Aleksandr took a deep breath. He tightened his grip on Kholodny, holding the blackened blade in both hands. Then he gave a quiet nod to Bear.
The door flew off its hinges with a crash.
Bear burst through the threshold first, since he was the one that had kicked in the door. He screamed a battlecry as he barreled into the room. He carried an axe in each hand, but he threw one of them immediately before shifting to a two-handed grip on the other.
Aleksandr followed behind the barbarian. He saw a man in dark clothes sprawled on the ground, the head of Bear’s handaxe protruding from his smashed collarbone. Blood gushed around the weapon, and the man did not move to rise.
There are others. Stay focused. Aleksandr narrowed his eyes, keeping Kholodny in a low guard stance, seeking his foes. He moved forward with a slow pace. Perhaps it made him seem deliberate. Purposeful. The truth was that he moved with as much speed as his aching leg would allow.
The warehouse was filled with shouting, and the low guttural sounds of a cultist’s chant.
Cultists formed up to face them, drawing long knives and hooked blades from their belts. Around Aleksandr, his companions surged forth to meet them. A cultist charged at Aleksandr, and Aleksandr moved through a simple pattern. His longsword outreached his foe by almost an armspan. It was a simple thing to turn the cultist’s dagger away and drive the blackened tip through his chest.
He stepped past the dying man, and found most of the other cultists engaged in a chaotic melee with his companions. But on the far side of the warehouse, he saw the chanting man. He stood at a wide table, upon which Elfisio’s naked body lay. Like Aguapo, Elfisio was carved up with intricate runes. He was thrashing on the table, spasming in an unsettling manner that reminded Aleksandr too much of Aguapo’s corpse right before the bone demon burst free.
A cultist burst from the melee, charging Aleksandr’s flank. Aleksandr turned to face him, but his broken leg slowed him down. He lashed out with Kholodny, trying to keep the cultist back.
A rope dropped down behind Aleksandr’s foe, and a moment later Yorrin came sliding down. He crashed into the cultist, knocking the man to his knees. The cultist staggered, and as he tried to regain his footing Yorrin pounced on him, ramming a dagger into his throat.
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr said.
Yorrin gave him a cursory nod. He looked towards the door. “Robin!” he called. “Torch!”
A flaming torch sailed through the air, and Yorrin caught it in his spare hand. He rammed his bloody knife into its sheath, and then moved to Aleksandr’s side. “Aleksandr,” he said. He gestured to the chanting cultist and Elfisio’s convulsing form. “Shall we?”
They approached together. Before they reached the cultist—their leader, certainly—the man had stopped chanting. He turned to face them. His face was wreathed in the orange glow of candles and torchlight.
Aleksandr did not recognize him. He looked like any man might. Pale skin, clad in a black cloak over dark clothes. He met Aleksandr’s eyes and smiled a hungry smile.
“I hoped you would come,” he said in Ruskan.
“That was foolish.” Aleksandr did not slow down.
The pale man sneered. “After you are dead, I will take the priestess.”
Beside him, Elfisio’s body contorted violently. The intricate lacerations began splitting as Elfisio’s flesh sloughed off his skeleton.
No. Like before, that is not Elfisio’s skeleton. We are too late. The realization filled Aleksandr with grim determination. We have slain one of these creatures already. We can do it again.
He continued advancing towards the cult leader. Yorrin veered off slightly, clearly moving for the demon. He carried a torch in his left hand, and with his right he drew a flask out of a satchel on his belt.
From the melee a single man burst free, moving to Aleksandr’s side. He roared as he did, brandishing his axe high. Bear. It is good to have him with us. Bear charged faster than Aleksandr or Yorrin, rushing ahead.
The pale cultist shouted a word, but it was neither Ruskan nor Middish. Aleksandr instantly recognized it as Thaumati, and not a complex spell like the kind Borthul seemed to work. This was a Word of Power. Short, pure, and untethered by the limiters Borthul placed upon his sorcery.
The sound of it struck Aleksandr like a physical force. It echoed in his ears. Worse than that, it rattled him down to his bones. He staggered. Lances of white hot pain rippled out from his broken leg. Aleksandr nearly let go of his sword. More than that, he very nearly collapsed as his body shuddered. He felt a throbbing pain deep in his bones.
Ahead of him, Bear staggered back as if he had run headlong into a stone wall. He fell flat on his back, writhing in pain. His axe fell at his side, and he groaned.
Kholodny felt suddenly hot in Aleksandr’s hands, even through his gloves. Hot enough to hurt, but Aleksandr welcomed this pain. It was of a different flavor than the pain that wracked through him after hearing the Word. It distracted somehow, sharpened his senses. The ache in his bones felt less pronounced.
Aleksandr staggered closer to the cultist. In his periphery he saw that Yorrin had not suffered from the Word as much as he or Bear had. It appeared that Thaumati magic was at least somewhat limited in scope, a welcome relief. Yorrin moved towards the bone demon that was ripping apart Elfisio’s body from within, singleminded.
He will have to face it alone. This man spoke a Word of Power. True Thaumaturgy. He can do what Borthul feared. Aleksandr redoubled his efforts, trying to close the gap quickly despite his limping gait. He cannot be allowed to leave here alive.
As Aleksandr approached, the cultist smiled hungrily. He opened his mouth, then staggered as a crossbow bolt caught him in the sternum. He looked at it in surprise. What ought to be a debilitating wound seemed a minor inconvenience.
He swept his cloak off his back, breaking the clasp. Aleksandr saw his bare arms and some of his exposed collar—every bit of flesh but his face was etched in tattoos. More than that, his forearms looked strangely misshapen. Small spurs of bone—or something like it—protruded from his flesh.
The cultist spat another Word. Aleksandr shuddered, wincing as deep pain wracked through him. Again, the Word shook him down to the marrow of his bones. He fought through it, closing the distance in a quick flurry of footwork.
Up close, he saw that the pale man’s lips were flecked with blood. The cultist wore a manic grin, and Aleksandr saw that his mouth was full of cracked and ruined teeth. Fresh blood flowed from empty sockets in his gums.
Aleksandr raised his sword and brought it down upon the cultist in a furious blow. The man raised his left arm as if to shield his face, and when Kholodny connected the blade did not cleave through flesh and bone. Aleksandr felt a reverberation through the hilt, and realized his sword had caught in the cultist’s forearm.
Those bone spurs. He has changed himself, Aleksandr realized. He has turned himself into one of those things, at least a little.
He had cleaved through cloth and flesh, and red blood gushed from the man’s arm. Yet the cultist moved his arm anyway, brushing Kholodny to the side, and again snarled a Word of Power.
It had been the same Word each time, Aleksandr was sure of it. He could not truly comprehend it, but the sound of it—the feel of it—was the same. This time he saw up close that speaking the word caused the man’s lips to split and splintered his teeth into bloody fragments. Aleksandr felt that same wave of distortion ripple through him, as if the Word was not harming his flesh but rather striking straight through to his bones. The pain was immense. Kholodny felt even hotter in his hands, a burning pain through his gloves. The blackening on the blade seemed to darken, and the blood spattered on its tip sizzled.
The cultist frowned, cocking his head to the side. “How?” the word came out garbled through his mutilated mouth. “How are you still standing?”
Aleksandr did not reply. He just shifted his grip on Kholodny, and swung the sword in a wide arc. The cultist again raised his arm to deflect, but this time Aleksandr had put considerably more force into the blow.
He severed the man’s arm. A loud crack resounded in the air, a sound more akin to shattering stone than breaking bone.
The cultist screamed, whatever words he might have said next forgotten. He flailed the stump of his arm, and Aleksandr saw more broken bones protruding from the flesh than an arm ought to have. It almost looked as though thin plates of bone had grown beneath his skin, layered in his muscle like armor.
The cultist attacked with his remaining hand, lunging for Aleksandr’s exposed face. Aleksandr staggered back, and the cultist raked his fingers across Aleksandr’s iron breastplate. His fingernails were as unnatural as the rest of him, and they left shallow gouges in the armor. Aleksandr choked up his grip on Kholodny, grabbing it by the blade. He leveraged it between him and his foe as the cultist lunged for him again.
Aleksandr rammed the tip of his sword into the cultist’s chest. He felt resistance. The cultist raised his hand, reaching for Aleksandr’s throat. A crossbow bolt streaked dangerously close to Aleksandr’s ear, and buried itself in the cult leader’s eye. He screamed.
Aleksandr shoved Kholodny forward with all of his strength. The blade penetrated whatever bone armor might be hiding beneath clothes or flesh, sliding between two ribs to where his heart ought to be.
The cultist groaned, and his body went slack. He crumped, dead, held up only by Aleksandr’s strength.
At least he still had a heart, Aleksandr thought with grim satisfaction. He let the corpse slide off of his sword.
For a few moments, Aleksandr’s entire world had been focused down to a single man. Now, he became aware of the sounds of battle around him. A shrill screaming filled the air.
A second bone demon had erupted from Elfisio’s corpse, as Aleksandr expected. Yorrin’s plan seemed to have worked—he had doused it with oil from the flask and lit it with his torch. The screaming came from the demon, as it blazed like dry deadwood and thrashed about. Still, it had not been consumed by the fire. It lashed at Yorrin with its tail and long, flaming claws.
Yorrin fought the demon with sword and torch. He used the sword defensively, batting aside the claws and bladed end of the demon’s tail. As he did, he kept prodding it with the torch, ensuring that it stayed alight. Several of their allies circled the demon as well, stabbing and striking with conventional weaponry. Their efforts mainly seemed only to contain the beast, rather than killing it.
Aleksandr limped towards them, wincing with each step. Suddenly, the bone demon launched itself on one of the men hemming it in. He screamed as they went down, and its tail rose and fell several times in an eyeblink.
One of the men—Bear, Aleksandr realized, thankful that whatever sorcery had slowed him down had not been permanent—slammed his axe against the burning demon and threw his weight behind it. He knocked the creature onto its back, where it thrashed and flailed wildly. It did not rise.
The fire flared for a moment, then died down. As Aleksandr arrived, he saw that the demon was little more than ash. Wisps of black smoke curled above its remains. He looked around, seeking other foes.
There were none. His allies stood around the warehouse in a scattered rabble, breathing heavily and favoring wounds. At his cursory look, Aleksandr believed all of his companions still stood, but not everyone was so lucky.
A whimper of pain caught Aleksandr’s eye. One of the Ruskans—Grigor, the more friendly of the three, and born here in Yerevan—lay limp on the ground. Blood pulsed from several deep wounds his chest. His gambeson had been pierced through by the demon’s tail as if it was little more than a tunic.
Anatoly pushed his way through the others, dropping to his knees at Grigor’s side. Yuri, the third of the three Ruskans, stalked off to a corner of the warehouse. He kept his distance.
“Grigor,” he said, in Ruskan. He pressed his hands to the wounds, and blood bubbled up around them. “Lie still. Help is coming.”
Grigor’s face was deathly pale, but he gave Anatoly a terse nod. Aleksandr saw fear in his eyes.
“Is—is it bad?” he asked, his voice quiet. He coughed, and blood bubbled up between his lips.
This man will not even live until Alaina gets here. And if she was here, I do not think she could do anything to save him. Aleksandr said nothing.
“I have seen men live through much worse,” Anatoly lied. “It will be fine. Stay calm. Breathe.”
Bear loomed nearby. He opened his mouth, likely to say something cruel to Anatoly. Before Aleksandr could stop him, the barbarian closed his mouth and turned away.
He does not like Anatoly, but I think everyone liked Grigor just fine. He was not a bad man, for all that we met under ill circumstances.
“Anatoly…” Grigor said. He reached for Anatoly, clutching at his arms. “Is it raining? I’m so cold.”
Anatoly nodded. “Yes, Grigor. It’s just rain. Hold on a little more, my friend. It—”
Grigor’s hands fell slack at his sides. His head lolled to the side, and Anatoly fell silent.
Aleksandr took a step forward, laying a hand on Anatoly’s shoulder. “Anatoly,” he said.
Anatoly looked up. His eyes were dry, but bloodshot. “Aleksandr?”
“I am sorry. About your friend.”
Anatoly nodded. “Risk is a part of being a mercenary. He wanted to come. Knowing that he played a part in endangering his home? He had to come.”
“Even so,” Aleksandr said. “I am sorry. If you need anything—you have only to ask.”
Anatoly nodded again, inhaling through his nose in a loud sniff. “Thank you,” he said. “I need nothing for now. Just—a moment, yes?” He looked back to Grigor’s still body.
Aleksandr turned away, limping to Yorrin’s side.
“You are alright?” he asked quietly.
Yorrin nodded. “Well enough. You?”
“I have been better,” Aleksandr said. “The leader—his words hurt me deep inside. Is hard to explain.”
“Seemed to knock Bear right on his ass,” Yorrin said. “But not you.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Da. I am—not sure why.” He felt uncomfortably aware of the fact that Kholodny still felt warm in his grip, though not painfully so.
They made their way towards their companions. Bear was standing in one side of the room near Robin, Dylan, Prudence, and Perrin. Bear was not bleeding, but he looked unsteady on his feet—he truly did suffer a great deal more than I did, from the Word of Power. I wish I understood why.
Robin, Dylan and Prudence all seemed uninjured, but Prudence was holding a linen rag against the side of Perrin’s head. Aleksandr saw that blood matted his hair and stained the front of his tabard. Other than Robin, Perrin was the only one that had found an empty crate to sit on.
“Is he alright?” he asked, once he was close.
Perrin grinned. “I’m fine,” he said. “Bleeding like a hog, but I’ll be alright.”
“Shush,” Prudence said. “Alaina’ll be the judge of that. Hold still, damn it.”
Perrin did as she commanded.
“Aleksandr, can you get Bear to sit down? I keep fearing he’s about to topple over, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to keep him up,” Dylan said.
“Bear, sit,” Aleksandr did not bother to ask.
“Bah!” Bear grumbled. “Am fine!”
Dylan frowned. “You’ve been swaying on your feet since the fight ended.”
“Bear,” Aleksandr said. He met the barbarian’s eyes. “Sit. Down.”
Bear swallowed whatever protest he might have had prepared. He just gave Aleksandr a single nod, then promptly dropped onto the floor. He leaned his back against a stack of crates. His broad chest rose and fell in unsteady breaths.
“Is sad,” he muttered.
“What was that?” Dylan asked.
“Is sad,” Bear repeated. “Grigor, dead. Should have been the other one. The Tarakov man.”
“I’d have said it should’ve been nobody, but I’ll agree that it’s a shame Grigor died. He’s definitely dead, then? I saw him go down.”
“He is dead,” Aleksandr confirmed. “Watch him,” he told Dylan, gesturing to Bear. “Until Alaina can see to him.”
Robin looked up from where he was lounging. “Eh?”
“You are unharmed.” Aleksandr did not need to ask. Robin had kept himself safe, of course.
“Go back to tavern. The meeting place. Is likely that sound of fighting has already alerted Bogdanov’s men, but if not, wait for them. Lead them here, da?”
Robin frowned, but he rose from his seat. “Yeah, alright,” he said. If his tone was grudging, Aleksandr chose not to notice.
Aleksandr saw that Yorrin had moved on already, crossing over to where Olivenco and the Taraamites stood. He moved to follow, but he stopped by Giancarlo’s mercenaries first.
Levin had a crude bandage tied around his left forearm, but he did not act as if he was especially distressed by it. He and Cam both knelt beside the third man that had accompanied them. Conrad, I think it was.
Conrad was more seriously injured. Cam held a bloodsoaked rag tight against his side.
“How is he?” Aleksandr asked.
“He’ll live,” Cam said. “Or I reckon so, at least. Cut long and ragged, but nae too deep. Just stay with us, lad.”
Conrad laughed, then winced at the movement. Levin placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Still,” was all he said.
“Thank you,” Aleksandr said to them. “For coming. You fought well.”
Levin met Aleksandr’s eyes with a blank stare. Cam nodded. “Aye, glad to have lent our hands to it.”
With that, Aleksandr moved on to join Yorrin.
He picked his way through the warehouse carefully. Dead cultists littered the ground. There had been over a score of them, but they were unarmored and carried daggers and short hooked swords. Aleksandr had trusted in the prowess of his companions to see them through. He was glad that they had done so.
Not all of them, he reminded himself. Grigor was not the only dead. One of the newly recruited Taraamites also lay motionless on the ground. Aleksandr was ashamed to realize he did not know the young man’s name.
They had him off to the side of where the fighting had been. A pair of copper coins held his eyes closed. Connor Quickblade sat nearby, cleaning and honing his sword. A nervous habit, I think, not out of practicality. Every so often he glanced at the corpse, shook his head, then went back to his blade.
The other recruit sat on a crate. He was a young man, pale, with a mop of unruly brown hair. He was spattered in blood, but from the way he sat ignored Aleksandr suspected none of it was his own. He wore an empty sword sheath on his belt, but in his lap he cradled only a small dagger. The blade and hilt were soaked in blood, as were his hands. He stared ahead, at nothing, a blank expression on his face.
Yorrin and Olivenco were speaking quietly to each other. As Aleksandr approached, the former Captain turned and flashed him a grin.
“Well fought, mi amigo!” he said. “Well fought indeed. You and Yorrin saved us all, I think.”
Aleksandr frowned. “We did what was required, only,” he said. “I am sorry that not everyone survived.”
Olivenco nodded sympathetically, but he shrugged. “Si, si. Bad luck, I’m afraid. He showed promise. Such is the nature of battle. I will see that the young man’s family is given something for the loss, even if it comes out of my own purse.”
“And him? He is… alright?” Aleksandr asked, nodding at the young fellow who sat unblinking.
Olivenco grimaced. “Ah, Connor,” he said. “Quickblade, a momento, please?”
Connor wiped his oiled rag down his sword one last time, sheathed it, then stood. “Sir?”
“You can take our friend outside, perhaps? Get him some fresh air.” Olivenco gestured to the stunned recruit.
Connor nodded, sighing. “Yeah, ‘course. Come on lad.”
The blood-spattered man looked up finally, blinking in confusion at Connor. “S—s—sir?” he stuttered. His accent was Middish, not Ruskan.
“On your feet,” Connor said. He tugged the young man up. “Let’s get some air, get your legs moving again.”
“Y—yes sir,” the recruit said. Standing, Aleksandr saw that he was scrawnier than he’d seemed at first glance. Thin and reedy. He did not much look like a soldier.
“I am not sure that one will last,” Olivenco said once they were out of earshot.
“He froze up?” Yorrin asked.
“Si, at first. Though he showed some courage in the end. Took down two cultists with that dagger.” Olivenco shook his head. “It is not that, anyway. Such things can be trained. I am not sure he will choose to stay. Taraam sounded nice when it was a place far from here, with beds and food and coin, si? The realities of facing death—it takes a certain kind of man.”
“He is not Ruskan,” Aleksandr observed.
“No,” Olivenco agreed. “Kirkish, I think. I don’t remember. He came here looking for opportunity, but did not find much.”
“Perhaps he will surprise you,” Aleksandr said.
Olivenco shrugged. “Si, perhaps. I have been surprised many times, since we met. By both of you two, in particular. This business tonight not the least of it. Estas bien? You are alright? Yorrin assures me that the demon was less dangerous than it appeared. What of you, Aleksandr? It looked as though the leader was speaking sorcery at you.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Is true, I suppose. It… hurt. Deep hurt, in my bones, as I have not feeled—felt—before. But I am standing. I will live, I think.” Aleksandr tightened his grip on Kholodny. The hilt no longer felt warm through his gloves. He looked down at the blackened blade. Though I have many questions.
“I didn’t say the demon was less dangerous than it looked,” Yorrin said. “It did for Grigor, and nearly did for a few more of us. But they seem to burn easy enough, and that’s a weakness to exploit.”
“Si,” Olivenco said. “You are resourceful. I made the right choice, I think, letting you be the new man to hold my Amante.”
Yorrin wrinkled his nose. “It’s a beautiful sword, Olivenco, and you have my thanks again. But to me that’s all it is. I’ve got no need for a lover.”
“No? I am not so sure. Have you a lover back home, then? In Torathia?”
“Olivenco,” Aleksandr said. “Is his business, da?”
The Spatalian shrugged, smiling. “Si, of course. I only ask. I—”
A sudden commotion near the door caught their attention. Whatever good-natured jibe Olivenco might have had planned was left unsaid.
Armed men began streaming into the warehouse. For a moment, Aleksandr tensed. He shifted his sword into a guarded stance. But the men wore Bogdanov’s colors over their mail hauberks, and they formed up in neat rows when they saw that the fighting had already ended.
Behind them entered Sir Boris, and behind him came four more druzhniks. These four were elites, clad in plated mail like Boris, and they escorted two unarmored figures. The first was Alaina, and the second was hunched and slow-moving. Borthul has returned, Aleksandr realized. Good.
“Aleksandr!” Alaina pushed her way past her guardians, rushing forward.
They did not embrace. This was not the time, not with dead and wounded all around them. But he took one of her hands in his, and his eyes met hers with intensity. He felt her search his face for something.
“You’re alright?” she asked.
“Well enough,” Aleksandr said. “There are others in worse need.”
“Then we will speak more soon,” she said. She squeezed his hand, then moved on to tend the wounded.
Aleksandr limped on until Boris was in earshot.
“Kerensky,” the captain of Bogdanov’s druzhniks gave him a skeptical look. “The fighting is done.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. Boris spoke in Ruskan, so Aleksandr answered in kind. “We struck quickly.”
“We have wasted our time, then. The threat was exaggerated.”
“No,” Aleksandr said. “Their leader spoke a Word of Power. At least one, and several times before we slew him. Elfisio—the other of Giancarlo’s factors—he was transformed into another bone demon. If we had waited, this would have been much worse.”
“Hm,” Boris said, frowning. “Perhaps. Good to be rid of them, anyway. You have done my cousin a service.”
“They’ve done a service to a good deal more than just one bayard, I think!” Borthul cut in, his quavering voice surprisingly firm. His interjection was in Middish, but it was clear he understood enough Ruskan to have followed the conversation. “Stopped a cult in its tracks—a true cult, just think of it! The leader, Aleksandr, you said he spoke a Word?”
“What did it sound like? No, nevermind that. What did it do? Tell me.” Borthul stepped closer, leaning in hungrily. It was perhaps the most animated Aleksandr had ever seen him, save the moment in the Underpass when he cast his spell.
“It… hurt. Deep inside me. Is like… this Word struck me down to marrow of my bone. Is hard to explain. It knocked Bear down, stunned him. He is still unwell. You should—”
“Yes yes yes, I’ll see to the oaf,” Borthul said, waving a dismissive hand. “Your bones, you say? Hm. But it didn’t incapacitate you as much as he. Interesting. I wonder why.”
Kholodny tingled in Aleksandr’s hand. “I am not sure,” he said carefully. “But… Borthul. You heard of what happened? The demon, before?”
“A little,” the wizard said.
Aleksandr nodded. “We must speak, then. More than a little. In private.”
Borthul pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. “Must we? Why? What about?”
“Much,” Aleksandr said. “Demons, the cultists, Thaumati sorcery and the Words of Power. My family sword, most of all.”
Borthul frowned. “In good time, Kerensky. There are more important things than a sword. I—”
“Borthul,” Aleksandr said. The wizard fell silent. Aleksandr swallowed, tightening his grip on Kholodny. “I have questions.”