They spent the better part of the afternoon rifling through ashes and the dead in search of anything that could be of use in their journey to Toptower. The camp remains offered up little beyond what Authril had managed to scrape together in the large tent, which was one of the many things they would need to leave behind. Luck had gifted them with a single waterskin, but food was a seemingly elusive commodity.
Hopefully, their haul would be enough to boost their supplies as well as procure a more suitable canvas shelter in the village. The weather had been agreeable thus far in not dousing them, but he’d already had his taste of travelling in the rain on his journey down here. He didn’t fancy sleeping in it as well.
“Are we set?” Katarina enquired of them. Already, the woman carried one of the three small crude packs she’d fashioned from bits of canvas. She handed him another of the packs. “I would like to put this place a few hours behind us, just in case there are any Udynean stragglers.”
“Give me a moment and I will be,” the elf replied.
The muffled scrape of metal sliding over metal had Dylan turning as he secured the straps over his shoulders.
Authril was in the process of buckling her breastplate on. Smaller pieces of armour lay atop the shield resting at her feet. Apart from the helmet, the bits looked decidedly like they belonged on limbs.
“You’re bringing all that with you?”
The warrior arched a brow at him. “Well… yes?” She nudged several bits of armour with her boot. “I’m not planning on tramping through the forest in full plate if that’s what you’re thinking. I won’t slow us down. This…” The elf thumped her breastplate. “This’ll protect the important stuff if we’re attacked.” She moved on to donning her greaves. “The rest is all leather and padding. Danny liked us to be protected, but agile. After all, someone’s got to keep your innards where they should be.” The vambraces were next, followed swiftly by her sword belt and helmet. Those sea-green eyes glared at him from the shadow of the brim. “Or not, if you choose to cross us.”
“If that had ever been my intention, I wouldn’t have wasted energy healing you.” And he would need to conserve all he had left on the off chance that the hedgewitch was right about stragglers. Between the trek here, the healing and the shortage of food, he’d precious little left to give.
“You’ve still got enough in you to walk until sundown, though?” Authril asked as she shouldered the last of the packs and hefted her shield. “I’d rather not have to carry your soft arse through the forest because you’ve fainted.” Although she was of average height for an elf, around level with his shoulders, the addition of armour did little to bulk her appearance. Nevertheless, Dylan could well imagine her being capable of lifting him.
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.” He was by no means as fit as either woman, but he could handle a few hours of walking before they made camp. From here, the road ran downhill. An easy task. It would flatten out before long, but the way forward would still be better than the forest floor he’d been stumbling over for the past two days. Sleep would see him capable of more come the next day.
“Good,” the warrior replied. “Because I’d like to get you back where you belong as quickly as possible.”
Katarina halted at his side, shrugging her pack into a more comfortable position. “Then we’d best be on our way if we’re to find a suitable place off the road to camp before sunset.” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t think you have to push yourself.”
“I won’t slow us down.” The sooner he reached the tower, the sooner he’d be able to return and make the Udyneans pay. Dylan turned from the woman towards the gap in the trees. The soft crunch of footsteps caught his ear as his travelling companions followed at a casual and firm pace.
He forced his gaze to remain steadfast on that one section as he strode though the camp. If he didn’t, then it wandered, settling on what he didn’t want to see.
The burnt remains weren’t as numerous here as at the fore. That meant more corpses like the ones back on the path. Only now, the birds had started appearing. He could see the flutter of piebald wings just on the edge of his vision, and above, the brown and white-speckled body of a falcon circled. Ignoring them was far harder than he’d expected. Each new movement tempted his eye and tricked his thoughts into courting the possibility of there being an impending threat.
Dylan took a deep breath, trying to calm his nerves. The stench he’d been carefully trying to avoid thinking about for the last few hours invaded his nostrils. Swallowing back the bile sliding up his throat, he pressed on. If the enemy was around, they wouldn’t bother with picking through the bloated bodies of the dead.
Their little trio were the only people alive out here.
Besides, Authril had said the Udyneans had all headed back west whereas their passage would take them on a comparatively easterly route. And once they’d reached Toptower, it was on to… Well, he couldn’t quite recall the place they’d passed through on his way down here, but he knew their first stop. He could consult the map once they’d arrived at the village.
They’d almost cleared the camp remains when a figure far larger than a mere bird emerged from the forest shadows. He halted, peering up ahead. Slowly, the figure became the more defined form of a horse and rider. Someone who had been away when the attack happened? One of the army’s messengers, perhaps?
On his left, Katarina gasped and dropped behind the shredded remains of a tent. At the same time, he caught the warrior reaching for her sword. Dylan didn’t waste time asking what their superior eyesight had seen, he flung himself next to the hedgewitch and threw up a barrier large enough to encompass them all.
Crouching, Authril motioned them to shift somewhere off to her left. “We need to find proper cover.”
“Don’t move,” Dylan muttered out the corner of his mouth. “I’ve got us shielded. It’ll keep us safe from mundane attacks, but if you take so much as single step back then you risk being outside that protection.” It was possible for him to encompass them all whilst on the move, but not adequately enough for his liking. Staying in one spot afforded him the chance to keep the barrier large and strong.
The women rolled their eyes upward. Did they spot the faint ripple his defence caused in the air? It took some concentration to keep the usual translucent purple sheen from the barrier’s surface, but it appeared relatively invisible to his eyes.
Authril shook her head and slunk across the rubble to lie beside him. “We’ll be spotted if we stay here much longer.”
He frowned. If they moved, the rider would sight them far sooner. “It’s one man.” The three of them could handle a single attacker, even if that man turned out to be a spellster. Still, perhaps luck was on their side and it was an ally. Either way, they could certainly use the horse.
“No, it’s not.” Even as the hedgewitch spoke, other shapes emerged from the shadows.
Dylan’s hopes plummeted as he watched them advance. Man and woman alike, they wore the same armour as the scouts they’d evaded between the dwarven ruin and the front line. Even the rider was attired in the same mottled green and grey colours.
Seeing they weren’t moving, Authril further flattened herself on the ground. She peered around the rim of her shield to glare at the encroaching group only to duck back swearing under her breath. “Staying put is a really bad idea. What if they decide to wait us out? How long can you keep this barrier up?”
“Long enough,” he replied, unable to tear his gaze from the group. After everything he’d seen, everything he’d been through, he wasn’t about to let this lot walk away. Dylan scanned those surrounding the rider. There were more than the last scouting party. Nine in all. The rider had to be a spellster. He’d be harder to take down but, with Authril’s aid, not impossible. “Just be ready.”
The elf’s orange brows lowered in a definite scowl. “For what?”
Katarina clasped his shoulder before he could speak. “It seems we’ve been spotted.” Already, her dagger was out. He didn’t see what use it would be against these men.
The group hadn’t stopped, but they’d certainly slowed their pace. Those on foot chattered between themselves and the mounted man, one of them pointing in Dylan’s direction. Another nocked her bow and loosed an arrow.
The shaft hit Dylan’s barrier and shattered. Katarina flinched, pressing close to him. He caught Authril sucking in a hissing breath.
“Sir!” the woman called over her shoulder. “It’s another leashed one!”
The rider urged his mount closer. He leant forward in the saddle. Curious dark eyes peered at them from beneath a pair of thick brows. “Really? And here his lordship said he’d caught them all.”
Caught? Not slain outright like so many others, but taken to suffer a worse fate at the hands of these monsters. Did they mean all of them? There’d supposedly been only thirty of them. Hard to believe every single one had succumbed to non-lethal attacks. He scanned those surrounding the rider, desperately hoping his original assumption was wrong. But no, he’d been right the first time, they were all Udynean.
If any of the other leashed spellsters were still alive, then they were now on their way to the Udynea Empire’s slave market.
“If you drop your barrier,” the rider said, a little louder as he switched to speaking Demarn, “and surrender without quarrel, I guarantee your life will be spared.”
Authril answered him in a string of curses.
The man straightened in his saddle. “I don’t know why I bother.” The rider turned his horse away, waving his hand as if shooing a fly. “Kill the elf. It’ll be more trouble than it’s worth to capture it.”
"It?" Authril growled, clearly able to understand Udynean enough to know she’d been slighted. She sprang to her feet, keeping crouched even as she drew her sword, perhaps conscious of Dylan’s shield shimmering a few inches from her head. “Can I get through this blasted barrier?”
“I would think so,” Katarina replied when Dylan didn’t. “And you’d find yourself riddled with arrows the moment you do.”
Grunting, the warrior remained in place, waiting like the tower mousers would for their prey to near. “It,” she muttered under her breath. “I’ll show them it. You are planning to attack, aren’t you?” This question was also directed at him.
Dylan didn’t answer. All the pain and fear, the sense of helplessness, the anger… It boiled through his veins to charge the very air. It wasn’t enough for them to have already taken all these lives. They had to take everyone’s. All in the pursuit of another’s greed.
He raised his hands and focused everything he could spare on the advancing men. Bolts of lightning jumped from his fingers to strike them down. Their bodies jerked and flopped much like his opponents back in the tower. Unlike with his sparring partners of old, he didn’t stop his assault until smoke began to leak from their mouths.
Arrows bloomed around them, ricocheting off his barrier. A few made their way through the weaker points, albeit, sluggishly. By the time the fletching passed through, the arrows had lost all momentum.
This didn’t appear to be enough for Authril. She crouched behind her shield, dragging the hedgewitch down with her. “I thought you said this damn barrier would keep us safe?”
Dylan barely heard her. His focus was shattering, just like the first arrows. He allowed the two lifeless bodies to fall, waiting until his heart stopped hammering quite so hard before turning his attention to their remaining enemies. How many more could he take out before the barrier failed completely? Certainly not the whole seven.
His gaze swung to the rider. That man would be the greater threat to his companions. But taking on a Udynean spellster, one who was no doubt powerful and well rested, wouldn’t be easy if Dylan hadn’t spent the last few days tramping through the forest and healing people.
“Hold your fire!” the rider bellowed. “I want the leashed one alive! Let’s not have a repeat of last week’s attack.”
Dylan frowned. Last week? That’d been when he first arrived when there’d been suspiciously few attacks. He would’ve recalled any mention of a spellster— The infirmary. One of the leashed ones had been amongst the scouts. She’d died from her injuries before the survivors could return to the front line.
They still think I’m leashed. And why not? Even in Udynea, where the infitialis collars were for slaves and prisoners, he doubted there were any reports of a leashed one removing their collars. And if they wanted him alive, that meant they’d target his companions, the warrior specifically if they were aware of Katarina’s hedgewitch status. He could use that knowledge to predict their actions. Like right now, the remaining six on foot were fanning out, looking to flank them.
He adjusted his shield, seeking to ensure every inch was strong enough to repel all weapons. His magic responded slowly, the barrier flickering with the threat of failing altogether. “We can’t let them draw this out,” he muttered over his shoulder. “I don’t think I’ve enough energy for much.”
“Understood,” Authril said as she got to her feet. “I’ve never fought beside a spellster. Do you have a plan?”
“Leave the rider to me. Concentrate on the others. When they get close, I’m dropping the barrier.” It wasn’t ideal, but it he needed all the energy he could muster to be any match against the Udynean. “Be ready.”
“I am,” the elf replied.
“Where do I fit into this?” Katarina asked.
“You’re a hedgewitch.” And their enemies were close enough to make out her attire. “I can’t ask you to risk your life with this. It would be best if you found somewhere safe to wait this out.”
She mumbled something under her breath. Judging by the tone, it wasn’t civil. “They used my people’s ruins as bait,” the dwarf snarled. “I’m not hiding this time.”
“Then you better stay close to me,” Authril said.
Katarina gave the other woman a grim smile and drew her dagger. “Don’t worry about me. This isn’t my first fight.” She turned her attention to him. “Are you able to do that lightning trick again? Take out another few?”
He shook his head. If he’d had enough rest, then it’d be no different to the brawl in terms of strain, but now? “One, maybe.” Providing they fell swiftly. He’d need to conserve much of his energy for the rider and hope it was enough.
“Doesn’t matter,” Authril said as she bounced from foot to foot. “I’ll take them.”
The soldiers were close enough now for their bows to be useless. They advanced with swords drawn.
“Now?” the warrior asked, the eagerness in her voice sharp enough to bite.
“Now.” He let the shield drop and aimed a fireball at the closest enemy, cursing as the woman dove out of the way. So much for that tactic. His attention swung to the rider. The man merely sat there, content to watch his lackeys fight.
Authril’s advance fared better. She ran at the group, screaming and sending the soldiers in all directions. Her blade sliced through the sword arm of one before her shield bashed in the woman’s face. This seemed to give the remaining three grounds to pause as they circled her like wary dogs.
Dylan frowned. He hastily counted the soldiers around the warrior. Four in all.
But hadn’t there been six left?
Movement danced on the edge of his vision. He turned his head, searching, when he spied another of Authril’s attackers lunged for her, aiming to attack the woman’s flank. Before a warning could pass his lips, the warrior had swung about to block her attacker. A few moments later and the man fell back, clutching at the slimy tubes spilling from his belly.
The rider straightened in his saddle and bellowed, “Oh, for—!” He kneed his mount towards them. Lightning shot from his hand in one enormous bolt.
Instinct had Dylan flinging up a shield between Authril and the rider. The barrier shuddered, but held against the onslaught. That was his cue. He prayed he’d enough left in him to defeat the man. Drawing in a deep breath, Dylan threw a fireball at the man, letting it explode ahead of the horse’s path.
The horse reared, throwing its rider.
The man staggered to his feet. He glared at his mount as the horse thundered into the forest. “You little shit,” he snarled. A cloud of dust kicked up as the man flung his hands forward.
Dylan braced himself, barely having the strength to shield the blast running through the air. It hit low, almost knocking him off his feet. He righted his balance with far more difficulty than it should’ve taken and altered the barrier from a sphere to a bell-like shape. “Get back!” he ordered Katarina. The last thing he wanted was to have the hedgewitch in the radius of the man’s attack should the shield fail.
There was no reply. He could only hope she’d heard him and obeyed.
A figure marched through the dust, too tall to be the warrior.
The man halted none too far away. “Why won’t you have the good sense to go down, you backwater-bred cretin?” he sneered.
Dylan flexed his fingers. How he wished he’d the energy to pound the smarmy bastard into the ground. For now, he had to wait and see what else the man would throw at him. Hopefully, the attacks would reveal a weakness he could exploit. “Are dust clouds and talk all you have to offer, Udynean?”
The man’s lips twisted smugly.
Dylan barely caught the man’s hands twitch before another blast rocked his shield. He swung the full force of his barrier to the fore as a barrage of iridescent specks hit, constructs much like the spear back in the arena. As small as a wasp’s sting, they hissed as they struck and fizzled against his barrier.
“You’re no match for a properly trained spellster,” the man snarled, closing the gap between them with each word until he was but a few paces away.
Dylan peered at the area directly around the man, eventually spotting the faint translucent shimmer of a shield. No telling how strong it was. Likely stronger than he could penetrate in his current state.
“Just come quietly,” the man continued, seemingly oblivious to Dylan’s scrutiny. “I’d rather not have to report you joined these pathetic fools in death.” He swept his arm wide, indicating the entire camp. “I might even ask my lord to let me keep you, if you co-operate.”
Dylan’s gaze slid to the corpses behind the Udynean. Red blazed across his mind, the searing heat of fury reborn. So many left broken and burnt by men like this one. Had those monsters stood with the same smile as they took all these lives? For what? A few leashed slaves?
Dylan wordlessly wrapped his own barrier around the man, maintaining the finest of balances in keeping it invisible. In a snap of thought, he tightened the shield, forsaking translucency for density. “You take pleasure in burning them alive?” he hissed. “Let’s see how you like roasting.”
Focusing on the air trapped inside, Dylan allowed a trickle of magic, a small puff of heat from an unformed fireball, to bloom. It should’ve been harmless, naught but a mild concentration of warm air. But trapped inside, with the flicker of heat he’d set off feeding on itself and growing hotter with each second?
All he had to do was keep the barrier in place.
Sneering, the man pushed out with his shield, but Dylan was ready for him and the barrier held firm. The man’s skin, originally a pale olive tone, turned red. His eyes bulged. He put more force behind his actions.
Dylan gritted his teeth and rammed the remaining scrap of his magic into the hazy heat blazing away inside the shimmering ball of his shield.
A scream Dylan couldn’t hear tightened the man’s throat as he collapsed to his knees. The air had become too hot for his lungs, scorching the soft tissue just as it blistered the man’s face and hands.
It was surreal, watching as the man died by his actions. It wouldn’t be long now. A few more minutes and he could be certain that this Udynean would never harm anyone ever again. Should he not feel gratified in knowing that?
Behind him, he caught Katarina cry out in pain.
The other two soldiers. They’d wounded her. Fatally?
Dylan jerked his head to one side, a part of him pulled by the call. But he couldn’t dare shift his full attention from the Udynean spellster lest the man managed to slip free at the last second.
Could he send a pulse through the earth like he’d done in the arena? Did he have the strength? After he’d finished with this man, perhaps. Without knowing what Katarina faced, any action could work against the hedgewitch far too easily. He’d just have to hope she was able to stand her ground for a little bit more.
“Watch out!” Katarina screamed.
Something hit the back of his head and the world turned black for but a moment. He staggered forward. Lights danced across this vision, dizzying him. Intense heat blasted at his face. The barrier had fallen.
Pain lanced his side. The searing agony of lightning haphazardly channelled. Instinct lifted his hand and had him throw everything behind the flames that sprang from his fingers.
The brief wail of a victim hit his ears. He sorely hoped it’d been the right target. Dylan lowered his hand and stood there, his chest heaving. The wound on his side was healing, sluggishly. He shook his head, trying to clear his eyesight. That proved to be the wrong action as his legs gave, dumping him face-first onto the ground.
The world was grey and black. Charred. Ash drifted across the endless plain, kicked up by the bitter wind. He covered his mouth with a sleeve. His eyes watered as the powdery grit blew over him, but he refused to let them close.
Was this the afterlife? He took a few shambling steps. Where was the river of judgement? The Seven Sisters? The priests said there was supposed to be a boat to carry him to paradise. He spun about, searching. There wasn’t even a trickle of water.
What if the boat didn’t appear? What if the lieutenant was right and his magic left him tainted? He’d be stuck wandering through this lifeless mockery for all eternity.
There was a cave in the distance, naught but a suggestion of darkness amongst the hillside. How far, he didn’t know, but it seemed to be his best chance. Pulling his sleeve tighter around his face, he began trudging in that direction.
He’d barely taken a dozen steps when the ground heaved.
The scorched dirt beneath his feet splintered, flinging clumps of crumbling rock in all directions and tossing him about. He scrambled for solid land, raking at the earth. His fingers found a tree root, thin and strong. He clung to it with one hand, pawing at the ground around him for a second handhold.
Bony hands clawed through the cracks. They grasped his robe, hauling him deeper into the sinkhole. Their weight on his clothes grew heavier with each second. Stitching groaned, threatening to break. Already, his boots were gone, swallowed by the churning ground.
The root he clung to so ferociously bent. He dug into the sod surrounding it, seeking to unearth more. His fingers carved out great trenches, but there was nothing to be had.
“Join us,” dusty voices echoed from the very air.
Faces broke through the earth. Black and bleeding. Melted. They stared at him with empty and weeping sockets. “You belong here,” their fleshless jaws creaked. “Down amongst the dead. Embrace the earth. Join us in the ashes of your failure.”
The clammy coldness of the earth greeted his legs. He was torn from the side of the hole. Bony arms wrapped around his chest, chilling his heart.
“He has joined us,” a jawless face hissed into his ear.
All around, the walls began to cave in. Mud, thick and slimy, covered his torso. Much of the grasping hands had fallen away, only the corpse on his back remained.
Above, the sky stretched out in an endless sea of grey clouds. He raised a hand in supplication, but the mud continued to pour in. It was at his neck now and climbing. He fought to keep his head above the ever-rising sludge, spluttering as watery gloop filled his mouth.
This couldn’t be it. It just couldn’t. He wasn’t ready to go. Not like this. There was still so much he needed to see, so many things he hadn’t experienced.
Muddy water trickled down his throat, clogging his nose. He gagged. Clumps of dirt caked his eyelids, sealing him into darkness.