Chapter Seventy-eight

Balint had led them to a great communal kitchen on the sixth level, a room full of long low stone tables and endless rows of sealed pantry closets. These proved to be full of nothing but dust when they were opened. They were too small to hide an armored man, so Morget and Croy ducked behind stoves big enough to be the furnaces of great smithies and waited in the dark.

They had heard an elfin war party coming long before they saw them. The elves made no attempt to be quiet. Their bronze armor jangled and rang as they moved, marching in double time. Croy had no doubt they had orders to butcher any human they came across. Already, it seemed, the elves knew that he and Morget were haunting the Vincularium, killing every living thing they found.

This was the biggest company of elves they’d discovered so far. At first the elves had sent only pairs of soldiers after them, then pairs of soldiers accompanied by small demons. When that proved not enough to bring down the human invaders, the patrols had been doubled in size, and doubled again.

Now they were moving en masse. They were definitely getting the message. Croy smiled hungrily in his hiding place. Good, he thought. Let them know their doom was coming. It made revenge all the sweeter.

In the dark they only saw the elves as they crossed the kitchen, and then only by a few stray beams of red light from a lamp hung in the vaulted ceiling overhead. It was enough for Croy to see that the elves were wary and prepared. Their bronze armor had been browned by time, but the swords in their hands were keen and bright as gold. With them they had a demon perhaps ten feet across, which rippled along the floor as flat as an animate carpet. The staring faces under its skin lifted now and again to peer into a shadow or the cobwebbed interior of an oven.

Croy knew well the military posture, the perfect formations of these elves. He had fought in his share of battles. He knew what well-trained troops looked like. He’d watched common soldiers drilled by serjeants, grizzled men who forced their charges through endless repetitions of the same basic, time-honored tactics until they could march in lockstep and turn with an infantry square in their sleep.

So he knew how they would approach, and how they would react when they first made contact with their enemy. And he knew the precise moment-the moment of maximal surprise-to step out of hiding, and bring Ghostcutter down on the exposed neck of an elfin soldier. Blood spurted in the dark, wetting Croy’s face. He did not blink.

Well over to his right, on the far side of the formation, Morget leapt up with a roar. His axe swept left, Dawnbringer cut right, the blade flaring with light. Two elves were decapitated before they’d even had time to know something was wrong.

Like good soldiers, the elves did not waste time shouting among themselves in surprise or demanding orders from their captain. They broke ranks flawlessly, spreading out so they could swing their weapons without striking each other. Those too far from Croy or Morget to attack immediately moved quickly, trying to get behind one of the humans or at least flank them.

Ghostcutter rang on a bronze shield, denting its boss. Croy danced backward, drawing his opponent, trying to force the elves to clump up again. He parried a bronze sword that came in from his right, then whirled around for a riposte, sinking his point deep in the throat of an elf.

Another sword came in low, trying to get under his guard. Croy jumped over the blade, pulling his feet up high. Before the attacker could recover and catch him on the backswing, he grabbed the elf’s arm with his free hand and pulled, hard. The elf screamed as he clattered to the floor, striking the flagstones face-first. Before he could even roll over, Croy stomped on his back with one boot.

Then he tossed Ghostcutter in the air, caught it in a reverse grip, and stabbed downward into his fallen enemy’s spine with a thunderous blow.

An honorless attack. The kind of attack a noble knight should not countenance. Croy had never struck such a cheap blow in his life before.

Of course, he’d never fought to avenge his lady love before either.

His face was a mask of iron hatred as he pulled his sword free and faced another attacker. An elf came running toward him, sword held low and point-on. The soldier gripped his blade around the ricasso to add stability to the lunge, which would run Croy through if he couldn’t knock it away.

Before the running elf could take another step, though, Morget’s axe slammed through the armor protecting his side. It bit deep and true, cleaving through bone and muscle and into the vitals beneath. The bronze sword jumped out of the dying elf’s hands. The weapon spun in the air, flashing, before it fell to clash and clatter on the flagstones.

Morget boomed with laughter, and lifted the elf into the air, still stuck on his axe. As the rest of the company swept forward, the barbarian flicked the axe toward them and their companion’s body flew through the air to smash against their shields.

“Now?” Croy asked. Fury was a cold blue flame in his heart. He was ready to take on the rest, and the demon, single-handed.

But that wasn’t the plan.

“Now,” Morget agreed.

The two of them brandished their weapons in the direction of the remaining elves. They gave their best war cries-Morget’s was far more intimidating than Croy’s, but he strained his throat with it.

“More flesh for Mother Death!”

“For the Lady, and for Cythera!”

Then they both turned hard on their heels and ran for the darkness at the back of the kitchen.

The elves came screaming after them, the demon racing along the floor in the midst of them. Croy’s knees flashed in the air as he dashed toward a wide open space in the floor ahead, then wheeled to one side at the last moment. Morget executed a similar maneuver.

The elves came on, their course as straight as an arrow’s flight.

Enraged, perhaps terrified, desperate to catch the humans, they paid no heed to the horse blanket spread across the floor in the middle of the kitchen.

The blanket that had been pulled taut over a vast open fire pit.

Elves and demon alike fell with a terrible rattling din into the pit, arms flying, swords jumping out of hands. Those who landed atop the demon screamed and tried to scurry off its back as it thrashed in blind panic, the faces under its skin stretching outward open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Wherever it touched their bare skin, its corrosive touch scorched and seared, and the elves screamed.

Balint stepped out of the shadows and chuckled. The knocker on her shoulder grabbed at her pack straps to keep from being thrown off. “Boil-brained hedgepigs. You fell for literally the oldest trick in the book. Just be glad I couldn’t get the gas pipes to light, or you’d be a demon omelet by now!” she crowed.

“What now?” Croy asked.

“Now we slaughter them before they can get out of there,” Morget suggested, as easy as if he’d said they should clean their swords and polish their armor.

“Leave them there, to fight it out with that crawling pockmark of theirs,” Balint told the warriors. “We just needed to clear the way to the leather works. And so we have. Come along, you two.”

Croy stared down into the fire pit awhile longer. The elves were too busy trying to get away from their pet beast to pay him any attention. He considered spitting on them.

But no. There were some things a gentleman didn’t do, even to the murderers of his betrothed.

Instead he glared down at them and shouted, “You’re going to die. Every last one of you will die! It’s less than what you deserve for what you did to Cythera!”