Shining Stars and Silver Bears
Durnir jogged through the broad tunnel, cursing the weight of his armour. Behind him his squad of Silver Bears matched his pace, burdened as they were by their own armour and the large, cumbersome shields that were the hallmark of their regiment. Ahead, from the large thoroughfare they were coming up to, there came a din of panic, the clamour of crowds, screams. Word had reached the Bears’ barracks some ten minutes before, and they had donned their armour and headed straight down. Some sort of riot.
Suddenly he slowed, motioning his squad to do the same. The gloom of the tunnel had retreated before their guttering torches, revealing several shapes sprawled on the floor. Civilians, by the look of their clothes a poorer family from the lower levels of the city. Man, woman, two children, sprawled on the ground. Dead, certainly. Durnir stooped over the nearest child, a girl of perhaps eight, as his squad fanned out to check the others. There was no blood, no sign of a wound. Her skin… glittered. He slipped off a gauntlet and touched her cheek. It was freezing under his fingers, her body completely solid. The sparkling coating was frost, melting slightly in the heat of his torch.
He shared a glance with his corporal, who stood over them. It was a cold winter, to be sure, but not cold enough to freeze four people solid less than thirty metres from one of the city’s main streets. Slipping his gauntlet back on he motioned to his squad, who formed up again and advanced down the remainder of the passageway towards the light and noise of the boulevard. They stopped at the arched gate, and stared.
Before them, running across their path from left to right, was one of the principle arteries of Karak Barvak, a broad, high-ceilinged tunnel that connected the bustling merchant districts near the gate to the residential districts deep below. It was kept permanently lit by torches regularly spaced along the walls, replaced endlessly by the diligent lightkeepers who wheeled their carts of replacements up and down. The smoke from the torches roiled up, completely hiding the ceiling beneath a thick, sooty cloud which slowly disappeared up the chimneys carved at regular intervals, the dark floor of the smoke layer making the tunnel feel much closer, much lower, than it truly was.
Normally there was a steady flow of foot traffic in both directions, but now there was only a tide of panicked dwarves flowing down, down into the depths of the hold. They cast fearful looks into the inky darknesses of the side tunnels, unable to brave them without torches, confined to the main streets as they fled whatever it was that had triggered the stampede, up in the market. In the forest of rushing feet Durnir glimpsed more bodies, sprawled and hard as rocks, catching unwary feet and sending people tumbling. He could see here and there men in the uniform of the army, faces young, eyes wide and staring, weapons abandoned as they were swept along, away.
Dousing their superfluous torches, the Bears formed up, using clinging to the left-hand wall of the street as they turned left and advanced upwards, shields held out in a gentle wedge to deflect the crowd as it rushed past. They advanced up the gently spiralling tunnel, and gradually the crowd thinned out. Durnir could hear different noises now – still screams, yes, but martial cries too, the calls of soldiers, up ahead. His squad picked up their pace, moving at a quick march now they had no civilians to forge their way past. At last they reached the end of the road, and the great arched span that led to the central marketplace.
The great room was strangely lit. Many of the torches were out, either run down and not replaced or knocked off the wall, leaving much of the marketplace deep in pooled shadow. Further in, however, there were lights. Not the warm fires of the Albed, with their comforting shades of orange and red. These were brilliant, blinding white, tinged with blue at the edges, balls of fearsome luminescence. Like stars, a part of Durnir thought, a constellation in the smoke. Silhouetted against these points of light he could see the figures of dwarves, armed and armoured, slashing at the lights and shouting.
He motioned his troops forward, and they advanced cautiously into the chamber, picking their way between the pockets of gloom and the wreckage of stalls, the floor a carpet of discarded goods and cold corpses. As they drew closer to the strange tableau unfolding before them, their breath began to mist before their eyes, and tiny frost crystals coated the silver of their weapons, which shone in the reflected light of the daemon before them. And it was a daemon: Durnir knew from the moment he saw what it did to the guards.
One of the balls of light would swoop suddenly from its place in the spiralling swarm of lantern-likes, and latch onto a shrieking dwarf. The ball would then flare, brilliant pale and so bright as to hurt to look at, recasting the world around it in stark black and white. It would linger there for perhaps half a minute, gentling falling to earth as its victim’s spasms grew weaker, and then it would detach, fading at once to normal brightness, and rejoin the rest of the lights, soon indistinguishable from any other. The remains of the dwarf remained on the ground, drained of all vitality and colour, with no physical wounds at all.
Recognising the threat they were trained to fight, the Silver Bears wasted no time. They rushed forward, shouldering past the pitiful remnants of the infantry squad, who fell back with cries of relief. The daemon sensed the silver, recoiled, the swarm bunching and drawing itself back. His men spread out, shields up, and began to encircle it. It was silent, utterly so, but although his ears heard nothing Durnir nonetheless had the notion of a frustrated hiss as it was hemmed in. Perhaps it was his imagination. Their encirclement complete, several of his troopers began to move in, slashing at the lower orbs of luminescence whilst the rest of the squad maintained the trap, and held the starlit vampire at bay. The lanterns dissipated with every silvered strike, breaking up and coiling like tobacco smoke before fading into nothing.
A sudden crack, deafening amidst the grim silence of the melee, and the daemon flared and recoiled again, the suggestion of a shrieking ringing in Durnir’s subconscious. He turned to see a squadron of Silver Wolves, musketeer counterparts to his own regiment, already mid-way through their reloading drill, preparing to send another volley of silver shot scything through the body of the monster even as the Bears mauled every light within reach. Sergeant Durnir permitted himself a tight smile of satisfaction. They’d got it, whatever in hell this thing was.
Even as he thought that, it changed. It was smaller now, perhaps one third its initial size, less than two-score lanterns remaining. But it was faster too, had been probing the circle of Bears like a caged animal. Now, suddenly, it coiled in on itself, lifting all its lanterns out of reach of the shouting infantrymen. He heard a frantic command from the Wolf sergeant, saw the muskets come up, but it was too late, the daemon sliding up and out of sight, into the churning torch-smoke that cloaked the ceiling. A brief, stunned silence, and then the sound of screams began to drift down through the cloud.
Durnir was already moving, his squad and the Wolves falling in behind him as he raced for one of the exits, turning onto the ramp that coiled up the side of the market and led to the upper levels. The heavy infantry were slow, pacing themselves so they reached the top with strength to fight. Above the market was the antechamber that led to the gate. Was the thing trying to get out?
At the top, he had his answer. The antechamber seethed with people, clamouring to get out, those who had been caught with the daemon between them and the deep city trying to flee any way they could. The gates were sealed, a haggard-looking commander of the city watch standing behind a line of grim-looking soldiers, refusing to let the unprepared and under-dressed crowd flee into the winter night and the almost certain death that awaited them there. But his eyes, and all others, were now fixed on the hateful, radiant abomination that had come streaming out from one of the side doors, bright and bitter cold, and buried itself in the heaving mass of unarmed, unarmoured flesh. The winter night, come inside to claim its own.
Durnir gaped. It was bigger, almost as big again as it had been in the chamber below. Where perhaps a score of starlight lanterns had hung there now shone upwards of fifty, sixty. He watched in mute horror as another blinked into life before his eyes, his gaze catching the dimming of a flare as one of the luminescent leeches relinquished its death-grip on some unfortunate man in merchant dress. A vampire in truth, equipped to flee from such as him, to rebuild itself from easier prey, too fast when weak for his men to catch, too strong when large to kill. A sick feeling settled in his gut.
Then, even as he shifted his grip on his axe and resigned himself to a brutal game of cat and mouse, a movement caught his eye. A dwarf, slipping down one wall towards an exit tunnel. He stared, trying to make out what had drawn his eye. He didn’t know if it was the strange light cast by the phosvorous presence between them, or the guttering shadows cast by the remaining torches, but the dwarf’s skin seemed to be moving, flowing, and unstable somehow. The figure was hunched, eyes closed, under strain. As he rounded the corner, just as he stepped into the inky darkness of the side passage, he straightened – more than straightened, stood suddenly taller than any dwarf, his skin suddenly grey and marked with swirling patterns. Pitch black, glittering eyes met Durnir’s own, for the briefest of moments, before the figure disappeared into the gloom.
Durnir set off, shrieking commands as he went. His startled Bears ran to catch up, trying to form some sort of pattern as the Wolves turned their fire on the renascent daemon, which buried itself deeper into the mass of civilians, flattening itself below their line of fire, growing. They could only slow that growth, for a time. Time enough for the Silver Bears to hunt down the sorcerer and banish the thing.
Two of his men grabbed torches from the walls, without breaking pace, as the group plunged into the tunnel. The sense of silence was swift in coming, the shrieking of the crowd behind them fading away as they twisted into the mountain. They slowed to a march, formed up, catching their breath as their torches were raised high behind them, driving back the darkness one inch at a time. The Shadow had no torch, Durnir had seen, but wouldn’t need one. Tracking torch-lit, clanking heavy infantry in a dark, quiet tunnel wasn’t an activity that would strain its incredible senses, nor even those of another dwarf. But the dwarves knew the tunnels, and the intruder did not.
The Shadow emerged from the darkness in compete silence, crossing the span of the torchlight before the leading soldiers even had time to react. The twin Albed axes in its hands flashed, parting silvered armour and biting into bone beneath. The two fell, shrieking, but the enemy was already past them, its weapons free and arcing into fresh targets. It dodged an axe thrust, severing the offending hand at the wrist with a counter-blow before bouncing off the thrust shield of a fourth, slamming into the wall of the tunnel. Before the soldier could press his advantage it had pushed off, rolling low to slash his feet from under him before launching itself up, burying the blade of its axe in the soft underside of his jaw, spraying those behind with the fountaining gore.
Durnir held back, and watched the melee. The Shadow was too fast, too strong to be an ordinary soldier, even a witch. A Chosen, almost certainly, to be making short work of his squad like this, although the slightly unhinged leer that twisted the patterned face was not the impassive, alien blankness he had seen in Shadows before. Twenty two of his Bears were down, the remaining three falling back with shields raised from a whirlwind flurry of blows. His thoughts shifted back up the tunnel, where the lantern-leech would be waxing in its power, feasting on his kin. Swift, almost unthinking, Durnir hefted his weapon and barrelled past his startled men, inside the swinging blades of the manic alien warrior, and buried his axe in its neck.
The body sagged, axes clattering from limp fingers. The eyes, black as pits, met Durnir’s own for the second time. He saw exhaustion, the strain of maintaining the daemon lord above, hatred for himself and his kind, delight in the night’s devastation. With a final, triumphal flash, the light in those eyes went out, and he winced as the suggestion of a hundred-voiced scream echoed through his imagination. The body fell to the floor, and in silence the remaining Bears began a slow, heavy slog up the tunnel, to offer what comfort they could to those still living in the open grave above.