As he advanced, the springy ground absorbed the noise of his soft boots. Lofty branches creaked in the dusk breeze, accompanied by the rustle of a grey squirrel searching the roots. The trail stretched Dane’s tracking skills to their limits. He crouched and inspected the ground. Movement caught his eye, the whisper of a footprint in decaying pine needles settling back into place. His lips curled into a smile and he crept in pursuit, ready to catch General Balder’s elite unawares.
Not even the wildlife reacted to Dane’s stealthy advance. He passed the squirrel, avoiding its notice when a pine cone dropped from a tree to his right. The creature startled and bolted.
Dane winced at the scratching of its claws over bark.
A sudden impact swept his legs from under him and he crumpled on his back, his brigandine absorbing the impact of roots. Damp seeped into the seat of his breeches and sleeves of his brown shirt. When the world stopped blurring, a woman in her early thirties loomed over him. Her rosebud lips stretched into a smile, she looked down, one arm outstretched.
“Hello handsome. Thought you could get the jump on us, eh?” Her auburn hair was tied back and tucked into her tan shirt. She wore sturdy breeches of a similar hue, a shortsword at her waist and bow and quiver on her back. The black and red fletching of her arrows peeked over her shoulder.
Dane flushed, grasped her forearm and stood. The rasp of steel unsheathing surrounded him. He quelled his trepidation as best he could, awed by the affiliation those distinctive arrows represented. “You must be Lahti.”
“That’s me.” She nodded toward the heights of a tree. “The ugly one up there with a bow trained on your groin is Vegard and the man behind you is Erlend.
A third man seemingly stepped from the bark of an oak and sneered at Dane. Built like a fortified outhouse, he loomed closer and thrust his face inches from Dane’s. “You want this neophyte to join the Phantoms? He’ll lead the Sentinels right to us, and then we’re all dead.”
“Vance,” Lahti warned.
“What? I had to stomp through the trees like a wild man before he found my trail and he didn’t even notice when Erlend disarmed him.”
Dane pawed at the empty scabbard on his waist and spluttered.
“Look at him flounder,” Vance said, reaching for his blade. “Kill him before he gets us killed.”
Dane glared back. “If you think you can draw your sword faster than I can stick this knife between your ribs, be my guest.” He pushed the tip to the brink of piercing Vance’s skin, no doubt that the remaining Phantoms would kill him seconds later.
Lahti placed a hand on Dane’s knife arm and glared at the Phantom. “Stand down, Vance. You’d do well to remember who’s leading this mission. If I wanted Dane killed, he’d already be dead.” Vance spat on the ground but walked away and Lahti turned her attention back to Dane with a disarming smile. “Don’t be embarrassed. You made it further than Erlend when Balder sent him to us.”
“Only because Vegard lined my breeches with nettles.” Erlend, a rugged man with shaved blond hair, a mischievous grin and high cheekbones, handed a sword to Dane, hilt first. Despite his apparent joviality, he eyed Vance and his free hand hovered over his own sword hilt.
“The Gestra twins,” Dane said. He accepted his sword and sheathed it as his belt along with his knife.
“You hear that, Erlend?” Vegard, a near mirror image of Erlend but with slightly more stubble, jumped from his perch and landed on his feet beside them. “We’re famous!”
“It’s about time,” Erlend said. “That means fortune and women, right?”
Lahti grinned. “You wouldn’t know what to do with either.”
“I…” Dane trailed off, dizzied by a few more Phantoms emerging from trees and under piles of leaves. Brown and ochre mud covered their skin and their clothing mimicked the woodland surroundings. Vance whispered with a few and cast dark glances his way. He realised he was staring at Lahti and snapped his gaze away. “I’m honoured to serve with a Warden.”
“Looks like the new blood has a crush on Lahti,” Erlend said.
Vegard laughed. “He’ll soon change his mind.”
“When he’s seen her after she’s spent half the night on watch.” Erlend feigned innocence. “What? Your hair goes all wild and you scowl at everyone. Yeah, just like that."
Lahti clapped Dane on the shoulder and led him into a small clearing followed by the other soldiers. “Welcome to the Phantoms. We’ve been expecting you.”
“Do you know why you’re here?” Lahti asked and tossed a bundle of salted pork wrapped in leaves to Dane. Two Phantoms patrolled their camp, hidden somewhere in the trees and darkness while the other four sat in a close circle with no fire. None showed discomfort at the cold.
Dane’s teeth wrestled with the stringy meat. After spending the day tracking at the Phantoms’ pace, however, even tree bark looked appetising. He shook his head. “Nothing specific. My commander said I was requested by name—not by General Balder though, I know that much.”
A few glances and mumbles passed between the Phantoms. It puzzled Dane just as much. This regiment was Balder’s handpicked finest and led by a Warden, no less.
Lahti silenced them with a scowl. “We’re hunting five Sentinels: three Transmuters and two Imbuers. Laurie has their trail.”
“Yeah, five,” said Vance. “I keep saying we should be with the armies instead of chasing myths.”
“Balder knows his business,” Lahti said.
“Still, we’re trudging through some forest while the rest of Blackthorn is striking the Grand Sentinel’s armies.”
Vegard scoffed. “The Sentinels are spanking us across Blackthorn and you know it. You heard the reports from Mount Senti. Thirty Sentinels against a thousand of Blackthorn’s finest? Our soldiers wiped out to a man. How many Sentinels did they kill? Four?”
“It beats hiding in the trees.”
Lahti spoke before Erlend jumped to his twin’s aid. “Balder reckons it’s a diversion. Think about who we’re following—the five strongest Sentinels in Tol Senti. Why would the Grand Sentinel send those five off together if it wasn’t important?”
Dane nodded and opened his mouth.
“Got something to say, new blood?” Vance growled.
Dane met the Phantom’s icy glare with one of steel. “Yeah, I do. The Grand Sentinel keeps his lieutenants close, but expects us to watch him. He’s no stronger. While Blackthorn’s eyes are on him, the lieutenants strike elsewhere.”
Erlend smiled. “Aye. Besides, if we kill these five, that’s a major blow against Tol Senti.”
“When we kill these five,” Vance corrected.
“Careful,” Lahti said. “We’ve only killed so many because they’re so damned arrogant and it’s a close run thing even when we ambush them. Let’s not make their mistakes.”
Vegard turned to Dane. “Fact is, we need every advantage. So far, we’ve picked them off in small numbers. If we face even one in the open, they’ll slaughter us. Well, apart from Lahti, perhaps.”
One of the sentries emerged from the woodland. His lips pressed together, face like stone but his eyes glistened in their reddened sockets. He saluted to Lahti. “There’s something you have to see.”
The Phantoms stood in a circle, looking down at the corpse. It reeked of sulphur and the leaves around it lay black and withered. Scorch marks covered her flesh where leather armour had not melted onto it. Her limbs were splayed at impossible angles as though every bone had been crushed to powder.
“I take it this is Laurie,” Dane said.
“Used to be,” Erlend replied. “This is Sentinel sorcery.”
Vegard bowed his head. “And they know we’re here.”
Dane watched the surrounding trees, expecting Sentinels to burst through any moment. The only movement was both sentries returning and the other Phantoms preparing to leave. With the threat of Sentinels stalking them instead, he shuddered.“Where do we go?”
“We need to find their trail again. Laurie’s last message marked them as northeast.” Lahti picked up her bow and started walking. The rest fell in around her, hands ready on either sword hilts or bows.
“I didn’t see any messages,” Dane said and watched their right flank.
Vance sneered. “That’s because you don’t know what to look for. If Balder had chosen you as a Phantom, you’d know our code already. Instead, you blunder around the woods like a club-footed degenerate.”
Dane took no offence. He even understood the Phantom’s reservations. A dangerous mission like this required trust. Vance knew neither him nor his record but trusted Balder. If Balder had chosen Dane, that might have been enough.
A few hours into their march, Lahti halted and raised a clenched fist. Erlend and Vegard nodded to her and split left and right. Their movements flowed like a natural part of the woodland. Soon, they disappeared from sight and Dane drew his sword, watching the trees.
Lahti gave a start, and then lowered her bow. “Ysmena?”
A hard-faced woman slightly older than Lahti stepped from behind a pine trunk. Crossed pins skewered her hair in a tight bun. “Couldn’t you sense me?”
Lahti frowned. “No. Something feels…strange. Have you found the Sentinels?”
“Yes. I watched the three of them heading for the Forshai Ruins and fear they’ll soon summon the Guardian. I don’t need to tell you what happens if they slay it.”
“Forshai,” Lahti said.
Dane frowned. “Wait. Three Sentinels? I thought we were following five.”
Ysmena raised an eyebrow, then nodded and smiled. “Ah, Dane, it is pleasure to finally meet you. I saw only the three of them, dressed as woodsmen but their arrogant stride marked them well enough.”
“Perhaps Laurie killed the others,” Erlend offered without conviction. One man, even a Phantom, against two Sentinels was a battle with only one outcome. “Or they’re hunting us.” He glanced to his twin. Vegard nodded to the other Phantoms and they dispersed into the darkness. Erlend remained.
“We head to the Forshai Ruins,” Lahti said.
Dane glanced at the corpse. “If they know we’re coming and we can’t account for two of them, what chance do we have?”
“We have two Wardens,” Erlend began but trailed off as Lahti and Ysmena shared a concerned look. “And the famous Gestra twins!” he recovered, flourishing his sword, his grin resplendent.
Ysmena shrugged. “They have a head start but if we continue through the night we might reach the ruins before them.”
“Then you’d better brief us while we march,” Lahti said and strode on.
Erlend and Ysmena followed without hesitation. Dane caught glimpses of the other three Phantoms protecting their flanks and rear, movements he would have missed before spending time amongst them. The rest marched in tight formation, ever watchful.
“Take me through this again,” Dane said after a night and day of marching deep within the forest. “The Sentinels kill this Guardian and suddenly these Forshai characters pop up and start enslaving folks?”
“That’s about the gist of it,” Ysmena replied
“And they want to do this…why exactly?”
Lahti winked. “Because the Grand Sentinel is a lunatic. He and his followers think we’re better off with a bunch of resurrected lizards ordering us around.” At Dane’s blank expression, she continued. “All right. It’s an old religion. You might call the Grand Sentinel an extremist. He believes the Forshai once ruled mankind and it is our duty to restore their power.”
“Based on what?”
“Some bas relief at the Forshai Ruins. They’re scattered throughout Blackthorn and each depicts mankind under Forshai rule. Who knows whether it’s true or not? The ancients loved their metaphors and they could just as easily say that we were enslaved by another country.”
“It’s just a theory.” Lahti spread her arms, open palmed.
Dane shook his head. “No, that makes no sense. Look. I go where General Balder points and I kill what he tells me to kill. The whole of Blackthorn is at war with Tol Senti to stop them from rousing these Forshai. At least, that’s what they tell us. You’re saying we don’t even know if they exist outside myth? That’s a shaky foundation for a war.”
“You mean I’ve been eating Lahti’s scorched pork for no good reason?” Erlend asked.
“That’s not quite true,” Lahti said and Ysmena shot her a glare. “No, damn you! No secrets if they’re fighting this with us. I hate fighting blind and I’m damned if I’ll deny these men our knowledge.”
Ysmena sighed but gestured Lahti to continue.
“True, we’ve not seen a Forshai, but we know the Guardians exist. Or, at least, we’ve seen the aftermath of a summoned Guardian.”
“Bodies. Lots of bodies—Sentinels and mercenaries. Torn, mangled and pummelled. This is the second time Tol Senti has sought to release the Forshai. Before, they outmanoeuvred us but the Guardian killed them all. Now the Grand Sentinel has dispatched his most powerful followers. That’s why we enlisted the Phantoms, so we can tip the balance in the Guardian’s favour.”
Dane nodded. “I assume you have a plan.”
“We wait until they summon the Guardian and strike while they’re fighting it.”
“Are you mad?” Erlend said. “You said you only saw the aftermath. Do we even know what the Guardian is? What it’s capable of?”
“Nobody does. If anyone survived the first attack, they kept quiet about it.”
“Or they only told Tol Senti,” Dane said. “And if we kill the Sentinels, what then? Can this Guardian tell friend from foe?”
“And it will just go quietly back to sleep when the Sentinels have gone?”
Lahti shrugged. “I don’t think even the Sentinels know what they’re dealing with. But if they kill it, I don’t like our chances with Forshai roaming Blackthorn. Fancy being a lizard’s slave?”
“Doesn’t sound enticing,” Erlend said.
Lahti softened her voice and addressed the group but her gaze lingered on Dane. “Our targets are the Sentinels. We know about those. As soon as they’re dead, we get out of there, understood?”
The Phantoms murmured their assent while Ysmena looked away.
“Good. The Forshai Ruins are just beyond the tree line.”
Vegard materialised from the woods. He grinned. “Found some Sentinels. Three of them, camped about a league away. I guess they don’t relish fighting the Phantoms at night.”
Lahti smiled. “Thank you. Head back over there and keep an eye on them. Any movement and you let us know. The rest of you, don’t get comfortable, we’ve a battlefield to prepare.”
Dane surveyed the deserted town. Soulless buildings, bereft of life for centuries, stood a silent vigil at the base of a hill crowned by a monastery in the midst of a graveyard. The monastery remained pristine, not ravaged by time like the crumbling town. His gaze lingered on two piles of wood, unlit bonfires in the town. He cocked his head at the whisper of footsteps.
“A few days with the Phantoms and you can already hear me approach,” Lahti said and sat beside him.
“A man learns quickly when knocked on his arse by a woman half his weight.” Dane looked her up and down. “I see Erlend was right.”
“That sounds unlikely. About what?”
“You look terrible after spending half the night on watch.”
Lahti grinned and punched his shoulder. Dane winced at the hammer blow. “It doesn’t look like you slept much yourself. What are you doing?”
“I’m oiling my armour. We don’t want those Sentinels hearing us sneak up on them, eh?” He winked and shook a small flask. “It’s my own blend—odourless. There’s no point being silent if they can smell you coming.”
Lahti’s expression wavered between amusement and concern. “We’re fighting the five most powerful Sentinels in Tol Senti. I don’t think armour will help.”
“Aye, but we don’t know what this Guardian is yet.” He continued rubbing oil into the creases of his brigandine. “It helps clear my head, too. I keep wondering about the two Sentinels we haven’t accounted for. Tol Senti thrives on misdirection.”
“Perhaps their misdirection is that we spend our time looking for them while the others summon the Guardian. There are countless possibilities. We can only act on what we know and the Guardian is our concern.”
“And we just have to be careful, presumably?”
A shadow flickered in the town, the hint of movement between houses. Both Dane and Lahti snapped their gazes toward it. Atop the hill, fires burst to life, illuminating the monastery. The Gestra twins emerged from trees.
Erlend grinned. “Adorable as you two look, it’s time. Ysmena and Vance are circling around the far side of the monastery. We approach through the graveyard over the eastern railings. Wait until the Sentinels are busy with the Guardian and then we strike.”
“And watch out for the traps we set,” Vegard added with a wink.
Dane stood and checked his weapons, considering Erlend’s tendency to borrow them. “What about the movement in the town?”
“Let me deal with that,” Lahti said.
“Aww, you hear that, Erlend? He’s concerned.”
Erlend wiped an imaginary tear. “It’s beautiful. But she’s a Warden and tougher than us all.”
The earth rumbled and lights flashed at the monastery. A bestial roar thundered in the night and echoed through the trees, accompanied by a sulphurous gust. Dane nodded, ducked into his armour and retrieved his bow from the ground. Accompanied by the twins, he turned toward the hilltop and steeled himself for the coming battle.
Before he had finished his first step, Lahti grabbed his hand and yanked him back. “Stay safe.” She kissed his forehead.
Dane blinked and stared at her, robbed of words. She smirked and pushed him toward the monastery. Oh, very smart. Set my head spinning right before I run headlong into a bunch of Sentinels, why don’t you? Never mind the Guardian…
Before Dane could respond, Lahti dashed toward the crumbling town and merged with the shadows. He forced her from his mind and focused on the growing flames around the monastery. A short, crouched run allowed him to catch the Gestra twins as they reached the iron railed fence at the base of the hill. They assisted one another over, glad that the spear-tipped railings were rusted and blunt. Again, the ground rumbled, though no roar accompanied it.
“I’ll go right,” Erlend whispered. “Vegard, you head left and Dane straight up. Remember where our snares and pits are. I’m not sucking the venom out if you get Blackthorn vines wrapped around your legs.”
The monastery’s arched entrance beckoned in front of Dane, firelight spilling from inside. While the Gestra twins disappeared either side, Dane sneaked forward, ducking between weathered headstones. Of the Sentinels, he saw nothing and assumed they were performing the Guardian summoning ritual inside. He paused under the shadow of lizard-like grotesques perched on the monastery’s gothic stonework.
Nocking an arrow, Dane crept inside, his eyes adjusting to the light of a cresset further down the hallway. Flickers of motion caught his eyes, shadows retreating into rooms on either side, though only cobwebs and the dust of long abandonment covered the bas relief on the walls. A breeze carrying a hint of sulphur groaned through the hallway and starlight peeked through an open doorway. Dane followed it to a courtyard and halted while Vance and the Gestra twins clambered over the exterior walls. Ysmena was nowhere to be seen.
In the centre of the courtyard, a circle of brimstone smouldered amidst cracked and scorched earth. The Phantoms dropped into the courtyard, Gestra twins with bows ready, Vance wielding his sword. Dane took half a step toward them but paused at another whiff of sulphur.
Behind him, somewhere in the distance, the roar resounded. An unfamiliar voice sounded from the graveyard and Dane’s jaw dropped. “Trap!” he yelled but explosions from the courtyard walls overpowered his voice. Great chunks of stonework blasted inward, pummelling the Phantoms. Erlend was thrown past the doorway and into one of the Phantoms’ concealed pits where poisonous Blackthorn vines entangled him. Dane’s mind raced through possibilities and he decided that he could not help in the courtyard. The Sentinels had outmanoeuvred them, leaving Lahti alone in the town.
Turning from the courtyard wrenched at Dane’s sense of loyalty, but duty and Lahti lay in the other direction. He whispered a prayer for the Phantoms and pelted down the hill, through the graveyard. A jet of fire screamed over his shoulder, singeing his hair and blistering his face. He ducked, weaved and leapt over gravestones. Something moved in the ruined town, something big, as Dane joined the path that led through the open graveyard gate.
A commotion rose from the monastery behind but committed to his course, Dane ignored it. A huge spherical head peered over the roof of one of the houses and opened a gigantic maw of teeth like razor sharp stalagmites and stalactites. In his momentary panic, Dane rolled his ankle on the uneven path. Pain shot up his right leg but he growled and limped on. He glimpsed Lahti as she ducked behind a house, her eyes open a little wider and her face paler.
She waved Dane toward her and they rested against the old stone, both panting. “They bred the Guardians big, huh?”
Dane wet his lips. “I’m just glad that thing’s on our side.”
“Oh, we’re on its side but it’s certainly not on ours.”
The Guardian stomped into the open, revealing its huge serpentine bulk. It looked like a rearing snake with many limbs protruding from its scaled torso that shimmered between green and red. It moved so fast that the number of limbs seemed to change as though amorphous. Its great eyes focused ahead and it emitted a piercing shriek.
“I think it’s found our Sentinels. Come on,” Lahti said and indicated a route behind the creature.
Dane leaned on her shoulder to support his ankle as she crept toward one of the piles of wood. As they neared, Dane squeezed her shoulder. “Wait. That stinks of oil.”
“Are you sure it’s not your armour?”
The pile erupted in flames before she finished speaking, the second pile following soon after. A robed Sentinel stepped from beside each fire, arms raised. A third leapt from one of the ruined buildings. Crimson runes smouldered over his mail armour and down his long, curved blade. He charged the Guardian, dodging and parrying its furious assault of barbed limbs. Flames snaked around the bonfires, past the robed Sentinels, and blasted into the Guardian’s torso. It thrashed and shrieked, caught between the three enemies.
“Fancy turning the tide?” Lahti asked, her rosebud lips widening into a grin.
Dane guessed her plan and smiled back. “Love to.”
She nodded to his injured ankle. “I’ll take the furthest one, hopalong.”
They crept behind the robed Sentinels with knives drawn. Focused on containing the Guardian, Dane’s Sentinel failed to react until the knife pierced his flesh. Dane pushed the corpse into the fire and glanced to Lahti doing the same.
Movement flashed within the graveyard around the monastery. Distant figures clambered from the ground, discoloured white and fleshless. Dane squinted through the smoke and refused to believe his eyes as skeletal forms appeared, humanoid but with elongated skulls and swishing tails.
They had failed. The Sentinels had released the Forshai.
With two Sentinels dead, the Guardian bellowed its fury and whipped its tail through the bonfires. It slammed into Dane’s chest, smashing his ribs and knocking him on his back. Dane curled into a ball, covering his head as burning wood rained upon him. The heat seared through his shirt and breeches and into his flesh. Blood dribbled from his mouth and black specks danced before his eyes. He coughed red mist. The fiery husk of the Sentinel trapped him and he thrashed but only fanned the flames.
Lahti’s voice sounded over the madness and she dragged Dane from the fire. Every movement sent shockwaves of agony through his shattered ribs and he teetered on the edge of consciousness. As Dane caught the gleam in the hazel eyes of his saviour, a curved sword tore through her thigh. She growled, punched the Sentinel and snapped his blade in half while still in her leg and pulled Dane clear of danger.
The Sentinel sprang back, drawing another sword. Dane tried to warn her but convulsions garbled his words. Lahti screamed as the Sentinel slashed again and clove both her legs, runes burning along the blade.
Inhuman strength surged through Dane. He snarled and rammed his dagger into the Sentinel’s abdomen while Lahti slammed her fist into his neck. The Sentinel’s vertebrae cracked and he gurgled as crimson froth spilled from his mouth.
Drained by this last act of vengeance, Dane’s head thudded against the packed dirt of the ruined town square. Shadows and will-o-wisps flittered before his eyes, accompanied by distant shrieks and thundering footsteps. His body shook and female voices echoed around him, garbled words amidst Dane’s suffering and the fury of the rampaging Guardian.
Ysmena crouched over him, her face thick with soot and blood. Her hands felt slick. Firelight glinted from the steel in her hand. Her hand jerked and Lahti’s shaking form went limp. Dane tried to cry out, to push Ysmena away but her knees pinned his shoulders to the ground.
“Lie still,” she growled. “The Guardian is suppressing the Forshai; they cannot fight it. Lie still!”
She jammed something into his mouth, and pinched his nose while oily liquid poured down his throat. She was speaking, chanting. The words ‘Seven Soldiers’ repeated amongst unintelligible sounds. His body convulsed, tossing dirt and the bonfire’s scattered embers. The liquid spread through Dane’s insides twisting his stomach and coating his muscles in sludge.
Dane’s consciousness finally gave way when Ysmena hauled him onto her shoulder and strode from the Forshai Ruins.
He lay on a bed in a small room with stone walls. Sunlight lanced through a single window and birds chirped outside. The scent of pine sweetened every breath. His body felt wrong, alien, and his mind crowded as though he was no longer the sole occupant. By rights he should have been dead. No man could survive the hit he took.
“What have you done to me?” Dane cried.
“Saved your life,” Ysmena said.
“What about Lahti?”
The Warden began arranging something in the fireplace.
“I asked you about Lahti.” Dane glowered at Ysmena and bile rose in his throat. Heat pumped into his clenched fists.
Ysmena stared back, her face impassive. “I passed Lahti’s essence to you and inducted you into the Wardens, Dane. Our increased resilience saved your life. The Sentinel’s attack would have left her crippled. A Warden’s powers may deliver them from the brink of death but it could not heal Lahti’s legs.”
“You let her die?” Dane roared. Phlegm sprayed from his mouth. “You killed her because she lost her legs?”
“It’s hard to come to terms with at first, but the Wardens have a higher calling. Lahti understood this.”
“You arrogant witch! Why me? Answer me that!”
“You’re strong. It takes considerable strength of will to continue our legacy. We sent Lahti to watch you, Dane. The Wardens have been interested in you for a long time. It is we who transferred you to the Phantoms.”
Anger clouded Dane’s vision. All rational thought fled in the face of unbridled rage though his limbs lacked the strength to move. The scent of burning herbs tingled in his nostrils and his consciousness ebbed away.
© January, 2015 Daniel Morley
Daniel Morley has one previous publication. His story "Planeshifter" appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.