This story is by Sam Roche and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Seven more hours of walking and we’re out of this mountain grave. From there, we can reach the harbor and be off this gods-forsaken island.
We knew the soldiers would catch up with us, but we had hoped to be out of the tunnels by then. Now we’re faced with a full squadron. Our luck has run out.
“Surrender,” their commander hisses.
“No,” Eria says, her whisper like steel.
Eria is our general and our princess; though we are no army, and no royal blood flows in her veins. The blessing of Starlight shines in her; the power of Astra. The power of a god. As her visions light our path, so do they attract the wrong kind of attention. We had to flee into disused mines; abandoned for no better reason than the staggering amount of deaths. Nobody knows what manner of beast kills the miners, but it is drawn to noise. The smallest noise. One word above a whisper could get us all killed. Our pursuers are braver than what we hoped for – or they’re desperate to get their hands on Astra’s blessing.
After hours; days without sunlight, without a word spoken aloud, treading in fear of instant death, we are asked to surrender?
No bloody way. We’re too close.
Before I know it, my sword gleams under the lantern’s sickly glow.
“You can’t mean to fight in here,” she whispers.
I cast her a glance, quick before my eyes get back to the squadron and its too-young commander. Words hum in my chest, seething, begging to be shouted. I grit my teeth against them, because if I raise my voice we could be dead within seconds. I’ll fight as a last resort, but what else is there to do? They have crossbows, and they won’t let us leave their country in peace; not while we have Eria and her coveted power. They’ll shoot us before we take three steps. If I could but give my friends time.
“Run,” I tell Eria, and my friends behind her. “I’ll hold them back.”
“I’m not leaving you, Shadi.”
“But you must. I’m your only chance.”
I make the mistake of looking into her eyes, and the agony I see there is near enough to sway me, to make me run with her. When the crossbowmen hit us, I would fall with her.
I know what she’s thinking; “What chance do you have of making it alive?” I can’t answer this. I turn away from her, break contact with these beautiful eyes. The soldiers haven’t dared move either, knowing of the formless danger that lurks in the tunnels. Their silence fuels my power. The quiet that falls under my goddess’ dominion gives me hope and strengthens my faith. Wordlessly I pray to Sata, begging her to bestow her might upon me. Let me rise to my calling, let me protect the ones I hold dear.
“Lay down your weapon!” the boy says.
To his credit, there is no fear in his words; but there will be because my prayer was heard. The power of a feared goddess washes over me, shrouding me in darkness blacker than the bowels of the mountain.
I sense Eria’s reluctance, but she turns from me and runs. Her footsteps, my friends’ footsteps begin to fade. The soldiers fire their crossbows, but the bolts crash into the swirling shadows that have unfurled behind me, granted by my faith, by my will to save them. Eyes open wide in surprise, seconded by unvoiced gasps. A rogue smile twists my face, turning bitter as I feel in my bones that I can’t hold this barrier for long. Time writhes in my mind’s grasp. The divine power coursing through me is too much for a man, but as long as I protect my friends, I am more than a man. I am a knight.
I still know my human limits. I have channeled this power before, and I know ten seconds will be all I have so I must make them count.
Ten. The crossbowmen fire again. One bolt I manage to dodge, the other lodges itself in my thigh. Pain pierces through my leg, but I scarce feel it. Crossbowmen first, or they will put a bolt through my head before Eria is far enough. I dash towards them only to face a wall of mail, shields and swords. Dropping to a crouch, I swing my blade in a wide arc, slashing at knees. I’m back on my feet before two soldiers fall.
Nine. After seeing two of their own fall, all rush towards me. Only the commander stays back, trembling. I lift up my sword as a challenge; a sword that can’t be wielded one-handed, that won’t suffer a shield by its side. Insane to fight with such a monstrous weapon, but I’ll do what it takes. I’ve seen too much and lost too many. This is for those I may yet save. I will not watch another friend die.
Eight. A woman charges me with her shield. I swing with all my strength, forsaking balance for might. My sword’s guard catches her shield, momentum yanking it from her. A jab finds the eye slit in her helmet. My steel grinds on bone before she falls screaming. The sound bounces on the walls, tumbling into darkness. It will have been heard.
Seven. A bolt finds my arm, forcing a scream out of me. I lunge in retaliation, finding my path clear. Pain infuses me with murderous strength. Guiding my blade with my wounded arm, I stab my assailant in the stomach. The impact bends him double and he crumples to the ground like an empty set of armor. The other crossbowman I slam against the wall with the flat of my sword. Bone cracks, and he lies still.
Six. I hate to fight. Every life I take tears through me; what right have I to wrest them from this world? Eria’s face dances before me, her eyes shimmering with the power of the stars. She has saved me before, now I return the favor.
Five. My heart hammers prayers to Sata, to Astra, to every deity I can reach. My blade howls the feelings I cannot put into words. Steel sings of conviction, of ideals, and of mad hope that I may yet survive this trial. I know deep down, there’s only death for me here. Still my sword cries for salvation, even as my blood gushes out, even as the divine power threatens to knock my mind from the narrow edge of sanity it has found. No amount of enemy blood can make up for my own, but it’ll buy time.
Four. Another blow reaches me, scraping against my arm before cold pain plunges into the flesh of my shoulder. A lancer? Confound it. I spin to face a scarred man, eyes gleaming with controlled fear. My sword finds his neck, and his weapon tears from my shoulder as he falls. A howl bursts out of me, uncontrolled, inhuman.
Three. I slip in blood and swing to recover my balance. A dark force guides the blade into the head of a crouching man, denting his helmet and knocking him down. The tunnel is littered with corpses, glistening with dark red. Around me are the fallen, only one man remains standing. The commander glares at me, his shield raised.
“You should be dead!” he shouts, eyes afire with madness.
My sword crashes into his shield with such force it almost splits in two. My body is made of pain, but I can’t die as long as I have someone to protect. The boy lunges for me, wounding me yet again. I must take him down, or this fight will have been for naught. My death won’t be in vain, damn you!
I whirl around and seize my blade, turning the heavy pommel into a mace. I bash in his breastplate, causing him to stagger and wheeze.
One. This is time I don’t have. I throw myself at him, my mind imploring Sata to give me her strength one last time. I make my mental barriers fall and accept her power. Bleeding and broken, I make myself less than a man. I make myself a weapon to maim my enemy, to murder him and pay the price for my friends’ freedom. Sata’s power envelops me, empowers my last strike. My sword plunges into the gap of his armor, shredding flesh, splashing me with his blood. I look up to see I sliced his throat, and I should rejoice but I cannot. My time is up.
Wings of night swoop down from nothingness and take me to the void, tipping my mind into the abyss. Before all is over I think of Eria, of my friends, of those I have lost. I pray.