The battle had been joined for mere minutes now, but already Norhamn Harbind could tell that something was wrong. The hail of arrows coming from the archers in the back ranks seemed to be having no effect, when they weren't being completely blown astray due to the cursed wind that had started up earlier. Unclean surged and swarmed over parts of the front line, breaking the wall of spearmen and pikes; as many skirmishers were giving ground or running away as were fighting, and the cavalry horses reared and snorted as if spooked even though there were no enemies near them yet. A bright red streak flew over the ranks of Unclean to explode in a fiery ball against a Barrier created by one of the Battlemages. Harbind clenched the hilt of his sword as he watched the frontlines crumble into chaos.
A voice from behind startled him, "The Unclean advance too quickly, General Harbind. There is something fell about this attack, do you not sense it?"
Harbind spun around to face the voice, which belonged to Van Lares, leader of Milintanth's knights. The man was older than Norhamn or Van Simons by a good ten seasons at least, but his body was fit and strong, like a man half his age. He was not dressed in his usual healer's attire. Instead he wore some sort of ceremonial loincloth and a shroud about his shoulders that barely covered them. In his hands was the unshod quarterstaff of oak that every Knight in his order carried. The wind whipped at his undone hair, blowing it around his face and shoulders like white wisps of smoke.
"What do you mean?" asked Harbind. He was fairly certain that he knew the answer, however. He had read the sealed histories; he understood what the knight's clothing meant.
"The Unclean." Van Lares said, his voice distant, "They do not make a sound as they attack. Even the ones that make noise as they sleep are silent now as they kill your men. Silent like the dead."
Norhamn knew what he had to do. He wheeled quickly to the runners standing nearby. "All of you, go to your unit commanders immediately and tell them to begin a fighting retreat. Pull back the cavalry all the way to the tents. Instruct the archers to light their arrows with pitch before they shoot." Another red bolt sizzled through the air to strike at the Barrier above the men fighting below. Harbind grabbed the shoulder of one of runners as he started to leave, "You, tell Grego to use his light cavalry to secure an escape route for us back into the hills to the north." he said. The boy sprinted off towards Grego's picket.
Turning back to Van Lares, Norhamn simply nodded. The old knight returned his nod and spoke, "You are a wise man Norhamn, to swallow your pride and aid us."
Harbind shook his head, "No, this isn't about pride. It's about survival. I have read the sealed histories in the Hold Libram. My best friend and oldest comrade is a high-ranking knight. When your men begin their advance, I will command what's left of the front rank to break and leave you to your business."
Van Lares tilted his head to Norhamn one last time then turned and began to run towards the battle. Below, in the area that the cavalry was beginning to vacate, Harbind could see the rest of the Milintanth Order forming into groups of three. All of them were dressed as their leader was, save for the squires, who stayed behind the rest holding bundles of extra staves to their chests.
The dusk haze briefly exploded into red-orange light as hundreds of arrows lit with burning pitch sailed through the air and into the ranks of the Unclean. Most went out from the wind immediately, but some found a catch and the middle ranks of the dogmen and gnolls began to smolder with small fires. Harbind would never order burning arrows fired into an enemy who might then carry the flames back into his own men, but soon his army would begin a full retreat, so it did not matter. These were not like the Unclean they fought earlier; they were the unclean they had fought earlier. Someone, or something, had raised the dead creatures and sent them to attack. That was how they crossed the valley unseen; they never crossed it at all. Mortal weapons were next to useless against the Undead. Their very presence spooked even the most hardened of war animals, and their very touch instilled fear into the living. It was a testament to the courage of the young men below that the line had not completely shattered with the first wave.
One of his runners returned, breathing hard. Below, the groups of Milintanth knights were beginning the ritual that would unleash their avatars and make them living vessels of their goddess' power. He turned to the boy, "You need to run again, boy, faster than you have ever run in your life. You need to get to Field Commander Jalasmed down there near the back ranks before the Knights of Milintanth begin their advance and tell him that he is to pull back everyone into full retreat." He handed the boy his signet ring. "That will be proof of my orders. Now fly!"
The runner flew down the hill towards the battle. Norhamn thought of staying to watch, but someone needed to help rally the camp and move the non-combatants out of harms way. He hoped Grego would not meet with too much resistance in securing their retreat. He turned and began to jog towards the tents waving the other returning runners to follow him.
Van Simons watched in horror as the first of the Unclean began to break through the front line. He stood in a loose group with the two knights and squire remaining from his Order. The two older knights quailed, but held silent. The squire's hand was shaking against his armor. He noticed Van Simon's gaze and quickly let go of his weapon to steady his hands.
The creatures coming through the ranks were not normal, even by the standards of the twisted and defiled monsters that were the Unclean. They made no noise, not even a grunt or a howl as one was cut down. Some seemed to be missing limbs; some were even without heads.
"Akradath's mercy," breathed Simons. "Be ready men, for this enemy is nothing like you have ever faced. Not since the time of my father's father have such abominations been unleashed upon this soil."
The mercenaries were beginning to route. Small groups of men, unable to effectively harm the things that assaulted them, were breaking ranks to flee towards the rear. Such was the way of men that fought for money, the smart and the cowardly amongst them always fled when the tide turned against them. Fortunately, there seemed to be enough brave and stupid fellows still on the line to hold a few moments longer.
"Sire," the voice of the squire broke Van Simons' thought. He turned to see what the young man wanted. He was looking back up the rise to where the cavalry had been. The large warhorses and their riders were no longer there. For a moment, Van Simons wondered if perhaps they too had fled the battle, but then he saw what was happening. The Order of Milintanth was forming up where the cavalry had vacated. They stood in groups of three, dressed in their ceremonial clothes, touching staves and chanting a prayer that he had previously only read in old tomes. He turned his head, straining to hear the words over the wind and the din of battle:
Kis uleth al'Milintanth
Oredespedo vas yiniti
Nex des bordo
Nex des harodo
Nex des vitirius jis nax
The knight to his left, a man just shy of middle years by the name of Tobias, nearly sneered. "What do they think they are about, eh?" He said, annoyance filling his voice. "Prayers to a goddess of peace won't help us kill these vermin."
Van Simons spoke: "Our great mother Milintanth, We give ourselves to your power, Death will fade, Death will fail, Death will torment us no more."
Tobias blinked and turned back to Simons, "My lord?"
"Have you forgotten your Old Tongue, Van Tobias?" Van Simons asked, "That is not a prayer for peace, but a prayer for war; against the enemy we now face."
Van Tobias and the others did not seem to understand. "No matter," he thought, "If we survive this day, then they will understand."
The hideously maimed unclean had almost made it to their position. Van Simons drew his weapon and uttered a short invocation with his eyes closed, asking for Akradath's blessing upon him and his men. When he opened his eyes again, the beasts were merely yards away, fighting Sunblade skirmishers.
"Now knights!" He roared, "We will stop them here! They must not make it to Milintanth's Order until they are prepared! To battle!" And with that he lifted his greatsword into a charging stance and rushed the Unclean. Behind him he heard steel being drawn with uttered prayers then a trio of cries like his own as the Order of Akradath prepared to make its final stand.
The sun had long since sunk below what the trees would show; only a faint luminance hovering somewhere to west remained. Sivand wrapped his cloak closer around him. The ancient trees he and Shinreal were using as a windbreak kept most of the fierce wind whipping about them at bay, but sharp curling gusts still managed to find their way in. It would be time for Shinreal's watch soon. Sivand considered "waking" her up, but it wouldn't be fair to rouse her early, and her trances were something different than sleep anyhow. She always stood up promptly when it was her turn. If only he could do that.
The wind howled and shrieked and in the distance the sound of wood popping and giving way could be heard. This had to be the largest windstorm Sivand had ever seen in his life. He wondered why it wasn't raining. Another gust roared through the treetops, and somewhere in the darkness another tree gave way to it.
Shinreal stood up suddenly and grabbed her sword off the ground. Sivand turned to her and cocked his head. "Good morn." he said, practically yelling to be heard over the wind. "You're up early, it's only just past sundown, so it's not your turn yet."
The elf looked up at him wordlessly. The wind blew her hair about so that it swarmed around her head as if alive. Her eyes were wide, and a glance at her sword hand showed white knuckles. "Was she frightened of something?" Sivand thought, "A nightmare perhaps?" He looked about for any spiders.
"What's bothering you now?" Sivand said, shouting to be heard over a particularly loud gust. "You look like you saw a ghost."
"I heard something!" Shinreal yelled back, also straining to be heard over the wind. "It startled me from my reflection."
"I do that in the morning too!" replied Sivand, "Especially if I've been drinking..."
"Do not be a wise-ass!" Shinreal shouted, "I am serious, I heard something."
Sivand paused for a moment, but all he could hear was the howling wind and the creaking trees. "Perhaps it was just the wind?" he suggested, only half trying to be funny.
Shinreal didn't reply. Instead, she was scanning the dark encircling tree line, sword arm flexing convulsively. It might be possible she had heard something, Sivand conceded to himself, she had exceptional hearing, but what it could possibly be over all this wind baffled him. He drew his sword and held it low under his cloak.
Then he was airborne.
Sivand heard what sounded like a startled cry from Shinreal just before he hit the windbreak of trees headfirst. He felt like he was sliding to the ground forever, and then realized he had stopped moving. There was a pressure against his left leg, as if something were pinning it to the tree. He shook his head to try and clear his vision from the impact. A large dark shape stood in the windbreak. Dangling upside down, Sivand caught a glimpse of Shinreal through the shape's "legs". She was in a low crouch gazing up at the thing between them, her lips pulled back into a feral snarl. Sivand tucked his head in and looked up. The thing's "arm" was pinning his leg to the tree. He craned his neck and looked down. His sword lay on the ground below him. He stretched to reach the blade.
With a scream like a banshee, Shinreal leapt out of her crouch and swung her longsword at the shadowy creature. Sivand felt the thing shift its grip on him and he swung like a pendulum away from his weapon. Shinreal, receiving some unseen blow was sent flying backwards into the brush. Its grip shifted again and Sivand went swinging back the other way. He reached out an arm and felt his fingertips brush the edge of his sword hilt. A blow like a sledge mallet struck him in his midsection. All of the air in his lungs left in a rush, and he was sure a couple of ribs might be cracked. Stunned, Sivand gasped for breath and clutched his stomach. The pain made him want to curl up, but he couldn't because he was still hanging in the thing's grip. He braced for a second blow.
Instead he let out a surprised cry as the creature dropped him to the ground. It emitted a horrible shriek, like the wind sounding through reeds and something hot and bubbling all at once. Shinreal stood a few feet from him, a cut above her eye sending rivulets of blood down her face. Her sword was buried deep into the monster's shadowy leg. She pulled back, yanking her weapon free and the thing howled in pain again, then with startling speed, swiped down with both its arms catching up the elf and holding her above its head.
Sivand rolled to the side, grabbing up his sword as he did and sprang to his feet. A sharp pain in his side brought him back down to one knee. The beast had broken something after all. With a strangled yelp, Shinreal went flying over his head and crashed in a tumbled heap near the windward side of the oak wall.
The thing shifted to face Sivand and he took account of their opponent fully for the first time. It was vaguely humanoid, with long gangly limbs and no discernable neck. The rounded lump that was it's "head" seemed to sprout directly from the shoulders. Two enormous bat-like wings arched from its back, the edges of which faded into black wispy smoke that left trails on the wind. Two slanted "eyes" glowed blue-white in its head, and in its chest a third "eye" glowed with a red-orange fire. Below the red eye gaped a huge maw filled with wickedly curved teeth like a shark.
It stood there for a moment, dark hands twitching, eyes burning. "It's sizing me up as well." Sivand thought grimly, "Not that it has a lot to worry about."
Sivand stood up and raised his sword. The creature howled again and lunged forward, swinging one of its long arms. Sivand ducked and rolled to the side again. The creature's follow-through tore into the oak windbreak, sending chunks of shattered wood spraying. It turned to Sivand again, but this time the initiative was his. Swinging high, Sivand brought his sword down intending to deliver a crosscut to the monster's "face" in its belly. Instead though, it shifted back and swung a black wing in front of itself. Sivand's sword struck the wing and suddenly slowed, as if he was chopping through something thick but malleable, like a block of clay. He pushed his blade all the way through, then barely pulled back and away from the thing as its fist came crashing into the ground where he had just stood, shaking the earth with the force of its blow. The creature's wing was unharmed.
Off to the beast's left, Shinreal began to stir where she had fallen. For a moment it turned to look at the elf. Sivand gritted his teeth against the pain in his side and charged again. He swung low, aiming for the thing's wounded leg. This time his blade found its mark biting deep into the side of the creature's leg, where it became stuck. Sivand shifted his weight and tried to yank the weapon free. With a third howl of pain, the monster swung wildly at Sivand and caught him in the shoulder. His sword came free, but was knocked from his grasp and he was sent tumbling past the thing and into Shinreal. He quickly disentangled himself from the elf, but she still couldn't rise from the ground, and was clutching her arm. "It may be broken..." She said through clenched teeth.
Sivand wobbly rose to his feet and unsheathed his dagger. It was a completely useless gesture at this point, he knew, but there was no way he was just going to let this thing smash him into paste without a fight.
The creature stepped towards him and Shinreal. Sivand had a sudden thought and bent down to grab up the elf's longsword. It was in the wrong hand; he tossed the blades across his front and caught them in the opposite palms. The thing took another step forward, huge maw gaping, wings beating furiously. Sivand set himself into a two-blade fighting stance. He was terrible at this kind of swordsmanship, but his own weapon was across the clearing somewhere, so it would have to do. The creature stopped moving forward. "What is it waiting for?" Sivand thought.
A large gust of wind tore through the clearing. With a thunderous explosion of sound, the oak tree scored by the monster snapped in two and came crashing down...right on top of the very thing that had wounded it. Sivand thought that the creature had just enough time to look vaguely surprised before it disappeared under a gigantic mass of falling tree, the branches of which nearly hit him and Shinreal as well.
With a final shriek that slowly faded into the wind, a vast cloud of black smoke belched up from under the fallen oak, leaving behind a stench like something rotten and sulphurous. Sivand heaved a breath and felt every muscle in his body unwind all at once. He collapsed to the ground next to Shinreal, dropping both blades. The wind was getting weaker he noticed.
He felt unconsciousness coming, and tried to fight it, but knew it was a lost cause. Just before he passed out, he thought he heard Shinreal laughing weakly.
"What's so funny?" He croaked, turning a bleary eye to the elf.
Shinreal pointed at the ground next to them. They were lying inside the fairy ring.
"I told you they were good luck..." she said with a cough.