We lived in Vers just long enough to grow comfortable. Then, Evanor stood at the town center one morning and called us to attention. The Besherman had finalized their plan. We would march for the Grid and begin assembling our able-bodied fighters with their own.
Leaving our new settlement was painful for me. It had become a symbol of stability in an unstable time. We left the elderly and a group of young men and women that could defend them, or at least help them evacuate if the Yunai showed up, but the Besherman assured us the Yunai would ignore Vers when they arrived. They would go straight for the Grid. That was why we had to move. We packed up all of our weapons, including our magical armaments, and started out for the massive rectangular mountains that loomed on the horizon.
While we were allied with the Besherman, I would not say that we were eager to fight together. We marched in separate groups, avoiding contact altogether when able. I knew Appoleon had grown into a brave man, but I still felt very much like an inexperienced child during this march. I lowered my gaze when people met my eyes, and I shied away from conversation with others.
When I finally laid eyes on the Grid up close, I knew that there were mysteries to our home that I would never fully understand. What we had assumed were mountains were really just enormous structures, black buildings that housed millions of computational devices, like a datacenter the size of a small city. At the base of these buildings was a Besherman city, which they called Kennis.
The city was our first real taste of the difference between our technologies. The buildings in Kennis were build of stone, mortar, bricks, wood, and glass. They were flawless in their design, and they stood with reinforced walls that would keep them safe in any kind of weather. There were lights that were powered by a magical energy that the Besherman called electricity, and the people that lived here ate baked goods that came out metal boxes called ovens, which seemed to function as kilns… but for food.
“This is… astonishing,” Appoleon commented as he watched a family walking down the street, looking warily at our troops, marching with staves, blades, and crossbows. We must have looked so incredibly out of place to them, and the trepidation we caused them was obvious. “To think this world existed here, on top of us, this whole time.”
One of the folks up ahead signaled for us to stop. We did so without question. We were on some kind of cobblestone street, with buildings on either side. We marched ten wide and dozens back. At the lead, I saw a man taking his place near a podium like the one the Besherman had brought to Vers for their townhall discussions. This man was large, and he wore a thick uniform that looked like it had been created by some kind of advanced machinery.
“Welcome, citizens of Azirin,” the man announced. “My name is Taanach. I serve as the Commanding General of the Besherman Army. I wish we were meeting under better circumstances, but I am glad to have your aid as we prepare for our defense of the Grid. This city, currently being evacuated, is where we’ll make our first stand against the coming Yunai army.”
“What?” Appoleon whispered. “First stand?”
“We believe our air support can suppress the enemy advance enough that it will have to make its push to the Grid on foot. The Yunai monstrosities are built for air superiority. When you ground the creatures, they become easier to attack. We have analyzed all of the data your commanders gave us regarding the previous Yunai wars in Azirin, and we have added that to what information we already had from the Grid.”
“Excuse me, General?” Lady Evanor spoke up. “Some of my forces are asking… what do you mean by the first stand against the Yunai?”
Taanach frowned. “We can’t stop the Yunai. Our best engineers have a plan in place, but we need time. We’re currently tracking the approaching Yunai forces, and they will reach us before we are ready. As a result, we’re going to position our troops in fortified areas where we can attempt to slow the enemy advances.”
It was in that moment, hearing those words, that I realized we were likely going to die. I had given thought to death a few times, mostly when thinking about Lady Sonea or Uncle Maron, but rarely had I ever really thought about my own mortality.
“You heard him,” Evanor shouted as the Taanach looked onward. “We’re building defenses. Let’s make this happen.”
“We’re leaving you with weapons, supplies, and as much as we can to help you hold against these foes,” Taanach added. “I will stand with you here. We fight until the city is taken, and then we retreat to the second point where we can fortify and engage the enemy again. When the final pieces fall into place, we will enact our counterassault, and hopefully, we’ll put a stop to these fiends.”
The civilians of Kennis were shuttled away, off in a direction we hadn’t traveled, and I wished them luck as they departed. Meanwhile, the survivors of our world went to work doing what we knew best. Our magic users helped the machinists and engineers build weapons and ammunition with aethereal magic, having figured out how to manipulate and control the metals thanks to the master craftsmen of this realm. Those that were too weak to fight were chosen to head up medical triage and other communication channels, which would help us coordinate our defenses.
Appoleon developed a layout that would funnel the Yunai forces into a single area where they could be easily assaulted with arrows, bullets, and magic. Another bottleneck would allow the dazed forces to push through where hundreds of swords would be waiting to strike them down. The city was built with a large main road that cut straight through to the Grid. There was no reason to assume the Yunai wouldn’t want to claim that path.
Even with all of this, we seemed unprepared. The troop morale was shattered, not just by the Yunai, but the sheer feeling of being so far out of place here. We used foreign weapons in a foreign land. There was so much concern that we’d simply gone too far, pushed against our fate until we no longer belonged.
Then, Appoleon revealed one more surprise.
He had allowed the Besherman to study his crystal blade, and they had worked with Angus to discover the secret magic of the aether that would allow them to harness the power of the crystals to forge new weapons. They unveiled a cart and cracked open delicate cases to reveal dozens of new crystal blades. Then, as a final boon to our prospects, the machinists revealed they too had harnessed the power to create powerful crystal bullets.
Suddenly, a second wind came over us all. We had a chance. These weapons were all we’d had in the old world, and we had pushed back our foes multiple times. Now we suddenly had an arsenal at our disposal, and the enemy wouldn’t know it. We had an advantage!
We worked tirelessly. Our survivors were divided into several groups, each given shifts where they could work, then rest, then work again. We did not know how long we would have, so we did not stop our efforts.
In the end, it was five days before the Yunai arrived at the edge of Kennis, but we had used the time with great efficiency. When we saw their first wave of forces we dared to think that we could do this. We could fight them off and hold the city. The others would be so proud of us. We could prove our worth in this new realm and return to Vers as heroes.
Then the second wave emerged from the forest, lining up behind the first.
Then, the third. Fourth. Fifth.
It was like an endless sea of forces were approaching. Their forms ranged from small animals to large mechanical creations. There were humanoids, wildlife, and everything in between. The flesh and bone creatures of both Azirin and this new land, forcibly controlled by Yunai spirits, took up the front line. The mechanical army stood behind. They were cowards on top of everything else, using those they controlled as fodder before facing us directly. It made us angry… urged us forward.
“Use regular ammunition against the mortals,” Appoleon called out, sending the communication down the lines. “Save all of our crystal weapons for the real fight.”
I rushed to my position for the attack, but before I got two steps I was grabbed by the arm. The force of the grab spun me around and I saw Appoleon standing before me, his armor gleaming from a fresh polish. I almost laughed. Why had he polished his armor right before this mess? He looked… regal.
“We are going to die here,” he said to me, his voice firm as he answered my unasked question. “I want to die in something nice.”
I would have laughed if I hadn’t believed him.
“Stay strong, Sepher,” he added. “We can win this.”
I didn’t believe him, but I nodded all the same.
I stood atop one of the rickety towers we had constructed in haste at the edge of the city. I had a good vantage of the enemy forces here, and it was easy to fall back to the more protective structures of the city once the enemy advanced. We had spent a great deal of effort putting up pikes to help funnel the enemy, but we knew that would only work on the organic forces. We hoped logic would dictate the metal monsters that would follow.
Despite our preparations, seeing the enemy shook me. It was like I was staring at death. Innocents under enemy control, their jailers standing behind them, ready to slaughter us all for some unspoken goal.
“Katra zil shukil,” one of the large Yunai shouted. His voice echoed all the way to us.
Then, the enemy charged.
I can’t explain to you, even begin to explain, how confusing and terrifying it was to watch an enemy behave in completely unexpected behavior. The Yunai minions didn’t bother to move around the pikes. They walked right into them, impaling themselves upon them. The forces behind those practically charged forward, pushing the first victims hard against the pike and killing them in the process too. Animals, people, all of them were forced to rush to their own deaths until their corpses clogged all of our defenses. Right behind them, the Yunai themselves marched, stepping over the dead like they were nothing.
They marched so quickly that we simply didn’t know how to respond. Our archers and marksmen fired their first volley into the enemy and we followed suit with magic. We made a dent in their numbers in the same way that a rock puts a dent in the surface of a river. With a ripple, our victims fell and were trampled over by twice as many replacements. The call was made for the ammunition to change, and that was when we made our first real show of force.
The crystal bullets ripped through the mechanical monsters, several of them hitting vital components that caused the machines to collapse or power down. The enemy halted. For a brief moment, it was like they had to stop and recalculate their plan. It lasted only a moment, and then the enemy continued its advance again. We continued to fire, and the enemy continued to fall, but for ever ten we defeated, eleven more marched forward.
We called the first retreat, abandoning our wooden fortifications and setting them on fire as we retreated into the city streets. The Yunai began to filter through, not in an organized line, but scattering out, like they all had different plans and no intention of working in a group. They were quickly overtaking our defensive points, and several marksmen were cut off before they could escape.
Then, there was a blinding flash from where Appoleon had been. I saw him rushing forward, his crystal blade in hand and his his shining armor. “Taste my wrath!” he shouted as he closed in on the Yunai. I couldn’t believe his foolish behavior. He wouldn’t last against the machines for a minute.
Golden lightning exploded from his weapon. It struck out in a line, ripping across the city street and hitting no less than five Yunai. The power of the lighting ripped through the machines, causing them to smoke, spark, and sizzle. Any organic creatures caught in the line were simply… vaporized. Behind him, ten more soldiers appeared, each of them holding a blade of their own, and within seconds they too had struck out magical energy that devastated the enemy forces.
Feeling bolstered by Appoleon’s show of force, I held my hands forward and thought of all the things that made me hate these monsters. The fall of Udiria, the death of Lady Sonea, the loss of everything I cared about… it bubbled up inside and sparked the magical energies within me. I focused that energy in the mass of enemy forces that hadn’t started their advance yet. It was suddenly clear that we had more firepower than I had assumed, those blades were different. So I was going to focus on those that had yet to attack. It was time to earn my title as a Flamecaller.
Fire. Blazing hot blasts of fire erupted. The Yunai were caught in the explosions while I unleashed every ounce of energy I had within me. The destructive power of the blasts set the enemy into a frenzy, some of them deciding to advance while others sought protection in the forest. Just like that, their line had broken.
I didn’t relent. I pushed harder. I released everything I had. I felt my clothes beginning to smolder as my body became a conduit for fire magic. I relished it. I saw their bodies, embodied in heat, their protective armor didn’t melt, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t cooking their internal components. The other magic users followed my lead. Some of them used magic to chill the air, freezing the area around the Yunai until their gears froze in place, halting their advance.
Appoleon’s group, seeing their enemy frozen in place, blasted them with magical lighting, ripping them to shreds with the power that was being channeled through the blades.
The Yunai showed no emotion, but we had to be having an impact. Appoleon had just cut through a hundred of the creatures, and we were ready for more. We held our line. We fought with everything we had, and then, the Yunai did something I did not expect.
Their back line fired mortars into the air, and they exploded with a kind of purple haze that showered down over us. I thought for a moment it might be some kind of poison attack, but then I felt the aether retreating from my body. The flames I controlled just moments before flickered out, and I froze with fear.
“Nullification dust!” I shouted. “Our magic is gone!”
Appoleon’s blade no longer erupted with lightning, but he still had a crystal blade, and he used it to cut down two Yunai before ordering a full retreat.
I tried to teleport, but it was worthless. The nullification dust wouldn’t allow us to touch the aether.
“Sionis!” I heard Appoleon shout as he rushed over. “Surfal is just up the road. Go now!”
“You can’t stay here!” I shouted. “We need that magical lightning as much as we need my fire.”
“We hold the line,” Appoleon shouted. “Go, Sionis!”
“Sionis, I’ve never felt so sure about anything as I do right now. I will see this done. Go!”
My horse, Surfal, had already pulled itself free up ahead and started running over to me. I nodded to Appoleon and quickly mounted my steed. “All magic users! Fall back!”
I pulled on Surfal’s reins. We rushed away with the other riders, making our way up the incline of the city road that would lead us closer to the Grid. Looking behind me, I saw the sheer numbers of the Yunai army stretching back into the forest. I felt a crushing wave of hopelessness filling my heart. I didn’t understand how we could win this.
Not far away, we reached the first trap, a deep pit that the Besherman had dug out. I imagined the pit would hold about twenty of them before the other Yunai would simply walk over the victims as though the pit didn’t exist.
I heard screams from where we’d traveled and looked back to see, but all there as to see at this distance was a squirming mass of enemy forces pushing ever forward, while the city of Kennis began to burn. I felt such a great sorrow for the damage that was unfolding, the loss of life…
What could the Yunai possibly have to gain from all of this?
I pushed the thoughts down and rode further up the road until I felt the tingle of magical energy returning to my body. I quickly connected with the aether and pushed away my exhaustion and aches. We were far enough away to use magic again, and we could see the next holding point up ahead. We would position ourselves and be ready for them.
I thought of the General’s words as we rode. We couldn’t stop them… only slow them.
I hoped it would be enough.