The Heartless Dead: Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen
War

Time passed. Sarenrae continued her slow dance across the sky. Howls and yips drifted by on the wind. The thundering rumble of footsteps became a deafening cacophony. The earth itself shook at their coming.

Bree was not afraid.

The same could not be said for her troops.

“Steady!” Bree cried above the tumult. Her words were little help. The tension and fear coming from behind her was palpable. If only she could cut it with Tempest and be done with it! If the gnolls caught wind of their sweat and fear the curs would work themselves into a frenzy.

“Steady!” she cried again.

The gnolls burst forth from the crags of the Brazen Peaks and set their filthy paws upon the foothills to the north of Thrice Hills. A rippling swarm of scorpions scuttled beneath their feet.

“Archers!” Bree screamed. “Nock arrows! Take aim!”

Bree raised her arm to the sky and held it there. She took a deep breath and waited. The gnolls drew closer. Their numbers grew. Larger scorpions crept out from the crags.

Finally, the first of the gnolls came within range. “Fire!” Bree threw her arm forward.

A few arrows arced up into the sky from behind her followed by a thick cloud of arrows from Thrice Hills. The sky darkened, and the arrows tore into the gnolls. Yowls of pain rent across the field. A few gnolls fell, but the rest paid them no heed. Even the wounded kept running straight for Thrice Hills. Where was the Al’Chorhaiv’s sense of survival? Were they so scared of their scorpion mistress that they would not back down, or so sure of their heart-devouring pet that they didn’t believe they could die?

Another volley of arrows rained down on the gnolls. Over a dozen fell to their knees this time, dead or dying, but far more still surged out from the Brazen Peaks. Fifty living gnolls and over a dozen hyenas now ran across the foothills on either side of the river – the closest of which was nearing a hundred paces away – and there was no end of them in sight. She couldn’t even imagine how many scorpions they had at their call. Never had she seen such a thick carpet of insects!

Still, their movements were erratic at best, and frantic at worst. The gnolls and their scorpion slaves surged across the hills in a streaming, clumpy line. They seemed to have no pattern or reason to their formation. Bree shook her head. Gnoll hordes were not the brightest of enemies, but she had imagined that the insidious Al’Chorhaiv would possess some kind of battle strategy. Especially after going to so much work to tame a creature built for war.

Bree raised Tempest to the sky. “The Al’Chorhaiv die this day!” she screamed. “For Thrice Hills!”

Her words were taken up by those behind her, until the hills were ringing with cries.

“For Thrice Hills!”

Bree dashed forwards just as a trio of gnolls came within thirty feet. She crushed scorpions beneath her feet and ran on, heedless of the danger their poison could pose. She swung out with Tempest, slicing the first gnolls neck open from ear to ear, then bashed the second gnoll in the face with her shield. His jaw made a sickening crunch but the Dawn of Freedom absorbed most of the force Bree had expected to feel. Bree felt as if she had merely swatted aside a fly. Tipped tankard! What had Kelestair done to her shield?

The third gnoll dove at her with open jaws. Bree stepped to the side and swung her gleaming scimitar down across the back of its neck. It fell to the ground at her feet with a pitiful wail.

Bree turned to the next set of gnolls, this one a pair with four hyenas running alongside them. An arrow whizzed over her head an embedded itself in one of the hyena’s eyes. It fell to the ground in a tumbling heap, knocking another hyena down with it. Bree swung low, taking one of the gnolls out at the knees, and nicking the other in the calf. Tiller dashed in from the side, and stabbed the wounded hyenas in quick succession, while Bree drew Tempest across the throats of the wounded gnolls. Tiller nodded to her, then darted off, seeming to vanish among the rocky ground and hills. Bree moved to finish off the other hyenas, but they had moved on behind her and more were already stalking towards her in their place.

Foul brew! They were just getting started and she had already let some slip by!

A scream sounded from behind her, and a savage tearing. Bree cringed but could spare no time to help the soldiers. Three gnolls, two hyenas and a giant scorpion the size of a wolf moved to surround her. The scorpion was the first to reach her. It’s arched, tail surged down at her. She raised her shield above her head, blocking the stinger, then shoved it to the side. She swung down at the scorpion’s segmented tail. The scorpion screeched as it’s stinger went flying across the field. Bree took the opening and drove Tempest deep into its head. The gnolls swung out at her with claws and blades, but Bree easily held them off. She severed ones paw from its arms, gutted the second, and kicked the third in the face. The two who lived made a run for it, away from her reach. She moved to follow but found herself face to face with their hyenas.

A sickening scream sounded from the river’s edge. Bree spared a glance that way to find two of the mercenaries covered with hundreds of tiny scorpions, and a third torn apart by a scorpion the size of a dog. It’s claws dripped shreds of skin and innards. The Claisant’s were on their way to help, but they would be too late. The other mercenaries were as good as dead. So much for the Golden Hand.

Bree roared in anger and leapt at the hyenas. She swung with abandon, slicing muscle and tearing flesh in her anger.

Kelestair’s voice drifted to her over the din. “Hextrassial vamprionus!”

Bree spotted him over her shoulder. Gnoll and hyena corpses littered the ground at his feet. A few wounds upon his arms dripped blood. He held his gore-encrusted mace before him, and clutched a gnoll’s face in his other bare hand. The gnoll howled in pain as a black light pulsed up from the gnoll’s face and into Kelestair’s arm. Kelestair’s wounds stopped bleeding and the gnoll fell to the ground, dead.

Husk swooped around Kelestair, diving at the scorpions surrounding them over and over again. He wore a series of blades strapped to his talons which seemed to be doing quite a number on the poisonous little bugs. Zym, much to Bree’s surprise, still lived. She stood behind Kelestair, and seemed to be talking to herself. The poor kid must be scared out of her wits!

Kelestair moved to attack another trio of gnolls. No! He moved to attack two of them? Did he not see the third?

Bree made a move towards them but another gnoll dove at her. Broken tankard! She swung at the gnoll, only half paying it any attention and missed. Kelestair swung his mace at two of the gnolls around him, while the third slipped past. He headed straight for Zym.

Zym bore no weapons. She wore no armour.

“Run!” Bree shouted.

But Zym didn’t hear her. She just stood there, scared out of her mind, mumbling to herself.

“Zym!” Bree screamed. Jaws clenched down on her thigh. Bree grunted and stabbed Tempest down into the gnoll attached to her leg.

Kelestair finished the other two gnolls off and turned to Zym.

Zym raised her arm and a small beam shot out of her finger. It struck the gnoll running towards her right between the eyes. The gnoll howled in pain, fell to its knees and clutched at its head.

Kelestair nodded once at Zym, then walked calmly up to the gnoll and beat it savagely upon the head. Blood and brain matter sprayed across the field, covering both Zym and Kelestair with dripping gore. The gnoll fell to the ground. Kelestair turned back to the oncoming gnoll army. Zym wiped some of the brain matter from her forehead and smiled.

A shiver ran down Bree’s spine. What was wrong with that kid?

Bree pressed a hand to her wounded leg and said a quick prayer. Her wounds frothed closed and she leapt to her feet. She caught sight of the bodies around her, both ally and enemy. The mercenaries were dead along with most of her soldiers. Tiller still danced across the field, and the Claisant’s, though Omig appeared wounded. Kallien was the sole archer left on her side of the river, and the supporting fire from Thrice Hills had ceased. They must have intruders of their own to deal with.

And still the Al’Chorhaiv surged forth over the hills.

A gnoll tried to run by Bree, but she sliced his legs out from under him with barely a glance and drove Tempest into his chest. Another nearby gnoll yelped in surprise then turned and ran, only to be stabbed by one of Tiller’s daggers. He yanked it out of the gnoll in a gout of blood and vanished again amidst the chaos and carnage.

Bree moved on from one clump of gnolls to another, seeking out her enemies with an emotionless determination. Tempest danced across the field, trailing a glistening line of frost and blood that quickly melted in the heat of the afternoon sun.

This is what they were made for, she and Tempest. What they had found each other for.

Death.

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