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Cleansing

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There are many kinds of wood, but only one kind of ash.
- Jyseni proverb

Trahern watched in horror as the fiend bore down on Barlow. The man made no attempt to escape as the slender fingers wrapped around him and began to squeeze the life from his lungs. The creature pawed at Barlow's shirt with one hand as it held him fast with the other; it took his mail shirt by the neck and began to pull it apart link by link. The fleshy nozzle that hung from its face writhed in earnest, stretching out, feeling at Barlow's chest, searching for a way in.

A scream nearly burst Trahern's ears. He turned just in time to see another one of the creatures fall into Dolly, grabbing him about the waist with both hands. Dolly shrieked and battered at the creature with his sword as if lifted him straight off his feet. Acting on a soldier's instinct, Farley levelled his spear and thrust it into the monster's side. The spear slid between two ribs and lodged itself in the creature's gut, but it would not so much as flinch.

Trahern hefted his own sword and charged at the creature. He cut with all his might at an exposed forearm, but his blade skated harmlessly off of the bone, sending a stab of pain up Trahern's own arm to his elbow.

Trahern heard shouts behind him, and felt despair wash over him. Another dark figure had stepped out onto the path at the patrol's other flank. It was still some thirty yards away, but as it began its slow advance, Trahern's men scattered before it, those in front running up against those behind. They were trapped, by their own fear and panic as much as by the enemy.

All was chaos and confusion. Trahern wanted to shout at his men, order them to form up, to retreat, to act - but he could not seem to get wind into his lungs. Somewhere above him, Dolly was screaming his throat raw as the fiend drank deeply from his insides.

Something struck Trahern roughly in the shoulder. He fell to the ground, his temple coming down on an exposed rock. He cried in pain and curled into a ball, pressing his palms against his bleeding forehead. A moment later, the strength went out of him, and he found himself staring at the sky, a patch of ground just visible from the crook of one eye. He saw that Barlow's pacer had lifted him from his feet, and had clawed its way through his chain vest.

Then, over the din, a man's cry rang out. It was not a scream of horror or a moan of pain; it was a blood-boiling, deep-throated battle cry. It told of an endless, righteous rage, and as it thrummed in Trahern's ears, it traveled down his spine and into his heart.

There was a streak of red and grey. A man in armor wielding a glittering Castan blade burst from the cover of the forest, bellowing at the top of his lungs. Holding the sword aloft, he leapt into the air and brought it down on the fiend that had taken hold of Barlow. The blow connected at the shoulder and sheared straight through to the opposite hip; the creature's guts burst from its chest in a blue fan, and it collapsed gracefully to the ground.

The man was still shouting. Trahern realized that the cry was not wordless - he was repeating one phrase over and over again.

"BURN THEM! BURN THEM! BURN THEM!"

As the man pounded across the intervening space to the next monster, Trahern thought, a Castan knight. Dear God, I thank thee for thy deliverance.

Then a smooth, naked skull with two sunken eyes eclipsed his vision, and Trahern felt long, icy fingers grip him by the waist.

* * *

Cray roared in fury as he fell upon the pack of fiends, his blade skimming through the dark air. He split the first open from shoulder to waist, and its blue-black innards spilled onto the forest floor.

Not enough, he thought, as he watched the blue worms writhe to and fro. Not enough. Killing a pacer was not so easy as shearing it in two.

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