Whatever she had intended, the results of Dragonsbane’s first shot were disappointing.
Her sidearm was a pricier model that projected a clean white beam of energy instead of a lightning bolt, but it still sparked ineffectively against the squad’s shielding charms. Rather than joining in the assault, the assembled protestors shied back from the discharge with a mix of gasps and mutters.
“And that’s assault,” Principia snapped. “Drop that weapon and place your hands on your head, or we will exercise force.”
“Hell,” growled a heavyset man, drawing a wand from within his coat. “We’re protecting ourselves from monsters—nobody who’s afraid to make sacrifices deserves to be here.”
“Sir, I advise against that,” Principia warned.
“Sorry, ladies,” he said, sounding oddly sincere, and fired a lightning bolt directly into her shield. Again came the snap and flicker of the charm activating, this time directing the electricity downward where it scorched the stone between the Legionnaires and the activists.
Dragonsbane, having the high ground, fired twice more, in a more exploratory pattern; her shots passed above Ephanie’s helmet and then to the right of Casey’s shield at the flank of their formation, clearly gauging the range of their arcane shields. Unfortunately, the support of their group seemed to embolden others, and more weapons were produced add leveled at the soldiers.
“Charge weapons!” Principia barked. “Citizens, this is your final warning—disarm and disperse!”
“They’ve got nothing but spears and shields!” shouted a woman from the back of the crowd.
Three more blasts sparked off their augmented shields, utterly drowning out five tiny clicks as the Legionnaires unfolded small mechanisms from the hafts of their lances. Another clean blast from Dragonsbane neatly clipped the uppermost reach of Principia’s shielding charm, causing the entire thing to ripple visibly. At that, several of the protestors, including two had had hitherto been holding wands confusedly skyward, took aim at her directly.
“VOLLEY!” she roared.
Five spearheads parted down the middle on hidden hinges, and five powerful blasts of lightning erupted from the small blue crystals thus revealed.
The bolts ripped through the crowd, setting off a veritable fireworks display of activated shielding and grounding charms. The protestors were thrown into utter chaos, several shoved bodily aside by the suddenly active fields of force surrounding some of their number who had been standing too close. Only a minority had taken the precaution of wearing charms, however, and lightning arced straight through several bodies.
At the far edge of the platform, Dragonsbane herself dived to the ground, placing her supporters between herself and the Legionnaires. None of the lightning bolts had reached her anyway; once she got behind the crowd, no more had a chance.
Finally, the scattering Principia had originally predicted occurred, accompanied by a pandemonium of screams. People bolted in multiple directions, several of the more level-headed among them trying to shout orders, to no avail.
“MELEE FORM,” Principia bellowed over the din, “RIGHT STEP, ARC BACK!”
Retracting their weapons from firing configuration and restoring the blades, their formation moved laterally to their right and bent, positioning themselves with Casey against the stone wall surrounding the platform and the rest of the squad arrayed in a curve. The position funneled the fleeing citizens away from them and prevented them from being flanked, not that any of their opponents had the presence of mind for such a maneuver. They scurried toward the two smaller gates, bottlenecking at the entrances; several were pushed down and trampled.
One woman was shoved forward and impaled herself on the tip of Ephanie’s lance. The blade penetrated only a few inches, but the panicked victim pulled it out more sideways than straight; she staggered away after the others, bent over and leaving a trail of blood along the stone.
Seven well-dressed bodies lay on the ground, marred by scorch marks.
“Orders to pursue, ma’am?” Ephanie asked crisply, raising her voice above the din.
“Negative,” Principia replied. “Lost the leader; no point in trying to wrangle a mob.”
The farther side gate had shut while she spoke, on the heels of the last fleeing escapees. Seconds later, the one through which the squad had come thunked closed, followed after a moment by the muted clacking of the locks being activated.
“Um,” Casey said. “We’re trapped.”
“Negative,” Principia repeated. “The stairs lead down to the docks; even if she managed to clear the Imperial personnel away from that, too, they can’t possibly stay gone long.”
“Can you…pick the lock?” Farah asked hesitantly.
“That’s an exterior gate of the capital of the world’s greatest military power,” Principia said scathingly. “No, I can’t pick the lock.”
Farah was spared having to respond to that by a blast of lightning that scored the upper range of her shielding charm. Above them were thin openings in the gate fortress, old arrow loops, one of which had just produced a wandshot. Figures appeared in the shadows at several others.
“Kneel and raise shields!” Principia shouted, dropping to one knee in unison with the rest of her squad; they angled their shields, and consequently the attached deflectors, facing upward. “Charge weapons!” All five again activated the hidden clickers, parting spearhead to reveal firing facets. Two more wandshots sparked across their shields from different points. “Fire at will!”
The deluge of lightning they expelled put an immediate stop to fire from the fortress, scorching the stone walls and blasting chips out of the edges of the arrow loops themselves. Their weapons, though somewhat less powerful than Imperial Army battlestaves due to having to be concealed within lances, were nonetheless far heavier than wands. Seconds later, when Principia called a cease fire, silence reigned, the protestors apparently having been dissuaded.
“Omnu’s breath, they’re in the fortress,” Casey breathed. “Where the hell is the Army?”
“Sarge,” Ephanie said in a more even tone, “all those shots came from the arrow loops on this side of the main gate. Whoever went into the one opposite the gates isn’t organized or motivated enough to launch a counterattack. I bet the leader’s in the west gatehouse.”
“Well spotted,” Principia replied. “Not much we can do about it, though; at this point our best outcome is for those idiots to flee and leave the Army to come sort this out. I don’t care what pull that woman has, there is no way she can keep one of the gates of Tiraas unattended for more than a very short period.”
“Well, this is just great,” Merry growled. “So far today we’ve killed a handful of civilians, damaged Imperial property and gotten locked out of the city. Sarge, may I suggest telling the next helpful deity to fuck off?”
They froze as a muted whirring noise sounded from above.
Towers rising above the gatehouse and turrets extending from its upper surface had held siege weapons since time immemorial; positioned at the altitude they were, this fortification could demolish any enemy ships that dared approach the docks below long before they could land soldiers, and the gate itself was high enough to be out of reach of shipboard catapults. In this day and age, however, the old trebuchets had been replaced with mag cannons, barrel-like constructs bristling with antennae.
Now, the one to the west of the gatehouse had begun to emit a blue glow from its depths, and began moving, its antennaed nozzle swiveling in their direction.
“No,” Farah whispered.
“Is there any chance these charms of yours will stand up to artillery fire?” Merry squeaked.
“Retreat!” Prinipia barked, “Shields up, down the—”
Before they could move a step, the mag cannon got into position and unleashed a blast of blue light.
All five of their shield charms lit up; even despite the protection, the kinetic force of the blast broke their formation, shoving all of them back against the low wall, and a powerful static field caused their hair to bristle. The unpleasant jangling of electricity set their teeth on edge.
But that was all. And in mere moments, it began to subside.
“Hell yes!” Merry crowed, grinning.
“Stow it!” Principia snapped. “Move your butts—down the stairs!”
They obeyed, moving as quickly as they could safely back down a staircase while keeping their charmed shields raised and angled at the cannon emplacement. It took several more moments for them to retreat far enough that the upper ledge of the staircase blocked it from view. The whole time, the mag cannon continued to swivel, tracking them.
“That’s incredible,” Casey gasped. “How the hell did you make personal charms that can stand up to that? Even the Army doesn’t have those!”
“That weapon is meant to charge for a minimum of forty-five seconds before firing,” Ephanie said curtly. “That was a sneeze. If the people manning it knew how to use it properly, it could blast this staircase into fragments. Sarge, I recommend we continue to retreat.”
“Agreed,” said Principia. “This is now the Army’s problem. Get back down—”
Turning, she saw what lay below them and broke off.
The two wide stone staircases switched back and forth, intertwining in an angular spiral that alternated between tunnels bored through the mountainside and exterior steps slicked with spray from the falls. On the landing directly below Squad One, two hulking forms stood at the base of the steps, blocking their way.
They were armored in dingy iron plates engraved with arcane runes; despite being humanoid in form, the things were clearly not alive. The gaps in their armor at the joints revealed mechanisms that put off a faint blue light. Beetle-like helmets had wide hexagonal lenses rather than eyes, and each construct’s right arm terminated in an inset battlestaff rather than a hand.
“B-but outfitting golems with weapons is illegal,” Farah stuttered.
“Szaravid,” Principia said quietly, “governments outlaw dangerous things so they can be the only ones to have them. Ergo, those have to be Army property and have no quarrel with us. They may even recognize Legion armor. Don’t make any sudden…”
She trailed off as the two golems raised their staves to point at the squad.
“If we don’t die here,” said Merry, “I am gonna march right to the nearest temple of Vesk and smash somebody’s lute over their head.”
The glow lit their way to the walled cemetery; light blazed across the whole mountainside, a colossal golden nimbus emanating from within the walls, as if the sun itself were rising on the grounds. Both paladins slowed to a trot as they approached, weapons out and at the ready, and passed side by side through the open gates.
They apparently weren’t needed here.
The place had suffered a degree of destruction comparable to the graveyard in which Trissiny had been imprisoned, with smashed tombs, burned trees and nearly every grave unearthed from within. There were no traces of undead here, however, nor of demons—nothing but a few swirls of fine ash on the breeze.
The light had begun to dim at their approach, and finally diminished enough that they could see clearly. Nearby, two Shadow Hunters were just lowering their hand from their eyes, blinking in confusion and staring at the center of the graveyard, though the man closer to them turned to peer at the mounted paladins when they approached.
In the small decorative garden in the center, Toby’s glow had reduced itself to a more normal proportion, merely lighting up his aura. He stood in an almost meditative position, feet braced, spine straight, hands folded in front of him.
“Toby?” Trissiny called, urging Arjen forward at a careful walk. “Are you… All right? How do you feel?”
Slowly, Toby opened his eyes and studied them in apparent calm.
“I,” he said flatly, “am extremely angry.”
“Right there with you, man,” Gabriel agreed. “Also: holy crap. Can you do that again?”
“I didn’t do it that time,” Toby replied, turning his head to the Shadow Hunters. “Are you guys okay?”
“Aside from being half-blinded,” the woman began, then paused. “Actually, no, there’s no aside. I feel great. What’d you do?”
“If I’m not mistaken, that was the light of Omnu in its purest form,” Trissiny said, a grin breaking across her features.
“Holy hell,” the other hunter whispered, peering around. “The undead, those demon dogs… Everything’s just gone.”
“Here.” Toby paced forward, coming to stand between Trissiny and Gabriel and reaching up to place a hand on each of their legs. For a moment, the glow around him brightened.
A moment later, each of them flared alight. Trissiny closed her eyes, drawing in a deep breath and letting out a sigh of relief.
“Fascinating,” Ariel mused.
“Well, that’s one glaring weakness in those disruptors,” Gabriel observed. “I guess it makes sense. Not likely the Army could invent something that stands up to an annoyed deity.”
“Nice…horse, Gabe,” Toby observed, studying Whisper. The shadow mare nickered and bobbed her head as if greeting him.
“Thanks,” Gabriel said with a grin. “She’s, uh, kind of delicate, though. Maybe you’d better ride with Triss.”
“Where are the others?” the female hunter asked tersely.
“We had to leave them,” Trissiny said with a worried frown. “Frind was unconscious but seemed to be all right. The others, though…”
“They had Wreath nearby, but they may have left when I slipped out,” said Gabriel. “These warlocks are up to something underhanded, but they’ve been careful not to actually hurt anybody. Actually…wasn’t there one here, too?”
“Three,” said Toby. “They seem to have gone.”
“That was actually worth seeing,” the male hunter said with a grin. “I never expected I’d live to watch the Black Wreath fleeing in panic; it’s almost worth all this trouble. We’d best go fetch our comrades; you lot had better get back to the city. If the Wreath wanted you pinned down out here, it’s a safe bet it’s so they can get up to something in Veilgrad.”
“Agreed,” said Trissiny.
“Which locations did you leave them at?” the woman asked.
“Um.” Trissiny blinked and glanced at Gabriel. “Actually, I don’t—”
“The Tranquil Shade Gardens and Vesmentheim Lawn,” he said.
“Right. Good hunting, paladins.” The man paused only to nod at them before following his companion. Once again, they moved at the speed that had enabled them to keep up with Arjen on the way there; in seconds they were out the gates and out of sight.
“How’d you know what they were called?” Trissiny demanded.
“He practices an ancient and secret Vidian technique known as ‘reading the signs.’”
“Ariel, don’t talk to my friends that way,” Gabriel said curtly. Trissiny had flushed slightly at the sword’s rebuke, and busied herself giving Toby a hand up. In moments, he had hopped into the saddle behind her. “All right, we’ve got the group back together.”
“Almost,” Toby said grimly. “Gods, I hope the others are okay.”
“They can take care of themselves,” said Trissiny, heeling Arjen forward. “And we can take care of the rest of the Wreath when we get there.”
“Keep in a line,” Ruda said in exasperation. “Quietly—quietly, damn your eyes! Don’t draw the—”
As if on cue, a child let out a shriek of terror. Across the square, the werewolf abruptly swiveled its head to glare at them, drawing its lips back in a feral snarl. The townsfolk shied backward, several crying out in fright. That proved too much for the wolf’s instincts, and it rounded on them fully, beginning to charge forward.
Scorn slammed into it from the side, sending them both rolling into a stack of barrels—one of the last objects in the square they hadn’t already smashed.
“Woman,” Ruda snarled, stomping up to the offender’s mother and brandishing her rapier, “in case you hadn’t noticed, everyone’s lives are at stake here. One of us is going to silence that child!”
“That is not helping, Ruda,” Juniper said reproachfully, gently pushing her aside and taking the terrified young mother by the arm. “It’s okay, she’s just cranky cos she cares. Nobody’s gonna hurt you; we’re not going to let them. C’mon, everybody, keep going. We’re almost all across!”
“Can’t fucking believe we made it this far,” Ruda groused, stepping back to critically examine the line of townsfolk fleeing into the guild hall. Indeed, Father Rusveldt was just now escorting an old woman at the end of the straggling formation, having insisted on being the last one out.
“Ruda!” Fross zipped out of the open doors of the cathedral. “We got trouble in here! The doors are down and Shaeine can’t shield this many—well, you guys had better come take a look.”
“Fucking great,” Ruda muttered. “Fross, can you keep an eye on this? If that hairy bastard makes another move in this direction, freeze his ass to the ground. I’m past caring about his feelings or Scorn’s.”
“Um, okay,” the pixie agreed. “For the record, we can’t really tell if it’s a him or a her, though clothes—”
“Don’t care!” Ruda snapped, dashing past her, up the steps and into the cathedral.
She arrived just in time to see Shaeine being pushed back by a veritable tide of undead. The doors at the end of the sanctuary had finally burst, emitting a flow of skeletons that had clearly been backed up against them, battering down the barriers with the sheer weight of their numbers. The drow was retreating quickly, re-forming a silver shield around herself and directing smaller ones to impede the advancing undead. Mindful of her energy levels, she wasn’t attempting to fully contain the pressure of the horde, merely to hamper and redirect their advance.
This time, though, once the initial rush had cleared, three more distinctive figures emerged from the doors. All three wore filthy robes that had apparently been crimson, once. All carried peculiar staves, capped at both ends with crystals and with golden lattices spiraling down half their lengths.
“What the fuck is this,” Ruda wondered aloud. “Shaeine! You okay?”
“Back,” the priestess ordered curtly. “This space is too open. We can try to hold them at the doors—”
She broke off as the central figure raised his staff, pointed it at her, and squeezed the clicker. A burst of pure golden light ripped across the space between them, striking her silver shield.
At the impact, the shield instantly collapsed. Sheine froze, naked shock painting her features.
The second shot hit her right in the chest and she staggered backward. The drow caught her balance, apparently unharmed, and gesticulated at the oncoming undead.
“Shaeine!” Ruda said urgently. “What’s wrong?”
“My shields!” the elf replied, and the note of unguarded fear in her voice was chilling. “I can’t cast—I have no magic!”
Then, suddenly, Vadrieny was there, folding her arms around the priestess and taking off with a mighty beat of her wings. She landed at the doors of the cathedral and backed carefully through them, bringing Shaeine with her.
Ruda and Juniper were left facing the oncoming undead and their apparent masters.
“Welp,” said the dryad. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Yeah.” Ruda drew back her lips in a grin that was at least half snarl, stalking forward toward the horde and raising her rapier. “Finally, something that bleeds.”
For almost a minute, everything was dust, coughing, the rumble of falling stone and the persistent howl of the sphere of compressed air Khadizroth had used to protect them. It wasn’t equal to the hard shields created by divine or arcane magic, and aside from letting in a large amount of dust, it had failed to keep out all of the debris; they had all been peppered with fragments of masonry and other detritus.
“Is everyone all right?” Khadizroth asked, raising his voice above the sound of their gasping and coughing.
“Feel like I’ve been rammed through an arcane washer,” the Jackal wheezed. “That the best you could manage? The hell kind of dragon are you?”
“A surprised one,” Khadizroth said grimly. “Just a moment.”
The air shield broke, and suddenly a sharp wind tore past them, clutching at their clothes and hair and causing Shook to stagger. It carried the dust away, though, giving them their first clear look at their surroundings since the building had collapsed.
They stood amid the wreckage of what had been the tallest structure in Risk. It still was, if only because it had more rubble to pile up. In the course of falling through what had been the floor of Khadizroth’s office, their air bubble and shoved them forward, so that they were nearly out in the street.
Hardly had they had a chance to get a good look when another wind slammed into them far more aggressively from the opposite direction, followed by a wandshot that clipped the dragon on the shoulder.
Aside from moving slightly with the blow, Khadizroth did not react save to gesture sharply upward with both hands.
An entire line of trees burst out of the ground in front of them, what had been the dirt main street of Risk mere minutes ago. They swelled in seconds, forming an entire wall between them and their attackers.
“Vannae, heal and bolster everyone,” the dragon said curtly. “This has only just begun. If I can just get—”
Before they found out what he wanted to get, the barrier of trees shuddered under a heavy impact; blue light flashed between their trunks.
“This way!” Shook snapped, dashing across the street and into the shadow of the only half-demolished building opposite. The others followed, Vannae whispering a blessing as he ran. Cuts and bruises melted away under the touch of whatever magic he was using as the group huddled in the meager shadow of their improvised shelter.
The treeline shuddered again; Khadizroth pointed at it, and thick vines spiraled upward from among the roots, bracing the fortification.
A wandshot slipped through a miniscule gap in the barrier, but merely flashed down the empty street past them, not coming near hitting anyone.
“Everyone hold still,” the dragon said curtly, gesturing again. This time, the very stones of the wall beside them were yanked out of place, reassembling themselves into another wall—lower, but thicker, and placed between them and the trees. “Scratch that. Duck!”
They obeyed, and not a moment too soon. The biggest explosion since the initial volley sounded, followed by an ongoing roar of destruction as wood, stone and dirt were pulverized. A tree toppled directly onto their hastily conjured barrier, cracking the stone severely. Seconds later, before the aftershocks had ceased, a fallout of sand and gravel splattered across them from above.
Baring his teeth, Khadizroth stood up, raised both his palms, and pushed forward against the air.
His barriers, what remained of them, disintegrated into a crushed spray of stone fragments and what little remained of the trees; the force with which they were hurled forward exceeded whatever had just exploded against them. A shockwave of debris blasted forth, mowing down more ruined buildings in its path.
In the next moment, another wind rose up, whipping past them, but the five men held their ground, straightening.
Suddenly, everything was cleared away. The dust in the air, the rubble in the street, the improvised barriers Khadizroth had called up. They found themselves staring from a mere dozen yards at Longshot McGraw, Gravestone Weaver, Tinker Billie, the Sarasio Kid and the great feline form of Raea.
Wind whispered quietly in the background, as if relieved to be given a break from its recent exercise. In the near distance, minor rockfalls continued to sound as the wreckage of the town settled. Both groups seemed equally surprised to find themselves so nearly face-to-face, and both apparently intact despite all the carnage.
The tension hung in the air, waiting for someone to make a move.
“Wait, hang on!” the Jackal exclaimed, raising his hands. “Wait for it…”
“What?” Vannae demanded tersely, not taking his eyes off their foes.
“C’mon, haven’t any of you cracked a novel in your lives?” the assassin asked, grinning insanely. “We must observe the proprieties. Any second now, a tumbleweed will bounce across the road, and then we can proceed. Aaaaannnnny second.”
“Son,” said McGraw from across the way, “those don’t grow in this province.”
“Fuck’s sake,” Shook spat, whipping out his wand and firing from the hip.
He was quick, but the Kid was faster.