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Chapter 39: Of Flame and Courage

 

The rising morning sun glinted through the boughs of fir, dogwood, and hickory to dance upon the swollen waters of Vesper River that babbled along the shoreline serenaded by the singing oriole, whistling warbler, and harmonic wood thrush. The idyllic sounds masked the approach of three Bastiallano scouts that crept carefully down the ridge along the river’s southern bank. Their footsteps were careful and nearly indiscernible beneath the thigh-length poncho of leaves that melded their figure into the still-moist background of the woodlands.

The trio slowed their approach as they drew closer to the rushing waters, still muddied by the late evening rain. The dissonance of the Shadow Army mercenaries setting camp along the opposite shore made them even warier as they took turns monitoring the sentries that circled the camp perimeter.

“They traveled light,” Sergeant Cooper observed, studying the small cluster of tents and lines of calvary horses tied beneath the shelter of fir trees and hanging tarps.

“Aside from those crates,” Scout Davis commented as he gestured to where a stack of locked, suspicious wooden boxes was being carried from the backs of tired mules into a small tent.

“I bet my beard they’re carrying rifles?” Scout Anderson muttered darkly as the trio quickly ducked behind the crumbling oak, covered in silver moss and oyster mushrooms, to avoid the passing sentry. The mercenary’s dog, a large, muscular mutt with a collection of scars arrayed across its black fur, growled ominously in their direction.

Cooper held his breath, praying silently that his lucky brew of pine needles steeped in alcohol would mask their scent from the sensitive dog’s nose.

A flutter of dark wings swooped overhead, followed by a loud berating caw as a large crow dove aggressively toward the mutt and his handler. The irritable dog charged down the bank, kicking up mud and pebbles as the beast strained against its leash to reach the taunting, hovering bird.

“Shut it! Ignore the damn bird, you bastard!” The mercenary shouted, yanking the large dog behind him as he continued his patrol.

‘And here I thought a single crow meant bad luck. Perhaps not so for us today.’ Cooper breathed a sigh of relief and quickly gestured for his men to withdraw. The trio inched their way back into the forest, masking their movements with painstaking care. ‘It looks like they intend to hold up here for a while. The question is, how long will they stay put, and how will they communicate with the Marquess?’

The sergeant took cover behind a cluster of birch trees to monitor the opposite shore while his subordinates moved further back into the forest. The surging river, now several yards away, continued to mask their cautious progress.

A flurry of movement coming from the center of the mercenary’s black tents drew his attention. The sergeant pulled a spyglass from his belt and watched as a group of mercenaries garbed in black marched towards the line of grazing horses. To his surprise, the men ignored their mounts and continued on foot toward the river. Signaling his scouts with the mimicked sounds of a common wren’s churrs, Cooper lowered his spyglass and moved downriver to tail Borghese’s mercenaries.

The six men halted at a shallow point in the riverbed. Two moved off to take up guard posts while the other four conversed quietly, one of them even lighting a pipe to smoke.

‘It looks like they’re waiting for someone.’ The sergeant’s eyes glistened with understanding. He quickly scanned about for the best place to safely observe this meeting.

As Scout Anderson and Scout Davis caught up to him, Cooper signaled for them to lay low and wait. They complied, positioning themselves at a discreet distance until even their sergeant could not pinpoint their exact location.

The shadow of a large bird, a hawk or a falcon, flew across the river, momentarily dashing Cooper’s hopes of identifying the Marquess’s agent, but the predator disappeared before making contact.

‘Then again, why wait all the way out here for a messenger bird?’

The coolness of dawn soon faded as warm sunlight chased away the shadows of the forest, glinting across the rippling river surface. The sound of approaching hooves roused the scouts and mercenaries from their languid positions as a single man on horseback approached.

Cooper’s hazel-brown eyes narrowed in surprise as the colors of the Royal Knight’s uniform peeped beneath the oversized black cloak the man wore to mask his features. ‘What the hell is a royal knight doing all the way out here?’

The answer was obvious, especially as the leader of the mercenaries stepped forward with a welcoming grin to watch as the knight and his horse waded through the shallow section of the river toward them.

‘If I could just get a look at his face.’

“The Marquess sends his greetings, Captain Weylin,” the Royal Knight called out after reaching dry ground. The messenger pulled a sealed scroll from beneath his cloak and presented it to the mercenary captain. “He appreciates your swift response.”

“It was a tiring journey, but the men are ready for a brawl,” Weylin replied as he accepted the offered scroll. “Has the Marquess made his decision?”

“Our Master is a cautionary man by nature. I believe he intends to give the Crown Prince one last chance to amend their relationship.”

“Bah!” Weylin snapped the seal impatiently, scanned the contents, and then sighed with heavy reluctance. “So there are two days left to the hunt. What are the odds of the Marquess claiming victory?”

“None,” the Royal Knight replied cynically.

“What of this half-blood Duchess? The letter says she was mauled by a bear?”

“Unfortunately, she appears to be in no grave danger.”

The mercenary captain finished reading the message and spat toward the ground once more. “Then who is our target? Surely, we did not march all this way to sit on our hands, Lieutenant!”

“I said the Marquess will give the Crown Prince one last chance. I did not say he would remain patient and forgiving forever,” the Royal Knight corrected sharply as his gaze moved toward the distant noise of horses and men further upriver. “You should withdraw to a safer distance. The forest is crawling with the Duchess’s scouts. Let the men rest today while staying out of sight. I have a feeling we’ll be calling upon you before the Royal Hunt is over.”

“I can handle the men,” Weylin retorted with a dismissive snort. “It’s those two devils that are harder to keep under control.” The captain jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the other mercenaries, then frowned before turning to assess the single man standing behind him.

Cooper stiffened in realization. Two of the mercenaries had completely disappeared.

“Hell’s teeth!” Weylin snarled with apparent frustration as he and the Royal Knight hastily scanned the shoreline around them. Cooper caught a glimpse of shoulder-length sandy blonde hair beneath the knight’s cloak hood before the messenger tugged his hood lover. “Where did they wander off to now? Lieutenant Wes! You were supposed to keep an eye on them!”

“Apologies, Captain! I—” Wes quickly snapped his fingers at the remaining two mercenaries standing guard at a distance, who scattered to begin their search.

“Never trust a witch to follow orders!” Weylin spat, crushing the message still gripped in his hand. “I hope the Marquess knows what he’s doing because those two have been more trouble than their worth.”

“The Marquess does not keep useless tools at his disposal. After all, who better to frame for the death of a royal than—”

Cooper’s focus on the crucial conversation shattered beneath an agonized human scream. The ominous scent of brimstone and burning flesh seeped into his nostrils as he gripped the brittle bark of his hiding place. Then the horrific shriek echoed again, snapping the sergeant’s attention to his right, where the burning visage of a human pillar tore past him, stumbling down the dense embankment to plunge towards the shoreline and river. The charred, unrecognizable body of one of his scouts plunged beneath the murky water, then resurfaced to float lifelessly downstream.

“Oh, Captain Weylin!” The taunting voice of a foreigner rang out loudly less than four yards from the sergeant’s hiding place. “Look what we found!”

Cooper clenched his fist as the mercenary witch strode past him, dragging a struggling Davis along the ground with a whip wrapped around the pale scout’s neck.

‘Damn it! As if crates worth of rifles weren’t bad enough—now they have fire witches?!’

“Ha! Looks like the Duchess’s scouts have already found us!” Weylin retorted, sounding more amused than anxious as the witch removed his whip from Davis’s neck, only to kick the scout down the embankment towards his comrade’s charred, floating remains. “So, how many of you are there?”

Davis lay stiffly on his side, his panicked gaze torn between Anderson’s unmoving body and the fire witch that stalked toward him. Cooper watched helplessly as the witch recoiled his whip, igniting the leather cords as he stepped on the scout’s left ankle.

“Malachi,” Weylin called out in a cautionary tone. “We need one of them alive. And where the hell is Rhydian?”

“Where else?” Malachi snickered as he leaned his weight into Davis’s pinned leg, dangling the tip of the burning whip along the scout’s back. “He went bird watching with Pyr.”

“We need to comb the immediate area quickly,” the Royal Knight snarled. “If even one of them makes it back!”

“Relax, mortal!” Malachi interjected with an audible sneer. “Pyr spotted three of them sneaking over the ridge earlier. Rhydian will find the last one soon enough.”

“You know, with the Duchess out of commission, now might be the best time to eliminate their scouting camp,” Weylin suggested with an eager grin.

“You will do nothing that draws attention!” the Royal Knight snapped. “A few scouts going missing is one thing—but taking out an entire camp will only bring Colonel Isaac and the rest of the Bastiallano knights down your throats!”

“Bahahaha!” Malachi laughed scornfully, the flames of his whip sparking erratically as he threw back his hood to reveal a short, pointed beard and gleaming braids of dark brown hair. “Listening to the bickering of mortals is ruining my appetite,” he muttered with resigned disgust. “Your all talk and plans and countermeasures—but when it comes to actual bloodshed, you’re nothing more than quivering women dressed in armor.”

Weylin clenched his jaw in silent fury as he cast the Royal Knight a pointed glare that practically said, ‘See what I have to deal with?’

The Royal Knight clenched his sword, his outrage palpable even from beneath his cloak before he chuckled dryly in response. “Even in war, one must never make a move before considering the consequences.”

“Consequences?” Malachi snorted. “Numbers matter for nothing when facing a pureblood Ventrayna Warrior! What can a thousand mortal knights do trapped in a burning forest?”

“It’s not a thousand knights that concern me but the third scout you have yet to locate!”

Malachi rolled his eyes and sighed before pressing four fingers between his lips and whistling sharply. A demonic screech echoed through the air above them in response. Cooper’s gaze darted towards the sky as a blaze of light descended towards the river, swopping low to land upon the fire witch’s outstretched wrist. “Welcome back, Pyrrhus.”

“A sun hawk?” the Royal Knight muttered in surprise.

The name perfectly encapsulated the majestic bird, whose feathers rippled with an unquenchable flame that spread harmlessly around its master’s wrist. It was only then that Cooper spotted the mangled, dead crow dangling from the hawk’s powerful talons.

“Clever boy!” Malachi praised as he stroked the proud bird’s chest. “Now, what of our remaining rat?”

The sun hawk screeched shrilly before its burning gaze turned to the river embankment and rose with uncanny precision towards the giant tree Cooper hid behind. The sergeant’s lungs froze in terror as he reached blindly for the signal flares tied to his belt.

“Looks like they didn’t get away,” Malachi observed with a cynical grin. “Flush them out, Pyr.” The sun hawk took off, its wings sparking small fires along the branches as it climbed above the tree line to circle directly above the scout’s hiding spot.

Cooper flinched as Davis took advantage of the distraction to lunge for the nearest covered foliage. Malachi spun after him. The witch’s whip hissed as it coiled around the fleeing scout’s leg. A single, powerful yank was all it took for Davis to fall flat on his face. Even from a distance, the impact of bone breaking against rock made the sergeant cringe.

“Don’t even think of pulling the same stunt,” Malachi snarled as he dragged the stunned, bleeding scout across the rocky, pebbled riverbank towards him. “The longer you take to come out, the more fun I’ll have punishing your friend here.”

The sergeant gritted his teeth as the fire witch ignited his whip. The flames coiled around Davis’s right leg, setting both the leaf poncho and the scout’s trousers on fire. Davis let out a stifled scream of pain before rolling madly into the shallow water beside them.

Cooper took a deep breath as he pried four flares free, then pushed against the tree as he rose to his feet and stepped forward to face them.

“Well, well, how chivalrous!” Malachi taunted as he dragged a gasping Davis back to the shoreline. “If this is the kind of military discipline we can expect, invading the northern territory of Bastiallano will be easier than I thought.”

‘An invasion? Just what the hell was Borghese up to?’

“I never thought I’d see the day when the Royal Faction would sink so low as to ally themselves with witches?” Cooper observed with forced calmness as he approached, shifting his movements toward the still-burning piles of brush left in the wake of Anderson’s death march.

“Bold words from a dead man,” Malachi retorted with what might have been a glimmer of respect. “Perhaps I should reward your foolishness—after all, we only need to keep one of you alive. Rhydian.”

An arrow whistled overhead. Davis sputtered in surprise as the shaft of wood sank into his chest, pinning the scout to the murky riverbank. The dying man whimpered unintelligibly, then fell silent as a trickle of blood spilled past his lips.

Cooper squeezed the fist of flares in futile rage. He had only himself to blame for lingering this long—and underestimating his enemy. ‘At least Davis died quickly. All I can do now is find a way to signal the rest of my men.’

“He’s hiding something beneath those shrubs he’s wearing, Malachi,” a ghostly voice hissed only a few feet behind the sergeant. Cooper whirled around and stared at the witch garbed in black mercenary attire that melded into the coal-black skin of his jutting jawline framed by eye-catching crimson braids. A pair of yellow eyes pierced through the sergeant like the gaze of an owl accessing the desperate movements of its next morsel. “A weapon, perhaps?”

“Why don’t you come down here and show us, rat?” Malachi responded in good humor. “We need to have a chat about this child Duchess who sent you out here to die.”

“I have no words to share with you regarding any matter related to the Duchess and Bastiallano,” Cooper replied firmly as he drifted closer to the smoldering flames that appeared to be losing their strength.

“Is that right? Well, we’d expect no less from a knight of Bastiallano,” Weylin retorted mockingly as the other three mercenaries returned from their search. “I’m sure our friends here will help you find the appropriate words.” The mercenary captain nodded to Malachi before turning to the Royal Knight, who lingered by the shore. “You can head back, Lieutenant. And let the Marquess know we have everything under control. We await his command.”

The sun hawk swooped overhead toward Malachi, landing on the foreigner’s shoulder as the witch shook out his damp whip. The soft tread of feet through the loose leaves at Cooper’s back only heightened the urgency with which he needed to act. The sergeant took a slow breath as the unidentified Royal Knight wadded back across the river, providing a slight but temporary distraction. Cooper turned his back to a low-hanging burning branch, pretending to retreat from the dark witch that closed in on him, as he pressed the ends of the flares into the flame.

‘A few seconds, that’s all I need.’

The welcoming hiss of the fuse catching fire filled his ears as Rhydian’s yellow eyes narrowed sharply. The witch lunged forward with unnerving speed, shoving Cooper roughly downhill. Pine needles, leaves, and dirt swirled before the sergeant’s spinning gaze as he reached out to slow his descent. His right arm slammed against a narrow tree trunk, knocking the precious flares free as pain flared down his wrist and up his shoulder.

‘No! Please…. I only need one of them to go off!’

Silence and mocking laughter was the only sound that awaited him as Cooper rolled to a stop just a few feet from Davis. His blurred vision whirled to where Rhydian smothered out the still-burning flares with the back of his heel.

‘Damn it. I…. Failed?’

A whip coiled around Cooper’s neck and dragged the sergeant to Malachi’s waiting boots.

“What was that? Some pathetic attempt to what—signal for help? Warn your friends back at camp?” The fire witch flipped the battered leaf poncho over Cooper’s head as he searched the sergeant roughly, tossing aside his short sword, flares, and other equipment. “Tsk! Nothing useful there.”

“What did you expect from a scout?” Rhydian muttered as he kicked the remaining flares into the river. “Why don’t you find something to tie him up so we can start our interrogation.”

“All right then,” Malachi retorted with a snort. “Pyr is getting hungry. Save him a few tasty morsels, will you.”

Cooper grunted as the fire witch yanked the sergeant’s belt free and wrapped it around the scout’s wrists and arms before lifting the prisoner to his feet.

“Not to worry. Rhydian is a master of pain. He’ll have you talking well before—” Malachi cut off abruptly as the sun hawk let out a loud warning screech that faded beneath the thundering sound of something—something massive—heading in their direction. Distant dogwood and fir trees appeared to bow and bend to the side as the approaching danger barreled towards the ridgeline above them. “What the devil?”

Rhydian wordlessly drew back an arrow, aiming towards the unseen source of racket, while Weylin and the other mercenaries drew their swords and pistols.

Cooper had never seen anything like it. The bear was monstrous in size. Its fur shimmered between black and silver, reflecting the colors of the forest around it as it lumbered toward them with a threatening roar. Rhydian’s arrow hissed overhead, striking the beast between the eyes but failing to break through the animal’s hide.

“Take it down!” Weylin bellowed.

Cooper flinched as the forest filled with the deafening sound of pistols firing in quick succession.

‘If I’m lucky, maybe one of the scouts will have heard that.’

The barrage of bullets slowed the giant bear’s rapid approach and even appeared to chip off fragments of its hide, but it closed the distance between them soon enough.

Malachi roared as he flung Cooper across the river like a sack of rocks. The fire witch danced to the side, narrowly avoiding the dangerous swipe of the bear’s deadly claws. His burning whip wrapped around the beast’s front leg as Malachi wrapped the tail of the whip around a tree and braced himself.

The whip snapped loudly in half but still managed to knock the bear off balance. The monstrous creature stumbled and rolled into the river, crushing Davis’s body into a bloody mess as it rose sluggishly to its feet.

Cooper blinked as he watched the muddy water roll down the creature’s translucent hide and skin. The bear quickly turned to face the fire witches, ignoring the next volley of bullets that pinged against its back and limbs. Malachi drew a long sword and dagger from his waist, igniting both in flames as the bear charged him yet again.

The sun hawk soared down, clawing fearlessly against the massive beast’s head and eyes. Malachi dodged yet another dangerous blow as Pyrrhus’s burning talons appeared to inflict serious damage to the creature’s vision.

“Is that—an elemental?” Rhydian called out as yet another flaming arrow bounced harmlessly off the bear’s neck.

“So what if it is?” Malachi countered confidently. “Fire will always be superior to ice!”

Strangely enough, the witch’s words appeared to enrage the monstrous creature, who rose onto its hide legs. A glistening set of canines and incisors snapped close around the sun hawk’s tail feathers, dragging the majestic bird down from the sky.

“No!” Malachi bellowed frantically as he charged towards the bear, only to watch helplessly as the beast shoved the hawk beneath the river water with a swipe of its paw before ripping the drowning bird’s head off with its teeth. “Pyrrhus!”

A blaze of fire pulled Cooper’s attention to where Rhydian’s entire bow now burned in flames. The witch’s arrow turned into a fire bolt that crackled through the air before crashing into the bear’s shoulder. This time, the burning arrow did not bounce away. The bear roared as its scarred gaze turned towards Rhydian, whose bow disintegrated in the witch’s hands.

Malachi took advantage of the creature’s diverted attention to leap onto the beast’s back. The fire witch plunged both of his burning blades into the sides of the bear’s neck and then, with the immeasurable strength of a pureblood Ventrayna warrior, severed the elemental’s head from its shoulders.

Cooper watched in numb silence as the terrifying bear’s head bobbed downstream after Anderson’s body. The remains of the beast’s shimmering frame disintegrated into a pile of glittering ice as Malachi staggered to his feet. The sergeant was still processing everything he had just witnessed when a tendril of water wrapped itself around his leg and dragged the startled scout toward the river.

“Malachi!” Rhydian called out in alarm as he charged toward the already disappearing scout.

Cooper sucked in one last desperate breath of air as the tendril yanked his head below the surface. Minnows and crawfish scattered before his vision as the back of his left hip and ribs bounced against the rocky riverbed. He could just make out the burning outline of Malachi’s blade as it pierced the water above him and turned away reflexively. The flickering flames of his impending doom vanished in a flurry of bubbles as the world went dark, and the scout found himself floating in an abyss of nothingness before being suddenly flung back onto solid ground.

It took Cooper a moment to realize he wasn’t dead and thus needed to keep breathing. As he took his first shaking breath, two figures rushed towards him, rolling the sergeant onto his side as they loosened the belt from his arms and wrists while placing a restraining knee against his neck and legs.

“We spared your life, mortal,” a woman’s voice stated bluntly as he was yanked to his feet. “Keep your bearing east, and you’ll find your Duchess.” Cooper blinked down as the woman shoved a surprisingly dry flare into the sergeant’s hand before he was pushed in the direction of a barely visible forest trail. “Safe travels, friend.”

“W-wait!” Cooper whirled around and blinked at the empty glade of trees. The peaceful sound of a small ground spring came slowly into focus as his racing, pounding heart eased into a more manageable rhythm. The scout stared down at the flare and quickly reached for his belt, only to realize Malachi had taken his flint stick and compass as well. With a muttered curse, the sergeant turned toward the trail, his numb legs moving clumsily into a rapid jog as he ignored the scent of death and burning flesh that clung to him still.

 

 


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