Chiko looked down at the army below and shook with fury. They had been betrayed.
He wished that he could be surprised by this deception, but the Inquisition had viewed his people with suspicion ever since the massacre at Geistell. Even some of the Grastellians at Cragstead seemed more wary of Chiko’s people due to their magic. Though, the last year had passed with relative peace, things changed the previous month.
On the anniversary of the fall of Geistell, a great meteor that seemed larger than Grastell itself had sailed far over the land, disappearing into the horizon. Days later, a rider from the Inquisition had arrived in Cragstead and raced to Inquisitor Ristal’s home. Concerned murmurs spread among the townsfolk as the situation felt unsettlingly familiar to what had occurred just a year ago.
However, this time, there was no Captain Reesta or public announcement about taking up arms and serving their country. Instead, the following morning, Chiko was woken by a knock on his door.
Inquisitor Ristal stood outside, his face gaunt and sweaty.
‘Chiko, may I come in?’
Despite his tumultuous history with the inquisitor, Chiko had known that he was not the kind of man to arrive unannounced unless there was a matter of great import, so he stepped aside and allowed him to sit at their table.
‘I apologise for the early visit; I hope I didn’t wake up Mirrah.’
Chiko shook his head. ‘She’s a deep sleeper. A light knock on the door won’t rouse her.’
Ristal nodded slowly, and then his face seemed to sag a whole inch downward as he grimaced. ‘I trust that you saw the meteor that passed over us a few days ago.’
‘A few hours after it sailed over Grastell, the people of Drest claimed that the tide stopped, the water became as still as a lakebed, dead fish began to surface, and all the ships in the water fell apart. Everyone and everything was swallowed by the water.’
Chiko stared at Ristal, trying in vain to find the smallest sign of jest or humour in the inquisitor’s eyes.
‘The sea shows no sign of returning to normal, and yesterday, Drest was abandoned after reports of people and animals vanishing at night. There are even rumours that a child born the day the meteor fell may have been cursed.’
Chiko raised his hand and cut off Ristal’s speech. ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘The messenger that arrived yesterday notified me that the baron of Grastell has made a decree. He believes magic responsible for this disaster, and that all known magic users in Grastell are to be rounded up and taken to the capital for trial.’
The two men stared at each other, then Chiko stood up and moved into a fighting stance. ‘Do you intend to take me and my people away?’
Ristal studied Chiko, and a sad smile appeared on his face.
‘I came to warn you. I will go to the capital and try to convince them that your people’s skills will be invaluable now that we’re seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, but don’t be surprised if that changes nothing.’
Chiko had not needed to do much convincing to get the rest of the town ready to withstand a siege. They were all on edge since the meteor fell, and Chiko had become a respected figure in Cragstead after returning from the fight with the cult. The people of Cragstead also remembered Chiko’s parents and grandfather and they were all still held in high regard even after their passing.
However, after two weeks without any news or sign of danger, the people of Cragstead had begun to think that perhaps Ristal’s pleas might not have fallen on deaf ears. Chiko worried that he wouldn’t be able to convince them to stay prepared for much longer. He was walking near the path that led down to the clearing where their farms were, when he saw a small flying figure heading towards the town.
As it got closer, he recognised it as one of the inquisition’s messenger birds, and he quickly yelled at the nearby guards to hold their fire and let it pass. As he expected, the bird landed at Inquisitor Ristal’s house. Once Chiko reached the house, he saw a rolled-up letter tied to the bird’s leg.
With slow, shaking hands, he unrolled it.
Chiko, if you are reading this letter, my arguments failed, and I have most likely been marked a traitor. I can only hope that you took my advice and prepared adequately for the force that is coming to Cragstead.
I know that we have not always had the best history, but I also know, without a doubt, that you care about your people and would do anything to ensure their safety. So, I have no regrets knowing that you will be there to keep the Inquisition at bay.
Regards. Inquisitor Matthew Ristal.
Chiko read the letter several times, and each time he found it hard to believe that Ristal was gone. The man was no fighter, but he always seemed to have a plan to survive.
Chiko put the letter down and warned the rest of his people to prepare for war.
When the Inquisition’s army arrived nine days later, they spread throughout the clearing that led up to Cragstead like ants swarming over a discarded scrap of meat.
Chiko found himself staring down at an enemy camp from on high once again. However, this time the camp was vastly more organised, and filled with trained soldiers, rather than a ramshackle group of demoralised cultists.
‘Please, Chiko, come with us.’
His last conversation with Mirrah haunted him. ‘You don’t need to stay. We can both escape.’
Chiko shook his head. ‘I am needed here. If I could trust someone else with this, I would. But without Ristal, I cannot rely on anyone.’
‘Then at least let me stay,’ she begged. ‘I don’t want to lose anyone else to wars we didn’t ask for.’
The conversation devolved to yelling and crying on both sides, but Chiko finally managed to convince Mirrah to go with the other villagers through the secret mountain passage behind Cragstead.
Originally, Chiko had found his people’s insistence of building an escape route out of Cragstead an unnecessary waste of time and the mage’s energy. He thought they were just hanging onto their experiences of being surrounded by enemies as they had been in the archipelago. Now, he saw the wisdom in it.
But despite all their planning and fortifications, some would need to stay behind to ensure that everyone else had enough time to escape, and Chiko stood alongside thirty brave men and women who had made the same decision he had.
On the first night after the Inquisition had arrived, they had tried to send their army up to Cragstead with large siege ladders to scale the cliffs. After the first few soldiers had made it up the narrow pass, Chiko gave the order for the mages to do their job.
Thick, giant vines sprouted from the ground before the cliffs, trapping the soldiers who had breached the city and sending the men and ladders crashing back into the army behind them.
No more attacks came that night but using so much magic had left the mages exhausted. Most of them could barely stand, and a few had even collapsed from using up so much magic.
Once the trapped soldiers had been killed, Chiko ordered some of his men to attend the mage’s needs and start arrangements to send them through the passageway. Then he stared at the wall of bramble in awe. Before this, he had never seen the mages do much more than turn tough, arid soil lush and fertile, and he had found it hard to believe that they held this much power when he had asked them how their magic could be used to defend the village.
As he stared, he recalled the story he had heard about the war between the dragons and the god of earth, and how the mad god had crushed many dragons with massive vines. Now, he began to wonder if there was more truth to the tale than he had believed.
The next night the army attacked again, and Chiko knew that they were out of time. Barrages of flaming arrows soared from the clearing and struck against the brambles. It took almost half an hour of continuous volleys for the vine barricade to catch alight and another hour before the first figures began to emerge from the smoke and flames.
They barely made it to the first barricade before they fell to the archers Chiko had placed on the roofs of nearby buildings. Though, soon, dozens of soldiers swarmed into the town and the archers had to retreat as well.
Far sooner than Chiko had expected, the barricades they had set up fell, and the Grastellian soldiers marched toward the passage entrance Chiko and his men were guarding.
Emboldened by the feeble resistance, the Grastellian soldiers charged forward, but were stopped dead in their tracks when the ground gave way and swallowed several rows of their formation. The unsuspecting soldiers fell into the spike trap below.
Chiko saw realisation in the soldiers’ eyes. The path before them was unsafe and possibly held more traps beneath the ground. Because of the narrow paths between buildings, they would not be able to catch them in any pincer attacks. This last realisation was cemented even further when one of the soldiers pointed to where more vines blocked paths around the cave. Flanking the villagers would be impossible.
‘Now!’ Chiko yelled. Twenty villagers emerged from their hiding places on the roofs above the Grastellians and began to fire arrows down on them. Panic broke out among the soldiers’ ranks as they were fired on. Boxed in, squashed together, and unable to move forward, they retreated towards the town’s entrance.
By the time the soldiers were out of range, hundreds of corpses littered the path in front of the cave. Chiko smiled fiercely as he called for the archers to abandon their positions and join the rest of them by the cave entrance.
This is where they would make their final stand. He knew they wouldn’t survive the night, but imagining the faces of the inquisitors when they found out the cave they had guarded so fiercely was empty, and the townsfolk were nowhere to be found, was enough for him.
The real entrance had been sealed up the day before and led into vast caverns that opened up across the mountain range of Eastern Grastell. The rest of the Cragstead villagers would split up and scatter into the nearby villages.
Grim determination fuelled Chiko as the soldiers returned with a shield wall.
The meteor might prevent them from leaving Grastell, he thought, as the soldiers made a makeshift bridge across the spike trap. He might not ever get to meet his and Mirrah’s unborn child.
But he knew that the people of the Faji Archipelago were survivors, and as he drew his sword and cut through soldier after soldier, that was all he needed to know.
Author: Flynn is a 4th year Creative Writing student with a penchant for fantasy, mystery, horror, and the supernatural. Growing up, Flynn loved reading stories with worlds that he could get lost in for hours, and he hopes that one day he will write stories that others can also get lost in.
Artist: Isa Velasquez
Editors: Rory Hawkins and Suzy Darlington