A Choice of Poisons

They came in vast numbers to slaughter what remained of us.
For too long we harried them on every front, and every time they stepped on our necks, we seemed to grow new heads: here, a smashing of their flank as we split to take the vanguard and the rear; there, an explosion that killed them by the hundreds.
We were as children splashing away at the tide.
It all served to stir them to a frothing, raving mass of bloodthirsty vengeance seekers; they were as relentless in their desire to kill us as we were to survive.
In time, they resorted to other means: a dark magic where venom and blood combined to make them practically invincible.
The problem was they had the venom, and we had the blood. They plundered it from us and stored it for themselves, until their magicians could sustain its combined power and keep it from fading. They worked at it day and night.
From my high vantage inside the fortress, I could see the serpent army, the Ormarr, as we called them, spread out across the fields below, their bodies glowing with a faint, eldritch light.
The sword at my side brought no comfort, but there was another way.
“Stand aside,” I told the gatekeeper.
“Are you daft, boy? You want us to open the gates and throw flowers in their path?”
I looked at General Sarris, his craggy face mapped with scars and an old black eye patch over his left socket, a testimony to his many fierce and bloody campaigns.
“No, General. That was not my request. I said, ‘Stand aside.’
Seeing my calm demeanor, he considered me. In the silence between us I could hear the faint clank of weapons as men shifted, the crackling sizzle of nearby torches, and the dull murmurs of the dull creatures below us, bobbing and rocking like lanterns on a ship.
“I’m all that stands between these men and death,” I said. “The longer you wait, the stronger they grow.”
“Ator, have you forgotten your first night here?”
“I remember all too well, Sarris.”
The camp fires were dying, and little by little the sounds of snores and released gas joined the night creatures’ cacophony, drowning out the small, crackling flames.
    A seasoned soldier eyed me openly, not challenging, merely assessing.
   “Do I pass your examination, sir?”
   He chortled, and came toward me, hands out. “Not looking to fight, boy, just want to give you some advice.”
   I nodded, but kept him in view.
   “When you’re out here, boy, waiting for demons to fight, no one in the rich towns cares that you don’t sleep at all, as long as they sleep through the night.
   “They don’t care that you can’t comfort your daughter after a nightmare, as long as they don’t have to face the living ones they created.
   “They don’t care if you have to die, as long as they get to live. You remember that, boy, and you’ll be all right out here.”
“You shouldn’t fight them alone,” Sarris said.
“I’m the only one who can take the venom.”
“You’re immune to the venom, true; not to being torn apart.
“I’ll be all right.”
“Well that much is true, boy, because you’re not going out there.”
I sighed, looked back out at the animated field of unnatural blasphemy, and again entreated them.
“Stand aside.”

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