Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 23: The Other Side of Despair
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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 23: The Other Side of Despair
"Steady," Alain barked, holding up one hand. "Bows to ready, take aim and hold."
Shael notched an arrow and waited while the crossbowmen labored to load their weapons. Facing them across the broken terrain, the goatmen fanned out and moved forward, making room for those behind. Slayers began to join them, hunched beetle-like in their armor, and then the towering figures of maulers. Last came the clan lords, roaring words of command in the harsh demon tongue.
"Here they come," Syd said, as a massive cry went up from the demons. Their rage seemed to boil the very air as they marched forward.
"Steady," Alain cried again. Shael tightened her fingers on her weapon. The lead demons were nearly in range of the crossbows, and well within reach of her enchanted bow. Still, they did not break into a run, as the demons in the camp had done, but kept to an orderly rank and a steady pace.
As the demons advanced, several dozen of Amaury’s farmers filed out from behind to cover the bowmen’s flanks, forming two short, ragged lines. Shael absently wondered what had become of the rest of them, if they, too, had fled the battle.
Staccato blasts erupted from the ground as a horde of tiny, gnarled demons flashed into view halfway between the two armies. Sparks appeared and grew into guttering balls of green flame in the little creatures' hands. The fires launched forward in a flood of sickly jade, eclipsed only briefly by the brighter flashes of the imps blinking away to safety once more.
Shael clenched her teeth against the imminent impact of the destructive orbs. The skeletons stood their ground, some even leaping right into the path of the fireballs. Amazingly, though heat and light flashed at each impact, the powerful magic seemed to wash over and through the undead, leaving little effect but soot-stained bone and the stench of seared marrow.
"Loose!" Alain cried at last, and the flight of arrows seemed almost exultant as they leapt out, catching and felling dozens of goatmen from the front of the pack. Shael's arrow arced high, trailing blue sparks as it fell and pierced the belly of a mauler near the back of the formation. Lightning struck the massive creature and the concussion knocked it to the ground, crushing a slayer beneath its bulk.
The Westmarch soldiers were in the midst of reloading when a cry of alarm went up from Victor. A flurry of dark shapes plummeted into the formation's right side, throwing dozens of men to the ground. Her horse bucked once and reared back wildly, throwing her to the ground with a jarring bump. It dashed away, leaping over men and demons alike.
"Stupid horse," Shael groaned, tasting blood. She stood, gathering her bow, and froze. One of the soldiers had come to rest on the ground only a few paces from her, his torso concealed beneath a tempest of beating bat's wings. The shape above him reared back and Shael caught a flash of soft, delicate facial features twisted into a snarl of hateful pleasure. A clawed hand shot down and into the man's chest. Shael fitted an arrow and pulled it only three quarters before releasing it into the thing, but not before it had torn the man's heart from his chest in a great gout of blood and a cry of exultation. It shuddered in pain but raked furrows across the man's face and neck in the instant before the lightning ended its life.
A few had been more fortunate, and managed to roll away from their attackers' deadly embrace and draw swords to defend themselves. Even so, the frightful speed of the succubi's attacks, paired with their disregard for their own lives, gave them an advantage in hand-to-hand combat. One man lunged forward to stab his attacker, only have the demon, neatly impaled, lean forward and sink her fangs deep into his neck to rip his throat out.
Shael sighted on another of the creatures, who was biting and clawing at a screaming, bloody mess of a soldier. Her shot pierced its heart, halting its brutal attack mid-slash. Now, bowstrings sang out all around as men finally managed to bring their weapons to bear, killing the beautiful, vicious creatures in droves. Sword blows rained down upon those that survived. In moments, that last of them fell, fetid black blood streaming from the cuts in her smooth, pink flesh.
As briefly as it had lasted, the attack had been devastating. Dozens of men lay dead or dying on the ground. Others dripped blood from ragged gashes on their faces, arms, and shoulders. She almost missed him among the others, his clothing so bloodied as to be nearly unrecognizable and his face contorted in a rictus of pain. Victor. He lay on his back, blood pooling in his mouth. A terrible rent stretched from his throat to his groin. Shael stared, unable to tear her gaze from his body, no matter how much she wanted to. A strangled moaning filled her senses, and only after a moment did she realize that it was coming from her own throat.
Nearby, Alain was screaming to be heard above the din, but Shael was only dimly aware of what he was saying. Had he been giving orders all along? With an effort of will, she tore her eyes away from Victor and looked through the screen of soldiers standing in line in front of her. What she saw chilled her, but it also snapped her back to her senses. While they had been occupied with the succubi, the main force of demons had broken into a charge. They were quickly closing on Keiji's skeletons.
"Take aim!" came Alain's strident cry, and those who could still hold their bows lifted them nearly in unison, the front ranks dropping to one knee so that those behind had a clear shot to level on the approaching horde. Shael surveyed her targets and made her choice, sighting on one of the clan lords that waded in among the smaller demons. She released early with a furious cry, letting the glowing, crackling missile lead the hail of smaller quarrels. The shot struck the helmet of the massive demon with a ping, sparks spraying off in a brilliant shower, but the giant scarcely reeled in response.
The first of the goatmen reached the line of undead, hacking with axes and stabbing with spears, and the undead met them with astonishing agility and strength. Shael saw one of the skeletons leap straight up to evade a spear thrust, only to come down with both bony feet on the haft of the weapon, unbalancing its wielder as the thing stabbed downward with its sword, driving the blade right through the demon's bony forehead, ending its life in an instant. Similar scenes played out all down the line as the goatmen surged forward and were hacked down by blades or bludgeoned by maces. Those behind never slowed, trampling the bodies of the fallen in their haste to throw themselves at the necromancer's minions.
It seemed for a moment that the skeletons were all but invincible, some taking blows that glanced off of them with no apparent harm, but that illusion vanished in a spray of white powder and bone fragments as a demon-wielded battleaxe cleaved through a ribcage and spine. Another and another fell in quick succession as the sheer weight of demon numbers pressing in proved too much for them to avoid. Alain's bowmen sent another volley into the demons, careful to pitch the missiles over the heads of the undead holding the line. Holes opened in the ranks of the demons where they struck, but they quickly closed as those behind pressed forward. Worse, Shael could see that the demons were fanning out, seeking to flank them.
Gritting her teeth, Shael notched an arrow and launched it at the same clan lord she had targeted a few moments before. This time, her shot hit its mark, burying deeply in one of the eye slits of its helmet. The giant crumpled, sending a shock through the earth that Shael felt right through her boots.
“Careful, Shael,” Syd’s amused voice rang out from her left. “I think you made them angry. Angrier, that is.” She saw what he meant at once. Four of the clan lords began moving purposefully toward her position, shoving the smaller demons casually aside.
The more immediate concern, though, was the state of their defensive line. The mass of demons had been whittled down considerably, with what looked like close to a hundred goatmen and slayers dead from the crossbow volleys and skeletons, but they had taken down perhaps a fourth of the undead with them.
Curses and exclamations of surprise drew her attention to the right as Shael readied her next shot. Fear shot through her chest as a physical pain and she nearly fumbled her arrow. She had seen a creature like that before, and it had nearly killed Marius. “Clan Lord,” she murmured, eyeing the twin dual-bladed axes that the huge skeleton held. Disorder rippled through Alain’s ranks as men turned to train their weapons on this new menace.
“Don’t shoot, damn it!” a voice called weakly. “It’s only us.” The old man, Keiji, limped in the creature’s wake, and it was all Anaki could do to keep him upright. At his side was another creature of nightmare, a thing made all of blades and spike. At ground level, dozens of glowing eyes flanked him on either side.
“It’s about time,” Alain shot back.
The old man snorted and gestured with his right hand. The monstrous skeleton leapt into the fray, cutting down two goatmen with a single swipe of an axe. Another fell in the middle of turning to see what had become of its companions. The fierce assault, in tandem with another volley from the crossbows, was enough to halt the demon’s relentless push. One of the clan lords heading for Shael’s position hissed at the other three and pointed at Keiji’s giant skeleton. A few more words were exchanged before two of them split off to head in that direction.
It was then that the imps, forgotten since their initial, ineffectual attack, struck from behind. Green light exploded in the soldiers’ midst, searing flesh and setting clothing aflame. Shael threw herself to the ground and a venomous orb sailed over her, pricking daggers across her back. She lifted her head carefully to see the little beasts readying another blast, oblivious to their imminent danger as the bulk Amaury’s men, hidden in the wreckage of the camp, rushed in and fell on them. Hacking and stomping, the farmers put down the better part of their number before they could manage to blink away.
By contrast, the resurrected imps under Keiji’s command were beginning their own attack, flinging their spells into the demons’ left flank in accurate, perfectly timed bursts. Shael retrieved her bow from where she had fallen on it and sighted on one of the two clan lords. She cursed even as the string left her fingers, knowing that she had missed her shot. The arrow sailed through its low arc, jags of white marking its path. Rather than piercing the demon’s eyeslits, a wince at a nearby scream had thrown her shot low and wide, sending it into the beast’s unprotected right arm. Then, to her surprise, lightning flared out of the dark and struck the thing full on. It fell to its knees, roaring out its pain and rage and scattering the smaller demons around it. Was there some magic, Shael wondered, that protected some of the clan lords from her bow, but not the others?
Quickly, she sighted on the remaining demon, aiming for the eyes. She would not take any chances on her good fortune saving her a second time. She held the arrow near her cheek a full two beats longer than normal, making absolutely certain of her shot. Her focus nearly caused her to miss the tingling, crawling sensation that spread from her hands up her arms in the instant before she released.
The demon must have seen the sputtering, crackling orb of light that surrounded the speeding arrow, raising its gauntleted hands while lowering its head. What happened next was nearly impossible to discern. The arrow, glowing ever brighter as it flew, appeared to smash right through the beast’s armor, through the meat of its massive forearms, to punch deep into the top of its helmet. Before the massive body could even begin its fall, lightning speared it and shot out in all directions, killing slayers and goatmen in a wide arc.
Wordlessly, Shael readied another shot. She held the string taut at full extension, focusing her mind on the target, willing the shot to pierce armor and to spread its lightning to those around. As before, the hairs on her arms stood up and her skin prickled. The air hummed and crackled with energy. She loosed her shot, aiming at the tight pack of demons at the center of the line. The glowing arrow took a goatman in the gut. The lightning that came down jumped to those at his elbows and back, then again to those behind, and again, cutting a swath through the hellspawn five paces deep.
Shael felt light-headed, giddy even, as she put another arrow to the string. She had killed as many demons with a single shot as Alain’s men could manage with an entire volley. It was not enough to turn the battle in their favor--not yet, at least. As she began to pull, though, the draw that had always been so light now made her hands shake with effort. Panting, she carefully let the tension out of the string. A hand caught her by the back of the collar as she swayed.
“Shael,” Edwin said, coming around in front of her, “are you alright? Did you get hurt?”
“I’m fine,” she breathed, “I’m just…” She remembered then, the last time this had happened. “Loric warned me about using the bow’s magic. I just need to rest.”
“Take her back with Amaury’s men,” Syd called to them. “She’ll be—“ His words ended in a scream as a thrown spear caught him high in the chest and toppled him backwards off his horse. Edwin released her and started towards him, then stopped, the indecision plain on his face.
“Go on,” Shael said, waving him off. “I’ll be fine. Go to him.” She would have told him that, regardless, she had no intention of leaving, but it took too much effort just to keep her knees from giving out under her. The thought of sitting down, or even lying on the ground, was tempting, but she worried about being able to stand back up again. Instead, she quickly stowed her bow over her shoulder and surveyed the battle once more.
Keiji’s monstrous skeleton had begun to cut through the lesser demons that stood in its way, marching inexorably towards the clan lords that were moving forth to challenge it. As for his defensive line, it became more ragged by the moment. Shael looked over to where she had been standing near the side of the crossbow lines, but he wasn’t there. She craned upwards to look over the shoulders of the reloading bowman in front of her and finally spotted him with Anaki, crouched low to the ground over the body of a demon halfway between the front line and Alain’s bowmen.
“He’s making more,” Shael marveled as a new skeleton stood up out of its melting flesh. It shook free of the black blood and viscous meat, snatched up its weapons and hurried to plug an opening gap in the line. Keiji looked utterly exhausted as he stood and limped toward another body being dragged out of the fighting by his frightful golem.
Shael could see that his efforts were too slow. With perhaps sixty skeletons left, the demons were just beginning to challenge Amaury’s green recruits on the flanks, and men there had begun to die. Despite losses perhaps into the hundreds for the demons, the dozens that Alain had lost to the succubi and imps had hurt them far worse. If something didn’t happen soon, the demons were going to break through.
“Syd is hurt pretty bad,” Edwin said, appearing at her shoulder. “I dragged him to safety but I’m not sure he…” He stopped suddenly and gave a quick shake of his head as if to clear it. “Come on, let’s get you back there.”
“I’m not leaving,” Shael said, feeling her resolve tighten within herself. The strength was coming back to her limbs. “We’re going to lose this battle soon. It won’t matter then. No one will be safe.”
Even as she said it, Alain gave his men a new order. The first platoon stepped forward and drew swords, moving quickly to reinforce where the line had become ragged at its edges. Men began to die at once as the demons pushed forward eagerly, thirsty for real blood. The second platoon quickly switched to their Chu-ke nu and began raining bolts down on the demons. For a moment, the sheer mass of deadly missiles being thrown out seemed to be having an effect. Demons died by the score, most pierced through multiple times, but the quick-firing crossbows ran out of bolts all too quickly, and reloading them looked to be a long and painstaking process.
“Come on,” Shael urged Edwin, pulling him with her, “we’ve got to get to Keiji and help…” But the words died in her throat. A hurled axe smashed right through the ribcage and spine of a skeleton and caught the necromancer in the side as he bent over a demon corpse. He made no sound at all as he fell. Anaki dropped to her knees next to him, pushing her hands against the wound in a useless attempt to stop the bleeding.
Shael found herself kneeling on the ground next to the old man, though she did not recall having run the steps to reach him. He can’t die, the thought kept repeating in her mind. We’re lost if he dies. The clash of steel and cries of men and demons all around them seemed distant.
“Go, Naki,” Keiji rasped. “Run. Go. You must.”
Tears flowed freely down the girl’s cheeks as she shook her head silently. Her expression was empty, as if the capacity for showing grief had been wrung out of her. When she realized Shael was there, she turned pleading eyes on her. Shael swallowed back a sob and bit her lip. There was nothing she could do for the girl’s grandfather.
“Merciful heaven,” Edwin breathed, tugging at Shael’s sleeve, “look.” She raised her head and her breath caught. All down the line, the skeletons had begun to crumble.
“Go,” Keiji said once more, pawing feebly at the air. Anaki grasped hold of his outstretched hand and held onto it.
“We’ll take him with us,” Shael said.
“Shael!” Edwin cried, leaping to his feet. His pulled his sword free from its scabbard awkwardly and lunged towards her, stepping over Keiji’s body. She ducked aside to avoid the clumsily thrown blow and heard the swish of something passing through the air where she had been a moment before. There was a ring of steel glancing off of armor from behind her, then a wet crunch and a dark spray. Edwin crumpled, the blade of a long-handled axe buried halfway into his shoulder.
Shael spun around with a cry, unsheathed her sword, then brought it down to slice into the unprotected arm of the slayer struggling to pull his weapon free from Edwin. The demon stumbled back, letting go of the axe, and Keiji’s golem was there to finish it with a backhand blow to the head that knocked is helmet off and snapped its neck sharply back. Panting, Shael looked down at Edwin, who lay unmoving as a dark stain spread over the back of his tunic. Quickly, she looked away, fighting back the hopelessness that surged within her.
“Let’s go, Anaki,” Shael said numbly, grabbing the stick of a girl by the arm. The old man would be too much for her to move, weakened as she was. The mute girl shook out of her grasp and kept her hold on her grandfather’s hand. The old man seemed unaware of his surroundings, staring upward at nothing, his breath a series of sharp gasps. Then his breathing stopped altogether.
The sound of bones clattering to the ground seemed louder than all of the curses, shouts and screams coming from all around. Demons poured into the gap at the center of the line, some running straight at the bowmen to be cut down moments later by a flight of bolts, most coming at the unprotected backs of the soldiers of first platoon. Shael tried once more to grab at Anaki and pull her away, but she was working furiously at something on Keiji’s belt. The thought of simply leaving her flitted through Shael’s mind. That’s when she saw the slayer break off from the others and come charging at them across the empty stretch of ground.
Shael gripped her sword in both hands, her heart pounding in her ears, using the few moments that she had to think. The demon held a shield in one hand and a spiked mace in the other. If she threw herself into an attack, it would block her blow and finish her with its own. If she tried to parry, most likely it would rely on its strength and the weight of the mace to simply bash right through and kill her. The answer came to her then, as obvious as it was foolish, but her time was gone.
Shael stood fast until the last possible moment, raising her sword to meet the slayer’s crushing overhand blow. She kept her sword there, letting the beast focus its attention on the weapon, rather than her, as she stepped quickly aside, letting the tension in her arms loosen. Even so, she felt the impact of the mace hitting the sword as a sharp pain all the way up her arms to her shoulders. Grunting with the effort, she stopped the sword’s swift downward movement and slashed across, dipping beneath the shield as the slayer’s mace slammed into the ground where she had been standing a moment before. The sword jarred her arms again as it hit something solid, and for an instant, Shael thought that she had struck armor, but as she pulled the blade out in a slice, it caught against flesh, opening a deep gash in the hellspawn’s thigh.
Shael had not realized until that moment that a shield could be used a weapon as well. The thick wood caught her on the shoulder and side of the head, making her ears ring and her vision darken for a moment. She stumbled and very nearly went down, realizing only when she tried to raise her sword in defense that she had dropped it. The demon came at her, moving just as quickly as before despite the black blood gushing from its leg. She stumbled backward in desperation as the mace whipped around, and felt the wind of its passage on her face. The shadow of something large and menacing fell across her as she went down, and then the thing was upon her attacker, crushing bones and rending flesh with each strike of its wickedly sharp steel arms.
The golem finished the demon with a final bloody punch of its spiked fists. Shael blinked hard to try to clear the wool in her head. Standing with an effort, she bent carefully to retrieve her sword, and Anaki was there in front of her when she straightened. The girl stared at her, her eyes as hard and empty as glass. In one fist she clenched Keiji’s wand, while the other hand held two of the pouches of the powder that the necromancer kept at his belt. Without another sound or gesture, the girl turned and sprinted toward the body of a fallen soldier, the golem following with a creak and squeal of metal on metal.
“What are you doing?” Shael called, hurrying after. For answer, Anaki took a pinch of powder and sprinkled it over the body of the dead man. She held the wand out towards the corpse, bowing her head in concentration. Nothing happened.
“Shael!” A voice called, followed by the sound of rapid footsteps. Alain and a dozen men with swords surrounded them. “Thank the heavens you’re alright.” Alain had lost his mount and had a gash on his forehead. “First platoon is overrun, and Amaury is organizing our next line of defense.” He looked at Anaki with sudden suspicion. “What is she doing here? You need to get back there now, both of you.”
“I’ll get her there, captain,” Shael promised. “Go on, we’ll be fine.”
"Hurry, Shael," Alain said, and didn’t spare another glance as he rushed back up the slope to his men.
“Alright, Anaki. We have to go now.” But the girl wriggled out of her grasp. “This is insane. You aren’t a necromancer.” Anaki turned to her and jabbed a finger at the golem standing guard over them. “You’re controlling that thing?” She nodded once and went back to staring at the dead man. “All I know is that your grandfather said some words when he made one of those things. I could never hear it clearly, but—“
Anaki clapped her hands together suddenly and dropped to one knee. She felt at the soldier’s belt on one side, then the other, and came up holding a long, curved dagger. She took the man’s hand in her own and began carving symbols into the flesh. Satisfied, she stood and took up the wand once more. This time, when she waved it over the body, it began to bubble and smoke at once. The skeleton that sat up was not bestial like those she had seen before, and its humanity actually gave the thing an eerie quality.
Anaki stared at the thing raptly as it emerged, but when it stood up, but she suddenly doubled over, grimacing as if in pain. Shael held her as she trembled. “What’s wrong?” she asked, but Anaki could not tell her. After several moments, whatever it was seemed to pass and the girl drew a deep breath. When she tried to stand, though, she at once fell back to her knees.
“That’s just like me,” Shael said. “It saps your strength doesn’t it? How could Keiji handle it, making so many?”
Anaki shrugged and held out her hand for Shael to help her up. Once she had her feet, she immediately pointed to another body several paces down the slope.
“More? You want to make another?” Anaki nodded and gripped her hand with what little strength she had. Shael wondered suddenly if that shield had hit her harder than she thought. Could any of this be real? Would any of it matter? she wondered, looking north where the men of first platoon were being surrounded and cut down. It wouldn’t matter if Anaki made a dozen more skeletons. The battle would be over in mere moments when that wave of demons surged up the shallow slope and overwhelmed Amaury’s farmers, then killed the remaining bowmen, her father and her brothers.
Shael slipped the bow from her shoulder and stared at the pattern of wavy lines that the snakeskin made on its surface. Such a weapon could bring down this entire demon army in less than a dozen shots. The only problem was her. She lacked the strength to properly use the bow, just as Anaki lacked her grandfather’s strength in necromancy. The sudden insight was sobering and humiliating. How differently things might have turned out if it had been a great hero standing here, now, rather than the daughter of a fur trader.
“It’s hopeless, Anaki,” Shael said, feeling a tear slide down one side of her nose. “Your skeletons can’t stop this. We’re going to die here.”
That was when the girl did something completely unexpected. She smiled. It was not a happy or contented look, but one of anguish, of despair twisted into mirthless laughter at the cruelty of a world that would take everything from her but her pain. There was no hope in that look. The girl had nothing left to live for, but she would kill as many of the demons as she could before she died.
“Alright,” Shael said, blinking back the tears, “I think I understand. When I start moving, you’d better follow close.” She notched an arrow and pulled back the string, willing the lightning to life. “Because I’m about to make a lot more corpses for you.”
Shael thought she could feel the magic draining out of her, flowing into the bow. She released into a thick clump of demons, visualizing in her mind the effect that she wanted. Her fear was gone. She still didn’t want to die, but now that she had accepted that it would happen, her mind was unclouded. It took only a moment to orient her shot, and she released at the backs of a slayer just a stone’s throw from her. The lightning arced, jumping from one to another, carving through them as delicately as one might cut away the rind of a fruit. When the twitching, smoking bodies fell to the ground, eight bloodied and frightened humans were left standing right in the midst of them.
“Pick up your wounded.” Shael said, trotting up to them. They were at the very edge of the battlefield, obscured from the main mass of demons by a thick patch of reeds. “Alain has ordered everyone to fall back to the new defensive line.” She pointed towards the distant top posts of the stockade. “Get going. Now!”
The soldiers finally came out of their shock, whether at the unexpected rescue, or simply at being ordered about by a girl of fifteen. Muttering their thanks, they picked up two wounded men and skirted to the southwest.
“Stay here, Anaki,” Shael said in a tone that would brook no argument. “Make as many skeletons as you need, but do not follow me.” Anaki gave no sign that she had heard, and took a pinch of powder from her bag.
Shael skirted the reeds and carefully craned her head to peer around their edge. The demons were running up the slope and into the ruins of the village, presumably right on the heels of Alain’s tattered company. She ran as quietly as she could along the water’s edge, praying that she wouldn’t put a foot wrong and sink into the mud. She needed to put some distance between her and the place where she had left Anaki hidden.
She crouched behind a tall fern and notched an arrow. She imagined what she wanted as she pulled, and poured just enough of her energy into the bow to make it happen. The arrow dropped into the middle of the hellspawn and lightning forked through them, killing a dozen in a flash of blue-white. Shael let her breath go, feeling weakness in her limbs as she might after a hard run.
The demons’ reacted to the attack, as she thought they might. Most ran onward, driven by their lust for blood and their prey so tantalizingly close, while those further back heeded the angry shouts from the clan lords and turned back. Slowly, they began to advance on her position, though it seemed from their disorder that they were only guessing from the direction the arrow had come from.
“You’ve done it now,” Shael muttered to herself, notching an arrow but holding the string loose. Splitting the force of demons was exactly what she had hoped to accomplish, but she hadn’t thought her plan through beyond that point. Any moment, one of them would spot her or catch wind of her scent. She decided that the direct approach was best. She pulled and released, aiming for one of the clan lords. The shot pierced completely through its breastplate and lodged in the thigh of the one behind it. Twin forks of lightning reached down from the sky and struck both beasts dead.
The response was immediate. The demons surged forward, making a line right for where she hid. She shot again at once, wasting no time to aim, trusting the arrow to find a mark among the throng of targets. Another arrow was in the air before the lighting from the previous hit had struck. Shael could feel her strength beginning to wane dangerously as she dared to pour more power into the bow, but it wouldn’t matter. She could not kill them all before they were upon her. Twenty or more of the demons were already dead as she readied the third shot, but there many times that still standing.
Footsteps behind her and to the left nearly broke through her focus, but she held onto it and took the shot to which she was already committed. As soon as the arrow was away, she dropped the bow and whirled, drawing her sword. But the horrifying creatures that came her way stopped well short of reaching her. Three of the five skeletons still had bits of flesh hanging from their bones, and one limped to catch up to the others.
“Anaki,” Shael said, a moment before the girl appeared out of the brush with the golem at her side. She walked slowly, her shoulders slumped and feet dragging. Shael put away her sword, snatched the bow up and ran past the skeletons to meet her. “Are you alright?” she asked, steadying the girl.
Anaki nodded once, though tears shimmered in her eyes and her face was lined with pain. She cast a look towards her skeletons and they quickly shambled into place, making a semicircle around them with the golem. She reached out and tapped Shael’s bow with a finger, then pointed at the demon horde, whose guttural cries were growing close.
Shael nodded her understanding. She reached for another arrow from her quiver and realized with a start that she had only a few left. She took a moment to count them with her fingers. Three. There were eight clan lords and well over a hundred lesser demons coming for them. She sighted on one of the former and sent the arrow leaping across a distance of less than a dozen paces. The arrow hit it high in the chest and arced to left and right, melting and blackening flesh where it touched.
“Three down,” Shael said as the clan lords fell. The foremost demons crashed against the skeletons and fell in gouts of black blood as the undead sliced and skewered them. Shael’s next shot buried itself in the neck of another clan lord, but the magic fizzled and died. Even so, the thing gurgled and clawed at the wound, clearly out of the fight. “One shot left,” she said grimly, pulling the last of the arrows free. She began to draw it back but Anaki suddenly tapped her hard on the arm. When Shael looked, she shook her head and then pointed down, then towards the demons right in front of them.
Shael had no time for questions. She held the arrow back for several moments, feeling the drain on her body as the bow greedily pulled in her life to fuel its magic. The shot took a goatman at point blank in the chest and rapidly surged outward, killing demons by the score and opening a gap ten paces deep.
Shael groaned as an intense bout of nausea hit her, barely aware of Anaki pulling hard on her wrist to get her to move. She stumbled over a smoking demon corpse, but managed to keep her feet as they advanced several steps, still held in the center of the protective ring of undead. Anaki released her and sank to the ground, leaving Shael alone to fight off the weakness that made her head swim.
Having marked a few of the bodies with symbols, Anaki sprinkled them quickly with powder. She began to raise them as skeletons, gritting her teeth and trembling each time another stood and joined the ranks of defenders. As the fourth one clambered free of its flesh, she swayed and fell to the ground face first. Shael sank to her knees heavily and grunted with the effort of rolling her onto her back. The girl’s face was twisted into a grimace, and each breath came in a gasp, but after a few moments, she began to breathe easier and her eyes regained their focus.
“You almost went too far that time,” Shael breathed. She wrapped her arms around Anaki to sit her up and tried to help to her feet, but found that she couldn’t even manage to lift herself. All around them, weapons clashed against flesh, bone, and armor. The demons had enveloped them like a tide now and pressed in, scenting the sweet flesh and warm blood of their prey at the middle of the ring of undead.
Shael felt Anaki’s body jerk as something heavy smashed into one of the skeletons. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, holding the girl tighter. “You needed me to be stronger, and I failed you. I failed everyone.”
Anaki’s trembling hand closed on her own and gave it a squeeze. Shael wished that she could take the girl’s pain away, but very soon it would not matter. She jerked again, and bits of stinging bone struck them as another skeleton was smashed. Time passed her in a daze and the skeletons closed in closer around them as another and another fell to the relentless onslaught. Outside, the clash of steel seemed to intensify, and a flood of rasping demon-speak grated on her ears. And then came the sound of human voices.
“Push forward!” Alain’s cried. “Cut them down!” The fighting between demons and skeletons suddenly quieted, even as the other sounds of battle came closer.
Shael released Anaki carefully and rose to her feet with a great effort. What she saw then made her stare in disbelief. The demons were now outnumbered four, perhaps five to one as men and women desperately fought them, apparently with whatever weapon was at hand. Some of Alain’s men fought among them, hand-to-hand, while a tight knot of crossbowmen shot volleys into the demons.
The price they were paying was terrible. A man with a club was hardly the equal of the ruthless and battle-hardened demons. Men and women at the front died as fast as those behind could rush forward to replace them, but even so, they were winning. Human and demon corpses littered the ground, but the dead hellspawn now outnumbered the living. Even the clan lords had begun to fall as the crossbowmen aimed their bolts at the demons’ eye slits and at the gap between helmet and breastplate. With less than a dozen of their cohorts still alive, the last two clan lords suddenly turned and fled, dashing over the soft, uneven terrain with surprising speed. The remaining demons died in a matter of moments, cut, stabbed and bludgeoned from every side.
Breathless silence blanketed the swamp, a silence that was broken almost at once. The wounded began to cry out in pain. Others who bore no outward sign of injury clutched at one another fearfully, or wept, or walked about aimlessly. It dawned on Shael then where all of these people had come from: the thousands who had refused to fight, who had huddled fearfully in the very place where they had been held prisoner.
Alain’s men, by contrast, moved purposefully about the battlefield. Some worked to patch up the injured while others stepped carefully through the bodies on the ground, stabbing each demon once to ensure that they were truly dead. The air of celebration that marked their earlier victory seemed a distant memory. These men simply felt fortunate to be alive.
“What have we here?” a man said, peering at the four skeletons and golem that remained standing in a tight cluster around Shael and Anaki. “I thought they said the necromancer was dead.”
“He is,” Gilles said, pushing up from behind him through the crowd of people. “I saw it myself, man. ” Then his gaze came to rest on Shael. “Bloody hell! Shael, is that you in there?”
“It’s me, Lietenant,” Shael called back. She tried to push her way past the undead, but they pushed back, keeping her trapped behind their bodies. When Gilles moved closer to see what was wrong, the skeletons bristled, brandishing their weapons.
“Stay back!” she called. She bent down and touched Anaki’s cheek. “Anaki? It’s over. We beat them.” But the girl just stared past her. Blood streamed from her nose and dripped from her chin. “Anaki!” she shouted fearfully, grabbing her shoulder.
The girl twitched at the sound and blinked rapidly. Bones tinkled together as the skeletons collapsed and metal screamed as the golem fell over and collapsed into bits of twisted steel. “We won?” she asked tentatively.
"You can speak?" Shael asked incredulously. Anaki wrinkled her brow and shrugged.
Gilles called to another man among the crowd, who hurried began to tend to Anaki, giving her a cloth to staunch the flow from her nose while he checked her for head wounds.
“You can’t save her,” a Southlander man called out, looking at Anaki with something like pity. “She’s damned herself.”
Shael stared at him. “What are you talking about, old man? She’s fine.” He looked at Shael and shook his head sadly before wandering off. Shael wondered if she should go after him, but just then, Alain appeared. His head was wrapped in a bandage, but he otherwise still looked every bit the poised and capable leader.
“Captain,” Shael said, trying to stand up straighter. The fatigue induced by the magic had begun to fade, but a night without sleep, coupled with the exertion of battle, were beginning to take their own toll.
“Shael,” he acknowledged, giving her a look that was part reproach, part relief. “Thank heaven you are alive. I assumed the worst when you didn’t turn up back at the stockade. Why didn’t you come when I told you to?”
Shael ignored the question. “There are still two of those clan lords out there. Do you think they might try to attack?”
Alain snorted. “Doubtful, with the beating we’ve given them. Demons are single-minded creatures, but some are more intelligent than others.” He threw a look of concern at Anaki. “Her nose is bleeding. Is she alright?”
Anaki waved her hand in front of her face as if to say that it was nothing at all.
“I think you lost this, sis’,” a boy said, riding up behind Alain on Shael’s horse. “Somebody found him hiding out behind that big pen.”
“Cailen!” she said with a grin. “And my witless traitor of a horse.” She glared at the animal.
“Can I have him, then?” Cailen asked expectantly.
Shael looked at her brother, then again at the horse, who dipped his head as if expecting her to scratch the top of it. “The offer is tempting,” she said. Then, to Alain, “What happened after you retreated?”
“We pulled back to the stockade, taking losses the whole way. That’s when we met all of these people here, coming to reinforce us. Your father’s a hero, you know,” Alain said suddenly, looking up at Cailen. “It was him who went up there convinced these people to fight. They would have given up and let themselves be taken captive again. We turned and came back at the demons chasing us. Once they were all dead, we came back down here to find the rest of them. You know the rest.”
Another horse had approached while Alain spoke, both mount and rider exhausted from a run. He was smooth-faced and wore his straight black hair in a braid that hung over one shoulder. “Captain,” the young man said, saluting. “It looks like I missed the fight.”
“You have a report, soldier?”
The man stood up straighter, looking pleased with himself. “You ordered me to search the swamp south of here, something about demons carrying people away. Well, I found something of interest. There is a portal stone about three furlongs from the village, due south. It’s on top of a hill, a little island out in the water.”
“Portal stone?” Alain demanded, standing up suddenly. “Gault, are you sure?”
“It has all of the correct markings,” the man said defensively.
“I couldn’t help overhearing,” said a tall, rail-thin man. He had a thick accent like Keiji. “You must be mistaken, sir. I lived here in this village all my life. There are no portal stones near here, not for many leagues.”
“I know what I saw, sir,” the scout said firmly.
Alain nodded. “I believe you, soldier, and that’s our way out of here. Marcel, Gilles!” he called. The two officers arrived in short order. “Gather everyone together. I want to leave here before the sunrise.”
“Could that be where those two clan lords went?” Shael said. She spoke quietly, more wondering to herself, but Alain answered.
“No. Demons can’t travel through the way gates.”
“Are you certain of that?”
Alain pursed his lips. “Well, that’s supposed to be how they work.” He looked to the southeast, where the two demons had gone, staring at the brightening sky for a long moment. “Alright, we’d best be certain. Gault? Go and find Syd up at the stockade. Tell him you need two more of his scouts to go with us and check on the portal stone. I’ll meet you there.”
“Yes, sir,” the young man said immediately, and started off.
Alain looked at Shael. “Well, are you coming? This is your idea.”
She turned to Cailen. “I guess I’ll need my horse after all, brother. Make sure Anaki is comfortable, will you?”
They met up with Gault and two other men on horseback back at the camp. Syd was pale and had his arm in a sling, but he assured her that he would be fine. Once Shael had refilled her quiver, they continued south. The eastern sky grew steadily brighter as dawn approached, casting the swamp in a dim half-light. Gault pointed at a mound rising out of the water. “That’s where I found the portal stone. It’s right there at the top.”
Alain drew to a halt, staring at the distant island. “It seems we found our missing demons,” he said, pointing to a pair of barely discernible outlines against the twilight sky. “I’d say it’s about one-hundred fifty paces. Shael, can you put an arrow through them at this distance?”
She squinted into the half-light and nodded. “I’ll try.” She fired two arrows in succession, pausing briefly on each to align her shots and charge them with magic. A single flash and a peal of thunder marked one of the two missiles hitting their target. “Can anyone see them?” Alain asked.
“Nothing,” Gault said, standing in the saddle and peering through the mist rising off the water.
“Let’s go,” Alain said, spurring his horse on. The water rose up past the horses’ knees, slowing their progress, but they drew steadily closer to the island. Finally, the horses, blowing hard from the exertion, climbed the soft bank and started up the hill. Alain muttered a curse drew his sword, prompting the other three riders to do the same. A soft blue glow emanated from what looked like a hole hanging in the air at the top of the hill. Next to it lay the crumpled form of the demon, pierced through by Shael’s arrow.
“Where’s the other one?” one of the riders asked.
Alain dropped from his mount and came the last few steps on foot. He prodded at the demon with his sword, but it did not move. Shael came up behind him, staring at the black oval that hung above a chiseled square stone. The blue glow was at its most intense at the edges, with tendrils of light playing across the smooth, dark surface. She stretched out a hand to touch it and felt cold at her fingertips. Alain shouted a warning as her hand pushed into nothingness, the chill moving up her arm. Panic gripped her as the searing cold reached deep into her body, the portal now pulling her inside. She felt a tremendous wrench, as though the world had flipped over around her, and then she was through, standing on the other side.
For a moment, Shael thought that she had stepped right into hell itself. Smoke darkened the sky, staining the sunrise blood red. There were demons everywhere, on the earth and in the sky. The land was stripped bare, with only the brackish pools of water giving evidence to the marsh that it had once been.
A battle raged in the distance, at the foot of a ruined structure. It must have been magnificent once, with pillars reaching to the sky, now broken and jutting from the earth like teeth. Squinting, Shael could just make out the defenders. Skeletons and golems fought face to face with demons, while pale-skinned men cast deadly magic into their midst, ghastly green clouds melting flesh from bone, while spears of bone ripped holes in their bodies.
Shael took another step forward and felt something give way beneath her boot with a crunch. The cracked pieces of a skull lay on the ground and the top half was missing. There were hundreds, thousands perhaps. Skulls and ribs, bones from arms and legs all jumbled together as if they had been taken apart and thrown wherever they might land. She remembered the woman’s description of how the demons took so many of their human prisoners south. They had been brought here, through the gate, to be fed to the massive army that lay siege to this gathering of necromancers.
“You’re a damned fool, Shael,” Alain said, gripping her arm from behind. “We need to go, right now.”
From all around, demons of every shape and size were rushing towards them, a horde that would swallow them in a matter of seconds. They stepped quickly back through the portal and onto the grass on top of the hill. Alain turned at once and knelt at the edge of the stone. He passed his finger above the surface slowly and then stabbed downwards suddenly, touching a symbol, a sharply curved line with a single dot and another curve below it like a stem. The oval flared with light and rapidly shrank, seeming to turn in upon itself before it disappeared. As soon as it had gone, he pressed his fingers to a chiseled square with four symbols written within. “Helkolemgul,” he whispered.
A slash of light appeared in the air and spun slowly as it grew. The black surface within roiled as the portal grew, becoming as dark and smooth as onyx when it reached full size. “I’ve opened a portal to our camp outside of Dunesmar,” Alain said, standing. “As long as this gate stands open, the demons can’t create another portal to here from their side.”
The refugees from the demon camp began to arrive shortly after dawn and passed single-file through the gate. Watching them go, Shael sat alone and let the tears she had kept bottled up flow down her cheeks in silence. She cried for Edwin, for Victor, even for strange old Keiji. She wept for the loss of some part of herself that she had left amid the blood and bodies.
“It’s time, Shael” Alain called, as the ragged remnants of his company filed through. She dried her eyes and went to join her family, who waited for her near the portal with Anaki. Her father’s proud smile alone should have lifted her spirits but for the gloom on her soul. So many lives saved, but at such a price. She felt unworthy of the praise they lavished upon her.
At last, her turn came to pass through the gateway. She stepped forward, into the glowing blue and black. The world wrenched and twisted around her.
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