Last of the Ten Thousand
Scout Goro glanced at the wanderer across the fire from him. The man’s clothing and armor were much mended, his hair grown very long. He had darkness in his eyes that went beyond the color, and a slight sneer to his lips as he observed Goro and his men. Goro’s scouting detachment had found him, alone, paddling a small boat of the style used by the people of the swamps towards the shore of the Kingdom of the Dawning Sun.
“What did you say your name was, again?” asked Goro, wary. The last months had taught him caution. Could this man be another trick of their enemy? The wily underworld elves?
“Shun,” said the man, shortly.
“And where did you come from, Sir Shun?”
Shun continued to stare at Goro, considering whether the scout was worthy of an answer. Finally, the wanderer said, “I was a warrior in the service of General Kawagi.”
The camp had already been quiet, but now the crackling fire seemed to hold its breath. Goro shuddered, as though someone had stepped on his grave.
General Kawagi had disappeared months ago -- vanishing with an army ten-thousand strong. Scouts and hunters searching for the army had only found a great yawning pit in their path -- large enough to swallow an island, deep enough that none could reach the bottom -- and no sign of the ten thousand. Until now.
“What happened?” asked Goro. “To the ten-thousand? To Lord Kawagi? Where are they?”
Again, Shun let the silence stretch before he answered. Then he said, “I am the last of the ten-thousand.” And told them how that came to be.
Chaos reigned in the cavern city, deep deep below the ground.
Echoes of screams and crashing swords filled the air, greenish lanterns lit the streets and Shun was alone. The warrior’s sword was black with blood in the dim light. He slid one foot forward slowly and then the other, sword ready, eyes on the ground and the bodies there. His face was still as he made sure that all of elves nearby were slain.
After long months surviving underground with little to no hope of finding the surface again, the lost army of the Dawning Sun, had found civilization. They were still strong enough to attack -- to take what they needed to survive. At least, that was what they’d thought. The pale green glow of the City had seemed like a mirage and then a miracle. Now it was a nightmare.
Nothing except Shun moved in the street. He’d lost his last brothers- and sisters-in-arms -- the scant remnants of what once was a ten thousand strong army scattered in this hellish city.
The warrior flicked the blood from his blade and wiped it clean as he set it back in its wooden sheath. If any others yet lived, he needed to find them. And if he was the last? Then he needed to find a place to die well.
Shun stepped carefully over the fallen, back straight, head forward and only his eyes shifting from side to side -- checking doorways and alley mouths for more enemies.
These elves were not like anything he’d seen before -- a city and perhaps an empire hidden from the surface dwellers. And not a peaceful empire. What strange wonders were waiting down here, what heroic battles were possible?
Shun reached the end of the street he’d cleared. Sounds moved strangely in the space, making it difficult to tell how far away the fighting was. Ah, but if there was fighting, then the Dawning Sun had not fallen. Yet.
Sloping down from where he stood was an open square dominated by a stone amphitheater. As Shun watched, a dozen or so of his comrades charged into the space from a different street. Shun raised a hand to hail them, trotting forward to his comrades, but a monster appeared from the dark above the cavern city.
Like a cruel meteor, an enormous scaly beast crashed to earth, taking up most of the amphitheater. It had a long lashing tail and two vast wings, like that of a bat. Smoke and the scent of sulphur filled Shun’s nostrils.
In landing, the beast crushed three or four of the Dawning Sun. Its head darted forward, striking snakelike, jaws snapping closed on another soldier.
As the others fled, screaming back into the narrow streets, the creature belched fire after them.
Stunned, Shun had never been so filled with wonder in his life. Bloodlust filled him -- he shook with excitement at the impending battle. Here. Here was a challenge worth risking his life against. The gods were good.
Long ago, as a mere child, Shun had proved himself against the prowess of men. He’d fought warriors twice his size with spear and sword and staff and won more duels than he could count before he was eighteen. Since then, he’d sought monsters to better challenge himself. He’d stood before giant wild boars -- taller than he was -- and survived. He’d faced a bear with only his short blade. He’d fought monsters of magic -- a chimera, an man-eating bird -- and always sought to act as champion for his general.
This though. He’d never seen a creature so vast, so intensely dangerous.
He shouted -- straight from his chest, punching his breath out and cutting through the echoes. It was a joyful sound for Shun -- as unmistakable as laughter, an undeniable challenge. It had to be a fair fight -- he would not kill such a glorious beast by stabbing it unaware.
The creature turned a malevolent gaze towards Shun -- great eyes glowing even greener than the lanterns. It moved toward him.
The beast needed only a few steps to come within striking distance of Shun -- its footfalls shook the ground when it walked. Then it paused, considering the warrior. Some cruel intelligence lit the beast’s eyes. This wasn’t a dumb creature -- its soul was filled with contempt for the small, thin man before it.
Shun set his feet, hand on sword hilt. His body knotted with anticipation. He waited. He didn’t look into the lizard’s great green eyes. He watched the muscles of its neck, its legs, looking for a sign, waiting, waiting to see how the beast would move. Bringing every detail into focus, so that he would remember this moment forever.
From the corner of his eye, he saw a small elven figure on the creature’s back. A rider, dwarfed by the monster she rode.
Shun shifted just slightly, holding onto the readiness that he knew he would need in this battle, focus and fury coiled inside him.
The other sounds of the battle in this odd foreign city faded back. Nothing mattered but the tension in the creature’s neck. The world around him might end, and still Shun would only have eyes for the monster.
For one more frozen moment, they regarded each other. Man and beast. Then the creature’s head snapped forward, fast and as difficult to follow as a lightning strike. Shun stomped the ground and leapt up, sword flashing from its sheath and up through the beast’s neck.
Blood burst from the gash, Shun let out a booming triumphant cry and somewhere high above him, a shrill scream cut the air.
Shun landed and sheathed his sword in one smooth motion, breathing hard, exalted.
The great beast roiled in pain, death-throes taking it. Its tail thrashed through walls. Finally it crashed to earth, the great head turned away from Shun.
Fierce pride crested in the warrior. What a strange series of tragedies and adventures had brought him to this moment, to this perfect duel. His eyes closed, savoring everything about the battle. The slight shake in his sword arm, the last sigh of the dying creature, the still dryness of the air so far underground -- all of it. He needed to remember all of it.
Another scream rent the air. Shun’s eyes flashed open. The beast’s master was rushing towards him, eyes mad with anger and holding her sword poorly.
Irritated at the interruption to his perfect victory, Shun drew his sword and slew her with another perfect swing -- a scornful sneer curled his lip as she bent double. She wasn’t a warrior worthy of dying by his blade -- not like her peerless monster. Her, Shun would try to forget.
“The queen of dragons…” she whimpered, dying, “The queen of dragons will see you suffer for this…”
It took Shun a minute to understand what she meant and then… He looked to the dull-eyed beast he’d slain. A dragon? Surely not. Dragons were beings of great wisdom… and they needed no wings to fly.
He looked back to the dying rider, noticing now the quality of her armor, the jewels in her pointed ears, the ring that glowed violet on her finger.
“Sister…” she said, and then she died.
Disturbed, furious that the moment was cut short by this amateur, Shun cleaned his blade.
He continued to stalk the city, looking for another, grander battle and finding… nothing. The streets were empty of all but corpses. The elves had fled and the last of the ten thousand were murdered or gone, deeper into the dark caverns, lost forever.
Shun gathered supplies and continued searching for survivors, foes, or a way out. Of the three, the only one he discovered was the way out. He followed the roads of the underworld elves and at last returned to the surface -- and then to his homeland.
Telling the tale, Shun expected wonder from his audience -- praise for his prowess and resilience, and instead found only shocked faces around the fire. The scouts stared at him in horror, not awe.
“This is why!” said one of the scouts. “This man… he started this! This is what that damned queen was angry about! We need to give him to them!”
“Calm down,” said Goro, putting out a placating hand. “We don’t--”
“But we do!” yelled the scout. “We lost the ten-thousand and may lose all the Dawning Sun to the underworld elves! Our families! Our lands! All because this blood-thirsty, reckless--” he pointed at Shun and the wanderer leapt to his feet, hand to sword hilt, prepared to cut them down for the insult. Goro and his companions stood too, some eager to fight and Goro looking for a way to keep control of the situation. Who knows what would have happened then, but for the dragon that appeared above them.
It was a shadow darker than the night sky, blotting out the stars and the moon, too high for arrows.
All of the scouts and Shun looked up at its magnificent form, soaring overhead, out of reach, a harbinger of doom.
As they did, a dark snow began to fall -- like ashes. Disturbed, Shun readied his sword, looking for an enemy he could fight.
As the dark snowfall reached him, Shun felt a coldness overtake him, threatening to pull him down into darkness. His spirit rebelled, struggling with the magic. The shadowy snow writhed around him -- looking for purchase, for a crack in his strength, for a way to destroy the wanderer. It clung to him, making his limbs and heart heavy.
With a roar, Shun swung his blade in violent arcs, doing battle with an invisible enemy the only way he knew how. In his frenzy, his blade struck the muddy earth, a nearby shrub and the pack of one of the scouts.
Shun’s mind cleared of thought and his will sharpened like his sword, and the magic fell away from him, searching out weaker hearts to subdue.
Slowly, slowly, the fury left Shun. He stood over the little patch of destruction he’d created and then looked to the others. Goro and his scouts had gone back to sitting around the fire. They did not look at Shun or react to his frenzy. Nor did they appear to have been affected the same way.
“What are you doing?” yelled Shun. “Did you see the dragon?”
None of them looked up or acknowledged him. They’d been prepared to attack him mere moments ago!
Frustrated and with fear creeping into his heart, Shun swung his sword down next to Goro’s knee. The scout did not react or look at him.
A chill flowed through Shun. There was something wrong with his eyes, his expression. Vacant.
Shun put a hand on Goro’s shoulder. Cold. The heat rapidly leaving the man as though he were a corpse already. Nothing Shun did could make him or the others speak. They always returned to staring calmly into their fire.
Breathing hard, afraid he’d gone mad, Shun snatched up his pack. He turned away from the campfire, seeking more of his people and an explanation, disappearing into the suddenly starless night.