As I called out “We are under attack!”, the warriors in Charrgate Haven tried to shake off the sleep and alcohol that had numbed their senses and leapt to their feet. There was much fumbling for swords and hasty strapping on of armor, and I stared in horror at the commotion, a chill going through me that had nothing to do with the snowy weather outside.
Leaving them gathering their wits as well as their weapons, I went out of the doors and stood at the top of the hill. The army of ghosts had spread to either side of the wide road and were advancing on the Haven, their spectral weapons shining in the moonlight. My teeth ached with the bitter dust in the air, and my heart pounded.
I closed my left hand around the snow cherry staff and planted it firmly in the ground, opened my senses to the magic and let it flow through the coral gem and down my arm to my solar plexus. It balled there, a scarlet knot of pulsing energy, sending threads along my arms and down my spine until my bones seemed to vibrate with it. Sparks shot from my fingers and the ends of my hair.
Calmly, as the first warriors began to spill from the Haven, I traced a line in the air a few hundred yards in front of us across the road, and a strip of fire leapt into being, flaring up like a curtain between us. The front row of ghostly figures screamed and crumbled, and I almost gagged on the resultant glittering dust they left behind. Gathering the power of the four winds in my hands, I swept the arcane powder away, only then to stare in shock at the sight of the next line of ghosts taking their place, marching forwards across the dying flames.
By this time, though, my companions had shaken off the fog of sleep and stupor and had come to stand at my side. We fanned out, and I saw Jeger leap atop a rock and notch an arrow in her longbow, Skylar do the same with his shortbow, the arrows dripping green poison, and Aisling spin her sword around her body in a figure of eight movement while hefting her shield on her arm. Either side of me, Rytlock and Christof took up stance, the mighty charr with Sohothin hanging loosely in his grip, the engineer with his belt full of grenades and the flamethrower stowed on his back.
Behind us, twenty or so other warriors joined our ranks, drawing their bows and testing the weight of their staves and swords.
When it came, the charge almost took me by surprise. The Ascalon ghosts I’d encountered previously had always been defensive in nature, waiting for us to advance and using their spectral abilities to wear down their opponents before meeting them in melee, so I—and I presumed many of my allies—were unprepared for their sudden assault.
I backed up, leaving Aisling and the other warriors there to bear the brunt of the initial attack, blinking as the sudden light of a guardian’s protective bubble burst forth along with a loud exclamation, as if he’d cast it automatically, a reflexive gesture. Next to me, Christof pulled the pin from one of his grenades and lobbed it over our heads, where it exploded amongst the rear ranks of ghosts, filling the air with shrieks and flattened bodies.
Unbeknown to me, Skylar must have laid some traps before he retired for the night, because as the ghosts rushed forward, they triggered the spikes and a mist of poison clouded around them, causing several to claw at their throats, choking.
And then the line of ghosts met our front rank, and the clash of swords against metal and wood drowned out everything else.
I’d made the mistake of not elevating myself above the rest of my army, and cursed as I ran over to where Jeger was starting to hail arrows down on the shimmering haze of approaching ghosts. I let my cloak slip from my shoulders as I fell, and leapt up onto the rock in one easy jump, coming to stand beside her so I could see across the battle.
Yells and shrieks rang as loud as the swords, and I could see immediately that we were going to have trouble. The ghosts were numerous, outnumbering us by at least three to one, and they seemed to be throwing themselves at us with abandon, as if they had no thought for their safety.
I threw fireballs and caused the ground to erupt with lava beneath them, but for some reason I didn’t seem to be causing as much damage as usual, and I wondered if they had taken precautions with protecting themselves against fire using some kind of spell or potion. In answer to that brief thought, I saw Christof stow his flamethrower and switch to his rifle, as if he, too, had discovered that weapon to be of little use.
I called on the earth to lend me its power and made the ground split and churn beneath the ghosts, then drew on the lightning in the clouds above our heads and sent jagged knives down onto them, the cracks jumping from ghost to ghost and shocking them in the process.
Someone in our front line went down—I couldn’t see if it was Aisling—so I drew on the healing power of water and sent a fine mist of rain across our army to heal any light wounds and give them added energy to continue their fight. A ghost fell, and then I saw Aisling still standing, legs planted firmly as she brandished her sword, and I felt a swell of relief.
Again and again, the guardians’ blue-white light burst forth to aid the melee warriors, and the air became permanently filled with the cloying smell and taste of bitter arcane dust. But as the minutes passed and the flow of ghosts ebbed and swelled, I started to see a pattern. They bunched in the centre each time they began a new attack, concentrating on those who tried to hold the front line. And focusing on one person in particular.
I went cold. They were after Sohothin. Why had we not foreseen that? I waved to try and attract the charr’s attention, realising he had to retreat from the front line, but deep down I knew that even if I had managed to catch his eye, there was no chance of getting the fierce warrior to ever pull back. He swung the sword with amazing force, hewing off limbs and slicing through ghostly sinew, oblivious to anything but the figure in front of him, blinded by the battle rage that filled his veins.
Christof, too, only had eyes for the ghostly figures. He had his rifle to his shoulder and moved incessantly, dodging between blades and the sparkle of cast spells to fire into the ranks, felling enemy after enemy with each blast.
I lowered my staff as another wave of ghosts surged forwards and forced the surprised Rytlock to take a step back, before he held his ground and bellowed his rage. I grabbed Jeger’s arm next to me and spun her around, pointing to the towering form of the charr. “There,” I yelled above the clashes and screams. “They are going for Rytlock—concentrate your fire on those in front of him.”
She nodded and started firing, but even with her skill she couldn’t fire into the centre of battle, too worried about hitting a friend instead of a foe. I saw her great bear, Tolkien, leap into the throng, teeth bared, watched Jeger pause momentarily to cast a heal over him suggesting he had been harmed, and then her arrows continued hailing down again.
But it wasn’t enough.
Across from me, standing on a fence, the tiny form of Skylar the asuran perched with incredible balance as he fired his poisoned arrows into the horde of ghosts that just kept on coming. I waved and made the standard combat sign for attention, and was relieved when he immediately looked up and gestured back that he had seen me. I pointed two fingers at my eyes, then pointed them at the crowd, described a charr by tapping both hands to my temples and indicating horns, then rounded both hands to indicate a circle—the combat symbol for protection. Skylar nodded and turned, and he also began to target those ghosts directly in front of Rytlock.
Still, they kept on coming. It was as if they were springing from a channel beneath the earth, a spectral river that spat them out incessantly, and suddenly I knew they were not going to stop, would continue to pour forth until we were overrun, and the sword was lost.
I leapt down from the rock, ran around the back of the army and pushed forwards through the throng, tossing fireballs and melting spectral skin and bone as I passed. A white figure lurched towards me, catching me by surprise, and I brought my arm up instinctively to shield myself. At the same time, however, a shot rang out and the enemy fell to the ground. I lowered my arm to see Christof give me a brief nod before he cocked the rifle and turned back to the fray.
Heart pounding at my near miss, I pushed through the final battling figures to Rytlock’s back. Only as I neared did I remember how big and strong he was; blows rained down on him, but he withstood them magnificently, his arms like steel bars and his legs like tree trunks, solid and sturdy. But even he wasn’t strong enough to withstand the onslaught.
I saw the axe descend, heard the heavy thunk as it struck him on the shoulder. His pauldrons deflected the sharp edge, but the force of the blow knocked him off balance. The ghosts took advantage of it and surged forwards, and Rytlock fell, Sohothin skittering across the ground.
Christof roared and stood in front of his friend, ditched the slow rifle and pulled out his pair of pistols, trying to cover Rytlock until he could get to his feet. The charr turned onto his front and reached out a huge claw for the blade, but the ghosts were already moving.
But they weren’t as quick as me. I leapt forwards, picked the sword up and hefted it in my right hand. It was not my weapon of choice and it felt heavy and clumsy in my grip, but I planted the staff in the ground, willed lightning to run down my arms and stood resolute, determined I would not let Sohothin go all the time I lived.
And then something strange happened. The flow of ghosts stopped. The front line swelled, milled, turned in confusion. Spectral figures fell beneath arrows, tripped over fallen bodies, crushed others beneath their feet. One reached for my staff but I incinerated him in seconds; another knocked into me, but a nearby warrior sliced off her head cleanly and she fell to her knees, then disintegrated into dust. The rest surged around me, but they did not target me.
I stood there, shocked, as Rytlock got to his knees practically untouched by the swarm of ghosts. They ignored him—ignored everyone, in fact. They searched for the sword.
But they could not see it.
I held it aloft, seeing it clearly with my own eyes, the steel glinting in the moonlight, but the ghosts were already falling back, sure the blade had vanished, all interest in the skirmish lost. A hail of arrows and shots followed them as they fled back down the hill, but the battle was over.
Rytlock turned to stare at me, so did Christof, gradually lowering his pistols as he realised the danger was over.
I stood there, uncertain, looked at Sohothin, then looked at them.
I don’t know how I realised it through all the teeth and blooded fur, but Rytlock looked amused.
“Well,” he said. “Now that is something I did not expect.”