Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 22: Steel and Thunder
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The Key is a fan fiction piece by Tamrend, originally posted in the Diii.net Fan Fiction Forum. The fiction series has been going since February 2004, and still see the occasional update with more chapters or parts of chapters. You can find more information on The Key article.
Chapter 22: Steel and Thunder
The spongy ground was not conducive to stomping. Rather than a satisfying clop, Shael's boots were just as likely to slosh up to their ankles. She quickly moderated her footfalls, but the stubborn set of her jaw and the bristle that had crept into her back at hearing lieutenant Astin's pronouncement to her remained. No doubt Alain thought he was doing the noble thing. Arrogant prig.
The fog had begun to clear shortly after daybreak, though thin wisps still clung to the edges of trees and hovered over pools of brackish water. The day had passed uneventfully, the only attacks coming from the horde of biting insects that filled the air. Now, daylight was rapidly fading, and men hurried to put what little light remained to good use.
Shael walked the interior of the wall, ducking beneath the diagonal braces that sloped down from its top to sink into the earth behind it. The palisade, which yesterday had been flimsy and full of gaps, was now a complete enclosure, reinforced by a clever arrangement of horizontal beams and diagonal braces that were cut to fit neatly together. Alternating groups of longer and shorter branches provided holes at the top of the wall large enough to fire arrows through, while protecting the archer's head and body. Though the work was crude and the space inside only about thirty paces by fifty, it was a marvel what Alain's men had accomplished after only two days, using axes meant for clearing brush and knives meant for fighting. The main weakness in the structure was the lack of a working gate. Without nails or hinges, there was no way to create a structure that would swing or slide away, so a small gap had been left at the north end to allow scouts and foraging parties to come and go.
Shael had given some thought to trying to hunt herself, but it was probably for the best that she did not. Half a dozen men had come up missing through the course of the day, whether due to demons or to some natural predator of the swamps. Besides, it seemed that this land had already been scoured of any animals larger than rodents. What little food they were able to scavenge was in the form of edible plants and roots, and most of those tasted little better than the mud in which they grew.
In the shadow of the southernmost wall of the palisade, Shael came up against Keiji and his granddaughter Anaki asleep on the woven mats that they had brought in for themselves. The hulking form of the golem sat on the ground nearby, head drooping from hunched shoulders, tiny onyx eyes glittering but never blinking. Looking to the other side, Shael couldn't suppress a shudder. The four skeletons of the dead demons stood in a line and perfectly still. Shael had the unnerving feeling that despite their quite literally lifeless appearance, they would spring into lethal motion if she made any move against the sleeping humans at their feet.
Faced with this, Shael's anger gave way to common sense. She gave the group a wide berth, and her aura of righteous indignation was further spoiled when she had to dodge soldiers moving about their tasks who were also reluctant to get too close to the necromancer and his undead guards. That only got worse as she approached Alain's tent, which was a hub of frenetic activity. They all knew that their time was nearly up. The demons had waited out the day so that they could attack in darkness. That was the reason that Shael and many of the soldiers had slept as much as they were able throughout the day. Even if the attack, by some miracle, did not happen, they would have a long vigil until morning. They would need every body they had to watch for and fend off the demon attack. That thought brought the fire back to her resolve.
Alain resided in a large wedge tent, one of only a few that dotted the camp. Most of the tents had been left behind with the wagons near Shael's village, but a few had been brought to protect their store of munitions and horse feed from the weather. Shael guessed that his use of a tent was as much symbolic as for privacy. When she approached, six men were already lined up outside. Shael spared only a glance at them for all their protests as she slipped past and went in.
Syd and Alain sat on straw mats on the ground, speaking in low, urgent tones. Shael folded her arms, glaring silently at Alain's right side, letting the fury seethe. Syd was the first to look over, and Alain tracked his gaze to her. "Hello, Shael," the captain said guardedly, taking in her combative stance and expression.
"I'd better get the word out to the other officers, sir," Syd said, standing up and saluting with unusual formality. "Shael," he said, nodding to her as he brushed past.
Alain stared after his lieutenant with faint dismay. No doubt he guessed exactly why Shael had come, and now the only support at hand had just deserted him. "Listen, Shael—" was as far as he got.
"No, you listen," Shael said, punctuating each word with a stab of her finger towards him. She was quite proud of herself for not screaming at him. "I did not come all of this way to turn tail and run. Neither did Renn and Tarin. My family is from a long line of hunters and trackers. My brothers and I are as good with a bow as any of your men, and probably better than most." The boast probably sounded presumptuous to Alain, but Shael didn't make it lightly. She had been four when she had first picked up a bow, so she figured that she had been practicing longer than the main part of these men, most of whom looked no older than Tarin. The only place she couldn't match them was in draw strength, and there, Loric's bow more than made up the difference. "Turning us away from this battle is a poor decision and an insult."
"Be reasonable, Shael," Alain said, spreading his hands. "My men fight as a unit. They trust me to lead them, and I trust them to follow my orders to the letter. You and your brothers could be the best shots we have, but I would not send you into battle. You are not trained to be soldiers."
"And what about Edwin?" Shael asked, hoping she didn't sound petulant. "You saw fit to let him stay and fight."
By Alain's sigh, he had been hoping that she wouldn't make that argument. "Edwin was a guard for Graegor's estate. He's used to following orders without question, Shael."
"And you just assume that I won't follow your orders?" she demanded.
Alain grinned. "Think about that for just a moment, and what it is you are doing here right now."
Shael opened her mouth to spout an angry retort, but was dismayed to find she had none. Damn him, but he was right. He had given her orders and she was throwing them back in his face. She wondered ruefully if this had been a test, and she had failed it. No, Alain wouldn't go for something so devious. "It's not the same," she said lamely. "You don't even know how many demons we're going to be facing. You need everyone you can get to fight."
"Actually," Alain said, picking up a parchment from the ground in front of him, "We do know." He hesitated before going on. When he did, his voice was measurably lower. "I don't want the men to know this. Will you promise me your silence?"
"Of course. I swear it," Shael said at once.
Alain nodded his acceptance. "A team of scouts was able to get close enough to the demon encampment to get a count of what we're up against." He read from the parchment. "Five-hundred seventeen goatmen. Two-hundred forty-four slayers. Ninety-eight imps. Seventy-four succubi. Forty-two blunderbores." He looked up. "You probably call them maulers. Ten clan lords: blood lords, death lords and such. Assume that a handful of them are out scouting and we have at least a thousand demons."
"A thousand?" She was definitely going to need to get used to larger numbers. Things with which she were familiar that were too many to count, such as grains of wheat, generally lent themselves well to measuring by weight or by filling a container with them. "Is that much more than two hundred?"
"Five of them for every one of us," Alain explained. "It is impossible odds. I blame myself for the snare I've put us in. It was a grave tactical error to leave our arbalests and ballistae behind. The clan lords alone could probably wipe my men out, and they'll tear down that wall like it was made of silk. The bows and crossbows we carry will hardly pierce their hides. We've come here to die, Shael, and the reason I require your silence now is that the men may start to desert if they knew."
His words chilled her. He couldn't mean it. How could he face such a horrible fate with such calm, such detachment? "And are you sure they are coming for us tonight?"
"From the report we got, Syd thinks that they are preparing to march."
"So why send us away? And why keep Edwin here?"
Alain sighed. "You and your brothers will travel north with Syd. You'll get word to the lieutenant general back at our camp near Dunesmar, tell him of what we found here. It will be in his hands then. As for Edwin, if by some miracle, we survive, I need someone here who can talk to your people, someone they trust."
If what he said was true, it was a sensible plan, though she was certain he had chosen her to send as much out of misguided protectiveness as for any other reason. And yet, on a very basic level she could not accept that it had come to this, that there was no hope of surviving, let alone saving her people. There had to be some way.
"I know that look," Alain said suddenly. "What are you thinking, Shael?"
The memory of her last duel with Amaury a week ago had popped into her mind, and she wasn't sure at first what the connection was. She began to pace, trying to jog the thought loose, and then, in a flash of understanding, she had it. "Mongoose form," she blurted out, only realizing as she said it how inane that must sound. She went on quickly, ignoring his look of confusion. "Listen, we've spent two days digging in here, building up an amazing defensive wall given the lack of tools and materials. Those demons know it, and they'll be expecting to come here and find us hunkering down inside, waiting for them."
She paused for effect and Alain's brows rose. "Yes. But how does this help us?"
"So we do the unexpected," Shael went on, still moving back and forth. "We leave this, all this, behind, and we attack them."
Alain stood and put a hand on her shoulder to stop her movement. His tone carried condescension and, oddly, disappointment. "That's not a plan, Shael. It's utter madness. Here, at least we have the palisade to protect us. Out there, we'll be completely at their mercy."
"No, listen," Shael said, shaking the hand off. "They are going to send an army to attack us here, but we're not going to fight them. This camp will be a decoy. We'll…I don't know, circle around behind them. We'll move in on their camp. With any luck, they will only leave a token force to defend. We'll be able to dispatch them and free my people."
"And if that succeeds," Alain said, no longer sounding displeased, "what will we do when the attacking force returns to their camp? We can't outrun them."
"I don't know," Shael faltered, but quickly recovered herself. "We'll figure something out. But I do know that I would rather die trying to free those people than sit here and wait for them to come kill us."
Alain nodded slowly, looking past her. "As would I, Shael." His gaze refocused on her and he grimaced. "I know some of the men wouldn't like being told to leave all of this behind, not after all of the work they've put into it."
Shael knew that it wasn't a real objection, just an idle observation. He was mulling her idea over, imperfect though it was, and she allowed him to reflect in silence. Finally, he nodded. "Alright, you've won me over. As I said, it's madness, but maybe that's why it will work. You'll have to tell me sometime what mongoose form has to do with any of this."
"Ask Sergeant Amaury about it," Shael said, grinning secretively. "Now, about sending me away…."
Alain sighed and waved his hand irritably. "Fine, you can stay. Your brothers too, if that is their wish."
"Thank you, sir," Shael said, and imitated the salute that Syd had made on his way out. She made a jaunty bow to the men who still waited outside, brushing aside the dark looks she got. It was only after she was back at her own pallet that doubts began to creep into her thoughts, the full weight of it coming down on her. What if they failed to evade the approaching army? What if the defenses they left behind were too strong? Worst of all was the question she had been carefully avoiding for several days now. What if all her people were already dead?
Shael carefully pushed that last thought away. She could not give up on them. Not now. Not when they were so close. So she focused on what had to be done. Pack up her things. Feed her horse. Oil her sword and string her bow.
The order to pack up and prepare to march went out just as the sun began to sink below the tops of the trees. Shael led her horse to the edge of their island and mounted cautiously. There was some grumbling from the soldiers and plenty of questions from Edwin and from Shael's brothers, but she assured them that what they were doing was for the best. Keiji, Anaki, and their unnatural, silent companions followed the order without comment, as if they had expected it all along.
The last blush of twilight hung in the sky by the time the column of soldiers filed through the northern gate. Scouts cut wary paths outward and back as they marched southeast, careful to leave as little trail as possible. At times this was easy, the hungry marshes quickly devouring the evidence of their passing. At other times, it proved more of a challenge as boots left deep prints in the mud.
The air felt tense, though whether from fear or excitement, Shael could not tell. Both, she decided. They were tired, hungry, and had just left the only shelter they had behind, but there was a sense of pride in going out to face their enemies. Some strident voice up the line began belting out a cadence call that put a blaze of scarlet into Shael's ears, even as she listened in fascination. Surely two people would never do that…
Gradually, the lascivious marching song died away as an as-yet moonless night folded over them. Shael found herself straining to listen past the slosh of mud and rustle of reeds. Were demon's ears keener than a human's? Could they move with greater stealth?
No, Shael told herself, remembering the stupid, lumbering maulers that had come after her, Kelsia, Seith and Marius, that night she had become separated from all of them. They would drive their way through the swamp with all the subtlety of a charging bull. She was certain they would hear such a racket from far off.
After the passage of some indeterminable amount of time, a halt was called and the soldiers and riders relaxed marginally, taking their rest. Alain and Syd conferred, pointing up at the stars and sighting back along their path. Orders were barked to the lead elements of the column and they started away again, moving on a new course. Almost due south, if Shael's reckoning were true. Could the demon army even right now be moving past them on their right, trekking north toward the palisade? Shael tried not to think of that, or of what might happen if one of the scouts on that side were spotted. They were committed now, no going back.
The column forged south over the treacherously unsteady ground. If Edwin had been correct, it was about three leagues to the demon camp, traveling the most direct path. Figure in a bit more than that and it take at least half the night at the pace they were making. The waxing half moon had just begun to rise in the east when they came to a stop once more. Another rest and a course change?
But no, at least not yet. Alain and his officers rode to intercept returning scouts and gathered six of them together in one place. They were given some kind of instructions, whereupon they all dismounted and headed southwest on foot, quickly disappearing into the swamp.
"There's almost no wind tonight," Edwin said, coming up on Shael's right, his horse making faint squishing sounds in the muck. "That's good. Less chance for them to sniff us out."
Shael turned to him. "Do you think this is going to work?"
Edwin cocked his head slightly to regard her. "Alain seems to me a good leader, and smart. I think he knew what he was doing when he planned this."
Shael chose not to reveal her part in coming up with their plan. Best to not plague him with the same doubts she herself had. "Edwin?" she said softly. "If something happens to me, tell my mother I love her. Tell my family that I died for them, for all of them."
"That's not going to happen," Edwin said, sounding almost angry. "You and me, we've been through so much. There has to be a reason we've lived through it all."
"Yes," she said noncommittally. Did she believe in fate, in providence? She couldn't say. Why should such things have ever happened to someone so insignificant as her? Maybe Fate had a streak of perverse humor.
Edwin took her indistinct answer to mean she was done talking, and turned back along the column, probably to find her brothers. She should go to them, she knew, but she was afraid that if she did the roiling emotions she kept carefully in check would boil over. She had to stay focused.
The team of scouts appeared, slipping silently out of the darkness to give their reports to Alain. After several moments of quiet conversation among the officers, the captain gave the order for the column to move forward once more. This was it. The demon army must have marched out to attack their now empty entrenchments, just as she had hoped. They were going to make the final leg of the journey, and hopefully catch off guard whatever demons had been left behind to guard their prisoners.
Perhaps a hundred paces in, the order to halt was quietly passed down the line. New orders were sent, directing one of the four platoons, the one commanded by Victor, to break off from the main force and angle off to the left. Tarin and Renn went that way, while Edwin stayed. Keiji nodded at a whispered word from Syd and he and his grisly minions kept their place at the rear of the remaining force. Shael was puzzled by the new arrangement and resolved to watch carefully to see if she could determine the reasoning behind it.
After a bit of a wait, they proceeded forward again. Shael could now see smoke in the sky, lit from below by firelight. They were close now, perhaps close enough for their bows to reach out and begin to claim demon lives, but still they marched forward. Soon the fire itself came into view and she could see movement in the glint of light on metal weapons and armor. And she could see the shadows cast by the broken remains of walls and foundations and the skeletal shape of a wagon's remains.
Closer still and she could make out moving figures. She could also hear their voices. Tall, thin goatmen and hunched slayers bleated and howled around what was now plainly an enormous bonfire. A mauler sat nearby, gazing at the spectacle in a stupefied daze. It lifted a hunk of something to its stunted head and tore off a messy bite.
The soldiers continued moving forward as quietly as the gear and terrain would allow. Staring past the roaring fire, Shael could make out the corral now, a fence nearly twice the height of the one that Alain's men had built. Shael strained to peer between the slats, but could see only darkness there. She was so intent in her search that she had to snatch frantically at the reins and drew her horse up when the horse in front of her halted suddenly. The column opened outward, men peeling off to either side while those to the rear marched forward until they had formed a triple line, a single pace separating each man. Those on horseback fell in behind in a fourth, more widely spaced line. Those gaps must be for the heavy weapons, Shael thought.
She looked to the camp once more. They were still about a hundred paces out. Too far for the crossbows to be accurate, but Shael guessed that precise shots would not be called for here. The terrain was irregular, small islands interspersed between pools and narrow channels. The demons had not yet sighted them, still caught up in their strident display. Was this a celebration of their coming victory, perhaps? That would change quickly when the arrows and bolts began to fall from the sky. Shael allowed herself a crooked smile at that thought.
Her gaze fell back to the mauler, lowering its meal from another bloody bite. Her grin faded. Arms, legs, and a head with short black hair dangled from the demon's fist. The body surely looked small next to the mauler but--by the light, was that a child?
Seeing that, Shael turned and leaned out to empty her stomach, mindful of making a mess of her saddle and clothes. The acrid bile brought tears to her eyes, and Shael couldn't seem to catch her breath. Could that be Caelin, her little brother, or Mattias? "Merciful heaven," she whispered. Had they all been eaten? It was her fault. She had come too late. Shael closed her eyes, trying to banish the image of the half-eaten child.
"Bows at ready," came the order from Alain, spoken just above a whisper. All down the line came the rustling and quiet snicks of men bending their bows with belt claws. Shael breathed deep, struggling to master her fear and shame. She had to fight now. She thought of her brothers, and of Edwin, and the shadow on her soul lifted slightly. She would fight for their sakes, even if all else was lost.
"Take aim." Shael's eyes snapped open as the second order went out. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and spat. As she snatched the bow from her shoulder, she could feel the magic already beginning to tingle in her fingers. She flicked an arrow free from her quiver and fitted it to string in a smooth motion. It pulled easily back to her cheek. The tingle intensified and the air droned heavily with sound just on the edge of hearing.
"Loose!" This time the command was delivered in a shout, and the snap of a hundred fifty crossbows rent the night. Shael let her own arrow fly a moment later, and it arced upward, blazing brilliant blue across the stars.
The first arrows found their targets almost before the demons near the fire noticed the attack. The goatmen and slayers, more than a dozen in all, fell beneath the deadly rain. Shael's arrow, pulsing its eerie light, reached its zenith and plummeted downward. The mauler, who had paused in the act of lifting the dead child for another bite, stared upward in apparent wonder. In the next moment, it disappeared in a blaze of white as the arrow struck home and sent lightning sheeting and booming down out of a clear sky.
"Nicely done, Shael," Edwin said next to her. He was struggling to fit a borrowed wrought-iron goat's foot over the stock of his bow. "I think my shot went wide."
"Bows at ready!"
The soldiers on foot hooked their strings to belt claws while those on horseback slipped on their goat's hooves and peeled back the long lever to bend their bows. Shael took that moment to scan the camp for another target. One heartbeat, another, and then they appeared, quite literally, from nowhere. Fires blazed up and winked out all along this side of the demon camp, leaving behind a ragged line of squat, misshapen demons.
The smaller demons began chanting in a horrible, grating tongue. "Imps," one of the soldiers said, naming them. Sickly green fires leapt into their hands and grew. Shael picked a target at random and sighted on it. Movement pulled at her eyes, more demons pouring into the circle of firelight from other parts of the camp, but she ignored them, keeping her eyes on her target.
Shael let fly at the same time as Alain's soldiers this time. The demons threw their magic at nearly the same instant. Arrows arced high into the sky, lit from below by the streaking balls of fire. The sight so transfixed Shael that she almost realized the danger too late. The double line of men threw themselves to the ground as the fireballs exploded all around and among them, sending great gouts of steam and mud into the air. Shael's mount reared and screamed when one of the hissing balls sailed past on her left side. She clung to the horse, fighting to keep him from bolting.
The gelding finally stopped bucking, but he kept his head craned high up and breathed rapidly in and out. Shael risked taking her attention off her mount for a moment to observe the effects of the violent exchange. One man had died, his face scorched down to the skull, and three had suffered burns that left them writhing in agony in the muck. A smattering of burns showed among the rest of the men, none apparently serious enough to take them out of the battle.
Shael looked across to the edge of the camp and blinked in confusion. Only two of the squat demons lay there, one securely pinned by the bolt piercing its torso. Behind them, more goatmen and slayers were streaming from all corners of the camp and orienting on the Westmarch bowmen. Where had the other imps gone? In answer to her wondering, a flash of light flared, reflected off of a narrow rivulet. Another flash at the corner of her vision. They were moving closer, blasting in and out of existence in auburn flares, using the water and vegetation for cover.
"Fall back!" Alain shouted, and the handful of men who were preparing to reload in anticipation of the order had to abandon their efforts. The dead and dying were left behind as men scrambled to comply. Shael turned her horse away from the demon camp but kept a tight check on his speed. Frightened as he was, he would break into a full gallop if she let him, which would be disastrous on this treacherous ground.
The flares were growing closer now, and then quite suddenly, they stopped. Shael glanced back at hearing a chorus of chanting and a smattering of angry hissing. Twenty paces back, the imps were once more drawing up their horrid green fire and would soon hurl it upon the fleeing men.
Alain's counterstroke took the imps completely by surprise, and Shael's mind faltered for a moment to explain it. In a hail of splashes and wet thuds, bolts fell in among the imps. In moments, perhaps thirty little, twisted bodies lay in the mud, some still, some feebly clawing at the thick, stubby rods that impaled them. Looking to her right, she could just see the attackers. The other platoon, led by Victor, had been lying in wait, concealed within a forest of reeds, for the right moment to strike.
Alain called a halt and ordered the men back into line. The imps had been all but wiped out, those few who had lived blinking rapidly back to their camp, but now a sizable force of slayers and goatmen was advancing on the humans. Two more maulers had appeared, and another demon, just as tall, but with a furry, muscular torso and the huge head of a bull. It hefted a pair of ponderous double-bladed axes. That must be the clan lord, Shael thought. A crossbow bolt would be little more than a pinprick to that monster.
Shael stared at the clan lord as Alain gave the order to aim. She would take it down first, then go after the maulers. At the order to loose, she sighted on the massive creature and let the arrow fly. She hoped that one shot would be enough to kill it.
The demons were running at them now, screaming their fury, and death leaped down from the sky, opening gaps in their ranks. Those that remained standing never slowed, trampling the shrieking wounded underfoot. Shael's glowing arrow sailed true and took the clan lord high on its shoulder, where no armor covered it. It never slowed in its steady forward stride. But…where was the lightning?
Shael hurriedly notched another arrow and released it, no longer keeping pace with the much slower crossbows. This one hit the massive demon on its right thigh but bounced harmlessly off the armor there, the glow winking out without effect. "Damn it," she muttered, her grip tightening on her bow. Its magic had never failed her before.
The demons had already covered fifty paces when Alain's men raised their crossbows and took aim for another shot. This volley was fired directly into them rather than in a high arc, cutting down a wide swath at the front of the charging mass. At least half of their number had fallen now, and another hail from Victor's group brought more down, but Shael could see that there would not be time for them to reload. She readied another arrow and loosed it at one of the pair of maulers. The arrow leapt across the short distance and buried it in the creatures blubbery flesh, the lightning falling upon it in a concussion of heat and sound. Shael let out the breath she had been holding as the demon staggered and went down.
"Closing formation!" Alain called. "Third and fourth, shoot at will."
"Second platoon!" Marcel bellowed, as soon as Alain finished. "Chu-ke nu at ready!"
At hearing this order, the soldiers in the second line hung their crossbows to their belts on the right hip and reached to their left sides to unhook the smaller crossbows with a thin, rectangular box fixed over where the bolt channel should be, and a handle whose double lever arms protruded up over the top of the box. They held these strange devices at their hips, pointing out towards the rapidly closing demons.
"First platoon, swords at ready," Astin drawled. "Take position." At hearing the order, the men stowed crossbows and drew swords from their left hips. They stepped back and left, giving the second row a clear shot.
"It's time," Keiji said, his soft voice carrying from the right. Shael spared a glance to see the old man, eyes closed and chanting, while his granddaughter held him steady. The golem and skeletons heaved themselves forward, running past the edge of the line of soldiers coming at the charging demons in a curving path that would keep them out of the line of fire.
Shael was ready with her next shot. Better be the other mauler. Bolts already jutted from its barrel chest and massive arms. One had even pierced clear through its neck, but only thin trickles of black blood stained its skin. Shael sent a crackling arrow into its chest and it went down so hard the ground trembled slightly.
The demons had taken so many losses now that Alain's men outnumbered them at least two to one, but they never slowed, must never have even considered retreat. Still, Shael worried what would happen when that maddened horde plowed into the lightly armored bowmen.
"Second platoon!" Marcel called. "Attack!"
All down the second line, the soldiers pushed the handles of their bows quickly forward and back, a bolt flying out each time the motion completed. The air between the demons and humans filled with whizzing missiles. Though weaker and less accurate than a normal crossbow, the devices made up for both shortcomings with sheer quantity of bolts launched. In the time it took for the third and fourth lines to reload, the second platoon had cut down nearly all of the remaining demons. Now they stooped over their weapons, feeding stubby bolts into the top of the box, reloading the feeding mechanism.
Bolts began to fly out again as the third platoon and the horsemen fired, most of them aimed at the clan lord. Those bolts that didn't bounce off its thick armor embedded in its hide with little effect. But now the necromancer's creatures had reached it. The skeletons split and ringed the creature as the golem lowered one shoulder and hurled its bulk directly into it from the side. The demon staggered, stopping its forward motion, but did not go down from the impact. One axe came down in a wild swing that nevertheless took the golem's head and one arm off. Jags of lightning leapt from the blades as they sliced through, sending a gout of steam up from the earthen construct.
Two of the skeletons darted in at that moment to strike at the backs of the demon's legs. From the furious roar it gave, at least one of them must have gotten a blade through its armor. It spun and brought down an axe. Bone exploded outward from the impact, and Shael heard Keiji's tortured groan. The handful of remaining demons, four goatmen and seven slayers, rushed headlong into the first line of soldiers. Steel clashed on steel as their weapons met the defenders' swords, punctuated by a piercing scream as one blade slammed home into a man's chest. The other swordsmen quickly closed in around the attackers, hacking at them from all sides.
Twenty paces away, the clan lord swung its axes in a blur of movement at the skeletons, forcing them to retreat. Without warning, the beast roared and leapt forward, advancing on one of the skeletons, who ducked and weaved in a dance that no human could have managed. But the clan lord's axes were faster still. The skeleton leapt right to dodge one descending axe and went right into the path of the other. Bone and armor parted and shattered beneath the heavy blade, the axe continuing right on into the ground, sparks flying outward at the point of impact. Keiji gave another pained cry.
Shael blew out a breath, notched an arrow and drew, but held the string tensed near her jaw, waiting. The thing wielded lightning, she had seen. Was it also somehow immune to lightning magic? The golem, which had remained where it stood since being cut in two, moved now, stepping back out of range of the clan lord's axes. Ripples appeared across its surface, then dust shook free as a new head and arm grew--it looked more it was pushed up--out of its body.
The closer fight was nearly over. Another of the men had been run through the neck, but the last of the demons was quickly succumbing to the flurry of blows coming from every side. Shael's gaze flicked back to the clan lord and she saw her chance. The golem had somehow gotten in unnoticed and wrapped its arms around the clan lord's neck from behind. The demon flailed, reaching back with its axes to try and dislodge it. Shael's heart leapt into her throat as she let her arrow fly.
The arrow crossed the distance in an eye blink, striking the demon just below the armpit and biting so deeply into its flesh that only the fletched end remained visible. The creature roared in rage and pain, its head swinging over in her direction as it sought the source of the attack. Bellowing, it finally managed to cut one of the golem's arms away and threw itself at the lines of soldiers, taking one step, two. At the third step, the demon's legs buckled and it fell. It crashed full on into the swamp and remained, face buried in the muck. Just as she had hoped, Shael's arrow had gone through its side, slid past its ribcage and buried itself in the demon's heart.
For several heartbeats, nobody moved. No one spoke. The only sound was the distant croaking of frogs. And then, all at once, a cheer went up, growing louder and more jubilant by the moment. Shael had to focus to make her fingers release her bow so that she could hang it from her shoulder once more. She drew a trembling breath and joined her own cry of victory to the others as tears poured freely down her cheeks. They had won. By the light, they had won.
The cheers rose to a crescendo and gradually began to die away. Edwin, Tarin and Renn surrounded Shael, alternately congratulating each other and patting her on the back. She grinned and wiped at her eyes, embarrassed that the tears had not stopped. Only now, with the immediate danger past, did she realize just how terrified she had been. Did it ever get any easier to face death?
"Shael!" Syd's gravelly voice cut through the babble of voices. Shael twisted in the saddle to scan the faces of those all around. The elation of victory was beginning to evaporate as order was restored to the ranks. A pair of medicians checked over the men who had fallen to the imp's fireballs. Beyond them, a troupe of scouts on horseback began to pick their way around the pools and channels, looking for any demons that may have fled the battle and hidden in the muck.
"Shael, get over here!" Syd called again, and this time she caught sight of him, standing in the saddle and waving her over.
"I have to go," she told the others, bringing her mount about. She pressed her legs against his sides, urging him forward. Syd's horse stood shoulder to shoulder with Alain's, facing the opposite direction so that they could talk comfortably. "I'm here," Shael said, coming to a halt next to Syd.
"No way to tell," Syd said, responding to the question Alain had just spoken. "Could be a few hours, could be they'll be on us at any moment. Whatever we are going to do here, we'd best do it quickly."
"Then let's waste no time," Alain nodded. "Signal Astin. Have the first platoon escort us. Shael, you come too. We're going to get your people out."
Shael nodded her understanding. The time had come to face whatever lay behind the slatted walls of the structure that stood in the center of the demon camp. Would her people welcome her, after all the horror they had gone through, after she had failed to protect them? But she had no more time to consider the matter. Those soldiers of first platoon who were not tending to wounds were already assembling in front and behind them. Alain waited for Lieutenant Astin to signal that his men were ready and ordered the march forward.
Coming close now to where the bonfire still raged, Shael began to hear them, voices crying out to them from behind the demon's cage, pleading to be set free. Here and there, arms thrust through the spaces between the slats, grasping feebly toward them.
"So many," Syd said, and looked sharply at Shael. "How many did you say were taken from your village?"
"About seventy," Shael said, realizing that Syd was right. The structure, now revealed more fully to them, was both wide and deep, and looked to be assembled from the scavenged pieces of wagons and building walls. They were standing on the edge of a large island of high, flat ground, and groupings of thick wooden poles standing near the remains of steps hinted that this place had once been a village, perhaps even a small town.
They approached what appeared to be the gate to the structure, a pair of thick doors held tight by a thick, open loop of metal whose ends had been twisted together. The pleading from the prisoners inside rose in volume and urgency, but Shael recognized none of the voices, some of whom spoke in a language she couldn't understand.
"Think we can break that?" Alain said, pointing to the metal loop that hung well out of reach of even a man on horseback.
Astin, seated on a dusky gelding to Alain's left, shook his head. "We don't have the tools. We'd have better luck taking axes to the door itself."
"I agree." Alain raised his voice to be heard above the clamor. "Listen to me! We are going to get you out, but I need you to step back away from the gate so we can break through." He had to repeat his order a few more times before the gates were cleared, just in time for the men who had gone to fetch their axes to return. It took little time to hack through the thick planks and open a hole large enough for men to pass through.
They were still working to enlarge the gap when the mass of people began to surge forward, pushing and clawing at one another in their haste to get out. Astin's men were forced back, and his shouted orders and warnings, drowned out by the crowd's own babble of frenzied need, did nothing to slow them. Finally, he gave up the fight and ordered his own men to pull back, well clear of the mob, who poured out of the gap and spread out in all directions, forced to move by the pressure of those behind. Shael saw haggard faces and haunted eyes, bruises and cuts, and skin and clothing of every form and color. Some suffered from illness, but most appeared well-fed and healthy. Like cattle, Shael thought, swallowing back a queasy lump.
One man, standing a head taller than those around him and clutching two young children firmly to his chest, struggled to break free of the mass that jostled him at every step. Finally, he elbowed his way into the open and stumbled towards them. He had a build to match his height, with a thick bull neck broad, powerful arms and shoulders. His skin was a hairy, sun baked brown. "You--you saved us!" he cried in clear Kehjistani, straining to make his voice heard above the din. "Thank you, my lords." At reaching the line of armed soldiers, he fell to his knees, ignoring the frightened squalls of the twin boys in his arms. "We owe you our lives."
Alain gave a command and a pair of men rushed forward to help the man to his feet. The captain dismounted smoothly and strode out to meet him, prompting Shael to edge her mount forward to get a better look. "I am Alain," he said, "soldier of Westmarch and commander of these men."
"Erich," the man gasped. "From Dunesmar." This brought mutterings from the men all around. "My whole family was taken from our farm in a raid weeks ago."
Shael moved closer still and called out to the man. "Do you know of anyone from a village near Sandon? I think some people call it Moorsedge."
"Yes," the man said nodding emphatically at her. "The demons brought in a group from there a few days back. Some folks from Sandon were already here when I was brought in, but…" his face clouded over, and he went on in a rush, "there's people here from all over, maybe a hundred leagues in every direction."
A few more people had wandered over to offer their thanks and to ask questions about what was going on in the world. Alain forestalled them with promises of information once they were all out of danger. He tried to keep them focused on his own questions, and gradually, they began to get a picture of what had happened here.
The camp had been established a month or more back, built from the remains of the Southlander village the demons had destroyed. Some of the people had fled into the swamps, but most of those had been hunted down and captured. From then on, there had been a steady stream of people brought into the camp. They were well fed; wagonloads of grains and vegetables were brought in every day, often right along with the people whose farms they had been taken from. The hellspawn delighted in the pain of their human prisoners, and the captives quickly learned to hide their children when demons approached the gates. Their torture might go on for hours before they finally began to eat their victims, sometimes dead, sometimes struggling weakly to live.
"They took my wife," the first man choked through a throat constricted in grief. Sympathetic murmurs of shared experience rippled through the crowd, which had quieted considerably now that the initial, mad rush for freedom was past.
"Most no be eaten 'ere, dere many more dat be missin'," one stout, toothless woman said. Shael could barely understand the words through her thick accent. "Dey take dem outside, march dem into de swamp, dere." She pointed south. "Don't know where dey go, but dey no come back."
"Syd," Alain said over his shoulder. "Take a few men to investigate. See if you can figure out where they took those people." He addressed the still growing crowd. "How many of you are there?"
"Over three thousand," a trembling, rail-thin bald man said. "They brought in a few hundred most days, and took out a hundred or so every two days. I—I thought I should keep count."
"Can any of you fight?" Alain shouted, looking over the nearest faces in the crowd. Only downcast eyes met his inspection. He tried again, "Are any of you necromancers, perhaps? The demons will soon return. If we run, they'll track us down and slaughter anyone they can't drag back here. Can any of you hold a weapon and stand with us?"
A voice from far back called loudly, "We'll fight with you!"
Shael looked over, startled. "Papa!" she called. She leapt from the saddle and ran into the crowd, which grudgingly parted to let her through. She ran headlong into her father's embrace, pushing him back a step with a startled grunt that altered at once to laughter. He lifted her off the ground slightly and passed her quickly to her mother, who shook when her arms went around her.
"Shael, you did bring help," Maron said wonderingly, patting her shoulder. His young wife stood behind him, bouncing a somewhat cranky Eilis. Dallin and Cailen pushed in beside her, vying for their own hugs.
"What about the others?" Shael asked. "Did everyone else make it?"
Her father spoke softly. "Master Gale was killed when they came for us. They took Mistress Elsha yesterday. We don't know where Edwin or Renn and Tarin have gone."
"They're with us," Shael said, at once relieved that the casualties had been few while feeling a pang of loss for Elsha.
"Thank the Light," Shael's mother breathed, clutching at her husband as if her knees had given out.
"Father, come with me," Shael said, disengaging and pulling him after her. "We need to speak to captain Alain about getting you weapons. Come on."
Alain was already on his way over and met them almost before they began. Shael introduced her family to him.
"You're the one who said you will fight?" Alain asked.
"We will," her father nodded. "The demons took our bows, but I saw them stowing the weapons they plunder in a hut we passed on the way in. Can you find it in the dark, Cailen?"
"I think so," the boy said.
"Thierry, Adreen, Remi!" Alain barked.
"Sir!" came the three nearly simultaneous answers.
"Go with this boy and see if you can find any weapons. Bows, clubs, knives—I don't care, whatever you can scrounge."
While they had been talking, most of the prisoners nearby had moved away to mill about in the lee of the paddock's wall, but some had crowded in closer. Inspired, or shamed perhaps, by the pledge Shael's father had given, they came to offer their help in fighting the demons. They numbered a bit under four hundred altogether. Most were men, but there were several women and a few who could not have been older than twelve. Alain found Amaury and put the sergeant in charge of making some kind of fighting force out of them. Shael knew that they would have little time to organize, maybe no time at all.
With those preparations made, Alain re-mounted. "Coming, Shael?" he asked. Shael quickly took leave of her family and climbed her horse to follow.
Alain stopped short of the main mass of his force, near where a small group of soldiers were working to lay out the bodies of the dead demons in neat rows in the mud. Shael halted near his left flank. Keiji was there, with Anaki and at least two dozen of his ghoulish, skeletal followers. The old man stooped to sprinkle powder over a body, the girl pushing his weight back upright again. He waved his wand and chanted, bringing another skeleton into his ranks.
"Gilles!" Alain hailed the dour old man. "Send for Victor and Marcel. I want everyone to assemble at the demon camp. And I want you to gather any weapons that Keiji's skeletons leave behind."
"Sir?" Gilles called, trotting toward them. "Did I hear you right? Won't the rest of those monsters be back any time?"
"We can't flee," he said. "Even if we could outrun them, there were thousands of people penned up in there. We have to make a stand here."
"Yes, sir," Gilles said, doubt replaced by grim acceptance. "I have a count of the dead, as you ordered: one-hundred forty-eight.”
“That leaves a good eight-hundred fifty still out there,” Alain said, nodding grimly.
“Should I leave a few men to continue helping our friend there?" Gilles indicated Keiji with a jerk of his head.
"Three men," he agreed. "Now pass word to the others and get your people moving."
Gilles saluted and hurried off.
Keiji had been oblivious to the entire exchange, though Shael had seen Anaki turn her head in interest a few times. "How goes your work, necromancer?" Alain asked him, as the man moved toward the next body.
Keiji blinked at him and barked a hoarse laugh. "It goes well, captain. More than half the corpses are intact and usable," he said. "I'll have eighty skeletons for you, maybe more. I thought the imps would serve us better if I brought them back with their bodies and magic intact. I'll get to them soon. All told you might have a hundred by the time I've finished."
"That is good news," Alain said. "I had hoped to find more of your kind to help with your work, but none would answer when I asked. Can you raise so many on your own?"
"Of course I can," Keiji said, sounding almost petulant. He looked down suddenly at Anaki pulling on his sleeve and shaking her head vigorously. "Naki, I'll be fine," he said, patting her hand. He looked up again. "I can handle it, captain."
"Good. I'm going to move all of our forces into the enemy camp. I want your skeletons there at the north side, ready to meet the enemy and hold them back from my bowmen. I need them to hold against a force many times their size. Are they up to that?"
"My servants do not know fear, or pain, or fatigue. They will hold, captain. They must, as long as I will it. Now, you will excuse me…" He turned his back and began the grisly work of extracting another skeleton from a demon corpse.
"Do not tarry here too long," Alain warned. "Our enemies will be upon us soon." If the necromancer heard, he gave no sign of it, still fully engrossed in his work.
"Ah, there they are," Alain said suddenly, pointing. Edwin, Tarin and Renn were hurrying carefully towards them on horseback, her brothers doubled up on their horse. "Take a moment to give them the good news about your people, and then we must be away again."
Shael did her best to keep her explanation brief, but she needn't have worried. As soon as she told them that most of the villagers had survived, both of her brothers wanted to go at once to see them. "Would it be alright with you, sir?" Edwin asked of Alain.
"We've much to do," Alain reminded them. "Go and see your families, but I need the three of you and as many other bowmen as we can find to fight." Edwin looked hurt by the implication that he would shirk his duty, and Shael's brothers assured Alain that they would keep their reunion short.
By now, the three platoons were moving towards the demon camp in orderly rows. Alain acknowledged Marcel and Victor with a wave and then wheeled his horse around. Back at the demon camp, Amaury was drilling his recruits in basic tactics and battle commands. A steady stream of men carried weapons in, no doubt from the cache Cailen had led them to, and other men sorted though them. Shael's father and brothers had their bows once more, and a mishmash of bows, swords, spears and axes were being handed out to the recruits almost as quickly as they came in.
"How will they fare?" Alain asked the sergeant when he had drawn close enough to speak without being overheard.
"Well they might not run screaming at the first sight of hellspawn, at least," the soldier said wryly. "These people are here because they want revenge. Most have had enough time around those beasts to take off the edge from their fear." He turned his head and spat. "A few know how to hold a weapon, but most are just simple country folk. If it comes to a battle, we're going to have a lot of dead farmers on our hands."
"Do what you can with them," Alain said, nodding. "Make them look like they know what they're doing, if nothing else. Oh, and congratulations."
Amaury blinked. "Sir?"
Alain's lips quirked. "On your temporary field promotion, lieutenant. I don't have any officers to spare for this lot. If we make it back alive, I'll see about making it permanent."
"And what if we all die out here?" Amaury asked dryly.
Alain shrugged. “The way I see it, if word of what we do here gets back to the general maybe you’ll make captain. So it’s a win for you either way.”
“You’ll forgive me, sir, if I don’t shout for joy,” Amaury said drolly.
Just then, the sound of a commotion drew Shael's attention. A soldier on horseback weaved through the throng of milling people, drawing cries of surprise when he came close to colliding with those in his way. He slumped over in the saddle, one hand balled into a fist that gripped his horse's mane as though it were the only thing keeping his seat.
"He's hurt!" someone shouted.
It took only moments for Alain's men to converge on the scout. Shael tried to approach but found her way blocked. Some of the men offered to help him down, but he waved them away. "Please!" he called out. "Please I need to see the captain!"
"I'm here," Alain said, and the cluster of men parted instantly to let him through. "What happened to you, man? Where's the rest of your team?"
"Succubi," the soldier gasped, trying to pull himself straighter. The movement caused the moonlight to glisten wetly off his back and shoulders. "Just to the north. There were too many. I—I tried to fight them but…" His right arm, which he had held tightly against his chest, he now extended, showing where it ended in ragged bone and torn flesh just above the wrist.
"Get him down!" Alain shouted. "Someone fetch the medicians!" He turned to address the crowd as the soldiers rushed to obey his orders. "All of you, unless you intend to fight, either get back in that pen or get the hell out of the way." The crowd roared with emotion at this pronouncement, some outraged, most terrified. Alain had to shout his words to be heard over the tumult. "Astin! Marcel! Victor! Gilles! Get your men in formation now! Where is that blasted necromancer?"
"Still at work, last I saw, sir!" Astin called out.
"Send someone to get him, damn it! We need those skeletons here now."
"Hey," a voice behind Shael said. She turned and saw Syd riding up to her. "How are you doing, kid?"
"I'm fine," Shael said, swallowing back her revulsion at the scout's terrible wounds.
"Damn," he said softly, taking in the scene. "Jerome's a good man. Smart, dependable. He's a tough kid, probably live for all that, but…damn."
It was at that moment that the crowd, which had begun to move reluctantly back toward the prison they had just left, suddenly broke out in screams and wails of terror. Keiji's skeletons advanced on their position quietly and deliberately, marching in a single-file line directly at the crowd. The Southlanders, no doubt accustomed to the presence, or at least the idea of undead, were easy to pick out by their unalarmed, even excited reactions, but most of them were swept along just the same by the rapidly retreating throng. At a distance of thirty paces or so away, the line of skeletons stopped in the recently emptied space, regarded Alain for a moment, then turned in perfect unison to the north and stood motionless, weapons at the ready.
"Form ranks!" Alain shouted, his command repeated by the lieutenants. "Come on," Syd said to Shael, steering his horse to the back row of the three-row formation. Before they could get settled into place, a series of piercing feminine shrieks sounded from the north, seeming to come from somewhere high above the ground.
"They're out of range," Syd growled. "Five, maybe six of them. Probably sent ahead to confirm our position." Shael followed his gaze and could just see them, a cloud of flitting shadows hovering in the air to the north, blotting out the stars. And there was something else, too, a rumble just on the edge of hearing.
"Lieutenant Amaury!" Alain called. "I want your people protecting our flanks."
"Hellfire, captain, I'll do what I can," the newly-promoted officer called back, "but half that lot threw down their weapons and ran with the others when the bloody undead showed up."
"Probably for the best," Marcel said scornfully. "Better they run now than when the real fighting starts."
"Listen," Shael said softly, tapping her ear. Somehow, the import of her words and the gesture spread to those around, and quiet quickly fell. Shael could hear it more clearly now, the drumming of feet, the clink and squeal of armor and the rustle of greenery being shoved aside and trampled underfoot. From out of the brush and clinging mist, the first of them came into view. A terrible bleating cry rose up from the goatmen in the lead as they caught sight of the humans and undead who now occupied their camp. A pang of cold dread pierced Shael’s heart as she finally realized the full import of the numbers that had meant nothing to her in the abstract.
“Nasty odds, I’d say,” Syd said beside her. He slipped his goat’s foot onto his crossbow and levered it back. “Nothing for it but to kill as many of the bastards as we can.”
Shael swallowed and nodded weakly, not trusting her own voice.
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