The buzzing got louder.
Climbing atop the remains of a broken fence, Fritz started barking orders, attempting to muster the newly-freed prisoners into something resembling a militia. And, much to everyone’s surprise, the prisoners listened. In minutes, the camp went from panicked chaos to—admittedly apprehensive—determination. Where weapons were available, they were distributed and set against the coming charge; where they weren’t, the Beastmen stepped up with tooth and claw, ready to fight to the last.
And the buzzing got louder.
From somewhere in the line, Ro stumbled forward of formation. He looked around, realizing he’d broken rank, and burped a bit—despite being practically four days sober. He immediately straightened up, as if the burp had presented him with an unexpected revelation, and adopted a wild grin. He inhaled deeply, turned away from the formation, and exhaled a massive Breath, setting fire to the ground in front of him. He rotated on his hips as he spouted flames, laying down an impressive line of red and orange fire across the battlefield. As he worked, Champion and some others stepped forward, adding to the already impressive display, turning the intimidating conflagration into a terrifying inferno of defense.
And yet, the buzzing got louder still.
The Jottun crested the tree-tops, and by the Martyrs, there were a lot of them. Their insectoid wings thrumming out the dirge of their arrival, they bore down on the camp with the fury for which they were so reviled. The smoke and fire made their approach difficult, and consumed the less cautious of them before the lines even met. Despite that, however, the lines met anyway, and they did so with all the hatred and rage both sides could bring. In seconds, the ground ran crimson with the life’s blood of both sides, and the air filled with screams of the dying.
Seeing what had become of Quinlan… what was left of Quinlan… had caused tremendous pain in Arkh. He’d known her for barely a few days before she was taken, and hadn’t been particularly fond of her—no more so than he would be of any new acquaintance—but he’d never expected that their journey together would put her in the path of the Jottun. After seeing what they’d done to her—after seeing the wonders of modern medicine and magic corrupted and twisted in such a vile way—he’d nearly gotten sick all over her. The pain and shame of what he felt he was responsible for was too much to bear, and he’d chosen to shut it all out than carry it.
He stared numbly at the arriving Jottun horde, and watched with dull, glossed-over eyes as they bit into the ranks of their own prisoners. He looked down at his broken leg, hobbled and malformed in its splint, and felt no pain at his condition. There was no anger, there was no hate, there was no suffering. There was only a feeling of numb uselessness.
The word rang in his skull like a brass bell in a long, lonely stone corridor. It echoed through the halls of his memory, and carried his soul to another time, another place. Every time he’d been passed up for a field mission, every time he’d cowered behind a rock while the mercenaries fought. Every time he fell asleep at the end of the day, wondering what good he’d actually done.
“Useless.” The thought wound through his mind, though he felt as though it was not his own. Almost like when Cerlissa had spoken to him, but not quite. “Useless,” the thought came again, this time, almost frantically. He tried to ponder the thought, but found his mind instead drawn to his wrists, his neck, his heart. The gentle thumping of his pulse hammering out the cadence of his life, pumping blood through his body like soldiers on the march.
“Useless,” the thought came for a third time. “I have been useless for so long.” His pulse began to quicken, as his fingers jerked and tingled with the sudden rush of blood. His vision reddened ever so slightly, and he found himself abandoning the crutch at his side, the Frenzy giving him the stability he was about to need.
“But I am not so useless any more.”
A few dozen yards ahead of Arkh, a Jottun had gotten separated from the main force, and was slicing through the force of Beastmen that opposed it. A soldier behind the Jottun had approached its back unnoticed, and—seizing the initiative—stabbed it through the chest. The blow wasn’t nearly enough to kill the wretched creature, but it was enough to startle it, and cause it pain. Distracting pain. It would do just fine.
Reaching out with his magic, Arkh touched the Jottun’s mind. It was a twisted and vile thing, exuding enough rage and contempt that merely connecting with it made Arkh feel ill. It was distracted by its pain and surprise, and wasn’t prepared for Arkh’s onslaught. In a split-second, the Jottun was at Arkh’s mercy, and Arkh wasn’t feeling particularly merciful.
Acting quickly, Arkh commanded the Jottun to sever it’s major arteries and autoexsanguinate. In Arkh’s head, the Jottun screamed and refused, letting loose a thousand spiteful insults in Norscan. Arkh ignored it. Ultimately, the Jottun had no say in the matter, and the fact that it was an unwilling participant would only make things easier, in the end. It’s mind refused, but it’s body obliged. In seconds, five grisly wounds had appeared across the Jottun’s body, spilling forth a sickly black blood. Reaching out with his magic once again, Arkh commanded the blood to obey his will. The blood was eager to comply.
Arkh felt as though, up to this moment, he’d been pushing a boulder up a hill. His whole life, he’d struggled and fought it, trying desperately to push the heavy weight just another step. As the blood’s power washed over him, he felt himself step aside, and let the stone roll to the ground. His strength had been wasted pushing a boulder, and—in this moment—he was no longer burdened by its dead weight. He was not so useless any more.
The Jottun under Arkh’s control erupted in an explosion of black ichor, and the blood immediately made its way skyward, where it spread into thick, dark clouds. The world dimmed as the sun disappeared behind Arkh’s malice, and the air in the camp ran cold. Arkh’s breath became ice in front of him, and his eyes glowed red with the dark magic that was now wholly and completely subject to his will. A small, white cloud poured from his mouth as he spoke, turning to vapor as it floated away. “Die.”
There was a soft rumble, like a distant landslide, from the dark sky. There was a swirling within the clouds, and then there was silence.
Then, there was death.
From the sky, dozens of flaming rocks plummeted to earth. They rained down upon the Jottun force, hammering their line to dust. Many of those that survived the initial pummeling found their legs and arms entangled by tendrils of darkness, pulling in all different directions until their limbs were no longer attached. Some gasped helplessly as the air in their lungs decided it had better things to do, while others still came face-to-face with visions from their worst nightmares, clawing at their own eyes and ears in an attempt to escape the torment. In seconds, the Jottun had lost 6 of every 7, and the rest did not last long. The few that managed to completely escape Arkh’s wrath had no chance against the vengeful horde of Beastmen that now washed over them effortlessly. What had initially promised to be a long and brutal battle was now over, barely minutes after it had started.
Arkh closed his eyes and exhaled, releasing the magic under his command. The dark clouds dissipated, and the brisk-yet-comfortable air of the Valirauran afternoon returned. He reached down for the crutch at his feet, and let his Frenzy fade away as the pain in his leg returned. He limped over to an exposed rock, and let himself collapse atop it, grunting in pain as he did. A pleased smile crept across his face as he caught his breath, proud of his contribution—proud that he’d saved so many innocent Beastmen from a death at the Jottun’s hands.
But then, from the corner of his eye, he noticed the field. His smile faded as his eyes found the Jottun’s bodies, maimed and disfigured from his magical assault. They were not prepared for Arkh’s magic, and many of them had died terrified, and in great agony. Indeed, Arkh had meant for it to be that way. They were monsters, true, and the things they’d done to the people in this camp were unforgivable, true… but not even they had deserved this.
And just like that, Arkh missed his boulder.