Cassie reached the edge of the battle and dove amongst the soldiers without thinking. Behind her she heard Jhi and Anna cry out to her and she glanced back, but they had already drawn their weapons and were fighting. Her heart seized up, she knew they were skilled but they were fighting Immortals. How long could they hope to survive? A feeling of panic and sorrow threatened to overwhelm her and she clamped down on it, trying to subdue the rising fear. She realised then that her fear was for her friends. She felt no fear for herself, Zephyr instantly in her own hands. A moment later she was thankful as a blade came flying through the air towards her and her own short dagger flew up to deflect it. Even so, the impact ricocheted along her arm painfully. She fought her way between thrashing bodies and blades, intent only on pushing forwards.
She sensed Jhi and Anna were close by, fighting as hard as she was. Time passed and it felt like long hours and mere seconds at once. This part she had never dreamed, and it was brutally real. The smell of blood was thick in the air and it was all she could do not to vomit when a young man next to her failed to block a scything blow, and his throat opened effortlessly, spattering her with warm redness.
It was also the first time she really saw the Immortals. She had caught glimpses of them in the dream of course, the way they skittered across her vision as if not completely grounded in this time and place. Their forms flickered in front of her now, sometimes revealing gaping holes or wounds in their flesh. Not wounds inflicted from this battle, though, but more as if they were images of the Immortals’ true selves, rotting beneath the surface.
She glanced around her, trying to gauge what was going on, and who was where. She had always imagined battles as being more clearly defined. Now all she saw was a roiling mass of beings, limbs and weapons flying wildly. A brief glimpse of red curls as Anna raced past, concentrating intensely, but nothing of Jhi.
Something flashed towards her. Cassie ducked but not fast enough to avoid injury. Suddenly she was blinking rapidly, trying to clear the vision in her right eye as blood dripped into it. She felt like a lightning bolt, lit up with exhilaration and adrenaline. She didn’t feel the pain.
She knew that the soldiers around her had been fighting for some time, showing signs of tiring. Total exhaustion might not be setting in yet but as they fought on, failing to weaken the enemy, their fatigue would only grow. Their movements would slow and they’d be unable to raise their weapons to stop the enemies’ blades from carving their flesh with designs that spelled death.
Time passed. Cassie had no idea how long, though she thought it must be getting late in the day. The shadows were growing. She risked a momentary glance upwards and saw the sun as if through a veil. And then she realised. These shadows weren’t coming just from the ending day, they emanated from the Immortals to encircle the soldiers on the open plains.
The number of motionless bodies on the ground had grown and with each deadly blow the Immortals seemed to solidify. They were growing stronger with each ounce of pain-tainted blood they drew. The horror of the situation hit Cassie in the gut with shocking force. And then the dream that had haunted her for so long merged seamlessly into reality and she froze, stunned by the sensation of two worlds colliding.
The clash of metal on metal all but drowned out the screams of wounded and dying men and horses.
Cassie stood, seemingly invisible, as the battle raged around her. She knew that she had to get through. If she didn’t something terrible would happen. Suddenly she broke past two fighting soldiers and saw him. Time seemed to slow almost to the point of stopping. Cassie felt as if she were enclosed in a bubble, everything else outside it muted and dimmed. She began to walk forwards as if in a trance. Nothing mattered except reaching him.
She stopped. He lay on the ground, blood flowing freely from a deep gash in his leg. Above him stood an Immortal, weapon raised above his head, poised to descend with deadly accuracy.
Cassie knew she had to do something. She had to save the young man’s life. As she hesitated, the young man’s eyes met hers, and a shock as powerful as a lightning bolt ran through her.
Astonishment showed on his face, too, quickly melting into fear as the Immortal tensed to bring the terrible weapon down. It flashed blood red in the setting sun.
Cassie screamed and flew forwards. Zephyr shot from her grasp. The chain connected to it followed and wrapped around the descending weapon. She tugged with all her strength and even as it tore the terrible blade from the Immortal’s hands, she felt the muscles in her shoulder tear too.
The Immortal snarled, its mouth twisted in cavernous rage as he stepped towards her over Kieran’s prone body. Suddenly Jhi was there, placing himself between Cassie and the nightmarish figure. Kieran lay still and Cassie felt sick with fear at his lack of movement. The Immortal was unarmed now but still this barely gave Jhi an advantage. Cassie ran forward to help Jhi. Zephyr was almost useless in her right hand now, as her shoulder lit up with pain every time she forced it to move. Together, she and Jhi held the Immortal at bay but it couldn’t last. The battle had been going on too long; everywhere men were falling, unable to hold their own any longer against the assailants. Even as she realised this, she knew the lapse in concentration would cost her. An arm that felt like solid stone slammed into her. The impact threw her several metres through the air towards Kieran and she hit the ground hard enough to knock all the breath out of her body. She lay there stunned, then heard it. Someone nearby, screaming. Anna!
Despite everything, Jhi turned instinctively towards the sound. A clenched fist struck him in the head and he fell to his knees. Jhi tried to rise but the blows fell again and again. Eventually he lay on the ground, his face battered and mouth hanging open, blood leaking from the corner.
And Anna’s screaming never stopped. Jhi and Cassie locked eyes. She knew what Anna meant to him, she knew he would do anything for her. Yet he could only lie there, listening to the endless screaming that worsened as it went on and on. The Immortal raised one foot and brought it down on Jhi’s arm. Cassie’s ears rang with clashing metal and Anna’s scream, but even so, Cassie thought she heard the bone crack as Jhi’s arm snapped beneath the impact. The sound, whether real or not, finally forced Cassie up. The Immortal reached down and gripped Jhi’s hair, dragging him upwards, a piece of broken sword in its hand. Jhi looked at Cassie with eyes devoid of everything but pain. Pain for Anna. Pain that he couldn’t help her, while all the time the terrible screaming echoed on. With pure malice the Immortal smiled and the tip of the jagged metal bit slowly into Jhi’s neck.
A tiny trickle of blood began to flow.
Anna’s screaming stopped abruptly.
Lurching forwards Cassie screamed, an almost inhuman sound of horror and rage. Something deep inside her broke loose with such force that Cassie choked, gasping as she fell to her knees. Her heart beat, once, stronger than it ever had before. It seemed like that heart beat spread throughout her veins, reaching her skin with such power that it burst through to the air spreading outwards in a shockwave. Every person, every being, on that battlefield paused for a moment as that incredible force hit them.
Without knowing why, they automatically braced themselves for whatever was coming. A storm was howling inside Cassie, too powerful to contain. Her head snapped backwards and in that split second everything stopped. Waiting. Then the storm unleashed itself, fire exploding out of her. It tore free of her skin. Soaring columns of incandescent flame that twisted and screamed, alive with fury.
The firestorm continued to pour out of her, hungrily seeking those it wanted to destroy. And it did, burning hotter than anything Cassie had ever seen. It consumed all the darkness, all of the Immortals, until nothing of them remained.
Finally it ended, most of the flames subsiding and sinking into the ground or drawing back under her skin. She was exhausted, her strength fading even as the last flames died to embers scattered on the dirt.
Eventually, she looked around. Jhi was alive, moving painfully slowly, dragging himself with his one good arm towards where Anna had been. He glanced back at Cassie then nodded towards Kieran. Jhi must have worked out who he was. Cassie knew Jhi would do everything he could for Anna.
She turned away from Jhi and crawled over the ground, oblivious to the bewildered survivors around her, stumbling and strewn across the battlefield. For now, she saw only Kieran. When at last she reached him, Cassie felt she would cry in relief, but the fire seemed to have driven every last bit of moisture from her, leaving her as dry and burnt as ash.
She pressed a gentle hand to his cheek, almost disbelieving. Why had she ever mistrusted him? To her enormous relief Kieran spoke.
“Cass?” His faced was etched with every bit of astonishment that Cassie felt. “Am I dead?”
“What? No, no of course not.”
“Then how are you here? James told me, he said…he said he had killed you.” Even though she knelt beside him Kieran’s face twisted with the pain of his memories.
“I’m sorry, Kieran. I’m so sorry. For everything. I didn’t realise how horrible I was being to you. James... he twisted my mind. I thought I couldn’t trust you anymore. I thought you were trying to betray me. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I thought you wanted to hurt me, kill me even.” She didn’t realise she was crying until he lifted a hand to brush away a tear.
“I could never have hurt you Cass. Never.” He smiled, “I love you.”
Cassie’s heart beat strangely in her chest, as if it had forgotten how to keep a steady pace. She didn’t know what to say. She’d always known Kieran as her friend, her best friend, and love had never crossed her thoughts. But then she remembered how painful it had been when she believed he’d turned against her. At last she understood how that pain had run deeper than friendship, no matter how strong a friendship it was. She opened her mouth to say something, but he stalled her.
“It’s alright. I know we’re just friends, you and me. I’m just glad I got to tell you once. It’s enough.”
Cassie went to speak and then his words hit her. I got to tell you once. She looked down at him and realised she was looking down; he still lay on the ground. Her heart was racing again, but this time with a terrible fear. Worse than she had ever imagined she could feel. Even as realisation set in she tried to deny it.
“What are you talking about? The Immortals are gone now. Everything’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.” As if the words could make it come true.
He laughed but there was sadness in the sound. The laugh ended in a terrible choking and blood bubbled up in his mouth. He was struggling to breathe.
“No, please, not again, don’t leave me. Not like Gemma, please Kieran. Don’t go!”
She grasped his hand tightly as if that would keep him there, keep him alive. “Kieran stay here. Please.” She sobbed brokenly.
When Gemma had died, Kieran had held her until she stopped crying. Now it was Kieran who was leaving. “Please, no.”
Her voice faded into a last desperate whisper. “Don’t leave me alone. Kieran...” He smiled a strange wretched smile, and then he breathed once more, a half breath that stopped too quickly. The light in his eyes went out as his soul fled his body. Cassie looked at his body in disbelief for a moment, as the world around her turned icy and cold.
Blackness exploded in her mind.