Chapter 32 – Evacuation
I followed Orpheus back the grove we had encamped in, almost losing him as he entered the protective spell that concealed our presence from the enemy. Everyone inside had awaken and looked to be preparing for battle.
"Uh...what's going on?" I asked.
"Well, we were going to look for you and Orpheus." Jeb said, folding his arms and staring at me. "Fortunately, you have both returned before we had to go risk our lives doing so. What were you thinking?"
"Is 'I wasn't.' the answer you're looking for?" I asked, feeling my face warm up just a little.
"It would be a start. Where have you been?"
"Inside the city, talking to their leaders."
"What, really?" Jeb looked immensely surprised. "How did you get in in a way that didn't involve you getting nearly killed?"
I explained my fire-rope stunt...thing to Jeb. He continued to stare perplexedly at me. "What? Did I do something so wrong that I cannot hope to ever remedy the situation?"
"No, it's nothing like that, it's just... you changed energy directly to mass. Aren't you tired?"
"Not especially...is doing that supposed to be hard?"
"It's only been theoretically possible until now. So far as I know, no one else has ever done what you just did. No, not even Troy can claim that he's been able to turn energy into physical mass. It requires a large amount of energy to make even a small amount of mass, but... to create a rope of flame of the length you described would take an almost preposterous level of strength."
"But then...how could I...I don't have..."
"I would surmise your affinity for fire granted you a significant measure of help, and I would think that the fact that you didn't know it hadn't been done was of some assistance, but still... that kind of a feat is nearly unparalleled. Never mind it for now, but try not to overexert yourself in the meantime. You said you met their leaders?"
"Two of them, yeah. I met the kid who's supposed to be the figurehead they've formed around, his name's Chris and he actually does have an enormous warhammer. Almost killed me with it, too."
"And the other?"
"Some old man, I didn't get his name. He's a bit like you, I guess. Are wise old men really that common?"
"You know, if his name is Jeb too..."
"It is a reasonably common name, or it was, at least. What did they want?"
"They want to get out. The old man said that if we could serve as a temporary distraction, they could force their way through the gates and get out of the city. He said they would come with us."
"Did you stop to think about how many of them there are before we agree to let them take refuge with us?"
I hesitated. "I didn't."
Jeb shook his head. "It doesn't matter, I suppose. What is more important is that you thought that we could draw the attention of these undead without getting severely wounded ourselves. How do you think we might do this?"
I grimaced. I needed to start thinking on the important issues. "I...don't know. I guess I was just hoping that it'd all work out on its own."
"No matter how unlikely that is?"
Jeb sighed. "Well, this is why you have advisers. As it stands, unless you have some more unknown powers you care to reveal right at this moment, we are in a thorny situation. Should we fail to attack the undead soon, we will be looked upon suspiciously by those inside. If we attack as we are, we have little chance of coming out of this unscathed. We might even be completely annihilated, and that would serve no purpose to our cause beyond killing it."
"Don't you know anything that would give us at least enough advantage to survive long enough for them to get out here and help us?"
Jeb stroked his beard. "You saw the enemy army. Does it look like they have any undead mages out there?"
"I couldn't tell you. I wouldn't know what to look for...they had liches, if that's any help."
"Not really. Liches aren't always proficient in magic, though it isn't unusual for them to be competent. If they are here, the only chance I would have of actually getting my spell off would be if I could discreetly cast it."
"Why is this such a problem, anyway?"
"You know that it takes a significant amount of time to cast large spells, as you have to gather the ever-increasing amounts of energy necessary to cast them. As you gather that energy, it becomes increasingly easy for an enemy mage, or a collection of enemy mages, to notice the energy spike at your location and work to counter your spell. It becomes very easy very quickly to counter a spell as it grows larger. If they have more than maybe five mages near us, I would be shut down nearly instantly."
"What if I started gathering an enormous amount of energy to cover you doing the same?"
Jeb's fingers stopped at the end of his beard. "Hmm...it might work. It's rarely done because it presents a substantial danger to you, because you would have to gather an astonishing amount of power to cover a spell of the magnitude you're suggesting. You might accidentally deplete your powers or overload your body with energy and destroy it."
"And you're not worried about me doing that?"
"No. The raw energy you are capable of producing is beyond anything that I have ever seen. Your body was able to withstand the force of releasing a spell of catastrophic devastation the likes of which this world has never seen, back when we were struggling to make our way to the Church. Furthermore, doing something along those lines fits in well with the source of your greatest strength."
"Alright. What happens then?"
"Well, assuming we are successful, the rest of us can attack the undead head-on. I will send a signal into the sky that will hopefully alert those inside Forhoppinge that we have made our attack, and we should get enough support to fend off the undead we will probably be swamped with."
"What about ghosts?"
"The signal I will send up should repel them. I cannot be certain, though, my method is an old one and Troy may have found a way to eradicate that weakness. Still, it is our only hope. None of us have the skill set or weaponry necessary to exorcise the spirits, and they are immune to all forms of physical attack and all other forms of magic."
"Alright." I looked around. All of the men we had brought with were prepared for battle. "Did anyone not hear what we were going to do?" A coupled of them murmured that they knew what to do. "Uh, ok then. Let's go, then."
Jeb waved his hand over his head, and the protective magic bubble vanished. "Get a little closer to them and begin, Matt." He said to me.
I made my way through the brush and trees toward the city, taking deep, slow breaths as I walked. I could hear the men moving in behind me, but they would not help me do what I was about to do. Jeb was uttering a rhythmic chant under his breath. I took one last deep breath and began to focus my energy for a spell. What spell, I didn't know, but the image of an enormous, mushroom-shaped cloud began to flit in and out of my thoughts.
I had made it out of the grove. Jeb signaled the other men to stay hidden in the trees while I stepped ever closer to the undead horde. They hadn't noticed me yet, but with all the energy I was pooling, it wouldn't take much longer. The power I was gathering was causing the air around me to vibrate and get very, very hot. The earth around my feet was starting to deform as I moved ever closer to the horde.
Something hit me over the head, and I staggered. The immense energy I had built up began to quickly fade, and I realized that the undead mages had noticed the huge energy spike I was creating and were struggling to suppress it. I glanced back at Jeb. He still seemed to be focusing his power, so I clenched my fists and continued to draw out power. The opposing force slowly grew in power, and I could only assume that more enemy mages had found me and were trying to help their comrades stop me from blowing them all away. I suddenly realized that my power build up had ignited the air around me and that I was standing inside a fire.
I was starting to tire. The suppressing force was becoming more and more overbearing and I could feel the energy I had built up dissipating. I closed my eyes and tried to dig deeper, to find some more energy from somewhere deep inside that would give Jeb enough time to finish his spell...
I was suddenly filled with a huge amount of power, power that welled up from some hidden spring in me, continuously growing in magnitude. The suppressing force began to diminish, and I saw several of the liches in the undead horde break apart and crumble into dust. It occurred to me now that the other undead had gotten much closer to me since I had started generating power.
There was a flash of light, and I lost all semblance of focus. I shut my eyes and fell backwards, trying to get myself as far away as possible from the light. The light was searing, more searing than the flames I had just been standing in. I knew I had just lost all the energy that I had worked so hard to build up and hoped that the light was a result of Jeb's spell. I opened my eyes and realized that all I could see was whiteness.
I felt several people run past me, then a hand grasped mine and pulled me to my feet. "Are you alright?"
"I can't see."
"I'm sorry. I should've remembered to tell you to look away. But if that's all, then you've done very well."
I blinked several times, as quickly as I could. The light began to fade from my eyes. Jeb spun me away from the city and flung something toward the city, the signal, I presumed. "Did it work, then?"
"Yes, it went well. Even better than expected. You seem to have accidentally overtaxed several of the enemy's mages and killed them. Come on, we'd better go help the others."
I felt invigorated. "You're right, let's go." I drew my sword and charged off toward another part of the undead horde.
"Wait! They went this way." Jeb called after me.
"I know! You can help them out, right?" As I turned to focus on the oncoming mob of undead, I saw Jeb shake his head. In spite of the extreme energy output I had achieved within the past few moments, I could feel a huge amount of power flowing through me, pushing me on further. I slipped the edges of my cloak around my shoulders and plunged into the heart of the horde.
For the first time, I felt at home in the whirlwind of combat. The undead were slow, weak, and stupid. In spite of their vastly superior numbers, my skill was able to keep them from ever touching me while I cut through them in my own, awkward sort of way. The elegance of my swordplay was moot, though – soon, I was surrounded by piles of bones rather than aggressive undead. I glanced to my right and saw that the men of Forhoppinge had broken out, striking into the backs of the undead as they were moving to engage us.
Extremely noticeable at the front was Chris, swinging his gigantic hammer around with reckless abandon in a fluid, almost graceful way (well, as graceful as could be expected for someone so small swinging something so large). He took huge, sweeping, effortless swings through the heart of the undead horde, rendering the various undead nothing more than broken piles on or in the ground. Spinning on the spot like some kind of stunted, voracious whirlwind, he was truly a sight to behold.
I snapped out of my revere in time to side stop the reckless charge of an oncoming shelleton. I swung my sword as it passed, the stroke cut halfway into one of its legs. I tugged at the blade, ducking under the giant's arm as it swung around to deal with the insect that had scratched it, but it was to no avail. I had swung hard, as Mastrus had always told me I must, but I still lacked his strength to cut cleanly through the bone.
I felt a sword stroke bounce off the armored weaving of my cloak. I turned, seized the offending skeleton's spinal column in my left hand, and snapped off its head. I felt the ground shake and saw that Chris was progressing ever closer, slamming his hammer against the ground as the undead retreated from his wrath. Each stroke caused the ground to convulse and split, opening chasms and fissures over which the undead tripped or into which they fell. Some of the undead his compatriots had been dealing with were fleeing past him, attempting to strike at his back as they passed, but their attacks had no effect. They seemed to meet an invisible barrier some distance from him and reflect off.
But that was a mystery I would have to contemplate later. The shelleton I was engaged with took another wild swing at my head, rotating its entire upper around as it did so. I ducked under the attack and ceased my futile attempt to remove my sword from its leg. As the giant took a moment to balance itself out, I stepped on the hilt of my sword, stepped onto its pelvis, and jumped up onto its shoulders. It spun around again, this time in confusion, and nearly threw me off my perch, but I grasped its neck firmly between my feet and avoided an untimely unseating.
I reached down between my feet and gripped the giant's skull through the hollow eye sockets. Finally aware of its assailant's location, the two enormous arms twisted up to pull me down, but I gave a quick twist and snapped its head off. The overlarge body collapsed, deprived of the necromantic wizardry that gave it animation. I stumbled off the fallen shelleton's shoulders, and quickly took stock of my surroundings.
As far as I could see, there were no more undead left. Jeb was suddenly at my side.
"That's it. We're done here." He said. "A couple of the men were hurt, though... but it shouldn't be fatal. Orpheus was impaled multiple times, but he seems to be alright, and another is going to have a new scar on his face. Otherwise, nothing." He glanced past me. "Am I to understand that you are Chris?"
"That's my name." Chris said from behind me. He was standing casually at the feet of the headless shelleton, his warhammer balanced across his shoulders. He was completely unharmed. "They're all gone now."
"Some of them have escaped. It won't be long before more arrive." I said, grabbing the hilt of my sword and giving it another tug. It remained stuck fast. Chris stepped near me, took hold of the leg on either side of my sword, and, with a little straining, broke it in half, releasing the sword. I picked it up, wiped the blade on my cloak, and sheathed it. "We need to be ready, or we need to leave now."
"We can't leave quite yet." The old man I had seen with Chris earlier came limping up toward us, leaning on his staff. "Regrettably, many of our warriors have been injured. We must rest for at least tonight."
" 'At least'? How likely is it that it's longer than that?"
"Regardless of what I say, you're going to want to leave tomorrow, right?"
"Well, I... no. Probably not. What would be the use of leaving men behind just for them to help swell the enemy's ranks? But the thing is...these guys, they move faster than you'd expect. We need to get moving by tomorrow. I don't want it to be that way, but that's just the way it is..."
"Yes, I know." The old man turned to Jeb. "Should any of your men require more than tonight?"
"Very well then, I shall make sure that none of ours do as well. We're in this together now, after all." He closed his eyes and slowly nodded. "Yes, indeed we are... I must inform the men to submit to your authority. You should have no trouble with them, so long as you aren't too unreasonable. In the mean, bring all of your men into the city. I'm sure we can find you some rooms."