The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Ten

Olrick felt like he was going to die.

He’d spent about a half an hour running down the road to Asfalis, with Elise cradled in his arms, and he was starting to feel the affects of it. He’d expected it to be easy: Asfalis was only five miles or so away from Thaos, a run that, under normal circumstances, would have been easy for him. However, those were not normal circumstances. Not only was he carrying an unconscious girl in his arms, but he’d just been through hell under the Giskens: his body was nowhere near in the right shape for the run. Despite the fact that he’d chewed quite a bit of cocca before he left Thaos, his injured shoulders burned, his ribs (most of which, he was sure, were broken) were on fire, his burned sides throbbed; it took every ounce of strength he had just to put one foot in front of another.

No matter how much he wanted to stop and rest, though, he didn’t. With each minute that passed, Elise’s condition seemed to grow worse and worse. Her shaking got worse, her skin got paler, she was beginning to groan quietly, as if in pain; Olrick wasn’t very sure on what had made her pass out, but whatever it was, it seemed like it could kill her if he stopped for very long. In fact, the only time he did stop was to take off his cloak and wrap it around her in an attempt to get her warmer.

Besides, he was fairly sure that if he did stop to rest, he wouldn’t be able to get back up again.

Finally, he began to see some signs that the end of his run was over: he began to see smaller paths leading off the main road, leading to the small homesteads that was fairly common in Asfalis: the town depended heavily on game in the surrounding woods for income, so, in order to avoid competition with each other, everyone but the rich and the tradesmen actually lived inside the town. It was a sign that he only had a mile or so to go before he arrived.

C’mon, Olrick, he thought to himself. You can do this; push a little harder. Groaning, his legs began to pick up the pace, until he was practically sprinting into Asfalis.

The decision nearly killed him.

By the time he’d reached the gates of Fort Asfalis, on the other side of the town, he couldn’t seem to get air into his lungs. He practically staggered toward the gate, where two guards wearing the black cloaks of the Watch’s sister organization, the Rooks, stood. The taller of the two had a massive broadsword strapped to his back, while the other one held a slender fighting staff taller than its owner. Both held lanterns that illuminated faces Olrick immediately recognized.

He would have smiled, if he hadn’t been so damned exhausted. Of all the people to be standing guard that night, it just happened to be those two.

“Who goes there?!” Silas, the taller of the two, barked over the pouring rain. Eza’s grip on her staff tightened as she prepared for a fight. It looked like they couldn’t tell who was coming towards them. Olrick would have called out his name to tell them who it was so they wouldn’t kill him, as they were supposed to if someone came anywhere near the fort without identifying themselves, but he didn’t have to. His legs finally buckled beneath him, and he fell to his knees and into the mud, panting.

“Stay here.” Silas came running over to investigate as black dots began to dance in Olrick’s vision.

He tried to blink them away. Stay awake; stay awake, damn it!

“Olrick?” He felt hands on his shoulders. When he looked up, he saw that Silas was down on one knee, holding his swaying body steady. “Olrick, what the hell happened to you?” Olrick held Elise’s quivering body out to him, his arms shaking even more than she was.

“G-get her inside,” he managed to say. Confused, Silas took her in his arms. He looked over his shoulder at Eza, who was still standing by the gate. It seemed that she’d decided that then wasn’t the best time to be disregarding orders.

“Get doc out here!” that was the last thing Olrick remembered before passing out.

Silas stared at the Olrick and the girl he’d been carrying as they lay in their cots, unconscious. Doc, the Mirinian alchemist who served as Fort Asfalis’ chief physician, was sitting between their cots on a rickety, three-legged stool, going back and forth between the two as he tried to figure out what was wrong with them. Olrick’s diagnosis had been fairly obvious, at first: he’d ran himself into exhaustion, something that they normally saw in recruits during the first month of training. It made more sense when they’d discovered the multitude of bruises, burns, and other injuries hidden under his shirt.

The girl, however, was a little more of a mystery. She looked like hell, with her ghastly pale skin, quivering body and labored breathing, like she had the flu or something like that. Her symptoms didn’t match any disease Doc knew of, though. It seemed that she was sick without having an actual illness.

“Are they going to be alright?” Silas asked. Doc looked over his shoulder at him.

“Believe me, they look a whole lot worse than they actually are,” he said. Silas raised an eyebrow, unconvinced. Doc sighed and ran a hand through his neatly trimmed, dark hair, a nervous tick that, despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to get rid of.

“Olrick’s pretty beat up and ran himself into exhaustion, but he’ll be alright,” he said. “He just needs a few days or so of bed rest, is all.” Silas nodded at the girl, who had a little more color in her cheeks, though she still didn’t look great.

“And the girl?” Doc looked over at her, then back at Silas.

“I must admit, she took me awhile,” he said. “I figured it out after I gave up on looking for a natural means for it.” Silas’ eyes narrowed.

“You can take this cryptic crap of yours and shove it up your ass, Doc,” he said. Doc gave him a look, the same one that a parent might give a child when they know they’re lying. “Now, get to the point, before I do it for you.” Doc simply shook his head and chuckled; threats from the head of Caithian intelligence had stopped fazing him a long time ago.

“She’s a mage, a pyromancer, from the looks of her symptoms and how hot her hands were, despite how cold the rest of her is,” Doc said. When he saw the confused look on his face, he continued. “According to tradition, everyone has a magical energy called an aura, which mages are able to manipulate in the physical world. When they run out of aura to manipulate, something like this happens. She’ll be out for awhile and she’ll have a pounding headache when she wakes up, but otherwise, she’ll be just fine.”

Silas shoulders slouched, relieved. Thank the gods; he hadn’t been looking forward to telling Olrick’s mother that her son wasn’t going to make it, or to burying an innocent girl who’d simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“When will they be up?” Silas asked.

“A few hours, probably,” Doc said. “I know that you aren’t going to listen to me about this, but I would suggest not talking to them about whatever happened for a few days; we don’t want them too overwhelmed by their ordeal.” He stood up and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets.

“Is Eza handling this okay?” he asked. Silas sighed; he hadn’t even thought about how the kid was handing all this. Sure, he hadn’t told her that the Giskens were on a rampage through Caitha, but, though she was young, she wasn’t an idiot; he’d likely figured it out, by now. Only the gods knew exactly how she felt about the situation. If she were scared, she’d never admit it.

“I’ll check up on her when she gets back,” he said. “She went off to get Olrick’s mother; the poor woman’s been worried sick about him since he went missing.” Silas walked out of the small cabin that served as Fort Asfalis’ infirmary and into the wet night to find a thoroughly soaked Eza sitting on the small porch, her fighting staff in hand. She was staring off into the distance, across the training field and at the barracks on the other side of the fort.

“You find Olrick’s ma?” Eza Mitriovna looked up at him and nodded. She looked calm and collected, as always, but her eyes were filled with the fiery determination she was known for and fear, an emotion most didn’t know she was capable of.

“I managed to catch her without that damnable husband of hers,” she said. “She’s at an inn in town.”

“And General Polain?” Eza gave him a weird look, one that seemed to ask if he thought she was some sort of an idiot.

“He knows, but he won’t visit him until the morning; he didn’t want to sit at his bedside all night, waiting for him to wake up.” Silas sat down next to her, and for the next few minutes, there was silence between them as they listened to the rain patter the roof above them and the sound of distant thunderclaps.

“The Giskens are back, aren’t they?” she asked. Silas nodded; he didn’t see any point in lying to one of the highest-ranking officers in the Caithian army.

Eza’s grip on her staff tightened and her brows furrowed in anger. Silas couldn’t even imagine what was going through her mind. Most people in a situation like hers would probably have started planning an escape to Mirinia the second they caught word that the Giskens had invaded.

Then again, Eza wasn’t like most people.

“I’m going to give you a week’s furlough in the morning,” Silas said. “Use it to do whatever it is you do to clear your head, then get your ass back here.” She looked up at him, an all-too familiar fire in her eyes.

“You’re not getting rid of me,” she said. She looked back at her staff. “I’m not running away like some sort of coward, again.”

“I think you may have missed the part about getting your ass back here after the week’s over,” Silas said. “You’re not running; you’re taking a little break from this war business before you do something stupid, like come up with a half-assed plan to raid the Gisken camp all by yourself.” Eza took a deep breath and sighed.

“I haven’t gotten a break from this in ten years, Silas,” she said. “I think I’ll be fine for a few more weeks.”

“Do I need to order you to leave?”

“I don’t know; do I need to disobey a direct order?” Silas found himself laughing, despite himself. What had he turned her into?

“When did you turn into this?” he asked himself. “If you’re going to stick around, then you’re going to help me whip some trainees into submission; gods know they need it.”

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