© Paul Kupperberg
The demon army withdrew as the sun began to set. The soldiers of Atlantis staggered about the battlefield, giving aid to fallen comrades and dispatching the wounded among their foes. Kahna did what she could, binding wounds, offering water to the casualties, holding the hand of a young man, a boy more than a man, really, as he died from his wounds, tears streaking his face. She wondered how his mother would feel when she received the news, then quickly banished the thought from her mind.
As she made her way across the battlefield, among the dead both human and demonic, Kahna gathered what she needed from those who had fallen. A scabbard and belt for her sword, a sleeve of armored mail to protect her sword arm, a small round shield of metal, covered in layers of thick hide. Miraculously, she found her bedroll on the side of the road. She never saw the horse again.
The armies of Atlantis regrouped up the road, away from the blood and carnage. There would be no time to bury the dead now.
Kahna sat with a dazed and silent group of infantry from the City of the Mists, warming themselves before a small fire as they made of meal of dried meats and leather-tough biscuits. A clatter of hoofs roused Kahna from her post-battle exhaustion and she looked to see the commander of the army of the City of the Stars and his lieutenants rein up their horses near her campfire.
The commander regarded her. “You are the old woman who fights like a well-trained youth,” he said to her.
Her companions leapt to their feet in the presence of so lofty a personage. Kahna did not rise. “I suppose I am,” she said wearily.
“From where do you hail, mother?” asked one of the lieutenants.
“From the City of the Stars and the City of the Archers,” she said. “Take your pick. And,” she added, staring darkly at the fresh faced officer, “I am not your mother.”
The boy flinched and his commander pretended not to notice. “I hear you are much the warrior,” sniffed the commander. “I hear, too, that you call yourself Kahna and seek the presence of our lord, the mage Thalis.”
“What exactly is your business with Lord Thalis?” the commander said, finally asking the question that had brought him here.
“It is my business,” she said.
The commander raised an eyebrow, then glanced briefly at each of his lieutenants. “I see,” he said.
“Have you much experience battling demons, commander?” she asked before he could think of a way to rephrase his question.
He blinked. “Well...no,” he said. “Have you?”
She nodded. “Enough to know they like to attack in the night, especially after first softening up their foes.”
The commander blinked again.
In the night, the first shrill war cries of the demon army were met with the blaring of trumpets and the roar of the men of the Atlantean army.
* * *
Kahna could not describe the beasts she fought through the night. They were large, with leathery skin as tough as armor. She would catch only the briefest glimpse of them in the flickering light of a torch or a body aflame from eldritch fires, but she did not care what they looked like. All she knew was that they died when cut and did not seem to be particularly clever in the ways of combat. They would come screaming in from the darkness, all but announcing their presence and she would thrust her sword at them, taking their heads, severing limbs, slicing open their bellies, robbing them of whatever manner of life they may have possessed.
Not that it mattered. They were cannon fodder, of course. Savage, snarling monsters sent to weaken and decimate the human troops before they reached the First City. The Darkness fairly crawled with such beasts, all waiting the opportunity to break free to feast on humanity. No doubt the armies racing to defend Atlantis from all points on the compass were being thus met. Whoever, whatever, commanded this hellish army, had sprung wide the gates of Hell and set loose all that was evil and dark.
Kahna battled well past the hour she felt she could fight no longer.
* * *
Kahna slept as one dead, her head resting on her unopened bedroll and her sword, still sticky from the blood and gore of combat, near at hand.
By dawn’s light, the demon army withdrew. They left behind only the rapidly decaying remains of their defeated and the masses of human dead. From her brief survey of the battlefield, it seemed as many as half the soldiers she had marched with the previous day had lost their lives to the demons. The number of demonic dead was even greater, but that did not matter. Their population was near limitless, with only the magical barriers between the Darkness and the mundane world preventing them from overrunning mankind. Rare was the power that could breach those barriers, but such a power now held the First City hostage.
As she slept, near paralyzed with exhaustion, Kahna dreamed. The battle between man and demon raged around her, but she held no sword, no weapon of any kind. Across the field where she walked, thick with blood red mud and fallen warriors, two young girls, sobbing in fear, called out to her. Kahna wanted to go to them, but her way was blocked by the swirl of combat. A step in the wrong direction would mean her death.
But those poor children...
They clung to one other, faces smeared with tears and dirt and gore. Demonic forms fell around them. Soldiers on horseback jumped over their huddled forms. Swords and arrows and spears whistled through the air mere inches from them. No one else seemed to notice or care they were there. Kahna had to save them, but did she dare change her course and go to them?
“Mama,” the children screamed in horror, a decapitated head landing at their feet.
Kahna closed her eyes and turned her head so she would not have to watch them suffer any longer.
“Mama!” Their voices pierced the din of battle.
Kahna awoke with a start, screaming out the names of Malasa’s children.
Shaking, she decided she had slept enough for now.
To be concluded!