“Orders are to pull back a little,” Decklan said casually, stepping effortlessly around the first strike of the Skeleton Captain and shattering its spine with the hilt of his dagger. “Keep them in sight, but stop engaging them so seriously.”
Dozer just grunted, leveling 8 skeletons with a single swing, then stepped forward and did it again. But based on the time they had spent together, Decklan could sense that there was more of a questioning lean to this grunt.
“Apparently we have something big planned for this group. All we need to do is keep them slowed,” Decklan said, his skepticism clear in his tone. “Apparently a big hitter is showing up.”
Again, Dozer grunted, but this time, after annihilating another portion of the skeleton army, he put the large club he used now, forged out of the thigh of an ogre, against his shoulder. They considered the fleeing skeletons before them.
The group had been annoyingly well trained, and had managed to keep the combination of Dozer and Decklan’s squads from just ripping them to shrewds. Usually the mix of decisive power and shrewd strikes would chip away at their opponents’ resolve and ability to resist, but the Skeleton Knight’s forces were all so replaceable, that there weren’t enough pieces that they could strike at to break them.
Plus, the enemies with group were a high enough level that they gave Decklan’s squad paused, and it was simply too hectic to press through here. Morosely, Decklan once more wished that Thorn had agreed to come North with him. If that guy was here, these skeletons…
“So we wait?” Dozer’s voice was flat.
“We babysit,” Decklan said, echoing the sentiment. They both gave the orders, and their men continued to harass, but stopped pursuing so directly. Bored, Decklan spun his dagger across his fingers, watching the skeletons recognizing the difference in treatment, and slowing, almost to see what was going to happen next. There was clearly someone intelligent at the center of the formation, moving them around.
Decklan showed his teeth. If he had a few more minutes… well, it’s too late, orders were orders. Now Decklan couldn’t wait to see how Mrs. Hamilton was going to pull a victory out of this one. Especially since…
They were now reaching the edge of the narrow valley, and more and more skeletons were pouring down, filling the mouth to blockade the pursuit. Although Dozer would undoubtedly be able to make a hole, there was basically nothing that could stop the man in a direct charge at this point, there would be a huge amount of numbers that would drown them out past that mouth.
Decklan stilled. The ground was rumbling. In a way that for a moment, made him believe that Thorn was here. But this vibration wasn’t the same, more shallow, but swiftly increasing in volume. His eyes flicked to the side as he noticed a new message.
“Clear a path,” Decklan said in a low voice, his eyes narrowing as he looked behind them, from the way they came, where the rumbling was coming from. Dozer heard the words, and repeated it, and the squads moved to the side.
Decklan did his best to sharpen his gaze, pushing his skills and Perception to the limit, but the twilight was fading to true darkness, and it was impossible for even his System augmented eyes to find what was coming.
Then all at once, it was here.
A huge monster, a thick traincar almost, that resolved itself into a bone wurm, was sliding down the valley almost as if the ground was iced and greased. Instantly, his instincts screamed to dodge, but it was simply too fast, and it was upon them within seconds, roaring forward, the ground shaking with the momentum of their passage.
But out of the corner of Decklan’s eye, he saw a hand, reaching out, stretching for him. Decklan blinked.
Almost against his will, he reached out his hand in return. The jolt of force as he was grabbed and pulled twisted his shoulder almost to the limit of his body, but abruptly he found himself sitting on the back of the wurm. The wind was howling past, keeping Decklan from being able to get a grip on what was happening, but then, abruptly, the noise cut off, and there was a relative amount of silence.
“Mana Shields work well enough, but they break after a few seconds. Just need to keep them on rotation, so we can talk.” A voice said, low and deep and almost awkward sounding.
Dozer’s grunt brought Decklan back to himself. And also, focus his attention to a point, fixated on that voice. Even as he removed a potion from his pack, his eyes were gazing at the man sitting at the head of this bone wurm.
He was sitting casually, as if they weren’t moving at over 70 mph. Long, unruly black hair to his shoulders. Bare feet. A spear made of woven roots. Piercing emerald eyes. The Ghosthound.
“You…” Decklan said, almost at a loss for words. Luckily, it seemed Dozer retained more of his sense, and was able to speak.
“Welcome back.” Then, as if this covered all of the emotions that one would feel after a 6 month reunion with the man who had saved all of their lives, Dozer continued. “What’s the plan boss?”
“Forward.” The Ghosthound said, turning around. “Better brace for this, because they have some of those big fucks. Neveah? Rip ‘em to shreds.”
The bone wurm underneath them vibrated with glee, in a way that again, reminded Decklan of Thorn. Suddenly, they were at the mouth of the valley, and the ranks and ranks of skeletons were there, waving their weapons and buzzing with fury.
When the bone wurm hit them, they simply exploded, reduced to dust. The Ghosthound gestured left and right, and hundreds of spears made of roots shot up out of the ground, ripping through the bulk of the forces at the mouth of the valley that hadn’t simply been annihilated by their passing.
Just like that, the formation of skeletons collapsed, folding in on itself as its heart had been ripped out. With that wave of his hand, the controllers seemed to have fallen too, because the remainder just seemed to be wandering around.
But then their speed continued to carry them forward, and they left the skeleton army behind. His and Dozer’s squad would be more than enough to mop up the rest of the stragglers. More than anything else though, Decklan had so many questions as he stared at the Ghosthound’s back.
Where had he been? What had he been doing? Where did this huge monster they were riding come from? And-
Decklan gestured behind them. On the back of the creature, farther behind them, there was also a teenage boy holding onto an ox, a girl petting a grizzly bear, and a preteen holding a flaming skull. Decklan sighed inwardly. Truly, the Ghosthound’s greatest skill was his ability to collect weirdos. But Decklan didn’t for a moment doubt that in their individual fields, each of these people was powerful in their own right.
“Slow, Neveah. This part is delicate.” The Ghosthound said, his gaze forward. Decklan leaned forward to peer in that direction. The group of skeletons that had the captive, and the Regalia, seemed to realize that they weren’t going to be able to escape in time, so they were forming into a defensive formation to repel them, a squad of skeletons who held long pikes pointing towards them.
But even with their speed slowed, they would arrive far before the other had anything more than a handful of skeletons set up. And more than that…
The bone wurm underneath them didn’t slow at all when faced with the previous enemies. Decklan had a hard time believing that this would be any different.
The Ghosthound turned to them as they rushed towards the enemy, and said something that caught Decklan, and even Dozer by his expression, by surprise.
“On whose orders did you come up here?”
There was a hard edge to his voice too, and his eyes glittered dangerously. Decklan instantly reevaluated his past encounters, looking for some sort of political maneuvering between the Ghosthound and another one of Donnyton’s leaders. Perhaps Mrs. Hamilton…? Donny….?
No, it couldn’t be either of them, they were his most steadfast supporters. That basically just left Sam-
Ah, perhaps it was that, Decklan thought, his eyes softening. Mrs. Hamilton had commented recently that Lyra was acting strangely, perhaps related to the Ghosthound’s departure. Had there been some bad blood there…? There was always a bit of sexual tension there, and if that soured…
“Mrs. Hamilton, who was acting on a tip from Lyra.” Dozer supplied, interrupting Decklan’s train of thought. “Apparently there is a fat prize waiting after this Champion nonsense is done, if we-”
The Ghosthound waved a hand, but there was definitely tension in his shoulders now. He gave them both a searching look. Decklan felt something very cold in his heart under the scrutiny. If it hadn’t been clear before, now, before the full force of the Ghosthound’s attention, it was clear that something had changed. His eyes were harder, the air of violence absolutely palpable, the natural strength oozing off of him.
The Ghosthound… had grown far, far more dangerous.
“...Thank you. Well for now….” The Ghosthound said, turning his attention to the front. “Let’s cut down the Skeleton Knight, shall we? It seems like everyone has arrived.”
A trumpet sounded. And over the far hill, a great host of undead began to crawl forward. These were bigger and tougher looking, and they began to scramble down the slope, heading for their caravan with the prisoners.
And upon the hill, sitting upon a grey horse, was a skeleton that wore a suit of cast iron armor, starkly dark against his bones. His eyes burned copper. The gazes of the Skeleton Knight and the Ghosthound met. They both smiled.