Leaving the small grove in the morning was easy enough, and we had no encounters in the night that anyone felt worth mentioning. For most of the day, we marched silently through Whisper’s Grasslands, interspersed only sparsely with a few short conversations about the state of the trip, our families, and other idle banter.
Then, shortly before nightfall, just a few miles from where Jack and Harold estimated the Hellpit to be, we found a problem. The grasslands ended. Or, more specifically, they were cut down by intelligent hands.
Cut down to make way for a war camp.
The tall grass was cut down and the ground underneath burned for a hundred yards in every direction, creating a vast circle of blackened soil nestling the skeleton of a fortress. It was still obviously under construction, but the tall dire steel beams and crossbeams were immediately recognizable as the framework of a large building of some kind. On the south side, the side facing the Hellpit, they already had walls set up, flesh and skin built from wood and leather knitting between the bones built from alien steel.
And it was a fortress. Even if my practiced eye failed to notice the defensive shape of the walls, or the powerful spikes waiting to be placed at spots that would otherwise be ideal locations for climbing, the rams and ballistae would have been an obvious hint.
I had seen many war camps in my time, and this was by far the most impressive. Men ran to and fro with the chaotic efficiency that only came from the hand of a competent and intelligent commander. Materials and supplies were being brought in from the north-east, towards where I assumed the Dire Abbey was located.
Because that was what this camp was. A war camp for dire men.
Dozens, possibly hundreds of sinhearts wandered to and fro in the camp, hefting massive pallets of metal bars, logs, and piles of leathers. There was the rhythmic clanging sound of metal on metal that could only come from a smithy, and they dragged crudely built cages around to what appeared to be a prison sector. All the cages were empty, but I had a feeling they would not stay that way for long.
I could even smell food, and see the flickering of a cooking fire on the other side of a large pile of building supplies. This was not some temporary raider base, a brief rest stop before they went off hunting. This was a camp preparing for true war.
“You said that sinhearts were not intelligent to build things on their own,” I muttered from our place hiding in the tall grass at the edge of the circle. I glared at the two native guides, but my anger died in my throat as I noticed the twin looks of complete and utter horror on their faces.
“I have never seen anything like this,” Harold whispered. “The only sign of building they have ever shown before was replacing the abbey’s broken wooden gates with some dire steel ones. Nothing like this.”
Norn grimaced. “And I suppose there is no chance this is a fortification the villagers set up, that the monsters took as their own.”
“We flat-out do not have enough dire steel for this,” Jack pointed out.
“Well, there is some good news,” Vale noted cheerily. “The villagers must still be alive in the Hellpit. There would be no need to build this massive fortress otherwise.” He elbowed Harold in the gut in a friendly manner. “They appear to be quite an annoyance to these dire men, eh?”
The archer smiled mirthlessly. “Yes, I suppose so.” Then he sobered, and turned his attention back to the war camp. “We could go around, but we have the element of surprise right now. I doubt they expect anyone to come around from behind. We might be able to do real damage to them.”
“All right,” I said. Everyone silently and unanimously agreed to table the disturbing question of how these monsters got so intelligent, so fast. “Let us start simple. Do we have anything that can destroy the dire steel frame of the fortress?”
“Not at that scale,” Jack muttered darkly. “I might be able to take out a couple pillars, but I doubt that will be enough to bring the whole thing crashing down.”
I shook my head. “No, you are right. We need something…” I frowned at the cages. They appeared to be wood. “Let us burn the cages, and anything else made of wood or leather. We have fire, correct?”
Harold chuckled. “We have lots of fire.”
I nodded. “All right, then Jack and I will make a distraction while you and Roark shoot every target of opportunity you see. Norn, Vale, you stay behind to keep them safe. Everybody clear?” They all nodded. “Good. Let us do this, and get out before they know what hit them.”
Jack and I waited a few minutes for the others, still hiding in the tall grass, to reposition themselves a dozen yards farther along the circumference of the burned patch. Then I turned to the swordswoman next to me.
“Is this plan going to work?” I asked quietly.
She stared at me. “You ask that now? You sounded confident five minutes ago!”
“This is the last chance to back out,” I insisted. “Tell me: Is this plan going to work?”
She frowned and turned her attention back to the war camp, brow furrowed in confusion.
“I…cannot say,” she admitted. She brushed back a lock of blonde hair that had fallen into her eyes. “Normally, I would say yes, as long as we are careful. Dire men are good at tactics, but they can be tricked. But this…” She shook her head. “They are not acting like dire men. Dire men do not build.”
I nodded. “They are acting like men.”
Jack looked at me sideways a moment before answering. “I suppose so.”
“Then I assume that means this is my show.” I stepped out of the tall grass onto the scorched and blackened soil, and drew my sword and shield. I did not feel as comfortable as I normally did when I was armed, probably because the dire-weight bracers made the heavy weapon and bulwark feel as light as air. I felt naked.
The young villager strode up next to me, however, oozing confidence from every pore. She held her sinblades casually at her sides, her eyes scanning the war camp in front of us with practiced efficiency. She might not have been in this exact situation before, but she was a soldier, and she knew how to adapt to unexpected battlefields.
Standing next to her made me breath easier. I might not know how to deal with sinhearts, but she did. And she did not know how to deal with a guerrilla assault on a war camp, but I did. Together, we could make this work.
“Ready?” the grim girl asked.
“Ready,” I confirmed.
She took a deep breath and whistled.
It was that same strange, piercing sound from the village, a sharp, keening noise halfway between a whistle and a war-cry. I could not imagine it being produced by a human throat, but that was what was happening. The swordswoman had not even raised her fingers to her lips; the noise was made using only her mouth.
However she did it, the sinhearts immediately sat up and took notice. The bellowing war-cry I had heard before echoed throughout the camp, alerting everyone that there were enemies to fight.
“Nice trick,” I commented. “How do you do it?”
“Not the time.”
“Right.” I fell into a combat stance, shield held in front of me, sword, behind it. “I will draw their attacks as best I can. While you are killing them, try to keep them from knifing me in the back.”
She readied her own swords, but then frowned. “You know, I do not think I have ever seen a sinheart with a knife.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
She shrugged. “Not sure.”
“Probably not the best time to talk about it.”
And then they were upon us.
The first one roared at me louder than a bullhorn, swinging his sword with a single hand straight at my face. I interposed my shield with the speed that only came from years of practice, and was nearly knocked off my feet by the strike. The impact was too much for my shield arm, and I could not keep it up. In a single moment, I was suddenly wide open and defenseless.
Jack flowed in front of me like water, blocking the first sinheart’s killing blow and skewering a second before he had a chance to attack in a similar manner. The beast barely had a chance to roar in rage before she kicked him in the chest, removing her sword from his heart and simultaneously sending his corpse careening into another three monsters.
“Get it together, Wreth!” she snapped. “I do not have time to babysit!”
She was right. This was not my first fight. Not even my first fight against sinhearts. New weapons or not, I needed to focus and do my job. Jack was good, but she could not fight four dire men at once—and more were coming as I wasted time thinking about it.
The first sinheart raised his sword against Jack, and I swept in close and stabbed him in the armpit. He roared at me, displaying his shark-like teeth in my direction, but without his sword arm, he was crippled. Before he could do anything else, I stabbed him in the throat and kicked him aside.
Three left, reinforcements closing. We needed to kill these before the rest showed up.
There was a whistling sound off to the side, and the entire fight stopped to see a fiery bolt arching through to air to land on a pile of furs and leathers. It caught quickly, as expected, and the entire camp roared in rage, before stalking forward to find the one sniping their supplies.
The ones we were fighting right now were not stupid enough to break off from us, but they were distracted, so I slit the throat of the one closest to me, while out of the corner of my eye I saw Jack getting the other two, one stab in the heart for each. I had no idea how she managed to expertly slip between the ribs every single time. Practice, I suppose.
Mine, on the other hand, was still alive, albeit on the ground and clutching the wound on his neck, which was still spurting black blood. I gripped my sinblade in two hands—which is difficult when you are still wearing a shield on one arm—and took off his head with a single clean swipe.
Now we were in the free and clear, but half the camp was searching the grasses for our allies. A number were also trying to put out the fires that had already been started.
I glanced over the battlefield, but did not see a good way to get to the monsters hunting our friends without diving through dozens more. “We need to draw their attention somehow,” I told Jack. “How about we—”
Suddenly there was something in her hand, a small wooden disc maybe two inches wide. She planted her feet and flicked it forward horizontally, sending it flying across the war camp, curving through the air until it impacted one of the hunter monsters in the head.
Then it exploded.
As the sphere of fiery destruction engulfed about a dozen nearby sinhearts, I stared at Jack in something that I could only assume was a hybrid mix of horror, awe, and respect. All I knew for sure was that I had no idea what had just happened.
“Soaked in burnbag oil,” she explained. Even though I was standing right next to her, I could barely hear her over the howls of rage. “Turns anything into an impact-based pyrophoric explosive, as Professor Haber says. Only works with dire cedar wood, though.”
“You were carrying that around on you this entire time?” I asked incredulously. It was an absolute miracle she had not blown herself up at some point. “Do you have a death wish, or are you just crazy?”
The swordswoman rolled her eyes and fell into her combat stance again. “Oh, come off it. It only explodes in the air. They are kept in a sealed wax packaging until you need them. Besides, it takes a pretty decent impact to set them off.”
Seeing that the enemy were closing the distance, I readied my own defensive stance as well. “Once this is all over and we get to the Hellpit, I think I need to speak with this Professor Haber of yours about what is and is not appropriate to give to children.”
“You sound like a grumpy old man.”
“My daughter is your age,” I reminded her. “I do not really have a choice but to be protective.”
She shrugged. “Well, at least you admit it.” She stepped forward to meet the sinheart charge head-on. That was one thing about her fighting style I strongly disagreed with. Her teacher clearly valued offense over defense.
As she scissored the first one’s head off, I moved to support her, interposing my shield between a sword and her exposed gut. The blow bounced my arm again, but this time I was ready for it, and just grit my teeth and struck back, drawing a narrow dash across the enemy’s chest with my own blade.
He howled, as they always did, but I was becoming inured to the sound now, and it did not rock me back on my heels as much. I just blocked his counter blow, used the opportunity to slice his wrist, and when he dropped his sword, dove forward and plunged my blade into his heart with all my strength.
It did not work nearly as well as when Jack did it—she managed to pierce straight through the back every time—but it killed him well enough, with the beast only stumbling around in confusion for a moment before dropping to the ground, dead.
I did not have time to catch my breath. Another blotchy-skinned foe was swinging a weapon at Jack, apparently having decided that the corpses piling around her meant she was more dangerous than I. This time, he had an axe, one of the strangely hollow weapons Norn had equipped.
The haft was dire steel, as far as I could tell, but instead of the head being a solid block of metal, useful for throwing a massive weight behind the blade of the weapon, it was like…the frame of an axe head. It had a bent dire steel rod at the top of the haft, with a sharp blade attached to the rod at an angle. The weapon, looked at from the right angle, almost looked like a stylized, very dangerous letter P, with a bit of an open spot at the bottom. I was not even sure it qualified as an axe.
But strange design or not, I had enough experience with dire steel weapons now—and the strength a dire man could swing them with—to know better than to dismiss it as a threat. Once again, I moved my shield into place, a simple dire steel triangle attached to my arm protecting the village swordswoman from disembowelment.
The strike impacted my shield hard enough to grit my teeth, and I pushed back, hoping to bash my opponent in the face, giving me a chance to end this fight quickly.
However, that is when I had a chance to understand the purpose of the weapon’s design. Whether it was considered an axe or not did not matter. The important part was that it was light enough to be swung very quickly.
The second blow caught me completely by surprise, and knocked me back a couple feet. I managed to keep my shield up and squared my stance, ready for whatever came next. Or so I thought.
As it turned out, there was another reason for the odd design choice. The open part of the head, where the blade did not reach the haft, let the weapon be used as a hook.
I thought he had just misjudged the distance and swung at empty air. It quickly became apparent that he was actually hooking the back of his blade around the back of my shield. Once he had that done, he simply pulled.
I was yanked off my feet instantly. I had never seen a maneuver like that before, and had no experience in dealing with it. Even my stance was designed for remaining solid in the face of being pushed, not the opposite.
Suddenly I was on the ground on all fours. Before I could dodge out of the way, a heavy foot stepped onto my back, crushing me into the dirt. I could not even look up to see the monster about to kill me.
Then an arrow hit me in the butt.
“OW! What the f—” I bit off a curse as the pressure on my back loosened, and I was able to scramble away. The projectile lodged in my rear hurt, but I had had worse. Right now, I just wanted to figure out what happened.
When I managed to climb to my feet, wincing, it quickly became apparent that the sinheart with the axe was at least as confused as I was. He was staring at the edge of the grass, frowning, trying to figure out what the Hell was going on.
Another arrow zipped out of the grasses. I had to raise my shield to block it. But considering my proximity to the sinheart…
“Roark!” I roared. “Your aim is horrible! STOP SHOOTING AT ME!”
“It is this bow!” he called back. “I am aiming at the other guy, but—”
The monster raised his sword and started forward, ready to stalk the ranger in the tall grass. He made the mistake of turning his back on me, though. I stabbed him from behind, approximately where his heart should be. He went tumbling to the ground fast enough that my sword was wrenched from my grip.
“Stop yelling!” I called. “Just do not shoot anywhere near us!”
“That is an embarrassing injury,” Jack noted from behind me. I turned to see her grinning at my rear. “On the plus side, I think the sinhearts are confused as to who is fighting who, now. Just do not sit down.”
I rolled my eyes. “Ha ha. Do you have a potion on you that can heal this?”
She shrugged. “Sure, but not with the arrow still in—”
I pulled it out, grimacing at the sharp pain of a large chunk of flesh being ripped out, and tossed it aside. “Give me the potion. Quick, before the sinhearts realize they should be fighting us after all.”
The swordswoman fished around in her pouches, keeping a weather eye on the nearest band of confused monsters, and finally handed me a small vial with a red liquid inside. “Here. A lesser healing potion. Be careful, it causes a full-body numbness. You might lose your grip on your swords if you are not careful.”
I nodded in thanks, uncorked the vial, and downed it without a second thought.
It tasted of copper, salt, and something flowery I could not quite identify. It was not a good taste, by any means, but it was not so bad that I had to fight to keep from throwing it right back up. That put it ahead of most of the food I had been given in the army.
In moments, a dull numbness, similar to when a limb falls asleep, spread over my entire body. I gripped my sword tighter, glad Jack had warned me. If she had not, I probably would have already dropped it on my toe.
I nodded at the swordswoman. I did not speak—I was afraid it would come out slurred due to the potion—but she got the message. She sounded that sharp, strange whistle again, instantly drawing the attention of every monster within sight.
The sinhearts who had been failing to keep the nearest fires under control roared at us and came rushing forward, all fifteen of them. The dozen or so searching the tall grass for our friends sent six more after us, howling like madmen, while the rest continued hunting.
“Six sinhearts are still after the others,” I warned.
She steadied her swords. “do not worry about them. Because we have got the whole rest of the camp to deal with. And stupid or not, I do not think they are going to get distracted again. They are in horde mode now.”
I did not have to ask her what horde mode was. It was obvious considering the dozens of monstrous men rushing across the blackened ground, howling for our blood.
We still had time, but not much. “Can we get to cover in the bones of the fortress?”
“No way, it is too far.” She glanced behind us. “Back up, though. At the very least, we can put the grasslands behind us. Better than nothing.”
We did so, slowly taking a few steps backwards in order to keep the monsters from circling around behind us.
It was too little, too late.
I heard a roar from behind me, and ducked just in time to dodge the swipe of a sinblade. I spun around to see three more sinhearts, roaring at us with the fury I had come to expect from them. That explained why the ones in front had been so slow and cautious. They were hoping these ones would be able to ambush us.
While we were focusing on the ambushers, I heard a roar from behind—the ones who had been in front of us were angry their ambush had failed. They would close the distance between us in moments, and then we would be fighting over a dozen at once. And there were only more reinforcements on the way.
This had been a stupid plan. We had no exit strategy. Even once the others finished sabotaging the war camp, they would not be able to rescue us.
we would just have to take down as many of them as we could before we fell.
I started with the beast in front of me, blocking his swipe with my shield, then following through with a stab of my own. He dodged the attack with surprising grace, and I was forced to quickly and awkwardly bring up my sword again to parry his next attack. The impact nearly sent the weapon skittering from my hand.
There was no time to spend this long on each opponent. I rushed forward with the shield, not doing any actual damage but throwing him off balance long enough for me to sneak my sinblade in and slice the back of his knee with its razor edge.
The sinheart howled as the knee in question collapsed under his weight, but even though he was down, he was not out. He swiped angrily at me with his own sword. I dodged the first clumsy blow by ducking and letting it whistle over my head, and sidestepped the vertical strike long enough to step forward and stab him in the throat.
Another monster hoped to use his compatriot’s death throes as a cover to finish me off, but I had watched Jack fight these things enough to know better than that. I kicked the first sinheart off my blade before he even finished dying, and brought up my shield to block the new one’s attack. I pushed forward with the bulwark, trying to throw him off-balance, but to no avail—and I could not use the opportunity to stab him, because my sword was busy fending off the blows of another beast from a different angle.
I glanced over at Jack. She seemed to be faring perfectly fine against four enemies, one on each side, as she danced with those swords in a whirling and deadly hurricane of steel. Any time one of the monsters thought they saw an opening, they found their blade parried, and a new slash across their arm leaking black blood.
Turning my attention back to my own foes, I dropped down, dodging another wild strike, and sidestepped towards the grass. It was beginning to look like I would not last long if I did not manage to gain some form of concealment or cover.
But the sinhearts were clever, at least when it came to battle tactics. One of them quickly interposed himself between me and my escape, forcing me to stay and fight against two at once.
And then another one arrived on my other side. I was fast being overwhelmed. I only had the two arms, and I did not have the lightning-fast reflexes of Jack to compensate. I blocked one swing with my shield, another with my sword, and barely managed to dodge the third, which had been aiming to disembowel me.
I could not call for help. Jack was performing admirably, but she was still fighting four enemies at once; distracting her would not end well. Harold and Roark would still be busy with their own assailants, and I did not trust Roark’s aim at the moment anyway.
I grit my teeth and downed one of my opponents with a well-placed stab to the throat—only for him to be immediately replaced by another, bigger sinheart with an axe, roaring like a berserker.
Take down as many as you can.
Another blow came; I dodged it, bashed the blade aside with my shield, and then sliced off the offending hand with a single swipe of my own sword. A quick dance away let me dodge the retaliation from his compatriots, and they even managed to hit their ally and finish him off for me.
More attacks. Two at a time, now. I blocked one with my shield, but missed the parry on the other with my sword, and received a deep cut on my arm that I could barely even feel. I responded with a wild slash which cut open his face, but it did little than annoy him. He raised his sword in a two-handed strike, while another sinheart held my shield, keeping me from protecting myself with it. I could try to parry, but I knew it would not be enough.
Then a curved blade wrapped around my killer’s throat. He fell forward, kicked hard from behind, and his weight pushed against the rock-steady blade, decapitating him as easily as an executioner’s axe.
Norn stepped up and grinned at me, both his scythe and axe wet with black blood. “You getting soft in your old age, Sir Wreth?”
I ripped my shield out of the hands of the surprised sinheart who was clinging to it, bashed him in the face, and stabbed him in the mouth when he opened it to roar. That did not prove enough to kill him, so I kicked him in the back of the knee, sending him toppling to the ground, and finished him off by stabbing him in the heart from behind, slicing through his spine in the process.
“I am fine,” I insisted jovially. “Just wanted to give you something to do. You seemed bored guarding the bowmen, I thought I would give you a chance to play the hero for once.”
The big man grinned, turning his back to me and fending off two more of the monsters coming at us with his strange weapon combination. “I expected as much, sir. Should have known better than to think the Dragon of the Kingdom would be felled by a mere beast.”
I turned my back to him as well, creating a simple back-to-back formation where we could both keep our eyes forward without worrying about anything sneaking up on us. It was a pretty standard tactic when overwhelmed like this. “Speaking of which, how are the others? Please tell me you did not actually abandon them.”
“Nah, they finished setting fire to everything flammable, so now they are finding a hill or other high ground to snipe at the baddies from afar.”
“Without a melee guard?” I asked incredulously as I gutted an opponent in front of me. “That is suicide.”
“They have got Vale. Harold gave him a bunch of alchemical poisons and so on. Besides, did not you notice? The entire flipping war camp is right here, in this pack!” He barked out a laugh. “Worry about yourself first.”
I cursed under my breath as I finished off another. “How many?”
“I dunno. Over a hundred, though.”
“We cannot fight a hundred of these things,” I reminded my subordinate. “Even if—”
An arrow sailed in from the north, hitting a dire man five feet in front of me. He stumbled back, staring at the projectile, and reached up to pull it out. Before he could do so, the wound erupted into flame, soon engulfing his entire body while he howled in agony.
“…all right,” I admitted as more arrows rained from the same direction. Only a little over half of them ignited the enemy; the other half would be Roark, firing a bit slower with the unfamiliar bow. “That will help. But it is still not enough.”
“Sir Wreth, you are still a pessimist. We do not have to kill hundreds of them—just kill enough to make them think twice before following, as we make our escape.”
“Will not be that easy,” Jack noted blithely. She killed a couple sinhearts and slipped between our swinging blades, turning our back-to-back formation into a three-back triangle, as easily as changing partners at a dance. “Dire men love to fight. The more we kill, the more they will want to chase us.”
I huffed as I did my shield bash throat stab maneuver again. “You could not have mentioned that earlier?”
“Would it have changed your plans?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “But we do need a plan.” I nodded at a dozen of the beasts breaking off from the horde assaulting us, charging the grasses in the direction our allies were hiding with booming war-cries. “Is there any way you can think of out of this?”
“Well, if we had any sky flowers, that might—”
There was a long, distant whistle, sharper than any sound Jack had ever made, and nearly as distinct. I frowned at the southern sky, as some small, strange object flew into the sky, faster than I had ever seen. “Is that a bird?”
Jack did not notice at first. “What are you—GET DOWN!” She threw her arms around both of us, pulling us down to the ground, leaving all three of us defenseless against the horde of monsters still out for our blood.
I struggled with her, but she was surprisingly strong. “Let go you crazy—”
Then the sky exploded.
There was a small boom, far too small to do the explosion justice, and then there was light everywhere. Even staring at the ground, it still hurt my eyes. It was a massive, fiery explosion of red and orange brighter than anything I had ever seen, and I was not even looking at it. Suddenly, it was day again, only a thousand times brighter, as though the sun filled the entire sky.
The sinhearts screamed as though they had been set on fire.
Every single one of them howled as loudly as when they had been struck by Harold’s bloodfire, if not louder. It was enough to set me back on my heels. I glanced up to see if they really had been set on fire—and realized I was practically blind, my vision filled with nothing but splotches of light.
“I cannot see!” I cried.
“Same here!” Norn added from a few feet away, his voice cutting through the roaring screams like a dull knife. “Where is the girl!?”
“Here!” Jack yelled. I felt something distant in my hand, and suddenly was being tugged into a quick run. “Just follow my lead, I can still see! You idiots should have closed your eyes first!”
“What was that!?” I shrieked as I rubbed my eyes after sheathing my sword, careful not to release Jack’s hand. I did not want to know what would happen if I lost my friends in this massive, howling horde.”
“Sky flower!” she shouted over the roaring monsters. “Oriental entertainment!”
“They use that for entertainment!?”
“Usually it is much smaller!”
After a moment and a half, the sense of large and unwashed bodies around us faded, and suddenly we were able to break into a full-out run across the scorched earth. My vision was clearing, if only barely; I could make out vague shapes, like the girl in front of me, and the big man next to me.
Off to the side, maybe ten yards ahead, I could see three more human-shaped things running in the same direction we were. Hopefully, that was Harold, Roark, and Vale, but I had no way of knowing for sure. For now, I could only trust that Jack knew what she was doing.
Once we were in the grasses again, we stopped for a moment, and Jack muttered something I could not hear. Someone else replied, and then we were running again.
Over the next ten or fifteen minutes, my eyesight slowly returned to normal, even as my breathing grew more and more ragged. Jack was not slowing down in the slightest, and due to the nature of the tall grasses that concealed us from the sinhearts’ eyes, I could not even see if there was anyone beyond the three of us running in the same direction.
Just when I thought I could run no more, we were out of the grasslands.
We all immediately collapsed on the hard, rocky ground. Norn, myself, Jack, and our three missing companions, who apparently had been running next to us the entire time. Now I felt a bit silly to have been so worried.
I reached around my belt for a water skin, downed a big gulp…and then groaned as a thought occurred to me. “We left the packs on the other side of the war camp. Hidden in that tunneler burrow.”
“do not worry,” a new voice said. “We will send someone to go collect them.”
I opened my eyes to see a man, perhaps forty years old and some change, standing in front of me with a pleasant smile on his face. He had brown hair and a face that felt familiar, though I could not quite place it, and the utilitarian leathers of a hunter. He also had a bow, similar to the ones Harold and Roark were using, slung over his shoulder. There were about half a dozen other hunters, similarly dressed and equipped, but they were all younger and stood a few steps behind him; he was clearly the leader of this party.
I took a deep breath and scrambled to my feet, back straight as an arrow. “I am Sir Wreth, good man, and I must thank you for saving us. You are one of the missing villagers from Grandsbriar, I take it?”
He grinned. “I am.” He bowed slightly. “Nathan Mallern, at your service.”
I blinked, distantly noting that my companions were struggling to their feet. “Mallern? As in the priest?”
The friendly hunter nodded. “My brother.” He turned that smile to Harold. “Harry! Good to see you alive!” He glanced over the rest of our party and his smile twitched slightly. “…where is your uncle, by the way? He set off with the rest of us, but went back to wait for you two.”
“Uncle Tom is dead,” the archer said flatly.
I was still mulling over the implications of Harold being a Mallern, but even in my confused state, I knew better than to just rip the scab right off the wound. “Maybe we can discuss this later? After we get back to the other villagers?”
Vale nodded eagerly. “Yes, please. Not all of us are well-equipped for a fight against monsters, you know…”
Harold’s father looked like he had been stabbed in the chest, but recovered quickly. “I…yes, you are right, of course. Now is not the time. Azin, Photor, take point. Davidson, Illson, cover the rear. Gaven, Hall, go retrieve those packs they left behind.”
The young hunters moved swiftly into position, the two girls scouting head while the boys took up place behind us. Now that I had a closer look, I saw that their bows were not quite the same as the ones Harold and Roark had. They were made of the same type of bone, but each had minor different details. From what I knew about scouts and hunters, I had a feeling these children had crafted and customized their weapons themselves.
Nathan Mallern stepped forward and touched my side, frowning. “That is not too deep, but running on it did not do you any favors. Just do not stress it until we reach town. Gaven’s surgeons should be able to stitch you up.”
“What are you…” I looked down at where he was touching, and was surprised to find a long gash across my side, cutting straight through my hauberk. The clothing underneath was sticky with blood. “How long has that been there!?”
“Probably since shortly after you downed that potion,” Jack noted calmly. “I did warn you it would dull your sensitivity to pain.”
I poked at the wound. It stung slightly, but it definitely did not hurt as much as it should have. “Well, will you look at that. I am sure this makes everybody a lot happier during surgery. Better than biting down on a block of wood and being told not to swallow your tongue.”
“You gave him a healing potion?” Nathan asked with a raised eyebrow. “Really Jacqueline, was that necessary? You know this kind of thing always happens to first time users. It is a miracle he did not pass out from the run.”
“My name is Jack, sir. And I made a judgment call. He needed healing.”
“Hm,” the older hunter said, still not quite believing her story. “And what was this life-threatening injury you saved him from? What demanded a healing potion right that second? A gut wound? A stab to the heart, perhaps?”
The young swordswoman looked away. “…he got an arrow to the butt.”
Nathan roared with laughter, and honest, belly-shaking sound of genuine mirth. “He what? How did that happen?” When I opened my mouth to explain, he waved me off, grinning and wiping tears from his eyes. “No, no, it is funnier if I do not know. Just be careful.” Still smiling he turned south, towards the Hellpit. “There are some treacherous steps, you might be in danger with that potion dulling your sense of touch.”
Now that I had a better chance to look around, it became clear that we were on a vast rocky plain, with only a few patches of Whisper’s Grass here and there to break up the gray. The ground was mostly gravel over slate and massive boulders.
It was like being on a particularly rocky mountain, albeit a bit flatter. Oh, the elevation changed, no question. There were tall hills, and we were led through several short canyons carved into the rock, but it did not have the same sense of constantly rising elevation a mountain had. Mostly, we went down for a while, before hiking up to our previous level, or we went up for a while, before hiking down again.
“Jack and your son said that bone-dancers frequented rocky areas like this,” I commented to the head guide. “Should I be worried about running into them? Or any other monsters, for that matter?”
Nathan smiled. “You have adapted to this way of life rather quickly, have not you? Before we fled Grandsbriar, there was a pool going over whether you lot would believe us when you arrived.” He scratched the small tuft of hair on his chin. “I wonder if that is still valid.”
“Well, I will admit we did not really believe there was anything worse than bandits out here. But then we got attacked by sinhearts at the town. That was something that was pretty hard to argue with.”
He grinned, a little sadly this time. “I imagine so. Lose anyone?”
I shook my head. “No. That Jack is a dervish.”
“Ha! That she is. Anyway, to answer your question, we should not have to worry about any bone-dancers or anything bigger than a dire stone. We have been clearing the area since we got here, and the girls are up ahead making sure things stay safe.”
“Dire stone,” I deadpanned. “Please tell me rocks cannot go dire.”
Another grin. “No, not that we know of.” He shrugged. “We are not sure what it actually is. It looks like a normal rock, but then it sprouts legs and pincers and so on and attacks. It is probably a precipitate, but right now dire rock is catching on more than it should.”
“Eh.” He held his hands about a foot apart. “That is about the biggest I have ever seen one. Of course, until we had to abandon the town, we were only coming down to the Stonefield once a week or so, so take it with a grain of salt.”
I frowned. “I thought this area was called the Hellpit.”
“Nah, we are not quite there yet. That is at the center of the Stonefield.”
“All right. I suppose that makes sense.” I had been wondering how a meteor could create such a strangely shaped crater. I had sort of assumed that time had changed the shape of the area, while forgetting the Hellpit had only been created a year ago.
After about an hour since our mad flight from the sinhearts’ war camp, we crested a particularly tall rocky hill, and we finally got our first look at the crater that the villagers had decided to flee to.
It was a crater, a deep circular wound in the gray stone, like huge amounts of rock had been scooped up by a spoon. The mouths of deep caverns and caves were exposed, with a number of disturbingly wide and dark pits cordoned off by what appeared to be brightly colored fencing. There was some sort of wall around the entire crater, made of stone, but I could not tell if it was man-made or a natural result of the impact.
The crater was at least a hundred yards wide, probably quite a bit more, and twenty or thirty deep. It was hard to judge scale at this distance. All I could tell for sure was that, other than the three or four fences around the dead falls, there did not seem to be any signs of human habitation.
“They are in the caves, I take it?” I asked Nathan.
He nodded jovially. “Of course! We want to get a wall around the entire pit, but for now we have to live with the tunnels. They are spacious enough for our needs.”
“What about dangers in the caves?” Roark asked. “Even a small one in a mountain can house all manner of unexpected creatures. I imagine large ones like these would be far worse, in that respect.”
“We stick to the smaller caves for now,” Nathan assured him. “We have got delvers exploring the deeper ones, but until we can map every inch of a tunnel system, we stay out of it. Well, mostly.” The hunter shrugged. “We ran out of room for the barracks, so we stuck it in one of the deeper tunnels. They have a bulwark up, bottling off the unknown.”
“I am sure Captain Gaven loves that,” Harold muttered.
His father clapped him on the back, grinning. “You know Theo! He considers it a challenge. He wants to finish mapping the place before Varn’s delvers do.”
“Speaking of Chief Explorer Varn,” Jack piped up, presumably using the man’s full title for the benefit of the four of us from London. “Have his miners found anything interesting? I know he was clamoring about getting over here for a while.”
“We have found a few interesting veins close enough to the surface to mine safely, but have not quite had time yet. Yaberstein has not even finished setting up a new forge yet, so production of anything metal, like pickaxes, is going to take a little while.”
“Why do not you show us around?” Vale suggested, subtly pointing out that we were standing exposed on the top of a hill instead of just going down to the safer areas. “I grew up in a city, so I would love to see what you can do with a location like this.”
Nathan nodded. “Agreed. But first, before we approach the perimeter, quick roll call. Need to make sure everyone is here.”
I glanced around, spotting my three subordinates and our two guides in an instant. “We have got all of mine.”
The old hunter frowned. “All right, we are just missing—”
“Here!” a high-pitched voice cried. We all turned back to see two hunters, a boy and a girl dressed the same as the others, running up with flushed faces, and our packs heavy on their backs. “Hall and Gaven, reporting, sir!” the black-haired girl with the surprisingly large chest chirped with a weak salute.
“Oh, right, I almost forgot about the packs,” Nathan muttered. “Any trouble retrieving them?” The younger hunters shook their heads, still wheezing from exertion. “All right then, everyone, forward to the Hellpit!” He started walking down the hill, his four other hunters quickly following. The two girls once again ran in front, alert for dangers.
“Let us take those,” I insisted, pulling the packs off the overburdened youngsters and passing them around to their owners. Jack refused to let me carry mine, likely because of my wound, and took it herself along with her own.
“Sorry for making you retrieve these for us,” Vale apologized as he strapped on his pack.
The girl, Hall I thought she said, smiled at him. “No issue, sir. If you had tried to fight with those on your backs, you would be dead.” She seemed to notice Jack and Harold for the first time. “Oh, hey guys. How was London?”
“Loud and smelly,” Jack grunted.
I gave her a sideways look as we started down the hill. “As I recall, you were covered in dirt and grime from a week and a half on the road. I am not sure if I trust the abilities of your nose under all that.”
“Those city boys did not try to cop a feel on you, did they?” Hall asked the swordswoman, moving conspiratorially close. “I know Father Mallern told you not to kill anyone. Did you have to fight them off without your swords—what are you laughing at?”
The last was directed at me, as I tried and failed to smother my rather childish giggles. Looking around, the others were not really doing much better than I was. Except for Roark, who did not seem to find anything funny about the situation.
“Nothing,” I managed to whisper. “Nothing at all.”
Hall glared at me with narrow eyes. “Did you cop a feel?”
“No, he did not,” Jack said with a sigh. “These asses are laughing because it seems that no one in that stupid town could even tell I was a girl.”
The huntress stared for a moment, before bursting out laughing. “Oh, that is rich! I told you to grow out your hair, Blondie!” She put the dour swordswoman in a playful headlock. “This is just like when we were kids, and all the girls wanted to marry you!”
I chuckled as well. “Really?”
“she would get proposals daily,” Hall insisted as Jack struggled ineffectually in her grip. I could not tell if Hall was stronger than she looked, or if her victim just was not trying very hard. “Two girls even got into a tear-up fight over it! It was hilarious.”
“Was not one of those girls you?” Harold asked, in a tone that made it perfectly clear he knew the answer. He had probably been hearing this story his entire life.
She did not seem embarrassed. “Yep! And I won, too.” The huntress tickled her friend in the armpit.
That, as it turned out, was enough to give Jack the strength to break free and push Hall off her. “For crying out loud Emily, we were eight. It was ten years ago! Are you ever going to forget about it?”
“Nope!” the hunter said cheerily.
I stepped a few paces away and found her her partner, the boy who had gone to retrieve our packs with her. I held out my hand. “Sir Nicholas Wreth, Knight of the Realm. Who might you be? I thought I hear Nathan call you Gaven.”
He shook my hand without much enthusiasm. “Yes, I am Captain Gaven’s son, Victor.”
I eyed the girls, still arguing while Harold and my subordinates looked on in bemusement. “I am assuming these two do this kind of thing a lot. I will admit they certainly look like rough-housing boys.”
Victor raised an eyebrow. “Jack, I understand, but if you are mistaking Emily for a boy…”
I glared at him. “She is the same age as my daughter. You will forgive me if I do not pay attention to her chest.”
He grinned slightly. “But you did notice it.”
I sighed. “Yes, I am not blind. However, what I meant was that they act like boys.”
The young man sobered slightly and shrugged. “I do not know. They only act like that with each other. There are other girls who are fighters like them, but the last time someone tried to rough-house with Jack, Emily nearly killed her.”
Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Really. I could see Jack doing that, but not Emily.” I saw the black-haired girl giggling as Jack finally gave up on trying to be serious, and just tickled her armpit. “She seems too friendly.”
“Only around Jack,” Victor warned. His eyes were firm. “Seriously, make sure your friends know. She is off-limits. Those two are the reason the townsgirls do not have to worry about men getting too handsy.”
“They hunted down all the rapists?”
“No, the son of the richest merchant in town grabbed Emily’s ass, and she cut off his hand.”
“…ah. Yes, I can see how that would discourage harassment.” I thought for a moment. “Was this before or after the monsters?”
“Of course it was.”