Victor, Vanquished, Son
“Pull back!” he yelled, and the men around him ran into one of the houses, cutting through into another street. Thanos ran, and he found General Haven running along beside him, the old man’s face red with effort.
“Shouldn’t you find a less… energetic place to fight, General?” Thanos asked.
Haven glowered back at him. “Don’t tell me what to do, young man! You are not my prince!”
Despite his complaints, the old general seemed happy to fight beside Thanos and Justin as they fought their way up a set of stone steps and over one of the roofs in the city. It was impossible to tell which soldiers had come from which places; Thanos could only see that the men defending the island were doing so with bravery and tenacity.
From there, though, he could see the size of the fleet attacking the island. It wasn’t the huge invasion fleet that had come to Delos, but it was still massive. It covered the space around the harbor like a dark stain on the water, jamming it with ships that were even now disgorging more and more soldiers onto Haylon’s soil.
The only hope was to hit and run, drawing out pockets of attackers and then swarming them with greater numbers before fleeing deeper into the city. The native warriors of Haylon seemed to be more than used to such tactics, but Thanos found himself quite surprised by how well the former Empire’s soldiers employed them. Probably it had something to do with the time they’d spent being hunted in the hills of the island.
“This way,” Haven said, and Thanos followed the general on the basis that he probably knew the island the best of all those there. Thanos found himself wishing that Akila or Iakos were there, but the deputy leader was dead, and Akila was too severely injured for such running tactics.
Thanos saw a set of streets that he recognized and gestured to the general.
“Here,” he called. “The alleys.”
To his surprise, they followed him. They ran down a set of narrow alleyways and turned again. Some of Sir Justin’s men looked as though they wanted to charge back at the enemy, but Thanos put his arm out to stop them.
“Wait for them,” Thanos said. “We can defend better at this end, and… well, watch.”
They might not know him yet, but even so, the men held their place. Felldust’s soldiers charged, and that was when the waiting islanders pushed in the walls on either side, showering them with rubble.
“Iakos trapped half the city,” Thanos explained. He was breathing hard now, and wished that they could pause just for a moment, but in a battle like this one, there was no time. “Come on, we need to keep moving.”
They gave more ground, this time picking their way among tripwires and deadfalls.
“This is a dirty way to fight,” Sir Justin said.
Thanos put a hand on his shoulder. He could see what the other man was going through. Lord West’s former man was probably used to sweeping charges and carefully organized duels, not fights in alleyways and running away.
“We’re doing what we have to do to win,” he said. Thanos could still remember when he’d fought so carefully that he hadn’t killed his opponents, and he’d fought with honor. Those times seemed a long time ago now. “We’re keeping our families and friends safe. We’re saving the people of Haylon, and the Empire.”
He saw the warriors nod, and then they were away among the houses again, running in front of the advancing forces.
That was the worrying part in all of this. They were giving up ground with every encounter, unable to stand and fight in the face of so many opponents. Even when Thanos spun again, knocking aside a spear so that he could thrust his sword deep into its wielder, it was only so that he could set off running again, pulling back to the next position among the houses, and the next.
It seemed less like fighting to win than simply to hold off defeat for as long as possible.
Thanos was behind a barricade deeper in the city when a messenger came running up, bursting out of a nearby doorway. Thanos almost skewered him on instinct, but managed to pull back in time.
“Akila says that it’s time for the last people to pull back from the city. One of the beaches on the far side of the island has fallen, and we need everyone to reinforce the passes.”
Thanos nodded, trying to hide his disappointment at those words. He’d known that this was inevitable ever since Felldust’s forces had torn open the harbor gates, but he’d dared to hope that it was because they’d committed everything to that attack. If they were able to take beaches across the island as well, things were worse than he’d thought.
“Pull back to the hills!” he yelled, and the men around him looked surprised for a moment, before taking off through the city in the direction of the mountain passes. General Haven’s men did it as quickly as the men from Haylon, obviously having come to know the mountains over their time fighting there. Lord West’s former men followed along, obviously taking their lead from Thanos. He just hoped that he wasn’t leading them to their deaths.
They reached the rock walls and passes on the edge of the city. There were men there waiting with sledgehammers by great wooden wedges. Thanos guessed that when they drove them in, the rock walls around would come down, forming a natural wall. Thanos also guessed that unless they’d judged it very well, the men were risking being buried when the rocks came down. They were giving their lives to slow the advance.
Thanos couldn’t let them do it alone.
He grabbed one of the hammers, ignoring the man’s look of shock as he watched the troops with him filter through the gap. More of Haylon’s warriors came, and more still, but now Thanos could see Felldust’s men following close behind.
He found himself thinking of Ceres then. He hoped that she was doing better in her search than they were doing on the island. He’d wanted so much with her, and if he died here, that could never happen, but he couldn’t stand by and let these men do this alone.
“We need to do it,” one of the men there said.
Thanos shook his head. “Not yet. There are still men to come.”
“But if Felldust’s men get through…”
“Not yet,” Thanos repeated.
The warriors kept coming, and Thanos let through as many of his own people as he could. When the first of Felldust’s warriors came at him, Thanos parried the blow with the haft of his sledgehammer, then struck back, feeling ribs give way under the strike. Another came forward, and Haven was there, cutting the man down.
“This is not the place for you, my prince,” he said.
“I thought you said I wasn’t your prince,” Thanos pointed out.
He heard the other man sigh. “You’re not, but you’re right. I came to this island to be a butcher. Time to be something more.”
He nodded, and Thanos felt strong hands closing over his arms. A pair of the Empire’s soldiers pulled him back, while Haven took up the hammer Thanos had held.
“Haven, don’t do this,” Thanos said.
It was too late though. The old general was already swinging the hammer, alongside the few chosen men of Haylon. He swung it with all the strength of a much younger man, blows striking home on the wedge as above him, the rocks creaked.
When they gave way, it was like thunder, the whole world seeming to disappear under the falling rain of rocks. General Haven disappeared under that avalanche, leaving nothing but a solid wall of boulders.
Thanos stared at the pile in awe.
Even so, he knew it had only bought them a little time.
Haylon was lost.
He only hoped that things were easier for Ceres.
Ceres looked up from the pit, to the ring of half-dead sorcerers who surrounded it, and she tried to hide her fear. She managed to summon defiance as she watched them gather, clutching the hilts of her twin swords, waiting for them. She would not let them see her scared down here.
“You could have freed us,” their leader said in a voice like old paper.
“Freed you to destroy things,” Ceres called back. “Never.”
“Then we’ll take your blood, and be what we were for a while at least.”
Ceres stood there, waiting for them. Which of them would attack first? Would they just fire their magic down into the pit and destroy her? No, they couldn’t, could they? Not when they needed her blood. An idea came to her then. A way she might actually get out of this pit. It would be dangerous though. Very dangerous.