“Charge!” Someone yelled, and Philius felt himself pulled along with the raging throng, less an individual Chronian, and more part of some larger, screaming mass, hurtling towards mutual destruction. A war cry that was not his ripped out of his throat. To his left, he saw Chrysalism had discard her summoned head, so he ripped his bandana loose with his off hand, boldly forecasting his remaining minutes to the world. To his right, Walfus was yelling giddily, as he waved his twin sickles wildly.
“Death, O Death! Don’t you run away now, I’m coming to meet you! Is this out last dance? Hey, here I am!” He was cut short as he stumbled on an out-jutting rock, causing him to tumble to his knees. At that exact moment, an arrow whizzed over his head, right through where he was a split second ago, imbedding itself in the neck of the man behind him.
“Ah-ah-ah, almost got me there, Death!” Walfus laughed. “I touched you that time, so now you’re “it”!” Giggling manically, he threw himself on the Toscavs.
The Toscavs however were preoccupied with bigger problems. Swimfa'alafr was among them like a force of nature, swatting whole battalions away, and stamping her feet like a child on an anthill, until a red mist covered the ground behind her.
And the World-Gardener wept.
Great rivulets streaked her face as pure water leaked from her golden eyes, sprinkling the crimson wake she left.
Reaching out, she grabbed a catapult by its neck and sent it skipping like a pebble on a lake, carving a great gash through the Toscav army.
And she wept.
Her ears were inundated with the screams of the wounded and dying, her bark was slick with sticky, iron-scented blood, and no matter how she tried to ignore it, every crunching step she took reverberated though her whole being.
“Why?” She screamed out to nobody at all. “Why must you fight?”
But she received no answer.
And so, she wept.
Marwynn’s blood pounded in his ears, his breath tasting hot and dry in his mouth as he charged blindly at the enemy, holding the flag aloft as he followed the man in from of him. This was it! This was war! Now, like his bold ancestors before him, he would die gloriously in combat and become a hero!
“For Bryke!” He yelled in his reedy alto, brandishing his sword aloft in his other hand.
Then, something slipped beneath his feet and he was face first on the ground, his sword and flag gone, his mouth tasting of loam and iron. Scrambling to his knees, he turned to see what had tripped him.
Beneath him was the body of an elderly Brykian, his skull split in two, his face frozen in a soundless scream, which Marwynn found himself unwittingly giving voice to.
“Marwynn!” A familiar voice bellowed out. The boy turned to see a Brykian man charging towards him, clearing his way through wave after wave of Toscavs, his axe methodically felling soldiers like a lumberjack’s.
“Father!” Marwynn cried in recognition.
And then, father was gone, an explosion of flame in his place as a load of naphtha ignited the field, causing those who weren’t mercifully reduced to ash at the center of the inferno to scream in agony and run for cover, viscous flames trailing them like hellfire.
“Pfolgen!” An anguished cry split the air.
It was Marwynn’s mother.
With the brutal efficiency of one who has spent their whole life performing the same motions, Xandria swept through her foes towards her husband’s final resting place, her scythe leaving only death in its wake.
“Mama!” Marwynn heard himself calling.
Her rampage pulled up short, Xandria swiftly turned and began to make her way to her son instead. Slice, slice went the scythe. Dyed in blood both hers and her foes, Xandria made her way step by step towards him, her pace slowing the closer she came.
Time seemed to freeze for Marwynn. One moment his mother was there, standing over him, the next she was on her knees, the three arrows in her back slick with lost lifeblood.
Her eyes focused on somewhere far off, somewhere past Marwynn, she found the strength for one final word.
And then she fell, her body covering her son as her warmth slowly ebbed away.
His mind white, Marwynn lay where he had fallen, stock still and eyes unblinking, while some war raged somewhere far, far off, miles and miles away.
“Where are the goddamn magicians?” The aide bellowed as Swimfa'alafr decimated the final catapult, reducing it to splinters with a single step.
“I sent a rider to get them.” A field officer explained, deflecting a lazy arrow with his shield. “They were hit badly by the poisoning, so the Commander had them rest up in the wagons. They should be ready any time, sir!”
And as if to confirm his words, at that moment Swimfa'alafr erupted into flames, brilliant azure tongues of fire that clung to her like tar. Shrieking in pain, she threw herself to the ground and rolled back and forth, destroying another battalion as she tried in vain to extinguish the inferno. In desperation, she disassembled herself back into wriggling trunks and branches, worming her way into the soil and leaving behind the cursed blue fire which lay smoldering like a steaming lake.
“Did we get her?” The officer asked, scanning the field.
“Not yet, look!” The aide pointed. Springing out from the field seemingly at random, hundreds of snakelike branchless trees writhed madly like a sea of tentacles, grabbing soldiers and hefting them at their allies, or sweeping them off their feet only to crush or impale them with brutal precision.
“Yoru save us.” The aide breathed.
Philius was giddy with bloodlust. He was invincible! Never before had he tasted power like this day. His skin flapped wildly in a dozen places where swords and spears had pierced him, arrows imbedded in him rattled like the spikes of a porcupine as he moved, and his left arm hung useless at his side, a single flap of skin being all that held it to his body.
Yet he moved on!
He revelled in the fear on the faces of his foes when he lunged screaming at them, like some cursed apparition.
And then, he was flying. A kaleidoscope of colours flowed by, ending in a dull thump as his dismembered head rolled to a final rest. In the corner of his vision, he could see his headless body fall to its knees, as the solider behind it rejoiced at having finally brought an end to the warrior of the cursed race.
But there was still 20 minutes left on Philius’ clock!
“No!” He screamed. “Not like this! Just a little more! Just one more chance!’
And he wept, for no one heard him.
But no, one person did hear him. One person heard everything, and was specifically listening for any familiar voices, even amidst her own pain.
“Philius!” Swimfa'alafr cried from under the earth.
Before he truly realized what was happening, Philius felt his head lifted up and tossed wildly through the air by an arm-like branch, only to be caught again by a firm grip. Tentatively opening his eyes, he saw the World-Gardener staring back at him.
“Big sis!” He cried, tears of gratitude pooling in his eyes.
“Aw, you finally called me that.” She gave a small smile. “I don’t have much time, so what do you want to do?”
Philius grit his teeth. “I don’t know how, but I want to fight to the end!”
“Say no more.” She nodded. “Heads up, little sister!” She called out, tossing Philius once more, this time in a gentle underhand that sent him spiraling lazily along.
“And goodbye, little brother.” She whispered to herself.
From his high vantage point, Philius saw another jet of fire envelope the World-Gardener, forcing her underground again.
And then, a familiarly rough hand snatched him out of the air by his hair, slamming him into place. Philius blinked twice, finding not only could he turn his head again, but he was now firmly attached to a pair of shoulders.
“You’re looking well, Phil.” She shot, backpedaling out of reach of a thrusting spear and following up with a skull-splitting overhand from her own naginata.
“I’ve been better.” He admitted. “How are you doing this, anyway?”
“Same…oof!…principal as my conjured head.” She explained as a maul caught her in the side, tearing off bark.
“All right, good enough for me.” Philius grinned in spite of himself, spinning his head a full 360°. “I’ll handle long-distance sight, you just keep doing what you’re doing, Chrys.”
“That was the plan.” She admitted, dispatching the maul-armed soldier with a swift thrust to his sternum.
By sheer coincidence, Walfus and Brogan had ended up together, Brogan clearing a path with wide swings of his broadsword, and Walfus nicking in afterwards, finishing off with his ruthless sickles anyone the General missed.
“I certainly never thought I’d see you selling your life next to me.” The General wheezed, stepping back for Walfus to jump in again.
“Don’t flatter yourself.” Walfus shot back. “Why do you think I’ve been maneuvering us in this direction? That World-Gardener really cleared them out for us here. Up ahead is the pass to Xarando’s Spine. I figure I can lie low there until the Toscavs leave.”
“I might’ve guessed.” The General sighed, hefting his blade again. “Truth be told, I’m about at my limit. If you want to get out of this alive, I’ll cover for you, but you’d better have some trick up your sleeve.”
“Have I ever not?” Walfus grinned. “When I give the signal, cover your face.”
Walfus scanned the battlefield. Almost all the Brykians and bandits were dead now, and the Toscavs were staring to rally again. Further, there were now no more than a couple dozen of Swimfa'alafr’s tree trunks tearing up the soldiers, and they were mainly concentrated in an ever-shrinking area. It was almost over.
“Come on, give me something to work with.” Walfus muttered, eyes darting over the battlefield.
“Say no more.”
With a primal yell, Swimfa'alafr erupted from the ground again. Barely 15 feet now, she threw her entire bulk against a large boulder sticking out of the field, hefting it onto her shoulders. Seeing what she planned to do, soldiers began to rush her, hacking at her legs with swords and axes.
But Swimfa'alafr didn’t stop.
When her feet were chopped to bits, she planted her shins firmly into the ground, sending out thick roots to anchor her. Then, roots surging across her body like sinew, she hurled the boulder over the heads of Brogan and Walfus, plowing a path through their enemies all the way to the canyon.
“Well damn!” Walfus whistled. “I guess that’s your signal, General.” Popping numerous terracotta spheres from his belt, Walfus struck a match, igniting and chucking them in all directions. They had barely left his hand when they started to spin wildly and spew thick clouds of white smoke, obscuring the battlefield.
As the General rested his arms, his jacket tightly wrapped around his face, he could hear the receding sound of Walfus escaping, plowing through any blinded soldiers that got in his way.
“I suppose that’s enough rest.” The General sighed, rising to his feet as he prepared to meet his fate.
Hamstringing one last solider, Walfus cleared the final distance, slipping into the canyon’s shelter as a couple last arrows clattered harmlessly off the stones sheltering him.
“Almost…had me that time…Death.” Walfus panted raggedly, sheathing his blades as he recovered his stamina. It was only a matter of time before they sent men after him, so putting one foot in front of the other, Walfus began his trek through the Spine. The wind rushed loudly by him as he went, shrieking oddly through outcroppings and gaps. Furthermore, Walfus heard the sounds of pursuit, echoing weirdly in the ravine and seeming to come from everywhere at once. Forcing himself into a dogged run, he rounded a jagged bend in the Spine.
And he found himself face to face with the second army of the Toscavs.
“I guess I’m “It” now, Death.” Walfus sighed as the soldiers closed in on him.
The battle was over. Throwing the rock had taken the last of Swimfa’alafr’s strength, and she collapsed to the ground, too weak to even fight the blue flames eating at her body. With one final effort, the World-Gardener brought herself up onto her ruined knees and stubbornly raising one smoldering hand high, holding their fallen flag aloft. “Gravechasers!” She bellowed, before collapsing into ash.
Not far away, Chrysalism lay dying in the dirt, cleaved in half from should to hip perpendicular to her existing scar, blood-like sap coagulating on the ground. Still loosely affixed, Philius’ timer blinked away his last minutes.
“Are you satisfied, Chrys?” He asked, raising his head.
“It’s ironic.” She laughed painfully. “All I can think of now is how there was still so much I never did or saw. If I could go back and do it all over again, I wonder if I’d still take this path.”
“Still better than getting chopped up by the General?” Philius asked.
Chrysalism smiled in spite of herself. “Much better than that.” She raised a weak hand, laying it on Philius head. “What about you?” She asked. “Any regrets?”
“Hmmm…” he thought. “I want to see your flower.” He admitted.
“Excuse me?” Chrysalism shot back indignantly. “I decline!”
“Oh, come on.” Philius shot back. “it’s hardly a big deal.”
“It is to me!” She snapped.
“Oh fine, to Xarando with it all.” She sighed, as her tail snaked out from behind her. With a deft pull, she removed the cover cloth, letting the bulb open gently, taking in the sunlight. When first pollinated, the flowers of her race gain a unique colour and pattern all their own, which meant Chrysalism’s was a spotless white, blooming in the morning sunlight like so much frilled lace hung to dry, a single flower amidst the carnage.
“Now I really am exposed.” Chrysalism declared wryly. “Well? Like what you see?” She addressed Philius.
But there was no response.
His eyes closed for good, his forehead blinked a string of zeroes gently, before fading away forever.
“Selfish to the end.” Chrysalism sighed, staring up at the sky. “Looks like its going to be a beautiful day.”
As her flower fell to the ground, it mingled with the fallen blood, vividly dying it at last. And so, Chrysalism received her colour.
A brilliant crimson.
“Forward march, men! Step lively now!” The Etrurian Centurion barked to his men, riding alongside them on a flawless white horse.
“Do we really have to do this every time we get a call for help?” One legionary grumbled to their companion.
“Hey, beats actually fighting, right?” He whispered back. “That letter is about five days old now. Toscavy must have conquered Jortnan by now.”
“Silence in the ranks!” The centurion bellowed. “If you have the energy to talk, use it to walk! We still have a way to go until…” He trailed off on sighting a column of smoke rising past the hill in front of them.
“An enemy camp?” He muttered to himself. Then his eyes caught his scouts returning from the left of the smoke.
“Report!” He bellowed.
“Sir!” The scouts saluted. “Roughly a quarter legion of mounted men are riding this way! They say they are Brykians that were raiding the Toscav’s column.”
“I see.” The centurion mused. “And the smoke?”
“That’s the other thing, sir.” The second scout reported. “There must’ve been a major battle here, the ground is littered with corpses! There’s a single fellow stacking and burning them all. That’s what caused the smoke.”
“We’ll ask him what happened.” The centurion declared. “Forward march!”
The centurion was surprised to find that it was not a man disposing of the countless bodies, but a boy barely 15 by his own reckoning. Even upon riding up with a good degree of pomp and ceremony, the boy did not turn from his grisly task, dragging bodied onto pyres he had formed of leftover pieces of Swimfa'alafr.
The centurion cleared his throat. “I say there lad, what happened here?”
Marwynn paused, turning to the centurion with hollow eyes. “Do you have the time to waste asking questions? The Toscavs are fighting the Jortnans as we speak.”
“Lad, I’ve been doing this for years now.” The Centurion sighed. “Its unfortunate, but its been five days already. By now, its likely too late for us to do anything but escort the refugees back to Alsium with us.”
Lucky for you, you’re early this time.” Marwynn chuckled dryly.
“The Toscavs were held up the entire way. They only just started the siege this morning.”
The look of panic that crossed the centurion’s face was not lost on Marwynn.
“Looks like we’ve both got a busy week ahead of us.” He commented, returning to his task.
“Wait, lad!” The centurion dismounted his horse, following after the boy. “There must be some mistake! Etruria aside, no country anywhere close to us has an army big enough to challenge the legions of Toscavy to direct combat. Who would be crazy enough to even attempt it? Was it the Brykians? The Jortnans?”
In response, Marwynn plunged his hands into a pile of corpses, pulling out a worn and soiled banner.
“It was the Gravechasers.” He declared, holding the winking skull aloft.ns126.96.36.199da2