“How many fucking skeletons have they got?” Ruda demanded, taking aim with her borrowed staff. She didn’t fire, however, nor did Timms, the Colonel, or anyone else nearby. They were mostly holding staves for personal comfort; the trickle of undead out of the trapdoor was nothing like the previous flood, and so far only two of the search teams had made it out. They rest would be coming from that opening, and thus pouring on an indiscriminate storm of lightning was not an option. Six soldiers knelt behind improvised cover in a semicircle around the opening, blasting undead as they emerged. Carefully.
“The catacomb system is enormous, and has been used as a burial site since long before the Imperial era,” Timms said, her usual calm somewhat diminished by tension. “There are two thousand years’ worth of bodies down there, at least. The answer to your question, Princess, is ‘as many as they could possibly need.’ The good news is that they seem to have used up all the fresher dead during their various uprisings over the last few months. These are all…just bones. Pretty rickety, from what we’ve seen so far. Really only dangerous in aggregation.”
“That’s excellent news!” Fross chimed, swooping back and forth above them. “This doesn’t bear the signs of an actual plague of undeath, just a mass raising. Like mundane plagues, that needs a biological medium to survive and spread. It’s the fresher, wetter zombies that tend to turn people. Skeletons aren’t contagious.”
“Thank the gods for small blessings,” Adjavegh grunted. “No reports so far of people turning, even those who’ve been attacked.”
“Team six is nearing the exit,” the battlemage at the runic array reported from behind him. “They’re meeting heavy resistance.”
The Colonel glanced rapidly around. “Timms, how wide are those tunnels?”
“I recommend against sending anyone else down unless they request it, sir,” she said crisply. “They’re very cramped. Our men and the Huntsmen know what they’re doing. As we were just mentioning, these undead don’t stand up to staff fire.”
“Zeppelin coming in, sir!” called a soldier from the edge of the courtyard. “From the southwest.”
“Hmp,” Adjavegh grunted. “Razsha sent back to Tiraas for scryers… Well, they’re going to be under-utilized here. I need warm bodies holding weapons, not spooks.”
“Sir,” Timms said, frowning, “Major Razsha never sent her request. By the time she’d drafted a report of her needs, the students brought us word of the catacomb situation. There are no Army shipments or personnel transfers scheduled.”
“Well, whoever they are, I intend to put them to work the second they land,” he said shortly. “Soldiers are soldiers, and we need ’em.”
Another soldier dashed up and saluted. “Citizens still trickling in, sir,” he said. “We’re settling them into the compartments farthest from the catacomb access, as ordered. A good half have gone across to the cathedral to hole up with the priest—”
“What?” Timms barked before the Colonel could respond. “No! Who told you to do that?!”
The soldier glanced wide-eyed from her to Adjavegh and back. “I—that—sir, we weren’t given authorization to forcibly move civilians! They can hear the staff fire; a lot of them don’t want to be anywhere near—”
“Colonel!” Timms said, turning to him. “The old cathedral’s sub-levels open directly onto the catacombs! They’ve been closed off since the Church began moving its people out, but there are hundreds of bodies down in those vaults. If this was a mass raising throughout the city…”
“Ohhh, crap,” Juniper whispered.
Ruda drew her sword. “We’ll—”
“Go,” Colonel Adjavegh snapped. “Get those people out of there and back here, and bring whatever priests are still on duty. You have my permission to use whatever force is reasonable.”
She whirled and was dashing out into the courtyard the second he finished. Shaeine and Juniper came hard on her heels, Fross zipping ahead of them; Teal skidded out into the courtyard, shifted, and then Vadrieny was soaring across the square toward the old cathedral. They ducked around several frightened civilians being herded into disused loading bays and a much smaller number of Imperial soldiers supervising them, none of whom attempted to impede them.
The cathedral of Veilgrad was dwarfed by its counterpart in Tiraas, but was far older, and still an impressive building. Tall, with a sloping, gabled roof and an ankh-topped spire ascending from its highest point, it was a landmark visible even above the walls of the city. Now, despite the crisis at hand, the square outside it was eerily empty. Bells still rang out and smoke rose from several directions, but no one seemed to be nearby.
Ahead of them, Vadrieny landed atop the narrow ledge situated over the front doors of the church, waiting for them. Fross joined her a second later; the land-bound students were the last to arrive, but Ruda carried on through the doors without pausing.
“Who’s in charge here?” she bellowed, striding into the sanctuary. People were huddled in the pews and against the walls, some clutching meager belongings; several children were crying, but softly. Aside from that, the refugees were mostly quiet, at least until the students arrived. Juniper and Shaeine were undisguised, and their sudden appearance brought gasps and muted outcries from nearby.
Near the dais at the far end of the sanctuary, a balding, middle-aged man with the beginnings of paunch stretching his black Universal Church robe, rose from where he had been kneeling beside a weeping woman and came toward them.
“I’m Father Rusveldt,” he said, frowning at the trio, then blinking at Fross, who darted in to hover above them. Vadrieny, wisely, had remained outside. “If you need shelter, the church is open—”
“The church is now closed,” Ruda interrupted. “We need to get these people out of here and across the square to the old guild hall. The Army is taking people in and providing protection.”
“Young woman,” the priest began.
“Listen, father, I prefer to treat clergy with respect but none of us have time for this shit right now,” Ruda said. “What’s happening in this city is a mass raising of undead. Wherever people are buried, bodies are rising and attacking. Unless somebody had the foresight to remove all the bodies buried under this church, everybody needs to get out now.”
“Every body in the—” Rusveldt broke off and swallowed heavily. Continuing, he had to raise his voice over the cries of alarm that began to sound from those nearby. “It’s… The vaults are sealed, and have been for weeks.”
“This seal,” said Shaeine. “Is it divine? Does it have a magical component which will turn back undead?”
“I—by sealed, I meant closed off,” the priest hemmed. “The doors are bolted; they’re quite sturdy, I assure you.”
“That’s it, we’re leaving,” Ruda announced, raising her voice. “Everybody out! Across the square to the trading hall. The Army will—”
“There’s access to the catacombs under the old hall, too!” a nearby man shouted belligerently. “That’s no better!”
“It’s a damn sight better,” Ruda shot back, still projecting well enough to be heard throughout the sanctuary. “Yes, there are undead coming through the hold, but there are also soldiers. Most of the Army that’s in Veilgrad is there, keeping that contained. All you’ve got between you and a mob of ravening skeletons here is apparently a fucking lock. Why is this even a dilemma?”
The man blinked at her, glanced at the wide-eyed woman beside him, then gulped. “Um. We’ll follow you.”
Screams rang out at the sudden appearance of Vadrieny in the doorway. She withdrew immediately, leaving only Teal, but people nevertheless scrambled back away from her. The bard ignored this, making a beeline for Ruda.
“We’ve got a situation outside,” she said in a low voice. “I don’t think you can bring people across the square right now. You’d better come have a look.”
“Oh, what the fuck now,” Ruda groaned. “You! Father Priestman! Where’s the access to the vaults in this building?”
“I—the doors just behind the dais, there,” he said, blinking. “You’re surely not planning to go down there?”
“Fuck no I’m not. Shaeine, stay here and keep an eye on those doors; if anything comes out of ’em, shield them off.”
“Done,” the drow said, gliding past her toward the dais.
“Let’s go have a look-see at the fresh bullshit,” Ruda growled, following Teal back to the front doors of the church.
The square was as deserted as before, with the exception of one figure creeping slowly out of one of the streets feeding into it. A gray-furred, seven foot tall figure wearing the shredded remains of what had been a cheap suit stretched across its barrel chest. The werewolf hunched, claws dangling, and stepped carefully forward toward the fountain in the center, sniffing the air.
“Well, of course,” Ruda said fatalistically. “Why the fuck not?”
“Uh oh,” said Fross. “The soldiers have seen him.”
“Oh, hell,” the pirate spat, and darted out into the open, clutching her rapier. She was across the square in seconds, Juniper and Teal right behind her. “Stop, hold your fire! That’s a person, it’s not his fault!”
“Kid, we know what a werewolf is,” the nearest soldier retorted, his eyes on the creature in question. “And we don’t have restraint gear or casters on hand. If it goes for somebody—aw, hell.”
The werwolf drew back its lips, snarling at Ruda, who was now out in the open and within its line of sight. It crouched, ears flattening back and preparing to spring.
“It’s okay, I gotcha,” Juniper said grimly, striding forward. “I’ll try not to let him—”
Before she could finish the sentence, the monster sprang. Its leap was an incredible thing to behold; it shot forward easily twenty yards, and would have made the jump to them from the opposite side of the square had another form not slammed into it in midair.
Both went down in a whirling tumble of fur and skin, landing against the base of the fountain, where the new attacker sprang backward.
The werewolf bounded nimbly to its feet, opening its mouth to unleash a chilling howl.
Scorn bared her fangs and roared right back at it.
The monster rushed her; she met it head-on, and they tumbled to the side in a furious melee of blows. The demon finally got a grip on the wolf’s upper arm and whirled in a circle, hurling it off balance and finally throwing it bodily away; the werewolf slammed into the fountain, collapsing half of it and tumbling into the water.
“Scorn!” Ruda shouted. “Be careful, that’s a person!”
“Yes, yes,” the demon said impatiently. “Not kill, hello!”
She lunged forward, landing upon the werewolf even as it surged out of the water. A moment later they were rolling across the square toward the far avenue, roaring and howling and leaving trails of shed fur and blood in their wake.
“I hate this fucking city,” one of the soldiers announced.
“What is she even doing here?” Juniper asked.
“Dunno,” Ruda grunted. “I’m worrying about shit in the order of how hard it’s trying to kill me. Damn, though. She’s pickin’ up the language pretty quick. Hm… Mithril neutralizes magic. I wonder if I could break the curse with my sword?”
“Silver also breaks the werewolf curse,” Fross said pointedly, “and you know how that ends up. It’d be a shame to kill that poor fellow after you’ve just told two other people not to.”
“You can’t just go stabbing people, Ruda,” Juniper added. “It makes them die.”
“Right. Fross, can you help out here?”
“I think that would just make Scorn angry. I think I can keep ’em away from any people, though!”
“Okay.” Ruda turned and stalked back toward the church. “Now I get to herd a gaggle of terrified bumpkins across a square, carefully avoiding the werewolf-demon brawl going down on the other end of it.” She glanced over at the brawl in question as the wolf picked Scorn up bodily and used her to smash a parked haycart. The demon bounded right back out, brandishing an axle with one wheel still attached. “I wonder if Scorn would agree to trade jobs…”
Painfully twisting her torso, Trissiny managed to get one hand onto her belt. She paused, catching her breath—this had been the result of several minutes of effort—and considering her options. She had access to three belt pouches on that side, if she could use her fingertips to twist the belt around. In those pouches… Her belt knife was on the other side. She did have the folding multi-tool knife Shaeine had given her in this one. None of those tools would break a chain, though.
On the subject of gifts, Kuriwa’s ocarina was also on this side, in the same pouch as the small book Raichlin had given her. This would be an excellent time to call for the shaman’s help… But even if she could extract the ocarina, she could never play it with her arms pinned to her sides this way.
Also, she didn’t know how to play it, anyway.
The chains tightened again as they were tugged from the other side of the tree.
“Arjen, stop it,” she ordered. “You’ll just hurt yourself.”
He snorted unhappily, clomping back around to her and gently nuzzling her forehead.
Trissiny leaned into his soft nose, feeling the hot breath on her face, and sighed. “I’m sorry. I probably shouldn’t have sent you away… Maybe if you’d been here to help me fight I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
He snorted again, which was almost deafening at that range, and bumped her head reproachfully.
“Can you go check on Frind, please? Maybe you can wake him up?”
The horse lifted his head, whickered softly, and turned to step toward the fallen Shadow Hunter. He carefully nosed at Frind, failing to elicit a response, then whinnied back at Trissiny.
“I guess that was too much to ask,” she muttered, clinging desperately to what remained of her calm. “Goddess, please…”
Help is coming, Trissiny.
Avei didn’t speak to her often, at least not directly, but it had been often enough that she knew the voice. Trissiny barely choked back a sob of sheer relief, slumping forward against the chains. Her magic was still dampened by the disruptor, but at least she wasn’t cut off from the goddess. In hindsight, she supposed that had been a silly thing to be afraid of. No enchanted gimmick was a match for the will of Avei.
More hoofbeats sounded. These were clearly approaching from a distance; Trissiny raised her head again and schooled her features, determined to meet whatever approached with such poise as she could muster in her position.
The horse that trotted into the cemetery was a lean, almost delicate creature clearly bred for racing, which was far from its most notable characteristic. It was coal black, at least except for its legs, which faded into transparency, the hooves all but invisible. Its mane and tail were made of black mist, streaming off it and leaving ephemeral trails in its wake. Most striking of all were its eyes, which glowed a sullen orange, as though lit from within by fire.
Altogether it would have been a very alarming sight, except that Gabriel was riding it.
“Gabe!” she shouted before she could catch herself. He had paused to frown at the riderless Arjen, who neighed a greeting; at her shout, he zeroed in on her, and in the next moment was cantering to a stop beside her.
“I didn’t know you could ride,” Trissiny said, grinning in spite of herself.
“Well, I never tried before,” he said reasonably. “To be fair, I doubt I could ride anything other than Whisper, here, unless whoah what whoah!”
The shadow horse sidestepped away as its rider tumbled gracelessly to the ground.
“Mount and dismount from the left, Gabriel,” Ariel instructed.
“Duly noted,” he grumbled, straightening and brushing off his coat. “All right, let’s have a look at this… Are these chains magical?”
“I don’t know if they’re magical,” Trissiny replied, “but they were put there by magic. Grabbed me like tentacles.”
“Ew.” He grimaced and knelt next to her, drawing Ariel. “Hum…oh, yeah, these are at least half magic. I bet they’d fall apart completely if cut. Ariel, can you…”
“Give me a moment to examine the spells. This is infernal work—I am designed for arcane, which is the worst possible choice to counter it.”
“So you got your mount,” Trissiny said while he held Ariel’s hilt against the chains at her shoulder.
“Yeah,” Gabriel said, grinning somewhat awkwardly and looking up at Whisper, who nickered and nudged him with her nose. “Just as I made it out of the graveyard, actually. It was a risk, moving out—that asshole in the white suit said you and Toby were being held hostage. But I’ve got a few tricks of my own for avoiding attention. See how those Wreath bastards like a taste of their own medicine. I left two warlocks guarding an empty spot.”
“They didn’t notice you were leaving?” she asked incredulously.
“That’s the whole point,” he said with a grin. “I can’t do invisible, but I can make people not notice me.”
“I see.” Trissiny lowered her gaze from his, clearing her throat. It was altogether awkward, being chained to a tree while he knelt next to her. “So, um… You named her Whisper?”
“Oh, I didn’t—that’s her name. Wrynhild told me.”
“Oh, right. Uh, the valkyries I sent into the catacombs are still there, or so I assume, but Wrynhild just arrived. She’s shadowing me. They’ve got other things to do besides keep me company, but considering the volume of undead rising here, more are on their way.”
“There’s nothing I can do about this,” Ariel stated abruptly. “Maybe if you were a far more adept mage, Gabriel, but I would need a lot more power and expertise to unravel these.”
“Shit,” he said feelingly. Trissiny very nearly echoed him.
“In this case, I suggest a brute force approach. Have either of you regained your divine magic?”
There was a pause while they both narrowed their eyes in concentration, then exchanged a dispirited look.
“I see. Gabriel, does your wand still transform into its other form?”
“That’s an idea,” he said, stepping back and reaching into his coat.
“My sword is right there,” she said, nodding at the blade thrust point-down into the soil before her.
Gabriel grimaced. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not eager to lay my hands on that thing. Hah!” He had pulled out his wand as he spoke, and it extended smoothly into a scythe.
“Splendid. That weapon weaves together multiple types of magic; I highly doubt those chains will stand up to it.”
“Right,” he said, drawing back the scythe. “Here we go!”
Trissiny cringed and ducked her head. “Please be careful!”
“You don’t say,” he retorted, and brought the scythe down against the chains on the opposite side of the tree. The blade bit deep into the wood, slicing through chains as if they weren’t there. Instantly, they dissolved entirely into ashes and Trissiny slumped forward, barely catching herself from taking a faceplant into the soil.
“Oh, thank the goddess,” she gasped, straightening. “And thank you.”
“I’d say you got those in the right order,” Gabriel said with a grin, giving her a hand up.
“Mogul said he was leaving a warlock to watch me,” she said, picking up her sword and peering around suspiciously.
“A warlock who probably does not want to engage two paladins, one of whom has working magic.”
“Still, won’t hurt to be careful,” said Gabriel. “I had to leave my Shadow Hunters behind with the Wreath; I owe them an apology. Hope they’re okay. Where’s your guy?”
“Frind,” she said urgently, grabbing her shield and dashing toward the fallen hunter. In seconds, she and Gabriel were both kneeling next to him.
He appeared to be simply unconscious; his breathing and pulse were even, and there was no visible damage to him.
“He appears to have been struck by a category two shadow bolt,” Ariel announced. “That should leave no lingering effects even for a person of average health, but this man is bolstered by a small amount of fae craft. He will likely be conscious within half an hour at most. If weapons such as that are going to be coming into use, it might serve you both to start carrying healing potions.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” Trissiny said. “What about Frind, though? Surely we can’t just leave him here…”
Gabriel scratched his head. “I…don’t have any ideas, Triss. I still can’t feel the light, and my enchanting is basically useless for healing.”
“Right now it seems tactically more important to rescue Mr. Caine and return to Veilgrad. The hunter will likely remain unharmed, and if not, losses must be accepted in an engagement like this.”
“Ariel,” Gabriel said flatly, “I appreciate your magical help, but Trissiny is the tactical expert here, and I really don’t care to hear your thoughts on ethics.”
“Whatever you say.”
“Much as it galls me,” Trissiny growled, “she’s not wrong. We have to get Toby and get back to Veilgrad. I…actually don’t think Frind’s in any danger, or likely the others, either. The Wreath was very careful not to actually hurt any of us. They’re still trying to court Vadrieny’s favor.”
He snorted. “I wonder how they plan to explain this horseshit.”
“I don’t doubt they’ve got a story ready and waiting,” she said grimly. “But we can’t worry about that right now. Come on, we’d better get moving.”
With a final, remorseful glance at Frind, she bounded into Arjen’s saddle and watched Gabriel approach Whisper. The shadow horse had no saddle or tack; she wondered how he controlled her without reins. A skilled rider could direct a horse with just their knees, but Gabriel…
“From the left,” she reminded him.
Finally, he was mounted and trotting toward the gate beside her.
“Gabe,” she said suddenly.
“The place I left you was about equidistant between Toby’s spot and here. If you had to choose one of us to rescue… Why’d you pick me?”
Gabriel didn’t look at her, keeping his face on the trail ahead with a grim stare. “It’s… Tactics. The trick I played on the Wreath won’t hold with me out of their range. By the time I got to either of you, they’d be reacting. Whoever I wasn’t there to help would have to hold out until the both of us could reach him…or her.” He shrugged, a short, jerky motion. “You can both take care of yourselves. Since I was gonna find my last friend probably in dire straits… I wanted to be coming in with somebody who I know will go for the kill.”
Trissiny nodded. “That…was good thinking.”
“I do manage it from time to time,” he said with a faint smile.
She urged Arjen into a gallop, and he followed a moment later. They pounded down the mountain trail, making straight for a warlock who was about to have a very bad day.