My feet crunched through the snow as I half-jogged along the hastily dug trench, my eyes taking in each villager as I passed. They were a hodgepodge group of people, and few had much experience in battle, but they were determined and desperate. I offered reassuring smiles to some and nods of affirmation to others. I doubted half of them would survive the coming encounter, but I couldn’t let them know that. I had to believe in them.
I reached the end of the trench and crouched down next to a young villager. He looked at me with a somberness I greatly admired. Young and determined, but understanding. He had already survived a battle against the Skull Spiders, and I suspected he would survive many more.
“Have you seen anything yet, Matoro?” I asked, staring out over the snowy field before us.
Matoro shook his head. “Nothing yet. I don’t think it will be long, though.”
I looked down at my ice blaster. “I don’t either.”
He was silent for a moment, and then asked, “What do you think our chances are?”
I looked out over the field again, unwilling to answer. He turned to look at me, obviously understanding.
“I was afraid of that,” he muttered.
I patted his shoulder. “Don’t lose faith, young one. This will all turn out right in the end.”
Without waiting to see his reaction, I started back along the trench. Truth was, I didn’t believe that myself, but I had long ago discovered the importance of appearances. My position as Protector required tact and the appearance of optimism, regardless if I possessed either.
“Protector Nuju!” someone whispered harshly.
I stopped and crouched, looking first in the direction I was moving and then back the way I had come. A woman was gesturing impatiently for me to come to her position. I shuffled back toward her.
“What is it?” I asked, following her fearful stare.
She lifted a quivering finger. “Do you see them?”
I eased out of my crouch and squinted. The air seemed to go still.
The white snow in the field began to disappear under a rolling mass of dark gray. From where we stood, it initially looked like a low-lying storm cloud creeping across the ground, but as it moved closer, the individual Skull Spiders began to take shape. Their spindly legs could be seen bobbing up and down, carrying the creatures ever closer to our position. And there were a lot of them.
I straightened and looked down the trench in both directions. Everyone had seen them now. I could see the fear roll through the ranks.
“Villagers!” I called out. “Ready yourselves to protect your home!”
Trepid glances were exchanged.
“Ready your blasters!”
A moment of hesitation, and then the villagers began to stand. Not all had blasters, but those who did aimed them at the approaching Skull Spiders.
“Fire on my mark!”
I hefted my own blaster. It was a slightly more advanced version that was reserved for each tribe’s Protector, not so much because it was a symbol of rank as it was because they were more difficult to make. These more advanced versions were capable of select fire and could be worked to accommodate many different configurations. I preferred mine to be simple. A grip and trigger on the top so the weapon could be held underhand. Fully automatic fire. It was a useful weapon against our enemy.
As I held my finger over the trigger, I thought of my son.
We cannot fail.
I could hear the creatures more distinctly now. I took a deep breath. It was time.
Several dozen ice blasters split the still air with rapid retorts as we opened fire. The villagers’ semiautomatic weapons formed a staccato cacophony, my own blaster’s rapid fire joining in the discordance. The ice bullets fell among the Skull Spiders with obvious results, one good thing about fighting such a large group of the creatures. It was not uncommon in these situations for one bullet to kill two or more creatures, either because they were explosive variants or because the angle of fire allowed for multiple penetrations.
I had come to realize that when fighting with inexperienced villagers in these situations, it was far too easy for them to become prematurely excited. They saw the masses of spiders falling under our onslaught and immediately thought our victory was inevitable. I had seen enough to know that wasn’t the case.
The recoil from my weapon suddenly stopped and I heard a series of clicks. I let off the trigger and thumbed the cylinder release, using my right hand to pull the spent cylinder out. I flung it backward with a cry of “Reload!” and pulled a loaded cylinder from the pack on my back. I shoved the cylinder in the front of my blaster and twisted it once clockwise, locking it into place. I then resumed shooting.
The excitement from the villagers began to die down as they realized what I already knew; however many Skull Spiders had already been killed, many more were coming to take their places. The distance between the Skull Spiders’ front line and our trench was shortening by the second, and I knew that within another minute or two, they would be on top of us.
Not even I had expected them to approach that quickly.
“Prepare for retreat!” I called out.
A villager to my right flicked me a panicked look. “Already?”
“Just keep shooting!”
My second cylinder was emptied, and I repeated the reload process. We couldn’t wait any longer.
“Retreat to the second line!” I cried, jumping out of the trench. I repeated the cry several times, until at last the order sank in. Villagers began clambering out of the trench, and most started for the second line with their backs to the enemies. Some didn’t even take the time to stand up; they crawled on all fours.
“Keep shooting!” I shouted, running along the ranks. I yanked some off the ground and I grabbed others shoulders to force them around. “Keep shooting! Retreat, but keep shooting!”
Some didn’t listen, and those who did looked absolutely terrified. A few more experienced villagers, Matoro included, encouraged the others along.
We were halfway to the second line when the Skull Spiders reached the first trench. They never stopped moving. They just briefly disappeared and then reemerged. We kept firing, though I could tell many were already running out of ammunition.
“Cease fire! Get to the second trench!”
I held the trigger down long enough to fire off the last few shots and then turned and ran. It took only a few seconds to reach the second trench, where more villagers awaited. They had been responsible for collecting the discarded cylinders and reloading them. The other villagers could collect whichever cylinders were closest, but I had to seek out Torna, who was both my wife and the villager responsible for my ammunition cylinders.
“Nuju, over here!”
It took me a moment to pick her out, but she was already moving toward me. She held a pack with my two extra cylinders in her left hand and another cylinder in her right. I did not waste time with words; I released the cylinder in my weapon and let it fall to the ground. As she loaded the cylinder in her right hand into my weapon, I swung my pack off my back and dropped it next to her, taking the pack in her left hand. It was system we had perfected long ago—simple, but effective.
She snatched up the pack I dropped and the spent cylinder. Before she left, she leaned in and kissed me.
“Be safe,” she said, a familiar expression of worry on her face.
I smiled as well as I could in the situation and touched her face. “Always. Now go.”
She nodded and joined the other loaders in their retreat to the third line. I turned my attention back to the battle.
We spent less time at the second line than we did at the first, and it wasn’t long before we were once again retreating. The spiders were close enough now to attack, and we lost several villagers as we sprinted for the third line.
Unlike the first and second lines, the third line was not a trench. It couldn’t even really be considered a line. It was just a collection of rocks and boulders. It was really a poor environment in which to fight the Skull Spiders, who were capable of attacking from many different angles in such an area, but we had little choice. It was either the Cold Stones or the village, and that was unacceptable.
Once among the rocks, I pulled my Ice Saw off my back, pulled the handle out, and locked it. I gave it a few spins to make sure it was working and then turned to face the spiders.
I switched my ice blaster to a lower rate of fire and began shooting. The spiders, uncaring, continued forward. They began jumping into the rocks, some with the intention of climbing on the rocks themselves, and others with the intention of killing or enslaving. I used my saw to great effect, warding off spider after spider as I slowly worked my way backward through the rocks. My attention was wholly occupied by the enemy. I occasionally crossed paths with another villager, but the spiders always seemed to separate us. I knew better than anyone that fighting the creatures alone was dangerous, but I never could seem to stay near anyone.
This briefly changed when I crossed paths with Matoro.
“We’re losing a lot,” he observed, fighting with an ax and a spiked shield.
I could tell he was as tired as I was. “I know. But we can’t—ugh!—we can’t stop fighting.” I stepped forward and intercepted a spider lunging at Matora from behind. “We’ll defeat them soon enough.”
We had no further conversation as we focused on fighting. The spiders came from all angles, jumping and snarling with reckless abandon. Their sole purpose was to kill or enslave, and they didn’t care how many of their fellow creatures died in that endeavor. Eventually, a third villager appeared. I could not recall her name, but she was as young as Matoro and just as capable a fighter. Together, we fought the spiders for at least half an hour. During that period of time, the number of Skull Spiders slowly diminished, until at last we could hear only faint and sporadic sounds of fighting.
For a long moment, the three of us stood still, breathing heavily.
“You think that’s it?” Matoro rasped.
“We can hope,” the girl wheezed.
I swallowed hard and said, “Move to the southern edge of the Cold Stones and then circle back to the northern edge. Anyone you find, you tell to head north. Spread out and find as many as you can. We’ll meet at the northern edge and see just how great our losses are.”
The two nodded and started south, Matoro angling one way and the girl angling the other. I headed more directly south, though I zig-zagged through the rocks. A lump began to form in my throat as I came across more dead bodies than live villagers. The few lives one I did find were wounded in some form. By the time I stepped out of the rocks to the north, I knew the news would be terrible.
I looked to my right and my left. Matoro had already emerged with half a dozen villagers. I myself had come across eight, one of whom was too wounded to walk of his own accord. The girl emerged about a minute later, with three behind her.
My heart sank. Twenty villagers out of the eighty we had started out with.
I stood there, my hands on my hips, my eyes closed. How many times would we go through this?
As many times as we must.
A villager near me cleared his throat. “Protector Nuju? There’s a villager from the water tribe coming through the rocks.”
I opened my eyes and turned around. I didn’t see him at first, but he reappeared a second later from behind a rock. He didn’t seem at all surprised at the countless bodies of Skull Spiders lying around.
As he approached, he nodded at me grimly. “Protector Nuju. I would like to say that it’s good to see you, but under the circumstances…”
“I assume things are not going well?” I asked, not at all in the mood for unnecessary conversation.
He didn’t seem to be, either. “No, they aren’t. In fact…” He looked around at the wounded villagers. “I’ve just seen a similar sight in the Region of Stone. And at home.”
I knew where this was going. “I assume, then, that that is why you are here.”
He nodded. “Protector Nokama has called for a meeting of the Protectors.”
Matoro approached from my left, shaking his head. “We need him here right now. They could come back any day.”
The villager of water looked at Matoro. “That’s true in every region at all times.” He looked back at me. “I know you probably don’t want to leave right now, but Nokama insists that this meeting is necessary.”
I felt hollow inside. I knew what would come up. I knew what would be discussed. I didn’t want to go, I truly didn’t, but…
“I—” That single syllable caught in my throat, and I had to swallow the lump that had formed. “I know. And… and she is right. Where is the meeting to take place?”
“The Village of Stone. They appear to have suffered the least in recent attacks, so she figured that would be the safest location.”
“Very well. Tell her I shall arrive as soon as I can.”
The villager nodded. “I should like to rest for a time, and then I will be on my way.”
“Right. Ah, Matoro, find him something to eat and drink.”
“Understood,” he replied, running off.
“As for the rest of you: if you are not terribly wounded, help those who are back to the village and then return here. We must retrieve the bodies of the dead so that we may bury them. Enlist what help you can.”
The villagers began to move, but I stayed where I was, immobilized by thoughts of what was to come. It was some time before I became aware of the world around me, and then it was only because Torna was shaking my shoulder.
I blinked twice and shifted my attention to her. I pulled her into a hug, relieved that she was safe. We stood like that for several seconds, but she must have sensed the tension in my body because she pulled away to look me in the eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I couldn’t meet her gaze. I stared at her neck and rubbed her shoulders with my thumbs.
“Nokama has called a meeting of the Protectors to discuss…” My eyes flicked up to hers. It was a brief movement, but it was enough to see the fear and despair.
“No…” she whispered.
I shut my eyes and nodded. “I think… I think they will all agree this time.” My jaw tensed.
“And what about you?” she asked, her voice quivering.
I didn’t answer.
“Nuju!” she breathed, trying to step away. I kept a firm grip on her shoulders, my eyes still closed.
“Look around you, Torna,” I said quietly. “We may not have a choice.”
She wanted to protest—I could feel it in the quivering of her muscles—but she did not speak. She understood as well as I did. She pushed in close to me, letting me wrap my arms around her.
“Oh, Nuju… I couldn’t live with it.”
“I know,” I whispered, trying to think of words of comfort and coming up with nothing. “I know.”
Edited by (Daedalus), Apr 24 2015 - 11:52 AM.