Chapter Two: Never the Same

           They could hear more crashing sounds outside and in the other buildings. The ground shook and everyone inside stumbled through the now open wall over the pile of rubble. The monastery walls were still mostly intact, save for a few chunks missing where it looked like something had taken a big round bite. Through the dust Wraith could see two halves of a huge discolored boulder that was streaked with black and brown stripes. He knelt down to examine more small bits of the rock scattered in the debris from the wall, which must’ve been the cause of explosion.

           Taria? The confused mass of people milling about the grounds inside the monastery all looked the same, all covered in the same gray filter that clouded the once lively grass in the grounds.

           Wordless, a hand touched his shoulder, alerting him to her presence. We need to get to my room, I have some of my weapons there. I don’t know what’s happening but we need to get prepared.

           Wraith nodded and followed her back towards the dormitories. They both could hear cries across the monastery, without any source to place. A few people were simply doubled over on the ground wailing like nothing he had ever heard before, they seemed to be in horrible pain but showed no other sign of injury. A few Oaken Knights rushed about the area not taking the time to look at either Wraith or Taria, instead tending to the other seemingly lifeless bodies scattered about the courtyard.

           What could’ve even caused the wall to do that? The image of the strange rock stood clear in his head, he pictured the debris of the wall in his mind so she could see it as he did.

           I don’t know but it wasn’t natural. The rock looks like slip-stone which can only be found hundreds of miles south of the barbarian lands. Why they would be using them in siege weapons is beyond me. None of it makes any sense.

           They continued on in relative silence until they reached the dormitories. Luckily, they were untouched so they rushed into the nearest entrance, another big heavy oak door that creaked loudly enough to be heard over the moans of the injured. Taria shut the door behind them just as horns began blasting off in the distance. The armory, directly in the center of the monastery, was the only building with two stories, and the only thing taller were the walls that were only meant to discourage barbarian raids in the dead of night. Whoever was attacking was fully outfitted for war. The grim reality that they probably didn’t stand a chance set in. Taria increased her pace at his dark realization, and Wraith jogged to keep with her quick steps. He remarked to himself how fast she was even though her legs were so much shorter than his.

           She stopped abruptly in front of a distinctly different looking door than all the rest of the plain wooden ones that ran the length of the hallway. She pressed her shoulder to the door and squeezed the latch so that the door swung open with a squeak that echoed down the empty hall. She bustled ahead, and Wraith swung his head in. The room was a lot less plain than his. It was a stark difference from the rest of the monastery with walls that were adorned with all sorts of different fabrics and paintings.

           Even the bed was larger than his, it almost looked big enough that his feet wouldn’t hang off the edge. While Wraith was busy admiring the ample space and extra adornments, Taria went to the foot of her bed and unlocked the old metal trunk that held most of her personal belongings. After pulling her boots back onto her bare feet, she took out her leather brigandine and started the task of tucking various knives into the various loops that sat at her hips.

           Lifting it above her head, she reached for the strings only to find her arms too short to tie the back of the armor piece together. “Help me with this.” She commanded

           Wraith shook himself out of his daze and began the work of cross tying all the straps so that it fit snugly to her small frame. “Tell me if it’s too tight.”

           Upon him finishing, Taria shrugged her shoulders and arched her back. “Probably not tight enough, but it’ll have to do.” She turned and looked at her room one last time before grabbing a specific piece of fabric off the wall, a red and white striped piece that her mother had given to her as a child. She pulled Wraith out of the room and firmly shut the door behind her.

           “No time for anything else. We have to find Priol or the Commander and figure out what’s-” she was cut off by the crashing sound of another rock smashing into the dormitory building where they had just been. Another skipped off the wall and skidded to a halt not even ten feet from them.

           “Bastards” she whispered. Though her tone was quiet, her emotions were clear. Wraith could feel her anger like nothing he’d ever experienced. It was a boiling rage kept in check by an equally longing sadness. This was her home, he knew that much. Her home was being taken from her.

 

Wraith became angry in equal measure.

 

           They ignored their nearly being crushed to death and continued on towards the armory fueled by shared rage. It now stood as the only intact building left in the grounds. A steady stream of people were heading towards the central building. A few people Wraith recognized, most he didn’t. Though he’d spent a lot of time at the monastery, he rarely spoke to anyone except his mentors, many of whom seemed to be absent. The most common sight was that of the injured, bleeding or with broken limbs, limping inside away from the now unprotected monastery grounds.

           Once they had made it inside, it was hard to hear anyone over the yelling in the main hall. Everyone was distraught and no one seemed to be coming up with any ideas as to what to do next. The crowd parted a bit and someone pulled a chair to the center of the crowded room, where a man with a gash across his face stood atop it and whistled so loudly that everyone in the room fell silent.

           It was Abbot Priol. “The rocks have stopped falling and I think we have a few moments of time until the next step of their attack.”

           Someone in the back of the room near the door called out “How could the watch not have alarmed every one of the attack? There’s no way they could’ve gotten siege engines through the forest without anyone noticing.”

           A murmur of agreement swept across the room until Priol swept his hand and they all fell silent again. “I’ve just come back from one of the watchtowers along the wall. The guards were all dead or gone, their bodies were still warm… What was left at least.” Concern now as the tone of the room, most everyone shifted back and forth around the room, Wraith could practically taste the air of fear. For most, especially those sheltered where they thought was the safest place for them, the unknown enemy was the most frightening. Priol took note and continued despite the change in the room. “We know we’re under attack and we know that we can’t sit here and wait, so get armed and ready, wait for my command.”

           He stepped down from the chair and people quietly filed to the sides of the room with the many racks of weapons and armor. There couldn’t be more than two-hundred people left inside the armory, out of the nearly five-hundred people that resided inside the monastery year-round. To his surprise, a hand clapped on his shoulder, so that when he turned he was confronted with the face of Quartermaster Dilon.

           “I see the lady is already armed.” He gestured towards Taria, who nodded back. “Let’s get you ready.” He led them up a small set of stairs in the corner of the room to the second floor. A few others followed suit and flitted around the room to try and find something that suited their needs. Wraith was more than happy to take another weapon besides the small knife tucked in his boot.

           Dilon walked with purpose over to the closest rack and grabbed a long sword and a small buckler shield and handed them to Wraith. “These should serve you well enough today. Hopefully you’ll be alive enough to return them, I’d hate to see any of my weapons laid out in the grass to rust.”

           Testing the weight of the sword, Wraith swung it about in the air to notice that it was far lighter than he remembered any sword of a similar size being. The shield too seemed too light to be able to stop anything short of a stray arrow. “These seem awful light to go to combat with?”

           “Those are the same weapons that I trained you with the last time we tested out your strength. I think you’ll find most things to be a lot lighter than what you remember them being since you’ve become dulaaren.” The Quartermaster waddled away again before Wraith got a chance to ask him anymore.

           It was the same sword, he recognized it now that he looked at the hilt of the blade, a simple wire and leather grip that wasn’t common among most of the weapons that were the standard bare metal grips that the armory had on hand. Before he had a chance to marvel at his newfound strength, Dilon tossed him some leather greaves to cover his well-worn boots, as well as dropping a plated chest piece that looked about his size.

           “You’re probably the only person this stuff will fit. Someone might as well put it to use.” He set down his arms and went about putting the boots on and getting his armor on as best as he could. When he couldn’t get the back straps on correctly he scanned the room for Taria to find that she was nowhere in sight.

           Wraith realized she still felt close, her presence was like the memory of something that he couldn’t quite shake, so he reached out as if he were trying to remember something long forgotten, and thought out his words as clearly as possible, nearly speaking them aloud so that she could hear him. Up until that point she had been in his head, and he just had to think what he wanted to say. Reaching out to her was such a strange experience, it was like a part of him was leaving his body.

Where are you?

I climbed on the roof. I can see them.

Barbarians? What do they look like?

Barbarians don’t use huge metal siege weapons.

           Wraith’s vision flashed so that instead of looking through his own eyes, he was looking through hers. She must’ve climbed to the very top of the roof because it was just enough to see over the walls to get a good view of the clearing outside of the monastery. All around stood what everyone referred to as Fenrar’s Forest, after a man who had mapped much of the southern forest shortly before the fall of the dragons. As she was pointed south away from the mountains, the tree line was unbroken for miles with varying degrees of height in the trees, save for the huge cut out swath of trees that led a straight path to the monastery. The trail went as far as the forest did, and stood out a black stain against the otherwise bright hue of the forest and grass.

           The same black swath of infection seemed to spew outward from the path cut from the trees where most of the army now stood. The mass of people was seemingly unorganized, but eerily silent. They all wore similar black and gray plated armor complete with helmets that entirely covered their faces. The shoulders and helms bore the same demonic looking horns that gave the entire company an unnatural, sinister look. Most of the army stood at the southern-most part of the forest, alongside five trebuchets that sat in the open, arms forward since they had already been fired. There were a few individuals that paced back and forth in front of the armored soldiers who wore cloaks with their faces exposed, with only one of them close enough to make out any discernable features.

           His head was bald, devoid of hair. Taria was fairly sure that he didn’t even have any eyebrows. His skin was far paler than was natural and he kept looking at his hands like he didn’t recognize them. There was a crescent shaped blade at his side and another much longer one strapped to his back both oddly colored and vicious looking. Not long after Taria started examining the man, he stopped his pacing and turned his head as if he were looking directly back at her. With his face turned she realized the most unsettling thing about the man was that his eyes were entirely black, not even the corners of his eyes escaped the darkness that was his gaze. A chill ran down her spine and she continued scanning the group for any markings or indication of where the seemingly well-equipped outfit had come from, to no avail.

How could they even have made it all that way without anyone seeing them hacking down all the trees? It would take weeks for an army that size to clear out the whole way here, not to mention bearing the trebuchets as well. Wraith was awed, he’d never seen, or even read of anything short of an actual dragon that could possibly wreak that much destruction in a single day.

           Illusions maybe? I don’t know none of this adds up. Armies don’t spring up over the course of a few hours. They had to get here, scouts should’ve seen something. I’m coming back down, we need to report to the Abbot.

           Wraith’s vision flashed back to his own eyes, dulling the otherwise bright colors he had been seeing through her eyes. He went to a nearby window and looked out at the forest horizon which seemed gray and sad in comparison to what he had seen through her eyes. He blinked, only to have his eyes start watering profusely.  I must’ve been staring eyes wide open that whole time.

           You should keep that in mind for next time. Taria swung back inside through the window he was staring out just as he had finally recovered from staring at the floor while living vicariously through her.

           “What does green look like?” he asked aloud

           Taria gave him a strange look and went to find Abbot Priol. Wraith followed her down the stairs, still confused that he was missing a color from his vision. Priol was helping a younger man into a mail coif, and looked up at the two of them as if her were expecting them both.

           “Taria,” he nodded his head “Do you know what we’re up against?”

           “We’re outnumbered ten to one. Twelve to one if you’re not counting the injured we have. They haven’t loaded the trebuchets again so I’m thinking their next move is to move into the inner grounds. There also appear to be some leaders but other than that all of them are clad in fully plated armor. Can’t even see their faces.”

           “Hm.” Priol scratched his chin and grunted halfheartedly “We have some of the most talented dulaaren here in the entire realm. We may be able to fend them off long enough to get most of you headed north towards Duridiin. It doesn’t seem like their exactly concerned with taking anyone alive as it stands now.”

           Wraith stepped into the conversation, “Why are they even attacking us? The commander looked worried like something was taking too long. He didn’t look like a barbarian, he barely looked human.”

“How…?” Priol glanced at Taria who smiled, and back at Wraith again. “Right. What did the bastard look like anyway?

           “He was pale, like chalk. Didn’t have any hair and carried these strange curved swords. And his eyes were like… Nightmares. Black, soulless.” This time Wraith shuddered at the image of the pale creature locking eyes with Taria. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

           A look of growing concern spread across the old man’s face. “He may not be human. If it is what I think it is then that is all the more reason to get as many of you away from this place as possible.” He whipped his head around to examine the room. Though battered everyone there looked prepared to fight, stern looks and angry eyes. While arming themselves their fear had been replaced by anger. This was their home and they weren’t going to lie down and let someone take it away from them without putting up a fight.

           “The ones attacking us are incredibly dangerous. As many of you that can need to flee north through the desert towards Duridiin and warn the council about the army. Anyone who has completed their training as dulaaren or is a teacher will stay here and help cover your escape. The rest of the Oaken Knights that are left will lead you into the forest through the mountain pass so that you can follow the road through the desert to the city. We will follow you once we can slip away, so that we can make sure that they don’t pursue you north, hopefully they’ll turn towards Zeldima or Dorular and it will buy you all some time.”

           The room divided into two groups, two thirds of which were the students and the knights accompanying them. There were only eighty seven in total staying behind to cover the escape of the students, all of whom volunteered. Dina and Adara were among them, as well as the Quartermaster who was now armed with a menacing two handed flail.

           Taria was frustrated she had to flee with the rest of the students. She wanted to defend her home she had stayed in for her entire life, but Priol insisted that she stay with Wraith and the students so she could guide them north. “No one knows the forest better than you, Taria.” He had said. Wraith knew it was at least in part because of him, and couldn’t help but think that she resented him for it. Some of the ones staying behind were scouts and friends of hers like Dina and Adara. He knew it was hard for her to leave her home she’d known for so long just to run away from someone trying to take it. He had no words, and said none because of it.

           Priol and the twins led everyone back into the grounds. Off in the distance someone was crying in pain, yelling for help. A couple of the knights rushed off to try and help them. “We’re going to distract the main force as best as we can. Make a break for the forest at my signal. Don’t stop for anything.” He led his group to the southern walls, as the remainder of them were led to the northern gate by a knight named Rysus, who looked not much older than the rest of the students fleeing. Most didn’t look much older than fourteen years, and Rysus was probably about as old as Taria.

           They reached the gate fairly quickly, as they were setting a quick pace. Wraith caught up to Rysus and tapped him on the shoulder, to get his attention and break the otherwise somber silence that they had been walking in. “What did Priol mean by make a break for the forest at his signal?”

           Rysus smiled, “Knowing the Abbot, I’m sure it’ll be very obvious. Just make sure you try to help the younger ones along, they may have trouble keeping up with the rest of us.”

           Wraith nodded and fell back to walking beside Taria in silence. He had never been given the responsibility of taking care of someone else. In a short time he felt responsibility for Taria, but he also knew that she could handle herself, the kids on the other hand seemed comparatively defenseless. Thinking back to the young scared boy Ailus, who was at the joining with him and Taria, he scanned the crowd to look for him only to find he was nowhere in sight. He feared the worst, and hoped for the best. No one deserved to be crushed under a building or suffocate in the dust of a crumbled room.

           When they came around another pile of wall rubble, the huge gate came into sight. The western gate tower had been wholly decapitated so that only its center and the wall it was attached to was left. The gate was heavily reinforced, with both a metal gate facing the outside that lifted up directly into the archway, and a set of wooden doors that opened inwards after the gate had been lifted. Wraith always felt safe when looking at those gates when he walked by, now they felt more like a trap than anything else.

           “Shite,” Rysus blurted out “hold on everyone.” He ran to the base of the broken tower and pulled open the door, only to have rubble spill out at his feet. “There were two pulleys to bring the gate up but now we only have one.”

“What about the doors?” one of the older boys stepped forward “Don’t those have gears too?”

           The young knight nodded “We’ll have to pull it open manually, the gears to open up the gates were in the eastern tower.” He gestured for Wraith and another young man with a thin build and a mess of sandy colored curls atop his head to come forward. “You two will have to roll the gate up and hold it long enough for everyone to get across. Without both towers we can’t lock it open. Once we’re outside you’ll have to let the gate down and jump down to us.”

           “That’s insane!” this time Taria stepped forward to Wraith’s defense. “It’s at least thirty feet from the lowest part of the wall, they’ll be lucky not to break their legs, and that’s in the best case!”

           “I didn’t say we were going to let them jump down without help. You’re going to help them, with magic.” A smile grew across his face, as if his plan became more and more appealing to him by the second. “Go.” He waved Wraith and the other student off to the tower.

           Reluctantly, they both went to the intact watchtower and pulled the door open. A simple wooden ladder led up to the first floor of the tower. As the ascended, they had to take two more ladders to reach the top floor where the gate controls were.

“What’s your name?” Wraith asked, he thought he’d seen the man before, but wasn’t sure where.

Between his labored breaths climbing the ladders to the top, he gasped out “Jarek. I’m a dular too.”

           Wraith pulled himself to the top floor in view of the large gate winch, with a massive thick iron chain wrapped around it too many times to count. The dying light in the sky peered in through the north and south facing windows at an angle just that there was enough to make out the details of the room. Small, unadorned and stone like just about everything else in the monastery.

           Jarek pulled himself up inside the small enclosure and stretched his arms out. He examined the huge winch and sighed. “Helluva job for two people huh? Lifting a whole gate that is.”

Wraith twisted his neck so that it let out a loud crack and grabbed ahold of the winch handle. “We’re not two people, we’re two dular.”

           Jarek took his place next to Wraith, but before they began raising the gate, the room filled with a warm, orange light followed by the unmistakable whoosh of fire, amplified so loudly it was as if a thousand fires all were lit at once. They both ran to the southern window to witness the most massive column of fire Wraith had ever seen. It looked as if it never ended, reaching endlessly into the sky. The base of the column was larger than most of the buildings in the entire monastery.

           “That’s the signal, raise the gate!” Rysus yelled up at them. They both quickly ran back to the winch and began the arduous task of cranking the gate open. Since it was always meant to be raised with two winches instead of just one, it was far harder than if just one person was on the other side. Just before they thought they weren’t going to get anywhere, the gate began to groan in response and without seeing it Wraith knew that he’d have to keep rolling the doors open.

           As they worked their task, brows soaked in sweat, and hands blistering from slipping against the rough grained wood on the winch handle, Rysus called back up to them, his voice was faint, but audible over the loud groan of the gate. “Hurry! We can’t pull the gates open until the gate is all the way up!”

Wraith and Jarek groaned simultaneously “I was really hoping-” Jarek huffed

           “That we wouldn’t have to go the whole way? I know.” Even though Wraith was bigger than Jarek, he kept up fairly well. They were almost the same height, just that Wraith was a lot broader in his shoulders than Jarek.

           After what felt like an eternity, the winch ground to a halt, as the chain lifting the gate had reached its length. “Hold it.” Wraith huffed out. They both dug their feet into the slippery stone floor as best as they could, only to slip and have to step forward again bracing themselves against the full weight of the gate on their shoulders.

           A minute passed by, and the doors out of the monastery swung open with a slow, loud creak. Then another. The doors creaked back closed, Wraith hadn’t even heard anyone cross to the other side because he was so focused on holding the gate open for them. A third passed when Rysus finally called up, now from the other side of the gate “We’re across!”

           “When we let go, we do it at the same time otherwise the winch might break your arms, or throw you into the ceiling and break your neck. Or maybe throw you in the floor and break your spine.” Jarek spoke with clarity now, as if he was being bolstered by some otherworldly force.

He began counting

“One.”

“Two.”

“Three!”

           They both jumped back from the wench, just before it started spinning back the opposite way. The chain spun through so quickly that it started glowing hot red. The tower shook as the gate hit the ground. Wraith sprang back to his feet and pulled Jarek up as well. “We need to get to the battlements, I don’t think we have much time.”

           Jarek nodded and they both descended a level to go out onto the wall proper. Peering over the edge Wraith grew dizzy seeing just how far the jump was. He really didn’t trust anyone enough to catch him on his way down, it seemed an impossible task.

           Trust me then. Taria’s voice rung in his head like a bell. Her sincerity washed over him like a blanket, it wasn’t like anything else to be so reassured of someone. He trusted her for no other reason other than her word and how she felt. He never trusted anyone, let alone someone he’d only known for not even a day.

           And take Jarek with you. It’ll be a lot easier to catch one thing instead of two. Without word or explanation, Wraith pulled Jarek into a tight hug, and lifted them both onto the raised edge of the wall.

           “What’re you do-” Wraith cut Jarek off by throwing them both from the battlement, headfirst, towards the ground. The unusual feeling of brief weightlessness gripped him, so that he let out a nervous laugh.

           Jarek, who was not nearly as amused, seemed too terrified to do anything except open his mouth to scream when nothing came out, in the most ridiculous and frightened expression he could muster.

           In the approach to the ground, they slowed instead of speeding up so that before they reached five feet from the ground they were nearly suspended motionless in the air. Wraith did his best to make himself upright by shifting about his legs and shoulders. Not before long they both landed on the ground with a heavy thud. Lifting himself upright again, he felt far more tired than even after raising the gate, like he hadn’t slept for a full day.

Sorry, I was pretty sure I was the only person here with the knowhow to catch you both. You might feel weak for a little while.

It’s fine, we’re alive.

Jarek got up and pointed an accusatory finger at Wraith. “You could’ve at least told me you were going to gamble both our lives instead of just doing it!”

           Wraith smiled, standing to his feet, tentatively checking his strength. “I figured it’d be easier to get out of the arguing and just send us on our way. Seemed like the most logical option.”

“You’re a right bastard…” he paused for a moment “what was your name?”

Wraith bowed his torso and waved his hand about in a showy, over-the-top manor “Wraith, I’ll gladly throw you from a building any day.”

           Jarek couldn’t help but smile at him. Before he could come up with a retort, Rysus directed everyone back towards the forest. “We need to get moving. They can only buy us so much time.”

           The clashing of arms was audible now. The strangest thing Wraith noticed was that there was no screaming, just the sound of metal against metal and the occasional crash when some spell, or person, was flung with great force. Flashes of various colors lit the tree line so that the shadows of the broken wall and changing colors created a phantasmal, surreal dance of an unnatural origin.

           They quickly covered half the distance to the tree line when Taria stopped, planted her feet and uttered a wordless gasp. The group shifted to face her and slowed to a near stop, expecting some revelation. “The tower.” She pointed back at the broken watchtower that was now nearly out of sight.

           Wraith felt her concern wash over him like a storm. He realized why she seemed so frightened. “The tower. If the trebuchets from the south had been the ones to destroy it, the rubble would be on this side of the wall.”

Rysus’ face changed from confused and annoyed, to one of fear and understanding. “Shite. The western forest, RUN!”

           Chaos ensued. Everyone broke left and made a mad break for the tree line. In the panic, everyone failed to hear the horrifying hiss of a volley of arrows rising out of the dark forest towards them. Realizing what was coming, Wraith threw his sword and shield to the ground and pulled Taria towards him, driving them both to the ground, just to have several arrows implant themselves in the earth where she was previously standing. Another shattered against his shoulder plate that he had strapped haphazardly to his torso, and a second embedded itself in his shoulder.

He groaned in pain, and rolled off of Taria who let her worry stream into his head. This time Wraith actively pushed against her feelings.

We can’t worry. We have to keep going.

But-

Don’t, we need to run.

           He rose from the ground, trying to ignore the burning pain in his shoulder and instead picked his sword and shield off the ground and continued onwards. It seemed the volley of arrows was just a signal to the rest of their force.

           It was as if the forest to the north morphed and spat out gray, horned figures, now lit periodically by the flashes of magic from where the dulaaren were still engaged with the forces to the south. As they closed in on their group, a small opening in the east where they had been running to was the only conceivable path of escape, with just a few figures spread out making their advance towards them.

           Wraith examined the group for survivors from the volley. He was saddened to see a few had been struck dead, arrow shafts protruding from their hearts and skulls. Rysus took an arrow in his shoulder as well, nearly in the same place where Wraith had, and instead snapped off the arrow shaft and stretched as if testing his might.

           “Leave the dead and make a break for the cover in the forest. Someone has to make it to Duridiin to warn them.” He raised his sword in a grand gesture and pointed towards the opening in the east. The rest of the figures were quickly approaching, so everyone, now battered but able, ran for freedom.

           It didn’t take long for the first few soldiers to meet with the front of the group of runaways. The few knights left standing engaged those first few soldiers, only to have more step forward. A couple of older students clashed with a group of five more and a bull of a man who Wraith recognized as the head cook hacked with a huge two handed axe at one of the monsters, taking its head clean off. A fountain of black blood shot up just as three more set upon the cook, who retreated a few steps backwards only to trip on the lifeless body of a student. Before he even hit the ground one of the soldiers carrying a huge spear drove it right through the cook’s chest, planting the end of it into the ground, suspending the cook mid fall. The other two soldiers began to cut him to pieces with large curved blades.

           His sense of urgency intensified, they were becoming surrounded. It was as if the night was closing in on them, and there was little they could do to stop it. The group huddled closer together only to find that those on the outside were either picked off or peeled off to cover for the rest of them. Another wave of soldiers cut off both Wraith and Taria along with a few others from the main body of the group, where they found themselves not even fifty feet from the shelter of the forest, unable to reach it.

           Three menacing armor clad men bore down on them, encircling the small group. Wraith realized he was the only person in the group armed, taking notice that Jarek and who he assumed was his duli had broken off with them. The rest of everyone filtered into the forest, with many of the soldiers giving chase.

You need to take the others and run, I can distract them and you can get out

I could cast a spell, something to keep them off us long enough-

No. I know my limits and you don’t. The spell is as likely to kill me as it is to save me. Don’t waste what little time we have. GO.

           Taria took note of his tone, and his genuine concern for the rest of them. Another three people alongside her, and Jarek and his duli. “Come on!” she yelled aloud, nearly everyone took her signal and followed without question except for Jarek, who looked reluctantly at Wraith. Wraith dipped his chin at him “Protect her.” And shoved him back towards the others, now making a mad break for the forest.

           The soldier closest to them carrying a large, jagged looking broad sword made a move to strike out at them, only for Wraith to leap forward and bat the sword out of the way with his shield. Though he’d never been in any real combat, all the time fighting against the quartermaster and other students taught him enough to know that as long as he had his shield, he could take control of the fight against any opponent with a blade.

           The soldier turned his metal face as if in a mock expression of surprise, and attempted to recover and strike back at Wraith. His overhead swing seemed clumsy and slow to Wraith so that he simply swept it out of the way, and took his sword pommel and bashed it against his opponent’s forehead.

           Dazed, he stumbled and fell to the ground. The sound had alerted his fellow aspirants to Wraith, and they turned their attention towards him. They took sidesteps, sizing him up as if planning without words how to attack. Though they uttered no words, Wraith guessed at their intentions knowing that they seemed to have no intention of letting him go. He’d never killed a man, but he certainly was not about to let these monsters get away with the murdering so many innocent people.

           His opponent closest to his shield arm carried a massive war hammer that looked so unwieldy and cumbersome that no normal man could even wield it. His shield would do no good against the force of a swing from that. His second foe carried a longsword and a bow and quiver strung to his back.

           Those few moments felt like hours until the heat of battle took hold, and the soldier with the hammer swung directly overhead towards Wraith. He made split second decision instead of leaping at his readied enemy, to sidestep to his left, out of the way of the hammer and towards the one wielding it. Wraith attempted to draw his sword to the soldier’s neck for a killing blow, only to have the sword cross guard catch onto the soldier’s shoulder spike.

           This bought him enough time to recover from swinging the hammer and instead let him free a hand from his hammer so that he could tear the sword directly from Wraith’s grasp.

           Wraith hiked his leg up in response and drew his knife from his boot. He drove the knife into the soldier’s knee, slightly crippling him and bringing him to a knee. When he tried to draw it back out, the blade snapped off leaving him with just the handle.

Panic ensued.

 

Wraith took his free hand and grabbed at the only weapon left available to him.

 

The hammer.

 

           It didn’t take much effort to rip it from his adversary’s grip. It was far lighter than it seemed it should be, so that he could nearly lift it with only his right hand. The haft of the hammer felt like smooth polished wood with periodic rivets at equal spaces, accommodating his fingers and making his grip on the weapon both comfortable and firm.

           Wraith seized the opportunity and shoved his knee into the soldier’s back as hard as he could, propelling him face forward onto the ground almost five feet from him. He cast his shield to the ground and took hold of his new weapon outright. Finally a weapon that was equal to his hulking size.

           He leapt forward, stabbing the hammer’s head straight down with the force of his weight into the soldier’s chest. A horrible series of cracking and metal scraping noises preceded an ooze of dark blood from below his opponent. The first man he’d ever killed.

No time to contemplate the complexities of the situation.

           Wraith turned just in time to see the archer rushing at him, brandishing his sword about in the air. Before he even got the chance to reach him, he let his hands loosen so that he was holding the very end of the hammer with both hands. Now that the end of the haft was resting at his left hip, he pivoted with all of his strength so that the hammer swung up to meet the archer’s path as he rushed towards Wraith.

           The hammer caught him in the ribs with such force he nearly folded in half with his shoulder touching his outer thigh. He was sent flying back towards the monastery ruins. Before he could track the full flight path of the ill-fated soldier, a sharp pain racked his body forward, only to be dragged backwards to the ground by none other than the first soldier he had incapacitated.

           Wraith struggled to stifle his yell, and instead channeled his anger. At the thought of those lost in the monastery. At the thought of his home being torn from him. Even at the thought of losing the chance to ever learn or grow to know Taria, who he was now so bonded to that they could not exist without each other. He wrestled free of the grip by planting his hammer in between his legs and using it to leverage himself back to a standing position, the soldier still clinging to his back, realizing that the pain came from a dagger being jabbed into his other, uninjured shoulder.

           Both of his arms felt weak now with the added pain of both his wound from the arrow and the newfound dagger wound, so he instead jerked his head back, slamming it into the soldiers’ helmet. The force alone was enough to knock him free, letting Wraith gain the time to spin around, whipping the hammer about like a log ready to toss, so that the head of the hammer sent his attacker flying the same direction as the other he had folded away.

           He could feel himself getting exhausted, between the blood loss from his wounds, fighting off the three soldiers, and Taria using him to slow his and Jarek’s otherwise deadly descent from the wall. Sweat was dripping off his hair into his eyes so that they smarted, and his legs seemed to scream in protest at the very thought of going the short distance into the relative safety of the forest.

           His respite was short lived, as he cleared his eyes of sweat and tears, he looked up to find himself facing another five soldiers, who reluctantly approached him as they had apparently taken notice of the crushed body of one of their comrades.

           Wraith puffed his chest and took hold of his hammer. There was no running in his condition. He had to stand his ground and fight, or die trying. Two of them began their cautious advance, only to have Wraith leap forward, wildly swinging his hammer in an attempt to buy the others, and himself, more time.

Chapter Three