They sprinted down the blood-slick walkway, Heather and Corbin both skidding as they followed the curve around the mine shaft. Sienna kept her balance perfectly as she sprinted the curve, and threw open the steel door leading back to the safety of the emergency tunnels. Blood continued to rain on them from above, red droplets falling from points and seams in the stone as if the earth itself had begun to bleed around them.
“Saints alive, I swear I’ll never eat black pudding again,” groaned Corbin, as he slammed the door shut behind them.
The steep stone ramps were still bare and dry of blood, and Heather leaned herself into the run. It was hard work running uphill at such a steep angle, but it didn’t hurt the way going down the ramps had. Not even the stone and steel doors could entirely cut out the noise of the pumps thrumming, though. Saints, please let that be miners that started the pumps, and not that bloody abomination. Please let it not be that smart.
With the whispers cut off, her head felt clearer, and the pounding of her heart and the burning of her lungs as they ran up the ramps became fog enough. Steven, you were always the better runner, taking down the dockside perps. But docks are flat. You didn’t have to hare uphill with a rising tide of blood at your heels.
Sienna sprinted past her, her backside lit in the silver-white light of the fire burning at the end of Heather’s mace. The blazing magic on it was fed by Heather’s frantic desire to be free of this place. Can’t help it. Dad used to light this mace in the dark when I was a girl, and check the closet for monsters. Made me feel safe.
Heather looked back over her shoulder at the next turn, holding back enough for Corbin. He was hitching in his run, his legs clearly unused to the exertion, sweat starting to bead on his forehead. He threw his hands down atop his knees to heave breath: “Do you two — have mountain goats — in your ancestry?” he groaned.
That’s only twelve ramps so far. We’ve got so many more to go. “If you’ve got breath to complain, you’ve got breath to run, m’Lord,” said Heather. “Go!”
The Lord Goldbrace took three more breaths, and then lurched back into his hitching run. Boots pounded stone, and even Sienna’s breathing came in a hard rasp from up ahead, as they wound up and up through the dark. Every sound of distant droplets, every suggestion of a rasp or a whisper, fed into their adrenaline.
Heather grimaced. Feels like running up the stairs of mama’s old root cellar, away from the dark. Only this time there’s definitely something behind you. And the smell of blood is in the air in here too, now. Not good. Those pumps are pushing blood up the shaft faster than we’re running. We took a few drips while we were in here, going down. It must know about the tunnels. Floor’s wet up ahead –
“Knight! We’ve got blood on the stone here!” called Sienna.
“Keep running! Don’t stop!” bellowed Heather, her roaring voice echoing hard off the stone. Just have to keep running, don’t let it slow us down. Blood on the ramps, it’s going to be slick.
She shoved Corbin in front of her, and propelled him up the blood-slick ramp, the dribbling puddle running up the ramp, spreading out as it ran. Corbin’s left boot slipped on a smear of crimson, and he caught himself at the cost of a stumble, and an ugly, crunching sound in his hitching hip.
“Hngf!” The sound exploded out of the Lord Goldbrace’s mouth.
The Lord’s left hand shot out to plant against the wall, and Heather helped lift him to his feet, away from the spreading, flowing puddle that was trickling their way.
“Are you alright, M’lord?” asked Heather, around her panting.
“Think I might trade that hip for one of the spares topside?” grimaced the Lord Goldbrace. “I’m sure our villain could be convinced. I’ll put mine up for consignment.”
Heather propelled him onwards, perhaps a little harder than necessary. But not half as hard as he deserves for that crack. Boots scuffed stone, and left smears of red in their wake, the blood pooling up in droplets each time that rolled inexorably uphill in their passing.
Tiny murmurs, the most distant of whispers, began to creep into the silence around their panting breaths, thudding hearts, and the slap of boots on stone as they ran. Every sprinting step sent Heather’s mace bouncing, flinging the light and shadows crazily around the stone ahead and behind.
“More blood ahead!” called Sienna. “Wait, stop!” Her arms flew out to each side, barring the way, and Heather and Corbin both ran into her arms before they could pull to a stop.
Heather counted the turns mentally. Thirty seven ramps we’ve run. We’re three below the second shelter. Saints damn it all.
Blood was pouring down the ramp towards them in a steady, frothing flow, a few litres per second. It spreading out slick and wet on the ramps.
“Three more ramps to go for the next shelter. Run! Go, go!” Heather barked, lunging forward.
The Consul’s warning came too late, as Heather’s boot planted itself on the stone slope, as she threw herself into the sprint… only to slip as though the stone were greased. Momentum and gravity drove her head down into the bloodied stone as her foot went out from under her. The impact stunned her, Heather’s hands waving vaguely in the air around her head, her helmet still ringing from where steel had met rock. She slid down the ramp, and struggled up to her knees, her father’s mace guttering and flickering as she lost focus. Blood began to trickle from her nose.
Ow. Ow ow ow. Not quite a concussion. Helmet’s padding took the worst of it. Can’t just run up it. Think, Detective. Blood on the stone, too steep and slick to run. Thirty seven ramps up, and easily eighty-five more to get to the top. The blood’s flowing in again, sweet blood, thrumming, pumping, pulssssing GET OUT OF MY HEAD!
Heather forced herself to her feet, and threw her anger into her silvered mace. Down onto the stone she slammed it, a sheet of fire spreading out ahead. The flame flashed over the wet stone, and filled the tunnel with the horrid smell of burnt blood. Heather gagged, but lunged forward across the scorched-dry stone, and gained another twist of the ramp before she had to repeat the act.
Up went the mace, out went her anger. Burn it all. Cleanse it all. No more blood. No more filth. Down came the mace, and where it touched stone, fire carpeted the ramp once again. Just long enough to flash-dry another thin, brown layer atop the stone. Enough to give them footing.
Corbin and Sienna followed with uncertain glances, their wounds bleeding freely once again. They fought their way up to the top of the next ramp, choking on the fumes of the burning blood. The source of the growing flow of blood was revealed as they crested the top of the ramp: The steel door to the second shelter level was partly open, blood a foot deep pouring through the crack between door and frame.
Not just blood, but that chorus of whispering voices, poured through the gap:
“Come join. Blood. Flow. Be free. Gushhh. Trickle. Drip drop. Drip drop. Sing. Sing in your veins. Slave to the heart be free run free. Lub-dub tyranny. Flow.”
Obediently, Heather’s nosebleed intensified. She could place that horrid, creeping feeling that had been stealing up on her. Flows usually felt distinct from her own body to Heather, proprioception suggesting tactile sensations at a distance. But this time it was in her body. Flows of water, inside her own arteries and veins, trying to find a way to drain her dry.
The fluid pressure is pushing open the door. Need to staunch the flow. No, let it open, drain it, ffflow let the blood go OUT. GET OUT. Heather’s hand slammed against her helmet, pushing her padded helmet against her ears. The impact of her own hands made her nauseatingly dizzy for a second. Maybe a little concussion. Saints damn it.
Heather wasn’t the only one struggling with it, now. Corbin and Sienna were both staring transfixed, as the blood pooled around their ankles. Corbin’s hand and Sienna’s cheek both bled with alarming freedom, dripping out into the flow. The drops ran past them and down, inevitably down, to where the reservoir of its abomination waited at the bottom of the mine.
The knight threw her shoulder against the steel door, and heaved, planting her boots against the slick stone and leaning her weight against the door. Slowly, too slowly, the door began to close, and with it the creeping whispers and voices fled their ears, and her mind. “Consul! Throw some flows of ice past the door! Freeze some blood so it stops the flow, so I can get this damned door closed!”
Sienna shook herself, and wavered on her feet, the Consul’s eyes tearing themselves away from the sickly red flow rising around their boots. Heather watched the Consul fight for enough mental clarity to rewind, and find Heather’s words. Sienna’s hand rose to shakingly touch her flowing cut on her cheek, and came away, staring at the blood on her fingertips as if surprised to see it there. “O-okay. I’m on … I’m on it.”
Corbin put his shoulder to the door alongside Heather, grimacing in pain as his hip shook under the strain. The blood flow pushed back at them, hundreds of pounds of pressure building as the flow of blood rose. The volume fed either by the pumps, or the horrific tenacity of the abomination.
“NOW, Consul!” roared Heather. “I can’t hold this door against the flood!”
The Consul’s hands came together in a sharp clap, and she threw her palms forward, and blew between them. A stream of hoarfrost spat from her mouth, and hit the door with a CLANG! Next came the tortured squeal of steel and ice, as the flows passed through the door and into the space beyond. Mist gathered in the damp air and snowed down around Heather.
Heather could feel every flow. Sienna’s magic drove direct, powerful flows of Ice through the door, drawing out the ambient heat of the blood and the mine door. Heather wrenched her gauntlets free of the steel as the spreading hoarfrost froze across the door. Tortured metal pinged and squealed complaint as expanding ice flexed the metal further.
Sienna’s hands didn’t waver. Her eyes were frightened, her face caught in a snarl of aggression, as she poured her freezing, icy fear through the flows. Corbin stepped back from the cold with a muttered curse, wiping his fingertips against his sleeve. “Think that will hold it long?” he asked.
“No,” said Heather. “Door opens into the tunnels. Fluid pressure will push the door open. Anyone here any good with Earth flows? Be nice to flow some rock around the steel, jam the door.”
“Afraid not,” murmured Corbin. He fell in beside Sienna, and muttered an apology as he leaned against her, easing the weight off his hip.
“Nor I,” said Sienna, her voice suddenly small and exhausted. Her hands dropped. “Got about six cubic metres of frozen blood out there. It will hold a while. I can’t do any more. Too hard to hold the flows when I’m this scared.” Her hand sought out Corbin’s, and gave it a squeeze. Her hands were shaking, her knuckles white.
I’m scared, too, but I’m used to it, Heather realized in dull surprise. I’m just used to it. It’s been with me ever since my boys died. It doesn’t get any better. You just get used to it.
The glow of Heather’s mace had dwindled to no brighter than a few gathered candles, as her focus had waned. In the cold white light, the blood running down Sienna’s face was a ghastly crimson accent to the tender way she leaned against Corbin’s chest.
The Consul looked up towards the Lord Golbrace. “If this is how we die, Corbin?” she whispered. “By your hand. Not my own. Please.”
Corbin’s eyes sparked in pain, little electrical crackles around the corners of his eyes sounding off where tears couldn’t. It was anguish and grief and longing all pushed out of him in one errant flow of magic, before he could bring it under control with a frown.
“Straight and true,” he promised her. “But if I’m to finally have your heart, I’d rather it not be at the end of my blade.”
Sienna shot him a look that any woman could have read. Heather had given it to Steven enough, once upon a time: You idiot, you already have, long ago.
“Let’s keep moving,” murmured Heather. “Long way to climb, and we’re giving ground to this horror.”
They lurched into motion again, tired, hurried steps, up mercifully dry stone. The thrumming of the pumps wore on, fading behind them. Their sprinting up the ramps soon turned into exhausted plodding, one foot after another, until it was all Heather could do to put her next boot forward. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Get these people free and safe. Take back what we’ve learned. Make the bastards pay.
They hadn’t made it up twenty more ramps when the distant sound of steel crashing into rock echoed through the tunnel. Corbin fell to his knees, panting, his left leg forcing itself straight as the muscles seized.
“Tell me that came from behind us,” Sienna whispered.
“I hope so,” said Heather grimly.
The sound of rushing liquid was unmistakeable now. It was a wet, approaching gurgling, coming too fast to be moving uphill. Heather’s eyes flew wide. Too far to run to safety, nowhere to go, nothing to slow it down. This is how I die. In a flash-flood of blood.
Heather slammed her mace onto her belt loop, and hastily tied it into place, the light from it dimming. Corbin and Sienna both turned in protest as their last remaining light source grew so dim in the face of onrushing doom.
Heather’s arms lashed out to wrap hard around the Lord and Consul’s arms. “Grab hold of each other. Do not let go. Try to keep your heads in. Hold tight.”
Corbin and Sienna staggered in to obey Heather. Corbin moved wearily into the embrace, and Sienna couldn’t fight back her trembling as she gripped an arm around each offered to her. The onrushing blood sounded like a waterfall, a roaring torrent crashing against stone. Air gusted past them as it was displaced, stinking and reeking of blood so foul it was all they could taste.
“When the current takes us, lean into the ramp, try to keep our feet forward. Lean into the curve of the ramps,” said Heather. “Here it comes.”
The flow swept them off their feet in an instant, a wave of blood four feet high. It crashed into them, and they tumbled in the flow, clutching tightly to one another.
Blood flowed over Heather’s face, and she fought to surface, failed, kicked her feet against stone rushing by, and bought herself a breath. Hips and shoulders cried protest as they battered and scraped against smooth stone, boots thudding into rock ledges as they tumbled. There was nothing to hear but the gurgling flow of blood on rock, the occasional half-scream when Sienna or Corbin managed to surface.
The flow was fast, and it had nothing to slow it down but the curves of the ramp. Heather could feel her nose throbbing, a strangely pleasant relief as her blood fled her body.
This is how I die. Just flowing away. Flow. Away. F-free… be part… join.
She lost count of the times she slammed into stone. Breaths came, now and then, as the flow deepened, and they whirled in the pitch black that smelled of blood, and were swept back the way they came.
Corbin went rigid, and then limp, as he fought to get his head above the blood. Sienna’s arm broke away from Heather’s, fighting to keep Corbin’s head above the flow, groping blindly.
The blood’s warm. Not cold. Slick. Comforting. Welcoming. Why shouldn’t I die here? No more dreams. No more nightmares. Steven, Anthony, you’re so close now. I didn’t give up. I just got beat.
The thought filled her with a calm satisfaction.
Nothing I can do now. I’ll just fight until I lose. And then I’m home, with you.
Heather’s helmet struck stone hard, and her head went achey and warm all over. Her face slipped under the flow of blood. It flooded her nose, her sinuses, filling her mouth with the coppery tang. The world fell away from her senses, and she could see herself, sweeping down the torrents of blood in the dark. Somewhere, far away, someone who looked and sounded like her was gagging. Then twice their body heaved, fighting for air that wouldn’t come.
Why don’t they just give in, and die? she wondered.
A vision of half-grown sunflowers, bent over and dusted with snow, flit through her mind. It was important, somehow. Heather turned her mind’s eye away from the thrashing of her choking body. Somewhere far away she was dying, she was sure. Somewhere, far away, she was drowning in the blood of strangers, and would end up as dry a husk as Montague and all the rest.
Sunflowers in the snow.
Sienna was wailing. Her right arm was flopping wrong, against Heather’s side. Broken below the elbow, probably, Heather noted. She pushed away the distraction. Something was coming up inside her. Tightening her belly. Making her gorge rise.
Must be the blood I swallowed. Wonder if it’s pulling it out of me that way?
The vision flit across her imagination again.
Sunflowers, growing in the snow. Planted over the little graves. Children’s graves. They’ll never get a chance to bloom and seed. They won’t get to grow up. Just like my Anthony.
There was light, past her closed eyelids. Bright red light, and a hissing noise, with bubbling heat close by. The flow of blood had eddied and slowed. Corbin’s arm was still in hers.
Heather planted a boot against the floor, and kicked up in the neck-deep blood. Her eyes opened. Anger burned uncontrollably inside her, seeking an outlet through her father’s mace. Her mace strained at the knot she’d made in the loop, blazing so brightly under the surface that the blood was boiling away from it. It threw enough light through the blood that she could see the mace-head.
Corbin was unconscious, his face gaping open, a bubble of blood bursting from his lips as he breathed, though only barely. Sienna had her eyes open wildly, her face painted as crimson as Corbin’s.
Ooluk’s voice rose in Heather’s memory, the pained resolve he’d held between his teeth, superimposed on her vision of the sunflower.
Not one child. Not ever a child.
Not one more.
Heather’s voice rose in a scream of raw fury, and her hand plunging down into the blood to wrap around her mace. The traction of the sharkskin wrap she’d added days ago paid off now, as she tore her mace off the leather loop with a sharp jerk. She brought the mace up overhead in a hissing splash of blood, throwing flaring, flaming light like a miniature sun all around them.
They’d washed into the bottom floor of the mine. Corpses, dry as cordwood, bobbed like a flotsam raft near the noisy, sucking entrance of the pumps. Blood flowed around the dried husks, and disappeared into the wide, grated pipes beneath.
Heather’s head was a buzzing roar of concussion and fury, thoughts articulated not as words anymore, but simply on where her eyes locked onto. Pumps, sucking. Thrum means pumping means power. Elevator shaft. Switch.
She threw herself forward, dragging Corbin and Sienna along, ignoring the pained shout it produced from the movement of the Consul’s broken arm. Stone under her booted feet changed to steel grating, and her mace slammed hard into the switch at the base. The switch broke off the panel on the upward swing, and the the world around them gave a shudder and groan of metallic complaint.
Heather dropped as the level of the blood around her did. The elevator rose, sending the blood lapping around her thighs draining through the steel grating underfoot. The whispery screams of the abomination fell away into darkness behind them, calling longingly after them:
“Flow! Lub-dub! Hemorrhage! Drip!”
Sienna threw Corbin down face-down, and watched as he vomited up blood through the grating on the floor. It too fell away beneath them. Too dulled by horror to react beyond staring, Sienna looked as frightened of Heather as she did of the situation.
Why’s she staring at me?
Oh. I’m still screaming.
The notes of her ongoing roar were furious, hysterical. It was a berserker’s scream. Every breath she drew erupted from her lungs again moments later. Her gauntlet was smoking and smoldering, the silvered mace she was holding aloft glowing orange through most of its length. Her thoughts floated like a cork in a tsunami, a tiny speck of reason riding a titanic wave of emotion.
I can’t hold onto all this anger. It has to go somewhere. I can’t control this. I can’t control anything anymore. If we die here it’s every child in Frostmoor. It’s everyone. All their families. Just like mine. No.
Her hand clenched harder on her mace, her scream cutting off into a rictus grimace of rage, and grief.
Her mace was as a sun, blazing away so hot her tabard began smoking, curling away with the smell of blood and ash. Heather unslung her shield from her back, slammed it into place on her left arm, and glared down at Sienna. “Bind your arm. We’re topside in two minutes.” Heather’s voice croaked as she spoke, and she hawked and spat clotted blood, her eyes wild and burning as they reflected the light from her mace.
Sienna didn’t need to be told twice. She slung her wrist between her knees, pressed her thighs shut around the limb, and leaned back. The Consul pulled at her own arm, and bit off a cry of pain. The bones inside her arm gave a grotesque crunch of bone on bone as she set the break.
Her other hand pulled a blood-sodden linen bandage free from a pouch, and she wrapped it hard around the arm. Then she spat thin threads of her fear into ice, freezing the blood-soaked bandage like plaster around her arm.
Competent woman. I’ll never look down my nose at a Consul again, thought Heather. Her eyes rose to the darkness above, shield upraised, cautious of attack by skeletons or blood from above.
There’s no missing the noise of the pumps, but even if the pumps turning on might sound routine, there’s no way they’ll miss the noise of the elevator rising. Every wall around them was blood-coated, the crimson streamers inexorably creeping upwards. The pipes of the drain-pump system seemed to rattle and shake at their passing, as if trying to burst from their prison and reach for the escaping morsels.
It was Heather’s upturned eyes that saved her. The glint of falling metal reflected in the blazing light of her father’s mace gave her just enough warning. Heather brought her shield up sharply, and hooked the edge on the guardrail, ducking underneath it. Pipe cap, or something like it. Four pounds of steel there, easy. Let the shield do the work. Deflect, don’t absorb, or it won’t just be Sienna nursing a broken arm.
Heather angled her shield, and the steel pipe-cap went SPANG! off her shield, ricocheting violently off into the stone below. A small chunk of stone broke free from the impact, falling away. Heather counted four more ricochets of steel crashing into rock beneath them. Blood began raining down on them from above once more, gushing from the point the pipe-cap had come from.
Can’t hurt us now, Heather thought. She raised her blazing mace, and threw her anger up and through it. A belch of fire roared out of the top of the mace, expanding in a cone, hot enough to flash away the droplets. Those few that got through sizzled and scalded, but it felt good to finally fight back against the thing, as trivial a resistance as it might be.
I hope it burns you, you horror. I hope it hurts with every drop.
“Blackthorne! The cables!” said Sienna. “Don’t let them get too hot.”
“They won’t have time to,” growled Heather. “We’re almost there. Get ready. We’ve made enough noise. They’ll know we’re coming. Watch for arrows and spears.”
Corbin groaned, and shakily fought his way to his knees. He tried to rise further, but Sienna grabbed him. “Stay down, Corbin,” Sienna said. “Save your strength. Time to run soon.”
The Lord Goldbrace didn’t have a snappy remark, this time. Just a single, pain-slurred word: “Okay.”
Bad sign, Heather thought. If he doesn’t have something to say, he’s got nothing to spare. Damn it. Can’t rely on his sword out there. Up to me.
They passed the fire-hose spray of blood from one of the drain-pump pipes, and watched in horrified wonder as the spray twisted and curved in unnatural ways. It kept reaching for them, and had to be fought back by belch after belch of fire from the end of Heather’s mace. It coiled and lashed around like a thing alive, at one point the stream arcing up after them before it inevitably lost to gravity, and fell away into the pit.
“When we reach the top, keep your eyes down and run. Straight for the hole we left in the wall. Run and don’t look back. I’ll take up the rear,” said Heather. “Try to keep the skeletons off your back long enough for you to get clear.”
“And what of you?” grunted Corbin.
“They’ll have to be good enough to take me down, M’Lord.”
“Heard enough soldiers vow to die, Blackthorne. Sorry, Detective. But the mission priority is to get you back, with your head full of knowledge. My family might not see it that way, but I’m secondary to that. We’ll follow your orders. It’s your command. But we’re like to follow them faster if we know you’re running with us,” the Lord Goldbrace said with an apologetic smile.
Heather snarled, and slammed her mace against the guardrail. “Then run when I say run. Get ready.”
The elevator car clanged to a stop against the top brakes of the shaft, motor giving a tortured whine. “RUN!” bellowed Heather.
They bolted out from the elevator, into a room that was dark and quiet, the door still open. No skeletons welcomed them, no automatons swung out from the shadows. No arrows flit through the dark to claim their lives.
No skeletons, nothing stopping us? Is it a trap? Heather sprinted for the doorway, mace blazing bright, the weapon held ready to swing.
It was bloody pandemonium outside.
Great, surging waves of blood were erupting from the sewer grates around the fortress. Like an angry crimson ocean, wild with storm, waves rose and fell in the flood. They crashed into corpses with glee. Skeletons were swept up in the flow, dashed hard enough against rock walls and buildings to shatter bone. Where they fell, most failed to rise again.
It was a sight so surreal that it brought all three of them to a halt. Skeletons were being crushed by each wave, and shattered against the nearest convenient rock surfaces with a noisy clatter. The automatons had stopped in their work, staring without reaction as blood flowed like a river around them, seeking out the bones and bodies of the dead.
“What’s it doing?” whispered Sienna, her eyes flying wide at the spectacle.
Heather’s eyes narrowed as she tracked the fate of a skeleton dashed against stone. It flailed helplessly as its right femur split like a log on the stone wall.
“It’s cracking them for their marrow. It wants the blood inside.” Heather’s reply came with an incredulous, weary laugh.
It’s devouring them. Every one of them it can reach. The corpses. The skeletons. The villains responsible for this, if they’re dumb enough to put themselves in reach. They didn’t know it was down there, festering.
“We’re the mice who’ve led the fox to the henhouse,” Corbin said. “Apparently you can get blood from a stone.” Weary relief grated in his voice.
Heather’s gaze came perilously close towards the officer’s podium and the still-active, seething rune. That trap is still active, waiting to ensnare us if we catch an eyeful. Better take care of that, she thought.
Heather flung her mace out ahead of her, and sent a celebratory blaze of light and fire off the weapon, towards the podium. “Let’s take our victories where we can, tonight.”
The thin little fireball arced across the courtyard and smashed into the hanging banner with a shower of sparks. The rune’s fabric caught fire immediately, and it cast orange, smoky light across the madness of the courtyard. The wooden podium behind it began to smoke and burn.
Some skeletons noticed the blaze, but they had no chance to respond to it. They were too busy being swept up and shattered against the fortress walls. The skeletons safe on the walls watched impassively, their attention drawn by all the commotion. But they hadn’t been ordered to fire on blood, and so they took no action.
“Take that, you bastards!” swore Heather, as she watched the podium burn. Her eyes dropped from the blazing, now-harmless tapestry, and fell on the arsenic barrels in a row alongside the mine. She gave a ghastly grin, and pointed to the barrels. “I’ve got an idea.”
“What are you– oh!” Corbin began, before realization dawned. He and Sienna swiftly trotted after Heather.
The mine head rested on high ground, and gave the blood better things to do than pursue prey that fought back. It was too busy crashing and feasting on the dead and undead alike to bother with the living out of its reach. Heather stowed her mace on her hip and her shield on her back, and grabbed one of the barrels.
As they wrestled the barrels up the ramp, there came an ugly, metallic sound from inside the mine-head. The elevator cable groaned under the load of the still-turning motor. The overdriven motor made a grinding noise, and then the cable snapped.
The cable lashed up off of the elevator wheels and cut a hole in the roof, with a sound like a whip hitting a tin cymbal. The car fell away into darkness, and crashed into the bottom of the mine, far below. The boom was surprisingly quiet, after the sound of the cable whipping through the roof.
One less thing to worry about, thought Heather with a grim smile. Time to make trouble for undead and abomination and necromancers alike.
Heather rolled her barrel swiftly up the ramp, while Corbin and Sienna struggled together to bring the next one. They had to resort to carrying it up on their respective good sides with Corbin favoring his hip, and Sienna letting her frost-cast broken arm hang. The closest skeletons were forty yard away, and their attention was caught up in the struggle to complete their butchering orders while being assaulted by waves of blood. Knives they’d been using to butcher the dead waved ineffectually at the crashing waves, slicing and stabbing, and accomplishing nothing.
That’s what you get for using dumb bones to do your dirty work, you horrid bastards. Heather grinned fiercely as she planted a boot against the barrel, and gave it a shove with her heel, sending it rolling and falling into the pitch black of the mine shaft. “Drink up, bastard.”
“Shall we make it a double?” inquired Corbin, as he nudged the second barrel of arsenic down into the hole.
“We shall, m’Lord, since it’s so thirsty. Think it’ll do much to that horror, Consul? You’d know more about poisons than I,” said Heather.
“I’d sooner a barrel or two of rosary peas than arsenic, Detective. Clot the blood, keep it in one place. But I’m sure arsenic can’t help it any,” replied Sienna. Her eyes turned out towards the chaos raging around them. “We should go before we’re noticed.”
“Agreed,” Heather said. “We’ve pushed our luck enough.”
Heather’s eyes darted between Corbin and Sienna. They were both watching through thousand-yard stares as the raging lake of blood smashed skeletons and greedily dessicated corpses. We’ve pushed our luck, and our sanity, far enough. These two are only holding together because the mission isn’t over.
Guilt dropped in her gut, as she started jogging down the ramp to the courtyard as fast as she dared. That’s the trick, isn’t it? Just pretend the job is never over.
Sienna wrapped an arm around Corbin, and led him down the ramp. They were three hitching, wobbling blurs in the night, their clothes coated head to toe in blood. Here and there an arrow skittered across stone around them, fired clumsily from sentries up on the walls. None landed within a dozen paces of them, though, and Heather kept the group moving.
The Consul froze a safe path for them as she hobbled, the blood retreating back from the frost she spat from her teeth at it. That’s it, thought Heather, as she felt the flows of the Consul’s terror drive back the occasional scouting stream. Keep it realizing it’s got easier targets. As long as we keep moving, the bones up there aren’t going to tag us with an arrow.
Warmth bloomed in Heather’s left elbow. The source felt like it was many metres away, and she turned her head to see the source of magic. Flows of fire came lashing out from an arrow-slit in the barracks tower, down onto the blood below. They can’t see us from that angle, noted Heather. Good. Keep moving.
Screams and whispers erupted into the night as angry flows of fire rained down from the tower. A long streaming gout of flame lashed into the bloody mess. The flows were well focused, cutting away at the core of the bloody mass, focusing on the sewers. The grates were still erupting blood, and now arsenic, as the pumps finally brought up the poison they had cast down.
It didn’t make up for the lingering taste of blood and vomit in Heather’s mouth, or the memories of her family that the smell of so much charnel gore brought back to her. But it was still music to her ears, the cacophony of whispers turning to pleading screams:
“Free… blood run… vital! Exsanguinate!”
Arrows clinked down into stone around them as they fled, and the group was swiftly lost to the shadows as they hugged the outer wall. From then on, no skeletons interrupted their flight, and only distant fire and the stink of burning blood lingered on Heather’s senses.
Heather ducked behind the storehouse, and into the narrow gap between building and wall. Corbin was first through the wall, eyes alert, and then Sienna dove through the hole they’d left in the wall. Heather came last, and hastily fell to her knees on the outside, reaching for the pile of hefty bricks they’d neatly stacked.
Corbin groaned softly as he fell down alongside the two. His eyes scanned up towards the wall, watching for any sign of sentries or arrows. Sienna and Heather grabbed and stacked bricks as swiftly as they could, doing their best to muffle the click-clack of stone block set atop each other. Heather cursed softly as the blood on her gauntlets made the grip slick and precarious at first.
Flares of bright orange light from inside the fortress lit the steam and smoke hanging overhead. Heather could feel the heat of each flaring flow like she’d stuck her arms in a hearth, while Sienna’s eyes occasionally came up from the work to follow the flows the necromancer was wielding.
Must be a pitched battle now, Heather thought. We’ve stirred up his temper something wicked, if he’s throwing around fire that hot. Good. I hope they destroy each other.
Heather kept her mind busy as her hands stacked bricks, analyzing automatically, sifting through the observations of the night. The Consul’s reads flows by sight, for certain. Physical focus for her off-the-cuff casting. But spitting her spells is a nice touch, instead of being hand-focused like so many. Good choice for infiltration. If she’s caught, bound, and gagged, it’d be trivial for her to spit a spell through the gag, cut it off, and go to work on her bindings.
Corbin’s rubbing his nose again. Come to think of it, he wrinkled it plenty down in the mines while my skin was crawling. And he had the perfumed handkerchiefs. I guess that seals that. Spellhound, smelling the magic, with emotive focus in his casting.
He weeps lightning, so he’s probably a siren like Matthewson. And that explains his habit of making light of everything. Keep his real feelings as far away from the moment as he can afford to. Must be nice.
Sienna grunted in pain as she used her good arm to help Heather lift one of the dense, heavy bricks. Screams and whispers kept sounding out from the bloody abomination in the courtyard. The flows of fire hit a sewer grate on the next blast, and there came a low rumbling thump, followed by the eruption of the contents of the sewers. Blood, arsenic, and the accumulated filth of hundreds of soldiers blasted high into the air.
“Let’s not breathe that,” murmured Corbin, as he rose unsteadily to his feet.
“Let’s not,” agreed Heather. “Last brick.” Her eyes studied the wall they’d re-bricked. “It won’t fool a close examination, but it might get us in again.”
No more fire after that burst. No more crawling skin. If there’s anything of that horrid bloody abomination left, seems like it has tucked tail and flowed back down its hole, Heather thought. She rubbed briskly at her arms through her armor. “I think the hourglass is turning. Ready for one more run, m’Lord?”
“No,” groaned Corbin. “But I’ll take it over smelling that miasma about to rain down.”
They ran, their steps and breath hitching, arrows from the walls coming down around them once more. One caught Heather’s back at an angle, the arrowhead skittering off of her armor and deflected harmlessly away. Every third breath, someone coughed and spat clotted blood. They all did their best to ignore the chill of the night through their blood-soaked clothes. They kept the chill at bay through sheer terror, exertion, and adrenaline.
“Hurry!” Heather growled.
Corbin couldn’t run any faster, his hip making a grinding, clicking sound on every swing of his leg, his breath hitching in pain.
Sienna wasn’t doing much better. Her cheek had stopped bleeding, but wherever dried blood was sloughing off from her sweating, it revealed skin far too pale for good health under the moonlight.
She’s lost more blood than she’s let on, Heather thought with a frown. But every time Heather fell back from her run to reach for Corbin or assist Sienna, the Lord Goldbrace grunted, “Run ahead, Knight. Mission’s not done until you’re safe.”
Half-way to Ooluk’s wall, the gate of the fortress crashed open, with an echoing boom loud enough to carry across the tundra. Heather risked a glance back over her shoulder. By patchy moonlight, she made out the pack of skeletons haring after them in pursuit. Bones glowed in the night when they caught moonbeams, but became invisible where the shadows of clouds swept the ground.
“They’re chasing us! Run, m’Lord!” bellowed Heather.
Heather grabbed Corbin’s arm, and joined the Consul in hauling the Lord right up off his feet, and they trotted forward.
We can’t outrun them like this, not even with a head start. They’re more than twice as fast at a run than we are, and even without having to haul Lord Goldbrace.
Sienna read the knight’s expression, and shot Heather a look. Heather fractionally shook her head in reply. Not an option. If they were in command of the operation, they’d send me ahead. But I’m not letting the bastards have us. We run for our lives, but I fight for theirs.
Heather let her determination well in her throat, and sucked in a long breath. I’m not strong in weaving Air, but a second wind in my throat and the wind at my back would help. “Saint Aysha,” she muttered, letting her feelings fill the words, each inhalation after the next feeling stronger, clearer.
“Saint Aysha, thrice blessed, make mine breath your breath, and mine hands your hands,” prayed Heather. She let the sincerity of her words and her determination fuel the spell, puffing each word out around her painful breaths as they ran. “Cleanse me of the corrupt, purify my breast, and lend me the strength to protect my faithful allies.”
Heather felt the air stir into her lungs, and then into those of her companions. Careful flows of Air woven by her prayer slid into nose and mouth, and down into the lungs. There, the air stirred around vigorously, knocking the detritus free.
They fell, all three, hacking and coughing, almost vomiting with the force with which they coughed and coughed.
Clotted blood, not their own, fell from their mouths. It writhed in their windpipes as they hacked, and squirmed on their tongues. Between their planted hands, the gelled blood quivered. Still alive, still seeking to be free, to draw free the blood that sung and danced to the beat of their hearts.
Sienna and Corbin wearily staggered to their feet in horror, recoiling from the mess left on chilled muskeg and stone. The bloodied masses writhed like grubs, nauseating to look at. Heather staggered forward, and drew a great breath.
Air rushed in, powerful, clean, and clear. It whooshed out with the exhale, Heather’s gentle enchantment expelling the air harder than her lungs could, and refilling them again. Corbin and Sienna joined her, taking a few seconds relief as oxygen rushed to their brains. When Heather lurched into a run again, both followed, strength and clarity returning to their eyes.
That’s the first good breath of fresh air we’ve had in hours. Thank you, Saint Aysha.
The wind followed at their backs, catching at their cloaks, pushing them forward a little faster. The distant clatter of bones pounding on stone behind them kept them running, the walls of the town rose ahead. The torches atop the wall had never looked so good. Lit beacons, a warmth well out of reach.
“First skeleton is closing!” barked Sienna.
The sound of bones in pursuit clattering on the stone had drawn much closer, despite their easier breathing and improved speed. Bones, unweighted by flesh or armor, slapped feet against rock at speeds nobody could hope to match.
Heather fell back, getting her shield-covered back between herself and her two companions, in case an arrow was loosed. But no, the first missile was a dagger, clinking off of her shield and landing with a clatter in the stone.
A thrown rock was next, missing Heather’s left ear by a few inches, and setting off a little rockslide down a slope to her left when it landed. An arrow followed, and this struck her right hand, just along the outside of the palm, opening a small cut as the steel broadhead found a bit of bite after the leather.
Heather swore, and gave her stinging hand a fierce shake. I hope there’s no arsenic on that.
She dared a look behind them, and counted a pack of skeletons that surely numbered in the low twenties haring after them. Moonlight gleamed on skulls and blades, arrows held like daggers, steel glinting in the broken moonlight as they arced through the air towards them.
Four hundred metres from town that’s all we need please that’s all we need.
Another thrown dagger arced over Heather’s head, and tagged Sienna hard in her right ankle, sending the Consul for a painful shriek and tumble down one of the rocky slopes. She slid to a stop, swearing furiously. In desperation, Heather threw herself down alongside the Consul and noble Lord, and cupped her hands around her mouth, to the stone below.
I hope this is close enough. Or else we die. Or else maybe Ooluk damages the mine, and the Empire hangs us all come spring.
“Ooluk! If you can hear me: Help!”
Great hands of stone erupted from the ground around them, large as houses. Their sudden eruption was so loud it left Heather’s ears ringing, and stole words from her mouth. Dirt and dust and rock ships sprayed everywhere, bounced off her shield and helmet and stung her face. The world fell away beneath them, their stomachs lurching as the great stone pillars rose and took them safely out of reach.
Home safe for now, Heather thought, in a perverse mixture of gratitude, relief, and guilt. Earned another day away from Stephen and Tony.
Outside, skeletons hesitated, the last of their flung weapons bouncing harmlessly off the rock protecting their prey. Their targets denied them, the skeletons began to withdraw, their skulls swivelling to and fro seeking what they’d lost.
For the second time that night, they were entombed in stone. For the first time that night, Heather didn’t mind.
“Thank you, Ooluk,” murmured Heather to the stone beneath. “You’re a life-saver.”
The stone around them swayed very gently for a time, and then was still. When the rock broke open, splitting as neatly as a walnut, it was to reveal them safe and sound behind the city walls, surrounded by astonished guards. Ramdas’ eyes were the first pair Heather saw.
The centaur looked horrified as he took in the utterly blood-soaked appearance of his knight, and her companions.
“Mission successful,” Heather croaked.
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