She was shaken from her slumber and met with a familiar face made strange, partly by her drowsiness and partly by the worry that seized it. It was Karkori’i’s.
He shook her again and pulled her to her feet before her brain could send the signal to her legs. He thrust a club into her hand and pointed out the tent.
“A siege,” he barked. “Hundreds of them. They are pushing toward us quickly.”
“But why?” she whispered, her voice still hoarse with sleep. “Who?”
“It must be the Draclaudians.”
“We’ve done nothing to provoke them,” she pleaded. And she was right. But Karkori’i was not the one who could show them mercy.
He said nothing as he rushed out of her tent, but he did take a moment to look back at her. One last time.
“Why?” Sulma whispered. They had done nothing.
Akura’a began to hyperventilate and went down on one knee. Haveraul grabbed her forearm and patted her on the back. “Now hold on, love. Try to breathe deeper. Slower. It’s alright.” But it wasn’t.
The arrows arrived before the soldiers. They arced through the air in crisp, parallel trajectories, like a flock of migrating birds. As was so often the case, the terror was tinged with beauty, which only made it more horrible. Some of the orcs stood before the lancing missiles in awe, hypnotized.
Many hesitated, arrested by the terrible elegance, and that was enough–their shields were not lifted in time.
As the arrows rained down, Sulma lurched and tucked herself between some of the rocks, cowering, her hands over her head. “Make it stop,” she hissed.
“Make it stop.” Akura’a whimpered, crouched, pushed back onto her forearm, hiding behind her shield. It was a grim symphony all around–the hollow thwoop that signaled the arrows’ violent speed, the spongy thud as they drove themselves into the damp ground, the crackle as they smashed against her shield, vibrating it, threatening to splinter through, the wet sticking as they found flesh, and worst of all, the clipped cry of the victim. Always unfinished. A half-cry. All they could manage before the arrows plunged in and pushed the life out of them.
Sulma’s breathing became stuttered, cut short. She could manage only panicked gasps.
After the barrage of arrows, there was an extended silence. And then, a quiet, ominous rumble made the night air quiver. It was inaudible at first, and instead could be felt through the ground. But as the stampede of horses drew closer, their hooves rolled on the knolls like distant thunder.
“They’re coming,” Akura’a said.
“Who’s coming?” Haveraul looked around, but the grotto was empty. Only his and Akura’a’s voices bounced off the sharp sides of the crystal that surrounded them. They were alone.
“Brace yourself,” Sauro’o said. “Stand your ground and show no mercy!”
The mounted soldiers arrived like a storm–first the rain, then the thunder, then the strike of lightning as their raised blades–flashing in the pallid moonlight–stabbed down and ripped through the mob of orcs. Akura’a had only impressions of this moment: the broad, white sides of horses blurring by, fragmented limbs in armor brandishing shards of lightning, heaps of bodies crumpling in and instant. None of these images were precise in her mind, but their fuzziness did nothing to dull their pain. Every one of them struck her as cleanly, as savagely, as obscenely, as any of the swords might have.
She did the only thing she could do–she swung. She swung so hard that Haveraul fell backward and whimpered.
“Akura’a! Akura’a! What are you doing?”
She roared in reply and continued to swing. Bodies rained down around her, horses scudded across the earth. Every blow she landed was somehow even worse than the blows that felled her kinsmen. Every blow she landed drained a little bit of life from her. And Sulma felt every one of the blows in her gut. She moved to grip her stomach and lost her footing on the slippery rock. She tumbled into the river where the current swiftly picked her up.
Akura’a swang so hard that she fell into the sea and drifted down, heavy and unmoving, to become another corpse littered on the bottom. A bit of detritus that the world could so easily shed.
Being pushed by the current, Sulma’s panicked clawings and kickings were causing riots of dirt and mud to be dredged up. She opened her eyes and stared upstream into the cloud and a new image emerged to her. She heard Sauro’o’s voice echo–show no mercy–but she again saw Akura’a. She saw Akura’a standing over a broken, pathetic figure, pondering the poor clump of cells and organs and softness. She saw Akura’a with her club raised aloft. And she saw Akura’a decisively offer the mercy Sauro’o had encouraged them to deny.
She understood all too well now.
It was an image of such pain. All they could do was look away.
Sulma twisted in the water so she was facing downstream and her vision shifted once more.
As she drifted to the bottom, Akura’a felt a strange calm envelop her. She opened her eyes to embrace whatever had brought it upon her. In the water above her was a figure. Its form was fantastic, like the creatures in the tide pool. It was a creature of pure movement, without shape. Its color, too, was elusive. It shimmered. Maybe these mystic waters had borne a being of pure incandescence.
Sulma saw in the distance a figure appear to her. At first, the vision was out of focus, soft, formless. But the harder she stared, the closer she came to drowning, the sharper the image. It was a dark and ominous figure. A man. There was another with him, but the vision wanted her to focus on this man. This man in the dark leathers. This man, with the strange mark near his eye. She needed to know this man.
She reached, and the vision reached back. She was pulled from the water, gasping and alive.