Purgatory

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Faster, Smarter, More Skilled

As Fluglaz’s ‘storm troops’ came into view under the soft and shadowless light of purgatory, they were a sight to behold. The staccato beat of drums preceded their coming into sight. The first thing Dante and his team saw were the many banners flown by outriders on either side of the main body. Light reflected off their highly polished body armor. Dante understood that even at this distance, such a display would, as intended, strike fear into the ranks of even the best prepared defenders.

When the enemy, themselves, were clearly in view, they were hideous. Even Astrada’s thorough description didn’t do justice to their fearsomeness. Their bodies were well muscled and broad enough that two humans could stand behind them side by side and not be seen. The bits of grey, leathery skin showing around their helmet and body armor looked to be impenetrable. Their heads were enormous and Dante wondered how strong their neck and back muscles must be to keep that monstrous head erect.

As Astrada had explained earlier, they filed down their fangs. He could see them clearly on those nearest. Each fang had bits of silver, gold and precious stones embedded in them, the variety of which showed rank and social position. They were like tattoos on fearsome Russian gangsters. As the invaders came closer, Dante and his warriors could see that every one of them had highly ornamented fangs. Without being told, it was clear to Dante these warriors, like those with him, were the cream of the cream.

As the fearsome troop approached, Astrada, moving swiftly and carefully, was reminding her warriors not to submit to fear at the sight of their opponents, “Remember, she kept saying, you are quicker, smarter, and more skilled than any of them. They have never learned the fine points of one-on-one fighting because they never needed to. This makes you, in every way, superior.”

As yet unbloodied, but feeling confident, Dante’s expeditionary forces waited quietly as their adversaries came nearer. They would wait until Dante delivered his ultimatum to the invaders, requesting them to turn around and return whence they came. It was a pragmatic move. Offering the enemy a chance to avoid conflict would ease earth’s warriors concern over mounting what they may see as an unprovoked attack. None believed that on hearing the ultimatum, Fluglaz’s troops would turn back. Convinced the invaders would attempt to engage them, earth’s warriors were prepared to immediately attack with a stream of crossbow bolts. They would take out as many riding animals as possible and bring down the leading warriors, most of whom represented the squadron’s command group, before turning to hand to hand combat.

Dante, from his location slightly forward of his fellows, did not show himself as he delivered the ultimatum. The words barely uttered, the sound of spears clattering against the rocks filled the air. The enemy began a charge, but before they could near Dante’s position, they were met with a rain of crossbow bolts. The huge beasts they rode were collapsing to the ground while those behind stumbled over their writhing bodies. Many on the front line of the attack were either dead, wounded, or pinned under the twisting bodies of their riding beasts.

The ones behind dismounted and continued their charge. Crossbow darts felled a good number of them, then Dante’s warriors rose from their concealment and with their swords and daggers and their axes and maces ran forward to meet the oncoming enemy. The battle was short and fierce. Astrada was right, Fluglaz’s warriors were slow and lacking in skill. Still, they were ferocious fighters.

Earl was busy with a hostile warrior who had made a lucky hit on Earl’s side and was pressing. Despite the wound, Earl was still faster and was easily besting his opponent when another came up behind him and raised his sword above his head for a killing stroke. Merilee was there at that moment and drove her sword deep through his ribs and into his heart, sending him stumbling backwards, away from Earl. He hit the ground at the same time as his sword touched down behind him. At that moment, Earl was able to lunge and strike a vital organ in his opponent, who roared in amazement as he stared down, disbelieving at the sword buried deep in his chest. His thought at that moment was, “This was not supposed to happen!” and then he was back in his home domain, another atoner.

Earth’s warriors were, as Astrada predicted, quicker and more agile than their adversaries. They also wielded their weapons with superior skill and soon had the remaining members of Fluglaz’s advance team on the run. Fluglaz’s advance teams were always elite warriors. They weren’t running out of fear but were seeking the higher ground to gain an advantage. In the heat of blood lust, Dante’s warriors ran after them, cutting down as many as they could. Dante joined his fellows, knowing they could allow none of the enemy to escape and carry the message of their defeat back to the main legion. No longer troubled by the need to stop these proud invaders, he jumped in front of one after another, fending off their slashing blades and sending them back to atone.

The battle raged with little demarcation between friend and foe. For earth’s fighters it was slash, stab, strike, then race to the next hostile. Fluglaz’s warriors, despite their ferocity, persisted in attempting the full power killing strokes, The swung their broadswords with all their might, but almost every encounter, they were too slow. Their fleet assailants were able to avoid the intense blows, ducking, feinting, dodging inside the downward strokes, dropping beneath the ferocious slashes, stabbing and jabbing. If one didn’t make the killing stroke before moving on to relieve a fellow, another would. Fluglaz’s forces were soon in complete disarray.

They were ferocious and courageous fighters. Even when downed, they tried to carry the fight to the scampering humans. It became clear to earth’s warriors there would be no quarter given, nor taken. The invaders would resist to the last man. While enmeshed in the infighting, Dante spotted two of the enemy running towards the huge beasts they used as mounts. These creatures were timider than they looked and had gathered as far back from the battle grounds as they could. Instinctively, Dante knew the two were on the way to carry the news of this disastrous encounter to the main body of the legion. That could not be allowed to happen, and he started after them. Merilee, seeing this, left off her engagement with one of the enemy to follow.

As fast as the two potential messengers ran to reach their rides, Dante and Merilee were faster. They caught up just as the first one was reaching for the reins to mount. Dante slashed at the reins, cutting them away from the beast. Screaming in terror, the beast turned to flee and ran directly into the crowded bodies of the other mounts. The others screeched and snorted as they tried frantically to get away from their terrified fellow.

Merilee having caught the second potential messenger was fighting furiously, her sword nearly invisible in the slashing and stabbing as she avoided the other’s flailing broadsword. The one Dante confronted took a stand, brandishing his sword and dagger. The interaction was, at first, cautious. This was a seasoned veteran Dante was facing. Moving slowly, the giant head dipping and weaving, he was trying to suss out any weakness there might be in Dante’s technique. He found none, so he rushed him to drive him back, perhaps make him stumble. Gain some advantage. It didn’t work. Dante sidestepped the outstretched sword arm.

With his own sword, Dante smoothly knocked the dagger from his opponent’s hand, along with a couple of fingers. The other ignored the pain. He brought his sword in a sideways slash intended to cleave his smaller opponent in two. Dante saw it coming. He jumped aside as he parried. The parry directed the stroke away from its intended course, allowing him to then step back clear of the blade. Following the arm motion of the ferocious swing, Dante stepped in as it stretched past and drove his blade into the bit of grey underarm not covered by leathern armor. Like slicing through butter, the razor sharp weapon cut deep into the large body, skewering vital organs. Before his adversary could fall to the ground, Dante withdrew his blade and turned towards Merilee.

Merilee was standing over her fallen adversary. “This is crap,” she said, her voice trembling, “I’ve just killed my fourth living creature.”

She looked at Dante with pleading eyes, “Tell me I’m not a killer.”

Dante stepped across the body of his fallen opponent and reached to put his arm round her shoulder. “You’re a soldier, Merilee, doing what you need to do to protect your home,” and he gave her a warm squeeze.

Back at the site of battle, Dante saw the sandy terrain was littered with bodies. It proved to be almost the entirety of Fluglaz’s elite warriors. They had done what no others had done, defeated, no, eliminated an elite company of purgatory’s fiercest warriors. The battle done; the members of the expeditionary force gathered their dead and wounded and made their way back to where they had set their ambush. Among them, the energy and excitement had drained away. Many were hurting with wounds both minor and, in a couple of cases, severe. Joining them, Dante surveyed the scene. He could see Astrada tending to the wounded. Others were gathered around their fallen friends. When the count was finally taken, ten of Dante’s expeditionary force were dead, as were the youthful champion’s two companions, many more were wounded.

Yvax strolled over to Dante. He was holding his arm, broken as he ducked to avoid the mace of one of the few survivors from Fluglaz’s troop. Merilee’s friend Carol had finished him off before he could hurt the boy further. “Thank you,” he said, “You have saved our domain from invasion.”

“Don’t thank us yet,” responded Dante, “This was a small advance troop, the larger legion will inevitably follow.”

“Yes, I know,” said the young champion, grimacing as he moved his arm to get more comfortable, “but I know what I must do.”

“And what is that,” asked Astrada, as she tested his arm to find the break.

“Train a defense force like yours that would give us a fighting chance,” gasped Yvax as Astrada’s fingers pressed on the site of the break.

“How do you plan to do that?”

“We will need help. Can we talk when we get back to my domain?”

Dante smiled and nodded agreement, but right now he had more important things to do. He walked around to speak to the wounded. Earl was smiling as Carol fussed over his injury, but Merilee was devastated, Joan was dead. She had died protecting one of her fallen comrades from two of Fluglaz’s warriors. She had successfully killed both but was pulled down onto his dagger by one of them as he died.

It was a quiet ride back to Yvax’s domain. The battle with the advance troops while short was ferocious, and they were tired and sad. They had lost friends. This was purgatory. They might see these friends again, but it would never be the same. When they got back to earth’s domain they might be up to celebrating their victory then, but given the circumstances it seemed unlikely. They would also need to prepare for the larger invasion force.

As they rode, Yvax made his request. Would Dante teach his people how to fight like his troops do. “Any of these warriors could train your people assuming you can find enough to create a legitimate defensive corps,” said Dante, “If you wish, I can ask for volunteers. It’s all I can do. It will be up to them to agree or not.”

In the end, four of Dante’s troop, Carol being one of them, stayed. They would train potential warriors for this domain and teach them how to forge their own weapons. The remaining troop, dead and wounded in tow, set off on the return trip for home.

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