The Darkest HourTable of ContentsChapter 3.1: Relentless Pursuit/Unshakeable Stand
There was a sense of urgency the following morning as we set out, marching at speed. Each of us knew that the sooner we caught up to the Sorceress, the sooner we defeated her, the better. There was also a sense that today was the day we would find the Verorians. So we did not stop when we encountered another campsite, or the pile of corpses slain by death spells, or the cairn of animal skulls that still flickered with a sickly purple glow. Mid-day came and went, but we did not stop our march, instead eating the last of our rations as we continued to pursue the Sorceress.
After another hour of marching, we came across another open clearing and Gao Han finally called for a halt. He turned to one of our stone-callers. "How recent is this camp?"
The caller knelt and placed a hand on the ground. "They left very recently. Perhaps even within the last hour."
The Stalwart nodded. "Excellent. We'll make camp here, get some rest. Then we'll catch up with them just as they're setting up their evening camp. Send out foragers to replenish our supplies."
"Should we fortify the position, sir?" the stone-caller asked.
Gao Han considered for a moment, then shook his head. "No, you'll need your strength for the battle ahead. We'll only be here for an hour or so anyway."
Each of us found our own way of resting up from the march. While some took naps and others meditated, I sat down and began to write down a record in my journal. I was engrossed with trying to explain and justify my decision to follow Gao Han instead of going home, struggling to find the proper words to convey how I had felt at the time.
It was Jiro who, once again, was paying attention. He was up and shouting the alarm, his spear already in hand, before the first beast even emerged from the trees with a roar. The gray-skinned animal was immense, easily twice the height of any of us, and a long trunk trumpeted as it charged. Hastily grabbing my papers and inks, I lurched out of its path.
Jiro watched the beast charge, waited until the exact last moment, and darted to the side while jabbing with his spear. The weapon scored a long and bloody gash down the beast's flank, and it roared in pain as it turned around.
"Ancestors, do not abandon us in our time of need," I whispered, summoning two spirits to my side as more beasts emerged from the trees. Our foragers began to arrive back in the clearing, howling wolves right behind them.
"Form up! Form up! Discipline and honor!" Gao Han shouted, summoning a suit of spirit armor as he wrestled with a snarling brown bear. With a savage punch the Stalwart sent the beast running back to the trees and he joined the protective ring that our meager force was beginning to assemble.
The gray beast charged again, but this time it was met by a row of spears instead of a lone spearman. Unable to overrun the line, it retreated and nursed its wounds.
For my part, I stayed behind the front lines, summoning spectral warriors and casting protective shields over our warriors. There were six other spirit-speakers with me and we were hard-pressed to defend our soldiers from the growing pack of wolves that constantly darted towards the weak points in our line.
"Stick together and hold formation!" I shouted as all of the other beasts were forced away. "If you break off, you'll be dead. Discipline and honor!" Soon the furious battle slowed down to a standoff between our force and the pack of some twenty wolves. Even with our ancestral allies, the numbers were far too close to risk breaking formation to fight the wolves head on. So they circled around us and waited and we watched them circle and waited.
Finally, Gao Han broke ranks and beat his chest. "Come and get me!" he shouted, striding away from the rest of us. Instantly, the wolves pounced. Five of them attacked the commander from all sides, but their teeth met only spirit armor while he struck them down with mighty blows. More wolves circled around, wary of the Stalwart after he slew five of their companions.
"No, get me!" Jiro shouted, breaking ranks. I hurriedly summoned spirit armor around him as the wolves pounced once again. My friend began to slay the animals with his spear as more and more of our warriors boldly struck out and took the fight to the wolves. Outnumbered and unable to pick off those who had left the formation, the wolves howled and beat a hasty retreat.
"They'll be back," Gao Han said. "How many wounded?"
I quickly scanned our force. "Three men missing, two slain, seven wounded."
He scowled. "Nearly half of our force." He turned to face where our healers were already starting to treat the wounded. "Can they walk?"
Our head healer nodded. "Most of them can do so on their own, and those that can't can do so with a little help. All are safe to be moved."
"Bury the dead. I don't know how much time we'll have before the beasts come back, so we'll need to be moving as quickly as possible."
"But what of the missing?" I asked.
"We have to assume that they've been killed. We've no time to search for them, and they'll be able to follow us if they're alive. Now move!"
One of the stone-callers saw to the burial and then we were off, only slightly slowed down by the wounded. In the distance I heard the wolves howl again, but then we reached a steep gorge. To cross it, the Verorians had toppled a mighty tree with their death magic. Gao Han ordered our stone-callers to move the trunk and construct a bridge out of stone, then to remove the bridge. "That will buy us some time," he said, his face grim. Then we wordlessly returned to marching after the Sorceress.