by Terri Rochenski
“I run my horse right aground, I did.” He paused to guzzle ale from the tankard in his shaking hands.
“The rumors be true and more horrible than you can imagine.”
I watched through the kitchen’s cracked door as the man recounted the visions he’d seen to the other patrons of my father’s inn. Merchants, farmers, and common dock laborers all hunched over their drinks, their eyes wide with fear.
“They kill with fire from their fingertips an’ eat the burnt corpses. They ain’t leaving nothing behind.” The rider gulped again. “May be why they came to our world – they needs food.”
Shiver bumps raced across my skin.
“Get yer dark head away from that door, Master Kemen,” Cook hissed at me, “and finish scrubbin’ those pots.”
“Rider’s talking about the Yindi and their magic,” I whispered over my shoulder. “Says they gobble up the dead.”
Cook paled. “Don’t you worry none, boy. The men will defend us proper.”
Voices raised in the common room. I stuck my head out the door.
“Can’t escape by ship. There ain’t a one left!”
“None’s docked in over a fortnight!”
“Cuz there ain’t no humans left but us! What we gunna do?”
“Enough!” A merchant shouted and stood to his feet. “Diljan has twenty-foot high walls. We are not defenseless!”
“The King’s city was overrun in two hours time,” the rider said. “These here walls don’t stand half high as his.”
“Mere rumors,” the merchant insisted. “We must believe the best. I’m off to find out Lord Sidon’s defense plans. Who’s with me?” He strode out the inn’s door and all but one patron followed.
The lone farmer’s head lay on the wooden table before him. A snore ripped from his throat.
I hurried into the common room. “Yes, father?”
He stared out the door at the crush of people on the cobbled street. I’d heard it said earlier that evening that our population had tripled in the last week. “Go upstairs and get a travel pack together. I’m taking you and your sister to the salt caves.”
I frowned. “But I’m twelve now. Old enough to fight.”
He turned, his eyes sad. “I know, son, but your sister needs protecting. Go now.”
The gatekeepers called father a crazy man, but they didn’t stop us from leaving. He led Mahlah and me up into the hills that overlooked the city. Till we reached our destination it was past midnight. He made a bed of blankets inside the entrance of the deep cavern for my little sister and me to share. Mahlah fell asleep immediately. I stood with father under the moon.
He pulled a short dagger from his belt and grasped my shoulder with his free hand. “I want you to take this. There may come a time tomorrow when you’ll need it.”
“You’re not staying?”
“I must stand with those below on the morrow. If we fail,” his eyes misted over, “I need you to be a man. Take your sister and go to the Beyond.”
My stomach heaved. “I’m not a coward, father.”
“I know, son. But if no miracle occurs, t’would be better to be free.” He hugged me tight and walked away.
I crawled under the blanket beside Mahlah and cuddled close to her warm body. Her blonde curls glowed in the moon’s cold light, and her dark lashes fluttered on pink, apple cheeks. She was beautiful just like mother had been.
I blinked back childish tears. Much as I missed mother, I wasn’t ready to see her again just yet.
***We watched the battle from beneath the brush on the highest hill. The city below us was crowded with trampled bodies, the Yindi monsters, and shrieking pillars of fire that used to be human. The clash of steel and the cries of the hurt echoed through the valley. The stink of my fear was overpowered by the acrid smoke of burning flesh that rode on the breeze.
The early morning sun glinted off the silver spikes sticking from the Yindis’ bald heads. They were massive beasts with glowing blades that lopped off heads and stabbed the wailing wounded. Mages in cowled scarlet robes cast ropes of black lightening form their palms. The unlucky humans in their paths ignited in flashes of violet sparks. Orbs of blue flame were hurled and burnt all in the paths. The dead were devoured where they lay.
The grooves of the dagger’s hilt dug into my palm. I glanced down at the dull metal. I had the courage to run down the hill and fight like a man, but did I have enough to do as father had said?
Mahlah watched the horror below with wide eyes, her limbs trembling. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I want father,” she whimpered.
I grasped her hand in mine. I wouldn’t allow the Yindi monsters to have her. I would take her to the Beyond where mother awaited us first.
I could see one last group of humans huddled together in the city square. Mages and the towering Yindi surrounded them. My hope faded as black lightening flew from fingertips and pierced each chest. As one the last of our people slumped to the ground.
My eyes burned. My throat ached.
“Come,” I whispered to my little sister. “It is time we left this place.”
She stumbled after me as I led her deeply into the cave. The freedom of death called and the darkness would make my burden easier.
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