“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” The boy to his left asked, his voice cracking.
The boy wore the construction division’s colours, but he didn’t have any hair on his arms, let alone his lips. “Have you unlocked [Reinforce] yet?” Flint asked, gritting his teeth. The boy shook his head. “Then just stick close to me, and we’ll be fine.”
Flint's breathe caught in his throat as he watched the young shield-bearer stand firm in a cave troll's path. His chest tightened, knowing there was nothing he or his fellow builders could do to help. He raised his crossbow and released a bolt. The projectile didn't deter the monster and bounced off its hide. Flint knew that it was too late, and the alchemists’ hide melting concoctions were out of reach, but that didn't mean he'd stop trying.
If they survived, Flint intended to have a stiff word with the watch and his superior officers. The warning bells only started ringing after the outpost’s outer walls had collapsed. He and the civilians knew the Wyld’s forces were attacking when their bellowing horns shook every structure in the settlement.
What the hell were the fools doing? Playing cards?
Now, the war beasts and trolls were painting the streets red with human blood. If the fools did their jobs, like they were supposed to, his men wouldn’t have to die. Unless something changed, the trolls would axe them into pieces too.
Much to Flint’s relief, the majority of the civilians were already within the inner defences. The stronghold’s construction wasn’t yet complete, but it was their best bet. He watched as the garrison’s surviving forces guided them within the iron-reinforced walls. The metal would protect them from fae-magic, but he doubted it would hold long against the Wyld’s physical oriented forces.
A shriek from the outer streets demanded his attention. The supply-runner returned just then with a crate of crossbow bolts. He reloaded and fired at the war beast dragging a young woman by her arm. His projectile found a crack in the bark-like armour. The creature roared, releasing its dinner. Flint held his breath as the woman got to her feet and ran. Unfortunately, she didn’t get far. One of the trolls swiped her off the ground, its giant hand covering most of her torso. Flint released another bolt at the creature’s head but failed to pierce the thick hide. The monster bit down on her head and ripped it off with a lazy tug.
“We’re all going to die!” Captain Ironheart yelled, reaching a pitch much higher than the boy’s. “Why is this happening?” He collapsed even though he’d done nothing but drink tea and read a damn book while the builders worked. Captain Ironheart got off his arse only after the first ear-piercing screams filled the settlement “Father said there was no way the Wyld would attack this place. We’re behind the defensive line, for heaven’s sake!”
“I don’t think heaven’s going to help a lot now, captain,” Flint told him, watching the overrun streets below. He raised his crossbow, tracking the horned fae floating through the market. Golden light surrounded its hands and feet, marking the creature as one of the enemy’s leading forces. “The garrison is overwhelmed, and the inner walls aren’t going to hold for long.” He pointed at the war beasts pulling a monstrous battering ram through the collapsed gates in the distance. “We still have time before that thing gets here. Give us orders and tell us what we need to do.”
“I don’t know,” the Captain answered, undoing his sword belt and throwing it off the walls. He stood up and followed Flint’s crossbow towards its target. “I’m going to surrender to that…thing. The fae like shiny things—”
“Look at the horns and hoofed feet. That’s a puck, sir.” Flint tried to maintain a calm tone for his men, but the captain’s nonsense was getting to him. “They don’t care how many gold mines your father controls. It would kill rather than listen to a man in uniform.”
“I’m taking it off then!” The captain’s pitch hurt his ears. He understood that it was the younger man’s first term, but it was no excuse for the defeatist attitude. Flint looked at his fellow builders’ faces. They’d appeared hopeful earlier, but they seemed to be miserable and terrified now. They all watched in silence as the captain removed his helmet and his gauntlets. He turned to the uniformed men closest to him. “Open the gates, you imbecile. I’m going to go reason with that horned monster. It’s less likely to kill us if we put down our weapons and—”
“That attitude isn’t going to do any of us much good,” Flint said, raising his voice. He handed the boy his crossbow, rushing towards Captain Ironheart. It wasn’t much use to someone untrained and lacking the [Marksmanship] skill stone, but it didn’t matter then. He tried to pull the captain aside, planning on calming him down, but the man shook him off. “I shouldn’t be here either, you know?”
“My second term ended three months ago. However, you decided to embezzle and bought shit iron. The section we spent six months building collapsed, and I’m still here because of you.” Flint lowered his volume, trying not to humiliate the man. It took every ounce of self-control in him not to offend the man or throw him off the wall. “You’re the reason most of us are still here, and the stronghold isn’t yet complete. Will you calm yourself down, sir, and take command? Or do I have to do it for you?”
“You can’t talk to me that way! I’m your commanding officer.” The quivering, overweight man turned to the veteran builder next to him. “Open the gate now! That’s an order.”
Flint drove a clenched fist into his stomach. Years of working as a builder for the army had hardened his shoulders, chest, and arms. Ten years with the [Building] skill stone in his [Power Node] had done wonders for it too. He didn’t know what the spoilt lordling had received from his family after coming of age, but he was sure the captain didn’t have any physical reinforcements. The punch folded him in half, driving all the air out of his lungs. Flint ignored the spittle spray on his face and followed up with a blow to the jaw.
None of the men said anything when their commanding officer fell to the ground unconscious.
“Alright.” Flint sighed, turning to his fellow builders. “If anyone asks, you lot tried to stop me. Understood?” A couple of them flashed little smiles at him. The rest just nodded. Flint turned to the boy working the supply role. “Please tell me you at least have [Builder’s Brawn I].” The boy nodded. “Drag the pompous arsehole into the stronghold. I don’t care if he suffers bumps and bruises along the way, but try not to get him killed.”
“What would you like us to do, sir?” One of the builders asked after the boy left. “We don’t stand a chance against those…” The man looked at the approaching battering ram hesitantly. “…things.”
“We don’t,” Flint replied, exhaling loudly. His racing heart and aching temples made it difficult to concentrate, but he reminded himself that he was the closest thing they had left to a commanding officer. “I may have served for quite a while, but I’m not a sergeant. Arseholes like Ironheart’s father won’t ever let a Woodson gain rank.”
Flint tried using a light-hearted tone but failed to cut the tension. None of the men smiled. “You’re right, Tailor. We don’t stand a chance against the fae and their war beasts. The trolls make our chances nil.” Flint turned to the wall and pointed to the horizon. “My [Marksmanship] skill stone gave me Keen Eye not long ago. I don’t know if you can see it but let me reassure you. I can see flags among the trees. Reinforcements are on the way. We don’t need to win. Just buy time.”
A whisper spread through the huddled builders. The few garrison forces still standing on inner walls glanced at them. None of them complained, though. The Builder’s Division ranked at the bottom among the Iron Army’s forces, but people knew better than to mess with them. Besides, unlike Flint, most of them didn’t have the [Marksmanship] skill stone. They’d do little more than waste arrows and bolts.
“I’m not going to give you orders.” Flint continued, picking up his crossbow and loading it. “Instead, I’ll ask for volunteers. If you have [Reinforce], you can help me hold the wall until the civilians are all inside the stronghold.” He aimed at a war beast, ramming its tree-branch-like antlers at the wall below them and fired. [Keen Eye] and [Steady Hand] helped him hit a crack in the bark armour once again. The beast roared and fell back. “Those of you with combat skill stones can help the garrison with their defence too. The rest can join the civilians or supply us with potions and bolts.”
Flint turned to the builders once again as he reloaded his weapon. Keeping his hands busy kept them from shaking. Showing fear wouldn’t do well for morale. “I won’t think any less of you if you decide to leave,” Flint said. “I have no family, wife, or children. Most of you, on the other hand, do. Some of them might be here in the stronghold and terrified. If you can’t stomach combat, join them, and give them strength. Anyone daring to belittle you for it will have to answer to me. We’re not soldiers. Fighting isn’t our job. This is survival. You can choose which you prefer: fight or flight.”
Only a third of the builders retreated. It frustrated Flint that most of them were veterans without familial ties. He didn’t say anything. It would set a bad example for the men. Even though he didn’t have rank, they listened to him due to his head for construction and ten years of service.
Once fewer people were crowding the walls, Flint whistled. His shoulders relaxed when the familiar clicking of claws on stone reached his ears. A white and brown sheepdog sprinted up the stairs, clutching a waterskin between her jaws. She stopped in front of Flint and dropped the container at his feet.
“Thanks, girl,” he said, falling to his knees and kissing her between the eyes. She licked at his face before sitting down and looking up at him unexpectantly. “Run to the stronghold when I tell you. Alright?” She barked, her tongue hanging out and tail wagging. Her smile and affection helped Flint pull himself together. “Good, girl.” He smiled, scratching her head and returning his attention to the attacking army. The cool beverage soothed calm, racing thoughts. “We’re going to get through this.”
Flint had lied to his fellow builders. He did have a family. The difference was that none of them was human. Most of the older builders joked that Flint couldn’t make it last with women because he preferred the company of dogs. Others believed that his last name, Woodson, turned most of them away. After all, no one wanted to risk mixing with dirty blood.
Personally, Flint wasn’t sure which of them he believed. Both were true to some extent. Most women got tired of him having a deeper bond with canines than them. Flint couldn’t help it. Dogs understood him better than any human did. He didn’t have to tell Maya what made him uncomfortable. She followed his cues and understood. A scholar he once courted said it was a birth defect in his brain. She claimed Flint had trouble understanding the emotions of people around him. He considered her hypothesis bullshit.
After repelling several approaching war beasts, Flint spotted the puck again. His curling horns were now covered in blood. The high-fae had stopped floating, though, giving him hope. It stood holding a luminescent spherical crystal in its hand. Flint's jaw clenched as he identified the object. It was a skill stone. He couldn't tell what type of stone it was from atop the wall, but it didn't matter. Even the most common kinds invaluable. He had signed up for two terms with the Iron Army just so he could get them to fill his [Power] and [Control] nodes. However, now that the puck's magic was inactive, Flint had a chance of hurting it. His iron-tipped bolts would interfere with fae spells, of course, but he feared alerting his target and facing its wrath.
Flint willed [Focused Shot] to activate and felt the bolt vibrate against the crossbow’s wood. Usually, he ensured no one was watching before using the ability. If any of the soldiers discovered that he had unlocked an offensive power, they’d report it to their superior offices. Then Flint would find himself reassigned to one of the more combat-focused divisions. He didn’t care for them and was content in his current position. It wasn’t the time to keep secrets, though. Survival was on the line. So, he steadied himself against the ramparts and fired.
At the moment to release the skill, time slowed. If he placed [Marksmanship] in the [Power Node], he could’ve unlocked a more damaging ability. The [Mind Node] would’ve added magical effects to his shots. Flint wasn’t sure how it would interact with the [Aura Node], but barely anyone understood the mysterious fourth slot. Unfortunately, he got no offensive bonuses from the [Control Node]. [Focused Shot] sapped his stamina to increase his projectile’s flight speed ever so slightly. Its primary bonus was the ability to slow his perception of time for the split second before he released the crossbow bolt. It gave him a much-needed moment to aim for the puck’s eye before he fired.
The crossbow bolt flew true and struck the puck’s right eye. Golden light shimmered around the creature for a heartbeat before fading. Flint held his breath as the beast fell on its bottom, clutching its face, and roared. “Iron be damned,” he whispered as his target got back onto its feet and pulled the projectile out. The wound smoked as iron reacted to fae-blood. It was blind in one eye now but not dead.
When the puck raised its giant hairy hands, the wind picked up. He pointed them at Flint, and a powerful blast of air struck the wall where he stood. The force knocked him off balance, and he staggered backwards, almost going over the side. Maya bit down on his coat and pulled, reacting much faster than any unempowered human. Flint grabbed the platform’s edge just in time and hung on for dear life. The fall wouldn’t kill him but probably break one or more of his limbs. He couldn’t afford to suffer such damage in the current situation. He released his crossbow, cursing himself for not slinging it across his shoulder and climbed to safety.
Before he could reorient himself, a powerful force struck the wall where he stood, and the stairs behind him collapsed. “I don’t think we’re going to make it, Maya,” he said, clutching the service sword at his waist. He had never used it in combat before due to how horrid he was with the weapon, but life was determined to rob him of options.