Shattered Sunlight: Part Six
Sloth’s army sparkled in the rising sun. Some of the closer units were visible, the robots shaped like living beings and used as nothing more than objects. Vesper turned away, heading for the stairs down. He didn’t need to be on the walls. The archers were the only ones that had to be there. The rest of them, the Shenkuuri and their melee militia, could wait for a signal that the walls had been breached.
Or for the flying units to crest the walls. Vesper shook his head, trying to banish the thought. Even if that happened, it would take time. And the flying Shenkuuri waited on the walls to guard against that possibility.
“Vesper, get some sleep.”
Vesper glanced at Cassie. “Not enough time.”
She crossed her arms. “And how well will you fight when you’re like this?”
“Not as well as I could,” the Kougra admitted, leaning against the wall. “But well enough.”
“What’s ‘well enough’?”
“Anything that lets me survive.” Vesper pushed off the wall, walking down the stairs once more. “Look, it’s fairly likely I’ll get some amount of sleep between now and when they break through.” He tried to smile at Cassie, but his lips barely twitched.
“Please do.” Cassie caught up to him, grabbing his arm. “I don’t want you fighting on five hours of sleep, of whatever it is you’ve had over the last few days.”
“Ten hours over the last three days. Before that, I collapsed and slept for most of a day.” Vesper ran a hand over his face. “Val’s worse.”
Cassie laughed, the sound bright in the stairwell. “About seven hours of sleep over the last five days. But he fell asleep after you left the meeting. None of us woke him up. I figure he’ll be asleep until the battle really starts.”
Vesper stopped at the bottom of the stairs, turning to face Cassie. “How long?” he asked softly.
“Noon at best.” Cassie leaned against the wall, staring at the bright sky. “It depends on how long it takes whoever’s leading that army to figure out that they need to fly over the walls. But by noon, I think they’ll have figured that out.”
Vesper nodded, sliding down the wall until he sat on the ground. “Then...”
“How many layers?” Cassie glanced at Vesper. “They won’t care about the palace or the nobles, Ves. I’m sorry.”
“Wake me up when they get here,” Vesper mumbled, curling up on the grass. “If they don’t wake me up themselves.”
If Cassie said anything in reply, the purple Kougra didn’t hear it. He slipped into a dreamless half-sleep, still hearing muffled words as the archers organized and began to fire. Despite the explosions and shouts above him, Vesper slept until Cassie landed beside him and shook him roughly. “Time to move,” she said, pulling him along at a run.
Stumbling beside her, Vesper didn’t even try to look around, simply focusing his attention on staying upright and matching Cassie’s pace. All around him, pandemonium reigned. Shenkuan townsfolk ran for cover, though they all should’ve been in the inner city hours ago. Arrows flew overhead, piercing some of the robots overhead. And the Shenkuuri stood in the middle of it all, swords out as they waited for the robots to come to them.
As Vesper regained his balance, he slowed, ignoring Cassie’s grip.
“Come on!” Cassie glanced back at him. “We can’t do anything here.”
“And we’ll be able to at the next wall?” Vesper yanked his arm free. “Go, then. I’m staying here.”
“You’re going to fall with them, then.” Cassie turned without another word, taking flight.
Vesper turned away from her, drawing his sword. The robots overhead harried the archers, but none of them tried to land inside. Joining the ranks of Shenkuuri waiting at the gate, Vesper half-wondered why.
Then he heard the loud thumps coming from the gate. Vesper sucked in his breath, readying himself for battle. Judging by the condition of the gate, it wouldn’t last much longer. Vesper calmed himself, waiting for the flood of enemies to come.
And come it did. With one final thud, the gate broke, sending pieces of wood flying everywhere. The Shenkuuri didn’t move. Then the metal battering ram drew back, and the robots came. As one, the Shenkuuri charged them, and the battle began.
Slice and duck, parry and step aside, block and cut the robot in half. The battle was a dance, and Vesper found himself in the middle of it. As each new robot came through, he struck at it, sometimes damaging it, sometimes destroying it, and sometimes being blocked entirely. All around him, the Shenkuuri fought together, guarding each other’s backs.
But slowly, slowly, the robots pushed them back. One Shenkuuri fell, then another, lost in the sea of war. Vesper tried his best to keep an eye on every single robot that could threaten him, but each time he found himself forced to focus on one and one alone. The houses of Shenkuu burned, smoke from the fires stinging the Shenkuuri’s eyes and lungs. Glancing at the striped Shoyru beside him, Vesper finally said the words none of them wanted to hear or say. “Fall back!” he shouted, voice projected above the sounds of battle. “Fall back!”
And miraculously, they did.
It wasn’t a rout. They fought as they retreated, keeping the robots at bay as best they could while winding through the streets. Above them, warriors from both sides met in battle, occasionally falling from the sky. Vesper barely noticed them. He was the closest of the Shenkuuri to the robots, and with each step back, his opponents surged closer.
Only when white fire burned in front of him did Vesper realize how close to the next layer of the city they were. Laughing in both relief and joy, Vesper redoubled his efforts, watching the shadow in the midst of the robots. Cassie fought without stopping, sword blurring with her speed. White fire burned with every extra breath she drew, and Vesper did his best to stay out of its way.
Behind him, the Shenkuuri rallied, forming a wall out of their bodies to keep the robots from the next gate. The non-combatants huddled behind that gate, and none of them wanted the robots to get at them. Battle was chaos. Slaughter was madness.
“Ves! Give me a line to Cassie!”
Vesper obeyed without thought, driving straight forward. Beside him, Valentine’s sword struck in rhythm, and they made their slow way towards Cassie. She saw them, Vesper knew, but it wasn’t at all evident from the way she fought. He could almost see the silver-grey armour she wore and the red bands tied around her arms and hair, keeping sweat out of her eyes.
And then Val broke away from him, and Vesper had no time to look at anything but the sea of robots around him. No time to do anything but block all the blows that came at him, act on instinct to dodge those he couldn’t block, and do his absolute best to strike back at them. He heard Cassie’s fire behind him, felt it against his skin, but had no time to see how well she or Val fought.
Overhead, he heard a roar. Sweeping his sword in a flashy circle to buy himself a moment of time, Vesper looked up. A silver and black spaceship flew overhead. Vesper began to swear, the words falling into a rhythm matched by the strokes of his sword. Their warships had all been blown to pieces earlier in the war. The skyships they still had were merchant vessels with no weapons and poor maneuverability.
A buzz-hum came from that spaceship, and Vesper’s fury grew even as his words stopped, replaced by faster strokes and quicker blocks. Then he heard an explosion from the direction of the palace. He didn’t look. He didn’t want to look. Another came, and another, until even the clash of metal on metal was drowned out by the explosions.
Then words, unintelligible but spoken by a voice Vesper recognized.
“Addonos alio. Addonos uta vulnero locus. Addonos quanos succurro.” Vesper turned to look at Cassie. She and Val stood on top of a pile of robot pieces. Cassie stared at the sky, a smile on her face. “Sollumin.”
The final word, almost inaudible, echoed through Vesper’s body. He looked up, saw the spaceship looming overhead. Without a thought, he dove into the nearest cover he could see. A brilliant flash of light obscured his vision. Then there was nothing but a roar of noise and an all-encompassing darkness.
* * *
His eyes opened.
It was a surprise to him that he could still open them. He felt dead. His body was numb, in too much pain for him to want to think about. Each breath was a struggle, and to even twitch his tail was torment.
Yet he moved. He dug himself out of the pile of rubble, robot parts, and ashes. The sunlight was harsh on his eyes, but harsher than that was the sight it revealed.
The city was ruined.
Buildings that had once stood proud were nothing but splinters. Monuments that had once praised heroes were reduced to pebbles. And everything was covered with ash.
Vesper saw no signs of life. Nothing but himself and the Crokabeks and Vullards circling overhead or perching on the rubble.
Falling to his knees, the Kougra felt tears making tracks through his ash-coated fur. “You made plans,” he said, voice cracked and dry. “I will fulfill them for you, Valentine.”
Looking to the rising sun, Vesper swallowed. “I am Vesperius Dajian-Amoure, last lord of Shenkuu,” he said quietly. “And I will build a resistance. I will raise a group of warriors. I will return Shenkuu to its former glory. It matters not how long it takes. But know that one day, Neopia will throw off Sloth’s reign. Know that one day, we will live free. One day, you will be avenged.”
Rising, Vesper slowly made his way out of the city. Each limping step hurt, but the pain reminded him of his vow. Outside the city, he took to the road. His path was long, he knew, but in the end, it would be worth it.