Chapter 5 - A Storm of Blade and Blood
He blocked them for the time being with his shield, but some of the midgets were already racing into the darkness in pursuit of Selena, and he was in no position to stop them. He could hunt one down, then go on to another, but in the time it took him to do that dozens more would have flooded out. There was no point in holding his position any longer either, with the gates wide open they were streaming on through with ease.
And the fires singeing his gambeson had started to give him burns. Leaping out of the way, he rolled across the gravel, rolling away from the midgets and their descending scimitars, until the fires all about him had been put out. He could smell the acrid smell of burned wool, and lazy wisps of smoke, the legacy of the flames for the few seconds that they had caught, wreathed him.
He could leave now, yet he knew he must not. Selena… He had to buy her more time to flee. As the scimitars, glinting in the reflected light of the braziers, continued to threat out at him, he stilled his urge to retreat, thinking, if I retreat now, she will die.
He had to get the warriors' attention somehow, before they made it too far afield. His thoughts went to the shamans -- they were the leaders of this rabble of an army, after all. With a thought of horizon to horizon might I fly, he was leaping back through the opened gates, right over the heads of the midget warriors pouring out, making straight for the nearest shaman.
He kicked aside a scimitar one of the warriors had slashed up out at him, landed atop the head of one of the midgets, kicked off its head with a crunch to take off yet again, this time setting down in an empty space between the throng of the unpainted midgets and those woad-painted ones standing beside their shamans.
"Bishibosh!" cried out the nearest shaman, eyes locked on Art. With a shake of its staff and a point of its finger, it threw another bolt of fire at him. Art ducked underneath it and closed the mere meters to the nearest of its honor guard, who had their bucklers out before them and their scimitars raised and jutted out in formation, all instantly arrayed in a neat circle around their leader. Those at the gates turned to rush back at Art.
That settled it, then, thought Art: The woad paint signified these warriors to be more disciplined, and thus they were charged to stand as protectors of the shamans. But discipline alone would not suffice in keeping him at bay.
Feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky.
He spun clockwise while making straight at them, with his shield held out to his left and his sword jutting out from his right. Unlike before, he went in upright now and with his weapon out to his side, sacrificing swiftness for brutality. A whirling living scythe, he swept into the packed circular formation of midget warriors, his shielding bashing aside scimitar and buckler, his sword slicing apart head from shoulders. The force of his charge sent them sprawling toward his left, every single one, as he knocked them aside, blade, body and all. Cries of pain, fear, desperation. For a fraction of a second as he spun, he saw the terrified visage of the shaman mere four feet from his face. It was making to back away. The next moment Art's sword had cleaved into its waist, leaving a gash through its chest and sending it sprawling to the ground.
Art stopped his whirling to see this group of midgets sprawled out before him. One was clutching at its stump of a leg that ended at its knee, moaning with its eyes shut and curled into a fetal position. Another had both of its upper arms shattered, blood spurting forth from both of them and into its own stunned face. Yet another had a gash running across its eyes, which pooled with blood mixed with vitreous corneal fluid. The shaman was flat on the grass, trying to shove its spilled small intestines back into its unzipped waist. Those still alive and struggling were crying a breathy, depressed cry. The few who had been at the back of the formation, whose skins remained unpainted, had scampered off in every distance.
For a second the rest of the midgets, several dozen of them, stared at him, stunned, looking uneager to continue the fight. He'd gotten their attention, and it seemed, their respect. The shamans held their staves still, as if unsure whether their continued attacks had any meaning against this force of destruction. Art took the second to get his bearings and spot the relative locations of the other shamans. If he killed them, their minions would fall into disarray. Better yet, if he threatened them, they'd call their minions back to defend.
Then Art ended the moment by walking toward the next shaman at a measured pace. It saw his approach and took a step back, then another, its staff raised as if meaning to parry. Its eyes glanced left and right, and it shouted, "Bishibosh!"
As if snapping out of their daze, unpainted midget warriors nearest to it rushed to form a solid line to cordon him off from their shaman, all of them with woad upon their skins, with their blades thrust outward and their bucklers out, shouting war cries at him and shaking their weapons at him. Yet he could tell from how they leaned backwards and stumbled over themselves to back away from his approach, he knew they did so merely to hide their fear. The moment he attacked, this group would pull their scimitars back to try to better defend themselves, and thereby prove no threat to him.
Art paid them no heed. The moment he closed to two meters from them, he channeled Watch the whirlwind, as a top it spins.
And then he was upon them, pirouetting, a spinning vortex of death and blood as he collided into this line of midget warriors and sent them careening through the air to land bloodied and broken upon the grass.
When Art finished his spin, he was greeted with a renewed round of cries of despair and screams of those in their death throes. The shaman he'd been aiming for had backpedaled out of his reach, to where some other warriors stood, and it shouted "Bishibosh! Bishibosh, bishibosh!"
As Art stepped toward them, his shield sending aside firebolt after firebolt, some two dozen of them rushed into formation, three ranks deep, separating him from the shaman who'd given the command. The first rank knelt down, their scimitars jutting out at the height of an adult human's knee. The next rank stood behind them, their scimitars set between and over the first rank. The third rank stood further behind, their bucklers and scimitars pointed overhead.
With a single flap of wings…
Art leapt over the whole lot of them, too high for them to intercept, high enough to carry him far over the shaman as well. With his shield he parried aside the shaman's fire bolt. Then as he was about to pass the shaman by, he cleared his mind of the way. Focus the mind inward...
He dropped out of his soaring glide like a rock. The moment his feet touched down he swung around and decapitated the stunned shaman. Its head remained set on its neck as if nothing had happened, as the midget warriors stared. Then the shaman fell onto its knees and flopped over, his head falling off its neck to rolll forward across the grass to bump into the feet of one of the midgets comprising the third rank of the formation.
As he proceeded toward the next shaman, it hastily backpedaled, shouting "Bishibosh!" The unpainted midget warriors stood frozen in place while the woad painted ones rushed once again to take up defensive positions around the shaman Art was stalking toward, who now looked very ill.
Know the whirlwind by that which spins…
A flash of reflected light passed overhead, just enough for Art to register a midget lunging down at him from above. Right at where his head would be if he continued his spin. Forced to abort, he slashed his sword overhead to parry aside the incoming scimitar. Its owner, a midget warrior with the black of painted pitch coursing in spiral patterns from its bald head down to its waist, landed between Art and the shaman, its weapon pointed straight at Art.
For a moment they stared at each other, and those around them held still. How had a midget gotten on top of him, wondered Art, with those short little legs? Then the realiziation hit him: he was dealing with no mere midget warrior. That pitch paint? It must indicate its bearer to be an adept like him, and from the looks of it, a user of the way of the albatross. How had a creature like this learned a way of the Flying Feather School?
One thing Art knew for certain: As long as this creature stood before him, threatening to impale his head from above, he could no longer use the way of the whirlwind. He'd have to slay this one first. In that case, he thought, let's see how well this one can fight.
Art lunged for the black-painted one, his sword stabbing here, stabbing there, each time parried aside just enough by the midget adept as it backed away. Art had thought himself gaining the upper hand, before a scimitar sweeping out from his right hacked into his gambeson, only enough to nick his arm but enough for him to feel its sting. Another black-painted warrior.
A leaf, a petal, a feather… thought Art as he began to weave and dance between the jabs and swings of the adepts' blades, parrying first a stroke from the left, then another from the right. A twirl with his blade creating that uncomfortable metal-scraching-on-metal ring, and a stab, and he almost hit this second adept, but it had either seen or felt the attack coming, for it had moved out of the way. It knows the way of the dancing leaf too, he thought to himself. They probably both knew how to use it, and some of its attendant styles.
"Rakabosh!" shouted a shaman, even as it prepared another ball of flame. All around him, as if shaken from a stupor, several warriors joined in the fight, getting the surround on him. Poking in with their scimitars, they slowly sidestepped their way toward him. Though they had him surrounded within seconds, they dared approach no closer than two meters from him, their feet tentative as if ready to retreat, their wildly swinging scimitars rarely closing to withing striking distance of him. They shouted at the tops of their lungs, as if mere warcry could terrify Art into fleeing the battlefield.
He grimaced at the thought of using the dancing leaf's style against so many close opponents. His armor could not hold off every offending attack, and already many had penetrated it to bite into his flesh.
I drift in the open sky…
Holding the two adepts off, bracing shield against the one and sword against the other, then with a missed swing coming around and shielding against the latter and swiping at the former, Art continued to dance between the two adepts, one on either side. Another incoming fire bolt forced him to dodge. Another missed chance to kill one of these pesky adepts, but it blocked an incoming blow from a woad-covered warrior.
Carried by the wind, I spin…
Right after knocking one of them aside, he took a quick step in the direction of the other, lunging forth with his sword. He'd nearly sliced into the creature's flesh but for an intercepting swing from the scimitar, one that turned into a swing at Art's underarm. With a swift spin he retracted his arm out of its path. As he spun, he caught a glance at the intruder. A third warrior, bearing black paint.
Just how many of them were there? wondered Art. And so far these three had proven competent. He'd have to kill these before he left, or they'd prove a threat to the Rogues should they ever attempt to reclaim their lands.
Going where it takes me…
The three adepts had taken up positions equidistant about him, each of them taking a defensive stance and ready to leap back at a moment's notice. The woad painted ones had closed in quite nicely on him, and now they jabbed at him. With a flash of his blades and a sweep of his shield he parried them aside, sending them crashing into the ones on their left then converted his clockwise spin into a thrust at one of the adepts. It managed a light parry of Art's blade, and his blade instead sunk into the chest of a woad-painted warrior. Then Art had pulled his blade back out, whipping it about and around to block another attack, and the one he'd just penetrated sank to its knees, clutching its wounds before collapsing.
Slender, soft, small…
Dodging incoming attacks from all directions, Art stumbled once, twice, failing to evade all their blows at once even with the aid of his sword, his shield, his armor, his way, and his skill. A gash went across his waist, leaving a wound, not too gaping or deep. A glancing cut against his back, tearing only three layers deep into the woolen padding of his gambeson. A blow against the back of his helm, sending him lurching forward before he regained his balance. The press was too much for him; he had to get out now.
With a single flap of wings… He made to leap over the surrounding throng of the midget warriors. But an opportune swing from one of the adepts that came in too close forced him to switch into Dancing upon the breeze so that it wouldn't cut into his wrist. With the way of the albatross abandoned, he fell back to the ground, standing not a foot away from where he'd been a moment ago, still surrounded by on all sides.
Rising dread rose up within him. He had to protect himself… He could go into the way of the monolith, hold them off with his shield close to his left and his sword to parry on his right, but that would give them the freedom to send more warriors in pursuit. He couldn't let Selena fall to them, and that meant he had to strike. And so again and again, he struck, even when contronted by so many incoming attacks from all sides practically screaming for him to guard himself, each time suppressing the fear that his next lunge would leave him exposed to a fatal counterattack.
Horizon to horizon… He tried again, this time making sure to bash one of the adepts first with his shield while lashing out with his sword at another the moment he attempted his leap. The third adept swung into Art's retracted shield, and Art completed his leap, to a spot ten feet away. The adepts followed, skipping through the air, and with I sweep past all that approach he resumed his earlier style, blocking off one adept's advance while striking at another and dodging the third.
He thought he'd started to understand the skill level of these three adepts. Well trained, yes, but not by a master, and their bodies too small to be truly effective in the way of the dancing leaf. Height too short to strike true from different directions, arms too short to strike as far as a human could, legs too short to dodge or run as quickly. Their bucklers protected too little, and their lack of armor protected not at all. One alone stood no chance against him. And yet still, the three of them and their allies had fought him to a standstill.
For mere seconds the three adepts parried his swings or pulled back from them just in the nick of time, and then the woad warriors had come about and had almost surrounded him again, their scimitars lunging out at him the way a wall of spearmen might, forcing him back and aborting yet another strike. He had to move again.
He struck out with his shield to knock aside the blows from two of the adepts, then sunk low to invite the woad painted warriors to lash out with their scimitars. With a single flap of wings, he thought, and he leapt barely off the ground, to land upon the flat edges of the scimitars that had thrust down and inward, even as he spun to parry aside another swipe from an adept. I glide through the sky, and then he had leapt off the scimitars supporting him and into the air, with the adepts right behind.
He'd expected as much. Before they'd landed he'd charged right back past them. Even knowing they'd drop out of their flight to pursue him, that give him a few precious seconds. The woad warriors had proven themselves a nuisance in this fight. He couldn't let them keep getting the surround on him -- already his gambeson sported gashes all over, in a dozen places, and he could feel the sting in his lower leg where one had gotten through his boots, and several more along his arms and abdomen and one cut into his shoulders.
Crashing down with ten tons of solid stone, he thought as he swiped left with his sword, smashing it into the approaching, surprised woad-painted warriors with the strength of many. The first one he hit, the skull shattered into a dozen pieces. One shard of bone lodged into the temple of the next one's head, killing it instantly. His sword continued on, slashing through cheekbones, cutting open jaws and shattering necks. The entire row of them fell apart, and only the one furthest left -- the least impacted by his swing -- managed to stagger away, its weapon and armor discarded.
Yet other midget warriors stepped forth, their faces grim with determination, to face up to him, this specter of death, with their blade and buckler before them, even as Art tread over the corpses of their brothers in arms. Why had these mere woad-painted warriors even approached him? Could they not see how they were being slaughtered wholesale, crushed as if underfoot by a battle between giants? What madness, what desperate courage, what loyalty and dedication drove them to such pointless feats of stupidity? Did the sisters have the same, when they raced to their own slaughter?
Continuing on his leftward spin, Art entered a counterclockwise spin. Feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky. Blade and sword outstretched, he decapitated another pair of midget warriors and parted the waist from the hip of the shocked shaman right behind them. A cascade of blood sprayed forth in all directions. And then he was bringing himself around and calling upon A leaf, a petal, a feather, to block the thrusts of the adepts that had caught back up with him.
"Rakabosh!" another shaman called, and more woad painted warriors rushed toward him, their weapons raised. Art spun about as he continued to parry and retreat at the same time. He had given up on killing the adepts for now. Killing them would have to wait until he could dispatch of the others supporting them. Wherever a woad painted midget rushed too close, ahead of their comrades, and whenever Art found himself an opening from the onslaught of the adepts, he lunged out -- dismembering a warrior here, chopping a leg off another there. One by one they fell.
The other shamans continued to throw their bolts of flame at him, their cries mixed in with those of the midgets about them. He noticed they'd thrown the blasts of flame wildly, missing him again and again and striking the midget warriors more often than they struck him. Several of the midget warriors fell to the ground screaming, rolling, trying to get the licking flames off their scalded skin, only to be trampled by others the moment they fell to the ground.
And then they had him surrounded again. This time Art channeled The winds blow past, the rains pound down and held against the onslaught of the enemy, and even has he gritted his teeth from the mounting wounds -- more and more scimitar blades managed to cut past his armor, which had flayed in several places, wool spilling out and making it easier for other cuts to penetrate -- he hacked and severed limbs from their bodies, always targeting the woad painted ones, so much that their ranks had thinned.
And then he started seeing them rise again from the ground. One by one the armless, the legless, and the headless, all of them bloodstained, rose from where he'd slain them earlier to stand once more against him. Out the corner of his eye he saw a shaman facing him with its staff reversed so that the skull sat as its headpiece and the crescent stabbed against the blood-tainted grass, the fire between it gone out. That was the one, he realized.
Yet he could not engage it yet, pressed on all sides as he was. The risen midgets moved with terrible slowness compared to the swift thrusts and dodges of the adepts weaving in and out of his sword's range. The moment he had an opening, his sword flashed through the mangled waist of the nearest reanimated midget. It stumbled and sank for the second while Art was distracted with parries all about him, before standing up once again -- this time moving in a more ragged fashion, as if the reanimating shaman couldn't control it properly now that its abdominal muscles had been slashed open.
Art then sliced both of its arms off in his next two strikes, before proceeding on to others, feeling the growing exhaustion seeping into his muscles to join the lacerations he'd sustained as he dodged his head to the left as a scimitar stabbed where it had been but a moment ago, then dodged right back to the right as another stabbed past the other side. He'd lost track of how many midgets he'd killed, but now that the shamans were reanimating them? How many more times would he have to attack? How long could he keep this up?
A few more strikes with his sword left the only ones surrounding him as the adepts and the reanimated. As he looked about, discriminating bloodied but living midgets from their slower, less competent reanimated cousins, he could tell that a good many of the woad painted ones had given their lives. With a smirk Art realized that they'd come to pay the price of their misbegotten courage and discipline: a swift death. With a start he realized this could actually work to his benefit, with how slowly these reanimated ones were moving.
With a sweep of the flat of his blade he knocked one of the reanimated sprawling into an adept, knocking aside its attack and forcing it to deal with its fallen kin first. A split second later he used the other flat of his blade to smack aside another reanimated. Neither acted fast enough to lash out at him, and now he had himself an opening to the reanimating shaman.
He plunged through the gap. Glide through the sky. And then he was gliding over the shaman's head, just low enough to kick it smack in the lead and knocking it down while slowing himself. He landed and turned to find half the reanimated midgets, still in the process of turning back to march toward the defense of their reanimator, collapsed in a jumble of flesh and bone. He'd broken the reanimator's concentration on its way, and it seemed it couldn't just reanimate them right back.
With a look of surprise on its face, the shaman twirled its staff around as if switching to use it to blast a bolt of fire at Art. It never got the chance. Art swiped the staff out of its hands with his sword, then swung his sword back as he stepped forward to neatly decapitate the creature. When he saw another shaman to his right also had its staff with skull up, he leapt over with With a single flap of wings and slew it too, its body collapsing upon the gravel path. The rest of the reanimated ones collapsed instantly. The shaman, run through by Art's sword, collapsed inch by inch, struggling to stay standing before Art. Art pulled his sword back out, bringing forth a spurt of its blood, before it keeled over onto its face.
Art turned to face the adepts again. He'd observed the fighting styles of these enough to know that one of them shied away from making committed attacks against him. It tried to hide it, and to someone less trained in the way of the dancing leaf's fighting style, it would have hid it well. But to someone of Art's caliber, that would prove their undoing, as it would allow Art to focus more on his offense against one of the other adepts, even while holding a second at bay, safe in the knowledge that the third would be least likely to hit him.
The three adepts landed about him yet again, forming an equilateral triangle with him at the center. This time, none others joined them. The woad painted warriors had just about all died, the reanimated woad painted warriors remained still as the corpses they were, and the unpainted warriors huddled around the remaining two shamans, not daring to get in Art's way. The shamans had ceased their reanimation and elementry, knowing how ineffective those had proven.
The adepts knew it too, as they looked at each other, sweat glistening down their necks and abs, streaks of blood criss crossing swirling pitch-black paint over their faces, shoulders and chests. Then with a war cry they charged at Art all as one, soaring through the air with the way of the albatross. In an instant Art knew them to be committed to their strike. With Slender, soft, small, he spun out of their way while kicking into the gravel of the path with the boot on his right foot, sending little pebbles flying at the adept in front of him, then riposted with his blade at the same target. The adept, taken by surprise by the spread of pebbles rushing right at it, flinched, and reacted to Art's blade stroke just a fraction of a second too slow. It cut a gash on the adept's blade arm, about half an inch deep. Its pained suck of air could barely be heard amidst the wailing of the wounded all about him.
Seeing his path to victory, Art continued to press against the wounded adept, even as it leapt out of the way.. Art followed after it with With a single flap of wings, pressing his initiative, blocking the two trailing right after him with his sword and shield. The moment it landed it tried to leap again, but Art lashed out with his sword with a shout of "Why!". Its scimitar arm moved to parry a mite too slowly and Art managed to sneak in a cut against its thigh. It stumbled, aborting its flight and landing on the ground once more, a pained look on hits face.
Art whirled about him to knock aside the two adepts behind him, then continued his spin with his sword with a shout of "won't!" The now twice-wounded adept tried to leap back again, but with its thigh muscles half severed, could only manage a small hop. Seeing Art's rapid approach, it raised its buckler out to block, its eyes squinted shut out of fear. The next moment Art's swinging blade scythed right through its buckler arm. "You!" Its eyes bulged wide, its mouth open in a high pitched scream, and it dropped its scimitar to clutch at its bleeding stump of an arm. Art blocked a frantic intercepting strike from the adept to his left; he knew the one right behind him wasn't about to hit him, then prepared to strike again. "Die!" But a fraction of a second later Art's swing lopped its head off.
"That was a rhetorical question," Art mused, looking at the dead midget.
Whirling back to face the remaining two adepts, he saw they faced him with renewed uncertainty. It was just the three of them now, with the shamans cowering over a dozen meters away. All the others who still stood bore no paint, could not be counted upon to fight beside them. And the rest were the dead and the dying. They'd challenged Art at their best, three adepts on one, the assistance of their woad-painted brothers and with ranged and reanimator support, and lost their shamans, their warriors and now an adept. What could they do now, thus weakened?
Was this what the beast felt, when it had clawed and smashed its way through all who stood against him, when it whittled down their numbers one at a time even as they did everything they could to hold against it? Had the beast felt the rush of blood in its veins, the excitement of crushing his foes, and finally, the glory of being supreme upon the battlefield, as Art did now? With amusement Art wondered if he ought to feel any remorse at all this slaughter. But only with amusement.
"Come now, we musn't let our finale disappoint our audience," he taunted them.
With another, desperate war cry they lashed out at him, coming at him from both directions. I sweep past all that approach. And then Art had forced the one on his right to abort its attack in order to dodge Art's blade, and kept the one on his left at bay with his shield. Now with only one other to distract him, he could focus thrust after thrust after thrust, all in rapid succession, at the one to his right, forcing it to take step after step back until with its last step back it bumped into the hedgerow that lined the outer walls of the monastery, and it stumbled against its thickness of branches in a rustling of leaves. The next moment Art had skewered it through the heart. It clutched at his sword in vain. When Art pulled out his blade, it was already dead. Its body sank, falling onto its knees, then flopped back against the hedgerow.
Art stared at the remaining adept, as if daring it to continue the fight all on its lonesome after seeing what Art had done to their combined forces. Really, thought Art, after all this, it still wasn't going to flee? Just as it made to charge at him…
The adept flinched in its tracks, stayed put, grimacing. Its loincloth grew wet and urine leaked down its legs.
Art took a step toward it, then another. It took a step back, then another, and then it was fleeing for the monastery atrium, shouting "Bawk off!"
The remaining two shamans stared in shock, then fled as well, following the retreating adept. With their groups of minions following close behind, they ran as fast as their little legs could take them. All semblance of order broke down as the entire force routed, screaming in terror amidst a clamor of "Bawk off!"'s. In their panic some stumbled, tripped and fell in the darkness, to be run over by those behind them.
And behind them leapt Art, shrouded by night, killing the stragglers with quick slashes across their backs. They didn't even turn around to try to defend themselves, just kept running as he thinned their ranks with ease. As he went, Art considered, was this what had happened when the Rogues fled in fear from the beast? Losing untold numbers of their companions in their desperate rout? If so, serves them right for such as this to be inflicted back upon them in retribution, he thought as he continued to reave through the horde.
"Bishibosh!" shouted one of the fleeing shamans as it noticed Art closing in. Several of their followers turned as if preparing to engage Art, only to be pressed forward or run down by the rest of the routing midgets, who continued to shout "Bawk off!". "Bishibosh!" it shouted again when it realized its minions proved unwilling to sacrifice their own lives to buy time for its escape. "Bish--" it was silenced by Art's blade, descending and sinking deep into its skull.
The remnants of the fleeing mob arrived screaming at the gates to the atrium to the monastery building's central wing, where the two gates formed a bottleneck for the routers. In their haste to escape they had all crammed into each other before the ones at the front had even managed to open the door, and the push of the mass forced the half open doors back shut. Those at the front found themselves sandwiched between the rioters behind them and the gates -- gates which opened out into the cloister, meaning their own bodies in the way and they couldn't get the gates open even if they tried.
With feel the whirlwind as it spirals through the sky held firmly in mind, Art came upon them, a vortex of whirling sword and shield splattering blood over the crowd, which fled in all directions with cries of "Bawk off!". He cared little for the unpainted midgets before him -- only killing the last of the adepts mattered. Once that one was dead, none of this rabble could pose as much of a threat to the villages in the local area. Against the knights and men-at-arms of the realm, not to mention against him, these midgets would break and flee, and be cut down. They'd not dare to attack anywhere without the beast, and there was only the one beast, it could only strike one place at a time.
Before him the cowering midget warriors scattered. The last remaining adept, now at the gate turned back to face Art's approach, the specter of its approaching death, and sank to the doorstep as it shouted "Bi--Bishi!"
Just as Art was about to skewer this one through the eye socket, the adjacent door was blasted ajar and from it a giant bladed claw cleaved right through Art's right wrist.