Alder raced hand-in-hand with Sylvia through the dappled sunlight of Sanctuary forest. They had not heard the yelling of pursuing soldiers for several minutes, so Alder began slowing down, even though he knew their peril was far from over. He came to a halt, turning to his wife, about to suppose what they do, when the earth shook violently beneath them. The couple was knocked to their feet, and the tree line to their right rose in an upheaval of earth and roots. Alder was already breathless from their flight, and now the air was crushed out of him again. By the time he had recovered enough to sit up and turn to look behind him, what he feared had caused the earthquake was crashing through the forest toward him.
A look of terror passed over Sylvia’s face as she, too, spotted the monster. Alder groaned and grimaced as kneeled to stand. He wasn’t old, but his exhaustion, open wound and bruised body pained him in a manor he guessed was similar to the elder, but he couldn’t give up yet. Too much that he loved was at stake here. Alder pictured the peaceful valley and city of Anthemia, tucked among the mountains behind him. He remembered all close friends there. He remembered his sons, David and Anthony at home, and playing catch with the Cocoball with them. Images of Raleigh set to rest on its hillside and the farmlands surrounding it flashed through his mind, too. It could all be destroyed if this failed. He rose to stand as the monster marched to the top of the new cliff looming above them.
Alder withdrew a tattered leather-bound book from behind his breastplate. It transformed into a blade in his hand. The texture on under his fingers shifted from soft leather to hard steel. The blade shone white. The shadow beast glared down at the vulnerable couple with solid black eyes of malice. It was a ten-foot hunk of ugly, matted black fur and muscle. It walked hunched over on four-limbs. It had a hideous humanoid face with a flattened noise and long protruding fangs.
The beast, an embodiment of nightmares, advanced by leaping off the cliff over their heads. It landed with a crash that created another tremor. Sylvia was bounced from the ground and slammed back down onto it. She winced, curled into a fetal position, and tears flowed down her cheeks. Alder barely held a standing position, having braced himself for the impact.
With a confident shout, Alder rushed the beast. He got in close to it. Then the beast thrust down its fisted talons. Alder dove into a skillful somersault. Now he was under the beast’s stomach right where he wanted. The creature was ready to defend itself. It rose up on its front legs and kicked its back legs forward. Alder was sent flying and slammed into the cliff. He crumbled to the ground unconscious. The beast lugged to gathered up his prize to take back to his master. The creature was oblivious to Sylvia turning off her tears like a faucet, while she displayed a sly smile. She silently rose to her feet and drew her own glowing blade. Right as the shadow beast was going to reach down and pick up Alder to carry on his back, Sylvia held her sword over her head and drove it into the monster’s back.
The creature glared over its shoulder, knowing it was slayed but wanting to see its destroyer. With a ghostly sigh, the beast slowly dissolved into ash blown on the wind. Alder woke up just in time to witness her spectacle. She helped him stand.
“Thank-you,” he breathed, “I am so grateful you’re here.”
She smiled shyly, “I guess it’s a blessing and a curse you can’t keep me home from these things.”
“Indeed, it is,” he smiled back and reached up his hand to push back a strand of her dark hair. Loud and angry shouts resounded in the distance.
“Listen, dear, you have to take it,” he explained. He rushed to their satchel they had dropped in the tremor and withdrew a strangely carved stone, painted a menacing black and red between its natural smoky grey.
“Shh, put that back. They can’t see it,” Sylvia scolded.
“No, we know they know we have it. There’s no hiding it, and both of us can’t outrun them much longer. Take it, run as fast and as far as you can; I know you’re tired, but just a little longer. I’m going to keep the satchel and hold them off as long as I can. When you know you’re out of their reach, get rid of it. Throw it in a river, smash it, destroy it, hide it well, anything to ensure they don’t find it. Whatever you do, don’t take it to the gate and use it.”
Sylvia nodded hesitantly, “But Alder, I’m not leaving you. They’ll kill you.”
“I know, but otherwise they win. It’s all lost. I know we said that if we go, it’d be both of us, but for the mission to succeed you have to escape. Plus, if you make it home somehow, you can go back to David and Anthony.”
“If you say so. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Fox, I love you, too.”
Alder and Sylvia shared one last kiss. Then Sylvia grasped the stone key and ran without looking back. Alder turned to hold off the enemy. He gathered his Chronicle from the ground, brushing dust off the book. He knelt to collect the satchel, and he placed his Chronicle in it. Unless this battle went better than he expected, he would not need it. He fought back tears. He remembered throwing a Cocoball with David, and playing with building blocks with Anthony, but his task demanded his focus, so he held them in. He lifted his gaze to see the Helper standing before him.
“Are you ready Alder?” the white-robed man asked. Alder felt a foreboding in the question that made him fear the question was asking more than just about the upcoming battle. Instead it was as much asking if he was ready if he did not survive this battle.
Alder was grateful he had an odd peace when he answered, “Yes, I am. It will be a different kind of going home, but I’m ready. If that where this leads.”
“Good, continue fighting faithfully as you have. A lot still rests on this battle.”
Alder nodded wearily. He fingered the sword hilt of his more traditional blade. He had been an experienced warrior for years, but now, his career of slaying for his kingdom on the battlefield no longer felt as noble. A sense of guilt filled him, that the life of violence he had led was not his best contribution to the world. If could do it over again, he would have sought a way to peace without the violence. However, in war, it was a crazy dream. Maybe one day someone would make it a reality.
The Helper sensed his hesitation.
“Do I have to take Pyrescar for this?” Alder asked.
The Helper nodded, “Even though you are going to fight this battle differently than your others, still bring it.”
The cries of enemies grew closer. “Let’s run,” the Helper rallied.
Alder smiled. He had long ran beside this person as his comfort, and he was ready to run again, even if this time it was toward fatal danger. They ran side by side, and as they did, Alder felt his strength revive. When the red and black clad soldiers came into view, the Helper vanished in a gust, that became Alder’s second wind.
He called out to get the Kriterians’ attention, and their intimidating unseeing helmets turned towards him. The helmets were interlacing red and black, with pointed edges and top with a cross-shaped whole in their center, but it left none of the face visible. Alder had the advantage of running with only light chainmail and no head gear. They wheeled to chase him. Alder vaulted over rocks like ramps. Ducked under branches. Bounded over streams. He relished the run and prolonged it as long as he could. When a soldier broke from the brush in his path, he slid on his knees as drew his lattice blade. The sword sliced the soldier’s shins, and Alder rose to keep running in one fluid motion.
He thought he was in the clear, until a flurry of wind and leaves in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He slowed but did not stop and cast a quick glance to his right, but he already feared who it was. A black portal was rendered in the air, through which Alder could see the scorched battlefield and cries of pain from the war Alder had escaped. Lucin stepped through the portal, wiping his blood-stained obsidian blade on his white robes. That should have left the robes stained, but the red faded again to white on the impervious cloth. Alder keep running, but he knew now that this sorcerer was here, the chase would not last long.
Alder tried to run past Lucin, but though Lucin approached Alder’s mad dash at a leisurely pace. They grew closer and closer, as if time slowed around Alder at Lucin’s command. Maybe he was imagining it as dehydration started making its mark on him, or maybe that was exactly the spell Lucin was weaving. In a couple minutes, Lucin stood in Alder’s path and this is where Alder knew he must stop. In another moment thirty Kriterian soldiers circled him.
Alphius, the second-command of Kriteria, slid in to stand beside Lucin at the circle’s head. Lucin stood out among the dark-clad soldiers, his soft white garments glistening in the sunlight along with his pale blonde hair. He was beautiful and pristine, and it contrasted sharply against the bloody, dirty, sweating soldiers around him. Alphius was in lighter armor, held a mace rather than a sword, and was less worn and tattered, but any man seemed dim compared to Lucin.
“Alder, surrender the key to me, now,” Lucin commanded.
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