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Artwork by jakejk

The Battle of Masada

Anzien vaulted over a fallen log as she sprinted through the forest, her braided red hair trailing behind. Fat raindrops fell from the sky, penetrating the canopy above and soaking the hood of her dark green cloak. Masada’s war horns blared once again, temporarily drowning out the faint sounds of steel clashing, and soldiers dying. It had been two days since she’d left Tectum Caverns, choosing to return to Masada instead of aiding Khalil’s raid on New Arcadia. She had run through the night, driven more by worry than a desire to fight. Even so, she wasn’t sure whether or not she’d made it in time. Simeon better not have gotten himself killed.

Wet leaves brushed against her face as she ducked under a low bough, then leapt over a large, moss covered log. Her heart pounded in her chest, and adrenaline filled her veins, obliterating her fatigue. After a long, exhausting night, she was finally close. Close enough to smell the smoke, though she still couldn’t see it. She burst from the trees into a small clearing, glancing up at the darkened sky as she ran. Should be morning by now.

She was stopped in her tracks by a drawn out, bloodcurdling death-cry up ahead. Instinctively, she drew the dagger at her side, and the short-sword sheathed on her back. Her training kicked in, and she kept her head low as she ran quietly toward the chilling sound.

She ducked behind a tree, having heard unsettling tearing and crunching noises ahead. Peering around, she spotted a hairless, gray-headed creature crouched over a lifeless body. The creature’s arms jerked violently as it worried at the fresh corpse. She moved in closer, and its head suddenly popped up, cocking to one side. Anzien held her breath and waited. After a moment, it went back to its kill, carelessly discarding unwanted organs and bones over its shoulder.

She leaned back against the tree, attempting to control her breathing. You’ve been trained for this. Trust your instincts. She tried to talk herself down, but was unable to unravel the knot in her belly. At least my hands have stopped shaking. She took a deep breath, readied her weapons, and charged out from behind the tree.

She took one step and froze. It’s gone. Only the mutilated corpse remained. Fear gripped her. Your training…remember your training! She glanced around nervously. The trees! Hasai hide in the trees! A crash of thunder fractured the sky, and she looked up to see the bloodied gray creature falling silently toward her from the branches above. She raised her dagger and deflected its black blade, then rolled away and rose to face it. A flurry of guttural whispers filled her head, threatening to drown out all thought. The creature’s black mouth moved in a blur; its eye sockets were grown over with sinewy spotted flesh. She was easily a head taller, but in this case, size was no indication of strength. How many times had she imagined this very moment? Easily more than a thousand, yet nothing could have prepared her for the real thing.

It bobbed its head twice, then launched at her. Anzien defended, using both weapons to block the flurry of attacks. It was all she could do to keep its claws and blade from her flesh. It’s so fast! She sidestepped and deflected a blow, then swung her short-sword toward its exposed flank. The creature easily dodged it, leapt up, and brought its blade down toward Anzien’s head with both hands. She realized her mistake and raised her dagger to defend, but it was too late. The black blade slid off her dagger and slashed across her cheek as she jerked her head away. Warm blood streamed down her face and pooled in the neckline of her cloak. She leapt back, resisting the urge to drop her weapon and clutch the wound.

The hasai made a throaty, clicking sound, excited by the sight of her blood. Anzien steeled herself. She would not die here. Not while Simeon still needed her. She flicked her wrists, re-gripping her blades so they pointed toward the ground. “You’re going to regret that,” she growled, and charged with a scream. She feigned high, then spun low, deflecting an attack overhead. Leveraging the momentum from her spin, she kicked the mangy creature in the ribs. It flew sideways into a tree, and bounced off onto the ground. Before it could recover, she leapt, driving both blades into it—one in the chest, and the other into its sword arm. The hasai was pinned, but far from dead. It writhed beneath her, its free arm raking a fresh wound down her neck. She grunted from the pain and grasped it by the wrist, slamming it down. Wrenching her short sword free from its chest, she drove the blade down into the fleshy eye socket of the unnatural creature.

The whispers faded as its black mouth went slack, and its pinned arm no longer fought for her throat. Anzien’s chest rose and fell as she stared at the dead hasai. I did it, she thought. She should have felt relief, but there was a nagging worry at the back of her mind. Suddenly she remembered, Away! She snapped out of her shocked state and leapt off the creature, just as a low boom assaulted her eardrums. Landing roughly on the forest floor, she arched her back to avoid a pointed rock jabbing into her ribs. Stupid girl! she chided herself, Still as green as the first day of training! She rolled off the rock and gently touched the wound on her cheek. The blood appeared to be clotting. She’d been lucky it wasn’t deeper.

Anzien sat up. Her eyes grew wide at the stasis sphere surrounding the dead hasai. Small motes of dust and leaves were frozen in mid-air, and rain drops had begun to accumulate on the outer edges. Her heart sank. There, still embedded in the dead hasai, were her short sword and dagger. They would be stuck like that for days, along with anything else that entered the sphere. Preceptor Crane would not be pleased.

She would have to find more weapons, if she hoped to keep Simeon safe. It was a role she had taken on long before she and her little brother were exiled from New Arcadia. Even with blood on her face and the rain pouring down, memories of that time still lingered. Light coruscated through the raindrops frozen in the stasis sphere, and they glowed just like the luminous blue bugs that used to appear over her family’s front lawn in summer. Staring at them from where she sat on the forest floor, Anzien’s mind wandered back to a simpler time.

The first firebugs of the season had begun to float lazily over the grass, flashing their bulbous blue lights. Summer had arrived, and with it, a break from the usual pressures of classes, tests, and homework.

Tag, you’re it!” Simeon shouted with a grin as he slapped her arm and ran across the front yard. At nine years old, he was still at an age where playing such games didn’t make him self-conscious.

Anzien on the other hand, was nearly sixteen, and wanted nothing more than to be treated as an adult. She rolled her eyes, then gave in. “You are going to regret that!” she called, sprinting after him.

Anzien dove, reaching for Simeon’s ankle. “Gotcha!” she called, grasping it and sending him tumbling onto the grass.

“That’s not fair!” he shouted, grinning broadly.

“I’ll show you not fair,” Anzien threatened, pulling on his leg.

“No!” he cried, but it was too late—Anzien had already begun mercilessly tickling his ribs.

“Okay, okay!” he gasped between breathless giggles. “You win!”

Anzien grinned and sat with her legs folded beneath her, while Simeon lay on his back, panting.

“Dinner time!” Their father’s voice called from the front door, and they both turned toward him.

“Your lucky day,” Simeon said, sitting up and wriggling his fingers threateningly.

“Hah!” Anzien laughed, standing up. “You’ll just have to save it for next time. On your feet! You know how Dad gets when we’re late for dinner.” She ruffled his shaggy brown hair, and helped him up.

The familiar, slightly charred smell of their father’s cooking wafted down the hall to greet them as they stepped inside.

“Gourds again?” Simeon muttered.

“Shush,” Anzien scolded, though she secretly shared his lack of enthusiasm.

They stepped into the dining room, and Anzien noticed the table was only set for three.

Her father walked in carrying a large covered dish with two oven mitts.

“Where’s Mom?” she asked.

There was a barely perceptible flash of concern on his face, which he quickly masked with a smile. “Oh you know your mother, always working late…I hope you’re hungry!” He set down the covered dish, and lifted the lid. Steam rose up, along with the pungent aroma of overcooked gourds.

“Oh boy,” Anzien did her best to sound genuine.

Simeon grimaced, and Anzien elbowed him.

“Mmmmm!” he said unconvincingly.

The truth was, her dad was a horrible cook, but Anzien thought his effort was endearing, and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

“I know my culinary repertoire isn’t exactly le meilleur…”

Anzien rolled her eyes, smiling. “It’s great Dad, thanks.”

After eating as much as they could stomach, Anzien and Simeon helped clean up, and set about relaxing for the evening. The hours passed, and there was still no sign of their mother. Anzien sighed. “Come on, Sim. Time for bed.”

“But I’m not tired!”

“I don’t care. Get moving,” she said, standing.

Their mother was around less and less lately. Her dad said it was work, but Anzien suspected it was something more. ‘We’re on the verge of a major breakthrough,’ she would say. That was how she justified it, but how could a cold, sterile lab be more important than their family? Anzien had seen where she worked. It was mind-numbingly boring; therefore, there had to be another reason she was gone so often, though ultimately, it didn’t matter what that reason was. Her mother was once again absent, and it fell to Anzien to fill the role of caring for her brother.

The clash of steel and screams of the dying drew Anzien out of her reverie, pulling her attention back to Masada. She took a deep breath and crept toward it as quietly as possible. Skirting wide around another skirmish, she eventually arrived at the tree line marking the divide between the forest and the fields surrounding the town’s outer walls. She took one look at the desperate scene, and her heart sank.

Having first heard of the impending attack two days ago, she had been hopeful for the survival of her fortified town and its people. That hope was now dead, and from its corpse rose a deep, foreboding dread. The sheer numbers alone all but guaranteed defeat.

A swarm of beasts surged against the wooden palisade surrounding the town’s southern defenses. Thick siege ladders had been propped up against the tall spiked logs, and dark shapes were climbing up over them. Anzien had helped build the spiked pits awaiting them on the other side, but judging by the size of the attacking force, they would likely be filled with bodies by now. A bolt of purple lightning forked across the darkened sky, illuminating a sea of frenzied, feral monsters as they clawed and climbed over each other, desperately scrambling to reach the besieged town. Anzien glimpsed a tall figure amid a mass of hasai. As the lightning faded, two white eyes remained, glowing in the darkness where the tall figure had stood. Breaker. She shivered.

At that moment, a ten foot section of the log palisade collapsed in on itself, crushed from all directions by some unseen force into a perfectly smooth wooden sphere. Large, snouted, feral beasts began pouring in through the gap.

Simmy! Anzien darted along the tree line, away from the main combat, toward northwestern side of the town. If memory served, she would find a secret hatch in the wall beside a guard tower there. She located what she hoped was the tower, and readied herself to leave the cover of the trees. It was a five minute sprint to the wall, during which she would be unarmed, and fully exposed. Small skirmishes had broken out across the field, but the fighting was nowhere near as intense as it was toward the southern side of town.

She leapt out from behind the trees and sprinted across the open field. The wind blew her hood back as her boots pushed off against the soft ground. A quick glance right revealed two man-sized, misshapen creatures. They were covered in coarse fur, and fighting over the remains of one of her people. The beasts yanked and tugged with their teeth, grunting and growling with the effort. It was like nothing she had ever seen.

She looked left, and saw another one across the field. It rose to full height and turned toward her. Standing erect, it was easily half again as tall as she was. Her breath came in quick short puffs as she pumped her arms and legs faster than she ever had in her life. Three guttural barks carried from behind over the sound of falling rain. They were answered a moment later. She glanced back and saw the barking beast loping after her on all fours with long, powerful strides.

Anzien clenched her jaw and willed her legs to carry her faster. The creature’s heavy limbs pounded on the wet grass, now close enough to hear. She was still too far from the walls. I’m not going to make it. Mastering her fear, she prepared to turn and fight with only her hands and feet as weapons.

“Get down!” a woman’s voice called from the tower.

Anzien dove forward, rolling into a ball. Thwyp-thwyp! Two projectiles flew overhead, and she rolled to her feet at a run. She knew without looking that the beast was dead, and that more were coming.

With her eyes trained on where she believed the hatch in the log wall to be, she concentrated on speed. They know I’m coming. One hundred steps. Fifty…thirty. Still the hatch remained closed. Fifteen. She slowed to a jog and stopped before the blocked passage beside the tower. Maker, it was this one, wasn’t it? She turned and saw three more beasts, loping after her on long, powerful limbs.

Anzien pounded on the log.

A muffled voice shouted from the other side, “It’s stuck! I can’t get it open!”

She took a step back, and charged into it with her shoulder. The wood held, and she bounced off painfully. She shook her head to clear it, and charged again. Her shoulder exploded with pain as she crashed into the log. This time it gave, her weight flipping it up. She careened through the opening, bowling over the soldiers on the other side. After tumbling to a stop in the thick mud, she quickly stood and hurried to help close the log hatch. More soldiers joined her, pulling the log back down. Anzien slammed the draw bar across it, and a deep thud shook the whole wall less than a second later.

Her chest heaved as she stood, staring at the barrier. One foot of wood was the only thing standing between her and evisceration.

“Anzien! You’re alive!” one of the soldiers cried, snapping her out of her daze. “You look like hell.”

Flooded with the euphoria of evading death, she turned to face the grinning defender and fired back, “And somehow still better looking than you.” She would have smirked, but her face hurt too badly to try. “Thanks for the help, Taybor.”

He nodded, still smiling. “Wasn’t me who shot that ugly beastie through the eye at three hundred paces. Only one person here could’ve pulled that off.”

Anzien nodded. Dulari. She was the best archer Masada had ever seen, and she knew it.

“She’s still up there, pickin’ ‘em off where she can. Have you ever in your life seen beasts like these? And here I thought Crane was the scariest thing alive.”

Anzien understood why Taybor wasn’t more afraid—he hadn’t seen the front of town. “Situation report?” she asked.

“Been pretty quiet back here, but last I heard, those monsters were pouring over the wall in no small number.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Not more than ten minutes.”

Anzien swallowed. Ten minutes was an age in battle.

“Listen to me. Gather these soldiers and retreat through the Wyrewood.”

Taybor shifted on his feet. “All due respect Anzien, but you’re a Runner…not my commanding officer, and we have orders to guard this tower.”

Boil it. I don’t have time for this. “Taybor,” she gripped his shoulders, “There are Breakers out there. These walls won’t protect you from them. I’ve got to go find Simeon, but I’ll be back. If you’re not gone by the time I return, I’ll carry you out by your belt-strap!”

She pulled up her hood and ran past the inner barricade, down a pathway lined with small, functional wooden buildings. Her boots splashed on the muddy road leading through the center of town. She made for the town hall, where Simmy and the other new recruits should be holed up. “He shouldn’t even be here,” she muttered. She still remembered clearly the shock of learning he’d enlisted three weeks ago. Simeon was by no means soldier material, but his naïve desire to make her proud led him to think it was a good idea to join the Ko’jin at fourteen years of age. If anything happens to him… She continued running and passed a group of soldiers, who were rushing to provide support to another part of the town.

The hall was up ahead—one of the few stone buildings in Masada, used for everything from trials to public celebrations. Right now it was a fortified bunker.

She jogged up to the entrance, and immediately noticed something amiss. Where is the guard? She approached and banged on the heavy wooden doors. “Open up! It’s Runner Tsierig!”

A voice cracked as it called from above, “It’s Anzien, let her in!”

There was a loud thunk, and the iron-banded wooden doors slowly swung open. She was greeted by a group of nervous adolescents, most still at the dawn of their teenage years.

She looked them over, and they stared back with wide eyes.

“Her face…” a girl said quietly from the back.

Despite their unease, there was a current of excitement running through them. Anzien found what looked to be the oldest one and addressed him, “You. What’s your name?”

“Recruit Lewson,” he said, saluting with a fist over his heart.

“Someone should be stationed outside the door…Where is my brother?” She looked to the stairwell and called, “Simeon?”

“I’m up here!” he answered over the stone railing above, then jogged toward the stairs.

“There was someone guarding outside,” a female recruit said, “but he left.”

Lewson nodded. “Once we realized he was gone, we stationed two recruits upstairs to keep watch.”

Anzien nodded. They weren’t fully incapable, then. Recruits weren’t meant to fight. Had it been up to Anzien, they would be in the Shattered Peak Stronghold with the civilians and children. As it was, they were ordered to hold position in the town, so as not to bring shame upon themselves. A stupid excuse if I’ve ever heard one, she thought. What does shame matter if you’re dead?

Simeon reached the bottom of the stairs and ran over. “Anzi!” His smile faltered when he saw the blood covering her face and neck. “Are you okay?” he asked, worry creasing his brow.

She smiled from the corner of her mouth that wasn’t covered in blood. “I’ll be fine.” She stepped up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. He seemed to relax a little, though he still looked worried.

She changed the subject. “Have you seen anything from the balcony?”

“Just some soldiers running down the road…too dark to see more than that.”

She nodded and looked over the small group that had gathered. She counted thirteen of them. It was more than likely none had fought with anything more than a practice sword.

“I need weapons,” she said, scanning the large, open room. As recruits, they themselves would have nothing more than a standard issue utility knife. The Command Strategy Room, she thought, remembering the blades mounted on the wall there. She walked briskly to the room and pulled open the door.

A long, polished wooden table stretched the length of the chamber, and sure enough, blades lined the walls, crossed and mounted on wooden plaques. She pulled down a long dagger and short-sword, testing them for sharpness before sliding each into their respective sheathes. She turned around. The young recruits had followed her, and were looking eagerly up at the weapons.

“You, you…and you.” She chose the oldest, most competent looking ones, and armed them. Simeon was not among them. He’d be just as likely to cut off his foot as to properly defend himself.

The crowd of recruits parted to let her pass, and she strode to the large wooden doors at the main entrance. Muffled bellows from the town’s war horns could be heard through the thick wood. Anzien turned to face the recruits.

“I’ve got to report in at the front lines. They’ll need a Runner to spread the word if the battle has turned.” Which it likely has already. “Get a body on that balcony and watch for attackers. She looked at Simmy. “You ring that bell if anything comes knocking. Understand?”

He nodded.

“It’s too dangerous for you to leave now, but I’ll be back to lead you out. Until then, sit tight, and keep quiet. Help me with this draw bar.” They lifted the bar and pushed the doors open to let her out.

Simeon called out to her as she left, “Anzi.”

She turned to see his face, stricken with fear and worry. She hardened her expression, doing her best impression of Preceptor Crane.

Simeon clenched his jaw. “Stay safe.”

Maybe he was growing up. She nodded and ran out into the rain. As she neared the front lines, she spotted a slain warrior lying in the road, his blood mingling with the rain and mud. She recognized him immediately. Baeron. He was another Runner from her squad. She knelt down and closed his eyes, then drew her weapons and continued cautiously down the road.

After several minutes of splashing through the streets and cutting through alleyways, the war horns grew louder, as did the shouting and ringing of steel. Anzien burst out from between the buildings into a scene of pure mayhem. Monstrous attackers poured over and through the walls. Piles of wood and debris marked efforts to block the gaps, but the dark shapes were easily climbing over them. One of the watch towers had completely collapsed, engulfed in flames. Much as she’d expected, the spiked pits inside the walls were filled with the dead—a gruesome welcome mat for those that followed.

It was a grim sight. She would have called the battle lost, even without her tactical training. There were several large barricades still standing between the horde and the town. Archers rose up from behind them, firing arrows, and ducking back down to nock. Between the barricades and the walls, men and women fought desperately and died at the hands of the inhuman attackers.

Anzien scanned the barricades, searching for her commanding officer. She ran to the closest one and ducked down behind it, next to a man wearing an officer’s badge.

She shouted to be heard over the chaos, “I’m looking for Preceptor Crane! Do you know where he’s stationed?”

The commander stood and shouted, “Burn the walls! Set them alight! Send these devils back to the wretched pit they spawned from!”

The archers drew arrows from nearby buckets, and lit them from sheltered torches placed along the barricade. They loosed, and the wall ahead burst into flames. The beasts that had been scaling the log palisades shrieked in pain and tumbled down as their fur caught fire. Anzien watched with concern as the carnage unfolded before her.

“Last I heard, he’s at the eastern line of defense, about three-hundred-fifty paces that way,”—he pointed in the general direction—“but that was an hour ago. They may have fallen back by now as others have.” It was impossible to see very far through the rain, smoke, and fighting.

Anzien nodded, rose, and sprinted in the direction he pointed. She ducked behind two more barricades, then found him at the third. He too was shouting orders, calling out formations and directing archers.

“Preceptor Crane!” she called.

He turned toward her, the tension of battle deepening the lines on his face. “Anzien. So, you’re still alive”—he took in her marred face and the dried blood on her neck—“though just barely by the looks of it.”

“Alive and kicking, Preceptor.” She placed a fist over her heart in salute. “What messages shall I run?”

He lowered his voice so that only she could hear, “You know as well as I do the town is lost. I’ve sent Runners to the northeast and western posts, alerting them to retreat.”

“I think I found one of them,” she said gravely. “Baeron’s body is back along the main road, in the residential quadrant.”

“Boil it all!” Crane stood up and shouted more commands, directing his warriors to fall back. The wall was now an inferno. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing came down.

“You’ll have to complete his mission. The western post is to retreat immediately. Once you’ve done that, I need you to head south along the River Crete until you reach Tethys Lake.” He glanced over his shoulder and shouted, “I said fall back you useless dregs! Have you got mud in your ears?” He turned back to her with intense focus, “Between Tethys Lake and the Ironwood is the garrison town of Loch Fyne. They must be warned of the impending attacks.” He gripped her shoulders, his eyes drilling into hers. “Thousands of lives are at stake, Anzien. You must not fail. Do you understand?”

Another garrison? I thought Masada was the only one… Anzien nodded, “Yes Preceptor.”

He released her shoulders. “We’ll hold them off here as long as we can. Get my soldiers to safety.”

“Understood, I won’t let—”

She was interrupted by an ominous tolling from the town hall bell tower.

Anzien looked back toward the town with dread. “The recruits!”

That’s all for now! If you’ve already read Recreance (Book One), and are hungry for more, be sure to sign up for my reader’s group below. You’ll receive a free copy of The Gathering Mask, a novella set in the same universe.

If you haven’t had a chance to read Recreance yet, you can learn more about it, and download it here.