The Master’s Daughter
A small forest comprised of a couple hundred birch trees streaked with black sat amongst the night. Some streaks moved, shadows. Others not. Light, soft, reflected off the oily palms of leaves that hung heavy. Clouds peeled back to fully reveal the moon, gaping and surprised.
From the hilltop, the forest burst in to light.
The Master stood amongst the battalion crowded behind the low wall. Forty men, maybe. What was he supposed to tell them, what did they not already know? He moved amongst the ranks, checked armour, stared deep in to eyes. The men moved in silence, in darkness, spreading out along the wall. The clouds had cleared completely now. The Master looked up at the moon like an enemy itself and nodded, grim. It was almost time.
He felt a tug at his arm.
A girl, maybe sixteen, stood beside him, rifle at ready, grinning.
“No,” he said.
“You can’t stop me,” she replied.
He shook his head and pointed back towards a cluster of cabins at the next hilltop. Safety. She shook her head.
The Senior approached, a wizened man in fatigues. He looked at the Master’s daughter, then at the Master.
“Sixteen or older and of able body.”
“She will not fight.”
“It’s everybody or nobody. If you start making choices, we may as well retreat now.”
The Master moved to grab the Senior by his collar and stopped.
“We are not retreating.”
“Than she, as the we, shall fight.”
The Senior patted the young girl on the back and muttered “happy birthday” as he strolled away. The Master gave her a broken glare and continued to move down the line. She moved in to place, levelled her rifle, made a mock kapow noise, then jumped at a sound.
The Master recognized this alien noise that carried over the small opening between the forest and the barrier atop the hill. An ungodly yawning, a wrenching, a fibrous splitting. Beside the Master were two men, one with a pair of binoculars, one with a long rifle. The man with the rifle peered through a scope.
“What do you see?” Asked the man with the rifle.
“Contact,” said the Master, levelling his shaky gaze.
In the forest a trunk of one tree had split wide open, six feet tall. From it emerged a man, or the likeness thereof. It carried a massive wood sword. It was entirely black, and the moonlight caught on beads of oil emerging from the grain of its skin. Made of wood, yet bleeding. The wrenching noise continued, and the Master watched six, no, seven more trees split open before he returned the binoculars.
Then the moans came, low and loud, emanating like lazy screams from the windless mouths of the wooden creatures.
“Light them up.”
The long rifle’s crack caused the whole line to start. A split second after the noise died away, one of the trees went up in a ghastly pillar of greasy flame. It spread easily to the other trees, and soon the light of the moon was obscured by a dark, thick, cloud of smoke and the terrified faces of the infantrymen in wait of the encroaching army were cast in amber, orange glow, stilled yet betrayed by their own trembling.
Sniper fire rang out intermittently, igniting more trees. Men, and one woman, along the line raised their rifles and waited for the oily wooden warriors to reach the bottom of the hill. The Master roared. Fire rang out. They were evenly matched by the first wave of forty or so enemies, but more poured steadily from the forest. Incendiary rounds were few and far between, reserved for the sniper’s work. The Master lamented their lack of resource as he heard the hollow thock of bullets burying themselves in wood. The goal was not to kill the things, that was fire’s duty alone, but to damage them at a range so that when the final task fell upon the soldier’s shoulders that they may complete it with ease. Shoulders, hips, knees and necks. The Master nervously thumbed a large lump in his pocket.
The Master’s daughter fired the last bullet in her clip and reloaded with such speed that the man beside her gave a hoo-rah. Shoulders, hips, knees, and necks. They were at the bottom of the hill. She had prepared for this. She knew this was what she was going to do with her life. It was meditative. She didn’t even have to pay attention-.
Wrenched backwards, the tirade was at her ears before she could even catch her breath: listen up maggot if you’re going to daddy’s girl your way in to the line you’re going to learn fucking procedure-.
A vicious whoosh and a log went up in flames beside her, save for two metal-wrapped ends that soldiers shoved over the wall and it was gone. Torches were lit in its stead all down the wall, one for every man with a rifle. The commanding officer shoved her back to the wall and muttered as he stormed away. She took a deep breath, two, three, and raised her rifle again. There was carnage down below, flaming homunculi staggered around, wildly flailing and spreading the fire to every comrade they touched. Those affected by the flames were quarantined and given a wide berth by their fellow soldiers who resumed their ascent of the hill.
Two more flaming logs went over, to the left and right of the Master’s daughter, and the fire in the forest had now gone out leaving only charred stumps. The smoke lingered, though, dying the moon a waxy grey.
Now three piles of thick fire were at the bottom of the hill. At the far right side, the Master’s daughter saw the first sign of a wooden soldier as it crossed the breach, the C-shaped arc of a torch swung down on to a chest. A burst of flame confirmed a hit. She lined up another shot and hit one, then another, then one of the broad faces loomed up over her, moaning, and fire spread all across it as the soldier beside her cracked it in the temple with a torch. The Master’s daughter jabbed her surprised enemy in the chest with the rifle’s barrel and it toppled backwards.
The Master watched, fifty paces back, with the Senior beside him. His brow furrowed. He could see the line of men fighting, but wavering. One section in the left quadrant had had a breach, and the black devils were fighting like hell against the men. Someone had loaded an incendiary round in the their rifle and shot one of the enemies point-blank. A second of stillness, and then a shattering burst through the air. Three enemies and one ally were now doused in flames, and the screams carried over through the night. A careless mistake. He saw his daughter, fighting. It could have been her.
“We may retreat at any moment,” said the Senior. “It would not be unwise.”
“And leave these monsters to advance, to grow? No, my friend. We are fighters. We will fight.”
“What is fighting but the promise of a death.”
Both men nodded in the night air.
The Master’s daughter was high on adrenalin. She fought down laughter as she dodged the slow blows from wooden swords and axes. A torch in one hand, flames whipping as she moved, and a pistol in the other. She danced through the melee. One foe raised an axe for a killing blow on her countryman and she blew its hand off with three quick shots, then knocked it back with a strike from the torch. This was easy. If all the soldiers were like her, they would have dealt with this years ago. She was on the ground. Her head was ringing. The torch was gone. She rolled over, and the moon was red. Blood. In her eyes.
Something crawled on top of her. A wooden solider with it’s legs and head blown off. The torso on top of her raised an arm and she felt her pistol in her hand. Three more shots took its hand off but left a jagged mess of splinters that it jammed in to her face. Blind, she cried so loud it felt as if her throat was being ripped out. Another cry, a loud and high one, responded to her. A soldier kicked the wooden corpse off her and hauled her to her feet, fleeing.
The Senior took the horn from his lips and turned to look at the Master’s wooden face.
“She knew what she was doing.”
The Master said nothing. Coming towards him was his own force, retreating.
“Do you know what you are doing?”
Nothing was said, and the Master began to walk against the weak tide of soldiers. Maybe twenty still stood, but most likely less.
The Master’s daughter saw him walk past as she was carried by her comrade, but only as a blur, greasy and grey like the moon in the sky. She slept, then, and dreamed of oily leaves bursting in to flame.
The Master pulled the tiny lump from his pocket, a black oblong mess of putty. He turned it over and over as he walked towards the barrier. There was only one torch left lit. Soldiers of wood turned to look at him, and took up arms. He met them at the barrier, by the one lit torch that leaned against the wall. A wooden axe took his left arm off at the elbow. He dropped to the ground. Pushing himself along with his legs, he was beaten and hacked at, blinded and bruised, his bones shattered, his cries knocked out of him before he could escape. As he died, he pressed the black lump to the torch and felt it burn the flesh clean off his fingers in a split-second.
The Senior took the rear of the retreating force, halfway up the sanctuary hill, and turned at a crackling sound. Wooden enemies were illuminated by a series of seemingly random sparks that shot out in to the air. The Senior was knocked flat on his back by the shockwave. Fire, all along the crest of the hill. It enveloped all as it flowed like a liquid. In the distance, the Senior saw fire as it ran towards the forest.
In the morning, the Master’s daughter went to meet the Senior in the charred remains of the barrier. He had made a small grave site. The sun was lazy and low in the sky. One hurt eye peered out from the mess of bandages that was her head.
“At least,” he said,” we are spared the labor of burning our fallen enemies.”
“A small consolation,” she replied.
“But it’s there. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“And yours too.”
The Senior turned towards the scorched forest.
“Come,” he said. “Walk with me.”
They walked through the ashes of the forest. Green shoots stuck up out of the ground. Each one had a tiny bead of oil at its top.
“Do you know why these continue to grow?”
The Master’s daughter paused. “I’ve never thought about it, sir.”
“Have you heard that it is nature’s wrath? Some of the men use it as a colloquialism.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve heard about that.”
“It’s not true. Or, so your father theorized. He studied these shoots, and their more mature forms, quite religiously.”
“He never talked about it.”
“He feared the men would see him as sympathizing with the enemy. His theory was that this plague is man-made.”
“How so, sir?”
“He argued that the more and more humans advanced weaponry, the deeper and deeper in to the human condition we would descend. Methods of control for the purpose of obliteration. He always said to me that he saw the coincidence of this, our burden, and war with many forested nations.”
The Master’s daughter looked at the nascent spikes that waved in a gentle wind.
“How do you fight an enemy that springs from the ground? That constantly rebirths itself unless eviscerated, in the flames of war?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Then let your father be an example.” The Senior extended his arm towards the hillside they had stood on. “You immerse yourself in the flames. You felt it last night. Your father felt it a thousand times before, and he felt it again last night.”
The Master’s daughter nodded slow and unsure.
“You will be the next Master,” decreed the Senior.
“I cannot,” said the Master’s daughter. “My eye is gone. My father has died. I must grieve.”
“You will have between fourteen and nineteen nights before the next assault.”
“I have seen naught but one night of combat.”
“The Master’s role is not that of combat. It is of spirit. You will be the moral conscience of this, our humanity’s bastion. And you will know this, when you stand on that hill, and you will know it if you command me, or the next Senior, to blow the horn.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then we will surely fall, knowing our Master has failed us.”
“Did my father fail last night?”
“You are here, are you not?”
“Alright,” said the Master. “Alright.”