“Janil, watch out!” A voice calls out to me. I duck and turn as a Groyin swipes toward me. I fall on to my back and pull the trigger. A quick flash appears at the end of my rifle as a three shot burst from the Model 83 rifle connects with the bug’s face, causing it to explode with a hideous sound, spewing a brown ichor across me. I roll over and get back to my feet and exhale.
I can’t keep track of time in battle. Minutes seem like hours and hours seem like days. At my yaruel’s behest, I requested aid to ensure the sealed tunnels stayed that way. Kalarai was right – they were indeed trying to break through the seals. Seeing only a few options, Alim Tyhal ordered a few of us to set proximity charges at the base of the tunnels, hoping that we could collapse them to at least slow down the bugs.
It hadn’t worked, at least not well. Our forces are ultimately split three ways as some of us defend the front and back gates, and a few of us are left dealing with the Groyin in the tunnels. In short order, the bugs managed to dig through the collapsed sections. After a while, we clearly begin to halt their progress. The dead Groyin bodies are piling up at the mouth of these tunnels.
Frustrated, Alim Tyhal looks toward me and several others. “I just got word from Alim Elikel and Alim Karuis that we are going to abandon this position. The bugs are starting to show that they’re now willing to take this facility out completely rather than just recapture it. We’re all going to meet and discuss our options when the last of these stragglers are dealt with, but Alim Elikel is wanting us to retreat to the mountains.”
Alimari Senalin sighs as he finally puts his gun down. “If they come at us in a swarm like this while we’re trying to move to the mountains, they’ll kill every last one of us. Is Elikel crazy?!”
I turn to face Senalin, stunned. “That’s my yarl you’re talking about, Senalin. Watch it.” I glare at him. Elikel has been one of the finest men I’ve ever known, and I’m proud that he is my Yarl. I’m… not the most confrontational person, especially figuring that I’m Camfurdian, but I’ll not tolerate my beloved Yarl being slandered.
Alim Tyhal shares my glare. “Elikel is the eldest and most respected here, Senalin. You’ll mind your tongue, or I’ll see to it that your yarl hears of this disrespect.”
Senalin bows his head apologetically. “Yes, sir.”
“It’s a dangerous plan, but I imagine he feels that if we move quickly, we can get to cover before they have a chance to regroup. It’s risky, yes, but so is staying here. They’re content to bring the building down on us now. We’ve lost a lot of people today, and we’re going to lose more, but they could wipe us out if we just sit here.” Tyhal says firmly. “All men, let’s move out. Alim Elikel wants us all gathered as soon as possible.”
Hurriedly, all of us begin to gather on the far side of the building. I rush to my yarl the moment I can see him.
Elikel looks at me, his face disturbingly blank. “Sir…? What’s wrong?”
My yarl sighs, but it’s Monrenth who puts his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll… tell you in a little bit, Janil. Elikel needs to address everyone.”
My mood drops and my blood runs cold. I begin to scan the crowd, looking for my beloved dominus, looking for Kalarai. Something about Monrenth’s tone tells me that something terrible has happened. I bite my lip and try desperately to fight off tears. I know I have to stay strong, at least for appearances, for Elikel’s sake. I don’t want to embarrass Elikel or Monrenth.
“Listen up, everyone!” Elikel shouts, his booming voice quieting everyone. “It’s clear that the Groyin are set on destroying this facility instead of just taking it back. This means we must evacuate this position. We’ll fall back into the mountains, using the caves as cover. We’ll set up any automated defenses that we can before we leave. We cannot afford to be bogged down by heavy equipment at this point. Additionally…”
Elikel takes a deep breath and tries to stand a little taller. “We must assess the injured. Anyone who will slow down the rest of the group due to their injuries… you will be left here to provide covering fire for the main group escaping. Know that your names will not be forgotten, and when we survive this, and go home, our bodies will bear the marks to honor your noble sacrifices. Our bodies will bear the marks of all of the fallen, and our retribution shall be thorough.”
As Elikel growls the last few words, I shudder. It… sounded far too personal. I close my eyes and try to reach out to Kalarai.
Cold, empty, silence.
I feel my knees start to give way.
Janil! Stand tall, boy! Monrenth tells me with his mind. I try my best to comply.
Elikel continues to issue orders, but my mind is… elsewhere. It’s… back where I met Kalarai, up in that Focuri tower. It’s… in his bed for the first time. It’s… anywhere except in this moment.
I don’t know how long Elikel was talking. In fact, it all just sort blurred together. After spending far too long retreating into my own mind, I feel Elikel’s firm hand slap my back. “Come on boy, we’ve a lot to discuss before we move out.”
I nod weakly and he leads me and Monrenth away. I see the surprisingly large number of bodies lined up. I know they’ll be burned tonight. Elikel grabs my hand. “I’m sorry, Janil. Know that I made the monster pay.”
Kalarai’s body is before me, cold, lifeless, empty. We’re taught that when the breath leaves the body, the dead body is nothing more than a husk, a shell of what once was. We burn the dead and scatter the remains to the wind, knowing some day, that same air will fill the lungs of the next generation.
I pull away from Elikel and approach my dominus. One last time, I touch his cheek, wishing desperately I could see his smile. I see marks on his throat and my attention angrily snaps to Elikel.
“Be calm, boy. I took his last breaths myself. These vile creatures did not have the right. I did, and you know full well that is what he wanted.” He says to me, his voice calm and almost flat.
“I…” I look around the room at all the other dead bodies, at the other warriors hastily packing supplies, at the wounded helping assemble their final stand. “I don’t know what to do.”
There’s a part of me that wants to beg to join those being left behind… to give me a chance to stay with Kalarai. Yet, I know, deep down at least, that Kalarai shouldn’t be the only reason I live and die.
The tears begin to roll down my cheeks and Monrenth reaches out, wiping them away. “Janil, all you can do right now is keep fighting. Technically, your oath to Elikel ended when Kala took his last breath.”
Crying furiously now, I shake my head. “No! You two are my family. I’m not walking away from that. Elikel, sir…” I stare at him needily, desperately seeking some form of reassurance.
“Don’t worry, boy. If that’s what you still want, then you’ll have it. We’ll see to things properly once we’re more secure, once we’ve managed to move and hunker down in the caves. Until we’re settled in, we just keep going. I just wanted to give you one final chance to tell him goodbye.” He wraps his arm around me firmly, embracing me as a friend, a father figure, and yes, as a yarl.
“Thank you, sir.” I relax, allowing myself the small comfort of his embrace.
“You’ve done well. I know you loved him the same as I did. We’ll celebrate his life and mourn his death together, just not here. I love you, Janil. Let’s go, boy.” Elikel squeezes me reassuringly one more time before giving me a slap on the back.
“I love you too, my yarl.”