A Short Story of Fire and Stone
An icy wind cut through the thick layers of furs like they were fishnet, prompting Esset to rub his hands together and realize he’d almost lost feeling in his fingers. He glanced over at the rest of the assembling squad, but as usual, everyone else seemed to handle the cold better than he did. Well, let them; he had his own strategies.
Esset muttered under his breath—even had the speech been uttered clearly, no one would’ve understood it, not even Esset himself. They were the syllables of a summoning incantation, and a small, strange bat materialized in front of the summoner. Esset reached out and took the creature in his hands—it was black and ashy like a coal, but close inspection would prove there were tiny veins of molten heat along its skin and tiny pinpricks of fire for eyes. It gave a tiny squeak that sounded like the sizzle of a flame, a protest against being held. Esset ignored it and held it tightly between his hands.
Unlike most of his other summons, there were no requirements or conditions to summon the little bat. It might have been considered an abuse of power, summoning a creature from another plane of existence to warm his hands, but Esset wasn’t keen on getting frostbite on his fingers. Besides, the little creature quieted down fairly quickly. Esset wasn’t sure his summons could sleep, but it seemed like it was taking a nap.
Esset caught his thoughts wandering and snapped back to the present with a glance around at his surroundings. Toman—his brother—always chastised him for woolgathering in the field. Esset knew it could get him killed, but it still happened despite his best efforts. And fortunately he technically wasn’t in the field yet—his group had yet to move out. Esset had been waiting for Squad Leader Perrin to finish talking to one of the scouts before he approached the other soldier.
“Reporting for duty, sir. What happened?” Esset asked. The captain had just told Esset to report—no specifics.
“A squad went missing last night on routine patrol up near the ridge. We’re pulling search and rescue,” Perrin replied. Esset hid a wince; it was rare for there to be anyone left to rescue when squads went missing. Still, they had to check it out. They needed to make sure enemy forces weren’t slipping through their lines.
“To think, missing the day before the war ended,” another soldier in the squad interjected. “Talk about bad luck.”
“War’s not over yet, soldier,” Perrin reprimanded him. “We might’ve killed the Warlord last night, but do you think the undead’ll all go home and tuck themselves into bed now that their leader is gone? There’s still fighting to be done. We need to mop up the rest of those monsters so Baliya can have peace again. Wars don’t end overnight.”
Esset knew the truth of Perrin’s words as well as he knew how easy it was to fall into the other soldier’s line of thinking. They were all exhausted. There hadn’t been rest for months; they fought enemies that didn’t sleep. As the cold and darkness of the north wore away the strength of the human army, the undead and enemy monsters pressed on tirelessly. Until now. Now they just had to mop up the remaining forces. Soon, Esset and his brother could go home. They were both tired of the endless snow, tired of fighting the endless legions of undead.
But first they had to find the missing squad.
As his own squad moved out, Esset tried to stay close to Perrin and the tracker at the front. They were following the route the squad had taken. Esset was a lousy tracker, but there were others on the squad who were good at it. Esset just followed along and remained watchful for signs of enemies, but so far, all he could see was snow, some rocks, and more snow. That was why he was so surprised when Perrin waved him over; he didn’t see what he’d be needed for yet.
Esset dropped his hands to his sides, keeping the summoned bat hidden in one hand, and covered the few extra paces between them easily. The group kept their pace, and Perrin didn’t even look at Esset when he spoke to him; instead he kept his eyes forward, on the tracks of the missing squad.
“I was surprised when the captain assigned you to this mission,” Perrin said. It wasn’t phrased as a question, but he clearly expected an answer.
“The front lines are broken and scattered with the Warlord dead, so there’s no concentrated force for me to fight. I suppose he still could’ve had me chasing small pockets, but…” Esset shrugged. He could guess at the captain’s motives, but he just followed orders. The higher ups tended to have a better idea than he did of where he would be most effective.
Esset waited for a minute, but Perrin’s expectant silence continued, so Esset started talking again.
“Maybe…well, this squad that went missing, I didn’t think this was a high-danger area. Maybe the captain thinks there’s an unknown threat out here, something you might need help with.”
“I’m not going to have any problems, am I?” Perrin asked. Esset blinked. He’d never worked with this squad leader before, and he wasn’t sure what he’d done to warrant this reaction.
“No, sir.” Esset figured it was best to keep the response simple. For the first time since they’d begun speaking, Perrin glanced over at him, giving him a short, measuring look before returning his attention to tracking.
It seemed that Esset would have to prove himself to Perrin. Well, that was fine. To an extent, Esset was trying to prove himself to himself, too; the same was true for his brother. That was even part of the reason they’d joined this war in the first place—they had goals that stretched beyond the war. They needed to get stronger before they could face the enemy they’d sworn to take down.
“Good. I don’t need any would-be heroes. I need soldiers.” With Perrin’s words, Esset realized that Perrin knew something about his and Toman’s goals for after the war. Honestly, many would think the two of them fools for pursuing that enemy in particular. But that was fine—Esset would simply keep fighting and following orders as long as he was here.
“Yes, sir,” Esset said again. Perrin didn’t seem to have anything else to say—or expect anything else, either—so Esset dropped back to the middle of the group again, clasping his hands together around the warm little bat once more.
They’d been following the missing squad’s tracks for a couple hours when Perrin and the other tracker slowed down and began whispering urgently to each other while pointing at the tracks.
“What’s wrong?” Esset asked. He couldn’t see much or hear them from where he was.
“These tracks are too widely spaced,” Perrin responded. “The squad started running here, but we can’t tell why.”
“Something chasing them?” Esset thought it was the logical explanation.
“Probably, but there are no other tracks on the trail,” Perrin explained. Esset looked out over the landscape again. It seemed unlikely that anything could walk atop the extremely deep drifts off the path. Certainly not any of their usual opponents—the undead, vampires, human mages—and they had no aerial opponents that they knew of.
“Well, then either something flew or came over the snow,” Esset said. Those were the only options. Their enemy had come up with something new.
“Or they’ve got some new magic,” another said.
“Or they’re raising spirits,” said yet another, clutching at a talisman beneath his cloak.
Esset thought the last two suggestions were possible, but improbable. New magic would typically mean the missing squad had run into a mage in person, but the Warlord’s mages tended to tuck themselves away someplace safe and send their creations out to fight for them. As for spirits…that was just plain unlikely.
“Well, we’re here to find that squad. Come on,” Perrin said, once again leading the way. Everyone was a little more alert, casting glances over their shoulders and over the snowy landscape.
They followed the running tracks up to and alongside a large rocky outcropping. Then the tracks split off the path, pushing through a large drift down into a cave opening. Exchanging looks, the other men drew their swords, and they started to edge through the path in the chest-high drift as well. Even though the path was mostly broken for them, the snow still pressed around them and came up to their knees. Esset kept looking behind him, thinking it would be all too easy to attack them here, where their movements would be severely limited. He banished the little bat he’d been carrying and kept the incantation for a more formidable summon on the tip of his tongue.
They were almost to the cave entrance when Esset noticed a shallow series of depressions atop the snowdrifts. The snow here was crustier, topped with a thin layer of ice. Esset had a hard time imagining that anything light enough to walk atop it would be threatening at all—even the snow cats in the mountains would likely break through—but then again, they didn’t know what they were up against.
“Are those tracks?” Esset called ahead to one of the trackers at the front. The tracker looked out where he was pointing.
“I don’t think so,” the tracker said, but he looked uncertain.
“Not from any creature you’ve seen.” Esset watched the tracker carefully until the other man just nodded. Suddenly everyone in the group was looking at the tracks, but there wasn’t much to see. They were quite large in diameter, roughly twice the size of a man’s footprint. But they were just round depressions and not very deep, although it was difficult to get a good look at them since they weren’t right up against the path.
“Come on,” Perrin urged them forward again and led them to the cave mouth. One of the men dug a torch out of his pack, and he lit it to investigate how deep the cave went. One man was left at the cave mouth to keep watch while the rest of them went in.
They didn’t have to go far.
It was fortunate that they were all men used to war. The dour torchlight illuminated a gruesome scene; every member of the squad they’d been sent to rescue had been slaughtered, and their bodies were strewn about the tunnel. Thanks to the cold, they didn’t smell yet, but the sight would have made a greenhorn retch. It looked like some large animal—or animals—had torn their throats out.
“Alright. They’re dead, let’s get back to camp,” one of the men said, already edging back towards the tunnel entrance. Esset scowled at him.
“I, for one, want to know who or what did this,” the summoner objected. Beyond his natural curiosity, unknown enemies were never a good thing. They needed more information to find out what kind of threat they were facing.
“Whatever was chasing them, obviously,” the edgy man retorted.
“We stay and try to find out what that was,” Perrin said. He was the highest-ranking officer there—he called the shots. The edgy man looked unhappy, but at least he obeyed. Esset ignored him and approached one of the bodies.
“Looks like some kind of animal,” he commented. His skills in tracking weren’t great, but even he could tell that.
“No animal I ever seen,” said the other tracker. “Its teeth woulda been huge. Bigger than a snowcat.”
“Smarter, too, and in greater number,” Perrin said quietly. Everyone looked at him.
“Look at the bodies. Some were running further in when they died.” Perrin pointed at the trajectory of the bodies. “But some were running back out of the tunnel. They were caught between at least two creatures. I’d guess three or four.” He didn’t provide a reason for that guess.
“But they didn’t try to eat the dead,” Esset pointed out. Above and below the neck, they were for the most part untouched.
“You’re thinking the same thing I am, aren’t you?” Perrin asked him.
“Mage constructs?” Esset guessed. Perrin nodded. The squad leader didn’t look impressed, but he did look…satisfied? Maybe Esset had gained a few competence points in Perrin’s eyes.
“Creatures created by a mage. Seems likely,” the leader agreed. “Killing machines that can run over the snow—my guess is that these creatures were going to be their next move against us. Something quiet, maybe, that could sneak into camp, maybe even over the castle walls, and terrorize us while we sleep.”
“Like you say, seems likely,” Esset agreed.
“But their warlord is dead now,” one of the other men interjected. “Without him, the army will fall into chaos. One way or another, the war is over.”
“True, but we all know what vindictive bastards their mages are. Even with the warlord dead, they’ll probably still send these creatures after us if we don’t hunt them down first,” Perrin said. “They’re probably new creations, since we haven’t run into them already, which means they might not be as strong as they’ll get. And at this point they’re more likely to be in this one area. I don’t intend to let them scatter to the four winds.”
“But how do we track them? They go where we can’t,” the edgy soldier argued.
“We start by looking down this tunnel,” Perrin said. No one looked terribly happy about the prospect, but Perrin was their commanding officer. They updated their sentry at the cave mouth and then headed deeper in. They debated dousing the torch, since it made them a rather obvious target, but the truth of the matter was that they couldn’t see anything without it, and any animal opponents, whether they were mage-constructs or not, probably wouldn’t have trouble spotting them in the darkness anyway.
The naturally-formed stone tunnel gave way to too-clean walls a ways in. It was all still the natural stone, but it had been cut so neatly that the cave walls were perfectly flat and shiny like glass.
“Mage carved…” Esset thought aloud. The mage would have used blood magic to accomplish this feat—magic gleaned from the pain and suffering of others. Esset could almost taste a metallic tang in the air, but he knew it was only his overactive imagination—sensing magic wasn’t one of his abilities.
Perrin glanced at him, but only nodded. Given the amount of effort this construction would have taken, Esset wondered what exactly they were heading towards. This chance discovery seemed to be evolving into something bigger.
A whuff of breath and a small, soft sound was their only warning before a creature lunged out of the darkness at them. It was large, pale, and fast, and it went after the torch-bearer first. The torch went flying, and the man screamed as his arm was mangled. The beast vanished into the darkness as Esset spoke a summoning incantation.
A fiery wolf appeared out of the air beside Esset. Its body was ashy black but cracked with veins of molten fire like a hot coal filled with magma. Looking into its eyes was like gazing into an abyss of fire. It couldn’t breathe flames, but when it opened its maw, a wave of heat and light roiled forth from the furnace within.
Esset kept a tight mental rein on the fiery wolf—it was a vicious creature, and without Esset’s control, it would attack allies just as enthusiastically as enemies. Fortunately, Esset had gained a lot of experience maneuvering his creatures over the course of the war. The wolf leapt into the darkness after the beast that had attacked them.
Bizarre shadows flashed around the tunnel as the wolf snapped its jaws and the light within escaped. They could briefly see the pale shape of the creature as the fiery wolf caught up to it, but then it vanished from their sight as the wolf’s jaws closed. An unnatural shriek echoed down the tunnel before fading into a hiss that gurgled at the end. Esset grabbed the torch from where it had fallen and rushed towards the wolf.
The torchlight revealed the unnatural body of a mage construct, just as they’d guessed. It was covered in white skin except for its feet, which were oversized and covered in long, coarse hair. Its body was large but skinny, and its head was wedged like a canine’s—a greyhound, maybe—only larger. Its jaws definitely had a lot of snapping power, and there were very long fangs protruding from its snout. It also had a long, whip-like tail. It was clearly a species that could never survive in this climate alone—it would rely on the mage that created it to survive. Still, its light frame and broad paws would enable it to run atop the snow with ease, and its white skin would make it difficult to spot on a snowscape.
“These things would be impossible to see at night,” Esset remarked, feeling sick to his stomach at the thought. “And with how fast they move…”
“Perfect for taking out sentries.” Perrin and the rest of the squad had gathered around the carcass. “And with those claws, they might even make it over the walls.” The creatures had been built for a deadly purpose, that much was certain.
“We gotta find the rest of these things and kill them,” Perrin said grimly.
The squad’s numbers had been reduced—the injured man and one other returned to the cave entrance to wait with the sentry, and Esset found himself at the center of their group, protected from all sides against ambush. His summons were more effective against the constructs than any human soldier, so they were protecting their best weapon. Esset’s wolf stalked ahead, unhappy about the lack of enemies to attack. Esset found most of his concentration set on keeping his own creature from turning around and attacking them.
“Light ahead!” Perrin warned them with a harsh whisper. The torch was immediately put out so the dim light ahead was visible—only the wolf stood out in the darkness, and Esset kept it further back to prevent it from being seen. The group edged forward slowly, hoping to sneak up on whatever was presumably near the light source.
The tunnel opened into a large, unnatural cavern. Like the tunnels, the walls, floor, and ceiling had all been formed from the natural stone, but they had been cut too perfectly, carved out with a glossy finish only magic could manage. A pair of undead stood listlessly just inside the opening—they didn’t make fantastic sentries, but they were still a threat. Taking them down would probably attract attention, so the group observed what they could from where they were.
A few more undead occupied the space inside the cavern, but so did four more of the strange, pale-fleshed mage constructs. They seemed to be sleeping—at least, they were lying down with their eyes closed. Given that they didn’t seem to be breathing, Esset didn’t know if their rest state qualified as sleep.
There was also a man in the cave. Esset almost missed him because he was in the back of the cave behind one of his constructs. Esset’s best guess was that this was the mage. He wore the same heavy winter gear that most everyone in the north wore and had only a dagger belted at his waist.
The group retreated back down the tunnel after getting a good look at the scene.
“We should go for reinforcements,” one man said.
“Five undead, four constructs, one mage. I think that’s doable,” Perrin disagreed. He was looking at Esset, who nodded. It never failed to make him nervous when people relied so heavily on him, but the war had taught him much about his own abilities and limits.
“My summons can take out the two sentries before they can react, so it’s more like three undead. That leaves three men against three undead if you stay with me, Perrin. My wolves can engage the constructs, and I’m confident it’ll be a quick battle,” Esset said.
“But the mage,” the original objector persisted.
“He’ll be a challenge, but with his creatures out of the way, we can beat him,” Perrin said. Esset knew the outcome would be hugely dependent on how strong the mage was. Given that the mage had carved out this hideout and created constructs, Esset was betting the mage was quite powerful, but he was hoping that his magical power would be somewhat depleted from his clearly strenuous activities.
“We go in. Protecting Esset is our number one priority. Without his summons, we don’t stand a chance,” Perrin ordered. “Other than that, just do as much damage as you can.” They nodded as one, followed their orders, and crept back to the cavern. Fears and reservations aside, they were soldiers first.
Esset whispered incantations under his breath, and three more wolves materialized right on top of the sentries. They knocked the two undead over but didn’t stop to destroy them properly. Instead, they left the downed sentries to the soldiers and went after the constructs. Esset’s group moved in their wake; two soldiers hacked at the heads of the undead, the only sure way to destroy them.
The four wolves flooded forwards, lethal messengers of fire and death. They headed for the constructs as the mage turned in alarm, and the undead were too slow to intercept them. The mage shouted at his constructs and they woke up, but the wolves were already upon the first one, tearing it apart and filling the enclosed space with the smells of burning flesh. The other constructs worked as a unit—they ganged up on one wolf and clawed and bit it until it vanished in a small cloud of sparks. The red-hot skin of the summoned wolf burned them even as they attacked, but they didn’t seem to notice; constructs were like that.
A shimmering dome, a mage shield, had appeared around the mage—Esset was sorry to see it, but he knew the mage would have gotten it up before his summons could have taken him down anyways, and they hadn’t had a clear line of sight to take him down with an arrow. The mage seemed to be weighing his options for the moment; he glanced around at the battles, neither fighting nor fleeing. In the meantime, the soldiers were fighting the remaining three undead, and as Esset summoned another wolf to replace the fallen one, his summons took down another of the constructs.
The mage decided to join the battle. He raised his hands and a spear of ice shot up directly beneath one of the wolves, instantly vanquishing it. Esset grit his teeth and summoned another, and this time the mage saw him do it. Esset saw the mage’s hands rise again and swore under his breath—a habit he’d acquired after time among soldiers. The ground turned cold—colder—under his feet, and he moved just in time to avoid an ice spear that sprang up from the ground where he’d stood a moment before.
Deciding to give the mage something to think about, Esset redirected two of his wolves to attack the mage. They slammed against his shield and the mage smirked, confident in his defence, but the wolves didn’t give up after one assault—they slammed against the shield again and again, slowly wearing the barrier down. Esset had to dodge two more ice spikes before the mage realized what they were doing.
Meanwhile, one undead fell, allowing the remaining men to gang up on the last two. The constructs and summons were fairly evenly matched, but the constructs were looking the worse for wear—one had lost the use of a leg, the other an eye. It didn’t slow them down much, but it was something.
The mage destroyed another wolf with an ice spike, forcing Esset to summon another and granting the mage a slight breather. The mage used it to conjure a foul-looking mist that he sent towards Esset. It expanded as it moved; it floated past the constructs and summons, failing to affect either, but Esset knew it would probably be lethal to him and the other men. The soldiers killed the last two undead before the cloud reached them, and they recognized the incoming threat. Everyone but Perrin retreated back to the tunnel; Perrin ran to Esset when he saw the summoner wasn’t moving.
“Come on,” Perrin hissed. Esset grimaced. If he retreated, the mage would escape; he was sure of it.
“Go,” Esset replied. They hadn’t won this war just to have the country plagued with renegade mages for the next decade or more. He was going to weed out as many as he could—at the very least, he was getting rid of this one.
He didn’t look to see if Perrin left; the miasma was too close, and he needed to concentrate. The cloud seemed to be moving faster the bigger it got. In a reckless move, Esset dove forward. The mist passed overhead, but there was roughly two feet of clearance underneath. Esset crawled forward with his elbows until he could get a peek at the battling wolves and constructs and the mage beyond. His summons were only half as effective when he couldn’t see them and direct them, so getting eyes on them would be necessary to win.
Esset had one of his wolves peel away from the mage’s shield to ambush the constructs from behind—when the first construct fell, the second soon followed, standing no chance against three enemies after it was already crippled. Then all four wolves concentrated their attack against the mage. Esset caught a glimpse of panic as it crossed the mage’s face and felt the thrill of vindictive pleasure that he couldn’t help but feel when evil men got their just desserts.
Then pleasure turned to shock and fear when Esset’s chest seized as he tried to inhale. The sickly miasma had sunk closer to the ground, and Esset had inhaled a breath of it. Now, like a living thing, the mist was curling down around him, caressing him as it made his muscles freeze in a painfully tense lock. Esset fought for breath, but his chest only moved in fractions. His cheek pressed up against the cold stone floor as blackness encroached on his vision. The mist swirled around him, but it was thinner against the floor. Esset’s eyes were too dry as his eyelids froze open, but he could still see blurry shapes beyond the miasma: his fiery wolves fighting the mage.
Esset felt like his mind was separating from his body and drifting; the battle he could see but not affect was like a mural painted in the air, moving with its own life. The wolves were jumping around a great, shimmering egg, and their viciousness was lost to Esset’s delirious mind. Then the egg hatched, and the wolves danced in the broken shell.
With a jolt, Esset’s lungs spasmed, and he sucked in a real breath. The miasma vanished, and Esset found himself coughing uncontrollably and curling onto his side. Esset fought the coughing and lifted his head, once again firmly seated in the present. He wanted to see if he’d been hallucinating or witnessing the battle’s end.
The mage was prone on the floor, burnt and bloody. Esset’s fiery wolves had shattered the shield through the strength of sheer persistence and torn the mage apart. Now they were charging towards him—no, towards Perrin, who was still behind Esset, and if they reached him, they would tear him apart too.
Esset banished them. The wolves vanished into wisps of ash and sparks, leaving the cave stinking of burnt and rotting flesh. Esset succumbed to another bout of coughing before finally getting himself mostly under control and sitting up.
They truly were safe again. The mage and constructs were dead, and the undead were hacked apart, never to rise—or be raised—again. Esset looked over at his own men; the mist had caught up with all of them, but they seemed to be coming around as he was. Perrin was even struggling to his feet, so Esset followed suit.
“Good job, summoner,” Perrin said. Esset just nodded; the rush of victory was subdued by that same sick feeling he always got after taking a life.
They recovered quickly and regrouped with the sentries at the tunnel entrance. It wasn’t long until dark, and they wanted to be back at camp before dusk.
“What if there are more of them? The constructs, I mean. What if they weren’t all in the cave?” one of the men asked as they headed through the drifts and back to the trail.
“Doesn’t matter,” Esset replied with a shrug. “You saw them. They weren’t designed to survive on their own. The cold alone will finish them off.”
Perrin nodded to confirm his words. Catching Esset’s eye, Perrin dropped back from the rest of the group. Esset kept pace with him.
“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders and a good set of skills. I’d heard a bit about you, but I like to see for myself,” Perrin said to Esset once they were a discreet distance from the group. Esset only nodded, figuring that Perrin was going somewhere with this. He was right.
“I heard you plan on going mercenary. And I also heard that you want to go after…after a certain mage,” Perrin said delicately. Esset just nodded again. He and his brother were on a mission; it wasn’t a secret.
“I have to admit that I thought you might be one of those idiotic would-be hero types. But you seem to be dependable.” Perrin paused. “I think you should go talk to Sergeant Gretchen Warthog. She’s…resourceful. She’ll set you up with jobs. The right kind of jobs. She works out of Namara, in a tavern called the Staggering Tankard,” Perrin said.
“Sergeant Gretchen…Warthog?” Esset repeated. Perrin nodded and eyed him, as if wondering if he should have shared the information. Esset decided not to inquire after the odd name.
“Alright. Thanks, we’ll do that,” Esset replied.
“If you go straight to her, tell her that the war is over. She’ll welcome the news and stop sending help up here. Better it goes where it’s needed,” Perrin said. Esset was even more intrigued.
“We’ll do that,” he repeated.
The group trekked back to camp with a weary air, but Esset felt optimistic. Give it a week, maybe two, and the remaining enemy forces would be mopped up. Then, he and his brother could leave this blood-stained snowscape behind. They’d seek out this Sergeant Warthog, and then—
Well, that would just be the beginning.