â€œSquad A, extend spears! Squads B and C, crossbows ready!â€ The fifteen soldiers snapped to position as Aegis stepped back towards them, her ocular implants already scanning the darkness of the blight. If they were lucky, only a small group of the Dead would be approaching - no more than ten or twenty. In that case, they would be able to destroy them quickly and easily. If they were unlucky...
They were unlucky.
The hungry ghosts came first, twenty of the creatures crowding from the darkness, moaning for blood. The ichor that made up their bodies showed the horrible marks of their deaths, scarred by lightning and bloated by suffocation. Aegis cursed inwardly. Hungry ghosts were relentless and unstoppable. They would pursue any retreating scouts forever, never tiring, never slowing. No ritual could block their passage, no wards had been devised that would slow them. Only total destruction was sufficient to stop their advance. Among them moved the gremlins, a more dangerous enemy. Six of the chittering creatures scuttled around the ghosts, each on eight limbs forged of metal and bone - human hands stood alongside metal pads, jawbones were wired into their tarnished silver flesh, where they had replaced the consuming evil of the blight with parts from the corpses of those they killed. Spirits of Autochthon, they had been tainted and driven mad by the deaths of their domains, and now sought to spread the Blight into the safer areas of the Reaches - they were moving slowly now, but Aegis had seen how quickly they could move when they sensed nearby prey. And behind them, the worst of all. Four nephwracks, tainted ghosts of the Dead, their souls blighted by the Void. They glided silently at the rear of the force, and their faces were terrible to behold - twisted wreckages of flesh warped by dark magics into masks of ruination, promising the endless horrors of Oblivion to those foolish enough to face them. Even Aegis felt something deep in her soul quiver.
Fortunately, Aegis's soldiers were battle-hardened and well-trained. Only two crossbowmen broke at the sight of the nephwracks and fled screaming into the tunnels, although the others looked distinctly concerned. Measuring the two forces, Aegis came to a decision. â€œEveryone, fall back! Squad B, provide cover fire. Get back to Gan, warn them that Yugash can pass safely through the Blight. Layered defenses!â€ As she spoke, she activated her Charms, just as, scenting blood, the enemy began to charge.
In an instant, the twin holsters at Aegis's side snapped open, and her skyspitters launched into her hands, a pair of blue jade wands that crackled with electricity as their Essence-circutry came online. At the same moment, she activated her Gravity Pulse Array. A collection of jade circuits sighted the first three gremlins, already surging forwards towards the soldiers, and exerted force, drawing them towards Aegis. Her Celerity-Enabling Module came online, categorizing the three as primary threats and reacting appropriately, even as she sighted the nephwracks with her weapons and pulled the trigger, sending a volley of lightning curving out towards the dark necromancers. Three bolts of lightning lanced out, and all three struck home; two nephwracks hissed in pain, the soulsteel plates embedded within their skin absorbing a blow that would have killed an armoured mortal, but the third took a bolt square to the chest and collapsed to the ground. The other three took up formation at the edge of the Blight, and dark Essence gathered around them as they called on their necromantic might.
At that point, Aegis could only hope that her first volley had succeeded; the gremlins had arrived. The three she had sighted as primary threats struck ferociously, one cutting at her from behind with a bone saw forged from a human jaw, another bringing twin metal drills at her face, and a third slicing downwards with its blade. Her Celerity-Enabling Module reacted instantly, catapulting her with machine-honed reflexes in a somersault away from the threats - and directly into the path of the fourth and fifth such creatures. For a few moments, Aegis could do nothing but enact a dance in which a single misstep would bring her death. All of the gremlins, alerted by the impediment of their comrades, had focused on her as the primary threat, and she in turn brought both weapons around to spit lightning at one of them, sending it crashing to the ground. A rotating saw cut her back as she did so, and she quickly twisted away, barely dodging two more attacks.
The hungry ghosts swarmed around her as nine of her thirteen remaining soldiers fell back. Crossbows twanged as Squad B fired into the ghosts, but their weapons did little good. They dropped the bows and drew their spears, the shafts extending as they prepared to meet the charge. Behind the hungry ghosts, the first of the nephwracks gestured as his spell completed. A wave of darkness flew from his fingers, striking one of the standing spearmen between the eyes. He screamed in agony as all of the colours that made up his body were momentarily inverted, the power of the Void focused on him - a moment later, his soulgem exploded into a thousand fragments as he fell dead to the ground. The other nephwracks coughed and spat foul phrases, as a pair of Void-dark shadows pulled from their mouths and splattered to the ground, swimming across the shadows cast by the tunnel lights towards the fleeing soldiers.
Aegis took her attention away from the gremlins for a moment to let off a pair of shots that richocheted off the tunnel walls to strike two of the foremost hungry ghosts; her anima expanded into triangular patterns of blue and green about her, carrying the lightning from her guns to the hearts of the hungry dead. Each jerked once before exploding into a cascade of shattered Essence that drifted to the floor. But the effort left her momentarily open, and another gremlin struck home, a long needle punching through delicate servomotors in her shoulder. Wincing, she danced aside, only to shift direction instantly as her Charm recognized another gremlin about to take advance to cut off her leg.
Stepping forwards, Aegis sidestepped an axe blow and leapt, using her opponent's smooth metallic back as a stool, then raced towards the shadows slithering across the floor as the nephwracks began to cast once again. Her guns spat lightning once again, and the shadows winked out only paces from the three remaining soldiers, now surrounded by the Dead and desperately fighting for their lives. The situation was grim; fifteen of the Dead surrounded the soldiers, with the rest pushing past to pursue the others. She could feel that her Array's power was beginning to tax her reserves; her anima was blazing around her, forming patterns to shield her flesh, bits of jade falling to the floor, and her Essence was nearly spent. Another gremlin struck home with human bone fingers as she fired a third shot into its eye; the lightning bolt pierced the creature at point-blank range, exploding its brass brain into shards. She staggered back, one fingerbone still lodged in her stomach, and turned to see the first nephwracks smile evilly and raise his finger to point at one of the three soldiers.
The change was sudden. A thousand points of golden light slammed through the air, affixing themselves in the nephwrack's chest and head; each one ate away at the fabric of its being like acid. With a single, half-finished scream, the creature winked out of existence. Turning in shock, Aegis saw four oddly-dressed strangers charging towards the battle from a side corridor, golden light blazing from their skin. One of them, a middle-aged man wearing robes of a shade of green that Aegis had never seen, kicked out at one of the gremlins facing her, grinning as his blow sent the creature's own weapon collapsing into its head. A young man dove into the hungry dead, his orichalcum daiklave reflecting the light coming from his brow as he cut two of the ghosts in half with a single well-placed blow. A man-creature with scaly green skin leapt past, his fists gleaming golden as they slammed into the face of the second nephwrack. And a young woman leapt and danced through the air, her chakram sending golden shadows flitting through the air to tear a hungry ghost apart.
And none of them were wearing soulgems.
Aegis gaped for a moment, even as her Charms took control and levelled two shots into the wounded gremlin, shattering it completely. She gasped out her question. â€œWho are you people?â€
The man helping her answered after a moment; he spoke pure Old Realm, in a thick accent she had never before heard. â€œThe cavalry, I hope.â€
The answer made no sense - Aegis had never even heard the word - but neither did her rescuers, so Aegis supposed it was rather fitting.