“From the signals we’re hearing, I think there’s a substantial army assaulting the walls,” Marcus said as he squinted into the distance. “The garrison is calling in reinforcements as fast as they can, but I don’t imagine they had time to get the walls fully manned before it started.”
“I can see people fighting on the wall in several places,” Cerise said. “Look, there are fires burning in the Trade District. That doesn’t seem like a good sign.”
I frowned. “I can’t imagine how they’d have gotten inside the walls that fast. Siege engines using incendiary ammunition, maybe?”
Marcus shook his head. “Light siege engines wouldn’t be able to loft a shot over the wall, and it takes hours to set up the heavy ones. It could be battle magic, but I don’t see why they’d waste it on that. As much snow as there is on the roofs there’s no hope of getting a fire to spread.”
“I think I’m going to have to check this out,” I said reluctantly.
“Probably best to put in an appearance,” he agreed. “We don’t want the prince to think you’re not going to contribute to the defense of the city.”
“You’re not going alone,” Cerise declared.
I frowned. “Are you sure you’re up to this?”
Three days ago we’d fought an undead dragon together, and she’d stolen so much power from the thing that she’d sprouted wings and scales. She’d spent the last two nights doing long rituals to rebalance her magic, and sacrifice the power she couldn’t handle to her goddess. She was pretty much back to her normal appearance now, but she looked exhausted.
“I can handle a scouting mission, and a couple of short fights,” she insisted. “If it turns into a long slugging match you can send me back here with orders for the men. But I don’t want you out there with no one to watch your back when we don’t know what’s happening.”
“Fair enough,” I conceded. I certainly wouldn’t mind having her along. My magical defenses were a lot better than hers, but underneath it all I was just a squishy human. Cerise, on the other hand, had the physical vitality of a demon and a solid set of personal wards against non-physical threats. We were pretty much perfect for bailing each other out of trouble.
I studied the remnants of the causeway for a moment. The stone was badly cratered, and two long stretches had been completely obliterated. We weren’t going to get any vehicles over that. But I didn’t want to pull any troops away from the defense of the island anyway.
“We’ll take your bike,” I told Cerise. “Just the two of us. We can leave through the water gate, and find a boat ramp to get off the river and into the city. If the Conclave is sending reinforcements to the walls they shouldn’t be hard to find.”
She nodded. “Sounds like fun. But I want to have Corinna bring her war band over here and help guard the keep until we get back. Just in case the enemy has a way to get over walls.”
“That’s fine. I don’t think they’ll be needed, but better safe than sorry. Marcus, if you need us to come back fire off one of the mortars. The noise should be noticeable from anywhere in the city, I’d think.”
Cerise’s bike was a recent gift, basically a flying motorcycle that hovered a few feet off the ground on a levitation spell. It was just big enough for two people, and had a top speed somewhere well north of a hundred miles per hour. Cerise had fallen in love with it instantly, of course.
She gunned the thruster as we cleared the iron portcullis that guarded the water gate, and sent us shooting out over the still water of the harbor. I held on tight behind her, and wrapped my force field around us both.
“Hey, you made the wind go away!” She protested.
“Just making sure we can’t get ambushed easily,” I told her.
“Like anything could hit us at this speed? You worry too much, old man.”
“That’s because you never worry at all, crazy girl,” I told her. “I have to do enough of it for both of us.”
“Better you than me,” she retorted. “Okay, there’s a ramp we can use. Hold on!”
I discreetly grabbed hold of the bike with a bit of force magic, just in case. But Cerise drove with the same preternatural skill she displayed in any physical ability, slowing just enough to stay in control as we cleared the ramp and flew halfway across the wide cleared space beyond. A moment later we were back on the ground, already braking and turning onto the street that paralleled the water front.
The harbor gate was still open, although a platoon of spearmen stood ready to close it at the first sign of danger. Unfortunately they didn’t know any more than we did about what was happening. We left them on guard and sped across the Temple District towards the commotion.
Nervous citizens peered out their windows at us as we passed. This part of the city had already seen one major battle, and they weren’t eager for another one. Most of the buildings were intact, but here and there we passed a fire-gutted ruin or a structure with doors and windows smashed in. Signs of the battles that had already been fought here.
At least the streets hadn’t been packed with refugees, like when I first arrived in Kozalin. The death toll among the civilians would have been a lot higher if we hadn’t gotten them into shelters before Hel’s attack.
We passed through another gate guarded by a nervous platoon of the city garrison, and entered the Trade District. Here there was less damage, but there were sounds of fighting close at hand.
“Head for the noise?” Cerise asked. “Or do you want to look around for a command post?”
“Considering how my last conversation with the prince went, I’d say it’s better to avoid him for now. Head for the noise.”
The commotion grew louder as we neared it, and I frowned. The shouts and clash of metal were familiar, but there was a lot of other noise. Deep-throated bellows from something I didn’t recognize, and the occasional tremendous crashing sound. What was going on?
Then we came around a corner, and found ourselves face to face with the enemy. Cerise turned the bike sideways and skidded to a stop as we both stared.
A block away the street was filled with a mass of huge, gray-skinned creatures lumbering towards us on four legs. Their heads were covered with bony armor, with a short horn rising up from the snout and two longer, lance-like horns projecting forward above the eyes. There was a group of hairy humanoids waving spears and javelins perched atop each of the creatures, which were considerably bigger than elephants.
They spotted us immediately, and the front rank broke into a charge amid a chorus of howls and jeering.
“Oh, crap!” Cerise exclaimed.
She spun the bike around, and headed back the way we’d come. But I was still staring numbly at the enemy.
“That’s a triceratops,” I muttered.
“Dinosaurs. They have frickin’ dinosaur cavalry.”
Cerise snickered. “Are you jealous?”
Our pursuers lumbered around the corner behind us. One of them tried to corner a little too fast, and ended up sliding across the packed snow into a shop that faced the road. The front of the brick and wood structure promptly collapsed, but the dinosaur pulled itself free of the falling debris without any apparent injury. So that’s what those crashing sounds were.
Damn. They had to be killing a lot of civilians that way, and most people would have a fire going in their homes. That explained the smoke, at least.
We could easily outrun them on the bike, but that’s not what we were here for.
“Get a couple of blocks ahead and then stop,” I ordered.
“You got it, Daniel. How are we killing these things? There’s too much light for me to shadow step, and my gun isn’t going to do much to an animal that big.”
“Pick off the riders,” I told her. “I’ll handle the dinosaurs.”
How was I going to do that? Well, first things first. I eyeballed the distance, and tossed my earth talisman down the street to land between us and the enemy. It immediately sprouted into a barricade of sharp iron spikes, spreading at my direction to fill the width of the street. Making it tall enough to physically stop a triceratops would take more time than I had, but I was pretty sure the beasts wouldn’t try to walk across something like that. If they did it would cut their feet up badly enough to cripple them, just like caltrops against normal cavalry.
Then I drew my revolver, set it for explosive rounds, and opened fire.
On that setting the bullets that my weapon fired were enchanted to conjure up a chunk of magma from the earth’s core when they struck something. The white-hot nickel-iron immediately exploded as it found itself no longer subjected to millions of atmospheres of pressure, flinging superheated metal everywhere with the force of a small bomb. It took a little less than a second for the enchantment factory in my weapon to create a new round, so I just held the trigger down and peppered them with a continuous stream of attacks.
The first blast struck the bony frill protecting the lead dinosaur’s neck, blowing a large hole in it and sending molten metal lancing into its back. It bellowed in pain, and charged at us. The second shot caught it right between the eyes, and then I lowered my aim and hit one of its forelegs with the third. It collapsed, throwing half its riders forward into the street.
The dinosaur next to it shied away from the crash, and then continued its turn right into a building when I shifted my fire in its direction. A couple more shots into its side and the beast went down, half-buried under a mass of broken wood and brick.
With the street mostly blocked by writhing dinosaurs their comrades had to slow down and work their way through instead of just charging us. I walked my fire back and forth across their formation, and it quickly dissolved into complete chaos.
Cerise pulled her gun from where she’d had it stowed, strapped to the side of the bike, and opened fire on the riders. As usual she picked them off with the inhuman accuracy of a Hollywood sniper, the big .50-caliber rounds blowing heads apart and punching gaping holes through their leather armor. At this rate we’d have the street cleared in no time.
Then a group of hairy forms dropped off the roofs to land around us.
A couple of them bounced off my force field, with a drain on my energy reserves that was far larger than it should have been. Another landed on the street next to us, and laid into my shield with an axe made of some glassy red substance. His first blow drained a gout of magic out of my barrier to strengthen the weapon’s enchantment.
Cerise flicked a blob of shadowy energy at him, and he dropped the axe to stagger back with a scream and clutch at his eyes.
“I love having unlimited power,” she commented with a grin. “I’ve got these guys.”
I laid down a barrage of force blades around our position before turning back to the dinosaur cavalry, hoping to take out this distraction quickly. They proved a little too durable for that, the blades slicing armor and inflicting deep wounds but failing to actually sever limbs. They continued beating on my shield, their crimson weapons shifting forms with every few blows. They tried axes, clubs, spears and even something like a morning star, ignoring their injuries as they tried to find a weakness in my defense.
But my amulet held deep reserves of mana to counter exactly this sort of attack, and it would take them several minutes to exhaust its energy and break the shield. Minutes they didn’t have, with Cerise standing safely behind my barrier laying down a barrage of black magic.
Her shadow rose from the ground to coil around her body, and she threw out a clinging mist that ate into their flesh like acid. Their shadows animated, catching at their feet and crawling up their bodies to strangle them. She threw more curses, blobs of dark magic that struck their targets in the face and crawled into their eyes. Or ate them, possibly. I wasn’t watching very closely, but the first guy she’d hit wasn’t moving anymore.
Most troops would have run away by that point, but these guys were in some kind of berserker rage. They howled in frustration, and tore into the barrier with frenzied intensity. But they didn’t seem to have a counter for Cerise’s curses, so I kept my attention on the remains of the cavalry force long enough to finish them off.
Another few dozen explosive rounds and the ones I could see were all dead. They’d never even gotten close to us, and by then Cerise had dealt with her opponents as well.
“We should do it like that more often,” she grinned. “It was pretty funny watching them try to get at me. I guess these guys must be those andregi the wizards were talking about.”
I took a moment to study the bodies. I’d heard the andregi described as ape-men, but really they looked more like Neanderthals to me. Over six feet tall, which was a lot bigger than the local humans, with barrel chests and heavily muscled limbs. Their legs seemed a little shorter than normal, and of course they were so hairy you could almost call it fur. They had heavy brow ridges, big square jaws and no facial hair at all, which was an odd-looking combination. Something about the shape of their skulls was different, too. Wider than a human, with lower foreheads that had a pronounced slope to them.
Their equipment was interesting. Elaborate leather armor that provided full-body coverage, but no shoes. Leather helmets, and long leather cloaks that looked thick enough to double as another layer of armor. Dinosaur hide, maybe? Whatever it was, the workmanship was quite good.
They had a lot of magic about them, too. Necklaces of beads, runes sewn onto their armor, bone ear and nose piercings, all anchoring a host of weak but useful charms. Little spells of protection and enhancement, and a much stronger one that seemed to be some kind of berserker curse. No wonder they’d just kept attacking, even when it was obviously hopeless.
The odd thing, though, was that none of them had a scrap of metal. All of their weapons were that glossy red stuff, which was heavily enchanted.
“Guess so,” I said. “Any idea what those weapons are made of?”
Cerise bent and poked at one thoughtfully. The enchantments had been bound to their wielders, and were starting to come apart now that they were dead. The stuff started to soften, the angular shapes of the fallen weapons slumping towards the ground.
“Oh! I get it. They’re made of blood.”
I blinked. “Seriously?”
I touched an axe that was rapidly becoming a puddle. Yep, blood. Still alive until recently, too.
“Seriously. Kind of an interesting technique, actually. They must have some big ritual where they bleed themselves to make their weapons, and then they’d have to feed them periodically. But it gives them a handy store of extra vitality, and I bet they can steal power from enemies they kill. Absorb their blood to heal themselves, maybe copy their powers, stuff like that. Good thing they didn’t know how to do much with the magic they were stealing, or I’d have had to work a lot harder to kill them.”
“Lovely. I hate competent foes,” I complained. “Why couldn’t they just be a bunch of dumb savages with sticks and stone axes?” She snickered. “Aw, now what fun would it be to kill wimpy guys like that? This way we get a challenge.”