“Suppertime!” Lina’s mother called from the cabin doorstep. She was just as Lina remembered: hair the color of dark wheat, and with eyes the brightest green. And she was always smiling; Lina couldn’t have imagined her without that smile.
Lina was in the garden, checking for signs of weeds when she heard the call. “Coming!” she yelled back.
She ran home, untying the cord that held her hair back, letting it billow and whip in the wind. Her sleeveless shirt revealed tanned arms unblemished by ink.
She met her mother at the door. “Where is your brother?” she asked. “Tell me he didn’t run off again. He’s always late to eat, and then he complains the food is cold.”
“He told me he was going to the stream to do some more fishing, but he said he wouldn’t be long.”
“I’ve heard that one before.” Her mother rolled her eyes as she said it. “Well, I won’t hear any complaining from him when he gets back. Now come on inside, and take off those shoes. I just swept.”
Lina unlaced her work boots and tossed them aside before entering and taking her seat at the large square table. Her mother began setting: potatoes, fish, greens, berries. It was all so much more than it really had been on that day. It was her dream—she could do with it what she wanted.
This time, it would be different.
The door opened with a crash, and Lina’s father stood, his hair on end and eyes red and swollen, his face as white as the marble steps of the temple. Her mother gasped at the sight of him, and the sound of her dropped bowl shattering dispersed all other sound as the world seemed to freeze in place. Her father’s mouth moved, but she didn’t hear a word.
It is no different. It is exactly the same.
“We have to go,” her father said, and the world around Lina lost its vibrant color. She looked at the table; all that was on it was a half loaf of bread and a single fish. “We have to get out of here. We have to go south.”
“What?” her mother asked. “Why?”
“They? But that—oh no…”
Her father’s eyes scanned the kitchen like a madman’s. “Where is Lukas?”
“He went to the river, he—“
“—There’s no time. We have to leave without him.”
Lina stood up. “I can go get him.”
“I said there’s no time!” He took hold of her by the wrist and dragged her outside.
“Kyle, stop it!” her mother screamed as she followed them outside. “You’ll hurt her!”
That was when Lina saw it. To the north a red glow outlined the horizon. Plumes of smoke rose up like clouds, joined by one after another.
Her parents argued, but she didn’t hear any of it, gaze transfixed on that crimson sky. She could hear screams from that direction, though whether real or imagined, she would never know.
“I have to go find him,” her mother said. “He can’t be far. We—I can’t leave him behind.”
“We have to, Aina. He’s probably already…”
Lina could see the conflict in his eyes when he said it; she never imagined a person could look so torn. She began to sob—either with him or for him. Or both. “Daddy, please.”
Aina’s expression went dead, like a blank mask. Her jaw set itself tight. “You two go. I’ll follow after I find Lukas. We can meet up again in Fafenheir.”
“Aina, you can’t… We need you.”
“Lukas needs me more now.”
“Mom, don’t leave us.”
Before she could blink, her mother had her in her arms. She took Lina by the back of the head and pulled her face close to her own. “I am never leaving you. This is not goodbye. Do you understand?”
Lina nodded very, very slowly.
“Kyle, you take care of her. I don’t want to see a mark on her when I see her again.”
He ran his fingers through his wife’s hair for what would most likely be the last time. “Not a scratch.”
They took off running in different directions. Aina ran east toward the river. Kyle and Lina ran south. They ran as fast as they could for as long as they could, until burning legs and lungs became numb, and they lost track of time; until long after the sun had disappeared from the sky.
And the horizon burned red behind them, all through the night.
“Hey kid, you back with us?”
Lina’s head swam with shadows as she tried to lift herself up to sit.
“Easy,” said the Templar in white beside her. “You still look a bit pale. You gave us a bit of a scare there, kid. Oh! Forgive my manners. I meant: you gave us a bit of a scare there, Priestess.” He put his hand on her shoulder to brace her.
Lina’s unfocused gaze wandered. She was outside, but that was all she knew. Suddenly her eyes grew wide. “Run!” she shouted, struggling to her feet. She shoved the medic aside. “We have to get out of here. They’re coming for us!”
The medic held on to her shoulder. “Who’s coming for us?”
She tried to pull away. “Them! Let go of me! We have to go south!”
“What’s going on?” called Thales. He rushed to them from across the yard. “What happened?”
Lina pointed toward the setting sun. “Red sky. They’re coming.”
“She’s delirious,” said the medic, barely holding her still as she pulled against him. “Priestess, listen. There’s no one coming for you. You are safe.”
“Safe?” she ceased her struggling, though her breathing was still rapid.
“Yes, Lina,” said Thales. “Very safe. Look around.”
She glanced at him, and then at the medic, seeing them clearly. She then twisted to look all around. She was at the Arima Temple courtyard once again. Templars were still walking around her, bringing with them the last of their gear into the temple. She took one long and deep breath to calm herself. “I’m alright,” she said at last. “I just…”
“You don’t have to explain anything,” the medic said, loosening his grip on her. “The commander told me what happened. Just try to keep your head next time, eh?”
Who said there’d be a next time?
“The commander, where is he?”
“He went down the mountain a few moments ago—one of our ammunition cases tipped over in town, and he’s helping with cleanup. He made sure you weren’t hurt before he left, though.”
Lina shook the world back into focus. “I’m sorry about all of this.”
“No need to apologize,” the medic said. “This is my job, after all.”
“But for safety’s sake,” said Thales, “maybe you should go inside and get out of this heat.”
Lina didn’t have the energy to argue. “Yes, sir.”
Once safely inside, Lina slumped down against the lobby wall. She watched the Templars as they went in and out. One or two of them stopped to look, but none said anything to her. She wondered how she must look right now.
She closed her eyes for a moment; standing and moving so quickly had caused her head to spin again. When she opened them, Phylas was standing over her, his hair pulled back into a ponytail, munching down on what appeared to be a boiled egg.
“How’s it going?” he asked. He took another bite.
“Where have you been?” she asked, looking at him through half-lidded eyes.
“Helping,” he said simply. He shoved the rest of the egg in his mouth, chewed slowly, and swallowed. “And you?”
“Having a bad day,” she croaked.
“Because of the Templars? I’ve found them to be quite interesting, actually.”
“What? No, nothing like that. Just… Phylas, you’ve traveled to a lot of places, right?”
“I guess some might say that,” he said with a shrug, and pulled another egg from his pocket, already shelled.
Lina didn’t say anything about his peculiar food choice. “What do you know about the war?”
“The war?” he asked, as if hearing about it for the very first time. “Not much, I guess. No more than anyone else.”
Lina quickly deduced that he really did know nothing, and was trying to save face. She sighed and closed her eyes.
“What do you know about it?” Phylas asked.
“Same thing as everyone else,” she said. “We’ve been fighting them for years. Since before I was born.”
“Who do you mean by “them”?
“You really are a foreigner, aren’t you?” Lina scoffed. “Around twenty years ago, a red star fell to the north, above Fafenheir.”
“That doesn’t seem likely,” Phylas said. “Stars are actually quite large—much larger than planets.”
“It’s a figure of speech,” she said. ‘We don’t know what it was. All we know is that after it landed, a tree began to grow out there on the tundra. And it just kept growing, and growing. Its veins glowed from all the aether it absorbed. No one had ever seen anything like it; you could see it for miles around, day or night.”
Phylas took another bite of egg. “Interesting. I would like to see that.”
“And it wasn’t long after that the monsters started to appear. First in the mountains near that tree, and then they spread out quickly. They destroyed every town they came across—stripped them bare and then burned the remains. The only survivors were those who fled before they arrived.”
“Monsters?” Phylas tilted his head to the side. “What sort of monsters?”
“I—I’ve never seen one of them myself,” she lied. “Not up close. But I’ve heard enough. They say even Templars cannot fight them one on one.”
“Interesting,” he said again. “Would seem your empire is under a bit more strain than we thought.”
“I’m sorry,” Lina said, “but where are you from again?”
“Oh? I never told you?”
“I don’t remember it, if you did.”
He stuffed the last of the egg into his mouth, and muttered something unintelligible.
He swallowed, seeming to choke a bit. Lina suspected he was faking it to buy time.
“Cytherea,” he finally said. “Born and bred.”
“Did someone say “Cytherea”?” said a Templar who had been walking by. He dropped his pack onto the floor with a loud thud and ambled over to them. He was short and stout of build, with dark skin and hair that curled atop his head. “I’m from Cytherea! Good to know I’m not the only one around here.”
Phylas fidgeted and coughed. “You too?”
“Oh yes. Templars have been recruiting back home. I signed up as soon as I could.” He drew his sword from the scabbard and held it out. Its thin, curved blade wavered audibly. “Isn’t this stuff awesome?” He took note of Lina, and quickly sheathed the weapon and offered an apologetic bow. “So sorry, priestess. That was rude of me.”
She just waved. “Pssh.”
“Anyway,” he said as he turned his attention to Phylas. “Which part are you from?”
Phylas seemed to search for an answer. “The, uh, coast.”
“Oh yeah?” said the Templar. “Which one?”
Lina thought she saw Phylas start to sweat. “The… east coast?” he said, wincing as he did.
“Oh, no way! Me too!” the Templar said, practically beaming. “I don’t remember seeing you around, but hey, I’m terrible with faces.” He held out his hand. “Name’s Nero.”
Phylas gripped his hand weakly. “Phylas.”
“Nope,” said Nero. “Doesn’t sound familiar. But hey, good to know I’m not the only one here. Anyway, I’ve gotta get back to work. Hopefully I’ll see you around. Cytherea represent!”
“Uh, represent,” Phylas copied, though much quieter.
Nero offered a farewell bow to Lina and then bounded off.
“Sooo…,” Lina said with a narrow grin. “From Cytherea, huh?”
Phylas swallowed and scratched under his chin. “Yeah…”
She laughed. “I’m amazed he believed you. Have you ever even been to Cytherea?”
“Well, no,” he said. “I mean—I’ve seen it before, a time or two.”
“You’re a terrible liar, Phylas. If that’s even your real name.”
Phylas groaned. “No,” he admitted. “It’s not.”
“Well, what is it, then? And where are you really from?”
“I… I can’t tell you either of those. But don’t tell the priest, please.”
“I’m sure he already knows.”
“W—what? He does?” Phylas looked himself over. Had he made a mistake? His disguise broken already? He’d studied so hard, made every preparation. “How much does he know?”
“Probably more than he lets on,” she said. “But don’t worry—whatever crimes you committed in your own country are no business of ours.”
“Phylas” was puzzled for a moment. Crimes? Ah, but of course! She must think he is a criminal, a wanted man. He had read something about that in his studies: criminals would often seek to escape punishment by fleeing to a neighboring country. A new golden chance presented itself. He chuckled inwardly at his own cleverness.
“It seems I’ve been found out,” he said, putting on his best guilty expression. At least, he hoped it looked guilty—he really should have done more practice before he left home. “But please, don’t tell the Templars. I don’t want them to think any less of me.”
“You have my word,” she said.
Lina felt the fog in her head beginning to clear away. Perhaps it was the conversation that helped to ease her mind. She stood slowly, just in case.
“Are you still glad I’m here?” Phylas asked.
“Of course,” she said, and gestured to the two lines of Templars going in and out. “The more the merrier.”
“Gentlemen, you’ve done well,” said the commander. He stood in the center of the lobby, where all the Templars had gathered in a circle around him. “We’ve completed the move with plenty of daylight left to us. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost say that you aren’t all completely worthless.”
His men laughed, some more sincerely than others.
“But I would like for all of you to consider our host.” He gestured for Thales to come and stand beside him. “Who has graciously allowed us to stay here, and I hope you will all show him proper respect and thanks for the duration.”
The Templars all clapped, slowly at first before building to a crescendo that roared through the temple. Hopkins raised his hand, and the clapping stopped instantly, leaving nothing but an echo that could be heard bouncing through the hallways below their feet.
“Now, our host and I have matters to discuss on our own. I trust I can leave this temple in your care. Try not to break anything.”
“We make no promises,” one of them said. It got a few chuckles.
“I’m serious,” said Hopkins. “One tile out of place, and I’m docking pay from every one of you.”
There was grumbling, but not a word out loud.
Thales brought Hopkins to a small room just down one of the upper halls. It was clearly not meant to be lived in, most likely a storage closet that had been repurposed into an office of sorts. Thales took a seat behind a desk, and offered a chair opposite, to which Hopkins gladly accepted. Lina stepped in behind them and closed the door.
“Are you sure she should be present?” said Hopkins.
“She is my assistant, and maybe one day my replacement,” said Thales. “She deserves to be present as much as either of us.”
Hopkins snorted and stood up, offering his seat to her. “Yes, well, if that’s the case, then I think she should sit down instead of me--wouldn’t want another one of her “episodes”.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Lina, standing firm. “I’m feeling much better.”
“Lina,” said Thales. “Why don’t you do as he says? You don’t have anything to prove.”
She sighed, nodded and sat down.
“So what is the situation, really?” Thales started. “I doubt you would have brought your men all the way up the mountain if the village below could serve your needs.”
“Of course,” said Hopkins. “Alfheim is on the march. I brought my men here in case they decided to take Arima on their journey south. We’ll be better able to defend ourselves from here.”
“And the villagers below?”
Hopkins sighed and pulled a pipe from his pocket. With a flick of his will, he ignited his aether into a blue flame that burned on the end of his little finger, lit the pipe, and took a long drag. “You wouldn’t mind keeping this our little secret?” he asked. “I don’t approve of smoking—don’t want to set a bad example for my boys.”
“Good,” said Hopkins, relieved. “As for the villagers, I’m afraid we don’t have the manpower to keep them safe. If the worst comes, they’ll need to evacuate—at least from this position we can see the enemy from far enough away to give ample warning.”
“You’ll just abandon them?” Lina asked through clenched teeth, partially lifting herself from her chair.
“Lina, please,” said Thales. “No sense in losing your temper.” He turned to Hopkins. “So you’re just going to abandon them?” he asked, just as angrily as Lina if not more.
“If we try to defend them, we won’t have the resources to fight back.” Hopkins took another long drag.
“I suppose if you have no other choice—“
All three let that fact sit in the room for a few moments. And then Thales spoke.
“How long until they arrive?”
“At most, judging by the scouts we encountered on the way, about four weeks. But it could easily be as short as two, if they decide to rush us before we can receive reinforcements.”
Lina felt her heart begin to beat faster, and that familiar feeling of being unable to catch her breath. “But you can push them back, right?”
“No,” Hopkins said bluntly.
The two men watched all color drain from her cheeks. “You see?” Hopkins said, annoyed. “This is what I was talking about.”
Thales shot him an equally annoyed look, and Hopkins turned away. “Lina,” said Thales. “Are you going to be alright?”
She gripped the armrest of her chair hard. “Yes,” she said, taking deliberate and deep breaths. “I’ll be fine.”
“Good,” said Hopkins. “Because there’s more. Two of my Templars were captured when the Alfheim forces were taking Fafenheir, and a few days later, they managed to establish communication with me—from inside Alfheim itself.”
Thales stifled a gasp. “From inside the tree?”
“Communications were slow,” said Hopkins. “But we received several important pieces of information before their messages ceased reaching us. What I tell you here cannot leave this room.”
“We learned where they’re coming from. The monsters, I mean. Why they were able to populate the north so quickly. Why they knew everything we were going to do before we did it. Sir Thales, they are making monsters from our wounded and captured. We’ve been fighting ourselves.”
“How is that even possible?”
“Some form of technology or magic that we have never seen before. It shouldn’t be possible, by all rights and sense.”
“Perhaps your informants were mistaken?” Thales suggested. “The stress of capture can do strange things to a mind. I’ve experienced it firsthand.” He didn’t go into detail.
Hopkins shook his head slowly. “I believe them. Since I’ve been in service, I‘ve seen the variety in our enemy’s menagerie of monsters increase threefold. The things they’re making now… are hard to believe. But the one thing I’ve always noticed were the eyes. And then this information—it all makes sense now.”
“So these monsters,” said Lina. “Are just people?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said Hopkins. “Were people. But see them fight a time or two, and you’ll have a hard time believing that there is any human left in them.” He scratched his cheek, stopping to pull a stray hair he must have missed while shaving that morning. “And I haven’t told my men yet. I don’t know how they would take the news—so many of them have lost family to Alfheim, what kind of burden would that be, that each creature we fight could have been their friend? Cousin? Mother?
Lina’s stomach felt like it was filled with sand, and a certain memory came crawling up from the back of her mind. She dug her nails into her palm to distract herself from it. Still, she felt that lightheadedness return. Such an infuriating thing: the harder she tried to think it away, the more her thoughts turned toward it, and the stronger the feeling became.
“Excuse me, I think I’ve heard enough for now,” she said, and moved toward the door.
Neither Thales nor Hopkins did anything to stop her. She didn’t make it outside, however, as she was met just in the hall by Nero, with a rather urgent look on his face.
“Commander!” he called, peeking over Lina’s shoulder. “Oh, excuse me, priestess. Commander!”
“What is it now?” Hopkins blustered, quickly putting his pipe behind his back and turning toward the door. “This had better be important!”
“Well, sir, I believe we have a bit of an issue. Sickness in the ranks.”
“Sickness? What kind of sickness?”
“Something about bad local fruit,” said Nero. “Or something. I don’t know the details exactly. But it’s a mess up there, sir. Really bad.”
Hopkins gave a drawn out and very exasperated “ugh”. “Fine. Sir Thales, pardon me, but it seems I’m needed elsewhere.”
“Not a problem.”
Hopkins brushed against Lina a good deal more forcefully than he had to as he walked past and followed Nero back, leaving Lina and Thales alone.
Nero’s outburst had distracted her from her nerves, and Lina found the room to be spinning less than it had been before. She rested her hand on the doorframe to get her bearings and bring the room to a stop.
“Is this going to be problem from now on?” Thales asked.
She looked back to him and tried to smile. “I hope not.”