BY J.M. CONGDON
Amrick Wellworn's joints ached abominably, his breath coming in wheezes and his fingers numb as he clutched Freya's reins. His eyes burned from the blood that had spattered into them, and his halberd felt so heavy that if he hadn't been able to rest its haft against the back of his barghest he would have dropped it.
But he had never been so alive.
The old arctic wolf's blood sang in his veins, his heart a steady roar in his ears as his vision throbbed. The taste of victory was in his mouth, sweeter even than the scent of cooking meat as the war camp's chefs went to work. He almost threw back his head to howl, to let his voice join those of the younger soldiers, but he resisted. He had an example to set, after all, and as he guided Freya back to his company's row of tents he shifted in the saddle to sit up straighter.
Snatches of song filled his ears alongside the pounding of drums, the night sky made bright by the fires that blazed across the ruins of the battlefield behind him. The heat was incredible, the wreckage of the Karanorian artillery and powder magazines burning a sickly blue-green. Amrick's white fur was singed in places, and Freya had a welt across her ribs, but they had done their job as they always did.
A caracal saluted Amrick as he approached the tents, relieving him of his weapon and offering a paw to assist him off his barghest's back. The old wolf took it gratefully; he might have fallen on his face if he had tried to do so alone. It wasn't fair, the way he could feel simultaneously so vigorous and so feeble, but it had always been that way. Almost half a century had passed since the first battle he had fought in, and he had been so tired afterwards he would have slept for a week if only he had been able to.
In those days there had always been more barbarian tribes to fight, seemingly endless waves of the savages throwing themselves against the might of the League, and so he had soldiered on. It had taken almost a decade to shatter the will of the Elrim, to force them to scurry like vermin back into the desert to lick their wounds, but they had only been in Karanor for a year.
It was enough to turn the tide.
Amrick felt it in his bones as surely as he felt anything, and his fingers found the metal charm on his bracelet, rubbing the smooth piece of metal. It was a victory he could be proud of, Amrick was confident, the genius of their commander almost equal to the greatest warrior to have ever lived. "Make sure to get a poultice on Freya's side," he ordered the young caracal, his voice strong but raspy, "And check her over for any other injuries. The old girl's too damn proud for her own good."
"Aye, Master Chief," the feline replied crisply as the wolf gave Freya an affectionate pat.
The barghest's muzzle was stained with gore, the fur of her face gleaming in the light of the fires, and she rubbed it on his uniform as she nuzzled her broad head against his shoulder. The caracal grabbed the reins, getting ready to do his bidding, but Amrick grabbed his arm before he could leave. "Oh, and Private... Vikas?" he added, pausing briefly to recall his name.
After so many years they all started blurring together, but Amrick always made the effort to get names right, and he was gratified to see the young soldier's ears and tail twitch with pleasure at his superior knowing who he was. "Hurry back when you're done," Amrick added, "Tell them I said to give you a double portion."
"Aye, Master Chief!" Vikas replied enthusiastically, and as he gently led Freya away Amrick resisted the urge to shake his head.
By Roren, had he ever been so young?
"Of course you were," a voice replied, and Amrick smiled as he turned to face the mammal.
The Slayer stood there in all his glory, his cloak fluttering around him. His fur was as white as Amrick's own, his eyes a blue so dark they were nearly purple. His body rippled with muscle under his clothes, and although Amrick was not short the other wolf still looked down at him. The Slayer had to be nearly eight feet tall, but he moved without a sound as he walked over to Amrick's side. "Was wondering if I'd see you again," the old wolf said, rubbing the charm that had once been his father's, "Glad of it, Master Slayer."
The Slayer didn't reply, but he usually didn't. He only nodded vaguely, his gaze distant as he followed a pace behind Amrick. The old wolf had never told anyone about the magic in the memento he carried, the small piece of the hero left in a fragmented relic. It was a priceless gift, an opportunity any wolf would treasure, and he knew the hero was watching over him.
Or maybe he was simply going senile.
It didn't matter to Amrick; the phantom had once saved his life, shouting a warning about an attack that should have decapitated him. The charm appeared entirely unremarkable otherwise, its contours comfortingly familiar as he held it. The piece of metal had been a sharp wedge in his youth, still holding an edge, but time and handling had worn it down. Its corners had all been rounded out into something vaguely triangular, the luster of the steel lost to hundreds of fine scratches, and Amrick rubbed it between his fingers.
"Grant me strength," he whispered gruffly, swallowing hard as he steeled himself before the nearest tent.
Later, there would be all the revelry he could stomach. There'd be haunches of goat, the meat succulent and so juicy that it'd run down his chin. Music and dancing awaited; perhaps even a tankard of two of small beer were in his future. But first there was the hardest part of his job, and the Slayer wordlessly put a sympathetic paw on Amrick's shoulder. He couldn't feel the other wolf, exactly; he had no weight or warmth to him. The Slayer didn't even have a scent, but Amrick could still tell he was there, and he stood for a moment, drawing vitality from the hero before he threw the tent's flap open and strode inside.
He had seen worse over his long years of service, but not often. Of his company, nearly two dozen mammals had been gravely injured in the battle, and the ones that were still conscious tried to stand as they saw him approach. "At ease, soldiers," he growled, "You've done enough."
Amrick made his rounds slowly, offering his gratitude and what comfort he could as he looked down at the mangled bodies of mammals young enough to be his grandchildren. There was a coyote missing both his legs below the knees, his eyes hazy with pain and medication as he grasped Amrick's paw. "I'll be back on duty shift tomorrow, sir," he slurred in a dreamy voice, and the old wolf felt something in his heart twinge.
"Just get some rest for now," Amrick said, gently disentangling his fingers, and he shot a glance over his shoulder as he moved on.
The Slayer had disappeared while his focus had been on his company, but that wasn't surprising. He was absent far more often than he was present, and Amrick was weirdly grateful for it; he didn't feel worthy to have the spirit's undivided attention. Still, he could have used the support as he reached the last cot.
Ensign Alinoska was a fresh-faced timber wolf who couldn't have been more than twenty, her badges of rank covered with her own blood. Alinoska's chest rose and fell in pained gasps, and there were three arrows sticking out of her belly. Amrick winced internally; he knew exactly why the medics hadn't bothered to remove them.
She was dying.
The ensign might live another few hours, but there was nothing that could be done for her terrible injuries but to make her passing comfortable, and Amrick swallowed hard. "Master Chief," she said faintly, her voice weak as she met his gaze.
Despite her youth, she had never been timid. Three days ago, when two of the privates in the company had heard rumors that there was a vixen among the alchemists in the battalion and tried to sneak a peek, Alinoska had gone to Amrick first to discuss the appropriate punishment. She had somehow hit the right balance between the authority that her rank gave her and deference to his experience, and Amrick had walked away impressed, sure she would soon make alpha lieutenant.
"Ma'am," he replied, saluting her.
When he had first made sergeant, long before she had even been born, it had felt strange to take orders from officers years younger than him. The feeling had faded even as he got increasingly older; no matter how his fellow non-commissioned soldiers joked, he understood the value of the officer corps. But it had never entirely vanished, and he felt it again as he looked down at a mammal cut down before she could reach her prime. "Did... We win?" she asked, and Amrick saw the hope in her face that the pain couldn't touch.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, and she nodded slowly.
"Good," she whispered, "Good."
Her eyes began to close, and Amrick had already started to quietly move away when she spoke again.
"Master Chief," she said, "Will you tell it again?"
She didn't say more, but she didn't have to. Amrick knew perfectly well what she meant, and he pulled up a chair to her bedside, heavily sitting down. It had only been the previous night when he had told the story of the Second Labor, and he cast his mind back.
The eve of battle was always a tense time, and Amrick could feel it more than ever as he sat with his company around one of the many fires in the war camp. The voice of other mammals filled his ears, tense and nervous as they joked and laughed just a bit too loudly, and he only half paid attention to the words being spoken. There were the usual topics; soldiers always bragged about how well they'd do, about what they'd do when they returned home, but there was one notable absence.
The conscripts usually joked about their species. Silly things, really. The canids accused the felines of being prissy and overly fastidious, and they returned the favor by calling them sloppy and excitable. As long as it didn't escalate to fistfights the old soldier didn't give a damn what they said, and over the decades he'd rarely had to intervene. It brought them together, made them more comfortable sharing their tents and the battlefields with predators different from what they knew, and it all receded into comfortable background noise.
But no one made jibes about cats anymore.
Amrick had no idea whether or not the Woemaker would care; she was a fellow soldier, but she was also an officer. The gulf between enlisted and commissioned was wider than the gap between any two species of predator, and he preferred not to find out. The Woemaker was terrifying in a way he couldn't put into words, but it wasn't fear that stayed the soldiers' tongues.
They loved her like a child loves his mother.
She was doing something that everyone had always claimed was impossible; Karanor was supposed to have terrain too treacherous to assault. The rocky mountains were an ally to the goats that called it home, an advantage that could not be overcome. But in a year of fighting, the Woemaker had yet to lose a single battle. She had brought them victory after victory, always pressing the advantage and making unprecedented gains.
"Master Chief!" a voice called, interrupting Amrick's thoughts, and his ears swiveled as they found the speaker before his eyes did.
Ensign Alinoska sat a few spots down from him, given a respectful berth by the other soldiers of the company, and her uniform and posture were both immaculate. "Yes, ma'am?" he replied.
"How about a story?" she asked, "I've heard you're pretty good at telling them."
"I've been told as much from time to time," he allowed, and the others whooped and urged him on until he raised his paws.
"Alright, alright, settle down," he growled before turning his attention back to her, "Any preference, Ensign?"
"Whatever your favorite is, Master Chief," she replied, and Amrick hid a smile.
She was playing it exactly right, the perfect picture of an officer, but he could read her interest however casually she tried to act. Alinoska wanted to hear the story, the one he told most often, and he rubbed his fingers against the medallion hanging from his bracelet. "Yes, ma'am," he replied, and he settled himself in as he prepared to speak.
Ecter was an old fool who nearly doomed us all.
Amrick tried to ignore the voice in his head, the words his father had used once—and only once—to start his recollection of the Second Labor. They meant nothing; the wolf had been halfway through a bottle of the whiskey he drank to banish the pain in his ancient bones. But he had sounded as sober as he ever had while recounting the tale for Amrick as a pup.
"Rushaya was a city of wonders," Amrick said, pulling on the familiar words that had begun the tale every other time, "The crown jewel of the Cradle. Towers so tall you could see them from twenty miles outside the city wall, peering over the horizon. Canals so grand that they put rivers to shame, the sails of the boats that plied them all colors of the rainbow. It was the greatest city the world had ever known, millions living in a prosperous pack under the keen eye of Caiser Ecter Alson."
"Alson was a noble leader," Amrick went on, practically able to hear his father sneer in disgust, "He had sat on the Wolfram Throne for many years, but even all he saw over those long decades could not prepare him for the Scourge although his own wisdom was supplemented with that of his court. There was Warshal Dorterion Vorn, his fiercest military commander and greatest friend."
A good wolf, that Vorn, but no head for politics. It was his undoing, in the end.
"There was Caiserevich Yilpris Alson, his eldest daughter."
If only she had survived, eh? There'd still be a wolf as Caiser, I bet you that much.
"There was the Whisperer, Alson's alchemist and philosopher," Amrick went on, ignoring the sly asides his father had made that burned like acid through his memories, "And, some say, a wizard."
Stay away from mages, Amri. That's all I'll say about that.
"And many more lords and ladies besides," Amrick said, "But this story does not come to me from any of them, nor from some book written by a dead paw. It passes from my ears to yours from my father, who served as a castle guard to the Caiser himself."
He paused for a moment, peering at his audience and aware of a sudden change in their behavior. It wasn't anything he could quite put into words, a strangeness that made no sense until he turned and saw that a mammal had joined them.
The Woemaker looked like an apparition in the moonlight, her golden fur glowing softly. Her metallic eyes blazed eerily, and Amrick repressed the urge to swallow hard as they locked onto him. Saber-General Astrasa sat by the fire, her gaze steady and unblinking as her cloak settled around her body, and she spoke a single word.
Her voice was low but feminine, and it occurred to the wolf that it was the first time he had heard her speak. He took in a steadying breath, not sure if it'd be rude to look away but unwilling to hold her gaze, and squeezed his father's charm tight as he closed his eyes.
He took in a breath before reopening them, glancing away from the Woemaker as he kept speaking. "When the Scourge began, it was with rumors that began trickling into the castle," Amrick said, "My father wasn't there to hear them all, but they were grim indeed. Villages and towns vanishing off the map overnight. Whole flocks of Avians falling out of the sky, dead and frozen in the middle of summer. Rivers running red with blood.
His voice was barely more than a whisper, but he knew he had them hanging on every word. "Monsters more terrible than anything you can imagine, beasts the size of fortresses chewing up entire armies," Amrick said, pulling his cloak tight around himself, "Awful eyes burning in the night, brighter than the sun but as cold as winter, and such horrible things they promised. It was an age of darkness, my friends. Despair gripped the hearts of mammals everywhere, for what could be done? Who could stand against such beasts?"
A sigh crept through the camp, a title on everyone's lips. "The Slayer!" Amrick roared, throwing his arms wide as he suddenly stood, "Roren's chosen, the warrior without peer, the relentless force of Her light. But perhaps you think the stories are exaggerated, that no mammal could do what he did. Do you doubt the Slayer?"
He whirled, pointing at the nearest mammal, fixing him with his gaze. The soldier, a young stoat who didn't look as though he could have been a private for more than a week, stammered a response. "N-no," he said fearfully, and he cowered as Amrick leaned in.
"You don't sound confident," he growled between barred teeth before he brought himself upright and turned away.
The old wolf fought the urge to wince; the theatrics helped with the telling, but they were murder on his knees and back. "But who can blame him?" Amrick asked, gesturing toward the sky as he slowly turned in place, "Even the Caiser was leery, when first the stories made it to his ears. A lone wolf, winning against the most fearful of odds? A single mammal roaming the world, giving succor to those who needed it and asking nothing in return?"
He could feel the Slayer's presence behind him, a sort of warmth flowing through his body as he lost himself in the retelling. "It sounded impossible, but many honest messengers carried the same tales. The Caiser ordered the League to open their hearts and hearths to the hero, to give him whatever aid he required in his quest against the forces of darkness. He wished dearly to meet the Slayer, to thank him for his efforts and to offer him a seat in the court of the greatest nation the world has ever known.
"But he never got the chance."
Amrick paused, looking at his gathered audience. Hundreds of eyes met his, predators of all sizes from ferrets to hulking bears listening intently, and the only sounds were the crackles of their fires and the whisper of the wind. Even the Woemaker was paying rapt attention, her focus entirely on him and her expression unreadable. "It was a day like any other," Amrick said solemnly, "There was no warning of what was to come, no sign of anything amiss. The sun burned bright in a cloudless sky, the breeze bringing with it the promise of summer. The castle grounds were alive with mammals, the Caiser's grandchildren playing with the vigor of youth. The streets ebbed and flowed, the shops and taverns all full, and no one thought the Scourge could touch them. Rushaya was, as I have said, a city of wonders, not some tiny village. The walls were tall and thick, lined at regular intervals with keen-eyed guards. It seemed impregnable, utterly secure against any monster attack.
"And then the ground quaked."
Amrick clenched one paw into a fist, gesturing sharply. "Perhaps some of you have lived through an earthquake, and think you know what I mean. You don't. Buildings started shaking themselves apart. The city walls split and cracked. The air was filled with an incredible sound as every belltower tolled all at once, and then it appeared.
"My father did not see it rise as it split the Theatron of the Numinous, but he felt the entire city shake with its presence. The dread basilisk Qurutzalcar, the great serpent king, was even then longer than most towers are tall, its body thicker around than the trunk of the mightiest tree. Its terrible body was covered with feathers of all colors, their edges sharper than razors and cutting everything the beast passed. Its mouth had four parts, unnaturally hinged together, and its maw was filled with teeth curved like fishhooks. The basilisk's very breath was poison, roiling clouds of it sweeping and swirling around its mighty head, and everything that met its gaze burst into flame."
I nearly pissed myself when I saw it. Maybe I did; you have no idea what true horror is, Amri, and be glad of it.
"It bellowed its fury as it burst free from the ground, its body sinuous and agile, and then it began to feed. Mammals tried to flee it but could not; the basilisk filled city streets and moved impossibly fast, blocking every avenue of escape and filling its gut and growing ever larger. Its body swelled and lengthened with every victim, its terrible jaws as wide as a lake. The soldiers patrolling nearby tried to ward it off, but their weapons were useless, shattering against the Qurutzalcar's side as its toxic fumes burned the flesh from their bones and its eyes set them aflame.
"The Caiser convened his council as word made its way to the castle, desperate for options, and it was the Whisperer who spoke first. 'Abandon the city,' he advised, his face unreadable behind his gleaming mask, 'Your troops—'"
"Is it true the Whisperer was horribly burned? Is that why he wore the mask?" a voice blurted suddenly, and Amrick looked about until he found the mammal who had spoken.
A lynx was looking at him wide-eyed, and he heard muttering from around the camp as the spell of his story was broken. "More likely he was the bastard son of some noble who wasn’t happy about the family resemblance," a panther whispered to one of his companions, and there were muted chuckles from those nearby.
Amrick didn't mind; the thirst for details meant only that he could pull them in deeper. "Who can say why a wizard dresses as he does?" Amrick replied, spreading his paws wide, "My father never saw him without his mask on, and the Whisperer never spoke of his reasons. Perhaps his face was horribly disfigured by the powers he dabbled in. Perhaps he was an Aberrant as hideous as the Slayer was handsome."
He paused, allowing his words to sink in. The hushed discussions stopped almost at once, the power of his voice enticing them on. "'Your troops are no match for the beast,' the Whisperer said, but the Caiser was outraged. 'And feed my citizens to it?' he cried, 'Leave them without a home, without the protection of a wall, and make them easy pickings for whatever monster comes next? No. A thousand times, no. We shall fight.'
"'Then you, and your line, shall perish,' the Whisperer replied, and with a swirl of his cloak he left both the meeting room and history itself."
"'Father, I shall fight the beast,' the Caiserevich swore, 'Its hide may resist spears and arrows, but surely it cannot withstand our artillery. I'll blast it to the very core of Aerodan.'
"'No, my daughter,' the Caiser replied, 'I shall lead the charge myself.'"
"'My liege, please!' cried Warshal Vorn, 'Allow me to go in your stead.'"
If only he had listened to one of them.
"But no one had ever fought a basilisk before, and Caiser Alson underestimated the dread beast," Amrick went on, "My father was not among the troops that the Caiser personally selected, mustering a mighty battalion to serve at his side. They set off on barghests from the castle, a thousand mammals strong with Alson leading the charge, and their courage was the stuff of legends. They did not break before the might of the Qurutzalcar. They did not retreat. They threw their all at it, the furious might of the League brought to bear against the hideous basilisk."
They all died.
"In her father's absence the Caiserevich worked tirelessly to move citizens away from the scene of the battle, pulling victims free from the rubble and putting out the fires that threatened to engulf the city. Her efforts saved thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, while still the Caiser and his soldiers raged," Amrick said, "The Warshal, meanwhile, prepared Rushaya's artillery at the Caiserevich's order, organizing the batteries for the single greatest concerted strike in the history of Aerodan.
"The Caiser's assault bought enough time to pin the beast down, to keep it contained while a hundred and fifty brimstone batteries were prepared and aimed at it. The scene was utter chaos, the ground choked in the toxic fumes of the basilisk's breath and the very air burning with its gaze. Stone melted around its enormous body, blazing with a terrible internal flame, but everyone stood firm. Members of the League do their duty! We fight for our nation! We gladly give our lives for it! We remember the example our forebearers set and we do not disappoint them!"
Amrick's voice was thunderous as he bellowed the words, and he could feel the charge in the war camp, the nearly galvanic sense of purpose filling the soldiers. It made him proud to serve, proud to be a wolf, and it could almost blot out the whispered counterpoint in his father's voice.
But they didn't have to die, if only he had listened.
"The Caiser's troops fought to the very last mammal; he perished bravely in the fracas but they did not yield even with their leader gone. The Caiserevich's heart was filled with grief and rage, but she knew her purpose. She gave the command, and every piece of artillery was set off at once.
"The city trembled again, the dusky twilight turning briefly into daytime at the force of the concentrated explosion. Enormous plumes of dust and debris blotted the basilisk from sight, and for a single moment the defenders thought that they had triumphed.
"And then the beast bellowed.
"It was barely wounded, tarry ichor flowing from a gash in its side, but it was infuriated beyond measure. The basilisk thrashed wildly, tearing down buildings in its agony, and Caiserevich Yilpsin realized the truth of the Whisperer's words. She ordered Rushaya evacuated, but it was already too late for her. In her concern for her citizens, for her city, she had been poisoned by the terrible beast. Its noxious toxins ate her lungs from the inside out, and she lived only long enough to see the last mammal out of Rushaya before perishing herself."
Amrick felt his voice growing thick with the words, but there was no artifice in it. He felt genuine sorrow every time he thought of the noble Yilpsin's passing, of a wolf who had seen to the safety of her pack even at the cost of her own life. It was the greatest example anyone could aspire to, and his father's bitter comments only made the tragedy greater. Yilpsin could have been a great Caiser, one who would have gone down in history as among the very best, but the Scourge had cut her life woefully short.
"The leadership of Rushaya was in shambles," he went on, "The Caiser and Caiserevich were both dead, as was the entire royal family. But Warshal Vorn knew what was needed of him. 'It has been my greatest honor and privilege in life to be a soldier,' he told his assembled generals, 'But our nation now needs a Caiser.' Vorn's own family had perished in the fall of Rushaya, and so he appointed his senior saber-general, Furwin Korsi, as his Caiserevich and did his best to be the leader his citizens required.
"Vorn had the ruins of Rushaya encircled, so as to ensure that there would be an early warning if the basilisk moved, and the watchtowers he had built were the precursors to New Rushaya. But although rebuilding was Vorn's greatest dream, and the task to which he would devote the remainder of his life, he understood it to be foolish to attempt it while the basilisk lived. And so his soldiers watched and waited, ever minding the ruins. The basilisk had sated its awful hunger, and it turned what was left of Rushaya into its nest, filling it with awful secretions and preparing it for some foul purpose."
Those were lean years, Amri. Always half-starved, afraid... But then he arrived.
"Lesser mammals would have complained at their privations," Amrick went on, "But we are predators, and we are not weak. The survivors of Rushaya did their duty, ensuring the basilisk stayed where it was. Now and again Caiser Vorn would send in scouting parties to assess its movements, but he didn't dare attempt to engage it again, not after how it had shrugged off everything that could be brought to bear against it. The new Caiser sent out messengers, on foot and by air, to locate the fabled Slayer and bring him back to fight the Qurutzalcar, but none of them succeeded."
"It was, in fact, my father who was on guard duty the day that the Slayer arrived of his own accord," Amrick continued, glancing to his side.
His vision of the Slayer was standing there silently, his cloak rippling in the breeze and the light of the fires reflecting off his fur. He looked simultaneously ghostly and solid, his expression thoughtful as he considered the assembled soldiers. "The hero of heroes was dressed simply in a cloak as black as midnight, his fur as white as the moon above, and his eyes were more brilliant than the finest sapphires. He was tall and powerfully built, his tail unnaturally long and thick, and although he looked like many other Aberrants, there was something more to him.
I can't describe it any better than that, Amri. He had this... presence like no other mammal. Like how you can feel heat rising off a fire, that's what it was like to see him.
"'I've come to slay the basilisk,' he announced, his voice steely, and my father looked at him from his post. 'Are you the Slayer, traveler?' he asked, but the strange wolf did not reply with words. He pushed his cloak aside, revealing the weapon wrapped around his waist. Although my father did not know it then, he was being honored with a glimpse of Nidhogg, the fabled whip-sword of the Slayer. It was elegant like no other weapon, sinuous and gleaming as though with its own inner light, and the Slayer strode forward.
"As though the beast could sense his approach, the ground began to tremble again, the hissing and clicks of the basilisk filling the air. The fortifications around the ruins of Rushaya crumbled and fell, but the Slayer was not deterred. He continued his advance, leaping the chasm that had been dug around the wreckage of the city in a single mighty bound, and then the beast emerged.
"It had grown even more enormous in its long wait, so vast that it blotted out the sun as it reared its hideous body. The basilisk bellowed furiously, its toxic breath gushing forth like a foul fog, and still the Slayer did not stop. He ran at it, drawing his whip-sword, and the blade erupted in flames, so bright that my father could not bear to look. There are no words to describe the battle between the two, no observer who could keep track of the combatants. They moved faster than the eye could follow, the Slayer nimbly dodging the lunges it took at him. A normal mammal would have died, simply standing where the wolf did, but the Slayer fought on, unhampered by anything the monster did.
"The guardians of the ruins, my father among them, could only watch in complete awe as the Slayer battled on. His clothes caught fire, burning away, and although his body blazed with flames he was not consumed."
The light... They were colors there aren't names for, coursing along him and crackling between his limbs.
"Every last bit of glass left in Rushaya shattered all at once as his whip-sword struck. It rained from the ruined towers in shimmering patterns as it caught the flames, coating the ground, and my father was completely deafened by the sound as his eardrums burst. Even after they healed, for the rest of his life the ringing was always there, the sharp sound echoing forever."
Some of the others who were there said the Slayer was speaking as he fought it. All kinds of noble words they give him, but that's all nonsense. They were as deaf as I was, and I could see his face. His expression. His lips were moving, but he wasn't talking.
The Slayer was laughing.
"The Slayer did not relent, his blows shearing off a piece of the basilisk's head larger than a cathedral, but even after such a wound the beast fought on. He danced around it, his whip-sword doing what thousands of spears and hundreds of artillery shells could not, and with one final strike avenged the fall of an empire and his kin. Its dreadful corpse fell to the ground with the last quake it would ever make, and then the wolf strode away.
"He was still burning with flames, all of his clothes gone but the bracers he wore on his wrists. The metal of them had cracked and was falling apart, and whether the damage had been incurred by the basilisk or they couldn't contain the power within him my father could not say. He took one of the fragments, which he passed down to me.”
Amrick held up the charm dangling from his bracelet, holding it up for the camp to see. “My father tore off his own cloak,” he went on, “Offering it to the Slayer as he approached, and the wolf wrapped himself in it. He paused for nothing else, striding away from the ruins of Rushaya and leaving the basilisk's corpse in his wake."
Amrick took in a breath, looking around at his audience before pressing on. "The years that followed were hard ones," he said, "But far from hopeless. The Slayer had set an example to follow, and the League grasped it fully. We are the match for any foe, no matter how vicious, and we do not give in. The will to fight is in our souls, in our very blood, and we shall always emerge victorious. Long live Caiser Tainia! Long live Saber-General Astrasa! And long live the League of Jaws!"
Cheers and applause mixed with the stamping of feet met Amrick's fiery final words, the assembled army roaring with approval. Their faces were filled with patriotic fervor, and Amrick beamed at the reaction.
But then it all stopped at once.
Like a wind passing over the assembled crowd, they all fell silent as the Woemaker rose to her feet, her paws lifted until there were no sounds whatsoever. "Tomorrow we fight," she said, and although she did not raise her voice it seemed to fill every part of the war camp, "Tomorrow, you shall all be a part of the greatest military victory the League has ever achieved. Remember this day, and remember your comrades at your side. I expect nothing less of you than what I demand of myself."
She clenched the fingers of her gauntleted paw into a fist, looking down at it before sweeping the war camp with her unsettling gaze. "Be worthy of the pride we take in being carnivores," Astrasa said, "Dismissed."
The command was inviolate, the assembled soldiers hurrying back to their tents to sleep. Amrick went to join his company, but to his surprise Astrasa was suddenly standing before him, as though she had simply appeared. "Master Chief," she said, "Let me see your bracelet."
"Aye, Saber-General," Amrick replied, saluting her as formally as possible and not daring to meet her eyes as he undid the fastener and presented it to her.
The leopardess regarded it curiously, bringing the shard of metal that dangled from the bracelet up to her face, and then she did the last thing Amrick would have expected.
She licked it.
The Woemaker's rough feline tongue emerged from her mouth and pressed against the fragment, her eyes rolling up and half-closing as she made a sound low in her throat. Amrick froze, the seconds that passed feeling painfully long, and then she held the bracelet out to him. "It really is a fragment of one of the Slayer's bracers," she said, and Amrick couldn't tell how she felt about that.
Her voice and expression were unreadable, and he swallowed hard as he accepted the memento back. "Thank you, Saber-General," he managed at last, not daring to ask how she could tell or what she planned on doing with the information.
"Take good care of it, Master Chief," she replied, turning on her heel and striding away without as much as a single backwards glance.
"I don't suppose you know what that was about," he muttered, looking to where the phantom of the Slayer had been, but the wolf was gone.
Amrick took Alinoska's paw within his own. Her pulse was feeble and slowing, her eyes half-closed but still focused on him. The timber wolf was waiting expectantly, and he swallowed hard. He was tempted to look around, to see if the phantom of the Slayer was still with him, but he didn't.
You know what to tell her, a voice whispered in his head, and he couldn’t tell whether it was that of the Slayer or his father. It suddenly occurred to him that they sounded nearly the same, but the words were true no matter who they were coming from.
"Rushaya was a city of wonders," he began softly.