Let me tell you a story...
Her cheeks flushed, almost crimson in charmed embarrassment.
"Corporal, you're just too--do you really think my eyes are like starlight?"
I prickled slightly, I'll admit. I mean, she was laying it on a bit thick. But so was our church liaison officer... our married liaison officer.
"Miss Corwinne," he smiled earnestly, ignoring the promotion from Lance Corporal she’d just given him,"I'm paying the stars a compliment, really I am." He nodded for emphasis. "And your hair is just like the leaves on this apple tree we had outside my window growing up... in the Fall its leaves got this beautiful shade of red. In the mornings, in the dew, they'd just shimmer in the light... That's what your hair reminds me of, Miss Corwinne."
Oh, I could just eat him right up.
She was looking good tonight, I had to admit. It would be unfair to call her “grimy”, but Corwinne normally sports a slight patina of thaumiol and sweat, and is more at home with a spanner and her ether goggles than with the collapsable fan and corset she'd slid herself into for the evening's festivities. Her long leather jacket had been traded for an auburn evening gown that offset her hair just so, and she seemed as at home in her creamy, elbow-length opera gloves as she'd normally be in their insulated workman's cousins that normally covered her fingertips. A diamond-studded necklace with a massive ruby pendant completed her outfit, as well as her cover as a baroness of the Fanelands.
Her attempts at a Fanish accent when we'd practiced had been nothing short of apocalyptic, so "raised by the Church in Noldon" had been the cover we'd finally adopted. The festivities thrown in honor of the visiting Church dignitary--that'd be me--had been meager, but the sight of her had certainly made the effort worthwhile for every NCO in the battalion.
She giggled, then sighed wistfully, leaning on the arm of her escort. I didn't prickle. Much.
"Ah, Corporal, you're sweet. I don't suppose I'm very likely to meet a nice gentleman like yourself anytime soon, though, spending my time here on the front." Then she turned and gave me a huge stage wink, pointing a gloved thumb at our escort and shaking her head imperceptibly, a huge, "will you get a load of this guy?" grin on her lips. Walking several paces behind them, by dint of my red collar an honored guest of the 27th Thaumaturgical Brigade, I suppressed a laugh.
That was my girl.
We made our way down from the officers' mess, where by now drunken NCOs were expounding upon what they would enjoy doing on or to various parts of my partner’s anatomy. The welcoming party thrown by Leftenant Commander Holvelak--whose augustness I had yet to lay eyes on, telling me all I needed to know about his feelings toward the Church--had essentially been a debauched drinking binge, though with a single female in attendance, it had devolved into increasingly non-hushed depictions of the extreme sexual prowess of all those in attendance--myself thankfully excepted. Corwinne had been like a wrinkle in the fabric of reality, projecting a zone of rapid shushing wherever she arrived, and having the irresistible pull on the eyeballs wherever she’d left. Me, no one quite seemed to know what to do with. Certainly every officer in the room was a devout churchgoer--he’d hardly be elevated to officer without checking off that box--but by their profession and nature, these were none of them holy men. I was both the distant authority figure they all longed to please, and a goddamn annoyance that prevented them from completely eye-fucking the only woman they’d seen in months.
I was largely ignored, which suited me fine. I wasn’t here to socialize.
Having plead my partner’s tiredness, we now meandered our way down gently corkscrewing ramp of our conquered elven village's Mother Tree. Each tread of my ceremonial slippers sank ever so slightly into the ancient leather that wound around its trunk, held aloft by branches that the elves had coaxed to grow just so from the massive oak's girth. Relaxing as my partner distracted her smitten Lance Corporal--though able to distinguish between seven different models of thaumagical battle dress already, I was pretty sure Corwinne wouldn’t have known the difference between a Lance Corporal and a Captain--I marveled at the 27th's new base of operations... or rather, at the remains of the millennia of elven patience that had crafted what we then stole.
The Mother Tree had been the center of the village, and its arboreal common areas would once have featured court hearings, religious ceremonies, and carefree revels. It stood taller than any tree I had ever seen, its upper reaches no less than five hundred feet from the earth, and from what I'd heard over more than several bottles of the Leftenant Commander's wine, it was a piece of kindling by comparison to what could be found farther into the elvish lands. That thought was enough to make a city boy like me feel a certain awe at our enemies, and a primal regret that any of this war was necessary. The Mother Tree's leaves were five feet wide, and when she gave them up, the elves wore them as armor that was lighter and sturdier than most of our thaumaturgically-reinforced leathers. Any people who could create such amazing bounty out of nature, whisper to it like a consort to her lover, telling him just what he needed to hear--
Just like that, my reverie snapped. Like an emphasis laid down over my own internal monologue, an image highlighted in my imagination, came the Revelation. Most in my order pray daily for signs from God, for spiritual guidance and help in troubled times. They would happily sacrifice their worldly wealth for a glimmer of soothsaying from on high. Self-flagellation isn't unheard of, in an effort to purify themselves to accept the holy oracle. Suckers. Revelation means only one thing in my life: someone would die soon.
My senses in overdrive, I cast my too-human perceptions out into the night, hoping to catch any sign of what we were about to face. Elves, it had to be. I’d heard that they just vanished when our troops approached: no one had seen a single elf. That didn’t mean they weren’t around, though. Given the string of minor, coincidental disasters that befell the men of the 27th as they made their way towards the elf village--disasters that cost the lives of nearly two dozen men and rendered inoperable the heaviest weaponry in the brigade--I suspected elf-magic at work. No way had the elves just given up their village and fled.
"Lance Corporal, I don't mean to rush you, but is there any way we could pick up the pace a little? I've got... er... these robes aren't much protection against the weather, you know."
Corwinne heard it in my voice, and her hand went immediately to her belt... which wasn't there. I saw her stiffen from behind. She wasn't one to give much credence to "ancient superstition", but she trusted my nose for danger. Without her tool belt, though, she wasn't packing her usual bag of tricks. "Defenseless" was a strong word, but it didn't look like she'd be laying much smack down tonight. Great. Her would-be suitor caught none of this, however, and cast a frown back at me.
"It isn't so cold out, Father. Still, if your holiness is uncomfortable..." he sighed. "Certainly, Father. We'll be to your quarters soon. Commander Holvelak thought you would be more comfortable at ground level, and we're almost..." He stopped, trying to follow my frantically-darting gaze. "I'm sorry, is there something that you're looking for?"
There was, and I spotted it a fraction of a second after it found the Lance Corporal's neck. Crimson and yellow mixed as the arrow took him through the throat. It tore through his larynx, flying off into the dark, and he crumpled, clutching at the breaths that were mixing with the blood that poured from his body.
Off into the dark? The arrow had come from...
The elf seemed to step from the Mother Tree itself, the bladed end of his war bow slashing down at Corwinne. There was this sort of crevasse, a curious fold of the tree's bark that had served both to hide a mud-painted infiltrator and to cause my eye to just glaze right past his hiding spot. Even seeing clearly the hideaway from which he'd stepped, I could barely force my eyes to focus on it. Such was the magic of the elves, if you could call it that: they spent their centuries carefully shaping the trees, breeding the animals, and moving even the earth itself to serve their precise needs. And we’d had the gall to invade one of their carefully-shaped cities? The whole of the natural world seemed to obey their every whim!
One of those whims appeared to be my partner's death. God and I had other plans for her.
We were both moving before our escort's knees had hit the leathery floor. Corwinne's hand bent strangely, releasing the contents of some hidden pouch in her glove; these she flung at the Lance Corporal. Shimmering blue and silver motes sped through the air with a speed borne of purpose. Corwinne called them "metamorphic bio-pattern perfectors", which seemed to be her way of saying that they'd fill in the gaps of you that for some reason had gone missing. Victim of many such gaps, I knew them all too well.
Just as I knew her, and her infuriating penchant for self-sacrifice. Dodge out of the way of the blade aimed at her throat? Oh, Jaspar, I couldn't, not if it would make a difference in saving the life of some--
My internal monologue took a moment to compose itself as I barreled into her, hitting just at the waist so as not to knock the wind out of her. As her head whipped forward, the elf's blade sliced through a lock of her hair, but Corwinne's haircut was the least of my worries at the moment.
I deposited her a few paces down the ramp, and turned to face our attacker. The elf was lithe and quick, a new arrow already nocked and drawn. His leaf-armor was coated with a thick mud, but as he stepped into the moonlight that filtered down through the thick arbor, his skin began to glow softly, emitting a cool blue radiance. By every appearance, he had me dead to rights. But he didn't have God on his side.
How can I describe it, fighting with divine guidance? It's like everything in the world goes black-and-white, except the thing that I absolutely have to focus on, which shines with the brightest color. Sometimes I'll see things, flickering ghosts of the Divine Will, showing me What Must Be. When I say that the Lord guides my hand, I mean just that: He shows me the way. It isn't as if He takes the reins, and I've certainly enough scars to prove that I'm not always worthy of the advice He offers... but it does mean that I'm liable to spot things that no one else sees, and make judgments just that fraction of a second faster than anyone expects.
It also means I'm a bastard to hit, especially when you're sure you've got me covered. The elf let his yellow-fletched arrow fly without even so much as a "die, outlander"--which just goes to show that they have no sense of the dramatic--but I was already in motion, sliding into just the right position, not through any great battle instinct of my own, not by watching the elf's all-black eyes to know where he's aiming, but because I could see a Jaspar-shaped emptiness in the air that cried out to be filled.
I filled it, and the arrow's breeze tousled my hair rather than its tip spattering my brains. The elf's black eyes betrayed him for only a second, but in that time he saw a feral grin, and a blade slide into my hand from a hidden wrist-sheath. I felt Jorngnir swell like an erection, the Butcher's Blade eager to taste new meat... and then, with an electric sizzle, the elf pitched forward, thin streams of smoke curling from his pointed ears.
"Damn it, woman," I groused, "I even had a witty one-liner. I swear, you take all the fun..."
I turned, breath catching just a little. "... out of the job," I finished, weakly. There she stood, her red evening gown clinging to her body, her arm cocked with some sort of oversized lightning pistol pointing casually towards the sky. Her breasts rose just slightly in her corset and her face was flushed with adrenaline. She put one hand on her hip and I swear to God she blew the smoke off from the muzzle of her gun.
"It's cute of you to stare," she chirped brightly, "but I think I'm probably going to need scary-fuck-you-up Jaspar, not I-have-these-pelvically-frustrating-vows Jaspar, mmmkay?"
"I wasn't staring. I was pouting."
"At your woefully inadequate sex life, I know. Now's not the time. Scary Jaspar!" She bared her teeth and made a claw with her empty hand, to show me what she was getting at. “Rrrrr!”
"I was pouting at... come on, one-liner! Those don't happen every-- Ahhh, wait up!"
Before I could gather my wits enough to ask her where she'd gotten that pistol, given the anatomically-accurate nature of her current attire, she strode past me, tearing her necklace off with a hard motion. Her body shimmered, glittering silver for a moment, and then she stood revealed as the Corwinne I knew so well: battered leather jacket, insulated workman's gloves, boots and breeches, and more pockets than could be picked by all of Sayn Agaetha's Reformatory for Wayward Lads.
"You weren't really wearing.. you just glamoured yourself!" I sputtered. "I'm in ceremonial slippers, here! With the full frock, and this cord that's got tassels on it! Tassels!"
"He's very grouchy when I'm cleverer than he expects, Corporal. How's the neck?" She was helping our escort to his feet, which was made a bit of a chore by the way that he was lying in a pool of his own blood. Very slippery, those, especially when combined with the wooziness of blood loss.
The man was clearly dazed, and he pawed at his neck in confusion. Where torn flesh ended, a shimmering blue substance had coalesced, and as he probed it, it bent and flexed under his fingers, just like the real thing would.
"Don't pick at it," his guardian angel scolded. "Your skin will grow back around it, and you'll be good as new, with barely any scarring or anything. Metamorphic bio-pattern--ph, never mind; it's maaaa-gic. See?" She held up a lens from her goggles so that he could see his neck reflected. "Sparkly!"
"... and therefore magic," I finished, grabbing one of the Lance Corporal's arms as she took the other. I jerked my head toward the elf's smoking corpse. "Let's do a little more magic and disappear before that guy's buddies show up."
We escorted our escort rapidly back to ground level, and by the time we'd hit the forest floor, he seemed to have regained control of his legs. Talking did not seem to be a faculty that had returned to him yet, which I took to be a mercy as I strained to listen for the further dangers I knew lurked in the night. My Revelation hadn't yet been answered, which meant that the dying had only just begun.
"I'm wearing makeup," Corwinne hissed loudly.
"What?" I was genuinely taken aback.
"You're not talking to me, which is what you do when you're mad at me. So I asked myself why you would be mad, and I figure it must be because I was just wearing a glamour and you had to wear your stuffy ceremonial robes, which I suppose must not be very comfortable or particularly combat-ready. And then I said, 'Ah-ha!', because you hate not being combat-ready, so not only are you mad because you're the only one who's been uncomfortable, but also because you're questioning whether you'd have gotten that guy if you were just wearing your regular robes instead of these ones, which reminds you that you're mad about me not really wearing a dress."
I stared at her, but for a different reason than last time.
"Sooo I thought I'd point out that only my clothes were glamoured, and I really am wearing makeup, which is a total bitch-and-a-half to put on, you have no idea, so I really did have to suffer just like you did and you shouldn't be mad." She waited for a reply, fidgeting slightly under my baleful look. "Maybe a bitch-and-three-quarters?"
"Sayn Ieander," I spat, failing to repress a grin. "I swear I wish I could stay mad at you."
She grinned back. " 'Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne.' "
"Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne."
" 'And I like what you've done with your hair.' "
I sighed. "And I like what you've done with your hair. Can we--?"
She was on a roll. Even the Lance Corporal was grinning at me. " 'And I'm sorry I never take you to nice places where you can wear dresses for real, and maybe dance with you a little.' "
I dropped and spun low, Jorngnir's haft catching them both at the backs of their knees. Three arrows whizzed just overhead, and a fourth nicked my shoulder, drawing a streak that neatly matched my banded collar.
"We'll talk about this later," I gritted, pushing to my feet in a sprint toward the closest of the five elves who'd just seemed to spring up as if the earth had belched them up at us. This one had a massive sword, easily as long as he was tall, and he whipped it around as I approached with an ease that told me the blade was not weighted like steel. The others were armed with bows, which made them Corwinne's problem. Big guys with long, pointy things were my territory.
He cried out in Elven and matched my charge, blade a whirling blur. "Mine's bigger," I hissed as we closed, casting Jorngnir out like a spear to get myself the extra several feet of reach that my longer weapon afforded me. He dodged aside without slowing, his sword sweeping around on the side where Jorngnir wasn't, a blow meant to be impossible to parry. Probably it was, but if I relied on my weapon for everything I'd have been in real trouble long before this.
I heard a spitting sound come from behind me as I sprang inside the sweep of his huge sword, blocking his arms with my body and putting my face right up against his. His all-black, expressionless eyes didn’t waver, to his credit. I’d already seen the dagger at his side, outlined brightly to my Revealed sight. One hand snaked toward it...
And then I shoved him hard, my leg hooked around his ankle, and he staggered backwards, flailing his way right into the path of Corwinne’s thaumiol spray. I waved brightly at him as we both heard the sharp click! of Corwinne's igniter. There was a green fwooosh! and he was gone, along with the rest of our assailants.
Whoops, no--I’d missed one in the sudden burst of flame in front of my eyes. Her bow leveled at the clearly-greater threat, she made ready to send Corwinne after her fellows to the Crawling Lands. My fingers traced arcane pathways in the gloom. A whispered word, an invisible dagger flung, and a little murder in the night, and my partner would live to see another day. I looked over to get some credit for the save, but Corwinne wasn’t yet in a grateful mood.
“Jaspar, look around...” she hissed.
Well, my partner might live to see another day. Elves where everywhere all of a sudden. It was if we had been magically whisked into the middle of their village at noontide, on a day when they were not being overrun by thaumagically enhanced human hordes. Except, that if anyone was doing the overruning, it seemed to be the elves right now. I saw dozens: men, women, even a few children armed with slings and shortspears. Not a one of them had anything more advanced than a longbow, and it looked like they were about to completely wipe the floor with one of Calisar’s most decorated thaumechanized battalions.
I heard an explosion, saw a flare of green light bend the shadows malevolently. One of the 27th’s Animated Personnel Carriers had just exploded, peppering the night with shards of rune-covered elephaunt bones. While I shared the elves’ distaste for the animated dead--it was one of the few parts of military life that operated in flagrant disobedience to God’s Will--it didn’t bode well that its thaumiol tank had been blown. Not only did that mean that its guards were dead, but any bits of that bastard creation that were left over would no longer be bound by the restraining enchantments... yep, there were the screams. “Irresistible craving for the life force of the living” qualified as a good reason not to mess about with the undead.
My cold satisfaction at our enemies’ miscalculation was disrupted by the body that landed in a pulpy mess at my feet. I saw officer’s bars amid the wreckage, and looked up barely in time to throw myself out of the way of another of my erstwhile drinking companions as he plummeted to the earth. Rolling into a crouch, I grimly assessed the situation.
It didn’t take much Revelation to see all the many pointy things that were aimed in our direction. And though I couldn’t see them well, I knew that more bodies were being hurled at us from above, as elves cleared out what had just been the officer’s mess. None of the elves near us was in any danger of being crushed by falling human--it seemed only Corwinne, the Corporal, and myself had that worry--so if we weren’t crushed, it looked as if we had a bright future of bloody perforation in store.
I looked at Corwinne. She looked at the Lance Corporal.
I prayed for us.
The night thrummed with the Divine Will and the hum of Corwinne’s battery packs. I felt a sharp prick at my back, accompanied by the faint scent of her perfume. A metallic whisper from the homing dart she’d tagged me with crackled, “Go get ‘em, tiger.”
I ran, letting grace and Revelation guide my steps. Jorngnir, fully grown, pulled me forward, more of a buoy than a weight in my hands. More bodies landed around me, but my path was true. Arrows whizzed as I roared a battle challenge; I felt only faint scratches. Limned in a corona of pale radiance, all of me was wrath.
The first elf I reached flinched as I approached, and some part of me could tell that she wasn’t a warrior. Her stance was wrong, too tall, and no practiced archer would fire from out in the open like that. She was just some elf, defending her lands from human aggressors. In another time, we might have amiably debated elven polytheism, or at least agreed to mutually dislike one another and leave well enough alone. But the bow in her hands and the blade in mine drove us down a different path.
The light of grace surrounding me seemed to concentrate on Jorngnir’s edge as the runeblade slashed down. She tried to stumble out of the way, but my blow tracked her step, speeding for her heart. I felt the keening of the Butcher's Blade in my hands, gritted my teeth, pulled... and when my swing was complete, her bow fell in two neat pieces to the ground, and Jorngnir remained unbloodied.
Her black eyes locked onto mine, not understanding it, either. Then I spun, slamming the blunt haft of my weapon into her temple, and she dropped to the ground.
As she fell, the light washed away from us in all directions, flashing over half a dozen other elves who were standing within twenty feet of our position. The light infused them, and by the looks on their faces, I could tell that God had Revealed death to them. He took them then, transporting them perhaps to see a vision of the Core for only a split-second as the world continued to turn beneath our feet. First there, and then simply vanished, the elves who had been caught in the light then reappeared, bewildered and blinking... a dozen paces behind me. Where human soldiers were falling even still from the branches of the Mother Tree.
I didn’t hear any screams, just wet thumps, but I could see the looks on the faces of the elves still assembled. It was hardly fair. They were here to defend their home from human soldiers. Instead, they’d found me.
Corwinne found them, too. I’d heard her whispering words of power through the audio link on the homing dart, and with a crack of thunder the air split open in front of me, catching the next ranks of elves in a shockwave that knocked them off their feet. Winds whipped into dust devils, sending funnel clouds back along the edges of the assembled elves, tossing those they caught ten or fifteen feet back, clearing even more of a path for us to make our escape.
There came a hiss of static from the homing dart in my back, and another crack of thunder, and Corwinne was at my side.
“What about-” I began.
“I’ve got him,” she finished.
We didn't get far. Galloping through the hole we'd made came a twenty-foot high monstrosity of gore-spattered bone.
"Oh..." breathed Corwinne.
"... shit," I agreed. "The APC."
Made from enough elephaunt carcasses to weave a tight cage around a complement of a dozen or so soldiers, its colossal torso was smeared with gore from elves unfortunate enough to meet its tusks. The skeletal beast’s eye sockets glowed an angry red as it swept its head from side to side, slashing the steel blades attached to its bony protrusions to and fro, rending limbs where it could. Where an elephaunt might have been slow, the APC wasn’t encumbered by flesh, and it whipped about with surprising agility, kicking out with a hindleg and sending another unfortunate elf sprawling.
“Hey!” Corwinne shouted at it, stepping into the clearing. “Hey!”
I stared at her, slack-jawed. It made no sense. We’d just gotten the distraction that we were praying for--well, that I was praying for--and there she was, trying to get attention on us. Well, on her. I’d just been killing these elves. Now she was trying to save them all of a sudden?
The elephaunt skull swung round toward her. The red eyes flickered. Behind them, I could feel the hunger there, the desperation for her warmth, her flesh, her spirit. Some undead come to understand and accept their condition, the wracking yearning they felt for the life that they lost. Existential agony is a bit much to explain to the patched-together remains of a bunch of animals.
It let loose a soundless roar, and came at her.
Upper lip curled in a snarl, I sprang in front of it. The cogwheel of Sayn Ieander grew warm on my chest. “Come on, blaspheme,” I whispered, “and let me show you the Face of God.”
The burst of light tore into the skeleton, lancing through it cleanly. I could see a cogwheel-shaped hole straight through its chest and spine where the beam had hit it, but the damned thing didn’t even slow. It hit me like an explosion: I pole-vaulted over its tusk swing and tried to bring Jorngnir up to slice its skull in half, but it rammed its thick head into my leaping body before I could even get the blade aloft.
I went crashing back to the ground, my own bones grinding. No way could I hold onto my weapon; it went God knows where. When you are rammed by an elephaunt, you don’t “roll with it”. Too much of my body was screaming at me to decide if anything was broken; I scrabbled desperately backward. A leg crashed down where I’d just been, and I threw myself to one side as a tusk-blade followed suit. The APC reared up on its hindquarters, readying to smear me into paste.
BOOM! came the wave of thunder, and it was its turn to go sprawling. The immense beast rolled fully over, and then somehow dug its feet into the earth and pushed itself back to its feet in a way that made my flesh crawl. Nothing of flesh and blood could move like that. Corwinne stood solid in a shooter’s stance, oversized pistol outstretched, and hit it again. It was braced this time, and shrugged off the attack.
“Priest!” came the ragged breath, and I dragged my head around in time to see the Lance Corporal send Jorngnir hurtling through the air at me. I swallowed hard: the Butcher’s Blade had its way of tasting flesh at every possible opportunity. But his aim was good, and the blade buried itself in the ground a few feet from my position. Dragging myself to my feet, I staggered over to it.
Wrapping my fingers around its haft, I felt the weapon purr at my touch. It knew me, and knew that my desires matched its own. I gave it an upwards tug, and it slid free of the earth as if I’d drawn it from an oiled sheath. I greeted it like an old, sadistic friend.
“Come on, you bloody bastard, let’s remind this thing how to die.”
I took one step, and then another. They started coming more and more easily, pain fading from my limbs. The APC pushed forward under Corwinne’s fire, pushing closer despite a barrage of every form of energy she could think of. Fire, lightning, thunder, nothing kept it at bay. It slowed, but never stopped, pressing inexorably forward, like the tank it was enchanted to be. I pressed harder.
By the time I met it, Jorngnir arcing high overhead, I was at a full run, buoyed by a divine energy flooding my limbs. I saw the perfect place to strike, shearing my blade through its sternum. The impact of the strike jarred my arms, and I winced, but the blow was true. Its spine already severed from my initial assault, when I cleft its chest plate, it had nothing left holding its back and front halves together. The front took a few more staggering steps--as did the rear, and I had to dodge to and fro, evading the tree trunk-sized limbs as they galloped over me. Then it fell, coming to the earth in a thunderous crash.
I looked back at my handiwork, grinning. The thing lay in so many pieces, animating force gone from it. For myself, I felt strong, powerful, filled with the heady wash of victory... until I saw Corwinne’s jacket spilling out from under the wreckage, where the bulk of the thing’s weight had landed on her.
"Ieander, no..." I whispered.
A lancing bolt of dark energy hit me square in the chest, knocking me off of my feet.
"Traitors!" screamed the man covered in bone and brass. His coat and--let’s say “membership in the human race” instead of “humanity”--marked him unmistakably as an officer of the Army of Calisar. Judging by the sheer amount of decoration his jacket held, I guessed I had just been blasted by my host, Leftenant-Commander Holvelak. His lower half, however, was more similar to my own garb: a flowing black robe with a silver belt in the style of a human skull. Over his shoulder, he wore a bandolier of pouches, and hanging from his back I could see a pair of mismatched cylindrical canisters. One looked like a scroll case, while the other was made of iron, and was covered in runic script.
"Commander," the Lance Corporal croaked, but he didn't seem to have anything to follow that up with; he just stood with an arm partially outstretched toward me. Then he seemed to think better of it, and dragged himself into a salute.
Holvelak ignored his soldier and held his ground, but I could see him poised for another spell. Running on divine favor as I was, I could probably take another hit like that... but no good warlock brings his biggest spell to bear on an unknown opponent. I had no idea what he had in store, and I surely wasn't keen on finding out.
"Before I execute you, priest, would you mind explaining why you and your trollop would destroy a weapon that was doing such an admirable job of slaying, heh, the enemy?" He laughed weirdly as he asked it, as if calling elves "the enemy" rather missed the point.
I tensed. I could play for time, but he'd already announced his intention. Could I avoid his spells long enough to close the twenty-odd feet between us?
"God suffers not the undead, and evidently neither does my trollop. You don’t deny either of them without consequences," I offered, searching the periphery of my field of vision for anything that might help, trying not to betray my own plans with roving eyes. There... was that...?
He twisted his fingers, and suddenly I was wracked with pain. Of their own accord, my limbs locked outstretched: I was dancing to his gestures like a marionette. Damn him, he'd had his claws in me with the first spell, after all! My vision started to fade as the agony washed over me in waves, and I prayed that God would just let Corwinne be all right...
"Pathetic," he sneered, his voice much closer. But the pain vanished, as abruptly as it had come on. I flexed my fingers experimentally. "I saw the look on your face as you took down that carrier. That was no, heh, divine joy behind your eyes. You like what you do, priest. Say it. Admit that your tastes are as dark as the cloth you profane, and tell me the real reason a man like you, heh, would pit himself against a military weapon that was aimed at the enemies of his country. Don't lie to me again, or, heh, you will be reminded what sort of man I am."
The weird little laugh peppered his speech, at odds with his crisp, military precision. I'd known warlocks to come unbalanced, dealing as they did with dark beings the rest of us would shun. But this was... subtler.
And anyway, I only needed another ten seconds. Because behind him, bleeding from the temple, an elfmaid stood with borrowed bow nocked, gathering her strength and her aim. I was a little woozy, but I was pretty sure she wasn't aiming at me.
Which was... weird. Why the hells...?
Understanding hit me like a revelation... sent not by God but from the woman under that pile of bones. "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and through strange vessels. Maybe He has a purpose for these elves. Or maybe..." I paused, fancying I could hear the creak of taut bowstrings. "Maybe good people don’t just stand there when the little guy gets picked on. No matter who that guy is."
There was a hiss through the air. Then another, and another still. The sound of arrows in flight went on for a long, terrible moment. When it ended, none of them were sticking out of me. I let out the breath I had been holding, and caught the eyes of the elfmaid on me. She touched her hand to her temple, and it came away sticky with blood. Then she gave me a little wave, and turned away from this place.
A life for a life, I supposed, though I felt like somehow she still managed to get the last word in--how do women always do that?--and that I was an asshole. But maybe one she could live with. Or at least agree to mutually dislike, and leave well enough alone.
Holvelak still stood, his torso the final resting place of a dozen yellow-fletched arrows. Blood poured from his lips, but they were pulled back in a sneer. He staggered, but did not drop. He giggled. Slowly, maniacally, he reached behind him for the rune-scribed cylinder.
I was on my feet, racing for him, when more tentacles than I could count burst out of his torso, bearing him high aloft and lashing out at me with lightning speed. I saw God's Revelation, saw where I Was Supposed To Be, and I pushed myself into the space shown by my divine sight... and caught a rubbery tentacle square to the jaw. I went down in a heap.
"... the hells?" I spat, blood spraying from my lips. That had never happened before. Sure, plenty of times I'd failed to live up to the Divine Will, but never, never had God shown me a false path. What was this thing?
But of course, I knew. Powerful as the Crawling Ones were, they had never mustered enough might to best God at the Revelation game. But there were Those who I'd been sent he to find, Those who had been old long before God was young. That cylinder contained a relic from Those Below, and it had twisted Holvelak into something monstrous.
Or else he'd let it in. That was what warlocks did, wasn't it, made deals with devils?
I tried to get to my feet, but the writhing masses that seemed to pour from Holvelak's body wrapped around my limbs and pinned me, spread-eagled, to the ground. I fought and squirmed, but I had no leverage, and the disgusting, pink tendrils were deceptively strong. I heard the hiss of arrows, and could see more tentacles flailing through the air. I thought for a moment that the elves were doing it, that they were sending this monster back to the hell it had swum up from... but then I saw that it was catching the arrows in mid-flight. With a seemingly casual toss, it flung one back, and I heard a cry, and a groan.
The mass shifted, and suddenly Holvelak's face was very close to mine. His body had vanished into a cloud of pulsating appendages: no arms, no legs, just the face, and the undulating extremities. The tentacles swam over one another like a nest of vipers; I couldn't see a torso at all anymore, nothing to hit even if I did have a weapon. Blood drizzled onto me as he spoke.
"Like the deal I made?" he grinned. "They'll do it for you, too, heh. Just say the word." He shifted closer, whispering in my ear. "But you have it wrong, priest. The relic isn't in this canister--" he held up the metal one in a meaty tendril-- "but in the other one. Would you like to see what our people have devised for these 'little guys' you love so well?"
I hadn't said any of that aloud, about Holvelak making a deal, or about the canister. It--I could no longer think of this thing as a "he"--it had known.
And I didn't need to see what was in the canister. I also knew.
"Get back!" I screamed, hoping that someone out there spoke Calish. "Run!"
It picked me up, dangled me by my arms a good fifteen feet over the forest floor, legs flailing helpessly. I could see a dozen or so elves determinedly firing their last arrows at the Holvelak-thing, black eyes betraying no hint of fear. They should have been afraid. One or two of the arrows got through, and I saw a piece of tentacle drop toward the ground every now and then. But as they fell, the severed appendages would cast out a thin, fleshy tendril that buried itself into the main body of the thing, and in an instant bulged with new life. The stump that had been severed regenerated just as quickly. For every bit of damage they did, the monster only grew.
But all monsters can be killed. That wasn’t what the elves had to fear. I heard a series of beeps as Holvelak keyed in the release sequence on the canister it held... and poured a long draught of pyrotoxin onto the ground before snapping the cap over the rest of the foul brew.
Instantly, the malevolent stuff began to spread in a ring: in a second’s time, it had swept outward a dozen feet in all directions. It was viscous, and thick, and where it passed, nothing living remained. The ground itself bubbled as lichen and twig were reduced to ashes. The closest elves didn’t have a chance.
I saw her, as the vile stuff that humans had brought into her land took her. The elfmaid who’d tried to save me just stared at me now, accusing... until she, too, crumbled away.
The Holvelak-thing, meanwhile, was clinging to overhead branches and avoiding the filth it had released with ease. It laughed as I cursed it in the name of God, for we both knew how empty that threat was to its masters.
“Watch,” it whispered, giggling, “as we cleanse this wood and build something worthy of the true masters of Raiusha.”
I didn’t have much choice, dangling helpless as I was. I could feel the touch of God on my mind, Revealing to me all the many ways that Holvelak could get to meet Those masters face-to-tentacle, but there was nothing, no way for me to...
The Lance Corporal had known, when he first saw the canister wielded, what it meant. I spotted him now, from my vantage point, with Corwinne’s inert form unearthed from beneath the wreckage of the APC and slung over his shoulder. He was making ready to run like the hells themselves were after him--which for all intents and purposes, they were--and he was far enough ahead of the oncoming wave that he just might outpace it if he got out right now.
He could also reach Jorngnir, which lay between him and the oncoming tide. If he could get it to me, I could stop this thing. I could maybe even stop the pyrotoxin.
But not before it got to him. And to Corwinne.
Of course, if I didn’t stop the pyrotoxin, it was going to get everyone.
“Lance Corporal!” I croaked, telling him just what he needed to hear. “I can save her! Throw the glaive!”
He turned, saw me screaming at him. Saw the wriggling thing that had been his boss fouling the world behind me.
“Do it!” I pleaded, choking a little with the lie. “I can save her! For the love of God, do it now!”
His eyes flicked to the woman on his shoulder, whose hair reminded him of the apple tree outside his childhood home. Then to me. He knew.
With unbearable gentleness, he put her down, and raced for the blade.
A tentacle slid over my shoulder, groping profanely for him. I screamed, and pulled my body up to kick out at it with a flailing boot. I poured myself into the kick, willing God to take what He needed from me, just to grant this one prayer... I felt a rubbery sensation beneath my boot, saw a silver flash... and felt my prayer answered, the bargain struck. Strength sapped from my limbs--I’d not be pulling off another kick like that any time soon--but as I watched, the tentacle began to dissolve. It flaked away on the night air, and for a moment, I thought that maybe I’d done it, and that the whole wretched creature would peel away into nothing. But that wasn’t what I asked for, and it wasn’t what I got. The tentacle sloughed into nothingness, only to be replaced seconds later by another. I hadn’t gotten much for my prayer, but I bought the Lance Corporal the time for one more throw of the Butcher’s Blade.
He heaved it. As he did, he shouted, and a chill took me. My eyes fixed on the arc of Jorngnir towards the Holvelak-thing, I never saw the pyrotoxin take him, as he knew it would. But I heard his words.
“You made a promise!”
And then his words were all that was left of him.
His words, and a flying glaive.
The Lance Corporal hadn’t been a big man, but Jorngnir had its way of helping out when there was death to be dealt, and it raced fast and true towards the center of the mass of tendrils. Of course, it couldn’t match the speed of the arrows that Holvelak had so effortlessly plucked from the air. I hung limp, watching as a tentacle wrapped almost casually around its shaft, stopping it cold.
But then, a curious thing happened. One wouldn’t expect if, if he hadn’t known Jorngnir quite so intimately as I. The Butcher’s Blade hadn’t earned its title by just quitting before the job was done.
It twisted in the tentacle’s grasp.
It wasn’t much, but it sent Jorngnir’s knife-edge clean through its meaty captor. A brief spurt of blood raced the weapon to the ground, spattering on the last of the toxin that was spreading out from the dropped canister while the runeblade buried itself, satisfied, in the pyrotoxin-covered earth.
A severed tentacle landed beside it in the pool of death. A little tendril of flesh had already thrust forth from the amputated limb and had buried itself in Holvelak’s body. It swelled to full thickness just in time for the pyrotoxin to race up the reattached end of the tentacle, along the new flesh, and begin to engulf Holvelak, tentacle by disgusting tentacle.
“Wha-- no!” Holvelak cried, his face shifting as far away as possible from the ooze that was racing along his mutating form. Tentacles kept sprouting, only to be coated in more toxin that was sucking greedily along the pathway that Jorngnir had made for it. There were so many of them now that the spread of the stuff across the ground had actually ceased, and it was starting to creep back inwards, needing more and more to coat the monster faster than he could recover.
Of course, with all that disintegrating going on, he wasn’t exactly focused on keeping me aloft. His grip loosened, the tentacle spasmed, and then I was falling.
As I fell towards the pyrotoxin-covered ground, I focused on a leaf, just in front of my face, floating gently to the earth. By the time it reached the ground, there would be nothing left of me, just a holy symbol of Sayn Ieander to mark my passing. Except, wait... the leaf was still in my sight a moment later, when I should have dropped past it as it wafted to the earth. Because it wasn’t right in front of my face... it was just vastly out of proportion to my eyes’ expectations, a good five feet across, drifting almost to the ground just below me.
The Mother Tree had given up one of her leaves. I landed on it feet-first, dropping into a crouch. My limbs were leaden weights, but I had to go. I could hear the leaf sizzling as the pyrotoxin moved along it, but the toxin was having trouble, as if some force in the leaf were resisting its hellish appetite. While it should have engulfed us in a second, instead I had time to take a breath, and leap...
My hands closed around Jorngnir’s haft, briefly, and I used it like a pole vault, propelling myself towards the receding edge of the pyrotoxin’s boundary... and sprawling out onto my back, the barren dirt still warm from the toxin’s passage over it.
“Ow,” I told the world.
Holvelak’s long, final scream was my only answer. And then, just the sigh of the night’s breeze through the leaves, high above.
“Thank you,” I whispered sincerely, to all those who might be listening.
“Ohhh...” came a groan. “No need to thank me, just trying to save your did a giant skeleton land on my head, is why it hurts so much?”
“Corwinne!” I cried, and then I was on my feet, skidding to her as she sat propped up on one elbow, rubbing at her temple. I hugged her fiercely.
“Woah, hey there!” she started. “It’s, ah, good to see you, too.”
I remembered myself and pulled back, flushed. “Just... had a tense moment back there. Thought maybe I’d forgot to save you.”
She laughed, and swatted playfully at my arm. “Jaspar, don’t be ridiculous. You always remember to save me. Even if sometimes it’s by accident.”
I helped her up, a bit unsteady myself. “Definitely more on the ‘accident’ side this time, I’m afraid. I’m... I’m really glad you’re all right. Really.”
She whistled low as she looked around. The ground was a barren crater for dozens of feet in every direction. The edge of the pyrotoxin’s reach, inches from where Corwinne had been lying, was a blackened ring, and a fine white ash coated the soil inside it. I was coated in the stuff, and I tried not to think about who it was composed of.
She looked back at me, brow wrinkled. “We did win, right?”
I bent down, and picked up a rune-scribed canister. “Get your scenograph and let’s find out.”