For three days we run, and the Mor follow. Three days of burning sun, and dust, and constant, grinding pain-limbs growing heavier and heavier, slowing us down, making men stumble. More and more, those who fall do not rise, and we must leave them behind.
Three nights of hurried cold camps; never risking a fire, afraid to sleep lest the enemy come upon us unaware. Three nights of scouting along our back trail, doing what I can to obfuscate the marks of our passage; a hopeless task for more than two dozen men, all heavily booted, all no longer caring to tread lightly, but I cannot help but to try.
Three days and nights since the doomed battle of Gamth’s Pass, where five thousand men faced off against a force a tenth their number, and were annihilated just the same. Five thousand men cut down by the Mor’s unearthly strength; stone-like limbs scything, claws ripping through manflesh and horseflesh both with appalling ease, while arrows and blades bounced like gentle spring rain from their shield-like carapaces.
I was at the rear when the final charge met the Mor’s irregular battle lines, breaking like waves against a rocky
shore. I fired arrow after arrow down into the foe, knowing that only one in a hundred shafts might find some vulnerable place. My sweetlings, with their horned limbs and thorny hides, might have had better luck in the fray but I had been forbidden by the priests from calling them.
Pious fools. What good were their prayers against such a foe? What use their magics against beings of such strength? From my vantage point, I saw our line crumble, the Mor cutting it apart like monstrous ants dissecting and devouring a flailing earthworm.
Then there was nothing but screams and chaos as men abandoned their formations, scattering like leaves in a gale, screaming, shouting, begging for mercy. I ran down into the swirling melee, searching for Jazen Tor, dodging the swipes and jabs of the Mor. I found him soon after, still fighting amongst the remains of his company, and we fled.
The fourth day dawns. I do not pause for rest, but continue to scout the perimeter while the men snatch a few precious minutes of sleep. None grumble any more about relying on a woman; such prideful concerns have long since been forgotten. We are all refugees now, all prey.
My body yearns for rest, and sustenance; the hard uneven ground the men are sprawled upon looks as enticing as a featherbed. I push aside my weakness and run back along our trail, before my traitorous body can succumb to temptation. I am dismayed to find the Mor are less than three miles behind. They are gaining, moving at their implacable pace while we-burdened by our need for sleep, for food and drink-slow. If the Mor have such weaknesses, they have never displayed them.
Before I return, I kill a deer with my bow and use its still-warm body to summon one of my dark children. I place it along our trail, commanding it to kill anything that it sees. I dislike using animals, for the resulting creation is slow and stupid and weak, a pale shadow of what my sweetlings are usually capable of, but it should slow the Mor for a few precious minutes.
I return to find the sentries asleep on their feet. I clatter a bit as I roll my few meager possessions, giving them time to come awake. The sound is insufficient to rouse most of them and, finally, I must resort to shaking and shouting.
Soon, all are on their feet and we set out. The men are too exhausted to even groan, shuffling forward like zombies.
Jazen Tor, whom I allowed to share my blankets a million years ago, before Gamth’s Pass, smiles and offers me a bit of biscuit.
“Eat up,” he says, his voice a whispery croak, so different from his usual melodious baritone. “No need to ration. At this pace, we’ll be at Fort Azure by mid-day.”
I take the morsel with a nod of thanks and place it in my pouch. I am never hungry after birthing one of my precious ones, as if the act of creation fills some bodily need in me.
I lean forward and whisper, “We must increase the pace. The Mor are gaining. At this rate they will be on us before we reach the fort.”
Tor looks over his shoulder at Captain Hollern. He knows, as do I, that our commander will not listen to any tactical advice I have to offer. Hollern is a follower of the Lightbringer, and barely tolerates my presence.
“I’ll spread the word,” Tor says with a weary sigh. “One final run, then we will be behind thick walls, eh?”
I smile in what I hope is a reassuring way and he moves back. He whispers in a man’s ear and I see the glazed look of exhaustion in his eyes shift to cornered fear. Tor grips his shoulder for a moment, seeming to will strength into the man, then moves to speak to another. Soon, the column begins to accelerate, just a bit, but maybe enough.
Hollern is oblivious to the change and soon is at the rear of the group. He picks up his pace without seeming to notice, the vacant look in his eyes never flickering. I wish he would just lie down like so many others have already done, putting his command in Jazen Tor’s more capable hands.
We come across the Fort Azure road and our pace increases further still. Homesteads are scattered along the road. All are abandoned, all burnt. The Mor, I know, always put our settlements to the torch after raiding, as if they cannot bear the very sight of any human structure. Most are abandoned, but some are surrounded by the shattered bodies of their former inhabitants; men, women, children, limbs scattered and scavenger-chewed, heads missing. We do not stop to bury the fallen.
Mid-morning, we come to a stream and the men stop to refill their canteens. I whisper to Tor to not wait for me and slip away. I run back along our trail, gritting my teeth at the pain in my feet and legs. I will soon be behind thick walls, guarded by archers and pikemen, I tell myself. I can rest then.
I pass by one of the homesteads and check the bodies. None are usable. Without heads or limbs, the fallen are too damaged to call forth one of my sweetlings. The house has been burned to the foundation and its stones scattered. The ashen smell lies thick in my nose.
A horn blast splits the quiet air. Jazen’s horn. There is only one reason he would betray his position. I run back, panting, chest like a furnace, wondering if I am already too late.
I slow as I approach the spot where I left the men. The sound of battle reaches my ears, the slithering ring of blades striking rock-like skin, the hoarse grunts and shouts of men mixed with the eerie piping of the Mor. I leave the road, slipping like a ghost into the bushes. I reach the edge of the clearing, drawing forth an arrow and nocking it to the string.
Men lie scattered about the clearing in spreading pools of blood. The survivors, with Hollern and Jazen Tor among them, stand in a tight knot, back-to-back-to-back, sixteen men against three Mor.
The Mor tower over the soldiers, eight feet of stone-gray armor and leathery flesh, their massive, clawed upper arms rising and falling like threshing tools. Weapons are clutched in the smaller, lower limbs: stone hammers and knives. The blades glow a sullen orange, hot as lava, a result of one of the work of one of their shamans.
I draw my arrow back to my cheek, searching for a vulnerable joint, then see there are bodies not five feet from my position. They are horribly torn, the edges of their wounds blackened and smoking, but the Mor have not yet torn them asunder. I smile bloodlessly and take the arrow from the string.
As I open my inner eye, my sister crows in triumph inside my head. I tell her to be still. She spares me a mocking laugh, but falls silent, gods be praised. I see the spirits of the fallen men, standing near their former vessels. The specters are dazed, wandering about, some crying, others peering at their former flesh with hopeless expressions.
Silently, I call out to the souls of the soldiers. They turn and listen, their ghostly faces pale and translucent in the wan sunlight. I whisper a song of blood and revenge, thrilling as one by one they drift back toward the fleshly remains. The first Mor does not even have time to scream out a warning as my sweetling leaps upon its armored back. Then a second of my children, and a third, tear themselves free from their still-warm cocoons, shambling forth to take their revenge.
They charge forward, their skinless, rope-muscled limbs lashing, bone blades and horns hissing through the air. As one, they clamber up the Mor’s hulking body. They are surprisingly nimble for such ruined-looking things; ugly in a way that only a mother can love. I know that such alacrity will fade in time, as their tissues dry and tighten, but right now they are a whirlwind of muscle and sinew driven by the spirits of the recently dead and my own insatiable desires.
A Mor screams as the talons of one of my children saws across a seam in its armored belly. Its intestines, or what passes for them, tumble out in a vibrant blue spill, smoking in the chill morning air. The Mor warrior falls to one knee, my children still hacking and tearing.
“Kirin, no!” Hollern screams, seeing what I have summoned. “Oh, gods, no!” The remaining Mor, caught between my dark children and the remnants of the company, make a break for the trees. Jazen Tor leaps at one, his sword stabbing at his opponent’s lightly armored back. His blade transfixes a stout leg, busting through the Mor’s knee from behind.
It stumbles and Tor is pulled forward, falling face down, his hand still clasping his blade. The Mor turns, seeing what has hurt it. In its smaller, inner hand is a stone knife. The air ripples with laval heat.
“Jazen! No!” I scream, seeing what is about to happen. I give the silent command for my sweetlings to attack, to save him, but I know I am already too late. The Mor’s blade saws across Tor’s face in a shower of blood. The crimson flood boils into steam as it pours across the knife. Jazen’s scream fills the world. The knife stabs down, burying itself to the hilt in his breast, just as my sweetlings pile onto the enemy.
The Mor’s eyes, cloudy, jade-like, almost glowing behind the armored slit of its face armor, lock with mine as my children begin slaughtering it. I cannot tell if it is smiling behind the overlapping bone plates. Soon, my children find a weak spot in its armor and it is over. “I ordered you to never . . . to never . . .” Hollern pants. “Oh, gods! What have you done?” “Shut up or you’ll be next,” I say, kneeling beside Jazen, uncaring that my words or my desire to see Hollern’s blood are treason. I grab the stone knife’s hilt and pull it from my lover’s body, all too aware that it is too late. Even through the leather of my gloves, the hilt scalds my palms. I toss it into the stream, and the water boils evilly as it sinks with a hissing splash.
“Shhhh . . .” I whisper to Jazen, stroking his crisped hair. “It will all be over soon. You will rise again, and we will be together. Together.”
“D-d…don’t…please . . .” he says, the words a bubbling hiss through the split, oozing wasteland of his face. His one remaining eye rolls and looks into my own. “Kirin…I’m afraid…”
I bend and kiss him, drawing his breath into my body. It tastes of brimstone and charred meat and his own treasured sweetness. The fiery blade has cooked him from within. I know he is in terrible pain, but cannot bring myself to do what is necessary to end his suffering. Inside, my sister spits and reviles me for a weakling, screaming that I am weak, am weak, am weak, that I will die beside him, in blood and fire. I hold him, cradled in my lap, until his breath finally stops.
Buy Blood Magic @ Amazon. And keep an eye out for Book Two of The Ballad Of Kirin Widowmaker, Nights of Sin, which is due out next month.