"Bromm's right. You don't have much time." Silah whispered.
Cryptic. Can you tell me what's going on? I thought, frustrated and already feeling the weight of the task ahead.
"There is a protector of the formless moving our way through the Ethereal at the speed of thought." She said almost absently.
What in the hell does that mean? My face twisted into a scowl with the thought.
There was a pause.
"That … you don't have much time?" Silah asserted again.
How do you even know this? I seethed quietly.
"See." Her slightly annoyed voice rolled over the darkness in my mind, "Far too much to explain. We'll talk about this later. Now is not the time."
I shook my head. In mere moments, I had been put aside and told to be still by my most intimate ally. The thought boiled inside of me, but my grumbling generated no response from her. My limbs ached from the previous combat and I felt weary. This slight, and the uncertainty that came with it, etched that weariness even deeper.
The others drew close as Floki and Sig whispered to each other, discussing plans silently. I could feel myself being pulled in different directions, the situation was coming apart at the seams, and I was helpless to do anything about it.
"I could still use the horn to make a wall of fog." I said, absently fingering the horn slung around my neck.
"It would be a good idea if it weren't loud." Sig said, shaking his head. "It'll alert them immediately."
"Perhaps? Alert yes, but who runs toward a sound like that?"
Sig scowled and I shook my head.
"I'm ready and willing to act on any plan that sounds reasonable. Just, please, someone make a decision. We don't have much time." I sighed with the words. "Silah said that we have a visitor if we wait much longer. Traveling at the speed of thought through the Ethereal Plane, to use her words."
This brought about a few concerned glances between Sig, Bromm, and Danin. Floki's eyes were more despairing than I'd ever seen them.
I looked around and saw that Tagaern had not joined the group. He had taken a few steps toward the cave opening, staring toward the tree. The others still clustered together discussing plans, but I was now focused on him, feeling concern. His absent wandering seemed to be drawing him on to the cave opening.
"With my own eyes..." Tagaern said with a quiet reverence and his voice trailed off.
His eyes glistened and his breath quavered.
"What was that Tagaern?" I said, approaching with a tentative hand, ready to grasp him to keep him from moving further.
He laughed a quiet, hoarse laugh and turned toward me.
"The voice of Qinnah filled my ears. She spoke to me. The Seven Shield Maidens stand guard for us." His voice choked slightly then began to rise and I quickly put a silencing hand to my lips to remind him of the direness of our situation.
He quieted, smiling wide and nodding. A single tear pressed from his eye and ran down his cheek. Joy seemed to fill him. I was sure that the stress of the situation had finally pushed him too far.
"What is it that you saw?" Bromm asked him with a whisper.
"The Seven Shield Maidens of Qinnah stand to protect us." Tagaern spoke with a resolute sureness, the smile still wide, "Qinnah, herself, spoke to me. To me. The first seven arrows are her's to bear."
"You are sure of this?" Bromm looked at him with concern.
"My boy, I have seen them. As clear and plain as you before me now." He said with a firm nod.
Tagaern rubbed at his face, wiping the moisture from his eyes. His face beamed with confidence.
"I'll go first. Then you'll know. Let me know when you are ready." Tagaern said moving to a crouched position a few steps back from the mouth of the cave.
My heart sunk as I saw the empty expanse between us and the tree. Who knew how many hid in those caves, waiting for us to show them something they could sink an arrow into? I clenched my teeth, waiting quietly. I wondered if Silah would attempt to speak sense into what was to happen next, but no words came.
"Silah could walk ahead of us, right?" Floki said, watching Tagaern getting ready to bolt at a word. "She's practically invincible, isn't she? The arrows wouldn't hurt her."
There you are, listening after all. I mused quietly.
She had immediately bristled with the suggestion, I could feel her glaring from behind my eyes, sizing up Floki and sending my muscles fluttering as she pressed her will against mine. I shuddered, shaking off the experience, attempting to contain her.
I thought about Floki's words again. It would be a way for me to press against the prohibitive blackness that had been drawn up between us and get a reaction out of here, but I knew it was far too much, especially if down spitefully.
"I am not even going to attempt to convey that suggestion." I said frankly and Floki looked bemused at my response.
I glanced at his wolf protector. While Silah was much more resilient than the animal, it wouldn't grind me into the dirt later because of the suggestion. If I survived. There are some things that death would be more acceptable than enduring. Silah's wrath was one of those things.
"You know me well." She whispered eerily close, her presence overwhelming.
I closed my eyes against her words. I felt what Floki wanted, but now was a time to be selfish.
For my own sanity.
Bromm moved behind the readied Tagaern and turned back, looking at Floki.
"Floki, I'm going to go through the grass again. The less targets the better. Are you with me?"
Floki shook his head.
"I'm not leaving Tenner behind. We'll move with the rest of the group." Floki had slung his bow and was crouched near his wolf.
Bromm managed a curt nod before crouching and sliding into the tall grasses on his belly. We all looked on in silence as he made his way up. It was only moments in that I had lost sight of him. I crouched next to the resolute Tagaern.
"I'll run with you. Let's make this count." I said to him.
"That's my boy." He said with a calm gaze and confident grin.
I smiled slightly at his penchant for calling me boy. Duncan called me boy, too. His memory had been distant and the remembering of what had befallen him stung as I relived putting his headless form into the ground.
Rest well, Duncan. I thought.
Sig moved in close behind us.
"Tagaern, if you're wrong about this godly protection, I will find you." He whispered partially in jest yet the heat in his voice was apparent.
There was a nod from Tagaern acknowledging Sig's words, but his gaze remained fixed on the Ether Tree ahead.
He ran—no, swooped—through the cave opening ahead. He was on the wind, flying gracefully toward the tree at full speed. An arrow shot from the side of the cave and vanished before it struck.
By the gods… I thought in amazement. Seeing Tagaern's miracle emboldened me.
"That was one, lad." Tagaern said with a fierce gaze, "Now it's my turn."
He bolted toward the tree, arrows lanced from the hidden edges of the cave, but the arrows either clattered off his armor or vanished just before impact. I sped behind him, seeing him struggle over the branches that lined the roots. I moved quickly behind him and shoved him toward the tree, watching him vanish into the trunk. Sudden panic gripped me as I thought of what lie beyond.
"There is no time to hesitate, my beast. Don't let your superstitions sway you." Her voiced rolled over me as I began to backpedal. It was not a whisper but an overwhelming flood that saturated every corner of my being.
It was then that I realized that there was no longer any place for me to hide.
Danin sped across the ground, arrows clinking off of his armor. One arrow that would have struck flesh disappeared in midair. He easily overcame the roots and the climb to the Ether Tree itself. He attempted to push me into the tree, but even as robust as he seemed, he failed to send me through.
Just then, I saw a light lance from the darkness of the caves on the gentle rise that looked down on the tree. It narrowly missed Danin and made his eyes wide as he looked for the source.
Floki had been creeping through the grass as we ran, drawing fire away from him. His wolf, however, was discovered and the arrows launched at it disappeared. He stood quickly and ran the rest of the way to the tree.
"They're starting to converge on our position. We need to move!" Floki said, moving up the steep base of the tree and dancing over the roots.
I finally pressed through my uncertainty. Closing my eyes, I stepped into the tree that had swallowed the others.
The inside was a strangely oppressive gloom that defeated my own eyes, glowing symbols appeared at eye level in regular intervals in a circle around us, lighting those who stood in the tree, but the walls and floor seemed to absorb all light. The symbols seemed to shift and swim against the darkness they were painted on. Bile rose in my throat with my sudden feeling of displacement.
I looked at the others who were so very concerned about what was following behind us that they weren't aware of what we had stepped into. I shuddered, skin bristling with goosebumps against the moist air that surrounded me. There was a rhythmic sound as the Ether Tree seemed to draw breath.
Danin pressed in behind me followed shortly by Tenner and Floki. Tagaern was holding his sword at the ready for the orcs that were starting to close in. Bromm had dropped a powder keg and trimmed the wick with his thumb.
"Three horizontal slashes. That's where we need to go." Bromm spoke, pointing toward the symbol.
Danin acknowledged with a nod, already pressing through the symbol into the blackness.
"I will move through once this is lit." Bromm said quickly.
"Leave it to me." Sig said to him, "Go on through. I'll be right behind you."
"They aren't coming. We could save the powder." Tagaern said.
"It doesn't matter." Bromm shook his head, "This is our insurance that they won't follow."
I formed up on Tagaern's flank, waiting while the others moved through the symbol with three slashes and disappeared into the darkness beyond.
"Move, you louts!" Sig shouted, looking to Tagaern and I.
I grimaced, squinting, as I rushed toward the symbol and burst through into world immersed in night. The others looked around openly and unguarded.
The Bulwark stretched in all directions from here. The ascent was obscured by the branches of the Ether Tree itself. It was a treacherous muddy bowl and we had appeared at the bottom of it. Floki and Bromm pointed up toward a shape moving in the distance, silhouetted by the starlight.
Sig burst from the tree, bracing against the shock that he expected, but no sound came from the tree. He looked at Bromm and shook his head.
We took a brief moment to inspect the surroundings. Sig moved up to Danin.
"You should take the banner and plant it. I can make you invisible." He said with a voice just barely above a hush.
I moved a little closer, seeing the shapes moving at the top of the incline. I was looking to time my approach while the giant's back was turned, but another shape was looking down on us with glowing eyes. My skin bristled as it took notice. Fear gripped me and I began to shake.
The shape sped down the slope and every thought slipped away, chased away by fear. I choked, feeling my breath caught in my throat and my chest seize. I had to flee.
"Oh, Hakaar." Silah's voice penetrated the panic, "Forgive me."
Just as I thought to bolt, to get away from this horror, I felt Silah slip through my body, into my legs and taking control of my hands. I thrashed against her helplessly, wanting desperately to get away, but completely unable to. I cried out bitterly, but could not hear my own voice. I turned and faced the giant's shadow that loomed, now fully aware of us, and began to run at full speed.
She was in control and I could do nothing to stop it.
I saw Floki shoot off into the darkness and Tagaern moved to engage the hideous four-legged beast. The sight of it shook me to the core. I heard him shout as he clashed with the creature, a thud, and a sizzle of a failed shot followed by cursing from Bromm.
Silah was intent, and all else disappeared from my vision as she stormed up the hill. I could hear the sounds of continued battle behind me, but it all faded as she pressed forward.
The giant brought a rock to bear and it sped merrily toward me, breaking over my body, crushing ribs in the process. I wheezed, feeling the pain readily, but distantly.
This is how I die. This is how I die.
The thought repeated as Silah swung herself heavily down on the giant, creating great gashes in the towering form. It landed a blow against me, but she stood strong against it. The waves of pain with each blow flowed over me. There was a rush as Silah emptied her reserved energies into me, sealing up the bloody gouts that had been struck open.
Her focus was front and I was blind to all else, seeing nothing more than the great swings of the giant ahead of me as we exchanged blow after blow. Another large shape joined the giant from behind and I saw the glint of Danin's axe swing at the back of the giant.
I was bloodied and failing, I felt the panicking fear suddenly relent, releasing its grip on me. Silah's grip faded, too, as she yielded control of my body back to me.
"I am sorry, my beast." There was genuine sadness with her echoing words, "It was what I had to do."
I watching the towering giant ready for one more strike. I moved forward, lunging deeply into the guts of the towering being, sending another spray of ichor earthward. The ground was slick and hot with fresh blood from the exchange. I felt my strength ebbing. I growled at the blade that swung into me.
My rage was slipping and my wounds were too severe for me to last. I knew my time had come when a sudden darkness enveloped me as the next blow struck.
I laid on my back, facing the glaring sun on the plains of Southern Pallidorn. The wind whispered through the tall grasses that crowded my vision, swaying gently to and fro. I laid quietly, feeling the peaceful scene soak in.
A thick black smoke rose and began to blot out the sun. Memory took hold and I knew what was to come. I pressed my will against the sudden curiosity that grew inside, wanting to explore and discover the source of the smoke. I raised my hands and looked on them. They were a child's hands.
I begged my boyish self to stay quiet. To hide from the horrors and destruction that I knew lay just out of sight.
"Don't. Lay quietly. It's not for you to see." I spoke against tightened eyelids, "It's mine to bear. You shouldn't have to see it. Keep yourself."
I could no longer control the form. I felt myself sit up, eyes snapping wide, listening to the sounds of battle rising above the hissing grasses and the fields of fire that stretched on before me. I felt the childlike fear grip me at the scene. Then a woman appeared her glowing eyes contrasting against her short dark hair. Shimmering as she moved toward me through the fields.
"Hakaar. There is no time. You need to will me to fight."
Her voice strummed vibrantly in my head as I looked at her in the distance. She was a beautiful angel, a being of light. Her earnest face shone in the sun as she approached and looked down on me.
"Will you remember me?" I asked her, hearing my child's voice speaking to her.
"Survive and then we can talk about it." She said with a slight smile and she reached her hand toward me.
My head hurt. No. All of me hurt. Every part of me ached as I opened my eyes to the starlit sky. The bitter tang of healing tincture was running from my lips as Silah stooped next to me, putting another vial in my hand.
"Ask me to fight for you." Silah said fervently, her face framed with the short cropped dark hair and her faintly luminescent golden eyes wide and penetrating in the gloom.
"But I would never ask you ... " I said weakly, feeling my strength returning by degrees.
"Do it!" She said forcefully.
"Silah, fight for me." I felt shame as I said the words.
Her countenance changed as she immediately formed into the greatsword blade. She levitated in front of the giant and danced wildly in the air, landing blow after blow. The giant clutched at its back with its free hand as she lanced deeply, sending the remaining blood gushing around my feet. It's head lolled back as it succumbed to its wounds and crashed to the ground.
I was now fully aware of where I was, hearing the urgent voices from the others ringing through the battlefield.
"The other giant is asleep, we need to slay it before it wakes!" Sig's voice rang out.
There's another giant? I mused quietly.
I sat up, drinking the potted liquid that Silah had placed in my hand, then moved to stand. I took hold of the blade that hovered in front of me and felt Silah's warmth press in on me, there was an intense shared joy and I smiled with the feeling.
Immediately, the feeling ebbed, obscuring the woman I had grown to love. In my mind I reached for her, but that seemed to drive her further away. My heart ached as I held the dripping blade limply in my hand.
Danin had stood at the foot of the giant, looking no worse for wear, easily sidestepping the massive being as it had fallen to the dirt.
"He saved you. He rushed to your aid when you were slipping." Silah spoke through our connection quietly, sounding ashamed as emotion crept into her voice. "I thought I had lost you."
This is torture. What you are doing to me is torture. I felt my sadness eddying around the pain my wounds.
"Thank you, brother." I moved to him, but his countenance remained grim.
"That giant." He nodded down at the massive bloodied body, "He's wearing Duncan's head."
I saw the rope woven through the eye sockets of several skulls, including Harney, Danja, and Duncan. I simmered in my rage for a moment.
"Help me pull him in. The banner must be placed, but hell if I'll let our friends' heads be lost behind that barrier." I said to Danin, who nodded and moved quickly to help.
Tagaern moved toward the head of a female giant that laid facing Floki and Tenner. He pulled his Duncan's own blade, Asuuk, and struck the neck of the giantess. She jolted awake momentarily as blood burst from the wound. She twitched into silence as the gushing flow ebbed to a drizzle. Many arrows were sunk deep into the giantess, telling that her time was short lived before Sig had sent her to the ground.
A blonde man was lying half in-half out of the ring of banners. He was heavily bloodied and very much human. I shrugged in disbelief as the others tended to him. Floki reacted differently than the others, a mixture of both joy and disdain crossed his face as he looked down on him before pulling him to safety.
From where I stood now at the edge of the Bulwark, I looked down and saw the giant's village that lay beyond, just down the rise that lead to where we stood. There was a large expanse of plains beyond that with hills dotting the distance. There was little activity stirring down at the camp below.
We had struck fast and struck deep before further alarm was given.
They've lost their chance to take over our world. I thought, gritting my teeth.
"They will have more chances. They live for a very long time and they will remember." I could feel her words roll around in my skull, "I should know."
Wait. What? I thought, bewildered and angry.
"Another time, Hakaar. We still have that visitor to contend with if we don't make haste. Perhaps, a gentle reminder for the others is in order?"
I grimaced at her instruction. Hanging her on a wall so I could think in peace was at the forefront of my mind.
After the way was cleared, Danin placed the banner of Kols in its place. Immediately, a gray wall of mist sprung from the base of the banners and formed into a dome over us. I tested the gray barrier, rapping it with a knuckle and nodding at it's soundless solidity.
The Bulwark was restored.
(Get to know Akeron.)