Keyvan Widsel clutched his crossbow tight, his eyes searching the mist-shrouded forest for any signs of motion. The rain had finally stopped, greatly increasing visibility, but that only meant that other things could see him more easily as well.
“Hey.” the rough voice of Ronduul Carssus said beside him, accompanied by a sharp jab of the elbow. “Calm down before you lose your head and shoot one of our own.”
Keyvan spared him a sideways glance. Ronduul was built like the stories said the dwarves were: compact, stout and tough. His shoulders were almost as wide as he was tall and his skin was like leather. Scars criss-crossed his jawline and the top of his bald pate. Somewhere along the way, Keyvan remembered hearing that Ronduul looked like something Ere itself tried to chew up only to find him too tough. It wasn’t a bad description.
“It doesn’t hurt to keep on guard.” he replied. The two of them were riding rear sentry atop their gang’s only riding spider. Arnda Raiulsteadeles, a dark-skinned half elven woman, was sitting ahead of them on the handler’s position, keeping the gigantic arachnid in line. Up ahead, the rest of the gang plodded along, mostly on horseback, except for the scouts mounted on ornises, great, flightless hunting birds. Stalking alongside were their leader’s pets: a pair of hunting bears, sleek brutes as big as a man with tightly curled, red-brown fur.
“If you’re scared of a spirit beast coming at us, don’t be.” Ronduul rumbled. His crossbow was laid across his lap at rest. “There’s a war on, whelp. Plenty of meat to gorge on and mettle to test for that lot without giving a second thought to us.”
His analysis of the situation didn’t make Keyvan feel any better. There was always a war on and there had been since before his father’s grandfather’s grandfather was born. Going by what little history he’d picked up from alehouse storyspinners and bards, the demihuman races had forged a mighty alliance to fight the hailene in the War of Ascension that eventually became the Vishnari Empire. But like all things too big, the Empire crushed itself under its own weight, ushering in an age of eternal war and unrest. They called it the Age of Tragedies, and Keyvan thought it apt.
Seeing his companion wasn’t being moved by his assurances, Ronduul grunted and cursed. “Ashes, boy. If you can’t get over your fear, let your greed take over. There’s a prize up ahead that’s gonna make all of us rich. Rich enough to buy some mercenaries and carve out own kingdom off the ass of this land.”
Riches beyond their most debauched and fevered dreams, Keyvan recalled the gang’s leader, Hurdus Koncaelian, saying. That is, if the rumors were true.
And if the other rumors weren’t.
Meidra Hollow was a salt town and salt towns were the target of rumors as a matter of course. Death was a constant in towns servicing salt mines—the salt sickness, the maladies of the heart, and people who simply died of thirst despite having plenty of water. Where a kingdom managed to establish some measure of stability, they sent prisoners or slaves to work the mines, but Meidra Hollow had been independent for years.
Which was what made the rumors different. Free salt towns usually diminished, the miners growing more cautious and less ambitious for fear of inviting their demise. Meidra Hollow, however, was flourishing. Salt flowed out of its gates like wheat from fertile fields and the folk there traded more than ever.
People—the suspicious type who often started that sort of rumor—supposed that no one could be doing that well off a free salt mine. They told tales of secret contracts being made for not salt, but metal, of unknown caravans making for the town at odd times of the year, arriving laden and returning considerably lighter.
Lighter in their minds suggested one possibility: The people of Meidra Hollow were no longer mining salt… because they struck aluminum. The pale metal. Beauty silver. More rare than gold and a potent enhancer for magics that manipulated the energy of elemental air, vin besides. Capturing even a wagon load would mean the bandit gang would never have to make another raid again.
That promise drove Hurdus to lead them away from safer lands where spirit beasts were rare and inland where tales of constant attacks on caravans by the nigh-immortal creatures were on the lips of every tavern rat and transient.
Keyvan wasn’t so convinced. No one ever reported actually seeing even the smallest sliver of beauty silver coming out of the Hollow, nor did anyone deny that they were still shipping salt. If Meidra Hollow hadn’t been a free town, he would have suspected the whole thing to be a trap lad by some king’s Sheriff.
It was far too late to argue now. Most of the gang had visions of aluminum and gold in their eyes and thought all the darker stories surrounding salt towns were just scary stories to tell around the cook fire. Everyone knew that it took more deaths than a few dry-mouthed prisoners to deaden the land with nekras and make ghosts and revenants rise or the dead walk. Everyone knew that salt mummies were just dead men buried in the salted earth, their life’s water leech out of them by the dry air.
Just like everyone ‘knew’ there was nothing more deadly at range than a good steel crossbow with explosive quarrels like he was carrying… right up until Hurdus looted the alchemist’s hut in one town they hit and came up with his leadspitter.
If Keyvan squinted, he could just make out the lines of the exotic weapon distorting the shape of Hurdus’s oil-cloth cloak up ahead. One more thing everyone knew didn’t exist… right up until it did.
The sun was less than an hour from setting when the bandit gang broke their hastily made camp and started their approach on the village.
From what the scouts said, rich or not; the town was poorly defended. A single wall of stone blocks with iron-bound wooden gates protected the perimeter, backed up by maybe a dozen guards in plate mail made of beaten copper sheets. The copper wouldn’t stand up to even normal crossbow fire, and the block wall would mean nothing to Einein Gresspar, the gang’s resident mage.
As they all mounted up, Keyvan glanced across at Einein. She was an Easterner, standing taller than most of the men in the gang. One those occasions where she didn’t have opportunity to shave, her hair was blonde, but most of the time, she kept her head bald, displaying blue geometric tattoos that matched similar ones covering her wrists and the backs of her hands.
On more than one occasion, he’d seen her sink a section of wall twenty feet high directly into the ground with hardly a gesture or word. Not that he had much basis to measure from, but he suspected she counted as powerful as wizards went, probably more powerful than most wizards in the various armies ravaging the land.
Hurdus was astride his fleet-footed bay, watching the gang mobilize. He’d unslung the leadspitter from his back and lit the long, wick-like match that sat on the end of a spring-loaded lever, waiting to touch off the explosive powder that made the leadspitter spit lead.
“It won’t be long now.” He said, voice full of pride. “We outnumber Meidra Hollow’s defenders two-to-one and my own sweet mother, who needs a walking staff just to sit up straight could knock a hole in their walls. We’re going to ride straight through that pile of dry leaves they call a defense and before Ola’s below the horizon, we’re going to have our hands on so much money, we could pay Pandemos’s gambling debts!”
A general roar of enthusiasm met his boasts. Even Keyvan was starting to feel it. If the scouts didn’t see anything foreboding about the place, maybe there wasn’t. And if there wasn’t, maybe the rumors of aluminum riches were true.
“Raiding order!” Hurdus’s second, a heavily tanned, more than heavily muscular man named Tannon bellowed. “Line up, you lords and lasses of the dregs. You know how it goes: anyone that resists gets ended. Take whatever you can carry. The sun’s at our back and they won’t even see it coming! Ride!”
With shouts of threats toward whatever poor bastards defended Meidra Hollow’s walls, and unruly, often profane and bawdy battle cries, the bandit gang surged forward. The spider and everyone with ranged weapons took up the rear to provide cover along with Einein. The melee-focused elements fanned out ahead, a hammer to crash upon the anvil as the wall came down.
True to Hurdus’s word, the sun was coming down at their backs, casting long shadows across the sparse, grassy hills to the west of the Hollow and blinding anyone on the wall to the charge. All they’d notice before it was too late was shouting and hoof-beats.
Within minutes, Keyvan caught site of the town from his vantage point on the spider’s back. The wall was worse than the scouts said: the blocks comprising it were fired clay, not even properly quarried stone. Figures stood atop it, copper gleaming in the setting sun.
As the gang drew closer, the back of his neck started to tingle. Something was wrong.
The gang had sacked dozens of towns in his time with them and he’d seen hundreds of defenders. None of them looked like the ones atop Meidra Hollow’s walls. It wasn’t just the cheap, copper armor; sometimes they encountered citizen soldiers dressed in wooden armor or even latices of woven reeds.
No, it was the other element they were lacking. None of them, not a one had a weapon. Not a sword, not a lance, not a bow or arrow. They stood up on the wall, staring apparently directly into the sun without a blessed stick of offense with which to repel an attack.
There wasn’t a person on Ere who would do something so useless or so foolish… unless they didn’t need a weapon.
Before he could lean over and point his discovery out to Ronduul, he noticed that Einein was casting. She guided her horse with her knees, freeing up her hands t draw out the complex pattern of her ere-a array in the air before her. The motions were quick, sharp and pointed, making her look for all the world like a puppet with tangled strings. Finally, she finished by joining her hands in front of her, palms flat and facing outward, and thrusting them forward.
The effect on the wall was instantaneous. At the distance they were viewing it from, it looked like a section of the wall exploded, but from experience, Keyvan knew that what was really happening was that the individual blocks were being shoved forcefully backward, all at different rates. The affected section, about twenty feet across, tumbled down, taking a handful of the unarmed, copper-clad sentinels down with them.
A new roar replaced the bandits’ individual war cries; a unified bellow that screamed of war and death and agony for anyone who stood against them.
Up on the wall, there was no reaction. Not to the war cry. Not to the fate of the wall. The defenders who hadn’t been brought down with the wall remained, ready and waiting to receive the charge.
That was more than Keyvan could take. They weren’t in optimum range for it yet, but he took up his crossbow and yanked the priming lever back to tension it. Ronduul looked over at him with a raised eyebrow as Keyvan slotted an iron quarrel into place.
“What’s got you outta sorts?”
Keyvan didn’t stop, sighting on one of the copper mail wearing enemies. Nothing normal just stands there when the wall’s crumbling at their feet.” he snapped. The string of his crossbow sang as the bolt was loosed. Given the distance, Keyvan worried he’d miss entirely, but the deadly length of iron completed its trajectory by punching through the greaves over his target’s outer thigh.
They didn’t flinch.
“See?” Keyvan demanded. “Do you see? Arnda, turn us around, I don’t like the look of this!”
“You’ll do no such thing!” Ronduul shouted. “And get a damn hold of yourself, Keyvan. Hammer and tongs, man, have you lost all sense? You bolt just got caught in the armor and these thickheads don’t have the sense to run is all.”
To illustrate, he hefted his own crossbow and loaded a quarrel. This one was one packed with the same black powder that made Hurdus’s leadspitter work as well as a specially constructed head that would light off a spark on impact. “They’ve got a head, a heart and a gut, son. You take away any of those and it don’t matter how little brain they got for knowing when they’re outmatched.”
Ronduul took careful aim and waited until the spider carried them into range before squeezing the trigger. There was barely any arc on this shot. And there didn’t have to be. The quarrel struck the same defender Keyvan shot in the belly just before disappearing into a cloud of smoke and a concussive rumble they could hear even above their fellows’ shouting.
“Ha!” Ronduul grinned at Keyvan. Or at least he did for a few moments… just before he caught sight of the horror etched on the younger man’s face. Following his gaze, he saw the reason: through the smoke and a few guttering flames, the figure of his supposed victim remained standing.
As the gentle wind cleared the smoke, they could both clearly see that the explosion had peeled away the armor over the ribs. Those ribs, however, were naked and exposed beneath the armor, covered only by dry, papery skin that smoldered from the explosive powder.
The impact and explosion had caused the thing (for it was no man—not any longer) to stagger back, but now, despite what would have been a grievous if not fatal wound, it righted itself and resumed its vigil. Worse, they were now close enough to see the clay blocks from Einein’s attack shifting and figures in battered copper armor climbing out from under the rubble.
From somewhere behind the sundered wall, a horn blew a low, deep note like a dirge.
The two men atop the spider were so focused on the creature son the wall that they almost missed it when the dusty, churned up earth they rode over started to move. They only realized what it was causing the movement when Einein’s horse screamed and came to a dead stop, dropping to its front knees and trying to force itself up.
Something had grabbed its rear legs and was now rising up form the dirt. This one didn’t have any armor, only dry rotted clothing and a coating of dirt. Gaunt and withered, it nonetheless held the horse’s legs in an implacable grip.
Einein wheeled in her saddle, hands already in motion. A chunk of rock burst from the firmament and shattered into pieces, every one of which launched itself into the desiccated corpse-beast with the force of a crossbow bolt at close range. The thing’s head was reduced to powder, the animating force behind its unlife ebbing enough that it fell back and broke apart on the ground.
But Just as Einein’s horse got its feet under it again, another creature emerged from the ground and slammed a hoary fist into the side of its head. The horse reeled and collapsed with blood running fro its nose. Einein barely managed to roll free, but now she was left in the midst of a kill zone as more and more of the creatures rose up to attack the bandits.
“You see!” Keyvan screamed, hastily loading his crossbow again. “You see now!?” Distantly, he heard Hurdus’s leadspitter reporting with booming noises that filled the hollow, nearly drowned out by the screams of bandits and horses.
“Get quiet and kill the damn things!” Ronduul snarled, firing an explosive quarrel into the center of one of the creatures. Without the copper armor, it was reduced to dust and brokenness by the attack, but there were so many of them.
Keyvan went to pick his shot, vaguely noticing the Einein had raised a dome of rock up around her to escape the monsters. He fired, but at that very moment, the spider shuddered and let out a hissing shriek that made him miss.
He looked down, fearing the worse and found exactly that. More of the… he knew now, the were salt mummies…had risen and taken hold of the spider’s legs while others began to climb up the straps of the howdah toward the three astride the great arachnid.
There wasn’t time to load his weapon, so he grabbed it by the stock and swung it full force down on the first mummy to climb of the side. Behind him, Ronduul screamed and Keyvan looked back just in time to see him being pulled over the side of the howdah.
He turned just in time to see another mummy. Hammering away with his crossbow, he stove in its head and sent it tumbling off the side. Beyond the hammering of his heart, he couldn’t tell if there wee fewer screams than before, but he definitely didn’t hear Hurdus’s leadspitter.
Damn Hurdus. Damn the whole gang. There never was any aluminum. They only mined one thing in Meidra Hollow.
The work began at first light for the people of the Hollow.
Teams with shovel and hoes dug out shallow trenches which the mummies obediently lay down in while others came out to butcher the horses and ornises. In a time where some army’s movements or some king’s whims might cut off trade for weeks or months at a time, nothing was wasted.
About an hour after the first rays of the sun, the corpse wagon rolled out to collect the bandits’ corpses. It was driven by the mayor and on the seat beside him sat a young woman in a white cloak who shielded her pale skin from the harsh light of day with a lacy parasol.
“One escaped.” reported one of the men tasked with dragging the bodies to the wagon. “Their wizard burrowed out of here.”
“I doubt we’ll see her again if she has any damn sense.” said the mayor, watching as a young man was dragged to the wagon, a steel crossbow clutched in his hands, the arms of the weapon bent beyond recognition from bashing the mummies that eventually claimed him. He’d be dumped in a played out tunnel with the others and in time, join the ranks of the creatures that killed him.
“Damn nasty business this.” He looked to the woman beside him. “I hoped for better for you, I did.”
The young woman peeked at him from under the hood she wore and gave him a sad smile. “There’s not much better for anyone in the world right now, Father. If I have to raise a thousand corpses to make the Hollow safe, that’s what I’ll do.
“We don’t have heroes who will run to us, or the hope of a windfall so we can hire mercenaries. We just have to make use of what we have.” She watched as one of her dozens of mummies was re-interred in the ground to rise again when danger threatened the Hollow. “And what we have in the Hollow… is salt.”