An orange glow blossomed on the horizon, bringing light to the otherwise utter darkness of night. Flames licked up at the night sky, illuminating the dense forest that loomed nearby. Ash and ember danced along as the wind howled through the trees. Every creature cowered as banshee like wails broke the midnight silence. Like ice through their veins, the cries born on the winds seeped into every living thing.
The fires swelled and consumed the village piece by piece. Like a never ending tide of orange and red, it slowly crept across the landscape. A line of hungry flames gorged on the wooden and earthen buildings. Behind its wake the buildings that had been consumed were now ash filling the air like a quiet blizzard. Sounds of battle echoed and drowned out the chorus from the raging fire.
Large humanoids, their skin twisted and greenish in color, ripped into villagers. Pitchforks and axes were no match against chain mail and beaten steel as village men lay dead or dying from defending their families. Those who weren’t killed were put into barred wagons or shackled to chain gangs and herded into the forest. A few managed to escape into the woods with their families, disappearing into the trees like ghosts. Orcish and human soldiers alike chased after them, only to lose them on the many deer paths that crisscrossed each other through the woods.
A dark figure galloped across the village green slashing at fleeing villagers and barking orders to the soldiers around him. He rode around on a creature known as a Nightmare, a horse with hooves that burned the ground as it walked, a fiery mane, and flames spewing out of its nostrils and eyes. The black beast he rode reared up as a villager rushed forward, pitchfork in hand. The creature drove its hooves into the man’s chest, stamping him repeatedly into the ground. Its fiery mane seemed to glow in the shimmering light of the inferno nearby. Snapping the reins, they took off through the village searching for the one they had come for. As beast and rider turned a corner, one man stood in their way.
The man stood tall, breathing heavily from the fight; sweat glistened along his body from the intense heat of the fires. His long, jet-black hair swayed in the warm breeze, and ash flakes blanketed his head, giving him a salt and peppered look. Part of his goatee was burnt from fighting against and through the fires. His two swords at the ready by his sides dripped with the life force of his enemies. His eyes filled with rage and sorrow as he looked around at the burning remains of the village and then back toward the mounted figure.
“Why couldn’t you leave me be?” His grip on the swords lessened, “I don’t want any part of it, Malak. I just want to be left alone.” The villager noted the pain as it swept across the eyes of the soldier. “This was not needed. I would have gone with you if you left them alone; they have done nothing wrong.”
The soldier’s demeanor quickly changed to anger, “They defied my orders, and they tried to keep you from me.” The black beast shook its head and snorted as if in agreement. “I will not be defied, Tristan. I am the new lord of these lands,” Malak sat forward on the saddle waving his hand around as he answered Tristan, “and the Grand Council and their armies will not stand in my way.
“You know our plans, the number of our armies, the location of everything,” he yelled over the growing roar of the fire. Parts of a nearby mud hut melted, and the straw roof crackled under the heat. “You must come back; you were a part of this design, a grand design to reshape the world. The Master is not pleased with your actions. He wants you dead, but I defended you,” Malak emphasized by beating against his chest. “Why have you betrayed me, betrayed the Master? I don’t want to kill you, Brother. But you have left me no choice.” Malak tightened his grip on the reins and steadied his mount as the hut finally collapsed on its foundation.
“I will not go back, Brother, and if you don’t leave, I will kill you myself,” Tristan tightened his grip on the swords and settled into an offensive position. The wind picked up, blowing smoke into the space between them.
Shrouded in ash, Malak pulled his long sword up to his chest and prepared to gallop forward. Suddenly, a small figure appeared off to the side in the smoke, running forward and screaming. A little girl, her dress torn and burned, ran towards Tristan with an Orcish archer charging after her.
“Father!” she screamed as she tripped over a burnt timer and fell face forward on the ground. The archer slid to a stop, growling as he fumbled for an arrow. The little girl looked up, rose, and ran forward once more toward Tristan.
“Isabella, look out!” Tristan screamed, dropping his blades as he charged forward, arms outstretched.
Isabella turned around just as the arrow was let loose.
“No…” Malak reached out as he yelled.
Silently, time slowed down.
Tristan could see the arrow slide across the bow’s cracked, dark wood. He could see every feather sway back and forth in the wind. It split flakes of ash as it picked up speed toward its target. Like an explosion in the girl’s ears, the arrow hit her full into the chest. Spearing her, it lifted her up with the force of a hammer. She screamed in agony, arms and legs flailing as she was flung into the burning rubble of the hut.
“No!” Tristan cried out as he ran toward the burning rubble. He slid to a stop inside the half-burning hut, searching for his daughter. She raised her arms to him amongst the debris, and he pulled her out of the rubble. As he reached out to her, an arrow flew past his head, splintering the smoldering wood behind him. The Orc grabbed the last arrow sticking in the ground and raised his bow to fire once more. Tristan turned towards his daughter to shield her, but the arrow never came. He turned in time to see the frozen look on the Orc’s face before his head rolled off and his body crumpled to the ground. Tristan stared up at Malak with hatred and confusion as he rode closer.
“Forgive me, Brother. This is not what was supposed to happen,” and with that Malak galloped off through the smoke.
Isabella coughed and started to close her eyes as her breathing became unsteady.
“Hold on, my sweet angel. I am here—I won’t leave you,” Tristan stroked her burned, corn-silk hair as he tried to tend to her wounds. She coughed again and opened her eyes staring through the smoke-filled air towards the night sky.
“I see Mommy, I see her Daddy, I see her,” Isabella whispered, as she pointed a trembling hand skyward. “She is calling to me. She wants me to come home to her, Daddy.” She coughed some more as a breeze stirred up the ash around them.
“No, Bella, please don’t leave me,” Tristan cried, holding her in his arms, “Don’t go to Mommy, not yet, please, Bella—please.” He looked around for someone or something to help his daughter, but he was alone, even Malak had disappeared. “Help! Someone, please, help me!” Tristan screamed into the burning night. Gazing down at her, he watched the light in her eyes fade until her body fell limp in his arms. “No! Bella, don’t you die on me, please forgive me. I didn’t want this to happen.” Tristan rocked Isabella in his arms. “Malak! You will pay with your life, Malak!” Looking down at his daughter he whispered, “Please, Bella, don’t go, please…” Time stood still for Tristan as he held tight to his daughter, her lifeless form almost weightless in his arms.
The building timbers had cooled around him but for a single fire not far from where he was. He rocked her for what seemed like eternity, staring into the nearby flames, with tears streaming down his face. The flames began to consume his mind until a fire sparked in his eyes; vengeance filled his heart. “Malak, where are you?!” he screamed as he laid his daughter’s body on the ground. “I will find you…” But before he could run off, a staff hit him in the forehead. Sparks filled his vision as he fell backward, and pain flooded over him in waves. His eyesight faded into darkness as he slumped to the ground behind a pile of fallen timbers. A hooded figure pushed a burnt, wooden wall causing it to fall over Tristan’s body, hiding him. The mysterious individual withdrew into the shadows as a group of Orcish soldiers prowled through the streets before heading off into the woods. When it was safe, the shadowy figure shrank away into the night, and soon there was only the sound of the burning village.
Slowly coming to consciousness, Tristan looked around him at the morning’s visual. Seeing the broken timbers fallen around him, he pushed them aside and slid to his knees. Sparks still cascaded over his vision as he shook his head and struggled to his feet. He looked around to see if anyone was alive, but he was alone in the smoldering remnants of the village. High above in the sky, birds with crimson feathers from ages of feasting on flesh circled overhead.
Tristan searched the nearby debris looking for his daughter, lifting timbers and pushing aside fallen pieces of wood. He found her lifeless body under some debris in what used to be the front room of the burnt house. Wading into the mess, he tried to move away the wood, but his strength was almost gone from the nightmare of the previous night. Again and again he pushed until it gave way. Covered in soot with part of his clothes burnt and falling off in fading orange flakes, he slowly rose from the ashes of the home carrying the limp body of his daughter. He laid her down in a meadow on the outskirts of the village and went to look for a shovel. Finding one, he hurried back to where he left his daughter and began digging a shallow grave. The wind picked up a little, stirring the smoke and blowing out some of the fires. When he finished digging, he leaned over his daughter, brushing aside her pure corn-silk hair now dirtied by ash, and caressed her face. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he hugged the body of his lifeless child.
“Forgive me, my dear, sweet Bella,” Tristan whispered to her, “forgive me for not protecting you from all this, this mess.”
Wiping away the grime and sweat from his face, he looked at the mound which now shielded his daughter from the world of suffering that she was taken from. “Good bye, my little angel,” he continued, placing two fingers to his lips and then to the cross he had put at the head of her grave. Then Tristan grabbed his pack, placed it over his shoulders, and slid his swords between their straps on his back. Gazing once more at the village, he turned and walked off through the tall stalks of grass that swayed in a sea of green all around him.