Category Archives: And Then There Were Monsters

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 29

The sinhearts were driven into a blind rage by the death of their knight. Although the ones surrounding Jack and myself almost killed us, even with my new found strength and reflexes, it proved quite fortuitous for our allies. The sinhearts attacking them broke and ran back towards us when they heard the howls, and were easily cut down by the shield wall and the archers. They were able to come rescue us shortly thereafter.

A few hours later, once we were finished hunting down as many of the fleeing monsters as we could, we decided that it was safe to call in Chief Explorer Varn and his delvers to start dismantling the bones of the fortress and haul everything back to New Grandsbriar.

“I heard you had some minor trouble with a sinheart playing at knighthood,” Vale quipped immediately upon seeing me, after he gave me a hug. He looked me up and down. “Rather sprightly for a dead fellow.”

I grinned. “Reports of my death were greatly exaggerated, I assure you.”

The blond man smiled. “I am sure.” Roark came stalking out of the grass, presumably having finished organizing his archers, and Norn strode up from the pyre of corpses, his mouth conspicuously shut. “So what is the plan now?”

“Same as it was before,” I noted. “Get the materials back to the Hellpit, help the bandits with their building, then dismantle Old Grandsbriar…” I smiled, still trying to keep my mind off the fact that I had killed my daughter—monstrous or not. “Lots to do.”

“I meant with our report to the king,” Vale insisted. “We have been gone for two weeks, after all. He only gave us three. What do you think will happen if we do not make it back in time? Send more troops?”

“Who will promptly be slaughtered by monsters they do not believe exist,” Jack noted as she stepped up to my side. She, like Norn, was carefully not mentioning what she had seen and heard on the battlefield today. “You need to leave immediately.”

“Unless we leave a week ago, we will never make it back in time,” I pointed out. “By road, it is a three week trip. Even as the crow flies, it is still two.”

“Only on foot,” Captain Gaven said as he came up from behind me, clapping me on the back. “Our carts may not be fast, but they are faster than walking. Especially if they are otherwise empty. And we can teach you how to get the leaf-dancers to jump. You can cross ravines and rivers, all sorts of things that would normally be impassable to a horse.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You are giving us one of your leaf-dancer carts?”

“You need something to show your king, do you not?” He grinned. “It is the least we can do for the men who helped save the village! I saw you out there, Wreth! You fought like a demon. I had no idea men could even move like that!”

I smiled weakly, uncomfortable at the reminder of my recent…change. “Yes, well, we appreciate it greatly.” I looked over at the delvers and other workers, loading up the carts. “I suppose we should wait until you take the first load back to town, at least.”

Gaven just grinned. “Perfect! That means one last hot meal before you go!”

I nodded. “Sounds wonderful.”

It would also give me time to figure out what exactly I had done to myself.

It seemed harmless enough.

But I was slowly remembering that the Devil always did, at first.

FIN

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And Then There Were Monsters Scene 28

My first breath in the land of the living was a painful one.

As was the second.

And the third.

It did not take me long to realize that all my breaths were painful, and likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Had life always been this painful? Or did it have something to do with the giant gaping hole in my chest?

Involuntarily, against my better judgment, I felt my hand searching for the wound the sinheart knight had inflicted on me. To my surprise, I could not seem to find it. I looked down at my chest and found a large, blood-stained hole in my leather armor, but no matching hole in the flesh below it.

I should not have been surprised, but I was. At least it was a happy surprise.

I had a feeling the rest would not be.

Because I was a dire man now, I knew that. A true dire man, not the misnamed sinhearts who we were fighting. A creature transformed by a dire spirit into something…different. It had been just a guess, but the girl’s reaction had confirmed it.

I did not feel any different, however. Other than the rather welcome lack of a lethal wound, I felt exactly as I had several minutes ago. I did not have any extra limbs or eyes that I could tell, nor any strange and unexplained aggression.

In fact, I felt calm. Almost unnaturally calm, actually. Was that normal? Was I supposed to be just lying on my back in the ash and dirt, content after being killed and resurrected by an entity that might be a demon?

It did not take long for that particular illusion to be shattered.

I heard screams, the war cries of sinhearts, the whistling call of Jack, and the constant clang of steel on steel.

The sound of battle.

I was needed.

There was a sword at my side, lying in the ash and the dirt. I picked it up, and used it as a walking stick to leverage myself to my feet. Everything still hurt. But I was getting used to the pain, pressing it down. By the time I was upright again, I did not even need any assistance to stand.

The war camp was largely empty, to my surprise. Most of the sinhearts appeared to be south in the grasslands, fighting the hunters and the shield wall. That was a good sign, at least. If they had slaughtered them already, they would have returned.

But while it was mostly empty, it was not completely empty.

Perhaps two dozen more of the enemy monsters were scattered around the camp. About half were clustered around something, one large clump hooting and howling at something in the middle. I had no idea what that was, but they did no appear to be fighting, so I had to leave them alone for now.

The rest were chasing after my subordinate, Jon Norn.

He was doing an admirable job. He knew he could not fight all of them at once, so he used cover, dodging around piles of supplies, the steel framework of the fortifications, and anything else that might give him the slightest advantage over his foes. Speed was not his strong suit, but he was doing his best, dodging in and out with a slash from his scythe here and a chop from his axe there.

But he still needed help. He could not keep this up for long.

I gripped my sinblade in one hand. I had no time to find my shield, and I doubt it would have been any use at this point anyway. I needed to reach my friend as soon as possible; he was already tiring.

And then I was there.

It was so fast, I was not even sure it happened. One moment I had a vague impression of running across the scorched earth, and the next I was blocking a sword that would have taken Norn’s head.

I batted aside the blow. The beast howled and pressed the attack, putting his full and considerable weight behind his blade, using a two-handed downward strike to make absolutely certain to cut through everything in his path.

I held him off.

It took me two hands as well, but I held him off.

The sinheart blinked in surprise, then roared in rage and pushed harder. I could still have stopped him with sheer strength, but that would not have solved anything. Instead, I stepped aside, letting the beast stumble forward at the sudden lack of resistance, and sliced off his head with a single, casual one-handed strike.

Wreth?” Norn blurted in surprise. I turned to see him just staring at me. “But, you—”

I whispered past him and skewered the sinheart who had been about to stab him in the back. “Not the best time, Norn.” I smiled thinly. “I think we should save this conversation for later, do you not agree?”

I cut through the small horde of sinhearts like a hot knife through butter, my subordinate following behind as closely as he dared.

It was all so…easy. Fighting dozens of inhuman monsters just seemed like the simplest thing in the world. I felt twenty years old again, standing against an enemy army, but even better. My reflexes, which had slowed with age, were faster than ever. My weak and tired muscles were strong and rejuvenated. Everything was easy.

And then all the sinhearts Norn had been fighting were dead.

And I was close enough to realize what the other group was doing.

They had formed an arena using a circle of living bodies. I could barely see inside the press of black flesh, but their hoots and howls, the clang of metal, made it clear that someone was fighting inside their little Colosseum.

Just like before, when I felt the need, there was no effort. No worrying about how to get past dozens of human-shaped abominations, or what I would do once surrounded by them. I simply was suddenly there, in the center of the crowd, and I knew I had jumped over their heads like a gazelle. It was so easy I could not even remember it. Did you remember every time you drank a glass of water?

I took in the scene in a glance. Sinhearts on all sides. The dire knight, still armed and armored, standing a few feet away. Jack, on the ground, a few shallow cuts on her arms and her swords out of immediate reach.

They were all staring at me like they had seen a ghost.

I grinned. I couldn’t help it. I felt like a boy again, playing pranks on the school bullies. “Something wrong, everyone?” I nodded in mock understanding. “Ah, I see, I see…” I saluted Jack, still on the ground, seriously with my sword. “Lady Grandsbriar, apologies, but I believe I am going to have to cut into this dance.”

She swallowed. “Sir Wreth, I saw you—you were—”

I smiled sadly. “I would honestly love to explain now. But I have more pressing issues at hand.”

I can explain, little blade-dancer,” the dire knight hissed, in that same disgusting and friendly voice as before. “Your knight made a deal. His first deal. I had not realized it was this early.” There was that laugh again. “Perhaps your next death will be permanent after all.”

No longer in the mood for jokes and games, I stepped back into an attack stance, sinblade held before me in two hands. “Before I kill you,” I told the monster seriously. “I would like to know your name. Assuming you have one.”

Another deep, war-drum laugh. “Oh, if you only knew…yes, I have a name. I have forgotten most of them. But I remember at least one that will mean something to you.” The knight moved into his own stance, a copy of the one I had used earlier in our previous fight, shield forward and sword ready.

“And that name is?” I prompted.

Once again, I had the sense that the beast was grinning under his helmet. “Gerian.”

I blinked, for the first time since my resurrection knocked off guard. “What? But—”

She lunged forward, taking advantage of my confusion to launch an attack at my chest.

While I no longer had a shield, but I had reflexes honed by a lifetime of war, in a body that was seemingly beyond human. I sidestepped the powerful attack easily enough, but I was on the wrong side to launch a counterattack with my own blade. So I swept my foot around her leg, sending her stumbling farther than expected, and stabbing one of the watching sinhearts in the chest.

None of the watching monsters—except the dead one—seemed to care, and in fact hooted and howled even more enthusiastically than before. Gerian, for her part, placed her armored foot on the creature and pulled out her sinblade with the wet squelch of metal on meat.

And it was Gerian. My daughter might be two feet shorter and a hundred pounds lighter, but I would recognize her beautiful blue eyes anywhere. I had no idea how she had come to be in this situation, with the voice of a sinheart and the armaments of a monstrous knight, and I did not have time to dwell on it.

The dire spirit that had transformed me had said she came from the future. For now, I had no choice but to fight this creature to the best of my ability, and do everything in my power to keep the daughter I had left back home from becoming her at some point.

Gerian turned to me again, once more in the defensive stance she had watched me practice a thousand times in the courtyard when she was supposed to be asleep. It was not an especially rare or complicated style, but now that I understood the context, it was obviously something she had learned from me.

She lunged again, but not as fast or as far; she was testing my defenses. Rather than dodging this time, I parried the blow with my newly enhanced strength. Before she could recover, I swept my blade up from below in a two-handed grip, aiming not for her, but her sword.

I knocked it out of her grip, sending it flying away into the air, where it would land ten or twenty yards away. She cursed colorfully, nursing her hand even as she unbuckled her shield and tossed it aside.

Language,” I reminded her, using the exact same tone I always had whenever she mimicked one of Norn’s drunken swears.

The knight growled, which sounded like she was gargling burning hot tar. “Oh, come off it, Wrath. You always did act like a mother hen.”

“There is that name again,” I mused, as Gerian raised a gauntleted hand in the air, and one of the surrounding sinhearts tossed her a blade without even looking. “Where did you hear that name, Gerian?”

She howled a war cry and charged like a bull, attacking me not with her blade, but with her shoulder. On a whim, I ran forward to meet her, then jumped up onto her shoulders, flipped down her back, and turned to stab her in the spine.

The armor turned most of the blow, but it still hurt enough to make her howl in pain. She turned swiftly, ripping my blade out of her back with sheer strength, and stalked forward, dire sword raised and teeth grinding.

Then a blade burst out of her chest.

“Never,” Jack hissed from behind her, holding onto the sword she had plunged into the gap I had made in the armor. “Turn your back on a Grandsbriar.”

Gerian stumbled to the ground on her knees, and looked up at me, murder in her beautiful blue eyes as I walked up.

“Call off your monsters,” I ordered. “And you can live.”

There was a dark grin of defiance in her eyes. “See you around, Father.”

I cut off her head with a single double-handed blow.

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 27

“Is that it?”

I blinked, and frowned at my daughter, sitting on her bed. “What do you mean?”

“Is that it?” she repeated. “Is that the end of the story?”

“Of course it is the end of the story!” I insisted, ruffling her hair. “I died!”

She pouted. “But not yet! The story cannot be over yet!”

“Isabelle,” I said with a sigh. “This is my story. I am well aware of when and how it ends.”

“I am not Isabelle,” the ten year-old girl reminded me.

I nodded at my eldest child, Gerian. “Of course, dearest, of course. Apologies, it has just been a very long day.” I smiled and laughed at the silliness of my mistake. “Why, Isabelle will not even be born for another…” I stopped laughing, as it dawned on me. “…two…years.” I frowned. “How…how do I even know who Isabelle is, Gerian? Your mother is not even pregnant.”

“I never said I was Gerian, either.”

The girl looked like Gerian, seven years ago. She sat on Gerian’s straw bed with the quilt her mother made for her, in the small but private room I had bought for her using wages earned in the army. The walls and shelves were covered in Gerian’s toys and trinkets.

But the girl was not Gerian.

Her eyes were deep, and her smiling knowing. My daughter had tried to effect such an appearance more than once, and even succeeded on occasion. But the girl I was looking at was not wearing a mask, pretending to be old and wise. She wore her deep eyes and knowing smile as easily and naturally as anything I had ever seen in the world.

She was not old and wise. She was age. She was wisdom.

I stood up from the small stool next to my daughter’s bed, where I had been sitting while telling her the story. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

“Good questions,” she admitted. “But you are missing a rather important one.”

I frowned. “What…what am I doing here?” I looked around for my weapons. They were nowhere to be found. “I…I was on the battlefield. Fighting the dire knight. And then…” And then I remembered the story I had been telling this girl. “And then I died.”

She sighed. “You people and your obsession with the finality of death. Seriously, you’re like one of those angsty goth kids on LiveJournal, bitching about how life is pain because daddy wouldn’t let them date who they wanted.”

I blinked. “…what?”

“Short version: You are not beyond the realm of the living. You still may return.”

I swallowed my anxiety. I did not understand all of what this girl was saying, but I certainly understood that. “How much time do I have?”

“Not long,” she replied promptly. “Your body will be dead—permanently—within a few seconds, but your mind is…” She paused, as though searching for the proper word. “Accelerated at the moment. To give you more time to think.”

I wanted to ask more about the girl, but I had a feeling she would dodge the question again. “All right, fine. How do I return?”

“Agree to my terms, and it will happen presently.”

“…what are your terms?”

Those deep eyes did not so much as blink. “Once you return, you may only harm monsters.”

I frowned. “That is it?”

“That is it,” she repeated. But her eyes were still hard. “Do not underestimate this price, Sir Nicholas Wreth. You will not be allowed to kill humans or animals of the natural world. You may not raise your blade against any bandit or murderer, not at your king’s order or any other.”

“And I assume if I do so anyway, I die?”

No,” she insisted. “You are not getting it. You will not be allowed to do it. You will not be able to do it. If you attempt to raise your sword against a human, you will not be punished, you will simply fail.” Her eyes were deeper than the midnight sky on a moonless night. “Think long and hard, young knight. Ask yourself how many of the men you killed needed to die. To protect yourself, your kingdom, and your loved ones.”

Not many, unfortunately. But…enough. Enough that if I had not been able to kill them, I knew with absolute certainty that I would be dead now, and my family lying in the grave beside my own.

“…I accept,” I said grudgingly, after remembering too many terrified faces. What other choice did I have? “But I do have one more question, if you do not mind.”

The girl nodded once.

“The dire knight,” I started. “He knows me. He knows my fighting style, knows my moves. And…” I frowned. “He knew this was going to happen, did he not? He called me a revenant. Said killing me might…knock some sense into me.”

The girl closed her eyes and sighed.

“You…do not have the proper context to understand fully,” she said slowly. “I do not mean this as an insult. Let me attempt to explain.” Suddenly, in front of her, there was a long glowing line in the air, like a string with a thousand fireflies attached.

“This,” she began. “Is history. The timeline.” She tapped the end of the string, and a glowing knot wove itself. “This is a choice. Any choice, really.” A thousand more glowing strands sprouted out of the end of that knot, like iridescent hair. “And these are all the possibilities following that choice. A thousand thousand new timelines, born from something as small as what to have for breakfast.”

“…all right,” I managed. “I believe I follow.”

She took one of the glowing strands. “Now, say the choice is the one you are making right now—whether to live or die. This strand is a timeline where you chose to live.” She looked me straight in the eye. “Following me?”

A meek nod.

“Good.” She looped the strand back, until it touched the knot in the string and connected. “This is the source of the monsters. They are from a future. The tale of their creation, and subsequently arriving here, is long and complex. But they are here, and one of them, the dire knight, remembers you.”

I swallowed. “You are saying…I created these monsters? Will create.”

“I am saying no such thing. Your survival or demise has no bearing on the creation of these creatures, or their arrival in this time. They are simply from a timeline where you survived, nothing more.”

“But…” I frowned. “So the dire knight…is someone I will meet in the future.”

“Not necessarily—” the girl who bore my daughter’s face stopped mid-sentence. “…I do not think I should confuse you further. Yes, the dire knight is someone who you will meet in the future. Multiple times.”

“Who is he?”

The girl looked me in the eye. “You really do not want to know.”

“Oh yes, because that makes me feel better.”

She smiled, and for a moment I could forget that she was not really my daughter. “Of course it does.” For some reason, she glanced at her wrist, as though looking at something there. “But I fear we are out of time. I assume your decision stands?”

I nodded. “Send me back.”

The room began to fade. “It is done.”

“Thank you, dire spirit,” I whispered.

The last thing I saw as darkness closed on me once more was the girl’s broad grin.

“Oh, you are a clever one…”

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 26

“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?”

“Yes.”

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.

And death.

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.

It failed.

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.

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 25

I stared at the two leaders of the village’s fighters. “How are you two drunk this early? It;s barely past noon!”

“We got shtarted early,” Harold’s father slurred. “About right when you guysh left for your shuicide mishun.” He waved his half-empty beer mug, splashing some of it on the floor. “Orange gave us our own shuicide mishun.”

“I do not like suicide missions,” Captain Gaven declared loudly. “Too much…suicide.”

“Wench!” Mallern called. “Another round!”

The annoyed waitress from the morning looked even more annoyed than usual, and for good reason. I had a feeling that if she came over with drinks, it would be to dump them on their heads. I caught her eye and made a cutting motion with my hand, indicating she should ignore their order. She seemed only too happy to comply.

“What was that for?” Gaven demanded, eying me with sharp—but drunk—eyes. “You sig…sig…signed something at the taverness. Ess. There some sort of conspiracy at work here, boy? A vile plot against virtuous men?”

He could not say signaled, but he could manage virtuous just fine. “Yes. A conspiracy to keep you two from drinking yourselves to death.” I glared at them both, Mallern especially. “Seriously, you should be happy your son was called away on errands. Do you really want him to see you like this?”

He seemed like he was slipping into a depression, and my words did not help. “No…but I want to shend him on a shuicide mishun even lesh.”

I sighed and turned to Vale. “See, we tried it your way. You cannot argue with drunks.”

My blond subordinate bowed. “All I could do was ask.”

“Now, we do this our way.” I nodded to Norn, Roark, and Jack.

Norn and Roark took Gaven, while Jack and I took Mallern. We did not give them time to react, just slipped under their shoulder and pulled them away from their table, ignoring the beer they were spilling on us in the process. They complained, but they were too drunk to do much more than mumble incoherently.

“Apologies for the mess,” I said to the waitress as we passed. She was still frowning, but managed to nod in acceptance. She understood that this was the best way this could end. “Vale! Pay the girl a little something extra for her trouble!”

We dragged the two men down the tunnels, past our quarters and to the bathing caverns. As I understood it, a couple of the other caves in the Hellpit had natural hot springs, but there were none connected to the Town Hall cave. These were just big caves with pools of water in them.

That meant they were very cold.

We dumped the men in them without hesitation. After only a moment, they jumped up, screaming bloody murder and hacking water out of their lungs. They sat there in the waist-high water for a few minutes, leaning against the shore and shivering as they got their breath back.

“Sober?” I asked.

Nathan Mallern groaned. “…no. But enough that I think we will both take some of that clone fruit wine Miss Grandsbriar has.”

Jack stepped forward, holding a wineskin and two wooden mugs. She placed the mugs on the stone ground of the shore, within reach of both men, and poured a pink liquid into each cup. The men took the cups, clinked them against each other in a mock toast, and downed them in a single gulp each.

They then immediately turned around and wretched into the pool.

“Ugh,” Gaven muttered, wiping his mouth and staring at his clothes in disgust. “Should have gotten out first.”

“Yes, you should have,” I noted. We had seen this coming, but there was not really a way around it. “No one is going to be able to use this pool for a couple days, you know. Not until the underground river cycles out the water.”

Mallern pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed against what I assumed was a pretty bad headache. “I hate clone fruit wine. Worst hangover cure in the world. Whatever happened to that thick red stuff?”

“Too expensive,” Jack grunted. Presumably, she knew what he was referencing, because I did not have a clue. “Clone fruit wine is good enough for two idiot soldiers who got drunk a few hours before they knew they had an important mission.”

Both men groaned. “do not remind us…” Gaven murmured.

I had no sympathy for them. “You have ten minutes to get up, get dressed, and meet us in the briefing room. If you are not there by then, we are coming back and dragging you there by force. And you will not be getting new clothes.”

Nathan waved vaguely to acknowledge that he understood.

The five of us left, headed for the briefing room I had mentioned. I frowned at Jack as we walked. “You are sure it is fine to just leave them like that? I do not want to come back to find that they have drowned.”

She shook her head. “They will not. They have killer headaches right now, but they are sober.”

I sighed. “I suppose that is all we could ask for. Now we just need to make sure word of this does not get out. It would have a devastating effect on morale.” I turned to Vale. “You need to go back to the waitress—”

“Already bribed both her and the tavernkeeper to stay quiet,” he assured me. “They say no one really came through all day, so we do not have to worry about anyone else talking either. Everyone was busy with clearing the caves.”

“Small favors,” I muttered.

Ten minutes later, in the small and cramped cave that qualified as a briefing room at the moment, we were joined by the two haggard men in fresh clothes, armed and armored for battle. Harold had met up with us on the way.

The archer eyed his father up and down, especially his wet hair. “Did you take a bath?

Nathan glanced in my direction; I kept my face carefully neutral. After a moment, the hunter managed an awkward shrug. “Well, I…yes. I was a bit dirtier than usual. Ran into a dire rock colony this morning. Lots of mud.”

“All right, whatever,” the young archer muttered. “Let us just get on with this.”

The two leaders strode up the the stone table, where someone had spent an inordinate amount of time carving a surprisingly detailed map into the rock of the table itself. Unlike the stout four-legged tables in the tavern, this was just a solid block of stone, carved directly from the floor. For all I knew, it could have been here since Gregor’s bandits owned the place. In fact, this seemed exactly like something he would commission.

The point was, the map showed quite clearly the Hellpit and the surrounding area. The scale was not wide enough to see Old Grandsbriar to the north, but the Hellwood to the south had a representation etched into the rock, and someone had placed a few small stone buildings to show the location of the budding war camp.

“The camp is about three hours away,” I noted. “It is almost two o’clock now, so even if we left right now, we would only get there right as it is getting dark.” I looked at Jack and Harold. “I have a feeling sinhearts have excellent night-vision.”

They both nodded. “Very.”

“All right, but what about bright lights?”

“You fought the ones at Old Grandsbriar during the day,” Jack reminded me, a puzzled expression on her face as she questioned why I needed reminding. “They are perfectly fine with bright lights.”

“No, I mean bright lights at night. Sudden flashes, like those sky flowers.”

“That is something to consider,” Nathan mused. “I would have to check our stores, but we should have enough to make a few more big booms.” He frowned at me. “But they are smarter than they look. They will remember from yesterday the sound of them going up, and will close their eyes.”

“Only if we send them up,” I insisted. “What if we detonate them closer to the ground? Has that ever been tried before?”

Gaven chuckled. “Not on purpose. These things are not weapons, but they are dangerous. Playing around with them without knowing what you are doing is just going to get a lot of people hurt.”

“And letting the sinhearts build a fortress on your doorstep will hurt more.”

The captain sighed. “Fine. I am not an expert, but I will talk to the delvers, see what they think about the idea.” He pointed a finger at me. “But if they say no, that is it, we are not doing it. You have to listen to the experts.”

I nodded. “That is fine, and I agree completely.”

Gaven nodded as well. “Good. So what is the plan after that?”

Norn frowned at him. “Look, I trust my lord’s judgment, but should not you be the one making the plans? you are the one with the men.” He waved his hand at Nathan Mallern. “Both of you are, that is. And you have more experience fighting sinhearts.”

The armored man grinned mirthlessly. “Enough experience to know all that will come to squat. Nathan, what was the biggest group of sinhearts we ever fought at once? Not counting the suicide run on the Dire Abbey.”

“Thirty, I think,” the hunter mused. “Well, each wave was thirty of them.” He looked up at the rest of us. “They came in waves about five minutes apart, twenty or thirty at a time. We never did find out why they did not just rush us all at once.”

“Well, Let us not make that same mistake,” I said firmly. “I think this should work…”

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 24

Once we got back to the Hellpit and had passed through the annoying security measures on the big cave, we were quickly escorted to the mayor, who was sitting in the same office as before, filling out paperwork.

Miss Orange looked up as we came in. “Well, none of you are dead. That is good news.”

“We made a deal with them,” I grunted, not in the mood for idle banter.

To my surprise, the acting mayor nodded. We had not told anything to anyone as we came in. “I expected as much. Either way would have been fine, but it is nice to finish things without bloodshed. What are the terms?”

“They are living in trees. Send your workers to harvest some lumber, machine it, and give them half. They will leave you alone.” I shrugged. “Once that is done, you can negotiate for a bit more, like a real alliance.”

“Excellent. Anything else?”

“They gave us a bit of info on the monsters in the area,” Harold added. “Nothing new, though they did confirm that we would be facing dire squirrels, worms, and apple dragons. Found a new type of precipitate; avoid caves.”

“do not forget the knifegaunt,” Roark muttered.

“And avoid the thing that looks like a weak old man,” the archer finished.

The plump woman nodded again. “I would like some more detail, but I can get it from Frank later. For now, Harold, please report to Mister Meckle and tell him everything you know about the dangers of the Hellwood.” Harold nodded and left swiftly. “As for the rest of you…” She turned her gaze on me. “Anything you wished to ask?”

“A couple,” I admitted. “Not too important, though. Top of the list: Jack mentioned you managed to tame beasts of burden of some kind, but she did not know any details. Care to elaborate on that point?”

Miss Orange smiled broadly. “Ahh…yes. I forgot about Jacqueline’s relationship with Emily. Yes, I do have access to some beasts of burden, to haul our carts.” She stood up, her chair scraping on the stone floor. “I would love to take you to them now.”

“Uh, all right.” We had not even had a chance to sit down. “Lead the way.”

She did, with her two guards shadowing her like puppies, as usual. We walked out the door, down the hallway, past dormitories and storehouses and the barracks, to a distant corner of the caves that was not as well-cleaned as the rest. There were not even carpets on the floor, so our every step echoed against the rock walls.

Just as I was starting to get a bad feeling about the situation, like she was taking us somewhere hidden and out of the way to kill us, the acting mayor declared “We are here!” in a surprisingly cheery voice.

‘Here’ turned out to be a rather wide cave, twenty or thirty yards wide and deep. Most of the floor space was partitioned off by a waist-high steel fence. With the large number of stalagmites or stalactites (whichever was the one that comes out of the floor), it almost looked like they were farming rocks.

That, of course, was incorrect.

The field was filled with…wisps, small green wisps of light, spiraling around wooden posts staked into the ground here and there. Each post only had a single light, except possibly for one in the back corner that I could not see very well. Even so, there had to be hundreds of them, spaced evenly around the field, and it created a rather beautiful emerald glow.

I did not know what I was looking at, but Jack did.

“You are breeding leaf-dancers?” the swordswoman asked. “Really?”

I glanced at the livestock handler. “Please tell me that is not related to bone-dancers.”

“Same general species,” Miss Orange admitted. “But while bone-dancers animate bones, leaf-dancers animate wood and plant matter. We have found that if they bind to a cart, they can make it move on their own.”

“They are dangerous,” Jack warned. “Only way to stop them is fire.”

“We are well aware of the risks. However, they have proven amenable to domestication very quickly. This is only the second generation, and they have become used to staying on the stakes. We barely even need the fence any more.”

“Now, I do not know much about animal husbandry,” I admitted. “But I know a few things about training dogs. You need to feed them, to give them treats in order to point them in the direction you want. Do these things even eat?

“Yes, actually. They eat stone.”

I blinked. “…they eat what?”

She pointed at one of the nearby posts. I peered closed, and realized that the stone dipped slightly around the post, as if it had been scooped out by a spoon. A quick glance confirmed that the rest of the posts looked about the same.

“That is why bone-dancers stick to rocky areas,” Jack explained, reminding me of what they had mentioned when I first heard of the things, back when we were first setting out from Old Grandsbriar.

“So…that is it?” I asked. “You use these to haul your carts over to the Hellwood, cut down some trees under guard, haul it back to be cut, haul half back to the bandits for the deal, and…” I shrugged. “Everything is fine all around?”

“Close,” Miss Orange admitted. “But not quite. There is still the rather large problem to the north, you may recall.”

I nodded. “The sinheart war camp. Of course.”

“Now, we might be able to handle them on our own. But it would take you two weeks to return to London, and even if your king sends reinforcements, it would be another week for them to get here on horseback—and I highly recommend not using horses.”

“Yes,” I said with an apologetic smile at Jack. “We are aware of that problem.”

The acting mayor nodded as well. “So we would be looking at a wait of a month or two, at least, likely far more. I do not know how long it will take the monsters to finish their fortress, but they are working disturbingly fast.”

“We did put a dent in their numbers, though,” Norn pointed out. “That will slow them down more than a little, right?”

“The new moon is tomorrow night,” she warned. “That is when sinhearts spawn, over at the old abbey. They will have new workers to replace the ones you killed within a few days, and we will not be able to cut them down fast enough.”

“Then what do you suggest?” I asked. “Clearly you have some idea in mind.”

“We need to annihilate the war camp tonight,” she answered swiftly. “Before they get their reinforcements. Kill every sinheart there, rip the frame of the fortress out of the ground. Not only will it set their plans back significantly, it will also boost our own production, once we have scavenged their tools and materials.”

“Bold,” I murmured, the wheels of my strategic mind already beginning to turn. “But it could work.” I looked up. “Not just the six of us, though. We are going to need more men for something of this scale.”

The plump woman nodded. “You will have half of Theo’s guards and half of Nathan’s hunters,” she promised. “Once that is done, Charles will send his apprentices to supervise Leo’s boys as they remove the camp.”

“And Charles and Leo are…”

“Charles Yaberstein, the blacksmith, and Chief Explorer Leonidas Varn.”

“All right.” I nodded. “I think I can work with that. Where are Hunter Mallern and Captain Gaven? we will need to get to discussing strategy and tactics right away in order to make this whole thing work.”

Miss Orange looked mildly annoyed, but not at me.”

“The tavern.”

And Then There Were Monsters Scene 23

After that cheery meeting, we left the forest, a bit faster this time since Gregor gave us a guide to see us out. Other than running into a small swarm of white-shelled things the natives described as dire squirrels, the trip was uneventful.

Once we were out of the Hellwood, the bandit guides faded back into the trees, and the six of us were left to walk back across the Stonefield alone.

It did not take long for the questions to start.

“You need to explain what happened back there,” Harold insisted.

I did not even look at him. “No. I do not.”

“Yes, you DO!” He put himself in my path, walking swiftly backwards across the broken ground to keep up with me. “How the Hell is it that some old friend of yours just so happens to be king of the bandits we were sent to fight!?”

I still did not meet his eyes. “Gregor has always been a powerful warrior, with a good head for strategy and tactics. It is only to be expected that he would end up in command.” I felt my eye twitch, but ignored it. “As for being in charge of bandits…that we can blame on his morality.”

“Sir Wreth, if you do not want to explain exactly what happened between the two of you, we cannot make you,” Vale admitted. “But we would prefer to know at least minor details. Such as whether or not he is trustworthy.”

I had to resist the urge to grind my teeth together. “He…is. After a fashion. do not betray him, and he will not betray you. You just need to be careful, because he will not tell you when you have betrayed him.”

They all looked at each other in confusion. Vale was the one who spoke. “What?”

“He plots vengeance,” I explained patiently. “When he feels he is been wronged, he does not get mad. He does not tell you you have done something to offend him. He just watches and waits for the best moment to strike.”

“…that is creepy,” Norn muttered.

“Yes,” I deadpanned. “That is one word for it.”

“Is that what happened?” Harold asked. “You did something, and did not realize—”

“This conversation is over.”

The rest of the march back to New Grandsbriar was in silence.