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.
A lancing bolt of dark energy hit me square in the chest, knocking me off of my feet.
"Traitors!" screamed the man covered in bone and brass. His coat and--let’s say “membership in the human race” instead of “humanity”--marked him unmistakably as an officer of the Army of Calisar. Judging by the sheer amount of decoration his jacket held, I guessed I had just been blasted by my host, Leftenant-Commander Holvelak. His lower half, however, was more similar to my own garb: a flowing black robe with a silver belt in the style of a human skull. Over his shoulder, he wore a bandolier of pouches, and hanging from his back I could see a pair of mismatched cylindrical canisters. One looked like a scroll case, while the other was made of iron, and was covered in runic script.
"Commander," the Lance Corporal croaked, but he didn't seem to have anything to follow that up with; he just stood with an arm partially outstretched toward me. Then he seemed to think better of it, and dragged himself into a salute.
Holvelak ignored his soldier and held his ground, but I could see him poised for another spell. Running on divine favor as I was, I could probably take another hit like that... but no good warlock brings his biggest spell to bear on an unknown opponent. I had no idea what he had in store, and I surely wasn't keen on finding out.
"Before I execute you, priest, would you mind explaining why you and your trollop would destroy a weapon that was doing such an admirable job of slaying, heh, the enemy?" He laughed weirdly as he asked it, as if calling elves "the enemy" rather missed the point.
I tensed. I could play for time, but he'd already announced his intention. Could I avoid his spells long enough to close the twenty-odd feet between us?
"God suffers not the undead, and evidently neither does my trollop. You don’t deny either of them without consequences," I offered, searching the periphery of my field of vision for anything that might help, trying not to betray my own plans with roving eyes. There... was that...?
He twisted his fingers, and suddenly I was wracked with pain. Of their own accord, my limbs locked outstretched: I was dancing to his gestures like a marionette. Damn him, he'd had his claws in me with the first spell, after all! My vision started to fade as the agony washed over me in waves, and I prayed that God would just let Corwinne be all right...
"Pathetic," he sneered, his voice much closer. But the pain vanished, as abruptly as it had come on. I flexed my fingers experimentally. "I saw the look on your face as you took down that carrier. That was no, heh, divine joy behind your eyes. You like what you do, priest. Say it. Admit that your tastes are as dark as the cloth you profane, and tell me the real reason a man like you, heh, would pit himself against a military weapon that was aimed at the enemies of his country. Don't lie to me again, or, heh, you will be reminded what sort of man I am."
The weird little laugh peppered his speech, at odds with his crisp, military precision. I'd known warlocks to come unbalanced, dealing as they did with dark beings the rest of us would shun. But this was... subtler.
And anyway, I only needed another ten seconds. Because behind him, bleeding from the temple, an elfmaid stood with borrowed bow nocked, gathering her strength and her aim. I was a little woozy, but I was pretty sure she wasn't aiming at me.
Which was... weird. Why the hells...?
Understanding hit me like a revelation... sent not by God but from the woman under that pile of bones. "The Lord works in mysterious ways, and through strange vessels. Maybe He has a purpose for these elves. Or maybe..." I paused, fancying I could hear the creak of taut bowstrings. "Maybe good people don’t just stand there when the little guy gets picked on. No matter who that guy is."
There was a hiss through the air. Then another, and another still. The sound of arrows in flight went on for a long, terrible moment. When it ended, none of them were sticking out of me. I let out the breath I had been holding, and caught the eyes of the elfmaid on me. She touched her hand to her temple, and it came away sticky with blood. Then she gave me a little wave, and turned away from this place.
A life for a life, I supposed, though I felt like somehow she still managed to get the last word in--how do women always do that?--and that I was an asshole. But maybe one she could live with. Or at least agree to mutually dislike, and leave well enough alone.
Holvelak still stood, his torso the final resting place of a dozen yellow-fletched arrows. Blood poured from his lips, but they were pulled back in a sneer. He staggered, but did not drop. He giggled. Slowly, maniacally, he reached behind him for the rune-scribed cylinder.
I was on my feet, racing for him, when more tentacles than I could count burst out of his torso, bearing him high aloft and lashing out at me with lightning speed. I saw God's Revelation, saw where I Was Supposed To Be, and I pushed myself into the space shown by my divine sight... and caught a rubbery tentacle square to the jaw. I went down in a heap.
"... the hells?" I spat, blood spraying from my lips. That had never happened before. Sure, plenty of times I'd failed to live up to the Divine Will, but never, never had God shown me a false path. What was this thing?
But of course, I knew. Powerful as the Crawling Ones were, they had never mustered enough might to best God at the Revelation game. But there were Those who I'd been sent he to find, Those who had been old long before God was young. That cylinder contained a relic from Those Below, and it had twisted Holvelak into something monstrous.
Or else he'd let it in. That was what warlocks did, wasn't it, made deals with devils?
I tried to get to my feet, but the writhing masses that seemed to pour from Holvelak's body wrapped around my limbs and pinned me, spread-eagled, to the ground. I fought and squirmed, but I had no leverage, and the disgusting, pink tendrils were deceptively strong. I heard the hiss of arrows, and could see more tentacles flailing through the air. I thought for a moment that the elves were doing it, that they were sending this monster back to the hell it had swum up from... but then I saw that it was catching the arrows in mid-flight. With a seemingly casual toss, it flung one back, and I heard a cry, and a groan.
The mass shifted, and suddenly Holvelak's face was very close to mine. His body had vanished into a cloud of pulsating appendages: no arms, no legs, just the face, and the undulating extremities. The tentacles swam over one another like a nest of vipers; I couldn't see a torso at all anymore, nothing to hit even if I did have a weapon. Blood drizzled onto me as he spoke.
"Like the deal I made?" he grinned. "They'll do it for you, too, heh. Just say the word." He shifted closer, whispering in my ear. "But you have it wrong, priest. The relic isn't in this canister--" he held up the metal one in a meaty tendril-- "but in the other one. Would you like to see what our people have devised for these 'little guys' you love so well?"
I hadn't said any of that aloud, about Holvelak making a deal, or about the canister. It--I could no longer think of this thing as a "he"--it had known.
And I didn't need to see what was in the canister. I also knew.
"Get back!" I screamed, hoping that someone out there spoke Calish. "Run!"
It picked me up, dangled me by my arms a good fifteen feet over the forest floor, legs flailing helpessly. I could see a dozen or so elves determinedly firing their last arrows at the Holvelak-thing, black eyes betraying no hint of fear. They should have been afraid. One or two of the arrows got through, and I saw a piece of tentacle drop toward the ground every now and then. But as they fell, the severed appendages would cast out a thin, fleshy tendril that buried itself into the main body of the thing, and in an instant bulged with new life. The stump that had been severed regenerated just as quickly. For every bit of damage they did, the monster only grew.
But all monsters can be killed. That wasn’t what the elves had to fear. I heard a series of beeps as Holvelak keyed in the release sequence on the canister it held... and poured a long draught of pyrotoxin onto the ground before snapping the cap over the rest of the foul brew.
Instantly, the malevolent stuff began to spread in a ring: in a second’s time, it had swept outward a dozen feet in all directions. It was viscous, and thick, and where it passed, nothing living remained. The ground itself bubbled as lichen and twig were reduced to ashes. The closest elves didn’t have a chance.
I saw her, as the vile stuff that humans had brought into her land took her. The elfmaid who’d tried to save me just stared at me now, accusing... until she, too, crumbled away.
The Holvelak-thing, meanwhile, was clinging to overhead branches and avoiding the filth it had released with ease. It laughed as I cursed it in the name of God, for we both knew how empty that threat was to its masters.
“Watch,” it whispered, giggling, “as we cleanse this wood and build something worthy of the true masters of Raiusha.”
I didn’t have much choice, dangling helpless as I was. I could feel the touch of God on my mind, Revealing to me all the many ways that Holvelak could get to meet Those masters face-to-tentacle, but there was nothing, no way for me to...
The Lance Corporal had known, when he first saw the canister wielded, what it meant. I spotted him now, from my vantage point, with Corwinne’s inert form unearthed from beneath the wreckage of the APC and slung over his shoulder. He was making ready to run like the hells themselves were after him--which for all intents and purposes, they were--and he was far enough ahead of the oncoming wave that he just might outpace it if he got out right now.
He could also reach Jorngnir, which lay between him and the oncoming tide. If he could get it to me, I could stop this thing. I could maybe even stop the pyrotoxin.
But not before it got to him. And to Corwinne.
Of course, if I didn’t stop the pyrotoxin, it was going to get everyone.
“Lance Corporal!” I croaked, telling him just what he needed to hear. “I can save her! Throw the glaive!”
He turned, saw me screaming at him. Saw the wriggling thing that had been his boss fouling the world behind me.
“Do it!” I pleaded, choking a little with the lie. “I can save her! For the love of God, do it now!”
His eyes flicked to the woman on his shoulder, whose hair reminded him of the apple tree outside his childhood home. Then to me. He knew.
With unbearable gentleness, he put her down, and raced for the blade.
A tentacle slid over my shoulder, groping profanely for him. I screamed, and pulled my body up to kick out at it with a flailing boot. I poured myself into the kick, willing God to take what He needed from me, just to grant this one prayer... I felt a rubbery sensation beneath my boot, saw a silver flash... and felt my prayer answered, the bargain struck. Strength sapped from my limbs--I’d not be pulling off another kick like that any time soon--but as I watched, the tentacle began to dissolve. It flaked away on the night air, and for a moment, I thought that maybe I’d done it, and that the whole wretched creature would peel away into nothing. But that wasn’t what I asked for, and it wasn’t what I got. The tentacle sloughed into nothingness, only to be replaced seconds later by another. I hadn’t gotten much for my prayer, but I bought the Lance Corporal the time for one more throw of the Butcher’s Blade.
He heaved it. As he did, he shouted, and a chill took me. My eyes fixed on the arc of Jorngnir towards the Holvelak-thing, I never saw the pyrotoxin take him, as he knew it would. But I heard his words.
“You made a promise!”
And then his words were all that was left of him.
His words, and a flying glaive.
The Lance Corporal hadn’t been a big man, but Jorngnir had its way of helping out when there was death to be dealt, and it raced fast and true towards the center of the mass of tendrils. Of course, it couldn’t match the speed of the arrows that Holvelak had so effortlessly plucked from the air. I hung limp, watching as a tentacle wrapped almost casually around its shaft, stopping it cold.
But then, a curious thing happened. One wouldn’t expect if, if he hadn’t known Jorngnir quite so intimately as I. The Butcher’s Blade hadn’t earned its title by just quitting before the job was done.
It twisted in the tentacle’s grasp.
It wasn’t much, but it sent Jorngnir’s knife-edge clean through its meaty captor. A brief spurt of blood raced the weapon to the ground, spattering on the last of the toxin that was spreading out from the dropped canister while the runeblade buried itself, satisfied, in the pyrotoxin-covered earth.
A severed tentacle landed beside it in the pool of death. A little tendril of flesh had already thrust forth from the amputated limb and had buried itself in Holvelak’s body. It swelled to full thickness just in time for the pyrotoxin to race up the reattached end of the tentacle, along the new flesh, and begin to engulf Holvelak, tentacle by disgusting tentacle.
“Wha-- no!” Holvelak cried, his face shifting as far away as possible from the ooze that was racing along his mutating form. Tentacles kept sprouting, only to be coated in more toxin that was sucking greedily along the pathway that Jorngnir had made for it. There were so many of them now that the spread of the stuff across the ground had actually ceased, and it was starting to creep back inwards, needing more and more to coat the monster faster than he could recover.
Of course, with all that disintegrating going on, he wasn’t exactly focused on keeping me aloft. His grip loosened, the tentacle spasmed, and then I was falling.
As I fell towards the pyrotoxin-covered ground, I focused on a leaf, just in front of my face, floating gently to the earth. By the time it reached the ground, there would be nothing left of me, just a holy symbol of Sayn Ieander to mark my passing. Except, wait... the leaf was still in my sight a moment later, when I should have dropped past it as it wafted to the earth. Because it wasn’t right in front of my face... it was just vastly out of proportion to my eyes’ expectations, a good five feet across, drifting almost to the ground just below me.
The Mother Tree had given up one of her leaves. I landed on it feet-first, dropping into a crouch. My limbs were leaden weights, but I had to go. I could hear the leaf sizzling as the pyrotoxin moved along it, but the toxin was having trouble, as if some force in the leaf were resisting its hellish appetite. While it should have engulfed us in a second, instead I had time to take a breath, and leap...
My hands closed around Jorngnir’s haft, briefly, and I used it like a pole vault, propelling myself towards the receding edge of the pyrotoxin’s boundary... and sprawling out onto my back, the barren dirt still warm from the toxin’s passage over it.
“Ow,” I told the world.
Holvelak’s long, final scream was my only answer. And then, just the sigh of the night’s breeze through the leaves, high above.
“Thank you,” I whispered sincerely, to all those who might be listening.
“Ohhh...” came a groan. “No need to thank me, just trying to save your did a giant skeleton land on my head, is why it hurts so much?”
“Corwinne!” I cried, and then I was on my feet, skidding to her as she sat propped up on one elbow, rubbing at her temple. I hugged her fiercely.
“Woah, hey there!” she started. “It’s, ah, good to see you, too.”
I remembered myself and pulled back, flushed. “Just... had a tense moment back there. Thought maybe I’d forgot to save you.”
She laughed, and swatted playfully at my arm. “Jaspar, don’t be ridiculous. You always remember to save me. Even if sometimes it’s by accident.”
I helped her up, a bit unsteady myself. “Definitely more on the ‘accident’ side this time, I’m afraid. I’m... I’m really glad you’re all right. Really.”
She whistled low as she looked around. The ground was a barren crater for dozens of feet in every direction. The edge of the pyrotoxin’s reach, inches from where Corwinne had been lying, was a blackened ring, and a fine white ash coated the soil inside it. I was coated in the stuff, and I tried not to think about who it was composed of.
She looked back at me, brow wrinkled. “We did win, right?”
I bent down, and picked up a rune-scribed canister. “Get your scenograph and let’s find out.”