The dark forest hides me well from my enemies and allies alike as I ride about on Zabu’s back. The quin has better night vision than I do, but not by much, just enough to keep him from running head on into obstacles. Delay the enemy, that’s the plan. I know there are other Sentinels about, and the sounds of intermittent combat ring out now and then in short bursts of loud clashing. Zabu tenses up, and I immediately know he is readying himself to lunge, my spear moving into position by reflex. The air moves past my face as we surge forwards and my spear impacts on a body, barely visible only by his silhouetted outline.
Night fighting is a chaotic thing, and for a moment I feel lost in the rush of it all, unsure of my next move. A bird call sounds, the signal to fall back, and before I can even direct him, Zabu moves away, the brilliant little quin well-trained, falling back towards the camp. Hit them and fall back, and the enemy will need to be careful with any further movements.
Calming myself as I ride away, I go over the situation in my mind, trying to hold back the surge of anger I feel coming on. I have no idea how many Defiled are out there, but conversely, they shouldn’t know how many Sentinels are here. Shit, I don’t know how many Sentinels are here. Fighting off the coming panic, I try to rationalize with myself. This is not the time to be unrestrained and brash. Strength will not help me just yet, I need to be cunning and clear minded. My anger simmers back down as I win my argument against myself.
Then again, can I really win an argument against myself? Technically, I also lost, so it’s kind of a wash.
My heart pumps furiously from both fear and excitement as we move through the darkness, and I spot a clearing ahead where the moonlight is able to penetrate through the treetops. A second bird call sounds, and I direct Zabu around and past the small clearing before turning him about and having him crouch down between a pair of trees, hiding myself behind their conjoined trunks, the other Sentinels arranged around me. Controlling my breath, I lay close to Zabu, the two of us as small a target as possible, just outside of the clearing, waiting for our prey to approach, my bow in hand.
Tanaraq rides through the clearing, zipping past with no hesitation, and a heartbeat after she disappears into the forest, three Defiled following after her, the moonlight illuminating their fierce frames and massive, reptilian mounts. Smiling to myself, I watch as they crash back into the treeline, only to be met with Sentinel spears which cut them down as soon as they are out of sight, their dying screams like music to my ears. All we need to do is delay, and whoever is leading us has kept that in mind, keeping all of us hidden and out of sight. So long as we are not counted, each of us is worth a dozen Sentinels, spectres to haunt the Defiled as they attempt to push towards the camps.
Remaining as still as possible, I wait and listen, hearing the now timid Defiled stomp around in the forest, displacing leaves and breaking branches, a cacophony in the otherwise silent forest. Soon, they approach the clearing, some carrying shields and moving slowly, others lurking about the edges, ready to support, moving around to encircle us. The snorting of the Garos seem to come from directly beside me, but that is only my imagination. They are at least fifteen… maybe ten? meters away. Barely even daring to breathe, I strain my eyes in the darkness, praying to anyone who will listen that my camouflage cloak works well enough. My instincts scream at me to move, to fight, to run, to do anything besides remain still, but I fight the urges, hiding and quietly soothing Zabu to keep him from making noise.
Step by torturous step, the Defiled move around the clearing, most avoiding the direct light, their frames outlined as they block the light from our sight and I allow myself a small smile. Clever positioning. The sound of a bow being drawn forces me into action, quickly snapping back my bowstring and firing, a heartbeat behind the first shot, a multitude of arrows whirling through the air to pierce Defiled flesh. A second arrow has already left my bow when the call for retreat sounds once again, followed by a few gibberish whistles, keeping our opponents off guard as we move away.
The entire ordeal may have shortened my lifespan, each second of inactivity intense beyond belief, but all it bought us was a minute, perhaps two if the Defiled hesitate to regroup, but from what I’ve seen, it is not likely. There are several Champions in this bunch, the pulsing of their weapons alerting me to their general directions, which was what alerted me to their presence in the first place. With so many Champions, it is likely that this is an elite strike force, looking to catch us off guard and slaughter us in our sleep. The cool, night air invigorates me as we ride, carefully and quietly, doing what we can to keep tabs on the Enemy. I want to ask questions, but I haven’t learned how to Message yet, and no one else is talking, not even a whisper.
The trees grow sparser as we move towards the camp, the moonlight filtering through the canopy to illuminate our way, and for the first time all night, I can see my companions. Two dozen Sentinels, give or take, a mix of veterans and rookies. The lead Sentinel, identified as Dagen by his weapon, moves his hand in a series of signals. Set ambush, delay, two minutes. All of us scatter in different directions, hiding behind trees and rocks, our bows at the ready. The first shot is fired only seconds after I reach my hiding spot, and I pop up to fire, striking a Garo in the flank, which continues to run forward, heedless of the arrows.
At this rate, we won’t even get one minute, the leading Defiled already locking weapons with some of the Sentinels, as chaos breaks out in the forest. The time for cunning is over, now is the time Hulk out. Time to kill these Defiled, to end them before they scatter back into the forest, forcing me to spend the time to hunt them down. Better than they have presented themselves for my sword, to die by my hand. Putting aside my bow, I draw my sword and direct Zabu towards the closest Champion, a headdress-wearing Defiled, carrying two short, hooked blades made from some dark, green mineral. It’s like he just picked up a pair of rocks and sharpened them, fucking primitives. His companions do not give way, and I fight through them, charging towards my target, intent on his death. Smashing one blade aside, I trade blows with my enemy as my mount grapples with his, the four of us locked into close-quarters combat, just where we each prefer to be.
This is my first fight against someone with a shorter weapon than mine, and it’s proving difficult being on the receiving end of some of my favorite tactics. His weapons move in eye-catching patterns, the moonlight glinting off the odd material, creating many odd displays of light. The twinkling soon comes to an end, his blades quickly covered in my blood as we hack and slash at one another, neither of us able to land a killing blow. The fact that he has two weapons means I come out worse on most trades, and his strength is no less than mine.
Our blades continue to cross with no change, and tiring of the stalemate, I bring my sword crashing down the garo’s head, my opponent’s blades sinking into the flesh of my shoulder and side. Zabu bites deep into the Garo’s neck, twisting and bringing the beast down to the ground, the rider going with him. His arms flail for a moment as he struggles to keep his balance, before my sword pierces his chest and gouges a furrow out as I rip the blade out. I have no time to enjoy my victory as more Defiled attack, and I lose myself in a frenzy of rage as Zabu circles away, moving about unrestrained as his instincts guide us through the fray. We move through the trees, stringing pursuers along behind us, drawing them away from each other, the Garos unable to keep up in the terrain. Still hidden Sentinels pick them off as I ride about in a large circuit, reuniting once more with the other close combatants, leaving a trail of dead Defiled behind us.
Say what you will about the lack of military discipline, but the roosequins know how to fight in a pack, we mere humans just need to get out of their way. Patting Zabu on the back, I follow Dagen as we ride back towards camp once again, looking back at our pursuers in the distance. The garos aren’t built for forests, their taloned feet digging in with each step and long strides unable to deal with tight turns. They’re more suitable for combat in open fields, where they would likely be superior to roosequins, but this is our home, and they know nothing of surviving here.
The signal to retreat sounds once more, and Zabu moves before I can stop him. Damn animal, think one good thing about him and then he fucks it all up. We could have killed a few more before leaving if Zabu wasn’t just a mindless animal, taking orders without thinking. Taking stock of my injuries as I ride, I notice that none of my vicious gashes hurt, although they are bleeding quite heavily. Tearing off my ruined armor, I let it fall to the ground behind me, and I begin coating my cuts in styptic powder to stop the bleeding, my head already woozy from the blood loss. Noticing Zabu’s wounds on his neck and shoulders, I daub some on him as well, ignoring his hissing at the sting of the medication. I need him in good condition to be able to keep fighting, and I ride while anticipating the signal to turn and fight, but it never comes. We ride out of the forest and up the small hill to the campsite where the soldiers are alert and rushing about, taking their positions to deal with the oncoming attack. Breaking off from my group, I approach the area where the soldiers are lined up, spears and shields in hand, and I hop off of Zabu, sending him away from the front lines.
I receive a few annoyed looks as I force my way into the line, but it doesn’t matter. My sword in hand, I anxiously await the Defiled, ignoring all else except the battle to come. I’ve been idle too long, and it is good to be free to kill once again.
Vivek Daatei cantered out from the forest with his tribesmen, roaring his anger for all to hear. Their advantage of surprise had been lost, but that mattered little. Although they had been unable to catch any of the sentries, these new soldiers far more stealthy than he had anticipated, he was confident that they would die as easily as the others had. The core of this group was still the same soldiers that he had defeated before, numbering only 4,000 in total, less than they had in the first attack, and today, Vivek had all of his warriors at his side. His intent was to send a message, to have these fools sacrificed to the lands, their corpses left on display to show what would happen to any who came for his people. Tonight would be glorious, full of death and suffering.
He had set his tribesmen to keep watch of the new group, and when he had learned of their choice of camp, he had laughed heartily. The scared little soldiers had boxed themselves in, with water on two sides and mountains on a third, truly idiotic. His tribesmen lined up along the forests edge, the moon and stars twinkling brightly above, giving off more than enough light to fight by. Studying the camp, he noted the flimsy defenses in place, nothing of note. Fences of spears and ditches, the desperate attempts of weaklings to keep themselves safe. Lifting his blade above his head, he drew upon his blood, allowing his ancestors to give him strength, and screamed out the order to charge.
The ground shook as his garo pounded up the hillside towards the massed soldiers, smiling at the slaughter to come, his tribesmen near 10,000 strong, facing a mere 4,000 soldiers. These southerners took him too lightly, and for that, he would leave them plenty of time for regrets as he cooked their flesh and reveled in their screams. Winding through the traps and defenses, his tribesmen made their way up the hill in short order, barely three waves of arrows raining down upon them. Cowards, to fight with bows showed that these new soldiers, atop their curious creatures, were no true warriors.
The instincts of his ancestors screamed at him, his body moving without thought, guiding his garo into a high jump, narrowly avoiding a raised cluster of spears hidden in the grass. He tried to warn his tribesmen, but it was too late, dozens of them impaling themselves upon the trap. Snarling in anger, he continued forward, soon meeting the hated enemy in close quarters. A few tricks would not save them from death, but every warrior Vivek lost, meant his tribe was weakened. Every tribesmen of age was here, and should he lose too many, there would be no rebuilding of his people. No matter, they would win the day, and then prosper through the ages. Now was not the time for worry, it was time for killing. He slaughtered his way through the soldiers, intent on breaking their spirits, to have them arrayed before him on their knees as his people tasted their still living flesh.
An ominous, high-pitched whistling snapped him out of his reverie, and he turned towards the source of the sound. A few thousand soldiers had appeared to the east, riding the same strange beasts as the sentries, their arrows raining down on his tribesmen, killing them in droves as they fought on the hillside. Impossible, how had they forded the stream? Vivek watched as his warriors charged the new threat, only to fall dying, their bodies riddled with arrows before they could even come close. No, no, this was not the way it was to be, where had these soldiers come from? His thoughts were jumbled as his instincts for survival warred against his rage, his hesitation costing the lives of hundreds of his people each second.
Shouting to rally his people, he brought his riders around in a sweep, urging them into a fighting retreat. Killing soldiers as he moved, his mind worked furiously at how to escape. His people would need to return the way they came, all the while under a hail of arrows, and being pressured from behind. Had his enemy hidden deliberately, drawing him out to attack this seemingly vulnerable camp?
A group of soldiers moved to block his way, an attempt to slow his people from escaping. A futile effort, he urged his garo forward towards the line, laughing to himself as he spied a small child soldier, standing at the front. Truly these southerners were pitiful, to have youngsters fighting their battles. Hefting his blade, he readied to cut the whelp in two for daring to stand in his path. His blade arced through the air, narrowly missing the boy somehow, and Vivek was sent spinning from his seat as his garo collapsed to the ground, dead with a single thrust.
Fury erupted in him as he rolled to his feet, swinging his weapon about him to clear a space. Blood splashed over his skin as he killed soldiers, but soon, he was left alone, his tribesmen having run straight through the blockade, Vivek the only one dismounted. Snarling at the encircling soldiers, he swung left and right, keeping them away from him. How was this possible? He was Vivek Daatei, the one who would lead his people to glory! How could he have fallen here, for his story to end due to the actions of a child?
Dancing in the midst of so many soldiers, his blade continued to take lives and gain power, but he was not unscathed. Too many soldiers for him to kill alone, too many weapons for him to stop, soon his body was covered in wounds, and even the thrill of bloodletting could not keep the pain from registering. He stood firm, his blade wavering in his hands, staring at the soldiers arrayed around him, daring them to step forward to try to end his life. His death was expected, but Vivek would not die alone, bringing the souls of the fallen with him into the maw of the Father. Smiling at the thought, Vivek began to laugh, the sound tinged with a hint of madness, the soldiers each too afraid to die for another man’s glory.
A voice sounded out from behind him and the soldiers around him took three steps back, their weapons still held at the ready. Following the glances, Vivek turned and faced the youngster who had dismounted him. A deep chuckle burst from his chest, the sight of this runt, his armor tattered and torn, his weapon covered in the blood of Vivek’s tribesmen. No child, this one, a warrior born, asking for a duel. Studying his face, Vivek tapped himself on the chest and uttered, “Vivek Daatei.”
Blinking his steely yellow-brown eyes, the warrior replied, “Rain.” Nodding to himself, Vivek took a deep breath, and released it, before screaming his defiance into the sky. Lifting his blade, he charged at the shocked boy, bringing it down in a fearsome chop. Death was here for Vivek, but Rain would die first. Time slowed for him as he watched his weapon descend, Rain’s reaction far too slow to block, moving closer towards his face. Disbelieving his eyes, Vivek watched as the boy moved, inexplicably dodging aside once again, his sword punching deep into Vivek’s side.
Vivek’s blade chopped through the air, impacting on the dirt as he fell to his knees. Dark blood flowed from his deep wound, his head touching the dirt. A shame to die at a child’s hands, but this one was a warrior. At least his tribesmen would escape, a slice of meat spread atop a pile of shit, and he glanced up to watch his tribesmen flee into the forest. His heart seized as he looked out upon the field, seeing so many of his people laying dead in the fields, the mounted enemy chasing after the scant remnants of those he brought, doomed to die at their hands. No, that was not supposed to happen, his warriors were to escape and ride to fight another day. If only he were not so weak, so pitiful, he could have led his tribesmen to safety. Rage surged anew, pushing away all regrets, consuming him as he screamed wordlessly at the scene before him, the last stand of his once mighty tribe.
His ancestors spoke, the first time in complete unison, a thousand voices speaking the same words in a measured cadence. ‘Do you desire strength, War Rider? Surrender yourself to me, and I shall grant it.’
With little else for him to do, Vivek Daatei spoke his last words as blood flowed from his ears and eyes, the words gurgling up from his chest. “I surrender.”
His body erupted in pain for only the briefest of moments, before death came to claim him.
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