Emrys sat alongside five other knights, all of them knowing tonight would be their last alive.
The flames of their campfire flickered in the wind. He pushed a log into the midst of it and listened to it crackle. The surrounding knights—the ones that could eat—picked bones out of river fish. Emrys dropped the corpse of a fish in the grass, grabbed a stick, and drew in the dirt.
“One more time?” Bran asked.
“Yeah,” Emrys said, nodding. He drew the village in three squares, sealing the exit points off with a thick line. They’d spent the morning moving furniture and bundles of wood to blockade the paths out and did not have the time to set traps as they hoped.
The others around the campfire watched him draw.
“They’ll crowd up here,” he said, pointing the stick at the space below the three squares—the village gates. “They’ll break off into three paths, following the rows of torches we set. The light will draw them in and anger them.”
Emrys drew two Xs on the left path. “Bran,” he said, looking over. “You and your brother will position here. It’s a narrow path, you’ve seen it. You can’t fight side by side. Watch the torches and don’t burn yourself.”
Bran nodded. Beside him, his brother watched an ant crawl over the Xs with a distant, detached look. Emrys had seen it in knights before as they readied for wars they could not win. No avoiding or running from it now.
“Hey,” Emrys said, “we’ll die with honor for the people. It’s better than dying on a battlefield for riches.”
“My life and blade are yours,” the kid replied. “It’s just hard to think my time as a knight would be over so soon.”
Emrys drew three X’s on the right side, the village path beside the river. The parasites avoided water where they could—it would drown the fungus growing on their skin. It made for a solid wall against them.
He looked over to the graying captain. The firelight flickered, painting his scarred face in an orange glow. The captain adjusted his eye patch and stood up, balancing himself on his spear. Two of his elites dropped their gutted fish to stand with him.
“Aye,” the captain said, “didn’t think I’d be the one taking orders here.”
Emrys grinned. “Yeah, well, I didn’t think you’d follow me here. Sure you won’t trip in battle? Or lose to your blindside?”
“A lot of talk for someone who couldn’t hold a sword before meeting me.”
They laughed. A sound that startled the others. Emrys pointed the stick down to the right side and circled the river.
“You and your two elites will stand your ground here. It’s a wide path, and you’ll have the space to fight together if you chose to. Push the parasites into the water whenever you can, it’ll slow them down.” Emrys drew one last X on the center path, “I’ll-”
“You’re sure you want to handle the middle alone?” Bran said. “Spare one number on the right side and it’ll even us out.”
“I’m a flamewalker, Bran,” he said, “this is my purpose.”
“Overconfidence like that, lad,” Zeph said, inspecting his weapon, “will be the death of us. Still, it’s better not to fight near him. A flamewalker’s power is wild.”
The raw, earthy smell of the parasites drifted in the wind. The horde of them neared. He could see their figures sway in the dark, approaching down the path. Over seventy of them, en route to farmlands that the king had decided to be less important than wars against his own people.
“Positions!” Zeph shouted. “Recognize your honor, accept your destiny, and exceed it, men! Know that it is not death that separates us from those fighting under a banner, but the path we take. We fight for the people, we hold our ground until our last breath, and we face it with our heads held high!”
The men did not lose the hopeless look in their eyes, but they stood taller as they marched off to protect the village. Emrys looked over to the river where their seventh slept. Slept. Through the planning, the meal, and the pungent smell of the parasites, their seventh ‘knight’ slept. He nodded to Zeph and left to approach the fool.
“Wake up,” he said, nudging the tan-skinned man with his boots. “They’re here.”
“Already, huh?” the fool yawned. He brushed loose grass off of his cotton robes and got to his feet. “Thought I could get five more minutes. You wouldn’t mind waking me up then-”
“You don’t have to fight with us,” Emrys said. “You’re no knight. You’ve served your duty leading us here, and now, you’re free to run.”
“You mistake me, fireborn.” The fool tightened the leather wrap around his head. “My lineage may not be from here, but we’re the stock of warriors. We’ve fought the parasites for generations.” He stretched his arms behind him. “You couldn’t be asking me to miss a battle as exciting as this, could you?”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
The fool picked up his sickle-shaped axe and jogged to the village. Emrys followed behind, unsheathing his sword, listening to the metal scrape against its casing. He walked along the dirt path, past vacated houses and a stone well. The fire from the rows of torches whispered to him.
“Goddess!” he called. He stopped and raised his sword to the sky. “Hear my prayers and grant me your blessings!”
Fire erupted across the steel of his sword, down to the hilt, singeing his gloves yet leaving his skin untouched. Torches around him surged, clouds of sparks raining down. The bright glow reflected in empty windows like brazen sunlight. The horde approached, frenzied at the sight of fire. If they made it past the village, they would destroy acres of farmland, and mass starvation would follow.
Emrys cried out and charged at them.
- - -
Bran gripped the hilt of his sword two-handed, point facing up. The parasites ahead, yellowed bodies swarmed with fungus, fought each other for space in the narrow pathway. They pushed and shoved each other, knocking down torches and stomping over the fires, emitting their frenzied, broken growls. Like starving hounds, he thought. Dozens of them.
This would be the end, wouldn’t it?
He turned to face his brother.
“Niel,” he said. The younger knight stood a few paces behind. A spitting image of himself. The same blond hair, a shade from golden, shining in the torchlight. The same stance and grip—a decade of training in identical ways. They could’ve been twins if not separated by a few years.
“Kill any that pass me. Do not falter when I fall.”
Niel affixed his helmet and nodded. The parasites tripped and crawled over each other as they neared. Their claws scraped against the surrounding homes, carving deep into the wood, their legs breaking into porches. The younger knight lowered his visor.
“Do you think this is how mother would want us to go out?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Bran said, turning to the horde, “dying with honor, for the good of the people, instead of fighting for riches under a tyrant’s banner? It’s how she envisioned us.”
He couldn’t wield flame like Emrys, or lead men like Zeph, but years of training, sparring, and fighting on the battlefield made him as strong a knight as any of them. Damn it, he used to best Emrys before his pact with the goddess. Why didn’t the goddess choose him instead?
The first parasite swung its moss-covered claws at him, and he pivoted to dodge. The momentum left it stumbling behind him, where Niel struck with an overhead blow. His sword dug into the monster’s skull with the sound of an axe chopping wood. Amber-colored blood sprayed out as Niel kicked the parasite off his blade.
Bran stepped forward, deflecting a parasite, the steel of his sword scraping against their claws. He swung and cut through their tree-bark-like armor. The parasites struggled to surround him in the narrow pathway and didn’t have the mind of men to coordinate their attacks. Their claws ripped through the air, striking at their own kind, coating the dirt in their amber blood.
He pivoted as one lunged. Niel cried out behind him at every strike. Bran shoved his shoulder into another, then impaled it with his sword, driving the point through their infected heart. He wrenched the blade out as claws scraped the backside of his armor. A second set cut through his shoulder plates.
“Bran!” Niel called. “Help!”
The younger knight couldn’t free his sword from the neck of a parasite—wedged halfway through at an uneven angle. Bran rushed to help, but a set of claws hooked into his armor and pulled him back. The warm trickle of blood seeped down his shoulder.
Niel’s body hit the ground with a thud, a parasite clawing through his chest plate, digging into his skin and ripping apart organs. He choked out blood, looking over to his brother with stunned eyes through the slits of his visor.
Bran punched the parasite who grabbed at his shoulder and broke from its grasp. He brought his sword down with enough force to decapitate the one trying to puke the virus into Niel. The fungus-coated head rolled down the path, and the parasites stopped.
Bran stood over his brother’s dying body. He readied himself.
“None of you,” he muttered, “will step over his corpse.”
- - -
Zeph wheezed for air as he leaned against his spear. Damn old age. He couldn’t move or think like he used to. He did better at shouting orders, getting men into formations, or training them to carry weapons. Decades had passed since he fought like this.
He kicked his spear up and shoved the blunt end of it into a parasite’s chest, breaking apart a flat cap mushroom. He then spun the weapon and swung it in an arc, slitting the monster’s throat. Blood sprayed as it staggered backward. Three more moved to take its place.
“Can’t give me a break, huh?” he said, glancing to the right. Damned blind spot. That glance cost him a good second. One of his elites rushed up beside him, spear at the ready.
“I’m with you, captain,” Valan said.
“He’s dead, sir. Died a true knight.”
Zeph grunted. It always stung when the ones he’d trained fell. At least Eltin died with honor, which Zeph couldn’t say for all the men he taught. Knowing that made it worse.
He shrugged off the feeling—no time to grieve on the battlefield—and glanced to his right. Valan tripped a parasite beside him and impaled it, the spearhead shattering through the armor. Good lad. He’d shown him that move himself.
A parasite swung, and Zeph ducked back. He struck with his spear, pushing the blunt end against the parasite’s fungal coated arms, then shoved it to the side. It toppled over into the river, rising and splashing its arms like a panicked child.
He shot a glance at his blind spot. One parasite punched at his head. Zeph turned and blocked with his spear, locking the weapon between the monster’s claws. He pushed it off, then stabbed in one forward, forceful motion. The spear punctured one of the creature’s mycelium-coated eyes.
There are too damn many.
“Valan!” Zeph shouted. “Formation!”
Valan stumbled about, swinging his spear in wild arcs. A claw wound had dug deep into his chest. The dying knight cried out as he swung, the fading power in his strikes dropping none of the parasites surrounding him.
Another one gone. Zeph backed up against the blockade and breathed in.
He too would die with honor.
- - -
Emrys brought his blade up and waved it in the air. Loose trails of fire split off the steel. He stood among dozens of bodies, his face, hair, and armor coated in amber blood. The smell of plagued, burning mushrooms kept him alert.
“I’ll take all of you!” he shouted. “Everyone of you diseased bastards!”
Another rushed him in a frenzied lurch. His blade struck deep into the creature’s arm, and the fire surged. Scattered leaves beneath him caught aflame from loose embers, curling up and burning to ashes. He pivoted his foot to stab another, commanding the fire to burst as he did. The impaled parasite erupted into flames.
The fool had died beside him. He’d lost his sickle-shaped axe and fought with a torch, drawing them away. They overwhelmed and tore the fool apart, and the man had laughed as they did.
More approached, and Emrys raised a hand in front of him.
“Goddess!” he called.
Fire formed on his fingertips. It coalesced in his palm, forming into a steady stream of flame to torch those in front of him. He shot the wave of fire, sweeping his hand from one side to another, watching the parasites spasm and burn. He listened to their inhuman, mangled cries as they burnt into heaps of blackened, charred bodies.
He fought until the sun broke on the horizon. Not a parasite remained.
- - -
The flamewalker wandered over to the narrow path. Both knights lay dead. Niel, with his chest plate torn open, his eyes wide open beneath his visor. Bran, sitting against the wall, a mountain of corpses surrounding him.
He would burn both their bodies, lest they become parasites themselves.
Another set of footsteps tapped against the ground behind him. Too light to be a parasite. Emrys turned, hoping to see Zeph or one of his two elites, but stood facing the fool. The man’s robes dripped with parasite blood, with burnt patches, and rips from claws, yet he stood with as much energy as when they started.
“Are you immortal?” Emrys asked.
“How many did you kill, fireborn? There were over seventy-”
“Our fight is over.” He stared at the man. He watched him die hours ago. The fool had laughed as claws tore him limb from limb. “Are you hurt?” Emrys asked as he rested his hand against a wall.
The fool patted himself over. “Not a scratch. Could do this again if another horde comes through. I’d need something to eat, though. Skipping out on the fish was a mistake.”
Emrys walked past him, dropping his sword. It clattered against the ground.
“What are you doing now, fireborn?”
“Burning the bodies of my allies.” The fool followed him into the center path, stepping around burnt corpses and jumping over a loose fire. “Might take a month to rest after. Hone my abilities as a flamewalker. Then, I’ll find someone to sail me out west, where they’re overrun with parasites. I’ll rid this world of them myself.”
“Honorable,” the fool said. “Stupid, yet honorable. There are others like you, you know? You could find and unite them, or you could sail to the land of a million parasites alone. Surely not even you could take that many on. But could you seek and unite the rest of the world’s fireborn?”
Emrys turned to the fool and grunted.