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BEFORE Shaun could fight back, her assailant lifted her off her feet and tossed her against the opposite wall of the hallway. She collided with it and fell to the floor, momentarily stunned. Her daze cleared when her attacker hauled her up again, and she came face-to-face with the Mordwellian. His skin was dead pale, and his eyes possessed a vacant quality and a slight milky hue that made Shaun think of a dead fish. His breathing wheezed vaguely in his throat, though he did not appear winded. The Mordwellian’s face broke into a sinister grin and he slammed his forehead into hers.
Shaun felt the impact through her teeth and saw stars. The Mordwellian made a laughing sound and licked up the blood pouring down the side of her face from where the blow split open her brow. She cried out with disgust and tried to squirm away, but he held her fast.
A loud cracking sound suddenly came from the wall between the corridor and the secret room. The wall exploded outward. Thomas and two other apprentice knights fell into the corridor. The rest of the apprentice knights ran through the new opening, weapons raised. The Mordwellian dropped her to fight them. Thomas helped her to feet while the others fought and slew the Mordwellian.
Her head throbbed terribly, but she nodded. She heard the pounding of boots coming toward them from farther down the corridor. Thomas looked in that direction and drew his sword.
“Just collect yourself a moment,” he told her.
Thomas and the other apprentice knights formed a circle around her and their Wards as a group of five Mordwellians charged them. Shaun leaned against the wall, trying to shake the rhythmic throb in her skull.
Sara came to her side. “You’re hurt.”
“I’m fine,” Shaun muttered.
“You are bleeding.”
The din of blades striking each other nearly drowned Sara out.
“I need to join the others.”
She tried to push past Sara, but Myra stopped her. She produced a handkerchief. “Hold still.” Myra dabbed away the blood that still ran down her face and threatened to get in her eyes.
“Go,” Myra then told her.
Shaun drew her sword from its sheath and joined the fight at Thomas’s side. The Mordwellians proved to be formidable opponents. Although outnumbered, the enemy soldiers fought with uncanny strength and speed. All displayed the same pallor as the first and none of them spoke or made any sound other than that same eerie wheeze.
Mordwellian dark magiks were well known in Riverend, but as she fought, Shaun also remembered the stories children told each other about Mordwellians necromancers too. Children would taunt each other with “the Mordwellian walking dead will eat you if you’re bad.” She had never believed such things. Certainly, no such thing had ever been mentioned by her parents.
But now, Shaun wondered if those stories were true after all. The Mordwellians did not succumb to blows that would incapacitate a human. Only running them through or cutting off their heads seemed to stop them.
When all five Mordwellians were finally dead, the apprentice knights took the time to assess and treat the injuries amongst them. Both Shaun and Thomas sustained cuts in the fight, but Kera received the worst of the injuries, a deep gash across one of her thighs. Thomas and Shaun helped bind it for her. Once everyone was bandaged and able to move on, the group split up as Shaun planned.
She and Thomas led Sara and Myra in the direction of the main doors to the academy. They met other Mordwellian soldiers on the way, but knowing how to kill them now, Shaun and Thomas managed to subdue them more swiftly than the previous group. Her relief was short-lived.
Outside the academy, raging fires illuminated the city with orange flames. Everywhere she looked, she saw fighting. Even Riverend’s citizens battled Mordwellians in the streets. Others were dragged screaming through the streets by Mordwellian soldiers.
Shaun stared in shock at the scene. Either Sara or Myra gasped behind her. She forced herself from her daze, telling the others they had to keep moving
“Thomas, you lead the way.”
Thomas nodded and set off in the direction of the castle, with her at the rear guard position. He guided them down a series of alleys that allowed them to skirt much of the fighting. They encountered Mordwellian resistance only twice.
When they were within sight of the castle, however, Shaun saw their detour had been useless. Orange flames licked out from the several damaged areas of the castle. Thick smoke blew back at them, stinging their eyes. The top half of the east tower, where the apartments used by Myra's family once were, had been nearly obliterated by some force. If Myra’s family was there when it was struck, they were dead now.
At the sight of the burning castle, Myra collapsed weeping against Thomas. He wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders. Sara tried to soothe her. “They may have gotten out. They may still be alive.”
Myra nodded, but looked like she doubted what Sara said.
“We have to find another way out,” Shaun said to Thomas. “With the fires, we cannot safely reach the tunnels under the castle.”
Thomas nodded and gently eased Myra back onto her feet. Shaun suggested they look for a break in the wall to escape through. They ducked down another dark alley, in the direction of the outer wall. At the alley’s end, Shaun looked up at the wall, hoping to see her father or mother, but the thick smoke from the fires obscured her view.
Shaun looked for a hole for them to escape through and spotted one just large enough. She pointed it out to the others. They followed the wall to it and discovered it was too small for them to get through by any other means than crawling.
Thomas volunteered to go first. He handed his sword and belt to Shaun so that they would not catch and trap him in the hole. He wormed his way in until his boots disappeared through the opening. A moment later, Thomas called to her from the other side of the wall.
Shaun crouched down and looked through the gap. He told her all was clear. She passed his sword to him. Next, she sent Myra and then Sara through the hole in the wall. Once they were safely through, Shaun tossed her sword and belt through to Thomas. Before she could crawl into the hole, however, she heard a booming shout from behind her.
Shaun turned her head and saw what looked like a hairy mountain running at her. Her mouth fell open and she cursed at the sight of the giant running toward her, his woolly beard flapping around his thick neck. He carried a double-bladed heavy ax in his massive hands. Unlike the other Mordwellians, though, he did not look half-dead. He still managed to close the distance between them at a speed she would have thought impossible, given his size. She knew would never make it through the hole before he cut off one or both of her legs.
When he came within striking range, the giant Mordwellian brought his ax around, aiming for her head. Shaun ducked under the ax’s arc and rolled away. She turned and faced him again, and then saw Thomas poke his head through the hole. He and the Mordwellian saw each other at the same time. Shaun shouted a warning to him as the ax changed direction and swung at Thomas’s exposed head.
THOMAS just managed to duck backward before the heavy ax blade hit the wall where he had been. Shaun hollered at the giant man to distract him from going after Thomas again. She ran, jumped up, and kicked him in the chest. Her foot bounced off him without any effect. He laughed and turned the ax in her direction again. Shaun tried to back up as the ax swung around again, but tripped and tumbled onto her back.
The hairy giant’s belly shook with laughter. He brought the heavy ax down on her. Shaun waited as long as she could before she rolled out of the way. The ax head buried itself in the soft ground where she had been. She dove at the man again while he tried to yank the ax out, but he shot out a hand and smacked her back against the wall. He ripped the ax out of the ground with a roar and swung it down on her before she could regain her footing. There was little she could do to block or avoid the ax this time.
Suddenly, her sword slid out of the hole next to her. Grabbing it with both hands, she brought it up in time to block the giant’s attack. The heavy ax slammed into her sword with a deafening clang. The impact nearly snapped her wrists. The ax head buffed her sword and then skipped off her blade before it cleaved through her left bracer with a loud squeal of ruined metal.
The blade cut through, into the tender flesh of her arm. She cried out in pain and lost her grip on her sword. Both hands buzzed with the impact of the ax head against her blade, making it impossible for her to effectively hold her sword.
Just as the man wound up to swing his ax at her again, an arrow lodged itself deep in his throat. The giant dropped his heavy ax and clawed at the arrow that pierced his throat. Blood poured out of the wound. He stumbled two steps and then he pitched and went still.
Shaun picked herself up and nudged the giant with her boot. He did not move. She peered around, trying to find the archer who felled the giant. She saw no one through the thick smoke that still clogged the air. Shaun raised a hand in a gesture of general thanks. She hoped her rescuer saw this.
Pressing her injured arm to herself, she grabbed her sword with her other hand, holding onto it as best she could in her still throbbing hand. She ran for the gap in the wall before anyone else tried to kill her. She pitched her sword through first and then crawled through as quickly as she could manage. When she poked her head though the other side, though, Thomas was not there. Only Sara and Myra met her at the opening.
“Help me,” Shaun said.
Sara grabbed her under her arms with shaking hands and helped pull her free of the hole.
“You need to help Thomas,” Sara told her when she was standing again.
Shaun found Thomas not far away, battling another Mordwellian soldier. Thomas’s fatigue was obvious to her. The body of another Mordwellian lay near him. Clearly, she was not the only one who had had trouble.
Sara handed her sword to her. Shaun sprinted toward Thomas just as his opponent smacked Thomas’s sword hand with his shield. Thomas cried out in pain and dropped his sword. The soldier struck out again, forcing Thomas to jump back, away from his sword. Shaun took his place and blocked the Mordwellians’s next strike. She parried. The Mordwellian fell back a step. Before he had a chance to recover, Thomas rushed him and knocked into him with his shoulder. The Mordwellian stumbled. Thomas pressed in with his sword in his opposite hand now and thrust it through the soldier’s throat, the only part not covered in black mail.
The Mordwellian fell to the ground, dying. Thomas’s chest heaved as he looked down at him. His face was tight with pain.
“Is your hand broken?” Shaun asked him as Sara and Myra came up to them.
Thomas shook his head. “I do not believe so.”
Shaun nodded and took her sword belt from Sara. She sheathed her sword and buckled the belt around her waist again. “We need to keep moving. We should head for the river.”
Thomas shook his head. “That takes us too close to the road to Parna.”
“All other routes pass over open ground, and our chances of reaching Parna unhidden are narrow at best. The river is at least surrounded by woods.”
Thomas’s point was valid—the woods that ran alongside the river were probably the first place the Mordwellians would search for people escaping Riverend—nevertheless, the woods afforded them with cover. Thomas finally nodded in agreement.
The group jogged down the hillside on that side of the city, in the direction of the river. Other structures in their path burned or still smoldered, even trees and bushes. The Mordwellians had done their best to eliminate as much cover as possible that might hide anyone fleeing Riverend.
Halfway down the hill, a sliver of the moonlight broke free from the preternatural darkness hanging over the fields around the city. Someone shouted behind them. She and Thomas stopped and turned back in that direction, their hands on their swords. Shaun could not see who shouted. Anxiousness surged through her. She urged the others on again, leading them toward the smoldering remains of a cottage.
They ducked down, out of view of whoever was behind them farther up the hillside. They cried out again, more urgently this time, a clear cry for her. Shaun’s pulse quickened. She slid her sword from its sheath and laid it across her lap.
Thomas touched her shoulder to get her attention. He had peered over the top of the wall they hid behind. She turned back as well. He pointed out a figure running down the hillside—a man in billowing robes. She did not recognize him, but several other figures chased after him. Although Shaun felt like they should help him, any attempt to do so would only put Sara and Myra at risk.
None of his pursuers had swords drawn or seemed to be carrying a weapon of any kind, which struck Shaun as strange. When they caught up to him, they knocked him down, letting him tumble onto the grass and try to crawl away from them. Then, one ran forward and kicked him in the stomach. They were playing with him before they killed him, Shaun realized.
The man flipped over and landed on his back, coughing violently. Even from where she was, she could see the man’s chest rapidly rise and fall with terror. He tried to squirm away again, but his attackers formed a circle around him, closing him in the way Shaun had seen wolves do once with prey, during a hunting excursion with her parents. The circle suddenly converged and fell on him. Screams from the center of the pack split the air and made her blood run cold.
Sara buried her face in Shaun’s shoulder and clapped her hands over her ears. Shaun stared in horror. She could just make out the man’s writhing shape in the middle of the pack, but she could see nothing else. Thomas pulled at her arm when the man’s cries finally weakened. She jumped.
“We need to leave now.”
Shaun nodded and dislodged Sara. The four of them stayed low as they left the cover of the burned out cottage. They crept down the hill again as swiftly as they dared without attracting the attention of the figures up the hill. Then, the man’s screams quit altogether. A moment later, Shaun heard a short, high-pitched sound, almost like a whistle. The sound made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She turned her head to look back up the hill.
In the dim moonlight, she saw one of the figures step away from the pack. Its head tilted upward as if to sniff at the air and the image of a wolf came again to her mind. The figure lowered its head and looked down the hill directly at her. A bolt of primal fear shot through her.
“Run,” she hissed at the others.
The others stopped and turned to look in the same direction as Shaun. The figures above them all broke into a run down the hillside.
Shaun shouted, “Gods dammit all, run!”
The four of them sprinted for the woods and crashed through into the brush. Shaun prayed they could lose the hunters in the deep cover. But, it was not long before Shaun heard the sounds of pursuit behind them.
The farther into the woods that Shaun and the others got, the more treacherous the terrain became, and the dim moonlight did nothing to illuminate the dark woods. They were forced to go slower. Branches yanked on them and tree roots snagged their feet. If she did not know better, she might have thought the forest itself was on the side of the creatures chasing them.
Then, Myra tripped on a tree root or something else under foot and fell to her knees. She managed to muffle her cry. Thomas and Shaun helped her up, but when Myra put weight on her right leg, she bit her lip and shook her head vigorously. Her lips quivered, eyes were wide with fear.
“I cannot walk.”
“Thomas, you must carry her,” Shaun said, looking into the woods behind them. The creatures were close. She could hear them. Thomas knelt down so that Myra could climb onto his back.
“You go ahead,” Shaun told him. “Take Sara and keep going without me. I will stay behind to slow them down and give you more time.”
“No,” Sara said, grabbing hold of her arm. “You made a promise to protect me.”
“That is what I’m doing.”
“Not like this.”
“Yes,” Shaun told her. “I have no plans to die here, but I will, if that is what it takes for you to escape. Please, go.”
Thomas pulled Sara away from Shaun. She turned away from Sara’s frightened gaze. Her hands wrapped tight around the hilt of her sword and she pressed her back against a tree so that nothing could sneak up on her back. She waited.
Need to go back?