Though they still mostly lacked the paving of the Empire’s modern, carriage-friendly infrastructure, the ancient roads of Viridill had been designed to withstand time and the elements without needing major upkeep; most of them had been built when the province of Avei’s faithful had been beset on all sides by enemies, rivals, and marauding nomads, and needed to rapidly convey troops at minimal notice. The road, thus, was still a road and still navigable, but after nearly a century of scant use and no maintenance, it was in bad enough shape to throw up impediments to five people fleeing along it in the dark. Grasses had taken root even in its hard-packed surface, decades of wind and rain had gouged ruts and enormous potholes, and debris from the dense forest surrounding had fallen everywhere. All three priestesses ran with golden glows radiating from them, which helped a lot, but members of the party still tripped and stumbled often.
No one gave up. Even had anyone been so inclined, the sounds of what was coming after them would have spurred them onward. The eerie keening of whatever was running in an apparent group continued, but far worse were the long, aching screams, the far-too-human sounds of absolute pain and despair. And they were all growing steadily closer.
Ami proved to be in remarkably good shape; she was not only keeping up, despite awkwardly clutching her guitar case as she ran, but managing to hum almost continuously. It wasn’t quite full bardsong, but she lent what she could to the group. Schwartz, too, had cast a quick enhancement over them to keep them going once they all assembled on the bank beyond the frozen river. Between them, they had done what they could, and their efforts showed, but the group had been running for more than a quarter of an hour, and only Jenell and Basra were really trained for such exertion—and even Jenell was starting to falter, having to make the dash in armor.
They were all lagging. What was chasing them was still gaining.
Finally, Branwen lost her footing on a half-hidden tuft of grass and stumbled to her knees, barely catching herself against both palms and letting out a soft sob of pain and exhaustion. Around her, the rest of the group faltered as well, turning to look.
Basra kept going a few more steps before stopping and turning around. She stared down at the fallen Izarite for half a moment, then glanced up at the darkness swallowing the road in the direction from which they’d just come, then finally trotted back, reaching down to none too gently grasp Branwen under the shoulder and tug her upright.
“Not much further,” she said curtly, and even she was slightly out of breath. “The treeline is only a hundred yards ahead. Once we’re in the open, the armies will see us and help.”
“They don’t stop,” Ildrin wheezed, sagging forward and panting. “Why don’t they—”
“You shut your noise hole,” Basra snapped.
“They never forget, never forgive,” Ami said, clutching her guitar case as if for comfort; she was pale and utterly lacked her usual haughty poise. “They won’t stop till every drop of Tiraan blood falls. Once they get the scent—”
“That is not helping!” Basra exclaimed. “Come on, all of you, pull it together! We’re nearly out of the woods. Schwartz, is there any more you can do?”
“Very dangerous,” he croaked, panting heavily and with one hand pressed to his chest. “Messes up th’body… Natural capacity…”
“None of that will matter if we’re all—”
And then something burst from the trees beside the road, not ten yards behind them.
In the roughest sense, it was humanoid, pink and fleshy, but unformed as a scarecrow. Spindly arms were totally out of proportion to its body, tipped in fingers so long they resembled tentacles; for a head it had only a misshapen lump without apparent eyes. It had a mouth, though, a huge, gaping maw lined with uneven, flat teeth, dripping streams of viscous drool that glinted in the light of Basra’s aura. And it was easily fifteen feet tall.
The thing opened its mouth still wider and screamed, that same wail of anguish that had been following them since the fortress. This close, it was far louder, and somehow even more horrible. Ildrin and Branwen both staggered backward from it with muted cries.
Basra stalked forward, sword upraised; after a second, Jenell joined her, drawing her weapon and raising her shield.
Before they even reached the front of the group, the monstrosity wailed again and came charging toward them. Its speed was terrifying.
Schwartz spat a few unintelligible syllables and hurled Meesie straight at the thing, right over the heads of the two Legionnaires.
The mousy little elemental exploded in a massive fireball in midair.
What landed on the road between them and the monster of Athan’Khar was the size of a pony and more resembled a lion than a rodent, with a halo of seething flame for a mane. The creature didn’t so much as slow; letting out a deafening roar of challenge, Meesie charged forward, lunging to grasp one of its legs in her powerful jaws.
The elemental’s weight yanked the brute off-balance, and they tumbled sideways into the treeline, the monster emitting another anguished scream, this one sounding distinctly angrier. Meesie whirled to her feet and lunged on top of it, snarling and savaging the thing with fiery claws.
“Keep going,” Schwartz shouted, seeming to have recovered some of his breath. “She can’t hold it long!”
Branwen needed a tug from Ildrin to get moving again, and did so with a slight limp, but in the next moment they were all going, markedly slower than before, but still going. The sounds of battle receded behind them, but not fast enough for anyone’s comfort. In the distance but growing ever closer were the shrill, whining notes of the other kind of monster chasing them; not far behind the first beast came another ululating wail.
With a sharp pop and a flurry of sparks, Meesie appeared out of midair, again mouse-sized, and landed on Schwartz’s shoulder, squeaking in dismay.
“Out of time,” he panted, not glancing back.
“Almost there!” Basra shouted, pointing ahead with her sword. “See?”
Indeed, they were close; in the darkness they head nearly reached the treeline before being certain, but once they topped a small rise, a gap widened before them. The forest gave way to a wide plain, kept clear as a barrier against just the kinds of things now pursuing them; in the distance, two fortresses were visible, brightly lit with modern fairy lamps, and the torches of encamped armies even closer. Even in the dark and at this distance they could tell the forces massed there were significantly greater than when they had entered the woods the previous morning.
Topping the small hill seemed as if it would take the last strength from them, but they picked up speed running down the other side; for a wonder, none of them tripped or lost balance. In just a few moments more, they were emerging from the trees onto the plain, the road leading straight toward the fortress looming in the distance to the west.
The howl came from behind them, terrifyingly close.
And this time, the smaller shrilling of the other things was even closer.
They poured out of the trees only a dozen yards behind the fleeing humans, having seemingly avoided the road. There were easily a dozen of them, pasty white things like cave salamanders with far too many limbs, but they bounded along more like monkeys than spiders. That was all there was to them, seemingly: a central blobby mass and uneven numbers of gangly legs, with no signs of eyes or mouth. Nothing to indicate what produced that high-pitched keening.
Basra turned to face them again, her aura brightening and a shield flashing into place around her. “Schwartz, got anything else?”
“One las’ trick,” he wheezed, but was already moving as he did so, tucking his hands momentarily into his wide sleeves. He waved both of them in wide arcs, spreading his fingers; a hail of what seemed to be gravel flew from his left to strew across the ground, while he released a gout of powder from the right, which hung in the air, forming into a small grayish cloud.
Jenell pushed past him, raising her shield, as Basra stepped up on the other side; Ami and Ildrin huddled behind them, Branwen actually slumping to her knees in defeat.
The moment the first of the creatures crossed beneath Schwartz’s cloud, the night exploded into brightness.
A dozen small bolts of lightning slashed across the space between the cloud and what he had thrown to the ground. The spider-blobs kept charging heedlessly forward, and as soon as they lunged into the trap they were blasted to the earth by searing arcs of electricity. At the speed they were moving, it took only seconds for all of them to lie charred across the road, several still twitching feebly.
“Well done,” Basra panted.
Then the towering monster burst out of the treeline.
It bore long claw marks, oozing green ichor, as well as several burns, but it wasn’t slowed. Opening its mouth wide, it howled even louder than before at them, hurling itself forward in a mad charge.
Before anyone could stop her, Basra went pelting right at it.
The brute lunged forward, slashing at her with one of its gangling hands, fingers throwing off sparks as they scraped across her glowing shield.
The exchanged that followed was too rapid for the exhausted onlookers to make sense of, but in the next second, Basra was staggering backward, her shield collapsed under the sheer force of the blow, while the creature’s severed hand flopped to the road.
The howl it emitted was physically painful in volume. It hesitated barely a moment, brandishing the stump of its arm at them, before charging again.
Suddenly, black shapes swarmed around the group from behind, a whole wall of them planting themselves between the humans and the monster and raising a line of triangular shields. More darted forward, slashing at its legs.
The beast faltered, wailing and swiping ineffectually at the dark figures, which seemed like little more than shadows in the faint moonlight. They moved far too adroitly for it to strike.
Several more dashed into position, carrying long polearms; two of these charged at it from the sides, and deftly impaled the creature’s central body, then planted the butts of their weapons in the ground and held them down. It wailed, tugging back and forth and nearly dislodging its attackers, but even as they faltered, two more appeared, adding their own long shafts to hold it in place.
All the while, the milling shadows below went to worth with slashing weapons which were as indistinct as they in the darkness, ripping into its legs and actually beginning to carve chunks out of them. Wailing in fury and pain, the monster was progressively borne to the ground, the polearm warriors shifting position to keep it contained as it was systematically hacked to shreds.
Once they had its legs effectively removed, the shadows swarmed over it like ants, swiftly disabling its arms and then going to work on its central body. In only seconds more, its cries were silenced; mere moments thereafter, it stopped moving entirely.
The five humans stared at this over the shoulders of the shadow-figures between them and what remained of the monster.
Schwartz summed up everyone’s thoughts
One shadow detached itself from the group, stepping toward them and lifting its hands to its head. It removed a helmet, an act which oddly made the dimly-glimpsed shape make sense; it, and all the others, were warriors in armor which had been treated with something to make it pitch black and non-reflective. The same effect had been applied to the blades of their long polearms and the sabers with which they had dispatched the monster.
Helmet off, the being revealed aquiline features, elongated ears, crimson eyes in a dark gray face and white hair cut in a bob that hung just below her chin.
“Drow?!” Jenell said in astonishment.
“Ah, good,” the drow said tonelessly, glancing at her. “A scholar. Bishop Syrinx, I presume?” she added, bowing to Basra. “I would ask how your negotiations went, but that would appear to be a formality.”
Another wail rose up very close by, and the drow commander’s gaze snapped in the direction of the forest.
A towering beast, seemingly identical to the first, lunged out of the treeline, pausing for a moment on the open ground to orient itself. Seconds later, a third emerged ten yards or so on its left.
The drow advance fighters scattered, forming themselves into a wide arc with pikemen interspersed along their length, preparing another takedown.
Before they could move, however, a barrage of lightning bolts came flashing out of the darkness to the northwest, carving scorched paths across the prairie grass and blasting the nearest monster off its feet. As it wailed in pain, the fire kept up, keeping it physically pinned down under the sheer fury of the attack even as it was systematically burned to a crisp.
Two squads of soldiers in light Imperial Army uniforms advanced toward them at a trot, their front ranks with staves leveled and firing even as they moved. What looked like a continuous stream of energy blasts was coordinated along the line, lightning flashing forward in a well-practiced pattern that kept up constant fire while allowing each trooper to let his weapon rest and avoid overheating. They came at an oblique angle that kept the drow out of their line of fire; circling around to do it had likely accounted for their late arrival.
The third monstrosity screamed in fury and turned to face them, setting off at a lumbering run; at a barked order from an officer, one squad peeled off, switching their fire to it and changing formation so the soldiers behind came into play, adding their staves to the assault. In seconds it had been brought down, thrashing and wailing while they came on. The first creature was barely stirring now, still under the continuous barrage of the first squad.
Of the humans sheltered behind the drow shield wall, all but Basra and Jenell actually sat down in the road, panting with exhaustion, and now, relief. The drow relaxed at a soft command from their leader, the advance warriors streaming back to join them and the shield defenders lowering weapons.
As the Imperial squads moved up even with the group, there came another barked order and the staff fire ceased. Moments later, orbs of elemental water were conjured in midair by battlemages and splashed downward onto the thoroughly dead and severely charred Athan’Khar monsters, followed by careful sprays that doused the small fires smoldering all over the area.
An officer peeled off from the first squad and trotted up to them, saluting as he came to a stop.
“Bishop Syrinx, glad to see you safe. Colonel Nintambi sends his regards; we’re to escort you back to the joint field command post.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said, nodding to him and sheathing her sword, before turning to peruse her bedraggled group. “Is Falaridjad still alive—ah, good. Take that woman into custody.”
He glanced uncertainly at the priestess, who was slumped on the ground with her head resting on her knees, shoulders heaving with the effort to draw breath. “Uh…ma’am? I mean, of course, but with all respect you don’t hold an Army rank; I’ll need a little bit more to go on.”
“Whatever follows from here is her fault,” Basra said curtly. “We succeeded in meeting and beginning negotiations with our antagonist, at which time this insubordinate, grandstanding mortal avatar of stupidity assaulted him with a relic she had apparently stolen from an Izarite temple. Our chance to make peace can be considered effectively squandered.”
Ildrin made no reply at all to this, still seemingly struggling for breath.
“I see,” the lieutenant said grimly, snapping his fingers and pointing to two of his soldiers. “You heard the Bishop; this woman is under arrest.”
“Sir!” the chorused, saluting, and stepped forward, each holding a staff in one hand and using the other to hike Ildrin upright by the shoulders. She offered no resistance, hanging limply in their grip.
“Where I am from,” the drow commander observed, “a person would be slain on the spot by her commanding officer for such conduct.”
“We have different ways here,” Basra replied. “I want her to survive to see the outcome of whatever follows, so she can be publicly held to account for every last ounce of the ensuing carnage.”
“Ah.” The commander nodded, smiling faintly. “I can see the virtue in such an approach.” The Tiraan lieutenant gave her an uneasy sidelong glance.
“The Empire and the Silver Legions I expected to find here,” Basra continued, “but your presence is a surprise. Not that I am anything less than grateful, mind.”
“Forgive me. I am Yrril nur Syvreithe d’zin An’sadarr, and have the honor of commanding the Narisian contingent attached to the coalition here.” She saluted in the Narisian style, twirling her saber then touching its tip to her temple before sheathing it. “Queen Arkasia was extremely curious at the sudden massing of troops this close to Tar’naris; upon being appraised of the situation, she dispatched forces to assist. The queen takes our treaty with the utmost seriousness. Tiraas and Tar’naris are sisters; whoso attacks one shall contend with both.”
“I, for one, am extremely delighted to see you here,” Basra said, bowing. “I’m sure my companions will concur when they have their breath back.”
Schwartz waved weakly, nodding in agreement.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Basra added somewhat wryly, “but I devoutly hope the rest of this event proves to be a complete waste of your time.”
“So does every sane soldier,” Yrril replied, her thin Narisian smile of courtesy expanding by a few bare iotas to show a hint of real amusement. “Based on your account, however, I fear we shall not be so blessed.”
“Indeed,” Basra said more grimly. “Lieutenant, and… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your rank?”
“I would customarily be addressed by given name by anyone not in my chain of command,” the drow replied, “but if it comforts you, we commonly translate the rank as Archcommander.”
“Archcommander, then. Lieutenant. If you’d kindly lead the way to the rest of those in charge, I have people badly in need of rest and medical attention.”
“Forgive me, ma’am,” said the lieutenant, “but it appears you could do with some yourself.”
Basra shook her head. “In time. First, I have a detailed report to present. The coalition’s leaders have to know what happened and what to expect.” She glanced back at the dark forest, narrowing her eyes. “I can’t say how soon, but we are about to be at war.”