“How are we going to get out of here?” Emi’s Father asked. He looked at Beatrice like she was a leader, like she was anything but a scared girl who rode in on a giant magical monster and closed her eyes so she wouldn’t see people being killed.
Beatrice, for what it was worth, kept her emotions under check. She was meeting Emi’s parents here, after all. It was the first time she had ever seen them outside of the portrait paintings that hung on the walls of their home. Both were skinny and static, the only two of the dozens who didn’t seem completely overwhelmed by the situation. They didn’t see Beatrice as anyone but a hero they could rely on.
Way, way too much pressure. So all Beatrice said was, “Just follow close behind. We’ll find a way out.”
It was a bit of a motley crew, a kind of pseudo-army that only emerged in the most extraordinary of circumstances. In the front of the group were Beatrice, and an Emi who refused to tread more than a couple feet away from her. There was Runa and her monstrous homunculus, as well as Tia and another tall, muscular young man who looked to be his boyfriend. There were Emi’s parents, as well as her older brother (but not the famous one), and a couple of her housekeepers.
There was also a growing crowd of defenseless civilians following them like greyback bear cubs without their mothers. Practically every door they passed had more prisoners, and more people to free.
In front of one heavily locked door, two Dannark guards laid on the ground, either knocked out or deceased–Beatrice was too terrified to inspect closely–and one bloodied, bruised rebel stood, propped on her lance and barely conscious even as she watched the group approach. She was younger, unlike most of the soldiers, but it was clear she had no fighting spirit left inside her.
She didn’t make an effort to stop them. She only said, “You won’t… get away with this. Dannark will never win.”
Beatrice reached in her pocket and handed her a handkerchief. “Go home before something bad happens to you,” she told her. The woman accepted the handkerchief, but she didn’t move, and she didn’t reply.
Emi’s Mother, now armed with a pike herself, examined the door and shook her head. “It will take far too much time to break down these barriers. We must move on.”
“We have to get in somehow,” Beatirce said. “If the fighting in the castle spreads, the people in there could be in serious trouble.”
As they spoke, Emi stood in front of the door and raised her arm into the air.
The door barricades ripped apart, and the entire door ripped off the frame and collapsed on the ground to reveal a large conference room filled with a great many prisoners.
The homunculus made a confused groan. Emi’s Mother and Father exchanged glances.
And Beatrice stared at her…
…What? “What?” Beatrice blinked a few times to try and process what just happened. “Emi… Huh?”
“Um, I don’t know, but I don’t really care,” she replied. “Whatever it is, it matters a lot less than us saving all these people who are following us now.
Emi seemed extremely unconcerned with the fact she just used magic to rip a door off its hinges. And now Beatrice was more confused than she had ever been in her life to this point.
Ms. Khami laid a hand on Beatrice’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about Emi,” she told her.
She was extremely worried, but she decided to hold that in for the time being.
“So, yeah, we got way too many people with us,” Pip said. “The moment we leave the castle, a bunch soldiers are gonna attack us, right?”
“Precisely correct,” said Tia.
“Then, uh, what are we doing? Do we got a plan?”
“We have a plan,” Beatrice lied.
“I have a plan,” Emi said. “First, tell me, Tris and Runa, how is the situation outside? Is the fighting contained to central Balarand?”
“Um, I think so,” Beatrice said. “There was nothing going on near the port when we were there. No fires or anything.”
“I know a safe house we can take refuge in around there,” Tia said. “But it is somewhat far away. Depending on the circumstances outside…”
“We can’t fit this many people in a safe house,” Beatrice said.
“We’ll have to help them a different way,” Emi said. “Back during the Gang of Eight Campaigns, Ulric Fathie and the Teal One were involved in many skirmishes where the Teal One would capture a fort, lead enemy troops in, and then abandon the whole thing once they picked off enough soldiers in the siege. They evacuated most of the troops by faking a frontal assault with only a very minor force that bided time for everyone else.”
“And we’ll… do that here?”
Emi nodded. “That’s our only chance to make sure all these people can escape. If we’re lucky, we can too.”
“Wait, WE’RE going to be the ‘very minor force?!’” Touma shouted.
“Keep it down,” Emi said. “And yes, we are. You included. You’re a young man who studied and trained at Yates. Most of these people are middle aged bureaucrats who haven’t run a day in their lives. You’ve got to buck up and help us save these people’s lives.”
Touma rubbed the back of his neck. “When’d my sister get so cool all of a sudden?”
“Shut up and let’s plan this thing.”
Beatrice absolutely adored this woman.
In the next few minutes, they forged their plot. They split these helpless civilians into four groups who would flee the castle in four different directions. One tiny advance force, consisting of Emi’s family and friends, along with Runa and the homunculus beast, would crash through the front gates and attract as much attention as they could on their way to Tia’s safe house. Everyone had weapons they took from defeated soldiers they came across in the castle, though nobody but Tia and Emi’s Father actually knew how to wield any of them.
Hopefully nobody would die. And, in a major plus, Runa’s homunculus would definitely be the biggest distraction this side of an avalanche.
“And that’s the plan,” Emi said. “If you can’t fight, you should join one of the other groups and meet up with us later.”
Beatrice glance to Ms. Khami, who seemed to be nursing her arm and had no business on a potential battlefield. But she shook her head to dismiss such a glance. “I must say, Ms. Ragnell, you seem to think I can’t take care of a bunch of hooligans with farm tools.”
Emi’s Mother patted her on the shoulder and smiled. “We’ll be perfectly safe, um–”
“Yes, Beatrice. We are the L’Hime Family. Sis and I were schooled by Freda Hollow herself, the captain of the Elincian Royal Guard for thirty-eight years. Don’t underestimate experience.” Beatrice had no idea who that was, so her gloating went over her head.
Emi’s Father nodded. “We’re all ready.”
There was so much Beatrice didn’t know about Emi’s family, and this certainly wasn’t the time to be inquiring deeply about any of it. So she decided to trust them fully. No reservations now.
“Then let us enact our great plan,” said Tia. He held up his sharpened stick and charged without another second’s hesitation.
The rest followed. The entire group, all eleven of them, ran through the hallways and into the grand entrance, where most of the fighting had stopped. Judging by the bodies on the floor, which Beatrice tried hard not to look too much at, the rebels were not fighting a winning battle, because their bodies outnumbered Dannark’s five to one.
The homunculus roared and smacked a Dannark soldier who charged at them, ending the only serious threat they faced in the entire castle. So far, it had gone smoothly.
Then, the group exited the front door and emerged out from Castle Balarand. Immediately, they were greeted with the sight of bright red flames smoldering all over the city. At this point, there was no snow in sight; the heat of the fires, the dark ash in the sky had melted every last bit. Winter had come to a sudden and very violent end.
Right at the city center, there was a great battle ongoing, with soldiers from Dannark fighting with the rebels in a disorganized chaos. Arrows flew through the skies with every passing moment.
Dead men and women lined the streets, the vast majority of them wearing rags and simple clothing. Here, too, the Dannark soldiers that had fallen were very few compared to the untrained rebels. And, as the fighting continued, that difference would grow even more stark.
The screaming from afar wouldn’t leave Beatrice’s ears. She couldn’t tune it out.
Balarand had been reduced to a warzone. Destruction on a level that brought most of the group to tears. This was exactly what Elince tried to protect when it peacefully surrendered to Dannark. The entire reason for the occupation was to help prevent Dannark from invading and destroying the great city of Balarand.
Beatrice looked back to the castle behind them. Smoke rose out of the windows on an upper floor. Even this place was too dangerous to stay in, and it was supposed to be the safest fortress in the kingdom.
“I hate this,” Beatrice muttered. She didn’t want to look at any of this. But she couldn’t stop staring. “This is all so horrible…”
Emi shook her head. “We’ll make it through this. We have to keep going.” She looked around at the ground and saw a fallen rebel soldier with a lance near his side. So she held out her hand, and like a stick on a rope the lance flew into her hand. Beatrice did a double take. Emi gripped the lance with both hands and rest its sharp end on the ground.
Tia kept his eyes fixed forward. “Our distraction may not be necessary. The rebels are already breaking apart. We have an opportunity escape before the real battle begins.”
“The… real battle?” Beatrice asked.
“Dannark’s frontline soldiers must be almost here already,” Emi said with a gasp. “They sent word that quickly…”
“Indeed,” Tia said. “Nevertheless, we must charge forward if we are to reach the safe house without injury.”
“Let’s go!” Pip shouted.
A number of Dannark soldiers approached the group, weapons drawn and drawing closer. They separated into multiple flanks in an attempt to encircle the group.
Emi’s Father, sword in hand, rushed in front of the group, holding his hands up. “Stop! We are not rebels. We are civilians and part of the occupation government. Please… stop.”
The soldiers continued to advance, saying nothing. It seemed they were no longer accepting surrender as an option. And unlike the rebel soldiers they faced in the castle, these were professional fighters who wouldn’t fall to simple maneuvers.
“What do we do? Father, what do we do?” Touma asked. He held a sword in his hands, but he shook so much that he rendered himself effectively useless.
“We will defend ourselves. Stand back and protect Ms. Khami and your sister.” Her Father spread his legs out into a fencing stance.
“Don’t worry about me,” Emi said.
Beatrice looked at Runa, waiting for her to react. She had been oddly calm, oddly quiet ever since she retrieved her precious plans from the castle evidence room. Runa noticed her gaze, then looked back at Hasha and asked, “Honey, are you willing to fix this for us?”
The beast grunted.
“Then charge ahead and break their formation!”
The beast grunted again, but did not move.
“Is it going to hurry?” Beatrice asked.
“Hasha does what Hasha wants,” she said. “We must hope my baby does what is in our best interest. Hasha, move!”
Hasha, it seemed, misunderstood the directions and ran off towards some other part of the skirmish, attacking other soldiers and knocking them down.
Beatrice sighed, then wondered if this would be the last time she ever sighed.
There was no need for its help, though. A dozen rebel soldiers stormed the area and caught the Dannark soldiers by surprise, knocking them over and driving their weapons into them. It was a quick rout and the scene was clear in two minutes or less.
“You must come with us,” one of the rebels said. “We’re regrouping back at the castle for a final–”
“Wait,” another said. It was– Ulric Statusian, a gash across his left cheek and spatters of blood dotted across his armor. “These aren’t allies. These are escaped prisoners.”