Image created by skilled artisans from the mountains
As he got closer to burning town, little Wundan ducked to the side of the forested road and scurried into the foliage. The carrites didn’t have the gall to swoop in this close while conflict still raged, he was safe . . . from them.
Another group of villagers burst through the gates. Before they could make it twenty paces a hidden group of bandits sprung a trap from either side of the road. The slaughter was quick and horrific.
Petrified, Wundan froze mid crawl. He was not more than an arm’s length away from where the nearest bandit leaped out from a brush.
His heart was in his throat and he forced himself to hold his breath lest they heard him. His panic rose with the thrumming in his ears, drumming harder with each passing second.
His little eyes flitted over the corpses, trying to see if his mother was among them through the tears that poured freely down his face.
No, none were of his mother, but he recognised the shoemaker . . . the whites of his eyes were blood shot and stared into the nothingness where Wundan was huddled. Then he saw the milk maid, clutching her son to her bosom—both skewered—and then he recognised the bodies of the stable hands.
The pain of seeing friends dead—of holding all of that emotion at bay as he held his breath grew too great. His chest felt as if it might burst, so little Wundan gasped, inhaling the rancid, smoke throttled air.
One of the bandits grunted and looked up from his looting, scanning the brush.
The bandits were all human, wearing crude leather garments and sporting cruel looking knives or cudgels.
“What is it?” one of the bandits asked.
“I thought I heard something,” the first one said.
“It’s probably that pack of carrites that have been shadowing us since we started raiding.”
“They’ll find more use off these poor bastards than we will,” another of the bandits said as he kicked the shoemaker, rolling his body over to rifle through his pockets. “I mean, fuck, do these peasants have anything of value?”
“Mull made it clear when we signed up. We attack the small towns to build up for the big one. There is an orc village next—they’ll be a little tougher than this lot. Then we reach a multispecies settlement on the coast on the far side of the mountains. They’ll have the most spoils. And we’ll be ready to take it all.”
“So what do we do in the meantime?”
A woman screamed within the burning village, one that rang out in greater woe than the others as the sound of conflict died down. The band of bandits looked over to the smouldering town and laughed.
“Well, like Mull said, in the meantime we enjoy a bit of sport with these worms.”
The scream caught Wundan’s ear too, because it was drawn from his mother. She was still alive, and these bandits were laughing at her pain. Wundan gripped his dagger in trembling hands, eyeing the open gate, taking bigger and bigger breaths as he prepared himself for what he had to do.
With a yell he charged out of the brush, reaching the bandit that heard him before, and slashed at his leg.
“What the fuck!” the bandit jumped back as his leg spilled open and Wundan rushed past him, ducking around a stray arm. “That little shit just knifed me, gut him!”
But Wundan had already scooted between them, charging towards the open gates which were starting to catch aflame. Through the opening was a wall of thick black smoke. Wundan steeled himself and barrelled inside.
He made it past the gates, bursting through plumes of smoke and stopping to stare in horror at his pillaged town. But the blood and ruin filtered from his mind as he sighted his mother in the centre. Standing over her sprawled form was a large man. He wore a dark cloak and brandished a wickedly curved sword.
Wundan’s mother tried to crawl away from him, and froze as she saw her son, standing with a feeble dagger in his hands. She cried out for him to run. But the bandits outside closed in behind him, the one he had slashed clobbered him across the back of his head . . .
20 years later
“What magic could undo that of the Knights Cosmic?” Drawg hissed, “We are mandated by the divine, none can withstand our might.”
“And yet,” Drade said coolly, watching as Harahn ushered the souls further back into the Roaming Wall’s chambers, “Captain Rorc’s soul was not guided by a Sun Guardian. By all accounts, it is likely he was ingested by the corporeal voir.”
“But that CAN’T happen.” Drawg said.
“ENOUGH!” Drade’s voice filled the room with a flush of heat, leaving the hot metal aftertaste of prismatic fire. “Things that can’t happen have kept on happening. Firstly, voir aren’t supposed to grow in size after they’ve ingested enough souls to reach critical mass and pass into the physical realm. But they are. Then Rorc’s soul was not escorted to safety, and then the portals stopped working . . . and now a voir breaches the Roaming Wall, OUR STAR FORT!” Drade breathed deeply, his shoulders heaving. “I fear something terrible is happening, and it has been happening for a while, but we were just too fucking powerless to stop it.”
Drade went to the nearest table and grabbed it with a roar. His armour flared into existence for a split second as he flipped the table against the far wall. It smashed to bits against the starlit stone as the crockery upon it shattered.
“Drade,” Leppin hobbled up to him, “These events aren’t a reflection of the time you were recruited.”
“Are you saying that because you think I don’t know?” Drade spun on the Dwarf. “No, it’s not like before, because this time I don’t have any excuse to be letting everyone down!”
“The Dwarf speaks the truth, Captain.” Harahn lumbered over from the rear wall of the hall since he had finished shepherding the souls, “And you speak a perverted version of the truth.”
Drade turned to the orc, his glare unwavering. “Then what should I do with Leppin’s truth?”
“Let go of what has happened, Drade.” The orc said, “Lead in the now. We need your strength.”
Seria tensed, it looked like Drade was about to attack Harahn, but to her amazement he took a deep breath and seemed to simmer down.
“My strength is useless if I can’t direct it anywhere. And I can’t go through a portal to warn the Knights Council. We need a new plan.”
“We need to regroup.” Seria stepped forward tentatively. “From the star map it seemed the Knights Cosmic are scattered across the cosmos. Even our own squadron is scattered, as we had to send Rafek and Arachton on a separate mission. Should we not regroup with another squadron? Or is that not how we do things?”
“We can do it, it’s just that all the squadrons have friendly rivalries.” Drawg hissed. “Regrouping will lead to decades of roasting at our expense.”
“It’s the reason Rafek and Arachton were keen to travel to help Hord Squadron,” Leppin chuckled, “Because they could rub it in if they needed to offer assistance.”
Seria couldn’t help but smile, “That is idiotic.”
“I agree.” Drade said, “With both your plan and you last statement. I’m directing the Roaming Wall to the nearest star to offload our souls. Once we ferry our souls into the star’s protection we will head for the closest Star Fort for assistance. Until then, Seria, you just unlocked your armour, we must train you further. Fighting a wraith voir in single combat is a feat all on its own, but it is nothing compared to the horrors I fear we must face.”
“Can we face such horrors?” Seria asked.
“Never fear, water Nymph.” Drawg scurried up to her, placing a red scaled arm around her shoulders. “Five Knights Cosmic can face down any threat in the cosmos.”
“So you keep saying . . .”
Pillars of Prismatic Fire jetted from the legs of the two Knights Cosmic as they hurtled between the stars. Travelling long distances using the multicoloured flames is different from jumping from a planet to a Star Fort, it takes more of a toll on the mind and body.
But Rafek and Arachton were seasoned Knights, even if they didn’t act like it between battles, they could handle the burden. And the passing was made easier by the stellar scenery.
Rafek gazed in awe at the passing polyps of light that were celestial bodies—stars and planets and drifting tides of nebula—as they streamed through the eternal night upon lances of technicoloured light and flame. His big eyes reflected their speckled journey, even beneath his translucent faceplate.
Arachton hurtled alongside of him in his periphery. She drifted side to side, enjoying her own flight. The eight jets from each of her legs combined to form a much brighter pillar in her wake.
Eventually, the planet they journeyed towards loomed into their path ahead. It was a pale brown dot amidst the sea of celestial beauty. It grew quickly, like a stone that had been hurled at them with all the strength of the giants of old.
Rafek and Arachton reacted as one, rearing to bring their legs in front of them and stall their jettison across the stars. The planet now hung before them, an orb of pale brown beauty with wisps of white cloud clinging to it, like liquid between two glass layers of a marble.
“Nice planet your kind chose,” Rafek grunted, “A bit brown for my liking though.”
“My kind sees more colours than you, monkey.”
“So, like, different kinds of brown then? Ook ook!” Rafek laughed.
Arachton rolled several of her eyes. “Let’s just find the Star Fort and see what’s taking them so long. It must be orbiting the far side of the world. Let’s go.”
“Yeah, but I’m also wondering where is this Voir threat?” Rafek hummed.
“We can hover here in space like limp egg sacks or we can go ask Hord Squadron ourselves.” Arachton’s legs quivered.
Rafek held his hands up in a placating manner, with an involuntary “Ook ook,” laugh.
The two then jettisoned off, arching around the world with streaks of aurora trailing in their wake.
“Debris,” Rafek said as a hail of pebble sized chunks dinged off his faceplate and pauldrons.
“It’s the same stone as a Star Fort.” Arachton hissed. “Starlit granite.”
“How can you tell?” Rafek wondered.
“It has a celestial taste.” Arachton shrugged her front two legs.
“You eat pieces of the Star Fort?”
“No! But much of the vermin I feed on is coated in the stuff from living in the walls.” Arachton answered. Rafek shivered at this, and Arachton scoffed back at him, “Don’t give me that shit, I’ve seen you pick and eat from your own fur!”
“Fair enough,” Rafek said. “Look, there is more up ahead.”
The two soared towards a dense cluster of debris that looked more like an asteroid field.
“They were attacked,” Rafek gasped. “The Star Fort I mean . . . there is a trail of debris that slams into the mountain ranges on the world below. The Fort . . . it fell.”
“We need to get down there!” Arachton said, “There could be survivors, they could still be under attack . . . and the citizens are still in danger.”
Rafek squinted through his visor, “What about warning Drade and the others?”
“If both of us flee to tell Drade, then the survivors may die. If one of us leaves, the one who stays will be overwhelmed. But perhaps the both of us will have a chance here, together.”
“We risk much here, Arachton.” Rafek hefted Rorc’s warhammer, now his warhammer. “Know that I do not recoil from this battle out of fear or panic. If we fall, Drade is down two Knights and is none the wiser to the threat.”
“I understand, but surely you feel as I do?” Arachton asked.
“Yes, our fellow Knights must be rescued, the people here must be protected.”
“Then we are agreed?”
“We are, lead the way, Spider Knight.”
Arachton unslung her halberd from her back, gripping it with the claws at the end of her front four legs. With a burst of power she hurtled towards the world, arching down into the air like a burning comet and slowing as she tore towards the mountain range below. Rafek followed right behind her, and they trailed in the ephemeral wake of the defeated Star Fort.
They kept their fears to themselves, but they both pondered what in the cosmos could overwhelm a Star Fort. A force of dozens of voir could maybe defeat a full squadron of Knights . . . but to bring a Star Fort crashing down from orbit . . .
They stopped burning, having broken through the atmosphere to find themselves in a dusk lit sky. They soared over a craggy brown mountain range that was littered with detritus and chunks of starlit stone.
“Can you see any of your kind?” Rafek asked.
“None, if we can help it we live underground. It is likely the mountains are teaming with my people. Look!” Arachton gestured forward, “Something great burns just over that ridge.”
They sped over the rocky outcropping, soaring high over the scene, and balked in horror. Hord squadron’s Star Fort lay in partial ruin across the mountain side, cracked and crumbled almost down to a single battlement, upon which several Knights Cosmic fought valiantly against a swarm of voir.
“I have never seen more than a handful of voir . . .” Rafek’s voice wavered before he found his resolve, “Where could they find the souls to fuel such an abominable force? Millions must have been scattered between the stars for them to be fattened so . . . But from where?”
“The Knights directed the Fort to crash here on purpose.” Arachton pointed with a trembling limb. “Look, they are blocking an entrance to catacombs below the mountains.”
Rafek followed her gesture but could not see the entrance clearly, he saw only more voir embroiled in a battle with spider things that blended in with their surrounds. A lone Knight Cosmic stood with them.
“No one would willingly crash their Fort!” Rafek blanched.
“They must have been crashing anyway and they picked the best spot. Come, you reinforce the Knights on the battlement, I will help my kind at the entrance to the underworld!”
Rafek bellowed a roar that would make the beasts of the deep jungle tremble, and streaked down on his Pillar of Fire. He slammed into the crenulations that were being overrun by slimy, writhing, scuttling voir.
They were foul creatures with grotesque, bloated, maggoty bodies and irregular protruding spider limbs that snapped like dead tree branches as they moved. They embodied the disgusting ambulation of a slug with the unnatural scuttling of a spider.
As Rafek brought his mighty warhammer to bear—crushing the cylindrical snapping maw of an over eager voir—he smiled. Arachton hated him for comparing their motion to a spider’s, which is why he usually did it.
“Ook ook!” Rafek laughed as he flung another beast down the mountain side with a blow from his new hammer, “Monkeeee Knight stronk!” He walloped another voir, crushing its head with a shriek as it rose above its flailing comrades.
“From where do you hail, Monkey Knight?” A Knight propelled herself past Rafek and skewered a voir into the crenulations. She was an ogre, tall and burly, dwarfing Rafek by a large magnitude and had enormous antlers protruding from her helm. She spoke with a slow, lumbering voice.
“I hail from Pride Squadron, YARGH!” Rafek walloped another voir into the abyssal heights. “Captain Drade was concerned by the Voir warning on the star map not being snuffed out by your extended presence. He sent me and Sister Knight Arachton to find out what you’re up to! Where is your Captain?”
“He died when the Fort impacted the mountain side. We were overwhelmed from within!”
“The voir tore through our own portals en masse as we prepared to face the threat here. We lost the Fort within seconds. Captain Tulk used his last efforts to drop it here and seal the breach in the Arachtoid stronghold below us . . . I fear it was for nothing.”
Rafek bared his fangs even though only a hint of them was visible through his translucent helm. “I must warn my Squadron.”
“You’ll have to survive this first!”
Down on the ruined mountain side, by the open mouth to the Arachtoid fortress, Arachton was a bastion of defence against the dozens of smaller voir that were trying to swarm through the breach. Behind her, her kin were spinning webs and moving debris into position to seal the breach while her fellow Knights were already dead and dying. She would not be able to hold them for long.
The Knight battling on her right finally succumbed to his wounds as he was pierced in several places by the dead bark like limbs of the voir. His corpse was tossed back into the swarm to be torn to shreds, for his armour to be broken, and for his soul to be devoured in insult to the contract between the Knights Cosmic and the Sun Guardians.
Arachton hissed in fury and her kin hissed in response.
“Rafek!” she cried up the battlement, “We are being overwhelmed, retreat below ground!”
Rafek heard his comrade’s call and spread word among the dwindling Knights on the battlement. As they fell back from the crenulations they ignited their pillars of Prismatic Fire and propelled themselves from danger. They arched down to the narrowing breach in the underground Arachtoid fortress.
Arachton held the tide back with desperate fury, holding the beasts off until most of the Knights were through, and until her kind had retreated into the dark. A light flashed and a Knight landed behind her, Rafek.
He grabbed her by the collar of her armour and hauled her through the gap as the final member of her kind pulled boulders down into place with its webs. The rumbling, cascading stones clouded the cave in darkness before the dancing coloured light form the Knight’s armour lit the room. The screeching voir outside raked at the mountain side, trying to claw their way in through the hard stone where the Arachtoids had made their home. The breathless panting of the Knights and civilians within the hold were the only counter to the horrible noise outside.
“Alright,” Rafek grunted, startling the spiderlings around them. “They won’t be held back for long . . . we need to defeat our enemy, protect these people and warn all of the Knight’s Cosmic of the threat.”
“But how?” The ogre was on her backside, slumped against the wall. The shimmer from her armour faded with her fury until she wore nothing but drab cloth. “How can we come back from this defeat?”
“This is not a defeat.” Arachton said. “Whenever our late captain experienced a setback, he would call it a consolidation. We must take time to regroup, to think and to plan.”
There was a titanic screech from without, the walls rumbled and dust fell from the cave’s ceiling.
“Well then,” another of the Knights—a centaur—stood, “Let’s get to work.”
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