Chapter 41 – Bacon For Dinner
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“You’d better not be lying to us, worm! If you cannot find us the tunnel leading to this hidden city you claim to have scouted so thoroughly, you and all your slaves will serve as a fiery example to any other would-be Custos who dares to promise more than they can deliver!” barked a clearly irate orc some 60 meters ahead, massive body outlined by the lanterns atop poles held by three of the smaller orcs.

“The city is just up ahead, great Lord Tog!" assured the smarmy voice of Usef that filled Eric with such killing rage to hear.

"Just a few miles ahead. I'm… I'm sure of it! I left chalk marks along the tunnel leading to the city… but of course you'll need me to decipher it. They are very cleverly hidden so our enemies can't spot them!" the simpering weasel quickly explained, earning a snort from the orc addressing him.

“Good, worm. Then maybe you’ll get to live. Because the rest of us are growing… hungry!”

The declaration was met by oinks, squeals, and guffaws of laughter, even the simpering Usef joining right in.

Eric’s ears roared with the pounding of his heart as he sighted his target, drawing the string all the way back to the pocket of his jaw with a three-fingered grip upon the string. Just as Joseph had taught him. Just as he had practiced for countless hours. Because there was nothing in all the world he wanted more than to punch his arrow through the entire damn lot of them.

His lips curled in dark glee when he felt the Essence of Wrath flood through his body, warming his soul.

And then, a heartbeat later, his bow as well.

Yew limbs and twined silk string now trembled with a power, a fury, matching his own.

And something else as well.

Kill them!”

It was a whisper. A plea.

A promise to himself

And a plea to the bow bonded to his soul and blazing with a wrath that now matched his own.

Such that when he released the string, his arrow snapped forward with a speed rivaling even his reverse-draw crossbows.

An explosion of force and killing intent that tore into the suddenly screaming, panicked orcs.

But not without Eric paying a cost as well.

You have successfully embraced Burst of Strength!

Your bow has been infused with Burst of Strength!

Your bow has been infused with an echo of your will!

Your bow will now respond to your Wrath!

Flesh Sculptor is now at Rank 2!

You have successfully infused and manipulated NONSTANDARD materials: Yew wood and twined spider-silk!

You have lost an additional 72 hours of your life!

 

Eric ignored the notifications. Everything was laid out exactly where he had intended, his trap about to be strung, all his focus on the shrieking orc his arrow had torn right through. It had failed to pierce any further than a single target, but he felt such furious satisfaction in being able to push his Strength, his bow, into such bitter killing intent that the arrow had actually struck with enough speed, enough momentum, to puncture his foe’s shirt of iron mail. A rare feat for a broadhead arrow, to say the least.

His second arrow tore through the air with a similar snap and twang, this time blasting completely through a thigh covered in rawhide, the spurt of hot crimson blood showed brilliantly to Eric’s infravision as the orc stumbled to the hard stone ground, nearly trampled by twenty others as they desperately pivoted around, a handful with shields now held high, frantically looking for threats in the dark gloom their torches could only lighten the tiniest sliver of.

Giving Eric more than enough time to shoot a third arrow infused with the potency of his wrath, this time taking out one of the shield orcs in the knees as it raised its scutum instinctively high, leaving its foot and ankle all too vulnerable to Eric’s pinpoint shot, the creature squealing and collapsing as multiple tendons and ligaments were shorn right through in a hot spurt of blood that showed so clearly, so brilliantly to Eric's ever-improving infravision.

Only then did the panicked orcs gain some semblance of a formation and discipline as the nine-foot tall Torg, clearly the leader among them, glared out into the gloom and shouted commands.

“Shields front! Muskets behind the shields! Fire when you see a target! Spearmen, stand at the ready. Berserkers… charge and strike anything before you!”

Eric flashed a cold smile when a half dozen orcs wielding round shields and axes immediately began charging Eric’s way, roaring and howling as they held their shields up high.

You have fired multiple prepared crossbows!

You have critically struck your targets!

Only to come crashing down to the ground in screams and snarls when bolts from one carefully lain out reverse-draw after another tore into their thighs and knees, four either stumbling or crashing to the ground before a hiss from Morlekai had Eric unleashing his little mental project as one second became two…

“Eric!”

And suddenly the pair of uninjured charging orcs smacked right into a massive battlement of incredibly tough hide, scales, and bone bracing several tons of lizard meat, and all of it so tightly wound together by ligament, sinew, and inspiration that the pair bounced off it with startled cries before immediately springing back to their feet as Eric smiled, utterly invisible to them in the thick gloom from the other side of the barrier, gazing at the pair of berserkers, and the orcs 50 yards behind them, silhouetted by lamplight, thanks to his thoughtful inclusion of a handful of arrow slits.

“What ambushed us?” Cried out the one known as Tog.

"A wall?" One berserker said uncertainty, large four-digit fingers like sausages tentatively touching the wall. "It feels like..."

The creature then blinked and stumbled back in sudden confusion, with a desperate look on its features as if it was trying get a grip on the confounding puzzle of its own death as it crashed to the ground, a crossbow bolt having torn right through its skull.

"Snorlock!" Hissed the nearby orc, only dimly seeing the outline of it's fallen companion, instinctively bending down to take a look before instantly thinking better of it…

Before crashing to the ground, choking on the hot geyser of blood pouring down its throat as a crossbow bolt traveling at 450 feet per second pierced the vulnerable back of its neck in the blink of an eye.

“Speak! What’s this about a wall?”

“We’ve been hit, Battle-leader!” Cried out one of the orcs, turning to face his leader with a quarrel sticking out of its foot it was slowly pulling out with a hiss… before collapsing with a shudder when a crossbow bolt blossomed in its jugular, spraying the chief himself with a hot shower of blood. Torg himself yelped in surprise, which sent the surviving so-called berserkers scurrying back for the main group now surrounded by shields.

The orcs crippled by Eric's leg shots were limping or dragging themselves back as best they could, even crying out for help like men desperately swimming for a ship after being tossed into the cold cruel sea.

Only this water refused to surrender its prizes as first one, then a second, then a third orc died to carefully placed quarrels piercing the backs of their necks, an area which their half helms which allowed for wide-angle vision and perfect maneuverability without hindering the horns on their skull, did very little to protect as Eric sighted, fired, and switched for another recurve crossbow in less than two seconds, only darting back from the arrow slits when Torg screamed, “Fire, you fools! Force them back, then shield and spears… charge!”

Eric immediately jerked back an amused-looking Morlekai from his own arrow slit he had been making good use of with the pre-loaded crossbows Eric had lain out, taking out a pair himself right before the air boomed with not one but a half dozen black powder weapons firing in unison, and Eric couldn’t help but smile fiercely as the dull thud of lead shot ricocheting off greater lizard scale hide could be heard.

Never mind the jolt of ice-cold dread he had felt upon first hearing Torg’s words, all too readily able to imagine his bulwark and himself instantly riddled with hot lead, but not one pellet managed to burst completely through to the other side, also fully covered in lizard hide.

Morlekai gave a cool nod. "If nothing less than your reverse-draws could pierce the neck of those greater lizards, then it should be effortless for this necromantically infused bulwark of lizard meat and heartscales to deflect lead shot."

Eric gave the softest of chuckles as the orcs screamed and roared. “Admit it. You were scared just as shitless as I was. Halfway certain that we’d be full of holes right now.”

Morlekai smirked but said nothing.

Eric snorted and handed a bemused-looking Morlekai another one of his loaded recurves.

"In case you get bored," he whispered, before popping back to take a quick look, overjoyed to see all six orc musket-wielders with their stocks on the ground, barrels tilted up as they ripped open paper cartidges with their teeth, pouring a small amount of powder into what Eric guessed was the flash pan, and the remainder of the powder down the musket followed by a handful of metal pellets before shoving the paper wad inside last of all and tamping the whole thing down with a long tamping rod.

The muskets were massive, and the amount of black powder and shot they put into each one was more than a bit intimidating. As were the wickedly serrated foot-long bayonets at the end of each musket, which effectively made them just as effective and deadly as any other seven-foot long spear, their large sausage-like fingers more than capable of maneuvering the thicker musket shaft just as well as most humans could a typical spear shaft, he was sure.

If there was a bright side, it was that Eric knew muskets couldn't shoot for shit, compared to a rifle. But these were filled with shot, which assured a deadly spread much like a modern shotgun, with a hell of a lot of kick compared to the shotguns popular before modern gunpowder suddenly became obsolete. More an 8-gauge than a 12-gauge, he was sure.

Not a weapon Eric wished to get peppered with, nor did he plan to, as the air rang with the soft twang of crossbows fired, and bolts streaked through the air with far more accuracy than any musket would ever deliver with first one, then a second, and finally a third musketeer crashing to the ground before the remaining handful squealed and ran off into the dark.

“Eric!”

Eric hissed and lurched back as the dozen surviving orcs crashed into the barrier as one, a cacophony of roars, hoots, and snorting howls as the mass of porcine flesh attempted to knock over the rampart. And much to a now alarmed Eric's surprise, he heard more than a couple of the bones and ligaments supporting the mound of what was, after all, dead lizard flesh, begin to give under their pummeling charge.

But not before Eric shot a screaming orc who collapsed as his torso was visible through the arrow hole. Then one pig-faced orc after another began to lurch over the lip of the barricade. Bloodthirsty foes Eric could spot with perfect clarity who were themselves squinting desperately into what was, for them, pitch darkness as they scrabbled over the top of the battlement.

And that look of confusion, neck instinctively distended, face tilted with a desperate need to try to pierce the darkness, a moment's precious stillness, face bare to the gloom, was the moment Eric squeezed the trigger of one prepared crossbow after another, after another.

Quarrels that sent over half a dozen of his sworn foes crashing down to their deaths on both sides of the wall.

But of course his foes were the farthest thing from still as they continued to struggle over as fast as they could, more than a few having the prudence to crouch down and roll, as if finally realizing that presenting your face to the darkness was not necessarily a good idea.

In fact, all the surviving orcs a now increasingly worried Eric faced had had the sense to crouch down, using shields or the very bodies of their fallen brethren for cover, and damn if it wasn't actually protecting them at least long enough to roar and charge forward, swiping at what was, for them, unseen foes in the dark.

All of which meant that a steadily retreating Eric and Morlekai now faced a good half-dozen enraged orcs and one lantern holder charging forward, and Eric no longer had any pre-loaded crossbows lain out in easy reach, having instantly flipped them all back in storage after firing each one. Nor did he have two seconds' grace to summon a freshly loaded crossbow.

You have successfully dodged overhand chop! Orc shield-bash sends you flying!

Finesse check made! You have landed on your feet!

Before Eric could blink, the orcs were suddenly upon them, and he found himself dodging roaring monstrosities that nearly managed to gut him before he could twist and sprint, a shield bash sending him flying when he dared to pivot, orcish laughter making it clear that they were happy to catch Eric in a moment of vulnerability, his now worthless crossbow having been sent clattering down the hallway.

Before they snorted and glared as the air filled with caws and a storm of crows began circling amongst them.

Crows that swarmed around faces and heads before darting in to peck at lips and eyes, daring and looping around massive ochre-colored hands smashing more than a few of them away.

But at least a few had found targets… orcs who hadn’t gotten this far unscathed. And upon their fresh spurting wounds the crimson crows found a new home.

Screaming as aggravated snarls turned to desperate howls as annoying crows began savagely burrowing into the wounds of their hosts.

And for every two crows smashed aside, one got through.

The air ran with roars turning to desperate shrieks, drawing the helpless eyes of half a dozen yellow-tusked orcs as one among their number began to twist and writhe, limbs snapping back at impossible angles as its body began to bubble and froth before its horrified mouth cracked open wide, discourging a silent scream…

And a massive murder of crows.

Burst of Strength in effect!

Orc has been critically hit!

Orc has been disemboweled!

Orc has exploded!

More than one orc stumbled back to find himself falling to the ground, surprised to find their massive legs ending in stumps above their knees, another looking down aghast at the saber blade spitting liquid fire from its abdomen for long, horrific seconds, its insides bloating with boiling innards and bursting with fiery hot death scattering amongst the surviving orcs, their bodies now covered in charred flesh and boiling blood.

The caverns ignited in fresh screams as Eric forsook the archer's path and embraced the way of bardiche and blade once more, switching weapons as he weaved and dodged past his foes as his instruments painted the reviled orcs he had sworn to kill in sheets of crimson and flame.

Winding parries with a bardiche held in a wide, two-handed grip that barely deflected the furious might of a monstrous demi-human became the lighting fast thrusts of a superheated blade.

An instant before a howling orc's pounding fist that could so easily crush a fragile human's skull was parried by a steel-covered shield that crumpled under the blow.

But not before the monster’s arm was torn open by steel and fire, shrieking with horror for his missing hand before a single thrust to the throat left the porcine monstrosity inhaling fire, then nothing ever again.

And before the remaining orcs could do more than stumble back, they were crashing to the ground under the storm of crows, bardiches of crimson steel, and sabers of superheated flame.

Until at last it was just Eric staring down a furiously roaring massive orc that could only be Torg, presently holding a brutal axe of flint and bone. “You! You’re the one who killed our shaman! You’re the one who dares to challenge us!”

The creature roared, glaring at Eric's bleeding arm, sneering at the saber Eric dared to wield against it swung its massive axe in lazy moulinets, showing off its strength and skill.

Eric felt it then, the awful killing intent, the crackling presence that forced even the crows back.

Crows gazing back at Eric with something close to fear.

Birds that had been happily terrorizing half a dozen lesser orcs.

But against this nine-foot beast radiating a corona of killing energies so like the warding field around the shaman? The summoner who had come so close to killing Morlekai?

Of course Eric understood. Though he only spared a second for the rapidly dispersing crows, all his attention on his foe once more.

Deceptively quick and fast, the way he had darted past half a dozen crimson birds while effortlesly knocking aside Eric’s saber, then making him pay in blood for crossing the war-leader of an orcish clan.

Quickness check made! You have successfully avoided decapitation! You are now missing the tip of your nose!

Eric ignored both the shiver down his spine at death so narrowly avoided just as he did the spurting blood from the ruins of his nose, terror far greater than pain at that moment as he realized that he was now completely unarmed, the axe having effortlessly swept his weapon away.

His foe laughed, taunting Eric with his axe, showcasing the absolute mastery Strength and Speed had over almost any outcome, once clever opening gambits and strategies had played out.

Once barricades had been smashed, friends broken, allies sent fleeing.

Once there was nothing left but the furious struggle for survival they were both engaged in at that very moment.

Eric’s ears rang with the violent roar of his foe as furious pounding axe sought to cleave free his head once more, his foe frowning in consternation when Eric’s wickedly curved war blade popped into existence in the blink of an eye.

Even so, it was all Eric could do to force his foe’s deadly blows off line, to slip past cleaving chops that could have killed him effortlessly as he strove to close and deliver cleaving death of his own.

Only to be sent flying by a kick to his gut as their weapons locked in the bind.

His foe howled with pleasure when he abruptly tore Eric’s bardiche free of his grip.

Before snarling and spitting when it appeared in Eric’s hand once more.

“There can be no forgiveness for your crimes, human! Only retribution! Written in the blood of your—“

Eric let his enemy’s words wash over him as time seemed to stretch and slow, honing in on the only things that mattered.

The massive orc’s heaving breaths as he squeezed the hilt of his weapon, the glitter in his enemy’s eyes as they widened, preparing to strike.

Waiting for it, as his enemy’s words twisted into a snarl.

Sensing the furious tusked smile an instant before it burst forth as steel flashed, and a cleaving blow far too fast for Eric to parry streaked through the air.

Until he did.

The orc’s eyes widened, eyes burning like twin yellow orbs with hate when monstrous axe failed to slip past Eric’s defenses as it all finally clicked.

And Eric understood his weapon like never before.

Sensing how best to widen his grip and twist his bardiche just enough to force the vicious axe head up high… before plunging forward with his hands along the shaft of a razor-sharp spear over a foot longer than the weapon he had held, just an eyeblink ago.

A spear-tipped glaive plunging forward with enough power to pop even iron mail links as the orc stumbled back and spat blood, gazing at Eric with surprised disbelief, before shaking his head with a roar.

“NO human gets the best of me, worm!”

The orc’s features turned scarlet with rage, and Eric couldn’t help but flash a killing smile as his muscles thrummed with power he had never known before. He couldn’t help but chuckle softly, his deadly bardiches all but dancing in the air as he switched one for the other, twisting, weaving, and striking as if by instinct, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Yet when Torg snarled and lurched forward, the air whistling with the passage of his weapon, Eric had already darted back. But not before leaving a crimson trail upon his foe's left knee, earning a surprised stumble and snarl as his foe lurched and stumbled, shifting his axe to mid-guard, eyes wide with momentary fear.

A move that infuriated Eric.

Because even with the beast’s strength, such a defensive posture was blasphemous for an axe specialist who relied on power and momentum and pure offensive ruthlessness to tear through his foes. The massive orc's weapon lacked the quick, deadly speed of the longsword, saber, or similar weapon that might have been able to counter Eric’s final blow. A furious downward snap against the haft of the axe that jerked the weapon off line a heartbeat before the tip of Eric's bardiche blasted through Tog's open mouth, and right out the back of the inhumanly thick skull.

Eric flashed a cold, cold smile as the dying orc crashed to its massive knees, eyes filled with fear and confusion.

The monstrous orc seemed desperate to say some final words, struggling against the razor-sharp steel that had torn through the back of its throat. And perhaps there had been a flicker of relief in his eye when the weapon was extracted in a shower of blood.

Relief and malice both, the black weight of a retributive blast somehow hovering in the air.

Just a single black powder whisper away.

Before Eric spun around with a roar and sliced his foe’s head clean off, making sure that the last thing confused blinking eyes saw as they tumbled endlessly through the air was Eric’s furious glare as his foe’s skull tumbled to the ground, any lingering cords of black magic cleaved with his head, Torg’s eyes finally rolling back as death claimed him forevermore.

You have successfully channeled Burst of Strength!

Burst of Strength is now Rank 6!

Crossbow is now Rank 13!

Bardiche (Glaive) is now Rank 10!

Bardiche (War Blade) is now Rank 10!

 

Congratulations! You have achieved Journeyman Proficiency with: Bardiche! (Warblade and Glaive variants.)

You have taken your first steps toward Adept weapon mastery, combining the martial techniques of multiple weapons into one unified whole! You now have +1 to Strength, +1 to Finesse, & +1 to Quickness as greater mastery of your tools and environment becomes greater mastery over yourself!

You may now choose 1 weapon-related perk as the Essence of the warrior becomes your own!

Warrior’s Grace (Standard) – This Perk taps into the living memory of countless warriors who have written legends in the stars with their passing long before you were ever born. Expect an improvement in all aspects of two-handed melee polearms, from feints to counters to mastering the secrets of timing and leverage to better allow the delivery of devastating blows and deadly thrusts, as you commune with countless masters who have come before you!

Warrior’s Grace (Advanced) – This perk taps into the living memory of countless warriors who have written legends in the stars with their passing long before you were ever born. Expect an even greater improvement over the standard version of this perk in all aspects of two-handed melee polearms, thanks to inborn Node and System affinities, along with multiple trainers and sparring partners who have feted you with insights and training far beyond what the average Conscript could hope to expect! All of which will allow you to commune ever deeper with countless masters who have come before you!

Cleaving Blow (Advanced) – Veteran of desperate battles that you are, you know as well as anyone that sometimes a single powerful cleaving blow is the difference between a decapitated enemy and your own entrails spilling on the ground. Embracing this perk means becoming one with the Essence of countless finishing moves delivered with sufficient force to chop through almost anything! Even steel helms and breastplates will be sundered by your might! - Note. This perk can be used by both Bardiche variants that you have studied!

Doom Slice (Adept) – This Perk distills the Essence of the cut into the Essence of sharpness, a monofilament blade of potential echoing a million slicing cuts executed in the most perilous of circumstances, to absolutely deadly effect! The power behind your blows may not increase, but your ability to slice through almost everything and deliver the most wicked draw-cuts imaginable will mirror that of the deadliest of swordsmen… even if you'll be lucky to pull it off more than once per battle!

You have already purchased this perk once for the Saber skill! Investing in this perk with your war blade will add 50% potency to both Tier 1 variations!

Note. This perk can only be used with your war-blade bardiche!

Piercing Strike (Adept) - For one brief moment in time, you may embrace the killing fury of countless millions of warriors before you in delivering a deadly thrust that can pierce through almost anything!

You have already purchased this perk once for the Spear skill! Investing in this perk with your glaive bardiche will add 50% potency to both Tier 1 variations!

Note. This perk can only be used with your glaive bardiche!

 

In an eyeblink that seemed to last forever, Eric thought long and hard about the choices before him. Certainly, the Advanced version of Warrior's Grace would suit him, as it seemed to imply that not only would he rank up skill-wise even faster than at his already absurd pace, it would also increase his Finesse with the weapon overall. And that was a beautiful thing.

Except that it seemed to also imply that he would be gaining that bump of insight with and for all polearms, and if his cynical hunch about the System was right, that would then manifest as his pre-chosen Journeyman Perk for every polearm he sought to master, though he sensed he would be able to level them all to level 10 faster than normal as well.

But even so, his inner gamer couldn’t help but wonder if he would be far better off choosing an active perk for his bardiche, and perhaps choosing Warrior’s Grace with another polearm down the line. Wouldn’t that effectively give him a free perk with his favored weapons, as opposed to doing it any other way?

He grimaced, forced to accept that he really didn’t have a clue, already sensing the wildly rolling twenty-sided die of his skill's endless potential about to come to a stop. And with most of those sides dedicated to the most mundane, standard, and statistically probable of feats...

With a sudden jolt of desperate focus, he made his choice, replaying the final battle with Torg countless times in his head, able to visualize so clearly a half dozen times where being able to lash out with a mighty power swing that would shatter through all resistance would have ended the battle far quicker than it had. That massive axe, held in the hands of a nine-foot monster of a warrior who actually knew what he was doing, had been enough of a deterrent that Eric hadn’t dared lose himself even for a moment trying to unleash Doom Slice with his saber, now when he literally had to dart past the axe with his far shorter saber to do it.

Yet as mighty and devastating as Doom Slice would be with his bardiche, the longer reach allowing him to make use of it at safer range than with his saber and the two-handed grip assuring truly devastating slashes, it would only effect the shorter bardiche so perfectly suited for slashing through pretty much everything. And as gloriously devastating as Piercing Strike would be with the longer bardiche so like a glaive, that perk would also only be usable with that one particular weapon.

But Cleaving Blow was a power attack that would work with both weapons, and was the one weapon Perk of interest he had yet to snap up.

And if he somehow managed to convey his sense of the perfect sheering slice with his saber to his War Blade? Or, perhaps easiest of all, he hoped, transfer the Essence of the piercing blow from spear to what was, basically, just a broad bladed variant of the spear? That would truly be an epic way to double his melee weapon Perks.

Of course, he could be entirely wrong. He might not have any luck at transferring perks between weapons at all, save when the System specifically allowed it.

But either way, he was happy with his choice, instinctively appreciating just how effective Cleaving Blow would be. Not only for biting into the thickest beast hide or blowing through steel plate armor, but also for powering past any attempts to parry or block his perk-enhanced blow.

Whether monstrous abomination or canny opponent, it was a feat that could turn the tide of any battle, so long as he didn’t use it so often that he lost his ability to focus and concentrate, a deadly failing in any battle. The same dilemma he faced with all his active weapon perks, and one he was more than willing to accept, for the boon of deadly strikes that would see him standing when far tougher-seeming opponents had long since crashed to the ground in death.

Or so he hoped.

You have Successfully chosen Cleaving Blow as your Journeyman Perk for the Bardiche polearm (All variants!)

You and your party have defeated over 20 orcs! You are now Level 9! Points retroactively placed! You are now stronger and faster than you could possibly have imagined, before you began to forge yourself in the crucible of battle, and make the hot fires of conflict your own!

Congratulations! You are 90% of the way to achieving level 10!

Do you wish to halt ascension and begin potency infusion? Y/N

For long moments Eric just stood there, taking deep gulps of air that stunk of blood and ruptured bowels, just trying to keep himself steady as post-battle shakes left him weak and dizzy, both hands now on his blood-slicked shaft for balance as much as anything else, eyes desperately scanning for survivors as his mind replayed the battle in its entirety.

Sensing anew what an incredible boon both infravision and his ESS had turned out to be. Without either one, without over thirty crossbows he could store completely loaded in his interface, Eric had no doubt that he, at least, would have perished, and fast.

Each of those pig-faced abominations was a massive beast, six hundred pounds if they were an ounce. And had they not been distracted by blood crows, there would have been no way that Eric could have successfully harried them, even with his inhuman Vitality and Stamina. Because rag-tag as the final group to make it over the barrier had been, their shields and spears in tandem, wielded by such massive foes, should have allowed them to get the best of any fair fight.

Of course, the last thing Eric was interested in was fighting those bastards fair.

Ambushing them in the dark and sniping them with dozens of crossbows behind massive bulwarks of undead flesh sounded like a far better option to him.

 

Morlekai flashed a positively ruthless grin. “I fear our dear friend Usef has left without us.”

Eric laughed as he began re-cocking his crossbows, the minute the last of the shakes had finally passed, Morlekai having said not a word, his smile oddly sympathetic, until long moments that had felt like forever but had probably been less than five minutes wasted, his racing heart and trembling hands now cool and focused once more. “And a trio of musketeers as well. Let’s get our presents ready and greet them, shall we?”

His friend gave a hard smile. “We were lucky, Eric. You know that, right?”

“Lucky as all hell,” Eric acknowledged as his friend stepped back into a stream of crimson crows while Eric stored his bulwark of flesh, scales, and bone with a touch, infravision revealing secrets desperately still orcs preyed their opponents would never see. “So let’s take these asshole’s luck, just to stay on the safe side, shall we?”

The air erupted with a cacophony of crows cawing with odd avian laughter that soon rang in odd counterpoint to the screams of a full half-dozen orcs playing dead. Orcs that began squealing and roaring, some in rage, some actually begging for mercy, others howling and shrieking as they struggled against swarms of beaks, claws, and feathers that cut like blades.

Until their terrified faces were stuffed with crimson feathers and they said not another whisper, no matter how frantically they clawed at their bloated throats, shaking and spasming as their flesh churned from within.

Not until their heads tilted back and they roared forth a storm of crows, an endless deluge of crimson messengers, piggish eyes rolling in unspeakable agony as their lives spewed forth in a sea of flapping wings, until all that remained was desiccated skin and bones.

Eric couldn’t help but nod in admiration for the work of a true master of his art, having no doubt that if retributive wards or concussive blasts weren’t a thing, Morlekai could have had is way with them all.

But as it stood…

A flock of crimson death swirled in a miniature maelstrom to reveal Morlekai a second later as the last of the birds flew in odd directions at right angles to all Eric knew. “Three more, and our hunt is done.”

Eric nodded. “And the interrogation can begin.”

The pair shared a bleak nod at that and began their hunt in earnest once more.

Inky shadows loping through the darkness.

Predators the tunnel inhabitants somehow knew to be wary of.

All save the handful Eric could now sense, less than 100 yards away.

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