The sappers stood arrayed half a mile away, seen by Kathy by way of her animated figurines floating about hither and thither. The hardened veterans and unseasoned newcomers among the combat engineers all seemed to be gritting their teeth, awaiting the inevitable ‘ka-boom’ that would officially signal the opening of final hostilities in this conflict. The explosive device and spell fusions they’d concocted had been the sort of mad genius that few would ever want to admit to having been part of; if their gamble worked, it would likely be the kind of thing that could destroy hundreds of faerie in the blink of an eye.
They were merely hoping to destroy a clutch of silver rendermen and perhaps any other stray specters that were lying in wait nearby. Kathy and Byron stood with Daggeuro and the rest of the battalion, waiting patiently back from the woodline. The sappers ahead all began fidgeting with their wires and control boxes, and a minute later, it happened; the explosion tore through the air, rocked the ground, and sent a billowing cloud of flames and smoke skyward in a mushroom cloud.
The sheer force of the destruction kicked out a wave of power that rattled every tree they could see and knocked most of the sappers flat, sending a few flying back. One unfortunate fellow had the lenses of his far-finding spectacles driven back through his head, and scorching had singed pretty much every other sapper present. Groans and grumbles of injury and suspected damage to one’s body began to come up from the ground where most of them lay, and these sounds joined in the weird music that was the burning woodland ahead of Daggeuro’s battalion. A few of the engineers made no sound at all, however; four had been knocked out, three had been killed by wooden debris.
The steaming, molten lumps that had once been living silver rendermen rained down in all directions, adding a handful of injuries to the total damages as well. Kathy had thought ahead to swirl her cloak around herself in a shielding cocoon, infusing it with her will-based power in order to give it armor-like protective capacity. She grunted and slid back a few yards as one of the larger pieces of renderman shrapnel slammed into her cloak. Byron had taken a cue from her, conjuring via one of his cards a curved tower shield which he crouched behind for protection. His own creation was an impermanent thing, as were all of his conjurings, and when the danger was past, he dismissed the shield with a twitch of will.
Dagguero had Boon and Bane in hand now as he jogged over toward them, the trio now standing halfway between the surviving sappers and the remainder of the battalion, now slowly advancing to catch up to the men and women who had successfully removed several layers of The Chained One’s traps and trickery. He darted a look in all directions before addressing the humans. “There are chimeras ahead,” the kennin warrior said, nostrils flared. “The wee folk have expressed some alarm, for they sense a form of defense against their magic upon these creatures. The sappers are not equipped for dealing with such beasts, not as they now are. We’ll have to lead the charge forward, and right now,” he snapped, giving neither of the Awakened a chance to argue, object or question themselves. Kathy drew out another arrow, Byron conjured a giant scythe and blackened dragonscale armor over himself, and together, the trio led the elite combat squads forth, quickly passing the sappers, who were busily regaining their senses, gear, and their wounded.
When the trio entered the woods proper, they were forced to duck and dodge around blasted trees and foliage, the ground torn apart in large swaths from the heavy-duty explosives and spellcraft the sappers had cobbled together and unleashed there. The pace was slower than Daggeuro wanted, but the kennin High Knight wasn’t about to have them all rushing in without any sort of caution. He led Kathy and Byron by a few yards at all times, using short, sharp hand gestures with his weapons to indicate that they should keep some separation between themselves.
Daggeuro snapped something quick and greasy back at Kathy, then disappeared with a leap forward that defied everything she’d ever learned about physics, Boon and Bane flashing out. There came a bestial roar of agony, followed quickly by Kathy catching sight of something moving swiftly toward her and the elite soldiers right behind her from up ahead and to her left. She angled her upper body as she continued jogging forward, firing two arrows in rapid succession at the movement. The chimera she hit howled, but her arrows weren’t going to be nearly enough on their own, short of hitting it in the eyes or throat, to kill the specter on their own. But the damage she’d done was enough to slow the beast, and three axe-wielding elves from the squad accompanying her veered hard into their assailant, chopping down into its body mercilessly and whipping away.
Byron skidded along the loose woodland soil as he slid like a baseball player trying to steal a base under a leaping chimera, his scythe tearing a horrid path through its body, dumping blood and all manner of foul fluids and organs down on him. The specter landed in a loose heap just past him, the life cut out of it. Some of the blood was in his hair as he got up, but he didn’t fret over it. He just carried forward, a good little soldier.
The battalion moved forward into the woods further, and more specters came, giant scorpions and spiders, displacer panthers, rendermen, and other assorted creatures that had no business being partnered with faerie under a common cause. Lizardmen and elves had begun to show up in the skirmishes, which intensified as the battalion closed on the village of Parik. Kathy used her power in ways few would have thought to, animating stones and rocks and rolling them under the feet of enemies, tripping them up, making them vulnerable. She brought fallen soldiers of The Chained One’s forces back onto their feet and sent them into battle against their former allies, not quite undead, but far from living. She crafted with her will an edge upon the hem of her cloak and spun like a dervish into trios and quartets of foes, cutting them to ribbons and keeping them at bay.
Daggeuro laid bare his enemies, Boon and Bane flashing like pure tools of judgment, cutting through everything they were swung against without hesitation. He ducked, dodged, parried and evaded every attack sent his way, letting his blades absorb spells hurled at him even from point blank range. Nothing touched him, and he gracefully reduced his enemies to still, bloody piles on the ground.
Byron’s conjuring cards helped him create havok by way of bringing forth the impossible into the world. One of his cards had simply the words ‘Portable Hole’ written on it, and when he forced his will into it, a set of five black circles, which felt and looked like black silk, appeared in his hand. He tossed the first one at a rampaging specter that looked like a cross between a wooly mammoth and a tiger, the beast charging right at him. As the circle floated through the air, it expanded, sucking the beast into it with an audible slurp, then snapping out of sight with a little wink of black smoke as it disappeared.
There was a savage satisfaction in this mayhem for him, especially when it appeared that his methods disturbed or terrified other foes who had been approaching him, and who now seemed to be weighing their options. Two lizardmen wielding large, heavy spears and half-plate armor had been rushing Byron from the village’s direction when the giant elephant beast disappeared. The slightly shorter, narrower fellow, face puzzled, slowed immediately, stopping about thirty yards away. As for his larger companion, that worthy kept coming, and twenty yards away, he threw his spear at Byron with all of his might. The Awakened human just held up another hole in front of himself, and the spear disappeared into it. The assailant threw his head back and screamed in his native tongue, stamping his feet and drawing out a hatchet before charging once more.
Byron just grinned and held the hole loosely in his right hand, waiting for the perfect moment. It came a few seconds later, and it did so with a flick of his wrist. The hole flew at a slight angle, like a frisbee tilted upward as it flies for more air. The upper part of the edge caught the charging lizardman on the chin, and his momentum carried him forward, the hole sucking up most of his torso, his arms down to the elbows and his legs. His severed head, forearms and legs tumbled forth, blood spraying everywhere as Byron’s conjured black hole landed on the ground for a moment before snapping shut, its macabre leavings just laying there, irrefutable.
The horrors of were not about to slow down.
The Chained One stood at the base of his tree, head raised, hood slightly pulled back to allow the daylight to drift close to his face. General Quintus stood on the edge of the town square, his own grafted chains spiraled tightly about his forearms and lower legs. He was turned in profile between his master and the direction of the mushroom cloud that had lit the woods shortly before.
“They brought sappers,” Quintus remarked, turning his head to look at his master, the creature once known, in life, as Cassius Melchar. The undead monstrosity cocked its head to one side at his general.
“I have never heard of these. What are sappers?”
“Men and women trained to spot, disarm, or create traps and tricks for use in battle,” Quintus said. “They’re also referred to as combat engineers. They can be dangerous, but mostly the threat they present is to themselves. They’re not very careful people, master. The career and life-span of most sappers is less than ten years, and the few that last longer only do so because they survive at least one bad incident, which teaches them about caution and patience.”
The Chained One narrowed his eyes, nodding. He seemed to understand what was being said, though he had, as usual, none of his own input to offer. There was something disturbing about his solemnity right then, an air of secrets that hung thick as a fog around him. Quintus looked toward the sound of battle, only a few miles away now and barreling quickly closer to the main body of The Chained One’s forces. His master should have been issuing commands by now, making demands of better performance from his soldiers. There should have been some sign that all was not well with the master. Yet, nothing.
He has done something that he has kept secret even from me, the elven general thought, the chains around his wrists and ankles rattling as he took a few steps toward the edge of the town square. He looked over his shoulder toward the creature he now served. “What awaits them now?”
“The final trap,” rasped The Chained One, floating back to his anchoring tree and leaning back against it, sliding down until he was seated against it. “One that none of them will be prepared for. Oh, yes, the armors are useful, and will engage with them soon. But the moment they cross the trigger line, there will be much savage gnashing of teeth. Mark my words, general,” The Chained One said. “Now, fetch me lieutenant Darius,” the apparition snapped, flapping one rotted hand absently about. “When the trap is sprung, I want him to be the first to arrive and fall upon the survivors.”
“Survivors, master?” The Chained One let out a dry, rattling chuckle.
“Yes, survivors. No trap is perfect when there’s more than ten people to catch up in it, dear boy,” the creature said, shaking its head. “Someone will be required, in all times, to clean up the mess in the aftermath. The lieutenant will be there to pick off those lucky enough to survive, but too weak to stand against what comes for them.” Quintus turned his attention once again toward the sounds of battle, ever nearer. There was one final trick in place, but he knew nothing of it, for The Chained One had kept it secret even from him. It would keep the sounds of battle near, but not in the village itself unless the oncoming battalion figured it out quickly, and kept itself from getting entirely wiped out.
Kathy didn’t overreact when the next chain soldier lunged with his spear, which the elf had clearly been hoping for. It was one of those maneuvers in melee combat that only works if the defender reacts in an assumed fashion, and she didn’t, which left the man open to a counterattack of Kathy’s choosing. A hard kick to the groin, followed by a hard blow to the temple with the butt of her axe handle knocked the elven man down and out, taking him out of commission without having to spill any blood.
She was no longer at the very front line of the battle, and all to the good. Byron and Daggeuro had also fallen back some, allowing the heavies to lead the way. She looked around, spotted the journalist clashing blades with a fellin in the Roman-style armor. Byron had access to all manner of strange objects with his cards, and he had experience with martial arts training, as he’d told her before, but he clearly was outclassed against this cat-faerie, who didn’t appear to be straining whatsoever to keep up with the husky human fellow. Kathy hesitated, not wanting to take the dishonorable road.
Really, she thought to herself harshly. Honor? This is war, woman, and you’re no knight! Honor can only be had if you’re alive! She holstered her axe, drew out bow and arrow, and without anymore waiting, fired a shot right into the fellin’s neck. The blow was lethal on its own, and coupled with Byron stabbing his current blade, an icy scimitar, up into the fellin’s chest, his situation seemed suddenly much better.
It was as he was kicking the body off that The Chained One’s final trap was sprung. Kathy’s mobilized armor suits and statues, now leading the spearhead of the squads, were perhaps half a mile ahead of everyone else in the battalion, and when they crossed the threshold laid down by the creature once called Cassius Melchar, they unleashed hell upon Daggeuro’s forces.
Spells locked upon various trees and random patches of ground within the woodland flashed out, sending blasts of fire, fists of stone, dozens of shards of ice and tornado-force columns of wind tore through the woods, slamming into the animated suits, blasting them apart, tossing them asprawl into the shouting ranks of Daggeuro’s squads following behind. This, in turn, triggered a signal to the most savage of the specters to attack, including lieutenant Kitek.
While the opening gambits had belonged entirely to the kennin High Knight and his forces, the tide of the conflict was quickly turning against them. The sappers were taking the worst beating right off, and as the larger specters, horrid hybrids of all shapes and sizes, barreled into them, the blood and screams flew. Kathy found herself tucking her head down and rolling out of the way of what looked like a giant scythe, but which she discovered upon standing up was the forearm of a gnarly three-legged, semi-humanoid bear creature with little spine-like needles sticking out of its back and curved bone blades extending from each wrist back along the forearms like natural weapons. She counterattacked with her axe, carving the beast’s arm off with a sweeping uppercut swipe, taking pains to scamper away to avoid being struck anymore. Or so she wanted the specter to think. As soon as it sensed her weakness, false though it may have been, it closed with a lunge of its gaping maw. Kathy whirled in her cloak, hem sharpened and hardened, cutting through the beast’s neck as she sidestepped like a buzzsaw.
Byron looked over at her as she neatly stepped out from the path of its falling body, admiring her natural battlefield grace before himself using a shield of ice to block a hammer-handed specter’s attack, followed by a series of short, vicious stabs into its midsection with a frost knife. The specter fell back, replaced by one of The Chained One’s own animated armor suits, a fierce, draconic warrior design which rattled him with its rapid strikes. Still, he had his cards, one of which he pulled out and activated to create a massive piano over the armor, dropping it with the force of a fall from several dozen stories overhead. The armor collapsed in a plume of dust and plate fragments, piano keys flying everywhere.
Daggeuro stayed relatively calm now, allowing his enemies to come at him, or try to anyhow, through the squads as the back half of the battalion caught up, the squads shifting positions throughout the wooded battlegrounds, trying to match themselves up appropriately with The Chained One’s forces. The wee folk hadn’t yet become fully engaged in the combat, as Daggeuro had wanted them to hold until they could reach the village proper and focus their efforts on Melchar himself.
Blood was being spilled upon all sections of the field of battle, the cries and shouts of anger, rage, horror and pure battle aggression joining the crackle of flames and clang of iron in a symphony of destruction. Across all worlds, the gods dance to such foolishness, while those wielding blade and helm and spell lost themselves in it, civilized thought stripped away, leaving only the primal, savage nature of all living things able to shine through. The name of that nature was simply ‘survive’.
The battalion managed a very minor amount of progress moving closer to the village after seven or eight minutes of hard fighting. Finally there came a roar, a bestial sound that rocked the air, drawing every eye toward its source. The battle raged on all about, but many had turned their attention to the hulking minotaur who came stalking through the ranks of The Chained One, giant chains dangling from his wrists, Roman-style armor shining with oils and splotches of blood. His body fur had darkened to a deep reddish brown, as happened to some of his kind in colder weather, and his swooped horns had been sharpened to a near-gleaming point. No weapon did he wield in his hands, instead whipping the chains fused to his arms about, carving a swath through the elven, fellin and owl-faerie soldiers between himself and Daggeuro.
The kennin High Knight barked a few quick orders at his nearest men and women, and they cleared the way between the minotaur and their commander, the two now standing some twenty feet apart, glaring at one another as all round them the battle went on. The minotaur cleared his throat, spitting a wad of phlegm to one side as he took an angled at-ready stance, chains dangling down, fingers loose and twitching slightly. His eyes narrowed, an impish grin spreading across his face. Daggeuro just stood upright with Boon and Bane held out, angled up.
“I am lieutenant Darius,” the minotaur rumbled. “Servant of The Chained One, glorious master of this region! Surrender now, and the master may see fit to spare many of your army’s pathetic lives. And perhaps he will have a place of honor available for you specifically,” Darius mocked, grin broadening. One might have expected Sir Daggeuro to respond, to speak some word of banter with the minotaur, but he offered nothing. Instead he merely stood his ground, Boon and Bane held at the ready, eyes half-lidded as they fixed upon the bruiser Darius. “Have you nothing to say to me, Sir Daggeuro? My master has been waiting for your arrival, you know, speaking highly of you and your prowess. This only makes it all the more thrilling to contemplate how wondrous it will feel when I crush the life out of your body,” Darius barked, rattling the chains fused to his wrists. Still the kennin High Knight made no move, uttered no word. “Very well, then,” Darius snarled.
The minotaur began to rumble across the ground between them, bringing his right arm back, the chain straightening, then beginning to swirl in a momentum-gathering loop overhead. His left hand made a series of simple arcane motions, gathering magical power, which Daggeuro recognized as earthen magic. A look at the surroundings about him, a quick use of his own magical senses, and he could see what lieutenant Darius was planning. His eyes locked upon the minotaur’s hips and legs, waiting for the moment to telegraph itself, as it inevitably would; after all, the minotaur may have been strong, but he was amateur hour compared to Daggeuro in singular combat.
When Daggeuro saw the telltale shift of weight (a shift one in perhaps a thousand men or women would ever catch) he dashed several yards to his left, avoiding the hand-shaped roots that came shooting up out of the ground to try and pin him in place as Darius made his final rotation of the chain attached to his wrist. Thrusting up and forward with Boon, the kennin High Knight met the attack head-on with his own weapon, cutting away the last four feet of the minotaur’s chain with a single blow. Darius’ face went from happily bloodthirsty snarl to confused terror in the span of a moment. Daggeuro leaped through the air, legs bunched up under him, and thrust out with the bottom of his right foot at the last moment, jump-kicking the minotaur hard enough to break his jaw and knock him stumbling away. Daggeuro landed nimbly and rolled backward, once again setting himself into a ready defensive stance.
Darius, down on one knee, got slowly back up onto his feet, roughly resetting his jaw with one hand, spitting out a tooth. He let out a violent roar and spun back toward the kennin High Knight, pounding over the ground at him with wild abandon. Kathy and Byron stood near the fringe of the ring of soldiers surrounding this brawl, watching as Daggeuro began to slowly crouch in preparation of the oncoming attack. When Darius neared again, both wrist-bound chains flashing out in a crossing X strike, the kennin bound into the air straight up, stabbing Boon and Bane down through chain links near the end of Darius’s lengths. When the kennin landed, he turned and hauled up and out with a grunt, lifting the minotaur and throwing him roughly by the very chains that were his weapons. He landed with a crash into a tree, which groaned under the weight of his impact.
Kathy expected Daggeuro to continue this tactic, wearing the minotaur down, but Daggeuro surprised her, sprinting over to the fallen minotaur and, with one savage shout, stabbing Boon and Bane into lieutenant Darius’s chest. The Chained One’s servant spasmed, and a moment later, lay dead. Daggeuro flicked the blood from his blades absently, wheeling about and barking orders to advance to the nearby squads. Kathy supposed Daggeuro felt the need to make forward progress outweighed the need for theatrics or grand displays of skill on his part.
And so they pressed on, further into the climbing destruction and death of battle.