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The whine of the device was barely even a sound; it was more a thing that snuffed out all other sounds. Like a constant high bell tone somewhere deeper inside her skull than her ears, it blocked anything from the range of normal hearing. To say nothing of what it did to her; the constant pressure in her head kept her dizzy and disoriented. The room seemed to be tilting this way and that, like the deck of a ship in a storm.
Casey had landed on her back, and now laboriously rolled over to her side—where she immediately had to stop, squeezing her eyes shut and concentrating on not vomiting. She could discern by smell alone that several others had lost that battle, which didn’t help hers at all, but after long seconds, she forced the sensation down again. At least, far enough down that she felt she could risk opening her eyes.
The room continued to spin and sway in that awful, piercing silence, but she focused through it. Two of the machine-people were now present; one was holding up that white sphere which had been bounced down the stairs and started all this. They were talking—at least, they were facing each other and their mouths were moving. Insultingly, they seemed to have no interest at all in the Legionnaires and Punaji soldiers. Well, the arrogance was not unwarranted; their evil little gadget did its work exceptionally well.
One of them was holding…a weapon? It had to be, that thing had been poked into the room and fired at Merry—who was now curled up in a fetal position, twitching. Nothing had visibly emerged from it, but if it used sound like the scream grenade… She couldn’t tell what it was made of, the surface being white and glossy like porcelain, which would be absurd. It had a handle and odd little protrusions, and Casey’s vision swam too much to pick out more details than that.
Her arm hurt. Somehow, she’d got it pinned under her shield, which she had just rolled the rest of her weight onto. Oddly enough, the pain helped her focus. One of the Punaji troopers had fallen across her legs and was moving feebly. That had to have been after she rolled over, but she hadn’t noticed it happening. It was so hard to think.
Someone had to do something. None of them could act, though; they couldn’t even move.
Casey blinked, twice, then squeezed her eyes shut. Then opened them, fixing her stare on the white sound-bomb. She focused as hard as she was able, ignoring the heaving of the barracks around her. Yes… It had a black stripe around the middle and a blinking green light in that. Staring at a fixed point, she could calm the heaving of her stomach and brain. But what good was that? She still couldn’t move, or it would all start again.
And there was only one way to fight back without moving.
The smell in the sickroom was horrific, a melange of sweat, human waste, strong soap, and pure rot, complicated but not at all suppressed by the scent of the flowers and herbs placed there to counter it. Both of the Elwick children were held by their father, one of his strong hands firmly upon each of their shoulders. He hadn’t grabbed Casey until she had made an abortive move for the door; Andy he had held even before they entered, and his grip was the only thing keeping him.
“That’s what cancer looks like,” their father said quietly, inexorably. “Close to the end, now. Once it gets into the bones…there’s not a thing any healer in the world can do. Not one thing. Your own body just eats itself. Ain’t any more painful way to die. It’s like being burned alive, ‘cept it takes years instead of seconds.”
“Papa,” Andy whimpered, “I wanna go home. I don’t want to be here.”
Casey said nothing. She knew better.
Sheldon Johns lay on the room’s sole bed, little more than a skeleton of a man at this point,his skin stretched thin as paper and still somehow loose on his bones, lesions spotting it here and there. Though he had been dosed heavily with laudanum, the man groaned softly in his sleep, his face pinched with agony.
“Papa, please,” Andy begged.
His father only tightened his grip. “You have to know, son. You have to know. All it takes is one mistake. Just one. Sheldon doesn’t even remember when it happened, the slip-up that let it in. This is what infernal magic does to you if you cannot control it. One little mistake, and you die in such agony that Hell’s a relief when you get there. If you’re gonna touch the power, you can’t make a mistake. Not one. Ever.”
Tears began to pour down Andy’s cheeks. Casey reached up to grasp the big hand holding her by the shoulder. Not to push it off, but just to hold on.
Eyes fixed on the sonic weapon in the Rust cultist’s hand, Casey had to grip her shield and the floor for dear life as he moved it slightly, sending fresh waves of dizziness through her. He was holding it up, though, somehow maintaining its piercing, impossible noise. At least that kept it relatively steady. This was going to be hard enough, keeping focused despite the nausea and the pain in her head.
Eyes on the target, focus on the target, reach out with the mind.
It was there. It was always there. Every child of the Black Wreath was taught how to find it—not to use it, but how to recognize the power so they could avoid it. So they never stumbled into it by accident, or let it creep up on them. That was how you died—burned to charred bones where you stood, if you were lucky.
Just beyond the veil of reality, once her attention acknowledged its presence, it roared, beckoned, begged. It was a colossal torrent of sheer fury, like brushing the surface of the sun, except sweet, and cloying. It promised power beyond her dreams, the power to stand astride the world, a god in her own right. The magic whispered seductively even as it screamed in rage, pleading and promising, yearning to be used, igniting a yearning in reply.
She knew better.
“It’s outsider ignorance, thinking the Wreath are all warlocks,” her father said, tossing another stick in the fire. They didn’t discuss these things in town; the walls were too thin. These camping trips made the perfect opportunity for Elwick to teach his children. They were a full two days hike into the prairie from Hamlet, in the opposite direction from the elven grove, with no one to overhear them but the coyotes whose howling livened the night. “The Wreath has warlocks, yes, but no more than one in twelve of us. There’s plenty of work for the Dark Lady that doesn’t involve magic. Most of the work, in fact, the less flashy stuff that keeps us going, and keeps us hidden. The warlocks are the first line of attack and last line of defense, yes. They get all the drama and excitement. And if there’s death and pain to be suffered, it’s the warlocks who suffer it. Don’t you be swayed by any stories of adventure, kids. It ain’t like that. If your path is to serve the Lady as a warlock, so be it. But if it’s not, I’ll be happier.”
“But you’re a warlock, Pa,” Andy protested.
Elwick nodded slowly, staring into the flames. “And you listen to you father, boy. I know what I’m talking about, and I wouldn’t wish this on my children. You’re smart enough to understand me when I say that. And you’re old enough.” His gaze flicked to Casey; sitting where he was, the campfire divided his line of sight between his two children. “Both of you. You’re old enough to know, and you need to know. So…now I’m gonna ask you the question.
“Are you ready to learn how to handle the infernal?”
Andy nodded, his expression solemn. “I’m ready, Pa.”
Casey could only stare at her father for almost a full minute. He stared back, not pushing her even when Andy began to shift restlessly.
Finally, she shook her head. “No, sir. No, I’m not ready. I… I don’t think I’m ever gonna be ready, Pa. I don’t wanna do it.”
Elwick smiled at his daughter, his eyes shining in the firelight. “That’s my good girl. Smart girl.” Slowly, the smile drained away from his features. “But that ain’t an option, Casey. You have to learn; you can’t be allowed not to know. Now’s the time.”
Doing anything finely-tuned, or incredibly specific, with infernal magic was well beyond her skill. All she knew was how to brush against it, and bring a tiny quantity to this world, without killing or corrupting herself.
Ironically, the mental demands of handling the torrent of sheer rage helped push back the pain of the Rust’s weapon. Her tight focus determined the target. Casey stared at the white orb, tried to stare through it. Into it. The constant piercing noise was messing with her sense of spatial relationships, but her eyes knew where it was. That would have to be enough.
A proper warlock could call up infernal power, handle it safely, shape it to achieve their ends; all she could do was brush it with her mind, letting its howling entreaties, its rage and seduction, slide past her without acknowledgment, letting just the tiniest bit be disturbed by the contact of her consciousness. Not clinging to her, but drifting loose from the torrent and into the world. The power was a river, she a passing gust of wind that kicked up a tiny spray of mist from its surface.
And then came the really difficult part.
“There’s a reason we call them shadowbolts and shadow-jumping,” Elwick said, holding up a hand. Under the bright morning sun, the stream of blackness with its bruise-purple aura that he called into being was particularly striking; it flashed away from him, slamming into the ground. Where it struck, the tallgrass shook violently, then faded to a darker, browner shade and drooped slightly.
He turned a faint smirk on the kids, and then darkness welled up out of thin air around him. It receded immediately, and when it was gone, so was he.
“You know about the four schools and the Circles of Interaction,” their father said, now a few feet behind them.
“Sure, Pa,” Andy replied quickly, spinning around. “I read the books you gave me.” Casey just turned and nodded.
Their father nodded in return. “Those four are the bulk of all magic; everything that’s left is referred to as shadow magic, and it ain’t all of one type. It’s just remnants, shadows of somethin’ greater. Most scholars reckon they were the powers of the Elder Gods who the Pantheon and the Dark Lady struck down, but we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that they make it a little safer to dip into the power of the infernal—and you can use the infernal to dip into them, in ways that other schools can’t. And that’s why these are our basic tricks. Shadowbolts to attack, because casting an actual infernal spell in any situation that’s stressful enough for you to be fighting in is likely to end with you accidentally corrupted. Shadow-jumping is using another type of faded old magic to pull two pieces of creation together; it’s just the tiniest touch of the infernal that bores a hole through ’em that you can step across.
“The principle’s the same in both cases. A little touch of infernal magic erodes the barriers. That’s what it does; it burns things. You know why most demons are bigger, stronger, so covered with claws and fangs and armor plates? Those adaptations are what infernal magic does to living things, those that somehow survive it. The infernal both enhances and destroys; it empowers you even while killing you. That’s also the effect it has on reality itself. The smallest amount, in just the right way, applied to these forgotten bits of shadow magic, both pushes energy into them to make ’em stronger than they are without it, and burns away at the barriers holding them back. Then, once you’re holding onto the shadows, you can wrap ’em around Scyllith’s power to make it a little easier to handle.”
He paused, looking at each of them as if to be certain they were following his lecture. Both nodded, Andy eager, Casey with a slower and solemn motion. Their father nodded back.
“All right, I’m gonna show you how it works.”
The infernal and the arcane were vast, bottomless oceans of power; no one could ever drink fully of them. A spellcaster’s only limits were internal, in how much infernal magic they could safely channel, or how much arcane they could store. Casey had no ability to touch either the divine or fae, as those did not inherently respond to humans and required the auspices of other beings to touch. Beings which would not give the time of day to such as her. She knew it was the same in theory, though. All four schools of the Circle were functionally infinite, fathomless.
Shadow magic was trickier.
She was able to find it because she knew it, and because of the tiny “spray” of hellfire she had brushed loose into creation; the barriers singed, the faintest tremor rippled through existence, and in the disturbance she could find them.
The intensity of concentration had banished the heaving of her guts, but her head still throbbed as if it were being forcibly inflated from within. Her shield dug excruciatingly into her arm, and the world in her peripheral vision wavered as if she were drunk; only the white weapon was fixed and firm in her vision. Her eyes burned from having stared at it so long without blinking, and sweat was dripping from her brows. She couldn’t give up, though.
The first shadow was the cool, dim presence whose touch on her mind was like dipping fingers into molasses; it slowed, soothed, calmed, suppressed. Casey had always felt that whatever long-dead god had designed it had intended it for healing, though some of the books she’d read insisted its purpose had been to steal wills and keep slaves in line, as the Elder Gods were known to have done that. Somehow, it overall felt like the color purple.
Faint and weak as it was, the tiny puff of loose infernal power she had dislodged made her whole perception of it quiver, and for a moment of terror she was sure it was going to collapse. She did not have the strength to do this a second time; it could not fail.
It didn’t. In her outer perceptions, hellfire caught in the murky shadow like burning embers floating in viscous darkness. She didn’t rest, couldn’t afford to yet.
The second shadow was like brushing through cobwebs, a thing of connections and strands; it was as if it were made of strings linking every atom in the universe to every other. They were thin and fragile things, weak with long disuse. Casey had always felt, when touching this almost-forgotten power, that it seemed dusty; she was sure, without knowing how, that those infinite strands would have been firm as woven silk had they been fully empowered. Something in them carried that memory of what they were supposed to be.
She was able to catch and use them, gathering the strings to create a shape. Wrapping up the darkness and the smidgeon of hellfire into a single, tiny seed.
Casey’s whole body trembled with the exertion of focus, as she finally planted that seed. Right in the middle of the Rust’s sonic bomb.
At last, she collapsed, gasping, then heaving and barely able to keep, again, from spilling the contents of her stomach. It had worked, though. Even with her concentration having broken, she could sense the little thing she’d done with her mind. It couldn’t be called a spell, just a little fragment of sheer infernal power, unfocused and barely held in check by a thin layer of shadow. It had left her trembling with exhaustion, and burning with shame at having dabbled in what she’d sworn she would never again touch. But it was done.
Casey lifted her eyes again. The two machine-people had stopped their conversation; one was staring at the bomb in his hand, wearing a frown. Then he shifted his gaze, one eye a blue glass orb lit from within, to look directly at Casey.
She reached out again with her will, and ripped away the fragile barrier of shadow.
The weapon was obliterated so quickly and totally it couldn’t even be said to have exploded. Its solid matter simply burned away, leaving its owner holding a ball of fire with a will to seize, consume, and corrupt.
That horrible, unreal keening vanished, letting sound crash back down like a physical force—the roaring of the storm outside, groaning from all the soldiers in the room, and now the shrieking of the Rust. Casey slumped to the floor again, but managed to keep her head up enough to watch as fire raced up the man’s arm. He seized his compatriot in panic, dooming them both.
She finally lowered her eyes, and began working her way loose. Her right arm was completely numb, and began tingling as soon as she’s pulled her weight off the shield and lifted it from the indentation it had made in her bicep. All around her, Punaji troops and her squadmates began gathering themselves in a muted cacophony of whimpers, moans, and scuffling.
Nandi was still down, clutching her head and breathing in a series of heavy rasps; Farah stayed hunched over her, whispering softly and gently stroking her golden hair. Ephanie was the first person back upright, grabbing the edge of one of the tipped-over tables that had served as improved barriers and hauling herself to her feet. Lieutenant Laghari followed suit.
Both officers had torn their attention from their fallen troops to stare at the two cultists.
“What the fuck,” Laghari whispered.
The stink of burned flesh and hot metal filled the barracks, which did not help the residual nausea left from the sonic bomb. Casey pushed herself up to her knees with one arm, lifting her head to make herself see her handiwork.
What exposed skin she could see was badly charred. At least the second cultist was only burned to death; the one who’d been holding the bomb had been twisted. Ironically, the arm which had actually been holding it, a flesh and blood arm, wasn’t burned at all, but now covered with reptilian scales, its fingers tipped with heavy claws. Exposed flesh on the rest of him had been warped until it tore loose from his mechanical additions. His very skull was the wrong shape, now and had warped too abruptly to keep up with its own transmutation; part of his jawbone was hanging loose from a fringe of seared skin, and his organic eye socket had been pulled so wide that the eyeball would have fallen out, had it still been more than a half-boiled soup now dripping down his face.
One of the Punaji had straightened up enough to get a good look at this, and immediately doubled over again, heaving. Fortunately, it seemed he’d already lost the entire contents of his stomach, leaving nothing else to come up.
“Obviously an infernal event.” Ephanie’s voice was shaky, but it steadied quickly as she spoke. “Awfully close. Everyone here will need a thorough healing and cleansing, as soon as we all survive…whatever’s going on out there.”
“Yeah. Agreed.” Laghari nodded, turning his back on the scene of destruction and bending to give one of his soldiers a hand upright. “Our windshaman are adept at infernal cleansing; I’ll see you’re included, ladies.”
“But what happened?” one of the Punaji asked weakly. “Did…a warlock help us?”
Casey opened her mouth, and Merry “accidentally” dropped a shield on her foot.
“I don’t see any warlock,” Merry said, bending to retrieve her shield. “Who knows what the hell those gadgets run on? I bet they just tampered with something they can’t control. We’d best be on the lookout with the next batch we come to.”
“Yeah. You heard her, boys and girls.” Laghari was quickly coming back into his own; though pale and hollow-eyed, his voice had regained its firmness along with his spine. “The Rock is under attack, and we don’t have time to screw around. Rajapta, Sindi, you look solid enough. Get me a careful look at what’s happening on the battlements. Go around; hug the walls and don’t step near those bodies, there’s still infernal fuckery afoot. Shakhar, Dukha, same goes—scout our rear. If you see any sign they’re coming up from the lower floor as well, fall back here and help us get a barricade over the stairway door, hopefully that’ll impair those noise weapons. If not, warn whoever’s still down there. Sit down, Ayit, falling and cracking your skull open won’t get you back in shape any faster. Be soldiers, not heroes; if you’re too fucked up by that to fight, get over by the hearth and try to get your heads back together.”
While the designated scouts slipped out and Laghari moved among his troops, helping them back into order, Squad One staggered to their feet, Farah helping Nandi upright.
“Report, Shahai,” Ephanie ordered quietly. “That hit you harder than any of us. Will you be okay?”
Nandi held up one hand momentarily, swallowing and squeezing her eyes shut. Her aura flickered alight, the golden glow guttering like a small flame in a wind for a moment before steadying. She let out a long breath, and opened her eyes, letting the light drop.
“Still hurts in my head, XO, but…I’ll make do. I don’t think any of us have the luxury of sitting this one out.”
Ephanie reached out to squeeze her upper arm. “Like the man said, don’t be a hero. How are you doing?”
“I’m…in no shape to stand in a phalanx, ma’am,” Nandi said, rubbing her forehead. “Skull’s still throbbing and I’m weak all over. This is going to need a better healer to address, one who didn’t just have her brains scrambled. I’m not useless, though. Permission to give healing to the Punaji?”
“Granted, but do not over-exert yourself. We’re up a creek here and nobody can afford to get any more burned out than we already are.”
Nandi straightened up and managed a salute, then turned to limp toward the Punaji, Farah still half-supporting her. While the Legionnaires had been in the center of the formation initially, by this time their hosts had gathered to one side of the barracks, leaving them with some space to themselves.
“Shit, that thing was bad enough for us,” Merry said weakly. “For an elf’s ears… Avelea, I don’t suppose you have any idea what we’re facing?”
Ephanie shook her head, but had already fixed a hard stare on Casey, who swallowed heavily.
“Ma’am, I…” She paused to clear her throat, then lowered her voice. “That was a violation of the conditions of my enlistment. Once we’re out of this I will report for court mar—”
Ephanie seized her by the face, her gauntlet covering Casey’s mouth and digging metal edges painfully into her skin. She had her back to the other side of the room, hiding this scene from the Punaji with her body.
“My report,” she said quietly, “will indicate that, as Private Lang observed, we don’t understand the Rust well enough to guess what they were doing or what went wrong. As such, your quick thinking and ability to function under terrible pressure will go unrecognized and unrewarded. You have my thanks for our lives, Elwick, and I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with that.”
Casey started to speak, but Ephanie dug her fingers in harder and tugged her forward by the jaw, until their faces were inches apart. Her next words were a low growl.
“Never again, Elwick. Never. If the options are that or we all die, then we will die with our souls uncorrupted. Is that clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she mumbled into the corporal’s gauntlet. Ephanie held her gaze, and her face, for a moment longer before releasing her. Then, incongruously, patted her on the shoulder.
“You’re a better woman than you are a soldier, Elwick. Far as I’m concerned, that means this particular squad is damn lucky to have you, and I know the LT will back me all the way on that.”
“Thank you, Corporal.” Casey managed a watery smile.
“D’awww.” Merry gave them her biggest shit-eating grin. “Now kiss!”
“XO, permission to stab Private Lang?”
“I expect we’ll need her for a human shield very soon.”
“You know you love me,” Merry said, then raised her voice to be audible beyond their small circle. “By the way, has that thunder started sounding awfully regular in the last minute or so?”
As if on cue, the two soldiers Laghari had sent up to the battlements dashed back in from the stairs, soaked with rain.
“Sir!” the first said urgently. “Rust have control of the walls and the other gatehouse, the fortress’s inner door has been breached and the interior defenders are down.”
Laghari drew in a breath, and visibly stiffened his spine. “All right. The bastards are not taking down the King, not while I draw breath. Can it!” he bellowed over the roar of agreement that rose at this pronouncement. “We charge in after them, we’ll be knocked down again like we were just now. We need some way to counter that sound weapon; that can’t have been the only one they brought. Ladies, any thoughts?”
He turned toward Ephanie, but it was Nandi who spoke. The elf had lifted her head and tilted it as if she were having trouble hearing, her brow still creased with lingering pain.
“That is not thunder. Something is ramming the gate!”
“Yes, sir!” the drenched scout said frantically. “Sir, the Rust have the inside, but someone is assaulting the fortress from outside! We couldn’t get a good look with all of them on the ramparts, but—”
A particularly loud thunderbolt cut him off. The barracks trembled with impact; the thunder had come concurrently with the flash of lightning through its narrow windows.
“That struck the gatehouse!” Nandi exclaimed. “The lightning rods should have deflected that, unless they were destroyed somehow.”
“Magically cast lightning doesn’t always follow the path of least resistance,” Farah said, her eyes wide.
“Form up, lads and lasses,” Laghari said grimly, bending to pick up a fallen battlestaff. “It sounds like this party’s barely started.”