by Andrew Hughes
Andrew has been writing and publishing short stories for the past decade. They have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Penumbric and on the No Sleep Podcast. His fantasy novella, Children of the Arc, was published in 2023 by TWB Press. He currently lives in Arizona, working as a middle school English teacher, and mediating heated debates between his roommates, a Maine Coon cat and the world’s most rambunctious husky.
Novella by Andrew Hughes: https://amzn.to/3qIVFrx
The 482nd Calvary Scouts rode through the night to rejoin the regiment. We arrived in the moments before battle. My men were exhausted. The sharp, dangerous glint that usually filled their eyes in the silence before bloodshed had waned to dull comprehension. I saw it as they stared across the scrub grass at the teaming horde of HornMen. Soon they would fight. Many would die.
The regiment had shrunk from skirmish after skirmish and the nationalistic roar that had propelled us into war had dissipated. The General’s speech was not inspirational. “And for the glory of the Crimson Arc, we shall triumph because The Ancients ride with us,” he shouted, but there was no uproarious chorus to carry his words. There was only the tapping of hooves and the distinguished clatter of a clumsy footman dropping his sword. The General seemed shocked by this response. I suppose he had thought it a good speech. But in the time spent in his white tent, drinking and plotting the next conquest, he’d lost touch with the soldiers. He no longer understood the scales of morale. These were men who knew they would soon die. In silent shame, the General returned to the vanguard.
Across the trampled field, the HornMen charged.
We rode forward.
The first volley of arrows thinned the front ranks and I watched as the General went down in an ungainly pile, only to be trampled by the cavalry. I guided my mare to the side, slashed down at a HornMan spear-holder. I heard him gurgle and die. I tried to pull my blade away but it was caught in his hide. In the next volley of arrows, one found my gut, another my cheek. I fell from my mount onto the hard ground.
Time passed and I woke gasping. The word was dark and red comets danced across the sky. I struggled for breath and shuddered against the sharp pain in my side. I opened my mouth and felt something tear in my cheek. I tried to move my arms but they did not respond.
Pain and sorrow compressed in my forehead. This couldn’t be it, could it? Not after all this time. It couldn’t be my turn.
I strained my vision to the right and saw the muddied corpse of a horse. A great black stallion. Whatever farmer had bred such a majestic beast deserved a spot in the King’s stable and whatever soldier had brought it to the battlefield needed a flogging. I strained my vision to the left and saw a long dark thing protruding from below my eye. Staring at it made my stomach quake and I shut my eyes before I slipped away again.
No. This isn’t it for you. I thought of my wife and son. Our cabin at the base of the steaming brook. This isn’t it. It can’t be.
I opened my eyes again and saw movement to my right. A black robed figure wading amongst the corpses. After a few feet, he stopped, knelt down, and outstretched his hand. It was clad in a black glove. A light as green as spring buds seeped from his fingertips and formed a glowing orb. He held it to a man’s chest and there was a warm hum, as rich and full as any fireside song. The glow illuminated his face and I saw his features, pale as milk, a spun white beard, eyes the same color as his emitted aura.
This wasn’t a HornMan. He’s an Ancient. My face curled in a grin despite the pain. I am saved. I will return home.
The orb of light receded into his fingertips as fast as it had appeared, like lightning stretching back into the sky. For a moment, the world was dark, but my eyes readjusted to the night and I saw him making his way amongst the dead. I opened my mouth, feeling the tearing pain, and when I moved my tongue I felt the jagged point of the arrow stretching toward my throat. The figure drew closer, then passed out of my vision.
No. Come back.
I pushed through the incising rip in my cheek and forced out a breath.
There was no response. Above, the red comets continued to dance, one collision promising to damn us all. I lay in silence and knew that he was gone. The hope drained from my heart and the ground felt cold.
I shut my eyes, tried to picture my family, but could no longer conjure their faces.
I opened my eyes and he knelt before me. His black robe plumed over my legs. His face carried centuries of knowledge. His bright green eyes were emotionless emeralds.
I forced my mouth open again. “Please. Help me.”
He said nothing, but outstretched his hand. The air hummed with a sweet spring song and the green light extended from his fingertips and spread across my chest. Everything washed away and was replaced by warmth. The light sewed together the holes and replaced them with flesh. I felt my legs start to quiver and when I shut my eyes the glow permeated my eyelids.
My wife and son’s faces returned.
I felt myself rising from the dirt, elevating onto my feet. I was light. I was free. I opened my eyes and I stood beside the Ancient. There was no pain. Then, I looked back at the ground.
My body still lay there. Lifeless, torn, perforated with arrow shafts, my once white chainmail spattered with crimson.
What is this? What’s happening?
I raised my hands and they had been replaced with glowing green light. There was a groaning sound behind me and I turned to see them. An army of spirits standing in submission. Their heads cast down. The General stood in the front, his face still washed with shock.
I turned back to the Ancient.
“You have to take me back,” I said. “Please, take me back.”
He did not respond.
I reached out to grab his robe, but an invisible barrier prevented my touch.
Behind me, the army of souls groaned.
The Ancient stood and continued down the battlefield.