by Django Wexler

The fourth of Augustus dawned bright and clear.

Irion stood at the crest of Mead's Hill and stared down at the plain before him. The weather had not come as a surprise. After weeks of overcast, blustery, rainy days, the sun finally shown once again.

What did I ever to do deserve this?

The break in the weather could mean only one thing. The Bug gestalt had finally broken through, and the attack could not be far off.

Irion sighed, and turned from away from the view. It was dangerous to remain out here in plain sight anyway. To be sure, the area immediately around the camp was swept daily, but the Creepers were getting better at avoiding detection. One Creeper was all it would take.

He would almost welcome it, if it came. Better a clean end like that then this, an endless string of half-victories staving off an increasingly inevitable defeat. There were times when he wished he could just give up, give it all up and ride away. The Bugs wouldn't stop him. They didn't care one or another about people, unless they put up a fight.

He couldn't do that, of course. He had - he half smiled - responsibilities. To his men, to his people.

Wouldn't you be surprised to see me now, Father.

He turned his back on the rising sun and walked down the ridge, towards the cover of the woods. Sardios, his bodyguard, followed, quiet as a shadow. Irion had grown so used to the presence of the big black Southlander that he hardly even noticed him any more.

Under the eaves of the first trees, his council waited. Irion recalled, wistfully, the war councils of the old days. Maps and dice, in marble halls, as well-dressed men argued over and played out scenario after scenario. Invasion, banditry, border skirmishes. Each had its own plans, its own preparation.

No-one expected anything like this.

There was no formal war council any longer. Elaborate military trappings, ironically, had vanished with the peace of old.

There were four of them, all mounted, with two extra horses for Irion and Sardios. Less visible, but just as surely there, was the detachment of troops fanned out through the woods, searching for any hint of danger or further Bug trickery.

Estian rode up to meet him, pulling Irion's horse by the reins. The gruff old man was in charge of cavalry, and had been soldiering for longer then he could remember. Estian had served under Irion's father, defending the honor of the King in the Fourth Succession War. A good man.

Irion and Sardios mounted up. Long ago, Irion remembered, he had taken special care of his horses. He had named them, trained them, raised them, and dreamed of the day when they would carry him into glorious battle. He didn't bother anymore.

Estian saluted as Irion mounted, and Irion, tiredly, returned it. The three of them rode back to meet the rest of the council.

Daryan sat astride his horse awkwardly. It was not his natural position, for Daryan was an infantry commander, the best that Irion had left. He and his unit were the solid core that held the army together. Despite being one of the king's soldiers, Daryan had proven himself. He and his men tried to make up for all the broken promises of far-off royalty.

Riara was much more natural in the saddle, although she too had few occasions to ride in battle. It was simply an expression of the grace she brought to everything she did. She was the chief mage of Irion's forces, and another of his strongest bulwarks. In the old days, the mage's hierarchy had rewarded sheer power and seniority over skill. No longer, though. The Gestalt made sheer power pointless, and as for seniority...well, most of those senior to Riara were already dead.

Last, but certainly not least, came Layara. The elf sat in the saddle as though she had been born there.

After all, what's ten years spent learning to ride for an elf?

For reasons unknown, the golden-haired archer, commander of Irion's elven contingent, rarely left his side. Elves keep their own council.

The group started to ride slowly back to the main camp. Sardios followed slightly behind Irion, eyes and ears alert for any untoward sounds. He never relaxed, not even in the supposed safety of the camp.

Then again, given the regularity with which the Bugs get past our sentries, maybe he's right.

Riara rode up next to him. "My Lord Irion," she began, her voice sounding almost musical. Irion could tell she was about to apologize, and held up a hand.

"Don't. It's not your fault the Bugs finally broke our weather control. The Gestalts are simply too powerful. Frankly, I'm amazed you held it as long as you did. And it let us get in a victory, too."

She smiled. Irion did not.

One victory. One time, at Zarent's Field, with their cursed fliers grounded by the storm, outflanked by my cavalry, and with no Gestalt to help them. One time their center broke, and at the end of the day, we held the field. One time, one victory. After how many losses?

He said none of this, of course. Irion understood the importance of morale.

Riara spoke up again. "They learned a lesson that day, that we could still sting them. But in clear weather..." She trailed off, and nervously brushed a strand of hair away from her face. Her hair made her easy to pick out in a crowd - it was bright green and hung down past her shoulders.

"Whatever happens, we can't worry about assigning blame. I expect an attack tomorrow, when the field is dry enough."

"Shall we prepare to retreat again? Get a rear guard ready?"

Irion shook his head. That had been the way of it, these long hundred miles since the fall of Castle Starfelt. Strike and retreat, strike and retreat, make the Bugs pay for every mile in blood.

I remember what happens when you face them in open battle. Gezeran found out the hard way. I ordered him not to, asked him not to, even begged him not to. But he was - Irion almost spat - he was one of the King's soldiers. A long snake of horsemen, riding out of the castle. They looked so pretty in their fine armor, banners snapping in the wind. Long columns of infantry beside them, longbows alternating with pikes. A King's Legion, the most invincible fighting force the world had ever known.

Irion hadn't been at the battle. He had only scattered report from the few survivors to go on.

DAMN that Gezeran! With the Legion at my side I could have held the castle. Because of him, I had to abandon the only home I'd ever known.

Out of all the Legion's units, only Daryan's Third Regulars had seen the truth. Only they had stayed behind, with Gezeran's threat of summary court-martial hanging over their heads. They were the only unit who survived.

It wasn't enough to hold the castle.

Irion had been fighting his own guilt about abandoning it since that day. A part of him still shouted that it was better to fight, to die in glorious battle. Better then this.

I could have at least tried.

He was fooling himself, of course. The Bugs made a mockery of traditional sieges, and what forces he had left couldn't hope to engage them in the field. Still he'd always remember the looks on the faces of the peasants as they realized the army was abandoning them.

But what could I do?

Irion shook his head again, and brought his thoughts back to the present.

"No. This time, we will not retreat."

Riara gave a little gasp. "What?" The rest of the council gathered, too.

"There will be no more retreats. There is nowhere else to retreat to."

Irion gestured at the Rimthusar Mountains, which jutted like giant, jagged teeth taking a bite out of the skyline. Even in mid-summer, their tops were pure white with snow.

You don't like snow, do you? You Bugs are very particular, even more then we are. It can't be too cold, or too wet. Just my luck I happen to live here, and not up there.

"We sit astride the ScIrion Pass, the only lowland route through these mountains for a hundred miles on either side. The Bugs have to know that, and they've driven straight for this spot. I had hoped to confront them while we still had wet weather on our side, but they refused to attack until the storm cleared." The rest of the council nodded. No-one mentioned the idea, almost ridiculous by now, that one could attack the Bugs.

"We will face the Bug army here, on the plain, for as long as we can. When pressed, we will fall back into the pass itself. For the past few days, our scouts have been at work preparing landslides and booby traps. We can make them pay dearly for their advance.

"In the center of the pass is a rocky outcropping rising from the center of the passable road. Long ago, a King built a fort there, and though it is somewhat crumbled by now, its walls still hold. The fort has excellent fields of fire - the Bugs cannot use the pass while we possess it." Irion was dimly aware that he had shifted into declamatory mode - lessons drilled into him long ago about how to speak in public came to the fore. "There, at Fort Leonidas, we make out final stand. Beyond it, nothing but open plains stands between the bugs and Talthrum."

I suppose it was inevitable. Somewhere, we have to make a final stand. It's either that, or disperse in disgrace. And I'm too well indoctrinated in the ways of honor to endure that.

"Riara, gather the battlemages and meet at my tent in an hour. I have an idea I want to try."

Riara smiled, and the joy in her expression made Irion wince. Despite everything they had been through, everything he had just said, she still trusted him. Trusted Lord Irion to come up with another brilliant plan, to snatch victory, or at least survival, from the jaws of defeat. It hurt him to see it, because he knew that sooner or later he would fail her, fail his men. One day, he would run out of clever tricks. And then all those people who trusted him would die.

"Estian, I need you to reorganize the cavalry. Strip the knights from the individual squadrons and set up two massed formations. The light horse can go out as a skirmish line; they know how. I'll come by and give you and the men the rest of your orders."

The old horseman saluted and rode off towards the bright colors of the cavalry tents. He, too, seemed confident, both in his men and in Irion.

"Daryan, I need you to reorganize the infantry a little. Take the First and split it up between the rest of the regiments. Make sure each company gets at least one veteran. Not the Third, though. They don't need it." Apart from the First Irions, one of the only regiments still intact from pre-war days, and Daryan's own Third Regulars, most of the infantry were levies - peasants, trained for a few weeks, but untested in battle. "If the front breaks in the plains battle" - as it certainly would - "the veterans are to lead the retreat back to Fort Leonidas." Daryan saluted crisply and rode off to rejoin his troops and disperse his lord's orders. Of all the commanders, Irion thought that he had the best grasp of the overall situation. Still, even practical Daryan was showing signs of ungrounded optimism.

Irion turned, lastly, to Layara. The tall elf sat patiently, awaiting his Lord's attention. "You elves are going to have the most critical role, I think. Your mages will play two roles. Tonight, they will use as much power as they can making those wonderful arrows of yours." The magically enchanted explosive arrows that the elves could manufacture had been a welcome, if late, discovery that had vastly increased the number of fliers Irion's men had been able to take out. They had never been available in sufficient quantity to shut them down for good, though. "Once their power is used up, they'll lead a small force back towards the Fort and wait for the rest of the army.

"Your archers will be spread out in their usual job." That was watching for and shooting down enemy fliers - the elves were uncanny shots with a longbow, far better then any human. "Any objections?" Normally, Irion wouldn't ask that of a subordinate. Layara, though, much as she protested, wasn't actually a subordinate.

The elf smiled her typically unreadable elven smile. "Of course not, my Lord. You speak wisely, as always." The elf rode off to rejoin her kinsman, leaving Irion alone with his bodyguard.

Is it my imagination, or is there a hint of sarcasm under that?

The next morning, as expected, was hot, with no sign of clouds. Irion's weather mages had made a last-ditch effort, but their subtle tricks were not match for the sheer power of a Bug gestalt. Irion himself had remounted the ridge, which was just at the foothills of the mountains, overlooking the open area that border the front of the pass itself.

Scouts, those that returned, had brought the message - the Bugs were coming, and in massive force.

The defenders had arranged their lines in a rough semi-circle around the base of the pass. Eight blocks of infantry, eight regiments supposed to total a thousand men each but lucky to have half that at most. Only Daryan's Third was anywhere near full strength. A fraction of the twenty-five thousand men in the Legion, or even the fifteen thousand that had begun this campaign, was left.

The regiments were arrayed in a formation that had proved itself through long, bloody trials. The front two ranks of each block carried long pikes, which jutted out in front of the regiment and prevented them from being overwhelmed by a charge. The rest carried longbows, which they could fire in a deadly routine drilled into the men by weeks of training. Every man also carried a long sword, for the inevitable shock action when the Bugs closed. Every tenth man in a regiment carried one of the elves' special fire-arrows, although they were trained not to all fire on the first target. The magical arrows, though effective, could not be easily replaced.

Behind the screen of infantry waited the heavy cavalry, arrayed into two groups as Irion had ordered. A few hundred mounted knights, no longer resplendent in gleaming plate mail and colorful banners, but still mounted. What they lacked in parade-ground excellence they had made up for in three long months experience fighting the Bugs. Lances glittered in the early morning sunlight, and here and there a man worked on the edge of his sword with a pocket grindstone.

Spread out in a skirmish screen in front of the infantry were the light cavalry, the horse archers. They would harry the Bugs as they moved in, and try to get out of the way before they charged. Irion did not envy the lightly armored horsemen - they were unsuited to this terrain, and many of them would die because of it. They faced the fact with grim determination.

Irion finished looking over his troops, and turned his attention eastward. And waited.

As usual, the first they knew of the Bugs' approach was the noise. A faint buzz began on the edge of hearing, and gradually rose to a whirring drone. Then a large group of Bug flyers flashed over the crest of the hill at the opposite end of the field.

Even now, after so many battles, Irion couldn't help but feel a little bit in awe. The flyers were like huge dragonflies, with four rapidly beating wings. They had six sets of nasty claws, and mandibles like a beetles. If they had had only their natural armament, they would be formidable.

They don't rely on just their natural weapons, though, do they?

The flight buzzed towards the human lines, dropping altitude as they went. Like most Bugs, they seemed to have no fear of death, and braved the gauntlet of human archers willingly.

"Wait....wait...." Irion silently urged his men. Their sergeants had trained them well. They held their fire.

The huge Bugs were closer now, and lower. One hundred feet up...ninety.

"Now!" As if in response, though they really couldn't hear, hundred of bowstrings spoke at once. A hail of deadly black darts rose to meet the flyers.

For the most part, the missiles clattered harmlessly of chitin harder then steel. On the far left, though, two or three arrows lodged in the sensitive muscle that drove the thing's right wings. The huge creature hit the ground in a semi-controlled crash landing. Men with swords quickly swarmed in to finish it off, despite its slashing claws.

In the center, a magical fire arrow caught another of the beasts. The explosion brought another, brighter, dawn to the field. The regiment cheered as bits of chitin and muscles rained down on them.

The other three flyers managed to release their deadly cargo. Each one carried six claw fulls of nasty spiked little pellets, deadly when dropped from a height. Screams from the pelted regiments rose even to Irion's hearing, on his little hilltop, but overall, casualties seemed light.

If they only have five flyers to throw at us, we are lucky indeed.

He didn't really believe it, though. The Bugs were just testing the human defenses before the main attack.

Irion glanced around the little hilltop. Besides Sardios, always at his back, there were a few others. Riara and a few of her mages were using the hilltop as an ideal site to lob spells from. Layara and a few of her elves were assigned to guard the hilltop from flyer attack. And spread out to cover the perimeter were the men of the First Guards, whose job it was to safeguard the general during battle.

"Riara, get ready. They'll try magic next." The green-haired mage nodded.

And try they did. The next struggle was invisible, but no less real. Irion could tell by the expressions on his wizard's faces that the Bug gestalt out there was a strong one. In the end, though, the mages accomplished their task. The gestalt was still to far away to throw spells effectively.

With the preliminaries accomplished, the Bugs crested the hill. Irion's heart sank when he saw them. They darkened the horizon, uncounted hordes of them stretching across the entire field of battle. Roaches, special Bug chargers that looked like giant versions of the common cockroach, formed up in the front ranks, while the Bugs themselves formed up behind. In the center of the Bug line, three giant shapes loomed. Juggernauts.

Three of them. I've never seen three in one battle before. We must have hurt them, at least. They're taking us seriously.

Safely behind the main Bug lines, Irion could see a circle of insectoids standing still. Even at this distance, their bloated, wrinkly carapaces made them recognizable. Gestalt. The magical strike force of the massive Bug army.

They were disciplined, all right. It took them only a short while to form up into ranks and prepare for battle. Then they began to advance, slowly marching their multi-legged way across the field.

Behind Irion, Riara gasped for air. "The power....that thing's unbelievable..." Apparently the gestalt, the ring of linked Bug mages, was again on the offensive.

The Bug line pushed forward at a slow walk. As they closed, the humans gripped their bows. Then, almost as one, a hundred officers voiced the cry.


Once again a deadly black hail filled the sky. At this range, a direct shot was the only chance of hitting, so most of the arrows slammed into the front ranks of roaches and clattered off their armored skin. Here and there, though, one of the beasts fell. The Bugs closed the gap and marched on.

The horse archers were firing now, their short bows having some impact. They rode backwards towards the main line, shooting as they went. Irion could see the bow fire was not going to win out, though. The Bugs would reach the line.

"FIRE!" The longbowmen let loose another volley. This time they could arc the arrows up and over the lines of roaches, and the softer-skinned Bugs behind them took casualties. As if at an unseen signal, the whole Bug force broke into a flat out charge.

"Ready pikes! FIRE!" One final volley clattered out, at point-blank range. More Bugs fell. Just before the roaches reached the lines of pikemen, two dozen fliers shot overhead at high speed. Only a few arrows rose to meet them, and their spiked bombs wreaked horror on the exposed infantry.

Layara spun as they flew overhead, and let loose a single arrow. Dead on target, the magical airburst nearly vaporized the thing. She shouted in triumph.

Great. Only twenty to go.

Below, the roach line had reached the pikes. The Bug creatures threw themselves at the formations with reckless abandon, hurling onto the sharp ends of the human's weapons. Once a roach was impaled, though, its weight dragged the pike to the ground, and the infantry was soon engaged in sword-to-claw fighting along its entire front.

"Steady....steady...." Irion couldn't help whispering, urging his men on.

In the center of the field, the three lumbering juggernauts were slowly closing on the line. Irion snapped a quick order to a messenger.

"Tell any unengaged elves to concentrate on the ‘nauts. And tell the horse archers to try and slow them down."

Skirmishing horse archers closed in around the multi-limbed monstrosities. The ‘nauts wasted valuable time cutting them down. Suddenly, fire blossomed on the side of one of the huge beasts as a magical arrow found its mark. Another explosion followed soon after, but the juggernauts were made of tougher stuff then the fliers.

Irion looked back to the fighting in front of him. The defensive formation of the humans was making the bugs pay, but numbers were taking their inevitable toll. Despite the arrows, the infantry was still outnumbered three to one.

"Tell Estian to attack NOW!"

The messenger galloped down, and soon after the two formations of knights started to move. Each aimed for a different point, they quickly joined the infantry in combat, hacking their way through the fray. Gradually, they emerged on the other side, and Irion was glad to see they were only slightly diminished.


The first detachment of knights moved to aid the suffering horse archers. A hundred lances were leveled at the most massive of the bug creatures. The juggernauts saw them coming, and snapped its four arms into their mass. Irion saw one horse and rider flung completely into the air. But enough lances found their mark, and the jugger toppled. The knights engaged the other two creatures with swords.

The other detachment of knights made straight for the opposite hill. The thin screen of Bugs left on the hill rapidly redeployed, trying to shield their mages from the coming avalanche of flesh and steel. The gestalt shifted its attention from the main battle, and flames blossomed at the front of the column of armored warriors. It stopped them only for a moment, and they tore through the thin line of Bugs. Lances bit into the vulnerable thin-skinned Bug mages. For a moment, the column of knights stood triumphant atop the destroyed circle.

It was only a moment. The knights were rapidly swarmed from all sides by Bug infantry coming over the hill. They fought on with swords, each knight more than a match for his opponent. But the armored warriors were dragged from their saddles one by one, and the Bugs seemed limitless in number.

Estian must have known it was a suicide mission. But he also knew it was they only way we would have half a chance.

Indeed, the tide of the main battle had turned. The small group of human mages on the hilltop with Irion threw spell after spell down into the roiling mass of Bugs. The insectoids burst into flames, disintegrated, or simply toppled for no reason at all. The infantry surged forward, and the Bugs were being pressed back.

A sudden buzzing interrupted. The fliers were coming around for another pass, this time towards the hillside where the little command group was stationed. Layara sent another arrow out, and another dragonfly went down in flames. The mage turned their attention to the fliers, and a half-dozen more burned.

It wouldn't be enough to stop them, Irion saw. "Get down!" He saw Layara ignore him, trying to line up another shot, so he grabbed her arm and dragged her to the ground on top of him. Irion squeezed his eyes shut as he heard the "pink, pink" of deadly spikes landing all around him. Someone let out a short scream that ended in a gurgle.

Then the buzzing was past. The elf archer put her hands on the ground on either side of him and started to lever herself up.

Irion felt the world suddenly shift, his ears popping. Layara gasped slightly, and collapsed on top of him, pressing him to the ground. Irion felt too weak to move anyway. He couldn't have lifted her if he tried. She shivered, breathing in short, convulsive gasps.

Then the feeling of pressure in his inner ear went away. Layara stopped quivering and suddenly went limp, giving out one long exhalation. She breathed out right into Irion's face, and her head slowly sank down, lying sideways on his cheek. Her long hair fell all over his face. Irion waited for her to breathe, to inhale again, but somehow he knew she never would.

There must have been another gestalt. That was a death-spell, and close by, too. That was meant for me. They knew they would get to attack while our mages were distracted.

Feeling weary from more then just the aftereffects of the death-spell's near miss, Irion pushed and rolled the elf woman's body onto the grass next to him. He slowly levered himself to one elbow and looked down at her. Despite her elven pointed ears and slightly unearthly beauty, she looked almost human. Except for her staring, already glazing eyes, she could have still been alive, lying on the grass with her blond hair all laid out around her head.

Irion shook his head, and then reached out one gentle hand to close her green eyes.

Killed, just for standing next to me. Never mind that you saved my life in the process, that you took the death-spell meant for me.

Like me, you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Irion sat up weakly beside Layara's corpse. Sardios was instantly at his side, helping him stand. From his vantage point, he could survey the battle.

Things were not going well. Another juggernaut was down, but the last was advancing again, and no knights were attacking it. The infantry had tightened their semi-circle till it barely enclosed the mouth of the pass, and wave after wave of Bugs battered their closed ranks.

Nor was Layara the only casualty among the command group. A number of the First Guards had died from the flier's bombs. One mage lay face down in a spreading pool of her own blood, a magical sword wound all the way through her chest, and all that was left of another man was his skeleton, charred to the bone by a fireball. Riara was unhurt, Irion was glad to see, but that was just about the only good news.

Irion turned to his messenger. "Tell the infantry to retreat into the pass and regroup at the fortress." He tapped Riara on the shoulder. "We're leaving. Let's go." She and the other two mages mounted up, showing the strain of trying to keep the gestalt from having free reign.

Irion could see their new foe, now, too. Another circle of bloated Bugs had taken the place of the fallen one. Of the knights, there was nothing to be seen.

The First Guards mounted up, and the entire command party rode quickly towards the fortress. Behind them, the infantry withdrew into the narrow defile. Freed from defending such a large area, a small rearguard of humans held the Bugs while the greater part of the remaining army fled down the pass. As the rearguard fell back, slowly but surely, the Bugs advanced. From the rocky walls of the pass, arrows and rocks rained down on the Bug army. At one point, a minor landslide impeded their progress. Magical fire-arrows burst among them, though less effective against massive hordes then single targets.

They came on anyway. The numbers of Bugs seemed limitless. Their fliers swept the pass walls with spiked bombs, sending the archers concealed there tumbling to their doom. Though the human rear-guard fought tenaciously, they were eventually broken, and the Bugs advanced freely down the pass. Irion ordered the massive gates of Fort Leonidas shut only minutes before the front line arrived, and he ran to the main courtyard, trying to outrun the screams of those trapped outside.

The bowmen quickly mounted the walls and began pouring fire into the massed Bug ranks. So great was there number that every arrow found its mark. Irion saw, gloomily, that it would still not be enough.

After five minutes, though, he was perplexed. "Why don't they rush us? What are they waiting for?"

It was a rhetorical question, but Riara answered it. "They're moving the gestalt up. They're waiting for it to arrive."

Five minutes stretched into ten, and then fresh groans on the part of the mages announced the resumption of the struggle.

Irion called to Daryan as the commander walked past.

"Form up facing the main gate, and try and hold as long as possible." Daryan nodded, and the Third Regulars formed up for their final stand.

One by one, the human mages dropped from the defense, to sprawl gasping against the nearest wall. For all the prowess of Riara and her companions, they couldn't match the gestalt for sheer power. Soon only Riara and one other man were left standing.

Irion stared off into space, looking into the deep blue sky above the walls of the ancient fortress.

Well, father. I suppose I'm finally doing what you wanted me to do.

What a sick joke. I never wanted to be a leader, a general. I was always the layabout, the lazy one. Now look at me. Like you wanted me all along...leader of men, defender of the kingdom.

I haven't done a very good job, in that respect. Once we lose here, the Bugs will fall on the unprotected kingdom. The King doesn't understand the magnitude of the threat, and he won't be ready.

This is it. The last stand of men against those things.

And I'm finally going to achieve your ultimate goal. A glorious death, in battle.

Riara finally gave up, gasping. The last man struggled on alone for an instant, and then the gestalt broke through. The last mage suddenly burst outwards in an expanding sphere of dust, caught by a disintegrate spell.

Free of interference, the gestalt worked quickly. The massive wooden door flamed for a second like a roman candle, then sagged to ash. The Bugs flowed in like a tide, met by Daryan's disciplined Regulars. For an instant, it seemed like the wall of shields and pikes might hold. Then the stout ranks were overwhelmed under the mass of insectoids.

"To the tower!" someone cried.

What's the point?

But Irion's body hadn't yet given up. He felt himself help Riara to her feet and start staggering towards the big tower that was the center of the keep. Behind him, the Bugs swarmed over the courtyard.

Irion reached the tower just ahead of the horde. Men of the First Guards fought and died as he edged his way inside. The tower was circular, with a spiral stair going around the outside. The inside was one room per level, with arrow slits looking out. More soldiers stood by the doorway, ready to try and stop the insectoids at any cost. In the end, it was futile.

The Bugs broke through the door guards and swarmed in. Irion drew his own sword, and heard Sardios draw his. What was left of the First Guards fought as well as they could. Irion tried to hold off the bugs as he backed slowly up the stairs, Sardios at his side.

Suddenly, Riara stumbled. Irion, supporting her, almost fell himself. A Bug, triumphant, raised its wicked claws high.

Sardios's outstretched blade smashed it into the wall. The big black man waded into the swarm.

"Go, Lord Irion! Go!"

That's the longest speech I've ever heard him make.

Irion ran up the stairs in a daze, holding Riara up with one arm. The sounds of battle drifted far behind him. He was startled for a moment when he ran out of steps, confronted with a heavy, steel-bound oak door. He pushed it open, and staggered into the tower's top room. As the sounds of bug pursuit came up the spiral stairway, he laid Riara down and pushed the door shut again, twisting the key in the lock.

He turned back into the room. There was only one window, looking out on the fort and past it into the kingdom. That view, at least, was unsullied by Bugs. Down in the courtyard, he could see nothing human moving.

He heard the Bugs outside his door, and waited for them to break it down, but it didn't come. Irion knelt by Riara. For the first time he noticed the pool of blood spreading from her left side. Carefully, he lifted the remnants of her shirt away from the wound - three long gouges in her soft flesh, left by Bug claws.

He looked again at the door and saw that it was surrounded by a yellowish field of magical energy, stopping the Bug's talons from having an effect. Riara looked up at him.

"It'll...stop...them...for a while." Irion could see the drain of casting the spell would finish her.

"Don't, Riara."

She smiled, the coughed. Blood flecked her lips.

" live, ...Lord...Iri..." Riara's head lolled back, coming to rest on the cold stone. Irion stood up, away from her.

WHY? Why do they all think that I'm worth their lives? I'm not even a real general, just a stay-at-home, a lazy kid who read war novels in his spare time.

Why would they sacrifice themselves for me?

A length of time passed. Irion wasn't sure how long. It didn't matter. He sat in the room, facing the window, away from the door. Riara was sprawled in front of him, and his sword was in his hand. Irion waited for death.

The energy field on the door crackled, sparked and vanished under another kind of assault. Strong Bug talons lifted the door off its hinges. Irion grabbed his sword, turned around, and waited.

The rush didn't come. Instead, the Bugs drew back from the door, as if in respect. Irion waited, watching carefully.

Slowly, ever so slowly, a Bug edged itself round the side of the door. It was bigger, a head taller then the normal Bugs. Its claws were withered and atrophied, and its chitin wrinkled and soft. Its eyes, huge, white, and blind, stared past Irion into infinity.


Irion's instincts screamed at him to take the sword and bash the thing into oblivion while he had the chance. He raised the blade and took a half-step forward. Then he stopped.

What's the point? Why fight them anymore?

The Bug stepped into the room almost daintily. Despite its obvious blindness, it had some way of viewing the world. Magic, probably.

"What do you want, monster?"

The Bug didn't answer. Irion suddenly realized that he didn't even know if it could talk. No-one had ever communicated with a Bug. As far as he knew, no-one had even tried.

"Not like you gave us a chance, though. First we knew of you was when you attacked, killing anyone who got in your way. Not exactly the way to establish a peaceful relationship."

The Bug was still silent. It walked all the way around the tiny room, talons clicking on the stone floor. Irion's eye followed it, but he didn't move.

"What are you doing here?"

The gestalt member walked towards him, and Irion half-raised his sword again before remembering it didn't matter. This thing was part of the gestalt; it could blow him away without raising an eyebrow.

The Bug knelt at Irion's feet, in front of Riara's body.

"Stay away from her, monster."

The thing ignored his command. Gently, it lifted her head with one of its arms, raised her limp hand with another. Two pairs of sightless eyes met; one glazed and dead, the other white and blind.

Irion had his sword ready, now. "I told you to leave her alone. She's dead already. Isn't that enough?"

Gently, the Bug lowered the green-haired mage to the floor. It stood to its full height, topping Irion by a good foot. The thing stepped easily over the dead body and made its way to the window. Irion followed.

The Bug stood, staring into the distance. Irion wanted to see what had so absorbed it, but the thing blocked his sight. Finally, it turned away, and he looked himself.

Irion stood staring out the window for a long time. A few errant tears escaped and fell down his cheek. Finally, he turned.

"Now..." He stopped. The room was empty. The gestalt was gone. Moreover, he couldn't hear any of the Bug warriors at the door anymore. Something was different...

Riara's chest moved, ever so slightly. Her lips parted, and a thin stream of blood trickled out. Irion was at her side in a flash.

Her eyes flickered open and focused. She tried to speak, but ended up coughing instead, bubbles of blood appearing on her lips.

"Shhh..." he said.

She tried to smile.

" would...think of something...Lord...Irion."

Outside the window, unheeded, a long snake curved its way towards the pass. Knights in shining armor, with banners snapping in the wind. Footmen marching alongside, pikes and bows honed to a razor edge. A King's Legion, and more. Below him, Irion could hear the Bugs pulling out, abandoning the ground they had fought so dearly for. Irion, staring down at Riara, didn't care.
© 2000 Django Wexler

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