The Narrow Gates, survivor's camp-- "The Crypt"
Despite the smell of death and the sound of the rasping lungs of the soldiers huddled below, it was proving to be an exceptionally beautiful day in the Crypt.
The Crypt, the name the soldiers had bestowed upon the ruins of the Kyselica, was at first a foreign word to Zviera. His dead, the Omestrian castoff of the pipeworks, were not laid in stone and iron when they expired but buried in the hard ice that froze the bottom sectors of the city. It was not until Father Solim explained to him what a crypt was that Zviera understood. This was a place for the honored dead. The soldiers had given up a long time ago, but at least they still held onto their Varyan pride.
Above them all, the ice wall stood like it always did, imperious and impossible in scale. Its shadow spread across the entire ice corridor, the Narrow Gates, High Command called it, covering the day in darkness, save for the few short hours when the sun shone directly overhead. As if by instinct, Zviera gazed skyward and found that the sun was nowhere to be seen. Everything and everyone around him was covered shadow and yet the sky was a peaceful golden color, bathing the top of the ice wall in shimmering light. Zviera's addled mind could not remember what time it was. Was it early morning, or dusk? Did it matter?
He turned his head and gazed dreamily at the ice wall as he fell behind the rest of the party. It would be beautiful, if not for the shredded portion of it that now buried most of the three ships. Zviera wondered for the thousandth time, but this time finally allowing a measure of peaceful resignation to cloud his thoughts, why the Armada had left them all to die.
"G-Get moving, cattle."
Zviera winced as the butt of Captain Ernst's rifle pushed him forward across the scrap metal gangplank. He had been daydreaming again. The ether in his veins ran thin, and despite all of Father Boris' hard work to keep him standing on two legs, Zviera was exhausted. He had put on a brave face for his master earlier (he had to, of course), but now his weakness seemed to be weighing on every bone and nerve in his body.
Captain Ernst yelled at him again, this time kicking Zviera at the small of his back. Zviera did not protest, for he understood that this treatment was deserved and required. The Captain was close to breaking down, and he needed this release, but more importantly, the war council was soon to begin and Mistress Alya must not be kept waiting. Up ahead his master's warsiblings were making their way into what remained of the Kyselica's hold. Ernst walked past him, his lower lip trembling. His two top men were at his side. Levin and Markopovic, Zviera remembered somehow. They were the least sick, the most capable of those who remained, and the most loyal. The captain wanted them with him at all times. He was scared, of course. Not just of the Warband, or the Icekin, but the very soldiers under his command.
Zviera was last to enter the officer's mess. It had been transformed into the de facto war room since the collapse, and his mistress had in turn taken it over as her own personal salon. The rest of the Warband didn't seem to mind. They were much too busy focusing on preparing for the Icekin.
Mother Faina leaned against the wall, her face pale and sallow. Zviera's own ether, that morning's extraction, was fueling her, but it wasn't enough. At that very moment, Faina was still holding the aegis, a thin gossamer curtain of ever-weakening magic that was somehow keeping them all alive, but even with all the ether of all the soldiers in the Crypt, it would never be enough. An aegis was not meant to be held continuously over the span of months. Such a thing would slowly kill the caster, even Zviera knew that.
Father Taerlach stood at the center of his gathered warsiblings, his gaze fixed on Faina. He appeared as he always did - strong as iron, despite the dark circles under his eyes.
Ernst stepped forward and saluted the remaining Inquisitors of Warband Goliath. He placed a fist over the hollow of his chest, the traditional Varyan salute. He spoke in a tired voice, all hope, all strength gone from it.
"The... extractions are taking their toll, Your Reverence. I.. My men, those who've survived, they lack the strength to fight and the will to defend this position. It is our duty to serve the Church, to fight until our dying breath, but..."
Ersnt was quiet for a moment. He breathed in and tried desperately to gather his courage.
"There have been whispers of sedition among the surviving soldiers. As their captain and liaison to the Warband, they... they look at me and see failure. Failure to protect them. I fear that a number of them seek to abandon their posts and try their luck out on the glaciers. Others believe that perhaps if they surrender to the Icekin they will be taken as prisoners to wherever the monsters call home. Such a thing is... is blasphemy, of course, b-but--"
Ersnt looked at each of the inquisitors, his eyes pleading.
"W-What is our Lord's will? It is said that Lord Varya sees all, that He speaks through you. Surely He sees with His own eyes how we suffer. Will... Will he offer us salvation?"
The strike was sudden and forceful enough to catch the captain by surprise. For a moment, only the ringing slap! echoing off the metal walls filled the air. Mother Alya stepped back, her hand still raised. Her voice hardened in an instant, firm with fury. “How dare
She stepped forward, as though to strike the captain again. With each word her voice raised in volume, escalating to a full shout. “Of course
the men see failure! They have eyes
, do they not? How can we expect the men to keep the faith when their leaders don’t?!” In spite of her demand, she continued without waiting for an answer. “Faith
, Captain, means not questioning Lord Varya’s will the minute things don’t go our way! It is ours to carry out His will, not to crawl and plead that His will be to our benefit! He will provide to those He deems worthy, not to those who grovel most! You will lead by example
, Captain, and restore faith among the men by having a little yourself!”
It was all like an unravelling thread. Once it began, it took only the slightest of pulls for everything to start coming apart. First, they had been stranded. Then the Aegis had been pushed to its utter limits while the bearer continued to fight the slow bleed of a cold death from the constant drain. Everything about their situation had been one slow yank of thread that held an entire piece of cloth together. It wasn’t overly surprising that the men were considering sedition. The truth was, Father Tàelach was rather surprised that it had taken them this long to come to this point.
The low rumble of Father Tàerlach’s voice ground through the room like shifting rocks. It was deep, gravelly, and had not been heard by anyone in some time. While he would never admit it, on a deeply personal level he had been forced to consider what exactly the measure of his own faith was. It meant that he had been... less than present, of late. It was clear that had been a mistake, but perhaps this situation might actually be salvageable now that things had been put to rest.
“I hope Mother Alya’s position on the matter is all you need to restore an attitude of respect and a mindset of zealous faith.” The man shifted his weight.”...I understand that these are trying times for the men. However, we all must shoulder our burdens in this place. Those who would seek to set them down will soon find that there are worse things than the Icekin in this place.” A slow shift and lowering of his hands rendered an ominous sound as the metal of his gauntlets struck the table before him. “If they require...an example... I would be more than happy to oblige them.”
This whole thing was getting them literally nowhere but if the troops were in open revolt, they were all going to die a great deal quicker than Tàerlach had any plans to. His features, as though a cloud were passing over them, shifted from thunderous anger to his usual placidity. “Otherwise, I encourage them to remember what and who they serve. If this is to be our end, then it is for reasons even we cannot comprehend. Hold fast to that, Captain.”
Alya took an audible breath, returning to the table in the room, and taking a seat. “Right, now that we have that out of the way - let’s share this beef Stroganoff before the sauce gets cold!” It wasn’t beef - it was Icekin, the only fresh meat they could still get. They all knew that, but she felt no need to call attention to it.
“Now then. It is Lord Varya
who relies upon us
, not the other way around! He has taught us to be strong and self-sufficient, and we must now exercise the skills with which He has blessed us. It’s clear we cannot stay in this camp forever and wait to die...but I don’t think we’re in any position to attempt travel overland - we’ll be easy pickings for Icekin.” She paused, looking around, and softening her tone. “Perhaps we need to attempt again signalling for help. Thoughts?”
Father Boris sat down and listened as those around him speak; he was more hungry than worried at this point. One last meal would not hurt before the last stand, he believed. Looking up, he pressed his lips together. Surrounded by hounds of war, he was not trained like them but he had become a decent fighter in his own right. Well, against Icekin and what he assumed was other beasts of the world.
“Though we are but a stream, ether flows from our bodies like a waterfall. I am sure we can make at least one more effort. A beam of light into the sky, or sending a raft into the channel with a rope attached… either way, there is not much we can do.” he said, softly, pressing his lips together once more. “There are only a few men, and if they would rather become meals to the creatures than die like men… well, there is not much to be done. I assume not much to be done, I assume. We are too low on supplies to hold out against the attacks. We could bury ourselves, but there is not much use in making our own sarcophagi when there is a desire to live and thrive in this world.”
He leaned back upon the wall and turned his head to the group, “Well, the Kyselica shall hold, for as long as a man still stands. If there is a way to see the sky at night, then we have the ability to call for help at a larger range... if we can see the stars above that is. The clouds may work against us. But let us eat, and find our course in this desolate tundra of ice. Many of us have important roles in the defence; mainly keeping spirits high and strong with those who desire to stand and fight.”
Mother Faina knew she looked as horrible as she felt. She could feel the stares of the gathering when she had entered the room and took her customary place along the back wall. It wasn't long before Ayla shoved a double portion of Stroganoff into her hands. Faina had just opened her mouth to protest the wasting of resources when she caught Father Taelach's gaze. His look told her that if she didn't eat it, there would be trouble. She instead thanked Ayla with a nod and heaped a forkful into her mouth.
Mother Faina listened carefully, without reply, as the group discussed the issues currently. It was not the first talk of sedition amongst the soldiers, and Taelach knew precisely how she felt about the matter. The fewer bodies she had to protect, the less Ether she had to use. Let them run and let Lord Varya decide their fate. Either they would strike them down or the Icekin would. Doubtful that the Icekin would take a soldier as a prisoner. They were well adapted to this terrain, and it was unlikely that a common soldier would provide them with any new resources or knowledge. Faina stopped listening for a moment to contemplate that idea.
"The Icekin. They have something we do not" she began in a moment of awkward silence, "Resources to survive in a terrain like this."
Faina finally joined them and after she received a look like the perpetual storm clouds hovering outside she finally relented and ate. Satisfied he made one last sweep with his gaze before collecting the plate in front of him and lifting it to eat. The really had a strange consistency to them was the only thought that jumped to the front of his thoughts as Father Tàerlach ate the dish. The years of being a starving child followed by the years of training made him quick when it came to food and soon the plate was back on the table and forgotten. It was fuel after all and he’d never truly met a dish that gave him pause long enough to enjoy it. Thus was the cost of being born a wretch and being raised a servant of the Church. After a brief pause, he sighed.
“I think the only option we have at this point is to attempt another signal. We can’t dig ourselves out. There is no way to cross the ice on foot and even if I didn’t suspect that the Icekin would kill us all, there is no way I would let my command surrender.” The unspoken portion of the comment was that in the absence of reinforcements Tàelach fully expected to expend every single one of their lives and his own killing as many of the Icekin as he possibly could. It was hardly the end he had hoped for but at this point, he was largely resigned to it. The other ships had moved on and no doubt would make it to their destination. damn him
the thought resounded in his mind. He was still stuck here and would be responsible for the deaths of half the Warband. In his mind, he finally resolved to take to the front lines. The time for contemplation and prayer was over.
“Any other suggestions? Any other thoughts…”
It was an open question but those who knew him would recognize it as potentially dangerous to voice any thoughts he deemed less than relevant or anything bothering on less than full service to Lord Varya.
“It is we
who have something the Icekin do not, Faina,” Alya said, her voice softening as her ire faded as quickly as it arose. “We have the love and support of one of His great Warbands, and the gifts of Lord Varya Himself!” She rose from her seat. “It is our lot in life to do what is hard - if this were easy, I would send Zviera to do it for us. So let’s not focus on our difficulties - they’re merely proof that this task is worth our time.”
" You misunderstood me Alya. What I mean is, they have the resources we need. I purpose we take it," Mother Faina said calmly and matter as a matter of fact. "Lord Varya expects us to be self-reliant. We cannot wait around to be saved."
That brought a smile, punctuated by a large bite of the meat she’d insistently called beef
, regardless of what everybody present knew it was. “Yes, we can take more from them than their lives to sustain us. They must have a means of survival!”
Ernst stared at the meat on his plate with a sickening lurch to his stomach. The survivors had been subsisting on the flesh of the strange Icekin hounds for the past three months, whenever the hunting parties were unsuccessful on their forays into the glacier. The meat itself was edible, thank the Ravenous Lord, and it was not for a Varyan to complain about the food, and yet... there was something wrong
about the houndflesh. Perhaps it was only in his mind, but Ernst could have sworn that no matter how much the meat was spiced prior to cooking, it still tasted of...that place
He was there now, huddling against the trenches in Lanostre as he and his men quietly starved. Even now, two decades removed from the horror, the stench of his dead comrades still filled his nostrils... and the hunger. Oh, the hunger.
This was it. It was the same. Not even Mother Alya's culinary skills could mask the familiar taste of human flesh. Ernst couraged a glance at the inquisitor, and then to her warsiblings. Too young
. All of them.
A frigid wind seeped through the weakening aegis, blowing at the inquisitors' long black coats and biting at the bruised flesh of his cheek. Somewhere down below, a cry rang out, followed by the sound of boots on steel. Ernst hurried to the large porthole overlooking the deck and saw the remaining soldiers running to the entrance gate of the Crypt. They were all staring upwards and pointing toward the glacier wall.
It was then that the screaming started.
Ernst's eyes followed the impossible glacier wall up towards its apex, and there, flapping its massive crystalline wings, a massive Icekin hound floated in defiance against the darkening sky. This was the largest he had ever seen, and instead of being covered in the characteristic black fur of other hounds, this creature's mane of bristly frozen fur was colored a pale white.
In its frozen talons, it gripped the bodies of the hunting party that had ventured to the glacier that morning. There were seven men in all, but the Icekin's talons were so massive that it could easily grip each of their bodies. With a trembling hand, Ernst reached into his coat and withdrew a pair of binoculars and brought them up to his eyes. What he saw made him recoil in horror. The men of the hunting party were alive. He could see them screaming.
The Icekin hound stared down at the survivors, and then the beast opened its talons.
The men rained down, splattering against the amalgamated steel deck in explosions of blood and bone. Those of the remaining soldiers who still held firm to their faculties ran for cover, the others, too scared, remained on the deck seemingly catatonic with horror.
It was then that Ernst heard it.
"HYEEEEE...HYOOOOO... HYEEE... HOOOOO."
The ghostly song seemed to resonate throughout the entirety of the glacier and the ice corridor below. For many in the Crypt, it meant one thing. Death.
The Icekin's song perplexed and terrified him. Not because of the carnage which would come after, but because of its paralyzing familiarity. The song these wretched creatures used as a war hymn wasn't like the marching cadences the Varyan army sung on their way to battle, but something more mundane, and that's what horrified him. It reminded him of the beautiful herding calls Lanostran shepherds would bellow out to summon their livestock to return home.
The sound of giant footsteps stomping on ice tore him from his memories. Soon the beating of wings and the cacophonous snarling of an army of icehounds joined the war chorus. All across the edge of the glacier wall stood a veritable legion of Icekin.
It had been months since he had seen so many gathered at once. Not since the first attack all those months ago- the one that had crippled them beyond recovery.
"S-Sir?" One of Ernst's men was staring at him, clutching a rifle to his chest. In the salon behind them, the inquisitors were gathering their weapons.
"Fight for as long as you can. Protect whoever you can, and may Lord Varya stand with you today," the captain prayed before following the inquisitors out into the freezing deck.
***Threads are laid bare. Cold and frigid are we, dim from Vayra’s light, but lit ablaze we remain.
Solim cast himself as another fixture in the officer’s mess. Like always, he appeared elsewhere, drawn by the influx of ether resonating from within. More deaths followed after Lt. Gajevic’s passing, and the Omestrian took it upon himself to ferry most of their souls to providence. Time is inconsequential within the fortress of his mind, the last way station he designed as a construct before their final departure. Here, the dying lay their souls bare. Confessions formed through memories like chapters out of a book, to unburden the spirit, before they depart from their physical shells. One’s life story fills Solim’s cup, only to be emptied for the next. Years blinked by in minutes as their sadness, pain, and fear distort his perception of reality.
His vision now askew, the ether seen is residual from the souls departed, layered among the living—and there was something else. Something gnawed at him in the distance, but he was too consumed by his own predilections to investigate further. He eventually pulled himself out from the memories of his dead comrades to focus on the present. He reached for the waning aegis, clutched its prickly energies like a babe to a blanket, attuning his ears to the war council.
Such a dire situation. The aegis grows faint with every passing hour, weakening minds with thoughts of sedition. Who dares to venture into the blinding cold, where the only known shelter is an Icekin’s belly? What a vicious cycle. We eat the Icekin as they eat us until one is left standing. Is this ‘Stroganoff’, as Mother Alya affectionately calls it, to be our last meal?
Solim chewed at the gamey meat, noting its lukewarm texture. He quickly swallowed the piece whole and drained his entire cup of water. As he held the cup high over his mouth, his eyes were drawn to what no other person in the room could see. Past the metal roof of the hold was a violent cloud of ether, hovering at the top of the Ice Wall. The last time he saw something like that was during the first Icekin attack...
The loud smack!
of bone and flesh against the Crypt’s surface was like a demon’s gavel, ordering judgment upon Vayra’s brave few. Their death song growled in tones that were eerily human as if readying themselves for a ceremonial feast. Solim didn’t give in to its terror. He fought against the little voices telling him to cower in fear and listened to the rallying cries of every soldier he ushered into the afterlife. The Omestrian felt compelled to take up arms and fight, but he knew his efforts were best served behind
the frontlines of battle; to help keep the aegis strong. The Omestrian rose with purpose. He needled his way through the hubbub until he reached Mother Faina.
“Let me help you with this burden.” Solim smiled at her as his hand probed for the aegis energies. “You’ve extracted from everyone, even Zviera’s ether—good, Omestrian ether, but not from me. Do you know why that is? It’s quite poetic, really. Without even realizing it, I’ve been priming myself for this moment. The residual ether from our fallen comrades has imbued themselves onto me. So use me... use us
, Mother Faina, to embolden the aegis.”
Solim knew he was taking a risk. Ether extraction was a delicate process. The use of an improvised, emergency draining kit could yield varying results, but he was prepared to do what was necessary.
Alya had more martial matters in mind. Her voice was dissonantly calm as she answered the Icekin’s cries. “Zviera, retrieve my halberd, and load my shotgun.” What else was there to say?
Father Boris stared at the group in the room, “I will let out one last beacon of our survival.” he said as he looked at the group, “Give me the time I need, let me see the sky and I will make it brighter than anything these creatures have ‘ver seen.”
He stood from where he sat and held onto his staff as he stretched his starving body out some, “Give me five minutes in the open, between the hulks of what remains of this group… maybe our saviors are near.”
Zviera was the first outside, and all around him, men were screaming in horror, breaking ranks, and shooting blindly at the sky. Was it the sheer number of attacking Icekin that had robbed them of their bravery as soldiers of the empire, or was it the whisperings of revolt that had weakened their resolve? Whatever the cause, this was the worst Zviera had seen them.
Somewhere, Zviera could hear Captain Ernst’s trembling voice screaming, begging for the men to regroup. The Omestrian didn’t pay him nor the soldiers any mind, for he had been given a task by his mistress and thus this was all that mattered. He ran towards the small makeshift armory at the opposite side of the deck, doing his best to steel himself against the horrifying sound of the hundred beating wings above him. He was no soldier and was too weak to fight beside, but the retrieval of Mistress Alya’s prized weapons could perhaps spell the difference between the soldiers’ survival and the Warband losing all of the remaining men under their command.
Ahead of him, just outside of the armory, a group of soldiers had thrown their rifles aside and had prostrated themselves on the ground, their knees cold against the freezing steel deck.
“We surrender. We surrender,” the men spoke in unison in a strange, almost practised chant. Zviera could not see how their voices would carry with the surging wind and snow roaring all around them. These were Varyan soldiers, men whose brothers-in-arms had beaten and humiliated him in the name of their Lord, and there they lay, throwing their honor away. It meant nothing to the Omestrian. Whether they lived or not, they were blocking his way into the armory.
“Out of the way, Mother Alya requires her weapons.”
The eldest of the surrendering soldiers stopped chanting and rose to his feet. He pleaded silently at Zviera with a terrified, desperate gaze.
“They… The Icekin… They will be merciful. If we do not fight… If the inquisitors surrender just as we have--”
, soldier,” Zviera interrupted, trying to fill his voice with as much steel as he could.
“Your mistress and her brethren have doomed us. Can’t you see, Omestrian? They have led us to this
” the soldier spoke, his voice disarming in its calmness, as he gestured to the bloody carnage all around them. Zviera’s eyes took in, for the first time since his hurried advance toward the armory, the splatters of indeterminate flesh and bone that had now dotted the deck.
His breath caught in his throat, and suddenly he remembered the meat that Mistress Alya had cooked for them. His stomach lurched in discomfort.
The sound of a revolver being cocked brought Zviera back to attention. The Omestrian turned and saw the frost-covered barrel of the soldier’s revolver pointed at his face.
“Turn back. Tell your mistress that if she wants her weapons, she can come to get them herself.”
“You are only dooming yourselves--”
The soldier smiled, a mad cut to the corner of his lips. He turned his attention upward, to the darkened line at the ice cliffs above. They were countless, standing in formation across the entire wall… from horizon to horizon.
“Do you see them attacking? They have stayed their assault! Unlike the inquisitors, the Icekin see us for what we are. Invaders
. We have been trespassing on these seas, seas that belong to them, and who among us would not defend what is his?”
Zviera gazed pityingly at the soldier’s crazed expression. Terror had stolen this soldier’s honor. It would not take his.
There was never a choice. He could not turn back. Not empty-handed.
With the soldier’s eyes still focused on the Icekin legion atop the cliffs, Zviera dove for the revolver.
Father Tàelach rose with a sort of reverent finality. The warleader had been gone for some time but now, he was back. As the strangely haunting cry filtered down to their gathering space he watched as the other dove into action. It was like moving through water. He could feel them around him, the fervor of those knowing they were damned. Caught in this frigid hell sure of their destruction. No doubt there would be those who begged, pleaded, lost themselves to zealous fury. In his short time, he had seen men and women react in every way imaginable to the horror of combat. In this isolation, his eyes wandered across his siblings. So many stories yet untold and here was where he had led them to die. It was a pity. If only they had cut free and continued on with the rest of Goliath. There was still a score to be settled somewhere out there. Tàelach sighed, he would never do it if this was to be his last day.
Walking as though in the heart of a hurricane he stepped out of the door and into the hall making for the battle lines.
Mother Faina's stomach lurched and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up on end as the Icekin called out with their eerie song. The fight for their lives was now upon them. Chances were that most of them would not survive if not all of them.
As Inquisitors they were taught that fear was the ultimate weakness and failure. Faina had always disagreed with that sentiment, though she would never have said such a thing out loud. She knew that fear was the ultimate motivator. It was fear that settled in her heart as she watched her Warsiblings prepare for the coming battle.
She steeled herself against the screams of dying men and the exhaustion that threatened her. At this moment she did not have enough either to call her personal aegis. When Solim approached she knew what he was going to offer, and she simply nodded. If there were a time to use such a dangerous ability it would indeed be now.
Father Boris was still below deck, not knowing of what was happening above, he was slowly gaining what was left of his reserve, the last bit of his strength. He sat on the floor, in almost perfect praying meditation. His eyes closed and his body slowly killing itself, using literally the last of his remaining strength, he would take what could be given to him, but it was unlikely that he knew if he could survive this.
He stood, opening his eyes as he took his mentors' staff, “the light will shine upon us once more…” he slowly sauntered out of the room, taking whatever hold he could as the point of his staff slowly grew with light, but it was that which sapped him of his strength. His body, breaking, his mind shattering, his mission to save those around him, will be finished. He entered out into the chaos, slowly seeing the men's minds shatter around him.
“Stand, stand with me you fools! They will not get past the light that shines upon us, the great one will give us the strength, now give me yours and fight!” he yelled out in a whisper almost. “Give me your strength, your power! Fight!” he would say in repetition through the wounded, and dying back ranks where he would have been healing the day prior.
His allies were now lunatics, and he was the last sane one, with those inquisitors he had believed to not be people, but vessels of death, or knowledge. Then his repetitive words changed to chanting, in a low voice, and the light began to shine brighter when he reached the front line of screaming men. He was walking as if there was no one around him, it was up to his friends, allies, and followers to protect him now that he was oblivious to the world around him.
The gun shot rang out and echoed across the chasm, and in its wake came the thud of Zviera crumbling to the steel deck.
He lay prone, his slim frame trembling, clutching his right shoulder as blood poured from the wound. The mutineers stood above the trembling slave, their eyes still mad with fear as they now looked toward Father Boris, who was now marching toward the center of the deck, shouting desperately trying to calm and get the men back in formation.
"Father! You’re dooming us!" the head mutineer cried, pointing his revolver at the advancing Father Boris.
"End this! End this or we will all die!"
Captain Ernst and his two officers rushed to Boris' side and aimed their rifles at the mutineers. All around them the terrified soldiers gathered and watched in panicked silence.
"That slave belonged to Mother Alya," Ernst warned, his finger resting on the trigger. The mark of her slap still reddened his cheek.
"Look to the sky! The icekin aren't attacking. They will allow us our lives, as long as we surrender. Those are the terms. Mother Alya will unders--"
"There are no terms, you fool!" Ersnt interrupted. "The icekin are only here to kill us."
He turned to Father Boris. "Father, give the order and we will shoot these men--"
Before Boris could answer, a massive spear shot out of the water and drove through the mutineer's chest, sending him flying towards the glacier wall and impaling him on the ice.
"It's an ambush!" a soldier shouted.
Ersnt, his two officers, and Father Boris instinctively ran for whatever cover they could find, but before they could take another step a great plume of icy water erupted forth from the surrounding slush as a dozen armored icekin warriors vaulted on to the deck.
Most of the icekin ambushers were of the familiar variety, the same kind that had been attacking and dying in turn for weeks. But four of the dozen were unlike any icekin the survivors had seen before. They were massive in size, larger than any icekin that had come before. Standing at three meters in length, the monstrous icekins' steps made the deck tremble as they advanced. They were bear-like in appearance, with frost -white fur sprouting in the spots where their strange crystal armor didn't cover.
"What the hell are they?" Ersnt asked, looking toward Father Boris.
Ersnt couldn't hear the Father's response, as the dozen icekin soon fell upon them.
Alya and Taerlach advanced toward the battle below, running and jumping down from the upper deck. However, the two of them stopped in their tracks. At the sign of the ambush from their brethren beneath the waves, the icehounds floating in the sky above the battlefield stormed down like lightning toward the upper deck.
A chorus of screams and gunfire rang out from below. The soldiers had finally found their courage, it seemed like, as an explosion of bullets tore through several of the smaller icehounds. Above the two inquisitors, four icehounds crashed violently into the steel shielding that surrounded the solar where Mother Faina and Father Solim remained behind. They began to claw and tear at the steel, their massive claws rending through the protective barrier.
Within the solar, Mother Faina and Father Solim stood shoulder-to-shoulder, both concentrating with all their might on upholding the aegis. The Omestrian inquisitor had bolstered her own ether pool with a small amount of ether he had gathered from the world around him, and this small boon would be enough to grant her an extra half hour or so of power. Without the aegis their companions and the men under their command would fall victim to the unnatural cold that would seep the very life from them, thus any more ether to help in maintaining it would be a treasure.
Faina looked at Solim, and noticed that her warsibling was looking paler than usual. Dark circles began to appear under his eyes, and he seemed to have to focus more on his breathing.
Just outside, beyond the reinforced portholes, the sound of screeching metal and the roar of icehounds could be heard. Suddenly, a large gash appeared on one of the steel plates, sending a shaft of afternoon light into the darkened room. The tear was not large enough for any icekin to breach their defenses, but it had taken the creatures very little time to tear through the steel.
It was then that the two inquisitors heard it.
Somehow it seemed to be coming from somewhere within the room.
A strange, almost transparent blue mist started to fill the room. Just as Solim and Faina took their fighting positions, the blue mist began to coalesce and take form.
What once appeared as mist took the shape of a human, not much taller than Solim. The mist then appeared to solidify until the ethereal blue clouds hardened into crystal-blue armor. A knight, like something from Lanostran legend, stood before them. Its armor was as azure as the sky, and its armor was strangely ornamental. It clutched a diamond-sharp broadsword and a mirrored shield in its gauntlet-clad hands. Its icy gaze fixated on the two inquisitors, though there was only darkness in the slot of its ornamental visor. In an instant, it brandished its sword and dashed toward Faina.
Amidst the chaos of the battle on the lower deck, Zviera slowly pulled himself forward. His shoulder was naught but a pit of bleeding viscera, and a pool of blood was forming beneath him.
The armory, where Mother Alya's weapons had been stowed away, lay just a few feet in front of him. He gritted his teeth, banishing his pain and the screaming and the sound of death all around him and dragged himself within.
Metal weapons gleamed in the dim, unlit armory. Blades and rifle barrels stood in neat, organized rows, long after they should’ve been distributed to more soldiers. He would let Captain Ernst worry about arming everyone else. His first responsibility was his mistress and her Warband.WHAM!
The sound of a dying soldier slamming against the wall from outside startled Zviera out of his reverie. Screams, shouts, and gunfire echoed from all directions. Returning to his mistress wasn’t likely to be an easy task.
His badly-mangled shoulder screamed its protest as he hefted Mother Alya’s immense halberd. The pain brought him entirely to his knees, and his own anguished cry joined the cacophony outside. Zviera bit his lip, whimpering. If his mistress really needed her halberd, couldn’t she come in this direction herself…? Surely she would understand if he was unable to bear the weight of...
No - she was out there, fighting these monsters unarmed. To even think of giving up was a betrayal. He bit his lip harder. The salty, ferrous taste of blood helped block out the searing pain of his mangled arm. Carefully, largely one-handed, he loaded Mother Alya’s shotgun.
One shell. Two shell. Three shell. Four shell. Five...
He carefully ducked his head under the shotgun’s sling, awkwardly balancing the heavy firearm until he could point it forward, with the halberd’s weight on his still-good shoulder. His mistress was relying on him to deliver these weapons across the maelstrom of monsters and soldiers outside. He’d simply have to get them to her.
No matter what.
The familiar warmth of ether flared around Mother Alya as she looked upwards, focusing her attention on her legs. The solar was much too far for a soldier to jump, if a soldier were inclined to jump herself into a crowd of climbing Icekin strong enough to tear steel apart with their bare hands. A visceral thrill surged from a primal place deep within, forcing a savage grin on her face. Mother Alya was no mere soldier. Ether surged forward, and she leapt into action.
A dinner fork wasn’t much of a weapon, but Zviera hadn’t returned with her halberd yet. She had her pistol, but against the thick hides of the Icekin, pistol rounds were about as useful as the fork. Years of hard-fought and painful lessons flooded through Alya’s mind as she soared unnaturally far upwards, hastily scanning for a landing point. The Icekin were significantly larger than her, but size wasn’t always an advantage. She quickly scanned the Icekin clinging to the side of the solar. With their heavy weight, they’d need to support themselves as they clawed their way towards her vulnerable warsiblings. Her focus centered on the muscular arm of an Icekin as gravity took over and she began to fall.
The fork plunged into the taut muscle of the topmost Icekin. Propelled downward by a hundred and fifteen pounds of laughing Inquisitor, the utensil buried its entire length into the Icekin’s arm, shattering against bone. It wasn’t a serious enough wound to kill an Icekin, but it didn’t need to be. It only needed to weaken his grip.
Strained by the shattered metal and the impact of the falling Inquisitor, muscle and sinew violently unraveled, no longer able to support the weight of the creature. The impact elicited a surprised yelp and a furious snarl, and then the Icekin was falling, blood spraying from the remnants of the muscular arm still clinging to gashes in the steel. The other Icekin in the group turned and roared their disapproval at Alya’s arrival.”Ha ha ha ha ha!”
came Alya’s reply, and then the fight was on. Ether coursed through her. She threw a wild fist at the nose of the next Icekin.