Knowing that they were exhausted, both from the night’s traveling and from the battle, Gideon let them sleep for more than three hours. The sun was already one third of the way up the sky when Dan was pulled from sleep by Gideon shaking him.
“Get up!” he hissed. “Quick!”
Sensing that something was wrong, Dan quickly scrambled to his feet, brushing the leaves and dirt from his armor. It didn’t take long for Gideon to rouse the rest of them, simply because there weren’t very many of them left. They all gathered around Gideon.
“You remember Jandar’s distraction?” he said. “The one I told you about in Hyleran? Jandar had a huge army, ready to pour down onto Braunglayde and distract Valkrill’s forces. Well, it seems like the attack was way more successful than we intended. Jandar’s army is just south of us.”
“What are we waiting for?” Laelia said. “We should go to them. They might not know what’s happened.”
“We’ll join them,” Gideon assured her, “but there’s something else: they’re being chased back north, towards us. There’s another army coming up from the south, and they seem to be retreating from it. I can only assume it’s Utgar or Valkrill.”
“What do we do?” Ana asked.
“We join them,” Gideon said. “Help in any way we can. And we hope they don’t kill me and Dan on sight,” he added as an afterthought.
They hurried through the forest, heading east, towards the sun. Soon Dan could hear the sounds of Jandar’s army through the trees: the squeaking of cart wheels, the shouted commands of captains, and the low rumble of the Ghidan bellowing. What if they knew about Vydar’s betrayal? Surely they would. Would they kill him and Gideon? Dan resolved to hang back until he knew it was safe. He hadn’t come this far to die at the hands of Jandar.
Soon they broke the cover of the trees. Jandar’s army was in plain sight, just a short distance away. It was large, consisting primarily of mounted knights, kyrie, and a few soulborgs. It was pitiful in size though, when compared to the force which Dan could now see on the southern horizon, rushing towards them with all the speed of a drow sword.
Utgar’s army was vast, the blue tide – it seemed to mostly consist of mounted orcs – seething northwards, eager to clash with Jandar’s army. One enormous figure dominated the orcs at its feet. It seemed humanoid, but it was tall, taller than any castle wall. Smoke seemed to billow from its very skin, and dark clouds of dust and ash followed in its wake. Dan instantly knew what had caused the dramatic change in the sky: it was this creature.
Dan spotted the dragons a moment before Jandar’s army did. He caught a glimpse of dark shadows above the clouds of smoke billowed up by the giant. Something was winging its way towards the army, something big. The smoke clouds stretched all the way, nearly to Jandar’s army, and as Dan watched, the dragons burst from the clouds and dived, opening their maws as they fell from the sky, the sun glinting off of their gray scales.
Jandar’s army fled. The soulborgs stood and fired, bringing down several dragons, but the kyrie and knights raced for the shelter of the forest, right towards Dan and the others. They never made it.
Turning sharply in the air, the dragons angled for the front of the army. Then, they opened their jaws, and spat out… shadow.
Dan had expected fire, from what Aviir had told him of dragons. But instead, the giant lizards breathed a thick, dark mist, which struck the ground between Jandar’s army and the forest like a bolt of magic, and coalesced there, frothing back and forth. It wasn’t natural. It stayed in one place, sloshing from side to side like liquid, rather than smoke. And then it rose into a great mound, and finally dissipated, allowing Dan to see the form within it.
It wasn’t a dragon, orc, drow, or any other creature Aviir had spoken of. It was… darkness. It resembled an armored insect, something like a giant centipede, with six legs, the two front ones bladed and sharp, the rear four used for walking. It turned on the spot, its long body following its head like a snake. And then it made for Jandar’s army. Overhead, another dragon spat out a mouthful of shadow, which struck nearby. After a moment, another monstrosity burst from the mist, this one more lizard-like in shape.
Then the rest of the dragons arrived, covering the ground between the forest and Jandar’s army with the shadow-beasts. They guarded the ground, keeping Jandar’s army from retreating to the forest. The orcs were growing steadily closer, and keeping pace with them due to its huge strides, was the enormous giant. Jandar’s army was trapped.
A cloud of smoke blasted into the forest. Looking to the south, Dan saw that the giant was running now, its footfalls shaking the ground. Ash and dust exploded up from its feet, and the dark clouds above it seemed to race forwards, darkening the new day. The sun grew dark, what little light got through turning red and bathing everything in a bloody glow.
“Come on!” Gideon yelled, his voice strangely muffled by the dust billowing through the air.
Dan didn’t move. He wasn’t about to charge the shadow-beasts. From what he could see, Jandar’s army was unable to touch them, soulborg energy blasts and knights’ swords alike cutting through them like smoke. Only the mages, of which there seemed to be few, were successful in felling them. The shadow-creatures, however, were having no trouble knocking their enemies to the ground and trampling them under foot. Going up against them would be suicide.
“We’ll be killed if we go in there!” Dan yelled to Gideon.
“These are our allies, Dan!” Gideon yelled back. “We’ve got to try! We’ve got to help them!”
“Dan’s right!” Ana shouted from beside Dan. “We’ll be useless to them; we’ve got to stop that giant.” She pointed to the enormous figure, which had slowed, and was now approaching the trapped army at an easy pace. The orcs were racing to catch up to it.
“How?” Dan shouted to Ana over the din of battle. “What can we do?”
Ana appeared to think for a moment. “They need time,” she called back to Dan. “The mages need time to deal with the shadow-creatures.” Then she looked at Dan.
In that look, Dan knew what she was about to do.
Ana stepped forward. “I can give them a few minutes,” she said as the dust tore at her hair and clothes. “That will give the mages enough time.”
“But what about you?” Dan shouted, running to her.
“These are my allies, Dan,” Ana said. “I’ve got to save them.”
“But at what cost?”
Ana looked at Dan. “It’s a cost I’m willing to pay,” she said calmly. “Some things are worth it.”
Dan grabbed at her arm, but he was too late: Ana raised her arms to the sky, palms outward, and closed her eyes. Instantly, a shimmering golden shield burst from her. It expanded faster than Dan could follow, racing to engulf Gideon, Francois, and the others, and then pushing forwards towards Jandar’s army. It slammed into the first few shadow-beasts, causing them to let out shrieks of agony and leap away from it. A few evaporated the instant the shield touched them. A great cheer went up from the knights as the shield quickly chased away the creations of the dragons.
Opening her eyes, Ana tilted her head. “I didn’t expect that,” she said, as calmly as if she were noting the weather.
Dan remembered the last time Ana had used her shield: she had nearly died. This time however, she appeared unharmed. Nothing had struck her shield. For a moment, Dan thought everything would be all right. That hope evaporated as the ground shook beneath his feet. Looking up, Dan saw the massive form of the giant standing at the edge of the shield, regarding Ana with smoldering eyes.
Now that he saw it up close, Dan knew the creature was no giant. Smoke leeched away from its black and red skin, and tongues of flame wreathed it, flickering up and down its scaly body. Horns protruded from its bestial head, and red eyes glowed with the light of a hundred smoldering fires. It was no giant. The only word Dan could think of to describe it was much worse: demon.
The demon opened its mouth, showing it to be full of the light of a deadly flame, and bellowed straight at Ana, the sound shaking the trees and sending shudders through the ground. Ana didn’t flinch, but stared up at the demon. Dan couldn’t say she looked calm. She looked downright terrified. But she didn’t move. She resolutely stood still, protecting Jandar’s army with her shield. Dan knew, without even knowing how he knew, that if the shield dropped, if the demon was able to reach Jandar’s army… there would be nothing left. It would obliterate everyone.
The demon cocked its head at Ana. And then it raised one hand, conjured a sphere of flame, and with the other hand drew from it, as if drawing from a sheath, a long, black sword. The sword was at least as thick as Dan. Its metal was pure black, with red lines tracing strange symbols across it. Red tongues of flame licked along its length, and as the demon drew it, an unnatural darkness seemed to cover everything. The red light of the sun grew dimmer, so that the demon’s red glowing eyes and fire wreathing its skin were the brightest lights.
Looking at the demon’s feet, Dan saw that the orcs had arrived. They were as close to Ana’s shield as they could be without touching it, and Dan knew they were waiting for it to drop. Ana seemed to know it too, judging from the way her face paled. Dan saw her glance back up at the demon.
The demon seemed to be considering her, its hideous face lit with the red glow of its flame-wreathed sword. And then it raised the sword on high, uttered one fierce bellow, and brought it down on Ana’s shield with all of its strength.
The shield exploded with energy. Golden lightning leapt from it in every direction, scorching the orcs, and flashing brightly in the darkness. The lightning concentrated where the demon’s blade met the shield, and leapt to it, running up the length of the black blade, and into the demon’s hand. The demon bellowed in pain as the lightning crackled on its skin, but it seemed unable to pull the sword from the shield. It was stuck, as if fused to the magical barrier. More and more lightning leapt to the demon, and it let out a shriek of agony.
Ana wasn’t silent either. The moment the demon’s blade had struck, she too had become enveloped in golden light. A great gash had opened up on her chest, causing her to scream in pain, and her blood was now soaking her clothes and the burnt grass beneath her, but like the demon, she seemed incapable of moving.
Dan didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t sure if there was anything he could do. He watched as the golden lightning from Ana’s shield ran up and down the demon, causing its frame to jerk and shudder. The demon howled in agony, its cry matched by Ana’s own cry of pain. And then the demon exploded.
It just… blew up. More and more lightning arced to it, and then, the demon simply exploded into shards of black and red. Smoke burst outwards, covering everything, and a foul stench assaulted Dan, as if he were smelling the half-rotted corpses of a hundred beasts.
Ana’s shield instantly evaporated, and those orcs who hadn’t been incinerated by lightning surged forwards, eager to attack Jandar’s army. Dan however, didn’t care about them. He raced to Ana, now free of the light which had encased her, and caught her as she fell backwards.
It couldn’t be more obvious that Ana’s wound was deadly. It was deep, cutting far past the ribs. It was spewing blood in great bursts, Ana’s heart not knowing that it was pumping away its owner’s life essence.
Dan gently knelt down, allowing Ana to slump to the ground. He supported her carefully, not wanting her to fall. Tears splashed onto the gash in her chest.
“Why?” he said, the words becoming choked. “Why, Ana? Why did you do that?”
Ana’s face was drained, almost pure white. Her eyes were wild, but they found Dan, and locked onto his face. A faint smile flickered across her pallid face. “Jandar’s army can escape now,” she whispered.
Ana only smiled. “I gave those people a chance,” she said. Then she coughed. Blood came up, but she didn’t look away from Dan’s face. She mouthed something, coughed, and tried again. “That’s worth my life any day,” she breathed.
Dan couldn’t take it. He broke down despite himself, his head drooping to Ana’s chest as the tears fell from his eyes. He felt her hand on his head, almost stroking his hair, and then… her hand was gone. He looked up.
Ana’s eyes were locked on some far distant point, her smile still in place. The blood no longer rushed from her wound, but rather flowed slowly. Her heart had stopped.
Ana had left them.