As the line of death bats neared, Gladius could see dark silhouettes with pointed ears. The last of the waning sun highlighted the dark shape of bones through the transparent wings on one of the closest bats.
The lone flying beast closing in from the opposite direction appeared much larger. Was it a Day bat?
“It's a dragon. It's Doc!” yelled Elle. “I knew he'd come. I knew it.”
Gladius could see it now – the sure shape of a dragon and its distinctive wings glowing red in the sky. Doc sat in the crook of the dragon's neck and someone or something sat directly behind him.
“Don't shoot the dragon or its riders,” came the loud command in the calm before the battle. Gladius thought it sounded like Flint's voice from a distance.
Suddenly the soldiers around the fire drew up their bows in unison and took aim. Jags, standing next to Gladius and Elle, picked two spears from the fire and held them ready to launch. Gladius now realized the perimeter of the fire was loaded with spears – each spear half in the fire and the other half sticking out for an easy grab.
Jags drew back one spear and launched it high and hard. The sparking fire trail arched into the air and hit square on with the lead bat. The body and spear spiraled from the sky. The whoosh of hundreds of arrows let loose filled the air. The massive line of bats scattered, many of them succumbing to the arrows. Others dived in for the ground attack.
The archers reloaded and fired again. Hundreds of winged enemies fell from the sky but the massive vein of bats continued to arrive from a seemingly endless procession.
“Look, Doc is attacking them,” said Elle, as the dragon swooped through the mass, igniting a huge explosion of white flame in the prime of the bat formation.
The dragon looped around for another attack. First the dive and then the blast; the skeletal remains fell from the sky, bodies and wings flaming as they dropped.
Until now, Elle and Gladius had been standing in awe as the soldiers around them fought. Jags searched for another spear and Gladius grabbed the closest one to him and held it out. Jags took it and instantly leaned back, one long arm stretched out straight in front, the other extended back and low, creating a straight line through his shoulders. The spear launched fast as the large man hurled his body forward stepping into and through it with one fluid motion. It thudded into a bat body and Gladius handed Jags another spear.
On the other side of the fire, four soldiers tossed a crudely fashioned net into the air snaring several bats at one time. Gladius grinned at the use of the net.
Elle screamed. Gladius spun around, saw her nock an arrow and fire it into the body of a bat just above the fire. It hit directly and the bat cried a high-pitched squeal as it crashed into Elle's legs. She tried jumping out of the way but it happened so fast. Stepping forward Gladius grabbed the end of the arrow sticking out from the bat's chest and hefted the bat into the fire.
“You OK?” asked Gladius.
“I'm great. Did you see that? I got him.”
Gladius smiled at her excitement and bent down to pull another burning spear from the fire for Jags. Elle found her confidence and continued shooting arrows.
The smell of blood tinged the air. Grunts and groans came from the hustling soldiers. Everywhere he looked, he saw the business of battle taking place. The ground attack of the death bats had commenced in full force – all around the winged creatures had entangled themselves on the heads and shoulders of the soldiers. The memory of his own fight with the bats flooded back and Gladius wondered why he had not been attacked yet. He looked over at Jags and realized he had been fending them off for him.
Jags swung a spear over his head knocking a bat out of the air. He jabbed at another one and flung it into the fire. Jags knocked another bat out of the air and stomped on its wing to immobilize the creature. Gladius picked it up and tossed it on top of the blazing pile. The stench of burning carcasses filled the air.
Gray plumes of smoke billowed high into the night sky. The dragon flew low, just above the flames. The sound whooshed by and the smoke swirled after the dragon's body. Gladius glanced at Doc's face and swore he was laughing.
Then once again, the dragon and Doc flew through the smoke above the fire, and Gladius realized the dispersion of smoke helped to thin the area of bats, giving a much-needed reprieve to the soldiers. This time he also confirmed the body of a second person saddled in behind Doc.
Gladius took advantage of the reprieve and threw more wood on the fire. He handed Jags two more spears, fully ablaze on one tip. He then turned to check with Elle, glimpsed a distant burst of flame through the battlefield smoke, and knew it was Doc's dragon attacking another area.
“How's your arrow supply?” Gladius asked Elle.
Gladius dashed off in the direction of the barrel of readymade arrows a quarter of the way around the fire. Halfway there a large bat swooped in to attack. He heard its spiky teeth chattering and felt the claws dig deep into his shoulder tissue. He let out a scream of pain and reached up to pull the creature off, but the harder he pulled the more pain he felt from the claws.
Then another attacked his face. He punched at its body, grabbed its leg and twisted it off, throwing it in the fire. Another crawled on his back – he jumped up and violently threw his body backward onto the ground. The bat's grip released as the weight of his body crushed it. He hurried to his feet and kicked the bat toward the fire.
Two more bats attacked as he reached into the barrel of arrows. He stabbed an arrow at the one covering his face. The dirty hair of the bat found its way into his mouth and he gagged on the musty taste. He repeatedly jabbed at the bat clinging to his face – it was suffocating his breathing. He dropped a handful of arrows to pull the bat away. He threw it into the fire and spit out bits of disgusting hair.
He picked up the arrows again, ran back to Elle and threw them at her feet. Reaching around to get the biting bat off his hip he saw Jags hoist a stick, as if to strike him. He raised his arms in defense but Jags efficiently knocked the bat on the head and it fell from his hip and lay there unmoving.
“Thanks,” Gladius said, looking up at the giant of a man.
Jags grunted a reply and turned to fight another.
Gladius hollered at Elle, “I'll go get some more arrows.” He felt safe leaving her there by Jags’ side.
As he turned to go for more arrows, Doc and his dragon flew in low again. Instinctively he ducked out of the way as the dragon swooped by allowing him to get a glimpse of the passenger.
He could not believe it.
The dragon flew up and circled around again, diving lower and slower this time. Gladius’ brother, Windom, leaped from the back of the dragon, landing just a few feet away. Doc and the dragon continued flying off into a small horde of bats.
“Hey, Glad,” said Windom. “It looked like you could use a little help down here.”
Gladius was stunned. He hadn't seen Windom for almost a year.
“Watch out behind you,” yelled Windom, as he let loose an arrow and sunk it cleanly into the face of the death bat about to attack.
“Arrows, Gladius. Arrows,” screamed Elle.
Gladius heard Elle and looked at Windom.
“You better go,” Windom replied. “It's not polite to keep a lady waiting.”
Gladius ran back to the barrel, jumping and dodging the fallen bodies.
This time the bats made no attack. He reached in the barrel at the same moment two other soldiers did. He quickly stepped back to let them retrieve the arrows first. He then grabbed as many as he could carry and turned back in the direction of Elle and now noticed why he did not have a swarm of bats attacking. Both Elle and Windom were firing arrows into the air above his head taking out the bats one at a time. He rushed back and dropped a large pile of arrows between Elle and his brother.
He looked up to see Jags grunting and swinging wildly with a spear. “More spears. More spears,” said the giant.
Gladius ached and wanted to rest. He coughed from smoke inhalation. He bent down to fetch another spear and realized Jags had used every spear in the vicinity. He searched for more and found three spears on the other side of the fire. He grabbed them and returned, dropping them at the giant's feet.
The bats seemed never ending. With the sky dark, Gladius could no longer see how many bats remained. Was there a line anymore? All he could see by the firelight was the countless flutter of wings. Everywhere he looked the soldiers and his friends battled the winged creatures. The bats might have the numbers, he thought, but we have the weapons and the skills – and the dragon. He looked up to see Doc and the dragon enflaming the distant sky near the tree line. He could see the shape of the forest's edge in the glow of the dragon's flame.
A commotion on the ground in the ranks behind him erupted. Gladius spun around. Several soldiers fought a large beast on the ground. They clubbed at the animal with sticks. One soldier swung a heavy pike axe but the beast was relentless.
“Jags, Jags,” yelled Gladius. “Spear that thing. Spear it.”
Jags charged holding a burning spear out front. Seconds later, he implanted the spear directly into the side of the creature. Its short hair caught fire immediately and created a more dangerous situation – a wild roving animal on fire. The soldiers tried to scurry away but managed to only bump and bang into each other. Then Jags grabbed another spear and slammed it in hard behind the beast's neck. The animal squealed loudly and slumped into a smoldering heap. He then took his knife and cut under its throat. The rotten stench of burnt flesh filled the air. Gladius bent over and vomited, as much from the smell as from his own exhaustion.
“There are two more.” Gladius heard someone yell as he wiped his mouth.
Windom approached and grabbed him by the elbow raising him upright. “You have to stay alert around these bristle backs. Don't let them knock you down.”
“What?” asked Gladius.
“The boars. Don't let them get you on the ground.”
Two boars trapped a soldier on the ground and one trampled the soldier's head and the other ripped at his legs.
“Shoot them,” yelled Gladius.
Both Elle and Windom launched several arrows into the body of the wild boar but the animal barely flinched.
Gladius ran up to the downed soldier and tried to pull him free. One boar turned his attention to Gladius, forcing him to retreat. As he ran from the boar, he passed Jags, who ran by and threw his hip and shoulder into the mass of the huge pig. The boar and giant man tumbled off their feet.
Gladius ran to the dead boar and tried to pull the spear out. It snapped in half leaving the spear with only one sharp tip. Gladius flipped it around and charged at the boar that now managed to have pinned Jags flat on his back. He jabbed the spear into the back of the neck just like he saw Jags do to the other one. It stuck, barely. The hide was tough. He knew he didn't get it in far enough. It fell out and now the beast was trampling over the spear. Gladius tried to retrieve the broken spear but the boar kicked and turned on him.
“Look out,” someone yelled.
Gladius turned to see his brother running at him with a spear raised. Windom kicked the beast squarely between the eyes and sunk the spear into the back of the neck. The boar keeled over. Windom pick up the broken spear as the third boar turned toward him.
“Glad,” said Windom with just enough urgency to get his attention. He tossed the broken spear and Gladius snatched it.
The boar charged into the back of Windom's legs knocking him down face first. Gladius yelled and ran at the boar holding the spear straight out. The boar looked up and snarled just as Gladius sunk the spear in its mouth and down its throat. Jags joined Gladius, grabbed the free end of the spear, and leaned on it forcing the beast to submit and twist to the ground.
“Windom, you all right?” asked Gladius.
Windom jumped up. “I'm fine. Nice job,” he said looking down at the carnage.
The moment didn't last long though as the bats were back in full force.
“Move back closer to the fire,” said Gladius, motioning for Jags and Windom to return to where Elle was fighting.
“They are more prepared and organized than I expected,” said Mulhurt.
Mulhurt and Purl watched the battle from a distant high point in the Hills of the Moon.
“The fire was smart. It gives them something to defend. It's easier to fight when you are defending something,” said Purl.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“The bats are attacking but they don't really seem to be anything more than a nuisance for them,” said Purl.
“They didn't have archers the last time.”
“Digging the trenches and lining them with fire was smart, too. Every time the bats dive in to attack, the fire keeps them away.”
“And it leaves the archer in the trench with a clean shot.”
“Bringing in the boars was a good twist on your part,” said Purl. “It gives them something to be concerned with on the ground.”
“They appear to be handling the boars as well,” said Mulhurt.
“I see why Pendence is fighting with them. They are strong and determined to get their home back.”
“They can have it,” said Mulhurt. “I need this battle as a decoy and a means to an end. Let's go, we have to place the golden bust before this carnage ends. It will be over at first light when the remaining bats retreat. We need to have the bust in place and waiting for the sunrise.”
Purl shook his head and followed his brother back down the path. It could not be as easy as just placing the bust, could it, he wondered. He looked back at the battle and saw a strange happening. “What are they doing there?”
Mulhurt stopped and looked back to see the Walkers lining themselves up along the edge of the forest. “So, they did show. I wasn't sure if they would.”
Gladius was hot and tired. He looked over to Elle who fought on bravely without complaint. Windom now stood back to back with the giant. Gladius always wished he could grow as tall and be as strong as his brother, but Windom looked puny when he stood next to Jags. He dumped the armload of arrows and looked over at a curious glow of light that caught his eye.
Leaving the relative safety of the fire, Gladius bumped his way through the battlefield of soldiers and dead bat bodies until he could get a better view of the strange glow coming from the forest.
He jumped over a dwindling fire and down into a trench where an archer was frantically fighting off a bat attached to his neck. Gladius grabbed a stick from the pile of dried timber and clubbed the bat once behind the head. The stunned bat fell back and the soldier immediately picked it up and chucked it on the remaining fire.
“Help me get the fire going again,” said the soldier. Just as he spoke another bat swooped in but veered away as the soldier swung a stick at it.
Gladius reached across the trench, grabbed wood and added it to the burning embers.
“When did they show up?” asked Gladius, nodding toward the line of Walkers not far from the trench.
“Why are they just standing there?” asked Gladius, recalling the few he encountered the other night.
Just then, Flint jumped through the fire and into the trench as smoothly as if he had done it a hundred times.
“What are you doing here?” asked Flint, looking at Gladius. “You are supposed to be back by the main fire. He then turned to the soldier and said, “When this fire burns down retreat to the next trench. When that one dies down retreat in further until you all meet at the main fire. It should be dawn by then.”
“Yes, sir,” the soldier responded, looking relieved to be able to soon leave his post.
Flint turned back to Gladius. “Follow me. We must get you back to Jags and Elle.”
“What about them?” asked Gladius, indicating the Walkers.
“I've been watching them. I think they are here to make sure the forest remains safe. Now come on, we must get you back to the others.”
Gladius followed Flint back to the fire. He couldn't believe the carnage the soldiers had created so far. Hundreds, maybe thousands of dead bats littered the ground. The stench and smoke stung in his nose. His eyes burned and watered. He couldn't wait for this battle to be over.
Approaching Jags, Flint scolded him. “I told you to keep him near you at all times.”
Jags looked confused and attempted to reply but Gladius cut him off. “It's not his fault. I just took off. I wanted to see what the Walkers were doing.”
“Fine,” said Flint. “Just stay here now. It won't be long until dawn and this thing will be over.” Flint turned and ran off into the battle again.
Gladius had not heard Flint use that stern tone until now. He noticed how he limped badly as he ran off.
“Stoke the fire,” said Siren.
Gladius spun around to see Siren and what looked like another platoon of soldiers.
“We are gathering the army here. Throw more timber on the fire.”
“OK,” replied Gladius.
The more the soldiers collected around the fire the fewer the bats Gladius saw flying. A pink glow of the morning light started to spread its warmth across the battlefield. The dark cloud of smoke trailed off and followed the north wind to the south. The remaining bats were in retreat from one determined dragon and its rider.
Gladius smiled at the sight of Doc chasing the last of the enemy away. He went to one knee and Elle knelt next to him.
“The bats must have wronged a dragon for Doc to stay in pursuit after their obvious retreat,” said Gladius.
“Doc is like that. He's just a good guy. How's your arm?” she asked.
“Sore and tired, like the rest of me. How are you?”
“Hungry. I'm hungry and thirsty,” said Elle.
Windom approached and held out a water skin for each of them. “They're handing these out over there,” said Windom, pointing to a tent that had been hastily set up. “They're setting up a breakfast line, too.”
“I'm too tired to eat,” said Gladius.
“Not me,” said Elle.
“You should eat, Glad. The day is just getting started,” said Windom.
Gladius looked around for Flint. He spotted him talking with Siren and two other men he did not know. Then Flint turned and walked in his direction.
“Flint,” Gladius said.
“Gladius, you made it all night. I wasn't sure you would.”
“You thought I would die?”
“No. That's why I assigned Jags to be at your side,” said Flint. “If you fell for any reason, be it injury or exhaustion, Jags was to take you away and watch over you. But, you fought on, my boy. You fought on.”
“Of course I did. I didn't know any better.”
Flint laughed and slapped Gladius on the back, “Come, let's get something to eat. I hear we have plenty of fresh side pork, thanks to you.”