"I thought they were starving us out," Elias said as they ran down Highbridge. Mist filled the dark streets, and the horizon was a faint blue haze. Bells rang from every tower, and squads of soldiers marched along the thoroughfare.
"Guess they realized we weren't starving," Ciena said.
Not yet, Elias thought. Food still came in through the eastern caves, but those shipments could stop any day. As with most sieges, time was on the invader's side. With more time, the enemy could poison the river, hunt down the supply lines, or sabotage their stores.
No ... something else was going on here. Their attackers had likely grown desperate. Perhaps they knew reinforcements were on the way.
He and Ciena reached the end of Highbridge and crossed into the Western District. In the past, Raidenwood's people had lived only on the bridges themselves. Over time, the city had expanded to include several dozen more blocks on the western side. Most were tenements, five to six stories high. Raidenwood preferred to build up rather than out; more blocks meant wider walls, and wider walls meant more space for an invading force.
"Companies eight and nine," an officer shouted, "form up below."
"Rifles on the wall!" another man bellowed over the courtyard.
Soldiers stepped aside as Elias crested the stone staircase. A line of riflemen stood behind the crenellations, and two more waited to replace them when they reloaded. Beyond that, half-a-thousand more soldiers filled the courtyard below.
Impressive. Especially if the other walls are this well defended.
He and his sister wore captain's uniforms along with Voidcap in their eyes. Still, the common soldiers must know more than they let on. Even a half-blind, former steward had connected the dots and figured out who they were. The question was, were these people open to Aeon leadership again?
Don't get ahead of yourself, Elias thought. We need to save the city first.
"Status?" he asked the nearest lieutenant. He was a blond-haired man just a few years older than him.
"Sir." The officer saluted, then passed him a brass spyglass. "They're forming ranks outside the treeline.”
Elias accepted the spyglass and aimed it toward the western horizon. The army itself was a dark cloud in the forest's shadow. Even with the enhanced vision, he couldn't make out many details. One thing was clear, however—the enemy soldiers all carried torches rather than weapons.
"They've done this before," Ciena said to the officer. "Right?"
"Yes ma'am. They usually try to surprise us—quick attacks after sunset. Last time, they reached the walls with a battering ram before they retreated. This looks more serious than that."
Elias passed the spyglass to his sister. "The sun will be in our eyes by the time they're here." And the lieutenant was right—this was more than another skirmish. There must have been thousands of soldiers out there. And if the enemy revealed their Ethermancers, he and Ciena might need to do likewise
Commands echoed from across the field, and the enemy vanguard charged forward. Ciena was still staring through the spyglass as they stepped out from the forest’s shadow.
Elias turned to face her, and her jaw dropped.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Those aren't soldiers.” Ciena handed the instrument back. “They aren't even people."
"What are you talking about?" He brought the glass to his right eye and refocused.
Hordes of animated corpses shambled through the field. Their skin was pale and lifeless. They wore ripped clothing and sprouted open wounds on their heads and torsos.
"What the hell are those?" another voice shouted from down the wall. He was probably at least eighteen, but he sounded like he was twelve.
A chill spread through Elias's blood as he continued to watch. While most soldiers hid behind shield walls, these creatures ran with at least a dozen paces between them.
Elias hadn't seen the aftermath of the Clansmeet, but he'd heard the stories.
"Trelidor," Ciena said as if echoing his own thoughts.
Her chest rose and fell with rapid breaths. Aegon, she's actually afraid. That was a rare sight, but he understood. Ciena meant to face Trelidor someday, but she wasn't ready to be within a hundred miles of him yet.
"Reports say he’s still in Sunfall," Elias said. "Another Redeemer could have done this. More likely, it's a group of them working together."
Ciena set her jaw and nodded.
The lieutenant turned to Elias. "They'll be in range of our rifles any second now."
Elias pulled a pair of earplugs from his belt and nodded a silent order.
A hundred shots fired in unison. Even with his earplugs, the sound was loud enough to shake his skull. Not so long ago, Elias had hated black powder. The chapels had all spoken against it, claiming its use would lead to greater wars.
A part of him still believed those teachings, but the truth wasn't so simple. Firearms had barely slowed Trelidor during the Battle of Dragonshard. Ethermancy was several times more powerful, not to mention more destructive. What if the chapel's restrictions had been another way for Aeons to maintain control?
Either way, he was glad to have the firearms on his side now. Especially if it meant keeping his city safe.
Bullets hit torsos and limbs. Some of the corpses stumbled, but none of them fell.
"Tell your men to pick their targets," Elias said, "and aim for the heads."
The lieutenant nodded and passed the order to his nearest subordinate. A second later, the sergeants echoed the command down the wall.
"That will kill them?" the officer asked.
"They're already dead," Elias said. "But they can't move without a brain."
The man swallowed. "So you've fought these before?"
Elias didn't answer. Everything he knew about these things, he'd learned from Aaron Cole's reports. Nahlia's father had been there after the Clansmeet, and he'd been thorough in his notes, documenting every weakness. He'd assumed Trelidor's army would repeat this trick on the battlefield, and he was right.
Another volley of gunfire. This time, several corpses stumbled and fell in the grassy field. However, one of them exploded in a cloud of dark smoke.
Elias blinked, trying to process the sight. He pulled out the spyglass and focused on that spot. Nothing remained but blood-stained grass and armor fragments.
Then the pieces fell into place. Unarmed, except for torches.
"They're carrying black powder." Elias spun to face his sister. "You said Trelidor—"
"I know what I said," Ciena snapped as she removed her earplugs. "But he's a bloody hypocrite."
The corpses continued running. Each volley took one in twenty, but hundreds more remained. Now the wide berth they gave one another made sense. Even if one erupted, the others were clear of the blast radius.
Elias cursed under his breath. "If those things reach the gate..."
"They'll blow it to Eternity," Ciena finished for him.
Bird-like shrieks sounded from the western horizon, and the Palavan army marched forward.
Elias felt his knees shake. He hadn't been this afraid in Whitecliff. Back then, he hadn't known how quickly war turned to blood and chaos. He hadn’t known how quickly friends and family could fall.
He and Ciena had trained to fight groups of Templars, but not armies. And certainly not power-filled corpses or dragons.
Another part of him itched to evacuate the ramparts above the gate. If enough corpses clustered there, they could kill the soldiers on top of it.
But no ... if they broke rank now, they would only help the enemy.
Four enemy dragons took to the sky. Their feathered forms were black against the evening sun, and they closed the distance faster than sprinting horses.
Elias drew his blade from its scabbard. Ciena drew Steelbreaker in the same moment. Its red glow caught the soldiers' attention, and half the wall turned to face her.
"Eyes forward," Elias shouted. "Take down those dragons."
Several shots fired in rapid succession. A few bullets caught the nearest dragon, and it let out a shriek as it fell to the field below. The other three rained fire on the riflemen.
Until now, Elias hadn't tested his abilities against a Sanctifier. Sure, he'd sparred with Thane, but that was hardly a real battle.
He curled his fingers around his sword and forced away the doubt. Instead, he closed his eyes and tried to feel the fire with his mind. Ciena had drawn Steelbreaker to attract the dragonriders' attention. Now, they had to survive.
The fire closed in. He felt the energy in his mind just before he felt the heat on his skin. Elias absorbed it into his soul, and the flames broke around him.
When he opened his eyes again, a dragon was flying a dozen feet above them.
Ciena was airborne as well. She flipped forward, extending her weapon toward the dragon’s stomach. A normal blade never would have pierced its skin from that angle, but Steelbreaker cut through several feet of flesh as the creature flew upward. Blood rained down across the wall, and the metallic scent filled his nostrils. The dragon let out a roar as it crashed into the building behind them.
Ciena spun her body through the air and landed feet-first on the crenellations.
The moment was short-lived as the first wave of corpses reached the wall. Dozens of them clustered together beneath the gate, and the explosion was louder than any firearm.
The entire wall shook beneath their feet. Ciena lost her balance on the crenellation and fell backward.
Elias charged forward and reached for the stump of her right arm. His fingers found a fistful of her leather jerkin. Her body slammed into the outer wall as he caught her, then Elias flared his Ironblood and threw her back over.
Shards of rock fell all around them. Smoke and dust choked the air, and soldiers rushed to put out the flames. Someone was shouting about the broken gate, but he couldn't make out the words.
Behind him, the two remaining dragons set fire to the nearest buildings. More powder-filled corpses charged ahead of the enemy’s army.
This time, there was no gate to stop them.