Crouching in the low underbrush, Rebekka struggled to keep her breath steady. Beads of sweat slowly slid down the edges of her face. A few got into her eyes and she blinked them away. The heat was sweltering! She shifted in her crouched position, hoping to give some alleviation to her burning thighs, but that only made a gush of heat rise. And to make matters worse, her thighs began to burn once more.
To her right, about five feet away, her comrade also shifted. Like her, they were crouched and hidden by the groups of ferns and straggly bush that grew before them. As were half of the small group of cadets.
Beyond the foliage hiding them was a downward slope and that slope eventually became a path. The path, about as wide as a carriage, was well-trodden, but the tracks upon it were not fresh. Beyond the path was an uphill slope that became a forest, the same forest that spanned behind Rebekka. This was where the other half of the platoon lay hidden. Each of them was waiting and watching and had been doing so for the last hour. This was the first part of the battle plan. Actually, this was not a battle, it was an ambush.
Rebekka felt a tap on her left shoulder and saw a gloved finger point in the direction she was staring. It had been Commander Bastōn. She must have spotted something. The next moment, Rebekka had spotted what the Commander had seen.
Coming around the bend of the path, about 500 yards away, were the heads of horses. Unconsciously, Rebekka tensed. This was it. She took a breath and reminded herself that this was only a simulation and nothing more. The lives she would take weren’t lives at all. Just the conjuring of magic.
Slowly, more of the company appeared, and eventually, Rebekka could see the entirety of it. She estimated there were about 20 horses among 100 or more men. Such a large number, but the calvary was the main source of her worry. Hopefully, the plan would pull through.
The company marched closer and closer. Rebekka came to realize half the horses were unmanned and equipped with supplies, but that didn’t mean they still wouldn’t have a problem with the calvary. Ten men on horses could do a considerable amount of damage. The company marched even closer. When it was about 10 yards away, Rebekka saw two flashes of light. The signal was given!
And before Rebekka knew it, the ambush began.
Yorin and nine others, including Rebekka herself, stood, drew their bowstrings, and released their arrows. The damage was fascinating, even if it was cruel, cold, and violent. The individuals in the company were neatly marching in their orders, completely unaware of their fate lurking in the shadows. In the twinkling of an eye, that reality was broken. Arrows whistled through the air and their paths only ended at their destinations. Within the bones and bodies of men or nestled in horseflesh. The ranks broke into chaos, rushing to get into battle positions.
Rebekka quickly let another of her arrows fly. She heard the twang of the bowstring upon release and saw the arrow cut away at the jugulars of the equine she aimed for. To her surprise, blood didn’t gush from the wound. Instead, it was thick black liquid, and the same was for the humans. Well, this was a simulation after all.
The poor beast reared up on its hindlegs knocking those around it to the ground, but the horse’s handler held on to its reins. Rebekka’s next arrow landed into the handler’s neck. He screamed in pain but was silenced when another flew through his mouth. As for the horse, it bolted from the chaos to a freedom it would never have.
Rebekka continued to release arrow after arrow until she had none left in her quiver. To say, twelve in all. Now for the next part of the strategy. Rebekka tossed away her bow and drew her sword. Of course, that entailed having to enter the bowels of that small bloodbath before her, but first, she had to find Mason.
As according to the plan, she signaled Yorin, who in turn signaled back. It was time to launch the ground attack before the enemy got a chance to organize themselves. Rebekka lifted her sword and brought it down screaming, “Now!”
A war cry was raised and whether they were prepared or not, the cadets jumped from their places and began the rush on the company down below. Before Rebekka could join then, she felt someone take hold of the grieve of her left forearm. It was Commander Bastōn. Her face was stern but full of approval, and perhaps, just perhaps, a small amount of pride. Something told Rebekka she was very much living up to her expectations. With a nod, the commander let her go and motioned for her to continue.
Rebekka slid down with the rest of her platoon, her thoughts focusing on finding Mason.
Finding Mason wasn’t an easy task, especially when Rebekka had to fight through a crowd of simulated soldiers. Puppet men. Though the enemy wasn’t numerous —thanks to the gambit with the archers— they were well trained. The difficulty of the simulation wasn’t something Rebekka had thought about. As she was in it, she wasn’t so sure many of them would survive. Later she would realize it wasn’t meant for all of them to survive anyway. Only the strong will prevail.
Rebekka parred an incoming strike and lashed with a clean upward arc. Thick black fluid sprayed, adding more to what was already on her. She pressed forward. Since the initial start of the ambush, over half the enemy had fallen and their horses had either bolted away or were lying dying in the dust of the ground.
Rebekka found Mason in the midst of the battle fighting alongside Tweedy and Swish. That was somewhat a relief, but not much. They all had to get through this battle. And for the next hour, they did. The four of them stuck together fending off the men made of magic. Swish and Tweedy work nearly as one. Their form was unorthodox, but kept them alive, nonetheless. Thumble had become a thundering bellowing giant, as unstoppable as a rockslide. Mason held her own, somewhat, but it was mainly Rebekka who was her aid.
Now to say Rebekka was as good as any was an understatement. A sidestep here; the arc of her sword slicing up, down, and across. Her movements were as fluid as a rushing river. Nothing touched her, besides that unearthly black fluid. Soon she was venturing from her group of friends further into the battle, leaving nothing but falling bodies. The years and years of the practice and exercises she had drilled were coming to life. The past she tried to hide and unwrite was inscribing itself into existence, making itself known to the world.
Eventually, each puppet man of the opposing side had fallen by either arrow, lance, or sword. But when the last puppet man fell, it was by Rebekka’s hand. Perhaps she had killed the most that day, perhaps not, but those watching and fighting alongside her had grown a new sense of fear and respect. Rebekka snatched her sword from the puppet man’s sternum and glanced around the field littered with the dead and soon to die. Gulping breaths to calm her racing heart, she looked back at Mason and the others. They were covered in sticky black like everyone else but were otherwise perfectly fine.
The well-trodden path had suddenly become quiet once again. An ironic peace after such violence.
“Well done,” Commander Bastōn announced looking over the battlefield. “A few of you have fallen, but I have to say not as many as I thought. Perhaps the lot of you will impress me.” She nodded to the Wizard Eric. He raised his arms and the dead disappeared. Of the conjured anyway. Nine still bodies were left behind.
“They can get rid of the bodies but not this gunk on the rest of us, eh?” Tweedy complained lowly.
Swish gave him a frown and quietly said, “Have some respect.”
Mystically, the Death Carriage arrived, the carriage for carrying away those dead.
“They’re really dead aren’t they?” Mason asked watching the bodies being loaded into the carriage.
“Yes,” Swish replied with her quietness. “They are dark. There isn’t any light left within them.”
“A light seer, eh?” the wizard Eric rasped from behind the group. “I would suggest you keep your sight elsewhere, or else—” With a grim look, he grinned. “You may find yourself tumbling into a deep, dark, lifeless place.”
Swish blanched and turned from him with a look of fright. The wizard walked away chuckling as Tweedy rushed to his sister’s side. Rebekka watched him go, wondering what Swish had seen in him.
“Swish, are you alrigh’?” Tweedy was asking.
“I’m fine,” Swish replied.
“Are you sure?”
Swish didn’t answer right away.
“I told you I’m fine Tweedy. It’s just…” She looked back at Eric. “If hell has spawned demons and let them loose, he is one of them.”
With a frown, Rebekka wiped away the black stains from her blade with the edge of her tunic and sheathed it. Eric was certainly a dark and peculiar wizard; one she would have to keep a wary eye on.
“What did he show you?” Mason asked.
Swish sighed and Rebekka thought she wasn’t going to say but she began, “Those people we were fighting, they were real.”
Disbelief twisted every face watching her. Rebekka’s insides knotted up and became cold.
“But not like you think. They were dreaming people. They were here but in their dreams. That’s how come they acted so real. Because they were… in a way.”
“But that shouldn’t be possible,” Tweedy said. “Right? … Right…”
“Not in the realm of Light Magic,” Rebekka said. “But in the realm of the Dark, it is a simple one to cast.”
“The bastard,” Tweedy said and spat on the ground as a sort of curse.
(to be continued…)
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