Fire stood crouched with his shield held out in front of him and his spear poised to strike. Lin Jassa followed, bow in hand, fingers resting on the arrow pouch that hung from his belt. Fifty shields shimmered in the sun as a hundred sets of eyes assessed the enemy.
In the camp, the movement had stopped. The carts halted, and each creature turned to face them. Their faces were hidden beneath masks, but even so, Lin Jassa could feel their surprise, and their fear.
The brothers took a step forward. Breathing in. Breathing out.
Another step, steadying shaky hands.
The creatures below had abandoned their work and rushed away, hiding themselves inside the carts, or darting back within the strong walls of their tents. Alone, the carts began to move again, but now they were coming toward the sworn brothers.
A hundred feet rose and fell. The carts came a little nearer before stopping.
The brothers halted at the order. For a moment, silence reigned in the valley. Then came the soft sound of the father’s cane in the sand as he made his way to the front. When he arrived at the edge of the semicircle they had drawn, he stopped. With an extravagant bow, the father held out the fanghorn and lay it on the ground before him.
“We bring no war!” he called to the cart that stood only fifty feet in front of him. “We desire for peace, and come to―” he stopped with a flinch.
A hatch opened on the side of one of the carts, accompanied by a loud screech. Out of the cart stepped three of the creatures. Lin Jassa saw that the armor they wore was, in fact, very thick, and covered them completely.
Painted on each one of their chests were the yellow stars of their tribe, and upon their heads were helmets like no others Lin Jassa had seen. They were round and shone like water, vaguely reflecting the world around them. So they must be gods! Two of them carried the twisted black weapons, and Lin Jassa was surprised to see that neither had any sort of blade.
The three creatures walked to within ten feet of the father; then they halted, and the center one raised a hand. He spoke from behind the helmet in a foreign tongue. It sounded as if his words were travelling through water.
The father remained kneeling and now, he lifted the horn higher, his head still bent low.
“Take,” he said.
The creature that had spoken came near and took the horn from his hands, but instead of blowing it and finalizing the peace, he handed it to one of the others who slung it over his shoulder. The sworn brothers shifted uncomfortably. Why don’t they blow it? We could kill them easily. Don’t they know what that means?
The three creatures turned to leave, weapons lowered as they trudged through the red sand. A loud shout broke the silence as Fire charged forward.
“No,” said the father, a pained look on his face. But it was already too late.
Fire threw his spear with all of his might, sending it soaring through the air. The one who had spoken turned in time to see the spear before it ran through his gut. Apparently, the armor they wore wasn’t as thick as it looked.
Another spear flew from another sworn brother, this one piercing the neck of the one who held the horn. The third creature lifted his strange weapon and pointed it toward Fire. Noiselessly, a beam of light flew from it.
Fire held up his shield, but the moment the light had stopped, he collapsed to the ground. There was another beam of light, and a third brother who was on the verge of throwing his spear fell onto his back. Lin Jassa’s arrow flew, shattering the mask of the creature before he could shine his deadly light anywhere else. He crumbled, with the arrow rising from his face.
Lin Jassa ran to Fire and knelt beside him. His eyes were clenched shut, and a cry of pain left his lips as he clawed at the wound on his shoulder. Lin Jassa eased his hand away and saw a gaping hole where his arm met his torso. A foul smelling steam rose from the wounds, wafting in the air. The tunic beneath his bone shirt was a dark purple, almost black, soaked in Fire’s blood. It was the same color as the flowers in his beard. The color of life.
“To your feet,” said Lin Jassa in a calm whisper. “You are not dead yet.”
Fire sat up and spat, “Then why does it feel like I am already in hell?” He ground his teeth as he rose to his feet. He leaned on Lin Jassa and together, they went to retrieve Fire’s spear.
A group of brothers had swarmed the cart with the open door. Beams of light shot from the opening, toppling three sworn brothers in a burst of violet. The top of the cart had a long pole that began to swivel, knocking a few brothers to the ground.
A loud explosion came from the pole, and out of it shot a flaming stone. It flew over the heads of the brothers, across the camp, and into one of the stone tents. All of the brothers fell silent as the giant tent burst into flames. Black smoke funneled through doors and windows, thick and poisonous. A dozen of the creatures broke through the main entrance and collapsed into the red sand, rolling to put out the flames that clung to them like a living thing.
A shout rose up from the brothers―a cry of victory. Lin Jassa joined the chorus, raising his bow above his head and shouting. Several of the creatures had been dragged from the cart and stabbed by a dozen spears. They didn’t look very menacing now.
The brothers were interrupted by a buzzing sound. One of the carts rushed toward them, kicking up a cloud of red sand behind it. A dozen spears were thrown at the cart, but each one bounced from its thick armor. The line of brothers broke as the cart came upon them, but it turned at the last moment and crushed two of them beneath its wheels.
Lin Jassa looked around hopelessly―there was nothing he could shoot. The carts were well armored. A buzzing sound came from behind him. He turned and saw that the third cart had looped around from behind and was now upon them at full speed.
“Break!” he shouted. A moment too late. The cart shot by Lin Jassa and ran down nearly a dozen brothers before the wheels stuck, spinning in place over their broken bodies, spitting up violet blood.
Lin Jassa walked toward the cart with caution, picking up a spear from the broken body of one of his brothers. He saw a door on the side, and above it was a patch of the solid yet clear material that the creatures used in their helmets. He rammed the spear into the material with both hands. A crack formed, like the breaking of ice. Lin Jassa brought the spear back and shoved it again. This time it caved in, revealing the masked creatures within.
There were only two of them, and they shied away from him in fear. One grasped for his weapon of light, which lay on the floor in front of him. Lin Jassa ended that notion quickly, sending the spear through the creature’s neck. Then he drew his bow and sent an arrow into the throat of the other. They bleed red, he noted. I was wrong, they are not like us.
The buzzing sound was nearing again, and this time Lin Jassa knew exactly what it meant. He shouldered his bow and removed the spear from the creature’s body. The once-black tip was dripping with the strange red blood that ran through their enemies veins.
“To me!” came a familiar voice. Fire held his spear high above him, anger burning in his eyes. Six other brothers ran to his side, balancing their spears as the cart sped closer. Lin Jassa ran to them, yelling the whole time.
“The armor is too thick!” In the chaos however, his cry was left unheard.
“Now!” shouted Fire, and seven spears flew. The first one stuck in the clear shield of the cart. The next four bounced off of the armor uselessly. Another stuck, and Lin Jassa saw that it was cracking. The final spear shattered the clear shield, impaling the creature that hid beneath it.
“Break!” yelled Fire, and the brothers dove out of the way as the cart sped through them and then eased to a stop.
Laughing, Fire walked toward Lin Jassa. “We have traded blood for blood. I couldn’t be happier.”
Lin Jassa threw down his spear and notched an arrow to his bow. “It is not over yet.” he said grimly.
“Ah yes,” smiled Fire. “But when it is over, I will have a dancing girl to warm my bed. I can see her already.” He ran a hand through his beard, pulling out a violet flower and holding it between two fingers.
“Lin, it is about time you found yourself―” he stopped short, interrupted by a flash of light that passed through his head. His eyes bulged, and steam ran off of his body as he crumbled to his knees and fell onto his back.
Lin Jassa turned and sent an arrow into the throat of the creature holding the weapon. It had climbed from the wreckage of the cart, but now fell back inside. Three others emerged from the cart, light flying generously from their weapons. A volley of arrows met them, and dropped each one before their light could find its mark.
Lin Jassa ran to Fire’s side. His head was smoldering, melting from the inside. He is gone, Lin Jassa knew, yet the words didn’t sink in. This fight is folly, we came to make peace.
Fire’s eyes stared upward, as blind as their father’s, yet seeing even less. His head rested in a pool of violet that was quickly sinking into the sand. In his hand, he still held the delicate flower. There will be no warrior sons for the dancing girl.
Silently, Lin Jassa kissed his fallen brother. It would be their last kiss, and Lin Jassa would have no place in the brotherhood anymore.
“Goodbye brother,” he whispered. “I will not let you die in vain.” He closed his brothers blind eyes and rose to his feet. All around him was a world of chaos.
Brothers had swarmed the three fallen carts, and dragged out each creature from within. Now they lay dead in the sand, their once-white armor painted red, their beautiful helmets cracked and broken.
The father stood in the middle of it all with tears in his eyes. He took slow steps, feeling with his cane as he walked through the battlefield, stumbling over bodies. Lin Jassa could see the old man shaking even from where he stood.
In the camp the burning tent leaned, bent, and finally collapsed into another, which erupted instantly into flames. Several dozen of the creatures were leaving the camp and running toward the brotherhood.
“Father!” yelled Lin Jassa. “We must run!” The father turned toward the voice, and began to slowly make his way toward him. Lin Jassa saw the flash of light in the distance, but it was already too late. Their father was pierced by a dozen bolts, dead even before he hit the sand.
The remaining brothers were forming a line. Spearmen in the front, and behind each one an archer. Lin Jassa only had time to duck behind the remains of one of the carts. From his hiding spot, he faced his brothers as they marched slowly forward, this time without the sound of their horn to lead them.
Volley after volley of arrows flew, and from their shouts Lin Jassa could guess that many had found their marks. But the brothers were falling too. He watched as a beam of light pierced the shield of one and burned the spearman and the archer behind him. Both collapsed instantly.
Another beam dragged along horizontally, burning the faces of five and leaving them in steaming heaps on the ground. We can’t win this, Lin Jassa thought. But only a moment later, the beams of light stopped coming and Lin Jassa dared to leave his hiding spot.
Upon turning, he saw a field littered with bodies, more than he had ever seen. Equally theirs and ours. The air was thick with steam, and the red sand turned black with the blood of Lin Jassa’s brothers. At his feet lay a fallen brother who had been cut in half at the waist by the evil light. His legs lay intact, eerily normal looking, but a bloody foot of sand separated them from his torso.
“P-Please.” whispered the brother, blood leaking from a burned hole in his neck and flowing from his nose and mouth. “I want to s-see M’ali.”
Lin Jassa nodded and drew an arrow. “Rest, my brother,” he said, as he sent it to the man’s forehead. When the deed was done, Lin Jassa knelt and let out what had been churning in his stomach the whole time. Why did everything go so wrong?
The remnants of their force wandered through the fallen. Two brothers went to retrieve their father’s body. When they lifted him up, one of his arms sloughed off and fell to the ground. One of the brothers picked it up in his free hand and lay it on the dead man’s chest.
“Brothers!” called Lin Jassa with tears in his eyes. “Have we had enough death for one day? Let us leave!”
“No!” called a brother with steam rising from a bloody hole in his leg. “We have won the battle. Now we will see what they hold within those stone tents of theirs.” The brother hobbled off, using one of the strange weapons of light as a crutch. The rest followed suit, and Lin Jassa was left to walk up the dunes by himself.
He was blind with tears, and when he wiped them away he saw that his hands were covered in red and violet alike. This was not supposed to happen, he thought, but that didn’t change anything.
He reached the top of the dune, and that is when he felt the light pierce his back. It burned like a blade that had gone through him. He looked down to see steam leaving his gut. Clutching the wound, he fell over the dune, his hands quickly filling with his life’s blood. He rolled himself over and peaked into the valley.
The remaining brothers had entered the main camp and were kicking over the bodies of their fallen enemy. Nearer to Lin Jassa, a creature in white armor dropped his weapon and scrambled up the side of the cart with the large pole atop it. Once inside, it closed the door and the pole turned toward the brothers.
“No…” cried Lin Jassa in a whisper.
The flaming stone landed among the brothers, sending bits and pieces of them in every direction. A few tried to run, to find shelter. Then there was another shot, and they were defeated.
Even from atop the dune, Lin Jassa could see the darkness of the sand as it drank their blood. A thousand chunks of flesh lay sizzling in the sand. The valley became silent after the echoes of the last shot had died, and now it lay motionless.
The sun was a spot of yellow on the far side of the camp, a dying light. With a loud squeal that echoed in the valley, the door of the cart opened, and the little creature exited. He took a few painful steps, and then collapsed.
Lin Jassa pulled himself to the very top of the dune and notched an arrow. He could feel his strength fading by the second. Please M’ali, give me enough strength to finish this thing, he prayed.
He peered down the shaking point of his arrow, barely able to see through his tears. The creature below reached both hands to his head and in one swift motion, removed his helmet. He gasped for air, and Lin Jassa lay down his weapon. The creature had a face much like his own, only smaller and weaker somehow.
Lin Jassa pulled himself over the dune, the sand sticking in his wound and burning with each motion. One arm after the other, he crawled back into that bloody valley, needles of pain stabbing deep into him.
By the time he reached the cart, the dune had swallowed the sun and the burning tents were the only source of light. Lin Jassa finally found himself beside the unmasked creature. It turned to him with a look of fear…and regret.
“Dewbuki…” it said in its strange tongue, gasping for air as it spoke. “Dewbuki…” The man had three broken arrows protruding from his chest; his armor was slick with blood.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Lin Jassa, trembling as he reached for the man beside him. Their hands met, and they held one another. The dune that had felt so hot earlier grew suddenly cold.
Hell is not a fiery place, he realized. It is an eternal cold. Lin Jassa looked up to the sky and saw a thousand stars standing in place. He wondered what secrets they held. He shivered, teeth chattering. He felt the man’s hand go soft beside him, and he no longer gulped for air.
Nobody won today, thought Lin Jassa. Nobody ever wins.
He shivered, and shivered, and then shivered no more.
Josiah Olson writes short stories, music, and screenplays. Although his work varies greatly in genre and content, the thread that runs through them all is the focus on humanity. The connections, conflicts, and moments that make life what it is and the experiences that shape us most. Josiah aims to ask the tough questions and to open up discussion of topics that are too often ignored. He lives in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he studies Psychology at MSUM.