What can I write? Have I made things worse or better? I couldn’t kill Wudan. I could never kill Wudan, and now we will see what price there is to pay for my weakness. We will all pay for it now.
The assault came at dawn, what one can call dawn in the gloom of the Nanten. Their hidden Fire expressionist launched a series of high-arching attacks that completely preoccupied Dionus for the first wave of the assault. It came from all directions at once and did not stop.
Even through the last rain of treeborn arrows they pressed into us until they were upon our line and weighing against it. It was a slaughter, both sides churning up against each other and drowning the forest in a cacophony of the dying.
Wudan cowered next to me as I tried to watch for my friends. For any way to help. And then in desperation I reached for his hand. Time slowed to a stop and the clock appeared before me, as much in reality as a mental image, then I cast the chains. Instantly, Inifra and her guards, Dionus and Balthandar were pulled into the perspective of time as I saw it.
I shouted at them to do their worst. They threw themselves into the press of Daedra before them, hacking and twisting their blades, setting reactions in the wind and waters around them that would activate with the resumption of time’s passage. I could feel Wudan begin to buckle, to draw away from me, but I pressed him harder. This was our only chance.
I called for them to come back, but they were spread out. Working their way through the ranks. Isolated. Then Wudan collapsed and time resumed its pace. Two thousand bodies dropped as one.
But still the Daedra pressed in from ranks unseen, momentum unchecked from the instant they froze to the one they thawed. I screamed for my friends to retreat but it was too late. Inifra’s priestesses were consumed. Dionus launched Balthandar back, then leapt above the fray and unleashed a brutal series of attacks. Nothing could stem the dark tide.
They came on, pouring over the corpses piled between us, and a howl erupted from them unlike anything I had ever heard. A chant. A song. A blood-curdling, feral mingling of animal ferocity and inhuman bloodlust. Then they were upon us.
Balthandar found Wudan and me and shoved us into a corner, the bodyguard in him taking over in the moment. Timber rushed over to us as well, making her stand with her old protector. I could barely keep my feet and fell just as Wudan passed out behind me.
The Daedra were upon us in an instant. Dark helms covered their eyes, red streaks aglow amidst blackened hide and dark leathers. The stink of them. The sheer terror.
They rushed between the walls like water into a sinking ship, crashing against each turn and flowing towards the center. The first died before they ever reached us, Balthandar’s spear lancing out so fast I couldn’t see it. Red wounds opened throats and the bodies dropped only to be trampled. Timber spun and twisted the Klotian blade, opening up any who made it inside Balthandar’s reach.
A bright spurt of red shot out behind him. Balthandar stumbled back a step. Just beneath his skull jutted a speck of imperial steel. He managed another thrust before a second arrow took him in the eye, and Balthandar went down.
My screams were lost in the press of rotting bodies as the Daedra took us. Blood seeping between the raised lines of his tattoos, the last thing I remember before the Daedra beat me unconscious.
I awoke on my knees with a suppression relic three feet in front of me. My left eye was swollen shut, but I could see leather boots just another foot beyond that.
“Told them all about your little tricks at Zorga’s fortress. I didn’t see them myself, of course, but I heard about them. Always knew there was something special about you. Something that stank. Makes sense you’d be so damned good with a sword when you can cheat time.”
I couldn’t even bring myself to say his name. I would have thrown up.
“It’s too bad Dionus saved your life. Tactical move to kill you first of course, but it would have kept you from the worst of it. That’s about the only concession I could have offered, but now that they have you there’s no way they’ll let you die on them. The poor sod who blackened your eye got skewered on the spot for wasting blood.” He spat on me then, squarely on the top of my head. “Turns out you’re as precious here as you are back home.”
I would have killed him, I thought, but I knew I couldn’t. I don’t know what Starlark has become, but I couldn’t turn against him as completely as he has turned on me. He stood there for a long while waiting for me to speak, and when I didn’t he gave a short laugh before turning away.
“You won’t see me again, don’t worry; my job here is done. You were my end of the bargain, both bargains, and now that that’s finished I can go home. Very economical for you to be so precious, Marceles. So very very precious.” He watched me for a second longer before walking off. “Die well old friend. The Daedra keep their blades sharp just for such occasions.”
I blacked out, I don’t know for how long, but I awoke with my face on the ground and was pulled roughly to my feet. Dionus was there, bound but alive. I was so happy and yet so sad, if he had died he would have been spared. There were over two hundred Batsu chained and amassed, pressed closer into one another as more were brought in from other parts of the Eye.
And then a priest came forward. Silence fell over the Daedra, standing erect and motionless as statues. The priest was different, body wrapped tightly in cords that normally hung loose. Horned mask replaced by a tight iron helm, the teeth of which reached down over his face to his chin. I could not see his eyes.
He moved to the first prisoner, sniffing loudly, then prodded her in the stomach. A Daedric follower stepped up as the priest moved on and rammed his dagger where the priest had prodded. The woman’s cries were muffled by another follower’s hand.
The priest moved to the man next to her. He sniffed at him, bending at the waist and moving his nose down the man’s quivering body. The priest shook his head, then drew a finger across the man’s throat and moved to Timber. I hadn’t seen Timber until this moment and my heart sank. Behind her the man’s throat was slit as the priest began to sniff at her. I wanted to launch myself at him, to strangle him for putting that filthy nose anywhere near her, but it was all I could do to stay on my feet.
As the body of the man dropped behind Timber, the priest nodded and gestured in the distance. A follower stepped up and pulled her away from us until she disappeared into the crowd.
He was hunting for expressionists.
This horror continued, the majority of the survivors slain as the priest went about his search. In the end there were so few of us left. Wudan, Wauloo, Dionus, Timber, Inifra, Nianatara, two healers I recognized, and three other Batsu I did not. We are all of us in terrible shape.
The Daedra marched us north until nightfall and then gave us a wide berth to set up camp. They are around us in every direction for what feels like miles, though they stay clear of the light of our fire. We are captives of the most monstrous force on earth, and they are leading us to be slaughtered in Matasten.
Balthandar is dead, and Starlark is the one who killed him.