Crimson Genesis

Cover of Crimson Genesis


by Adam Sustrate


Map of Greater Atia




Prologue


Zizyon followed King Vaxilshiin through the dark, crumbling tunnel deep beneath the surface. His soldiers had put up a handful of torch sconces along the length of the passageway, but their light was weak and sporadic; the flames seemed to be struggling for oxygen to continue burning, and so the ground and walls were strewn with ever-changing shadows. The floor was slanted downwards heavily and was rough and cracked and littered with stones that had fallen loose from the stonework above. All of this made the trek somewhat treacherous; however, Zizyon had fought countless battles in the rain and the dark, and on rocky or muddy ground, and his footing was steady and sure. His King, too, kept his royal stride uninterrupted, contemptuously kicking aside stones that dared sit in his path without slowing. Zizyon occasionally heard the soldiers who followed behind breathe curses or scrabble briefly to avoid tripping as they traipsed along behind the two leaders. 


As he and his King slowly outpaced their military escort, Zizyon moved closer to Vaxilshiin and said, “You needed not come down here, Your Majesty. I could have taken the report myself rather than waste your time. More likely than not, Wira and her sorcerers are overreacting. We’ll get down to see this urgent discovery and it will simply be that they discovered a new and unknown combination of runes or something equally trivial. You know how excitable she is.”


“Do you feel it in the air, Ziz? The sound your footfalls make, the feel of your heartbeat, the taste of your breath?” Vaxilshiin did not look to Zizyon as he spoke in his deep, steady voice, keeping his gaze fixed forward.


“I don’t-” 


“Look at the torches, friend. There is no draft in these tunnels. The torches burn fitfully, as if a summer storm was blowing through, though the air is still. Their light is weak and pale… Sickly. Wira has discovered something real this time. I can feel it in my blood and sense it in the Beyond.”


Zizyon did not reply, but walked along silently for a time. Vaxilshiin had studied with the Court Sorcerers for a time under the orders of his father, the late King Vinmovshiin, and while he could not draw forth power from the Beyond, he did indeed have a sensitivity to it, and had used this sensitivity as a guide in his years as King. He was rarely, if ever, wrong when acting on these hunches.


“I had a dream this morning,” Vaxillshiin said. “Just before your messenger came for me. I do not recall much of its contents, only the feeling of it. Heat. Power. Delicious pain flowing through my veins, wracking my body with both agony and ecstasy. A horrific, splendid light, splitting open my skull between the eyes. I think the light was the truth being revealed to me. I think it was nearly within my grasp, nearly mine at last… and then I wake to a message: Wira says she has finally made a truly significant discovery. I do not believe in coincidences, my friend. Not in this world, not in these times.”


Zizyon gave his king a long, deep look without breaking his stride. He had known King Vaxilshiin since they were children; always prone to extremes of mood, Vaxilshiin had learned to hide his emotions well as befit a King, but was honest about his thoughts and feelings with Zizyon, his closest friend and most trusted advisor. 


Zizyon knew that Vaxilshiin truly believed in the work that he had set Wira to. He had told the King many times that the nation and peoples of Shali’toia were strong enough to achieve their goals without Wira’s madness, but Vaxilshiin would not relent. 


Vaxilshiin had told Zizyon one night, after Zizyon had opposed the plan once again:  “Once we start moving forward, the whole continent will set its will against us. I do not plan on having our people beaten down. Not again. We will need not only victory, but victory on a scale unheard of since the Last Stand at Dlaividel. Wira’s work can get us there. Put your trust in me, old friend. Put your trust in your King.”


And Zizyon did. So here they were, off to see what kind of lunacy Wira had dug up, despite the foul taste the whole endeavor left in his mouth.


The floor leveled out as they neared their goal. An enormous, heavy steel door - inlaid with elaborate depictions of the Nine Lords and the Betrayer - stood closed a hundred paces ahead. As they approached the door, a heavy, metallic smell began to fill the still air. It was a smell any soldier was familiar with -- blood. 


Zizyon instinctively took a half step in front of his King as the smell reached them. Listening careful, he could hear a faint sobbing coming through the heavy door. Stopping in front of the door, Zizyon saw black liquid pooling out slowly from the sealed room.


“I’d say Wira has indeed discovered… something,” Vaxilshiin muttered, his face stoic, but Zizyon could recognize the faint glint of anticipation in his steel-blue eyes despite the shadows cast over his face.


“You should step back and let my men and I clear the room, Your Majesty,” Zizyon said, jerking his head towards the door as his soldiers finally caught up to the two. They hurriedly drew their weapons and formed up around the doorway, preparing for a breach.


“I think not, Ziz. Something grand has happened and I intend to witness it firsthand. I shall go in with you.” Vaxilshiin said, rolling his shoulders in anticipation. Vaxilshiin was slightly on the shorter side for a Shali’i, but heavily muscled. Though he did not carry a weapon as was tradition for a Shali’i king, Zizyon knew from first-hand experience in the sparring ring that he was a dangerous foe even unarmed. Still…


“Vax, please. Let me do my job as your general for once. We don’t know what Wira has unearthed in there.”


“Vax? I know you must actually be worried if you’re forgetting your honorifics.” Vaxilshiin said wryly, showing white teeth against his dark-skinned face.


Flustered, Zizyon shook his head briefly, then bowed apologetically, “My apologies, Your Majesty. But it is as you said… Something is amiss in these tunnels and in the room beyond. I cannot risk--”


A high pitched, agonized scream sounded in the room beyond the door, echoing through the hallway. The echo reverberated for seemingly an eternity amongst the rough stone, the sound shifting subtly as it bounced off the walls, from a painful scream into a haunting whine before finally fading away into nothingness. 


“We breach. Now. That’s an order, General,” said the King, and Zizyon obeyed without hesitation. Old friends or no, one did not disobey a direct order from the King.


He moved up, taking the forward-most position in front of the doors. He drew his enormous broadsword from his back, holding it in a loose but comfortable grip in both hands. As the familiar weight settled into his hands, he began to relax; this was where he was most comfortable - facing unknown dangers, preparing for a fight to protect his men and his King. He nodded briefly at the two soldiers on either side of the door, and they pushed the massive steel slabs open simultaneously. Zizyon surged forward as soon as the gap allowed, gritting his teeth and preparing for the worst.


The stench of blood strengthened immensely the moment he entered the cavernous chamber ahead. Blood and viscera were splashed over nearly every surface visible; the floor, the dozens of columns throughout the room, the walls, and even the high, arched ceiling above. Zizyon saw the source of the sobbing he had heard earlier: propped against a nearby pillar was an injured woman wearing High Sorcerer robes.


Seeing no immediate threat around him, he kneeled next to the figure. His men poured into the room, taking position behind pillars and along walls, checking for signs of life from the other bodies scattered through the room, all that remained of Wira’s cadre of Sorcerers. Vaxilshiin, to Zizyon’s relief, was standing at the doorway, seemingly content to simply observe the horrific scene. His face showed no emotion as he looked on at the nightmare laid out before him.


Looking down at the slumped figure,  Zizyon realized that it was Wira, the Court Sorcerer Vaxilshiin had assigned to this project. She was a rail thin woman with heavily hooded eyes and sharp, angular features. She was typically meticulous with her appearance, and it took Zizyon a moment to recognize the filthy, bloody figure slouched before him. 


She was missing an arm at the elbow; her other hand was raised to the stump, a deep purple light glowing in her palm and surrounding the torn flesh and ragged bones that were now the end of her arm. She appeared to have two deep, vicious cuts on her abdomen that were glowly faintly with light from several purple runes surrounding the cuts, but still slowly leaked thick blood. She had several other deep slashes on her legs and her remaining arm, though they appeared untended to. Her hair, normally pulled back in a shiny, tight black bun, was loose and fell over her exhausted, ashen face. Her mouth hung open as she panted hard, still sobbing slightly between breaths. Her teeth were stained red with blood. 


Internal bleeding, Zizyon thought. Even with her attempt to magically heal her wounds, I doubt the witch will survive this.


“What happened here, Wira?” he asked. “What did this? Is it still here?” he glanced back at his King as he asked this, though Vaxilshiin still stood at the doorway, his arms now crossed in front of his chest and his gaze fixed on something deeper in the room ahead.


“We broke the cipher… Finally broke it. Just a crack, but it was enough... That thing, the terrible creature came through the crack… Broke our binding spells and started… Just started ripping us to shreds. We could… We could do nothing to stop it.”


“Where? Where is it?” Zizyon asked, his voice firm but with a tone of sympathy he would have never expected to use in a conversation with Wira. 


Wira let the spell drop from her good hand; the stump immediately starting to ooze too-thick blood. She pointed around the pillar behind her, into the middle of the room. Zizyon stood up and looked to where she was pointing, Vaxilshiin moving up to stand beside him.


The room was likely beautiful once, before time had crumbled the stonework and whatever creature Wira was talking about had repainted the place with blood. It was roughly octagonal in shape, with a lower roof around the walls and vaulting upwards to a point in the middle. Standing squarely in the centre of the room was an enormous marble mural, easily fifty feet square. Unlike the stonework of the rest of the room, this mural was in immaculate condition, the marble still highly polished white - Zizyon noted in passing that the marble was unmarred by the blood that covered every other surface of the room. It was painted with runes that he did not recognize; though he did not understand the language, he understood it was beautiful - all flowing lines, large loops, elaborate brushwork. The letters were emitting a deep golden hue. Near the bottom left corner of the mural, however, one of the runes glowed in dark purple light and seemed to be faded and somewhat scratched away, with black scorch marks around the edges of its lines.


A few feet away from the mural, roughly in the direction Wira pointed, was another corpse. Zizyon and Vaxilshiin took several steps forward, Zizyon again assuming a protective position slightly ahead of the King. He waved for a few of his soldiers to fall in behind and to either side of the King. 


As they approached the corpse, it began to twitch and squirm. Zizyon tightened his grip on his sword and shifted his body subtly, continuing his approach. Without warning, the chest of the dead sorcerer burst open, a dark red blur leaping free in an eruption of gore and moving towards Zizyon with incredible speed.


Instinctively, Zizyon slashed out with his blade, his strike lightning quick despite the weight of the enormous length of steel. He hit the thing midair, feeling his blade strike something hard and unyielding. There was a high pitched screech, like steel on steel, and the blur went flying off to the side before slamming hard against a nearby pillar. 


Zizyon saw that the blur was, in fact, a small humanoid figure. Caked in gore, the thing was all wiry muscles and disproportionately long limbs tipped in vicious black talons. It had an oblong face topped in a pair of pronged horns and a protruding jaw that had several large fangs jutting from its lower lip. 


Already recovering from slamming into the pillar, it began picking itself up, sinewy legs folding underneath itself as it readied to pounce once more. Zizyon was upon it in an instant, swinging his booted foot heavily into the thing’s hideous face. Its head snapped back and it again slammed into the pillar, this time cracking the stonework and throwing out an accompanying cloud of dust with the impact. Not doubting the creature's resilience, Zizyon swung his blade for its head before it could recover once more.


“Stop!” Vaxilshiin’s voice echoed through the chamber. Zizyon’s sword stopped a hair’s breadth away from the dazed creature’s neck. The thing blinked its dark black eyes several times and hissed softly through its ugly mouth, but did not attempt to move from its place at the base of the pillar. 


“It’s dangerous, Your Majesty.”


“Yes, indeed it is. But it came from beyond the Gate. Wira succeeded; she broke the seal.” Vaxilshiin’s normally slow, deep voice tinged with an unmistakable tone of excitement as he spoke. 


“Why just this thing? Why not more?” Zizyon asked, not taking his eyes off the creature as Vaxilshiin kneeled beside him.


Vaxilshiin shook his head slowly, a large grin spreading across his face. “The Great Lords did their job well when they sealed the Gate. Likely this is all Wira was able to call through. But if this thing could make it through, so could more.” He reached down, past Zizyon’s sword, and gripped the thing by the neck. It resisted slightly, but Vaxilshiin’s grip tightened, the creature’s eyes bulging from their sockets slightly, and it ceased struggling immediately. 


“Yes, good. You are intelligent enough to understand your situation. That means you are intelligent enough to help me and my people, and at the same time, help your own people.” Vaxilshiin’s eyes narrowed, his voice lowered. “Linmisha vo tra siona krenma.


The words came out in a hiss, echoing through the room despite their low volume. The creature’s eyes widened even further at hearing them, for he understood the language being spoken.


King Vaxilshiin had said, in the ancient, nigh forgotten language of the Demons of the Underworld: “I shall open the gate to your world.”


Chapter I


Niko slipped under the sloppy swing of his opponents’ axe, stepping closer and jamming his longsword into his foe’s chest. The sword sheared through the leather chestpiece, splitting open chainmail, parting muscle and shattering ribs before piercing the heart. The roughly shaven man’s mouth dropped open in surprise, the life rapidly leaving his eyes as he slumped forward onto Niko’s blade. 


He pulled the sword free with a single smooth motion, then reversed the motion to catch another blow aimed at him as a new enemy charged to meet his fate. Niko held the other man’s sword in check with his own, his left hand shooting out to his opponent’s face, fingers digging deep into his unprotected eyes with grim efficiency. Screaming and dropping his sword, the man stumbled backwards, desperately feeling at the ruined bloody holes where his eyes had been only moments ago. His screams were cut short as his head was shorn clean from his shoulders by Niko’s blade.


Three more large men were screaming down towards him, dressed in chainmail that was surprisingly well taken care of and free from rust under well-oiled leathers. These were more experienced, skilled soldiers; elites of the Skal army that were scattered throughout normal squads and used as shock troopers. Niko had already killed several today, though not three at once. Likely they had recognized the battle was going poorly for the Skal, and then singled Niko out as one of the most dangerous opponents on the field.


Niko and the other Muirani had been tracking this Skal raiding party for several days and, when they finally caught up with them, immediately launched into battle. The melee had been raging on for fifteen frenzied minutes; perhaps the three warriors were expecting to catch Niko fatigued and sloppy, making him easy prey. But Niko’s muscles still sang with strength as his Blessing flowed through his veins. He could fight for hours and hours without rest, and was more than up to the task of slapping down these foolish men.


Let us give these raiders an example of why they should fear Muiran,thought Niko, slamming his sword back into the sheath on his hip. If the elites questioned why their opponent seemed to be disarming himself, they did not show it, instead continuing to bear down upon him.

Too late for you, I’m afraid. 


Niko brushed his palm against the razor sharp blades that ran along the scabbard of his sword, slicing open the skin and calling forth raging hot blood from inside his body.


He held up his hand, blood running down the lines of his palm and dripping off his wrist. The three men were nearly on top of him, all swinging their weaponry with deadly intent. Suddenly, the dark red blood sparked and shifted to bright, brilliant gold - though this change was visible for only a fraction of a second. Immediately, Niko felt the power and heat of the Beyond flowing through his veins and exiting out the cut on his palm; pure golden flame shot outwards in an enormous, solid column, utterly engulfing the three Skal. The rod of golden fire burst forward with incredible speed, travelling outwards into the forest battleground beyond. Another nearby Skal battling with a Muirani soldier was struck in the side by the flame; he spun with the impact, his arm, shoulder, and chest burning away as he fell to the ground. Trees and rocks alike that were struck by the flaming column were disintegrated almost instantly, leaving only ash and embers where they once stood.


Niko closed his fist and mentally willed the connection to the Beyond closed; instantly, the column of fire disappeared, its energy quickly fleeing from this plane of existence back to where it came. 


In the aftermath of the blast, the battleground was deathly silent. No clatter and banging of swords, shields and axes. No grunting, cursing, or screaming of men. Many of the Skal were dead, but those that remained were staring in Niko’s direction. Even some of the Muirani soldiers seemed shocked. 


Probably a bit excessive for only three men,Niko thought. It had been months since he had fully unleashed his Blessing, rather than simply use it coursing through his veins to strengthen his muscles and quicken his reactions. He had been, perhaps, a bit overeager in drawing forth so much power from the Beyond. As if affirming this thought, Niko felt a wave of lightheadedness flow through him. He shook his head to clear his vision and drew his sword back out from its scabbard, moving towards the nearest Skal. He knew that despite the dreadful silence that pervaded the field, the battle was not quite done. 


The man, seeing him coming, threw down his spiked club at once and fell to his knees. “I yield! Yield!” he cried in heavily accented Common. Most of the Skal quickly followed suit, throwing down their weapons and pleading for mercy. A small handful fled the battlefield rather than surrender; they were allowed to go, as they would spread word of the terrific and terrible power of the Muirani soldiers and the consequences these soldiers brought upon any Skal who violated the treaty between their two nations. 


The Muirani rounded up the Skal, binding their arms and shackling their legs. Of the nearly 200 men that composed of the initial raiding party, perhaps two score remained. Another dozen or two Skal had been too badly injured to stand or walk, and were given the mercy of a quick death. The casualties suffered by the Skal spoke well of the training and skill of the Imperial soldiers; only a single Company, about a hundred strong, had been dispatched to take care of nearly double that number of Skal, and they had suffered only a fraction of the casualties by Niko’s count. True, they had two Blessed in their ranks, but even an average Muiriani private was worth at least two Skal raiders.


Once finished supervising the rounding up of prisoners, Niko reported to the commanding officer of his company, Captain Rayne Klo. Captain Klo was already speaking with the other Lieutenant of Company V-12, Terra Qashi. Captain Klo was a man of average height and typical Imperial colouring; pale skinned - though well tanned from hours outdoors in battle and training exercises - and while he kept his head shaved smooth, his neatly trimmed beard showed light brown hair. He had a long scar that ran nearly the entire length of the top of his head - a souvenir of a glancing blow from a sword that had caved in his helm and nearly ended his life years prior. Lieutenant Qashi had similar colouring to Niko, as both were Provincials from the Western reaches of the Empire. Her skin was a smooth deep olive tone, slightly darker than Niko himself, and her hair - kept trimmed to fall no longer than just below her jaw, as required by the military - was a bright, glossy white that occasionally surfaced in her home of Lalliani Province. This was in stark contrast with Niko's more common thick jet black hair. Terra was tall and well-muscled, of a height with Captain Klo, though Niko towered over them both at over six and a half feet. 


“Excellent work today, Lieutenant Rivera,” Captain Klo said, crisply returning Niko’s salute as he approached the pair of officers.


“You really taught that forest a lesson by burning half of it down, too,” Lieutenant Qashi said wryly, her bright green eyes sparkling with mirth.


“Had to send a message, end things quick, Qashi. Saw that your half of the line was faltering and needed to prevent you from embarrassing yourself,” Niko replied, smirking.


“Save it for when we’re back on Imperial soil, soldiers,” Captain Klo said briskly, cutting off a retort from Lieutenant Qashi, though Niko noticed the Captain was suppressing a small grin of his own. Klo was an excellent officer and ran a well-disciplined company, but he also felt that overly severe leadership did not get the same results as a relationship built on respect and trust. His methods had been largely successful, garnering him rapid promotion through the ranks of the Muirani Imperial Army and earning command of his own company, though he only had a few years seniority over Niko, and did not have the inherent advantage of the Blessing as Niko did.


Besides, any good Muirani soldier would find themselves in good humour after crushing a Skal raiding party so thoroughly. This party was larger than any who had dared raid south into Imperial land for some time. The Skal were growing bold, and doing so much more quickly than anyone in the Empire had expected. It had been less than nine years since Muiran invaded the Skal lands as a response to previous heavy raiding. The Empire had razed the largest Skal city, Tharn, and demanded the remaining Skal chieftains sign a treaty that involved heavy reparations and annexed large swaths of fertile forest land in the southwest of Skal territory into a new Northern Imperial province, dubbed Saalen.


Niko had been fresh from training when the invasion was launched, and gathered a great deal of battle experience during the vicious, brutal campaign. Muiran had to crush the Skal completely and utterly in defense of their Northern Provinces, less the other Provinces begin to wonder if they’d be better off outside Imperial rule and contemplate revolution. The Skal were fighting to defend their homeland and to keep their independence from the ever hungry Imperial expansion. Both combatants fought with fierce pride and determination, and the battles were all the more deadly for it. 


Lieutenant Qashi - Terra - had come up through training with Niko, as they both had the Blessing and both went through the harsh training reserved for those with Blessed blood. They were each assigned a Sergeant’s commission within the same company upon graduation; Blessed were always started in some kind of leadership role in recognition of their enhanced battle capabilities. Their two squadrons had often fought side by side, and they had learned to trust each other and form the kind of bond that only living through months of constant life-or-death situations would create.


Captain Klo began giving orders, breaking Niko away from his thoughts, “Lieutenant Rivera, I’d like you to supervise the prisoners on our way back to Dorin; two squadrons should be sufficient to assist. Lieutenant Qashi, take three squadrons as a rear guard, make sure no Skal get any ideas of trying to sneak up on us. Both of you find squadrons that had few, if any, casualties. I’ll have command of the remaining soldiers. Understood?” 


“Yes, sir,” both replied with a salute, giving each other mostly respectful nods before heading off to their respective tasks. Niko moved back over to the prisoners to begin getting them ready for transport. He did not expect much issue from them on the journey back; Skal were fearsome, quick-tempered warriors, but they were often prideful to a fault; they felt great shame at being defeated in battle, especially in such convincing fashion, and had become dejected and rather docile. Indeed, the majority of the prisoners stared blankly at the ground, moving and speaking little. Though they were all large men, they seemed smaller, dirtier, and considerably less intimidating now than they had just half an hour prior on the battlefield. 


“Sergeant Erynd,” said Niko, approaching one of the soldiers bearing Sergeant’s knots on his shoulders. “Just the man I was looking for.”


“Quite the battle, eh, sir? Can’t believe the Skal had the gall to raid the Empire with such a big bleedin’ group. What could the fools be thinking? Are they looking for another damned invasion?” Sergeant Kale Erynd of Squadron V-120 was a lean, hard looking Imperial man with a scar that ran up his chin through his mouth and left a large chunk of his lip missing. Most of his soldiers thought he earned it in the Invasion, or at least another battle with the Skal, but he had told Niko one night whilst in his cups that it had actually been from a scorned lover who had thrown a woodcutting axe at him in her rage. Niko had thought this a much better story than a generic battle wound, but agreed to keep the secret regardless. Erynd was a good soldier, much older and more decorated than a typical sergeant, but had refused promotion several times, preferring to stay in the thick of combat with his men.


“I’m not sure, Sergeant. Likely someone from Null will meet us back in Dorin to take possession of this lot and question them about that very thing.” Sergeant Erynd grimaced at the mention of the Null Army (not a pleasant look on him, with that chunk of lip missing), but Niko ignored it. “Regardless, we’re moving out. Any casualties in your squad?”

“No, sir. Two injured including my corporal, the bloody fool, but she’s a tough bird if nothing else and it shan’t slow us down.”


“Good. Round up another squad in similar shape. Try Sergeant Rizia or perhaps Eliys. We’re on guard duty on the way back. And don’t let Lieutenant Qashi take them for herself, either. Tell her she can have first pick when she beats my kill count in battle for once.”


“Aye, I’m not looking to lose any more skin off my face today, sir. You tell her that yourself,” Niko and Erynd shared a laugh, the sergeant snapping off a salute before going about his duty. 


In just a few short minutes, Company V-12 began marching south, towards the Northern Provinces and Dorin, where they were based. It had taken nearly five days to chase down the Skal raiding party, but they had been moving fast and hard, and now had prisoners and injured to escort. Likely they were looking at twice that on the way back, camping in the cold, dangerous Skal woods and constantly on the lookout for more Skal raiders, looking to free their compatriots and wipe out the Muirani.


As Niko watched over the line of soldiers and prisoners marching south from atop his horse, he had time to contemplate recent events. Sergeant Erynd had voiced exactly what Niko had been thinking: Why wouldthe Skal risk sending such a large raid into Muiran? They had struck several farming villages, burning crops and ravaging the populace before Company V-12 had been roused from Dorin to chase them out. The Circle of Chieftains had to know such a large violation of the treaty between the two nations would evoke a response from the Empire. Skal raiding parties had become more and more frequent in the past year, though the Circle had claimed the parties were outlaws even among Skal, under the command of no Chieftain and belonging to no tribe. They had also claimed to have issued commands that ordered their men to execute anyone found raiding south, to no success. The Circle even had the gall to suggest that, due to the decimation of their military in the invasion a decade prior, the Skal leadership did not have the strength they once did to capture or control these so-called outlaws. 

No matter the Circle's excuses, the Empire would not forgive such a large transgression. Too many Muirani citizens had died as a result, too much damage was done to valuable farmlands. Niko felt it inevitable that he would soon be involved in another massive invasion of the Skal lands. The Empress did not believe in second chances, and Niko feared she would not be satisfied until every single Skal was dead or enslaved. 


Furthermore, even the smaller raids before were unusual in many ways for the Skal. Niko had been positioned in the Fifth Army since returning from the invasion, and had fought Skal through most of his career. The recent raids had been quick, well organized, and the raiders had often melted back into Skal lands before the Muirani could catch them. Typical Skal warfare was brutal and aggressive, not based on haste, subterfuge or craftiness. Even the large party they had chased had nearly escaped; they had almost lost the trail several times, which should be unthinkable when tracking 200 heavily armed men. Perhaps the Circle had secrets they were keeping from the Muirani, and would be an even more difficult foe in the coming invasion. 


The day was a fairly easy march, and as Niko predicted the prisoners gave the Muirani no issues. However, Terra sent a messenger later in the afternoon, reporting that she had spotted several Skal scouts watching the column, but they had fled immediately when they realized they had been spotted. Terra did not think the Skal would risk an attack at this time, though she did suggest he ensure his own soldiers keep their eyes’ out for anything suspicious. Niko sent the messenger on to Captain Klo and split Sergeant Erynd’s squadron into two units, sending them out to scout the forest several hundred feet in either direction from the column. 



***



That evening, Niko sat around a large fire with Captain Klo, Terra, Erynd and the other sergeants, eating a rabbit stew someone had thrown together with a few hares they had snared. The stew was hearty and hot, though dreadfully plain to Niko’s Western palate. He longed for a spicy green curry and garlic flatbread, though he would admit it was certainly better than the salted beef and dried fruit that composed a typical meal for troops on a long mission. The officers were discussing the Skal threat, trying to deduce the reason for their increasingly bold raids in the face of what would certainly be severe Imperial consequences.


“They can’t help themselves. They’re like wild fuckin’ animals. Don’t think about the consequences to the raids, just know they gotta raid,” declared Sergeant Frida Baryn, a big, boisterous, red-faced woman from a small village in the deep North..


Captain Klo shook his head thoughtfully, “No, I think not. Before the invasion, maybe one could argue they didn’t realize just how big of a bear they were poking with the Empire. But too many Skal died in that invasion for that to be true now. As even a dog learns to fear the man who beats him, the Skal should know to fear the Empire.”


“Then why raid us again?” asked Terra.


“I’ve heard some men say it’s Western rebels funding and encouraging the Skal raiders. They want to sow discord amongst the Provincials, pave the way for a revolution against the Empire.” said Sergeant Erynd, taking a deep drink of the sour brown ale he favoured. “No offense to our Western friends here, of course.” he added, nodding to Niko, Terra, and the couple of other dark-skinned officers seated around the fire. 


“The rebels don’t have the influence they did before, Kale,” said Terra. “Most of us know the Empire has been good for the West. We’re richer, safer, and happier than we were before the Empire. Most of the rebels are just violent thugs using the rebellious cause as an excuse for murder and mayhem.” She had a tone of disgust in her voice, unusual for the typically easy going, good-humoured woman.


“And the rebels certainly don’t have the resources to help the Skal to any real extent,” Niko agreed, watching Terra as he spoke, though she had returned her focus to the meal in front of her. “Especially not so far away from what remains of their power base in the West.”


“One of my soldiers, Private Tuln, she’s from Saalen, speaks Skal. Overheard mutterings from the prisoners. Says they’ve got a new pair of Chieftains, twins, a man and a woman. Convinced these new Chieftains are on their way to rescue them. The way they’re talking, makes it sound like they think they’re Blessed.” said Sergeant Pon Rizia, one of the few men in the company taller than Niko, though he was much slimmer. He did not make any eye contact as he spoke, keeping his dark-eyed gaze on the bowl in his lap.


“Blessed? Amongst the Skal?” Captain Klo asked, genuine surprise in his voice. “I’ve heard there has not been Blessed in the tribes for decades. That’s even more surprising than the Circle allowing a woman into their ranks.” The Skal felt men were warriors, tasked with destruction, while women were typically tasked with creation - farming, building, bearing children. 



“Seeing the power of the Blessing could make the Skal bold…” Niko said thoughtfully. “But two Chieftains alone, no matter how strong their Blessing, could not stand against the might of the Empire. Lieutenant Qashi and I alone could take them out, especially if they are young and inexperienced.”


“Null Army will get to the bottom of this once we return with the prisoners to Dorin,” Captain Klo said. “And cut that nonsense, soldiers. Act professional,” he snapped, rolling his eyes at the handful of officers that grimaced or shook their heads at the mention of Null Army. “Null is dangerous and has a well deserved reputation, but they work to achieve the goals of the Empress. They are on the same side as us.”


The officers continued to talk as they ate and drank, grateful for some down time after a long, tiring day. The conversation was largely circular and based on speculation, as none of them knew enough about the Skal’s motivation or methods to make any convincing arguments. Niko finished his meal quickly, then volunteered to take one of the night’s watch shifts by himself.

“You fought hard today, sir,” protested Sergeant Erynd. “My squad is up in the rotation; let my lads take the watch, really.”


“It’s not a problem, Kale. Give your squadron the night off as reward for a battle well fought,” Niko said, clapping the man on the shoulder. “I’ll burn some juice; it’ll keep me up and let me hear any sneaking Skal lurking about.”


Some time later, Niko finished his trek out to the spot he decided he would keep watch from for the night. The murmur of the soldiers had just barely faded from earshot and he could only see a faint glow from their campfires. Niko reached gently for the Beyond, not spilling blood but relying on the Blessing pulsing through his veins alone. The sound of the murmur returned and the glow of the lights increased as his senses sharpened suddenly. 


Niko gazed up at the stars, their light vivid and bright thanks to the clear skies and the Blessing, searching for the constellations taught to him by his father when he was much younger -- before the Empire had abducted him into the Blessed training program. He had only foggy memories of his life before then, and it had been nearly two years since he had travelled back to the West to visit his parents, but the names and formations of the constellations had stayed fresh in his mind. The Hermit, the Great Hunt, the Lioness. He slowly found them all, a smile spreading across his face. His anxiety about the conflict with the Skal faded as he continued, feeling truly relaxed for the first time in… well, the first time in as long as he could recall. 


A sudden sharp snap sounded behind him. In an instant, Niko spun, cutting open a finger on the dagger at his belt and shooting off a bolt of golden power into the darkness in a single movement. A pained, gargling cry sounded from the trees beyond the clearing. Niko pulled his sword free from its scabbard and moved towards the source of the sound, heart pounding in his chest, blood dripping from his fingertip; the droplets sparked and sizzled as they hit the forest floor.


To Niko’s dismay, he discovered not a Skal warrior, but a small brown fawn. The young fawn must have stepped on a dry branch, making the noise. Niko’s attack had struck the fawn in the chest. Blood bubbled up from the ragged hole - he must have pierced the poor creature’s lung. He looked up from the fawn and saw a doe standing between a pair of trees a dozen feet away, staring at Niko and the dying fawn at his feet. 


“Damn. Damn, damn, damn. You jumpy, irresponsible fool.” Niko cursed, pressing the blade of his sword against the fawn’s neck and smoothly and swiftly opening its throat, putting it out of its misery. Looking back to the doe, he muttered, “I am so sorry, Wild Mother.”


The doe stood staring for a few more heartbeats, its large brown eyes gentle and sad in the moonlight, before turning slowly and walking away. Niko closed his eyes, sheathing his sword and resting his hand on the dead fawn’s head. 


Using the Blessing against an innocent, whether human or animal, was strictly forbidden by the Angelic Word. The Blessing was a gift from the Great Lords; those born with the Blessing were given the power to call upon the Beyond with their blood thanks to the will of the Angels. 


The Muirani Empire was the most powerful nation on the continent thanks largely to the Blessing. The Imperial Capital City of Muiran was located where the Ten Great Lords - back when they had been Ten, not Nine and the Betrayer - had first walked the material plane thousands of years ago after descending from the Heavens - or emerging from the Beyond itself, depending on what sect of Angelism one adhered to. Their residual power was greatest in the surrounding area, and the vast majority of Blessed on the entire continent were born in and around the Capital and surrounding Imperial core lands. A dozen Blessed were born near the Capital for every one born elsewhere; Niko and Terra were unusual in that regard, as Blessed from the Western Provinces. The Empire’s policy of abducting young Blessed from anywhere in the Empire, to train them as leaders and warriors, ensured their army was always well-stocked with Blessed officers, and so the Muirani military was massively more powerful than any standing military elsewhere on the continent. 


Niko would have to offer penance at the Angelic Temple when he returned to Dorin, to make amends for taking an innocent life with the power of the Blessing. The peaceful reverie of the night was gone; only his regret and guilt remained with him now. He bowed his head and whispered a quiet prayer over the fawn’s corpse before moving back to his previous location in the clearing, resuming his watch. He did not look back to the stars for the rest of the night.


*

*

*


Morning came and the company marched onwards. Days passed as the column traipsed through the Skal forest. The Skal continued to be spotted in the distance by the Muirani scouts, but not until the sixth day did they take action. 


They struck quickly, raining down a volley of arrows on Terra’s rearguard. Their aim was poor and none were killed, though one soldier took an arrow through the knee and would likely be crippled for the rest of her life. Once again, however, when Terra and her soldiers charged the area of the forest the arrows had fallen from, they found not a trace of the Skal anywhere. Captain Klo gathered three squadrons and led a secondary expedition out into the forest himself, in an attempt to locate the evasive Skal, but came back a day later with absolutely nothing to show for it but an uncharacteristically foul mood.


Perhaps the captain’s expedition had some effect, however, as the Skal were spotted only a single time more before they re-entered Dorin Province, and they did not attack. Still, the soldiers of Company V-12 were certainly looking forward to finally being back on friendly soil.


As they marched onward, they began to enter the foothills at the base of the western edge of the Devolion Mountain range. The footing became rockier and more treacherous, but the soldiers' mood continued to improve as they knew the hilly terrain could only mean they were nearly back in the Empire.


Once finally in Dorin Province proper, they were able to take the Imperial Highway that ran along the valleys between the hills and mountains, allowing their pace to quicken significantly. In just under a day of hard marching, the city of Dorin itself appeared on the horizon. Dorin City was built into a great mountain, far and away the largest peak for miles in any direction, and had high, thick stone walls and an imposing keep that towered hundreds of feet above ground level.


The relief the soldiers felt at spotting the city was short lived, however. As soon as the weary company marched into clear view of the grandiose gates a rider burst forth from the city, heading directly for the company. The rider bore a messenger’s flag with the sigil of General Palmer himself, the commanding officer for the entire Fifth Army of the Northern Provinces. 


The rider soon reigned up in front of Captain Klo, both horse and rider breathing heavily from the hard gallop. Niko, having seen the horseman galloping towards the column, had already moved up to stand beside the captain. He had sent a messenger back to Terra’s rearguard, but she had not yet appeared.


“What could possibly be so urgent, corporal?” Captain Klo asked.


“The Skal, sir! They’ve attacked Saalen.” replied the soldier, worry clear on his face.


“Another raid? Are the Skal truly this foolish? And desperate?” said Captain Klo, turning to Niko, shaking his head in disgust.


“Not a raid, sir,” the messenger said. “An invasion. Thousands upon thousands of Skal. Reports are fragmented and panicked, but the only thing we truly know is that their numbers are massive and they appeared suddenly, without warning. General Palmer has ordered every available soldier in the Fifth to Saalen. He believes almost every Skal fit for combat has crossed our borders in force.”


Chapter II


“We need to get these prisoners into Dorin and prepare to march for Saalen,” Captain Klo said, dismissing the messenger and turning to Niko. “And where in the Beyond is Qashi? She should be here by now. Go find her, Lieutenant.”


“Yes, sir,” Niko replied, leaping onto his horse and riding towards the back of the column. There was no sign of Terra or the rearguard when he reached the end of the line, however. He turned to Sergeant Rizia, who was supervising the prisoners nearby.


“What’s happening, sir?” Rizia asked.


“Skal have invaded Saalen, in force. We need to get the prisoners into Dorin and on our way to assist General Palmer and the rest of the Fifth Army. Where is Lieutenant Qashi?”


“Invasion? How? Why--”


“Qashi, sergeant. Where is she?”


“She sent word of a disturbance, said she was going to investigate. Hours ago, now.”


“Dammit, Terra. Fine. Sergeant Rizia, I’m giving you command of the prisoners. March them to the city and hand them off to whoever is left in charge of the military there. Then prepare with Captain Klo to march westward.”


“Yes, sir… But Saalen is over a fortnight of hard marching from here. And we are tired from the mission. Will one exhausted company make a difference? Rest of our battalion must already be there, too.”


“I don’t know, Pon. But we have orders from the General that every fighting soldier of the Fifth is to meet him at Saalen, and so that’s what we’re doing. I’m going to find the Lieutenant. We’ll meet the company on the road westward, if you’ve already begun moving. Dismissed.”


Niko spurred his mount northwards back along the highway they had just passed. He rode the mare hard, wanting to catch up with Terra quickly and rejoin the company before they began moving for Saalen. It was nearly half of an hour before he spotted any sign of them, however. There was a large pool of blood that marred the stone highway, a broken, bloody arrow discarded nearby. Niko soon discovered dozens more arrows along that section of the highway or in the forested area surrounding it. To the northeast of the road, he found signs that Terra’s party had left the highway and moved into the mountainous woods nearby. 


After a quarter of an hour tracking the trail Terra had left, he found the site of another battle. There were a dozen Skal corpses left laying unceremoniously on the ground where they had fallen. To Niko’s dismay, he also found five dead Muirani soldiers, including the boisterous Sergeant Baryn. The big Northern woman was rough around the edges and had a tendency to make off-colour comments, but Niko knew she had a kind heart and donated a significant portion of her military stipend to the Angelic Temple to help feed, clothe, and shelter the less fortunate throughout the Empire. The Muirani had been moved into a neat line, laid side-by-side with their eyes closed and their arms folded over their chests. They had small stones placed over their eyes and mouths, and a sprinkling of soil on their forehead. Angelic doctrine indicated that followers of the Angel’s Word should be returned to the earth upon their death, but the quick ritual Terra had done for the fallen was acceptable if a full burial was not possible. Most likely, she had wanted to pursue the Skal that must have retreated from the battle, and simply didn’t have the time to bury the soldiers properly. 


Just as Niko was about to re-mount his horse and resume his pursuit, he felt an incredible, powerful wave of nausea. He could suddenly feel his veins dilate and his heart began to pound as heavily as if he’d just run ten miles. He felt a massive pull from the Beyond, though it felt different somehow; darker, twisted, tainted by some other power. Then, the sense of an empty space suddenly filling up, accompanied by the Beyond struggling to burst free from his body. Sharp, stabbing pain wracked his whole body, causing him to collapse to one knee. 


As suddenly as the pain had come, it was gone. Niko looked around him, dazed, confused, looking for any explanation. In the sky to the northeast, a huge number of birds had taken flight and were moving southwards. Niko felt tears running down his cheeks; he wiped them away, then saw his fingers come back red. He was bleeding, from his eyes, his nose, his ears.


“What in all of the Beyond was that?” Niko muttered aloud, his voice shaky and weak. His horse was staring at him, pawing nervously at the ground, seemingly confused by his actions. Whatever that pain was, it didn’t seem to have affected the beast, however.


Figuring he wasn’t likely to get any answers by standing around, he pulled himself into the saddle and spurred his mount forward again, following the trail that continued heading roughly northeast. A dull, throbbing headache had settled in, but this was mild and vastly preferable to the sharp pain that was still fresh in his memory from just minutes ago.


He had not been riding for very long when he heard… something. A low rumble in the forest ahead. It was a familiar sound, but it took him a moment to recognize it. Perhaps because his mind was still foggy from whatever it was that had just happened to him, or maybe simply because he couldn’t understand why that sound would be occurring in eastern mountains of Dorin Province.


That’s the sound of an army mobilizing, Niko realized. But how? The Fifth Army was mustering in Saalen, meeting what was reported as the entirety of the Skal fighting force. What army could this possibly be? There were reports of civilizations in the lands far, far to the east across the Devolion Mountains, but that was many thousands of miles away and they had never had any kind of interaction with the Empire or anyone else on the continent, as far as Niko knew.


He spurred his horse onward, though slower now, so that he could listen carefully to determine exactly what and how far away the sound was. As he approached, however, it became clear that his initial suspicions were correct. He could hear men shouting and swearing, armor and weapons clanking and rustling, horses stomping and whinnying. He couldn’t make out anything distinct yet, couldn’t determine the language being spoken to give him a clue as to who this army belonged to, but he could tell from the volume of the noise, even though he suspected he was still rather far from the source, that the army was massive, ten thousand strong at least. 


Niko then heard a different, closer noise. The sound of a hasty march, and a voice he recognized immediately. Terra was barking orders in the woods ahead, “You, help the private, let’s go, keep moving!”


Terra and what remained of her soldiers soon emerged from the trees. She was preoccupied with a pair of soldiers that were carrying another, injured soldier between them, and did not see Niko immediately. Sergeant Amia Eliys, a short, thin, blonde-haired woman from a tiny village in the Imperial Core noticed Niko astride his horse and called out a warning to her Lieutenant. Terra’s head snapped towards him, a dagger appearing suddenly in her hand, though she quickly realized who he was. 


“Niko! Why are you here?”


“The Captain sent me, we’re--”


“Nevermind. The Skal! They’re here!”


“Yes, they’ve invaded Saalen. That’s why I’m--”


“Saalen? No, they’re right behind us.Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. They just… appeared. I almost passed out when it happened. We were chasing a group I noticed tailing our company, we reached a valley at the base of the mountain ahead, and out of nowhere, they appeared. It must be the entire thrice-damned nation of Skal. They appeared from some portal, a gate to the Beyond, if I had to guess.”


Niko sat there, dumbfounded at what he was being told. The Skal are here?He had been told they were marching on Saalen. General Palmer had taken the entirety of the Fifth to meet them on the field, and the Skal had, somehow, moved through the Beyond and ended up in Dorin instead. Which meant…


“Niko? We have to go, now. We have to get to the Captain, have Brigadier Marshii send word to General Palmer, even to the Capital. The Fifth can beat this army, but we need to move fastif we want to--”


“The Fifth isn’t here, Terra.” Niko said, his voice dull and hollow.


“Yes, yes,” said Terra impatiently. “They’re spread throughout the North, mostly in Kailan, but three quarters of the Army can be here in a matter of days. That’s why we have to move quickly. V-1 Battalion can hold Dorin for a time, the city is a fortress.”


“No, you don’t understand. The Fifth is gone. So is most of our battalion, I’d wager.” Niko said, not stopping when Terra tried to interrupt this time. “When our company arrived at Dorin, we received word that a Skal army - the Skal army that is now here- was seen just outside Saalen Province. General Palmer has moved the entirety of the Fifth to meet the threat there.”


Neither lieutenant spoke for a time. The only sound was the ever-growing din of the Skal army in the distance. It sounded like they had begun to march, towards the small group of soldiers, and the undefended Dorin.


“Fuck me…” muttered someone in the knot of soldiers. Nervous laughter followed. Terra seemed to suddenly remember herself. “We stumbled onto a couple of scouts when the army appeared. It was sloppy on my part, I should’ve seen or heard them coming. We killed them quickly, but Private Dun--” She nodded towards the soldier being supported between two of his compatriots, blood slowly staining a bandage wrapped around his abdomen. “--was injured. It’s only a matter of time before the Skal notice the scouts are missing. By the sounds of it, they’re moving out now anyway, so maybe it won’t matter. Regardless, we need to get back to Dorin.”


“Agreed. We need to catch up to the captain and the rest of the company before they get too far. I don’t know what kind of force Brigadier Marshii would have left behind to secure the city; hopefully at least one other company. There may be similar numbers from the battalion guarding the mines as well; altogether, we may be able to throw together three or four hundred soldiers. Five hundred if we can get reinforcements from any nearby forts. We can’t hold Dorin with those numbers. We would have been hard pressed even with all of V-1 Battalion and a full complement of reinforcements, even for just a few days until the rest of the Fifth arrived.”


“The captain will know what to do better than you and I, Niko. Let’s get out of here before those Skal stumble onto us.” 


Niko, Terra, and her injured, tired group of soldiers hastily marched southwards, towards the undefended city of Dorin, an army tens of thousands strong hot on their heels.


Chapter III


Niko ordered a halt to the march after a frustratingly short period of time. They had been moving at rapid march, pushing hard to get ahead of the army and reach Dorin in time to meet Captain Klo. Private Dun’s injury, however, was becoming an issue due to the pace of the march. Niko had given the private his horse to ride on, but even then, the constant up-and-down motion of the horses’ trot was causing the wound to bleed more heavily, and Dun was panting hard from the pain.


“Ah… my apologies, lieutenant… er, lieutenants. I don’t mean to slow our march,” the young blond private was from the heart of the Imperial City, the son of a senator, and spoke formally even though he was obviously in great pain. His already light-skinned face had gone completely white, his eyes clouded with pain. 


“No need to apologize, private.” Terra said soothingly. Then, she turned to Niko and spoke softly so the private would not hear, “Niko, we need to take a look at the wound. We can’t keep going like this, he’ll never make it.”


They unwrapped the wound carefully, assisted by the surprisingly gentle hand of one of the corporals, Fafnir Klune; he was short, stocky Eastern man with a heavy, wiry beard whose mother was a surgeon that worked on injured miners, and had imparted on her son some of her medical knowledge prior the the man enlisting with the Muirani military. 


The wound was worse than Niko had feared. The initial cut had been deep and ragged, perhaps two handspans wide, but the hasty march and sloppy bandaging had caused it to tear even further, widening and deepening in the process. 


“Aye, that’s not good at all, ma’am.” said Corporal Klune. “He’s likely as not to bleed out afore we make ‘er back to Dorin.”


Shaking her head, Terra asked, “Can we sew it closed? Rather than just bandaging it again.”


“Well, I do have gut and needle in me pack, but… Well, with the movement, even on horseback, she’s just gonna tear open again. Not to mention that I ain’t got enough antiseptic to properly clean the wound with, neither. Used most of ‘er on the wounded back on the march south.”


“Lieutenant Terra… “ Private Dun said, voice shaking with effort as he spoke. “Just leave me here. I cannot slow us down. You must get to Dorin and warn them of the coming foe.”


“No, we can’t do that, private,” Niko said. “The Skal would see you, kill you, and then they’d know that weknow they’re coming. Better they think us totally unprepared.”


Terra gave Niko a hard, angry glare. “More importantly, I’m notleaving Private Dun here to die, alone, at the hands of the Skal.”


The two lieutenants shared a tense moment, neither willing to break the silence. The soldiers surrounding them shifted uncomfortably, staring off into the forest or at the ground, not wanting to involve themselves in the bickering of two Blessed lieutenants. Finally, Niko bowed his head, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Of course, you’re right. I’m sorry, Qashi. Life is more sacred than that… It has been a hard month, and I spoke without thinking. But the question remains: what do we do for the private?”


“We have to try and heal him.” Terra said, looking back towards Private Dun, worry evident on her face. Niko had always felt she showed a little too much care and emotion towards her subordinates, but that was part of what made Terra the woman and great leader that she was. Soldiers trusted her because they knew that she truly cared about their well-being. 


“With the Blessing? We can’t...” the echo of screams long since silenced echoed in Niko’s mind. No. I have too much to focus on. Not now.


“It canbe done.” Terra said urgently. Niko was glad she was distracted with the private’s wounds, giving him time to compose himself before she noticed. “We heal our own wounds all the time; the Blessing is just another way to access the Beyond, after all. Magical healers have clinics all over Dlaividel and even some in the Imperial City. I know the Blessing can be much harder to control than the magic that healers or sorcerers use. There’s not much finesse to it, as I’m sure you know. There’s risk using it on someone other than yourself; we could do more harm than good, but what other option do we have?”


More harm than good… Yes, that’s true. More true than you know.


Private Dun spoke, “Please, Lieutenant Rivera, Lieutenant Qashi. You have to try. I cannot slow us any further. If you will not leave me to an honourable death, I must be healed so that we can get to Dorin and warn the city.”


“All right. Terra, you should do it. You have more control over the Blessing than I.” Niko said, hoping she would agree with him, although he knew his argument was tenuous at best.


“Your Blessing is much stronger than mine… But very well, I’ll see what I can do.” She kneeled down beside the private. She drew her palm along the blades that ran down the scabbard of her sword, opening a shallow wound on her hand. She reached out to touch the injured man on the abdomen.


“Wait!” Niko cried out. ”Clean the area first. Make sure none of his blood mixes with your own.” Terra and Corporal Klune gave Niko a curious look, unsure of what to make of his sudden outburst. “We… we don’t know how the Blessing that flows through our blood will interact with the blood of a non-Blessed. Better safe than sorry, as they say. This is already risky, so…”


“All right, Niko. That’s a fair point,” Terra agreed, though Niko could tell from the look in her eyes that she knew there was something he wasn’t telling her, and would certainly make a point to speak with him about it once they had solved more pressing issues. She and Corporal Klune cleaned the area thoroughly, then Terra reached out once more with her still bleeding palm. She gently placed her hand just above the wound. She sat in silence in that position for a time, her once vivid white hair, now filthy from dirt and sweat, tangled in knots, fell down in front of her dark-skinned face, obscuring it as she concentrated on the task. A gentle golden glow began to emanate from beneath the woman’s palm; the wound on Private Dun’s abdomen twitched and shivered, then, suddenly, miraculously, the skin began to slowly knit closed. The gash had closed nearly to its original size when Terra suddenly gasped aloud and fell backwards, away from the other man. 


“I don’t think I can do it… Damn,” Terra said, panting hard. “It takes such incredible effort to use the Beyond in this way and it’s just… too much. How much did I heal?” she asked, looking back to the injured soldier, disappointment clouding her face as she saw how badly injured he still was. 


“That was mighty impressive, Lieutenant.” Corporal Klune said. “But I don’t think it’ll be enough. He’ll just open back up, soon as we git movin’ again.”


“Niko, it has to be you. We both know your Blessing is strong… Much stronger than mine. You can heal him.” Terra said, standing and moving next to Niko. She placed her hand on his shoulder and moved closer to him, lowering her voice to a gentle whisper so the other soldiers couldn’t hear. “I don’t know what happened or why you don’t want to try… But Vitor will die if we don’t do this. Please. For me.”


Sobbing. Screams. So much pain, so much regret. “I… I will try.” Niko said, voice shaking, barely audible even to Terra.


Niko crouched down, taking Terra’s position beside the private. Corporal Klune again cleaned the wound of both the private’s and Terra’s blood. Niko opened a cut along his palm and placed his hand in the same spot as Terra had. His hand was shaking badly, no matter how hard he tried to suppress it. Niko let his Blessing connect him to the Beyond.


Immediately, he could feel the violent pull of the Beyond pulsing through his veins and pouring out the cut on his palm. Healing your own wounds with the Blessing was simple, almost second nature. You didn’t even really need to think about it. Not so with trying to heal another. The Beyond was a powerful, violent force, and its power was like a summer storm, wild, unpredictable, untameable. Niko desperately tried to pull back on the power he was unleashing, to slam the gate almost completely shut, allowing only a trickle of power out. Terra was correct in saying that Niko’s Blessing was powerful. He was likely the strongest Blessed in Fifth Army, and there couldn’t be more than a half dozen stronger Blessed than he in the entire Empire. That meant more power to use on the challenging task, but also meant it was so very difficult to control, to not cause unpredictable damage. The tempest in his veins velt so vicious that he could almost hear it screaming in his ears. Or is that the memory of herscreams? Does it matter? What difference does it make?

This thought, which entered his mind unbidden, shattered Niko’s concentration, allowing power to flow freely through him and into the injured private. Screaming aloud, Niko jerked his arm violently backwards, breaking the connection to the Beyond and closing the wound on his palm with the residual power.


Blackness clouded Niko’s mind and vision for a time. He could just barely make out Terra, kneeling over him, shaking his shoulders, calling his name.


“Niko! Are you alright?! Come on, Niko, snap out of it!”


“Yes. I’m fine. I’m fine, Terra… but how is Vitor? Did he live?”


“Aye, Lieutenant. You did it. Well, mostly, but still, it’s bloody miraculous.” said the voice of Corporal Klune. Niko sat up slowly and saw that the corporal was leaning over the still-prone form of Private Dun. Niko stood up and slowly walked over, dreading what he might see.


The wound on Private Dun’s abdomen was, indeed, gone. In its place, however, was a large, dark red disfigurement. It was misshapen, lumpy, and had a number of veins running through it seemingly at random; it was perhaps slightly larger than Niko’s closed fist. 


Corporal Klune looked back at Niko, smiling a wide grin, a golden tooth glinting in the fading afternoon sunlight. “Aye, it ain’t pretty, but it’s damned better than that big bloody gash he had before. How does it feel, private?”


“It feels fine, corporal. There was pain, at first, but now it just feels… uncomfortable, I suppose.”


Terra stepped up beside Niko, placing her hand again on his shoulder in a comforting manner. “You were doing it, healing him. The wound was almost closed when the light from the Blessing flashed brightly. You screamed and fell backwards, and that growth was suddenly there. I’m guessing you lost control?”


“Yes. I allowed my concentration to be broken. I’m sorry, Private Dun… I’ve disfigured you. I knew this was a foolish idea.”


“No, lieutenant, please do not apologize. You have saved my life and allowed us to move onwards. I will take a mild disfigurement over death or dishonor any day. Thank you.” the private shuffled to his feet awkwardly, despite Klune’s protests, and snapped off a salute towards Niko. He could not help but admire the private’s bravery and determination. 


“Well then,” Terra said firmly. “That’s one minor crisis solved. Now let’s get out of here before those damned Skal stumble upon us. Private, I still want you on Lieutenant Rivera's horse. The rest of you, form up and ready to move, rapid march. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.” she turned back to Niko, a serious look in her eyes. “Are you good to go, lieutenant?”


Niko nodded. “Let’s move. And… thank you, Terra.”


“Don’t get soft on me now, Rivera” Terra said, punching his arm, probably harder than was necessary. “Let’s get back to Dorin.”



*

*

*


The group of Muirani soldiers moved quickly through the woods, pushing themselves to the limit of their endurance. Blessed could, of course, move at a near sprint for hours on end by activating their Blessing, but the two lieutenants were forced to hold themselves in check so as not to exhaust the other soldiers. Still, the Muirani military trained heavily in hard marching over rough terrain, and, despite their fatigue from the events of the past month, they made excellent time. 


They reached the Dorin highway in well under an hour, and were able to pick up their pace even further on the smooth, easy terrain thereafter. The clamorous noise of the Skal army marshalling behind them faded from earshot as they slowly outpaced the much larger, more ponderous force. It was only a couple more hours before Dorin City came back into view, the huge mountainous fortress standing tall and proud on the horizon, fading sunlight shining from the western horizon enhancing its natural, rugged beauty. 


No messenger came to meet them this time, though the gate was thrown open for the party as they approached. A slightly overweight, red-haired Northern gate sergeant met them as they entered, saluting the lieutenants.


“Sergeant, has Captain Klo and the rest of V-12 company left the city?” demanded Niko, cutting off the man’s question before it could even leave his mouth. 


“Yes, sir. We have their prisoners in custody now. Captain Klo left instructions for you to follow as soon as you--”


“No, sergeant. We must signal for them to return. How long ago did they leave? Are they within range of a flare, or should we send messengers? How many soldiers did Marshii leave? And the other brigadiers in the area?”


“Sir? I don’t understand… General Palmer wants all hands in Saalen.”


“General Palmer is working on outdated information.” Terra explained as she and Corporal Klune helped Private Dun down from the saddle. “The Skal army he intends to engage is no longer there. The enemy has moved, somehow. Through the Beyond, we believe. They are no more than a few hours from Dorin.”


The gate sergeant stared at the two lieutenants, dumbfounded. Frustrated, Niko demanded, “Sergeant, time is of the essence. The enemy will be here soon and Dorin invaded effortlessly if we don’t move quickly. How long ago did Captain Klo leave, how many soldiers were left by Brigadier Marshii, and how many men were left with V-2 battalion in the mines of Dorin? Were Fort Dunmar and Fort Jumor left undefended or are there soldiers left there as well?”


The sergeant stammered briefly, but the discipline instilled in him by the Muirani training kicked in and he remembered himself. “Sir. The captain left perhaps two or three hours ago. He had only forty fighting soldiers left in the company, after leaving behind the wounded who could not march at speed. Brigadier Marshii left another full company, V-18; Captain Limna Wuomi commands that company, and the brigadier also left Commander Ji-Lu to support the captain and the wounded. Brigadier Wren is still here, overseeing what's left of her battalion in the Mines along with two of her companies from V-2 and Commander Hakona for support. I don’t know the status of the forts, sir. My apologies. I suspect they will be emptied, as Lieutenant General Grigonivon was here when General Palmer’s orders came in, and it sounded like she thought the forces left in Dorin city were sufficient to secure the province.”


Niko turned to Terra, both faces serious in light of the information the sergeant provided them. “We’ve twenty three healthy soldiers in our group, counting ourselves. With V-18 and the companies left in the mines, that’s still less than four hundred soldiers. How many men do you think were in that Skal force, Lieutenant Qashi?”


“It’s difficult to say. They were in a wide valley, obscured by the woods. And I could only count quickly, as I wanted to get back to the city as quickly as possible… But I’d say at least thirty, forty thousand. As many as sixty is possible.”


The gate sergeant paled at this, the realization of how serious the situation was settling in. A few other soldiers who were gathered nearby were whispering in panicked tones. 


“Walk with us, sergeant. Take us to Commander Ji-Lu and Captain Wuomi.” Terra said, moving into the city without waiting to see if the sergeant responded. “And you.” she said, pointing at a loitering corporal nearby. “See after my soldiers. Ensure any wounds are looked after and that they are debriefed and made comfortable. Then I want messengers sent to Brigadier Wren, asking her to bring her soldiers into the city proper. The miners should seek refuge here as well. I also need riders sent to catch up to Captain Klo, asking him to return. Send riders to Fort Dunmar and Jumor as well, just in case there’s anyone left there. Now, sergeant… what is your name, soldier?”


“Uh… Mason. Er, I mean, Sergeant Mason Remai, that is, ma’am.”


“Very good, Sergeant Remai. Wuomi is Blessed, is she not?”


“Yes, ma’am. She was just moved into V-1 battalion a couple months ago. She was promoted out of Fourth Army. Brigadier Marshii wanted one Blessed left in the province as she was taking all the others to Saalen, including yourself and Lieutenant Rivera upon your return.”


Niko nodded thoughtfully, having fallen into step beside Terra and the sergeant. “That’s good. Three Blessed will make our defense of Dorin slightly less hopeless. Not much, but slightly.”


Sergeant Remai’s face paled in dismay at Niko’s comment. Terra shot him a glare of disgust, then turned back to the sergeant. “Dorin is a fortress and the Muirani military is the greatest fighting force on the continent. Don’t let my colleague’s pessimism discourage you. Once the remaining command structure is here, we willformulate an effective defense strategy. Do not doubt that.”


*

*

*


Niko strode out of the war room of the keep in Dorin City, frustrated. Brigadier Wren had taken over defense preparations as soon as she had arrived, as was her right by rank. No word had yet returned from the messengers Terra had ordered sent out to the nearby forts, nor from Captain Klo. The brigadier believed the most prudent course of action, rather than risk an all but hopeless defensive effort, was to abandon the city through the mines, and head southwest to the capital of the Northern Provinces, Kailan. Even though General Palmer would have emptied most of the soldiers from there as well, there would still be many more left in the capital than in Dorin, and they would, hopefully, be able to defend it against the Skal horde until the Fifth could arrive to drive them back. 


Captain Wuomi had wanted to stand their ground at Dorin, citing the defensive strength of the city and the risk of fleeing, with the entire civilian population, through the mines and into the harsh Northern wilderness. She placed a great deal of stock into the combined strength of the three Blessed soldiers as well. Though she was older and technically a more experienced soldier, Niko found her to be rather naive and somewhat arrogant with regards to the battle capacity of the Skal. Having never faced them in a proper battle, she thought them uncivilized savages that could be swatted down as easily as one might swat down a fly. Tens of thousands of Skal soldiers were not a foe to be taken lightly, and Dorin City could not be defended against so many with so few, even with its natural defensive capabilities and three Blessed soldiers.


Wuomi had been overridden by her superior officers, and the city was being emptied of civilians even now. The sun had been setting as Niko and Terra arrived, and night had set in fully. The city was alight with torches as people emptied their homes and soldiers guided them down towards the mine entrances at the rear of the city. Niko was impressed with the people of Dorin, and the speed with which they were able to leave their homes. Niko himself had not bothered going to the small townhouse the military had provided for him in the city. There was nothing there of value, and after the incident in the woods with Private Dun, he knew going back there would only cause more painful memories to flood back to him. The evacuation was nearing completion, and none too soon. In the distant northern horizon, the torchlight of the massive encroaching enemy army loomed. 


“We still have not had word from the captain,” Terra said as she walked out onto the balcony and leaned against the railing next to Niko. “He doesn’t have long. Wren says we leave within the hour, with or without V-12 Company.”


“They’ll be here… The captain won’t let his soldiers get stuck out there with the Skal. Let’s go down to the gate and await his triumphant, last minute return. You know how our captain has a flair for the dramatic.” Niko said, forcing a smile he did not truly feel. He was worried for the captain and the rest of his brothers-and-sisters-in-arms, even if he could not say it. Even the act of leaving Dorin was bittersweet. Some of the worst moments of his life had occurred in this city, but it had still been his home for nearly a decade. The thought of leaving it to the Skal left a bad taste in his mouth despite himself. 


As Niko and Terra walked through the streets of the city, weaving between the heavy civilian and military traffic, they discussed many of the days’ events, trying and failing to distract themselves from the bleak situation in front of them. 


They discussed how the Skal army had even managed to move from Saalen to Dorin. Terra had said, and Niko agreed, that they seemed to have moved through a portal to the Beyond, but neither could be sure how they had managed it. Even the Gate Mages of Dlaividel, who specialized in moving large numbers of people through the Transit Gates of that great city, would have been hard pressed to rapidly move tens of thousands of soldiers as the Skal seemed to have done; not to mention that the Dlai King would certainly not betray his alliance with the Empire to even attempt such a feat. The Skal had no great magical powers, only a handful of middling Stone Shamans and the two rumoured Blessed Chieftains. It simply didn’t make any sense. The power used didn’t have the same feeling as a normal unleashing of the Beyond, either. Neither Niko nor Terra had ever felt anything like that powerful, painful sensation that had overwhelmed them at the time of the teleportation. They agreed that the Beyond had felt different somehow, almost tainted in some unknown manner. But beyond that, they had no explanation. 


As they approached the walls of the city, Terra began, as Niko feared she would, to turn the focus of the conversation to his hesitancy to use the Blessing to heal Private Dun. “Niko, we’ve been friends and comrades for more than a decade. I know when something is wrong. What happened? Talk to me.”


“Terra… It’s not something I’m willing to discuss. Not right now. We have too many other, more important things to focus on” Niko said, refusing to meet the other woman’s intense gaze. He could tell she was not willing to let this go, however, and was about to argue further with him when a scout on the city walls called out.


“Signal! A signal from the west!” cried the voice. Niko and Terra rushed up a nearby stairway and climbed up the great walls as quickly as they could, both activating the Blessing flowing through their veins to allow them to move faster than what should be humanly possible, their body’s giving off a faint golden glow in the darkness of the night. They reached the top of the wall just as the burning arrow that must have been the signal the scout had seen fell to the ground in the distance outside the city.


“Can you tell who sent up the signal? Is it Captain Klo?” Niko asked of the scout, a shockingly young, Western woman with the white hair of Lalliani Province, much like Terra’s, though this woman kept hers shaved close to her skull in a more traditional military style. 


“No, sir, ma’am.” the scout declared as she squinted into a looking glass. “It’s too dark to make out who they are, though judging from where they’re coming from they must be Muirani. But look!” she said, pointing to the mass of lights that was the Skal force. “It looks like the Skal are sending out men to intercept.”


Indeed, Niko could make out a small mass breaking off from the main force of the Skal, moving extremely quickly towards the direction of the signal. Given the speed with which this new mass moved, Niko guessed they were cavalry, and with their speed and angle of intercept, he quickly calculated that they would reach the Muirani before they were able to make it to the safety of the city gates.


“Open the gates. We’ll send out a sortie, however many squadrons we have available. If we move now we can meet the Captain’s men in the field, fight off the Skal horse and make it back to the city with minimal losses.”


The scout was about to move out to relay Niko’s orders when another voice rang out, “Hold, private. We will not risk a sortie.” Captain Wuomi marched along the wall towards them, her hand on her sword, her expression dark. “We cannot risk the few soldiers we have left in Dorin, nor can we open the gates and risk letting the Skal in unopposed. We must retreat without casualties, must we not, lieutenant? Is that not what you argued, along with most of the other officers?” Wuomi smiled a mirthless smile, daring Niko to challenge her.


“Dammit, Limna. That’s my captain and forty of my soldiers out there. We can save them. Three Blessed can hold those cavalry for long enough to retreat back to the gate and you know it!”


“You will address me as Captain Wuomi, lieutenant. You forget yourself. I have given my orders and I will not be contradicted. This is the battle plan that the brigadier ordered and you agreed to, and do not forget that.”


“You--” Niko growled, fists clenched. He took an aggressive step towards the captain, but Terra caught his arm tightly. “Niko, calm down. My apologies, captain. Please forgive the lieutenant. It has been a trying day.” Terra pulled Niko away from the other woman, not releasing her iron grip on his arm until they were well away from her. “Getting into a fight with a superior officer won’t help the rest of our company, Niko. We just have to hope they make it.”


Captain Wuomi stood looking at the two lieutenants for a time, as if daring for them to provoke her further, before finally returning to her task. Niko finally unclenched his fists. His fingernails had been digging deeply into his palms and had broken the skin; the blood that leaked out sparked with golden light and sizzled angrily upon hitting the stone floor.


“She’s going to let him fucking die. Just because she’s fucking pissed that we didn’t support her stupid, reckless plan. That fucking bitch.” Niko seethed, too angry to keep his voice down, uncaring if the soldiers nearby overheard him. 


“Niko, enough. Don’t think I like this any more than you do. But our hands are tied.” Terra said, glaring back in the direction the captain had disappeared. “Maybe Captain Klo will make it back to the gate before the Skal catch him. By the Angels’ good grace, he will.”


Niko and Terra stood together on the wall, watching as the Captain’s group approached - they were close enough now that even in the dark of night, their Blessed-enhanced eyesight could make out the banner of V-12 Company. As the Muirani got closer to the city, however, the Skal force got even closer to the Muirani. Niko was wrong in his initial calculation -- he had thought the Skal would meet Captain Klo’s company well outside the city; it now seemed as if the two forces would meet literally only a hundred paces or so outside the gates. We could save them! Dammit, we don’t need to let them die!


“Lieutenant Rivera, Lieutenant Qashi,” Captain Wuomi barked as she approached the two once again. “The evacuation is nearly complete. We are abandoning the walls and moving into the mines. Now.”


“Ma’am, please. Let just me and Terra go. Captain Klo is--”


“Lieutenant, if you question my orders one more time, I’ll have you court martialed the second we reach Kailan. You have your orders. Move.” Captain Wuomi stepped even closer to Niko; though she was shorter than even Terra, she did not appear intimidated at all by the much larger man. She seemed to be daring Niko to disobey her. 


Niko heard Captain Klo’s voice ring out in the distance just outside the walls, “Open the gates! Open them now!” he cried out. 


Niko gave one last, contempuous look at Captain Wuomi and spat, “Fuck it.”


He leaped over the ramparts of the city walls before she or Terra could stop him. The wall was over three hundred feet tall, but he quickly opened a cut on his thumb as he fell and unleashed the Blessing just prior to impact. There was a great flash of golden light as he landed, the power of the Beyond strengthening his body a hundredfold as he hit the ground hard; the impact sent dust and rock flying into the air and created a small crater underneath him. He was already moving before the dust began to settle, sprinting with the full power of the Beyond invigorating the muscles of his legs as he rushed to meet the Muirani dashing towards him. 


He met the captain moments later, the man’s bald head lathered with sweat, panting hard as he cried out, “What in the name of the Angel’s Above are you doing? Why is the bloody gate not open, Niko?” he exclaimed, exhausted and bewildered.


“They don’t want to risk opening the gate! Just go, make for the city, I’ll stop the Skal!” Niko yelled at the captain, already turning northwards to meet the Skal horsemen that were thundering down onto them. He did not have time to see if the captain listened, for his enemy was nearly on top of him. Several hundred Skal on heavy, armored horses were crashing down, mere moments away, screaming battlecries filled with primal rage. A blast of Blessed fire might have cut down a great deal of them and frightened off even more, but it would not be enough; if even a few dozen broke through, they would ride the exhausted and defenseless company down and Niko would die soon after, his effort all for nought.


Instead, Niko drew his dagger and ran it heavily along the entire length of the inside of one forearm, quickly followed by the other. Immediately, blood poured from the wounds in a veritable fountain of crimson, splashing heavily onto the stone highway at his feet. Niko threw his arms out in a wide arc, splashing yet more blood out in front of him in a rough semi-circle. Almost instantly he could feel the effects of losing so much blood so quickly, and his head began to swim. Now, Niko! Do it now!


Niko slammed his fists down into the ground, screaming so loudly he felt as though the muscles in his throat would tear from the effort. He let loose his Blessing, the blood splattered all about him and gushing down his arms flashing brilliant gold, his hands striking enormous craters into the earth. The ground buckled and cracked, the craters created by his fists expanding outwards at a frightening rate, throwing forth enormous amounts of rock, stone and soil upwards. The veritable wave of pure, heavy earth pulsed outwards, growing ever more violent as it amplified outwards from its source. The Skal heavy cavalry tried to pull up and retreat from the wave as it moved towards them, but they were far too close and the wave was moving outwards far too quickly. They were swallowed by an avalanche of rock, crushed beneath its incredible weight in a single terrible instant. The quake continued outwards for another half of a mile, growing in speed and ferocity the entire time, nearly reaching the main Skal force itself, before Niko finally was able to cut off the incredible flow of power coming from the Beyond. He collapsed to the ground the instant the connection was lost, desperately fighting to heal the deep, deadly wounds on his arms before the blackness of unconsciousness took him.


Chapter IV


Niko had been dreading the coming of his eighth birthday for months. Once you turned eight, they started teaching you how to control the Blessing. That meant spilling blood, which meant cutting himself up, over and over again. The ceremony of the first cutting, which would take place today, was called the Crimson Genesis.


Terra said it wasn’t that bad. She said your skin scarred over quickly and the Blessing numbed the pain anyway. She said only the first couple of days really sucked. Niko thought she was just trying to be nice to him; even though Niko was bigger than her - he was as big as some of the ten and eleven year old boys at the Compound - she always liked to remind him that she was older by almost six months and treated him like her little brother. It was really annoying most of the time, but today, Niko wished she was here. 


Terra was out in the rocky wilderness with one of the Nullers, doing some kind of survival training. She’d been gone for three days and could be gone another week or more. She’d been really sad that she was going to miss his birthday and couldn’t be there during his first cutting, but the children at the Compound didn’t get to choose their schedule, and the Nullers didn’t give a shit about what the kids wanted to do. 


For two years now, Niko had lived in the Compound - the Imperial Blessed Training Facility, technically - under the watchful eye of the Nullers. That was what the kids called the soldiers from the Null Army company that supervised the Compound. Those two years had not been all bad. Most of the lessons in the first couple years revolved around independence and education. The Nullers said they had to undo what their parents had taught them in the first six years of their lives to get them ready to be the best soldiers in the whole Empire. They were taught things like how to string and shoot a bow, how to hunt and snare and skin animals, how to recognize poisonous wild berries and mushrooms versus edible ones. That kind of stuff. Later there’d also been a lot of history; history of the Empire, of the battles it’d fought over the centuries, how all the provinces had been acquired, who all the great Generals and Emperors and Empresses had been. Most of the Nuller teachers had made it plain they thought Empress Zianna, the current ruler of the Muiran, was the best leader they’d had in at least three hundred years. Niko had met her, once. She’d been at the Compound when Niko had been brought here along with two other Blessed children, though they’d both been Imperials, not provincials, and Niko hadn’t seen them since, as they were trained in a different part of the Compound for reasons Niko didn’t quite understand. 


Anyway, the Empress hadn’t been as impressive as he’d mentally pictured her to be. She was shorter than he’d thought, maybe only as tall as his mother, who was pretty short for a Western woman, though Niko knew Imperials tended to be shorter on average. She’d had short, straight black hair streaked with shiny white and was darker skinned than most Imperials, too. The white hair and dark skin were because the Empress was part Westerner, from Lalliani Province just like Terra. Her grandfather had married a Western peasant a long time ago, which wasn’t allowed since he was apparently some high ranking politician or something (not the Emperor, but maybe a Senator? Niko couldn’t recall), but he did it anyway. Niko’s parents said that her Western blood was why the Empress was actually really good to the West, and all the other provinces, too. There was a lot less rebellion and people angry at the Empire out West now, his parents had told him, even compared to when the Empress’s father had been Emperor himself. 


So the Empress just looked like a pretty normal half-Imperial half-provincial woman to Niko, except she had more muscles than a regular woman, even though she was still pretty skinny. At least that’s what he’d thought until she had walked up to him to thank him for his service to the Empire (like he’d had a choice) and met his eyes. Her eyes were bright, sky blue, rimmed with the golden halo around the pupil of a Blessed. But even though Niko had thought her eyes were actually really pretty, there was something about the way she looked at him that had scared him deep in his heart. Maybe it was just because he was a little boy, scared and away from his parents for the first time in his life. But he’d still have nightmares sometimes where the only thing he’d remember was that piercing bright blue gaze. 


Niko rose from bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then hastily pulled on his formal uniform, wanting to get outside his room before one of the Nullers came to chastise him for being late. Some of the Nullers would just give him a stern look and remind him that punctuality is a key trait for a soldier. But some of them, like scowling Private Tok, or even worse, Corporal Minu with her fake smiles, liked to slap them for even the smallest mistake. Niko didn’t want to give them the chance today, especially since he knew his body would hurt more than enough soon. 


Just as Niko finished lacing his boots and he was reaching for the door, it opened on its own. Just as Niko feared, Corporal Minu was standing in the hallway, a broad, toothy grin on her face and her fists clenched so tight the tendons in her hands stood taught against her thin pale skin. 


“Ah, little one. Look at you, all ready to go on your big day. Good, we don’t want to be late for the captain, do we?” she said, her voice gratingly high. Her stupid smile and her stupider voice were bad enough, but her vicious, angry hands were the really dangerous part of her. She wasn’t as strong as Tok for sure, but she knew just where to hit to make it really, really sting.  


“Yes, ma’am. I’m ready to report for the ceremony today.” Niko said, keeping his gaze down, his voice calm and respectful. “I look forward to truly beginning my proper training as a Blessed soldier of the Muirani Empire.”


“Good, that’s what we like to hear,” Minu replied, sharply gesturing for Niko to follow her as she set off down the hallway. “No breakfast this morning, you know, as we don’t want you to vomit during the ceremony. That would be very disappointing and not at all respectful of the importance of today, don’t you think?”


“Yes, ma’am. I shall not disappoint." Niko replied. He forced himself to continue to make respectful small talk with Minu until they reached the Ceremony Hall at the very centre of the Compound. Niko wished someone like Private Qi or, even better, Lieutenant Yssir had come to fetch him instead. Qi never hit and rarely even raised his voice and sometimes gave them small pieces of sweetbread he said he baked himself. Lieutenant Yssir was even better; she said that it was important for the Blessed at the Compound to grow up and get used to pain, get used to following orders and acting quickly, but that she didn’t need to hit them to help them do that. She didn't like that Captain Harmon let the Nullers hit the kids who hadn't even done their first cutting, and Niko had heard her tell him that to his face. Once, while helping him ice a large bruise left by Tok, she had told Niko that she actually felt sorry for the Blessed in the Compound.


“But you know,” she said. “The Empire really does need you guys. My brother is a Blessed. I remember being so sad when they took him away… But when he came back years later, he was so strong. I joined the military just for a chance to fight alongside him, and once I finally did and saw him in action… Wow! You wouldn’t believe what you’ll be capable of once your training is finished. I know it’s hard. I know you’re lonely and scared and sometimes you get hurt. But the Empress needs the Blessed. She needs you to be fearless, to be brave, to be the best warriors in all the lands. The Empire couldn’t exist without you guys. You’re doing your home proud by being here. Your parents will be proud of you, too, once you’re done. I know my parents were proud of my brother.”


“But your parents and your brother were Imperials, right? Not a Provincial like me. It’s different for us, everyone treats us different, y’know?” Niko had said, looking up into the lieutenant's kind eyes. For the first time, however, he saw something else flash there. Was it anger? Disgust? Outrage? He didn’t know.


Lieutenant Yssir had sat back straight in her chair, letting go of the cloth-wrapped ice she was helping Niko with. “Whether you are from Central Muiran or elsewhere, we are allImperials, Niko Rivera. When the provinces stop harboring rebels and terrorists, the Empress will no longer have to take special precautions with people like yourself. You can be the change you want to see in the Empire by helping the Empress achieve those goals. It is your duty as a soldier and citizen.” 


Even though Lieutenant Yssir hadn’t seemed quite the same to Niko after that day, he still would’ve rather had her walking him to the ceremony than damned Minu, that’s for sure. After a few more minutes of painful conversation, they arrived at the large, heavy wooden doors of the Hall. Minu pushed open one of the doors and ushered Niko inside. 


Most of the high ranking Nullers were lining the walls of the big room, along with about a half-dozen Provincial Blessed children that were also in this section of the Compound, still too young for the ceremony. He spotted Lieutenant Yssir and she gave him a small, subtle smile and an encouraging nod when she met his eyes. That helped Niko’s heart slow down, if only a little. 


Captain Harmon was standing at the centre of the room. He was in front of a golden podium with a soft looking red cushion on it, on top of which was laid a knife in a shiny, jewel-encrusted scabbard. Upon seeing the knife, Niko’s heart immediately began pounding again. He stopped walking, too scared to move forward any more. But Minu was still right behind him; she laid a hand on the back of his neck in an almost motherly manner, but pinched hardat the sensitive skin there. Niko knew better than to cry out, but he did grimace slightly at the pain. 


“Keep going, little one. Like the brave little soldier you are.” she hissed in his ear. Niko could feel the heat of her breath on his cheek; she stunk like sour wine and old fish. He started walking again, partly just to get away from the woman’s smell.


He reached the podium the captain was standing behind and kneeled respectfully. They didn’t have to salute the officers until after their first cutting, as they were not considered true soldiers or even cadets until after the Crimson Genesis.


The captain was the most boring looking man Niko had ever seen. He was below average in height and slightly overweight. He didn’t look like a soldier at all. Niko thought he looked more like the tax collectors that he had sometimes seen making rounds in Ialla, the small town he had been born in. He had a slight paunch overspilling his belt, rather than a flat, hard stomach like Niko had come to expect of Muirani soldiers. He had pale, blotchy skin and dull grey-green eyes with heavy dark bags under them. He had thinning hair and a thin, scruffy light brown goatee that Niko thought probably wouldn’t meet Imperial standards for tightly trimmed facial hair, but he guessed the Nullers didn’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of the military. Regular soldiers certainly weren’t allowed to abuse children, either, but that never stopped anyone at the Compound. 


Those heavily bagged, bland looking eyes had a slight shine of gold to them, however. He’s Blessed. Just like me. He must have gone through this when he was young. He probably knows how scared I am,Niko thought, and that helped him feel a little better, even though he didn’t see even a trace of pity or caring in the captain's stare. 


“Niko Rivera of Ialla, Rinza Province,” the captain spoke, his voice high pitched and nasally, lips wet and almost wormlike as they squirmed around to form words. “Today you shall learn to unleash and control the Blessed blood that flows through your veins. You will harness the divine power given to you by the Nine Great Lords, the Angels Above. May you use it to defend your Empire from her enemies, and may you never be tempted by the Betrayer into using your gift for evil rather than good. Do you so swear, Niko Rivera?”


“I swear... “ Niko muttered, struggling to keep his voice even and unafraid. 


“Stand, and we will begin the Crimson Genesis. I will release your holy blood into this world, unleashing your Blessing, and enabling you to call upon the Great Beyond.” Niko stuck his arm out to the captain as the other man drew the long, curved dagger from its shining scabbard. Captain Harmon held the dagger tight in one hand and grasped Niko’s wrist with the other, his grip much tighter than Niko would have ever expected from such a drab and wearisome looking man. It actually hurt a little, but Niko said nothing. “You must call upon the Blessing, and bring forth a miracle of power, displaying your control over your own gift in the eyes of your companions and the Angels looking down from above. Then you must heal your wounds of your own free will, lest your life’s blood leave your body entirely and you die, deeming yourself unworthy.”


Niko’s eyes grew wide and his breath short. He didn’t know he’d have to heal himself or die. Sure, Niko had called upon his Blessing a few times by accident, and had healed small wounds instinctively, but those had usually been nothing more than small scrapes and cuts. Not a fatal wound, especially not immediately after having to perform some kind of magic impressive enough to convince the Angels that he was worthy of their gift.


“Ready yourself,” the captain was saying, and before Niko could protest, the man dug the dagger deep into the flesh of Niko’s exposed arm, dragging it down to his wrist and opening an enormous, gaping wound. Blood flowed heavily from the slash, and the pain, oh the pain! Niko had never felt anything like it. No matter how hard Tok or Minu or any of the others had hit him, nothing compared to the feeling of the ice cold blade splitting open his hot skin, tearing muscle and tissue and scraping so deep it hit the bone. Despite himself, despite what he had promised Terra, he started to cry and scream; the pain was simply unbearable, too much for an eight year old boy, a mere child, to bear. 


Niko tried to pull his arm back, cradle it tight against his chest in a vain attempt to dull the pain, but Captain Harmon’s grip remained tight on his wrist, despite the blood that was now flowing down through the captain’s fingers. Niko looked up at the man’s eyes, empty-looking eyes, and knew he would not let Niko go until he collapsed to the floor, dead. Harmon said nothing, only stared at Niko expectantly, waiting.


Niko tried to push the pain aside and feel for the pull of the Beyond. He’d felt it in bits and pieces before, whenever he’d cut himself and a bit of blood seeped out, or even pulsing through his veins if he’d been running hard in a training exercise in the yard. And there, just outside the veil of agony that was the wound in his arm, Niko could sense a golden beacon of hope and relief. He grasped for that power mentally, pushed through the dense fog of terrible pain, desperately reaching out for the Blessing, the Beyond, the power that he was given by the Angels. As he got closer to that power he felt the pain beginning to numb. Or was that just because he was bleeding out? His head felt so light. It felt like it was full of water, his brain floating around aimlessly in a great lake inside his skull. His vision was blurred. He could barely make out the captain now, though Niko could tell he was still staring with that terrible, uncaring stare. 


He had to reach that golden power. He just had to! He couldn’t die now. Not here. He had to live on, to become a Blessed soldier of the Empire and return to his parents and fight the rebels and fight to make sure his province stayed strong and safe. He would become a legendary fighter, known around the entirety of Greater Atia as the Warrior of the West, greatest swordsman of all time. Screaming, Niko pushed as hard as he could for that golden power and finally grasped it. He felt his vision sharpen, his muscles grow taught with untold strength, the pain of the cut fading into a mere distant throbbing. At the same time, he pulled back as hard as he could against the captain’s grip on his wrist. The blood on his arm burst into glorious golden light, his entire arm and the captain’s hand, anything covered in blood, suddenly becoming engulfed in unfettered power from the Beyond. 


Niko whipped his arm free, spinning around completely, the holy fire that surrounded his arm extending out into a deadly, cracking whip. The whip sliced through the stone walls and wooden roof of the hall like a heated knife through soft butter. There was a visceral gushing noise and a quick, agonized scream, but Niko did not know or care where it came from. He had collapsed to the ground after spinning around, the flame dying down and retreating back into his veins through the open wound on his arm, knitting closed the gash as it went. 


And then it was over. Silence rang loudly through the entire hall; none of those present dared even to whisper.


“Excellent work, Cadet Niko Rivera. You have completed the Crimson Genesis, your first true unleashing of the Blessing,” a voice sounded from behind. Niko turned slowly, shuffling along on his knees, not feeling strong enough to rise to his feet. Captain Harmon was still standing there, completely unphased, though he arm was glowing gold, pulsing with the power of the Blessing. When the light finally faded, Niko saw that the captain’s left arm now ended in a clean, well-healed stub halfway up the forearm. Had Niko taken off his hand during his outburst? How was the captain so calm? How had he healed himself so cleanly and so quickly?


Noticing Niko staring at the stump, the captain smirked slightly. Niko found that even the small smile brightened the man’s eyes somewhat. He didn’t seem quite as empty inside now. “I have never seen such power from a Blessed on their first cutting. You will truly be a powerful soldier for the Empire. I can promise you that. And don’t worry about poor Corporal Minu; she probably deserved what she got, truthfully,” Harmon chuckled, shaking his head slightly.


Niko shifted around again, looking behind him. Laying in a pool of her own blood was the corpse of Corporal Minu. She had been split into two, diagonally across the torso; her head and left arm and shoulder resting slightly apart from the rest of her body. The wound that ran across her upper body was incredibly smooth and even - not even the sharpest steel blade could have made such a cut. 


Niko wasn't sure what to think. A myriad of emotions ran through him, one after another. Horror, regret, sadness, fear… And yet, shouldn’t he have felt worse? He’d killed her, intentionally or not. Niko knew he’d have to kill someday; that was inevitable as a Blessed soldier. He hadn’t thought it’d be today. He thought it’d be on the battlefield, defending himself and his country, fighting for a great cause. So why didn’t he feel worse, having this horrible thing suddenly sprung on him? 


Why should he even be sad that Minu was gone? She was awful to him. Awful to all the children. Hadn't he wished her dead a hundred times whilst laying in bed, rubbing at bruises covering his entire body? He hadn't wanted to be the one to kill her… He hadn't really wanted to kill anyone. But now that she was gone, Niko couldn't feel pity for her. 


Angelic doctrine stated one may not use the Blessing to kill an innocent, but was there anyone less innocent at the Compound than sour old Corporal Minu? Niko supposed that wasn't for him to judge. The Angels Above would judge her now, just as they would judge Niko for all his actions, including her killing, once he passed into the next life. 


He could only stare into Minu's dead eyes, her mouth still twisted into that hateful, crooked grin even in death. No, Niko thought. I don't regret it. Destroying evil is the duty of the Blessed. That's what I've done. This was a holy ceremony and surely the Angels wouldn't've let Minu die here if it hadn't meant to happen. 


Niko felt a light pressure on his shoulder. He looked up and saw that Captain Harmon had laid his remaining hand on Niko’s shoulder, and was still wearing that small, strange smile.


“Welcome to the ranks of the Blessed of Muiran, Cadet Rivera. Now your training will truly begin.”


Chapter V


Niko was abruptly shaken awake from the dream as the cart he was laying in hit a large rock in the road, causing the entire thing to shudder violently. He shot upright immediately, feeling for his sword at his belt, but found that it was not there. Nor was his dagger, any of his throwing knives, or the several small blades he kept attached to his equipment to allow a quick cut to unleash the Blessing on a moment's notice. 


“I took all the blades off you so you didn’t cut yourself as you thrashed in your sleep,” said Terra’s voice. Niko looked in that direction and saw that she was riding a horse alongside the cart he was laid in, a smile on her face as she looked over at him, “I’ve put them in that leather bag near the front of the cart. But you should really rest some more.”


Niko rolled his shoulders and neck stiffly; the bone-deep ache that came with tapping too deeply into the power of the Beyond had settled in heavily during the time he had been unconscious. Niko flared the power of his Blessing gently - burning juice, as it was colloquially known amongst the Blessed soldiers. Though his senses sharpened significantly, the ache retreated to mere background noise and he could feel strength return to his muscles. Niko shuffled awkwardly over to the sack that Terra had pointed to and rummaged through it, finding his equipment carefully stored there. “I’m fine now. Really. But thank you. How long have I been out?”


“Couple hours. Long enough for us to finish the evacuation of Dorin and move through the mines and out into the mountains behind the city. I expect the Skal have occupied Dorin by now.”


Niko nodded thoughtfully as he strapped his belt to his waist and attached the various blades and small, sharp spikes to the worn leather of his battle gear. Blessed wore only supple leather, no steel plates or even chainmail. They needed quick access to skin to slice open. They didn’t really need the protection from enemy blades, either, as every cut the enemy dealt would only make a Blessed soldier stronger. If you saw the blow coming, a Blessed could even stop a fatal strike midway through their body by calling heavily on the Beyond at the moment it began to pierce the skin. Niko himself had saved his own life more than once in that manner, stopping and even repelling outwards an enemy’s sword from inside his abdomen or chest. 


“You’re lucky.” Terra said. “Wuomi wanted you to wake up in chains for disobeying her so flagrantly. Luckily Brigadier Wren saw what you did to save the captain from up on the keep and overrode Wuomi. Says you deserve a medal, not a court-martial.” Terra laughed aloud, the joyful sound echoing along the mountain pass as they continued to ride onwards. “Boy was she ever mad about that.”


Finishing attaching all his equipment, Niko leaned his back heavily against the front board of the cart. Even with the Blessing running through his veins, he was tired. It seemed like ages ago they had left on a simple mission to chase down a raiding party. Now they had days or weeks of riding towards Kailan. And he doubted the Skal would be satisfied merely taking Dorin. They would chase the column the entire time, and the army had the whole population of the city and all the miners to protect now. The days ahead would not be easy, and Niko was grateful to take even a few minutes respite in the back of the cart. 


“Wuomi won’t let this go,” Niko said. “She’s stubborn. She’ll find a way to make me pay for making her look like a fool in front of half the military in Dorin.”


“She’ll have to go through the brigadier, not to mention Captain Klo himself. Cap’ was really grateful for what you did to save him. Said it was damn foolish, but he was grateful nonetheless.”


“Where is our fearless leader anyway?” Niko asked, turning his head to look around the immediate area. He was happy to see all familiar faces surrounding him. Driving the cart was a corporal he had served with for several years, Corporal Jaxon Mills. Sergeant Eliys, who had been with Terra and him since they were themselves sergeants and she a corporal, was walking alongside the cart on the opposite side of Terra. Another two young privates, Sidinus and Grimeer, marched behind the cart.


“He’s further up, riding with the other senior leadership. Brigadier Wren is catching him up on the situation, I think. And debriefing him about our little trek northwards, since we’re the last unit to have personally engaged the Skal forces.”


Niko nodded slightly, closing his eyes and resting his chin on his chest, breathing deeply. 


“Niko, you gonna be okay?” Terra asked. Niko opened his eyes again and saw her frowning at him, her green eyes showing concern, her brow wrinkled. “What you did had to have taken a lot out of you… You sure you won’t sleep a bit more?”


“No. I’m fine… Did any of the Skal horsemen survive?”


Corporal Mills, the cart driver, barked a hoarse, rough laugh at that. “Angels Above, no! Never seen such a thing as that and I’d wager the Skal hadn’t neither. You buried the lot of them. Must’ve been, oh, five hundred horse, all gone now.”


“It’s true,” Terra agreed. “They didn’t stand a chance. The wave came so fast and hard on them. I thought for a moment it was going to reach the main force before you cut it off, though I’m glad you did. You were weak enough afterwards as it is.


“That’s good, then,” Niko said. “The Skal aren’t known for having a strong cavalry. Their lands don’t make good pastures for horses. Even five hundred riders is probably a good, strong portion of their entire mounted force. It’ll make them think twice before they deploy against us again.”


They rode on in silence, Niko still sitting in the back of the cart despite his insistence that he needed no more rest. He had drawn his dagger and was examining its sharp edge. All of his blades were kept immaculately clean and sharp; if one was going to cut oneself open time and time again, best to do it with a well-maintained blade. He turned the weapon over and over in heavily scarred hands. He looked down at his arms, equally as scarred. He had fresh, shining scars down the length of his inner forearms from his most recent unleashing of the Blessing. He looked over at Terra. She was gazing off into the distance, monitoring the mountains next to the path for any sign of Skal. She held the reins of her horse loosely in her hands, as heavily scarred as Niko’s. All Blessed hands, arms, even bodies looked the same. Though the Blessing could heal quickly and relatively cleanly, scars were always left behind. Niko had tried healing the scars after the fact, flaring his Blessing, even trying to pour some of his own blood over the wound, but he couldn’t figure out how to do it. The scars were the mark of the Blessed; a small price to pay for the incredible power they bore. 


Niko looked again at his right arm, searching for a specific scar, his oldest and most faded. He thought he could see it, but it was nearly impossible to know for sure. The scar given to him by Captain Harmon at the Crimson Genesis, nearly twenty years ago. Strange that he would dream of that day now. He rarely thought of his time at the Compound anymore.


“Do you often think about the Compound?” Niko blurted aloud, the suddenness of the question surprising even himself.


Terra raised her eyebrows in surprise but didn’t say anything else for a moment. She turned again to look at the mountains nearby. Still looking away, she said, “Not often. It’s not like we have many happy memories of the place. But why ask?”


“Sometimes I wonder why they had to be so cruel,” Niko said, not answering Terra’s question. “They said it was to harden us, to get us used to pain, to have us be independent. But I’m not sure that’s true. Does being abused and frightened as a child really make anyone a better soldier? We get used to pain by the habit of unleashing the Blessing over and over again. The knife hurts more, physically anyway, than their hands and insults. But they do it anyway. The emotional damage they dealt is different from the physical damage we need to get used to, surely.” 


Terra was looking at Niko again, an unreadable expression on her face. He had known her for a long time, longer than anyone but his parents, and he’d certainly spent more time with her than with them. Her hair was matted and filthy, the white of it more dull grey now than anything. But her eyes still shone brilliant green. She was a hard woman, a career soldier, though NIko supposed she was beautiful in her own, rugged way. He loved her like a sister, though there had, of course, been a few moments of awkward sexual tension between the two in their younger, teenage years. Those moments had passed, all but forgotten. Niko didn’t really feel that way about anyone anymore. It was easier for him to stay closed off.


“What’s going on with you, Niko? You’ve been… strange recently.”


“I used to think they hated us, hated us for being Blessed, even though we were children. Even Captain Harmon, Blessed himself, hated us. They hated that we’d be more than them, better than them, even though they were the elite Null Army,” Niko spat the last two words. Many Muirani soldiers had a healthy fear of Null Army. Niko had only spite for them. “As I grew older, I wondered if it was just because they liked hurting us, liked hurting children. Maybe because they knew we were going to end up stronger than them, and this was the only time they couldhurt us. And I wondered why the Empress let it happen. It's not like she didn’t know. She was there at the Compound when I was dropped off. She knows everything that happens in the Empire anyway. And that made me wonder about the Empire itself…”


“Niko. That’s enough,” Terra said sharply, looking around at the other soldiers nearby. He was getting dangerously close to treasonous talk now. 


“It’s fine. These are our men, Captain Klo’s soldiers. I trust all of you with my life, our soldiers of V-12 Company.” Niko said loudly, pride evident in his voice. Sergeant Eliys was watching Niko closely, though the others were pointedly ignoring him. Eliys had an unreadable expression on her face, though when Niko looked at her more closely she simply smiled a knowing smile and went back to scouting the road.


“I love the Empire, Terra. Imperial soldiers saved my village from raiders more than once. My father smiths weapons for them, my mother sews uniforms and flags for them, and they are respected and treated well and paid well for their work. The Empire keeps the bandits and raiders at bay, they keep the criminals living in fear. They pay for public schools, public medical clinics, work with the Angelic Temple to provide for the poor. I’ll fight for the Empire until my last breath. But how can I not hate them, too? How can younot hate them? For what they did to us? For what they still do to Blessed children up in the Compound?”


Terra did not speak for a time. The other soldiers nearby were now very pointedly refusing to look in Niko’s direction. He had probably gone too far. But he was tired. So damned tired.


“You sound like my brothers. Like Liam and Exley.” Terra said, her voice hoarse, catching in her throat as she spoke. “They used to justify themselves with the same line of thinking, and now…” she trailed off, glancing towards the other soldiers nearby. Niko supposed he understood that; despite his earlier proclamation, there were certainly things in his past he would rather not have public knowledge amongst the soldiers of V-12 Company. 


“Here, where’s my horse?” Niko said, finally picking himself up from his seat at the front of the cart, jumping nimbly down to land next to Terra. Her own horse shied away from him at the sudden motion, but Terra quieted him with a soft word.


“We’ve got her tied a bit further back in the column with some of the pack horses, sir,” replied Private Sidinus. Niko thanked the man, who responded with a quick salute, but would not meet Niko’s eyes. Ah, maybe I’ve done more damage to my reputation than I expected, he thought, but there was no helping that now. 


Niko quickly fetched his mare from the line and road back up next to Terra. He gestured over to a stream that ran a few hundred feet away from the path they marched along, “Come with me to that stream, lieutenant. I need to wash myself up.”


He moved his horse in that direction without waiting for a reply, and Terra followed without comment soon afterwards. They dismounted again near the creek, allowing their horses to drink from the cold running water whilst Niko quickly washed away the grime from his face and arms. Terra crouched next to the stream as if to wash herself as well, but was staring upstream absently instead.


“You alright there, Qashi?” Niko said, trying and failing to inject some humour into his voice.


“Yes. No. I don’t know, Niko.” Terra said, voice strained. “I don’t like the way the Null Army treated us at the Compound either. But everything I am is because of my time there, because of the Empire. Obviously whatever they did, worked. And I’m happy with my life. We do good work; we protect those who can’t protect themselves.”


“I know, I know,” Niko replied, letting his fingertips rest in the cold water, watching as the little creek flowed quickly around and through them. 


“I don’t think you do, Niko. We can’t talk like this, like you did, especially not around others. Not even around our own men and women.”


“You think they’re gonna sic Null Army on us?” Niko said, only half in jest.


“Probably not… But, like I’ve said, I’ve know what that kind of thinking leads to. My brothers… They did a lot of terrible, violent things. All in the name of their cause, a cause they justified by saying for every evil they committed, the Empire had committed threefold.” Terra finally reached down to the river, cupping water in her rough hands and rinsing her hair and face off as best she could. 


“You’re right, of course,” Niko admitted. “You usually are.”


“You’d think you’d have learned that by now,” 


Niko snorted out a short laugh. “I’m a slow learner, you know.”


They sat there in relative silence for a time, only the sound of the gently flowing river and the marching column echoing behind them in the distance. 


Terra finally broke the silence, “Do you feel like telling me what’s been bothering you, since Private Dun in the clearing back then?”


Sighing, Niko stood up. He knew she wouldn’t let this go until he gave her something, as painful as this was for him to even think about. She had told him about her brothers. This was the least he could do. “It’s about Marlana and… and…” After all these years, he still couldn't bring himself to even say his name. You’re a coward, Niko Rivera. 


“Oh… I see.” Terra said, standing herself and looking Niko in the eyes. “They didn’t just fall, did they? It wasn't just a tragic accident.”


“It was an accident… But not in the way that it read on the official reports. I had more to do with their deaths than almost anyone knows. And it haunts me.”


“I see,” Terra said, reaching up and resting a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Look, I won’t push anymore. I know how hard it is for you to talk about them. Maybe you can tell me about it once we deal with these Skal.”


“Yes. Maybe. I owe you as much.” Niko admitted, resting his own hand on Terra’s. “Let’s kick some Skal ass first, and worry about my emotional baggage another day, shall we?”


The two Blessed mounted up again and rode back to their place in the column of humanity. It was a long, harrowing march through the mountains and back towards the relative safety of Kailan, and Niko knew it would only be a matter of time before the Skal army caught up to them.


*

*

*


Three days later, and there was still no sign of the Skal. Brigadier Wren had anticipated the Skal to quickly secure Dorin and then move after the column, assuming their goal was to wipe out the populace. She had left a few volunteer scouts to watch the city from nearby mountain passes and report back to her when they began moving again; thus far, however, they had heard nothing. Leadership was split on the fate of these spies: some more optimistic members, such as Wren and Terra, thought that the spies hadn’t reported simply because the Skal had not moved onward yet. Other, more cynical members of the group, such as Niko himself and Captain Wuomi (Niko was unhappy to find himself agreeing with the that woman, but alas) assumed that they had been captured and executed, and that the Skal were merely biding their time to attack when the Muirani were most vulnerable. 


“We are and have been vulnerable, Niko,” argued Captain Klo. The captain found himself mostly on the side of the Brigadier, but he had told Niko he had a sneaking suspicion the Skal were planning something dubious and unexpected. None of the Skal actions the past month had been predictable, after all. 


“They could attack us with a tenth of their force and still outnumber us ten to one. Regardless of our Blessed soldiers,” the captain said, cutting off Wuomi as she began to speak. “We would be unable to hold them back, especially not without suffering tremendous loss of civilian life. We’ve armed the strongest men and women amongst them, even many of the miners, but they’ve no training and we don’t have enough equipment for them all.” 


“I agree. It’s why I thought they would surely attack us soon.” said Brigadier Wren, anger and frustration evident in her voice. She was a Northern woman, native to these lands, and had a vested interest in expunging the Skal from her home. She was of average height and thickly built, but moved quickly and lightly for a woman of her size. She had dirty blonde hair that she kept buzzed short and she had small, intelligent dark-brown eyes hooded by a heavy brow. Niko knew she had a stellar service record and had wondered in the past how she ended up in charge of a battalion that was on glorified guard duty for the miners of Dorin. Many of those miners were working to pay off a criminal debt and were dangerous when left alone, hence why the empire assigned a full battalion to the mines that employed nearly five thousand miners. Despite the danger of the job, it was far from glorious, and Niko had heard rumors that she had been banished to this duty by the Empress herself. Niko had heard whispers that she had a strong liking for the narcotic N’gola venom, though he had never seen concrete evidence of this accusation. 


Wren continued, “But seeing as we have not yet seen even a trace of the bastards, I’m forced to consider other scenarios.”


It was nearing dusk that day, and, after ordering a halt to their march, Wren had assembled all the officers of rank lieutenant and higher in her large, though simplistic, command tent. She met with Commanders Hakona and Ji-Lu every day, but the more junior officers were only called in when she wanted a wider perspective on any issues. Wren was pacing circles around the group of officers now; Niko again was impressed by how lightly and nimbly she moved throughout the tent. He had never seen her draw her sword and fight, but could tell from her movements that she would be dangerous on the battlefield. 


“Dorin is certainly the richest city in the North.” Wren said. “The political centre is Kailan, of course, but the economic centre is Dorin. We have the mines to thank for that. Dorin Mines rival even the greatest mines of the West in terms of raw output, and while there is greater variety and overall value in the West, Dorin produces higher quality gemstones than anywhere else in all of Greater Atia.”


“You feel the Skal are after money?” asked Commander Ji-Lu. She was a Southron from the wetland province of Hinokido, her skin slightly darker and a different shade than true Imperials, and her eyes dark and almond-shaped. She frequently had oversight for Captain Klo’s company, and Niko knew her as a shrewd, intelligent woman, if not a little over-cautious. 


“Yes. And why not?” asked Wren. “If they plan to fight the Empire, they’ll need the funds. Their economy has still not fully recovered from the Invasion. By plundering the coffers of Dorin, they allow themselves to kickstart their own economy, pay to better outfit their soldiers, even hire mercenaries to help fight their battles.”


“They would need someone willing to deal with them, someone to provide them with weapons and military support in exchange for their ill-gotten wealth. No one will deal with the savages,” said Captain Wuomi spitefully. She clearly did not believe the Skal were capable of such a plan, though Niko was not so sure. In the past he would have believed the Skal too proud to ask for help from outsiders, but something had definitely changed about their tactics in recent months. 


At this, Niko noticed Brigadier Wren exchange a suspicious look with the two commanders. Commander Ji-Lu nodded her head slightly, while Commander Hakona gave only a subtle shrug of his broad shoulders. 


“There is something to be said about that,” Wren began, cautiously. “This information is strictly confidential, for the officers present in this tent only. You are not to share anything we speak about from here onwards with your other men, including sergeants and corporals.”


Wuomi perked up at this, then shot Terra and Niko a look of barely contained contempt. “If this is important Imperial intelligence, perhaps only the captains should hear it. Henson, Jamala, wait outside the tent until instructed otherwise,” she said, gesturing to her own two lieutenants, both Imperial men, Henson tall and tired looking, Jamala shorter and with the colouring of a mixed Western or Southern Provincial heritage. They began to rise before Wren cut them off.


“No. The lieutenants may stay. I value their opinions and trust their judgement in this matter.”


Wuomi didn’t dare disagree with the brigadier, but she couldn’t help the sour look that spread across her face at this. She had been quick to single out her own lieutenants, but Niko thought it painfully obvious she was trying to remove himself and Terra from the discussion. He’d have to do something about this feud of theirs. He disliked Wuomi, but she was being far more petty than he would have expected of an officer and fellow Blessed. 


The brigadier continued, “We have received intelligence from the Capital and from Null Army that there is strong evidence the Skal forces have been receiving assistance from as of yet unknown benefactors. The reports state it most likely that one of the sovereign countries west of our borders are looking to destabilize the Empire, perhaps fearing for the security of their own lands.


“As you have no doubt noticed, the Skal tactics have evolved substantially since the days of the last Invasion. They are better trained, faster to strike and more prudent to order tactical withdrawals. Furthermore, though we have not seen much in this area of the Northern Provinces, out west, especially in Saalen, the Skal have better swords, armor, bows, and horses than we’ve seen from them in the past. The army that General Palmer was deployed to meet was even better equipped than before. That army, of course, is now occupying Dorin and will likely, sooner or later, meet our small force in combat.”


“Why were we not told of this sooner?” asked another captain from Wren’s battalion, an Imperial woman with a nasty scar covering much of the left side of her face. Aliz Dranier, Niko believed her name was. 


“It was decided this information be shared only at the battalion-level, with the Brigadiers and their commanders, outside the specifically affected regions. General Palmer did not want to distract the soldiers with information they could not act on directly.”


“Have they provided only weapons and tactical advice?” Niko asked. “Or can we expect to see soldiers from these other countries joining the battle?”


“We have scattered reports of heavily disguised outsiders amongst the Skal armies, though only in small numbers, and the Null Army spies have not been able to infiltrate deep enough behind enemy lines to learn anything more than that these benefactors tend to be tall, of darker complexion, and meet with the Skal leadership only rarely.”


“Doesn’t really narrow it down much, does it?” Captain Klo muttered, shaking his head. “Could be mercs from the Tra Desert, Western rebels… Even Eli’i and Shali’i meet that description.”


“This is true,” Wren replied. “The Empire has sent requests to Elevgar and Shali’toia asking for assurances that they are not interfering with Imperial affairs. The Eli’i claim ignorance of the matter and profess their loyalty to the alliance they have with us and Dlaividel.”


“If it’s the Shali’i, that could be mighty dangerous…” Niko said, thinking aloud more than anything, but Wren nodded in agreement.


“Yes. The Empress knows there is no love lost between our two nations. It is partly because of our refusal to interfere in the affair between the Eli’i and Shali’i that they were exiled from their own country a century ago. Diplomatic exchanges between us and them are… tense, at best.”


“Shali’toia is fighting their own war with the old Indrangin Empire to the south, are they not? I know they’ve grown stronger in the last few decades, and the Indranginians are a shadow of their former selves, but I would still think that conflict would leave them with little spare resources to try tangling with Muiran,” Wuomi said. Again, her arrogance was obvious in her voice and demeanour, but Niko did agree with her that it would be foolish of the Shali’i to involve themselves in another conflict before wrapping up the first one. He did not, admittedly, know a lot about the Shali’i people, but he did know that they were far from foolish.


“This is all true,” Wren agreed. “And is precisely the message that was returned to the Capital after our inquiries. The Shali’i are busy with their own matters and have no interest in any Muirani business, or so they claim.”


“Null Army intelligence agrees,” Commander Ji-Lu continued. “The most likely suspects are Western rebel groups. Or at least, they believe that the Skal benefactors are acting through the rebels as an intermediary. Rebel activity in the West has ramped up in recent months, almost in perfect harmony with the increase in Skal competency.”


Niko, Terra, and the only other Western officer in the tent, a lieutenant from Wren’s battalion named Milo Lanshi, shared a dark look amongst themselves. Terra especially seemed disturbed by this, having family ties to the Western Rebellion. 


“The rebels haven’t had much power or influence in recent years. How could they arrange all of this?” she asked, a hard edge to her voice, though her anger was mostly buried under a guise of professionalism. 


“That’s why we believe that someone else, a group from outside the Empire, is funding the rebels and encouraging them to, in turn, support the Skal.” Wren responded. She met Niko, Terra, and Lieutenant Lanshi with a level gaze each in turn. She knew this was a sensitive subject for the Westerners. “I can assure you that the Empress’ rage is focused on those benefactors, not the Western people. Likely they are being lied to and manipulated into betraying their Empire. The Empress knows Westerners are a passionate and loyal people. Rest assured, Null Army is working to root out this corruption and return peace to both the West and the North in one fell swoop.” 


“So the Skal aren’t working alone.” said Lieutenant Lanshi. “But the point still stands that we have no idea what their plan is right now. Do they mean to attack us? Surely, even if they just want the wealth of Dorin they wouldn’t--”


That same feeling from the clearing in northern Dorin overwhelmed Niko like a sudden flood. The nausea, the pain, the strain pulling at his veins. The force of the Beyond feeling like it was going to rip him apart; corrupted, malignant. Beside him, Terra had gripped her head in both hands and was bent over, obviously in agony. Wuomi, too, had fallen to both knees; she pounded her fist onto the rough gravel floor of the tent viciously, sending clouds of dust and debris flying up around her.


“What is it? What is this?” Brigadier Wren had leaped to her feet at the sudden, strange actions of three of her officers. Commander Hakona had his eyes closed as well, his fingers pressing hard against his temple as if stifling a headache.


Captain Klo had moved over to his two lieutenants, resting a hand on the shoulder of each of the two. “Niko, Terra, are you okay? Talk to me.”


“They’re coming,” Niko managed to choke out. “The Skal... they’ve teleported again, they’re here.”


Chapter VI


Mere moments later, Sergeant Eliys burst into the tent, a grim, focused look on her face. She must have been on guard duty outside the tent. Strange, that Brigadier Wren wouldn’t have someone from her own battalion guarding her. 


“Brigadier! A large force of Skal just appeared at the mouth of the valley. They’re marshalling to attack," the sergeant stated. Niko shook off the remnant of the terrible sudden pain that had just faded away. He admired how calm the sergeant seemed whilst delivering this news. Brigadier Wren was already moving towards the sergeant, barking questions and orders as she went.


“You three, are you fit to fight?” she first asked, looking to her three Blessed soldiers. They all replied in the affirmative, though Captain Wuomi still seemed a bit wobbly on her feet. Terra and Niko had experienced the strange, painful sensation once before, and were perhaps better able to move past the terrible feeling more quickly. “Good. How many Skal, sergeant?”


“I can’t be certain, ma’am. I just saw them appear suddenly and rushed in immediately to give word. By the size of the force, at least a few thousand.”


“Very well. Where did they end up?”


“Almost directly south of us, ma’am. Along the mountain ridge,” replied Eliys. After three days of marching, the column of Muirani had nearly made it out of the mountain ranges behind the mines, and had made camp at a valley on the edge of the wild hills at their base. The valley had the Inu River running through to the north and west, and another mountain ridge ran along the eastern edge. The valley opened up into the hills largely to the south and west. 


Wren had positioned the majority of her remaining three and a half companies in the north end of the valley; this was the end they had come from, much narrower and more rocky than the south. She had anticipated the Skal, if they followed the Muirani from Dorin, to attack from there, but had obviously not anticipated their foe utilizing their unexpected teleportation abilities yet again. She had spread out V-22 Company, under Captain Dranier’s command, along the southwestern edge of the camp, but they were spread thin guarding the huge number of civilians and had only the support of the ragtag group of militia Wren had armed with the spare weapons and armor they had on hand. 


“Damnation,” swore Wren, throwing open the flaps of her command tent and signally brusquely for her officers to follow her out into the cool mountain night. “We need to get there and support V-22 as best we can. I don’t want the Skal to trap us between the river and their forces. We need to withdraw as many Dorin civilians as we can back into the valley towards Dorin. Better defensive positioning. Captain Klo, your company is severely depleted, but I want you to oversee four squadrons coordinating the civilian withdrawal. Take your sergeant here.” She gestured to Eliys, who nodded gravely. “I’ll keep whatever is left of your men with me as an emergency rearguard.”


“Yes, ma’am. That’ll only be about twenty soldiers, though,” Captain Klo replied, quickly catching up to the big woman and walking alongside her as they spoke.


“I know the numbers, captain. See it done. But do it without your lieutenants. I intend to use them on the front,” Wren said, gesturing towards Niko and Terra. “Captain Wuomi, you two, go as fast as your Blessing will carry you to support V-22 company in holding off the Skal as best you can. Fight smart, fall back as necessary. If you have to abandon groups of civilians to ensure your position is not compromised, you have my permission to do so. Understood?”


The brigadier’s mouth was a thin, hard line as she looked at the three Blessed. She was asking them to sacrifice the Dorin populace to ensure their own survival and hold the Skal as long as possible. Unthinkable under normal circumstances, but outnumbered so dramatically, what choice did she have?


“Yes, ma’am,” replied all three soldiers in unison, snapping off crisp salutes. If any of the other two had the same concerns about the orders as Niko did, none of them said a word. 


“Good. I’ll send support as soon as I can, but they will be slower in coming, having to work their way through the entire camp. Go!”


The three Blessed soldiers sprinted off immediately. Niko drew his dagger and produced small cuts along both palms. As the blood flowed out, he brushed his hands along his thighs, then called upon the Beyond. The blood smeared across his legs flared gold and he felt incredible power flow through them, far greater even than when he flared the Blessing that was constantly flowing through his veins. It had rained much of the day, and the hilly ground just beyond the gravelled plateau the military tents had set up on was thick with mud. Niko crouched just as he was about to leave the more solid ground, and leaped outwards into the cool evening air. 


The hill they had been set up on was perhaps a hundred feet above the ground of the valley the rest of the civilians had made their camp. Niko’s Beyond-powered jump had sent him even higher, and as he sailed gracefully through the air he was able to see the entirety of the camp laid out before him. His Blessing-enhanced vision allowed him to make out details that it would be otherwise too dark to see. He could see the clump of Skal soldiers in the distance. Sergeant Eliys had been right; there were certainly at least five or six thousand of them, if not more. They were already rushing towards the front line of the Imperial military and hastily armed Dorin militia. Wren had procured enough equipment and coerced enough volunteers to arm perhaps three thousand miners and another fifteen hundred civilians. The militia stood clumped together in a poor facsimile of proper battle formations; Wren had ordered sub-squads of five Imperial soldiers to lead each group of a couple hundred militiamen in an attempt to instill discipline and hold the line against any foes. 


As gravity began to exert itself and Niko began descending back towards the earth, he was just able to make out the Skal vanguard meeting the Muirani in combat; to his dismay, the line began to buckle almost immediately, though soon he was too close to the ground to make out the full extent of the disaster. 


Just prior to hitting the ground, Niko called a warning for the assembled civilians to clear a landing for him, then jammed his palm onto one of the small spikes on his belt; as the blood flowed freely from the puncture wound, he thrust his hand outwards below his body. A huge swell of hurricane force wind rushed from his palm, slowing his landing significantly, throwing mud in wide clumps all over the citizens gawking at his descent. Two small children were struck by a particularly large lump of mud, catching them high in the chest and head. He felt a twinge of regret and hesitated for the briefest of moments, wanting to help, make sure they were not badly injured. If I delay here, thousands more just like them could die on the ends of Skal swords, Niko reminded himself.


“Clear the path!” he yelled, voice booming. He dashed forward, through the people that were hastily pulling themselves out of the way. Despite the muddy, slippery ground, Niko sailed forward, his feet barely making an indent in the soil as he moved. A merchant’s cart appeared in front of him; he mantled the large wooden structure in a single smooth motion and then leaped forward and upward once again. 


He pushed forward more than up this time, desperate for speed; the cart was propelled backwards several feet before clattering over onto its side. He could just barely make out the angry cry of the merchant as the wind filled his ears and he was soon too far away for even Blessed-enhanced hearing to make out the curses being thrown at him. 


He continued this way until he crossed the whole of the camp. Sprinting through the crowd of confused, frightened civilians. Leaping upwards whenever he came across a cart, a large boulder, or even a patch of hard, dry land. Landing in a splattering of mud and earth. Sprinting off again, leaving behind a dozen scattered groups of mud-covered, injured, furious people in his wake. It took him only a couple frantic minutes to cross the diagonal length of the camp; his last leap left him just behind a clump of militia engaged in combat with the Skal forces.


They were, as he had predicted, fairing very poorly. Even for the scant few heartbeats he allowed himself to assess the battle, the Muirani were pushed backwards several feet, militia dying at Skal hands by the score. If anything, Niko was impressed they hadn’t broken completely and committed to a wholesale retreat. He needed to turn the tide of this battle, and fast.


Two dozen feet to his left, a blur hit the ground, throwing up rocks and mud. Captain Wuomi rose from a crouch, making eye contact with Niko, gesturing for him to report over to her. Niko jogged over quickly, the battle still raging just in front of him. 


“Where’s Lieutenant Qashi?” Wuomi said, voice raised to carry over the din of combat.


“She’ll be here, give her a minute or two,” replied Niko. She would have been more cautious in her journey than Niko had been, not wanting to leave the wake of destruction and injuries as he and Captain Wuomi had. She would be able to focus in on the residual tinge of the Beyond that clung to Niko as it clung to every Blessed. It was likely how Wuomi had landed so close to him as well. 


“We don’t have a minute,” Wuomi replied, nodding at the slowly crumbling line of militia now only feet from the two warriors. “This line is in desperate need of support. We go in, stay near the militia, twenty foot spread, fight large, put some fear in the Skal, embolden our men.”


Niko nodded in the affirmative, but Wuomi was already jogging up through the line of men. They let her through easily, grateful for any reinforcements. Wuomi wanted to prevent the line from breaking until Terra arrived, instructing Niko to unleash his Blessing in a large, impressive manner in order to quell the fighting spirit of their enemy. I can do that, thought Niko, rushing forward twenty feet down from where the captain had entered the fray. 


The moment Niko broke through the Muirani militia and met the Skal warriors, an axe came swinging for his face. Niko raised his hand in a blur of speed, catching the axe blade square in his palm. The blade sunk into his palm slightly, but Niko flared his Blessing the moment the skin was broken and the unleashed power of the Beyond prevented his hand from being shorn clean in half. The axeman’s eyes went wide in surprise at this, but Niko did not give him a chance to react. He pushed the Beyond outwards, down onto the axe and the Skal warrior holding it. In a moment the man’s entire body was engulfed in golden flame; so fast was the attack that the Skal did not even have time to scream in pain. The fire faded as quickly as it came and only dust blowing in the wind remained. 


Without waiting to see how the Skal warriors around him would react to seeing one of their allies disintegrated in less than a second, Niko dropped to one knee, plunging his still-bloodied hand deep into the earth. He reached down through the muddy topsoil and grasped the hard-packed dirt underneath. He heaved upwards mightily, drawing forth an enormous, ten-foot long club of rocky earth from the very ground itself. He swung the massive weapon in a wide, arcing swing, smashing the heads of a dozen Skal to pieces in a single motion. The rock began to fall apart quickly as the power of the Beyond began to fade from it and the bodies of the Skal broke against it, but Niko managed another two devastating swings before he dropped what remained of the impromptu weapon. 


Drawing his sword now, Niko dragged the blade against his thigh as it slid out from its scabbard. He quickly engulfed the weapon with golden power and cut through the bodies of three attacking Skal warriors in rapid succession. He certainly had the attention of the Skal now; most the enemy nearby had stopped attacking the Muirani altogether, focusing entirely on the single Blessed in their midst. The Muirani militia, grateful as they were for the reprieve, had also fallen back and were catching their breath. Niko had hoped they would take the opportunity to strike out against the unprepared enemy, but they likely had never seen the true power of a Blessed warrior and did not have the training or experience to recognize the opening he was providing. 


I’ll do it all myself, Niko thought, laying waste with his golden sword with swing after swing. He purposefully kept the wound on his leg from closing, occasionally brushing the weapon through the still flowing blood to keep the connection to the Beyond open. It was a shallow cut and would not weaken him for some time, sufficient for his purposes here. 


He willed the weapon to transform as best suited him; first it was simply an oversized sword, cutting through opponents as if they were made of paper. Transforming with a thought, it became a long, snaking whip, lashing out dozens of feet into the ranks of Skal before him, wrapping around necks and severing heads with a sizzle. When the Skal finally managed to organize a threatening attack on him, Niko mentally willed the weapon to take the form of a golden disc-like shield; any weapon or body part that touched it was instantly burned away. Niko pierced each of the fingers on his left hand in rapid succession and sent out deadly arcs of golden lightning flying from his fingertips into the chests of his enemies, dropping them like flies. 

 

As he continued fighting, Niko felt a tingling sensation from the hairs on the back of his neck. Terra was closing in on their location. Niko fell back into a defensive stance, allowing the golden flame to fade away from his sword. The nearby Skal were too cautious to push in immediately, having seen the speed with which the man could deal out death first hand. Indeed, Niko was not done devastating the enemy line just yet. He swifty stabbed his left palm on the tip of his blade, grinding down to open a larger wound, grimacing with the pain that even the Blessing could not quite numb. Blood pouring from the gaping hole in his hand, Niko spread his fingers out and pointed his arm in the direction the Skal were most densely gathered. Calling as heavily as he dared upon the Blessing, he sent an enormous column of deadly, golden flame rocketing into the ranks of his enemies. 


Allowing the power of this blast to push him backwards through the muddy, bloody ground, Niko cut the power off from the attack just as his back met the line of Muirani militia that had been watching him fight. Most of the men were exhausted looking miners, the haunted look in their eyes common amongst those witnessing the horror of true battle for the first time. Niko spotted a young woman in a Muirani uniform. 


Pointing at her with his sword, Niko called out, “You, private! Engage the Skal before they recover! Get the militia fighting again, now!”


Startled from her reverie, the private seemingly took a moment to comprehend Niko’s orders. Eventually she came to her senses and barked out orders for the militia to attack; to the credit of those assembled, they surged forward to re-engage the Skal with only the slightest hesitation. 


Niko quickly moved back through the Muirani force, searching for Terra’s unique trace of the Beyond. She found him, however, sprinting up to him from out of the camp. “Sorry I’m late, Rivera. How goes the battle? Where is Captain Wuomi?”


As if in answer, the captain suddenly landed beside them, her thin blonde hair soaked with sweat, blood steaming from a dozen minor wounds along her body. “Finally, you’ve arrived, lieutenant.”


“Apologies, ma'am. The camp took longer to navigate than I--”


“Doesn’t matter.” Wuomi snapped, shaking her head sharply. “Lieutenant Rivera and I have put the fear of the Great Lords into the Skal in this area, but there are still thousands more and the militia is not up to the task of repelling them.”


“Brigadier Wren recommended we fight cautiously and delay them as long as we can…” Niko said, staring at the battle raging once more between the two forces. The militia was faring better here than they had before, but only a little, and this was only one concentrated area. “We could spread out through the entire line and do whatever damage we can, give the Brigadier the time and space she’s looking for.”


“No,” Captain Wuomi asserted firmly. “That is a losing proposition. The brigadier is, by all accounts, a decent leader, but her assignment to the Dorin Mines has taken the fire out of her decision making. We must be aggressive, show the Skal what the Blessed of Muiran can do. We can do more than just hold them off; we can devastate their entire force. We leap into the army where it is most dense, several hundred feet to the south and east of here. Whirlwind Triumvirate formation. Lay waste to the heart of the army.”


Niko hesitated for a moment, making eye contact with Terra. Captain Wuomi’s plan was dangerous, but would deal much more damage to the Skal and would likely avoid having to sacrifice civilian lives to cover their slow retreat, as the brigadier had asked. Terra had a fierce look in her green eyes and knew that she would prefer this plan. Niko looked back to Captain Wuomi, a small smile spreading across his face.


“Yes, ma’am. Let’s go kick some Skal ass.”


“First thing you’ve said that I agreed with, lieutenant. Cause some chaos on the way. Head out.”


The three Blessed took to the air once again, staying in tight formation as they bounded along. They landed in the midst of the Skal forces each time, softening their landings by expending power downwards onto their enemies, blowing to pieces a small handful of Skal warriors with each landing and leaping away before any of the surrounding enemies had a chance to attack.


“Here! Assume formation,” called out Captain Wuomi as they approached the centre mass of the Skal army. “Follow Rivera’s lead, throw up some rock on landing, I want bad footing for the Skal!”


All three Blessed warriors landed violently, punching hard into the ground with fists that ran crimson and gold with Blessed blood, throwing out huge earthquake-like shockwaves into the midst of the Skal army, devastating scores of the unsuspecting warriors. 


They did not give the Skal time to regroup from the devastating attack; the three soldiers stood back to back with each other in a roughly triangular formation and immediately began unleashing swaths of power out into the crowd. They rotated clockwise as they attacked, slowly at first, but more quickly as the Skal managed to approach them despite the horrific casualties they suffered. 


The Whirlwind Triumvirate technique the three Blessed were employing relied on this clockwise rotation; they were to devastate whichever foe was standing directly in front of them as quickly as possible, but never stop moving. The technique relied on relying on the soldier to one’s left to continue attacking the enemies you had just left, and trusting the soldier to one’s right to not leave one open to attack as you moved onward.


Niko sent out a short blast of power from his blood palm, killing two Skal and blowing the arm off a third. He rotated. A Skal was charging in over top of one of his allies’ corpses; Niko called the Blessing forth from a large wound on his right leg, then kicked up an enormous wall of rock that slammed into the charging man. He rotated. Another big, bearded man was holding a deep wound on his gut, Niko kicked out with his still Beyond-empowered foot, sending the man flying into a clump of soldiers behind him. He rotated. He slashed out quickly with his sword to block a coming blow, parried quickly and opened a large cut on his enemies thigh. He rotated. The Skal he turned to face was too close, and Niko took a sword blade in the ribs. Grunting, he flared his Blessing, using the power from the wound to rip the man’s arm off at the shoulder, pulling the sword free from his own torso. He rotated. He used the Skal’s arm, still holding his sword, to cut open the belly of another encroaching warrior. He rotated. He swiped at the wound on his chest, gathering up a handful of blood before willing the deep cut closed. He flung his arm out in an arc, throwing out a devastating wave of golden fire into the faces of a dozen Skal. He rotated.


The three Blessed continued on in this manner for what felt like an eternity but was, in reality, more like half of an hour at most. The Skal fell by the dozens, by the score, by the hundreds. The corpses began to pile up at their feet in a macabre triangle, but the Blessed would send the gruesome pile flying outwards with a blast of power or bury it in an avalanche of earth, ensuring they maintained an uncompromised line of sight on their enemies. 


Once they realized the devastating power they were facing, the Skal first tried to pull back from the three warriors, focusing efforts on breaking the Muirani line instead. The Blessed, however, took advantage of this and threw out wave after wave of golden power into the ranks of Skal, who found themselves suddenly too far away to properly defend themselves. Then the Skal realized that if they pressed hard on the Blessed, they had less time to unleash truly massive attacks, and began to throw waves upon waves of men at Niko, Terra, and Captain Wuomi. They died, of course, but the Blessed took dozens of wounds. Each time their blood was spilled they were able to unleash the power of the Beyond in reciprocation, but even still, the three began to tire.


“I’m running on empty,” gasped Terra as she rotated into Niko’s wake, catching a Skal axe with her long knife and severing the tendons in his arm before moving on.


“Me too,” grunted Wuomi, finishing Terra’s foe with a swift cut across the throat and following up with a powerful kick to the knee of another. “Rivera?”


“Will be soon. We should fall back,” he said grimly, lashing out with his left fist, smashing the face of the downed Skal, while simultaneously dragging his sword along his blood soaked torso and alighting his sword with holy fire once more. 


“Jump back to the line.” called Wuomi, “We’ll regroup and reassess.” She leaped away without awaiting a response, followed quickly by Niko and Terra. They all jumped off at slightly different angles to avoid colliding in mid-air, a common Blessed tactic. 


Niko looked forward, saw Captain Wuomi flying through the air above the Skal army. Without warning, a flash of that terrible, nauseating pain exploded within Niko’s body. Simultaneous with this feeling, a lance of deep purple lightning arced out from the army below and struck the captain in the back. She cried in pain, convulsing even as she dropped to the ground, still within the Skal lines.


“Limna!” Niko cried out, though he did not have a chance to act in her defense as he suddenly felt an incoming attack of his own. The lightning that flew towards him was of more typical Blessed power, but came so quickly and unexpectedly he barely had a chance to prepare. He braced himself to absorb the blow as it struck, gritting his teeth in agony nonetheless. The force of the blow threw off his trajectory, causing him to slam into the ground as well, surrounded by Skal warriors. As he fell he saw Terra deflect a third attack, but could not make out what happened to her after that.


Expecting the Skal surrounding him to attack him while he was vulnerable, Niko quickly spun to his feet, throwing earth and rocks outwards hastily as a defense. To his surprise, however, the Skal had already backed away from him, giving him a wide berth. Spinning around defensively in both directions, Niko looked for an opportunity or opening to make his escape, though he was hesitant to take to the air again for fear that he would be struck down.


“You Muirani Blessed are good, I’ll give you that,” came a deep, slightly accented voice from off to Niko’s right. He spun around to meet the source, and saw the tallest, largest man he’d ever seen in his life parting the crowd of Skal. Darker skinned than most Skal, he was bare-chested, heavily muscled, and had patterns of bright red war-paint covering much of his body. He had thick, long, dark brown hair and beard, and fierce brown eyes tinged with gold. One of the Skal Blessed. “You slaughtered my men like animals. You’ll find me a tougher test, little Muirani. Let us see just how good you are.”


Chapter VII


The big Skal man drew an enormous double-sided battleax from over his shoulder and leveled it squarely at Niko. In response, Niko unsheathed his sword from its scabbard, holding it loosely in one hand at his side. 


He was soaked in blood, sweat, and mud. He had been fighting hard, pushing himself to his limits, bleeding freely and burning through his reserves. He certainly hadn’t anticipated a battle with another Blessed. Two Blessed rarely fought, since the vast majority of them all fought for the Empire. There had been many times he had sparred with another Blessed soldier in preparation for times like this, but a true battle was an all-together different beast.


He’s big. Strong. And I can feel the power of his Blessing from here. I don’t know if I can do this, thought Niko. And then there’s Terra and Captain Wuomi… And whatever that strange power is that brought the Captain down. I don’t know what’s happening to them either. As if in response to this, another wave of nausea and pain flowed over Niko, a faint purple light flickering in the distance past the crowd of Skal gathered around him. Whoever was controlling that strange, tainted Beyond was fighting now. Probably with the Captain.


The big Skal had barely reacted to the wave of pain; a slight tremor passed over his face briefly, nothing more. He began to walk inexorably towards Niko, axe still held in front of him.

“These lands are Skal lands. You Muirani, you think the whole continent, the whole world belongs to you. We take your wealth, the gems and coin you value so much, drawn forth without consent from the earth itself. We will drive you from these lands, never to return. I will personally wipe out any Muirani Blessed your Empress throws at us, including the bitch herself. I will--”


Niko had heard enough boasting, and the precious few moments of respite had allowed him to catch his breath. Blood had still been flowing freely from several wounds and pooling at Niko’s feet, intermixing with the mud and soil. Niko ignited the power within that blood now, throwing several massive boulders at the big Skal man. He used more of the power to propel himself forward, riding a wave of churning rock forwards.


The big Skal was obviously not used to being interrupted and was not prepared for the attack. He clumsily dodged the first two boulders, but a third caught him heavily in the upper chest and shoulder, crunching bones with it’s force. He grunted deeply, spinning out of the way of a fourth boulder and then Niko was on top of him, sword swinging. His sword arm was empowered by the Beyond and sliced into his opponents ribs. He had been aiming for the heart, trying to stop the organ from pumping the Blessed blood through his body and ending this fight before it even began. Despite the big man’s surprise and despite the blow he had just taken, he was quicker than Niko had anticipated, however, and managed to twist just away. Instead of plunging his sword deep through the hearth, he instead cracked through several ribs, piercing a lung and exploding out of his back. Niko’s momentum carried him forward further before he jumped and spun, preparing a follow-up attack to finish the fight. 


Before he could attack again, however, the Skal man unleashed his own Blessing and sent a tremendous wave of power rocketing outwards from the gaping wound in his chest. Niko was forced to throw himself to the muddy ground to dip underneath the column of pure force that flew at him. He rolled quickly away and sprang upwards, sword ready and raised in front of him again. 


The Skal man did not attack, however. He stumbled slightly, wiping at the blood that still covered his enormous chest as the red body-paint glowed golden, the power of his Blessing healing both of his injuries. He had dropped his axe during the attack, but kicked it smoothly up to his hands with a single motion of his leg, as if totally unphased by his near brush with death. 


“Ah, yes,” the man said, his voice less boastful than before, deeper and more even-toned. “You are indeed Niko Rivera, the Reaver. We heard you were amongst this group of Muirani, but weren’t completely sure. Brutal, quick to attack, unforgiving, merciless. That’s the Reaver we know of.”


“I don’t care what you call me,” Niko spat, still crouched in ready position, eyes darting from side-to-side to keep an eye on the other Skal that still surrounded him and the Skal warrior completely, not trusting them to stay uninvolved in the duel of the Blessed. “But I will show you mercy, if you take it. Pull back your men. Leave Dorin province. Leave Dorin City. Go back to your lands. You can keep the gems you looted from our mines. I will speak with the Empress and with High Command and ask they not wipe you and your pitiful race of people off the face of this earth.”


The man laughed, an enormous, hearty noise that echoed over even the din of the battlefield. “We do not want your jewels, little Muirani. The Skal did not have even the concept of wealth before your people came to our lands, did you know? We will use the gems to pay other greedy men, like yourself, in an effort to free our lands from your reign, however. I place no stock in your offer of peace, either; you do not have the authority to offer this, nor would your savage Empress honor such an agreement even if you did.”


“Fine. Then I’ll kill you and all your men. It doesn’t matter to me,” Niko said, shifting his weight slightly, adjusting the grip on his blade, feeling the power flowing in the blood that was flowing from his wounds and in his veins. “But first, tell me your name. You know mine, apparently. I’ll know yours before I spill every last drop of your Blessed blood onto this soil.”


“Ha! I am Hriln, newest Chieftain of the Circle, Blessed of the People, Slayer of a thousand Muirani,” replied the man, beating on his chest to emphasize each word.


“A thousand Muirani, eh? I think my friends and I killed a thousand of your men in a single day today, so forgive me if I’m not impressed. I’m done talking to you, Hriln. Die.”