“Quit gawking like a herd of moonstruck calves!” Terry ordered the tail of a long line of frail old townsfolk and awestruck children. “This is your last chance to run for your lives.”
by Amon Gwareth and Kensai
“Quit gawking like a herd of moonstruck calves!” Terry ordered the tail of a long line of frail old townsfolk and awestruck children. “This is your last chance to run for your lives,” he told them, punctuating the grave pronouncement with a wave of his shield, trying to will them more quickly through the distant gates of Harro, just barely visible up the road to the east.
“They aren't going to make it, are they?” Tannish asked quietly from his shoulder.
Terry turned back to the task at hand, retrieving his sword from the carcass of the beast at his feet. The pull of the thing against his blade was unnatural enough to be nauseating, at once far too heavy for its size and yet feeling as if it were made of nothing so much as smoke and ash. The slithering, sucking sounds its flesh made as he pulled the sword free, was nearly enough to make him choke.
“They may yet,” Terry answered, turning to drop a weary hand on the elf's shoulder. He used that hand to turn Tannish to face back south, where they could see Ishantor standing on a rise sharp rise, a few meters tall, just west of the road. “I think our druid has spotted our next guests. We ought not keep them waiting.”
Ishantor was not signaling them yet, so they walked slowly, conserving energy, resting as they could. As they made the rise, only two other defenders gathered with them, a filthy Dwarven Mage Terry knew only as Gus and Voriss i'Tanil, a Fiend and Healer he knew mainly by reputation, not all of it good.
“What have we got?”
The Saris didn't break his focus on the horizon, maintaining his vigil south, down the road and as far into the trees and hills on either side as he could make out. “More blight hounds. Maybe something else besides, but I can't be sure.”
“Aye, an there be more comin this time,” Gus added, his accent thick. “A score. Maybe more.”
Terry raised a hand to shield his eyes from the setting sun as he peered off down the road. “I can't make them out. How long?”
Ishantor shifted his weight, leaning more heavily on his staff than before. “They're at a dead run. We've got three, four minutes at best.”
Terry sighed noisily. This could turn out to be a very difficult afternoon. He stepped ahead of Ishantor and then turned back to face them all. It wasn't often that he was called upon to lead such a small or motley squad, but that didn't matter. What did matter was that if he didn't do his duty, people would die.
“So, we fan out and we hold this road,” he told them. Vague muttering and nodding was all he received in return. He couldn't blame them. He, too, felt like crawling under a rock and just waiting all this out, but he couldn't. He knew that these Defenders of Harro wouldn't either. That's why they were here, now, but a half-hearted, resigned defense wouldn't get the job done.
“Stay with me,” he ordered. “Hold the line. If you find yourself at the Shrine with the sun on your back, do not fret! For you are Gifted, and have already been reborn. But time is not our ally this day. By the Light of Istara, we shall give these people all the time we can bring to bear.”
“By the Light of Istara,” the others mumbled in response.
“By the Light of Istara, we will turn back this Blight!”
“By the Light of Istara!” they cried out, staff, spear and fist thrust high.
Terry wheeled about to the south. They were here, now, not even a hundred meters away, kicking up a wide plum of dust as they loped along on their hind legs. They were large beasts, much larger than a man, perhaps as tall as a half-giant if they were to straighten from their beastly crouches, and exuded a flickering green glow, a sign of the Blight they carried within.
He raised his sword, the symbol of his service to the city, high overhead, the closest thing to a banner they had. Waving it forward, he set off down the rise at an easy jog, moving to the keep the center of the road under his feet as he went. As a Captain of the Guard, it was his duty, his honor, to be the head of this particular spear, and he found himself, as the distance dwindled quickly to nothing, crying out, over and over, “By the Light!” only to be echoed, close at hand, by the last of Harro's defenders.
Just as he'd picked the point among the cluster of loping hounds that he would strike at, he could feel the light and power of the spells Voriss and Gus cast upon him. His eyes narrowed and he smiled wickedly. He'd stood before these gates against many enemies over the years, purple vexator, the Avatar of Pain, Minneos and worse, and he already knew, no matter what happened this day, he had come to this point with a handful of fine Gifted that he could trust to his back. He would make that be enough.
“My sword is my strength, it shall not fail. Istara's Hand guide me, Istara's Grace lift me, Istara's Gaze protect me.”
The sky grew dark as he allowed himself to be engulfed by the madly charging beasts. Gouts of fire whipped past him and the razor wind of cyclones slammed into the beasts around him. The dust, the heat, the burning of bristling, coarse hair and flesh, and above all, the blight that burned up from within these beasts made simply drawing breath the first battle, but it was one that Terry had mastered a hundred times over. His step never faltered and his focus on one particular hound in the midst of the pack never strayed, and in that first instant of contact, with the momentum of the charge, the keen edge of his finely crafted blade bit deeply, and he rent his enemy asunder.
Overextended from the blow that had dropped the hound in a shredded mess, and scarcely moving compared to the still charging pack, Terry found himself suddenly on the defensive. He just managed to wedge his shield between his face and the raking claws of another charging hound. He saved his flesh, but was knocked sprawling from the impact. He rolled with it to the side, just missing being trampled by huge, razor clawed paws. He kept moving away as he tried to lever himself back to his feet, feeling more claws barely missing his back, plucking at his mithril mail as they passed by.
Shield up and sword back, he planted himself to face two of them. The beasts loomed over him, their fetid breath creeping over his skin like old spiders' web. They seemed to glance at each other in the instant before they struck, but they were still just dumb beasts, and Terry was an old hand at dispatching their ilk. He slipped one strike with his shield, claws skittering across steel, and easily batted the other one away with his blade. He stepped up between them, sword working left, then back to the right, over and over, until he'd gotten behind their positions and turned around and turned their flanks into chopped carrion.
One went down, an injured leg giving out as it tried to twist after Terry. The other came on, dragging an injured leg behind. Terry's blade separated a deadly paw from its foreleg while his shield smashed into the thing's muzzle as it desperately came in for a bite. An instant later, it was all over for these two except for the oozing.
Another hound loomed up before him, and then several more scattered a few meters further on. Terry blew out hard, trying to get some fresh air back into his lungs. He wasn't sure that his legs could actually propel him back into the fray, so he backed away, just enough to keep from getting tangled up in the carcasses he'd just created, and waited for them to come. As the nearest one began hopping through the mess of its fallen brethren, Terry drew back to begin a powerful attack, hoping to fell the thing before it could regain its footing, but held off when he saw it go stiff, eyes wide, nearly bulging out of its narrow skull.
Then a gleaming spear point burst through the thing's chest, retracting so quickly that it almost seemed a mirage to Terry. And then Tannish was with him, back to back. Whirling spear, stout shield and shining blade, they built a circle of death around themselves, drawing blood as the opportunity presented itself and holding the hounds at bay.
And as quickly as they had come together, they split off again, chasing foes they'd gained the advantage over. Retracting his blade from a mortal thrust, Terry found himself alone. No friends or foes in sight, isolated by the smoke and dust and the roar of the wind, he found himself shaking with the poison of fatigue. It took him a moment to distinguish the shaking of the ground over the thundering of blood in his ears. Fearing himself already lost, he spun as best he could, leading with the edge of his sword.
It was a Blight Hound, though much larger than he had ever seen, at least a meter taller and probably massing twice as much as the others. It also seemed to be much quicker, too, as it landed heavily from having hopped back out of the range of Terry's attack. It looked Terry directly in his eyes and leered as he'd never known its kind to do. The malevolence, the unadulterated glee of giving itself over to its bloodlust, shook Terry to his core. How did one fight such reckless hate?
With resolve and abandon, Terry knew. He strode forward, testing how the thing wanted to fight. It stood its ground until the instant Terry feinted. He'd expected it to leap away again, but instead it slipped to his sword side, so he hacked away at it on the back swing. Unfortunately, he struck nothing but air as it skipped back around, putting Terry's shield between it and his sword. He came after it overhand, chopping through hastily vacated space. Stepping forward and reversing the strike into a rising cut, Terry found himself led into a chase, working his blade as quickly as his leaden arm could manage, slash, slash, thrust, cut.
The huge beast seemed to finally tire of the game, its first counter landing on Terry's shield, rocking him back. The second, Terry parried with his sword, nearly losing his grip on it from the impact. The third, hit Terry full in the chest, claws neatly slicing into his mail and beyond as the blow tossed him to the ground in a bloody heap.
“To me!” he cried, the pain in his chest as he did so all out of proportion with the shallow furrows in his flesh. The strike had crushed something. He was dying.
A bolt of fire smashed into the thing, instantly blackening its bristling fur, but did nothing to slow its advance as it stalked after Terry. A second and a third rained in to similar effect, each making the beast appear more hideous than before.
And then Tannish was there again, leaping in with a great thrust from the beast's side, an attack that the thing didn't quite manage to dodge this time. The blade of Tannish's spear grazed the hound's forearm and scored the flesh along its ribs. Tannish caught the return blow on the now upraised staff of his weapon, and then spun beneath it, whipping the blade around for a thrust from nearly the opposite direction as the first. The beast accepted another glancing blow to its ribs in exchange for batting Tannish completely off the road, separating spearman and spear in an instant.
Light and warmth washed over Terry, a sign that Voriss stepped into the fray. Terry's bleeding stopped almost immediately, and the pain when he breathed became manageable. But, Terry wasn't the only one who sensed the healing light. The hound's head snapped up and around, fixing its malevolent gaze upon Voriss in a heartbeat.
Terry lunged to his feet, summoning every ounce of strength remaining in him, and launched himself after the hound. He managed to take it by surprise, his blade creasing the flesh of its lower back as it fell away and spun to face him again. He pressed in, slashing wildly. Blood ran freely from the beast's legs and abdomen, but still it grinned evilly at him, even as it fell back from the captain's fury.
At first, Terry thought it was a trick of the light, caught in the vast drifts of smoke and dust kicked up by the battle, but it was quickly obvious that the growing, sickly green light he saw was the power of the monster's blight growing beyond anything he'd seen in the lesser hounds. What power this one had beyond that of its kin, and fear of what that power might be spurred Terry on.
The thing's roar, head thrown back, spine arched with a spasm of power, hit Terry like a physical blow, knocking him onto his back and all of the fight out of him. Laying there, in the rapidly coalescing glow of the thing's malevolent power, Terry realized just how weary, how hurt he was. He had nothing left give.
“Watch out!” Terry heard Ishantor cry. Terry managed to lift his head enough to catch sight of the hound again. Now it was crouched down on all fours and difficult to look at as the flickering, nauseating light of its power swirled in a bright cloud about it. It looked up to catch Terry's gaze again, just before it pounced, leaping unnaturally high, above Terry, meaning to crush what life remained out of him. Somehow, he managed to haul up the point of his sword in line with the beast's descent, just before the impact. He noticed the satisfying feel of the blade driving home through the thing's body, but distantly, beneath the burning, putrid light of the blight hound's power and the thundering, final darkness that shattered him.
* * * * *
Terry opened his eyes slowly. They hurt. In fact, every part of him hurt, and the light above him, what ever it was, blinded him painfully, so he closed his eyes again and sank back against the hard surface he lay on.
“Yer back with us, lad” Terry heard someone say from nearby, the accent familiar. “Twas a close thing, too.”
“They are all dead then?” he asked.
“Yes, my friend, we have vanquished our enemies,” a musical, nearly laughing voice assured him. “For now.”
Terry opened his eyes to find a haggard and motley collection of faces, dwarf and elf, saris and fiend, smiling down on him. The Defenders of Harro.
“Twas a close un, as ah said,” Gus continued. “Ye saved th' day. Shredded that monster, ye did! An' it bled fierce on th' ground before we managed to finish it, it did.”
“Gus is right,” Tannish interrupted, “your sacrifice allowed us to fell the beast and saved our lives as well! Were it not for the explosion, you might have made it . . .”
Terry smiled and shook his head. So that's what had happened to strangely powerful blight hound, in the end. An explosion of Blight energies. The thought was chilling.
“I would have been dead many times over before then if it weren't for each and every one of you.” Tannish and Vorris lent him strong arms to help him to his feet, and he clasped them both by the shoulder. “I did not know any of you well before this day, but every other day, now, you will be my brothers.”
“Aye, a human stone-headed enough to be brother to a dwarf, I'll give ye that,” Gus admitted, thumping Terry hard enough on the arm to almost send him sprawling, all of which brought a round of laughter from the others.
As the laughter died, Ishantor stepped forward and planted his staff loudly on the stone. “By Istara's Grace, Harro has been saved, once again.”
Heads bowed, the other Defenders answered, “By Istara's Grace.”