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Emma wheeled her mount to take in Erran's warriors, lined before her and ready for war. The early morning sun already turned their burnished armour to crimson, and the steel plates would soon be shining with the blood of the enemy.
'We hit hard and fast,' she yelled, 'They won't be expecting such a quick response. Forget the rules we normally fight by; they mean nothing to Marina and her bitches, so they mean nothing to us.' She drew her blade, nudging her horse around to face the last incline hiding the mass of armoured women from Dunan's sight, and grinned savagely as she heard the sound of two hundred blades being readied for battle. She held her own high, and filled her lungs for a deafening battlecry.
There were few guards mounted on the walls of Dunan, They frowned and peered from their posts as a gathering rumble spilled over the hills surrounding the castle, and their eyes widened with what they saw.
From above a rise to the north, a line of shining steel seemed to rise like a cresting wave, and as the wave broke and spilled down the slight incline, the sound of pounding hooves was like rolling thunder, louder and louder as the mass of armoured Knights charged, screaming battlecries at the top of their lungs.
Finally goaded into action, the guards scurried to alarm bells and ran to the gate-tower, their hearts pounding and their hands sweating at the sight and sound that assailed them.
'The gate! Shut the fucking gate!' The Chief of the Watch yelled to her girls, gripping at the rampart before her as she stared at the army that seemed to fill the land before her widening eyes. She knew there was no time to get the gates closed, and as the alarm bells began to ring, and Knights and Handmaids in the courtyard below ran to take their positions, she could only imagine the slaughter that would follow.
Lady Emma at their head, the first wave of Erran's Knights spilled through the fast-closing gates. Handmaids fled, and Emma gestured to her girls that these be spared, but duty Knights were running from the main castle gates, blades held ready but their faces etched with confusion and fear.
For a moment Emma wondered why Dunan seemed so unprepared for an attack. Then, she remembered Isobel and Madeline, and her grey eyes narrowed to vicious slits. 'Kill them!' she cried, kicking her whinnying mount into another charge.
Dunan's Knights were in disarray, senior officers shouting contradicting orders in a vain attempt to control a situation they were obviously unprepared for. Intent on making their attack count, Emma spurred her horse into a clutch of Knights, her sword chopping down towards the upturned face of her first victim. The woman screamed and spun, clawing at her split face and the sundered eyeball that hung gorily over one cheek. Her body flew aside as Emma turned her steed, her blade lashing down at a second Knight, splicing open the girl's helm with one sure stroke. Her sword wedged in the Knight's skull, Emma dragged the dying woman along with her for a second, until the sword came free smeared with gore and matter, and the lifeless body flopped under her horse's rear end, buckling and cracking beneath the beast's steel-shod hooves.
Erran's Knights attacked with their leader, screaming in rage and excitement as they clashed with the enemy, eager for revenge on Marina's warriors. A short distance behind Emma, Ladies Neve and Inez fought side by side, their blades slashing down either side to hack deep into shrieking steel and yielding flesh.
Inez shot out a leg to send an enemy warrior spinning, then kicked her mount forward to whisk her double-bitted axe down in a vicious arc, taking the head from another warrior's shoulders. The woman's body jerked and twisted, then tumbled amidst a fountain of thick blood. The head slapped against the flank of Inez's horse, and the Spanish girl yelled with her excitement, her loins throbbing as the ecstasy of battle threatened to overcome her.
By her side, Neve leant far in her saddle to thrust her sword into the throat of an enemy Knight. The woman's eyes popped wide as a greasy spray of crimson leapt from her split neck, and she clawed at the ragged gash as she sank slowly to the flagstones. Neve whisked past the dying body, her sword rising again before chopping down into another Knight's skull. Killed instantly, the woman's body spun and dropped, her head splitting apart to spill brains and bloody matter over a wide area.
The air was instantly heavy with the odour of death. The coppery scent of blood drove Erran's warriors wild, and all too quickly the last of Dunan's immediate defenders fell, clutching at hosing stumps or ragged gashes, screaming in pain until Erran's foot soldiers mopped them up, driving swords into heaving breasts or fluttering stomachs, slashing throats or sheathing blades spitefully between quivering thighs.
The inner walls of Dunan were quickly sealed, but the guards on the outer wall fought bravely to protect those who were still intent on sealing the outer gate. Many of Erran's Knights were now clustered outside the gates, finally barred as the huge doors slammed together, but too many had managed to storm the outer courtyard, and it seemed only a matter of time before the gatehouse would be taken.
The Chief of the Watch led the defence from the stone steps closest to the gatehouse, her sword slashing down as Erran's warriors attempted to mount the walls. She shouted encouragement to her girls, who formed defensively atop the walls and midway down the opposite set of steps, and the force of her will gave Dunan's Knights hope. Knights clashed in bloody battles on the crowded steps, only able to tussle and jab without the room to swing their weighty weapons. The Chief's sword hacked off an arm, and she kicked out to send the wounded Knight flying from the steps to crash to the ground below. She jabbed out, her already blood-spattered blade sheathing itself in the belly of another Amazon Knight. She wrenched up and out, her victim's armour buckling as the weapon ripped free of her guts, pulling clots of wet intestines into the open. The Knight shrieked and tumbled back, taking two of her fellows with her as she fell and leaving a grisly trail of innards steaming on the stone steps.
Lady Julia cursed as the Knight fell past her, and shouldered the dying woman off the steps. She moved up into the space left by the falling women, her steel-shod feet squelching through glistening entrails. Her unblooded blade was thirsty, and her eyes fixed on the Chief of the Watch who still stood defiantly blocking the way up. She looked a true warrior, clad in chain and plate and an open faced helm, all splattered with the blood of Erran's Knights. Julia let out a battlecry as she hacked with her axe, and the Chief was forced to parry the heavy blade that swooped towards her, lashing a kick out at the tall Knight that assaulted her. Julia took the kick on her side, grunting at the impact but unhurt. She brought up the helve of her axe to block the brave Chief's retaliatory thrust, then slammed the axehead forward, grinning savagely as her weapon spliced into the woman's right shoulder.
The Chief screamed in pain, her body falling against the inner wall as she gaped down at the gore streaking her armour and the gash in her breastplate. Amazon Knights instantly began to push past her, eager to engage the other defenders that waited higher up the steps, who groaned as they saw their seemingly invincible leader fall. Julia did not follow for a second, instead thrusting her axe shaft forward to pin the dying Knight to the wall while she fumbled at her belt for her dagger. Her eyes were wide and her breath came quick as the dagger's long blade stabbed forward into the Chief's body, punching through plate and chain to sink up to the hilt in the struggling woman's groin. Hot blood sprayed, sheathing Julia's arm and bringing her to an instant, shattering orgasm. She sagged against the Chief, whose eyes were wide and staring back into her own, unable to believe what was happening.
Julia grunted as she ripped her dagger free and plunged it forward again, the blade once more stabbing deep into the stricken warrior's crotch. As the gore clogged blade squelched through flesh Julia heaved her arm up, splitting the woman's lower belly open and releasing an avalanche of entrails that spooled over Julia's arm and spattered against the stone steps. The Chief gurgled and choked, and Julia threw her body aside, watching it topple from the side of the steps to fall to the ground below, the grisly trail of intestines slithering after her. Her excitement growing by the smell and feel of the hot gore plastering her armour, Julia raised her axe and let out another battlecry, moving higher to where Erran's Knights were now decimating the guards on the outer wall.
Women died, spinning off the wall to fall screaming, shattering against the stones and bodies far below. Erran's women showed no mercy, sheathing blades in the bodies of the wounded, tearing moist lumps of quivering flesh from dying defenders. Blood sheened the wall and steps, dribbling down the inner wall and spreading in a crimson lake from around amassing bodies.
From within the inner walls, Dunan's senior Knights watched the battle in horror, grimly aware that they had too few warriors ready to launch a retaliatory strike before the gatehouse would fall and the main gates could be opened to allow the rest of the attackers access.
From the stable area in the inner courtyard came the rumble of hooves as a brave commander led a dozen junior Knights of Dunan on what would most likely be a suicide charge. The inner gate was opened long enough for the brave women to exit, allowing a handful of Erran's Knight access. The women ran in screaming, but were instantly assaulted by two score of Dunan's warriors, who fell on them with swords and axes chopping and stabbing. The thirteen riders stormed past these warriors, guiding their armoured steeds over Knights of Erran who foolishly got in their way. The doors were quickly sealed again, leaving less than a dozen of Erran's Knights within the inner courtyard.
Lady Sharleen cursed as the heavy doors slammed shut, trapping her and ten other Amazon Knights against a swelling mass of angry defenders. Erran's warriors faltered, and Sharleen yelled a battlecry and ploughed into the armed and armoured enemy, her mace swinging wildly back and forth. Seeing her battle frenzy, the other Knights of Erran took heart, hacking and chopping against overwhelming odds. Knights of Dunan fell back clutching spurting wounds, but more replaced those that fell, and slowly Erran's eager warriors began to fall.
Sharleen gritted her teeth in pain as a swordblade bit into her upper arm. She staggered back, pushing aside a fellow Knight who stumbled against her, gagging on a split throat. Blood hosed over her, and Sharleen gasped as the hot spray blinded her. Another of Erran's Knights died noisily to her left, clutching at purple intestines that spilled from a wide slit across her belly. Warriors hacked at Sharleen, slicing open her breastplate over the chest and sending her reeling, but her mace lashed out, and one of the attackers fell, her head stove in and her eyeballs popped into pink mucous that drooled over her cheeks. As this woman fell aside, Sharleen thrust herself forward with all her remaining strength, swinging overarm and burying her macehead in another woman's breast. Steel ruptured, and the soft flesh beneath burst wetly. Keening horribly, the woman sank to the bloody ground cradling her ruined chest, but lived long enough to see her comrades avenge her.
A sword thrust out, and Sharleen's back arched as the blade punched through her armour to bury its wide tip between her breasts. She gasped for breath, but even as this blade was withdrawn another plunged deep into her navel, splitting from her left buttock. The first blade stabbed back into her chest, pinning her left breast and cracking ribs as it ploughed through her body. Her head flew back and blood exploded from between her slackened lips. As more swords plunged into her, she slumped gracefully to the ground, her vision dimming as the pain thankfully faded.
Another Amazon Knight slumped across Sharleen's sprawled body, her head hanging off her shoulders by nothing more than stringy gristle. The body jerked and kicked, until another warrior fell over its twitching form, gasping and choking with a longsword still impaling her through the ribs.
Erran's invaders had been repelled, and Dunan's Knights massed at the gate, preparing to charge into the outer courtyard to regain control of their castle. Atop the inner wall, senior Knights watched with bitter disappointment as Erran's Knights finally stormed the gatehouse.
Michelle barged a Knight of Dunan aside, not watching as the woman pitched screaming over the inner wall to fall to her death. An enemy Knight came at her with an axe raised high, but the girl was inexperienced and Michelle dodged to one side and hacked deep into the warrior's side, sending her spinning, blood hosing from the deep wound and from between her slackened lips. Panting for breath, Michelle gauged their progress, and was inspired to see the doorway to the gatehouse directly ahead through a throng of tightly pressed warriors. As she leapt into the fray again she noticed that Lady Shathirana was by her side.
'We're destroying the bitches!' the Knight screamed excitedly, and Michelle grinned in response, her own excitement rising at the smell of the blood that splattered her armour. The two Knights pressed forward, stepping over felled warriors that writhed and clutched at bloody wounds. An Amazon Knight spun before them, her face split open by an enemy axe, and as the body crumpled the two young Knights fell onto the girl's killer, stabbing and chopping through armour and flesh alike. The Knight of Dunan yelled in agony, her eyes bugging as she saw her swordarm sliced off at the elbow by Michelle's sweeping blade. Shathirana's axe bit down into her skull, ending her life in a spray of brains and blood, and the attackers saw the doorway before them clear of enemy Knights.
They stormed in with wild cries on their lips, to clash with the gatehouse's final defenders, a knot of a half dozen enemy warriors. These women fought desperately, but fell quickly before Erran's Knights, who saw victory in sight. Michelle grimaced in pain as a swordblade chopped into her upper arm, but her own blade stabbed low, skewering an enemy through the groin. She lifted the screeching woman up, and came instantly and violently as the dying Knight's gore spattered over her belly and thighs. Her blade drooped and the woman slid off her sword to crumple writhing, clutching at the spurting wound between her legs and gasping in pain. Michelle straddled her quickly, thrusting her sword straight down between the woman's breasts and moaning as another jet of blood shot up between her legs. Her hips thrust forward so her steel plated groin scraped against her blade, and she pressed forward hard to feel the unyielding armour press against her sopping sex.
When she regained control, the fight was over. Amazon Knights were opening the outer gates, allowing the rest of Erran's warriors entry into the outer courtyard. Atop the walls, her comrades cheered their first victory, although they knew this was only the beginning. The inner wall still needed to be breached, and many would fall in the coming battle.
Emma yanked her blade from the chest of a screaming enemy, watching the woman's corpse topple from her mount to crash against the ground. The brave riders had taken a number of Erran's Knights with them in their suicide charge, but now all twelve lay cooling, twitching and jerking as Amazon Knight's pulled bloody blades from their unfeeling bodies.
'Regroup!' Emma yelled, 'We don't rest until the job is done!'
The inner wall was higher than the outer, the main gate closed firmly, but a dozen rattling wagons thundered through the outer gates bearing ladders for the attackers, and Emma quickly oversaw their distribution. Eager hands gripped the long ladders, and within seconds they were lifted to prop against the inner wall. Dunan's defenders clustered atop the wall, ready to push the ladders away or drop missiles onto climbing attackers.
Emma waved her warriors forward, knowing that her girls would soon start to fall like flies. The taking of Dunan would be a bloody task.
Hayley pulled herself up from the riverside's muddy bank, gasping for breath and shivering with the cold water that sheathed her body. Her tunic was soaked, plastered to her body as she struggled up the bank and collapsed gratefully in the long grass at the top. Her pursuers had moved on, but she had not the luxury to wait until she was sure they would not return.
Her eyelids drooped, fear and exhaustion taking their toll on the young warrior, but she cursed herself and willed her body into motion, dragging herself to her feet to stagger through the trees. She had to get to Dunan to stop a slaughter. As she reached the edge of the copse her heart sank as she thought of the distance she had to cover, but nearby her mount snorted and tossed his head as he saw his mistress.
'Good boy,' Hayley breathed as she swung herself wearily up onto the beast's wide back. She wheeled him around, getting her bearings before flicking her reins. She bent low in the saddle, forcing her mount into a gallop, aware that every second could cost her fellow Knights their lives.
Karen's dark eyes passed over her warriors. They were a motley bunch, dressed in a mixture of clothing and armour but armed well. There eyes were lifeless and staring as they regarded their leader, but Karen knew they would obey her every command. Even Dolores, who was a Beta such as she, seemed happy enough to fight and let Karen take the lead. She would warrant watching in the future, as Karen knew well enough how devious her mind could be, but for now the white haired Knight sat ready on her mount, waiting for the word to start the assault. Karen obliged.
'No prisoners, no mercy,' she called, her voice reaching all fifty revenants clearly. 'All must die. You only order other than that is to leave Elizabeth for me.' All she received for her order were blank stares, but Karen whirled her mount around, raising her axe to signal the charge.
The riders spurred their mounts without a sound, and the noise of fifty heavy chargers shook the ground as the revenants and their leader rode over the rise and began their descent towards the unsuspecting Erran.
For all the early hour, the grounds of Erran were buzzing with activity. Handmaids who had helped their mistresses prepare for the attack on Dunan were about, training or going about their menial tasks, busying themselves while they waited for the outcome of the battle they knew was raging in the neighbouring estate.
On the walls, guards looked to the distance as they heard the sound of thundering hooves, surprised to think that their Knights were returning so quickly. Then they saw the approaching warriors angling in from the east.
They wasted precious seconds in their surprise. The women who charged did not bear the sigil of either estate and wore mismatched armour, but their intention was clear. A guard finally raised the alarm, ringing a large bell and yelling for the gates to be closed. Within moments the guards in the gate tower strained at the wheel that caused the huge wooden doors to swing ponderously inward. Like their hapless counterparts at Dunan only minutes before, their actions were in vain.
The first of the attackers were already at the gate, and swarmed through to fall upon the handful of Erran's guards that moved in to attack them. At their head, Karen laid about her with her axe, letting out a cry of excitement as her weapon bit into flesh. A defender whirled, vomiting blood and clutching at a ragged tear on her neck. The woman behind her died equally swiftly, her eyes crossing to bear on the wide axeblade that split her head open down to her nose, until Karen's horse whisked her past and her weapon ripped free amidst a spray of blood and brains.
Dolores laid into the Knights of Erran with gusto, her flanged mace swooping to break the skull of a hapless guard. Chunks of grey matter flew as she ripped the weapon free, and the guard dropped twitching, her brains gushing free as her limbs jerked spastically.
With gore dribbling from her axe's wide blade, Karen quivered with ecstasy, her nipples hardening painfully against her armour. She felt moisture between her thighs, and her breath came hard as she struggled to remain in control, but she wheeled her horse about to watch her revenants do their work.
The revenants knew nothing of Elizabeth and Marina's rules, they knew only that they lived to fight and kill. They fell on the Handmaids that ran vainly for cover, or thundered towards the training grounds where many girls exercised in the morning cool. Panic fell over the Handmaids as these mounted warriors fell upon them screaming and stabbing, not seeming to care that many they attacked were unarmed and defenceless.
A Handmaid almost reached the safety of the stables, but a mace swooped down to crush the back of her skull and she staggered drunkenly, collapsing to allow her pulped brains to scatter across the ground before her twitching corpse. Another girl cowered, screaming for mercy as a grinning attacker bore down on her. She disappeared under the rider's mount with a shrill squeal, and as the beast's hooves ripped her open, bright blood and chunks of flesh splattering in every direction. The rider howled in ecstasy, her sword flailing as she rode into a knot of quivering Handmaids. Another disappeared under the bloody hooves of her steed, and her sword swooped down to take the head off a second. The headless body's legs kicked spasmodically, causing the young woman to dance grotesquely before she collapsed to the ground, her head landing with a thump nearby.
The attacker spun, spurring her beast into another charge and swiping down at a fleeing Handmaid, slicing open the girl's slim back and sending her sprawling with a ragged shout of pain.
Lady Lea waved her girls back towards the castle's inner wall, her blunted sword held ready but her face desperate. 'Arm yourselves!' she yelled to her young charges. She watched in horror as fleeing Handmaids were run down or slaughtered by swooping blades. This wasn't a fight, the girls were being butchered.
After seeing Emma and her warriors off, the Asian marshal had taken a team of Handmaids for an early morning weapons practice. Now most of her girls were sprawled dead or dying, and Lea felt despair as she helplessly watched the slaughter.
Karen directed her troops with precision, aware that the inner gates were already closing but uncaring. Everyone in Erran had to die this day, and those within would soon feel the cold of her warriors' steel. As she saw Lea leading her girls away from the worst of the carnage, she spurred her horse into a gallop, determined to take on the marshal herself.
Lea waited for the first attacker to sweep past her, timing her duck perfectly so the woman's blade swooped over her head. Her arm shot up, catching the revenant's forearm and tugging the woman sharply off her mount. The revenant fell with a cry, crashing against the ground and rolling stunned. Lea quickly threw her blunted training sword aside, picking up the woman's razor sharp blade and leaping at her before she could rise. The sword chopped down, but at the last second the revenant rolled, her legs kicking out and taking Lea's from under her. As she fell with a cry, Lea realised what she was facing. Fear knotted in her chest, but she scuttled back from her attacker and scrambled to her feet, as her opponent rose with a vicious grin on her features, a long knife sliding from her belt.
She attacked with shocking suddenness, the dagger whisking out skilfully. Lea dodged back, bringing her claimed sword round towards the woman's head. She ducked, whirling in closer to Lea and stabbing low. Crying out as her thigh was sliced open, the Asian marshal backed away, waiting for the woman to attack again. She didn't have long to wait. Sneering, the revenant dove forward, her eagerness for the kill overcoming her good sense for one fatal moment. Lea swung true, her blade chopping down into the side of the woman's neck, splitting her chest open down to the swell of her left breast. The wounded woman let out a ragged cry of rage and pain, dropping to Lea's feet as the Amazon Knight yanked her blade free.
Down but not out, the revenant rolled in agony, and Lea swiftly reversed her grip on her sword and stabbed down deep into her upper back, pinning her to the ground and skewering her heart. Dead in seconds, the revenant's body quivered and relaxed, blood spreading from around her sprawled corpse. Lea tugged the sword free of the body, staggering slightly then glancing up as another horse pulled in beside her.
'Karen?' she gasped, 'What he hell are you doing?'
'Cleaning house, Lady Lea,' Karen told her as she dropped from her saddle and unhitched the axe from her belt. 'Clearing out the weak; clearing the way for a new order.'
The screams of the dying and the moans of the wounded now rose from all around the outer courtyard, and Lea gestured around her angrily. 'You want this? Innocents slaughtered? These girls barely know one end of a sword from the other!'
Karen lunged, her axe swooping. Lea intercepted the falling blade easily, but reeled back under the force of the blow. Grinning, Karen followed her. 'We're stronger than you, and we're better fighters. There's no room for human frailties in MY castle.'
'It's not yours yet,' Lea spat grimly. Her anger rising at Karen's words, she lunged forward with her sword stabbing, but Karen beat the weapon aside easily, bringing her knee up into Lea's groin and sending the Asian woman staggering, doubled over and gasping for breath.
'You're right, Lady Lea,' she told the Knight amiably as she stepped forward to bring her axe down sharply, 'Only when Elizabeth falls will I have control.'
The axe crunched unto the back of Lea's skull, ripping off scalp and sending the Knight tumbling. She rolled, screeching in pain as she clawed at the ragged flap of grisly, hair-clotted flesh that folded away from her exposed skull. Karen's axe rose again, trailing gore, then slammed down into the wounded woman's breast, slicing open her flesh and cracking ribs, killing her instantly as the shards of shattered bone skewered her heart.
Moaning in pleasure, Karen sagged against the shaft of her axe as she came with a shudder. The sounds and smells of battle assailed her nostrils, and she gazed at the scene surrounding her with excitement. Wherever she looked, Handmaids were being slaughtered horribly, many throwing up their arms or begging for mercy before the killing blows landed. Nearby, a blonde girl screamed as a revenant shoved a sword deep into her belly, wrenching it from side to side before yanking it out caked with coiled loops of purple intestines. The dying girl watched her innards spill into view with a wide-eyed gape, until the warrior standing over her stabbed down into her right eye, skewering her skull and killing her in an instant. Beyond her, a brunette staggered, gripping her crotch as she tried to stop a torrent of blood and long strings of colourful guts from spattering the ground between her feet. Her killer swung her sword again, and the stricken Handmaid toppled, her head lopped from her body by one sure stroke.
Feeling her passion for blood rise again, Karen pushed herself away from Lea's cooling corpse. It was time to take the inner courtyard.
Helena ran through the halls of Erran, pushing past panicked Handmaids as she made her way quickly to Elizabeth's chambers. When she entered the chamber without knocking, it was to find Elizabeth calmly dressing, her armour laid out and ready.
'What the hell is happening?' Helena cried, and Elizabeth turned her tired eyes to her marshal.
'I should have known it would come to this,' she said weakly. 'Find somewhere to hide, Helena, until it's all over.'
'I'm not going anywhere,' Helena snapped, 'Who is attacking us? McManus' creations? To what end?'
'I believe she calls them revenants,' Elizabeth told her, pulling on her chain jerkin. 'The resurrected dead, robbed of their minds and bred to kill. There's no way we can stop them, not with our best warriors attacking Dunan. Karen has played me for a fool, and she's been right.'
Realisation hit Helena. 'Can't you contact Marina? You said you had some way to keep in touch?'
'Of course, but the attack will be underway by now.'
'So all we can do is fight and die?' Helena felt her rage grow. She grabbed Elizabeth and shook her. 'It's time you started to act like our leader again, Elizabeth! Try and contact Marina. It may not be too late.'
Shocked, Elizabeth nodded dumbly, moving to where a concealed door led to her study. Helena followed her inside, her eyes widening at the banks of monitors that flickered into life, showing the slaughter in the grounds.
'Christ almighty,' she whispered, but she took in the situation quickly, her eyes flitting from screen to screen. 'We still hold the inner courtyard. I'll go withdraw our girls to the castle proper, there's no way we can hope to hold the inner wall. Once we're all inside and the gates are barred, Karen will have to batter her way in. That should take some time. You try to get through to Marina.' She made to leave, but turned as a thought struck her. 'Where will McManus be?'
'In the main lab, probably. A monorail runs there from under both castles.'
'So we can be attacked from under our feet?'
Elizabeth shook her head. 'Karen wants to fight, not sneak in a back door. Plus the monorail can be easily barred from the lab or the elevator doors. No, Helena, the only attackers are outside the walls right now.'
'They're doing a good enough job,' Helena muttered. As she left the study, she grabbed a sword from above Elizabeth's desk, aware that every second wasted cost more Knights and Handmaids their lives.
Erran's warriors poured up the wooden ladders that scaled the heights of Dunan's inner wall. Atop the walls, the defenders readied their weapons, preparing to thwart the attackers at all costs. Emma mounted her ladder first, shouting for those who followed to take heart. She climbed steadily, her heart pounding at her exertions, and at the sight of enemy defenders waiting for her at the top. A Knight of Dunan grabbed the ladder's upper rung and tried to push it away from the wall, but the weight of attacking Knights was too much for her. She tried to push it aside, and Emma cursed as the ladder shifted. She speeded her climb, quickly getting to striking distance and yanking her sword free from its scabbard.
The defender yelped as Emma's sword slashed close to her face. She moved back and drew her own blade, stepping forward to chop down at the woman beneath her. Emma hammered at the blade as it stabbed towards her face, knocking it aside and thrusting up into the woman's chest. The defender died, gurgling on blood that frothed over her lips. She sagged over the rampart, and Emma hopped up two more rungs, clearing the top of the wall and facing the Knights of Dunan that clustered there.
'Come on, bitches!' she screamed, her blooded blade lashing out as the women stepped forward with weapons raised, eager to send this intruder crashing to the ground far below. The first of the women was eager to die, almost jumping onto Emma's blade as the Amazon Knight rammed her sword forward. Blood belched over her forearm and Emma cried out with excitement as the woman before her died screaming.
Inspired by their leader's fury, other Knights of Erran pulled themselves over the ramparts to fall on the beleaguered Knights of Dunan. Many fell from their ladders screaming or clutching spurting wounds, but their numbers and ferocity showed and soon the inner walls of Dunan rang to the sound of bloody battle.
Pulling herself onto the ramparts, Michelle fell on sprawled and blood-spattered bodies, scrambling quickly to her feet and casting about for an opponent. Nearby Knights rolled in mortal combat, grunting and spitting as their blades scraped over steel before sinking into flesh. Gurgling death rattles mixed with screams of ecstasy and victory, and Michelle felt her mind cloud over with the thrill of violence. A Knight of Dunan staggered off a freshly slaughtered Amazon Knight and Michelle laid into the woman with a shrill scream, her sword hacking down and bashing the woman's sword aside before sweeping back to slash through her upraised arm. The Knight yelled in agony and sank to her knees clutching her stump, and Michelle stabbed into her eye socket to end her life, gaping in disbelief as the woman's head seemed to come apart inside her helm, blood and brains spraying from under her chin-guard and clear fluid spurting from her eye slit.
Nearby, Inez and Neve hacked into the enemy, shearing off limbs and heads as their bloody weapons rose and fell. The ramparts ran red, armoured bodies mounted two or three thick as those who still lived and fought clambered over the slaughter, keen to inflict more death.
'The gatehouse!' Inez cried, gesturing that they were close. The Knights of Erran pushed harder still, their goal in sight. Bodies piled against each other, cursing and spitting as they were robbed of space to wield their weapons effectively. More than one Knight dropped her sword to grip at a long bladed dagger, stabbing the weapon again and again until the razor sharp tip found a way inside her opponent's armour. Those who died sank under stampeding feet, their bodies battered by armoured shoes as they fought for breath, clutching at where their bodies had been opened by stabbing knife-blades.
Inez pushed a foe back, giving herself room to thrust her blade deep between the unfortunate woman's hips. Impaled, the Knight shrieked and fell, and Inez tumbled past her in her eagerness to enter the gatehouse. But she was too keen, and as she cleared the entryway the remaining defenders fell on her eagerly, their axes and swords chopping through her armour and into her dusky flesh. She screamed in dismay as her swordarm was ripped free by a well placed axe, but before she could collapse her chest had been skewered by a swordblade. Blood burst from between her lips, and her eyes widened as she was dragged inside the gatehouse and more swords were plunged into her thrashing body. As she felt her life slip away under the frenzied stabbing and hacking, she heard Neve cry out her name in dismay. She tried to shout to her friend, but all that came was a rattling moan that signalled the end of her young life.
Distraught, Neve fought like a wildcat, her sword stabbing and slashing, spraying gore and hewing limbs. Two Knights fell before her, the second losing her helm and staring up at the Amazon Knight with a hand raised for mercy. Neve stabbed down into the woman's face, grimacing as blood and brains sprayed over the flagstones and the woman's body flopped and died.
They had won, the inner gatehouse had fallen, but Neve did not hear the cheers of her fellows. She knelt beside Inez's butchered body, dragging her friend aside so she would not be stepped on, tears streaming down her face and her hands trembling.
The inner gate swung open, and the Amazon Knights charged with fresh vigour. At their head, Shathirana yelled a battlecry, her sword stabbing deep into the first woman who dared to face her. By her side, Lady Julia knocked a sword aside and brought her own weapon back to split open her opponent's faceplate. The Knight dropped screaming, clawing at her ruined face before being trampled by stampeding feet.
Kimiko felt herself losing control as the sights and smells of death assailed her. She traded blows with panicked Knights of Dunan, unable to believe the Amazon Knights were having such success. The enemy seemed to be unable to mount an effective response to their frenzied attack. The girl before her dropped her guard for a fatal instant, and Kimiko rammed home her blade with a yelp of excitement, ripping into her enemy's midriff and causing her blood to splatter over the already gore-slicked stones.
Emma was striding down the inner steps, her bloody sword slashing, pitching another Knight of Dunan from the steps with a gurgling cry. 'Hit them hard and fast!' she yelled, 'Make for the castle doors!'
A score of mounted Amazon Knights thundered into the inner courtyard, and the Knights of Dunan seemed to fall back with a concerted groan at the fresh assault. Armoured bodies bounced off the beasts' flanks, and riders chopped down with wide bladed axes, splitting skulls and lopping arms from bodies. Within seconds Dunan's warriors had fallen, and although many lay wounded, moaning and clutching bloody wounds, the Amazon Knights were in no mood to leave any enemy alive. Cries of vengeance on their lips, the victors thrust their blades deep into the bodies of the wounded, and those that died did so with a curse or a whimper.
Lady Marina threw open the doors of her throne room, grabbing at a stricken Knight who happened to be scurrying past.
'Report, damn you. Where is Collette? How stands our defence?'
'Defence?' The Knight laughed shrilly, but such was Marina's scowl she quickly recovered enough of her senses to report to her mistress. 'Both gates have fallen, and Collette has pulled our remaining Knights back to the main hall. The castle door is all that remains to be breached!'
Marina released the Knight, shocked at the suddenness of the attack. 'Why?' she hissed, but there was no time to consider Elizabeth's reasoning. Her castle and her girls were threatened, and her place was with them. She hurried with the Knight to the main hall, where the last few dozen of her Knights were barring the stout doors, overseen by Collette.
'This won't hold them for long,' Collette informed her Lady. 'I estimate we've lost over a hundred Knights already. If we hold out for a few more minutes we may have enough bodies to mount an offensive.' She gestured to where Knights were still arriving from the dormitory wing, and where wounded warriors from the clinic were entering to take their place with their sisters.
The castle doors swelled inward as the Amazon Knights without began to batter against them, and Marina knew her second spoke the truth. Within a few minutes Elizabeth's warriors would be inside Dunan, and then nothing could stop them overrunning the castle.
Emma rallied her warriors, commanding the dozen Knights who were using axes and hammers to batter at Dunan's main doorway. She took a rough count of Knights, estimating that eighty or more still stood. Taking the inner gate had cost many Amazon Knights their lives, but now they were ready for the final assault. Shouting encouragement, Emma waited impatiently for the doors to splinter and fall.
Hayley pulled her mount up as she saw what lay ahead, gasping in dismay at the scene of carnage. She was too late. Erran's Knights had already struck. Spurring her tired steed once more, she made for the castle, not knowing how she could stop such a slaughter.
As she thundered through the outer gates, her heart began to pound faster at the sights and sounds around her. The stench of blood was heavy in the air, and the lifeless, broken bodies scattered everywhere kindled a fire in her loins. Forcing herself to keep control, she made for the inner gate, where Amazon Knights were still polishing off the last of Dunan's unfortunate defenders.
Alexis kicked an enemy Knight onto her back, raising her sword high before sending its bloody tip deep into the screaming woman's breast. Blood splashed high, and as she relished the hot shower, Alexis raised her head as a horse reined in by her side. 'Lady Hayley? Where the hell have you been?'
'Who leads our army?' Hayley cried, 'The fighting has to end. Erran is under attack!'
'Erran?' Alexis scoffed. 'Marina has no Knights left to mount an attack against Erran. We've slaughtered most of the bitches, and once Emma breaks through into the castle itself we'll finish the job.'
Cursing, Hayley surged forward, and Alexis shook her head in bewilderment, until a ragged croak from between her feet brought her attention back to her recent victim. 'Still alive?' she cried in disbelief, 'You're one tough bitch.' Her sword stabbed down again, this time punching through the groaning warrior's throat.
Dunan's door splintered and fell, and the Amazon Knights surged forward with a concerted cry of victory. Marina felt fear pound in her chest, but laid into the invading warriors with gusto, determined they would not take her castle.
An Amazon Knight faced her, the girl pausing for a second as she realised who she faced. Normally Marina would allow such Knight's a moment to recover, but today was different. She was convinced she was fighting for her life. Her sword lashed out, splitting through steel to open the enemy warrior's chest. Squealing, the Knight pitched backwards, gauntlets scrabbling at the tear in her armour.
By her side, Collette fought with consummate skill, her blade scything through the air, seeming to scatter Amazon Knights right and left. Marina could see Emma ordering her girls into a wedge, pushing inexorably into the castle's entrance hall. Her warriors were fighting for all they were worth, but they were too few, and many fell before the maniacal attackers.
A dark-skinned girl reared up before Marina, her helm lost and her armour sheened with blood. 'I'll kill you!' the girl shrieked as her sword slashed down, and Marina grunted as she managed to parry the forceful attack. She recognised the girl as Dawn, a freshly Knighted warrior and former Handmaid of Madeline.
'Brave talk, child,' she cried as her own blade swooped, forcing Dawn to stumble as she parried the blow, 'But why are you attacking us? You have given us no warning!'
Dawn snarled a response. 'Don't even dare to plead ignorance. I'm here to avenge my mistress, and I won't rest until I have your head.' Her anger gave her the strength to surge forward in a fresh assault on Dunan's Queen, and Marina staggered back with a grunt as she vainly tried to stop the vicious blows from raining down upon her. She stumbled and fell, but as Dawn stood over her and raised her sword, her eyes showing her intent to kill the Lady of Dunan, Collette gripped a handful of black hair and dragged the Amazon Knight away.
Screaming her frustration, Dawn turned to face her new attacker, raising her sword for a fatally hasty strike. Collette thrust low, and Dawn's eyes bugged as her enemy's sword slid easily through steel and into her navel. She sagged to her knees, clutching the blade impaling her, her eyes sorrowful as she became aware she had not been able to avenge Madeline. Collette raised a foot and planted it on Dawn's chest, pushing her back off the blade with a shriek of steel against steel. Her body crumpled, jerking in a spreading pool of crimson.
Marina gasped for breath, unable to rise from where she had stumbled and fallen. She watched her Knights as they were forced back by the invading Amazon horde, and as Emma stalked forward to challenge her, only Collette stood in her path.
'Judgement day, Marina!' Emma cried vengefully, seeming to grin savagely as Collette surged forward to intercept her. The two senior Knights clashed powerfully, their blades raising sparks as they met.
But then the mass of Knights still surging through the splintered doorway fell apart with a concerted cry of fear, and a large stallion filled the gap, thundering through the dead and dying, sending battling Knights flying as it forced its way through the melee. A slight, bedraggled figure rode the steed, and Marina screamed in fear as the beast bore down on her.
'Yield!' the rider yelled down to her. 'Throw down your sword! The fighting must end now!' The rider turned her desperate eyes on the Knights still fighting. 'Stop fighting!' she screamed, and so loud was her shout even Emma and Collette paused in their battle, staring shocked to where Hayley's mount stood over Marina's sprawled form.
Gradually the sounds of battle faded, as Knights regarded the new arrival with astonishment. Hayley turned to look down at Marina. 'Throw down your blade,' she beseeched the Grand Knight. 'Karen and Dolores have been playing you and Elizabeth against each other. Please don't let her win. Even now she's attacking Erran with her cloned army!'
Marina blinked up at the tiny Knight in astonishment, but as her words filtered through she knew Hayley was speaking the truth. Her sword fell from her hand.
'No!' an Amazon Knight shrieked in rage. 'We all saw Madeline's body. We want revenge!'
'What has happened at Erran?' Marina asked, as Collette helped her to her feet. Emma pushed forward to stand before the Grand Knight.
'A stealthy assault the night before last, to capture Elizabeth's sword,' she said, staring into Marina's eyes to see her reaction. 'The intruders slaughtered our guards and two Handmaids. Madeline rode to you last morning to discuss the matter, and this morning we found her crucified before Erran. She had been tortured and left to die overnight.'
Marina stared into Emma's grey eyes, shocked beyond belief. Then, she turned to address the assembled Knights. 'I swear to you all, I knew nothing of this!'
Mutters rippled around the angry Knights, but as Marina's gaze passed over them few would meet her eye. She turned to Hayley, taking in her bedraggled form.
'You seem to have the advantage over us, young Knight. What is going on?'
Desperately, Hayley gabbled almost incoherently, until Emma grabbed her and shook her hard. 'Damnit, speak sense! We know of the revenants, but why would Karen use them to attack Erran?'
'Because she wants to lead!' Hayley shouted, 'And she doesn't care how many die. So long as she has Erran for her own. I don't know what her long-term plan is, or even if she has one! She's mad! You should know that. You should have known that before you let McManus release her and . . . and the other freaks amongst you. Freaks like me!'
Emma stared at her, then turned to the remains of her Knights. 'You heard her,' she shouted. 'Our Lady is under attack. Our real fight is just about to begin.'
As Elizabeth swept into the entry hall, Helena was addressing Erran's last line of defence. A group of only twelve Knights, but nearly two-score Handmaids were massed here, and looked ready to fight.
'Any luck?' Helena asked.
Elizabeth shook her head. 'Signal's not getting through.' Her eyes flitted over the motley girls collected around them. 'There's still fighting in the outer castle. At least two groups have mounted a defence against the revenants, and somehow they're keeping them at bay.'
'They're Amazon Knights. It's what you've trained them to do.'
They both knew there were precious few Knights anywhere in the castle, but these words were spoken loud enough for the nearby Handmaids to hear. Elizabeth immediately felt grateful Helena was by her side, but she fretted for those trapped outside the inner walls. 'If only we could. . . .'
'We can't,' Helena told her, 'At least, not for a few minutes more. When the inner walls fall, they'll head straight for the main doors,' she gestured to the huge, barred doors, 'They're fragmented. They don't fight as a unit. They may have Karen's orders and their great strength, but I don't think they'll have her cunning.'
Elizabeth knew her second had a plan, and knew better than to argue with her. 'Where's Diane?'
'On the first floor battlements, with the rest of the Handmaids who volunteered to fight. All the others, and the staff, are barricaded in downstairs.'
The Grand Knight nodded. 'Very well. How do you intend to hold them at this door?'
'I don't,' Helena told her, nodding towards her Knights. The women unbarred the heavy doors before moving back into position, and at that moment the call came from the upper floor, relayed by Handmaids.
'Enemy on the inner walls. They're raising the gates!'
M'Banta waited for the snarling revenant to come at her, only lunging forward with one meaty hand when a sword began to swish towards her. Intercepting the warrior's swordarm, M'Banta dragged the woman forward and wrapped a huge forearm around her throat. The bald warrior gurgled in astonishment for a second, before M'Banta squeezed, crushing her throat. A series of pops and gurgles signalled the end of the revenant's life, and as M'Banta let the body fall, she claimed the woman's discarded blade.
She had been on the training field when the attack began, exercising with a number of Handmaids. Most of these girls now lay dead, strewn across the grass after being butchered by the four revenants who had rode onto the field whooping and wailing. Only M'Banta and three other girls remained, and they had taken to the wooden stands where the revenants would have to dismount to follow. The bald-headed warriors had not hesitated, and now the remaining three stalked the huge Knight and her charges with their weapons outstretched, wary of the dark-skinned giant but eager to kill.
One of the Handmaids panicked and ran, and a revenant split off to intercept her. M'Banta roared at the girl to return and, thinking her distracted, the nearest revenant made her move, leaping onto the same level as M'Banta and lunging with a hiss.
M'Banta stepped back, noticing she stood over one of the stand's supporting beams. She raised her foot and slammed it down hard, cracking wood and causing a whole section of the level to cave in. The revenant stumbled as her foot fell through the sudden gap, falling onto M'Banta's claimed sword. Gurgling in horror as the blade sheared through her upper chest and throat, the revenant slumped dying as M'Banta ripped the weapon free.
The dying woman's axe skittered past M'Banta, and one of the Handmaids jumped at it with a cry. M'Banta hoped she had skill to match her enthusiasm, but the huge Knight was already jumping forward to engage the third revenant, her dripping sword held high.
This warrior held back, snarling in rage as the big woman came at her. She seemed calmer than her fellows, not in so much of a hurry to get killed, and M'Banta reined in her impulse to lunge. Even though she had managed to despatch two of these mysterious attackers easily enough, she knew it would be a mistake to underestimate them. She lashed out with her sword, and was stunned at the speed in which the enemy warrior brought up her own to parry the strike. In an instant the woman was surging forward, stabbing and slashing so fast M'Banta was instantly struggling to defend herself against the blows. She grunted as she moved back up the stand, trying to keep a height advantage over the crazed warrior.
The last revenant grabbed a handful of blonde hair, pulling the squealing Handmaid back and casting her to the wooden boards at her feet. She laughed as she raised her sword, enjoying the wide-eyed fear on the nubile Handmaid's face.
'Leave her alone, you bitch!'
Annoyed, the revenant turned to see a red-haired Handmaid coming at her, an axe held ready. She laughed again, turning to slash low with her sword, keeping the Handmaid at bay. The girl staggered back, the axe wavering in her hand and the fear plain in her eyes, but she attacked bravely, her axe whistling through the air.
The revenant flung up her sword to catch the blade, but it was swung with force and she had to take a step back to keep her balance. Her foot came down on empty air, and she cried out in rage as she felt herself fall. Before she fell back her left hand whipped out to catch the redhead's tunic, dragging the screaming girl with her as she tumbled back down the stand.
They landed in a jumbled heap at the base of the stand, but the Handmaid was on top and threw her weight onto the revenant's swordarm, keeping her down. The bald-headed warrior roared and bucked, and the plucky Handmaid knew she wouldn't be able to hold on for long. She craned her head around to see her blonde friend jumping down to help her, at the same time noticing the dagger at the revenent's belt.
'Dagger!' she cried, 'Grab it and kill her!'
The blonde skidded to a halt, but saw the weapon and dropped to her knees, fumbling at the revenant's belt. Seeing what was going to happen made the enemy warrior struggle all the more, and a thrashing leg caught the blonde on the side and sent her crashing away. The redhead brought her face down close to that of the woman beneath her, biting down cruelly on the revenant's nose. The warrior yelled in pain, writhing to get free, her strength telling as she managed to half-stand with the Handmaid still clamped onto her.
But the blonde Handmaid was back, and grabbed the dagger from the revenant's belt. She hesitated, not wanting to stab her friend, then drew back and lunged forward with a battlecry.
The revenant shrieked shrilly as the dagger's blade punched deep into her crotch. Blood hosing from her nose, she slackened in the redhead's grip, and the girl turned her head to see the hilt of the weapon protruding from between her enemy's thighs.
'You evil bitch!' she yelled at her blonde companion in delight as her hand groped for the dagger's hilt and she twisted it cruelly. The revenant jerked and moaned in pain, her eyes popping as the redhead tore the blade free. Thick streams of blood pumped from the wound, and as she groped at her mangled groin, the redhead brought the gore-clogged dagger down into her breast, stabbing her again and again. Flesh split and more blood burst free, spattering the Handmaid's face. She gasped at the hot shower, plunging the blade down one last time between the revenant's butchered breasts. Bone crunched and the bald-headed warrior shuddered, choking on blood, her limbs jerking and twisting as she died.
M'Banta fell to one knee with a roar of pain as her opponent's blade opened a gash on her lower leg. The revenant drew back her sword and yelled in victory, but M'Banta's other leg was already snapping out, kicking her foe in the side, just under her ribcage. The revenant grunted and staggered, giving M'Banta a chance to drive her sword deep into the other woman's navel.
The revenant's body arched as the weapon slid easily into her guts, splitting out her lower back in a spray of crimson. She gasped as she looked down at her wound, her hands clutching her belly on either side of the intruding steel. M'Banta levered the weapon down, splitting her open with a horrendous sound of tearing flesh, and the revenant howled and collapsed as her innards gushed free, coiling down her inner thighs and spattering against the wooden stand. She writhed in her loosened entrails for several seconds, then M'Banta's sword chopped down into her neck, sending her head skittering free.
Grunting in exertion, M'Banta drew herself to her feet, making sure there were no more enemy close by. The Handmaids were still alive, and the huge Knight noted with approval that two of them had blooded themselves against one of the mysterious attackers.
But the battle was not over. She could hear sounds of combat, and screams of dying Handmaids, from the nearby castle grounds. She waved to the three Handmaids as she stumped down the stands to find more enemy to fight.
'Grab a weapon,' she addressed the Handmaids, 'I dunno wha's goin' on here, but more fightin' need to be done.'
One of the Handmaids was already sprinting for the nearby changing area, as if hoping to find a place to hide. The redhead and brunette looked at each other for a second, then the blonde stooped to claim a blade, and they fell in behind the giant Amazon Knight as she made for the castle.
Karen yelled for her warriors, her anger rising as she saw what was happening. Drunk with death and blood, the revenants were not listening to her commands. Many were stabbing their lifeless victims again and again, chopping them to mincemeat, hacking them apart until all remained was a gory mess. Other revenants rolled over their kills, gasping in ecstasy as they smeared their bodies in blood and entrails.
Nearby, a revenant frantically rubbed herself against the body of a eviscerated Handmaid, grunting deeply with each thrust, her eyes rolled back in her head as she took her pleasure. Karen kicked her off the body. 'Get up!' she shrieked. 'There'll be time for that later!'
Yelling for her warriors to fall in, Karen strode for the inner gate, which was now opening slowly. Three of the revenants had scaled the wall to open the gate, and Karen noticed they had not met with any resistance.
'They've already retreated to the castle proper,' she told Dolores as the white-haired warrior fell in behind her. Dolores was grinning savagely, her armour and axe dripping with gore.
'No more than ten minutes to batter it down,' she said with relish, 'the Erran will be ours.'
'Erran will be MINE,' Karen snarled at her, but Dolores just shrugged, turning to yell orders to more errant revenants. By the time they closed on the castle door, only twenty revenants were with them. Annoyed, Karen cursed under her breath.
'Some Handmaids are sealed in the stables,' Dolores told her, 'and a number of revenants are still trying to get them. I saw another group head for the training grounds. We could gather them . . .'
Karen waved her away. 'Do it. Gather them up and kick some sense into them. I have enough warriors with me now to kill all that remain in Erran.'
Slightly more than thirty Amazon Knights were fit to ride. Emma felt her heart sink as she looked over them. They were tired and numbed by what had occurred, and the knowledge that they had killed so many for nothing. They made ready to ride, but Emma paused in surprise as fifteen of Dunan's Knights fell in with her own. She looked to where Marina was being propped up by Collette.
'After what just happened, you're going to help us?'
'I'm not blind to what just happened, Lady Emma, but Elizabeth is my friend and we're in this together. I'll try and contact her, just in case by some miracle the attack hasn't started yet.'
Emma nodded her thanks, then turned as Hayley rode up beside her. 'What is it?'
'Riding on Erran may not be such a great idea,' the young Knight said hesitantly. 'Each of the revenants is much stronger than a human, and their skill in combat has been enhanced considerably.'
'You have a better idea to save the lives of our friends?'
Hayley nodded. 'McManus is at this underground lab near the coast. If we can get to her, maybe she can stop the attack some other way. According to Sally, these things in our necks can be ordered to destroy themselves somehow.'
Emma considered. 'It's worth a try, but I can't spare more than a handful of Knights to go with you.' She turned to her diminished army. 'Four volunteers!'
Michelle moved her mount forward, and Hayley stared at her in surprise. She had wondered whether her old friend was dead or alive, and she had been standing quietly not ten feet away for some time. She was almost recognisable, her face and armour bloody, her eyes somehow darker than Hayley remembered. 'I'll go,' she said simply.
A dark-skinned girl Hayley recognised as Lady Sarah moved her own mount forward. 'Me too,' she said. Behind her, Alexis also moved forward to volunteer with a nod. Finally, Lady Julia joined them.
Emma waved to them as she began to lead her meagre army out of the remains of Dunan. 'Good luck,' she said, 'I hope one of us makes some kind of difference.'
Karen led the charge herself. Screaming her warriors into a battle frenzy, she brought her axe down on Erran's doors, expecting nothing but resistance. To her surprise the axe chopped into the wood, and the door moved as she ripped the weapon free. The doors were not barred!
She made to pause; this was obviously some kind of trap, but already her revenants were dragging the heavy doors open and spilling into the castle. Cursing, Karen joined them. Whatever plan Elizabeth had, it would not stand against the might of her cloned army.
Inside the doors, tables and chairs had been mounted up on either side to form a channel. As the revenants burst forward into the castle, Knights and Handmaids mounted the barricade on both sides, shouting challenges to the invaders and lashing down at them with swords and axes. Karen laughed in delight. This was it? Elizabeth really was desperate.
'Kill them all!' she screamed as she pushed forward through her attacking mob. At the foot of the makeshift channel she could see Elizabeth, and the sight of Erran's Grand Knight spurred her all the more. When Elizabeth fell, the Amazon Knights would be finished.
Revenants tore at the barricades, chopping at the inexperienced warriors who manned them. A Handmaid was dragged screaming into the mob, bright blood spurting high as her body yielded to hard steel. The gap was closed by another Handmaid, but the girls knew they still had the disadvantage. A leering face reared up before another Handmaid, who screamed and lashed out in response. Somehow her slashing sword made contact, ripping open the revenant's face and sending the warrior spinning back into her fellows.
An eager Handmaid straddled the barricade, her sword stabbing down. The weapon clanged off a revenant's pauldron, and the bald-headed warrior swung her axe with deadly accuracy, burying its head in the plucky Handmaid's belly. She twisted and ripped the weapon free as the young girl screamed in pain, clutching at where her innards were being pulled wetly into view. She collapsed forward onto the barricade, her body bucking as more axes and swords chopped into her.
Handmaids were dying, collapsing with a moan or shriek onto the bloody wood, but as each fell another moved in to take her place. A revenant mounted the barricade with a cry of victory as the girl before her fell back clutching a hosing throat. Her sword slashed, taking the head from the shoulders of another Handmaid. A third doubled over groaning as the bloody blade stabbed deep into her navel. Suddenly there was a gap, and three revenants spilled through, falling on the Handmaids on either side and butchering them mercilessly.
Helena cursed as she saw the breach. She forced her way through the mass of Knights and Handmaids to get to where the revenants were widening the gap, making short work of the unskilled girls brave enough to stand against them. Within seconds she was lunging with a battlecry, and the revenant before her turned to match the cry, ripping her sword free of a dying girl's guts to parry Helena's own.
Without pausing, Helena threw herself against the cloned warrior, sending them both collapsing onto the body-strewn barricade. Her dagger was already in her hand, and she stabbed it down repeatedly into her opponent's belly, mincing flesh and causing the revenant to shriek in agony. Ripping the blade up and out, Helena left the warrior rolling in mortal pain, her innards spooling free. A second revenant was already lunging at her, and she gritted her teeth against sudden pain as her upper arm was slashed open. She slammed the pommel of her weapon into the woman's face in response, sending the revenant staggering back dazed.
But there was still a third, who had been battling two brave Handmaids. The clone's axe swooped over her head to splice open her first opponent, and the Handmaid squealed as her upper body literally peeled apart, exposing glistening flesh and bone. The revenant kicked the spasming body from her weapon, chopping low into the second Handmaid's midriff. This girl was staring stunned at where her colleague fell twitching, not seeing her own death as it swooped towards her. The axe split her in two just below the ribsection, sending her upper torso bouncing against her barricade as her legs and pelvis staggered and collapsed, spilling her innards over a shifting mound of bodies.
Trying to ignore the slaughter, Helena hacked at this new foe, sending her staggering. The revenant's foot slipped in a glistening pile of looped intestine, and she fell back with a grunt. Helena did not hesitate, her sword stabbing down into the clone's heavy breast. The woman screamed her pain, her back arching before blood vomited between her lips. Helena was already yanking her gory blade free, allowing the dead revenant to spill gracelessly over the bodies of her previous victims, as her eyes were looking for her next foe.
The gap had been closed, but already there were no more warriors waiting to fill the posts of their dead or dying companions. Helena stepped into the breach as a Handmaid whirled from her position clutching a shredded breast, her eyes wide as she fell soundlessly. In the channel, perhaps seven revenants had fallen, although most had yet to die. They sprawled screaming as their comrades fought over them. With horror, Helena realise that most of those that still lived had suffered wounds hideous enough to have killed them outright. A revenant was piling guts into her abdomen, shouting angrily as those around her stepped in glistening innards. Another clutched at her severed arm, pressing the quivering limb against her spurting stump as if she could meld the arm back on.
Then she saw Karen. The Knight was battling near the top of the channel, where Elizabeth herself was now clashing with the marauding revenants. Helena knew she had to get back to the Grand Knight's side as quickly as possible. If Elizabeth fell, the brave Handmaids would lose heart and the battle would be over. 'Come on, Diane,' she muttered, 'Do it now!'
Outside the castle doors, ropes were cast from above as Diane's Handmaids rappelled down to the ground. They loosed their swords and charged through the doors with battlecries on their lips. There were only a dozen, but they came at the revenants backs, and they fell on the cloned warriors vengefully.
There was instant confusion in the channel, as the attackers realised there were warriors behind them. The last Handmaids yanked the heavy doors shut, barring them as they slammed securely, then they too loosed their blades and lunged.
A revenant was borne to the ground, shrieking as two swords plunged repeatedly into her belly and chest. Another stumbled back against the barricade, and as the Handmaids there gripped her arms and shoulders, another girl reared back and plunged her sword up the screeching warrior's crotch. Bodies tumbled and collapsed, heads rolling free and limbs flying. For a second it looked like the desperate plan had made a difference.
But then Elizabeth cried out, falling back out of sight as a revenant's blade got past her defence and plunged deep into her side. Helena did not have to push her way back to the Grand Knight's side, there were too few Handmaids and Knights standing. She locked blades with the clone who was bearing down on Elizabeth's stricken body, aware that Karen fought just beyond her, hacking against a stalwart Knight who was determined to keep her from Elizabeth.
Barely a dozen revenants remained, but Erran's defenders had dwindled also. A few Knights still battled valiantly, and here and there a Handmaid hacked fruitlessly against a superior for, until the revenant inevitably saw a chance and took it, ending another girl's life in a stricken shriek and spray of blood.
Angered by what she saw and heard, Helena hacked against her foe until the revenant fell back, then jumped to Elizabeth's side and began to drag the Grand Knight back. Diane appeared by her side.
'Fire it!' Helena yelled, and Diane nodded, fumbling at her belt before bringing out a lighter. Atop the barricade, Karen yanked her axe free of an Amazon Knight's quivering corpse, catching Diane's eye as the dark-haired Knight knelt by the massed wood and flicked a flame into life. A pool of clear fluid emerged from under the barricade, and Karen cursed as she staggered back.
'Get back!' Helena shouted a warning to her Knights, and those that could broke off their fights and jumped for safety. More than one died with a sudden scream as the revenants, faced with a retreating enemy, plunged their blades into unprotected backs.
But then a wall of flame roared into life, swiftly looping around the entire fuel-soaked barricade. Revenants screamed as they were engulfed in flame, staggering wildly with their arms flapping, their flesh bubbling and burning beneath their metal armour.
'That's earned us a minute or two, nothing more,' Helena yelled to Diane as the two Knights dragged Elizabeth back into the mess hall. 'We hold this door the best we can, then that's it!'
Diane nodded grimly. Only ten Knights and Handmaids were still with them, and many of those were wounded. They could not hope to hold out for much longer.
McManus had suggested that she bring up footage from the castle on the main screens, and the two revenants guarding them had approved grudgingly. Now they watched what was happening avidly, breathing hard as they drank in the slaughter enviously.
'Nice move,' Sally muttered to her, 'This is likely to get them in the mood.'
'You didn't have any better ideas,' McManus snapped. She quieted as one of the revenants scowled at her, but then the bald-headed woman turned back to the screen and they continued speaking in low tones.
'I can't work out what Karen has done here,' McManus sighed. 'We should be able to access the Scythe software from any of these terminals.'
'What can you get to?'
'Not a hell of a lot. Karen has left me with rights to begin the cloning process for another batch of revenants, although she's made some changes. I can't work them out. . . .'
'Take your best guess, doctor. Aggression levels up, morals out - even more than before. She's just doing what you've been doing, only more so.'
'The Chrysalis project has never been about creating monsters,' McManus hissed.
'Could have fooled me.' Sally hushed as the guard threw them another glare, then: 'What about the environment controls on the cylinders? The cloning process had to be severely regulated, didn't it? If you up the incubation heat, could it destroy the clones?'
'Easily, but what good will that do us? If Karen returns and we haven't got the next batch of revenants under way, she'll kill us. It's not as if she needs us at the moment anyway, she seems to know everything there is to know about the project somehow.'
'I wasn't talking about destroying the clones as such,' Sally whispered. 'What kind of heat can those cylinders take?' McManus stared at her, and Sally shrugged. 'Let's face it, Karen's likely to kill us when she gets back one way or the other. I'd prefer to make a go of it.'
The doctor glanced at the two revenants, engrossed in the battle. She nodded hesitantly. 'See the wall- mounted safe beyond the last console? Emergency tranquilliser pistol, in case experiments got out of hand.'
'I think that's a given at this precise moment.'
'Karen probably didn't know it was there. If we can distract them. . . .'
'Let's do it.'
Sally watched McManus work, tapping the keyboard with her remaining hand, beads of sweat breaking on her brow. She felt her own heart begin to race. They weren't going up against dozy security guards here, the revenants would not be easily distracted and would recover quickly.
Hayley led the way towards the underground lab assuredly, recalling her previous panicked flight as she skirted around the valley where she lost her pursuers. 'We're close!' she called back to the others, glancing over her shoulder to take in their faces.
Their emotions were mixed. They were still coming down from the excitement of the battle at Dunan, although what they now thought about that fight remained to be seen. They had thought they were riding into a glorious battle to avenge murdered comrades, and now they probably felt more like murderers themselves.
Sarah reined in beside Hayley. The tiny Knight recognised the girl, recalling the wild screams she made as she fought. 'How many will we be up against?' she asked, and Hayley could only shake her head.
'No idea, although I can't imagine Karen left many of her warriors here. We might have more problems against the security guards and their guns.'
'Great,' Sarah muttered, 'Plate armour don't seem so hard when someone sticks a gun in your face, huh?'
'They won't be expecting us. We'll have to make that count for something.'
Behind them, Michelle let out a cry. 'There it is!'
Sure enough, ahead lay the entrance to the underground lab. The stable doors were hanging open, swinging freely in the wind. The silo entrance was closed, but Hayley hoped the doors would not be sealed. She led the way towards the main entrance, glancing aside as Michelle rode up beside her.
'When all this is over, we need to do some talking,' Michelle told her.
Michelle stared at her friend, noticing how tense she was. 'None of this is your fault, Hayley. You're not yourself. . . .'
'But this is all there is left of me,' Hayley stared at her, 'The Hayley you knew is long dead, Michelle. Get used to that.'
Michelle shook her head. 'No, you're wrong. You said yourself, back in the castle, there's something inside you that's making you act different. When this is over, we'll remove it.'
'If we can.'
'We'll find a way,' Michelle insisted. 'I promise.'
Hayley fell quiet, but as they neared the lab entrance, she spoke again. 'What happened to Natalie?' she asked.
'She was killed,' Michelle told her, her voice flat.
'I'm sorry, Michelle.'
'Yeah, well. Par for the course round here . . .'
The Knights' heads snapped up as something roared overhead. Hayley gasped as she saw a sleek black helicopter loop around and prepare to take another pass.
'Who the hell is that?' Julia yelled as she moved alongside her companions.
'Dunno,' Hayley shouted back, 'but it doesn't look too friendly.'
The helicopter drew alongside them, it's side door opening to reveal a black-clad figure. A woman, dressed in a figure-hugging bodysuit and wielding a snub-nosed weapon which she levelled at the Knights.
'Shit!' Alexis cried, dropping against her saddle and kicking her horse faster. The other Knights followed her lead, trying to get to the cover of the stable before the mysterious figure could draw a bead on them.
They didn't hear the gun firing, but the puffs of soil that skittered before their horses told them they were under attack.
Inside the helicopter, The Man peered at the Knights below in interest. 'What the bloody hell is going on?' he muttered, patting down her immaculate hair as wind gusted through the open door. His bodyguard hung half out of the 'copter, trying to hit the fast-moving figures below. The Man brought his 'phone to his ear, once more trying to contact McManus, but there was still no reply from the lab below.
'I think it safe to assume we have lost control of this complex,' he said to the suited man opposite. 'Perhaps you would be good enough to destroy it for me?'
The suit nodded, although he looked pensive. 'Shouldn't we, ah, check the place out first?' he asked, but The Man shook his head in distaste and gestured to the Knights below.
'You don't want to get that close to these ladies. Trust me.'
The suit nodded, flipping open a palmtop and establishing a link to the project's computer. He frowned as he tapped frantically. 'Not sure what's happening here, but we've got no control.'
'Bob,' The Man spoke with forced patience. 'We pay you a great deal of money. Please, PLEASE be worth it once in a while.'
Affronted, the suit bent over his computer, his brow knitted determinedly. Shaking his head in disbelief, The Man peered back down to the ground in time to see the Knights disappear into the stable building.
'You didn't hit ANY of them?' he asked, shocked. The blonde bodyguard stared at him, her eyes hidden by her black glasses. 'Never mind. Get down there and sort them out. I don't want anyone to know we were here.'
The Knights dismounted, panting heavily. Alexis peered around the doors to see what the 'copter was up to while Julia and Sarah secured the horses.
'Now what do we do?' Michelle asked. 'They've got us pinned down.'
'Maybe not,' Alexis warned. 'Looks like they're landing.'
They crowded around the door to watch the helicopter hover only a few feet above the grass. A lone, black-clad figure dropped from the vehicle and began to run towards the stable, her arms pumping, blonde hair tossed by the wind and the rotor-blades.
'What the hell?' Alexis snorted.
'Assume she's bad news,' Julia slipped her sword free from its sheath. 'Whoever this girl is, she's the one that was firing at us, and now it looks like she's ready to get up close and personal.' The redhead looked around at Hayley. 'Take Michelle and Alexis and head for the lab, while Sarah and I take this bitch on.'
Hayley nodded, heading for the side door she had used the first time she entered the stable, Michelle and Alexis close behind her. Julia and Sarah took up positions on either side of the door.
'Don't give her an inch,' Julia warned, 'Hit her as soon as she sticks her head. . . .'
The black-clad warrior burst in, silently and suddenly. She had a blade already in hand, a gleaming sword which whisked out towards Julia's face. The redhead cursed at the enemy warrior's speed, just managing to block the blow and backing off as the woman came at her. She parried a second strike desperately, feeling the blows landing against her blade sapping her strength instantly. This woman was amazingly strong, and skilful with it.
Sarah lunged at the woman's exposed back, but she whirled around as if she heard the black girl's blade cleave through the air, slashing high and causing Sarah to stagger drunkenly. The sword dipped in again, and Sarah yelped as it punctured her armour and ripped open a gash on her thigh.
Then the warrior was spinning again, taking the fight back to Julia, keeping the pressure up as Julia vainly tried to find a way through her defences. Already the redhead was sweating and grunting in exertion, but the black-garbed warrior's face remained impassive.
'Reckon WE should have gone to the laboratory!' Sarah cried as she lunged at the woman again, giving Julia a chance to sag back and catch her breath. Sarah let out one of her screams, a bloodcurdling yell that frequently distracted her foes. Not this one; the woman waded into her tirelessly, stabbing and slashing and forcing her back step by step.
'I'm sure Hayley and the others will be having problems all their own,' Julia replied, stabbing at the enemy warrior's back, disbelieving as the woman twisted and parried the incoming blow before returning her attention almost contemptuously to Sarah.
Hayley led the way into the laboratory, unable to believe it could be deserted. The loading area looked much as it had before she left, but without the presence of the revenants she saw that the place had the look of somewhere that had been evacuated in a hurry.
'No guards?' Michelle asked in disbelief.
'Why should Karen bother if the guards stayed or ran?' Hayley surmised, 'She doesn't expect to be away for too long.'
'McManus won't be unguarded, or your friend,' Alexis said.
'True. Unless Sally is dead and McManus has thrown in with Karen lock, stock and barrel.' Hayley pointed to where the heavy project doors were still ajar. McManus' dried blood still stained the console and floor, from when Karen had used the doctor's dismembered arm to gain access. 'The cylinders are through there, and beyond that what looked to be the main control room.'
She led the way, but as she eased through the strong-room doorway into the project lab, she raised a hand to stop the others. Ahead, past the banks of enclosed cylinders, McManus and Sally were being held as swordpoint by a sneering revenant.
'Drop your swords or the doctor dies!' the revenant spat. She gripped the doctor's hair and yanked, drawing her blade up close to the writhing woman's chin to prove her point.
'Who's she trying to kid?' Alexis scoffed.
'Give up,' Hayley called, 'It's three against one, and we're not that bothered about saving the doctor's life at this precise moment.'
'Yeah,' Michelle agreed, 'Slit her worthless throat. This is all her fault, anyway.'
The three Knights moved slowly forward, and the revenant shifted uncomfortably. Hayley caught Sally's eye, and paused as she saw the nurse roll her eyes to the right in an obvious manner. She twisted just in time as a second revenant broke from cover between two of the cylinders, lunging forward with a hiss, her sword sweeping in an overhead arc.
Hayley's blade intercepted the swooping weapon easily, and Michelle staggered back with a gasp as she realised the other Knight had just saved her life. The first revenant cried out in rage, throwing McManus aside and leaping over the console to charge into battle.
Sally caught the doctor and heaved her upright. 'Quick, we have to stop the cylinders from overheating. If they blow they'll all be killed!'
'Solving our immediate problem, Miss Kinvig,' McManus snarled as she pushed the nurse away. 'See that? The cavalry are here!'
She gestured to a terminal, where someone was obviously accessing the system from outside. Sally read what was displayed with wide eyes. 'Self-destruct sequence? Oh shit! We've got to stop it!'
'Relax. We have five minutes. More than enough to get the hell out of here.'
Sally pushed the doctor towards the console angrily. 'Just get it stopped, doctor. Contact you ministry man or whatever you have to do.' Sally moved towards the box on the wall, flipping it open to reveal a snub-nosed pistol and several clips of what McManus assured her were tranquillisers. She picked up the pistol, detecting motion behind her too late.
McManus grabbed a handful of hair, slamming Sally's head against the edge of the metal box. The nurse crumpled instantly, blood pouring from a gash on her temple. The doctor helped herself to the pistol and managed - with some difficulty - to load it. 'Sorry, Miss Kinvig,' she muttered as she turned back to the battle, 'but I still haven't quite forgiven you for betraying me.'
Emma led her depleted troops into battle with a loud cry, her sword held high as she bore down on the revenants in Erran's outer grounds. All around, Knights and Handmaids lay strewn and lifeless, butchered mercilessly by the marauding clones.
They deserved no mercy, and Emma intended they received none. Her sword lashed down as she passed the first astonished revenant, splitting open the woman's face and sending her reeling, screaming shrilly as she clutched at her head.
'Hit them hard!' Emma yelled, but her Knights needed no such prompting. Swords and axes were raised high before chopping down into yielding flesh. A revenant crumpled screaming, half her face ripped from her skull by a cleaving blade. Another stumbled as her back was ripped open, falling beneath another Knight's horse and yelling in agony as steel-shod hooves minced her flesh.
But the revenants recovered quickly, and turned their blades on their attackers mounts. A horse whinnied and fell hard, sending its rider tumbling. Instantly a revenant was upon the fallen Knight, her axe chopping down to split steel and flesh, burying the weapon's head in the Knight's copious bosom. The Knight grunted in pain, writhing and kicking until the revenant placed a foot on her chest and yanked the weapon free amidst a greasy spray of gore.
Another Knight fell, trapped under her wounded horse until swordblades stabbed down into her throat and face, bursting her skull and casting her brains over the grass.
Emma wheeled her mount, frustrated at how her warriors were already falling. She spurred her mount forward so its flank slammed into a revenant, and her blade chopped down as the woman stumbled, taking her head from her shoulders with one sure swipe. The revenant collapsed lifeless, but elsewhere, other enemy warriors were harder to kill.
The revenant with half her face ripped off roared in fury as she regained her feet, grabbing a passing Knight and yanking her from her saddle. The Knight landed hard with a squeal, raising her arms futilely as the revenant reared back and plunged her sword into the stricken warrior's breast. Blood belched high, and the horribly wounded revenant yelled in victory, already looking for another opponent.
Emma bore down on another revenant, recognising the woman just as she swung her axe, taking the foreleg from under her mount. The beast stumbled with a scream, and Emma launched herself from the saddle to ensure she was not trapped under the rolling animal. She came to her feet quickly as Dolores dove in for the fight.
'Not dead yet, Emma?' Dolores screamed in delight, 'I'll see to that!' Her axe swooped, but Emma caught it nimbly with her sword, stepping in close to smash her gauntlet into Dolores' face. The enemy Knight staggered with a gasp.
'Cut out the bullshit, Dolores. Where's the whore you're following? Where's Karen?'
Dolores grunted in rage, kicking out and swinging her axe over-arm. Emma stepped back to avoid the kick, again parrying Dolores' attack with her sword. 'Right now she's examining the colour of Elizabeth's guts, bitch! Pulling them out yard by yard. I'll be doing the same to. . . .'
Emma's sword flipped out, ripping through Dolores' chain jerkin and stabbing deep into her shoulder. The white-haired warrior gaped down at the wound in disbelief.
'You talk instead of fighting, Dolores,' Emma snarled, 'That's a bad habit you're not going to live long enough to grow out of.'
'Here they come!' Helena warned as the revenants burst through, Karen at their head. They fell on the remaining Knights, arranged in a arc before Elizabeth. They would protect their Queen to the death!
For frantic seconds their line held. The Amazon Knights fought wildly, their swords and axes rising and falling, dripping with flesh and blood as revenants fell screaming. A Knight fell with a strangled shout, clutching at a hosing throat, and the remainder backed up to close the gap. Within seconds their line had broken as the enemy warriors swarmed over them.
Helena cursed at the top of her voice as she fought. Her blade hacked deep into a screaming revenant, ripping a quivering chunk of flesh from the dying woman before plunging back for more. As the woman gurgled and died, Helena glanced back to see how Elizabeth fared. She could not believe what she was seeing.
Elizabeth fought two revenants, her sword flailing, keeping the enemy warriors at bay. Near her side, an Amazon Knight sagged as she was impaled through the stomach, and Helena's blood ran cold as she saw who the killer was.
Diane yanked the blade free, not even bothering to watch her sister Knight slump to the floor. She approached Elizabeth's blind side, her sword raised to strike a killing blow.
'No!' Helena screamed, but at that moment she felt cold steel strike her shoulder. Driven to her knees, she moaned in pain as her left arm fell numbly by her side. An axe had been driven deep into her body, and she could only quiver in pain as she stared up into the eyes of the woman who had struck the blow.
Karen leered down at her. 'Loyal Helena,' she chuckled, 'By her Lady's side; where else? Not close enough to save her, though.'
Helena roared in fury, rearing up despite her pain, her sword lashing out towards Karen. For a second the dark-haired warrior looked startled, but her weapon moved, ripping free of Helena's flesh to block the clumsy strike with almost casual disdain. She lowered the axe, thrusting forward so the spike atop its handle burst through Helena's armour and deep into her midriff. Helena's eyes bulged as she felt the steel sinking deep. She sagged again, this time spilling off the weapon to crumple against the bodies of fallen Knights, her sword lost as she clutched at the wound in her belly.
'I'd say that one's a killer,' Karen appraised the wound professionally. 'It'll take a while, though. Stay alert, and you'll see me take my rightful place. You may even be lucky enough to be the first to die at the hand of the new Queen of Erran.'
As Helena tried to lever herself up, Karen laughed and stepped over her. Helena gasped and fell back, tasting blood in her mouth. Helpless, she could only listen as the slaughter continued around her.
Elizabeth feinted, and as the revenant stabbed excitedly, she punished the warrior with a slash across the throat. For a moment the revenant did not know she had been killed. Her blade rose again, then her eyes bulged as she saw the greasy spray hosing from her neck. She gurgled and collapsed back, allowing her companion to surge forward. The Grand Knight traded blows with this woman, trying not to think about how her Knights were faring. As the revenant stepped back suddenly, Elizabeth frowned, wondering what the enemy warrior was planning. She heard the sound of whistling steel coming from her right too late.
Diane's blade sheared through her upper arm, sending her armoured limb flying. Screaming in sudden agony, Elizabeth staggered back and collapsed to her knees, staring aghast to where her stump pumped thick blood. Her eyes rose to meet Diane's.
'Diane?' she whispered, 'Why? I never thought . . . you'd betray me.'
Diane stepped close, kneeling before Elizabeth and lifting her chin almost tenderly with one gauntletted hand. 'I'm not betraying you, Elizabeth,' she said with amusement, 'You surely didn't believe you'd rule Erran for ever? You're old and tired, and it's time I took your place. It's for the best.'
'You? What . . . what about Karen?' Elizabeth felt her body wrack with pain. Her right hand side was numb and cold. She knew she was dying, but her left hand groped at her belt out of Diane's sight, fumbling for the dagger she would use to avenge her own death.
'Karen is a Beta, but I'm the Alpha subject. I've been around since the first mass battle. Remember how I nearly died?'
'You . . . did die?'
'I was dead when they wheeled me in, but it looked like I was only wounded. I've been waiting for so long for today to come, Elizabeth. When I could claim Erran as my own.'
Elizabeth could not conceal her shock. She had known McManus had performed experiments before Karen, but she had not known any had been released to fight as Amazon Knights. Diane had never seemed any different to how she had before. Determined and strong-willed. Certainly she had always been a poor loser, always wanted to be the best at everything, but Elizabeth couldn't believe this woman, one of her oldest and most trusted friends, could thirst so much for power as to bring such violence and suffering upon Erran.
'No, Diane,' she said softly, slipping her dagger free, 'Karen has used you like she's used me. She's the one that intends to take the castle.'
Diane gripped Elizabeth's hand, twisting it so that Grand Knight cried out and dropped her dagger. 'I know what Karen's like,' she said with a laugh, 'I have her under control.'
The laugh died in her throat as a swordblade suddenly sprouted from between her breasts. Elizabeth recoiled as blood splashed her face, and Diane staggered to her feet and wheeled around to face Karen, clutching the bloody steel protruding from her chest. 'You . . . fucking . . . bitch. . . .'
She collapsed to her knees, cradling the blade sprouting from her bosom, as Karen readied her axe and gripped the dying woman's hair, drawing her arm back to make the final cut. Diane's head left her body with the sound of ripping flesh. Blood belched high, and the headless body bucked and fell aside, its legs kicking and arms flailing as it died. Karen planted a booted foot on the quivering corpse, raising Diane's head high and laughing in delight at the look on its face.
Diane's eyes seemed to widen, her mouth moving soundlessly as blood drooled over her lips. As Karen watched with a thrill of excitement, the eyes rolled back in her head and a swollen tongue bulged over Diane's slackened jaws.
Elizabeth gaped at Diane's body, run through by the sword that had been taken from her throne room. Delivered to Karen; bait for the trap she'd blundered into foolishly
Tossing the head aside, Karen moved forward to straddle Elizabeth's body, watching the Grand Knight squirm. 'Can't trust anyone these days, can you Elizabeth?'
Their eyes locked, and for a moment Karen was chilled by the look of pure hatred Elizabeth gave her. Suddenly angered by the Grand Knight's stare, Karen raised the axe above her head, let out a wild cry of victory, and sent its bloody blade down to smash between Elizabeth's breasts.
A sudden silence fell over the mess hall. Karen breathed heavily, regarding the body between her feet. Elizabeth was dead. Her eyes were wide and staring. Her lips were slack and parted. Blood was splattered over her breastplate where Karen's axe was buried, and more still dribbled from her stumped arm.
Finally, Erran was hers.
She ripped the axe free, relishing the noise it made as it emerged from dead flesh, enjoying the way Elizabeth's body arched before the axehead came free and the body slumped to the floor again. Holding the gory weapon by her side, Karen turned to receive the adulation of her warriors.
There were none. The mess hall, like the entry hall beyond, was scattered with bodies. Some still shifted feebly, and an occasional moan betrayed a sign of life, but her revenants had fallen with Erran's defenders. She let her eyes drift over the carnage, feeling her heart pounding as she took in the blood and death. Amongst the mounds of bodies were lumps of cooling flesh, coils of purple intestine, the quivering stumps of limbs and the sightless, staring faces of the dead. Then, from amongst one such pile of sundered flesh, a single figure stood painfully, leaning on her sword as she levered herself upright.
'Helena,' Karen said in satisfaction, 'Looks like I get to kill you all over again.'
Emma drove Dolores back, enjoying the way the white-haired warrior yelped in fear every time a blow landed. She had been overconfident, and Emma had punished her for it. A final blow shattered her axehead, and as shards of steel ripped open her cheek, she fell back with a cry onto the body of an Amazon Knight. Her feet kicked as she tried to escape from Emma, but the grey-eyed Knight advanced upon her inexorably.
'You don't have to kill me, Emma,' she wheedled as Emma raised her sword, 'Do . . . do you want to be as bad as us?'
'Right at this moment, I don't give a shit,' Emma told her ruthlessly. 'This is for Kiri.'
Her sword stabbed down, punching through steel, flesh and bone, impaling Dolores onto the body beneath her. She reared up with a shocked gasp, clutching the blade wedged between her ribs, spitting bright blood as it rushed up her throat. Emma let her writhe in pain, recalling how this woman had made her accomplices hold Kiri down as she readied her axe to deliver a deliberate, killing blow.
Disappointed not to feel better about killing Dolores, Emma raised a steel-shod foot and slammed it down into the white-haired warrior's face. Her skull cracked and burst as Emma's weight bore her skull down onto the armour of the woman beneath her, and as her body twitched and jerked, Emma dragged her gore-choked blade free, turning her back on Dolores to find another enemy to fight.
A warrior was on her in a second, a longsword flailing around her head. Emma bashed the woman's blade aside, lashing out a foot to kick the revenant in the side. Grunting, the woman dropped to her knees. Emma recognised her face suddenly. The revenant was Chrysegon, a Handmaid who had died during her trial almost a year ago. Kimiko's friend.
This thought almost made her pause, but the revenant did not give her a chance. Rearing up, Chrysegon hacked at Emma, succeeding in driving the tiring Knight back a handful of steps. A powerful blow ricocheted off Emma's sword and sliced through her pauldron, opening a gash on her shoulder, and the pain of the blow gave her the strength to respond in kind. Roaring in fury, Emma threw Chrysegon away, bringing her sword up and overhead. It swooped towards Chrysegon's upturned face, and for a moment the revenant knew she was about to be killed, but then a tiny figure cannoned into Emma, driving her to the ground.
'No!' Kimiko screamed as she scrambled to her feet, 'Please, Emma. You can't. . . .'
'Kimi!' Emma cried as she rolled to her feet, 'Keep back. She isn't you friend any longer!' Cursing as the revenant stepped forward to plant a kick in her midriff, Emma stumbled and almost fell again, just recovering as Chrysegon stepped forward, raising her sword for another assault. Emma moved faster, her blade scything low and chopping deep into Chrysegon's thigh, making her scream and reel back clutching her wound.
Emma hefted her sword and stepped in to finish the job, then stopped in amazement as cold pain bit into her lower back, and the bloody tip of a swordblade emerged from her breastplate. She dropped to her knees, unable to believe what had just happened. From behind her she heard Kimiko whimpering.
'I'm sorry, Emma, I couldn't let you do it.'
McManus watched the countdown anxiously. Four minutes remained before the lab blew, and she would need at least half that time to get out of the complex to safety. She eyed the terminal showing the temperature within the cylinders. All were critical, save for one at the far end. Frowning, the doctor wondered what was up with that one, but she had little time to consider the matter further. Steam was spraying from around the edge of the cylinders; they were ready to blow.
Hayley traded blows with one of the revenants, blinking sweat from her eyes and lashing out a kick to make the clone stagger back. 'Something's going on!' she cried to her colleagues, 'This heat!'
Michelle and Alexis were battling the second revenant, who was suffering under the onslaught from the two Knights. 'McManus is up to something!' Michelle called, seeing the doctor watching them coolly from behind the consoles. 'These cylinders look like they're ready to blow up or something.'
Alexis' sword angled low, and the revenant screamed as the blonde Knight's blade sheared through chain into her groin. Alexis yelled in excitement as the revenant sagged before her, ripping the sword free and stabbing again into the falling woman's chest. Flesh split and the revenant gagged horribly on blood that suddenly burst up her throat.
'Help Hayley,' Alexis told Michelle as she began to move on McManus, but as Michelle turned to her friend she saw that Hayley didn't need her help.
Hayley thrust the revenant up against one of the cylinders, and the cloned warrior squealed as her back was burned by the heat of the metal. The stench of charred flesh made Hayley gag, and she quickly rammed her sword into the revenant's belly, ripping it open violently and letting the woman slide down the cylinder, clutching at the innards spooling over her thighs.
A crack sounded from one of the cylinders, and Hayley panicked as she realised they were about to blow. She turned and ran, grabbing Michelle and pulling her along as she passed by her friend. 'Move it!'
With a roar the first of the cylinders exploded outward, its metal shield flying across the passage to clang against the cylinder opposite. Boiling gelatinous fluid erupted from the burst container, and it seemed to act as a signal to the rest of the cylinders, as each exploded violently one after the other. Hayley and Michelle screamed as they felt heat searing their backs, but as they stumbled and fell they slid clear of the blast. Dazed, they scrambled to their feet as hot gelatinous slime spilled around them.
'Ah! Fuck, that's boiling!' Michelle cursed, then screamed as a naked, half-melted figure seemed to leap from the roiling steam to claw at her. Hayley dragged her back against the console, and they stared in horror at the half-formed revenant that sagged with a horrid gurgle into the thick slime.
Alexis recovered her footing, gripping the side of the console as she advanced on McManus. 'I hear you've been a bad girl, doc,' she grinned at the doctor savagely as she raised her blade. 'Figure I'll be doing everyone a favour if I just. . . .' She paused as McManus raised a gun and pointed it in her face.
'No! Don't shoot,' Hayley scrambled around the edge of the console, raising her hands beseechingly. The doctor gestured for Alexis to join her colleagues, and the three Knights clustered against the console as McManus edged around them.
'Just let me go free,' McManus waggled the gun, stepping gingerly over the semi-formed bodies that steamed and shifted on the lab floor. 'I've had enough of this shit.' She turned and began to pick her way between the ruptured cylinders towards the exit, and Hayley scurried to Sally's side as she spotted the nurse slumped against the near-side wall, lifting her with difficulty. Michelle moved to help her, and as Sally began to groan and come to, the two Knights dragged her between them, making to follow McManus out of the lab.
Alexis peered at the console, wide-eyed. 'Is this thing counting down?' she said shrilly, 'We've only got three minutes to get out of here!'
Kimiko stared at her sword in horror. Emma's blood was thick on the blade, and the Amazon Knight writhed on the ground before her, staring up into her eyes as she ground her teeth against the pain.
'I . . . I'm sorry,' Kimiko said again, but turned to kneel by Chrysegon's side. 'Chrissie? Are you OK?'
Chrysegon tried to stand, but collapsed back as her wounded leg gave out from under her. She snarled in fury, but as her eyes focused on Kimiko's concerned face, her own features changed, to show confusion and fear.
'K . . . Kimi? What . . . what's going on here?'
Kimiko almost cried in relief. For a moment she thought her friend was too far gone, and that all that remained of her was an empty shell. She hugged Chrysegon hard, and the bald girl gasped for breath, then pushed the Japanese girl away from her suddenly.
'For God's sake, look out!'
Kimiko stumbled to her feet, amazed to see Emma standing and coming at her. She made to raise her sword, but Emma's foot lashed out, catching her square between the legs and knocking the wind from her. She wheezed and crumbled, and Emma staggered over Chrysegon's body, readying her sword for a fatal thrust.
'Might have known . . . this would happen,' she panted, 'Best for all concerned if you . . . stay dead!'
The sword began to fall, but Kimiko lunged with a cry of fear, her own sword catching Emma's and knocking it astray. She barged into the wounded Knight, lashing out at her and making her stagger.
'Kimiko! Think about what you're doing!' Emma parried her former Handmaid's frantic blows, but her wounds were slowing her down. She slumped to one knee and Kimiko's sword glanced off her sword and struck her shoulder, cutting through steel and opening a gash. Emma gripped Kimiko's forearm, holding the sword in place as she appealed to the distraught young Knight. 'She's not Chrysegon anymore. She's one of the ones who killed Isobel, and Madeline. She's a monster!'
'You're the monster!' Kimiko sobbed. 'We can make her better. We have to!'
'Don't be a damn fool!' Emma snarled, grunting as she stood, her arm flexing as she shoved Kimiko back. The sword tore from her shoulder and she stifled a gasp at the pain, throwing the Asian girl back and advancing on Chrysegon again.
'No!' Kimiko yelled in anger, 'I won't let you kill her.' She came at Emma again, and this time the Amazon Knight knew she was fighting for her life against her former Handmaid. Kimiko's face was etched in fury, and as she chopped again and again at Emma's raised sword, the grey-eyed Knight's heart sank. She fell back as Kimiko once more struck her, but as the Japanese girl stepped in with her sword raised high, she hesitated.
The woman beneath her was a fellow Amazon Knight, and her mentor! How could she strike a colleague dead? For a second her confusion showed on her face, but as Emma dared to hope she could see sense, Kimiko's eyes hardened and her sword began its downward swing.
'Sorry, Kimi,' Emma breathed, 'I told you those hesitations would be the death of you.'
Kimiko gasped, her eyes wide as she felt Emma's sword punch into her belly. Her own sword tumbled from her numbed fingers, and they dropped to scrabble around the blade jutting from her armour. Emma stared up at her, letting go of her sword as Kimiko staggered. She slumped to her knees, her mouth working noiselessly as blood poured over her lips. Her eyes rolled up in her head and she pitched forward, driving the sword deeper into her body. Her legs jerked as the weapon's tip shrieked from between her shoulderblades, and Kimiko lay dead.
Emma struggled to her knees, her strength gone. She gripped her stomach wound, aware that she had lost a lot of blood and was losing more by the second. But, before her, Chrysegon had managed to get to her feet, and staggered forward with a choked cry. Emma cursed, knowing she could not defend herself against the attacking revenant.
Then Chrysegon collapsed by Kimiko's side, sobbing as she turned her friend's body and wiped sweaty strands of hair from over her closed eyes. 'Aw, shit. Kimi. . . .' She cradled the dead girl tenderly, the urge to kill within her ebbing away.
Emma had finally managed to stand. She held Kimiko's sword up against Chrysegon's neck, and when the revenant finally noticed the cold steel against her flesh, their eyes met. Emma's cold eyes were angry; yet another friend had died today. She knew she should stab her sword deep into this woman's throat, ending the life of another of McManus' clones, but she couldn't do it.
'Is that it?' she sneered at Chrysegon, 'Your friend dies and you just lose the will to kill? Is that really the way it works?'
Chrysegon stared up at her wordlessly, until - with a cry of impotent rage - Emma smashed her fist down into the revenant's upturned face. Chrysegon slumped unconscious over Kimiko's unfeeling body.
'We'll see,' Emma snarled, collapsing to her knees, no more fight left within her.
Helena's body shuddered as Karen's axe slammed into her sword. Somehow she kept her grip on the weapon, but staggered and fell, her feet slipping in blood and glistening guts, landing hard on the body of a fellow Knight.
'Come on, Helena, you're not trying!' Karen berated her, 'Give a good account of yourself! Elizabeth was too easy a kill.' She eyed Helena's tortured body as the Knight forced herself to stand once more. 'Then again, you're not looking in the best of health. Maybe a mercy killing?'
She stepped in as if to follow up her suggestion, gratified as Helena scrambled to her feet again. Her axe swooped, and Helena flung up her own weapon to parry, lunging in close to Karen and bringing her head forward sharply. Karen grunted as Helena's temple smashed against her nose, still tender from Hayley's mauling earlier. She recovered herself just in time to parry Helena's follow-up stab, ripping the Knight's blade from her hand and sending it spinning away.
'That's more like it!' she cried, stepping to Helena's left and bringing the flat of her axe down against the Knight's rump as she staggered past. Helena stumbled again, cursing her lack of strength and the wounds in her shoulder and stomach. Blood sheeted her belly beneath her tunic, and the fabric was plastered down over her left breast. She could feel her life ebbing away, but as her eyes fell upon Elizabeth's butchered body she felt her anger rise once again. Her only chance would be to let that anger give her the strength she needed.
She was slumped on her knees, beside Diane's headless corpse. A sword was still impaling the traitorous Knight's body, and Helena realised it was Elizabeth's own blade; the cause of the slaughter at Dunan. A fine longsword, with a burnished sphere atop its pommel, its length adorned with intricate sigils alongside its blood-fuller. It was the sword Elizabeth had brought with her to Erran at the very beginning; the sword she had given to her lover Katherine, who had in turn given it to her young Handmaid as she felt her death approaching. The sword Elizabeth had claimed again upon Hayley's death and mounted in her throne room in memory of Katherine. Karen had brought the sword with her, perhaps to use to kill Elizabeth herself, but here it was impaling another old friend killed by Karen's crazed plotting. Helena's fury reached it's peak as her fingers wrapped around the weapon's pommel, and she let out a moan of pain and anger as she planted her foot against Diane's back and heaved on the impaling weapon. With a shriek of steel it came free, smeared with gore.
Karen was stepping up behind her, her axe raised high, confident of victory. Helena turned and threw herself forward, summoning a scream so piercing Karen blinked and stepped back in surprise, aghast as she saw the sword stabbing low. Chain armour split, and flesh tore wetly as the weapon's tip sank into Karen's navel. She yelled in pain, her left hand dropping to grip the sword's blade, her eyes wide as she watched Helena heave the weapon in deeper. It split from her back, blood bursting free and pouring over her buttocks and thighs.
'No!' she screamed in denial as she felt her axe tumble from her nerveless hand. She sank to her knees, coming level with Helena's face as the Amazon Knight gritted her teeth and flexed her tired arm, yanking the sword half out of Karen's shuddering body before levering it up spitefully. The weapon's tip ripped through Karen's innards, and the warrior gasped as she felt and heard hot blood squirt from her groin. Her bowels gave out, pumping thick gore into her doublet, and loops of colourful gut began to spill from the tear in her abdomen. Her fingers scrabbled at the slimy intestines, and she whimpered as the tear in her belly swelled and split, releasing a torrent of innards as Helena ripped her sword free.
Karen watched her insides pile up between her thighs with horror. 'You bitch!' she screamed shrilly at Helena, who had staggered back to sink to her knees and watch her enemy die. 'You won't stop me. You CAN'T stop me!'
Her hand scrabbled for her axe, and to Helena's horror the revenant pulled herself to her feet, not seeming to care that the contents of her belly matted her thighs and dragged behind her as she staggered forward, axe raised high. She fell onto Helena, driving the Knight down. Helena gasped and gripped the shaft of Karen's axe as the spiked head of the weapon loomed before her eyes. Karen grunted and spat in her face, her eyes wild as she sought her revenge. Her lips twitched into a savage grin as she realised she still had her inhuman strength; The axe's spike drooped closer to Helena's face.
Desperately, Helena wrenched the axe towards her left side, yelling in pain as the spike stabbed deep into her already-wounded shoulder. For a second she couldn't see, her vision dimming as her body shuddered in pain, but she brought her right arm back and thrust it deep into Karen's sundered belly, using the last vestiges of her strength to force her hand up into her enemy's ribcage.
Karen's back arched, and she gurgled in agony as Helena's hand closed around her heart. Her eyes popped wide as she watched the Amazon Knight rip the pumping organ free of her body, holding it before her eyes so she could see its final spasms.
'No. . . .' she breathed wetly, blood rushing up her throat to spill over her lips.
'Eat this!' Helena snarled, slamming her fist into Karen's face. The revenant's heart burst as it slammed into her mouth, and Karen's lifeless body fell back to lie spread-eagled and jerking.
Sarah screamed as she came at the bodyguard again, but her scream was more of desperation than challenge. Her body was weakened by wounds on her legs and arms, and a deeper tear over her breast that bled freely. Julia had suffered just as badly, and now was half-collapsed against a stable wall, clutching a deep wound in her stomach.
The bodyguard did not even seem tired. She swept Sarah's blade aside contemptuously, and her foot lashed out to send the black girl crashing back against a wooden partition. The wood gave way and Sarah screamed once more as she fell back soft hay. She lay winded for a second, but frantically scrabbled to get to her feet as she heard the black-clad warrior leap in to finish her off.
A shining sword plunged deep, and Sarah stared in shock to where the blade sank into her belly, pinning her to the stable's ground. Her arms fell by her side, and as her eyes rolled back her body relaxed, her head slumping against the hay.
Julia saw her comrade fall and pushed herself off the wall with a snarl of rage. 'Bitch!' she shrieked as she lunged at the bodyguard's exposed back, but she let out a cry of pain as the blonde warrior reversed her grip on her sword and thrust it back under her shoulder. Unable to stop herself, Julia impaled herself on the blade, gurgling in pain as the tip tore from between her shoulder-blades.
For a second she remained slumped against the impassive bodyguard, her body shuddering and blood dribbling over her lips. Then, the black-clad warrior twisted the blade within her, turning to face the redhead as she wrenched her sword up violently. Julia's legs kicked as she was lifted into the air, and she stared down at her killer in shock, feeling the sword slice through her ribs and into her heart. Her feet found the ground again, but she slumped to her knees as the bodyguard ripped the sword out of her body. Blood sheeted her armour, splintered ribs jutting from the minced flesh between her breasts. Julia stared down at the mess dumbly, knowing she was dying. All she could hear was her faltering heartbeat, and her gurgling, rapid breaths through the blood in her mouth. As she vaguely wondered how much longer she would live, the bodyguard's sword swished again, taking her head from her shoulders.
Red hair flew. Julia's butchered body slumped sideways, her legs twitching as her bodily functions gave out. Her head bounced off a partition, leaving a sticky smear, before coming to rest near Sarah's spread-eagled body.
The bodyguard regarded the corpse before her for a moment, then cleaned her blade fastidiously before stepping from the stable into the light. There were more Knights to kill yet.
In the Chrysalis lab, the countdown ticked onwards, but a second screen beside the countdown suddenly flickered into life, showing the eerie outline of a re-animator and the message "Synaptic circuits download in progress", together with a percentage bar that began to creep swiftly upwards.
Hayley and Michelle dragged Sally over the shattered remains of the cylinders, picking their way between the cooling, mis-shapen remains of revenants that had spilled from the ruptured containers. As steam cleared, they could see McManus a distance ahead of them, finding her own passage difficult.
The doctor glanced over her shoulder. She didn't care about the Knights behind her; if they survived the explosion she could finish them off as they left the lab. She gripped her pistol tightly. The tranquilliser rounds within could knock a revenant to a halt, but would most likely kill a human being.
She stopped in surprise as she hear a clunk and a hiss from nearby. The steam swirled and cleared long enough for her to see a single intact cylinder, the last in the row before the doors that led into the main chamber beyond. Recalling the readout she saw at the console before, McManus frowned. One of the cylinders had not reacted to her manipulation of their environmental controls. Now it was hatching a completed revenant. Excitedly, McManus scrambled to its scarred cover. A fresh revenant, free of Karen's influence, could protect her outside the lab until she managed to escape.
The metal covers cracked open, and steam billowed free as the cylinder opened gracefully. The figure within sagged forward and McManus caught it, dragging the naked, slime-covered revenant free of its cocoon. The doctor glanced to where Hayley and the others would soon be emerging, shaking the revenant to revive it, and the hairless body took its first, quivering breath of air. It would be on its feet in a matter of seconds, operating at almost one hundred percent efficiency within minutes.
'Come on!' the doctor ordered it, 'Get on your feet! You have to protect me, do you hear?'
A hand snapped up to grip the doctor's throat, and she gurgled in horror as she recognised the face of the revenant by her side. It coughed raggedly before speaking.
'I . . . I give you . . . just one fucking job to do while I'm gone, and look . . . what you've managed to do to my fucking lab!'
Hayley and Michelle stopped as they heard McManus' scream, and as the doctor's limp body flew past them to crash against the ground nearby, they began to back away from the shape that emerged from the billowing steam.
'Karen?' Hayley whispered in disbelief.
It was Karen, but there was something different about her; different besides her hairless body and slime-sheathed skin. She seemed physically larger than before, her muscles more defined and powerful. She loped rather than walked, and as she grinned savagely at the Amazon Knights, her body tensed and pulsed, seeming to get larger even as they watched.
'The gun!' Michelle scrambled to McManus' side, her hands scrabbling through slime before she found the pistol. It's barrel was twisted. Michelle stared at the useless weapon in dismay.
Sally was coming around groggily, and Hayley left her kneeling as she stepped forward closer to Karen, her sword ready by her side.
The naked revenant flexed her powerful arms, grinning at the tiny Knight. 'Hello, Hayley,' she gurgled, spitting slime from her clogged throat, 'Surprised to see me?'
'Not as surprised as McManus obviously was. You grew your own clone?' Hayley was wasting time, allowing Michelle and Alexis to join her. The three Knights gripped their weapons tightly, and Karen chuckled as she saw their fear.
'I didn't expect to use this body quite yet. Helena just killed me, the fucking whore!' Karen's deformed face darkened, 'My . . . army . . . wasn't as tough as I thought it was. They . . . were raping the dead rather then finding . . . fresh victims. Can't . . . get the fucking staff . . . these days.' Her eyes took in the destroyed lab.
'It's over,' Hayley told her, 'This place is about to blow up. No matter what happens you'll never get Erran '
'I can stop the countdown,' Karen said, 'But first things first. I should have . . . killed you when I had the chance, Hayley.'
She came forward with a snarl, moving faster than humanly possible, her fingers outstretched and clawed. Hayley gasped and fell back as the revenant crashed into her, ripping her tunic from her body and tearing her flesh.
'Get off of her!' Michelle screamed, raising her sword and bringing it down on Karen's back. The sword bit into flesh, and Karen yelled in pain, but Michelle gaped as her blow did little more than open a gash on Karen's back. The revenant reared up swinging a trunk-like arm and swiping Michelle away. The Knight screamed as she flew back, landing hard and slamming against one of the consoles.
Alexis yelled a battlecry and swung at Karen, but as the sword thudded against her side, Karen gripped the blonde girl's arm, her other hand lashing out to clutch her throat. Alexis gurgled as she was lifted into the air, her sword falling from her hand as she struggled to free herself from Karen's grasp.
The revenant chuckled as she pulled on the arm, and Alexis let out a shrill scream as she felt her limb being torn from its socket. The arm popped free with a horrid sucking sound, and blood pumped from her shoulder as Karen tossed the twitching limb away contemptuously. 'That's one!' Karen cried, 'Three more to go.'
Hayley staggered to her feet in horror, but as she made to move in and help Alexis, Sally grabbed her arm. The nurse tried to hold her back. 'Hayley, don't! It's already too late!'
Despairingly, Hayley saw she was right. Alexis' eyes were literally popping from her skull as Karen tightened the grip on her throat. Her neck snapped and popped, and blood spurted from Alexis' slackened lips. Her legs kicked frantically, but her body shuddered and piss sprayed down her thighs as she was throttled to death. As she expired with a final, rattling moan, Karen threw her body aside, turning to advance on Hayley.
'What the hell can we fight her with?' she cried in frustration, but at that second McManus emerged from the steam on Karen's blind side, her face bloody, a syringe clutched in her remaining hand.
'I was saving this for you, Karen!' the doctor shrieked as she plunged the needle into Karen's back, swiftly emptying a thick, green fluid into the revenant's body. Karen bellowed in pain, whipping around and grabbing the doctor around the throat, lifting her high but already staggering from whatever drug was invading her system.
She reeled to one side of the chamber, where ruptured cylinders were gnarled and twisted, ragged shards of metal sticking out from all angles. The doctor screamed a final time as she realised what Karen planned, but then her body jerked as it was brought down onto one of the ragged shards of steel. Blood sprayed over Karen's body and face as the doctor died, impaled through the abdomen, her body jerking as her guts slithered over her groin and thighs. .
'Get out of the way!' Michelle staggered past Hayley and Sally, a heavy metal beam in her hands. She cried out in exertion as she swung the beam at Karen's broad back, and as it slammed against the revenant's inhuman flesh, Karen yelled in pain as her own body fell onto the bloody shard she had just used to kill the doctor.
The tip of the shard ripped from between her quivering, muscular buttocks as she landed on the ragged metal, impaled through the navel. The Knights and Sally watched horrified as she squirmed and squealed, but slowly dragged herself off the intruding steel to turned to face them with a snarl. Blood pumped from her hideous wound, and purple gut swelled at the split in her navel, but Karen seemed not to care. limping towards the Knights with death in her eyes.
'What does it take to kill her?' Hayley cried in dismay. She made to lunge at the wounded revenant, but Karen swung her arm with a roar and Hayley was sent staggering aside, screaming in pain as she slammed into the edge of another ruptured cylinder. She fell to the ground, blood pouring from a deep gash in her side.
Michelle stepped forward to swing her steel beam again, and although Karen tried to catch the weapon as it swooped towards her, she yelled in pain as it slammed against her arm and knocked her to her knees. Michelle raised the weapon again, screaming her defiance as she brought it down onto Karen's skull. Blood sprayed and Karen fell aside with a groan, writhing and clutching her head. Michelle gasped in relief, but her heart froze as Karen began to get to her feet once more.
'Go!' the dark haired Knight yelled to Sally, who was helping Hayley to stand. 'Get Hayley out of here. I'll hold her off until you get clear!'
'I'm not leaving you!' Hayley cried weakly, but Sally was already dragging her towards the exit.
'You're in no position to fight,' the nurse grunted as she dragged the resisting Knight away. 'Michelle's right. If we don't leave now, we never will!'
At Erran, the massacre was coming to a close. The castle grounds and walls were thick with bodies, but now the fighting was concentrated between the inner and outer walls, where the Amazon Knights made their final stand against the remaining revenants.
Fewer than a dozen of the cloned warriors remained, against no more than a score of Knights and Handmaids, and the revenants superior strength and stamina was still showing.
Lady Christa hacked at a snarling foe, sending the revenant staggering and taking the second's grace to see how her fellows were faring. By her side, Ladies Neve and Shathirana were holding their own, but the revenants were pressing them back against the castle wall. An Amazon Knight fell screaming, her swordarm spinning free from her body amidst a spray of bright blood. Swords and axes brought her to the ground, and she died as the bald headed warriors hacked her to pieces. Beyond her, a Handmaid clutched her breast and collapsed, and a grinning revenant yanked her bloody blade free of the girl's body only to plunge it in deep again and again.
Neve parried a wildly swung axe, punishing the revenant attacking her by slashing its face open. The cloned warrior yelled in pain and reeled back, but another swiftly took its place and the red-headed Knight grimly began this fresh battle.
By her side, Shathirana hacked deep into the shoulder of her foe, yelling in victory as the revenant slumped to her knees. Her yell turned to a scream of pain as more revenants came at her while her blade was stuck, stabbing and chopping at her body and arms. Her hand was ripped from her swordarm, and as she stared in horror at the pumping stump, swords sank through her armour and stabbed into her chest and stomach. She fell back, writhing as the weapons were ripped free and stabbed in deep again.
'No!' Neve yelled in dismay, but Christa dragged her back as she made to break the line and help the dying Knight.
'Forget it! She's dead!'
'We're all dead!' A Knight to Christa's left cried despairingly, and Christa could not argue. They were falling faster than the enemy. They needed help.
And suddenly, it arrived. Bellowing in fury, M'Banta reared up behind the revenants, a massive axe in her slab-like hands. She was bloody and wounded, but she dove into battle with the axe swinging from left to right, and revenants were suddenly falling before her. By the big Knight's side, two Handmaids fought bravely, spurred on by M'Banta's savage assault.
She had surprise on her side, and that could only last a second, but she took full advantage of the enemy's confusion. The axe drove a revenant's head down between her shoulder, splitting the skull and sending fragments of bone and brain flying. Yanking the weapon free of the flopping body, M'Banta swung it again, this time chopping another revenant clean in half. The body fell to the ground, its lower half kicking while the top half screamed and thrashed wildly, guts spewing from its ruptured torso.
'Forward!' Christa yelled as she saw the revenants hesitate under the fresh assault. Her blade stabbed into the eye-socket of the woman before her, and as she died shrieking in agony, the Amazon Knights to either side pressed the advantage.
Then, suddenly there were mounted warriors charging to help, Handmaids from Dunan riding to assist their beleaguered Knights. The girls were young and inexperienced, but ready to fight. The revenants wilted under this fresh attack, and, to her disbelief, Christa began to think she would survive this day.
'Kill them!' Lady Collette led Dunan's Handmaids, and the senior Knight wielded her mace with skill, crushing a revenant's skull and tossing the body aside as she thundered into battle.
Within seconds, the tide of the battle had turned to favour the Knights, and Christa pressed forward excitedly, eager to take more revenge on the bald warriors who had killed so many of her friends.
Sally dragged Hayley through the lab, to where a short stairwell led to the main exit. Hayley still resisted.
'We can't leave her behind!' she cried, 'She'll be killed!'
Sally glanced over her shoulder. By her reckoning there was only about a minute until the countdown reached its conclusion. 'She'll be fine,' she lied as she reached the door and thumbed its keypad. The heavy door opened outwards, and they were both shocked by the cold wind that blasted in at them. With dismay Sally heard a helicopter thudding overhead. They were probably stepping from the frying pan into the fire.
It couldn't be helped. She heaved Hayley outside, gasping in relief as she lay the wounded Knight beside the doorway and peered back inside. There was still no sign of Michelle.
'Sally, look out!'
She spun in time to see a flashing blade scythe towards her, and screamed as it split her breast, ripping her tunic open and sending her flailing through the doorway. She fell loosely down the stairwell.
Hayley gaped at the woman who stood over her. She was tall, her blonde hair tied back severely, a curved blade dripping blood clutched in a leather-gloved hand. She wore dark glasses and bright red lipstick, but as she stared down at Hayley the Knight felt a painful jolt of recognition.
Michelle slammed the beam against Karen's body again and again, but every time the revenant was driven to the floor she began to rise again, her bloody face sneering at Michelle, her bare body bruised and beaten.
'It was you, wasn't it!' Michelle cried. 'You're responsible for Natalie's death. You sent that psycho after her. Why?'
'Not me,' Karen chuckled thickly. 'Diane. She thought she'd be the one to take Elizabeth's place. She was . . . open to suggestion. I gave her the idea, and she sent her hound after Natalie.' Seeing the questions still in Michelle's eyes, Karen stumbled to her feet. 'Natalie tried to find out what was going on. She broke into McManus' office, but was spotted on camera. Something had to be done, so when I brought Hayley here to show her what she had become, Diane selected Natalie to be her replacement for the race. Then, she followed Lonia and killed that crazy bitch after she'd slaughtered Natalie. It looked like . . . they'd killed each other.' Karen spat blood, grinning at Michelle as she saw the young Knight's impotent anger.
'Die, damn you!' Michelle shrieked as she lashed out again, expending all her strength in one final blow. Karen caught the blow on her arm, gritting her teeth at the audible snap that made her arm droop by her side. She didn't care; Michelle was spent, collapsed to her knees and panting in defeat. Karen staggered to her feet, lashing out a bare foot that caught Michelle under the chin and threw her away, loose-limbed.
Dragging herself to stand over the stunned Knight, Karen took a second to claim a fallen sword propped against a semi-formed body nearby. She would enjoy chopping Michelle limb from limb.
'Self-destruct in ten seconds,' a cool electronic voice sounded from the nearby console, and Karen swore as she threw the sword down and staggered towards the computer terminals. 'Nine, eight, seven . . .'
Karen's quivering fingers stabbed down onto the keyboard, frantically entering the password to stop the countdown. As the display read '5', it stopped abruptly.
'Countdown terminated,' the cool voice reported, and Karen grinned in relief.
'No, you don't.'
In the helicopter overhead, the suit frowned as he jabbed keys, re-engaging the countdown and locking off any local override. Opposite him, The Man fluttered agitatedly.
'What's happening, damn you? The place should have gone up in smoke by now, shouldn't it?'
'Someone's stopped the countdown from inside,' Bob hissed through his teeth, 'But they won't be doing that again.' He finished entering a command with a flourish, grinning as the countdown recommenced at one minute.
The Man peered from the helicopter at the fight raging below. His bodyguard was still fighting, this time with a diminutive girl streaked with blood. It seemed desperately a one-sided battle, the wounded girl falling back under the revenant's assault. As he watched, though, he saw a second Knight emerge from the stable building, leaning on a sword as she took her bearings. The girl, a dark skinned warrior decked out in blood-slicked armour, began to hobble towards where the fight still raged. The Man swore, although he knew his bodyguard could easily handle the two wounded Knights. He turned to the pilot, shaking the man's shoulder.
'Take us down closer! I want to see this.'
Hayley slumped to the ground before Charlotte, gasping as the blonde revenant's blade stabbed down towards her. She whipped her sword up to knock the incoming blade aside, but it still sliced deep into her shoulder. Moaning at the fresh pain, Hayley twisted on the ground, successfully making Charlotte stagger as she fought to keep her grip on her sword.
'Charlotte, please!' she gasped, but the revenant's face remained impassive. Charlotte either didn't recognise her, or didn't care either way. Hayley sagged weakly against the ground, her ordeal and numerous wounds getting the better of her. Even with her increased strength and skill, her body was tired beyond measure. As Charlotte dragged her sword free, Hayley imagined her death was no more than a second away.
Sarah took that moment to attack from the revenant's rear, screaming shrilly as she surged forward with her sword chopping down. Charlotte half-turned as the Knight attacked, beginning to raise her sword but unable to complete the motion. Sarah's sword ripped through her forearm, casting the severed limb away as blood spurted free. Charlotte staggered, but as Sarah jumped in to follow-up her attack, confident of victory now the revenant was unarmed, the black-clad warrior lanced out a shapely leg, planting her foot in Sarah's groin.
Doubling over with a grunt, Sarah's eyes bugged as her breath whooshed out. She reeled back, but Charlotte followed, wrapping her left arm around the black girl's throat and squeezing mercilessly. Sarah gagged and gripped at Charlotte's arm, reversing her grip on her sword and trying to stab back into the clone's body, but Charlotte twisted to avoid the stabbing blade, tightening her grip until Sarah sagged against her, soaked with blood from the revenant's ragged stump.
Hayley lurched to her feet, gripping her sword and preparing to thrust it deep into Charlotte's unprotected back. She hesitated, unable to believe she was contemplating taking the life of her friend, but as Charlotte released Sarah and the Knight crumpled listlessly before her, Hayley knew this would be the only chance she would get. She had the strength for one last strike, and if she didn't kill Charlotte, Michelle would fall against the revenant when she emerged from the lab. She lunged, driving her sword between Charlotte's shoulderblades.
Charlotte's back arched as the sword ripped through her, tearing between her heavy breasts and spraying blood over Sarah's unconscious body. The revenant stared down at the bloody tip protruding from her chest, turning slowly to face Hayley as the exhausted Knight collapsed to her knees.
'Charlotte . . . I'm sorry,' Hayley whispered as the revenant stared at her.
Charlotte stepped forward, and for a second Hayley thought her old friend was going to embrace her. Had her senses returned as Hayley struck a mortal blow? Gasping in relief, Hayley smiled as Charlotte gripped her arm with her remaining hand and brought her to her feet, only realising what the revenant was going to do at the last second. She screamed as Charlotte brought her forward in a tight hug, and the sword impaling her tore through Hayley's own chest.
Her head thrown back, Hayley gasped in shock as steel sliced through her. Blood burst from between her lips, and as she sagged against Charlotte it looked as if the two warriors were locked in a passionate embrace. Nearby, Sarah struggled to raise her head, gaping at the spectacle as Hayley and Charlotte sank to the blood-splattered ground.
'No!' Karen screamed in dismay as the countdown recommenced. She bashed at keys, but no longer had control over any of the systems. In sixty seconds the lab would be destroyed, and all her dreams with it. Enraged, she flailed at the consoles, ripping them apart and causing sparks and flames to belch from their innards. Her body was wracked with electrical current, but it only seemed to spur her on all the more.
Michelle stood painfully, trembling as shock gripped her body. She heard Karen screaming, and saw the naked warrior venting her anger on the consoles. She could not hope to fight her. Her only hope was to escape before the lab blew. Turning away from the crazed revenant, Michelle staggered through the remains of the Chrysalis chamber towards the exit.
She emerged from the heavy strongroom doors, wondering if she would be able to seal them but discarding the thought almost instantly. She hardly had the strength to move, never mind heave that heavy door closed. She made for the exit door, spotting Sally's sprawled body and gasping as she saw blood pooled around the nurse.
She knelt by Sally, noting that she was still breathing. 'Come on,' she muttered as she dragged the girl to her feet, 'Way past time we got the hell out of here. What happened to Hayley?'
Sally groaned, coming to a Michelle struggled up the short stairwell to the security door.
'C . . . careful,' she gasped, 'B . . . bodyguard. She's a . . . killing machine.'
'Yeah, whatever,' Michelle gritted her teeth as she heaved Sally up the steps, her hand stabbing at the release switch. The heavy door opened outwards, a blustery wind hitting them instantly. The helicopter thudded noisily overhead, lower than before. Michelle squinted against the daylight, but in her arms Sally seemed to be revived by the chill wind. As the Amazon Knight dragged her outside, the nurse tugged at her desperately.
'Michelle! There's another revenant out here. She was one of McManus' Beta experiments, but taken to the extreme. . . .' She groaned in pain and clutched at her ripped chest, and Michelle lowered her gently onto the grass beside the door. She noticed Sarah lying slumped nearby, her armour plastered with blood, and her heart froze.
She looked around for Hayley, gasping as saw her friend lying a short distance away.. She was sprawled and bloody, perhaps dead. Above her, a black-clad figure stood tall, a sword impaling her through the chest, it's tip thick with blood where it emerged from between her breasts. More blood drooled from a stumped right arm. The revenant was looking at her, and as Michelle gasped in horror, the indefatigable blonde warrior stepped away from Hayley's body and moved towards her.
The revenant bore down on her, and Michelle screamed in fear as the one-armed woman gripped her and tried to drag her forward onto the swordblade wedged between her breasts. Michelle fell back, trying to drag the revenant with her, grunting as she felt the woman topple towards her. She twisted as she fell, just managing to avoid the blade which stabbed into the earth by her side. Michelle's fist battered at the revenant's head, knocking aside her glasses and exposing her soulless eyes. Impassively, the revenant grappled with the Amazon Knight, trying again to impale her like she had Hayley.
Sally heaved herself to her feet, staggering to the door and slamming it shut Her eyes widened as she stared through the window-plate set in its surface. She could see Karen running across the loading area. Letting out a low cry, Sally fumbled at the keypad, vainly trying to find some way of locking the heavy door. There was none. Desperately she reeled back, scanning the ground for some kind of weapon. Sarah's sword lay nearby, and Sally grabbed it and turned back to the door, stabbing the weapon into the keypad, gasping as it sparked and spat flames as it was destroyed.
Karen slammed against the other side of the door, her eyes murderous as she glared through the window-plate at Sally. Enraged, she began to throw her weight against the heavy door, and as it shuddered in its frame Sally fell against it in a vain effort to keep it from opening.
In the helicopter above, The Man excitedly grabbed his pilot's shoulder. 'Closer!' he cried, 'I want to see everything!'
Obediently, the pilot brought the helicopter nearer the ground, allowing its occupants a perfect view of Michelle's fight with Charlotte.
The revenant pressed down on Michelle, the tip of the sword impaling her jabbing into the Knight's chest. Crying out in pain, Michelle clawed at the blonde woman's face, trying to force her away, but the revenant's strength was showing, and Michelle felt her own slipping away.
Sally stared at Karen through the window-plate, and their eyes met as a shudder ran through the ground beneath her feet. For a second Karen's face was surrounded by a halo of light, and as Sally realised what was happening she threw herself away from the door with a scream of terror.
Whoever had laid the explosives in the lab below had done a thorough job. The Chrysalis lab was immolated in a second, the monorail station close behind. Individual sections of the underground lab were incinerated simultaneously, and a series of explosions followed the underground tunnels that led to Erran and Dunan.
As the force of the blast hit the security door, it was ripped from its hinges and tossed outwards, followed by a tongue of orange flame. Sally felt heat blast over her, and wondered if she imagined the shriek of rage that accompanied the door as it roared skyward.
The Man's eyes widened in horror as the fiery lump of metal seemed to leap straight at him. He fell back in his seat, his shrill scream cut off as the door ripped into the helicopter,. It exploded instantly, ripped apart and falling in a ball of flame, shards scattering the ground below.
Michelle gasped as the wave of heat hit her, and as the revenant above her was distracted by the blast, Michelle forced her hand under Charlotte's chin and pushed with all her remaining strength. Charlotte's lips twisted in what could have been fear or rage, the first emotion Michelle had seen the revenant display, but as a shard of rotor-blade whipped by - slicing the top half of the revenant's skull clean off - the Amazon Knight closed her eyes and rolled away, crying out in terror as blood, brains and fiery debris rained down upon her.
Fire belched from all the entrances to the lab. The burning shell of the helicopter spat and sparked, nothing living in its mangled remains. Michelle rolled the revenant's grisly corpse off her, trying not to look at the woman's remains as she struggled to her feet.
She was plastered with blood, her armour battered and seared with burns. She staggered to Hayley's side and collapsed, searching frantically for signs of life. A ragged cough told her that Hayley still lived, and she tenderly lifted her friend's head, smiling as her eyes fluttered open.
'We won, then?' Hayley said thickly through the blood in her mouth. Michelle nodded.
'Somehow. Thanks to you. If you'd fallen in with Karen it would have been a different story.'
Hayley grimaced. 'So . . . so many have died. . . .'
'Not your fault.'
'It . . . could all have been avoided.'
'Don't blame yourself. You've been the strong one. You resisted Karen, and that thing inside you.' Michelle shook her friend gently, realising how weak Hayley was with growing concern. 'You hear me? You've been the strong one.'
Hayley's eyes closed, then opened again as she smiled up at her friend. 'First time for everything,' she said, then her eyes became unfocussed and her head sagged in Michelle's hand.
Michelle stared down at her, shaking her more vigorously. 'Hayley? You can't die now. Not . . . not after all this. Please. . . .' As realisation dawned, Michelle sobbed and hugged Hayley's body to her, rocking her back and forth as her tears spilled free.
Erran shook as its underground clinic detonated. Windows exploded, sending shards of glass flying. Stones loosened and fell, a section of outer wall crumbling as the underground monorail tunnel collapsed.
The survivors of the battle retreated, dragging wounded comrades with them. Emma pushed Christa away as the pink haired Knight tried to drag her further away from the castle.
'Get off me! Our girls are still in there. Elizabeth. Helena.'
Christa stared back at the castle, wondering how she could tell Emma that the Grand Knight and her second must be dead. Then, her eyes widened as she saw a figure move through the thick dust that belched from Erran's main doors. Helena staggered into view, carrying Elizabeth's bloody body. She took several wavering steps, then collapsed to her knees, but Christa and other Knights were already running to help her.
'Elizabeth's dead,' Helena gasped as Christa helped her to her feet. 'But . . . I couldn't leave her . . . in there.'
'Sure,' Christa peered at Helena wounds worriedly. It was a wonder the Knight was able to move at all. 'You need a medic, Helena. God knows where we'll find one.'
But even as she spoke Christa saw medical staff emerge from the castle. They had secured themselves within the castle when the attack began, but the approaching explosions that systematically brought the monorail tunnel crashing down had forced them to emerge. Now, shocked at the scene of carnage and butchery that surrounded them, they dazedly went to work doing what they did best, easing the suffering of the wounded and saving lives where they could. As a pair of medics knelt beside Helena, prising open their bags and kits, Christa retreated to where the surviving Knights huddled stunned, staring at the horrors that surrounded them. Dunan's Handmaids had been enthusiastically eliminating the last of the revenants, but now even they gazed dumbly at the carnage.
'Jesus,' Neve said, shaking her head. She sank to the ground, numbed by what she had seen and done this day.
Christa gripped M'Banta's forearm as the giant Knight came to greet her, then grunted as M'Banta pulled her into a tight hug. 'Glad you were here,' she wheezed, pushing the big woman away as best she could.
'So many dead,' Neve whispered, perhaps to herself. She closed her eyes as she thought of Inez, and Shathirana, and the dozens of other friends she knew had died. 'What happens now?' she wondered aloud.
'What do you think happens now?'
The Knights turned as Lady Emma painfully approached, gripping a freshly patched wound. The grey eyed Knight took in her ragged comrades, but there was a ghost of a smile on her lips. 'We start again. Only this time we get it right.'
'Elizabeth's dead,' Christa told her hesitantly.
'And she died well,' Emma said. 'Helena is alive, and I think we'll find the castle falls to her now.'
'There's nobody left for her to command!' Neve cried.
'More will come. It'll take a while, but we'll fill this place again. Mark my words.' Emma peered about the castle grounds, taking in the massacre once more. 'We've got a lot of work to do,' she said grimly.
Michelle showered, then pulled on her light dress armour before heading out into the castle corridors. Knights and Handmaids nodded to her as she passed, and as she reached an intersection, Christa intercepted her.
'Captain,' Christa acknowledged her with a nod.
'Commander,' Michelle acknowledged with equal solemnity. 'Aren't you officiating?'
'Yep, but then so are you. That's why I'm here.'
'M'Banta got a little drunk last night. We need a stand in.'
Hayley grinned, wondering how much ale it took to incapacitate the giant Knight. She accompanied Christa to the throne room, where a score of Handmaids were about to be Knighted. Amongst them were Shelley and Alicia, the two Handmaids who had fought bravely by M'Banta's side during the battle. They were to be commended as well as receiving their Knighthood, and Michelle suspected M'Banta had been celebrating her charges' success a little too vigorously.
The ceremony was brief but suitably pompous. Helena Knighted the eager Handmaids in the time-honoured method, and after the naming the new Knights retreated to the main hall as the celebrations got underway.
Michelle slipped away, leaving the castle grounds. She watched the workers on the outer wall for a while, noting that the castle and its defences were nearly restored. She borrowed a chisel and a small hammer from one of the workers, burly women who had been specially hired for the task in hand, then walked to the gentle hill behind the castle grounds, where line upon line of simple headstones marked the resting place of Erran's fallen Knights.
She found Hayley's easily, and squatted by the headstone to get to work. She chipped away for nearly an hour, and as she finished, stepping back to stare at her friend's headstone, Helena limped up to join her.
'Not drinking, Michelle?' the Grand Knight asked. 'The first proper feast we've had for a month. It's time you enjoyed yourself. We've all been working far too hard.'
Michelle nodded silently. There had been much work to do at the castle, and a lot remained to be done still. The clinic basement had been sealed off by collapsed rubble, but the hospital wing was restored quickly to accommodate the numerous wounded. Those that survived the battle healed under the ministrations of doctor Kinvig and her staff, those from McManus' staff who had agreed to stay on. It had surprised Michelle there had been so many.
Six revenants had survived the battle, and under Sally's expert scalpel their re-animators had been removed. They were weak, and it remained to be seen how well they could fit into castle society after what had occurred, but Helena had insisted that they were involved through no fault of their own.
Most of the surviving Knights found they had stepped into positions of seniority. Emma had been appointed Helena's second, and her only current marshal. Christa and M'Banta were now commanders, and Michelle and Neve were captains. Michelle still didn't know what to make of her rank. It felt strange to have young Knights and Handmaids treat her with authority. She suspected she would come to like it.
'I'll be drinking in a bit,' she told Helena, 'I just like to come up here sometimes, where it's quiet.'
Helena nodded, her eyes peering over the ranks of headstones to where Elizabeth's, set higher on the hillside, overlooked them. 'Me too,' she said simply. Her eyes returned to Hayley's headstone. 'Good job,' she told Michelle.
They stood in silence for a while, then Helena clapped the young Knight on the shoulder. 'Come on,' she said quietly, 'We can get maudlin AFTER we're drunk. We've got this one weekend to relax, then its back to business. New arrivals on Monday. Three dozen, something like that.'
Smiling, Michelle joined the Grand Knight as she limped down the hillside. 'Hope they know what they're letting themselves in for,' she said, and Helena barked a laugh.
'They'll be the first if they do.'
Light was fading, and torches were beginning to blaze on the castle walls and through the windows. As the two Knights left the burial ground, the sinking sun caused the silent headstones to cast long shadows over the lush, gently swaying grass. Hayley's stone was one of many, but now Michelle's words adorned the simple memorial.
"May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rain fall soft upon your fields,
And, until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand."
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