After an expensive victory that left the Godvildian forces with only five of their ninety-five soldiers, Akshay Bahrain sat atop his self-constructed throne bubbling with frustration. His eyes scanned what was left of his camp — tents unoccupied and soldiers worn with fear, deathly pale. It was their first march as soldiers for the Godvildian race, training merely.
“An ambush within our borders,” said Akshay with some concern. “I didn’t expect the Relictan to so boldly shatter the treaty in place.”
He lit his pipe and opened a gourd of wine in isolated celebration. Not one of his men felt the need to join him save one, a trusted general. Akshay was an exceptional presence in the World of Transition, wearing clothes befitting a nobleman — a shield stitched onto his right sleeve. He carried himself with an air of grandeur and the Godvildian kind loved him for it; after all, he was a man of legend.
Despite everything, he had just defeated an army two-thousand-strong. Such was his brilliance; a man of unbeaten calibre. Akshay Bahrain was the Godvildian kind’s greatest, most decorated tactician.
He adjusted his thinly-rimmed spectacles and viewed the rocky, dessert-like plains that had aided him in his victory today, masking a faint smile.
“Care for a celebratory drink, General?” asked Akshay, offering his gourd to the man beside him. “I’m sure you’re of the same mind as me.”
“There is pleasure in victory, my lord,” the man said, accepting the drink. “Regardless of the loss that comes with it; this is what keeps us steady in our will to protect what’s behind us.”
“The survivors today will only become greater in the future, Aayush,” said Akshay. “Some of them might even have lives as long as ours.”
Aayush Khanna was his lord’s opposite, a man with an athletic constitution and armour that bore the mark of a shield. To outsiders, Aayush and Akshay may have looked akin to friends more than commander and subordinate. It was a common sight among those that served under Lord Bahrain, a plump man with a friendly and kind approach to leadership.
“I have often wondered, my lord,” said Aayush, returning the gourd. “Is it really right for us to have lived as long as we have?”
“People have called me a master in the art of warfare; they call me undefeated as a commander,” said Akshay. “Little do they understand the price that comes with the title. I have seen many soldiers and generals perish under my command, loyal to a fault. I understand what you mean; they deserved it more — a life of peace.”
Aayush simply smiled, knowing that there was nothing more he could add. He had seen his fair share of war and the passing of several comrades with it. But just as his thoughts delved into deeper nostalgia, the sound of something from the sky alerted him. He raised his head to find a white-breasted hawk approach, a message with it.
“Easy there, Sofia,” said Aayush, holding out his arm for the bird to rest on. “I wonder what this is all about.”
General Khanna scanned the parchment’s contents with haste, and then once more before handing the message over to his lord. He waited in silence and followed when Akshay stepped out from the comfort of his chair.
“Gather around!” commanded Aayush. “Lord Bahrain wishes to relay a message.”
The audience approached, meagre in number and disheartened still from the ambush. Their inexperience showed, both in form and spirit.
“Disgusting,” said Akshay, alerting his soldiers in an instant. “You stand atop a mountain of corpses, those of your fallen comrades; is this the face you honour them with?”
Lord Bahrain raised his voice with every word, passionate in his address. He frowned when his voice failed to spur a response, his soldiers dull still.
“You are all I’ve got presently,” Akshay slowly said. “You were all I had when the enemy ambushed us, two-thousand strong. An onlooker could have been pardoned for assuming them the victor.”
“And yet here we stand,” said Aayush, sounding genuinely proud. “You lot fought like veteran soldiers for a bunch of children.”
The five soldiers shifted uneasily, looking amongst each other for an answer. A little life returned to their eyes, but not enough to engage in conversation.
“It may be difficult to remember,” said Akshay. “But the spirit of your comrades, they stay with you. The blood you shed in battle, it weaves a bond stronger than even the familial kind. It’s how we keep moving forward; a silent promise to those that have fallen so we may live on in their stead, for them.”
“We’re sure you wouldn’t understand it just yet,” added Aayush. “But to walk the path of a coward given the loss we dealt with today, it’s a disservice to them.”
Words did not follow, and Akshay held his breath in eager anticipation. He had seen dejected men fall victim to weakness before, rarely did they ever arise to grasp onto the concept of strength. Akshay felt differently about his soldiers. In a different scenario, he may have even given them more time to recuperate. But the message delivered to him by Sofia allowed no such liberty. It was a ticking clock, and the Godvildian Lord needed his soldiers.
“You’re right,” one of the soldiers said, weakly. “We can’t stop, not now.”
Akshay watched his men lower their heads, fists clenched. They stood restless, disappointed at the thought of having failed their lord. In silent agreement, they looked to each other for support. These were bonds forged in the thick of battle, strengthened further by emotions of hatred and respect.
“We are yours to command, my lord,” they said in unison as they knelt in apology to the mark they chose to serve. “We plead that you punish us for our incompetence; whatever you may deem appropriate.”
“Put those thoughts aside,” said Akshay, exchanging a smile with his general. “There’s no time for that. We are to prepare for battle, and should any of you wish to leave, I suppose now is as good a time as any.”
“We stand loyal,” they said, stronger in their desire to make amends.
Akshay laughed aloud, wary that the odds were not in his favour. It didn’t matter. He thought back to a time when death frightened him, perhaps it still did. Thousands of years alive, hundreds of battles won, millions of lives lost, and Akshay stood as is — experienced and with power unrivaled.
“Then we march to the Bridge of Souls,” said Akshay. “It’s going to be a hard journey, but I’m sure we’re more than capable of handling it.”
That’s right. It didn’t matter. Akshay Bahrain did rank as one of the three, after all.
Oblivious to the abnormalities of the outside world, the town of Little Guard celebrated. Balloons decorated the skies and the townspeople danced underneath it to merry music from street performers. Raego stood at the centre of all the attention, a General under Aaron Heart’s command. He didn’t expect it, to be treated as an iconic figure — a hero, even.
A little distance away, the bell from Little Guard’s central tower rang, its sound echoing throughout the city. And atop the magnificent structure of finely chiselled stone, stood another figure — mysterious in his aura. Dressed in nothing but dark clothes, his focus remained more toward the town’s roadways and architecture.
“I see no more than four paths,” he whispered. “Perhaps one more?”
His breathing slowly synchronized to the clangs of the bell, isolating his mind from every other sound the town had to offer. Little Guard had vanished with nothing more than the bell to signify its existence. A gentle breeze forced his hood off, revealing a pair of crimson eyes that may have intimidated even the fiercest of warriors.
As Raego walked amongst the crowd, the man atop Little Guard’s central tower stepped ahead — only his heels on solid foundation. At the right distance, the latter slipped off from the edge in a single fluid motion that maintained his posture. Halfway through, the man dematerialized, only to appear once more amongst the crowd.
He flowed through the people, manoeuvring his every move, never colliding. It was to his advantage that Raego chose to walk with his people and not ride the palanquin. Not one citizen noticed the man, cloaked and hidden. Within striking distance, the events that followed lasted mere seconds — from a hidden knife that slipped onto his hand to him throwing it at Raego’s neck.
Aaron’s General died before having even dropped to his knees. And as the crowd helplessly rushed to his aid after a moment of shock, the assassin moved away. He slipped through torrents of people from the opposite direction, disappearing entirely. From one of the routes he had identified, the man later appeared in a dark alley to meet with someone else.
“It is done,” he said without emotion.
“You’ve served me well always, Vincent,” praised his employer. “I must leave now, but you will hear from me soon.”