Year 1 of the Age of Blood
Oak’s Last Stand
Rain was coming. The air was heavy with its scent.
Oak breathed in deeply. He had always liked the smell of rain. It was a smell of life and of peace. There was nothing Oak liked better than standing among his trees and listening to the rain fall through the leaves.
This rain had a sharper edge to its scent, which meant it was more than just water. Oak had seen the Tal Forest burn from the fire rain, brought on by a dark spell cast by the demons. It was the same fire rain that had chased them here and pinned them between two armies.
One of which was slowly approaching them from across the Féarua Plains. It was only a smudge on the horizon, but Oak knew exactly who was coming. Furtim Mori, one of the highest generals of the enemy army, the one who had spent weeks pushing Oak’s ragged army back, thwarting them at every turn and forcing them into the corner they were in now. With Furtim Mori’s army before them, the Dorasca Gorge and the impassable Uiscean Marsh to the west and south, and a second army led by the blood-thirsty Devorantem to the east, there was no where left for Oak and his soldiers to run. And with rumors of the Demon Overlord himself leading the approaching demons, surviving the battle was unlikely.
Oak closed his sad, gray eyes. “I am sorry, Maple,” he said softly. “I failed you. I failed everyone. I could not stop the demons.”
His mate had been the first of the six leaders to fall, killed in a desperate attempt to retake the very plains he now stood upon. It had been little more than a massacre of wolves. King Eagle’s force, which was supposed to ambush the demons from behind, never showed, leaving Queen Maple and her loyal soldiers to die a prey’s death.
But all of Oak’s fury at the Wind-Wolf king’s betrayal had long-since dissipated. There was no point in holding a grudge against a ghost.
Oak opened his eyes again and fixed his gaze on the distant demon army. Not much longer now. At some point he would have to face what remained of the once hopeful and glorious army, the first alliance between the nations since ages long past. He would have to say something to encourage them, to convince them that he wasn’t about to send them to their deaths. He was the only surviving leader of Soluna, the Brown Ghost who kept coming back even after everyone thought he was dead. He was a symbol of hope, however slight, that Soluna might return to the days of peace they had before the demons appeared, nine long terrible months before.
His ears flicked back at the sound of approaching pawsteps. It was most likely Ember, his lieutenant. His few moments of solitude were over, and it was time to prepare for whatever happened next.
I am tired of pretending. I am tired of lying. Most of them have probably seen through my act already. They know this is it. It would do them and the sacrifices everyone has made a dishonor to continue this farce.
“Your Majesty.” Ember’s empty voice broke through his thoughts. “We are ready and waiting for orders.”
Oak nodded and breathed in deeply once more, digging his claws into soft earth beneath his paws. His mind immediately started evaluating the coming battle, taking stock of what he had available and what he knew the demons had. The Lough Diamháil would give them a slight advantage and force Furtim Morti’s army to split around it, but it would also leave them trapped between its banks and the forest behind it. But between the lake and the recent storm, there was too much water around for the Fire-Wolves to make full use of their magic. The fire in the demon’s rain was not the same kind of fire any wolf could use. His Wind-Wolf warriors were at a distinct geographical disadvantage. The few strong enough to use their magic could do little surrounded by their element’s polar opposite. His Earth-Wolf warriors, very few of whom were among his original force who set out with him when the demons first appeared, were too tired, to beaten-down to balance out the weaknesses. Oak’s army grand army, once a formidable force, had lost most of its effectiveness, while the demons only seemed to grow stronger and more numerous by the day. It was more than enough to overrun them with ease.
With a shake of his head, Oak dismissed his thoughts and looked up at the sky. No plan he could come up with, no matter how carefully thought out, would get them out alive. The Brown Ghost would not be coming back this time. Fitting that I should die where my mate last stood. Perhaps she will walk with me to the sky.
Oak glanced back at Ember and blinked with surprise. He had been so caught up in his thoughts he had forgotten she stood with him.
The thin Fire-Wolf tilted her head slightly. “Your orders?”
“Ah…” His mind blanked for a moment. What can I tell them other than the obvious? He looked long at Ember, counting every scar and open wound in her ragged pelt. Her dull pink fur hung off her skeletal frame. Already small for a Fire-Wolf, her emaciated form made her look even smaller. The Fire-Wolf who stood before Oak now was a stark contrast to the boisterous and hopeful wolf he had first met, the one who fought with every fiber of her being for the sake of her beloved land and spent all her time helping her fellow soldiers.
Now she only fought because she had nothing left to live for, and any time she had outside of battle was spent staring at the horizon, waiting for her next orders.
A wolf of her age should be well into an apprenticeship, Oak thought. The names and faces of many more soldiers flashed through his mind. All of them…they are far too young to die like this.
He thought of his own daughter, lost shortly after his mate, and he clenched his jaw.
“It will not end here,” Oak said under his breath. If I am to die here, then I will die as the King I am supposed to be. He raised his head, feeling more like a confident leader than he had in months. “I will speak with them now,” he said in a louder voice.
Ember nodded and gave a short howl, calling the army’s attention to the Earth King standing above them. Oak waited a few moments before beginning.
Watch me, he thought, directing the prayer to spirits of the fallen leaders. I will join you soon, but I will leave a legacy for others to follow.
“Nine months ago, the demons appeared. Uiscean Marsh was lost, and soon after the entire island found itself under attack. I called the nations together to fight, and for the first time in centuries wolves from each nation stood united. Together we faced foes none had ever seen before and struggled against unknown powers that sought to destroy everything we held dear.” Oak paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully. “But we have suffered much because of these monstrosities we call demons. We have all watched our families and friends die before our eyes. I know this pain. There were once six of us to lead you. Now, only I remain. I have lost everything. My family, my land, all of it taken by the demons.
“We have all fought bravely to protect our land, but I will not lie to you…this will be the final battle fought by this alliance.”
Very few were surprised by his words. Many were like Ember, and cared not if they lived or died. Others had nowhere else to go, no homes or families to return to. All knew the end drew near.
“If we fight here today, I doubt any of us will survive,” Oak continued. “We stand pinned between two armies…and it is very likely that Letorus is leading one of them. Therefore…I am giving you a choice. If you wish, you may escape the battle. You do not have to fight and die with us, and I will not consider you cowards for fleeing. On your own, you stand a better chance of escaping. But know this, although you will live to see another sun, Letorus will hunt you. He will do whatever it takes to capture and punish you for avoiding the demon’s rule.
“Before you make your choice, think on this. We stand at a crucial moment in the story of this land. Whatever happens in the coming battle, wolves will look back upon it and will take away something from it. Will it be despair, or hope? Will we become a symbol of defeat or defiance? The demons may defeat us here, but that does not mean the war is lost.
“I know that many believe Moon-Wolf and Sun-Wolf have forsaken us, even sent us those monsters as divine punishment, but I know they still watch over us. Our pain is their pain. We cannot always understand the will of the gods, but I know one day they will send a savior to free us. We have a chance here to raise the moons and send a message of hope to our enslaved brethren. A message to say that all is not lost. A message that will be spread across the land so that even when others hear of our loss here, they will stand firm in their resolve to resist the demons’ rule.”
Oak’s confident gaze swept over the gathering of ragged soldiers. “That is also my message to those of you who do choose to escape. An old wolf’s dying wish, so to speak. No matter what happens here, do not stop resisting. Stand together against the demons. Free those of us held prisoner. Fight Letorus with every fiber of your being, even when you are enslaved or are forced to run and hide from the demons. Our minds and hearts can never be bound by chains, do not let the demons forget that. We will continue to fight, down to the last wolf, so that one day in the future our pups can live in a world without demons.”
Then he fell silent. He could say nothing more, only hope that his words were enough to inspire even a few wolves to stand with him and fight.
Several moments of silence passed before wolves began to flee the area. Oak said nothing, thought no ill-will towards them, as dozens backed away and ran into the forest behind them. Soon only a little more than a hundred remained, but those determined few warmed Oak’s fur with pride. He could see the resolve shining in their eyes even from where he stood. They were offering him all they had.
“Thank you,” Oak said. “You have made your ancestors proud. Wolves will sing of our bravery here for many ages to come.”
He turned back to face the approaching demon army and lifted his head high. The fire rain was almost upon them; its acrid stench burned Oak’s nose. The demons were close enough that he could hear their snarls and unearthly chants and see the flashing of their teeth. At the front of the horde was the unmistakable shape of the Demon Overlord himself.
It is time. Oak bunched his muscles and howled his challenge to the demons. His call was quickly picked up by the warriors behind him, until the plains rang with their voices.
Then he charged forward, intent on meeting the enemy one last time. His army followed behind him, their paws pounding the ground. The demon horde before them became excited at the sight of their prey throwing themselves at them and the yowls grew louder.
“For Soluna!” Oak howled, sending a deep crack through the earth. Although a few unlucky demons fell into the dark crevice, Letorus easily sidestepped the attack and bared his long fangs in a vicious grin.
The two armies clashed in a mess of fangs and claws. Screams tore through the air as the first victims fell, sending a stab of pain through Oak’s chest every time a wolf’s voice was silenced. He growled and kept his focus on Letorus, who stood patiently among the rolling mass of fighters, waiting for the Earth King to reach him.
“I am very excited to finally meet you, your majesty,” the bear-like demon said, his voice dripping with mockery. “You led my generals on quite the entertaining chase.”
Oak drew his lips back in a snarl and threw himself at Letorus. Everything else around him, the wails of the dying, the stench of blood, the bitter taste of foul magic, seemed to fade into the background. His focus narrowed until Letorus was all he saw. He crashed into the black-and-white demon, but only succeeded in knocking him back a few steps. Letorus hissed and sank his fangs into Oak’s leg before throwing him to the ground. Oak rolled to avoid the demon’s lunge and quickly jumped to his paws. Fire rain bled through his fur, cutting furrows into his skin. He shook his head furiously, desperately trying to keep it out of his eyes. Oak snarled again and summoned a chunk of rock from the ground. He flung it at Letorus and dove at the demon’s paws, knocking his legs out from under him.
Letorus yowled when the rock slammed into him, pinning him to the ground. Oak didn’t give him a chance to recover and continued to throw boulder after boulder at the demon, tearing up the earth around them in order to keep Letorus down.
Ember’s shout almost startled Oak into dropping his rock. His throw went wide and crashed into a knot of Hell-Cats when the small Fire-Wolf threw herself into him. A moment later a wave of black energy swept over her, dragging her back to Letorus’s claws.
She took it for me. “Ember!” Oak lurched back to his paws and dove for his lieutenant, struggling to tear her away, but he was too slow. Letorus sank his fangs into the back of her neck and threw her aside. She didn’t move after hitting the ground.
“Obviously, that was meant for you, but what’s one more dead wolf?” Letorus shook the dirt from his fur and crouched slightly, his black eyes glittering in his striped face. “Are there any more you’d like to sacrifice to keep you alive a little longer?”
Oak roared and lunged at Letorus, calling up every loose piece of stone surrounding them. Letorus only chuckled and melted into shadow. Oak fell through an empty space, but was forced to quickly back away or be hit by his own attack.
“I think it’s time we ended this,” Letorus’s voice came from behind him. “I grow tired of this game of cat and mouse.”
Oak whirled around, only to come face to face with the towering form of Letorus. A heavy paw slammed into his side, knocking him into a boulder with enough force to crack a few ribs. Oak’s vision grew blurry and he struggled to get air into his lungs. Pain washed over him as he slid to the ground. Before he could attempt to stand, black tendrils rose up from the shadow of the rock behind him and wrapped themselves around his limbs, tying him in place.
“The great King of the Earth-Wolves, ruler of all of Taladair, reduce to this,” Letorus said, slowly stalking closer. “The very last ruler of this pathetic land. Fitting that you should die like the rat you are. And once you, the famous Brown Ghost who danced with death for so long, is gone, the wolves of Soluna will have no one to stand behind.”
A laugh bubbled out of Oak’s throat, causing the Overlord to narrow his eyes. Oak spat out a clump of blood and focused his darkening vision on Letorus. “As long as even one wolf draws breath in Soluna, we will resist,” he coughed. “It may take centuries, but one day we will topple you from your mountain.”
Letorus snarled and placed a large paw on Oak’s side, pressing down and causing the Earth-Wolf to gasp in pain. “Then I’ll just kill every single wolf on this island.”
“Then we will descend from the heavens and raise the land against you. You will not hold Soluna forever. One day you will fall.” Oak laughed again, ignoring the pain in his chest. The last thing he saw was the furious face of Letorus before the demon’s fangs closed around his neck, and everything was lost to darkness.
We will have our victory, Letorus. One way or another. Your death will come.