
With those final words of thanks, I sheath my sword and run.
I ignore the growing dampness of my eyes, just as I ignore the slapping branches and nettles which prickle against my skin, instead, I concentrate only on running. Soon the sounds of battle desert me and I hear nothing more than my footsteps.
After a while, my weak body, unused to such levels of exertion, forces me to stop. Leaning against a tree, I empty the contents of my stomach before washing away the bitter aftertaste with a mouthful of water. Though my stomach is now empty, the feeling of nausea grows within its depths.
As I take another mouthful of water, I allow my eyes and ears to roam and I find the forest to be eerily silent.
Where are the birds?
Never had I known a forest to be so silent, with little to no signs of life. As the anxiety within me grows, I call out for the only person I wanted to see, the only person I trusted to save me from this feeling of helplessness.
I call for the Captain, screaming his name again and again, but there is no response. I knew it was too much to hope that he was searching close to where Belen had found me. Taking a final swig of water from my now half-empty flask, I begin to draw the minute amounts of magic which linger in the air towards me. As the aetheric wind grows in strength, I channel the magic into my limbs and will them to move.
My once tired and encumbered legs are suddenly refreshed and I find the strength to run. With every step, my view of the forest changes and soon I find a familiar path. Knowing the campsite was near, a feeling of hope swells within my bosom as I think of a single thought.
I can still save him
But as I part my lips and prepare to call out the Captain’s name, they are suddenly smothered from behind. As another arm wraps itself around my waist and lifts me off the ground, I panic and fight back, biting and kicking at my unknown assailant.
“It is I. Calm yourself.”
Though their tone is harsh, and their uttered words sound like an angry growl, to me at that moment, they had the sweetest voice. My barely stifled tears burst from my eyes as I turn and wrap my arms around the Captain.
“Are you safe?
Are you uninjured?”
I answer the Captain’s question with simple responses, but when he asks about Belen, I find myself unable to answer.
“Did Belen find you?”
As if sensing my shame and hesitation, he repeats the question. Biting my lips, I look down as I answer him truthfully.
“He found and saved me from a Khaos spawn. Please, there is still time…”
The Captain stops me mid-speech and places his arm behind my back and carries me with both of his arms. He does not give me an explanation before he starts running in the direction of the campsite.
“Wait, Belen, he is still fighting. We can still help…”
The Captain’s forceful reprimand causes me to shudder, never had he shouted at me in such a manner. But I could see in his eyes that it was not anger which had caused him to rebuke me, but something else.
“Where there is one, there is often more. We must leave now, or his sacrifice will be in vain.”
I could sense his deep-rooted sadness and regret, and I admonish myself for the naïve request. I already knew there was nothing we could do, no mortal could fight such beasts alone and survive.
“But where shall we go, only Belen knew the way?”
The Captain does not answer my question, instead, his eyes continue to stare ahead as he concentrates on running.
It does not take long for the Captain to reach the campsite, at its centre a crackling fire and untouched bowls of food.
“Go and prepare the horses, take only what we need.”
Placing me carefully on the ground, the Captain gives me an instruction before tearing strips of fabric. Wrapping them around lengths of unused firewood, he dunks them in oil and sets them alight.
As he plants them into the ground, in a semi-circle facing the direction we had travelled from, I ask him the unanswered question once more.
“Lykon, where shall we go?”
The Captain does not turn to face me, instead planting spears which were too unwieldy for us to carry into the ground next to the burning torches.
“We go to the Oracle. Belen believed that he would not see the end of this journey and had prepared a map.”
Those grim words, as if Belen had predicted his future causes me to doubt my resolve. But as my thoughts begin to spiral downwards, I feel a heavy hand rest on my shoulder. I look up into the Captain’s downward gaze.
“He, like us all, knew his duty. If he was not willing, he would not have come. He believed in your vision, he believed the Oracle was calling for you.”
Those heartfelt words settle my restless heart and I answer his kindness with a simple nod.
“We must leave now.”
The Captain guides me to my horse and helps me onto its back. Wrapping the woollen cloak tight to my body, I look at the campsite one final time and remember the man who had risked everything for me.
“I will not fail, I promise this in my father’s name.”
Making a vow to no one but myself, I ride north, following the Captain as he guides me deeper into the forest.