Raucha felt a chill pass through his bones.
The grizzled veteran was used to the thinner air and colder temperatures up in Deadwind Pass. What he felt was more a sense of foreboding, one that he wasn’t used to feeling, even in this place.
Deadwind Pass was the intersection point for three of the five kingdoms: Hal’la, Valgarde, and Morland. There was a small port north of the pass with a port in the Lily Vale, but that was mostly the extent of Valgarde’s presence in the pass. Though it was said that the wizards had a network of scrying magic that let them see the entirety of the pass.
It was Morland and his own Hal’la that sent actual patrols into the pass itself. To their best guess, Morland checked the pass every six hours, but Hal’la sent patrols every four.
In spite of the tension between the nations, the rules for Deadwind Pass were actually rather simple. Patrols from either of the nations were allowed to roam the entire pass, which took roughly two hours round-trip, and could approach up to five hundred yards from the other nation’s gate. This distance was helpfully marked by each nation on their side of the pass. Morland had a skeleton on a cross five hundred yards out, Hal’la had a moasic of the sun.
There was always a bit of tension when patrols passed one another, but what Raucha felt wasn’t that. It was more similar to that gut-dropping feel one felt when staring down a great height. There was no clear notion that he was actually going to fall, but merely walking through the pass made him feel as though he were about to be pushed off of a tower.
“Souwthi, do you sense anything? … feel anything?” Raucha looked over his shoulder at the woman immediately behind him.
Souwthi was a short, swarthy woman from the south of the nation, near the mountains. She had the build of a farmer, many of Hal’la’s military did, but her heavily muscled forearms and thick waist were exactly what one would picture if they tried to fashion a farmer in their mind’s eye.
Her face was pleasant and friendly though, most of the time. Right now, her eyes were narrowed and she glanced all around, ever alert.
“Did it get a bit colder?” She asked, shrugging, “I don’t see or hear anything.”
Trailing behind Souwthi were Haas and Yunda, the two of them were somewhere in their early twenties, though to Raucha’s old eyes they were barely more than children, Yunda fair-haired with a handsome set of features and Haas was rotund and plain, though Raucha knew him to be in excellent condition.
“You chaps?” Raucha asked of the other two, but they simply shook their heads.
Sighing, Raucha returned his gaze to the pass, but continued, “I didn’t feel like it was the actual temperature, but now that you mention it, I suppose it’s colder than usual.”
There was nothing they could do to warm up, but Raucha lifted his hands to his mouth and blew on them at the very least. It was cold, but there was something else too. Another reason for the hairs on his neck to stand at attention.
There was a shift from something to his right. The sound caused Raucha to jerk his gaze over and then up and he watched as several small stones tumbled down the sheer walls of the pass. He held up his hand, calling a halt.
Souwthi came up on his left and looked at him curiously. Getting her attention, as well as the attention of the younger recruits, Raucha gestured up and to the right with a single finger. The patrol spread out in formation. Souwthi turned to the left, keeping an eye on their rear as the two younger recruits joined Raucha in raking the cliff-face on the right side of the pass with their eyes.
The sky was occluded with a soft, rolling blanket of gray clouds which made it more difficult to see anything. However, a minute passed and there was no further activity, so Raucha signaled a regular patrol formation by swirling his upright finger and they returned to their previous positions.
There was something there, Raucha had no doubt now, but what it was and whether or not it mattered was the question.
They continued on for several minutes without any change, yet the tension built up in Raucha in ever increasing pressure as though he were diving ever deeper underwater.
“No one feels that?” Raucha asked when he could take it no longer.
Several silent moments passed before he glanced over his shoulder. All three of the other members of the patrol had stopped a few yards behind him and were staring up at something on the cliff, they didn’t move. However, they were looking to the left.
Swiveling his gaze, Raucha looked up and his heart froze for a moment.
Rising over the edge of the cliff was the largest skull he had ever seen. It must have belonged to a colossal creature, but one with a humanoid form. The creature continued rising over the edge until its right arm and part of its upper body could be seen. It appeared to be skeletal there as well, but it was clothed in literal shadows which were mostly opaque as they wrapped around it.
Other skeletons appeared, more normal-sized. Yet there was something strange about them. Their eyes didn’t have the red glow that one normally associated with the risen servants of Morland’s dead. Instead, their eye sockets were empty and hollow.
The skeletons were climbing up and over the larger skeleton’s back and then rappelling down its shoulder and arm.
Raucha wasn’t sure what was going on, but he knew what he needed to do.
“To arms!” He shouted, rousing his companions as he drew his flanged mace. “Tactical retreat!”
Whatever foe they had encountered, he knew it was beyond their ability to fight. Still, the skeletons were less than a dozen yards away now and still running. They could run, but they would have to fight as they did if they had any hope of living.
The group only made it several yards before the skeletons finally overtook them. From there they were forced to walk backwards, meeting the notched swords and rusted maces with their own weapons.
The colossal skeleton seemed to hold back, following, but not closing the distance between them. Raucha found this odd, but he was too busy and too grateful to question what was keeping such a formidable foe from engaging them.
The sound of metal on metal and the rattling of bones echoed throughout the pass. As the battle continued on, they found themselves pressed up against the right canyon wall. More and more skeletons had flooded in and had begun to surround them.
It was not as though they were failing to make progress. His unit was well-trained and they were cutting down foes, but for every one they slew, another two seemed to take its place. They were quickly getting overwhelmed. Raucha caught a skeleton hamstringing Souwthi and tried to move to assist her but all he was able to do was watch as a second skeleton skewered her in the throat.
“Souwthi!” He fought his way over to his fellow veteran, but her eyes already stared out at nothing and he knew.
Raucha put a desperate energy into his attacks, managing to actually push back against the oncoming horde for a few moments. However, he was getting pressed back again in short order, as though his efforts had accelerated the pace of his implacable foe.
Then a beam of light bathed the stone in front of him. It felt hot, but Raucha knew it wouldn’t hurt him. The beam pressed forward, sweeping across the path and he watched as the skeletons caught within its glare turned to dust and crumbled. Two more beams joined the first and Raucha looked up.
Three angels flew above him on the right side of the pass, each of them held out a hand, from which the light sprung.
They were saved.