What is despair but something to be fought?
What is doubt but something to hold fast against?
What is darkness but something to be lit up?
For a moment the undersides of the clouds were lit up with reds and oranges. Then, in an instant, the sun dropped below the Ticalla horizon completely, and a shadow fell across the stretch of murky water before me.
I shivered even though it wasn’t cold. In fact, it was hot and humid in the Ticalla. I had thought I was signing up for the war, and where had Aquilla put me? In the middle of a swamp. As far from the rest of Valhalla as possible.
I sighed. I knew I was doing my part. I was part of the force manning Aquilla’s furthest bunker. From where our little concrete box sat, submerged in swamp muck and hidden by palm trees, we could see for miles across the flat swamp (the trees stopped where we were, unable to find purchase on the sodden ground). We would be the first to spot any approaching marro force. There was no arguing that I was in a valuable spot. Sometimes I just wished I felt more… involved.
“Come on.” A hand plucked at my sleeve.
“All right,” I said, a little grudgingly, I must admit. We couldn’t see a thing in the dark, but I liked to stand outside anyway, pretending I was guarding against some unseen army. A boy’s fantasy.
I turned, and took the hand Ali offered me.
“What are you thinking about, Ber?” she asked. She already knew the answer.
I shrugged. “Nothing,” I said.
“You were thinking about the war, weren’t you?”
She was good. “Maybe.”
Ali rolled her eyes. “You’re in the war, Ber. Why you want to be somewhere else, somewhere with more fighting, is beyond me.” I could tell her exasperation was a mask.
I increased the pressure on her hand ever so slightly. “Hey,” I whispered, “I’m not going anywhere. This is where I want to be.” And that was the truth. I wanted to be in the war. But I wanted to be by Ali’s side more, making sure nothing happened to her. Of course, she would have said the same about me. We looked out for each other.
“Hey,” a voice called from the dark hallway leading into the bunker, “you two lovebirds eating, or do you plan on standing out there all night?” It was Feran, our second-in-command. I hated it when he called us lovebirds; it made things between me and Ali awkward. At least on my end. Ali didn’t seem to mind.
The bunker was simple. A dark hall led underground. One empty doorway led to a big room which served as kitchen, dining room, and impromptu lounge all in one. A little further on, the hall ended in a bigger room for the bunks. BONES, I called them. Bane of Night’s Earned Sleep. All right, I admit I was going for the acronym there. No one is perfect. The point is they were hard, thin, and inevitably someone started snoring just when you were dropping off.
Ali and I ducked through the doorway into the bunker, and turned into the kitchen/dining room. Steve, our human cook, was serving what he called dinner. I didn’t know what to call it, because quite frankly, I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was. It came out of a can, and smelled like a mixture of pea soup and burnt lettuce. It looked like it too.
The meal was full of jokes and laughter. Being stationed at Aquilla’s furthest outpost for months on end caused strain in us all; we needed to unwind. Looking forward to dinner is what got most of us through the day. As for me… Ali got me through the day.
After eating as much as I thought I could keep down, Ali and I sat back in our chairs, listening to the others joking and laughing. We talked some, about Astera, Aquilla’s capital. We wondered if she could spare anyone to replace us this month. We both knew she didn’t have enough soldiers.
“Bed,” called Feran, standing up and raising his voice. The others started to get up, most of them still laughing. Ali and I stayed where we were, thinking about Astera.
“Beran; Alianera, you too,” Feran called over to us when we didn’t move. We got up and filed out of the door and down the hall to the BONES with the others. I groaned inwardly as my attention shifted to sleep. Or the lack thereof. Just last night I had discovered a leak in the bunker, directly above where I slept. This would be a long night.
I was wrong about that. I must have fallen asleep at some point, because I was jolted awake by a sudden sound of movement, and a red light. This deep in the swamp, it could mean only one thing: the marro had found us. I was awake in an instant, adrenalin shooting through me like a hot spike. I half leapt, half fell out of my bunk, and scrambled to my feet.
Everything was illuminated in red from the magical lights in the ceiling: kyrie rushing about, trying to find their way to the door or grab their weapons. Some were struggling into armor, others were still blinking the confusion of sleep out of their eyes.
I reached up to my left and grabbed my armor. I always left it hanging from my bunk in the same position for this very reason. Aided by the depthless light, I pulled it on, lacing it tight. I yanked my boots out from under my bunk, pulled them on and laced them up, and then looked up, searching for the next thing on my list: Ali.
I found her quickly, armor already on, sword at her hip, racing for the door. I wove my way around others still struggling into their armor, and exited the room just behind her. A quick hand on her shoulder let her know I was there; she reached up and placed her hand over mine – an acknowledgment.
We staggered down the dark hallway in a line, and then we were out, breathing in the warm, thick air of the Ticalla.
Brave Arrow, our leader, shoved past us. “Marro a mile out,” he said to anyone who was listening. “Ready your weapons. Casters in the back, gunners middle. Shields in front.”
We were a mismatched group. I was one of three casters, but our magic was weak – the only reason we weren’t fighting at the Front with the other magic-users. The six Mohicans all carried muskets, and the rest of us, including Ali, were Shields. Brave Arrow said it was their job to protect us, but I knew what that meant. It meant they would get killed first if it came to that. I resisted the urge to grab Ali and keep her by my side as she went to stand with the other Shields.
“Big force,” Brave Arrow said grimly. “No range, just drones. I counted fifty, but more could come.”
I grimaced. Fifty. There were only about twenty of us. We were scouts, not warriors. We would have abandoned the bunker if it had been daylight. But flying back to the front at night would be suicide. The scouts of another bunker had tried it just two months ago. That was when we found out about the flying marro. Only four scouts had survived. During the day we would have had a chance of fighting them off. But in the night, we would never see them coming. Our only option was to stand and fight.
It wasn’t much of an option.
The initial surge of energy was just beginning to die off when we spotted them: a solid block of yellow, moving slowly our way. The only thing illuminating them was a small crescent moon with clouds blocking out most of its light. They were shambling, taking stuttering steps, but they were headed right for us. It was possible they didn’t know we were there. There was no sound, no light from the bunker. Possible, but not very likely.
Brave Arrow waited until he was sure they were coming for us. Then he gave the command.
In an instant, the battle had begun. Even though I was expecting it, I jumped when musketfire ripped through the night, and a split second later, six drones staggered and fell. Their comrades shambled over them. I couldn’t help but shudder as I saw the marro step on their own fallen, like they weren’t even there. These creatures had no souls. They were merely husks.
The marro broke into a loping run as we flung our fireballs – mine looking pitifully small – into their ranks. The flames did some damage, but for the most part, they just kept coming, on fire or not. I risked a glance at Ali, in the ranks before me. Our flames lit her face; she looked small and scared next to the large shield she held.
The marro got closer. As the Mohicans fired again, I felt my stomach start to knot unpleasantly. I glanced between the marro and Ali. I had to do something. The marro would reach her any minute.
“Fire!” Brave Arrow yelled, right next to me. I jumped, and conjured another ball of flame, hurtling it into the marro closest to Ali. To my surprise, the marro went down instantly. My surprise turned to fear as three more marro stepped out of the shadows to take its place. I saw Ali get a better grip on her sword.
And then, out of the night, silently observing the carnage, came a shrill wordless cry. It carried a maniacal yell, a perverse delight in the blood being spilled. It chilled me to the bone.
“AAIII-AAU!” It was the cry of a marro warlord.
The fire I had conjured a moment before flickered and died in my hand. I felt the hair stand up on my arms, and my whole body actually shook for a moment. I wasn’t alone. Everyone else looked up.
That was exactly what the warlord wanted. Ali and several of the other shields looked up, startled. A second later, the drones crashed into them, knocking several over, stabbing others full in the chest. The line broke instantly.
I saw Ali stumble and fall as a drone threw itself into her shield. The Mohicans were scrambling back, and I lost sight of her. I instinctively surged forwards, but the Mohicans were in my way.
“Ali!” I yelled desperately. “Ali!”
“Back!” Brave Arrow cried from beside me. “Everyone back into the bunker!”
I didn’t want to go back into the bunker. I needed to find Ali. Unfortunately, I had no choice. The Mohicans turned as one and, pushing us casters before them, surged for the tunnel. The remaining Shields followed, walking backwards, warding off blows as best they could. I couldn’t tell if Ali was with them or not.
I stumbled as I found the steps into the bunker, and forced myself to look down as I entered the hall. The Mohicans streamed in after me, pushing the other caster before them. We must have lost the third caster.
‘Come on, Ali,’ I thought desperately. Where was she? One Shield backed into the doorway, blocking blow after blow from a drone with his shield. Another Shield came to his rescue, and they both fled down the stairs.
Two drones followed them. Where was Ali? The drones had just reached the Shields when Brave Arrow appeared at the top of the stairs, sinking his tomahawk into one of the drones’ skulls. The creature fell instantly, and Brave Arrow dispatched the other with a quick knife between the ribs.
And then Ali was there, rushing down the stairs after Brave Arrow, two drones in full pursuit. I aimed a fireball at the first, and a second later was pleased to see my magic strike it directly in the left eye. The drone toppled and slid down the remaining stairs.
“All the way!” Brave Arrow cried. “All the way back!”
He wanted us to get to the bunk room, and I knew why. The hall was narrow. We would be a lot more effective if we could spread out in the bunk room while the drones had to go single-file down the hall. We started backing up, even as more drones poured into the bunker after us.
I don’t really remember the specifics of the fight after that. We made it to the bunk room, and Ali and the other remaining Shield knelt down while the Mohicans fired over them.
For a while things worked. The marro could only come at us one at a time, and we picked them off too fast for them to make any progress. But I knew we couldn’t last forever.
I kept an eye on Ali, but it was the Shield next to her who ran out of strength first. A drone struck his shield hard, and he just fell over, unable to absorb the blow. The drone stabbed him quickly. Ali tried to protect him, but the drone jabbed his spear down, and she cried out in pain.
“No!” I yelled. I tried to fling fire at the marro, but my magic was drying up. I could only conjure a few sparks. In desperation I drew my sword, but one of the Mohicans had already dispatched the drone.
Its place was taken by three others. They shoved past the dead Shield, kicking Ali to the side or trampling over her. She was still alive; she cried out when they kicked her, but then she became silent.
I needed to help her. Without thinking, I charged the oncoming drones. That decision right there was why I was a caster rather than a warrior.
The drone side-stepped me, allowing me to pass it, and then brought its spear down on my back. Most of the blow was from the wooden shaft; only the smallest part of the blade touched my side. It was enough though. The sharp metal sliced through my muscle like an iron through water, and pain exploded across my back. That and the force of the blow combined to slam me into the ground.
My nose hit first and shattered. Blood sprayed across my face, and my forehead struck the hard concrete a second later. Sound stopped, colors whirled across my eyes, and for a space, I had no idea what was happening around me.
When sound started to return to me, and I could open my eyes without the floor pitching up and down, I looked up, and saw the last of the Mohicans being slaughtered. The spear was already through his chest. There was nothing I could do.
Logic was starting to return to me. I dropped my head back to the floor and held very, very still. My nose stung and burned, I could hardly breathe for the blood which was still flowing freely from it. My back was tense and throbbing with a burning pain where the blade had touched me. But I didn’t move. I barely breathed.
I could hear the marro moving above me. They were shuffling back and forth, maybe checking for weapons, I didn’t know. I just hoped they weren’t checking to see if anyone was still alive.
After about a minute, they filed out of the room. I still didn’t move. They shuffled through the kitchen briefly, clanging into the spoons and pans, upending tables and chairs. Then they moved back into the hall, and slowly shuffled up the stairs and into the dark night. They were gone.
I still didn’t dare move. Everything was silent. Something was dripping behind me – probably that leak in the roof. I moved my head slightly so I could see the doorway to the bunker room.
Ali was there, lying in a heap against the wall. Two dead marro were on top of her, shoved to the side by their soulless comrades. I could see a gash in her side which was silently oozing blood. I blinked. Ali was looking at me.
It took everything I had not to yell, jump up, something. She was alive! Ali was alive! She flicked her eyes to the hall, and I understood; the marro could still be close by. We had to be silent. We had to be still.
We waited. We waited for at least ten minutes. Nothing moved. There was no sound. Slowly, the moon set. Everything turned black. At last, I heard Ali cautiously getting up, shoving the dead marro away from her.
I got silently to my feet, staying crouched, and went over to her.
“Are you all right?”
“I will be,” she said. “It was just a scratch.” I doubted that. “Check the others,” she added.
I turned back to the room, doing the job the marro had failed to. As it transpired, one Mohican still breathed, and the Shield next to Ali was still with us, though he had a bad wound in his side. I might have been able to heal him if I hadn’t used all of my magic on fire. It would take time to come back.
Very quietly, I helped Ali shove the door to the bunk room shut. The concrete building magnified our voices; if the marro were still close by, they could hear us easily. Then, with no light whatsoever, we sat on the floor, and waited. When morning came, we could make a break for it. But right now – our best option was to stay here and stay quiet.
Ali inhaled sharply, as if to hold back a tear. I felt her body shiver slightly next to mine. We were huddled together against the far wall, trying to stay warm against the chill spreading from the concrete at our backs. The Mohican and the Shield were sitting nearby, silent.
I put my arm around Ali, trying to convey some sort of nonexistent reassurance. I felt her press closer to me. A moment later I realized she was crying. Silently, but she was crying. I had never seen – or felt – her cry before. Her body was shaking silently with each sob, her breathing coming in short uncontrolled bursts.
I wasn’t ready for that. Ali was the one who kept me going. I was always despairing, reflecting on how long we’d be here, wishing I was closer to the action. Now that we’d seen some action, she was falling apart. She was huddling close to me for comfort. Me! If anyone was sure we weren’t going to get out of this, it was me.
After a time Ali’s sobs lessened, and then stopped altogether. For a space she was silent next to me, both of us listening for any sound. Only the unending drip from the ceiling met our ears.
Her voice startled me, even though it was the quietest of whispers. I held her closer, both to let her know I was listening, and to comfort her.
“I wish you had known my father.”
“Your father?” I said. I didn’t like the past tense she was using. Her father was back at the capital, along with mine.
“He always said I could work my way out of anything if I tried hard enough. I believed him. I do. But…”
She didn’t need to finish.
“What about your father, Ber?”
“What about him?”
“Do you know what he would say, if he was here?”
I swallowed. I knew exactly what he would say, mainly because he said it all the time: ‘What is despair but something to be fought? What is doubt but something to hold fast against? What is darkness but something to be lit up?’ I didn’t repeat that to Ali. I believed it, but not just then. Maybe we could get out of this if we survived the night, but did I believe it? Not really.
I didn’t say that to Ali though. She needed to believe we could get out of this. We all did. I held her close, and didn’t let go.
A sudden sound made us all freeze. We held our breath. It came again: a step, soft but solid, in the hall. The marro were back. And they would instantly see that the door was shut. They would know we were here.
I had no sooner reached that conclusion than the tramp of marro feet echoed in the hall. The grew louder, louder… THUMP! Something slammed against the door. The door was metal and the lock was solid, but marro were determined. There was another thump on the door, this time harder.
There was no way out of this concrete box, and marro had excellent night vision. This was it. We huddled against the wall together. The wounded Shield was breathing fast through his teeth in pain. The Mohican was silent. I felt Ali shaking next to me. I held her close to me as the marro slammed into the door with more and more force.
Ali started crying again. I tried to hold her tighter, but I myself was shaking. ‘Get a grip,’ I told myself. If she ever needed me to be calm for her, it was now. I clenched my teeth and forced my muscles to relax. I had to be strong for her. She needed me. They all did.
I glanced at where the wounded Shield lay nearby. He was shaking, though it was probably from the pain. He was going to die there, helpless, lying on the ground. I could just see a glimmer of the Mohican’s eyes in some stray light. Then they were gone. He had closed them, accepting his fate. It was over. Despair was all around me.
What is despair but something to fight against?
‘This is different, dad,’ I said to myself. ‘There’s no point pretending otherwise.’
What is doubt but something to hold fast against?
‘This is the end,’ I heard myself think. But a different part of me, the part of me forcing myself to be still, the part of me holding onto Ali, wasn’t listening. The Mohican had given up. The Shield had given up. Even Ali had given up. There were all waiting, alone, devoid of hope, silent in the darkness.
What is darkness but something to be lit up?
‘No,’ I thought. ‘I’m not going to die here, sitting against this wall, waiting for my end. I can beat this. I can beat this.’
Did I believe that? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But it’s what I needed to hear.
The door burst open. It must have been just before dawn, because I could just see the outline of the marro in the doorway, illuminated by a faint gray light. The marro turned its head, and saw me.
Ali reached for my hand, and I gripped it, squeezing tightly to stop it from trembling. Then I stood. I couldn’t let her be that afraid. Light flared from my palm, and I met the gaze of the marro.
Ali had been strong for me all those months in the Ticalla. But right here, right now… I would be strong for her.
A new morning dawned over the Ticalla. There were no survivors from the attack on the bunker during the night. Everyone had died fighting to the last.
The sun rose, its light striking back the darkness which still clung to the swamp. Far away, within the walls of Astera, Aquilla’s soldiers looked up at it, blinking in its light. A new day had come.
And as the chill of night left their bones, and they rose to meet the new day, a half-heard whisper floated to them on the wind, carried by the rays of the new sun:
“Light up the Darkness.”