It was another cold day in the highest reaches of the Snowteeth. A chill wind howled along the pearly bluffs enclosing the Chasm pass, and flowed down the crevasse walls in hungry torrents to bathe the impregnable Fort Stoneheart in snowy spumes. Hemmed in by sheer cliffs of ice and stone and behind the protective walls of the fort, three dozen figures stood hunched against the cold or walked with haste to their next assignment within the warm confines of the fort interior. In the field behind the main wall, eighteen recruitspeasants both in manner and in garb, accoutered with ill-fitting leather jerkins that granted sturdy defense against the claws of the enemy but little relief from the bitter windsstood at attention as the massive form of their commanding officer strode to and fro before their line. All of them, that is, save one who nursed a bruised hand through the thick padding of one woolen glove: the wooden sword which it had gripped only moments ago rested on the ground, where it was quickly covered by a fine mist of snow.
"Runt!" The voice of his sergeant boomed, and Trally quickly stooped to retrieve his weapon from the ground with his other hand. They had just finished combat drills, and like always Trally had been bested by his opponent. This time, though, his thumb had gone numb with the impact of the other recruit's wooden sword. He had made the mistake of letting his pain show.
"Yes sir!" He stood up straight to face the officer looming tall above him, casting down a disdainful eye at his pitifully thin frame.
"Is that your fighting arm, runt?"
No it isn't, sir."
"Then why are you holding your sword with it?" the immense soldier demanded gruffly. Trally didn't think he had ever seen anyone quite as big as his commander. He had not even known that gareca could grow to be that big until he had arrived here, drafted from home to serve a two-year term in the defense of the valley beyond the Snowteeth, where he and his family lived. Now he fervently wished he had never had to find out.
"My right hand is injured, sir." He regretted his answer as soon as it escaped his lips, but the little brown-furred recruit could not rescind it. He felt the man's scrutinizing glare as those cruel gray eyes focused on his right hand; he thought he could feel their vehemence through his green glove. The dye had been a gift from Trally's father to his mother, and she had used it to give him something special that the other children wouldn't have. Now, three years later during his first eligible year for guard duty, they were still his most precious and unique possessions; he had grown so little that they still fit perfectly. It was with a special sort of horror that the young gareca saw one large, armored hand snatch the glove painfully off of his injured hand.
"The best way to treat an injury is with cold, or didn't you hear?" Before Trally could blink the angry tears from his eyes he felt his sword swatted from his left hand, back down into the gathering snow. "Lift it with your good hand. If it's so cold you need those stupid mittens, it's damn well cold enough to keep the swelling down." The last word was practically a snarl. As the youth did so, his commander held out a hand to the soldier with whom Trally had been practicing, demanding his wooden sword. The soldier yielded it without hesitation, though fear more than malice drove him.
"Lift it, and cross it with mine. A few stings from me and you'll learn better than to let yourself get hit again."
Seeing little choice, the fourteen-year-old balanced the sword in his tortured handnow rigid with coldand focused his eyes on the solitary glove cast disdainfully to the ground a short way off. Whatever pain was sure to come next, he needed to remember to retrieve it. He might never see it again if he left it there for his superior to dispose of. Just one more sign of weakness.
"Hold your blade, Vald." A collectivethough mutedsigh of relief rose from the arrayed soldiers as the calm and collected voice of Captain Sird carried from across the compound. The sergeant stayed his hand as his leader approached, but could not stop reproach from curling his lip. Sird struck quite a figure clothed in his fitted leather armor and shining shoulder guards, Trally had always thought so, and never quite as much as he did just now. The cold breath of winter was a plague on the others, but for the captain it was nothing more than the wind adding flourish to his fur-lined cape, a dark red that doubled as the sign of his office. The glare of the snow lent a soft glow to the family brooch which held that glorious cape in place: a pearly fang wrought of white gold, wreathed in azure. It was the symbol of the Snowbrand family, which would never think of abandoning Fort Stoneheart to the leadership of a peasant like Vald.
As the captain approached the sergeant, Trally had the passing notion thatunder normal circumstancesSird would be considered a very large man. Taller than the boy's father, the captain had to stand well over six feet. It was the product of eating well and working hard, he was sure, but he could never begrudge the Snowbrands that. They treated their subjects well, and had a history of good relations with the lesser folk of the valley. It was just a sign of the times that they had needed to double the guard at the fort. If it weren't for the terata threat, he could be home learning his father's trade right now, instead of spending his days in the kitchen because he was too scrawny to man the walls.
If Sird was large though, he underlined the truly prodigious size of his sergeant. The fort's taskmaster stood head and shoulders above the captain, and was so broad that Trally thought he might outweigh him two to one. The massive gareca glowered as his superior approached the recruits with an air of mercy, kneeling down to give the child's hand a closer inspection. He shot a reproving glare over his shoulder, but Vald was unmoved. Turning back to the boy, Sird flashed a winning smile.
"Well, this won't do. If you are injured in battle, it is better to know how to use your off-hand than to risk being weak with your lead arm. Hold it in your left and try to make a cut this way." Demonstrating, Sird showed Trally and the other guards in the line an angle of attack they had never seen before. Compared to the basic swordplay that Vald had been trying to teach them, it looked very elegant; even deadly. Furrowing his brow, the boy tried to do it with his left hand, but the sword was clumsy in his grip.
He felt a pang of anxiety when the captain set up across from him, blade out as if they were in practice together, and stepped into range. Trally did as he'd been shown, and much to his surpriseand perhaps with a little help from the captain's sheathed sword that guided Trally's wooden one ever so slightly to the centerhis thrust struck home. A quick grin, and Sird retreated, hands out to his sides in a grandiose posture that almost seemed to demand applause. After a moment, one or two of his peers did cheer for him, and Trally felt his ears grow hot. He had bested the captain in an exchange, even if the captain had let him. He was just beginning to suppress a smile when Sird turned on the giant behind him.
"It seems you still have a sword in your hand, Vald. Why don't you and I train?"
The white-furred gareca met his captain's gaze, but stopped himself from snorting in derision.
"Pointless. I need to continue training this rabble."
"Recruits, Vald. And surely there's enough time for a single pass before you resume your lesson. Here
" He flashed a toothy grin that somehow struck the soldiers as a singularly dangerous expression. "I'll even fight left-handed."
The taskmaster grunted once, and grudgingly entered his fighting stance. Disobedience to his liege would not stand; no more than backing down in front of all the runts who he had so recently taught to fear him. He set his shoulders against the frigid winds, resolute against their icy caress. His weight hung low, like a mountain on its stony haunches, and it would be almost as hard to unseat him. Sird stood apart from him coyly, scabbarded sword held in a forward guard that looked most insensible to the novice audience. Sensing his leader's wish, Vald made the first move.
Their exchange was over in a blink. The captain's sword pushed firmly against the center of his opponent's chest, the jab cushioned by thick leather. Vald tried to hide his contempt. There was little power behind his opponent's lunge: he doubted that the strike would have pierced his heart through armor and bone. Sird had already reset before the sergeant could concede. The lines of Vald's face creased as his scowl deepened. They made their second pass.
In the space of a breath, the captain's sword stopped an inch from his neck. Before he could refuse, a third was offered, and this time he was caught under the arm. By the fifth, he had been killed five different ways without ever landing a blow in return. Gritting his teeth, Vald bowed his head and offered his sword in defeat. The younger gareca sneered at the offering.
"It strikes me that you may be incompetent for the task to which my father appointed you, Vald. You're clearly worse than Trally. Perhaps it should be you in the kitchens, and not him?"
The sharp intake of breath that followed could not be a clearer indication of the sergeant's fury. For the captain to prove his swordplay was his right: asserting control and dominance was the privilege of the royal class, as well as the commanding officer. To humiliate the second-in-command before the subordinates was an entirely different matter. A slow and measured exhalation followed, the heat of Vald's anger misting out into the cold air.
"You heard me," Sird pressed. "To the kitchen with you. The lad and the other soldiers have been working hard. Come mealtime, they will need something to eat." The air in the yard was silent save for the whistling of the wind. Without another word, Vald stalked off toward the broad stair up to the second level of the fort, where the mess hall stood raised upon broad log pillars, sheltered from the cold by snow-packed walls of wooden planks. Somehow, the heat of the yard seemed to drop even further.
Beyond the outer palisades, past two-hundred yards of misting snow dunes and barren landscape, a pair of cunning eyes peered from beneath an icy ledge. They surveyed the thick-poles of the fort's walls with a peculiar hunger: an underlying greed reined in by the discipline of a calculating mind. The fortress stood in quiet defiance of him and his race, and of all enemies who might beset the gareca's timber fastness. But Kalwyn, battle leader of the terata and their best scout in the Snowteeth, saw no enemy in this ugly construction of wood and stone. He saw only his prize: the glory and the accolades that would be his rewards for overthrowing Fort Stoneheart and paving the way for the reclamation of the valley beyond. The terata were fleet of foot and few, and could travel more freely than a contingent of the enemy. Without this bottleneck, their foes' forward incursion into terata land, persistent these past thirty years, would finally be reversed. He felt it was long past time.
The tawny scout turned his gaze from the stout tower, and slunk with languid grace beneath the rocky overhang in the mountainside, doubling back along his considerable length to face the warriors arrayed behind him. They followed his example, creeping low along their bellies to avoid the prying eyes of their distant enemies, and so like snakes in the underbrush they lay in wait while their leader chose the proper time to begin the attack. Two mirage-weavers were present and ready to veil their allies' movements, magic Kaol masks already drawn over their faces as they prepared to play their role in the coming engagement. The effective use of illusions would be imperative to the success of his mission, and Kalwyn was glad that his king had seen fit to trust such valuable soldiers to his command.
The two that had been committed to this fight were named Thelsin and Shria, and were reputedly the best weavers the northern kingdom had to offer, barring those of royal lineage. He knew little of Thelsin, save that he was renowned for his mastery of his craft. Of Shria, slightly more was known, but the more he had learned about the young girl the more questions arose.
Her father had been branded a traitor, playing an enabling role in the razing of his own village by gareca raiders. Abandoned to the elements by her father's treachery, Shria had found something in the frigid wilds that gave her the strength to survive. The border patrol found her in the ashes of her former home three days after her father's execution. What she had done to survive to that point, hip deep in snow without a morsel of food for miles they could not guess. But she had come out as something different, a thing hurt and dangerous, possessed of a palpable darkness that only her magic could fully bring out. It had been rumored her control of that darkness was not complete, and that those who witnessed it were marked forever. Kalwyn did not understand what that meant. He didn't want to.
Next in line behind those two was his personally selected second-in-command, a fighter named Ramos. Capable of casting an illusion or two himself and more than capable of holding his own in a fight, it was his level-headedness that the scout valued. If things went awry, he could trust Ramos to keep on thinking clearly. That was a rare quality, and might well prove to be a necessary one in the volatile scenario they were about to unleash.
Behind Ramos stood Elado, Ramos's most trusted friend, and four other soldiers behind him. Three of them were warriors of the line: terata experienced in pitched battles against the gareca, which was a savage and often grisly business. Most terata did not see their smaller adversaries as terribly threatening, since they seldom had to stand against more than a few at a time in open country and a six-limbed terata with over six-hundred pounds of sinuous muscle outweighed his bipedal enemies three or four to one. In groups, however, the garecas' bristling spears and volleys of arrows were much more devastating. It was these sorts of engagements to which warriors of the line were accustomed, and as such could be expected to show a willingness to commit to combat that was unusual among fighters of their race. While Kalwyn expected he would see a fair deal of in-fighting today himself, seeing the scars decorating the hides of these three chilled him. Ice water or fire must run through their veins to have survived such trials and yet be willing to return for more.
Last in their column was Cawree, a scout like himself who would negotiate a secret trail up the mountainside, leading straight up to the outer palisade wall. If she could pick her way up the mountain and over the wall with Ramos and Elado, they could create enough of a diversion for the main phase of his plan to work. Once all nine of warriors were within Stoneheart's walls, they would wreak havoc on the conscripted soldiers that held it. His reconnaissance suggested that there were roughly three-dozen garecas to contend with, but with surprise and experience on their side, Kalwyn still believed that his warriors had the clear advantage. With his leadership, this carefully selected team would pick apart the gareca defenses, at which point the fortand the mountain passwould be theirs.
After receiving the go-ahead, it did not take Cawree long to find the mountain path and lead Ramos and Elado up as instructed. She was a skilled scout, and though she lacked the familiarity with the Snowteeth that Kalwyn had, it was no trouble at all finding her way and keeping low enough to avoid detection. The bodies of the terata, though very large and somewhat ungainly, were perfect for crawling along through low spaces in their serpentine way, and so it was not difficult for a talented young woman to lead the two larger men along the shallow trail and eventually up to the last rocky outcrop that separated them from the palisade wall along the fort's flank.
There the three of them waited, one lightly armored scout and two warriors padded in thick but flexible leather plates, for the signal from the main group. When the gareca patrol returned from its rounds, Thelsin would create an owl soaring through the skya startlingly complex and demanding illusionand they would know that it was time to begin. They did not have long to wait.
The owl's wings spread wide to catch an imaginary wind as it soared above the fortress walls. Its speckled plumage could not be missed through the unbroken white. Biting back a hiss of anticipation, Cawree bunched up her six legs beneath her, and sprang out into the open, then bounded up and over the wall in a sinuous arc of white. Ramos was casting an illusion around her already, bringing all his skill to bear to blend her outline into the surrounding snow for the crucial moment it would take her to begin the onslaught.
She landed lightly against a floor of solid wooden boards: over the wall had been the high-rise of the fort as Kalwyn had told her, a broad walkway encircling the second story of the wooden stronghold from which leaders were wont to shout orders and archers to fire arrows. One of the latter turned to face her at the sound even as a much heavier thud pounded down behind her, announcing Elado's timely arrival. Cawree set upon the hapless gareca before the first arrow was fitted to the string. Elado surged across the walkway to a second target as Ramos made the leap down himself.
The second archer released a piercing scream before her throat was torn away in Elado's fangs. Every head turned up toward the fort keep at that instant, even those of the patrol just now returning from their survey of the surrounding lands. Two heartbeats later, as the undisciplined guards ran from their posts with weapons in hand to answer the threat inside the walls, six more teratapreviously unseen for their illusory guise as a small hillock of snowplowed through the gate as it stood ajar. The patrol was slaughtered where it stood, bowled over by more than four-thousand pounds of sliding metal and grasping claws, and then trampled beneath the teratas' slashing feet as they made their way inside from the outer wall.
Many of the gareca did not immediately notice this. Captain Sird lost precious moments as he stared dumbfounded at the approaching terata stampede, aghast that they had been tricked. The enemies were within the walls. His recruits were already running back toward the high-rise to contend with those who had scaled it on its northern facing while the larger invasion force charged them directly from the front.
"Arm yourselves! Form ranks!"
The first part of his order had been unnecessary: as soon as the first scream had sounded, the recruits had thrown down their wooden swords and picked up the proper ones from where they lay the snow. It was foolish to have even been training with them, as swords were for fighting other garecas, not these beast-like savages of the frontier. What had his father been thinking when equipping them thus? As affairs of state flashed through his mind, the likelihood that his father had been preparing for something entirely different even out here on the fringe of gareca space, the trainees lined up behind him to receive the oncoming charge. Swords drawn and gleaming, eyes on their fearless leader and the visions of terror before them, eighteen conscripted soldiers stood ready to receive their advancing foes.
And visions of terror they were. Hanging back, safe from attack as Elado and Ramos carved a vicious swathe through the archers on the high-rise and the warriors of the line raced to engage with their earthbound enemies, Thelsin had slowed his pace to perform his next illusion. As four of his six limbs ran on, his two remaining arms wove a jagged pattern through the air, scrawling it angle by sharp angle upon reality with deft strokes. The air around his allies shimmered as Kalwyn led the heavy-infantry toward the sparring yard.
A pall of horror fell upon the recruits as the beasts of war bound toward them in earnest. Each glittering fang glowed with the harsh white light of the sun, whose evil eye glared at them with scorn from the silvered surface of each terata helmet. Eyes once bright with the duplicity that each gareca child knew was there now turned feral; the look of hate was replaced with a leer of hunger as the frothing animals loped toward their prey.
Sird stood at the head of the line, sword held ready, when his courage failed him. Its tip wavered at the last second, and missed the vital point of the leading terata. The ranks of the enemy overcame him like an avalanche, and he felt himself being swept off his feet as the four creatures charged into his troops. A great golden paw was on his chest, crushing down while its owner tore into a recruit with two free claws. Sird saw its terrifying maw parted wide in a roar of fury before clamping down on the recruit's neck; powerful jaw muscles bulged from its skull as the fangs bit down for the kill.
The captain squirmed out from under the demon, plunging his dagger into its wrist in a frenzy of terror. He heard a curse boom down from above, and rolled to his feet an instant before he could smell its putrid breath and knew those fangs were coming for him as well. Seized by fear he gripped his sword and thrust true, stepping to his side to avoid those bared teeth and the will which would send them through his neck. Somehow, he avoided it and staggered his enemy, one dappled gareca in light armor among four brawnier ones; a minor personal victory as fallen soldiers screamed out in despair of his failed command.
He stared wide-eyed at the spectacle of a frenzied nightmare: a terata covered in scars wading through his recruits with sadistic glee, covered in the garecas' blood from the ragged stumps of its ears to its first pair of shoulders, the sliding metal plates along its back were daubed with warm crimson as two outstretching claws snagged the leather jerkin of the nearest soldier and dragged him screaming to his death. On its flanks two other plated metal worms swam through panicking troops like serpents through vermillion waves. Swords clattered harmlessly from their iron hides and could not slow them. Even when one blade successfully bit into flesh, it did nothing to stop the chaos, or stem the tide of blood now pouring over the hard-packed snow.
Turning from this, Sird found himself eye to eye with two others, who brought up the rear of this ghastly hoard. He raised his sword high, hoping to kill one before he was overtaken. But at the very moment that his sword was about to fall, he saw locked eyes with the smallest of the terata warriors. He felt the bottom drop out of his stomach as he watched, and time slowed to a crawl as he felt himself being drawn into those deep, dark pools behind the Kaol mask. Shria's brown eyes met his with something akin to fear, and he felt a curious foreboding building up behind them; a dam was about to burst within her
and he got the peculiar sensation that just behind it lay a sea of tears. He knew a fraction of a second later that they were not tears of sadness
Nilas shielded herself from a hacking sword swing with one upraised forearm, her vambrace taking most of the force while she surged forward and butted the offending soldier to the ground. She could not see what illusions were afflicting their foes, but from their reactions she knew that Shria and Thelsin had done their jobs well. In the meantime, she was working very hard to complete her own task.
Her commander had been hurt leaping in ahead of the heavy fighters. Without armor like hers, she had known he would not last in this kind of fight. That put her in a rough situation: it was no mean feat to care for an injured leader while trying to keep pace with Velor, who was spearheading their push into the enemy ranks.
"Padruin!" she yelled across to the other flank as she dug her second set of claws into the downed soldier's exposed flesh. Padruin flicked his one good ear her way as he batted aside two weak and fumbling garecas and began to grapple with a third. It was about as attentive as he could afford to be.
"Kalwyn is hurt, keep close to him!" Even as she said this, she had to lash back with her tail to prevent a sword-wielding youth from getting to grips with the injured scout. In truth, they all needed to stay close together for this plan to work, but it was best to explicate their responsibilities. Kalwyn needed a shadow to keep him out of serious trouble through the press.
Veloran experienced warrior who had seen at least as much battle as Nilas herself and was doubly respected for his performance in all of his past excursionsneeded someone to make sure that he did not get swamped in his mad enthusiasm for battle. She spared a momentary glance at his nightmare visage, at the twisted grin that she had seen a dozen times before, at the red ichor dribbling through the cage of his stained teeth. His blood-slicked claws scrabbled against leather body armor with the desperate need, and his victims screamed upon their death with a consistency that unnerved her. She knew that she was fearsome, and much more so when enchanted by the illusions of her allies. She could not fathom what terror the weavers could make out of Velor.
Nilas moved to keep pace with his relentless advance when the resolve of the enemy crumbled. The gareca captain stumbled over himself in flight, and with a chill she realized that in getting past Kalwyn he had run into Shria directly. At the sight of his shameless retreat, the spirit of his loyal followers was broken. She shouted in exultation: all sympathy gone, she prowled after the fleeing soldiery, taking one last victim down as her prize before they could disengage.
It was in this moment of victory, as the half-dozen remaining garecas fled, that excitement turned to dread. Over the wailing of their foes, they heard a blood-curdling shriek, which rose higher and higher and continued on. Only it was not a reaction to Shria's magic. The scream belonged to a terata.
Elado had pounced down from the second floor to land at the entrance to the fort, blocking off all those inside as they tried to file out and prevent the massacre in the yard. Ramos took the stairs down while Cawree surveyed the chaos from a safer vantage point still on the high rise. Alone on the upper story, it was her keen senses which were her doom.
She perked up her ears at a creaking in the timber behind her, and rounded whip-quick on the sound. She made out movement in the dark through the near doorway, an indistinct shape stalking closer from inside the mess hall. The smells of the kitchen fouled her nose, but she could hear his breathing and knew he was alone. She leapt through the entrance, fangs bared and claws ready.
The blow which answered her was startling in its power, baffling in the solidness of its impact. Cawree fell insensate to the floor, an ugly bruise already forming on her jaw where the cast-iron cauldron had struck home. The figure that stood before her in the dark snorted with disgust before moving past, bearing the handle of the melting-pot in one gauntleted hand and stepping over a puddle of burning liquid which had sloshed out onto the floor. Two heartbeats later, he was looking over the rail of the high-rise down at the havoc below, where six of the squirming monsters had run amok in his training yard and two others kept the exit to the keep closed off. He heard panicked voices from inside the kitchen, soldiers who had run up the narrow internal stair to circumvent the terata blockade at ground level.
Vald heard his soldiers coming up from behind. Turning quickly, he growled his orders.
"Kill this one. Then follow me."
Ramos was keeping his eye on the battle behind them while Elado snarled at the soldiers within the fort. Divided like this, the garecas would be unable to use their numerical superiority. With the guards, patrol, archers and recruits in the yard taken care of, there would be fewer than a dozen of the vermin left to contend with, easy prey for the full-strength team of terata who had stormed Fort Stoneheart.
Still, even with Kalwyn's plan going so well, Ramos felt uneasy. Turning a wary eye upward, his lip curled as he took notice of the broad-shouldered figure silhouetted against the clouded sky. He heard the rail above his head creak ominously as a great weight leaned against it, and water came cascading down onto his head.
Only it wasn't water. It took a moment to register the plumes of steam rising from the broth before he felt its heat. Distantly, Ramos heard someone scream, a sound that began low and rose to an ear-splitting pitch. He did not immediately recognize the voice as his.
The stew had just come from over the fire, and thick globules of grease had floated to the top, burned off the meat thrown haphazardly in. The vat had been upended above him to splash six feet down upon his head and shoulders. He had turned away at the last moment, his helm sparing his face while the boiling substance flowed across his skin and down every seam in his armor to cling tortuously to the flesh beneath, splattering off of his armor and coating his length. His scream did not seem to belong to a warrior
it was far too animal for that. It was an awful sound, a mortal sound, and once it began it did not stop.
"Ramos!?" Elado scuttled back on four of his six legs, and without a thought to the gareca edging closer from inside the door he dashed over to his friend's aid. The once-formidable commander thrashed frantically in the snow, rolling through the powder in hopes of smothering the heat, but his armor insulated the burns and kept his skin from the snow's soothing touch. Elado grasped frantically for the ties to his commander's armor, desperate and terrified as the smell of burnt flesh reached his nose. He was almost done with the first plate when the soldier he'd abandoned darted out of the doorway and stuck him in the side with a spear's iron tip.
Elado had no time for pain. Only indignation and fury answered the affront, as the terata reared up to swarm his attacker with all four arms, brushing the spear tip aside before gripping the gareca's horned head in three of his arms and cranking it in a way that his long and sinuous body would allow, but the soldier's neck would not. The next moment he ducked a heavy iron soup bowl thrown at his head, and snarled viciously as the largest gareca he had ever seen approached him, brandishing a massive sword. The giant held six feet of naked steel poised in a simple guard that would allow for more power than finesse. The terata knew from the soldier's bulging arms that he had plenty to spare.
Ramos squirmed pitifully in the snow, staring with uncomprehending eyes at his friend's dismay. Elado's hackles were fully raised and his teeth were bared. The screaming from his friend was just beginning to die down, and now the big soldier had reinforcements descending the stair after him. The remainder of the garecan soldiers piled out of the fort entrance now that Elado could no longer guard it.
"Ramos," he said, casting a last glance down. In the grips of excruciation, the creature below was not the man he remembered. Nothing like intelligence stared back up at him as the once proud warrior rolled slowly and exhaustedly through the red-streaked white. He had spent his energy in his thrashing, but the burning would not stop. "I don't think we make it out of this one."
With a low snarl he hurtled toward his enemy, springing with all his might and disregarding his wounds. The large garecaover seven feet tall and rippling with musclebrought his sword down in one vicious stroke. Elado refused to see these soldiers take his friend. He died before he ever could.
Vald kicked the corpse from his blade and roared an order to his men. They counted nine in all, and quickly fell in line at his command. He nodded in approval at their choice of arms: spears one and all, after the old training. Maybe he'd managed to knock some sense into the older ones after all, or perhaps there simply hadn't been enough swords in the armory. Whatever the reason, they had the weapons he needed them to have. Looking at the dead soldiers by the door, he grunted with scorn. If they had fought their way through, something could have been done about the situation in the yard sooner.
"LINE UP." The nine of them did, and followed him as he led the way into the courtyard, the slowly writhing terata left in their wake. He would contend with that trash in his own good time. For now, he needed to begin winning back his fort. Captain Sird stumbled past at the head of a line of spread-out soldiers retreating from the yard. Out of deference to the young man's nobility, Vald did not put his sword in him. The next soldier caught retreating was not so lucky.
Trally was close on the captain's heels, tears streaming down his face as thoughts of his mother and father flashed before his eyes. He prayed under his breath to make it home alive. As far as Vald was concerned, Trally was most helpful right then in restoring order to the five fleeing troops behind him. The tip of the sergeant's two-handed sword licked out as the boy made for the fort entrance, and before he knew what had happened he felt a jolt near his brow and he was sprawling across the snow.
He looked up confusedly at the passing soldiers as they marched by. One spared him a pitying glance, but continued on marching. Trally was confused by that look: he didn't understand it. What did it mean? Muzzy warmth came over his thoughts as he wondered. He found himself smiling, wondering if he knew that soldier from somewhere. Had they been at the fort together? He didn't know. Destroyed tissue flowed from Trally's skull on a slow current of blood. He closed his eyes as it pooled around one gloved hand, and he hoped Vald wouldn't catch him napping on the job.
"ABOUT FACE." The other five soldiers had seen what happened and fell in line beside their brothers as they followed the murderous sergeant back into the yard. His voice boomed throughout the Chasm. It was a wonder to them that anything could be the same after the horror they had just experienced, yet Vald was as intimidating as he ever was, and his commands came in the same familiar cadence whether they were in the thick of battle or in sparring practice. Somehow, the horror of his action had snapped them out of their hysteria, and the savagery of his call had stricken a new chord of fear in them, one which recalled all that he had taught to them and forced it to the forefront of their minds.
Now they stood ready to face these terrors again, but the five broken recruits were flanked one and all by their spear-bearing comrades, senior soldiers who had not been out training when the slaughter began. Upon their faces the recruits could see resigned fear, and yet beneath that was discipline, an iron pillar in each which would not bend before the hazy witchcraft of the terata scourge. Rallied and advancing, the gareca soldiery met the next charge.
The teratas galloped toward their enemies. Kalwyn studied the enemy leader, a giant with a disposition as monstrous as his stature. If these people tolerated that sort of mistreatment of their own, then they really were vermin; not fit to share a border with their noble neighbors, nor worthy to draw another breath in the lands of his ancestors. In a clash of spears on metal plates, the two lines collided.
The teratas burst in among their enemies as a swirling mass of nightmare. Spears snapped and bones cracked, soldiers cried out and crimson rain speckled the snow underfoot. Kalwyn was immediately beset by the enemy's spears, but his roars of pain were drowned out by shouts of terror as Velor dove in and dragged two garecas to the ground, his lips drawn back in an insane smile as he parted his fangs. Padruin took a flank and engaged six enemies himself. Nilas went straight for the leader.
Her assault was like a battering ram, and the immovable mountain of a man was toppled. She had been faster than Vald, and closed the distance before his sword could find a home in her armor. In a tumble of flesh and steel they hit the ground and began to roll.
The air was thick with the weavers' illusions, but their enemies seemed beyond fear, or else temporarily more terrified of what awaited them if they fled. Through the pain of his injuries, Kalwyn knew that to win the day they had to kill the leader who had inspired this new fervor. Looking to his right, Kalwyn saw Padruin hunched over one of his enemies, savaging him with claw and fang while five others drove their blades between the chinks of his armor. He was dying. A quick glance in the other direction saw Nilasincrediblygetting the worst of her combat with her single foe. As big as he was, she still had the advantage of size. But she had become overzealous. In her quest to reach him with her fangs she had surrendered position, and now she dragged her claws feebly across his armor as two burly arms tightened around her neck, the thickly corded muscle cutting off blood to her head as the strength drained from her limbs.
Two of Padruin's foes closed on Kalwyn as he surveyed the situation, nearly gutting him as he gave ground. The long reach of their spears might have finished him if Thelsin had not intervened at the crucial moment. A spear shaft broke beneath his feet as a second buried itself in the caster's thigh. With a shriek of anger he doubled back on the offending spearman, but was too slow to land the kill.
"We need to retreat Kalwyn!"
What? But they couldn't retreat, they had killed so many, the job was almost done.
Without the aid of the old terata's illusions, enemy morale improved. More than simply surviving the nightmares, they took the weakening illusions to be a sign that the enemy was near defeat. Heartened, they fought with renewed zeal. One recruit dealt Padruin his death blow as he tried to rise from his last kill. Nilas gave one last buck of resistance before falling limp in the arms of the giant. Survivors tried to get to grips with Velor, but his frenzy showed no signs of relenting. Kalwyn had just enough time to be amazed by his boundless stamina before crying out to the only one who could save them now.
"Shria! We need more! Shria, get us out of here!"
She looked at him fearfully from behind her mask, and in the heat of the moment her uncertainty enraged him.
"NOW SHRIA. EVERYTHING YOU'VE GOT."
At that moment, Vald dragged a dagger across Nilas's throat and Thelsin was beset fatally by an enemy sword. It was in this way that they were spared from what came next.
"Be gentle, Icthiel, please. Be" A lump caught in Shria's throat, and she doubled over with a muffled shriek, her four arms clutching her stomach as something began crawling within. Tears fell from the holes in her Kaol mask as it began melting, drop by steaming drop. A circle of darkness expanded around the girl's feet and a chittering wail rose from her throat, which the blackened snow echoed back. Billions of tiny black bodies crawled within that darkness, the light of the sun swallowed up by every obsidian carapace as their clattering wail turned to mocking laughter.
Shria lifted her masked face, but the eye holes were sealed shut and stained by a thin veneer of tears where the liquid Kaol had closed them off. From the bubbling white mass of melting clay a red smile crept to the surface. Her new mouth opened and a bubble of blood swelled out, vibrating with internal activity before popping in a rush of buzzing wings. A cloud of flying insects burst from her throat in a belligerent wave, and they took up the laughter of the darkness below.
It was this buzzing which caught Kalwyn's attention, muted by Shria's wretched sobs that echoed unnaturally through the yard as if she were at the bottom of a well. The mountain walls leaned and crowded in as the demonic swarms filled the sky. Everything twisted around the growing darkness as it curdled toward the fighters, and one by one their eyes were drawn to it until the earthbound shadow surged over their feet like an ocean tide. It was then that the screams began anew.
The tiny, spined black bodies poured into boots and chewed through leather. Kalwyn felt their vile touch upon his feet, and watched with horror as they squeezed themselves underneath his nails and with eager feet pushed themselves deep into his skin. He could not have expected such an unnatural invasion. His immediate response was to flee. Two gareca had already done so, while others hopped about trying to remove their boots as a second wave of the segmented fiends began to crest. Kalwyn was seeking an avenue of escape when the cackling cloud above descended on the yard, and sight and sense vanished entirely in a swirl of pitch black chaos.
They were beneath his nails, clawing at his eyelids, digging into his sinuses and tunneling through his veins. Their chittering cries resonated inside his ears, and their laughter was as cruel as it was terrifying. With an immense force of will Kalwyn fought the urge to gouge his eyes from his skull, even though he knew the bugs were hiding behind them. They were filling his sight and smell, his mouth and his ears. In a plea of desperate fear he cried out, and they surged like a river down his throat. Racked with violent coughs he began to drag himself away on all six limbs. He did not know where he was going. He did not care. He wanted only to get away. The drowned-out cries of the dying whispered on all sides as he tried to pull his way clear. He did not know why he was running; the death was inside of him. The shadow that had been inside Shria was inside him now, too. There could be no escape. He did not know what good it would do
but to save his mind he ran. As slow and pitiful a run as ever there was, but he ran.
With a strangled cough, Shria began fighting what was coming up, her wretched grimace veiled behind the mask's livid smile. Her jaw snapped off its hinges as the lump in her throat thrust itself into her mouth and ballooned down into her belly. With a gruesome sliding motion it peeked its head out from between disconnected rows of teeth, and with eyes of lambent red stared out at the world beyond. It was then for the first time that Icthiel, forgotten spirit of the ancient plagues and earnest wielder of the phantoms of his former power, saw something that frightened him.
Through the clamor of a trillion swarming insects, Vald stood resolute. He had retrieved his sword and now stared through the storm, refusing to blink or hold his breath against the barrage of tiny stinging creatures. They were not real: he could feel the falsity in the pain they caused. The scars beneath his armor told a long tale of pain, and he knew its ins and outs. Within the fog of insects, illuminated by sunlight that had not truly been blotted out at all, he saw his last remaining enemy stooped over its last kill, teeth red with gareca gore and claws sticky with blood.
Velor raised his nightmarish head from the savaged belly of the dead soldier, grinning from ear to ear and staring back through the haze with unfocused eyes. The terata either did not notice the illusions, or didn't care about them. In his mind the insects seemed a minor annoyance; the same surge of adrenaline that drove him headlong into every battle gave him no room for fear now. The bugs added noise to the static in his head, the one that drove him to frenzy as his heart sped and his tongue thirsted for that familiar, coppery warmth. Velor knew that there was only one enemy still near enough for him to catch. His rage would end soon
but it needed to end in satisfaction.
He turned his gaze on the sergeant, whose sword was grasped firmly in hand. The latter had been sizing him up, and with a grunt of contempt stood his ground. Had the terata been in his right mind, this might have confused him. In his current state, however, there was no time for questions. With a rumbling growl, Velor bounded towards his enemy. Vald lowered the point of his sword, and readied for the charge. An instant before their clash, the swarms began to thin.
Under the force of his own charge, the berserker ran up the length of Vald's sword and plowed into him. The gareca's clawed feet carved deep grooves through the earth under the snow, but he held his ground. He twisted the sword in the terata's innards, but it made no difference to the frothing beast. Fangs bit deep into Vald's shoulder and with four muscular arms levered the giant to the ground. Enamel scraped bone, and the sergeant found a fury of his own.
Thick legs launched the terata's eight-hundred pounds clear of the sword. The sergeant rolled back to his feet in time to meet the next attack: the earless demon was clawing back two heartbeats later. The great sword sawed along its jaw bone before another flying tackle took the fight to the snow, where gripping claws tore through the gareca's armor while snapping jaws sought flesh with insatiable bloodlust. The two slid through snow and gore, four scrambling arms seeking to make headway against the two thicker ones that now abandoned their sword. Massive jaws strained to fit the trapped gareca's head between them, but broad horns barred the fatal clamp that would have spelled the end. The rancid scent of Velor's breath filled Vald's nostrils as he tried furiously to roll his enemy and gain top position; the splayed hind legs and long body of the terata warrior were simply too stable.
This remained true for another twenty seconds until the beast's strength began flagging. A steady flow of warm ichor drained from the sword wound through the terata's belly, and as the lifeblood poured out, the giant gained the upper hand. Velor could not prevent his prey from squirming out from beneath him, but kept his jaws firmly fastened over the soldier's head. Jaw muscles tightened, and teeth cracked against the pressure even as they dug gouges in the gareca's horns. Now, with his legs underneath him and the grasping claws of his enemy scrabbling for balance on the snow, Vald freed his knife. Velor did not feel the first stab; he was preoccupied with gaining the leverage he would need to snap the giant's neck.
As the cloud of insects started to disperse, Kalwyn became aware that he had stopped crawling, and that he was not alone. Two feet in front of him lay the burned body of Ramos, his second in command. The burn-victim's screaming had since stopped, and the poor creature had passed into blissful unconsciousness. The memory of vein-crawling terrors still fresh in his mind, Kalwyn was too out of sorts to appreciate the mercy of his rest.
"Ramos." He nudged his soldier insistently with his nose, using all six of his limbs to rise to a shaky stand himself.
"Ramos!" With an awful groan, the wounded soldier awoke. Beneath the armor his skin was soft, cracked, and smoldering. He struggled to rise when his superior did not relent, but sagged suddenly. Kalwyn ducked under him and supported his weight.
"We're going back up and over, Ramos. I'm going to need your help." With a half-conscious nod, the injured warrior allowed himself to be carried to the first wooden stair, and from there began feebly assisting in the climb. The jump back over the wall would be an ordeal
maybe impossible. But the terrified soldiery that had survived had barred the fortress door behind them, and they would not interfere.
Knowing that the time had come for retreat, Icthiel rubbed his gossamer wings together with a frightened chirp, and his legion of followers turned back to descend upon their host. With the sound of tearing flesh they submerged into Shria's pores while their god crept fearfully back into its hiding place in her belly. Five more seconds of agony, and then the nightmare passed.
Too shocked to whimper, the young terata ducked her head and cast her Kaol mask away, now without its bloody smile or sealed eyes. She did not know what Icthiel was nor how his powers worked, save that they faded from reality much faster than they faded from her thoughts. It was this not knowing which made her new lot in life as his vessel so terrifying. He had kept her alive in that cold waste
but not without a price. With the look of a beaten child she ran from the yard and out the gate. She ran with all haste, almost as if she could put physical distance between herself and this freshest memory of pain.
When Sird finally gained the courage to leave the fort again, the carnage was already partially concealed beneath a new flurry of falling snow. He counted six terata bodies in all, alongside over two-dozen garecas. In the middle, he found Vald sitting with his back to his enemy, pulling a bandage from his pack. The dead creature behind him looked horrid: its ears had been cut off in some prior battle, and its jaw had clearly been disarticulated by the red-stained dagger in Vald's hand. A wide gash was lain open on the side of its neck, the certain deathblow, though the myriad other wounds across its ravaged body suggested that the final cut may have been competing for the honor. Looking sick, Sird addressed his subordinate.
"What could possess a creature to go so far? There are enough wounds there to kill him three times over."
Vald grunted, but said no more. He began wrapping his injured shoulder: he had deep punctures there through his hauberk, as well as cuts on his torso where powerful claws had rent his armor and a gash on his face where a rogue fang had cut down to his cheekbone. In short, he was a wreck. Sird had never seen him willingly sit when it meant looking up to someone else. He guessed the sergeant had broken his leg in the final clash with this behemoth.
"The surviving soldiers said that a black cloud descended upon the yard, and that everyone outside the keep was lost. They said that you could not have survived. I am glad they were wrong."
Again, his sergeant made no reply, but simply moved on to his next injury. Sird stood in lame silence as the winds picked up and snow began to gather across his grand shoulder armor. He felt uneasy. He still did not know how the conflict had ended.
"Was it just a very powerful terata spell? From the girl in the white mask?"
At first, there was only silence. Then at last Vald answered his queries with a glare.
"No. It doesn't matter what it was." Sheathing his sword, he used it as a crutch to pull himself up to his full height, so that he could look down on his captain with scorn. "And you will never understand what made him fight so hard. What makes a man fight to the death is beyond you. " He sneered, the same expression he'd given the recruits a hundred times but this time the captain had no way to rebuke it. "And it always will be."
Vald spit on the ground at the captain's feet, and then set off. Dejected and with nothing to say in return, Sird could do nothing but look down at the body that lay across the cold snow, the evidence of Vald's victory.