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Crowsinger

  • 2021-10-30 14:03

Chapter 12

 

Like an avalanche of flesh and metal they tumbled into the hollow. The Revenant shrieked and laughed as they ran over one another in their bloodlust. Some wandered the ruins or other buildings looking for anyone hiding there, but most of the force flowed around anything in their way like a river rushing toward the longhouse.

Yonai, Kymeret, and Slumber stood waiting on the roof, along with several of the Hidden Folk. A thin moat of fire circled the roundhouse, but it wouldn’t keep their enemies at bay for long. The first wave looked at the fire with fear and longing, but they did not try to cross.

In the east, the sun had set, and a deeper blue swallowed the sky.

The defenders looked around at their enemies.

“Four hundred, perhaps,” said Avaresk. "Maybe more."

Kymeret laughed. “Cheer up, friend Slumber!” he said. “This is but a fraction of the dark lord’s army!”

All around in a lambent field of dusk and flame, gleaming with shoddy helmets of steel and chain, the Revenant rocked and swayed. They could not still themselves, but shifted from one foot to another, muttering and gibbering in the old Ginto tongue, words remembered and almost understood on the edge of madness.

Some edged forward, closer to the moat of fire. Some were more heavily armored in scrap metal and pieces of leather stitched carelessly and then forgotten. Others stood hunched in little more than a robe against the night, clutching weapons looted from their victims.

The faces Yonai could see in the near firelight were bent and twisted as if rage and hate and bitterness and fear grew hands and molded skin like putty until what remained was dirge dreams and nightmares. Long-forgotten scars of old wounds unhealed furrowed their flesh.

But she held the reins of fire, and sought a target—there, the shining wisps, hungry in the face of fog. She aimed, then let fly the arrow.

The fog drifted down seeking earth, and her arrow flew where its eyes had been moments before. The Revenant around it shifted and whimpered in fear as the fog and whatever it hid spread around their legs. Then the wickerwend pulled itself up again and stared at her.

She could hear spells from Kymeret and Avaresk hissing through the night air, and the screams of pain and rage from those struck by the fire. At first, she wondered why they were attacking faraway targets in the shadowy mass. Then she saw other creatures scattered in the crowd. They were taller than Revenant, narrow of form and face.

She sent a fire arrow into the crowd near two of the tall figures. The arrow pierced a Revenant who screamed and flailed, waving fire across the faces of the thin hollow ones who stood so very still. Their eyes held none of the rage and gibbering madness of the Revenant, though fear she saw… and hope, of all things. They held bows in their hands but did not raise them.

The wickerwend screamed again, a cry like the flaying of children’s dreams and the torture of hope. In another surge, the Revenant pushed forward from the east. Bolts of fire hissed past the wickerwend, but it always dodged, drifting one way or the other and leaving tendrils of mist behind to catch the passing light.

Arrows flew past the defenders on the roof, but they seemed half-hearted, barely aimed. Yonai looked again at the tall archers she had seen before. They moved forward through the Revenant, clutching their lowered bows.

Slumber stood nearby with torch and spear, ready to defend Kymeret. The spear, looted from a forgotten tomb in the Vae Wood, had a blade that glowed whenever Slumber was angry. He dodged arrows and threatened the Revenant beneath him trying to press against the flames.

Revenant screamed as fire found them, and they fled through the army trailing flames and setting alight their fellows. Those in the front still warily eyed the moat of fire, but the screams of the wickerwend prodded them forward—they feared their lieutenant far more than they feared the fire.

Behind her rose the high-pitched keening of arcane bolts scattering Revenant near Avaresk.

The tall ones were closer now. Still they did not raise their bows but carried them in many-fingered hands. They slowly pushed their way through Revenant who snarled at their touch.

What are they doing? thought Yonai. They could easily hit me from there.

When they stood almost at the front of the crowd nearest the flames, they both spread their arms and dropped the bows that they were holding. Yonai looked into their eyes and saw resolve, even hope.

No. They would rather die than continue to fight with this army. Were they stolen from their people and forced into the service of Ossari?

The half-hearted archery of their kinsmen in the hollow made sense now.

One of the tall archers met her eyes and mouthed a word she did not hear, but she understood his meaning. She pulled an arrow from the box beside her and drew the fletching to her cheek.

The tall archer closed his eyes as she released him. She drew another and shot his fellow.

Shouting from behind her, something about the moat of fire. She looked around and saw that the fire was dying down in places as its fuel was spent.

A few Revenant rushed through the gap and tried to climb the wall.

“Magma,” said Kymeret. His arcamental of fire grew a shell of cooled magma and raced to deal with the Revenant reaching the wall near him. Slumber knelt and skewered another with his spear.

Again, the wickerwend pierced the night with screams, and Revenant pressed forward.

“Yonai!” shouted Avaresk. “Together!”

Yonai looked at him and saw his intent. But then he turned to deal with Revenant trying to climb up at his feet. She turned back to look at the wickerwend and saw a Revenant on the ground being dragged toward it. What looked like vines and waterslick bulrushes were wrapped around its ankles and it screamed while clawing the ground.

It turned and started trying to disentangle itself from the vines, but then several nearby Revenant picked up their fellow and bodily threw him at the wickerwend before running away themselves. For a moment, Yonai saw the fog open and something dark inside before the fog closed again. A scream was suddenly cut off.

“Ready,” said Avaresk.

She lit the end of a fire arrow and waited.

“Now!”

She loosed her arrow, streaking flame over the heads of the massed Revenant. It flew toward the nearing wickerwend just as a bolt of fire from Avaresk came from another direction. The fog tried to dissipate again, and her arrow flew over it. But Avaresk had aimed downward through a gap in the Revenant, and his fire struck the thing just below its eyes.

The wickerwend made a sound like someone dying between the scrape of steel against steel, and the wisps of eyes dimmed.

Revenant scattered out of the way as more bolts of fire flew toward their master.

Then a larger ball of fire roared through the air and struck the wickerwend full on. It continued screaming and moved closer to the longhouse.

Now the fire was dying all around their perimeter, and Revenant were clawing at the walls, trying to find their way up. A battering ram was being brought to the door. Avaresk sent fire toward the ones who carried the ram, and they dropped it, squealing in pain. The wickerwend, drifting closer, screamed orders again, and more Revenant ran in to pick up the ram.

Yonai might have helped—two arrows remained to her—but the Revenant were trying to climb over each other to reach her.

Out of time.

She drew both swords from their scabbards and began to hack away at Revenant who came too close.

“I am weary and nearly spent,” said Avaresk behind her.

“As am I,” said Kymeret, “but I am not done yet.” He sent a whirling blade of mana into the gathered mob. It hurt several Revenant in its path before returning to Kymeret, splashing him with mana.

Yonai continued to slash wildly at arms reaching the roof, but there weren’t enough defenders to cover every span of the edge. One Revenant pulled itself up onto the roof, snarling toward an archer who had her back to it.

Yonai dodged an arm that reached for her from the wall and ran toward the Revenant on the roof, launching a ferocious assault with both swords. Another archer drew a sword and finished it off, and together they pushed it off the roof toward some of its fellows.

She ran back and drew her remaining two arrows, nocked them both, and sent them point blank into a Revenant that was climbing over two more to reach her.

Then she swept up her swords again and slashed at arms.

She blinked when the box of beans, now empty of arrows, suddenly vanished, leaving her scabbards to fall to the roof.

“You have my thanks,” said Kymeret, and she saw her box shimmer into the air over the Revenant trying to reach for him. It fell, knocking two of them off the wall.

Avaresk was sending arcane bolts into the faces of Revenant on his side. “Get below!” he shouted. “We can’t hold anymore!”

As he spoke two more Revenant reached the roof and stood.

Yonai leapt onto one, engaging it with swords while another defender opened the hatch and went below.

Kymeret shouted in pain behind her, and she kicked off the Revenant and glanced back. An arrow had pierced Kymeret’s leg. The glowing blade of Slumber’s spear swept back and forth in front of him until a wall shimmered into being at the edge of the roof—another of Kymeret’s summonings.

“Get him into the longhouse!” shouted Yonai, then turned back to the two Revenant running toward her.

One of them fell, leaving her only one opponent.

The hatch lifted. “The refugees are through!” shouted Baran. “Get below!”

Yonai dodged another thrust of the Revenant’s short sword, then slashed across its neck. She sensed Slumber helping Kymeret reach the hatch, and they began to descend.

Two other archers, both out of arrows and wielding swords, stood with Yonai to protect the hatch.

Avaresk splashed ice in several directions, hitting Revenant pulling themselves onto the roof.

Three enemies stood now on the eastern edge of the roof. A spray of ice from Avaresk sent them back to the ground.

“Go!” yelled one of the others at the wizard.

“After you,” said Avaresk, breathing heavily.

The woman flew down the ladder.

“Are you sure?” said Yonai.

“Hurry!” said Avaresk.

Scooping up her scabbards, she sheathed both swords and whirled around, picked up her bow, then dropped to the floor of the longhouse, ignoring the ladder completely. She rolled, then looked up through the hatch and drew a sword. Avaresk was surrounded by armor of solid ice, and Revenant attacked him with swords to no avail. Then the ice exploded outward, and the Revenant fell back with screams. Yonai turned her head away as stray shards of ice fell into the longhouse.

When she looked again, Avaresk was closing the hatch and pulling a draw bar across.

The battering ram was pounding against the front door. So far, the draw bars held.

Avaresk looked around, then shot a question to one of the archers.

The man shook his head. “They pulled him off the roof,” he said.

Avaresk sighed as the ram pounded the door again. “We have to keep moving. They’ll be through soon.”

“Which door is weaker?” asked Kymeret, grimacing as Slumber broke the arrow piercing his leg.

“The hatch… but with the ram out there, I think we’ll lose the front door first.”

Kymeret gestured at the door, fingers moving. His titan, armored in steel, appeared near the door.

“All right, come on,” said Yonai, and helped Slumber lift Kymeret. Together they carried Kymeret down the stone steps into the catacombs below.

 

* * * * *

 

They sealed another hatch behind them. This one looked no stronger than the hatch on the roof. Then they descended a long stone stairwell—Yonai and Slumber on each side of Kymeret, helping him—until they reached a stone chamber with broken statues recessed into the walls.

“That will not delay them long once they’re in the longhouse,” said Avaresk. He turned to Baran and raised his eyebrows in inquiry.

“The refugees are well on their way through the east tunnel carrying supplies. Koan is leading the group escorting them.”

“Good.”

“We’ve left supplies for you in the north tunnel.”

“Thank you, my friend. Now go.”

Baran nodded and raced down the western tunnel.

Yonai knelt with slumber and helped patch up Kymeret’s leg—an unguent, then wrappings of scrap cloth.

“Where will they go?” she asked Avaresk.

“There is a hidden exit two leagues west. From there they can try to make it to Kenneskil, or Sarnishar, or even Havensong—though I doubt Havensong would welcome them in these times.”

“And where will we go?” she asked.

“I shall lead you north, as soon as you are ready.” Avaresk looked down at Kymeret. “I know where to find this area called Terefal Torn. Though I must warn you, there is nothing in that region except the lands of the North Tusk Orcs. Fortunately, they have traveled west to help their fellows in the war, but I cannot imagine who might have found the place you seek.”

“Traders told the tale,” said Kymeret. He winced as Slumber finished wrapping his leg.

Avaresk smiled slightly. “Traders. They said they saw an Undine in Terefal Torn.”

“Yes.”

Avaresk appeared to be choosing his words carefully. “I don’t want to discourage you on your quest, but you know traders and other travelers. They hear things—rumors, legends, local folktales—and tell them to other travelers, and by the time it gets to you, someone swears that someone knows someone who actually saw the thing.”

“I know.” Kymeret’s sat up and tested his leg. Slumber helped him stand.

A faint sound echoed down the stone stairwell.

“They’re in the longhouse,” said Avaresk.

“I have an idea,” said Kymeret. “Everyone in the north tunnel except Slumber.”

Avaresk raised an eyebrow, but he went, followed by Yonai.

“Be ready to run,” said Kymeret. He twisted a gesture toward the ceiling of the stairwell, and then hobbled into the north tunnel, helped by Slumber.

“Keep going!”

They moved as the rumbling started. Soon the end of the stairwell collapsed, taking some of the chamber ceiling with it.

Avaresk held up a lantern. “What did you do?” he whispered.

“I summoned my titan within the ceiling of the stairwell, then asked it to wriggle its way out of the stone. It pulled some of the ceiling down with it.”

“How did you know it wouldn’t collapse the tunnels?”

“Call it a strong intuition.”

Avaresk stared at him, then passed out supplies Baran had left for them. Soon they were moving north through the darkness. In the lantern light they saw carvings, alcoves with stone tombs, and writing none of them could read.

They emerged into a hollow in the northern steppes as the eastern sky awoke to the first light of dawn.