Friday, 5 October 2018

The Edge of the Battle

Standing at the edge of the cliff, the icy wind blew harshly against his exposed face.  Gredharm noticed the cold for the first time in three days, and with it, his own exhaustion.

Hundreds of meters above the main battlefield, there was no doubt the battle was over.  The number of bodies were uncountable.  They somehow seemed more than the numbers of the armies in the first place.  Jaina’s lifeless body lay on the ground near the base of the cliff, a few meters separating it from the rest of the carnage.  Some people had already pulled her aside and lay branches in lieu of flowers around her body as a sign of respect for her heroism.

In any other time, on any other world or place he would have loved Jaina, and her him.  But there was no possibility of that in the world that has been until now.  Love took time, and brought with it weaknesses that could be exploited.  Instead they could simply admire each others’ strength, intelligence and courage.  Now all that is over, perhaps they could have been together.  But they always knew there was no chance they’d both make it out alive.

Almost a kilometre away, Doran’s body still stood, but frozen in place.  His sword still in hand, piercing right through the skull of an enemy general.  It would have made for a beautiful statue, were it not the real man, frozen by some power or other that still lingered, and likely would for days without interference.  Doran was a great man, and a good friend.  An unparallelled general, with unwavering personal integrity and, although he covered it well, a deeply caring heart.  He would have done well raising a family after the war’s end.  He’d only once dared say aloud to Gredharm that’s what he really hoped for, it’s not something that was worthwhile, or safe to discuss otherwise.

A dull pain seemed to echo from place to place around his body. An arrow, obviously enchanted by some powerful enemy, managed to pierce his armour on both sides of his left shoulder and got stuck there.  Looking down he saw the deep gashes in his belly on the right and blood oozing from his side on the left.  He didn’t realise how tattered his once unnaturally white clothing and armour had become.  Strips of cloth were torn from the sleeves and legs, nothing could stain the material of the clothing when intact, but the frayed edges were all red with blood.  He didn’t even remember, or notice getting many of the wounds.

He wasn’t meant to survive this final battle.  The truth he denied even to himself, was that he fully expected this was the end and that loss was inevitable.  He fought on, because everyone relied on him to give them hope and courage, and so he did his duty as best he could.  And somehow, that was enough, he’d won.  They’d all won.

Jaina and Doran.  They’d won too.  He looked back down at Jaina and saw several soldiers kneeling, crying and praying around her body.  People loved her as much as they respected her.

He didn’t realise how much energy he was using just to keep his body alive with all those injuries, but there was no point in exerting himself any more, so he let go and the blood suddenly flowed more quickly from his wounds and he fell to his knees in the deep snow.

He realised it was really his choice at this point.  He could call for assistance and some healer or another would rush over and restore him.  In a week or so he’d be good as new.

And what then?  He was no great leader to the common man.  He was the best killer that had ever lived.  He was the best at training others to be the best killers.  He was the best at leading killers to kill.  These weren’t talents that rebuilt a nation, let alone a dozen nations.  He was supposed to have died here today, win or lose, it was supposed to have been over.

He did his part for the world, he did everything he’d committed to doing, and succeeded where it should have been impossible.  The world can now rebuilt itself, by itself.

The excuses and justifications sounded empty, even in his own thoughts.  In the back of his mind he saw Jaina give a faint smile to him, like she would to a child acting foolish.

Were Jaina alive, she could have led the entire world to a glorious new golden age, but she wasn’t.  Were Doran alive, he could have brought men together and formed a stable and just system of government for all.  He listed through 10 other people in his mind - all dead.

In 700 years he went from a broken child to the strongest warrior ever to have lived.  Perhaps he had it in him to also become a wise and compassionate leader?

Steeling his mind, he slowed the flow of blood again and forced himself to stand.  The slight sense of renewed purpose gave him fresh strength and he turned and waved over to his men in the distance, calling for assistance.

It was only moments before a dozen people surrounded him, they were all waiting in the distance, hesitant to disturb him, but waiting for anything he needed.  They looked at him with a reverence he didn’t really expect, or desire.  Reverence can quickly turn to disappointment and hatred with the slightest change in the winds.

They immediately began tending to his wounds, as a ball of solid flame shot from hundreds of meters away straight at them.  Some suicidal remaining enemy throwing their life away because they really did lose everything.  Gredharm waved his hand and the flame fizzled to nothing before it reached them.  Normally it would have been effortless, but in his current state it made him slightly dizzy.  Others had already shown up to dispatch the straggler, so it didn’t matter.

“GREDHARM!” The booming, enraged voice came from a different direction.  “YOU DIE WITH ME!”  The first shot was a distraction, the second ball of flame from this direction was vastly greater, and faster.  Gredharm and the others went to deflect it, but before they could, it exploded brightly causing them all to flinch… but did no damage.

No one noticed the shimmering behind Gredharm as the gateway opened, they only saw the man flying straight for him and by then a full 20 of the elite soldiers had arrived.  They threw everything they had at the man as he crashed into Gredharm and pushed him into the portal.  Balls of fire, streams of ice, bursts of pure energy disintegrated the man and pummelled the gateway as they went through.

Gredharm fell through the sky, though it was clearly a different sky.  A warm, clear, moonlit night.  The man who rammed him was burnt to cinders, but as Gredharm continued to fall he realised that even without a fight, or without the fall, even if the intention was just to send him some distance away and not directly into a furnace or some-such, that was probably enough to kill him, as without aid he couldn’t keep going much longer.

He used what energy he could to slow his fall and look for the ground - he’d been falling several seconds already, and the slowing was just in time as he crashed into the soft, wet sand of a beach.  The impact jarred the arrow and for the first time Gredharm let out a yell of pain.

Looking up into the night sky, his body felt dead to him, numb.  The sand was warm next to the snow of the battlefield and it conformed nicely to his body.  Even the stars of this place weren’t familiar, and the moon, so large in the sky.  The gateway must have been struck heavily.  He could be just about anywhere.

He felt something in his right hand that wasn’t there before.  Holding it up to get a better look, it was a note that simply read “At least you will die alone and in pain. - Azrel”

Gredharm chuckled slightly, but the pain and blood coming out of his mouth stopped him.  The thought the fool went to the effort of writing a note just to taunt him as his last action was a little pitiful.

It didn’t matter if he died today, or in a thousand years.  He would have died alone anyway, without Jaina.

This wasn’t such a bad way to go.  It meant he didn’t have to worry about all the inevitable politics, the infighting, the responsibility of rebuilding entire civilisations and not making the same mistakes again.  He felt a sense of calm relief.  With him gone, others better suited to such roles would come up and take his place.  The world didn’t need killers, it needed builders.  He was the last of the great killers alive, and now he would die alone, safely, some unknowable distance away.

A tear flowed down his cheek as he felt himself begin to fade away, the first one since he was 7 years old.  He wasn’t afraid of dying.  Just sad that he’d never had the chance to live.

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