Weight of Blood
The two brothers were almost to the wall when the skulls flew overhead.
“Make them stop!” cried Harruq Tun, hands pressed against his ears. Beside him, Qurrah Tun stood mesmerized by the sight. Hundreds of skulls bathed in purple fire sailed over the walls of Veldaren like dark comets. They shrieked mindless wails from gaping mouths, voices cold and resonant. A few soldiers fired arrows, but most hid behind their shields.
“Why do you cower?” Qurrah asked, striking his brother on the shoulder. “The skulls are nuisances, nothing more.”
“Sorry,” said Harruq. He shivered as a skull dipped down above them, its shriek turning to chaotic laughter. The sound ran up and down his spine, triggering fear no matter how irrational.
Qurrah watched as if immune to their sound. He was so much smaller than Harruq, his slender body wrapped in rags, flesh thin meat clinging to bone; yet he was unafraid. Shame and embarrassment burned in Harruq’s cheeks. He towered over his brother, his hands beefy and arms muscular. Nothing should scare him. He was supposed to be Qurrah’s protector, not the other way around.
“Where can we climb up?” Harruq asked, hoping to get his mind off the skulls.
“There,” Qurrah pointed. A narrow set of stairs climbed to the parapet and Harruq led the way. The city gates were lost in the distance, city guards clustered about them.
“Look,” Harruq said. “Orcs.”
He spoke the word with an odd reverence, but they both understood. Unlike the humans, the two brothers’ skin was dark and tinged with gray, their ears long and curled to a point. They were half-orcs, tainted blood and condemned for it. The people of Veldaren hurled the word at them like a dagger, but in truth, neither had ever seen a full orc before.
“Now we’ll finally see,” Qurrah said, “what we are, what we are meant to be.”
Thousands of orcs spilled into the west, needing no light to see in the darkness. They howled and cheered, drums and war chants mixing with the shrieks of the skulls. Harruq felt his temples throb. A wail rolled over him as a deathly comet swirled about, spotting the two and eying them like prey. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop from shaking.
“Can you stop them?” Harruq asked, squinting at the sky.
“Perhaps,” said Qurrah, eyes distant and unfocused. “But orcs don’t use necromancy, not if the stories I’ve heard are true. Someone else travels with them – someone who could be strong.”
“When it comes to this mind stuff, no one’s stronger than you.”
He closed his eyes, letting his mind sink into the ether. Like scent to a bloodhound, Qurrah could sense the magic flowing all about him. The flame surrounding the skulls flared even brighter, but beneath their tails trailed long threads of silver. When Qurrah looked up, he saw hundreds of the threads twisting and curling together, coiling toward a hidden presence deep within the orc army. Taking in a deep breath, Qurrah pooled his strength and focused on the skull taunting his brother, visualizing the thread, and seeking to sever it.
There was a pull on his chest – the taste of copper on his tongue. When he opened his eyes, the skull fell to the battlements. The jaw snapped and rotting teeth clattered to the streets below.
“You did it!” Harruq picked up the skull, frowning at its ordinariness. With a shrug, he flung it toward the distant army of orcs.
“Not done yet,” said Qurrah, sweat lining his face, his breathing soft and ragged. “There’re so many. So… many…”
He closed his eyes. This time, he didn’t grab just one thread. He grabbed them all. They screeched and twisted in his grip. His head pounded, and the pull on his chest was so great he felt he might pitch over the wall to his death. Qurrah’s well of magic drained at frightening speed. He almost let go, but he thought of his brother, shaking under the spell of the skulls.
No, he thought. Enough. Cease your chatter.
He clutched tighter, the threads braiding into a giant rope in his mind. High above, the skulls quieted, their fires dimmed.
And then the necromancer noticed Qurrah’s meddling. The rope pulled taut and pulsed with incredible energy. Colors swarmed through his mind, dark purples and reds across a canvas of black. He felt his chest tightening, his neck constricting. A scrying eye was upon him, now, and he was losing. It felt like an arrow pierced his mind, and through it, words seeped into his head.
Run. Die. Collapse. Fear. Failure.
An apparition swirled before him, blacker than the shadows, red eyes smoldering. It touched his face with rank claws, turning the sweat of his brow to ice. The arrow squirmed deeper. Qurrah focused every bit of his will upon it, desperately seeking to repulse it. His well of energy, which he’d thought empty, burgeoned and over- flowed. The arrow snapped, banishing the necromancer’s presence, but leaving a solitary impression squatting at the back of Qurrah’s mind:
Qurrah opened his eyes. He lay on his back in his brother’s arms, yet he didn’t remember falling.
“You’re alright!” Harruq hugged him.
“He lost,” he said, pointing to the night sky. “And he doesn’t know how badly.”
One by one, the skulls’ fire went out and they fell like morbid hia upon the city.
“Limitless,” Qurrah said, his smile trembling. Blood ran from his nose, and his skin was so pale Harruq could see his veins. “The well is limitless.”
His eyes rolled into his head. Without another word, he collapsed.
He dreamt of fire poured into flesh and a man whose eyes were glass.
Q urrah!” Harruq shouted when his brother finally opened his eyes.
“How long?” Qurrah asked as he pushed himself to a stand.
“Not long,” Harruq said, holding Qurrah’s shoulder to steady him. “The orcs are almost here.”
As if on cue, they heard a collective roar from the south. Harruq glanced at the stairs back up the wall but Qurrah saw this and shook his head.
“We need to get closer to the fight,” Qurrah said, his words slurred. “I need to see him.”
“Sure thing,” Harruq said. “Come on. I have an idea.”
He grabbed Qurrah’s arm and hooked his elbow around it. Qurrah was too weak to complain, so together they ran down the streets. They passed closed homes filled with people praying for safety and victory. Looming ahead of them was the southern gate. Hundreds of soldiers stacked against it, their shields braced and ready. All along the walls, archers released arrow after arrow into the darkness.
“How are we to get closer?” Qurrah asked.
“Ignore them,” Harruq said. “I know what I’m doing.”
He led them into an alley in between several worn buildings made of stone. He stopped just before the next set of homes, for he heard talking. Holding Qurrah back with his arm, he peered around the corner. A soldier dressed in finely polished armor stood with his sword raised in salute. At first Harruq did not see whom he saluted, and then the elf fell from the roof and landed before the soldier.
“An elf,” Harruq whispered, which managed to grab Qurrah’s attention. Now both peered around the corner, curious why such an exotic creature had arrived mere seconds before war.
“Greetings, Dieredon,” the soldier said, pulling off his helmet. He was a middle-aged man with long blond hair