Authors: Keith Baker
“I examined the bodies that you recovered, and … I’m not sure what to say. They’re warforged, certainly, but they don’t have the markings of the house, let alone the symbols of any national allegiance.”
“Someone else is making ’forged, then?” Krazhal said. The dwarf tugged on one of the remaining tufts of his unruly brown beard; most of it had been singed away in the course of his duties.
Lei shook her head. “That’s impossible. Only an heir of House Cannith can activate a creation forge, and only the forges can produce true warforged. Although …”
“They’re so different from one another. We must have seen a hundred different designs—I’m not sure I saw two soldiers that looked alike. The warforged were designed to serve specific roles in battle. There’s no need for this level of variation, and the forges were designed to facilitate mass production. Making so many unique designs—it would require a tremendous amount of work and resources. I don’t know who could do it—or why they would.”
Daine nodded. “House Cannith marks every ’forged it
makes. These are unmarked. It’s an enemy that shouldn’t exist in a place with no need for an army. You don’t send a raiding party in a region with nothing to raid, leaving one simple answer.”
“They’re guards?” Jode ventured
“That’s right. No reason for anyone to be out here—which makes it a great place to set up shop. Pierce and I scouted the field, and there is a tunnel entrance not far from where we set up camp. Pierce?”
Pierce was the only Cyran warforged left in Daine’s unit. Over six and a half feet in height, he was a shadow formed from dark mithral and black leather. His voice was like running water, slow and deep. “I located four guard posts, equidistant from the entrance. Two guards per post. Magical weaponry seems likely, but nothing was brought to bear against our forces, so range would be limited.”
“We’ve got less than a third of our troop, but we inflicted heavy losses on our enemy, and the fact that they haven’t come out to finish us off suggests that they’re stretched to their limits. They’ve hurt us—now they want us to go away.”
“We’d be fools not to!” Krazhal said.
“I think not. We’re taking that base.”
“Launch an attack?
Are you out of your mind?”
Daine swore, glaring down at Krazhal. “We’re soldiers of Cyre! We are all that stands between the innocent and destruction! We’ve discovered an unknown and deadly enemy in the very borders of our land. We’re days from the nearest garrison—and who knows what horrors this place could spawn in that time. We are the shield of Cyre, and we
protect our kingdom! Is that understood?”
Krazhal scowled, but eventually nodded, staring down at his feet.
“Good! Jholeg, you’re heading to Casalon, quick as you can. There’s a good chance we won’t survive this, and the queen needs to know of it.”
The goblin scout shrugged. “Yao’lhesh, but wouldn’t Pierce be a better choice? He can travel night and day.”
“We’ll need his skill with the bow. Pierce, you and the bulk of the troops will be protecting Lei.”
“Oh?” Lei said. “What will I be doing?”
“Preparing a siege staff, one capable of striking that base from the middle of the valley outside the range of their weapons.”
“We don’t have a siege staff!”
“You know that: they don’t. Make it look good, that’s all that matters—they can’t take the chance that it’s real.”
“Ah!” Krazhal said. “So they need to be sending their remnants out and then in you go.”
go, Krazhal. With Saerath gone, I’ll be needing you to get through any barriers.”
“Joyous news, that.”
“Jode, Krazhal, Donal, Kesht, and I will make up the inside team. The rest of you, keep ’em busy. You’re in command, Jani. If you need to retreat, head west up the slopes. If we survive, we’ll meet you at the Dorn Peak by tomorrow evening. If not, I want you heading for Casalon at first light. Understood?”
Faces were grim, but this was not the first time they’d faced death together. Jani nodded.
“These metal bastards killed our friends, and who knows how many more will die if we don’t put an end to it now. If we die, we die for Cyre.
Across the valley, a warforged soldier observed an increase in activity at the Cyran redoubt. It tapped the shoulder of its companion, a tiny scout covered with intricate silver tracery. The scout studied the enemy soldiers, nodded, and scampered out of the concealed post, racing down the tunnel and into the darkness. The masters would know what to do.
Jode said, his voice low and urgent.
Daine’s head was pounding, and his left cheek burned; he could feel the slash running from cheekbone to chin. He opened his eyes and tried to make sense of his surroundings. The tunnel was made of worked stone, covered with mold and dirt. A shallow stream of foul water was flowing past his boots. A sewer? Pale light came from behind him, casting long shadows across the approaching insects.
Tens of thousands of insects.
It was a living carpet of vermin—an army of beetles and centipedes that stretched out beyond the pool of light. They moved forward in eerie unison, as if guided by a single thought.
A strong hand gripped Daine’s shoulder and slammed him up against the wall, and the tunnel was filled with flame. Daine closed his eyes as the terrible heat scorched his skin, but the fires did not consume him. When he opened his eyes, the tunnel was filled with steaming sewage and the charred husks of the insect horde.
Cold fury filled Daine’s heart. His dagger was already in his hand, and as he turned he brought it up to the throat of his unknown assailant. The face was a familiar one: Pierce was standing just behind him, studying him through crystal eyes.
“Dorn’s teeth, Pierce! What is this?”
He turned toward the voice. A slender figure shone in the
darkness, a woman wearing a coat of stars. As she stepped forward, he recognized Lei. She held her darkwood staff in one hand, and the golden rivets embedded in her green leather vest glowed with a cold light, the only source of illumination in the tunnel. She put her hand on his cheek, tears glittering in her green eyes.
“Do you know where we are?”
Her touch brought a flood of memories—the horrors of the Mourning, the long journey across Breland, Jode’s frail form lying on a mountain of corpses. He recoiled and fell to his knees, retching into the filthy water. Finally he reached up to touch his cheek: the pain was gone, and he ran his fingers over the long scar that had graced his face since the night of the Mourning.
“Daine. Do you know where we are?”
“Sharn. Under Sharn. The sewers beneath High Walls.” He rose to his feet.
It happened again?”
“Yes,” Lei said. “You told me to stay between you and Pierce and to hold the fire until you gave the order, but when we finally saw the creatures—you just froze.” She let her hand slip to his shoulder, and Daine covered it with his own. “What did you see?”
Daine ground his teeth together. This was the fifth blackout in the last ten days, and they were coming ever more frequently. “Keldan Ridge. Again.”
“Was there anything new?”
Daine nodded. “Planning an assault on the base Pierce and I discovered. Split forces, regrouping at Dorn Peak if it fell apart.”
“Which, apparently, it did.”
Almost three years had passed since they’d found themselves on the Dorn plateau just beyond the sinister mists of the Mournland. Until now, the events of that night had been a complete mystery; none of them could remember after the third wave of the warforged assault. Now those memories were finally coming back—but why, and at what cost? Daine’s head still throbbed, and he could barely hold his sword steady; his nerves were frayed to the breaking point, and his
restless nights were filled with nightmares.
Daine had always believed that he could handle any problem on his own. As a child of House Deneith, he had been taught to fight his own battles, to stand against any foe. As a captain, he had to keep his own council—to make decisions that could determine the fates of hundreds, but how could he fight his own mind and memories? He squeezed Lei’s hand, finding unexpected comfort from her touch.
Pierce’s voice rang throughout the tunnel.
Lei spun toward the sound, tearing her hand free and gripping her black staff. Daine raised his sword, cursing inside.
Don’t expect one blow to end every fight
Moments ago the floor had been covered with the charred remnants of a million insects. Now a new host had arisen from the old, a river of gleaming chitin and quivering antenna rising up from the ashes. The creatures clustered together in a dense, unnatural mass—in the dim light the swarm seemed to have the shape of a dark fist. Pierce was prepared for danger, and he lashed out with his flail as the mass approached him. An instant later the swarm was upon him, and he vanished in the depths of the living cloud.
There was no time to waste. Individually, the insects might be harmless, but a thousand beetles acting in unison could chew through the leather and fibrous cords that lay beneath Pierce’s armor plates. Daine had seen the flail pass through the swarm; it was clear that steel would not win this battle, and even if Lei had the energy to produce another flame blast, Pierce would be caught in the burst. Daine swung his sword toward Lei.
“I need fire. Quickly.”
Lei had anticipated the request and was already rummaging through her many pouches. She produced a pinch of powdered volcanic glass and a vial of dark oil; she sprinkled these on Daine’s blade, her features tight with concentration. Within seconds the blade was wreathed in magical flame, shedding flickering light across the sewer tunnel.
Daine sprinted toward the dark mass surrounding his friend. He was still dizzy; the blackouts always affected his balance, and
this was the worst yet, but there was no time to surrender to pain. As he closed on the cloud of buzzing beetles, he kept his blade spinning before him, creating a brilliant wall of flame. Dozens of insects fell to the flaming blade.
Then the horde engulfed him.
The world went dark, lost in a buzzing cloud of insect wings. Centipedes were crawling up his legs, wriggling beneath chainmail and cloth in search of flesh. Flies were swarming about his face. Daine closed his eyes and covered his mouth and nose with his left hand, continuing to spin his blade from side to side. He ground his teeth, ignoring the pain of a hundred stings and bites. As moments passed, the cloud of insects began to thin, and he pulled his hand away from his face to crush the creatures that had crawled beneath his armor. Opening his eyes, he saw that Lei had joined the fray. The upper end of her staff was shrouded in flame, and she was staying on the fringes of the swarm, thrusting the flaming brand into the mass of vermin. A moment later Pierce burst out of the heart of the horde, crushing insects by the handful.
Daine held his ground, lashing out against the diminishing horde. “Pierce, are you hurt?”
Over the last few months, Pierce had been growing increasingly taciturn. He’d never been especially talkative; he was built to serve as scout and sniper, and silence was in his nature. Still, Daine felt that there was a change—that his warforged friend was retreating into his own mind—but this was hardly the time to explore feelings.
“See if you’ve got anything in your pack that you can use to make fire.”
The next few minutes were a horrible blur, the smell of burning chitin blending with the buzzing of dying insects, but the vermin were no match for the flame, and eventually the last of the insects fell or fled. This time Daine was taking no chances, and they crushed and burnt every last shell. He knelt in the carpet of ash and searched for any signs of movement, but minutes passed and no new insects emerged.
The artificer produced a small crystal half-sphere from a pouch—a device she’d crafted to sense the presence of magical energies. “There’s nothing here, Daine. Whatever power regenerated these creatures earlier, we seem to have broken it. Greykell should be pleased.”