"Huff... huff... huff..."
Holden's breath created great clouds of condensation in the chilly afternoon air.
"Huff... huff... huff..."
The days were getting colder as they traveled north, and his striding companions had pushed him to trek faster and further than he considered himself capable. He had stopped trying to calculate the miles they were covering.
Ameth signalled for a rest. This was the leader of the strider scouts. Oh yeah... the dragon-legged elves call themselves Striders... "Apt name," Holden had thought. Only one of the many lessons the young human had learned during their interminable journey together.
Ameth, Nolin, and Seldin. The three survivors of the destruction at the Manse. And now they were Holden's best (and maybe only) friends. For some reason, they had allowed the rifleman to continue traveling with them. Even after several of their own kind had joined them on their march.
He moved to sit down at the base of a pine tree, his feet crunching through brittle frosted grass. His canteen was nearly empty. Hopefully, they would be making camp near a river tonight. As he caught his breath, he surveyed the surrounding forest.
A chill wind had begun to blow, causing the trees to whisper secrets to one another over the travelers' heads. Ameth and the rest crouched in their strange feline way, always ready for possible ambush, even while resting.
Holden heard no animal sounds. No birds. No scampering mammal. The air was charged with expectation. Like the whole forest was holding its breath. The boy hoped it was his imagination.
It was not long before the familiar song of wingbeats broke through the silence. It wasn't long before he could hear the great crunching footsteps of the walking beast that was now a part of the Queen's retinue.
Holden sighed at the thought of her. She had caught up with Holden, the Striders, and the surviving four-winged dragon. They were also quickly joined by two more flying dragons and a huge six-limbed wingless monster with a toothed maw like a shark. The teeth seemed to go on forever inside its mouth.
Fortunately, the striders kept themselves distant from the warbeasts. Unfortunately, the Queen kept her dragons close like housecats. They practically purred in her presence.
"It's not like I have the courage to talk with her, anyway," Holden rebuked himself sullenly.
The daredevil sorceress and her winged steed also rejoined the troup, and Holden was glad to see her, but some of her wild joy seemed muted since the last encounter. Aniss? Alice? Amass? Dang... forgot her name again... Anyway, she mostly tended to her injured mount and ignored everyone else.
A quick motion from Ameth, and Holden jumped up. Rest's over. North again.
The afternoon grew old, and the sky darkened quickly. Too quickly. Holden glanced up as he trotted along behind the line of scouts. The sun was invisible behind a thick layer of dark grey clouds, and the sky continued to glower down at him.
The whispering trees became louder and louder. Soon, they were swaying heavily under a gail. White pellets begain to pelt Holden's bare cheeks, and he had to blink away flakes of ever increasing size. The crunchy frosted grass gave way to layers of cold buildup, and the trees gave way to a series of open hills, all quickly obscured by layers of white.
The wind whipped hard around his ears, and Holden wished for the protection of the trees left behind. After a couple of slippery steps, he focused his attention on the ground. He bent forward, relying upon the sounds of the archers to guide him.
The next time he lifted his head, he could only see a few yards ahead, barely able to make out Nolin and Seldin's forms in the swirling white storm. Seldin blew a signal with his horn, and Holden huddled up with the rest of the elves. A newcomer stood facing Ameth and the rest.
She had long strider legs, but her face was obscured by a red mask over her nose and mouth. She couldn't hear her over the wind, and he wished he could at least read her lips. Instead, he had to stand patiently. She gestured fiercely, and Seldin blew rapid sequence of notes back towards the Queen and her entourage.
Holden had to duck as Alice and her hellion streaked by overhead. Her staff was glowing with an eerie blue light. She immediately disappeared into the storm. Some of Holden's confusion was alleviated as bright blue flares appeard to the north, illuminating the landscape before them.
The striders stood in an open clearing, devoid of trees. A tall hill loomed far to the right of their huddle, with drifts of snow between them. Beyond the snowdrifts, Holden could see a pile of crates and a row of green metal barrels with some improvised barricades around them.
Someone was already camped here... Probably not someone friendly... Holden watched Alice... no... Ylyss?... Yes! Ylyss! That's her name! He knew he'd remember it!... Holden watched Ylyss soar over the large distant hill, back into the storm, and out of sight.
The new strider took position on the left, Seldin in the middle, Ameth on the right. Holden filed in with the other striders and ended up behind the Newcomer and next to Nolin. Together, they took deep breaths and squinted into the storm. It was dark as night. Only the space around Ylyss's flares were visible.
Holden tried to find his courage, but it seemed to be was lost with the sun behind the storm. He shuddered from head to toe, and he wondered to himself if it was cowardice or cold. He didn't have long to ponder.
About halfway between his position and the supply crates, the snowy ground began to rise. It bulged up like a bubble, sending snow toppling down in a near-perfect circle. And then, the bubble burst.
A great roaring sound filled the air, echoing over the din of the storm, and a gout of steam burst from the top of the new hill. A massive chitinous mouth erupted out of the earth into the chill air, followed by a number of long fleshy tentacles, all steaming with moist heat and throwing long shadows from the nearby flare.
Holden stumbled back away from the violent scene, and the Newcommer strider turned around questioningly. Embarassed, Nolin grabbed at the human's elbow and growled, "It's just the Maw. It's on our side, fool."
Feeling his tentative friendship weakening, Holden screwed himself tight. He wouldn't let Nolin and Seldin's faith be in vain. This Newcommer was obviously a big deal to them. He set his jaw in a grimace to stop its trembling and nodded back to his companion. With boldness that felt a lie, he stepped back into line, firmly planting himself once again behind the Newcommer.
She spared him one squinting look and turned to Seldin. She gave him a nod and then ran out into the swirling cacaphony. He let loose a long low blast on his horn, and the whole troop raced forward at a run to follow in her wake. Holden quickly fell behind the archers, but managed to keep them in sight.
Also in plain sight was the aweful Maw. "If that's a mouth, it surely goes all the way down to hell." Holden thought. Four massive jaws with rows and rows of glinting teeth encircled a long and gruesome tonguelike tentacle tipped with a chitinous barbed hook. Three identacle sinewy appendages were also waving about nearby, sending hellish serpentine shadows dancing in all directions about the arcane flare.
Just beyond the light of the flare, Holden glimpsed the cadre of dragons passing around the looming hill to the east. He held his breath for a few seconds, but the Queen stayed lost in the frigid darkness. With a sigh, he tromped on through the deepening snow towards his companions.
As he approached, the silhouette of a massive lone tree dominated the northern view. The striders had all congregated just to the south of this landmark and were prepared to move east. Holden still couldn't fathom how they could be so coordinated with one another and with the rest of their battle group with only a single horn for communication. It seemed he was always just following on their heels as they moved together as one.
The storm stalled around them for a moment, and the six-winged dragon hove into view, followed by all the other blighted beasts. The underside of their many appendages illuminated a bright icy blue, and the fire in their mouths glowed red hot. The warmth of these great animals was almost inviting in the midst of the storm. Holden flexed his fingers and stamped his feet to work up the insulation in his extremities.
They all faced east, like the striders. Holden had not yet seen the enemy, but these fantastic creatures seemed to know what was happening beyond sight. The Queen floated in over the flares, directing her forces wordlessly. The young man stole a look at her. She seemed unaffected by the turbulent weather. She was filled with primal heat, snowflakes evaporating as they came into contact with her. He drank in the sight of her.
A muted yell and a horn blast brought him from his reverie. He looked about, trying to locate the source of the striders' disquiet. Low to the ground, a handful of armored crab-like monsters clambored across the white ground cover. They charged forward with ugly speed towards the angelic dragon closest. She hovered low over them, roaring a challenge.
A bundle of pincers and spines, the claw-monsters lept up and about the angel. She dodged around, sweeping them back and away from her serpentine flesh as they tore her wings and scratched her tail. Small streams of blighted ichor leaked across its pale skin and stained the white snow beneath it.
Streaking from the grey chaos of the snowstorm, a bright firey red ghost charged at the weakened beast. Like a skeleton of glass, this spectre was irridescent and incorporeal to begin with, but it darkened and became more substantial as it approached. With its bony claws wrapped around the dragon's neck, the fantastic warbeast fell to the earth, its wings limp after a small flutter. With a small flash and an audible, the ghastly form disappeared from above the elegant corpse and reappeared several yards away, licking its horrid skeletal teeth while its form started becoming translucent again.
The new strider lept over the draconic body, still steaming and warm, and took aim at the retreating ghost. Surprisingly, her arrow struck it before it retreated fully into the aether and it burst into a bright red flame and a thousand sparkling glass bits before disappearing fully. After taking aim and repositioning a few steps back, she fired again. This time, she struck one of the offensive crab beasts.
Unfortunately, it was made of much stronger stuff than the ghost. Its armor was hardly marred by the attack. Holden and his squad stood and aimed at the giant crawling bugs. One shot after another struck the small beasts, but they were largely unfazed. Their thick armor shrugged off most hits with ease and they started shuffling back away from the warriors' attack, staying low to the ground.
His view now unobstructed by both friend and foe, Holden got his first glimpse of the enemy forces. The Queen's guard had all become tied up in a grand melee with a giant scarred beast with great tusks and bladed armguards protecting its large fists. The elephantine figure wore no armor, and his bronze-colored back sported a tall ridge of black hair. It had six limbs, though it only stood on two legs. Its dun flesh was crossed with many silvery scars that shone clearly in the light of a nearby flare.
The Queen stood nearby, and dropped behind a one of the makeshift barricades for protection as a volley of needle-like projectiles fired in her direction. She remained unscarred from the onslaught. Looking for the source of the attack, Holden could just barely see the sillhouettes of warriors in the snowstorm, arranged in a firing line near a stack of supply crates that were now half-burried in snow. Their weapons were odd, a cone-shaped apparatus held like a rifle with many small holes in concentric circles around the tip of the cone, presumably for firing needles in a burst at a target.
Holden's jaw started chattering, and he could no longer feel his cheeks or nose. Seldin blew a trio of high notes through his horn, and Holden wondered how his lips remained flexible enough to signal in the cold.
Looking to Ameth, the command was clear: Destroy the gunmen! Ignoring the scuttling beasts for a moment, strider arrows felled the the enemy warriors one by one, leaving only a duo standing near a standard-bearer. For additional protection, Ylyss dropped from the sky, her staff glowing brightly in the darkness. Her magical command forced the winds into a new order all around them, disrupting the enemy's ranged attacks and giving respite from the chaotic storm for her allies.
Holden took a moment to steady himself, distracted by the battle of the large warbeasts taking place just beyond the sorceress. It was a mass of flapping wings, basso elephantine cries, and the sounds of tearing flesh. Through the chaos, another tusked opponent had apparently joined the fray, causing the dragons further damage. Splotches of hot red blood and black ichor sprayed the pristine snow, steaming.
The tide of battle started to turn. The larger tusked beast beat back one of the flying dragons, strike after strike pushing it further and further away from the center of the battle. This onslaught was followed by the second elephant charging forward close behind. The dragons were nearly beaten.
A bright red flash of arcane power suddenly streaked through the mass of monsterous flesh. It reminded Holden of the spectre that had felled the angel after it was injured by the scarabs. It was bright and incorporeal, but gained solidity as it approached its target. It struck in a straight line like a bullet. Holden watched in horror as it passed straight through the makeshift barricade hiding the Queen like it wasn't even there.
She let out a cry and held her side, glorious wings drooping and her pale skin stained scarlet. Three more magical shots passed from the space unseen beyond the monsterous melee. Each one found their mark, causing the Queen to stumble and almost fall. She clung to the barricade to keep herself upright, smearing the sandbags with her dark red blood.
All of the draconic forces felt the blow. Even Holden could feel the pain... The loss... And the rage. As one, every throat opened with an ear-splitting cry. Greatest of all was the roar of the Maw. Several tentacles hooked into the flesh of the largest enemy beast, dragging it across the snowy ground towards the ugly mouth. It clawed at the earth, mixing dark muddy brown in long streaks as it was pulled. In vain, it struggled. Tentacles lifted the great beast high into the air and dropped it into the tooth-ringed maw. Holden glanced away, hoping to not be witness of the end.
Instead, he caught a glimpse of a crowd of small men weilding whips and wicked knives that had been crowded around behind the elephantine beasts. Behind them was a large and commanding man. Not human. The right side of his face was covered by an ornate metal mask, and he had a crescent banner decoration atop a pole attached to his back. He held a golden staff in one hand, crescent shaped, with a glowing red sphere. The same damnable red that had pierced the Queen.
The spiked and toothy dragon marched through the lesser men. He picked one up by his ankles and slammed it down onto another with the sound of shattered bone and flesh. It then drove its bony skull down upon the large warlock, knocking it to the earth. As though they needed commanding, the newcommer strider yelled and gestured.
Another battle cry, and they all charged forward. As the great spiny dragon continued to bite at the fallen warlock, the striders made their attack. Arrows flew forward, most flying high above the melee. Holden dropped to a knee, holding his breath. A sudden calm fell upon him. He could feel the eyes of the Queen upon him as he raised his rifle.
Time seemed to slow in that moment. The flurry of thick snowflakes seemed to drift leasurly down through the air. None of the chaos of battle penetrated Holden's ears, only the sound of his breath, the beating of his heart. He blinked slowly as the arrows flew above the warbeast, missing their target.
He matched his eye to his scope.
He let out a long breath through pursed lips.
A small opening appeared through the mess of men and dragon.
He squeezed the trigger.
The stranger dropped, unmoving.
Maybe now he would have the courage to meet Her gaze.