Flaming skeletons marched through the dragon scorched streets of Holyhome. Little remained of what had been the capital of the continent’s most powerful empire.
“What now?” Sir Danielle Longbow asked the assassin by her side.
“Now you blacken that tabard and stash your armour where it can’t give us away,” said Catherine Harper, who wore the blackened silver hawk mask as always.
The knight rubbed the breastplate of her armour instinctively. She felt naked without it. “Where? There’s nothing left of this city that doesn’t have burning skeletons treading across it.”
“Beneath the city.”
“Beneath?” Danielle wondered at catacombs or chasms.
“The surface was scorched, but the sewers remain largely intact. Whether out of habit, disgust or another reason, the dead avoid them.”
“We’re going down into sewers?” The knight’s voice was unveiled disgust.
“We are. Don’t worry your pretty little head about the smell. It’s cold enough to freeze everything down there now. We will be the only stench.”
“How reassuring.” Sarcasm wrapped Danielle’s words to keep them from the cold. Her breath was coming out as a puff of mist.
“Come,” said the assassin, Catherine’s yellow eyes turned away from the ruined city which stretched to the horizon before them and to both sides. “I’ll show you the way.”
Scrambling down a hill of charred rubble, Danielle narrowly avoided twisting her ankle as crumbling bricks shifted beneath her boots.
Miss Harper held up a hand to pause her companion as they reached the remains of a grand town house. A bare patch of colour marked the grim spot where a dying citizen had shielded the wall from the breath of a dragon. Soldiers of the city had melted into the rubble of the street, forever bound by their armour to the stones beneath.
“This was the god’s herald who came to Crann,” said Danielle. “It couldn’t attack us so it came here.”
“Good,” said the assassin, bitterly. “The empire wanted to exterminate us. Us being their doom is beautiful irony. I wouldn’t be this if not for them. They brought war and death. That brought the monsters that feast on blood and the god that delights in destruction.”
They slipped down the streets into a valley long ago drained by an aqueduct.
Rubble blocked the entrance of the sewer. Fire had scoured the entry, melting the gate into a puddle. Shifting the debris in silence, eyes darting left and right, Danielle wondered what she was doing in the capital of a vanquished enemy, trying to kill the undead.
Squeezing through into total darkness, Sir Longbow lit her enchanted sword with the word, “solasaich.”
“That’s handy. I’ll have to kill a dragon so I can get one.” Even in the darkness the mutated assassin was sure footed on the ice of frozen muck.
“It’s not quite that simple,” said Danielle, stung when Catherine made little of it.
“I’m sure. You had to think hard to find a way, just as we will now. You see? The scorch marks are done. They built these sewers so deep beneath Holyhome that they survived.” Sliding down a slope, she steadied herself with a calloused hand on frozen filth.
“Spent a lot of time here?” asked Sir Longbow.
“This was my way through the city. Don’t think I spent nights down here though. I slept in the palace.”
“You don’t think I could hide? You haven’t seen the palace. That building was the definition of waste. Extravagance for its own sake. Rooms that were never used. Secret passages long forgotten. The underground rooms survive.”
On they walked. Down and down. Always turning when Catherine said to. Notches on the walls told her where she was, though the knight couldn’t make head nor tail of them.
“Here we are.” The assassin pulled a knife from her sleeve, slipping it between the stones of the wall. The rock came away to her efforts. More bricks were tossed to the floor, revealing a cavity behind. Reaching in, Catherine’s hand pulled out a bow. A crossbow followed. Mouldy provisions were thrown away by the woman in the hawk mask.
“Bolts and arrows?” Danielle asked.
“Of course, Sir Longbow.” Catherine threw a pouch to the knight then brought out two loaded quivers.
Inside the pouch were arrowheads and the tips for bolts, made with silver. Yellow eyes glinted as the lids creased in a smile.
Wordlessly the two began to remake their ammunition. Danielle stowed her armour away, promising herself she would live to take it back. All was lit by the green glow of Sir Longbow’s blade.
“There,” said the assassin. “That should do. They only need to work once. If we can’t kill the infernoste with the first shot, I doubt we’ll have time to take a second.”
They walked again for what felt like a few hours. Beneath the world it was hard to say how much time had passed.
Eventually they came to the surface again in a stale smelling tunnel blocked by rubble.
“We’re close now. We only need to shift enough to slip out,” said Miss Harper.
Danielle moved block after block until they could crawl over the rubble into an unfamiliar stretch of ruin. She rubbed her tabard with black char until none of the green or gold showed. The knight and the assassin darkened themselves to blend into the shadows.
“As I understand it,” Catherine whispered, “infernoste are all controlled by their Empress. They are her fingers. If they are cut away, she will feel it and know where we are. We must remain hidden and attack only her. Do you agree?”
“It makes sense. We can’t fight them all.” Charred corpses blanketed with snow watched them pass. Shivering, Danielle noted her companion’s composure.
They stopped to let flaming skeletons pass them. Some of those burnt by dragon fire had been reborn as mindless monsters. A select few had retained memories and traces of the magic from their lives.
Where two skeletons had patrolled together further out, groups of six marched in unison near the palace that had belonged to the Emperor of the Empire of the Holy Proclamation. Structures that had once been towers lay shattered in the street below.
“I thought there would be more infernoste,” said Danielle beneath her breath.
“You killed a lot with your knights. A few thousand, I guess. There’s still more than enough to kill us. Don’t worry about that,” Catherine said. Putting a finger to the beak of her mask, the assassin waved a hand to tell the knight to move back, to hide.
Six living furnaces walked past the place where the two had been.
“They run like a horse at the gallop,” said the knight, thinking of their breakneck charge at her soldiers.
“Good to know. Shut up. No light here. Don’t make any.”
They crept into the cavity between layers of the palace’s outer wall. Catherine took Danielle’s hand. The warrior stepped into the pitch black hesitantly. Her bow scraped against the wall with every other step as the world closed around her. Warmth from the hand holding hers was a welcome respite from the biting cold. Wind whistled a tune through the air around them.
“Steps,” said the assassin with the voice of a shy mouse.
Danielle tapped the stone ahead of her with her foot before trusting her weight on it. Damp odour hit her nose, the smell of rot.
“Slippery. Be careful,” said the voice of a confident, outgoing mouse.
Stone slick as a frozen pond held firm beneath the knight’s tentative step.
“Solasaich,” said Catherine in her usual voice, the voice of someone who’d spent most of their life in Leonor City. A ring of green light shone from Danielle’s scabbard. “Beautiful.” Miss Harper nodded admiringly.
Meltwater dripped from the ceiling of the tunnel. “I used to have to go in through the sewers. It took far longer. This is just part of the maze of passages in the walls here. They’re everywhere.” Glee in her voice belied her pride. Her knowledge was hard won. Though the annihilation of the empire had in many ways been a victory, it put her familiarity with Holyhome to waste.
“I know where I’d have my throne room in these ruins. Follow me.”
The scale of the palace’s subterranean levels put Leonor to shame. Cobweb filled rooms housed long forgotten stashes of moth-eaten tapestries and abandoned furniture. In one they lit a brazier to warm the wood of the bow.
“Can’t have the thing snapping the moment you use it, can we?”
Danielle coughed from the flames in the airless space but welcomed the warmth. Catherine shared some salted meat which had survived in her stash. Wondering what price she would later pay for the mould that garnished the jerky, the knight ate gratefully.
The bow bent just fine after half an hour by the fire, by that point they could hardly breathe for the smoke. Harper joked that the scent was another layer to their camouflage.
Rooms tiled in a grand and ancient style depicted early incarnations of the imperial warriors in their armour. Their plumed helmets had changed less than the round shields they once carried. A hand reached out from a faded sun to strike at the enemy with a burning beam of light. Yet another layer of irony, Danielle mused.
Orange light approached from a connecting corridor.
“Solasaich,” Danielle said.
They shrank behind a marble statue of a man in a fur lined robe. Though he was not a warrior, he exuded might. Muscles bulged wherever flesh had been carved. A stern but noble face slanted upward. He held a bound scroll that was a dusty cyan copper. Webs had given the man wings.
Hairs on the back of her neck stood to attention. Ten skeletons marched in rows of two across the room, darkening the ground beneath their feet a little more. Sir Longbow realised the path of their patrols was given away by the black marks regularly scorched by their steps. Miss Harper tapped her nose when she saw the knight looking at the trail.
Taking the knight’s hand again as the orange light faded to nothing, they rushed along the way the skeletons had come, turning up a set of stairs. From the untouched dust on the steps Danielle guessed the dead never trod them. She hoped they would not notice the trail the duo was leaving. She then realised that Catherine walked up the edge of the steps where the dust was thinner and the footprints less obvious.
Staying low on the steps as another patrol passed on the next landing, they saw another ten undead walking along the balcony walkway that looked down on the hall below.
All need for the green light from the sword was gone. Orange light filled the space. It danced upon a vaulted ceiling as if from amber water on a windy day.
Nudged up the next set of stairs, they saw ten more of the infernoste at the far side of the balcony circuit.
Below them a circle of the undead held hands. Circles had power according to Danielle’s wife, the witch. Rings helped to share the magic between users and allowed those with magic to use the life essence of those who did not. Seven figures shared their might. Though she was numb to magic itself, the knight could feel the sweat from the heat they radiated.
One skeleton burned brighter than the rest. In orange and yellow, her features were composed of pure light and heat. The young woman she had been, or thought herself to be, was fully formed. Every strand of hair, every crease of her dress.
Catherine didn’t talk. She was already notching a bolt in the crossbow. Danielle readied an arrow and looked at the assassin.
“You, Empress. Me, closest one. Tell me when,” said Miss Harper in the softest whisper the warrior could possibly hear.
“Now,” said the knight. She released the arrow and reached for another from the quiver. As she set another missile against the bow her first shot passed through the head of the dead woman below. The face turned as the flames flickered out.
WHY? The voice inside her head screamed. A black skeleton crumbled to the ground.
Danielle shot the one next to the dead Empress of Fire and Bone.
“Well done, if we can kill the rest, we’ll be martyrs.” Loading the next bolt as Danielle fired her third arrow, the assassin aimed.
Leaning over the balcony to shoot the last of the undead coven, as Catherine’s bolt found its mark, the knight of Crann fired.
“They’re coming,” said Miss Harper, voice thick with panic.
“Use the bow. I’ll hold them off with my sword.” Danielle passed the bow and the quiver to her friend as foot soldiers raced around the upper balcony. They made a familiar screeching sound which twisted her stomach.
Danielle met the first with the silver of her blade, cutting off the hand it raised to strike her. Instantly the hand began to regrow as she’d known it would. The swing arced into the skull and out. The flame died and the bones rolled at her feet.
An arrow hit the skeleton behind the first, leaving Danielle’s sword swinging through air. As she’d trained to, she stepped forwards and used the momentum to strike the next, swinging down through its head. The sheer heat from them made her already burnt arms nip. A stab met the next and the next after, straight between the eyes. She’d learned to kill with that move on the walls of Leonor as it was besieged by the empire.
Catherine struck her third with a bolt as Sir Longbow dispatched her fifth. A hand grabbed at Danielle’s sleeve even as it disintegrated. Flame caught on the fabric.
Too busy to put out the fire, the knight fought on as her clothes burst into flame. Screams echoed from the hallways. The monsters moved less like people now than animals. Furious swipes without caution let het lop off limbs, trying to ignore the flame devouring her.
An arrow flew through the next infernoste. The last fell to the magical sword and the light faded to faint glows receding down corridors.
“Solasaich!” cried Catherine.
Danielle dropped the glowing sword and threw herself to the ground, rolling over and over to put out the flames. Hands slapped against her to help.
“Get up. We need to go.” The assassin thrust the sword back into her hands and rushed down the stairs. The spell that had held together the army of the undead had been broken. They were mindless monsters again, following sound and sight to extinguish life.
They fled on weary legs back the way they had come.
Skeletons ran into them here and there. Danielle could manage them one by one, striking at their skulls and running on.
They raced down the smoky tunnel that led to the outer wall. Coughing as they passed along the same corridor, they met another burning warrior of bone. It leapt with the speed of a cat at a mouse and the grace of a cat drunk on beer. Its scream made Sir Longbow miss her first stab, wincing at the reverberation in the tiny space. The second stab found the mark.
Catherine did not mention the burn on her leg as she ran with the haste of a desperate drunk to the privy.
Hiding had been well and good when the dead patrolled like people. Skeletons running through the blackened city ruins like rabid animals as fast as the wind meant there was nowhere to shelter.
Three more fell to Danielle’s sword and Catherine clutching a crossbow bolt. The crossbow itself had been abandoned in the depths of the palace.
“We’re almost there.”
“They’ve gone mad.”
“No one to give them orders. Everything’s changing. Get used to it, Danielle.” The assassin threw herself down on the rubble pile at the entrance of the sewer.
Danielle followed, dragging the bow through when it caught. They had to be away from Holyhome.
Hours of silent agony followed, trudging through filth lit by magic. Danielle retrieved her armour, feeling whole once more. It seemed to their weary bodies that days passed before they emerged from the darkness into a freezing day on the edge of the city.
“We did it.”
“We did,” said Catherine. She gasped as she prodded the burn on her leg. “I’m almost done in.”
The thundering clip clop of hooves echoed off broken walls towards them.
“What now?” Danielle notched an arrow in her bow. A horse shot around the corner. The black boned steed was of the same ilk that had carried the undead army into battle against her knights. “Die.” She fired the shot. The point of the silver arrow entered the skull through an eyehole. The skull hit the ground and rolled as the other bones crumbled into ash and soot.
Picking up the skull in her hands, Danielle felt the odd weight of the thing. Not knowing why, she carried it as they walked away from the city. It was not the last undead horse that found them on the road home. Other infernoste came across them as well. One by one, the pair took them down. Step by step, they walked back to Leonor.
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Thanks for reading my story. If you want to know what happens next then you can use the link below to find out. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/v264rm/
Great pacing and combat sequences. This reminds me of the D&D adventure books I read in my youth, albeit your prose has more of a literary flair than those books had. I don't recall the D&D novellas I read having many female characters either, so you deserve credit for using your fantasy writing to right the wrongs inherent in last century's role play gaming. Good work.
Thanks for reading, Mike. I know the Drizzt Do Urden books have the general two guys to one woman balance but I enjoy the character progression with them. Witcher books are told about Geralt but as the books go on his adopted daughter becomes the focus of the plot. Siri still tends to be that women who is talked about as powerful but isn’t telling her own story much. The majority of characters in Danielle’s story are women to make for some of the ground lost in a lot of traditional fantasy stories. Even in newer books that I like the balance...
Why does she take the skull at the end?
It’s to set something else up for later, which you’ve read by now. Thanks for commenting.
Great story! Engaging throughout! You have a nice flair in your words, descriptions and combat scenes. Fantastic writing style!
Thanks, Roger. Glad you enjoyed it.