Heather’s mind raced as they began down the slope of the mountainside, staring at the fortress far in the distance. It’s going to take us a few hours to march there. Think. We all got up and got ready without having a plan. Because they assumed you already had one.
And the truth was, within a minute of thinking about it, Heather did have a plan.
“Helga,” Heather called. “Pick up a rock for me, something bigger than a fist. I need you to scoop a bowl into it.”
It warmed Heather’s heart, that Helga did so without the slightest bit of hesitation, or any questioning looks from Persephone or Ramdas. They watched in confident curiosity as Helga selected a rock. In the dwarf’s hands, flows of Earth smoothed it like clay under her hand into a neat ball, then shaped it out into a bowl. Rock flour drifted off of her hands as she held it up to Heather.
Heather held up her hand. “Lieutenant Pramath, would you take the bowl, set it down upside down, and heat it? Very hot, as hot as you can.”
“The stone will crack, won’t it?” asked Ramdas, as he accepted the bowl, and set it down in the snow.
“It might,” Heather said. “That’s fine. Just a demonstration. The bowl is the fortress smelter. Everyone, take a few steps back.”
Ramdas frowned, and nodded. The centaur gathered his anger at the horrors he’d seen transpire that night, and the death of Father Keza. In angry tones, a prayer for hallowed dead began to leave his lips.
“Saints may they guide us, and spirits may gift us, and may the monsters rest easy and the fallen stay dead. Runes and prayers preserve us, knights and guardsmen protect us, to lords, saints, and stars may we bow down our heads.”
“Hot enough, hot enough!” called Heather in mild alarm. The stone had gone white-hot by the time Ramdas’ voice had reached ‘fallen stay dead’.
Heather waved everyone back. “Okay, everyone, one more step back. Persephone? I need you to conjure some ice under that bowl. Say, a piece no bigger than your thumb.”
Persephone’s mouth opened in mild surprise. “I know what you mean to do…”
But dutifully, she did it. Heather’s skin felt as though someone had dragged a little piece of ice across her upper chest, an instant before the bowl exploded. Steam billowed out in a large cloud, the deafening blast spackling them all with bits of rock shrapnel.
“Oi, dearie, she said just a little bit of ice!” said Helga in alarm.
“That was,” said Persephone and Heather together, and then Persephone yielded to Heather. Heather continued. “The hotter the temperature, the larger steam expands. Here’s our mission, knights, if the Lieutenant allows it. Conjure plenty of ice into their smelter. It will blow it apart in an instant. And probably kill us, if not for Persephone’s ward.”
Heather turned to Persephone. “I’m asking a lot of you on this mission. Your life, again. Your best magic. Your courage. If this isn’t to be a suicide mission, Persephone, it will be because of your warding.”
Persephone nodded sharply. “How do we get into the fortress, first?”
Right, Heather thought. She closed her eyes, remembering the complex, lightning-fast flows she’d watched Consul Sienna cast on their first disastrous infiltration. And now you pretend for the rest of your life that you never saw this, Sienna had said.
Sorry, Sienna. If you’d only done it once, I’d never have cribbed your trick, but you had to go and do it over and over again, Heather thought.
“Between you and me and the mountain, I’m going to try to get in how we did last time. But the hole we made in the fortress wall isn’t big enough for Pramath, so I’ll have to widen it after I disable the wards on the bricks. Which takes time, and cover, and if I screw it up we’ll probably all die,” said Heather. “Persephone, once I’ve disabled the wards on a brick, you’re going to conjure in very small flows of water into the mortar. Let it freeze and powder the mortar.”
Heather turned to Helga. “Helga, we’re going to need your strength. Those blocks of adamantine rock are very heavy, and I struggled to move them on my own. You and Ramdas can probably manage it easier. They have to get placed quietly to the side, and hopefully without any scuff or identifying marks on the bricks, win or lose.”
“Why’s that, dearie?”
Heather glanced at Ramdas, and Ramdas cleared his throat. “If the Empire knew that someone had defeated the wards placed on the fortress bricks, including those that were hidden where they would be unseen, they would begin asking uncomfortable questions. Like how someone knew the flow-key codes to unbind the fortress runes.”
Heather nodded quietly. “I’d prefer us all not to disappear into an Imperial dungeon to be tortured and executed,” Heather allowed. “So the fewer clues we leave about that part, the better.”
“And you don’t think,” Persephone pointed out, “That they’ll want to hang you for destroying the smelter, should this plan work?”
“Oh, they probably will a little, but a smelter and furnace are pretty simple to rebuild, and don’t come attached with any uncomfortable questions about security breaches. The elevator’s probably more trouble to repair, but we’re blaming that one on the bone-robbing bastards. I think so long as the mine is still standing come spring, they won’t mind the state we leave it in.”
“Moving on,” Ramdas said. “The gates? Mining explosives?”
Heather heaped a bit of snow on the hot patch of rock where the hot bowl had stood. “Yes. We destroy the smelter, which stops their production of adamant. Then we fight our way towards the explosives, get them to the gate, blow it open, and pray that the town came ready to fight.”
“What about the artillery, dearie?”
Heather’s shoulders slumped, but it was Ramdas who replied. “If they fire, they fire. Between reloading and retargeting, they cannot destroy the town too quickly. This fight cannot be bloodless.”
Heather nodded reluctantly. “As the Lieutenant says. I don’t like it, but I don’t have an answer for everything. There’s only what we can do. So we’ll do it.”
“Saints guide us,” Helga said.
“Si,” Ramdas said. “Come. We’ve made enough noise and commotion in the open. Let us move.”
Persephone mounted up on Ramdas at his direction. Heather and Helga hugged to the side of the centaur, allowing all four to march within the bubble of her ward.
Far in the distance, the skeleton watching them turned its head. It had been programmed to watch, observe, and report. But when the four points of heat had vanished, it resumed scanning the horizon.
Targets lost, a silent voice inside it transmitted, as it had been required to. And then, because it lay outside the bounds of what its programming forced it to report to its controller, it allowed itself its own satisfied thought: Good.
Fifty yards from the looming fortress wall, Heather gently nudged Persephone’s leg. “Quit holding your breath,” she whispered. “Keep breathing.”
Persephone jumped slightly, and then let out her breath. One hand reached down to grip Ramdas. “Sorry,” she whispered back. “Nervous.”
“Keep your ward low. The ones on the wall can’t see us. We don’t want them to feel us.”
Persephone nodded jerkily. Ramdas continued to pick his way forward with care, doing his best not to disturb rocks under his hooves as they approached the wall. Heather pointed towards the wall. “Right there. Let’s go slow, make sure there are no nasty surprises.”
They crept up to the wall, and Heather knelt down along the wall and closed her eyes. Feel, she thought to herself, and reached out through skin chill beneath her robes from Persephone’s ward. The prickling heat and sharpness of the hundreds of wards built into the wall around her itched at her front and along her head. Further up, the runes in a few skeletons sentries felt slimy against her scalp.
Like reaching into a sink full of dirty dishes that’s sat overnight, she thought in disgust. Rot soup, Stephen used to call it. That’s what those runes feel like.
Heather tapped a square outline on the bricks, and signaled to Ramdas and Helga. The two bent and began to pull the blocks free, each letting out grunts of surprise at the weight of the bricks. They laid them carefully alongside the widening hole. Helga and Ramdas fell into a silent, steady rhythm, the dwarf reaching in and pulling out the bricks, and passing them to Ramdas to be set down. They slid out easily on the layers of powdered talc left over from the mortar.
Persephone took some time to grasp the principle Heather had tried to explain. To conjure the water inside the mortar, and sustain it as it froze to ice, breaking apart the mortar around each warded brick. “Don’t touch the brick with the flows, you don’t want to set the wards off. Just the mortar,” Heather advised her.
Sweat trickled down the back of Heather’s neck as she began working the flow-key pattern Consul Sienna had. Her brow furrowed in concentration as she flickered her nervous energy against each brick, mind racing. One wrong flow and the rune triggers. No pressure. Just disarm a magical bomb perfectly the first time, every time, for the next sixty-four or so runes. By touch. Saints above, why couldn’t I have been born a Scryer?
The rest of the team paused in their work, hearing or seeing or feeling the complex magic Heather wrought, over and over again, against each rune.
As it turned out, feeling the flows made it easier. Just feel out each flow, and follow the path of least resistance. And go very, very slowly. Each rune-face disarmed in sequence, brick by brick.
By the time Heather finished, her hands were trembling against the stone, and the nervous sweat down her back had run cold down her spine. She shivered against the warmth of Ramdas’ side as they waited for Persephone to finish powdering the mortar of the bricks. One by one, they drew the heavy, gray stone blocks free, and set them aside.
The snow on the other side of the wall lay undisturbed, a foot deep. Heather extended her senses, feeling along the ground underneath the snow in search of nasty surprises. But the stone beneath the snow was clear of runes and magic traps, and with a gesture, she stepped through the breach in the wall.
“Looks like they didn’t figure out where we entered last time, Lieutenant,” Heather whispered to Ramdas. “No traps I can feel.”
“Si,” Ramdas replied. “We stick to cover and shadow. You have a destination?”
Heather cast her eyes up and around the walls of the fortress. “Yeah. All sentries are still looking outwards,” she whispered back. “We’ll stick close to the wall for now, until we figure out how to get close to the smelter.”
They crept south along the wall. Before every corner, Heather conjured a small mirror, checking around corners before darting from shadow to shadow. The damage the blood-spirit Vital had wrought was still splattered and stained all over the stones of the fortress. In one side of the fort, the shattered skeletons laid piled in a heap three feet high and at least thirty feet long, a mound of cracked and splintered bones cored free of marrow.
Burnt and blackened splashes were everywhere against buildings and the fortress walls, and bits of frozen blood still clung in unlikely places. One split femur hung from the rafter of a shed, frozen in place by a long, red icicle. Heather suppressed a gag, and waved them on.
Ramdas pointed across the fortress yard, between a gap in the buildings. “Six skeletons posted at the door there,” he whispered. “Something worth guarding?”
“Explosives,” Heather replied. “Notice how there’s no other shed around it for fifty feet, and it’s on the far side away from the barracks? That’s so if there’s an accident, fewer people are caught in the blast. We’ll have to go through them if we want to get the gate open.”
“Why can’t we take the gates with magic?” Persephone whispered. “You undid the runes on the bricks.”
“Different runes,” Heather replied. “Much stronger. I don’t know the flow-key that would unlock them, so we’ll have to do it the hard way. Explosives are the best chance we’ll have.”
They continued their southerly creep through shadow, Heather working her way towards the smelter. A glance around a corner filled her with dismay. “Oh saints,” she whispered.
The smelter was surrounded by frantically working automatons and skeletons. Great shovels full of ore were dumped into the smelter by brass automatons, while skeletons scurried around opening and closing the ports and doors, and working the pouring mechanisms.
Glowing-hot adamant poured into an assembly line of molds every twenty seconds. Bright sparks flew up into the air as snowflakes or condensation superheated and spattered metal. The skeletons and automatons alike were covered in many little dull gray bits of adamant, where the metal had sputtered and splashed.
Like a disturbed anthill, more skeletons scrambled around the smelter. Their sole focus, hurrying to get molds for automaton parts underneath the spigot of the smelter. Ramdas’ eyes widened, as he stared alongside Heather. “There must be fifty of them,” he said. “I count at least twenty automatons.”
Heather nodded and stepped back behind the corner. She conjured a mirror and lens up over the roof of the nearest shed for a moment, panned it once, and released the flows. The mirror and lens vanished instantly. “Courtyard’s almost entirely empty, sir,” she said. “I think that’s everything our necromancer has left, or close to it. Sentries on the walls, workers at the smelter, but there’s almost nothing else coming or going. We were right to come now. I think that entire army they fielded was everything they had to spare.”
“Si, they are perhaps more desperate for soldiers than it seemed. Or they have barracked their forces within to hide their numbers from us?”
Heather grimaced. “Let’s hope not. Still.” She gestured in the direction of the smelter. “There’s far too many for us to get close. Even if we plow through the skeletons, if the automatons start to fight us too, we’ll –“
The door just ahead of them swung open, and a skeleton emerged. A bony arm caught the edge of Persephone’s ward, momentum swinging it around to trap it face-first against the kinetic magic. There was a moment of frozen horror, the knights swinging around, as poleaxed as the skeleton. Then a heartbeat later, a spear of conjured ice crackled into being in Persephone’s hand. Immediately she jammed it into the skeleton’s rib cage to pin it against the wall.
Helga’s hammer shattered the skeleton’s skull, and Heather’s eyes swept around the area. No no no damn it all they’re turning they know we’re here now we’re dead if we don’t get cover–
Fifty yards away, she spotted the narrow door leading into the fortress proper. “There! Run for the keep!” she shouted, one hand each shoving at Helga and Persephone, spurring them toward the door. “Hurry hurry hurry!”
They’d only just started moving when Heather heard the bones begin to clatter. Skeletons dropped from the wall to the ground and begin their pursuit. “Keep the ward up!” Heather shouted, as the first pings from the seeker bolts sounded out, locking onto their targets.
Bolts hissed through the air, some caught by Persephone’s ward and clattering to the ground, their momentum stolen. The seeker bolts, locked on the running Knights, refused to fall when the ward robbed their momentum. Instead, they gradually slipped down the bubble, and still propelled by magic, they dragged wormlike trails in the snow behind them.
The first few skeletons charged in dumbly, leaping from rooftops and around corners to flatten against the bubble. There they hung, easy prey for hammer and mace to shatter skulls. From atop Ramdas’ back, Persephone swept her spear in wide arcs. Each sweep shoved trapped bones closer to the Knights’ weapons, and Ramdas concentrated on the run.
Heather’s gut turned to ice when she heard the thudding footsteps of the automatons joining the pursuit. Batting a skeleton aside with her shield, she risked a moment to pop her head up and get a better view. Too far away, and too slow, she noted, pushing herself to match pace with the centaur. If we can make the fortress, they won’t be able to follow. Skeletons can, but they’ll barely fit more in those halls than we’ll be able to. We need to keep moving.
They sprinted for the nearest door to the keep, Helga’s hammer thrown ahead of them to smash the door in. Heather was a step behind the hammer, slamming her mace down hard with a bright blast of fiery magic. The blast knocked a surprised skeleton end over end down the stone of the hallway.
Persephone and Ramdas ducked to clear the door, and then Ramdas lashed a foot out to kick a skeleton as it closed in pursuit.
“Run, run! Get to cover! Necromancer’s going to put as much of his defenses between him and us as he can!” Heather said. “If you see skeletons guarding a hallway, go through them!”
An explosive bolt landed a few feet away, the bang of it muffled by Persephone’s ward. Flying shrapnel slowed down, deflected along the line of the bubble.
“Stengrav, Blackthorne, lead! I will cover the rear,” Ramdas said.
They bolted down the narrow hallway and into the corridors. The zig-zagging passages were filled with murder-holes, built to the doctrine of defense against magic and melee alike. Most of the passages were empty and dark, lit only by Heather’s mace gone white with flame and fright.
“What’s the new plan?!” Helga shouted, as they pelted away from the sound of pursuing skeletons.
“Don’t die!” replied Heather.
Persephone screamed a blast of ice down the corridor behind them, sending a pursuing skeleton slipping and clattering helplessly around the corner, and into pitiless stone walls. Ramdas shot a bolt from his rapier as they passed a T-intersection, dropping another skeleton with a clatter.
“They’re converging on us!” Ramdas bellowed.
“Keep moving! Look for defenders and lit torches!” Heather called.
A skeleton leapt for them, sword in hand, from a doorway in the corridor. Heather blocked the slash off of her shield, and took the legs out from under the skeleton with a fast sweep of her father’s mace. It barely had time to hit the ground before Helga’s hammer stove in its skull.
We’ve got the advantage in here, Heather realized. Tight quarters, we’re armored and armed, and the skeletons aren’t. They can only come at us one or two at a time. Automatons can’t follow quickly. Think. Use the advantage we’ve got. The smelter is along the south side of the fortress. We’ve got cover, and opportunity.
They pelted down the corridor, a crossbow bolt caroming off of Persephone’s ward, and exploding into a big cloud of green smoke in their wake.
There’s the poison arrows. They’re not going to give us long. Can’t use too many of those indoors or the necro’s going to gas himself out too, Heather thought. Her breath ran ragged in her throat as she shoved another skeleton aside with her shield. Its skull went bouncing by her again as Ramdas kicked out a hoof, knocking it from its neck.
“There are lit torches this way!” hissed Helga, and turned right down the next intersection.
Sure enough, three torches stood lit on the far south end of the hallway, and skeletons were boiling out of a room, a pack of five. With the narrow stone corridor allowing them only two abreast, Heather and Helga shared a glance, grinned, and locked shields. “Charge, dearies!” roared Helga.
A roaring gout of flame shot from one skeleton’s hands, while the other fixed a spear to the ground. Heather’s shield deflected the worst of the flame, and she ducked her head behind it to keep the flames out of her eyes. Shields hit bone and spear heartbeats later, the formation opening up to allow Ramdas to bowl his way through the defenders. Persephone leapt from his back to ground a spear-point in a skeleton’s eye. Another bony horror swung a dagger from the ground, slicing harmlessly across the chainmail around Heather’s knees. With two quick, battering slaps of her mace she returned the favor.
Bones crunched apart under blows from mace and hammer as the Knights advanced. With one last mighty swing, Helga smashed in the barred door, shattering the last skeleton blocking their path.
Heather charged through the doorway, and skidded to a halt. The tableau inside was wrong.
Victor LaPaix stood, his back against an automaton that appeared to have unfolded open, hinges and spikes and machinery exposed. His arms were spread wide, and his face was set in a manic sneer, as he stood facing the rotting mess that was all that was left of General Montague.
The general had his sword in hand. “What is the meaning of this, Victor?!” snarled the general. His voice was a rotten mush, the last scraps of his vocal chords nearly rotted away.
“As I told you, General, take your revenge!” shouted Victor. “Now!”
Heather raised her shield, then let it drop in astonishment. The general took one decisive step forward, and plunged his sword into Victor LaPaix’s heart, then yanked it out. Victor swayed once on his feet, turned his head, and smiled viciously at Heather.
“No!” cried Heather, uncertain even as she did why she protested. Victor toppled backwards, directly into the open automaton. Gears whirred and clicked, and it enfolded his corpse, spikes and protrusions and gears mulching flesh and bone.
Victor LaPaix’s dying grin vanished under a plate of adamant, and blood ran freely from the metal, pooling on the floor below.
“What in the Saints…” whispered Ramdas.
“I’m free,” General Montvenue whispered in wonder. Then he swayed, and toppled lifeless to the floor.
The automaton continued to fold itself inward, plates locking to plates, gears grinding and turning and forcing meat out of seams. Metal complained, bones broke, and the skeletons racing up the hallway in hot pursuit fell dead with a clatter.
Persephone stuck her head outside the doorway carefully. “They’ve stopped moving,” she whispered.
Heather’s skin crawled, her eyes fixed on the automaton, now closed and sealed around the body of Victor LaPaix.
“What was that, Blackthorne?” murmured Ramdas, his rapier levelling itself unsteadily at the automaton. “Suicide?”
“Suicide,” Heather whispered in agreement. And then anger welled up in her, and she gave the foot of the automaton a kick, to no effect. “Suicide! You rotten corpse-raising bastard. Suicide?! You should have hung by your neck, Victor LaPaix!”
With a furious bellow she swung her father’s mace at the adamant leg of the thing. It bounced off with a loud clang, leaving not so much as a scratch on the metal.
“You murderer! You filthy saint-forsaken murderer, you and the lot of you!” Her mace was white with her fury, the fire cascading through the air behind it like a comet as she swung again. The points of her mace didn’t even mark the adamant, not with the slightest of dents.
She swung a third time and then slumped, staring hatred at the perfectly smooth surface of the adamant the automaton was made of. It still ticked away softly inside, like one of her son’s spring-wound toys winding down.
Heather scrubbed at her eyes, and Helga took her own swing at the thing’s chest plate, to no effect. “All this for an adamant sarcophagus,” spat Helga.
The ticking stopped, and all was still. Heather stared at it for a long count of sixty seconds, her skin crawling in disgust and frustration.
Heather sat down on the stone floor, head hanging low. It was suicide. But why? To make the general look like a hero in the end? Take your revenge? Revenge for what? The general was dead. Were they old friends?
Her eyes tracked to the automaton, and she frowned. Was this supposed to be like the thing we fought in the cave? Undead and automaton and monster all mashed into one? But it’s not moving now. Did it break? Did it never work in the first place?
She replayed the moment of Victor LaPaix’s death in her mind. The general’s sword lay on the floor, and she scooped it up. The runes on it were unremarkable. An Earth rune to lend the blade further strength, another in the scabbard to preserve it from rust and keep it sharp. No enchantment lingered on the weapon, or on the General’s corpse. The runes were there, but they’d lost power the instant Victor had died.
So he was the necromancer, or the living conduit? The skeletons all fell at the same time. Nothing else has come chasing us down the hallway. She turned her head back towards Persephone. “Break those skeletons, just in case,’ she said.
“But they have such fine, strong bones,” said Victor’s voice. “And I so despise waste.”
Heather scrambled backwards from the automaton as it sat up, the glass ports of its impassive metal face staring straight at her.
“Victor LaPaix,” Heather hissed, scrambling up to her feet. “You’re under arrest.”
“I have a better idea, Knight Blacktho-“
Helga threw her hammer, and it bounced off the face of Victor’s automaton without the slightest reaction. The adamant hammer slapped into the stone of a nearby wall and fell to the ground. The dwarf roared, and bounded to her hammer, spinning and pivoting to follow through with a second swing.
The hammer bounced again, and the rebound sent Helga sprawling, pulled off-balance by the unexpected resilience of the cast adamant. The automaton slowly turned its head Helga’s way, and then back to Heather, and continued speaking as if the interruption had been trivial. “- Blackthorne. You go stand out in the courtyard and wait for my skeletons to visit, and your bones can join your husband and son’s. I promise they’ll go right alongside in his trophy collection. My master told me about them, you know. He said they’re some of his favorites, those fine, strong bones.”
Fury, cold and perfect as a glacier, froze around Heather’s heart. She held her mace to one side as the fire upon it went from white, to blue, into a deep and terrible violet that lit the edge of her shield on fire.
“I’m going to kill your master, Victor,” Heather whispered. “I’m going to see him swing by his neck. Or I’m going to kill him myself. If you see him first, you tell him. I’m coming.”
The automaton rose easily to its feet, and batted her mace aside with an idle hand, sending Heather reeling backwards into Ramdas. The centaur fired his rapier three times, but the bolts glanced off of the adamant. Each shot dazzled the eyes with their brightness but left the metal flawless and unscarred.
“You can tell him yourself, when you’re dead,” Victor said cheerfully. “I’ll make sure of it.”
The skeletons in the hallway clattered back to unlife, rising unsteadily to their feet. Ramdas grabbed Heather’s arm hard, pulling her back. “This isn’t our mission, Caballero. We run!”
The automaton took a step forward, and Victor’s laughter echoed, muffled and metallic behind the adamant shell.
They fled down the hallway, his heavy laughter and stone-crushing footsteps following in their wake.
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