Chapter Twenty-Six: Shadowfangs and the Walker
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
Expecting the attack, if not the timing, the instant she saw the movement, Shoel had her sword already drawn and crashing down at it in a two-handed sweep to knock it away, much like she'd tried what seemed like an eternity ago on Hemlock, only with much more force and an intent to kill behind the blow. The wraith let out an ear-splitting shriek as sword met shadowy 'flesh'. It leapt away, a gaping gash where the sword had hit it, and howled much like the call that had cut through the air the night before. Several more wraiths came running from the direction the evident leader had come, their movements almost seeming to have a strobe effect in shadow matter. There were others, too, coming in from other sides of the ring; but it was those that had been following the leader who were focused on Shoel. They made a horrible, echoing yipping sound, like phantom dogs baying at the kill.
The protective fire at her back, Shoel swung her sword one-handed in a wide arc to repel the creatures, then completed the arc into a circle, and added a slash-- a Charter mark. Light blazed, brighter than the fire, around her, following the lines of the mark like water, and the wraiths shrank back, still baying. One fled, the others jumped and baited but didn't quite brave her protective barrier. Her left hand had undone the bindings of Saraneth, already taking the handle and pulling it free. Our of the corner of her eye she saw Hemlock, torch now lit, coming back to back with her, the fire between them, swinging the blaze back and forth.
The largest wraith was the first to recover. It leapt forward again, gray mist pouring out from the wound Shoel's sword had left in it. This time it aimed for the side, perhaps hoping to catch its prey unawares and not get too close to the dreadful fire, but it was the one she kept her eye on, and she was ready. She parried its leap, turning to meet it and blade crossing her body to sweep at it again, towards the fire. It disappeared in a puff of mist and blue flame as it was pinned between sword and fire's heat, nothing leaving a mark to show where the beast had been previously, even as she swung Saraneth in its most powerful arc, a slow, wide loop at the level of her shoulder. The tolling sounded over the din of the wraiths, and she stretched her mind to include the binding over as many as she could focus on. There were at least twenty Saraneth touched and caught-- but they didn't have sentience to subsume, hardly a mind at all, but for hatred and the hunger of the Dead to consume Life. They didn't any of them have the strength to fight the binding, but the power of their feeling was nearly overwhelming.
Struggling against the tide of pure emotion, Shoel somehow kept her mind fixed on holding them in place; they bayed mournfully, but had no will to attack. The light held off the few she'd missed on her side, long enough for her to flip Saraneth over, catching it by the bell and clapper, and slip it hurriedly into its wrapping. Now she drew Kibeth, the Walker, and, trembling against the strength of so many spirits at once, twirled it over her head in its signature figure-eight, sending its multi-voiced, rhythmic calling over the sound of the wraiths' wailing. "Into Death, every last one of you," she commanded, her voice sounding strained even to her own ears. If she was lucky, she'd even send a few she hadn't bound, with Kibeth's call alone, but she wouldn't bet on it, and she had to be ready to fight off whatever remained.
As Kibeth's musical ring finally stilled, though, there was nearly complete silence, except for the restless stomping of the horses and the heavy breathing of the two people. "They're gone," Hemlock said after a very long moment. Her mark starting to fade, Shoel looked around and saw it was true. Whatever she hadn't banished, had fled, and she couldn't even sense a Dead spirit anywhere nearby.
"That's almost thirty wraiths that won't... be bothering anyone again," Shoel managed, sinking to the ground with relief and trying to catch her breath. "I've never tried... to bind so many before."
Hemlock came around the side of the fire and crouched next to her, for once looking her directly in the face. There was concern in his eyes, but also something else that told her he was very impressed. "Are you all right?"
"Just tired," she assured him, smiling a bit. "And... I think I have a headache." The pressure of holding so many, with such alien minds, had left her temples pounding. "Next time... I don't care how tired I am... I'm putting up a diamond of protection first thing."
The necromancer smiled at her words, the corners of his eyes crinkling; it was the kindest expression she'd ever seen on his face. He raised one hand, putting it against her cheek and brushing a few stray strands of hair out of her face before letting it drop back to his side. She blinked at him, and he said, "If you want, I can take first watch."
"Actually," she answered, drawing her sword back into its scabbard, "I think neither of us deserves to not get a full night's sleep. Give me a few minutes to rest, and eat, and maybe I can manage one tonight... I can at least try." She'd have to forgo renewing the health and purity spell, but she thought that maybe sleep was more important this time. "No one trampled dinner, did they?" she asked hopefully, twisting around to try and see if the pan had been overturned or covered in dust.
"No, seems fine," Hemlock said, reaching and pulling the pan over to both of them. "Luckily wraiths don't have too much effect on the surrounding environment."
"Praise the Charter," she groaned, for both of his comments, retrieving her knife and its seasoned burden from the cooled pan. "I never want to touch the essence of one of those things again. Even Dead Hands have more of a mind than those wraiths." Hemlock chuckled mellowly, though it quickly turned into a yawn-- one Shoel caught and magnified, though she hid it politely behind a hand. He settled himself down more comfortably next to her, taking his own dinner and ripping off a chunk with his side teeth while she tore into hers, slicing off another piece once she'd consumed the first.
Though the wraiths were gone, Hemlock continued to stare into the shadows as though he was disbelieving what had happened. Shoel followed his gaze again a moment, then asked, "Did you see exactly what happened? How many got away?"
"I have no clue," Hemlock replied, still staring into the darkness. "I think I saw maybe one or two running, but most of them just seemed to... fade out of existence."
"I sent them into Death," she nodded, relieved and actually rather pleased; she hadn't expected such good results. Even Chlorr would have had to have been pleased with a banishing like that. "Hopefully all the way to the Ninth Gate. I guess Kibeth works particularly well on them... it took even the ones I couldn't bind. I'll remember that."
"No guarantees it will work so well on some of the more powerful ones, though," Hemlock sighed. "Shadowfangs aren't really that powerful, there's just so damn many of them."
Shoel nodded agreement, cutting herself a third strip of meat. "At least more powerful ones won't be so... distasteful to bind. I might have gotten them all, if they'd actually had minds to grab onto. Ugh." Shuddering, and chewing another bite, she considered a question, and once she'd swallowed, asked, "How much do they communicate with each other? This kind of wraith. Do you know?"
"A lot, I suppose, pack hunters. What little consciousness they have is very in tune," Hemlock said, blinking. He chewed on his own dinner thoughtfully, now staring at nothing in particular.
"Then, if we're lucky, maybe the ones who got away will warn the rest to keep away from us. As much as I'd love to destroy the lot of them, I'd really rather not be forced to do this every night."
Hemlock chuckled darkly. "Just hope they don't tell anything else about this." The thought stopped her cold mid-chew, and she nodded fervently. This had certainly been a display of power, and if anyone were looking for them... well, if they knew what to look for, the night's activities would draw their attention right to them.
Suddenly she didn't have nearly as much appetite, and she finished her last slice of meat slowly before levering herself to her feet carefully and pacing a deliberate course around the campsite, noting each spot where she'd place a Charter mark. The necromancer watched her placidly a moment before getting up to pack the leftovers into rune-marked compartments on Vesper's saddle. She reached the horses when he was removing his bedroll, and she smirked a bit at him. "Actually going to use that tonight?" she asked. "Or will I wake up to a dragon-blanket again?" All she got in response was a silent stare, with the necromancer wearing a very peculiar expression, before he finished unlacing the ties and padded away towards the fire.
"What was that for?" she asked after him, puzzled.
"Nothing," he answered shortly once the bedroll was in order. Then he set to removing his armor, dropping it in a haphazard pile next to his bedding. Frowning, she watched a moment, before letting it go and getting back to what she was doing. She tossed her own bedroll from where Hemlock had left it beside the avicorn, over to the fire, gave the avicorn a soothing few strokes and murmurs, and stood at the eastern-most point of her proposed diamond.
The Charter was still close, mercifully so, and setting down the Eastmark was wonderfully simple. South followed, with more effort: it was closest to their destination, and she hadn't wanted to think about it. West and North flowed into place, completing the diamond around fire, four-foots, and bedrolls, and she sagged a little against the nearest support of a tree. Once she'd caught her breath again, she made her unsteady way back to the fire and gratefully sank down beside it. Hemlock had already bundled himself up, facing away from her. It took her a moment to muster up the energy to do the same, stripping away the last of her armor and weaponry and crawling into her own bedroll and almost immediately falling asleep.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.