"Sayn Ieander," I spat, failing to repress a grin. "I swear I wish I could stay mad at you."
She grinned back. " 'Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne.' "
"Your makeup looks very nice, Corwinne."
" 'And I like what you've done with your hair.' "
I sighed. "And I like what you've done with your hair. Can we--?"
She was on a roll. Even the Lance Corporal was grinning at me. " 'And I'm sorry I never take you to nice places where you can wear dresses for real, and maybe dance with you a little.' "
I dropped and spun low, Jorngnir's haft catching them both at the backs of their knees. Three arrows whizzed just overhead, and a fourth nicked my shoulder, drawing a streak that neatly matched my banded collar.
"We'll talk about this later," I gritted, pushing to my feet in a sprint toward the closest of the five elves who'd just seemed to spring up as if the earth had belched them up at us. This one had a massive sword, easily as long as he was tall, and he whipped it around as I approached with an ease that told me the blade was not weighted like steel. The others were armed with bows, which made them Corwinne's problem. Big guys with long, pointy things were my territory.
He cried out in Elven and matched my charge, blade a whirling blur. "Mine's bigger," I hissed as we closed, casting Jorngnir out like a spear to get myself the extra several feet of reach that my longer weapon afforded me. He dodged aside without slowing, his sword sweeping around on the side where Jorngnir wasn't, a blow meant to be impossible to parry. Probably it was, but if I relied on my weapon for everything I'd have been in real trouble long before this.
I heard a spitting sound come from behind me as I sprang inside the sweep of his huge sword, blocking his arms with my body and putting my face right up against his. His all-black, expressionless eyes didn’t waver, to his credit. I’d already seen the dagger at his side, outlined brightly to my Revealed sight. One hand snaked toward it...
And then I shoved him hard, my leg hooked around his ankle, and he staggered backwards, flailing his way right into the path of Corwinne’s thaumiol spray. I waved brightly at him as we both heard the sharp click! of Corwinne's igniter. There was a green fwooosh! and he was gone, along with the rest of our assailants.
Whoops, no--I’d missed one in the sudden burst of flame in front of my eyes. Her bow leveled at the clearly-greater threat, she made ready to send Corwinne after her fellows to the Crawling Lands. My fingers traced arcane pathways in the gloom. A whispered word, an invisible dagger flung, and a little murder in the night, and my partner would live to see another day. I looked over to get some credit for the save, but Corwinne wasn’t yet in a grateful mood.
“Jaspar, look around...” she hissed.
Well, my partner might live to see another day. Elves where everywhere all of a sudden. It was if we had been magically whisked into the middle of their village at noontide, on a day when they were not being overrun by thaumagically enhanced human hordes. Except, that if anyone was doing the overruning, it seemed to be the elves right now. I saw dozens: men, women, even a few children armed with slings and shortspears. Not a one of them had anything more advanced than a longbow, and it looked like they were about to completely wipe the floor with one of Calisar’s most decorated thaumechanized battalions.
I heard an explosion, saw a flare of green light bend the shadows malevolently. One of the 27th’s Animated Personnel Carriers had just exploded, peppering the night with shards of rune-covered elephaunt bones. While I shared the elves’ distaste for the animated dead--it was one of the few parts of military life that operated in flagrant disobedience to God’s Will--it didn’t bode well that its thaumiol tank had been blown. Not only did that mean that its guards were dead, but any bits of that bastard creation that were left over would no longer be bound by the restraining enchantments... yep, there were the screams. “Irresistible craving for the life force of the living” qualified as a good reason not to mess about with the undead.
My cold satisfaction at our enemies’ miscalculation was disrupted by the body that landed in a pulpy mess at my feet. I saw officer’s bars amid the wreckage, and looked up barely in time to throw myself out of the way of another of my erstwhile drinking companions as he plummeted to the earth. Rolling into a crouch, I grimly assessed the situation.
It didn’t take much Revelation to see all the many pointy things that were aimed in our direction. And though I couldn’t see them well, I knew that more bodies were being hurled at us from above, as elves cleared out what had just been the officer’s mess. None of the elves near us was in any danger of being crushed by falling human--it seemed only Corwinne, the Corporal, and myself had that worry--so if we weren’t crushed, it looked as if we had a bright future of bloody perforation in store.
I looked at Corwinne. She looked at the Lance Corporal.
I prayed for us.
The night thrummed with the Divine Will and the hum of Corwinne’s battery packs. I felt a sharp prick at my back, accompanied by the faint scent of her perfume. A metallic whisper from the homing dart she’d tagged me with crackled, “Go get ‘em, tiger.”
I ran, letting grace and Revelation guide my steps. Jorngnir, fully grown, pulled me forward, more of a buoy than a weight in my hands. More bodies landed around me, but my path was true. Arrows whizzed as I roared a battle challenge; I felt only faint scratches. Limned in a corona of pale radiance, all of me was wrath.
The first elf I reached flinched as I approached, and some part of me could tell that she wasn’t a warrior. Her stance was wrong, too tall, and no practiced archer would fire from out in the open like that. She was just some elf, defending her lands from human aggressors. In another time, we might have amiably debated elven polytheism, or at least agreed to mutually dislike one another and leave well enough alone. But the bow in her hands and the blade in mine drove us down a different path.
The light of grace surrounding me seemed to concentrate on Jorngnir’s edge as the runeblade slashed down. She tried to stumble out of the way, but my blow tracked her step, speeding for her heart. I felt the keening of the Butcher's Blade in my hands, gritted my teeth, pulled... and when my swing was complete, her bow fell in two neat pieces to the ground, and Jorngnir remained unbloodied.
Her black eyes locked onto mine, not understanding it, either. Then I spun, slamming the blunt haft of my weapon into her temple, and she dropped to the ground.
As she fell, the light washed away from us in all directions, flashing over half a dozen other elves who were standing within twenty feet of our position. The light infused them, and by the looks on their faces, I could tell that God had Revealed death to them. He took them then, transporting them perhaps to see a vision of the Core for only a split-second as the world continued to turn beneath our feet. First there, and then simply vanished, the elves who had been caught in the light then reappeared, bewildered and blinking... a dozen paces behind me. Where human soldiers were falling even still from the branches of the Mother Tree.
I didn’t hear any screams, just wet thumps, but I could see the looks on the faces of the elves still assembled. It was hardly fair. They were here to defend their home from human soldiers. Instead, they’d found me.
Corwinne found them, too. I’d heard her whispering words of power through the audio link on the homing dart, and with a crack of thunder the air split open in front of me, catching the next ranks of elves in a shockwave that knocked them off their feet. Winds whipped into dust devils, sending funnel clouds back along the edges of the assembled elves, tossing those they caught ten or fifteen feet back, clearing even more of a path for us to make our escape.
There came a hiss of static from the homing dart in my back, and another crack of thunder, and Corwinne was at my side.
“What about-” I began.
“I’ve got him,” she finished.
We didn't get far. Galloping through the hole we'd made came a twenty-foot high monstrosity of gore-spattered bone.
"Oh..." breathed Corwinne.
"... shit," I agreed. "The APC."
Made from enough elephaunt carcasses to weave a tight cage around a complement of a dozen or so soldiers, its colossal torso was smeared with gore from elves unfortunate enough to meet its tusks. The skeletal beast’s eye sockets glowed an angry red as it swept its head from side to side, slashing the steel blades attached to its bony protrusions to and fro, rending limbs where it could. Where an elephaunt might have been slow, the APC wasn’t encumbered by flesh, and it whipped about with surprising agility, kicking out with a hindleg and sending another unfortunate elf sprawling.
“Hey!” Corwinne shouted at it, stepping into the clearing. “Hey!”
I stared at her, slack-jawed. It made no sense. We’d just gotten the distraction that we were praying for--well, that I was praying for--and there she was, trying to get attention on us. Well, on her. I’d just been killing these elves. Now she was trying to save them all of a sudden?
The elephaunt skull swung round toward her. The red eyes flickered. Behind them, I could feel the hunger there, the desperation for her warmth, her flesh, her spirit. Some undead come to understand and accept their condition, the wracking yearning they felt for the life that they lost. Existential agony is a bit much to explain to the patched-together remains of a bunch of animals.
It let loose a soundless roar, and came at her.
Upper lip curled in a snarl, I sprang in front of it. The cogwheel of Sayn Ieander grew warm on my chest. “Come on, blaspheme,” I whispered, “and let me show you the Face of God.”
The burst of light tore into the skeleton, lancing through it cleanly. I could see a cogwheel-shaped hole straight through its chest and spine where the beam had hit it, but the damned thing didn’t even slow. It hit me like an explosion: I pole-vaulted over its tusk swing and tried to bring Jorngnir up to slice its skull in half, but it rammed its thick head into my leaping body before I could even get the blade aloft.
I went crashing back to the ground, my own bones grinding. No way could I hold onto my weapon; it went God knows where. When you are rammed by an elephaunt, you don’t “roll with it”. Too much of my body was screaming at me to decide if anything was broken; I scrabbled desperately backward. A leg crashed down where I’d just been, and I threw myself to one side as a tusk-blade followed suit. The APC reared up on its hindquarters, readying to smear me into paste.
BOOM! came the wave of thunder, and it was its turn to go sprawling. The immense beast rolled fully over, and then somehow dug its feet into the earth and pushed itself back to its feet in a way that made my flesh crawl. Nothing of flesh and blood could move like that. Corwinne stood solid in a shooter’s stance, oversized pistol outstretched, and hit it again. It was braced this time, and shrugged off the attack.
“Priest!” came the ragged breath, and I dragged my head around in time to see the Lance Corporal send Jorngnir hurtling through the air at me. I swallowed hard: the Butcher’s Blade had its way of tasting flesh at every possible opportunity. But his aim was good, and the blade buried itself in the ground a few feet from my position. Dragging myself to my feet, I staggered over to it.
Wrapping my fingers around its haft, I felt the weapon purr at my touch. It knew me, and knew that my desires matched its own. I gave it an upwards tug, and it slid free of the earth as if I’d drawn it from an oiled sheath. I greeted it like an old, sadistic friend.
“Come on, you bloody bastard, let’s remind this thing how to die.”
I took one step, and then another. They started coming more and more easily, pain fading from my limbs. The APC pushed forward under Corwinne’s fire, pushing closer despite a barrage of every form of energy she could think of. Fire, lightning, thunder, nothing kept it at bay. It slowed, but never stopped, pressing inexorably forward, like the tank it was enchanted to be. I pressed harder.
By the time I met it, Jorngnir arcing high overhead, I was at a full run, buoyed by a divine energy flooding my limbs. I saw the perfect place to strike, shearing my blade through its sternum. The impact of the strike jarred my arms, and I winced, but the blow was true. Its spine already severed from my initial assault, when I cleft its chest plate, it had nothing left holding its back and front halves together. The front took a few more staggering steps--as did the rear, and I had to dodge to and fro, evading the tree trunk-sized limbs as they galloped over me. Then it fell, coming to the earth in a thunderous crash.
I looked back at my handiwork, grinning. The thing lay in so many pieces, animating force gone from it. For myself, I felt strong, powerful, filled with the heady wash of victory... until I saw Corwinne’s jacket spilling out from under the wreckage, where the bulk of the thing’s weight had landed on her.
"Ieander, no..." I whispered.
To Be Continued!