Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
With the pavilion behind me bare, no sign of the Serynis’ priest anywhere, I left the village and crossed the swamps, making my way back to Kirunadh. Neither the coilna nor the Sivariians showed themselves during my egress, which was strange because I was definitely back in the mortal plane. The croaking, clicking, crying swamp animals spoke to that.
As I’d entered Sivarii through the primitive underworld, I hadn’t felt the wet heat, and the lethargy of the people had distracted me from it while I was in their village. With nothing vying for my attention on my return journey, I was left with a heavy reminder by the way my robes sagged against me and the sweat sheathed my skin. Before long, I was wiping beads off my brow to keep from being blinded.
Shadows fell across the amber scum. Something moved in my blind spot, rustling leaves forewarning me. I spun and came face to face with an oglelov’s feline frown. Light green eyes stared at me from a face covered in sunset orange scales instead of fur. Its neck, covered in the same plates, extended several arms’ length from the tree overhead, where its scaly, four-legged body had rooted itself to a branch with knifelike claws.
When it realized its ambush had failed, it flattened its ears and hissed. Its neck bunched in alternating bends as it withdrew, fangs bared. I grunted at its angry yowls and continued on. With how aggressive they were reputed to be, I was surprised that only the one tried an attack before I made it out of the swamp. I saw at least two others, but they hissed and withdrew into the foliage when they saw me.
A sudden chill hit me as the third oglelov retreated. The smell of sea water crept beneath the humidity, trailed by a soft growl of thunder. Then it passed, leaving the full stench of the bog behind. I looked around sharply, but the only movement was the oglelov moving behind the leaves. It was strange, that surprise scent of the Great Sea. I didn’t like how it brought Tamiyat to mind, despite the fact that I couldn’t feel even a hint of her presence.
Worse was the tug on my bond that followed. Malia had engaged some enemy, which meant the threat was large enough to justify revealing herself. I lengthened my strides, speeding through the swamp.
As I broke the treeline, I found Kirunadh nearly overrun by the Sleepless. The Stitcher had fielded so many that the piked trenches had been bridged by impaled corpses, their undead fellows swarming the walls. And while the last troop had been little better than civilians, this legion was kitted for war. Crude clubs and spears met their more sophisticated counterparts, brandished and bashed against the defenders no matter how many times the wood was cleaved. While the Frischiians wore armor, the Sleepless marched naked, covered head to toe in caked mud save for their necks, which were wrapped in ribbed leather gorgets.
The strangest thing was the way these undead ignored the torches and flaming arrows bombarding them. It wasn’t that the clay plastered to their skin dampened the fire enough for them to trust its fireproofing, but rather that they simply didn’t react at all. They charged as if blind, and as I neared their flanks I realized that it wasn’t simply a metaphor—the Sleepless attacking the city stared with empty sockets. Some had had their eyes gouged out, others bore signs of cauterization, but one and all had been stripped of their sight.
Shrieks filled the air, piercing the undead moans and cries of the living. Above the village, Malia seared the sky with her gaze as she chased a kite-winged harpy.
Well, at least she’d found Lazuli.
The avian darted through clouds and around Malia with grace and speed beyond her station. Twisting and diving, she narrowly avoided Malia’s grasp time and again, although my gorgon was closing the gap with each pass. Lazuli wasn’t radiating the Sea Mother’s borrowed aura, although glimpses of it flashed in nauseating waves as she avoided Malia.
Below, Thrax and Hasda fought in loose coordination near the bridge, which had been raised to seal the village. The djinn’s purple fire cloaked Hasda and flickered along his sword, arcs trailing as Hasda carved his way through the Sleepless horde. Thrax was a whirlwind butcher behind him, his celestial steel axe pulverizing the undead. His blows followed inhuman paths, continuing through swings where most would pull up as their joints found their limits. But Thrax’s arms bent unnaturally behind and around him, and every sweep of them left crude dismemberment in their wake.
Most bizarre of all was that Kydon was likewise engaged in battle, and the form of the reanimated he fought. Up to now, both in Malia’s reports and my own observation, the Sleepless had all been human. The amalgamations contesting Kydon’s pike, however, bore witness to what had become of the Bataviian livestock. Sinew bound multiple arms and legs together to form compound limbs, terminating in cloven hooves where hands had failed. Mixed among the human heads were scraggly goats, long-horned bulls, and slobbering pigs. Each monstrosity reached at least the height of our half-troll arbiter, most standing head and shoulders above. And they outnumbered him six-to-one.
Despite being outnumbered, the gnarled arbiter held his own against the mishmashed undead. A quick twist dislodged all but the six-limbed behemoth tangled on the head of his pike. Beating it against the ground, he knocked it half unconscious before swinging it into its compatriots. Two of the beasts charged, hitting the pike at different lengths and splintering it. With a roar, Kydon laid into the brutes with the remaining half of the shaft.
I only realized I’d drawn my Sword when I heard the wet sounds of corpses squishing underfoot. I’d carved a straight path through their flank, angling for Hasda and Thrax. The noise from the fallen Sleepless drew the attention of those immediately around me, and they tried to form a press to stop me. If they had consciousness, I left them little time to contemplate how pathetic their attempt to stop me had been.
And they really were soulless things. I'd made it so far without realizing because the demise of dozens freed not a sliver of spirit. Each collapse held no more weight than that of a felled tree. Though they had the form and function of former humans, now they were simply...things. It was almost too easy to part them with the edge of my blade. Simple sweeps cleared a path, and before long I’d reached Hasda and Thrax.
While they were holding their own quite well, they couldn’t keep the horde from going around them and across the makeshift bridge formed from the fallen Sleepless in the moat. Defenders atop the wall fought on both sides of the breach, but they were being steadily driven back through sheer numbers. I slammed into the river of bodies, stemming the excess flow.
“Thanks, Dad.” Hasda’s eyes were filmed with the same fire that limned his sword, although he was himself beneath that flame. His sword darted, piercing caked mud and splitting the undead.
“How many are inside?” I carved an arc behind us, giving Hasda and Thrax space to fight on surer footing.
Thrax bludgeoned a body back into the throng. “Not many. But enough to cause problems.”
“And the troops?”
“I have squadrons keeping the rear wall safe from more body bridges. Most of the rest are defending from inside the city.” Hasda swiped at a Sleepless. “Why are you fighting? I thought the Sleepless were my responsibility.”
I cleared another swathe in front of us. “Kydon engaged them, which means we're free to get involved as well. And your Trial, which Kydon hasn’t officially begun yet, is between you and the Stitcher.”
Thunder trailed Lazuli and Malia as they shot past us. The Sleepless recoiled at the noise, the nearest collapsing as Hasda and Thrax took the opportunity to put them in the dirt. A touch of the djinn’s fire turned the deanimated corpses to ash.
While Hasda’s sword sang, the alloyed metal vibrating as its diluted celestial steel sought to make its voice heard, Thrax’s axe gave muffled grunts, its divine metal bestial. Already I could feel the change in Hasda’s elevation, his spirit scraping fingertips against demigodhood, but Thrax was a roar of pure mortality. The man was refined human will wielding a deific, feral weapon.
My sidetracked observation was cut short by a concussive blast coming from Kydon’s direction. One of the bloated brutes had collapsed, its limbs splintering and flying in all directions as its agglomerated body exploded. Kydon stood in the wreck of its ribs, his pike driven into the ground. Around him, the other composite undead wavered, then retreated with unsettling wails.
Hearing the sound, the Sleepless around us fell back as well, abandoning the ones that had already scaled the wall. An uncanny silence settled on the retreating undead, their soundless movement punctuated by the bellowing moans of the behemoths. Hasda and Thrax set about clearing the stragglers, while the defenders cleared the battlements, shoving corpses and struggling Sleepless off the wall into the moat.