Twenty-eight – 09

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

“Sounds like it should work,” Thordin said, his brow furrowing for a few seconds. “Nothing else is changing?”

“Not unless any of you see a reason to change the plan. I don’t.” I took a deep breath and exhaled it slowly, glancing toward Hecate. “Are you still up for this?”

She nodded. “Yes,” she said, not even a tremor in her voice. “Absolutely. This is the only way we make sure that we’re safe from him. Maybe more than just him.”

“That’s my thought, too,” I said. I looked out over the field again. “All right. Let’s start getting everyone in position. Is there anything I can help with, Hecate?”

She hesitated for a second, edged closer to the lip of the rise, peering through the brush, watching the motion of the men in the camp below—and the movements of the things that couldn’t be called human at all. Then she shook her head slowly. “No,” she said, her voice soft. “No, I don’t think so. Not before this starts, anyway. The first steps are ones I have to take myself.”

“But after?”

She smiled briefly. “I might need some strength to borrow and lean on.”

“That I can do,” I said quietly. “That, I can do.”

“Good,” she murmured. “Because I think I can do it. It’s just not going to be easy.”

“Most of the dangerous and important things aren’t,” Phelan muttered.

Hecate snorted softly. “Too true, Wanderer. Too true.”

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Twenty-eight – 08

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

Hecate found her voice first. “Well, that’s reassuring,” she said, her tone measured and voice quiet. She was staring off over the camp below, almost seeming to get her bearings—as if she knew what was going to be asked of her.

Honestly, she probably did. It wasn’t that hard to guess, especially when she’d practically volunteered for it the day before.

Matt glanced at her, then at me. He seemed to avoid looking back out over the camp again, as if he were suddenly regretting the idea to come in the first place. “What’s your plan?” he asked, lips thinning. “I’m assuming it’s mostly based on the camp being a hell of a lot bigger than we anticipated.”

“The camp’s bigger,” I agreed. “But I don’t think the army’s really that much bigger, just more spread out. We’ll need to bunch them up for maximum effect and sow chaos in the ranks.”

“We’ve got no way of knowing how disciplined they are,” Thordin murmured, his gaze trained on the camp below. “No idea if they’ll cut and run or stand.”

“It’s Orcus,” Phelan said. “Odds are that any army he’s put together is going to stand and fight, one way or another—either out of discipline or pure fear of him.”

“It’s a wise fear,” Hecate said, shaking her head slightly. “So how do we bunch them up without losing our edge?”

“That’s where Matt and Phelan come in,” I said quietly, glancing at the two of them. “I need you two to force them toward the center of the camp.”

Matt blinked at me. “How?”

“You know how,” Phelan murmured. “So do I.”

“Can you do it?” I asked him.

Phelan glanced out at the camp again, studying it for a few moments before he answered. “Yeah. Yeah, I think we can.”

“Good,” I said, ignoring Matt’s almost stricken look. “Because that’s what we need you to do as soon as we’re in position to start the assault.”

Smiling grimly, Phelan nodded.

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Twenty-eight – 07

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

More than any other, that was a sobering thought. For a few seconds, I stared blankly at the camp below, barely daring to breathe. I had never faced something quite like this before, a realization of this level of magnitude. In some ways, even realizing that everything we’d ever known had come to an end wasn’t even as daunting as this.

We have to kill Orcus to stop him. We have to kill him today or tonight—by the end of this fight, he’ll have to be dead or we’ll never be safe. Never.

A chill shot down my spine.

Can I do that? If it were me against him, face to face, could I?

I didn’t have an answer.

A soft rustle behind me made me turn and look back, seeing Sif returning with Thordin, Phelan, Matt, and Hecate in tow. I exhaled quietly, more glad to see them than I’d ever been—somehow, their presence was a relief. I waved them forward, turning back toward the view below the rise.

Phelan was the one to settle immediately to my left, Matt and Hecate on my right. Thordin peered through the brush on the other side of Phelan, with Sif hanging back a little, her gaze roaming. I cleared my throat.

“There’s more than we thought,” I said, echoing what I’d said before to Sif.

Phelan nodded slowly. “There are. What are you thinking?”

“That we can still make this work,” I said. “That we have to make this work.”

He nodded again. “Agreed.”

“They’re spread out,” Matt muttered, frowning. “I didn’t expect that.”

“None of us could,” Thordin said. “We didn’t know exactly what his force was built with until now. The scouts couldn’t get close enough for a really good look.”

“It’s all right,” I said quietly. “I think I have a plan.”

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Twenty-eight – 06

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

Sif stayed silent for a few seconds, then cleared her throat. “Right, then,” she murmured. “Inches and miles, I guess, right?”

“We don’t have a choice, Sif,” I said. “We’re committed. We’re doing this. It’s our only shot—moreso now that you and I have seen the size of this army from above.”

“They’re not bunched up enough,” she said, her brow furrowing. “How do we solve that?”

“Matt and Phelan,” I said. “Maybe a little Thordin. If Hecate takes control of the forces she used to command? Maybe just her. I don’t know. That’s a variable we’ll have to weigh once they get a look at this.”

“You want me to go get them?”

“Yeah,” I said, my gaze drifting back toward the army camp below us. “Quick and quiet. The rest can hold where they are.”

She nodded quickly, then eased back through the brush and down the rise, back toward the trees. I crouched amidst the brush, just watching for a few minutes. The camp gave no sign of being on any kind of alert. Figures milled around without rhyme or reason, some pausing alongside each other as if in conversation, others moving from one campfire to another. There were at least a few that seemed to be sentries watching the edges of the camp, but there weren’t many—not nearly as many as I would have expected for a camp this size.

Cocky. Maybe a little overconfident.

I blew out a silent breath. I could hope that he was overconfident and that we’d make him pay for it. What I was seeing, what we’d planned, what my instincts were telling me was that we could—that he would pay for his overconfidence.

This time, anyway.

That was when it hit me that we’d have to kill him. He couldn’t be allowed to escape. We would get one shot at this and then never again.

One way or another, before the battle we were going to start was over, Orcus would need to be dead.

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Twenty-eight – 05

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

The second line of trees wasn’t all that thick, but the underbrush was. Sif and I had to pick our path carefully as we made our way through it, sticking close to each other. I tried not to jump at every unexpected sound as we forged on. If Sif picked up on my nerves, she at least had the grace not to say anything about it. We came to the other end faster than I expected, breaking through the edge of the treeline to face a ridge of rock and brush lining the edge of the rise.

I took a slow, deep breath and glanced sidelong at Sif. She shot me a tight smile.

“Ready for the first glimpse?” she asked in a whisper.

I nodded, exhaling as I moved quietly toward the ridge and the brush, creeping through the branches to the top edge.

Orcus’s army was at the same time larger and smaller than I thought it might be. His camp sprawled across the field below the rise, dozens of tents arrayed around a series of bonfires. I could see a few camazotzi milling around alongside humans and things I couldn’t identify—things I wasn’t sure I wanted to identify.

Sif eased up alongside me, following my gaze down to the camp below. A soft curse escaped her lips. “Where the hell did he manage to get an army this size?”

“I don’t know,” I murmured. “But it doesn’t look as bad as I was afraid it might—but it’s more than I hoped it would be.”

“Does this change the plan?”

“No. Not at all.”

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Twenty-eight – 04

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

A narrow trail led away from the edge of the rise, not much more than a game trail. Hikers must have climbed this bluff before the end of everything, but no one had come this way except for the scouts—not in a long time. That much was clear as Sif and I picked our way through bramble and brush that had started to overtake the pathway in places. They tugged at the legs of our pants, catching on our sleeves and quivers. Sif glanced at me and offered up a feral grin.

“Well, we’ll certainly hear them coming, won’t we?”

I snorted softly. “Odds are pretty strong we’d figure it out either way.”

She nodded. We lapsed back into silence until we crossed through the stand of trees to a narrow clearing between that stand and another. Beyond that second stand of trees would be the brush-shrouded ridge that we’d array ourselves on for our assault. Sif squinted up at the trees as we paused.

“You think we might want to array some people in the mid-level branches? Trees look old enough to have ones strong enough to support some of the Hunt.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Depends on how much space we’ve got on the other side. This spot looks pretty good for staging, though, and fallback if we start getting hit.”

She grimaced. “Hit by what?”

“I’m trying not to think about the answer to that question,” I told her with a wry smile. “We know that they’ve got some nasty airborne things.”

“Isn’t the plan to have Hecate seize control there?”

“Yes,” I said. “But that’s asking a lot of her, isn’t it?”

Sif shrugged. “I guess. Maybe. Don’t you think she can do it?”

“Of course I think she can do it,” I said, heading for the treeline. “But I’d be stupid not to have a backup plan.”

“What is your backup plan?”

“Thordin.”

She paused a moment, then nodded. “Good backup plan.” Then she followed me into the trees.

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Twenty-eight – 03

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

It felt like miles, even if it wasn’t. Sif caught up with me for the last few dozen yards and we climbed together up a slope that at that point was not quite vertical, but close.

“Thom never would have made this climb,” she murmured to me.

I shook my head. “No. Not a chance, not with the shape he’s in right now.”

“I doubt he’s happy about staying behind, though.”

I smiled ruefully. “It is what it is. He understands. It’s for the good of the mission and the good of all of us, right?”

“Mission,” she echoed. “That’s one way to put it.”

I hauled myself up onto the top of the trail. It opened up into a small area of grass surrounded by trees and some rock outcrops, but the footing was stable once I’d made it up. I reached down to help Sif, looking beyond her to the line of others still working their way up the track. “Can’t think of a better way, honestly,” I said, bracing myself as she used my arm to help her make it up over the edge of the lip. “What else would you call it?”

“I guess I don’t know,” she said, then sighed. “It’s as good a term as any. I just didn’t think about it that way.”

“It would be different if we were still home,” I said. “Then it would be a defense. This is something different. A preemptive strike, sure, but it’s more than that. There’s so many more moving parts. It’s so much more complicated than just an attack.”

Sif stared at me for a few seconds, then shrugged. “If you say so.”

“I do.”

She shrugged again. “Okay. Should we go take a look at what we’re working with?”

I glanced back down at the line of others. They would make it up here all right without our help. I nodded as I turned back to her. “Yeah. Let’s go take a look. We’ll figure out how we’re going to arrange everyone.” I took a slow breath. “And once we’re in position, we’ll send the signal.”

We’ll send the signal and one way or another, this ends today.

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Twenty-eight – 02

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

The trail was also muddier than I’d anticipated, though the scouts had warned us. Even that would be to our advantage, though, especially if Orcus tried to send forces after us once he realized what was going on. I was hoping by the time he did that it would be far too late for him to do much damage.

Everything was based on timing and luck and our being able to pull off an element of surprise because numbers were not something we had working in our favor.

Trees lined the steep pathway, trees that shielded us from the view of all but the most keen of observers, and the rise we were climbing to the top of was between us and Orcus’s army camp. Hopefully there would be as much cover as I expected there to be when we reached the top.

Back to the hopes and fingers crossed.

For a second, I squeezed my eyes shut.

This has to work. I’ve seen too much that comes after this moment for it not to. It has to work.

I wished I didn’t have to cling to that knowledge to keep going.

Don’t let them know that you’re as freaked out as the rest of them. All of us are putting on a brave face for the rest. We’re all terrified. Can’t come apart. Not now.

I looked up the trail. It was maybe another hundred yards to the top.

Probably.

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Twenty-eight – 01

[This post is from Marin’s point of view.]

The path up was as narrow and steep as the scouts had warned. I was glad that we’d at least been able to convince Thom to stay at the staging point rather than try to come with me and the ranged team. There was no way he’d ever been able to make the climb. Maybe he’d known that.

Without asking, I couldn’t be sure. Either way, I was glad that he was safe at our fallback point—at least as safe as he ever really got.

If we failed, they’d find our staging area and that would be that.

Failure is not an option, Marin. Don’t even consider it.

It couldn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen.

I shifted my bow slightly, glancing back over my shoulder at the others behind me, each picking a careful route upward toward the rise where our archers and sharp-shooters would launch their surprise attack on Orcus’s forces—and hopefully sow enough confusion to make the rest of our plan work.

Sif met my gaze for a second, then jerked her chin toward the path ahead. “Eyes front,” she whispered just loud enough for me to hear. I shot her a tight smile and nodded, turning my attention back to the pathway ahead.

It had been anything but an easy climb so far.

It only gets harder from here. Don’t forget that.

Everything we’d been through in the last year had led to this. Somehow, deep down in my gut where I buried things I didn’t want to think about, I knew that.

There was no question—not anymore. Everything had led to this and one way or another, this was where we would make our stand and hopefully—hopefully—send a message loud and clear to anyone or anything that decided to tangle with us.

Bad idea. Bad, bad idea. We are far more than you bargained for and if you come against us, you will lose.

Of that, you can have no doubt.

At least, that was the hope.

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Hey folks!

It’s been a crazy busy December for me, but fear not!  Updates will get back to their regular cadence after Christmas.

Brace yourselves, because a time jump is coming with Book 8.

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