I watched Minhu struggle with the sword. It wasn't a complicated form, but Minhu was small for his age, and his shoulders weak. I knew the rest of the young recruits in the squadron were watching him, judging his flaws.
I turned to Anton, the strongest potential we had this year—the strongest I had seen in my six years as a captain in the Accorders. The others looked to Anton for guidance. I hadn't yet determined the strength of his character, but I suspected that he would grow to be a strong leader.
"Anton, execute the hawk forms," I ordered. He snapped to attention, and his sword flowed flawlessly through the air in proper sequence. I studied the students' faces as they watched Anton. Most showed no emotion, but I saw Hyath scowl with jealousy.
So she was the shadow of the group, the one most likely to give Minhu trouble and incite the others to follow.
"Hyath, execute the angelic forms," I said when Anton finished. But Hyath was lost in her envious thoughts, and my request caught her off guard. She stumbled through the pattern, while I noted her errors. "You missed forms three, seven, and sixteen," I said quietly, and she blushed. "Anton, lead everyone through the angelic forms. I'll be back."
Leaving them to practice, I crossed the field to where Pilat was waiting for me. Behind him, the fortress of Bladehold towered on the horizon, its outer walls silhouetted against the searing light of the late afternoon sun. Bladehold is the jewel of Auriok culture, a center of commerce and artisanship. I am, perhaps, biased, as I grew up here and my family has been involved in politics and the Accorders for many generations.
"How are they progressing?" Pilat asked, watching the youth on the field. Like me, Pilat was a paladin for the Accorders, and I'd known him since childhood. Since our youths we practiced on the same field, surrounded by the glint of white light blazing off the razor grass, trying to wield our swords to our teachers' satisfaction.
"As always, some easy work, some hard," I replied. "They're just starting. They'll get there."
"But when?" he mused, as if to himself. It was an odd question. These were new recruits, with three more years of training before active duty. But of course Pilat knew this. Something else must be on his mind.
"I need you to ride out tomorrow. I want you on the Manka Run. We've had reports of several . . . disappearances between here and Ten Shields. Take several recruits to go with you. I know that's not customary, but all the other paladins will also be out on circuits."
I didn't say anything right away. I wasn't scheduled to ride for several weeks, so this was very unusual. And taking first-years with me, well, that was unheard of. We stood quietly for a while, as the students drilled their forms. Anton corrected Minhu's stance, but he seemed gentle about it, which pleased me.
"Disappearances?" I finally asked.
"Mainly," he said hesitantly.
"What are you not telling me?"
"I think there's a larger problem than bandits on the Manka Run."
In recent months, the Manka Run had become known as the most dangerous circuit of all the routes through the razorfields. It followed a road along the edge of the Liet Field, passing through several outlying settlements before looping back toward Bladehold. It could be done in a week but usually took two. I had taken Anton, Hyath, and Minhu, mainly to keep an eye on them. We were two days into the ride, just hours away from the small settlement called Ten Shields.
As Accorders, we are tasked with protecting far-flung Auriok settlements. We ride from community to community to serve as arbitrators for the Accord of Equity as well as to make sure our roads are safe for travelers. We believed that goblin bandits fleeing Oxidda had targeted the Manka Run. Rumors say the Oxidda mountain range is in grave danger of sinking into the Mephidross.
But now, looking at the slaughter in front of me, I doubt that it has been goblins at all.
"Captain Ivor?" It was Hyath, addressing me in a trembling voice. I gathered my wits and slid down from my mount. Anton and Minhu looked ill, and I didn't feel so strong in the belly myself.
"Facing death is a hard part of what we do," I said in as clear a voice as I could manage. "But you are soldiers of the Accord, and you must do what you've been called to do."
The glossy surface of the road was sticky with blood. It had congealed in the hot sun and was now buzzing with pistus flies. The remains of a caravan lay on its side partway off the road. Thick black blobs oozed out from under the metal hull, a substance that I didn't recognize. And then there were the bodies.
Leonin, as far as I could tell. Or what was left of them. They had been mutilated; that was bad enough. But then they had been . . . reassembled, for lack of a better word. Parts were missing, so hunks of flesh and metal lumped together in a mockery of the leonin form.
No, this was not the work of goblins.
"Look at this," Anton called from behind the ruined caravan.
Skirting the edge of the bloodstain, I crossed over to him. He stood at the edge of a bubbling mire of black sludge. It was if the ground was rotting away, or a hole had opened in the ground and the Mephidross was rising under our feet.
But the Mephidross was far from here. It's not as if it stretched this far, beneath the Razorfields, did it? A prickly sensation spread down my back. How did I know what was under the ground, anyway? But this seemed to confirm the rumors of what was happening in the Oxidda. As Pilat had implied, things were grim, more than the Bladehold Council knew.
"What are we going to do?" Minhu asked, standing at my elbow.
Either ride on. Or ride back. Those were our choices.
"We need to check on Ten Shields," I told them. "Maybe they know what's happened here."
Decades ago, the settlement of Ten Shields had been the site of a formal accord between the Auriok and the leonin over the conflicted territory of Liet Field. The name "Ten Shields" came from the symbolic exchanging of shields between five Accorders and five leonin warriors. The Shields Accord enabled stable relations between the warring Auriok and leonin who shared the region. Now most of the children who lived in the settlement don't even remember where the name of their home had come from. Or that there had been a time when leonin and Auriok would rather fight each other than exchange a few words of conversation.
Ten Shields was small, mostly inhabited by the families of merchants who operated in the Oxidda. Because it was so close to the wild areas beyond the control of the Accorders, it was protected by a high battlement with jagged spikes along the top. The razorgrass had been cultivated so it encircled the high walls and climbed halfway up the battlement itself.
My heart pounded as we rode into sight of the shiny gate that guarded the entrance to the walled town. I had ridden the Manka Run many times in my years as an Accorder, and I had a particular fondness for many of the people of Ten Shields—except for the town leader, an arrogant man who I suspected was in league with bandits. I had appealed to the Accorders' Council several times to get rid of him and elect someone who could be trusted to protect his or her people.
I'll never know if the Council had listened to my appeals, if that would have changed what happened in Ten Shields. If a more worthy person than he could have kept the gates secure or used clever strategy to prevent the disaster.
I do know the leader was killed while he was running away. Skewered in the back by a long jagged spear. He was slumped on the ground outside the gate, his head twisted around comically, as if he were a discarded child's toy.
Otherwise, the gate was open and unguarded.
"Captain Ivor?" Anton asked when I hesitated. "Should we go in?"
"No!" Hyath cried. "I want to leave."
I searched the faces of the three youths. "Draw your swords," I told them gruffly. "There is no way but forward."
Once inside the gate, I expected the worst. Some bloody visage like we had seen on the road. But the streets were completely deserted, and the eerie calm gave me shivers. By the tautness of Hyath's face, I could tell she was on the breaking point.
"Anton and Hyath, do a sweep around the outer wall. Minhu, we'll check the huts."
Most of the structures in Ten Shields were simple one- or two-room buildings. There was no one to be found in any of them. Minhu and I were just heading into the commons hall when we heard a shout from Anton.
I rushed outside and saw him waving from one of the watchtowers on the southern wall. I hurried up the ladder and turned my eyes to where he pointed in the distance.
A dark line snaked across the horizon. A line of humanoid figures marched slowly, accompanied by unfamiliar creatures that I couldn't identify despite my years of experience. But I suspected this was the answer to the question of where the good people of the settlement had gone. I had just turned to give Anton his orders, when I heard Hyath cry a low, pitiful howl that stopped with unnatural abruptness. We weren't alone in Ten Shields after all.
In the seconds it took to cross the platform and look over the edge, Hyath was already dead. In the seconds it took to pull my dagger from my belt and hurl it toward their attacker, Minhu had been torn in half.
My blade found its mark—deep into the eye of the monster that killed my charges. It stumbled forward and grabbed the ladder, its long claws oozing black sludge. With the dagger still lodged in its head, it scrabbled against the metal and then fell motionless on the tarnished ground.
In the seconds it took to climb down the ladder, Anton was weeping like the child he was. He knelt beside Hyath's body while I inspected the creature strewn on the ground, a puddle of black blood seeping out from its body.
It wasn't very large, smaller in stature and weight than myself, and I am considered a small woman. It had four limbs, but could scarcely be called human. Its face was more reminiscent of a misshapen bird than any man or woman. It was vile and murderous, and with sudden clarity, I knew what we had to do.
"Anton," I said as gently as I could. "You must stand, soldier."
When he stood on shaky legs and faced me, I knew he would be strong until the end. I laid my hand on his shoulder.
"There is no time to bury our kin," I said before he could ask me. "We must ride, as fast as we can, as fast as anyone ever has."
"Ride where, Captain?" he asked.
"The monsters are headed to Bladehold," I told him. "They will destroy it. . . unless we beat them there."
I have a good sense of time. By watching the slight variations of the sun, I can keep track of the minutes without error. I can do it without effort, as if there is a clock inside my brain ticking off the seconds, calculating the minutes, and driving me to complete my tasks.
It had taken us two days to ride to Ten Shields. We had ridden seven hours each day. Fourteen hours at a leisurely pace. Anton and I must cut that in half at least.
It took us four minutes to clear the walls of Ten Shields and return to where our mounts had been tethered. There we encountered two more monsters similar to the one that had killed Hyath and Minhu. They were slaughtering killed my mount just as we rounded the gate.
It took them 25 seconds to slice Anton's throat.
When we exited the walls, Anton had been ahead of me. If not for that, I would be dead, too. But his sacrifice gave me just enough time to draw my sword. In the seconds it took for him to bleed out, I killed the creatures. But not in time to save him. Not in time.
Anton's death almost broke me. In him, there had been so much potential. In him, there was all the love of all our kin. In him, was the hope for our people. I permitted myself 20 seconds to grieve. Then I rode for Bladehold.
My mount had been named Leonie. She'd been my companion for four years. She knew the route between Ten Shields and Bladehold better than me. But she was lost.
Instead, I choose Hyath's mount, a quick lithe animal. Without looking back, we flew toward Bladehold. In the distance, the dark procession that I'd seen from the watchtower seemed frozen in their tracks. This gave me hope that something had slowed their progress. I could stay on the road and not be cut off before I reached the city. The road was the only clear way through the razor fields. My mount's legs were plated, but very long on the razor sharp grass would slice even the thickest metal to shreds. We had to make it the city before they did.
The first hours passed quickly, a flurry of thudding hooves and wind rushing past my face. Then mount quivered, and I knew she had picked up a sound before me. Her ears twitched, and I felt her pace falter. I urged her forward, and soon I could hear it too. A scream. A wailing that didn't stop.
An Auriok woman knelt in the middle of the road holding a knife. When I approached her, she began swinging it wildly as if at apparitions only she could see. I stopped a safe distance away and dismounted. I check the horizon. The dark procession was moving again, and it had swung toward me, traveling quickly along the horizon. I could not pause here long.
The woman paused for breath. Her eyes never found mine. They were wild, rolling around in her head as if disconnected from the body they inhabited.
"Kin," I said, addressing her formally. "I am an Accorder. May I help you?"
"Pestilence," she screamed. "I am lost."
She held up her arm to show me a long gash from the wrist to elbow. Bloodless, the skin seemed to be hardening into scaly black scabs that stretched farther up her arm.
"Make it end. Make it end. Make it end." She chanted pitifully.
I checked the horizon again. The enemy had picked up their pace even more and were moving with unexpected speed. They would outpace me soon.
"For the safety of the city, I must go."
She didn't hear me. I don't think she ever saw me, even. As I rode away on my mount, I saw her wander into the razorgrass along the side of the road. It would be the end for her, one way or the other.
Across from the gates of Bladehold is a steep rise known as Soldier's Hill. From there, I had a vantage point of the entire valley and the lowlands to the east. And standing there, surveying the vista, I knew I wasn't going to make it in time.
The enemy was still out of sight from the walls, hidden behind the natural rise and fall of the terrain. I squinted across the valley. The gates stood wide open. The city had no idea of the danger that would soon be upon them.
The white sun was about to reach its apex above the city walls. My only chance was to warn them. Using my sword, I managed to pry up a section of the ground, breaking the tip of my blade in the process. Holding the shiny plate of metal above my head, I prayed it would catch the light at its zenith.
There was a rumbling in the distance. The enemy would be in sight soon enough. But every second counted when it came to locking down the city and calling up the militia. Every second meant something.
In desperation, I swung the plate back and forth trying to capture the attention of the guard in the front tower. And there it was, a glint of light flashed back me. A sign of recognition. They saw my warning just as the first of the monsters raced into view, loping across the valley with terrifying speed.
The gates eased down. . . so slowly, it seemed. . . crashing shut and holding firm against the horrendous enemy that had arrived.
I had warned the city. Now I had to figure out a way to save it.
It was the seventh day of the siege of Bladehold, and Pilat had barely slept since it began. As captain of the meager force of soldiers and civilians that had been cobbled together to defend the city, he was in demand every second of every minute. And he wasn't sure how much longer he, or his beloved city, was going to last.
The monsters had surrounded his walls but hadn't yet launched all-out attack on the walls. They were waiting for something, perhaps for the Bladehold to starve itself out. The army that encircled the walls wasn't enormous, nor were they well armed. Pilat knew he needed more information about this unfamiliar foe, which looked like nothing he'd seen before. Too occupied to do it himself, Pilat had set his best soldier on the task. Now, with the soldier's report in front of him, things didn't make any more sense than they had before.
"What do you mean, they're not very smart?" he asked Livak, the lanky youth who had spent the last seven days crouched in watchtowers with a far-seeing lens watching their assailants.
"Well, the big ones don't do anything on their own," Livak explained. He was referring to the hulking, oozing monstrosities that formed the front line of the army. "They never leave their position, not to eat, not to rest."
"So, someone is telling them what to do?"
"That's the thing," Livak explained. "The leadership—I guess that's what you'd call it—changed last night."
"Changed?" Pilat asked
"There was this man, well a sort of a man," Livak shuddered. "He had limbs but white plates instead of a face or skin. He seemed to be in charge, but this morning, his body was laying in pieces on the ground."
" A revolt? Did they kill him?" Pilat demanded
"No, I think we did it."
Pilat's heart surged. "Ria." She was still out there, then. After she'd signaled them to close the gate, saving the city, there'd been no sign of her. No indication that she was still alive.
"Captain!" Another soldier came running into the guardhouse. "You've got to see this."
Pilat followed him to the city square, where a group of soldiers were huddled around one of the healers from the barracks. She was cradling a bird, one of the trained glint hawks they used to carry messages along the circuit.
The hawk was injured, a gash in its soft underbelly. It would die soon, having completed its mission. Lashed to its leg was a note, and written on it was the hope for the Auriok people.
Ria and her makeshift army of Auriok and Leonin warriors struck in the moments before dawn, when all the suns lay near the horizon line and the light was gray. Over the course of the last seven days, Ria had ridden the entire circuit through the Razor Fields, calling all she could to arms. Many of the settlements had already lost, but groups of refugees joined her along the way.
By the time Ria's army reached Bladehold, they were several hundreds strong. This was the first time leonin and Auriok fought together in as long as anyone could remember, but that was the last thing on any Mirran's mind.
Their purpose was single-minded. Save Bladehold.
When Pilat saw Ria crest the ridge, he hurriedly called the few mages and archers he had to the wall. Ria's cavalry waded in first, followed by waves of foot soldiers. The invaders faced blades on one side, and arrows and spellcraft on the other. The monsters fought with mindless ferocity, but they were without leaders to direct them and flanked on all sides.
The battle ended before the white sun crowned in the sky.
A silence fell over the Razor fields. Then slowly, the citizens of Bladehold emerged on top of their wall while some cautiously made their way through the now-open gate. A great cheer rose up as Pilat embraced Ria, the woman who had saved their city.
Only Ria did not smile. She clutched Pilat's hand desperately and whispered, "This victory is a aberration. I have seen what's coming."
"Give them their day," he whispered back, smiling to the crowds. "They'll be faced with the truth soon enough.
A day may be all they have, Ria thought to herself. Her heart cried out for the living, who might wish themselves dead in the days to come.