The sky split with a flash of amethyst lightning as the ground shattered. Lidria stumbled backward, wooden buildings collapsing and sinking in front of her. Her longsword clattered to the cobblestone, impossible to hear over the thunder above and bellowing earth below.
Lidria scrambled to her feet. A sinkhole spanning fifty feet mere inches from her had swallowed a handful of buildings. She peered into the shifting maw and tried to ignore the distant din of battle. Far below, she spotted organized movement.
Scooping up her sword, Lidria glanced around to get her bearings. The stone wall of the city peeked over the roofs of the still intact buildings on the far side of the sinkhole. Behind her, the wide street cut a path to the eastern barracks. She could run or stay and fight.
Lidria fled toward the garrison. She couldn't survive on her own—not against the coming tide. Her heart pounded. She checked her chainmail armor and found one of the buckles undone. Without slowing her pace, she refastened the clasp.
The earth trembled, and Lidria wavered. The Quela were close now. Allied soldiers appeared down the street, and her spirits buoyed. Lieutenant McCrear barked orders at the head of the gathering masses. His reputation for averting disasters inspired confidence.
“Breaker,” McCrear called above the rumbling earth. “Good to see you didn’t get swallowed by that sinkhole. I’m going to need you on the front.”
Lidria saluted McCrear with her offhand, unable to part with her weapon. “As you wish, Lieutenant. They’re close.” He nodded and turned his attention back to his men.
Lidria turned her back on her fellow soldiers and glanced at her left arm. A swathe of intricate tattoos covered her bare skin, forming a pattern of chains inscribed with potent scrip. Raised scars broke several chains; however, a dozen more remained intact.
“Ready yourselves,” McCrear hollered, drawing his longsword. The mass of soldiers shifted and prepared to march. “Forward!”
Lidria stepped forward, two hundred soldiers moving in unison. The force behind her solidified into a palpable presence, but she feared it wouldn’t be enough. Their enemy could kill several soldiers before falling themselves. Without mentioning their shaman’s terrible magic.
The sinkhole appeared again, but, instead of a barren expanse, a throng of Quela marshalled at the edge. They stood, on average, time and a half taller than a man, with gnarled horns growing ever upward. Thick, matted fur covered their bodies beneath hardened chitinous armor—shock troops.
Lidria surveyed the enemy weapons and her own. The beastmens’ dwarfed hers, but she could—and would—do significant damage. Her grip tightened.
The Quelan shock troops stood tall and crashed their arms against shield and armor. Frightened murmurs arose behind Lidria, but such brutish displays no longer phased her. She continued forward, outpacing her fellow man.
Lidria’s eyes wandered to her left. McCrear remained at the head of the column, not content to let his men do all the work. With a man like him at her side, they might survive. She turned her attention back on their enemies, a small grin tugging at the corner of her lips.
A Quelan near the heart of the pack raised its head high and snarled a guttural bellow. Tiny bells affixed to its horns tinkled in the invisible flow of magic. Lidria shot a glance at McCrear, acknowledged his shallow nod, and sprang into action.
The front rank of Quela jerked back. Their weapons came down a second later, forming a patchwork wall of blades. One of the Quela let out what Lidria interpreted as a laugh as she approached. She ignored the mockery, and her right arm fell in a wide arc.
Feet before she hit the ranks, Lidria swept steel across her body. Weapons shattered. Grunts of surprise emanated from the beasts, and they took a collective step back. She continued, ignoring the weaponless troops.
Lidria pulled her weapon back and close to her chest. The shaman in the center of the herd lowered its head, staring her straight in the eye. Her heart skipped a beat, and she thrust forward. To her surprise, nothing stopped her.
Piercing the caster’s chitinous armor, Lidria buried her blade to the hilt. The Quelan made no sound. She stared at the creature as its life faded away, baffled by its lack of self-preservation. A quick yank freed her sword, and she danced away before its comrades could collapse upon her.
Amethyst lightning streaked down from the sky, crashing into the fallen shaman. The impact knocked Lidria back. She bounced off an immense figure and tumbled toward the lightning strike. She managed to stop as the mangled corpse rose.
The reanimated Quelan staggered forward, limbs bent and movement wooden. Lidria swung at the creature’s neck. An alien appendage burst forth from the Quelan’s shoulder, catching her swing in bloated flesh. She tried to retract her blow, fruitless in her effort.
Lidria closed her left eye and focused. A stitch of magic slithered through her arm, sending chills down her spine. One of the chains on her tattoo sleeve snapped with a sharp tingling sensation. Strength coursed through her, and she tugged. Blood flew, sliding free.
Screeching, the shaman recoiled and lowered its horned head. The beast charged Lidria as she backpedaled. Horns came close, but they didn’t concern her. A swipe from her long sword knocked them away, yet the abomination kept coming. Three limbs flailed at her.
Lidria hopped away from the shaman’s natural appendages, but the new, monstrous one managed to grab her left arm. The immense pressure left no mark on her flesh or nerves. No pain shot into her body, and her bones didn’t snap. She remained resolute.
The Quelan took the opportunity to move closer. Lidria struggled against the creature’s grip, raising her sword to its throat. Ignoring the threat, her captor pressed on. The tip sank into the Quelan’s soft flesh but drew no reaction of any kind. She stared, dumbfounded.
Lidria withdrew her blade and raised it high. She swung down, severing her captor’s limb at the wrist. The appendage spasmed and spurted black blood while the giant hand remained latched to her arm. She spun and bolted for the edge of the enemy ranks.
To Lidria’s surprise, the beastmen let her pass without incident. Their shattered weapons and shaman behind gave them little incentive. She ran to her allies, and they greeted her with shocked expressions. McCrear glanced her way, but she didn’t pay him any attention.
“Archers,” McCrear shouted. Knocked arrows and drawn bowstrings sounded from the back row of soldiers. “Loose!”
Lidria pivoted. The creatures raised their shields skyward. Arrows pinged off the bulwark, but several met flesh. Three stuck out from the shaman’s body, but the abomination appeared unconcerned. No matter how much punishment it received, nothing seemed to slow it down.
A second volley sailed overhead; however, the tide moved forward. Somehow, fewer arrows found their marks. Soldiers behind Lidria lowered their spears and made ready. A sergeant called for her to fall back, and she followed their suggestion.
Quela crashed into the defensive line. The ranks gave, sagging, and human and Quelan cries mixed into an ear-splitting cacophony. Lidria pushed back. Her comrades needed aid, and she lent her strength with gusto.
Lidria spun around a fellow soldier as he flew back from a Quelan. Using the momentum, she whipped her sword around. She struck at shoulder-height, slamming into its torso. Sparks flew from the strike of metal on metal.
Armor plates squeaked and gave way. Blood gushed from the gash as the blade continued slicing through flesh and bone. The Quelan cried in pain, but a soldier’s spear silenced the beast. He lanced its skull before the creature crumpled to the ground, bisected.
Lidria glanced at the man. A self-satisfied grin quirked his face, which she tried to ignore. She had taken care of the issue; he didn’t need to intervene. In his defense, few common soldiers ever experienced a breaker in action.
Placing a hand on the man’s back, Lidria shoved him forward to plug the gap in the line. He let out a surprised noise. A small grin curled her lips, but she didn’t dwell on her amusement. The front row began to crumble.
McCrear cut through a weaponless beast, carving his way across the forward line. A giant spiked club clobbered a soldier beside him. He slid in to fill the opening and hacked at his opponent’s wrist. The monster showed no reaction.
Lidria rushed forward as another Quelan lunged at McCrear with a crude spear. He dodged, but the club-wielding beast attacked him from the other side. Lidria kicked her leg up, planted her boot on the Quelan’s thigh and shoved. Bones snapped, and the creature collapsed to one knee.
With a swift swipe, Lidria lopped the beast’s head off. McCrear caught his assailant’s spear under his arm and yanked. To her surprise, the Quelan stumbled forward a step. McCrear extended his sword arm before driving the blade into the creature’s exposed armpit.
The body stepped forward but toppled and became motionless. McCrear shot his gaze up to Lidria. They locked eyes, and he nodded. He turned his attention back on the enemy and shouted a command. Despite his best efforts, the exhaustion in his movements shone through.
A streak of lightning cut through the ranks of human soldiers. Twenty men and women fell to pieces. Lidria’s head snapped to the right, ignoring the mangled, scorched corpses of her comrades. The reanimated shaman stood at the front of the gap, head lulling to the side.
Lidria focused on her left arm. Pins and needles followed a sharp snap of pain bolting up her arm. She shuddered, overwhelmed by the surge of energy. Her hand slid across the flat of her blade, and azure flames ignited in a glorious blaze.
Lidria held her sword parallel to the ground with both hands. Arm and blade vibrated with energy, and she rushed the shaman. The creature blinked. A guttural growl twisted into something resembling a laugh, sending a shiver down her spine.
Before her strength diminished, Lidria drove her blazing sword into the shaman’s chest. The flames melted its black armor, and the abomination caught aflame. She shoved the Quelan back five feet and ripped through burning flesh.
A ripple of magic expanded from the charred remains, and Lidria’s heart leaped into her throat. She spun around. An explosion rocked the street, decimating men and Quela alike. Screams of terror and pain rang out and filled her ringing ears.
Lidria crashed into a hard surface. Her shoulder popped, followed by the rest of her body slamming against coarse stone and splintering wood. She bounced off the wall, dropped to the street, and rolled a turn and a half. Her mind as cloudy as her blurred vision.
The ground rumbled and shook. Lidria propped herself up, limbs trembling. Around her lay groaning or motionless bodies. She searched for the shaman, expecting to see her efforts all for naught. To her surprise, and relief, nothing stood.
Several forms amid the wreckage began to rise. McCrear stood. Lidria took a step forward, toward him, and her leg crumpled beneath her weight. She cursed and stumbled a few steps. Her eyes came back up as a Quelan attacked McCrear.
The beast moved slow and awkward but so did McCrear. He grasped the Quelan’s horns and held it back. Lidria tried to hurry, but her legs refused to listen. Bodies strewn in her path slowed her further. No matter how fast she closed the gap, she wouldn’t make it in time.
The brute let out a terrible cry and tossed McCrear on his back. He scrambled away, his gaze darting sidelong. A sword lay to his left, and he extended his arm. A cloven hoof, however, slammed down on his elbow.
McCrear screamed, and Lidria stopped in her tracks. The stories she heard of the man painted a picture of a stoic leader. Such raw agony struck her as something beneath him, yet he screamed. Her eyes darted to her left arm. Sympathy bloomed in her chest.
Lidria hobbled forward. Desire to save McCrear flooded her—severing another link would suffice. The creature needed to die regardless of whether the lieutenant survived. She preferred he lived, but she couldn’t afford to spend more for one man.
Bending down, the Quelan snatched the armament beside McCrear. Lidria’s breath caught in her throat. She held her sword out to the right in both hands and aimed. Her arms shook from the weight, but she swung back and hurled her weapon.
Time slowed as Lidria’s sword spun. She pressed on, fearing her feeble attempt wouldn’t end the threat. Her blade caught the beast in the shoulder, and a screech filled the air. Despite her best efforts, she had acted too slow. Crushing force hacked McCrear’s arm off.
Crimson blood spilled on the scorched and broken stone. Lidria ignored McCrear’s cries and grunts and closed what little of a gap remained between her and her target. She tripped forward, reaching for the hilt of her sword imbedded in the Quelan. Her fingers wrapped around tight.
Lidria drove deeper, her weight adding more force than her muscles. Her legs gave out, and she collapsed. The blade tore through the Quelan’s flesh until striking armor. She gripped tight, her dead weight wrenching leverage.
Ripping through soft tissue, Lidria’s blade shot skyward. She crashed to the ground; her arm extended above. The weight of her sword, combined with her exhaustion, proved too much. She let the weapon tumble from her grasp.
The Quelan stumbled backward, wet patches of warmth trickling down Lidria’s back. A heavy thud sounded behind her to signify the all-clear. She heaved a long breath. Her heavy eyes closed, but McCrear’s labored gasps reminded her of the situation.
Lidria spun around, still seated, and inspected the lamed lieutenant. His severed arm lay inches away, blood pooling at his side. She tried to lock eyes with him, but he stared to his left. She pushed herself up, feet unsteady, with a hand on her knee.
A tattered banner lay seven feet away. Although a mess, Lidria saw nothing else at hand. She limped her way to the standard, bending over and gathering the cloth. A silver phoenix emblazoned on azure stared back at her. She humphed and shook her head.
Lidria strode over to McCrear. His eyes met hers this time, and his face shifted from agonized to stoic. He didn’t need to act tough for her sake; she understood. Her left arm twitched, a sharp pain spiking from her shoulder. She grit her teeth.
McCrear shifted upright, but Lidria clasped his shoulder. “Take it easy, Lieutenant. I’ll have it wrapped up in a minute.”
“Thank you, breaker,” McCrear said, his voice strained.
Lidria tore away a shredded part of the banner, tossing the useless section aside. She stepped around McCrear until she could get at his wound. With a grunt, she bent down beside him. His blood stained her clothes and armor, but she didn’t care.
McCrear whispered, “Such a pathetic display,” as Lidria wrapped the cloth around his stump.
Lidria paused her ministrations, deciding if she should say anything. Her empathy won out. “It’s all right, sir. Losing a limb isn’t easy.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Frustration broke McCrear’s façade. “Our forces were torn apart, and there was nothing we could do about it.” He lifted his head. “Doesn’t sound like the rest of the city is faring any better either.”
The ground shook, threatening to ruin Lidria’s work. She held off until the tremors ceased. “You’re right. I haven’t seen anything like that before.”
“Nor have I. They must really want to wipe us out if they’re resorting to methods like that.” McCrear winced as Lidria applied pressure to his wound.
“What should we do, sir?” Lidria asked.
McCrear’s eyes focused on Lidria’s. “Are you still able to fight?”
“Yes.” Exhaustion weighed Lidria down, and her remaining links precious, but none of that mattered if she died.
“Are you sure?” The uncharacteristic concern in McCrear’s voice surprised Lidria, and she averted her eyes.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Lidria brought her eyes back to McCrear’s, “sir.”
McCrear nodded. “Go help at the citadel—they’ll need more people like you if they’re going to hold off the tide.”
Lidria tied off the end of the cloth, having done all she could. “What about you?”
“I’m going to try to round up any survivors and help where I can.” Lidria frowned, and he smiled. “I’ll try not to waste your hard work.”
“Go,” McCrear ordered. “I’ll be fine.”
“Be careful.” Lidria rose, her knees aching.
Lidria picked up her sword, hefted the blade onto her shoulder, and headed north. The brass-tipped peaks of the citadel shone purple-gray as the sky flashed with lightning. Clouds had rolled in since the fight began, and they pressed down with oppressive force.
An ear-splitting shriek caught Lidria off-guard, and she recoiled. A bulky, winged monstrosity swooped down out of the clouds. The creature landed atop the citadel’s spires, wrapping its forked tail around the stone. Another screech pierced the night as lightning spewed from its dual maws.