43: Caught Up in Flames
I looked up at those castle walls apprehension and increasing excitement. Zante knew we were there, but it wouldn’t matter. They were hiding behind these precious walls, convinced they would save them. It wouldn’t work. Renn and I had made sure of it. My gaze roamed over my army. It was filled with Dobridland soldiers, peppered with the Naga’s trained soldiers, and reinforced with the citizens that had joined the rebellion. We were strong, we were numerous, and we had the upper hand. I was on a magnificent horse, a massively tall mare; her beautiful, black mane contrasted with her buckskin coloring. She was gorgeous. I had no idea where the rebels had found her, but she must have been some noble’s steed.
I ended my perusal of the army with a final glance at Renn. As always, she stood by my side, on her own glorious stallion. She looked like a warrior of death, her bleached hair secured in tight twin braids, her face painted in vivid red and blue, and covered head to toe in plain black leather armor. She preferred the leather armor, as it didn’t weigh her down. Her advantage was speed. If she got in an opening, she could kill you with a single touch. I feared her as much as I admired her, as I always have. She met my gaze with a stone cold glare; her warrior was showing. I smiled in return.
We were in the middle of the infantry, several rows behind the section of archers.
“Ready your bows!” I shouted.
Generals continued the order on down the line until the entire archer squad had their bows at attention, waiting for my next order.
The flurry of movement following my command was beautiful, like a thousand birds fluttering their wings. The archers had each placed an arrow in position. I smiled once more. These men had been briefed beforehand; they knew how essential they were, knew exactly where to aim.
“Aim!” I screamed, loud enough that the generals didn’t need to relay my message.
They did anyway, just to be sure, and following the cacophony of strings yelling in protest to being pulled taut, the archers directed their weapons towards where we’d placed our implosion bombs. I smiled again, the frenzy starting to overtake me as I imagined the shocked look on the Usurper’s face when he realized he’d been duped.
The arrows leapt from the bows, all rocketing towards the bases of the castle walls! The sound of hundreds of bombs going off filled the air, creating a massive cloud of smoke that covered the entire area with a choking wave of dust.
Several minutes later, it began to clear, the aftermath evident.
The walls were no more.
The dust from the rubble, a heavy smog of brick particles, cleared to reveal the Usurper’s defense. There were a few rows of soldiers sporting swords and spears, equipped with large, heavy wooden shields. Behind them were a group of what must be his Suryan Mages.
A stale silence filled the air, as each army sizes up the other. The Usurper’s forces were drastically smaller, but they still had an advantage. The walls weren’t entirely down, so our entrance points were still choked down to the traversable segments. There were so many of us, it would some time for us to get through. I grimaced, unsure of what the best move would be.
I exchanged a glance with Renn. She nodded, eager.
“Charge!” I screamed.
Our forces careened forward, ready to fight for their cause. Bodies lurched ahead, spears at the ready, shields defending them. A few short minutes, and we were beginning to climb over the walls. Renn and I hung back, watching to see what the Mages and the soldiers would do.
Urion’s forces hadn’t even twitched. What was their move? I began to feel uneasy; this was unnerving. What were they planning?
The Usurper’s soldiers allowed a fair amount of our forces to enter the courtyard, the royal garden’s coated with dust and rubble, choking the air within the grounds. Surely, this was a trap, but we had to get in there somehow. I wished we had more implosion bombs at our disposal, but we had used all of them on the walls.
A burst of flames ignited the gardens, encircling the soldiers that had managed to climb over what was left of the castle walls, burning those caught in the crossfire. Trees, coated in dust and debris, burned vibrantly, illuminating the dawn sky with their flames. The screams of men tortured the air, and while those sounds were hell, oh goddess, the smell was worse.
I recoiled from the carnage, trying to see which Suryan Mage had been responsible for the deaths of my men. I couldn’t see through the black smoke and the dust. Rage filled me, anger at this loss of life. I should’ve been a better leader, and maybe they wouldn’t have had to die.
But the objective was still clear, and we still had to get through to the castle. I had to remove the Usurper. I looked at Renn, sadness and pain evident on both of our faces.
“Send in the next wave,” she whispered, barely audible.
I stared at her. How could she say that? We had no chance – we needed to take out that Mage if we were going to get anywhere close.
“I know what to do,” she said enigmatically. She dismounted her horse and began to wade through the increasingly panicked soldiers.
“Renn!” I shouted, terrified. What was she doing?
“Send in the next wave,” she insisted, louder this time.
Still in shock, I didn’t even register as I spoke the words. My generals, loyal as always, carried the order down, and men began to run towards the burning gardens. Renn calmly approached the walls, with some sort of plan in mind. I only hoped she knew what she was doing. Lives rested in the balance.
I watched from my perch on my buckskin mare the havoc that Renn was reaching. If the soldiers could get her through there, then she could do what it took.
I watched the soldiers flank her, and once more the Suryan Mages allowed the next wave to enter. Surely, they were about to repeat what had just happened. Fear rooted me to the spot. I was supposed to be these people’s leader, but I was frozen into inaction, while Renn was the one out there risking her life. All I could do was watch.
I was able to spot the Mage responsible for the fire this time; it was a teenager. A child, even, her armor ill-fitting and too large for her tiny limbs. Through the dust and smoke, her deep black skin stood out like a wet spot amidst the ash. She held out her hands, clearly preparing to attack.
Renn just approached her calmly, and the fire Mage was only about ten yards away from her now. Renn, never taking her eyes off of the fire Mage, lifted her arms at her sides, right as the fire Mage erupted her power from her palms.
I closed my eyes, not wanting to watch my best friend become ash.
All I heard were cheers.
I opened my eyes abruptly and saw Renn taking everything that the fire Mage had. It seemed that no matter which direction the fire Mage spewed her fire, it ended up arcing towards Renn. I’d never seen anything like it. Renn was not only absorbing the magical fire that the child Mage was casting but was also caused it to gravitate into her magical void.
Renn was truly the most powerful Mage I’d ever seen. Nobody in history had ever done anything like this before. But I began to worry for her. She, or anyone else, has never taken this much power in her life, and I knew the energy had to go somewhere. She would become tired and may pass out if she absorbed too much energy, or worse. And this had to be her limit.
My concern for Renn’s safety was the deciding factor that spurred me into action. I coaxed my horse forward, carefully, through the ranks. I had to get to her.
My horse and I inched closer and closer to Renn, as our soldiers battled the Usurper’s. The other Suryan Mages were dumbstruck, watching Renn. Apparently, they hadn’t seen anything like this either. But I knew they wouldn’t be going down without a fight, this child fire Mage wouldn’t be the only one to attack.
The next wave of soldiers charged with me as I urged them forward, watching Renn absorb more and more of the magical fire. The other Suryan Mages stepped up as the child fire Mage finally collapsed. What would they throw at us next? Our soldiers grappled with theirs, allowing Renn and the Suryan Mages a wide circle of space.
Renn fell to her knees; I could see her shaking from here. Goddess, I hoped she was going to be okay. My horse threw itself over the rubble of the wall, and then she was only a handful of yards away. I stopped my horse to dismount, practically flying off of the saddle, landing in a run towards her.
Then, she stood, and I stopped behind her, a few feet away.
She turned back to look at her, her eyes pure white, her skin glowing as if the flames danced just under her skin. She was the energy; it filled her entire being. Her face paint melted, running in streaks down her face and creating a grayish purple in the middle of her face.
She faced the Suryan Mages again, and held out her hands, palm towards the enemy.
She let loose the energy, reflecting what the child fire Mage had erupted upon our forces onto theirs. A burst of light, pure white flames erupted from her palms, from her mouth as she screamed, the sound absorbed in the chaos. The remainder of the castle gardens were ash, the smoke black and thick, as the Suryan Mages were lit aflame. Once more, screams and death filled the air, only this time, it was those of our enemies.
A few of the Suryan Mages were still standing. It appeared that one of them had the ability and foresight to protect themselves with some kind of magical shield, which must had encompassed a handful of them. The rest, almost fifteen or so of their number, were dead on the ground, piles of char and ash. I saw they all were only remnants of the teenagers, forced to defend this castle with their lives. I choked back the shock, the pain seeing those young lives so easily extinguished. All’s fair in love and war, the saying goes, but this was madness.
Renn collapsed, weary from her actions. I fell to her, cradling her head as our soldiers screamed their battle cries and ran past us to fight the Usurper’s forces. I ignored the bolts of lightning from the Suryan Mages directed at our soldiers, the shields that reflected all of our spears that they threw. I noticed nothing except for Renn’s health and safety.
She blinked slowly in my arms as she regained consciousness.
“Let me up,” she choked, the thick air clogging her lungs.
“You’ve done plenty,” I said, stroking the loose strands from her braids and tucking them behind her ear, using my thumb to rub some stray dirt and ash from her cheek. “Let me finish this.”
She stared at me, confused. “What will you do?” she asked, struggling to get up to a sitting position.
The chaos swirled around us, our soldiers battling to the death with cries of agony and success. It was impossible to tell who was winning; the garden was still on fire, and the smoke concealed most everything from our view.
That would make my job easier. I summoned the willpower I had left, the courage that I had found when I saw Renn leap into the battlefield and imagined exactly what I wanted. I decided to keep this simple, as I had to apply this illusion large scale.
I felt Renn sit up, no longer cradled in my arms, but I couldn’t see anything in front of me anymore. Instead, all I saw was the illusion I was building, so large that it threatened to overtake me. Determination to succeed overruled any fatigue I felt, any distraction to lose focus, and the illusion grew and grew in my head.
Barely able to speak, I knew I had to give Renn some instructions for this to work.
“Renn, I’m going to cast an illusion. You’ll need to take out those Mages as soon as I do. No hesitations,” I said, holding tight onto my magic. “Grab those soldiers.”
She did so, a handful of men now in our circle.
“When I give the signal, attack,” I whispered.
The illusion was almost too much. But this had to work. We’ve sustained too much loss in this short time here already that we had to succeed before those Mages finished the rest of us off. I prayed to the goddess Tarah and the god Myr that our plan would succeed, that they would protect our soldiers and the citizens of this country.
“NOW!” I screamed.
I let go of the illusion.
Darkness and silence enveloped the enemy soldiers. Stunned, they froze, and there was our chance.
Our soldiers leapt at the opportunity, slaying those closest to them, decimating their forces just as they had ours. Renn and her team engaged the Mages, who were also momentarily blind and deaf. Without warning, they fell, dead. Renn stood victorious over them, the fire reflecting in her black eyes.
Our soldiers eliminated the rest of the threat, the courtyard now empty save for our army, the fire of the garden, and dust. Not only had we won, but we’d destroyed their entire forces. Through the fire and flames, I stepped calmly around charred bodies and blood, kicking away discarded weapons and armor, stepping over what was left of the Usurper’s forces.
I climbed the steps to the castle doors, suddenly afraid of what I might find. The large entryway was imposing, the gleam of the firelight reflecting from the brass studs holding the thick oaken planks together.
I looked back at Renn. “Do you think I should knock?“I asked.