They came silently, rising from the edge of the rocks above. They wore high collared vests riveted with hundreds of brass hexagonal scales, and helms of bronze and leather. Reddish eyes gleamed beneath the rim of the helms, framed by some sort of coppery tattoo.
Gilliam’s arrow flew true, striking through a juncture in the brass scales, and we heard the soldier give a muffled grunt. Judging from how far the arrow penetrated, it had to have pierced a lung, yet the broad-shouldered figure kept coming.
Demarra voiced a short cry, and slender Darine throwing knives sprouted from another of the figure’s necks and shoulder, rocking it back on its heels. Luckily, this threw off its aim, and the bolt from its heavy crossbow shattered against the rocks behind us.
Sera raised her hands, fingers spread wide, and I felt the heat blossom in my gut, tingling through my own fingers. A sheet of flames arced across the precipice above.
There was no scream, no scrambling in surprise or fear. The soldiers stepped through the wash of flre, the flames licking and curling about their armor, the leather smoldering, cloth aflame.
Another of Gilliam’s arrows lodged deep in the leader’s shoulder, but it did not hesitate in lifting its dark iron sword high, bringing it down with an almost mechanical jerk.
Then Varis was there, catching the blade along his own, throwing his weight into the parry.
The other soldier lifted its crossbow, not even bothering to sight, the heavy stock shuddering as the iron-bound mechanism released.
I hurled a globe of fire at the same time, and the bolt burst aflame, disintegrating into ash before it could strike Ana.
She made the most of her twist to try to avoid the missile , adding the momentum to the underhand sweep of her scythe. It took the second crossbowman’s arm off just below the elbow, sending the heavy crossbow clattering away.
The blow struck a shower of deep green-blue sparks, and Ana stumbled back from the cinders, the blade of her scythe scorched and smoldering.
“Behind me!” Aurora shouted, pushing her sister back, raising her bejeweled dagger in a high guard as the other boltman leveled the weapon at her.
But Pyrklist proved faster, dashing forward to fling himself upon the heavy crossbow. The bolt ricocheted off the ground in front of the twins, spinning harmlessly away.
Gilliam swore, as his third arrow drove up to the fletchings beneath the leader’s helm. It did not slow, pressing its stiff-armed attack against Varis, who kept batting the heavy blade aside.
He’d worked out his opponent’s timing, though, and when the leader raised its heavy sword to strike again, his own blade slid to the hilt in the gap in the armer beneath the armpit.
Black blood spewed from the wound, and Varis cried out as the dying soldier’s sword came down hard across his shoulder. Luckily, the strike hit a buckle. Still, Varis staggered with the impact.
And the leader raised his sword again….
“Halav’s balls, just die already!” Varis unsheathed his dagger, striking upward, the blade easily slipping behind the brass scales. There came another gush of black ichor as he wrenched the knife upward.
Gilliam gave his bow a spin, bringing the thickest part just above the grip down on the elbow joint. It gave a great ‘pop’ and the arm dropped limp, the sword clanging to the ground as the leader’s fingers twitched and jumped.
Ana blocked the clumsy swipe of her opponent, its hastily drawn sword sliding harmlessly down the length of the scythe’s haft. She brought the weapon around, the swing catching the soldier just above the vest’s collar, and another gout of sparks erupted, along with a spray of black blood as the head tumbled from its shoulders.
Aurora lunged over Pyrklist, who still clung to the other solder’s weapon, preventing him from reloading. Her knife pierced its left eye, and the veins within the dark stone on the blade burst to light.
The remaining eye opened wider, and at last we heard our opponent’s voice— a grating, howling scream that sent a cold shiver through me.
Aurora’s eyes widened in surprise, and then narrowed. I saw her lips move, voicing some command phrase I could not hear above the solder’s shriek, and a pulse of crackling purple-black energy boiled up from the blade’s stone, coursing down the blade. The soldier stiffened, Pyrklist and the crossbow hitting the ground with a solid ‘thud.’
Then its arms came up, and it closed them around the shrike, great shoulders bunching with the effort. Aurora tried to cry out, but the great hug had crushed the air out of her.
Silva leapt, the black stone alight on her wrist, her entire right hand shrouded as if with a glove of smoldering shadows. She closed her hand about the thick wrist of the soldier, gave a twist, snapping the arm as if it were a twig. The princess stumbled back, shaking her hand, now clear of the shadowy aura, which remained snaked around the now-useless arm.
Aurora reached down, closing her hand around a trailer of the smoky shadowstuff, and it straightened, hardening into a spike of ebon darkness. She brought it up, driving the shard through the helm and skull beneath it.
The shriek finally died as the last soldier collapsed, as a puppet with its strings suddenly cut. The shrike rolled free, coughing and clutching at her sides, the clear gold-veined dragonstones brilliantly alight.
Varis gave a shout, rolling away from the leader, clutching at his head.
It turned, swinging a great fist at Gilliam, but he ducked the blow, bringing his bow up in both hands straight under the big leader’s chin. We all heard the crunch of jaw and neck bones. We also heard the hard whoosh of air as another swing of the fist caught Gilliam in the stomach, doubling him over, the bow clattering to the trail.
“The helm! Aim for the helm!” Aurora wheezed.
Ana brought her scythe down in an overhead sweep, plunging the blade through the helm and into the opponent’s lopsided head.
The blade trailed streamers of a dark, oily smoke and glittering shards of blackness as she wrenched it free, the burly leader finally collapsing to its knees and then toppling sideways.
“That,” Gilliam panted, “took entirely too long.” He reached down to help Varis up.
“No, don’t stand up until I can get a look at you,” Ana told the big warrior.
He shrugged, wincing with the gesture.
“What about me?” Gilliam asked, as the cleric of the Flame stepped past him.
“You just had the wind knocked out of you. You could stand to have a lot more of that.”
Demarra hid her smile behind the tumble of her dark, curly hair. She worked her knives back and forth, pulling them from the shoulder and neck of the soldier with some difficulty.
“These are awfully tall for dwarves,” she said.
“That is because they are not dwarves,” Aurora said. She wrenched her own knife free, and gave the helm a kick. It tumbled away to reveal a grayish, wrinkled face, with just wisps of hair and not a chin whisker to be found. The chin jutted forward, and a snout joined it, lined with the coppery tattooing I’d seen peeking from beneath the helm. The tattoo work lined its eyes, and worked up along the side of the head, ending in an elaborate circle at the back of the definitely orcish head. In the center of the circle, surrounded by the copper swirls and runics was a dark, multifaceted crystal that still pulsed, dimly, with a deep purplish light in its depths.
“What in Zirchev’s name…?” Demarra gasped.
I leaned down, peering at the tattoos. They were not lines of ink, but fine filaments of the metal. I reached forth, then jerked my hand away as a spark leapt to my finger. Behind me, Sera’s gasp echoed my own, and she sucked on her finger, blushing as I turned to look at her.
“I have heard of tribes that work bits of metal and bone into their skin, but this…” I said.
“No,” Aurora said, staring down at the withered orc. “Not in your Taker’s name, nor that of any other Immortal. That is not just ‘bits of metal,” the shrike said to me. She knelt by the orc’s head, and wedged her knife against the black stone embedded in its skull. “These are surface elements of cytronics.” She gave the knife a twist, and the stone popped free with wet sucking sound and a harsh sizzle, like a miniature lightning bolt. The orc’s body gave a shudder, arms and legs flopping, and then lay still.
“Agragjha, etah kim bodhati’teh?” Aurora asked, tossing the stone to her sister.
Silva caught the dragonstone, wiped it off, and held it up to the iron-hued sky, squinting as she peered into it. She turned it this way and that, sang a note, and the stone went dark. She flipped it back to the shrike.
“Asiddha, kintu mudrita’sti,” she said.
Aurora nodded, snatching the stone from the air and slipping it into her belt pouch.
Gilliam gave a shout, and we turned, to see him clutching at his hand.
“It bit me!” He kicked at the severed head only to have its jaws clamp down on the tip of his boot.