The books had always described retreat like it was a neat, sterile thing. “The armies of Cesus were forced to retreat.” One army defeated another, and the other ran away. Nice, clean, and over. Clearly, that was where the killing ended. That was where the horror stopped. It was the end of the story.
Tythel was learning that it was anything but that.
She leapt over another wall, a soldier slung over her shoulder. Tythel hadn’t bothered to get his name, had just scooped him up and leapt. Unlight lanced through the air to strike at the spot they had just vacated, digging a furrow in the canyon floor. Too close. She landed, her feet shifting to talons as she slid across the ground. “It’s okay, I got you,” she said to the man, pulling him off her shoulder to set him on the ground.
He collapsed bonelessly, a neat hole carved into his head. Tythel fought back bile as it rose in her throat and turned away.
Before she could let the death sink in, before the fact that she had just carried a corpse to safety could really get its hooks into her, Tellias came slamming through the wall she had just leapt over, locked in a grapple with a Imperiplate trooper. Tythel ran towards the two struggling shapes, her hammer at the ready.
Before she could reach them, Tellias sunk his arcblade into a gap in the man’s neck armor. The imperiplate trooper fell, his head and helmet rolling away from his body. They separated as the roll, the man’s head coming to rest staring up at the sky with unseeing eyes.
Tythel couldn’t fight the bile this time. She turned and was messily sick against the wall. “Tythel, what’s wrong?” Tellias asked.
“What’s wrong? How can you- did you see what just happened?” Tythel snapped. “How can you ask what’s wrong?”
Tellias didn’t seem to know what to say to that. Tythel didn’t know what to say either, instead striding over to scoop up the vacant helm. “We’ve lost a quarter of our forces, your highness.”
“Then we need to keep fighting.” She turned and took a deep breath to steady herself, attaching the helm to her belt. It would hang there awkwardly, but it was worth it.
It would make what happened next slightly less suicidal.
Eupheme chose that moment to reappear in a rush of air, stepping out of the shadow of the wall. “Orders are going out. We’re falling back to the tunnels,” she said simply.
“Okay,” Tythel said, taking another deep breath. The taste in her mouth was terrible, and her enhanced senses were filled with the sounds and smells of the dying and the dead. “Tellias, take your men back to the tunnel. We’ll be right behind you.”
“Right behind me? Your highness, no. Absolutely not. You’re coming with us.”
“Damn it to shadow and sear it in light, Tellias, I have a plan. You and your men go into the tunnel first. Trust me.”
“Trust you?” Tellias’ voice was firm. “You just lost your stomach in the middle of the battle. I’m not letting you out of my flathing sight.”
Tythel looked at Eupheme, who shook her head. “If you did…” Eupheme said, trailing off without finishing the thought.
“Fine.” Tythel snapped the word more firmly than was needed. “You can stay, but get your men into the tunnel. Or do you want to keep arguing while they die?”
Even though the arcplate helm covering his face, Tythel could feel the intensity of anger in his gaze. He gave the orders, though, which was all Tythel cared about. “Eupheme, make sure his men get in.” Eupheme shot her a glare, but Tythel shook her head. “You can be back in an instant if something goes wrong. Please.”
Eupheme held the glare a moment longer, then gave a curt nod and vanished back into the shadow.
“Care to tell me what this plan is?” Tellias asked.
Before Tythel could respond, shouts began to rise up from further down the line. “Alohym on the field! Alohym on the field!”
One of those shouts ended abruptly in a gurgling scream.
Tythel felt her blood run cold. “Come on,” she shouted to Tellias.
He didn’t argue, which Tythel took as small blessing. She extended her hammer and they burst back through the hole in the wall.
This was only the third Alohym Tythel had seen close and in person. She’d expected it to be virtually indistinguishable from Rephylon, the way telling apart two tigers was difficult when you’d only been mauled by one. To her surprise, that wasn’t the case – in part because this Alohym looked nothing like any other she’d even heard described. Its skin was still a black carapace, its head still the wedge shape she’d gotten used to, but this one walked on two legs and its arms didn’t split at the elbow. If it hadn’t been from the massive thorax extending back from where the legs met the torso, she almost could have taken it for a human wearing armor modeled after the Alohym like some new, sleek imperiplate.
It whirled as they entered. A soldier tried to take advantage of its distraction, standing up to point his arcwand at the creature. Without even looking, this strange new Alohym extended its arm sideways towards the man. The carapace began to run like wax, and that arm was coated with a large growth, the forearm bulging outwards and consuming the hand so all that was left was a vacant hole. Unlight streaked from the new appendage, cleaving the man in twain.
It had done all that in the time it took the man to raise his weapon and take aim. Light, I’ve never seen anything move that fast. It even exceeded Rephylon’s speed – Although, Tythel reminded herself, Rephylon was toying with you.
This newcomer didn’t seem interested in playing game. It sprouted thin, gossamer wings from its back and flew towards Tythel and Tellias, the arm shaping into a wicked blade that glowed with an unlight edge.
“Great, it can flathing fly,” Tellias had time to mutter, and then it was upon them.
It struck for Tellias first, a fury of blows that happened far too quickly for Tellias to even think about parrying individual strikes. He swung his arcwand, forcing the creature to dart back, and Tythel could see the exposed cords of his wire from a dozen cuts the Alohym had broken in the steel. The Alohym flew around, coming back in for another strike, this time focused on Tythel.
Tythel wasn’t going to let it get into melee with her. She turned to follow it, heart pounding. Come at me, you monster, she thought with a savage fury, stroking the fans of ghostflame with her anger and fear. Come on, I’m right here.
As if it heard her, the Alohym dropped its erratic pattern and charged directly for her. She let loose a gout of blue and white ghostflame to meet it.
It dodged like the fire was standing still, flittering away from the flame with preternatural speed. Tythel turned her head to follow its path, the flame swinging towards the Alohym like it was on the end of a massive whip connected to her throat, but it kept ahead of the soul-searing fire with a contemptuous ease. “I won’t be as easy as that, you monster!” it screamed.
The voice surprised Tythel so much she stumbled as her ghostflame cut out. That stumble saved her life – the Alohym’s blade passed through the space where her head had been, and Tythel turned it into a roll to come up behind the Alohym. It was as surprised at the motion as Tythel, which gave her and Tellias a chance to strike. Their attacks missed as the Alohym rocketed back into the air. “No,” Tythel said quietly as it flew upwards. “That’s not possible.”
“What isn’t?” Tellias growled. “This flathing thing being that fast?”
His voice helped snap her out of her surprise. “Later. Won’t impact the fight.”
Tellias just grunted in acknowledgement. “We need to get to the tunnels. It’s too mobile out here. Down there it’ll only have one avenue of attack, only one path.”
“There’s still soldiers out he could kill!” Tythel hissed, watching closely at their opponent circled in the air, getting ready for another strike. Tythel’s voice was raw from the ghostflame, and she could feel her knees begin to shake. Light give me strength. I can’t collapse now.
“I don’t think it is interested in the soldiers. It called you a monsters, your highness. I think it’s going to follow- Get down!”
Tythel had seen it at the same moment as Tellias, and they both leaped aside. Their opponent had brought his hands together and they had shifted again, forming a single, massive unlight cannon. A small part of Tythel’s brain noticed how the thorax shrunk when it formed that weapon, but there wasn’t any time to think about that. The creature was firing on them with the force of an Alohym Warship, and Tellias and Tythel were both forced to run for the tunnels, it’s fire dogging their heels.
“Don’t think you can escape me,” he growled, and again Tythel heard his voice. She’d been expecting it this time, but that only made it slightly less shocking.
Somehow, this Alohym spoke with the voice of a man.