Riale used to jealously guard his uncrossed lines. Then, the war began to take them from him—one by one, battle by battle. But he didn’t have time for such impractical thoughts.
He peered through his telescope. From his vantage point on a low ridge, he could see the orange river snaking its way across the charred landscape. Sparks danced across the surface of the smoldering lava, and smoke billowed upward. He wiped his brow. Even from this distance, he could feel the heat.
For a moment—before he could smother it—Riale felt the urge to run, to flee this hellscape. He could return to the Gavorian countryside, live out the rest of his days in the lowlands with what remained of his family. He could farm rice and leave this godforsaken war to the others.
But, with practiced discipline, Riale took a deep breath and swallowed the thought. Wishful thinking wouldn’t help him now.
He directed his gaze toward the village—a loose collection of crude buildings on either shore. The structures nearest the river burned red hot at their foundations, mere inches above the lava. A broad grated bridge—forged from pure alloy—spanned the width of the river at its narrowest point. Somehow able to withstand the heat, the bridge was an architectural wonder. It was also the village’s doom.
Riale collapsed his telescope and turned back to the cadre of young men lying prone on the hillside. They watched with eager eyes through their goggled helmets. Riale gave them the signal to start slowly crawling down the slope toward the river.
As they began to move, their equipment clanged loudly, piercing the silent blackness of the night. “Quiet,” he growled.
The soldiers were as green as they came. He was too at their age, back when the war had just broken out. It felt like an eternity since then—since the Kazadra attacked.
Riale remembered seeing the necromancers—adorned with obsidian armor, black as night—marching across the golden plains. In their wake, followed the unholy armies of the dead. Men, dwarves, beasts. The Kazadra weren’t picky about their corpses.
The rest of that day was a series of blurs. The smell of rotting corpses. Screams, human and inhuman alike. Running until his legs felt like they would give out. Running until his parents’ legs did give out. Leaving them behind. Tears. Lots of tears.
Over his sisters’ protests, he enlisted the next day, taking an oath to destroy Gavoria’s enemies.
He wondered now if the war would ever subside. Those first few cycles, the thought of peace was a foreign one. He was eager for vengeance, willing to do whatever it took to crush the Kazadra’s hordes. And so he did—steadily forfeiting his uncrossed lines, earning medals and ranks in return.
As Riale and his soldiers inched their way closer to the village, Riale could make out several sentries patrolling the eastern shore. The creatures weren’t quite men, nor were they animals. According to the scribes, they were a people called the Embers.
The Embers walked on two legs, their faces dominated by curved tusks and perfectly circular mouths full of sharp teeth. Their hides were thick and hairy, capable of keeping the creatures cool in even the harshest heat. They subsisted mainly on fire otters and other animals native to the region’s lava rivers. And thanks to their molten homeland, the Embers were perhaps the best metalworkers in all the world.
But none of that mattered. Riale was not deep in the Lava Fields to learn about the culture and subsistence of an obscure river folk. He was here because the Embers had a large bridge. A large bridge for which Gavoria had a purpose.
Early in the war, Gavorian forces managed to expel the necromancers from their land. But then the Kazadra dug in. Trenches crisscrossed the land, ugly scars to mark an ugly conflict. And so the War Council devised a plan. The Gavorian army would cut across the Lava Fields and launch a surprise attack on the Kazadra flank. It could end the war.
Riale’s task was easy enough, at least as the War Council framed it. He was to secure the bridge—the only way to move large numbers across the lava river. But Riale had been a soldier long enough to know that easy tasks drawn up in dark rooms looked different when carried out. In reality, he was to lead an unprovoked attack on a peaceful village in the middle of the night because its people had something his people wanted. But how he characterized it didn’t matter. His orders were clear.
The soldiers slowly arose from their prone positions and crept toward the sleeping village. They were close enough to the river now that Riale could hear the lava bubbling. The air was hot, devoid of any moisture. Every breath left his lungs stinging.
Riale took cover behind the nearest building. He lowered his goggles and slowly unsheathed his sabre, his soldiers following suit. In his free hand, he pulled his black powder pistol from its holster. The others waited for him to give the signal.
Despite himself, he thought back to that day in the field with his family. He remembered watching as the hordes of undead tore his neighbors to pieces. He remembered asking his parents why. Why would the Kazadra attack them? “There is no reason, son,” his father had said.
Riale swallowed the thought. After a long pause, he gestured toward the bridge with his pistol—the signal for which the soldiers were waiting.
Chaos erupted. Riale leapt from his cover and dashed to the nearest Ember. The sentry’s eyes went wide, unable to comprehend what was happening. The creature managed to lower its head—bearing its tusks—but was hopelessly outmatched as Riale unleashed a whirlwind of devastating strikes with his saber. It was no more.
The soldiers poured into the streets, stabbing at the meager defenders. The Embers were felled instantly. The troops may have been green, but this place—little more than a fishing village—wasn’t destined to be the scene of a great battle.
Frightened Ember children peered out of their windows at the massacre. Riale dared not look at them.
He had tried to avoid this outcome. “Why can’t we just seek their leave to cross?” he had asked the War Council.
“Too risky,” a grizzled old general had replied. “It only takes one of them to warn the Kazadra, and then we’ll be fighting this damn war a dozen cycles longer.”
As the soldiers gathered the dead Embers in a pile in the middle of the village, Riale saw the creatures on the opposite shore begin moving onto the bridge. They formed a line that spanned the width of the structure, consolidating their remaining defenses. They held long alloy spears—defensive weapons designed to keep attackers at a distance.
Riale remembered when his town’s militia tried to hold off the Kazadra, his brother among their ranks. They fought as the rest of the village escaped. They had made Gavoria proud, but pride—unlike the Kazadra necromancers—could not bring back the dead.
“Form ranks!” Riale shouted. His soldiers quickly formed two perfectly staggered lines.
“Advance!” Riale’s soldiers marched in step onto the bridge where the Ember defenders stood ready to meet them. But it was a meeting that would never materialize.
“Halt!” The soldiers stopped. The opposing lines faced each other, bathed in the eerie orange light of the lava river below them.
“Draw!” The soldiers drew their black powder pistols.
“Aim!” The soldiers leveled their weapons at the Ember phalanx.
Riale looked down his pistol’s sights at the Ember directly in front of him. It was an intimidating creature—a head taller than Riale, a thick hide, curved tusks as long as a man’s arm—but Riale saw the truth. Its arms shook so violently it could barely hold its spear. Its circular mouth—full of dagger-sharp teeth—was framed by trembling lips. Its eyes were wide as saucers. It knew it was going to die, and it didn’t know why.
Riale thought about his ever-dwindling bundle of uncrossed lines. He hoped that the day would come when he would have the courage to leave one uncrossed. But today was not a day that he could indulge in such impractical thoughts.