The Hero's Shadow
“Sir, you might want to take a look at this,” one of the soldiers called out to the knight.
He was loath to raise his helmeted head over the top of the trench for fear of attracting a sniper’s ire. The enchanted plate he wore was proof against their guns, but it was still disconcerting to be rung like a bell each time he lifted his head just a little. It was a mystery how they spotted him so easily when the ceaseless rain had ensured that he was just as covered in mud as everything else on that blasted battlefield.
There was no need for him to look though, the enemy signaled their advance with the insistent whistling that spread up and down the line. The soldiers on his side spread word of the incoming attack with shouts and cries that rippled through the trenches like a religious chant.
“Those fools, are they really sending out infantry? Why haven’t they negotiated for duels? We have plenty of knights on this front!” he ranted to the officers nearby. His first question was answered by the start of the incessant chattering of machine guns all along the line.
“They haven’t won a duel in two months sir,” one of the officers reminded him grimly. Having to concede ground with each loss had pushed the enemy back to the last position they could hold securely. One more concession would open a hole in the massive line stretching down most of the continent.
“Have you been able to reach the field commander? Get them to negotiate for a match and have this attack called off before we’ve had to slaughter the entire lot of those poor bastards.”
“The line’s dead, must have been hit by artillery during the night…”
“Wait, I’m through to them, sir...Yes...Yes, they’ve got their entire line scrambling out into...No sir…We have one here, sir...” The phone operator looked toward the knight with a new horror fresh on his face. “Sir, headquarters is demanding that you stop their charge. By that I mean, you are to eliminate all opposition forces.”
The knight lowered his head, trying to avoid the responsibility of having heard that awful order. But there was no peace for him to find. Shots sounded out everywhere and the machine guns were still barking out into no man’s land. He resigned himself to the task and leaped up to the top of the trench.
As soon as he came into view at ground level, dozens of enemy soldiers took aim with their rifles. Bullets pinged off his dirty armor like a hard rain on a metal roof. He surveyed the tortured landscape, stripped bare of all vegetation and pitted by artillery.
From the opposite trenches, hundreds of soldiers were streaming out onto the muddy field. They fell in scores as machine guns swept back and forth across the oncoming tide of mortal flesh. Still, for each that tumbled into the blood-soaked muck, two others rushed over his back and advanced closer.
The knight released a surge of arcane energy from his body, channeling the power through his hand and shaping it into the form of a long, curving sword. He swung his materialized will in a wide arc, releasing another surge of energy through the weapon.
An almost invisible wave of heat raced out from the blade. The air shimmered with a boiling mirage as the thermal blast rolled over no man’s land. Where it passed, the mud was baked solid in an instant, and when it reached the mob of charging soldiers, they burst into flames. The infantry were burned through in an instant, charred skeletons with melted helmets tumbling to the steaming ground.
The sweat from the knight’s brow mixed with his tears as he swung his sword this way and that. With each stroke, another dozen men were turned to ash. It would take only a few moments to massacre every regiment trying to cross at this section of the line, then he would no doubt be ordered to move on to the next.
Something caught his eye, a figure who remained standing amidst the haze of lethal heat. Here was a fellow knight, clad in ensorcelled plates of armor and wielding a spiked hatchet. The ground beneath his feet was not scorched, but rather frozen solid.
He recognized this opponent, someone whom he had met at tournaments before the war. Their abilities were direct opposites and they were evenly matched in strength. It made sense now why the enemy field commander had determined that an infantry charge might work. The two knights would fight to a stalemate, leaving the battle to be decided by the regular soldiers.
The pair approached each other over the ruined field. When they drew close, they raised their weapons in salute, then charged into close combat. Sword and axe clashed again and again, neither able to obtain the upper hand.
The earth around them was blown apart as waves of heat and freezing winds howled in contest with each other. They struck and parried, slashed and countered, locked in a desperate dance. The loser might survive, but he would have to witness the victor massacre the helpless soldiers behind him.
Suddenly, something hard struck the swordsman’s shoulder. It fell from the sky like an artillery shell, but did not explode. He ignored the oddity, having to focus entirely on watching his opponent through the small slit in his visor. Perhaps it was merely a dud mortar, fired on their position in error.
But as the melee continued, more and more of the objects began to fall around the knights. Finally they could ignore what was happening no longer and broke away from each other. The swordsman shifted about uneasily, trying to find where one of the objects had landed.
His eyes burned and no amount of gasping for breath seemed to bring any relief. He could solve nothing while wearing the stifling helmet and resolved to remove it despite the risks. The sight that awaited him chilled him to his core.
The trenches were no longer visible on either side of the knights; the area around them was quickly filling with a thick grey-green fog. The objects that had fallen were all shells, not one of which had exploded. He saw his opponent also scrambling to take off his own helmet, pawing at his neck in a panicked search for the straps securing the thing to his head.
Still unable to catch his breath, the swordsman coughed violently. The other knight collapsed to his knees. Their minds were unified by terror and outrage. One, or perhaps both, of their commanders had called for a bombardment of gas shells on their position. They had been tricked into trapping each other, ensuring that neither side would enjoy the advantage of having a knight until reinforcements arrived.
The lethal mist grew thicker still, the knights disappeared.