The angels flew overhead and wheeled about before landing in our midst, their 'lightcasters' glowing from recent discharges. In front of us was Mavuto's phalanx, while we few remaining monks held the center.
"Commander Gao Han," Heimdall said, saluting, "we managed to harry the oncoming Sleepers and thin their numbers to about half their initial size. Soon they will be upon us."
On cue, the soul-trapped lumbered out of the trees and into the clearing, the orange lights twinkling maliciously from their bodies. Heimdall wheeled about and fired his weapon, issuing a beam of light that flared forward and disintegrated one of the monster's torsos. It fell and did not rise, the lights in its body extinguished.
"Spread out!" the angel shouted to his soldiers, and the twenty beings obeyed his command, interspersing themselves through our formation and laying down a withering fire of light and purification. The approaching horde stumbled and slowed in the face of their assault, then seemed to right itself and charge again.
Mavuto roared and his beasts roared in turn, leveling their spears at the oncoming monsters and baring their teeth. Lights flashed constantly from the angels' weapons, making the night like day.
"Discipline, Strength and Honor!" Gao Han shouted, stamping his foot and casting a veil of spirit armor over the bestial phalanx.
"For Jinhai!" Jiro yelled, and then all was confusion. The monsters fell upon Mavuto's beasts and the packleader roared instructions, the line barely holding while the angels unleashed more and more fire. Two stonecallers slammed their fists together and the ground swallowed a group of maybe twenty of the soul-trapped who were encroaching upon our flank, but they didn't stop coming.
There were always more.
I cast an added layer of spirit armor over the beast at the left end of the phalanx as monsters threatened to overwhelm him, hoping to buy him more time. An angel turned and opened fire, but to no avail. The beast fell with a howl, his spear useless at such close range.
And as soon as he fell the entire phalanx simply shattered, a chain reaction rolling up the line as the soul-trapped seemed to leap forward with renewed vigor, sensing the kill. I watched Mavuto snap his spear in half and wield it as a sword as the discipline broke down and close-quarters fighting ensued.
Suddenly Captain Hyeon was next to him, fending off soul-trapped monsters with fists swirling with jade magic. Mavuto towered over her and she was able to easily duck under the wide swings of his arms, striking quickly at opponents too close for him to deal with. They fought in perfect harmony, not even speaking to each other as his feral strength and her brutal precision held off the foe.
Then I could pay them no more heed as I was engulfed in a battle of my own. Jiro whirled and jabbed with his spear to hold off the soul-trapped and keep them away from the stone-callers, and I focused all of my attention on keeping my brash friend alive. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an angel calmly shooting the soul-trapped in the head as they swarmed around him, until they finally dragged him down and he cried out in panic.
Heimdall whirled at the sound and leapt forward, his wings propelling him through the air in a spin and to the site of his fallen comrade as he unleashed a flurry of blasts, clearing the monsters away and revealing the downed angel.
The angel's arm was corrupted, and he looked up in despair. "Kill me now," he said, he begged.
Heimdall shook his head. "I can't spare you soldier. You still have your other arm. Until this day is over, you will fight with it."
The angel looked down and shook his head violently in a panic. "No, no, no, no no no!" he shouted, and he took his own life. Heimdall shook his head and returned to the fight.
As terrible as it was, as close to breaking as we seemed, it was soon over. The angels had done well thinning the pack as it approached, and had done well in killing them when they were here. The stone-callers had also acquitted themselves heroically in dealing with the soul-trapped. We were alive.
But we had lost so many. Five of the angels, whose lives were invaluable to our defense, had fallen, leaving only fifteen. Only ten of Mavuto's beasts remained. And eight of us monks. Collectively, we all slumped to the ground in exhaustion. First the march, then the skirmish, and now a battle. I wasn't sure how much more we could take.
Gao Han strode forward, the only man, beast, or angel still standing in spite of fatigue. "I'm told that there is one final horde coming," he said, and I heard Jiro groan. So did the Stalwart. "I know that I have asked much of you, all of you, during our time here. My monks, you have followed me and fought the Sorceress and these soul-trapped monsters. Mavuto, you and your beasts have stood and died for us, and I am honored to call you my battle-brother. Truly, the spirit of Jinhai must beat within your heart for you have fought with a discipline and bravery that I hope to instill in my own soldiers. And Heimdall, your angels have been a gift from the ancestors. Without you we would have already fallen.
"Yet one final horde approaches, a large group that Heimdall's warriors have been unable to harry while they fought alongside us here. One final horde approaches us, another inexorable tide of death to be beaten back with defiance. Yes, I have asked much of you, yet you have given me so much more than what I have demanded.
"Men, women, beasts, and angels, we all stand here to defend not just the twisted world of Reish or the unblemished land we now walk, we stand here and fight to defend all worlds. To defend all life against the darkness. And yes, things may seem grim. Hope may seem gone. There will be no more reinforcements, I can promise you that. There will be no more strangers who will come along and pledge us their aid, for there is no one left. We stand here because no one else can.
"I will not lie to you. We will most likely die. But Heimdall represents a large force of angels who even now are purging this world of the undead. Every soul-trapped monster we kill today is one less for them to hunt down. Every creature of the grave we cut down is one fewer that makes it to Reish, to Jinhai. Though this be our darkest hour, even if we die we will not die in vain. For tonight we stand as proud defenders of these manifold realms. Let them come! Let the gates of hell be opened and all their monsters spill forth! We will stand all the same, no matter what comes through those woods! Yea, it may be this world's darkest hour, but I tell you today that this is our finest hour!"
I rose to my feet, as did everyone else.
Gao Han looked around.
"I could not be more proud to be fighting at your sides," he said.
Suddenly, Heimdall turned. "Here they come," he said, and he opened fire. The beasts scrambled to reform their diminished phalanx of spears, and Jiro joined them on the front lines as the other angels spread out and began firing. The monsters coming were big, clearly beasts slain and then cruelly raised by the metallic virus.
Coyle stepped to my side, wearing the jade armor as naturally as though he were born in it. "Well, Wen, ready to go down in a blaze of glory?"
I nodded. "Coyle, even if no one else says it, thank you for what you're doing here today."
He shrugged. "Don't mention it. These soul-trapped abominations need to be stopped, for all of the planes. If I could do more, I would. Sometimes I wish there were two of me to fight them."
The corrupted behemoths lumbered forward, moving slowly but inevitably towards our ranks. The ground split beneath them and swallowed up a few thanks to the stone-callers, but more kept coming, and they were so big that it took multiple blasts from the angels' weapons to down them.
One, moving slightly faster than the others, plowed into the phalanx and killed two vulpines immediately. Jiro slashed at its leg and it went down flailing, but the line was already broken into chaos. Captain Hyeon charged forward again to try to patch it up, but I could see that we were breaking. The angels took to the air to avoid the undead and continue firing from above, leaving our ranks dangerously thin.
Two more beasts went down and Coyle jumped forward, his sword flashing in the night, cutting down abominations and blocking blows in equal measure. Yet even as he stood, immovable, the others began to fall back before the onslaught.
"Coyle!" shouted Gao Han, and the man turned at the sound. "Hold the left flank; I'll take the right!"
Nodding, Coyle shifted position as our formation was pushed back and compressed around the rift. The stone-callers would open up the ground beneath the approaching horde, but there was only so much they could do at once and I could see that they were exhausted. Even as I cast another layer of spirit armor over Jiro I watched as one of the stone-callers collapsed.
More beasts fell, as did a few angels who were flying too low and got dragged down by the undead abominations. But we held. Mavuto, Hyeon, and Jiro were a whirlwind of blades and magic at our center, while Gao Han personally held the right flank in his usual unflinching way, shrugging off blows and trading back with more strength than the soul-trapped could handle, throwing them off of our side. Once again, I knew it was not for nothing that he was called the Stalwart. Similarly, Coyle held our left flank with his sword and armor, the layered plates of jade-painted metal enabling him to absorb blows and keep fighting.
The angels rained down death with extreme prejudice upon the deathless before us, lighting up the night with their weapons' blaze. With the stone-callers fading, they would be our only chance to hold off the horde.
Heimdall landed next to me. "The line is breaking," he said, and I nodded. He looked up. "We can help."
"Your men will die."
He looked at me and smiled. "Surely, as a Descendant of the Dragon, you know that death is not the end. You will fight on as a spirit after your demise; my angels will reform in Solace, in time." He looked to the sky and fired a single shot, and suddenly the angels were landing all around us, blazing a gap, their guns buying us a moment's respite before the soul-trapped were upon us once again.
I watched a large undead beast charge and created a shield of spirit armor in front of Jiro to break the assault and keep my friend alive. Nevertheless, he was thrown by the blow and landed at my feet. Kneeling, I helped him up.
"Thanks," he said, and he reached down to pick up his spear.
Heimdall picked it up first. "You fight well," the angel said, staring at the weapon's blade and concentrating. "It would be a shame if nothing were to come of your skill." The angel took a deep breath, then the spearhead glowed a blinding white and Heimdall smiled, handing it back to Jiro.
"My thanks, stranger," Jiro said, nodding his head, but then he jumped back into the fight, his spear stabbing and slashing all the faster. And now, where it landed the dead did not rise.
"What did you do?" I asked.
"Merely imparted a bit of my essence into the blade," Heimdall said. He staggered, then righted himself. "It was not easy. Not recommended." Shaking his head to clear away the grogginess, he began firing again, and I returned my attention to who could use my help.
With the angels reinforcing our formation there were more people than ever to shield, but my magic was wearing thin. My head pounded with a terrible headache and I fell to one knee as I renewed the spectral armor around Coyle. Beside me, the last of the stone-callers passed out. I stared at the mud, the sounds of battle all around me. Lightcasters blazed, metal clanged, and a few beasts still roared. From sound alone I knew we were nearly finished.
But so were the soul-trapped. This may have been a large horde, but the stone-callers didn't drive themselves to fainting by doing nothing, and the angels had done invaluable work with their weapons, work that Jiro now contributed to. Even as the angels fell and all but Mavuto among the vulpines were wiped out, even as I watched a monk go down, I saw the ranks of the soul-trapped thinning. Soon there were only five left.
But what a group they made.
Immense, hulking monsters, clearly corrupted beasts. Orange lights blinked over them as they towered above even Mavuto, and I watched one swing a large arm and crush an angel in a single blow even as the hapless angel took to the air in a vain effort to dodge. The five fell creatures lumbered forward. One fell to concentrated fire from the angels' lightcasters, but the other four came.
Gao Han dashed to meet them, an upraised shield of spirit armor his only defense as one swung its ponderous, lumbering fist. I watched as the shield began to crack, but it held. Grinning, Gao Han kicked the beast, giving it pause while Jiro charged between its legs and stabbed its torso, ending the creature's misery.
Approaching from our left flank, Coyle swung with his sword, cleaving another beast in two in spite of its size. He seemed to blaze with fire as he dashed forward and he struck the beast again and again, leaving it in pieces for the angels to disintegrate with their lightcasters.
Hyeon and Mavuto stared down another and dove out of the way of a blow. Rising to my feet, I threw a spirit flare directly at the creature's face, blinding it. Roaring in triumph, Mavuto lopped off the creature's limbs, disabling it.
Heimdall and three other angels flew around the last one, raining down blows with their lightcasters and chipping away at the layers of metal. The soul-trapped abomination swung, knocking two from the sky, but Heimdall and the other one fought on grimly. It swung out again, and only Heimdall flew against it. A third time the beast swung, but the angel dodged out of the way.
But the fourth time the monster swung its arm at Heimdall, he flew straight at it, firing two lightcasters in a blinding display of power and disintegrating the limb before it could strike him. The creature stumbled, then fell, and Jiro finished it off with his empowered spear.
I looked around at the carnage. There were barely any of us left alive, but we were alive. Behind us, the rift showed the demon wastes and the night sky of Reish. It was a dark, twisted, terrible land. But even Reish deserved protection from that darkness that had spread out of Avarrach, and we had succeeded in holding the line.