“What the hell are they waiting for?” Heather snarled, glaring at the fortress over the top of the wall. The noble house forces had spent all week knocking in murder-holes and arrow slots through the tough, hard stone. “It’s been a week and that fortress gate hasn’t opened.”

“No response both times we’ve sent messengers to the gates,” replied the Lord Corbin Goldbrace. He was tense, hand resting on the handle of his sword, mirroring Heather’s glare. “The creatures on top of the walls watch each messenger come and go, but they never say so much as a word. Whoever’s in there isn’t really making that much effort to disguise what’s going on. The smelters have burned steadily all week.”

“I know. Day and night, m’lord,” muttered Heather. “Ooluk says there’s been no signs of mining, though. So they’re smelting the backlog of ore, Knight Stengrav says.”

“So they want the metal more than our bones… why?

“Been asking that myself, m’lord.  Nothing I’ve come up with makes sense, either.  Sure, you could armor some skeletons up on pure adamant, but it’s twice as heavy as lead. It’s about as dense as solid gold, but much, much stronger. So then you get to watch the weight of the stuff turn an armored skeleton into a pile of metal and bone splinters.”

“Could you coat the bones in the molten metal?” asked Corbin.

“The heat would burn the bones to ash, m’lord. Necromancers have tried that before. Never ends well. Ash golems are nasty business, fly into your lungs and smother you, but that’s nothing a wet rag over your mouth can’t defeat, really.”

“Ash golems,” deadpanned the Lord.

“Yes, m’lord. From the ashes of the unpurified dead. Weapons of terror, or assassination in the night. Not very dangerous though. A well-aimed bucket of water will do most of the trick.”

Heather’s casual, off-handed tone gave the Lord pause, and he turned to regard her more closely.  “Blackthorne, suddenly your calling seems altogether more terrifying than I believe I’ve given it credit for.”

You haven’t got the least idea, Heather thought, eyes sweeping the far horizon.  I swore an oath to the Saints so that you and yours never would have to know.  That’s my job, and I’m good at it.  Until it comes to my own family. The thought burned her like acid, and Heather let it seethe in the back of her mind. Out loud, however, all she said was: “It’s what we do, m’lord.  Someone has to.”

The Lord Corbin Goldbrace grunted. “Could they be fashioning arms, then, if not armor?”

“Mostly the same problem, m’lord. Adamant’s too heavy for a skeleton to wield. A steel sword weighs one to three kilos. So an adamant sword’s three to nine kilos, more or less. That’s likely to rip the arm out of the socket the first time a skeleton swings it. Maybe a few of the zombies, they’ve got the muscle, but it would just make them even more clumsy. Adamant cannonballs, now, that’s something to worry about. But I doubt there’d be much of that even at the fort.  Too expensive, and too rare.”

Corbin scratched a stubbled cheek and nodded. “They’ve got adamant cannon and cannonballs, for long-range fire on ships. What of arrows, and crossbow tips?”

“Fantastic for punching armor, m’lord, but skeletons aren’t usually smart enough to work a bow or crossbow, same for zombies. These ones are, assuming it was skeletons that shot at the Lieutenant. But even if they could, they’d still use the fortress stock of regular iron and steel arrows first. There’s no sense in making them if you’ve got perfectly serviceable bolts. Cannons they could probably manage firing, if not loading.”

“So,” the Lord Corbin mused, “not arms, not armor. But important enough to leave the town alone for now. The question comes back around. Why?”

“I don’t know, m’lord,” Heather said, turning toward the town, “but I’m thinking it’s a question that needs an answer.”

“As do I,” said a cool voice from below. It was Consul Sienna, picking her way up the roughed-in stairs the soldiers had knocked into the back of the wall. “Before I have ten more frantic tradesman threatening to hurl themselves from the walls to be free of this place. Half are convinced the undead will overrun us, and the other half act as though we’re jailing them, and cry out that we’ll all be trapped if the undead attack. They want to know why I permit this disruption of lawful Imperial trade and travel, Knight Blackthorne. And so will the guild.”

Heather leaned down, offering a hand to help the Sienna up the last of the rough stairs to the battlements.  “Long walk there, just to get some answers, Consul.  How’s your mage?”

“You’re right, it was a long walk, and I didn’t make it to be fed your pleasantries, Knight. Alfonse will live. The question is, will we? Hunters could be bringing in food for the winter ahead, which as you may not yet be aware, is over eight months long here! Without resupply, our larders aren’t full enough yet to make it through the winter.”

Thanks for saying that out loud, Consul, Heather thought bitterly.

One look in Sienna’s eyes told her it was a deliberate tactic, to knock down Heather’s resolve. But on what? Heather wondered.

“Before I answer, Consul,” Heather said, drawing herself up, “Have you had a chance to talk to the Lieutenant, yet?”

Sienna spoke with asperity. “He sent me to you, Detective. He said you had a matter to discuss with me.”

“All right, then,” Heather said.  “In broad strokes? The walls stay up. Not a single hunter has made it to the walls, or even within sight. They’re being picked off out there, one by one. Anyone we send out there will be lost.”

“And you needed me to come out here to discuss the obvious?” replied Sienna, her voice growing colder.

Heather shook her head. “No. Here, have a look at this. I’ve put our Circle girls doing something useful for a change.” She reached into her haversack, and produced a vellum roll, unrolling it to reveal a piece of paper. Rather, many tiny bits of paper, carefully pieced together and glued in place by Sister Tanya.

“It wasn’t a letter, or a book, that made all that confetti,” Heather said. “These were runes, stamped on paper. Identical, on every sheet. That’s all that made piecing this together from all the bits possible.”

The Consul read the rune at a swift glance: “Fire and Air rune threads, woven into the words. Explosive, blasting. Air and Light to make them transparent.”

“And if you make paper like that transparent, it might as well be made of glass. Practically invisible,” Heather said. “This is what destroyed your Sending Gate. Or rather, a few hundred of these.”

“Yes, I see it, but you must be mistaken. You can’t stamp or print a rune. Emotion fuels magic, will gives it shape. A printing press or stamp has no feelings, much less will,” said the Consul with a frown. Her hands reached out to accept the vellum. She held it up, fingers brushing it, examining the oddly creased and blasted paper carefully. Identical, strange folds ran through the paper bits.

Heather grimaced. “Somehow this group is finding their way around that. They’ve been using mining automatons to raise the dead, too, and now this. Two examples is enough for me.”

The Consul’s eyes opened wide. It was the first time Heather had seen the Consul’s composure fail.

“You’re… talking about the automation of magic,” she whispered. “Do you have any idea what that could mean?”

Heather met Sienna’s horrified stare. “I imagine it means economic revolution, social disruption, and the ending of forty or fifty magical industries to you. But right now, Consul, it means that our worst case estimate is a mining fort, with a little over forty automatons inside, and six hundred walking dead, plus whatever might have been gleaned from out on the plains. With a stack of invisible bombs that they somehow managed to deliver to your Gate. If they can get them there, they could get them anywhere.”  

Heather turned away from the town, and stabbed a finger out towards the fortress. “That’s an army, Consul, sitting right on our doorstep, and by all rights they ought to be adding us to it.  But they’re not. They are smelting adamant, instead. Why? We don’t know, and that is the question we want an answer to.”

“Which we’re not going to find standing on this wall,” pointed out the Consul. “You’ll be taking me with you.”

“With me where?” asked Heather, bristling.

“Into the fortress, of course,” said Lord Corbin, as if it was the most perfectly reasonable affair in the world. “And myself, as well.”

“M’lord, with all due respect–” Heather began. She was cut off by Corbin’s knowing grin and a raised finger.

“Before you go ahead and follow that up with a grand amount of disrespect, Detective? Hear me out, if you would,” Lord Goldbrace said.  “This is an operation best left to the Knights, I know. But as I see it, you’re desperately undermanned, and if we don’t speak up, either you’d be going in alone, or forced to stay.”

“And any answers you might find if you go in alone would be worthless if they died with you,” Sienna added.

“About as worthless as my hide if a Consul and a Lord died on my watch!” Heather roared, then caught herself.  “Begging your pardon, of course.”

That earned a snort of amusement from the Lord Goldbrace, and he leaned over towards the Consul with a familiarity that surprised Heather. Judging by the faintest brush of color that made it to the otherwise unflappable Consul’s cheeks, it surprised Sienna too. “Neither the Consul or I are strangers to infiltration missions, Knight. We’ve all had our misspent youths.”

Somehow I don’t think this’ll be as simple as a midnight climb into some noblewoman’s bedroom, thought Heather, as she glanced between Sienna and Corbin.

“Can you fight, Consul?” Heather asked. “Because sooner or later, there’s likely to be a lot of fighting.”

“I’d think that a proper infiltration would avoid any fighting at all,” said Sienna cooly.

By way of answer, Heather looked down at her breastplate, gauntlets, and mace, then simply looked back up, arching an eyebrow.

“I believe that is our Knight’s way of saying she’ll leave the sneaking to us, dear Consul,” said the Lord with a smile. “And the front line fighting to her. Sounds agreeable, wouldn’t you say?”

“Agreeable,” allowed Sienna, arching an eyebrow. “We’ll be under your command for this mission, Knight. We know our business, but you know yours, and the undead is your business.”

Heather made a strangled noise in her throat. You’re damned right you will be! she thought, and had to clamp her jaw to avoid shouting it aloud. A few breaths later, she spoke through gritted teeth: “Looks like it’s settled, then.  I’ll go tell the Lieutenant.  If I’ve got any hide left when he’s done chewing, we’ll get started at sundown.”

To Heather’s horror, the Lieutenant was enthusiastic about the plan. Which was how she found herself in the barracks, gluing antler felt to the seams and edges of her armor at the advice of Sienna, who hadn’t left her side since the discussion at the wall.

“There, that will keep your armor from squeaking under your cloak,” Sienna said.

“You want to tell me how it is a Consul’s such an expert at sneaking about?” growled Heather, as she glued in the next bit of antler felt along the breastplate seam.

“No,” said Sienna faux-sweetly, with an enigmatic smile.

“Or how His Lordship’s so damned sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Oh, that’s quite mutual. In our youth some aligned interests between House Goldbrace and the Guild arose. It’s not us being spotted I’m worried about,” she said, as she tapped the felted lining of the armor in Heather’s hands. “He’s quiet on his feet and quick with his blade, if it comes to that.”

Heather glowered at the armor in her hands. “It occurs to me, Consul, that while even a Lord may go where his House duty calls, a Consul of the Guild probably has a great deal more freedom in choosing her post. Awfully coincidental.”

Sienna arched her eyebrow coolly, but Heather’s stare lingered until the Consul’s composure faintly reddened. “That was a long time ago,” said Sienna, primly.

Evidently not long enough, thought Heather.

“I have a problem with that on missions, Consul. Focus tends to get lost.”

“It won’t be a problem,” Sienna said firmly, holding Heather’s gaze. “I mean it. I told you. Aligned interests. No different now than then.”

“This isn’t about your usual guild skullduggery, Consul. We’re going into a fortress where the dead have risen. There’s likely to be horrors within. Overwhelming horror.”

The memory of the cave came unbidden, of her hugging her knees and a scream that wouldn’t end. Heather’s fingers twitched, and shoulders betrayed an involuntary shudder.

The Consul didn’t look away, though her eyes fractionally softened. “Blackthorne? I left him to die once. For the sake of the mission. To my… well, joy, he didn’t. But I did it then and I’d do it again if I had to. Does that satisfy?”

Heather took stock of the Consul then, and laid hands gently flat on her armor. “No,” she said, after a thoughtful pause, “because there’s things worse than death, Consul. But it’s a start, I guess.”

Sienna spread her hands slowly. “And how about you?”

“What about me?”

“You. You’re seven kinds of hot mess! I don’t know what stake you’ve got that’s so personal in all this, but anyone watching you talk with Alfonse for ten seconds would see your heart all over your sleeve, Knight. This is personal to you, isn’t it?”

“It’s none of your damned business,” growled Heather through gritted teeth.

The Consul held up her hands. “It isn’t my business,” she agreed firmly. “But it’s a personal stake, and people with personal stakes tend to put those ahead of the team, too.”

The small pot of glue and brush clattered against the breastplate, as Heather’s patience wore too thin to hold together. “Don’t you have to swear an oath once you join your Guild, Consul?  Duty, fealty, loyalty, that kind of thing?” Heather asked. “Well we do too.  And however many kinds of hot mess you think I am, you can be damn sure about one thing: I swore to do the job I was called to do, no matter what.”  

The gluepot jumped, as Heather’s hand slapped on the breastplate in time with her words, like a firebrand sermonizing at the pulpit.  “I’ve never broken that promise, Consul.  Never.  It’ll take a hell of a lot more than what’s waiting for us in there to make me break my word. Are we clear?”

“We’re clear,” said the Consul coolly. “In the meanwhile, this town is counting on us to come back with something meaningful for the defense. Troop numbers, resources, logistics. Hope, if nothing else.”

“So what’s keeping you, then?” Heather snapped.  “If I’m just dead weight, the hell are you doing waiting for me to fix my gear?”

“Because we can sneak in, Knight Blackthorne, but you’re the mind and eye to make heads or tails of what we find inside. The Lord and I understand live armies and their logistics. We’re facing an undead one, now. So we get you in, we get you out. The rest is up to you,” Sienna said, ignoring Heather’s waspish tone.

Heather grimaced. “This is going to be a disaster.”

***

The wan sunset was the last bit of warmth the night would hold. So Heather hunched her new cloak against it and let it seep in, a dark blue-black wool gifted to her by the Lord Corbin’s house.

“Best colour for night-time sneaking,” the Lord Corbin had explained. “Too black and you’ll be too defined a shadow. Try to keep your arms underneath the cloak, it will break up your outline.”

At least my armor’s quieter after the felting, Heather thought. It moved with a bit more resistance, but only a bit more, and the clanks and whines of metal-on-metal had been dulled by the soft antler felt. Consul Sienna and the Lord Corbin were armoured only in leather, dyed the same matte blue-black, and neither were shy about joining her in hunching their backs to the western setting sun, to soak up the same warmth as they could.

Lord Corbin’s men had bolted in a rope ladder to the back of the wall, long enough to be thrown over to let them in and out, but fast enough to retract in case the undead sprung for the walls from ambush. Guess that solves a bit of the ‘no gate’ problem, thought Heather. But it isn’t safe out there. Saint-Cielle was just one outpost, and there’s plenty more throughout the northlands. Nowhere here is safe, and they’ll be looking to add more to their numbers soon. They always do.

When the sun finished setting, and the long dusk set in, Heather sipped coffee atop the wall while watching the Lord and Consul. They had a calm tension around them, an alertness without fear, that offered Heather a little reassurance. The Lord Corbin seemed surprisingly easy-going, occasionally trading murmured jokes with a nearby soldier of his house. They were rough soldier’s jokes that would probably have set the Lady Oiselle’s face aflame. Or Persephone’s, for that matter.

The Consul was silent, holding her peace, nursing her coffee with calm, patient eyes. She’s not nervous. Just waiting. Alert. No lingering glances Corbin’s way, no nervous ticks. She checked her equipment once and left it at that.

Heather’s stomach roiled faintly. If anyone’s going to get them killed on this trip, it’s going to be me, isn’t it?

Before she could sink into morose pessimism any further, Corbin’s head turned towards the sky, and he gave a nod. “Dark enough. Time to move.”

They tossed the rope ladder, and down the east side of the wall they climbed, Heather first. As soon as the Consul and Lord were off the rope ladder, the guards atop the wall pulled it back up.

And just like that, they were alone, night falling over chill tundra, shadows running blue-black as their cloaks.

They trudged at first, circling the town and the perimeter of the wall. They followed the line of a low hill to avoid breaking the horizon, and circled a kilometer north, and then a kilometer west, before turning to the fortress. The night turned cold with the sun gone. Heather followed Sienna’s example, breathing down into her cloak, trapping some warmth and diffusing the plume of vapor each breath gave away anytime the moon broke through the clouds.

Which was nerve-wrackingly intermittent. A fully cloudy night would have offered better cover, and a moon-lit night would have offered reliable shadows to hide in. But they were at the mercy of the skies as they approached, the Consul moving with purpose. She pointed silently to a section along the northern fortress wall, where the moonlight would be blocked by the quarried stone of the fortress.

“Why there?” murmured Heather.

“Backside of the guardhouse sits about six feet away. If we go through the wall there, we’ll be screened from most of the fortress interior,” said the Lord Corbin. “If we’re luckier than we deserve, they won’t discover that we’ve come or gone.”

It took two hours to make the walk, pausing in shadows, waiting for the moon to fall behind the next cloud. Atop the walls, silent sentries stood, their only motion the occasional flap of a face, caught by the breeze, revealing moonlit bone underneath.

Heather studied the silent figures atop the wall. Bit of a mistake, that. Flapping skin’s going to block some of their peripheral vision. Unless they’ve had the sockets runed to see heat instead of light. But if that’s the case, we’re beacons in the dark anyway, and they’ve known we were coming for a half hour.

The last two hundred yards were agonizing. It required a crouching duck-walk with their cloaks held overtop of their heads, hiding their outline and profile. They paused every time the moon emerged, then scurried forward as soon as the next cloud passed over. Look like a shadow, look like a shadow, just a dark patch of ground, Heather willed herself.

She found herself sweating inside her armor, dripping down her face and into her eyes. Tension, uncomfortable exertion, and the weight of her armor bore down on her body and mind. At any moment, any wrong step, any clank of metal or creak of leather, we could bring down this fortress on our heads, she thought.

Somehow they made it to the wall unseen, and Heather hunched herself against the fortress wall and gulped breaths from between her hands, stifling the noise as best she was able. Sienna tapped her gently on the shoulder and gave her a momentary thumbs-up, before turning her attention to the gray, adamant-rich rock that the fortress wall had been quarried from.

They seethed with runes, of course. Every brick, quarried and cut, then etched on the faces that would see mortar, and runes laid in.

Heather frowned. Imperial army standard doctrine. One exposed face per block, five mortar-covered sides. Five protected sides, five runes. All six if it’s an interior brick, on external fortification. Alarm rune, sapping prevention rune, repair rune, and usually two nasty counter-offensive runes. Consul probably knows that same as me. One yard standard thickness… and we’ll need at least a four by four to squeeze through. That’s sixty-four bricks, Consul, and hundreds of military-grade runes.

“What now?” whispered Heather.

“Now, you pretend for the rest of your life that you didn’t see this,” murmured the Consul with that faux-sweet smile.

Consul Sienna’s fingers brushed brick after brick, flickering flows so tiny and light that even this close, Heather could barely sense them as the slightest tickles on her skin. She knows the flow-keys to disable the wards? Only the imperial sappers and engineers are supposed to know those! No, she doesn’t. She’s picking the locks. Fast.

The Consul was fast. Her swift, controlled flurries of tiny flows, tugging here, weaving there, feeling out the safeguards and working through them almost as fast as an imperial engineer would have. Fire and Air and Water and Ice for this rune. Earth, Time, Air, Air, Water, that rune. A tug, a twist, a curl of a flow, and another rune went quiescent.

Heather felt the Consul lockpick her way through the runes in their path, and grimaced. Careful, Consul. Set one of those off, someone’s going to notice. I don’t fancy a faceful of imperial boobytrap. There might be enough left of us for the necromancer to use. Might.

The Lord Corbin kept his eyes pointed upwards at the tops of the wall, and the skeletal sentries, watching for movement. None came.

By the time the last rune came apart, the moon was setting, and the Consul sagged. They paused for a nervous drink of water, and forced Sienna to take the time to eat some of the jerky and nuts from her pack. It was tense, thirty feet below skeletons eternally vigilant, but no motion or alarm came from inside the fortress.

Corbin forced them to wait, to rest, backs pressed against the wall and cloaks around them to hide their profile, until they’d regained some nerve and the sky had further darkened under evening clouds.

Five minutes later, Sienna touched Corbin and Heather’s arms each, and turned back to her work. She reached a finger out to the mortar joining the wall. A tiny, thin stream of conjured water shot from her fingertip, producing a faint rasping sound so quiet Heather could barely hear it from beside the Consul.

Heather studied Sienna’s handiwork. She’s saturating the mortar with water, and then letting the chill of the night freeze it. Water expands when it freezes. Smart girl, Consul. Powder that mortar. Let physics do the work for you.

It took a few more tense, nervous minutes, before the Consul nodded and let the flows stop. “Take your gloves off, and grab that brick, the mortar should just dust away like snow,” whispered the Consul. “Try not to drop them, they’ll make noise.”

Heather let her fingers brush away the mortar, and sure enough, it fell apart like talcum powder, dusting her fingers white. That’s why she wanted the gloves off first, and why Corbin waited. This dust will reflect a lot of light! Have to be careful to keep it off of our clothes.

It took some work to get a solid grip of the brick, and give it a slow, hard pull. But it slid free easily enough, lubricated by the talc-like powder of the ruined mortar.

Heather grunted in mild surprise as she hefted the first brick down. This brick is heavy! Size of a regular house brick, but it must weigh twenty kilos, easily! Heather set it down as quietly as she could at the base of the wall, grunting with the effort.

The density of this stuff is incredible! Saints, help the poor souls who toiled to lift it out of the mines in the first place. Saints help them now, please.

Corbin and Sienna worked together on their half, pulling bricks down and sharing the weight as they laid them neatly down at the base of the wall. Heather, clearly the strongest of them, had to toil on her own, pulling brick after brick out, and trying to set them down silently as possible. We’re getting covered in this damn dust, Heather noted with a grimace. Good thing the moon’s going down. We’re a few more coatings away from glowing like ghasts ourselves!

Even by faint starlight, the white talc-like powder was making her cloak and armor more visible by the second.

I solemnly swear to the Saints that if I sneeze now, I’m going to beg the Lieutenant to drown me in the sea. If I live long enough, Heather thought.

“Moment of truth…” whispered Sienna. She pulled the last bricks from the final row between them and the interior of the fortress, hefting it down with Corbin, and put her head into the hole.

Six heartbeats passed, during which every vision of a spear or sword or bony hand erupting out the back of the Consul’s head flashed through Heather’s eye.

If we’ve screwed up, if we’ve been spotted, if they are at all prepared for us, we’re dead, right this instant. And none of us know it yet, thought Heather. Some part of her chattered inside, hoping it was so. Maybe I’ll finally be fairly beaten. Maybe Anthony and Steven are finally just one honest mistake away.

“… all clear,” whispered Sienna, and handed the next brick to Heather. Heather laid them down as they were passed to her, making a neat row that hugged the base of the wall. All clear. It almost disappointed Heather. Work to be done, Heather reminded herself bleakly. Work to be done, and nobody to do it but me, right now.

They hauled the last bricks clear, making a hole big enough they could crouch-walk through. The narrow clearance between wall and guardhouse was, in fact, perhaps only four feet wide. The blank stone wall of the structure hid them from all but the corners of the fortress.

Corbin hastily removed his cloak, and reversed it, turning it inside-out before pulling it on, and the Consul followed suit. Guess that’s one way to hide the talc, thought Heather. She reversed her cloak, tucking herself back into the wool, and pulling her gloves back on. It wasn’t perfect, but it hid much of the white rock flour.

They crouched in the shadow of the guardhouse, and watched the walls. The skeleton sentries were absolutely motionless, save for the tug of wind, and all were facing outwards. Armchair general, thought Heather with some small satisfaction. Let’s see how much he’s relying on just one sentry line…

She crouch-walked down the line of the guardhouse, and slowly peeked around the corner.

The inner courtyard of the fortress surrounded the highest point, the mine-head. A lone, dim torch burned, casting just enough light to make out the reflection of bone, and the gleaming, carnal silhouettes of hundreds of corpses, laid out on the ground.

Hundreds of bodies, in neat rows, with skeletons moving amongst them with swords and knives. Wet sounds, butchering sounds, were distantly audible.

Heather seized, a convulsion wracking her spine before she could grip the stone wall and fight the dry heaves threatening to overwhelm her. It wasn’t the charnel horror. It was the sound of butchering. It’s the sound of… of… oh my Saints please…

Corbin grabbed her shoulder, hauled her back, and Heather clenched her eyes shut. It didn’t help. The sound. The sound of Anthony and Steven being butchered. The sound of knife sliding along bone. Wet, slick, sliding sounds. She shoved her thumbs into her ears, fighting off the sound, mouth in a wide rictus.

Words, make the words, they need to know too. Facts. Just the facts. Don’t think about them, don’t think about people, don’t think about your son and your husband and everyone in this fortress. Don’t. Stop. Don’t. Stop. Work. Do the work. Do the work!

Her mouth started to work, mechanical, softly stuttering, as she forced her mind to dissect the glimpse she’d seen.

“Three hundred fifty… f-four hundred… about four hundred corpses. Quarter of them ready to turn. Rest still hav- ha- have to b-be butch-” her throat caught, and she gagged for a long moment. “… butchered. They’re throwing the meat down the h-hole. Looks about forty, fifty skeletons, doing the butchering. Slow. Methodical.” She caught her breath, and opened her eyes. Corbin and Sienna were staring at her, wide-eyed and horrified. Now they were afraid.

They expected this to be simple, for me, Heather realized. Like it was everyday I peek around a corner and find a butchering yard. All that talk of ash golems and dumb skeletons and the like… this is supposed to be simple.  But there are probably a thousand dead people in this fortress. Nothing about that is simple, not to their families or loved ones. Not to the ones left behind.

Heather furiously wrenched her mind out of that chasm, shaking her head sharply, taking the time to bite down hard on the leather of her glove until the urge to scream and scream and scream passed. Corbin and Sienna stared at her, uncertainty brewing on their faces.

“Should we go back?” murmured Corbin.

With a creak, Heather’s jaws opened. She rose to her feet, and shook her head. “We’re not done. Work to do,” she whispered, hoping the conviction in her voice outweighed their uncertainty.

She took another peek around the corner. It wasn’t any better the second time, but now Heather knew what she was looking for. Forty… forty five. Forty five butchering. Fifty-five on the walls. Four hundred or so on the ground. No automatons in sight. Watch the process. How fast are they working? Not fast. No hurry.

Heather’s eyes tracked the methodical trudge of a skeleton. It carried a great slab of meat in its bony hands that had once been someone’s thigh. The skeleton hefted it, and walked towards the depression of the mine head. The ground was slick and shiny with gore, blood running down the bare stone and draining into the mine.

The skeleton stopped at the minehead to toss the meat down into the blackness like yesterday’s rubbish. Then it walked back up to resume the job on the corpse, plucking up a dagger and setting to work on the next leg.

Count. Watch. Looks like it’s taking them hours. Slow work. They really want these bones in the best condition. Forty-five skeletons… one, two, three, four… Heather’s count reached two hundred and forty-two before the next skeleton approached the mine head. At this pace they’ll be a week yet before they’ve got these corpses all ready, easily.

Corbin gently tapped her elbow. “Other side. We’ve got a view of the smelter,” he murmured.

Heather followed to the east side of the guardhouse, peeking over Sienna’s shoulder. It was a far more pleasant sight, at least relative to the butchering yard. They had a clear line of sight through the fortress grounds to the ore piled high by the smelter. White bone was everywhere, scrambling, moving like ants over the corpse of a caribou, carrying away bits of the dense stone.

Up, up they climbed, plucking stone from the top, and carrying it slowly down, trudging like shackled slaves, spines bent under the weight of the rock they carried. From there, the rocks dropped into a crusher, which was being driven by a dozen skeletons pushing the large crank in a slow, torturous circle.

Crushed rock fell out the other side of the machine, and was promptly shoveled up by a swarm of skeletons carrying shovelful after shovelful up to the smelter proper, where they disappeared from view. They emerged a half-minute later with empty shovels, only to repeat the cycle.

The white-hot glow of molten metal lit the final stage in a hellish hue, and this stage had no skeletons surrounding it, only the bulky forms of the mining automatons, immune to the terrible heat. They appeared to be pouring the metal into clay moulds, one crucible’s worth after another. The brass of their parts shone, throwing bright orange reflections about crazily as arms worked.

Some of them are discoloured. Is that soot, or… Heather caught her breath. “They’re replacing their parts with adamant,” she whispered. “You were almost right, M’Lord. No wonder they’re so far behind schedule on the corpses. They’ve had all their efforts on smelting. An adamant golem turned for war would shrug off cannonfire at point blank range.  Four dozen of them…”

”May well be an army all their own,” the Lord murmured, completing the thought. “They’ll beat down a city gate or wall tirelessly, open the defenses, absorb most of the punishment without so much as a scratch or dent. Soft ground would stop them, but little else would.”

“Would mining explosives do the trick?” asked the Consul, pointing the way. “Two automatons and four skeletons guarding the armory, it looks like. Safe bet they’re still keeping the explosives safe, just in case. A little too obvious of a threat to leave unguarded.”

Heather grimaced, sharing a look with Corbin. “Maybe,” said Heather. “You’d probably need multiple charges, all at once. Even if you could stuff one into the works, if they’re fully adamant, it might survive. If it isn’t, well, you’ll stop the automaton, but most of the troublesome parts will be usable again later.”

Sienna pulled her head back behind the building once again, and then paused and craned her ear up. “Too much risk. And, does anybody else hear that? I think I hear a voice.”

Heather and Corbin both went still, holding their breath, listening for a few long heartbeats. Slow shakes of their head.

“No,” murmured Heather.

Sienna grimaced. “Maybe it’s a trick of the acoustics off the walls. Here. Crouch where I am. Tip your ear towards that corner of the fortress.” Heather crouched, angling her head in the direction the Consul pointed.

At first there was nothing, but then she caught the first hint of it. She froze, and she slowly closed her eyes, panning her ears back and forth.

… there it is. Whispering. Can’t make it out, though. Bouncing off the stone. Dense stone like this and all these surfaces plays hell with the acoustics. We’ll have to be more careful. Our whispers could be doing the same, anywhere around here.

Heather held up a hand to her mouth, looked between the two, and emphatically tapped her lips. Gestures of her hand hopefully conveying her discovery, a tap to the ears, a tap to the mouth, pointing all along the walls. It took Corbin a moment to understand, but Sienna was already nodding and casting new eyes around the fortress walls.

Heather looked between the two. If we leave now, we leave with what we know. That the town is going to be overrun, with or without Ooluk’s help. Even his wall won’t stand up to tireless monsters like these, not for long enough to matter, Heather thought to herself.

Maybe we’re hearing a survivor, if we’re lucky. If we’re really lucky, we’re hearing an unwary necromancer who’ll obligingly keep his back turned long enough for me to brain him. If we’re unlucky, we’ll be just as doomed as we are already, anyway.

She got Sienna and Corbin’s attention, and then moved, darting from one building to the next as silently as she could. Heather tried to stick between buildings, away from sightlines. The skeletons working the corpses were mostly absorbed in their work, but one glance up at the wrong time would alert them. Corbin and Sienna followed, startled, Sienna’s hand trying to dig into Heather’s pauldron. Heather shrugged her off with an angry, warning glance. No, we’re not leaving now, Consul. We’re here, and we’ve got a job to do. I’m not stopping.

Heather darted around another corner, and skidded on her heels, nearly running into the back of a skeleton. It was carrying an armful of candles, walking out of a storehouse. A rustling from beyond the darkened door promised it wasn’t the only one.

BACK BACK BACK BACK BACK! screamed Heather in her own mind, arms outstretched, Corbin and Sienna vanishing into the shadows behind her. Heather’s boot scraped the stone with a soft rasp, but by the time the skeleton turned at the noise, she was out of sight.

Heather’s heart hammered against her ribcage so hard she was afraid the noise would give her away, and the grip of her hand on her father’s mace was so hard that a knuckle popping audibly was a very real possibility. Magic thrummed within her, fuelled by her fright, begging to be released and give them all away.

But after a long glance, the incurious skeleton turned back, and resumed its errand.

Thirty seconds later, another skeleton emerged from the store-room, also bearing an armful of candles, and shut the door. After a slow count of sixty, Heather looked again. All clear. She walked swiftly into the store-room, and waved a beckoning hand from inside. Sienna, then Corbin, darted inside behind her. All three let out a hard gasp in unison.

To Heather’s surprise, neither Corbin nor Sienna asked for any light. The room was pitch black, silent but for them. “What’s the plan?” murmured Sienna’s voice.

“I think the whispering is coming from the mine. Ooluk said he could hear whispers and flooding in the mine earlier. As ghastly as it is, I think we know now what’s causing the flooding,” muttered Heather. “But there might be survivors in there. I want to get into the mine and find out.”

“That’s a fifty-yard dash across a mostly wide-open space, Blackthorne,” pointed out Corbin. “Only cover I’ve seen are the tailings piles and the arsenic barrels.”

“Arsenic?” asked Heather.

Corbin smiled ruefully. “Not much good against the already dead. It’s for processing the ore, helps leach the adamant out. They use it by the tonne on the tailings.”

Heather shook her head. “Not much good against the already-dead,” she agreed. “Is the coast clear? Could we make a dash for it?”

Sienna slowly eased the door of the storeroom open, and peeked through. “Clear. Think we’ll find the necromancer responsible for all this, down there?” she murmured, as she crept out the door. Her head swung slowly around the corner, and she went still, head cocked for Heather’s response.

“No,” said Heather. “He’s in the east barracks. That’s where the skeletons with the candles were headed. No good reason a skeleton would need them. I’m itching to go bash in his skull, but there’s no way we get that close to him unnoticed.”

“Let’s leave being dead to the better qualified men already on the walls,” muttered Corbin. “Sienna, how is it looking out there?”

No response was forthcoming from the Consul. Corbin’s hand reached out to touch her arm, and it still elicited no response. Alarmed, Heather took a handful of Sienna’s pauldron and hauled her back. “Consul? Keep your head. What did you see?”

“I…” Sienna’s eyes blinked rapidly, and she looked back and forth between the two. “Well give me a chance to look!” she hissed, and leaned her head back again slowly around the corner.

And froze, again.

Corbin and Heather traded glances. “I’ll look,” the Lord Goldbrace murmured. He crept up close behind Sienna, and slowly followed her gaze around the corner. And froze.

Saints and ashes, preserve me from the tread of fools. Heather’s heart was pounding too hard to sanction rolling her eyes, but it was a close thing as she reached forward and hauled the two physically back by the scruff of their necks, onto their asses. Both, to her gratitude, expressed their surprise silently, as they peered owlishly up at her.

“Stop,” whispered Heather. “That makes both of you, freezing up. Do you recall what you saw?”

Corbin shook his head. “Last thing I remember is the Consul’s backside.”

Sienna shot him a look that suggested he was fraying her patience, but answered Heather dutifully. “I remember turning to try to look again.”

Heather blew out a breath. “Okay. I think I know how they got every last soldier here, all at once. Consul, you’ve got a mirror.”

It wasn’t really a question, and Heather wasn’t the least bit surprised by now when the consul produced one from her sleeve. It was a small mirror no bigger than a coin, on the end of a thin, pointed metal rod. Doubles as a shiv, noted Heather.

“Mind the tip,” murmured Sienna helpfully. “Poisoned.”

Heather gave an exasperated grunt, and then eased the mirror around the corner. “If I freeze up too long, break my line of sight with the mirror,” she murmured to Corbin. Glad it’s a small mirror. Narrow field of view. If it’s what I think it is, it might make the difference.

The small mirror swept slowly, revealing in piecemeal glimpses the same butchery as before. The bodies were laid out in neat rows, skeletons moving, paring flesh from bone, hunched over bodies chill and cool in the night air. Right temperature to preserve without freezing, just yet. Where’s the officer’s podium. They’ve got to have someplace to address everyone and deliver the Emperor’s orders from. The-

-re-

-it is…

Heather forced herself to blink, closed one eye, and then the other, changing the sight angles without moving the mirror. The stuttering pattern of her own thoughts grew alarming, and she drew a long breath. Start with the perimeter of it. White. Patterns. Black on white. Lines. Don’t put it all together in your head all at once. Just enough to get the gist of it.

Corbin murmured softly: “You alright there, Knight Blackthorne? You’re twitching oddly.”

Heather grunted. “Yeah. Those bastards. Don’t look again. You’ll just get caught. They put up a banner, right on the commanding officer’s podium. It’s a rune, a mesmerizing one. Make eye contact with it long enough to make out the whole of it and hold it in your head, and it seizes you.” She handed the mirror back to Sienna.

Sienna made a frustrated noise. “So they reveal it in front of all the soldiers at a general assembly. Everyone locks up at once. Slit their throats in nice, easy lines, all standing at attention. That must be why the bodies are all laid out so uniformly. They fell where they died.”

You’re altogether too quick at this sort of business for comfort, Consul, thought Heather, eying the woman warily. No wonder they sent you up north. I get the feeling you’re somebody’s idea of a nasty plan B.

“Exactly,” muttered Heather. “Either compromise the commanding officer first, and have him order the general assembly, or else arrange for it to be unfurled where they would all see it.”

“Either way, how do we avoid getting snared by it again?” inquired the Lord Corbin. “If a mere glance is all it takes to seize me.”

“Don’t glance,” said Sienna. “Squint hard enough to blur the details if you have to look that way, or better yet, don’t look that way at all.”

“And don’t glimpse it enough to put the picture of it together in your own head,” added Heather. “You can’t remember what it looked like because memories take a few seconds to form, and by then you’re already mesmerized. Which is a mercy, because otherwise you’d freeze again every time you recalled it.”

Corbin glanced back over his shoulder. “Damn it. Skeleton coming back for more candles, I think. We’ve got ten seconds to decide what we’re doing.”

“The mesmerizing rune’s on the officer’s podium. Sixty yards east of the mine head,” Heather said quickly. “Commit to the rush, get down the mine-head as fast as you can, don’t look east. Go.”

Cloaks around them, they broke for cover and dashed, fleeting shadows moving from cover to tailings pile. They swung around the south side of the tailings and dove behind the large arsenic barrels screening them from the rest of the yard. No sound of alarm rose, no arrows rained down from above. Sienna held up a hand, signalling them to silently wait, and she gave a slow scan of the butchering field, holding up a finger to block out the podium’s direction from her field of view.

The skeletons continued their grisly toil, making no reaction to the passage of the three nearby. Heather let out a shaky breath as Sienna ducked back down beside them. “Two incoming with meat for the pit. As soon as they turn their backs, it’s our best chance. How do we take the elevator without raising all the world’s racket?”

“We don’t,” Heather said. “We’ll go down the emergency ladders. Back out the same way, if we can. There are emergency ladders, right?”

Corbin grunted. “Better. There’s ramps. Dwarves cut good stone. Listen, there’s the whispering again.”

It was muffled by the skeletons’ grisly work, but there was an undeniable sound of whispering that echoed from the mine-head. The trio peered between barrels and watched as the two skeletons walked into the open mine-head structure, and dumped great armfuls of meat and offal down the open shaft. Their retreating footsteps were far noisier than the whisper, but it was there. A voice, or voices, fractured and whispering from the dark.

They dashed from cover, hugging the wall of the minehead building, and slipped inside. The elevator wasn’t at the shaft, but the grating and stone around the hole was slick and black with old blood and new. Faint light bled up the hole from the glowstone torches below, revealing the deep, smooth-cut bore of the mineshaft. Heather followed close to Sienna’s back, and unslung her mace.

Everything was quiet, but for the wet sounds of blood dripping onto stone, and the occasional distant, echo-fractured whisper. The mine was entirely unguarded.

 


Are you enjoying From Winter’s Ashes? If so, please vote for us on TopWebFiction.com, or better yet, write a review at WebFictionGuide.com!

From Winter’s Ashes cannot continue without your financial support. If you’re enjoying the story, and finding good value in our entertainment, please contribute to our Patreon or PayPal


Click here to read Chapter 6.1 – Red-Handed