THE LAST STAND
By Deborah J. Smith
Aridysia raised her head and surveyed the blood bath. Bodies lay like grotesquely twisted statues of obsidian, blackened and unrecognizable. Heaving herself up from the cold stone floor, she stumbled across the courtyard to one particular mutilated mound, and gazed at the form of her mate, Dalabane. The most handsome male in the world, Dalabane had a regal bearing that rallied others to his side. His steady gaze burned into the soul and caused the disobedient or rebellious to quake with fear. Yet, with her, his tenderness made her ache with longing. Wherever Dalabane led, whatever course he set, his authority had never been challenged. And Aridysia loved him with all her heart and soul.
Wrenching her eyes from Dalabane’s corpse, Aridysia viewed the carnage, hoping… praying … for some sign of life. A whimper, a sigh, a curse … anything. But the courtyard was one giant sepulcher. No one else had survived.
A wave of nausea hit her as painfully as a blow, and her heart pounded in sickening thumps within her chest.
What now? She thought.
Their enemies had been stronger than anyone could have guessed. War had not ended their conflict; it had extinguished their race.
The skies above Aridysia were the bluest blue she had ever seen. A hint of gold crept over the vast azure canopy as the sun began to set. Soon darkness would fall over the earth, but not even the darkness of the sky could match the darkness in Aridysia’s soul. Never had she felt, or been, so alone.
Her children had once romped in the bright green grass of the fields of D’Arransia. Chasing one another through the tall trees at the edge of the forest, they played in the fragrant pine needles, and rolled friskily on the spongy beds of moss. The fresh smell of dew lacing newly spun cobwebs in the bushes tickled their noses. They watched in fascination as the industrious little spiders scrabbled about and swung from web to web, bush to bush. Wildflowers burst forth in a riotous array of color, their scents filling the air with nature’s perfume.
Their world was perfect.
"You ca-an’t catch me," Falonia taunted her little brother, Banador. Leaping over felled tree limbs, rocks, and streams, the children raced across the meadows and wove in and out of the tall, ancient trees. Mothers sat in the sun, watching their offspring, laughing at their antics, and reprimanding when the play became too rough.
Then the Invaders came.
Those cruel beasts from the south, traveling in armed packs, appeared from nowhere. Or so it seemed. And war would soon be as inevitable as the sunlight and moonglow.
"Look! Look!" Banador shouted. "What is that creature, Mama? He looks so strange. What kind of animal is that?"
Banador never heard the response. With a shriek of anguish, the child fell. His body was lifeless before it hit the ground.
Aridysia screamed as she blazed into the midst of the invaders. She clawed, bit, and pounded on the strange creatures. They were small in stature, miniscule to her own eyes, but their weapons wreaked havoc as they tore through Aridysia’s clan and disappeared back into the depths of the forest.
Falonia cowered beside her brother’s corpse, covered in his blood, weeping and screaming. Her big round eyes took in the blood-stained meadow. Once a peaceful playground, the grass now ran red with the life force of playmates and kinfolk, mothers and offspring. Falonia’s slight form shuddered with the impact of shock. Though she had seen her mother’s anger flare at acts of disobedience or rebellion, she had never before seen her as a raging warrior. Aridysia seemed to expand to towering heights of godly wrath as hell rolled across the meadow in a destructive, terrifying wave.
Who were these creatures who slashed through a gathering of innocents? Their long sharp poles that pierced hearts and their silver sticks that flashed in the sunlight left bodies, large and small, in bloody disarray.
Night came, darkness fell. The clan leaders gathered in the huge cavern on the mountain.
"I want revenge!" screamed Lamir. "My youngest son lies dead and my oldest is maimed. I will not stand by and see my family destroyed!"
"We cannot fight what we do not understand, my brother," argued Dothar. "We have to gauge their abilities, watch and wait, then strike from a position of strength."
"They’re puny little insects!" countered Lamir. "Why should we wait? We can crush them … we must crush them. This day’s bloodletting must be avenged."
"I say we join with others clans." The tall and level-headed Racanadan could always be counted on to bring a note of restraint when tempers flared. "Surely we are not the only ones those fiends have attacked."
"They’re devils!" cried Kadania, mate of Lamir. "They attacked our children! They must be stopped!"
Lamir reached to comfort her as the tears flowed from her eyes. True, one son had survived today. But the wounds were deep, and Lamir feared the child would not see many more moons.
"What say you, Dalabane?" asked Olon, one of the elders of their clan.
Dalabane measured his words with care. He knew that whatever he said now would have serious repercussions in the days to come. But the threat was so immediate, so devastatingly harsh, they would not have the luxury of extensive war plans.
"We have all suffered losses this day. I, too, lost a son, Lamir. And I want revenge just as you do." Dalabane paused, gazing at his comrades one by one before continuing. "But Dothar has a point. We must know our enemies. They are small, but we’ve seen the lethality of their attack. Our survival will depend on our ability to outwit them. These strangers encroach upon our home, slaughter our young…." Dalabane hesitated for a moment to contain his own grief. "But I swear to you, here and now, that they will pay for their blood lust. We will draw them into a battlefield of our own choosing, and destroy all who dared venture into our lands."
Dalabane’s blazing eyes met those of each warrior, male and female, and mirrored the rage each felt.
"Do you agree, Great Serisone?" he asked, deferring to Aridysnia’s father. Serisone was the oldest member of their clan and known for his wisdom, wisdom which only comes from the vast experiences of life. He was the last of his generation, and greatly respected in all the clans of their country.
Serisone nodded slowly. "I agree, Dalabane. And I must add that Racanadan mentioned an important point. We must unite with other clans to meet this threat. If the invaders have not struck elsewhere, the clans must be forewarned or their families will suffer as we have. It is imperative that we know their numbers and the roads they travel before we attempt a strike that could lead to our own annihilation."
Aridysia felt a chill up and down her spine, as each warrior nodded his assent. She saw beyond his words of strategy. Serisone had The Sight. As she caught his eye, she saw in his countenance that he had all ready seen the destruction of the warriors, the extinction of their race. She raised her chin proudly.
But we will not go down without a fight, my father, her eyes seemed to say.
Serisone was tired. As Dalabane began to delegate quests to each of the warriors, which clans they would seek out, which ones would go forth to spy on the invaders, which would stay and protect the remaining mothers and children, Aridysia looked upon her father’s hunched body. He was old. And though he would have preferred to die among his kin, drifting into the afterlife in comfort, she could tell he knew that his death would come on the battlefield. And it would be bloody.
You would be proud of him, my Mother, she thought, closing her eyes and reaching into the world beyond, toward the parent who had succumbed to death only three winters ago. Even Dalabane does not hold sway over the clan as Father does. His voice quiets the flaring tempers and stills the storm in our hearts at the foul deeds wrought this day.
Thus it was, that they watched and waited, alerting others to the danger, plotting and planning the destruction of the horrid little invaders. But for every one of the puny creatures they killed, it seemed that ten others would rise to take to the field against them. Little by little, the enemy made his presence felt as the clans fell prey to the blood-thirsty beings. They had no conscience, no respect for the forces of nature, the land, the trees, or the mist-shrouded mountains.
They had no souls.
Their numbers were few when they gathered on a mountain late in the fall. The leaves were turning golden, the air crisp, and the solemn little band of survivors huddled together.
Aridysia leaned her head against her beloved Dalabane, and heaved a sigh. They were weary, so very, very weary. How much longer could they hold out? Serisone was killed four full moons ago while trying to save Falonia from the invaders. She was pierced with the silver sticks of the creatures and torn to pieces. Serisone’s head was severed from his body and left to rot in the sun. Aridysia mourned her daughter and her father, but mourning would not bring them back.
"Well, my friends, we’ve come to the end of a road," Dalabane said softly. "The choice lies before us. And I would have you know that whatever you decide, there will be no condemnation. Your honor will not be sullied."
All turned their eyes to him, watching, waiting, wanting to know his plans, but fearing to face the decisions he would set before them.
"We can move the remnant of our tribes deep into the mountains, where even the most fool-hardy of the enemy would fear to follow. We can hide ourselves away until our numbers are strong again, preserving our race." He took a deep breath before continuing. "Or we can attack their fortress of stone. Fight to the last warrior; take one last stand and make it a costly battle for them. Either way, we may not survive this season. I will make no demands of you. Each must make the decision in his or her own heart."
Kadania’s eyes rested on her Lamir, his body maimed, one eye missing. He was woefully injured, and would probably never again plant his seed in her body to produce children - offspring to replace those who had been destroyed. Softly she spoke, and her words brought tears to almost all eyes present.
"The children are gone now, Dalabane, all of them. What have we to live on for? What hope can we have, living deep in the earth? Without the trees, the meadows, the breeze on our faces? We might survive in flesh, but our spirits would wither within us to be shut away so completely."
The room was silent. Each warrior considered her words, and knew them to be true. They were a race of the wind and the trees. Perpetual darkness and dank walls of rock would be torture for their kind.
"Perhaps," whispered Aridysia, "the next life will be more welcoming than this one has become."
Dalabane’s eyes took in the warriors, one by one, and each nodded their assent. The die was cast.
"We strike at dawn," he said.
Aridysia searched for life among the ruins of stone. Try as she might, she found not even one flicker of breath among the bloody remains around her. All was lost.
A blood-curdling shriek rose from behind her caused Aridysia to spin about and lash out at the puny being and his long sharp stick. It pierced her breast, laying open a gash that ripped screams from her throat. Another pierced her neck. She was surrounded. Their weapons found their marks as she whirled to face each new threat. She lashed back at them with all the fury in her soul, and three of the misshapen creatures hit the ground in a pool of their own blood. For every loss she had endured, every grief of the years past, she extracted the price of a life. One by one, she slaughtered the invaders who came against her.
Then a new sound caught her attention, causing her to look up to the battlements high above the courtyard. Enemies lined the walls, their weapons trained on her. Aridysia knew this was the end. Nothing could save her now. She screamed in fury and her rage split the skies above, as the sharp sticks pierced her from all sides. With a mighty crash, she fell to the earth.
As Aridysia drew her last breath and slid away from this cruel, wicked world, she heard a primal cry rise from the battlements.
Warrior after warrior gathered around the enormous corpse, swords to the heavens. Their shouts of victory shattered the stillness of the evening.
The last of the Great Dragons was slain.
The race of insignificant creatures called Mankind ruled the world.