“The Warp has been breached. We’ve got to get out of here. Now!”
Words absorbed by Hjalmyr’s ears, but didn’t quite reach his brain. He lifted his head, dazed. Blood streaming from a cut ripping deep into his brow. Black worms writhed inside the wound.
He could hear dull thump of battle outside.
It echoed through the castle’s solid interior.
Something else. He could hear something else.
Whispering in his mind.
Vandre grabbed his shirt. Pulled him close so she could hiss; “Hjalmyr! Snap out of it! Fucking mitgerians have taken the perimeter. You hear? Zeg’helvya has ordered retreat. We’ll be stranded if you don’t get to your feet. Come on. Can you open a gateway?”
“Retreat?” His eyes tried to focus. He shifted his arm across his stomach. Rubbed at the inside of his wrist. Felt worms bubbling inside the joint. Something was broken. But they’d fix it, he thought. They fixed everything. Almost. “Gateway? No. I don’t think so. I’m sorry.”
A tremendous boom shook the ground.
Chips of stone tinkled from the ceiling in a wash of dust. He wiped at his face with gauntleted hand as Vandre tugged him to his feet. Smearing blood down cheeks.
“It’s over,” she said. Couldn’t hide the bitterness. Didn’t even try. “We’ve lost. They came too fast. There were too many. Dreygr’s skivin were massacred. He saved what he could, but there’s not enough to stand and fight with. My tower has fallen. And Raezla says they’ve taken Fannon’s Roost and Scarcore. We’re done.”
“Your tower? Did they get-?”
“No. But I had to burn the library. I burned it all, Hjal. Everything we’ve collected. The last of the Sangerd Grimoires were in there. Lok’sul’s diaries. Everything.”
Another quake rocked the room and Vandre looked to the door.
Closer than before, the thunderous blast made her flinch. “They’ll be here soon.”
Air shivered in front of him, motes of violet sparking into life. Light which swirled. Flickered. Formed a face the two recognised.
Narrow. Gaunt cheeks. Thin eyes.
“Nid Skaroth,” Hjalmyr said. Unsure if he should be happy to see the man. Felt a brief wrench of tension before speaking again. “We seem to be overrun here.”
“You’re not the only one. Raezla has confirmed Fannon’s Roost has fallen. He’s leaving Scarcore now. Also, we think Skrypi has been taken. It’s a mess, Hjal. I expected to not get through to you. Thought I’d be too late.” Soft voice. Crackling as energy flickered through the light.
“Skrypi?’ He struggled to comprehend what had been said. “Taken? How?”
“It’s unclear. We believe he’s been put on a ship to Touer Moth. Chogreth has a fleet rushing to intercept. It’ll be close.” Licked his lips. “Can you get to the Gate?”
Vandre answered; “I don’t think so. Mitgerians are everywhere. They’ve taken the city. A dragon just flew overhead, and there’s at least one volkyrja on her way. We need help. Anything you can give us.”
“Vandre.” Nid Skaroth’s eyes widened as he heard her voice. “We thought you’d been lost. Your tower has been destroyed.”
“I know. I destroyed it.”
He hesitated before speaking. “You might not believe me when I say it, but I’m relieved to see you’re safe.”
“Thank you, Nid. And if you can get us out of here, I’ll forget you ever said it.”
“I’d appreciate that.” Dry smile. He looked sideways. Cocked head as he listened to something out of view. Looked back. More serious. “We can’t send any more troops through. The jy’tin are stretched as it is and we can’t afford to lose them. We’re taking heavy casualties and you can understand securing the Warp is our first priority. Our only priority.”
“You can’t leave us here!”
“We’re not going to.” He licked his lips. Hesitation made him wince. “Zeg’helvya is turning her Eye. Don’t leave the room for any reason. Prepare yourself. It could come at any moment.”
Hjalmyr couldn’t repress the shiver which slithered up his spine. “There’s no other way?”
“If you can think of one, Herald, I’d be happy to pass it on.”
“Fuck. You’re right. It’s a fucking mess.”
“Hold as best you can. We’ll try to give you warning. But you know how these things go…”
“Hurry, Nid,” Vandre said. “We’re running out of time.”
“Time is eternal. You should know that, Sorceress.”
Flicker of light as Nid Skaroth’s face disappeared.
Lost to the ether.
She eyed the blistering motes choking on dust. Stomped on one when it hit ground. “Smug bastard.”
Hjalmyr could hear shouts from the corridor.
His soldiers. Dying. Giving their lives for a few precious moments. He wondered why this bothered him now. He’d never cared before whether they lived or died.
They didn’t even have names. They had numbers.
He looked to Vandre, whose grim expression made him sigh.
“I’m not dying here,” she said. Almost under her breath. “I’ll kill myself first.”
“That’s the spirit.”
He wished he could feel her defiance. Instead, felt weary. Perhaps because of the blow he’d taken to the head.
Something roared overhead, making stone walls shudder. Scream of its passage cracked one of the windows.
“Dragon,” she said.
“Yeah, you didn’t have to tell me that.”
Through the window, light flashed. Pulsed in rapid bursts bright enough to make him squint.
The Dragon shrieked again, swooping castle walls. Fire engulfed watchtowers. Consumed stone. Ate flesh. Melted bone.
His fists trembled.
“You can’t do anything,” she said. Brushed his shoulder with fingertip. “Just wait. Nid will get us out of here. And when he does, we’ll have our revenge on them. Their suffering will be glorious.”
“You trust him?”
“Right now? Yes. Tomorrow? No. Tomorrow, everything will be as it was.”
“You seem fairly sure of that.”
“I am. Zeg’helvya won’t let us die here.”
“She’s getting weaker, you know. That’s why we’re losing everything. No one wants to talk about it. But you can feel it. Can’t you? Tell me the truth. You feel it, too.”
The sorceress opened her mouth to speak, then threw herself sideways as the windows were blasted. Glass shattered, sending shards spearing through the room. Some hit, and Hjalmyr let out a roar as they shredded his left arm before he had time to react.
In the wake of the explosion, five dark shadows spat deftly into the room.
White light shooting from their hands.
Light as hot as the sun.
It should have killed him. But the worms inside had been triggered by glass penetrating flesh. It whipped through his body, murmuring soft whispers into his brain.
He let out a wordless growl as darkness gushed from expanding pores and covered skin in a thin film of solid shadow.
The first bolt hit his hand and was absorbed by darkness.
Second punched into chest, sending him reeling back with the impact, but was also absorbed. Third shredded the air beside his face before burying itself into stone. Melted deep into wall before sizzling out of existence.
Vandre held both arms out. A solid wall of black energy formed between her and the attackers. Bolt after bolt of white light smashed into her shield.
The mitgerian troops moved closer, ceaseless in their barrage. Hoping to overwhelm her barrier, or work to getting around it and cutting her down.
Hjalmyr took a few more hits.
Couldn’t take many more.
Wouldn’t need to.
With a snarl, he leapt on the closest trooper. Hands alive as shadows danced around his forearms.
Snatched throat. Smashed fist into face, obliterating skull.
Fist cushioned against brain before he tore wet hand free to grab a second by his shoulder.
Threw his first kill aside.
The body crumpled in a bloody heap.
The mitgerian shouted something. A blur of words Hjalmyr couldn’t quite make out. The darkness had covered his ears, muffling everything.
A wave of green energy rippled at his back.
Whispers in his head.
He kept hold of his prize and leapt again as Vandre loosed magic on the remaining three.
Skin. Meat. Bone.
All disappeared into a mist of red which hung in the air for a moment before spitting back at the window from which they’d come.
Hjalmyr swung his trooper by the arm.
Body hit stone.
Red smeared grey.
Blind with rage.
He stopped, realising he was holding the mitgerian’s arm and nothing else. There wasn’t anything left. The trooper was paste against the wall.
A few mounds of gore puddled at Hjalmyr’s feet.
Trooper’s severed head had rolled away. Lay, staring at the window. Any last thoughts were just echoes of electricity firing through dead synapse.
Vandre leaned against the wall. When she’d dropped her shield to blast the troops, she’d taken a bolt to her chest. High. Red poured from the open wound.
“Ah, shit.” He swept to her side, pressing hand against the steaming hole. As he did, shadows retreated from his arms and face. “Shit.”
“I’ll be okay,” she said through teeth. Arched her back as agony pumped through nerves. Black worms began to fill the hole in her body, but he could see plasma surging in her flesh. Pinpoints of light flickering as they burned. “But I can hear them coming. They’re nearly at the door. And, Hjal? There’s a volkyrja with them. You’ll need to kill her first. Kill her first. I’ll try to help, but I don’t think I can do much.”
“I’m not a warrior,” he said.
“You’re nifljean.” Eyes blazed fierce. Wrapped cold hand over his fist. “We are all warriors.”
The door shattered. Reduced to splinters as it was kicked open.
A volkyrja sauntered into the room. Tough and arrogant. Looked at them with bright yellow eyes. Long ears jutting like spearblades from her skull. Thick dark hair knotted and tight. Body armor gleaming.
Ready for war.
Twisted mouth into an ugly grin.
“Finally found your little hiding place,” she said. “I knew you were around her somewhere. I could smell your fear. Your kind are cowards at heart.”
Hjalmyr, Herald of Chaos, stood tall. Let the darkness seethe across his flesh as it returned to his arms. Vandre was right.
He was a warrior.
“If you smell fear, then it’s the fear of those who stand with you.”
“Bah.” She rolled her shoulders. Powerful. Like a wolf. Bunched and predatory. “They always stink of it. They’re mitgerians. Shit. If it weren’t for us, they’d be whinging like dogs at your feet. Them, I understand. But, you? Look at you. Frightened to death. You’ve spent too long hiding behind Zeg’helvya’s power. We’ve cut you off now, though. Your ships are being carved to pieces. Your armies are dead. You’re alone. What’ll you do, nifljean? Will you fight? Or will you beg for your life like a mitgerian slave?”
“Come find out.”
“Brave words.” She crouched, ready to spring. Arm coiled in front of her. An arm which slowly and impossibly began to seep darkness across flesh. She grinned at his shock. “Yeah. See? You’re not unique anymore.”
And light flashed.
Bloomed bright in a blast so tremendous it consumed everything it touched. Apocalyptic roar as shafts of darkness punched into the castle like black lightning from the sky. Into the city. Flowered outward, impacting the ground to tear solid stone into splinters.
With a heart burning for destruction, the dark reached from the abyss and swallowed the city in fire and hate. It pulsed again and again. Beating at the city’s bones in a frenzy.
Splitting earth wide to reveal vast chasms and craters.
Hammering stone to dust.
Wind blasted outward. Hot and thick with ash. Its exhale melted rock.
In the aftermath, the ground heaved. Earth rumbled in throes of agony. Wounded and blackened by fire and ash.
The broken city’s walls lay strewn in all directions. Every building flattened and charred. A monolithic corpse ravished. Torn to pieces.
Above, the sky roiled. Clouds racing as they churned into each other. A stew of dark grey and getting darker. As if the shafts of darkness which had assaulted the city now worked to smother the sun.
When silence finally returned, nothing moved.
Not even wind.
Dead eyes bore witness to the first snow drifting to crust the city’s carcass.
First flake touched ground.
And the Night Age began.