“This is not going to work,” Roark insisted.
I sighed. “Yes, you have said that fifty times in the past four hours.”
He waved at the soldiers and hunters running around the grasslands. None of them were close enough to hear us speaking, thankfully. “We have barely over two hundred men total, and most of them are kids.”
“Kids who have been fighting monsters for a year,” I pointed out. “And most commanders in our situation would kill for this many men from a village of this size.” Nearly every single villager was an able-bodied fighter. Most of them had stayed behind to guard the Hellpit, though.
“They are still kids. And they have never been in a fight this big before.”
“Roark, enough. If you have a better plan, I would love to hear it. But right now, this is the best we have got. We certainly do not have time to collect more men from London, and Gregor’s men are needed to guard their camp in the Hellwood.”
The ranger sighed and turned away. “Fine, I understand. But we are going to see a lot of dead kids when this is all over. I hope you understand that.”
“Just worry about the hunters under your command,” I recommended. “If everyone does their part, this whole thing should go off without a hitch.” I clapped him on the back as he walked away. “Relax.”
He just rolled his eyes and left.
I walked over to Varn, the man in charge of the delvers and explorers who would be dismantling the war camp once we were done with it. I had not wanted him here, but he had insisted he needed to be involved in handling the dangerous sky flowers. “How goes it?”
The small man with soot-stained skin pulled his goggles off and frowned at me. “As well as could be expected, I suppose, but that is not saying much. No one has ever tried to use these devices as weapons before. They are designed to explode in the sky. It is not safe to attempt the same on the ground.”
“Mister Varn, they are weapons. They are not supposed to be safe.”
“Not supposed to be safe for our enemies.” He shook his head. “I have no idea how to make these safe enough for us to use. Miss Orange has been pressing me to find a way ever since we arrived in the Hellpit, in the hopes we could use them to break the stone faster. But I have had no success.”
I frowned. “Wait a moment. I have heard rumors about the Orient. Is that not one of the primary purposes of black powder? Demolition and mining and so on? Let one man do the work of a hundred, and all that.”
Varn sighed. “I have heard all that before. But no, not to my knowledge. Some people may use it, but if they do, they have fast legs and little regard for human safety.” He showed me the fuse. “The longest delay I can get is ten seconds. That may be enough time to run. Maybe.”
I picked up the long wire. “Can you not just make this longer?”
“No. The flame burns out before it reaches the end.”
Of course it did. “What about fire arrows? The hunters have excellent aim.”
The Chief Explorer scratched his chin in a way that led me to believe he once had a small beard. “Hm…perhaps. Of course, the bloodfire arrows will not do the trick. They will need the meteor arrows…” He nodded. “I will speak to Hunter Mallern. Let him know what I need.”
“Good,” I said, nodding in return. “Be quick. We need to be ready by the hour.”
Then a deep, bellowing howl shook the night, loud enough to be heard from one end of our impromptu camp to the other, freezing the blood in our veins in the process. It was soon joined by dozens more.
“…or we need to be ready now.” I ran off to the front of our force, where Captain Gaven and his soldiers had assembled, trusting Varn to know what to do on his own without me holding his hand.
I arrived to find the young men and women of the town guard, all wearing the piecemeal metal armor that was essentially their uniform, shivering from the cold night air and worse. However, despite their obvious fear, they all had their swords and shields out and had assembled in a line, forming a broad shield wall. As long as they did not break, they would do well enough.
Jack was actually in front of the formation, to my surprise. I pushed my way through the armored line to her side, and grabbed her arm. “What are you doing!? The plan is for us to circle around the back—”
“There is no time for that now,” she insisted, pointing at the approaching horde with one of her blades. The howling sinhearts were both disturbingly numerous and disturbingly close. “We need to cut straight through them when they hit the shield wall, while the hunters distract them.”
As she spoke, arrows started sailing over our heads at the enemy mass, many of them lighting monsters on fire when they hit. It appeared that Roark and Mallern had managed to assemble their wits fast enough after all.
I drew my own sword and shield. “All right, I see no other choice. NORN!”
“Here, sir,” the big man said from right behind me. He strode up beside me, axe and scythe in his hands. “Ready for whatever comes.” He gave me a sideways look. “What is the plan, anyway?”
“We are punching through.” I nodded at Jack. “Kill as many as you can, but prioritize getting through to the other side. The shield wall and the archers will handle this horde. We need to plant the black powder packages.”
Norn did a double-take. “You have those with you?”
And then the horde was upon us.
There was no time for thought. No time for even the most basic of tactics. Just drive forward, block, parry, strike. Over and over again, ignoring the pain in my arm from blocking a thousand attacks.
And then we were through.
All three of us were covered in black blood, splashes and splatters I didn’t even remember. As we stumbled forward, trying to put more distance between us and the monsters trying to push through our shield wall, I realized that we also smelled like cooked meat. Was that from the fire arrows?
We finally found the war camp, tripping over our own feet as we fell out of Whisper’s Grasslands. The camp didn’t look too different from when we had left it last night. There were a few more recent corpses scattered around, pin-cushioned by arrows, but other than that it was much the same.
“All right, we need to act quickly,” I hissed to my companions. I pulled the black powder satchels off my back and handed one to each of them. “We need to place these at strategically important locations, then signal the archers. I am going to start with the biggest piece of the fortress I can find.”
“I saw something that looked vaguely like a barracks last time,” Jack mused.
I nodded. “Good, an excellent start.”
Norn turned the package over in his hands, before tucking it into the small, otherwise empty pack on his back. “There was definitely an armory or stockpile of some sort last time. If we can destroy that, they might be forced to retreat.”
“Perfect. Now, just remember, place them in line of sight of the archers, so they can hit them.” I peered back the way we came. The battlefield was only just out of sight behind the tall grass. We could still hear the howls of the monsters and the clang of metal on metal. “It is a bit far, but they should be able to make the shots.”
Jack glanced around. “We should hurry. There will be more coming—”
She got kicked backwards by a single, blunt boot to the gut.
She landed ten feet away, her swords cast aside and her form disturbingly limp, before Norn and I could so much as twitch. As one, we turned to face the new threat.
It was…a sinheart. As far as I could tell, anyway. Because the creature standing in front of us was clad head to toe in the dull gray metal I had learned to identify as dire steel. The design was smooth and utilitarian, without the barbarian spikes I had come to expect, or even the more mundane flares human blacksmiths tended to add. The only thing I could see under the armor was a pair of glittering blue, disturbingly human, eyes hidden under the helmet. They were so human they almost seemed familiar.
But the monster was not just armored. In one hand, it held a thick triangular shield that likely weighed a hundred pounds, again without any of the extra spikes or other strange accouterments I had come to expect of sinheart design. In the other hand, it held a straight-edged sword, five feet long and a full hand wide, with a solid and gleaming cross brace above the handle for protection.
The blade had a single design on it, right in the center: A simple Viking rune, a straight line with two smaller diagonal lines coming off the ends. I recognized it from our encounters with the raiders a few years back, shortly before I met Norn.
Eihwaz, the yew rune. The rune of Hel and Yggdrasil, of change, beginnings, and fear.
It was obvious what it was supposed to mean in this context.
Norn realized it too, and roared out a war-cry that shamed every sinheart I had heard so far. Still bellowing in rage, he dashed forward, axe and scythe raised, to leap straight at the monster and take its head off.
The massive creature, the…dire knight raised his shield and batted the big man away, knocking the battle-hardened berserker ten feet off to the side as easily as if he were swatting aside a kitten. Norn threw up a cloud of dirt and ash as he skidded to a stop. He did not rise again.
I was all that remained.
I swallowed my fear and raised both shield and sword, slipping into a defensive ready stance that had been ingrained in me since childhood. Nothing complex, just one foot forward, in line with the shield, sword held back and ready to strike like a snake.
The monster laughed.
It was a deep, booming sound that brought to mind every war drum I had ever heard. This creature might very well be completely and utterly beyond my ability to defeat, and it was well aware of it.
And then it did something that froze every drop of blood in my body.
Something that shocked me so utterly I stood stock still, unable to do anything but stare.
Something that made me feel like a green soldier again, facing an enemy soldier on my first day in the king’s army.
The monster spoke.
“Hello again, Wrath,” he said, in a friendly, affable voice like the wet sound of flesh being torn. “It has been a while, has it not?” It chuckled, a sound reminiscent of gargling gravel. “Such a very long while…”
I swallowed and took another step back.
“You seem to have me at a disadvantage,” I managed. “You appear to know me, but I fear I do not know you.”
That booming laugh was back. “This is your first time meeting me? Oh, if only I had known! Oh, I could have had such fun…” I had the feeling it was grinning at me with those shark teeth. “You will learn, eventually. For now…” He raised his sword in a mock salute. “Let me have my fun.”
And then he was upon me.
He didn’t fight like the other sinhearts. They were nothing but wild rage, with all the technique of a child throwing a temper tantrum. Oh, they had the strength and speed to make up for it, but a clever swordsman could learn their patterns well enough.
Not so with the dire knight.
He started with what appeared to be a simple overhand strike—but when I tried to dodge, it turned out to be a feint, and was bashed in the shield from the other side. I was sent skidding back ten feet on the ashy ground. I managed to keep upright, but only barely.
I did not have time to recover. I knew I needed to go on the offensive as fast as possible. I darted forward, quick as a bolt, leading with my shield. My opponent swiftly moved his own shield to block, but that was what I was hoping for. I drove my sword into the opening it caused—
Only for the blade to be casually parried aside by the sinheart’s own sword. I cursed and hopped back, out of reach of the inevitable counterstrike. It never came. The beast was toying with me.
“Where is your skill, little soldier?” the monster hissed, dark amusement in his voice. “This is hardly what I would expect of you. Where is the strength and speed of that man known far and wide as the King’s Wrath?”
I narrowed my eyes. “It has been a very long time since I heard that name. You have some connection to the king’s advisers, I take it?” I did not have the slightest idea how that would be possible, but I had already seen a dozen impossible things today, one more barely strained credulity.
There was that wicked laugh again. “Oh, poor little revenant, always searching the darkest corners for answers sitting right in front of your face.” The knight strode forward, not even bothering with a real stance. “Perhaps killing you again will knock some sense into you.”
None of this made any sense. “What—”
Then there was a sword thrusting at my heart.
My shield was suddenly in the way, decades of training taking over even as my conscious mind was still lost and confused. The dire knight’s sword punctured my dire steel shield as easily as if it were made of tin, crushing my arm and bending it an impossible angle in the process.
I cried out in pain and thrashed widely with my sword, only to find the blade clanging harmlessly off his armor. My opponent, for his part, seemed mildly annoyed at the inconvenience—not at my attacks, but at the fact that his sword was still stuck in my shield. He growled and tugged on it, dragging me forward in the process, before giving up and plunging the sword, still attached to my shield, straight at my chest.
Suddenly, there was nothing but the sound of the blade slicing through my heart.
The sickening wet sound of steel on flesh—one I had heard, and caused, far more often than I cared to remember. The distant screech of metal on metal, as his blade still slid against my shield. The drip of my blood, against the ash-covered ground.
And then the pain came.
It started slow, but after the barest moment, it was on me in full force. A deep, indescribable agony, the searing scream of every nerve in my body shouting as loud as possible that there was a hole in my heart. I couldn’t even summon the will to scream, the pain was so great.
And then the dire knight pulled his sword from my chest.
And then I found the strength to scream.
But while the spirit was willing, the body was weak. Ever so weak. I coughed up blood as I tried to find my voice, only succeeding in briefly splattering my opponent’s armor with my life fluids as I fell to the ground, unsupported.
I did hear a scream, but it was not my own. A girl’s scream, a terrible, broken thing, the cry of widowed wives and orphaned daughters. It was followed swiftly by a whistling war cry that I had heard before, but could not for the life of me place.
But the pain was fading. The screaming, burning wound in my chest was fading, replaced by a cold stillness, spreading out from my heart like a flame across oil. A slow, cold flame, ending all feeling in its path.
I closed my eyes. I could not see anything but darkness anyway.