44. No one Left Behind
Kiren jogged alongside a tight group of Heroes and apprentices, eight in all.
Counter, Goldcoin, Haden, Titaness, Veera, an apprentice named Lyndon, and two D-Rank Heroes whose names he didn’t know.
A ninth bounded with otherworldly grace ahead of them, almost a speck at this point. He would rise high into the air in an even arc, grey cloak flapping behind him, then dip down below the tops of the buildings before shooting back up again.
Their mission was to save Torchbearer and anyone else who might be with him. Kiren was only concerned with Lace.
Bloodhound had authorized several such excursions into the city to recover Heroes who had not reported back after being sent out to patrol or to oversee the festivities.
Kiren could see why.
The whole city had fallen into chaos.
They encountered many dead along the way. Dozens, hundreds—there was no time for a count.
Spawnling Beasts feasted on the freshly made corpses, and some seemed to be… dragging them.
Veera summoned golden, glowing chains from the ground which wrapped around the Beasts, and Titaness pounded them flat with her slab-like fists. It wasn’t much challenge to them, but the townsfolk would have no way of fending off a Beast attack.
Kiren was reminded of a story Ratfoot had once told him.
The story of Hero’s Rest, the city which had once been the capital of Arden. A great and powerful settlement with high walls, defended by the Starborn noble family.
Then the Beasts came.
Now, the city was a ruin, abandoned by all who had once called it home.
Goldbrand had been built in its place.
Is that the fate in store for our city, too? Kiren wondered.
They came across a stampede of infected humans running towards them. Kiren readied himself for a fight, but they put their arms up and begged them not to kill them. A few fell on their knees and held up their hands to the Heroes.
Veera encircled them with a glowing partition and Titaness approached the group, which numbered in the dozens.
“If you are human, then prove it,” she spoke.
A flood of spluttering assurances followed.
“We were just with some Heroes!” one said.
“The Beasts pursue us!” said another.
Kiren hurried over to the partition, eyes searching for the man who had spoken first.
“You were with a group of Heroes?” he asked. Titaness shot him a glare, but he ignored her. “Where were they? Point the way.”
He pointed behind him, slightly to the northwest. “That way, but… I’m not sure there’s anything left to save. A Beast attacked us there, a Hero-killer. The other Heroes, they sacrificed themselves so we would have time to escape.”
“Don’t listen to him!” a woman called. She threw herself against the chains, reaching out towards Kiren. “My daughter is there! You have to save her!”
“Lace?” Kiren asked.
The woman was taken aback but eventually nodded. “Y-Yes, that’s my daughter. Will you save her?”
“We will,” Kiren said without hesitation.
Veera let her chains dissipate, and the group of civilians was sent back to the Lodge, guided by the two D-Ranks.
The rest continued onward, cutting their way through a thickening tide of spawnlings.
Kiren could no longer see Steelfeather in the distance.
Lace reached the sword lying on the ground.
The humanoid held up Thorn’s body and wrenched it in two, separating the spinal column with a sickening pop. He shuddered with delight and threw the pieces aside like a toy that had lost its novelty.
Lace put down her staff and picked up the sword. It trembled in her hands, white flames leaving bright trails in her vision. The handle was warm.
She had to fight, but her body was frozen stiff with fear.
They were dead.
All of them.
Now it was her turn to be torn apart.
Ender’s pale face haunted the back of her mind. His words echoed inside her head.
She shook her head firmly.
No! Not now!
“Are you truly putting your faith in such a weak human’s leavings?” the humanoid asked. He barked out a laugh.
He snapped his scorched fingers, and the flames wreathing the blade began to flicker and fade.
The only remnant of Torchbearer’s will.
She couldn’t let it go out.
Lace funneled air into the flames, stoking them back to life even as the Beast attempted to extinguish them. They surged, growing into a tall peak far over her head, the flames so bright that she gasped and squinted.
The Beast snapped his fingers again, but the flame would not subside.
“Such futile resistance. It will make your flesh taste all the sweeter. I will savor your juices before I give you to The One Among the Stars as kindling.”
The humanoid put the palm of his hand to his mouth and gnawed until dark blood flowed. He held out his hand and the blood ignited, taking the shape of a dirty-red sword, plumes of black smoke billowing from its edge.
The giant began walking towards her.
The closer he got, the taller he seemed.
Lace backed up a step, then another.
Memories kept flashing before her, despite her efforts to will them away. Her father, body severed from the torso down. Ender killing Heroes with reckless hatred. Civilians burning and dying and being run through by wicked blades.
Her legs were shaking. Her grip was slick with sweat.
There was a rumble of rock against rock.
Lace glanced back and saw Cliff-Face, feebly attempting to stand before falling down. He looked up at Lace with pleading eyes. ‘Run!’, they seemed to say.
Cliff-Face is still alive.
If I lose, he dies, too.
But if I win…
I can save him.
The memories dropped away, and all that remained was an eery calm. A niggling buzz of fear and doubt remained, but she let it remain.
Lace turned her gaze back to the massive humanoid. He dragged his dark blade on the ground, which left a scorched groove on the cobbles. His sword sizzled and spat, flames surging along its edge like wicked serrations.
Lace held up her sword in both hands. She took a deep breath.
“Don’t worry,” a voice whispered. “I’m here. It’ll be alright.”
She felt a pair of hands brush her own. Milky white trails formed around her hands, growing up her arms.
Somehow, it was calming. She stopped trembling, set her jaw. She bent her legs, settling into a proper stance, and breathed out evenly.
The humanoid reached her. He wound his great sword above his head. A wide arc of smoke trailed behind the blade as he swung down.
White wisps passed into Torchbearer’s sword. The flames grew higher, and it was almost like the silhouette of a woman was dancing inside the fire, her movements flowing with perfect grace.
Lace brought the sword up to block, strengthened by an additional set of hands.
The fiery implements clashed against one another. They spat and sparked, showering Lace with heat, but she did not waver. His strength was great, and she slid back a step, but something caught her and held her in place.
A shard of the Creator’s will.
This is what it means to be a Hero, Lace thought.
And she smiled.
She swung the sword in a horizontal arc, and the humanoid moved to block. The white flames sheared straight through his own blade and took off a good chunk of meat on his forearm.
The Beast growled and recoiled, but Lace made a sweeping movement with her foot, summoning a gust of wind that unsettled the humanoid’s footing. Capitalizing on her advantage, she moved in and swung.
The force of a hurricane screamed with her.
The Beast’s arm flew free of him. It landed on the cobblestones with a dry thud.
He stared at it in shock for a few moments.
Then he began to laugh.
“Oh, sweet human,” he moaned in euphoria, rubbing his newly made stump. “You are quite the tenacious one.”
Lace moved in to finish him with a downward thrust, but the Beast moved out of the way surprisingly quickly, and she struck only stone. He struck her with a hard fist in her side and she was sent flying.
The wind cushioned some of the blow for her, but she scraped up her arms and legs when she landed and Torchbearer’s sword flew from her grip.
“It will be so, so sweet to tear the flesh from your bones,” the Beast crooned. “Perhaps you are even worthy of knowing my name before you are gone from this world.”
Lace got onto her knees, and the ghostly hands helped her back on her feet.
“I don’t need to know your name,” Lace said. “You are evil, and that’s all.”
The humanoid chuckled.
"Regardless. My true-name is Gorod. Remember that when the remnants of your tattered soul are spinning through eternity.
He launched himself at her, his stump of an arm leaking black blood as he leapt through the air.
Lace tucked into a roll facing left, towards the sword. She narrowly missed his massive body, and he bumbled straight into a two-story home instead, crashing part of the building down on his head.
He was pinned long enough for Lace to get to the sword and pick it up. The fire hummed back to life under her touch.
“You can do this,” the voice whispered in her ear.
Lace tried to walk but found her legs stuck in place. She looked down and saw spawnlings crawling up her legs, more piling on until her lower body was completely immobile.
The Beast freed himself from the rubble with a roar. He came out swinging his one arm, walking towards Lace in a furious stride.
“You fought well, but now you will die,” he said. He brought a large brick over his head as he drew close.
Lace swung at the spawnlings, but a set of twisted, sinewy arms caught hers, pulling it down until it was pinned uselessly at her side.
“Coward!” Lace shouted. “Fight me like a man!”
The Beast chuckled. “I am not a man. I am something far more glorious. Soon you will see.
“You will all see.”
A grey streak fell from the sky with the speed of an arrow and the grace of a bull.
It collided with the Beast and they were both sent sliding along the ground to Lace’s right, throwing up flagstones as they slowly ground to a halt.
Lace conjured up enough wind to blast most of the spawnlings off of her. The ghostly hands tore away the rest, and she swung her flaming sword at the ones who returned for more, making them back off cautiously.
A man stood out of the impact crater, stepping free of the humanoid’s ruined, mangled body.
Hard face, short hair, grey cloak trailing in the wind.
Wizened flesh pushed itself out of the ruined corpse of what had once been a human. The Beast struggled to take shape, grasping for the Hero with nearly a dozen brittle, malformed limbs.
Steelfeather danced away with light, nimble steps. When the Beast drew too close, he slammed down a heavy fist that crushed several of the arms into the ground, flattened like clay.
Lace made to hurry over, but she doubled over at a sudden pain in her side. She gasped, nearly losing her breath at the cold spear driving into her midsection.
She hadn’t noticed it with the rush of adrenaline, but she had taken a bad hit—she had probably broken a rib or two.
No time to rest.
This Beast has to die.
She used the sword to prop herself up, the other hand gripping her side as she made her way towards the Hero and his opponent, painfully slow.
The white flames flickered and flagged. She tried to breathe new life into them with a breath of wind, but even still, the flames shrank and began to smoke.
Thank you, Torchbearer, Lace thought. You’ve done enough, Master.
Even in death, you continue to save me.
The humanoid had completely emerged from its broken husk, rising above the grey-clad Hero as a tangle of grasping limbs and twisted faces, all bound together in a massive, tumorous boulder for a body. It was far larger than even Nasaizh had been in its true, naked form. It rose surely four meters high, and nearly as wide.
Steelfeather charged headfirst into the monstrosity, knocking it back a meter or so. He tore at its putrid flesh with his bare hands, ripping out large chunks and throwing them aside where they sizzled and spat with black tar.
The Beast’s arms grabbed at Steelfeather and pulled him into its bulk. He struggled to break free, but there were too many limbs for him to tear them all away. Slowly but surely, he began to be ensnared.
“Quickly!” the whisper hissed in Lace’s ear. “Finish the Beast! Finish it now! Strike the heart!”
Lace let the sword drop and hobbled over to the discarded gale-staff. She picked it up and got a lead bullet out of the pouch on her belt. She stuck it down the end of the staff and aimed the weapon at the Beast.
Except she had no idea where the heart might be on a monster like this.
Steelfeather roared and punched the Beast repeatedly, making its whole body shudder. It continued engulfing him, however, and now only a sliver of his back could be seen.
“Yesss…” the mouths on the Beast echoed in an unholy chorus. “Be mine… Feed your destruction…”
Lace funneled a vortex of air into the back end of the staff and fired the bullet out the front. It tore into the Beast’s center mass, but a brief shudder of its many limbs was the only response that told her she had done any damage at all.
She loaded another bullet with unsteady hands.
“Damn it! I can’t hit the heart!”
“I will guide your hand,” the whisper told her.
Ghostly hands materialized along the length of the gale-staff, directing her aim slightly downward.
A scream escaped the many mouths lining the Beast, and suddenly a great rift was torn into its body. A gory Steelfeather pried open flesh and shattered bone with his hands. He stumbled clear of the monster, a piece of his long cloak ripping away.
“Now,” the whisper told her.
Lace drew in a deep breath, so deep she thought her lungs might burst, and shot the bullet with all the power she could muster.
It struck true, and the Beast screamed without a sound. Its arms went stiff, and suddenly a whole swarm of them dropped dead.
The rest reached for Steelfeather and three caught him by the cloak. They hauled him closer, and while he was busy snapping them, even more arms caught hold of him.
Why is it not dead? Lace thought desperately.
Wait. It looks like it’s assimilated several other Beasts. Which means it might have more than one heart.
Lace loaded a third bullet.
The specter guided her.
Another bunch of arms fell dead, and Steelfeather broke free.
He rose into the air, high above the Beast, chunks of ashen, crumbly muscle tissue shedding from his clothes. he floated until he was higher than the buildings, surely ten or fifteen meters up.
Before Lace could get out another bullet, he dove right into the creature, feet first, and crushed it into the ground.
It spasmed, its many faces contorting and screaming in agony, then the thing went fully slack.
Steelfeather stood atop the corpse, panting as he looked down at the fresh kill.
He glanced up, taking in the scattered human corpses.
“Damn it all,” he said. “I was too slow.”
Lace looked at the bodies of Torchbearer, Thorn, and her apprentice, as well as the weakly writhing Cliff-Face.
She couldn’t help but feel the same way as Steelfeather.