Stone crunched in their wake as they fled south down the corridor, away from Victor’s hulking pursuit. His laughter had stopped, and been replaced by the ominous, floor-shaking tread of his adamant sarcophagus. A stone broke with a sound like a rifle shot, and Ramdas instinctively flinched and fired another bolt of fire behind them.
Run, keep moving, Heather thought. We’re faster than that thing and we’re tougher than skeletons. Don’t get trapped, don’t get caught, don’t get cornered-
Three skeletons leapt from adjacent hallways into the next intersection, swords in hand. Heather didn’t break her stride. She raised her still-smoldering shield in front of her face, and dove through the three skeletons, battering them aside, and trusting in the team at her back to strike them down as they ran. Hooves and ice and adamant all met bone in her wake, and Heather gritted her teeth into a rictus smile.
– complete the mission, maybe Victor’s dumb enough to be lured like the undead. Even if he isn’t, all the better, we can still do our jobs, but now we need to get back out there and they’re going to be crowding the exits –
Ramdas was clearly on the same train of thought, because he barked a sharp shout ahead. “Caballeros, left, now!”
They turned, and the corridor was only twenty yards long, ending in a barracks room. A dead end.
A dead end? Why are we-
“Breaching formation!” Ramdas shouted.
And Heather grinned. Right. No such thing as a dead end, with a breacher team.
Helga fell into position next to Heather, and lifted her hammer. “Let’s make Weathers proud, dearies.”
They raised their shields, and Persephone’s ward vanished in preparation for Helga’s throw. Behind them, stone cracked and crunched, breaking under the titanic weight of the adamant automaton lumbering down the hallway behind them.
“Breach!” roared Ramdas.
Heather shivered as she felt the way Helga warped mass and time around her hammer. The runes on the breaching tool flared to life, tugging at Heather’s arms and legs like an insistent child with sandy hands. Earth, for mass. Gravity and time for the swing, accelerating the throw.
Runes on those fortress bricks will be triggered, Heather thought. And then cool satisfaction washed over her. And they’ll be aimed outwards, not in. Point rune towards enemy, that’s the army way.
Helga threw, and her hammer rocketed from her hand, driving itself into the adamantine bricks of the barracks wall. It hit square in the middle between two support pillars, and the wall stove in. A complex knot of sensation washed over Heather’s skin as the bricks cracked and broke, and runes triggered.
Stone exploded outwards in a spray of shrapnel and hostile magic, rune after rune lashing out. Fireballs erupted, and magical sirens wailed. Lightning crackled out in an arc that blew across the courtyard and smashed a few errant skeletons to the ground.
“Pierce!” Ramdas bellowed, and red bolts of fire shot from his rapier, blowing the pelvis off of a skeleton struggling to rise. Persephone shrieked in fury, and shards of ice flew past Heather’s ear, shattering two more confused skeletons.
Heather and Helga moved as one, turning left and right respectively, shields raised. A chorus of pings sounded out in the distance, and both knights crouched behind their shields. With unerring accuracy, bolts slapped into Heather’s shield, splintering warded wood and cracking off the corner that her mace and fury had already burned. One skidded against her breastplate and raked sparks off of chainmail.
Pain flared where the bolt struck, but it was the pain of armor stopping the bolt, and so Heather dismissed it. Helga’s shield took seven bolts, which she broke off with a sweep of her hammer.
“Under fire!” Helga shouted.
Ramdas ducked through the breach in the wall. Persephone lay herself down flat along his back to pass through with him, her ward springing back to life around them. Stone behind them crunched, and Heather glanced back to see Victor’s automaton struggling to fight its way through the narrow entrance behind them.
Won’t stop him for long, but it will for long enough.
“Let’s move, move, move!” Heather bellowed, and they broke into a loping run. Another chorus of crossbow strings sounded out from the walls above, too slow. Explosive bolts slapped into the walls of the keep behind them, setting off more runes. Persephone’s ward-bubble dimmed and thinned as lightning and fire discharged along it.
Rock shards clanged off of Helga’s back, and she cried out, stumbling momentarily. Persephone straightened up on Ramdas’ back. “Helga!”
Helga fell to one knee, and then climbed back up to her feet, hefting her hammer. Under her tabard, the steel of her armor had been gashed open, revealing a shallow gouge torn out of her back. Ribs gleamed wet and red underneath.
“Less worrying, dearie, more running!” groaned Helga. “I’ll be fine, move!” She arched her back in pain, but grit her teeth and lunged forward once more, Heather rushing to join her side.
Ribs looked intact, and the wound isn’t more than a half-inch deep, Heather thought. A glance back to Persephone showed the woman wild-eyed, frost creeping and spidering down from her eyes and across her cheeks. “She’ll live, Lieutenant. Keep that ward up!”
The sound of crumbling stone pulled Heather’s attention past Persephone’s shoulder. Her eyes widened as Victor’s adamant shell burst through the hole Helga had made, widening it as he crashed through. Some of the remaining skeletons had begun to boil out of the fortress keep’s door further away. The distance was scant comfort as they raised their crossbows.
There’s nothing but automatons between us and the smelter, Heather thought, hurriedly slinging her shield onto her back. Even Helga can turn fast enough to dodge out of their way. Skeletons behind us, we’ve got the lead now. Victor sent in everything he had after us. He should have kept something in reserve, but he didn’t know the smelter was our target.
Heather took up a position behind the wounded dwarf, and scraped up another burst of adrenaline. “Stay together! Go for the smelter!”
The skin of her back crawled and burned. The adamant automaton behind them was throwing out its hands, blasts of fire joining the crossbow bolts raining down around them. Persephone’s ward held, but sweat ran down her brow from the effort and focus it took to sustain their protection. Her scar-shattered face paled around her scars as she clenched in focus, chanting her litany.
The last of the sentry’s explosive bolts dug small craters into the stone of the courtyard around them. The acrid stench of powdered rock was joined by wisps of bitter-smelling, green gas as poison bolts thudded to the ground at their heels. Bloody red fire, thrown by the undead, splashed against Persephone’s wards. Heather pulled Helga to the left, driving the dwarf out of reach of the first automaton to close. With every fear-driven step, the smelter grew closer and closer.
They pelted past the smelter crucible, drooling white-hot adamant out across the molds. Automaton parts stood ready to be assembled all around them. Up close, Heather could see that each one was meant to unfold and open just as Victor’s had, with a corpse trapped inside.
Undead, working magic, armored in adamant. What could he do with a dozen of these? Two dozen?
All these thoughts passed through Heather’s mind in the blink of an eye, her breath coming ragged and hard in the winter cold. The smelter furnace loomed overhead, the ceramic dome smearing the sky with orange-lit smoke and soot. The occasional splash of sparks cast itself out of the top of the dome, sifting down to dirty what little snow remained unmelted in the radiating warmth of the furnace.
Automatons ran after them, lumbering and slow. Their converging mass screened Persephone from the fiery blasts and arrows being loosed by skeletons behind them. One large, furious fireball from Victor knocked a brass automaton to the ground, and it rose again smoldering. Molten brass dripped down its back and sizzled as it hit the snow.
“Run around, far side!” Ramdas bellowed. They dove through a tightening cordon of automatons, skeletons haring across the courtyard as fast as their bones could take them. Hearts pounding, the knights threw themselves down behind a berm of raw ore waiting for the smelter.
“Now, Persephone!” Heather shouted.
Persephone threw herself down onto the cold stone of the courtyard, behind Helga’s upraised shield and armored body. Her eyes narrowed in focus. A look of furious determination washing over her as the ward around her thickened and gelled, colder and colder, the air itself chilling until it ran in liquid rivulets down the bubble of the dome. Stones underneath squealed in cold-tortured agony as temperature differential snapped rock apart.
Heather raised her shield, and whispered a prayer. “Saint Aysha, thrice blessed, preserve us fr-“
A ball of ice twice the size of Persephone’s head appeared in the furnace, surrounded by molten metal hovering at two thousand degrees centigrade. The ice flashed instantly to steam. The steam expanded to seventeen-hundred times its volume in the time it took for Heather’s left eyelid to twitch a fraction of a millimeter downwards.
Around her, the world ended.
Even through the ward, the bang was deafening. A gigantic hand slapped Heather down against the ground and then sent her bouncing a few inches back up into the air in its wake. A hard ringing filled her ears, a wooziness rolling through her skull reminding her of her concussion weeks prior.
Sparkling lights filled her vision, white-hot sparks dulling to orange and yellow smears. Steam and smoke and dust obscured her vision as she staggered upright. Ramdas was crawling on his belly towards Persephone. His mouth worked, neck muscles straining as his face darkened, shouting. Heather couldn’t hear it, not one word.
She fell over, tripped over something.
Helga’s nose was a smashed, red mess, where her shield had struck her. Her eyes were watering helplessly, hands clutched to her face, her broken nose streaming blood out onto the stone. Heather crawled over, and touched her hand gently to Helga’s face.
Just the basics. Too dizzy for anything more. Numb the pain. Little flows of lightning, just tiny ones, then earth for the nerves, numb them out.
Through the haze, she lifted her eyes, and blinked in dumb wonder. A gray, drooping wave of adamant stood frozen around the spot they’d taken shelter behind. The inner curve was perfectly smooth and round, hardened where the metal had slapped into Persephone’s ward. Like candle wax, the metal ran and dribbled in long, liquid rivulets gone glossy and solid in the cold, but still glowing from the latent heat within.
Helga sat up slowly, hands trembling, her eyes widening as she looked around.
The courtyard was a mess. Gray splatters of adamant metal lay in slugs around every surface. What few automatons were still moving were so fouled by the metal that they struggled just to shift a limb, reaching for the Knights in futility.
Every skeleton left in the courtyard was covered in metal or shattered by the blast. From the far end of the fortress, a few were still boiling out of the doors, but everything else pursuing them had been lost.
Victor’s automaton had been fouled by the adamant as well. Gray metal covered one glass lens of the automaton’s helmet. His left arm was scarcely moving, metal creaking protest as he staggered back towards the south wall.
From very far away, Ramdas’ voice cut through the ringing, faint and tinny. “Persephone! Matthewson!”
Persephone was stirring, her unarmored flesh spackled and burned with bits of adamant shrapnel. As Heather struggled to stand and pull Helga to her feet, Persephone tried to rise, fell, and rose again. She collapsed atop Ramdas’ back, and the centaur slowly stood beneath her.
Everyone’s moving, Heather thought in distant, dispassionate relief. I’m still not dead.
Sorry, Stephen. Sorry, Tony.
Helga staggered over to Ramdas, and helped push Persephone into some semblance of balance atop Ramdas’ back. Heather gestured towards the explosives shed, left unguarded in the fortress’s pursuit. They shambled forward, together.
A crash sounded out behind them as the southern fortress wall shuddered, and then fell. Victor’s automaton clawed great hunks of adamantine rock out with its good arm. Defensive runes flashed to light around him without the slightest bit of effect on that gleaming, impregnable sarcophagus.
Can’t stop him, Heather thought with dismay. Maybe with explosives. He’ll be outside by then. Gate. Need to open gate. Get help. They can’t have missed the blast, and all the sparks.
Around them, hot slugs of adamant rained down, occasionally bouncing off of Heather’s helmet or back. One struck the top of the head of an advancing skeleton and punched straight through the bone, as the tremendous density of the metal and height its drop lent it all the force of a bullet.
Heather turned weakly to meet the next two skeletons. They leapt on her, too fast for her staggered, blast-deafened mind to react to. Sharp finger-bones raked in futility against her breastplate, and the teeth of one skeleton sank into her right cheek. Heather barely felt it.
Not good enough now, she thought distantly. Hope you break your teeth on my bones, bastards.
Clumsy slaps of her mace and shield failed to drive them off of her, until a spear of ice shrieked out of Persephone’s mouth and froze one to the ground. Helga’s hammer slapped the other one down, and crushed its skull.
“Caballero, you are okay?”
Heather shook her head. “No, sir. Not even close.”
“Nor I,” Ramdas admitted. “Tough luck, si?”
“Tough luck,” Heather rasped in agreement.
Ramdas’ strong hands pulled Heather back to her feet, and they broke into a jog once more, breath heaving, heads ringing and pounding in pain. Persephone could barely hold onto his back, and her ward around them flickered and stuttered as her focus wavered.
“Explosives unguarded now,” Heather panted, gesturing to the shed.
“Then we use them, Caballeros,” Ramdas replied, and threw open the door.
Boxes of paper-wrapped cylinders lay stacked carefully in the small shed, ignition wires leading to neatly-braided ends. The rattle of bones was distant, but coming closer. Disorganized masses of skeletons were leaping from doorways and windows in the fortress. Victor’s automaton disappeared into the hole it was clawing in the wall. While he focused on his escape, his forces milled without clear purpose.
“How many should we use?” Ramdas asked.
“Much as we can carry,” Helga replied. “Rather use too much than too little now.”
Hastily, they scooped up a box under each arm and ran, staggering and stumbling towards the fortress gate. What few sentries remained on the walls had spent their best ammunition. Now it was mostly the silent, regular crossbow bolts that hit the stones around them.
Persephone’s ward flickered again, and Ramdas lurched forward with a cry as a bolt caught a seam between his barding, and sank deep into the side of his belly. He stumbled, and Persephone clung desperately to his waist to keep from being thrown off. The motion made the bolt sway, and Ramdas let out an involuntary scream. Flames licked past his lips with his shout.
“Break the haft off!” Ramdas cried.
“No!” Heather bellowed. “If that’s a seeker bolt, it’ll crawl right up your guts to your heart, sir!”
“I’ll secure it,” Persephone murmured, and she cupped her hands around the haft. A sob wracked through her, her composure breaking apart in concern and fear.
When her hands lifted away, a plug of ice lay frozen to Ramdas’ barding.
It isn’t perfect, but it’ll keep it from moving further inside him, Heather thought. “C’mon, Lieutenant. We still got a job to do, right?”
“Si,” Ramdas answered, voice strained. “We rest when we are finished.” The centaur took a few more tottering steps, and paused to give Persephone time to right herself. More bolts clattered off Heather and Helga’s shields, and then the arrows stopped.
Finally out of ammunition, Heather thought, shoulders slumping in relief.
The heavy steps of Victor’s automaton cracking stone rang out across the courtyard. Heather looked back in time to see the automaton climb to the parapets of the south side of the fortress. It threw out its hands towards them, and Heather’s eyes widened.
Fire. We’re carrying explosives!
Even from halfway across the fortress courtyard, her skin felt warm. The flows of fire being woven around those adamant hands drew on terrible anger.
Victor’s furious. He’s pouring his heart into this one. That fireball is going to be too big. Even if we hide behind our shields and ward, he’ll blow the explosives before we reach the gate.
“Caballero!” bellowed Ramdas, following her stare. “Ideas, now?!”
Heather opened her mouth, closed it, gaping. The memory of screaming horses filled her mind, and she bit down on her lip until she tasted blood.
Bjorn and Njorn, lying in the dust, screaming and waiting to die. That’s his fault, too.
Anger swelled in her, fury, and embers sprang from her back and hair. She instantly swept them away as she realized she was still holding a box of dynamite in her hands.
No, no magic. Think. Act.
Fire, bright and terrible, leapt from the automaton’s hands, arcing down towards them from atop the tower. It was a fireball as large as Heather’s house back in Bastia, roaring majestically like a monster on the hunt.
Heather wrenched open the box of dynamite, and grabbed a bundle from within. With all her might, she hurled it up into the sky. Dynamite and fireball met high overhead. With a thunderous bang, dynamite detonated, dissipating the fireball into a hot cloud of glowing flame.
“Run run run run run!” Heather bellowed, as cinders and motes of fire began to fall around them. She kicked her box of dynamite ahead of her, then scooped it up and threw it at the gate.
Ramdas and Helga dumped their dynamite unceremoniously at the foot of the gate, and Helga slapped her hammer against the ground while the Knights around her scrambled away. Rock rose to engulf the explosives like a bowl.
She’s shaping the blast, Heather realized. Making sure it will hammer the gate. Too much adamant to blow through. Just hope the hinges aren’t ready for an explosion from the inside!
Helga bolted back to Persephone’s side, her shield carefully guarding her side, and they huddled on the far side of Ramdas.
The centaur turned, and fired a single red bolt from his rapier into the stone. The drilling light lit the gate in a blinding flash, and a little rivulet of molten stone ran from the hole the beam was drilling.
With a short, sharp bang, the gates blew off their great hinges, and fell majestically to earth. They landed with a crunch of shattering stone and a tremor that rattled up Heather’s legs. A dense cloud of white smoke rose from the blast. Beyond the gate, lights bobbed and weaved, growing steadily closer.
How’s that for a signal? Heather thought, and dared to smile.
The entire town of Frostmoor seemed to be charging in. Runes on weapons and armor glowed in the distance, furious and frightened hedgemages holding whatever weapons or armor they’d thought to conjure. Behind the orderly lines of House soldiers stood unruly families of miners, hunters, traders, charging desperately for the destroyed gates.
Three thunderous bangs sounded from the fortress walls in response. Heather’s heart froze in her chest, grief shooting blue flame through the tips of her mace. The artillery!
Three flashes of dazzling white exploded inside the town. Bright, flaming sparks spread, raining fire down atop the town.
“You son of a bitch!” Heather roared, whirling on Victor’s automaton. “You filthy, murdering bastard! You go shelling the town? You’ve already lost, you motherless hawk-faced toad!”
Fire began to light the southern crest of the wall again, illuminating a pack of skeletons finally forming up, organized, advancing on the knights. Overhead, Victor’s automaton was shaping another roaring ball of fire together. His voice boomed back from above the fortress walls. “I’ve won everything, Blackthorne! And when we come back for you and yours, I’ll carve the rest of your town to the bone, too. You can watch and count every last bloody one!”
His furious diatribe bought Heather enough time to turn and shout. “He’s getting ready to cast another! Get to cover!”
“Nay, dearies,” snarled Helga, unslinging her hammer, and passing it to Persephone. “Stand your ground. I said I wanted that bastard’s head under my hammer.”
Persephone reached under Helga’s shield. Her hand emerged holding one more thick sheaf of dynamite that the dwarf had hidden there. Without hesitation, she grit her teeth and pressed the dynamite to the hammer’s head. Ice flowed from her fingers, and formed a tight ball around it.
Helga picked it up, and smiled at Persephone. “Thank you, love.”
And then she turned, and hurled the dynamite-laden hammer straight at Victor.
Heather fell to one knee in the wake of the throw, the pull of the hammer’s runes skewing her balance. Helga’s hammer flew faster than her eye could follow, rocketing across the yard. The dwarf’s aim was good.
The hammer caught the automaton square in the center of its face. The explosives frozen to it detonated, knocking Victor back over the wall with a surprised shout. His fireball overhead decayed into lingering flames. A flume of ice and water sprayed high into the air over the fortress on impact, and a loud cheer rose in response from the charging soldiers.
Helga fell exhausted to her knees, staring at the cloud of smoke drifting away from where Victor had stood. A mixture of humour and sadness crossed the dwarf’s face then. “Oh, dearies. That was my only hammer.”
Too exhausted to move any further, the knights crouched in cover and watched as Frostmoor’s people moved in, and took their revenge. Hammers and cudgels conjured in the hands of soldier and townsfolk alike, swung and fell on the few remaining skeletons with zeal. The automatons were engaged at a distance, conjured ice and stone rooting them on the spot. Then came spells and pickaxes, used to bash and tear through armor and ticking clockwork underneath.
I’d call it a massacre, except all the victims are already dead, Heather thought. Some of the skeletons she watched didn’t put up a fight. Some threw up their hands as if frightened, and others obligingly held still to be struck down. A few, a desperate few, clustered together and fought like soldiers, with shields tight and swords and spears well-perched.
Those were summarily wiped out when Ambrose and Faruza converged together. A howl from the werewolf whirled magic around Ambrose, and the man’s fingers flew across his abacus at blinding, blurring speed. In an instant and a burst of iron pellets, it was over. Twelve skeletons fell, skulls neatly shattered by bullets they’d never had a chance to see coming, or counter.
Still other fighters proved their mettle. William Juillard, the man that Ramdas had once duelled, led an organized and disciplined group of a dozen townsfolk. Heather tracked their progress by the tug of their flows and magic as they flushed the fortress keep of stragglers.
They emerged with two men dead, for seven skeletons and an automaton dragged out in parts behind them, his broadsword brandished high and proud.
As William passed Ramdas, the centaur pointed to the scar his rapier had left on William’s hand, and Ramdas smiled. “Better spent on these horrors, isn’t it, Senor?”
William gave the centaur a respectful nod. “It is.”
Heather Blackthorne woke as she did every morning, her screams echoing off of the stone walls of the barracks, hands reaching out for the bodies of a husband and son.
“Sssh,” a familiar voice said, and small, fumbling hands reached for hers. “You are safe. You dream, Knight Heather.”
Heather tried to sit upright, and the world pitched crazily around her. A dry heave rolled up her gullet, and she turned and spat off the side of the bed, panting for breath. “Are we on a boat, Ooluk?”
“No, Knight Heather. The doctor had to fix your ears, like he did for the man you saved at the Sending gate. He says you will be dizzy until your ears learn which way is down again.”
How many explosions? Heather found herself wondering. Foundry, gate, dynamite for the fireball, all of those explosive bolts, Helga’s hammer. The artillery. Yeah. I guess my ears were overdue for a doctor’s attention. We all are.
Heather swayed, and then carefully laid her head back down on the soft pillow. Her fingers found the gauze neatly taped to her face over her cheek, where the skeleton had bit her. The world swayed and tumbled around her with every motion. Opening her eyes again helped. Morning light leaked through the narrow arrow-slit. Outside, she could hear the winter wind whistling against the stones of Frostmoor Fortress.
Ooluk sat on a chair beside her bed, his bandaged eyes inscrutable, and his body slumped in exhaustion. Heather gave his hands a gentle squeeze.
“How many, Ooluk?” she whispered, after a time.
When he hesitated, she spoke again. “How many dead, Ooluk?”
“Twenty-one,” the little blind elf answered reluctantly. “Seventeen in the fighting here. Four in town. A mother. Three of her five children.”
Heather nodded jerkily, and shuddered out a long breath. Every last one is on you, Victor LaPaix. You and all your pathetic, grave-robbing friends.
I can’t protect anyone. I can’t even protect my own family. But I’m going to avenge them, you motherless filth. One day, I swear, I will find you again. I’ll finish this. You didn’t win a thing. We won. And every living soul left will tell you so.
It was a hollow thought. The memory of grave cairns, half-grown sunflowers wilted and dried in the winter snows, filled her mind’s eye.
Ooluk must have sensed her thoughts, and gave her hands another squeeze. “Every one of them that lives has the Knights to thank,” he murmurs. “And when their grief eases enough to uncloud their hearts, they will remember. Because of you we will plant three sunflowers in spring. Not fifty.”
Heather closed her eyes, and finally let the sobs come.
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