The unrelenting snow fell between the far-reaching deciduous branches of the vast forest, disguising an already barely discernible path that ran between the trees and into the heart of a steep valley. Amidst the persistent snowflakes and swirling breeze, a cruel game of cat and mouse was drawing to a close.
Feeling his breathing becoming heavy, Fezariu reached the crest of a slippery slope and immediately halted. He could feel his legs beginning to buckle beneath the weight of Tessera, who was drifting in and out of consciousness in his arms. Fezariu’s right hand, seeped in Tessera’s blood, maintained an uneasy grip on her trembling form, which was now playing out the final chorus of a young life.
‘How did it come to this, Fezariu?’ Tessera said, though her words were the faintest whisper soon lost in the jealous wind.
Fezariu could not muster a response. He continued along the path, his every step leading them further from the pursuing Himordians but deeper into the forest and closer to death. Fezariu grimaced at the sight of Tessera’s blood on the snow – a testament to her fading life and an unwanted trail for the Himordians to follow.
Just ahead, Fezariu could make out his troubled comrades – the Merelax Mercenaries. Each one had wandered willingly beyond the selflessness that had once made them equally feared and sought after throughout the world. Their attire – once of rich black silk with bejewelled sleeves – was ripped from the harsh terrain and punctured by wounds from the Himordians’ blades and arrows. Even the most basic armour that may have lessened the severity of these injuries was considered unbecoming of such accomplished warriors. This trademark had left the mercenaries unhindered since their inception but now their obvious mortality had never been better pronounced. Every mercenary now walked their own path with no concern or shred of guilt for the forsaken friends they had left behind. Steadfast loyalty, perseverance and endeavour were becoming unknown concepts to the last generation of Merelax Mercenaries.
A sudden lull in the snowfall allowed the overhanging moon to bask the valley in its nocturnal splendour. Fezariu’s gaze fell upon the crystalline glitter on the surface of the snow and he felt a slight ironic smile come to his numb lips as he absorbed this intricate beauty in the midst of countless fading lives. In his arms, Tessera awoke and now seemed oblivious to the mortal wound she had suffered in the battle the mercenaries had so decisively lost.
‘Do you remember when we first trained with General Bayard, Fezariu?’ Tessera asked, briefly closing her eyes, causing tears to run down her face, their trace briefly alleviating the bitter and enveloping cold.
‘My erstwhile teacher with selective hearing,’ Fezariu replied with a wry smile. ‘How could I forget?’
When Tessera failed to respond, Fezariu began to feel her edging closer to delirium. Her questions became frequent though she awaited no response or acknowledgement of any kind from Fezariu.
‘Do you remember sitting on the wall overlooking Redemption with Vintaro and smoking Mizuansi?’ Tessera asked, between painful coughs. ‘I can still see the luminous stars through the myriad of colours rising from the bowls of our pipes. The seemingly endless conflict throughout the streets was over and with it the rebellion. The city stood subdued and silent save for the foundations of the tallest buildings that still trembled in the aftermath of the devastation. Do you remember the torches that lit up the harbour at Strathmore? Our journey to Clarendon changed everything. We should never have gone there. It was never the same after that. Do you remember, Fezariu?’
Tessera coughed violently and gasped at the intense pain emanating from her wound. Fezariu could feel the few remaining fragments of life beginning to ebb from her veins, leaving him to lament his inability to do anything but allow the end to come.
In the returning snowfall, Fezariu perceived an obstacle to his path through the forest. It was a large lake, its surface frozen but the ice too thin to risk walking across. Fezariu turned as if to head back down the path but his legs would no longer carry him. He fell to his knees before slowly lowering Tessera onto the path. She was still breathing but now sporadically, while her eyes, filled with glistening tears, were permanently closed.
Fezariu gazed beyond the surface of the frozen lake and the heights of the forest to the starlit cosmos that had overlooked the crushing defeat the Himordians had inflicted on the Merelax Mercenaries. Fezariu found himself strangely content and at peace. There was nothing left to do but wait for death by the hands of the Himordians or by the severity of the falling snow.
As Tessera’s breathing continued to decline, Fezariu thought about his life: his birth in Larchfield, his later childhood on the sleazy streets of Clarendon and finally his blossoming career in the Merelax Mercenaries. Fezariu’s memories, so vivid in their poignancy and regret, played out smoothly in his mind and helped him to forget the frostbite that was now beginning to cripple his body.
Fezariu remembered his reason for becoming a mercenary in the first place, the same reason that had led him to this lonely place in the forest. It had all started in the White Oak, a squalid brothel in Clarendon, and Fezariu’s sad fate had been down to one woman – a prostitute named Wild Jessamine.
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