Age of War (Part XXX)

They came face-to-face with their enemy before they even reached The Circle. As they raced around the corner, back into view of the pale daylight filtering through the broken ceiling again, a hairy shape leapt towards them, momentarily blocking out the light. Jonis didn’t get a good look at it, she just lashed out with her sword. There was an animalistic snarl as it fell backwards and a spray of dark blood coated the wall. The thing clutched its misshapen claws to its face, dropping its own weapon, and Tayne struck, ramming her sword through its belly, right up to the hilt. She shook it free and stepped over the carcass without another word. Jonis looked down, seeing the hideous malformed face she’d rent open with its hairy muzzle and long, jagged teeth. Its body was covered in coarse brown hair, but it had walked on two legs like a human and wielded its rusted blade with hands capable of human dexterity, tipped with black claws though they were. Rayke had called them the hyen-a-khan, a race of dogmen he’d encountered in the mainlands. They were savage despoilers, little better than the animals they resembled. They attacked villages, ate any of the inhabitants they killed in the raid, burnt the houses and carried the rest away. Those who fell into their merciless grip could expect a short, brutal life of agony and fear before they too were ripped to pieces by the slavering jaws of these wolfkin.

“Jonis! Come on!” Tayne was at the foot of the stairs that led up to The Circle, and Jonis hurried to join her, finally managing to tear her eyes away from the body of the hyen-a-khan.

“How did they get here?” she asked the militia captain.

“I don’t know. But we’ve both seen what these things are capable of…”

“Right.” It didn’t bear thinking about, but from the sounds up ahead, they were about to get a reminder of the one occasion they’d both come up against the dogmen before.

They ran out of the archway and into The Circle. The air was filled with the sounds of shouts, howls and weapons clashing. There were dozens of hyen-a-khan rampaging across the broken flagstones. They didn’t advance in good order, but instead threw themselves into the fray like a pack of wolves going in for the kill. They had a kind of animal cunning though; enough to try encircling a foe, or drawing off the weaker targets. Some even had bows, though they were poor shots. Arrows arced through the air and more often than not clattered harmlessly to the ground. From their vantage, Jonis saw there were three main knots of fighting: not far from the chambers in which they’d camped, one squad of militia led by Calas were firing continuous volleys of arrows into the charging dogmen. Most found their mark and the floor was already littered with dead. One militiaman was lying motionless to one side though, a barbed arrow sticking out of his back. They were holding off the enemy well enough, but surely they’d run out of ammunition soon.

“I think we’ve found out where they’re coming from,” Tayne said, pointing upwards with her bloody sword.

Jonis followed her gaze and saw what she meant. Through the hole in the domed roof, dogmen were leaping into the battle. It was a long way down and while some were able to flip in midair and land neatly on their feet, others weren’t so lucky, crashing into the ground and not rising afterwards. Some merely landed awkwardly or stumbled, but these were crushed by those who came after them. They showed no regard for their losses, but continued to spill through the ragged gap high above. Most made their way towards the second militia squad who had abandoned bows in favour of forming a rudimentary phalanx, speartips thrust outwards towards their attackers. With fewer than ten soldiers though, there was little chance the formation could hold against such overwhelming odds.

The third clash she couldn’t see, except indirectly. Dogmen surged towards the pit at the centre of The Circle, and from within came the sounds of some desperate battle. Jonis was undecided for a moment, but then she ran towards the lip of the stepped amphitheatre. Tayne was close behind her. On the way, a dogman leapt up to bar their path, but Jonis dispatched it swiftly with an almost offhand swipe of her curved sword. Individually, the hyen-a-khan were not especially formidable – it was when they came in a great pack like this that the danger became all too real. As Jonis reached the edge of the pit, she saw a sight that left her open-mouthed with astonishment. Atlasian soldiers lay dead at the bottom, their blood staining the snow bright red. The bodies of many more dogmen lay around them and others were on the levels leading down. The last militiawoman standing was brought down with a scream by a dogman that leapt from head height and tore open half her face with its teeth, but this fight was far from over. In the middle of the bloody maelstrom was Huldane. The Talosi warrior carried his sword and shield, and he was cutting a bloody swathe through his foes. He fought without the kind of finesse and style she associated with Atlantian swordplay, instead using his physical strength and agility to tirelessly dispatch the ravening dogmen. He used his shield as another weapon, parrying with such force that it threw one hyen-a-khan backwards, allowing him to drive the rim down onto the neck of another, snapping it. His sword moved fast, a ribbon of white steel, effortlessly bypassing defences and shedding more blood that fell to the snowy ground and turned the floor into a kind of repulsive brown mulch. Still they came and still Huldane fought, batting aside a sword strike with his shield so that the dogman was left exposed, then plunging his blade deep into the creature’s chest. It howled desperately, then fell as Huldane extricated himself and confronted the next enemy.

“Look at him fight!” Tayne said with undisguised admiration.

“Even he can’t carry on like that forever though, not with more of these bastards on the way!” She jumped down to the lower level and kicked a dogman in the face as it turned to her. Tayne was right behind her, dispatching another with a quick sword thrust. She was a good fighter, but her style was workmanlike and Jonis could already tell she was more use leading a unit into mêlée on flat terrain than trying to adapt to the swirling chaos of this environment. No time to worry about that now though. She hopped down another step, swinging her sword at the dogman she’d just stunned. It tumbled backwards and went crashing down the steps. She spun around just in time to catch a sword on her blade. She held it there, looking into the misshapen face of another dogman – into its too-human eyes – then twisted her grip to disarm it. It scrambled for its sword and Jonis slashed at its throat. It gurgled helplessly as blood gushed from its ruined throat and then toppled over. At the bottom of the pit, Huldane was beset by three of them now. One leapt on his back and raked its filthy claws across his face. He cried out as he tried to fend off the others. The one on his back bared its teeth and reared back to bite his neck, but Jonis dived into the fray, bowling into Huldane and the dogmen, sending them all flying to the ground. The dogmen were up quickly, displaying their preternatural agility to the full. Tayne came from behind now, running one through, and Jonis leapt up to her feet to take the other down. Huldane had crushed the third dogman beneath his weight, but as it stirred he clambered on top of it and slammed one meaty fist into its face. It whined pathetically through a ruin of a jaw and he continued to pummel it until there was nothing remaining but a bloody pulp.

He rose stiffly and picked up his shield. “I am glad you are here,” he said.

Jonis got her breath back. “So are we.”

“What happened?” Tayne asked him. “Where did they come from?”

“There is no time – this is not done yet.”

“Agreed,” Jonis said. There were only a few dogmen between them and the top of the pit now. Huldane led the way, barely slowed by the wounds he carried, shield thrust out before him like a battering ram. He took each level in a single bound, racing up ahead of them, knocking hyen-a-khan aside without even a pause to take stock. Together the three of them returned to ground level and saw that the situation had not improved. More dogmen filled The Circle now, and more militia lay dead. Calas and her squad still held out, but the spearmen on the other side were now fighting desperately hand-to-hand. Their hideous foe mobbed them, leaping over one another to make the kill. The beleaguered soldiers were almost invisible beneath a sea of matted, filthy fur. Huldane didn’t hesitate over his decision, he deferred to neither Jonis nor Tayne, indeed he didn’t even check that they followed: he simply charged headlong, straight towards the vicious mêlée. Dogmen assailed him from all sides, but he cut a path straight through, a reaper scything wheat. In his wake were dismembered and dead enemies, howling in pain or mewling softly as they bled out on the flagstones. It was a grisly sight, but Jonis felt no sympathy for these creatures: they were murderous brutes who threatened to consume Atlantis with fire and blood if they swept down with the ice north of Talos. But how had they come to be here? Those lands were hundreds of leagues away…

Jonis and Tayne dispatched more dogmen as they followed Huldane. He was already in amongst the swarm of them, dragging one of them free and driving his sword through its back. He hacked and slashed at them, and when they turned he smashed them with his shield. Half a dozen had fallen to him already, and with their foes distracted, the militia rallied, pushing back with their spears. The hyen-a-khan assault fell apart as Huldane cut down more and more, each kill eliciting a cheer of triumph from the militia. As the stragglers ran for safety, Huldane lifted his sword. His whole arm was slick with blood, and his armour had fared little better. His shield was splintered around its edge and several arrows were embedded in it. But there was a wide smile on his face and a grim light in his eyes.

“Let us drive them back into the darkness!” he roared, and the cry was taken up by the soldiers. The charge resumed, now reinforced with the surviving spearmen, and Jonis and Tayne were gathered up in its momentum. They ran full-pelt over to Calas and her squad, came upon the dogmen from behind and the slaughter began again.

Huldane was a monster. He fought without fear and without rest. His sword arm was like the pounding of the waves against cliffs; rhythmic, unstoppable, inevitable. Jonis ducked a crude glaive swung at her head and danced backwards, nearly colliding with Tayne, who had her own opponent to deal with. The two women stood back to back, fighting off their respective assailants. Jonis parried a strike and created an opening in the dogman attacking her’s defence, but was unable to capitalise on it. Tayne was there though, ducking around and sliding her sword between its mismatched scraps of armour. Jonis spun to take Tayne’s place and flicked her blade out, straight into the eye of the other dogman. It opened its mouth and let out a hideous bellow that almost sounded like human speech, then made a desperate lunge in her direction. She sidestepped and she and Tayne both planted their swords through its chest at the same moment.

Arrows zipped through the air. Calas was counter-attacking now, and Huldane held off more assaults almost single-handedly. He was a force of destruction and finally, he used his shield to shatter the skull of the last of the dogmen attacking here. There was a moment of blissful silence, punctuated only by the sound of distant howls from elsewhere in The Circle and outside.

“What happened, Calas?” Tayne said, running quickly over to her.

She squatted down and bowed her head. She was sweaty and, like everyone else, covered in blood. “We’d only just split up. Huldane said he had a hunch about that pit down there, and Giln was going to look back the way we’d come, explore some of those other passages. Then we heard howls from above and…well…you know the rest.”

“What drew them here?” Tayne wondered.

“They have always been here,” Huldane said. He still stood tall, weapons in hand, eyeing the more distant shapes of hyen-a-khan that slunk across the chamber. Shadows gathered at the edge of the hole in the roof too. Jonis knew this wasn’t over yet.

“What do you mean, Huldane?” she asked.

He spread his arms and laughed darkly. “This is the Heart of Winter; the hall of the One-eyed God. He is the Lord of Wolves.”

“Huldane…”

“There are some,” he continued heedlessly, “who cling to a darker creed than most Talosi. Many of them hail from Svartburg and other towns near the tip of the peninsula. They believe that, when a warrior dies, he does not ascend to the side of the Greatfather to feast and revel for all eternity. Instead, he joins an endless battle and fights for the entertainment of the One-eyed God. An unceasing war in the Heart of Winter, where wolves prowl. Yes, I see it all now.”

Jonis put a hand on his shoulder. “Please, stop this talk.”

He shrugged her off. “They wear the bloody pelts of beasts. Berserkers, they are called. They seek glorious death in battle: the attention of the gods. Those judged worthy will become mighty champions in the Everliving Throng.”

“Are you saying you think we’re dead?” Calas asked flatly.

“I do not know,” he said, turning to her. He still had that strange gleam in his eyes. “But yesterday I saw the bones of god. If this is life, it is a strange one. And it matters not! All is lost now!” He let out a great bellow of a laugh, but to Jonis it sounded cracked and desperate. This was a man on the precipice of sanity.

“We should get out of here,” she said. “I don’t know what drew these dogmen, but we can’t hold them off much longer. We’ve lost half the company.”

Tayne nodded grimly. “Unless you have any objections, Keeper, discretion would appear to be the better part of valour.”

“Come on, Huldane,” she said, tugging at his arm.

“No,” he whispered.

“What?”

He broke free again and hurtled across the chamber towards another pack of dogmen that now advanced towards them. More began to jump down from the roof again too. There was a moment’s hesitation, but then the spearmen took off after him, yelling a battlecry, and Calas and her squad followed them too. Tayne gaped at her soldiers. “Stop! That’s an order!”

“Fuck,” Jonis said, “he’s going to get us all killed!”

“We’ve got to get out of here!”

“I know, but I don’t think Huldane’s ready. Oh fucking hell…” She was already running, following the others. She couldn’t let them fight alone after all. Huldane was already in the midst of the foe, slashing this way and that and apparently singing some kind of sonorous battle hymn. Jonis watched in horror as Giln fell to a lucky arrow shot, and Calas was knocked off her feet by a hard body blow from a towering dogman wielding a club of black iron. More hyen-a-khan were converging on them now – dozens, even hundreds – all sweeping in from every direction. She remembered what had happened when she’d been with Rayke and they’d tracked some of these creatures in the Atlasian hinterlands. They’d thought they had them cornered, but it had been a trap. Had they fallen for just such a ruse again?

The howls were deafening as they closed in. Huldane seemed to be tiring, his injuries finally catching up with him. A strike knocked his helmet askew and then a sword glanced from the mail on his abdomen. It didn’t break the armour, but the force of it staggered him. The mace that had brought Calas down swung towards his shield and he tried to parry but the force was too great. Wood shattered and he fell backwards. Tayne was facing down two dogmen, clearly outmatched. One left a slash across her cheek and the other kicked her feet out from under her. She went down and two blades came down towards her. At the last second she rolled clear and tried to stagger up to her feet. Jonis had her own problems: a skinny little one – a female? – with two long knives was flying at her, and it was too fast and wily for her sword. She swung, but she could tell she was slow from tiredness and injury. The dogman, or dogwoman, evaded easily and, with a high-pitched cackle, leapt at her. Jonis flailed wildly and knocked it to one side, sending it sprawling to the floor. There were more though; so many more. Howls from all sides, the reek of fur and tang of blood and ice. She looked up to see more of them coming down. Above them, dark clouds were gathering: the sky was whipped up into a storm. That noise from her dream, the endless roar of something primal, something not of this world, had returned. She could feel the dark wind buffeting her face.

Tayne fell again. A dogman drove a sword through the palm of her hand and she let out a bloodcurdling scream. Huldane still had his sword and he slashed desperately from the floor at the dogmen attacking him. Calas’s eyes were closed. Lightning crackled in the air. They were going to die. Jonis could almost feel the energy of the towering black clouds above her head, miles-high columns thronged with mysterious power. Her head was pounding again: she hadn’t even noticed. It was the oppressive sensation of a coming storm, but it felt so much more…focused…somehow. It was like it was inside her mind. A dogman ran towards her swinging a rusty axe. Its slavering jaws were wide and yellowed fangs seemed to make up half its twisted face. Time seemed to slow. She could taste the storm. She had no other way to describe it. Her hair stood on end as something in her mind clicked into place and all that stored energy, all that electricity in the clouds, in this place, became something she could touch. She held out her hand palm first, just as she’d seen her ancestors do in her dream.

Everything stopped.

She could see Tayne’s mouth open in a silent scream.

She could see Huldane’s eyes widen as a sword came straight for his chest.

She could see a dogman notice Calas unconscious on the floor and raise its weapon to finish the job.

She could see the black lightning. It rose from the ground, descended from the sky, came from the very air around her – or maybe it came from her? It was hard to tell. It was all over in a flash: a fell, terrible wind rose up with a sound like the screams of a thousand lost souls. Its tendrils lashed out, earthing themselves in the chests of the dogmen. They shook and trembled with its power and then their bodies began to twist and warp. They screeched in terrible agony as their flesh was rent apart. Bones cracked, weapons snapped, organs burst, and what was left behind was too awful to even look upon. The power surged upwards, reflected and refracted around The Circle, channelled somehow by the mysterious architecture. It flickered across the shattered dome, following an ancient pattern, now lost forever.

Silence fell. Jonis’s head felt clear. She was still holding out her hand and everyone was staring at her. The hyen-a-khan were gone: utterly and irrevocably destroyed. Jonis turned her gaze upward. The whole of the round chamber glinted with the sheen of frost. Her breath misted. Where the hole in the roof had been was now a layer of thick ice, etched with the pattern of the intersecting beams that had once hung there so magnificently. She knew, because she’d seen it in her dreams. And, as she looked down at her hand, she knew too that she finally understood everything.

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