A Long, Dark Road (part 5)

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3 of A Long, Dark Road This chapter is all about the action! (the non-sexy kind)

Strength, in terms of magic, comes from blood; power, in all terms, comes from intelligence.

-Fenris Skjoll

The sparse moments of sleep the travellers gained were not to last, as the comfortable silence of the mountain town was broken by the clanging of an alarm. Kath rubbed sleep from her eyes as Brandon sped around the room, doggedly collecting his clothing and armour and slipping them haphazardly on.

"What's going on?" Kath said, her voice quickly rising from its thick, groggy state to her usual alert tone.

"That bell is reserved for emergencies of the highest order," the Labrador said, grabbing a thick-shafted battle axe from the wall and sticking it through a loop in his belt, "Probably bandits trying to threaten us for money."

"Should I do anything?" Kath asked, pulling her own leather armour over her lean, naked form, her midnight-pitched hair making the process even more difficult in the near-total darkness.

"Are you any good with that bow of yours?" Brandon asked, tightening his jerkin and heading for the door, leaving it open for the jackal to follow.

Kath tightened the straps of her jacket as she set down the stairs behind him, bow already strung and at the ready, "I'm not even going to dignify that with an answer."

The guardhouse below was a scene of chaos and madness, with half-dressed soldiers running every-which way as they searched in desperation for equipment. Brandon held two fingers to his teeth and whistled, turning the frothing pit of panicking soldiers into a forest of frozen bodies as they locked eyes on their commander. The man had little of the carefree, joking attitude that Kath had seen the previous day, that persona replaced by a strict, severe gaze that demanded no less than absolute obedience.

"What the hell is this?" The Labrador yelled, voice heavy with commanding power, "Do you people not hear the goddamned alarm? Get moving!"

Brandon left the room, casting more calls for speed to the men as he passed them. The two of them exited the barracks to see the tiny mountain town alight with torches and candles. The bell now rang loud enough to send the air into furious vibrations, rattling Kath's fangs as she and the guard captain made their way onto the narrow wooden walkway that lined the low stone wall of the town.

Guardsmen ran along the wall, lighting torches as they did so, casting a narrow sliver of light out from the walls by which to see in the murky night. Kath scanned the surrounding area as far as the light would allow, seeing nothing she would classify as an 'emergency of the highest order.'

The two of them reached the gatehouse where the alarm was still being rung, a bulky ox-man swinging a heavy mallet towards the dull brass instrument, its every impact sending tremors through Kath's head.

"Anz!" Brandon cried, trying to get the attention of the bovine bell-ringer, who was too deafened by the ringing to hear the man.

"Anz!" Brandon said, finally giving up to tap the man on the back. The Ox turned slowly, a look of surprise coating his face as he found himself face-to-face with the commander.

"What's going on, Anz?" Brandon demanded, gaze sweeping over the darkened forest beyond the light of the walls.

"Undead," Anz said, face crumpled slightly, but whether from the ringing pain of the bell or fear, Kath couldn't tell.

"What?" Brandon said, surprise and anxiety leaving their mark on his words, "Are you sure? You need to be absolutely sure."

The bull nodded, pointing a thick limb into the darkness towards the south side of the town, "Yeah, lots of them."

Kath looked into the darkness where the man had pointed, her eyes slowly adjusting and illuminating the area beyond the halo of light that surrounded the town.

Just beyond the ring of light was a wall of hundreds of corpses; most of them were recently dead, blood-stained corpses, woken from the eternal sleep only days after their departure from the realm of the living. Scattered among the hordes of rotting flesh were oddly shaped husks, their flesh dried and cracked from centuries buried in the crypts of the old kingdoms, risen to serve their dark masters. They numbered easily in the hundreds, with unknowable masses of potentially thousands more filling out their ranks beyond the jackal's vision in the foggy night.

Kath turned from the scene to look at the canine commander, who could only stare unblinking at the stock-still mass of rotting flesh. The other guards shared similar looks, with many more trying to shake their heads as if to wake from some unholy nightmare.

"By all that is holy..." Brandon said, unconsciously stepping back from the wall's edges as the horde of unmoving dead gazed at the flame-bathed city with inhuman disinterest.

"Well, fuck," Came the crude and exasperated voice of the dragon Paladin, his immense size somehow still allowing him to approach unnoticed. At his heels was the equine guard, jogging slightly behind as he tried to keep up with the dragon's longer stride, tightening his armour's fit the entire while.

The dragon, however, appeared to be the only person in the entire line of guards that was perfectly prepared. Varg's chainmail shirt and padded leather pants were, while simple, immaculately worn, his sword unsheathed and at the ready with a carefully shone edge. Either the dragon had been sleeping in his armour, or he was quite accustomed to being woken in the middle of the night for battle. Possibly both.

"Gods, they go on for ages," One of the guards nearby said, his words tight with fear and tension.

"What are they doing?" another asked, "They're just standing there."

With seamless unison, the horde of dead bodies shambled forward until the front rank was situated just inside the ring of firelight. They moved in silent coordination to form a gap between the ranks, as a single hooded figure approached with a shambling gait.

The figure hobbled forward until it stood halfway between the row of undead and the cobbled walls of the mountain town, then halted, its movements too precise and unreal to be natural. The thing removed its hood, revealing a face composed of crudely stitched flesh, joined together to form a calloused, uneven mask of uninterrupted skin, devoid of eyes, mouth or nose. Its race was impossible to discern, as it appeared to be a horrid amalgamation of flesh from dozens of unwilling contributors, with ear of both canine and equine origin laying tattered on its taunt, bony skin. Its skin was composed of various textures and hues, sharing only the unnatural stain of death and the sulphurous stench of death.

The creature raised an arm towards the castle, its movements unreal and alien, as if from a child's toy doll rather than a living thing. Its hand was a twisted, wretched affair comprised of the fingers and joints of dozens of different creatures, including the glinting scales of dragons. A low green light emerged from the air around its hand, and a source-less voice filled the air, the words seeping directly into their minds.

"Meat!" the voice droned, its inflections odd, as if read aloud by someone unclear on the meaning of the words, "All of you!"

"What the bloody hell is that?" Brandon asked fearfully, his hands failing to block the voice as it bypassed his ears.

Varg growled under his breath, filling the air around him with a vicious, throbbing energy, "Morgana."

"Dragon!" The creature called through its eerie voice, "I will have what I have been denied!"

The men on the walls faced the dragon, incredulous gazes and untrusting glares steadily levied at the pair of travellers. Brandon turned from the creature Morgana spoke through and pulled Kath and Varg closer to him, whispering, "Is this about that damn jewel?"

Varg refused to turn his back on the undead horde, his usual joking demeanour replaced by a fierce glare of such severity and intensity that Kath, who had grown accustomed to the imposing but kind dragon, began to fear the man.

"Yes," Varg said, tone cold and emotionless, demonstrating a hatred farther than any of simple emotion. In the way he spoke and carried himself in that moment, Kath could see that the dragon wanted nothing more than to end the witch wherever she may be, at any cost.

Brandon too saw that dark motivation and turned to face Kath, "You could've mentioned she was after you!"

"She wasn't! Or, I didn't know she was!" Kath said, surprise and shock staining her own voice, "I just thought it was valuable to the dragons!"

The creature spoke again, "Those who aided you will meet their end, dragon!" it said, voice rasping and crooked with hateful spite, "I will make your bodies my puppets and your souls my playthings!"

The lines of the undead began shuffling slowly forward, their uncanny gait making the horde's ranks ripple like a stygian flood. The guards at the wall shuffled in place uneasily, raising swords and bows as the undead lines advanced, parting around the creature commanded by the necromancer.

"I will see your souls subjected to horrors to rival the darkest of hells! All mortals shall fear the name Morgana when I add your corpses to my army!" The creature suddenly slumped, the necromancer queen's commands parting from its mind. The creature faded back through the parting of the undead, disappearing into the darkness below.

The horde surged forward, no longer constrained by the creature's commands, the mindless undead shambling upon the walls of the town, their bony, fleshless fingers clawing for the defenders above.

"Archers!" Brandon called, desperately trying to mount a defence as the horde threatened to swallow the town whole.

The guards answered his call, the men and women of Kadak drew and fired in haste, their arrows piercing the undead masses ineffectually, only a rare few taking one down. Varg shook his head, turning to face the archers on the battlements, calling in a commanding voice that demanded respect and compliance.

"Aim for their heads or hearts!" he called, swinging his blade along the edge of the wall, diverging half a dozen undead of their heads with a single slash, "a missed shot is no shot at all! Take your time, aim and fire only if you can guarantee a hit!"

The dragon's coaching soon brought about several more kills as the undead ranks were thinned, albeit slightly. The shambling hordes of bodies pushed forward ceaselessly, stepping upon their fallen comrades without notice, their only concern being to bring about the demise of the town's occupants,

The bodies beneath the ramparts soon built up into a sizeable ramp, allowing the creatures to grasp at the exposed legs of the guardsmen, tearing a few unfortunate souls into the withering mass of cracked bones and rotting flesh, their terrified voices cut off as the rusted and shattered weapons carried by the undead were thrust upon them, fuelling the indomitable ranks of the dead.

Kath drew arrow after arrow, each release of her fingers sending another shambling corpse back to the grave, her bowstring getting no respite as she emptied her quiver into the horde beyond the wall. To her right, her Labrador lover hacked at the extended limbs and weapons, his battle axe rending both steel and flesh as the creatures were cut down at his hands.

Varg was a flurry of vicious motion and terrifying skill, his every motion used to fell at least one of the undead, and more often than not several at a time. His sword glided through the ranks of corpses like molten quicksilver, its motions hardly slowed in the slightest as it sheared through the dilapidated bodies of the dead, every strike either killing or crippling the creatures.

"There's no end to them!" Brandon called at the legion of the dead broke over the edges of the walls, the sheer bulk of the horde making victory impossible.

"My soul will not be forfeit!" Varg screamed, turning in place to bisect over a dozen of the shambling corpses, a curt hand gesture sending another ten up in flames, the horrid stench of decay now joined with that of burning hair and pus.

Kath moved forward, retrieving a half-full quiver from where its owner had fallen, his fur matted beneath floods of blood. Kath threw the quiver over her shoulder, firing continuously until that too became exhausted, moving on to the next. She targeted the corpses that where on their way up the wall, allowing the others to handle the ones that had already made it; her bow acting more efficient than a dozen of the guards. As her gaze was locked on a group of nearly fifty corpses making their way towards a faltering edge, the soldiers that had filled in behind her were cut down by the undead, their decaying bodies now too close to be put down with the bow.

Kath slung the bow over her shoulder and drew her dagger in the same motion, swinging her arm in a wide arc through the throats of the shambling dead. Her blade, though deadly, soon proved itself too small to handle the constant streams of corpses, and she soon found herself falling under the assault of the undead.

The risen figure of a long dead wolf shambled forward, her dagger lodged in its ribs where it had been torn from her grasp. The undead wolf limped towards her, bony claws gripping her arms tightly as the creature descended upon her, dusty fangs tinged with fresh blood as they began to close around her neck, her flails and thrashing useless against the beast's unnatural strength.

The thing was suddenly and violently thrown from its perch atop the jackal, its fangs dragging through her blood-coated fur as it was hurled from the wall into the churning mass below.

Kath found herself looking up into the face of Anya. The mare stood above Kath, a semi-delirious, frothing expression dominating her face, a war-hammer hefted over her shoulder, bits of rotting flesh and dried, dead hair clinging to its edges, mixed with something pinkish-grey and odorous.

Behind Anya was Kobeck, her brother doing an admirable job using his spear to hold the legions of dead at bay; using calm, precise strikes to put down the undead, with occasional strikes with the spear's shaft to stun them. Anya extended a hand to the jackal, hefting the smaller girl to her feet with frenzied strength.

"Can you fight?" Anya said, her voice rough from yelling over the din of battle.

"I'm fine," Kath said, wavering in shock at her near-miss with death.

The two horses stood on either side of the jackal, holding the swarms of walking corpses at bay, Anya screaming and shouting as she smashed limb and life out of her foes, and Kobeck standing still, striking calmly and accurately. Kath stood in the centre, taking shots over the two siblings, thinning the ranks before they were swarmed, though it was a losing battle.

It soon became clear that the wall could not be held, and the sudden drop from the back edge of the rampart served only to act as a danger for the backpedalling defenders. Many a man met a foul end because they didn't recognise the encroaching proximity of the ledge, only to fall from the wall to the hard stone cobbles below.

"Down! Down from the wall!" Varg shouted, Kath getting a brief glimpse of the massive dragon hauling Brandon and another guardsman back from the edge of the rampart, the Labrador appearing dazed, but unharmed.

The guard beat a hasty retreat from the death-strewn walls, making their way down stairs if they were available, lowering themselves from the back end of the ramparts to drop to the streets below if they could not.

The soldiers formed up in a crude wall around Varg and the commander, who was himself now listening to the dragon's orders without hesitation. The formed some semblance of a defensive line, though the losses at the wall and the injuries sustained their made for a much weaker defence than they had first assembled.

"Hold steady!" Varg shouted, launching a few incendiary spells at the horde to slow their advance downward from the wall, his efforts joined by Kath and the few others that had managed to keep their bows and arrows.

I'm going to die, Kath thought as she stuck an arrow clean through the head of an undead elk, only to have another corpse step forward to fill the ranks.

The swarm of corpses paid no mind to their losses, their distant commander's orders their only directive, any wounds or losses were mere static in their vacant minds.

The horde surged forward once more, preparing for another charge on the weakened defenders; the undead masses clamouring forward at Morgana's wicked command. Five feet from the loose coalition of soldiers, however, the air suddenly bust into supernova light, blinding the line of soldiers with its searing hue. Kath slowly grew accustomed to the vibrant light, and upon seeing is source, her mouth fell agape.

Five feet from the line of soldiers was a semi-transparent dome of red light; everywhere the undead touched the boundary, they burst into super-hot ash, vaporized on contact by the sphere. Kath looked to Varg, who too looked at the magical barrier with a mix of confusion and awe, then suspicion.

The men that now found themselves behind the magical wall began breathing sighs of relief as they were given reprieve, even briefly from their death warrant. Kath peered around for the source of their salvation, finding nothing until her eyes chanced upon a darkened figure perched on the barracks rooftop, its features obscured in shadow.

She pointed to the figure, Varg and Brandon following her finger to the mysterious figure as it dropped gracefully from the roof of the building to land lightly on its feet, rising into a casual walk towards the flaming barrier.

It took Kath several seconds to identify the man, as she had seen no trace of his features beneath his cowl. Aric strode forward, his expansive robes discarded in preference for a tightly strapped tunic of black leather and grey trim, a mantle of wolf fur and midnight-blue feathers built under his long neck, ebony wings extended behind him elegantly as he walked briskly past the soldiers into the heart of the horde.

The crow was tall, his frame lean and lithely muscled under his black tunic, pitch-coloured feathers worn pristinely as they worked their way round his form, stopping only at his arms and legs where ebony bands ended in sharp avian talons.

His beak was long and narrow, adorned with fierce, piercing eyes of amber beneath low, concentrated brows. A small crest of black feathers peaked from the crow's head, looking the rare variety of messy that looked better than any form of preparation could. A long, narrow scar worked its way across the man's face, starting just above the brow of his right eye, digging a slim furrow through the beak, ending just before reaching the neck.

The crow stepped in front of the line of soldiers, lowering the barrier without a hint of fear on his face. The horde surged towards the bird, all visible obstacles gone, only to meet the brunt of the wizard's power full on.

Kath had once asked Varg on the trip, what the difference between a Paladin and a mage was. He had responded simply: A Paladin is a warrior that knows a few spells; a mage is a walking nightmare to any who cross them. She had dismissed it, thinking the dragon was exaggerating, or perhaps playing a joke on her; but as she watched Aric work, she felt something for the first time in all her life: fear of magic.

Magic was always there of course; almost all of her village's stories involved magic in one way or another, and she had found much entertainment in the magical items she had come across during her travels. But in all that time she had never witnessed what she saw now: magic used to its furthest destructive potential.

Aric spread his hands, extending them forward with a shout, sending the whole gathering of undead that had begun forming on the inside of the wall sprawling to the ground. A summary gesture set it alight with crimson flame, reducing the whole of the horde within the walls to ash and cooking their counterparts on the walls above within seconds.

The heat from the inferno sent waves of superheated air back from the wall, gales of flame-fuelled wind sending the men to retreat from the walls, only the morbidly curious and the shell-shocked daring to remain.

The crow looked over the fuming ashes with disgust, spitting on the ground as the dead cooked, filling the crisp mountain air with the horrid stench of burning bone and hair.

The last of the dead fell, leaving the interior of the wall as devoid of life as the graveyards their enemy had arisen from. With a flick of his hand, the fire was extinguished; only the ashes serving as a testament to the holocaust that had occurred there. The crow launched himself to the overrun ramparts with a casual flap of his expansive black wings; he landed in a crouch with his hands extended to either side, plumes of fire enveloping the whole of the stone barricade's top, clearing it of the undead as surly as he had below.

Their view of the crow narrowed as he walked to the edge of the rampart, but the sudden surge of light and heat that lit the town in nigh-midday brightness assured them that more fire was involved. The few of them brave enough to stay advanced slowly, creeping upward onto the warm bricks of the wall just in time to see the soot-covered crow drop into the blazing plain below, a circle nearly fifty feet wide cleared through the undead ranks.

They watched in awe as the man moved, flashes of lightning spiralling through the ranks, incinerating the undead with raw, primal energy. Bolts of sulphurous fire rained down upon them, digging thick holes into their rapidly dwindling forces.

As Kath watched, a row of ancient corpses shambled towards the crow at his flank, his attention focused elsewhere. The corpses struck his left side, catching the man off centre only for a moment before being blown away by unconstrained waves of pure kinetic energy, limbs and rotten flesh sent flying into the surrounding horde.

"That's impressive," Kath said, leaning to whisper to the dragon, only to find the place he had been standing only moments ago empty. She spotted him sprinting through the ashen remains of the outer wall, sword out and swinging, ending all who got within its reach.

Kath looked around surprised, nocking an arrow to her bow and firing into the now distant horde, "Well?" she said to the soldiers atop the wall.

"What?" Brandon said, a little dazed.

"Help them," Kath said impatiently, nodding towards the dragon and the crow as they carved a path for themselves through the undead ranks like a stone through a river.

The Labrador and the equine siblings lurched into action, leaping from the top of the rampart into the soft padding of the ash below, their feet casting clouds of black miasmic soot through the air in their wake.

Kath turned her attention back to the pair in the distance, the thought occurring to her that they probably didn't need the help.

Varg was as impressive as always: a whirlwind of fiery scales and silvery steel, a woe to all that found themselves within his range, but even as talented as he was, he looked an amateur compared to the crow.

Aric launched spell after spell, each one landing with deadly effect on the legion. Fire and flame were not simply his tools; the man embodied them as he wove his way through the horde. He ducked under blades and claws, moving like a wraith through the ranks, avoiding harm with such skill and calm efficiency that Kath truly found herself grateful to be on his side.

As she watched, the crow took down a line of corpses with a blast of invisible energy, crouching to allow the dragon's blade to sweep over him, cutting down half a dozen others. The two of them rotated, Varg continuing past the mage as Aric pivoted on his knee, snapping his fingers as ten massive tornados composed entirely of flame spun from his talons, basking the mountains for miles around in immense light.

They soon pushed too far from the walls for Kath to maintain her position; she dropped down to the ember-covered field below, jogging in the direction of the walking inferno, arrow at the ready. She set herself atop a small knoll several metres from the battle, taking shots at the undead, felling one with every arrow.

She focused her fire towards the ones that assaulted the three guardsmen, knowing that the other two didn't need her help. The guardsmen had formed a loose cohesive line to the left of the dragon and crow, halting their advance to allow the two the freedom to unleash on the bulk of the horde.

Suddenly, a lone figure detached itself from the horde. The creature skirted the shadows around the battle; the blade of a sword, broken from its guard and grip with the edge clenched tightly in his hand as sightless visage beheld the scene.

The commander of the undead observed the five that decimated its forces, blind face focusing on the mage through some bizarre sight. The thing crouched, turning the bare blade in its hand before launching itself towards the crow, unbelievable height reached in its leap as it descended towards the unaware mage.

Mere feet from impact with the crow, Kath's arrow struck the thing, interrupting its lunge and sending it sprawling in the ash of his forces besides the guardsmen. Her hastily fired arrow protruded from the thing's shoulder, the decaying flesh leaking thick, black ichor over its pale and distorted flesh.

The crow turned as the thing fell, glancing to the jackal at her position with a nod in thanks before turning on the beast. Aric levelled a hand towards where the creature squirmed, blasting the area with a massive fireball.

The creature, however, simply vanished from its position; astonishing speed taking it away from the crow to stand behind the guardsmen, handle-less sword raised. The blade descended, carving a bloody furrow through the stallion's back, a pained whinny slipping from his mouth as the crude weapon cut through flesh from shoulder to hip with vicious ease.

Anya spun, wielding her massive hammer with graceful brutality as she swung at the creature that stood over her felled brother. Her hammer's immense strength was halted by the creature's blade, the crude weapon cracking slightly as it stopped the blow cold, shards of steel flinging themselves into both the creature and the horse.

Anya looked at the creature in shock, the thing's unnatural strength surprising the frenzied warrior as her weapon sent shards of metal spiralling through the air. The figure moved fast as a shadow, sweeping the damaged and splintering blade across the back of the mare's knee, nearly cleaving it in two, sending the woman to the ground.

Brandon swung his axe at the creature, who avoided the blow with inhuman speed, slashing across the man's sword-arm savagely, sending the Labrador to the ground in withering pain. The creature turned on the crippled horse woman, who kneeled on the ground in pain as she beheld her wounded leg.

The thing's sword was quick and merciless as it ended the woman, her lifeblood being strewn upon the ashen ground as it fell from her brutalized throat. The woman's body slid to the ground slowly, all her furious strength departed with her soul.

It raised its blade again, prepared to strike the other two felled guardsmen, stopped only by another of Kath's arrows as it slammed into the thing's chest, directly where its heart should be. The creature flinched, turning to face the archer, shrugging off the arrow as if it were a mosquito bite. A third arrow landed firmly in the thing's face, emerging from the distorted visage below the flat space where eyes should be, to no effect.

The thing crouched again, preparing to launch itself directly at the jackal, pure hatred seeping from its monstrous form as its legs began to unclench, sending it flying for the girl.

Its flight was halted by the dragon, whose blade swept through the air to bury itself in the creature's ribs, its spine the only thing saving it from complete bisection. Even wounded as grievously as it was, the undead commander showed no signs of pain, its attacks still precise and unearthly deadly. Its blade was thrust at Varg, but pinned as it was by the dragon's massive blade, all it could manage was a series of thin and shallow cuts that did little besides make the dragon wince. The creature used its free hand to grip the dragon's sword, uncaring as the monster's palm was split by its razor edge. The creature fought against the dragon's hold on the blade, slowly overpowering the Paladin and pulling the blade, inch by inch, from its body, spilling unnatural and foul organs and fluid as it did so.

The creature released Varg's weapon, its edge coated with sickly black ichor, and thrust its own sword at the dragon, savage and precise strikes moving faster than Kath's eyes could follow; only Varg's incredible skill and the creature's extreme injury keeping the dragon alive.

Time seemed to slow as the two locked in combat, the creature slowly pushing the dragon into a defensive retreat, the thing's blows coming closer and closer to striking home. Kath could only watch in horror as the dragon's clawed foot caught on the shredded corpse of an undead canine, his footing disturbed only for a moment, but a critically fatal mistake nonetheless.

The horrid figure radiated ecstatic joy as it lunged forward, blade sliding against the dragon's, sending crimson sparks and drops of foul blood flying as Varg's sword was flung from his grasp to fall heavily into the ash at his side, spelling death for the valiant Paladin.

The cracked and battered weapon of the advisory began its long decent, victorious pride radiating from the disgusting creature as it prepared itself to bathe in the dragon's blood. The sword never fell through, and the creature turned, perplexed, to see the mage, arm extended, holding the creature's sword in place through some invisible force from several feet away.

The thing continued its efforts to end the dragon, the crow only smirking and raising his other hand, the air around his upraised arm shimmering and distorting, converging into a narrow pillar of darkness that formed a sword. The weapon was fairly long and incredibly narrow, supposedly made from some magical steel to be useable while being so thin. Aric spun it around his fingers, the weapon's dark steel glinting dangerously in the light of the fire.

The beast advanced upon him, battered and bloody blade swinging with ferocity unmatched by any mortal. The monster's sword was easily deflected by the crow, who then launched his own assault against the fiend, forcing the creature into retreat for a few moments as it dawned on the creature: this crow was better than it.

Aric's advantage didn't last long, and as soon as the beast realized this was no normal opponent, it became much more cautious, timing its attacks carefully and guarding itself better.

The crow, however, was a storm of movement, his narrow blade moving in a flurry of blows that tested the speed of even the unnaturally quick beast. The attacks were not a vicious as the creature's; but the sheer volume and speed with which they were delivered kept the monster on the defensive, although neither could seem to gain the upper hand.

The two opponents slowly paced a circle around each other, their blades ringing through the soot-filled air. Kath could only watch in awe as the two of them clashed, the savage blows of the undead directed away from the crow and it's momentum used against it, and the crow's rapid attacks being blocked only by the sheer strength of the creature.

The creature and the crow fought for several seconds, though the speed at which it occurred made it seem much longer. As much as they tried, however, it seemed that neither of the opponents could take the advantage.

Until Varg rose and entered the fray.

The dragon added his own blows, as savage and powerful as the creature's, combined with Aric's lightning quick attacks. The now lopsided battle leaned heavily in favour of the living, the monster failing to stop more than a rare few of the attacks against it, until its own strikes became slow and weak. Despite its numerous wounds however, the creature refused to die, chunks of clotted black and brown liquid staining its pale flesh as its spasms fuelled some weak semblance of combat.

Kath drew back her bow, the string and feathers touching the side of her cheek before she let fly, her arrow slamming into the thing's head, its point emerging from the back of its skull with a sickening snap.

Varg and Aric stepped forward over the collapsed figure simultaneously, raising their weapons to descend upon the creature with furious vengeance. They left little of the thing in one piece, a single, harshly spoken word called through the void into their minds just before the fire came to end the creature: "Defiler!"

Silence fell over the town as the creature died, its unholy flesh sending sickly thick smoke into the air. Kath slung her bow over her shoulder and ran to Brandon's side. He lay on his side, holding the gash on his arm tentatively as he climbed awkwardly to his feet.

"Are you all right?" Kath asked, trying not to sound as worried as she was.

"Fine," He said, hissing in pain, "Help the others."

A sideways glace showed her that Anya was well and truly dead, but her brother's chest heaved slightly as his injured body fought to intake air.

"Move," came a voice from behind her. She turned to see the crow wave his hand, the sword disappearing into the void once more. His voice was surprisingly deep for such a narrow frame, nothing but stern seriousness in his tone as he knelt over the stallion, Varg leading Kath out of the mage's way.

The crow prodded the man's wound, ignoring the moans of pain that escaped the horse's mouth as he did so, finally resting a hand on them man's back, a dim blue glow surrounding the stallion's split back as the magic went to work, cries of anguish reeling from the guardsman as the flesh of his back rolled and squirmed, kneading itself into place in a matter of seconds, leaving only a line of scar tissue under the man's blood-stained fur.

The horse was still for a matter of seconds before returning to the land of the living with a sputtering cough, blood spattering from his formerly injured body. Varg held him upright, supporting the weakened warrior as the crow moved to the guard captain, who fought to contain groans of pain as he mage reset his flesh.

From the walls, the remaining guardsmen cheered, a few rushing down to the field to congratulate the victorious soldiers, their celebration cut off by a shout from the Labrador.

"Enough!" He called, voice echoing in the immense silence that had befallen the battlefield, "This is not a thing to celebrate."

The guardsmen looked over the ash-strewn field, the bodies of their fallen comrades lying among that of the enemy, equal in death.

"There will be time for cheers and mirth," Brandon called over the quiet mass of soldiers, their eyes lowered in shame, "But now is the time to grieve for the dead."

The men scattered, searching through the ashes for any signs of their friends and neighbours, hauling the fallen into neat rows outside the blood-stained gates of the town, as the old fox and the other elders watched on.

Kath gazed over the field, the stench of death as strong as it had been when the horde first showed, but now it mixed with the dull ache of ash and misery. How many had died for them? How many where yet to die?

She searched the field for the dragon, intent on getting answers. She spotted him supporting the stallion as he kneeled over his sister's body, mournfully closing her sightless eyes with an expression of dazed sadness, the shock not yet fading.

A tap at her back made her turn, the crow wizard standing behind her, a scowl coating his face.

"Bring the dragon with you, and meet me at the graveyard," He said, slipping into the darkness beyond the wall, disappearing in the endless shadow of the mournful night.