III

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THE BATTLEFIELD MIMICKED THE EQUIVALENT OF THE UNDERWORLD.

Fires stood flickering against the twilight that swallowed the hill. Broken spear shafts lay in a heap near the rear of the turmoil. The flag of her troops lay flapping in the strong gust, coated in a layer of blood. Men still fought, shouting in neither pain nor pride as the blades of their weapons pierced human flesh.

Sword in her right, she hardly glanced in the direction as she cut down a man stealthily flanking her side. He was nothing compared to the real challenge.

"I need to reorganize the remaining troops," she mumbled. Drakon was nowhere to be found. The wave of fighting men was too thick.

Another man darted towards her, curly beard coated in sweat. I need to rescue them, she thought as she drove her shield to his face. The satisfying crunch of cracked teeth and a broken nose echoed in her ears, past the numbing screams of the dying.

Metal clashed against bronze, steel paired with bone. The whipping wind cut her legs and arms, though they were bound in bandages and thick cloth. She tightened the straps on her shield, lowered her helmet, and prepared for a death march like none other.

Half a dozen had charged to were she stood, at the bottom of a low cliff. Andronika quickly sliced open the neck of one and embedded her sword in the chest of another. Several of her men, battered and scratching at redemption, lined up behind her to fend for their commander. But Andronika was more than capable at protecting herself. Blade caked in blood and armor reflecting her firm expression, she let out a bloodcurdling shout and quickly decimated them all.

Hundreds of bodies toppled to the ground as Adnronika made her way through the mayhem. The red uniforms of her soldiers were pit against the dark grey ones of their foes. She darted her eyes back and forth, scouring the grisly plain for the one commander whose oath she prayed would be kept.

And there Drakon lay in the midst of it all, drowning in a pool of the liquid that once gave him life. A thin spear shaft lay wedged between his lung and heart. The slayer, who loomed over the body only a second before, lay in a heap next to the discarded corpses of other by the time Ares' vessel arrive.

She wanted to scream for help, but the gash in his ribcage was too great. Blood gurgled past dry lips, hitched breathing slowed with each agonizing moment. "And... Andronika-" Andronika placed a bloody finger to his lips, hushing her agonizing companion.

"Sleep now, Drakon," she whispered as she choked back sobs, her hands cupping his cheeks. Gently, she pulled him onto her lap, ignoring the chaotic surroundings. Strands of dark hair clung to her wet cheeks and tickled the fading boy's eyes. "Sleep and rue the gods. Know that you fought valiantly, so please rue them to the underworld and beyond." Seconds ticked by, painful in every aspect. At last his breathing came to a halt. She closed those red-rimmed eyes, lids still warm.

Death slept in her rough hands. Nearby, blood flew from its deceased owners, finding its way onto her distraught face. Drakon was dead. Behind her, another of her soldiers had fallen.

And even when crouching down and holding a limp body, Andronika was still very much alive. None of it made sense. Her curse was an incredible burden on a pair of shoulders not broad enough.

She picked up her weapon to mask the pang of guilt pumping through her veins and the rush of tears pricking at her eyes.

But even as she killed and hacked at those beings surrounding her, she could not tear her eyes away from his limp body. "You still haven't fulfilled your promise."

It was only a moment when the battle ended. She'd survived, and so had less than twenty of her personal troop. Not enough families could be complete after today.

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