The General’s Plight
by L.J. Engelmeier
THE VILLAGE OF VARUUS,
SIX HUNDRED MILES OUTSIDE
AGHALIA, CAPITAL OF TERRA,
THE DIMENSION OF THE TAMED
Hōn drew back her last arrow, anchoring it at her jaw.
Loosed, it shot through the air and found its mark. The head of the demon charging her snapped back as the arrow’s shaft buried itself in his eye. The demon tumbled down into the mud, his automatic rifle firing its bullet wide.
Hōn leapt over the short stone fence separating the two of them, her tail whipping behind her. She charged deep into the village of Varuus. Three of her bone-weary soldiers were at her side. A field of bodies was behind them.
“Retreat in effect,” rang a voice through Hōn’s head. “Originians retreating to east.”
From her neck, Hōn lifted an ocean-blue stone and clenched it in her leather-gloved hand as she sprinted downhill, waiting for the stone’s telepathic line to click into place. The overgrown cottages around her blurred together. A nod from her and her soldiers disappeared down a muddy street. The iron of blood, the tang of piss, and the sour of ruptured bowels clogged the air, just like perfume did in a district of blowsy whores and their bordellos.
When the stone’s mental line connected after a flood of lightheadedness, Hōn commanded through it, “Archers, hold center. Snipers, decommission any retreating tanks and guns, shoot down all visible officers. Artillery and infantry, secure northern and eastern flanks. Beasts, clear cottages of survivors; archers will cover. Wings, survey, report any signs of aircraft engagement, monitor retreat. Elementals, get these fires out; take all survivors to medical in the Chalials near Unders Pass—”
The air was pounded from Hōn’s lungs as she was tackled to the dirt. Head slamming off the ground, she gagged on her own tongue. Her vision swam.
Iron-strong fingernails dug into her jaw before she could shake away the fog in her mind. They ripped through her skin and scraped against her jawbone. Then they caught on the edge of the enchanted metal plate covering her throat and tried to pry it off. She choked on a cry and wrenched her face away from the crippling pain. She writhed underneath the weight of the body pinning her to the dirt, throwing out punches, some making contact and others not. Above her, almost silhouetted against the blinding overcast sky, a demon came into focus. His slim fangs held a deadly curve, the end of his visible tongue forked. His slit, golden eyes were frenzied. When his hands settled over Hōn’s throat plate and squeezed, the enchanted metal refused to give way to the man’s demonic strength. Hōn could almost imagine her neck being crushed in his grasp. Could almost feel the warmth of his hands around her throat.
He wasn’t going to succeed in killing her, though. Hōn knew that as surely as she knew she was going to water the earth with his lifeblood. He was a foot soldier. She was General Hōn Sinclair, top graduate of the Terran Military Academy, leader of the Aghalian Veiled Forces, and commander of the Hidearms. She was a protector of her country, and she wasn’t going to let another foreign soldier march across its soil, the barrels of their guns aimed at her people, all because they wanted her country’s mines.
She gave the man her bitterest, cockiest smile, full of teeth. It pulled at the healing wounds in her cheek. “Is that the best you’ve got, hdeimehe?” she spat at him.
“Crazy bitch,” he snarled. His spittle flecked her face. “The Emperor himself is going to lick my boots when I drag your body back to Vahla by your—.”
She knocked his hands from their solid grip.
Before he could react, she lunged up and buried her thumb in his left eye. Throwing her weight into his as he howled, she knocked him back into the mud and rolled to her feet. By the time she was standing, the blood pouring from his eye socket had already stopped. His fangs extended as he hissed at her.
Hōn bared her teeth and snarled back. She ripped her metal bow from the mud and rammed the sharp end of it into the man’s other eye socket. The wound would only slow him down, she knew, so she dropped her bow, drew a dagger from the small of her back, and grabbed the man by his greasy hair. She buried the blade in his throat three times, enough that she knew his demonic healing wouldn’t be able to save him.
He fell back into the dirt, gurgling.
She wiped her dagger off against her muddy lambskin leggings and then slid the blade back into its sheath, flicking the blood from her glove after she did so. From the ground, she picked up her bow once more.
Two large shapes shot past her.
Between heartbeats, she drew an arrow, nocked it, and turned. She released the second she levelled her arrow at the skull of a lion. It was trapped beneath a bear that was wearing a familiar blue pendant. The arrow found its mark in the lion’s eye, and the bear soon cut off the lion’s cries.
Satisfied, Hōn glanced around but found no more immediate danger in the area. She loped uphill, back toward the southern edge of the village she’d entered from. The man she’d shot in the face earlier was sitting up, hand fastened around the arrow buried in his head. He began to pull it free, his eye coming with it, and rose to his feet.
Sliding her bow onto her back, Hōn palmed her dagger again.
The demon laughed at it. He wrenched the arrow from his eye socket completely, threw it to the ground, and stepped on it with his boot. The shaft cracked in two. He wiped his bloody hand off on the front of his armour, over the sigil of the Origin: black crosshairs that Hōn found ironic. Then he lifted the automatic rifle slung over his chest.
Hōn tossed her dagger up and caught its blade between her fingers, smiling. “Eihuet feren,” she told it. It grew hot to the touch, even through the leather of her gloves. She snapped her arm back and threw the dagger forward with all the strength and speed of her species.
Inside the space of four seconds, four things happened: the demon dropped his rifle to catch the dagger before it embedded itself in his face; he let go of it with a hiss as it burned him; Hōn summoned her secondary form and let the change sweep over her, bones snapping into new shapes; and Hōn leapt, reconjuring inches behind the demon, knocking him to the mud.
She pinned his shoulders to the ground with her large black paws and opened her jaws to fix her teeth around as much of his head as she could before biting down, pressing down with her paws and ripping back with her teeth. His skull shattered in her jaws. The fragments cut into her tongue and skin. Her mouth overflowed with brains. With blood.
Only when the man beneath her stopped squirming did she revert back to her original form on top of him. Her heart pounded with the change, and an ache settled into her bones and muscles. She licked at her coppery fangs before spitting a mouthful of blood and mush into the dirt. She brought an arm up to mop what little blood she could from her face with her slick leather sleeve and then used the other to clear away some of the sweat pouring down her face in rivulets. She smoothed back the strands of her hair sticking to her face only to notice that her long plait had flopped over her shoulder. It was resting against the man’s pulpy head, soaking through with blood.
“That’s a very attractive look on you.”
Hōn’s head snapped up. Leon was standing above her, his blond hair tousled. He looked better than she did, leather cuirass barely touched by blood and grime, face covered in a fine dew of sweat. His greatsword was visible over his shoulder where it was fastened to his back. His longsword was at his waist.
“You aren’t so attractive yourself,” she shot back. Leon’s mouth split into a wide smile, his fangs visible.
The air didn’t smell like his blood, Hōn noted. It eased some of the tension in her muscles. She could smell her blood and that of the man between her legs. The man’s was overwhelmingly metallic and edged with something bitter that settled wrong on the back of her tongue. Reptile demon of some sort, she wagered. She sniffed at the cool air again, tail flicking behind her, and caught the faintest trace of ash carried by the wind. Most predominantly, though, the air smelled of death.
Echoes of far-off, rapid gunfire knocked through the village.
“Come on,” Leon said, thrusting an outstretched, gloved hand barely an inch from Hōn’s nose. It smelled like leather and sword oil. “Off you get. Off the dead lad, beautiful. I’m jealous of him, and it’s beginning to concern me.”
She looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. “You know that I could have you discharged in a heartbeat for insubordination, Commander Clemenceau.”
Leon grinned and waggled his fingers. “You like me too much.”
Hōn took his hand, but after Leon helped her to her feet and off the demon’s body, she punched him in the shoulder. She held back on her strength, but not enough that the blow wouldn’t leave a bruise. Leon grunted and winced.
“What was that for?” he whined, and rubbed at his shoulder with a frown.
“I might like you, but I definitely like your brother more.”
“You wound me. Quite literally.”
Hōn rolled her eyes. “Someone ought to. Look at you,” she said, and waved a hand at his chest. “Barely a scratch on you. People are going to start thinking you’re off polishing your blade instead of fighting.”
“I can assure you I always polish my sword off the battlefield.”
With a lascivious quirk of her brows and a grin, Hōn said, “Well, I would hope so.”
Leon looked away, smiling, but the tips of his ears went red.
Hōn spit out another mouthful of bloody saliva and tiny bone fragments into the dirt and grimaced at the leftover taste of watered-down copper in her mouth. The roof of her mouth had healed from its cuts, but it was raw. She glanced down at where her braid was smearing blood across her cuirass and upper-thigh and wrinkled her nose. She would have to scrub her hair for hours if she wanted to get rid of the scent of battle. She knew her entire party was going to reek. They would have a target on their backs the entire march back to Aghalia for any Originian that felt like scenting them out.
Hōn surveyed the surrounding area. She was standing on a high point in the village, next to a pen of crying sheep and a schoolhouse crawling with ivy. Its bell had stopped ringing hours ago, sometime after the tanks had rolled in but before her soldiers had been able to pierce the city and answer its calls for aid. From her vantage point, she could see the tops of five hundred or so squat cottages that were scattered on the edge of the Chalial Mountains. Some of the cottages had collapsed in heaps of rubble and wood from artillery fire. Others had thatched roofs that were burnt away. Groups of weeping survivors were huddled in packs along the muddy lanes, and at random intervals throughout the village, piles of dead heaped like haystacks. The sight seared itself into Hōn’s memory. It was a while before she could make herself look away.
To the west, jagged, green mountains rose up outside of the village’s stone fence like a forest of arrowheads. The other three cardinal directions stretched out in hilly farmland, which would be fertilized with bodies now Hōn imagined. Her soldiers wouldn’t have time to bury or burn corpses. The ravens and vultures would have to pick them clean.
One of Hōn’s soldiers flew low overhead, the woman’s tawny wings outstretched. She glided off in the direction of several plumes of black smoke that were choking off in the east. The sounds of battle had died away, she realized suddenly.
If she focused, she could hear someone’s dying breaths rattling through their lungs about a mile north of the village. She could hear her soldiers talking, shuffling between cottages, their boots suctioning in the mud. She could hear rifles clanking and empty shell casings jingling. She could hear an infant’s whimper, the beat of wings, a thick sob, splashing water, the vibrations off a bowstring, the very last crackles of a flame before it dissipated, and the whisper of an ember on the wind. She filtered it all out.
Hōn shifted her focus to Leon instead, who was watching her intently from less than a foot away. “Why is it,” she asked, “that you can shift into any animal you want, but you always choose a bear? Do you understand how easy that is for them to predict when fighting you?”
Leon rolled his eyes, smiling. “He came at me as a lion, Hōn. What was I supposed to do? Throw my sword and see if it would rouse him into a nice game of fetch? Besides, what do you have against bears anyway? Bears are very majestic creatures. Large and—”
She lifted her pendant from her neck, ignoring Leon as he continued to ramble.
“South clear. No sign of Originians. Report.”
“—and I haven’t heard a thanks, either, and I’m certain I saved your life back th—”
Hōn slapped her free hand over his mouth. His eyes lit up with a hidden smile. She could feel the kiss he pressed to her palm through her glove and coloured, shoving his face away harshly. He chuckled. As she waited for a response from her soldiers, Leon picked up her forgotten dagger from the dirt, wiped it off on his leggings, and sheathed it at Hōn’s back.
“Scout Rivel reporting, General. Stationed with Lieutenant Clemenceau at the center of Varuus. No sign of the Originians from the sky. All seem to have retreated to the woods in the east. Pursue?” The soft, feminine voice floated through Hōn’s mind as she paced a circle. The voice was followed immediately by another, gruff and deep.
“Lieutenant Dolohov reporting, General. Stationed northwest. Soldiers report no signs of Originians from ground. All cottages cleared. Elementals en route to medical with survivors. Seconding Rivel. Pursue retreating flanks?”
“Do not pursue,” Hōn sent out across the line connecting her soldiers. “I repeat, do not pursue. Lieutenant Clemenceau, station thirty of our troop in the village until we can get some Veils here. Gather all survivors. Leave the dead. Return to Aghalia.”
“I’m afraid we can’t station that many, Hōn,” came the lieutenant’s voice, unsteady.
It stopped Hōn in her tracks. Something cold settled in her stomach.
“And why not?” she sent back.
“We don’t have thirty Hidearms,” came his response. “We… lost twenty-three in the battle. All included, we number twenty-six now.”
“How many soldiers did the Originians lose?”
“By Rivel’s count, eighteen.”
Hōn tensed, teeth gritted. “And how many villagers did we lose?”
“By Rivel’s count, ninety-four.”
Hōn dropped the stone and turned from Leon. “M’esh!” she cursed, balling her fists. She kicked the body at her feet hard enough to shatter its ribs and send it tumbling through the mud. Leon stepped in front of her and laid a hand on her shoulder. She stilled, but her body lost none of its tension. She ground her teeth together until her jaw ached and suppressed the urge to punch Leon in the face. He cupped the back of her neck and rubbed beneath one of her rounded, furred ears with his thumb. She flattened her ears, tail snapping.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “You didn’t hold the blades to their throats.”
I didn’t keep the blades from their throats, either, she thought.
For the last seven years, every time she blinked she could see dead faces behind her eyelids. Innocent faces. Humans without a fighting chance—bones crushed—limbs torn free. Demons that had been no match for the Originian soldiers—burnt alive—drowned with water conjured directly into their lungs—hearts ripped from their chests. Men. Women. Children. Infants. Murdered—smothered—dismembered in the streets. Thousands of Aghalia’s Veiled soldiers—their silver coifed hauberks soaked through with blood—their shortswords rammed through their own skulls. Hundreds of soldiers from her own specialized troop, the Hidearms—pendants dangling from their torn throats—their empty eyes fixed on nothing.
She’d seen it all.
From the Transversal River to the Briennon. From the Little Hills to the Chalials. From Lander’s Fortress in the east to Yuni in the southwest.
Terra was falling.
Every day it became more apparent: Hōn couldn’t save her country, or the people in it.
Leon lifted his own pendant with his free hand, and Hōn heard his voice come over the mental line. She swallowed.
“Lieutenant Clemenceau, please station fifteen Hidearms in Varuus for the night, not including yourself or Lieutenant Dolohov.”
“Of course, Brother.”
“Scout Rivel, track the retreating forces to their camp alone. Use discretion. Report upon sight. Wait for backup. Do not engage.”
“Of course, Commander.”
“Lieutenant Dolohov, rally the others. Search the dead. Retrieve any pendants. Await further instruction from my brother.”
“Of course, Commander.”
“Elementals, General Sinclair and I are en route to the mountain party. We’ll return to Aghalia with you, with the survivors. Remain vigilant until we arrive. This mission was not a failure.”
A chorus of affirmatives sounded.
Leon’s fingers slipped forward to stroke the wounds on Hōn’s jaw that Hōn could feel were mostly healed. They barely stung anymore. When he pulled his hand back, his glove came away with congealed blood—some hers, some not. With a smile, he turned toward the west, toward the vast wall of the Chalials. “I bet I can reach the party before you.”
Hōn shot past him before the last word left his mouth. She pushed her body to its top speed, twenty times the speed any human could reach. She relished the intense burn in her muscles because the fire under her skin meant she was alive.
It was the dying fires she was leaving behind that meant she had failed.
About the Author
L. J. Engelmeier has a B.A. in English with a specialization in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Underneath various pen names, she has been the runner-up for the 2016 SIU Carbondale Literary & Art Award in Poetry, has received a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the FutureContest, and has published both fiction and poetry in magazines such as Grassroots and Schlock!. When she isn’t making deliveries for a flower shop in town, she’s editing over at Whatever Our Souls Literary Magazine or bathing in her own rejection letters.