The setting sun striated the sky with bands of fierce gold to fiery red in the west and mellow lavender to deep rich blue above and eastward. Two young girls ran across the beach, their bare feet all but immune to the cold, wet sand. They raced back and forth with each wave squealing in delight and mock anguish as the water rushed against the paltry, uneven walls of their hand-patted sand castle. At first the verge of the surf explored the barrier, then the press began in earnest until at last the water breached the buttress and began grinding down the imagined magnificence of the seaside palace, blurring it into a mere ripple of sand in the surf.
One of the young girls shaded her eyes and espied a strangely misty ship coming from the Windwatcher’s Passage black in silhouette against the resplendent sun. She tilted her head uncertainly; few ships came to Ingrane to visit or trade, and certainly none were expected. Still, she’d occasionally heard her parents speak quietly of “reavers” and “Satyxis,” and although she’d never met any such things, she knew her parents would want to be informed.
She turned toward the small village and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Mumma!” she yelled. “There’s a ship coming!” Her duty done, at least in her own mind, she and her sister began running through the waves as they dissipated against the strand. She did not realize that the sound of the rising tide had drowned her words, and her warning had gone unnoted.
“Come ’ong, Sassy,” said one in the abbreviated language shared by the twins. “We’d better.”
“Oh, Sissy,” said the other twin exasperatedly, “Poppa’s not.”
Vicky—she refused to answer to the name Sissy for anyone but her sister—turned back toward the village of Ingrane. Even though Sassy wasn’t afraid of anything and Poppa sailed and fished in the dead of night, Vicky was dreadfully afraid of the dark, always had been, and she didn’t want to tarry any longer on the beach. In the village, the warm glow of whale-oil lanterns shone through the windows and promised her safety and security. She began to walk briskly toward home, breaking occasionally into a trot.
Sassy—called Gloria by everyone but her twin—ignored the fearfulness of her sister and continued to play in the surf as the sun slowly departed the sky. Soon she looked up and saw the mist-shrouded ship riding the surf into shallow waters. Having spent all her life on Frog’s Bight, her otherwise inexperienced mind knew much of the waves and the sea, and she knew the ship had moved far faster than the wind and waves had allowed. It was wrong for it to be so close. In the waning light, she saw the ship was pitch black, not just in silhouette but even where its hull was illumined by the last glow in the sky.
With one last nervous glance at the ship’s black sails, Gloria sprinted toward her village.
Aboard the ship, Skarre’s lip curled in cruel satisfaction. As befit a Satyxis pirate captain, she wore only minimal armor. She had a black studded leather hauberk strapped tightly across her breasts. It provided protection for her vitals and left her midriff tantalizingly exposed both for ease of maneuver and for the reaction her taut, curvaceous waist evoked in her foes. A similar skirt cut short with a slight slit along the outside of one thigh provided negligible protection but conveyed an undertone of vulnerability and accessibility to throw opponents off their guard. Black boots with a steel shim secreted along the front protected her long legs from easy yet potentially crippling strikes. She wore no helmet; her two thick, curving horns provided more than adequate protection for her skull. In any event she wanted nothing to conceal her finely featured face and her long, flowing tresses of blue-hued black.
She stared at the lights of the village of Ingrane drawing rapidly closer as the ship sailed toward shore. “Deathrippers fired?” she asked without turning her head.
“Necrotite furnaces full tilt, milady,” answered her first mate, a Satyxis of rather smaller stature.
“Bane Thralls adeck?”
“Roust the shore party. Now.”
“They’re already assembled, ma’am.”
She spared her aide a brief smile as she turned to face the gathered reavers: four speedy Deathrippers to corral anyone fleeing, six expendable bane thralls for heavy fighting, and two dozen Satyxis raiders musky with the smell of their excitement. “Right, dregs. Now hearken,” Skarre began, unlimbering her lacerator whip from its position at her hip. “This is a fishmongers’ village. There aren’t no hobnailed Cygnaran troopers within a hundred leagues I’m reckoning, so don’t worry yourselves overmuch on discipline. Do what you want with the lubbers. Have your fun. Toruk may gainsay, but you’ve earned it.”
She stepped forward, uncoiled her chain whip, and gave it a single lash. The barbed links of the scourge rasped a bright furrow across the weathered wooden deck of the pirate ship. “There’s only one forewarning,” she said. “We’re looked out for a child of five years. I want that house monkey alive and unharmed.”
The crew shifted uncertainly; the strangeness of the order put them on edge.
“Belay that!” she bellowed. “My augury shows that the whelp of midsummer’s eve five years past is a powerful soul. That little lubber is our sole purpose in landing, so pluck me that brat and bring it back alive and unharmed. You will do nothing to that child!”
“But—” dissented one Satyxis crewer.
Skarre’s whip shot out like a serpent of lightning; the serrated blades speckling its length whistled through the air like a hundred poisoned arrows. The curling lash ripped open the crew woman’s belly vertically, starting just below the umbilicus and opening the way for the speeding tip to whiplash inside. The heavy tip of the lacerator snapped within the abdomen with a liquid crack, shredding the diaphragm, aorta, and trachea.
Skarre yanked her whip back.
The insubordinate Satyxis managed to cough out a spray of blood before she fell face-first to the deck into an expanding pool of her own blood. She was already dead before her fair head bounced on the heavy wooden planking.
“There are no ‘buts’,” said Skarre. “Anyone and anything else is plunder as you please. But that child. To me. Alive. Unharmed. Fail, and you answer to the keel, then to Toruk. Am I clear?”
The crew nodded silently.
Even the Deathrippers.
“Shipshape,” said Skarre. The ship beached itself on the wet sand with a hissing sound. Skarre smiled. “Shore leave!” she hollered with a wild grin, and she vaulted herself over the railing.
Gloria ran as hard as she could, but the village seemed farther away than it had ever been before. She saw movement to either side of her: dark shadowy things that bore a baleful green fire moved swiftly to bracket the village. Behind her she heard hoots and cackles, loud cracks, and the heavy clank of steel.
She looked over her shoulder and saw a horde of horned demons chasing her, closing fast on their long legs. Suddenly Gloria understood why Sissy’s nightmares haunted her so. If they were anything like this…
Gloria redoubled her efforts. Her little legs flew across the ground; her own pain and exhaustion had become immaterial. She screamed as she reached the outermost houses of the village, raising the alarm. She was certain she could not run all the way home before the demons grabbed her. Instead she sought to hide, elude them, and sneak home another way. She knew a great way to get around without being seen from the village; she had used it many times when her father had come looking for her when she stayed out too late.
She ran headlong for a few houses, and then she ducked around a corner to regroup. In that brief pause, her strength failed her. All of her exhaustion rose up at once to seize her nerves. She started panting uncontrollably, her knees and hands began to tremble, and she broke out in a cold sweat.
She heard screams.
Terrified yet needing to know how close the demons were, she peered around the corner of the house. She saw the demons—female, horned, all but naked—charging into the town. Nearby one knocked down a young man, straddled him, and started wriggling while choking the life from him. Across the way another lashed out with some sort of whip and flayed the face off a young woman. Others ran into the village, urging themselves forward with language far viler than Poppa ever used even when out of Mumma’s hearing.
The raiders charged into the town; some even ran past the spot where Gloria hid. The smell of blood and viscera trailed in their wake, and as it came, Gloria had to flee. Panting in fear and exhaustion, she turned away to run around the village and back home.
Vicky was heading home from her aunt’s house looking nervously at the dark starry sky when the first yell carried through the night. Against the noise of the ever-present surf, it was hard to tell what the cry was: fear, joy, exasperation, or worse.
A number of villagers quickly ran from their homes bearing lanterns and torches and headed toward the shore just in case someone had been caught by a freak undertow or lost something valuable in the surf. In a hard place like Ingrane, it was always better to be safe.
Vicky timidly trotted alongside the others fearful to go far in the dark but equally concerned it might have been Gloria’s small voice crying out in the night. The villagers easily outpaced her, their longer legs unburdened by fear.
Vicky watched their varied lights bob down toward the surf; she watched them fade into the growing darkness.
Vicky drew up short and raised a trembling hand to her mouth.
The setting sun had been completely erased, and no stars shone in the night sky to the west.
Confused and fearful calls started carrying through the night, then yells and screams. One, a gasping repetitive wail, ended far too abruptly for Vicky’s courage. She ran for home. She pumped her little arms and legs wildly and desperately threw a piping scream of her own into the night.
She ran up the beaten-earth path through the disorganized village. Breathing hard with adrenaline surging through her preadolescent muscles, she ran straight for her family’s tiny villa at the far end. She screamed with every exhalation and panted with exertion.
She ran through the gate—nothing more than a gap in the rickety picket fence surrounding the house and a pair of outbuildings—calling for her father. “Poppa! Poppa! Sommat’s wrong! Sassy’s in trouble!”
The front door to their house flew open, and Vicky saw her father’s burly form outlined against the firelight, a wooden mug forgotten in one hand. “What’s that?” he bellowed. His forcible voice was filled with concern yet demanded immediate compliance.
“I told Sassy to come home, but she din’t,” Vicky babbled, “and now there’s no stars at the water and I’m scared! Make her come home, Poppa, ’cause she needs a whupping!”
Poppa strode across the small yard to the gate where Vicky grabbed his trews and tried to sink out of sight, burying her face in the safe, familiar smell of her father. She heard him exhale through his teeth—half whistle, half hiss. “That ain’t right,” he said. For the first time in her life, she heard uncertainty in his voice.
He pushed her off and used his mug to bang the tin gong hanging next to his shingle to raise the alarm. “Raiders!” he bellowed. His commanding voice boomed through the night. “Raiders! Everyone out!” Then he dropped the mug and ran back inside, reappearing a mere moment later with a huge blacksmith’s hammer in one callused hand, a bright firebrand in the other, and a weathered iron helmet atop his head.
He ran out of the house, and rather than try to push past Vicky, he turned and leapt the fence easily, barking orders to his fellow villagers as soon as he hit the street.
“Vicky!” called a female voice. “Are you all right?”
“Where’s Sassy, Mumma?” she wailed. “I’m scared!”
“Are you all right?” demanded her mother, bordering on the hysterical. The lantern in her hand swung crazily back and forth with the force of her question.
“Yes!” yelled Vicky, stamping her foot. “Where’s! Sassy!”
“Get inside!” snapped her mother, roughly shoving her in the direction of the door
Gloria stumbled around the outside of the village using an old deer trail she and Sissy had often used to evade scrutiny when trying to get into or out of the house surreptitiously.
She was tired, scared, and on the verge of being sick with the horrific scenes now forever burned into her young brain. She panted heavily, and each exhalation carried with it a whine of fear and agony. One hand clutched her side while the other limply batted at branches and other obstacles crossing her path.
Inside the village more wails and shrieks pierced the night making her blood run cold.
As she staggered along the path, her little feet flopped one after the other heedless of the noise she made. Surely she was as quiet as a mouse in comparison to the chaos that reigned within the lamplight of the town.
Just then a rancid smell insinuated its way into her nostrils: a cloying brew of ash and decay. She drew up wondering what could cause such a soiled odor.
Then she heard a branch snap nearby.
She gasped and raised a hand to her mouth. On any other night, she would have dismissed the sound as coming from a deer or woodchuck. Not this night. This night she knew it was something else.
She held her breath and heard a steady sibilance somewhere between a serpent’s hiss and the sound Poppa’s furnace made when he was forging. She heard a whirr like a hummingbird that came and went. Then she saw a poisonous green glow cast upon a nearby tree trunk; the unholy aura grew in strength. She gasped realizing she had crossed the path of one of the unknown shadows she saw earlier. She wanted to run, but her legs hesitated.
Then it surged out of the darkness of the night. The hellish glow flared brightly to outline a huge, ravenous maw filled with long, curving fangs each as long as her arm. It moved with the metallic sounds of grinding and clashing. The hideous jaw opened wide to devour her.
She ran at last, if too late. She got all of five or six steps before the monstrous beast snatched her up in its yawning mouth. Pain flared through her as the powerful fangs crashed into her young, lean body. It tossed her up in the air to adjust its grip on her and began stomping back toward the center of the village.
Held sideways in the creature’s maw, Gloria’s head and knees flopped painfully with every jolt. She struggled against the creature, but it held its jaws tight.
“Ow!” she grunted as she fought against her captor. “Stop it! You’re hurting me!”
At once the creature halted and tossed her out of its jaws. She tumbled across the ground, and every injured joint and bone in her body burned in pain.
She looked up at the creature, and her five-year-old brain demanded justice. “You hurt me!” she screamed again.
The creature took a step forward and hesitated. It clashed its maw uncertainly.
Gloria pulled herself to her feet as best she could. Limping badly and bleeding in several places, she started to make her way home
Standing in the center of the nominal street that bisected the village, Baus Haley knew he had to rally his people for them to have any hope of surviving the night. Several huts nearer the shore were already ablaze, and the suddenness and ferocity of the attack left his people panicked. Everyone would look to him; he was the de facto lord of the town (such as it was) as well as its largest and most outspoken citizen.
Baus held his heaviest blacksmith’s hammer high in the air and bellowed out a call to rally his fellow villagers. Just as he finished, his wife came at him and clawed at his shirt. “Where’s Glory? I don’t know where Glory is!”
“Find her!” he barked.
“You have to help! She’s our child!”
Baus shoved her away. “You worry about our children! Let me tend to everyone else’s! GO!”
After a few chaotic moments, Baus managed to rally a half dozen or more stout and stalwart men about him armed with fishing spears, woodsman’s axes, and good, solid boat hooks. He led the small formation to the heart of the village walking shoulder to shoulder in a tight pack down the center of the vague area that served as the main street. The lanterns and torches held by the village’s defenders cast little light around them and seemingly none ahead of them Though no light gave clue as to what lay ahead, the screams of terror and cries of pain gave more than enough warning.
The raiders appeared in front of the group, seeming to materialize right out of the darkness that had been gradually enshrouding the village. The men gasped and hissed in surprise, and some took an involuntary step back as their foes came before them.
Although they had all heard of the Satyxis, it was for many the first time they had seen one. Two of the demonic females glided forward with catlike grace. One trailed a bloody scourge of barbed chain behind her; the other wielded a long, wicked sword. The one with the sword brandished it, slowly turning it so lantern light flickered across its blade like lightning.
Baus’ heart failed him as he saw the unearthly beauty of the woman’s face. Her long, flowing hair cascaded down her bare shoulder, and one curl nestled tantalizingly in her cleavage. He was struck by the way her hips rocked back and forth as she closed.
In a flash he felt the warmth of his wife’s smile, smelled her scent as they snuggled in bed, heard the laughter of his children, and regained his fortitude. Savagely beautiful as the Satyxis might be, he had sworn a vow to only his wife, and he held the vow to be more precious than his own life. This vile creation threatened to undo his honor, and he would not allow it. He rose to his full ponderous height, and he watched the lead Satyxis recoil as she realized her allure had failed her.
Roaring like a bear, Baus swung his hammer in a fierce two-handed swing. His bellow clashed with the Satyxis’ cry—every bit as shrill as his was booming. The raider was faster than he’d expected and more daring as well. She thrust her sword through Baus’ side and tried to draw back before his hammer fell. She misjudged, and her cry of victory abruptly ended with the terrible crunch of cracking bone as Baus’ blow broke her skull at the base of one of her horns and drove the shards of her rack into her brain.
“Ain’t so pretty now, are ya wench?” bellowed Vicky’s father ignoring the wound in his side.
Rallied by this display of courage and prowess, the other villagers surged forward to tangle with the other raiders emerging from the nightmarish blackness
Cringing, Vicky covered her ears against the horrid noises resounding in the night: grunts, cries of pain, the noise of blades cleaving flesh, or worst of all, the broken sounds of people who knew they were dying and were helpless to stop it. She tried to avert her eyes as well, but she could not help peeking around the corner of the doorjamb.
For many long, terrifying minutes, she could see nothing. Then her father and a few other villagers came into view slowly giving ground to the raiders as whip chains cracked overhead.
She had to watch her father. She had watched him the previous winter when a pack of starving wolves had risked attacking the village, but that had been more exciting than terrifying. Somehow she’d known he’d win the day. He had to win because he was only facing a pack of dogs.
This dark night was utterly different. She could feel it in her bones.
She had to watch as he worked his mortal trade upon the raiders. It seemed like a lifetime to her; every passing second was an aching, agonized day of fear. Every so often her eye involuntarily darted to one side or the other as one of his companions fell, but she tore her eyes away as if doing so would prevent the same fate from befalling her father. It seemed like ages that she watched and heard all the while trying to do neither. She prayed fervently that Morrow might be watching this drama with divine concern and fervently begged the god that everything would be all right. Let her father drive back the sea wolves, and let Sassy be alive.
She snapped herself out of her reverie of fear unsure how long her mind had been frozen in panic. A pool of oil that spilled and ignited when one of her father’s cohorts had died burned brightly outside the yard. It cast wavering shadows all about, and the flickering flames smeared the details of the fight like bright rainwater running down a windowpane. Her father was almost the last of the defenders left on his feet. He staggered and panted, and a long dark patch stained the side of his shirt and one side of his trousers. He defiantly held a torch and used it to keep the danger at bay while he swung his hammer in ever more wild blows to smite the enemy. She remembered once, at his anvil he had spoken of hammering iron into obedience, and for a moment she thought of him chastising the evil raiders. With her utter faith in his paternal prowess, hope rose in her soul that this dark night would turn out all right, the evil would be driven back, and tomorrow would dawn just like any other day.
Then it stepped forward.
At first Vicky thought her eyes were playing tricks on her, for she saw a nightmare in the tenebrous darkness shrouding the shore. However, when she saw her father react as well, she knew it was all too real.
At almost seven feet tall, it was a huge creature easily larger than anything Vicky had seen in her short life. It was clad head to toe in chain- and platemail, and every move it made resounded with the iron linkages holding the armor together. Every step sounded like a ship’s load of heavy iron chain dropping to the ground. With every heavy iron move it made, darkness sloughed from the creature as if it were filled with ash and pitch. It carried a great double-bitted axe in its hands trailed low to the ground. It had a blade as heavy as a hammer curved like a crescent moon, and it glistened with the blood of innocents. A gobbet of flesh, perhaps a section of entrails, hung from the blade near the twisted haft of the weapon and dragged in the sand. Worst of all was the creature’s face, or the lack thereof, for it was a skeletal creature emotionless in appearance. Its mouth was forever drawn back into a fixed snarl devoid of love or hate.
It stepped forward neither hunkering tensely as did her father nor swaggering cockily as might a legendary champion in the stories told of the war against the Orgoth. It simply stepped forward as if it were walking to work. Its gait was nothing less and nothing more than businesslike.
Vicky realized that although it was supposed to be dead, it was here to kill the villagers, and it would do so as carelessly and easily as she ate her morning oatmeal. It was at that moment Vicky at last understood her father’s lectures. Although in her idealist innocence she had once denied it, there was indeed evil. She realized every tiny compromise she made against what was honorable and good would be another tiny little step down a path that would lead, ultimately, to the abomination now standing before her father.
In that moment her terror also drove her to a deep and desperate faith in Morrow. Please, she prayed, send it away.
One of the other men of the village charged forward with a battle cry that sounded more like a woman’s hysterical scream. Vicky saw the undead thing turn with startling speed, twist the axe around, and whip the blade upward. A dark spray flew into the night air, and the man’s cry ended with a gurgling squeak.
Terrified, Vicky could not avert her eyes as the two halves of the villager flopped to the ground. The muscles twitched spasmodically as if unaware they had just been killed.
Then, miracle of miracles, Vicky saw her mother burst forth from the darkness enshrouding the shore limping badly but carrying Gloria in her arms. Vicky gasped in shock and relief. She ran into the yard and cupped her hands around her mouth to yell to tell her father that they were all right, and they could all just run away when it closed upon him.
Her father swept his blacksmith’s hammer up feinting an overhand blow, and then he pulled his elbow to the side to sling the heavy hammerhead around in a lateral backhand strike. His body twisted with the force of his swing, but the creature was faster. It raised the axe up in time, angled the crooked haft to catch the shaft of her father’s hammer, and guided it harmlessly over the thing’s skull. Vicky saw the hammer grate along the axe’s handle until it struck the heavy blade; at that instant the skeletal foe arced the axe around in a tight circle.
She saw her father stagger back. His arm was raised to the sky, and blood spurted forth from the place where his powerful blacksmith’s hand had been just a moment before.
Shock and anger started to sweep over her, but just then she heard her mother shout, “Vicky! Run!” She staggered for a second torn between wanting to run to her father and flee for cover with her mother and twin sister.
In that moment she saw her father killed as he stood, cleft in twain from his shoulder to his hip. She looked to her mother to yell at her, and saw her stumble and fall, spilling Sassy on the ground. The huge armored nightmare began to stride over to them, and Vicky saw her mother look up through her disheveled hair and yell once more, “RUN!”
Vicky turned and ran for their house—the only place of security and safety she knew. Their house with the familiar scent of salt and straw was where her bed was. Their house where she would wake in the mornings to the sound of her mother singing softly to herself as she baked bread was where she and Gloria would sit in their father’s lap snuggled on each side beneath his powerful warm arms and press their ears to his chest to listen to his great heart beating out his abiding love for them.
She desperately hoped their house would somehow save them from that thing stalking the village
The front door hung open, and light from the unattended fire spilled out into the fenced-off yard. Vicky ran through, pivoted, and slammed it shut with all her might, then she turned and started running to her bed. As she dived onto her bed and grabbed her covers, she saw the door swing open again still shuddering with the force of her action. She jumped up and closed it once more, then reached her small hands up to throw the bolt and seal it shut. She grabbed the bolt—a simple piece of iron that pivoted on a pin—and started to swing it around so that it would fall in the latch. She had to stand on her tiptoes to try to urge it over the top, and her frantic haste to be done with it made her efforts even less effective.
Just as she thought she got it locked, something smashed into the door and threw it open, sending her tumbling backwards across the wooden floorboards of their house. She screamed in terror certain her life was about to end.
She looked up and saw her mother once again lying on the floor.
The woman gestured fiercely with one bloodied hand. “Get in the fruit cellar!” she hissed. “Now!”
Panicked, Vicky scrambled over to the trapdoor set in the wooden floor and flipped it open. She dropped down into the darkness of the small, cool area carved out of the hard clay upon which their house rested. She scrambled to the corner furthest from the opening and pressed herself against the wall holding her knees tightly and nervously chewing on the collar of her dress.
The light of the fire shone weakly down into the fruit cellar and was cut into ribbons by the slats of the wooden floor. Dark shadows marked where her mother lay. Her mother’s shadow shifted marked by the grating sound of wool on rough wood. She leaned toward the door and flopped back in, then kicked the door closed with her leg. Vicky saw her mother’s shadow wriggle closer to the hatch, gasping in pain.
Footsteps approached from outside.
Please, prayed Vicky, let me live. Let them not notice that Mumma put me here.
With a cry of exertion, Vicky’s mother dropped a second bundle through the trap into the fruit cellar: Gloria. The small girl landed with a heavy thump and a grunt of pain. The trapdoor flopped closed just as someone kicked the front door open.
“In here, you say?” The voice was female, but the tone was far from feminine. Boots clacked across the wooden slats. Vicky chanced a look up and caught a glimpse of horns rising high above a voluptuous mane of hair.
The boots trod directly overhead and sent small showers of salt-smelling sand onto Vicky’s head. A metal chain scraped along the floor behind clinking and rasping.
“There ain’t nought in this pisshole but a lubbin’ whore!” shouted the voice.
“Like bleedin’ dragon dung there ain’t,” said a second voice entering the small hut. “I saw the wench stow a young’un in here.”
Vicky heard her mother whimper as the two intruders began to squabble.
Captain Skarre was getting nervous. The raid had been going on too long and had been even less organized than she’d expected. Already several huts near the surf were engulfed in flame, and she came to find they hadn’t been adequately searched. If there had been any children hiding somewhere in those huts…
Still, she had some desperate hope all would turn out for the best. She heard that one of the locals had been seen carrying a child of perhaps the right age into the villa standing on the largest hillock of the village overlooking the entire area. Already several Satyxis had entered the villa, and others were surrounding it to prevent escapes.
She intended to ensure nothing else went wrong.
As she approached the front door to the house, she heard two of her people squabbling inside. She snapped her scourge into the center of the main room as she entered, and the argument immediately ended. “Cap’n,” said her people in unison.
The reaver captain walked slowly to the center of the room and stopped. She sniffed loudly and spat. “Well?”
“We ain’t found nought, cap’n,” said one.
She gave them a wearied look. “Rip the place down to the keel,” she said.
Her crew began their work with abandon. They tore up the bedding, smashed the cabinets, and destroyed anything they liked. Meanwhile the captain moved over to the woman lying on the floor. She was terrified, injured, and exhausted—just the way Skarre liked her victims.
“Where’s the little suckling toad?” she snarled.
“I’ll never tell you, you bitch!” replied the woman. She spat in the pirate captain’s face.
Skarre licked the spittle off with her long tongue. “Aye, you will sing, little bird,” she said, and she set aside her whip and drew a long, crooked dagger from her boot. With the skill of long experience, she poked, gouged, and sliced with her dagger targeting the largest and most sensitive nerves in her victim’s body. The hapless woman screamed, cried, and begged her to stop, but when offered the option, she obstinately refused to reveal the location of her child.
“Cap’n?” interrupted one of the other Satyxis, “Cap’n!”
Skarre looked up with eyes of fire angry the pacing of her interrogation had been disrupted. It would make it that much harder to break the woman. “What?” she snapped.
“Ain’t nought here, cap’n. We done lashed the place from the rafters to the floorboards, and there ain’t no places left to stow a brat.”
Skarre looked all around the room, and indeed, everything had been torn apart. Even the thatched roof had been shot through with whip holes. Growling with exasperation (and no small amount of trepidation), she grabbed the woman by her collar and pulled her close. “Listen, you lubbin’ whore,” she started.
The woman, broken and bleeding, still had some fight in her. She reared back her head and butted Skarre square on the nose. The Satyxis captain heard the unmistakable sound of cartilage crunching. Roaring in surprise, pain, and anger, she dropped the woman and fell back. She raised one hand to her nose only to discover it had been flattened. Her hand came away very bloody.
She snarled and reversed her grip on her dagger
Vicky looked up as her mother’s shadow fell across her. What had happened? Had she managed somehow to defeat the raiders? She dared not raise her voice to ask.
She heard two heavy steps thick with menace. A throaty growl of unbridled animal rage was followed by one swift whisper of steel through the air.
Vicky barely refrained from vomiting when a wave of warm liquid poured over her like the surf.
Trembling in shock, Vicky heard the pirate captain yell, “Tear up the floorboards!” Overhead, chain whips cracked against the heavy timbers and sent shards of wood down upon the children.
In the slatted darkness, Vicky saw Gloria reach one trembling hand toward her and whimper, “Sissy…”
Vicky held her breath and pressed even tighter into the wall, if it were possible. She did not react to her sister’s plaintive cry. She did not reach, she did not whisper, she did not even shake her head. She only prayed. Please, let them get her, she begged, brutally and realistically. Let them get everyone, but please don’t let Sassy give me away!
Just then one of the horrid people cried out, “Trapdoor ho!” and the trapdoor flew open casting unwanted light on Gloria’s prone form. A bloody hand with long, lacquered fingernails shot down through the trapdoor, expertly grabbed Sassy’s hair, and hauled her bodily out of the cavity shrieking and kicking in terror.
Vicky cringed in shame and relief. Even a touch of vindication tortured her heart; if only Gloria had been afraid of the dark and come home sooner, the two of them might well have been able to hide safely in the cellar with their mother.
“Right!” said the captain. “She tromped out the door yelling, “Fire the whole village! All aweigh! Launch before the tide changes!”
Within seconds all was quiet within the house save for the growing crackle of fire and the steady drip-drip of warm blood slowly draining on the young girl. Outside Gloria’s defiant cries faded into the distance leaving in their wake only a few intermittent anguished moans from the few survivors that carried through the night.
It was an hour before Vicky dared move. By then all she was able to do was fall forward into a fetal position and cry until the pain and exhaustion coerced her into a troubled sleep.
Victoria started from her reverie and stared with panicked eyes at the old man who glowered at her from behind his desk. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the lacquered wood.
“I—I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Would you repeat the question?”
The man snorted disgustedly and leaned forward on one elbow. He set the other elbow on the desk and absently slapped his hand against the broad sergeant’s stripes that graced the other arm.
“I said, missy,” he said condescendingly, “that you mighten have a touch of what they done call ‘The Gift,’ but formin’ up with the Cygnar military is a damned far cry from stevedoring.” He stood up and leaned forward on his fists, and his shadow fell across Victoria’s face. “What puts you in mind that a clay-doll midge waif like yerself would be worth a cup o’ piss to us?”
Victoria crossed her arms and raised her head to stare at the blustering soldier. “Listen, Sergeant Nosehair,” she said levelly, “I survived the Scharde Invasions. My soul died when I was five, and my heart’s just been beatin’ time since. They killed my family, burned my village, and drove me further into darkness than any mortal should ever travel. I swore a vow back then, and now, thank Morrow, I have the chance to fulfill it and pay Cryx back for what they done to Ingrane.
“See, I’ve been half-dead for thirteen long, buggered years. I can’t even recollect what it was like to laugh. I’ll give Cygnar everything I have left, every last bit of my life, my body, and my energy if it means I have a shot to ruin those wankin’ bastards across the channel.
“I’m going to join the Cygnar military, damn you, so either you let me pass or tell me where I can send your widow some flowers.”
The sergeant stood there for a moment, then slowly nodded. “You might pass muster after all,” he said quietly. “Make your mark here.”
“So you’re the new journeyman?”
“Yes, Lieutenant Caine. Journeyman Victoria Haley at your—”
“Whatever,” muttered Allister. “You’re the one who comes when I shout ‘journeyman.’ Understand?”
Caine struck a match, lit his cigarillo, and flicked the still-burning match aside. He reached one gloved hand to take Haley’s chin and turn it to his face. The rough glove grated on her skin and smelled of stale cordite and tobacco. Allister snorted, and Haley involuntarily gagged on the smoky odor of his breath. “You’re a dreggled urchin,” he said. He turned and started to walk off. “You’ll wash out. Nemo must still be mad about the kitchen incident to saddle me with the likes of you.”
After a brief hesitation, Haley followed. “What are my duties to be, sirrah?” she pressed, ignoring his denigrating remarks.
Caine snorted again. “Duties?” he answered. His cigarillo waggled in his chapped lips as he spoke. “Do what I tell you. Try not to get killed.”
“I don’t fear that,” said Haley bravely.
In a blink Allister Caine vanished. Haley stutter-stepped in surprise, then she felt the cold iron kiss of two inch-wide gun barrels pressed into the soft flesh behind each ear hard enough that she rose onto her toes.
Caine put his lips to one of her ears, and his unshaven face prickled her skin. “You’d best get afraid, little missy,” he hissed. “If you aren’t good and terrified, you’ll be nothing more than blade wash within two minutes of battle’s start.”
He shifted to her other ear. “Out there, there’re two kinds of people: those who are afraid, and those who are dead. One of the big advantages the other side has is that those who are dead… are often still moving.”
“I swear, Brock, you’re amazing.”
Brock Halfshank cracked a slight smile. “Oh, it’s nothing, really,” he said.
“Nothing?” echoed Chaz incredulously. “Look at your pack and kit and regulars! Not five minutes gone, and they’re all primmed up purty, creases sharp as a sword, everything perfectly stowed. Bells, the army ought to plop your grinning pie hole on the enlistment broadsheets!”
“Sure,” said Brock with a chuckle. “Then everyone would think bein’ a Trencher was just a glorified campout. Mornin’, Sarge,” he added as a third soldier walked up to the enlistees’ tent.
“Hey, Sarge, take a gander at Brock’s kit, here!” said Chaz. “It’s so preened I’d swear you could—”
“Come now, Chaz,” said the sergeant, “don’t you know Halfshank’s got a touch of the art?”
“Does he now? Well if that don’t make you a chuffed duck! No wonder you’re so strapped and loaded.”
Brock shrugged. “It makes things easier, sure, but—”
“You going to apply for an apprenticeship?” pressed Chaz. “Huh? Are you?”
Brock shrugged again.
“Leave off, Chaz,” said the sergeant more softly. “He sent his papers in well over a year ago. Ain’t heard a baby’s toot out of it, neither.”
“Well, if that ain’t just a boot in the teeth,” groused Chaz. “Why do you reckon?”
Brock drew a deep breath and let out a long sigh of frustration. “I figger it’s on account of ’cause I ain’t no highborn type. No riches, no status, no history, no family name to speak of at all. I mean… Halfshank, what kind of a family name is that? Sounds like I done lost a leg. That ain’t no heroic highborn type of name.”
“That ain’t fair,” said Chaz. “You deserve a chance, I’d say. You got the art just like anyone else in the school.”
“Talking of which, I have news,” said the sergeant.
“What’s that Sarge?”
“I hear the lieutenant’s got hisself a new journeyman.”
“Really?” said Brock eagerly. “What’s he like?”
“She,” corrected the sergeant.
“She?” echoed Chaz. “Bollocks! Just what we need, some hoity-toity high-born ‘lady’ prancing around like we’re all her butlers. At least the gentlemen know that sometime the stable needs mucking, but those damsels…”
“Worse’n that,” interrupted the sergeant, “I think someone will be humpin’ her pack. I’d dare say she don’t weigh much more than what you’ve got stowed there, Brock.”
Brock scratched his scalp. “So what’s the word, then, Sarge?” he asked.
“Word is we’re patrolling the coast. There’s rumors of a pirate ship. I hear the lieutenant is taking the high-falutin’ blades, knights and mages, and leaving us common fightin’ folk with the greener and a couple light ’jacks.”
“Typical,” grunted Chaz. “Caine doesn’t much care for the likes of us.”
“Aye that,” said Brock. “Do you think she’ll throw coat the way the last journeyman did?”
The sergeant looked at the men levelly for a breath then said, “Break camp, boyos. Cygnar is moving out.”
“Right,” said Chaz. He clapped his comrade on the shoulder. “Well, then, Brock, I’ll just let you and your magical art strike the tent then, shall I? I may as well get some use out of your magic if the headquarters don’t want none of it.”
Night had fallen, and without the sun’s rays, the breeze carried a surprising chill. Thin clouds rolled in across the sky, slowly concealed the stars and moons, and left the campfires of Haley’s detachment the only illumination for miles around.
Victoria walked along the edge of the camp looking out into the darkness. Twelve years of nightmares had ensured she couldn’t walk in the night alone. She pulled her greatcoat tighter and looked back across the camp. Reflected in the warm, cheery glow of a score or more fires, the soldiers of her troop gathered to chat. Rather, to grouse, truth be told, for a good grouse was the privilege of the grognard. No one could grouse like an experienced soldier, especially an old Trencher. “Hottest damn snowstorm I ever felt,” the saying went.
She looked their grizzled faces and saw pain and suffering carved into every weatherworn crease of their unshaven faces. Ever since the loss of Gloria she had felt so old as to be withered; here among the soldiers, leading them like Caine’s dancing marionette, she felt no more than a child.
She also never felt more alone.
They were her soldiers. She was to lead them, but she could sense the way they looked at her when they thought she wasn’t paying attention.
Sadly she expanded her consciousness to reach out to the cortex of the nearest warjack. Warjacks were dull creatures, but not for lack of intellect; they were dull because their minds were built for one thing only.
Her mind was different.
She let her consciousness slide into the warjack. It was like diving into a cool pool of alcohol, and it sounded of the fading ring of a great industrial bell. The warjack’s eyes flared briefly as its mind roused to her presence, but she withheld it from making any telltale movements.
She used the warjack to listen to the talk of the soldiers—her soldiers, her responsibility.
Any contact was better than none at all.
“Three weeks,” she heard a soldier say. His voice sounded tinny through the filter of the warjack’s cortex. “Three bloody weeks it’s been that that two-pinch tart’s been trudging this stinking battalion back and forth across and around Cape Mercir chasing the tide.”
“Cor, don’t let the officers hear you call her a tart, righto mucker?”
“What else is she good for, then? Skinny little body like that.”
“Well, if she were a tart, she might have a smile once in a while. You know what I’m saying?”
“Sure, not for the likes of you. You’ve got the face of a thousand-mile boot, you have.”
“Shut your flaps, bumfluff. You’d best be happy we ain’t done naught but march. Time comes for a fight, she’s throwin’ coat and heading for Caspia. If we’re lucky, she’ll get to roust a few bandits or sommat afore she sees real action. Give her a chance to get blooded, maybe grow a few inches so we’s don’t up and step on her in the midst of a scrum.”
“You ain’t even gave her a chance. She done graduated like every other officer. Maybe—”
“Maybe I’d give her a grain if she weren’t so standoffish. Damn aristo ladies are all alike. Never done a hard day’s work in her life.”
Haley snorted and pulled herself out of the warjack. Funny, she thought. They see me as different when I’m much like them. Where I am different they forget the ’jacks are almost a part of me.
She looked up in despair and saw darkness had covered the nighttime sky; the encroaching clouds were smothering the last of the stars overhead. She groaned deep within her throat, turned, and strode into the camp toward the group upon which she had been eavesdropping.
As she walked up to the campfire, her light frame made little noise compared to the crackling fire and grumbling soldiers.
“I’m tellin’ you know,” said one of the soldiers venting his frustration, “when we hit the scrum, I’d druther have someone like Caine in charge. Even though he doesn’t give a nit for the likes of us, he’s a codger who can stand toe to toe with the likes of me, and—”
Haley walked into the center of the group and stood right next to the fire. The soldiers jumped to attention. She looked around at the group; each one stood taller than she even with the exaggerated heels of her boots.
“I don’t like this cloud cover,” she said. “It stinks of Toruk’s minions. Inform the officers to prepare defensive positions tonight. Understood?”
The soldiers mumbled out a broken chorus of “Yes’m.”
She looked around the group once more. “One other thing. All this marching is wearying, don’t you think? I’d like a sparring partner tomorrow morning. Someone to test myself against.” She shrugged. “I guess you could say this is your chance to go toe to toe and lay into a warcaster without any fear of repercussions. Do I have any volunteers?”
After a few long heartbeats of silence, she dismissed them.
The darkness was near complete such that even an owl could not have seen the two shadows gliding from the surf onto the sandy beach.
“This here’s the final test,” murmured Skarre to her companion, “for both of us. For me, ’tis a test of how well I’ve laid the field for you, dancin’ the brig off the coast.”
“And for me, how much I have learned from Asphyxious,” said Deneghra.
“Wrong,” said Skarre. “For you, ’tis both your test and mine own.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll not leave your failure to be my failure,” said the Satyxis pirate queen. “If your shore party botches this raid, I’ll make damn sure your failure will see you dancing in the seaweed while I have my acquittal. You might fail—just this once, of course—but I never fail.”
“Neither do I,” said Deneghra. “I guess the only thing left you have to fear is my success beyond your capacity to contain me.”
Skarre laughed long and loud. “You should have been whelped a Satyxis, dearie. I ken your style. Tell me how you will do this.”
“With your maneuvering, we have managed to separate the warcaster Caine from his apprentice. I strike, therefore, at the apprentice to gather material with the greatest efficiency. The attack begins in the predawn light—”
“Why?” asked Skarre.
“Two reasons. First, the growing dawn will conceal the glow of the necrotite furnaces. Second, with the false dawn, they will relax their guard believing the threat of sneak attack has passed.”
For Haley, the dawn broke with the sound of a chain gunner opening fire. She bolted from her bed wearing nothing but her underclothes and rushed for the tent flap. She stuck her head outside. She heard shouts, the sound of a long gun, and the unmistakable keening hiss of necrotite furnaces. It was a terrible sound locked into her every waking and sleeping moment for a dozen years.
Across the tent her handmaid also rose though somewhat more panicked. “What is it?”
“Cryx!” shouted Haley at the top of her lungs. She leapt over to her armor stand.
“Miss, your greatcoat!” called her handmaid, fumbling for the thick garment among Haley’s trunks.
“No time!” said Haley, sliding her arms into the splayed-open armor.
“But the furnace, you’ll burn your back!” said the handmaid, flapping the greatcoat loose as she ran over.
Haley shrugged into the armor and swung her hands around to the small furnace nestled against her spine. She roared her determination as arcane power lanced from her hands into the furnace, igniting the coal with the heat of its energy. Stray bolts spilled out of the armor and cut their way through Haley’s trembling back. “Loosen the cocks,” ordered Haley. Trembling, the handmaid obeyed. Haley reached over her shoulders as best she could, constrained by the bulky armor and the rods holding the heavy plates upright. Gritting her teeth against the forthcoming pain, she touched her fingers to the boiler and sent an even greater surge through the water, heating it up rapidly to the boiling point. She heard her handmaid cry out in pain as she caught just a bit of the arcane bolts.
Gasping, she turned to her assistant. “Get up and pull the rods!” she ordered. “My people are dying out there!”
Somehow the handmaid found the resolve to stand and yank back the bars holding the warcaster armor in place. The heavy metal plates sagged onto Haley’s small frame; the furnace wasn’t yet running hot enough for the arcane field to support the armor entirely on its own, and the young woman groaned with the weight.
She grabbed her mage sword and staggered from her tent into the predawn barefoot and in her bloomers.
Outside the camp, Deneghra laughed in sadistic joy. This was the first time she had truly been allowed to indulge herself and run amok with Cryxian bonejacks. Her mind was fragmented into the cortices of almost a dozen different Deathrippers running pell-mell into the sleepy Cygnaran camp. Her vision swam with disjointed images that her manic mind struggled to knit into a cohesive whole.
It felt like she was a pack of rabid dogs running, charging, biting, savaging, and searching for prey. Every move was instinct, every surge of power was a reflex reaction, and every channeled spell was a spontaneous eruption of hate. With a frenetic energy, her mind guided the chaotic attack, not reining it in but managing to contain the surge so the attack did not explode and disperse all its momentum.
On top of it all, her warcaster’s mind could taste the savor of the necrotite furnaces. The vile taste of anguish and death burning to fuel her desires created an overwhelming sensation of power.
Deep down within her, she realized this was where she’d wanted to be all along, and she would never tire of the feeling until the entrails of the whole world lay splayed open at her feet.
Satisfied with her progress, she cast herself entirely into the cortex of one of her jacks to become it in all but name. She had two powerful legs structured of bone and necrotechnology with no muscles to tire or sinews to snap. She had an alchemically treated prognathous jaw equally equipped for biting and thrusting. She sensed a Cygnaran nearby and lunged forward like a tatzylwurm, buried her fangs into his belly, and ripped upward to shower herself in glorious ichors. She sensed the victim’s blood boiling away on the soul furnace within her monstrous ribcage and felt the heinous, sensual drip of viscera from her powerful teeth. So beautiful, she thought, so close to perfect. Ah, if only the bonejacks had tongues.
Then a strange sound erupted across the camp—a series of double thumps sharp and deep.
“What was that?” she heard Skarre hiss.
Deneghra snapped her mind back to herself and cast out to enter a half dozen bonejacks scattered about. Through the eyes of one, she saw a brief shadow of towering darkness then a flash of yellow in the instant before the bonejack’s cortex shattered.
Then another of her bonejacks was destroyed, and another. “Warjacks…” said Deneghra, confused.
“Warjacks?” said Skarre. “He didn’t tell us she had warjacks!” The pirate queen yanked a dagger from her boot. “And he calls himself an informant. Oh, he’ll pay for holding out on me. Me!”
Skarre considered for a moment. “You’ve done well, Deneghra. Regroup your forces, kill as many as you can, and get back to the ship. I have some business to attend to with a certain young man…”
So saying, the Satyxis warcaster slipped away from Deneghra’s side leaving her student to fend for herself.
As she watched her mentor leave, Deneghra wondered if this, too, wasn’t part of the test.
Standing amid the smoldering wreckage of a repulsive bonejack, Haley’s mind stalked the battlefield.
She had linked to each of her Chargers including the annoying one with the intermittent blackouts. However, her mind shared the consciousness of only one Charger’s cortex, the one furthest from her where the fighting was hardest. She was a passenger on the mechanikal creation, an advisor to the enchantment animating the three-ton iron beast. She let the warjack’s cortex maneuver about the battlefield and swing its devastating hammer at the chittering, hissing bonejacks; all she needed was the left arm. This she swung about freely, firing devastating double-barrel volleys at anything in sight.
Once she was certain the warjack was in no imminent danger of loss, she pulled her soul back to herself. Her warcaster armor was running balls out and was nearly weightless on her shoulders. Sweat ran freely down her back, and she felt the first painful itch of burn blisters starting to rise on her fair skin. Pumping arcane energy into the sword she carried, she began to walk the field to rally her people, direct her officers to organize the troops, and return her command to some semblance of order.
Occasionally one of the Chargers would fire off a double round or swing its hammer in an ear-splitting crash, but it did seem she and her people had managed to steal the momentum of battle, if only for the moment. She offered up a silent thanks to her father for the example she’d carried in her heart all those years.
As the dawning sky grew brighter, Haley took a more careful look at the campground-turned-battlefield. Their position was a disaster. It was neither flat nor had it a commanding view. Rather the area had a series of low-lying ridges and slopes that offered ready concealment to the small, fleet bonejacks still prowling the area. They had chosen this spot the previous night for the protection the ridges afforded from the winds crossing the Windward Peninsula; the blood of her command staining the sand attested to the fact that selecting a site for comfort instead of defensibility had been a grave mistake.
She ordered her subordinates to gather around. “Report,” she demanded.
“As near as we can reckon,” said the first sergeant, “there still may be upwards of a half dozen Deathrippers in the area, and we don’t know what else the Cryxians might be bringing up.”
“Warcaster?” demanded Haley.
“No one’s seen one,” said the first sergeant, “but you have to know he’s out there somewhere. That’s what worries me: why attack with just your ’jacks?”
“I agree,” said a corporal. “We got to get out of here before the Cryxians hit us again.”
Haley’s eyes narrowed. “Everyone present or accounted for?”
“Pshaw,” said the first sergeant. “We’ve gathered all the people who are still around, but there’s no way we can get an accurate casualty count, not with those bonejacks still nigh.”
“You’re sure you have everyone?” asked Haley.
“As sure as I can be in a scrum like this.”
“Bugger me raw, what do we do now, Sarge?” hissed Chaz.
“Shhh,” came the quiet reply. “Lie still.”
A dozen troopers lay in a shallow bowl of earth in the lee of a sharp boulder. They’d dug a few desultory slits when ordered the night before, but now they wished they had dug deeper. They yearned for better concealment from the Cryxian nightmares scurrying around just on the other side of the low rise.
“But I don’t even have my damned forgelock,” said Chaz eyeing the pup tent that stood just under the rise in plain view of the battlefield.
The double thump of a Charger sounded, followed by the lone crack of a long gun.
“The fighting is moving farther away,” whispered Brock.
The crunch of dead grass sounded near at hand, and a sibilant wail grew in volume. The Trenchers pressed themselves even closer to the earth as they heard the irregular footsteps of a group of Deathrippers pass by on the other side of the rise a mere ten yards from their position.
“Stay still, boys,” whispered the sergeant so softly it was all but inaudible. “Our luck is holding.”
Brock looked up at the pup tent he and Chaz shared where their weapons were. It was possible the Cryxians might leave without investigating it; they were not known for plunder as living armies were. Then he looked at the Cygnaran flag flying from the pole planted next to their tent flapping in the steady wind. Would the Cryxians leave such a symbol of defiance to remain unmolested?
Not bloody likely, he thought.
If only I could take it down without being seen, he thought. The simple cantrips he knew wouldn’t make the flag fall naturally. Even if he could bring himself to make the blue-and-gold flag fall into the dirt in the first place, his petty little magic could only make it lay itself out flat.
No wonder the high command doesn’t want to apprentice me, he thought.
“We’re not leaving,” said Haley flatly.
“Pardon?” said the first sergeant.
“I said we’re not leaving. I will not piddle my first engagement, especially not to the Cryxians.” She turned to another trooper nearby. “Soldier, go fetch my boots; I can’t keep fighting this scrum in bare feet.”
The soldier saluted and ran off.
“Why not withdraw, if I may ask?” asked the first sergeant.
“Because I’m not going to let them have the corpses of our people.”
“They’ll have a lot more corpses if we try to hunt them down,” blustered the sergeant. “There’s still plenty of bonejacks out there.”
“I will lose some, but I will leave none,” said Haley. “There may still be survivors out there.”
“Don’t be so proud,” said the first sergeant. “We’ve got all our ’jacks, let’s—”
“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT THE JACKS!” yelled Haley.
Silence rang across the battlefield for a few heartbeats.
“I said I don’t give a damn about the jacks, First Sergeant, and if you persist in failing to hear me, I’ll bust you back to latrine duty. Is! That! Clear!”
“In fact, I think I want your wing right now.”
“Your wing! Right now!”
The sergeant hastily pulled his dagger and cut the gold wing-shaped patch off his uniform sleeve and handed it to Victoria. She jammed it into one gauntlet of her armor. “I’ll see if I can’t find someone better to wear these wings,” she muttered.
By the time she was done, the soldier had returned with her boots. She put them on over her bloomers then climbed a low rise and scanned the battlefield. The chitters and venting of the bonejacks cast a threatening aura over the dawning day.
Suddenly she raised one arm and pointed. “Sergeant, what’s that?”
“It’s a Cygnaran flag,” he said. By the time he was done, Haley was already sprinting forward with her chargers thundering at her heels.
She ran pell-mell over the battlefield leaping past startled bonejacks. She kept the only undamaged Charger at her side, leaving the others to clean up the Cryxian mechanika in her wake.
The flag flew from a tall pole planted next to a jagged boulder that stood atop a low rise. As she neared her goal, a swarm of bonejacks rose up from their concealment to rush the slight hill. She heard yells, a single gunshot, and screams.
“Heads down!” she yelled as she unleashed a torrent of lightning upon the small horde of Deathrippers. She aimed the thunderstroke at the densest mass of Cryxian ’jacks, and the electrical power leapt from one to the next fusing metal, blasting bone, and rupturing contemptible necrotite furnaces.
At her command the Charger began firing its cannon while its mechanikal cortex directed its massive hammer to flatten dirt and necrotechnology alike.
As one, the remaining Deathrippers turned on Haley like a swarm of giant mechanikal rats. Her world turned into a desperate fever of activity—a keening song of necrotite hissing punctuated by the thump-thump of the Charger’s dual cannon. She bolstered her armor’s protective field by willing it to withstand the assault of the fangs chewing at her from all quarters. She fell down, overwhelmed by the weight of their numbers. She desperately swung her mage blade, but from her supine position her weak blows had little effect against the steel armor of the bonejacks.
Then a great shadow fell over her like a tombstone. An iron hammer landed just to her right and shook the ground with the sound of thunder. It withdrew just as abruptly, and the rising sun shone through where the hammer had fallen. The darkness of the bonejacks was flattened almost beyond recognition. A handful of Cygnaran Trenchers charged through the gap, grabbed Haley with strong and callused hands, and dragged her free of the Cryxian swarm while her Chargers pounded the evil constructs into shapes that, while no less disgusting, were infinitely more palatable.
Deneghra looked at the unfolding drama and called her remaining bonejacks back to her. They were easily replaced; the loss of a half dozen or more would scarcely merit a mention.
The knowledge she gained by watching this young warcaster, however, was another matter. That was valuable.
“I will have to find out your name, young one,” she said, “because you intrigue me. I want you for my own.”
With a wave of her hand, she vanished.
“Beggin’ your pardon, lady,” said the sergeant, “but you came just in the pinch. A few moments later, and we’d have been ’jack fodder.”
With a hiss of pain, Haley pulled herself out of the warcaster armor. As she staggered free, the gathered soldiers saw that the once-fine material of her nightshirt had been charred from white to the color of dark toast. She rolled her shoulders back to keep the burnt shirt from touching her skin. Her trembling hands stayed raised at her side as if of their own accord.
“If I were a lady, Sergeant,” she said, “I’d never let you see my bloomers. Now send someone to fetch me some balm.”
Half a dozen soldiers dashed to the task.
“If I may be so bold, la—uh, warcaster, how’d you know we was up there?”
Haley swallowed hard, and her face pinched in pain. “It’s not often you see a flag flying stiffly against the breeze, Sergeant. Whose idea was that?”
The sergeant looked confused for a moment. Then his face brightened, and he barked, “Trooper Brock Halfshank, front and centre!”
In a matter of seconds, a young trooper had pushed his way through and stood before Haley at attention. As sweat had plastered much of her nightclothes to her svelte body, he judiciously stared into the air over her head.
“That was you?” asked Haley.
“That was brilliant, soldier. You’ve the art, then?”
Haley nodded and smiled in spite of her pain. “That’s what I like. Very clever. I’ll recommend you for warcaster training, soldier.” She tossed him a strip of cloth cut into two arcing wings. “In the meantime, I’d like you to wear these. I think they’d look good on you.”
His whole body trembled with helpless desire, shuddered like a thoroughbred, and strained like a hound ready to be loosed from the leash. Had he not already been lying on his back, he surely would have collapsed.
Despite the chill night air on his half-naked body, the soldier felt uncomfortably warm. Part of his mind, looking for any escape from his predicament, noted how very black was the gulf between the stars.
Sharp lacquered fingernails traced delicate arcane designs in the hair beneath his navel. “This is what you’ve been waiting for these last few years, isn’t it?” she said in a knowing voice. “You deserve a more… personal acknowledgement of your loyalty.”
The sergeant pulled his eyes away from the sky to hazard a look down the length of his torso. The face that met his gaze was Victoria’s—Captain Haley’s—but the voice, the voice was something utterly different, sultry and indulgent like black satin and leather. His mind buzzed with sensation, reeled with conflicting emotions, and no words would come. His head flopped helplessly back to the ground. The smell of dewy earth warred in his nostrils with her scent.
“You like this, don’t you?” A pause. “Hmmm?” she added in a throaty purr.
He gasped and arched his back. “Yes,” he panted.
“Just tell me, and I’ll finish.” she said.
“Westwatch,” he gasped helplessly. “We’re going to Westwatch.”
He closed his eyes in pleasure and regret as she started to move with his reward.
The first sign of trouble came when a haystack convulsed and spewed out a thick wad of pungent mucus. The odious spray arced through the air and struck a Cygnaran soldier squarely on the cheek, and within the span of a few panicked breaths he lay dying on the field. His face and one eye dissolved away to expose his melting brain to the setting sun.
The haystack erupted as a horde of mechanithralls boiled out of it like ants from a damaged hill.
At the centre of a skirmish line comprised of two full squads of Long Gunners, Captain Victoria Haley gasped. “Ambush!” she yelled, passing one hand slowly in front of her in an incantation of warding.
The line of Long Gunners erupted with blasting-powder explosions that sent heavy lead bullets to strike the shambling creatures approaching. Elsewhere around the Cygnarans other haystacks likewise yielded the undead abominations lurking within them.
“Bloody boots!” yelled one of the sergeants. “The farm’s a bumper of Crynks!”
The thralls surged forward, mindlessly intent on killing their prey. At least the Cygnarans preferred to think of them as mindless. To have a normal brain twisted and warped so grotesquely that a friend’s mind would gleefully turn on his comrades for all eternity was a fate too horrible to consider.
Haley’s instincts turned her around, and she saw even more thralls surging from the rear. They were surrounded. Drawing upon her arcane training, she unleashed several waves of massive electric blasts, ripped huge holes in the approaching forces, and opened a means of escape.
She glanced over her left shoulder. Forgelock bullets tore livid, gushing holes in the bile thralls that had launched the first shots, and several other Long Gunners put inch-wide chunks of lead through key anatomical locations of several of the charging mechanithralls. Then the Cryxian monstrosities reached the gunners.
A bane thrall, easily a foot and a half taller than anything else she had seen, charged directly toward Captain Haley. It was clad in ancient plate and bore aloft a huge axe that reminded her of her father’s. Its venomous glowing eyes were the only part of the thrall that could be seen clearly through the darkness it wore like a shroud. With every heavy clanking step, darkness sifted its way out of every armoured seam like black dust shucking off a moving warjack. The cloud of darkness roiled around the beast like a sentient thunderhead.
She was unready. Her back was toward the bane thrall, and her spear was out of position gripped only in her off hand.
The bane thrall raised its massive axe for a brutal strike. She had no time to raise her spear for a parry.
Instead she took a lesson from her former instructor, now a comrade, Allister Caine. Her stance concealed her right arm behind her. In one fluid motion she drew her hand cannon, cocked the striker with her thumb, whipped the pistol up, and fired.
The massive projectile struck the undead creature square in the forehead, sending its old-fashioned helmet spinning into the evening sky and shattering its skull. It fell backwards with its legs still pumping.
Then it got back up.
Ichor and rotting gray matter dripped from the wreckage that had once been its brainpan. The impact of the augmented bullet had blown a hole clean through the skull as well as removed the top of the cranium, leaving enough of the sides to make its head look like the food trough of a corrupted pigsty. Its eyes still glowed with a malevolent blaze.
With its right hand, the bane thrall pulled a stringy gobbet from in front of one eye.
Haley curled her lip. “Well, that’s disgusting,” she muttered.
The bane thrall stepped forward, and its huge stride closed the gap as it swung its axe. Haley parried with the iron haft of her Vortex Spear, and her arms trembled with the power of its blow. She feinted with the haft and head of her spear to gauge the creature’s experience and reflexes. Although it was far faster than she would have expected from something long dead, it apparently had little in the way of experience. Instead it relied heavily on its size and weight to protect it.
As they sparred, the ill-tasting darkness that wafted from the abomination’s every crevice began to swirl around Haley, drying her throat and tickling it with maddening itches. Fearful that the distraction could spell her doom, Haley put a quick plan into action. She feinted to her right, leaving herself open. The bane thrall swung for her and exposed its own right side. Haley quickly spun, knocked the creature’s elbow aside with the butt of her spear, and spoiled its aim. As she came around, she thrust her spear’s blade into her foe. She felt the alchemically treated blade puncture the thrall’s armour as it drove its way in, then she poured her spirit into the electromechanikal generator concealed within the weapon’s head. Pressed by her soul, the generator surged with pure energy, and released it into the cursed and contaminated body of the bane thrall. There was a violent hum as the power intensified, then the bane thrall’s torso exploded in a noisome blast of burgundy blood and pallid flesh.
Haley staggered back retching and wiping away the wet goo that spattered her face. As the parts of the animate corpse tumbled to their final repose, Haley realised the sound of sporadic gunfire had abated. Worried, she glanced quickly right and left and saw many of her devoted Long Gunners engaged in close combat with twice their number of thralls.
She knew they were no match. Long Gunners bore only the lightest armour so they could move quickly about the battlefield, slide rapidly to a key position, and just as rapidly abandon it when the enemy drew too close. Their handcrafted wheel loaders were balanced for long-range shooting, not melee, and the short swords they traditionally carried as a side weapon would avail them little against a foe that did not bleed.
Desperate to save her command, she closed her eyes and reached out with her soul for every Cygnaran she could reach. The fervour with which she stretched her soul was excruciating; it felt like she was dislocating herself and rending the ligaments that bound her brain together. She briefly touched the hearts of her command and imbued just a little bit of herself into them: a touch of her skill, a patina of her magic, a thought propelled by the warcaster’s urgency. She prayed that it might be enough.
“Strike!” she screamed. Her voice was empowered by the agony within her.
As one, her remaining troops leapt to the attack. Their movements slipped through time just a little faster than was normal, and they handled their long guns like veteran pikemen. Across the field, their movements were co-ordinated into a whole; they tore gaps in the lines of the attacking thralls and gathered themselves into cohesive and organised groups.
Haley staggered with the exertion. Then with a primal roar, she suppressed her pain and exhaustion and launched herself at the nearest thralls. The furnace on the back of her warcaster armour hissed at full power, wreathing her in an arcane protective shield as her vortex spear, ablaze with actinic light, thrust and sliced through armour, bone, and rotting flesh alike.
No longer beset on all sides, the Long Gunners in the centre of each small group unleashed deadly shots from their wheel loaders to spatter the vitals of other thralls across the landscape. With every fallen thrall, another gunner was free to employ his wheel loader as a gunner should, and within a few moments the ambush had been destroyed.
Haley looked about the farm field. Twisted corpses ruined by necrotechnology lay scattered about finally receiving the rest their distant deaths should have earned. Amid the wreckage of their bodies lay over half of her command. Some were mortally wounded, some twitched as their nerves fought futilely against their death, and some were torn asunder by the terrible claws of the thralls.
“Sergeants!” bellowed Haley. “Front and centre!”
One sergeant immediately hustled over to her and saluted, ignoring the nasty gash across his arm.
“Where’s the other sergeant?” asked Haley.
As if in answer, a cry of mourning carried across the field. “Captain Haley… I must—” The cry was cut of by a fit of coughing.
“That sounded like ’im,” said the sergeant. He dropped the salute to point across the field. “Them there soldiers is tendin’ to ’im, I’d wager.”
Haley turned and looked. Two soldiers flanked a third who lay badly wounded on the ground. His head was propped up on his haversack. The wounded soldier raised an imploring arm toward Haley, and she saw a sergeant’s gull wings on his sleeve. “Lady…” he gasped, and his arm dropped.
Haley trotted over, the arcane effects of the warcaster armour making her gait smooth and even despite the fact she bore well over a hundred pounds of mechanikal iron plating. She knelt by the man. Gaping wounds in his chest and abdomen oozed blood; his life had run out minutes ago, and it was only through sheer will that he yet breathed. She caressed his cheek with one armoured gauntlet. “I’m here, Sergeant,” she said.
“The warwitch,” he gasped. “Forgive me, Captain… I couldn’t resist.”
“What do you mean?” asked Haley. “Resist what?
He coughed, and blood spattered those gathered around. “She… made me… made—” he winced and moaned. “The warwitch… I told her… our movements. It… was… a trap.”
Anger at the betrayal surged into Haley’s mind, yet was the dying sergeant even to blame? Haley knew full well the power a warcaster could have, especially a vile amoral villain like Deneghra. Slipping through the darkness, she could ensnare just about anyone she pleased.
She looked anew at the veteran soldier. The wounds that scourged his body were not the badges of a coward. Despite his betrayal, he had remained with his people. More so, he had fought hard, sacrificing himself to atone for his weakness and to save his troops from his failing. Here in his final moments, despite whatever geases with which Deneghra had shackled him, he had done his duty and given his commander the name of her foe.
“You fought well, soldier,” said Haley gently yet with a commanding overtone that allowed no dissent to her words. “Rest ye in honour and peace.”
“Wait!” he gasped. More bloody coughs wracked his body. He sagged as his body lay bereft of energy save for his eyes, which burned with urgency. One hand flailed up to grip her iron-clad forearm. “She… she claims… she is… your sister…” The last word faded from a mere whisper to the last rattle of a dead man as his hand softened its grip and slid from her bracer, leaving four smears of blood in its wake.
Haley rose, staring in shock at the trooper’s eyes. His dilated eyes stared into infinity, but the insistent look locked on his face brooked no doubt his words were Morrow’s own truth.
Staggering back, Haley looked around, but her eyes saw nothing. Her mind was turned inward, replaying the nightmare shadows of the past and tying those visions to the tribulations of this day.
Her sister? After all these years, Gloria is yet alive but turned to the will of Toruk? Could that happy little girl have been moulded and shaped by Cryx into the reviled warwitch Deneghra?
“No,” murmured Haley shaking her head in disbelief. “It can’t be. She wouldn’t, not ever. She wouldn’t betray Poppa that way. She said that just to toy with him, to torment me… it has to be a trick…”
Unwilling to explore those dark possibilities further, Haley snapped herself from her reverie and scanned the field.
“Form up!” she bellowed. Her troops, already having gathered close, ordered themselves rapidly. “Deneghra is out there somewhere,” she said. “This trap was hers. That means we have more trouble headed our way. Burn the dead quickly, for we make for Kesselgate before the trap’s other jaw springs. Now move!”
Steeling themselves to the grisly task, the Cygnarans looted the ammo and forgelocks from the dead, quickly stacked the corpses into piles intermixed with hay, and set the lot afire. Within minutes they had formed up and were force-marching to Kesselgate five long leagues away.
As their lead scout crested a rise, he saw a veritable legion of thralls awaiting them in the next vale. They turned and began making for Westwatch as fast as they could, for anything was better than trying to hide from the forces of Cryx at night.
A shadow lurched at the top of the rise silhouetted against the nighttime sky. A Cygnaran Long Gunner raised his forgelock and took careful aim, sighting on the area between the undead creature’s glowing eyes.
A hand gently gripped his shoulder. “Stand down, soldier,” said Captain Haley. “They haven’t sniffed us out yet. Don’t give our position away.”
With a long tense sigh, the soldier slowly lowered his weapon.
Haley patted his shoulder gently. “Easy, now. If they don’t find us by sunup, we’ll be fat and happy. If not, I don’t think plugging one thrall will avail us much.”
The surviving Cygnarans had been run to ground a mere league from Westwatch. Two stragglers had been overtaken, and as they discharged their weapons, Haley knew heir small column had been located. Rolling hills made up this portion of Cygnar, and scattered farms and groves of trees broke apart the tall grassy landscape. They had been able to use the terrain to find some shelter, and they hunkered now in an abandoned farmhouse. No lights or fires gave away their position. The soldiers concealed themselves carefully, wary that Cryxian eyes might better pierce the unwelcome darkness than did the eyes of the living.
“Captain,” whispered the soldier. “Do ye reckon they’re still huntin’, or have they sniffed us out and are gathering up?”
A general shifting of troopers indicted everyone’s thoughts had been running along the same vein.
“Truly I tell you I don’t know, soldier,” said Haley. “On the other hand, I don’t see that it makes a nit of difference.”
The soldier smiled grimly. “Fair enough.”
The remaining hours of the night passed as slowly as a smothering nightmare. The troops dared not pace, dared not speak, and dared hardly even to breathe lest the noise attract the attention from the groaning, howling things stalking the darkness.
As the sky began to lighten with the promise of the coming day, it illuminated an unwanted sight: hordes of misshapen silhouettes rising all around the farmhouse.
“Well, boys,” muttered the sergeant, “I guess that answers our question, don’t it?”
“Prepare for volley fire, lads,” said Captain Haley. “If we can make enough of a ruckus, it’ll attract the attention of the regiment in Westwatch. You can bet your arses that Coleman will come at the double if there’s promise of a scrum.”
A round of dark chuckles ran through the derelict farmhouse.
“Looks like bile thralls over here, Captain,” said a soldier.
“Right. Everyone to the east wall then.”
Jackbooted feet quickly scuffed across the wooden floor.
Haley drew her hand cannon and held it at the ready, casting enchantments to aid her soldiers’ aim. “Volley fire. Ready…” She aimed her handgun. “Fire!”
Seven Cygnaran firearms loosed their deadly bullets and dropped several of the vile creatures.
Several more fell.
“Fire! Now quick, lads, to the north wall!”
The exhausted troops ran to the north wall and saw a large pack of thralls in the open moving as quickly as they could to the dilapidated house.
“Ready, fire!” ordered Haley. She watched in satisfaction as a large knot of thralls collapsed as heavy Cygnaran missiles ripped through their ranks. “South wall! Move!”
They played cat-and-mouse with the advancing Cryxian thralls, but for a change the cat lay in the centre smiting the approaching mice with volley after volley of large-bore lead shot with magically enhanced aim. After several squads of thralls had been decimated by these manoeuvres, Haley realised there was no way her fatigued troops could maintain that level of exertion. They’d marched all day in search of the Cryxians, been ambushed and lost half their number, then forced-marched all night trying to evade Deneghra’s dragnet of walking dead. Each time she ordered her troops to volley fire from a different wall, their reactions were slower, the loading sloppier, and the steps more stumbling.
Fortunately, the Cryxians paused in their assault to spread themselves out, making themselves ineffective targets for volley fire. During this brief respite, Haley ordered her tired soldiers to key firing positions around the house and gave the order to fire at will.
Feeling no weariness, the Cryxian hordes advanced again. Slowly their lead thralls drew closer and closer to the farmhouse; when one thrall fell, the next was able to take several more steps toward the Cygnaran farmhouse before the next gunshot hit. Bile thralls began bombarding the defenders with their caustic sludge. A few soldiers were slain outright while the misses spattered the immediate area to cause painful and distracting burns. Haley ran from wall to wall launching a wave of magical lightning whenever the thralls drew close, but ultimately she too began to flag from exhaustion.
Then after what seemed like days of desperate fighting, the first thralls reached the walls of the dilapidated house.
Their arrival was heralded by the scream of a soldier abruptly cut off as a heavy axe clove his skull in twain. The bane thrall forced its way through the window, and the soldiers nearest turned to engage even as Haley ordered them to stand fast and fire. One fell to the bane thrall’s brutal assault before she slew the wicked beast, but the loss of three rifles along that side of the farmhouse, even for the scant minute they fought the thrall, meant the forces of Cryx could no longer be stopped in their approach.
It’s like being part of a crumbling dam, Haley thought as she fought against the growing hordes. One by one her companions fell around her, giving their lives to save their captain. Despite the brightness of the growing day, Haley’s world dimmed with each death.
This is it, she thought. I can’t kill them all. She shook her head in self-reproach. I was a fool to make this march without warjacks.
Then a new volley sounded across the farm fields—the air-rending crack of a dozen storm glaives unleashing a wave of raw electrical power into the Cryxian throngs. The massive thunderclap was immediately followed by the basso thump of heavy cannons. The Cryxian thralls faltered, torn between the immediate task of killing Haley and the greater threat of the Cygnaran reinforcements.
With those noises, Haley felt a glimmer of true hope. She could sense the humming of warjack cortices at the periphery of her second sight. She heard more thumps, and then heavy shells started dropping all about the farmhouse thundering the air, shaking the earth, and causing dust and splinters to fall from the walls and roof.
“Damnit, Coleman!” she yelled over the din. She cast a combat incantation and poured her soul into the warcaster armour to bolster its protective effects. “We’re still in here!”
The farmhouse erupted in fire and shrapnel. Despite her protection, the concussion knocked her into a wall, which shattered with the impact of her armoured body. Splinters of wood, twisted shards of metal, and parts of bodies both fresh and decrepit flew through the air. She felt the mechanikal field about her sputter and flicker as it stood against the explosion.
She tried to pick herself up but only managed to push herself to her hands and knees. Her armour seemed heavy, and steam whistled angrily from a small hole in the boiler on the back of her custom-built armour. She glanced about for her Vortex Spear hoping to use it as a crutch, but before she located it the building collapsed utterly.
Commander Coleman Stryker bounded across the blackened field of twitching, hissing, oozing, and stinking wreckage surrounding the lone farmhouse. Firing so close to the farmhouse had been a calculated risk but a necessary one to wipe out the hordes of thralls that had teemed like beetles all about. His heart dared not beat until he could discover whether Haley was living or dead.
The main body of thralls had turned from the farm to engage the Cygnaran reinforcements from Westwatch. Seeing that his troops were doing just fine without him, he felt no qualms about abandoning his position to search for Haley.
He would have done it no matter the situation; Haley was a precious jewel regardless of how she perceived the innate worthiness of her own inner soul.
The few thralls lingering near the farmhouse withdrew before him, wisely conserving their existence for another day. Thralls knew better than to waste themselves without adequate numbers, and a fresh Cygnaran warcaster was well beyond their capability.
Coleman clambered onto the slanting wreckage of the house and began digging down. His high-powered warcaster armour enabled him to throw even sizeable walls aside with relative ease. Toward the thralls, of course—there was no sense in wasting projectiles.
He saw a hand clad in the gauntlet of warcaster armour. Haley’s. With a growl he lifted the spine of the house’s roof and pushed it aside to reveal more of her. He knelt beside her, pulled back her hood, and gently drew her tousled hair out of her face.
“Haley?” he asked none too quietly. “Victoria!”
“Are you standing on me or somethin’, Coleman?” she grumbled, her voice sluggish. “Get your manky feet off me!”
“T’ain’t me,” he answered, “though it’s about the whole house. Hang on, I’ll get you loose.”
Another minute’s effort freed her entirely from the wreckage.
“Your boiler’s knackered, mucker,” he said. “Hang tight.” He deftly worked the bolts that held her armour together, lifting the heavy plating from her torso.
“Ta,” she said. “I can breathe again.”
“Think I give a toss?” said Coleman with a wry grin. “I just don’t want to misplace any of this priceless mechstuff.” He leaned the ruined back plate and boiler against the jagged edges of a wall.
“Sod off.” She started to push herself up, leaving the front half of her armour on the ground.
Coleman looked back at his troops handily pushing the Cryxians back. “Looks like the dregs are throwing coat. Listen, I’m going with the troops to help wipe them Crynks all out, right? Don’t want any getting away. You’re okay?”
Haley sat up and nodded slowly. “Sure. No bleeders, no broken bones.” She sighed and winced. “Right, maybe a cracked rib or two, but I’m solid.”
“Good.” Coleman clapped a mailed hand on her shoulder. “You rest easy. We’ll be back for you.”
Deneghra glided along the landscape like a panther. Her hips moved sinuously, and her barbed spear lashed back and forth like a stiffened tail.
She squinted against the morning sun, her lip curling into a snarl. She hated the sunlight. It sent heat, revealed secrets, burned skin, and banished fear. Warm, dry air was so much harder to breathe that she sometimes wished she were undead, but she had to see what had happened. She had to find out for herself.
The wreckage of scores and scores of thralls lay on the field as an ugly harvest of the Cygnaran rifles. Even though they were her thralls, she was still pleased with the sight; she revelled in all destruction. Her remaining thralls fled toward the coast, following her final command and enticing Coleman’s soldiers to pursue.
As she approached the centre of the carnage, she saw a solitary figure in the wreckage of an old farmhouse. The features were invisible in the daytime glare. Still, Deneghra had a sense…
As she drew closer, she saw it was indeed the warcaster called Haley. The figure sat resembling as a picture of dejection and exhaustion. Her head hung low, and her lank hair dangled like a weeping willow. She wore no armour and held the haft of her spear in one limp hand. Deneghra did not understand why the death of those weaker than her would drain the morale of a warcaster; was that not the purpose of a warcaster: to kill the weak? Deneghra looked around. The bloody and bluish skin of the dead made her more excited and energised.
“Well now, Haley,” said Deneghra moving into striking distance. “It seems I finally have you where I want you.”
Haley nodded slowly.
Deneghra reached for one of the soul cages at her waist. Specially prepared for this moment, it was carefully crafted to capture the soul of a specific warcaster. She brought it around and hooked it to the front of her belt. “You can make this easy on yourself,” she said as she adjusted the malevolent device, “but I must admit I hope you don’t.”
In a flash Victoria surged from her seat, snatched up her heavy spear, and lunged straight for Deneghra’s neck.
With her head turned, Deneghra reacted too late. The heavy spear point struck her at the bridge of the nose, carving a deep slash into her forehead and flipping her horned helmet from her head. Her head snapped back and she caught a glimpse of Haley spinning, then the heavy haft struck her full on the temple. There was a flash of white, and she stumbled to her hands and knees.
“My sister, huh?” Haley snorted. “What a bloody barrowful!”
“But Vickie,” began Deneghra.
“No stroppy dreg of Cryx can even speak of my sister. Die, wench!”
For the first time in her life—that portion of her life not forever locked away from her memory—Deneghra felt fear.
“Please don’t kill me,” she pleaded. Born of desperation, a lone small bubble of memory trickled to the surface of her shrouded brain.
Haley raised her spear for the killing blow.
“Please don’t, Sissy…”
Deneghra burst into action. Taking advantage of the way her vile armour enhanced her strength and agility, she tumbled away from Haley and bounced back to her feet well out of striking distance.
Haley closed, but her heavy spear slowly sagged in her grasp. She shook her head uncertainly. “Gloria…?” she whispered. Her eyes crinkled in conflicting emotion.
Deneghra chuckled and quickly wove one of the many dark incantations she had learned from the iron lich Asphyxious. She opened her mouth and licked her lips, and a shadow of black erupted from her tongue. It weaved toward Haley like a water snake, then lunged forward and latched onto her umbilicus.
Haley screamed and doubled over, dropping the spear.
Deneghra stood tall, breathing in and swallowing as her shadowy black tongue grew darker and darker. Haley gasped clutching her belly, and the blood drained from her face. She began to sweat and collapsed to her knees.
Deneghra stepped forward using her spear Sliver to flip Haley’s spear well out of reach. She snapped a roundhouse kick at Haley’s face, breaking her jaw with the mechanikal power of the blow. She raised Sliver and brutally smashed Haley’s chest with the butt end of the weapon, breaking ribs and puncturing a lung. Even as Deneghra pulled Sliver away, Haley’s very shadow reached up to bind her to the earth.
“That’s better,” she said as she waved the pulsating sorcerous tongue into non-existence. She raised the special soul cage and poured her arcane energy out to activate it, whispering profane words of power in some inhuman tongue.
“I’ve worked long and hard on this, sister,” she said as the soul cage began to pulsate with greenish black shadows. “It’s designed expressly for your soul. It takes so much work; I hope you appreciate the effort I’ve gone to.”
Haley tried to spit at the warwitch, but the spittle failed to clear her chin.
“Don’t be so petty. Soul cages to snare anyone who happens to die close at hand, those are easy to make. But one keyed to a specific soul, those are difficult.” She knelt down beside Haley. “But they do offer one significant advantage: I can harvest you while you’re still alive, just to ensure I don’t miss a scrap.”
She loosened the intake valve. The mechanikal device began to gasp horribly. “You see, my dear twin sister, you should never have been. Somehow you came to be in the womb with me, and in so doing you stole half of my power. Now I want it back. All of it.”
She loosened the intake valve another half turn.
Deneghra loosened the valve another full turn, and Haley cried out in anguish.
The warwitch laughed with glee and anticipation as Haley writhed in torment, struggling futilely against the cold, shadowy bonds holding her in place. Then Deneghra’s enjoyment faded, and concern clouded her brow. She felt a tugging at her insides, and her heightened witch’s senses warned her she was in dire peril, fast approaching the black chasm of death.
She looked down at the soul cage. The interior had begun to glow with a mixture of gold and purple light. She clutched at the iron surface heating up with its wicked activity. “No…” she murmured.
The pain grew. She saw the approaching void opening wider to swallow her whole. “No!” With one hand she raised Sliver to strike Haley dead, but in her heart she knew she would not have enough time. Her strength was ebbing too rapidly.
“NOOOOOOOO!” she wailed and drove the spear as hard as she could into the soul-sucking mechanikal cage. Sliver pierced the exterior, but the baleful thing resisted. Deneghra leaned everything she had into the blow, twisting the cage with her other hand to work her spear into it.
At last the mechanikal circles gave way, and the enchantment failed. With a strange gasping sound, the soul cage gave up the two halves of the soul it had been so hungrily devouring.
With a snap that trembled her insides from her toes to her brain, Deneghra’s soul returned to her body. She collapsed backwards, and her eyes squinted against the glaring bright sky. Slowly, agonisingly, yet with a great sense of relief, she rolled back to her hands and knees.
Her ears rang, throbbing like the piston legs of a warjack.
Deneghra raised her head and saw that the thrumming came from more than her ears. Coleman was rapidly closing with a trio of Defenders running at his heels. He was coming to save Haley.
Too shaken even to consider fighting another warcaster, Deneghra flew her hands into ritual arcane shapes and became as a spirit, incorporeal, a shadow of her normal self. No longer encumbered by her body or armour, she fled the area leaving her foe sobbing openly in the empty field of death.
The warwitch paused at the top of the rise and looked back. I have underestimated you for the last time, sister, she thought. Next time we meet, I bring death. This I swear upon the scales of Toruk.