Another Wednesday, another look into the collaborative fiction of the Wildfire Riders. Last week, a Crypt Lord erupted at the Ballistae lines, forcing the riders to rethink their plans. Yva’s ritual, combining all three schools of magic, is nearly ready. Meanwhile, the Al’Cair sisters, one at the front and one at the Ballistae, are witnessing the end of the Wrathgate.
Whatever she would have said, whatever Tarquin would have chosen, hung between them for a flickering moment before another voice interrupted it, a grim and creaking call with the bite of command. “Anub-Kayet! You are summoned!” Too fast for its size, the Crypt Lord jerked its dripping face about to the location of an armored figure, faceless in an iron helm, bile and ichor and blood drenching his dented armor. A frayed-looking man with red hair and a sneer on his soot-blackened face, and improbably, a pond-still tree with a vaguely human shape, flanked him, surrounded by the ruined tatters of a swarm of geists.
Jakob Balthasar levelled his sword, the runes scribed along its surface burning white. “Kneel, cur. Come to me and kneel.”
“Arrogance!” The Nerubian’s laughter had a new note to it – a note, oddly, much like Ilarra’s cracking giggle when the poison had seethed across her skin. “I am Prince of Seven Maws! You will shriek for years, nameless little prey.”
“Do you require my name?” The death knight raised his visor and let the thing see his fleshless face, his rictus smile, the deep-set pools of his eyes. “No. You need only hear your master’s voice.” He slammed his sword point-down into the snow, its glow nearly blinding, and lashed his voice through the cold air. “To me, drone! Bow your head!”
It was if cables had been hooked into the wings and joints of Anub-Kayet’s body, tugged by a dozen strong men. Chittering and growling, it was heaved forward a dozen yards, soaring improbably through the air, and crashing to the earth at Sir Balthasar’s feet. For a moment, its head dropped; for a heartbeat, it did obesiance before a Knight of the Ebon Blade. Then it raised up, shrieking fury in its dead tongue. Jakob dropped his visor back down over his pitted face, pulled his sword from the snow, and hefted his axe in his other hand. “Better,” he said hollowly, as the Riders coalesced around Anub-Kayet’s flanks. “We’ll make a proper soldier of you yet.”
A buzzing howl was the Nerubian’s only answer, and then the shriek of steel as they charged and struck. Two shots rang out on the hill, Ulthnaon and Beltar, surrounded by the corpses of the locust swarm – load, cock, fire, repeat, with dogged repetition. Isi Underhill circled Anub-Kayet, her blades striking each new scar and divot in his carapace; beside her, Tarquin stepped in, his knives digging for joints and wrenching open wounds, and then tearing free as he darted back. Laurus took a few hasty steps back, but fire was already springing from his fingers, lashing and licking along the beast’s hide. Threnn called upon the light as she swung her blade and put another crack in the Nerubian’s carapace. A soft, golden light spread from the fracture, illuminating Anub-Kayet. Bricu pulled himself to his feet and grabbed his axe.
But the Prince of Seven Maws ignored them all for the mortal who had exposed him as nothing but a servant. He lunged and lashed, gibbering incomprehensibly at Sir Balthasar, who turned aside half the crazed blows and scorned the ones that broke through his guard and hammered against his armor. Green light washed over him, Haemon’s limbs moving like he was conducting an orchestra. “Discipline,” Jakob said, tearing a line along one pummeling limb with his sword, “would have saved you.”
“Not from the fury o’ the northman!” Bricu screamed, his voice cracking from his anger. He called upon the light as he swung his massive axe. Instead of a soft warm glow, Bricu’s prayer called on the wings of an avenging celestial, and when he made contact the crack sounded nearly as loud as a shot of Beltar’s rifle. Fragments of chitin scattered; ichor and unwoken scarabs stained the ground. Anub-Kayet half-turned towards Bricu, and paid for it when the death knight’s runeblade plunged into the joists of its neck. Holding the sword steady, Balthasar brought his axe in a sweeping arc and sheared away a set of mandibles.
“Six Maws, now.” Jakob’s contempt was obvious even in the creaking echo of his voice. “Does that knock you down to Duke?”
There was nothing of the Nerubian’s condescension left, none of the mockery of mercy – just pain, and hate, and an overwhelming hunger in its wails. It lunged again at the Ebon Knight, babbling with what seemed like a dozen different voices. Jak drew up both blades and caught the descending blow, straining against the monster’s bulk. Venomous drool spattered off his pauldrons as Anub’Kayet forced his guard down by inches – and then its force slackened, and its shrieks went paper-soft. The Nerubian was engulfued in shadows, the soft purple and blues obscuring its form, wreathing and clutching about it. There were shapes in the veils, clutching hands, smiling lips, and things better left unnamed.
Ilarra Stormrunner walked towards Anub’Kayet, her feet a yard off the ground, studying the twitching monstrosity through her half-moon spectacles. “Fractured, I might be, sweet pea,” she murmured, her voice soft but perfectly audible, “But at least I can fake it.” She clapped her hands together and Anub-Kayet’s struggles halted; its face was turned to the sky in something that might almost have been ecstacy. “Was that all you had for me? Bad form to keep a lady waiting for more.” She giggled and opened her hands, and with the slithering sound of falling sand, the Crypt Lord came apart, husk dropping from its ruined, squeezed-in meat.
There was an uncanny silence, the sound of battle below nearly a constant backdrop. Bricu surveyed the scene. One of the ballistae had sunk halfway into the snow, leaning over on the edge of the Crypt Lord’s tunnel; the other two had vanished into it. Ulthanon was cursing and digging himself free of the corpses of uncountable scarab-servants; Beltar seemed perfectly content where he was, chuckling to himself and reloading. He caught Threnn’s eye; she had one hand on her stomach and the other still hefting her sword, giving him a look with a certain weight to it. Slowly, she turned it on Tarquin.
A particularly loud scream from below galvanized them. “Aright, dinna shite it oafay the bug!” Tarquin barked, half-hysterical, his grin balanced on the tenous edge between panic and celebration. “Balthasar, put yir fuckin’ face on an’ get those lassies in the tent goin!”
“Gotta pull back the troops.” Bricu’s voice had an edge of weariness to it; he seemed to hear himself and scowled and spat in the snow before trying again. “Less yeh wanna just set the lot on fire an’ throw ‘em at the fuckin’ deaders.”
The boss wouldn’t stop smiling. Maybe couldn’t. “Maybe the cows!” he called, already loping down the hill, stumbling in the deep snow. “I’ll get the lot back, yeh mind the hill!” Cursing and laughing, he made his precarious way down the slope, one gaunt figure plunging towards the madness of battle below.
“Speakin’ o ‘settin’ things on fire,” said Bricu, his gaze falling on the ruined Crypt Lord’s bulk. The snow steamed beneath it as poisonous ichor dripped from its wounds. “Oi. Laz. Light this fucker up. Burn all that shite off so we ain’t breathin’ it in. Nothin’ left but ashes, aye?” Laurus moved swiftly, flames already dancing at his fingertips. Bricu nodded and clapped him on the shoulder as he passed. “Threnny.”
He ignored the inflection in her tone, the one that said she was about to give him ten kinds of shit. She wants ta call me “sergeant,” I’ll give her a fuckin’ order.. “When he’s done, I want yeh ta consecrate the ground, in case his royal fuckin’ Majesty wants ta try piecin’ his servant back tagether.” There was a beat where he was certain she was going to argue, but then she saluted and without another word, followed after Laurus.
He longed to pause and roll a cigarette, but the damage the Anub’Kayet had done needed sorting out before whatever would be hurtling up the hill next. “Right. Ulth, Belt, come give me a hand gettin’ this ballista back up. Rest o’yeh lot, straighten’ up! Battle’s far from over.”
Yva rolled on the floor and laughed, her skin covered in tendrils of purple magic that writhed like snakes. Her hands stroked down the curves of her body, to her hips, and she gasped. Everything tingled. Beneath her skin, a mighty power churned, waiting for its release. It felt good – amazing – heavenly, almost like the moments before orgasm, when you climbed and climbed and climbed until your head swam among the clouds.
But she hadn’t peaked. Not yet.
Soon, love. Soon.
She hissed, and ice pooled beneath her. She lifted her hand above her head, and the blood from her palms dripped down, coursing warm over her skin. She smeared it there, tilting her head back like her lover was drizzling kisses along the column of her neck.
And it was.
Behind her, Genise incanted, fire as red as her hair dancing along her arms. She waved her hands, watching the trails of flame with an inordinate amount of glee. Giggles spilled from her lips as the temperature inside of the tent rose another degree. Sweat had plastered her gown to her frame, highlighting the perfection of that statuesque body
Davien stared at the tent side, her lips moving, but no sound came. She rocked to a music only she could hear. There was a presence upon the air around her – something heavy, something near tangible and yet not. When she moved, it was like she was trying to wade against a tide. Over time, her bun had come unraveled, black locks swaying with each of her movements. The silver sigils on her arms sparkled like diamonds. With her high cheekbones and fine features, she seemed a thing of alabaster.
They’d wrought a great beast – something beautiful and wicked that slept inside of a runic cage. The ley line, the witches, the spell work fed it, but it was not enough. Soon it would be unleashed upon whatever hapless thing fell in its path, and it would feast.
There was a noise outside, a clanging of plate armor. When the tent flap lifted, a great breeze swept in, but none of them moved from their positions. The only indication that they registered Jakob Balthasar’s presence was the movement of their eyes.
“Ap’Danwyrith says come,” he said. Though he looked a human man, the mask of death had robbed him during its tenure. An unusual coarseness clutched at his words.
Above his sword, his fingers flexed inside of their gauntlets.
“My darling Jak.”
He looked down to the ground, where the woman who shared his bed peered up at him, as languid as a cat in sunlight. He crouched by her side, cupping her chin to peer into her glassy eyes. She raised a blood crusted hand to his cheek.
“Yva . . . “
“It’s time, Love,” she said.
“But do you even know for what?”
“To wake the storm and make the rain come.”
They moved then, like one entity. Yva rose from the ground, a blooded girl in a plain white dress, the red of her lips stark against her porcelain skin. Genise flitted like the fire upon her fingers, like a candle flame caressed by the wind. Davien gathered her skirts about her, a glinting thing of unparalleled poise and grace.
Jak peered at them and then past them, at the ritual circles swarming with red, white and blue lights. When he heard Yva hum, when she reached her fingers up to trail them across his bottom lip, he snatched her hand in his own and flipped it over, pressing a kiss to her palm.
She smiled, and then she laughed, and then she walked forward, her sisters at her sides.
Jak had no choice but to step aside.
The latch was sprung and the beast woke from its slumber, spilling from its cage with the uneasy stillness of a hunter stalking its prey.
It was time.
The hillside came tumbling down upon her. There was an ungodly sound above them, a shriek and the chittering of scarabs, but before she could even finish turning to see what had emerged from far beneath the snow, the world went white.
It was everywhere, everywhere, and she went tumbling with it — snow and ice and rocks, clods of hard dirt that hadn’t seen daylight for a hundred years. She drew magic from the air and pulled it around herself, but it lasted only a heartbeat, battered away by the force carrying her along its inexorable path.
Ice shards went down the back of her robes, found their way into her boots. Don’t open your mouth, don’t open it, don’t– She landed hard on her back and the wind rushed out of her. The first searing breath she dragged back into aching lungs was filled with snow. Annalea began to choke. Her throat burned with the cold.
Push it away, slow breaths. It was part of her training, ignoring pain, but that was far easier said than done. Stars swam in her vision. The edges of the white world turned black. She imagined she felt a clawed hand around her neck and tried to scream.
Then there were real hands grabbing at her, clamping onto her arms and yanking her from the snow. She kicked and flailed, certain that Fane had her, that he was here on the hill, come to finish the job… until one hand let go of her and she felt heat flare inches from her nose.
“None o’that, chickie.” Pill waited until her eyes focused and she stopped struggling, then began brushing the snow off of the priestess’ shoulders. “Hit them, not me.” She pointed at the line of destruction that continued down the hill. The avalanche’s path was relatively thin; a quick glance around confirmed that Anna was the only one who’d gone under, at least from the Riders’ contingent. I must have been on the edge of it, got spit out early. Further down, though, there was a gap in the Scourge line where the raging snows had plowed through.
Only, the Scourge didn’t need anyone to pull them out. Rotted arms and legs, presumably still attached to rotted bodies, were even now poking through the crust and working their way out.
Satisfied that Anna wasn’t going to lash out again, Pill gave her a pat on the head and began gathering a ball of fire to hurl at the ghouls. She paused at a shout from behind them.
Tarquin came staggering down from above, calling the retreat.
Laurus kept his fire neat. The Crypt Lord went up in an acrid column of flame and smoke, but not a single fleck of ash left the spinning cylinder of the nobleman’s spell. He looked quite proud of his work, teeth flashing in a self-satisfied grin as he let the burning stop and the pieces drift back to the ground.
Threnn waited for his nod, then drove the point of her sword down into the frozen ground. Odd how it was still packed this hard despite the mage’s fire that had burned atop it moments ago. It should be churned up and muddy, but it’s still tundra beneath. This place doesn’t let go once it’s taken hold, does it?
She wrapped her hands around the hilt, feeling the cold radiating along the blade. Her voice dropped to a whisper as she opened herself to the Light. It gathered around her, warm and golden, but there was no time to take comfort from its presence. The Light slammed into the ground at her will, radiating out as she directed it. There was a bit of anger behind the prayer – That thing tried to kill him. — but tenacity was a virtue. Tenacity: the act of holding things together, cohesiveness.
Threnn Bittertongue would hold onto her family. Surely the Light would approve of that.
The glow faded into the dirt before Threnn realized she was on her knees. Laz stood beside her and, more gently than she’d believed him capable, helped her to her feet.
“I have to say, that was a fine job, there. Did you see how much heat there was? A proper inferno! Ha!” He stopped short of actually patting his own back, and his wild grin slipped a notch. “Kind of like old times, eh?”
They’d done this once before, or something like it. She remembered an abandoned cart in Stromgarde, filled with plague-tainted goods: Laurus’ fire to burn away the disease, Threnn’s prayers to burn out any evil that remained. “Guess we’re getting to be old pros at this.”
“The boss does call us professionals.” He preened, as much as someone dishevelled from a morning of fighting the Scourge could. “Are you all right here? I should go see where your husband wants me.”
“Go on, Laz. I’m fine.”
When he was gone, she stared at the circle of newly-hallowed ground and wished there was a piece left to kick. It almost took him away from me. It could have killed us both. The words Bricu had screamed while the Nerubian chittered above him still rang in her ears: Tarquin, don’t yeh dare fuck this up! And the look on Tarquin’s face, as though torn between two tragedies…
One of them would talk, when this was all over, and tell her precisely what the fuck that was about. She just had to figure out which one to press.
But that was for later, when everyone was home and safe. They weren’t there yet, not even close. She squared her shoulders, pulled her sword from the ground, and made her way back to the center.