They had been too late. He had been too late. For seventy-three years the city of Taruil had kept the creatures of the forest at bay. Now it lay in ruins, felled in a matter of days. The city's once-beautiful walls were broken and covered in flowering vines. Its citizens drooped from the battlements. Without Taruil's farms, it was only a matter of time before famine would claim his people.
Donovan conducted his Glory through The Crown and roared his fury. Amplified by The Crown's power, his voice exploded throughout the countryside, resounding in thunderous echoes that he knew would continue for miles. Behind him, two thousand voices roared in response. Gauntleted hands banged rhythmically against solid metal shields. Without waiting for them to stop, Donovan shouted again, lifting his arms beside him, fists clenched. Wrath continued to build within him and he began drifting forward slightly. His soldiers chanted in short, guttural response.
He stomped toward his left, bringing his arms in a sweeping, horizontal ark, palms facing outward and shouted the first line of the Call to War, "Tu shac thah!" The words themselves held no literal meaning. They were simply a mnemonic to assist in the memorization of the pattern and help stoke the soldiers' Wrath.
"Maru mahaku mahumi maka!" His soldiers called their response as one, each syllable enunciated by thousands of clanking metal plates. They repeated the phrase several times, causing a cloud of dust and debris to fill the air around them. They ended the repetition with a shout and a pushing motion that blasted the dust away, clearing the air.
Donovan performed the next stanza. It made use of both Wrath and Glory to carry him in an elegant series of sharply accelerating aerial spins, each ending in an abrupt striking motion. "Wal na mak tal!"
The earth shook behind him as his men performed their response.
Move by move Donovan led his men through the Call to War. With each stanza, his Wrath grew. His men began to howl with rage. As always, he felt the urge to lose himself within the chant. To let the Wrath consume him. To become vengeance for his people. That would be foolish, of course. So he stopped feeding his Wrath, instead letting it simmer alongside the pulsating Glory.
When the last shout and clash of the pattern had faded to an echo Donovan was breathing heavily. He spoke, still using The Crown to project his voice so all could hear. "Taruil lies in ruins! Its people, our people, slaughtered!" Furious shouts and howls of rage erupted throughout the army. "Do not mistake the city's silence for emptiness. Somewhere within those walls, our enemies wait in ambush like cowards!" Groups of soldiers drummed hammers against shields. "Today we bring them the Wrath of The Mountain!"
Donovan watched from above as his soldiers surged toward the city with a deafening roar. They moved forward in waves of steel. Even the light infantry wore heavy armor, bearing Determination to mitigate the armor's weight and Wrath to grant them unnatural speed. It was an impressive sight. They could outrun most cavalry.
He did not, would not, feel pride at the sight. Only a fool would risk bearing Pride. He could feel it even now, hidden just behind Glory's pulsing warmth. A subtle but violent, secondary pulse, waiting for him to reach just a little bit too far. It would wait in vain. Donovan focused once again on the Wrath that boiled within him and let it extend out through his limbs and into his machite armor.
He shot through the air, releasing Glory slowly and turning toward the city gate. Rainal and his elites had already jumped on top of the walls and were lowering chain ladders for the greatbow and javelin units. Donovan himself would open the gates for the infantry.
Donovan released Glory as he neared the gate, keeping just enough to wear The Crown, and slammed into the hard-packed dirt of the road that led into the city. Restraining Wrath once again, he approached the large, stone gatehouse. It had been beautiful once. Made from only three enormous slabs of dark granite carved from The Mountain itself, it loomed over the road. Statues of previous kings lined the entrance. There was even a statue of Donovan farther in.
One of Rainal's elites appeared briefly on top of the gatehouse to signal Donovan before ducking back inside. No defenders. It would have been strange against any other enemy, but this was common for the beasts of the forest. They rarely stayed in a place after ransacking it. At most some of the more sluggish creatures would stay behind, hoping for a second meal.
There was a large hole in the portcullis and its gate. The warm, wet stench of rot washed over Donovan as he approached the hole, and he conducted Determination to resist the urge to recoil. Through the hole, he could see that the inside of the gatehouse was a mess of blood and gore.
Allowing Wrath to flood him once more, he grabbed the portcullis with both hands. He could feel the iron-machite alloy of the gate vibrating under the steady forward push of Wrath. Carefully, he added Glory to the mix. The gate suddenly felt much lighter as Glory pulled it upward. With a shout and a yank, he threw the portcullis upward. It slammed into its casement, clinking loudly as one of the elites locked it into place.
Enthusiastic shouts rang out from his soldiers and Glory pulsed within him. With another burst of Wrath, he threw open the gates. To Donovan's relief none of the bodies were human. But the second layer of gate and portcullis had been thoroughly smashed in the beasts' assault.
He conducted Wrath through The Crown, extending it beyond his own body, and made a two-handed shoving motion. Bodies blasted through the gatehouse, tumbling limply into the courtyard beyond. All except for one.
It was the size of a horse, with two massive horns protruding from the base of its jaw. Its skin was pasty white and hung off of it in loose ripples. Instead of eyes, it had strange, gill-like slits on what Donovan could only assume was a forehead. And its three, triple-jointed legs ended in large, carapace spikes.
Without the weight of the other bodies restraining it, the beast lurched into an unsteady sprint toward Donovan. Still slightly off-balance from his previous move, Donovan used his gauntlets to bat the horns aside. The creature was heavy, but wearing The Crown, wrapped as he was in Wrath it did not matter. The blow knocked the creature off its feet and Donovan spun into a kick to the creature's ribs with a loud clang and a chorus of crunching bones. The creature made a strange chirping noise as it flew away from Donovan, spiked legs flailing helplessly. By the time it hit the ground ten yards away, three enormous javelins had already pierced it, thrown by the elites on the wall above.
His soldiers shouted and Donovan embraced Glory once more, jumping atop the gatehouse. Rainal was waiting for him there, two heavily armored elites at his side. Their armor was not as dark or imposing as Rainal's or his own. Most of the elites could not afford pure machite armor or significant aesthetic enhancements.
"I am jealous, Majesty," Rainal said, his voice muffled behind his helmet, "I was hoping to claim first blood myself. Though I must say that kick was quite satisfying. The Crown's power is always an honor to behold."
Soldiers began to pour through the gatehouse and over the walls, shouting with enthusiasm. Donovan frowned passed Rainal, watching the current of his army split off into various parts of the city. They were heading to retake key points in the city which would be necessary to reestablish control. Assuming there was anything left to retake.
Donovan made sure to stop conducting through The Crown before speaking. "Somehow I think there will be plenty of chances for bloodshed today, Rainal. Have you noticed that there are no flies or crows within the walls?"
"I have, Majesty. I am thankful to have soldiers to fill the silence." He followed Donovan's gaze. "Shall we proceed to the city hall? I- What is that?"
Donovan shook his head. A vaguely masculine figure was jumping from rooftop to rooftop, making his way closer toward Donovan and Rainal. He did not jump with the smooth cadence of a person bearing Glory. It was more like the powerful grace of a deer in a forest. Donovan could not make out any details of the figure from this distance except that he was waving a large, purple cloth as he ran. It signaled a desire for nonviolent discussion.
The elites were already nocking arrows on their enormous greatbows and taking aim, ready to draw once the order was given. Rainal looked to Donovan expectantly. "What would you have us do, Majesty? I have never heard of people working with the beasts. But then, I have not heard of the beasts attacking city walls either. Maybe we should hear what he has to say?"
Donovan hesitated before answering. Wrath still burned in his stomach. He wanted to kill the man, who was almost certainly working with the beasts. It would be just. They had slaughtered thousands in this assault alone, not to mention the hundreds or thousands that would die of starvation now that the farms were useless. Still, if there were intelligent minds guiding the beasts' actions.... He frowned at the figure, who had stopped on a nearby roof. "Yes. We will learn what we can from this man. Then we will kill him." Rainal saluted and the elites relaxed.
Now that the strange man was closer, Donovan could see that he had strange, greenish-yellow skin. His long hair seemed to be wrapped tightly around him, like vines on a tree.
Donovan grabbed Glory once again, letting it pull him and his armor into the air. Rainal and the two elites did the same. Then, with a burst of Wrath, the three of them flew toward the man with the purple flag. As Donovan flew he raised his right arm beside him and flicked his fingers in a familiar pattern, reciting a simple mnemonic in his head to focus his mind. The enormous, two-handed sword he wore on his back shook free of its scabbard and flew into his hand.
Donovan slowly released both Wrath and Glory as he approached, gracefully transitioning from a brisk glide to a kingly stroll. The man lowered the flag as they approached, resting one hand on the hilt of a sword that hung at his waist. His posture reminded Donovan of a coiled snake.
Stopping just out of reach of his own, massive sword, Donovan spoke softly. He allowed Wrath to color his voice, amplifying it with The Crown. "You who have the audacity to slaughter my people and request diplomacy, speak quickly for my patience is spent." The green-skinned man tensed as the threat rumbled across the courtyard, but he did not draw his weapon.
The man's eyes seemed to glaze over briefly, though the man did not relax. When his eyes refocused, Donovan thought he caught the slightest hint of a shudder before the man spoke. "His Brilliance, the Visionary graciously requests that you accept this proposal to partake in a brief discourse regarding the recent events in this region." Each syllable was perfectly enunciated without any slurs or schwas. It was impossible to read any emotion in the bland speech. Something about it frustrated Donovan, poking at the Wrath that bubbled inside him. The elites shifted irritably in their armor behind him.
Donovan forcibly relaxed his grip on his sword. He met the strange man's gaze, struggling to regulate the emotion in his voice. "Bring us to your Visionary." The man bowed and turned, jumping back the way he had come. Donovan followed, as did Rainal and his men.
As they jumped from building to building, Donovan took a moment to compose himself. It was difficult to do so. Every jump revealed more bodies. More stone-carved buildings, cracked and covered in flowering vines. Was this a ploy to make Donovan angry? An angry man is a man more easily pushed to action, after all. And if you can push an action, you can guide that action.
Donovan breathed deeply, focusing on the hot breeze across his face. The sweaty heat of his plate armor in the noonday sun. Wrath's bubbling lessened slightly. He would not be manipulated.
By the time the emissary stopped jumping Donovan had reduced his Wrath to a low burn. Still hot enough to be useful should the need arise. Jumping down from one final building, Donovan followed the emissary into the large courtyard that had been Market Circle. A variety of stalls and carts were scattered throughout the courtyard, shattered and broken. Bodies littered most of the courtyard as well, but a large area had been cleared of debris.
Two figures stood in the middle of the clearing, waiting. One looked much like the emissary, but female. She was more muscular than he, though her skin had the same, greenish hue, and she wore an axe on each hip. She stood in the relaxed but ready stance of a bodyguard, hands resting on her axe hafts. The other figure was taller than the first two, with dark brown hair that hung in a complex series of braids interwoven with some of the strangest flowers Donovan had ever seen. It stood staring listlessly over Donovan's head as if it had not yet noticed his approach.
The emissary stopped several yards from the other two, bowing deeply to the tall, distracted one. Slowly, it turned to the emissary, its gaze growing suddenly focused and intense. The emissary tensed and then relaxed, turning to speak to Donovan, shivering slightly once again.
"His Brilliance the Visionary is reluctant to spill more of your people's blood. But there is no doubt that your people desire to continue the bloodshed, an understandable sentiment given the circumstances." Just as before there was something infuriating in the way the man spoke. Donovan tried to ignore it by focusing on the words themselves. "Therefore, his Brilliance the Visionary proposes to quicken and simplify the nature of this conflict according to your own customs. A duel between two champions. The armies of the defeated champion shall exit the city before two sunrises have passed, following the end of the duel. Do you find these terms agreeable?"
Donovan stood silently for a long moment. Soldiers had started filing into the courtyard and were watching curiously. They had probably seen him leaping across the rooftops and come to provide reinforcements. They knew as well as he that would not refuse the offer. Donovan never refused a duel, especially when the stakes were high.
Still, there was something in the guards' demeanor that made Donovan hesitate. These strange people knew too much. Somehow they knew the customs and language of his people. They knew Donovan's own reputation and that he would never back down from a challenge like this. And yet, after decades of war with the beasts of the forest, Donovan's people had no idea these people even existed. It was unnerving.
On top of that, Donovan did not know what to expect from their champion. Was it the woman with the axes? The gangly emissary? Surely he would not be fighting the Visionary.
Finally, Donovan nodded and spoke through The Crown, "Of course I accept your challenge. I will stand champion for my people." The streets behind him echoed with cheers from his soldiers. "Let your champion step forward and taste my Wrath." Both the emissary and the guard smiled at his words, the first show of emotion from either. Donovan suppressed a shiver.
The emissary turned to the Visionary, who nodded absently, then smiled at Donovan again. "On behalf of the people of Life, in the matter of the dispute over the city Dyrethem, we the Council of Sight call upon 537 to carry our strength."
At his words, one of the bodies strewn throughout the courtyard stood and began walking toward the gathering. This one was distinctly human. Somewhat short, but broad with muscle, the man was wearing a steel breastplate and greaves over a thick, cloth gambeson and loose pants. He looked exhausted, his hair a long, tangled, light brown mess.
The emissary continued speaking as the man slowly made his way to the center of the clearing. "As is standard among the nobility of the people of Gravity," continued the first guard, "This duel, being a duel of exceedingly high stakes, shall be not to first blood, but until one or both of the champions is rendered unable or unwilling to continue the duel. Are these terms acceptable to you?"
"Of course." Donovan was still watching the champion. A fountain of questions flooded his mind, but he put them aside, focusing on the upcoming fight. Usually, he would have studied his opponent's fighting style beforehand, prepared a strategy.
The champion, 537 stopped within a few yards of Donovan, head bowed as with exhaustion. "Then let the duel commence."
537 lurched into motion, running toward Donovan, who took a defensive posture. He was fast and was wielding a large maul in one hand, a small round shield in the other. The man lunged at Donovan, swinging the maul from behind his shield. Donovan took two quick steps backward to avoid the blow and lowered his blade, entering Conqueror's Stance. It was a fast stance that made heavy use of Glory. Donovan met the man's gaze. Something in the man's eyes made Donovan hesitate.
They circled each other, testing each other's defenses with feints and exploratory strikes. The man was skilled. His movements were smooth and controlled. His strikes left no real opening for Donovan to take advantage of. Donovan thought he might be able to cleave the man's shield with enough Wrath, but the man seemed prepared for this. He deflected blows with his shield instead of blocking them head-on. And he was no coward. Each time Donovan left an opening after a great swing the man would duck in close, where Donovan's large, two-handed sword would have trouble maneuvering. It was all Donovan could do to regain the distance between them.
Suddenly, the man spoke. His voice was soft and strained, sorrowful even. "I'm sorry Donovan." Donovan's blood froze. He knew that voice. He knew that voice well.
"Gulian?" Yes. Donovan could see it now. His ragged, untrimmed hair and clean-shaven face had confused Donovan. Now it seemed all too obvious. This must be how the Visionary knew so much about his customs and his people.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Donovan realized that Gulian was screaming in a leaping lunge for Donovan. His mind paralyzed with shock, Donovan moved by instinct. He tried to jump back to avoid the blow but stumbled as Glory vanished and The Crown brought its full weight to bear on Donovan's head. His knees buckled under the sudden weight of The Crown. As he fought to remain upright, the maul slammed into his arm. Gulian was bearing Wrath. The shock from the blow threw Donovan to the side. He would have flown for yards, but The Crown's weight held him down, cutting into his head. Another blow from Gulian's maul slammed into his chest and the impact resounded through his body. A blow like that would have been lethal if not for Donovan's armor. The machite was shaped to absorb Wrath from incoming strikes, spreading the force over a much larger area. Donovan tried to blink his eyes into focus, but blood was running down his forehead. He tried to wipe it away but his metal gauntlets just smudged it. Another blow hit him and he heard his armor creak under the force.
He had to escape. Had to put distance between him and Gulian's onslaught. Desperately, Donovan reached for Wrath, but it was gone. He must have let it fizzle out during the conversation earlier. Sloppy. All he had left was Determination. He yanked on the emotion, letting it flood him. The weight of The Crown became more tolerable, his cuts and bruises were reduced to a dull throbbing.
Squinting through the blood Donovan could see the outline of Gulian's armored boot attacking his head. Even with Determination, The Crown was too heavy to allow any kind of dodge, so he struck with his sword instead. Gulian reacted with incredible speed, using Wrath to redirect the momentum from his kick spinning into another kick at Donovan's unguarded flank.
Even with Determination reducing The Crown's weight, Donovan would not be able to block the kick in time. So he gritted his teeth and shifted his weight, leaning into the blow. It slammed into him with a deafening clack. Pain exploded through his ribs and he pushed with all of his strength. Propelled by the kick and Gulian's Wrath, Donovan managed to stumble to his feet. Barely.
Gulian did not wait for him to regain his balance, punching with the edge of his shield toward Donovan's exposed throat. But he was overcommitted. With a roar, Donovan dropped his sword, ducked, and grabbed Gulian's shield arm with both hands. Using Gulian's arm as a lever, he slammed his shoulder into Gulian's armpit and shoved. Gulian sailed past him, head first. Without Wrath, Donovan could not throw him far, only a few feet, but he hit the ground hard, skidding a long way under the power of his own Wrath. Donovan had bought a few precious seconds.
Both men were breathing heavily. Sweat and blood burned Donovan's eyes. Gulian groaned and pulled himself to his feet. Wrath was still dragging him forward. Donovan felt a stab of guilt. "I searched for you, Gulian. We searched for months."
"You can't kill me, Donovan." The sorrow in his old friend's voice yanked at emotions that Donovan had long since buried.
"Kill you? I have no desire to kill you, my friend!" Wrath began to boil within him again. "How can you fight for them, Gulian? They hate us! Look what they did to this city! To you! Refuse to fight. End it, and we can-"
"You can't kill me, Donovan!" Gulian threw his maul. The attack was so abrupt that Donovan almost forgot to defend himself. He tried to move but The Crown still dug into his head, slowing his movements. The maul slammed into his shoulder. He stumbled backward. Gulian closed the distance in three massive bounds, catching the maul before it hit the ground. Donovan kicked desperately at his friend, but the kick was slow and he was off balance.
In a masterful conduction of Wrath and Glory, Gulian pivoted around the maul mid-swing, easily avoiding Donovan's blow. "They made me stronger," Gulian said, finishing his spin with a kick to Donovan's legs. Donovan stepped backward, narrowly dodging the blow, but his legs were swept out from beneath him, pulled along in the kick's wake. That was not Glory. Gulian was bearing Pride.
His feet yanked by Gulian's Pride, his head shoved down by The Crown, Donovan cartwheeled violently through the air. He lost all sense of direction as he flew, arms and legs splayed. Gulian's boot slammed into his chest, followed closely by a blast of force from Pride. His vision went black.
Something was pressing painfully into his chest. He blinked stars from his eyes. The sun was bright above him. He felt nauseous. He felt at his chest. His breastplate was bent inward. It hurt, but it would probably not be lethal. Rainal and his elites had left. Soldiers shouted from somewhere out of sight. Everything hurt. Donovan sat up and scanned his surroundings. There was a long series of scrapes on the cobblestones of the courtyard from where his armor had slid. Gulian was crouched over his leg, grimacing. The Visionary was nowhere to be seen. The top of his head throbbed. The Crown. He felt at his head, grimacing as he poked the bloody gash where The Crown had been.
Gulian was standing slowly, his muscles straining with effort. A ring of black metal sparkled in his hands. He looked at Donovan and his eyes widened. Something snapped in Donovan. Wrath flooded him, but it was not enough. He kept reaching past the steady heat of Wrath to something deeper, more feral. Something he had not used in a very long time.
Fury surged within him and he charged at Gulian with incredible speed, jumping into a two-footed kick to Gulian's chest. Gulian dropped the crown and dove to the side, but Donovan used Fury to spin into a heel kick to Gulian's back. There was a horrible snap and Gulian smacked into the cobblestones, bouncing and rolling.
"You were dead, Gulian!" Donovan landed on his feet and leapt at his old friend. Gulian was struggling to roll onto his back, his legs unmoving. He landed on Gulian's back to a chorus of snaps and a muted gurgle, then stood. Screaming, he grabbed the limp man's arm and threw him as hard as he could. Gulian flew across the courtyard, skipping across the cobblestones before rolling to a stop among the dead.
It was all Donovan could do to avoid chasing him. He had to calm down. He picked up a loose cobblestone and threw it at Gulian. It clanged against a piece of armor and bounced away. Gulian did not move. Donovan turned away from his friend and tried to focus on breathing. The layers of cloth under his plate armor were drenched. His entire body ached. Blood still dripped from his forehead. He would not look back.
The Crown rested exactly where Gulian had dropped it. The cobblestones beneath it had sunk lower into the earth under its weight. He stared at the circlet. It was a sobering sight. Fury was replaced by shame. He did not pick it up. Allowing it to touch the ground was an act of both treason and blasphemy. The only other king to make that mistake had been executed and his name removed from the histories. Besides, without Glory, The Crown would crush him in minutes, especially in his current state.
Looking around the courtyard, Donovan suddenly realized that he was now completely alone. The shouts of soldiers had moved further away. They had not been cheering for him after all. They had been fighting. He could hear it now. The fear and Determination in their shouts. Officers shouting orders and rallying troops. They needed their king.
He turned back toward The Crown. Nobody knew what had happened. He paused for a long moment. If he was going to do this, he had to bear Glory. He had to believe that he was right. If he questioned himself, others would question him too.
Donovan squatted and grabbed The Crown. He could feel Glory once again and pulled on it slowly, letting it fill him. Another quick glance around the courtyard and he smiled. He would still be king. Glory surged in him and he pulled. Damaged as it was, his machite armor was little help, but he was able to get his fingers under the small circlet and begin lifting.
Slowly, he raised The Crown to the level of his shin, then his knee. With each inch, his Glory grew. He had defeated the enemy's champion. It was level with his hip. He had scared away their emissaries. It was level with his waist. He would slaughter their warriors as they had slaughtered his. It was up to his chest. He stumbled slightly under its weight, barely catching himself. His legs trembled with the effort.
A strange noise echoed throughout the courtyard. Donovan did not have time to wonder what it was. He stepped clumsily to the side. Something tiny blurred past him. His cheek stung. He continued lifting. It was level with his neck.
Something heavy slammed into Donovan's back. He was knocked out from under The Crown, but he held on desperately. He kicked reflexively and felt a satisfying splinter of bones. Gulian screamed. No time to think. Donovan yanked against The Crown's incredible weight, pulling himself back under it. His armor squealed as it was bent even further out of shape. Donovan pushed against it, holding it up just enough for him to breathe.
Gulian was on all fours several yards away, his leg shattered from Donovan's kick. He growled and whimpered as his leg started bending back into shape. He saw Donovan staring in horror and smiled sorrowfully. "You can't kill me, Donovan. They won't let-" He was interrupted as the shattered bones began to reset. He screamed and punched the cobblestones.
Donovan pushed harder on The Crown, but he did not have a strong enough hold on Glory to lift it. Maybe Wrath? Gulian screamed again as his knee moved back into place. Donovan reached desperately for Wrath. It began to fill him again.
He thought of his people, lying slaughtered and unburied in their fields. Of the beasts, pointlessly slaughtering the people he was supposed to protect. Of the Visionary, the instigator of so much death, too cowardly to fight his own battle. Wrath consumed him, pulled him forward, onward to the devastation of his enemies. Gulian whimpered as his shin righted itself. Betrayal, rage, sorrow, grief; he poured them all into the furnace within him.
"Today I bear the burdens of my people," Donovan now floated above the ground, held up by Fury, held down only by the weight of The Crown.
"Their pain is my pain," Donovan directed his Fury, rotating his body until he floated upright, Crown cradled in his arms.
"Their burdens, my burden," Slowly, he placed The Crown on his head. Glory filled him once again, lifting his feet from the ground. Gulian was dragging himself toward one of the surrounding bodies. In its hand was a large, bearded axe.
"Their lives, my life," Pulled forward by Fury, Donovan floated toward Gulian, pulling his sword to his hands with a quick flourish of his fingers. His head pounded with each pulse of Glory. His joints ached under Fury's constant pressure. They kept him moving, but he was starting to feel weak.
"And my judgment, their judgment." Gulian was nearly healed and was struggling to his feet. Debris floated briefly around him as he stood, pulled along in the wake of his Pride. Donovan lunged. Gulian grabbed the axe from the corpse's hand and sidestepped, but his ankle cracked under the weight. He screamed and threw the axe.
Donovan turned his shoulder, deflecting the blow with his armor and stabbed Gulian in the heart, lifting him on the blade until their eyes met. "As bearer of The Crown, I now render my judgment as it was pronounced seven years ago." Fury forced his voice through The Crown, his words echoing hauntingly off of the empty buildings, "My friend Gulian is dead. Slain by the beasts of the forest. His sacrifice, however, has led to a great victory over the beasts. Now we will reclaim what was stolen!"
Gulian squirmed on his blade, kicking with his dangling feet, grasping at the blade that held him. How was he still alive? Before Donovan could react, Gulian planted his feet on the sword's crossguard and shoved. Donovan was thrown backward and his sword clattered away behind him. Gulian landed on his feet, gasping for breath as his skin knitted itself back together.
"It's over Donovan." Something in the way he said it made Donovan pause. There was a waver, a resignation in his tone. In the sudden silence, Donovan realized that the sounds of battle had stopped. Tears streaked the blood on Gulian's face. "I tried, Donovan. I tried. . ." He picked up a nearby corpse, wrenching a sword from its hand. "Kill me." His face hardened with a look of determination. "Let me die a soldier." He kicked another corpse at Donovan.
The kick surprised Donovan, who had accidentally been drifting forward under Fury's influence. This had brought him well within reach of Gulian's attacks. He knocked the corpse aside just in time to see Gulian's sword thrust. The sword would be useless against Donovan's armor, so he parried the blow with his other hand. The blade snapped under Fury's strength and Gulian threw what was left. It bounced harmlessly off of Donovan's breastplate.
Donovan conducted Fury through The Crown, extending it beyond his own body. It yanked Gulian and his corpse shield off the ground. Gulian grunted and threw the corpse, but Donovan batted it aside. He grabbed Gulian by the throat and punched. They hit the ground hard. Gulian struggled, clawing and kicking, but to no avail. Donovan had him pinned. Fury coursed through him, through The Crown. It gave him energy, gave him drive.
Suddenly he realized that Gulian had stopped moving. How long had he been punching the cobblestones? A wave of nausea and dizziness washed over him. Fury faded to Wrath, which faded to exhaustion. His right gauntlet was bent beyond recognition. He could not feel that hand. Gulian's torso dangled from his other hand, which was still clenched around his throat. He fought a wave of fear as he realized what had just happened. Soldiers could get carried away while bearing Fury, beating themselves into oblivion. He had lost good men to uncontrolled battle rage. He probably would have lost himself if not for the nausea.
Slowly, he stood. The courtyard was eerily silent. He began walking toward the street where he had heard fighting before. He had taken only a couple of steps before a hint of motion caught his eye. He turned and nearly yelped when he saw Gulian staring back at him. Donovan had forgotten to release the man's throat. And his lips were moving.
Donovan dropped Gulian and jumped backward, landing in a defensive stance, but Gulian was in no condition to attack. He simply crawled toward his lower half. Donovan watched in a horrified, exhausted stupor as Gulian scooped himself back together and began to heal.
A sudden rush of panic threatened to push away the tiny bit of Glory that Donovan had managed to hold on to. His mind was fuzzy from exhaustion. The courtyard was dark with long shadows of buildings. He was in no state to fight Gulian again. Between silent cries of agony, Gulian was mouthing something. One phrase repeated over and over. Donovan stared, sounding out the consonants. Then he understood what he had to do.
Blinking himself to clarity, Donovan took a sturdy stance and breathed deeply. Too deeply at first. Pain shot through his ribs and he hissed. Keeping his breaths shallow he focused and began to chant. It was a simple rhyme, known to every man, woman, and child in Gravity. The Soldier's Farewell.
"From The Mountain, we are born," He began the motions associated with the rhyme. The pattern of movements was normally very simple, with little requirement for precision, but Donovan's wounds were profound. He refused to look at his crumpled gauntlet. He would have to make a lot of corrections to account for any sloppy movements or non-functional limbs.
The first move was an accelerating arc with both hands, prompting a full body rotation ending with an abrupt stop. Sharp pain in his ribs deflected his arc slightly. He made a mental note of which corrections would be necessary as a result.
Gulian was already halfway together and had begun crawling toward his maul where it lay in the clearing. He was speaking now, his voice croaking raggedly. Donovan could not understand him from this distance, but the awful sound was distracting.
"To the mountain now return." Donovan shut out his old friend's mad chatter. His hands were growing heavier with each motion, directing currents of gravity into new patterns as they swirled around him. Almost every movement caused a burst of pain. He made note of more corrections to add to the end.
Gulian tried to stand but fell with a groan and continued on his knees. "Your Glory earned," A wavelike thrust with both arms, multiple corrections for his useless hand, "Your battles won," A stomping kick with each foot. More corrections for incorrect foot angles. Sloppy. "Rest your feet as Glory's son." A wide, S-shaped arc with both arms curved. More corrections.
Gulian had reached his maul, still croaking unintelligibly. He threw the maul, but Donovan was ready for that. Ever so slightly, he reached for Solemnity and touched it to The Crown. Armor and bones crunched into the ground around him. The maul, hurtling through the air toward him, entered the field of Solemnity and slammed into the ground. Gulian made a sound that might have been a laugh.
Donovan began the corrections calmly. They were not large motions since they did not need to create an effect. They were normally trivial, but he needed to do thirty-seven. Gulian's stomach was nearly finished healing.
He finished the corrections as Gulian stood up and charged. "So now to Mountain's Heart you go," Three sharp downward thrusts, modified slightly to prepare for the fourth. Gulian was nearly upon him. "I send you now. Release your woe." One final thrust, palm out, and a blast of Solemnity, conducted through The Crown.
“Thank you, br-“ Gulian’s cry was cut short as his body collapsed in on itself and slammed into the ground. Dirt and stone shifted and rolled around it, making way for the soldier's passage.
Donovan stared at the ground for a long moment. Three times he screamed at the mound of dirt where the cobblestones had been. The sun had nearly set when he turned and walked toward the last place he had heard combat.
His feet dragged behind him with each step. Gulian's face, bloody and mad, stared back at him from every darkening alley. His final words croaked in the silence between footsteps. "Thank you br-".
With the tiny shred of Glory he had left, Donovan reached through The Crown. "Rainal?" His call echoed through the shadowy streets. He had no lantern or torch. "Rainal!" He tripped under the exertion, leaning on a nearby wall to catch himself. Yelling was probably a bad idea. He knew this. But as the sun vanished behind the horizon, he felt that being alone in that cursed city's silence was worse.
The dizziness was getting worse. He refused to think about his injuries, shoving himself upright once more. He stumbled from building to building. Conducting the tattered remains of his Glory through The Crown was all the only thing that kept him on his feet.
Footsteps sounded in the darkness ahead of him. He froze and Glory nearly slipped away, but he managed to hang on to it. There were voices too. Hushed and nervous. And clinking armor. Donovan sighed with quiet relief. The beasts did not wear armor.
Using the wall of a building for balance, Donovan whispered, "Rainal? Is that you?" A chorus of yelps sounded in the darkness ahead of him as his whisper, spoken through The Crown, resounded harshly in the street.
"Your Majesty?" Rainal's voice answered. Relief flooded Donovan as armored boots clinked to his side. "Your Majesty! You look terrible!" He spoke hurriedly but quietly, "Lira, bring that lantern over here so I can take a closer look. Gamil, see that shop? It sells cloth. Grab some for a bandage."
Metal boots clanked around Donovan as the soldiers followed orders. Donovan ignored the fact that he saw no lantern. "What happened, Rainal?"
"Ambush, Majesty. They were waiting for us in the buildings. Did you not hear the fighting?"
"I did. Casualties?"
Rainal hesitated before answering, hints of his accent slipping into his speech. "Um. You can see for yourself, Majesty."
Donovan paused for a long moment. "Actually, Rainal, I cannot."
There was a longer pause. Presumably as Rainal waved his hands in front of Donovan's face. Finally, Rainal spoke. His voice was tinged with worry and something else. Hesitancy, maybe. "I see, Majesty. We need to get you to a healer. Can you walk on your own-?"
"I'm fine, Rainal. Casualties. How many?"
Rainal hesitated again. "A lot, Majesty. We will have the official count once you are out of danger. How long have you been blind? You aren't sweating anymore."
Donovan sighed. "I am not sure, Rainal. Less than an hour. I watched the sun set."
"That was two hours ago, sir."
Donovan stiffened. "I see. Why do you ask?" Dim, yellowish colors began to swirl in front of him. A lantern, perhaps?
"Well, Majesty, I have read of poisons that cause temporary blindness. If you're afflicted by one of these, then we will likely need more than just a medic." Donovan tripped as Rainal guided him past several bodies. Another set of armored arms wrapped around him, helping him stand.
"How long do these poisons last?"
"Most only last a few hours, Majesty." Donovan resisted a sigh. A long blur waved in front of him. Another hand to check his sight. "You really can't see?"
Donovan shook his head. "I cannot." He tripped over another body and Glory slipped almost entirely away. The sudden increase in weight from The Crown knocked the other two down with him. They fell face-first onto one of the corpses. The Crown slid from Donovan's head as he fell and sunk into another nearby corpse with a wet thud. Rainal and his elite groaned and sat up, but Donovan did not move.
Beasts of the forest were brutal creatures. They did not simply kill their victims. They destroyed them. Maiming and then devouring the bodies. They were feral and monstrous.
The man on top of whom Donovan had fallen laid face first, a long gash across his throat. There were no other wounds.
Donovan tensed. Armor clanked all around him as Rainal and his elites drew their weapons. Donovan reached for Glory, but it was not there. He grabbed at Wrath, but it was only a tiny ember in the pit of his stomach. He had no time to stoke its flames. Finally, he gritted his teeth and drew on Determination, jumping sorely to his feet.
He could still only see in vague shapes and outlines, but his damaged armor was still strong. What I would give for a helmet right now, he thought.
A long shadow blurred down toward him. Instead of jumping back, Donovan raised the forearm of his shattered hand over his head and dove toward the soldier. The soldier jumped backwards with a yelp, and Donovan slammed face-first into the man's shield. Behind him, Rainal's armor clinked and Donovan had no time to think. He wrapped both arms around the man's shield and arched his back, yanking at Solemnity. It weighed him down and he landed hard on his back, but he was rewarded with the loud clang and thump of Rainal's hammer slamming into the soldier's back. The soldier fell limply onto Donovan, slamming the back of his head into the cobblestone again. Rainal cursed. Donovan released Solemnity, grabbed Determination, shoved the limp soldier off of him, and jumped to his feet. A wave of nausea hit him and he collapsed.
Something whooshed by his ear as he fell. He tried to stand, but Determination was gone. The world spun around him. Everything hurt. Rainal and another soldier were talking. Donovan could not understand their words. He must have blacked out after that because the two blurs were suddenly in different positions. They were leaning down, trying to lift something heavy. The Crown.
Donovan blacked out again. When he woke, the sun was peaking over the city walls. Rainal was nowhere to be seen. The Crown still sat embedded in a corpse a couple of feet from Donovan. Uncertain of what else to do, he reached for it.
The sun hurt his eyes. It had fully risen. He heard footsteps. No clanking armor or hushed voices. Just the sound of bare feet stepping around the corpses that Donovan could now see littered the street. Rainal was not among them. Pity.
A shadow shaded him from the sun. The footsteps stopped in front of him. The feet were bare, with a greenish-yellow hue in the morning sun. Donovan tried to sit up, but his body did not respond. He simply stared at the spindly, brown-haired person before him, staring listlessly toward the horizon.
The Visionary turned his gaze to Donovan.
Waves of crackling sensation washed over Donovan, rippling from his face down into his extremities. With each new wave, the sensation increased, digging deeper until it shook his bones and his lungs began to spasm. The eyes, now solid black except for a thin ring of pure gold, grew until they filled his vision, evaluating him from the inside out.
Then, suddenly, it stopped. The Visionary had looked away. Donovan gasped for breath, watching the terrible creature with morbid fascination. It was looking at The Crown. It squatted down, somehow making the movement look graceful, and picked up The Crown. The body that had been holding it slumped back to the ground.
The Visionary looked back at Donovan once more, removing the blood from The Crown with a wave of its hand, and smiled. Donovan avoided its gaze. Then it turned and stepped calmly back the way it had come.
One word echoed in Donovan's spine as he watched The Visionary leave. Stand. He laid there for a long time, watching the word in his mind. Stand. It was short. Simple. Silly even. It just sat there, jolting him with every reverberation. Stand. It bounced through his bones, stinging his fingers, rattling his toes. Stand.